The “blue ocean”—that vast, unexplored space that lets entrepreneurs, or anyone else, differentiate themselves from the pack—is all around us. Even in politics; say what you will about Donald Trump, but there’s no question that he’s made a name for himself by focusing on issues that none of his Republican primary competitors thought to focus on. And by the time they did, even if their focus was clearer, Trump owned the space, and was able to successfully fend off the others.
The term “blue ocean” comes from the 2005 book by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, which described how entrepreneurs and businesses could differentiate themselves with services, products, technology, and other strategies that provide value for customers, but have not yet been implemented by anyone. Finding those differentiating components is a key tenet of their Blue Ocean Strategies.
The alternative, warn the authors, is to swim the “red ocean,” so called because it is rife with the blood of those wounded and eliminated as they struggle to beat each other on issues like who has the lowest price, the “best” service, fastest delivery time, nicest store display, deepest discount, etc.
In a head-to-head “red ocean” competitive situation, someone will win, of course; but the victor to whom the spoils go often bleeds badly, shedding workers or overworking them in order to remain competitive. For many companies, this red ocean competitiveness is all they know; unable to think out of the box, they are stuck in the same rut as their competitors, fighting for each sale by pushing at the same pressure points.
What keeps them going is the belief that in the end, one business will remain standing, at which point they believe they will be able to “make” the market in their image, whether it’s on style, product choice, or price. But like a desert island on that vast red ocean, the happy ending is just a mirage. As soon as they do away with existing competition, they can be sure that new ones will crop up, this time with the advantage of being “the new guys,” with the social currency that brings.
Fortunately, there are many real-life examples of successful blue ocean strategies. The book itself gives clear guidelines about how to find the unique engagement point that will enable a business to stand out—brainstorming ideas to expand markets beyond what already exists (like the well-known example of Apple’s iTunes, which changed the entire music industry by capitalizing on the digital music trend in the early 2000s, essentially streamlining the entire process by providing content, means of acquisition, distribution and the device.), using charts and exercises to determine value points that a business can offer that others cannot, and data-driven analysis of industries, trends, and businesses themselves to see how they can potentially stand out.
For e-commerce sites, finding that blue ocean is more difficult—and more essential—than for most businesses. With little to differentiate one site from another—except for price—it appears at first glance that e-retailers are fated to swim in the red ocean of price competition, regardless of their blue ocean aspirations.
But one of the biggest lessons in learning to swim in the blue ocean, according to the strategy, is to dive deep into the data—and the data shows that price, while important, is not the only significant factor in an online purchase decision. Customer experience is critical. A strategy that has worked for some sites is to integrate personalized videos into the shopping experience, akin to the experience a shopper gets when entering a specialty retailer and receiving personal attention and incentives tailored specifically to them. An online salesperson who can communicate directly via chat and guide them on how to select sizes, how to add or delete items from the customer’s basket, how to get a better deal on shipping, etc. could also give a site an advantage over others.
One blue ocean strategy e-commerce sites can readily use is to pitch a “big tent” and cater to customers who prefer different payment options—or who hail from around the world. Services like BorderFree let online stores instantly expand their operations to anywhere in the world, displaying prices in local currencies. Borderfree, for example, gives e-commerce sites the ability to easily differentiate themselves from the vast majority of their competition, who do not take payments from abroad.
Another idea is adopting a payment system like the ones that are currently being used by thousands of retailers around the world—card-based installments—providing customers with the ability to make set, interest-free monthly payments for the items they buy. These monthly payments are charged on existing credit cards, and the customer knows in advance how much they will pay each month, and for how many months.
The system gives consumers the ability to accurately budget their expenses, giving them control over their money and purchases – and providing them with more incentive to shop. Card-based installments are the most popular payment options for customers in countries like Brazil, Greece, Mexico and Israel, among others—and the novel option for American consumers will most definitely make an e-commerce site stand out from the crowd.
Developing that unique personality is really what it’s all about for those who wish to set sail on the blue ocean. What do you have—what can you do—that others aren’t? The challenge for e-commerce sites really is much greater than for brick and mortar retailers; the latter only have to compete with businesses in their own region, but for e-commerce sites, the competition is located throughout the world. On the other hand, that same world is full of potential customers—and if you can connect with them, some great rewards await.
Splitit is payment technology that enables retailers to offer interest-free monthly payments to customers.