Big Data or Big Flop?


There is nothing new in an industry which generates thousands upon thousands of data points daily, to attempt to gain insight into everything from inventory optimization to transport and logistics management. Grocers have been doing that for years.

So, what is all the talk about “Big Data” and how it has the potential to revolutionize businesses?

In its broadest sense, big data is “extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.” But the real question is how to meaningfully analyze and integrate all your data to drive customer satisfaction, loyalty, and ultimately in-store sales.

When discussing the role of big data in the grocery industry, many refer to U.K. based Tesco. With 3,500 stores in the UK alone, and each store stocking an average of 40,000 products, tracking them all just once involves the creation of over 100 million data points. The company is now deploying analytics technology where the data is stored, rather than moving the data in batches for external analytics. It is in the process of moving from a “data warehousing” to a “data lake model” which will be a centralised, cloud-based repository for all its data, codified in a way to make it accessible and usable by any arm of the company whenever needed.

Tesco sees cutting-edge, real-time analytics and the use of most up-to-date data as the answer to the challenges it now faces with evolving customer behaviour and new competition.

But to do this properly, a store’s technological infrastructure and loyalty programs are critical, and sorely lacking in Canada’s retail landscape.

This is why Nolan Wheeler of SYNQ, a Canadian company specializing in store technology, says “There is no Big Data…and there will never be Big Data. If Big data does exist in grocery, it’s primitive data masquerading as such”.

While Wheeler says the basic data is there, there are privacy implications in its use and the fragmented, often antiquated, POS hardware exacerbates the challenges. Indeed, most data is not “actionable”.

What does that mean?

To be actionable, the data must be received and analysed in real time. There has been forecasting for example that with advanced store infrastructure a customer’s cell phone signal can be picked up and the store will be able to send them personalized messages/promotions while in store.

“Brick and mortar retailers are at a massive disadvantage inherent to the current models”, says Wheeler. Basically, retailers only know so much from their current data sets. And what they do know is humstrung by established practices such as generating revenue from listing fees which tend to dictate product placement and assortment. Loyalty programs, while helpful, have one stunning flaw – time of occurrence.  “When does the retailer know that the loyal/new customer is shopping in their store…when it’s TOO LATE, when the entire shopping experience is over”!

SYNQ’s solution is to use clever in-line devices to anonymize data or mitigate the challenges of all that old, fragmented hardware.

“We build technologies that take analog or privacy sensitive data and make it available by either digitizing it or anonymizing it.  An example of such is our patented receipt capture device we at SYNQ call The Wedge.  Plug this device in-line into any receipt printer and you’ve wedged in a digital platform whereby you not only digitize the analog receipt (think PCI compliance, etc.) but you can on-the-fly create real-time customized and actionable incentives specific to that customer/transaction as a digital or analog OUTPUT (think about customized receipts with incentives vs. what you bought…or what you missed).  Capturing data from a printer is a scalable, agnostic way to go, in a retail landscape that has a plurality of types and versions of POS hardware and software”.

Wheeler says the company navigates what to do with that data in the context of being constrained by all those listing fees, IT limitations, privacy implications, changing e-com landscape, poor operationally designed stores, distribution challenges, labour optimizations…and find unique ways to modernize with the least amount of complexity.

“At SYNQ, our customers can shop the deli counter from their phone, order a cake by texting a word, and do a customer survey on a device during the transaction when it actually matters…and we can act on the bad experience and promote the good”.

So for now, utilizing big data has its limitations but clearly there are ways retailers can still gain value from their data sets until such a time as in-store technology evolves further.

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