Friday, December 6, 2013

Why I deleted all my Black Friday/Cyber Monday emails

Okay, I admit:  It’s hard enough to write great subject lines any time of year.  It’s even harder to make good ones last.  Unlike the direct mail headlines of the past, subject lines wear out faster due to overexposure and overuse.  But, when it comes to the 4th quarter, and the biggest promotional period of the year, you might think that a little more thought would go into the poor,  workhorse of copy—the subject line.

When I opened my personal email, what I saw were line after line of promotional emails all with some variation on Black Friday Sales Start Now or Hurry! Don’t miss out on our Cyber Monday Spectacular!  Line after line.  At least, with a pile of catalogs, you can sift through them, putting some in the in-stack and assign others to the out-pile.  But, in the meantime, you would have seen in that brief 30 seconds or so—pictures, multiple headlines, insets, calls to actions, multiple products—something that would be bound to capture your interest, especially if you were a customer.

But with subject lines—all bearing the same message or words, there’s hardly a nudge made to encourage you to open them up. Even the 30% off promises were routine.  Here’s a sampling from Land’s End.  Nov.26:  Doorbusters start tomorrow. Nov. 27:  30% off gifts for everyone.  Nov. 27:  Thanksgiving doorbusters are. . . . Nov. 28:  Hurry!  Doorbusters end tonight.  Nov. 29: It’s called Cyber Tuesday.  November 29: Last Chance for Cyber Tuesday.  (Cute, huh?  They thought they’d be different).

If you get emails from more than one retailer, your email inbox from Wednesday night through Tuesday was jammed up with boring, repetitive one liners.  No one stood out.  Even the beloved store of my youth growing up in the Northwest—Nordstrom—felt compelled to join in the fracas.  Theirs said:  Cyber Monday Savings are here.  Ugh.

So, I deleted them all.  And I didn’t go to the mall to be mauled either.  And I’m not the only one.  Did you notice?


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bezos captures mindshare: Who cares about drones?

The latest marketing coup extraordinaire goes to Jeff Bezos for kicking off the e-tailing holiday season on 60 Minutes by capturing in our minds the enviable position that Amazon is all about fast delivery.  Not FedEx.  Not UPS, which lamely limps in two days later with the announcement that it too has plans for drones.  Who else has ever been able to focus the media on that unsexy, but oh-so necessary workhorse—distribution?  60 Minutes, with a gushing Charlie Rose, spent over 2 minutes analyzing one of Amazon’s 96 worldwide distribution centers, oohing and aahing over pick-pack as if Jeff himself had personally invented fulfillment.

And what better timing—the day before the so-called Cyber-Monday?
Bezos attended the now defunct Annual Catalog Conference, which, in full disclosure was an event launched by my former magazine—Catalog Age (now Multichannel Merchant) and the Direct Marketing Association.  There he may have learned some of the lessons that catalogers and other direct marketers had been driving home for years: 1) The value of a customer, 2) The importance of tracking customer transaction behavior, among other data, and 3) The fact that Shipping & Handling is the major stumbling block in sight unseen transactions (like over the web or from a catalog).
The surest way to overcome S&H is to make it a non-objection.  Free shipping is one way, but, if it is not done well, it breaks the bank.  Amazon has Amazon Prime--$79, but you never have to worry about it for the rest of the year.  And if I don’t like that pink cashmere sweater I bought, returns are easy.  Delayed gratification due to slow delivery.  Now, Amazon is picking away at that problem—same day, within a half an hour?  He’s telling us, it’s all within reach and Amazon is bushwhacking the way.
Ries & Trout called positioning the battle for consumers’ minds.  Kudos Bezos, you now own fast delivery in the mind of the American customer.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Retailers: Wake Up! Customers are flatlining

Melvina Bolston, 48, ventured to a Walmart on Thanksgiving, waited 85 minutes in a checkout line, and was back in the fray on Friday at her sister’s behest, at an open-air shopping center in Norcross, Ga.

“You can pretty much put it in the books: I will never do it again,” Ms. Bolston said. “This is like torturing yourself on purpose.”
So ends the Elizabeth Harris’ holiday sales round up in yesterday’s New York Times, which suggests that the customer—remember her?—might be better served next year on line.

Sure, online shopping will offer her more convenience (more on that tomorrow), but it won’t offer her the most exquisite holiday shopping experience of all—anticipation and gratification.
Anticipation and gratification (or disappointment) are at the heart of shopping. They provide the highs—and the lows.  And it’s not just about the holidays, even though Ralphie’s “official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle” sits center stage as his object of desire.  Dad, too, is caught up in the tantalizing promise of anticipation—what will he win for having solved the newspaper’s puzzles?  And when it arrives in the largest box ever, he’s crazy about it—the infamous, stocking-clad leg lamp—almost as if he’d chosen it himself.
Anticipation is barely sustainable from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but, when Christmas arrives the day after Halloween, who has the energy or the desire to maintain such an emotional high?  In our over-hyped, over-promoted world of constant sale/sale/sale, blockbusters, Super Bowls, all elections all the time, about the only true anticipation we had left was Steve Job’s latest gadget, and, sadly, that is falling flat now too.
Holiday sales may have declined for a lot of reasons—the continued economic lack luster “recovery,” the extended sales period, the constant discounting, the scenes of greed on a massive (and violent) scale.  But mostly, the customer has lost interest.  Retail is suffering from the deadliest malady—it’s boring.  We’re boring our customers.  You can’t appreciate the peaks if you don’t have a few valleys.  Roller coasters are thrilling because they have both ups and downs.  Constant sales and extended sales periods not only erode margins; they also erode the very core of shopping—the thrilling experience of it.  Customers are flatlining.  It’s time to wake up.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

