Are in-store personalization tactics becoming less creepy?

Photo: RetailWire
Jul 08, 2016

MarketingCharts staff

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from MarketingCharts, a Watershed Publishing publication providing up-to-the-minute data and research to marketers.

In its second annual “Creepy or Cool?” survey, RichRelevance finds continued opposition to several forms of in-store personalization.

Indeed, only about half of respondents consider it “cool” to receive a digital coupon for a product that they looked at but didn’t purchase (51.8 percent) or to receive personalized product recommendations on a print or e-mail receipt (49.8 percent).

Digital screens in dressing rooms that show products complementing the item being tried on are equally as likely to be considered “creepy” (41.9 percent) as “cool” (41.5 percent), per the survey’s more than 1,000 adult respondents. And while location-triggered personalized content and discounts delivered to mobile devices are slightly more likely to be perceived as “cool” (39.9 percent) than “creepy” (37.3 percent), a sizable chunk (22.8 percent) aren’t sure.

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The personalization tactics that are the most unfavorable to consumers are:

  • A salesperson making more helpful suggestions because they can see what the shopper has previously browsed and bought on their site and in the store (31.9 percent “cool” versus 45.9 percent “creepy”);
  • A salesperson greeting the shopper by name on the selling floor because their mobile phone signals their entrance (18.2 percent “cool” compared to 64.3 percent “creepy”);
  • Facial recognition technology identifying the shopper as a high-value one and relaying the information to a salesperson (13 percent “cool” versus 66.8 percent “creepy”).

Millennials (18-29) found facial recognition more “creepy” than those surveyed on average and rated a salesperson greeting them by name about the same as others. But they were generally more open than other respondents to all other tactics.

For the most part, the personalization tactics considered the most “creepy” last year continue to be viewed that way this year. Comparing this year’s versus last year’s, the trends indicate:

  • A slight move towards “cool” rather than “creepy” for scanning products on mobile devices to see reviews and recommendations;
  • Location-triggered mobile alerts are seen as less “cool” this year; but
  • Shoppers are slightly more favorable to salespeople greeting them by name on the selling floor due to a mobile signal, and to facial recognition technology identifying a loyal shopper.


DISCUSSION: Which in-store personalization tactics considered “creepy” today do you think will likely become commonplace over the next five years? What can stores do to reduce consumer apprehension over many in-store personalization tactics?

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20 Comments on "Are in-store personalization tactics becoming less creepy?"

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Bob Phibbs
Personalization on a website is much easier to handle than in a store as I wrote in my post How Retailers Can Keep Up With Retail Consumer Trends. Say you’ve got a holiday party to go to. You go online and search for red sweaters. You see a couple sites but then get distracted wondering what you’re going to serve. You open another browser window and search for holiday recipes. You click on one using Myers’s Rum and cinnamon. You closeout the browsers without buying or taking any other actions. When you come back to read the New York Times, you notice ads for red sweaters in the middle of articles. You go to another site and ads for red sweaters and Myers’s Rum show up. Based on your previous browsing, you have been remarketed across the web with ads for Myers’s Rum and red sweaters. For the web, most would say this was personalized content. Now, if you were in a store and they remarketed — oops, personalized — you with everything you picked up to look… Read more »
Anne Howe

Mobile scanning for reviews and recommendations will surely grow since we are so biased to make decisions based on what other people think and say.

And call me crazy, but I believe busy shoppers could quickly get hooked on fitting room technology that shows complementary styles. Two options I’d want: a button to turn it off and a button to summon an associate so any new option I like can be brought to me without me having to get dressed and go hunting for it in the store.

In-store beacon communication will catch on too, as long as retailers don’t go overboard. If the offers become too intrusive and irrelevant like many mobile banners, it will be turned off by shoppers. Retailers need to learn which shoppers will accept messages and offers, and deliver accordingly.

Max Goldberg

I doubt that many of the items defined as most creepy will become cool in the next five years. That said, retailers will continue to use data to roll out more ways to personally touch consumers. If it gets to be too much, consumers will shop elsewhere. Retailers and marketers need to remember that just because you have data about a consumer does not mean that you should use it.

Dick Seesel

I think that making purchase recommendations in a store based on online shopping or browsing crosses a privacy line that is better left untouched. But being able to greet customers by name used to be seen as a positive and perhaps it will be again.

Ryan Mathews

I think this is sort of the wrong question. It isn’t the personalization technologies per se (although some are really creepy) as much as it is the application.

