The Decline and Rebirth of Retail

Jeff Jordan has an interesting post that looks at long terms trends in retail and more recent news, suggesting an acceleration that is itself a tipping point to the benefit of online. It’s hard to argue with the trends he is pointing out, however that is not the entire story, or at least the interesting one to me.

To look at physical retail and suggest that online will overtake it is not where the story ends. Physical retail won’t stand still, and much like other points in it’s history it will go through a transformation that results in a much different retail industry than we see today.

The next generation of retail likely looks like a hybrid business that brings the convenience of online with the merchandising aspects and physical customer experience of traditional retail together. Okay, that much is probably obvious but if we peel back the covers we could probably identify some interesting intersection points between the two retail models, starting with the distribution capability.

Traditional retail has a distribution model built for store fulfillment, and in parallel they have built distribution centers for online retail fulfillment. 3rd party logistics providers (3PLs) have gotten pretty efficient at template distribution models, scaled appropriately and completely turnkey, an efficiency that no doubt will continue and the result will be unburdening the retailer with significant capital costs if they chose to take this path.

Online retail is not without it’s own costs and discovery is increasing at a rate that will pinch online retailers on their bottom line. If you are Amazon you don’t worry about this, but for everyone else you have to focus a lot of effort on finding people who are not driving by your physical stores daily. Organic SEO is an art and for popular searches a vendor site will rarely display, and SEM is expensive for popular keywords. How else will you get traffic to your site to feed the funnel. a youtube video that takes off? I wouldn’t suggest you build your business model around that.

Jordan highlights a number of news items to support his thesis and while I take the intention they are provided in, I can’t help but highlight a few alternate theories. He writes “it’s getting hard to find a physical book, music or video store these days,” and while true this is easily attributed to the change in consumption habits instead of how people buy these products. I’m also not aware of where I can find a paper scroll store these days. The shift to digital content drives this disruption, not the retail model. how would you go to a physical retailer to get streaming content?

The apparel retailers Jordan highlights are suffering for reasons not associated with the shift to digital, namely the singular focus on a demographic group that has left them behind. Trends change and brands lose their luster, this is not new nor is it caused by online retail. In fact, I would argue that if any segment is insulated from being overtaken by online, it is apparel but the problem is that many physical apparel retailers still think of themselves as a retailer instead of a combined media and retail business. One online retailer that points to a future that could be embraced by physical retailers is the Net-a-Porter company, which for men is represented as the site. It’s a clever adaptation of storytelling and merchandising that should be embraced by physical retailers as a way of sustaining margins and managing an audience instead of just attracting customers with promotions.

I could go through each example Jordan uses and offer an alternate theory for their decline. Maybe in aggregate the trend Jordan highlights is supported by the examples but perhaps they are just complex individual cases of a business cycle playing out. Therefore, the question that we should be considering is the degree to which online retail is growing the entire retail industry, not just transferring business from physical to online.

Regardless of how much I am pro-online retail (300+ Amazon transactions alone last year, on any given day all of the major delivery services are stopping and depositing a small mountain of boxes. there are few things I won’t buy online), I can’t help but admit that physical retail has many appeals and with smart transformation could give online retail a run. Retailers will need to abandon many of the philosophical tenets that have sustained the industry for decades and unlike previous evolutions this is not going to be a crank of the wheel and a tuck here and there, physical retailers need full scale transformation to come out on the other end and only the healthy ones will have the strength to get through it.

UPDATE: McKinsey has a great article on the retail and they explore the ability for retailers to use multichannel strategies to turn stores from liabilities into competitive weapons.

Thinking Ahead to 2014

I always take predictions posts with a grain of salt because they reflect the aspirations of the author as much as a qualified and objective forecast of what will happen in year ahead. but to quote Bill Gates:

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.

