In retail, technology-enabled services are humanizing automation by providing shoppers a framework not only of what is in style, but how to wear it. But nailing context also requires a conversation.
Several clothing retailers are offering their customers the merchandising equivalent of a heart-to-heart: highly personalized advice for selecting, matching and choosing outfits that are tailor-made for any event, any time.
Through mobile apps, digital shop bots, live chats and other emerging technologies, shoe maker Aldo, men’s retailer Frank + Oak and others are slipping intimacy into the shopping trip. They are, as is the relentless mission of retail, trying to reignite brand interest lest their best shoppers stray. And they are doing it not merely through personalized content, but by incorporating the key ingredient that makes such content relevant – contextualization.
“Customers today want a brand to tailor to their needs,” Serge Rose, Aldo Group’s director of customer applications, said in an interview with Glossy. “We’re focusing on flexibility.”
The trick is using the shoppers’ contextual cues to guide the brand content – that is how to connect to a shopper’s emotional value drivers. And this is why more retailers are turning to technology to form companionship. Many of us have made digital devices the vessels of our most personal traits.
Those traits include shopping habits, so retailers are striving to be wherever the shopper is. This is a long-sought goal, but handheld devices now provide that contextualization with unprecedented accuracy. Here is how a couple retailers are doing it.
Aldo: Style Finder With Sole
Long identified as a mall store, footwear and accessory retailer, Aldo is tying its online, mobile and in-store offerings together to deliver consistent, personalized experiences as it prepares for international expansion.
The content strategy is designed, in part, to address fast fashion, which has made flexibility a key to merchandising. However, so are quality and soul, and that can be delivered with some simple scene setting.
“We listened to consumer insight, and what they want, at any point, is more contextualization,” he said.
Among the features on AldoShoes.com is a “Style Finder” that asks shoppers where they are going, how they define their personal styles and their preferred color palettes. It then calls up items to match. When the site relaunches, it will include more such personalized pages, offerings and style content.
Its mobile app will be synched to its 2,000 stores so shoppers can scan boots or bags for additional product and style information. Store associates can show customers what is available in-store, online or at other stores and order items to ship directly to the home. (Aldo plans to test Uber Rush next year.)
Other retailers, including Luxottica Retail, offer similar online style indicators (choosing the right frames for one’s face, for example). In a year, those that do not may be the outliers.
Frank + Oak Seeks Mighty Growth
Technology also is enabling international expansion for Frank + Oak, a men’s apparel chain that wants to be known for premium, on-trend styles that carry from the boardroom to the bar.
Its new website and mobile app use bot technology to offer recommendations while customers shop. This “guided shopping” experience may include suggestions based on a shopper’s profile, location and previous purchases. A pop-up representative greets visitors after spending a few moments noodling around the site.
At its stores, Frank + Oak customers can get a shave, grab a coffee and unwind in the lounge or take advantage of a personal stylist.
Such features are clearly tailored to woo (and wow) its shoppers. CEO and founder Ethan Song told Strategy Online that through these efforts, Frank + Oak strives to recapture the social aspect of shopping; to integrate “the human experience with automation” and replicate an event that is much like shopping with a friend.
In return, Frank + Oak can collect richer details about its customers so it can provide more relevant suggestions and style advice.
“The new wave of e-commerce is not necessarily about access, because you already have access to everything,” Song said.
Do You Hear What We Hear?
What these efforts have in common is they generate better-quality data. However, nailing content means consistently getting the context accurate, otherwise we risk missing on relevance. Integrating human and automated experiences can certainly lead to a conversation, but achieving emotional engagement requires decidedly more fundamental considerations. Here are a few:
All customers are created with potential: True, not all customers are created equal, and the needs of high-profit shoppers should be recognized. However, contextual-enabling technologies such as shopper apps empower retailers to identify high-potential shoppers with a higher level of accuracy. A shopper may not have spent more than $100 with a particular brand in the past year, but if he keeps revisiting that same $1,000 suit on his smartphone, it may be time to reach out and offer a free fitting.
Carry their messages: If a retailer’s message is only truly relevant with context, then that good context requires more than knowing where a shopper is and offering shoes that match the occasion. It also means understanding her personal message, or situation, and how it relates to the brand. Through social media, ambassador programs or hosted community activities, a retailer can deliver the content of a customer’s message in a context that resonates with her and others. The trick is directing that user-generated content toward other customers who have similar tastes and/or interests.
Be virtuous with data: I mentioned earlier how contextual interactions enable retailers to collect richer details that they then can use to offer more relevant style advice. This is a tender area. The line between relevance and disconnect (or worse, annoyance) is razor-thin. The more responsible and un-abusive a company is with shopper data, the more likely those shoppers will share additional and more insightful information. And back through the cycle it goes, creating a greater competitive advantage with each cycle.
Contextualization, just like heart-to-heart talks, requires honesty and responsibility if it is to work long-term.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, where Bryan serves as a retail contributor. You can view the original story here.