I cannot begin to tell you how many times executives at various retailers have said to me that “it’s all about the product.” Earlier in my career, when someone would spout this alleged truism, my somewhat smug thought would be that I could easily come up with many examples where that was demonstrably false. In more recent years, I’ve come to believe that it is precisely retailers’ false clinging to this notion that helps explain why so many find themselves standing at the precipice.
We can argue at length about how important product features and benefits are to consumers’ purchase decisions and long-term loyalty. And clearly that varies by industry segment and customer type. Yet by now it should be obvious that in the vast majority of cases good product is necessary, but hardly sufficient, in determining retail success. It should be clear that people buy the story before they buy the product.
Stated differently, when a consumer buys a drill, it’s because they want the hole. When someone pays $4 for a bottle of water they are mostly paying for how that water makes them feel, not for the better taste. If you think Apple products are always objectively the best functioning, you are only kidding yourself. And if you believe that $200 jar of eye cream works any better that the stuff you can get at Walgreen’s, prepare to be disappointed. Second-best and just plain old mediocre products win all the time. It’s clearly not only about the product; it’s about the solution, the feeling, what our purchase says about us. As noted retail strategist Bill Clinton might say: It’s the experience, stupid!
It’s not all that difficult to understand how traditional retailers became overly product-centric. Take a look at the leadership at most retailers and most came up through the merchant ranks. While the era of the “merchant prince” is on the wane, there are still an awful lot of CEOs who are long on merchandising skills and short on customer experience and digital bona fides. And that mindset permeates the cultures of many struggling brands. It needs to be blown up.
Go through the list of bankrupt or severely struggling retailers and it should be readily apparent that while there may have been merchandising issues that contributed to their problems, their big issues emanate from a failure to deeply understand shifting customer preferences and to respond to those changes. As a result they ended up with a largely irrelevant and utterly unremarkable customer experience. And, as it turns out, they picked a really bad time to be so boring.
If flailing retailers — be they Toys ‘R’ Us, JCPenney, Macy’s or dozens of others — are to survive, much less thrive, the answer isn’t going to be found in shrinking to prosperity, trying to out-Amazon Amazon or being hyper-focused on improving their product assortments.
The answer is going to be found in crafting a truly remarkable and relevant customer experience that is far more about the hole than the drill.