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Upgrading the consumer shopping experience through personalization

More than half of consumers expect that by 2020 companies will anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions, before they even make contact with those companies. Shoppers, we know, increasingly seek experiences that are tailored to them. They expect not only relevance, but also a consistent brand experience whether they access a store online, on their mobile device or in the physical world.

Amazon has mastered these experiences for shoppers who place a high value on convenience and many retailers have attempted to follow suit, offering options to buy online and pick up in-store, better online shopping experiences, and even opening smaller and more accessible locations for retailers like Ikea. While changes like this allow retailers to make shopping easier for their customers, they don’t necessarily support that vision of a personalized experience. Only a handful of retailers seem to be getting that piece right, but the numbers are growing. With “The Amazon Effect” looming over the market, stores both online and off are getting the picture.

Digital retail marketers understand data-driven personalization and how it improves both customer experience and sales, but their brick-and-mortar contemporaries struggle to bring this to life in the physical world. That’s changing as more retailers begin to focus on a truly customer-centric approach to the omnichannel shopper. Walmart, for example, has launched a new baby registry that is powered by personalization. “Hoo the Owl,” a chatbot with personalization capabilities, asks expectant parents questions about the baby’s birthdate, nursey theme and colors, and other details that allow it to generate a unique gift registry. The registry is accessible via the Walmart app and can be connected to Siri so registrants can manage it with voice commands. With plans to expand the chatbot’s capabilities, Walmart is offering shoppers easy access to its greatly expanded inventory of baby products while giving them the tailored experiences they crave.

Walmart is becoming a success story in its shift to omnichannel, leveraging customer insights to create better experiences for shoppers across every touchpoint. The retailer, through its “Intelligent Retail Lab” ,is actually using AI to improve customer experience. Initiatives include a text-based personal shopping service targeted to “busy NYC moms” and AI-driven tech aimed at keeping shelves properly stocked and aisles tidy. The retailer launched the Walmart Toy Lab (in the wake of Toys R Us’s demise) to allow kids access to hot toys and games before their broader release. These customer-focused initiatives are allowing the retail giant to gain some footing against Amazon in the battle for customer engagement.

While Walmart is making gains in the world of omnichannel retail, other brands are taking note and beginning to use data in ways that will improve the customer experience. Macy’s has studied customer behavior online and is applying what it has learned to the in-store experience, starting with its beauty counters. For example, the retailer has learned that customers like to shop perfumes by fragrance type online, but the department in-store is arranged by brand – so they’re launching in-store fragrance finders in response. Similar work is being done in their skincare department. Nordstrom, which fully owns that it’s dragged its heels in adapting to omnichannel, still offers some nice personalized touches from the store to the digital world. Those shopping for clothes online frequently will find that the site “remembers” their size. Similarly, high-touch cosmetic retailer Sephora will make product recommendations based on previous purchases. Bought that eyeliner last time? Try the matching mascara this time.

At the end of the day, retail marketing efforts to be customer-centric should literally make the customer feel like they are the center of our universe. That’s one of the ways in which the Apple Store became so successful. While many attribute success to its clean décor and minimal furniture, the truth is that the store’s success stems from the fact that the store is a near-perfect representation of the brand. A brand focused on ideal user experiences has created the store that brand devotees expect and adore: a retail oasis focused entirely on creating a brand experience, and more on service and education than sales. Anyone setting foot in an Apple store will be greeted within seconds and is sure to find exactly the product or service they came in search of. Apple knows its customers well and understands what they want, and by delivering on that expectation they are able to drive both sales and cult-like loyalty. Apple proves that it doesn’t take an aggressive sales strategy to win; it takes a deep understanding of the customer, a respect for what the customer needs, and a commitment to deliver what that customer wants and expects from the brand. Apple may have cracked the customer experience code, but by analyzing and activating customer data, they don’t have to be the only ones.

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