The Time I Dreamt of a Bowl of Cherries as a Metaphor for Tech Vendor Selection / Marketing Mix (And Why You’re Better Off Making Fruit Salad)

The other night as I was sleeping I had one of those dreams where you wake up from it filled with inspiration at the stroke of brilliance you just discovered. Then, you lay there in bed running through the idea, utterly pleased with yourself and contemplating if you should bother to get up and find a notebook and write the idea down, or if you (lazily) think you will be fine remembering it in the morning. (Note: this is a great example of why you should keep a notebook by your bed. I seem to have misplaced mine.)

As is the case with many of these dream-inspired flashes of brilliance, it turned out to not be quite as earth-shattering as it seemed at the time … but it’s still something I feel is worth sharing. And thus, this article was born.

In the dream I was out in nature with a friend who was carrying a bowl full of cherries. He showed me the bowl, beaming at how ripe and beautiful and perfect each one was. It was the best bowl of cherries anyone ever saw, and each individual specimen was flawless. My friend couldn’t be more proud of what he had gathered. I agreed, it was the perfect bowl of cherries.

The issue that came up, however, was when I asked what he was going to do with those cherries.

“I’m going to give them out to the people I work with,” he beamed.

“But,” I interjected cautiously, “what if not everyone you work with likes cherries?”

“But these are the best cherries,” he replied. “I’ve gone through each one individually and inspected them one by one and they are all perfect – the best cherries you could ever hope for.”

… but what if someone doesn’t like cherries?

“Right, but what if someone doesn’t like cherries? Or what if they want candied cherries? Or sour cherries? Or something completely different?”

The thought dumbfounded him. He’d chosen what he thought was the best type of fruit, and chosen the highest-rated example of each of those cherries.

“The thing is,” I continued, “it’s easy to get distracted by focusing on perfection. But the perfection you’ve chosen is too homogeneous. You’ve selected the best of the best, and they will all work together, but you’re only focusing on solving problems for one group of people – the people who like cherries. You might want to consider making a fruit salad.”

When we’re making choices of what to put together for something greater, it’s always tempting to choose the very best of what’s out there. And, given the concept of cherries as a perfect fruit (as in “life is like a bowl of cherries”) it can be entirely tempting to fill your bowl with cherries, just as my friend had. But things don’t always work that way, and this approach to perfection will only appease a select group of people. If my friend’s goal was to make the best cherry pie ever, he might have been onto something – but that wasn’t the goal. Instead his goal was to distribute solutions (a treat) to a variety of users (his coworkers). Each of those people are different from one another, and as much as people like cherries, there are surely some who don’t – which is why when you’re looking for solution to a variety of user problems you need to vary your solutions. But more than just varying your solutions, you also need to find solutions that all work together.

… you can also have bananas and apples and grapes and kiwi …

A fruit salad is a perfect example of this kind of solution. Sure, you can have cherries – but you can also have bananas and apples and grapes and kiwi and anything else you want – as long as they all work together. Some people will enjoy every part of the salad, and it’s in those instances that everything you have completely gels (like a customer who might interact across social, email, print advertising, retargeting, etc.) But you’ll also find a lot of people who will only connect through one of your fruits. They’ll skip the cantaloupe and go straight for the pineapple (like I do), but the cantaloupe is still a welcome addition that works perfectly with everything else that’s mixed in – and some (like my middle son) will gladly go for the cantaloupe.

Why, in my dream, I made the connection between these fruit selections and the process of selecting tech vendors and building a marketing mix is beyond me, but the general concept has stuck with me ever since. Yes, it’s common sense for the most part – but it’s also something worth keeping in mind as you select the suite of solutions you work with. You could fill your marketing suite with all the top-rated solutions, but that doesn’t mean you’re solving your problems.

A bowl of cherries is great – but only for people who like cherries.

