Commoditization, is it happening to you?

28 11 2007

“We are living in an era where there are too many retailers serving too few customers and where there is no longer any brand loyalty or retail loyalty” Kevin Burke, President/CEO. The American Apparel and Footwear Association.

From this comment by Mr. Burke I believe the apparel and footwear industries are in the midst of an important struggle, to move away from their current status of a commodity business.

The winners will be those with strong design, distinct brand, and smart developed distribution systems. The same can be said for almost any current industry.

Too many retailers and points of sale? I doubt it. What I interpret from this comment is that there is intense competition between retailers, and instead of seeking exclusivity or innovation to attract and maintain customers, they are using the oldest,simplest trick known….lowering product prices and with it, the quality of the shopping experience.

It is a classic example of commoditization.

Manufacturers are also to blame. The rush to sell their product to high volume buyers insures loss of control of the marketing and retail channels.

The rush to sell everywhere, to everyone, at the same time allows and promotes price competition and price wars between the various manufacturers and retailers.

Too few customers? The real problem is overproduction. Current manufacturing focuses on high volume production and this encourages the standardization of product. The desire to reduce fixed costs drives manufacturers to seek out cheap world labor, increase productivity through mechanization (which encourages product standardization) and the outcome is a mountain of finished products, created all over the world, that are indistinguishable from one another.

Commodities. Most apparel and footwear companies focus on low cost, high volume manufacturing, they sell to wholesalers or retailers that also focus on volume. So suddenly branded products can be found in department stores, boutiques, grocery stores, flea markets and the Internet. The product is everywhere, consumers have learned that one should just look for it where the price is lowest.

This also makes it easier to pirate and sell a product to a growing network of sales outlets focused on offering a brand name for less.

No brand or retail loyalty?
If there is no customer loyalty (read as no perceived advantage to shopping with you versus the competition), and loyalty is important for continued growth, profit and success, then it’s time for a serious reevaluation of how one is doing business.

How can one stand out from the crowd, do something different and unique, and create a sense of exclusivity and prestige for the consumer?

This is the future.

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Are you listening to what the customer needs?

9 09 2007

I have been involved in a series of meetings with business owners regarding problems in their companies. 

Declining sales and market share due to international competitors, inability to compete or a decline in the entire industry sector are some of the reasons mentioned.

Solutions that were discussed and debated including cutting costs of raw materials, increasing worker efficiency, lowering logistics costs, streamlining the administration and related costs, government intervention and protection, outsourcing and even forming alliances with the international competitors.

What struck me as incredibly odd was that not once were the customer’s needs mentioned.

Not once did anyone mention creating new ideas, products or services for the customer.

There was no discussion of investing in new technology because “things are difficult now”.

There was never a comparison made between the marketing and promotion, branding or image of the competitors versus the company’s marketing, promotion, branding and image.  Why not? 

Every comment or observation focused on lowering production and logistics costs to the customer, never on increasing the benefits to the customer.

All that mattered is “how can I sell at a lower price”.

That’s right.  The entire future of these companies, and in some cases entire industries are focused on how make their products for less.  How to beat the Chinese, Indonesia or Brazil or whatever developing country has access to cheaper raw materials or labor. 

Common sense tells us this is not a viable, long -term solution.

Each of these companies has stated in their publicity, website and in their mission statements that their focus is on the customer and on customer service.  Why aren’t the customer’s needs and future needs part of the search for solutions when sales are declining?

If the customer really truly cares only about price, your product is a commodity. 

If the customer only cares about price, they don’t care about your company’s service, advertising and promotion, attitude or participation in their business.

If you really think that the low price will guarantee the sale, cut out the customer or technical service.  Take away financing.  Take away delivery and logistics.  Forget environmental and worker protection.  Reduce your inventories.   Standardize your prices and order sizes.   Cut down on sales and promotion. 

Call me when your sales skyrocket and the money pours in. 

I suppose it’s normal when sales fall, to attack costs, and costs are a fundamental element in being competitive in certain goods and services.

It is not the only element.  It may not even be the most important one for your customer. 

It probably is the easiest area to change quickly, and requires no investment.  People like easy solutions that don’t require investment. 

The relationship with your customer, the ability to meet their needs with your product or service and allow them to make a profit is what makes business click.

How well do you know your customer? 

What problems are they facing?

Is your contribution to their product important, significant or fundamental in their success?

Do they see you as simply a supplier of a commodity or an integral part of their supply chain and future?

Have you explored how you can work with them to make them more competitive?

Once this has been accomplished, bring the results to the boardroom and start the discussion of how to aid declining sales and deteriorating margin.

Don’t stop with the easy solutions.

Look for the difficult solutions, the ones that require compromise and long-term commitment.

Look for solutions that require investment of resources; time, money, and ideas. 

These are the solutions that the competitor focused on cost is not interested in. 

These are the solutions that will provide confidence and mutual opportunities for growth.