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Three Ways a Company Can Use Data to Act Like a Personal Shopper

by Mark Simpson  |  
May 31, 2013

Innovative online companies like Amazon, Walmart, and Harry & David are pioneering the Big Data movement by converting the customer information they’ve amassed into highly personalized experiences—online and off.

In effect, they’re turning Big Data into smart data and solving a number of real-life issues that plague the online shopping experience: the difficulty of navigating vast product inventories, inability to track down specific items quickly, confusing purchase paths, long forms that seemingly ask for everything except your first born, irrelevant product recommendations, last-minute shipping fees…  The list goes on.

An experience marred by these types of roadblocks can make customers feel as though their favorite online stores don’t know them—or at best, don’t particularly care about them. But in fact, most online retailers know so much about their customers they could effectively act as a personal shopper…to every single customer they have. And some of them are.

Here are three ways companies can use (and already are using) the data they’re collecting to replicate the personal shopper experience online.

Know your customers better than they know themselves.

Good personal shoppers often have a better idea of what you want than you do. They’re also intimately familiar with their own inventory, which puts them in a great position to make recommendations that match your preferences.

Knowing what you want and pairing it with what they carry is Amazon’s specialty. The company continues to set the gold standard for best practices in personalization with their renowned product recommendations, which fall into two basic categories: item affinity and visitor affinity.

Item affinity results in recommendations, such as “Customers who bought this also bought that” tactic. And visitor affinity is the method by which they segment consumers with similar behaviors, and then provide them with relevant content, offers and visuals they’re likely to find attractive based on their previous interactions. Because Amazon has dominated the field for so long, it has a massive base of online visitor data to use in creating effective, detailed customer profiles.

And just as a good personal shopper always adds the perfect finishing touch to an ensemble, an initial purchase from Amazon generates further targeted choices, such as cross-selling additional items from other categories and upselling to a deluxe version of the original item or additional accessories and warranties.

Don’t wait for them to come to you—go to them instead.

Like a personal shopper who’s always clued in to the latest, hottest finds on the racks, with every new shipment Walmart entices consumers back to the shopping cart with targeted offers and calls-to-action.

In addition to its regular online retail operation, Wal-Mart recently announced plans to use its brick-and-mortar stores to fulfill orders placed online. So now, between the time of purchase and the time of pickup, there are a number of touchpoints that Walmart can use to actively entice buyers to shop more (online or in store at the time of pickup): email updates, customer service contact via phone or social media, direct mail, mobile, and a number of other channels they may encounter between time of order and the in-store pickup.

Walmart is also good at counteracting customers’ fears about navigating their vast inventory. Thanks to immense amounts of CRM data from past purchases and Walmart’s ability to quickly filter by color, size, material, price point and otherwise, the company can easily pair customers with items that make sense for them.
By refining the customer experience to this degree, Walmart makes shoppers feel exclusively catered to while cutting down on merchandise returns.

Be proactive, not reactive.

A good personal shopper is constantly looking for new ways to improve your experience so that you’ll continue buying from them.

For more than 75 years Harry & David has made customer satisfaction their business, which is why multivariate (MVT) testing is central to their approach online. MVT is a continuous process of testing an enormous array of website components simultaneously and in real time. Instead of second-guessing customers’ wants and needs, Harry & David uses testing to harness the power of Big Data to see which site elements (and combinations thereof) bring the greatest conversion rates and increases in sales.

But the best results require consistent and ongoing testing—a couple of tweaks here and there aren’t enough to do the job. Harry & David has fostered a culture of testing within its organization. Like personal shoppers, team members understand that their personal preferences aren’t necessarily what will make the most sense for the shoppers. So all changes to the website must be informed by the known needs and behaviors of consumers, not by their own gut instincts or subjective feelings.

Website updates should also be proactive, rather than reactive. So, throughout the year (with special attention paid to the December holiday season), Harry & David constantly optimizes numerous facets of their site: the home page, shopping cart, search navigation, product recommendations, and category pages, with near-endless variations in design, layout, calls to action, banner placement, and content. That persistent attention to thousands of experiences per test pays off with double-digit uplifts in conversion rates and increases in both average order values and revenue.

These three brands are at the forefront when it comes to turning Big Data into actionable data to provide a stronger sense of intimacy to the shopping experience, but any brand can put this powerful tool to work and become the trusted personal shopper their customers keep coming back to.

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Mark Simpson is founder and president of Maxymiser.

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