My first buying trip was with a small chain of specialty retailers located in New England. I traveled to Boston with the GMM/president of the company, where we shopped multiple lines that we carried at our stores. I had the chance to select an assortment from several lines, which honestly meant, if I liked something that the GMM liked, there was an approving nod, and the selection made it to the final assortment by the sales rep tending to us. If I happened to choose something that the GMM didn’t approve of, I was offered, “well, how about this one instead.” So began my experience in merchandising.


Many things fascinated me about the process, but one thing in particular was how personal each selection was. As each style was shown, the GMM would comment on the customers that he thought would appreciate that particular item, and make note to let the individual store manager or wardrobe consultant know of the collection’s impending arrival. You see, I entered retail when many smaller retailers were still around (though many gasping for their last breath), so I was privileged to begin my career getting to know the customer on a more personal level. Specialty retailers, and even the larger service oriented department stores, had thrived on knowing each individual customer, his or her needs and wants, what was in their closet, kids, important dates, how they liked to shop, when, and even what wine or other beverage they preferred when they walked in. Records were kept by pen and paper and a system called a “tickler file” was in place. You would make a note to reach out to someone at a particular time for a particular reason, put the card in file for a future date, and when that date arrived, you would reach out accordingly. The system worked. But over time, most of these stores and smaller chains fell victim to the national retailers, discounters, and mass chains that could offer better value, greater consistency and a wider selection.

The trade off for better value, greater consistency, and a wider selection, was personalized service. Service still exists in some stores, but not the level of personalization that existed when a GMM shopped a line with YOU in mind and a professional sales associate knew you by name. Over time, commissioned sales associates have disappeared from most department stores, national specialty chains added computer based CRM programs, but still lacked truly personalized service, and the initial .com channel and “warehouse” store ramp up homogenized both product and service even further. Service became much like style where “one size fits all”.


Don’t believe it? Think about the marketing that has developed over the years to draw you into larger retailers. From pre-prints, to mass advertising, even with the introduction of emails. Gone were the personalized messages inviting you in to choose from a selection of products curated just for you, when and how you wanted to shop. Instead you were “bucketed” with a more generalized message and attracted to rush to the store to “Buy 1, Get 1” or to bust down the door to take “80% off” today only. Until tomorrow arrives, then amazingly you could take 80% off again. One size fits all.


Not today. Technology, data, channel optimization, consumer insights have taken us to a point where we are going backwards. Willingly. Back to a time when personalization mattered. The consumer is now less likely to accept that they have to sift through a mountain of advertising that has no relationship to their wants and needs, just to try find the needle in the haystack. Smart brands, those that have invested in technology wisely and have used data to get to know their customers, now tailor the experience, the product selection, even the offer to one’s personal tastes and needs. Like the sales professionals of old, technology now allows brands to not only offer customers products and services based on history, but to anticipate needs based on a variety of data and inputs. Amazon “gets me” when I sign on to their page. Brand Keys tracks seventy brands on “trust and security”, “customized curation” and “product/content range” and Amazon scores highest in customer satisfaction with a score of 93%. Nike and Converse have both developed programs that allow customers to take their basic shoes and customize them to their liking, using various materials, colors and styles. Target introduced Cartwheel, which personalizes its marketing and offers when you walk into one of their stores and over time, gets to “know you” to that it can more finely curate its offers. Companies like Trunk Club and J. Hilburn have combined the human and technological elements to customize product assortments and service for discerning customers.


As marketers, we are moving back to a time when we connected to the individual with a tailored message designed to attract him or her to our store-front. As merchants, we are moving back to a time when product assortments were designed with individuals in mind, not just how to cover “the assess of the masses”. Whether larger or smaller brands, those that have recognized that one size does not fit all in terms of messaging and products and are using technology to move backwards, are in a better position to springboard their brands forward.

Through out my career, while respecting tradition, I have always bristled at the notion of the “gold old days“, believing consistently that our best days are yet to come. Perhaps the key to retail success will be the return to the best of the good old days, with the technologies of today and tomorrow, with the customer at the center of the equation.

Original Source:  LinkedIn