City Girl Coffee: The Experience is the Message

The New York Times: “City Girl is bold and risky, from its bright-pink logo and packaging to its business plan’s central tenet: fighting gender inequity in the coffee industry. On average, according to the International Trade Center, women do 70 percent of the work in getting coffee to market but regularly cede or are barred from financial control, so City Girl gets its beans exclusively from farms and cooperatives that are owned or managed by women. In addition, the company donates 5 percent of all profit to organizations that support women in the industry.”

“Sales — principally through City Girl’s online store and in the Twin Cities’ high-end retailers, including Kowalski’s Markets and Lunds & Byerlys — are up 300 percent year over year. City Girl aims to break into other Midwest markets, including Chicago, St. Louis and Des Moines, and then to select cities on the East Coast … chief competitors have argued that City Girl’s female-empowerment message is little more than a marketing ploy.” However, founder Alyza Bohbot says “in this day and age, you can’t have a good product without having a good marketing story.”


Fang Gourmet Tea: Steeped in Obsession

The New York Times: Fang Gourmet Tea: “For 15 years, it has been the de facto gathering place for the New York region’s most serious tea enthusiasts. And this season brings its premier event, for connoisseurs and novices alike: the annual Tea Tasting Expo. For the expo, which began in 2009 and runs this year from Dec. 9 through Jan. 7, the normally serene shop bustles as the staff trots out limited releases of Chinese and Taiwanese teas and teaware that draw drinkers from as far as California.”

“The costly teas and pottery are often unobtainable anywhere else in the United States, even for seasoned drinkers with connections of their own … But the expo is more than an opportunity to share rare and newly available teas. It also gives tea devotees, many of whom see one another only once a year, a space to obsess together … the expo is more about education and community than about profit. The shop is not a big moneymaker.”

“And unlike blockbuster conventions like the World Tea Expo (to be held next June in Las Vegas) and the Coffee & Tea Festival NYC (scheduled for March at the Brooklyn Expo Center), the Fang gathering is deliberately intimate. There are no keynote addresses, swag bags or sponsors … What brings drinkers back year after year is the promise of exceptional teas and conversation with kindred spirits.”


The New World of Airfares

The New York Times: “In the new world of airfares, similar-sounding fare classes like ‘economy’ and ‘basic economy’ can mask big differences in the level of service being offered. Complicating matters further, booking websites often do a poor job of explaining what travelers are actually getting for the listed price.” Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt comments: “You need a supercomputer sometimes to figure out what you are getting and what you are not getting. Just to add confusion to the mix, obviously not every airline’s lowest fare includes or excludes the same things.”

For example: “With a basic economy ticket on American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, travelers can’t select a seat in advance. But on Delta, basic economy passengers are still permitted to use the overhead bins if there is available space. On American and United, those overhead compartments are off limits to those who purchase the lowest fares — unless the passenger is an elite member of the airlines’ reward programs.”

“As the airlines continue to further unbundle their fares, Mr. Harteveldt said, customers may have to change the way they consider ticket purchases. ‘It helps to think about shifting your minds from buying fares to buying products,’ he said … He suggested that leisure travelers consider more than just the official price tag. Booking a ticket or flying an airline that prevents you from selecting a seat in advance, for example, can mean getting separated from your family on the plane.”
As Mr. Harteveldt puts it: “The last thing you want to do is have your vacation ruined.”


‘Potheads’ Inhale The Instant Pot

The New York Times: Instant Pot is “a new breed of 21st-century start-up — a homegrown hardware business with only around 50 employees that raised no venture capital funding, spent almost nothing on advertising, and achieved enormous size primarily through online word-of-mouth … devotees — they call themselves ‘Potheads’ — use their Instant Pots for virtually every kitchen task imaginable: sautéing, pressure-cooking, steaming, even making yogurt and cheesecakes. Then, they evangelize on the internet, using social media to sing the gadget’s praises to the unconverted.”

Company founder Robert Wang “listed the Instant Pot on Amazon, where a community of food writers eventually took notice. Vegetarians and paleo dieters, in particular, were drawn to the device’s pressure-cooking function, which shaved hours off the time needed to cook pots of beans or large cuts of meat. Sensing viral potential, Instant Pot sent test units to about 200 influential chefs, cooking instructors and food bloggers. Reviews and recipes appeared online, and sales began to climb.”

“At one point, more than 90 percent of Instant Pot’s sales came through Amazon.” Mr. Wang also revealed a secret: in every official photograph of an Instant Pot, the unit’s timer is set to 5:20 — a series of numbers that, when spoken aloud, sounds like ‘I love you’ in his native Mandarin. ‘It’s a subliminal message,’ he said. ‘It shows how much we care about our customers’.” He adds: “We know we really make a difference in people’s lives. It’s really gratifying.”


Philz Coffee: All You Need Is The Secret Ingredient

Business Insider: San Francisco-base Philz Coffee “has the cash to fuel an expansion and a key ingredient to become the next Blue Bottle: individuality. It looks nothing like a cookie-cutter coffee chain. At Philz, a diverse set of customers sit around mismatched pieces of furniture and drink coffee brewed one cup at time. Employees are encouraged to express their personality through interactions with customers … The venture-backed coffee chain started from humble beginnings. Phil, who was born in Palestine and grew up in the Bay Area, ran a corner bodega in a gritty neighborhood.”

“Today, the original Philz location on 24th Street still looks like someone’s grandma’s house. Couches sink like they’ve been lived in, and floor-to-ceiling murals spark creativity … Unlike coffee chains that offer only light, medium, and dark roasts, Philz boasts more than 20 vibrant blends with names like Canopy of Heaven, Philharmonic, and Sooo Good. You won’t find any lattes or over-the-top blended drinks — like you might find at Starbucks — on the menu. But flavor descriptions like “cardamom, maple, earth” or “toast, berry, vanilla” have customers drooling.”

