Welcome to the first work-day of 2010. You ready?
I’ll tell you, I am. Well, that might not be the truth. It’s more the truth to say that I’m ready to be done with 2009. In all of my years as a rep in the outdoor industry, or – forget that – as a small business owner, 2009 was certainly the most challenging. Something that never happened before happened every single month in 2009. Rarely was it a good thing.
I’ve heard the same from others. You know what I’m talking about.
Is 2010 going to be better? Yeah, I’ve got a feeling that it will, if only because we’ve accepted disruption as the new norm. The ocean’s not going to get any calmer perhaps, but we’ve gotten more used to swimming in big waves.
But it’s more than a change in perception and some better sea-legs that will make 2010 better. It’s also an understanding that the waters are changing. I could push the metaphor a bit, and – hell – I will: The waves of 2009 weren’t caused by winds. They were caused by deep swells coming up from the bottom of the ocean, and a change in the very movement of the seas. This ain’t no El Nino or La Nina. The currents are changing, forever. Shorelines, habitats, and climate will change everywhere the currents touch. (And this is to say, everywhere…)
So what does this mean? Looking into my crystal ball for 2010 and beyond, from my limited perspective here’s what I see:
For manufacturers: Smarter people than me have said it better than I can, so it shouldn’t be new news to say that the supply chain in the outdoor industry is broken. The models we’ve used to design, manufacture, and market product have changed and they will continue to change going forward.
Part of this is a supply-chain issue, and part of it is demand. People are buying products differently. This isn’t just a change in the way that retailers are buying, so you can quit saying “If only these retailers would figure out that we can’t make product if they don’t tell us in advance what they want.” Their customers – the consumer – are changing habits forever. Manufacturers will be expected to absorb the brunt of this, and for good reason: The retailers can’t do it quickly enough. (This is to say that the bulk of them aren’t at the moment positioned well enough to absorb these changes on their own.) Manufacturers will be expected to have the right product when it’s needed and not a moment after. Innovation is important for the brand identity, but there will always be somebody with a similar product at a similar price and if they can deliver faster and better, they’ll sell it better.
But wait, there’s more: Because consumers are demanding it, manufacturers will need to meet these challenges sustainably. Where, how, and what products are made from is more important than ever, and consumers have more windows on a manufacturer now than ever before. Values-based consumption is not just a fad. Habits have changed, for good.
To this end, don’t forget the abstracts: “Transparency,” “Authenticity,” and “Integrity” are more than just words-of-the-day. (And while we’re talking about abstracts, don’t forget “Engaged”; it’s the whole social-media thing, but I’ll get back to this in a second…)
And – dang – about preseasons, forecasts, and projections? Not happening as much as they used to: Nobody really knows what’s going to happen anymore. They’re making it up as they go along, and reacting more than acting. Manufacturers are left holding the bag to make sure that people have what they need when they need it, and if you don’t have it somebody else will. So commodities need to be sold like commodities.
The other option? Be like Apple, Google, or Nike, and drive the market by telling people what they want before they even know it. The iPhone was a novelty item when it was debuted, and now to those who own one it’s a necessity.
On the other hand, we always have C&H Pure Cane Sugar on-hand in my household…
For retailers: The concept of “specialty” is now more plainly not about having exclusives on brands or product. Consumers can now stand in stores and scan the barcode on every item you stock. From there, they can comparison shop by price, size, and color, and – oh – see similar products from other vendors, as well as what competing retailers stock locally. And, they can order their/your item on the spot, have it on their doorstep the next day, and – for the moment – likely not pay tax on their purchase.
All of this happens with just a few quick movements of the thumb – you probably won’t even see them as they make their purchase and walk out the door. I admit that I’ve done it, and will do it again, and I’m not alone.
In 2010, retailers will need to do more than have the neat new products, in the right sizes and colors, at the right time. Retailers will need to make new products fun, too. Retailers are the outdoor industry’s cultural ambassadors to the consumer, the face-to-face connection with a real flesh-and-blood human. If retailers are talking about the price of the purple jacket, and about its pit-zips, and what a great value it is, we’re sunk. Talk instead about how much fun people can have outdoors in the purple jacket, and maybe also that it’s right there in front of them in their size and favorite color, right now. But – preferably – retailers will focus on getting people psyched about being outdoors, and then the purple jacket (or whatever the hot color of the season is) will sell because people need it because they want to use it. And, given a choice, they’ll buy the one in front of them in that moment if somebody talks with them.
If consumers want an impersonal experience, they’ll buy it on their phone; in 2010, the arrival of the mobile wallet will make this even easier.
And retailers, don’t forget your brand. Consumers need to engage with your particular store before they engage with anybody else. (This includes your vendors.) “Multi-channel” is no longer just on the wish-list of what might happen someday. In 2010, everybody needs a brick-and-mortar, e-commerce, and social-media presence. And if all (or any) of these things ain’t real, in two swipes of a thumb consumers can purchase what you’re selling somewhere else. And will.
