Pandemic finale got us tied in knots. The end of the year from hell is invoking so many emotions that are uncommonly, surprisingly compatible. They’re not full-on opposites; they’re just paired in such unusual ways. It doesn’t really make sense:

Sadness <-> Boredom
Guilt <-> Restriction
Slowed down <-> On edge
Comfyfied <-> Ready for a party
Digital empowerment <-> Analog thirsty

My oldest child is entering middle school this coming school year and I’m actively witnessing his transformation from child to adult. He’s (very subconsciously) enjoying and embracing the end of his childhood and yet very ready to engage in the adult world. The simplicity of the elementary years is slipping away and emotions are getting more complex.

That’s us in commerce. We’ve just become the most digital we’ve ever been in human history, and yet so desperate to cling to what is not digital. The non-digital is precious, like childhood. The age of the internet/digital commerce has really been in its childhood these past 20 years, and the pandemic just activated digital puberty. We’re bound to feel conflicted. 

Puberty comes with a ton of awkward issues. Mistakes will be made. Lessons will be learned. Experiences will be both cherished and reviled. Cliques will be formed and new pressures, opportunities, and responsibilities - that we don’t really understand or expect - will manifest.

We’ll grow up. For commerce brands, this means understanding, applying, and underpinning digital at every level of our business and remaining completely human in the process. Most of us have barely scratched the surface of this reality.

Grappling with impending digital adulthood

Our digital reality is bearing down hard. It’s much farther reaching than we’re currently giving it credit. We’ve dubbed it with names that make us feel comfortable as if we can get our arms around it. Like a new teen looking at adulthood, giving classifications to the coming potentialities and assuming this gives them a leg up, we’ve been given “digital” buckets to live — terms like “marketing automation,” “enterprise resource planning,” “generation z,” and “social commerce.” 

All this generational and trend labeling reek of the vast inexperience with what’s ahead. Even the term “digital” makes me feel like we don’t really understand what we’re talking about. Those of us who want to claim the future do so through terms and classification to assuage and convince those who need to know the future—including ourselves—that we know it.

And yet, what else do we have?! This digital future is difficult to understand. For example, if physical price tags are digital and pricing for both physical and digital can be adjusted in real-time, how does this actually impact how we price our products? Will they become a function of worldwide demand? For that matter, if consumers are looking to their phones in-store before they even look at price tags, does a physical “tag” even matter? The mental line of what we thought was physically irreplaceable is being challenged. Giving language to this new reality makes implementing and talking about it a little easier, even if our words don’t perfectly encompass the whole of these realities.

Perhaps poor labeling is what has me cringing so hard. I think my co-founder Phillip does a better job than most at manifesting this terminology that will help us understand uncharted waters.

Just like my pubescent, soon-to-be middle school kid will be figuring out his friends at his new school, brands are learning what life looks like in this brave new world of commerce. If we’re stepping into the lunchroom of Commerce Jr High for the first time, we need to know who’s seated at the tables before we pick our spot.

The Freaks and Geeks of eCom

So who are the groups emerging as we step into this new phase? Instead of adding new terminology, allow me to shed a little light on the players currently at hand:

Traditional Retail: Post-graduation 19yr olds who think they still own the school but have a vague sense that they’re done for. This is Matthew McConaughey as David Wooderson.

Bootstrapped startups: You’re not really sure if they are who they say they are - “bad” kids that emerge as actually good and “good” kids that turn out to actually be bad. Think Lance and Kaye in The Kid Who Would Be King. Am I getting too obscure with my references?

Solution Implementers: The nerds. You might have the best idea for a brand in the world but this crew is going to scoff unless you have perfect harmony across your DAM, PIM, ERP, OMS, and all the other three-letter acronyms that we’ve manufactured.

Consultants: Commerce keeners. The kids that want to be viewed as smart, cool, or funny and plan out their path to make it happen.

