Friday, September 18, 2009

Anyone Remember when Retailing WAS Social?

The trouble with reading CNET News is that it makes me feel my age. Consider the following crux of today's report by Don Reisinger on prevailing attitudes towards social media in the retail sector:

The E-tailing Group, which specializes in retail sector trends, surveyed 117 companies--from small to large--to assess how retailers and brands view the social Web.

The biggest concern among respondents is that consumers will "trash their products in front of a large audience," according to E-tailing Group. At the same time, companies very much want to partake in the social Web.

Am I the only one to see the eating-your-cake-and-having-it-too irony in these results? The whole idea of selling through the Internet was one of those classic instances of "disintermediation." The fundamental premise was that all that mattered was the "relationship" (scare quotes intended) between customer and product. Anything else was extraneous.

As is so often the case when technology intervenes to "make things better" (more scare quotes), the result was a system that tended to work to the customer's satisfaction most of the time. When the system did not work, however, it became a source of major (if not extreme) aggravation. However, because the system persisted, our natural tendency to forget history obscured any recollection of the "good old days," when, if you were not satisfied, you took the product "back to the shop" and dealt with your lack of satisfaction through a human being. If that person was good at his/her job, that interaction might even allow you some time to blow off steam before getting down to resolving the problem. In this brave new world that the Internet has made, that whole back-to-the-shop scenario has gone out the window, particularly the part about dealing with someone who may actually be interested in resolving your problem. So, if you need to blow off that steam, you go to the Internet to do it and use what you feel is a suitable forum to "trash their products in front of a large audience." This rarely solves the problem, and it may not always provide the desired emotional release.

The problem seems to be that much, if not most, of the retail sector is now so addled by the Kool-Aid of technology evangelism that individual retailers can no longer recognize the problems that are most serious for any efforts to do better business. Social media may be the ideal platform for cooperative problem solving; but cooperative problem solving is no longer part of our culture (as even the slightest glance at political reporting should make painfully obvious). The technology promoted as making us more "social" has, in reality, made us more adversarial. If we are not careful, those adversarial confrontations will spin out of control, as they did in Eugene Field's poem, "The Duel," about a fight between a gingham dog and a calico cat:

Next morning where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!

Then we shall no longer have to worry about whether or not the Internet is good for the retail sector!

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