The Experience Is The Thing

December 4th, 2015

And now a rant on customer experience triggered by Brian Solisnew book, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design (more on this later).

I am a Birchbox subscriber. Twice, when the company’s sample boxes got me hooked on a product and I went to the website to purchase a full-sized version, the product was sold out, and I had to check back numerous times. The last time this happened was on Cyber Monday 2015, when Birchbox was pushing me emails shouting “25% off on everything!” Twice that day, I took a moment away from my work and clicked through from those emails only to find the product unavailable. Frustrating. As a result, I tweeted at Birchbox, asking them whether a sale could really be called a sale if the products loyal subscribers wanted (that they’d already promoted to us) weren’t available. I got a smiley robo-tweet in return, apologizing and suggesting I buy something else. When I tweeted a second time, suggesting that this sounded a little like a bait and switch, Birchbox tweeted back the identical robo-apology… minus the suggestion that I shop for something else. Non-thinking, unfeeling, impersonal and obnoxious.

If that sounds strong, it’s because I care. Seriously. Birchbox obviously frets quite a bit over how pretty their monthly boxes are, and what color the tissue paper is inside, and all I want to do is shake them and ask, “Do you understand what you sell?”

Like all brands, Birchbox’s product is not at the point of the most obvious transaction – in their case, the monthly boxes of samples. Their “product” is the entire experience into which a consumer is drawn when he/she decides to allow a brand into his or her busy life. And that’s what it is: I have choices, I don’t need you and – if I let you in – every single touch, every single interaction better be great. In Birchbox’s case, I love the samples, but may not renew my annual subscription because the surrounding experience they provide is lousy and I can’t count on getting a product I want even if I like the sample.

I am constantly shocked at how unconscious brands seem, how blind they are to the fact that experience IS the brand. As a marketer myself, it’s seriously terrifying how clueless brands are about what’s really important.

Oh, and – once a customer starts yelling online – it often kicks off additional complaints, like the woman on Twitter who responded to my experience with “I was basically charged twice for a December birchbox. I signed up last week and now I have ten bucks out of my account today.”

Oh, and (one more time…), of course Birchbox has completely ignored my question about sale rainchecks. Ignoring a customer? That’s the worst.

As Brian Solis says, “Ignorance is diss.”

All this is what Brian’s book is about, and why I loved it. If the above blah-blah makes me sound a little crazy, Brian says I’m normal. He explains that the digital world has upped the ante in terms of what customers expect, making us all “accidental narcissists” who expect more and expect it quickly. And by the way, these expectations that started online have bled into every part of our lives. The experience is everything everywhere now. I don’t care how amazing a refrigerator is; if I can’t get a service person on the phone, I will never buy you again. I don’t care how great your clothes are if your salespeople are rude and your return policy sucks. I don’t care how amazing you are if your ad tracking follows me all over the Web until I want to scream. I don’t care how fabulous your shoes are if your website’s a nightmare. No amount of product fabulousness – or boxes that are so pretty I save them – can overcome a crappy experience.

Brian is right. From the second a brand story catches a consumer’s eye, the clock starts ticking and the expectations start growing. That brand is on stage… and needs to learn how not to f* it up. I used to love Birchbox. Happy thoughts all around. That was then. Last night, I saw a holiday TV ad for the company, and my head was full of disappointment.  That’s a self-inflicted wound that the company would need to work hard to close.

Great book.

Pardon my French, but I feel like a total and utter s**t.  At least I’ll be punished by having to walk on the other side of the street every time I want to go to the drug store.

Allow me to explain.

I believe in supporting small businesses.  My grandfather, a pharmacist, had his own drug store.  My mom feels very strongly about frequenting privately-owned stores whenever she can – drug stores, book stores, you name it – and I try to do the same.  I still feel the “You’ve Got Mail” horror whenever some big box something or other gobbles up yet another street, pushing out all the small business owners just trying to get by.

