Is Alibaba Really Worth It?

Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd. and Founder Jack Ma As Company Files for U.S. Initial Public Offering of E-Commerce GiantOn the verge of becoming the biggest initial public offering in US history, one has to wonder if it’s really worth the $187 billion some analysts are projecting. As we witness Jack Ma, former schoolteacher and founder of Alibaba, strut across a stage portraying himself as Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs combined, at least he’s talking the talk. Walking the walk, as we all know, is a horse of a different color.

And to that point, off stage he’s been on a wandering and random acquisition binge, making some 30 investments since the beginning of the year, worth close to $7 billion. Whether or not he was just trying to find stuff to invest all of the cash gushing through the business, the deals he has made seem highly questionable. [Read more...]

Stalking the Cyberazzi

iStock_000027023380SmallDo you ever get the ominous feeling you’re being watched or followed? Well, you are!

They know what you’re doing and where you are at any given time; what you eat; the car you drive; ailments you have and whether you’re pregnant; divorced; trying to lose weight; cheating on your spouse at some sleazy motel; or the color of the upholstery in your Lear Jet.

They know every predilection, quirk and fetish you thought were buried deep in the recesses of your private life. You are fair game and their job is to create a dossier on you from cradle to grave.

Disturbing isn’t it? But this is the shadowy world of the data broker, companies that track every aspect of people’s lives and lifestyles. They are the keepers of a Pandora’s box of consumer data and it’s there for anyone to open—for a price! [Read more...]

Touch Screens: Innovation or Distraction?

electronic-superhighway-namjunepaikOur visual language continues to evolve faster than our spoken or written word. That evolution sits at the confluence of disruptive everything; from the viability of broadcast media to the science of visual merchandising. It also circumscribes a generational shift in how and where we access information.

If our screen owning habits are changing, how has that affected our screen watching habits in retail and other places outside our home? Ten years ago, our measurement data suggested that a television-based image attracted twice the number of eyeballs as a static paper-based image. Remember the video walls in stores and shopping malls that were some weird commercial rendition of a Nam Jung Paik art installation? It was brilliant the first, and maybe also the second time you saw it, but eye-straining thereafter.

[Read more...]

Monitoring the Digital Watercooler

iStock_000023334231SmallEver since the first merchant set up a tent at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the world’s first mall, or Sears met Roebuck, employees have complained about employers.

But there’s a new twist on the old dynamic thanks to that digital water cooler, a.k.a.  social media. It’s where the “look-at-me” or “listen-to-me” generation spews out opinions and every excruciating detail of their daily lives in 144-character rants or selfies.

Companies are wondering about their options when it comes to protecting their reputations from sometimes-libelous comments or disciplining employees who violate social media policy. [Read more...]

Go Disrupt Yourself!

Panel logosSo Says a Disruptive Seminar Panel

Please don’t take offense. “Go disrupt yourself” is not a euphemism for that other, often used R-rated suggestion. This is a serious directive for so-called disrupters themselves, as well as for all businesses operating traditional models who incorrectly believe disruption is defined only by fundamentally new models or game-changing concepts. Today’s disrupters are typically spun out of the thin air of “Siliconville,” which often define them as tech-driven and Internet enabled.

This not-so-clear concept of self-disruption was one of the major points that I filtered out of the spirited panel discussion at the recent Robin Report and Fashion Group International forum, “Disrupters vs. Disruptees.” And I believe with some elaboration, the conversation is highly instructive for both upstarts and traditional businesses.

The forum presented a panel of “Disruptive” CEO’s including Warby Parker (Neil Blumenthal), Rent the Runway (Jennifer Hyman), and Shapeways 3D printers (Peter Weijmarhausen). These new kids on the block had a robust discussion with the “Disruptee” CEOs of HSNi (Mindy Grossman) and The Ascena Retail Group (David Jaffe), whose portfolio consists of Lane Bryant, Dress Barn, Catherine’s Justice’s and Maurice’s. Paul Charron, former CEO of Liz Claiborne and Chairman of Campbell Soup was our moderator. Yours truly set the tone with an overview of the principles and perils of disruption.

