If you have ever gone mountain biking then you know if you are looking down your front wheel, you aren’t looking out far enough ahead. You’ll be at the obstacle by the time you see it. Many businesses today do just that. They look directly at the marketplace KNOWNS and react to what is immediately happening. Unfortunately it’s often too little, too late and this strategy doesn’t allow you to see around the bend in a constantly changing environment.

A better strategy, just like mountain biking, is to pick a line; get your head up and look ahead 7-10 feet in front of your path. If your company is looking ahead, at GLIMPSES, you are able to more easily see obstructions and changes in the marketplace that will impact your business. Allowing you to move more effectively toward where you want to go and avoid where you don’t. 

PINE routinely sees industry trends reports that call out specific themes and presents them as if they are new and you could react to them. However, to us many of these themes are things that the market has already reacted to. What they call trends, we call KNOWNS

In an effort to stay ahead we believe you have to look for GLIMPSES into the future. PINE uses principles from strategic forecasting like STEEP to create and identify GLIMPSES. We then create design fictions to illustrate how opportunity could be captured by our clients from these KNOWNS and GLIMPSES.

This approach has been successfully applied to much of our client work. It is at the core of our OPPORTUNITY-CENTERED DESIGN where the overlap of Knowns and Glimpses creates future success. 

If you would like to learn more about our process, how we view the world or find the KNOWNS, GLIMPSES and opportunities right for your business, please reach out.  P.S. And if you like mountain biking, here’s the link to a short highlight reel from the 2019 Red Bull Rampage in Utah.

Ecommerce finally moves forward

Ecommerce may be finally stepping into a new era. In 1999, a group of colleagues and I built an ecommerce site for a wallpaper retailer. Sadly, not much on the front end design of Ecommerce sites has changed since then; scroll down, find a product, add to cart and keep shopping. Yawn… wake me when it gets fun. Innovation for the most part has been focused on the backend with the obvious goal of selling stuff as quickly and easily as possible.

Personalization comes to life…

Gucci Live

However, Gucci’s new personalized video shopping may have just changed all that (No yawn)! Ecommerce efforts in social media (Pinterest, Instagram, Tik Tok) have given new hope and life into bringing the emotion back to ecommerce shopping. However they have still not evolved a real-time human connection until now. Gucci’s Live, a new online service brings the advisor to the customer. The new effort allows Gucci to be more present (human) in the lives of its customers, when and where they want it (technology).

Marco Bizzarri, Gucci president and CEO, said in a statement when Gucci 9 opened. “The service is delivered according to the values that define and differentiate our brand today: a human touch powered by technology.”

Democratizing personalization

In the near-term this level of service is a stretch for most mass retailers as they continue to use human associates. Creative ones like Gucci will integrate influencers, major stars, etc and perhaps even charge a premium for exclusive ‘remote’ shopping experiences. However, we ultimately believe this could easily trickle down to retailers like Target

Positive COVID impacts

COVID made remote video a reality overnight. The reality of a remote shopping spree with friends in different cities around the world no longer seems like science fiction. This gets us excited about a whole new possibility for Ecommerce!

PINE

At PINE we are always looking ahead for what the future might look like, we call these  GLIMPSES. We help Fortune 100 companies translate GLIMPSES into actionable strategies and implementable experiences. 

Special thanks to co-author John Youger

I really hate missed opportunities.  One area in retail that comes to mind as a missed opportunity for me is Beverage. You know, coconut water, sparkling water, sparkling tea, regular tea, cold brews, energy drinks and on and on.  Beverage is a category long overdue for an overhaul in stores. It is exciting, there are plenty of choices and consumption is attached to some of our best sensations throughout the day.  However, retailers treat it like it’s a snoozer.

It’s all a blur.

The transition of basic household items like laundry detergent, paper towels, toilet paper and other regime products from being purchased in store to online is causing (or will soon cause) space allocated to them to shrink.

Retailers should fill some of this freed up space with, you got it… beverages. Retailers have long made areas like meats, cheeses and fresh foods experiential destinations for shoppers to sample and learn about new products. Definitely because they are purchased more frequently but also because there is more emotion associated to their consumption occasions.  Beverages are just as associated with emotion and positive sensations we have throughout the day.

