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Retailers’ personalization resource gap calls for tech solutions

In the digital world, personalization is like that shining city on the hill, the one that seems so close, but is actually hopelessly far away — all of which becomes painfully clear once you start your slog toward it.

Personalization is a beautiful and necessary thing — and it’s right there. But how in the world do you get to it? Most retailers say they want to achieve one-to-one personalization, according to a recent FitForCommerce survey and a significant number (31 percent) say personalization is a top priority for them this year.

So, why, in the vast majority of our experiences, is personalization so bad?

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First, it’s a big job. (See BloomReach’s e-book, “The Future of Personalization: Bridging the resource gap with technology.”) Doing personalization right in e-commerce involves presenting the most relevant product information to the right customer at the precise time he or she wants it — and doing that during every interaction a customer has with a given retailer, says e-commerce specialist Brian Beck. That means providing the right message at the right time on the desktop, mobile, tablet, in email, on social media, through a retailer’s call center and in the store, says Beck, senior vice president of e-commerce and omnichannel strategy at Guidance, a digital marketing agency.

Yeah, it’s hard.

“And because all the tools aren’t there for sort of doing everything, at the end of the day, a lot of retailers aren’t even doing the basics right,” says Beck, who’s spent more than a decade working in e-commerce for Pacific Sun Swimwear of California, FitForCommerce, Harbor Freight Tools and elsewhere. “It’s kind of an aspiration at this point.”

Yes, personalization is aspirational, as the FitForCommerce findings point out. But personalization is also something consumers have come to expect in an era when entering a question into a search engine or a product into Amazon produces an instant and highly relevant result.

“Seventy-one percent of shoppers agree personalization makes it easier to find the products that they want to buy, however 74% get frustrated with websites when content, offers, ads, promotions, etc., appear that have nothing to do with their interests,” Yanna Sigenlaub, FitForCommerce’s vice president for marketing said in an e-mail interview, citing company research. “Consumers are quickly expecting the personal attention and relationship at every step of their shopping journey.”

Meeting consumers’ expectation for personalization is one way to make it easier and more pleasant for them to shop online, which increases conversions and builds brand loyalty. So, what is holding e-commerce enterprises back?

In short, you can think of it as the “resource gap,” a condition caused by a vast amount of data, a huge number of customers with individual likes and dislikes and a catalog of products that consumers describe in an untold number of ways. Your “red sneakers” might be another’s “crimson Keds.”

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Here’s how the gap comes into play: The key to one-to-one personalization is being able to match consumer intent at any given place and time with a digital site’s content — or products in the e-commerce world. FitForCommerce found that many retailers actually have the data they need to do just that.

Retailers obviously have the data that describes their product catalogs. And they almost certainly have a strong start on understanding consumer intent, given the signals consumers send while browsing and buying online. But many, Sigenlaub said by email, don’t have a clear idea of what data they have, where in their organizations the relevant data lives or how, exactly, to use it to improve personalization and their customers’ experiences.

Organizing, analyzing and acting on all that data can be daunting to the point of paralysis. Who has the workforce to pore over the data and deploy it in meaningful ways?

Short answer: no one.

In fact, says FitForCommerce’s Sigenlaub, technology is the answer for companies that are awash in underutilized and valuable data.

“It is just a matter of cleverly automating what content to serve, to whom and when,” she says. “For this, you need the right technology and fortunately the improvements in that area have been significant in the past years – from personalization functionality improvements in e-commerce platforms and digital marketing solutions to more advanced and specialized personalization solutions.”

The importance of personalization will only grow as consumers become more sophisticated and their expectations for seamless digital experiences rise. All of which is an opportunity, Sigenlaub says, for retailers to step up their personalization game and seize a competitive advantage.

“With the right balance among content, data and technology, retailers can successfully close the resource gap and get on the right path to delivering personalized shopping experiences,” she adds.

It sounds, in other words, like there is a shortcut, after all, to that shining city on the hill.

Photo on the beach by Iskandar Shah published under Creative Commons license. Resource gap graphic excerpted from “The Future of Personalization: Bridging the resource gap with technology.”

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.