2014_Retail_Disrupters_012Upon reflection, it occurs to me that since most of the au courant disruptive new business models are really just new marketing concepts made possible by the tools of technology and the Internet — they can be knocked off in a nanosecond. Both Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos understood this from day one at Apple and Amazon. Their mantras, “the next big thing” and “get big fast,” respectively, were loud and clear marching orders for self-disruption, day in and day out. Whether breakthrough new products from Apple, or entirely new marketplaces from Amazon, implicit to their vision is to preempt copycats by becoming so big, so fast, that knock-off artists would find it nearly impossible to catch up.

Self-disruption and rapid preemptive growth require two ingredients: perpetual innovation into new product or market spaces and huge capital investments to fuel such growth. While these two legendary examples of continuing marketplace disruption are obvious by their success, it was largely due to the tenacity and audacity of their visionary leaders as “first-movers” who leveraged technology and the Internet to catapult their product and marketing ideas into dominant positions.

Many early movers later, we are now witnessing a deluge of innovative ideas (some more disruptive than others), still facilitated by technology and the Internet. In fact, many of them, including Warby Parker and Rent The Runway, were launched on the Internet.

2014_Retail_Disrupters_021The continuing challenge of all disrupters is to be the de facto, sustainable solution with new product innovation and distribution. They will need to continue to dominate market share from competitors. And the hugest threat of all is that the giant traditional companies can easily copy these upstarts and have the financial clout to steal and own the space.

With the ease of entry into this technological and Internet-based space, another challenge facing these “later movers,” so to speak, is that their fundamental value propositions are easy to copy. For Warby Parker, the model is making and selling trendy eyewear online (and now in stores) for low prices. Their charitable program donating glasses to kids in need hits spot-on with Millennials’ sense of social justice. The fundamental proposition for Rent The Runway is renting apparel, and they have found themselves in the dry cleaning business along the way to ensure that their quick turnaround rentals are guaranteed clean. In Warby Parker’s brilliantly conceived, innovative eyewear space, there are now several copycats: Classic Specs; Eyebobs; Lookmatic; Mezzmer; and Made Eyewear — offering frames, sunglasses and readers. Likewise, the world that Rent The Runway launched has some wannabes, including Lending Luxury, Girl Meets Dress (in the UKL, and Wish Want Wear.

2014_Retail_Disrupters_050It’s important to note that while these may be copies of the core value proposition of Warby Parker and Rent The Runway, they are not necessarily marketing the model and delivering it in precisely the same way. How these models are executed of course, will determine their success or failure. Nevertheless, the copycats did enter the same space pioneered by these two initial disrupters. Such is the compliment and challenge of innovators.

Shapeways, while not the creator of 3D printing technology (earliest versions launched in the 1980s), they also face a different challenge. Shapeways 3D printing is on an industrial scale (unlike MakerBot home 3D printing) and is still in pursuit of a scaled-up market to serve. They are ahead of their time in the sense that the potential of 3D printing to disintermediate the accessories business, for example, is still nascent.

A major point to be made is that the three Disrupter panelists are faced with the almost daily challenge of stealing market share in their categories and sustaining growth. They must also understand the concept of self-disruption as envisioned by two of the most powerful disrupters of our time: Jobs and Bezos. They must be relentless in churning out the “next big thing” and to “get big fast” (now more difficult among a sea of knock-offs). Each of these young CEOs seem determined to do so.

2014_Retail_Disrupters_059Have We Over-Glamorized Marketing 101?

Now step back for a second and reflect on these business concepts. Are today’s winning principles any different than they have ever been? You innovate and come up with a new product or service or retail concept that targets a segment of consumers who need or want your offering and the way in which you provide it. You then brand the business and invest heavily in marketing it for growth. And you keep innovating new ideas into your model to continually add value to keep your existing customer loyal and to entice new customers.

Today the only difference and change from the past are the full-on advancements of technology, the Internet, and the all-enabling smartphone. However, they are simply tools to achieve a greater understanding of, and connection with, consumers and provide more efficient and effective marketing and distribution. These tools are only as useful as the human minds that envision their optimal capabilities for their specific business models: Jobs, Bezos and hopefully our three Disrupter panelists leading the perpetual stream of new upstarts.

So are the Traditional Giant Brands and Retailers “Chopped Liver?”

