The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

Content & Commerce: Right For Every Retailer?

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During my travels this spring, I encountered an online retailer who specialized in sneakers and streetwear. If you know anything about sneakers and the people who collect them ( “sneakerheads “), you would not recognize anything substantially different about these people and say, radical Beanie Baby collectors. They’ll pay almost any price for a pair of shoes that they would consider unique or hard to get.

Needless to say, there are a lot of bloggers out there devoted to the art of collecting sneakers, and lots to say about what makes for must-haves vs. junk. And that’s before you get the manufacturers involved. Or the celebrities.

I am not exactly hip to the street scene (you should be shocked by this), so when I asked the VP of eCommerce for this company if he had a strategy for content – specifically, for more editorial and/or more combinations of content and commerce – I was taken by surprise when he answered “No “.

His argument was that there is so much content out there already about his category, his company didn’t need to go investing any more money into adding to that content, especially when there is a real rock-star stratification out there among content producers – rock star, as in, for every million people who play guitar there is only one or two who actually make a living at it. To extend that to sneakers, there might be a million bloggers out there covering the topic, but only a few actually make money at it.

At the time, I thought it was a short-sighted point of view – certainly every retailer needs to invest in some content, even if it’s only surface-level stuff. But I didn’t have a ready articulation as to why I felt like content was that important. I mean, I make the argument about community that every retailer doesn’t need to make and sustain their own community. If there is a large community out there already, then retailers can benefit by being trusted expert participants in that community without having to have all the overhead of keeping the community vibrant – that’s someone else’s job.

Of course, there are also downsides, like when you don’t have any control or little input into new capabilities that the community supports, or when the community organizer changes all the rules and suddenly something that made you money does nothing for you.

Those downsides exist in the wild world of content, too. If you’re not creating your own content, you have to be content to ride along with the things other people say, even if you feel like they aren’t focusing on the things that need attention. When you ride along, you don’t have a lot of market legitimacy or access to audience to jump in randomly to point out big misses like that. You have to take your lumps like everyone else, because you haven’t built an expectation for consumers to come to you for content.

But the more I puzzled over my reaction to this eCommerce lead’s perspective on content and commerce, the more I felt like it was not just my own bias involved when my gut reaction told me I thought he was wrong. And as we are preparing to bring our latest eCommerce benchmark to market, I can now point a specific reason why he was wrong. It was something we found in the data. Here goes.

Even if you aren’t creating your own content in an editorial sense, brands and retailers have an obligation to tell customers why they are offering the things they offer for sale. That “why ” involves more than just why these products. It also means why not those other products.

It comes down to curation. If you can’t explain to customers why you’re different, then the only thing you have available to compete on is price. Maybe availability. That’s a tough market that leaves it up to the consumer to just shop until they find the price they’re looking for – and in that kind of power scenario, the retailer definitely loses.

With curation, you’re adding value to the content by pointing out the most important ideas out of the noise. You’ve gone through the effort of finding important perspectives and you’re helping your customers save time by bringing them together for their enjoyment. Even if you don’t own the brands, even if you don’t own the opinions about which brands are better than others, you still must rely on content to help set you apart from every other retailer who can get their hands on the exact same brands.

Curation – and transparency around the thought that goes into that curation – is critically important to every brand (as in, why we chose to focus on these lifestyle elements, or, in the case of my streetwear example, why they chose to focus on streetwear or specific brands of streetwear).

It’s also increasingly important for assortment selection. With Amazon lurking behind every browser click, there is no way retailers can win on breadth of product selection. You can’t out-assort Amazon or Google. But what you can do is add value to your assortment by helping shoppers understand that they can save time, and increase their cool factor, by relying on you the expert to help them get the best stuff whenever they need it.

Do retailers realize this is an important way to differentiate your brand? Short answer: Nope. As you’ll see next week when the report comes out, creating a differentiating assortment is bottom of the list in operational challenges, with only 11% of respondents citing it as a top-three challenge. I feel like brand manufacturers generally do understand this concept better than most other kinds of retailers – they have to justify their price premium to consumers somehow. But I would think general merchandise retailers would understand this even better, and they simply do not.

You can’t out-Amazon Amazon. But whether you have your own brands or a bunch of national brands, you can out-curate them. And when you do that, you naturally create vitally important content – an explanation of why you made the choices you did – that helps become the foundation of differentiation and a way to create engagement with shoppers.

So, to answer my own question: emphatically yes, content and commerce are a must-have for every company, pretty much no matter what you sell.

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