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Retail Execs Deem "Personalization" Creepy, Embrace "Relevancy"

As technology enables more targeted messaging than ever before, some in the industry are shying away from the word "personalization."

Last updated on April 1, 2015, at 9:31 a.m. ET

Posted on April 1, 2015, at 9:31 a.m. ET

Matt Cardy / Getty Images

It's no secret that retailers are fast becoming experts at personalizing customers' web experiences — homepages tailored to your lifestyle and income, emails that magically know the local weather, product recommendations based on your entire web browsing history.

But as the targeting gets more specific, industry giants are shunning the term "personalization" as invasive and robotic. Instead, it's about "relevancy," according to executives at some of the world's biggest retailers.

"We shy away from the word 'personalization' and focus more on relevancy, because personal can be, again, getting back to that creepy factor," Mike Robinson, the executive vice president of digital technology, customer experience, and site merchandising at Macys.com, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News last week.

Helen Vaid, vice president of customer experience at Walmart.com, responded similarly when queried about the company's efforts to serve up webpages and product recommendations based on a customer's profile and location.

"It's funny because people use the word personalization and I always use the word relevance," Vaid said in a separate interview. "You have to give the relevant experience to the customers at that point in time, and it should be relevant contextually."

It's a subtle quirk of phrasing that reflects the caution with which retailers are approaching their growing troves of customer data, particularly after seeing competitors get burned for crossing the line in the past few years. In 2012, Target got a rush of bad press for sending coupons for maternity clothes and nursery furniture to a teenage girl, after determining she was pregnant based on her purchasing data. While that's typically a useful practice that can win business from expectant mothers before other retailers do, the mailing inadvertently broke the news to her unaware father, much to the shock of other consumers.

Nordstrom, meanwhile, wasn't even collecting data tied to individuals when it got into a heap of trouble in 2013 for using Wi-Fi signals to learn more about customer traffic in a handful of stores. After an uproar from consumers, who accused Nordstrom of "spying" on them, it was swiftly removed.

And the ever-present targeted ads that now follow users across the internet have made the pervasiveness of digital tracking and personalized marketing even more apparent. One slightly embarrassing Crocs search on Amazon, and there goes your tranquil New York Times reading experience.

The fact of the matter is that Wal-Mart, Macy's, and every other savvy national retailer is getting incredibly good at personalization, whether they want to use that word or not. Information is increasingly pulled from across devices, emails are tailored to the sorts of messages you typically open, purchase histories are saved and used to advise product recommendations and promotions. Through opt-in store apps, your IRL habits are merging with your digital ones. Retailers are developing even more ways to connect your online browsing behavior with your in-store experiences in the next five years.

But they want to be clear that it's useful, which is where the emphasis on "relevance" comes in, and play down the intense-personal-data factor, which means "personalize" is out.

Gap, in a presentation last year about its own advancements in personalization, said that its goal is to be "cool, not creepy."

Without care, "it can go to a not good place," said Art Peck, who's now the company's CEO. Keeping it cool boils down to using personalization to give customers "relevant experiences that are beneficial to them," he said.

Macy's Robinson echoed that sentiment.

"The issue is trying to figure out what is the right context, what is the right amount of relevancy that is appropriate to you as a consumer," he said, noting the retailer's emphasis on privacy.

Perhaps there's a blouse you've had your eye on for months, and suddenly, it's at a cutthroat price, there are only two left in your size, and you're in the area — sending you a coupon might make sense, he said, speculating on how offers might work in the future.

It seems an offer like that is as personal as it gets. But somehow, the word personalization, despite containing the word "personal," has lost a key human element, at least according to Wal-Mart's Vaid.

"A lot of the time, personalization becomes algorithmically driven stories," she said. Instead, "what you're trying to do is create a position where a customer walks into a store and the store changes around them to be what they're looking for.

She continued: "It's 'do you help my shopping experience the way I want to shop,' as opposed to 'well, I know you did this and this and this, so I'm going to show you those, those, and those items.'"

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