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The state of retail

January 6, 2013 5 comments
CNBCBlackFriday

The love of the bargain is what drives them… Click for CNBC’s coverage

It’s a common fallacy to think of a time before a change in status quo as somehow being magically problem-free. A Panglossian world where all was well and nothing needed to change, and wasn’t it a shame that it had to. Similarly, we cannot blithely consign the retail industry of the past to some glorious era when everything was perfect; far from it. The industry has been under continual evolution, with no absence of controversy on the way. It was therefore a timely reminder, as well as being a fascinating article in its own right, when the New York Times provided readers recently with a potted history and a gaze into the future of Manhattan department store stalwart, Barneys. Not only is their past one in which the original proprietor sought to undercut his own suit suppliers, creating a bootlegging economy by literally ripping out their labels and replacing them with his own, but it was also one where department stores served a very different purpose to what they do today. They had less direct competition, not least unforeseen competition in the form of shops without a physical presence. Moreover, today they are run in an extremely different way, with an arguably much healthier emphasis on revenue (though some might say this comes at the expense of a feeling of luxury, in a lobby now brimming with handbags and little breathing room). The problems and opportunities for Barneys could serve as an analogy for the industry of which it is a part.

Despite brief reprieves such as Black Friday (click on headline image for CNBC’s coverage), as well as the expected post-Christmas shopping frenzy, can one of the main problems affecting retail at the moment simply be that it is undergoing an industry-wide bout of creative destruction? Zeitgeist has written about the nature of creative destruction before, and whether or not that is to blame for retail’s woes, the sector is certainly in the doldrums. In the UK, retailers are expecting a “challenging” year ahead. Recent research from Deloitte shows 194 retailers fell into administration in 2012, compared with 183 in 2011 and 165 in 2010. So, unlike the general economy, which broadly can be said to be enjoying a sclerotic recovery of sorts, the state of retail is one of continuing decline. How did this happen, and what steps can be taken to address this?

Zeitgeist would argue that bricks and mortar stores are suffering in essence due to a greater amount of competition. By which, we do not just mean more retailers, on different platforms. Whether it be from other activities (e.g. gaming, whether MMOs like World of Warcraft or simpler social gaming like Angry Birds), or other avenues of shopping (i.e. e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley recently predicted would be a $1 trillion dollar market by 2016), there is less time to shop and more ways to do it. The idea of going to shop in a mall now – once a staple of American past-time – is a much rarer thing today. It would be naive to ignore global pressures from other suppliers and brands around the world as putting a competitive strain on domestic retailers too. Critically, and mostly due to social media, there are now so many more ways and places to reach a consumer that it is difficult for the actual sell to reach the consumer’s ears. This is in part because companies have had to extend their brand activity to such peripheries that the lifestyle angle (e.g. Nike Plus) supercedes the call-to-action, i.e. the ‘BUY ME’. The above video from McKinsey nicely illustrates all the ways that CMOs have to think about winning consumers over, which now extend far beyond the store.

If we look at the in-store experience for a moment without considering externalities, there is certainly opportunity that exists for the innovative retailer. Near the end of last year, the Financial Times published a very interesting case study on polo supplier La Martina. The company’s origins are in making quality polo equipment, from mallets to helmets and everything in between, for professional players. As they expanded – a couple of years ago becoming the principle sponsor of that melange of chic and chav, the Cartier tournament at Guards Polo Club – there came a point where the company had to decide whether it was going to be a mass-fashion brand, or remain something more select and exclusive. As the article in the FT quite rightly points out, “Moving further towards the fashion mainstream risked diluting the brand and exposing it to volatile consumer tastes.” The decision was made to seek what was known as ‘quality volume’. The company has ensured the number of distributors remains low. Zeitgeist would venture to say this doesn’t stop the clothing design itself straying from its somewhat more refined roots, with large logos and status-seeking colours and insignia. Financially though, sales are “growing more than 20% a year in Europe and Latin America”, which is perhaps what counts most currently.

