Are we entering a world of the new portals?

tim_tams

Yes we are, and it has serious possible consequences for a whole range of businesses.

Gather around children for a story when grandpa was young (in internet years anyway). Once in the deep dark history of the internet portals were all the rage. They were the place that companies hoped you would use as your stepping off point into the internet. If you were part of their portal and had it set up as your home page then they could offer you services, and make money from you being there rather than you wandering around on your own. Truly capable search killed off a lot of these efforts by allowing people to more easily find what they were looking for although portals still make sense in a number of areas. For example here in Australia the Our Community organisation which supports about 80,000 community organisations has a grants portal (Our Community) which aggregates all of the grant information across the country. Essentially it provides a specialised aggregation and search service. The government also offers a portal called myGov which aggregates a range of government services, offering both specialised search services but also common identification and log in systems.

Besides these sorts of services we seem to be moving into a new era of portals based primarily on mobile systems. On March 3rd TechCrunch stated that “Uber plans to turn its app into a ‘content marketplace’ during rides“. I have long believed that Uber is a data and services company with the transport model being an interim stage, and this fits perfectly with that theory (confirmation bias anyone). As a transport company they are in a brutally competitive world. They have already signaled their intention to be in the autonomous car business, but I think that business is going to be an even more brutal fight that will require huge reserves of cash. That fight will include the existing car companies and a host of new competitors and some will inevitably lose, and have their whole business model destroyed. In those sorts of fights technology plays a role but quite often it is a last player(s) standing sort of a fight where people bleed cash until they can no longer operate. In that sort of fight it makes sense to have multiple possible strategies rather than a single win or lose one. If, in the interim period before autonomous cars are widespread Uber can build a huge trove of data and insight for autonomous cars, but more importantly insight into the movement of people, and what they do during and after their trip then they have a separate strategy. If they are not able to slug it out in the transport space then they can supply data and services across the whole sector instead.

A content market place for Uber makes sense. According to the TechCrunch article they now are providing 10 million rides a day and to a large extent those riders are a captured audience for them. They also know in advance where you or I are going and when we will arrive which is enormously useful information. If they know you are going to a shopping centre then businesses at that shopping centre would really like to know that so they can send you offers in advance. If you are going to restaurant area at lunchtime, or an airport the same applies. If they can tie your trip data to what you do after the trip by tracking you through their application and partner applications then the value of the data increases astronomically.

In this new portal era they are the aggregators of customers for other businesses but they are also aggregators of data that increases in value as time goes on. In some ways it is the perfect business – profitable while it is building a new capital asset that is much more valuable.

There are lots of other companies that are pursuing this strategy. WeChat in China now has enormous capacity inside its app that is intended to keep you inside their ecosystem so they can aggregate demand and sell it to other companies ( WeChat is morphing so Chinese smartphone owners will never have to download an app again). Facebook is attempting to copy them while also trying to copy Snapchat and is a huge percentage of people’s mobile we traffic (Benedict Evans).

All of this raises a very serious question. Where will the profit accrue to in this new world? Here in Australia we have had retail dominated by two major supermarkets although this is slowly changing. As a result they  have had the highest retail supermarket margins in the world, which have now crashed back to earth due to competition (see my post: Are The Two Major Supermarkets in Australia Doomed?). Through that time the suppliers of food into the Australian markets have been mostly constrained by having to supply to those two companies in large volumes. If you are Coca Cola or Mars this has not mattered too much but it has mattered to most suppliers (hence the high margins).

The advent of the internet and the capacity to connect to anyone around the world even if you are a one person business was supposed to break some of this  down, to usher in a new age of commerce. To an extent that has been true. However I have been working with a couple of businesses that want to use some of the new technologies to connect directly to the customer rather than going through the major supermarkets as “the agent of the consumer”. One of the key concerns is whether they are swapping one master for another. If they end up with channels going through systems and applications like WeChat or Facebook does the profit accrue to them or the platform, and how much can they rely on the platform continuing to deal with them in a fair and consistent manner. In part that question is answered by platform economics – if the deal does not work for the customers on both sides of the platform then the platform disintegrates. On the other hand if you are not key to the relationship between the consumer and the platform itself it leaves you in a very weak position.

