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What is a retailer?

What is a retailer? It’s a question I have asked twice before, but after the Salesforce World Tour in London, it will need answering more often than ever. If Amazon is a tech company, or a logistics company as some define it, then why is it thrashing so many traditional retailers?

The 10,000 visitors to Salesforce were treated to a vision of any business able to manage its customer communications and logistics from initial sales pitch right through to service/product delivery and beyond into service and support.

If any company can do that, using the same tools, then how is a retailer different from an insurance company?

Consider how they are similar: both need to craft good-looking and functional customer interfaces across every device; both need to deliver a compelling, simple and frictionless customer experience; and both need to provide support that is satisfying for the user, inexpensive for the company and process automated for staff.

It’s as if the technology companies are jumping across their traditional vertical sector boundaries and providing the same model for all industries. Tell yourself that is not happening if you want, but it takes no more than a few minutes in Salesforce’s company to see that their vision of an all-industry sales, delivery and service model is fast becoming mainstream, and quite likely to convert a good proportion of companies of a certain size.

Which brings us back to wondering, what is a retailer?

Once the tech is standardised – and, much more importantly, actually delivering value to both retailers and their customers – then we can get back to focusing on retailing. Brands with retail operations are having no identity crisis because the heart of their business is still the product and the brand, which may explain why many brands are not necessarily at the cutting edge tech-wise.

Brands also understand about differentiation and market position, and are committed almost obsessively to innovating the product and the look. Other retailers are not so lucky; we already know that location is now more of a liability than a differentiator for many retailers.

Department stores are in the eye of this particular storm, having to shift their focus away from themselves to the brands that are the main focus for shoppers. BHS famously lost definition, through its own brand as well as its products and its prices. Ultimately, it was just there because it was there.

Meanwhile, more and more companies that are not retailers will be prospecting for the hearts and minds of the consumer, and starting to look more like what we currently define as a ‘retailer’. The journey for retailers is finding the next way to automate all the things that anyone else can do well, so they are free to focus on what makes them unique.


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