The state of fashion retail: stores strike back!

Much was made about the rise of online shopping this past holiday season. Amazon, specifically, had a great season but in general online sales increased by 11% over 2015, with mobile sales rising by 23% according to Adobe, who measures 80% of all online transactions from the top 100 U.S. retailers.

Yet in a recent mall visit, even with all this growth in online shopping, it’s clear that retail isn’t dead or dying, at least not for fashion. Some stores are making significant changes to keep up with the ease of online shopping while trying to tackle online retailers where they’re weak. A few changes I’ve noticed: 

  • Selection and curation: I see these two as two sides of the same issue. On one hand online stores have an infinite selection. On the other hand, without significant and smart filtering (which most don’t have) the vast selection without any curation is overwhelming. For example, Nordstrom has over six thousand dresses and 9 different filters. That’s more than most but it can still take users too much time to find what they want (too much means that they’ll give up.) There is also the chance that they’ll filter out exactly the dress they want because of a wrong classification on the retailer’s side. I’ve seen this many times when filtering creates an unusually small amount of results. It turns out that the filter applied only brings up those items that have been tagged with that characteristic, which, it turns out, is not all the items that could have matched it.
A typical dress page on Norstrom comes with these comments on size:  Sizes 0-4 run small; sizes 6-8 are true to size; and sizes 10-14 run large. The sizing is unique (just like you), so choose your best fit after taking a look at our size chart.

A typical dress page on Nordstrom comes with these comments on size:
“Sizes 0-4 run small; sizes 6-8 are true to size; and sizes 10-14 run large.
The sizing is unique (just like you), so choose your best fit after taking a look at our size chart.”

Contrast this with a store, where the selection has already been somewhat cut down to fit the store’s size and items are displayed in style and age based departments to help shoppers find the group of items that most interests them quicker. Add a salesperson who knows the store’s product line and takes the time to understand what the shopper needs can cut that time down even more. The accessible, knowledgeable, in-store personal stylist hasn’t been really replicated by online stores and retailers are quickly picking up on that. Many that seek to help customers out almost right away, leading them to the products they’re interested in and keeping tab while the customer is in the fitting room, bringing more styles and more sizes.  Some overcome the store’s limited selection problem by offering to ship products that aren’t in stock at the store for free.

  • Fitting room at Bloomingdale's, with customizable, flattering lighting with evening, office, and outdoor settings.

    Fitting room at Bloomingdale’s, with customizable, flattering lighting with evening, office, and outdoor settings.

    Fit: Speaking of size, the topic of fit is the Achilles Heel of online clothing stores. Sizes given by stores are misleading, to say the least. The typical product page will have the item of clothing in 4-5 different views, with most of them showing the item as worn by a tall, size 4 model. If you’re one of the lucky people with the same body type as the model, then you can predict how an item will fit you. If not, you can resort to clicking to a size chart and measuring yourself, trying to figure out what to do if your hips match a medium but your waist matches a large. Ask any woman how hard it is to buy t-shirts online (women’s fit sizes vary greatly by brand, style, and fabric) and she will give you multiple examples of how it has gone wrong. In stores, fit can be determined right away, and some stores are even upping the ante by upgrading their fitting rooms with more space and better lighting. They’ve realized that this is an advantage they should exploit.