Flash forward to the polar vortex of 2014.  I need snow boots and I need ’em bad.  I’ve checked all the usual suspects – Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Zappos… nothing but Uggs left in my size (ugh).  The shortage is so real that it’s made the newsmore than once.  There is a small shoe store near my apartment, and I saw some boots I liked in the window.  I went in and discovered that they were $245.  Not happening.  But there was a pair that – all in, including tax – was $130, which felt a lot better than $245.  The trained shoe salesman actually acted like, well, a trained shoe salesman:  he knelt before me, unlaced my old boots, put my new ones on, laced them up, then followed me around to hear whether they fit. He delivered a real service experience.  I left the store with $130 boots feeling sort of ok.  But once the $245 phantom price wore off, and I was home with boots for which I’d paid a lot more than I’d planned, I started to get… itchy.

That’s when I went online.

Armed with new information – the manufacturer’s name and model number – I was able to sidestep all the branded retailers who’d burrowed into my brain via their PR coverage and ad spends (I mean, Zappos? Really?  I don’t even like Zappos) and leverage the Internet’s long tail by just typing the specific shoe information into Google.  This allowed me to browse a number of retailers I’d never heard of, including one that was selling the same pair for $83 all in (including shipping, no tax).  That’s a huge difference.  I returned the first pair of boots to the neighborhood shoe store the next day.

Now, I feel awful about this.  I support small, private stores… I do!  But at what price?  At how much of a premium? A 56% premium? That’s a lot of money. I am now officially playing both sides of the argument: SHOP SMALL (“these big conglomerates are killing the little guy!“) vs. I WORK HARD FOR MY PAYCHECK AND WILL SHOP WHEREVER I GET THE BEST PRICE (“all these bleeding hearts who whine about little stores disappearing should put their money where their mouths are… but they don’t“).

The brick and mortar stores that survive will, for the most part, have to provide something that is (a) truly irreplaceable, or (b) at least worth a modest premium.  I’m talking out of my hat here, but take electronics:  people don’t buy the service warranties because they are expensive and don’t get used.  But maybe buying a TV at a physical Best Buy should gets you the 3-year warranty for free – an offer not available online.  Maybe stores that don’t have loyalty programs will have to start them – programs that provide REAL value – like $100 off your next purchase of any pair of shoes over $200 (I’m making this up, but you get the picture).

I know it’s not my job in life to crack the conundrum of showrooming, but I still feel guilty.  That’s why I figure that once I start wearing the boots I bought on the Web – the same lovely boots that Neil the real shoe salesman so caringly sold me in person – I’ll have to avoid walking by the store, lest he see my feet and discover that I was seduced away by a significantly smaller price tag.

Internet, Shimternet

June 14th, 2011

Do you ever feel like your head might just explode if you have to shove one more new business term in there? Or perhaps you’re simply in the mood for a friendly game of buzzword bingo. I have some extra cards right here…

Who could blame you? I mean, I think I actually met with the guys in this VIDEO just last week:



There isn’t room to list all the new words, terms and acronyms we’ve learned in the last few years:  moblog, m-commerce, phishing, NFC, PPC, CPA, CPO, CPS, DSP, skyscraper, pure play, Splinternet, semantic Web, SMS, TCP/IP, VOIP, XML, RSS, API, CSS, SMM, SMO, black hat (and white hat – I mean, duh) SEO, cybersquatting, adware, P2P, spider, favicon, mousetrapping, greenwashing, augmented reality, branded entertainment, geotargeting, behavioral targeting, network effect, SERP, cloud, triple play, (Web) abandonment, (Web) arbitrage, bot, deep linking, delist, linkbait, spyware, widget, maybe a million others… and certainly dinner isn’t dinner without a good forking.   Or something like that.

But there’s a new new term whose fear factor I want to eliminate right away: agile commerce. As defined by Forrester in its March 2011 paper, Welcome to the Era of Agile Commerce, agile commerce is “an approach to commerce that enables businesses to optimize their people, processes and technology to serve customers across all touchpoints.”

There are 15 pages of text and charts delineating the difference between multichannel and agile commerce, and the analyst also penned a Forbes article titled “Why Multichannel Retail is Obsolete.” “Agile commerce is a metamorphosis,” he says. “It is time for organizations to leave their channel-oriented ways behind.”

