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Tribal Buying

April 9, 2009

tribesIn Tribes, Seth Godin demonstrates how ideas are propelling through our culture via “tribes”–groups

“of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.”

His book posits that humanity’s tribal nature combined with dizzying proliferation of new technologies are creating tribes that connect faster, grow larger, and become more influential than at any time in world history.   While Godin is contending for leadership  of these tribes (hence, the subtitle:  We Need You to Lead Us), Mark Penn’s statistical achievement,  Microtrends

argue[s] that the biggest trends in America are the microtrends — the smaller trends that go unnoticed or even ignored. One percent of the nation, or 3 million people, can create new markets for a business, spark a social movement, or produce political change.

Taken together, Godin and Penn leave open a myriad of possible implications for world commerce–especially that commerce is becoming increasingly dependent on the sensibilities and influence of niches, and that there’s plenty of room for more.

So here’s one question:

how do “tribes” buy?  what impact will tribal buying have on retail as we currently know it?

My theory? The independents will return and the influence of the old 600-pound gorilla big boxes will die off like dinosaurs.

Why? Because tribes don’t care much about where “everyone” goes or what “everybody” is doing–which is what the big boxes rely on.  Tribal “members” believe the tribe is the best source of information, and that their cause is paramount. The big boxes won’t have what they want.  Big boxes bet their farms on what “everybody” will find appealing; appealing to niches can’t pass the P & L.

What tribes need are experts–people who know of what they speak, who understand nuance, who know how to fill a very specific need. People who bring value to the tribe.  If you need particular–perhaps even peculiar–kinds of software, bicycles, environmentally-friendly devices, or spices, you will rely on the collective intelligence being gathered by the tribe to inform your decisions. And any products needed to enhance or sustain your pursuit will be found in places that truly understand what drives you. Forget the big boxes: they’ll keep hiring minimum wagers who are friendly but who don’t know a gigabyte from a drill bit, and yet are well-trained in selling service plans. They care about the “mass” market while the world is becoming a linguine-like network of niche markets.



By contrast, the new independents will be one-stop shops who sell both locally and globally. They will know their specialties. They will have a store front and a website with a cart. They will conduct seminars on-site and off, send newsletters, and sell books as easily as they will help you select the right widget. Their staff will amazon shotbe believers who wouldn’t dare say, “It’s in Aisle 17.” And they will be content to know their specialities well rather than trying to be all things to all people. You will go there (digitally or physically) for advice when you want to interact with a human rather than a Google. Think:  Apple Stores, Ace Hardware, and tobacconists.  In a new economy where Big is becoming equated with Greed, the trend may well lean toward smaller boxes.

A couple weeks ago, I sat down with one of our publishing units, including the marketing and publicity people, and challenged them with this question: “What if there were no more bookstores and no more book-only websites?  How would we market and sell our books?” For publishers, one of our long-term challenges is exactly this: what do we do when there’s no Big Bookstore to “drive” people to? when street-level book experts get displaced by content experts? [By the way, have you noticed that Amazon is only peripherally in the book business?]  Part of the answer is that we’ll have to do better niche publishing (content-wise) and we’ll have to become over-the-top shelf niche marketers and sellers.  

Reality: the day is fast approaching when the long-time behemoths of retail will find themselves outsold not by the next big dinosaur but by a million cheetahs selling one Widget at a time.

The trick for manufacturing and the owners of intellectual properties will be to figure out how to not only make those niche products, but deliver them into channels of distribution that have, up to now, not been imagined or have simply been ignored.  If the business on the street is becoming deliberate in delivering a more comprehensive, human value to the customer, how can the vendors add value to those businesses?

More…I Don’t Mean Bookstores

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2009 5:43 pm

    Good points. I buy knitting books a the yarn store and how-to at the hardware store.

  2. April 9, 2009 8:24 pm

    Exactly, cricketB. Thanks for reading.

  3. April 12, 2009 8:15 pm

    Wow, I love this and I sincerely hope you’re right. I personally love going into indie stores (any kind of indie store) that specialize to the point that they’re experts in a specific space; the big box stores, as handy as they used to be are rendered completely obsolete next to the gargantuan malls online that have the ability to SELL every widget known to man. As a publisher, seeking out these niches will TOTALLY change our business, how we approach selling our products to the trade (to what trade?), but I’ll bet it would change for the better in the long run. Let’s hope you’re right!

  4. April 14, 2009 7:36 am

    When I’m not looking for a particular book, I love browsing/buying in indie bookstores. The problem arises when there is a particular book I want, and they often don’t have it. Then I end up buying from Amazon.


  1. Booksellers Blog » Micro-Indies: an online version of “Cheers”?

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