Make Law Better by Looking Outside Law—Retail and Travel Edition

January 14, 2020

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

With the holiday season just behind us, one thing we all did recently was buy things—often lots of things—and many of us took a year-end trip as well. So it seemed only natural to start my 2020 Resolution for the Legal Profession series by focusing on what we can learn from the retail and travel industries.

Like the Uber/taxi analogy I have explored previously, there obviously are big differences in law compared to retail and travel. But there are overarching trends in those industries we ignore at our peril. Chief among them are the way they are shaping consumer expectations and the important lessons for how we can better connect to clients and deliver our services.

The Retail Evolution

The way we shop, make buying decisions, and pay for goods and services of all kinds has changed radically over the past decade, and is still evolving today. We buy things and do all kinds of routine business online in ways we never would have even imagined in the pre-smartphone era (which is not that long ago!).

Amazon and its progeny have fundamentally reshaped the retail industry, but the physical world is still where we do most of our business. It might surprise you to know that as of the 3rd quarter of 2019, online sales accounted for less than 12% of total retail sales. While that share will tick up a bit when year-end sales are accounted for, the great majority of retail sales are still through brick and mortar stores. Even Amazon is building stores now.

What these statistics suggest is that people are increasingly comfortable making routine purchases online, but still tend to prefer making more important or bigger ticket transactions in person. The ways that brick and mortar stores are succeeding, however, have significantly changed too. Those who are successful today have adapted to the new realities, focusing on the unique value (and in many instances convenience) of in-person interaction and service, while also integrating a strong online presence.

I could probably write a whole book on this topic—and indeed many have—so I am just going to touch briefly on four retail sectors I think are particularly illustrative of the trends we should be paying most attention to in law.

Big Box Stores

The days when we had to go to physical stores to buy merchandise are long gone, and the list of iconic chains no longer in business today is lengthy. But many retailers not only have adapted to the new reality, they are thriving.

No one strategy holds the key. Some are succeeding primarily online with an accompanying store presence (e.g., Warby Parker), some with strong web-based and store operations (e.g., Costco), and others putting their primary focus on stores with an integrated online presence (e.g., Target). In many cases, these retailers now offer “buy online and pick up in store” options.

Nordstrom is taking it a step further, using a multi-channel approach that includes stores that have no products in them—they are built completely on Nordstrom’s reputation for great customer service. These “stores” serve as hubs where customers can pick up online orders, get alterations, or get advice on style, and they are tailored to their local community.

One commonality of retailers succeeding in the new era is the recognition that people can and do easily research products and compare options and prices online even if their plan is to buy in person.

Bookstores

Amazon’s original focus on selling print books—and then e-books as well—set off a massive shake-up in the bookselling business. Yet years later, indie bookstores are making a big comeback, and many are thriving.

The reason is that many avid readers like to see, hold, and talk about books with knowledgeable people in their community and put great value on the atmosphere of a good bookstore. (Count me among them—I’m looking forward to visiting one of the crown jewels of the bookstore world, Powell’s, when I am in Portland for a conference this week). And it is not just the independents—the new owner of Barnes and Noble is putting the focus on their physical bookstores with customized local flavor, and he has a track record of making it work.

Groceries

The growth of online grocery options has accelerated the past few years, with just about all of the major grocery chains now offering their customers the convenience of online purchase and delivery options. Yet Aldi, which eschews that strategy of selling online, is the hottest thing going in the grocery business today.

Aldi is succeeding by focusing on what they do best—selling groceries in their stores at competitive prices—and letting others compete for the still relatively small portion of the market choosing online delivery. Even though Aldi is not going the online sales route, they still have a user-friendly website where customers can find information on their products and the latest sales.

Food and Beverage

Other than the venerable pizza delivery chains, it was not long ago that options for eating out were sitting down in restaurants or going in person to pick up a carry-out order. Now just about any place that offers carryout options is also available for delivery to your doorstep online or via app. And for those in the restaurant and hospitality business, the default expectation is that people can find out about you online, including what others think about their experience with you.

