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? 

Now more than ever, consumers want to feel good about the things they do and buy.  I’ve written a couple posts about the phenomenon on aspirational purchasing and making something groovy out of pretty much nothing and, recently, I saw the most fascinating example of turning a cruddy experience into something swanky.

Witness:  Cash4Gold.  You have to be living under a rock to not have seen their commercials, but just to be sure… Here’s the company’s weird Super Bowl ad, in which Ed McMahon and MC Hammer talk while a disembodied hand holds money (“Call toll free now!”):

And here is one of Cash4Gold’s standard ads (“Turn your unwanted or broken jewelry into cold hard cash!“)

Do these ads make you feel like a sharp cookie, or like you’re about to lose your house and have already checked the couch for loose change?  Given McMahon’s humiliating mortage disaster and Hammer’s personal woes, Cash4Gold comes across as a last resort for the truly pitiful and desperate.  Hardly something I’d be sharing over dinner with my girlfriends.

Contrast this to OutofYourLife.com.  It’s the exact same concept, but take a look at the company’s television ad:

I can identify with the woman in the ad because, unlike Ed McMahon, she’s “like me” (or like the woman I’d like to be) – attractive, secure and, of course, smart for unloading jewels from her past relationships.  And fyi, all of these ex boyfriends and their golden effluvia don’t mean she’s a loser: it means she dumped them and now has the perfect man, whom she (you), of course, deserve(s). 

Study the ad’s details:  the way the script weaves in the personal “stories” related to each piece, the sexy voiceover, the website’s design – even the box you use to ship off your jewels.  Everything about the ad is intended to reinforce that you are a sexy, beautiful, enticing, clever woman and that this is what such a person does. 

So virtually the same product, but with a message that permits the customer to create a transformational, positive story out of the fact that she’s got to hock her own jewelry to pay the rent. 

This is an unusually overt example of advertising’s ability to shape not only a message, but an entire experience… even the kind of person you are for being a customer.  ‘Love it!

What other self-worth-threatening activities could be transformed in the same manner? How about selling your car, or buying a used car? Ditto for “gently-worn” clothing. Foreclosure auction advertising?

 

In August, I wrote a post titled “Stephanie Fierman On Beer And Blahniks.” (or, Why Do Businesses Not Understand Women, Part 1).  The upshot of the post is that Guinness planned to launch a beer “for women” that was essentially a watered-down version of their existing product.   The head of marketing at Guinness said that he wanted women to love this new watery beer as much as they love high heels.

I felt sorry for him.  Sort of.  But no one else seemed to.

I added the post to Blogher, where it received praise from one of the site’s founders, Lisa Stone (thank you, Lisa!) and this from Liz Rizzo (aka Beer Lover): “I love beer WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY more than I love shoes.  And watered down Guinness?  For my sanity, I’m going to pretend that I never ever ever read those words.  They hurt me.” 

It’s frustrating.  There appears to be two prevailing views of women in most marketing efforts: (1) the good-time girl who weighs 90 pounds and lives only at night, goes out with lots of friends in great clothes, does not appear to have a job and loves your car/bodyspray/lipstick/ deodorant/liquor (Guinness), and (2) the mom (Best Buy).

But back to Best Buy in a minute.  First, an anecdote.

I was on a plane last night and watched Baby Mama.  Loved it.  Silly, and a bit like one SNL skit after another, but 98% fun overall.  It’s the story of an attractive, totally put-together non-spinster woman, played by Tina Fey, who has a nice life and great career.  She’d be happy to be in a relationship but is ok being alone at the moment.  She does, however, understand that her eggs can’t wait so she wants a baby.  Now.

Flash forward to Fey, her sister and their mother (played brilliantly by Two And A Half Men’s Holland Taylor) having dinner while discussing Fey’s intention to adopt or otherwise secure a baby.   While her sister is going along, Holland Taylor despairs, “not everyone is so supportive of your ‘alternative lifestyle.'” 

To which Fey responds: “Mother, being single is not an ‘alternative lifestyle.”

Mother:  “It is when you are 37 years old!”

