Blackberry Keeps Coterie of Devotees

The Wall Street Journal: “The BlackBerry began life as a text pager, created in 1996 by Canadian company Research in Motion Ltd. The founders made technical breakthroughs that popularized world-wide phone texting and mobile email. Its keyboard buttons looked a little like the kernels in a blackberry, hence the name. It transformed the way people worked … But in 2007 Apple Inc. introduced the iPhone, and Android smartphones, also with touch screens, came soon after. Unlike BlackBerry with its office focus, they aimed at the mass market. Today BlackBerry has a global smartphone market share of less than 1%.”

“The diminished band of devotees must suffer for that devotion, as friends brandish other iPhone and Android devices loaded with top-of-the-line cameras and countless apps. At a rugby tournament in Vancouver in early March, Tim Powers, an Ottawa executive, says he was ‘chastised’ for using his BlackBerry. He is willing to bear these slings and arrows. The keyboard suits ‘an old rugby player with some beaten-up hands,’ he says. Also, ‘I am not gentle,’ Mr. Powers says. ‘I almost feel like I could shoot it and it would still work’ … BlackBerrys, says Andrew Stivelman, a technical writer in Toronto, are ‘built like a tank’.”

“Although the company, now named BlackBerry Ltd. , no longer makes the phones, they live on through licensing agreements with companies that make and sell BlackBerry-branded hardware with Android operating systems … Meanwhile, fans of BlackBerrys wax lyrical about features like a curved shape that fits the hand, writing in forums such as There’s magic in BlackBerry 10 on Crackberry.com . A bonus, wrote one person last year, is reduced theft risk, ‘because thieves don’t know what they are’.”

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Retail Equation: Returns from Hell

The Wall Street Journal: “Every time shoppers return purchases to Best Buy Co. they are tracked by a company that has the power to override the store’s touted policy and refuse to refund their money. That is because the electronics giant is one of several chains that have hired a service called Retail Equation to score customers’ shopping behavior and impose limits on the amount of merchandise they can return.”

“When a consumer makes a return, details about his or her identity and shopping visit are transmitted to Retail Equation, which then generates a ‘risk score.’ If the score exceeds the threshold specific to the retailer, a salesperson informs the consumer that future returns will be denied and then directs them to Retail Equation to request a return activity report or file a dispute.”

“It isn’t easy for shoppers to learn their standing before receiving a warning. Retailers typically don’t publicize their relationship with Retail Equation. And even if a customer tracks down his or her return report, it doesn’t include purchase history or other information used to generate a score. The report also doesn’t disclose the actual score or the thresholds for getting barred.”

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Supermarkets: A New Social Network?

The Wall Street Journal: “Supermarkets—those havens of the not-so-scintillating chore of scouring numbered aisles, pushing carts and perusing produce—are finding a new identity as a social hub in communities. Parents now bring their children here to play, retirees gather for Bingo, and singles find romance. Grocery stores are fulfilling the new role as traditional gathering spots, from shopping malls to social clubs like Lions Clubs and Rotary International, continue to shrink from decades-earlier peaks.”

“Market of Choice, an Oregon chain of 11 supermarkets, has reduced space for center-store aisles by 22% in recent years and devoted more room to couches, fireplaces with seating areas and restaurant-like services, says owner Rick Wright. Whole Foods says social space is the first thing to get worked into floor plans … Lowes Foods, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based supermarket chain, has recently redesigned its stores into an animated ‘village concept’ of shops around the perimeter with giant birthday-candle lights, moving signs and employees who perform a chicken dance … At the heart of each store is a large rectangular communal table that can seat 10 to 15 people.”

“Bo Sharon, owner of Boulder, Colo.-based Lucky’s Markets, says about 25% of his stores are devoted to nonretail space, whether that’s tables in a cafe, performance areas for local musicians, or a designated community room where neighborhood groups meet. Fostering a sense of community, he says, ultimately helps drive traffic.”

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Late & Great: Russ Solomon

The New York Times: “Russ Solomon, who died on Sunday at 92, created what for many music fans was the ultimate music emporium: Tower Records, whose yellow-and-red color scheme, ‘No Music, No Life’ slogan, and wide aisles stocked with LPs and CDs defined the retail music business in the pre-digital era. At its peak, the chain had nearly 200 stores in 15 countries and more than $1 billion in annual sales, before debt and shifting consumer habits forced it to close in 2006.”