“Baristas brew one cup at a time using a pour-over method, which allows them to make each drink exactly how the customer likes it … Two to three minutes later, a barista calls the customer by name and invites them to take a sip. Baristas say they’re happy to remake the drink until the guest is 100% satisfied … According to a Philz employee, the secret ingredient in every cup is ‘love’ … The company aims to have more than 50 locations across four major metropolitan markets by early next year. There are shops in Colorado and Boston in the pipeline.”


Delta CEO: Technology Builds Relationships

Business Insider: “Some airlines see technology as a potential money maker by turning their planes into flying e-commerce platforms with hundreds of captive customers. Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian said he isn’t interested in going down that route. Instead, he wants technology to help his airline better understand and interact with its customers. In turn, improving the flying experience and strengthening Delta’s core business.”

He explains: “We are in the business of building relationships and our technology allows us to build intimate relationships with 180 million customers a year and you can only do that through technology.”

“Bastian’s big tech goal in 2018 is what he calls ‘building a single view of the customer.’ That means unifying all of Delta’s various customer databases to create a more holistic view of and a better understanding of the people who fly with the airline.” He comments: “The real opportunity for us is to get a better view of who you are so that we can better serve you. We can get you what you need before you even realize you need it and be able to better take care of your needs not just from a sales standpoint, but more importantly, from an experience standpoint.”


KitKat: Just Plain Weird in Japan

Los Angeles Times: “Two years ago, KitKat’s marketing manager in Japan won an internal corporate award. His prize: a golden trophy shaped like one of the iconic chocolate bars. Today, the manager, Ryoji Maki, doesn’t remember why he won the award. But he’s immensely proud of what it inspired. ‘That’s how I came up with creating a gold leaf-covered KitKat,’ he said. Before long, the chocolate wafer bars were on sale in Tokyo for about $18. ‘They were like an edible golden trophy’.”

“Maki’s creation joined a long, and ever growing, list of distinctive, fun or just plain weird KitKats found only in Japan. The country is a KitKat-lover’s paradise, with so many unique varieties — an estimated 300 — that some travelers visit Japan just to try them. Many flavors are alien to the American palate, and they go far beyond Japanese staples — such as sake, wasabi and green tea — and into uncharted territory: ‘French salt,’ ‘college tater’ and ‘Muscat of Alexandria’.”

“The candy with the European pedigree went on to conquer Japan thanks to constant invention — blueberry cheesecake, cherry blossom and melon — and a linguistic coincidence that makes KitKats here a harbinger of good luck … the chocolate bar’s English name is a cognate — it sounds like kitto kattsu, which means ‘you will surely win,’ a sort of good luck blessing. Nestle leveraged the association into huge sales.”


AI Machines as Managers

The Wall Street Journal: “There is evidence computers may be better suited to some managerial tasks than people are. Humans are susceptible to cognitive traps like confirmation bias. People using intuition tend to make poor decisions but rate their performance more highly, according to a 2015 University of New England analysis of psychological studies. And in an increasingly quantitative business world, managers are asked to deliver more data-driven decisions—precisely the sort at which machines excel.”

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, comments: “What managers do mostly is identify potential, build teams, assign tasks, measure performance and provide feedback. Generally speaking, humans aren’t very good at these tasks. Someday, we might not need managers anymore.”

“Companies that make and use workforce-management software … say machines are no substitute for human judgment and ability to manage interpersonal relations. Instead, they say their software speeds up administrative work and uses data to help human managers improve decisions they previously made only by drawing upon gut instinct and experience … Sue Siegel, GE’s chief innovation officer, said she wouldn’t rule out one day working for a machine.” She comments: “If the robot has personality and a sense of humor and can understand the human condition, hey, who knows?”


How Amazon Picks Deals of the Day

The Wall Street Journal: “Such is Amazon’s holiday selling might that winning a slot in one of Amazon’s short-term promotions can not only propel a merchant to a higher ranking but also trigger a windfall of sales for the rest of the season, third-party sellers say. In addition, those chosen say the promotions improve their odds of showing up in consumer search results on the site. Third-party sellers sold more than 140 million items on over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend this year, according to Amazon.”

“Amazon’s deal of the day selections hinge on two important factors—whether it thinks an item will be a hot seller and whether the discount is deep enough. Amazon also takes into account the number of units the seller is willing to offer and customer reviews, among other factors … A sales surge will influence Amazon’s algorithmic suggestions to consumers. Recommendations might include items frequently purchased together or purchased by customers looking at the similar items.”


Some Retailers Try Simplified Pricing

The Wall Street Journal: “Retailers have a gift for discount-obsessed holiday shoppers: simpler pricing … Kohl’s has been testing a ‘Your Price’ feature that shows the final price after all discounts … For example, a Disney Princess Palace, regularly priced at $79.99, was on sale on Kohl’s website earlier this month for $54.99 and eligible for an extra 25% off. The “Your Price” was $41.24.”

“Like Kohl’s, Penney this year started showing online shoppers the sale price net of all discounts on the product page and increasingly has been advertising sales with final dollar amounts, rather than percentage discounts … The retailer also has been posting ‘sale conversion charts,’ intended to help shoppers figure out prices … Christine Dunne, of the Bronx, N.Y., said she noticed the changes at the Penney store near her home.” She comments: “It makes shopping so much easier. In the past, I’d get to the register and realize the price I’d calculated in my head was wrong.”

“Not all retailers have simplified their pricing, and marketing experts say that is by design. ‘Multiple mental deductions based on promotions can result in consumers perceiving that their costs are lower than they actually are, which can increase spending,’ said Cynthia Cryder, an associate professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis.”