Holy mackerel.  How and when did being fine and single become AN ALTERNATIVE LIFESTYLE??

So back to Best Buy.  Best Buy has gone for Door #2 as described above while exclaiming that they have created new stores “with women in mind.”  “Gone are the chain’s typical warehouse-like blue interiors… replaced instead by wood paneling.” A store for women apparently also needs family-friendly restrooms and race car-shaped shopping carts – because the only way a woman would ever venture into a Best Buy (sans male decision-maker) would be with her male children in tow?   If you click on the photo in this post, you will see shots of the interior of one of these stores. Note the cozy throw pillows and kitchen set-up.

I store things in my oven.

Ginger Sorvari Bucklin, Best Buy’s director of Winning With Women, explains that the chain has created these stores based on its appreciation of the fact that 45% of all electronics purchases are made by women.  The chain is paying attention.  They are spending the time. The new stores were more expensive to build than their standard model.  So why such a horrible blind spot?  Where is the understanding that women are a diverse crowd?  Some of us are single, some are married.  Some love babies, some don’t.  Some live in the city.  Some even live in the suburbs… alone (the horror).

I decided to google Best Buy’s endeavor and saw some seemingly positive reviews.  A site with the impressive URL GlobalMarketer.com praised Best Buy as being “best in class” based on its new stores targeting women.  I opened the article.  It starts with “My husband and I (Strike 1) walked into a Best Buy store in Richfield, Minnesota (Strike 2) at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon (Strike 3).” You can’t make this stuff up.  I have nothing against husbands, Minnesota or Sundays on their own but, seriously: this vision would actually drive me away from such a store. Especially on a Sunday when my friends and I are in Tribeca nursing Bloody Marys. Next!

It’s not only silly and frustrating to be seen exclusively as either a party girl or a candidate for Jon and Kate Plus Eight… it’s offensive and disrespectful – to all women.  I do not believe that most companies deliberately disrespect women.  Best Buy does not consciously disrespect women.  It’s worse:  companies so smugly assume that they know what women are and what women want – or what they need women to be – they simply disregard the possibility of anything to the contrary.

How Best Buy traveled from learning that “female customers wanted more help seeing how products could work together and fit into their lives” all the way to diaper changing tables and race car shopping cards is beyond me.  Sadly, the result will be beyond Best Buy when these stores fail to reach their full potential.

Best Buy   Best Buy women  

Stephanie Fierman Prefers Tylenol

September 9th, 2008

More than 25 years ago, Tylenol changed the “crisis management” business forever by taking decisive action to compromise profitability based on something that was not its fault.

In the fall of 1982, seven people in Chicago died after taking Extra Strength Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide.  A 12-year old girl was reportedly the first to die.  Panic ensued.  Police cars roved the streets in and around the Chicago area blasting warnings from PA systems.  When it was determined that the poisoned bottles had come from different factories, the possibility that Johnson & Johnson (Tylenol’s ultimate parent) was somehow to blame was decisively ruled out.  Officials came to believe that one or multiple criminals had instead removed bottles from stores, tampered with the contents and then surreptitiously returned the bottles to store shelves.

And yet, responsibility never entered into the decision-making process underway at J&J:  only public safety did.  The company stopped all Tylenol production and promotion.  It issued a national recall not after the episode was over, but while it was still very much underway.  The bottles returned to J&J as a result of the recall had a retail value of more than $100 million.  I shouldn’t say that J&J stopped all Tylenol promotion:  it paid for and issued new national advertising instructing individuals to avoid taking any products that contained Tylenol, and offering to reimburse anyone who sent in an existing bottle of Tylenol capsules.

Once both the crisis and J&J’s action plan were in full force, Tylenol’s market share dropped like a rock from 35% to 8%.  To be expected.  What was not expected was that share rebounded in less than one year:  a return widely credited to J&J’s immediate and decisive action to sacrifice its own well being for the health of – really – the entire country.   Since then, J&J’s response is widely considered to be the gold standard in crisis management.  Act now.  Ask later.