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Louis Vuitton’s ‘L’ecriture est un voyage‘ is a good example of experimental thinking and missed opportunities

In the higher world of luxury retail, Louis Vuitton is often at the forefront (not least because of its sustained and engaging digital work). While we’re focusing purely on retail environments though, it was interesting to note that the company recently set up shop (literally) on the left bank of Paris; a pop-up literary salon, to be precise. Such strokes of inspiration and innovation are not uncommon at Vuitton. They help show the brand in a new light, and, crucially, help leverage its provenance and differentiate it from its competition. Sadly, when Zeitgeist went to visit, there was a distinct feeling of disappointment that much more could have been done with the space, which, while nicely curated (see above), did little to sell the brand, particularly as literally nothing was for sale. The stand-out piece, an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, by Ed Ruscha, Zeitgeist had seen around two years ago when it was on show at the Gagosian in London. Not every new idea works, but it is important that Louis Vuitton is always there at the forefront, trying and mostly succeeding.

So what ways are there that retailers should be innovating, perhaps beyond the store? One of the more infuriating things Zeitgeist hears constructed as a polemic is that of retail versus the smartphone. This is a very literal allusion, which NBC news were guilty of toward the end of last year. “Retail execs say they’re winning the battle versus smartphones”, the headline blared. What a more nuanced analysis of the situation would realise is that it is less a case of one versus the other, than one helping the other. The store and the phone are both trying to achieve the same things, namely, help the consumer and drive revenue for the company. Any retail strategy should avoid at all costs seeing these two as warring platforms, if only because it is mobile inevitably that will win. With much more sound thinking, eConsultancy recently published an article on the merits of providing in-store WiFi. At first this seems a risky proposition, especially if we are to follow NBC’s knee-jerk way of thinking, i.e. that mobile poses a distinct threat to a retailer’s revenue. The act of browsing in-store, then purchasing a product on a phone is known as showrooming, and, no doubt aided by the catchy name, its supposed threat has quickly made many a store manager nervous. However, as the eConsultancy article readily concedes, this trend is unavoidable, and it can either be ignored or embraced. Deloitte estimated in November that smartphones and tablets will yield almost $1bn in M-commerce revenues over the Christmas period in the UK, and influence in-store sales with a considerably larger value. That same month in the US, Bain & Co. estimated that “digital will influence more than 50% of all holiday retail sales, or about $400 billion”. Those retailers who are going to succeed are the ones who will embrace mobile, digital and their opportunities. eConsultancy offer,

“For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales… WiFi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network. Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores… 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store WiFi.”

These kind of features all speak more broadly to improving and simplifying the in-store experience. They also illustrate a trend in the blending between the virtual and physical retail spaces. Major retailers, not just in luxury, are leading the way in this. Walmart hopes to generate $9bn in digital sales by the end of its next fiscal year. CEO Mike Duke told Fast Company, “The way our customers shop in an increasingly interconnected world is changing”. This interconnectedness is not new, but it is accelerating, and the mainstream arrival of 4G will only help spur it on further. The company is soon to launch a food subscription service, pairing registrants with gourmet, organic, ethnic foods, spear-headed by @WalmartLabs, which is also launching a Facebook gifting service. At the same time, it must be said the company is hedging its bets, continuing with the questionable strategy of building more ‘Supercenters’, the first of which, at the time a revolutionary concept, they opened in 1988.

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One interesting development has been the arrival of stores previously restricted to being online into the high street, something which Zeitgeist noted last year. This trend has continued, with eBay recently opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden. These examples are little more than gimmicks though, serving only to remind consumers of the brands’ online presence. Amazon are considering a much bolder move, that of creating permanent physical retail locations, if, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, they can come up with a “truly differentiated idea”. That idea and plan would be anathema to those at Walmart, Target et al., who see Amazon as enough of a competitor as it is, especially with their recent purchase of diapers.com and zappos.com. It serves to illustrate why Walmart’s digital strategies are being taken so seriously internally and invested in so heavily. Amazon though has its own reasons for concern. Earlier in the article we referenced the influence of global pressures on retailers. Amazon is by no means immune to this. Chinese online retailer Tmall will overtake Amazon in sales to become the world’s largest internet retailer by 2016, when Tmall’s sales are projected to hit $100 billion that year, compared to $94 billion for Amazon. The linked article illustrates a divide in the purpose of retail platforms. While Amazon is easy-to-use, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, a Chinese alternative like Taobao is much more bare-bones. As the person interviewed for the article says, “It’s more about pricing – it’s much cheaper. It’s not about how great the experience is. Amazon has a much better experience I guess – but the prices are better on Taobao.”

