The Storefront Index

City Observatory: “The Storefront Index “measures the number and concentration of customer-facing businesses in the nation’s large metropolitan areas … by mapping the locations of hundreds of thousands of everyday businesses … and then identifying significant clusters of these businesses—places where each storefront business is no more than 100 meters from the next storefront.”

“The result is a series of maps, available for the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas, that show the location, size, and intensity of neighborhood business clusters down to the street level … The Storefront Index helps illuminate the differences in the vibrancy of the urban core in different metropolitan areas.”

For example: “In Portland, there are about 1,700 storefront businesses in a three-mile circle—with substantial concentrations downtown, and in the close-in residential neighborhoods nearby … New York and San Francisco have the densest concentrations of storefront businesses in their urban cores … Maps of the Storefront Index for the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas are available online here. You can drill down to specific neighborhoods to examine the pattern of commercial clustering at the street level.”

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The De-Malling of America

The Wall Street Journal: “Retailers from Gap Inc. to Abercrombie & Fitch Inc. are abandoning a decades-old strategy of growing sales by blanketing cities with stores as consumers do more of their shopping online and less at the mall. The shifting shopping habits have prompted chains such as Williams-Sonoma Inc. and Macy’s Inc. to close stores in secondary malls to focus on web sales and more upscale shopping centers.”

However: “Mall owners disagree about whether the Internet is their main problem. They point to demographic changes that redirected population and income growth away from malls built years ago, along with a real estate glut that has left the U.S. with 24 square feet of retail space per person, compared with 15 for Canada, 10 for Australia and 5 for the U.K., according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.”

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Innovation: The Green Eggs & Ham Theory

Pacific Standard: “‘Constraints may turn out to be liberating,’ Rider University psychologist Catrinel Haught-Tromp writes in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. In two studies, she found students produced more creative writing samples when they were forced to abide by certain arbitrary rules.”

“What’s more, students continued to work at that higher level of imagination even after the restrictions were lifted. Once the challenge of working around certain restrictions has sparked one’s creativity, it appears to stay stimulated, at least for a time.”

“Haught-Tromp refers to this as the Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis .. Writer/illustrator Theodore Geisel was given a challenge by his publisher: Write a book small children will love using no more than 50 words (which could be repeated as often as needed). The result became a classic.”

“Why is this approach effective? Working with constraints ‘allows a deeper exploration of fewer alternatives,’ Haught-Tromp explains. They ‘limit the overwhelming number of available choices to a manageable subset,’ allowing us to ‘explore less familiar paths, to diverge in previously unknown directions.’

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Designing Virtual Assistants: Poetry in Automation

The Washington Post: “As tech behemoths and a wave of start-ups double down on virtual assistants that can chat with human beings, writing for AI is becoming a hot job in Silicon Valley. Behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are not just software engineers. Increasingly, there are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic types charged with engineering the personalities for a fast-growing crop of artificial intelligence tools.”

“As in fiction, the AI writers for virtual assistants dream up a life story for their bots. Writers for medical and productivity apps make character decisions such as whether bots should be workaholics, eager beavers or self-effacing … Even mundane tasks demand creative effort, as writers try to build personality quirks into the most rote activities … many developers of artificial intelligence make a point of adding a weird element to their avatar designs — such as an asymetrical face or an odd joke — something that signals that the virtual assistant isn’t human and doesn’t aspire to be … At the same time, the imperfections are meant to be endearing. A robot without such flaws could seem cold and alienating.”

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Chipotle ‘Loyalists’ Are Most Unforgiving

The Wall Street Journal: “Foursquare Inc. analyzed traffic data from its location-sharing mobile apps and found that Chipotle’s most loyal customers have been less forgiving of the chain than infrequent visitors. Last summer, 20% of Chipotle customers made up about half of foot-traffic visits.”

Says Foursquare CEO Jeff Glueck: “Interestingly, it’s this group of faithful customers that have changed their Chipotle eating habits most dramatically … These once-reliable visitors were actually 50% more likely to stay away in the fall during the outbreak, and they have been even harder to lure back in … Losing 2–3 loyal customers is the equivalent of losing about 10 other customers.”

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Airline Travel May Be Better Than We Think

The Washington Post: “While customer grumblings abound about airline travel, a new report suggests that satisfaction is actually at its highest in more than two decades … Highest rankings went to ease of check-in process and ease of making a reservation, while lowest scores went to quality of in-flight services (beverages, food, movies and music) and seat comfort.”

“According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Travel Report 2016, top ratings go to JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines (which tie for highest satisfaction), followed by Alaska Airlines. Spirit Airlines brings up the rear, preceded by Allegiant Air and Frontier Airlines … Except JetBlue, all of the airlines’ scores went up from last year (JetBlue is down 1 percent), and some did so substantially. Budget airlines Spirit and Frontier, which rank last and third from the bottom, respectively, both had double-digit improvements in customer satisfaction, at 15 percent for Spirit and 14 percent for Frontier.”

