Luggage check at NRF

Personalization fuels Tumi’s customer experience renaissance

Charlie Cole is an e-commerce and digital marketing veteran who’s now running digital for Tumi, makers of the kind of high-end luggage that draws envious stares as it’s slipped into the overhead bin.

For the past year and half, Cole, Tumi’s chief digital officer, has been part of a team that has turned the brand around and dramatically increased sales. It took eliminating some corporate-culture baggage (sorry) and a renewed focus on the brand’s customer experience.

We caught up with Cole in advance of his appearance at BloomReach Connect New York, where he’ll talk about how the executive team turned Tumi’s shrinking business into a high-growth brand and where Tumi goes from here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Charlie Cole, chief digital officer, Tumi

Q: Retailers for years have been getting crushed by the tyranny of promotions. Tumi has been able to reduce its reliance on promotions and still show improved financials. Can you talk about the perils of becoming over-reliant on sale pricing and the strategies for weaning a brand or retail operation from that reliance?

A: We think about this really simply, which is, if you are trying to differentiate on price you cannot beat Amazon. You can’t do it. And Jeff Bezos has actually gone out and said as much in his shareholder notes from a couple of years ago: ‘Our partners’ margin is our opportunity.’ When you spell it out like that, we’re surprised more people aren’t as nervous about it as we are. The other piece about it is, a promotion is, by definition, something with a limit. You only have so many days you can be promotional.

The idea of weaning them off is really quite simple. When you over simplify an e-commerce business into what is your revenue based on, it’s three things: traffic, average order value and conversion rate.

That means if you’re going to get off promotions, it’s a fair assumption to say, you’re probably going to hurt your conversion rate a little bit.  People love sales. People buy at a higher trajectory on sales. Which means, you have to come up with creative ways to drive traffic and average order value. For us, average-order-value increase is going to happen somewhat naturally, because things are going to cost more, because you’re not on a promotion. We really want to attack the question of, ‘How can we attract more people to Tumi that are ready to buy, that are interested in the brand and that can offset some of that traffic that isn’t going to convert because they’re deal hunting?’

Q: So how do you do that?

A: We did a multitude of things. We focused on on-site personalization. We focused on messaging personalization. But we also just sort of went back to the drawing board on what our traffic-generation strategy was going to be.

Q: Personalization is a term that’s thrown around a lot. What do you mean by personalization?

A: It’s definitely a nebulous definition. We talk about it as how do you serve the right message to the right person at the right time. That means in email, for example, if all you ever do is open emails about backpacks, we probably shouldn’t shove luggage down your face. That’s messaging personalization.

That’s applicable, also to advertising. And it’s certainly relevant on-site. So on-site personalization, meaning we know you’re logged into your account. Same example. You just bought a backpack. We probably shouldn’t show you a backpack home page. Or it’s Mother’s Day and we know that you just received a Mother’s Day gift. Maybe we should move certain things up, such as, ‘Hey, here’s how to register for the warranty repair.’

We actually started moving that into the store as well, where we want to have our store associates in brick-and-mortar stores have access to a clienteling application so they can have much more visibility into understanding what customers have and have not done, or what they’re interested in.

Give customers information on their terms

Let me give you another example of something that I’ve learned, that I’m kind of directly responsible for. Thirty percent of our inbound calls to our call center are based on people asking where their packages are. That is embarrassing, because to me, that means that we, as a digital team, are not doing our job of getting customers access to information on their terms.

So, the personalization option may be, after you buy something, you get a little thing that says, ‘Click here to receive your shipping notifications via text message as opposed to email.’ Something as simple as that is going to decrease our call volume by 20 percent among a chunk of people.

Q: It sounds like you see personalization as going well beyond selling products.

A: Personalization is far more than just product recommendations to drive conversion rates.  Personalization is after-sale service. Personalization is warranty-repair support. It’s just really more about making sure you’re doing business on your customers’ terms.

Q: You’ve talked about taking time to step back from big strategy to think about customers, to “optimize for the customer.” Can you talk about that?

