Thursday, July 30, 2009

Welcome! Fingerprint, Please

A number of banks, including Bank of America, according to several published reports, require a fingerprint before they will cash a check for a non-accountholder. In fact, the Georgia Bankers Association has a program to deter check fraud by offering thumbprint devices to its members.

Fingerprinting to avoid check fraud is nothing new. In the mid-1970s, I worked in a Massachusetts clothing store that required any customer paying by check to put a print (using an inkless fingerprinting system) on the back of the check. This wasn't the store's only anti-fraud policy. At one time, the checkwriter had to be photographed in front of equipment that simultaneously captured the check and the writer's face. Clearly, simply asking for two pieces of ID plus a phone number wasn't working well enough.

The 99.9% of shoppers who were honest were understandably unhappy--even outraged. I heard a lot of complaints (sometimes very loud and angry) from loyal customers. But a policy is a policy. In banking, the GA Bankers Assn points out that for legal reasons, institutions that use this system must fingerprint all non-customers, or they may leave themselves open to charges of discrimination.

Check fraud is a serious, expensive problem, no question. And we, the public, ultimately pay the price for losses from bad checks, in the form of higher bank fees and higher store prices.

But as a potential customer, who wants to do business with a local bank or store that requires a fingerprint? For that matter, who wants to be the employee or manager who has to do the fingerprinting (and possibly meet the fingerprinted person later, in a local restaurant or in church)? This is not a good way to welcome legitimate customers, who might very well be shopping around for a new bank or store. Good morning, fingerprint please, thank you for doing business with us?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Yellow Pages Pile Up

I wish I had had a camera with me when I drove past the local AT&T branch office today. The 4 big recycle barrels were piled high with orange plastic bags filled with brand-new Yellow Pages directories, delivered just today around my town. In addition, two piles almost as high as my chin were next to the barrels on the building's front lawn. [UPDATE: Photo above was taken 24 hrs later. The piles are neater and smaller but you can still see how many orange bags are there, in addition to what look like outdated phone books from years past.]

It was clear, based on this evidence of hundreds of new YP books piled on AT&T's property within 24 hours [and 48 hrs] after distribution, that many people in my town no longer want these directories.

Here's my suggestion for AT&T (and other carriers that distribute YPs): Adopt an opt-in policy ASAP. Increasingly, the world is opt-in instead of opt-out, so get with the program. Save a forest (and lots of vehicle emissions) by sending out yellow postcards asking for permission to deliver. No permission, no YP delivery.

I recognize that this will threaten YP advertising revenue, but it's time to change the business model. In fact, since AT&T's YP site offers mobile options, why not make the case that forward-thinking advertisers should be involved with mobile YP listings? Just asking.

Next year I don't want to see YP books piled high at the nearby AT&T building. If they're not wanted, don't print and deliver 'em. Think green.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Marketing the Idea, Not the Item

Rob Walker's latest column for the New York Times Magazine discusses what Profs Dan Ariely and Michael Norton define as "conceptual consumption:" consumers buy the idea or goal that is embodied by something they purchase; their purchase is not simply about the thing itself.

This brings Walker to a discussion of Lululemon, which began as a retailer of functional clothing for those serious about yoga and now has broadened its merchandise mix to include other apparel. Here, the conceptual consumption is based, in large part, on aspiring to the yoga lifestyle. In fact, Lululemon's site says it offers "yoga-inspired apparel for healthy living."

Conceptual consumption has a lot to do with the popularity of LL Bean among suburbanites like myself, who want to feel part of the outdoorsy lifestyle even when sitting at a desk or wheeling around the supermarket.

It's downright fun to browse (online or in stores) at REI and EMS, admiring the tech touches on clothing and accessories, imagining yourself in the midst of nature's majesty, and even making the occasional purchase. When you're not actually shooting the rapids or pitching a tent, cargo pants with zip-off legs look spiffy and are comfy for lounging around Panera Bread.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Buying from the Farmer's Cow

Actually, I buy eggs from the Farmer's Cow, a group of six Connecticut family-owned farms that produce eggs, milk, and other dairy products. The farmers organized in 2004 to create the brand and resell through supermarkets, groceries, and even Wal-Mart locations throughout Connecticut. I pick up their eggs when I'm in the local Stop & Shop supermarket.

