Editor's view: How to sell a MacGuffin

  • Opinion
  • October 4, 2018
  • Sarah Dunn
Editor's view: How to sell a MacGuffin

A product doesn't need to be anything special to mean a lot to somebody, observes NZ Retail and The Register editor and associate publisher Sarah Dunn. 

It was a girl I met at a gig that first got me thinking about the sale and supply of MacGuffins.

In pop culture criticism, a MacGuffin is an item that doesn’t do anything important, but is used to drive a plot. It’s usually valuable but the nature of it is essentially interchangeable and irrelevant to the plot – a classic example is the diamond necklace, Le Cœur de la Mer, in Titanic. The Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski is another one.

The One Ring in Lord of the Rings is the object of widespread pursuit in a similar way to a MacGuffin, but it doesn’t strictly qualify. This is because it’s more than a hollow trophy – it confers magical powers upon its wearer and actively influences the behaviour of those around it.

While retailers are still in the business of selling desirable items, there’s no longer an expectation that all products on offer will be anywhere near as useful as the One Ring.

The girl at the gig was introduced to me by a mutual friend as an aspiring independent retailer. Just out of her teens, she was excited to tell me all about the small ecommerce business she’d conceptualised – there was a name, a logo, a series of social media accounts and a marketing strategy. This all sounded fabulous but, I asked, what’s the product?

The product? Oh, she’d figure that out closer to the launch. Probably a handbag or something. Would she design it herself? God, no, but whatever it ended up being, she would only stock the pink colourway. Her brand was all about pink.

This girl is part of a wave of hyper-conceptual micro-retail businesses which de-prioritise the traditional focus on product and price in favour of an exceptionally strong emphasis on branding.

In an environment where the barrier to setting up an ecommerce store or simply selling directly through a social media account is almost non-existent, it’s easy for budding retailers to test out their wildest ideas online in a fleeting, disposable ecommerce experiment.

The goods that this kind of retailer sells usually aren’t intended to fill any kind of practical need, but are carefully selected all the same. You might describe them as artefacts of a particular perspective on life. Suitable stock might be five suitcases of second-hand sportswear bought in the US while traveling; a limited run of wooden bowls handmade by the retailer or a friend; or a shipment of trendy sunglasses sourced from Alibaba doomed to be out of fashion by the end of spring.

For those who buy these items out of a desire to connect with the retailer, support their vision or be part of a cultural movement, all of the above can be MacGuffins.

These retailers aren’t limited by the need to pay rent on expensive leases, be physically present in a store to serve customers, source products at scale or really, commercialise their business in any but the most basic way. They’re in retail to make a statement and share an experience.

Although these businesses have more in common with a performance art project than The Warehouse, that doesn’t mean mainstream retailers can’t learn a lot from their laser-focused approach to branding.

Are you selling Les Cœurs de la Mer or One Rings? And either way, are you creating value?

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 757 August / September 2018

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