Shopping is Dead. Long Live Shopping!

Last week, a delivery truck pulled up in my driveway. As the rear door rolled up, I saw the truck was full of Amazon parcels, including one for me. Between the four of us that live in our house, we have at least one online purchase delivered each week. When compared to the total retail spending we do, perhaps that’s not all that significant, but it’s a heck of a lot more than we used to spend.

We are a microcosm of a much bigger behavioral trend. A recent Mediapost article by Jack Loechner reported that online retail grew by 15.6 percent last year and represents 11.7 percent of total retail sales. An IRI report shows similar trends in consumer packaged goods. In 2015, ecommerce represented just 1.5% of all consumer packaged good sales, but they project that to climb to 10% in 2022. In fueling that increase, Amazon is not only leading the pack, but also dominating it to an awe-inspiring extent. Between 2010 and last year, Amazon’s sales in North America quintupled from $16 billion to $80 billion. Hence all those packages in the back of the afore-mentioned truck.

Now, maybe all this still represents “small potatoes” in the total world of retail, but I think we’re getting close to an inflection point. We are fundamentally changing how we think of shopping, and once we let that demon out of the box (or bubble wrapped envelope) there is no stuffing it back.

In the nascent days of online shopping, way back in 2001, an academic study looked at the experience of shopping online. The authors, Childers, Carr, Peck and Carson, divided the experience into two aspects: hedonic and utilitarian. I’ll deal with both in that order.

First of all, the hedonic side of shopping – the touchy, feely joy of buying stuff. It’s mainly the hedonic aspects that purportedly hold up the shaky foundations of all those bricks and mortar stores. And I wonder – is that a generational thing? People of my generation and older still seem to like a little retail therapy now and again. But for my daughters, the act of physically shopping is generally a pain in the ass. If they can get what they want online, they’ll do so in the click of an OneClick button. They’ll visit a mall only if they have to.

In an article early this year in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson detailed the decimation of traditional retail. Mall visits declined 50 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the real-estate research firm Cushman and Wakefield, and they’ve kept falling every year since. Retailers are declaring bankruptcy at alarming rates. Thompson points the finger at online shopping, but adds a little more context. Maybe the reason bricks and mortar retail is bleeding so badly is that it represents an experience that is no longer appealing. A quote from that article raises an interesting point:

“ ‘What experience will reliably deliver the most popular Instagram post?’—really drive the behavior of people ages 13 and up. This is a big deal for malls, says Barbara Byrne Denham, a senior economist at Reis, a real-estate analytics firm”

Malls were designed to provide an experience – to the point of ludicrous overkill in mega-malls like Canada’s West Edmonton Mall or Minnesota’s Mall of America. But increasingly, those aren’t the experiences we’re looking for. We’re still hedonistic, but our hedonism has developed different tastes. Things like travel and dining out with friends are booming, especially with younger generations. As Denham points out, our social barometers are not determined so much but what we have as by what we’re doing and whom we’re doing it with. Social proof of such things is just one quick post away.

Now let’s deal with the utilitarian aspects of shopping. According to a recent Harris Poll, the three most popular categories for online shopping are:

  1. Clothing and Shoes
  2. Beauty and Personal Care Products
  3. Food Items

Personally, when I look at the things I’ve recently ordered online, they include:

  • A barbecue
  • Storage shelves
  • Water filters for my refrigerator
  • A pair of sports headphones
  • Cycling accessories

I ordered these things online because (respectively):

  • They were heavy and I didn’t want the hassle of dragging them home from the store; and/or,
  • They probably wouldn’t have what I was looking for at any stores in my area.

But even if we look beyond these two very good reasons to buy online, “etail” is just that much easier. It’s generally cheaper, faster and more convenient. We have a long, long tail of things to look for, the advantage of objective reviews to help filter our buying and an average shopping trip duration of just a few minutes – start to finish – as opposed to a few hours or half a day. Finally, we don’t have to contend with assholes in the parking lot.

Online already wins on almost every aspect and the delta of “surprise and delight” is just going to keep getting bigger. Mobile devices untether buying from the desktop, so we can do it any place, any time. Voice commands can save our tender fingertips from unnecessary typing and clicking. Storefronts continue to get better as online retailers run bushels of UX tests to continually tweak the buying journey.

