Retail is one of the oldest industries still operating. Throughout history, individuals have had a desire to buy for fun and a need to buy out of necessity. Retail is also an industry that is constantly changing. The arrival of Amazon has ushered in the growth of e-commerce, and consumers are increasingly shifting their preferences to ordering products online vs. shopping inside retail stores.
Based on what I’m seeing, I believe retail is about to undergo further changes as a result of the growth of social commerce, where buyers form a group in order to receive discounts from suppliers. Complementing social commerce is the growing trend of using online auctions to find the lowest bidders to fulfill orders for apparel, shoes and other merchandise.
Much of my academic research during three master’s degree programs was focused on retail, auctions and supply chain management. Since 2015, I have conducted research on one of the largest social commerce platforms, China-based Pinduoduo. In addition, I have provided consulting to retailers interested in social commerce and online auctions. (I do not mention these retailers in this article.)
Auction-Driven Social Commerce
Pinduoduo has taken China’s retail industry by storm. The platform reportedly had 585.2 million active buyers in 2019, surpassing JD.com’s 362 million and catching up to Alibaba, which reported 712 million users (in the 12 months leading up to September 30, 2019). I believe this can be credited to Pinduoduo’s executive team’s focus on efficiently receiving, fulfilling and shipping orders to customers.
To accelerate growth, products on Pinduoduo list two prices: one for individual purchases and a price for team purchases. Team purchases encourage consumers to convince as many friends and family members as possible to buy the same products together. The more products that are purchased, the lower the price for each product sold.
The model from Pinduoduo differs significantly from a warehouse club like Costco or Sam’s Club, which already sells a product in bulk. Convincing friends and family members to buy the same product in bulk doesn’t decrease the price.
I believe this is what’s missing in the current commerce model — duplicating the social experience online where friends and family buy together and have fun together. Further, I anticipate a move toward an online bidding model, whereby more than one seller can bid on selling their products to a group of consumers. This model has the potential to explode in popularity for several reasons.
First, the Nobel Prize for economics was recently awarded to two Stanford University professors for their work related to online auctions. The award has generated interest from retailers (several of them my clients) who wish to learn how to leverage auctions within their retail ecosystems.
Second, at nearly $800 billion, the grocery industry remains one of the most important industries operating today. Consumers purchase groceries more than any other commodity on an annual basis.
However, according to many economists and analysts, grocery retailers are examples of monopolies due to the fact they control all pricing power over the products sold in their stores. Walmart, for example, reportedly controls over 50% of the grocery market in many areas within the U.S.
In addition, the growth of online grocery ordering and delivery has uncovered a weakness in the current model: Every online grocery order is treated as a separate order. No attempt is made to combine orders to sell in bulk to reduce prices.
I believe the current grocery model can easily be disrupted. For example, a third party with an online platform for ordering groceries could enter the market with the promise of reducing grocery prices to their lowest possible level through the use of an online auction.
Instead of treating every online order as a separate transaction, a third party would be able to bundle hundreds of thousands of online orders and, on a daily basis, conduct a bid whereby brands, grocery retailers and wholesalers bid to fulfill the online orders at the lowest cost. (I wrote more about this topic earlier this year.)
Removing pricing power from grocery retailers has the potential to drive significant growth to a third party that perfects the use of social commerce and an online auction for selling groceries.
When To Use An Auction Model
Virtually all retailers can use an online auction and social commerce in their business, assuming they have a platform with the required technology. However, there are risks that must be taken into account. For example, retailers must understand what their costs are, and they must have a cutoff price that they won’t exceed, lest they rob themselves of margin and eliminate any chance of making a profit.
Also, retailers must have a supply chain capable of managing inventory and shipping bulk orders to many locations. Partnering with the right inventory optimization software can provide the needed algorithms to manage and optimize inventory.
It should be noted: I don’t recommend the use of social commerce or online auctions for high-value products that require a long time to make. I evaluated an online auction model for a company that manufactures extremely complex and expensive (over $1 million in some cases) CT scans and other intricate medical equipment. Using an auction would prevent the company from personalizing its process for making the machines and showing how its “hands-on” approach provided value above and beyond price.
Retailers must evolve or they will surely die. The status quo is no longer acceptable, and I strongly recommend all retailers in the U.S. to crush it.