As the retail industry shifted focus from multichannel to omnichannel, many assumed that it meant enabling customers to seamlessly transition between commerce-related activities across a company’s channels, from mobile to online to email to in-store. Buy online, pick up in-store; buy in-store and have it shipped to store; universal cart from mobile to web; etc. And to an extent, it does. But as customers demand more from their experiences with retailers, omnichannel initiatives also have to focus on knowing the customer and providing a relevant, tailored experience to each individual, regardless of channel. Because at the end of the day, customers don’t see a retailer in terms of siloed channels; they have a single view of a single brand. And they want to be seen by the retailer not as a series of discrete visits, but as a single customer.

This year’s 2014 Shopper Experience Study, published by Cognizant and RIS News, investigates this notion in greater detail. The report, which is in its fifth year of publication, polled over 5,300 global shoppers on their shopping experiences across the retail, hospitality and consumer goods manufacturing industries, and found that above all retailers will win by putting themselves in their customers’ shoes. It goes on to review six key areas for retailers: mobile, social media, personalized marketing, cross-channel integration, loyalty and digital shopping.

While all these categories should be important to retailers and integral parts of an overall strategy, I believe that personalization holds the key to them all. In today’s landscape, where consumers want to feel like any given retailer knows them as an individual and is delivering content that is unique to their preferences and behavior, your Instagram posts won’t matter much if you’re delivering information around baby clothes and female fashions to a mid-twenties bachelor. Marshall McLuhan was wrong; it is the message not the media that counts!

Don’t take my word for it? Here are some key findings from the report around personalized marketing:

  • 51 percent of shoppers will respond to personalized marketing when it provides improved services
  • 54 percent of shoppers will respond to personalized experiences that are in the form of special treatment (i.e. special access or token gifts)
  • 43 percent of shoppers are willing to provide personal information for marketing use through loyalty programs
  • 33 percent of shoppers are open to sharing personal shopping preferences with retailers

And as retailers improve their personalized marketing campaigns and messages, I only expect these numbers to grow. To improve personalized marketing, I suggest focusing on the following tactics:

Utilize Existing Data: Review the data you’re already collecting, because there’s a good chance you have more than you think! And remember that this data is more than just transactional – it is email logs, website behavior, customer reviews, abandoned cart items, call center records, and more. Use that data to paint a complete customer picture.

Action is Greater than Analysis: You could analyze data until your face turns blue, but if you don’t put that knowledge into action, it doesn’t mean much. What matters is how an individual’s experience with you is enhanced by your use of data. There are many ways retailers can go about putting data into action, and (shameless plug) CQuotient can help.

Implement Predictive Personalization: Much of the personalization you see today is reactive personalization. Meaning, the customer has to do something first (e.g. abandon their shopping cart online after logging in) before personalization kicks in. And while this is good and should be part of your tactics, it is not nearly enough. For most retailers outside grocery, the average consumer shops with them only two to three times per year. So the percentage of customers who abandoned a cart last week is a tiny fraction of the customer base you send five to 10 emails to a week. If reaction is the only way you can personalize, then you are left with nothing for the vast majority of your customers. Predictive personalization, by contrast, doesn’t need the consumer to take the first step. Rather it can predict the relevant message for a consumer who may not have visited you in over six months, but is still a consumer you want to keep!

As the report points out, “For a customer there is only one true channel – the ‘my-experience-with-you’ channel.” If retailers hope to be successful they’ll have to stop caring about individual channels and work to implement a true omnichannel strategy, which will make every customer experience the best it can be.

To review the complete Fifth Annual 2014 Shopper Experience Study, by Cognizant and RIS News, head over to the Cognizant website for a free copy.