In January of this year at the National Retail Federation conference in New York we met one-on-one with over 14 different retailers and brands to discuss the challenges they faced in 2018 and provided them with strategies to help them navigate into 2019 and beyond. Now, at the end of April we find ourselves having similar conversations with some major differences. In the last 4 months, a lot of what we have been discussing and writing about for years is coming to fruition.
Walmart announced that it will be implementing 4,000 robots that will ultimately take the jobs of retail workers. Canadian grocery-retailer Loblaw was met with backlash for allegedly steering customers to self-checkout, and Amazon is clearly in the process of becoming a shipping company, investing in infrastructure enabling them to offer Prime members 1-day shipping as opposed to the previously guaranteed 2-day shipping , putting even more pressure on players in the retail space to meet escalating consumer expectations.
While these changes have seemingly happened overnight, they were in fact evident on the horizon for some time for anyone paying close attention.
Here is a roundup of some content that we have been fortunate to work on and some of our favourite articles from the month.
In his bestselling book Reengineering Retail, Doug presented the case that if Macy’s were to adopt a business model similar to that of New York based retailer STORY, they could exponentially increase revenue while adding intrigue and interest into their shopper experience. Well, earlier this year, Macy’s acquired STORY and its creative founder Rachel Shechtman. This month, the company announced they would be implementing the STORY concept in 36 locations across the United States.
Vietnamese Translation of Reengineering Retail
Reengineering Retail is now an international bestseller and has been translated into 3 foreign languages. Thanks to our publishing partner Figure1.
Doug’s article, The Store is Media, was featured in Canada Post’s latest issue of INCITE magazine and delves into the new purpose and strategic role stores will play in a post-digital world.
[READ] IKEA Launches Small Format Urban Planning Stores
Retail Prophet’s strategic work with IKEA in 2017 came to life in 2019 as the retailer began rolling out small-format planning studios aimed at affluent, urban consumers. After significant research Retail Prophet determined that IKEA could effectively penetrate high potential markets with a smaller format, while optimizing their large suburban stores as supply hubs.
At the end of May Retail Prophet will be travelling to Tokyo. Doug will be there to speak at the World Department Store forum. While there the team will also be shooting a special episode of our web series The World In Store! Full details of the shoot will be our June roundup!
Periodically the trope du jour changes. From “every company is a content company” to “every company is a social company” or “…a media company” and more recently, “…a technology company.” It seems that once a business achieves dominance in a given realm, we are then led to believe that every business must also aspire to become equally capable in the same area.
Business media is only too quick to amplify the “every company is…” narrative. Case in point: a simple Google search beginning with the phrase “every company is…” yields over five million results, each ostensibly telling companies what they ought to be.
Today, with the meteoric growth of data-centric businesses like Amazon, retailers are now being told that they too must become data companies. They’re being led to believe that data, above all, is the essential ingredient for success. They are promised that if they become data companies their competitive woes will vanish, they’ll hammer their competitors into submission and the world will be their oyster.
Terms like data-centric, data-driven and data-first permeate industry conferences far and wide. I was at one such event recently where executives from across the spectrum were being told that ultimately data (and shitloads of it) was their only ticket to survival. Meanwhile, next door waited a ballroom full of sponsoring technology vendors waiting to shop their wares to attendees now frothing to become data companies.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it leads organizations down a path of unrealistic and unnecessary expectations. Amazon is indeed a data company but that, at least in part, is because Jeff Bezos focused his entire (and quite spectacular), academic life on the sciences. As the golf club was to Tiger Woods, data was to Jeff Bezos. As a consequence, Amazon was, from its inception, a company that exemplified a scientific, rational and data-centric approach to retailing. If anything, Amazon is the outward incarnation of Jeff Bezos’ cerebral cortex. And while there’s absolutely no question that visibility into your customer and your business is critical, to suggest that every company suddenly pivot and become a data company is folly.
The second issue is that by falling prey to the “every company is…” trap, corporate strategy becomes as fleeting as this year’s fashion choices, making investment, innovation and most importantly, skilled execution very difficult. Like cats chasing laser pointers, executives become trained to respond to the latest market battle cry and lose all sense of continuity in their strategic thinking.
Yet, with all this said, there is indeed one single thing that every company (and I mean every company) is. Regardless of size, product category, management or geography, every company is an experience company. Every company, whether they know it, like it, or care to acknowledge it, delivers some sort of customer experience. This is as true for your company as it is for Airbnb, Amazon or the convenience store down the street. Even companies that pride themselves on their lack of customer experience in favor of low prices are also experience companies. Yes, even an absence of experience is in itself an experience.
