While companies like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn capture most of the social media spotlight, one of the world’s biggest technology stalwarts, IBM, is quietly cashing in on social networking.

And Big Blue is trying doing the same thing with retail, where it sees a $20bn opportunity for software this year alone.

Today, it unveiled a new analytics appliance for retailers that allows them to sift through “petabytes of big data including consumer sales data and
online shopping trends to help retailers gain actionable insight on
buying patterns.” With add-on software from partner vendors, IBM’s solution can also provide “a single view of the customer spanning all channels and sales touch points including mobile, online and in store shopping.”

Part of the company’s ‘Smarter Commerce’ initiatives, the Netezza Customer Intelligence Appliance isn’t just designed to analyze a retailer’s big data, it’s designed to do it in real-time or near real-time. According to IBM, “Clients can now run complex, real-time analytics in a matter of seconds
to improve the customer experience, shift marketing campaigns on the
fly and boost sales.”

That’s important, the company believes, because so many consumers are going online first when they have an itch to shop. By IBM’s estimate, some 70% of a consumer’s first interaction with a particular product or service takes place through the internet, raising the stakes for retailers who need to provide a great experience to turn those interactions into sales.

One of the first customers for IBM’s new appliance is Bass Pro Shops, which is using it to better target its promotions and catalogs.