Brilliant Books: How Local Goes Global

The New York Times: “When Peter Makin opened Brilliant Books five years ago, he quickly realized his business wouldn’t survive in this remote locale if his only customers were local buyers … he believed that online buyers would flock to Brilliant Books if they experienced the same customer service that shoppers in his physical store do … He began offering free shipping … and hired a full-time social media manager, who promotes the store and has used Twitter and Facebook to talk to readers who would never find themselves near Traverse City.”

“One of his most successful ways of getting repeat business is his store’s version of a book-of-the-month program, which makes personalized recommendations for each of its nearly 2,000 subscribers every 30 days. Rather than use an online form to track preferences, Brilliant sends each new subscriber a customer card to fill out by hand and mail back. Employees then scan the card into the system so that when it is book-selection time, they can see what the customers said they liked and how they said it.”

“Once the selections are made, the back-end system orders books from the publishers and prints postage and address labels. After the books arrive, the staff mails personalized packages. The investment is paying off: Sales are up 14 percent this year, and Mr. Makin anticipates that 30 percent of Brilliant’s sales will come from online orders — doubling last year’s total. Facebook customers buy more nonfiction titles, while Twitter conversations generate more sales of young adult and children’s books.”

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Innovation & The Theory of Jobs To Be Done

The Wall Street Journal: “Businesses succeed when they help people do certain jobs. They fail when they lose sight of what that job is … Jobs are defined by the customers who hire companies to do them. The jobs are … expressed in verbs and nouns, not adjectives and adverbs. Some of the most successful companies in the world … are those whose very names have become synonymous with the job they help you do, such as Google, Uber, Xerox and TurboTax.”

“By contrast, ‘I need to have a chocolate milkshake that is in a twelve-ounce disposable container’ is a preference that confines both the customer and beverage provider to the milkshake category … The job customers ‘hire’ the breakfast milkshake for is … ‘I need something that will keep me occupied with what’s happening on the road while I drive. And also, I’d like this to fill me up so that I’m not hungry during a 10:00 a.m. meeting’ … Putting it that way forces drive-through owners to think much more broadly about what’s for breakfast.”

The Theory of Jobs to Be Done, as presented in Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen, et. al., recommends “creating internal processes that flex according to the needs of the job to be done, not the needs of the organization. When you buy something on Amazon, it will tell you something along the lines of: ‘If you order within the next 2 hours and 32 minutes, you’ll receive your product Tuesday.’ That isn’t Amazon simply trying to keep you posted. It’s a way to force the company’s internal processes to stay focused on what matters to the customer—the basic, all-too-easily forgotten job that customers need done.”

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Scrip: Pain in the Cash

Quartz: “Research indicates that paying with cash can actually feel painful—and thus act as a deterrent to mindless spending. It’s also long been shown that consumers spend more (and are often willing to pay more for the same items) when they’re paying with a credit card because money feels much more abstract.”

“One firm believes that it can help people stop buying useless things by making cashless transactions feel more tactile. Scrip is a small copper-colored digital payment device designed to mimic the experience of paying with cash. Currently a concept, the device was created by the firm NewDealDesign, which is behind the design of Fitbit’s wearables.”

“To make a payment, a person would swipe his or her thumb over the device in a manner similar to counting bills. The device then shows the account’s updated balance … Gadi Amit, the founder of NewDealDesign … came up with the concept for Scrip when he noticed his teenaged daughters were often out of funds, something that wasn’t a problem when they were younger and used only cash for purchases.”

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Queue Theory: The Science of Customer Service

The Wall Street Journal: “Imagine three lines feeding three cash registers. Some shoppers will have more items than others, or there may be a delay for something like a price check. The rate of service in the different lines will tend to vary. If the delays are random, there are six ways three lines could be ordered from fastest to slowest—1-2-3, 1-3-2, 2-1-3, 2-3-1, 3-1-2 or 3-2-1. Any one of the three (including the one you picked) is quickest in only two of the permutations, or one-third of the time.”

