Consider if you were planning for a sailing trip around the world. You're designing your boat and you tell the architect to design the boat providing ultimate stability while maximizing speed. So after investing time and money (probably lots of money) he delivers a design you love and you hire a company to build the boat.
Fast forward to when the boat is complete and you begin your journey. All seems well, you're loving the stability and smooth sailing...until all of the sudden the boat lurches to a stop, almost capsizing. You gather your wits, look around, but don't see why this happened. Then you get into the water, look under the boat and see your keel is stuck in the ocean floor. Somehow you forgot to consider the depth of the keel in planning your trip and now you're stuck, maybe even needing to spend extra money to get towed or repair a broken keel.
In business, the same concept exists, where if you don't consider the relationships and dependencies of how your business operates relative to your journey, you may end stuck, broken, or broke.
Over the years, I've worked across multiple industries covering virtually every aspect of business operations; from product design and inception all the way through manufacturing, distribution and sales. This has provided an incredible amount of insights into the relationships and dependencies across a business, and an understanding of how working in silos or with blinders on may create efficiencies in one area, but in fact most likely be creating inefficiencies in others.
There's no perfect process or solution to avoid this, but you can take some practical steps to minimize and mitigate the potential for creating one problem when solving another.
Carefully considering how to resolve one issue based on the impact it has on others and other processes is a critical step in both solving problems and building a sustainable business process providing benefits to everyone involved.
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The retail landscape is shifting and the focus is on providing the ultimate customer experience. Technology is forcing this issue, and the Internet is providing a more direct relationship with the customer. If you’ve grown up in retail, you won’t be surprised to see technology is moving much faster than anyone can possibly keep up with; and retailers are cautiously adopting solutions and enhancements at a snails pace relative to what’s available. Even at this slow pace, the relationship with the customer is changing rapidly. Retailers are adjusting the operations and organizational structure to adapt, creating new positions and functions; but not necessarily aligning with the customer’s needs.
The relationship has flipped, and where in the past the retailer controlled the conversation through selection and presentation of products and services; the customer is now in the driver’s seat and controlling the content. Retailers are adding and changing positions and roles to adjust and manage, but most are looking at this the wrong way and creating silos and inefficiencies in operations and execution.
To better understand this new dichotomy and to really evolve and thrive, retailers need to flip their organizational structures up side down. The traditional and overwhelmingly used structure starts from the top, or the executive level, and migrates down into operational units and personnel needed to run the business. The focus is from the top down, where goals and objectives are created and managed, and everything is function of executive or corporate initiatives. But in today’s retail world, the customer has become the executive; driving the demand and experience, so this change in leadership mandates and evaluation and adjustment in how business is structured and run.
Start by flipping your organizational chart upside down and place the customer where the executive exists today. Then progress down through the workflow and experience, examining the impact at each level of operations, but always keeping the focus on the customer’s experience. What you may find is an opportunity to consolidate some functions, eliminate silos, increase efficiencies, improve profitability, and ultimately satisfy the person in charge…the customer.
If you follow the path in this new structure, as seen in the diagram below, you’ll note the following improvements in operational flow:
This new approach places the priority on the customer and each function in a company is now focused on a common goal. It helps to eliminate redundancy in positions and work, while simultaneously breaking down the silos created in a more traditional structure. When each person takes the approach their ultimate boss or person they are held accountable to is the customer, everyone is working to meet a common goal. When the focus is on the executive or management level positions driving department or channel goals, the emphasis shifts to justifying the existence of each channel or department; creating silos and potential conflict with satisfying the real boss, the customer.
So don’t just say the customer is the reason you’re in business, put them at the top of your organizational chart and truly in charge; then work backwards and design a structure that is truly managing to their needs. Not only will the customer be more satisfied, businesses may actually be able to keep up with technology, achieve greater operational efficiencies and improved profitability.
Trying to come up with the title for an article is often the most difficult, as was the case with this one; so hopefully it grabbed your attention enough to read further and understand what I mean. The point I hope to make is how too often in the professional world people become too familiar with their industry and/or their job and develop tunnel vision. Their ability to comprehend what is possible is diminished the longer they stay within their guardrails, providing validity to the saying, "you only know what you know," as they become more seasoned and experienced. It is their lack of diversity preventing them from innovating beyond what they know.
