Is The Store Associate a Dead Job?

For a very long time the store associate has been at the heart of brick and mortar stores. Store associates would greet customers, respond to queries, help find products and generally help customers with their purchases.

However, the emergence of digital tools and especially smartphones has rendered store associates almost obsolete.

In a recent study by MillwardBrown that focused on customers purchasing athletic footwear we can see just how useful a store associate is these days.

Of those that chose to shop in store, only 12% listed the sales person as one of the reason to purchase offline. Most (88%) chose to try on the product before purchasing.

It’s not just sports shoes. A study by Deloitte Digital shows that customers would rather receive help from an interactive kiosk or their own smartphone rather than a store associate.

As you can see above the willingness to use a smartphone rather than discuss with a sales associate is almost double. Even an impersonal unmanned device such as an interactive kiosk would fare better than a store associate.

So if you were to combine this data with the fact that most of the sales in global retail will be influenced by digital by 2017 the conclusion is simple. The store associate is a soon to be dead job. If you were planning a career in this area, you’d better jump ship.

Digital Influence in Omnichannel Retail

Is Brick and Mortar commerce dead? Absolutely not. Is eCommerce the most important sales channel in the future? Irrelevant. Neither online or offline sales really matter in the big picture. What matters is how customers shop and how much has digital changed the way retailers do business.

recent Deloitte study outlines just how much digital is impacting retail.

Over 36% of 2013 overall sales in US have been influenced by digital and the trend continues to grow. By 2017 over 80% of all retail sales will be influenced by digital.

In terms of cash that places the digital influence in the real of trillions of dollars. In US alone, where the study was performed, that meant $1.1 trillion in sales were influenced by digital. If we were to extend this figure to the global retail sales in 2017 as estimated by eMarketer that amounts to a whoopping … wait for it …

$20 trillion in sales. That’s the amount in sales that may be influenced by digital in 2017.

However debatable this figure may be, the digital influence is something that is truly amazing and outright revolutionary.

But that’s not all. Don’t think digital influence means ecommerce. Definitely not. Two facts stand out in the Deloitte study:

1. The increase in digital influence has been triggered by smartphones

Smartphones are the main cause in the increased digital influence. Mobile phones now account for $593 billion in sales (19% of the 36% of all sales influenced by digital).

What’s even more interesting is that users are not more mobile-savvy. Only 25% of the increase in smartphone usage is caused by an increase in comfort and sophistication in smartphone usage. 75% of the increase in smartphone usage is due to an increased adoption.

Long story short: there are more smartphones, not smarter users.

2. Brick and mortar shopping is definitely not dying. Unless it has to.

94% of all retail sales still happen in the confines of a physical store. Wait, what?

It seems that what’s causing retailers problems is failure to engage customers on all channels. Customers are pre-buying (shopping) on ecommerce sites but they pick-up, try on and eventually buy a lot of things in the physical store.

The trick here is getting the big picture right. Use different customer journey points and engage digitally in a relevant way. Customers may shop online and get an assortment ready but they want to get to that assortment in the physical store and than buy. Just placing discounts in the mobile app doesn’t work. Each part in the shopping experience has to be customized to that particular medium and need.

In conclusion: digital is not ecommerce and digital influence is definitely not limited to the online store. Those who fail to connect the dots and engage their customers on all channels will not be a part of tomorrow’s retail.

The Anatomy of Pick Up Lockers

As online and offline commerce are getting closer to each other and customers schedules are getting more and more crowded, pick up lockers seem to become more useful and popular.

They are versatile, easy to use and something customers need from omnichannel retailers. So let’s dig in and see how they work and who should use them.

What is a Pick Up Locker?

First off – what is a pick up locker? Simply put it is an area of lockers where retailers can drop off merchandise and customers can pick it up. Amazon has been a pioneer in this field, with Amazon Lockers opening up the gates to a new type of fulfillment.

The pick up lockers work by assigning a specific location to packages and sending pick up codes to customers. The customers can than go to their designated pick up location, enter the security code and grab their packages.

After Amazon has built their first experimental pick up lockers, others soon followed.

Some of those that developed their own systems of pick up (and ship) lockers are 3PL companies. For example FedEx and UPS have developed quite advanced pick up and drop off locations. UPS has named theirs “Access Points” and they’re building a network able to sustain growing demand.

