In a world of curated feeds and tailored recommendations (see: Facebook and Netflix), today’s consumers have come to expect that all of their experiences will cater directly to their interests. Shopping is no exception, so retailers heading towards an uncertain future are relying on personalization techniques to woo (and retain) their customers.
In fact, 70 percent of retailers cited personalization of the customer experience as a leading priority for 2017, according to Boston Retail Partners’ latest POS/Customer Engagement survey. It even ranked higher than other timely initiatives like responsive mobile features and in-store technology.
“A one-size-fits-all approach is no longer relevant for consumers who desire deeper meaning and connections with the products they use and the brands they engage with,” said Victoria Buchanan, a strategic researcher at The Future Laboratory, a retail, tech and fashion consultancy. “Never have expectations of retail been higher — transactions must be instant, and services must be intuitive and personalized” both online and off, she said.
So what does that mean, exactly? We explore the concept below, highlighting the different personalization methods being used today and the brands who are navigating them most successfully.
The Mona app uses a chatbot to provide tailored shopping recommendations
When it comes to personalization, where should a brand begin?
What works for each brand will be different, but they all need to start with the basics: the primal experience of shopping, be it online or off.
“Retailers really must go back to understanding the impact of the simplest things – like who I am, how I like to shop [and] what I’m most passionate about,” said Chris Paradysz, the founder and chief executive officer of online marketing agency PMX. “Starting with that initial understanding of who a person is is crucial, and then you ladder your way up to more custom experiences, where you have the opportunity to surprise and delight.”
Ultimately, they need to “show the right products to the right people at the right time,” said Stephan Schambach, the founder and chief executive officer of the mobile retail platform NewStore. That means directing consumers to the products best suited to them, based on factors like gender, age and geographic location. “There are millions upon millions of products in the world and billions of possible buyers — matching the supply and demand is the ultimate quest,” he said.
What are some traditional methods of personalization?
Although the term has lots of buzz today, personalization has been around for a while. “Personalized experiences were always associated with the luxury industry — they came with an expensive price tag — but technology has democratized what is possible,” said Buchanan, hinting at the VIP, personal shopper services on offer at certain luxury brands and department stores. Store associates who recommend pieces to customers based on a series of questions are a more democratic version of that.
Newsletters suggesting products based around a customer’s past purchases or browsing history are a more recent, yet omnipresent, method. Similar recommendations are also likely to pop up on the websites themselves as a customer browses, a tactic used by retailers from Nordstrom to Shopbop.
These data-driven insights are being used elsewhere, too, by companies including Stitch Fix, which relies on a lengthy Style Profile questionnaire to better deliver on its personal styling subscription service.
Ministry of Supply’s in-store 3D printer allows shoppers to customize their blazers
What are some of the newer personalization tactics being used?
On-demand personalization is reducing the time between inspiration and physical production, allowing customers to play the role of designer. Adidas, for example, recently launched a pop-up at the Bikini Berlin boutique, enabling people to design their own knitwear using high-end personalization tools like body-scanning technology and motion-responsive video projections of a garment. The result is a perfect-fit merino wool sweater — produced in store — delivered to the customer in mere hours. Ministry of Supply’s in-store 3D printer similarly allows customers to design their own blazers.
Amazon is doing something similar, albeit less complex, with its recently announced Echo Look. Through the use of live photography and depth-sensors, the app builds recommendations based off a customer’s measurements.
Emotional tailoring is another method with lots of potential. Using emotional quotient technology that gathers data on shoppers’ emotional states — taking into account factors including heart rate, electrodermal activity and motion — brands are tailoring their product recommendations to their customers’ moods. “The spectrum of emotions that can be measured is growing,” said Buchanan. “Rather than just happy or sad, we can start to measure emotions in a more nuanced way.”
eBay, for example, held a pop-up shop in London that used facial recognition technology to measure “muscular micro-shifts” that were then run through emotional technology software by Lightwave. Using that information, the company then projected shopping recommendations on a screen nearby, like an item deemed soothing or comfortable if the shopper seemed especially stressed out.
Microsoft’s Project Oxford holds similar promise, said Buchanan — the company is developing artificial intelligence that can read emotional qualities by analyzing faces.
The North Face is using IBM Watson to help customers find their perfect jacket
Artificial intelligence is also being used to make shoppers’ search process smarter. While we’ve long been limited to typing out what we’re looking for in a search bar, “we often don’t know what we want – or don’t have the words to describe it,” said Buchanan.
Programs including Mona, a personal shopper app, offer another route: It searches for items on its users’ behalf, based on criteria such as size, color and price that are gleaned from a chatbot. Brands like The North Face are also experimenting with more intuitive search processes; the company is working with IBM Watson on its XPS microsite to help consumers find their ideal jacket based on a series of questions.