‘Big Data"Big data" new systems that allow the meshing of huge amounts of timely information and insights from traditional metrics like sales and inventory and unstructured data like e-mail and social media is a white-hot topic in marketing circles.

Looking long term, the Food Foresight 2013 trends report sees big data transforming agrifood marketing and competitive advantage as we know it.

Many people point to last fall"s presidential campaign as the game changer.

The Obama campaign effectively sliced and diced big data with unprecedented precision to determine which clusters of voters were key to victory and how to get them to the polls.

While this is all in the early stages of development, the implications to agri-food marketing and competitive advantage are well worth exploring.

A brickmeetsclick.com study ("Moving Forward with Big Data The Future of Retail Analytics," April 2013), chronicles thoughtful retailers and suppliers drawing insights from demand tools such as sales promotions, loyalty programs and the merchandising mix, even actions by competitors.

‘Big DataThis is all about improving the ability to make the right product offering to the right consumer at the right touch point at exactly the right point of time.

Equally, if not more, important for produce are efforts to optimize operations, reduce out-of-stocks and increase inventory efficiency. Big data, for example, can track product quality as it travels to market.

It"s becoming practical to have multiple temperature sensors on the same truck (versus just one). This gives the receiving organization the ability to manage products, even cases, differently depending on how they are handled in transit. It can lead to big savings for handlers and retailers and greater value to growers.

The collection of big data is already occurring across the agrifood continuum from precision farming to retail but no one is connecting the dots from production to retail or "field to fork" in the name of strategically improving shopper satisfaction and product marketing.

Many farmers are using big data on the farm to increase productivity, deliver the right product quality and size, and to optimize inputs and natural resources. Big data allows farmers to demonstrate that they know and care for their orchards, for example, one tree at a time and are responsible stewards of the earth"s natural resources.

"We"re using GPS to map fields to accurately measure yields and yield differences so we can be more precise about using inputs," said Joe MacIlvaine of Paramount Farming Co., Bakersfield, Calif.

Paramount is developing technology to monitor in real time the moisture stress of 15 million trees a week one tree at a time.

As we move to more precision farming, we"ll be generating a lot more data that"s intended to drive productivity, but with the advent of big data tools, agricultural businesses can now, for the first time, take advantage of 21st century marketing and merchandising methods. It"s a major opportunity for grower-shippers.

Stronger supplier-retail links open up all sorts of new possibilities for surprising and delighting shoppers with just what they want. For example, would we sell more pomegranates by building larger displays to drive impulse purchases? Are there better ways?

Retailers will have the data to confidently explain the care and handling their products receive while consumers can have validation of a product"s physical quality and that the way in which it was grown and brought to market embodies the values they hold.

There"s leverage in connecting what"s happening on the supply side with opportunities to drive demand.

Retailers, for example, are building store-specific assortments with their supply system, and, in the process, are driving increased sales and shopper satisfaction because customers are more likely to be able to find and buy what they"re looking for.

Today, best practice retailers are applying an inventory planning tool used for years for packed goods to produce (e.g., days of supply).

This tool allows the retailer to know how much of a particular produce item will be demanded over a day or two and creates the possibility for putting just that amount on display using basket merchandising or other devices to project abundance while limiting exposure to shrink.

There are opportunities to take a closer look at what"s happening on the farm with precision agriculture to see what data is being developed and used to improve productivity.

There"s also opportunity to identify where and how these new points of influence help us better understand and respond to the needs of 21st century shoppers.

Bill Bishop is chief architect of Brick Meets Click, Chicago, and a founding panelist with Food Foresight, a trends analysis process of the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research and Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Inc. Bishop spoke about online retail trends at the 2013 Midwest Produce Expo. Kerry Tucker is chief executive officer of Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, a San Diego-based strategic planning and public relations firm.

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