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Curation, retail style

Do you need any further convincing that serving as the curator of knowledge for an industry is a valid and vital role for an association?

Would it help to know that one of the most successful retailers in the United States plays that role for its customers?

CNBC profiled bulk retailer Costco in a documentary that aired last night. If you missed it, check out this segment from NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams (or read the transcript):

The point that caught my attention:

"Despite the idea that customers like more, Costco stocks surprisingly few items, only around 4,000. The lack of selection is deliberate. 'There's only one variety of ketchup,' [marketing consultant Pam] Danziger explains. 'You don't have to choose from a variety. They've edited it down for you. You've paid them to do it.'"

A big-box store that hasn't been performing so well lately is Best Buy. Slate tech writer Farhad Manjoo suggests that Best Buy's overwhelming selection is dragging it down, and he suggests an opposite approach to save the company:

"If Best Buy wants to survive, it's got to replace its hulking, teeming stores with smaller, less crowded, more intimate spaces. When you walk in to buy a 32-inch TV, the guy in the blue shirt shouldn't make you choose between a dozen nearly identical models. Instead, he should show you a single set, a TV that Best Buy's experts have determined offers the best features at the best price. The firm could do the same across its inventory, culling the tech universe down to a few essential, can't-beat products. In this way, Best Buy would transform itself from a supermarket into a boutique—a place with fewer things for sale and lots of friendly, sophisticated, helpful experts who'll save you the hassle of researching your next TV or PC purchase. They'll do all the work for you."

There it is again: curation. Note the similar language: "They've edited it down for you," and "They'll do all the work for you." Capturing, analyzing, evaluating, and organizing the overwhelming volume of choices in the world and presenting it to customers in a useful, manageable way. Making sense of the madness. Finding order from chaos. However you want to put it—in any context, both physical and online, both object and information—consumers derive value from and prove loyal to great curators.

I've written about curation before, and so have many others. I'll leave it here for a Friday afternoon, but I think I'll be revisiting this again soon, so stay tuned.

[Also, on a separate but still association-related note: Costco has 64 million members. At the end of the segment above, reporter Carl Quintanilla notes that "most of their profit is from the [membership] fees themselves" and that 90 percent of Costco members renew every year. Chalk one up for the membership model.]



Interesting vantage point on the concept of curation. I can honestly say that I've never thought about this from a retail perspective. Nor have I given consideration to how product curation contributes to Costco's success and the lack of it is hurting Best Buy. In this challenge there is opportunity.

Thanks Jay. I hadn't given much thought to product curation before seeing/reading these items, either. It shows how broadly applicable the concept can be, though. But it does make sense that it's applicable in a physical context, given that "curation" comes from the idea of a museum curator. I think the bottom line is that people want and need help making sense of the world, in any context. Associations have always done that, but they used to do it by finding and collecting information that was too hard to find. Now they can do it by collecting and organizing information that is too abundant. When people talk about associations doing curation, they talk mostly about information, particularly online, which I agree is the primary opportunity. But the lessons from these retail entities applying a curator's mindset to physical products could also apply in certain contexts for associations, such as tradeshows (would smaller be better than bigger?) or endorsed products.

But what if the curation yields an unacceptable result? What if the one TV offered by Best Buy is not the best and customers go somewhere else for a different brand?

If associations only offer one choice of service or product and potential members don't want it, they'll go somewhere else, too. (That may already be happening).

I'm insulted by grocers like Jewel Food Stores that claim to be saving me from having to make choices. I want more choices and I don't want to be forced to accept choices somebody else made for me.

Thanks David. These are important points. Regarding the first, I think the answer is a matter of market research and quality control. If you're putting forth a selection that you deem to be "best," but your customers or members mostly disagree, then you're just not doing a very good job. Curation should involve constant evaluation and re-evaluation of all options, based on both objective criteria and market response. Selecting one product or source of information as best one day shouldn't guarantee it that position the next.

As for whether fewer choices or more choices is better, I think that varies from person to person and from situation to situation. There may be certain products or services for which more members prefer having access to all possible options and others for which more members want a trusted evaluator to winnow the selection down. For any given context, there will probably always be a split between the two preferences; the association's job would be to identify the areas where the demand leans heavily toward curation and serve that function there.

Not to get too deep into semantics, but I think there is a philosophical difference between editing and curating. As the marketing consultant quoted in your post said, "You don't have to choose from a variety. They've edited it down for you. You've paid them to do it."

That fits nicely with Barry Schwartz and his thinking about the paradox of choice (despite outliers like David who may not appreciate being given fewer choices). The retailer edits the options to what they consider to be an appropriate number of choices.

