Retail Insider held its latest Breakfast Event this week with Edwina Dunn, co-founder of Dunnhumby  and now a director of Starcount, talking data, customer insight and loyalty programmes.

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Edwina Dunn, co-founder of Dunnhumby and director at Starcount

Senior executives from retailers of varying sizes including Marks & Spencer, New Look,  Farfetch, John Lewis and Muddy Boots were among those who heard the pioneer of customer data – who invented the Tesco Clubcard with Clive Humby – deliver insights into this increasingly important aspect of the retail sector.

Gathered at The Delaunay in central London the attendees heard how data’s importance today represents something of a change from the past as Dunn recalled the early days of Dunnhumby when her suggestion to a retail CEO that “data was strategic” was dismissed with a laugh.

In the early days she and Humby battled the universal view that “you are where you live” – based on Census data and instead took the line that “you are what you buy” – based on grocery sales.

But the real insight came from the subtext that they found a banana could be many different things when contained in a variety of  shopping baskets. The association between the products was vital and insightful.

This revelation, and the ability to use this data to tell stories that would ultimately increase sales at Tesco – who had bought into Dunhumby and its new thinking – effectively created the customer insight industry in the UK.

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However, Dunn raised the concern that the retail industry had now moved into a phase that involves simply pressing the right buttons with their loyalty programmes – “it’s statistics, not insights, with the world obsessed with counting”. In contrast, she believes the art is to find something from the data that nobody else knows.

The future, reckons Dunn, will be about bringing data together – from sources beyond the retailer’s own repositories. This will involve tapping into social media platforms, which she says helps link individuals to the things they are truly loyal towards  – i.e. the things that they are interested in following. This could be stars and brands etcetera.

This brings significant new opportunities for brand owners but it comes at a time when Dunn raises serious concerns that there is a “crisis” from insufficient science, maths and technology graduates coming through the educational system. She warns that this puts at risk the opportunities which data now presents.

But for now, one group taking advantage of the opportunities are start-ups who have been brought up on using data and insights to differentiate their propositions. Dunn says it is all about innovation and, unlike these small operators, the established retailers are finding it tough to disrupt their businesses.

One approach is for them to invest in start-ups rather than manage the much-needed changes internally, which she says is very tough because senior management are only ever told what they want to hear rather than what they should be told.

At Dunnhumby she recalled that the company always sought to tell Tesco and brand owners “what they needed rather than what they wanted”.

Retail Insider would very much like to thank Edwina Dunn for her contribution to this Breakfast event and to the sponsors eCommera, Webloyalty and GS1. Without their support this event would not have been possible.