Retail Is Not Dead

Retail is not dead. Not even mostly dead as they said in The Princess Bride.

Retail is not even dying. It’s changing. It’s the chrysalis changing on its way to something different– hopefully more elegant and esteemed.

That largely depends on approach. From the butcher, baker or bartender who knew every customer by name through the middle of the 20th century to the butcher/baker/bartender who was supposed to be equally expert at all three for all people through the beginning of the 21st century, the role of the retail merchant has certainly morphed.

I hesitate to say it’s evolved, because in many important ways it’s devolved. It’s gone backwards. It’s gone from a place where craft counted, subject-mastery was both valued and expected, and knowing the customer and tailoring your offering to his or her needs was Job #1, to a much, much more commoditized place of mile width and inch depth.

Amazon has kicked your “friend in the business” merchant to the curb with its edgeless breadth, substantial depth, crowd-sourced reviews and content, massive buying power with commensurate low retail prices, and free 2nd day delivery on most everything.

They say ‘never fight the shark in the water’ and that’s mostly true. But if you’re a fish, you’ll definitely die on land. So where does that leave you?

It will be mightily difficult for someone to ‘out-Amazon’ Amazon. Don’t try. But do take some of the things they do that enable them to deliver so much bang for the buck.

Know the customer

Go back to the beginning. “Where everybody knows your name,” was more than just a jingle. It was the original Operating System. Critics claim Amazon is soulless, bloodless, and devoid of any of the fun of buying stuff. That may or may not be true (not sure “fun” comes into play when buying toilet paper, canned peaches, or bird seed in the same order, but…)  While Amazon may not divulge a lot about itself, it certainly displays a great deal of knowledge about you. What you’ve bought. What you’ve considered buying. Your credit card. Your shipping addresses– home, work, parents, kids, “other”…  Not just that, but in its admittedly androgynous way, it turns that data (your purchase history) into “insight”. People who’ve bought similar things to what you’ve bought in the past have gone on to buy certain specific things in the future.

Sometimes Amazon misses with its recommendations. But more often than not, it doesn’t.

This was once Merchandising 101. That art of blending the past with the future into a compelling present is going the way of the hula hoop it would appear by declining traditional Retail trends.

Amazon, and others, stole that from you. Time to steal it back. If you do not have a detailed customer profile that cuts across all your departments and operations you’re part of the problem. You’re not only not winning customers, but also you’re actively driving them away. Customer expectations are now that high. In all likelihood, you no longer are the only place your customer can get whatever you sell. Act accordingly.


SPAMALOT is a musical, not a strategy

Admittedly, I love Retail. I love the thrill of the deal as a buyer, and the art of making the connection as a seller of merchandise. I could spend the afternoon in Restoration Hardware to “kill time”. I still receive certain catalogs (as in printed and bound paper products) and commit a solid hour to devouring them– often with a cocktail.

So your quarterly catalog, weekly email, or monthly whatever are all fine for me. I have a high Retail tolerance, I guess. But your daily if not hourly messaging barrage (almost always either duplicative, overly generic, or wildly inappropriate to the receiver) are unwelcome intrusions.

Basic rule of thumb: speak when you have something good to say.

Got a limited quantity of something you think I might like? By all means, send me a push. Taking a price move on something I’ve weighed purchasing in the past? Let me know ASAP. But please don’t clutter my feed, inbox, or mind with generic, throwaway messaging or weak non-offers. They don’t even rise to the level of annoyance anymore because you’ve conditioned me to not even open them.

That is very bad indeed.

Talk to me about things you think (based on actually understanding my interests and behavior) I’ll be interested in, and when it comes to offers, make me feel I’m getting a deal. One offer for one mass audience seldom moves the needle any more. Except in the wrong direction, I suppose.

Scale simple humanity and complex technology proportionally

Becoming enamored with the bells and whistles of your technology stack is easy to do. It’s not an overstatement to say we’re in a golden age of innovation. But externally, I think you want to leave the impression that you’ve doubled-down on your obsession with customer experience and satisfaction, not that you’ve invested in still more marketing software to fill in more obvious form fields marginally more elegantly.

If your message– regardless of form factor or medium– does not feel like it’s coming from you or a real flesh-and-blood person in your company, don’t send it. Your technology has let you down. We’re passed laser printing a proper name in a message field or some tricked-out video gimmick. Technology has come to the point where it can and should be a near match for your voice and general aesthetic. If it says “form”, “bot” or “system”, keep at it. You’re close, but not all the way to bright just yet.