Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Retailing Spring

Spring has sprung! As the sun shines and the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano quiets down, The Retail Muse has found a few weird and wonderful items while trend spotting. Garden postcards, Heart attack burgers, runway sounds, bra sizes and carstaches. Nothing says spring like carstaches!

Monster Fast Food
The latest foodie trend seems to be the heart attack inducing burgers peddled by fast food companies. After the 2007 introduction of the mega Wendy's Baconater, now KFC brings out the "Double Down", a concoction of bacon and cheese and sauce between two pieces of chicken. These fatty, enormous calorie sandwiches are part of an extreme junk food movement. While definitely not healthy, they seem to be more of a shock fad than an actual dietary suggestion. Still, even the New York Times food critic got in the act, chowing down on the KFC burger, calling it a "new low". Is it any wonder that people are getting bigger and bigger? Which brings us to:

Bra Sizes
Yes it's true. Bra sizes are getting bigger. Manufacturers and retailers report there is a growing demand for bigger and bigger bras in response to the whole obesity epidemic. The median bra size a decade ago was 36C. Now demand is growing for DD, DDD, G Cups. According to "Fashion Gossip Weekly" some bra builders are looking to manufacture a K Cup.

Life in On Line Grocery?
The on line grocery business is growing. Well for FreshDirect anyway, a company that has built a profitable online business in delivering groceries to urbanites in New York and New Jersey. Unlike all the other companies that tried and failed, FreshDirect has been successful in focusing on heavily urban areas where convenience and lack of a car, makes shopping on line a great deal of sense. They are planning to expand into other high density areas in the country. Interestingly, the overall profits for FreshDirect is almost 10% - much higher than the 6.2% reported by Kroger, the largest US Supermarket. There's money in those online apples.

Fashionable Sounds
Wondering what to play at your next fashion show? Bach? Beethoven? Air Supply? compiled a list of the most played songs at fashion shows in Paris, Milan, New York and London. The top ten list included songs by Iggy Pop, Franz Ferdinand, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran and even the Beatles. Top songs (with video links) include:
Dimestore Diamond by Gossip
Shoes by Tiga
No You Girls by Franz Ferdinand

Tori and Dean and IKEA
IKEA is teaming up with Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott in their latest reality show venture. Tori and Dean will travel the country on a road trip (watch out all!), and somewhere along the way (at least for two episodes), IKEA will perform a kitchen makeover for a happy guest. Will Tori and Dean put the IKEA kitchen together themselves? Stay tuned.

Scratch and sniff
Germany is releasing scratch and sniff postage stamps (you remember postage stamps and letters right?). In four fruity flavors like lemon and blueberry. They even raise money for charity. You can see them here. Order some today and send a scented letter to your loved one.

Macho Grills
If smelly postage is not manly enough for you, check out Another of the ever growing category of "you can't make this stuff up", is giant mustaches that can be affixed to the grill of your muscle car. You can order the "Classic Black Stache", or the Hulk Hogan like "legendary Blonde", and so much more.. One can only marvel at the business acumen to come up with this idea, and who the buyers are. Slap on your stache and gun your engines!

Garden Postcards
Here's a great little product. It's a gift card that opens up to create a 3D Victorian garden. Sprinkle the included seeds and display in a sunny spot. Viola a small little postcarden. Great idea. You can find out more about this company (including wholesale orders) at

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Retailing Community

Cathy Langer is the lead buyer at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver. Speaking on Bob Edwards radio show this week, Langer was asked why people should continue to buy books from their independent bookstore. Langer mentioned the obvious. Knowledgeable staff and independents keeping money in the community. She also stressed the importance of community. Local bookstores play a large role in knitting people together in a central welcoming environment.

I twigged on this this simple phrase "community". It seems that in the past year or so, there is a noticeable shift going on. Retailers moving out of the mass merchant business model of the past, now focusing their attention on a new strategy - that of developing a sense of ownership with the customer. Connecting to clients on another level, and seeing the customer as their friend and partner.

There is nothing new here. This strive for community, linking your business to higher aspirations of customers, has been going on for years. It used to be that retailers developed stores around the concept of the "third place". Work, home, the big mega shopping experience. But this fell out of favor, not only because retailers started to feel that customers were not spending enough within this sparkling "third place", but that customers just were not buying it. The focus shifted. Back to the tried and true of mass merchandising and fast checkout lines. Customers wanted to get in and get out. No dawdling.

Yet the community spirit focus seems to be making a resurgence. Booksellers, and campus bookstores in particular, see this community enticement as one way to combat the every growing threat of electronic readers, books, DYI Publishing and the like. The future of book and campus retailing seems to be about weaving yourself into the lives of your customers. Making yourself indispensable. Offering services and products that complement and enhance your customers lives.

But this community focus is not unique to the bookselling industry. Companies all over are seeing this as a way to connect, a chance to be good corporate citizens, and develop relationship with their customers that go far and beyond a simple sale of widgets. Retailing, marketing and branding. Real customer connections are on the rise. Not only to drive sales, but also to develop (hopefully) life long relationships with buyers, long after the economic malaise of now has finished.

Telus, A telecommunications company in Canada, is one that is striving to build a higher purpose connection. Recently in Toronto, Canada, Telus developed a clever take away campaign to support their new site Posters in one of the banking centres in Toronto advertised the new service, and then were covered with 1000 blue butterfly magnets. Customers and passer bys were encouraged to take the magnets from the poster. What's unique about tis campaign is not only the beautiful giveaway (who doesn't like a butterfly?), but also the customer connection. A simple interactive takeaway that is a visual reminder of your business - A way that customers can connect with your brand, feel part of the community experience, without spending a dime.