So how can we make for a more flexible shopping experience? One which perhaps recognises the need in some users to be demanding a sumptuous retail experience, and in others the need for a quick, frugal bargain? Some permutations are beginning to be analysed, and offered. Some of these permutations are being met with caution by media and shoppers. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Staples has developed a complex pricing strategy online. Specifically, the WSJ found, it raises prices more than 86% of the time when it finds the online shopper has a physical Staples store nearby. Similar such permutations in other areas are now eminently possible, thanks in no small part to the rise of so-called Big Data. Though the Staples price fluctuations were treated with controversy at the WSJ, they do point to a more realistic supply-and-demand infrastructure, which could really fall under the umbrella of consumer ‘fairness’, that mythical goal for which retailers strive. Furthemore, being able to access CRM data and attune communications programmes to people in specific geographical areas might enable better and more efficient targeting. Digital also allows for a far more immersive experience on the consumer side. ASOS illustrate this particularly well with their click-to-buy videos.

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As the Boston Consulting Group point out in a recent report, with the understated title ‘Digital’s Disruption of Consumer Goods and Retail’,  “the first few waves of the digital revolution have upended the retail industry. The coming changes promise even more turmoil”. This turmoil also presents problems and opportunities for the marketing of retail services, which must be subject to just as much change. If we look at the print industry,  also comparatively shaken by digital disruption, it is interesting to note the way in which the very nature of it has had to change, as well as the way its benefits are communicated. It is essential that retailers not see the havoc being waged on their businesses as an opportunity to ‘stick to what they do best’ and bury their head in the sand. This is the time for them to drive innovation, yes at the risk of an unambitious quarterly statement, and embrace digital and specifically M-commerce. What makes this easy for those companies that have so far resisted the call is that there is ample evidence of retailers big and small, value-oriented to luxury-minded, who have already embraced these new ideas and platforms. Their successes and failures serve as great templates for future executions. And who knows, the state of retail might not be such a bad one to live in after all. Until the next revolution…

Visiting Google HQ

On Monday morning, fully half the Zeitgeist team awoke from its slumber, left its abode and walked the 15-minute walk to Mecca. While not a dedicated fanboy, the integral part this company has played in the evolution of the Internet over the past decade, (Zeitgeist first remembers using their search engine in 1999), is undeniable. The morning would be spent in the hallowed halls of Google HQ. Mobile advertising for the Android platform would be the focus.

After munching on a croissant, downing an Earl Grey and meandering past the ice cream delivery bicycle, Zeitgeist was talked at by Ian Carrington, Amanda Rosenberg, Reto Meier, Scott Seaborn from that indefatigable ad agency Ogilvy and from IconMobile; Steve Griffiths.

Given the high volume of iPhones-to-people ratio in the room, it was not best to start off the morning with a non-so-subtle jibe at the aforementioned device. However this was indeed how the morning started; these jibes became the sine qua non of the whole event. Given the current regulatory scrutiny Google’s search empire faces regarding Net Neutrality, any hubris around ‘open source’ might have also have been best kept checked, yet there it was. Those who persevered in their listening heard that 2010 was indeed the year of the mobile. For some it may have seemed like they had been stuck in an echo chamber; every year since at least 2005 has been deemed ‘the year of the mobile’, occasionally with the suffix “but this time it really is!”. Zeitgeist would not care to argue with the statement though, as finally consumer desire and the corporate technology to suit that desire seem to be approaching an optimum. Last Christmas, there was a sale on eBay through a mobile device every two seconds. We were told that “Everything Google do, we have a mobile version of”. Despite this poor syntax, this was an impressive statement; something simple and logical, but surely something that only a very small number of companies could lay claim to.

Google’s director of mobile advertising said that the company’s mantra when developing new products was now “mobile first”, again, an impressive affirmation when you really think about it. Currently there are fifty times as many searches performed on smartphones vs merely WAP-enabled handsets. So the iPhone, Android platform and its myrmidons are clearly providing a better user experience for consumers, that they in turn are utilising – though it will be interesting to see whether the soon-to-be-introduced data tariffs will have any impact on this. This may not be the year of the mobile, but it certainly is the year when futureproofing becomes a sound investment: In 2013, smartphone sales are predicted to overtake PC sales, which will coincide with mobile internet use overtaking desktop computer use. It’s quite plausible by then that such distinctions between types of computers will be even fuzzier than now, (iPhone, iPad, netbook, laptop, desktop) if not moot.

