Using a dizzying array of algorithms and percentages, AbiliTec can narrow down buying information for individual users to an acceptable margin of error. The program is so accurate that it can recognize customers changing their maiden names and customers with multiple addresses and credit cards.
"They've got records that would scare you," Russom says.
Russom says information of this kind has been collected for decades by companies such as TRW and Acxiom. Typically vendors will let a customer "opt in" to marketing data collection. There are some less-than-scrupulous marketers out there, but in general the information is harmless.
"We're dealing with this brand-new problem of customer data integration," says Andy Griebel, business development leader of Acxiom's AbiliTec group. "We want to be able to do this in a real-time fashion, so that when someone is at a store or calling a call center, we can tie their profile in and serve them better. It sounds simple, but it's not."
Another approach in obtaining the complete customer view has more socialist roots. The Customer Profile Exchange, or CP Exchange, is a way of passing standard customer data from vendor to vendor in a cooperative manner. Using XML standards, CP Exchange has the capability of constructing an incredibly rich profile of a customer because it collects buying patterns of a customer on multiple and disparate Web sites. As the profile gets passed on between participating sites, it continues to build and become more complete.
"This is a standard way to profile customers and share data," says Matt Cutler, CP Exchange co-founder. Cutler is also the co-founder of NetGenesis, a Cambridge, Mass.-based online marketing software and consulting company that counts a number of click-and-mortar retailers among its clientele. "This is one piece of this puzzle, and there is no magic bullet yet. But there is a priority in getting this complete picture of your customer."
Analysts think the retail industry will continue to pursue the 360-degree customer view as the Holy Grail of personalized marketing. The Internet has given retailers a thirst for a previously unheard-of depth of customer data.
"[The] 360-degree [model] represents the high end of the spectrum, to the point where it is almost undoable," Russom says. "But the idea that every customer touchpoint constitutes a valuable channel of information is real. And there are so many reasons to want the 360-degree view that it will always be a goal."