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Happy birthday to me, yeah right

March 25, 2014

Today is my birthday. If somehow I had forgotten the date due to my advanced age, I would have been reminded by the many emails and postcards sent by retailers and various service providers.

These communications have come my way as a result of my having provided my birth date on a rewards card or site registration form. Most, to my mind, would have been better off not having sent anything. In their attempts to engage me as a result of this piece of personal information, they come off as impersonal and disingenuous. Offering an additional percentage off my purchases on this special day doesn't give me the warm and fuzzies. If they want to do that, give me the same discount leading up to my wife's birthday.

Not all are so bad. Two coffee establishments I sometimes patronize have sent me free drink rewards. While I know the hope is that I will purchase something in addition to the drinks, that choice is up to me. One of the businesses, Starbucks, even gives me a month to redeem my reward.

When I was much younger, the neighborhood corner store where my friends and I went to buy comic books and drink shakes, would offer each of us a free comic on our birthdays. On my eighth birthday, I got a Spiderman issue. It's funny, but I'm pretty sure the couple who ran the store never called any of us guests. But, on our birthdays, they certainly made us feel about as close to a guest as one can in a retail store.


Discussion Questions:

Do you also feel that some attempts by retailers to become more personal reinforce the opposite image? Do you have an example, good or bad, of a retailer's attempt to personalize their business relationship with you?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Generally speaking, how effective have retailers been in their efforts to engage consumers through increased personalization?


George, happy birthday! You're a great colleague and a good egg too. If I was nearby, we could grab a few retail friends and test a few retailer spots or restaurants and check out a birthday sundae or dessert.

I'm not very receptive to retailers birthday greetings as I usually forget to carry coupons around and still get physical mail on my bday. I guess if more places I am loyal to tried harder to connect with me, I'd download their mobile app. I'd enjoy a birthday latte there. What I get feels like spam and not too sincere.

It's not a birthday story, but my favorite retailer service example lately was Nordstrom writing and signing a personalized letter. Yes, please take care of me!

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Diana McHenry, Retail & CPG, LLamasoft, Inc.

I agree with George on this. These automated messages that result from no more effort than a daily DB query that checks for birthdays and inserts a matching user name into a canned message cannot be construed as personalized. I'm much more impressed with the corner store of his childhood.

My opinion is that most people care less about these messages and will take any free/special offers that come with them w/o thinking twice about brand relationships/loyalty. For those people: good for them, they are playing the brand as much as the brand is attempting to play them.

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Ken Lonyai, Digital Innovation Strategist, co-founder, ScreenPlay InterActive

The bar is constantly moving up. Maybe a birthday greeting used to be caring and interesting, now it just seems mechanical. It's just not personal. Now making an offer on something thoughtful based on really knowing me, that's more likely to be attractive. Look at how memorable that Spider Man was.

The worst personalizations, a retailer hounding me with reminders or an offer for something I browsed or searched on their website and unknown to them, bought somewhere else for a better price. I'm not a (re)target, I'm a (lost for them) customer.

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Peter J. Charness, SVP America, Global CMO, TXT Group

Let me be the first (or not) to wish George a happy birthday! He's right that it takes no special magic to send an e-mail to a customer on his or her birthday with a special offer. Occasionally the offer will resonate and drive results, but more often it's "just another sale."

Frankly, I find that retailers using predictive software -- most famously, Amazon -- have a better pulse on my individual preferences than the retailers sending what amounts to just another coupon.

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Dick Seesel, Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC

Happy birthday George. I am offering you a free lunch anytime you are in beautiful North Kingsville, Ohio, and the offer doesn't expire!

Birthday deals are now common with everybody knowing who you are, and most of the stuff means nothing to me. I enjoy the Facebook wishes as my birthday was 3/22, and about 80 people wished me well, which I appreciate.

If someone could make me magically 22 again, that my friends would be awesome, but overall, it is nice to be recognized by my friends with a quick congrats, and hanging with my friends at a nice restaurant for a couple of drinks.

Any other panel guests are also invited for a free lunch as well, as long as you can prove you actually still have birthdays that still matter. By the way, where is Spring? It is freezing around here.

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

Not really. I still like it when someone wishes me a happy birthday. All my friends and family now do it on Facebook and retailers and restaurants do it via emails. Sometimes there are offers and the best is a local restaurant that gives me a free entre on my birthday. I like that and it does not offend me that some retailers offer a partial discount if I buy something else. Having birthdays are better days then not having them any more!

