WSJ Calls Out Retail Emails, And It’s Only The Beginning

“Traditional retailers were once pioneers of using data,” began Suzanne Kapner of The Wall Street Journal, “to zero in on what customers want.”

Her article, Retailers’ Emails Are Misfires for Many Holiday Shoppers, has sparked a much-needed conversation at the intersection of digital retail and email marketing.

The piece places its focus on what I’ll call the “mediocre majority.”

They’re that massive group of well-known retailers who are still flooding our inboxes with irrelevant offers, probably still saying “batch and blast” as though it’s cool, and somehow including us in their “deluge,” as Kapner referred to it, even after we’ve unsubscribed.

That is, they are marketers stuck in the old days of email marketing and, as the article’s existence makes clear, they’re going to get called out in this new era of AI-powered ecommerce platforms and heightened customer expectations.

Citing Forrester’s Brendan Witcher, the disconnect becomes especially clear:

“Nearly 90% of organizations say they are focused on personalizing customer experiences, yet only 40% of shoppers say that information they get from retailers is relevant to their tastes and interests.”


Leveraging customer preferences

Here’s a simplified version of how email marketing typically works for the mediocre majority:

They either put their most popular items in an email and send it to everybody, or they recognize that one customer purchased something remotely similar to another, and they lump both customers into the same bucket—even if the two share almost completely different shopping histories and individual preferences.

To the sender, individual preferences aren’t viewed as ecommerce individualization data points; they’re viewed as segment signals, as ways of figuring out which bucket to dump you in.

This is why, as the many frustrated and angry commenters on the article have pointed out, retail emails often feel completely irrelevant and even like spam. And sometimes make us want to…

Man at desk with retail email

But what about sending that 50% off sale email to every customer?

Retailers aren’t going to stop doing that, and they shouldn’t. But here’s an example from Ann Taylor that shows how it should be done:

Ann Taylor individualization retail emails

As you can see, they’re taking a customer-wide broad-based email and individualizing it by injecting it with products that are based on each customer’s historical preferences.

So, yes, it’s still a 50% off sale email going out to the masses, but every single email contains content within it that is hyper-relevant for the customer.

During the holidays, when retailers are naturally trying to squeeze every last drop from a potential customer’s intent, only a few are leveraging individual customer preferences as in the example above.

These squeeze emails feel impersonal because they are, and empowered customers are tying such emails to the brand’s reputation.

But it need not be that way!

As with the Ann Taylor example, individually relevant merchandising can be embedded into customer-wide emails.

But what about behavior-based emails that are triggered by, for example, a customer abandoning their cart?

Those too can and should be individualized.

While it may seem like a small matter, there’s a big difference between a generic behavioral email and an individualized behavioral email. The former simply alerts the customer to the fact that they’re being tracked and does little to entice them to come back; the latter can literally show them what they’re missing out on and use relevant messaging to get them to come back.

These seemingly small differences are the type of powerful micro-moments capable of creating better experiences for the customer and dramatic revenue gains for the retailer.

Check out these two behavioral emails from Godiva, the first was triggered by an abandoned cart and the second from an abandoned browse (which is based on a specific browsing parameter, e.g. a customer viewed the same box of chocolates five times). Both are individualized.


Godiva abandoned cart retail email for ecommerce individualization


Godiva abandoned browse retail email for ecommerce individualization


Truth is, if retailers were “pioneers of using data to zero in on what customers want,” they should be masters today. There are more tools than ever before to help them create intelligent, intuitive, and real-time experiences that are built off of an understanding of customer preferences.


Towards Personalization 2.0 & new conversations about retail emails

Customer expectations will continue pulling all digital retailers into Personalization 2.0: The Era of Individualization, where marketers are first understanding their customer’s preferences and intent and then leveraging that information intelligently and consistently at all touchpoints—including email.

A customer’s inbox is only one spot in the chain of customer communication (we’ll cover how to create fluid site-to-inbox transitions next week), but it’s still a perfect place to engage them with smart, behavioral emails that surface the most relevant content.

The alternative, in today’s age, feels disrespectful. This is why retailers lagging behind aren’t just going to have poor email open rates—they’re going to get publicly called out by customers and journalists alike.

Brands such as Disney and Godiva are reaping the rewards of delivering individualized emails that are triggered not by some generic best practice about when humans read their emails but by each individual’s behavior and when they are most likely to engage.

While some readers of Kapner’s piece may find the passage below humorous, digital retailers everywhere should see it as heartbreaking. Customers deserve better.

This is an example of an ecommerce retail email that does not use customer preferences.

The WSJ story opened with a bang and ignited an important conversation, but it quickly turned to techniques that marketers worth their salt have long understood—such as optimizing email send times.

Such concepts are still important, but they’re throwbacks to conversations from the Personalization 1.0 Era of a decade ago and, frankly, they’re missing the point.

It’s hard to believe, in this age when artificial intelligence and machine learning allows digital retailers to send beautifully individualized emails like those above, that we’re still talking about optimizing email send times as though it’s a new and unexplored concept (without 90 million results).

Email marketing in ecommerce retail still has a long way to go

Still, Kapner’s piece will serve as an important starting point towards new conversations.

It must.

Because the wave of personalization only by segmentation is coming to an end. It pushed all sectors forward in new and fascinating ways, including retail, but it’s built on the back of tedious manual labor that few digital retailers have the time or stomach for—especially when operations scale.

Improving the customer experience in all aspects of retail will depend on the Human + Machine relationship, and the pace will be set by the retailers who are fusing human understanding and empathy with AI and machine learning.


For an additional read, check out our guide on individualization. It’s a few years old but remains relevant.

Individualization: The Key to Unlocking Higher Engagement, Conversion, and Revenue

Cameron Conaway

Cameron is the Director of Content at Reflektion. His work as a journalist and content marketer has appeared in Forbes, Newsweek, and The Guardian, among other outlets. Connect with him here on LinkedIn and on Twitter @CameronConaway.