When Les Kertay walked into the Woodfire Grill in Atlanta recently, the waiter greeted him by name, then recommended a bottle wine similar to what Kertay had chosen on his last visit. It's the kind of treatment a regular would expect -- but Kertay, a clinical psychologist from Chattanooga, had only been to the restaurant a handful of times.
His preferences, though, had been recorded and tracked by a software program the restaurant uses for precisely that reason: To give even occasional customers the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with personalized service.
By now, consumers have come to expect that web sites and some stores keep track of how much they spend and what they buy. (Think Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought...") Now businesses both online and off are keeping track of customers' past behavior to implement a softer sell: They hope to inspire you to become a regular by treating you like one already. "They want it to seem like 'Cheers' -- like they know who you are," says Matthew Roberts, chief executive officer of restaurant reservations site OpenTable.com.
It goes beyond simply knowing your name. Shops, hotels and restaurants are now recording your birth date, pillow-softness preference, and wine preferences. The global Swiss tel chain now promises to remember frequent guests' preferred hotel views and bed configurations. British Airways recently issued iPads loaded with each passenger's known entertainment preferences and travel arrangements. Roberts says more restaurants are using OpenTable's software to monitor diners' favored wines, tables and other habits. "We're not that far off from walking into a store where they have your profile and tailor everything to you," says Deborah Mitchell, executive director for the Center of Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
When done right, it can create a better experience for shoppers, diners and travelers. "There was no effort to sell me something," says Kertay: The waiter mentioned Kertay's prior wine preferences only when he asked a question about the wine list. "It was a personal touch." Woodfire Grill manager Rick Blumberg says the restaurant has always tracked information like guests' food allergies, but has branched out in the past year to allow servers to make notes on diners' preferences.
But there are also drawbacks. Even the soft sell is still a sell, says Mitchell, driven by a desire to encourage you to spend more, and more often: "Every positive for a consumer is a benefit for a marketer." Also, what the companies do with the information they collect is largely out of customers' control. Some may sell or give your preferences to other companies. OpenTable, for example, allows restaurants to share customer data with their sister restaurants -- not the end of the world, but perhaps startling when a restaurant you've never been to notes your preference for club soda with no ice, and lemon, not lime.
Some customers see the collection of any data as an invasion of privacy. Just this week, OnStar, the automobile communication service, came under fire for continuing to collect data on the driving habits of former customers; the company said it would stop the practice. To limit the risks, consumer experts recommend reading the fine print on loyalty programs to see how and with whom they may share your personal information. The most likely scenario is more junk mail or offers you don't want.