Let’s not get wrapped up in algorithms and remember retail’s about understanding people

First published in Retail Week on the 12th February 2016

Twitter is no longer growing. This week’s announcement that numbers of active monthly users are on the decline follows a weekend when the social media channel topped it’s own trending chart with the hashtag #RIPTwitter following reports that it plans to launch a timeline driven by algorithms that will see the “best” tweets rise to the top.

In fairness to the social media giant, this change, since confirmed by Twitter, might actually help some of its users, especially the majority who are not part of the ‘Twitterati’ and dip in and out of the channel. Like me.

But the reaction shows that the public consciousness is awakening to the tyranny of the algorithm at a time when our private data is becoming the topic of even more public debate around the implementation of the EU Data Protection Directive.

Understanding the implications will make this an interesting time for retailers, many of whom are still relatively new to the on-line world and are struggling to make it profitable. Perhaps it is time for them to go back to the core of what they are good at, which is understanding what people need and meeting their requirements.

When I buy a patch to repair a waterproof coat on Amazon, I don’t need to be served ads and recommendations for alternative products. I bought what I needed and I have already solved the problem. As we all seek automation in operations, we must not lose sight of the fact that our customers are human.

I’m a big fan of Dollar Shave Club. It has disrupted a category with a subscription format that has moved the razor purchase out of the physical store and this week they took their unique brand of advertising to the most famous commercial break in the world, the superbowl. But their success is not just down to quirky creative or value, a quality product and convenience, what they understand is that every customer touch constitutes a brand experience. They use data to create deliver personalized customer experiences, but also understand that the club’s Member Services organization is the day-to-day front line of the DSC brand.

A recent trip to Maplin reminded me of just how important customer experience is. I’m sure the store is an Aladdin’s cave for people, who write algorithms, but for something like me help is required and that is what its floor staff do so well. I went in with a problem and they solved it for me.

Much of what people do when they shop is about problem solving and that is something that Asda’s new chief customer officer knows very well. Andy Murray joins from parent Walmart, but before that he built a very successful agency grounded in human behavioural insight that transformed communication in-store and he is one of the founding fathers of shopper marketing.

What happens when he arrives in Leeds is going to be very interesting, given Walmart’s work in the US on building emotional connections with shoppers through its brand advertising and forging links with social issues.

Whatever Murray does you can be sure he will need to get to the heart of the Asda brand and ensure the retailer is in synch with customer needs and wants.