  • Immediacy: With Amazon trying to drop shipping times to less than a day, and in some special cases a few hours, it’s reasonable to believe that instant gratification is no longer a drawback to online shopping. Yet what works for Amazon, who are leading the fulfillment game, is not quite there yet for other online retailers, where shipping times are at least a few days. If a customer wants an item today, a store is the best option.
  • Hassle: In an ideal world, online shopping should be hassle-free. A click, a short checkout, and voila, the item is on your porch within a week. If only that were always the case. Shipments are delayed, delivered to wrong addresses, not delivered and sent back, or stolen. Then, if the item doesn’t fit,  or its color is wrong, or the hemline shorter than expected, it needs to be returned, either to a store or by arranging pickup or drop off, hopefully without additional charges. This is specifically relevant for clothes:  Americans return $260 billion in goods each year, and 80 percent of those are clothes or accessories, according to MarketWatch.
  • Personalization: Online wins this one simply because they know who the customer is from the moment they click to their site. Online retailers know the shopper’s size, color and style preferences, and all previous orders. Stores have to rely on good salespeople to get the job done. It’s interesting that I haven’t seen stores try to match the shopper with their customer database at any point before checkout, where they’ll either ask for a loyalty card, email address, or phone number. Why is this not determined beforehand, when the customer is looking around, or better yet, in the fitting room? If my Victoria’s Secret saleslady knew my previous purchases she could make recommendations of updated styles of my previous purchases in just my size. Personal shoppers at high-end stores do this, but that’s with a limited client list.
  • The beautiful flower/plant section at a new Anthropologie store.

    The beautiful flower/plant section at a new Anthropologie store.

    The experience: This is something I see more and more not just in fashion stores but also for outdoor gear and beauty. Some of the newer stores are putting a lot of effort into decor, scent, simulated environments, and even in-store cafes. The goal for retailers is to make the in-store experience fun and make the customer come in and linger, but it works only for high-end brands, not big-box retailers.

The bottom line is that brick and mortar stores, especially the high-end, are putting resources where they make a difference, investing in design and hiring better salespeople. Not all stores have realized this yet. On that same bra-shopping expedition, I stopped at 3 other stores before Victoria’s Secret where there was no salesperson in sight to help narrow down the selection and help with a fit. Yet the stores that do get it, that are getting it, are making shopping a better, faster experience than online.

Google’s accelerated mobile pages (AMP) – good or bad?

I was ambivalent about Google AMP until yesterday. Up till then my opinion of it was based on my experience as a reader. I liked the super-fast loading pages, the consistent, clean formating, and the banning of third-party scripts (which occasionally could increase a page load time by seconds.) There was advertising, but there wasn’t any obnoxious pop-up, hard-to-close ads. I didn’t like the difficulty of sharing posts. Every time I wanted to share and Tweet an AMP page, I had to work hard to find the actual, non-Google, link to the page.

Then yesterday I received an interesting comment on this blog:

Is google hijacking your website ? (Shows it, but from their server, not yours)

And how did u prefill my email ? This is getting really weird. I’m notifying, consumer protection agencies.

My blog post on AMP. No easy way to share or continue to read other blog posts.

My blog post on AMP. No easy way to share or continue to read other blog posts.

The commenter added a link to a screenshot of the post as he saw it and sure enough, it was hosted on Google France and as far as I could tell was an AMP page. I can only interpret their anger at a prefilled email as perhaps being logged in on Google, Chrome, or WordPress in some manner. Yet this comment speaks to an interesting dilemma: the optimization vs the ownership of content and the perception of that ownership. In order to get that fast, clean page, Google strips away much of the branding and formatting that made it unique.

It also leads to less attachment to a news source, not just because the pages lack much branding, but also because AMP pages make it very difficult to continue browsing the source site. The AMP pages are, to users, part of Google. They’re similar to Facebook’s Instant Articles, another attempt to create fast loading content but keep it in Facebook’s garden.

To publishers, especially mainstream media, already fighting for attention in a crowded space, competing against new, upstart content sites, and trying to establish credibility with new and old readers, this is another hurdle. By only showing a single, disconnected article, it reduces brand recognition and erodes trust, plus it doesn’t allow publishers to build up a fan base. The only advantage Google AMP has over Facebook for publishers is that it might be easier to optimize for SEO, whereas Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm is harder to anticipate. Yet neither will help them in the long run. It’s another benefit for smaller, lesser-known publishers and in today’s media landscape, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The language of privacy – will it change?

