The desire for social interaction is an inbred genetic characteristic of humans. While companies like Facebook and Twitter have monetized this desire, many of the impacts of technology run counter to this inbred characteristic. For instance, shopping on Amazon lacks the face-to-face component of salesperson/customer, which exists in traditional retail. Retailers can take advantage of this human trait by packaging their products with “experts” and in effect, selling not only the product, but also the salesperson. In other words, make the salesperson part and parcel of the product.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Musa, president of Computer Presentation Systems in the Sacramento, California area. A veteran of retail experience and augmentation, Musa oversees the company’s product growth, business development strategies, and its daily operations.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Pure chance. I was an attorney representing a client who asked me to become involved in a new company he was forming. The business began taking more and more of my time until finally my malpractice premiums matched my legal income. At that time I decided to abandon the law altogether (I lacked a killer instinct anyway so I wasn’t much of a loss to the legal profession). I realized I had a knack for being an entrepreneur, and I’ve always been fascinated with how technology can be a solution across so many different industries, so I founded Computer Presentation Systems — and the rest is history!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Years ago we received a request from a potential client to set up a demo of our CRM product. When we got to their office and as we began our introductions, the client opened a folder and the first piece of paper on the top was a flyer which we had mailed out three years prior to the demo. This type of situation has played out a surprising number of times in the last 35 years, where the initial contact with the customer was made years in the past and finally generates business. The lesson here is that the lead time between the initiation of your marketing efforts and the final conversion of the prospect can take longer than you can imagine.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
When we started our business, we prepared a proforma setting forth our expected income and expenses for the first year. Then, out of an overabundance of caution, we doubled our expenses in the proforma and halved the income. After one year we found that we had still overestimated our income and underestimated our expenses by a factor of two.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
We’re constantly working on business development, bringing new clients into the fold to help them optimize their businesses with the most effective technology solutions possible. Currently, with COVID-19 limiting in-person interactions, we’re working with homebuilding clients and leasing offices to help them reach home shoppers in a new way. Our SiteViewer solution has been pivotal for this. It allows prospective home buyers to view housing options and communities without ever having to leave their couch. We’re helping homeowners figure out what they want virtually first, so the in-person meetings with homebuilders and leasing agents is a smoother and safer process.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Many years ago, Edward Yourdin wrote a book called Death March about “impossible” software development projects. These are projects which are simply doomed to failure, for various reasons, from the outset. One of the points from the book is that Death March type projects are easily identifiable early on in the development process. My advice to those attempting to avoid burn-out is to identify “Death Marches” early on and avoid them even though you may be walking away from needed revenue.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m afraid that, like Frank Sinatra, I did it my way. It has always been one of my regrets, that I failed to identify a person early on in my career where I could say, “When I grow up, I want to be in the same situation as they are today.” I totally (and arrogantly) missed the value of having a mentor who had already traversed the path I was just beginning.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to bring goodness to my employees and customers. I find that I have my hands full just trying to make life better for those two groups. We provide 100% health coverage to our employees, allow them to bring their children to the office when necessary and provide very flexible schedules. I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to fail in business if you and your employees fully adopt the philosophy that, when conducting business, the customer’s happiness is more important than your own.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
- The desire for social interaction is an inbred genetic characteristic of humans. While companies like Facebook and Twitter have monetized this desire, many of the impacts of technology run counter to this inbred characteristic. For instance, shopping on Amazon lacks the face-to-face component of salesperson/customer, which exists in traditional retail. Retailers can take advantage of this human trait by packaging their products with “experts” and in effect, selling not only the product, but also the salesperson. In other words, make the salesperson part and parcel of the product.
- One of the most valuable aspects of shopping on Amazon is the availability of customer reviews. I’m somewhat surprised that the only place where you see reviews in traditional brick and mortar stores is in the wine department where ratings are often posted. Consumers would be better served if retailers began posting reviews not only of wine, but of other products as well.