A: I’ve got to give one of my bosses, Rob Cooper, a lot of credit for that. When I got to Tumi, we were so freaking tactical about fixing the business. And I think, when you say those words, if we just blindly asked 10 VPs of e-commerce, what does “optimize for the customer” mean, they’re going to go off on a diatribe about optimization, usability, digital marketing, CRM, analytics. And they’re going to say 100 words before they say ‘customer service’ and I was just as guilty about that.

We drove the business in a way where it was turned around and we got to see some great things. Then Rob kind of sat me down and said, ‘OK, good. Now how do we make our customers’ lives better?’ And I kind of stopped and said, ‘I don’t think I’ve thought about that in a year.’

Three things about Charlie Cole

  • He’s color blind. It’s an unexpected strength in his role, Cole says. He tells his creative team that the condition means he’ll generally remain neutral on design issues, which means they need to pay that much more attention to the analytical feedback and insights he provides.
  • He plays volleyball. Well. Both Cole and his wife, Elissa, played in college, though Cole says he didn’t approach his wife’s caliber of play. He’d like to find more time for his favorite sport, which he’ll engage in indoors or on the beach. The beach, he acknowledges, is a little gentler on the body, even though he’s a much better player on the hardwood than on the sand.
  • He’s an auditory learner. Cole says he finds it difficult to fully absorb information through reading. In college, he would record lectures and listen to them one extra time to better retain the information. Now, when he reads, he eliminates distractions and slips on headphones to listen to music without lyrics. Classical, hip-hop, techno. It doesn’t matter, as long as there are no words.

Q: So how do you get to the place where you’re thinking about customers?

A: Step one is make it a priority. I know that sounds stupid, but if you want to make a business case for it, that reduction in phone calls (at Tumi”s call center) has a significant EBITA savings. You’re printing money. So customer-centricity and customer service in general, is really the perfect symbiosis between customer desires and company desires. Done properly, you’re increasing lifetime value; you’re decreasing customer support cost; you’re increasing Net Promoter Score. Nobody loses here. It’s just a matter of making it a priority. And we’re starting to talk about some really fun stuff.

Q: Such as?

A: We’re going to select half of our orders over a certain period of time and write handwritten thank-you notes to each one of them with a relevant tidbit about that customer. ‘Considering this is the third Alpha piece that you’ve bought from us, we just really appreciate the loyalty.’ And we’re going to do that and then we’re going to shut it off. We’re going to wait six months and see if it has any sort of effect on interaction with emails, post-purchase behavior, lifetime value, return rates.

It might not matter. And then we go back and we say, ‘Hey, but we got a lot of feedback that customers really like that. Do we just want to front this expense?’ And it’s OK to not have every test work. It’s just not OK, in my opinion, to just do something for the sake of doing it.

Q: You’ve said businesses need to try things that are outlandish and exceed customer expectations. I don’t know if thank you cards are outlandish, though I can’t remember when I’ve gotten one after buying something. What do you mean by being outlandish?

A: I think there’s sort of a lot of industry edict around this idea of surprise and delight. I’m not a big fan of the phrase, because I don’t want to shock anyone. Surprising a customer doesn’t have a positive connotation to me, but delighting them does.

One of my mentors, this guy named Tarang Amin, he used to say, one of the things we always can do is strive for a breakthrough. You have to really strive for something that makes the company different. So, I was talking to you before about  how there are a lot of people calling and asking where their packages are now. We basically leveraged the systems we were given. So UPS, FedEx, they send you a notification. But if you’ve ever bought something online at 8 a.m. and you got a tracking notification at 2 p.m., you and I both know that if you click on it, it won’t work until the next day.

We looked the problem and said, ‘Well there are technologies out there that basically will give you an algorithmically based answer. It’s another thing that’s a little silly. An algorithm to save you eight hours of waiting, but it exceeds any customer expectation. And at the same time, it decreases our phone calls and makes life a little better for all our customers

Keeping up with rising customer expectations

Q: But it seems like consumer expectations are constantly rising. You’ve used the example of Amazon Prime and the breakthrough of two-day delivery. Two-day delivery is no longer a wonder. Now it’s expected. How do you keep up with increasing expectations?

A: There is something very Sisyphus about it, I’ll give you that. What can we do as retailers? It’s another one of those things that I’m almost hesitant to say, because it sounds so obvious. But when you’re within a brand, you know exactly what’s going on, because you live within the brand all the time. The best thing you can do is just remove yourself from the equation and talk to your customers about what they think.

One of the first things we did as a team, is we created this program that was called Brand Ambassadors. We found a group of 18,000 Tumi email list participants — some were buyers, some hadn’t bought, but they were willing to talk to us about very specific things. You can talk yourself into anything. So I think it’s important to keep up with customers and don’t let yourself have tunnel vision within your corporation.

Hear more from Charlie Cole at BloomReach Connect

  • Tumi chief digital officer Charlie Cole will be a featured speaker at BloomReach Connect in New York on May 4. Cole intends to get past “digital transformation” as a buzz phrase and talk about how he and his team actually changed the digital culture at Tumi and helped spark impressive revenue growth.
  • Connect banner

Q: How do you fend off tunnel vision? How do you keep things fresh?

A: Retail is such a microcosmic-timing business. It’s month-over-month comps. It’s day-over-day comps. It’s week-over-week comps, which I really think injects a certain attitude of incrementality. I also believe that incrementality is the biggest enemy to that aforementioned breakthrough. So how do we try to adopt the culture internally that does not preclude the dynamic thinking? And the short answer is, we respect and crave failure.We have a culture where we screw up so much, but we do it in a risk-averse way. We mitigate the cost implications. And we’re constantly testing and iterating at a rate that I don’t think most retailers our size do.

There’s this old adage of measure twice, cut once. We’re like, ‘Just cut the damn thing. Just don’t cut it too deeply that we can’t repair it if we screw it up.’ And I think that’s the attitude that you have to have to be great at digital. You have to make a lot of tiny bets, mitigate the risk around them. And then, the ones that work for you, you have to not double down — you have to octuple down on them immediately.

Charlie Cole portrait courtesy of Charlie Cole.

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

Man on a Dutch Railways platform

Listening to customers molds Dutch Railways’ digital experience

A Dutch Railways train passing a house

When your company has been around longer than the internet, building a digital customer experience can require a bit of a transformation of the way you do business.

The Dutch Railways (formally Nederlandse Spoorwegen) has faced this transition head on — taking an 180-year-old company and infusing it with digital initiatives that makes the lives of its 1.2 million daily passengers a little easier every day.

I sat down with Fokko van der Schans, product owner online at the Dutch Railways, for a Q&A about the recent digital push it has been making — and how travelers across the Netherlands have responded.

Q: The Dutch Railways has a customer journey where the online and offline experiences are very interwoven, how do you bridge the two to create a 360-degree view of your customer?

A: We’re not the only company tackling this problem, and also not the only one to run into the challenge of combining the online and offline while being very mindful of users’ privacy. So the way we get the data to make that well-rounded view of our customer is by asking them and motivating them to share by offering handy services in return.

For example, through our loyalty program, NS Extra. All our travelers check-in and check-out of our train stations with a personal card, which generates enormous amounts of useful data. Unfortunately, we are only allowed to use these data on an aggregate level. Through NS Extra we incentivize our customers to share their travel data with us, so we can service them back in return.

For example, if we notice they forgot to check-out we’ll send an email that makes it easy to remedy this and avoid any unnecessary journey fees. The more benefits like this that we can offer our users, the more they understand how sharing the right data is a win-win. Especially through our journey planner app where we can deliver very personalized services.

Q: You’ve had great user feedback on the Dutch Railway digital experience this past year. Are there key initiatives or aspects that your customers have responded to?

