Cynthia Holcomb: Embrace the Neuroscience of Preference for Better DX


Cynthia Holcomb is determined to rethink everything we know about sales conversions. The traditional methods of conducting user surveys, analyzing market research and relying on tried-and-true retail methods won’t move the needle enough, she contends.

Holcomb feels this area is overdue for a major rethink, which she offers up with the “art and science of preference.” The culmination of this work is represented in the company she founded, Prefeye — aka Preference Science Technologies.

Blending Science, Human Decision-Making

It’s based on the theory that neuroscience and an understanding of human decision-making can give retailers a much deeper level of insight into buying practices and help them more deeply understand the wants of their customers.

For example, Holcomb argues that most product choices are categorized based on a decision tree. The goal is to bundle people into categories that mostly align to what the retailer thinks are going to be their purchases. 

She believes this is too binary of a choice. The vast amount of data that we can acquire, combined with the intricacies of human interaction, can give us a lot more to work with, she said. More specifically, she details on her website:

  • “The NeuroScience of Preference is based on a kaleidoscope of overlapping unconscious, visually-based memories and experiences that are embedded deep in the human mind. In the unconscious lies the individual’s aesthetic and emotional preference baseline. With no awareness or effort on behalf of the individual, visual memories trigger unconscious emotional and sensory needs that automatically influence an individual’s choice process and the decision to purchase.”

Her vision is influenced by more than 20 years in the fashion and apparel industry. She designed and built products for Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus and several others. While design director at Nordstrom, she spent many years gleaning insights from shoppers’ buying decisions. This spearheaded 15 years of research and technological development into the areas of psychology, artificial intelligence and neuroscience.

Holcomb will share her take on fashion, retail, customer preferences and more at CMSWire’s second annual DX Summit this Nov. 14 through 16 at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in Chicago.

Bringing Sensory Data to DX

Walter: Tell a little about your background and how it culminated with Prefeye.

Holcomb: I had a career in apparel and had a number of my own companies, but I also worked for major brands and retailers and spent eight years at Nordstrom setting up product and transitioning private label programs into brands. Through those years of travel and being in charge of design teams, developing the product and setting it up globally to be managed, I realized we had no scientific measurement or evidence to understand why a product was purchased. We could make anecdotal guesses as retailers but when it came down to it there was no way to truly measure it.

Walter: So what’s missing, particularly with online purchases?

Holcomb: What’s missing in the digital shopping experience is that we have technology for people who buy things through filters but unfortunately in a digital environment there’s no sensory data, no stimulus available. In the real world, you can go and touch and feel things. I believe firmly the reason is we’ve become consumed with technologies that are linear, based on the ideas of computer science. Things are decision trees, neural networks and decisions that are designed to put people into buckets.

Walter: Can you explain how this experience would look and what it would mean for retailers?

Holcomb: We’ll recognize that you’re likely to start picking out things with a different eye for fashion rather than how you might purchase for your home.  I’m pioneering the art and science of preferences to get people to understand they have the information and they can use that information to understand their products and what their customers are looking for. There’s a transition that’s going to happen. There’s going to be a new view of processing in terms of data that is nonlinear, which matches more with how the human mind thinks.

Walter: How is what you’re doing different from major retailers, such as Amazon, and how they’re trying to improve their customer experience?

Holcomb: There’s a lot of people who say they do this, but unless you know and get under the hood you don’t know. For instance, a lot of companies say they understand your preference, but their method of doing it is, “Hey, here’s an email at 5 in the morning because you’re more than likely to read it.” Or thinking if a soccer mom buys this, other soccer moms will want it, too. That has nothing to do with individual preference rates. If it did, we’d have a lot more success online.

Walter: What will it take for thinking to shift in terms of understanding customer preferences?

Holcomb: You can’t  build something like this unless you have years of experience and watching it at the global market level and understand how product are made, what they’re made of, how all the fibers are made, that creates a unique personality.

We create a sensory profile of a garment and we can use it to understand the sensory preferences based on our patent-pending technology. We’re able to evaluate each garment, which will have its own sensory profile. You can’t segment people into buckets when they’re making aesthetic purchases based on subtle differences.

Walter: You’ve undertaken an ambitious endeavor. What do you do outside of work to unwind?

Holcomb: I have a 14-year-old daughter. She’s the love of my life. I adopted her when she was a little baby and she’s just starting high school. Living in Seattle, I love the Northwest and I’m a real outdoor person. I love the water, kayaking, long hikes … that’s what I do. Being a parent is a wonderful thing — the best thing I’ve done in my whole life.


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