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EVP, Marketing at Specialty Print Communications

Against the Grain

By Dustin LeFebvre

About Dustin

A third-generation printer, Dustin LeFebvre delivers his vision for Specialty Print Communications as EVP, Marketing through strategy, planning and new product development. With a rich background ranging from sales and marketing to operations, quality control and procurement, Dustin takes a wide-angle approach to SPC


Retailers Building with Data, not Brick and Mortar

Last week, I attended a customer relationship marketing conference for retailers, by retailers. I have to say that I barely made it through the conference without spontaneously combusting from the speed of change in the retail marketing sector.

From the advent of new ways to leverage big data—including new social media channels, QR codes and real-time engagement—to inventive new physical store formats, the fundamental rules governing retail commerce are changing at a breathtaking pace. It appears that only the most innovative, most consumer-focused and well-capitalized players will thrive.

The conference opened with a presentation on the state of the industry. Trust was a major focus. With only 19 percent of consumers believing that large retailers would act in their interest if given the opportunity to do otherwise, the mandate was clear: retailers need to clean up their act when it comes to how they manage their customer relationships. Failing to do so comes with existential consequences.

Interestingly, even during a roundtable on future trends in retail, the elephant in the room went unacknowledged. The roundtable was comprised of online and brick-and-mortar retailers, but the conversation never addressed what had been seen as a strategic advantage a decade ago, but now threatens the long-term future of so many retailers—the brick-and-mortar locations themselves.

My wife and I recently attended a variety show at the Kellogg School of Management. In one of the sketches, the grad students revised they lyrics of the MTV classic, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” In their remix, set in the distant future (2014), the theme was updated to “E-commerce Killed the Physical Store,” with the kicker of “The UPS Man’s My Best Friend.” Think about’s scary how quickly the winds have shifted in retail.

The speakers at the conference were generally fantastic, offer these highlights:

1) The story of the transformation of an arts and crafts store. Eighteen months ago, it used a monolithic strategy of newspaper inserts to drive store traffic and generate sales. Today, the brand is engaging enthusiasts across multiple channels—in real time—through direct mail, social media and other digital brand executions to increase customer lifetime value.

2) A fashion retailer that has managed to integrate online and offline data into what it calls a single “repository of truth.” The company is achieving a much more robust understanding of how customers engage its brand, its products, and the broader fashion world. This retailer is then pairing these insights with powerful analytics to generate relevant communications. As a result, it is able to proactively counteract churn, re-engage lapsed customers, and deliver trigger communications in real time.

I have to admit that my privacy alarm was sounded by the real-time social media data collection gathered through a partnership with an old friend, Adobe. It knows where you are—in the store. It knows whether you’ve searched online prior to your visit, what items you viewed and how frequently, and your propensity to buy given various incentives to do so.

3) A massive pharmacy that’s late to the loyalty game, but is reshaping the in-store experience and believes that the latest technologies will allow it to leapfrog other competitors’ programs. When questioned how the tracking would take place, such as through use of a loyalty card, iris scanning, or fingerprinting, the speaker chose to remain “mum” and only share at the September launch. I’m guessing it’s not a card.

The unifying theme of the conference was that data is the key that can unlock customer lifetime value by enabling efficient and effective customer relationship management. In order to acquire this data, retailers must employ a loyalty program of some sort, and in doing so, they must adopt a singular view of the customer that understands their actions and their preferences, and delivers value back to them.

This value can be hard and tangible (e.g., cash back), or experiential (e.g., exclusive previews of new merchandise). Either way, effective programs treat customers differently based upon their contribution to the retailer. In the end, the companies that achieve this—well and authentically—will be the ones left in the brick-and-mortar category. And if they do so without betraying the privacy of their consumers, perhaps we’ll see trust levels rise from the current 19 percent in the future.

Let’s hope so.

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