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eTail West 2019: A Very Human Experience

This year’s eTail West conference was geared toward personalization, AI, and digital marketing strategies. 

It was well planned and incredibly efficient in terms of how speakers flowed from one session to the next, but loyalty marketing was grossly underrepresented.

Beyond my biased opinion, some of the retail brands I met with said they shared my disappointment as well. 

The panelists covered topics that were impressive and informative.

But they would’ve been more impactful when using a loyalty program to synthesize those pieces of personalization and customer experience into a cohesive engagement strategy.

Rather than share my opinions (though, I am never against offering them), I thought I would take the time to interview other attendees—both vendors and brands alike, to get their impressions of eTail West.

Here’s what I took away.

An Opportunity for Vendor Grouping

I had an opportunity to share a table with Roxana Quiros from Brighton Collectibles, a company that sells women’s handbags, jewelry, and accessories.

Jillian: What did you hope to get out of the conference?

Roxana: To learn about new vendors, personalization … and just attending the sessions and getting ideas.

Fair enough. We can all use a boost in our knowledge of marketing trends, but what Roxana said next made perfect sense in an environment that seemed to be comprised of nearly 70 percent vendors:

Roxana: It would be better if they grouped them by, say, personalization. It’s hard to decide which ones to skip. It would be better if they were organized because with all the creative branding and ambiguous names, it’s hard knowing what each vendor is specializing in.

We know competing vendors don’t want to sit next to each other, but I sensed from walking around that there were certain nuances from one vendor to the next that might make this kind of grouping more sensible.

Heike Young from Salesforce had a similar perspective:

“It’s very clear from walking around the show that there are a lot of technology providers that want to sell to retailers and each retailer may have a specific need for a micro solution to solve their problems,” Young said.

Technology Tools Need an Underlying Strategy

Vendors have an opportunity and a duty to incorporate data and integrate disparate systems and silos.

Great technology can’t be efficient if it remains in silos.

Brands can buy up all the latest technology in the hopes of creating something innovative, but without a well-planned underlying strategy, this could also mean accumulating data debt.

Essentially, you are “data rich, but value poor.”

The same can be applied to investing in personalization and AI tools without a sound loyalty strategy.

Or worse, implementing a back-of-the-napkin customer engagement program without working with an outside consultant to take an unbiased look at how your current assets and marketing strategies could be leveraged or impacted.

Adding programmatic discounts on discounted margins means less margins for brands.

And Brandon Hull, VP of Strategy and Sales at PACIFIC Digital Group, added this:

“It stood out to me that the smaller, upstart retailers were the lead stories of the conference, not the legacy retailers. They were constantly spotlighted as the ones connecting with consumers in a personalized way, using social and even data to become a part of consumers’ lives.”

Vendor Views

Honestly, I think we all know conferences can be difficult for everyone.

From a brand’s point of view, they are constantly being stalked by vendors hungry for their attention.

Lord knows the bathroom may be their only haven, and who knows if that’s even still a sacred place anymore. I’m sure there are stories.

From a vendor’s standpoint, it’s frustrating finding THE person you want to talk to (no offense data analytics and search optimization people).

There was a massive number of vendors attending the event this year, which led to an awkward badge pecking exchange.

I’m relieved no one had to tell me “hey, my eyes are up here” because they would have made things that much more uncomfortable.

However, you can’t blame a girl for taking an extra-long peep, especially when some retailers attempted to go incognito by flipping their badges around.

The Humans Behind the Brands

Still, being able to witness exchanges between brands can be incredibly entertaining and a true learning experience.

One of my favorite moments from eTail West was having the extreme pleasure of spending lunch with the hilarious and vastly creative women from Pair of Thieves, Hannah Spencer and Angelyn Bernardino.

Pair of Thieves (PoT) is a unique undergarment company with products currently being sold on its ecommerce site:, in addition to distributors like Target.

After exchanging what you can imagine were the best puns ever uttered, we were joined by the incredible folks from Brighton Collectibles.

During our discussion about potential marketing strategies for Pair of Thieves, it suddenly occurred to Matt Kohl of Brighton that he himself was a current customer of theirs.

In fact, he was wearing one of their T-shirts at that very moment. He modestly lifted his shirt to reveal one of their staple products.

He was in that moment a PoT brand ambassador.

Naturally, we all crooned our necks to see for ourselves in an oddly voyeuristic way.

The women from PoT were delighted!

An opportunity to interact with a customer and solicit an honest dialogue had unfurled before us—a unique chance to experience a customer that went beyond analytics or research.

I’m not going to lie, we were all very excited.

As it turns out, Matt also had a professional athlete friend who was also a customer. More giddiness ensued around the table. Would he do a video? Probably! Oh my gosh!!

JD: So, Matt, will this experience influence your future Pair of Thieves purchases?

MK: Yes, it definitely will.

This interaction could also mean a future collaboration between the Collectibles and the Unmentionables … only time will tell.

On Human Originality

One of my favorite quotes from eTail West that really aligns with and celebrates brands like Brighton and PoT was from Stance’s CEO, Jeff Kearl:

“What if we celebrated human originality and made sure we’re where customers want you to be?” Kearl said.

As a loyalty expert, every part of me wants to identify and celebrate each member’s unique needs and aspirations in the hopes of designing an experience that rewards customers on a transactional and emotional level.

Customers want to be recognized and appreciated on a personal level on their terms and through their preferred tough point.

For more on that, check out The Five Premium Loyalty Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Members.

Know Your Customers as Humans

My favorite session was hosted by Kimberly Grabel, SVP of Marketing at Soma, which focused on the company’s quest to know its customers on a human level.

So, Soma enlisted the help of 50 unique customers to learn their behaviors, thought processes, and motivation.

What Soma uncovered were insights that data alone could not uncover like:

  • Her sense of humor
  • Her secrets
  • Her desires

Basically, the human factor.

Obviously, there is a direct parallel between what the successful brands who have embraced co-creation and community have experienced.

This exercise inspired the creation of a highly innovative hands-off bra-fitting device called Innofit™, in addition to a hugely successful marketing campaign about this empowering experience.

When creating a Human Brand, Soma advises:

  • Listen to the stories your customer tells
  • Have a sense of humor that aligns to your customer’s
  • Acknowledge what makes them tick
  • Add value
  • With a wink

The Biggest Thing to Remember

It really boils down to due diligence being the key. Due diligence in identifying your overall strategy and method for synthesizing those components for a seamless, non-siloed solution and experience.

Due diligence in uncovering those insights that bring you closer to your customers and knowing what makes them human.

And, finally, living in the moment of those experiences you have at conferences that make you appreciate brands and their passion for their products and their customers.

After all, we are all human.

Carlos Dunlap-Beard

Carlos has spent the past 25 years cultivating a rich background in B2C/B2B engagement strategies, direct marketing, business development, customer acquisition, customer loyalty, data analysis and strategic marketing through several key posts within Loyalty Marketing agencies. A proven marketing strategist and consumer engagement thought leader, Carlos has authored dozens of articles, blogs, and webinars on various topics focused around program design, customer experience, member engagement and loyalty marketing best practices. He has also been featured in numerous publications and spoken at many conferences and events. In his free time, Carlos likes to play golf whenever the weather allows, travel with his lovely bride Alicia (occasionally with some or all of their 4 girls), read, write, hang out at the gym, cook/grill for his family and drink bourbon.

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