Up close and personal online

Gathering data for tailored one-to-one messaging and smart marketing is rebooting retail on and offline, writes James Silver

In the light-filled atrium of the Village, the high-end section of Westfield shopping centre in west London, a young family lingers at a pop-up platform displaying Citroen DS cars, in black and red. After a few moments they move on, past retailers such as Massimo Dutti, NW3 and Zara Home, before disappearing into the crowd of Saturday shoppers. What the family almost certainly won’t know is that while they stood in front of the cars, a sophisticated high-definition camera, mounted on the aluminium frame at the back of the display, watched their every move.

Without identifying individuals, this profiling technology enabled the pop-up’s designers, Green Room – a retail design agency whose clients include Nike, Timberland and Sony PlayStation – to glean rich data from the family. “The camera allows us to measure the audience that looks at the stand 24/7,” explains Alex Weller, Green Room’s head of digital. “Within a split-second, we can measure 20 different elements of an individual’s face, within a nine-metre radius. We can tell their gender, which age band they belong to, when they’re looking and for how long.”

The data is streamed in real time, allowing the agency to build up a detailed engagement profile of people who showed interest in the cars. Marketing messages can then be more accurately tailored to groups within social platforms, for example, based on behaviour patterns. Restricted by understandable concerns over privacy, profiling technology is still in its earliest stages. However, Mr Weller says retailers are on the brink of being able to tell far more about us through it – and other technologies – enabling them to target their customers in ever more personal ways.

“I was talking to one of the leading UK high street banks about being able to use multiple devices to confirm someone’s identity, the minute they walk into a store,” he says. “If you were pre-registered with them, perhaps on Facebook, they could check your face against a database and confirm your identity by your mobile device’s unique MAC address. After two or three dynamic spot checks like these, they can send you safe, smarter, timely and more personalised messages.”

Retailers are on the brink of being able to tell far more about us

Where is this heading? “The Holy Grail is mass one-to-one marketing,” he replies, half-joking. “Brands ultimately want to speak to you one on one. Obviously that’s impossible, but with a mobile device and a customer’s consent, you do have an opportunity to deliver far more tailored, personal communications, at just the right moment.”

At present, most communications from retailers in the social sphere are anything but personal. The majority of special deals and loyalty schemes both in-store and online or mobile, are built on search, purchase history or Amazon-style peer-to-peer recommendations. The boom in couponing and daily deals sites like Groupon, Wowcher, Living Social and Vouchercodes, as well as Swagg, a smartphone app for managing loyalty cards, are also essentially search and user history-based services. In smart-marketing terms, vouchering is still in its infancy, says Tim Dunn, director of strategy at Isobar Mobile, a digital creative agency. That is likely to change.

“In terms of personalised behaviour-mapping, there is a huge opportunity for vouchering services to be developed using more sophisticated analytics and algorithms, targeting users based on their behaviour and preferences,” he says. “If you look at all the data that exists in the loyalty space alone, I would estimate that less than 20 per cent of it is being used to its maximum degree. If algorithms were built around that data, and that was combined with the social sphere, then you can start to build something really quite powerful.”

Pascal Podvin, chief executive of software developers Compario, emphasises the importance of personalisation in converting one-time purchasers into loyal customers. “We’re inventing the market as we speak, trying to find new techniques of personalising the customer experience by recognising the individual, analysing absolutely everything he or she has done in the previous six months and turning that into new ways of merchandising that will appeal to the customer,” he says.

While mass-messaging can damage brands because it can feel like spamming, excessively personalised communications may seem intrusive. “Most reputable companies are absolutely erring on the side of caution when it comes to privacy concerns,” says Dan Hagen, head of planning at leading media agency Carat. “I do see the industry going carefully towards more personalised messaging, but messages that are more relevant to an individual.”