Thursday, 3 April 2008

An American Tail

Chris Anderson's widely acclaimed book "The Long Tail", takes a look at how the the reduced costs of selling on the internet has changed the dynamics of business by enabling businesses to sell an expanded high profit product set.

The Boston Consulting Matrix can be used to explain this principal. Traditionally, a businesses product mix focuses on selling their mainstay product, their cash cow whilst selling as many 'star' products as possible.

The effect of the long tail has allowed online retailers to alter their product mix and concentrate on selling star products as the majority.

As I have recently spent a month working in California, it is interesting to note some of the differences of the interpretation of the long tail in America.

In my opinion, the American long tail is far longer than that in the UK. The level of choice exceeds that of the UK and the level of available customisation available is far greater.

There are numerous examples of this in action but perhaps one of the simplest that can be compared across the pacific is Subway sandwich. Anyone familiar with Subway in the UK will know that the level of customisation offered to a customer is significant. You can choose your bread, cheese, toppings, salads and dressings and even if you wish your sandwich to be toasted or not. This level of choice was a relatively new thing when it first arrived in the UK and signifies the effect of the long tail of sandwiches.

America has become comfortable with this degree of customisation. So comfortable in fact, that they continually strive to move beyond it.
It is rare for a customer to simply order a coffee or a basic menu item from Subway or Starbucks. Indeed, I sat working in Starbucks for an entire morning and was amazed at the detailed orders taken by staff who must have been relieved at my request for a large latté.

As a result the American public has become used to personalisation and expects to have the ability to customise anything and everything they want
. In effect, the cash cow is no more.

Transfer this effect to the online experience and it is easy to see how American sites are continually focused on personalisation whereas UK sites behind, offering a more functional, practical experience to allow users to complete routine tasks.

Anderson's book is certainly one of the defining books of the current internet generation (his latest effort has been less well received).
However, the origins of the author need to be remembered. Most of the examples cited refer to the American market. Although many of the same principles apply, the severity of the long tail effect is dramatically different depending on geographical location.

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