I cannot overemphasize how I feel today about J&J’s behavior that long-ago autumn when I was still a kid.  It made an impression that has lasted my entire career:  one that influences how I measure companies and my own conduct as a business executive to this very day. 

So when I see a company disregard such a lesson for no other reason than financial gain, I am not just nonplussed – I’m disgusted.[Bassinet Recall]

SFCA Inc. purchased the assets of Simplicity Inc., a baby bassinet manufacturer, earlier this year after Simplicity went out of business.  SFCA is an affiliate of the private equity firm, Blackstreet Capital.  Two weeks ago, fifteen retailers – including Target, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Amazon and Kmart – halted the sale of certain Simplicity bassinets that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said could be hazardous to babies after two baby girls died (from strangulation in their bassinets).  The Wall Street Journal reported that Toys R Us were selling eight of the 66 models affected by the warning; the chain pulled the products anyway.  And all the retailers affected agreed to permit consumers to return the bassinets for a refund or store credit, regardless of how long ago the product had been purchased. 
These retailers heeded the lessons learned from the shining example set by Johnson & Johnson.  Act now. 

SFCA, on the other hand, is doing nothing, holding fast to its claim that it bears no legal responsibility for the hazardous bassinets.  The USCPC couldn’t even issue a product recall, because SFCA would not cooperate.  Rick Locker, a lawyer representing SFCA has declared the company unwilling to recall  “a product that it did not make and sell.”  The blog Daddy Types reports that – while SFCA may have hired Locker to assist with this matter – Locker is also paid as counsel for the Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association:  the lobbying organization that helps protect the makers of children’s products.  


Ironically, the JPMA’s website is currently heralding September as “Baby Safety Month.” In July, the association tooted its own horn for “reaffirm[ing] its commitment of safety.”  The communications contact on the July press release isn’t someone at a real PR or crisis management firm:  it’s a woman at Association Headquarters, Inc., an organization whose lone means of support is selling services to organizations such as… JPMA.  You can’t make this stuff up.

dilbert-business-ethics2.jpgHenceforth, SFCA has taken a “Who, me?” approach to its products killing children.  The company claims that it might go out of business if it took all the offending bassinets back.  I find this particularly ironic and outdated in our Web 2.o world.  If SFCA came out on the Web and announced a recall (even though they were not legally responsible), the company’s future would be far more secure.  The company would be a hero.  Parents would rave and remember the company when they went shopping the next time.  They would tell one another, at a time in history when spreading the word is easier than ever.  Their marketing folks would get college and business school cases written. 


Isn’t this exactly what Tylenol did and exactly what happened as a result (in a decidedly Web 0.0 world)?  But then again, it’s not hard to imagine those meetings in 1982 where well-meaning lawyers warned that a recall could take down the company and J&J’s top management said, So be it.  We’re not going to stand by and let people die.  Short-sighted greed and bad lawyering are in full control at SFCA. 
The drawbridge is up.  SFCA is not legally required to take back the affected bassinets, there are no mandatory standards for safety in the category and the USCPSC cannot bring legal charges against SFCA.

No matter.  There is a higher standard for working and living on this planet that J&J set and by which all corporations should live.  As an aside, I’ll say once again that it’s just good business: (a) the positive halo effect for J&J post-crisis was and still is phenomenal, and (b) not doing the right thing will get you in the end.  You can expect boycotts and bad press at minimum: perhaps a crazed parent manufacturing a terrible happening to take you down if you’re really unlucky.  Permanently disastrous online search results.  But aside from it being good business, it’s about acting human, like someone whose own child or grandchild was killed by your product.


There is no exception – and if there is, I haven’t heard about it and SFCA most definitely does not qualify.  This is capitalism run right into the ground, taking humanity and business ethics down with it.

SFCA  Simplicity bassinets   Blackstreet Capital  JPMA 
Johnson & Johnson 1982 Tylenol   Rick Locker  

The teenage jury is in: Abercrombie & Fitch’s cross-channel marketing/ hype machine leaves just about everyone else in the dust.  Launched in 1892, I suspect that former shoppers Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Amelia Earhart and Clark Gable would scarcely recognize the clothier whose soft-core porn advertising/experience that has turned the chain into a cultural icon (well, maybe Gable would feel at home…).