Google is currently in the throes of redesigning its Android application store, currently with 60,000 apps and growing (compared to Apple’s 250,000+). Apps are an interesting phenomenon. With Apple’s initial inception, they are now quite the hot item, the thing your client’s clamour after without knowing exactly why. Yet what service do they provide? According to the meeting yesterday, 95% of Apple’s apps are not used after twenty days. For Windows’ part, half of the ‘Marketplace for Mobile’ apps are made by Microsoft, suggesting they have some way to go before accruing a wide, collaborative audience. The utility of an app, it was suggested to the audience yesterday, could be one of two things; engagement or purchase. Your app is there to either enhance the brand (like Chanel or Dior) or to encourage purchase (Argos). Time, lack thereof and frequency are also a large contributing factor to an app’s use. Simply put, it would not be worth someone’s while to download the Expedia app to their phone in order to book a single flight. It would, however, be of use to a regular traveller.

The audience was later shown a graph showing mobile and desktop search queries throughout an average day, with troughs and peaks mirrored between the two systems. Google stated they were not sure whether mobile search had a cannabilisation effect on desktop search, and that they “don’t care”.

We were then treated to a presentation by Amanda who delved into the world of Android-capable handsets. This included voice search – asking the phone directly “What are the best restaurants for breakfast near Union Square in San Francisco?” led to a satisfying list of responses – and voice text; unfortunately punctuation is something that remains almost impossible to do by voice, currently. There was also an example of Google Goggles, which, as well as being able to identify a building from a picture taken by a user, can also scan hard copy text, translate it and then pronounce it for you. All of which, except for the semantics of context, was most impressive.

Scott Seaborn then stepped up to the plate, going through some interesting case studies of mobile advertising. Two in particular caught Zeitgeist’s eye. The first was the Seer app that IBM updated for this year’s Championships at Wimbledon. This interesting video from the somnambulistic “Click” show on the BBC details the amazing thing that OgilvyOne’s app can achieve. Also quite fun was the new Coke Zero iPhone app called The Cleaner, soon to be released.

Steve from WPP’s Iconmobile brought up some similarly interesting case studies. The first of which was for T-Mobile as it attempted to encourage paperless billing with a great mobile initiative that involved “green” perks. The other highlight was that of a North Face campaign in China, which won a Silver Lion at Cannes. An interesting co-incidence of brand and region, as most Chinese people are currently gravitating to an urban life, and do not traditionally treat hiking or mountain-climbing as a past-time.

We then heard more about the Android platform. 160k devices that support Android are activated daily now. One of the nicer features that Zeitgeist saw was the enablement of cross-app usage. A user could be browsing through nearby restaurants on one app. Upon finding the one they want and clicking on a button in the app to book a table, the user would then be taken straight to the OpenTable app, which would immediately display the available times and tables for the restaurant you were just looking at on a separate application. While convenient and a nice move, this does present a potential hindrance for advertisers if users begin to navigate through the web merely by going from proprietary app to app rather than using a browser where they would be exposed to more advertising.

Conversely, the expandable ads that will begin to appear on Android platforms while surfing looked great, especially for things like films (the example we saw was for Adam Sandler’s Funny People). Lastly, we saw the new ‘Navigation’ app, which is currently only available in the US. Its map system allowed for alerts to the user for nearby amenities on their chosen route, e.g. cinemas, restaurants, etc. Interestingly, it also allowed for sponsored layers, meaning advertisers could put specific flags down on the map for particular promotions, to encourage people to take advantage of en route to their final destination.

As for Google’s final destination? Well, we’ll save that for a future article.

Louis Vuitton’s Brand Balancing Act

LV may have been around since 1854, but, as the saying goes, you’re only as good as your last picture. Just as many an actor has been condemned to Hollywood purgatory through making one poor choice, so it is with a brand. A brand’s equity is made or broken by its perception, i.e. what it’s done lately. Ogilvy’s own Louis Vuitton has been in the press a lot recently, for reasons both good and bad. Zeitgeist takes a look at Vuitton’s goings on, and what impact the machinations will have on it’s brand.

