When Walmart and other large retailers began selling online, their sites were mirrors, only selling the brands and products that had a proven track record (customer trust, sales, etc.) in stores. As it became easier to list items and have marketplace vendors do the same, retail websites became "infinite aisles", selling new sizes and colors of best-selling products, while introducing customers to new brands, products, and vendors. This approach has been particularly beneficial to stores with brick and mortar locations, as they can use their e-commerce storefronts to inform how they stock the shelves in their physical stores. Even more interesting is the information they can gather regarding consumer appetite. Even if a big box store never intends to have an item hit their shelves, they’ll know to have it in stock in certain fulfillment centers in certain parts of the country. We may be getting ahead of ourselves, but this relationship is one of the pillars of what we will refer to as the Omnichannel Experience.
This relationship has widened the funnel of opportunity for entrepreneurs looking to sell their products under the tutelage of larger retail entities. In the halcyon days of retail, a bright-eyed bushy-tailed businessman might get in a room with a buyer from a large retailer, hoping to convince them of their product’s unique features and wide appeal. Soon, there emerged full brokerage firms dedicated to connecting brands to buyers, creating a toll road; you need the buyer connection or the broker fee. Then the dot com boom happened, and a bunch of sociopathic nerds made billions of dollars, and now we can have a drone deliver groceries. Somewhere in the middle of that casserole of nonsense was the e-commerce Wild West, where anyone could sell anything to anyone (porn mostly). Sites like Ebay and Amazon popped up as “civilizations” that served as a more trustworthy alternative to the saloons and rampant fraud of a site like Craigslist. Large retailers took an embarrassingly long while to realize that their physical locations could be an asset in their quest to provide the Omnichannel Experience.
Many vendors are focused on finding assortment gaps, or product categories with limited choice or competition, and inserting themselves as a contender in the space. Others submit to the objectionable mantra that the “pie is big enough to feed a lot of mouths”. That is, some items are so in demand, they can support many competing brands and products without becoming saturated. For either approach, the infinite aisle does not remove the need for a vendor to research the market and conduct some SKU rationalization. Sure, there’s a ton of demand, but is there enough market share and/or does your product have enough variety to be productive and competitive. These are the basics of the ecommerce unit we call Assortment. Below, we will discuss some of these approaches in more detail to help you better understand and capitalize on the infinite aisle.