Every company is an experience company.
Once you understand and embrace this immutable truth things become infinitely simpler, clearer and less fraught. Because the experience that you set out to deliver will dictate the degree to which you lean on data, technology, media, content or any other ingredient shown to be relevant and valuable. Once you understand and begin to design for each moment and micro-moment of your customer’s experience with your brand, you’ll be infinitely more able to prioritize each of these inputs in terms of their importance to that experience.
The meticulous definition and visualization of experience become the bricks of your brand’s foundation. Data, content, technology, media and every other input become the mortar binding them in place.
So no, every company is not a data company but rather an experience company that should aim to be proficient in gathering the data required to bring its unique and memorable customer experience to life. And frankly, if you are waiting for the market to tell you what your company is or ought to be then no amount of data can save you anyway.
With every Facebook like, Amazon browse, Instagram post, or Google Maps query, we’re being watched, monitored and targeted. The internet has become a surveillance state and each of us a data set, where companies — known and unknown to us — are cataloguing, monetising and leveraging our data, often in ways to which we didn’t (at least knowingly) consent. The bottom line is we’re being tracked online, and to a large extent, we’ve come to accept it as the price we pay for a wide range of digital services.
Today this same degree of surveillance is coming to the real world, as brick-and-mortar retailers attempt to fight back against online rivals who use their data supremacy to consistently outpace the growth of their offline competitors. Each day billions of shoppers take to physical stores and, for the most part, retailers have little-to-no intelligence about who those consumers are, much less their needs or preferences. A growing number of retailers and technology giants are aiming to change that with a battery of technologies aimed at turning stores into physical websites that measure every consumer footfall, action and reaction within a store.
This is not to suggest that physical retail businesses are new to customer surveillance. Some of us may be old enough to remember the fisheye mirrors used by shop clerks to keep a watchful eye on shoppers. Today though, video technologies are being paired with sophisticated analytics to instantaneously convert images of shoppers’ faces into biometric templates and just as quickly analyse them across a database of other faces looking for matches, enabling a retailer to quickly detect whether a known shoplifter has entered a store.
Now, retailers are beginning to use these technologies to glean more information — much more information — about all their customers.
An abbreviated list of the technologies being used includes:
Thermal imaging technology that determines patterns in customer movement through space, showing areas of dense movement versus sparse movement
Device-based tracking keys into our mobile device’s unique identifier to track individual consumers through a retail space
Computer vision monitors which specific items are being removed from shelves by consumers, as well as which items are put back
Wi-Fi that, by simply logging in, shares the users unique MAC (media access control) address with the provider. Use a social login like Facebook and personal information can also be captured
Floor sensors measures footpath and engagement time by location
Apps such as mobile payment software, which geographically and temporally identify customers and their buying patterns
Radio frequency identificationtransmitters attached to products detect their movement and location (garments moving from a rack to the fitting room, for example)
Emotional capture technology used to determine the emotional or cognitive state of shoppers by analysing facial expressions
Their use is already causing some awkward situations. For example, at least two Canadian shopping malls were recently found, unbeknownst to shoppers, to be piloting facial recognition technology built into store directories to analyse demographic trends among shoppers. While the mall operator insisted that the technology was not capturing or storing individual consumer images, they agreed, after significant public pressure, to end the trial.
If that’s not Orwellian enough for you, consider that technology giant Adobe recently launched a cloud-based platform that, by using a variety of data points and technologies, identifies individual shoppers in real-time as they enter a store, portraying them as moving dots on a store map. It then allows store management to click on and receive a full profile of each individual, including spending patterns, marital status, age range, city of residence and more. From there, each individual consumer can be micro-targeted with specific offers and promotions to suit their known purchasing patterns.
Still not dystopian enough? Then take a visit to an Amazon Go store, the first of which opened in Seattle in 2018. From the moment you scan your mobile device on entry to crossing the threshold on exit, every movement and interaction you have with the store is monitored in real time. Make no mistake: Amazon is a data company first and foremost and is now bringing the same level of surveillance to physical stores that has allowed it to become the online behemoth it is today. In fact, according to a 2014 patent filing, the company intends to use its growing vortex of customer data to begin what it calls “anticipatory shipping,” a complex predictive analytics and logistics system that will enable Amazon to accurately ship us products before we even know we wanted or needed them.
