August 23, 2005
Jill, Meet Best Buy's Friendly Human Shopbot/Profiler
I'm a little surprised this article hasn't generated more discussion. Last week, the Washington Post ran an article about Best Buy's efforts to segment and target its customer base. They have developed a set of consumer profiles that they describe with friendly personal names (presumably, to put a human face on the profiles), like Barry (the wealthy professional man), Ray (the family man), Buzz (the young tech enthusiast), and most prominently, Jill.
Jill is a soccer mom who is the family's main shopper. She is well-educated and confident but intimidated by technology.
To help serve Jill better, Best Buy has organized a Jill SWAT team. When a woman enters the store who looks like a Jill, a dedicated sales assistant (dressed in pastels) approaches her and asks "Is there anything special you're looking for today?" The sales assistant then hand-holds the Jill through the store and even has special hard-to-find express checkout lanes that are intended for Jills.
On the plus side, these efforts to sort and treat customers differently improves the experience for the affected customers. The Jills find what they are looking for faster. Best Buy benefits too, extracting 30% more sales from Jills. In aggregate, this seems like this improves consumer welfare, producer welfare and social welfare.
On the minus side, the programs mean that customers get differential treatment. Given my advancing age, I'm probably more of a Ray than a Buzz, and I'm guessing the Ray-schmucks get stuck in the long lines instead of being queued up to the express lanes. This isn't the first time that Best Buy has expressly distinguished between customers, and of course many businesses try to sort and segment customers. I don't have a problem with making distinctions between customers--in fact, I strongly favor it as a way to improve social welfare--but I know many people do.
Perhaps more troubling is the seeming racial profiling of customers. It's possible that Jill-assistants don't make racial/ethnic distinctions, but I doubt it. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Jills are de facto white, even if there's no corporate policy to that effect (or even if there is a corporate policy against such judgments). This visual profiling definitely makes me nervous and uncomfortable about impermissibly discriminatory treatment.
The imprecise nature of visual targeting (predicated on stereotyped definitions, no less) shows a huge advantage of the Internet. The Internet permits much more accurate behavioral targeting that should lead to consumer, producer and social welfare improvements. Still, Best Buy is showing that offline efforts to segment and target can be effective, so I suspect we'll see more of this in the future.
YOu know reading your article here I am a little baffeled. I am currently in training to become one of Best Buy's Personal Shopping Assistans and not once has race ever become an issue. We recognize the customer based on thier needs and the mentality that customer has. That is how best buy has decided which stores will become one of several segments, then based on the larger portion of the customer base the store's look, feel and product offerings are tailored to that particular customer. Does that mean we will focus entirely on that customer, absolutely not, and in fact and Buzz, Ray or Barry are actually more then welcome to set an appointment with a Personal Shopper it does not have to be a "Jill" customer. However Best Buy found that that particular group of customers not only enjoyed having but encouraged as well and believe me these associates are easily some of the most highly trained retail associates you may ever come across. Now where is the benefit to a customer that may not fit the "Jill" persona? Well, if you live in a Metropolitan area there are more then likely more Best Buys around and guess what, some stores have test drive areas primarly set for the younger group, some have Magnolia Hi-fi, which is an extremly high end home theater selection. The benefit to each person is that now Best Buy can and will offer products that it has never offered before, as well and unique services you can not find anywhere else. For Best Buy to go to a customer centric type of company means nothing but good things for anyone that walks in the doors under the big blue box. Believe me there will be no racial profiling this is not about where you came from or where your ancestors came from, its all about making sure the customer has the best experience possible. Now it is true that maybe I am a little biased after all I work for the company however, if you could see the effort in place at the stores that are changing over it is unbeleiveable from where the company was even 2 years ago.
Posted by: Ryan at August 29, 2005 12:47 AM
Ryan, thanks for your comments. I apologize if my comments weren't clear. I do think the segmentation is a good thing, so I'm encouraged by Best Buy's efforts. However, while you personally may not engage in racial profiling, and Best Buy assuredly does not condone it, I remain concerned that not everyone will make principled distinctions between customers--indeed, those distinctions may be subconscious, not deliberate.
It's great to know that the special personal assistant shopping treatment is available to everyone, but I wonder if that message is clearly communicated. Even if it is, not everyone feels comfortable asking for help/special treatment even if it's freely available to them. So it's possible that in practice a group of customers will receive preferential treatment based on their skin color. Not only would that be illegal as an outcome, but it would be dispiriting. But, like you, I'll retain hope that this possibility never comes to pass.
Posted by: Eric Goldman at August 29, 2005 06:41 AM