In retrospect, it is evident we are in the midst of a profound technological shift that is rather predictably right on the traditional 10 year tech cycle, depending on when you start your calendar. Two rather enormous shifts have been completed and the consequences are profound, so much so that M&A isn’t going to be enough for legacy vendors to make the shift.

The two big curves that have matured are obvious, social technology and mobile. how we communicate with the world at a small level, who we maintain a relationship with, and the world at large via broadcast capability. This has obviously gone into overdrive with mobility introducing new behaviors into our social interactions given that a smartphone is inherently a communication device, and then how we multipurpose mobility into the greater spectrum on functional interactions we have on a day to day basis.

1) Mobile creates clash of user experiences.

When you are on a mobile device using cloud-based services there is something transformational in play, which is that not only are you bypassing many of the controls that dictate how you use apps but you are also using a network that is not under the control of your company.

The result of this is that device management becomes all important or a non-starter because how many employees are going to allow their company to control their personal smartphone or tablet over a wireless carrier’s network? Not many.

Having multiple user accounts in something like a cloud-based storage service creates UX complexity that providers are starting to address, such as Dropbox’s recent announcement bringing together personal and business accounts in one UX.

2) The NSA screws the tech industry.

We’re already starting to see the consequences of this, which is that while consumers may not care that the government is snooping around their stuff but companies really do pay attention to this. The ramifications to this are that companies selling stuff to business buyers are being hit with specific requirements about where data is stored, and if you are trying to sell in EMEA what this means is that a Safe Harbor statement is no longer adequate.

An open question that in unanswerable right now is the degree to which the infrastructure, service providers, and various data intermediaries serving b2b and b2c markets treat the government as a hostile actor. Hacking and data security threats were previously in the domain of criminal activities and espionage however more recently we have started to see major companies, such as Apple and Microsoft, say these threats are threats to be defended against “regardless of who’s behind them” and represent “persistent security threats”.

Silicon Valley can no longer turn a cheek and say “gee we didn’t know this was happening” when the industry built the very infrastructure that is now being used for large scale domestic spying, and in many cases taking taxpayer money in the background.

3) Big data takes a breather.

The fixation on big data will take a pause in 2014, thank God. The challenge isn’t the technology itself, which is pretty amazing in scope and impact over the long run. What will put the brakes on the hype cycle is simply that customers don’t know what to do with all the data that can be aggregated and analyzed by these technology tools.

For big data to realize the potential of the technology vision, companies need to evolve organizationally and from the standpoint of where their data comes from. big data with just your stuff is rarely big data.

There are a lot of really interesting data plays out there right now and with a few more turns of the crank we will be turnkey with data analytics capabilities that are only fantasy today, all in realtime and with incredible performance, but it’s going to be another 12-18 months in my opinion.

4) Economics will be a constant discussion for big enterprise companies.

The shift from perpetual to subscription and then to SaaS is going to give heartburn to a lot of CFOs at big enterprise software companies. Just last month Oracle’s earnings call focused attention on this subject and it’s not just the necessity to fund the bookings-to-revenue dynamic but also directly impacts sales team compensation and much more.

You really don’t appreciate the requirement that funding the shift to subscription is material until you are in the midst of doing it. There are a thousand details and all of them end up at your bottom line. We’ll hear more about this this from the big public companies in 2014.

5) A lot of technology stuff moves into the stack.

With more and more application services moving to the cloud the requirement to connect the functional componentry, not just the data, forces you to make some strategic decisions about how much of your infrastructure you will move to the cloud at the same time.

In my particular area of focus, identity, it can be expected that identity services for authentication and provisioning will move into hosted environments that are just part of the stack. This is not unlike what happened in the early days of networking when protocol adapters, namespace, and packet routing were in a company’s datacenter. As these technologies matured and the competitive market coalesced around standards, all this stuff moved into what is essentially a black box that you turned on and never thought much about, the same things is happening today with technologies that make cloud services interoperable.

We’ve moved from SDKs to APIs in the last decade and with it has come a level of standardization around the things that are required to deliver an application to an end user, it should therefore be expected that higher value functions like performance analytics, threat detection, identity, and much more will just become part of the toolkit that developers use to build new apps.

Empathy in Everyday Life

Last night I was leaving my office in Denver to head to the airport to come home. It was 7:10pm and my driver was waiting for me at the corner of 17th and Arapahoe. I patiently waited at the light and then stepped into the crosswalk. bam.

A car turning left hit me and the one thing I remember is “hey my bag is rolling across the street” followed by “holy shit I just got hit by a car”.

A couple of young women crossing the street ahead of me ran to help, picking up my stuff for me while I composed myself. The driver of the car rather predictably got out and said “gee I didn’t see you”. No broken bones, a little sore, but everything seemed to work so as I stood there on the sidewalk I dialed 911 and spoke to a very nice dispatcher who asked me a few questions and actually made me feel very calm.

After another call to 911 to find out where the police were, I told the guy to give me his info because it was cold out and I just wanted to go home. As I was doing that, at 7:25pm a police cruiser pulled up.

Here’s where things went off the rails and the I get to the point of today’s post.

Police officer Patrick Hayden (I only know this because I have his card, not because he introduced himself) got out of his cruiser all geared up and looking hard, and failed to display a minimal degree of empathy. No “can I help you” or “let me get you out off the sidewalk”. Instead, I got the clinical “are you hurt?” and “do you need a paramedic?”. Fine, I could live with that, in such a situation you should cover the essentials first.

However, Office Hayden then displayed a degree of irritation that I was making him file a report. I had to stand on the sidewalk with temperature in the teens for 30 minutes with varying degrees of stiffness and discomfort setting in while he sat in his cruiser and pecked away at his computer and talked on his cellphone. Actually, I would not have minded sitting the backseat of his car out of the cold, instead of standing.

In a perfunctory manner he gave me his business card with a number scribbled on the back, I assume this is the file number I should reference. At this point, I just wanted to get to the airport so I didn’t miss my flight, the last one of the day. I just made it, walked to the gate and right on to the plane.

I got hit by a car and I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest I have full license to be upset in the moment. Office Hayden made a bad situation worse by not recognizing the second part of the “protect and serve” mission stenciled on his cruiser. I have interacted with police officers at many points in my life, from getting pulled over for speeding to local charity events, and the one characteristic that has multiplier value in law enforcement is empathy. Dealing with people in stressful situations, regardless of the circumstances, is infinitely better when the human element is empowered.

This made me think, not surprisingly, of customer experience and how the power and value of brands is improved when the human dimension is enabled. As an example, my flight was on Southwest and the gate agent saw me in some discomfort and helped me stow my bags and get situated. Just this morning, the car service I used called me to see how I was feeling (my driver saw the accident), which is another great example of empathy in action. By contrast, my opinion of the Denver Police Department is significantly worse as the result of one unfortunate situation when I really needed them to help me instead of just respond to my 911 call.

Silicon Valley Doesn’t Want DC’s System

With the well covered fiasco in it’s second full month and no relief in sight, certainly not before the self-imposed end of November deadline that the Obama Administration set for itself, I can’t help but think back to the President’s proclamation that he would bring the “best and brightest of Silicon Valley” to bear to fix it. With that earnest statement the President inadvertently put a spotlight on what is wrong with this system.

Why didn’t the government have the best and brightest on this for the 3 1/2 years they were building a website and supporting systems as a cost to taxpayers that dwarfs anything the biggest companies in the Valley have built? Silicon Valley is as much ideological as it is geographical and when you focus on the ideology no one can dispute that the best and brightest in the tech industry simply reject working in the bureaucracy of government, with arcane rules and protracted timelines that attract not the best and brightest but those that simply survive in the system. Silicon Valley doesn’t want your stinkin system.