The problem is that all this relies on what I consider to be a seriously antiquated view of multi-channel operations.

The definition of multichannel commerce upon which the new agile commerce movement depends is a way of doing business that leaves customer touchpoints and transactions in silos: potentially envisioned, designed, managed and measured independently from one another.  It assumes that prospects/customers probably use one channel but not another (e.g. Jack’s a “store person,” Jill’s a “Web person,”), that user expectations in each of these channels do not overlap, that content, design, functionality, payment options, etc. etc. all differ from one channel to another and that it doesn’t matter because consumers don’t really see all the channels anyway.

What contemporary marketer believes this anymore?

Is there a digital-savvy executive alive who doesn’t know all the stats about connectivity exploding, and audience fragmentation, and the accelerating evolution of technologies, and the emergence of smartphones and tablets and ebooks (oh my)?  Is it news that TV watchers also like being online, or that newspaper readership is sliding around? And yet these are the metrics and conversation points that the paper uses to announce that it’s a new world and that ecommerce players better get with it.

For any marketer trained to start with the customer, the revelation that we must strive to deliver a 100% (a girl can dream) seamless experience from one channel to the next and that our business eco-system must be woven together and able to learn so that a user’s behavior is reflected and rewarded as she wanders from one touchpoint to another… well that’s no revelation at all.

Good marketers recognized and began turning their organizations toward this vision many moons ago.  The consumer is where everything begins and ends.  In the future, channels will be like lights in a galaxy that deliver a seamless, 24 hour brand experience.  Rather than you having to travel to the brand (e.g., you drive to the store), all the access points will do the virtual traveling instead.  With you in the center, the brand will constantly update its customized knowledge of and relationship with you, in all directions and in nearly all applications.  A little like “Minority Report” but in a good way – and without having to remove your eyeballs.  [And yes, I wrote this paragraph while entirely sober.]

Now don’t get me wrong here; I doubt there is an organization on the planet that feels fantastic about where it is on this trip we’re all taking together.  Forget even the fantasy of walking into a physical location and having a person (or digital display) interact with you in a way that reflects a 360° level of knowledge of my relationship: I’d be excited just to talk to a call center rep who can see me transacting on his company’s own website in real time and help me out in a normal, knowledgeable manner.

We have a long long (long) way to go.  But this post is my way of saying that no one should be discouraged, or privately assume that keeping up is impossible.  The  next time you see or hear a new Internet/marketing/digital business buzzword, it may be just that: a new arrangement of letters describing a principle you already understand (perhaps better than those making up some of these new terms in the first place) and live by.

Either way – as long as we keep our heads – it makes for a good game.  And, hey! I’ve got Bingo!!!
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A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executive Network Group‘s blog, MENGBlend.

It was my pleasure to be interviewed by Peppers & Rogers1to1 Magazine for a story on the evolution of branding.  My responses were folded into the article “Hasbro Gives Control of Its Brand to Customers” HERE

Below is an expanded version of my answers.  It’s a topic that’s at the very core of how I think about brands, communications and the marketplace.  I would welcome your thoughts.

I’m doing a story about the evolution of branding: particularly the growing influence of the customer experience in branding strategy.  How is branding strategy different now than it used to be?
The biggest difference is that a “brand” is something that marketers and companies are accustomed to controlling. In the past, a company sent all of the brand messages that general audiences heard.  Brands pulled the strings – they had all the information that was to be had, and so were able to manage consumer expectations and impressions. In that kind of world, an unhappy customer or supplier – or a disgruntled employee or competitor – could only reach as many people as were in his or her own circle of friends and associates.

Today, any individual can reach literally millions of people in real-time.  The message is whatever each person wishes it to be.  Even if that message is inaccurate or unflattering, its reach is almost limitless.  And a message someone posts can grow in influence as others pick it up and begin circulating it to ever larger circles – that’s how something becomes “viral” – which means that marketers have to be as viral as their customers, ever- vigilant and ready to address whatever comes their way from any corner of the world.

