Joel Bines leads the Global Retail Practice at the business consulting firm Alix Partners. He’s sought after worldwide for his advice on improving the performance of a wide spectrum of global retailers, brands, and consumer companies.
Below, Joel shares 5 key insights from his new book, The Metail Economy: 6 Strategies for Transforming Your Business to Thrive in the Me-Centric Consumer Revolution. Listen to the audio version—read by Joel himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Technology has irreversibly shifted power to consumers—but not for the reasons you might think.
Despite all the “new” ways to shop, the fundamental relationship between consumer and company had always remained the same: companies had the power. Whether a consumer was buying a pair of boots from a cobbler circa 1685 or browsing for acid-washed jeans in a suburban shopping mall circa 1985, nothing about the relationship had materially shifted.
But starting about a decade ago, this power dynamic began to change. Consumers now have unprecedented access to information and a megaphone to amplify their views, shifting the power into their hands. Too many companies think the change is because of e-commerce, but that misses the point. The fact is that through the power of information and access to one another, consumers are taking matters into their own hands when making purchasing decisions.
These “Metail” consumers—armed with computers, tablets, smartphones, smartwatches, the metaverse, and one another—have revolted against the foundational principle of retail, taking over control of product narratives. What defines them all as “Me’s” is that they make choices about what to buy based on information from sources that transcend, and upend, traditional company marketing efforts. In short, it’s the democratization of consumerism.
2. “Me’s” define the new consumer landscape.
This disruption has created the consumer model that underpins the concept of “Metail.” Instead of being reliable demographic clusters, consumers have fragmented, and then fragmented again, into highly individualized “Me’s.”
“Consumers now have unprecedented access to information and a megaphone to amplify their views, shifting the power into their hands.”
Me’s are not static. They are constantly regrouping and changing according to social trends, identity politics, personal whims, and even time of day. This means that traditional demographic categories have atomized into factions of one, or very few. Not only do individual consumers flow in and out of these small clusters unpredictably, but more importantly, they can associate themselves with multiple clusters simultaneously, and change their associations over time. So I may be your target consumer at a place and moment in time, but I may not be the next instant. And if you do not capture me in that instant, you may never capture me, because I will be someone else’s consumer.
The old way of commerce doesn’t work in today’s Metail economy. It’s up to the companies to meet consumers where they are, not the other way around. To be successful in the Metail economy, companies have to restructure their entire business model around flexibly serving the collection of Me’s who matter to them most. But this also means that you have the opportunity to build an intimate and lasting relationship with your Me’s.
3. Build it right, and the Me’s will come.
Despite headlines about the retail apocalypse, I am a firm believer in the future of brick-and-mortar stores because the consumer’s never-ending desire to consume remains as strong as ever. The truth is, no industry could have sustained the over-capacity that U.S. retailers were carrying. High-priced real estate was taking a huge toll on retailers, and the pandemic helped to accelerate a market condition that had already been underway. So retailers closing stores over the past several years could be a sign that those companies are on the right path. Here’s why: it means they are cutting off investment into things their consumers didn’t want, which in this case was too many stores with expensive real estate costs. This frees up funds to invest in what matters to their Me’s. Me’s are not fooled by algorithms and personalization engines—they crave real relationships, which happens in a store, not in a 2D online world.
Target provides a prime example of a corporate strategy that is necessary to compete in the Metail economy. Starting in 2017, the company decided “it’s about the customer,” and customers were telling them that stores mattered. So Target focused its investments on consumer benefits—customer conveniences, store associates, physical stores, and the underlying technology. From a convenience perspective, Target heavily invested in same-day delivery and pickup—which meant prioritizing consumer-facing offerings and making its 1,900+ stores capable of local fulfillment. The company invested in its associates to ensure that all facets of customer service were spot on. Retail workers who traditionally toiled in low-pay, high-stress jobs were getting better salaries and training, resulting in better customer service. Target invested billions in its physical stores to improve them visually, increase customer friendliness, and improve their functionality to create local distribution hubs. Target’s Me-centric investments before the pandemic resulted in the company growing revenue by more than $15 billion in 2020. I am not suggesting that Target’s tactics should be the model for everyone, but Target is the model of how retailers can totally reorient themselves around Metail.
“Retailers closing stores over the past several years could be a sign that those companies are on the right path.”
4. The six Cs for Metail success.
The six Cs are essential elements that define the relationship with customers:
- Cost: Give Me a Steal
- Convenience: Make It Easy for Me
- Category Expertise: Show Me What You Know
- Customization: That “Made for Me” Feeling
- Curation: That “Chosen for Me” Feeling
- Community: Make Me Feel at Home
Each company needs to figure out the right model for them. The six Cs are ingredients, not the recipe—so use them to cook your own dish.
5. Evaluate your business through a Metail lens.
Once you understand this profound shift in business, now what? There is often a disconnect between understanding the challenge and linking it to action. But for consumer companies to survive, they must evaluate the entirety of their company through a Metail lens. This is about the creative destruction of old ways of doing things. Think through all your costs, and ask “why”—and “why” again. This part will be painful, but there is no way around it. You need to rethink every practice, policy, procedure, and person from the lens of having to pay for your Metail transformation journey.
Start with the end in mind—define your root principle of Cs, then deconstruct every aspect of your operations. Focus investment, resources, and energies into the right areas to maximize your customer relationships in the Metail economy. As you adapt the Cs to your own model, you will be catering to this sophisticated, powerful Me in ways that are smart, focused, and efficient, with limitless possibilities for growth.
To listen to the audio version read by author Joel Bines, download the Next Big Idea App today: