Big Data

When I first started getting into spirits I spent a lot of time reading message boards, blogs, and various consumer sites about whiskey. I was trying to both educate myself and get a sense of what people were drinking. That practice only broadened when I became the spirits buyer. What whiskies were people excited about? What were people anticipating? What were the hottest trends? What was going to be the next new thing? I needed that kind of data if I was going to be successful in my position. But then a funny thing happened: I realized that the correlation between what people talked about on the internet and what actually sold in the store was a tricky one. In a sense, people were quick to profess their love or desire for a particular spirit online, but not necessarily likely to buy one when the actual opportunity came around. It was like people were more interested in voicing their opinions than actually spending their money. You might see ten or so whisky blogs hyping a particular bottle, but almost no response from the market once that bottle came into stock. At the same time, a whiskey might get universally panned by critics, yet sell like hotcakes on our website despite the bad press. That's when I realized that, while sometimes entertaining, internet data and opinion was in no way, shape, or form guiding the lion's share of consumer habits.

I made a joke a few years ago about how whiskey "experts" will berate a particular brand online, but wake up the following morning to find that whiskey completely sold out at K&L. It's as if they're living in two different worlds: the virtual version on the web that confirms their collective beliefs and the real world here on earth where the actions of actual humans are not guided by bloggers or pundits. Many consumers don't care about what the whiskey community is talking about, nor do they take their cue from what whiskey media tells them is good. Most people just drink whatever's cheap, reasonably tasty, and speaks to their most basic core beliefs. You have to have a firm grasp on both of these worlds if you're going to succeed in the business of retail. You need the same general understanding of this concept if you're going to accurately predict a presidential election.

The internet has changed much about our lives, but perhaps most of all it's changed how we perceive reality. While it's comforting to tailor our worlds around what we believe, doing so can often further remove you from the truth. Big data ain't what it used to be.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll