Those of us who work in the marketing industry hear a lot about how technology can improve the customer experience. Unfortunately, many of the customer journeys we read about remain confined to the realm of marketing blogs and conference stages.

Recently, I (briefly) thought I’d witnessed a bit of contextual personalization making a real-world appearance.

The email landed in my inbox with a subject line so relevant, so timely… I wanted to believe it was the real deal. 

The message, from Debenhams, was titled something along the lines of: “Find your new season fragrance”. Nothing exceptional, I know – except for the fact that I’d been in Debenhams not 3 hours earlier trying to do exactly that. 

I’d left empty-handed, feeling rather overwhelmed by choice (and trying to recall how I’d ever decided on a perfume in the past). What I needed was a recommendation or two.

And suddenly, here in my inbox, was a message that seemed to offer exactly the help I needed.

Of course, I quickly realised it was a coincidence – the email content wasn’t actually that helpful, and to my knowledge, Debenhams doesn’t have any way of knowing I was in store, let alone what department I was in.

But the initial feeling of receiving that email on that afternoon got me thinking: what if it wasn’t a coincidence? How might a timely and helpful interaction like that impact my journey as a customer – and my relationship with the retailer?

Imagine it: Debenhams picks up on my entrance to the store, perhaps through a beacon detecting my registered mobile device. Another beacon sees that I’m hanging out in the fragrance department, and sends this data back to the store’s marketing platform.

The platform churns through all the data about my visit – that I came in, wandered around the perfumes for a while and then left without making a purchase. It uses this information to determine two things: (1) I wanted to buy perfume and (2) I didn’t complete my goal.

Based on this analysis, the platform chooses the “Find your fragrance” email and pops it over to my inbox, complete with recommendations (if I’ve purchased before) and tips to help me pick the right product.

This combination of helpful information and a personalized experience captures my attention. I click through, use the recommendations to narrow down my options and head back in-store the next day to choose my new perfume. And since Debenhams has now shaped my shopping experience, I decide to complete the purchase there – even though there’s a chance I could find my chosen fragrance cheaper somewhere else. 

An interaction like this offers value to both the customer and the brand – and it’s the kind of experience brands should be aiming to create. And yet, it’s not just Debenhams missing an opportunity here. To my knowledge, none of the major high street retailers are offering this kind of joined-up, tech-powered experience to their customers.

So where’s the disconnect?

Finding the root of the problem

What’s holding marketers (and particularly retailers) back from implementing the kinds of personalized, real-time experiences that could drive value and long-term loyalty?

There are a few potential obstacles. For one thing, many “legacy” marketing platforms aren’t really set-up to support true omnichannel experiences, which require real-time data processing, an advanced recommendation engine, and the ability to sync up interactions across multiple channels. On top of that, a lot of marketing teams are stretched for time and resource as it is, making it risky to implement new tech.

But while these factors play a part, I think the greater issue is this: Businesses aren’t quite convinced that in-store tech can deliver these experiences – or that customers will want them. And spending lots of money and manpower implementing new tech that no one adopts is a big risk. 

After all, previous applications of in-store tech, like beacons or the dreaded QR code, fell flat. Industry experts were buzzing about them at the time, convinced they were going to revolutionise the shopping experience. Yet no one has implemented a truly compelling (and lasting) use case for either. 

And while there were technical reasons for this (the need to install / open an additional mobile app, for example), there were emotional reasons too. Most attempts to employ in-store tech haven’t served the end-customer particularly well, or made them feel valued.

In general, these efforts have either:

(a) been too focused on the value they could provide the retailer (in-depth customer data, the opportunity to push messages out across more channels, etc.) or, 

(b) been “tech for tech’s sake” – a flashy implementation designed to get attention rather than meet a specific customer need.

In either case, the benefit for the individual customer felt like an afterthought – if it was there at all.

All this can lead to a sort of deadlock. Marketers are eager to differentiate their customer experience, but get caught up in (valid) concerns that the shiny new tech won’t deliver on its promises.

So what’s the solution?

Closing the gap

Retailers need to start small and keep the focus on value. There’s a tendency to look at every new piece of tech and think “What can we get out of this?” or “How can we make this do something cool?”. Instead, marketers should start by asking “How can we solve our customers’ problems, particularly when they’re in-store?”.

By starting with the problem, you’ll keep value to the customer at the forefront – and be able to choose the right technology, platforms and partners to get the job done. 

Ultimately, brands can’t keep talking about hyper-personalized, real-time experiences without doing anything about it. Already, technologies that were once fodder for science fiction films are now becoming part of our everyday lives.

People control their homes with their voices, use augmented reality to try out new products and turn to virtual assistants to help them manage their schedules. Consumers – particularly in younger generations – increasingly create their own personalized experiences, aided by technology. And soon they’ll expect the same from brands.

Sure, you won’t connect with all customers in this way. But with a clear value proposition, there’s a good chance you’ll get enough tech-savvy customers on board – and enjoying the highly personalized, omnichannel experience – to make it worthwhile.

All we need is a few innovative brands to take the leap – to find a valuable way to meet customers’ needs through a joined-up in-store experience – and pursue it.