Lee would like to thank Michael Mobley for contributing to this month's column. Mobley specializes in program management and IT strategy consulting and can be reached at m.mobley@attbi.com.

Our own personal who, what, where, when and why information has always been of interest to business. Maybe even coveted. Before the Internet – before the fax machine, the debit card, and the smart credit card – your personal stats weren’t all that easy to come by. Fast forward ten or fifteen years, and guess what? Data on who we are and what we like is readily available to any organization that makes the effort to collect it.

Let this Sink in

You met a friend at the new mega-mall, and the financial institution that sponsors your credit card recorded where you shopped and how much you spent. In addition to using your credit card, you used a frequent customer card during your trip, and the retail outlet you shopped at knows every item you purchased – in addition to the demographic data you gave them when you applied for the customer card.

Are you with me? This is a good time to check your wallet and see how many of these frequent customer cards you are carrying. Companies that offer them do so to better serve you – and ultimately make more money – by collecting information about your spending patterns. Many of these organizations support multiple sales channels (e.g., retail stores and online outlets) and use information about your buying patterns to put you in situations where you are likely to purchase more than you originally intended. The coupon you got in the mail for Rover’s favorite dog food was not sent by chance. And the complimentary item that can be yours if you shop again two weeks from now is simply intended to get you back in the store. But you don’t mind. You saved an extra dollar on the dog food and got a free something-or-other.

Take It a Step Further

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your perspective – PETsMART is not telling Sears what it knows about you. Each individual company’s data repository is an independent silo. The pet store knows nothing about your clothing preferences. But if it did, would it be better able to serve you? I say "yes."

In this enhanced customer service world, I’m not proposing the collection of new kinds of information. I’m only musing about what could be accomplished if PETsMART shared information with Sears and beyond. Each company would know you better. Each would be able to target products and services more likely to be of interest to you. Of course, each organization would reap extra profits for its troubles. But you don’t mind. You’re a happier customer.

True, the idea of sharing information between companies is both technically difficult and culturally nearly impossible, but I am going to purposely ignore those challenges for the sake of some interesting anecdotes.

Scenario 1

Background: Every six weeks, John heads to PETsMART to purchase a 20 pound bag of dog food for his two-year- old Labrador retriever, Calvin. Because John spends a significant amount of time each day commuting to and from work, he has registered for an electronic toll collection device.

John is driving home from a meeting one day and passes through a tollbooth. A PETsMART located near the next exit after the tollbooth is having a sale on Calvin’s brand of dog food. Linked to the tollbooth’s system, PETsMART’s system recognizes that five weeks have passed since John last purchased dog food. Immediately, John receives a message on his cellular phone telling him about the dog food sale and giving him directions to the store, no less! John exits the tollway, purchases the dog food and gets a new chew toy for Calvin. John is pleased that he saved on the dog food and didn’t have to make an extra trip to the store. PETsMART is rewarded by John’s up-sell of the additional items.

Scenario 2

Background: Mary is the mother of two boys (ages 9 and 12) and she is married to an avid reader, Tom. She has been shopping at a particular mall for several years and has purchased numerous items.

Mary walks into the mall with her wireless PDA one Saturday and logs into the mall’s server. Retrieving Mary’s recent purchasing history as recorded on her preferred customer cards, she is presented with specials on the following:

  1. Baseball cleats and bats to go with the baseball glove that she purchased last week for her older son.
  2. A two-for-one special on the Sony video games that her 9-year-old plays all too often.
  3. A discount coupon for the new John Grisham book. (She has purchased the last three for her husband.)
For ease of review, the offers are categorized on her PDA similar to the mall directory (men’s apparel, sporting goods, etc.) and once she expresses interest in a special, the store is highlighted on a displayed floor plan. Mary is better served because she is able to pick some of these items up at discounted prices. The stores benefit from sales that probably wouldn’t have occurred under other circumstances.

Scenario 3

Background: Mark is a salesman who spends a lot of time on the road. He has recently purchased a wireless PDA to help him organize his busy meeting schedule. A local electronics company has determined the demographic most likely to purchase a new device to allow people to listen to e-mail and voicemail through their car stereo system consists of people who own a PDA and are frequently in their car.

Using information from Mark’s preferred customer card when he bought the PDA – along with his local oil change history – the electronics company is able to selectively identify Mark as a prime prospect for the new mail device. They send Mark a product flyer via e-mail, and Mark jumps at it. The electronics company was able to obtain the sale without the uncertainty and expense of stocking the item in its retail store. Mark got a device that made his life easier, and he probably wouldn’t have known it existed otherwise.

A Final Push

As usual in the world of pervasive computing, the possibilities are endless. Our three examples don’t even scratch the proverbial surface. Imagine what win/win scenarios could be generated if customers and merchants got creative!

Forget the cultural reservations that exist with regard to a potentially intrusive Orwellian state. Skip over the technological hurdles of integrating data from multiple sources. (The space program and the Internet have basically proven we can overcome whatever obstacles we face.) I say put your mind in a state of dog food coupons and convenience. Work backward, and let the advantages you will receive as a customer lead you into accepting the idea that complimentary organizations should share customer data. That would be progress.

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