For more than a year, I’ve used my Fitbit device to track my exercising. Recently, I learned one of those exercises would be in futility.
This turned out to be the case when the folks at Fitbit invited me, via email, to preorder a Fitbit Charge HR, its latest model. But what started as a piece of positive brand communication turned into a case of blurred distribution lines, and it revealed some fuzzy thinking: When it comes to choosing the best customer to serve, who holds sway, the end user or the retail vendor?
In short, I preordered the Fitbit, but the order never arrived. It took a call to Fitbit to learn that the product was no longer available to me because Fitbit needed to ensure it was available to its retail partners.
Which led me to wonder, “Wait, which customer is king?”
This was a difficult position for me. I have grown quite accustomed to my Fitbit over the past year. In addition to monitoring and encouraging my daily activity (try getting 10,000 steps in on a plane), it has caused me to rethink the role that metrics can play in customer engagement. Are there measures in our relationships with customers that, if shared, could elicit a change in their behaviors?
Now the maker of the tracking device was eliciting a change in my behavior, not to speak of my emotional engagement.
To illustrate the case of Fitbit, let’s step through my purchase experience:
Jan. 6: Fitbit sent me an email newsletter announcing the launch of Charge HR, with a link to preorder. I did, and received an email confirming the order that same day.
Feb. 27: I received a notice that my shipment was delayed. To its benefit, Fitbit, feeling “pretty crummy about all this,” applied a 20% discount to my $149.99 order. Not bad!
Late March: After seeing the Fitbit available at retail, but not having received my preordered device, I contacted Fitbit via email to learn of the order’s status. The company responded that it did not have an available device to send me because it needed to ensure that its retail distributors were stocked. I was advised to cancel the order with Fitbit and then re-order it on Amazon.
March 30: I canceled my order and re-ordered on Amazon. However, because I canceled the order, the 20% discount did not apply. In fact, it cost more.
The experience, while exasperating, became a personal learning moment. At a time when merchants are trying to be wherever the consumer is, seamlessly, is it still possible to manage inventory to meet have-it-now demand? If product makers such as Fitbit, North Face or Nespresso are obligated to supply retail partners from Amazon to Macy’s, can they also commit to directly supporting their best customers?
I think it is possible to blur channels and still serve both kings, though this is a work in progress. Regardless of circumstances, the manufacturer’s distribution capacity is largely dictated by the needs of its retail partners. As retailers expand and crisscross their purchase and order-fulfillment options to meet a need-it-by-noon marketplace, these suppliers are required to be even more fleet of foot. When they add the personal goal of selling directly to consumers, they’ll likely find it as difficult to deliver as the Fitbit I ordered.
Perhaps the answer, for now, is not to be omnipresent, but to be omni-prescient when it comes to meeting consumer needs. Let’s not forget why manufacturers offer direct-to-consumer options to start with – to nurture lasting customer relationships. Fitbit already has a database of customers who have opted in to receive its newsletters; it could begin there.
A bit of data analysis would help it identify those Fitbit owners who use their devices regularly and are likely to be early adopters of the new version. Deeper analysis into how that pool of customers purchased their previous Fitbits can help to separate those more likely to order direct from the manufacturer from those who ordered from a merchant such as Amazon.
Lastly, there’s no shame in limiting availability, as long as the brand is clear about it. If my original email from Fitbit stated “Be among the first 250 to order and get your Fitbit before it hits the market,” I’d at least have realized it might never come. Unfortunately, that is not how the company managed its marketing.
The lesson for direct-to-consumer merchants is as straightforward, and beneficial, as taking 10,000 steps: If you want to be part of the retail community, then operate by basic retail rules. Be in stock. Deliver on what you advertise. Make the parting moment memorable.
Retail is a heady, hairy business largely because of the fuzzy feelings consumers demand from their experiences. When product makers add on retail as if it were a product upgrade or innovation, they risk blurring the lines of customer commitment. Only after a non-retailer has determined its goal for selling direct to the consumer can it begin to effectively exercise the means through which it can deliver an omni-prescient experience.
That goal, in most cases, should be to nurture customer relationships in as few steps as possible. I went ahead and ordered the Charge HR, because I can appreciate the challenge Fitbit has taken on, and because I really like the device. But next time, I may go straight to Amazon first.
img: Raúl González
This guest post came courtesy of Bryan Pearson. Bryan is the author of The Loyalty Leap For B2B and is president and CEO of the LoyaltyOne consultancy firm.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, where Bryan serves as a retail contributor. You can view the original story here.