Self Awareness

June 5, 2017

Don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a sucker for that punch line: “Be yourself…every one else is already taken.”

Usually attributed to Oscar Wilde — though there is no written evidence he ever actually said or wrote it — it’s one of those catchy phrases that you can plug into various conversations and always get a smile from somebody.

If only the world of retailing would pay attention.

Business history is full of far too many examples of stores that tried to be who they were not — or worse, somebody who already existed — and failed miserably.

The case studies in the discount channel alone are classic. When Walmart first came along, it didn’t try to copy Kmart or Caldor or the any of the dozens of other regional mass merchants that then existed. It situated its stores a little further out than the other guys and offered an assortment priced and picked a little differently from the competition. And it worked.

Which of course only caused those competitors to try to beat Walmart at its own game. Bad idea.

Only one discounter back then came to the conclusion that if it couldn’t beat Walmart by playing by Bentonville’s rules then it needed to change the rules. That was Target, which embarked on its original cheap chic strategy of appealing to a customer that was still price conscious but was willing to spend a bit extra for something with a little more sense of style.

And it worked.

While virtually every other discounter from those early days is long gone, Target remains a credible No. 2 in the space. In fact, the only time Target gets in trouble is when it tries to be what it’s not: Walmart. When it tips the balance of that “Pay Less, Expect More” equation it runs right smack into the Big W and fails miserably.

Today, we’re seeing a similar dance in the online world. Everyone that has tried to out-Amazon Amazon has fallen on its e-face. The folks at Amazon are so far ahead of everyone else and have so perfected the e-commerce model that anybody attempting to outflank it is withering in the vapors.

Which is why what Wayfair is doing is fascinating. Wayfair came into the market with a home-only format, right away setting it apart from a general merchandiser like Amazon. It addressed the Achilles heel of online – shipping costs – head-on, basically offering free delivery on virtually everything.

It has focused on the concept of selling rooms rather than items, often with brands and products one cannot find at good old Amazon. And finally, it has used technology as a differentiator, taking the lead in things like virtual reality and artificial intelligence as ways to drive business.

Unlike many of its competitors online, Wayfair has chosen a different game to play than the one Amazon is engaged in. It is to Amazon as Target has been to Walmart.

And, at least so far, it’s working.

Ultimately it may not be enough, but being different gives Wayfair the very best chance possible to succeed. Go ask Venture or EJ Korvettes if you’re not sure.

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