Using mobile location data to track the Amazon bump, and other retail data innovations

The new partnership between Amazon and Kohl’s is just the type of forward-thinking experiment retailers may need to succeed in today's competitive commerce landscape. These companies looked past their competitive motivations to make consumer experience priority number one. And all bets are on that this won’t be the last time we hear about retailers using their natural symmetries to find their way forward.

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Innovative retailers are experimenting with all sorts of novel ways to increase shopper foot traffic in their bricks and mortar locations. In today’s retail environment, it’s no easy task. Data shows that some such initiatives, such as a recent partnership between Kohl's and Amazon could have a positive impact, and I expect that as time goes on consumer data and insights will also be what propel a lot of tomorrow's retail innovations.

Over the past several months I’ve thought a lot about -- and written -- about how data and consumer insights can help retailers excel in an increasingly unforgiving consumer landscape. I’ve suggested that retailers can use local-level mobile location data to ensure they have goods in stock that are not only seasonally-appropriate but reflect the interests and previous shopping behavior of local demographic groups. I’ve contemplated a retail future that employs consumer and location data to inform the transition from just places where people "buy stuff" to experiential and social environments where people convene, use healthcare facilities and even visit libraries.

I’ve observed as leaders in the space such as Target have focused on creating a seamless mobile-to-real-world experience for consumers for product research, building shopping lists or when in the store.

However, perhaps no brand makes commerce innovation headlines the way Amazon does. One of the most watched of Amazon’s recent initiatives is its integration with Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired in June. Shoppers are starting to see Amazon devices like Amazon Echo, Kindle e-readers and Fire tablets on Whole Foods store shelves, for example.

Using location data to track the Kohl’s-Amazon partnership

While it's too early to tell what the impact of this merger will be, Amazon has partnered with at least one other retailer willing to take a gamble on joining with the e-commerce behemoth -- Kohl's. The department store announced in September it would add Amazon Returns centers in 82 Chicago and Los Angeles stores.

Early indicators suggest that for Kohl’s, it’s paying off. The company recently beat analyst forecasts when it revealed its Q4 earnings earlier this month. According to Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, "radical steps, such as allowing Amazon returns in some stores and the introduction of Amazon shop-in-shops" contributed to the good quarter.

Long before the earnings report came out, my firm wondered how the Amazon relationship might affect Kohl's. So, we did what we do best and evaluated what the mobile location data tea leaves were telling us. At UberMedia, we track mobile location data to provide information about the flow of consumers from one location to the next, foot traffic in stores and restaurants, data to help measure the results of mobile ad campaigns, as well as geographic and demographic information about people whose mobile devices turn up in these locations.

Our goal was to measure the changes in the number of daily visitors to Kohl’s locations before and after becoming Amazon Return Centers. We employed proprietary retail boundary technology to identify Kohl’s locations nationwide and record when devices visited a location of interest. To control for the typical traffic spikes, we'd see during holiday shopping season, we measured daily visits of both Amazon Return centers and non-Amazon Return centers over the course of 2016-2017, controlling for the increase in foot traffic during the holidays, while observing the effect becoming an Amazon Return center could have on daily visits.  

A 12% boost at Amazon Return stores at Kohl’s

While we can't know for sure whether increases in visits to stores with Amazon Return centers can be attributed to the presence of those new centers, the results were positive for those Kohl's store locations. We found that, after October 2017 when the centers were established, the stores with Amazon Return centers had average estimated daily visitors rise by 48% vs. before October 2017. Meanwhile, estimated daily visitors at non-Amazon Return centers rose by 36%. That's a difference of 12% more visits at the stores with return centers above the normal holiday increase.

Can we call this an Amazon bump? Future tracking will show us patterns in shopper foot traffic that will help us figure that out.

Being a forward-thinking bricks-and-mortar retailer, Kohl's -- as Mr. Saunders from GlobalData Retail puts it -- "understands the need to give customers reasons to visit stores and is not afraid to experiment to achieve this.” In fact, the company is already testing the waters of another partnership, pairing up with grocery retailer Aldi.

Data should drive more retail innovation

As we know, places like Target have scored by adding grocery aisles to their stores. What's interesting here, to me, are the synergies between Aldi customers and Kohl's customers. Is there crossover in terms of demographics or shopper behavior for these two retailers? This is the sort of thing that mobile location data can illuminate, by connecting the dots between people who visit one type of business and another. I imagine the people behind the partnership strategy at Kohl's and Aldi have some interesting data that helped fuel their new relationship.

These types of innovative retail partnerships should be data-driven, of course. Envisioning walking into a Kohl's and seeing an Aldi outlet and an Amazon center has me wondering what's next for the other department stores having trouble competing. Can the department store itself become a marketplace, a home for seasonal pop-up shops or long-term partner brand installations? Is there any reason I can't meet with a tax service while I'm at Sears or JC Penney, or drop my child off at a separately-branded play center while I shop?

The Kohl's-Aldi partnership “could be a signal for a new kind of partnership where retailers (most of whom have excess space) get creative in finding ways to boost productivity and traffic,” said Neil Stern, partner of strategic retail planning firm McMillanDoolittle.

Mr. Stern said we should expect more of these partnerships, and I believe in the future we will see novel uses of mobile location data facilitating them.

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