I've been fortunate over the years and experienced diversity in both my professional and personal life. Growing up on the DC Metro Area and an area where there was a mix of ethnicity, race, and wealth; I lived, engaged, and learned the importance of looking beyond what was most familiar to me, often adjusting my views, my values, and my appreciation for what I didn't know or taught within my immediate culture.
Over the course of my professional career, I experience virtually the same; but, it wasn't a deliberate path. I grew up in a generation where my parents preached the necessity of going to college, picking a career, and slogging along an anticipated path pledging loyalty to my career...and often to my employer. But my generation was going through a change where employers were no longer as loyal, and employees were learning diversity as a means of survival. As for me, I had no real clue what I wanted to be when I grew up, so just picked an area of interest and ended up with a degree in Radio, Television and Film. I even landed a job right out of college with a major market radio station...but, after four months found myself hating my work and out of a job.
So what did I do? I thought about how I got to that moment and realized retail was potentially a better career path; as I had begun working in retail at 16, was good at it, and it paid well enough I could be self-sustaining. What I didn't realize at the time, was this profession was about to provide me more diversity in my professional career than perhaps any other.
Early in my chosen career, my friends (most of them with advanced degrees) would kid me saying, "You're still in retail? When are you going to get a real job?". To which I would just laugh and play along since I didn't yet understand where I was heading. But, over the course of the next 30 plus years, I experienced more and I learned more than so many other professions, about the diversity of both business and society. And it was during this journey I also learned how silo's exist within industries, even the most innovated; creating and inability for many to see beyond their own front yard.
Early in my career, my focus was within the physical environment, the stores (there was no internet yet); and I would argue, I learned more about running a business than most people learn through advanced studies in school. Many people don't consider what it takes to run a retail store. It requires a combination of skills across many disciplines, including; business planning and forecasting, basic accounting, sales training and selling, human resource management, customer engagement and service, inventory control, operations and logistical management, security and loss control, and endurance (forgive me fellow retailers if I left out something).
My point? Diversity. I had to learn to work across multiple disciplines and understand the dependencies and relationships in order to be successful within a profession many people view as a pathway to something else.
But my diversity training was just getting started. Following a lateral move into merchandising and buying (which was in the stone age, so we didn't have computers doing much work for us), I began developing advanced skills in analysis, open-to-buy planning, pricing and markdown strategies, allocation and distribution strategies, sourcing and product development, and more. This part of my journey began my exposure beyond my front door and across the globe. I was both traveling domestically and internationally; learning more about people, cultures, and differences in general and business related behaviors. It didn't matter whether I was traveling to the other side of the world or just to the state next door, I was surprised to learn there were so many differences in how people lived, worked, and played; and how important it was to consider this when planning my business goals and objectives. It was less about what was right or wrong, and more about how and why; and the more I opened my mind to ideas of others, the more I grew and expanded my abilities and desire to learn. I began to understand the saying I noted in the beginning of this article and found the more I learned, the less I actually knew...I was learning and applying diversity.
Diversity was always there impacting my path. I learned from other cultures, countries, and regions; and began to challenge a common phrase from more experienced people, "you can't do that..." with the reply, "why not?". I would later expand this thought by telling people who worked for me, "please don't tell me you can't do something; instead, tell me what you can do and then we'll decide whether or not we want to do it." It was my past diversity training which brought me to this thinking, developing an understanding that we are only limited by the walls we either create or are locked within.
Now let me take this a step further and how I see this lack of professional diversity limiting our true innovation across many industries and markets.
Over the course of my career, I transitioned into many roles in both the B2C and B2B worlds, and have performed in almost every possible job/role in the life cycle of a product. I've also done this across industries, often negating the question and/or challenge from people within the industry regarding my industry specific experience. In fact, this is my primary point...that is, people who grow in a single industry or business channel, often don't realize they are missing the diversity they need to innovate and grow.