“Queues can be trivial, like a line at an ATM, or they can be serious, like a list of people waiting for an organ transplant … A basic queue funnels clients demanding service to one or more servers who respond. If the servers are busy, other demands must wait. The clients may include a line of people, a series of 911 calls, or a string of commands issued over a computer network (think of a printer queue). The servers are the cashiers, the dispatchers or the devices that respond.”

“Queuing theory helps untangle the mess of requests, or at least smooth it out, by estimating the number of servers needed to meet demand over a given period and designing rules for advancing the queue. The best system depends on the situation. ‘First come, first served’ is most familiar, and people often prefer it because it seems fair. But most also accept that a heart attack should take precedence over a sprained ankle or someone with five items shouldn’t have to wait behind a procession of brimming shopping carts.”

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The Branding of ‘Bodega’

The Wall Street Journal: “Bodegas are hot. Yes, the humble corner stores, with their grouchy cats and reams of toilet paper, are fast replacing the taxi and the bagel as a symbol of New York authenticity, lending urban credibility to any endeavor. There’s Bodega, the clothing line, and Bodega, an art gallery on the Lower East Side. Not to mention the Bodega, a wine bar in Bushwick, and Bodega Pale Ale, a craft beer only distributed in New York. Bodega 88, a sports bar, opened in August on the Upper West Side, in a former bodega.”

“Bodega Magazine, ‘your literary corner store,’ is an online monthly … Managing editor Cat Richardson says each issue provides a quick, accessible hit of contemporary fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, with a few surprises thrown in. ‘It has everything you need, like toilet paper, and then something unexpected,’ she says … Mark Littman, founder of Bodega Studios, a video-production agency with offices in Chelsea and San Francisco, says the outfit’s name is a nod to its New York roots and personalized service.”

Bodega Pizza “co-founder Jose Morales, who grew up in the neighborhood working in his father’s bodega, remembers corner stores where everyone gathered to drink and play the Dominican lottery … The facade of his pizzeria … is a yellow metal awning featuring a traditional bodega’s red lettering and flashing bulbs. The front windows are stacked with green tins of Keebler Export Sodas Crackers, pillar candles and faded Brillo boxes. Mr. Morales … says he’ll soon offer groceries along with the pizza. ‘You can eat a nice pie, have a beer and go home with some soap, cereal and toilet paper,’ he says.”

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Wing on Wo & The ‘Wow’ Project

The New York Times: “Wing on Wo’s humble red-painted storefront at 26 Mott Street is said to be the oldest continuously run business in Chinatown. It opened on Mott as a general store in the 1890s … The family that established Wing on Wo more than a century ago still runs things … although the shop’s appearance doesn’t suggest any important heritage. Its shelves are dusty, its pace is sleepy and foot traffic is slow.”

“Wing on Wo’s salvation appeared in Mei Lum, 26, the second-youngest of the family’s five grandchildren … She is now reinventing the shop, molding it into a community space that operates against the backdrop of Chinatown’s history … she envisions a forum for panels on issues like neighborhood politics, exhibitions for local artists and a coffee shop. Ms. Lum held an event recently at the store on the neighborhood’s gentrification, and a planned panel will include influential businesswomen from Chinatown. She calls her concept the W.O.W. Project.”

“Ms. Lum’s new vision for Wing on Wo, ironically, resembles the store’s original incarnation over 100 years ago … General stores like Wing on Wo were crucial hubs in this early village-like stretch. They sold tastes of home like dried fish, herbs and tofu, but they also operated as social clubs, representing Chinese villages and counties, and provided mail and money-wiring services.”

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Foodies & The Single Cow

The Wall Street Journal: “Retailers including Whole Foods Market Inc., FreshDirect, and Amazon.com Inc. are building farm-to-store meat operations that sate some consumers’ desires to trace their burger or bacon all the way back to an individual animal … Other retailers, like Honest Beef Co., are supplying cuts directly to consumers, cutting out the meatpacking middlemen and grocery chains in a foodie twist on traditional mail-order businesses like Omaha Steaks International Inc.”

