Once upon a time, buying something — like underwear — meant you had to leave home. You had to head to a store and locate the underwear, a department both sterile and skeezy, often pointlessly dressed up with a vague moniker like “Foundations.” You had to comb the racks for your size before waiting in a line with your fresh pair in tow — and then try not to make awkward eye contact with the cashier folding your skivvies.
Today, you could make that same purchase online, from home … in your underwear. To be honest, you might not even have to unlock your phone. If you’re one of more than 50,000 people who subscribe to MeUndies, your next pair is never more than a month away.
When MeUndies founder Jonathan Shokrian told LA Biz Journals, “I … found the whole process of going to the department store kind of outdated,” he voiced the sentiment of a new generation of consumers. These consumers aren’t defined by their age or their gender, their jobs or their hometowns. These consumers are defined by the way they shop — and, increasingly, the only thing consistent about the way they shop is that it’s always changing.
Who’s Shopping, and How
“We’re an Amazon family,” my sister-in-law recently told me. She wasn’t just talking about books and music, but everything — nut-free graham crackers, paper towels, squeezable pouches of fruit goo. She’s in the majority. According to Big Commerce, these days, 51% of Americans call online shopping their preferred way to buy; “nearly half of all online product searches (48%) begin on marketplaces like Amazon.”
For millions of people, including many like my sister-in-law — a Millenial parent in a dual-income household — online shopping makes sense. Thanks to membership programs like Prime, it’s streamlined; better still, it’s seamless, something that doesn’t have to interrupt a day.
“Winning in retailing today is less and less about control of the shopping experience because there is no longer a clearly defined shopping stage,” Werner Reinartz wrote in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article. And without that “clearly defined stage,” every moment is fair game. My sister-in-law doesn’t have to make trips to the grocery store: she can hop online between meetings at work or set up auto-replenish for those nut-free grahams or use a grocery-delivery app like Instacart.
If Big Commerce found that “80% [of shoppers make online] purchases at least once a month,” and “30% … at least once per week,” then the 5% they find buying daily only stands to increase.
Soon, predicts Lauren Smiley, employers will be offering subscription services and online shopping deals to their workers. “Tech companies have long realized that if you hook up your employees with everything on site, they’ll work longer, more industrious hours,” she writes.
“If apps deliver that same to the home, corporations keep benefiting. Employees can work even more undistracted hours remotely or buy even more on-demand services … The perfect cycle of productivity and consumption is created — and all without ever having to step outside.”
What makes that cycle of productivity and consumption so appealing to consumers is the fact that it’s endlessly customizable. Shopping today is more personal than ever before, and anyone who’s ever tried to sell anything knows that being personal works when it feels authentic.
Perhaps this is why companies like Everlane boast “radical transparency,” letting buyers know not just how much it costs to make a T-shirt, but where the factory is located, how the workers are compensated, and what sort of profit the price tag nets the company. People who buy things have hearts, the ethos behind Everlane suggests, and if you sell to that heart, you’ll ensure a loyal buyer.
“They just want to buy it the way they want”
In January, Forbes’ Richard Kestenbaum attended the National Retail Federation’s Big Show. The changing playing field of marketing, given the new generation of consumers, was on everyone’s mind, especially Laurence Haziot, Global Managing Director and General Manager of Consumer Industries at IBM.
“‘Marketing was segmenting consumers,” Haziot told Kestenbaum. “‘Now, each consumer is one segment on their own, with expectations heavily depending on the moment and the context. Consumption habits are evolving and the consumer wants what they want: New, safe, without gluten, allergy-free, safely and ethically produced and they just want to buy it the way they want.’”
Yet though each consumer might be “a segment on their own,” that segment is molded by others, largely via the internet. Social media tips influenced almost a quarter of online purchases, Big Commerce found, while recommendations from friends and family were doubly persuasive.
Is there a downside to the power of the individual? Maybe. Identifying your wants can come at a cost.
If it’s easier today for customers to customize the contents of their shopping carts, then it’s also easier for companies to track and cache those consumers. In an article for The Atlantic, “How Online Shopping Makes Suckers of Us All,” Jerry Useem points out how buyers have become more data-fiable than ever before. “Our ability to know the price of anything, anytime, anywhere, has given us, the consumers, so much power that retailers — in a desperate effort to regain the upper hand, or at least avoid extinction — are now staring back through the screen. They are comparison shopping us.”
“Bricks and Clicks”
Despite the fact that people liking to shop on their own schedules (20% of people buy stuff while they’re in the bathroom — thanks for the visual, Big Commerce) — today’s retail behemoths recognize that the odds of e-commerce overtaking brick-and-mortar are slim.
Following on the heels of the bookstores it opened across the country, Amazon Go debuted in Seattle last month. A tricked-out version of your best neighborhood convenience store, Amazon Go is studded with sensors and cameras that connect what you take off the shelf to your Amazon account. Checkout lines are eliminated; the people who might once have been cashiers help shoppers make sure they find what they want.
Amazon, along with Alibaba and other Internet grandfathers, is what Bloomberg News calls “part of a new “bricks and clicks” trend blurring the division between online and in-person sales. Traditional store-based retailers are joining in by elevating their web game.”
Perhaps the “bricks and clicks” trend was inevitable. A recent study by CBRE Group Inc., looked at the buying preferences of Millennials and found 70% prefer brick-and-mortar retail. When my sister-in-law gets ready to buy my nephew his first pair of non-baby shoes, odds are she’ll take him to a store with a shoe department. Maybe he’ll have to put his little foot in one of those metal foot-size measurers that you might remember from childhood. When it’s underwear time in that awkward middle school phase, though? I bet his mom will be glad for sites like MeUndies.