For Marketers: Dang, it’s a tough time. Broadcast-based media has ruled the day since Poor Richards Almanack, and now it is no more. We could go all Monty Python on this, but “I’m feeling much better” is just another way of saying “I’m not dead yet.” Over 400 magazines folded in the United States last year, many of them in the specialty channels. When our industry does TV, it makes the news; forget radio and internet. Push-media has become pull-media. In other words, your target has to want to receive your content. You can’t just shove it in front of them.
Whatcha gonna do?
Well, for one thing, it’s not about product. Consider the skateboard market, where the product has remained the same for almost thirty years: Plywood deck, hard-rubber wheels, and sealed bearings are about as good as it gets, just like when I was a kid. What makes the difference in that market? Graphics, style, brand, and culture. In other words: “30% more breathable/durable/lighter than the other guys” is not going to drive consumers to retailers’ doors. What you need to ask is:
- Who is our Tony Hawk?
- Where is our LIVEstrong?
- Why doesn’t hardly anybody in the outdoor industry have over 10,000 friends/followers on Facebook/Twitter?”
That, and be forewarned: The next time I hear somebody in marketing ask,”Well, in this new media, how do we control the brand message?” I’m going to throw a skateboard across the room. It won’t hit you, but I will throw it. Why? Because in 2009 media habits changed forever. If in fact “brand message” was ever controllable, it should be obvious that it’s not any more. It’s not as simple as just putting up a Facebook page and a Twitter feed: Social Media is more than just about having a presence; you have to be there.
If this last statement seems like a Zen koan to you, you’re not ready for 2010.
Last thing: It’s not about Facebook and Twitter. These are just tools, and the tools will change. Looking at these tools and thinking that this is all that the new media is about is like looking at AOL circa 1994 and thinking that THAT was the full potential of the Internet. Social media is not about checking off a box on a to-do list, or filling in part of a matrix of a marketing plan. It’s a whole new way to market, it’s ideas-based, and it’s interactive. Turn off “broadcast” and turn up “listen.” Nobody knows what the next Facebook/Twitter will be, but if you don’t “get” the way these current tools work, you won’t have a hope of understanding what’s next.
For Reps: Never have we been more needed in the outdoor industry, and more at risk. It’s 2010, and by 2015 most of us here in the outdoor industry as reps now will be doing something else. This isn’t to say that we’ll all be unemployed. Take heart. But those of us who are left as reps will not be doing what we have been doing.
We reps have three main jobs: We sell, we service, and we market. Sales? The supply-chain is broken, and the preseason model is broken along with it. If you’re not focussed on driving ASAP’s as the bulk of your sales business in 2010, you won’t make it to 2015. And about those ASAP’s: Both manufacturers and retailers will stake a greater claim on who earned them. Manufacturers pay preseason discounts for the benefit of knowing in advance what to make and when to deliver it; retailers place preseason orders for the benefit of earning discounts. So, if no preseasons are placed, there are no discounts available, and there have always been discounts, right? Where’s that 5% to 10% going to come from, if not from preseasons?
[Cue the theme from Jeopardy, here; look around uncomfortably.]
So service and marketing become more important than ever before. This isn’t just for job security. This is where we reps must provide value. If retailers are the cultural ambassadors and flesh-and-blood connections to real consumers, reps must be the grand wizards, the witch-doctors, the story-tellers of our industry. We’re the ear-to-world, boots-on-the-ground force that is otherwise lacking in our new digital world. Everybody gets from data what they want to get, but it’s only the field-intelligence that shows what’s really real. And we need to provide these services to our customers, as well as to our vendors.
Only reps can influence the kid-on-the-floor, and then share with everybody else what the kid-on-the-floor is thinking. And the two of these things combined will be more important than ever going forward. Only reps can and will be able to provide these services.
I’ve heard the question asked: “When preseasons go away, what will reps do?” If you’re not already answering this question and doing it, um, yeah…’Nuf said.
For All: It’s now 2010. It’s no longer a new century. Ten years ago today, the major worry was – still, four days later – Y2K. Now, when Facebook/Twitter/Google goes down, it makes the news. (And the truth is, most of us have noticed prior…) Most of our practices from circa 1999 are no longer sustainable, or scalable. In light of this, every business practice must be examined.
- Why aren’t we using video technology more? Skype, iChat, AIM, and Oovoo, Google Chat are all free; are you using these tools? Why not?
- Are you concerned more about what you’re broadcasting to the world, or what the world is saying about you? How do you deal with and respond to the latter?
- Do you have metrics to measure what’s being said about you, as opposed to how many people you’re reaching? Impressions mean nothing; engagements are everything.
- Must we do things as they have always been done, or can we find better ways?
- Travel is necessary, but is it always needed?
- Why e-mail?
The tools are there. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Other industries have done it for us. All we need to do is pick, choose, and adopt what’s already been developed. It’s time. It’s 2010.
Let’s get on with it. I’m psyched. Aren’t you?
Happy New Year.