Diapers and Beer – What Big Data Tells Us
Diapers and Beer – What Big Data Tells Us

by Jackie Hennessey
Communications and Public Affairs Writer/Editor

What do customers who stop into the store for diapers often also buy?

An expected answer might be baby formula or, perhaps, strained carrots or Cheerios. 

Actually, the answer is beer, says Kyoung (Catherine) Nam Ha Lim, assistant professor of marketing and quantitative analysis.

In a study often told to marketing students, analysts looked at sales data and found that in the early evening, as people dashed into the store, they bought diapers and beer.

Kyoung (Catherine) Nam Ha Lim

On closer inspection, Lim said, it made sense. The analysis showed the trips were mainly at the end of the work week. The shoppers—male, often young fathers on their way home from work—picked up a necessity like diapers for the baby and grabbed a six-pack, too.
On the strength of that one piece of data, Lim said stores could rearrange products and displays, send out specific coupons and run specials aimed at the young families.

In 2013, “big data” is having its moment in the media. With the average consumer’s spending and personal habits – transaction data – tracked in multiple ways via smartphones, debit cards and store membership cards, Lim said data analysis is big business. Interest in it as a field of study is also growing at UNH and around the country.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, has said that in this day and age “humans create in two days the same amount of data that it took from the dawn of civilization until 2003 to create.”

With that much data to analyze, Lim said the demand for data analysts or data miners will continue to grow. At UNH interest is high, not only among marketing majors but also finance and accounting majors. “Our students find the field very interesting," she said. "They can get good jobs, and the salaries are high.”

McKinsey Global Institute, a global management consulting firm, found there will be “a shortage of talent necessary for organizations to take advantage of big data. By 2018, the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.”

Lim, who has been at UNH for two years, teaches principles of marketing and marketing research. Her own research centers on big data, customer research modeling and the interface or connection between marketing and finance. A study she conducted in 2005 found that with enough data her research team could accurately predict which consumers would respond to direct marketing and make purchases. 

Lim points out, however, that data mining is a challenging job that requires a very specific skill set. “It is a very hard job managing huge amounts of data,” Lim said. “A data analyst should be good with software, very analytical and a good communicator because data mining is a bridge between management and the business side and the technical side.”  The talented data analyst sees patterns and can make informed predictions.

Lim said she reminds her students that with all of this information circulating, loss of privacy is a huge issue, an issue those who will eventually work in the field must consider. “There is a dark side and a bright side to data mining,” she said. “I teach them to think about both.”

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