Often these initiatives are dressed up for customers with nice phrases like “we treat every customer as an individual” which of course really means “we’re collecting as much data as we can about you so that we can work out what else we could sell you.” The rise and rise of the smart-phone aka personal tracking system is helping play a big part in that; if you’re on a boring journey one day, try passing the time by going through the apps on your mobile and see what each of them has permission to access – contact lists, call and messaging histories, location data and so forth. And to be fair, making it easier for customers to find things relevant to them (in whatever way – purchase patterns, nearby locations) is probably good for customers too.
Slightly below the radar (or so it seems right now), various governments, especially in Europe, are taking an interest in this. Not in the Edward Snowden NSA snooping way, but in a more constructive citizenship-aiding way. The UK government's Midata initiative is one such. It aims at “giving consumers access to the data created through their … internet transactions and high street loyalty cards.”
According to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills website:
“midata will allow consumers greater insight into their everyday consumption and lifestyle habits by using applications and intermediaries to analyse their actual behaviours and thereby empower them to make better spending choices and secure the best deals.”
Or so the UK consumer minister says.
Roughly (one of) its ideas is to get companies to subscribe the data they collect about their customers to a personal data store for that customer, and make the data available in ways that are helpful to the customer. So for example a Tesco clubcard holder could find out how much they spend on fresh produce compared to pre-processed food each year, or on branded versus unbranded goods.
The idea extends further in that this data repository should be under the control of the customer, and should allow that individual to consolidate data from different sources, for example bank statements, clubcard data and utility bills in a way that helps give them insight into their own lives. "If I spend less on gas keeping the house warm, do I use up all the savings boiling the kettle and consuming tea-bags, milk and sugar?"
Taking it one step further again, the customer should be able to make part of that data publicly available, at their discretion and under their control.
Why is that helpful and what does this mean for retailers (or for that matter anybody that sells online)? Well the most interesting application for the future is the idea that, instead of customers having to come looking for you, you’ll go looking for customers. As a customer I can, in effect, put my business out for tender, along with whatever consolidated data (from all possible footprint sources that subscribe to the service) I choose to release publicly from my “Midata store” in order to help the potential vendors match my need as closely as possible.
“I’d like to buy insulation, or maybe solar panels, and here are my recent electricity and gas bills plus some outline idea of my general spending-power and preference for quality” is a sample concept.
It’s a potentially alarming (for some!) paradigm shift in retailing. And it’s happening now: Midata is already a legislative reality. It's even got a logo, so it must be serious...