Tag Archives: retail

In retail you’re either a religion, a community hub, or a commodity

Being a successful retailer used to be a question of stocking the right products. Given that consumers all have their own preferences this usually devolved into trying to offer either the best or the cheapest, or products tailored to the unique needs of a specific market segment. Or, putting it another way, you could choose to sell expensive suits, cheap suits, or suits for the broad and tall.

Today – as globalisation, the internet and social media bite into retail – retailers have been working hard to build a compelling in-store experience. The theory is that by providing a pleasant and streamlined buying journey (or, at least, a more pleasant and streamlined journey than your local and online competitors) you’ll encourage consumers to shop at your store. This has driven the recent wave of investment in omni-channel, in-store WiFi and mobile apps.

The problem is that consumer behaviour is changing.1)The destruction of traditional retail @ PEG No longer do we identify a need and then head out to the store to find a product to fill it. Browsing is something we do in a spare moment, sitting in front of the TV with a tablet, or via a smartphone during our commute on the train. We purchase when we realise that we’ve found something we want or need, wherever we are at the time and via the channel that is the most convenient.

Building your business on the assumption that customers will come to your store looking for a product in no longer a viable strategy. It’s not enough to provide the best products or the cheapest. Nor is it enough to provide a more pleasant experience than the competition.

You need to find a way to draw customers to your store before they want to buy something. Retail must make itself part of the consumer’s identity, it needs to become one of their habits or rituals, rather than simply providing a convenient delivery mechanism for someone else’s products.

Three options seem to be emerging from he turbulent market we’re in at the moment.

  1. Make your business into a community hub
  2. Create a religion
  3. Resign yourself to being a commodity

Continue reading In retail you’re either a religion, a community hub, or a commodity

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Winners and losers in retail

There’s a lot of talk in the media at the moment about the soft retail market. Consumer confidence is down1)Australian Consumer ConfidenceTrading Economics and we (as we’re all consumers) are not spending like we used to, or at least we’re not spending like the retailers would like us to, and that when we do spend that we’re running to cheaper online retailers. I’m not sure that this is the whole story though.

With a spare Sunday afternoon on my hands I decided to spend some time trawling through the ABS retail data and take a look beyond the month-on-month trends. Working on an Australian version of the Shift Index2)The Shift Index: Measuring the forces of long term change, Deloitte has nudged me to wonder about the long term trends that are affecting retail.

Continue reading Winners and losers in retail

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The destruction of traditional retail

Le Bon Marché à Paris (1875)

A steady stream of news stories is trying to convince us that online is killing retail, that online has an unfair advantage and show rooming is evil. There’s some handwaving around omni-channel and claims that that if you sharpen your approach a bit then you will be able to stand out from the online crowd and stay alive, but it’s all a distraction. The problem is that ‘retail’ is just not something we need as much as we used to.

It’s not that we no longer need retail stores. We don’t, however, need as many of them as we have today.

Retail stores serve many purposes, but the most common is to be the last stage in someone else’s supply chain. This role – the retail store that is little more than a convenient place to make a purchase – is dying.

The internet and smartphones mean that we can now shop and purchase when and were we want. We’re no longer forced to pick between the meagre offerings at a nearby store.

Browsing is something we do in a spare moment, sitting in front of the TV with our tablet or via smart phone during our commute on the train. We purchase when we realise that we’ve found something we want or need, where ever we are at the time.

The other uses for local shops and businesses will remain:– community gathering places, restaurants etc. Life for your typical retail store is looking grim though, as they are simply something that we no longer need as much of as we used to.

Continue reading The destruction of traditional retail

As retail dies, who will be the winners?