That type of editing (in my mind) is focusing heavily on the quantity of the choices. When I think of curating, I think sorting through a large quantity of options and selecting a limited number of choices that meet a certain quality/thematic standard. Curating seems more robust to me and reflects more than just a reduction in the number of choices. By editing down the choices, curators offer us more rpbust meaning/value, but in fewer choices.

Again, maybe I'm all wet on this, but the words hold different connotations in my mind. Target's new initiative (The Shops at Target) this month seems much more like curation than what Costco does: http://www.target.com/c/The-Shops-at-Target/-/N-56f52

Thanks Jeffrey. I hadn't read about The Shops at Target project yet, and it's a very interesting approach. What a great example. They even use the word "curated" in the tagline! If nothing else, I guess that's a signal of the traction the concept seems to be getting.

I agree with your point about the difference between curation and simply editing, and the Target project definitely goes a step beyond what Costco is doing. Costco's main selling point is buying in bulk, which effectively requires it to edit down its selection. It's already a big store; offering multiple choices of items that come in packs of 50 would be physically prohibitive. Overall, that simpler selection reinforces the ease of the Costco shopping experience, but you're right that there isn't much of a theme beyond "here is a selection of things that you can buy a lot of at once."

The value in curating around a theme is a great point, especially for associations, which often deal in fields with multiple subspecialties. Offering a "best of" collection of content or resources in a specialized topic definitely takes the value to a higher level.

Limiting choices is an economic decision. It benefits the assocaition, not the member or customer.

If you determine, through your curation, that you can deliver a beetter product or more robust services by limiting choices, that may be a good decision for the association, and it may be the result of good curation.

If the members or customers who want more choices can't get what they want from your association, they may go elsewhere, and you may be OK with that. You may feel that your association just can't be everything to everybody.

But the concept of limiting choices is not good for individuals. If a grocer no longer stocks your favorite foods, or a clothing store no longer sells the styles you prefer, or an association stops providing services that you value, how is that limitation of choices good for you?

Interesting post! I have to agree with David on this one, though. (Although he might not agree with me on this followup point) - I think it's dangerous for an association to limit choice, because that's still a "top down" or centralized way of thinking about what we (the org) can do for you (the member). I think associations need to figure out instead how to customize choices for their members, where there is no longer such a thing as one size fits all - while still being mindful of resources, obviously.

I think Best Buy's problems are far more complex than this, related to how people now rely on reviews and online product information before they buy things like TV's and appliances - and if they are already online, already looking at a product, then why would they buy in store? Best Buy needs to rethink what the in-store shopping experience is all about before they go the way of Borders...

Thanks David and Maddie. Following up on Jeffrey's comment, your points are helping me see where the difference is between what "limiting choices" and "curation."

I agree that limiting choices, at face value, is problematic, particularly if it is done with no purposeful set of criteria or if it is done with the the association's benefit in mind. And, as Jeffrey said, simply editing a selection down to a few choices doesn't add much value.

But I think limiting choice does become valuable when it is done with the audience's benefit in mind: items chosen by quality, with criteria that align to the audience's needs, and sorted and organized in a way that helps the audience better decide what to consume. In short, separating the wheat from the chaff. I think that's the tipping point between simply limiting choice and valuable curation.

It occurs to me now, too, that curation doesn't always have involve limiting choice (and that might be where I steered wrong in this post by equating the two). If the universe of choices is manageable, a good curator could add value for an audience by analyzing, evaluating, sorting, and organizing those choices in a way that helps the user better navigate them. Maybe only a "best of" is presented up front, but the user could dig as deep as he/she wants into choices beyond those. So it might not always have to involve cutting off other choices. Maybe, as Maddie says, curation could simply equate to helping members better find what they need.

In the digital information context, though, the universe of selection is essentially equivalent to "whatever you can find on the internet." And while some people will be happy to sort through all of that on their own, I think the phenomenon of digital overload is common enough that helping members deal with it is a role associations could serve through curation. "How" is certainly a big question, but I think the value is there. (Conveniently, someone much smarter than I, Steve Rosenbaum, who spoke at Digital Now two weeks ago and who wrote Curation Nation just wrote about this at the Huffington Post: "Will Associations Become Filters for Digital Overload?")

But your point is well taken that limiting choice could be a dangerous downside to curation if it's not done purposefully and with the audience benefit in mind. And I definitely agree that the retail context is more complicated. Manjoo's take on how Best Buy might improve is interesting, but it's hard to say if that alone would save it.

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