The brand winningly conveys the "local, farm-fresh, and natural" positioning. And the farmers go on tour throughout the state to promote their brand, a wonderful way to put a human face on products that face so much competition within the supermarket dairy case.

The Connecticut dairy farmers need their marketing savvy at this moment--their profits are squeezed nearly dry. Positioning the Farmer's Cow as distinctly local and all-natural gives the farmers a very powerful tool for attracting loyal customers throughout Connecticut and beyond. Eggs from the Farmer's Cow!

Friday, July 17, 2009

ASDA Asks Customers What They Want

Ever want to tell a retailer exactly what you want to see in a local store? If you live in the UK, you can now give a major retailer direct feedback about what you do and don't want on store shelves.

ASDA (owned by Wal-Mart) sponsors a "Pulse of the Nation" e-panel of customers to find out which new products they're interested in seeing in their local ASDA stores. As its press release explains, "Pulse of the Nation is sponsored by Asda but owned and operated by the market research firm TNS which operates in over 70 countries worldwide and does research in almost every country of the world." Consumers must apply to join the panel; once they become members, they're entered into a monthly prize drawing as a reward for participation.

According to a WSJ article, ASDA is sending panel members photos of potential new products (as selected in the Far East by its buyers) and asking which should be stocked in a neighborhood ASDA store.

I like the panel idea, although as a former retail manager (and a shopper), I know that people don't always know what they'll like until they can pick it up, read the label, and check the size or color. Even if people don't buy a product today, they might decide to buy in the future. Needs are always changing, and panel members' votes could very well vary from day to day and season to season. Still, Pulse of the Nation is a very promising concept for bringing the voice of the customer into retail merchandising decisions.

I wonder: Will ASDA let the panel know members voted on a particular item? And will it abide by the panel's votes as the final decision on what will be stocked?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Encyclopedias: Still Alive and Kicking

The encyclopedia is a surprisingly old product category that still has some life left in it. Encyclopedia Britannica introduced its first multivolume set in the late 1700s. Printed encyclopedias really caught on with schools and families during the 20th century, when many sets were sold door to door.

The rise of the PC and then the Internet threw the product category into confusion. The venerable Britannica saw profits tumble as it tried different ways to extend its product's life-cycle by marketing encyclopedias on CD-ROM, DVD, and through online subscriptions. Competitor World Book went through similar gyrations, and now offers both printed and online encyclopedias.

During the 1980s, the mighty Microsoft hatched a plan for a CD-ROM multimedia encyclopedia. But by the time it actually launched Encarta, rivals had stolen its thunder. Microsoft struck back by slashing its price--and Encarta soon dominated the category. As the Internet Age picked up steam, however, demand for CD-ROM encyclopedias slumped. Encarta evolved into an online subscription product and will finally get the axe later this year.

Wikipedia's rise contributed to Encarta's downfall. The free, user-written online encyclopedia (logo above) has become so popular since its founding in 2001 that one of its entries is often the top result in any Google search. Did you know it has 256 different sites in languages as diverse as Cornish, Kongo, and Kashmiri?