But what’s that you say? “There are just some things that you have to see and touch before you buy?” Perhaps, although I personally remain unconvinced about the need for tactile feedback when shopping. People are buying cars online and if ever there was a candidate for hedonism, it’s an automobile. But let’s say you’re right. I already wrote about how Amazon is changing the bricks and mortar retail game. But Derek Thompson casts his crystal ball gazing even further in the future when he speculates on what autonomous vehicles might do for retail:

“Once autonomous vehicles are cheap, safe, and plentiful, retail and logistics companies could buy up millions, seeing that cars can be stores and streets are the ultimate real estate. In fact, self-driving cars could make shopping space nearly obsolete in some areas.”

Maybe you should buy some shares in Amazon, if you haven’t already. P.S. You can buy them online.

 

The Cathedral and Bazaar Cycle of Mar -Tech Innovation

Each year my friend Scott Brinker sits down to update his marketing technology landscape and each year he is amazed by the explosion of vendors he has to fit on a single slide. Last year’s version clocked in at 3874 Mar Tech solutions – almost twice as many as 2015. He started in 2011 with about 150 and it has effectively doubled with each iteration. While everyone has expected eventual consolidation this hasn’t happened to date.

marketing_technology_landscape_2016_3000px

Scott’s Marketing Technology Landscape – 2016

Why?

For a possible answer, we can look at a fascinating study conducted by a UCLA team looking at the fossil record of cars. Since 1896, there is a reliable record of the introduction of new automobile makes and models. In essence, this creates a “fossil” record, similar to biology, where we can look at the evolution of a technology over an extended time period. In this case, the researchers were looking to isolate the factors that led to the greatest introduction of new models and the discontinuation of old models. When many new models were being introduced, the evolution of the automotive technology accelerated. The researchers wanted to see if this pace of evolution was tied to strength of the economy, changes in oil prices or the number of other cards on the market. What they found was that competition in the marketplace played a bigger role in the variety of car models than either economic growth or oil prices.

However, these periods of rapid innovation didn’t last forever. Inevitably, there was a period of consolidation, where the major manufacturers focused on a few models to increase profitability. It’s a lot more profitable to produce a popular model with relatively few changes over a long period of time.

Once again, we have an oscillation or wave happening.

What is interesting about this is that these periods of rapid innovation always come from an open market with many competitors – exactly what is happening in marketing technology right now. That is because open markets always drive more innovation than can be achieved within hierarchal organizations. As Eric Raymond showed in his brilliant essay on the open source movement – The Cathedral and the Bazaar – the evolutionary forces of a distributed open market (or “Bazaar”) always trump vertical integration (“Cathedrals”) when it comes to spinning off fresh ideas.

In their book “Creative Destruction,” authors Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan show that organizations (cathedrals) tend to favor incremental innovation with occasional forays into substantial innovation. But markets (bazaars) unleash transformational innovation. The unpredictability and risk increases by a factor of ten as you go from one version of innovation to the other, but so do the rewards. Innovation in markets grow on a logarithmic scale. It’s why some players – like Tesla and Google – have espoused the open-source “Bazaar” approach in areas like sustainable transportation and artificial intelligence where rapid innovation is essential.

There is another critical factor at play here as well. The market/bazaar, being ruthless, quickly culls the competitors down to those that have the best market potential. This explosion of innovation and the subsequent winnowing need a brutally competitive market environment – a rugged landscape in evolutionary terms. Organizations/Cathedrals are reluctant to pull the plug on losers as they fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion. Markets/bazaars operate like nature – “red in tooth and claw” – with a brutal efficiency in dispatching the less fit.

After this explosion of innovation and the subsequent purge, there is a period of consolidation where the biggest players benefit. Let’s call this the Cathedral phase. Here, operational efficiency takes over, looking for greater profitability. Here, market tested innovation is acquired by the largest organizations and systematically incorporated into a replicable template that allows for scalability. Here, the Cathedral model does what it excels at, maximizing profits. Of course, there is a trade off. Innovation withers and dies in this environment, leading to eventual stagnation, which triggers the need for break out innovation all over again.

