Every day the UK supermarket giants such as Tesco, Sainsbury's or M&S publish data to their suppliers on how many of their items were sold across their store estate.
This data can then be analysed by suppliers to assess their performance and spot any issues. For example, if a promotion was expected to boost sales by 20 per cent but this has not happened, there could be a supply chain issue.
However, despite the clear advantage of such data, Guy Cuthbert (pictured), managing director at Atheon Analytics, a firm that provides analytic services for suppliers, has seen first hand that many fail to take advantage of this potential.
“We reckon that about half of the suppliers we have met with don’t even know this data is available, and the half that do, around 80 per cent just get hold of data at the end of month, and do a simple ‘how was the past month’ summary.”
“Only a small number do proper reporting over any shorter time frames.”
For many suppliers the failure to take advantage of this can be attributed to simply not having enough time or resources to properly assess it.
Big brands like Unilever probably do have teams focused on this, but for smaller vendors, it is unlikely to be a priority, chiefly because analysing the data and deriving insights is so time-consuming.
Spotting this issue back in 2006 Cuthbert set to work building out a service that could access, aggregate and present this data from supermarkets to suppliers in an easy-to-use format.
This led to the creation of Atheon Analytics and its core product Skutrak (pictured below). This offers a single dashboard based around Tableau software to present clear visuals with the aim of helping executives making informed decisions.
“The suite makes it possible for users to spot patterns, to look at the impact of offers and so forth. They want to know what is selling, and when it’s not why not and react.”
Skutrak offers visual analytics on huge reams of supermarket data to suppliers
This all sounds fairly straightforward and the benefits would seem clear. After all anything that gives better insight on performance should be jumped on by executives looking for an edge in the cut-throat retail world.
However, Cuthbert tells V3 that one of the big challenges is that many people in a position to benefit from such data are reluctant to do so because they worry it will undermine their position.
“Most executives would say they are data driven, or that they aspire to be, that they want to be like Google or Amazon because they admire those companies,” he said.
“But really they don’t want to change the company culture and abandon long held personal opinions on how to make decisions and use data, they’d rather stick to what they know.”
However, he said those who can see past this are those that truly embrace data and use it to improve their operations.
“The really smart people realise that they can’t trust their opinions based on experiences from five or even 10 years ago. The retailer world has changed so much with the rise of discounters, and pressures on waste management and so on.
“It takes a willingness to let go of the past and really look at data and use that to make decisions.”
The unwillingness of some execs to consider they need to reassess their view of the market actually caused Atheon change how it offered its Skutrak service to customers.
“The issue around education is one of the main reasons we moved to a freemimum model, because before we could only sell our services to people who believed they needed better insights on their data, and more often. Many questioned why you needed that if you can just use the data once a month as they had always done.”
Since embracing this model the firm has seen uptake increase and one happy customer is Gareth Phillips, the Sainsbury’s business account manager for food supplier Santa Maria.
He uses the system to monitor sales and delivery data along with stock holding at depots and at stores, so he can act on any product short falls, ideally before they cause a problem.
“Without Skutrak, I wouldn’t be able to see that level of data easily. It’s difficult to find the time to get that level of data, but because it’s a headline in an email [the daily KPI email all users receive], I can see it and then we can take appropriate action.”
Santa Maria uses Skutrak to monitor its supply chain
Cuthbert notes that often the best people the firm can speak to are those in positions like business account manager or supply chain executives, rather than c-level execs, as they have more frontline problems its systems can solve.
"Most clients are mid-level employees who see first hand exactly how our system can help them. They are rarely analysts, but those that stand to gain the most from understanding the data and they see straight away how we can help."
Of course while an increase in customers is exactly what Atheon wants, it causes new challenges, as the amount of data the firm is having to ingest, store and present to clients increases all the time.
“The challenge is that you need to store and process all this data, while building platform out to meet new customer demands,” Cuthbert adds.
To combat this the firm set about upgrading its database offering and, after several tests and trials with a mix of potential suppliers, eventually chose in-memory data analytics specialists Exasol.
“The challenge for us was finding something that was high-performance, but also had price performance so it could run on commodity hardware and with minimal expertise as we don’t want a team of people having to tune it all the time,” he said.
“We could usually get one of three from other platforms, but Exasol was capable in all three areas.”
Cuthbert notes that the demand placed on its system is only set to increase with retailers starting to push ever more granular data, such as providing per store data on products sold, and potentially over shorter timelines, possibly even in real-time.
This may be a little way off, though, as there are still more basic issues to sort out, such as the discrepancy in the levels of data pushed out by the various supermarkets, which can cause problems for suppliers.
“It can be hard treating them all in a consistent way, so you may want your Tesco supplier team to work as well as your Sainsbury’s supplier team, but the data from the two may not be the same,” he says, as a hypothetical example.
"For many there is a gap between their internal capabilities and the external information they have to work with.”
Nonetheless, with more and more data streaming into its systems, and suppliers slowly becoming more savvy about how they use this data, it is clear the benefits of harvesting data to improve operations is growing in understanding.
AlphaBay users had flocked to Hansa after it was closed down - not realising it had already been taken over by Dutch police
Microsoft closes in on $100bn annual revenues with sales weighing-in at $23.3bn
Moves to take down cyber-squatted domains reveals Fancy Bear hacking network, claims Microsoft
Intel claims 'world first' in artificial intelligence that can be plugged-in almost anywhere