It's not seasonal, it's personal

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It may be spring on the calendar, but not necessarily for shoppers. (Tom Merton/Getty/OJO Images)

The calendar says spring (believe it or not) and for many retailers, it feels like retail has settled into seasonal limbo, hovering somewhere between winter and the sale of spring and summer products. But could an early switch be stunting late winter sales or deterring customers?

According to Bill Cunningham, VP of sales at SiteSpect, whether or not its time to shop for spring often depends on the individual. Instead of calculating seasonal changes by the calendar or weather, SiteSpect helps its retailers, inluding Staples, Walmart and Anthropologie, highlight personalized indicators to align with their customer’s seasonal switch-over including geographic insights, device-based engagement and browsing history.

FierceRetail spoke with Cunningham to learn more about tailoring seasonal offers to the customer instead of the weather. 

FierceRetail (FR): Traditionally, do most retailers still decide inventory based on the seasonal calendar?

Bill Cunningham (BC): To keep pace with Amazon and other larger retailers, many retailers will keep stock of seasonal items year-round. When it comes to introducing new items and/or highlighting specific products, this is still commonly done seasonally. In fact, one trend we are seeing among retailers is the race to be the “first” to start releasing products for an upcoming season—with advertisements for bathing suits and sundresses now coming out in February, when many of us are still bundled up for winter weather.

This is a big mistake. Rather than identifying the needs of their customers, retailers are implementing a “keeping up with the joneses” strategy for marketing and promotions to try and remain competitive. Instead of trying to match other stores, retailers should look to align with and anticipate the needs of their customer base. This type of personalization is what helps these businesses to stand out in 2018, especially against competition like Amazon.

FR: What are some of the most important factors that retailers and consumers consider before choosing what products to promote/buy?

BC: For consumers, the decision process starts with deciding what retailers or brands to make purchases from. As e-commerce becomes that most common way to shop in 2018, consumers can access hundreds of retailers in a matter of minutes. What helps them to decide where to spend their time is the type of experience they anticipate. If they know exactly the product they want at a low price point, they will likely turn to Amazon or another e-commerce giant where they know the shopping experience will be efficient.

That said, if their search is a bit broader, say bathing suits, then they may turn to retailers who can offer personalized recommendations and incentives based on their profile as a customer. This also creates an efficient shopping experience, but allows that consumer to browse items that are unique to them.  

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To align with this, the most important thing a retailer can do to remain competitive in 2018 is mine their customer data to identify specific shopping behaviors and consumer indicators. This means understanding what consumers are shopping for, and translating that to specific product recommendations based on the season and their personal preference. It also means understanding how consumers choose to shop to properly share promotions and incentives.

If you’re a brand that sees 60% of your sales conducted on a mobile device, take time to understand how you can better share new products on your mobile app. If you also find that consumers are likely to make more impulse purchases on new seasonal items from mobile, it may be worth creating a mobile-exclusive promotion.

This will not only help to retain current customers, but also encourage them to recommend a retailer to their friends and family. With the e-commerce market already crowded with options, a peer recommendation can make all the difference.

FR: What are some of the data platforms/analytics available in 2018 to help personalize offers and inventory?

BC: When identifying the types of data and analytics resources to fuel personalization strategies, retailers need to take the time to understand their demographic data. Analyzing how consumer habits differ between different age groups, income brackets and location can help to fuel personalized engagements that go beyond past purchases.

Many times we can find that recommendations or incentives developed solely on the last product we looked at can seem tone deaf and show that the brand doesn’t have a real understanding for who we are as a customer. Taking the time to understand customer’s shopping habits changes this, allowing retailers to accurately interpret what a consumer needs, when they need it.

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Understanding how attributes of a promotion or site influences consumer action is also critical to success. Sometimes it’s not just the timing of a particular promotion that can determine its success, but how it is shared with consumers or marketed on the site—be it through email marketing, banner ads or a mobile app. Monitoring how customers react to different types of campaigns helps to ensure the retailers are seeking to connect with consumers in the places they already reside.

FR: How does data collection/personalization affect what retailers send out via mobile versus desktop, etc.?

BC: As noted before, personalization doesn’t just mean curating the right product recommendations and/or incentives for customers—it also means understanding how consumers choose to interact with your brand. Mobile and desktop shoppers can have very different preferences for how they like to browse, receive promotions and discover new items.

For retailers to capture the bigger picture, they need to move outside of past purchases and browsing history and analyze customer behavior on different platforms. The best way to do this can be through experimentation of the site that allows retailers to see how different site attributes impact customer behavior and drive seasonal sales.

For example, by assessing the timing of a mobile push notification for new seasonal items, retailers can better understand if these types of alerts go ignored when implemented too early or if they help to increase long-term sales for spring and summer items. In the same vein, retailers can also assess how these push notifications impact continued sales of winter items —allowing them to understand if their actions are hurting overall revenue or creating new opportunities for growth.

FR: Moving forward, how important will this personalization be to retailers in both digital and brick-and-mortar?

As Amazon continues to dominate the retail market and now starts to take space in brick-and-mortar, personalization will be key to earning consumer interest and loyalty. When it comes to pricing and efficiency, Amazon and other big retailers are hard to beat. However, those retailers that can curate a more intimate and engaging experience with customers have the power to beat Amazon.

Furthermore, personalization strategies not only help retailers to make the short-term sale, but ensure that customers continue to come back and build a relationship with a particular brand. In such a crowded market, this type of connection with consumers could be the difference between continued growth and the type of bankruptcy we’ve seen other retailers come to in the past few years.