FedEx has developed a network of “Ship&Get Self Service Lockers“. With their lockers one can drop off items for shipment or receive packages.

Both are growing really fast and soon others will follow suit. Even startups have ventured in this area with some highlights being Swapbox, an Y Combinator startup and Bufferbox, a company that was recently acquired by Google.

So yes, they are popular but how do they work, especially from a retailer point of view?

How could large retailers implement pick up locker systems?

One very specific use case for the pick-up locker system would be large retail chains. For example Walmart announced last year their Grab & Go lockers following their Site to Store Self Service Lockers experiment.

Apart from the internal fulfillment challenges, retailers need to focus on some key aspects regarding the development and implementation of such pick up locker systems:

1. Security

For obvious reasons there needs to be a secure access to shipped goods. To do so each drop off will have to issue a security code that can be decrypted and accessed with the private code the customer will receive.

The systems will also have to have fall-back security systems such as video surveillance and locking systems in case of hacking attempts (there will be some).

Security code should work online but also have a fall-back local solution that can work in case internet connection is off.

2. Logistics

The pick-up locker system works with other fulfillment operations and will have to input status data directly into TMS (transport management systems) so shipping personnel could be directed to the correct pick up locker area and the specific pick up locker.

As packages differ in size, specific information regarding the type of lockers that are available should be available in real time so packages are stored correctly.

3. Communication

So far most pick up lockers use alphanumeric codes to help users get accustomed to picking up their packages without any hassle. But these codes pose threats in terms of security. While these codes can always be an option and can be easily sent to any device, with smartphones and smartphone apps on the rise, some other solutions may work even better.

One such option would be QR codes embedded in the retailer’s mobile application. The codes can be generated on the fly based on a secured algorithm that neither exposes the code and can also work within the application the customer already uses, thus improving loyalty.

4. Connectivity

With so many developing their own pick-up locker systems, a connectivity protocol should become the norm. With such a protocol FedEx could ship to either Amazon, Walmart or even UPS lockers for example, improving cross-retailer experience and creating economies of scale.

That being said, the development of pick-up locker systems is obviously a bit more complex than these few paragraphs but I wanted to give you a starting point and explore some of the challenges.

Top 8 Online Beauty Shops and the Strategies They Use

The Beauty and Cosmetics category is one of the fastest moving digital commerce areas. It is a highly competitive and innovative market with large brands quickly adopting digital models and challengers innovating their way to the top.

The emergence of the ecommerce sales channel for beauty brands has seen a long wait. The time has come for beauty retailers to align with the customer’s demand and specific requests. For example, a recent AT Kearney study showed 28 percent of online shoppers use the digital media to get informed on products. They carry this information in stores where they are sometimes more knowledgeable than the store assistants, which may pose a real challenge for beauty brands.

The AT Kearney study shows that only 16% of all online shoppers are online enthusiasts. The rest either use the digital media for information or for shopping for products they are already familiar with:

Beauty shoppers split

Online shoppers are more inclined to shop for particular products, such as skin, personal and hair care. Products such as beauty tools and nail care are less likely to be purchased online, unless is a very specific product, one the customer is already familiar with:

In this post we’ll get a glimpse of the eight most important type of beauty brands that engage their users through digital commerce (also). We’ll have a look at a selection of global champions with different backgrounds and different models. From digital pure-plays to established brick and mortar brands, let’s have a look at some of the most interesting approaches to beauty and cosmetics digital retailing:

1. Amazon Beauty

As expected, Amazon leads the way when it comes to online beauty retailing also. Customers are delighted to almost 2 million products, including luxury brands.

Its Beauty category is the go-to place for most of online enthusiastic shoppers, where Amazon is available. And with Amazon’s shipment policies, that’s basically everywhere.

Amazon’s secret weapon lies in its free-shipping policy (for orders above 25$), a great motivator for online shoppers and a better threshold than challengers Sephora and Beauty.com.

Another great asset Amazon will use to gather shoppers around its beauty retailing section is the fact that more customers use Amazon (30%) than Google when doing online product research.

2. Sephora.com

Sephora is generally seen as the actual leader in the digital beauty commerce. Though it lacks Amazon’s ecommerce strength, the company is part of the largest luxury high quality goods (ahem…ahem) group, LVMH, packing a lot of beauty retailing know-how.