“Starting at his father’s drugstore in Sacramento, where he sold used jukebox records as a teenager, Mr. Solomon built a retail empire that became known as much for its selection — vast by brick-and-mortar standards — as for the culture that surrounded it. Employees were opinionated aficionados, and Tower stores, open till midnight, were gathering places for fans. The locations on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and on Broadway in Greenwich Village became tourist meccas.”

“The shops even made devotees of the stars. Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler were regular visitors, but Tower’s most famous patron was Elton John, for whom the Hollywood store would open early … Despite Tower’s disappearance from most of the world, it still has a major presence in Japan; the company sold its Japanese locations in 1999 to raise cash. The flagship store in central Tokyo is like a time warp for travelers, with nine floors of music, in-store performances and, out front, a comforting sign in yellow and red with a familiar message: No music, no life.”

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Tattoo, Ink.

The Wall Street Journal: “While job-hopping is rampant, a surprising number of American workers are expressing a bond with their employers in permanent ink. Employees at such companies as tech’s Red Hat Inc. and sportswear icon Nike Inc. have brand logos plastered on their ankles, shoulders and arms … Like pulling an all-nighter at the office, a company tattoo can signify devotion in a way that impresses colleagues and breeds trust with clients.”

“Paul Bosneag, a manager who works with franchise-holders of the Anytime Fitness gym chain, said he opted for the needle in 2010 as job security. At the time, he said, he recalled thinking, ‘What kind of a jerk would fire an employee that has the logo tattooed on him?’ It turns out Chuck Runyon, chief executive of Anytime Fitness, has fired around seven people who got company tattoos. Performance, he said, is more important than loyalty.”

“Red Hat tech worker Thomas Cameron got reimbursed for his $100 tattoo by filing it as an office supply expense. ‘It’s ink, right?’ he said, ‘and you need ink in the office.’ Mr. Cameron plans another trip to the tattoo shop soon. The company recently announced it was changing its logo.”

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Inman Makes Bricks Fashionable in China

The Wall Street Journal: “In the prospectus for its mammoth 2014 stock listing, Alibaba Group Holding highlighted online-only women’s fashion brand Inman as a success story in China’s e-commerce world … Since mid-2015, Inman founder Fang Jianhua has gone in a surprising direction. He’s abandoned the online-only model to open physical stores. To date, Inman has opened 450 stores, mostly in China’s smaller cities. Last year, while Inman’s online sales rose about 39%, its offline business, which is newer and smaller, grew 300%, to 330 million yuan ($52 million), and reached 35% of total revenue. Mr. Fang expects the online-offline breakdown to be 40%-60% in the future.”

“In changing strategy, Inman had spotted several long-term problems. Online sales growth for brands such as Inman is slowing as China’s e-commerce market becomes more competitive, with megabrands such as Uniqlo, Vero Moda and Gap making big online drives. Meanwhile, the costs of online advertising are rising as are the challenges of standing out in a crowded field.”

“In 2015, Mr. Fang figured it would cost less to reach customers in smaller cities through a physical store than via an online store. Given its years of insight into its millions of customers, Mr. Fang thought Inman could manage its supply chain and stores better than purely brick-and-mortar competitors. For example, women in China’s cold, northeastern rust belt aren’t big fans of Inman’s understated cotton and linen clothes, so no need for stores there.” He comments: “The question is not whether a fashion brand needs to be both online and offline. The question is how big you want to be in the two worlds.”

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Building Belonging: Community & Customers

Fast Company: “The Rapha Cycle Club (RCC), a membership organization grown around Rapha’s cycle apparel business. The RCC has all the hallmarks of traditional community groups: rituals, local organizers, chapters and clubhouses around the world, symbols, shared identity, and social activities. There’s also a code of conduct that creates the conditions for respect and decency between diverse members … This is not the light ‘community’ that brands often speak of when referring to their customers or social media following–this is real, in-person commitment and engagement. And this is not a sideshow to Rapha’s business. It’s core to its business strategy–its spaces are clubhouses not stores, and people are members not customers.”