Here are a three examples to chew over and either agree or disagree with me (always like hearing from those that disagree, as that adds to my diversity):
Ok, I may have beat a dead horse on this topic, but I was struggling with how to spell this concept out in a shorter article and decided to just let it be whatever length it needed to in order to make my point. I hope this makes sense, as what I see in almost every industry is the lack of diversity (especially at the senior or executive level) is most often the reason companies are not innovated and/or don't succeed long term.
And perhaps the motivation to write this article comes from my work in my current industry. I'm working in potentially one of the most exciting channels, with some of the smartest and most innovative minds; and yet, I'm seeing a disconnect in what is possible being applied to what is practical...
Maybe because too many people lack the diversity to truly work beyond what they know.
Over the course of my career, family has always, without any doubt, been my primary focus; and never has a career taken precedence. So it pains me to see anyone claiming they are sacrificing time with their family in order to advance a career. Careers are important, but only in terms of how it relates to your overall goals in life, which include family and they should be a part of any decision.
What’s this got to do with a self-driving business? I’m getting there…
Too often, we hear top level executives preaching how people need to sacrifice and commit; meaning give up precious hours meant for personal time. I often heard executives say, “I probably 80 hours a week or more focused on the job” and “I’m on call 24/7, because that’s what it takes.” In reality, if an executive is spending that much time managing their business, there are only two reasons; the first, they are just not qualified or capable of leading an efficient and effective business. Second, they’re just trying to justify their position, making it sound like they are critical to the company’s survival.
Running a successful business is more about quality than quantity; the latter usually meaning someone is lacking the necessary skills and just trying to keep up. Running a business requires an ability to define and clarify the processes needed for efficient operations; and then, the leadership skills necessary in identifying and hiring the people needed to make it work. A good leader, or executive, not only hires and trains the right people; he/she must empower these people if they want to really create a sustainable and self-driving business. If the people below the executive are not empowered to execute on their responsibilities, and/or the executive feels the need to micro-manage, then either the people doing their jobs are unqualified, or the executive is unable to manage and develop a self sufficient team.
It a perfect world, assuming the executive has done their job in creating a sound foundation and operational structure, and helped select and train the key people in the same manner; then the executive only needs visibility into the daily activities and no additional time in the day to manage. In fact, if they do their job really well, they should feel as though they are just sitting on the sideline watching the game like a coach; occasionally making suggestions and minor adjustments, but allowing the rest of the team do their jobs. There focus needs to be on looking forward, anticipating and planning for the future.
I learned this a long time ago as a means of survival. As a young executive (only in my mid 30's), I was provided an opportunity to take on an emerging retail operation; one with a team in place, a few stores in operation, and plans for aggressive growth. It was my first really large opportunity and I went into it thinking I had to do everything myself. It didn’t take long for me to realize, even if I were capable of doing every job, it wasn’t possible or practical; so, I stepped back and focused more on the operational structure, finding the right people, and then making sure they had clear objectives and the authority to manage. Part of this was stimulated by the people already surrounding me; one in particular, who was fresh out of college and managing our IT and systems needs (back office and POS). He was incredible and helped me understand the power of developing and guiding people over directing and managing. I quickly learned the power of what I call, “expanded intelligence”; meaning, not only are there a lot of smart people out there in the world, if I can aggregate their efforts in an organized fashion, the collective output is potentially incredible…way beyond any one person on their own.
I adapted the same leadership style with each of the operational areas, creating a business operation that was not solely dependent on any one person. I created SOP’s (standard operating procedures), enabling people to focus on what they do, more than how they do it; and created a responsive and adaptable environment. Over the course of three years, this approach allowed us to grow the division of the company from just a few stores, to 37 over 15 states doing in excess of $40 million annually. And it didn’t require people invest excessive amounts of time to achieve our collective goals. I had two small kids during this time, and I firmly believed time with the family was essential to both the individual and their families. And even if people were single, selfish time doing things you want to do is also essential to a creating a balanced work life relationship. So I made sure people took time off, and we had the right people focused on specific roles; so others weren’t duplicating efforts or wasting time on unproductive work. Quality over quantity.
