This past week’s Entrepreneur featured an article entitled “Big-Box Backlash: The Rebirth of Mom-and-Pop Shops.” It is a good piece, highlighting how mom-and-pop shops are extending their reach to non-local folks. (Ex: a local tourist store encouraging repurchase(s) via the shop’s online store.)
What this article didn’t point out is that this whole trend is predicated on uniqueness. There are five dimensions of uniqueness regarding online shopping, which merchants cultivate in one (or more) ways:
Price. Most consumers came online first to find lower/lowest pricing. Remember the popularity of sites like Shopping.com and Nextag?
Variety. As more stores went online, the variety seemed endless! Online sites could distinguish themselves for their depth of offerings within individual categories.
Accessibility. Online suffers if someone needs an item “today,” but online stores quickly started offering next day service to help combat this “need it now” mindset – and to distinguish themselves from other online stores. Amazon’s Prime service, which offers free two-day shipping for all qualified items, is an outgrowth, at least in part, in making its experience more accessible.
Service. An online specialty store might be able to provide expertise in an area which can’t be found locally, meaning greater potential sales for the online merchant. (If you knew the best home-stereo speaker expert was in MN, and his prices were only 10% more, getting exactly what you needed might warrant the 10% premium.) Additionally, for items people want to see or try before buying, liberal return policies help offset this problem; think of Zappos’ free shipping – both ways – as a program designed to make people feel they’re “trying before buying.”
Values. A frequently overlooked aspect to uniqueness, shopper “values” provide context to purchase decisions. Values often reflect how a purchase-decision “tie” will be broken: Where is the product made? (Consumer may value Made in the USA products.) Is the seller local? (Consumer may value supporting small local businesses.) How is the product made? (Consumer may value products made without pesticides and/or products farmed using “Fair Trade” practices.) How involved is the company in the community? (Consumer may value and choose to shop at a company which supports their personal values; e.g., Target knows education is important to its customer base and gives back to local schools.)
Will big-box stores like Walmart and Best Buy become obsolete? No. They offer good pricing and are very convenient (to get to and to return merchandise). But will they ever be like a site whose sole focus is on featuring the “unique,” like the Daily Grommet? I don’t think so. And long-term loyalty may be impacted by limited perceived uniqueness, especially by shoppers who are less price or convenience driven.
As marketers, if we’re making commodity products, where it’s harder to compete on price, it’s important to look for the point of leverage with consumers – and that’s likely to be a reflection of their values. In today’s climate, even if we think we have a unique offering, we need to keep thinking ahead to ensure this position in a changing business climate. Qualitative research helps to explore value dimensions and how businesses can find appropriate ways to leverage its offerings today and looking forward.