Published on: April 19, 2017
Content Guy's Note: The goal of "The Innovation Conversation" is to explore some facet of the fast-changing, technology-driven retail landscape and how it affects businesses and consumers. It is, we think, fertile territory ... and one that Tom Furphy - a former Amazon executive, the originator of Amazon Fresh, and currently CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners (CEP), a venture capital and venture development firm in Seattle, WA, that works with many top retailers and manufacturers - is uniquely positioned to address.
Content Guy's Note: I was unable to attend the recent Shoptalk "next gen commerce" conference in Las Vegas, but Tom Furphy was there, along with his business partner Justin Leigh, who is the co-founder and CEO of IdeoClick. I asked them to cover Shoptalk for me. Two weeks ago, Tom offered a report and perspective on ShopTalk, and this week, we feature a dialogue between Tom and Justin in which they consider the implications of what they saw and heard.
Tom Furphy: Justin, as you navigated Shoptalk 2017, did any pervasive themes stick out to you?
Justin Leigh: This year, the theme that echoed more than any other throughout the conference was the idea of fulfilling customers’ needs. Jeff Bezos once said, “We’re not in the business of selling things, we’re in the business of helping people buy things.” Meaning that the purpose of Amazon as a retailer is to reduce friction between manufacturers and consumers throughout the discovery, purchase and fulfillment process.
Traditional retailers have focused on increasing basket size and upselling, while Amazon has focused on eliminating or at least dramatically reducing every cost between production and consumption. This small but important distinction seems to be more widely recognized and is being born out through many new retail models and services.
For example, Instacart delivers same-day satisfaction to the shopper while giving retailers a way to play in e-commerce. Meanwhile they court investors with a promise of disrupting the traditional grocery store experience, ultimately putting products directly into the home.
And Amazon PrimeNow continues to raise the bar with Shipt, Deliv, Google, Onfleet, Grizly and many others following the rush for immediate gratification.
TF: The value of stores used to be to aggregate products in one place so that shoppers could efficiently fill their baskets from a relatively wide assortment. But that value proposition is being usurped by platforms that more personally serve shoppers’ needs. Are retailers really dumbing themselves down to the point where they’re now there to serve these new models, who are in turn serving the shopper?
JL: I don’t think that’s a stretch. Traditional retail assets are now just supply chain hubs with forward deployed inventory.
TF: There were no shortage of companies there that strive to deliver on the promise of economical same-day, two-hour or even one-hour delivery. What stood out to you as most innovative? Or perhaps most crazy?
JL: Companies like Starship Technologies are developing technology to remove excessive human costs to put cost effective one hour delivery within reach. This company deploys robots to deliver locally.
TF: That’s right. At first I thought it was a pipe dream, but I see they’re actually being tested today by Postmates and Doordash in the Valley and in DC.
JL: Similar to the rush to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, I wonder what we’re going to do once we reach the elusive goal of profitable instant home delivery. Like space exploration, it’s a very expensive endeavor and exciting to watch. It sounds super exciting. But once it’s available, will it really change your life? Is that a better way to receive the stuff you use all the time?
Once we achieve liftoff, I wonder if consumers are going to be well served by having a fleet of robots attacking their home, each competing to win the one-hour delivery prize. People already have products in their homes and they need more almost every day. For example, the customer has known they were going to run out of toothpaste for weeks. As soon as they bought the prior tube, actually. And their retailer should have also known. Armed with that knowledge, the product could have been gracefully and economically delivered on time at a great price without a sky full of drones or a sidewalk full of robots.
TF: Sometimes we overthink these things, don’t we?
JL: I think so. We’re not saying that there isn’t a place for rush delivery, we just wonder if that’s the biggest opportunities with customers right now. Once that’s solved, it’s not like everyone’s life is easier. And it’s certainly not going to keep Amazon from hammering away at incumbent retailer share.
TF: Good point. We know it’s still Day 1 at Amazon and that they are attacking the market with irreverence. It seemed that there was also a theme at the conference that retailers need to get better at using their data. Would you agree?
JL: For sure. A key theme was unlocking the value of data. It’s been over two decades since Amazon first launched personalization. Early on, through elaborate A/B testing they found it was far superior in enabling customers to find products they need than any human merchandisers or editors could achieve. It’s befuddling that, despite the clear evidence and the passage of time, and the incredible volumes of consumer data that traditional retailers have, there isn’t a single player who is effectively competing with Amazon’s personalization.