Will marketing technology follow the Cathedral/Bazaar pattern? In his last landscape, Scott mentioned that rather than coalescing around an “a small oligopoly of platform providers competing for that starring role” the Mar-Tech ecosystem seems to be embedding plug and play compatibility allowing for a longer “Bazaar” phase. Perhaps, with the elimination of market friction, we’re getting to a point where profitability can be uncoupled from the need for scale. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how many mar-tech vendors end up on the 2017 version of Scott’s slide.

 

 

 

 

The Rise of the Audience Marketplace

Far be it from me to let a theme go before it has been thoroughly beaten to the ground. This column has hosted a lot of speculation on the future of advertising and media buying and today, I’ll continue in that theme.

First, let’s return to a column I wrote almost a month ago about the future of advertising. This was a spin-off on a column penned by Gary Milner – The End of Advertising as We Know It. In it, Gary made a prediction: “I see the rise of a global media hub, like a stock exchange, which will become responsible for transacting all digital programmatic buys.”

Gary talked about the possible reversal of fragmentation of markets by channel and geographic area due to the potential centralization of digital media purchasing. But I see it a little differently than Gary. I don’t see the creation of a media hub – or, at least – that wouldn’t be the end goal. Media would simply be the means to the end. I do see the creation of an audience market based on available data. Actually, even an audience would only be the means to an end. Ultimately, we’re buying one thing – attention. Then it’s our job to create engagement.

The Advertising Research Foundation has been struggling with measuring engagement for a long time now. But it’s because they were trying to measure engagement on a channel-by-channel basis and that’s just not how the world works anymore. Take search, for example. Search is highly effective at advertising, but it’s not engaging. It’s a connecting medium. It enables engagement, but it doesn’t deliver it.

We talk multi-channel a lot, but we talk about it like the holy grail. The grail in this cause is an audience that is likely to give us their attention and once they do that – is likely to become engaged with our message. The multi-channel path to this audience is really inconsequential. We only talk about multi-channel now because we’re stopping short of the real goal, connecting with that audience. What advertising needs to do is give us accurate indicators of those two likelihoods: how likely are they to give us their attention and what is their potential proclivity towards our offer. The future of advertising is in assembling audiences – no matter what the channel – that are at a point where they are interested in the message we have to deliver.

This is where the digitization of media becomes interesting. It’s not because it’s aggregating into a single potential buying point – it’s because it’s allowing us to parallel a single prospect along a path of persuasion, getting important feedback data along the way. In this definition, audience isn’t a static snapshot in time. It becomes an evolving, iterative entity. We have always looked at advertising on an exposure-by-exposure basis. But if we start thinking about persuading an audience that paradigm needs to be shifted. We have to think about having the right conversation, regardless of the channel that happens to be in use at the time.

Our concept of media happens to carry a lot of baggage. In our minds, media is inextricably linked to channel. So when we think media, we are really thinking channels. And, if we believe Marshall McLuhan, the medium dictates the message. But while media has undergone intense fragmentation they’ve also become much more measurable and – thereby – more accountable. We know more than ever about who lies on the other side of a digital medium thanks to an ever increasing amount of shared data. That data is what will drive the advertising marketplace of the future. It’s not about media – it’s about audience.

In the market I envision, you would specify your audience requirements. The criteria used would not be so much our typical segmentations – demography or geography for example. These have always just been proxies for what we really care about; their beliefs about our product and predicted buying behaviors. I believe that thanks to ever increasing amounts of data we’re going to make great strides in understanding the psychology of consumerism. These  will be foundational in the audience marketplace of the future. Predictive marketing will become more and more accurate and allow for increasingly precise targeting on a number of behavioral criteria.

Individual channels will become as irrelevant as the manufacturer that supplies the shock absorbers and tie rods in your new BMW. They will simply be grist for the mill in the audience marketplace. Mar-tech and ever smarter algorithms will do the channel selection and media buying in the background. All you’ll care about is the audience you’re targeting, the recommended creative (again, based on the mar-tech running in the background) and the resulting behaviors. Once your audience has been targeted and engaged, the predicted path of persuasion is continually updated and new channels are engaged as required. You won’t care what channels they are – you’ll simply monitor the progression of persuasion.

 

Is Amazon Creating a Personalized Store?

There was a brief Amazon-related flurry of speculation last week. Apparently, according to a podcast posted by Wharton, Amazon is planning on opening 300 to 400 bricks and mortar stores.

