Clienteling: A Definition, A Case & Brand Examples for Retailers

First things first — what is clienteling?

Back in the day, it was common to have a personal relationship with the local butcher, baker or what have you. You’d be greeted by first name when you walked in the door, and the person behind the counter would already be packaging your favorite cut of meat or loaf of bread. Nowadays, that type of service and those types of personal relationships between customers and brands are more the exception than the rule. At the most basic level, clienteling is the idea of treating customers like you’ve known them forever in order to establish long-lasting loyalty. Clienteling is about making your customers’ lives easier through customer service and a great experience.

Why do retailers need it?

There are a few important reasons why retailers need clienteling. Firstly, customers want a personalized shopping experience. They want to be courted, surprised and delighted. Secondly, despite claims that retail, as in physical retail, is dead, retailers have the potential to maximize their brick-and-mortar stores and employees to create exceptional customer service moments. Thirdly, if retailers fail on these fronts, customers will take their business to a competitor and make sure their friends do too.

Two key elements of a successful clienteling strategy

The right technology

Ironically, in order to restore that old-fashioned, personalized customer service companies need to upgrade their technology. This is a big one, as all the other elements of doing clienteling well are kind of dependent on and made possible by technology. Nearly all of the brands doing clienteling well today (which we’ll discuss in a moment) are leveraging technology to empower employees, connect the various channels shoppers are using to interface with brands, and in turn make them more powerful and more profitable.

The right data — at the right time

As mentioned above technology facilitates the other elements of the ideal clienteling strategies, including having access to a complete view of the most current data on a particular customer, so that it can be acted upon in real time. With this unified view, clienteling use cases are endless. You can empower your in-store employees with the information they need to make an informed product recommendation. You can send a personalized push notification the moment a customer walks in the store. These are but two examples. The takeaway is: to do clienteling really well you can’t rely on a best guess or standard procedure. You need intel; you need to be able to disseminate it across all corners of your organization–from your people to every system of engagement.

Who are companies doing clienteling well?

Neiman Marcus

First up–Neiman Marcus. The Dallas-based retailer is developing tools to enable sales associates to text clients with personalized outfit suggestions based on past purchases, browsing history and other data. They’ve has also rolled out a feature in their mobile app called Snap, Find, Shop that enables customers to take a picture of a particular clothing item, like a stranger’s handbag or a friend’s cashmere gloves, to find out if Neiman’s carries the exact or a similar item.

In an interview with  ComputerWorld, Scott Emmons, head of Neiman’s innovation lab revealed, “A lot of [what we’re doing] has been about trying to bring the things that online has to offer into the store.” Neiman’s Memory Mirror program is one such example. These high-tech mirrors, available at select store locations, enable customers to get a 360-degree view of themselves in an outfit, compare other outfits side-by-side, and remembers previous outfits customers have tried. The mirror takes a brief video of the outfit that shoppers can share with friends and family if they’re looking for some extra help making a purchase decision.


Nordstrom is well known for their impeccable customer service and customer-centric policies. They have a generous return policy so customers have ample time to try on items before committing. Their salespeople are attentive without being overbearing. And the list goes on. Nordstrom is killing the game when it comes to clienteling.

With Nordstrom’s Reserve Online & Try In Store service customers can browse merchandise through the app, select items they want to try on, and book a dressing room in the store of their choice. Thanks to location services, in-store employees can track when a shopper who reserved online is on their way and make sure their fitting room–with the customer’s name on the door to boot–is ready the moment they arrive.

In an interview with Forbes, Nordstrom’s senior vice president of customer experience explained that the program is about letting customers be in control of their time. This program, which fuses online and offline channels, actually resulted in an uptick of shoppers who stayed in the store longer when they came in to try on their items.


Sephora’s Color IQ program is a great example of how the beauty mecca is leading the pack when it comes to clienteling. The program was designed to help customers scientifically determine the right shade of foundation and concealer for their skin tone.

Sephora’s in-store employees all have a handheld device that scans the surface of the face to determine a customer’s precise skin tone. The device then matches the tone with a four-digit code of numbers and letters from their shade library. This code is the customer’s “Color IQ.” The program, which also has a component to help shoppers identify the ideal shade of lipstick, was designed to simplify one of the most common plights of the Sephora customer by making the traditionally time-consuming and tedious process of finding the right shade of face makeup quick and easy.

Buzzwords abound related to the customer experience, personalization, the customer journey, etc. Although, clienteling certainly qualifies as a buzzword, the concept of providing an exceptional customer experience across channels is not going out of a style anytime soon. It’s an investment piece that will only appreciate in value over time. As a 2016 report by Sapient concluded: “Brands must follow the customer’s journey across touchpoints — only some of which will include digital tools at all. A touchpoint might be defined by a smile or the feel of a linen shirt…The smell of a store as you enter. Operating in a digital world requires integrating the physical and digital, hand in hand.”