So if I have purchased Coke and my cash register tape offers a discount on Pepsi, the implication is a. I made the wrong choice, or b. I value 50 cents more than taste, or c. you think I’m a sheep.

Let’s look at the “suggested sell” in the dressing room. Standing half undressed in a room with a technology that seems to recognize you is creepy on its face. Why not a customized follow-up email a day or so later?

And on and on and on. People don’t like their privacy invaded or their intelligence demeaned or their choice nullified.

Again, it isn’t so much the tool, it’s how we apply it.

Ross Ely

Although most shoppers are becoming resigned to their loss of privacy, retailers should still be very careful not to cross the line between creepy and cool. Promotions based on past purchases should be subtle rather than overt and balance respect for privacy with personalized marketing.

Recognition of top shoppers should be based on personal relationships with cashiers and front-line store managers as opposed to awkward mechanical greetings based on data. Shoppers appreciate personalized offers that meet their needs, but they also demand respect for their privacy. Retailers need to carefully walk this line.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Patricia Vekich Waldron
Contributing Editor, RetailWire; Founder and CEO, Vision First
5 years 10 months ago

The level of personalization must take into consideration the type of retailer, i.e.: high-touch department store vs. grocery, as well as the consumers’ relationship and shopping purpose.

Ori Marom

Shoppers always weigh the cost of decreased privacy against the benefits they stand to get from personalization. This issue is not new, as Google’s legal team knows all too well.

Research has shown that while consumers are paying lip service to privacy issues they are willing to sell their private information extremely cheaply. Say, most would accept “creepy” over “cool” practices for a mere dollar or two in savings.

In the long run, I believe that modern consumers would get used to the idea that they can have no freedom from pervasive surveillance. Not on the web. Not on the street. Not in stores.

Sounds strange? Just ask Eric Schmidt.

Kim Garretson
5 years 10 months ago

With all the buzz about Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, I have to think there is a lot of promise here in personalization. Imagine a shopper having access to 3-D images of their home’s interiors and working with a sales associate in a furniture store to visualize the goods they are sitting on or using magically appearing within their own homes.

Lesley Everett

The idea of providing a personal service is good, however the consumer feeling that you have been “checking up” on them, I agree, is creepy and does not achieve the objective. I’m not sure this will ever work well. If there is a way for this intelligence to be accessed by retailers and assistants to interpret and use in a more subtle way then this may work brilliantly.

For example, knowing that a customer always buys something classic-style and in neutral tones from a particular designer, a retailer could offer them something that has just come in in this style, without personal comment and instead just a simple, “thought this might work well for you also.” “Remembering” that the customer always buys a mocha with a croissant and saying “welcome back, same as usual today?” will tend to go down well and achieve the objective of the customer feeling valued, buying more and talking about the experience. So USE the intelligence but in a subtle way.

Shep Hyken

I like it. It’s not creepy when it’s transparent. First, the customer has to agree to participate by sharing information. Second, they need to be told the benefits — and what the experience will be like. If anything, it will intrigue many people to come back and give it a try. They will want to find out what the “personalized experience” will be like. Done correctly, with the right information and comments added, you can create a better, customized and personalized experience that the customer appreciates and embraces.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Years ago American Express had to have their call center people stop answering the phone using the customers’ names (they showed up on the record by phone number) because customers found that creepy. Now customers find it creepy if sales associates greet them by name. Using customer information in a way that makes them feel their privacy is invaded is often creepy, almost always distracting and not helpful.

Receiving coupons when browsing is likely to be mostly accepted but only if customers want messages distracting them while they’re trying to make their shopping trip quick. Amazon’s suggestions during or after the purchase are not considered creepy by consumers. The suggestions made while shopping are based on what most customers have purchased when buying the item not their personal record. Those suggestions are made later after the purchase.

When is personalization actually helpful without being creepy?

Ralph Jacobson

Personalization is an evolution. When retailers first started texting offers, many shoppers opted out. Now people want as many relevant offers as they can get. In-store, certain newer technologies may seem creepy at first blush. However, I can tell you that automated dressing rooms have been around for a decade in at least one retailer that I can think of, and they are now catching on better than ever. Facial recognition? Yes, that’s creepy, however it too will be presented in “softer” manners as time goes on, and will become far less intimidating. Time, retailer adoption and shopper acceptance will determine which technologies will last.

