Marc Shillum: Seeking Consumertopia

Why e-commerce sites have the chance to offer differentiated service experiences to consumers.

I won’t pretend to be an expert in retail, but I do like to think of myself as somewhat of an expert in shopping. Most of what I’ve learned about digital commerce, or even digitally enabled physical commerce, seems to lack the basic foundation of a good shopping experience.

My grandfather was a retailer. He intuitively understood the value of customer service, portfolio management, level and diversity of display, offering solutions, community loyalty, and local relationship management before we reinvented those terms as digital buzzwords. What he could never have imagined is that a retailer would feel the need to sell something they’d not made, understood the ingredients of, or at least seen. He wouldn’t understand the need for a retailer to create customer loyalty with people he’d never met, at least spoken to, that exist outside the same physical community.

The main challenges that face the future of retail don’t really come from retail at all — they come from the transparency of the supply chain, the fluctuations in global human resources, and the distributed nature of demand. We want more things, cheaper and faster than ever before, and we’re ordering them on more devices in more locations. And we are not willing to compromise our personal belief systems to attain this level of service.

So where’s the slack in the profit margin to create this consumertopia?

Forgetting for a minute the moral grounds of sustaining such a demand, the actual process of shopping hasn’t changed all that much. It seems that there are basically two modes: comparative and compulsive. ‘I need this,’ or ‘I want this.’

Comparative shopping is mostly associated with commodity items. The basic functionality of most commerce platforms allows for related items to be compared for price of purchase and price or speed of delivery. To compete in this mode, organizations tout the lowest possible price, or create the most differentiated service experience.

Low price seems to be a limited opportunity space, as the world’s ability to create consumables at ever lower prices is beginning to have a profound affect on labor systems, raw materials and, unfortunately, landfill.

Differentiated service, on the other hand, is a hotbed of innovation. Of course it has been a rather a long digital moment since the wonder of Zappos, the simple return policy, beautifully crafted language and a seamless user journey, but Amazon and Walmart are going head-to-head to see if differentiated delivery time is as valuable to the customer as the convenience of one-click purchase. Fulfillment in many ways is forcing the physical instantiation of the very edge of the web into creation, with real time objects flying faster than information, accessible at any hour.

But speed of delivery alone is a far too simple solution to the future of retail puzzle, and not one, by the way, that my grandfather would have approved of very much. He knew that if he worked hard to create a quality product and made something valuable, then he must transfer that sense of value to the customer along with the product itself — a good retail experience would do just that. He knew that if it did, the customers would queue, and he knew that a queue was a visible signifier of this quality. The purchase transferred a sense of pride, craft, and acknowledgment that the customer had made a good decision. A customer who thought they’d made the right decision was happy, and a happy customer is a loyal customer.

To summarize, the quality of the end product divided by the social and ecological viability of the supply chain multiplied by the context of a great retail experience to the power of visible demand equals ongoing customer loyalty. This exemplifies the other mode of shopping – the compulsive. The ‘I want this’ side of the equation.

Compulsive shopping asks us to rethink standard patterns of interaction, relating all that we know about marketing to all that we know about creating customized and personalized products to all that we know about creating the best user journey and overall experience. The best practices of traditional digital commerce just don’t seem to apply.

For instance, ask yourself whether a traditional e-commerce ‘product wall’ is the best way to represent the value of your unique product. How much do you value a product that’s displayed within a list of similar or even duplicate items? Then there’s the product detail page, which shows the product image at its smallest thumbnail — the least motivating reinforcement to sale just as the customer is about to pay.

Think about your most joyous moments of shopping: the sumptuous display, the warm greeting by name, the trial, the product story, the exemplary service, the custom measurement, the ritual of gift-wrapping, the personal thank-you, the branded bag as a display of inherent value, the unboxing, and the sensual feel of first use. How do we ensure we create equivalent value in the digital customer experience?

What would my grandfather have expected? What would he have bought online and why? Who would he have trusted? And where would he have placed his considerable loyalty?

Here are ten steps to follow on the road to consumertopia:

  1. Create the perfect stage for your product. A cake is worth more on a stand than on a plate.
  2. Your product gains value from its surrounding context. Point of purchase should be the richest experience.
  3. Know what’s in your products. Displaying the connected value of your supply chain will restore the direct connection between the maker of the product and the purchaser of the product.
  4. Create simple way-finding and short journeys. Digital shopping is a maze, so your role as retailer is to curate, direct, inspire and drive your customer.
  5. Don’t ask your customer to navigate the entire product portfolio — create systems that serve each user need.
  6. Authenticate a customer’s identity simply at the beginning of an experience, leaving fewer barriers to end purchase.
  7. Fulfillment is a service. The person who deals with delivery works for the same company who sold the product.
  8. Offer a rich profile that’s as valuable to your customer as it is to you, the retailer.
  9. Create solutions, educate your customer on how your product should be used, worn, displayed, styled or configured.
  10. Past purchases won’t always inform future purchases. (Unless you’re a man.)

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