In light of news last week that the government may soon force brands to make available consumer data, Ian Stockley, MD of Customer Intelligence agency Indicia explains the story behind the Midata initiative, and asks what retailers are so afraid of.
The Midata scheme was announced with much fanfare last year, as part of the government’s open data policy. The following white paper, released in June, set out strategies which could be groundbreaking in terms of accountability and transparency if they come to fruition. With the aim of a greater level of democracy, the paper promised to make data more freely available, and more easily digestible – covering everything from health, education, transport, crime and more.
As part of these plans, Midata was an optimistic call to action for brands to follow suit. Consumers can already request such data through the Freedom of Information Act – but Midata was designed to make this process a lot easier by having brands offer this data up of their own accord. The result however, was incredibly disappointing. Just 26 brands signed up, with not a single retailer amongst them. It begs the question, what have these retailers got to hide?
What’s most mysterious is that Midata was an open goal for retailers, to use a sporting analogy. The government had set up brands to steal a march on competitors and take a first step towards creating a dialogue with consumers and establishing trust. By volunteering, brands would be doing something positive for their consumers without prompt – something that there is already an appetite for. There is a host of new apps and tools emerging each week as consumers look to analyse their own spending habits and adjust accordingly. Self-measurement is nothing new either – and arguably it’s only ever been a matter of time before the tools we see applied in the fitness and dieting arenas were expanded into all walks of life.
So why the reluctance? Sadly it seems that many retailers are still stuck in bygone eras, stubbornly clinging onto old values that no longer apply in the modern marketplace. After all, data is knowledge, and knowledge is power. Power used to sit with marketers but with new channels opening, that balance of power has shifted. Consumers can hold brands openly accountable when promises aren’t kept and customer service is sub-par. Once upon a time, it was perfectly legitimate to claim ‘A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play’. But with the wealth of information now open to them, not to mention price comparison websites, consumers are making more informed purchasing decisions. The lack of control, for many, is terrifying – hence explaining their reluctance to relinquish further.
What’s interesting though is that there is a clutch of retailers that have taken the first steps already. Sainsburys, Tesco and Asda all willingly give consumers price comparison updates upon checkout. The product stands up to the test of comparison, the retailer is empowering the consumer to make an unbiased purchasing decision and is much the better for it.
This is where the perception lag lies. Signing up to Midata doesn’t necessarily mean emptying the entire bank of data held on unwitting consumers, warts and all – it’s a willingness to engage in similar schemes such as this. One of the main concerns said to be held by the large supermarkets is that such a move would undermine the data analysis they currently run, but to release such a huge mass of data all at once would undoubtedly be overwhelming and most importantly, unwanted. If retailers work alongside consumers, they can understand which data they would like to see, and offer it to them accordingly. Retailers already likely get thousands of FOI Act requests each time a privacy/data story breaks, of which I imagine few are welcome. Instead, retailers need to get on the front foot and take advantage of this thirst for data.