Peer pressure destroys the power of Advertising

Peer pressure destroys the power of Advertising

The major consequence to marketers of the transfer of power from themselves to their customers is that the effectiveness of their marketing efforts has been deflated, irrespective of their mix of legacy and digital channels, by the power of peer pressure.

As a kid, yo-yos came and went several times, usually with the backing of Coke, as did hula hoops and several others, but the story of fidget spinners appears different.

They came from nowhere, a craze amongst teenagers fuelled by YouTube, that left behind all the usual corporate toymakers who have had to scramble to get their hands on stock, probably arriving about the time the craze will end, leaving them on the beach with warehouses of product the kids see as yesterday’s news.

The toy business, like many, has a rhythm that has evolved over many years. There are a couple of peak sales periods, and the promotion of new toys is aimed at these periods, with lead times of 12-18  months or more. These hierarchical toy marketers NPD cycle times bear no resemblance to the cycle times of the newest crazy thing that catches on.

Finger spinners appeared in the US in early 2017, and sales appeared to have peaked in May or June, and are now in decline, a decline as rapid as the rise. How do businesses geared around an 18 month product development and promotion cycle time compete in this new marketplace  powered by their consumers, not even their customers, who are often the kids parents. Kids went on line to buy these thing before the bricks and mortar retailers had heard of them. Perhaps this is the virus at the core of the recent move to Chapter 11 of Toys R Us, weighed down by a mountain of debt, just before the peak selling period.

This severely condensed cycle time is the new reality of consumer markets, and our legacy  hierarchical organisation structures are unable to accommodate the change. Instead, organisations need to find more ‘organic’ ways of responding to the stuff that goes on in their markets, to see the odd things at the fringe that might become the next big thing, and respond to them with an appropriately condensed supply chain cycle time.

It is not very often organisations will be faced with something as radically short term as fidget spinners, but the lesson is appropriate in all markets, as the disruption to one extent or another, is everywhere.  This condensation of the demand cycle, way out of the control of marketers, is a tectonic shift on the nature of markets and marketing in the 21st century to which adaptation is the key success metric.




Is the supermarket business model developing terminal cracks?

Is the supermarket business model developing terminal cracks?

Are the tiny cracks evident in the current supermarket business model just the beginning of what will become crevasses that will swallow supermarkets, or just annoyances that can be managed?

My view is the former, although we are currently a long way from Coles and Woollies being irrelevant to our lives, and as the dominating incumbents, they do have the option of anticipating and leveraging the changes as they evolve.

The current supermarket business model was built to leverage scale. That is its strength, the ability to centralise decision making and scale those decisions back through supply chains, and out into the consumers’ pockets. Scale has been the dominating characteristic of successful businesses since Alfred Sloan turned General Motors from a failing minnow into a monolithic hierarchical organisation in the 1920’s and 30’s.

The world however has changed.

Hierarchical organisations no matter how well optimised, cannot match the agility of local competition that is more organic in nature, adaptable in close to real time, and able to take advantage of the little cracks that result from the siloed management of the legacy organisation. They are simply able to adapt quicker to the changes in the competitive context in which they operate.

We see evidence of this all around us, from the turnaround in the US military capability under General Stanley McCrystal, to the organic growth of technology companies like Amazon and Google that are organised more as networks than they are as hierarchies, to the growth of local farmers markets, and pop up stores in the increasing number of empty retail spaces in suburban malls.

The siloed, hierarchical organisations of the 20th century have seen their best and are crumbling in the face of the changes in our ability to gather, curate and share information, and then act on it to create and deliver value.

While supermarket buyers optimise their net net prices with suppliers in return for mass distribution and shelf placement, local store managers are excluded from assembling a range optimised to their local buyers. By contrast, a local operator can optimise the range, but lacks the power to optimise the cost prices by virtue of their lack of scale, but that is changing slowly.

Then you have the innovations created by technology, the Amazon Go stores, exploding options to order and schedule delivery on line, the emergence of the ‘Internet of things‘ and artificial intelligence,  coupled with the social movements that are increasingly seeking product provenance as a purchase discriminator.

All this indicates to me that the capital intensive, centralised  supermarket is becoming a legacy model, just as the Department store is proving to be, demonstrated by the tsunami of bankruptcies in the US, and Myer in Australia announcing even more closures last week.

Photo credit: Gerard via Flikr

3 foundations that will enable Amazon to disrupt supermarkets.

3 foundations that will enable Amazon to disrupt supermarkets.