A quick example is Motrin. Motrin created an ad in 2008 that used an irreverent tone in an effort to sympathize with moms who have sore backs from carrying their infants.  This offended some moms,  Had this happened in 1988, you probably would not have heard about it unless you were personally close to one of these women.  Today, moms created and posted angry videos of their own online, the Motrin ad was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and thousands of comments were posted on Twitter alone.  And this happened on a Saturday, by the way: we’re on consumer time now, not brand time.  So same reaction, perhaps, as many might have had 20 years ago, but much bigger megaphone.

This is something that companies and marketing teams are not organized to address – and it exposes all elements of a brand, warts and all, 24/7.  Brands are no longer the shouters: they’ve got to be the listeners. For brands that embrace a conversational relationship with the market, this can be an exciting experience that ultimately creates even more respect and love for a brand.  But for marketers who are accustomed to maintaining a tight rein, there are fundamental challenges ahead.

Branding used to be a way to gain awareness to a mass audience. But tools like social media, more robust customer data, and increased online activity in general seem to be pushing branding toward more personal engagement. What are your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s an either/or: each makes the other better.  Better data helps companies spend their mass advertising budgets more effectively and more precisely, which in turn provides air cover for more personal, individual efforts on the ground.  But there’s no question that it’s always been somewhat difficult to measure the effect of many forms of mass media, and – as other customizable channels become even sharper – there will be even more pressure on companies and their media partners to “prove” value from TV and other big efforts.

Personal engagement has another effect, as well: it raises consumer expectations.  How many times have you heard a frustrated person say “but they know me!” in response to an email addressed in the wrong language, or to the opposite gender? Consumers now know that companies have all this data, and they expect to benefit from it.  How well this data is, in fact, applied may then have an impact on whether the market listens to any messages a brand might send in any channel.

How do trust and credibility play a role in branding strategy these days, and how is it different than before?
Everything’s laid bare now.  There is virtually no nugget of information that isn’t available with a quick Google search.  An employee can create a pseudonym, for example, and tell the world how things “really” work, or that a company is being misleading or untruthful.  There’s no way to hold things back, or sweep something under the rug anymore. 

This puts intense pressure on brands to be more authentic and more worthy of consumers’ trust.  Let’s say a company manufactures merchandise overseas in unacceptable or even illegal conditions: in the past it could continue to do so for years, if not forever.  Now that people walk the globe with high-speed Internet access and cell phones that capture video, those times are over.  And if a company does get “caught” doing something today, these dynamics make the blast exponentially more damaging.

Where do you see the future of branding headed?
I’m hopeful about the future. My own professional community is full of marketers who understand that a brand is no longer corporate IP that needs to be policed and protected: it’s the beating heart of the enterprise. Instead of being talked at, consumers want to talk with a brand, and see the very human passion behind what you sell.  That can be scary, but it’s also pretty darn exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge to getting there?
One of the most difficult challenges is the uneven level of understanding and expectations of those who surround the marketer: the CEO, the CFO, the pressured head of sales and the Board, to name a few.  Executives already know what television advertising or print is, no explanation needed.  There’s comfort in that.  There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty and skepticism about dipping into a world that looks a little crazy, to do something a brand’s never done before.  And the road won’t be smooth: it’s already difficult to explain why something “negative” that’s said online is par for the course and why the brand must continue to engage, not back away.  I am very empathetic to the people on both sides of that table.

Any other thoughts?
For those who already know that good ideas rarely come from sitting behind a desk and who get charged up by listening to product users, prospects and partners, this is a great world.  Assuming a brand is being authentic, there is no real “bad” feedback – there are only lessons that help make you better and better.  There’s going to be plenty of trial and error, but this is all about getting closer to your customer, and that’s a great thing.

 

The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) “If you see something, say something” initiative may have more power than the average communications program.

On the day of the Times Squaif-you-see-something-stephanie-fierman.jpgre bomb scare last month, street vendor Lance Orton mentioned this exact phrase during a press interview and, as echoed by Advertising Age, this is the kind of unaided recall that “marketers and ad agencies dream of.”

