Personalization is hot, but its execution is not

          Laura Heller

Personalization is one of the biggest buzzwords in retail today. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard the term in the past three months of attending conferences and reading reports, I could take a nice vacation. Preferably one that delivers on the promise of personalization in all the ways being discussed.

But I'm afraid I would be sorely disappointed. Because the promise of personalization has proven to be vastly different than the actual experience. Far too often, personalization takes the form of an item once viewed and not purchased (I was once stalked by a blue dress for several weeks until I bought it, then returned it). Or it suggests similar items, an exercise that sometimes returns alternative models of something just purchased. How many toasters or vacuum cleaners does one person need?

I am taking a vacation, an actual vacation not funded by the imaginary dollar I've received for every time personalization was said relative to retail. And in the planning of this vacation, there were many ways in which true personalization would have been helpful.

First, I could have been saved the trouble of starting from scratch, even in the destination selection. Based on my search history and social media activity—I liked my friend's posts about the expat life in the Yucatan on Facebook, I follow several photographers who specialize in Mexican imagery, I have a flight history of using frequent flier miles for beach destinations—my browser should already be bathing me in beguiling offers.

But no. We selected the destination on our own—Mexico—and proceeded to search for a specific locale. One a little off the beaten path, away from the heavily touristed areas. We then looked for available homes to rent or small hotels to stay at. This is where personalization kicked in in a couple of ways, one good and one not.

First the good: Ads for lodging began appearing in my browser following the first search almost immediately on social media pages, feeds and in email from travel sites. The bad news is that these messages were all targeting me with locations we had already looked up. Information I had discovered on my own.

This retargeting is the most common use of Internet tracking services and can be very effective. Email messages reminding shoppers of items left behind are great ways to prompt a purchase. But it isn't the only thing merchants can or should do.

Why not push suggestions? And not just for lodging, but for activities, excursions and restaurants while I'm clearly in a planning stage. Ads for apparel, swimwear and other travel items make sense at this moment, too.

While many online chat programs are unwelcome intrusions, having a travel expert or a recruited fan of this location pop up in a window to chat about options and amenities might actually go a long way toward making this trip more fun.

Personalization may be a buzzword, but it's also just a word if not accurately applied. -Laura