NEW YORK -- Operating on the theory that providing good customer service requires knowing who the customers are and what they want, progressive retailers are using technology to more efficiently gather a host of consumer information.
Supermarkets have long recognized the value of gathering data on their shoppers through a variety of survey methods, as well as providing vehicles for customers to complain, compliment and question.
But technology, such as retailer web sites that specifically request consumer feedback and databases created from frequent-shopper purchase information, is raising the stakes by making such efforts both more immediate and more specific.
Emmett Yuchnewicz, web production manager at Randalls Food Markets, Houston, said that Randalls' web site has made it easier and quicker for consumers to contact the retailer.
"Customers filling out a comment card at a store typically waited two to three weeks for a response, depending on what they were asking and what research was required," said Yuchnewicz. "But we've been responding within 24 to 48 hours to people requesting information or sending us comments via our web site."
Besides general comments about Randalls, Yuchnewicz solicits comments about the web site itself. "I'll send people coupon books if they'll answer three basic questions: What do you like most about the web site, what do you like least, and what would keep you coming back for more?" said Yuchnewicz.
He believes constant feedback is vital to creating a useful, accessible site. Such a site, in turn, reflects well on the retailer.
"When people find a company that's easier to get a hold of or has a positive image, that draws traffic just as well as putting an advertisement out there," said Yuchnewicz.
Efforts to even more sharply tailor web sites to individual shoppers, by using frequent-shopper purchase histories to direct web users to specific pages or promotional offers, are still in their infancy.
"We'd like to import the Club DOM [frequent-shopper] information to our web site," said Patrick Arnold, web master at Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio. "That way if someone is a heavy wine buyer we could advertise wine on the page, as opposed to steak or something else.
"Right now it's a technology problem to accomplish this," Arnold added. "Our front end is running on an SCO-Unix operating system, and all our Internet dealings are on a Windows NT platform. Getting the two to communicate is not an easy task. But we'll be moving our point-of-sale to the Windows system within the next year. Once that happens, it's really a piece of cake to make the Internet access the Club DOM database."
Arnold is less enthusiastic about "cookie" technology, which tracks customer visits to a particular web site in order to tailor future visits. "The problem is, if a user logs on from a different machine than they used before, all the information is lost," he said, adding that other machine-specific tracking devices, tied to Internet browser software packages, have the same drawbacks.
Retailers can also leverage information from other sources in order to sharpen their customer-service efforts. Brodbeck Enterprises, Platteville, Wis., which operates eight Dick's Supermarkets, has used the company's extensive frequent-shopper database to identify three "inactive" customer groups for a consumer research project that began last month, according to Ken Robb, senior vice president of marketing.
The nature of the database allows Brodbeck to precisely slice prospective survey subjects. "A very large percentage of consumers in our trade area are card members -- we have more than 70% of household penetration," Robb explained, adding that nearly 90% of all Dick's sales are card-based. "This is a very valuable database that allows us to track and understand what our customers are buying and how important they are to us."
Using this database, Brodbeck established three distinct lists of "inactive" Dick's customers. "The first are customers who were once active, but haven't visited a store in the last six months. The second are those who would still be considered 'good' customers, but who haven't made purchases in certain categories -- in this case, health and beauty care and general merchandise."
The final group, noncardholders, was established by purchasing a geographic address list and sorting it against the Dick's cardholder database, said Robb. Brodbeck hopes to complete 300 to 350 telephone interviews in each group, said Robb. Having such a database "lets us more efficiently identify customers, quickly ascertain what their concerns and issues are, and then address them," Robb added.
Another type of database helps Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., track the effectiveness of its customer-service efforts. "Whenever we receive a complaint or a compliment -- whether it's an e-mail, a fax, a phone call or a letter -- we enter it into a database," said Joanne Gage, vice president of consumer services.
"When we ask what are the issues we're dealing with, whether they've changed from a year ago, and how we're trending compared to that time, the database gives us much more information at our fingertips, in a much quicker period of time," said Gage.
The very nature of new technology offerings is pushing Marvin Imus, owner of the Paw Paw Shopping Center, Paw Paw, Mich., to seek new ways to keep the customer connection.
"We're looking at a new world of communications. Consumers can sit down at a computer and order anything; they don't have to go shopping," said Imus. "And yet we are social beings, so I want to take that social aspect as the reason a shopper comes into the store.