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Ben Bisco, Head of Digital at online department store JD Williams, speaks to Hot Topics about the importance of personalization and where he sees it heading in the future.

Few companies encapsulate the marriage of old and new as neatly as JD Williams – a retail business founded in the 19th century and steeped in traditional mail order, but which today exists at the vanguard of e-commerce.

JD Williams is part of home shopping group N Brown, which houses other brands including Simply Be and Jacamo. Last month, the group reported a strong performance in the key Christmas period, with group sales up 4.1% in the 18 weeks ending 31 December thanks to strong womenswear sales and a continuing shift to online.

Described as a ‘department store concept’, JD Williams predominantly targets women shoppers, with brand ambassador and TV presenter Lorraine Kelly epitomizing the style-conscious 50-plus female market it focusses on.

“Historically it’s been around plus-size and home-shopping but the last few years we have been making the transition to digital-first,” Ben Bisco says.

It is a transition that is paying dividends. In 2015, 63% of JD Williams’ sale were made via mobile phones and tablets, with customers often interacting with the brand via multiple devices.

Data-driven marketing

Accordingly, JD Williams’ marketing output seeks to engage consumers across a myriad of channels and platforms.

“We have a genuine mix at the moment, Bisco says. “As a retailer, direct response is a really important element of what we’re doing, offering ways to buy.”

Within direct response is a mix of paid search, SEO, affiliate marketing, re-marketing and programmatic display.

“They are all really key to what we do,” Bisco adds. “As are emergent areas such as social display and the product advertising we’re able to do through the likes of Facebook. We’re playing a lot with our data to drive who we’re talking to and when we’re talking to them.”

Data lies at the heart of JD Williams’ ‘customer first’ approach, but Bisco admits that the sheer volume of information available to the marketer can sometimes be overwhelming.

“It’s certainly the case that we have so much data that you can find yourself going into an eddy of excitement in what it tells you, you’re getting yourself lost down the rabbit hole a little bit,” he says. “What we’ve learned in the last year is that lots of data is good, but insight is better.

“If you start off with a massive pile of data and you ask ‘What is this telling me?’, then you get lost very quickly. When you’re starting out it’s much more important to ask specific questions, such as ‘what do you think we’re good at?’, and use insight to identify opportunities or what our customers’ problems are.”

Bisco himself is excited about the opportunities offered by developments in technology such as virtual and augmented reality and their application in the world of online fashion retail.

“It’s not there yet,” he admits. “But what we are seeing at the moment is increasing amounts of virtual trial technology through both 3D rendering and people being able to upload their own measurements and look at how the products look on them.

“I’m not convinced that people want that fully, I think it’s going to take a little while for that to become mainstream. But it’s certainly something that we’re looking at and trying to understand.”

Instead, Bisco says that in the short to medium term, his focus is on personalization strategy in two guises: “Using data to ensure that we’re making recommendations to people through our technology and on our websites for products they really want.”

“But I also think it goes beyond that into the area of fit, bespoke and the personalization strategy of products. Truly bespoke is a tough thing for any retailer to do. But a lot of people are increasingly looking at how you start to make products much more personalized, whether that’s a monogram or color choice.

“Rather than being truly bespoke, there’s lots of development looking at how companies can provide products in a whole range of sizes that can be made to order.”

However, while it is easy to get carried away by the opportunities presented by personalization, Bisco is quick to point out that there comes a point at which personalization can start to concern the consumer.

“It’s something the industry needs to be very careful about,” he says. “Even something as simple as re-marketing, where people are already annoyed about being followed by spurious advertising about either a product they have no intention of buying or something they’ve already bought. If your personalization strategy gets too specific you can start to trouble people.”

Consequently, Bisco feels that the industry needs to think more ‘softly’ about personalization strategy. “The sales element is really important but the future of it needs to take it up a level and bring in softer levels, such as branded experiences and content,” he says.

“If we can use the technology that drives personalization strategy on a website and bring it together with our understanding of experience on the context of someone’s life, we can be much softer in our approach, much more useful to people that receive those messages, and therefore provide people with a better overall experience and better overall feeling about the brand and ultimately drive more sales off the back of that.”

One of the accusations sometimes leveled at brands that personalize their offers to consumers is that they are neutering opportunities for discovery.

“If you personalize purely on the basis of what people are already shopping for, then you’ll only show them the same thing again and again,” Bisco admits. “It’s a race to the bottom.

“Discovery does need to be brought into the mix overall. That’s what I’m saying with our softer elements. For example on our sites, one of the most visited categories and most searched for areas is ‘new in’. So people are coming deliberately to look at what’s new on the site, particularly for our more fashion-forward brands. So what we shouldn’t do is personalize out of that ‘new in’ process.

“Maybe the personalization strategy is about things that went with products they bought before, or perhaps they’ve shared with us and given us permission to use their sizing information. So what we’ll do is show the products that we know are going to be a great fit for them. The more we can understand how our products fit different people and different body shapes, the more we can be useful.”

Future tech

For Bisco, the future of personalization strategy is marked by a convergence of a number of technologies — from virtual reality and augmented reality to AI-powered personal assistants.

“If you look at all the products that Amazon and Google are bringing out for the home, it’s long been a science fiction view that you’d have a personal assistant that you could just talk to and they would respond and deliver,” Bisco says.

“We’re heading towards that being a reality. It’s going to be fascinating to watch that develop for retail. But it presents enormous challenges for brands.”

Bisco’s concern is that the likes of Amazon Echo, the online giant’s voice-activated personal assistant, are fundamentally changing the dynamics of the online marketplace.

“If someone says they want to buy a new pair of jeans, who’s going to fulfill that?” he says. “Well, it’s going to be Amazon, isn’t it.”

Bisco suggests that the future might entail working with Amazon rather than directly selling, or working with Google, whose Voice tech has “paved the way for the personal assistant” and whose Google Shopping has integration that allows a direct purchase and retail element.

“What it shows is that the future for brands is to be data feeds into services like that rather than necessarily being their own web propositions,” he says.

“There’s a reason why brands are increasingly working in the content space. [Consumers] need to have tangible experiences within the digital space, because the future may be that the purchase transaction actually happens through an app somebody has on their phone.”

On average people have three or four apps that they use most on their phones, Bisco says, citing Facebook, Google and “possibly Amazon”.

“Brands need to work with those providers to really build their product. But of course, they are going to need to find a way to communicate to people outside of that if they suddenly no longer own the distribution channel.

For Bisco, it is crucial to remember that while it may it is easy to be seduced or discombobulated by technology and data, at its heart the concept of a personalization strategy is simple. “It comes down to the fundamentals of marketing: to understand what our customers need, to ensure sure we deliver either what they’re asking for or things that they don’t yet know they want, and delivering that for them at the right time. That’s not really changed.”