Monday, April 04, 2005

A Museum of Products

One of the things I enjoy about being a consultant is the opportunity to interact with people in a variety of businesses, and through these interactions to learn about those businesses. One fascinating concept that I was recently introduced to is "curated consumption." In summary, curated consumption is the concept of third parties as selectors or 'curators' of the various things you spend money on (Trendwatching, a marketing-focused ezine/website, has a more detailed description). A textbook example of this might be the West Coast hip-hop industry. What Champagne should I drink? Kristal. What cognac? Hennesy. What car should I drive? A 1964 Chevy Impala with hydraulics, a Coupe DeVille, or a Bentley. However, this concept isn't restricted to the "popular masses" nor does it include only luxury brands. Many computer enthusiasts are familiar with ThinkGeek, an online retailer of interesting gadgets and gizmos for 'geeks.' In addition to electronics, their products also include clothing, foodstuffs, and books: an entire array of products focused around the 'geek lifestyle.' ThinkGeek's popularity isn't due to having the lowest prices, or fastest shipping, or best customer service. Rather, their success stems from the fact that they only offer a selection of products that a certain demographic considers to be "cool." They add value to the consumer experience by selecting a few hundred products that are specifically of interest to their target audience. Their content per se could be considered as valuable as their products. Contrast this approach with a mega-retailer like buy.com or Outpost, who offer many of the same products as ThinkGeek at lower prices.

But is this more than just a marketing buzzword? For example, don't sporting-goods stores offer everything for the "sporting lifestyle," from tennis raquets to team-branded jerseys to skiing lift tickets? And yet, few would claim that SportMart is an example of curated consumption. Conversely, has the corner deli that only carries the one or two brands of each product that are most popular with its customers chosen curated consumption as a business strategy? Doubtful; this is just the natural result of trying to maximize a small store's profit per square foot. And haven't ThinkGeek's limited but focused product selection, Amazon's personalized product recommendations ("auto-curation"?), and integrated media-retail brands like Martha Stewart all proven themselves successful way before CC was coined as a phrase?

Well, yes, but that doesn't diminish the value of the phrase itself. Like software patterns, which were conceived as a way to talk about programming concepts that already existed, curated consumption can be viewed as a useful label for a business strategy pattern that predates the term. To dismiss it simply as a 'buzzword' would be to imply that it has no meaning at all, or that unclear usage or plain misuse of the phrase has made it sematically useless (e.g., "paradigm"). I don't think that's the case here, despite some of the shades of gray mentioned above.

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