The Internet of Trays

Personalization is ugly.

We don’t mean "organizing the data needed to personalize is messy” or “integrating a personalization vendor is difficult.” We really mean, to quote Melissa Liotus from retailer Crate & Barrel: “Personalization is ugly.” Gross-looking. Aesthetically unpleasing.


Today’s predominant method of displaying personalized content to shoppers looks something like this:

e-commerce personalization tray

Surely you recognize this look: typically 4-6 product images in a row, stuffed in various sections of a website in hopes of catching a shopper’s eye with a specific product. We at Likelihood refer to these content blocks as “trays”. Popularized by Amazon many years ago, it now seems strange to find an online retailer who doesn’t use trays in some form. Being quants at heart, we decided to measure the industry's collective fascination with trays by visiting the top 50 U.S. retail websites to catalog (a.k.a. count one-by-one) all the trays being used to present content to shoppers.

To keep our dataset clean — and to keep ourselves from going crazy — we completed our tray-counting project in one afternoon: Thursday, December 1, 2016. Near the end of Cyber Week, this is a time when retailers need to put their best content forward to help their shoppers find what they came for (or entice them to buy something they didn’t come for) so they can meet their numbers for the holiday season.

Since e-commerce sites, especially those of large retailers, can have tens of thousands of unique pages, we focused our counting efforts on three key types of pages: the home page, one representative department/category page, and one individual product detail page (or PDP, for short) for each retailer. Across these three types of pages, we counted a total of 328 trays displayed by our top 50 retailers, meaning their shoppers saw an average of 6.6 trays per retailer along a fairly direct path to purchase. Factor in visits to multiple departments and very likely many PDPs before settling on one item to buy — plus additional trays that pepper the add-to-cart and checkout processes — and shoppers can easily be exposed to thirty or forty trays during a single visit to a single retailer.

For all the hype in the marketing technology world around personalization and revolutionizing customer experience, it seems that all we’ve really given consumers is a horizontal hot mess of product promotions. We’ve since dubbed this phenomenon "The Internet of Trays”: 

Key takeaways from this infographic:

  • All but one (i.e., 98%) of the Top 50 retailers displayed at least one tray somewhere along their main path to purchase. The lone exception? Apple. Interpret that however you wish.
  • 63% of retailers displayed at least one tray on their home page. In every case, these trays came “after the scroll.” They also tended to highlight popular or sponsored products, and avoided implying that a tray’s contents were personalized to that shopper.
  • 76% of retailers displayed at least one tray on their department/category pages. These pages were the most guilty of showcasing seemingly random content in trays that were labeled as personalized (e.g., “Shoppers like you …”).
  • 90% of retailers displayed at least one tray on their product detail pages. Trays on these pages tended to be labeled as personalized and were more reflective of site browsing behavior, but were also more likely to be stacked on top of one another with redundant labels or content. For example, Amazon displayed five trays on the PDP we viewed: "Frequently Bought Together”, "Customers Who Viewed This Also Bought”, "Sponsored Products Related To This Item”, "Inspired by Your Browsing History”, and “You viewed”. A helpful way to up-sell? Or the digital equivalent of throwing merchandise over a shopper's dressing room door?
  • Bonus fact (not shown in infographic): 9 of 50 (18%) retailers also displayed a gallery of user-generated photographs on their home page or in another prominent location. While not nearly as prevalent as product trays, it is easy to see parallels between the two. As with any trend, what may at first seem fashionable may soon prove a fad.

Online shoppers can spot algorithmic personalization a mile away in its current tray form. As trays become increasingly ubiquitous, they will become decreasingly effective — leaving over-reliant retailers at risk. Innovative companies who experiment with more inspiring (and less ugly) ways to present personally relevant content are more likely to earn their way onto industry Top 50 lists in 2017 and beyond.

Likelihood uses artificial intelligence to help you build relevant, inspiring, engaging creative content at 1:1 scale. Ed DeCaria is the head of product at Likelihood.