Today I stumbled across a British privacy report that re-wrote Instagram’s Privacy Policy for teens in non-legalese English. While not commonly a product issue, Terms of Service and Privacy Statements can have an impact on users, especially when they run afoul of them. Jenny Afia, the lawyer who rewrote the terms, believes everyone, but especially teens, should be paying attention. Says Afia: “once people become more aware of what they are giving up, they will demand better terms.” She adds that users “don’t know what is being done, so no one is saying can it be done differently.”

I love the clear and explicit language that Ms Afia has used in her rewritten TOS and I wish all services and apps used it. Here are just two comparisons that I thought were interesting.

First, on what kind of information Instagram collects, from Instagram’s privacy policy: “We collect the following types of information… Information you provide us directly:

  • Your username, password and email address when you register for an Instagram account.
  • Profile information that you provide for your user profile (e.g., first and last name, picture, phone number). This information allows us to help you or others be “found” on Instagram.
  • User Content (e.g., photos, comments, and other materials) that you post to the Service.
  • Communications between you and Instagram. For example, we may send you Service-related emails (e.g., account verification, changes/updates to features of the Service, technical and security notices). Note that you may not opt out of Service-related e-mails.”

Contrast that with Ms Afia’s, who summarizes five bullets into this paragraph: “This information includes your name, email address, school, where you live, pictures, phone number, your likes and dislikes, where you go, who your friends are, how often you use Instagram, and any other personal information we find such as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages (DMs).”

Second, on advertising. From Ms Afia: “We might send you adverts connected to your interests which we are monitoring. You cannot stop us doing this and it will not always be obvious that it is an advert.” Contrast with Instagram’s “we may use the information that we receive to… provide personalized content and information to you and others, which could include online ads or other forms of marketing” under the “how we use your information” section. Also: “this information would allow third-party ad networks to, among other things, deliver targeted advertisements that they believe will be of most interest to you” under the “sharing of your information” section. It’s not just that Ms Afia’s is clearer and more direct, it’s hard even finding the passages in Instagram’s terms of service that speak of advertising, how it works, and the data it is based on.

Instagram on a cold day.

Instagram on a cold day.

Not being a lawyer, I can’t speak to the relation between legalese and actual liability, but I do wish that privacy policies were as straightforward, understandable, and as short as Ms Afia has done. Users tend to blindly agree to all terms when signing up for a service but Pew Research shows that the attitude of acceptance may be changing: Some 74% say it is “very important” to them that they be in control of who can get information about them, and 65% say it is “very important” to them to control what information is collected about them. Yet “half of those surveyed said they felt confident they understood how their information would be used, 47% said they were not, and many of these people felt confused, discouraged or impatient when trying to make decisions about sharing their personal information with companies.”

It will be interesting to see if, driven by these changing sentiments, companies change their stance on privacy policies and terms of service statements and start making them more user-friendly. 

Google Maps and new metadata: when are customized results too much?

Every time I go on a roadtrip I am surprised by new Google Maps features and this recent winter trip was no exception. Maps surprised me with several new features, three that I thought were intriguing. Out of those, two were helpful and timely. The third, well, I’m not sold.

  1. A warning that the destination might be closed within an hour when starting navigation has saved me an unnecessary journey more than once.
  2. “Walk the rest of the way” after parking near a destination, Maps recognizes that I’m no longer driving but still not at my destination so it provides a walking route. Loved this as circling a location looking for parking can be disorienting.
  3. Maps: You visited yesterday. Me: I know.

    Maps: You visited yesterday.
    Me: I know.

    “You visited yesterday” was the one addition I did not really like. It was a reminder that my very precise location is being tracked and was a bit creepy. Additionally, it didn’t offer any benefit – is this something that helps me make a decision? Could a longer time range be beneficial? I might remember where I was yesterday but will I remember where I was 10 years ago? As it’s implemented now, is it offering any benefit to users? That said, Google was (and is) transparent in the use of the feature and explains (by clicking the little ?) what data was used to generate that information and how to disable its collection and future usage.

