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Guest comment: Getting personal – Can new etailers customise the ecommerce experience?

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by Rob Tarrant

The last two months have seen an influx of top high street brands finally making the leap to online. Zara and H&M have both set up UK web offerings and Morrisons – one the last major supermarkets to tackle the web – has made public its plans to embark on a transactional web platform.

Many industry pundits are arguing that these brands are behind the curve in embracing the ecommerce channel but, rather than ‘playing catch-up’, the case could equally be made that these retailers have a unique opportunity to learn from their established competitors’ mistakes and leapfrog over them in terms of the sophistication and personalisation of their ecommerce offerings.

The personal touch

In spite of the wealth of personalisation features and technologies on the market, at present most ‘personalised’ ecommerce experiences don’t go much beyond ‘people who bought this also bought’ recommendations. This is not because retailers lack knowledge of their customers. Virtually every high street retailer now has some sort of store card or points system which logs every purchase made by each of their demographically catalogued customers. It is because no actionable link has yet been made between this wealth of customer and purchasing information and detailed product information.

A lack of information is not the issue: all of the data needed to create a personalised experience is already available. Every time a new product is uploaded onto a retailer’s website or each time a supplier changes their product line, there is a whole section of product data which is logged and stored in a database. This consists of product information, ingredients, marketing copy, promotional and pricing attributes, ethical and environmental commitments, health and wellbeing information and product recommendations, to name but a few. Ask yourself the question though, how often is all of this data utilised to provide each customer with their own, truly personal ecommerce experience?

Think of how different the online grocery shopping experience could be if this was the case. Customers could experience their own personalised journey, taking into account their dietary requirements or likes and dislikes so that, instead of having to trawl through hundreds of products, reading the small print for detailed information, the products are selected for them according to their own criteria. This could apply to anything, someone buying cosmetics, for example, could record their skin type, colourings and hair style and be presented with only products which work for them.

Using the web in your web store

It sounds obvious: internet retailing enables retailers to provide considerably more information than is available on the back of a pack in the supermarket. Yet how many retailers are really offering data and media above and beyond the restrictions of the product packaging? There are so many possibilities in this area, environmental brands could involve provide videos of their products being sourced or fashion retailers could show their clothes being made. With the ever-increasing demand for environmentally and socially aware brands and healthy foods, consumers should ultimately be able to determine the background and ingredients of the products they buy far more easily – most of the data they need to do so already exists.

By enabling consumers to make brand-to-brand comparisons, companies will no longer be able to gloss over the health benefits or ethical nature of their products. And in a world where consumers are a lot more savvy about marketing and spin, this is surely no bad thing.

Being able to offer this level of personalised experience would be a significant differentiator for an online retailer. Yes, continually updating all of this extra information would involve a highly efficient data management process, but the first retailer to offer this level of service will surely outstrip competitors.

Gathering this data into a usable form is not as difficult as it seems, companies who supply product imagery and information to major online retailers will already have this information in an indexed and searchable form. The fact is that using this data more extensively will allow retailers to stay one step ahead of the game – Morrisons, H&M and Zara, should take advantage whilst they can.

Rob Tarrant is managing director of Brandbank

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