Shopping is a physical and sensory experience, humans evolved doing some sort of physical ‘shopping’ even if for most of our history, the similarity of that activity to a trip to the supermarket has been fleeting. Much as we might hate the queues at the checkout, difficult parking, reducing range as the retail gorillas replace our habitual brands with their own house-branded, and increasingly ‘Bandit branded’  (retailer owned ‘brands’ masquerading as proprietary) Sku’s, there is still an emotional and social element to the experience.

It applies even more in more specialist retailers, the more specialist, the greater the degree of sensory engagement necessary.

This is all breaking down, and quickly, as even high fashion, and highly personalised fashion like Shoes Of Prey, which can designed and bought on line.

So what can we expect from Amazon that would justify $US13.6 billion for Whole Foods?

 Virtual supermarket.

Virtual and Augmented Reality is coming at us like a train. Just as shoes of Prey allows you to design your own shoes, Warby Parker  has become a billion dollar company in 6 years by helping you to choose your glasses on line,   Amazon (surprise surprise) is playing with Prime Wardrobe , and Ikea is experimenting with a virtual furniture app.  it seems a short step to using Virtual reality from your couch to ‘walk’ through, select, place and order and schedule delivery from a grocery ‘store’.

Almost a year ago my second son bought a VR set for a few hundred dollars, and when I fiddled with it, thought I had seen the future of market research. Even so recently my imagination did not take me that next small step to an actual ordering and delivery management system, but why not?

Crowd sourced logistics.

The biggest stumbling block to digital grocery growth has been the logistics, both timing and cost. Fresh and frozen produce where timing and cold chain integrity is paramount, requires a different set of logistic standards to shelf stable commodity categories. Shoppers are very price sensitive across homogenised commodity categories of temperature agnostic products, and it does not matter much if they remain on the front step for a while, diametrically opposed on both counts to produce.

Timing of delivery has been particularly problematic in multiple income homes, and building delivery certainty creates considerable cost.

Both have been solved by the sort of technology Uber uses. Pretty simple to have a crowd sourced delivery service where the vehicles just have a refrigerated unit in the boot hooked into a power source in the car, combined with the delivery scheduling Uber has amply demonstrated works.

 Payment security.

Payment security while it should be a problem, as the level of fraud increases rapidly in Australia, from 16.2cents/$1,000 in 2013 to 24.5 cents/$1,000 in 2015, (according to the Australian Payments Clearing association), it seems not to be for most of us. However, It will be very soon. Blockchain technology will remove much of the risk, and in the early stages of development, seems to be ‘fraud-proof’. Amazon has been experimenting extensively with Blockchain , collaborating with many large financial and digital innovators to better facilitate and secure web based financial transactions.

It seems to me that these are the three building blocks Amazon needs to make a huge dent in the traditional supermarket business, struggling to identify the sustainable sources of growth and profitability. Whole Foods is only the stalking horse, as there is a lot of expertise in procuring quality fresh produce in predictable volumes, and Whole Foods is already an expert in this. Amazon will add the Whole Foods expertise onto what they are doing already, and bingo, another disruption coming your way.



Amazon, Whole Foods and the future of supermarkets in Australia

Amazon, Whole Foods and the future of supermarkets in Australia

Amazon would not have paid $13.8 Billion for Whole foods without a plan. The purchase came as a surprise to most, but it should not have, they have been evolving into bricks and mortar for some time, with books, Amazon Go, The Washington Post,  and a few other dabbles.

Most commentators look at Amazon as a digital retailer, but when you think about it, they are not: they are a Platform that manages supply chains. Those supply chains just happen to end with consumers, rather than a B2B transaction.

Looking at the purchase of Whole Foods through the lens of a supermarket retailer will lead you to wrong conclusions, as you will be looking for the efficiencies that can be squeezed out of the existing model, with a few wrinkles added in.

Wrong lens, wrong model.

Amazon will reinvent the Whole Foods supply chains, and extend them straight to consumers, probably using Blockchain technology. Wal-mart is experimenting with Blockchain in their Pork and Mango supply chains, and I would be astonished if the work Amazon has been doing developing Blockchain technology in finance markets leveraging Amazon web services in collaboration with IBM was not applied very quickly to Whole Foods.

Amazons success (I predict) with Whole Foods  will be enabled by their efficient systems, great technology, engaged workforce and all the other stuff parroted around, but the real reason is far more strategic.

In the ‘old world,’  whether it referred to supermarkets, newspapers, personal transport, or accommodation, success came with the control of supply, which required capital to be in the game. In the digital world, success comes from the control of demand.