The company has developed a great omnichannel model that focuses on mobile as a bridge between online and offline.

One of the best things Sephora.com has implemented in its web store is the content marketing and digital assistance features. I’ve previously covered the subject and praised Sephora’s efforts to offer quality content, as praised are due.

The curated content customers find is a great choice to build loyalty. So is the Community where customers can browse among the knowledge base or post questions and interact with professionals.

As mentioned, one of the greatest assets Sephora has is its focus on digital rich content. Users are treated to:

  1. Sephora TV, the go-to area for video advice, how-to’s and trends
  2. Sephora Glossy – a fashion, beauty and style blog that offers great advice from beauty professionals in a great, visual format.
  3. The Beauty Board – an user generated gallery from customers that upload pictures to showcase how and which products they use.

Some other touches make Sephora a great choice for beauty products customers, not the least of which are the three free samples with each order (a great way to drive future orders) and the mobile apps that make us of barcode scanning to offer price info and customer reviews.

3. Beauty.com

Beauty.com is an online retailer so it has no apparent need or intention to leverage offline or omnichannel sales. It has developed specific filters and features to cater to customers that either know what they want and want the best price or they can quickly decide.

The auto-reorder option seems to be a great first step to a subscription program.

Customers can set an auto-reorder flag for certain products, which can be shipped each 30, 60 or 90 days. Before the order is shipped, customers receive an email notifying them and they can pause, skip or cancel the auto-orders. The customer incentives are savings and free shipping.One of the features that really stands out (they have a pop-up to insure it stands out) is “Auto reorder and save” option. Simply put, the online retailer has noticed the habitual purchase beauty customers take and leveraged it.

Another great feature that lets customers reach the right product is the filtering option which is set not only for product features but also customer concerns and specific needs. In the Make-up section, the eye category, one can find brand and ingredients options, but also filters such as concerns (acne, dryness or oiliness), benefits (curling, hold or smooth) and skin type. Unfortunately, the filters are not usable on the smartphone version of the web store.

Just like its direct online competitor (Sephora.com), Beauty.com offers free samples, free shipping for orders $35 and above, free returns and 5% back through its loyalty program. It also features great content areas, such as its Beauty Blog, with Romy Soleimani, The Latest Trends section reviewing product news and a Beauty Videos section, ranked according to customer reviews. A great no-no on the video section is the fact that videos embedding is restricted to affiliates only, leaving a lot of marketing potential untapped.

Download the rest of the report below:

What is Omnichannel Retail? Past, present and future.

I’ve put together a slideshare presentation regarding omnichannel retail. It focuses on the events that lead to the adoption of omnichannel, the challenges and several ideas that will help you understand the concept.

Demand Sensing is a $1.1 Trillion Opportunity for Retailers

Consumer demand is the one thing that can decide whether a retailer is successful or not. Of course, there is a whole field of marketing studies to determine how we can influence consumers to purchase. But a really important aspect of how good retailers fare in the market is their ability to “sense” demand, not just influence it.

In a recent study, IHL Group claims Overstocks and Out-of-Stocks cost retailers almost $1.1 trillion world-wide. To put it in perspective, that figure is the size of Australia’s GDP.

What that means is that Overstocks and Out-of-stocks, collectively defined as Inventory Distortion, are a problem that cost retailers world-wide 7.5% of their gross revenue.

The most important overstock causes

The figures translate into poor performance, decreased customer satisfaction, decreased sales and increased costs of inventory warehousing and inventory spoilage. Basically there are two really simple outcomes:

  • Either retailers stock up on too much inventory which turns to increased warehousing costs and spoiled products.
  • …Or they don’t and they miss on sales opportunities

Either way, one thing is for sure: Inventory Distortion leads to poor retail performance.

How do you solve Inventory Distortion? (Not exactly) Simple: Demand Sensing

Demand Sensing is a concept and set of technologies that make use of analytical and prediction models to estimate … well … demand. Imagine a retailer that runs a network of 10 stores, one online store and has a mobile app that drives sales also, along side a call center.

Said retailer probably has an inventory management system, an warehouse management system, a sales reporting tool and probably some type of integration with suppliers and manufacturers.