And if all this weren’t enough, in his description of his company’s “store of the future” or “augmented retail” initiative, Farfetch founder José Neves describes a world where individual shoppers are “recognised as [they] come into the store, which is either via beacons or via a wallet like your Apple Wallet, scanning in like you would with a boarding pass for a flight.” Then, there is what Neves refers to as the “offline cookie, a technology that automatically adds products to your wish list on your app as you touch them in the store, without having to scan anything.”
So, how do humans feel about becoming “offline cookies?” According to a study by the Advertising Research Foundation, the world Neves describes is not a place consumers are currently comfortable with. While studies suggest that we are largely willing to share data about who we are, we are decidedly more reluctant to share information about where we are. In other words, there’s an important difference in the shopper’s mind between the sharing of data and straight-up surveillance.
It’s highly unlikely that marketers will un-see the opportunity to turn stores into living and responsive websites.
As I see it, two directly competing forces are at play in the retail market. First, the pervasive nature of the internet is rewiring consumers to expect new levels of personalisation of shopping experiences and products. We expect retailers to help us cut through the clutter and give us exactly what we want, how and when we want it. That said, we also desire privacy and these two conflicting consumer needs are now colliding head-on. Can one achieve intimacy without information? Can we enjoy hyper-personalisation while maintaining our privacy? These remain open questions.
Frankly, I doubt we can get the toothpaste back in the tube. It’s highly unlikely that marketers will un-see the opportunity to turn stores into living and responsive websites.
Retailers most certainly will use technology to better understand who is in their stores and what those customers want. Their capacity to do so is no longer in question. It’s only the rules of engagement that remain to be sorted out. Laws will be broken, rights will be violated, cases will be litigated and, in the end, as we always do, we’ll adapt.
And privacy, like all finite things, will continue to act as valuable currency that we spend where we see value; currency that we will willingly trade with those retailers who not only deliver a clear and justifiable value but manage do so without violating our trust.
The best part was meeting and speaking with you: retailers, store managers, brands and tech providers who are all forging ahead into 2019 navigating the retail landscape that is changing at rapid speeds.
Here is a collection of our top content and articles we like from the month of January.
Doug’s latest piece for Business of Fashion explores the price we pay for personalization. As consumer expectations shift and physical stores become a lot more like digital stores, Doug asks, is personalized service and recommendations worth having our physical presence tracked?
Author Mike Mallazzo paints a picture of his serendipitous discovery of the I Found It At The Strategist pop-up in New York City and it captures the essence of what good retail experiences should look and feel like. The store is media, and media (literally in this case) is the store.
Thinx, a direct-to-consumer brand that makes period-proof underwear, is carefully planning their foray into physical retail. Using pop-ups, the brand plans to gather insights and test how their brand manifests in the physical world.
I was moderating a fireside chat at the National Retail Federation conference with Liz Thompson from Southeastern Grocers recently. We were chatting about her company’s efforts to reengage employees as a means of furthering SEG’s corporate transformation. Along the way, we briefly discussed how the use of bite-sized training exercises appealed to younger consumers. It was at this point that I made the comment that contrary to popular thinking I believed Millennials don’t suffer from shortened attention spans. Rather, they simply have a much higher sensitivity to things that are boring.
The quote was captured by my fellow analyst Andrew Busby and circulated on Twitter and within a few minutes was already prompting responses ranging from those who concurred to those who expressed disgust at the mere notion that anyone in the retail industry should feel obligated to tailor the way we do business to such an “entitled” and accommodated generation.
It all got me thinking about the broader idea around Millennials and the current state of retail.
At the most basic level one can’t deny that Millennials are a post-internet generation that has inherited a retail landscape that was built in and for a pre-internet world. There are far too many stores in existence and the vast majority of them have absolutely no experiential value – they’re merely well-lit warehouses. And yet we somehow expect the most visually stimulated, connected and socially integrated generation in the history of the planet to enjoy shopping in them?
We roll our eyes when Millennials suggest that experiences mean more to them than products – as if to suggest one day they’ll mature to appreciate banality of material possessions. Yet, we seemingly forget that this is a generation that has literally documented every meaningful event in their lives online. Experiences are their outward expression to the world of who they are. Experiences are their social currency.
