This is sort of about pastries
A bit over ten years ago, some smart people opened a wine shop and small bar not far from my house. I was still in my early twenties and could not really afford to drink or shop there, but occasionally I would sneak in anyway. It appealed to me because it was so specific: just wine, hand-selected by the proprietors, in a small, purpose-designed store. It was confidence-inspiring, and the risk of making the wrong decision felt very low.
More recently, two other similarly specific, purpose-designed shops opened nearby – a cupcake shop and a doughnut shop. I’m sure they’re both perfectly competent, but I would never go into either of them, despite being immodestly interested in pastries. So why are they different?
I think it’s partly to do with how you establish and communicate expertise. The confidence I had in the wine shop’s recommendations came not only from the custom-designed cabinetry and expert lighting, but from the little hand-written shelf tags that described why this $80 burgundy would a great thing to take to mother’s day lunch, or why that $19 prosecco might seem cheap but really punches above its weight. The shop was talking to me! And when I dithered, one of the owners would choose exactly the right moment to ask me if I needed help.
Expertise interrupts commodification. Wine, cupcakes and doughnuts are commodity items, with effectively identical versions available in countless shops at equivalent prices. In most mouths, the cupcakes at my local store in Melbourne are probably indistinguishable from those at Magnolia in the West Village: light cakes, buttercream and decoration, with seasonal variations. But somehow, Magnolia inspires block-length queues, while the single teenager staffing the local shop rarely has to lift her eyes from her phone to take an order. Somehow, Magnolia has created the impression that its cupcakes are radically superior to those made by any other cupcake shop. My local place does not project that kind of confidence, despite being superficially capable, with clean glass and bright displays and cupcakes that look exactly like cupcakes.
I’m not kidding myself here: neither of these local shops is aimed at me (the wine shop very definitely is). I’m sure that in commerce there are very tangible benefits to being familiar, bland and unthreatening, and good luck to anybody who succeeds by mining these benefits. My instinct, though, which I can’t even attempt to support with charts or graphs, is that businesses thrive by establishing themselves as experts in their field, even if the base unit is a commodity item.
Today, I’m working on how to inject that feeling of expert knowledge into a very large website catalog, with the aim of easing the cloying, claustrophobic sense repetition that comes with this kind of site. When sixty, or six thousand, websites all carry the same items at roughly the same price, how can I use expert knowledge to create a better browsing experience? How can I give our customers deep confidence in the choices they make? Is it futile, when in future we might not have to choose between “price” and “knowledge”, because Amazon will give us both? Is expertise more credible when it comes from outside (in the case of editorial sites like The Wirecutter)? Does human curation count for anything when we have Big Data and Algorithms and all that stuff?
Please send your thoroughly researched and documented answers to firstname.lastname@example.org.