John Karolefski

Besides the cool or creepy factor, there is the annoying factor. Shoppers do not want to received beeps for a half-dozen different coupons or other offers during a shopping trip. Grocers need to limit those connections to a max of three, or else risk shoppers opting out of the beacon program.

Mark Price
Mark Price
Chief Data Officer, CaringBridge
5 years 10 months ago

Remember, when these surveys are conducted, they tend to be among all shoppers. The key question is, how do your best and highest potential customers respond to this new technology? Those segments are the most important and deserve special focus.

Overall, in-store personalization will become less creepy based on its ability to improve the customer experience and provide valuable information to customers at the point-of-purchase.

As store associates become more comfortable leveraging technology to make suggestions and provide valuable information to customers, these tactics will move into the mainstream. It is not just the technology, after all; it is how that technology is delivered that matters.

As consumers also become more comfortable with location-based marketing on their mobile phones, retailers will be able to use customer purchase history and location-based services to provide information to customers on their own devices.

Over time, I have grown less and less concerned about the “creepy” factor. Consumers are increasing the rate at which they accept new technology and strategies, when that technology can actually make a difference in their lives.

James Tenser
When it comes to cool-versus-creepy, I think the creep factor is highly situational. An example (for those gentlemen in our cadre who sometimes buy fine clothing): If the tailor asks you, “Do you dress left or right?” is that a violation of your intimate space or a helpful personalization of your trouser purchase? Does your answer depend on your age or past experiences or the price tag of the garment? Now how about building similar investigative features into a “smart” mirror in the dressing room? I’d guess some shoppers might find this pretty cool, while others might think only of the body scan data that winds up in the store’s creepy database. Machine-controlled shopper interactions may be personalized in a variety of ways, but that does not make them personal in the emotional sense. I believe even tech-saturated millennials can feel the difference. A mobile phone app that relentlessly suggests deals or add-on purchases to shoppers as they move about the store or mall may be technically feasible, but does it make for a better… Read more »
Ken Morris
Ken Morris
Managing Partner Cambridge Retail Advisors
5 years 10 months ago
Over time, as consumers get used to a lot of these personalization technologies, they will become less creepy; however, today there is definitely a fine line that retailers need to be careful about crossing. With many of these identification and personalization technologies, just because retailers can use it, doesn’t mean they should. The key to most of these personalization tools hinge on a consumer opt-in approach. Many consumers that are very loyal to a specific retail brand may opt in and value the customized selling approach it enables. However, casual or one-time shoppers at a brand will likely not embrace the intrusion of sales associates knowing anything about them and find it creepy. Another way retailers can tread softly with these personalization tactics is to use customer intelligence in a way that isn’t so obvious. For example, If the associate has access to history of what a consumer has browsed or what’s in their closet, they can recommend products based on that information but not disclose to the customer that they know this information. This… Read more »
Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
5 years 10 months ago

There’s a fundamental problem with personalization: It isn’t personal. And it never can be.

All personalization require relying on data classifications that lead to assumptions about how products relate. But if you look at any product relationship (e.g. “this blouse goes well with these pants”), there are ALWAYS people who disagree with your choice.

In other words, it requires the manufacturer and retailers choosing what you’ll find personal — and they are guaranteed to be wrong often enough that it can never be personal.

It doesn’t mean we should stop these efforts. But let’s stop calling them personal or relevant. Let’s call them “shopping basket suggestions” or something similar to avoid leading ourselves to conclude they are more than that.

Stores should stop working so hard on personalization as a result and simply focus on basic, good merchandising. (Of course, I almost always recommend that retailers return their focus to the fundamentals of good retail and not spending quite so much time on digitally enabled distractions like this. It’s a good fundamental principle.)

Kenneth Leung

Web site personalization is predicated on users logging in and there is a tacit acceptances of cookie tracking. In real life, there is still a perceived contract of privacy unless the customer builds a relationship with a human.

I often say privacy expectations are based on context. When you are at a bar, you often build a relationship with the staff and expect to be recognized (the Cheers, where everyone knows your name model). While shopping, the expectations is that you can find help when you need it, but not necessarily personalization unless you are meeting with a personal shopper.

I think for the above tactics to become less “creepy” you need to introduce an opt in and a “turn on and off” model to make the shopper feel comfortable.

Sterling Hawkins

What is “creepy” and privacy questions in general tend to be highly cultural and change over time. The most important factor in balancing privacy is the value exchange: is the perceived value greater than the privacy given up? As personalization improves, the perceived value for the consumer will increase, more people will welcome more personalization making it the new cultural norm.

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