The Future of Retail Has Never Been Brighter (Thoughts from eTail West 2017)

As February came to a close and March began, some of the smartest people in retail converged on Palm Springs, California like it was some sort of e-commerce Coachella festival. As they do every year around this time, these leaders in retail got together to share a combination of insights and recommendations as to the current state of digital commerce, while thousands more of their peers listened in to hear the latest in what’s happening in this world.

Still, as anyone who’s been in “e-commerce” knows, eTail is about more than just selling things online. It has to be. As e-commerce has evolved over the past two decades its grown from an outlier and change agent to become a key component of how we shop and interact with brands. It’s past mobile commerce, multichannel and even omnichannel. Instead, now with its big brother, Brick and Mortar, it’s become just part of how we consumers buy stuff.

But is it even more than that? If this year’s eTail West conference was any indication, the answer is an absolute YES.
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Hey Retailers: Get Your “In-Store Pickup” Act Together

If shopping this holiday season has taught me one thing, it’s this: Omnichannel is still a complete mess.

Let’s not even get into the headaches I continue to encounter where retail stores and their online counterparts run completely separate and non-interchangeable promotions. (Yes, I’m looking at you Banana Republic.)

I’m talking the parts where multichannel retailers are actually promoting their supposed ability to make online and offline work together in a flawless symbiotic relationship: In-Store Pickup (aka buy online, pick up in-store).

Over the past few weeks I’ve utilized in-store pickup three times, and every one of those times was pretty much a disaster. Yes, I should have learned by now … but I try to be hopeful.

One of those experiences was at a Best Buy store. The other two were at Target … but the issues have been similar at most places I’ve shopped.
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Going from “Zero to One” in Retail / Omnichannel

If you’ve been following me lately, you may have noticed a recent rash of posts from me going on about how much I’ve been enjoying Peter Thiel’s book ‘Zero to One.’ Yes, I know it came out about a year and a half ago. I bought it back then, but it got lost in my “to-read” pile.

Anyway I found it the other day, and decided to give it a read … and I have to say, it’s one of the best books on business and technology I’ve ever come across. In particular, Thiel’s general concept that going from nothing to something (zero to one) is a much bigger impact than going from something to something bigger (one to two). It’s an issue I’ve had personally with the way the world of e-Commerce has been working, and I continue to see it happen.

In its simplest form, and the form that oftentimes proliferates, e-commerce sites tend to be online catalogs. Yes, you might get additional information (customer reviews or different angles of the product photo), but they still aren’t all that much different from ordering from a catalog. The biggest difference really is that you can order from a computer instead of on a phone (although now we’re ordering more on phones … so it’s even weirder). What I don’t see happening all that often is retailers looking at technology not as simply a way to keep doing what they do and make incremental changes (automate this, analyze that, adjust, modify, increase). Wouldn’t it be better to instead look at technology as a way to do something new, that you haven’t even been able to do before?

This utilization of technology as an avenue of innovation is something that continually fascinates and excites me, and is where we see the biggest changes happen in today’s economy. Forget about “disruption” – that’s all well and good, but like Thiel says, disrupting an already existing market is hard – because you’re fighting entrenched business and very likely are only making incremental gains. What I’m looking for are the companies who see a piece of technology and think “hey, if we took that, changed it a bit to make it do this, then it could do THAT awesome thing.”

In my opinion. for retailers, the biggest gains in this space really are those who are understanding correctly how to integrate digital into their strategy (or in reverse, physical presence into digital-only strategy). What is exciting me is the thought of taking all that data and knowledge you captured online and in-store and figuring out how to communicate all of that with your customers in-store.

For example, every time I shop at Barnes and Noble I bring up my Amazon app so I can easily scan a book and look for reviews of a book. When I’m in-store I make my purchase there, not through Amazon, as I already have the intent to make a purchase (and take that purchase home with me). So why doesn’t Barnes & Noble have a simple way for me to get reviews on books from their own site while I’m in the store? They don’t have an app. They don’t have a particularly mobile-friendly site. They have massive amounts of data that they could be leveraging through this to help me make a decision on if I want to buy or not, and they miss out completely on the opportunity.

On top of this, they can easily know exactly where I am in the store. They can tell what category of books I’m looking at. Why can’t I get recommendations on great new business books just by walking into the business section – recommendations past whatever they’ve decided to showcase on the endcap, but instead, recommendations for business books that tie into my previously purchased business books?

I’m sick of looking at spines for something interesting. I’m sick of reading little spec sheets on different tablets and televisions. I want to interact with the knowledge and data that’s already there. This is where brick and mortar and e-commerce have their largest opportunities. Exposing this data and really changing the shopping experience so that the in-store experience has all the benefits that online has is where retail has an opportunity to have a zero to one moment.

But then again, I only work for a pure-play dotcom. I’m sure there are plenty of obstacles to doing this. The businesses who figure out that these obstacles are worth overcoming and who fully integrate their online and offline channels into one seamless experience anyway are the ones who will win.

This is also why retailers should be very scared of Amazon’s foray into brick and mortar. If they get that right, and take what they’ve done online and make it also work offline … well, that might change everything. Again.