“Setting up a single-cow supply chain is costly and complex … Customers must be willing to pay princely sums for these cuts. In addition to its minimum order size, Honest Beef charges around $8.50 a pound for dry-age ground beef. Elsewhere, ground beef prices in August averaged $4.25 a pound nationwide … most burgers are made from a combination of lean and fatty scraps left over after higher-value cuts like the T-bone are carved up. That means a 1-pound package of store-bought ground beef could contain meat from hundreds of animals.”

“When officials at online grocer FreshDirect began traveling to Pennsylvania and upstate New York to pitch farmers on ‘disrupting the grocery supply chain,’ the idea was met with skepticism … Today, the skeptics are falling away. Demand for a cut of a cow offered in its ‘hyper, hyper local’ beef, which the Long Island City, N.Y., company can identify down to the group of steers it bought from a particular farm, has been strong since it made its debut last year.”

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Walmart’s Online Pickup Plan

The Washington Post: “Walmart is America’s largest grocer, and its aggressive expansion of pickup services has turned its parking lots into a laboratory for the future of online grocery shopping — one of the trickiest puzzles in all of retail … With the pickup model, Walmart is testing whether its best weapon in this digital fight is its most old-school — and hardest to replicate — asset: a network of more than 4,600 stores.”

“It is counting on a different idea of convenience, one that caters to time-starved suburbanites who spend hours each day in their cars. Maybe for them swinging into a parking lot for a few minutes makes more sense than waiting around the house for a delivery … While Walmart does not disclose sales figures for online grocery pickup, it has taken the program from five markets to more than 80 nationally in the past year.”

“Walmart will have hurdles to clear as it aims to build the free service into a bigger business: For one, shoppers have often been reticent to buy groceries online because they are worried about the quality of the fresh meat and produce … Yet, if the pickup format keeps gaining customer affection, Walmart could be especially well-suited to ride the wave. About 90 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart store.”

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Lord & Taylor’s ‘Fast Fashion’ Play

The Wall Street Journal: Lord & Taylor is taking a page from Zara. This summer, when an Isaac Mizrahi off-the-shoulder top nearly sold out days after hitting its stores, the department-store chain had the blouse back in stock in six weeks. It used to take nine months.”

“The quick turnaround was the result of a partnership with New York-based Xcel Brands Inc., which owns the IMNYC Isaac Mizrahi brand among other labels and is trying to make a business selling fast-fashion tricks to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. Here is what it looks like: Xcel keeps stockpiles of unfinished fabric, so it is available quickly to be dyed, cut and sewn into the latest trend.”

“Lord & Taylor is able to procure the goods at a lower price by eliminating intermediaries and buying directly from the factories. That helps to offset the higher cost of shipping some items by air. Xcel, meanwhile, collects a royalty fee from Lord & Taylor based on retail sales.”

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Tycho: Vinyl, Digital & Musical Culture

The New York Times: “In the age of the surprise digital album, what about the vinyl fans? … Scott Hansen, who records spacey electronic rock under the name Tycho, has come up with one solution. Tycho’s new album, ‘Epoch,’ was released online on Friday … Tycho’s record label, Ghostly International, will be offering a custom slipmat — the felt pad that sits on a turntable — to customers who place advance orders for the vinyl record at their local record store. The slipmat will become available in about two weeks, and physical versions of the album, on both vinyl and CD, will come out in January.”

“The staggered timing lets Mr. Hansen and Ghostly release the music quickly — Mr. Hansen said he put the finishing touches on the recording just two weeks ago — while also giving a tangible dimension to what is otherwise digital ephemera.” He comments: “We’ve always been really concerned with the physical experience. A lot of people want the vinyl so that they feel that this music is real, it’s not just a digital file.”

“For fans of major acts, a surprise online release can create a communal moment, with reactions that ricochet across social media. Sam Valenti IV, the founder of Ghostly, described the slipmat as a ‘passport stamp’ for fans, a way to seize on the release of new music yet still have a keepsake in physical form to function as a placeholder until the final product comes out.” He says: “Streaming music is fantastic, but record stores still have a place as the physical manifestation of music culture. How to balance those things is a beautiful tension right now.”

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