The consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry and traditional grocery retail chains are often recognized as frontiers of data-driven innovation. The chief information officer for Information Resources, Inc. (IRI), Ash Patel, and his team aim to help those firms take their data-driven innovation to the next level.
Over the past several years, IRI has invested nearly $1 billion in its technology, believing the CPG brand and retail landscape is rife with potential to leverage advanced data science—like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)—to reveal opportunities for growth in an industry that has undergone a swift evolution to adapt to the rise of e-commerce and changing consumer preferences.
IRI’s clients include some of the world’s most iconic and beloved CPG brands, as well as the top retailers in North America. Patel knows those clients well; unlike a traditional CIO, Patel spends the majority of his time on the road, meeting with clients to understand the unique headwinds they face and building solutions to meet their needs.
“I think part of our success rate in innovation at IRI comes from the fact that our solutions are not built in a laboratory. Our technology leadership team spends time with clients, learning from them and partnering with them to solve the specific business problems that they are experiencing,” Patel says.
The close partnerships Patel and the IRI team have built allow IRI’s data solutions to revolutionize the way CPG brands and retailers optimize their supply chains, in-store execution, and marketing programs, ultimately helping them improve profitability in a challenging environment.
The company layers its vast data assets into IRI’s unique Liquid Data platform, allowing analytics teams to access relevant data and glean insights. Its sizable assets include purchase and demographic data from more than 500 million shopper loyalty cards at major retailers; supply chain data; and causal data, including attitudinal, econometric, and local event information.
When the IRI Liquid Data platform was launched ten years ago, the age of big data was just booming, and has continued to explode in the years since. IRI’s technology helps clients manage a universe of data points and mine it for critical insights. Using the IRI Liquid Data platform, clients develop hypotheses of actions they could take to improve their businesses. They then use IRI’s data and predictive analytics to prove or disprove those theories in an automated and scalable process.
“We’ve reached the limit of the traditional query-based approach,” says Patel. “A person simply cannot come up with enough hypotheses, with only twenty-four hours in a day, to be able to find what really matters among this tsunami of Big Data. It’s like fishing for one particular prize fish in the entire Pacific Ocean.”
So Patel and his team have ventured to turn that process around by “letting machines do the heavy lifting.” IRI’s newest solutions are powered by artificial intelligence technology, meaning algorithms sort through trillions of combinations of relevant data points and suggest dollar value–based actions for brands and retailers to take to optimize their profitability. The recommendations can be as broad as allocating a larger portion of a CPG brand’s marketing budget for digital advertising or as granular as nudging store associates to restock shelves of specific products at specific times throughout the day at a major grocery retailer.
The machine learning kicks in as analytics teams at IRI’s clients consider the solution’s recommendations and tell the technology if it was right or wrong. The feedback from users helps the algorithms learn and get smarter over time. “It gets smarter and smarter by sprinkling human intuition, tribal knowledge, and the individual expert’s domain expertise into the software,” says Patel.
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IRI’s new approach is already driving great outcomes. In one recent example, Patel’s team was engaged by a beer manufacturer looking to optimize the assortment of brands and pack sizes they stock across two hundred thousand US stores. IRI used more than twenty different data sets to capture the beer manufacturer’s sales and shipments, local preferences in consumer behavior, and substitution effects, to optimize profitability by minimizing unsold inventory in certain stores and out-of-stock items in other stores.
Patel and his team designed a solution that leveraged IRI’s data, algorithms, AI capabilities, and unique platform to deliver prescriptive actions to enhance profitability. The recommendations were so specific that they included instructions for truck drivers on what to unload at each store. The hard work paid off. Although the beer category overall has experienced declines, IRI’s client was able to increase profitability by implementing IRI’s suggestions.
In many ways, IRI is pioneering new applications for data science, and Patel and his team are at the frontier. He has honed his technical and management skills over an impressive career that, while spanning industries, has always focused on unleashing the power of technology to improve outcomes for his clients.
“I’ve always been fascinated with and inspired by technology,” Patel says, “and I believe that its many known and yet-unknown applications will continue to increase business efficiency, improve information accessibility, and simply make everyday life better for people.”
He adds, “That’s what drives me at IRI—we’re developing and leveraging cutting-edge technology and advanced data science to deliver meaningful, measurable growth for our clients, and in turn provide more value to everyday consumers.”
Early in his career, at the height of the dot-com era, Patel launched a start-up internet company called morebenefits.com, inspired by his family members in the health care sector. His company would today be characterized as a health care exchange, organizing the saturated health care market by allowing users to browse and buy insurance plans online.
In 2001, Patel sold the company to Aon, one of the largest insurance brokers in the world. Patel then joined Aon himself, and over time rose to be the global chief information officer for Aon’s consulting business.
“As I rose up through the organization, I worked hard to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit of a start-up,” he says. When Patel’s manager and mentor, Andrew Appel, left Aon to lead IRI as CEO, Patel made the jump with him—and brought along his passion for continuous improvement.
“IRI is at the nexus of the rapidly shifting marketing, data, and technology industries. Providing solutions that are responsive to the market, meeting client needs, and expanding the technological frontier is my responsibility and mission,” Patel says. “The team at IRI shares that very personal drive to innovate and solve problems in new and exciting ways, and that part of our culture makes us successful in delivering growth for our clients.”