The Gap Scenario

* It's been a longstanding thesis of mine that Google's ability to reorder information in microseconds, based on our declared intent through a search query, has habituated us to expect an immediate and relevant response from nearly every website – and in particular, commercial sites. In time, I think this…

mindthegap.png* It’s been a longstanding thesis of mine that Google’s ability to reorder information in microseconds, based on our declared intent through a search query, has habituated us to expect an immediate and relevant response from nearly every website – and in particular, commercial sites. In time, I think this expectation will leak into realspace as well. In this post, I explore what that might look like.  


Over the past few weeks I’ve been using what I call “The Gap Scenario” to illustrate how marketing is going to change in the next few years, in particular as it relates to the intersection of physical and digital spaces. Yes, I’m talking about Gap, the retail clothing brand, but I’m also talking about the “gap” between where we are as an industry, and where we are headed.

Yesterday I got a chance to talk on camera about the concept (it’s in the first ten or so minutes), but if you’re like me, it’s sometimes easier to read than watch video. And to be honest, until I write something down, I’m never entirely sure I’ve thought it through. So here goes.

Imagine it is a few years from now. Not much has changed in your life (as much as, say, it has in the past three years. We often get a bit ahead of ourselves when it comes to thinking in the future). You happen by a Gap store, and eager for a bit of retail therapy, you walk through the door.

By walking through Gap’s door, you have declared an intent – just as certainly as if you had entered “Gap clothes” into a search engine.

So what happens next? What response does your “search” elicit?*

In a few years, this is what I think will be pretty standard. First, you’ll have a smart phone on you, one that is running several background processes (think of them as “ambient apps”) at all times. One of those processes listens for signals coming from the environment around you, and when it finds a signal that it finds may be useful, it responds to that signal with a ping saying “I am here.”

This is why, when you cross the portal into Gap, your phone buzzes (assuming you’ve instrumented it to buzz. It might ring, or it might stay silent, because you know as soon as you go into Gap, there’ll be a response waiting for you. My point is that the response is immediate).

As you cross into Gap, you take out your phone and take a look at what Gap has to say to you. And what might that be? Well, it depends on any number of factors, but my guess is the Gap App will welcome you into the store, and perhaps ask if you are enjoying the jeans you purchased at the downtown store last month. It also shows that four of your friends have recently been in the store lately, and another three have purchased something online. Would you like to see what they bought?

Another alert reminds you that it’s been a few years since you bought anything for your daughter, who must be growing up. Might you be interested in a Gap tee or scarf most favored by girls in her age group? Special 15% off applies for folks like you, who have “Liked” Gap on Facebook.

Interested, you stroll over to the Teen section and see a blouse your daughter might like. You hold your phone up to it, focusing the camera on the tag. The Gap app immediately scans the tag and provides another search result, including price, available inventory instore and online, customer reviews culled from various sources, and recommendations for related items, complete with a map icon which, if pressed, shows where those items are in the store.

But for whatever reason, you put your phone in your pocket and head for the mens department. You came in for your own retail therapy, after all. You know that if you want to buy that blouse, you’ve already shown an interest in it, and at any time you can complete the purchase through the app, or, importantly, by asking any Gap associate throughout the store.

And that leads us to the other side of this scenario. When you walked through the front door, you were immediately identified as a returning customer. All the data about your interaction with Gap, as well as any other related data that you have agreed can be publicly known about you, has already been sent to the store, and to the mobile devices of every Gap associate working in the store today. You know this, and further, you expect anyone you might ask a question of to know as much about you as you care to reveal. In a way, it’s both comforting and empowering.

As you head upstairs to the mens department, you pass a Gap associate who smiles, checks her phone (which thanks to something like Presence has lit up with your profile) and says hello. The social action of her checking her phone as you approach is something you consider normal, and you wait for what she might say next.

And what she says next – the next turn in your conversation with Gap – will be critical. Will she be human, empathetic, nuanced? Or will she be corporate, stunted, odd?

Well, that depends, in the end, on how Gap trains its employees, and whether Gap allows them to be themselves. Does Gap hire folks with a high social IQ? Or does it hire folks who secretly hate this data-driven corporate shit, so they grit their teeth as they ask you if they can help?

An important question indeed. But this day, you’ve come to your favorite store, where the employees are fluent in the dance between social data, commercial intent, and real time physical interaction. Your associate simply nods and says “let me know if I can help you,” smiles, and lets you pass. She reads from your face and body language that you don’t want too much more than that. She was right.

