To many, retail seems to be having an identity crisis.
Closed storefronts on American and European streets and dead malls in India and China are blamed on the growth of online retail. At the same time, the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, is opening physical stores and buying offline retail operations in the US and in India, while the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, is busy digesting India’s ecommerce market leader. Even India’s online fashion and lifestyle websites – among them Myntra, Firstcry, Yepme and Faballey – are acquiring offline brands or opening stores. Or both.
What in the world is going on?
The short answer: consumers want choice; and retailers have no choice.
For many, ecommerce still seems to have the “new car smell” after more than 20 years, the message pitched so desperately by the founders of and investors in ecommerce companies still echoing: that this “new kid” will make customers’ lives a quintillion times better and wipe out the competition. Two decades on, and hundreds of billions of dollars of investment later, online retail is estimated to be about 12% of the global market. Ecommerce is 10% of the US market, of which Amazon takes up about half. In India the figure is in the vicinity of 2%, with that share is virtually stitched up between Walmart-owned Flipkart Group and Amazon.
Clearly, consumers value offline retail stores, whether for convenience or as holistic brand ambassadors. You can’t take away the fact that retail for us is theatre, experience, social.
Over at physical retail businesses, managers have been terrified of “channel conflict”. Senior management have squeezed resources for online, even when return-on-capital was demonstrably better than a new store. Some have refused to publicise their own company’s website through in-store banners, fearing that the customers would get sucked away from the store. It has been strange to see this opportunity being passed up – if a customer is trusts you to walk into your physical store, why would you not want to connect with them at other points of time when they are not near your store?
As I’ve written earlier, retail is not and should not be divided between “old-world physical” and “upstart online”. Successful retailers and brands have always been able to integrate multiple channels and environments to reach their customers.
For instance, British fashion retailer Next has long used a combination of physical stores (of varying sizes) as well as mail order catalogue side-by-side, and then ecommerce as the digital medium grew. Another British retailer, Argos, took another angle and embedded a catalogue inside the physical store – first a paper catalogue, and then on-screen.
American designer Rebecca Minkoff has taken this unification further. Without the weight of legacy systems, the brand attempts to create a seamless experience for the customer, unifying the store, in-store digital interfaces such as smart dressing rooms, the website and the mobile.
No doubt, for older companies, integrating is tough; business systems and people are in disconnected silos, incentivised narrowly. Each channel needs different mindsets, capabilities, processes and systems, to ensure that the optimal customer experience appropriate for the interface, whether it is a store, mobile app, website or catalogue. But etailers opening physical stores have their own challenges, too, tackling the messy slowness of the physical world, where you can’t instantly switch the store layout after an A:B test. They now need to develop those very “old-world skills” and overheads that they thought they would never need.
Regardless of where they begin, retailers need to mould and blend their business models with proficiency across channels. In the evolving environment, any brand or retailer must aim to offer as seamless an experience to the customer as feasible, where the customer never feels disconnected from the brand.
Varying circumstances make customers choose different buying environments. At different times or on different days of the week, even the same person may choose to shop in entirely different ways. Successful retailers that outlast their competitors have used a variety of formats and channels to meet their customers, and will continue to do so.
To my mind, retailers have no choice but to see the retail business as one, even as it is fluid and evolving. A retailer’s only choice is to bend with the customer’s choice.
(Published in the Financial Express under the title “Uniting retail: Why online versus offline debate must end“)
Global quick-service restaurant brands are expanding their footprint in the quickly evolving Indian market. But some are also falling by the wayside.
Here are some perspectives from the industry (ET Now telecast video – about 6 minutes):
It’s curious how James Dyson consistently gets “more” (price) for “less” (components). First it was the bagless vaccum cleaner, now it is a bladeless fan. The retail price is currently pegged at £200, and the product is initially being targeted at the US and Japanese markets, which obviously have more people facing hotter temperatures for more weeks in the year than Dyson’s home country, the UK. Or perhaps a bigger market segment for the latest tech toys that perform well in addition to looking cool.
Branded the Dyson Air Multiplier, it is certainly a fan-tastic idea, and the uphill struggle should be significantly less than when he was trying to sell bagless vacuum cleaners. If anything there is now a “Dyson premium” available to him on the price.
However, in this case, the prices definitely need to be more accessible, or he’ll be facing clones within months. Fans are already a more acceptable reality in income poor countries, and the market significantly larger in those countries. At some lower price point the addressable market will be exponentially larger, and someone else will definitely tackle it. Patent or no patent.
Here’s a Youtube video of Dyson explaining how the fan works. Share your thoughts below, after you’ve watched the video.
According to The Daily Telegraph, Asda has devised a system for customers to “buy fabric conditioner from a vending machine which pumps the liquid from a large vat in the stockroom directly into a pouch”. The project aims to cut packaging costs and help reduce prices for consumers. The scheme is partially funded by the UK government’s anti-landfill agency Wrap.
A lot of debate was generated on retailwire.com (“Do it yourself all over again”). A number of people who were underwhelmed by the whole concept and questioned the value, including labelling the initiative “anecdotal” and “one-off” with “limited appeal”.
I feel somewhat differently. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a step. A plastic-free landscape begins with a refill. I understand the cynicism expressed, but don’t want to give in to it.
Yes, changing habits is difficult. But, hard as it is to believe, there was a time when families didn’t have kilos of daily garbage. Consumer goods companies, retailers, marketers changed that. And they achieved the change through sustained and dedicated effort over a several decades, until waste became the “cheapest” and easiest choice.
I think it’s time to reverse the thrust on that flywheel.
Bernice Hurst, Contributing Editor, RetailWire mentioned the “Let Children Grow” campaign in the UK jointly promoted by The Independent on Sunday newspaper and the highly respected gardening charity, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). Launched in 2007, the RHS Campaign for School Gardening, sponsored by the food and grocery retailer Waitrose, is a nationwide scheme designed to encourage schools to create gardens and teach children the skills of growing plants.
It is described as “an ambitious initiative to encourage the nation’s children to grow their own fruit and vegetables”. The programme targets deprived areas, particularly those with combinations of poor health, low income and levels of aspiration. By working with young people, the idea is to improve their health while teaching them what to eat and where food comes from. RHS research suggests it can “help improve academic achievement, behavior and confidence among pupils”.
According to the Independent on Sunday, most of the children “are learning for the first time about gardening, and with it the enjoyment of fresh air, appreciation of the environment, healthy eating and in turn the prospect of a longer life.”
Bernice Hurst asks, “Can/should retailers encourage and sponsor such education programs to inspire consumer loyalty?”
As far as I can tell, if there is a country in love with its gardens, it is the UK, so this should be a hit with the parents and the teachers.
Pre-teens certainly don’t mind getting dirt under their fingernails, so it should appeal to them as well.
Whether this has any tangible impact on Waitrose’s image and business remains to be seen but, then, some things should simply be done because they are the right thing to do.