I love to travel. Early on, I started what is now second nature. When I'd ride the train then stroll through the streets and neighborhoods, I would make a point to visit with the locals. They are a great source of information about where they like to shop and why. I buy charcuterie from a specialty grocer. But, it is mostly about listening to the grocer tell his or her family story about their business. A sense of place is told in these stories.
This habit has influences from the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He calls it "thick description." Simply put: understanding local stories well enough to articulate them to others. It's about the context of place.
That perspective has proven valuable in my business. When I'm working on a client's project, I start by getting my shoes dirty exploring their backyard. To know their neighbors and neighborhoods is key to knowing my clients business. That unique insight is what helps improve my clients business decisions. Ultimately, their business.
It's a reality that we live in a data-as-a-commodity-world. As an econometrician, I understand the importance of hard data. It's how we measure retail market power, forecast sales, and analyze store performance.
But, so many companies market themselves as unique because they provide boilerplate data. This presents a challenge. Lost is the nuance to communicate market insights.
Insights are informed by the thick description of a place. Shoes-on-the-ground data collection is essential to interpret data available from the Census Burea and Bureau of Labor Statistcs surveys. Even the "big data" sources used to build consumer segmentation profiles require a place-based context.
Thick description is one of the best methods to determine project feasibility. This long-held habit of getting my shoes dirty continues to serve my clients well.