The high street is dying. Retailers are struggling to attract customers to their stores. When they do manage to get them in the retailers worry about the same customers using their smartphones to buy a product they've just picked up from the shelf, from an internet retailer. Retail gurus are telling the high street that they need to make their stores more inviting if they want to continue attracting an ever more fickle public; ensuring that there's accessible parking for baby boomers who don't like walking, QR codes on all the products for smartphone wielding Gen Ys, and so. This ignores the fact that globalisation, the internet and mobile phones have fundamentally changed the way we shop. Consumers haven't just become more fickle, how we go about buying the goods and services we need is in the process of being transformed and any retailer that is little more than the last step in someone else's supply chain has a poor chance of surviving.

Continue reading As retail dies, who will be the winners?

Death of the shopping mission

When did you last go on a mission to buy something? Something specific that you had decided you needed. Were you looking for a book to read, heading to a nearest bookstore to browse the shelves? Was it a trip to the local big-box store to stock up on toilet paper and other household odds and ends? Or did you wander around a department store at the local mall looking for something to wear? Our behaviour – consumer behaviour – has changed. Shopping has historically been a search problem: how do we find the products we need need? Today, though, we increasingly buy on impulse, selecting the cheapest – or the best at the most competitive price – from the wealth of products and merchants around the global. The shopping mission is going the way of the dodo. If we see a book we like, then we add it to our list at Amazon or Book Depository and it’s delivered direct to our front door. We’re getting household consumables delivered direct to our homes. And we’re even sourcing clothes online where we can find lower prices and a larger selection. Our behaviour is changing, and the retailers and merchants who don’t adapt are being left behind. A lot of the turmoil we’re seeing in the current economy is likely due to a reconfiguration of business, driven by the changes in consumer behaviour.

We used to engage in a shopping mission, a quest to find the goods we need to solve problems that we know we have. This was a journey that would bring us into contact with quirky in-store marketing displays designed to influence our purchasing decision. Product companies tried to build brand awareness, hoping to create a spark of recognition that, when you found yourselves standing in front of the shelves, would tilt you toward selecting their product over the others. Will be it Heinz tomato sauce? The store’s home brand? Or something gourmet from a boutique manufacturer. Merchants worked hard to ensure that they had the best selection of products they could find – the brands that would pull the customers into their store rather then those of the competition.

Standing before the grocery shelf or clothes rack, we would sort through the brands on offer, trying to find the one that we though to be the best value. This roughly translates into selecting the best quality that we could afford. The only products and information at our disposal was what the retailer chose to present us with, unless we were willing to trudge over to another shop so that we could we see what products it had on offer (and what it was willing to tell us about them). The result was usually a compromise: we’d select the best product we could see in front of us, knowing that it was probably neither the cheapest we might find if we kept searching, nor would it be the best we could find. Finding a better solution to our problem – that pair of jeans with a nicer fit, or the tomato sauce with just a hint of something interesting – was too hard.

The world has changed a lot since then. Firstly, globalisation means that it is now possible to reach around the global, conducting an extensive search for the cheapest, or the best (at the most competitive price). This is as simple as typing a few words into Google or visiting you favourite comparison shopping site. Secondly, quality is a solved problem. Twenty years ago that store brand ice-cream or tomato sauce, or the no-name t-shirt, were obviously inferior to the brand name product. Twenty years is a long time, and manufacturing’s relentless focus on quality management over that time means the cheapest product in the market is virtually indistinguishable from the brand names. They were probably even made in the same ingredients or components in the same factory by the same people.

Consumers no longer need to compromise. With little difference between products and the ability to source them from around the globe, many consumers opt for the cheapest they can find from the global market. Nor are consumers who are willing to pay a premium restricted to selecting from the products on offer locally, reaching around the globe find to the exact product they want at the best possible price.

“Price comparisons would be between first and second, or fourth and fifth. What we’re seeing now is a consumer who shops either on price, or on quality – the number one premium, or the retail price point. All the middle brands have gone.”

Sue Morphet, CEO PacBrands1)Speech at the Australian Institute of Company Directors lunch in Brisbane, May 26, 2011.

