If you’re old enough to remember the experience in the picture above, you know that it used to be normal to sit and read a single source of news in printed form.
What they wrote is what you knew. You didn’t have resources to get news from five or ten other unique sources.
When print became obsolete, you probably went to the same source online and read or scrolled through it in pretty much the same way.
That’s over. The most likely way you came to this article was through a link somewhere else. You didn’t say, “now I’m going to read ” and go to the home page. When you’re done with this article, there’s a high likelihood you’ll go to another site or app. It’s not likely you’ll read another article on .com.
At a high level, the same thing is happening in retail. You used to commit to going into a store. When online became available, you went to the retailer or brand’s website and shopped there, just like you used to read one source’s news.
Now that’s changing. When you buy online you are more likely to find fashion and discretionary products through links that lead you to products. You are less likely than in the past to shop online at a specific retailer or brand.
(If you’re saying to yourself, “no, he’s wrong, that’s not how I do it,” I suggest asking your kids or younger friends how they shop.)
The change in online navigation habits is a huge challenge to retailers who are trying to figure out how to keep online visitors coming back.
There are a few ways to make a retailer or brand sticky. One is price but very few brands or retailers can always have the lowest price.
Another is values. Not economic values, personal values. When consumers identify with the defining values of a brand (like sustainability, fair wages, local production, diversity and many other things), they are more likely to be drawn back to a brand, regardless of price.
But no system is perfect and the trend is towards consumers dropping in from a link and jumping back out again.
There are a few reasons why the way you shop for products has become more like the news.
One is that shopping on a single website is boring. There’s usually a lot of scrolling through flat pictures before it gets interesting and even then you can’t touch it or try it on.
The competition for attention from social media is a key reason why consumers jump around (just like the news). Social media uses the world’s most sophisticated technology to guide you to links for news and the nonsense we all love. And now, it takes you shopping too: Link to a product, look at it, go back and see the next thing social media wants to show you.
Why This Is The Biggest Opportunity In Retail Today
Retailers’ response to this conundrum is to focus on personalization and artificial intelligence. That makes websites more relevant and attractive for returning consumers. But it’s only the beginning of a solution to the problem of the wayward consumer.
The real opportunity to bring consumers to retail sites hasn’t been developed but it’s hiding in plain sight: search. If the right search capabilities can be developed, whoever has it will be able to take consumers exactly where they want to go and make online shopping much more interesting and fun and bring consumers back to shop over and over.
You may be saying, “but Google
Social media has muscled in on fashion search because its algorithms work well to attract consumers and hold them. But a search capability that can answer “the Cate Blanchett question” will change how fashion is found and bought online.
Developing that capability is a big opportunity. The world domination that Google has in search is lying fallow for fashion and other discretionary products. The exploration and experience you can do in a physical store isn’t available online right now and that is one of the big missing pieces in online search.
Imagine a fashion website that understands your colloquialisms and takes you to what you want right away instead of endless scrolling.
As smart as artificial intelligence is, that fact that it’s taking time to develop shows just how hard the problem is. But it’s coming because it has to come, there’s a huge opportunity for whoever creates it and now the software and hardware processing is available to make it.
With the right search capabilities that artificial intelligence is now beginning to facilitate, consumers will go to a search site and use regular language to find interesting fashion and other discretionary consumer products.
Whoever creates the ability to understand human communication the way a great personal shopper can will become the Google of shopping. Consumers will come back to it over and over.
It has always been true in retail that whoever controls where consumers go to shop has the power to control margins and success in fashion. Before the internet, that meant having a store in the right location that made it easy and attractive for passersby. In an online world, it means whoever makes it easiest for consumers to find what they want will win.
The most successful company in fashion could ultimately be a software company. (If that sounds paradoxical to you, look at Amazon‘s third-party reseller business. Amazon doesn’t do the merchandising or pay for any inventory, it provides software and services that has made it enormously successful in fashion.)
Eventually, the capability will come to physical stores too and in-store search will become much easier everywhere.
Search technology is how retail has become like newspapers. But as it develops into the future it’s also how retail will avoid the same outcome and adapt to the future.