More is not better; neither is less

The 4Q Glut in Books & Movies

Continuing yesterday’s rant about Black Friday, the 4th Quarter itself gets my juices flowing—and not in a good way.  Today I’m speaking about the 4Q Glut of movies and books.  Both publishers and the motion picture industry have thoroughly embraced the retailers’ end-of-the year mentality.

After the Oscars, there is nothing on view at Cinema,X  except the movies that won awards (which you’ve already seen) or the latest teenage blood drool, car crash, futuristic dystopia or violent cartoon offer.  Maybe if you’re really lucky, you can watch a mash-up of them all.

The rest of us search in earnest for something, anything.  Even “On Demand” has nothing much to offer because it is also showing what you’ve already seen or would never be caught dead watching.  And the TV channels showing movies just show the same movies over and over again, with one major exception—TCM—which carries the few movies I haven’t already seen.  And now, it’s beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
Then comes the 4th Quarter—particularly Thanksgiving through Christmas—and all the good movies hit the theater in time to qualify for the Oscars.  I’ve had it.  I don’t want to watch ten movies in 1-2 months.  I want them spread out over the year.  The result is:  I have to make a choice, and, if I don’t make it quick enough, the movie is already gone.  Take last year. “The Artist” hit Plymouth for one week and, then, vanished, only to turn up again after it had already won the best picture Oscar.  I had to view the movie in NYC so that I could see it before the Academy Awards.

This year, all the good movies are again showing up at once.  And I’ve had it.  I have neither the time nor the money nor the inclination to go to all of them.  I will choose the ones I absolutely, positively must see in a movie theater because it is beautifully shot or is in 3-D.  And I love going to the movies.  I love the experience of being in a theater sharing a common experience with everyone else, hearing the groans and the gasps and the awws.
The same is now true for books.  Nothing for months.  Then, it pours.  Now there are at least 15 books I’m interested in reading, both fiction and non-fiction.  And, guess what.  I’ll have to make a choice that is not based necessarily on what I want to read, but what seems the easiest (how the easiest is determined is an article in itself), or what I have time for, or whatever.  So, next April, when I’m looking for something to dive into when it’s still snowing, I’ll probably have forgotten the title of that book I wanted to read last November and will sit there with my remote desperately looking for something to watch that I haven’t already seen.

Enough already.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Too much of a good thing

More is not better; neither is less

I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with The Show Stopper, The Blockbuster Exhibition, The Grand Finale, Black Friday Sales, 4th Quarter Bonanzas, The Super Bowl, or The Blowout of Any Kind.  Call it what you will.

Why does every Broadway tune have to end with a Ta-Da Crescendo?  Without the quiet build, there is no crowning glory, no moment to celebrate.  It’s like a constant climax—unsustainable.   Why is everyone screaming in all caps?
Let’s take a look at Black Friday.  Originally, an insider term, Black Friday as everyone now seems to know, marked the day when most retailers’ sales began to turn a profit or that the company turned to profitability.  Very little was on sale, if anything.  The word sale was banned until after Christmas when Christmas items were discounted, then it ushered in the New Year with the Annual January White Sale.
As more and more retailers sought to increase short-term profits—when the expertise of merchants was traded in for the bean-counting skills of real estate magnates—merchandising as an art, customer cultivation as a duty, and customer service as a social courtesy were no longer priorities.  Sales took the front row while customer development—and loyalty—took a back seat.  Now we have a nation of consumers who look only for discounts.  We have reaped dollars while creating fickle “customers.”  What a huge price we have paid.
True, a few sales events shine through—the Nordstrom’s Twice Yearly Sale comes to mind.  But Nordstrom’s—like Nieman’s and Saks and Bloomies—has never really let its eyes stray far from the customer.  
Which brings us back to Black Friday.  We retailers continue pick at the shell of the golden goose.  Not only have we eaten away profits through unbridled sales; now we’re attacking the sales themselves.  Says Matthew Shay, chief executive of the National Retail Federation, Black Friday is “certainly not dead, but it’s starting to spread out.” (See the New York Times article, "Early Push For Sales Undercuts Black Friday.").
The sales may be spreading to other vehicles, but the impact is getting lost.  It’s all sales all the time.  Are we attracting the customers we really want?  Or do we just want to have a higher ranking on the quarterly sales scoreboard? 

