On Digitisation, Obscurity and the Tyranny of the Quantitative

Every business needs to be digital. Maybe.

There was a time when buying and consuming music was an experience. One used to go to the store, flip through the tapes or CDs, talk through various albums with the salesperson on the floor and finally spend whatever little money you had buying. Later at home, you’d put the CD in the music player while enjoying the multifaceted artistry of the album booklet complementing the music. Read the lyrics while the imagery within the booklet provides a multi-sensual experience of the music. Now, one opens the Spotify app, and enjoys the uni-sensory experience of an album you’ll probably only ever listen to once or twice, because there are so many.

It happened to music, and now it’s happening to everyday retail. In South Africa, Checkers launched their Sixty60 app for grocery deliveries, followed by Pick ‘n Pay with ASAP and Woolworths with Woolies Dash. This was great for the consumer, especially during the fearful early days of COVID 19 where we tried to limit public interaction as much possible. But was it good for the businesses themselves?

Over the years, Woolworths carefully crafted their in-store experience. The dark colours with wooden features, the exotic choices and knowledgeable staff members who understood them, and the professional uniform coupled with friendly tellers made going to a Woolworths store a wonderful, qualitative, multi-sensory experience. Now that they have provided a digital channel with Woolies Dash, one sees comparisons with Checkers Sixty60, something that would be a laughable comparison 7 years ago. The only experience the digital channel offers is the uni-sensory experience of the app on the phone, and quantitative indicators such as how many minutes it took for the driver to arrive after ordering. In addition to this, they are now competing with existing digital-only players such as the original player Zulzi and the newest entrant Airlift Express, as the in-store differentiating experience is less of a factor.

It’s a similar thing with restaurants and platforms such as Mr. D and UberEats. Your niche local Italian pizzeria is now competing with Debonairs pizza on quantitative indicators such as time it will take for the food to be made, and not the qualitative factors such as the familiar face of the owner of the restaurant and the light-hearted conversation that reinforces one’s place in the community.

As a restaurant, one can choose not to join these platforms and offer only the holistic multi-sensory experience that sets one apart. For other businesses such as grocery retailers, it’s a bit more difficult as they find themselves in a complicated situation. You either lose market share to the convenience of your competitors, or you lose the consistency of the differentiating experience your physical stores have to offer.

One industry which has completely felt the effects of digitisation is journalism. Before, one had to buy a newspaper or magazine, and engage in the multi-sensory experience of consuming the news – from the feel of the paper, to the typography of the brand, to the unique prose of the particular publication. Now, news is consumed not as a unified collection, carefully curated and compiled by a skilled editorial team, but as individual pieces, conforming to a standard pattern of writing to cater to a medium suitable for low attention spans. Worst of all, it’s expected to be free.

The business cost of consumer-facing digitisation is obscurity – not easily distinguished. One gets closer to offering a perfect substitute to competitors, while losing out on the immersive multi-faceted experience that normally differentiates a business. Yet, the cost of not doing so is also obscurity – not easily found.

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