Shopping the Story: When eCommerce meets Editorial

There’s a scene in Fight Club when Edward Norton mocks his meaningless materialistic existence defined by his addiction to Ikea.  His apartment transforms into a movie version of a  catalogue — with every napkin, bookcase and rug identified, tagged, and described as he moves amongst it all. The scene expresses a lot of the stupidity expressed in the early 1990s when the “Interactive Television” geeks bubbled on about how you’d be able to click on Jennifer Aniston’s sweater during an episode of Friends and receive a package from the Gap a couple days later with that exact same color sweater inside(in your size of course) . Didn’t happen. None of it happened: pick your own alternative ending, find a different camera angle … couch potatoes are inert by nature and only move their hands to pop another Cheesy-poof into their mouths. If they want to shop through the TV they switch the channel to QVC and pick up the cordless phone to order some zirconium.

Shopping interactively against a television show, movie, even video game is far-fetched and a long walk off of the proverbial short pier.

Shopping off of a story is a different subject altogether. Let’s start with an early example of “story commerce” most are familiar with, the J. Peterman catalogue, perfectly mocked by Seinfeld.  J. Peterman was a brilliant mail order operation that delivered a tall non-glossy catalogue entitled “Owner’s Manual” with breezy sketches of Peterman’s travels around the world sourcing classic pieces of clothing and accessories from Australian dusters to a long-billed swordfishing cap just like “Papa” Hemingway wore.  There are no photos, no customer reviews, just artsy sketches and short little “English-Patient-Meets-Mark-Helprin” purple paragraphs written by a copywriting genius. To wit:

“He probably bought his in a gas station on  the road to Ketchum, next to the cash register, among the beef jerky wrapped in cellophane. Or maybe in a tackle shop in Key West. 

I had to go to some trouble to have this one made for you and me but it had to be done. The long bill, longer than I, at least, ever saw before, makes sense. The visor: leather; soft and glareless and unaffected by repeated rain squalls. The color: same as strong scalding espresso, lemon peel on the side, somewhere in the mountains in the north of Italy. Cotton blend canvas. 6 brass grommets for ventilation. Elastic at back to keep this treasure from blowing off your head and into the trees.

(He probably got change from a five when he bought the original.)”

I bought one. I admit it. I looked like a total assclown with a foot-long leather duck bill sticking out my forehead. I immediately went back to Red Sox caps to provide me with glare protection while fishing in the sun and that was that. But I bought it, because I was buying the story. Not the hat.

The late publishing genius Bill Ziff told me during a Forbes interview in the early 1990s, that Ziff-Davis move into specialty magazines was driven by the insight that everyone has their own personal “porn.” In his case it was sports “porn” (the man read baseball statistics), Civil War “porn” (he knew his Civil War history like Shelby Foote knew Civil War history) and gardening “porn” (he had amazing taste in gardens). As he put it, pornography is derived from the Greek words porni: prostitute and graphein: to write, hence the original porn was writing about the oldest profession in the world. Ziff applied that insight to specialty magazines like Skiing, Stereo Review, Modern Bride, with the realization that a magazine focused on a hyper-passion — a reader’s personal taste in “porn” — made the relationship between the advertising and the editorial very different than the interruption-based relationship found in a TV ad or a general interest magazine. If you were really into expensive high fidelity stereo equipment in the 1960s, you would probably be very interested in the content of the ads by the equipment manufacturers as you were in the objective reviews by the editorial staff. You trusted the reviews to be objective and untainted, but the ads, with their specifications and gorgeous beauty shots of glowing dials and vacuum tubes, well; that was stereo porn and there was a reader service “bingo” card at the back of the magazine where you could check off a page number and receive even more stereo porn directly from the advertiser.

Ziff extended the insight to computer magazines and found amazing success with the formula of combining advertising and editorial together in a “porn model” where he was broker between the advertiser/prostitutes, the writers, and the readers.

Now all his magazines are pretty much gone as he called the top of the market in the early 90s and unloaded his print assets with the foresight that the Internets were going to thoroughly change the broker relationship of publishers controlling audience access to advertisers.

