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

SF Apps World & Digital Natives (With a Nod to Jimi Hendrix)

One of the fun aspects of living near San Francisco is that it’s an epicenter for technology revolutions. Down the road a few miles south is Stanford University and famed Silicon Valley. And right in town, there are a lot of new-generation technology companies that have taken over a whole section of the City, to the point where the locals are up in arms over such things as Google buses crowding already impassable streets and mysterious Google barges floating out in the Bay and obscuring the view of the Bay Bridge. All of this concentration of technology presence has also resulted in frequent and massive trade shows like Oracle Openworld, salesforce.com’s Dreamforce, and (the big daddy of them all) MacWorld, just to name a few.

A new up-and-comer to this scene is Apps World, and last week SF’s second 2nd Apps World was held at the Moscone Center. Of course, the conference is reflective of the huge popularity of smart mobile devices and the extremely efficient use of capital that mobile app development represents. Hey! just give a couple of people with a bright idea $50K and a conference room, and chances are that they’ll develop the next Angry Birds app (ka-ching! Jackpot!). As one might expect, the expo floor itself looked a bit like a scene from “The Internship,” replete with bean bag chairs, espresso bars, and a vaguely college dorm vibe. But behind that façade, it was all business. And one of the businesses that was in focus was retail.

I participated in an afternoon of panel and case study talks emceed by IDG’s Leslie Hand, and one presentation got me to thinking about the whole issue of retailer acceptance of consumer-mobility and the changes to the traditional retail model resulting from consumer’s digitally enabled “paths-to-purchase”. A lot of our work at RSR is focused on the challenges that brick’n’mortar retailers are having as they transition to a world where the consumer starts her shopping experience outside of the physical store. But the question is, “will it be enough for digital native shoppers in the future?” The retailer presentation that took me to that place was given by Ethan Song of Frank & Oak.

Digital Natives Are Like Jimi Hendrix

Ethan is the co-founder and CEO of Montreal e-retailer Frank & Oak. The company is just over two years old, and is focused on creating a retail brand that “leverage(es) technology (for) this generation’s way of communicating with customers”. Ethan explained it further by saying that he and his co-founding partner Hicham Ratnani wanted to “create a global brand for the Internet generation” (or as Ethan said, “people just like … me!”), especially male fashion consumers aged 25-35.

At the conference, the entrepreneur talked about what he called “Consumer Brand 3.0”, leveraging tech platforms to integrate the entire product & customer lifestyle across multiple touch-points. The team at Frank & Oak believes that consumer always-on connectivity creates the opportunity for retailers to shift from the mass model to a personalized experience. Ethan pointed out that Frank & Oak seeks to create unique relationships with different segments of customers, even while selling the same products. In other words, Frank & Oak wants to make shopping easy for men through personalization and curation—offering premium name-brand shirts and accessories at affordable prices.

At RSR, we often talk about the “5 C’s” of modern retailing: maintaining a focus of the Customer; in the Context of the customer’s lifestyle need; providing the right Content and Community feedback to help the consumer make the best choice; via a seamless Commerce experience. Ethan discussed a similar model that “closes the loop between products, experience, and content”, but he added something new – “accelerators”. It wasn’t altogether clear from his talk at Apps World what those are, so I googled the term and it turns out that Ethan meant business accelerators. More specifically in Frank & Oak’s case, it means the Canadian Technology Accelerator Initiative, a program that is part of Canada’s Economic Action plan that is focused on helping startups quickly achieve a global presence with unique resources and contacts. In Frank & Oak’s case, that meant getting the fledgling company up on a technology platform quickly.

All well and good. But here’s where I think Ethan made a great point, something that “legacy” retailers ought to think about. As most retailers think about how to extend their Brand into the digital domain, and specifically to mobile, they are still thinking about “pushing” their offering towards consumers. But according to Ethan, for digital natives, “Mobile is an extension of YOU. Mobile isn’t a destination, it’s an extension of the individual. Stores and the e-commerce site are destinations, i.e. you ‘go’ to a store or a site.”

The entrepreneur went on to explain, “Mobile allows you to shop the same environment in a different way… giving consumers more control over their experiences. Very few retailers are providing content based on the physical context. Content should inspire and educate. Mobile has the power to personalize the in-store experience by adding that Content layer.” What is interesting in that statement is that it is from the consumer’s point-of-view, as opposed to what the retailer wants the consumer’s point-of-view to be.

That’s worth thinking about. If it’s true that digital natives think about their mobile digital devices as an extension of themselves rather than an appliance to be used on an as-needed basis, then retailers’ view of the technology as the outer edge of the corporate information world is not quite right. This analogy might seem like a stretch, but I’m reminded of something that someone wrote about why Jimi Hendrix was such a guitar revolutionary. It was that he viewed his “instrument” – the Fender guitar, the cord, the sound effects pedals, and the massive Marshall amps he used – as an extension of himself, whereas before him guitarists thought of their amps as tools to make their guitars louder. Perhaps that’s why Jimi called his band “The Experience” – to appreciate what he was doing, you had to experience it in a new way.

So, who knows? Maybe Ethan Song and the team at Frank & Oak on to something – perhaps retailers have to learn to listen in a new way. Here’s the question: when you are contemplating your company’s mobile strategy, are you thinking of it as a way to extend the store’s “four walls” into the digital domain, or are you thinking of it as a new medium that consumers are using to express themselves?

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Articles & Opinions February 11, 2014
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