Retail’s new cobbling economy

Jul 30, 2018

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Spieckerman Retail blog.

In my travels, I’ve come to realize that the generally positive spin put on Uber drivers and other workers within the so-called “gig economy” makes sense in some situations. In many others, it doesn’t describe the realities that people and retail companies are facing.

The entrepreneurial concept of gigging obscures the fact that a growing number of people and companies are cobbling together multiple opportunities just to pay the bills. The difference between gigging and cobbling isn’t just semantic and knowing their distinctions can be eye-opening. Gigging is proactive and opportunistic, whereas cobbling is reactionary and born out of necessity.

In Florida, for instance, I met a construction worker who began driving for Uber and Lyft on what he thought would be a temporary basis when his work dried up. Today, he supplements driving with handyman jobs, makes considerably less than before and lives with two roommates. He isn’t adding gigs to his repertoire — he’s cobbling multiple jobs together to keep his head above water.

Paradoxically, the proliferation of disruptive digital-based platforms is both creating the opportunity to pursue gigs and necessitating that some keep piling up jobs to make ends meet. This dynamic is alive and well in retail.

Initially, many retailers saw digital channels purely as an upside — an opportunity to add gigs in the form of online partnerships to their existing business base. However, their base shrunk faster than they thought and an urgency to diversify across multiple online platforms just to keep up has arrived for many. As Amazon and other digital commerce platforms wick sales away from traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, more retail suppliers are also finding themselves in cobbling mode, pursuing multiple digital platform partnerships and niche opportunities to replace business that once flowed in with fewer accounts.

The complexity of this more fragmented model is easy to underestimate, just as the volume potential is often blown out of proportion.

In the end, confusing gigging with cobbling can lead to enumerable problems including unrealistic or inaccurate sales projections, cannibalization of existing businesses and eventually low corporate morale as expectations are dashed and nerves frazzled.

There’s no shame in cobbling. In fact, it will be an everyday reality for most companies operating in retail. The trick is to determine which businesses are diminishing, shifting or ripe for replacement and to realistically assess what and how many opportunities will take their place. Once the foundation is set, selectively pursuing gigs can crank up the growth.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are retailers confusing gigging with cobbling in their pursuit of partnerships with digital platforms? What advice would you have for retailers around evaluating and proceeding with digital partnerships?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"So it’s not the retailers that are cobbling. It’s the workers themselves, cobbling out a life."
"Gigging is a way for those who argue that the economy is not leaving behind folks that want to work hard to explain away underemployment."
"Many of the theoretical “gigging” approaches leave behind incredible debt because the retailer attempted to fly with borrowed wings."

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16 Comments on "Retail’s new cobbling economy"

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Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Rapid application development made moving into digital a fairly painless and smooth process. It still has its place, but cobbling digital functionality together can easily cause more harm than good. Retail businesses should account for resources spent and committed to find the absolute truth. To see trends and forecasts are the natural bonus. Retailers should start with an expandable platform and then focus on retail, not on continuous cobbling and patching.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

“There is no shame in cobbling.” Most smaller retailers will need to cobble to survive. Even Amazon is “cobbling” together a variety of different third parties in order to solve its massive need for distribution. In today’s retail world, every retailer needs to be able to reach customers where they choose to shop, and how they want to take deliver. Cobbling is a requirement to remain competitive and relevant. The key is “strategic collaboration” of combining resources that compliment and build greater value. The whole must be greater than the sum of the parts.

Paula Rosenblum
I agree with Carol. She is exactly articulating what’s really happening here. For months, I have been an “odd man out” because I did not accept that retail is becoming part of the “gig” economy. Store associates have almost always been “gigging.” Excluding things like IKEA furniture assembly, retailers expect a lot of turnover and part timers … it’s actually built into the in-store profitability model given its emphasis of minimum or base pay employees and minimal fringe benefits. I think we’ve gone from “single wage earner, stay at home wife” to “cobblers sharing child rearing duties while they work multiple jobs” in about three decades. So it’s not the retailers that are cobbling. It’s the workers themselves, cobbling out a life. My advice for retailers remains what it has been. In-store employees are important. Finding, hiring, training and retaining in-store talent is the NEW way to think about things, not “Oh, what we’ve done is fine, because it’s called gigging now.” Call it what you will — shoppers expect a good shopping experience. Employees… Read more »
Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Well said.

Charles Dimov

Thinking of cobbling in retail as using a diverse set of channels (perhaps Ebay, Etsy, Walmart, Amazon … ) then yes, retailers need to be careful with their partnerships. As highlighted — you have the cannibalization factor. It may give you broader exposure, but don’t double count against the customers you already bring in. Another important challenge is staying faithful to your brand. Choose digital partnerships carefully. For example, you wouldn’t want to be a leather goods retailer working with a new marketplace which advertises against leather and fur goods while trying to sell your products (right or wrong).

Anne Howe

I agree that this is truly happening to consumers, and it’s a scary place to be. For retailers, the biggest obstacle (and the greatest need) will be the skill to discern the multiple small but important opportunities they will have to evaluate and quickly act on to stay relevant to shoppers and be profitable for investors.

Brandon Rael

We are absolutely seeing an increase in the amount of digital and physical retail partnerships. However, for this to truly be successful the partnership needs to revolve around a complementary offering that works for both brands. It truly has to make sense and provide a value to the customer, especially when the customer isn’t even that aware of it.

