How to be cool, not creepy, with consumer data

3 smart privacy tips from 3 retail executives

by Alison Bolen, SAS Insights Editor

You order a new pair of shorts, and a matching tank top in your size is recommended. You pass by your favorite grocery store, and a coupon for the cheese you just ran out of pops up on your smartphone. You almost forget Mother’s Day, but an email reminding you that mom likes tulips arrives just in time to order flowers for delivery.

While personalized customer service trends are generally viewed as positive by retailers and consumers alike, there is clearly a fine line between meeting consumers’ needs and just plain old being creepy. 

What concerns do retailers have regarding consumer privacy? And how are they addressing those concerns while still meeting customer needs? At Retail’s Big Show in New York City, we asked executives from Brooks Brothers, Chico’s and eBay how they manage the balance between personalization and privacy.

The personalized experience is most welcome when consumers are aware that they’ve willingly provided the information.

Gayatri Patel, Director of Global Data Infrastructure, eBay

Be conservative when it comes to privacy

Your best bet for getting privacy right is to err on the conservative side, says Eric Singleton, Chico’s Chief Information Officer. “If you think the creepiness line is here, you should consciously stop 20 percent short of it.”

Gayatri Patel, eBay Director of Global Data Infrastructure, agrees. “As an industry, we should always err on the side of privacy. It might result in less personal service, but you protect the customer from feeling like you’ve crossed a line when you give users control of opting in or opting out.”

Patel also suggests incorporating human decision points wherever possible. The real issue with creepiness comes when we use data to automate and make decisions for consumers without some human judgment or some course of action that looks at the data and asks if this is right. We need to apply judgment and err conservatively. We’re working with humans so we need to apply human judgment and do the right thing.”

Keep the consumer in control

“If you take the philosophical approach and focus on the consumer’s control of opting in, then the creepiness factor goes away,” says Singleton. But it’s up to the retailer to make certain that the point is communicated, and there should be no doubt that consumers have opted in and may opt out at any time.

“The personalized experience is most welcome when consumers are aware that they’ve willingly provided the information,” says Patel.

“Chico’s is doing a lot of things that are very carefully engineered to behave like your best friend who you take shopping with you and can trust to give you honest feedback about your purchase decisions,” says Singleton. “If we can use that trust and influence, and be everywhere like your best friend, then we’re getting near our goals. But we have to let the consumer always be the driver in the relationship, or it won’t work.”

Show value in exchange for data

When you can show consumers the value they receive by sharing data, they’re more likely to opt in. “Amazon has been getting this right forever with an analytics engine that recommends relevant products,” explains Sahal Laher, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Brooks Brothers. “When it’s done well, we’ve seen great success from consumers who are ready to take on those suggestions of products.”

Laher also suggests gathering useful data in aggregate, without gathering personal information, when possible. “Through iBeacons and RFID, for example, we can track traffic to specific parts of the store. Based on that, you can predict staffing levels and shopping trends.”

In all cases, retailers can bolster consumer trust and confidence by protecting and treating customers’ data like it’s their own and using it to provide true benefits to customers. Businesses must think of data privacy not as a back-office activity for compliance, but as a competitive differentiator that improves the customer experience.


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