I chose to align merchandise and creative together in this post, for good reason.
Say you want to purchase a dress. There are a veritable plethora of multichannel 'brands' that will sell you a dress, similarly styled, similarly priced. A quick Google search for "women's dresses" yielded dozens of paid search results including Become.com, AmericanApparel.net, Avenue.com, BostonProper.com, AnnTaylor.com, OneStopPlus.com, JessicaLondon.com, ArdenB.com, and Bloomingdales.com in the top ten. Natural search results included Macys.com, JCPenney.com, Chadwicks.com, Amazon.com, and SierraTradingPost.com. Toss in two or three dozen retailers not making the front page of Google, and it becomes obvious that dresses are a commodity item.
Given all of this competition, the multichannel merchant has a challenge. The merchant must know nine to twelve months ahead of time what is 'going to sell' in the future. Some businesses partner with great brands to acquire great dress styles. Other businesses design their own merchandise. Either way, the merchant has to have a keen instinct to know that a dress is going to be 'cute'.
Merchants who take bold risks that pay off are considered geniuses. Merchants who take bold risks that fail are fired. Very few employees in multichannel retail have the kind of pressure that a merchant faces.
When many businesses sell very similar or identical items, there are very few things that set the multichannel merchant apart from others. Companies try to differentiate themselves in unique ways. Nordstrom, for instance, focuses on trendy brands sold with great customer service.
Creative presentation can be an important differentiator. Lands' End combines great quality with great copy and virtual model technology. Coldwater Creek presents merchandise online and in catalogs without models. Eddie Bauer aids your purchase process by illustrating which of three possible fits --- shaped, classic or easy --- a dress falls into. J. Crew uses copy to differentiate themselves, saying "every dress has a story", shirtdress, halter, strapless, tank or knit. Click on any of those links, and a story is told to the customer. Chadwicks and Jessica London use a fashion glossary to explain key terms. Ann Taylor allows the shopper to e-mail an item to a friend from the item page, or locate the item in a store. Monterey Bay Clothing Company leverages a clean presentation and a large item image.
One of the bigger frustrations I've heard from merchants is the creative presentation of merchandise in the online environment. It is comparatively easy to present merchandise in retail. It is a time-honored art form to creatively present merchandise in a catalog environment --- merchants can instantly look at a spread, and determine with some confidence if the spread and copy will work or not.
But in a template-based online environment, the vast majority of creative presentation is compromised, creating a similar and somewhat generic feel across different online brands. The differences I outlined above may mean very little to a customer.
Cataloging and retailing give the human being creatively presenting the merchandise all of the power. Online retailing results in a "cookie cutter" approach --- most items have to be presented in a similar manner, so that the website can operate efficiently. In other words, in the online environment, the information technology expert plays as big a role in the selling process as do the creative team.
Take Costco, for instance. In a retail environment, Costco's visual merchandisers create the feeling that you are walking through a huge warehouse. In a catalog environment, Costco uses imagery and stories, page after page, to attempt to replicate that feeling. Online, what tools does Costco have to create the huge warehouse feeling?
This is a source of frustration for both merchants and creative staff.
Over the next decade, the multichannel merchants who give online creative presentation power to the creative staff and merchants through innovative technology will have a competitive edge over those merchants who rely heavily upon the information technology staff for creative presentation. Combine an empowering creative environment with great merchants who design or source excellent merchandise, and you end up with a thriving multichannel merchandising experience.