Can you envision an experiential beverage section…No? Let me give it a try. Think of your local brewery; no matter where you are, you likely have more than one in your neighborhood. You can walk in and try from a range of different samples, each time you visit, there are seemingly new options to try. Or think of your local ice cream shop where you can try a dozen samples before choosing what’s right for you that visit.

Now imagine creating an experiential area where shoppers can engage with new and different beverages in fun ways. Just think of the possibilities. 

You could even take it one step further, imagine getting really creative and integrated beverages into other experiential sections of the store and getting people to engage with the myriad of options available to quench your thirst, start your morning or give you an afternoon pick up. Maybe you look at ways to pair beverages with food or bring beverages to new occasions. This would ultimately lead to wider category exploration, new product adoptions and new consumption rituals, over time growing basket.

It feels like this would be a big step away from the traditional boring aisle of beverages with little to no signage and no reason to engage. As retailers look to differentiate themselves further and find items and categories they can build experiences around, it sure feels like beverages are being overlooked. BTW this is starting to make me thirsty. 

Drink on.  

Thanks for reading. If you want to discuss, debate or share, email me
at Raj.Shroff@pinesd.com

If you are reading this you probably already know that the PINE team loves to travel.  We spend a lot of time on the road because we enjoy seeing and experiencing new things. We know all the fresh inputs lead to better outputs for ourselves and our clients. 

One of our more noteworthy work experiences this year happened when we visited a store called Foodhall, in Mumbai, India.  Foodhall is a premium lifestyle food superstore that was started in 2011 by the Future Group of India.  Future Group’s founder, Kishore Biyani, started other successful retail ventures including Pantaloons and Big Bazaar.  Some say he is India’s Sam Walton.  

The store we visited, the concept’s largest, opened in December of last year.  It’s a 25,000 square foot space, in Bandra, an upscale suburb of Mumbai. It caters to the wealthy class of Mumbai; the prices are beyond the reach of the average Indian consumer.  Here you will see the occasional sari on a middle-aged woman, but more often than not, torn jeans, t-shirts and Apple Watches, is what the young and old are wearing. 

At it’s core, it’s a grocery store.  But it attempts to push well beyond that idea. This particular site has 4 stories and a basement.  Full assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables, packaged goods and cooking related general merchandise.  Sprinkled through the store are little bars or stations, some with seating, where you can get smoothies, coffee, teas, fresh baked goods and confections. Shopper enter at ground level and are met by a full assortment of fresh items, a health bar, bakery and checkout.   

Market feel right at the entrance

The smell of fresh baked goods hits you right when you walk through the front door



Grab some flowers right by the checkout

Surprisingly wide selection of better for you items

Grab some leafy greens or just buy the plant!

The 2nd floor is a mix of food, bars and housewares. There’s a cool little Coffee Bar with Indian coffee varieties and specialty ways of brewing, including a Japanese method.  You can buy coffee to drink on the spot or beans to take home.

Cool little coffee bar

Around the corner from the Coffee bar are a Tea bar, Sweets bar and more typical rows of gondolas of grocery items.  They have wide assortments of honey, jams, teas and some traditional western snacks. 

For the (Tea) lovers

On the 3rd floor are a full restaurant and an industrial kitchen used for cooking classes.   The schedule for the cooking classes seemed chock full of great meal ideas. Shoppers can sign up and show up for the lesson.

Full service restaurant

A full calendar of events

You definitely deserve a coffee break for getting this far

Retailers in the U.S. should take notice, while Foodhall doesn’t get it perfect, it’s one of the better attempts we’ve seen toward this blend of grocery and experience. Eately is less everyday and Whole Foods and others with dining are too grocery. We are excited to see what Future Group can do on future iterations as they refine the concept.  

The day after shopping this store we met an old friend who is well connected in Indian retail. He mentioned “a team from Amazon” had just visited the store.  And suddenly a recent announcement made sense.   This is another move in India by Amazon. Last year they bought More, (a concept I worked on). Oh..and maybe the good people at Kroger were there too, with today’s announcement, who knows.

Our team walked away with inspiration and new ideas that we’ve undoubtedly brought to clients since the trip. We always think it’s a great use of time and resources to take a road trip and find some inspiration!  Stay tuned for thoughts from our next adventure.