In closing, I’m sorry to have to break it to many of these young upstarts that while they may be disruptive in the way they are using the new tools, those same tools are available to the 800- pound gorilla brands and retailers that are already big, some in fact, enormous. And as traditional retailers wake up one morning to understand how to use those same tools, they won’t be disrupters, they will be serial destructors.

And of course our other two panelists were anything but “chopped liver,” comfortably reinventing self-disruption, perfecting and maximizing the use of the technology and Internet tools, and reframing their business models. HSNi and the Ascena Retail Group are both multi-billion dollar businesses that got huge over time and are now envisioning how to get bigger faster by seamlessly integrating their enormously complex business models with the Internet and all of the advanced operating and information technologies available. And guess what? They don’t have to lurch from one round of funding to another.

Talk about self-disruption. Mindy Grossman commented: “In the past eight years we have disrupted our business model at least four times. We created a culture where risk-taking is encouraged and failing fast is encouraged too.” HSNi has an advanced innovation group tasked with finding the next big thing., They disrupt the status quo and innovate reflecting changes in consumer behavior, tasked with primarily raising whatever bar necessary to provide a boundary-less shopping experience, wherever, whenever and however the consumer wants it.

David Jaffe, with about 4000 stores under five nameplates, is also using the new tools to seamlessly integrate the omnichannel concept and to provide shopping interchangeability both online and off. He closed by saying: “We believe the convenience and sociability of shopping gives us a head start over the Internet startups.”

Indeed, there is great truth in that statement as Warby Parker, Rent The Runway and many other e-commerce startups are now opening physical stores. Apple, of course, understood the synergy long ago.

So, the great news for all of commerce is the tsunami of young entrepreneurs who understand how to use the new technologies and the Internet to create disruptive and innovative ways to engage and delight consumers and to integrate operational systems to more efficiently and effectively market and distribute their value.

The challenge and tough news for these entrepreneurs is three-fold: first, self-disrupt with a continual innovation process; second, build a management and operational infrastructure for sustainable growth; and, finally, invest heavily to “get big fast.”

A final ironic twist may very well be that while the young upstarts, as well as Amazon, Apple and others disrupt the market with innovative ways to use the new tools, the world of billion dollar legacy brands and big retailers may end up being the real copycats. And if I were Warby Parker, I would not want Luxottica as a copycat. If I were Amazon, I would not want Walmart knocking me off.

It could all end badly, more like a knock-out.

Apple’s Next Big Thing: A Tesla in its Garage?

Tesla_Apple_Rev1To borrow from Ted Levitt’s thesis on “marketing myopia,” Apple is not in the digital “iDevice” business, and Tesla is not in the automobile business. They are both in the technology business; or better yet, in the technology disruption business – or, even better than that, one might say they are in the “Internet of things” business. Take your pick. But for sure, they are in the same visionary tech space. Once Tim Cook and Elon Musk realize this more expansive definition of the businesses they are in (and, I have to believe they have probably already figured this out), the scope of industries, products and services they can pursue for growth is almost limitless.

And once the realization sets in, an “aha” moment should not be far behind. I’m talking about the uber “aha” as the most ingenious acquisition of this young century: Apple acquiring Tesla. It’s significant to point out that part of Mr. Cook’s vision for Apple is his publicly stated intent to break into other product categories. The strategic logic of such an acquisition and the resulting synergy for these two technology giants is, in my opinion, obvious. [Read more...]

Technology Doesn’t Change People, People Do

speed kills_FinalPardon me for using the “guns don’t kill people” metaphor. But people are now using the incredible power of technology and the Internet in ways that are disruptively changing our entire culture: some of it awesomely positive, but some of it ominously negative. The myriad of positive effects is accelerating on a daily basis, immediately recognizable as providing “better, easier, quicker, more convenient, more sustainable, more experiential” and on and on. Yet, in my opinion, there is a darker side that threatens to alter our culture in a very negative way.

Today, humans are born with a mouse in one hand and a smartphone in the other. “Digital” is the ‘D’ in our DNA. That is to say that as we evolve generationally, the importance and utility in our lives of newspapers, books, libraries, movie theaters, concert halls, designers and on and on, become irrelevant. Exaggerating a little bit, but you are getting my drift; and we are, indeed, participating in this cultural evolution whether we want to or not. [Read more...]

