Micromerch: Statements for Daily Life

The New York Times: Here comes micromerch:”personal merchandise for niche public figures and celebrities (or even not-yet celebrities) made possible by innovations in manufacturing and distribution, and with mechanisms greased by the ease of the internet. Consider it the modern-day equivalent of the private-press LP or the small-batch zine, amplified for social media and very late capitalism … small-batch merch — a couple dozen to a couple thousand items — can be made available for almost anyone, from emergent social media or reality TV demicelebrities to casual dadaists who toy with the dissemination of ideas in the modern marketplace. In an era when personal branding is presumed, no following is too small to monetize.”

“Want to show support for Sean Bryan, a.k.a. the Papal Ninja, an American Ninja Warrior contestant and lay minister? There’s a shirt (and laptop case) for that. Enthralled by the 1980s sunglasses worn by the rubber-legged teen social media star Roy Purdy in his absurdist dance videos? For a while, he sold them, too. Obsessed with Gordie, the French bulldog owned by Alex Tumay, who engineers Young Thug’s records? Buy a shirt.”

“Peloton, the home indoor cycling business, has a stable of a dozen instructors, and sells merch inspired by each. Jill Foley, Peloton’s director of boutique apparel, said the company has sold hundreds of T-shirts and tank tops with instructor catchphrases like ‘It’s Not That Deep’ (Cody Rigsby) and ‘Sweat Sing Repeat’ (Jenn Sherman).” She comments: “We’re getting messages to people in this micro way. We’re in people’s homes in their daily life.”

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Boyd’s: Retail’s Past as Prologue?

The New York Times: “Like the Liberty Bell and the stone Rocky Steps, Boyds is a Philadelphia landmark, and one equally impervious to the shifting seasons. For 80 years, the family-owned business has outfitted lawyers, bankers, doctors, politicians and famous athletes … The store is where a young man goes to buy his wedding suit, and returns 30 years later, grayer, wealthier, thicker in the middle, this time bringing his son to buy his wedding suit … in this age of dressing down and click-and-buy, in an environment where the big chains have killed off the mom-and-pops and Amazon is killing off the chains, Boyds now feels like a shopping experience out of time … Out-of-towners who happen into this retail anachronism tend to react first with astonishment, followed by a sigh of pleasure.”

“It’s very possible that Boyds isn’t just one of a dying breed of old-fashioned retailers, however. Given its scale (50,000 square feet of selling space over four floors), and the level of service it provides, and the tailor shop and complimentary parking lot, and the near century of independent operation by the same family, it may be the only clothing store of its kind anywhere in the country … To understand how Boyds has avoided oblivion thus far, it’s instructive to spend an afternoon on the selling floors … The operation has a choreographed precision. Chris Phillips, the 43-year-old men’s tailored clothing manager, on this day stood near the elevator. It was his job to greet customers, determine their needs and spin them to the right salesperson.”

“Generally speaking, the men who come to Boyds aren’t there to browse. Overscheduled high earners, they view clothes shopping as one more task to be efficiently completed, an attitude to which every Boyds employee is attuned … Marc Brownstein, the president and chief executive of the Brownstein Group … dates his first Boyds shopping trip to high school, back in the ’80s, and now especially appreciates its delivery service to home or office, and the text messages he gets from the store when a brand is going on sale.” He comments: “The family just outthinks other retailers. They’ll deliver to your house, to your office. You park for free. You know what parking costs in the center of Philadelphia? They’re going to outwork and out-service everyone else.”

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Bravo: Homestyle Grocer to Latino Mets

The New York Times: “Cooks scurried in and out of the kitchen carrying containers of pork ribs, stewed beef, and rice and beans. Behind a display case of Latin American pastries, a worker hurried through coffee orders. The rapid-fire banter of Caribbean Spanish filled the air. It was the lunchtime rush at the cafeteria of the Bravo Supermarket here, but one loyal customer in particular — the Mets infielder Jose Reyes — caught the eye of the head chef, who hugged him as he took his place in line yet again, like so many Mets from Latin America hungry for home cooking.”

“Opened in 2005, the supermarket has done more than provide a dose of home comfort for players, essential as they find that. It has, at times, also offered free food for strapped athletes, occasional employment or even a cheap place to stay through Luis Merejo, an owner of the supermarket and a former baseball player himself.” Mets shortstop Amed Rosario comments: “It’s home. Every Dominican likes to eat their food, and this is the closest to my mother’s cooking. It makes me feel better. Sometimes you just want to eat your rice and beans, and Dominican-style meat.”

“Bravo is a supermarket chain with at least 60 stores in Florida and the Northeast, including the Bronx and New Jersey, in areas with a high concentration of Latinos. The Port St. Lucie location has perhaps fed the most professional baseball players … A large plate of Dominican-style rice and pigeon peas and fried plantains costs $4. Add meat for only a few more dollars. It’s a steal for minor leaguers who earn paychecks that pale in comparison to those that major leaguers receive.”

