When the last 15 years happens to you

If you are in retail, the last 15 years or so have brought enormous change. Let me call out a few profound shifts:

  • Winning business model bifurcation: Price and dominant assortments at one end (Wal-mart, Amazon); remarkable experience and assortment curation/product differentiation on the other (Nordstrom, Louis Vuitton). The result is death in the middle.
  • Digital retail: What started as an electronic catalog is now not only a high growth channel approaching 10% of many categories’ sales–and much higher if the product can be delivered digitally–but an increasingly important medium for promotion, interaction, customer reviews, price checking, etc.
  • The constantly connected–and inter-connected–consumer.  As more and more consumers are armed with powerful mobile devices the notion of anytime, anywhere, anyway retail has become a reality–and expectation. Social networking, product review sites and pricing apps are creating greater and greater information transparency. The brand is no longer in charge. The consumer is.
  • The omni-channel blur. Most of your customers will engage with multiple touch points in their decision journeys. As mobile commerce grows–and it becomes easier for consumers to seamlessly move between various applications to gather product information, check prices, confirm inventory availability, get product reviews and the like–the notion of distinct channels breaks down. It’s a frictionless, compelling experience that matters, not making each of your channels better. New ways of consumer engagement, new ways of organizing your business, new ways of measuring and incentivizing become mandatory. Silos belong on farms.

While it is true that remarkable new business models sometimes emerge quickly and unexpectedly, most winning concepts that have gobbled up market share from industry incumbents did not come out of nowhere.

Amazon launched in 1995. The off-the mall and specialty formats that have made life difficult for the Sears’ and JC Penney’s of the world have been important competitors since the late 1990’s. Anybody paying any attention to customer data during the last 10 years has known that the so-called “multi-channel” customer outspends a single channel customer by a factor of 3-4 times.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it’s clear that many Boards and many retail executives were asleep at the wheel. They failed to gain sufficient awareness of the competition and seek truly actionable customer insight. They failed to accept what was happening. And of course they failed to act. And now it’s too late.

So here’s the new reality. While many of the companies I mentioned–and countless more I’m sure you can offer up–had some 15 years to see what was happening and make the necessary changes, chances are you will have less time. A lot less time.

So I guess the question is: what are you going to do to make sure the next 5 years don’t happen to you?


The blended channel is the only channel

For quite some time, various executives and so-called gurus have been going on and on about “multi-channel” this and “multi-channel” that.

In fact, it’s hard to get through a discussion–or speech or consulting report or white paper or blog posting–on multi-channel strategy without buzzwords aplenty.

“Seamless integration.” Check.

“360-degree view of the customer.” Check.

“Consistent communications across channels.” Check.

“Customer-centric approach.” Check.

And so on.

Enough already. It’s time we stop thinking “multi” and start thinking “blended.” Customers don’t think in channels and neither should you.

Customers think about brands and experiences, not about how you happen to be organized or choose to keep score. More and more, consumers move from one medium to the next in a nano-second.

For the customer standing in your store, using their mobile device to check your prices on one site and garner product reviews on another–and then placing an order from your competitor because you don’t compare favorably–the notion of multiple channels seems silly and arcane. They all blend together.

Today the blended channel is the only channel.

Brands are horizontal

Brands are horizontal.

Most companies are stuck in their verticality.

Customers don’t care that you have a “stores” division and a “.com” division with separate P & L’s and bonus targets and buyers. They want to buy how they want, when they want.

Customers don’t care that one department handles your social media, another worries about web advertising and yet another directs more traditional media. They want to be spoken to in a cohesive manner in ways that are relevant, differentiated and reflect their unique wants and needs.

Customers want to pick up where their last conversation left off with you, so don’t go telling them about your different databases or systems that “don’t talk to one another.”

When you say that you “put the customer at the center of everything you do”, or publish annual reports and deliver investor presentations that extol your “customer-centricity” while you remain, at your core, a vertical enterprise, realize that these are just words. Creeds over deeds.

More and more, customers move seamlessly across an increasingly frictionless omni-channel world.

If your plan is to stick with silo-ed data, silo-ed marketing, silo-ed organizations, silo-ed metrics and silo-ed product offerings, it’s time to get a new plan.

Brands ARE horizontal. The sooner you blow up your vertical thinking and behavior, the better.

It’s later than you think.



First, do some harm

The Hippocratic Oath states that the most important thing in treating a patient is to be sure that you do no harm. That’s probably a very sound medical practice, but as a business strategy it does far more damage than good.

