Subscriptions for consumables are impossibly hard

I’ve been following the IPO and the performance of Blue Apron closely. Innately I don’t believe in subscription models for consumables. In my mind, there’s too much hassle in “managing” the subscription. Life is not predictable and small changes (“Sorry, I won’t be able to make dinner tonight”) ruin the rhythm of incoming products.

Amazon is pushing this for a long time as well. Many household items you’re offered to subscribe and you get a discount if you do. That always annoys me because I’m a loyal customer and I do buy certain items religiously on Amazon, but I digress.

I do wonder how successful these subscriptions are. With Blue Apron it’s pretty clear, it doesn’t. The churn and CAC are super high. Not a great recipe for success. But for others, it’s less clear since they’re private like HelloFresh or don’t get reported on like Amazon’s subscription service.

As a side note, I do believe the product of Blue Apron is great. The idea of packaged fresh food which you can easily prepare yourself is gold. It’s actually been in the supermarkets in The Netherlands for a long time. And that’s also where they belong in my opinion.

The only place I’ve seen this work is in the office. Offices are pretty predictable in how much coffee, paper, trash bags or other stock items they use. The individual dynamic behavior is absorbed by the group and hobbles around a mean. But for individuals or households, I see too many variances in behavior which break the norm.

When I buy my trash bags on Amazon and see the offer, I also just wonder how many bags I actually need in a month. I’ve honestly no idea. It’s probably one of the most stable staple items I use. It’s easier to just click the button I guess.

Ipad Pro ad & mom

Apple is running ads for the iPad Pro called “5 reasons iPad Pro can be your next computer”. I wish that was true. I wrote about it before, but what I didn’t write about was that my mom uses her iPad Pro just like that. Her old Windows computer was dying after 7 years and to be honest I’m surprised she could use it at all. The last couple of years she literally set down the laptop on the dining room table and made coffee before she could use it. She finally acknowledged early this year that she wanted something else. I told her she should get an iPad Pro with a keyboard. She balked a lot about the cost, but in the end, she caved and bought one.

Now she mentions at least every other month that she’s so happy with it. It clearly works for her. She loves that she has her own iPad – she used to share one with my dad. She also loves that she can put it down and connect a keyboard to it to write emails. To her, the iPad Pro with a keyboard IS a genuine laptop replacement.

One of the reasons the iPad works for her too is that she can’t break anything. She can click on apps, navigate around and it never breaks. With Windows, she was often confused and upgrades broke things or put functionality in a different place. The upgrade to Windows 10 was especially painful for her and she never recovered from that. The iPad and IOS feel safe to her. There are no windows to manage and the apps are always in the same place on her home screen. It’s a testament to Apple they made computing easy.

To me personally, it’s still not there but I’d like it to be. But especially in multi-tasking, IOS fails horribly. It’s great if you do your work in one app and then move on. It isn’t so great if you want to use multiple apps simultaneously.

Here’s the Apple’s ad:

Showrooms vs retail

Yesterday, we were driving past a big Toys’R’Us sign. My partner remarked it’s interesting that these signs are still up and she was wondering what is going to happen to these retail locations. They’re gigantic locations and not easy to fill. As far as I know, the only stores who are increasing their retail locations are dollar stores. Everybody else is shrinking.

My parents live in a small village and half of their retail locations are empty with “for rent” signs on them. Some of them have been sitting there for years and there’s no real end sight.

I do believe there’s a need for retail, but as Ben Evans remarked in his presentation I posted the other day, it’s going to be part of the CAC and coming out of the marketing budget. It’s in this light you’ve to see the Amazon 4-star store. This store does not exist to make money.

I expect retail ultimately is going to morph into two directions:

  1. Grab-and-go stores for your immediate needs on the go
  2. Showrooms

The first one is pretty obvious and already exists today. It even includes the vending machines of Best Buy you see at the airport. It’s nice you can grab a pair of headphones before you’re heading into an 8-hour flight in case you forgot to bring them.

The second one is less obvious. When I think about retail in the future, it’s more about experience and discovery without the goal of making the sale. Retailers – and especially niche retailers – have been complaining about “showrooming” since the advent of online retail. You go to a store and check out the product, but you ultimately buy online – most of the time because it’s cheaper.