If we use that thinking and go back to Uber then I do not believe that a coffee shop at my local shopping centre is going to have the clout or expertise to efficiently partner with Uber to market specials through their App. It seems far more likely to me that another aggregation platform for coffee shops (and others) will partner with Uber and connect up the systems required to send me a notification of a special as I am on my way, or take my order via the Uber app as I travel . That means if there are three coffee shops at my local shopping centre, and Uber has a significant transport footprint, as soon as one of them has joined up the others are forced to do so or lose customer traffic. In that case none of the coffee shops actually wins because the actual customer levels between all of them are likely to be the same (ignoring any marginal traffic that may come from signalling). However the two aggregators (coffee shops and Uber) are going to want a cut of the action so it is likely that the profit margins of the coffee shops will fall.

So in a world that promised better contact and relationships with customers for small businesses the result may actually be less contact, more distant relationships, and less profits as a result. The advantages go back to the portal holders.

Of course in a modern world there is always the opportunity for the coffee shop to make a direct contact with me when I come to their shop. If they can establish a contact with me via my messaging App of choice (WhatsApp in my case) then they can form a direct relationship. However that relationship lacks a geo-location and proximity/arrival time context so unless my messaging App can supply that then the direct relationship is at a significant disadvantage. It also lacks the sophistication to be able to take my order, so unless another aggregator can link to my messaging app and provide those services the friction of the relationship will be too high. And so the dance continues.

The whole process is complicated by the fact that people actually use very few apps. In theory the coffee shop could have an App that does all these things and connects with me but given the limited real estate on my device and the fact that most people only really regularly use 5 apps that is not going to happen.

It is going to be very interesting to see where all this goes in the not too distant future.

p.s. – for those of you not from Australia the picture is one of Arnotts Tim Tams which one of the major supermarkets tried to force a price reduction on but was unable to do so because of their popularity. Therein lies a lesson. You should try them, they are awesome.

Addendum

An additional point is that this means that the brand reputation issues that are afflicting Uber today are far more important than might be thought. If one of your key strategy pillars is that people need to trust you to share their data with you then your culture, behaviour and leadership become critically important. Because of the network effects of the data collection and utilisation if volume falls in broad terms but data sharing falls more then capital value of the company falls far more rapidly. I am sure that the board is having that discussion with the CEO right now

 

 

Beans, Uber and the Post Office

This is the second post on social media versus messaging and its effects on suppliers into the supermarkets and business relationships with customers in general. The first one can be read HERE

As applications like Facebook Messenger or WeChat or Slack ( Slack Improves Slash Commands So You Can Call A Lyft And More From Inside Slack) move to have more and more activities and transactions inside their apps it is changing the nature of how people use their mobile devices and where they spend their time. From the applications point of view it is a very smart move because the more time that people spend inside the apps the more they can serve ads in their system . In addition if they become the gateway for all sorts of suppliers to the consumer and tie that contact with identification and other social data they can take a cut of all transactions through their application. A dual income business model.

The example that has been used to describe the Facebook Messenger changes is that of booking an airline flight which then creates a permanent one on one connection between the airline and then purchaser through which they can send boarding passes and notifications. Done in the right way and with subtle advertising approaches this link minimises friction for the consumer and provides information for the seller. An ideal win win.

If I move back to the subject of suppliers into the supermarkets the conversation has to be different. Either the product has to be different or the way it is delivered has to change in a way that reduces friction or reduces costs, or preferably both

Take me for example. As part of my preparation for the summer triathlon season I have been mostly pursuing a slow carbohydrate nutrition plan which involves replacing carbohydrates in bread,pasta,rice,potatoes, etc with complex carbohydrates and proteins. It also means much more salads and vegetables. As a result I have been eating a lot more canned fish and canned beans. I am not that particular when it comes to the brands of those cans that I buy and generally do a weekly stock up and buy what is on special that week.

Now if one or more of those suppliers is able to communicate with me inside my messaging app and give me a quick option on a weekly delivery or a tap on quantity option then they have a relationship with me that bypasses the supermarket and may tie me to their brand

Having solved that problem and reduced the friction they then have  a delivery problem. I have long been a believer that Uber is a long term data play rather than an alternative people transport company and that they will use the data they are gathering for all sorts of uses including package delivery. In the long term that will be automated between driverless cars but in the shorter term they are still options. Once Uber has enough data they can offer package pick up and delivery options to drivers based on their known patterns of movements.

