Pottery Barn Catalogs: What a Mess!

The Wall Street Journal: “Shoppers have long wanted to live in the pages of a home furnishings catalog. Now brands are obsessing over shots that are just untidy enough that they look more like places where real people actually might live. It’s the décor equivalent of a model with bed-head hair or a partially untucked shirt … Pottery Barn’s January catalogs have photos of unmade beds and overflowing storage baskets. But there is a line they will not cross: A dining room scene doesn’t feature stacks of dirty plates, but it does have a chair pulled out with an unfolded napkin strewn across it.”

“The catalog from the Land of Nod, Crate and Barrel’s children’s division … makes sure its props include items found in many children’s rooms, such as a well-loved stuffed animal. There are shoes on the floor and books on the shelf. Toys are often tossed about, but in a controlled way—one that looks as if it could be tidied quickly if needed.”

Pottery Barn’s “makeover extends into its product design, with the introduction of shrunken, more affordable pieces. The collection aims to change the brand’s perception of selling only oversize , often pricey furniture designed for sprawling suburban homes. The new merchandise, including a $299 arm chair, is meant to appeal to two sets of new shoppers: young adults outfitting their first apartment and boomers relocating from the suburbs to smaller, urban spaces.”

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Crowd Cow: The New Digital Slaughterhouse

The New York Times: Crowd Cow is “an online service that sells whole cows from small ranchers, divided into manageable orders, usually about 10 to 12 pounds, and delivered to homes as frozen, vacuum-sealed cuts … Rather than putting its own brand on the meat it buys, Crowd Cow advertises the beef’s producers and allows them to tell the stories of their ranches on its website.”

“Joe Heitzeberg, the chief executive of Crowd Cow, which has sold nearly 200 cows online, founded the company with Ethan Lowry. He said their idea was to teach the consumer about the particulars of each ranch.” He explains: “We’re saying it’s like microbrews and wine. There are differences. We want you to understand the differences.”

“Most of the beef on Crowd Cow and similar websites is grass-fed, which research has shown has higher levels of healthful omega-3 fatty acids … While even large commercial cattle operations now sell grass-fed beef and many supermarkets stock it, some consumers prefer the beef they get from small producers online … Much of its beef comes in variety packs: A recent sale from Step by Step Farm in Curtis, Wash., featured a $69 package that included four eight-ounce flat iron steaks, two 10-ounce chuck steaks and two pounds of ground beef.”

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Birch Coffee: Laptop Ban is Interactive Boon

The Wall Street Journal: “Birch Coffee, a local, eight-store mini chain … eliminated Wi-Fi about a year ago, prompted by yet another customer griping about the slow internet connection … Sales are up and tables are turning over faster.” Jeremy Lyman, the owner, comments: “When you walk into our store, there’s a few laptops, but nothing close to how many there were. There’s people talking. It’s such a beautiful thing.”

“Café Grumpy, another local mini chain … banned laptops in several of its eight locations.” Says co-owner Caroline Bell: “It feels more fun, more interactive, more like New York City.”

“In his efforts to get customers talking, Mr. Lyman created conversation-starter cards that patrons can set on their table to invite encounters with strangers … Human interaction, after all, is what he hopes will set his cafes apart.” He observes: “I’ve never seen anyone say, ‘You gotta go to this place, the Wi-Fi is really great!’”

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Nintendo Switch: It’s All in the Eyeballs

The Wall Street Journal: “Videogame powerhouse Nintendo Co. started as a playing-card maker more than a century ago. That is where its latest generation of architects found inspiration for a feature of its new Switch console: games where two players look straight at each other, not at a screen.” Yoshiaki Koizumi, the Switch’s general producer, explains: “When you play cards, you look opponents in the eye to read their strategy, and that is fun. And we realized no videogame devices have been able to offer that kind of entertainment.”

“While the console can still be used in traditional videogame fashion by a single player sitting in front of the TV, the company is also releasing a collection of games such as Ping-Pong that two players can play facing each other. Between the rotating and vibrating of the controllers and the sounds from the machine, players are supposed to get the sensation of paddling a ball back and forth.”

“Mr. Koizumi said he hoped buzz about the Switch would spread from people playing it in public, just as Pokémon Go, a smartphone game developed by a Nintendo affiliate, turned into a global phenomenon last summer as players roamed sidewalks and parks hunting virtual creatures.” He comments: “I want people to share the fun of playing games not just over social media but also on street corners. When we see people playing the Switch at various places and with different styles, then we would call the Switch a success.”

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Videogame Reality is More Than Virtual

Nautilus: “For the British artificial intelligence researcher and computer game designer Richard Bartle, the kaleidoscopic variety of human personality and interest is reflected in the video game arena … he identified four primary types of video game player (the Killers, Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers) … Bartle’s research showed that, in general, people were consistent in these preferred ways of being in online video game worlds. Regardless of the game, he found that ‘Socialisers,’ for example, spend the majority of their time forming relationships with other players.”

