Every year, we parse through websites, emails and mobile apps to evaluate which brands are doing personalization best. We purchase products, abandon carts, and sign up for rewards. This year, we evaluated over 260 brand experiences and surveyed 5,000 consumers about what matters most to them.

Like always, this year’s Index pays special attention to things like personalized product recommendations based on shopping cart and browsing history. But our research also takes the fact that we are living in an unprecedented time into consideration, too.

In 2021, personalization basics like product recommendations and triggered welcome emails aren’t optional they’re an expectation. Yesterday’s differentiators are quickly becoming today’s table stakes because the current pandemic is forcing retail to adopt a digital-first mindset.

As consumers embrace mobile and cross-channel shopping experiences more and more frequently, the brands personalizing their customer interactions across every channel set themselves apart from the competition — and up for serious success going forward.

How COVID-19 Changes Your Customers Forever

As the world adapts to a new normal, real-world safety concerns are understandably impacting online buyer behavior. According to McKinsey, in 2020, “Consumers vaulted five years in the adoption of digital in just eight weeks.”

Online shopping across all channels is on the rise. Your customers are taking recommendations from platforms and people they might have overlooked in the past. And almost two-thirds of shoppers are making permanent changes to their routine purchasing as a direct result of the personalized options out there today.

Of course, as your customers’ needs change in response to safety concerns and stay-at-home orders, your interactions with them must change and the leaders recognized in our 2021 Index are taking advantage of these trends to drive unprecedented growth through personalization.

By offering buyers a satisfying, convenient cross-channel retail experience that delivers exactly what they need, brands can make life a little bit easier. And that benefit has never been more valuable.

So, how did this year’s retail personalization leaders stack up in the mind of the average consumer? And which important customer experience trends surfaced in our survey results? 

COVID-19 messaging is top-of-mind

As consumers rely on digital offerings for most retail needs to survive stay-at-home orders, more than half (53%) of consumers feel that it is very important for the brands that they shop with to have a strategy in place for social distancing and staying within CDC-recommended guidelines. And 25% more rate it at least somewhat important.

Women are generally more concerned about brands having these measures in place than men (56% vs. 49%). Not to mention older consumers as well, who understandably place a much larger importance on these measures being in place. No wonder 78% of 2021’s Top 25-ranked brands make it a priority to incorporate COVID-19 messaging into their digital strategy. 

Personalized product recommendations are more important than ever 

One thing every Top 25 brand has in common this year is the fact that they pay special attention to the personalized product recommendations they offer on their respective websites. But they don’t stop there.

Because 96% also give shoppers the ability to like, rate, or star their favorite products, and 93% percent offer the option to create wishlists. 

The rise of non-product messaging

Many shoppers feel disconnected from the outside world as a result of the pandemic. Which means — for any brand working hard to fill customers’ social gaps with engaging content and personalized connections — non-product messaging has the potential to deliver tremendous business benefits.

By creating interactive online communities for followers, subscribers, and new customers across all digital interactions, these companies are delivering the personalized, non-product-focused content modern buyers crave.

For example, athleisure brand Fabletics offers fans of its Fabletics Men line geo-targeted weather reports in order to help users better plan their outdoor workouts. Most of our Top 25 list 93%, to be exact — provide non-product content throughout their website, email, and mobile app experiences. And 100% of them are actively engaging these audiences on social media, too.

Many are missing the mark on personalized mobile

Your customers are pivoting to mobile as a means of browsing products, planning in-store visits, and making purchases. And they’re doing so at an unprecedented rate. So, it’s logical to assume that our top-ranked Index brands are focusing heavily on areas like push notifications and app interactions.

Despite this movement, the modern retail industry is still leaving lots of money on the table. Because — compared to web and email — the push to personalize mobile engagement is lagging behind.

So, it stands to reason that retailers who send relevant push notifications and create app experiences that take consumers’ personalized needs into consideration can gain quite an advantage over any competitor sending one-size-fits-all messaging moving forward. 

Online/offline integration is the wave of the future 

As your customers begin to trickle back into stores, they still want to take the ease and convenience of their online experiences with them. Thanks to the current pandemic, consumers are much more likely to shop on their smartphones now, and also much more likely to integrate their smartphones and other online interactions to their offline behaviors.

Download your copy of the results to start building your brand’s personalization roadmap, taking advantage of modern retail’s most important trends, and improving your customer experience across all web, email, and mobile interactions.