Since rebooting the brand in 1988, A&F has broken from the teen pack by courting controversy everywhere it goes.  Let us count the ways…

Because just about every retailer has a catalog and everyone’s catalog is free (ho-hum), A&F created a separate lifestyle magazine full of black-and-white photographs taken by Bruce Weber, the photographer best known for highlighting “the beauty of youth in male nude photography” (as taken verbatim from his own website).   There were so many protests over A&F Quarterly (which the company sells – further stoking desire among teens)  that the company suspended publication for awhile; it’s hard to say whether it was the magalog’s porn star interviews or the b&w shots of Santa and Mrs. Santa Claus in flagrante that pushed thousands of parents and a few governors and attorneys general over the edge… who’s to say?

Such outrage, of course, only pushed the Quarterly to greater, more mythical heights, stoking the company’s good-but-bad-boy (emphasis on “boy”) reputation.  Go online right now to witness the hysteria it generated in 2003. Totally un-cool Bill O’Reilly, a series of religious organizations and others called for boycotts, and articles concerned with “cultural decay” screamed out with headlines like “Abercrombie & Fitch Stops Selling Porn.”  Parental boycotts? Porn?  Thongs for pre-teens, according to Bill O’Reilly? [Don’t think too much about that one.]  All like catnip to your underage kitty.  Meee-ow!

A&F Quarterly has recently been reintroduced (in Europe, not the US) with a promise from the company that it would no longer be sold to individuals under the age of 18 and that there would be less of everything that made it hot in the first place.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t expect any A&F articles on the virtues of abstinence anytime soon.


On the ground, it appears that the company used the Quarterly‘s hiatus period to begin focusing on customer service and the stores.  A new CEO was brought in from Gucci which – at 46,000 feet – now boasts the largest luxury store in the world right here on New York’s Fifth Avenue.  Gucci knows how to push the rags.  The CEO beefed up store staffing and there are now greeters at the front of every store, in addition to at least one employee inside covering each sales section.  But what is A&F’s spin?  A&F hires male models as greeters, who may literally be standing out on the sideway, stirring up – whatever.  The company further inflates the aspiration by “casting” for such greeters on its website, where the pages pulsate with club music accompanying a video of store events where the models are decidedly half-naked and the customers are clearly under 18.  If you are interested in becoming a model for A&F, you’re asked for a photo, your height, your weight… and the name of the mall nearest you.   ‘Cuz you may be pretty, but don’t ever forget why you’re here.


A&F’s been knocking around in my head for some time, but the impetus for this post was an experience this past Labor Day weekend.  Marketing Mojo was merrily cruising down NYC’s Fifth Avenue until running headlong into a case of gridlock at 57th Street.  What could it be?  Celebrities (pretty typical in these here parts…)?  No, it was a huge mass of people standing in front of A&F’s flagship store, waiting to get in and taking pictures of what definitely seemed to be a highlight of their day.  There were two beautiful young male models standing at the door controlling entry, and a line of people behind a velvet rope that snaked around the corner.  A velvet rope.  2008’s version of Studio 54/Limelight/China Club (all of which the Mojo’s under-18 friends snuck into) is… Abercrombie & Fitch. 

There is no question that A&F has made some wrong moves, particularly in the area of diversity.  Several years ago, the company made t-shirts that it considered fun and tongue-in-cheek.  Just about everyone else, including many college student organizations, considered them racist.  And in 2004, the company settled a $50 million class action lawsuit brought by former employees who claimed that the company was happy to hire African-Americans, Asians, Filipinos and other minorities… as long as they worked in the stores’ stockrooms and not out on the selling floor.   

Ergo, the stupid, screwed up (and illegal) side of presenting the “Caucasian, football-looking, blonde-hair, blue-eyed, skinny, tall male” as everyone’s ideal.  