That’s right. Stores – actual buildings – with stuff in them.

What’s more, this has been “on the books” at Amazon for a while. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was asked by Charlie Rose in 2012 if they would every open physical stores. Bezos replied, ““We would love to, but only if we can have a truly differentiated idea,” he said. “We want to do something that is uniquely Amazon. We haven’t found it yet, but if we can find that idea … we would love to open physical stores.”

With that background, the speculation makes sense. If Amazon is pulling the trigger, they must have “found the idea.” So what might that idea be?

Amazon does have a test store in their own backyard of Seattle. What they have chosen to do there, in a footprint about the tenth of the size of the former Barnes and Noble store that was there, is present a “highly curated” store that caters to “local interests.”

Most of the speculation about the new Amazon experiment in “back-to-the-future” retail centers around potential new supply chain management technology or payment methods. But there was one quote from Amanda Nicholson, professor of retail practice at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, that caught my attention; “she said that space represents ‘a test’ to see if Amazon can create ‘a new kind of experience’ using data analytics about customers’ preferences.”

This becomes interesting if we spend some time thinking about the purchase journey we typically take. What Amazon had done online brilliantly is remove friction from two steps in that journey: filtering options and conducting the actual transaction. For certain kinds of purchases, this is all we need. If we’re buying a product that doesn’t rely on tactile feedback, like a digital file or a book, Amazon has connected all the dots required to take us from awareness to purchase.

But that certainly doesn’t represent all potential purchases. That could be the reason that online purchases only represent 9% of all retail. There are many products that require an “experience” between the filtering of options available to us and the actual purchase. These things still require the human “touch” – literally. Up to now, Amazon has remained emotionally distant from these types of purchases. But perhaps a new type of retail location could change that.

Let me give you an example. If you’re a cyclist (like me) you probably have a favorite bike shop. Bike stores are not simply retail outlets. They are temples of bike worship. Bike shops are usually an independent business run by people who love to talk about their favorite rides, the latest bikes or pretty much anything to do with cycling. Going to a bike store is an experience.

But Trek, one of the largest bike manufacturers in the world, also recognized the efficiency of the online model. In 2015, they announced the introduction of Trek Connect, their attempt to find a happy middle ground between practical efficiency and emotional experience. Through Trek Connect, you can configure and order your bike online, but pick it up and have it serviced at your local bike shop.

However, what Amazon may be proposing is not simply about the tactile requirements of certain types of purchases. What if Amazon could create a personalized real world shopping experience?

Right now, there is a gap between our online research and filtering activity and our real world experiential activity. Typically, we shortlist our candidates, gather required information, often in the form of a page printed off from a website, and head down to the nearest retail location. There, the hand off typically leaves a lot to be desired. We have to navigate a store layout that was certainly not designed with our immediate needs in mind. We have to explain what we want to a floor clerk who seems to have at least a thousand other things they’d rather be doing. And we are not guaranteed that what we’re looking for will even be in stock.

But what if Amazon could make the transition seamless? What if they could pick up all the signals from our online activity and create a physical “experiential bubble” for us when we visited the nearest Amazon retail outlet?

Let me go back to my bike purchasing analogy in way of an example. Let’s say I need a new bike because I’m taking up triathlons. Amazon knows this because my online activity has flagged me as an aspiring triathlete. They know where I live and they have a rich data set on my other interests, which includes my favored travel destinations. Amazon could take this data and, under the pretext of my picking up my bike, create a personalized in store experience for me, including a rich selection of potential add-on sales. With Amazon’s inventory and fulfillment prowess, it would be possible to merchandise a store especially for me.

I have no idea if this is what Amazon has “in store” for the future, but the possibility is tantalizing.

It may even make me like shopping.

 

 

 

Technology is Moving Us Closer to a Perfect Market

I have two very different travel profiles. When I travel on business, I usually stick with the big chains, like Hilton or Starwood. The experience is less important to me than predictability. I’m not there for pleasure; I’m there to sleep. And, because I travel on business a lot (or used to), I have status with them. If something goes wrong, I can wave my Platinum or Diamond guest card around and act like a jerk until it gets fixed.

