Hype vs. High Priority: How Important Is It to Be Like Amazon?

Last month I participated in a panel discussion at NetSuite’s SuiteWorld event in San Jose, Calif. Each of us panelists was armed with two cards reading “hype” and “high priority,” respectively. We covered the topics of “smart fitting rooms,” “personalization,” “being like Amazon” and  “wearables,” with each topic launched into conversation according to the cards we held aloft.

We didn’t agree on everything, although we didn’t disagree to a great degree either. While the cards offered a fun way into the discussion, the truth is that, generally speaking, these issues fall somewhere in between hype and high priority, with the necessity or urgency of each highly dependent upon a company’s particular business model. For example, if you’re an apparel brand or retailer in the high-performance athletic wear market, you probably would be unwise to ignore the wearables category. It’s still a niche in the overall apparel market, but advancing technology in conductive yarns — and apps for doing interesting things with the data they can transmit — has the potential to transform the industry far beyond what we may be imagining today. As I mentioned in last month’s editorial, it may not be long before consumers will not consider buying apparel that does not offer some additional functionality beyond comfort and fit. (I, for one, am quite eager to try the yoga pants from Wearable Experiments that use haptics to correct your poses by vibrating in areas that need adjustment.)

Smart fitting rooms, like wearables, may not be a high priority for all retailers. Then again, the three Rebecca Minkoff stores that implemented Connected Walls and Fitting Rooms have seen sales rise by 30 percent. Smart fitting rooms put product information at your fingertips; they allow the consumer to get undressed just once, with the ability to request other items or sizes to be delivered. And they provide a treasure trove of data to the retailer.

Of the four topics, personalization is probably the highest priority for all. As the power of the consumer grows and channels proliferate and life gets busier, retailers and brands are increasingly pressured to serve the individual with product and fulfillment and marketing and merchandising that meets her specific needs and desires and timetable.

Still, during our discussion I was reminded of the cautionary directive given by Stratacache’s Chris Riegel at NRF: “Worry about the store of today, not  ‘the store of the future.’ Your [super high-tech] store in Times Square? You have one of those. That doesn’t fix the problem of the other 1,999 stores. How are you going to move the needle 2 [percent] to 3 percent across your whole chain? That is significant.” As all panelists agreed, it is a fool’s errand to jump at shiny new innovations without first ensuring you have a strong IT foundation that offers the necessary visibility and agility across your enterprise.

The one topic for which I raised the “hype” card was “being like Amazon.”  That’s not to say that Amazon does not pose a threat, or that you shouldn’t pay attention to what it is doing, and, if necessary, adjust your business accordingly. But you probably can’t beat Amazon at Amazon’s game, and that’s okay. The better alternative is to not be like Amazon. To differentiate your product and your services and your brand and your relationship with your customer in ways that Amazon cannot.

Consider just a couple of the apparel retailers at NetSuite’s event that stood out for their unique and engaging business models: There’s Alton Lane, a premium tailored men’s apparel store that offers a one-on-one personalized experience that includes body scanning and selecting your own fabrics and trims for suits, blazers and other apparel. The company has eight showrooms (and is growing) and a completely refurbished AirStream, which it drove cross country from its Richmond, Va. headquarters to feature on the exhibit floor. Alton Lane is a client of NetSuite’s. And now many NetSuite partners and clients are also clients of Alton Lane, which couldn’t take orders fast enough there on the show floor. Men who want customized, high-end apparel and high-touch service are not going to shop on Amazon.

Likewise, Wingtip does not need to worry about Amazon’s nipping at its heels. Located in San Francisco, the 36,000-square-foot shop for the modern gentleman features professional and casual clothing, a custom clothing department, cufflinks, pens, leather goods, barware, cigar accessories, a fly fishing shop, wine and spirits and a barbershop and shoe shine stand — as well as a private club that includes a golf simulator and wine cave. Founder CEO Ami Arad says he created Wingtip because he wanted a place that brought together all of his interests, and people who shared them. Does Amazon do that?

Personalization, smart fitting rooms, wearables — they are all just tools that may or may not contribute to creating an engaging experience for your customers that will keep them from wanting to go elsewhere.

And that is your highest priority.

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel.
She can be reached at [email protected]

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