This brings me to a question that I think should be asked with every feature based on personal user data: is it really necessary? These are the factors product managers should be looking at:

  • The sensitivity of the data being used to power the feature and how intimate it is. Of course, different people consider some data more sensitive than others but Pew Research has found that, for example, American internet users consider the content of their email and their physical location over time more sensitive than who their friends are and what web sites they have visited. For example, I was not excited about Maps showing my history at a place but I don’t mind the mapping of my contacts’ homes.
  • Consider the demographics of the intended users of the product or feature. The Pew report showed that some age groups found certain types of data more sensitive than others. For example, younger adults think location history is more sensitive than older adults.
  • The relevance of the data to the feature. Is it really necessary? Does it enhance the product? Does it provide an additional dimension or value that cannot be reached without it?
  • The advertising angle. Is the data accessed and presented used to benefit targeted advertising more than to enhance the feature? Even if it is only perceived as such, it might be a good idea to avoid using it.

These types of personal data questions are not unique to Maps and are relevant in different ways for different implementations. For example, asking for permissions in an app: how necessary is the data, how sensitive is it, and is it relevant to the app.

Going forward in Maps, in general, I do like the direction taken with the product, which is the desire to do more than just find locations and figure out the best way to get there. I’d love to see smarter suggestions and app behavior but not base it as much on personal data but on additional available public data such as reviews, popularity, lines, photos, special events at the location, etc. A search for “pizza” can include results based not only on distance. They can include reviews, popularity, and the probability of a long wait at this time. It’s this publicly crowd-sourced data, more than personal or social data, that could have the greatest impact in Maps and may prove to be the most interesting ones going forward.

Google’s Trusted Contacts app is great in uncertain situations

Trusted Contact's beautiful onboarding screens.

Trusted Contact’s beautiful onboarding screens.

Last week Google launched a new app for personal security, Trusted Contacts. Its goal is to share precise (and sensitive) location data between, well, trusted contacts such as close friends and family members. Mutual trusted contacts can see each other’s status, defined by Google as “whether you’ve moved around recently and are online” to quickly see if their contact has been recently active. For more stressful situations, mutual contacts can share location in two ways:

First, to request each other’s precise location. This is useful if contact A is worried about contact B and wants to know exactly where they are. Contact A sends a request which vibrates contact B’s phone and lets them decide how to answer: with their location or with a denial. If contact B doesn’t answer within five minutes with either, then contact B’s location is shared automatically, even if their phone is offline. Google gave the example of someone not arriving for a coffee date when they get lost on a hike and using the Trusted Contacts app to get their exact location. I like the automated answer after five minutes because it applies not just to emergency situations but also when contact B cannot access their phone such as when they are driving or in a theater.

Second, a contact can chose to continuously share their own location for a while when they are in a situation where they feel unsafe. In this case their trusted contact can follow their location on a map in real-time. The sharing contact can turn off location sharing when they reach their destination or feel safe. Google called this a “virtual walk home.”

I think Trusted Contacts answers a real need, especially between family members. It’s taken two probable user stories and created a solution that works well. I like the instant read of the situation, to know, at a glance and without requesting more info, whether the contact was recently active. I like that it works even if the phone is offline, as there are still many areas in the US and the world without coverage, especially rural areas, national parks, and other recreational areas.

Location sharing stays in my notification tray, a reminder to turn it off when no longer necessary.

Location sharing stays in my notification tray, a reminder to turn it off when no longer necessary.

I also like that a notification that I’m sharing my location with a specific contact stays in the notification tray with a quick way to turn it off. That way users are always aware who knows exactly where they are. Onboarding is well done and clear as the app first walked users through granting the required permissions (location and contacts) and then presenting a list of potential contacts to add. The contacts are listed in decreasing importance as represented by (as far as I can tell) a combination of the frequency of emails and Hangout chats. I wonder what this list contains when most of important communicating is through non-Google apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Here’s what I’m not a fan of: that an always-on Location History is required for Location Sharing. As the convenient popup explains it: Location Sharing “also helps you get useful information such as automatic commute predictions, improved search results, and more useful ads on and off Google.” While it makes perfect sense that location needs to be on, the explanation for saving location history raises doubts as to its necessity, and I’m for collecting and accessing the minimal amount of personally sensitive information to get a task done.