If you are going to move from being a product or channel centric enterprise to putting the customer at the center of everything you do, you are sure to upset plenty of managers that are looking to preserve their merchandising, e-commerce or brick and mortar division fiefdoms.

If you are going to pull back on broad-based promotions in favor of more targeted offers, you may lose some short-term revenue or upset some of those promiscuous shoppers who only buy from you when you give your product or service away.

If you are going to shift media dollars away from your Sunday circular or network TV advertising into social and mobile media, you are going to get push-back on the lack of demonstrated ROI in these emerging channels (not to mention lots of angry agency account types calling you to preserve their business).

If you are going to invest in acquiring and growing new customer relationships with high lifetime value–or to create and grow entirely new areas of business–you are going to punish your bottom-line for a few years and have to fend off short-sighted investors or protectors of the status quo within your own organization.

I’ve worked for three companies that said they wanted to develop meaningful incremental sources of revenue. Yet most of the time we failed to sign up for the intermediate pain of getting there.

Somewhere out there may be someone who successfully completed a marathon without a rigorous training schedule. So if that’s your plan, good luck with that.

For the rest of us, we have to do the work.

So go get those eggs. Start making that omelet.

Twitter’s birthday: Blow out the candles, step on the gas.

You probably heard that Twitter celebrated its 5th birthday yesterday.

The flash-sales model pioneered in the US by GiltGroupe is about 3 1/2 years old.

Groupon was founded in November of 2008, not even 2 1/2 years ago.

While it remains unclear whether Twitter will go the way of a MySpace or a Facebook, it’s hard to question that they have forever changed the way people communicate and engage.

The collective valuation of the flash-sale sites launched in the US is likely already greater than that of Saks Fifth Avenue, a pretty powerful brand that is more than 100 years old.

Groupon turned down an offer from Google to be bought for $6 billion and is rumored to be seeking a $25 billion valuation in an IPO later this year.

These innovative new business models are rapidly gaining share from industry incumbents who are slow to go through the cycle of awareness, acceptance and action.

If it hasn’t happened to your industry yet, rest assured it will.

So let’s all wish Twitter a Happy Birthday.

And then, go figure out whether you are driving the right car or not.

Either way, get ready to step on the gas.


It’s later than you think.

You may have convinced yourself that you have plenty of time to study that pesky upstart competitor who gets a lot of attention, but has yet to make much money. Or maybe you tell yourself that they can never scale.

Just as Sears believed about Walmart and Target in the 80’s. And Home Depot and Lowe’s in the 90’s.

Just as Blockbuster did with Netflix, Redbox and multiple video on demand services. [Quick aside: if your core value proposition can be completely replicated by a substitute that can be delivered digitally, you might want to jump on that yourself.]

Or maybe you are taking a “deliberate” approach to formulating your social and mobile strategies.

Or maybe you still hold on to that believe that operating your brick & mortar and direct-to-consumer channels largely independently is a good idea.

Of course not every new competitor is going to steal your most valuable customers. Of course not every Web 2.0 concept is worth investing in. Of course you should not invest blindly in pursuit of a “seamless multi-channel experience.”

But in case you haven’t noticed, upstart competitors have been kicking the stuffings out of traditional players in the retail arena for decades.

The pace of change is accelerating. More and more power is shifting to the consumer, many of whom will be carrying around a staggeringly powerful tablet device in the very near future.

So maybe you work for that lucky company that can coast their way through the seismic shifts in how people shop.

But don’t kid yourself, for most of you it’s later than you think.

Don’t let it be too late.



Networks are not tribes

Social networking sites are experiencing explosive growth in membership and activity.  And clearly most major organizations–corporate and otherwise–are dramatically scaling up their investment in all things social. Yet tangible evidence of success remains elusive.

Sure, it’s true that we are early in the development life-cycle, and undoubtedly it will be some time before we can measure the true impact of social media and commerce.

But I see something else going on. I believe that many brands fail to make the critical distinction between networks and tribes, and therefore risk getting it wrong. Connections lay the foundation. Tribes make things happen.

As Seth Godin lays out in his inspirational book, Tribes require a connection and an idea and a leader to propel meaningful change.

So attract more people to your site and continue to count your “followers” and your “friends” and how many people “like” your brand. It’s a good start. Necessary, but not sufficient.

But just showing up doesn’t cut it.

Activity is not engagement.

Visits don’t always lead to activation.

Interest is not passion.

When you convert your network to a tribe, that’s quality over quantity, that’s when the good stuff happens.