At the mens department you find your favorite jeans, but don’t want to dig through the piles to find your size. Instead you point your phone at the stack, and the Gap App tells you the store, alas, is out of size 34. Would you like to purchase them online, and have them sent to your home? They’ll be there later today, because a store across town has them in stock, and Gap provides same day delivery within a 50 mile radius. You press “Yes”, the purchase is confirmed, and, your retail desires fulfilled, you head toward the door.

As you leave, the associate you passed earlier thanks you for your purchase.

Well that was pleasant, you think, as you walk down the street. Out comes your phone again, and you bring up the Gap application again. Maybe you will get that blouse for your daughter, after all.


Now, think about all the elements that have to work in concert for this scenario to play out. To my mind, the easiest part is the technology and the platforms for that tech – they exist already. The smart phones, the app world, the social instrumentation – all solved. What’s not solved are the business processes that sew it all together. This scenario incorporates many distinct practices of traditional marketing. Customer service, CRM, direct marketing, instore and online promotions, and even brand marketing – because above the line brand work is what ties it all together by making the promise this scenario will pay off.

Getting all those pieces to work in concert is the hard part. My experience with large brands and the agencies which support them is that they have necessarily specialized, creating silos that are very good at what they do (direct marketing, CRM, etc) but not very good at working across the organization. That’s going to have to change. It’ll happen first with retail brands like Gap, but it’ll come quickly to consumer packaged goods (who will want to answer the search even if it happens on a supermarket shelf) and small businesses as well.

Helping them make the transition is a huge opportunity. More on that in another post.

*replete with MOLRS, of course.

16 thoughts on “The Gap Scenario”

  1. You’re spot on. The scenario you’ve proposed reminds me of the Mall Scene from Minority Report –

    Hopefully companies will find an equilibrium between personalization and being obtrusive.

  2. This gets into a really interesting area.

    As the Mr. Palmer’s comment immediately recognizes the balance becomes a delicate issue.

    A “Minority Report” world may well be possible…

    But I have a feeling that for a variety of social/cultural reasons we may be approaching a point of push-back and saturation. Not some rejection of marketing, but a re-configuration… a needed re-configuration.

    (e.g. with the kind of tech we’re talking about here, can you really tell me why we eventually will still need billboards and ugly store signs other than the inertia of past economic interests!)

    In some way there’s a connection between Internet technology, branding, celebrity, the attention economy and natural-human-community-size (Dunbar’s Number) that seems to be hitting a tipover point of both opportunity and peril. (I think there’s a change in the nature and value of ‘celebrity endorsements coming for one thing… but no more freebies…)

    The world-wide-web is a landscape for human evolution. Really the first human-created landscape fundamentally distinct from the natural world in the way humans interact with it.

    It’s a delicate balancing act. The individual’s right to control his/her associations and ‘attention economy’ will (and should) expand.

  3. It seems like a real possibility and something that will inevitability happen. I guess there are two points that spring to mind though:

    1. It all sounds like a lot of hassle to me, but we’ll feel compelled to look at our phone, follow that facebook group etc else we’ll miss out on that “deal”. Is this yet something else we have to do now alongside monitoring our email, fb accounts, twitter etc? Who really has the time/patience? Does anyone *really* want to have to look at their phone every few minutes?

    2. Is anyone who doesn’t buy into this now a second class customer who doesn’t have access to the same info and deals that a phone loving peer has?

    Blimey, I’m turning into my dad ;)!

  4. I agree, but I think your timeframe is off. For this to occur any sooner both IT and Marketing must be aligned. There is a BIG chasm to cross here and most organizations are not even close to achieving this reality. Perhaps in 5 – 7 years this might be possible.

  5. I think this scenario as a common shopping experience is frightening. As an exception to the rule: absolutely.

    The Facebook paradigm that we carry our full social graph with us all the time makes no sense to me. Instead, people should have the choice between:
    – complete anonymity (When I go to the supermarket, I don’t want a customized experience. (I just want to purchase the items that allow me to make dinner.)
    – Full social graph: When I go out in a new city, I might want to utilize my full social graph find out where all my friends went, what restaurants they chose, etc.
    – Different personas: Sometimes I’m a Dad, a husband, an entrepreneur, a Dodgers fans (sorry, John), an avid traveler. Let me choose my persona when interacting with your brand.

    Think about it: the recommendation engine at Amazon looks at all my purchase data. But, just like anybody else, I’ve purchased books for my wife, toys for my kids, music for friends. Now, if Amazon would allow me to create different personas within my profile, that would be helpful. And evolving the profile based on life events would be even better (Purchased baby bottles 5 years ago, need to purchase Alice in Wonderland now)

    John, what you’re describing is the pipedream of marketers. Or marketers heaven on earth. What I’m describing is the pipedream of customers. Or our heaven on earth.

