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The Good Ole Days: Before Big Data Made Everything Complicated

By Tim Young

In the early 90s, there was a segment on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update featuring Dana Carvey as the Grumpy Old Man who was unhappy about progress. Today, I’m going to tap into my own Grumpy Old Man, and look back at the way things were, back in the day, when things were simpler…

Retailers didn’t have gigabytes and terabytes of data to make everything so complex. Shop owners relied heavily on their instinct to know how to run their business. Those with the better intuition stayed in business while others closed up shop.

That intuition wasn’t just natural born though; it was something that was developed over years of watching a mentor hone their craft and through trial and error. And most of all, retailers listened to their customers. Not all their customers, but their best customers. That was the way it was, and we liked it that way!

They treated all customers fairly, but they learned to identify their best customers and listen to them. Were their best customers just the customers who spent the most? Not necessarily. Were they the customers who had the means to spend the most based on their financial standing? Nope.

The best customers were, more often than not, those that chose to shop disproportionately at their store and influenced other customers to do the same. They were loyal advocates. That was the way it was, and we liked it that way!

Shop owners developed relationships with these customers, maybe even treated them better than the rest. Made sure they got the choicest cut of meat, first dibs on new merchandise, or extra days to pay their account in full.

Why? Because these were the customers the business was counting on to continue to grow. Without them, it would be much more difficult to stay in business. That was the way it was, and we liked it that way!

Well what happened to those times? When did we become enamored with data and become closer to our laptops than our customers?

I don’t know. And I’m not advocating that we ditch the data and breakup all the national and multinational companies so they can be locally owned single store businesses.

But I do think that we can learn from history and apply those principles that made businesses work.

  1. Customers are real people (not just numbers on a spreadsheet)
  2. You need to know who your best customers are and listen to them
  3. Treat all customers fairly but give a little extra to those that make your business possible

The great thing about data is that it allows companies to know more about their customers than they did in the recent past (maybe not as good as the local owner ever did), and use that information to make faster decisions at high volume.

The bad thing about data is that it can make you forget customers are people, that relationships are a two way street. Just because you can track it doesn’t make it important, and it can create paralysis.

Leverage data to make more informed decisions, but don’t let it over-complicate the process.

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