- As the price of technology continues to decrease, it becomes easier to allow customers to perform their own product selection through touch screens. For instance, today the consumer often needs to navigate through several laminated cards to determine the windshield wiper or battery suitable for their car. Not only can this process be more easily performed with a touchscreen system, it also provides the retailer with the opportunity to upsell a higher quality product to the consumer.
- In store digital displays will be used more commonly for inventory balancing in the future. By featuring the “Product of the week” on a digital display, the retailer will experience an uptick in sales of the featured (or overstocked) product.
- Product availability, particularly with respect to major purchases such as appliances, seems to be a growing issue. Buying a refrigerator today often becomes a tedious process of selecting the desired model, then finding a salesperson who tells you that the product is back ordered for 6 weeks, then going back to the showroom floor, selecting an alternative, and then realizing that item is also out of stock, and so on. Available inventory displays and delivery times could be better (and more efficiently) communicated to the customer through a digital medium.
In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?
It depends. Some products lend themselves to online sales and some don’t, although I’m amazed by the number of people who will buy clothing or shoes online. Maybe it’s just me, but when I buy clothes, I’m in a hurry and I want to see how they look and feel. So, I’m confident that “look and feel” products, and more specifically, imperfectly sized products will always have a brick and mortar presence.
Another product which will always have a brick and mortar presence are “experience” products such as are found in tourist destinations. These products range from plastic Eiffel towers to gold charms. “Upscale art” products also lend themselves to physical sale. For instance, designer jewelry or artwork.
Products which share the same characteristics as fingerprints also lend themselves to a physical store location. A fingerprint is a fingerprint is a fingerprint, but each individual fingerprint is unique. These are products that share the same general characteristics but can be distinguished from other similar products. An example of this is rib eye steak. Each rib eye is a rib eye, but each ribeye is different than every other ribeye. The consumer wants to pick and choose the particular steak they want, with the desired size and fat marbling.
“Look at me” or “try me out” products, such as wide screen TVs, typically need to be seen in order to make an intelligent buying decision. Although bed manufacturers have made a full court press to sell their products online, I don’t believe that online bed sales can ever replace the experience of trying out the mattress in a store.
The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
Price and quality. Let’s just segment out Costco for this example. It’s widely believed that Costco sells great products at great prices. That’s hard to beat. In addition, Costco has a large selection of “fingerprint”, “upscale art” and “look at me” products which draw people in. Plus, shopping at Costco is sort of fun. It’s an experience in and of itself, like opening a box of crackerjacks. There’s a reason people go to Costco intending to spend 200 dollars and come out spending 500 dollars.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
I’m not all that certain that cheaper prices offshore are guaranteed to continue in the future. To succeed as a retailer, you need to offer a reason to make the trip to the store, in addition to having great products and pricing them well. For instance, price alone is not the only reason I like shopping at Costco. I like going there because of what I call the Lewis and Clark experience; each trip is an expedition of discovery. By offering a wide assortment of “fingerprint”, “look at me” and “experiential” products, retailers can continue to draw in customers.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think the best movements are organic social phenomenon that arise naturally. When someone thinks they can start a movement, it’s like a surfer believing they can create the wave. That said, I think a movement that would help so many people — both customers and businesses alike — would be a more synergistic approach to sales online and offline. People often think online is the way of the future, or that online and offline sales are two entirely different shopping experiences, but there’s plenty of room for integrating both. The customer’s retail journey is shifting from a linear model to more of a prism, where they can first explore online, then go in-person to get a more personalized view, and move seamlessly between the two worlds of sales. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with SiteViewer. Home shoppers can explore their options online at their convenience, then visit a leasing agent in-person, where they can both use SiteViewer to better determine the best fit for the customer. There’s a lot of untapped potential in bringing your offline products into the online sphere, and also bringing that convenient online experience into your brick-and-mortar operation.
How can our readers further follow your work?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!