Connecting with shoppers is an ongoing quest for loyalty marketers, and one option they should consider to heighten and magnify customer engagement is contextual commerce.

Loyalty360 talked to Gerry Gilbert, CashStar, Vice President, Technical Product, about this topic and several others related to customer loyalty in an intriguing interview.

What are the biggest opportunities/challenges for brands and marketers today? If you could recommend one thing to a client (or prospective client), what would it be?

Gilbert: One of the biggest opportunities—and challenges—for brands and marketers is figuring out how to connect with shoppers where they are. More specifically, how do you interact with your customers across various devices and channels at any time, from anywhere?

To serve today’s consumers, the buying process needs to be quick, seamless and engaging. This makes mobile and social media increasingly important for retailers who want to meet shoppers where they already are. According to a study by MIDiA Research, as many as 75 percent of Internet users surveyed have accessed mobile messaging services, and the open rate of mobile messages is 98 percent versus 22 percent for email. Facebook Messenger alone has reportedly more than one billion active users each month. Several merchants are testing the contextual commerce waters to enable their customers to purchase and process gift cards directly through messaging apps. For example, iPhone users can gift both Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards via the iMessage app.

Contextual commerce enables brands to target shoppers whether they’re clicking on a Buyable Pin, using Facebook Messenger or talking to their Amazon Echo. Shopping is often taking place at the moment of interest and intent to buy, and brands that don’t take advantage of that will miss out. All merchants should explore ways in which they can leverage contextual commerce to provide fast, frictionless real-time transactions that jive with on-demand shopping expectations.

We continue to hear about brands that are looking to create alignment between their customer loyalty efforts and the brand promise. Should all brands try to become the next “Apple” or “Amazon?” Or is it more realistic and/or beneficial for brands to understand their own unique brand identity, and then define objectives, process and programs that align with that unique identity?

Gilbert: Although there’s a lot to respect and possibly emulate when it comes to Amazon and Apple, not all of their company ethos and methods will transfer so easily to other brands. By aligning engagement and loyalty efforts with brand identity, merchants can deliver a shopping experience that is unique to them without taking on more than they can handle.

While it is important that retailers keep pace with consumer desire for the conveniences and unique experiences that technology provides, retailers should also realize that they are not going to best Amazon, or nimble software companies for that matter, in ecommerce technology development.

The better approach for retailers is to partner with tech companies to yield the desired result. Williams Sonoma is one such brand that is experimenting with this approach. The home furnishing company recently acquired an augmented reality company for $112 million and has plans to roll out new shopping experiences that could include virtual reality applications.

Can you define what the phrase “customer journey” means to you? What does it mean to brands? And how do you see it changing?

Gilbert: The customer journey defines the process that consumers go through when engaging with a brand, from acquisition to re-engagement. CashStar’s goal is to make the customer journey as smooth as possible. This means equipping our clients with innovative and secure digital gifting solutions that delight customers through every touchpoint, regardless of channel.

With many more channels and devices than ever before in which consumers can make purchases, creating a seamless customer journey has become more complex. CashStar helps brands cut through the complexity by leveraging gift card ecommerce to drive consumer interaction beyond initial acquisition. Gift cards have been used to incent behavior, to reengage dormant customers and appease customers.

Can you define omnichannel/multichannel? What does that mean to you? What does it mean to most brands? How can brands manage the opportunity?

Gilbert: Omnichannel emphasizes that customer experiences be consistent and engaging. For example, whether the consumer shops online from a desktop or mobile device, or by telephone, or in a brick and mortar store, or whether they choose to use Apple Pay or PayPal at checkout, the consumer should have a seamless and consistent experience because the merchant has managed through the expectations of each channel.

Brands are beginning to realize that some of the potential benefits of an omnichannel strategy include increased sales and engagement rates. For several merchants, the best way to stay on the forefront of omnishopper demands is to engage a solution provider that can give full focus to this particular aspect of the business.

What is the future of customer loyalty?

Gilbert: Customer loyalty is everything—especially during a time where marketplaces like Amazon’s are proliferating and proving to be a real threat to retailers. In a shopping environment that has made it easy to chase things like price, one-day shipping or the quickest path to purchase, creating a culture of customer loyalty is the only way to differentiate and ultimately survive.

Millennials have the largest buying power among demographic groups and a recent study suggests that 64 percent of millennials surveyed are more brand loyal than their parents. They want brands to understand and care about their needs. In turn, retaining even a small amount of loyal customers can increase sales. Brands simply can’t afford to ignore these customer expectations, and creating a culture of loyalty through incentive programs and personalized offers is a great way to stand out among other brands. In this environment, merchants should ensure that they are providing good value to their customers. Some consumers may want ease of check out or a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative that speaks to their hearts. Both of these perks are meaningful and can help build loyalty. Each retailer needs to determine the right offering for its customer.

How does your technology address any of the previous questions? How could you see your platform evolving to address them/what does your road map look like?

Gilbert: What most of the previous answers have in common is that they all address the core asset of any brand: Its customers. Today’s customers not only want, but expect a personalized shopping experience, regardless of the device on which they’re shopping or how easy and seamless the customer journey is. The heightened focus on personalization is one of the biggest trends impacting retail, and brands that want to survive in the age of Amazon need to deliver a highly relevant experience on a consistent basis, or risk losing loyal customers to competition.

CashStar is working on different solutions to help retailers interact with the customers and channels they are in. In particular, one of the innovative ways in which we’re helping brands deliver on personalization is through our Product eGifting capability, which enables customers to gift specific items from a retailer’s website to friends and family via email. Recipients can accept the items that appear in their inboxes and have them shipped to their doorstep, exchange the merchandise for something else or accept the value as a gift card. This empowers buyers to give thoughtful gifts easily and ensures recipients get what they want, all while minimizing costly merchandise returns for the retailer.

Can you talk about Blackhawk’s recent acquisition of CashStar and how this will impact the company/customer base moving forward?

Gilbert: The acquisition by Blackhawk is a great outcome for CashStar and our clients. The combination of CashStar’s platform and product breadth and Blackhawk’s global distribution reach creates a solid launch pad for the development of innovative new applications for branded value and mobile payments.

CashStar and Blackhawk are working to build a gift card e-commerce network that pulls merchants, distributors, and consumers together. We are creating a methodology for such stakeholders to interact so they can all benefit. This is a powerful way to help our industry move forward.

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