Fokko van der Schans at BloomReach Connect

  • Dutch Railways’ Fokko van der Schans will be among a line up of experts in artificial intelligence, e-commerce, content, venture capital and technology speaking at BloomReach Connect in New York on May 4.
  • Connect banner

A: Yes, a lot of response and a lot we’ve learned from the feedback. In December 2015, we went live with the redesign of our new website, which also included a redesign of our online journey planner. We had put that journey planner through many focus groups and we’re excited to put it out in the world, but when users got their hands on it — they just didn’t like it. It wasn’t as intuitive as they needed, and the new horizontal interface was simply not the way our travelers wanted to use it while on-the-go.

So we listened, we learned and we improved. And we had to do this quickly. We redesigned the journey planner in eight weeks, incorporating the feedback of our users — including returning to a vertical interface. And over the past year we’ve seen very positive results in our feedback score. It was a very successful turnaround of a critical user service.

Q: What advice would you give to more traditional industries who want to focus on creating an exceptional digital experience?

A: Keep it small. Or at least, start small. I think this applies to everyone looking to focus on new digital projects, but especially in more traditional industries which tend to be larger.

One of the main pitfalls of big companies is the rush to do it all at once, with everyone wanting a piece of the cake. On one end, this is great, because everyone is positive about digitization but with everyone wanting to add in their opinions … it gets muddled.

So start small, with one focus at a time. And finding the first step to focus on is usually pretty easy. It is what urgently needs to change. For us, this was our website. It wasn’t responsive and, honestly, we just couldn’t get away with that anymore. The world around had changed and we had to change with it.

Q: What’s next for the Dutch Railways? What upcoming innovations and projects are you excited about?

A: A pretty cool thing about the Dutch Railways is that one of our biggest targets, and a main driver as a whole, is our customer satisfaction score. We use Usabilla to ask our customers how each of our online channels is performing and the feedback they give is the motivator for our digital initiatives.

It’s great because we can see where our score is, gather the comments, identify the pain point, and improve. We’re currently finishing up a pilot of a new initiative that makes it easier for our passengers to give feedback via an app and helps improve and close the feedback loop by contacting them once a week with the improvements we made based on their feedback.

We also just went live with our new personal account program, “MyNS” — a completely renewed account program that includes features such as a new dashboard to track your progress in a gamification project we launched.

Train photo by Rob Dammers published under Creative Commons license. Photo of man on platform with train courtesy of Dutch Railways.

To hear more about the digital transformation of the Dutch Railways, join us May 4th in NYC to see Fokko van der Schans and other innovators take the stage at BloomReach Connect.  


Stack of grammar books

Do you really understand your customers?

stack of language and grammar booksPoets, philosophers and scientists have spent generations exploring the question of what makes humans, human.

Laughter? Love? The inclination to text and drive?

For the artistic and scientific, the basic question provides the inspiration for works of great beauty and deep analysis. But today, the question, in a slightly more crass form, has been taken up by marketers — marketers who are not as much interested in the universal answer as they are in the individual answer.

Marketers in the age of digital transformation want to know what makes that particular human, human. And more importantly what makes that particular human tick? It is a question at the root of developing real-time, one-to-one personalization.

In my search for answers, I bypassed the poets and philosophers. I politely sidestepped the marketers and turned to the scientists, in particular a data scientist. Amit Aggarwal is BloomReach’s chief technology officer and a guy who has thought a lot about personalization and its relationship with human intent and human nature.

Aggarwal naturally has a deep technical understanding of the algorithms and data streams that make authentic personalization a real thing. But he indulged me, taking a broader view of personalization and breaking it down into its vital components:

  • Semantic language understanding
  • Contextual understanding
  • User behavior understanding
  • Product understanding

Aggarwal had compelling arguments for each. Me? I was fixated on coming up with the most important element of personalization. Aggarwal wasn’t biting. The world isn’t simple. Multi-faceted problems aren’t solved with one solution. Complicated challenges aren’t met with simple solutions. A data scientist knows this.

And the greatest of these is language

A writer does not. And so among the fearsome foursome of personalization, I decided the greatest of these is language. Imagine, a writer choosing language as the key to success. But hear me out. Nothing is more human that language. It sets us apart from the other animals.

It is the basis for all we do. Grand ideas are nothing without a way to express them. Love goes unnoticed if it’s not expressed. The next big thing falls silently in the forest if no one can describe it.