“Thinking beyond ‘customers,’ ‘fans,’ or ‘followers,’ the next frontier for great brands is stepping into the cultural need and market opportunity for deeper, real-world person-to-person connection … Those companies that help us forge meaningful connections will win deep loyalty. And this needs to go beyond premium brands. If belonging can be built around apparel and technology companies, surely it can also be built around learning, parenthood, food, and health.”

“Although there are some examples of highly engaged communities being developed via technology (e.g., Peloton riders), when it comes to belonging, real connection will most likely come from in-person interaction in real life. But having physical space is not enough: Brands should create spaces, experiences, products, and services that deliberately foster the conditions for diverse people coming together in respectful environments for shared experiences.”

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Drinkfinity: A Portable Soda Fountain

Fast Company: Pepsi’s “newest venture is centered on a 20-ounce reusable water bottle that comes with sets of flavor pods … The new product line, called Drinkfinity, is a clear reaction to consumers drinking less soda … The name is meant to indicate that there are infinite combinations of drinks you could make with the bottle and the flavor pods. The Drinkfinity team’s ultimate aspiration is that consumers go online, choose all the ingredients they want, and have personalized pods shipped to their door–a vision that reacts to several consumer trends, including on-demand services and healthy living.”

“For now, the brand … is debuting 12 different types of pods … To make yourself a White Peach Chill or a Mandarin Orange Charge, you fill up your Drinkfinity water bottle, unpeel a pod’s label, remove your bottle’s cap, and push the cap of the lid through a pointed plastic structure. This ruptures the dry storage area in the pod and releases the concentrated liquid, which pours into the container. Then you shake and drink. The bottle itself has a magnetic spot on its side to hold down the cap so it doesn’t hit you in the face as you guzzle.”

“To create Drinkfinity, PepsiCo had to rethink the supply chain, manufacturing, shipping, and even recycling. That resulted in the full life cycle of a single pod producing 40% fewer carbon emissions than the typical 20-ounce drink housed in a plastic bottle you’d buy at the supermarket. The pods also use 65% less plastic than these 20-ounce bottles … The Drinkfinity team likens the product to the new soda fountain: a platform for people to choose what they want to drink, except you can carry it in your bag.”

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Fast Fun: The New Fashion in Toys

The Wall Street Journal: “Hasbro Inc., Mattel Inc. and other companies are rushing to collapse production times and capitalize on fast-moving trends such as slime-making kits, and viral videos that can spawn new games and toys. The goal is to spot ideas and get products in stores in a matter of months instead of the following Christmas. Toy companies need rapid turnaround times if they are to profit from these trends, which spike and dissipate quickly. Copycats, usually smaller manufacturers, also can quickly crowd the market.”

“In a sense, the companies are lifting from the playbooks of fast-fashion retailers such as Zara and Forever 21, which can churn out new coats in just 25 days … Mattel has carved out a team of fewer than 10 executives, including toy designers and manufacturing experts, to develop toys that match up with larger trends in the industry. Mattel Chief Executive Margo Georgiadis said in an interview Friday that she gave the team three months and a ‘next to nothing’ budget to create a few ideas to pitch at a January toy fair. Those items, including a plush toy, are expected to be sold later this year.”

“Hasbro last year established a similar team, called ‘Quick Strike,’ hoping to turn social-media trends into marketable products. The maker of Monopoly and Nerf guns has come up with several games inspired by viral videos.”

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Word of the Day: Convenience

Tim Wu: “Convenience is the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today … In the developed nations of the 21st century, convenience — that is, more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks — has emerged as perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies. This is particularly true in America, where, despite all the paeans to freedom and individuality, one sometimes wonders whether convenience is in fact the supreme value.”

“Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable. Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper. After you have experienced streaming television, waiting to see a show at a prescribed hour seems silly, even a little undignified. To resist convenience — not to own a cellphone, not to use Google — has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism.”

“For all its influence as a shaper of individual decisions, the greater power of convenience may arise from decisions made in aggregate, where it is doing so much to structure the modern economy. Particularly in tech-related industries, the battle for convenience is the battle for industry dominance … The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.”

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