From a product brand perspective, it doesn’t really matter where a customer makes the sale, but it certainly matters to the retailer today. The need to play, try out or discover isn’t going away. For this, I expect that retailers will morph into showrooms where they get paid for putting a product on display and they don’t rely on sales anymore. This can also solve the problem of empty stores without knowledgeable staff to tell you about a product.

Apple does this in their own stores even though they do significant revenue in each store as well. But it is mostly an extension of their company and their brand. There is ample staff available to help you and advise you on making a purchase decision. Apple can pull this off because of their sheer size and this isn’t an option for most companies.

I would not be surprised if several showroom retail companies will pop up over the coming years to just that – showcase products and give purchase advice. Shopping will become “showrooming” by default and you buy online at your favorite place. This may even give the Toys-R-Us locations a new life.

Ghosting is rude

When did it become ok to just drop out of a (email|text) conversation and stop participating? Even mid-conversation?

It’s one of those things which really bother me. I get, you don’t respond to unsolicited sales communications, but the other day I got introduced to someone by an investor. The person responded 6 minutes after the intro and asked me how my Tuesday looked like. I responded and then… silence. I followed up, but no response.

Now I wonder? Did the person die? Are they in a hospital? I know they’re probably just fine, maybe busy, maybe they’ve a cold – it happens.

I just don’t support the idea that it’s ok to drop off mid-conversation. I understand people are overwhelmed by the amount of communication which is initiated with them, but apparently, you’re failing at it if you can’t handle it.

Somehow it feels like “Oh look, there’s a new shiny thing!” and a short attention span problem. If you’re not on their mind, you’re not going to get a response. It’s weird. I don’t like it, I find it rude.

Let’s do everything else

This morning, I watched a presentation by A16Z’s top analyst Benedict Evans titled “The end of the beginning”. I always enjoy his analysis and this one is no exception.

Using market sizes Ben extrapolates that we’re just scratching the surface on disrupting global industries – we’re maybe at 5-10% of leveraging software and the internet to change how we spent our money. He also gives my favorite example that a decade ago nobody could envision we would buy our clothes online, now it’s normal and accepted. You could argue the same for cars.

He also remarks that (retail) rent is just CAC and no longer logistics. I agree with that and I’ve been thinking about that for a while. It’s a topic for a post but ultimately I think that retail will morph into showrooms. It’s more entertainment and marketing than anything else. Physical showing of a product to touch and play with is a powerful concept and can be useful for new introducing new products and reach new customers unaware of your product.

Here’s the video – if you’ve 24 minutes to spare, I recommend watching it.

FOBO & Amazon

Every now and then, I’m searching for something on Amazon and end up not buying. The problem is that I get overwhelmed with choices and end up with option paralysis. Yesterday, I was looking for a long outdoor extension cord. Amazon has 14 pages of cords which are longer than 50ft. I couldn’t make a choice. My local Home Depot only had one option. It’s easier.

With the explosion of Amazon, I find myself more often in the situation that I don’t want to buy there. There’s just too many options. I just want the best option. The best option is either determined by product attributes, price, quality or a combination of both. But often I can live with any caveats as long as I know it’s good. That’s where Amazon often is not very helpful. None of the options scream good to me.

“Amazon Recommended” is one of those solutions, but often I read the reviews and then it isn’t anymore. I wonder then if that’s a paid promotion. How does Amazon otherwise “recommend” this product to me? I don’t feel it’s a human-curated list. It feels random.

Reviews are often mixed. People have problems with the product or get “open box” version shipped by a seller.

I wish that Amazon – or someone else – could curate Amazon’s inventory and just show me 5 options. Definitely not more, maybe even less. Those options should reflect things I care about like good quality for a good price. I don’t care if it’s cheap or the best.

I think this is where retail can make a difference. Retail used to be that. You went to a specific place because of their product selection. Based on the brand, you knew you were paying the lowest price or got the best option etcetera. Nowadays, it feels like that retail is either big box and cheap or high-end expensive. There’s nothing in between.

When I want to buy a TV, I have a specific price point and size in mind. If you go to Amazon or Best Buy you could 50 different options for similar TVs. Which one is the best for me? I don’t know. I wish someone could make that decision for me or at least help me with that decision.

I know brands can do a lot here too. With Apple you know it’s expensive, but it’s also high quality. It’s like a BMW or Mercedes. It’s easy to be loyal to a brand like that. But many other brands are not consistent with their product portfolio. You can definitely buy an underpowered but cheap laptop from Dell while at the same time they offer high-end performance laptops. It’s that inconsistency that makes many brands unreliable indicators for selecting their products. You’re back relying on retailers and reviews. Often that leads to my fear of better options (FOBO).