There have been some magazine launches — in the 1990s — of print publications about …. shopping. Lucky comes to mind, a Conde Nast launch that touts itself as “The Magazine of Shopping and Style.” But put the magazines down and look at what’s happened to eCommerce, the money side of the digital revolution.

eCommerce was available right out of the gate following the commercialization of the Internet by the National Science Foundation back in 1994. Both Amazon and eBay are, in Internet-terms, ancient brands. Once security issues (SSL, HTTPS) and online credit card processing got worked through, it was off to the races for the first round of online stores.  eCommerce was difficult to implement in the early years, certainly a much bigger challenge than launching an online publication, but platforms started to be standardized, operational processes defined, and the entire order management/supply chain thing came together in fits and starts.

Skip a lot of well-known milestones like PayPal, and it is 2012. eCommerce is no longer a big boy game focused on behemoths like Target, JC Penny, Dell, and Amazon. From Etsy to Shopify to the WordPress of commerce — Magento —  there is essentially nothing standing between a very small business and an online storefront. The days of needing a $100 million in revenue to justify a big Sapient ATG or IBM Websphere deployment are long gone. Anyone with the gumption can build their own online store without sacrificing their brand to Amazon, eBay or Yahoo.

I believe the leading edge in online commerce is not the technology — but the content and strategic approach. J. Peterman meets Lucky meets Magento meets Blogs and the result is pretty compelling.

The first place I really discovered story-based ecommerce was in the fashion sector. My favorite example, hands down, is Mr. Porter, part of the NYC fashion etailer, Net-a-Porter.

The design gestalt is a hybrid between a catalogue and an online magazine. The navigation header even points to an editorial area, “The Journal.” Even the home page hero about belts, is identified as coming from a standard editorial element, “The Edit.” Every call to action — the copy on the purchase buttons — doesn’t say “Buy Now!” — but “Read & Shop Now”

I suggest if you want to experience the bullseye point of this blog post, then go to Mr. Porter, hit The Journal “This Week’s Issue” and click through the eight-slide history of khaki. The formula is brilliant. Illustrate the piece with vintage black and white photos of legendary style icons. Steve McQueen is the cliche in this model, but the khaki piece has photos of Alain Delon, James Mason, James Dean, etc.. Under the slideshow, a bylined “story” that leads off like any fashion magazine with the usual fashionesque prose:

“Endlessly versatile, casual yet elegant, hardwearing and laid-back – it’s easy to make the case for chinos. That’s why, this spring, we’re looking forward to reaching for them again. Their great appeal has always been that they can be, and are, worn with everything from T-shirts to tweed jackets, which is how we justify updating them on an annual basis. Click through the gallery above to see how to wear them this season – easy and relaxed are the watchwords here – and to read about the history that’s taken them from colonial military uniform to preppy classic via Hollywood and 1950s-era hipsters.”

It all comes down to “Shop the Story”

Throw in some historical nuggets (khaki is the Pakistani word for “dust”; British Red Coats were easy targets so they switched to khaki to better blend in with the dusty walls of the Khyber Pass, etc.), and make sure every page has a product that the reader can buy.

The call to action (what graphics people used to call “CHA” or “Click Here Asshole”) is brilliant: Shop the Story.

Shop the story and live the dream. Buy those $495 Loro Piano khakis and you are one step closer to becoming James Dean. It’s the next evolution in a long tradition of catalogue copywriting that began at Sears, was taken over the top by J. Peterman, and is now infesting the flash sale fashion sites with the new Catazine movement.

The transformation from the ugly catalogue pages of most online stores to a fully integrated editorial/catalogue model is, I think, going to revolutionize commerce operations in the near future. The challenge of the old eCommerce 1.0 model was order management and integrating one’s act with the Borg’s ERP and MWS and CRM and ….. No more care went into the presentation of the product than the upload of an err0r-prone spreadsheet containing SKU numbers, price, and specs.