The last Friday of May heralded the reopening of London’s New Bond St. Louis Vuitton boutique, with the new moniker of ‘Maison’, presumably denoting it as a flagship store. Never one to miss a way to include Facebook, Vuitton recorded the event in a live stream over the social network, beaming around the world images of the oh-so tiring Alexa Chung as she hosted the broadcast. The brand has done this previously to great success for it’s Ready-to-wear collections from various shows, which inspire great community interaction. Concurrent with this was the launch of a brand presence on Foursquare, one of the first of any brand to have an account on the location-based social network. (Indeed, this democratisation of fashion could be an article in of itself; Ermenegildo Zegna are taking a leaf from Vuitton’s book with unprecedented access to what goes on in the runup to a runway show). Photos of designer Marc Jacobs, Gwyneth Paltrow et al. graced the front pages of several of the city’s dailies the next morning. Diagnosis: Very good

At the opening, in a separate story that appeared with very little fanfare on the Vogue website, a brief interview was conducted with Vuitton’s creative director Marc Jacobs, who said that when he began working on the brand, his initial thoughts might have taken it in a completely different direction, “When I arrived at Louis Vuitton 12 years ago, and I was figuring out how to create a new tier of Vuitton for a different customer, I thought it would be clever to hide that monogram, which was very stupid of me. That logo is part of what makes Vuitton so desirable. It allows people to become members of an aspirational club.” Zeitgeist has never heard Jacobs utter such an admission prior to this; it is surely an incredibly controversial thought. The problem is that the designer may have been quite right to have thought of removing the logo. Without it, they are almost certainly missing out on what he refers to as a “new tier”; the customer that loves the quality and craftmanship of Vuitton but does not need the validation of having “LV” emblazoned on every product, so instead chooses to shop at Bottega Veneta or somewhere similar. For how long can a brand remain aspirational when it begins to be seen everywhere, including in all the wrong types of places? Zeitgeist recently spotted two pieces of genuine Vuitton luggage sitting in the window of a McDonald’s. Diagnosis: Not good

Elsewhere in Vuitton’s world, the Advertising Standards Authority recently upheld three complaints on a series of advertisements that Ogilvy Paris had concocted, which had received positive press from the FT at its inception, and to which Zeitgeist has referred to previously. The ads, though beautifully photographed in an homage to that brilliant artist Vermeer, were withdrawn after complaints that the print ads gave the impression that the products were completely handmade from start to finish, and that at no point was machinery involved in the manufacturing process. In reality, this is not the case. Craftmanship by hand is indeed a significant part of the process, but the ASA deemed this insufficient. It is also unlikely that such young, beautiful people as depicted in the advertisements work in such immaculate clothing with only chiaroscuro lighting to work by, but there did not seem to be any complaints regarding these artistic licenses. Perhaps this is because such things should be taken with a pinch of salt, instead of at face value. Diagnosis: Not good

Louis Vuitton continues to contest in court in efforts to cut down on the re-selling of goods or the distribution of counterfeit products. The last victory came recently against eBay when the company was fined €200k in damages and €30k in legal costs made payable to Louis Vuitton. TelecomPaper reported “The court described as ‘parasitic’ eBay’s purchase of keywords such as ‘Wuittton’, ‘Viton’ and ‘Vitton’ so that online shoppers searching under these misspellings would be directed to links promoting eBay.” More recently, however, holding company LVMH lost it’s battle with Google over charges “that Google’s practice of selling keywords in advertising searches to the highest bidder damaged trademark law”, according to the BBC. Diagnosis: A tie

Lastly, having already made clear it’s association with a new part of the Journeys campaign – previously featuring such luminaries as Sean Connery, Keith Richards and Catherine Deneuve – that had Pelé, Zidane and Maradonna huddled around a table football game together, this week the company cemented the connection. Vogue recently reported that the World Cup would have an official home in a piece of luggage designed specifically for it by Vuitton. The luggage was revealed in Paris to great fanfare, by that [super]model of restraint, Naomi Campbell. Diagnosis: Very good

It’s been a period of mixed blessings for Louis Vuitton, some of which were completely out of their hands. It’s had some big wins with the new London store opening, as well as the excellent association it has created with the impending World Cup. Long-term, it will be fascinating to see if this is the beginning of a brand embracing to an increasing extent the entertainments and pastimes of the masses (prior to the World Cup, the only sport Vuitton had been involved in was the America’s Cup sailing race, crewed and supported by nought but multi-multi-millionaires), and how they will maintain an aspirational slant if they do so (presumably by continuing to charge £300+ for a shirt). Exciting times are ahead, no doubt…

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