Google wants to muscle into this industry through Knol, its free, user-written online encyclopedia. But Wikipedia has a huge headstart through higher brand recognition, more articles, and more visitors. Clearly, the encyclopedia's life cycle is far from over. What form will it take next?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

No Such Thing as TMI in Marketing

In marketing, there's no such thing as too much information. You can't know too much about your market and your marketing environment. Here are just a handful of tried-and-true sources of information to check as you plan your marketing for the remainder of 2009 and beyond:
  • US Census Bureau (ramping up for 2010 Census)
  • Stateline (state-by-state news about economy, business conditions, legalities, more)
  • GeoHive (country-by-country population statistics and infrastructure info)
  • U.N. Global Development Statistics (social issues, environmental concerns, and more)
  • Free Lunch (and you thought there's no such thing? Here you'll find all kinds of free economic data, but you have to register to view what you want)
  • FTC (Stay on top of what's happening at the Federal Trade Commission)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Rushing the Season

Local schools had been closed for three days when the first back-to-school sales popped up in advertising inserts. Granted, back-to-school is the second-most lucrative selling season (#1 is, of course, Christmas/Hanukkah). Still, in early July, how many parents and students are going to stampede to Staples, Apple, JCPenney, Old Navy, and every other store that's running a back-to-school ad?

And this year's outlook is especially murky, unless some economic miracle comes to pass. A July 3rd story in the Chicago Tribune quoted Cheryl Bridges, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University, as saying: "If a retailer breaks even for back to school, they're doing great." Not good news for retailers struggling for profitability. Shoppers are holding onto every last penny for as long as they can and holding out for the best sales before they buy.

This brings up another key question: Are retailers doing too much to rush every selling season? My answer: Yes.

Last year, some stores had Christmas cards and ornaments on display during late August. The image above shows Sears pushing Christmas in July. On January 2nd, I saw valentines and similar merchandise at center stage in CVS and other stores. It's common to see winter coats and boots front and center by July 20th. Halloween holiday items are on store shelves by August. And if you need a wool scarf on January 15th, you'll have to wade through racks of shorts to find them.

Is this good marketing? In a world obsessed by "new" and "improved," pencil cases and winter coats that have been in stores for weeks can look very "yesterday" and tired. Repositioning racks and shelves to give everything a fresh look can do wonders, but this tactic won't work for merchandise that's been on display for months (I know from my retailing days).

Costco and Zara and other stores capture shoppers' imaginations because there is always new merchandise shipping in. Costco is expert at marketing its "treasure hunt" items. Granted, Sears and Staples can't have treasure hunts for back-to-school merchandise. But I doubt that rushing the season will bring in any extra cash. It probably shifts some buying from a later period to an earlier period. And a sale might encourage consumers to buy a little from Store A if Store B is selling at regular price. But to just break even for the 2nd-largest selling season? Not the best strategy for an industry in crisis.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Via Twitter, I've been reading posts about #Buzz2009, which its web site says "is for associations eager to incorporate social media and word of mouth tactics into their overall strategy." Very interesting speakers--Andy Sernovitz and Guy Kawasaki plus, among others, Stacey Kane of California Tortilla and Stephanie Miller of ReturnPath.

To read all the tweets, search #buzz2009 in your favorite Twitter tool and you'll see what everyone's been saying. A small selection of tweets from the audience (not from panelists, who didn't tweet while speaking):

Jeff Hurt: "Want to see ROI, put tellafriend button on your email and everytime button clicked, its worth $1 then you can use hard dollars"
Jeff Crab: "You have many layers of followers - even though only some will RT you...many more read/view your material"
Meet/Collab: "Give people something to talk about and make it easy to participate"
ShowTecAE: "Great point, if you're forcing the viral campaign, you're trying to hard."
The Black Hill: "Justifying social media time to your boss? Set up specific metrics (including hours spent) to measure ROI"

Live from SmartBrief's panel discussion, highlights here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tylenol in the News--Again

I'm not a medical expert, but it seems Tylenol has a new pain: Concerns about liver damage that can occur with overuse of the painkiller acetaminophen, which is Tylenol's active ingredient.

The FDA is considering new restrictions because people may inadvertently consume too much acetaminophen if they use multiple products that contain the painkiller. It's also calling for a "black box warning" to draw attention to safety precautions on each product that contains acetaminophen.

However, when consumers use these medications correctly, meaning they follow label directions and track the amount of acetaminophen they swallow during the day, experts say there is much less risk of liver damage.