But, if I’m traveling for pleasure, I almost never stay in a chain hotel. In fact, more and more, I stay in a vacation rental house or apartment. It’s a little less predictable than your average Sheraton or Hampton Inn, but it’s almost always a better value. For example, if I were planning a last minute get away to San Francisco for Labor Day weekend, I’d be shelling out just under $400 for a fairly average hotel room at the Hilton by Union Square. But for about the same price, I could get an entire 4 bedroom house that sleeps 8 just two blocks from Golden Gate park. And that was with just a quick search on AirBnB.com. I could probably find a better deal with the investment of a few minutes of my time.

perfect_market_1Travel is just one of the markets that technology has made more perfect. And when I say “perfect” I use the term in its economic sense. A perfect market has perfect competition, which means that the barriers of entry have been lowered and most of the transactional costs have been eliminated. The increased competition lowers prices to a sustainable minimum. At that point, the market enters a state called the Pareto Optimal, which means that nothing can be changed without it negatively impacting some market participants and positively impacting others.

Whether a perfect market is a good thing or not depends on your perspective. If you’re a long-term participant in the market and your goal is to make the biggest profit possible, a perfect market is the last thing you want. If you’re a new entrant to the market, it’s a much rosier story – any shifts that take the market closer to a Pareto Optimal will probably be to your benefit. And if you’re a customer, you’re in the best position of all. Perfect markets lead inevitably to better value.

Since the advent of VRBO.com and, more recently, AirBnB.com, the travel marketplace has moved noticeably closer to being perfect. Sites like these, along with travel review aggregators like TripAdvisor.com, have significantly reduced the transaction costs of the travel industry. The first wave was the reduction of search costs. Property owners were able to publish listings in a directory that made it easy to search and filter options. Then, the publishing of reviews gave us the confidence we needed to stray beyond the predictably safe territory of the big chains.

But, more recently, a second wave has further reduced transaction costs independent vacation property owners. I was recently talking to a cousin who rents his flat in Dublin through AirBnB, which takes all the headaches of vacation property management away in return for a cut of the action. He was up and running almost immediately and has had no problem renting his flat during the weeks he makes it available. He found the barriers to entry to be essentially zero. A cottage industry of property managers and key exchange services has sprung up around the AirBnB model.

What technology has done to the travel industry is essentially turned it into a Long Tail business model. As Chris Anderson pointed out in his book, Long Tail markets need scale free networks. Scale free networks only work when transaction costs are eliminated and entry into the market is free of friction. When this happen, the Power Law distribution still stays in place but the tail becomes longer . The Long Tail of Tourism now includes millions of individually owned vacation properties. For example, AirBnB has almost 800 rentals available in Dublin alone. According to Booking.com, that’s about 7 times the total number of hotels in the city.

Another thing that happens is, over time, the Tail becomes fatter. More business moves from the head to the tail. The Pareto Principle states that in Power Law distributions, 20 % of the businesses get 80% of the business. Online, the ratio is closer to 72/28.

These shifts in the market are more than just interesting discussion topics for economists. They mark a fundamental change in the rules of the game. Markets that are moving towards perfection remove the advantages of size and incumbency and reward nimbleness and adaptability. They also, at least in this instance, make life more interesting for customers.

Disintermediation of a New, More Connected World

First published November 1, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

On Monday, one of the byproducts of disintermediation hit me with the force of, well — a hurricane, to be exact. We are more connected globally than ever before.

This Monday and Tuesday, three different online services I use went down because of Sandy. They all had data centers on the East Coast.

Disintermediation means centralization, which means that we will have more contact with people and businesses that spread across the globe.

The laptop I’m writing this column on (a MacBook Pro) was recently ordered from Apple. I was somewhat amazed to see the journey it took on its way to me. It left a factory in China, spent a day in Shanghai, then passed through Osaka, Japan on its way to Anchorage, Ala. From there it was on to Louisville, Ky. (ironically, the flight path probably went right over my house), then back to Seattle, Vancouver and then to my front door. If my laptop were a car, I would have refused delivery – it already had a full year’s worth of miles on it before I even got to use it.

