The fundamental thesis behind Apple’s iTunes Store rested on the belief that the music industry was a racket and consumers were the victims. Steve Jobs was adamant that consumers wanted, and deserved, to be free to download individual songs at an affordable price without having to drive to the store and pay the small ransom being asked for CDs. This made practical sense, given that most albums contained a couple of hits at best. Why buy 12 songs when only two are popular? Consumers clearly agreed, making iTunes the jukebox of a generation.
But with every innovation comes a curse and today the unforeseen consequences of iTunes are playing out all around us — including in the retail industry, where discovery is dying, and iTunes is responsible.
Why? Because in reality, the other 10 songs did matter. They mattered because by the time you actually bought a CD, chances were that you’d already heard the hits on the album. That’s what drove you to buy the album in the first place. But the real value in buying the entire record was not just the ability to hear these hits again and again, but the potential to unearth the hidden jewels, the undiscovered masterpieces lurking between the hits. It was often the other ten songs that were more intriguing, even if less popular, and provided a fuller understanding of the band or artist. Even the order of those songs mattered. In other words, the other 10 songs were a fundamental ladder of discovery.
[Online marketplaces have] endangered almost all of the organic discovery that actually made shopping enjoyable.
But iTunes allowed us to sidestep any commitment to listening to the whole album by unbundling the artist’s work, leaving 80 percent of it in the shadows, reserved only for music critics and hardcore audiophiles. If iTunes had existed when The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the world would surely have been exposed to hits like Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, but songs like She’s Leaving Home that were arguably just as important to the future of music, may have been overlooked.
This newfound sensibility of unbundling to get only the aspects we want has come to retail, too. Today’s global online marketplaces are, in essence, the retail version of iTunes, providing a fast-track through the universe of choice to acquire only those things we already know we want. While this has made it easier to find and buy these things, it has endangered almost all of the organic discovery that actually made shopping enjoyable. Amazon, in essence, is not a collection of brand stories, but rather an endless well of disembodied products without context.
But to be fair, it’s not just iTunes that killed discovery. Facebook drove the getaway car.
Facebook promised to connect the world, expand our field of friendships and, with that, our worldviews. Not so. In fact, just the opposite. Facebook became an algorithmic engine of isolation, an echo chamber of one’s own preferences and biases. Indeed, through most social media outlets we are simply presented with people and ideas to which we are already predisposed. Ditto for LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.
No online marketplace wants to risk losing even one click.
Retailers followed suit, leaning into programmatic means of connecting people to products and services. Today in the retail industry, brands are clamouring to develop their own arsenals of technology, allowing them to narrowcast the thinnest of slices of their offerings to specific consumers who index well toward them. Increasingly, the retailer and customer are now connected not by any genuine relationship or affinity but rather by a string of code or a dataset.
The reason, of course, is that brands across all categories are looking to reduce risk. No marketer wants to risk wasting their ad dollars. No merchant wants to risk lower turns. No online marketplace wants to risk losing even one click. The result is that consumers are shown only what’s congruent with the data.
Ironically though, it’s incongruity that forms the essence of discovery. It’s only when we’re nudged outside our comfort zone of patterned preferences that delightful discovery can happen.
Don’t take this to mean that we should pull back from technology. Absolutely not. Rather I’m suggesting that we better leverage technology to enable and inform human creativity, imagination and intuition. Without it, brands lose all elements of surprise. And it’s those small surprises that our brains desperately crave. In fact, decades of neurological research suggest that even small, pleasant surprises produce levels of dopamine in our brains similar in effect to cocaine. We’re hardwired as a species to want the newness and surprise that discovery brings.
So, the death of discovery, while tragic, offers a strategic opening for creative retailers that are willing to stray from the algorithms now and again; those willing to take a chance on showing us something completely unexpected and crazy enough to stock the only product that’s become nearly impossible to find today: pure, unfiltered serendipity.