Middlemen have gotten a pretty bad wrap since the Internet came along.
First, it was the travel agents, who were one of the first to be "disintermediated" by sites like Expedia, Orbitz, etc. Why hire a person to do what a computer and network could do?
Although it turns out it wasn't quite that easy, as we later discovered, and nearly 20 years later there are still travel agents, but they've evolved and often moved up the value stack in terms of their offerings. (As an example, whenever I book a scuba diving trip, I typically now use an exclusive provider of scuba vacation travel, and they've served me quite well... although, sigh, it's been far too long since I went diving!)
At IBM, we're only supposed to employ our American Express travel agents when we're traveling overseas. I, personally, don't mind using our Online Travel Reservation system for planning my travel, but that Web-based system has never been the same as talking to a really good AmEx travel agent, and it certainly has never made me laugh.
So this story in The New York Times caught my eye, which explains how e-commerce companies are "bypassing" the middlemen in a variety of e-commerce verticals.
From eyeglasses to office supplies to bedding to nail polish to shaving supplies, there are host of "smarter commerce" e-commerce ventures popping up that are "controlling the supply chain," providing products and services to end consumers at lower costs than many big retailers while pocketing the disintermediated profits.
But before you leap headlong into a web server (which, let's be frank, could hurt!), let's not forget that physical presence still matters.
CNBC reports that "what's old is new again" for some e-commerce retailers, outlining that a "growing number of online retail companies are setting up physical stores" in response to trends like "showrooming," whereby consumers do in-store flybys only to later make a purchase online.
IBM vice president and global retail leader Jill Puleri was quoted in the story with this observation: "If there's one thing showrooming teaches us, it's that consumers still want to see what they are buying in person."
It goes on to cite data from IBM suggesting that "50 percent of online sales were generated after consumers first browsed online."
So what's next? One could easily envision pop-up stores emerging in highly trafficked areas around the world: airports, train stations, even shopping malls, where consumers could "touch and feel" the merchandise and then get incented to go and make an actual purchase online.
Now if they could just figure out a way to make those in-store mannequins just a little less creepy.