SXSW 2014: Engaging Retail Customers In The Age Of Digital Transformation

  • March 20, 2014 at 12:01 PM EDT
  • By Retail TouchPoints Team
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Theresa Wabler, VP of Global Marketing, parago


I went to this year’s SXSW Interactive Festival on a mission: To listen and learn with the eyes and ears of a retailer. Although the conference doesn’t offer a retail track per se, it wasn’t difficult to create one a-la-carte.

Within each of the retail-related sessions were underlying desires to distill the big concepts — the shrinking retail footprint, the evolution of technology, content oversaturation — into intimate, personal moments with big-win potential. In other words, how do you use the macro (technology and data) to deliver at the micro level (intimate and personal)?


The answer for some retailers lay in the personalization of Big Data. Some are looking to curate a customer’s shopping experience based on their expressed interests. Others are reevaluating the purpose of brick-and-mortar in an increasingly digital world.

Following are key highlights from this year’s SXSW conference for retailers that were unable to attend:

Serendipitous Data: The Search Is Dead session tackled the weighty topic of combining the just-right mix of data and human interaction to deliver appropriate next-generation recommendations to customers, ultimately generating more sales.

Panelists from Netflix, Birchbox, Peek and Stitch Fix talked about the use of explicit and implicit data, and what search data revealed about their customers’ desires. All of the companies insert a human touch at some point in their recommendations, and believe their success can be attributed to asking the right questions to effectively anticipate the needs of their customers. Instead of selecting an item and buying it, the customer says, “This is me. Tell me what I’d like.”  

The success of these businesses proves that a smart mix of data algorithms, a fresh approach to data gathering and injecting a personal touch provide a customized, curated experience for customers. And it’s this type of experience that turns a purchase into a relationship. 

Driving Innovation: The session, titled: Accelerating Innovation In Retail,offered unique perspectives on how to implement the latest technological innovations in a retail setting while delivering a more personal experience. Integrated retail/social strategies were examined: Zappos Labs’ Pinterest-based product recommendation pilot and Nordstrom’s incorporation of popular “pinned” merchandise on the store floor.

There was also talk of a shift in the e-Commerce paradigm. For instance, today if you click on an ad for a product and decide to buy it, you have to leave the site you’re on and go to the retailer’s site to complete your transaction. But why not complete the whole transaction directly on Instagram, Pinterest or even The Huffington Post? The benefit here is that a consumer who wasn’t planning to shop can be instantly converted to a paying customer without disrupting their primary goal of browsing, reading, etc.

In Next Generation Retail Stores, representatives from TOMS, Bonobos and Rebecca Minkoff discussed how once strictly e-Commerce brands are innovatively incorporating brick-and-mortar presences. Beyond simply providing an extension of a community and brand experience, a storefront can be a place where consumers can access more personalized support — i.e. a stylist. Even more creatively, some stores are now embracing trends to make themselves more relevant. (i.e. Rebecca Minkoff stores are installing “selfie stations” that facilitate shoppers taking and sharing photos of themselves in the clothing.)

Loyalty: It’s Not About The Platform. It’s About The Experience. Loyalty (programs, at least) have been declared dead. But the SXSW session, titled: Loyalty Is Dead; Long Live Loyalty, offered a hearty conversation about what today’s loyalty programs mean to shoppers. The programs that stand out really favor surprise and delight (key examples came from Panera and Sephora). 

Travel still plays by the prestige and accrual world. But true customer loyalty isn’t garnered through just a points engine and coupons. Customers’ hearts (and wallets) are won by delivering a phenomenal customer experience. It is then reinforced with a personal “thank you” for those who give their loyalty.

The session wrapped up with a provocative question: “How many brands are loyal to you?” Interesting to think about as we evaluate our own customer engagement.

Target Mobile Users On The Toilet. This idea came up in multiple sessions. Apparently all we are missing is the smart, iBeacon-enabled toilet. You heard it here first.

And on that note I conclude: Every platform, tool and trend is just a tactic. Retail marketing will win the day if it comes from a place of purpose, enterprise alignment and voice of the customer. As Bryan Wolff of Bonobos quite nicely pointed out when asked about social ROI, quoting John Wanamaker: “Half my marketing budget is wasted; the problem is I don’t know which half.”


Theresa Wabler is Vice President of Global Marketing for parago, a global incentives and engagement company working with many of the world’s top retailers. 



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