Fast forward to 2008, and the company is making progress.  Today, the company claims that minorities make up 32% of its sales staff.  It also has a  huge “Diversity” section on its website.  Of course this is A&F, so the section plays a video loop that features Asians, Latinos and African-Americans – all of whom are gorgeous and (most of whom are) in some state of undress.  The company can’t give up everything!


[Nota bene: An employee recently claimed that A&F has simply shifted its discriminatory ways toward not hiring “ugly” people, with the company’s “hierarchy of hotness” dictating just about everything.  And not hiring unattractive people (across all ethnic groups) is very hard to outlaw, according to a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the original 2004 case.] 


Based on 20 years of business experience, the Mojo has absolutely no doubt that A&F’s lawyers and senior management are fully cognizant of what they’re doing, and believe that a nuisance lawsuit or two is worth preserving the highly profitable fantasy world they’ve created.  And by doing so, A&F taps into its target consumer’s impressionable zeitgeist like few others do – or have the nerve to do.

Abercrombie & Fitch  back to school shopping  clothing retail

I’m feeling a bit huffy about Advertising Age these days.

First it was the story on ad agencies that have their own bars and – woo-hoo! – staffers who drink on the job. Now, I know that this is all just good bonding fun: 99.99% of folks aren’t getting drunk on the job. I just thought the piece was a little insensitive (and not too reader-friendly) given that the rest of the issue was focused on layoffs, ad cutbacks and clients bleeding to death.stephanie-fierman-adage-cover1.jpg

Now comes what I would call the “Call Me Irresponsible” issue (August 4, 2008).

1. A sidebar about the TV show Mad Men discusses the big sales of Frank O’Hara poetry after Don Draper reads O’Hara‘s poetry on the show. The article’s title: “TV Can Boost Book Sales, Too.” Didn’t Oprah prove that… years ago? And, like, over and over? Hmmm.

2. On a Law & Order episode I saw last weekend, a witness testifies that violent television programming makes juvenile delinquents delinquent. Sam Waterston then proceeds to eat said witness for lunch by quizzing the guy about the difference between “cause” and “correlation.” Now comes the inadvertently humorous, self-involved AdAge article, “Ad Cutbacks Backfired For Bankruptcy Victims.” [Even though your product is lousy, and you expanded too fast, and your customer base dried up… you’d have been fine if you’d only kept advertising!]  The article does admit that perhaps there are other factors that make companies go belly up, but when push comes to shove…  See Wikipedia on this topic.  

3. Finally, an article titled “How The Economy Is – And Isn’t – Affecting Our Lives” tries to take a sort of tongue-in-cheek view on how the recession is changing consumer behavior. We’re buying (cheap) coffee at McDonald’s instead of Starbucks. We’re “ordering from the dollar menu” instead of choosing Big Macs.” We’re “knitting ponchos” instead of “buying back-to-school clothes.” OK.  Not brilliant, not offering me any insights for my subscription dollar, but fine. Then I got to a claim regarding our reading habits: We are “reading Stephanie Meyer,” but not “reading Maureen Dowd.” The writer’s evidence for the latter is The New York Times’ declining profitability. 

Oh… Trying.  To.  Move.  On.  Can’t…  Drat.

(a) Nearly every newspaper is losing money at this point because offline readership is declining, (b) Maureen Dowd has written two books that have done pretty well, and (c) Dowd’s columns are quite popular online where – unlike the paper – they can be read for free. So what the heck does the Times‘ profitability, in this particular case, have to do with Maureen Dowd? Nothing.  The article does, however, include a picture of Maureen Dowd, so maybe they just thought that that would attract attention. And while I’m on a roll, the author’s supporting evidence for the idea that we’re knitting ponchos is Martha Stewart Living’s increase in 2Q08 sales while consumers are cutting back on back-to-school clothes.  Help me.

If AdAge was known and purchased for its satire, this wouldn’t annoy me. And you may conclude that I’m making a big hoo-ha over nothing.  But you know what? I really look forward to getting something out of AdAge every week.  I give Crain Communications my time and my money, and this stuff isn’t worth either.  It’s just dumb.  A revered trade journal owes its readers more.