And if you think about the fact that the campaign is as much a public safety announcement as anything else – not typically the kind of advertising likely to lodge in your happy-brain – the feat is even more impressive. High five, MTA!

What’s also particularly notable about this effort, though, is the largesse with which the city has handled it, agreeing to license the slogan… for free. Today, 54 organizations are using “…see something, say something” in public awareness campaigns all over the world.*

This action is somewhat refreshing, based on the State’s history of enthusiastically protecting its own intellectual property. New York State lawyers, for example, have reportedly filed more than 3,000 complaints over the past several decades against those infringing on the infamous “I New York” logo. That takes a lot of time and a lot of money.

But the “If you see something…” isn’t exactly a soaring homage to the State worthy of such rigorous defense – and maybe the State simply realizes there’s a lot more at stake today than ever before.

I also like to talk about the MTA’s openness because it reflects the reality of what I would categorize as today’s open source marketing environment. In all the scrambling companies are doing to get this on Twitter or launch that on Facebook, the most impermeable truth has yet to sync in with many: the Internet and – perhaps most profoundly, social media – is changing our world. The power to define and control a brand is shifting from corporations and institutions to individuals and communities.

In other words – if you want to view it “negatively” – you can’t keep a lid on anything anymore. And if you want to view it positively, what would happen if you made some of your brand elements “open source?” Could you benefit? Could your fans benefit? Could the world benefit?

There are very real reasons that brands need protection, but consider the massive exposure companies have received when they’ve “flipped the funnel” and handed over their brands to loyal, excited customers:

Frito-Lay first invited consumers to make their own Super Bowl commercials in 2006. Today, “Crash the Super Bowl” is a craze that’s generated hundreds of millions of impressions on its own and the commercials themselves are fan favorites every year.

Ford famously favored social media for the launch of its Fiesta to much fanfare. Fanfare in this case equaled more than 5 million YouTube views, 3 million Twitter impressions and 50,000 interested prospects, 97% of which did not own a Ford at the time. Numbers a CEO could love.

Coca-Cola invited global consumers to design their own Coke bottles on the road to the Beijing Olympics.

New Balance created an amazing digital campaign for its 574 sneaker collection. In every box of unique 574s, the purchaser would find a special Polaroid that s/he could then match to one of 480 mini shoe stories at http://574clips.com. Click here to watch one of my favorite 574 films embedded in the original post I wrote about the initiative. Oddly mesmerizing.

And of course, there’s the mack-daddy of them all, the Mentos eruption. First demonstrated on TV in 1999 and made famous by an NPR story in 2006, a Mentos eruption is what you get when drop some Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke. If you cannot view the video here in this post, click HERE to see the truly funny video of several Mentos/Diet Coke “experiments” conducted by two friends. This video became a phenomenon, with nearly 12 million views on YouTube alone. Mentos generated over $10 million in online buzz and a spokesperson said the brand was “tickled pink by it” (perhaps because they generated $10 million in online buzz…).

What would happen if you opened up your brand? Even B2B brands have fans: what positive outcomes could you create by inviting users to create something of their own based on your assets? Would they be impressed? Would they tell friends, and feel a unique and personal loyalty to you? And what’s the worst that could happen (paging Skittles…)?

Not a lot. Big upside, though. So think about how you might be able to draft users to carry your brand all over the Web and farther into their own lives. You may like where it takes you.

* But of course this IS New York, so even the most serious problems will be subject to some wise-guy behavior: check out the funniest “If you see something, say something” parodies HERE.

There’s a real reputation-meets-revenue battle happening online.

Today, any advertiser with a Google AdWords account can buy virtually any keyword to advertise its own goods, regardless of whether said advertiser has the rights to use the word.  This is particularly troublesome for companies that have spent decades burnishing brand franchises and consider the associated names and words to be reputational assets of great value. 