TF: There’s an amazing stat that I saw twice at the show, and I don’t remember the source, but here it is. 50% of internet product searches start on Amazon, 24% on search engines combined, and the rest on retailer or brand sites. Amazon is the king of understanding products and matching those products to shoppers. We know that Amazon is working on predictive retail. Their wealth of product search and purchase data certainly puts them in the pole position deliver on the proposition.
JL: This data drives a level of predictability and efficiency into the business that could benefit any retailer. Amazon is forward deploying inventory to hubs knowing that customers will be placing orders in the near future for those products. Meanwhile, customers are shopping traditional grocery stores and buying the same items every week, but retailers struggle to keep in-stocks at a level to support both promotional and turn business. Then, when they try to layer in e-commerce, all hell breaks loose and they can’t maintain the right inventory levels to fulfill their online orders.
TF: That’s a bold statement. Can you elaborate?
JL: I’m just saying that no one has more data about the household consumption than the traditional grocers but it doesn't seem to be providing the advantage that it should. In their data they have the product velocities and correlations necessary to understand household consumption at a granular level. But their inventory systems were designed for a different retail model and the underlying data is underutilized. Systems like predicting orders further upstream, reserving inventory and having multiple sources of inventory to fulfill orders is critical to e-commerce success.
For example, when a customer is in the store shopping for Fruit Loops, inventory at another location doesn’t provide utility. However, when a customer places an order online, or even better, has an item on a subscription or replenishment program, or the data indicates a high likelihood of a near-term purchase, the retailer has the data so they can leverage inventory across their network to serve different customers in different ways, according to their needs.
TF: And to your earlier comment, if they don’t begin to tune and leverage their inventory this way, they risk becoming inventory hubs for other services. I get it. I just think that most retailers are years or decades behind Amazon here.
JL: Yes. You’re in the unique position to have been on both sides of the retail divide, in both cases with retailers who were very passionate and customer centric. What is it about e-commerce companies that enables them to innovate so quickly even though they lack many of the resources of traditional retailers?
TF: E-commerce companies have a clean slate. Traditional retailers have been built to serve customers through stores. Everything about them is tuned to be efficient to the store level. It’s hard to break out of that and begin to do the very different activities that are required to offer e-commerce. I do think that it’s coming for the truly customer-centric retailers. We saw a bunch of that at Shoptalk. But it’s certainly a struggle for everyone to overcome their legacy systems and processes.
You mention that Amazon is working on predictive retail. Michael Sansolo recently wrote here on MNB about Google’s ambition to know what shoppers want before they know they want it. And we’ve seen Scott Galloway from L2 predict that Amazon will send us stuff without us ordering it relatively soon. Since Google receives searches about much more than products, perhaps they are in a position to give Amazon a run for their money in the predictive retail space. But where does this leave incumbent retailers and advertisers?
JL: I think you would agree that real customer utility is going to come from this next round of predictive data. We saw at Amazon how much customers want to be released from repetitive shopping tasks. I think retailers need to appreciate the differences between shopping and household inventory management. Shopping is about exploration, inventory management is making sure the household isn’t inconvenienced by out of stocks. The behaviors are intertwined but predictive retail takes the pain out of inventory management. Despite the great work we did with conceiving and launching Subscribe and Save, I don’t think that any long term customer would view it as an effortless process and I don’t know that it’s a lot better now than when we launched it. We have yet to see what Google can do for us in this area, but I think the more competition there is in the space the more utility customers will receive.
TF: Good point. What else were you hearing about data?
JL: Everyone was talking about it. Mostly in how to meet shopper needs in the right place, at the right time and in the right way. Oracle, RetailNext, Westfield Corp, Sentient Technologies, Best Buy and many others were in unanimous agreement that unlocking data was the key to customer happiness and retail success. But it seems we’re still so far from realizing this. The last time I hit MSN I received the same redirector ads for the product I purchased two weeks ago.
TF: Well, that’s what you get for hitting MSN.
