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The new rules of (shopper) engagement

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It was standing-room only as some of the most innovative marketing minds in retail sat down for one of the first sessions of NRF's 101st Annual Convention, Engaging with Shoppers in a World of Fragmentation and Change. 2011 was, indeed, a year of change as economic uncertainty and losses were offset by an explosion in the digital marketplace. Session panelists, including executives from Harrods, Peapod Interactive and Magazine Luiza, looked back at some of the most creative and successful campaigns of the year, discussed current projects meant to engage consumers in new ways, and shared lessons learned from their collective experience in retail.

What did I learn by sitting in? Just when you think you have a sense of the capabilities of social media, you realize companies have only scratched the surface. And it's clever, creative people – like those on the panel – making it happen.

For example, have you heard about...

Facial recognition technology currently in use in Japan which allows an advertisement (or vending machine!) to tailor its contents or recommendations based on the profile of the individual passing by.

Or Albion Bakery in London who uses tweets to let customers know when baked goods are fresh out of the oven (I would find this a wonderful service. My waistline? Perhaps not as much).

There's also Hippo in India, a highly popular snack brand using its customers to reinforce and support its sales and distribution network by asking them to tweet when they find a location where Hippo chips are out of stock. The company then promises to restock within hours and provide updates to Twitter followers. Putting some of your most loyal and obliging customers to work for you? Genius.

I also learned about Burberry's Tweetwalk Show and Diesel Cam in Spain. I heard some of the secrets behind Macy's successful Backstage Pass campaign and was fascinated by what is in the works at Magazine Luiza in Brazil. Magazine Você will allow customers to create their own store on Facebook or Orkut to share some of their favorite products with friends. The best part? The shopkeepers receive a commission when purchases are made from the store. In the initial pilot of the Magazine Você project, conversion rates hit 50% higher than the website.

Yes, 2011 was a year of change and innovation. A year when a time-honored retailing rule, "word of mouth is the best advertising," was put into practice in a whole new way using social media.

Here are five takeaways from session panelists to ensure your company stays relevant and adapts to changing consumer expectations:

  1. Leverage the knowledge of the consumer to provide tailored recommendations. And encourage user reviews to influence shopping behavior.
  2. Use data to improve service.
  3. Reward loyalty to maintain shopping continuity.
  4. Leverage key partnerships, including employees and suppliers, to increase efficiency.
  5. Think outside the box but be sure you understand the culture of your business and what you're trying to achieve before jumping in.

Anytime I sit in on a session like this I wonder what we'll be talking about a year from now. Who will push the envelope even further? What will be the hot campaign of 2012? Could it be something you're working on, or brainstorming, right now? We hope so.