Let’s imagine this retailer selling a type of red shirts that is available in one of the 10 stores and that inventory is not available online. If a customer will visit 3 of the stores in search of that particular red shirt and then search for it online and still not find it, it will probably consider it to be out of stock and the retailer would lose a sale opportunity.

You probably see where the problem lies: even though the product was available, it was not available to the customer and opportunities were lost. The same thing goes for products that are not exposed to the customers, or they are, say, unreachable on the shelf or unfindable on the web store if the search engine is not fit for the job.

The opposite situation, where demand is not correctly estimated and out-of-stocks become a reality, are just as bad as sales opportunities are lost.

The solution lies in gathering enough data across all sales channels, compiling this data and using models to predict demand. That easier said than done because …

To make demand sensing a reality, inventory transparency has to be achieved

As you are reading a blog on omnichannel retail, the term was bound to appear somewhere along the line. So here it is. You can’t have Demand Sensing without a connected sales operation and inventory transparency. All inventory sources have to be connected and data should be generally available. So should sales data across channels.

The picture below shows an example of omnichannel supply chain, one where all the operational pieces work together and share data. When such a structure is implemented, demand is easily “sensed” and estimated and thus inventory distortion can decrease.

So now we have the data. Implementing omnichannel retail can lead do a better demand sensing and therefore improve inventory distortion, a small glitch in the global retail system costing “only” $1.1 trillion.

3 Factors Slowing Down Omnichannel Adoption

Across the globe, retailers have picked up on the omnichannel trend and try to give the customers what they want: the same level of service across all sales channels.

Some are doing better than others but everyone’s trying. Especially for multi-channel retailers, the switch is essential in keeping up with an increasing competition from online pure-plays.

The switch is not easy and certain bottlenecks stand out:

1. Omnichannel is sometimes treated as a marketing or tech buzzword. Hint: it’s not

When you say omnichannel, you have to think of all the sales and distribution channels. Hence the “omni”. That certainly looks like a marketing area and to a certain degree, it is.

But to make omnichannel a reality instead of long consultative talks, you have to go beyond marketing and into the dark woods of technology systems and process management. That’s the hard part. The change comes when companies and especially executives leave aside their differences and interact to connect cross-department processes.

Yes, omnichannel is marketing driven but it needs inventory transparency, it needs technology investment and updating and it needs a change in internal processes and culture.

Yes, culture because…

2. There’s a lot of sales cannibalization between channels

Mid to large retailers that switched from brick and mortar to multi-channel did this by adding silo-ed sales structures one after another. First came the brick and mortar operation, then came the online store, the call-center, the mobile sales and so on.

Each of these channels eventually developed into a full-fledged sub-organization. It is not uncommon to see, for example, ecommerce departments with full operational structures from purchasing, warehouse management, picking and packing, sales, marketing and others.

When such structures emerge, a certain type of independence emerges also and this can lead to channel cannibalization. Simply put it’s one channel stealing sales from another, instead of working together for the customer and the common (company) good.

That’s why a change in culture is much needed when striving to implement omnichannel retail policies. Any customer should be encouraged to buy from any channel, as long as it stays within the retailer’s domain.

3. BAGA is a lot more complicated than it seems

BAGA stands for “Buy Anywhere, Get Anywhere“. Buy online, pick up in store. Or at home. Buy in the physical store and receive at home. Place an order on the phone and pick up in store.

It’s complicated just working with two or three of these scenarios. When you add general inventory transparency, cross-store orders and supplier availability it gets a lot more complicated.

That’s why a BAGA policy should be built after implementing:

  1. inventory transparency policy and technology. This should spread across the full inventory spectrum including warehouses, stores, in-movement goods and suppliers.
  2. customer master-data management. The customer is the same across all channels and should be recognized and its treatment personalized on demand. Think of this area as a CRM on steroids that spreads across all channels.
  3. product master-data management. Product information should be available on all channels, when needed and in the right format.
  4. cross-channel marketing policies. Think marketing independent of channel and at the same time available on all.

These are just three of the most important factors that slow down omnichannel adoption. The fourth is probably the fact that some companies are just so tired of working their way through ecommerce adoption that they are unwilling to move forward.

It takes willingness to discover the benefits and what omnichannel is. For many, the switch is rather simple in terms of technology. It does bare costs in willingness to learn new concepts and implement these concepts within the company.

What is Pretail and How Does It Impact Retail?

