Commerce of the Future: Channel-First Thinking

David Moellenkamp, Shopify Plus

David Moellenkamp, Shopify Plus

Author Bio

David Moellenkamp is the Director of Product at Shopify Plus, where he is focused on building products to solve the problems of Shopify’s highest volume merchants. Prior to joining Shopify, David worked at BlackBerry where he helped build mobile device management solutions for some of the world's largest and most demanding organizations.

“Gradually and then suddenly,” to quote Hemingway, is how businesses die.

Headlines announcing the closing of hundreds of store locations have become so common, their impact dulled by the numbing frequency with which they occur. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that more physical stores have closed in the first half of 2017 than in the entirety of 2016.

To give you a frame of reference, economist Paul Krugman tweeted in April 2017 that “retail trade lost more jobs in the past two months than coal mining lost in the past 20 years.” Just let that sink in.

While heartbreaking for the thousands of displaced retail workers across North America, this story has unfolded countless times across different verticals over the last 10 years. Video rentals, bookstores and one-hour photo each passed on – slowly but then suddenly – seemingly with the same suspects behind their demise: the internet and online buying.

You may think you’re in the clear. You’re selling online. You’re selling on mobile. But while that’s a great start, it’s not everything. A mobile-friendly site is no longer enough, and buying behavior continues to evolve at an exponential rate. The way you browsed and bought didn’t change all that much from 1980 to 1990. But from 2007 to 2017– it’s almost unrecognizable.

According to research revealed by my colleague Fahd Anata at our UNITE conference, 19% of adults aged 18-29 use only a smartphone as their primary computer. The truth is, there is an entire generation of consumers out there that has never known a world without the internet.

The Channel Challenge

According to comScore, people already spend an average of two hours and 51 minutes per day on mobile devices and over two hours a day on social networks and messaging services, per GlobalWebIndex.

This shift in content consumption and buying is powerful because it represents a major disruption to the model for how things are marketed and sold. For centuries, the standard has been to gain attention through one medium or platform and make a sale on another. But in this digital-first, attention-starved world, everything is a platform that demands your attention. So, why fight it? If a person is ready to buy now on Facebook or Pinterest, why not let them? Why ask them to fill out the same fields every time they check out online when you could offer a much faster way to pay?

I won’t pull any punches. If you’re not already selling natively on external channels, such as Facebook, Pinterest or one of the hundreds of others that enable it, you’re a year behind. People are buying natively on social networks, curation sites and online marketplaces right now — where will they be next year?

Understandably, many larger businesses haven’t experimented with these types of channels due to cost and time it requires to add such functionality. But many of these large organizations are also gradually dying, at least in part at the hands of mid-market merchants whose technology, supply chain and infrastructure allow them to move more quickly and deliver more tailored experiences with significantly less overhead.

This type of agility might be different from what you’re used to. And while executing on it successfully requires new technology, planning for it strategically will require a new way of thinking.

Channel-First Thinking

“Community” has traditionally been defined and restricted by location. You went to your local church, car club or comic book shop to find like-minded individuals and express certain elements of your own personality. But while this community supported a sense of belonging, it could limit the tendency to express one’s unique identity.

The marketplace, historically, was a commerce-focused realization of this concept of community, and merchants gravitated toward it because that’s where you found the largest gathering of people. Today, however, people gather in more places online, they’re members of wildly different communities and they more freely express various aspects of their personalities through the purchases they make.

These days, you must go where the people are, which means building for whatever platform courts their attention. You can no longer think of your store as website-first, or even mobile-first, but rather as channel-first. And because we are seeing so many new channels pop up – Pinterest, Snapchat, Amazon Echo – you must be willing to keep up with these innovations to remain successful.

You may find it hard to even consider this strange, channel-first way of thinking. But with the right tools, it can be much more of a reality.

Competing in commerce already requires a certain level of agility. And in the future, it’ll require moving even faster. It might not be the easy way, but building a solid plan that keeps channel at the forefront and allows you to reach your customers wherever they are will help you set the groundwork for your business to live — and thrive — in the future.

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