Interview: Tesco Clubcard creator Edwina Dunn sets her sights on social media

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Together with her husband, Clive Humby, she created the Tesco Clubcard. More than that, they showed how it was possible for retailers to track their customers’ purchases and to make inducements in the form of reward points and offers to encourage them to shop again.

They were able to build an accurate picture of a shopper, what they liked, how often they visited the store and when, and what they spent. At the presentation to the Tesco board, the then chairman, Lord MacLaurin, said: “What scares me about this is that  you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years.”

The Dunnhumby innovation transformed the performance of Tesco, doubling its market share in little more than a year, and changed retailing forever. Eventually, Edwina and Clive sold Dunnhumby to Tesco. Now, with  the struggling supermarket looking to raise cash, it may be sold again, for a reported £2 billion (although that figure seems high).

They’re promising to do the same again with Starcount, which analyses social media. Sir Terry Leahy, the former Tesco chief executive, is among the backers.

Edwina is also spearheading What I See, a charity aimed at broadening women’s career horizons, and  Your Life, a new, government-backed scheme to get more school  pupils studying maths and physics, to improve Britain’s skills for the global, tech-based economy.

She and Clive are known universally in retail as the Dunnhumbys. They live in Chiswick, and have two children, aged 23 and 20. Despite all that, Edwina is astonishingly normal. Some people in her position would be all ego. She’s not like that at all.

“Back in 1995, Tesco started trialling the idea of a ‘thank you’ card, it was a way of saying thank you to customers, recognising that they came into the store and spent money. It gave them a 1% reward so when they started trialling, they got masses and masses of data.

This was a time when computing was actually harder, and more expensive, and we were asked to get involved, and analyse this huge array of data.”

Clive was a mathematician and Edwina was a geographer. They’d set up Dunnhumby to analyse census details for corporate clients, and had invested in a massive computer. “We were able to add up how many people lived within a quarter of a mile radius of a particular store. In those days, it was all about you are where you live, and so we classified people by who lived around a store,” she recalls.

“The natural progression was to move from census data, which was slow, it was only every 10 years, to customer data. At the time we started, people were throwing customer data away because it was too expensive to keep.”

Suddenly, “we realised we could understand how customers live their lives. We could identify the big differences between the ways people ate. Some people never cook, some people warm things up, some people snack, some people have all of their meals separately. We could not only send different messages to different people but, very importantly, we could start to identify gaps on the shelves.”

Isn’t it all a bit spooky, a bit Big Brother? “I think the majority of people like it if you do it well and respond well. It’s a kind of trade, if I let you know me, and you give me something I want, especially if it’s for free, then I’m very happy for you to know me. But get it wrong, or do it badly, then I will object and withdraw my data.”


Essentially, Edwina says, what they were able to do, thanks to Clive and his maths and algorithms, was “to visualise data. We all do it naturally with our brains, so when we’re standing in a queue, we rather nosily look at the basket in front and from that we can describe someone’s life or their preferences. The brain does it automatically.

We did it through computing. It’s the idea that if you like this, then you might also like that”. She adds: “We’re used to it on sites like Amazon, and more and more companies are doing it.”

Does she have a Clubcard herself? “I most certainly do and I get the rewards, and I like them.” So Tesco sends her messages? “Yes, ‘here’s some more fresh fruit and vegetables that you would love to eat’.”

When they sold the business, pocketing almost £100 million, they went off round the Caribbean and Mediterranean, but it didn’t last, they could not stop thinking of work. The result was Starcount. “One of the biggest sources of data is social media. We’ve been collecting social media data so we can understand how people are living their lives, all their likes and dislikes. Some 1.7 billion fans respond to something every day across social media.”

Those 1.7 billion are directed, she says, by an estimated 170,000 influences right across the world. “Those include One Direction and Justin Bieber, but there’s also a guy you’ve probably never heard of called PewDiePie. These ‘stars’ have got much bigger followings than any brand. What we are trying to find is the relationship between the fans, stars and brands, and how and where they fit.

“We can discover that a brand has lots of customers who love cycling and lots of customers who love cooking. That begins to describe how people are living their lives and what they really care about, and it suggests how the brand can engage with them, and the kind of content they should create to make the brand more engaging.”

Edwina has set up What I See, a project aimed at women to give them more jobs confidence. “What I See asks women about what they see when they look in the mirror. It’s very much about boosting their self-perception. We film them. When girls today look around for role models there is a disproportionate number that are in celebrity and fashion, and not so many in the other spheres.

“We want to try and balance that with other stories, so we are giving girls a greater opportunity to pick a more diverse set of role models rather than just saying I want to be famous or I want to be in fashion.”

Now, too, there is Your Life, which Edwina chairs. “There are thousands and thousands of jobs in this country that would go as a priority to people with maths and physics skills. As a culture, we too often say ‘Oh I am no good at maths’, and somehow we think it is funny. Actually, in the future, in the digital world, we need maths, we need quantitative skills.

This is a call out for the fact that many, not all, many of the jobs of tomorrow are going to need these more numerate skills.”

The aim of Your Life is “to increase the number of children choosing maths and physics at A level and beyond. We want to increase the total by 50%, which is a fairly huge target”. How on earth can she hope to achieve that? She laughs. “Well the numbers are quite low at the moment, which helps. Only 2% of girls go on to study physics; 50% of our state schools have nobody studying physics at A level, no one at all.”

Apart from that, she says, “I do some gardening, I do some sailing, I do ordinary things.” In reality, she and Clive never stop dreaming up new projects. “We have a rule that we won’t talk about work at home. Then one of us will ask the other if it’s OK to talk about work. Then we do. It always happens. We’re totally absorbed in it.”

Retailers owe them a great deal. It’s hard to imagine where they’d be without the Dunnhumbys.

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November 30, 2014 |
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