Tylenol's challenge is to be sure people fully understand the issues and are careful about taking the proper dosage. Its home page acknowledges these concerns with the headline: "Your Safety Is Our Number One Priority." Click to learn more and up comes a letter signed by the Senior Medical Director of Medical Affairs for McNeil Consumer Healthcare, Tylenol's parent. Tylenol also took out a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times to explain the importance of correct dosage.

Tylenol's revenues could feel the pain if people become confused or afraid and simply stop buying the product. Of course Tylenol is taking the high road in marketing a product that benefits many people, by emphasizing safety as well as efficacy. Who would expect any less from the brand that is the textbook case of how to handle a crisis?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Out on the Ledge in Chicago

This past week I noticed many media items about the newly-opened "Ledge" on Chicago's Sears Tower (soon to be renamed the Willis Tower). At a time when many attractions and tourist destinations are hurting for business, the Ledge--a series of glass balconies that allow visitors to look straight down at the street from 103 stories up--is a smash hit.

Want to see the view? It's included with the $14.95 admission fee to the Sky Deck. On a perfectly clear day, you should be able to see for 50 miles. Or, if you prefer, just step out on the thick glass and look down at the streets of Chicago, as in these photos.

The Ledge's grand-opening is part of an ongoing multimillion-dollar renovation of the building. Backed by lots of media attention, the Sky Deck is likely to pay many happy returns for many years. Can't wait to try the Ledge next time I'm in the Windy City.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Aston Martin's Cygnet

Aston Martin, known for high-end, high-performance cars, is steering toward the super-compact commuter car market with its new Cygnet, due to launch in 2010.

What's especially interesting is that this car will be based on a Toyota small-car platform and feature Aston Martin styling cues.

Can Aston Martin appeal to buyers seeking super-compact cars at a super-compact price (reportedly less than $30,000)? “Small is beautiful these days,” says Aston Martin's CEO. “We have to move on from the preconceived ideas regarding what Aston Martin is about.” But can consumers move on? What will Cygnet mean for the Aston Martin brand (and for Toyota)?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tuning into YouTube

Mashable has a recent post by Catherine-Gail Reinhard, who looks at the 5 outstanding brands on YouTube. She specifically excludes brands that run a one-shot contest and let their YouTube channels go stale or mainly post commercials. Here are her top 5, with my brief comments:
  1. Quiksilver and Roxy. Actually, these are separate brands that target surfers, skateboarders, and snowboarders. Both of these company's videos have had tens of thousands of views, and each posts new videos quite frequently. Knowing the power of social media marketing, both are on FB and other popular sites. As soon as you look at these YouTube channels, you know who they're targeting and why the audience responds. Some exciting and compelling footage here, folks.
  2. Ford Models. OK, Reinhard admits that having access to some of the most gorgeous models in the world gives this YouTube channel an unfair advantage--and the millions of views show that she's right. If you hire models or want to be a model or just want to know how modeling works behind the scenes, these are the videos for you.
  3. University of Phoenix Online. Disclaimer: My textbooks may be used in some UofP classes, although I don't know for sure. Nonetheless, it's clear that the school's YouTube channel, which has just under 1,000 subscribers and more than 200,000 views, is extremely professional and easy to navigate. Anyone who's considering going back to college or earning a higher degree online will find lots of food for thought here.
  4. Home Depot. Yes, Home Depot. Wanna know how to install a new toilet? Click the video. Learn how to get a container garden going or slash your electric bill. A couple of thousand subscribers and nearly 240,000 views show that people seeking how-to advice know where to go--Home Depot's YouTube channel. All this know-how supports the retailer's positioning and encourages visits to its web site and stores.
  5. Nike Football. Or, as we say in my part of the world, soccer. Now this is one popular channel, with more than 11,000 subscribers and nearly a million views. Fans flock here to see videos of professional players and skill-building tips. If you're a football fan, you have to browse this channel. The swoosh is present but not overdone. It's the sport that gets the spotlight, and that's why this channel draws so well.