Are retailers doing enough with our data to make online customer experiences truly personal?

If you’re used to shopping on Amazon regularly then you’ll be used to a homepage full of items you’ve already browsed, items inspired by your history and other recommended products based on your preferences and behaviour.

Amazon is regularly held up as the go-to example of personalisation at work. I don’t personally think there’s anything particularly complicated or fancy in the way it presents its regular visitors with tailored products, Amazon merely succeeds by simply utilising data fairly well.

Hardly a glowing ‘best in show’ endorsement but you’ll be surprised how many popular retailers just aren’t using data to personalise the customer experience at all, especially when 94% of businesses say it’s critical to their success

Let’s take a look at how some retailers can improve their efforts to create connected customer experiences.


This post was inspired by a comment left on a previous article I wrote about the customer journey from search to Apple’s website.

In the above linked piece, I praised the retailer for its faultless paid search strategy and for providing a fluid, fast and overall joyful ecommerce experience. However it seems that’s where the customer experience ends.

Here’s an anecdotal tale of disappointment from Sitecore’s head of business optimisation Lars Petersen, which I’ll paraphrase here…

Lars visited from his old iPhone and pre-ordered the new iPhone 6. 90 minutes later he visited again, using the same device he just used to buy a new iPhone 6, to find the content he was being served was focused on selling him an iPhone 6 again. Apple had forgotten all about him.

"When I opened my order email confirmation and clicked, I can see details on of my order on, when I click to the homepage, they are promoting me to buy the new iPhone 6 (even though I have just looked at my order). Most disappointing was later when I received an email, promoting the new iPhone 6."

As a consumer, this is at best a waste of time, at worst it’s disappointing, irrelevant and deeply impersonal. “Why don’t you remember me Apple? Didn’t we share something special?” Too far?

Apple’s ecommerce site is fantastic from a ‘single-serve’ point of view. One customer purchasing one product once. However Apple is missing a huge opportunity. 

It could show accessories related to the already purchased iPhone, new apps based on the consumer’s download history, emails could be sent reminding a previous customer of a new models, related product launches or relevant accessories too.

Apple has a vast amount of data on all of its customers and yet the experience between channels in terms of personalisation isn’t connected at all.


We love Threadless here on the blog, barely a month passes without a reference to its brilliant checkout, product pages or various ingenious micro-UX touches, however there is one area it could improve…

Every time I use Threadless (roughly on a quarterly basis) I order the same products, large men’s t-shirts, yet even though I remain signed in, Threadless doesn’t remember my preferences.

Here you can see on the homepage I’m signed in, and even items I placed in the cart a few weeks ago are still there.

To begin shopping I have to either use the top navigation menu, or click one of the large images. When I click on the ‘shop men’s tees’ image, I’m taken through to a further landing page with more large images and options.

Finally when clicking one of these options, I’m taken through to the product listings page which doesn’t take into account previous purchase history. That middle landing page feels redundant being as I still have to sort the listings according to other filters here anyway.

Threadless is a fantastic place to pick up loads of presents for many different people in your life, so I understand that having an abundance of size, price and style options are completely necessary. However, Threadless knows the items I’ve purchased before based not just on the above options, but also type of t-shirt category. 

On the homepage there could easily be a section called ‘tees just for you’ where it’s filtered the results automatically by size, gender, price range and category of t-shirt I buy most items from (animals, film, monsters, nerdy etc.).


I’ve bought a few items from Habitat’s website over the last few months and as the retailer has had to shift its focus online (mainly because most of its stores closed in 2011) I’m surprised it hasn’t taken greater advantage of the benefits online personalisation offers.

For a start, this impersonal homepage, which doesn’t even say my username when signed in.

Beneath the non-tailored navigation options there’s a carousel of ‘our favourites’. 

Surely the whole page is already full of Habitat’s favourites. Would this not be better suited to being a ‘your favourites’ selection, based on either products you’ve browsed, bought or favourited for a wishlist?

The whole site experience is equally impersonal, and although the brand has a certain stylish identity to maintain, these are still homeware products, which carry an emotional attachment for customers. This could be reflected in the online experience if it was more like being at home.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 10 December, 2014 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (1)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

Re Apple and the anecdote about Lars still being offered the iPhone 6, even though he'd just bought one. I think it's significant that this occurred when the iPhone 6 had just been launched and was still on pre-order, which meant it would have been Apple's most ordered product by a huge margin. What should Apple's algorithm have picked instead? I think they made the right choice, because quite a lot of people will have ordered two iPhones, and recommendation engines "follow the numbers".

Re Threadless: this is a great example of the need to analyze categories properly. They absolutely should be capturing your preferred size, gender, and price category and suggesting clothes to match. I'm less sure about style (monsters, nerdy etc) because they probably don't have the data. Our customers who are doing this sort of are extremely enthusiastic about the results that they are getting.

Finally Habitat: I'd bet that the "our favorites" block is basically like a "manager's choice" display for special orders/overstocks/end of line etc. Such sections are extremely useful to fine-control your marketing in real-time, by just flagging the products with an appropriate category. IOW, the carousel will use the same technology as personalization, but with a human hand on the wheel instead of an algorithm.

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