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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

The tech industry’s big opportunity—and responsibility

Consumers will expect their digital, and even real-world, experiences to feel specific to them. 

The tech industry’s big opportunity—and responsibility
[Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock]

Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the school computer lab, and one of the first computer games I played was Lemonade Stand—a floppy disk simulation of running a lemonade stand.

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The goal, of course, is to build a profitable business. You can optimize pricing, run local ads, and prepare for surges in demand during a heatwave. You learn about the operations of a retail endeavor—but you don’t learn about treating consumers as individuals.

As far as this simulation is concerned, consumers were adequately represented as homogenous, probabilistic machines with no memory of past experiences.

I set up a real-world lemonade stand a few times as a kid, and I don’t remember thinking too much about consumers as individuals. So long as it was sunny and we picked a time and place with decent foot traffic, we were guaranteed to get a few customers.

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But things have changed. While physical retailers can reasonably treat consumers as anonymous and transactional, optimizing primarily for factors like geographic proximity and availability, digital and hybrid retailers are easy to access—and they need to distinguish themselves on other factors.

We’ve all experienced this. If you walk into a big box store, the employees there have no idea if it’s your first visit or 100th, and there’s no personalization. That’s no longer true when you visit a website or open up a mobile app. We reasonably expect those experiences to know who we are—and not share or sell that information to third parties.

We call this change the de-anonymization of consumers. Consumers can still choose to be anonymous of course, but technology has made it easier for them to share bits of information about themselves, including how to contact them, past transactions, their favorite styles, when they like to shop. And they’re open to curated experiences that are entertaining or help do some of their thinking and decision-making for them.

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This is a big opportunity for retailers. It’s also one ripe for abuse. We’re all willing to delegate some of the decision-making in our lives to others. There are way too many decisions to be made even on a daily basis, and so we turn to friends, family, and organizations we trust to shoulder the load.

I see this situation playing out in three parts:

First, the software and tools to store customer data, build individualized experiences, and learn from those results will become commonplace. Consumers will expect their digital, and even real-world, experiences to feel specific to them.

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This leads to the second act, where consumers will demand software to help them filter out experiences that aren’t as useful, either because they’re generic or aren’t trustworthy. Our inboxes for email and text messages need an upgrade. They should be much better at allowing us to decide what content we want to prioritize and showing us that.

That’ll lead to the final act, where consumers shut out or ignore retailers that are not deemed helpful enough and focus on deepening their relationships with the ones who provide value.

That’s a different skill set than the one I needed to build a virtual lemonade stand. It might be time to start building a simulator for that.

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Andrew Bialecki is the co-founder and CEO of Klaviyo, a unified customer platform. 

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