Bonus tip: Just because something isn’t ripe when you’re picking it, doesn’t mean it won’t be when it’s time to use it. Like those bananas in your salad, if you choose perfection without taking into account that it will continue to ripen, you might end up with something rotten in the end. Choose the right things at the right time, and always remember you can always pick something that’s not quite ready but given ample time and the right environment, you could end up with something great.

… of course, also remember that perfect fruit can also rot or have a worm eating it from the inside. We’ve had our vendors like that too.

They’re the pits.

An Obvious But Unused Application of Geofencing + Mobile in Retail

I’m sitting here at the Orlando Airport, waiting for my flight, thinking about everything I learned during my second trip to the eTail Connect conference. As usual, it was a fantastic experience, with a lot of great conversations with a lot of really smart people in the e-commerce industry. We discussed issues like fraud, personalization, payment processing, social sign-in, loyalty, communication strategies and a lot more … but of all the conversations I had, there’s one in particular that keeps coming back to me.

During the cocktail reception the first night, I met with my friend John and we were discussing his company’s geofencing and beacon technologies. As I currently work in a pureplay dotcom, geofencing isn’t of that much use to me – but it’s a topic I’ve always found interesting. Just being part of the retail community, what’s going on in omnichannel always fascinates me, as they deal with different variations of the problems I deal with, and have to look for other solutions and integrations that make sense across their physical and digital presences.

Anyway, we were talking about geofencing and beacons and I told John how impressed I’ve been with Target’s use of the technology so far. Even things like little reminders to use my cartwheel app when I’m in store are great uses of the tech, as I often forget about Cartwheel until I’m at checkout, and by then it’s too late for me to start looking at offers or scanning my products in the cart. The reminder as I walk in the door has been helping me here considerably.

We talked about this and other uses geofencing has been helpful in, and as we talked we got onto the subject of how the tech can be used to help guide you around the store to help find the departments and items you might be looking for. Then came the “eureka” moment.

My wife and I recently built a new house with a nice deck overlooking our creek. We want to spend more time out there enjoying the view, but the patio furniture we had was not quite matching the style of the new house – so we were in market for something new. Target had exactly what we were looking for, a little chat set called Carag, but every time we went to the store we found out it wasn’t in stock (and they didn’t sell it online). So we kept checking back. Sometimes we’d call, but othertimes we’d just ask when we were in the store for another shopping reason.

The problem I kept running into though was that there was never anyone working in the patio section – at least no one I could find. I had a simple question: do you have this in a box in back? All I needed to do was ask an associate and they could check and if so, they just had a $200 sale. As I discussed this experience with my John I thought of all the other times I’ve been in stores and wanted something or had a question but needed to track down an associate to get help (I actually had a similar experience at Target again the other day when I wanted a new Fitbit but needed someone to get it for me from their locked areas).

So, this all leads to my big question / idea: Why don’t stores add in “call for assistance” into their apps? Sure, a few stores have buttons on kiosks for this, but again you still have to hunt to find them (just like hunting for an associate). With geofencing and beacon technology, working in conjunction with your store app, you should be able to easily allow your shoppers to tap a button to request help, then send a ping with the rough location to your sales associates, telling them where you are and that you need some assistance. In an ideal experience, I’d tap the button, the associate would get pinged, and I’d be told to hold tight for a few minutes because someone is on their way to exactly where I am.

Since I don’t work in physical retail, I have no idea how many sales are lost simply due to customers not being able to find an associate at the time they have a question. What I do know is that I’ve walked out of stores plenty of times when I went in with intent to purchase, but wasn’t able to get the help I needed to get the product / close the sale.

It’s a pretty simple use of the technology, but it would give customers the ability to ask for help when they need it, where they need it, rather than hope that an associate and a guest would cross paths at the right time in-store.

So there you go stores. Go do this.

… and while you’re at it, let me pay for my purchase in-store with my phone, so I don’t have to wait in lines. Barnes and Noble, I’m looking at you in particlar … you don’t want to know how many piles of books I’ve not bought because your lines were too long and slow, and then just put them on a table, walked out the door and bought them on Amazon instead. But that’s for another conversation.


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.