Retail's New Cobbling Economy

One of the things I love about traveling for my business is that I get to meet and learn from new people. I enjoy hearing peoples’ stories, which often mirror significant retail shifts. 

That's been the case as I've chatted with Uber drivers and other workers within the so-called “gig economy.” I've come to realize that the generally positive spin placed on picking up gigs makes sense in some situations, but 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. 

The sound technician I met at an event in San Francisco where I delivered a keynote last month is a true gig worker. He was in his twenties; he handed me three business cards, each representing additional hustles that he cheerfully attends to throughout the week. Combined with his tech work, these gigs enable him to pull in an income just shy of six figures. 

Contrast his situation with the driver I met in Florida, who used to make a living as a construction worker. As construction work dried up, he began driving for Uber and Lyft on what he thought would be a temporary basis, and today he supplements that work with handyman jobs. He 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. 

Retail Reverberations

Initially, many retail companies saw digital channels purely as an upside – an opportunity to add gigs in the form of online partnerships to their existing business base. However, the base was shrinking faster than they thought. Now, the online platforms that seemed to present the chance to pursue new gigs are actually creating urgency to diversify into those platforms in order to keep up. In some cases, this is creating a wolf-in-the-henhouse situation among retailers as they announce streams of digital partnerships in the U.S. and internationally, even with competitors.

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. 

P.S. Remember to be generous to the cobblers you meet along your way!

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Carol Spieckerman