Retail Is NOT All About Selling Product

Selling product makes you money but how do you attract customers to your various channels in the first place?

Nic Haralambous
Jan 20, 2015 · 5 min read

I recently read an article discussing the things that we can learn from Buzzfeed and Upworthy about writing and sharing content. This got me thinking about traditional media vs digital media which inevitably lead me down the path of selling content online vs selling content in real life (IRL). Once I had arrived there it was a hop, skip and a jump to a mental debate about IRL commerce vs Ecommerce.

Newspapers vs Websites

One of the major differences that I can see when comparing IRL content vs online content distribution is that in real life, media companies are selling an actual newspaper (paper with news on it). Bare with me here, I know it sounds a bit ridiculous but it’s true. You purchase a physical thing, a newspaper, which is the physical manifestation of the product (content) that you want to read.

While online you are not purchasing the website or particular page that you’re on when you’re browsing and reading a story on Buzzfeed, Upworthy and even New York Times or CNN for that matter. You are actually, with your attention, buying their content or more often, a specific story and not their platform - the hardware, software and technology behind the words. This is not an indictment on old media companies vs new media companies at all. This is a generalised opinion on a physical newspaper which you have to repeatedly buy vs a technology that you have in your pocket that is always on that feeds you content whenever you want it. I could be talking about NYT online vs NYT Newspaper, not necessarily Buzzfeed vs NYT.

For me this is an amazing differentiator. A simple one, an almost stupid observation - I buy paper with news on it and it costs me money every time. I browser content online and it costs me my attention and the tiny data fee. I’m attracted to the content and can then read it, immediately.


Things become slightly more complicated when the discussion shifts to the idea of retail IRL vs online.

2014 was the year of the buzzword “omnichannel”. Warby Parker opened stores, Amazon opened stores and IRL retailers began to dig their heels into online commerce. There is no single solution that works, of course, but there are things that I think many are missing when comparing and trying to meld together online and IRL retail.

Retail, simply put, is about selling a product to a person or business. This is precisely what Ecommerce is about. This is precisely what IRL stores do with a brick and mortar shop. As the owner of an online company, that’s what I’m trying to do… sell stuff online.

But without a shadow of doubt I can tell you that it isn’t that simple. I am not merely putting products in a digital shopfront and waiting for people to walk past my store and buy something. I am constantly creating content, posting engaging thoughts, working on SEO rankings, testing out new ways to drive audience to my website to get them to engage with my content and brand so that they can trust me enough to consider buying something in my shop.

My point?

It’s about content and trust when you’re selling online. If you simply sell socks then you’re in a world of hurt because there are a mountain of other companies doing the same thing at a cheaper price.

In real life, it isn’t easier, but it’s different. Content plays a much smaller roll in making a sale. You need a great location with high (literal) foot traffic and an engaging looking storefront that entices people to buy things. An educated, engaging and presentable sales team on the floor is hugely valuable.

But that’s it. You get people passing by and hope they come in. There’s no real drive towards content or trust. Think about your last experience walking through a large retail outlet like Zara. You visit the destination and wander through the store hoping that a specific item catches your eye. Product at the centre of the experience, not content and not trust.

Online vs IRL Retail: Content, Content, Content

When I think of IRL retail I think of a shop that is a destination that I have sought out, visited before or that someone had told me about. It could also be a place of happenstance where I accidentally walked past and was interested.

It can be quite similar with Ecommerce but that’s very rare.

What happens if we throw in the discussion around Buzzfeed and Upworthy creating emotive, informative and shareable content, does that change the state of Ecommerce?

I think it does.

I think that when you consider your target audience, their locations, interests and willingness to engage with your brand, you open up a new world of customers. It’s also imperative to consider that you are actually considering the entire world as potential customers. The Internet is global. A shopfront at the local mall is not.

Ecommerce is about making your product something that people can see themselves using, wearing, buying, eating, living and sharing.

You achieve this by creating content.

Yes, of course advertising plays a huge roll in the success of your online presence but advertising without a reason for your customers to stay is tantamount to burning money in a money-burning pit. It’s senseless. I’d love to believe that everyone that visits my shop online is there because my products are amazing but that’s just not true. The truth is that I have built up a following on social media, I have worked hard at SEO, I have a decent email database and I use those well to drive traffic to my site.


The truth is that no one is really doing omnichannel commerce perfectly because perfect is a moving target.

It’s a very contextual issue to solve. One that needs to consider your location in the world, the target audience, your market positioning, your requirement for logistics and reverse logistics as well as your growth projections and ability to execute.

Omnichannel is only going to become more of a buzzing, over-hyped and frustrating word over the next few years.

One of the keys to omnichannel moving away from hype and towards value is content. How are you optimising your content as a brand to be responsive? How will the photo shoot you just completed translate online and into a narrative about your brand and how to wear your products? How will the latest product you’ve posted online work in your retail distribution network?

Responsive content is going to become extremely important moving forward.

I don’t want to build a company that requires a reworking of everything all the time for my IRL stores and Ecommerce store. I want my channels to tell the same story but in a platform-relevant way.

Yes, of course there are very real and physical challenges in front of Ecommerce companies (rent, shop fittings, theft, staff management, training, sales, etc etc) but I’m going to start with the things I know how to do and take the rest on as needed.

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