There came a point when I knew it was time to leave, for two reasons; first, the parent company was not going to make it, meaning my division would be dragged down with it. Second, I was literally spending more time merely observing, needing less than 40 hours a week to provide guidance. I knew if I walked away at any point, everything would keep running smoothly; so, submitted my resignation. The parent company was struggling and my immediate boss asked me to stay, stating I was needed to maintain the business. As flattering as that was, I told him, the business was now in self-driving mode; and no one would really know I was gone for at least six months, and that was only because of one area I had not delegated out or created a back up for managing…lease management. So as leases came up for renewal, there was no one else currently trained to manage it, and that is when they would need help. But I also pointed out, there was ample time to prepare.
It was both humbling and satisfying to watch a business run seamlessly, and without interruption after I left. In fact, as the parent company faltered, my division continued to grow and provide positive returns (just not enough to save the overall business). I built a sustainable business structure, not dependent on any one person; rather, providing a platform for many to excel in collaboration based on their efforts. It was a self-driving business. And as an executive, I discovered the more I let others do, and the less I did, the better off the entire business was in the long term.
So when you hear an executive claiming they demand everything from their workers, sacrificing time and family in order to succeed professionally; what they’re really saying is they don’t know what they’re doing, and compensating by making others and themselves, give up time meant for personal growth over professional.
Work smart, build a sound operational structure; and most importantly, empower people within their roles. If you’re really any good at managing or being an executive at any level, you should be very good and observing and guiding, not directing and doing. You don’t aways need to be behind the wheel of the car, especially if it’s self-driving.
Enough already. There’s nothing “artificial” about AI (artificial intelligence), it’s just human intelligence programmed into a machine, designed and created by really intelligent people.
Start calling it…
Think about this for a minute, what’s really happening with AI? The reality? People are accelerating their ability to sift through overwhelming amounts of data across multiple sources, and extract what is most relevant based on their criteria or business objectives. It’s not artificial, it’s happening because some very smart people have developed algorithms and logic into a solution capable of exploring, extracting, analyzing, and presenting data in a more contextual manner. You still need to engage with the machine, input business rules, plans, etc., and…
When implemented properly, AI helps to provide visibility into an overwhelming amount of data faster; but, make no mistake about it, the machine is not controlling anything and not intelligent, it is merely an agent of the person or people creating and using it.
Algorithms and programmable logic do not replace the human brain, they are an extension of it; and machines cannot replace or replicate people when it comes to compassion, empathy, sympathy, love, and subjective reasoning. So stop thinking AI is anything other than a acceleration of analyzing data and enhancing a human’s intelligence and ability to understand, because that’s all it is.
Once you accept the reality, the practical application and use of AI becomes more obvious.
A business can begin to break down operational silos if they merge data into a central point, or data lake; providing AI the opportunity to more quickly parse data across sources, discovering anomalies, correlations, relationships, and dependencies people often miss. What good is a marketing solution that provides recommendations on personalize campaigns if it is not considering the merchandising, inventory, and logistical issues impacting any decision? In the same light, how valuable is a merchandising plan if it is executed without visibility into the marketing metrics around customer preferences and actions?
The real value of AI is the ability to see across data as if you are a single person running the entire business, and not as silo’d organizations marching to their separate P&L goals without any real concern for the overall success of the whole business. This is the real value, but it won’t be realized until companies both consider their organizational structure and impact on data management, along with their systematic structure and solution integrations.
So before everyone gets too excited and thinks a computer is going to either replace your job or make you perform any better; consider it needs to be able to think more like you, meaning, accessing and evaluating all data regardless of the source. At the end of the day, the really successful people, the really successful businesses perform because they look across all available data. The current challenge is this is often too time consuming, requiring analysts to create spreadsheets and reports explaining the content. The opportunity is in letting AI help in this time consuming part, elevating what could take days or weeks to understand, to just seconds or minutes. The end result are people and/or businesses capable of ACCELERATING their intelligence. And that’s not artificial, that’s just smart.
Choice is not necessarily a bad thing, but there comes a point when too much choice causes indecision, no decision, and potentially minimizes the opportunities for a business to grow.
