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The Next Tech: Personalisation – perfecting customer service

As competition increases more than ever in the digital space, retailers must provide a seamless personalised experience to engage shoppers. 

When Kathy Williams visits her local womenswear boutique every couple of weeks, the owner and staff have a rail ready hanging with a selection of new product according to her taste. It’s called customer service, isn’t it? But it’s also personalisation – giving the customer a tailored experience.

Thanks to advances in technology, personalisation has become a buzzword in fashion retailing, as forward-thinking companies tailor the shopping experience on their platforms to individuals. Yet, despite the hype, online personalisation has not been widely adopted across the industry. Take high street bellwether Next – it may be one of the biggest clothing chains in the UK, but the retailer has yet to introduce personalisation on its website (although it is planned for autumn this year).

Personalised homepages mobile

Personalised homepages mobile

Shop Direct’s personalises its mobile homepages

However, research shows consumers are hungry for a personalised experience. More than a third (36%) of consumers are interested in personalised products or services, according to research by Deloitte.

Retailers yet to embrace online personalisation – which can involve anything from product recommendations on the homepage to personalised editorial content – are potentially missing out.  

Early adopters of online personalisation tend to be tech-driven etailers. Amazon is always held as a leading example; Shop Direct is another trailblazer in this field. Its chief executive, Alex Baldock, has even hailed 2016 as the “year for personalisation for Shop Direct”. The retailer’s group ecommerce director, Jonathan Wall, says the owner of Very and Littlewoods has invested significantly to combine big data with cutting-edge technology, and continues to experiment in order to keep improving the personalised experience to customers. This includes personalised versions of its homepage and tailoring top-page navigation.

“One of the innovations we’re proudest of is our new decision engine, which enables real-time personalisation of the products we serve up to customers in each department,” says Wall.

“So, if Miss Very searches for a black dress, we can instantly serve up the best selection of black dresses for her based on her browsing habits, what she’s bought previously and a range of other factors.” Such measures are producing “significant sales improvements in the short term”, says Wall, adding that the long-term impact will be “massive”.

Drapers Digital Week: The Next Tech

On Thursday follow @drapers and keep an eye on to keep abreast of all the news at it unfolds from Drapers Digital Forum, which brings together the most forward-thinking operators in the digital retail space.

And on Friday morning you can see all the winners and action from the Drapers Digital Awards 2016.

At Asos, the personalisation strategy is centred on one word: relevance.

“Google and Facebook have set the standard here, and customers expect us to be as good – or they don’t understand why we can’t be,” says David Williams, the etailer’s digital experience director. Currently the etailer shows personalised welcome messages across select markets and offers a “highly personalised section” on its app, where customers can browse product recommended for them.

Williams adds: “We want to make the Asos experience as relevant to each and every customer as it can be. That will be through a combination of information customers tell us and information we derive from their behaviour.”

All of our personalisation is tested with customers first

Jonathan Wall, Shop Direct

Berlin-based etailer Zalando is at the beginning of its online personalisation journey, says its head of product management Daniel Schneider. Customers landing on its website are asked “Do you like this brand?” and, based on their responses and behaviour, Zalando recommends particular products. While personalisation is about data, says Schneider, it’s also about listening to the customer and using their feedback.

This is echoed by Wall, who says Shop Direct takes an evidence-led approach, using qualitative and quantitative data to understand what their customer wants and needs, and then using that data to create a more relevant experience: “All of our personalisation is tested with customers first and validated to deliver improved ease for customers and conversion,” says Wall. “If it’s flat or negative, we don’t make the change. We learn from these tests and then iterate to – hopefully – winning tests.”

Zalando my feed

Zalando my feed

Zalando asks customers landing on its website: “Do you like this brand?”

Another area of personalisation Zalando is experimenting with is adjusting the “catalogue” (its list of products) based on brand affinity in order to make particular products appear higher in the ranking. Schneider says the “ultimate vision is to become more relevant”, so customers with a love of say, sneakers, are shown the kind of sneakers they like.

Personalisation is becoming more important to savvy retailers, although where it sits depends largely on the size of the business. In Drapers’ Personalisation Report 2016, 44% of retailers said responsibility for personalisation sat with the ecommerce team, 39% said it was within marketing and 10% in IT.

For Zalando, it’s a job for its tech teams. “We think all problems are tech questions,” says Schneider. “Our new tech hub in Dublin is working on better algorithms, and it works closely with the customer experience team to work out what is shown to the customer.” Over at Asos, it’s a cross-departmental collaboration led by its digital experience team and delivered in partnership with the technology teams.

So how exactly are retailers measuring their personalisation strategies? The standard key performance indicator (KPI) is through conversions, although retailers say lifetime value and customer retention are also important.

For Schneider, the ultimate goal is customer satisfaction: “Personalisation is not just to get the conversion – it’s about building a long-term relationship with the customer.”

Personalisation is about building a long-term relationship with the customer

Daniel Schneider, Zalando


Hawes & Curtis has increased its average order value on the back of cross-selling and upselling by recommending products that the customer has a greater propensity to buy (based on their preferences or past purchases). The shirtmaker’s head of marketing, Anastasia Roumelioti, says this has helped it to stop showing irrelevant product.

“It is highly unlikely that a guy wearing a classic fit would be interested in a recommendation for an extra-slim-fit shirt, and in the past, when we were blindly communicating to all customers as if they all had the same characteristics, we generated far lower results and higher opt-outs or complaints.”

For personalisation to be successful, there needs to be a seamless experience across all sales channels and mobile needs to be included in any strategy, says Martin Stephens, director of sales engineering at personalisation specialist RichRelevance. “Personalisation is even more important when the shopper navigates with a smaller screen, as it becomes essential to deliver relevant content that can be accessed quickly and easily.”

However, though a personalised experience can take place across any platform – an app, mobile or desktop website – one of the key challenges facing retailers is joining up the dots between these channels. In the Drapers report, more than a third (37%) of retail executives said they couldn’t synchronise the customer experience across channels and devices.

“It’s not easy when you have someone accessing the site at home on their desktop and then using the mobile app or an iPad,” says Schneider. “That’s one of the reasons we do invest in making it clear that, if they log in, it will help to make the experience better for them and, if they start liking brands, then we can save that and capture data. Ultimately we need 360-degree channel alignment.”

To ensure success, everyone within the organisation should buy into personalisation with shared objectives, argues Stephens: “Retailers fail when one part of the business embraces personalisation while working in isolation from the rest.”

Some retailers are just starting to consider how they can introduce personalisation online. Others, such as Shop Direct and Zalando, which were early adopters of online personalisation, are further along in the game and are marching ahead by investing and experimenting with new ways of tailoring the experience. Looking ahead, Wall says Shop Direct plans to “unleash the potential of new technology such as artificial intelligence, using machines to make our predictive analytics ever more accurate”.

Despite the gains to be made by making online shopping more tailored, Schneider believes personalisation shouldn’t override the customer experience. “We did some research and we think 70%-80% [of product] should be expected and relevant. Then you need some unexpected discoveries, so show them brands that are a little less obvious – a good mix of expected and completely unexpected. You still want that person to come back. Provide the right content and the right product.”

In the future, it may mean a customer is presented with a highly personalised selection of product every time they lands on their favourite fashion retailer’s website. But we’re still a long way away from replicating that human touch that Williams and other customers like her experience when shopping at independents across the UK.

Readers' comments (1)

  • 2016 will be the year of personalisation in store. It will be far more effective and powerful than anything online retailers are achieving.

    In store personalisation, done right, is the key to great customer service and customer loyalty.

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