NRC Handelsblad, 3 January 2015: 'A map full of 'big data''
“Making personalised offers is "the holy grail" for marketers. Albert Heijn has been unable to find it for 15 years. It cost the company a new Bonus card and a new database.
With the introduction of the new Bonus card, now about a year ago, Ahold is actually harking back to the distant past. "In 1887, Mr Albert Heijn had a shop in which he could serve his customers personally, because he knew them all by name and knew what his customers bought from him," says Roderick van der Haagen, project manager in introducing the card. The new card gives registered customers extra discounts by e-mail based on their previous purchasing behaviour. This should bring the 'personal touch' back to Albert Heijn's shops. "It offers that familiar personal service of the past, but in a new look."
Personal service in the 21st century does not mean that the checkout girl knows your name overnight. The 'new jacket' Van der Haagen talks about comes in the form of data sets stored in 'Pallas', Albert Heijn's data centre. Thanks to clever calculations, the computer knows the large customer base in a way that today's cashier could never match. Perhaps even better than Mr Albert Heijn in 1887.
"Translating big data into personal marketing is currently the holy grail in the marketing world," says Marco van Bilsen of marketing company BrandLoyalty.
Albert Heijn has been struggling with that 'holy grail' for years. The problem is not that customers do not want to give up their purchase data. The customer base appears all too willing to do so. It almost seems to be in the people's nature. The Dutch mercantile spirit prefers a few cents' discount to their own privacy," sighs Vincent Böhre of the Privacy First foundation. At the same time, the chain store was unable to turn all that information into a personalised marketing strategy.
Eventually, a seriously contaminated database ("corrupt" in jargon) got in the way of using the data and personalising the offers. Partly because customers exchanged Bonus cards among themselves, meaningful statements about a person's purchase history could no longer be made.
Albert Heijn shelved the personalisation of the Bonus card. Criticism from the Dutch Data Protection Authority (CBP) also played a role. The Board ruled that the supermarket had not sufficiently informed customers about the registration of personal data. According to Albert Heijn, "the time was not yet ripe for it".
According to the supermarket, exchanging Bonus cards is mainly to the customer's own disadvantage. A student exchanging his barcode with young parents is not waiting for offers on baby food and nappies.
Effective personalised marketing stands or falls with a purchase history that can be attributed to a single customer. Albert Heijn is doing all it can to keep the new database clean. For example, each customer will only receive one Bonus card. This prevents multiple people from shopping on the same barcode. In addition, cashiers are no longer allowed to scan their own Bonus card if the customer has forgotten it. (...)"
Source: NRC Handelsblad, Saturday 3 January 2015, Economics, p. 30. Also published in part at http://www.nrcq.nl/2015/01/03/waarom-albert-heijn-met-de-bonuskaart-vijftien-jaar-achterloopt.