Macy’s and Sears. Big companies, big budgets.

They each spend over $1 billion a year on advertising, both have a long history of cool marketing (Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Sears’ FitStudio), and both make a whole lot of sales.
Macy’s is the 14th largest retailer in America ($27.8 billion in annual retail sales) and Sears is the 16th ($26.6 billion).
However, despite their size and success both retail heavyweights are behind the ball when it comes to email marketing. That’s according to a 2014 study by Chicago based start-up Simple Relevance on email personalization in retail.
The study (read it here) analyzed product recommendations, image optimization, time of send, send frequency and subject line of America’s largest retailers. The results were surprising.
Macy’s for example, makes no distinction for gender in their email marketing.
Imagine this scenario:

  1. I’m a man.
  2. I inform Macy’s of my gender when I sign up for their email newsletter.
  3. I buy a mustache comb, a football, and a jock-strap from
  4. I receive a newsletter with discounts on dresses and women’s shoes.

See the problem?

In this Macy’s email, 5 of 8 offers are directed at females.

Macy’s and Sears are hardly the only brands struggling with email personalization.
In fact, Simple Relevance found that only 18% of top retailer’s emails claimed to contain personalized product recommendations (‘Items just for you’) and from this group, only 8% were were actually customer specific.
This supports the findings of a recent Forrester survey that found that, while 70 percent of CMOs believe that personalization is critical to their business strategy only 17 percent of marketing leaders are delivering personalized messages to consumers.
While some retailers can get away with weak emails (Walgreens and CVS rely on personalized mobile apps) for brands like Macy’s, Sears, Staples and Office Depot this is a big missed opportunity.

What separates bad emails from good emails?

a) Lack of Product Recommendations
As I already mentioned this is a big failure across the board. Not only are brands not providing personalized recommendations but a quarter of emails have no product suggestions at all!
b) Weak Visuals
Email personalization isn’t limited to product recommendations. A much easier way to add a tailored feeling to a newsletter is to include a personalized image. If I’m a dog lover I’m going to prefer that Petsmart sends me emails with pictures of dogs. Surprisingly, only 10% of emails contained personalized images, and 19% had no images at all.
c) Bad Timing
While everyone has a different schedule for opening their emails, most people (60%)have a set time when they’re most likely to open their mail. Marketing emails received during this time span have higher open and click-through rates.
Target is one of the best brands when it comes to smart scheduling. They adapt their email distribution based on time-to-open and overall open rates, so that messages are delivered at times when they’re most likely to be opened.
Most brands are not this savvy. More than half send their offers at pre-set times in the afternoon and evening, with daily deals often delivered after prime shopping hours.
The other factor with timing is email frequency. While more isn’t necessarily better, some brands are far too inactive. Amazingly, Office Depot (America’s 7th largest online retailer) sends only 0.3 emails per week!

Amazon knows me a little too well.

d) Weak Subject Line
Currently there are only two big retailers that do a good job with personalizing subject lines. Amazon and Walmart. They’re the only big retailers that consistently incorporate recipient names in their subject line. Amazon does it 70% of the time.
What’s everyone else putting in their subject line?
Here are the 5 most popular words in order:

  1. Your
  2. Daily
  3. Extra
  4. Special
  5. Deal

The big danger with this type of language is that it clearly implies personalization. If a subscriber opens ‘their daily extra special deal’ to find a totally irrelevant offer, it’s going to cast a negative light on the brand.


Email Marketing in retail has been around for a quite a while, yet very few brands have tapped into its potential. Despite marketing budgets in the hundreds of millions, today’s big retailers still rely on generic email messaging.
This article has been written by @Reagan_Charles


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