Is E-commerce just a reaction?

modified May 31, 2017 - in

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.

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