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Personalization is the “it” thing right now with merchants in this current digital age.

We’ve arrived at a point with mobile apps where there isn’t much differentiation between what competing brands offer their customers.

It took some time, but the Dunkin’ Donuts app is about on par with Starbucks. I can reload my prepaid account on both apps, as well as use rewards and place a mobile order.

But how those brands personalize the experience is the new Holy Grail for every retailer, and it seems like that is all anyone is talking about these days.

Over the course of seven days last month, I attended two conferences that focused on retailers and restaurants. My week started in Las Vegas with the retailer-focused Shoptalk conference and ended in my backyard of Chicago with the National Restaurant Association Show. While the latter is specifically focused on one industry, a common theme that emerged from both shows is that we’ve entered an era when brands are doing everything they can to personalize experiences for their customers.

The problem with this approach, however, is that not every retailer or restaurant operator is capable of creating the best experience every time customers interact with them.

“Not a lot of companies are set up for this personalization journey,” Karen Voelker, the global retail lead at Accenture’s Customer Innovation Center, told attendees during an NRA presentation about customer engagement.

And even if companies are prepared for this endeavor, they’re competition right now might not be who they expect.

It’s no surprise Uber comes up a lot during discussions about personalization and the ideal customer experience.

A mobile banking/payments expert told me last year that banks are no longer only competing with one another but also with Amazon and Uber. Both companies have created mobile experiences that consumers expect from every brand.

Voelker sees it no different.

“Consumers have these liquid expectations from everything they are doing in the world,” she said. “What they see from Uber, they expect everywhere.”

Scott Bradley, the founder and CEO of mobile marketing company VMob, said the same thing at the NRA Show.

“Competition isn’t coming from just restaurants; now it’s coming from Uber,” he said. “The gap between what consumers are expecting and what they are receiving is getting further away.

“Companies like Uber are going to come in and disrupt the industry.”

As to which companies are matching Uber’s “standard,” that’s open to debate.

When it comes to restaurant industry, most observers cite the usual suspects: Dominos, Dunkin’ Donuts, Panera, Taco Bell and Starbucks. Each of those brands has done a lot over the past two years to take advantage of the connected consumer.

Pundits often cite retailers such as Amazon, Home Depot, Sephora and Wal-Mart as merchants that provide a great customer experience on smartphones and tablets.

Chick-fil-A might soon find itself on that list. If you haven’t downloaded its new app yet, I recommend you do.

Blaze Pizza is another brand that comes up in discussions about personalization but for a different reason. While the chain does offer its customers a robust mobile app, the customizable nature of its pizzas is the big draw.

And the point of these personalization efforts from merchants? A long-lasting impactful connection with their customers. That might sound cheesy and cliché, but it’s what companies are publicly talking about time and time again.

“We have precious few minutes to make a connection,” Tim Kirkland, the CEO of Renegade Hospitality Group, said at the NRA Show. “The customer experience tends to be mostly the same [in this industry] and the challenge for operators is differentiation.”

That challenge could be handled through technology, Kirkland said.

Indeed, panel discussions at both conferences centered on what merchants can do outside of mobile apps.

Beacon technology located inside point-of-sale terminals and digital signage is one option merchants can pursue to make better customer connections.

Accenture’s Voelker also discussed how facial recognition technology can make store visits more personal. While the use of such methods are not widespread at the moment, more of it will be in the public soon.

How consumers react to merchants’ personalization efforts is always difficult to predict. From a personal standpoint, I’ll react in a positive way to your efforts if I find value in what you are presenting to me.

If we go back to the Uber example, I find tremendous value in an on-demand cab service that I can use almost anytime and anywhere I want. I’m sure many people believe the same thing. And this is what merchants are up against in their personalization efforts: their offerings almost need to must-haves to make an impact with customers.


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