The future belongs to retailers who perfect the art of delivering highly personalized, omnichannel experiences to their customers. But this is only possible if they build the right technical foundation-especially the ability to drive customer interactions with real-time data. An enterprise customer data platform (CDP) is an essential tool for retailers seeking to turn real-time data into an advantage for the customer experience. At NRF’s recent virtual conference, I discussed real-time data and the future of retail with Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, the founder of Retail Minded. Together, we talked about the trends that are reshaping the customer experience, from the COVID-19 pandemic to changing generational attitudes, and how mastery of real-time data enables retailers to excel in this novel environment. Here are some of the key ideas Nicole and I explored in our talk, with additional elaboration and examples. You can also watch the entire presentation here. What Is Real-Time Data, and Why Does It Matter for Retail? Real-time data consists of both structured and unstructured data, served on demand in just milliseconds. Such data may include a customer’s engagement and order history across channels (web, mobile, or in-store). It could also include other kinds of enterprise data gathered and delivered in real time, such as inventory records or sensor data gathered by a retailer’s in-store systems. For retailers, real-time data becomes vital in use cases where seconds matter. A customer service associate may refer to a customer’s record to provide personalized service in store-or a retailer’s systems may send data to a website or mobile app for personalized marketing and engagement. Such interactions require all incoming data to be processed and served for immediate use, rather than stashed in a database for later retrieval and analysis. This is no small challenge in a world of omnichannel customer relationships. Retailers are interacting with customers-and thus gathering and serving data-across many different touchpoints and channels, from web and mobile systems to call centers and stores. Customers, meanwhile, expect to move between these touchpoints with little or no friction, often beginning a task on one channel and seeking to finish it on another. But this is only possible if data from one interaction is instantly available for use in the next, even though they are both mediated by different systems. An enterprise CDP solves this challenge by ingesting data from every customer interaction on any channel, unifying it with other customer data to form a complete customer record, and converting it into actionable information-all in mere instants, from a human perspective. Retailers and other direct-to-consumer brands can thus deliver highly personalized experiences, based on a deep real-time understanding of customers. Real-Time Data Makes Humans Better. How does real-time data enhance the customer experience in practice? For retailers, one of the greatest benefits is the ability to create more satisfying person-to-person interactions, both remotely and in stores. Humans are far better than machines alone at delivering one-to-personalization-but to do so, they need the right data and technology. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the human side of retail has undergone a massive shift-but it’s no less important than before. Contact centers-many of which now emphasize selling rather than CX troubleshooting-have become the front line of the customer experience for many retailers, and firms have introduced new roles for digital and online associates. While sales associates may be spending less time with customers in stores, services like curbside pickup and clienteling may offer other opportunities for personalized service and clienteling. Real-time personalization can enhance such human interactions all along the customer journey, both before and after a purchase. Before the click, digital associates can engage customers through a retailer’s app, providing personalized guidance and product advice. After the click, in-store associates with access to customer data can infuse personalization into their customer encounters-for example, by offering customized attention to loyal customers. When customers face problems, a contact center agent can provide tailored customer service with insights generated by the retailer’s CDP. To provide superior personal service of this kind, call centers and associates need actionable, real-time data about the individual customer at their fingertips. In this way, they can provide service that is relevant to the customer’s wants and needs in that moment. In addition, all these interactions need to rely on the same customer data technology. A unified customer data solution such as a CDP eases the challenge of training and change management and allows retailers to deliver such personalized experiences at scale. Just as important, it ensures that associates at every stage of the customer relationship are all referring to the same data, rather than fragmented and incomplete customer records. That means a more seamless, unified experience for the customer. What’s Next in Data-Driven Customer Experiences. COVID-19 has accelerated the rise of omnichannel commerce, with consumers embracing new ways of shopping for everything from groceries to cosmetics. And more retailers are discovering the need to satisfy their customers’ changing expectations with personalized, one-to-one engagement and marketing. What other trends will shape the retail customer experience in the near future-and how can real-time data help retailers make the most of their potential? Programmable video: Programmable video looks poised for growth, as retailers take advantage of its flexibility to integrate video into their in-store and online experiences. With programmable video, retailers can more easily combine high-quality video interactions to enhance customer service and engagement. Such experiences will benefit from richer features enabled by data-driven, real-time personalization-for example, more personalized guidance for a customer chatting with a digital associate inside a retailer’s mobile app. Mobile apps: Mobile commerce has been a reality for years, but the pandemic has taken it to new heights. Millions of consumers have discovered underused features of retailer’s mobile apps, such as curbside pickup. Nonetheless, many retailers’ mobile apps are still mainly used for online ordering and payments. This will change as retailers respond to new customer demands, finding new ways to weave mobile and in-store experiences together. Customers who have become used to the efficiency of online ordering, for example, may prefer a more pre-planned shopping experience to traditional in-store browsing. That calls for mobile features that can guide shoppers to their planned purchases more quickly-such as digital maps of where to find different items on a consumer’s shopping list in the store. Real-time data can help maximize the value of such features for customers through personalization. For example, a retailer’s mobile map could draw on a customer’s past orders, online engagement, and physical location to suggest additional purchases and show where to find them during the customer’s visit to the store. Healthcare: To win back customers, retail stores are likely to become more communal places, offering multiple benefits for walk-in or appointment-driven customers. Healthcare is an example of how this will drive retail to combine with other industries, using its cost efficiencies to make services more efficient and accessible. CVS has already made multiple acquisitions to expand its footprint in healthcare, while the health units of other big retailers such as Walmart and Kroger have raised their profiles with new vaccination initiatives for COVID-19. Up until now, special privacy protections for health data have limited the merger of retail with healthcare-but the COVID-19 crisis, among other factors, may open the way to more data sharing in the future. By combining real-time customer data with pieces of health data, retailers may be able to provide more efficient and personalized interactions for consumers of healthcare services. To make this vision a reality, they will need a technological solution that can connect unrelated kinds of data from different systems and orchestrate a unified customer experience in real time. A New Generation Raises the Stakes. The pandemic is just one factor pushing a transformation in the retail experience. Another is the rise of a new generation of shoppers who are inclined to turn to their smartphones first, and brick-and-mortar stores second. Such younger consumers, raised with different expectations around privacy, may be more willing to share their personal data than their elders are-but they also expect value in return. Among other things, that means omnichannel experiences that respond to their personal wants and needs, with no delay or friction. In this changing world, every moment counts-and so does every piece of real-time data. A CDP provides the cornerstone for retailers’ efforts to benefit from this resource, through rapid unification and activation of data across all consumer-facing systems. With the right technical foundation in place, retailers can keep pace with a new wave of innovation, and keep consumers coming back with experiences that move as fast as their lives.