Washington values rhetoric more than accomplishment and the lack of engineering excellence in government becomes an antibody for those that value engineering above rhetoric. You can put a shiny new website up but at the end of the day it is still the same ‘ol clunky government behind the scenes. and this is something that our Blackberry-toting President doesn’t seem to grasp, you can’t talk your way out of it when you are a generation or two behind the current state of the art.

What engineers know that lawyers and politicians often don’t is that in the world of things, as opposed to people, there’s no escaping the sharp teeth of reality. But in law, and especially politics, inconvenient facts are merely inconvenient, something to be rationalized away.

Noisy Browser Tabs and Finding Your Stuff

I read this today and thought “yes, it’s about time”.

When a tab is streaming audio in Chrome 32 Beta, an indicator will appear next to the close tab X. The indicators will change depending on the source, so streaming audio will be denoted by a speaker icon, a red circle will indicate a Web cam, and Chromecast’s box icon will notify you when you’re broadcasting a tab to your television.

Yes, it is a welcome improvement but just the start of what should be a wide ranging overhaul of tabs in general.

1) When you are like me and have so many tabs open that you see nothing but favicons, finding stuff becomes a frustrating task. and then multiply this by the 6 browser windows I have open. FIX: Give me the ability to tag browser tabs so that they stand out in the crowd and for a bonus give me the ability to expand a tab to full size so that I can read it instead of interpreting a favicon.

2) Hangouts are great and one thing that I am finding very frustrating is that when a Hangout opens within an existing browser window instead of launching a new one. The problem becomes acute when you go to screenshare something and you first have to shift focus to find what it is you want to share. and then try to find your Hangout tab to regain focus. FIX: Pop the browser tab size (vertical and horizontal) for Hangouts to provide quick visual reference.

3) Finding browser tabs across multiple open windows is a PITA and often I find myself wanting a shortcut to simply identify a tab. FIX: Give me a dropdown menu like the App Menu to display every open browser tab across all windows.

Paxata Launches, Data Services on a Blistering Roll

My very good friend Nenshad Bardoliwalla launched his latest company, Paxata. Nenshad is an amazing entrepreneur who co-founded Tidemark in addition to literally writing the book on implementing performance management with analytics.

What is really interesting about Paxata is that they are focusing on the fundamental problem anyone attempting to perform complex data analytics faces, which is that your data doesn’t live in one place and getting it into a model that improves over time is a bigger challenge than giving end users better tools for performing the actual analytics.

Data services in the context of big data and business analytics will be a rapidly expanding category in it’s own rite and as companies seek to integrate data they own with services they subscribe to or just gather from public sources, the data preparation steps and ongoing optimization will be far more valuable than just integration alone.

The Ingenuity of Man

I am a woodworker. It started when I was a teenager and worked in the construction trades for spending and school money, later progressing to a full fledged necessary hobby when we were facing a new house with a lot of empty rooms and I figured “well hell I’ll just build the furniture”. Today I can spend literally 18 hours in my workshop and not even notice the time slip by, I get completely lost in activity and thought with the result being my own form of therapy as well tangible output.

The act of creating is powerful and emotive on a lot of levels, and this skill that I have worked hard to develop over the years connects me to a basic drive for self-sustainability that I hope my children also develop an appreciation for. Knowing how to build something and looking at a stack of wood not as a pile of debris that needs cleaning up but the inspiration for endless possibilities is really pretty satisfying.

20131020_182849_editedEqually satisfying is knowing that I can make for myself something precisely what I want and unique in the world, and at this point in my woodworking journey I can build a wide range that meets every need and want we have in our home, as is the case with one of my current projects, four mahogany carriage doors to replace the typical rollup garage door that came with the house.

I had an epiphany of sorts while working on this and it came in the form of a scrap piece of word with some markings on it. While it would seem logical to measure everything with a tape measure or ruler, the fact of the matter is that the most reliable way to get consistent measurements and layouts is to transfer from one to another. The human eye can trick you and an unnoticed slip of the hand or momentary loss of attention can result in a ruined days work so I end up taking sticks and scribbling on them when I need to make repetitive measurements.

