Q&A

Consumers are storming the castle. Joel Bines says retailers better lower the drawbridge.

A Q&A with the author of “The Metail Economy.”
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Spongebob/Nickelodeon via Giphy

· 5 min read

When Joel Bines was in middle school, he had a basketball coach who told him what he really needed to work on was…getting taller. And he’s always thought of business books as being every bit as helpful as that coach: “prescription-oriented” and “fully impossible for anyone to do anything about,” he told Retail Brew.

Bines decided to write one anyway: The Metail Economy. And the message is that, more than ever, the consumer is calling the shots.

But Bines stressed that he’s not here to tell retailers “what you’re supposed to do about it.” (That’s his day job—as a managing director at the consulting firm AlixPartners, where he leads its global retail practice.) Instead, his book is just meant to pull the fire alarm.

Joel Bines, author of The Metail Economy

AlixPartners

We asked Bines to explain the paradigm shift to customers truly being in charge—and why he’s so obsessed with the gas-pump hoses at Costco.

How do you define “metail”?

I define “metail” as the democratization of consumerism…Consumers have always had agency, but lacked power. And now they have both.

Because, with technology, consumers have so much information?

Two things: information, and access. So information to everything—pricing, sources of supply, human rights, manufacturing costs, product comparisons, whatever it is. And access to one another. So it wouldn’t be enough if you just had access, but no information, or you had information, but no access. The phrase that I use in the book is, you know, when I was growing up, if you were making a major purchase, you looked to Consumer Reports. And today, you look to consumers report.

When I first saw this term “metail,” I thought, Oh, this is just like a gimmicky way to say the old chestnut that “the customer comes first.” How’s what you’re actually saying much more 2022?

You are right, that I’m saying that the customer comes first. But I am right when I say that everyone before now, for the most part, who said the customer comes first was lying. The customer never came first. And the customer knows that. Any customer knows that until recently, rarely did we as consumers ever feel like the companies were putting us first. And what I’m saying is now you have to mean it. We the customers now know that you’re not putting us first because of information and access.

But if the customers weren’t coming first for those retailers, where were they coming?

Rarely was the customer even part of the vast majority of the dialogue in boardrooms. Time and time and time again, I would be sitting in strategy sessions listening to executives talk. And at some point, someone would say, “Well, shouldn’t we take a look at this through the eyes of the customer?” And everyone’s, “Oh, of course, of course, yes, we definitely need to take a look at this through the eyes of the customer.” And then they would go back to talking about whether to locate in DC or Tennessee or Pennsylvania or Ohio.

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If a retailer is investing in omnichannel to meet customers wherever they are, does that mean they “get” metail, or is it more complicated than that?

It’s definitely more complicated than that. But it’s also quite simple: Does it matter to your customer? The dollar-store channel is one of the most successful channels in the world, and nobody buys online from Dollar General. Just because someone else is offering something to your customer doesn’t mean that the strategy is to also offer that thing. You’ve got to really think it through.

Why are you so interested in the length of Costco’s gas-pump hoses?

Most of us at one time or another have pulled up in our car—even if it’s a car we’ve had for 10 years—on the wrong side of the gas tank. And then you have to back up and find another tank, and that’s just inconvenient. So Costco says, “Well, why do gas hoses have to be six feet long?” Or eight feet, or however long they are. Now their gas hoses are two or three times as long as the normal gas hose, so if you pull up to a Costco gas pump, and the gas tank is on the wrong side, you just pull the hose over…and you fill your tank with gas and you move on.

And you think, Oh, I really love that this retailer thought of this convenience for me. But the reality is, if you come at it from a logistics perspective, you get massively more throughput through the gas lines than you would if you had to have cars backing up and moving around to get on the other side. So you sell more gas.

And that’s metail?

It’s metail. Because someone at Costco sat down and said, “I can’t be the only person who has this problem. And if we can solve this problem for me and those people, maybe we’ll build a little bit more customer loyalty.”

Costco is a retailer that embeds the customer into everything that they do… [Even] the parking spaces in their parking lot are painted extra wide. They make all kinds of concessions that are only visible to a retail nerd like me, to make the customer feel better about the experience of shopping in a place where, let’s be honest, you have to pay for the privilege of shopping there. Think about that for a second.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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