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Could we make a zillion dollars by offering less?

. Pete

The long tail sucks, if your search can’t find what you’re looking for.

A few quick orienting thoughts, here. “The Long Tail” was brought ( relatively ) mainstream by Chris Anderson in an article he wrote for Wired in ’04. It’s a term that describes a graph of the distribution of ( among other things ) products that make you money. A few products make most of the big money, then all the other products in your selection all make you a little bit. The graph of this looks like a long animal tail. In aggregate, the stuff in the long tail is really valuable, but only if your customers 1. Like the more obscure stuff and 2. They can find it using your site.

Both points are important. There’s a maxim in retail that if you have more items to show, you make more money. A lot of assumptions underlie this point. Also, there’s an idea that choice can be demotivating. Iyengar and Lepper pointed this out in an elegant study entitled “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” This is the study that talks about how offering 24 different kinds of jam sells no jam, but offering 5 different kinds makes them go like hotcakes. Some people like to, need to research and pour over stuff. Finding the best price, the exact match, the most elegant whatever to buy. For these people, the long tail is golden. Provided of course they can find what they’re looking for. In some cases, this is a big If.

Enter a radical idea: let’s offer less. Like, a lot less.

I do a fair amount of experience design work for our social site, where we pile on goals like fluffy pancakes at a fundraiser. We’d like people to find stuff and buy stuff, but we’d also like them to “like” or “dislike”. And register. And leave a comment. And get a friend to register. And browse our new doodad and share out how cool it is. And ignore things when they’re slow. And become an expert on something we sell, and blog about it.

Please pass the maple syrup. We have 28 106 kinds, and adding more all the time via our Local Marketplace, so please be prepared to sort through them all to find just the right one.

I wonder how it would go if we offered less. Maybe set aside a site ( or maybe it’s just a filter? Hmmmmm I’m not so sold on the filter thing ) where we have all our categories and subcategories of stuff, but each subcat only shows the top 3 sellers from our “main” site.

You could tweak this idea a bit. Only offer one item per subcat. Or even one item per –category- if you were feeling libertine.

This site wouldn’t be for the researchers and the gluttons and the peeps that immerse themselves in all the joy that is sorting through 106 different hits for “maple syrup”. It’d be for the folks with not-so-much time or inclination to research, the ones who just know they need a bottle of maple syrup.

From a selling point of view, this kinda touches on the Woot and Groupon and even Twitter idea of offering more by really offering less. The one jar of maple syrup might not be the cheapest or even “The Best” ( whatever that might mean ), but then again, I’m sure it’s perfectly serviceable for pancakes. The smart designer might make sure that it’s the best selling maple syrup the larger site has. Or the highest rated. Or the one with the highest margin. Or the most customer-generated content. Whatever. Tinker a little. Maybe one type is right for consumables, another for hardlines ( what we call most everything that doesn’t have different sizes, like shirts or maple syrup ), and still another for clothing.

But yea, offer less. Our main site www.sears.com right now offers something like 15 milliion products.


I mentioned the social site a little earlier. That’s the place where we try to encourage as much customer-generated content ( reviews, wiki entries, commentary, questions & answers, etc ) as we can. This content helps customers find what they want and make purchase decisions, it also helps us because it provides a bit of credibility and yummy SEO goodness.

On our current site of 15 zillion products, we’re having a little trouble getting an appreciable amount of content from our customers. Lots of reasons for this, a whole other blog post, probably.

But on my microsite, I suspect customer generated content is a bit more easy to come by. There are still a couple thousand categories out there, so maybe we don’t include –all- the categories… just the ones that are most trafficked.

More and more, this is starting to sound like a good idea. At least to me. Not only because I have a thing for reducing the site, but I’d also reduce the pages we have. It’d be nothing to search a site with so few items, so search would be awesome. Promos are kinda focused, buying guides very relevant ( do we even have them, here? ) And a lot of the glut on the various pages could come off, too. This would “facilitate engagement” and I suspect a site of this kind could be fertile ground for a community… the people trying to figure out which item on the small site should be promoted up to The Show.

That’s my working url. http://theshow.sears.com. But yea, that link doesn't work, because this is just an idea I have, that we're sitting here talking about. At least at this moment.

Double hmmmmmm.

Crazy talk? UX genius? Let me know, I’d love to hear.

Also, after much deliberation and wrestling with slow search, long descriptions, and lots of pictures, my choice for maple syrup: Spring Tree Pure Maple Syrup.

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