If you have any comments or questions, send me a note: raj.shroff@pinesd.com

During a visit to Minneapolis a few weeks ago I got the chance to experience the Good Housekeeping Lab store at Mall of America. It’s a showroom for Good Housekeeping tested products. The magazine has come a long way — I remember the magazines sitting around my house as a kid. I love their ambition and creativity in creating this experience with Amazon.

The store is an Amazon-powered showroom of GH tested products, set up as vignettes around a 2800 sq. ft. space.

Each item is identified by a printed tag. The tag includes the item name, price and an Amazon “SmileCode”.

Using the Amazon app, you can scan the “SmileCode” and you are immediately taken to the amazon.com product page.

The products in the image below are part of the kitchen vignette (good to see an old client made the cut).

Kitchen Vignette at the back of the store

After seeing new concepts I like to try to guess the why behind their creation.

At first blush, while this is a newsworthy and interesting retail execution, 
I don’t think this concept solves any consumer friction. Shoppers can walk into most stores and look at products. Shoppers can find reviews online. Shoppers can purchase products on Amazon. Shoppers can even buy products on Amazon while staring at the product in a non-Amazon store. 
So it’s not friction-solving.

How about it being an Alibaba-like move. Amazon acts as your physical retail storefront, offering your brand exposure and enabling you to sell without having to create your own infrastructure. Amazon started by enabling online storefronts. Maybe their plan is to dole out brick and mortar store fronts.

Or could it be Good Housekeeping striving to make their seal of approval mean something. But who would you trust, 1200 people who gave something a 4 ½ star rating on Amazon or a Good Housekeeping Lab seal? My mom might say Good Housekeeping. My sister might say, Good who? (which might be the point, GH using Amazon to make them relevant again).

Whatever their reasons, the uphill battle this and other similar concepts will face is that we are still in the nascent stage of physical-digital retail and, except for payments, it’s not being used to solve any consumer frictions.

Behaviors are shifting but the shift accelerates when and where there is friction. I don’t think American consumers face, or will face, enough friction for these concepts to work at scale in the next three to five years. They have to deliver value aligned with a need.

If this was plopped down into a Tier One Chinese city, shoppers would be ordering left and right at this store. It works there due to timing, systems and their place on the trajectory of digital evolution. The giants built their systems the only way the know how.

Here in the US, while I applaud this effort because there is little downside for either party, this lab store is still more of a novelty. Time will tell what Amazon & Good Housekeeping do with the learnings, and whether the seal
of approval will ever mean anything to future generations.

Thanks for reading.

To discuss more, shoot me a note: raj.shroff@pinesd.com

Entrance at a HEMA in Guangzhou

Our team went to China for consumer, brand and retail immersion. We’re not new to the international retail scene but there is so much press about China, we were more excited than usual. We visited HEMA in two different cities.

HEMA is a Chinese retailer, owned by Alibaba. It’s part of Jack Ma’s “new retail” strategy. “New retail” blends online and offline. But what struck me as interesting is that the store is strikingly analog. No digital screens in stores, no one really on their phones (surprising in China), people just shopping regular products. I’ve been reflecting on our visit to HEMA for a few days now.

What was interesting is the selection of live seafood and the multiple little restaurant stations.

I met up with a local friend who said he will either order food online and get it delivered or go into the store, pick out his food, select ingredients and have HEMA make it and deliver it to his house. I went to the one in Guangzhou on a Saturday and the one in Shanghai on a Friday.

In Guangzhou, the eating area was full, families eating, selecting live seafood and lots of hustle and bustle.

When people check out, they still wait in queue, scan their QR payment code and bag their food.

If you want to pay cash, there is a cash station. Although we used WeChat and Didi, we couldn’t sync up our Alipay or WeChat payments since none of us has a Chinese bank account. Needless to say, we waited in the cash payment line. We were later told only old people pay cash.

So what’s my takeaway? From a tech standpoint, the biggest one is that Jack Ma’s team is just trying to remove friction for the customer. He is making the experience simpler. It seems like most US retailers are on the path to adding more, not less.

It is nicely designed store with ample assortment. There are a variety of dine-in options (mini-restaurants) driving traffic and energy levels. The stores are bustling with people eating and shopping. The stores are smaller and more intimate, feeling easier to navigate and shop. The two we visited were in malls likely helping that traffic flow.