Let me explain. When I was in college, I worked in a ski shop as the head mechanic and part time sales person (I actually loved selling, but enjoyed the mechanical work more). Selecting ski equipment can be overwhelming to many, as it is often difficult for the average person to keep up with technology and the impact on the products relative to their real needs. I recall one day, a young couple entered the shop looking to outfit the woman (her boyfriend already owned skis and was the "expert"). I managed to get her into a pair of boots that were comfortable and suitable for her skill level, and we walked over to the wall of skis to make a selection. "Oh my God!" she said, as she scanned the wall of perhaps 40 plus different skis, "how am I ever going to choose?" Great question given there were probably 4-5 different models she could realistically select, but she wouldn't recognize any difference in performance at her level; so, the question in my mind was, how do I limit the choice and create an opportunity for her make an easy selection. The last thing I wanted to do was spend too much time providing too many choices, where the end result would end up being the same; as I could be helping other customers and increasing the overall revenue for the shop. Time is a commodity we can't afford to waste, so I wanted to help her make a selection she would be happy with and avoid the prolonged, and sometimes painful process of choosing. After reviewing her skill level with her, I walked to the ski wall, removed two different models, placed them on an empty white wall and asked, "which one do you like better?" To which she replied, "Really? It's that easy?", and I explained, "Yes, these are two of the better choices, and it really just boils down to which one do you like better since you won't really experience any difference in performance and you are your ultimate goal is to enjoy the skiing."
I closed the sale in 30 seconds and she left the store with a smile on her face ready to hit the slopes (plus a new ski outfit and a few accessories).
The point of this story is, limitation of choices often is the best avenue for promoting selection and sales in any B2C or B2B environment. Keep in mind you ultimately want the customer to use and enjoy the product and/or service long term, over the process of selecting it. Over thinking and focusing on the minor differences is more a marketer's goal than a buyer's goal; as the marketer wants to establish some differentiation even it is insignificant, so as to promote a reason to buy their item over another. I get that, agree with it to some extent, but more from a competitive point of view over an internal view. And that is where the problem exists regarding too many choices; something exacerbated by the expansion of e-commerce sales.
Consider for a moment, how too many choices internally to a business, actually causes potential issues in both promoting a decision and bottom line performance. Amazon is a great example, as is any e-commerce site that tends to propagate their site with an abundance of products over a carefully curated selection; as what they are doing is both shifting the responsible or effort in parsing options and diluting their presentation. Amazon is an exception to some degree, as they are just so big and dominating in their category, and they don't own much of the product; so their exposure is minimal and they really don't care about the businesses that are ultimately supplying the product. That's a drop ship mentality that has evolved by virtue of e-commerce. So, customers take too much time selecting, and focus more of their attention on the "deal" or price over the actually selection of a brand or relevant product - and that eats away at profitability.
Now put yourself in the shoes of a B2B business professional, and consider you are trying to select a software solution. What I just described above for the consumer is true for the business professional; and many times they get sucked into making a choice based on price as the number one criteria over the substance of the product. Or, they may focus so much on the details of the solution over accomplishing the business tasks in relationship to their entire business; and the process for making the choice may be prolonged and detrimental to their ultimate goal of helping their business perform the tasks required to drive the revenue needed to excel and sustain their business. Take this a step further, and look at companies that may be promoting multiple products with similar characteristics internally, assuming the customer will ultimately tell them which one is the better of the two (or three, or four, etc.). The problem with this is it does the same thing as the large catalog on an e-commerce site; makes the selection confusing and dilutes the value of each of the products (or service).
Don't get me wrong, choice is good...to a degree; but, it's too easy to shift the bourdon for making the choice to the buyer without taking responsibility at the business level to parse the presentation and promote a better, more informed decision. In the end, this just creates a business environment where the dilution of the presentation creates excess and often redundant work, spreads resources thin, and ultimately erodes the bottom line.
Before your customer can make a choice, you need to first make a few yourself.
I joke all the time on the golf course when we talk about getting new clubs, saying, "you know, it's not the club, it's the player." Of course, we're always ribbing each other, insinuating no club is going to fix our golf swing; and this is exactly the problem I see in many business settings. Whether it's adding Slack, Workboard, GitHub, Shopify, etc., it's not the tool or the solution that will fix the business, it's the business structure and ability to manage within a standard operating procedure (SOP).
