Detecting customer-to-customer trends (without social media data) to optimize promotions – Georgia Perakis

MIT Sloan Prof. Georgia Perakis

From Huffington Post

Every year, there are a few items of clothing that become hot. For example, last fall, a Zara coat seemed to become a “must have” item. The coat even had its own Instagrampage with more than 8,000 followers. Many factors contribute to this phenomenon like celebrities — and people with large social media followings — wearing the “hot” item.

When we have detailed social media data, it is relatively easy to identify patterns of influence to predict these trends. But what happens when we don’t have social media data? After all, social media platforms charge tremendous fees for access to that information. Can we use traditional data to detect underlying trends between groups of consumers and improve demand estimation? If so, can we use that information to optimize personalized promotions to increase profits, and also to present “the right individual with the right item at the right price?”

In a recent study, I looked at these questions with MIT Operations Research Center PhD students Lennart Baardman and Tamar Cohen and collaborators from Oracle Retail. We found that the answer to both questions is: yes. We began our study by building a customer demand model and algorithm that incorporates customer-to-customer trends or influences. We then applied the information about customer demand to make promotion decisions. With this method, profits increased between 5-12%. The model can be used by any retailer of any size for any product.

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Why it’s not the end of America’s brick and mortar retail stores–Sharmila C. Chatterjee

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Sharmila Chatterjee

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Sharmila Chatterjee

From The Hill

Even in a digital age, brick and mortar retailers have distinct advantages over e-commerce. But the other day, I watched as two stores totally blew those advantages. In a bookstore, the customer waiting in line before me asked for a particular book, only to be told it was out of stock. “We can order it for you,” the customer was told. But she shook her head. “I have books on order. I wanted something to read now.” The second came as I returned an item to a large department store chain, a routine matter — or so I thought. Thirty frustrating minutes later, after being shuttled between employees like a ping-pong ball, I left, wondering why something so simple had taken so long.

Both these incidents demonstrate how the woes facing brick and mortar retailers go far beyond price competition from online shopping. The bookstore I visited had missed its advantage of instant gratification. The department store lost its advantage of convenience and the human touch. An impersonal trip to the post office to mail a return was better by comparison.

My shopping experience underscores three primary factors that underlie the plight of current brick and mortar retailers: retreat from core competence, failure to view online counterparts through a complementary lens, and loss of focus on customer experience. Unfortunately, the results of these missteps are apparent.

Distressed retailers are closing stores at a record pace. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 2,800 retail locations have closed just this year, including hundreds of locations being shut down by national chains such as Payless ShoeSource and RadioShack. The outlook for major department stores is grim. Macy’s said it will close 68 of its 870 stores nationwide, affecting 10,000 employees, citing changing consumer behavior. Sears Holding Corp. will close 108 Kmarts.

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Retailers are leaving money on the table by understaffing – Rogelio Oliva

MIT Sloan Visiting Professor Rogelio Oliva

From Marketwatch

If you’ve gone shopping this holiday season, you may have had the following experience.

You go into a store looking for a gift but need help from a salesperson. Maybe you need more information on the product, or perhaps you need help finding the right color or size. You look around the store, but you can’t find anyone. Giving up, you leave the store without making a purchase.

If that sounds familiar, you aren’t alone. The proportion of customers who typically leave a store because of poor service is not negligible. Prior research shows that 33% of customers who experienced a problem were not able to locate sales help when they needed assistance, and 6% of all possible sales are lost because of lack of service.

Help wanted

Effective management of store labor is clearly important, as it impacts sales performance. However, labor-related expenses also constitute one of the largest components of retailers’ operating costs. As a result, there is a widespread tendency to understaff to save on those costs.

But what is the right number of employees? This is a complex question, as retail environments are characterized by volatile store traffic, making it hard to determine the correct staffing levels and often leading to inconsistent service.

