The Data Driven Merchant – Good or Bad?

Share This:


Being in the retail industry for nearly 25 years, there are plenty of sayings that I heard or have used. From “Had a bunch, bought a bunch” to “Stack it high, watch it fly,” there seemed never to be a shortage of sayings.  My favorite saying had to be that “Retailing is both a science and an art.” In today’s competitive retail environment, that couldn’t be truer.

To be successful as a retail merchant today, you need to be both the artist and the scientist, which is a challenge as most seasoned merchants will tell you.  As the artist, you spend your time trying to ‘wow’ your customers with new and exciting products, promotions, and service offerings. As the scientist, you review both internal and external data in how to best respond today in order to maximize results tomorrow.

When I was a young merchant at Sears Holdings in the early 2000s, most of my buying decisions were based off gut feelings that I had.  We didn’t have the abundance of data that is available today for merchants. I was paid for spotting trends in my industry and I reacted accordingly. However, the lifespan of a merchant’s career is based on the number of hits and misses one accumulates.

Realizing that using my intuition was going to propel my career forward, I started to use the data that was available to me – POS data and Consumer data from TraQline to assist with my merchandising decisions and take the most of the guesswork out of picking products. For example, when I was on the team that merchandised camcorders, data provided by TraQline indicated that consumers were walking out of Sears’ stores in the first quarter due to a high number of out of stocks and misinformed sales associates.  Being in stock on camcorders was usually very difficult in January for two reasons:

1. If I had a great sales period in December, I was out of stock with most of my camcorder assortment in January.

2. Many of the camcorder vendors, like Sony, started discontinuing their older models in January to make room for the newer models which would be available in March and April.

With over 800+ stores, there was no guarantee each store had meaningful stock on majority of the current camcorder assortment.

With the help of data, I developed various merchandising strategies to assist the stores during this transition period. From spending more time educating our sales associates to creating innovative signage, I was able to reduce significantly the number of customers walking out of our stores empty-handed.



Today, the merchant is overwhelmed with many data tools that are available. Shoppers’ behavior can change very quickly and the retailers that can respond the quickest are the ones who beat their sales numbers. As a retail consultant at Retailbound, I see a disturbing trend where merchants’ buying intuitions are replaced totally by data. Merchants are afraid to make a decision today, more so than a decade ago, without the hard data to back it up.   By the time the merchant has fully analyzed the data, the buying opportunity may have passed.  Merchants forget about the art of picking products that are interesting to their customers. Retail stores, websites, and catalogs all start looking the same.  The end effect is customers start shopping elsewhere. In the end, every merchant has the data but very few know how to use it.

In order to stay relevant in the eyes of the customer, merchants should use both their creative side and their analytical side in their buying decisions.  Buying opportunities won’t be missed and customers are happy. Happy customers are profitable customers…isn’t that why we are in retail business?




Yohan Jacob is the lead retail consultant at Retailbound, Inc. A noted author, retail consultant, and retail coach, Yohan helps coach both retailers and manufacturers in how to stand apart and get their products marketed in a competitive marketplace. Visit him online at