The balance of power has shifted from retailer to consumer, and the shopping mission is collateral damage. A consumer standing in front of the gaggle of tomato sauces offered by a merchant now has enough information to make an informed decision, and a brand means nothing unless it offers something unique. Consumers are buying the cheapest product, or they are buying the most interesting product (to them). The mass-market brands we grew up with, those labels we trusted because they were reliable, are being demolished, caught in a no man’s land between cheap and premium.2)Eli Greenblat (Aug 30, 2011), Heinz cans Coles, Woolworths, The Sydney Morning Herald

An avid reader wanting a specific book will source it from an online retailer such as Amazon or Book Depository who can offer lower prices and a larger selection, delivered direct to the front door. The time poor professional at the supermarket will often simply pick the cheapest bottle of tomato sauce they can see in front of them, knowing that it will be as good as any of the other. That teenager interested in those green sneakers with black skulls will try on their friends for size and then use an comparison shopping site on the Internet to find the best deal globally. Now that the consumer is in control, and they have the information and services they need at the tip of their smart phone, they are becoming much more impulsive with their approach to buying the goods they want.

The cost of finding the goods and services has plummeted, and consumers are responding by taking a much more opportunistic approach to purchasing. Rather engaging in a search to find goods we need, we’re deciding to buy them impulsively once a need is recognised. Consumers are building relationships with organisations that provide the premium products they desire, or who can be relied on to provide them with the lowest cost items that can be found. Purchases are made opportunistically, built on the shared social connection that has already been established. Customers skip across channels – both real and virtual – learning more about the company’s products and how they can help them. Eventually they realise that there is something they would like, and purchasing is now simply a matter of acknowledging their desire. They might purchase a TV from a company known for bringing cheap but innovative electronics to market, one more focused on putting all the features the customers want into one box, rather than trying to up sell and cross sell. It might be an expensive meal at a restaurant, triggered by the knowledge that a table had just become free for that night. It could the milk man offering to drop off some veg and a steak with the morning milk and bread, guaranteed to arrive before you leave for work. Or it might be that premium computer or tablet with that carefully designed case that you were playing with at your friend’s house.

Retail is reconfiguring, splitting into the cheapest and the best, with a gap appearing the middle. Apple, for example, seems to be the only consumer IT brand still experiencing robust growth and profits,3)Charles Arthur (July 2011), Apple profits up 124% year-on-year after record iPhone sales, The Guardian with the majority of PC manufactures struggling to pull slim margins from a declining market. At the other end of the market, Kogan Technologies is rapidly building a profitable business4)Neha Kale (August 2011), Kogan Technologies reports 100% increase in revenue, PowerRetail around a low cost, direct to consumer model founded on using a community of low cost manufacturers to rapidly create cheap but functional products target at specific consumer needs. Harvey Norman, a traditional bricks-and-morter retailer, is seeing revenue fall and profits slump.5)Anhar Khanbhai, Harvey Norman profits fall 20%, Connected Australia

The new generation of companies – the Apples and Kogans, the Zaras and the explosion of boutique fashion houses – are playing to our new tendency to buy impulsively. They build relationships with their customers, allowing them to skip across channels without purchasing, to reduce the resistance to transacting when the time comes. They avoid sales and regular discounting so tht there’s no reason to hold off a purchase. Some, such as Betabrands, are turning this art into a science, using our desire to be seen as original and our tendency to want to grab bargains when we stumble across them to overcome our reluctance to buy something we can’t touch and feel and accelerate their sales cycle.6)Amy Wallace (October 2010), Whimsy (and clothes) for sale, The New York Times

A chasm is opening up under the traditional mass-market brands, brands that rely on the shopping mission, while companies which can establish themselves at one of the two ends of the spectrum are seeing robust growth. Companies caught in the middle, companies built around the traditional shopping mission are seeing their margins decline and revenues fall, unable to compete. The shopping mission is dying, and it appears that many companies might die with it.


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