This is the promised part 2 to my previous article "Why is luxury e-commerce so bland and copy-cat?".   In that article, I challenge the luxury brands to recognize that today's e-commerce platforms are not made for them.  In this follow-up article, I pose the question that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) asked Neo (Keano Reeves) in The Matrix (Wachowski's 1999 sci-fi film):

"Do you want to know what 'it' is?  Take the blue pill ... you wake up in your bed and continue to believe whatever you want to.  Take the red pill ... I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes".  

For luxury e-commerce brands this means: Take the blue pill ... you continue to do whatever everyone else does.   Take the red pill ... I show you how you could truly differentiate your brand's e-commerce experience.  The choice is yours.

Last week's article generated great online and offline discussions with valid arguments from both the "blue" and "red" pill advocates.  In fact, I have also evolved and nuanced my own opinion on this topic.  For instance, whereas there seems to be a broad agreement that e-commerce platforms are too single-mindedly focused on conversion, several experts pointed out that 1) fear of confusing online visitors, 2) competitive benchmarking and 3) unproven new technologies are also valid reasons for luxury brands to be cautious.  And I agree fully.  Jasper van Eijck, an ace serial digital entrepreneur summarized it as follows.

We (i.e. the e-commerce community) opt for proven concepts. It will take some convincing to take that next step.", says  Jasper van Eijck, co-founder of Lire La Suite

In many ways, this is good advice to any would-be (red pill) e-commerce innovator:  Yes, innovation and even disruption is needed and welcome, but don't come with gimmicky and half-baked solutions.  The stakes are simply too high when it involves online sales.  Any new technology has to be stable and secure for the large scale and high frequency nature of e-commerce.

So, how can I agree with the above statement of caution and still emphatically advocate for the need to disrupt luxury e-commerce?  The answer is a matter of perspective of how you define e-commerce.  In my view, the goal is not to tinker with the existing proven e-commerce 'box', but rather to ask ourselves how we can redefine the box itself.  In other words, is e-commerce simply the act of purchasing products online and on a mobile device?  Or can we broaden it to be the entire digital engagement of a customer with a product that ultimately leads to a purchase?  Joshua Young, who has been instrumental in defining digital strategy at Nike said it as follows:

"Let's hope that luxury brands not only equal the shopping experience of brick and mortar retail, but that they blend it with technology in order to provide an online experience superior to anything they could have imagined in the physical world.", says Nike innovator Joshua Young.

Taking the red pill is also urgent.  Luxury and aspirational brands are relatively late to the e-commerce game.  Mass-market book, CD, electronics and bargain brands went before them.  Not surprisingly, now that luxury brands are arriving online in big numbers, they notice that today's e-commerce platforms are not made for them.  Precisely for this reason, it is now the time for luxury brands to use their creative power and become the next "Pioneering Brands ... of Digital Innovation", as I discussed in an earlier post.

The big question is: How do you do this?  Where do your start?  How do you redefine the e-commerce box?  Geri Tuneva, a Market Academy scholar in the UK, gives a great starting point in her highly recommended blog on innovation: First, try to understand what your customer fan base truly wants:

"Disruptive brands are driving new habits and human behaviors. To compete, you need to understand what your customer truly wants, in order to craft an enjoyable and memorable experience", suggests Innovation Guru  Geri Tuneva in her blog.

I fully agree with Geri, but my approach goes even one step further.  Customers may not realize that they want a new solution until it is readily available.  I would like to incorporate those unknown solutions as well.  So, one of the exercises that I perform is to analyze the disruptive moments in other, often distantly related, industries.   Then for each of those moments, I try to identify the single most innovating element and the new benefit it provided to its customers. Ideally, I try to express this innovation and benefit in one single word.  Finally, I try to see if we can introduce that same benefit in e-commerce through new technologies or new uses of existing technologies.

In the example below, I analyzed several disruptive moments in electronic gaming, then defined the key benefit in a single word and finally wonder whether this could be introduced in e-commerce in a positively disruptive way.   

  1. Pac-Man (or Donkey Kong, etc):  In my view, what made Pac-Man so unique was that it made customers want to reach the next level in a game.  It was therefore an 'aspirational' game: customers who were at level 9 desperately wanted to get to level 10.  This 'Aspirational' element is currently lacking in the typical e-commerce experience.  Any e-commerce solution that focuses on aspirational shopping could redefine the e-commerce box in a highly disruptive and positive manner.
  2. Half-Life (or Doom, etc):  In my view, what made Half-Life so significant was that it allowed customers to experience the game in a first person point of view.  As a benefit, gaming became 'Immersive'. Customers felt they were in the center of the game.  This 'Immersive' element is also lacking in today's e-commerce and could be a major disruptive driver.
  3. Unreal Tournament (and Counterstrike, etc):  This game allowed customers to be social, but in a different way from today's social media.  Rather than liking your friends' posts, customers could be in the same game at the same time with their friends while chatting live to their friends.  This is the most naturally social interaction there is.  Shopping with your friends, while chatting to them in real time, is not yet an integral part e-commerce.  Yet, it is possible to do and could dramatically redefine what online shopping means.
  4. Minecraft:  Yes, this "open world" game is unique in its own right, but in my view the truly disruptive moment came when gamers started to create videos of themselves and their friends playing Minecraft on YouTube and when millions of people started to watch those videos.  The top Minecraft video maker Sky Does Minecraft has more than 11m followers.  The key benefit that these videos bring is humor and entertainment.  Again, this is a benefit that is not yet prevalent in e-commerce and could be a driving force for positive disruption.

In conclusion, I recommend that luxury brands are cautious and spend 60-80% of their budgets on true and tested e-commerce solutions.  At the same time, I also recommend that they spend 20-40% on bold and intrepid e-commerce projects that try to create an aspiring, immersive, social and entertaining experience that differentiates their brand online.

In this forum, I cannot provide specific recommendations for each luxury brand, but I hope that the above approach helps luxury brands to set their own unique course.  Of course, if I or others in my network can assist your organization in person with a specific innovation project or you wish to engage for a longer period, please feel free to contact me directly.