Idea of the Year

When Time magazine selected its “Person of the Year” last month, my first thought was, “ Time gets it.”

By naming “all Internet users” as its collective person of the year, the publication acknowledged that individuals do make a difference.

While this honor typically is reserved for a personality that has impacted millions of people worldwide, Time bent its own rules and bestowed the title upon a group.

More specifically, the highly anticipated issue, which hit newsstands on Dec. 18, 2006, credited anyone who used or created Web content as its winner. (To personalize the experience, the cover featured a computer. The monitor was a mirror that displayed the reader’s reflection.)

To me, this article speaks volumes. It touts the importance of individuals, rather than organizations. In retail, this concept is called consumer-centricity.

By using consumer data to tailor assortments, create competitive pricing and deliver innovative products, retailers are positioned to strengthen their brand in a competitive landscape. However this cannot happen if retailers continue to regard their shopper information as mere statistics.

Instead, it is time to get personal.

“Engaging customers as strategic partners is the final piece in the management framework,” Jim Goodnight, CEO, SAS, Cary, N.C., said during the company’s recent user conference, Better Management Live!, in Las Vegas. “Companies that follow the lead of Wall Street are making decisions that do not benefit customers. It is time for a change.”

Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion understands this concept well. When launching its new concept brand, Bloom, Food Lion wanted to build a brand based on unique technologies, quality merchandise and superior customer service.

To assure it hit the mark, the chain went straight to the source. Feedback from its current and potential customer base helped Food Lion bring the concept to fruition.

“If we didn’t acknowledge customers’ needs and ideas, our mission could not be successful,” Susie McIntosh-Hinton, formerly Bloom’s concept creator for IT, said at a past Marketechnics convention sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute.

Focus groups are not the only way to gain this insight. Web-based surveys are a great way for consumers to share opinions about their shopping experience. And delivering surveys is just as easy: Chains can easily stream electronic questionnaires on Web-based kiosks, electronic payment terminals or corporate Web sites.

Gaining the feedback is only the first step, however. By merging the power of data mining, chains can unleash the creativity of their shoppers. This data is what will really bolster operations and expand customer relationships.

Yet, too many companies fail to tap this robust knowledge pool. But what is holding them back? Some cite fear. Others blame a lack of resources. Still others are afraid of a bruised ego.

Here is my two cents: Get over it. Chains that fail to collect and analyze all available information—even ideas from shoppers—are operating at a handicap.

Take a lesson from Time magazine. Consumer input may be just the ingredient a retailer needs to become “Chain of the Year” in its shoppers’ eyes.