For my generation, social currency was measured by the car you drove to school or the house you lived in. For Millennials, social currency is comprised by where they are, who they’re with and what they’re doing. And yet we scoff when they say they’d like stores that are Instagram-able and social in nature, when in truth it’s what we all want and what the industry desperately needs
We’re incredulous at their reticence to work in the retail industry, speculating that it must be for lack of work ethic. We forget that when they look at this industry they see a ladder of mobility stripped of its rungs by technology – middle management barely exists today. They see people their parents’ age in C-level positions, refusing to retire until their 401K’s recuperate from a financial meltdown that also happened to hobble Millennial incomes. And until such time, these same executives refuse to take even the slimmest risk of disrupting the companies they run for fear of jeopardizing their payout. They see woefully underpaid front-line workers having to work two and three jobs just to survive. Is it any wonder many beat a path to tech hubs for employment?
Well Millennials, I’m here to say formally that it’s not your fault. The broken-down retail industry we see in front of us is not your doing. You didn’t conceive it. You didn’t build it. And you haven’t caused its demise.
But one thing is real and true. We need you to fix it. We need the best and brightest of you to take a chance on this ailing industry and reimagine how great it could be. We need your innate social proclivity, your tech savvy and your desire to do business in a way that preserves the planet. We need your energy, creativity and willingness to risk.
It’s wildly innovative, persistently disruptive and laser-focused on its customers. Its iconic founder is among the richest men in the history of planet earth. Its growth trajectory is so staggering that brands across the spectrum have little choice but to partner with it or suffer the anguish of competing against it. It is feared, admired, even hated, but above all, it is seemingly invincible.
While this may seem a fitting description of the American e-commerce giant Amazon, these are also precisely the sorts of superlatives used, not long ago, to describe another retailer, one that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos forged much of his go-to-market philosophy around: Walmart.
Between 1962 and the early 2000s, Walmart ruled retail, laying to waste scores of competitors large and small. By 2010 Walmart had opened an astonishing 4,393 stores, with more than 3,000 of those coming after 1990. If retail had a Roman Legion, it was Walmart.
Yet, despite its legendary rise, in 2015 Walmart posted its very first sales decline since going public 45 years earlier and has since found itself fighting an existential, quarter-to-quarter battle to reclaim its mojo. Now, it’s been forced to shed nearly 60 years of skin in a frantic effort to reinvent itself for a world that has changed around it. Whether Walmart survives this new age of retail or not remains debatable, but one thing is certain: the decline of the once impenetrable juggernaut has proven that even the most titanic businesses can fall.
A conspiracy of success is likely to sideswipe Amazon with great brutality and speed.
Ironically, many of the elements that made Walmart so uniquely formidable were also the things that conspired to make it vulnerable to disruptive competitors like Amazon and others.
It’s this same conspiracy of success that is likely, at some point, to sideswipe Amazon but with even greater brutality and speed. Because unlike Walmart, which scaled its business in a largely industrial era where change, competition and consumer allegiance moved at a comparatively glacial pace, today’s retail world is built on digital rails where new ideas, concepts and technologies move at the speed of light and where customer loyalty is just as fleeting.
It’s my belief that within 10 years Amazon will falter and these are just a few of the reasons why.
Parallax Blind Spots
Kodak succeeded in selling film, Blockbuster succeeded in renting videos, Tower succeeded in selling records, and in each case their success created blind spots, with their angle of view making them oblivious to market, technological and consumer changes that should have been obvious. It’s what 1960’s sociologist Arthur L. Stinchcombe termed “organizational imprinting,” a phenomenon where the era in which a company experiences its greatest success tends to freeze its organizational structure and strategy for years — even decades — into the future.
Similarly, Amazon’s success with its current business model may be leaving it inherently blind to important social, economic or technological changes in e-commerce. In fact, in a recent interview Jeff Bezos was quoted as saying: “In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.” He may very well be right but what’s dangerous is the predisposition to believe that what made Amazon successful in the past will continue to do so into the future.
It’s worth remembering that during the 1990s Walmart stemmed investment in online commerce in favour of building more of their highly successful super centres. It was a mistake it is still working to recover from. Unless an organization is prepared to completely change the angle from which it is viewing the market, it will be oblivious to danger or opportunities sitting just outside its view.
Efficient, Effective but Not Fun
As a shopping experience, Amazon is about as elegant and enjoyable as a chainsaw. But like a chainsaw, Amazon is purpose-built to do one thing and one thing only; to deliver the largest selection of products with the greatest level of speed and convenience… period. And if you know what you’re looking for, it’s a sharp tool that works brilliantly.
The problem is that we, as human beings, don’t merely shop to acquire products. Not all the time anyway. We also shop to discover new things, to socialize with friends and to entertain ourselves. We shop for the thrill of the hunt and the associated dopamine rush to our brains when we find it. Amazon seemingly has no interest in these less transactional elements. Shopping on Amazon remains a solitary, static and sullen activity: a Sears catalogue on digital steroids.
