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Personal shopper

Retail websites should be relevant to each visitor, treating them as an individual.

There’s an art to being a brilliant sales assistant – advising your customer without being pushy, suggesting clothes that would really suit them but that they would not necessarily pick out for themselves, and making the customer feel good about their purchases, even though they’ve just spent twice the amount they planned.

Is there any online equivalent? Can website personalisation deliver the same level of customer satisfaction that a great sales assistant can?

Of course, the digital sales channel is changing the way we shop for clothes and the real-life sales assistant isn’t a perfect analogy, but many of the things that personalisation is trying to achieve do have a real-world parallel. For instance, shortening the journey between landing on the website and checkout, or suggesting items that would complement an already-chosen garment.

The good news is that this process doesn’t have to be hugely complicated or expensive and that there are many different tactics using cookies and registered customer data that can really personalise a visitor’s online experience.

Tim Burge, head of UK solution consulting at customer experience optimisation consultancy Maxymiser, says it’s vital when looking at personalisation to know what you’re trying to achieve. Then it’s essential to test that what you’re doing works. “Unless it’s making people do what you want them to do, it’s a waste of money,” says Burge.

The other important element, he says, is that the ability to personalise the website should be in the hands of the marketing department – which has the best understanding of its customers – rather than the responsibility of the IT department.

Burge says: “To me it’s common sense that you make a website relevant to the person visiting it – why wouldn’t you? There were barriers in place in the past – the technology wasn’t there, or it relied too heavily on being managed by the IT department – but these are being addressed. Also people used to be reluctant to invest in personalisation because they didn’t know if it made a big difference, but with our testing background we’re able to tell you if it’s going to work, and in effect de-risk the whole strategy.”

One aim of personalisation is to improve the customer journey. This can be as simple as ditching the static home page and delivering a message tailored specifically to the customer based on the products and brands they looked at or the articles they read on a previous visit.

The benefit of this is that it makes the customer journey shorter and also delivers a positive experience, which is good for generating loyalty and for creating a favourable impression of the brand.

Then there is behavioural targeting – looking at what consumers have done elsewhere during their web browsing and using this knowledge to determine what you show them when they arrive on your website.

Darren Herbert, head of conversion analytics at Latitude Group, explains this can be anything from altering the product page if someone arrives on your website from a paid-search listing – “these people are generally perceived as being impatient and responding to ‘buy now’ buttons and bullet points, rather than lots of text” – to offering more upscale products to, for example, people browsing your website from a Mac rather than a PC.

“It’s not quite as extreme in fashion retail, but it does happen,” says Herbert. Less extreme versions of fashion personalisation include showing different content to logged-in users, and highlighting new arrivals in particular brands, based on customers’ previous purchases.

Herbert agrees that it’s important to define your goals before you start implementing personalisation – is the aim, for instance, to drive quick sales, to improve the conversion rate or to build your online brand by giving your customers a great experience?

Although a lot of valuable data can be gleaned from cookies, people’s scepticism over the protection of their privacy can mean that super-targeted personalisation appears to be rather ‘creepy’.

“It’s important to remember that excessive personalisation can be alienating,” Herbert says. “Following a customer around the internet using cookies can unnerve them.”

He also warns against implementing personalisation that makes too many decisions on behalf of the customer.

Different types of personalisation suit different retailers – those who sell thousands of lines, such as high street retailers Marks & Spencer and Matalan, are likely to find that shortening the customer’s journey increases their propensity to buy.

In fact, Matalan is using personalisation technology to delve deep into shopping behaviour and then offer customers unique recommendations that should be relevant and meaningful, using a tool created by RichRelevance.

“Personalisation enables us to build trust and loyalty with our customers by providing an experience that is dynamically tailored for them,” says Andrew Scott, head of ecommerce and international at Matalan.

However, personalisation has to be about common sense, as well as drilling down deep into data. Max Childs, marketing director at Amplience, says: “It’s not that different to targeting customers with groceries. Just as we know that it’s generally a waste of time targeting customers who buy organic and free-range produce with items from the economy line, fashion retailers can, for example, target someone buying an Oxford shirt in one colour with a different fabric or a short-sleeved version in summer.”

In fact one menswear retailer is doing something very similar to this. Charles Tyrwhitt, famous for its four-for-£100 business shirt offer, is starting to implement personalisation on its website, after a period of multivariant testing.

Jennie Blythe, head of web development and trading at Charles Tyrwhitt, says the business case for personalisation is two-fold. One is to increase sales and the other – not unconnected to the first, of course – is to make it easier for the customer to navigate and find what they’re looking for, so there’s a customer service element to it.

She says: “Personalisation works really well with menswear. The most obvious example of this for us is with customers who buy our classic-fit shirts. It’s extremely unlikely that these customers will also buy from our extra-slim range, so if we can find a way of only showing them the classic cut, it makes the customer journey more relevant.”

Charles Tyrwhitt is making its home page personalised, based on data from cookies, although the retailer is also looking at introducing a ‘My Account’ feature for customers who sign in. It has already seen significant improvements to online sales from multivariant testing it has done (the winning layout in one range delivered a 5% sales increase, for example), and is optimistic that personalisation will continue to improve conversion rates.

Personalisation might not yet be able to replicate the smooth moves of an experienced sales assistant but it is probably not as complicated and daunting to implement as you might imagine, and the results could prove extremely effective.

How to personalise a site to visitors’ needs

● Retarget the home page Remove static content and deliver products or stories that are relevant based on a visitor’s previous behaviour

● Make product recommendations Feature ‘other customers bought this’ or ‘complete the outfit’ messages

● Offer incentives If a customer returns to your website after looking elsewhere for a product, serve up a ‘10% off if you buy now’ message

● Use visitor-generated data  Use information revealed by signed-in customers using wishlists, ‘save for later’ features and scrapbooks

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