The Single Customer View: Pipe Dream or Reality?

Posted by James Dunford Wood 10 Sep 15

If you'd like a more detailed overview of the single customer view in ecommerce, check out our guide which you can read by clicking here.

Single customer view is a phrase that you hear all the time at conferences, and even more frequently in sales pitches. But what does it mean? Achieving it is not as easy as it is made to appear.

Essentially, having a single customer view means having a single profile where all the touch points with an individual customer can be recorded, analysed and leveraged for more personalised marketing.

It can contain more or less information about a customer, but the key point is that it merges information from two main sources - contact information, and engagement channel (including device). Let's look at them in turn.

Contact information

Whenever a customer shops in your store, whether offline or online, they leave information.

Leaving aside the fact that the amount of information they give you is typically very different online to offline, the point is that where the information is the same, it *ought* to be consistent. I say *ought* because clearly it's often not. Here are a few examples where it goes wrong online (and in the rare cases it is collected offline):


A customer might shop as John on one visit, and Jonny on another. Or they might shop as their wife on another visit, because they are using their payment card. 


Delivery addresses can vary. While billing addresses vary less often, it can happen that a customer might pay with a different card, or a business card, registered to a different address.


Again, some people have multiple email addresses, and others use the trick of adding +1 or +JL to their email address, so as to protect their email from spam. So if a retailer ever sells your data to a third party without your permission, it's easy to track the offending spam mail to the place your dropped that email address in the first place.

So you can see how it is very easy to end up with multiple customer records, unless you have some way to key all these transactions to one central record - or to put it another way, to glue them all together. 

Merging your records

Customer ID

The way this is typically done online is via a customer ID - customers are encouraged to create an account, with the benefit that it will streamline their check out process more quickly in future. The masters at this are Amazon and Paypal.

The downside

For smaller retailers, best practice dictates that the less they put in the way of completing a transaction the better, so 'guest checkout' is normally an option - in which case no centralised customer ID will be created, and every transaction will be considered like a unique customer.

In this case you have no glue with which to stitch them together, other than the consistency of the contact information.

There are a number of strategies to encourage people to create an account, the most obvious of which is a loyalty scheme. This is a very powerful way, too, of matching customers by channel (more on this below), as it works just as well, in fact better, offline than online. The best example of the power of the loyalty scheme is Tesco's Clubcard.

Cookie tracking

The other way to merge customer profiles is by IP address.

So each time a visitor from a particular IP address comes to your site, and they identify themselves (for example by signing up to a newsletter, shopping, or creating an account), this information is then associated with the cookie. This gets around the customer ID problem, because the cookie can track a customer whether they create an account or not.

The downside

  1. Cookies can be easily deleted, in which case you lose the link. However, profiles will already have been merged by the service (such as Ometria) that collected the information on behalf of the retailer, so as soon as the visitor identifies themselves again, all the data gets associated with them again.
  1. People share devices. Eek! How do I know it really is 14 year old Lulu shopping from Dad's device?
  1. People use different devices, so different cookies are set on each. The good news, though, is that cookies can be associated with each other once we have some common denominators - so for example if someone shops from their mobile, and then shops again from their desktop, using the same email address or customer ID, then the devices will be matched on the same customer profile. However, where different information is used from one device to another, then you could still be left with two customer records.

Data cleansing

If all else fails, the retailer can fall back on a data cleansing service.

There are a number that can help, including for example Melissa Data, who will look for common denominators amongst all the different customer data (for example misspellings of common addresses, names, or matching emails) and merge records where it looks likely it is the same person. They can also bring third-party data in to add to the equation. However, this system is not foolproof, and mistakes and incorrect mergers can take place. So go carefully and treat with caution!

Engagement channel

The two principal channels most retailers have to deal with are online and offline, and it is this disjoint that provides the biggest challenge when attempting to create a single customer view.

For online-only retailers, the task becomes considerably simpler, though within the online channel you still need to consider separate online stores (for example, country-specific websites where these exist), and device type - though as explained above, cookie tracking can generally stitch a lot of this together.

But the vast majority of retailers who combine online and offline sales are running their online marketing efforts on very incomplete data – completely blind, in most cases, to what these same customers might be doing offline.

For example, let's say you wanted to set up a lapsed customer win-back campaign. So, looking at your online data, you determine that a group of your customers have not shopped online for 12 months, so you send them a whopping great discount voucher to win them back.

However, it's quite likely that many of these shoppers will have been merrily shopping in your Bond Street store – but because you are not collecting their data in store, you would never know it.

Conclusion - the challenge

So – the big challenge for retailers who want to get a single customer view is to figure out how they are going to collect customer data in their offline stores, and then find ways to merge it with their online customer data. For more information on the options for doing this, I wrote a blog post about it here.

Some retailers are doing it better than others – for example some jewellery firms, who collect information on customers and their purchases for insurance purposes, and giants like Tescos, with their loyalty Clubcard scheme. But until retailers are able to collect this data, a single customer view will remain a pipedream.


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