The drip method of irrelevance

At first, the shift is almost imperceptible.

With quarterly earnings expectations to hit, we tell ourselves we can easily save a few bucks by automating some of our customer service functions. Or perhaps it’s through simplifying our organizational structure or eliminating “non-essential” positions. Better yet, let’s close some “unproductive” stores.

And obviously technology enables us to take away a bit of decision-making from the front-line staff. After all, human beings are notoriously misled by their own intuition. And whoever got fired for praying to the God of Efficiency?

And running all those different marketing campaigns adds a lot of complexity. It would be much easier to boil things down to just the major stuff that we know moves the dial.

And our product line is just too diverse. Sure it’s interesting to have something fresh and innovative, but doesn’t that just increase the risk of slowing down inventory turnover and increasing markdowns? Safe is smart right?

Of course, over time, the top-line stops growing and the only way we know how to drive profits is through cost-cutting.

Over time, we’re proud of our low average talk times, yet customers can’t speak to a human being and our Net Promoter Scores continue their inexorable decline.

Over time, our one-size-fits-all marketing is, at best, indistinguishable from the competition and, at worst, a dim signal amidst all the noise.

Over time, the sad reality is that all we sell is average products for average people and there’s no reason to pick us over the guy with the lowest price.

Sears, RadioShack and a host of others that are on a long inevitable march to the retail graveyard didn’t get trumped by a disruptive competitor that emerged out of nowhere. An oppressive government didn’t regulate them out of business. They weren’t crippled by a series of specious lawsuits or hobbled by natural disasters.

Usually the brands that become irrelevant have made hundreds of seemingly small decisions, over many years, that prioritized the short-term ahead of the long-term, the numbers instead of the customer, mass rather than personal, safe not remarkable.

And once they are gone, once their fate is sealed and their previously storied histories are part of the record, we’ll look back and realize it happened gradually, then suddenly.

Digital first retail

Many traditional retailers are already living in a “digital first” world. If your brand isn’t quite there yet, it’s likely only a matter of time–a short time.

Digital first means that even if the customer ultimately buys in a brick & mortar location, their journey starts online.

Digital first means that the primary way prospective customers learn about your brand is through your website, social media or online peer-to-peer reviews.

Digital first means whether the customer comes to your store for a particular transaction or not is determined by how well your online or mobile presence meets their needs in a highly relevant and compelling way.

Digital first means that holding on to the customer relationships that matter is largely determined by how well your digital tools eliminate customer experience friction and are rooted in a treat different customers differently philosophy.

Digital first means that the way your customers activate their passion for your company and become true brand ambassadors is primarily by sharing their remarkable experiences via their smartphones, tablets and other digital devices.

Digital first retail profoundly changes the way we engage customers, the way we deploy technology and the way we re-envision the physical store experience. It causes us to break down our silo-ed thinking and organizations to put the customer at the center of everything we do.

It’s not easy.

It’s not inexpensive.

It’s not without risk.

But frankly we have no other choice but to embrace it and get on with it.

And I’d hurry if I were you.

You know what’s hard?

Customers say they want a more seamless experience across all channels and touch-points. “Sure” you say, “but it’s very expensive and complicated to implement that level of integration.”

Silo-ed data, systems, organizations and metrics are keeping your brand from being more customer-centric and relevant. “I know” is your response, “but greater centralization would be very jarring to our culture.”

In an increasingly noisy world, mass marketing and one-size-fits-all approaches fail to gain share of attention, becoming less effective by the day. You respond, “you’re right, but treating different customers differently is difficult to scale.”

Relentless price promotions and layering of discounts and reward points deteriorate profit margins, teach customers to only buy on sale and accelerate an inevitable race to the bottom. Your defense is to say “well that’s what moves the top line” and to point out how hard it is to justify full price.

In the inevitable battle between denial, defending the status quo and rationalization vs. acceptance, leaping and innovation, we tend to choose the former. And our fate is sealed.

Many of the things we avoid as too risky are, in fact, often just the opposite. The risk is in the failure to change, in the lack of passion to become intensely relevant, in being stuck in “me too” instead of choosing to become remarkably different.

What’s hard is to move where the customer is headed after the competition has already established a beach head.

What’s hard is to break through the clutter with undifferentiated products and tired messaging.

What’s hard is to acquire, grow and retain the right customers with average products for average people.

What’s hard is to catch up when you’ve fallen behind.

Mass or built for me?

All about price, or all about unique value?

Average or remarkable?

My guess is that every brand that’s gone through the work of closing stores, firing people and liquidating inventory might have a different view of what’s hard.

Why go to the store?

There are some who think that most brick & mortar stores are eventually going away and that e-commerce can have a compound annual growth rate of 15% until the end of time. To which I answer, “don’t be silly” and “of course not.”