As is true with stores, the customer experience and ability to interact with other humans is the key distinguishing factor. Starbucks is perhaps the ultimate example—there are cheaper, arguably better, and often more convenient places for someone to get their coffee fix. Yet the company continues to prosper like few others with its “third place” strategy and relentless focus on the customer experience.

Travel Trends

I’m only going to briefly touch on travel, since that too could fill a whole book, but a couple of things stand out in this context.

First and foremost, even in an age when we can easily connect via video with people virtually anywhere in the world and can get an increasingly realistic experience of what it is like to be there through virtual reality applications, more people than ever before are traveling, especially for more significant events in their work and personal lives. The availability of these remote communication options is a boon for more routine interactions or for situations where it is just not possible to be there in person, but we are still human and value in-person experiences..

When we do travel though, whether for an international trip or for a local cab or ride share trip across town, the way we arrange for it has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. Travel agents or taxi dispatchers used to be the only way in. Now we can easily and efficiently do it all ourselves online. The travel agents and concierges who are thriving today are the ones who provide distinct, value-added services to what we can do on our own.

Common Threads

  • Doing business in person not only is alive and well, it is still the dominant way we get things done. But the ways of doing it have changed and need to be integrated with technology-based options.
  • For routine transactions, consumers today expect access to a range of options allowing them to conveniently and efficiently handle some or all of the transaction on their own. For other transactions, they want to be able to go online to research their options and do their own cost-benefit analysis.
  • People still generally prefer in-person interactions for (a) significant purchases and events in their lives, or (b) when they see a real value to being there in person. And they will travel to get there when it is important enough to them, but they expect to be able to size up their options online and make that choice.
  • Indie bookstores, food and drink establishments, and many other retailers are proving that having a local niche where people feel connected to their communities and have positive experiences can still be a very successful model even in the internet age.
  • While consumers expect to be able to engage across both virtual and physical channels, companies like Aldi show success can come from focusing solely on one part of the delivery system and doing it well.
  • Change is happening whether companies like it or not. Those who are thriving today have adapted to the new realities of the market. Those who have not are struggling or gone.

Looking at It Through the Law Lens

Those of us in law can learn a lot from the lessons in retail and travel noted above.

First: The expectations of clients, potential clients, and court patrons are shaped by what they experience in the rest of their lives.

When people routinely go online to book trips spanning multiple countries or buy products from all over the world, the idea that it is still daunting to find a lawyer appropriate for their situation, know what it costs, make a reasonable judgment about the quality and value of the service, and then easily connect sounds ludicrous.

The same goes for having to come to court in person to transact routine court business, yet that is what people generally still must do when trying to address bread and butter legal issues. People can and routinely do easily connect to friends and family across the world via Skype, FaceTime and similar services, yet it is still the rare exception that they can do so for a routine court appearance. It is no wonder that people increasingly are voting with their feet towards more efficient and accessible dispute resolution options.

Second: Everything in our profession and legal system cannot and should not be done online, but the era of one-size-fits-all service offerings is long gone. People want a range of service and dispute resolution options that starts with online information and self-help, and offers limited representation options as well as traditional full representation when it is appropriate.

Clients are smart enough to know that just like with retail purchases and travel, technology-based solutions are not always a reasonable option for more complex or significant issues. But they also expect to have the choice of handling routine transactions or more routine aspects of their cases online or on their own, and that goes for both lawyers and the court system.

Like Aldi and indie bookstores, not every lawyer has to directly offer those online service options to their clients, but at a minimum they should be able to connect clients to those options. And lawyers need to understand and sell the unique value good lawyers provide for their clients.

Third: Great customer service is something that all lawyers and the courts can prioritize to differentiate from technology-based options. Making law firms or the courts a “third place” like Starbucks where people want to go is of course not realistic, but we can do a much better job of making our services welcoming. The concept of mapping the client’s journey is a good place to start.

And Finally: For those in the courts and legal community who are waiting around for proof that new ways of doing business will work before changing our ways, the retail and travel industries offer a great lesson of where that is sure to lead. Change is happening around us whether we like it or not, and we can either adapt now (recognizing there are some risks involved) or face the consequences.