Retailing is not easy, especially in an industry that has no tradition of true product differentiation.

But according to Gianni Cataldo, general manager and vice president for the Americas at Datalex, at least one airline is close to getting it right.

Datalex has been working with Delta Air Lines on its online merchandising platform, and Cataldo provided some pointers gleaned from the experience at the OpenTravel Alliance Advisory Forum in Miami.

First, he said, the carrier hired a retailing pro, “the e-commerce guy from Target.”

That is Bob Kupbens, now vice president of marketing and digital commerce at Delta, who saw the opportunities inherent in the “depth of engagement” that travelers have with airlines as they make their way through their journeys.

“If I walk into a shop, they drive me to certain products with ads. I make a purchase and walk out,” Cataldo said.

In contrast, an airline passenger’s engagement doesn’t end with a purchase.

It continues as the passenger walks through the airport, gets on the plane, arrives at the destination and repeats the process in reverse on the return trip.

The airline knows the passenger’s name, address, destination and a wealth of other information.

So Delta began thinking about how to apply its retailing strategy to the customer’s entire journey.

It focused on the traveler’s persona, gauging the customer’s intent for a particular transaction and “tailoring an offer that encapsulates the needs and concerns in this particular interaction, along with the customer’s long-term relationship with the airline,” Cataldo said.

A key element of Delta’s strategy is forming partnerships with other travel suppliers that provide real value to the traveler.

Working with Datalex, it is revamping the way it presents partner offers on its website, aiming for a more integrated look.

Among the things that Delta and Datalex learned along the way:

• Loyalty is measured in different ways, and if an airline works with hotel companies, that will need to be worked out.

• The first thing that pops into a customer’s head when a website presents a hotel offer often is, “Why should I book a hotel on an airline’s website?”

Caltaldo said customers need to understand the value of the offer – which means the offer actually has to provide value to the customer.

For example, Delta is partnering with a trendy hotel company so that its Platinum Medallion members are treated as Platinum at the hotel properties and vice versa.

• In working with partners, the “ownership” of the customer needs to be spelled out. If something goes wrong, who is going to manage the situation?

• Offers should make sense: Don’t offer a hotel to a daytripper, and suggest a shuttle service rather than a rental car.

• Standards, such as those developed by OpenTravel, are key to a project of this magnitude, and “the more time we spent on the definition around a standard, the more reliable the results,” Cataldo said.

“We started out with good reference schema,” he said, “and nothing beats example code.”

• But while “standards are great, at the end of the day, you are talking to different systems,” he said, and uniformity is lacking.

“Metro codes drove us nuts,” he said. Airport hotels try to position themselves as city center properties.

Various hoteliers have different room type codes as well.

Content tagging “is a real mess,” Cataldo said.

But “trailblazing is never easy,” Cataldo said.

Delta “knew what it was up against,” he said. “The vision is everything.”

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