Ever thought what happens behind the curtains before a new product hits the shelf? Or what makes customers decide they love product A but definitely hate product B, although they are almost identical? Or what makes great products … well … great?

Many have and there is no clear answer to these questions. What works when Apple launches a music player may not work when Microsoft does it (Remember Zune?). There are many variables involved and no matter the size of your R&D budget, sometimes things are not going to go right.

But there’s only one way to see if the product is really fit for the market. That way used to be simple and a bit risky. Teams including marketing, product development, engineering and manufacturing experts would dream, design and build products. They would test the products on selected customer groups and if the results would look good, they would push the product to the market.

However even involving budgets, experts, consumer insights and marketing bucks, sometimes products flop.

Jamstick is a “portable guitar that teaches you to play”. It asked for $50.000 in crowd-funding. It received $792.000. Jamstick is a pretail success.

Two things changed this: crowd-sourcing and crowd-founding. Together they’ve formed a type of customer experience previously unknown: the pretail.

Testing the waters with crowd-sourcing and crowd-founding

In the past, teams were involved in trying to guess what customers would want. Now we can just go ahead and ask the them.

Pretailing is a term describing any activity introducing customers to brands or products, before the retail process. It assumes that using crowd-founding sites such as Kickstarter, inventors and innovators can test their concept before involving big budgets. Essentially they are asking potential buyers to invest their dollar-power in their product.

This, in turn, creates an experience previously unknown to the consumer. The consumer is effectively buying into a vision. Pretailing creates a new type of sales channel that works before the product is even manufactured. Unlike traditional retail, this type of commerce can shed light on what the market wants at any given time.

Pluck is a simple egg-separator and it was invented by Mark Fusco, a Quirky member.

Online stores such as QuirkyThreadless or Japan-based Muji have one thing in common. They use their communities to find the right ideas and products to design and develop. Quirky is focused on inventing cool gadgets, Threadless leverages its designer community to create t-shirts and Muji sells home&deco products designed by the consumers.

They all engage in pretailing. By tapping into the collective minds of their communities they can ask for the type of products most customers would purchase. Before they manufacture and sell, they ask what to manufacture and sell. This in turn creates a sense of belonging to the community for the customer. For the retailer, it decreases the risk of manufacturing and stocking up on lousy products.

Crowd-founding is another way of tapping into the market and pretailing. We all know Kickstarter but other, more product-oriented crowd founding platforms fare even better for this concept.

CrowdSupply and OutGrow.me are just two places where you can see what customers have backed before manufacturing. The products we can see there range from open source toothbrushes to one-wheel skateboards.

The results are amazing. With unlimited creativity comes an unlimited supply of innovation. And by tapping into a large market of early-adopters, only the products that are really fit for distribution get funded and survive.

Crowdfunding exploded after 2011.

Big retailers have picked up on the trend and are now using pretailing to test new products and improve their logistics to fit the estimated demand. Apple, for example is one of the companies that showcases products before they are available in retail stores, interacting with developers and customers to improve the experience.

Pretailing is a thing of the crowds

Beyond the crowd-founding and crowd-sourcing, pretailing can come from anything involving large numbers of potential customers. By tapping into online traces, retailers can get insights on potentially succesful products.

Pretailing can start with a simple research with Google Trends. It can be an analysis on the search trends on your own web store.

Who would have known? Apparently there is a growing demand for egg separators.

It can just as well be an overview of the most popular trends on Instagram. For example Crane & Canopy releases new high quality duvets basing their decisions on Pinterest and social media trends.

The conclusion is that in this highly competitive market, retailers need to engage their customers before they start the retail process. Pretailing means tapping into the wisdom of the crowds and extracting the perfect products before competitors do. It is not only a matter of product development but a matter of understanding the customer and providing the best experience on the market.

Omnichannel retail will transform distribution

A very important part of retailing is pricing and the most important part of pricing is the cost. To get a complete view of how much a product would cost, retailers think in terms of net landed cost.

The net landed cost is the sum of costs associated with manufacturing and distribution. When thinking in terms of net landed cost you have a better chance of understanding your total cost.

A common fallacy is thinking of costs just in terms of manufacturing, either from a purchase only point of view (how much you pay your supplier for a given product) or a more inclusive manufacturing point of view. The manufacturing point of view assumes that even if you are not manufacturing the product yourself, you still have the liberty to choose another supplier or change merchandising altogether.