JL: How else am I going to find out the top ten movies I must see this summer? I’m just reiterating your earlier point. Amazon is testing and launching new retail formats at an unprecedented rate and we know they will all be data driven and customer centric. It’s past the time for these retailers to talk about the importance of data, it’s time to put it to use before their loyal customers are converted to a new format. You know what else has a lot of data? The set of Encyclopedia Britannicas in my parents’ basement. How’s that working for them? It’s not just about having the data. It’s about putting to use.
A fellow conference-goer told us that in the past they would see customers shop several retailers so when they lost a customer they knew they’d have another shot to draw them back. But when their customers switched to online they were gone forever. That’s because truly data driven retailers will anticipate and satisfy a customer’s need before the customer gets their next circular or email campaign.
TF: That’s a great point. OK, enough about data. What else struck you at Shoptalk 2017?
JL: I enjoyed seeing some of the innovation in customer interactions, leveraging digital tools (which, of course, were driven by data). A company named Wish is finding success in selling items that are difficult to shop for in the ‘Amazon Grid.’ In their user experience there is very little text and tons of product images. Customers can endlessly scroll through products like walking down a retail aisle. It seems like we inherited the search grid back on July 5, 1994 and we’ve all accepted it as the proper way to shop online. It’s nice to see companies innovating the shopping experience and I’m sure the results will be great for customers.
TF: I was also really impressed by what Boxed Wholesale has been able to accomplish. Boxed is like a blend of Amazon Subscribe & Save and, more so, Prime Pantry. They are targeting both the center store grocery and club channels, both of which they claim have missed the mark in e-commerce. They have four HALO (heavily automated logistic operation) facilities to service the US. They focus on a mobile user experience and have $100 average order values. They’ve quickly grown to a nine figure business. Still small, but growing quickly. And next they are getting into private label.
The founder, Chieh Huang is building a pretty unique culture there. He plans to personally fund the college education of his employees! I’m not sure how sustainable that is for him personally or for the business, but that’s his plan.
JL: I was also intrigued with how startups are bringing technology to the traditional shopping experience. I saw that BevyUp is creating an endless salesperson-to-customer connection by establishing a platform that the two participants share in an ongoing conversation and continual feedback loop. Nordstrom is using it for their in-store and online stylists so that shoppers can be personally served throughout their Nordstrom experience. Some purchases aren’t completely predictable, require consideration and benefit from the collection of information. Humans can have value in that process and it’s exciting to see these platforms hitting the market and creating opportunities for retailers to better serve their customers.
TF: If you think of the grocery store environment, there is no reason that a chef, deli clerk, butcher, cheese monger, produce expert, nutritionist or pharmacist couldn’t act just like a Nordstrom stylist. The outcomes of their advice could be captured digitally and carried forward with the customer. Then, next time the shop online or come into the store, experienced could be tailored to them. The possibilities are pretty cool.
JL: I think we’re going to see digital and personalization start to drive more physical shopping experiences in the coming months and years. And this will go way beyond targeted discounts.
TF: I agree. I was really impressed with what Sam’s Club is doing around pick up. They are live in 60 clubs in the US. They use the mobile app to “announce” the customer’s arrival. Then, the app tenders the transaction at checkout. They are also experimenting with the technology in the store, allowing customers to bypass the checkout. They also will be bringing this “scan and go” technology to Walmart. I’m sure there will be growing pains, but I really respect their effort.
The Jet / Walmart transaction was also talked about quite a bit at the event. Marc Lore, Jet’s founder and CEO and now head of Walmart E-commerce, was interviewed on stage. There has been a fair bit of reporting about the conversation and how he has been impressed with Walmart’s values and that Walmart leadership has delivered on their promises to him. But beyond that, what did you think of the interview and what do you think about Jet’s prospects?
JL: Marc has certainly proven that he can raise capital and deliver a stellar outcome to his investors and to himself. I think the jury is well out on whether he can build a profitable business. Jet said it needed years of runway and $20B in run-rate sales to reach breakeven. I suppose the bet is that leveraging Walmart’s asset and customer base should accelerate business growth, provide bilateral value to both Jet and Walmart and ultimately reach breakeven sooner. We’ll see. You’d hate to see Walmart shut it down like Amazon just shut down Quidsi, Marc’s prior startup success.
Thanks to Tom and Justin for delivering not just coverage of ShopTalk, but a primer on the state of innovative and strategic thinking in the current competitive environment. The Conversation will continue...
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