There are hundreds of millions of products available today, with many of them available on the Internet, and the most immediate sources of information on that vast collection of products are Google and Amazon.
Today, Amazon and Google are most people’s first stop on the Internet for product information. However, Amazon is limited (even with its vast selection) to the products it has in its own catalog and in its marketplace of third party sellers. And Google is limited by the way it employs its relevance algorithms and its advertising business model to prioritize its search results.
But brands and retailers, prompted by technology, are moving beyond the traditional ecommerce models to one where products are offered in a multitude of ways. YouTube, blogs, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and on mobile phones as you walk by a store, are among the new mediums where consumers can browse and buy. Nordstrom is tagging items in its stores to identify those products as being popular on its Pinterest channel. EBay is experimenting with digital storefronts in brick and mortar malls, to give shoppers the opportunity to buy from these storefronts as they shop in the real world. Amazon is experimenting with several ways to deliver products to customers, including using drones.
Commerce used to be relatively simple — manage product assortment and availability, prices and promotions and (a few) place(s) of distribution efficiently and you were likely to do well. But commerce is changing, and changing dramatically. Commerce is becoming pervasive — soon every interaction with the real world or on the web will be an opportunity to inform, educate, engage and even sell products of every kind. Every app, webpage and digital service will engage potential customers and offer products directly. Thus, the limited online search channel for commerce will evolve into an infinite number of channels.
The new challenge then, is not only managing the 4Ps (product, price, promotion and place) effectively but also being able to deal with pervasive, personalized, participative commerce and where every aspect is dynamic. In this environment, being able to provide the right product to the right customer at the right time will be very important.
To do that, businesses will need more advanced product awareness and intelligence. A fundamental building block of the ‘new’ commerce will be an ‘infinite product catalog’ in the cloud — one that offers comprehensive, dynamic and up-to-date information on a broad selection of products to a deep level of detail with lots and lots of attributes such as price, material, color, discounts, availability, ingredients, where designed, where manufactured and so on.
Product catalogs have been bringing products into our homes for decades. What Benjamin Franklin started in America with his “Catalogue of Choice and Valuable Books” evolved into The Sears Catalog (1888), the Whole Earth Catalog (1968) and eventually into what we all receive in our mailboxes endlessly today (Wikipedia notes that Steve Jobs compared The Whole Earth Catalog to Internet search engine Google in his June 2005 Stanford University commencement speech).
Traditional product catalogs are great at presenting information, but they don’t do a great job of matching the right product to the right person. Online sites like Best Buy and Amazon do the best they can but don’t necessarily have the comprehensive intelligence necessary to make the best recommendations to consumers. That’s because product information exists in innumerable siloes and is categorized in so many different ways that no one has access to a complete picture of the world’s products.
The infinite product catalog, then, will help to make everything — from apps to websites to mobile phones to online services — product aware. There will be so many different mediums for consumers to educate themselves and browse and buy products that a comprehensive source of product information will make sure that all of those channels have accurate information all the time.
This new level of contextual product intelligence will allow brands and retailers to provide information on products and services fluidly, whether you’re at home or walking by a store and varied for time of day. Consumers, encouraged by more personalization and participation, will become more brand loyal, and events like Black Friday may (hopefully) disappear forever.
The possibilities are endless, and over time, the experience will become something totally different than what we’re used to today.
For brands and retailers, an infinite product catalog will make anything possible. Companies and people that make things will also be able to sell things, as the cost of retail infrastructure drops and the complexity of access to product information and distribution disappears. It will be much easier for businesses to truly understand and personalize the consumer experience. Product awareness will be built in at every stage of the product lifecycle.
Most importantly, an infinite product catalog will make discovery personal, participative and pervasive. The curation of content by humans will continue, but the infinite product catalog in the cloud will help to make commerce more fun, more interesting and more rewarding for everyone.