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Hand vs. Brain Work: Online Retail from a Brick-and-Mortar Past

On November 11, 2017, my family will launch our first real online retail venture, Finish Authentic, a basketball lifestyle apparel brand. Once upon a time, in 1996, I opened my first retail venture, a power sports store, selling dangerous stuff like motorcycles. It was a low-margin, seasonal, economically-challenged business model. It was also a fairly traditional retail venture that we now label “brick-and-mortar.”

I have led a strange professional life. I have done a lot of incongruent things, like hawking motorcycles, then spending the next 15 years in higher education, teaching business and entrepreneurship. I grew up in a family contracting business, so I also learned physical labor too. I have come to the conclusion that there are two basic kinds of work: hand work and brain work. Having built four family homes from scratch I understand hand work. Hanging around academics, I also get the brain work too. Both yield a different type of product and exhaustion. I have come home more tired and physically drained from my academic job than I ever have after a long day on a building project. What does this all have to do with retailing?

Traditional retail begins with deciding what you want to sell and buying, renting, or building the space to sell it in. Buying inventory and fixtures to display it all. Receiving and checking everything in. Merchandising the store in a strategic manner. Picking a “grand opening” date. Writing big checks to local mass media outlets for ads, with no idea of their effectiveness. Getting some balloons, hot dogs, soda, and a meat and cheese tray and waiting for customers to show up, the majority of which will graze the free food spread and buy nothing, while the owner and employees smile until their faces hurt. Then, spending the next 10 years, or more, covering overhead, sweating payrolls, juggling inventory, and, hopefully, turning a profit. That is brick-and-mortar retail in a nutshell. A lot of hand work.

Online retailers reading this will laugh and some may get offended that I thought this was going to be easy. Perhaps, “easier” is the right, less offensive word. In some respects, online retail is easier. At this stage, there are no facilities to worry about; no rent to pay, no mortgage, no property taxes, and no snow to shovel or grass to mow. I don’t have employee drama. I don’t have to choose the correct business hours. I don’t have to invest thousands in security systems or point-of-sale equipment. Platforms, like Shopify and Wix, do 20 times more than I was ever able to do back in the day. Sounds easier, right?

Online retail, however, lacks the touch and the daily hand-to-hand combat. The hand-work. Unlike brick-and-mortar, I am now convinced that online retailing is mostly brain-work. My customers are invisible, sitting out there somewhere in their bathrobes and sweatpants, with a smartphone or laptop. I can’t reach them with 30-second spots on W-blah-blah-blah. Instead, I have to put out “quality content” that people want to look at. Interesting blog posts, photos, and information shared from other content producers that my customers might be interested in.

My Instagram and Facebook followers don’t want to see the offer and urgency of old school marketing. They would sooner see a picture of someone hiking up a mountain, wearing a Finish Authentic t-shirt, than some targeted call to action. I have to “drop” products that customers will get excited about via social media. That said, I can’t see my customer’s faces, read their body language, and gauge their commitment. If they are shopping for the wrong thing or we’re out of the right item, I can’t physically redirect them to another product. I can’t warmly say “hello” or firmly shake their hand and say “thanks for the business.” I have to think about how to display my product through photos or video because my customers can’t touch it in person.

The ironic juxtaposition is, I must engage my customers, but not necessarily sell to them. It’s what Seth Godin and others refer to as “inbound” marketing, as opposed to the Mad Men-esque “outbound” approach.  Online retailers have to figure out a way to sell stuff to people without actually selling it. And it makes my brain hurt. The lazy, stubborn, traditional part of me would rather stand at a trade show all day and wave my product in people’s faces, than play this psychologically tactical mind game. The entrepreneurial side of me, however, thinks it’s a hell of a lot of fun trying to figure all of this out.

In online retail, a lot of things that were once tangible are now artificial and intangible. When do we actually launch this thing and make our website visible? I have no idea. Picking a date was like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey. I guess we won’t know if we chose the right date until we turn the open sign on. Oh, wait, there isn’t one of those either.

Image result for open sign

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