The most important advancements in retail, in terms of supply and cost effectiveness, have focused largely on manufacturing costs in the past decades. This has lead to increasingly efficient production lines, a more competitive manufacturing market, shifting manufacturing overseas and many others.

A key to Walmart’s success is selecting suppliers with an optimum manufacturing cost / quality

This manufacturing improvement trend has had beneficial results on the customers life through more accessible, more diversified merchandise. It also meant companies managed to sell more, to more people. Companies such as Walmart have grown to their existing magnitude thanks to a wide network of suppliers, providing them with products manufactured at the best possible cost.

Distribution lagged behind

As retailers improved on the manufacturing, there was one part that has been left mostly untouched. That was the distribution. Distribution costs have decreased but not dropped.

To get a better view of why, get a glimpse of what are the factors that weigh in the distribution costs basket. Here you have costs associated with getting a product from the manufacturer to the customer. This includes freight, stocking, customs, costs associated with store development and maintenance, marketing costs, customer support and others. This is a very large area and a lot of work to be done.

Distribution is changed by technology, data and omnichannel retailing

Today, distribution is changing, and it’s changing fast. As a result, the associated costs will follow.

At the forefront of this change we have several factors, one of which is omnichannel, another being technology and the third being data. This is how they weigh in and these are the areas that will be soon transformed:

Improved logistics

Logistics have not been fully transformed by technology. For example, freight has been virtually unchanged in the past decades. Think about it this way: cargo ships are still loaded after excel files are checked, faxes are sent and handshakes seal deals. For a large part, the industry is archaic and it’s but a question of time until it will be transformed. There is a lot of room for disruption and companies such as Freightos have challenged the status-quo and promise 10-17x ROI. In weeks.

And it’s not just freight. Fleets of small vans contractors have taken up the Uber model and are now roaming the streets of Hong Kong to deliver goods the likes of DHL and UPS can’t.

GoGoVan is a Smart Logistics company, connecting individual contractors to larger companies in need of their services

Omnichannel retail decreases distribution costs

Omnichannel makes possible and desirable a few things the previous retail models couldn’t. First of all it allows for a better inventory transparency and improved shipping effectiveness.

Customers that would otherwise expect orders placed online to be shipped at home with the respective costs and operational challenges, can now just pick up orders in store. Or better yet, they can have the closest store ship these items at home, instead of mixing the order in a large, central warehouse.

Omnichannel also makes possible having just a limited number of products in store and keep the most either in the warehouse to be shipped when convenient or with a supplier. By reducing store footprint companies can reduce fixed costs associated with marketing and distribution of products, thus decreasing costs.

And it’s not just these, the many aspects of omnichannel retail all converge to a decrease in distribution costs and more efficient ways to handle product demand.

Macy’s growth versus JC Penney and Sears.

Improving marketing and advertising with data

John Wanamaker was a retail innovator. He is credited with the fixed price and money back guarantee marketing concepts. Wanamaker was one of the pioneers of the department store and loved advertising. He is also credited with the famous saying :

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Good thing that was more than a century ago.

“Show me your budget.”

Marketing is now changing rapidly and unfortunately for some advertising agencies, long gone are the days when the Mad Men of advertising charged millions for concepts that could or could not work.

With the rise of digital commerce and omnichannel retail and the smartphone to bridge the gaps, data is all around. Marketing is now data driven and the half of budget Wanamaker complained about can now be easily tracked. Companies such as Macy’s are investing heavily in omnichannel policies and marketing. The results are clear. While their competition is diving, Macy’s business is on the rise.

Advertising is data driven and marketing costs are constantly improving.

By improving distribution and decreasing distribution costs we have two very important things happening. The first is that companies engaged in improving this area will be more profitable and more inclined to continue on this path.

The second thing is that lower distribution costs mean better prices for the consumers, therefore an improved appetite for consumption. Improved profitability and decreased prices – these are two very strong forces that will shape tomorrow’s retail. And it’s happening today.

3 Strategy Mistakes by Big Online Retailers

It’s impossible to predict the future and basically that’s what strategy is. Based on historic evidence, data and outside factors, companies try to predict how the market is going to evolve and how they can best benefit from this evolution.

