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Leveraging data is a critical part of creating a positive customer experience, but personalization — online and in person — is what will help differentiate a fashion apparel, beauty or accessories company in the market.

That was the core message of Thursday night’s “Connected Conversation” panel by The O Alliance, which featured Deena Bahri, chief marketing officer of online beauty retailer Birchbox; Caroline Gogolak, president and cofounder of online active wear retailer Carbon38; Claire Chambers, founder and chief executive officer of lingerie retailer Journelle, and Sarah LaFleur, ceo and founder of women’s apparel retailer MM.LaFleur. The session — held at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City — was moderated by Andrea Weiss, founder of The O Alliance.

The panelists agreed that at the heart of a consumer centric approach is personalized customer service. And personalized service requires companies to “make relevant connections” between the consumer, the Web site, store and sales associates, Bahri said. It should be authentic and an approach that transcends business buzzwords like “omnichannel retailing.” Weiss and the panelists said established retailers might want to rethink the omnichannel approach, which is mostly data and supply chain driven.

A better approach, they said, would be to use predictive analysts as a springboard for connecting with consumers in an authentic way. Bahri noted that “in established retail channels, it’s hard for consumers to find the right products to connect with.” Chambers added retailers have to carefully listen to the customer, which helps reveal their wants and needs.

LaFleur agreed, and said data and analytics are an important part of the equation. “But data is also private and sensitive,” she said. “It can add value — when used correctly.” LaFleur and Chambers said e-mailed or online comments are hard to code, and retailers need to read the comments to get a sense of context and meaning.

The panelists said consumers open up when they comment online or via e-mail, and a retailer can learn things beyond what data alone can provide. LaFleur said she often reads comments that are a “plea for help” from shoppers who need fashion solutions.

Weiss noted that technology in the market has “disrupted” the old model of doing business. In a separate report from The O Alliance, the “path to purchase” has gone from being linear to a multidimensional experience where Web sites, search engines, content and media converge with brands, social media, brick-and-mortar stores, online communities and the consumer. The shopper connects in this new marketplace on a deep level that involves decision-making, interests, intent, input and validation as well as other emotional and cognitive responses. And she’s mostly using a smartphone or tablet to navigate and shop in this new market.

Carbon38 is certainly experiencing the power of mobile e-commerce in this new market. Gogolak said the company recently launched an app, and now 40 percent of the company’s customers are using a mobile device to shop and buy online.

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