Demystifying Personalization in eCommerce

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If you’ve spent any time reading marketing blogs or walking the floor at an eCommerce conference, you’ve likely seen the term “Personalization” thrown around a lot. At this point, vendors have realized that they need to claim some form of personalization to stay relevant and attract attention. However, when they are questioned about the specifics of what exactly they personalize on or how personalization is used within their solution, the details and definitions remain elusive.

How is a retailer expected to understand the value or impact of personalization if they can’t even be sure that it will solve a problem they actually have?

First, we should start with a definition.

If we are to define personalization for eCommerce in the most generic way possible, we could say something like “customizing the shopping experience by incorporating one or more characteristics of the shopper.”

This is an intentionally broad definition because there are a lot of ways that a retailer could conceivably customize the shopping experience and there are a lot of signals that a hypothetical personalization solution could account for when considering which characteristics of the shopper to personalize on.

Let’s start with a few examples of how personalization can be applied on a retailer’s site.

One of the most prominent forms of personalization in the industry today is in the content management space. Given that I am a shopper in Toronto, when I go to the J.Crew website, the first thing I see is a banner saying “Hello, Canada!” with a list of country-specific benefits to shopping with J.Crew.

The problem that this specific application of personalization solves is that when I’m shopping with American brands from my home in Canada, I want to be sure about what the products I’m purchasing will actually cost (i.e., in my native currency). I don’t want to end up being shocked by a huge international shipping fee when I get to the checkout. Knowing these things up front makes me much more likely to have a low-friction experience with a better chance of converting than I would be on a site where I have to research whether they even ship to Canada.

Another common form of personalization is through email campaigns.

Every Gmail user’s ‘Promotions’ folder is filled with targeted emails that we’ve received because we added some product to a cart without converting, or we need to know about a deal that’s running on flights from our area to a tropical destination over winter. These targeted messages are a great way to capture attention and get shoppers in the funnel, but they can go awry as well.

For example, I once shopped at a high-end department store because I wanted to buy my partner a nice purse for her Christmas present. Ever since then I have received targeted emails regularly for women’s clothes and jewelry that I will almost certainly never purchase.

The last form of personalization that I want to address here is one that’s close to my heart, given my role at GroupBy.

Personalized search is not nearly as prominent as email campaigns or targeted content; according to a recent study, only 19% of retailers surveyed said that they utilize personalized experiences within search.

In the conversations I’ve had with retailers, a number of them are understandably skeptical. They worry that shoppers will get frustrated if they’re searching for something and a product gets pushed into their results just because they’ve bought it before.

This is unquestionably true - given that search is about understanding a shopper’s intent and bringing back products that match that intent, any search engine needs to respect that intent first and foremost and not muddy the waters by bringing in unrelated products that diminish a shopper’s sense of discovery.

However, if the search engine is sophisticated enough that it can subtly influence the order of results by learning from the shopper’s behavior on the site while still only bringing back products that match the original query, this will lead to a much less jarring experience for the shopper.

As a shopper using personalized search in this way, I am much more likely to see the products I’m interested in near the top of the results and I don’t have to spend time hunting through pages of results to find what I’m looking for. Imagine the experience of walking into a brick-and-mortar store where on every shelf, the first article of clothing you pick up is in your size and the fit is exactly how you like it. That’s the sort of experience personalized search should look to replicate.

There’s a lot more I could say about personalized search since it is a project that I’ve been working on for much of my time at GroupBy, but I’ll leave the details for another time.

Suffice it to say that we at GroupBy see a lot of potential in the power of personalized search, and are introducing capabilities that we believe can take a retailer’s ability to personalize their overall site experience to the next level. If you’re interested in learning more about GroupBy’s personalization journey, please contact us today at