There is, however, one common scenario that isn’t covered by Trusted Contacts: the panic button. It’s for situations where a user didn’t have the prescience to turn on a virtual walk home but finds themselves in an emergency situation. This might be implemented with a long press on the power button. The app could then start a configurable countdown and send an SOS message to a selected contact. Then it could send the user’s location and try to establish a voice connection. If that contact doesn’t respond, the app can try the next one, and so on. Users can prioritize their emergency contact list and determine at what point on that list to call 911. This is something similar to what Apple introduced with its SOS feature on Watch and could help allay a common fear when walking alone. Other than that, Trusted Contacts is a welcome

Another reason why developing for iOS has to be first

Having fun with Prisma, launched on iOS first and Android a week later.

Having fun with Prisma, launched on iOS first and Android a week later.

Product Hunt, one of the best (if not the best) site for surfacing new products, announced its finalists for the various Golden Kitty awards this week. I gravitated to the “mobile app of the year” award page to take a look at the nominees. Aside from spending time trying a few of them out (how did I not download Prisma before today?) I wanted to use this list to answer an important question: for successful, recently launched apps what came first, Android or iOS?

As an side, finalists were chosen “through a mix of community suggestion, data, and PH secret sauce,” meaning that it’s not entirely transparent but the Product Hunt community has surfaced great stuff in the past so these finalists are probably, at worst, a good representation of popular, new apps.

These are the finalists for mobile app of the year and their launch date on iOS and Android:

Apps, ranked by current upvotes In their words… iOS launch date Android launch date
Prisma AI that turns your photos into artwork in seconds 7/8/2016 7/15/2016
Hardbound Stories for curious minds 9/13/2016 No
Polymail iOS Simple, beautiful, powerful email for iOS 2/26/2016 No
Ulli Self-driving Internet. The first AI-powered mobile browser 10/13/2016 Planned
Houseparty If FaceTime was built as a social network (launched by Meerkat team) 9/28/2016 9/28/2016
Tinycards The future of learning with flashcards, by Duolingo 7/19/2016 No
Notion Artificial intelligence-powered email. 10/19/2016 10/19/2016
Whale Video Q&A with influencers and experts 10/13/2016 No
Anchor Record bite-sized podcasts that anyone can join 2/9/2016 8/25/2016
INKHUNTER Try tattoos in real-time with augmented reality 4/15/2016 10/6/2016
Dropbox Paper Mobile Organize your team’s knowledge in a single place 8/3/2016 8/3/2016
Nexar Turn your phone into an AI Dashcam 2/12/2016 8/31/2016
Bobby Keep track of your subscriptions 3/30/2016 No
To Round Task manager designed for visual thinkers 3/14/2016 3/14/2016
Airmail for iOS One of the best Mac email clients, now on iPhone 2/1/2016 No
Listen A smart phone number 11/17/2016 No
Front for iOS The first inbox for teams 9/30/2016 No
Lemon Know where your money’s going 6/16/2016 No
Winnie Great activities and destinations for families 6/9/2016 No
Hop The new face of email is fast, elegant, powerful, expressive 11/14/2016 11/29/2016

Out of these 20 apps, considered the best/most popular of 2016, all were launched on iOS first. Of the 20, 6 launched an Android version on the same day or within two weeks of launching iOS, 3 launched about half a year later, and 11 don’t have an Android version yet (though, to be fair, those launched later in the year might still intend to launch an Android app soon.)

