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The topic of big data is all the rage for marketers these days — and rightly so. Big data, when used correctly, helps those in nearly every profession — developers, doctors, and, yes, marketers — do their jobs better.

We’re all working to optimize big data and use it in cool, innovative ways to drive the business. Nevertheless, sometimes predictive analytics, personalization engines, and lifetime value optimization models don’t always tell us the full story. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a data nerd through and through, but what happens when big data alone is not enough?

Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, for all the challenges they’re facing today, do have this going for them: easy access to shoppers. In a former life, I regularly sought insights by visiting store locations across the country and asking shoppers about their experience, about the latest line, what they loved or hated, etc. While data collection continues to get more sophisticated and store visits may one day go the way of the cold call, that person-to-person feedback will always be invaluable.

Traci Inglis

Traci Inglis 

For digitally-born brands, gathering customer feedback is a tougher nut to crack — that’s the nature of the business. But with a little bit of ingenuity and creativity, it’s not impossible.

E-commerce brands shouldn’t shrug their shoulders and resort solely to their e-mail survey results, they must work harder to gather meaningful customer feedback. The road may be tougher, but the payoff is greater.

Get the Customers in Front of the Product

Most e-commerce companies have no personal interaction with the customer while they interact with the product. It’s simply the nature of the business. If a product doesn’t sell initially, there is very little feedback as to why, and no opportunity to make adjustments. Some e-tailers, however, are finding a way to change that dynamic and serve as an inspiration to the broader e-tail industry.

In 2015, Bonobos, an e-commerce men’s wear company, opened its flagship “guideshop” on Fifth Avenue in New York. The showroom model is not a store in the traditional sense, where you walk in, try clothes on and walk out with the merchandise. Rather, it’s a showroom that keeps all of the sizes, colors, fits and fabrics in stock at all times for customers to touch and try on in person, which they can then order online. Bonobos saw the need to get product in front of their customers and took steps to do so. The result? Better customer interactions and increased sales.

Several other e-tailers are also adopting this showroom model. ModCloth, an e-commerce retailer specializing in vintage-looking apparel and Snapsuits, a men’s suiting line specializing in custom-tailored men’s suits for $250, have launched similar showroom models where customers can see and feel the product in person but purchase online from inside the showroom.

Yet most e-commerce businesses do not want to invest the capital in a brick-and-mortar retail strategy and open actual storefronts. What is a way around that?

If you can’t get your customers to come to you, make sure you go to them. Orchestrate a road show, open a pop-up shop or schedule in-home visits with some of your customers. I have found that you learn more about your customers and your product by going out, meeting people and hearing their thoughts.

Flex Your Creative Muscles

If you’re an e-commerce company, you need a more innovative market research program. Surveys are a great way to gather information, but they can’t replace face-to-face interaction.

Crunch the big data, distill the numbers, but it will only get you so far.

We recently started arranging dinners and in-home visits with some of JustFab’s VIP members in a concerted effort to get true, valuable feedback. The dinners, which we’ve coordinated in select markets, serve as a great opportunity for members of the JustFab team, across all departments, to interact with real VIP members.

We’ve also launched a research program of in-home visits with our members. It’s incredibly helpful and eye-opening to go through a member’s closet with them. It’s one thing to read on a survey that your shoppers want to see sexier apparel or edgier shoes, but you don’t really understand what “sexy” or “edgy” means to them until you see their closets. Seeing a member’s style in person helps us to know how to design to fit her needs and how far to push the boundaries of fashion in a way that data could never describe.

Consider Feedback Across the Business — Then Act

The truth is, customers have thoughts on all aspects of your business, not just the product or service you sell. Is your customer service helpful and easy-to-use? Is the shopping experience the same across all channels? Is your payments system efficient enough?

Face-to-face feedback cannot be underestimated. Not only does it lead to a greater understanding of your customers, but it can help optimize the business. At our VIP dinners, I’ve seen face-to-face interactions do everything from find a bug in our mobile site experience to change the way we style looks for our photo shoots. All parts of your business should be open to feedback.

Once you receive the feedback, don’t be afraid to act on it. If you are unsure about a big investment you are considering from your conversations with customers, back it up with quantitative research or a small test before fully launching. Whatever you do, don’t ignore what your customers are telling you.

Pret a Manger is an example of listening and adjusting to customer feedback. Last June, the United Kingdom-based sandwich shop chain launched a stand-alone vegetarian restaurant — Veggie Pret. The idea for a veggie-only store materialized after the company saw a double-digit sales increase in vegetarian options and listening to customer feedback. Pret’s approach to gathering customer feedback — in-store campaigns, social media interaction — has led to 10 percent overall revenue growth per year.

Ultimately, leveraging big data to drive the business is an incredible competitive advantage — and one that many of us are not fully optimizing. But big data is not the be-all-end-all. Big data works best when it works in concert with small data — on and off-line.

Traci Inglis is general manager and chief marketing officer of TechStyle Fashion Group‘s Fast Fashion division.

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