AI, Real-Time, All-In-One: Personalization In Retail Explained

  • October 16, 2018 at 1:43 PM EDT
  • By Meyar Sheik, Certona
0aaaMeyarSheik Certona
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Despite personalization’s ‘must-have’ status in retail, it is also one of the industry’s most misunderstood concepts. Selecting and deploying personalization solutions is a challenge, and not due to lack of choice. In fact, there are numerous vendors that promise to enable personalized shopping experiences. In addition to an overpopulated marketplace, the industry is also confronted with another challenge: how to select and deploy personalization solutions when it is unclear what personalization looks like.

Instead of thinking of physical, mobile, desktop, social etc. as individual channels, retailers must take a holistic view of their business that places the shopper at its heart. To achieve this, companies must truly understand their customer base and behavior, which means deploying the right personalization tools at the back end to deliver the right kind of personalized experience at the front end. Here’s how:

There Should Be ‘AI’ In Retail

Personalization is not the only ‘must-have’ for retailers; artificial intelligence (AI) also tops this list. I recently asked a well-known global retailer what its personalization initiative was, and was met with the response: “AI.” This is similar to asking, ‘What kind of house do you want me to build for you?’ and being given ‘a hammer’ as an answer.


While AI is a tool with which to build a personalization strategy, it is not an end goal of itself. E-Commerce solutions that leverage AI should be on the roadmap of all retailers as a means of creating a seamless, personalized shopping experiences.

Why? Because using AI-powered solutions is the only way of delivering, at scale, a curated one-to-one shopping experience typical of the in-store environment. Many retailers will likely imagine that they’re delivering on their personalization goals by segmenting online shoppers and personalizing the experience to what’s popular for a group of people vs. looking at their specific individual needs. While this approach can be replicated at scale — i.e. offered to millions of visitors to a retailer’s site — it does not replicate the kind of one-to-one approach that makes shopping an engaging experience and that influences shopper behavior.

It would be like a teenage female shopper walking into a brick-and-mortar sports store, and a sales assistant failing to engage her in conversation, nor listening to her requests and preferences, and instead recommending she buy a blue Slazenger tennis racket simply because that’s what other teenage female shoppers had bought in the past. This does nothing for customer satisfaction levels and is unlikely to earn the retailer repeat custom.

Real Personalization Is Real-Time

What a good sales assistant — and a good, AI-driven e-Commerce solution — can do is understand the shopper’s background, behavior, preferences and context. Crucially, they can also simultaneously gather data on the shopper’s actions in real time. This accumulated information can then be used to engage with shoppers in-the-moment, and influence the course of future decision making and actions. Again, this approach gives retailers the ability to translate the strengths of the in-store sales assistant to the online environment.

If the same shopper enters the sports shop, a good sales associate would already have a historic knowledge of how and when she shops, what she’s bought in the past, and her likes and dislikes. The associate would be able to note the shopper’s browsing behavior in-store and engage her in conversation. The sales assistant knows the shopper prefers football to tennis, and knows which items would complement past purchases. They can observe the shopper searching for a particular item on a shelf, and assist her with locating this or suggest another item she is more likely to purchase based on her preferences. A similar strategy — with actions occurring in real time — can now be achieved online.

Many retailers personalize their web sites to a certain extent; perhaps the sports retailer will customize its landing page for the shopper by displaying that same blue tennis racquet. But it is only by actioning real-time insight that real (i.e. relevant and accurate) personalization can be achieved.

This means that the retailer can fill its landing page with items trending in the shopper’s area on that particular day, or highlight trainers in her shoe size and favorite colors on a page of search results. If the shopper is searching for a particular item, predictive keyword profiling will generate the most relevant results, based on the individual shopper profile.

This engagement is ongoing, and — like a human sales assistant — an advanced personalization solution will gather information and learn more about the shopper in real time. Engagement and conversion are increased, and retailers are able to unlock opportunities to upsell and cross-sell.

From One-To-One To All-In-One

Finally, while many vendors promise personalization, few can deliver automated orchestration of personalization campaigns across all channels, and across the entirety of a retailer’s technology stack. A shopper’s interaction with a brand spans multiple touch points, so a retailer’s personalization strategy must also encompass this same ecosystem. The enabling technology should be in the form of an all-in-one solution with all the required feature sets and scalability, in a single product.

AI and real-time personalization must be delivered across web, mobile, email, contact center and in-store, in such a way that the shopper doesn’t see these as individual channels. This means customizing and curating assets at each of these touch points; things like product recommendations, search and discovery results, ads, content and special offers. For a shopper, this means being able to jump from one device to another, walk in and out of stores, and browse and buy, with the journey linked by a unified, individualized shopping experience.

There has never been a more exciting time to be in retail. Yes, the industry is competitive, but it also offers huge opportunities to those brands and retailers that can successfully tap into shopper psyche. Brick-and-mortar has taken a hit, but — provided you give the shopper what they want — physical retail can remain resilient. What does the shopper want? A cohesive, engaging experience, unrestricted by the separation of ‘channels’. How can this be delivered? Personalization.


Meyar Sheik is Co-Founder & CEO of Certona. He is a seasoned software industry executive with 25 years of experience. Since 2000, Sheik has been a web analytics pioneer working with some of the largest sites on the Internet, such as Staples, ESPN, Fox, Sony, Best Buy, Disney, CBS and many other leading brands, in the areas of web analytics, personalization and real-time content optimization. Prior to Certona, Sheik was the CMO and COO of web analytics leader WebSideStory (now part of Omniture/Adobe). Before joining WebSideStory, Sheik was the Vice President of Worldwide Marketing and Strategic Alliances for the Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) software vendor SuperNova, Inc. 

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