And so, a compromise: I’ll respect Aggarwal’s superior understanding of personalization by presenting all four basic elements of true personalization. But I’ll start with my favorite — language.

First, however, why this whole “what is personalization” exercise in the first place? Because personalization, as a term, needs some refinement. It has become a buzz phrase to mean whatever the one uttering it wants it to mean.

I look at personalization as the ability to understand a consumer on an individual basis; the ability to understand a consumer’s intent in the moment, and the corollary ability to provide that consumer with relevant and personal content as a result.

And that brings us back to Aggarwal’s four elements, starting, naturally, with language.

Semantic language understanding: True personalization begins with a deep understanding of what digital users are saying. One of the deepest human needs is to be understood. And that understanding is achieved through language. Not just words, but language. Language comes with sentiment and context. Language changes. “That’s sick,” meant one thing in 1950. It meant something entirely different in 2000.

The future of personalization

  • Join us at BloomReach Connect in New York to hear customer experience visionaries talk about personalization in the age of digital transformation.
  • Connect banner

There is no personalization without language. Language is different from words. Plenty of technologies can understand words. You type in a search query and the machine looks for product descriptions, for instance, that contain those words.

Language is more than that. Language is living and ever-changing. Different digital consumers use words differently. In a sense we all speak our own language. Not only does a real personalization system need to acknowledge that fact, it needs to constantly learn to better understand what language means and what consumers mean by the language they use.

Language includes synonyms, different words that mean the same or similar things. True personalization understands that the user searching for a “camel pocketbook” and the user searching for a “tan purse” might be interested in the same product or the same story about a fashion trend.

Contextual understanding: But when a user says or types “tan purse,” how does a personalization system understand whether the user is searching for a product or a fashion story or even instructions on how to make a tan purse or advice on what colors go best with a tan purse? The system needs to understand context. It needs to understand what a digital user hopes to accomplish.

Is she seeking inspiration? I she researching a product or subject after being inspired? Is she already sure of a product she wants to buy and hunting for the seller with the best price or fastest or most convenient delivery options? Has she already bought a tan purse and is looking for care instructions or whether she can return the purse for a different color or style?

True personalization understands context and constantly learns from interactions with millions of users. It understands that someone in Northern California searching for “water shoes” in the summertime is not likely to be looking for footwear designed for a rainy day. Instead, it’s quite likely that person is searching for footwear meant for the beach and for wading into the water.

User behavior understanding: One part of grasping context is understanding using behavior and what a user’s digital activity and the activity of users across the web tells us about their intent. Here, true personalization parallels the work of a high-quality store associate.

When you walk into a home-improvement store, the human associates who work there can learn a lot about you. Yes, they learn from what you say to them. But they can begin building their understanding before a customer even opens his or her mouth. What aisles and products do you pause in front of? Do you browse one aisle and then head to another with products that might be used in the same DIY project?

Do you examine the top-of-the-line variable speed drill and then put it back and reach for a serviceable model that costs less? Do you stride through the store with a certain confidence? Or do you look a little lost, eyeing the 1-inch, 90-degree PVC elbow segment like it’s something an Apollo crew brought back from the moon?

A perceptive associate, which granted is sometimes hard to find, knows a lot about you already. Or at least he or she knows a lot about you and your intent on this particular shopping trip.

A constantly learning machine that deeply understands language can draw some similar conclusions from online behavior. Moreover, understanding not just what words mean, but how they relate to other words and what their connotations are in different circumstances, means that an artificial-intelligence-driven system can serve up recommendations that are relevant to one, single individual.

Product understanding: Deeply understanding a user’s language and behavior and the context in the moment is a start to providing true personalization. But it isn’t enough. A true personalization system needs to understand what a user is in the market for. Is someone who’s shown an interest in financial products looking for a home loan or a credit card? Is the user who’s shown an intent to learn more about insurance, looking for life insurance or homeowner’s insurance?

A true personalization system must deeply understand content in order to properly match a consumer’s intent with the available content. There is no deep user understanding without a deep understanding of the content they are seeking.