A Changing of the Guard: An Interview with Tim Greenhalgh, New Chairman of Fitch

Robert-Hocking_final-imageThe last 20 years have been a time of incredible upheaval in the retail order. So with the recent announcement of a new chairman at retail design agency Fitch, I was curious to hear the perspective of an agency that’s spent four decades designing retail experiences for many of the world’s leading brands.

Tim Greenhalgh’s title is Chairman and Chief Creative Officer. Having someone with a creative background at the top of the organisation says a lot and, as Tim sees it, his role is fundamentally about fueling the culture of creativity within the business. One thing is clear: despite the uncertainty facing consumers and retailers, he’s still incredibly bullish on where the world’s going.

In Tim’s words:

“Figuring out retail isn’t easy; where do you pin the tail on the donkey? There are lots of consultancies but our job is to bring creativity to the business problem of our clients and some of the most interesting brands we meet have creative leadership in the C-suite. [Read more...]

The Meaning of Time

SONY DSCAll of us move through our lives with a clock ticking inside our heads. Even in troubled economic situations, time, rather than money, is our most important commodity. That clock tends to tick at relative degrees of loudness. You can meet a friend at Garden State Plaza Mall for the afternoon, and the clock ticks softly, a kind of shopping therapy. At the same mall another time, you want to get in and out as fast as you can. In other words, the meaning of time can change.

My mother was relieved when a 7-Eleven opened a location close to our suburban home in the 1950s. The idea of buying milk for a young family any time of day was a godsend, even if she did have reservations about both the price and quality. Ask a Millennial today where they buy milk, and you get an eclectic list; the drug store, the grocery store, the convenience store, the mass merchant, even the office product superstore sometimes stocks milk. In parts of Europe, you can even buy milk at roadside vending machines. [Read more...]

In Search of The Future

futureThe Past is Not Prologue

I feel your pain, your anxiety, your confusion. I’m just relieved it’s yours and not mine! You are in the middle of chaos, the “Wild West,” in search of the new frontier, and a future shrouded in fog. However, two things are clear. The past will be no prologue for the transformation your business must go through; and if it fails to transform, it will surely die.

The disruptive, game-changing dynamics of the Internet, all of the new retail and supply chain enabling technologies, globalization, and over-saturated markets continue to drive unlimited and instantaneous access for whatever product or service consumers desire; whenever, wherever, however and how often they so desire. The unprecedented convergence of these dynamics of commerce and a 24/7-consumer is arguably driving the greatest transformation in retailing’s history, which will require innovation and creativity; plus fundamental new strategies and systemic change in our business models to succeed into the future.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens’ opening line in his epic Tale of Two Cities, for this revolution, we are now in the most exciting of times and the most challenging of times. [Read more...]

Lost Shack

Radioshack Lithium BatteryThe good news is that Radio Shack has opened five high-profile remodeled stores featuring its “Let’s Play” strategy that sports a cleaner, pared-down assortment dolled up with electronic merchandising wizardry like video screens and audio plug-in stations.

The bad news is that this leaves 4,306 Radio Shack stores in the country that need to be remodeled.

Welcome to yet another chapter in the ongoing retail soap opera that Radio Shack has become over the past few years. The company is on its fourth CEO in three years, has seen its market cap drop to 2% of what it was at around the start of the century, and it has not made money in at least the past four quarters. All the while, it has seemingly had more merchandising solutions than the number of batteries in its ubiquitous signature department. [Read more...]

Crime, Punishment & Retailing

African street vendorOrganized retail crime is escalating, but can law enforcement cope with a global crime spree and a new class of criminal?

When I was eight years old, me, and two equally nefarious friends, decided to hit the local Woolworth. The objective? The new Duncan yo-yo and two green plastic, spacegun-shaped waterguns.

My guys—not exactly Goodfellas—were supposed to distract the cashier and stock boy, but took a powder when they saw the manager grab me by the shoulder. Half an hour later amid threats of prison, my mother picked me up, smacked me on the head and dragged me home where I faced the dreaded “wait ‘til your father gets home” scenario.

So much for my criminal career! [Read more...]