Whether you work in a small business or large one, creating an operational structure that is agnostic to the user is much more important than the tools you use; and, in fact, is the only way to assure the tools are used consistently and effectively.
What does this mean and how do I build a sound operational structure?
Let's assume for a moment, you run a small business; you provide a general operational structure with job titles and descriptions, so people have a basic idea of their role and responsibilities. Like many small businesses, resources are stretched thin, so often people double up or cross over to help complete tasks and keep the business progressing. This can get confusing and cause problems if there isn't a sound operational structure in place; a system that provides clarity in each role, what is expected, and how to perform any tasks. I'll use a real life example from when I ran a retail organization during the mid 90's. There was a general SOP (standard operating procedures) manual, but it was too general and many of the store managers had made modifications to fit their personalities and preferences. So you couldn't go into different stores and necessarily find the same operational model and user experience. The argument for allowing the flexibility and edits in application of the SOP was to just judge the performance, and the ones performing better should be copied. I see this now when companies roll out or test new solutions like Slack; they put it out there with some general guidelines, and then wait to see how people use it before setting any concrete policies. The assumption is they will discover through use how to best apply an application, and maybe the application will help them improve their operations...kind of like buying a new club will help my swing, but nobody is paying attention to the mechanics of my swing.
But there's a fallacy in this thinking, as it shifts the responsibility and accountability away from the people responsible for managing the company. In my case, when I encountered this problem, I decided there needed to be just one SOP in every store; and that if I could shift the focus away from managing all of the unique adaptations, we could collectively apply more effort to sales and driving revenue. I asked a group of store managers to compare everyone's structure and propose a single standard operating procedure we could apply with uniformity. The goal, I told them, was I wanted to accomplish two things; first, I wanted to be able take any person from any store, move them to another location and have them fully operational and functional immediately. Second, I wanted to focus less on operations and more on driving revenue. Once we agreed on a uniform SOP, we then implemented a project of converting every store into the same format, down to every detail of where we kept informational notebooks behind the cash wrap, where supplies were stored, etc. You could literally walk into a store on the east coast or west coast and not know the difference. We made this a non-negotiable, and carefully laid out exactly how to implement and manage, so they could focus more time on customers. The results were over a six month period, saw our revenues increase 21%.
The point is we focused not on the tools, but the use of the tools; and made sure we had consistency throughout the organization.
Large businesses seem to struggle with this even more, as their ecosystems tend to create villages and power plays, where internal competition and politics create inconsistency in operations and wasted and/or duplicate efforts. The challenge is sometimes greater in a larger organization, as breaks in the standard operating procedure with use of multiple and sometimes redundant tools hampers the exchange of information, slowing the ability to understand and react to insights. For example, I've watched organizations use multiple email and instant messaging tools without committing to one across all divisions; allowing each division to determine what is best. Consequently, communication across channels using different tools is broken, and opportunities to cross pollinate ideas and address issues are delayed or missed. It would more effective if the company selects and commits to a single platform, or integrated cluster of platforms, and carefully spells out the rules of use without allowing for any exceptions. This way everyone is using the same tool, working within the same guidelines, and focused on their roles and output over finding an alternate way to accomplish their tasks.
I think I'm beating a dead horse, so enough with examples. Suffice to say, don't search for a tool that will make you do your job better; figure out how you want to do your job better and find a tool that fits. Just like in golf, a new club is not going to lower your score or add significant distance or control; and in business, a new user tool is not going to solve any inherent structural issues.
As my friends like to say to me, "Just hit the ball".
I have a theory based on growing up in a traditional retail environment where buyers actually reviewed trends, selected products, created assortments, and presented a refined and cohesive product presentation to the customer that was manageable both from the customer’s perspective and the seller. Before we had the internet and Amazon (the jungle of products), customers typically shopped in stores based on the perception of the store’s brand and product mix; which was usually fairly focused and easy enough to sort through once you were in the store. If sales people knew their stock well enough, they worked in the same manner as search works today on websites (well, some search); if you were unable to locate what you wanted quickly, you asked a sales person (or they came to you first) and they would locate and present products based on your needs.