“The overall customer satisfaction ranking in the 2016 survey increased 4.3 percent, to 72 out of 100 points, over last year’s score. This year’s score ties with the highest one that airlines have received since the survey began … American Airlines’ score went up 9 percent, to 72 points, and United Airlines’ score rose 13 percent, to 68 points … both airlines recently returned to serving free snacks in economy class … Customers’ embrace of airline loyalty programs slipped one point, to 73 this year, and the report points out that travelers find it challenging to redeem rewards.”

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The Domino’s Effect & The Brand Experience

From a Wall Street Journal review of Door to Door by Edward Humes: “Domino’s Pizza … is really in the logistics business, funneling inputs—pineapple from Thailand, boxes from Georgia, salt from Minnesota—through 16 distribution points in the U.S. … one such ‘commissary’ … mixes enough dough, day in and day out, for 100,000 pizzas. Refrigerated big-rigs full of ingredients depart at 8 p.m. and make deliveries while the stores are closed.”

Mr. Humes writes: “The average American coffee-drinking household … never has less than 572,000 miles of travel pass through its coffeemaker every year.”

“The more complicated the product, the more tangled the supply chain … the components of an iPhone ‘collectively travel enough miles to circumnavigate the planet at least eight times.’ Assembly takes place in China, but the barometric sensor comes from Germany, the Gorilla Glass from Kentucky, the microprocessor from Taiwan or Texas.”

“We live like no other civilization in history, embedding ever greater amounts of miles within our goods and lives as a means of making everyday products and services seemingly more efficient and affordable,” writes Mr. Humes. “In the past, distance meant the opposite: added cost, added risk, added uncertainty. It’s as if we are defying gravity.”

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Lucky Charms: Colors Sans Chemicals

Quartz: “Removing the artificial ingredients while retaining the classic flavor of a bowl of Lucky Charms has sent the food scientists at General Mills back to the proverbial drawing board time and again. After all, how does one retain the vibrant hue of the blue crescent moon without Blue #2? … And the moon is just one marshmallow type in the bowl. There are multi-colored rainbows, pink hearts, yellow hour glasses, and neon-green leprechaun hats, too.”

“It has turned the quest to get Lucky Charms to look and taste right into an art form of its own … For each marshmallow conquered, the food scientists must then step back and consider the state of the entire bowl, paying keen attention to any small difference in taste. The subtlety of Lucky Charms—versus the loud, fruity flavors one would find in a bowl of Trix—makes the task of achieving vibrant colors with muted flavor all the more challenging. General Mills hopes to introduce the new, all-natural Lucky Charms to market by the end of 2017.”

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Luxury Today: Big Data & The Rising Velvet Rope

The New York Times: “Today, ever greater resources are being invested in winning market share at the very top of the pyramid, sometimes at the cost of diminished service for the rest of the public. While middle-class incomes are stagnating, the period since the end of the Great Recession has been a boom time for the very rich and the businesses that cater to them.”

“In many ways, the rise of the velvet rope reverses the great democratization of travel and leisure, and other elements of American life, in the post-World War II era. As the Jet Set gave way to budget airlines, in places like airports and theme parks even the wealthiest often rubbed shoulders with hoi polloi … What is new is just how far big American companies are now willing to go to pamper the biggest spenders.”

“Many companies … have discovered that offering ordinary customers just a whiff of the rarefied air can actually enhance the bottom line, even if it stirs a certain amount of envy and resentment … And with the rise of the Internet and big data, companies can pinpoint and favor these wealthiest customers in ways unimaginable even a decade ago.”

“For companies trying to entice moneyed customers, that means identifying and anticipating what they want … But for people at the lower end of the market, as well as in the middle, plenty of friction remains. The trade-off is that the amount of hassle is precisely calibrated to just how much you are willing to pay.”

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The ‘Margaritaville’ Experience is a State of Mind

“Margaritaville, with its themed restaurants (erupting volcanoes, boat-shaped booths), started as a tropical cousin to T.G.I. Friday’s,” The New York Times reports. “Through trial and error, Jimmy Buffett and a partner, John Cohlan, have since expanded Margaritaville Holdings to include four booming divisions: lodging, alcohol, licensing and media. Now, as they pursue growth for the first time overseas … they are trying to recast Margaritaville as a broad, aspirational brand — the Ralph Lauren of leisurely escape, if you will.”

“The stroke of genius was making Margaritaville a feeling, not a place,” said Mindy Grossman, the chief executive of the home-shopping behemoths HSN and Frontgate, where 400-plus Margaritaville items include a $799 hammock and $159 penny loafers. “If you don’t take the name so literally, growth could be endless.”

Margaritaville is “building a unique corporate culture — employees all use the same valediction in emails: ‘Fins Up!’ — and drawing fanatic customers like Carol and Butch Wayland … ‘We’re not Parrot Heads,’ Mrs. Wayland said. ‘We’re just normal, everyday people who happen to be residents of the Margaritaville state of mind.’ Mrs. Wayland, who is in her 50s, added that she had ‘spent a fortune’ on Margaritaville products, including hats, flip-flops, dress shirts, shorts, clocks, coffee mugs, barware, a blender and underwear.”

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