As many of us in the design, home, and ecommerce space know, last week the oft-heralded and much-missed Domino Magazine released their new print and online venture. In an effort to modernize the model and capitalize on the strength of the brand, the new Domino is looking to ecommerce as a primary revenue stream, attempting to integrate shopping and content into a seamless user experience. Before the launch, I read this article in the New York Times, which left me feeling oddly frustrated about the whole conversation and got me thinking about Domino’s new ecommerce-meets-editorial strategy a bit more critically, from my perspective as a professional merchant.* I’d encourage you to read the article, which does a solid job of explaining the new model. With full disclosure- my commentary here is related only to Domino’s new site at www.domino.com.
My gut, initial reaction was “this is too much, too complicated”. It gave me a headache, and from some of the conversations floating around twitter, it sounds like I was not the only one. Our media is increasingly saturated with commercialism, and as many online magazines are integrating shopping, it only makes sense for Domino to venture into this territory. I think my personal reaction to this is honestly one of exhaustion- do I have the time and energy to follow another site that requires me to invest in exercise of mentally separating “content” from “commercial” as I scroll down the page? (I am self-admittedly pretty quick to hit “unfollow” if something smacks of overt sponsorship).
Domino is a title with an established presence and point of view. To fall back on ecommerce as their primary monetization strategy seems disingenuous to the spirit of their editorial heritage- it dilutes the importance of their content and aesthetic. Reading the original Domino was not about buying, it was about day-dreaming. In the current model they’ve presented- no one wins, especially the core community of Domino enthusiasts. The editorial quality suffers, the shopping experience is compromised, and the attributes that made Domino 1.0 inspirational fall quietly into the background. Without care, things can get very messy when commerce and content mix. If Domino has not carefully curated their own online "home"- how can their readers rely on them to help curate their own homes?
Domino has a great brand, a brand based on pretty pictures, easily digestible content, and accessible aspiration and inspiration. Yes, they were an unfortunate casualty of the recession and the death of print, but this is a different time. Physical print is back, in a much more engaging way than before. And online, social and technical tools are making completely rich, immersive, and community-based experiences possible. A title like Domino, supported by a proven audience and offering a lifestyle perspective missing in the shelter market, could have done something incredibly inventive for re-launch. This version of e-commerce isn’t it. As a website- it is overly complicated and overly-messaged. As a true shopping experience, it is clunky at absolute best. And as a magazine- the dearth of true content, the robust imagery and lifestyle Domino is known for, is disappointing.
From a product and assortment angle, what is missing for me is a strong merchandising voice- a product assortment that resonates with the heart of the Domino experience. What they’ve presented is a selection of over 11,000 products, which generally align with their brand aesthetic and periodically fit into one of their limited features. (For context- a large mega-site like www.wayfair.com has almost 6000 items just in its tabletop category; a smaller store like www.jaysonhome.com presents around 1000 styles).
In a clever financial move, Domino is relying on their vendors to hold inventory ownership (and risk) for the new site, drop-shipping to fulfill customer orders. (This is fairly common in the home industry, but the scale here is of note). The drop-ship inventory model has definite advantages, but also, some serious risks. Without a strong merchandising vision and focus on “the edit”, the model encourages over-assortment.
As an exercise to explain this- if you had a store and you could put 100 products in it, without needing to invest money in buying those products, would you? If you were chasing sales, unsure of your ideal product mix, or working without a strong brand filter, you might assume that more options are better, and put all 100 up in your store. But would those products all look good together when they show up on your website? Would they tell a compelling merchandising story, support the store brand vision, and inspire the shopper to not just buy, but to buy more? Would your pricing strategy make sense, and would your customer understand you’re your store stands for and behind? Likely, no.
This is the point where retailing must become artful, and becomes the distinguishing factor between the commodity brand and the lifestyle brand. A strong merchant voice crafts the product offering, strategically presents the collection, and delivers a cohesive range of product options that inspires their customer to both buy and to emotionally invest themselves in the larger brand community.
To bring this back to Domino- at its core, Domino has developed a lifestyle and look that is incredibly specific and much beloved by their community. With www.domino.com, they’ve delivered a product mix, merchandising strategy, and navigation template that merely sits beside this lifestyle, rather than celebrating it and inspiring it. Some quick math shows that 42% of Domino’s assortment comes from only 10 (of 170+) vendor brands. One brand, has over 1000 of the 11000 styles on the site. The financial benefits of drop-shipping makes this merchandising decision easy- are all of these options really necessary and adding value? Was thought put into the meaning of each product to the greater brand story? Domino is fast to share vendor names, and shop-by-brand is one of the few initial filtering options on the site, but do these brand names (many of them wholesale-only), have relevance to their customer community? For an editorial-based concept like Domino, I expected a stronger and more thoughtful mix of vendors and merchandise, an assortment held together by a clear lifestyle point of view. Their readers aspire to seek out the beautiful and unexpected, to live in the carefully curated pages they see in front of them. Can one truly “curate” their home when all of the products are really from a few select sources?
There are some nice product highlights here that show Domino taking some small steps into supporting smaller artisans and providing their customers with “the thrill of the hunt”, although they are lost in context within the assortment. I was pleased to see a small number of pieces from Doug Johnston, Commune, Coral & Tusk, Hable Construction, and Wendy Polish, among others; I do think there is opportunity for Domino to strengthen the editorial component supporting these products. As someone who is extremely familiar with the beauty of Doug Johnston’s work (I am a huge proponent of his art, and was fortunate enough to work with him very early on at terrain), I would have loved to see richer imagery and copywriting supporting his products- a mini-editorial moment to integrate the shopping experience back into the magazine content more naturally.
Are we past the point where a great magazine can simply be a great magazine, and a great shopping experience can simply be a great shopping experience? Likely, yes. Domino’s foray into this, while leaving much to be desired, will push retailers and journalists alike to reinvent their approach to ecommerce.
Someday, we will be reveling at how the magic of shopping has been reinvented online, but for now, we are in a period of growing pains. We aren’t there yet. The pressing need now is for merchants, editors, technologists, and digital artists to truly collaborate across disciplines, creating immersive experiences that are simple, beautiful, and add value to the consumer experience.
And for those of you taking the time to read and engage with this conversation, I’d love to hear your voice – please do share! Are brand/business values more important in the long term than short- term commercial gain? Can these co-exist profitably? If so, how? Something I hope to explore more here in a later post.
**For further reading about Domino 3.0, check out these links. I particularly enjoy the conversation Grace has created with her community on Design*Sponge.
*Some background on me- I am a professional buyer and merchant, and recently relocated to the west coast with my family, where I offer buying, product strategy, and lifestyle merchandising services. Be on the lookout for more retail analysis posts here, or join me over on twitter, instagram, or pinterest.
[image credit domino]