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Syniverse VP Retail: Putting a personal shopper in every pocket

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E-commerce has seemingly left high-street shopping behind. However, are new methods of targeted mobile marketing driving consumers back into shops once again?

Physical retail has taken a real beating from e-commerce. Nowadays, teens would rather meet up on SnapChat than the mall. Is there is any way back for the high street? Walter Paulsen, Syniverse’s VP of retail, believes hyper-personalization could be it.

Social history shows us that, in time, everyone often gets the things only rich people used to have. Cars. TVs. Foreign holidays. iPhones. It’s a very long list. The trickle-down effect is inevitable. So what’s next? Well, how about personal shoppers? At present, only the well-heeled can afford a special account with their favorite retailer and a dedicated guide to pick out their ideal products with a discount or two thrown in. But this may be about to change. And, predictably perhaps, the personal shopper won’t be a human. It will be virtual. And inside your phone.

So says Walter Paulsen, VP of retail at Syniverse. The mobile solutions company is a pioneer of what might be called ‘messaging as a service’. It provides DIY tools to enterprises across a variety of verticals, which make it easy to create consumer marketing campaigns and customer care solutions. Naturally, retail is a key target. Many retailers currently use Syniverse’s platform to stay in touch with customers with products that are context-sensitive. In other words, they can be tweaked to take account of location, time, loyalty and more.

They do this with notable success. Syniverse says one Fortune 500 retailer launched a series of SMS campaigns to drive in-store holiday traffic and achieved $1m in new mobile-attributed revenue. The ROI was 10-fold. For now, human managers set up these campaigns. But in time, that task could be taken on by machine learning inside the platform. Clearly, algorithms could detect patterns invisible to human eyes. They could also take personalization to a new level. Instead of creating offers for groups of similar people, they could tailor to the level of the individual.

Voila: a mobile personal shopper for everyone.

Paulsen says: “Machine learning will make our systems smarter. They’ll be able to draw conclusions and make decisions at a whole new level of detail. They will figure out individual preferences to the extent that customers will in effect have a personal shopper inside their phones. “And this could help retailers too. The system could link their promotional activity more closely to their inventory. So if they have, for example, too many umbrellas in one particular region the system could create offers to remedy that.”

Of course, this bright smarter future is not without risks. Paulsen stresses that such a system should empower managers, not sideline them. He says: “The key is to give retailers more insight and to be able to act on that. Clearly, you can’t have machines creating offers that crush margins, for example.”

Wrinkles aside, Syniverse’s overriding goal is to return some of the initiative back to the high street. Paulsen is candid in his assessment of the last few years. “Retailers have been outflanked by the big digital players in the last few years,” he says. “E-commerce is beating them on price and logistics. And social media is replacing the mall as a place where young people, in particular, meet up; the new entertainment is SnapChat and Instagram. That said, nearly 70 per cent of all consumer spend is still at physical retail, so the sector is in a great position to do something about it.”

Paulsen believes a ‘mobile personal shopper for everyone’ scenario could play a big part in this. Imagine people sharing their amazing one-off deals on SnapChat.

Mobile is, of course, the ideal medium through which to achieve a turnaround. The question is how. Syniverse has stated many times that apps are not the answer. When people typically use 12 apps, your DIY store app is unlikely to be one of them.

Though Syniverse’s platform supports many kinds of messaging media, the company has most recently been focusing on mobile wallet integration. In this way, it’s tapping into two of the few products with any real adoption among users: Apple Wallet and Google Wallet. Brands can generate a mobile coupon inside the system, which appears as a link inside a text, email, push notification or even an ad. When the recipient clicks, he or she saves the coupon to the wallet.

Paulsen accepts that wallets have yet to go mainstream. But he believes they have huge potential. Indeed, Syniverse’s own research says that, among those that have a mobile wallet in the US, 53 per cent use it at least once a week. “It’s still the early days,” says Paulsen. “But retailers need something. They tried their own apps and didn’t get the traffic. And they tried offering big discounts to shoppers who would shop anyway. With wallets, they can be so much smarter. “And, most important, they can measure quantifiable promotions against real transactions. For decades, a classical retail promotion was a newspaper coupon, and it worked very well. Marketers still want that kind of tool. With mobile, they can have it.”

And with new mobile retail technologies, they likely can have a mobile personal shopper in their pocket soon too.