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A  competitive advantage for retailers may live within the abundance of data amassed through loyalty programs, sales transactions, demographic information and social media. It’s also floating somewhere between bricks-and-mortar stores, online and mobile. Finding it once required the equivalent of a team of detectives — often living in the IT department — who would craft a query and then force the data to provide an answer a few weeks, or months, later.

But SAS Visual Analytics wants to change all of that with in-memory technology that can process billions of lines of data and create visual results in a matter of seconds.

“At a strategic level, analytics and visual analysis are key ways to give a competitive advantage,” says Diana McHenry, SAS’s director of global retail marketing. “Now retail executives can ask questions that could not be answered before .... It’s like brainstorming. Now there’s no bad question.”

Visual Analytics allows a user to visually explore data from a variety of sources across brands, channels, products and locations. The new solution boasts features like auto-charting and drag-and-drop capabilities, making it easy to use by those with nontechnical and limited analytic backgrounds.

“In the past, you’ve had to know the question and work within the guardrails before you take it to IT,” McHenry says. “IT is already spread thin, keeping all the regular operations up and running, websites up and payroll humming. Now you can take the question to Visual Analytics and it shows you insights on the screen visually. Who knows where this could lead?”

Personalized marketing
Visual Analytics also allows a user to deploy all available data for more precise answers. McHenry envisions that a retailer might notice a particular sweater is selling well when paired with a certain accessory. That information can quickly be made available to store associates, providing ways to pair the products in the store or to up-sell when a customer picks up that sweater. The analytics might also identify a hidden vendor issue by analyzing supply chain data, sales transactions and call center complaints.

“You also can begin to personalize assortments, prices and promotions,” McHenry says. “Visualizing information rapidly provides insights into buying behavior that might be different based on demographic attributes or product attributes or purchasing attributes that you didn’t anticipate. This allows for a personalized marketing approach.”

No matter how the data is used, McHenry believes it will provide the kind of insight that allows a retailer to remain competitive at a time when one misstep can sink an entire operation.

“Retail is an industry where companies can still rise quickly from rags to riches — or fall from riches to rags,” McHenry says. “A customer’s perception of, and experience with, your brand is critical not only to staying in business, but to growing your business. It’s important to treat customers with respect, care and consistency.

“It’s easy to make a misstep of larger proportions now, with colorful and unflattering news going viral,” she says. “Competitors can copy your good ideas and can come up unexpectedly from new places. Being able to visualize ideas within your own business with your customers will lead you to ideas that are not easily copied and give businesses a long-term competitive advantage.”