Even if you are not a fan of the AMC program “The Walking Dead,” you are no doubt familiar with the concept of zombies: those mindless, terrifying creatures coming to “get” you. But have you ever stopped to wonder why zombies seem to be so popular in our culture these days? TV shows, movies, songs, even candy – zombies are everywhere. Why? In this era of social media, Big Data and interconnected technology, maybe it has something to do with the human connection we seem to have lost to each other.

Loss is certainly a key plot element of the show; only a few original cast members remain from when the series began. But there is also great symbolism in the popular binge-watch-inducing program. In the desolate wasteland that used to be the USA, all humanity has been left to rely on their most basic human traits: empathy for others, love of friends and family, protection of innocent life, honesty to others and self and the integrity to walk the talk. Arguably, one of the main drivers of the show’s success is the chance for audience members to embrace their human side as a respite from our technology-dependent world. After all, it’s humanity that wins the day.

For those industries with brick-and-mortar presence, there is a great lesson here: To survive, you need to embrace your humanity.

Let me explain. Next time you are at your favorite store, take a look around. Not at the slick signage, the plethora of “all new” products or even the carefully staged lighting. Look at the people. Do they appear to behave in the same manner or are there differences? Look carefully. Are their motivations the same? Probably not. Yes, they all came with the intention of purchasing something, but for whom? For what occasion? With what budget? They have the store in common, but they are otherwise different. And they are not just their income level, race, religion or gender. They are living, breathing, thinking people with money to spend. Will they spend it on brand “x” or “y”?

I’ve always had a love of retail. Be it grocery, mass, drug or club, I’ve always enjoyed watching marketing teams battle it out, each vying for hard-earned dollars. But in the last few years, in the wake of Big Data, marketers have begun to dive a bit too far down the data-trail, to the point of forgetting their customers’ humanity. Yes, we each fit into age, gender, income, education and life experience buckets, but we are much more than that….aren’t we?

Each person is the collection of their life experience and choices up to this point. But before you start thinking that this perspective leaves too many variables, let’s start with what we know: ourselves.

When you got in the car, you had a specific intent when coming to the store. You had a general idea of what you wanted to purchase, if not the precise item (down to shirt style or ounce size). You safely drove to the store and entered the building. You sifted through all the shopper-marketing hype (will changing my toothpaste really change my entire outlook on life?), found what you were looking for, and then made it to checkout to pay for your items. Are you prepared to say that you were not aware during that time? That you just responded to whatever stimulus presented itself on your shopping trip? Are you a braindead consumer, idling waiting for some marketer’s “winning strategy” to draw you toward their product or service? No? Then neither are your consumers.

Consumers in the United States have been underrated by far too many marketers for far too long. They are commonly judged to be “stupid” when 75 percent are at least high-school educated, if not college-educated. They are thought to navigate via in-store signage when research conducted by Forrester Research in 2014 has proven that 79 percent of shoppers feel in-store communications do not apply to them. They are told they are “valuable customers” when 50 percent of Americans feel their favorite brands aren’t interested in their thoughts for improvement.1 What would happen if a company unlocked the real feedback from their customers and applied it to their business for the better? In short, loyalty and sales come to those companies who openly listen and consider their customers’ feedback.

But let’s get back to your fellow shoppers. Pay close attention. You’ll notice them navigating the different areas of the store, looking for what they want, checking their list, considering options and making selections. Your consumers are thinking! But what are they thinking about?

Let’s consult the data and “dive deep” into expensive multi-variable regression analysis tying up people and resources for three-quarters of the year to come up with an algorithm that spits out a list of potential things that could be going on in the contrived profile of the consumer’s mind…

...Or we could just – gasp – talk to them Shoppers consider their purchases, just like you do. They look for the best deal, the best fit, the best value for their hard-earned dollar. These are not mindless automatons just wandering the store. They are shoppers with a story to tell...if only someone was there to listen.

In “The Walking Dead,” the small band of survivors struggle with losing their humanity in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. From family, friends, lovers and neighbors, each human connection is tested in the show. What inevitably wins the day each episode is some measure of connecting with the person beyond the peril, somehow leveraging ingenuity and the human spirit to get out alive. The trick to survival is to not lose your humanity. And that has a familiar ring.

Now, retail is hardly a life or death situation, but the stakes are high and the human element of the process must be taken into account. Things like ingenuity and the human spirit are not found in number-crunching; they are found with the customer. They are found through a real, human connection and conversation. In short, the best data isn’t data at all.

If you are feeling brave, walk up to a fellow shopper and ask them why they decided to shop at the store you have in common. They might say “I don’t know” at first, but with a little conversation, the truth will come out. Wouldn’t it be great if the owners of the store knew what customers liked or didn’t like about shopping there? Wouldn’t it be great if they knew what they needed to change? Or what not to change?

We must first realize the truth that people frequenting a store know why they are there. Then we must have the courage to ask, “What could be done better?” and mean it. In a world where so many are discounting the consumer, the one who chooses to learn from the people behind the demographics will find what all marketers dream about: loyalty, frequency and thereby higher sales.

There is so much technology surrounding us and, often, we feel we can’t live without it. However, what we really can’t live without…is each other. Every time we interact with the world, we see how people need people. When we set our alarm clocks, sleep in our beds, brush our teeth, eat our breakfast, drive our cars, work at our computers, buy groceries or prepare meals for our families, we’re relying on people every moment. Just try to make your own alarm clock, fashion a toothbrush, raise farm animals, build an automobile or computer or raise all the food you need. We literally depend on each other to survive, much more than we could ever depend on the Internet, phones or computers. Why would your business be any different?

Yes, it can be tough to quantify customer opinions and feedback to allow business decision-making that focuses on driving loyal customers, but that is exactly why it must be done. Those who learn how to nurture and leverage their customer relationships will thrive in the current marketplace. But it’s a true embrace of humanity, not slick email campaigns and slogans. It must be real to cut through the clutter and engage with people desperate for a real connection in a virtual world.

Marketing research needs to find better ways to listen to their audience, not just speak to them. The opportunity gap is plain to see for those inclined to see it. But for those who fill the engagement gap, the loyalty achieved will be ample, genuine and thereby sustainable.