While strategy is rarely un-debatable and never perfectly executed, it is a very important part in evolving companies. Having a vision and the plan to achieve that vision is what makes companies such as Amazon, Walmart or Apple stay ahead of the competition.

But sometimes things go wrong and strategy mistakes happen. Here are three cases:

1. Overstock plans to develop media service, as predicted by The Onion

Overstock is one of the largest online retailers in the US. It is an Utah based retail company that has a 20 years background in commerce.

The company sells more than 1 million items on the Overstock.com web-store. The products range from home deco to jewelry to electronics to cars to insurance. Did I mention they run a pet adoption online service? And a farmer’s market?

You’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this. Focus is really not their strongest asset. The company has basically organized its strategy around the old “let’s just try everything and see what sticks” motto. This is, of course, the winning formula to tackle Amazon. This and of course Bitcoin, a surefire solution by the company’s CEO to fight the upcoming zombie revolution.

No, really, he actually said that:

“Someday, either zombies walk the Earth or something close to that[…]. Bitcoin is the solution.”

Patrick Byrne, Overstock CEO and Bitcoin Messiah. Source: Wired.

The strategy is so hilarious, Onion can predict it

Overstock’s strategy turned “un-focused” to hilarious when it announced its new media service aimed at Amazon’s Prime earlier this year. A bold move one might say, as Overstock is missing a few things called content, digital infrastructure, hardware (think about the Kindle), Amazon’s market share and media know-how. But they did get featured in the Onion a full 2 years before they’ve made the move.

2. Walmart spins off its ecommerce operation, then acquires it, then ignores it, then develops it, then makes it central. Sort of.

Make no mistake. Walmart is huge. Walmart is on top of the retail food chain (excuse the pun). It has more than 11.000 stores, in 27 countries and employs more than 2.2 million people. The company is the biggest retailer in the world with a revenue of $485 billion.

President and CEO of Wal-Mart Global eCommerce Neil Ashe

But that doesn’t mean it should be successful online, does it?

Walmart’s digital strategy is a bit … puzzling, if I may. The company’s “ecommerce” store has been online since 1996, about the same time Amazon started to grow. Unlike Amazon, Walmart.com didn’t really matter in the company strategy until 1999. That’s when the company announced the customers that no orders placed after the 14th of December could be fulfilled in due time for the holidays.

Walmart then decided to spin off that pesky thing called the online store in 2000 and transferred the operations in Silicon Valley, under a partnership with Accel Ventures. The reason, as mentioned in this throw-back article from 2002, is thatonline is “not where their customer base is”.

After an unusually horrible decision to shut down the store for a month in the fall of 2000, for a revamp, the store was just as bad as before. But it did managed to miss the 2000 holidays season due to a late re-start.

The company eventually realized the blunder and in 2001 bought back Accel’s share in the ecommerce company. Good thing they’ve realized just how important ecommerce was. It didn’t even take long to improve and redesign the webstore: just 5 years, until 2006.

Walmart was also quick to realize it can make a connection between the online and offline channels. In 2007, 11 years after it launched its online store, it launched the Site to Store program, allowing customers to order online and pick up in store.

Blunder after blunder, the company eventually realized the importance of stepping into a new era, one where customers are connected to Walmart digitally. The company has since changed its perception on ecommerce, hired talent and started experimenting with upcoming technologies.

But if there’s something worse than an un-focused strategy and a rigid strategy, that has to be … no strategy:

3. Fab.com turns from gay social networking site to daily discounter to flash sales retailer to catalogue retailer to custom furniture designer. Within 4 years.

There are very few cases where the lack of strategy and extensive investments are seen so clear within the same company. Fab is one of these rare fails. The company was founded by Jason Goldberg and Bradford Shellhammer and experimented with some pivots. Five that I know of, mentioned above.

Fab’s evolution

It went on to raise a total of $336 million and for a while it could have been the next Amazon, or Ikea, or Apple, or whatever founder Jason Goldberg thought was the fad of the day. Eventually it went on to be a huge whole in the investors’ pockets and was acquired by an undisclosed sum in march 2015.

The whole story is outlined in this cautionary tale. It could be a very funny strategy fail if it weren’t such a sad story for investors, founders, employees and in the end – the whole online retail market. Fab is the story of what could have been, if someone were to lay out a smarter strategy. Or some strategy for that matter.