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How Successful Retailers Win Customers in an Era of Endless Disruption

by Barbara E. Kahn

Pub Date: June 12th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-61363-086-0
Publisher: Wharton Digital Press

A study of the fraught world of retail in the age of Amazon.

The latest from Wharton School professor Kahn (Marketing/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Global Power Brand, 2013, etc.) notes the sweeping chaos and disruption among American retailers. Dozens of such name-brand national businesses have either shut down outlets or shut down completely in recent years. She opens her account of this upheaval by identifying what she sees as seven key forces at work, including massive advertising data-collection; vertical integration in order to control all aspects of a brand; an excessive number of brick-and-mortar stores; a younger, less brand-loyal customer base; retail customers moving to cities, away from sprawling suburbs and shopping centers; and a general shift toward online shopping across multiple platforms. But the main focus here, which the author calls “the gorilla in the room,” is the online retailer, with its “fierce understanding of what customers want.” Amazon fills these wants with a seemingly unbeatable combination of basics, she says, including low prices, fast service, responsive returns, and all-inclusive convenience. The company’s model is a familiar one, she points out—it was used, for instance, by Walmart in the 1990s—but the amount of resources that Amazon has put behind it has caused other retailers, big and small, to scramble to adapt. Kahn studies strategies by successful businesses, such as cosmetics retailer Sephora and eyeglasses store Warby Parker, and she offers readers “the Kahn Retailing Success Matrix,” which looks at variances between different aspects of the retail process. Kahn lays this all out with a brevity and clarity that’s extremely effective. She also makes ample use of simple charts, designed to show the different quadrants of her Success Matrix—“Product Benefits,” overall “Customer Experience,” and the specific abilities to “Increase Pleasure” and “Eliminate Pain Points”—as they flow into and sharpen one another. At times, the tenor of the book seems willfully reductionist, as it likely takes more than faithful adherence to a successful matrix to give a small mom-and-pop bookstore, say, a chance against a corporate juggernaut. That said, modern retailers will find the book’s breakdowns of the essentials of retail helpful for widening their perspective and keeping the bigger picture in view. Particularly insightful are her examinations of “Generation Z,” the “digitally native millennials” whose relationship to traditional advertising and retail is very different from those of customers of the past. The author also treats the changing nature of brick-and-mortar buying-and-selling with pleasing nuance. Indeed, she makes a case for the necessity of a brick-and-mortar renaissance, and the urgency of creating “highly compelling in-store customer experiences” to make that happen. It’s also a canny move for Kahn to get into the nitty-gritty of how a handful of companies have maintained their success, as it provides a welcome counterweight to the book’s tendency toward extensive theorizing.

A brisk and thought-provoking anatomy of shopping in the 21st century.