Metail Takeover, AlixPartners’ Joel Bines On the In-charge Consumer

·4 min read

Consumers are once again proving the old adage that knowledge is power.

While everyday shoppers have been gaining more influence over how retailers operate for some time, Joel Bines, global co-head of retail at AlixPartners, argues in a new book that it’s not just a new pressure for the C-suite, but a kind of internet-backed takeover.

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“The Metail Economy: 6 Strategies for Transforming Your Business to Thrive in the Me-Centric Consumer Revolution,” published by McGraw-Hill on Tuesday, offers Bines’ full take on the new consumer and lays out a battle plan for the corporate response.

Clearly, retailers have their work cut out for them.

“Consumers are not monolithic demographic groups anymore, they change and they can be different at the same time,” Bines told WWD in an interview, noting how conflicted and slippery customers can be from moment to moment.

“There’s never been another time in history when consumers have had more power,” he said, pointing to shoppers’ access to information, their social media bullhorn and the ease at which they can become retailers themselves.

“Consumers have always had agency, they’ve never had power and now they have agency and power,” Bines said.

With the variety of retail on the web, customers can not only decide what to buy, but where to buy and in some cases how much they want to pay for it and more.

If that’s a change that’s been coming for a while, it’s one that’s been super charged during the pandemic and is challenging retail in ways that not everyone is ready for.

“I’ve been in retail for 30 years,” Bines said. “We tend to be slower to adapt technologies. We tend to be slower to accept challenging revelations. And, for sure, we are pretty devoted to our past experience.

“The idea [is] that the consumer has changed in a fundamental way that means you can’t approach your business from a growth perspective the way you used to,” he said.

While there are companies that Bines holds up as making deft changes and benefiting from them, such as Target, he said many other C-suites will struggle to keep up with the consumer.

“I’m less optimistic that the current generation of retail leadership is up to the task,” Bines said, speaking of retail generally.

Joel Bines - Credit: (c) Scott Peek Photographh
Joel Bines - Credit: (c) Scott Peek Photographh

(c) Scott Peek Photographh

But there is some good news for fashion.

Bines said the industry leaders have stayed close to their shoppers and in many cases been able to take the customer’s lead.

“They were very early in reckoning the importance of reacting to their customer,” he said. “They’ve been brave in the collaborations that they’ve been doing. They’ve been brave in the designers that they’ve been hiring and giving opportunities to. Fashion is on the leading edge of understanding the premise of metail.”

To help businesses continue to orient themselves to the new reality, Bines offered six Cs to focus on — cost, convenience, category expertise, curation, customization and community — although he said they are ingredients, not the only recipe for success.

Retailers can pick one C to focus on or mix and match or find their own attribute that helps them stand out with consumers.

Chef Bines pointed to some of the key attributes of his various ingredients.

• Cost: “If you want to be cost-competitive, you must mean it and understand the implications that has on the way you must orient your cost structure.”

• Convenience: “Making your customers believe you will do whatever it takes to make their lives easier.”

• Category expertise: “Mastery of information is the key, as is the specialization of products and services that consumers won’t be able to easily access elsewhere.”

• Curation: “Customers see past the ‘if you bought this, you might like that’ algorithms. Curators look toward the horizon and anticipate the future wants of their Me’s.”

• Customization: “Me’s don’t want to feel like part of the herd.”

• Community: “This is less about the stuff you sell than the big idea that surrounds it. Building and sustaining an authentic sense of community will go a long way toward holding the attention of your Me’s.”

And focusing in like that could require a little less of the Master of the Retail Universe approach.

“Humility is the best model,” Bines said. “Listen to your customer.”

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