Amazon has demonstrated its mastery of demand management, and has demonstrated that this mastery can be leveraged backwards into the physical world, as they deliver a huge range of goods from their warehouses.

The mission statement on Amazons site states:  “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”  No mention I can see of digital, or technology, just customers!

By any measure, Bricks and mortar is on the slide, but on-line sales still amounts to a small proportion of retail. Just what the percentage is depends on whose numbers, and what they classify as retail, but it is less than 10%, 8.3% according to this study but will be more based on the huge number of filings for bankruptcy current in the US. According to this 2017 Nielsen study, online sales of FMCG accounts for 8% of dollars.



The split sales between on line and in store is very wide across different categories, but the growth of 80% in digital while off a modest base, is a statistic that should scare the pants off Coles, Woolworths, and other ‘traditional supermarkets around the world. Sainsburys in the UK has suffered in the share price stakes as their profitability has slipped, while they seem to have done a pretty good job with home delivery, and digital generally. Amazon could buy them from cash flow. Just a thought!


What will the digital/bricks & mortar split be in 20 years?

Will the current 90/10 reverse itself?

Perhaps not, but 50/50 would not seem to be outrageous when you think of the developments in Virtual reality emerging, where you will be able to visit your supermarket from the convenience of your couch at home.

The future is in personalisation, we all seem to accept that. However, the existing supermarket business model is intent on homogenising the experience in the pursuit of low costs.

Do you see a paradox emerging in this? Retailers are doing exactly what consumers do not want, at least outside commodity categories, as is evident in the foregoing graph.

I think  the era of big box retail is coming to an end, and in its place will be experiential retail. Alibaba, the Chinese version of the combination of Amazon and Ebay has stayed away from owning anything beyond the platform that enables connection and sales, but that is also changing. There are now 13 Hema supermarkets around Shanghai, delivering a step towards experiential retail, and using technology to drive then enable the transactions.

If I was running Coles, I would be experimenting with ‘MasterChef’  sections in some stores. Have a chef, cooking the fresh produce in  the stores, simple recipes that shoppers can see in use, and certainly purchase pre packed bundles that have all  the ingredients along with prep notes. Similarly in the Coles owned Bunnings I would have workshops teaching ‘do it yourselfers’ how to use the tools and materials, running classes that use them to make something. Customers  can then buy the tools, blueprints and product packs to make a work bench, toys for the kids, or whatever they wish. In Bunnings currently, if you want to be stocked, you need to have merchandisers that fill the shelves. The next logical stage is to have branded sub stores, where there is only branded product on sale, and with an ‘advisor’ paid by the supplier, on hand.

A shop within a shop if you like, which is not a new idea, department stores have had fashion brands running sections in their stores for years. Experiential retail.

The supermarkets are going in the opposite direction, commoditising everything in the name of efficiency.

The industry has consolidated and consolidated, fewer brands, retail options, and producers. Perhaps there is a tipping point, and we are just passing it.

The consumer is increasingly looking for natural, local, assured provenance, and  environmentally sustainable product, all mixed in with a new shape of ‘value’ less dominated by price than has been in the past. Communicating and delivering these attributes are the foundations of branding, and the delivery of ‘value’ to a purchaser.

Woolworths will live to regret the closure of Thomas Dux. It started so well. Their in store  ‘Foodies’ were a hit in the stores I visited, but the weight of the Woolworths machine drowned them. Bring it back I say, it may be your saviour, or try and buy Harris Farm again before Amazon come in and offer the Harris family enough to retire in gilded luxury to Monaco.

I like Ray Kurzweil’s observation that ‘The future comes very slowly, then all at once’.

This is classically the emergence of AI and combined with the Gartner Hype cycle makes a compelling case. Gartner’s 2016 Hype cycle has several technologies that relate to and are integral to the development of all the AI and VR stuff being hyped. Amazon has the grunt to bring all this to the table and disrupt the comfortable supermarket duopoly that exists in Australasia.

If nothing else, it will be fascinating to watch


Header photo credit: Eli Christman via Flikr.

How big is the Strategic deficit of Australian FMCG retailers?

How big is the Strategic deficit of Australian FMCG retailers?

Strategic deficit is the amount of time, capability, commitment, and energy necessary to bridge the gap from where you may be right now, compared to the most advanced of your current and potential competitors.

A few weeks ago, if asked the question of Australian retailers, particularly the FMCG retail gorillas,  Woolworths and Coles, I would have said several years and more resources than they seem to be prepared to allocate, but more importantly, there is a complete shift in mindset that is required.