This drove me crazy at Lenovo, where the complex configure-to-order world of selling laptops yielded product pages as interesting as the ingredients list on a bottle of shampoo. “We sell black rectangles,” I would bitch as I pointed to web pages filled with the same half-opened clamshell forms of black ThinkPads.  Other than price, prominent messaging around free shipping, the meat of the experience is either in the specifications — “speeds and feeds” — or catalogue-copy: “This slim, lightweight stunner, delivers the graphics impact you need to supercharge your gaming experience …” etc. No aspersions meant to my former colleagues — but the catalogue experience at 95% of most online stores is driven by a spreadsheet and a template with little to any editorial either trying to build some drool factor for the shopper, or a valuable experience worth revisiting. Commerce needs to move from demand generation, sloppy affiliate commission programs, attribution and optimization, and closer to an experience worth experiencing. Don’t do it and you might as well just publish the spreadsheet and hope your SEO efforts and the price comparison engines treat you well.

Shop the Story or Shop the Grid

The latest revolution for the old guard in ecommerce is toappend user generated content — reviews — to their product pages. Hanging a five star rating system with a paragraph of semi-literate user rave or rant (that I always suspect has been astroturfed and sock puppeted by the vendor)  to every SKU using a service such as the recently IPOd Bazaarvoice is by and large a semi-smart move doubtlessly justified by some analyst on the basis of cart conversions and attachment rates and other ecommerce drivers. I like customers reviews as much as the next guy. Amazon has transformed them into a literary genre of their own, the most famous being the first satirical review of the legendary “Three Wolves T-Shirt” :

“This item has wolves on it which makes it intrinsically sweet and worth 5 stars by itself, but once I tried it on, that’s when the magic happened. After checking to ensure that the shirt would properly cover my girth, I walked from my trailer to Wal-mart with the shirt on and was immediately approached by women. The women knew from the wolves on my shirt that I, like a wolf, am a mysterious loner who knows how to ‘howl at the moon’ from time to time (if you catch my drift!). The women that approached me wanted to know if I would be their boyfriend and/or give them money for something they called mehth. I told them no, because they didn’t have enough teeth, and frankly a man with a wolf-shirt shouldn’t settle for the first thing that comes to him.”

Can a publisher jump on the bandwagon and start to offer an integrated shopping function versus the current model of divorcing the sale from their carefully crafted “objective” words by segregating the “prostitution” into an adjacent banner ad or paid search link?  Hey, they tried to muck up their content by using the particularly horrible Vibrant in-text ad gimmick. You’ve been annoyed by it — the double-underlined word links that pops-up an unrelated come-on for some advertiser. Can I imagine Forbes selling mutual funds in its annual dreary Mutual Fund review? “Click here to invest in your future with Fidelity’s Magellan Fund” ….and then receive a bounty on the sale? No. The incumbent press seems boxed out of selling-the-story.  No way the New York Times is going to stick buy-it-now links in David Pogue’s latest review of a portable receipt scanner.

I sense the reason the editorial world isn’t getting into commerce comes down to confusion and ethics. The underlying transaction processing engine isn’t an issue. Getting a merchant payment account is pretty easy. Hiring some catalogue managers and fulfillment people to tend to the SKUs and answer the customer service calls is very doable. Where all ecommerce gets hard is integrating the fulfillment piece of actually holding inventory, pulling it off a shelf or out of a bin, boxing it and handing it off to DHL or UPS. Very few people do that well and there’s a reason Amazon is building depots that are so immense they can be seen from space.

I don’t see why a magazine couldn’t morph into a direct commerce operation. They better because the stores are turning into magazines and they aren’t using Facebook or Twitter to find their way forward. Get off the social commerce bandwagon (Fan pages for macaroni just confuse me) and hire an editor with an attitude  if you want to increase your conversions.

Some other “Shop The Story” sites I like:

  • Dealuxe — women’s fashion, Canada
  • The tale of Clive Nutting’s POW Stalag III Rolex: Antiquorum (fascinating slice of history about Rolex selling watches to Allied POWs in German prison camps with a pay-after-the-war offer)
  • Lotuff Leather’s American Craftsman blog: I lust for one of these briefcases.

If you have any favorite examples, please send them along.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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