Rarely a week goes by that I’m not approached by a young start-up founder working to crack the code of a more immersive, interactive, entertaining and socially connected online shopping experience. When they do, Amazon could find itself in a position where it’s impossible to shift its course.
The Incumbent Mentality
Founder-led organizations are powerful, fast-moving and disruptive. They are often born out of a deeply shared and frequently communicated sense of mission and purpose. They move power and decision making to the front-lines and nurture extreme intimacy with customers. It’s this very founder-led mentality that has driven Amazon to the heights it currently enjoys. Problems arise however, when organizations lose this force, either by the departure of their founder entirely or by scaling to an extent where their founder’s energy and presence becomes so dissipated as to be ineffectual. When Walmart lost Sam Walton, it lost its North Star and proceeded to make decisions that flew in the face of the values that Walton espoused and that customers appreciated.
While Jeff Bezos appears healthy (actually somewhat jacked) the greater risk is that his direct involvement and influence in the day-to-day strategy and execution at Amazon diminishes over time, either by virtue of the scale of the organization or given his particular passion for non-core aspects of the business such as commercial space travel.
As a founder mentality is replaced by an incumbent mentality Amazon will lose customer focus and will innovate less. The energy once directed at improving the business will be sapped in working merely to sustain the organizational infrastructure. Decisions once made at the frontlines of the business will be pushed to the middle of the organization and away from the customer, resulting in a fatal loss of loyalty. No longer the underdog, Amazon will lose its unique sense of mission and purpose and become a large, slow-moving target for competitors.
The People Paradigm
Through the 1990s we heard stories of Amazon executives getting rich on stock options and people clamouring to join their ranks. Today, such stories are taking a back seat to tales of Amazon executives requiring therapy for depression, anxiety and other psychological conditions brought on by what many characterize as intolerable pressure and untenable working hours. We see a steady stream of investigative reports revealing a toxic work environment where warehouse workers refrain from taking bathroom breaks for fear that they’ll be penalized for a lack of productivity. And if that’s not enough, those humans working at Amazon do so among a growing population of robots that are being trained to do their jobs more efficiently and at a lower cost.
Like Walmart before it, Amazon has taken significant pains to quash unionization but one has to wonder if this is merely forestalling the inevitable. If Amazon workers are disgruntled, eventually Amazon customers will be too. And for a company that has consistently topped the ranks of customer service indexes, even a marginal drop in customer satisfaction could be fatal.
The Bait and Switch Backlash
In 2017, Amazon held three days of meetings in Seattle, calling in a myriad of consumer goods brands, in an effort to woo them onto the platform. The pitch? Come to Amazon and cut out the middleman! Enjoy a direct relationship with your consumers! It all sounded great and since then brands have been running — not walking — to Amazon. Even Nike, the once chaste and virtuous hold-out opted to just do it, throwing in its lot with Bezos and team.
But here’s the catch…
Behind the scenes, Amazon has established a wellspring of private label brands; over 100 of them to be precise. These brands, some of which are in the market now, and many that are not, span a range of categories from apparel to food and cosmetics to furniture, to name only a few.
So, why on one hand is Amazon inviting brands into the kingdom but on the other hand creating its own brands to compete with them? The answer lies in two simple questions; when something gets sold on Amazon who owns the data? And secondly, who ultimately owns the customer relationship? If you answered “Amazon” to both questions you’re right.
With that in mind, it’s my belief that Amazon is going to use brands and the data they provide as research mice to perfect its knowledge of what categories and specific products to private label, and in doing so will orchestrate the single largest bait and switch strategy in retail history. Consumers searching for the most popular brands will, in virtually every case, be steered toward more cost-effective Amazon-branded alternatives. The push to private label will be tireless in an effort to boost Amazon’s margins. In the longer-term however, brands will steadily defect in search of less adversarial partners. And without brands Amazon ceases to be Amazon.
From David to Goliath
Just as Jeff Bezos used Walmart as his muse in the beginning, he may want to refer to it again in order to avoid a premature end. For brands, this is a cautionary tale. If you’re determined to do business with Amazon, do so with eyes wide open and a parachute packed.
Amazon, whose market cap crossed $1 trillion on Tuesday, is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon that will almost certainly prove to be one of the largest and most powerful companies in the history of the world. And it’s this very fact that should most worry Amazon — and anyone doing business with it.