20131020_182059_editedIt was when I glanced at this scrap on my workbench that I appreciated how much information was stored on those markings, in this case I could layout 4 separate operations with great accuracy and little opportunity for error. However, the epiphany I had was really about the wonderful workings of the human brain; while I can’t perform a billion math operations a second I can adapt ordinary items into highly useful tools and in the process create my own computational system on the fly that is perfectly adapted to a particular problem. along with emotion and empathy, this makes humans pretty unique and unlike any computer.

Presentations That Don’t Suck

I do a lot of presentations and enjoy the process of creating the content as much as delivering it. Over the years I have seen the full range, from the awesome to the truly bad, and this last Saturday I went to the Being Human conference with a friend. The speakers were impressive, very impressive, and I would encourage you to check them out.

I commented to Bryan that I was thinking about what made these presenters so compelling and 2 things jumped out. With a couple of exceptions, every speaker was a PhD, which means they spend a significant amount of their time teaching. This experience is unique because of the feedback loop that a classroom is and the opportunity for extemporaneous discussion about the material, which develops a high degree of comfort. Secondly, each presenter covered material that is their life’s work, they are not repeating talking points and reading from slides prepared by other people… they own the content and have deep expertise to back it up. Practice and content ownership make come together to make these presenters really impressive.

I was inspired and the experience made me think about what makes a good presentation in our business.

1) Kill the weak: Strong and assertive language is honed, eliminate weak words and phrases. Don’t equivocate, state your message clearly and with conviction.

2) Speak to the audience: Use language that everyone in your audience can relate to and don’t talk down to them.

3) Focus on the theme: Reinforce the central theme and keep it focused by revisiting main points, visually and in the narrative.

4) Would you like it? If you don’t love your own presentation then rethink it. Be honest with yourself.

5) Steel fist, velvet glove: Finish with a KO punch, don’t run out of gas halfway through. Save the best for last to burn in the central theme.

6) Math is graded: Do your numbers add up? Also take care to use numbers on a common scale to prevent confusion across multiple slides.

7) An image is always better: Bullets are for firearms… images are always better for communicating.

8) Speak to the slides: You are Batman, the slides are Robin… the sidekick. Run the show and build the slides to reflect that.

9) Less is more: Review every slide for stuff that doesn’t help… your presentation is a children’s book for adults. Another way to approach this is what is called "tweetable moments" which are nothing more than what 140 character message would you want tweeted by an audience after each slide.

10) It’s a conversation: Presenting is about creating a sense of comfort and intimacy as much as it is communicating a message. Be yourself and that means be animated with your body language, use anecdotes to personalize the content, be self-deprecating, and most of all be enthusiastic about it because enthusiasm and excitement are infectious qualities (unless you are presenting on something like genocide, in which case enthusiasm is not good).

Startup Lessons: Tough Decisions

This is the 6th installment in the Startup Lessons series I have been writing in the wake of my experience with Get Satisfaction. This one is a tough one to write and it is important to acknowledge that when it comes to strategy there is a lot of nuance and the fact remains that you are dealing with a complex multi-variant problem so there is no playbook you can pull off the shelf and just hit go. Having said that, a key failing of startup management teams is the inability to develop and adhere to a strategic planning process that lays out priorities and initiatives that have to be attacked in order to achieve the only metric that matters, growth.

To recap, here is the series thus far:

1) Hiring
2) Dynamic Org Structures
3) Product First
4) Marketing
5) Board Management

6) Tough decisions: Today I want to highlight is the challenge of making tough calls in a startup, decisions that may mean giving up one thing you already have in exchange for something you would like to have. You can’t have it all so you have to narrow down the range of strategies you are executing to those things that sustain the company over the short and medium term, grow shareholder value, and result in a culture of winning. The bottom line is that your resources will constantly be 120% consumed and the only metric that matters is growth, so bias every decision you make to delivering growth

Case in point during my tenure was the observation I made in late 2010 that a reliance on a feature driven packaging approach was hamstringing the company and creating a bias to the direct sales side of the business. Enterprise sales models deliver revenue and there is an extensive library of company case studies on building large businesses off enterprise license agreements but those models don’t deliver customer number growth and coverage across businesses of all sizes.

