Personalization Is a Priority for Retailers, but Can Online Vendors Deliver?

Providing relevant experiences is the ultimate goal

True personalization can enhance customer relationships and boost sales. Getty Images

Call it the Nordstrom versus Amazon problem.
Stores like Nordstrom excel at “white-glove service.” Its staff may recognize your face and even greet you by name as they direct you throughout the store. However, they probably don’t know what you bought last month or what’s still sitting in your online shopping cart.
Sites like Amazon, on the other hand, know an enormous amount about your shopping habits, but it’s hard to get the human touch from an algorithm. The best you can hope for are recommendations for new products based on those you’ve already purchased.
Merging the two to create a truly personal experience both online and off is the ultimate goal for big retailer brands. That’s why personalization is a top priority for organizations in 2018, says Brendan Witcher, principal analyst for ebusiness and channel strategy at Forrester Research.
“Over 70 percent of retailers are trying to personalize the store experience,” he says. “That’s never been higher. The reason is because so many customers respond to it. We see nearly three out of four consumers responding to personalized offers, recommendations or experiences.”
If retailers can provide more relevant experiences, Witcher says, they can both enhance their relationship with customers and boost sales. But for many brands, the personalization journey is only just beginning.

New Balance online shoppers can select from a large palette of colors and styles that reflects their personal aesthetic.

The beauty part

When it comes to a personalized shopping experience, fashion and beauty brands tend to be ahead of the pack, notes Chris Paradysz, co-CEO of PMX Agency. “Beauty in general is really at the forefront, and sports is starting to get there as well.”
But even then, when many retailers say “personalization,” it’s more like customization: asking customers what they want, suggesting products that match their desires or offering a menu of options to choose from.
For example, sportswear vendors like New Balance allow online shoppers to customize their kicks, choosing from a large palette of colors and styles. (Shoppers at New Balance’s flagship store in Boston can visit an interactive kiosk to get the same experience.) Consumers walk away with a shoe that reflects their personal aesthetic, but isn’t truly unique to them.
At Form Beauty, which sells hair-care products for people of color, online shoppers who complete a 15-question survey receive a list of five or six products that match their hair-health needs, along with advice on how to use them. Along with questions about how often customers wash their hair and what kind of pillowcase they use, Form’s survey also asks whether they’re pregnant or undergoing chemotherapy.
“All of those things really have an impact on your hair health,” says Tristan Walker, CEO of Form’s parent firm, Walker & Company Brands. “We wanted to bring the person back into personalization, and the most unique thing about a person is their physiological makeup and the lifestyle they lead.”
Besides recommendations, sites like Glossier are focused on personalizing content. The business has its roots in Into the Gloss, a beauty blog that launched in 2010. Four years later, Glossier—an online cosmetics retailer with a physical store in New York’s SoHo district—was born.
Now the articles that customers read on the editorial platform help drive product suggestions on Glossier, says CTO Bryan Mahoney. “We’re able to make sophisticated recommendations for our readers gleaned from their interests on Into the Gloss. If you’ve been a customer of Glossier or a reader of Into the Gloss, we can make decisions for you, so you get where you want to go more quickly and serve up content you ultimately want to see,” says Mahoney.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 29, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.