To decide what platform to develop for, Adam Sinicki compares Android and iOS across five criteria: development platform (tie,) design (Android guidelines are better,) fragmentation (iOS wins easily,) publishing restrictions (Android wins,) and profits (iOS.) To those five I add the marketing angle. Even though the worldwide market share for Android is now at 88%, with iOS only at 12.1%, in the US iOS marketshare is at 40.5%, and a two year old study claims that iOS marketshare in San Francisco is over 80%. What this means is that almost everybody in the tech community, especially early adopters that love trying new apps and that can generate enough awareness and hype to get traction, have iPhones. To get their attention, iOS development has to be first, unless the app is targeted for an audience outside the US and Europe. End of discussion?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… new adventures in shopping

It’s the first week of December, just another week in the busiest shopping season of the year for many American retailers for whom holiday sales account for “as much as 30 percent of annual sales.” Retailers will jump through hoops to get shoppers to complete purchases, offering freebies, sales and “doorbusters” just to get customers into the store and helpers on the floor to help shoppers find the gifts they need. Yet the checkout process has stayed the same (aside from slowing down the process with chip cards) with long lines of shoppers waiting to pay a common sight at many stores.

"What if we could weave the most adavnace machine learning, computer vision, and AI into the fabric of a store?" Source: Amazon Go video

“What if we could weave the most advance machine learning, computer vision, and AI into the fabric of a store?”
Source: Amazon Go video

Long lines lead shoppers to abandon their purchases, which is one reason that Amazon’s announcement today of a checkout-free store seems like a great step forward. Amazon Go is a store without a checkout line, where shoppers do not need to stop, unload their cart, and pay. All they need to do is install an app, scan it when they walk into the store, and start shopping. Says Amazon: “Our Just Walk Out technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to the shelves and keeps track of them in a virtual cart.” All items added in the store will be charged to the shopper’s Amazon account when they leave the store.

There are two things with this launch that I find interesting:

First is the realization that brick and mortar stores offer value. This from Amazon itself, pioneer of the online superstore and a long time believer that the best and only way to shop is online. Whether it’s the brand experience, the ability to touch products, try on clothes, see the size and actual color of the product, or maybe the instant gratification of an in-store purchase, malls and stores are not going away anytime soon.

Second is the admission that there are processes that can be improved in the retail experience that haven’t been changed for decades. It’s the same process now as it was in the last century: browse, gather, and pay. Maybe it’s time to improve parts of that process.

It’s not that stores haven’t tried. All have added an online presence with ecommerce capabilities. They have mobile apps for on-the-go shopping They’ve adapted the flash-sale phenomena, implemented in-store pick-up of online orders for faster gratification, guaranteed product availability, less wandering in the store looking for products, and less lines, and they’ve partnered with on-demand services like Postmates and Google Express to compete with Amazon’s fastest delivery options. Yet that hasn’t fundamentally changed the in-store process.

By launching no-checkout stores, Amazon has tackled a common pain-point for many shoppers. That said, it comes at a privacy price some consumers might not be willing to pay. When Amazon detects what products are removed and returned to shelves, it has valuable insight on what the shopper thought of buying, not just eventually bought. Considering the scourge of ads that retarget shoppers with products they have already bought, knowing what shoppers considered buying but did not buy is valuable information.

Finally, responses to Amazon Go have included a lament that this is another case of technology taking away jobs, in this case, cashier jobs. I’m convinced that the best brick and mortar experience will definitely include human interaction, just not in the cashier position. For example, our local hardware store has a greeter that asks everyone walking in what they’re looking for and points them in the right direction. (Yes, I know a robot can do this, but considering the current state of voice interactions as implemented on Google Home, it will take time before a robot greeter knows the answer to detailed questions without requiring the asker to use specific template.)  I’ve also a great shopping experiences buying clothes that have to fit just right, such as jeans and bathing suits, that were made easier with assistance from extremely competent salespeople. Sales people that are familiar with their product line, how different models fit, what works for what body type, and where to find everything do more to create a positive experience and generate a sale than any cashier. It’s not about eliminating humans from the shopping experience, it’s about eliminating a specific frustration. Can’t wait to have it everywhere.