How to Be Digital First

Estimated Read Time: 6 Minutes

December 1997, a vivid memory. I spent a lot of time setting up a PC and modem the previous month and now, in what seemed amazing at the time, I was Christmas shopping. One present, done. Two. Three. The whole list. Back then, the choices were limited, but I still cruised through the entire spectrum of Santa's register within minutes. Fini. Back to the couch, happy. 23+ years ago.

First thought after that experience? "I'm never going to a mall in December again."

And I haven't. At least not for shopping. The idea of getting ready, dressing for the weather, getting a kid or two in line, driving to a packed parking lot, walking in freezing whatever, navigating a crowded mall, seeking and maybe finding what I was looking for, carrying all that around, then back to the car and driving on a mashed-up freeway miles back home. Do I have to? No. Not anymore. Everything's on my porch, steps from aforementioned couch.

Over the past 25 years, this exact scenario (and epiphany) has been happening at one point or another across this great nation and to every one of its citizens. Multiple times with multiple tools. Over and over until the faint whisper of "we're in charge now" was realized by the masses first, then heard by every retailer. Although sometimes ignored and sometimes considered, that voice was never quickly acted upon. Except, that is, by one you-know-who with a stock price in the thousands per share.

"I'm the boss… so with or without you, I'll find what I want, where I want to get it from and how I want to get it—because I can," became the new shopping mantra not only for millions of individuals, but for entire generations. As this century has rolled on, digital purchasing has become easier and easier and now easiest. Faster, more convenient, better choices and the Holy Grail for American shoppers, cheaper than traditional physical shopping. Then the tools got incredible; smart phones, apps, QR, social, Insta, live streaming, Tok, all of which enabled BOPIS, next day delivery, then one hour delivery and soon in minutes by drone, anywhere, anytime.

Modern shopping gets better and better and easier and faster and cheaper and smarter… for the consumer, that is. And because of these tools and their ease of use for everything, incredibly, shopping became intertwined with everyday life. Live-Shop. Pick up the kid, buy a sweater, check the weather, ship the Cheerios next-day all in one fell swoop. Shopping is no longer an ‘event', it is just another thing we have to do today, another button to push.

Meanwhile, retailers, bogged down by digital immigrant leadership, bad locations, slow thinking and ancient financially driven processes, quickly became overwhelmed. To this day, many are futilely clinging to life with savior loans, physical store closures and new leadership. But given the Great American Epiphany (what's "shopping"? Just get it for me), too little too late for many. The few legacy brands that incorporated the tech giants' mantra of "fail fast" began to shine through, succeed and compete. But still morphing as we speak, retail has changed forever, and it will never be the same.

But enough of the past, it's 2021, what now?

Digital First: what does that even mean?

Given the recent past, understand this; "Digital First" is not a buzz term. It's an edict. It's not a website, a department or even eCom. Digital First is how the customer thinks, and subsequently, it must also be how we think. Now. Today.

The consumer is already there and has been for a couple of decades now. And for all of us in one form of retail or another, this thinking must be a main, life-giving artery. How we are organized, how we create products, how we drive financials, how our leaders act, how our teams are formed and finally, it has to become part of our culture, integrated into everything we do, just like the consumer. Not a special building in San Francisco or a tech wizard consultant from Silicon Valley. Digital First is how we live, how we work, how we get better and how we survive in the new economy. That means that Digital First is also retail. New retail.

As we see it, these are the first three things that Digital First is asking us to be:

  1. Empathetic
    It's no longer location, location, location, or stack ‘em high and let ‘em fly, it's customer, customer, customer. So, the first step to the DF epiphany is to realize that YOU ARE A CUSTOMER. How do you ‘work' your life today? How do your kids, your partner, your friends live their lives? Think, observe and take it all in. The key to modern business today lies within the walls of the empathy castle so to better understand this landscape, take notice! Why do you use your "phone" / anything engine as a first step for… everything? How do you think about buying something? What are your expectations, from any company, from anyone for that matter? Now apply this thinking to your first Empathy Map. Where does it start, what's the journey, what are the tension points, where are the traps? And lastly, how does this map apply to every aspect of your business? We're never going to succeed in modern retail unless we first understand just how ensconced we all are in digital thinking and behavior. Map it.

  2. Organized to the Consumer
    The consumer is moving amazingly fast. Are we? Can we? Are we even organized to move fast? Or are we still in classic 1980's silos and kingdoms? The consumer does not care about our HR dept or our Development group or how we're organized at all. All they care about is that they get what they want, how and when they want it… fast. To meet that demand, we have to organize across silos to what the consumer is asking for.

    But for proof, ask yourself, why are we always a fast (sometimes) second? Why is the 900lb gorilla in Seattle able to out-innovate all retailers all the time. Fundamentally, it's due to Digital First thinking. Like them, are we organized around consumer driven ‘projects' and their swift implementation? Or, does marketing have to talk to development have to talk to HR have to talk to tech who has to talk to… who else? Fluidity is another initial step to Digital First thinking, i.e.; the lack of friction, and going across silos direct to execution solves that. Be organized to solve for what the consumer wants. And remember, they already are Digital First. They are ahead of you. With speed across silos, you'll be able to get your ideas in front of the boss (consumer) fast and see if it fits into their digitally first lives. Then roll out.

  3. Fast
    Fast to empathy. Fast to understand the consumer. Fast to change our culture. Fast to try new things. Fast to organize for speed. Fast to dump the old. Fast to admit failure. Fast. Which is no longer "fail fast", we know what to do now, it's just plain "fast". Like the digital world. Like the way we all think now. We need to move at warp speed without being slow and stupid. We need to be in a mode of perpetual motion, like the lives of our consumers. The time to hesitate is through. When planning the next consumer driven program, like turning stores into fulfillment centers, think of how long something like that used to take and cut it in half. That… is a Digital First plan.

In hindsight, those of us left standing in 2021 have already achieved something formidable, and against all odds to boot. But by thinking like a customer versus an accountant, organizing for speed versus building fiefdoms and moving as fast as we can without being slow and stupid, we will begin to realize the long-range success behind being Digital First. And if we can become that business, that truly new business, we will then be well down the road to rolling with the best of the best.

Welcome to business in the 21st Century.

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