Friday, February 3, 2012

jcp: Kudos for recognizing it’s a company in flux

For weeks we’ve been listening to screaming customers who have missed out on super savings because their circular didn’t arrive on time or they forgot that this weekend their favorite retailer was offering 40% off.  Thankfully, these annoying screams have passed away into advertising purgatory:  jcp, as it’s now called, has finally embarked on its new campaign: Fair and Square Pricing.

Red is for “everyday prices—our regular prices, which are always great”; White is for
“month-long values, even better prices on the things you need now”; Blue is for “best prices, our lowest prices always happen on the 1st and 3rd Fridays of every month while they last.”
The three kinds of pricing are coupled with one “happy” return policy:  “any item, anywhere, it’s that simple.”
Well, I wish the pricing policy were as simple as the return policy.
Full disclosure:  When I was in college, I worked for J.C. Penney, first in appliances, then in notions and sewing supplies, then in domestics.  I think I worked in these departments because I understood math and could figure out installment plans and fractions.  J.C. Penney sold yardage then.  I wore a simple black dress and nylons (required), pulled my very long hair up into a bun, and proudly displayed my name tag that had the simple suggestion:  “Like it, charge it.”
Like the simple tagline, J.C. (C for Cash) Penney had pretty clear positioning then—as clear to me as a grade school kid as it was as a college kid:  good quality at an affordable price.  Plain and simple.
Nothing is as plain and simple anymore, so I applaud jcp in recognizing that retailing is in flux, as evidenced by this full-page ad run in the New York Times on Wednesday, February 1, which I quote in full:
In praise of fresh air

This year, we turn 110.
          We’re fine with growing old.
          We’re not fine with growing stale.

So, to celebrate, we’re going to throw open
the windows and let in some fresh air.

           We’re thinking and reimagining,
           And if we find that we’ve picked up
           Any bad habits over the decades,
           We’re going to leave them far behind.

We’re simply going to treat people
as we’d like to be treated ourselves.

           Fair and square.

We won’t make anyone jump
through hoops to get a good price.
We won’t fill mailboxes with junk.
We’ll have great prices every day and
spectacular prices that last a whole month.

           And it won’t stop there.

We’re dreaming up new ways
to make you love shopping again,
matching our calendar
to the rhythm of your life.

           Because we’re not interested in being
           the biggest store or the flashiest store.

We want to be your favorite store. 

Besides from the unnecessary swipe at the catalog and direct mail business—which has, incidentally, made J.C. Penney piles of money—this manifesto of change disturbs me because jcp needs to earn its right to become my “favorite store.”  And it won’t do that by making me “love shopping again.”   It will allow me to discover that shopping is simple, that the pricing is fair, and that I will choose whether or not to shop at jcp.  Somehow jcp has not yet figured out that the customer wants to be—and increasingly is—in control. 

Much of this positioning is too cutesy and too complicated when it could have been simple and great.  For example, does anyone of you really understand this pricing structure at first glance?  Why can’t we have spectacular prices every day?  I expect white sales in January; is that my rhythm or the department stores’?  And what does fresh air have to do with any of it?  Or jcp tv videos for that matter, which are simply links to ads featured on You Tube. 

Would that jcp picked up the good habits of the past and returned to quality first at a fair price.  And, if the pricing were as straightforward as the simple, somewhat nostalgic advertising pieces they’re showcasing, then maybe I might give them the chance to prove that they’re being “fair and square.” 

The jcp campaign tells us as much about retailing in general as it does about the need for this 100 year old retailer to carve out yet another new niche.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Embracing Chaos

As I was thinking about writing this first blog, I opened the latest issue of Fast Company to an article written by its editor Robert Safian, “The Secrets of Generation Flux.”  I have been poking around the issue of rapid change and our inability as retailers to embrace it for quite a few years—even going so far as to develop a conference with some friends (that never quite got off the ground) called ‘Reinventing Retail.”  An article in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review appeared with the same name. Lesson learned yet again:  “If you snooze, you lose.”
            In the Fast Company article, Safian writes:
When businesspeople search for the right forecast [to describe how business will transform]—the road map and model that will define the next era—no credible long-term picture emerges.  There is one certainty, however.  The next decade or two will be defined more by fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm; if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern.  The most valuable insight is that we are, in a critical sense, in a time of chaos (
            As a GenFluxer myself—being a GenFluxer has more to do with a mind-set than a demographic—I long ago made friends with change.  In fact, my various careers in academia, publishing, multichannel retail, customer experience management—and a diverse consulting practice—well fits the GenFluxer definition.  I had to chuckle when one of the women interviewed—Raina Kaumra (who admits to skill hoarding) says:  “So many people tell me, ‘I don’t know what you do.’” How many times have I heard that?
            What’s this blog about:  How we as retailers are coping with rapid change, how we can keep our businesses viable when our assumptions and practices no longer seem relevant, what we might learn from other businesses about innovation and outmoded legacies, how our failure to adapt is leading us astray, and how we can regain the sense of agility our mom-and-pop forebears once knew instinctively—keep it fresh, keep it changing, and keep them coming.
            So, what are your thoughts as we face a New Year of Unknowns?