Small is the new interesting

It’s been at least 20 years now that most value creation in retail has been driven by big. Big stores–both physical and digital. Big assortments. Big advertising.

Walmart and Target. Home Depot and Lowes. Amazon and eBay. Best Buy, Ikea, Office Depot and on and on. Superstores, category killers and the “endless aisle” online guys have won big (heh, heh) on scale, efficiency and low prices.

There’s a lot to be said for pushing the frontiers of big. When your goal is to be the “we have everything store” your marching orders are pretty clear. When you have to be the winner in a price war, your focus is obvious.

The problem is that big has its limits. And a closer examination of many “winning” retailers’ strategies reveals that big is losing momentum.

It turns out that a strategy of big eventually faces diminishing returns. It turns out that most of the winners of the past decade or so are running out of new stores to build. It turns out that many of the mass promotions that drive incremental business lose money. It turns out that for most of these brands e-commerce growth is unprofitable. But mostly it turns out that big is boring. And consumers are starting to notice.

There’s no question that big is here to stay. There’s little doubt that for many consumers–and a vast number of purchase occasions–the quest for dominant product selection, convenience and great prices will remain paramount. But that doesn’t mean that’s where the future opportunities lie or that your strategy shouldn’t shift.

Shift happens. And it’s a shift away from mass marketing to becoming more personalized. Away from overwhelming assortments to editing and curation. Away from products that everybody has to items and experiences that the consumer creates. Away from the seemingly inevitable regression towards the mean to a deliberate choice to eschew the obvious and explore the edges.

Many brands will have a hard time breaking out of the pursuit of big. They are too vested in building scale, too scared of Wall St.’s reaction to a strategy pivot, too addicted to mass advertising.

Of course, therein lies our opportunity. Maybe it’s time to embrace small while the rest of those guys continue to flog big.


The upside of denial

Is there any?

If your experience is anything like mine, you know how seductive denial can be. Denial is the temptress that helps us avoid pain. Denial keeps us in our comfort zone like a warm bath at the end of a long day. Denial creates the sense that defending the status quo is working or that we can go around our problems rather than through them.

But mostly it creates an illusion of safety when the reality is anything but. It works incredibly well–until it doesn’t.

Denial is cunning and baffling. It’s the monster lurking beneath the surface, hiding in the closet and buried in the chatter of our monkey mind.

In a business setting, denial allows us to trumpet our booming customer acquisition statistics, while ignoring the other engagement metrics that are falling apart. It causes us to crow about our rapidly growing e-commerce business, while the reality is that it’s entirely channel shift. It’s the glowing press release, the clever Powerpoint, the rah-rah company-wide meeting or the slick investor presentation that contains all the right buzz-words, when everyone else knows it’s the proverbial lipstick on the pig.

Denial kept Sears from ever really dealing with Home Depot and Lowe’s. It kept Blockbuster and Borders from confronting digital. And on and on.

Too often denial feels like our friend, when in fact it is every inch our enemy.

As David Pell humorously reminds us: “Among the dinosaurs, there were many asteroid deniers.”

Where everybody knows your name. The “new shopkeepers.”

More and more the retail world is bifurcating.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the high-efficiency players. Great prices, endless assortments, super convenience, built for speed. Amazon, Walmart, iTunes, Home Depot. You get the picture.

While each go about it slightly differently, their world is mostly a mass market one. Customer segmentation means little. For all intents and purposes, you shop there anonymously.

At the other end of the spectrum are what I like to call the “new shopkeepers.” In the (good?) old days retail was characterized by owner-run, single location, small specialty shops. The butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker. No CRM system was needed because the shopkeeper knew you, knew what you liked and she tailored her assortment and experience to you and her other like-minded customers.

We know that very few of these old-timey shopkeepers are around any more. But the new shopkeepers embrace the fundamental principles of old. Deep customer insight. Remarkable experiences. Relationships, not transactions. They treat different customers differently. They know your name.

Your mission–if you choose to accept it–is to pick a lane. Too many retailers straddle the line, trying to be something for everyone and ultimately being totally unremarkable and eventually irrelevant.

If you can’t out-Amazon Amazon–I’m looking at you Best Buy!–you had better move strongly to the other end of the continuum. You had better embrace all things customer-centric.

I’d get started if I were you. You have a lot of names to learn.