    The real opportunity and gamechanger is focusing on customers. And let them control the environment. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  6. John,

    Nice post and another aspect to consider is the access to personal information that the shopper has. For example, she will most probably have a virtual closet showing the clothes she has plus things she wants. Moreover, she will be able to instantly query friends and get their opinion on style and color…..even put out a bid on what she’s willing to pay.

    Exciting….and, gee, wouldn’t it be great to be able to do this from home?

  7. I believe this scenario is very plausible and something along those line will be a reality in the future. I see one big problem with this and the way some company are developing currently. This problem is the ownership of the data. Is the Gap owning my purchase information and what can I do with it.

    We already see this problem with Amazon. Now that I’ve bought all those books on their site, they really “know” me. What if I wanted to take my business to B&N, I should be able to give whom I want access to my purchase history. All those walled garden around data will have to come down. The way to do it would be to say to the company : I allow you to track my purchase information and link it to my net identity only if you store this data in an open format and you maintain my personal copy. This personal copy would stay in the cloud, but with a 3rd party. This would then allow me to say I want to share this info with other stores and not just the Gap.

  8. The only “core scenario” that resonates with me is the simple consumer-in-control benefit of walking in to be recognized as a returning customer, with a set of tailored offers/coupons and/or new product highlights for you.

    Everything else either crosses the line of “too easy to be abused” (so it will, and kill the scenario in the process), “too intrusive/creepy”, or “over the line” in inventory/geo assumptions. The cost of organizing and collecting data on low price point “moving objects” at infinite geo precision is impractical. Insufficient value:effort ratio.

  9. Great thinking – I think we’ll look back at this as a seminal post.
    All the tools to make this happen do exist and we’re having conversations about this with a number of clients. The friction does come from the silo mentality – but the prize is so great we believe we’ll see it start to happen soon.
    Rather than a holistic solution, we see two key elements that will be adopted soon; 1/ allowing important customers to ‘announce’ themselves so sales staff can prioritise them 2/enhanced product info through scanning sales tags.

  10. I definitely think this whole scenario is unfolding in small doable stages but I also think its a great example of how technology is possible there for the customer will want/love whatever experience it dishes out. Smells of epic fail to me. If anything the early adopter scene will test it out first, as always.

    Proximity based marketing combined with customer preferences, social graph data, and buyer history bits will make for a compelling experience, at least to write about- the actual experience may be lack luster and too rigid to allow for a real customer interaction process where emotions run wild, and customers irrational at best at times.

    Everyone and their mother is going into this space though. We all can see the vision of the smart building knowing when you arrive, altering staff, and digging through your preference data- altering your friends on the net and more.

    All of this experience will have to be opt in however, and its extremely niche at best. The scenario sounds great for the Gap, sounds horrific for a car dealer- and its all tied to the experiences we seek.

  11. This is not an attack on you John – I’m sure this scenario will play out in some fairly recognizable version of what you describe. That said, what a terrible version of reality. Consumers as rats to be prodded and poked into the maze to consume the “right” goods that algorithms decide they need. Total 20th century thinking.

  12. Wow, a very ‘futuristic’ scene, heh. Can’t see something such as you describe happening in the UK for some time, we seem to be at least a few years behind many other countries.

    Undoubtedly technology will be steering towards this now though… Scary thought.

  13. “I’m afraid I cannot let you do that, John…”. – Greetings from Orwell & HAL.

    The marketers that are drooling over this are underestimating how much people resent having their mind read without prior permission (and their Unconscious Mind can always tell if a certain offer or statement is out of temporal context).

    The best kind of targeting like this only uses prior knowledge/keyword targeting as an adjunct, or will shift the purchasing context into the future, e.g. for a trip you’re about to take.

    People are more likely to accept some suggestions/guidance for the future, especially if the starting point is permission-based and transparent/non-creepy. Siri, the service that Apple just bought comes to mind: You INITIATE the question process, for a future that isn’t immediately here yet!

  14. I would be interested in knowing how you think this would affect the supply chain / warehousing / distribution side of business.

  15. Worked as advertised. Checked in…picked up clothes…showed the code on the special to the cashier…discount applied. Saved almost $40 on purchase. Cashier said I was first to use the special at store (Norwalk CT). Thanks Gap! Thanks Foursquare!..

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