The Mall Curio Shop, Pewter Wizards, and Finding Product Market Fit
Remember that scene from The Office? Dwight, evoking Julia Roberts’ performance in Pretty Woman, marches into the mall to buy a pewter wizard. Every B- mall in America has such a curio shop with velvet elven princesses, burning incense, and crystalline dragons. The scene reminds us that there really is a customer for everything.
Or is there?
The mall curio shop is an oddity. It has the same infrastructure and sits in the same physical space as every other store, but has a fraction of the foot traffic (Who buys an 8-foot-tall hand carved wooden giraffe??). The curio shop has access to customers of all generations and income brackets, but will never rise to the heights of Apple.
The craftsmanship required to create these products is worthy of respect. To cast pewter — be it a wizard, or anything, really — requires detailed knowledge of sand casting. Reproducing a hand carving to cast into metal requires trial and error, and many broken molds. To manipulate wood and resin requires Gladwellian numbers of hours to perfect. But the artisan who crafts the piece rarely understands the mindset of a consumer who would want the piece.
Today, eCommerce has become trade work. Skills are taught and handed down in apprenticeships in digital commerce in much the same way they are in woodworking. The longer you’re in the work, the more adept you become at using the tools. Are you building an experience that is in service of something that people actually desire? Sure, you know how to implement Nik Sharma’s playbook. But do people actually want the product? If not, you might just be operating the digital version of the mall curio shop; and your products are the modern pewter wizard.
Somewhere in the noise of DTC playbooks and Twitter debates we’ve forgotten that product is everything. Artisans rarely find product market fit. Their skill is undeniable, their craft unassailable. But the market, indefinable.
There really is a customer for everything. “A,” as in, at least one. But isn’t the goal to find a plurality of customers to serve? If you have a great product, the market will overcome obstacles to buy it.
Word to the wise: in the new eCom trade work, be careful what you spend your time and skills in service of. Would you rather work in the curio shop? Or the Apple store? Which one will provide you with the insight and growth you need for the next stage in your career? Be aware.
Otherwise, in the words of Dwight (née Julia Roberts) you’ll have made a “Big mistake. Huge.”
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