If you go to Google right now and type in “LVMH” (the owner of numerous brands including Louis Vuitton and Hennessy), one of the sponsored ads shouts “Designer Handbags 70% off,” with a URL that includes the Louis Vuitton name. That has LVMH steamed and the company sued Google in Europe for trademark infringement.

Well the ruling is in… and it’s a split decision, advantage: Google. Upon Google’s appeal of earlier rulings (that didn’t go its way) the highest court in the EU has determined that – on its face – the mere fact that an LVMH-protected word is available for sale by Google does not mean that Google is in violation of LVMH’s trademark rights.  stephanie-fierman-louis-vuitton.jpg

Specifically, the court has said that the search company is not violating trademarks if (a) its automatic ad system is judged to be “merely technical, automatic and passive” in its operation, and if (b) the company is not aware and cannot be expected to fully police all the words that advertisers purchase.

Since computers are programmed by humans, I would argue that the first point is debatable, but there it is.  It was not a flat-out win for Google, however, as the court also ruled that Google must remove said ads if the brand owner formally complains about an advertiser infringing on its marks.  If Google fails to do this, the court says it won’t be so helpful in protecting Google’s revenue stream the next time around.

The court also reinforced that Google could be held liable for selling keywords that openly encourage or facilitate counterfeiting, which is a win (or at least a booster shot) for brand owners.  And lastly, the court also clarified the responsibilities of advertisers who mustn’t, by “using such keywords, arrange for Google to display ads which do not allow Internet users to easily establish from which undertaking the goods or services covered by the ad in question originate.”

I don’t know about you, but if I’m an advertiser that gets into hot water for legally buying a word that Google sold to me – and I’m not trying to sell knock-offs – I’m naming Google in my legal response.

stephanie-fierman-brand.jpgLVMH has been on the attack re. this issue for a long time all around the world, and must fight infringement in all possible sales channels. It has sued (and has won), for example against eBay in the past.  And  LVMH was front and center in the effective elimination of a thriving Louis Vuitton counterfeit trade on Canal Street in New York City.  After this ruling, the company will flood Google “Don’t Be Evil” Inc. with complaints until the search company will at least have to question what (and how much) it is defending by taking on massive legal expense (and bad PR) in order to make money from advertisers leeching off others’ trademarks.

And speaking of buying Louis Vuitton knock-offs on the street, a LVMH board member asks what may be the most probative observation yet: “Under trademark law anywhere in the world, brand owners have the right to stop third parties from using their names. “Why make an exception for the digital world?”

 As the division between online and offline “worlds” continue to disappear, why indeed?

Recently, I have noticed a trend: I often write about things that help people cheat.

OK not cheat, exactly – it’s more like I often share information on services that allow you to address some sticky or uncomfortable situation that needs fixing but for which there is no obvious solution.  So, really, I like to think that I’m just making a small, humble contribution to the concepts of justice and fairness in this cold world.

Yes, marketers can talk themselves into anything.

goggle-stephanie-fierman.jpgAnyway, it really does look like I have a propensity for this kind of thing. First, I wrote about Google’s Goggle feature. Once activated, Goggle (here at the Gmail Lab) forces you to solve a series of math problems before it allows you to send email. The default settings turn the feature on only on weekend nights – the most likely times, I guess, for drunk emailing – but you can adjust the settings if you find yourself sending imprudent notes to your ex on Wednesday nights.

And there was Slydial – possibly the most brilliant invention since voicemail was created.  So you know all those people you’re supposed to call, but you’d rather stick a hot poker in your eye? Yeah – those. Or maybe you just need to make some calls so you can check them off your list… if only you didn’t actually have to speak to anyone. Enter Slydial (www.slydial.com). Instead of calling the actual person in question, you dial 267-SlyDial and enter the subject’s cell phone number. Slydial then connects you directly to the person’s voicemail so you can leave a message without ever having to speak to the person you’re “calling” (“Oh hey! It’s Stephanie. SO sorry to have missed you…“).