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Frank Riso, Principal, Frank Riso Associates, LLC

I am impressed that George can remember what a retailer gave him on this 8th birthday. Goes to show that true personalization works, especially on memorable, young consumers. If only retailers cared about relationships lasting 40 or 50 years - most are just looking to drive this quarter's revenue and profit. I get special discounts from local restaurants that last for a birthday "month", which is nice in that one has time to take advantage of the offer. And, SportsClips, a barber shop chain, offers free haircuts in one's birthday month.

The older I get, however, the special discounts I receive are often for things I don't want, or don't care to think about.

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Al McClain, CEO, Founder, RetailWire.com

Is something more personal because a computer dropped in the field name, "first name"? I suspect not.

The rush from big data to call a shopping experience using iBeacons and the like "personal" still seems fairly cold and impersonal.

Happy birthday George.

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Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

Happy Birthday to you George. May your day be as bright as you make ours. Adding to Tony's comment the free lunch you will get when you come to South Florida also has no expiration date.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Happy birthday, George! If you are in the city, let me know and you can be my GUEST for a cup of coffee or something stronger.

With regard to the discussion, I am with you all the way. Hey, Mr. Retailer, don't wish me happy birthday unless you are prepared to give me a present (that means it will not cost me anything). Otherwise, you are just spamming me.

And, yes, I agree on this point, too. Mr. Retailer, I don't want to be your GUEST. I want to be your customer.

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

For years, because of identity theft worries, I've listed bogus birth dates on forms I fill out. I've gotten birthday "greetings" year-round from all sorts of businesses. And they clearly share my incorrect "birthday" with others, since companies I've never heard of now wish me a happy birthday in February, October, July or whenever. My only concern is that some airlines also have my "bogus" birthday, and I don't know if anybody at the TSA will ever try to match things up.

The "greetings" don't bother me; I just think they're silly. I mean, who could be so dumb as to believe the merchant really cares or knows? Occasionally I'll get a discount that's worthwhile, but that's rare. So Happy 40th, George! (Is this your "real" birthday?) You have a free dinner the next time you are in Norwich, Vermont, with no expiration date.

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Warren Thayer, Editorial Director & Co-Founder, Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer

George, I just want to say Happy Birthday and thanks for doing the tough job of coming up with the discussion questions day after day!

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Zel Bianco, President, founder and CEO, Interactive Edge

To the retailer who only knows of me but does not know me, I say "Save your cup and saucer" approach for the cat.

George, incidentally Happy Birthday, there must be a good reason why you remember how you got the Spiderman comic book when you turned 8. As for me, I remember a great birthday gift when I was 6 from a kindly confectionery store owner. He always talked to me as an equal even though I never ever had more than a nickel to spend with him.

On my 6th birthday he gave me 3 delicious caramels (they were 3 for a penny back then). If he were still in business I would reward him with all my business today, at a nickel or much, much more. The secret of his success was his unvarnished personal sincerity with me, a nickel customer once a week. Today, it seems, once you can fake sincerity you have it made ... for a while.

Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

I had the same experience this week as I had a birthday as well.

I was amused by the variety of congratulatory messages received and have to say that ones from Panera Bread and Starbucks that offered me a tangible reward were more welcome than the throw away wishes from the company currently financing one of the family vehicles.

Sincerity, transparency, and value are the standards I would post on the wall of the marketing team rooms that generate these messages. If all the brand is doing is to load my email box with a value-less birthday reminder, I would ask them to consider another tactic.

By the way, Happy Birthday George!

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Bill Hanifin, CEO, Hanifin Loyalty LLC

When marketing has nothing left to say and the creative well is completely empty, it's time to send a special event card, email, or text. I do think the practice of sending out these vehicles creates a more impersonal relationship. However, I am willing to forgive the blatant attempt to exploit my special occasion when the card is accompanied by an offer or discount that IS personalized.

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Larry Negrich, Director, Business Development, TXT Retail

I have not read the other comments but I am reasonably certain someone else must have called out this question for the cheap form of self promotion it is.

Just kidding, Happy Birthday George.

I often think retailers put too much effort into recognizing the customer instead of making sure the customer develops an affinity for the retailer. Simple things like having the service departments maintain consistent shifts so the customer sees the same staff during their regular shopping schedule. Cashiers that acknowledge they have seen the customer before even though they may not know a name. A simple "free" offer can go a long way but it is also a subtle reminder of just how much information the retailer has on file.