Why we love vinyl

One of the fascinating effects of today’s technology world, is the way we mix sound. Most people are not aware of this, but music today sounds widely different than it did 20 years ago. Everyone is aware that we changed from LPs and CDs to streaming. Some people might have heard about the vinyl revival, but most people do not understand where this came from.

If you follow the media and read stories about the vinyl revival, they typically like to write about people wanting to “own” their music and vinyl is a great format to do that. It has a beautiful large sleeve and ample space for lyrics. The other angle they write about is the act of playing. It’s more gratifying to select a record, put it down on the turntable and drop the needle on the vinyl.

Now all of these reasons are valid, but it’s not where the revival came from. It stems from the way we mix music today and vinyl typically is mixed differently. Let alone old records which you can pick up from thrift stores for a few dollars. For the avid collectors there’s Discogs. Their market place has 35 million records for sale.

The way we experience music has changed significantly since early 90s. We used to live in a world with decent sized speakers with wooden cabinets to a world where we experience music through closed headphones and bluetooth speakers. The sound reproduction of these devices is widely different than what we had before. Musicians figured out that the mixing of their music had to be different to be fully enjoyed on these devices. Inherently the devices we use today lack dynamics. Lower level sounds were drowned out or not even reproduced at all. Apple’s standard earbuds and airpods are a great example of this. They can reproduce voices really well , but are terrible at reproducing sound dynamics. Most soundbars and bluetooth speakers have poor stereo separation as well. Many of them are just mono speakers.

Poor dynamics and stereo separation created the need for compression. Compressed music sounds much more enjoyable on these types of devices an has become the default for sound mixing. It arguable created more “loud” music and makes older music sound bland in comparison. Not everyone is happy with that development and they call it the loudness war because artists try to outdo each other in how loud their album is.

For audiophiles like me, it’s a sad situation though. Modern albums are not as fun to listen to. Every track blends into the next one. There is less “emotion” in music with loud and quiet passages – there’s just a wall of sound. This is the reason we tend to flock to vinyl which is often mixed less loud due to technical limitations of the format and  because the publishers know that vinyl buyers have different expectations. It’s not about cover or act of playing. We all love streaming and pushing a button to select and listen to our favorite music. It’s solely because of loudness and compression of the sound mix.

Own your blog

Yesterday, I was reading a post on Medium that Medium is not a great place to blog.

And kind of like Blogger, Medium is a terrible thing for publishing. If you think about publishing an article, starting a blog or even just sharing a short rant on Medium, please consider what you’ll be putting your readers through.

It’s true that the experience on Medium lately is quite awful. They’re employing all the social media tactics to get people to signup.

I’ve given up on Medium for another reason though.

I tried Medium for a while and even migrated my whole blog to their platform when they introduced domain support. But after a while, I decided to go back to my own hosted WordPress site.

Regardless of the UX, my problem with platforms in general is that they foster champions. Similar to Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You’re just there to experience content from someone else. 100% of their views are generated by 1% of their users. The rest of us is just there to consume (and watch ads). Your own content is irrelevant. It’s a sane strategy from a business perspective, but it isn’t so great if you’re just there to share your own content and are not part of the upper echelon of creators.

I want to own my own content.

Real sound

I’m an audiophile and I tend to spend more money than most people on audio equipment. Although, there are plenty people out there who spent more in the pursuit to true sound reproduction. I like to be more practical. It does mean I typically adorn the family room with larger speakers, but I don’t have surround nor a subwoofer – it isn’t that bad.

The idea is to create real sound or a realistic reproduction of the music or TV soundtrack. Neutral sound is the name of the game. You don’t want to impress with lots of bass or overly bright vocals. Ideally, the speakers vanish and you just hear sound. This doesn’t always work out because most sound is mixed for soundbars and non-insulating earbuds, but that’s a topic for a different post. If the sound mix is done right, it sounds amazing.

Funny thing is that it sometimes sounds so real, people coming over get confused about if the sound is real or not. Especially on TV when the sound mix is done right, background sound can become indistinguishable from real or not. Think about a dog barking, a door closing or an ambulance siren in the background. I always chuckle when that happens.