The above is powerful advice, especially considering the source. Bet not on what is going to change but on what won’t. For Amazon, that means low prices, selection, and convenience. People want great deals, they want choice, and perhaps, most importantly, they want to do as little work as possible to get what they want. Because time is the one commodity of which no one ever has enough.
The universal truth of convenience is undeniable. That is the easy part.
However, two-day, next-day, same-day delivery, while all variations on the same convenience theme, also underserve the word itself. The power of convenience lies not in the when but in the how.
Speed is a factor, yes, but it is control that matters most. Control always comes first.
Amazon, for all its glory, hasn’t been competing on speed. Amazon has been competing on control, on giving consumers the power of self-service as they fill up at the everything store gas station of American consumerism, whenever and however they want.
Self-service is always what wins out.
If consumers can do everything themselves, they will always lean in that direction. It is only when they need help or can’t figure something out that the psychology of shopping requires human intervention. Otherwise, technology handles everything seamlessly and, when done well, almost like no one ever knew it was there at all.
It is a subtle point — i.e. this interplay between convenience and control — and it is one I, myself, missed for years.
It wasn’t until the pandemic reared its ugly head that I realized how blind I was to what had been going on in retail for the past 20 to 30 years. It took drastic changes set against a backdrop of one full year of forced technological progress to comprehend what I had been missing. It wasn’t until I was able to step back and to put things, like Instacart deliveries, curbside pickups, and contactless forms of payment, into the historical context of retail’s actual technological evolution that this whole notion of control superseding speed began to take shape.
The seminal moment happened as I was reflecting back on recent interviews I had conducted for Omni Talk’s new Ask An Expert Series for 2021 with Chris Shaw and Kevin Swanwick, both of Manhattan Associates. While I had thought both interviews would end up just being casual walkthroughs of order management and point-of-sale history that only a really insane retail geek like me could love, what I soon realized, months later, was that they both had opened my eyes to one incontrovertible fact — that self-service isn’t going anywhere and that, in reality, it is going to define both our digital and our physical retail experiences in the years ahead.
And, here’s why:
As I learned from Chris Shaw (see above), how and when consumers can get their goods is now a mechandizable event. Never before in history has that been possible. We never have had such control.
Previously, our only options were either: 1) go to a store or 2) buy something online and wait for the delivery to arrive. We, as consumers, had no other real options.
Now we do.
“Something fundamentally changed with consumers during the 2020 cycle . . . that was essentially the move from fulfillment activity being a cost add-on consideration post-purchase to being a buying decision before I make a purchase,“ Shaw told me in his interview.
Or, said another way, how and when we can get our goods is now a front of the funnel purchase decision.
Want more proof?
Take a look at the home screen on Walmart’s app (see below):
It doesn’t ask Walmart customers what they want to buy. It asks them how they want to buy what it is that they want — i.e. by way of delivery, pickup, etc. And that distinction is critical. Control over the “how” of the purchase decision is now a front-end criterion that overrides everything else.
This discussion then takes on an even greater dimension when one also throws point-of-sale theory into the mix.
Mobile technology has made it so that phones or tablets are now remote controls for the commercial exploration of the physical world (see video above), and these same mobile devices can either sit in our own hands or in the hands of others, e.g. sales associates. What determines in whose hands retailers should place this remote control power ultimately comes down to knowing one’s business model.
Kevin Swanwick, in my interview with him (see above), said something I will never forget. He called the difference between these two dynamics “order-centric vs. customer centric” retailing.
The former is predicated upon self-service or do it yourself-ing, while the latter is meant to connote retail environments with higher product margins and helpful sales staff (think high-end luxury boutiques). The first is about maximizing traffic and throughput for the masses, while the second is about commanding a little bit extra from your customers for a customized and highly personalized experience.
The reason this distinction is important is that in reality both experiences are actually moving towards self-service because of technology. As discussed above, consumers can already choose when and how they want things online, but soon physical retail experiences will also become even more “self-service” as well.
Checkout-free retail is coming, either by way of computer vision or scan-and-go technology, microfulfillment centers are popping up faster than pimples on a teenager, and concierge services platforms are also growing by leaps and bounds. Just in the last month Amazon has announced plans to expand its self-service Amazon Fresh grocery concept, Walmart in the last year has made scan-and-go a key piece of its Walmart+ subscription program, and both Walmart and Albertsons have publicly stated that they are all in on the latest and greatest MFC (aka microfulfillment center) technology.
Together these elements will bring with them a new definition of physical retailing self-service and remote-controlled shopping, whereby consumers will be able to take anything they want off our retailers’ shelves and “just walk out” or even see something they like, scan it with their mobile phones (or have a sales associate do it for them), and have their purchases delivered to them anywhere they want in the world.
Physical retail will either enable us to do it ourselves or at least give us the feeling that we are, even though technology is really the puppet master behind the curtain pulling all the strings.
All of which comes back to control. That is what the future is going to be all about. That is the oyster of the next decade.
Time, while we can never have enough of it, is always there.
But control isn’t.
Control is something we all feel like we want to have but never really do, and that’s why even a taste or the illusion of control can be so intoxicating.
That is the universal truth that won’t change.
That is the psychological feeling that consumers want, and the best retailers of the 21st century — the Amazons and the players to be named later (yes, the jury is still out on who they are) — will be the ones who design their operations, their technologies, and their experiences to make us all feel like kings and queens for the day, no matter if their businesses are high touch or low touch.
Chris Walton will be speaking on and addressing more of these themes in his upcoming keynote address at the Manhattan Momentum Connect Conference in late May. If you enjoyed this article and would like to hear more, you can register for the conference by clicking here.