A disintermediated world means a more globally reliant world. We depend on assembly factories in Taiyuan (China), chip factories in Yamaguchi (Japan), call centers in Pune (India), R&D labs in Hagenberg (Austria), industrial designers in Canberra (Australia) and yes, data centers in lower Manhattan. When workers brawl, tsunamis hit, labor strikes occur and tropical storms blow ashore, even though we’re thousands of miles away, we feel the impact. We no longer just rely on our neighbors, because the world is now our neighborhood.

This adds a few new wrinkles to the impacts of disintermediation, both positive and negative.

On the negative side, as we saw forcefully demonstrated this week, is the realization that our connected markets are more fragile than ever. As production becomes concentrated due to various global advantages, it is more vulnerable to single-point failures. One missing link and entire networks of co-dependent businesses go down. This lack of redundancy will probably be corrected in time, but for now, it’s what we have to live with.

But, on the positive side, our new connectedness also means we have to have interest in the well being of people that would have been out of our scope of consciousness just a mere decade ago. We care about the plight of the average worker at Foxconn, if for no other reason than it will delay the shipment of our new Mac. I exaggerate here (I hope we’re not that blasé about human rights in China) to make a point: when we have a personal stake in something, we care more. When you depend on someone for something important to you, you tend to treat them with more consideration. Thomas Friedman, in his book “The World is Flat,” called it the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention:

“The Dell Theory stipulates: No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.”

To all of you who weathered the storm, just know that you’re not alone in this. We depend on you – so, in turn, feel free to depend on us.

The Balancing of Market Information

First published October 25, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In my three previous columns on disintermediation, I made a rather large assumption: that the market will continue to see a balancing of information available both to buyers and sellers. As this information becomes more available, the need for the “middle” will decrease.

Information Asymmetry Defined

Let’s begin by exploring the concept of information asymmetry, courtesy of George Akerlof, Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz.  In markets where access to information is unbalanced, bad things can happen.

If the buyer has more information than the seller, then we can have something called adverse selection. Take life and health insurance, for example. Smokers (on the average) get sick more often and die younger than non-smokers. If an insurance company has 50% of policyholders who are smokers, and 50% who aren’t, but the company is not allowed to know which is which, it has a problem with adverse selection. It will lose money on the smokers so it will increase rates across the board. The problem is that non-smokers, who don’t use insurance as much, will get angry and may cancel their policy. This will mean the “book of business” will become even less profitable, driving rates even higher.   The solution, which we all know, is simple: Ask policy applicants if they smoke. Imperfect information is thus balanced out.

If the seller has more information than the buyer, then we have a “market for lemons” (the name of Akerlof’s paper). Here,  buyers are  assuming risk in a purchase without knowingly accepting that risk, because they’re unaware of the problems that the seller knows exists. Think about buying a used car, without the benefit of an inspection, past maintenance records or any type of independent certification. All you know is what you can see by looking at the car on the lot. The seller, on the other hand, knows the exact mechanical condition of the car. This factor tends to drive down the prices of all products –even the good ones — in the market, because buyers assume quality will be suspect. The balancing of information in this case helps eliminates the lemons and has the long-term effect of improving the average quality of all products on the market.

Getting to Know You…

These two forces — the need for sellers to know more about their buyers, and the need for buyers to know more about what they’re buying — are driving a tremendous amount of information-gathering and dissemination. On the seller’s side, behavioral tracking and customer screening are giving companies an intimate glimpse into our personal lives. On the buyer’s side, access to consumer reviews, third-party evaluations and buyer forums are helping us steer clear of lemons. Both are being facilitated through technology.

But how does disintermediation impact information asymmetry, or vice versa?

If we didn’t have adequate information, we needed some other safeguard against being taken advantage of. So, failing a rational answer to this particular market dilemma, we found an irrational one: We relied on gut instinct.

Relying on Relationships

If we had to place our trust in someone, it had to be someone we could look in the eye during the transaction. The middle was composed of individuals who acted as the face of the market. Because they lived in the same communities as their customers, went to the same churches, and had kids that went to the same schools, they had to respect their markets. If they didn’t, they’d be run out of town. Often, their loyalties were also in the middle, balanced somewhere between their suppliers and their customers.

In the absence of perfect information, we relied on relationships. Now, as information improves, we still want relationships, because that’s what we’ve come to expect. We want the best of both worlds.

Will Customer Service Disappear with the Elimination of the “Middle”?