SlyDial is just beautiful. The ultimate antidote for those painful, anti-social moments.

office-kid-stephanie-fierman.jpgThen I wrote about The Office Kid (www.TheOfficeKid.com), a new product for the childfree among us. Anyone who doesn’t have a kid has found herself picking up the slack for a parent who leaves early for a soccer game/recital/school play/whatever tiny people do. So unfair! The Office Kid kit includes fake kid art for your office and your very own kid photo so you too can say that the school called and you must fetch your barfing kid immediately.  The Office Kid: $20. Midday shopping at Saks: priceless.

Today’s addition to this directory of shortcuts, gentle readers, is Expense-A-Steak from the New York steakhouse Maloney & Porcelli. This one is a little different from the others (“different” in that it’s the one most likely to get its creator sued for fraud), so I’m not going to recommend it or go into any detail.  From strictly an advertising point of view, however, this little baby currently produces 1.1 million instances in Google (including an editorial by AdAge‘s Bob Garfield and an entire article in The Wall Street Journal) – and that’s a lot of steaks that may have been served up at M&P.  [See my P.S on this one below]

So there you have it: my ongoing ode to tools and tactics that help you, uh, smooth the rough edges of life. Why do I love them? I think I just have a huge amount of respect for their creators – such ingenuity! My brain just does not work like that.  Good thing I’m smart enough to appreciate the fruits of their labors.

P.S. While wandering the Web for this post, I stumbled on a new Google feature, “Got the Wrong Bob?” Have you ever sent an email, only to receive a reply from a stranger saying that you’ve contacted the wrong person? “Got the Wrong Bob?” scans your Gmail files and tries to identify when you’ve accidentally addressed an email to the wrong person… before it’s too late.

I really seem to have a knack for this stuff.  You can thank (or Slydial) me later.

P.S. To the kids watching at home: when creating a tool like Expense A Steak that could conceivably be misused and abused by some goober -thereby exposing YOU to legal risk – it’s best to add a simple statement like “For Entertainment Use Only.” Your checkbook – and conscience – will thank you.

Pity the poor retailer.

stephanie-fierman-grocery-shopping.jpgVandalism.  Gobs of costly employees. Shoplifting. Huge shipping costs. Rent, utilities and facilities expenses. Oh yes, and sales stink.

So the last thing the modern proprietor needs is to be compared to a storeeee innnn spaceeee… But Brandweek did just that when it published  “Why Can’t Shopping Be More Like Online Shopping?” (or “Why Retailers Should Be Acting More Webby” online*) a full-page editorial lamenting why oh why “regular” stores can’t be more like online ones.  Why bricks and mortar establishments aren’t taking “advantage” of all the stuff that “online competitors have been perfecting” for years.

Hmm.  Stores are far from perfect (my grocery store was renovated recently, and now I can’t find a darn thing) but come on.

Let’s take the points raised in this article one by one and give a quick, incomplete-but-adequate response regarding the practicality/reasonableness of each:

* Product reviews.  Where would a retailer put product reviews in a store where everyone would see them?  Who would be responsible for keeping them current? Who would be responsible for mending/replacing them if they were damaged or defaced? How could a chain retailer ensure 100% compliance across its network?

* Bestsellers. Pretty much “ditto” to the above.stephanie-fierman-online-shopping.jpg

* Search.  This one’s just mean. Stores have been experimenting with kiosks for years with mixed results.  Brands that want to experiment with shelf displays typically need to send their own people in to do it (expensive, time-consuming). The writer refers to a test that Campbell’s tried years ago. It alphabetized its soups in-store.  Result? They sold less soup.  And store maps? Who can read one of those and where the heck is it?

* Affinity. Since 10 out of 10 shoppers who walk through the door are looking for different items and would be lost if some products where re-grouped with others just because someone thought it should be that way. And if we’re talking about posting suggestions near products, see above for Reviews and Bestsellers.

* Brevity. The writer wishes there was a “convenience aisle” for check-out.  There is (15 items or less please). But when a store’s busy, you’re going to wait behind a bunch of people.  When was the last time you had to wait behind a bunch of people while checking out online?

