Comment: Are retail brands in danger of getting too personal asks Nigel Collett of RPA: Group

New research from Accenture of 1000 American customers looked at both online and in-store retail, and highlighted what shoppers found unacceptable in a personalised shopping experience.

It showed that 55% of consumers want personalised shopping through all engagement channels, perfectly tailored to their personal needs. But, it also shows that while the store environment should be all about initiating and maintaining conversations, some retailers just don’t know when to leave people in peace. 

Personalisation is now widely regarded as a way for “bricks” retailers to offer customers a seamless experience between the digital and physical worlds. However, brands need to be aware that we must feel comfortable with how things are marketed to us.

Recent research illustrates that British shoppers are embracing technology: 14% of us would use cameras in fitting rooms to share with friends via apps or social media, 22% are interested in on-screen offers in fitting rooms and 40% of us want to check if a products is available in-store via an app.

These are baby steps and as easy for the average shopper to accept as contactless payments or click and collect.

The really big stuff is just around the corner with brands planning to get ‘closer’ to us through improved personalisation. Some developments currently being mooted have the ring of science fiction about them: for example, clothing that can ‘read’ emotions as we journey around a store, enabling the shop to suggest purchases or activities in line with our moods. Perhaps a calming massage on the fifth floor or a hot beverage in the basement?

Using advanced datasets, including geolocation, sentiment analysis, facial analysis, online and offline behaviour, social connections and a host of other sources, it is possible for a brand, through social media analysis, to know a huge amount about our private lives, information that we are largely unaware that we are sharing.

Accenture offers an example: the close friend of a customer has a new baby, and the retailer knows, based on the friend’s interests, that she is an avid Star Trek fan. When the customer goes online to buy a gift, the site personalises the page with a message, “Celebrate the new addition to Sarah’s family with a Star Trek Fleet Command onesie (0–6 months).”

This is the sort of conversation that makes me question whether the store is in fact coming too far into my personal space. Is it all in fact a bit creepy? Personally, I like to feel that I am in control but if a brand gets the dialogue wrong then exactly the opposite is true. I feel I have acquired a brand stalker and that I should be able to issue a marketing restraining order.

After all, what we all want is to feel that our relationship with a brand is on tap, a conversation that we can start if we want and more importantly switch off when we feel like being alone. Accenture’s Technology Lab has a word for the creepiness that many of us feel, it’s ‘hyper-personalisation’, a devastatingly accurate data cocktail leading to a level of consumer understanding that would shock most of us.

It seems as if personalisation is about to cross a marketing point of no return, into territory where progress is not answering consumer demand but is progress for its own sake. Above everything else brands need to remember that technology moves much faster than people, and culturally we all need to feel comfortable with how things are marketed to us. Maybe it’s time to let the consumer catch up?

Nigel Collett is CEO of rpa:group. The company is exhibiting at stand D50 at Retail Design Expo 2016.