“In a 2012 study … a team of five psychologists more closely examined the way in which players experiment with ‘type’ in video games. They found that video games that allowed players to play out their ‘ideal selves’ (embodying roles that allow them to be, for example, braver, fairer, more generous, or more glorious) were not only the most intrinsically rewarding, but also had the greatest influence on our emotions.”

“Video game worlds provide us with places where we can act with impunity within the game’s reality. And yet, freed of meaningful consequence, law abiders continue to abide the law. The competitive continue to compete. The lonely seek community. Wherever we go, there we will be.”

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Social Media: Call Center ‘Matchmakers’

The Wall Street Journal: “The next time you dial customer service, who answers your call may be determined by what you have said on Facebook. Companies from casino operator Caesars Entertainment Corp. to wireless carrier Sprint Corp. are increasingly checking social media and other personal data to tailor calls for each customer.”

A startup called Afiniti International Holdings Ltd. has artificial intelligence software that “has been installed in more than 150 call centers by dozens of companies, examines as many as 100 databases tied to landline and cellphone numbers to determine the best agent to answer each individual caller. Such matching can result in more satisfied customers and more sales, the company says.”

“Afiniti’s technology not only pulls callers’ histories for a business and credit profile, but seeks insights into their behavior by scouring their public Facebook and Twitter posts as well as LinkedIn pages. In the case of a sales operation, a caller is matched with the agent who—based on the agent’s own call history—has been able to close deals with customers with similar characteristics.”

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Constitutional Crisis: Freedom of Promotional Speech

The Wall Street Journal: “For decades (New York State) has barred companies from tacking on a fee when customers pay with plastic instead of cash. A hair salon now challenges that law, claiming businesses have a constitutional right to impose surcharges—and that behavioral economics provides the theoretical foundation.”

“The salon can already give customers, say, $1 off for paying in cash. So why does it want the ability to add a $1 surcharge for paying with credit? What’s the difference? Enter behavioral economics … the salon argues that surcharges are more effective at changing behavior because consumers suffer from a ‘loss aversion’ bias. More customers will decide to pay with cash, the theory goes, if faced with a ‘loss’ (the $1 surcharge) than a ‘gain’ (the $1 discount).”

“The salon argues that the only meaningful difference between the two pricing schemes is what they’re called—and that’s a matter of free speech. Barring the ‘surcharge’ label but not the ‘discount’ label, the argument goes, violates the First Amendment.”

Update: “The justices’ view of the case seemed to turn on where they stood in a rolling debate at the court about how the First Amendment applies to laws regulating economic matters, an issue that generally divides the justices along ideological lines,” The New York Times reports.

“Some of the more liberal justices said that the law was an unexceptional and permissible economic regulation.” Justice Stephen Bryer comments: “What this statute says is, you can’t impose a surcharge… What’s that got to do with speech?” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy counters: “It’s a matter of how the pricing structure is communicated in the speech.”

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Daily Rewards: Key to Gamer Engagement

The Wall Street Journal: “Daily rewards have emerged as the indispensable tool for hooking players in a field of more than a million game apps … Extracting as much time as possible out of users is critical because games like ‘Galaxy of Heroes’ make money selling virtual goods. The more people play, the more likely they will spend.”

“Companies have myriad ways to encourage routine use, such as a monthly calendar that tracks a player’s progress or weeklong side missions with extra-valuable rewards. The latest mobile-game hit, ‘Super Mario Run,’ rewards players for competing daily against friends … Daily-reward initiatives aren’t foolproof, though. One mistake is giving away so much players don’t need to spend. Another is punishing players for taking breaks.”

“The most alluring daily hooks give surprise rewards. Not knowing what to expect excites people, said Michael Hanus, a professor at the University Nebraska … Exclusive offers, such as the opportunity to unlock a rare character during a one-week event, tap into people’s natural fear of missing out, he said.”

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Printed Books Are Not Beaten to a Pulp

Gallup: “Despite the abundance of digital diversions vying for their time and attention, most Americans are still reading books. In fact, they are consuming books at nearly the same rate that they were when Gallup last asked this question in 2002 — before smartphones, Facebook or Twitter became ubiquitous. More than one in three (35%) appear to be heavy readers, reading 11 or more books in the past year, while close to half (48%) read between one and 10 and just 16% read none.”

“The number of Americans who say they read no books in the past year has doubled since the first time Gallup asked this in 1978, from 8% then to 16% now, but has been fairly steady near the current level since 1990 … Although the survey did not track the types of books that Americans read by age group, book reading in general is fairly similar by age group among U.S. adults. It is a bit more prevalent among the oldest and youngest age groups than among those in the middle years.”

“With the advent of e-readers and tablets in the past decade, some futurists predicted the imminent extinction of printed books … However, this prophecy appears to be far from true — so far. Among those who say they read at least one book last year, the vast majority say they most often read printed books, at 73%. About one in five most often read electronic books, while only 6% mostly experienced books in audio form.”

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