We kicked this can for a full year – we wasted a year – until we took one step in the right direction and replaced our antiquated billing system. The problem is that this is just one piece of the puzzle and it wasn’t until I took it on myself to start driving change on the pricing model itself that the product, packaging, and pricing aligned. The massively frustrating part of this work was getting people to look beyond the revenue impact in the current customer base. Once we moved beyond the protracted months long debate that centered on existing revenue streams, people got behind it and delivered a thoughtful and well presented agent-based pricing model. and then abandoned it.

This realization helped me understand the human psychology of decision dynamics more than anything else. People, rational and educated people no less, have a tendency to overvalue the thing they already have relative to the thing they are moving to. Looking at the revenue impact of customers moving from high price points to lower price points that are consumption metered misses the point that protecting the existing revenue is not the strategic priority. growing the business is. The risk in allowing the compromise to be driven by existing customer dynamics is that it is is encapsulated by the saying “a camel is a horse designed by committee”. so much gets compromised in order to protect something that you end up in a position that really isn’t much different than where you already are.

When you push out tough decisions that will ultimately never be made with perfect information you are wasting the one resource you will never get more of – time. Assumptions have to be made and decisions fully committed to, the consequences of failing are serious but equally serious consequences result from failing to act when action is precisely what is required. If the decisions and commitments were easy they would already have been made, the fact that teams struggle with tough decisions is not the exception but when you know with certainty that what you are doing today is not optimal and within your capacity to improve, there is no excuse for pushing it for the sole reason that doing nothing is easier until the point when you literally have no choice but to change.

Gmail Tabs: Heartburn for Email Marketers

Like many Gmail users I have adopted the new tabbed interface that started rolling out in June. I like the organization model and find their categorization remarkably accurate, which in light of the ongoing government data privacy scandals only makes me more concerned about the machine processing of communications. However, it is useful and I only wish I could create my own tabs.

Screenshot (21)However, not all is rosy and I have noticed with particular interest that a number of prominent email marketers are sending out “helpful” messages about moving their messages from the Promotions tab to the Primary tab.

There are a couple of outcomes here that are interesting to consider. First and foremost is that a subset of marketers will be successful in moving to the Primary tab, based on the appeal they present to their customers. This will create a two-tier model where preferred marketers are valued disproportionately based on their customer appeal while the blunt force trauma marketers will be forced to change tactics as more email systems, presumably, adopt the Gmail tabbed interface (which for the record is not a new idea, AOL’s Altomail service had this well before Gmail).

The impact on email marketers is being felt and several studies are now coming out that quantify that impact. Email marketing analytics firm Litmus has published some stats showing a significant decline in Gmail open rates. However, their data is more complicated than a single stat would suggest and what they are questioning is how many Gmail web users actually open email in general in the web interface and in alternative apps, such as iPhone’s integrated email app.


ReturnPath has a different study that states that delivery rates are up but open rates are down. My own experience aligns with the ReturnPath data, which is that consolidating marketing email in one tab has increased its visibility to me, and for the merchants I care about I actually read their content more regularly. This aligns with the 2 tier model I suggested in the intro, open rates in my inbox are down overall but for the select vendors that target well and present offers I care about, my open rates are up.

I actually like email marketing but find the vast majority of merchants doing it really poorly. They clearly don’t connect with me on the basis of what I care about and will respond to, it is for the most part dumb marketing. Email marketers will have to deal with the new UX controls that email providers are building in by presenting more utility in their marketing campaigns, which means knowing more about me at an interest level, not just my demographics.