Curation Alone is not Enough

In the online world, the glut of content available has created an opportunity for new start-ups to create value through curation. “Curation” has become a very popular word. 9 out of 10 consumer-facing start-ups will include it somewhere in their pitch. In theory, curation picks up where search isn’t adequate — e.g., if you don’t know what to buy or there are many similar items, search can yield more results than it’s possible for the human brain to handle.

Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice, does a good job explaining the perils of choice overload:


“As Americans, we assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress.”
As does this Bing ad:

So the solution would appear to be curation, and hence a litany of start-ups have formed.

Don’t be fooled though, curation is not new to retail. In the brick-and-mortar world it’s called merchandising. Given limited floor space, retailers need to decide what finite set of goods they would like to present to shoppers.

In the online world, novelty has been added to the tried & true practice of curation by creating platforms that enable anyone to be a curator. This has obvious appeal, as it allows a company to scale without bringing on additional staff. However, in a model where anyone can be a curator, I would argue that curation alone is not enough to drive purchases.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an example of a successful retailer in the brick-and-mortar world that relies on merchandising alone to drive sales. Large retailers like JCrew or Abercrombie & Fitch spend millions of dollars on marketing to provide shoppers with context — to make an emotional connection and explain what their brand stands for. The context brands provide can help give you social validation and make you feel more comfortable making a purchase. On the flip side, not “knowing a brand” causes uncertainty, and often is a reason for not making a purchase.

I’d argue that many of the ‘social commerce’ start-ups that are out there today do a good job of entertaining users by stringing together pretty or interesting things, but will have a hard time driving meaningful transaction volume because the curators lack context.

Curation without context is OK for entertaining, but not as effective when it comes to shopping.

While I may appreciate the aesthetic of a curated experience, without understanding who the curator is and why they chose specific items, I am unlikely to buy. Purchasing is a much higher bar for users to cross.

We’re experimenting with context + commerce at @pickieco. Time will tell whether I’m right or not.

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