Consumers are the ones defining personalization

What’s crystal clear is that in today’s world, it’s consumers who are deciding what “personalization” means.

And so it’s only right that enterprises listen to consumers and provide what it is their customers are demanding. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also the profitable thing to do. It’s clear that the ability to understand language will only become more important for enterprises as the era of digital transformation rages on.

Total Retail Report found that commerce sites that based their site search on keyword search, returning only recommendations that included the keywords, suffered a 40 percent abandonment rate. Sites that rely on semantic understanding experienced only a 2 percent abandonment rate, Total Retail Report said.

A few other statistics help explain why digital consumers can become so frustrated. Google has said that 15 percent of the search queries it receives on any given day are queries that the search engine has never seen before. It’s reasonable to imagine that individual sites are subject to the same sort of effect, meaning the site needs to be smart enough to understand the meaning of what a searcher is saying.

For in the end, we are individuals who celebrate our own individuality in what we believe, how we dress, whom we associate with, where we work and yes, how we talk. In English alone there are more than 1,000 ways to say something is beautiful and more than 1,500 ways to say “happy.”

No doubt we will continue to find new ways to express ourselves, whether we’re talking about beauty, happiness or buying a new pair of shoes. It will be up to those building digital experiences to keep that in mind as they design better ways to keep up.

Photo of books by Jackie Finn-Irwin published under Creative Commons license. 

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


Wooden Crate

Where is the digital experience headed next?

Wooden content crate

On the first day, the internet was created. Later on that first day, people put every bit of content they could online.

Publishing content has been an integral part of the web experience ever since, and managing how that content is added, shared, and stored has been a critical part – and occasional a thorn in the side – of enterprises ever since. Of course, as the web has rapidly evolved beyond simple static sites, and the number of digital touchpoints has risen, content management has had to evolve as well to solve the needs of the moment.

The first generation of content management systems (CMS), in the days of static HTML websites, was all about empowering businesses to instantly communicate the freshest content to their customers. This was the 90’s. Suddenly your customers had personal email accounts. You could talk to them in their living rooms and give them information instantly — and businesses were craving a way to do this efficiently. Enter CMS, which broke the traditional bottleneck that was occurring between creating new content and getting it out to your customers. This was when the core aspects of CMS became commonplace in the enterprise; workflow, audit trails, core versioning and library services emerged and the systems enabled individuals to quickly publish new content onto their sites.

See the future of the digital experience

But of course, digital business exploded — online shopping became the preferred method for many consumers and with the rise of the smartphone, your customer base was suddenly social, mobile and always connected. You weren’t talking to people simply sitting in front of a computer anymore — and companies needed solutions that wouldn’t just push content, but drive engagement. Next, second generation CMS emerged. New tools were designed to empower subject-matter experts to take control of the presentation layer and create a dynamic, multichannel web experience. The goal: Engage with customers on a far more personal level than the static websites of the past allowed.

Again, the digital experience has grown and, again, tools need to evolve to meet the needs of the next phase of digital. In the content space, this means we are in the third generation of content solutions — one that is focused on offering many relevant experiences to your visitors in a connected conversation that spans the entire customer lifecycle.

So how do we get there? By leveraging big data and intelligent algorithms to show the self-progressive paths real people are taking — beyond a prescribed customer journey. These constantly learning systems help your marketers deliver the most helpful content at the right point in each path. This backbone of AI-driven personalization enables the real people behind your business to understand the intent of your customers and deliver, at scale, a personal content experience across channels, devices, and business teams.

It’s time for the enterprise to move beyond prescriptive journeys and to help visitors in a way that’s just as flexible as their real lives are. On May 4th, at BloomReach Connect in NYC, we are pleased to debut what we believe is the platform to do just that. BloomReach Experience takes the heart of Hippo’s open CMS, and infuses it with BloomReach’s leading machine learning intelligence, leveraging data to enable you to understand and connect with your customers, ultimately driving acquisitions, loyalty, and building digital empathy.

