Back somewhere near the end of the Paleolithic era—like, say, 2004—if you decided to renovate your kitchen, you faced a deeply entrenched system that didn’t allow for much flexibility for how you went about doing that. You would probably hire a professional to draw up plans, measure spaces, figure out what kind of fridge would work if you bought that range. A contractor would get prices and order the fixtures.
Now? Increasingly, brands want you to do as much of that yourself as possible, to ensure you are able to create exactly the space you desire. Brands are eliminating intermediaries and embracing a new role—not as purveyors of a predictable, traditional retail experience, but rather as enablers, guides and mentors for newly empowered customers.
For example: Ikea—the same company that partnered with Google Maps just to help people find their way around the store—now has a program called Sektion. It’s basically a way to bump out the architect: The system allows customers to create bespoke kitchen designs, no matter the shape or size of their existing space. The program weaves in countless Ikea options involving modularity, integrated lighting, “drawers within drawers,” and more. Customers can pick and choose how many of each segment they’d like to purchase.
Perhaps no company has embraced the concept of disintermediation—a fancy term that essentially means cutting out the middleman—more than eBay, which provides not only competitive pricing in either the auction or buy-it-now format, it also offers choice on a nearly unprecedented scale. The company solidified its standing in this regard by acquiring Decide.com, which offered the service of analyzing billions of prices across millions of products, blog posts and articles online in order to help shoppers buy wisely.
The breadth of eBay’s customer-empowerment services and offerings is huge and constantly expanding. For that prospective kitchen overhaul, you can obviously buy all your appliances, new or used, on the site. Need help? A service called eBay Hire connects you with specific experts in your area. A headlight burn out on your car? No need to bring it to the dealership. At the eBay Motors Light Center, you can search for the specific one you need using the “My Vehicle” function. Need a new mobile device and feel befuddled by all the options? Sift through the options in the site’s Cell Phone Center. And eBay recently began to address the delayed-gratification issue—for shoppers who don’t want to wait for their new purchase to be shipped—by announcing a trial program in Australia in which buyers will be able to choose from 40,000 items on eBay stores and, at the checkout stage, choose a nearby store (in this case, Woolworth’s) for pickup.
It’s not just the giants playing with disintermediation either. Take an upstart like The Decorist. Visitors to the site start by taking a quiz about their preferences and style. The site hands the data to its team of “treasure hunters,” who handpick furniture and home decor finds based on the customer’s tastes and budget. No more hiring an interior designer. Other businesses are cutting out the middlemen for people looking to rent out their apartments, buy diamonds and farm-fresh flowers, stock up on nonperishables such as toothpaste and deodorant, and achieve countless other tasks.
The phenomenon even extends in the high-shelf arena. As Forbes noted recently, the luxury buying experience used to be primarily about the experience: “Going into a high-end boutique to consult with a salesperson on what to buy and enjoying a glass of champagne while it was being carefully wrapped up for you.” Instead, retail brands have reminded customers what’s important—that in the end, they value the product more than the excursion to Rodeo Drive. Hence, Louis Vuitton is now on Twitter, talking directly to customers and driving sales rather than relying on destination stores.
Ultimately, customers win in a variety of ways. They have far more options than what they’d find on the local showroom floor. Now, the world is one enormous international bazaar: Brands are converting currency and rolling tariffs and customs duties into the price. On eBay, you can find listings from other countries translated into your language and currency.
For customers, if you’ve ever dreamed of doing it yourself, there’s never been a better time. Brands are there to help. No excuses.