The traditional method for determining staffing is sales-driven and depends on store budget allocation. A typical sales-based staffing rule is to match a constant ratio of expected store sales to the number of store associates. However, that rule ignores the fact that retail sales are also affected by store traffic and might result in labor-to-traffic mismatches, which can hurt sales revenue. Retailers can’t reach their full potential in sales if they follow that staffing practice.

Another problem is that shopper demand may be different from past sales, as past sales include only customers who purchased and not those who had an intention to purchase but left the store due to lack of service. As noted above, this is a fairly common scenario.

Matching staff to shoppers

To address this challenge, my colleagues and I developed a method to match store labor with incoming customer traffic in an efficient manner to improve sales performance. Our method is unique, as it goes beyond the focus on past sales at individual stores to leverage performance data across different stores within a retail chain. It enables retailers to derive aggregate labor requirements by using traffic data, point-of-sale data and labor data across stores with similar attributes like store format, product mix and market demographics. Read More »

How traditional retailers could lure you back this holiday season – Sharmila Chatterjee

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Sharmila Chatterjee

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Sharmila Chatterjee

From Fortune

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas everywhere you go. Take a look in the five-and-ten—and while you’re at it, look at all the other store windows advertising spectacular sales, holiday discounts, and clearance extravaganzas. The markdowns are as widespread as they are substantial. This year on Black Friday, for instance, the average advertised discount across 17 major retail categories was 45%, according to the price-tracking firm Market Track.

As ecommerce continues to eat away at traditional retail, brick-and-mortar stores seem to believe that the best way to compete is to slash their prices. This tactic might be understandable if, say, the country were in a deep recession. But GDP has been growing for eight consecutive yearsthe unemployment rate is at a 17-year low, wage growth is strengthening, and the stock market is in the middle of a nine-year bull run.

In this economy, it is not necessary for retailers to pander to bargain hunters—nor is it wise. Sure, some holiday shoppers may be lured to the shops in search of a great deal, but if that’s what they’re looking for, they can easily go online. Brick-and-mortar stores cannot match the price-comparing capabilities the Internet offers.

Instead of competing on price, stores should invest to entice customers. By focusing on their core competencies—one-on-one, human-to-human customer service, sensory-stimulating in-store experiences, and promise of instant gratification—traditional stores have an opportunity to excel where websites falter.

There’s good news and bad news for retailers this year. On a positive note, consumer confidence is strong and customers are feeling flush. According to data from the National Retail Federation, sales for November and December are expected to clock in at about $682 billion, which would make 2017 the strongest holiday season since 2014. But on the flip side, department stores as a shopping destination placed a distant third behind the Internet and mass merchants, according to Deloitte’s annual holiday retail survey.

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The best retailers combine bricks and clicks — Richard Schmalensee

MIT Sloan Professor Richard Schmalensee

MIT Sloan Professor Richard Schmalensee

From Harvard Business Review

Retail profits are plummeting. Stores are closing. Malls are emptying. The depressing stories just keep coming. Reading the Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Target earnings announcements is about as uplifting as a tour of an intensive care unit. The Internet is apparently taking down yet another industry. Brick and mortar stores seem to be going the way of the yellow pages. Sure enough, the Census Bureau just released data showing that online retail sales surged 15.2 percent between the first quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016.

But before you dump all of your retail stocks, there are more facts you should consider. Looking only at that 15.2 percent “surge” would be misleading. It was an increase was on a small base of 6.9 percent. Even when a tiny number grows by a large percentage terms, it is often still tiny.

More than 20 years after the internet was opened to commerce, the Census Bureau tells us that brick and mortar sales accounted for 92.3 percent of retail sales in the first quarter of 2016. Their data show that only 0.8 percent of retail sales shifted from offline to online between the beginning of 2015 and 2016.

So, despite all the talk about drone deliveries to your doorstep, all the retail execs expressing angst over consumers going online, and even a Presidential candidate exclaiming that Amazon has a “huge antitrust problem,” the Census data suggest that physical retail is thriving. Of course, the shuttered stores, depressed execs, and tanking stocks suggest otherwise. What’s the real story?

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