Now I’m not suggesting buyers don’t do the analysis and planning needed to assort products online, I’m just saying they are more haphazard in their approach and less committed to their presentations. Their assumption is just build a site with as many products as you can within a reasonable look and feel, and let the customer decide what they want. This is especially true with sites that depend on drop ship relationships, where there is no real inventory risk; so they figure, why not just put up more products. More products, more options for customers, and more sales with less risk…right? And of course if you listen to all the marketing geniuses out there, everything can be personalized and delivered to meet the customers’ needs, when they want and for the price they expect.
Well, it doesn’t actually work that way.
Amazon is the exception, as they built the model based on over populating a site with products and just letting the customer find what they want primarily based on price; and they are successful because they have extended the assortment to virtually everything you can think of, and made price the primary motivator. It’s really not that hard to sell stuff if you don’t really care about the profit margins, not a priority for Amazon like most retailers. So people shopping on the site are doing so with the perception they’ll get the best deal, and not necessarily searching to discover new brands or products. My guess is brand loyalty is lost in the shuffle; think about it, if you come across an item you think you want because it’s familiar, but all of the sudden Amazon shows a few options with better pricing, what happens? Duh, you’ll most likely pay the lower price and any loyalty you may think you have flies right out the window…especially since you’re doing it somewhat anonymously and not face to face.
Most retailers fail at replicating this model, and instead, just create a site that is overcrowded and overwhelming to the majority. It also dilutes their brand and confuses the customer as to what the store feels are viable products; so stores are just being lazy and non-committal in their presentation, assuming it’s better to have too much than not enough. Retailers are leaning on marketing and becoming “reactionary” in their buying, and losing the ability to plan effectively. It’s as though they are asking the customer, “Just tell me what you want and I’ll serve it up,” instead of providing a clear and cohesive presentation and actually selling in a proactive way based on a brand image or message.
Why is this happening?
I have a theory, and my opinion on this based on having the fortunate opportunity to learn and apply buying skills before computers did any, and I mean ANY of the work for you. Before any product lands on the shelf of a store, or appears on the page of a website or catalog, someone should be doing a detailed assortment plan. This is a planning process that explores and understands the presentation of products based on a brand’s goals and objectives, carefully taking into consideration external data and influencers to help refine and shape the assortment BEFORE a buyer makes commitments and actually shares with the consumers. It provides the subjective reasoning needed to validate product selection, and helps a retailer and/or a brand present a cohesive assortment based on their brand message; and not just an array of products waiting for customer feedback to decide if they’re right or not. For as much as we may think search is the equalizer and customers can navigate through to find the ultimate product, matching their expectations in every way; the reality is the majority of people want the seller, the retailer, the brand, to tell them what they have in a clear and simple way so they can decide without having to invest too much time.
What’s happening is technology, which should be making it easier for retailers and consumers to shop, is actually making it more complicated. Even trying to decide what movie to watch is a mind bending proposition…go to your Amazon Prime or Netflix account and you end up spending most of the evening just sorting through what movies you may want to watch, and usually fall asleep before you even pick one. Shopping online with most retailers is not much different, and until retailers revert back to the foundational disciplines that drove product assortments in the past, brands will continue to fade, assortments will continue to lose focus, and consumers will be staying up late to pick a movie and decide what was they wanted to buy in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, I love technology and what it can do for both the business user and the consumer; but I think too many people in the retail world are using it to cheat, trying to skip to the end, and not learning or understanding the foundational steps needed in analyzing, reviewing, selecting, and assorting a presentation. So instead of retailers telling customers who they are through the thoughtful and careful selection and presentation of products, many are letting technology steer their decision and waiting for the consumer to tell them what they want. I have news for you, this is not a chicken or the egg situation. In order for customers to understand what you’re selling, you have to explain in a visual way, what you represent; and without a strong assortment planning process, this won’t happen and everything online becomes a reaction without much substance.
If everything is a reaction, creativity is lost and innovation becomes redundant. So take the time to plan in a deliberate way, with a clear message; help consumers by simplifying the selection process, not complicating it. Learn how to build an assortment plan.