Tales of Retail: Where Will Amazon Be in 75 Years?

Who’s Still Standing? Who Will Die?

Ask a millennial to describe Woolworth’s or the Spiegel Catalogue or the tune from the Music Man about the Wells Fargo Wagon (or who sang it) and he will probably give you a blank stare.

Or query him about abandoned shopping carts. He’s as likely to relate the tale of the Nikes he didn’t buy on the Nike site (because he found a better price on eBay) than he is to talk about a row of random wheeled carriers in a parking lot.

And, of course, Amazon is not just a rain forest region…it’s a formidable threat to “brick and mortar” retailers who may not give customers enough reasons to choose their brands. Amazon is no longer just a bookstore. It’s an entire shopping mall, entertainment hub, delivery service, and information source (e.g., Echo and Dot).

Retail has changed DRAMATICALLY over the past decade.

I attended Cue4, a retail “unconference” (named that because even the conference industry has evolved…watch for more about that trend in an upcoming post). It was intimate, casual, and fast-paced. Set in a bookstore (note the irony!), it included a mix of brands and agency folk.

Organized by Dan Phan of the Late Majority, a former Target employee, the event brought to light the changing profile of today’s (and tomorrow’s) shoppers and how retailers need to evolve everything from their product lines to marketing to inventory management in order to survive and thrive.

Some of the interesting presentations included:

  • Dan’s kick-off, which inspired “thinking differently” (which I do every day of my life, but the reminder is always great). He suggested we replace the term “digital” with “network” because retailing is not ultimately about the delivery medium — it’s about the relationships between brand and customer.
  • Chris Walton’s take on retailing in the years ahead. His presentation was called “The Store of the Future Promises to be One Hell of a Swingers Party,” and his slides were a welcome departure from boring PowerPoint.
  • The Gen Z presentation by 15-year old consultant Josh Miller of Deciding Edge. Not old enough yet to drive or drink, he is old enough to shop and look for what to buy on Snapchat. He talked about the importance of relevance and experiences. I don’t know that he speaks for an entire generation, but he reminds brands that they need to get inside the heads of their potential customers.
  • An overview of Pathformance by my colleague, friend, and fellow tech lover Elizabeth Johnson. Her company helps ad agencies target their clients’ spend more efficiently by monitoring real-time inventory in specific stores. A cosmetic’s brand budget and marketing campaign was focused on the Ulta stores that had product in stock at the time, resulting in shopper satisfaction and fewer wasted dollars.
  • The Trolli case study by Bridget Jewell of Periscope, which highlighted how a celebrity spokesperson (James Harden) and interactive events (combined with a sweet dose of high-tech artistry) were used to energize a brand.

Ironically, most of these concepts are not truly new. What’s new are the data sources, delivery mechanisms and marketing and merchandising media (technology), which completely changed the retail landscape.

Respect the Past...See the Future

I’m not suggesting that conferences be filled with tales of years gone by. But our era is certainly not the first retailer re-invention. According to the Harvard Business Review, retail undergoes a major shift every 50 years. (The article, which was published in 2011 is dated, but the principles aren’t.) The Spiegel Catalog was revolutionary for its time.

Dan was spot-on when he reinforced that retailers don’t go out of business because the bricks and mortar crumble. They die because their leaders don’t monitor how the world – and their consumer -- is changing. They fail to think 10, 20, or 30 years ahead. True innovators look at every aspect of their businesses and are willing to take risks to meet the needs of their customers. They need to foresee the future and act on it.

Adds my colleague Jim D’Arcangelo, marketing technology expert, “Success for most retailers will be harder and harder, too, as even though those players which figure it out, but are too afraid or too locked into their business models to change get plowed under.  Retailers will need to rethink their models and cultures and more closely resemble the start-ups that invade their markets.”

Kiehls and Brooks Brothers are still standing and appealing to various market segments. Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue just “sold out” (probably in a good way) to WeWork. Some of the other companies may not be on a list like this in 10 years.

Despite all its industry disruption and innovation, Amazon is not quite 25 years old. What will we be saying about it 75 years from now?

If you’re a retailer, look ahead – but also take a short peek in the rear view mirror so you don’t repeat the mistakes of those who came before you. Respect your past but look at where your market is going and act accordingly.

The Wells Fargo Wagon may still be coming down the street…but it will soon be a self-driving vehicle owned by Amazon, Google, Facebook, or Apple and its destination is unknown.

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