Rising gas prices, baggage fees and the like are causing a lot of folks to plan summer vacations close to home… or at home.  UrbanDictionary defines staycation as “a vacation that is spent at one’s home enjoying all that home and one’s home environs have to offer.”  That sounds fun and relaxing – right up until you all decide you’d like to wring each other’s necks.  “Mom, there’s nothing to dooooooo!”

Over and above the normal picnic/game/pool promotions, this is a great opportunity for lots of local and national consumer-focused entities to promote themselves in this new context.

Some retailers are already getting into the act.  Wal-Mart has launched an “American Summer” campaign, cutting prices on everything from hot dogs to mosquito netting.  Their tag:  a summer getaway is “as close as your own backyard.”

Toy stores should get together recommendation lists based on budget, location (weather), age of children and so on.  Create promotions around toys and products best used at home.  And any smart local business trying to drive traffic should consider throwing a kid-friendly party:  growing up in a small town in New Jersey, I remember the parties thrown by the local Midas Muffler shop and one of the new bank branches in the community.  Hot dogs, face painting, balloons – families came out in droves.  Local, inexpensive happenings like these can create loyalty opportunities. 

Local newspapers (print and online) could feature daily and weekly ideas for great things to do around town – even borrow the concept of “3 Days In…” (see here and here for examples) and print entire itineraries for families to consider.  The web is great for this kind of editorial because it would enable a visitor to sort on the variables most important to him or her, such as distance from home, number of kids, indoor/outdoor activities, etc.  Sell incremental advertising around these features.

Local TV stations and affiliates should look at their programming schedules in the coming months and see what might be “repackaged” as stay-at-home, family fare.  Ad time could be sold to local supermarkets and other shops offering “specials” for fun nights at home.

There are also plenty of ideas being pitched for a very adult type of staycation, which usually revolve around a 2 or 3-night hotel or resort package of some sort.  Here’s one from Fodors.

Some creativity could really help businesses and families make the most of a challenging situation this summer.

NOTE:  And while you’re at home, you’ll have time to check out my second blog at http://www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com.

dov-charney-stephanie-fierman1.jpgI’ve written at least one post on corporate blogging before, but I gave them a little more thought this week.

This was because I ran a break-out group at this week’s CMO Club summit on PR 2.0, which I would loosely define as the new practices, policies and opportunities available to individuals and companies based on the digital innovations we all fondly call Web 2.0.

So I created a hand-out, which included such items such as how to track blogs, monitor Twitter tweets, figure out when to social(ly) network and so on.

One of the more active conversations focused on the topic of corporate blogs – notably, when should a company consider creating one? My top rules are that a corporation might consider a corporate blog when:

1. Two-way, honest conversations between senior management and both employees as well as consumers are already part of the company culture (think Sun and Stonyfield Farm)

2. Roles and responsibilities for the blog are clear and there is genuine commitment to (a) constant maintenance and (b) responding immediately (or at least promptly) to a problem

3. The company is prepared – both short-term and long-term – for what Kathy Sierra calls “the physics of passion.”


[NOTE: The famous corporate blogger Robert Scoble delivers the corporate blog manifesto here]


I guess I neglected what should be Rule #4: Your CEO isn’t a looney tune or, at minimum, far to colorful for public consumption.

Case in point: Dov Charney, Founder and CEO of American Apparel. Today’s WSJ includes an article on how American Apparel’s CFO has resigned after Charney called him “a complete loser” while sitting for a WSJ interview in March. Now that’s a bad performance appraisal!

In the past, Charney has gotten into hot water for engaging in completely inappropriate behavior during magazine interviews, having inappropriate (there’s that word again) encounters with company employee, hiring models from local strip bars, having scantily-clad employees serve him meals (at home), running around the office in his underwear and referring to women in ways that even he says he wouldn’t use with his mother.  His claim to fame (that, in my opinion, unfortunately outshines his philanthropy and US manufacturing-centric ethos) is that he’s been sued for sexual harassment more times than Joe Francis.

