How many fads, or here-today-and-gone-tomorrow products could have had a sustainable advantage if only the business knew the customer-base better, or the customer could speak more directly about needs more efficiently to the business? This ability to communicate between customer and business, and create necessary intelligence to serve and be served, is paramount in playing the competitive advantage game. And technology is certainly changing that game. 

Once upon a time, understanding retail customers and markets meant we studied reports and Nielson data, scanning pages of research, conducting focus groups and surveys in great numbers to learn about what people really wanted. Often those studies were susceptible to inaccuracy, limited data access and, yes, costly.

Today, technology is creating better communication between businesses and customers and, in turn, a whole new avenue for intelligence gathering of purchasing preferences and customer needs.

On the flip-side, smarter and more demanding, regionally diverse consumers require more informed and creative business innovations. Manhattan-based millennial Lakshika Trikha, in charge of strategy and events for the nonprofit SCIP, is quick to answer:

“Technological devices and applications, for my generation, are not just external tools to leverage for efficiency, but an integral part of who we are. Our retail and online choices — social media accounts, blogs, e-mail and other online activity — are as integral a part of our personal brand as the clothes we choose to wear or the coffee we drink,” Trikha adds.

“Our online personas are also often the first impression people have of us before meeting us in person, laying the groundwork for subsequent interactions.”

Today, it is fair to say that technology has changed purchasing power and in turn how retailers may use technology to gather information and innovate accordingly. The onslaught of big data and its integration with market intelligence and strategy have given businesses access to large data sets and access to potential global consumers with varying needs and desires. Likewise, consumers enjoy the ability to make more informed decisions about purchases and drive innovation where they desire something new. While gathering customer preferences is a primary use of technology in the retail space, several other things happen when consumers make purchasing decisions.

It’s evident that technologies are changing both the behavior of the consumer and the business trying to target that consumer. Here are seven ways retailers and retail manufacturers are using technology-based intelligence gathering to better understand and service customers.

1. Raw materials shortage tracking

This comes into play via social media data collection, and helps companies avoid global shortages in the supply chain.

2. Brick and mortar build strategies

Information collected through sense networking technology also helps companies decide on the desirable storefront locations — where purchasing power for their products is greatest.

3. Crowdsourcing

Virtual, key opinion— or leader — panels, online forums for experts, chat rooms, as well as RFID data technologies all help companies collect customer preferences, customer purchases, and customer needs. This can be done in both casual and formal forums.

4. Big number crunching

Big data-based innovation testing labs, wearable technologies and associated applications help companies track usage, performance and preferences to be used to develop research and development’s innovation strategies

5. Automated purchasing methods

These give customers several ways to purchase without cash, thereby increasing the chances for purchase. Businesses gain insight into their customer and provides additional opportunity for push advertising.

6. Online incentives

Rewards and loyalty programs are forums in which to monitor customer choices and seasonal preferences, but also to create loyalty to a brand.

7. Cybersecurity

These technologies can track customer purchases and alert them of potential fraud, saving a retailer both reputation and money.