In the next three to five years commerce will change dramatically in response to the increased expectations of today’s shoppers. Mobile commerce, more effective use of data, and the delivery of a consistent and personalized customer experience across all touchpoints are key areas that retailers need to focus on to remain competitive. On top of that, emerging technologies like Big Data will bring new challenges as well as new jobs, titles, and skill sets. That’s certainly a fair amount that retailers have to consider over the coming years. The vast majority will seek help in the form of technology partners.
It’s no secret that partnering with the right vendor can help you meet these challenges. Strong technology partners will innovate with you and develop solutions to stay ahead of the curve. Conversely, weak technology partners will set a company back, which will have an especially profound impact on companies with limited budgets.
However, determining good partners is both an art and science. Let’s examine how to distinguish good partners through the lens of “exploiters” versus “explorers.”
Exploiters provide out-of-the-box solutions for problem solving. These are often quick fixes that tend to be obsolete by the time of implementation. This type of provider sees an immediate market need, builds a product to meet that need, targets a specific user, and attempts to derive as much revenue from that product as possible until its functionality is eclipsed. As demand for the product increases, competitors enter the market and functionality becomes commoditized, placing further pressure on prices. Innovation and R&D are then cut to stay competitive and keep profit margins healthy, netting the purchaser of the solution a gain in the short term but not the long term. In short, products by exploiters serve one functionality but don’t last.
As an example, everyone can relate to Web content management systems (CMSs). A good CMS is essential to every website. CMSs run the gamut today, ranging from cheap, out-of-the-box solutions to more expensive but more functional CMSs. The former is developed to capitalize on quick sales and on organizations that need to fill an immediate need. They do the job and are built for today. However, many organizations are starting to use CMSs to manage the e-commerce side of sites as well, a trend that exploiter CMSs are ill-equipped to meet.
Explorers are first and foremost technology innovators. They think of products as continually evolving solutions designed to address problems with a disruptive approach and rely on emerging technology as a starting point for innovation. Explorers look at customers as co-innovators that will help them build a solution, rather than just another source of revenue. In some cases, explorers may initially be more costly due to the research required for product development, but the product is far superior to that of exploiters and is built to evolve with the continuously changing market landscape. Explorers also tend to use the most current and innovative technologies, which keeps them ahead of the solution development curve.
Explorers will work together with customers to identify future needs and trends, and design a solution that can fulfill these needs. Going back to the CMS example, an explorer CMS might be more expensive, but it might include elements beyond the basics, like Big Data and machine learning integration, and could include the ability to manage and publish large content items such as high-resolution pictures and videos.
So, what exactly happens when a retailer partners with the wrong vendor?
Limited product functionality: As mentioned before, an exploiter product’s functionality will be obsolete sooner rather than later. Looking at retail technologies, exploiter products will use an old-school enterprise software model, and updates will roll out at a scheduled pace regardless of the retailer’s immediate and pressing needs for improvement. Explorer products will be hosted in the cloud, which directly translates to automatic and continuous updates. With customers demanding the most engaging experience, real-time updates from technology vendors is a must. The wrong partner can lead directly to limited innovation and increased support costs over time.
Cost of switching vendors: Once you’ve realized that the technology that you’ve purchased is already obsolete, finding a suitable replacement for an exploiter product consumes a lot of time and resources. Not only have you spent time and money on your existing solution, but you also must dedicate more of both to research and move forward with a new vendor. This can cripple organizations with smaller budgets and technical resources; switching vendors translates into double the anticipated cost.
Effect on employees: Much like cost, switching vendors will double the amount of training that your employees receive. Depending on the complexity of the technology, this could mean a few extra days or even a few extra weeks. In addition, employees must build proficiency post-training, which will increase the ramp time, as well.
Conversely, the right vendors will include retailer feedback in the development process and establish a strong roadmap for product R&D with a willingness to share details with customers. The right vendors also make solutions more accessible and usable to more people across an organization, and provide tools that evolve and develop the talent within an organization.
Retailers need to approach explorers as long-term partners. I understand that some might be scared away by the initial investment or attracted to the flashy packaging of exploiters, but partnering with a vendor that will grow and meet both your short- and long-term investment needs is an invaluable asset in today’s competitive landscape. And with U.S. retail sales expected to reach $262 billion in 2013, the stakes are high for partnering with the right vendor.
Dan Darnell is VP of Marketing and Product at Baynote