As much as we tried to live and behave as insiders, we were really outsiders, not plugged into the Chinese fabric. But even still, it didn’t seem like Ma was doing anything crazy and out of the ordinary. He is putting the customer first and focused on where he can eliminate pain in the shopping process or journey.

Amazon says they do that but if you’ve shopped their Amazon Books, that’s arguably not the case. They make people do more things with their phones that are additional steps that don’t add value.

So I would say U.S. retail has work to do in order to build around the customer (except Starbucks and maybe Apple). Btw, I’m not blind to the fact that Ma created a nice concept with a beautiful, simple design at a time when some of the other players’ efforts are dated.

In this case, my advice would be to not overcomplicate your efforts to drive your retail business. It’s not always about what you add. Sometimes there’s more power in deciding what to remove.

If you want to chat more about this, just shoot me an email, I’m open to debate: raj.shroff@pinesd.com.

The PINE team has been spending some time in China. In our industry there is a lot of press and discussion on China. Alibaba, Ten Cent, Bingo Box, 1.4 billion people, cashless society and more.

We had been to China before but hadn’t seen the most recent changes. We decided to invest in ourselves and make the trip. If we aren’t willing to invest in ourselves how do can we sit across from clients asking them to invest in working with us? And if we don’t have rich experiences at a global level how will the work we are doing be the best possible for our clients? Somewhat rhetorical questions but you get the point. We lined up dates, found an Airbnb and bought our plane tickets. We knew the experience would take us out of our comfort zone, stretch us and help us grow.

For those who don’t know us, we are consultants. We advise brands in the areas of research, strategy and design; adding value that drives their businesses. We know consultants’ outputs are only as strong as their inputs; experiences, projects and problems solved. The answers and inspiration to impact a business aren’t on Google, they are not in the news and they are definitely not on social media.

So far, we’ve spent time with locals, business heads and old b-school friends and have tried to weave ourselves into the society during our stay (breakfast at Family Mart), with one of us indulging in the local delicacy of Chicken feet. All the while staying on top of our project work (the beauty of a connected world).

We even got the chance to facilitate a research session with an MNC exploring the Chinese Post 95 (those born after 95) consumer. The China they were born into is vastly different than previous generations.

We still have plans to spend time with some expats living in Shanghai, visit some more local Chinese retail and go to Hangzhou to visit the headquarters of Alibaba. Expect to hear more from us on what we have learned and if you have anything you think we should check out before we leave definitely let us know.

Btw, none of us has had the guts to try pig snout.

I am writing this from Shanghai, actually sitting in an Indian restaurant, enjoying some free wi-fi. The lunch crowd has disappeared, the techno music is still blaring, it feels more like my private club now, not a buzzing restaurant. I love Chinese food but after a week, needed a little spice.

I spent last week in Guangzhou and got to check out a newer mall called K11. Having traveled the world and seen lots of high end retail, I was surprised and impressed by the store designs in this mall. At the top of my list was this bookstore, still working on the name.

It was buzzing with shoppers. This store seems new, modern and exciting.

Compared to this, the Amazon Books I saw a few weeks ago in NYC is a dull relic of the past, a Barnes & Noble 1.5.

This bookstore is analog. No bar codes to scan, no member prices to be redirected to. Sure, you can pay quickly, you just use one of the payment apps, no big deal, no fuss, no press releases about their amazing technology, its just the ecosystem here.

The store has a fun kid’s space, a café, an art studio, a plant store and several other small shop-in-shops.

Definitely glad I stumbled upon this gem. And hope this provides some inspiration to my designer friends. Stay tuned for more observations, lessons and thoughts from China. RBS.

I was in Manhattan last week so stopped into the Amazonbooks store. Given Amazon’s reputation with Go, Drones, Blimps, etc. and their label as a traditional retailer killer, I braced for a truly unique (and perhaps mind blowing) experience. I was genuinely excited to check it out.

A friendly associate welcome me upon entry and, having found out I was a first-timer, took me through the whole process. For those of you who haven’t been, you use the app to scan books, access prices, find books and pay.

The store looks like a traditional book store, shelves of books, a few Amazon devices on tables and a coffee shop off to the side. If you want to find out the price for a book you can either look at the insert or they prefer you scan the book with your app. If you are a Prime member, you get the Prime price. On the shelf set beneath each book is a printed review card. The card has a “real” review on it and a star rating for the book (think what Best Buy did years ago but large enough to actually read). That’s the store in a nutshell.