There are many powerful reasons for physical retail locations to exist. In fact, we are already witnessing the limits of pure-play models as online only players are opening more traditional store-fronts (Warby Parker, Bonobos, Amazon and many others). Well established direct-to-consumer brands like LL Bean are doubling down on a commitment to retail store expansion. And even with the explosion of online shopping, close to 95% of transactions still take place in a traditional store.

When you take out products that can be delivered digitally (books, movies, games and the like) in most cases, for most consumers, there is value in being able to go see, try on, or touch the actual product. Having a live conversation with a well-trained sales associate can be extremely helpful. Physical stores offer a social experience that can’t be readily duplicated via the web or smart phone. And, typically, you can take the product with you, rather than having to wait.

Having said this, digitally enabled business models ARE disrupting every category and chipping away at many historical advantages of bricks & mortar. Websites often have better information than in-store sales people. Assortments can be much wider and prices are often sharper. Next day delivery may be either good enough or simply more convenient than having to drive to a mall and deal with the crowds. And we can be certain that future innovation will further eat away at traditional store advantages.

The fact is, in most instances, the future winners will be retailers that blend digital and physical offerings. They will deeply understand customers wants and desires and build a tightly integrated, highly flexible hybrid model rooted in treating different customers differently. That means a transformation, but not the elimination, of physical stores.

By contrast, the losers will be those that blindly adopt all things omni-channel.

The losers will be those traditional retailers that continue to run a bolted on and siloed e-commerce channel.

The losers will be those who fail to see the interplay between digital and physical stores and close too many doors–and turn the remaining ones into boring museums of best-sellers and “me too” products.

The losers will be those who hold on to one-size-fits-all customer and marketing strategies.

Consumers will continue going to stores for many, many years to come. Whether they will come to your store is a different question.

Some customers

One of the more amusing moments of my time at Sears was when our newish CEO insisted that we stop referring to our customers as “him” and instead say “her.” This was meant to underscore the need to reinvigorate our apparel business and identify women as the most frequent decision-makers for our softline categories.

While there was merit to this strategy–and Sears testosterone-driven, male dominated culture absolutely deserved a swift kick in the, uh, pants–it ignored the complexity of Sears myriad businesses and the attendant diverse consumer segments we needed to attract, grow and retain.

Of course, Sears wasn’t alone. It’s common for business leaders and analysts to make global pronouncements about what “she wants” or how “our customer” is responding. While these statements may have an air of profundity, they’re just glib soundbites.

Today there is no everyone. There is no monolithic him or her or them.

Today the idea of being a little bit of everything to everybody is irrelevant. The era of mass is giving way to the era of us.

Today one-size-fits all strategies are running out of gas. We must treat different customers differently.

Today it’s not about “the customer” or any notion of all customers.

It’s about some customers; the right customers, carefully selected, deeply understood and served in unique and remarkable ways.

Epic battles of history: customer vs. channel

Because virtually all retailers have historically organized themselves around their sales channels, there is major conflict.

Because customer data typically resides in silos, a mighty struggle exists to provide a holistic, customer-centric view.

Because systems are not integrated, attempts to provide a seamless customer experience are fraught with friction.

Because companies most often employ metrics and incentives that are aligned against internal dynamics, rather than the way customers shop, tensions abound.

As the channels evaporate in consumer’s minds, the battle between what your customer wants, needs and expects, and that which your various silo chieftains and defenders of the status quo try to hold onto, is intensifying.

To be sure, the shift from a channel-centric culture to a customer-centric one is incredibly difficult. The investments to integrate data, inventory, point of sale systems and supply chains can be enormous. The complexities in reworking incentive structures and performance tracking are undoubtedly time-consuming and challenging. And re-mapping processes and re-training an entire organization is hardly trivial.

But in the battle between customer and channel is there any question which side will ultimately win?

Living in an A/B world

It’s a common practice for e-commerce sites to engage in so-called “A/B testing.” A typical A/B test randomly presents a brand’s current website design against an alternative which might improve results (most often conversion rates).

A variant of this approach has been employed by direct mail practitioners for years. To improve campaign response rates a “challenger” mailing is pitted against the current best performing offer (“the champion”). Database analysis is then used to help evolve the marketing strategy.

For years, structured test and control experiments have been narrowly employed and, for the most part, the province of relatively sophisticated marketing organizations.

Yet in a world where the battle for share of attention is fierce, where relevance is increasingly hard to come by and where whoever gets closest to the customer wins, every organization, big and small, needs to embrace a test and learn mentality.

Sure, it’s desirable to have beautifully designed experiments and statistically relevant sample sizes. But don’t estimate the power of continually presenting your customers with a stream of alternatives and seeing how they react.  “Here’s A, here’s B, what do you think?” is sometimes all the protocol you need.

You don’t need Ph.D statisticians. You don’t need complex campaign management software. You don’t need expensive consultants.

What you do need is a willingness to try. And to fail. And to try again.