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Could personalisation turn you into a bad citizen?

Chris Field
Chris Field

News went out this week that M&S is to trial home delivery in under two hours, offering ready meals and groceries to customers in London and Reading in an initial pilot.

Clearly this is good news for the residents of Camden and Woodley, but not for me. I have the misfortune to live near an old-style, smaller town-centre M&S, which is a poor representative of the brand compared to its glorious superstores, such as Havant.

This is my personal version of the North/South divide, which suggests that the North has it tough, while Southerners are rolling in clover. Maybe so, but I predict that more and more consumers may soon be living in their own deprivation bubble, once retailers work out how not simply to segment, but to respond to customer needs one-on-one.

Talk of bridging the digital/physical divide reminds us all just how impersonal store shopping still is. Personalisation is still just a theory, and most of the enabling tech will not provide full ROI until retailers know exactly who is in-store. And that takes time.

But once true personalisation starts to happen, retailers will face a new challenge: are they discriminating unfairly? What will one customer make of being passed over in favour of a customer with bigger spending power, more loyalty, or who visits the store more regularly?

If you think I am making too much of this, consider that many retailers stand higher in their customers’ estimation than three of the four estates – church, state and judiciary. Corporate and Social Responsibility has been a core principle for years, and most smart retailers have become adept at turning all their guilty little secrets into values and virtues. Look no further than supermarkets with inaccurate replenishment systems, which deal with the inevitable waste mountain by gifting what they can to charity or foodbanks.

Giving away food is the thin end of the wedge; once personalisation really works (and it must work – customers and shareholders demand it) then cherry pickers will start to see that they are not welcome. Meanwhile, the truly loyal will get bumped up to higher ground.

The popular press will no doubt kick off at what they will see as social engineering, but retail profits will benefit. Let’s hope retailers can ride the wave of negative feedback and emphasise why personalisation is good for everyone; well… almost everyone. You, obviously, but definitely not you.

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