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Social Media, Shoes and the Economy

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M aking sense of the conversations taking place on social media sites will be one of the big retail stories of 2012. Retailers know how important it is to listen to what customers are saying; the problem seems to be translating the banter into something valuable — and gaining a precise understanding of how to apply that insight.

Having spent the last six weeks immersed in discussions about what’s ahead for retail, it’s clear to me that the tools for extracting meaning from all that noise are out there. And I’m convinced that applying next-generation analytics to social media can truly move businesses closer to the customer.

Case in point: Last month IBM released the findings of a project that analyzed billions of social media posts. The results forecast an intriguing change: The heel heights of women’s shoes — currently in nosebleed territory — are poised to decline.

That has significance, of course, for shoe designers who are putting together their next collection — and for buyers determining the mix for spring. But it turns out that the height of women’s shoes also has an interesting correlation to the economy.

Trevor Davis, a consumer products expert with IBM Global Business Services and the champion of this project, found that in an economic downturn, heel heights historically go up and stay up. He points out that low-heeled flapper shoes in the 1920s were replaced with high-heel pumps and platforms during the Great Depression. Platforms were revived during the 1970s oil crisis, reversing the preference for low-heeled sandals in the late 1960s. And the low, thick heels of the 1990s “grunge” period gave way to “Sex and the City”-inspired stilettos following the dot-com bust at the turn of the century.

The fact that heel heights are now on the brink of shrinking indicates a shift in sentiment that Davis attributes to “a mood of long-term austerity evolving among consumers.” His analysis showed that in 2008 and 2009, social media enthusiasts wrote about heel heights in the five- to eight-inch range; by mid-2011, they were writing about the return of the kitten heel and the perfect flat from Jimmy Choo and Louboutin.

The takeaway here is not necessarily about shoes or the economy: It’s about the predictive capabilities of social media analysis as a source of valuable insight to help drive business strategies and results.

With all the data that retailers collect today, all the historical information they’ve tucked away and all the computing power available, the need to embrace predictive analytics and to factor all types of social media into strategic decision-making is imperative.