Join us May 4th in NYC for more about this exciting new phase of digital experience. Can’t wait to see you there.

Photo of content crate by cursedthing published under Creative Commons license

Katie Lawson is a content marketer at BloomReach.



Ged's mug: a personalized mug

The path to one-to-one personalization is straight ahead

personalized mug

Nearly three-quarters of retailers in North America agree that personalization is a top priority for attracting and keeping customers in 2017. Chances are a much smaller percentage agree on what “personalization” actually is.

OK, that’s a little snarky. Everybody knows what personalization is, generally speaking — providing consumers with a tailored experience based on who they are. The thing is not everybody means the same thing when they talk about personalization.

The statistic on top priorities for retailers comes from a recent eMarketer report that in many ways points out why personalization — and defining it — can be so agonizing for retailers.

First, there is little doubt that personalization is on retailers’ minds — and priority lists. In fact, they clearly see it as a two-pronged challenge: personalizing commerce and personalizing content.

The February eMarketer report, “Personalization Retail Roundup,” cites a survey by Boston Retail Partners that found that 70 percent of retailers placed personalizing their customers’ experiences at the top of the list for engaging consumers.

Furthermore, 40 percent of IT experts who implement content management systems for companies, said the inability to personalize the shopping experience within the CMS was a main frustration for their customers, according to a survey by Sitecore, also cited by eMarketer.

Indeed, 25 percent in the Sitecore survey said that the e-commerce features of the CMS that their customers were using were not sophisticated enough to support personalization, according to eMarketer.

The focus on personalization is hardly a surprise, given that this is the era of customer experience. Retailers and others offering goods and services online realize that consumers expect more, both in the physical world and in their digital experiences.

The future of personalization

  • Looking for more on how to achieve one-to-one personalization? Check out the e-book “Future of Personalization: Dynamically personalizing the shopping journey in a world of time-pressed multi-device consumers.”
    Future of Personalization ebook

In the age of Google, digital consumers expect to find what they are looking for. They expect to be offered relevant and helpful search results, whether they are hunting for products or information.

And how does that happen? Personalization. Retailers have known this for years and many have made big strides in targeting known customers and segmenting the vast pool of consumers who could become customers.

Targeting and segmenting are great, but they are not enough. Consumers today expect one-to-one personalization. They expect retailers to know them and know what they are after in the moment.

The eMarketer report, which is a compilation of research on personalization, points out something of a disconnect in marketers’ view of personalization. For instance, consider that 70 percent figure. Yes, 70 percent of retailers say personalization is at the top of their lists. But the same survey found that only 33 percent of retailers listed “disseminating data across all channels in real time” as a priority.

How do you do one without the other? For personalization to be meaningful, retailers need to know their customers no matter where they are or what device they’re on. Consumers, after all, move seamlessly among smartphones, laptops and physical stores — often during the same shopping excursion.

“It’s becoming more cross-channel than I ever imaged it would,” Marissa Tarleton, a CMO at RetailMeNot told eMarketer in an interview included with the report.

Imagine the frustration for a consumer using all those device and channels, only to have to start over with each new channel.

Again, one-to-one personalization is hard. It relies on vast amounts of data representing web-wide user behavior across devices, digital sites’ products and content and the context of a consumer’s shopping trip.

Getting past targeting and segmentation needs the help of machines, machines that understand natural language and constantly learn from consumer behavior.

It would be impossible to hire, or even find, enough workers to manually wrangle the data and manually create an individual experience for each customer. Even if it were possible, it’s hardly a path to profitability for any organization.

Retailers and others doing business on the web certainly recognize the potential, according to the eMarketer report. In that Sitecore survey of those who implement CMS for third-parties, 66 percent said that a key advantage of content management systems was “getting a more personalized experience for their customers.”

Given the potential, retailers are not standing pat. A number told the Boston Retail Partners that within the next three years they would be beefing up their ability to personalize based on things such as previous purchases and browsing history.

The vision is coming into focus. Now it’s time to put the pieces in place.

Photo of mug by Ged Carroll published under Creative Commons license.

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