First published October 18, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In response to my original column on disintermediation, Joel Snyder worried about the impact on customer service: The worst casualty is relationships and people skills. As consumers circumvent middlemen, they become harder to deal with. As merchants become more automated, customer service people have less power and less skills (and lower pay).

Cece Forrester agreed: Disintermediation doesn’t just let consumers be rude. It also lets organizations treat their customers rudely.

So, is rudeness an inevitable byproduct of disintermediation?

Rediscovering the Balance between Personalization and Automation

Technology introduces efficiency. It streamlines the “noise” and marketplace friction that comes with human interactions. But with that “noise” comes all the warm and fuzzy aspects of being human. It’s what both Joel and Cece fear may be lost with disintermediation. I, however, have a different view.

Shifts in human behavior don’t typically happen incrementally, settling gently into the new norm. They swing like a pendulum, going too far one way, then the other, before stability is reached. Some force — in this case, new technological capabilities — triggers the change. As society moves, the force, plus momentum, moves too far in one direction, which triggers an opposing force which pushes back against the trend. Eventually, balance is reached.

A Redefinition of Relationships

In this case, the opposing force will be our need for those human factors. Disintermediation won’t kill relationships. But it will force a redefinition of relationships. The challenge here is that existing market relationships were all tied to the “Middle,” which served as the bridge between producers and consumers. Because the Middle owned the end connection with the customer, it formed the relationships that currently exist. Now, as anyone who has experienced bad customer service will tell you, some who lived in the Middle were much better at relationships than others. Joel and Cece may be guilty of looking at our current paradigm through rose-colored glasses. I have encountered plenty of rudeness even with the Middle firmly in place.

But it’s also true that producers, who suddenly find themselves directly connected with their markets, have little experience in forming and maintaining these relationships. However, the market will eventually dictate new expectations for customer service, and producers will have to meet those expectations. One disintermediator, Zappos, figured that out very early in the game.

Ironically, disintermediation will ultimately be good for relationships. Feedback loops are being shortened. Technology is improving our ability to know exactly what our customers think about us. We’re actually returning to a much more intimate marketplace, enabled through technology. Producers are quickly educating themselves on how to create and maintain good virtual relationships. They can’t eliminate customer service, because we, the market, won’t let them. It will take a bit for us to find the new normal, but I venture to say that wherever we find it, we’ll end up in a better place than we are today.

The Good Side of Disintermediation

First published October 11, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

You know you’ve found a good topic for a column when half the comments are in support of whichever side of the topic you’ve lined up on, and half are against it. Such was the case last week when I wrote about disintermediation.

This week, I promised to present the positives of disintermediation. I’ll do so at the macro level, because there are market forces at work that will drive massive change at every level. But there were also some very interesting questions raised last week by readers:

  • Is disintermediation killing relationships and our ability to deal with people?
  • Are the benefits of disintermediation tied to social status, driving the haves and the have-nots even further apart?
  • Is more information good for the market, or does it just create more noise for us to wade through?
  • What will the social cost of disintermediation be?
  • What are the global implications of disintermediation?
  • In knowledge-based professional markets where experience and expertise are essential (i.e. health care) what role does disintermediation play?
  • Are we just replacing one type of “middle” with another (for example, online travel agencies for traditional travel agencies)?

Each of these questions is worthy of a column itself, so I’ll file those away for future writing over the next few weeks. But today, let’s focus on the silver lining inside the disintermediation cloud.

I’ve written about Kondratieff waves (also K waves) before. In the world of the macro-economist (who are of mixed opinion about the validity of the theory), these are massive waves of disruption (often driven by technological advances) that first deconstruct the marketplace and then rebuild it based on the new (improved?) paradigm.

The Industrial Revolution was one such wave. What that did was create a new marketplace built on scale. Bigger was better. It introduced mass manufacturing, mass markets and mass advertising. It also created the “middle,” which was an essential part of getting goods to the market. Given the scale of the new markets, it was essential to create a huge support infrastructure. Most of the wealth of the 20th century was built on the back of this particular K wave.

One of the characteristics of a K wave is that the positive benefits outweigh the negatives. After the period of destruction as the old market is torn apart, the new market scales to new heights. Technology fuels increased capabilities and opportunities. The world lurches ahead to a new possibility. We were better off (arguably) by most metrics after the Industrial Revolution than before it. We were more productive, had a higher standard of living and could do things we couldn’t do before.