Now I’m really a library guy; why buy a book you will likely only read once? But I decided to give the store a shot so searched for the Elon Musk biography that’s been on my list.

Together the associate and I searched for the book. The search went like this: Type Musk into the app, a few titles pop up, select the right one, the page says lists the part of the store it’s in, we walk over to, in this case Biographies, and find the book.

By now I am in a hurry so I grab the book and head over to checkout. Just before I get there another customer steps into line ahead of me. She has a question, seems like a complex one. I stand there with my app open and book in hand. Amazon knows me, I just scanned the book 5 minutes beforehand. I wait another 2–3 minutes and wonder why I can’t just walk out of the store. Finally I get my turn. The (super friendly) woman behind the counter has me scan by phone, puts my book in a bag and asks if I want a printed receipt. I walk away wondering why the I had to wait in line.

When the associate asked me what I thought of the store, I said, “this feels like a Barnes and Noble”. Her gasp actually made me feel a little guilty. Just a little.

The store didn’t live up to my expectations. My mind was far, far from being blown away. I was actually ticked that I had to wait in line and couldn’t slip that feeling for a while afterwards.

My takeaways.

1) Amazon has set some pretty high expectations, pressure is on to deliver.

2) Though I found the bookstore ho hum (with great associates), I can only assume that Bezos has something else up his sleeve on this.

3) I understand that the US market might not be ready for something more advanced than this but I’d rather have seen Amazon push this further (see point 1), even integrating the Go infrastructure.

4) There are opportunities to vastly improve reviews. How they are curated and delivered, especially in a store setting.

5) Maybe Amazon should bail on stores and just become the OS of all retail.

6) If they keep building stores, I hope their teams have some misfits and hackers who will push on convention. Traditional retail really isn’t that old but so many preconceived notions of what it should be are molded into our minds and that’s holding the industry back.

Raj B. Shroff is Principal and Founder of PINE.

(Full disclosure: I’ve made great money on my investment in Amazon, am a Prime member and am rooting for them to live up to the hype. Btw, read the Musk book, it’s inspiring).

Our clients are faced with a range of challenges in the changing competitive landscape yet Voice continues to be a source of discussion in meetings. It also feels like you can’t go more than a few minutes without finding something about its relevance, impact and (potential) power.

Some industry leaders are wondering if Voice will be the death of brands. Others are taking a more pragmatic approach. And, JPMorgan Chase is committing by naming VaynerMedia as their Voice Agency of Record. A bit more searching and I would find a myriad of other takes and honestly, don’t know if my brain can handle that.

So with all of these hot takes spanning such a wide range, how do you make sense of it all?

I don’t know that you can (fair warning) right now.

Voice seems more noise than form or function at the moment and it is way too early to tell how it will impact our lives overall, let alone how it will impact the role of brands. I do know that no matter how it comes to life, Voice will cause significant disruption and with disruption breeds opportunity. And we personally believe Voice is much more of an opportunity area for brands than it is a death sentence.

Brands will have to deal with a world in which a consumer can simply say “Alexa, order more detergent”, but will they be willing to have an Amazon Basics arrive vs. their preferred brand?

Early on, we don’t see consumers willing to sacrifice quality. But assuming Amazon’s product prowess delivers on its promises and can match or exceed quality where it matters, Voice will most certainly level the playing field if shoppers just rattle off the product type, “Alexa, I need dish soap”.

But if brands are willing to stick it out, continue to develop products that consumers value and can do so before Amazon makes a duplicate, Voice offers retailers and brands some potentially innovative ways to drive ongoing consumer engagement and loyalty. What if a food brand could provide you simple recipes through a certain voice command that is linked to the packaging? Or if that awkward sound you get when you squeeze an almost empty bottle of ketchup was able to be purchased by Heinz, specifically to trigger re-order (think bidding on key sounds, not keywords). And the myriad of other ways Voice could equate to opportunity.

Be excited (I know I am), we live in a unique and very challenging time for marketers, retailers and brands. But with every challenge comes opportunity.

Michael Reda is a Partner of Strategy & Business Development at PINE.