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D2C retail: Why a simple customer experience is just what we need right now

"Don't create products people don’t want" may be the ultimate way to remain customer-focused as a business, and direct-to-consumer (D2C) retailers may have the best shot at successfully following through on this deceptively simple guiding principle.

This approach centers on customer needs from the start and, by design, simplifies the entire experience—whether that means designing for a pain point or streamlining the supply chain. Ultimately, that sets the stage for a positive relationship between a business and its customers; at least that’s what a bevy of businesses adopting this model are banking on.

Many D2C leaders have been on hand over the years to share their insights at the National Retail Federation Big Show, and the 2020 show was no different. Months later, though, the retail industry made an abrupt about-face as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, a business model that simplifies the customer experience is perhaps the one that can best weather a storm hitting many industries with unprecedented force. That was one analyst’s guidance around rebuilding the retail industry in the wake of coronavirus. Household names like Nike and Disney have already combined traditional sales models with D2C, and expanding that effort affords a desirable level of control over their operations, including customer experience, in uncertain times.

Still, a business model that simplifies the customer experience is perhaps the one that can best weather a storm hitting many industries with unprecedented force.

Simplicity isn’t just a brand experience, it’s the experience

The simplest solution is almost always the best, according to...lots of people. William of Ockham—namesake of the principle of Occam’s razor, or the law of economy—gave the edge to simplicity when problem-solving. Scores of designers have since leaned on this idea to avoid overthinking their work. Even the head of a global retail brand emphasized the importance of a simple customer experience on the front end, supported by a sophisticated web of interconnectivity on the back end. We see ample evidence of this across ecommerce and advertising, too—think of those sparse backdrops in lifestyle imagery.

[Related read: Simple and sophisticated: the “mullet” imperative of seamless CX]

The rise of omnichannel shopping experiences—including “buy online, pick up in-store” (BOPIS) and easier returns—among large retailers indicates that customers crave a simpler experience across touchpoints. Most D2C companies were a step ahead, already featuring simple shopping experiences and even return experiences that earn five-star reviews.

At the 2020 Big Show, simplicity emerged as a way to achieve success in the quest for the best customer experience. Consumers are stressed out, and so-called “calm commerce” was a potential antidote, as described by WGSN Head of Insights Andrea Bell, based on a WGSN report, “Future Consumer 2022.” Marking a pivot from aggressive messages imploring customers to outperform themselves at every turn, tapped-out consumers are looking to be soothed more than optimized. As collective anxiety continues to impact how we live, shop, and consume, a simpler experience can ultimately be the more calming, appealing one.

As collective anxiety continues to impact how we live, shop, and consume, a simpler experience can ultimately be the more calming, appealing one.

By design, D2C retailers don’t have as many products and focus ostensibly on what they’re best at, or market spaces in which they are most passionate about innovating: swimsuits, dental hygiene products, luggage, or cosmetics. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a simpler experience, from UI to product assortment, can give D2C retailers the upper hand.

[Related read: 3 ways retailers can prepare for the road ahead]

Check assumptions at the fitting room door

Businesses of all types are guilty of putting their own needs first, telling customers what they should need and want, instead of the other way around. D2C brands represented at the Big Show have focused on the latter in some noteworthy ways.

Melanie Travis, founder and CEO of swimwear brand Andie, says the company doesn’t even have a designer on staff, an intentional move to help prevent business-centered bias from entering the product iterations. This organizational solution replaces assumptions typically made by in-house designers with real-life, real-time consumer data deployed to make decisions in service of a real (versus imagined) consumer base. Amanda E. Johnson, co-founder and COO of Mented Cosmetics, further explained how D2C assumes a built-in level of adaptability on the part of the business: adapting to what customers want requires being nimble and having a desire to embrace agility as an operational feature as much as a challenge.

D2C assumes a built-in level of adaptability on the part of the business: adapting to what customers want requires being nimble and having a desire to embrace agility as an operational feature as much as a challenge.

“We’re not precious about our designs...if women don't like it, we’ll cut it,” Travis said at a panel featuring female leaders of D2C businesses, emphasizing that anyone going the D2C route must first and foremost know their customer and what they want.

Travis also spoke of Andie’s brand preference for user-generated content over polished lifestyle photos because it puts real customers and their experiences with the brand front and center. From a customer perspective, this approach makes perfect sense. Going back to the WGSN findings, brand messages that feed our anxieties about not being good enough will only take a brand so far.

[Related read: Bringing empathy to product design]

When passion conflicts with the long game

D2C brands stand out for another unique quality—seemingly having little in the way of an identity crisis. In addition to being able to easily explain what they make, D2C leaders at the conference were impressively passionate about the problems they aim to solve for customers. For Andie, it’s ill-fitting swimsuits designed for a narrow range of body types. For Mented Cosmetics, whose name is a reference to “pigmented,” it’s about expanding the range of cosmetics shades for darker-complected people. And Clare solves for that sense of feeling overwhelmed in the paint aisle of a big-box home-improvement store.

While enviable, this passion and clarity of focus can have downsides, when the business over-indexes on its identity to the point that it becomes unscalable.

[Related read: The power of women-built brand experiences]

Tyler Haney, former CEO of Outdoor Voices, spoke at a previous National Retail Federation conference about customer loyalty when the company’s star seemed to be rising fast. Her comments on a panel about prioritizing daily activity rather than “activity to be first,” being “human, not superhuman,” and being a brand that talks to you like a best friend seem especially prescient given the insights about calm commerce two years later. Behind the scenes, however, The New York Times describes internal conflict between Haney’s vision as a leader and the needs of a maturing retail business. She resigned from the company in early 2020.

While enviable, this passion and clarity of focus can have downsides, when the business over-indexes on its identity to the point that it becomes unscalable.

“As a young founder, I know my strengths, and I was excited to bring in experienced retail leaders to scale,” Haney said in a statement to The Times. “But in doing so, I was no longer able to lead this company in line with the values and vision that guided me early on.”

As investors become more skeptical of D2C “unicorns” flush with cash, the central conflict described within Outdoor Voices will surely remain in need of a long-term solution for D2C startups, especially as the market continues shifting as we speak.

Thinking about the future

There are things businesses of all kinds can learn from the D2C ethos. And because D2C retailers are often small, their successes can be especially sweet. At the conference, Travis described her “made it” moment: seeing an Andie swimsuit on a woman on the beach. She approached the woman and asked where she got it—ostensibly not having told her she was the company’s founder and CEO—and she confirmed it was Andie. “Andie with an e,” the woman elaborated.

There’s the thrill of seeing your “thing” in the wild, and there is the added satisfaction of knowing that it was created with the customers’ needs and wants in mind from the start. Especially as customers begin to spend more cautiously and deliberately in this economic crisis, ensuring you’re delivering on your promises for both product and experience gives both the customer and your business a leg up.