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How to Succeed Like Lou Reed in Digital Retail


As both founder of legendary 1960s rock group The Velvet Underground and as a solo artist, recently departed singer/songwriter Lou Reed was noted as a visionary and a curmudgeon. While his gruff approach to critics and fans may not be the best customer engagement template, Reed’s innovations as a musical artist offer lessons for retailers seeking success in the digital arena.

Avoiding all That Jazz

Reed wrote deceptively simple songs. He is famously quoted as saying, “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz."

Reed’s brilliance as a songwriter was knowing how to arrange chords and the spaces between them to form radically new compositions that intrigued listeners. Your digital retailing efforts should similarly be simple, yet innovative enough to attract consumers. Digital commerce sites and pages should feature straightforward, obvious navigation and allow customers to quickly find the products they want.

Gratuitous extra features that simply look cool should be avoided. However, leading-edge capabilities that enhance the customer experience, such as touch-enabled links to product data on mobile sites, are the equivalent of Reed using alternate versions of a single chord to spice up the listening experience.

Don’t be Afraid to Lead

A popular phrase among retail IT practitioners is “pioneers get the arrows,” but Reed clearly did not subscribe to that theory. The Velvet Underground sold few albums and received little airplay during their initial run, but wound up being one of the most influential rock bands ever. Punk, glam and grunge are just three popular music movements that never would have happened without The Velvet Underground paving the way. The band went on to gain widespread recognition and Reed had a commercially successful solo career in no small part due to the credibility it gave him.

Retailers need to take the same fearless approach to their digital commerce initiatives. A perfect example of a digital retailer that was not afraid to be the e-commerce version of Velvet Underground is Launching the first widely available e-commerce site in 1995 when the average person still was not online, weathered years of monetary losses as it essentially created the online retailing model most companies still follow. Amazon is still reporting quarterly losses even as revenues soar, but remains a model for the industry and also continues to receive a steady flow of investment dollars due to its hard-earned “street cred” as a retail IT innovator.

Stay True to Yourself, and Your Core Customers

Reed often set trends but rarely followed them. When he followed a new direction, it was something that interested him and was usually also of interest to his established fan base, who generally were not people buying the latest top 40 albums. While he sacrificed some short-term profits by not being more accessible to mainstream listeners, this let Reed create a brand as a performer that lasted more than 40 years.

Digital retail efforts also need to reflect who you are as a retailer and what your core customer base will respond to. For example, gamification is a hot new trend with a lot of upside, but probably is not a good fit for a retailer whose audience skews older and mostly uses digital commerce tools to research in-store purchases. If you’re in doubt about whether a new digital retail trend is a good fit, just ask yourself, “What would Lou do?”

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