In Retail, Profiling for Profit
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- Store manager Jenine Bryant scanned the entrance of the Best Buy, sizing up each customer who passed through. Just before noon, a blond woman in a fashionable white sleeveless shirt and flower-patterned pants wandered in unsteadily, fumbling inside her purse for a scrap of paper.
She looked at it, then looked up at the signs denoting how the store is laid out, and then she looked down and up again. Bryant recognized her immediately and rushed over.
The woman was a "Jill," code name for a soccer-mom type who is the main shopper for the family but usually avoids electronics stores. She is well-educated and usually very confident, but she is intimidated by the products at Best Buy and the store clerks who spout words like gigabytes and megapixels.
Best Buy Co. is trying to change that by giving her the rock star treatment at selected stores: Sending sales associates with pink umbrellas to escort the Jills to and from their cars on rainy days and hoisting giant posters in the stores that pay homage to the Jills and their children, who are shown playing with the latest high-tech gadgets.
Big chain stores used to be among the most egalitarian of places. They were aimed at the average person, the generic "shopper," without conscious regard to background, race, religion or sex. That is changing as computer databases have allowed corporations to gather an unparalleled amount of data about their customers. Many retailers, like Best Buy, are analyzing the data to figure out which customers are the most profitable -- and the least -- and to adjust their policies accordingly.
Express clothing stores no longer accept returns from those the company deems to be serial returners. Filene's Basement has even gone so far as to ban a few customers from its stores because of excessive returns and complaints.
Such endeavors have proved controversial, because the computer programs that try to determine a customer's true value are still a work in progress, with the potential to alienate as well as attract good spenders.
But inspired by Columbia University Professor Larry Selden's book, "Angel Customers and Demon Customers," Best Buy chief executive Bradbury H. Anderson is on a mission to reinvent how the company thinks about its customers. Best Buy has pared some less desirable shoppers from its mailing lists and has tightened up its return policy to prevent abuse. At the same time, it has begun to woo a roster of shopper profiles, each given a name: Buzz (the young tech enthusiast), Barry (the wealthy professional man), Ray (the family man) and, especially, Jill.
Based on analyses of databases of purchases, local census numbers, surveys of customers and targeted focus groups, Best Buy last fall started converting its 67 California stores to cater to one or more of those segments of its shopping population. It plans to roll out a similar redesign at its 660 stores nationwide -- including about 15 in the Washington area -- over the next three years. The Best Buys in the Springfield Mall, the Fairlakes shopping center and Potomac Mills, for instance, are being transformed into stores for Barrys, featuring leather couches where one might imagine enjoying a drink and a cigar while watching a large-screen TV hooked up to a high-end sound system.
The Santa Rosa Best Buy, Store #120, is a Jill store.
Pink, red and white balloons festoon the entrance. TVs play "The Incredibles." There is an expanded selection of home appliances as well as new displays stocked with Hello Kitty, Barbie and SpongeBob SquarePants electronic equipment. Nooks are set up to look like dorms or recreation rooms where mom and the children can play with the latest high-tech gadgets at their leisure. Best Buy has new express checkout lines for the Jills; store managers say anyone can use them, but if you are not escorted by a special service representative they can be easy to miss. The music over the loudspeakers has been turned down a notch and is usually a selection of Jill's favorites, such as James Taylor and Mariah Carey.
But who exactly is a Jill?