Now, if asked the same question, with the news last week of the $US13.8 billion purchase of Whole foods by Amazon, I would suggest the strategic deficit has just doubled, perhaps tripled overnight. Not only has the deficit blown out, but  the rate at which it is accumulating is accelerating given the huge $16 billion investment Amazon made in ‘Technology and Content’ in 2016, the horse has not just bolted, it is over the hill. Not all of that $16 billion will be directly impacting their ability to deliver groceries, but a fair chunk of it will be applicable, and the rest will be learning in other areas that they will be able to leverage over time.

Back in August 2013 when Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post for $250 million cash, many were asking “What does he know about the newspaper business’?

The Post had been one of the icons of journalistic excellence, one of the true ‘newspapers’, but had crashed into successive losses in the face of digital disruption.

Bezos bought the Post, not for Amazon, but from his own funds, it is a personal investment, and therefore perhaps better even that Amazon itself as a signpost of his commitment and what may come elsewhere.

In this National Public Radio report on progress at the Post, there are some useful signposts that may be applicable to Amazons recent purchase of Whole Foods. However, it can be summarised into a few words:

Technology that makes the customer the absolute focus of every single decision and action is the essential foundation for success.

Now, many of the same people are asking ‘What does Amazon know about the fresh produce retail business?  My response is ‘Wait for the implementation of  Amazons brand of technology directed at the produce consumer, and we will find out”.  I would be pretty sure that Amazon has a range of pretty good ideas to be tested at Whole Foods, that will see the hurdles of home delivery of fresh and frozen food overcome.

I am sure Coles and Woollies will be watching, but so was the newspaper business watching technology eat its lunch for a decade before they had any idea of how to address the challenge, and even now, seem incapable of doing anything about it.


How will grocery retailers leverage algorithmic pricing? 

How will grocery retailers leverage algorithmic pricing? 

Economics 101 tells us that price is the point at which supply matches demand, a simple but infinitely variable graph. Throughout history, that equation has reflected the reality of a face to face negotiation, apart from the recent glitch created in the name of efficiency by mass retailing which fixes prices. We all know somewhere in our psyche that price is what someone is prepared to pay at a given point in time for an item.

Look at any housing auction in Sydney at the moment, all sorts of factors are at play that make an auction the best way to determine the ‘right price’ at which to strike a deal. The notion of a fixed price is almost dead in the face of this level of uncertainty about what people are prepared to pay. Uber has disrupted the taxi industry with the same idea. Couple of weeks ago, caught in the rain in mid-afternoon, Taxi’s were an extinct species, so I called up Uber, and needed a second mortgage to pay the Uber-Price, driven up by the time of day, and immediate demand generated by the fact that it was raining cats and dogs.

Price is far more than just  simple intersection on an economists graph.

Chain retailers have semi fixed prices. They have a shelf price, and a set of promotional and deal prices as wide as the imagination and pocket depth of their suppliers who fund the discounts. However, while they are variable, over the shorter time frames they are fixed at some level. This process of centralised control and a physical selling face enables the efficiency of mass merchandising to be leveraged, but loses the flexibility of being able to respond to individual demand at a particular moment in time. .

Imagine the chaos if each store manager could set his/her own prices, then negotiate at the checkout!

Category management evolved as a means to maximise the revenues and margins from a fixed retail space. It is a numbers driven game of great sophistication requiring deep pockets, analytical resources and scale to play effectively. It nevertheless relies on fixed prices, varied over a week or so, and across varieties, brands and shelf placement, but nevertheless, fixed.

On line retailers by contrast are able to vary prices not just day to day, but minute to minute, and increasingly person to person.  It is the digital equivalent to haggling, each party setting out to maximise the return they get from the transaction, by using the whole gamut of trading and negotiation tools.

Amazon is the master, their algorithmically driven pricing is hugely sensitive to hundreds, probably thousands of factors from the weather to your browsing and purchase history, and the time of day.

How would a bricks and mortar retailer combine the margin maximisation flexibility of algorithm driven pricing with the physical constraints of a retail space?

It is a logical question, one that has prompted a lot of thought by a lot of smart people, and mostly the answer is that you can’t.

However, do not tell Amazon who are always prepared, indeed, live by disruption. Their experiment in Seattle with Amazon Go may not succeed in the short term, but the logic of managing price by algorithm to maximise returns will not go away, and Amazon is a long view retailer, unencumbered by demanding quarterly driven stock markets. I do not think  this will be the end of the Australian retail duopoly any time soon, there is still plenty of areas for  them to continue to squeeze the lemon to make profits, but it is certainly a portent of things to come.