I love to find interesting examples of new businesses or business models that are unique or reflect a subtle understanding of emerging trends. I have found a good one, I think, in the company Bodymetrics, a British firm that started from a university research project.
More and more of us choose to buy our products (including shoes and clothing) from on-line merchants. But until now, finding out if they fit couldn’t be done until the product arrived and you found you couldn’t zip your new jeans, or perhaps found them to be undesirably baggy.
Bodymetric’s technology creates 3D body maps. Unlike the controversial systems used by TSA which take X-ray-like images, the Bodymetrics version only measures the outside dimensions of your body, converting them into a virtual 3D image. They moved from the laboratory into British retailer Selfridges installing a pod that a customer could walk into and have their measurements taken. It would then recommend which sizes and styles of clothes would be a perfect fit.
Here is a clip of one of these in-store pods.
The in-store pods, while expensive, were a big hit in London and in Palo Alto. But the high price would not support a widespread expansion of the system. The next generation is an in-home version selling for about $150 that uses Microsoft Kinect technology (the same motion sensing system used for video gaming on products like the Wii). Now, at home in your work-out clothes, you can shop for, virtually try on, and add clothes to your shopping cart and make a purchase. Check out this video featuring the in-home version.
What this story illustrates is that their business success is based on tuning into important shopping trends and emotional motivations, and responding to them in a creative manner. Bodymetrics seems to recognize:
1) that shopping can be a frustrating and overly time-consuming activity.
2) that many people prefer to shop on-line, even though buying clothes in that way can be very “hit-or-miss”. Yet many of us still would prefer the convenience of shopping from home.
3) that we want and appreciate a customized shopping experience (similar to what Amazon does by feeding us suggested items based on our past browsing history). We want to be communicated with as if the seller of services is speaking to and interacting with us on a personal level. (As social media guru Seth Godin says, we don’t want to receive e-mail anymore. What we want is “ME-mail”).
4) the trends in mass-customization and democratization of fashion (putting consumers more in a position to influence shopping experiences and trends.) Note the company Polyvore whose web site allows visitors to create mix-and-match outfits, publish them and then see what styles are “trending” based on consumer submissions rather than the opinions of elite fashion designers.
The entire notion that we want to take greater control over our lives accessing and using information and technology to better serve us is at the core consumer motivation. We live in a world where we have more choices and less time. This means we ignore most of the traditional marketing messages aimed at us as we seek out situations that speak to us on a personal level – and put US in control.
Who knows, the term Kinect Shopping might someday soon become part of our lexicon.
Two Approaches to Innovative Strategy Development
We spend a lot of time in business school teaching strategy as a process of understanding the competitive landscape, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of competitors and trying to figure out how to beat them. That is one approach, and it is sometimes inevitable.
The other approach is to forget about competitors, and focus instead on the consumer. What if we could understand their emotional drivers more deeply than anyone else? What if we could see things that elude our main competitors? This can be possible because we worked harder too empathetically understand customer needs. Such is a path to leadership in your industry or segment. In fact, we might even find ourselves on the forefront in shaping a whole new segment, product or service. Isn’t that the magic of Steve Jobs and Apple?
It comes from exercising our powers of observation BEFORE engaging our powers of imagination. We need to observe the world around us, sense which way the winds are blowing, and then ask how we might take advantage of key trends and serve unmet needs.
This is not necessarily the domain of large corporations
Some of us think of Apple, with all their financial and human resources and think innovation is the domain of big companies. Not so, as discussed in the article on Creative Disruption by Waldeck and Hopkins-Callahan (see below). Small businesses are equally capable.
Consider the case of the owner of a small pool company who offered pool and water quality services for municipal, commercial and residential customers. He charged per service call. He also sold heaters, pumps, and other related pool care equipment as well. In the case of their municipal customers, water quality monitoring was a big deal, but the systems to provide it were more expensive than most commercial and residential consumers were willing to pay. Smaller pool owners wanted good water quality, but it had to be reasonably priced. When the pool company owner attended a trade show, he saw some moderately priced new technology. So he purchased a few systems himself, and offered the monitoring service to his smaller clients with a modest monthly monitoring fee.
In a sense, he saw the opportunity to exploit the new technology by changing his business model, getting into the equipment leasing business. This was an innovative solution (I think) that was enabled by a new technology, and required flexibility on his part to change.
This is not unlike the Bodymetrics story – In their case the enabling technology was the Microsoft Kinect technology, which opened the door to a low-priced in-home solution rather than the expensive walk-in pods they had sold to Selfridges and Bloomingdales.
In both cases (pool and body-mapping) there was a common thread – the understanding of consumer desires, needs, and preferences. They also were open to the possibility of changing their service offering and delivery method.
Too often we turn our attention internally, to our own R&D departments where our own very smart people think they know best what our products should look like. Or, we turn to our marketing departments to the word out better. Looking outside is much more likely to produce a sustainable competitive advantage, products that WOW users, and breakthrough innovations.
How Bodymetrics and Razorfish are out to Change Retail, by Shareen Pathak
Creative Disruption: Innovation Lessons From Small Business, by Andrew Waldeck and Renee Hopkins Callahan
Mass customization is trending so hard right now, by treehouselogic