This could be scaled down for a campus retailer. Magnets of mascots, imagery that evokes the campus, or just anything compelling that pulls the customers into your brand and store can be developed. The key of course, is to find something clever and different that evokes the spirit of the campus store. Something that stands out above the marketing noise to build community connections.

A more interactive community experience, is the developing "CarrotMob". What on earth is a "Carrot Mob'? Well it's a small scale social media flash mob that is concentrating it's effort on getting shoppers out to certain independent businesses for a specific day, with the goal of all profits donated towards energy efficient sustainable improvements within the business. What's exciting about this is the opportunities for campus stores. With a high percentage of core customers engaged in the environmental and sustainability movement, along with a desire for fun and frivolity in the places that they shop, the campus store is in a great position to capitalize on this movement. Store staff (and customers!) dress up as carrots and tomatoes to express there support of this movement. Born in San Francisco, by Brent Shulkin, the movement has grown to over 30 cities in the US and Canada. You can learn more about Carrot Mobs and how to organize one in your community here.

Other community groups and business event connections include "Crop Mobs", ( where citizens go out to small farms and spend the day harvesting potatoes and the like. Once again the connection is to creating a consumer experience. Bringing customers into the production cycle, and developing sustainable, environmentally sensitive business practice. Consumers as part of the solution, not part of the end product.

Customers can also be the arbitrator of your product selection. As I wrote about a week or two, companies are allowing the customer in to vote on their favorite fashion styles. But the social networking world has grown from this. One of the new, upcoming trends is the practice of advertising your "hauls". Adolescents from across the country are posting YouTube videos of their recent purchases. Why they bought them, and why they love them. It's a dream come true for advertising and marketing gurus. Another example of the community connection, and the ongoing relationship with the store that people shop at. I'm not sure your going to see a "hauls" video about the purchase of textbooks and pencils from the college store, but wouldn't it be interesting if such a thing was posted? Here's a sample of a typical shopping fashion haul with two charming girls talking about their purchases and the upcoming dance:

As an aside, it's seems to me that campus stores are well positioned to coordinate and implement "flash mobs" on campus. Another way to develop fun and exciting community relationships at little cost, to an audience that knows what a flash mob is.

If you have been in business for awhile, your brand might seem ubiquitous. You might be known but boring. Everyone understands what you are on a basic level. Sound like a college store? Same problem for the local YMCA. Everyone knows the Y, almost intuitively, but not exactly the scope of the services that they offer. That's why the YMCA of Vancouver, BC, created a branding campaign that is beautiful and passionate of what their services are all about. They hired the creative firm of TBWA in Vancouver to develop a campaign to showcase not the Y pool or exercise equipment, but the sense of connectedness and community that exists with a Y membership.

The Ad campaign was simple, compelling and provocative. First, the firm used hand drawn signs through the Vancouver area asking questions; Why don't people hold the door for each other anymore? When did smiling at someone of the street become creepy? When did we stop letting our kids walk to school? The questions evoke a real emotional response. You need to stop and think. It's been a long time since kids could walk to school! Why is that? They followed up these questions with a beautiful and smart YouTube video (see below), using cut and paste animation. It is simple and powerful. A message of getting back to community, eschewing the present world order of individuality and isolation. It is one of the most beautiful and compelling branding campaigns in years. YMCA's all across North America are interested in using it, and when I first saw it, I thought that it was perfect for the campus store environment.

Dressing up as carrots, giving away blue butterflies, picking potatoes and paper cut animation. All examples of community and emotional connection with your customers. All scalable and possible in the campus retail market. The future of the college store might be 2015.

But really it is now.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How to avoid customers (again)

This past weekend, my partner had a hankering for Chinese food, mentioning a restaurant a town over from us. So off we go, on a windy Saturday afternoon, to try it out. The food was fine, the service pleasant. Ever the diligent retailing muse, I couldn't help but notice the pedestrian and world weary surroundings. The plastic plants and the De rigour fish tank. Those awful conference centre chairs and Formica tables, all circa 1977. It's like every Chinese food restaurant was designed by the same interior designer sometime in the 1950's, and left to gentrify for decades.

No matter, I munched happily and stared at the vast long buffet table (empty on weekends). I stopped eating, mid ginger beef, when I read the sign taped (taped! why do people continue to insist on Scotch tape for signs!) to the buffet sneeze guard. It read:

Lunch Buffet is $12.95 all that you can eat. Please use a clean plate each time you go to the buffet for health reasons. Remember that if you take too much food and do not eat it, you will be charged $5.00 for the waste.

I just about spit out my beef and broccoli. Here we ago again. Yet another business that just does not get it. How can you advertise all you can eat, invite customers to keep coming back to the trough and then charge em if they don't chow it all down? Makes you wonder how they got to this point. Did some glutton arrive one lunch hour and abuse the buffet? Leave too much moo shu pork on his plate? I kept reading the sign over and over again. Visualizing the "exploding fat man" scene from "Monty Python's Meaning of Life" It was all very off putting.

"Waste not, Want not". Sure, I get it. But on the flip side, doesn't it seem like once again the customer is treated as an enemy? That you, as the owner, offer the lunch buffet, but only if customers behave and eat it all? It's all rude and overbearing. Treat the customer with respect, don't send them down the street to the competition buffet, and certainly don't start charging a trough fee. What are they, an airline?

I sputtered this soliloquy to my partner, who wearily agreed that we would not come here again. I tried to take a picture of the sign, but the owner shooed me away. Ha! even they are embarrassed by their fee for waste / sticky tapped sign.

And, I took the rest of my meal to go.