How my 13-Year Old Showed Me the Formula for Competing Against Amazon

Recently, I was honored to be invited as a keynote speaker at Logic’s annual “company day.” (Logic is an outstanding retail technology systems integrator and Robling’s premier implementation partner). I was excited for the opportunity to speak to a room full of my peers in the retail tech—but found myself challenged to talk about the opportunities in our industry in a way that would feel different.

We’re all out on the front lines working with our retail customers every day, tackling the well-known but not-yet-solved challenges of 21st century retail. I wasn’t going to be able to tell them about much they hadn’t already been working on, in one way or another, for months or years already.

But, sometimes your eyes get opened in the most interesting ways.

Reflecting on my 2019 holiday shopping experience, I realized there was something completely distinctive about it that I’d never experienced before. This year, my 13-year old daughter asked me to buy 12 specific items as gifts for herself and also to gift to her friends (that part was nothing new 🙂 So I prepared to crank out the order on Amazon in 20 minutes flat, and crown myself—once again—supreme master of the holiday shopping season.

(Incidentally, I love this line from Bezos: “The best customer service is if the customer doesn’t need to call you, doesn’t need to talk to you. It just works.”)

Curiously, however, my daughter’s gift list included not only the items she wanted, but also the online boutique stores where they needed to be purchased. “You’re not going to be able to find most of this stuff on Amazon, dad,” she told me. In fact, 11 out of the 12 items were not available on Amazon. They were only available through local shops, most who had a few physical locations, and of course an ecommerce storefront.

Ugh. Already, I was feeling the future pain of having to shop across almost a dozen different sites I’d never purchased from before. Creating an account, re-entering payment information, shipping information, and dealing with each site’s horrible idiosyncrasies. Like wonky reCaptchas, or forms that time out or just simply blank out if you mess up a single digit on your credit card. But like a good dad and true master of the holiday shopping season, I held my peace.

I wondered, though. How did she end up putting together this gift list? I had no idea how I’d go about it myself – seems like it’d be difficult. It turns out my daughter had engaged in a powerful style of shopping that’s becoming more and more prevalent. More on that in a second.

First, a trip back in time. In ages past, retailers held huge sway in terms of what would be “in” each season—placing big bets on specific styles of merchandise and then PR-ing the hell out of their bets to drive trends and sales. The fashion conscious would tune in, and if the bets resonated, it’d be a win. If they didn’t, it was markdown city at the end of the season. Today, this model is on the decline—roughly in line with the decline of the traditional department store.

What’s taken its place? My 13 year old has the answer, and this is where she really shopped differently. She’d gotten all of her gift ideas browsing on Instagram. Through social sharing and by following an emerging class of “micro-influencers”—who have the clout and reach to nucleate new “micro-trends” on an almost daily basis, she’d generated amazing ideas for special gifts. And, these gifts were not available at Amazon.

I had never thought about it, but there’s something about a gift not coming from Amazon that makes it seem more special, isn’t there? Because a lot more work goes into buying it!

But the level of effort of these purchases is where I was surprised again. I was able to easily buy everything through my phone. The experiences across each site were remarkably similar and also efficient (I think this is probably the ubiquity of Shopify on the back end). Paying through Apple Pay, I didn’t have to re-enter any new information because shipping info was nicely saved and filled in for me automatically, and of course with Apple Pay I didn’t need to get my cc out of my wallet. It was a breeze.

Perhaps most interestingly—each vendor charged for shipping. And even though I get shipping for “free” from Amazon, in these cases I paid for shipping gladly. Because these were distinctive items my daughter really wanted, and for some reason I was able to “feel” the value of shipping in these purchases—paying for that shipping was going to save me a lot of time.

Seems every one of these stores understood the importance of a great fulfillment experience as well. They were all able to ship on time for the holidays, and did a good job of letting me know the progress of my order, when it shipped, when it would arrive, and were proactive about providing tracking information. 

They even added a very personal touch (which I experienced from notes from the shop owners in the box, see picture above).

So what did I learn from this experience?

These small shops have a blueprint for driving new demand. It requires merchandising distinctive products and marketing them in a very targeted way—in partnership with influencers who are ever in-search of distinctive merchandise. I am thrilled at new retail players achieving this kind of success. Shopping with them was a rich and rewarding experience. I believe this model is part of our future, and this part doesn’t include Amazon.

When I shared this story during my keynote at Logic’s Company Day, I was delighted at the way it opened some of the eyes in the room. It sparked a great discussion about how retailers of all sizes could leverage a model like this to inject new energy into their brands, and their shopping experience. And of course, how they can distinguish themselves from Amazon and create a valuable shopping experience that goes far beyond competing on price.

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