Spotify’s partnerships with physical retailers including Starbucks, J.Crew, and others are a perfect example of a partnership that is paying dividends for both the physical and digital brands. Starbucks and J.Crew are able to extend their brand experience well beyond the product to the world of music, entertainment and lifestyle. Meanwhile, Spotify has another channel to extend their reach, beyond the digital channels, and acquire new customers.

We should expect to see some trial and error in this arena, yet once a digital/physical partnership hits, it’s like liquid gold for both brands.

Phil Chang

Well written, Carol. Gigging and cobbling are different ends of the same means. There’s no shame in cobbling, quite the opposite actually, it’s a creative (if sometimes desperate) way to make ends meet. Where gigging and cobbling are different is gigging has vision, and involves upside. Cobbling is maintenance and holding one’s head above water. Cobbling comes before gigging (in my opinion).

I think if a retailer has vision, and a “head cobbler” then they’re headed in the right direction.

Dick Seesel

Part-time retail workers have been “cobbling” for as long as I can remember, for a variety of reasons. It may be to supplement the household income, or to work part-time through college, or for the employee discount. Everybody knows somebody (in my case, a friend in a doctor’s office) who works 30 hours at a “full-time” job and another 20 hours at the local department store.

But Carol pinpoints something important by describing this as “cobbling.” It’s becoming an economic necessity for many, not just a matter of earning some discretionary income.

Ralph Jacobson

Since the retail landscape is still rapidly evolving across online and offline markets, I would continue to execute a strategy that makes a big splash where your specific, target audience is not just currently shopping, but also hanging out, both online and in the physical world. There will be portions of both gigging and cobbling required at this point.

Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal
General Manager, Promo Intel & Insights, Numerator
4 years 6 months ago
This article makes my heart and head hurt for retailers. Everything Carol describes is true and accurate and — no fun, for sure. It makes me think of advice I once received from a mentor, he said “when you feel pressure to hurry up, that’s usually when you need to slow down.” In this case, that is absolutely correct. Any entity with limited resources (and that is, by the way, nearly all entities) has to be very intentional about how those resources are deployed. The “intention” part takes time and thought, looking at the situation and ourselves as objectively as possible. If retailing is, at its essence, about making the right products conveniently accessible and affordable for customers — how can a broad and open-minded view of technology help them do that better than they could before? Of the possibilities, which one or ones are most likely to yield the best benefit for that retailer — given their customers, given their competition, given their resources? Think out the work involved with your answer, then put… Read more »
Mike Osorio

Cobbling is a necessity for most retailers as the ground has completely shifted under their feet and they must cobble together partnerships and other collaborations to operate in the new reality while they seek longer-term holistic solutions. The gigging idea as applied to staff is shortsighted and ignores the necessity of a committed, knowledgeable and energized workforce to interact with today’s consumer.

Doug Garnett

Great read by Carol and she is absolutely right — that too often retailers are claiming to be gigging when they’re cobbling.

One help in seeing the difference is a concept from software development: technical debt. Many developers will “cobble” together solutions from outside in order to quickly hit the market. Yet this approach always leaves behind a “technical debt” — debt which must be paid at a future time. Apple is, today, struggling with this debt in their mapping application.

So too, retailers need be wary of project debt. Many of the theoretical “gigging” approaches leave behind incredible debt because the retailer attempted to fly with borrowed wings. Most retailers would be better off to undertake fewer relationships and spend more building those where they commit. That’s the only way to avoid the cobbling economy’s project debt coming due in a very bad way.

Ryan Mathews

Carol is right on the money here. Gigging is a way for those who argue that the economy is not leaving behind folks that want to work hard to explain away underemployment. If you are on the flip side of that coin cobbling isn’t entrepreneurial, it’s just surviving. But what works — perhaps only short term for individuals — isn’t a long-term strategy for companies. Treading water isn’t a strategy for winning a swim meet.

Scott Norris

It’s not all that good of a long-term strategy for individuals, either! And to extend the metaphor, a crew treading water means the company’s ship has sunk and the lifeboats didn’t work (or were never installed).

James Tenser

Outstanding insight, Carol. I’m convinced we need to add “cobbling” as a key verb in our retail vocabulary. It is relevant for workers who struggle to assemble a living wage from a combination of wage and gig jobs. It’s also relevant for shoppers who cobble together their household pantry strategies by patronizing a portfolio of physical and online stores.

And I believe cobbling applies to retailers who feel hard-pressed to provide a comprehensive array of service experiences for shoppers. Think of the grocery chain who offers a loyalty app, click & carry, third party delivery, meal kits and an in-store grocerant to meet the diverse desires of this shoppers. The complexity of all this is through the roof, but from a sales growth perspective it’s the price of treading water.

Speaking as one who for years has cobbled together a living from a mix of consulting, writing and research services, I’m glad to adopt and promulgate this new term.

"So it’s not the retailers that are cobbling. It’s the workers themselves, cobbling out a life."
"Gigging is a way for those who argue that the economy is not leaving behind folks that want to work hard to explain away underemployment."
"Many of the theoretical “gigging” approaches leave behind incredible debt because the retailer attempted to fly with borrowed wings."

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