Friday, December 7, 2012

So Many Choices...

"So what's next on the list", I ask myself, "Soup...last item." 

I casually walk over to the soup aisle at our new "super-sized" supermarket knowing that this is my last item on my shopping list.  

This modern combination grocery, drug and mercantile store was a recent addition to our neighborhood.  Although it's been open now for several weeks, this was my first opportunity to check it out for myself.   

The first thing I noticed was that this store was a bit different than your typical grocery store.  

Although its physical size was about as large, the store did not model itself after a Sam's Club, Super-Wal-Mart, or Costco.  At those stores, the selection of products was severely limited (only one or two brands of tooth paste for instance), the package sizes were immense (six tubes to a package), and the "specialty items" were there for a limited time (so you better stock up now!). 

This new Super Store was all about selection not price. Its aim was to give consumers choices in which to fill their shopping needs. Way too many choices in some instances. 

As a turned the corner, I found myself in the soup aisle. 

Cans of soup stretched out before me further than I could see. 

I discovered that the typical market leaders, Campbell's and Progresso were indeed present but what fascinated me was the sheer breadth of their offerings.  At a typical grocer, I might see 40 or so facings of Campbell's soups including the various versions of chicken noodle, vegetable, and creamed soups. 

Here before me, were varieties of soup that I had no idea that Campbell's even made. Obscure names like Chicken Won Ton, Cream of Asparagus, Cream of Shrimp, Oyster Stew, Cream of Onion and Beefy Mushroom lined the shelves under the Campbell's banner. Additionally there were several non-fat, low-fat, and less salt versions of the old standbys. 

As I continued down the aisle, I was amazed with the number of soup brands that I had never even heard of. I silently wondered who these companies were and how did they go to market beyond an outlet such as this super-store. 

I figured that more than likely these brands were sold through smaller co-ops, health food stores, and importers. Since I rarely make an appearance at these stores, I was overwhelmed with the sheer variety of these obscure "off-brands" before me. 

I also noticed that the prices of these specialty items were much higher than those of the garden varieties that I was used to seeing. 

I quickly filled my cart with several cans and boxes of new soups to sample (yes... soup now comes in boxes as well... I wonder is Andy Warhol is spinning in his grave) and I head to the checkout. 

As I'm placing the items onto the conveyor belt, I wonder to myself, that if I actually end up liking any of these "experimental" soups, would I ever be able to locate them again... or would I be doomed to roaming the earth in a quest of some semi-liquid substance that no longer exists. 

The experience that afternoon jars loose a faint memory of a short clip that I had seen several years ago. The video clip was that of Malcolm Gladwell speaking, at a past TED conference, about the abundance of choices that we all now have before us.

In the video, Mr. Gladwell (author of the best sellers, Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers) argues that the choice phenomenon was a recent discovery in the food industry. Prior to that, food companies produced only a few different varieties perhaps in only a couple of different sizes.

This concept was revolutionary... well within the food industry perhaps.  

We've seen this revolution happen over and over again in industry after industry. 

  • The beer industry went from 4-5 industry leaders to thousands of small micro-breweries.
  • TV stations were limited in most markets to 4 network providers (ABC, NBC, CBS, & PBS) plus a few local independents now to 1000's of cable stations. (and shortly 1000's more as Net Flicks, Google, and Microsoft enter the streaming video space).
  • Authors were limited to only a handful of publishers and recording artists to a handful of record labels.  Today it is easier than ever to self-publish or distribute your music.  
The advent of the Internet has opened the doors to manufacturers, wholesale distributors and retailers creating a direct conduit from the product providers to the end-users. The era of gatekeepers is effectively over. 

There are three significant ways in which the Internet has helped to open markets and increase consumer choices:
  1. The Internet has created a communication link between all sellers and all buyers. Sellers of niche products can now reach buyers of niche products. Time differences, geography, and language barriers that once created walls between suppliers and customer have now been razed. Anyone can buy anything at any time and have it delivered to anywhere.                                        
  2. E-tailers can now centralize inventory allowing them to stock a greater variety of products in the same space.  Instead of Barnes and Noble stocking five copies of Malcom Gladwell's book "Blink" at each of their 1500 retail stores, Amazon can stock 100 copies at their regional distribution center allowing them to stock 7,400 other titles in the same space.                                                                            
  3. The Internet has become a high-speed pipeline to deliver digital format products in real time. No longer do we need to physically go to the record store to purchase that new song or to the video store to rent a movie.
The time of limited choices has come to an abrupt end.  

With all of the choices, one would tend to think that products and services would tend to be commoditized with margins being severely compromised.  

However, just as it was in the soup aisle at the supermarket, prices for unique items are typically higher than those that are readily available from multiple outlets. 

The key word here is "unique". 

If we just try to deliver the same product or service to our customers as everyone else, then we have done nothing to differentiate ourselves from the hundreds (thousands / millions) of other people and companies trying to do the same thing.   

We need to think "different". 

A wise man once said that if you can create something different, the world will beat a path to your door. Today the path is already there... now you need to give someone a reason come knocking... 

Thank you for your support of OptiFuse, where we always try to create unique buying experience for our current and future customers. 

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