A Convenient Truth

Easy buttonConvenience. We value it more than I think we sometimes realize. We’re willing to pay more for it, and we’re willing to sacrifice quality in exchange for it. So it stands to reason that delivering convenience for our customers can lead to a pretty profitable equation for retailers.

Consider the convenience effect of some of the more popular innovations in recent years:

  • Mobile phones. We love our mobile phones,  even though they’re more expensive and of significantly lesser sound quality and reliability than land lines. And now we browse the web on our tiny smartphone screens.
  • Digital music. While it’s getting better, the sound quality of digital music is not as good as CDs (and some people say CDs aren’t as good as LPs). And we happily listen to our iPods over poor sound quality earbuds because they’re a lot more convenient than bulky headphones.
  • Camera phones. Digital photography with nice SLR cameras is finally nearing the quality of film, but cameras on phones have a long way to go to get to that same level of quality. But it sure is easy to post photos on Facebook and Flickr from a camera phone.
  • Diet pills.  OK, these aren’t as widely adopted as the previous examples (yet), but they’re the easy way out for weight loss even though there are some less-than-pleasant side effects. (Hint, you don’t want to sit next to an Alli pill taker on a long flight.) Of course, if you’re not into pills maybe you can still avoid exercise and get some six-pack abs with the Vibro-Belt.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the immense convenience of e-commerce and the effect it’s had on retail. But we cannot rest on our laurels as the desire and demand for convenience knows no bounds.

The threshold for inconvenience continues to get ever lower. We often complain about how many clicks it takes to get to what we’re looking for on a web page. Think about that for a moment. The energy required to cause our index fingers to press a button too many times is irritating. Some might say it’s not the energy, it’s the time. OK, fair enough.  Then the “waste of time” threshold starts kicking in when we are forced to wait three to four seconds for a page to load. We’re busy! We haven’t got that kind of time to waste!

My favorite example of the power of convenience is the Kindle. Amazon managed to make the paper book seem inconvenient. If that doesn’t tell you that just about everything can be made easier, I don’t know what will. People (and I’m one of the them) are willing to drop hundreds of dollars for a book reading device that still doesn’t format as well as a paper book. But it’s so light and so much easier to hold in one hand than a hardcover book. You can lay it flat on the table. You can carry lots of books around easily, which is very nice for a traveler like me. And you can get books in an instant with the wireless connection, which is soooo much more convenient than plugging the device into a PC for a sync. I sometimes feel ridiculous saying things like that, but I’m not going back.  And I’m not alone; people write long blog posts professing their love of the convenience the Kindle brings.

But this post isn’t a social commentary. It’s about recognizing an opportunity to make money.

So, how can we focus our businesses on the convenience opportunity? Here are three places to start:

  1. Start with website usability
    We should start with our sites because they are the low hanging fruit. The promise of convenience with e-commerce is high, but all too often we put obstacles in our customers’ way, many of which I’ve written about previously. Where are we causing customers more clicks than necessary? Why are we requiring all those clicks? Is it a lack of planning on our part, or are we putting our immediate priorities ahead of our customers’ needs? Have we overwhelmed our customers with choice? How can we make narrowing our selection easier and quicker? And let’s not forget site performance. How fast are those pages loading?
  2. Re-examine the store experience
    We need to continue to think about how our in-store experiences can be easier and more convenient for our customers to shop. Paco Underhill provided some great tips in his book,  Why We Buy. We can also look to a cross-channel strategy to allow technology to provide some conveniences. How can we bring customer reviews and recommendations into the store? Is “buy online pickup in-store” a desirable convenience to offer? How about accepting payment via mobile phone or PayPal in our stores?
  3. Consider our customers’ lives – what could make those lives more convenient?
    What’s life like for our customers? If she is a busy mother of young children, can we do more to help her easily put together some nice outfits for the kids (or herself) to free up time for answering emails, paying bills, or maybe, just maybe, giving her time to relax in the bath? Does it make sense to give our customers the ability to automatically replenish certain items at certain intervals? If we think hard, we can probably find ways to improve certain tasks that don’t currently seem difficult. If the book can be made more convenient, there are no limits.

Sometimes I think we get so caught up in our metrics and the particulars of our businesses that we forget about our customers’ needs. After all, retail is really a service business. Customer convenience can and should be a key part of our value proposition. When we find ways to make our customers’ lives easier (even by just a little bit) we are providing services and products our customers will be willing to buy — and at prices that are nice for our bottom lines.

What do you think? Is customer convenience the right strategic target for us? What ideas have you implemented to improve convenience?


5 Comments

  • By Gary, February 24, 2010 @ 2:42 am

    Convenience is where it’s at –
    We need more drive thru brick and mortar plays…. Not just coffee but dry cleaning, groceries, pizza, etc. Just call the store from our convenient cell phones and have them pick, pack and hand you the good at the convenient drive thru. Not just for Dunkin Donuts anymore !!!!

  • By Andy, February 24, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    Another good post, Kevin.

    I think as important as conveinience is INconveinience. I can tell you I don’t do a lot of business or spend a lot of time on sites or in stores that make things difficult, or even just a little clunky.

    Sites that ask me to download flash, or login with a 10 character password (containing at least one * and two >’s) frustrate the heck out of me. Stores with inconveinent hours (car dealerships) or bad return policies (BestBuy – I’m talking about you) don’t get a lot of my money.

  • By Kevin Ertell, February 26, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Gary and Andy.

    I completely agree, Gary, that more and more businesses should be looking for ways to make all aspects of their businesses more convenient. I know that Sears is currently testing a drive-through option for buy online pick up in store. It will be interesting to see how that goes.

    Andy, you make a great point about return policies that are too difficult. While I understand retailers need to watch for fraud, I think we all need to be careful to balance the need to stop fraud from a few at the expense of good service and convenience to the majority.

    I think you also make a good point about passwords. Some of the requirements can pretty extreme for the information being protected. There might be a whole other blog post in that one.

  • By Jason Conrad, March 8, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    Very interesting post Kevin!

    How do you improve a meat patty? Put it in between two pieces of bread so it’s portable (and convenient). Americans (and all people perhaps) have always loved things to be convenient. And once an idea like a hamburger, a cell phone, or a “book-reader” becomes more widespread, competitive and popular, our ability to execute then starts to trump convenience. (At least from a loyalty perspective.)

    Why do I buy In-N-Out over McDonald’s? I would suggest that both are equally convenient. One tastes better in my opinion and that’s what drives my behavior. However, if there is a McDonald’s across the street, vs. having to drive 10 miles to the nearest In N Out, I might opt for the convenience of nearness. But if In N Out opens next to that McDonald’s, the loyalty that McDonald’s had by being convenient is lost because of the overall better experience at In N Out.

    This is fantastic for we the consumer because there can always be something more convenient, and there can always be a better execution of a convenient product or service when competition is introduced.

    The iPhone offers more conviences and has a better execution than competing cell phones/pda’s. The iPad might do the same vs. the Kindle. In N Out makes a better burger than other convient fast food places.

    And to you point…websites have made our lives a whole lot more convient. The cost of moving from one URL to a competitor’s is minimal (unlike in the offline world) so our ability to execute is what separates one website from another in my opinion. I think one has to attribute some of the success of Amazon to how convenient they make it to actually buy things from their site after you’ve bought from them once. They executed early on this idea of convenience online, and continue to do so better than many. The good news for those who are not Amazon is that just like with a good burger, we can always make a better burger, we can always execute better than the competition online.

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Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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