Written by Rebecca Meiser and published in the September 2016 issue of SCT Magazine.
Though Jane Lisy’s official title at research and consulting firm Alexander Babbage is executive retail strategist, “interpreter” might better describe her role, she says. “There’s a huge unbelievable flood of data that’s now available to retailers,” said Lisy, who helps developers and retailers to adopt new technology and digital channels to better understand their customers. “The problem is, it’s too much data — it’s like trying to drink out of a fire hose.”
Lisy understood from the beginning the power of technology and Big Data to help glean information about consumer behavior, according to at least one observer. “Jane was never wedded to the past,” said James A. Ratner, chairman and CEO of Forest City Realty Trust’s commercial division. Lisy spent nearly three decades at Forest City before striking out on her own for a time and then joining Alexander Babbage last year. “She was always out there trying to find something new, and when she discovered it, she was immensely persuasive.” Among other things, Lisy understood early on the power of social media to engage customers, he says, and at her urging, Forest City hired a vice president of digital strategy — becoming the first developer in the country to do so.
Lisy’s pioneer instincts brought challenges both to her and Forest City. Five years ago, when she was the firm’s senior vice president of marketing, Lisy was feeling excited about the potential of an innovative digital-mapping-technology service her team was helping to pilot at two Forest City malls. The technology used anonymous cell-phone data from customers to help track their general movements at the mall. For the first time, shopping center owners would be able to know statistically how much time shoppers were spending at their malls, and whether someone who shopped at, say, Abercrombie & Fitch was also stopping in at Starbucks.
“We had rolled out a very detailed PR plan,” Lisy recalled. “We felt the best approach was to let people know what we were doing.” Unfortunately, when reported in the press, the technology was erroneously understood to be identifying cell-phone owners and their numbers. Soon afterward, one U.S. senator began raising an anti-data-tracking cry, and the Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation. In fact, the technology never actually identified any of the cell-phone users or their phone numbers, but the damage was done. “It set us back a year and a half,” Lisy said, clearly still annoyed at the memory.
Today most large-scale retailers and landlords use these data-tracking systems to provide better targeted marketing to their consumers, and Big Data analytics are driving retail leasing and advertising choices. “We now use it when we look at any of our redevelopment projects,” said Ratner.
Lisy’s current position joins together two of her loves: storytelling and quantified data. After graduating from Case Western Reserve University with a degree in communications, Lisy assumed she would be heading to New York City to work in corporate public relations. Instead, she went to Cleveland as associate director of retail marketing for Forest City. While advancing to senior marketing positions, Lisy discovered that she loved the creativity of the field, dreaming up such things as extended holiday programming. But she disliked the lack of hard facts she encountered when it came to measuring program effectiveness. “We’d do this big event, and I’d ask the marketing director in the field: ‘How did that go?’ and he’d say: ‘Oh, we had big crowds, and everyone was happy.’ But what I wanted to know was, is it worth doing again?”
Even when there is data, though, Lisy may sometimes harbor the niggling feeling that the information is somehow insufficient. “One thing that happens in the shopping center development world is that the development people will build a beautiful center, and the leasing people will lease it, but the minute the center opens, it’s the marketing people’s problem if it’s not doing well,” Lisy said. She recalls that this happened when a mall opened in a supposedly high-income suburb of Chicago and was not performing up to expectations. Lisy had a hunch that there was more to the income data than met the eye, and she reached out to Alexander Babbage for deeper insights, according to Alan McKeon, the firm’s president and CEO. “We brainstormed with her on how we could get that data,” said McKeon. But Lisy thought they could do even better still by finding superior data points that would get to the heart of the matter. “She can be like a dog with a bone, saying: ‘No, there has to be a better solution than that,” McKeon recalled.
Lisy helped develop a research tool called SpendR, which adds more data points to the household-income analysis, accounting for such things as family size, credit-card debt and mortgage payments. In the case of the mall in question, the model clearly showed that the center’s targeted customers were highly leveraged, with less disposable income than researchers had thought. “I felt really good when I could use data to explain what was going on,” Lisy said. “That’s when people start to pay attention to you.”
Cell-phone tracking technology produces similar illuminating moments in customers. “It’s gratifying to turn people on to the benefit of knowing this information,” Lisy said. “It’s always a great moment when I show someone cell-phone mapping, and they say: ‘This is so great! You mean I can know this information?’”
Alexander Babbage appreciates Lisy’s intricate understanding of its products and the ways that those can best be used to create better 3-D portraits of consumers. “She can look at something like traffic data, and say: ‘Well, OK, this might be meaningful if we had these other three pieces of data to go with it,’” McKeon said. “She’s an excellent translator from data to action.”