You see a pig sty. I see a new type of shopping behavior…

Just look at that room. Probably the last word you would use to describe it is “organized.” But to the young person who has to sleep in that mess, everything makes sense.

If you pull out every item and put them where they belong at retail (in-store or online) this mess would cross 4-5 different categories at best; probably that many aisles in each of three retailers. But to the teenager – to the consumer – all these items should go in a single aisle, organized under the product category of Me.

When in the professional pursuit of supporting shopping (as a retailer, a brand marketer, a planner, a supply chain specialist or in any other relevant role) and working to fine-tune thinking about retail categories and channels, I encourage you to take the Teenager’s Bedroom Challenge: Cleanse your mind of the “top-down” constructs that retailers and brands have put on shopping, and think about things exclusively from the consumer’s point of view.

Forced Evolution
With mobile making practically anything available, at practically any time, shopping is in a type of forced evolution to make smartphone-wielding consumers feel at home while perusing the aisles. However, the carefully created store maps and beautifully brand-blocked planograms that are hallmarks of brick-and-mortar retail remain. This makes sense given the trillions invested in developing and optimizing the network of standalone stores or a family of product variants that define a category.

And there’s nothing wrong with these investments having been made. Beyond making it easy for the consumer to find items and for the retailer to convert an up-sell or cross-sell, more and more retailers across the globe are considering the virtues of building a better experience with such shopper delights as in-store concierge service, the notion of “retailtainment” becoming a global phenomenon and a greater emphasis on specialty stores. Today retailers will go to extraordinarily thoughtful, humanistic lengths to make shoppers of every type feel at-home.

Discover The Product Category of “Me”
From the earliest days of post-barter commerce, brands and retailers dictated their product categories to the consumer in ways that made sense to the local market and preferences. Any comprehensive overview of the history of retail will describe how creating categories of products helped increase efficiencies for retailers at scale and helped brands define unique value propositions for consumers.

The Teenager’s Bedroom Challenge dimensionalizes how – with smartphones at the start of every path to purchase – the standard notions of what drives shopping decisions are increasingly obsolete. The freedom that attends pervasive internet access through smartphones makes consumer behavior much more capricious. People are different kinds of consumers today than what the traditional brand/retailer engagement model was built to support. This disruption applies to far more than shopping; it impacts how people enjoy entertainment, consume news, deal with personal health issues, buy airline tickets, check into a hotel room, maintain personal relationships, and on and on.

For retailers and brands to find meaningful roles in the lives of today’s consumer, many of the underlying structures of retail need to be reconsidered. People’s buying patterns used to be largely dictated by what was available to them, where it was available and how. Packaging design, the planogram, and store layouts have all been endlessly refined in search of even a small increase of efficiency and effectiveness.

The primary organizational force for today’s shopper is neither the convenience of the retail location nor the size of the retailer’s inventory. It is the combination of personal preference and the immediacy of the need. This is what is meant by the Product Category of Me: consumer individual preference will result in combinations of items purchased that a retailer could not merchandise together, and that a brand would never have intuited on its own. For the consumer, however, it occupies the same comfortable place as any spur-of-the-moment thought.

Thus, while the chaotic logic of the typical teenager’ bedroom is notionally a great example of the Category of Me, this applies equally to considerably better-organized folks than teenagers. Consider the composition of any given online order, delivered at home. The internet’s continued evolution as a user-friendly activity, combined with the powerful capabilities delivered by today’s smartphones, means that any consumer can be free to want “anything” and know that she is able to get it. The question then becomes, how quickly does she need it to arrive and how much is she willing to pay?

We don’t know what’s in those boxes she is opening, and we don’t know why she ordered them all together: Are they part of a logical set, or just random items? It doesn’t matter, really. All we need to know is that there may be a pattern here, and we can apply machine learning to see if we should be merchandising items to her differently or if this was a one-off. And, regardless of the answer to that question, we can cross-sell and up-sell to her accordingly, in a way that may seem odd to us but makes sense to her.

In short, use consumer insights to merchandise items that make sense together in the consumer’s lives.

The Long (re)Tail
Which is exactly what Amazon started doing in the late 1990’s when it noted a pattern that people who were buying the mountain-climbing novel “Into Thin Air” also liked a different, older and out-of-print book called “Touching The Void.” Amazon’s active cross-promotion of these two books propelled the re-printing of the older title and its move to the best-seller list.

Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine, wrote an article – then book – about this phenomenon called “The Long Tail” which was released in 2008 and is still a must-read. In it Anderson wrote about the “countless niches” that comprise the world of e-commerce and how they will, effectively, destroy the tyranny of limitation applied by the hegemony of conventional retail and media.

Today Amazon (and, before it, Walmart, and long before them A&P and Sears, Roebuck & Co.) maximizes its impact to the consumer by offering the widest selection of items that it possibly can. The company’s current slogan pays rent to that notion:

Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.

The key difference will be that the long-tail of what a single retailer can offer may well give way to the long tail of what a consumer’s personal search appliance can find and organize on behalf of the consumer. Indeed, consumers may well continue to delight in being able to “find and discover anything they might want to buy online” and not care if it comes from a single source, or multiple sources, as long as price and delivery requirements can be met. Those days are not here yet, but they cannot be far off.

Everybody Is Different. Well, Most Of Us Are…
Brands and retailers are working diligently to retool their approaches to operate more effectively in a commercial environment that defies the traditional limitations of space and time. Working together and separately, they are integrating e-commerce into their experiences and working to define what exactly “omnichannel” means for them. What further complicates matters is the way mobile provides immediate access for the consumer to what she wants, but separates the brand and the retailer from influencing (if not driving) the buying decision as they once did. While there are many capability providers that deliver access to consumers through their mobile devices, as of yet none of them are as effective at truly driving a buying decision the way limited choice and opportunity used to.

Which brings us back to the consumer and that bedroom. Let them serve as a reminder that, when given the freedom to do so, people behave in strange, new (and often wonderful) ways. Instead of trying to guess correctly, brands and retailers should invest in paying attention to what people are doing, then give them reasons to do those things with you.