Amazon: Ferris Bueller. Or is it Regina George?

OG DTC: Cool kids who are seniors and about to graduate/move on, AKA get acquired or go public.

DTC 2.0: They learned and applied cool formulas, I mean, best practices. Some humbly bought in and turned out actually cool, but others gave themselves credit and turned into bullies. Think Tracksmith vs. Away.

DTC 3.0: The cool first-year peeps. Can a frosh ever actually be cool though? It turns out some can. 

DTC Bros: This crew thinks they’re the coolest and hottest since well, ever, and somehow self-manifested that reality. At best, this is James Franco, Seth Rogan, and Jason Segal in Freaks and Geeks. I’ll leave the “at worst” up to you.

Traditional Luxury: Their money makes them feel like they’re more experienced than they really are. Money smooths over a multitude of shortcomings but doesn’t address root causes alone. Early Bianca Stratford vibes here.

Ecom tech providers: The posers - often stating they’re more capable than they really are, dressing themselves up in cooler packages than they deserve, and promising results that deep down they know they can’t deliver on.

Insta brands: They seem like they have it together but really they’re fronting and behind the scenes, they’re churning to make it all happen (because their parents might be getting divorced). They’re somewhere between Brian Johnson and the pre-upside down Steve Harrington.

Retail/Commerce focused VCs: Boomers with successful careers who are trying to “learn from” and “invest in” the kids (same as real life!). Bill Murray in Rushmore.

CPG Conglomerates: The very school system itself, bearing down with all the weight of bureaucracy, looming adulthood, and busy work galore.

The Adorkables: Anna from Anna and the Apocalypse. Everyone else has become a zombie bland brand and so Starface and their crew are going to sing and dance and hack their way out of the noise using whatever brutalist design trend necessary.

NFT Stans: MJ dealers of yesteryear. “Yo cannabis is the future, man.” Turns out they were right.

Mom&Pops: The term that everyone uses to describe bootstrapped startups that are struggling. Aka the first table that a new player sits at when they enter the school.

Ethical Brands: These are the principled students who end up making an outrageously embarrassing scene but you as the viewer respect it even if their character hasn’t developed enough to know how valuable it is.

Your Label Here: I’d love to hear from everyone what table they see themselves sitting at - hit us on Twitter @futurecommerce.

The fun of puberty isn’t really that fun

Ok ok, it turns out labels can be fun. But like, puberty is actually really hard for those in it. If the pandemic has truly accelerated our consumer behavior to be digital-first forever (and I believe it has) AND that in no way means the end of in-person, what does that mean? No concrete visions of this future today - I’m still figuring this out myself - but instead allow me to encourage you in this journey, a la Jeff Rosso:

  • Feel good when you connect yet another system. The “small” wins make for big steps toward the new connectivity.
  • Understand you’re going to have to spend money to get there. Very few businesses succeed “organically”. “Organic” is a discipline as much as anything else. (The keeners may be on to something here). Invest in technology more than you think you should. Don’t forget, these investments are necessary at some point. Might as well be out ahead instead of catching up.
  • More data is great unless it’s not being used productively and then it’s just a cost burden to manage. Make sure you use data you have well — perhaps before you invest in collecting more.
  • If you’re going to be a sacrificial lamb, make sure you understand the true cost of your spend because it might not be directly recouped so make sure you factor in the intangible benefits.
  • Find companies you look up to and copy them.
  • And finally—and perhaps most importantly—find peers with whom you can journey together. It’s going to make all the difference when it comes to burnout — and innovation.

How the movie ends

The best teenage stories end with a level of community and connection between different groups that results in friendship and growth as the characters step into their next phase of life. The players in our commerce ecosystem that recognize the value of working and learning together - even if that means at times with our competitors - will come out on top. We talk a lot about community with your customers at Future Commerce, but another equally important community is that of your peers. Find your Breakfast Club and become the adult you could never have become without your (equally unprepared) friends.