The photo is from an American Apparel “Apres Ski” advertisement. That’s Dov on the left.

It remains to be seen how he does once several quarters as a public company sinks in. In the meantime: no corporate blogs, please!

BlogHer and Compass Partners have just released what may be the first significant study of women and social media.  FYI, in case you are not aware, BlogHer is a network founded by three female bloggers in 2005. Today, it is backed by Venrock and boasts 1,500 contextual ad-targeted blogs created by women. Yours truly posts pieces from this blog as well as http://www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.blogspot.com to BlogHer on an increasingly-regular basis.

So back to the study…


BlogHer/Compass Partners surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 1,250 female Internet users plus 5,000 visitors to BlogHer. What they found is notable in sheer numbers, passion and experience:


* 36.2 million women actively participate in the blogsophere every week. 15.1 million do so by publishing (and reading/commenting) and 21.1 million (just) read and comment on blogs.


* 44% of female blog publishers maintain one blog and the remaining 56% write two or more. 56% have been writing for 2 years or less – I was surprised that this number was so low.  27% have been writing at least one blog for more than 3 years. Was “blog” even in my daily vocabulary 3 years ago?


* Women are so passionate about blogging that many say they would give something up rather than surrender their blogs, with 50% saying they would sacrifice their PDAs and 43% willing to stop reading newspapers or magazines to maintain their bloggy existences. They’d have to give up something, for sure, because 55% of blog publishers write and 56% of readers do so on 2 or more days each week. It helped to discover that only 20% are willing to give up chocolate (so at least we’re not all crazy…).

In the general Internet sample, 24% say they are watching less television, 25% are reading fewer magazines and 22% are reading fewer newspapers because they are so absorbed by the blog world. As would be expected, these numbers are higher for BlogHer members because they are significantly younger than those in the general sample (68% to 42% concentrated in the 25-41 age group, respectively). More than 50% consider blogs a reliable source of advice and information and claim that blogs influence their purchase decisions.


So what does it all mean?  Here are some conclusions and tips, plus what I see as a few gaps in the data:


* Me being me, I need to first point out the riskiness in considering blogs to be reliable sources of advice and information. Since I know that you’ve giving up everything else to read my blog… one need only point to my own experiences, the Obama-as-terrorist tale and the JuicyCampus disaster. What I would like to know: what percentage of readers seek to confirm a piece of information they’ve read on a blog from additional news sources (blogs and non-blogs)? How do you determine that a blog is trustworthy?


* This study would certainly imply that any party with a message to disseminate should consider blogging. What I would like to know: how closely do these opinions align to those of men? And does this trust extend only to blogs written by women “like me,” or does it extend to corporate/institutional blogs, as well?

* The time-shifting aspect of the study is fascinating and enough to get anyone’s attention. What I would like to know: what kinds of television programming, magazines and newspapers are women willing to swap out? Are they giving up hard news, or are blogs replacing pop culture information sources?


* 38% of blog publishers and 29% of blog readers say that blogs have influenced their decision to purchase goods or services. What I’d like to know: are there particular goods or services that appear to be discussed more/most on blogs? Are there any patterns we can discern as to the characteristics (e.g. complexity) of goods and services most discussed on blogs? If I’m the CMO of one of these widget companies, what is it about non-blog sources of information that I might be able to improve, and how can I build credibility in the blog universe?


* By design, the study specifically confirms that women trust blogs at a fairly high rate so, as a marketer, I’d think hard about how to leverage this phenomenon in other ways. For example, I’d consider companies that recruit female consumers to personally talk up products to other girls/women (such as Mr. Youth, Alloy and P&G’s Tremor).

And lastly, the #1 reason that female bloggers (65%) say they blog is for fun. 60% say they do so to express themselves and 40% to connect with “others like me.” In other words – even in this new and blogerrific world – it’s about them, not us. Marketers who make a connection that feels personal relevant for a female consumer are the ones that succeed. Those that don’t? We’ll be reading about them in the blogosphere…

If I’m just not writing enough to suit you, please check out my new *daily* blog at http://www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com.