And with this last point, I tip my hand: the presence and need for multiple (indeed, masses of) human shoppers and workers to make a store location on dry land work is the reason that my local grocer will never be like FreshDirect.  It’s not just money and profits that keep live retailers from taking on characteristics of Web shopping, as the article hypothesizes.  Some things, for all intents and purposes, are simply not able to be done well in the real world.

But if we ask why online shopping isn’t more like regular shopping, the good reason is also human interaction: a person that helps you figure out whether that sweater is black or navy. A greeter at the door who says “Hello” and thanks you for coming. A saleswoman who knows just by looking at you what size will work, and will give you an opinion on an outfit if you ask. A butcher who will tell you which cut of meat to buy when two choices look exactly alike.  A person who will give you a smile (or more) on a crummy day.  Oh, and I can go out and be home in less than an hour with the stuff I need.

Are there cranky and/or incompetent salespeople in stores?  You bet.  And websites malfunction, are often inscrutable and crash once in awhile.  Nobody’s perfect (not even technology).

So there you have it:  in real life, it takes a village to sell merchandise that one or two people can sell online – and that’s always going to be messy/ier.  Life’s not always pretty.  Cut your favorite store some slack.  Use channels and experiences for what each is good for and don’t bother wondering why reading online (or on a Kindle) can’t be more like holding a real book or vice versa.  There’s room in the universe for both.

* Dear Brandweek: You gave the article I tore out of my subscription copy an entirely different title on your website, thereby making it easier for me to find in the physical world than the online one.  Go figure.

Yesterday’s New York Times book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell‘s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture was, I thought, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. [If you cannot see a video about the book below, click HERE.]

The author’s well-researched hypothesis is that we are either ignorant of or – in many cases – simply choose to ignore the profoundly negative, corrosive effects of needing to have everything cheap, cheap, cheap.  The article’s primary example from the book is shrimp, which went from an expensive treat to something you can get at any cheesy seafood chain restaurant nearly any night of the week on the “all you can eat” menu: a phenom fueled by so much greed and artificial chemicals that what they should serve at our tables is the resulting “pollution and toxic waste,” with a side of the “ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute” in Thailand and other countries.

Yummm.  Pass the garlic bread.

But do Americans care?  Lower food prices at Wal-Mart are impressive because, even if you never set foot in one of its stores, its mere presence drives down food prices in the surrounding area.  Hurray!  Forget about the fact Wal-Mart’s brand-name food items aren’t all that much cheaper, in fact, and how do you know that that chicken isn’t cheaper because it’s of lower quality?  What we do know is, well, all the things we know about how Wal-Mart has historically kept its prices down. 

These practices are why I do not shop at Wal-Mart.  But I’m in the minority.

And has this obsession American’s have with inexpensive goods damaged us in macro ways that are now coming home to roost?  When prices are too low, innovation is nearly impossible, reports a Harvard economist. 

Paging General Motors. Oh, and this moribund company is already “out of bankruptcy?!” Paging the U.S. government…

The only true major American innovation outside of Apple that’s gotten any real attention… has occurred on Wall Street.  And we all know how well that’s going for millions of people.

So I’m worried.  There are a lot of executives who have generated a lot of shareholder value by sticking the low-price needle into our arms… and consumers like it.  Now we’re in a recession, which is likely to compound the effect: many now have no alternative but to shop for the least expensive goods – and others use it as a sadly understandable reason to reverse course and cut back.  People are worried, and conserving:  I’ve seen several studies where people say they’re cutting back on “values” purchases, such as “green” and organic goods for example.

Where does it end?  What do we care about the most?  The U.S. is consistently on the wrong side of global lists of developed countries ranked for homelessnessobesity, high school graduation, health care quality… and we’re the biggest polluter in the world.   

There’s a lot of chest-beating on television about the national debt.  “We’re saddling our grandchildren with crippling debt! Gahhh!”  What about what we’re doing right now – what we care about today? 

Mojo readers know that I’m hooked on a couple wonderful marketing/business cartoonists and like to share their work now and then.  On my second blog, Marketing Observations Grown Daily, it’s David Jones Adland.  Here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp.  Enjoy!

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