Today, we’re in the middle of another K Wave disruption, and I believe this one is going to dwarf the impact of the Industrial Revolution. Of course, K waves by their nature are long-term phenomena whose impacts take decades to roll their way through society.

This particular K Wave is reversing many of the market dynamics established by the previous “Bigger is Better” one. We’ve begun to deconstruct the gargantuan support system required to service mass markets. Inevitably, there will be pain, and last week’s commentators zeroed in on many of those pain points. But there will also be growth. And the bigger the wave, the bigger the growth. In this case, the same factors I talked about last week – democratization of information, better user experiences, solving the distance problem – are all being driven by technology. As this wave continues, the market will become more efficient. Information asymmetry will be lessened (if not eliminated) and the superstructure of the “middle” will become unnecessary.

A more efficient marketplace means new opportunities. More businesses will start and grow. Previously unimagined sectors of a new economy will emerge. This new economy will be global in scope, but hyperlocal in nature. Pure ingenuity will have a chance to flourish, freed from the constraints of the need for scalability. Once we get through the stumbles inevitable in the transition period, the economy will ramp up for another bull run. But we have to get there first.

The Disintermediation of Everything

First published October 3, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Up until five years ago, I had never used the word disintermediation. In fact, if it would have come up in casual conversation, I would have had to pick my way through its bushel of syllables to figure out exactly what it meant.

Today, I am acutely aware of the meaning. I use the word a lot. I would put it up there as one of the three or four most important trends to watch, right up there with the Database of Intentions, which I talked about last week. The truth is, if you’re a middleman and you’re not dead already, you’re living on borrowed time.

Why is the Middle suddenly such a bad place to be? A lot of people have made a lot of money in the Middle for hundreds of years. The Middle makes up a huge part of our economy, including a lot of middle-class jobs. Systematically eliminating it is going to cause a ton of grief. But the process has started, and there’s no turning back now.

Three big shifts are driving disintermediation:

The Democratization of Information

The Middle exists in part because we didn’t have access to what, in game theory, is called perfect information. Either we didn’t have access to information at all, or the information we had was not reliable or useful to us. So, in order to function in the marketplace, we needed a bridge to what information did exist.

Think of travel agents (which for the majority of us, is someone we probably haven’t spoken to for a few years). Travel agents were essential because we were walled off from the information we needed to arrange our own travel. We had no access to the latest airfares, hotel availability or room rates. If you had asked me what was the best hotel in Istanbul, I would have had no clue. We used travel agents because we had no choice.

Today, we do. The travel industry was one of the pioneers in democratizing information. The result? The travel marketplace is infinitely more efficient than it was even a decade ago. The average person can now put together a six-week multi-stop vacation relatively easily.  The middle is being eliminated. In 1998, there were 32,000 travel agencies in the US. Today, through elimination and consolidation, that number is closer to 10,000. Disintermediation has cost thousands of travel agents their jobs.

The Improvement of User Interfaces

When’s the last time you spoke to a bank teller? If you’re like me, it’s probably the last time you had to do something that couldn’t either be done through online banking or at a local ATM.  99% of our banking can now be done quicker and easier because banks have invested in creating platforms and interfaces that enable us to do it ourselves.  It’s better for us as customers, and it’s much more profitable for the banks. Disintermediation in banking has created a more efficient model. Ironically, unlike travel agents, bank tellers have not lost their jobs. They’ve just changed what they do.

The Overcoming of Geography

The final factor is the problem of distance. When mass manufacturing became possible, the distance between the factory and the market started to grow. Suddenly, distribution became a major challenge. Supply chains were born, making a lot of people very rich in the process. Becoming big became essential to overcoming the problem of distance.

But technology has made physical fulfillment much more efficient. Getting a product from the factory floor to your front door is still a challenge, but our ability to move stuff is so much better than it was even a few decades ago. The result? Massive disintermediation. And this particular trend is just beginning.

So What?

Much of what we’re familiar with today is part of the Middle. Just like travel agents, video stores and bank tellers, every year something we have always taken for granted will suddenly disappear. Huge swaths of the economy will be disruptively eliminated. That’s the bad news. The good news will have to wait till next week’s column.