Online Reality-So many choices and not enough time

Technology can provide all the abundance we can imagine. Yet, ultimately, we only have so much time – a relative blink of the eye – to enjoy it. In the 22nd century, businesses that understand this, that help their customers manage this most finite and precious resource, will flourish. Expect to see new types of companies playing new roles in our lives because of the growing value we will place on our time.

Today the feeling of time deprivation is epidemic, but here is a paradox: in reality this feeling is illusory. Not only is your life expectancy greater, but it takes much less time to provide the basics. You don’t grow your own food, and with services such as Webvan, many of us do not even visit the grocer anymore. You buy clothes over the Internet in minutes.

So why this sense of deprivation? It stems from the endlessly expanding sea of choices: You’re within driving distance of three or more gigaplexes, each with 16 or 24 movie screens. How many reviews do you have time to read? Want to discuss cars? Once there were the Big Three. How many brands can you name today? How long does it take to visit all the Websites devoted to car buying?

Urgency in a workplace, on the other hand, is a reality. The same technology that creates so much abundance in our personal lives also causes a dramatically accelerated velocity of business. Velocity is defined as distance over time. This is directly analogous to what has happened to businesses: Companies must cover more ground in less time. The time to respond to competitive incursions on your turf has virtually disappeared. If there’s a niche, a gap in your product or service line, a new or more highly evolved need, someone will rush in to fill it, and they’ll do it today. This is the era of cheaper, better, faster – squared.

So what are the implications for business when time is finite and choices unlimited?

Time is becoming a critical variable in differentiating value. Given a dozen products, all of which meet their needs, customers will choose the one with the lowest time cost. Specific choices within the set of all possible matches will begin to matter less; the time cost of these choices will begin to matter more.

Consequently, a familiar but significantly evolved role for business will emerge. One hundred years ago, people relied on the local shopkeeper to stock what they needed. Ten brands of toothpaste? Forget it – use this baking soda, which is also great for upset stomachs. The shopkeeper was the gatekeeper, and shopping with him was simple.

Today, we have become our own gatekeepers, but we are becoming overwhelmed. Can anyone of us really possess the expertise – let alone the time – to capably develop a financial plan, select an insurance policy, select and set up a PC, serve balanced meals, or buy the right stereo equipment to link with our home theaters?

Thus the new competitive edge for businesses is helping customers manage their time. Consumers will come to regard a handful of companies as their gatekeepers. These gatekeepers will know their customers’ values, preferences, interests, and goals – and use the knowledge to increase their “share of customer.”

We will select companies to routinely execute the mundane, and, when a decision is needed, they will streamline our choices to the most appropriate two or three. They will be trusted to optimize our lives and our time.

Today Charles Schwab handles our securities trading, but tomorrow it will also manage our estate- and tax-planning, bill paying, and other financial transactions, quickly and efficiently. Today Webvan delivers our groceries; tomorrow it will also run to Kmart and the dry cleaners – and perhaps take our daughter to gymnastics class. Travelocity? It will organize our weekends and vacations, and, because it knows us probably better than we know ourselves, we will be pleased with the short list of options it presents.

Bottom line: Your customers are going to have a mind-boggling array of perceived needs and available options. If you can’t provide what they want precisely when they want it, simplify their lives, and save them timeÂ…well, we hope you enjoyed the last century. Because you won’t survive this one.