Can we even talk about customer loyalty today? The concept as we know it may no longer exist.

Shoppers have never been presented with so many choices along their path to purchase, to the point where retailers are having to pull out all the stops just to capture their attention for a single transaction.

These choices are empowering consumers to tailor their experiences in the most convenient or rewarding manner, but they are also setting their expectation benchmark ever higher.

Forbes’ Robert Passikoff wrote an interesting article earlier this year called the Brand Keys’ Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, which tracks brands’ ability to meet customer expectations.

What I found intriguing was not necessarily the companies that performed well, but the fact that customer expectations had increased by almost a third – yet brands’ ability to deliver to these expectations had only risen by 7%.

What separated successful brands from less revered ones, according to the study, was emotional engagement. Rational functionality is relatively easy to improve (although not all retailers are getting it right yet), however connecting with customers’ hearts is much harder to achieve.

This result confirms something that I have believed for a while; today’s customers aren’t loyal to a brand, they are loyal to an experience. Retailers are only as good as their last interaction, and a poor encounter can have a lasting impact, even on long-term customer relationships.

Why? Think back to 30 years ago, when all retail was bricks-and-mortar. Customers shopped at stores within easy travelling distance of their home, and accepted that there was little alternative should they receive poor customer service.

Now, if a customer is let down by a store, they can log onto their smartphone and make a purchase through a rival company before they have even left the premises! It’s as easy as switching between browsing windows when shopping online.

Being able to meet customer needs on every occasion is just part of the relationship nurturing process, however. No matter how logistically complex it is to fulfill their demands behind the scenes, consumers expect retailers to provide consistently fulfilling interactions just to maintain their business – and securing their long-term loyalty demands more.

Increasing customer value has now moved beyond rewarding transactions into a richer, more reciprocal affiliation between retail businesses and shoppers. Retailers must reach out to and reward consumers for reasons beyond purchases. Walgreens’ Live Well campaign is a great example of this – customers are awarded points for their lifestyle choices, such as jogging with a wearable fitness band, quitting smoking and tracking their weight on smart scales.

The customer’s ability to accrue points on their own terms is crucial to Walgreens’ success. Shoppers like to feel they are getting something that’s exclusive to them.

This is where the emotional element of loyalty comes to the fore; by tailoring promotions based on how often they shop or what they shop for, customers feel truly valued by a brand. And the sophisticated business intelligence solutions available to the market are enabling retailers to build those relationships through data-driven insights.

In today’s omnichannel retail environment, customer loyalty programmes can no longer afford to be two dimensional. Instead, retail organisations must use all the technologies and strategies at their disposal to develop schemes that connect with their customers as individuals. That’s how to get loyalty right in 2015.

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