If a driver is heading home anyway and can pick up 5 packages and deliver them near their home for an extra income that will be an attractive proposition to them and a low cost delivery system. The reason I put the Post Office in the title of this post is that the Australian Post Office (along with others all around the world) is struggling with its business model and profitability in an era of reduced letter postage and increased parcel delivery competition. Its major strategic assets are its locations and its special place in the hearts of the community. A partnership with Uber using the post offices as a pick up and drop off location would provide an extra income stream and also drive foot traffic into their locations. Customers could pick up their packages or the messaging app could sense that they were home via GPS and ask if they want their package delivered now.

The key question in all of this is whether the logistics costs of a personalised pick and pack system and delivery system can reduce costs to the end consumer compared to a direct delivery service into distribution centres , taking into account the margins of the supermarkets and the other costs they impose on suppliers.

The secondary question is one of a cultural change. I know from personal experience in the food business that a big cultural change is required to move from a make it and ship it out culture to a customer focused culture.

The changes to our digital tools throughout the supply chain make these questions worth asking and exploring.

 

Tim Tams and the Social v Messaging Battle

A few weeks ago I did a presentation for the managers of a major global food manufacturing business on digital tools and what they might mean for their business. One of the major topics for discussion was using digital tools to connect to the consumer in order to try and level the playing field between food suppliers and the major supermarkets.

I was watching the ABC news here in Australia last night and there was a story about that iconic Australian biscuit the Tim Tam being pulled from the shelves at the major supermarket Coles because the supermarket was refusing to pay a higher price.

tim_tams

source: wikipedia

The story is a microcosm of the one that is being played out across the spectrum of products in Australian supermarkets and is now moving into new territory. You can see more detail on the story at:

Coles pulls Tim Tams from shelves as Arnotts price war goes public

In the end Coles relented because there is so much demand for Tim Tams. There are only a handful of products that can afford to go head to head with the major supermarkets in Australia because their hold in the mind of the consumer is so strong. Tim Tams is one, Coca Cola is another, Huggies nappies and Pal dog food are on the list. The rest are in a perpetual battle on price and shelf space where the supermarkets hold the whip hand because they control the gateway to the consumer.

The supermarkets hold that gateway and also now hold masses of data connected to loyalty cards and credit cards so they have a a continual view of what is working and what is not. The standard way of the suppliers to gain a greater foothold has been branding and marketing campaigns that try and catch the mind of the consumer.

Over the last few years social media has been the added tool that many have used to try and capture the hearts and minds of the consumer. That does not always work as evidenced by the disastrous taxi social media campaign (#YourTaxi campaign backfires as passengers share horror stories) here in Melbourne:

@yourtaxis Every single woman I know has, at some point, been sexually/verbally abused by a cabbie & now every single woman I know uses uber

.@yourtaxis Got kidnapped by a driver who wanted me to pay more than was on the meter. Had to call police to pull us over.

.@yourtaxis last time I caught a taxi he had no idea where he was going and stayed on his mobile the whole time. Uber from now on

Good and bad news is that messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WeChat are moving heavily into this space as described in this great Wired article Facebook Messenger: inside Mark Zuckerberg’s app for everything .

Essentially Messenger seems to be trying to emulate the WeChat model of putting services inside the app like payment systems, airline bookings, etc in order to keep users inside the app and therefore in their ecosystem rather than elsewhere in the mobile or internet ecosystem. This is both good news and bad news for suppliers to supermarkets. The good news is that the way the apps are configured is creating a much closer one to one relationship with a wider range of customers rather than just communicating with “fans” on social media. The bad news is that if they go down this route then they will be swapping one gateway controller for a different one.

Now the supply of supermarket items is much different than the supply of airline booking services as described in the Wired article. Suppliers can think about product changes or they can reconfigure the delivery system.  In my next post I will put forward some ideas on how that might happen.

You can read that at:

Beans, Uber and the Post Office