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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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1916: When Department Stores Featured Hospitals

The New York Times: “Lord & Taylor, New York’s oldest luxury department store, founded in 1826, boasted ‘one of the most attractive and completely equipped of the small hospitals in New York City,’ according to an article in The Modern Hospital magazine in 1916. The store operated the hospital when it was located on Broadway and East 20th Street before moving to its new building on Fifth Avenue between 38th and 39th Streets in 1914. On Fifth Avenue, the entire 11th floor was devoted to employee health and welfare, from the hospital to various medical and dental clinics, a roof garden, gymnasium, a schoolroom for boys and girls and an employee restaurant.”

“B. Altman, between Fifth and Madison Avenues and 34th and 35th Streets, operated a 12th-floor emergency hospital that by 1916 was handling as many as 18,000 cases a year, according to Hospital Management magazine. A 1914 brochure celebrating the store’s expansion said, ‘The 12th floor of the new addition has been given over in its entirety to the use of the employees.’ Separate dining rooms served men and women, and a physician and two nurses oversaw a large medical suite and surgery. Also, in a sign of those times, there was a men’s smoking room.”

“Welfare services for department store workers began with John Wanamaker … He wanted to keep his workers healthy and happy, and so in an era of rapacious capitalism, child labor and male privilege he introduced half-day-Saturdays off, medical benefits and a retirement system … His competitors soon followed with medical facilities, employee exercise and lunchrooms, educational training, vacation programs and medical clinics. When Macy’s on West 34th Street expanded in 1924, the new 16th floor included an employee dental clinic with chairs for six dentists.”

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How The Cubs Recruit Free Agents

The Wall Street Journal: “Tyler Chatwood thought he knew what to expect when he met with the Chicago Cubs … He assumed he would hear plenty about the Cubs’ recent on-field success, their plan for him in the starting rotation and, of course, the boatload of money they could offer to lure him. Instead, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer took the conversation in a direction that surprised and disarmed him: They recommended the best physicians and hospitals in the area for his pregnant wife … He signed a three-year, $38 million contract with the Cubs shortly thereafter.”

“Granted, the Cubs routinely have one of the largest payrolls in baseball, giving them an undeniable financial advantage over a large portion of the league. They can simply outbid the competition much of the time … ‘If the Yankees offer $130 [million] and the Red Sox offer $130 and the Cubs offer $125, most guys would pick the Cubs’,” one agent said.

“This is the secret weapon that enables the Cubs to practically hand-select talent: a compelling personal touch that goes beyond players’ value on the field. In many cases, that means appealing to the people most important in their lives—their families … This approach has helped transform the Cubs into the most attractive free-agent destination in the sport, an organization that players in its sights rarely turn down … More often than not, players buy it, rushing to join an organization where they believe they’ll be happy.”

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Alexa Challenges Brand Loyalty

The Wall Street Journal: “For decades, the makers of packaged-food, personal and home-care brands have bought shelf space at retailers like Walmart Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. that guarantee them nationwide exposure. They have poured billions into branding to make their products instantly recognizable. Selling on websites offers some of those same advantages: Brands can pay for placement on a webpage and display their packaging and logos. Voice shopping, which currently offers customers just one or two product options, could chip away at that tried-and-tested model.”

“In a test conducted in October, Bain & Co. found that for customers making a first-time purchase without specifying a brand, over half of the time Alexa’s first recommendation was a product from the ‘Amazon’s Choice’ algorithm, which implies a well-rated, well-priced item that ships with Prime. Bain also found that in categories in which Amazon has a private brand, 17% of the time Alexa recommends the private-label product first even though such products make up just 2% of volume sold.”

“For now, brands can’t pay Amazon to offer their products to customers in response to a generic request for a product, like detergent or paper towels …Without that paid-search option, P&G has been tinkering with ways to get noticed by shoppers using voice assistants, such as a Tide-branded Alexa app that doles out advice on how to clean over 200 stains but doesn’t suggest Tide products … Unilever, owner of Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Domestos toilet cleaner, has developed Alexa apps that give free recipes and cleaning tips that may or may not incorporate Unilever brands. Unilever sees the apps as a way to market its products by offering customers useful information when they need it most.”

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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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Purchase Brands vs. Usage Brands

Harvard Business Review: “Where traditional brands focus on positioning their brands in the minds of their customers, digital brands focus on positioning their brands in the lives of their customers. Furthermore, they engage customers more as users than as buyers, shifting their investments from pre-purchase promotion and sales to post-purchase renewal and advocacy.”

“Purchase brands focus on creating demand to buy the product, while usage brands focus on creating demand for the use of the product … Purchase brands emphasize promotion; usage brands emphasize advocacy … Purchase brands worry about what they say to customers; usage brands worry about what customers say to each other … Purchase brands try to shape what people think about the brand along the path to purchase; usage brands influence how people experience the brand at every touchpoint.”

“The simple view would be that traditional brands are purchase brands and digital brands are usage brands. But there are exceptions, including brands like Visa, FedEx, Lego, and Costco, which exhibit many of the characteristics of usage brands … They think of customers less as one-time buyers and more as users or members with an ongoing relationship … Purchase brands focus on the ‘moments of truth’ that happen before the transaction, such as researching, shopping, and buying the product. By contrast, usage brands focus on the moments of truth that happen after the transaction, whether in delivery, service, education, or sharing.”

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