The DM Essays: John Shaw, the European development director at Carlson

Chip and PIN card technology will permit marketers to achieve new levels of customisation in customer relationship marketing, Carlson's John Shaw writes.

Some marketers think the new chip and PIN technology has little to do with relationship marketing.

They are either blinded by its anti-fraud properties or believe that chip and PIN cards are no different from stored value cards. Some even claim the technology heralds a move away from relationship marketing because the customer can choose to interact even less with a brand.

But they're missing the point. There is no doubt that the main business reason for chip and PIN is to combat fraud. And, yes, it may limit the opportunity for face-to-face contact in store. This is because customers can opt to swipe a card, tap in a PIN number and head for the exit before a sales assistant even has time to ask: "Do you have a loyalty card?"

But closer inspection reveals that chip and PIN adds a new dimension to the loyalty conundrum. Carlson's own experience across 70 loyalty programmes in 25 countries shows that the UK is lagging behind the US when it comes to exploiting this technology's potential.

The key word in all this is "chip". Never before have customers carried around in their wallet their own database of all the brands they have bought or all the promotions they have responded to. This is much more valuable than an SVC, which feeds into a main database held at a distance from the customer. PIN and chip technology allows you, for the first time, to look at data on an individual basis.

The next step, which is not far away, is where it starts to get exciting for relationship marketing. If you've got a customer swiping her card, for example, who is also an avid user of hair-care products, then you've got an opportunity to talk to her in a way that suits her. You can tell her while she's at the till and via the PIN screen that there's a two-for-one offer on her favourite conditioner next week.

In the US, where Carlson is running pilots using smartcards, some stores have found that their ability to respond personally to a shopper, based on information provided by their card, increases individual spend in future.

The department store Saks Fifth Avenue first piloted its "Wow" programme in 2002 in Houston and New Orleans to explore the benefits of rewarding regular customers with gifts at the till, such as chocolates or perfume. It has proved so successful that the idea is being rolled out across the country.

In this case, the till identifies customers from their cards and, if they're eligible for a prize, this is flagged up to the sales assistant, who then "wows" the lucky shopper. The chief information officer at Saks, Bill Franks, maintains that it is this personal touch, which takes customers by surprise, that reaps the rewards, as these loyal shoppers increase their spend by more than 10 per cent in subsequent months.

Eventually, the relationship will be able to go much further than is currently possible at point of sale. Cast your mind back to Tom Cruise in the sci-fi movie Minority Report, where a robot with retinal-scan recognition asks: "How did the assorted tank tops work out for you last time?" While retailers probably won't be identifying people by their retinas any time soon, they are already using chip-based, smart-card technology to pinpoint their customers as they enter a shop.

The US retailer Target, for example, is doing this via electronic kiosks that identify shoppers at store entrances to offer them special deals based on previous buying patterns.

Before we can achieve truly personalised offers for clients' brands, however, we need to develop customised smart-card technology that allows multiple brands to piggy-back on the same card. At the moment, all cards have been single-function, meaning one company issues them for a specific use.

The US IT guru Carl Gunter, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, predicts that it will take two or three years before this technology will hit the marketplace. Realistically, as marketers know from bitter experience, it will be another five to seven years before it is pervasive, because store infrastructures must be overhauled first.

Nevertheless, Gunter has developed a prototype smart- card designed to enable third parties to add programmes to an existing card. This means that brands, for example, could discreetly vary discounts or product promotions by individual customer. This would signal an unprecedented level of customisation.

For the first time, offers could be tweaked depending on a customer's value and need, in a move very difficult to imitate by rivals. Limits could be set, too, on the amount customers must spend to redeem promotional gifts or when they must shop to be eligible for a reward.

But we're not quite there yet. As with all new technology, systems need to be standardised and customers need to get used to it. But this doesn't mean marketers shouldn't be planning now how to leverage the chip and PIN channel in future. The prediction is that, within a couple of months, half of all cardholders in the UK will be making one in three transactions by putting in a PIN number rather than providing a signature for verification.

These numbers are difficult to ignore.

Relationships with customers are like precious stones. Raw, uncut stones are worthless and ugly. But as different facets are cut into the stone, they grow in value and brilliance. The same goes for relationship marketing - each time there is a new customer experience, another facet is cut into the stone. Chip and PIN is another facet but, if marketers don't recognise its potential as a marketing route, they will yet again fail to match marketing techniques to the growing complexity of human relationships.

One thing is clear from Carlson's experience in loyalty programmes: from British Airways to Harrods to Barclays, Shell and Bank of Scotland, relationships always drive business results.

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