Bill Bittner, Principal, BWH Consulting

Giving loyal customers an actual gift certificate instead of an offer and giving them a reasonable amount of time around the birthday to redeem feels like an authentic gesture.

Here in Seattle, Starbucks and Mario's, a menswear retailer, handle customer birthdays very well.

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Martin Mehalchin, Partner, Lenati, LLC

Your daily articles on the retail verticals
Distract my morning, but get my brains cells workable
But this mornings'post, may not be the most endorsed
But unlike a machine, this birthday greetings not forced
Oh right, back to the question: algorithmic birthday greetings suck!
And on this most precious day, have the best of luck.

Vahe Katros, Consultant, Plan B

As with most things, honesty and simplicity work best: a simple " happy birthday" - even a "mechanical" one - never hurts, while using anniversaries to force feed us yet more c$%^ we don't want or need never helps.


Hey George -

From one member of the silver temple society to another: Delighted that you have made it this far!

Personalization is nearly a sacred cow for some in our industry, but it delivers for the consumer only infrequently. More often we see various degrees of segmentation that are really designed to match up against the promotional objectives of brands.

Generic birthday messages depend on the capture of only two data points - a name and a DOB. Nothing particularly insightful about that combination. Shoe retailer DSW has done a pretty good job of this in the brick and mortar world, where it mails a pre-birthday coupon worth ten bucks to frequent shoppers. It's a nice excuse to re-boot the shopping habit, but not at all customized.

Layer on a tailored offer that reflects past purchase behavior, however, and you may move the proposition closer to something truly meaningful.

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James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies

First, Happy Birthday George! It has been great to have you part of my day for so many years! I think that is my reward! Can you imagine that others are rewarded by your birthday? You should as you make a difference for all of us here regularly every day!

As mentioned, the birthday cards from the broker, the insurance company, and the car salesman that I bought a car from 15 years ago go right into the garbage. These examples are frivolous wastes. I'm sure they are good intentions but have no good result whatsoever.

I recently had a quite nice birthday experience taking my father to dinner. We went to his favorite place at his request. A waitress that knew him from his many visits commented that he had guests today. I mentioned that it was dad's birthday. His quick response was that his birthday was really not until the next day. The waitress (is that even proper anymore or is it server?) said, but your family is here today, so it is your birthday to us. Their entire staff went out of their way to each stop to the table and wish him a happy birthday. There was no embarrassing singing or hooting, just a tap on the shoulder from each and every one that said "Happy Birthday." They took care of his dinner and even said come back tomorrow again and we'll do it again. They brought him a dessert and again did it with a simple candle and made him feel very special without any hoopla.

Treating someone special on their birthday is simple. It doesn't have to be a wasteful card. It can be simply doing something a little extra and making you feel like you are special to them.

Useless offers, wasted cards, and discounts aren't vehicles for that. Creating something special for the customer's experience is different for every retailer, but it can be done. It takes imagination and execution, but it can be done and done well. Done well, it is a loyalty generator like no other because it is an experience and experiences create loyalty.

This particular restaurant did something that day. They solidified the loyalty that they already had.


I was pleasantly surprised this week with a birthday offer that I received from Menards. Inside the card was a redemption certificate for a free screwdriver. Now I'm smart enough to know the plan is to get me in the store to spend more money and that the screwdriver probably costs them little more than the stamp on my card, but I still appreciated the uniqueness of the offer and a tangible birthday reward that was a coffee or a cookie from some of the eating establishments that I frequent. And it does mean that I'll have to remember that coupon when I go to Menards, but I appreciated their effort all the same.

Lisa Hargrove, Category Manager, Blitz USA

My thanks for the kind birthday wishes and the insights shared so generously on this site over the past 12+ years.

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George Anderson, Editor-in-Chief/Associate Publisher, RetailWire LLC

Are emails the most sincere way to express appreciation? Probably not. But, it's better than ignoring the day altogether. Seems like a win-win to me but clearly the more targeted and relevant the offer, the more likely the consumer will be to act on it, and to appreciate the "thought."

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Alexander Rink, CEO, 360pi

I share the same feeling. However, a retailer not resorting to this tactic may stand to lose out. There are all kinds of people, isn't it true? I guess the challenge is about how creative and personalized the experience is, rather than just any card.

AmolRatna Srivastav, VP, Accenture

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