Luxury Today: Big Data & The Rising Velvet Rope

The New York Times: “Today, ever greater resources are being invested in winning market share at the very top of the pyramid, sometimes at the cost of diminished service for the rest of the public. While middle-class incomes are stagnating, the period since the end of the Great Recession has been a boom time for the very rich and the businesses that cater to them.”

“In many ways, the rise of the velvet rope reverses the great democratization of travel and leisure, and other elements of American life, in the post-World War II era. As the Jet Set gave way to budget airlines, in places like airports and theme parks even the wealthiest often rubbed shoulders with hoi polloi … What is new is just how far big American companies are now willing to go to pamper the biggest spenders.”

“Many companies … have discovered that offering ordinary customers just a whiff of the rarefied air can actually enhance the bottom line, even if it stirs a certain amount of envy and resentment … And with the rise of the Internet and big data, companies can pinpoint and favor these wealthiest customers in ways unimaginable even a decade ago.”

“For companies trying to entice moneyed customers, that means identifying and anticipating what they want … But for people at the lower end of the market, as well as in the middle, plenty of friction remains. The trade-off is that the amount of hassle is precisely calibrated to just how much you are willing to pay.”

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The ‘Margaritaville’ Experience is a State of Mind

“Margaritaville, with its themed restaurants (erupting volcanoes, boat-shaped booths), started as a tropical cousin to T.G.I. Friday’s,” The New York Times reports. “Through trial and error, Jimmy Buffett and a partner, John Cohlan, have since expanded Margaritaville Holdings to include four booming divisions: lodging, alcohol, licensing and media. Now, as they pursue growth for the first time overseas … they are trying to recast Margaritaville as a broad, aspirational brand — the Ralph Lauren of leisurely escape, if you will.”

“The stroke of genius was making Margaritaville a feeling, not a place,” said Mindy Grossman, the chief executive of the home-shopping behemoths HSN and Frontgate, where 400-plus Margaritaville items include a $799 hammock and $159 penny loafers. “If you don’t take the name so literally, growth could be endless.”

Margaritaville is “building a unique corporate culture — employees all use the same valediction in emails: ‘Fins Up!’ — and drawing fanatic customers like Carol and Butch Wayland … ‘We’re not Parrot Heads,’ Mrs. Wayland said. ‘We’re just normal, everyday people who happen to be residents of the Margaritaville state of mind.’ Mrs. Wayland, who is in her 50s, added that she had ‘spent a fortune’ on Margaritaville products, including hats, flip-flops, dress shirts, shorts, clocks, coffee mugs, barware, a blender and underwear.”

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Quote of the Day: Prince

“I’d rather give people what they need rather than just what they want.” – Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016)

It’s kind of the inverse of Mick Jagger: “You can’t always get what you want,” where what you need is something less than what you want. Prince (and David Bowie for that matter — and the Stones to be fair!), understood that what we need is something more than what we want.

Isn’t this also true of great brands? They take us somewhere beyond what we want. The magic is in what we need, whether we know we “want” it or not — until we experience it.

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The True Cost of Good Content

Jesse Weaver: “We want our web and we want it for free. However, the inconvenient truth is that there is a cost to doing business and at some point companies have to make money …. And so we sacrifice the magic. We devalue content and products by refusing to pay for the work it takes to create and maintain them. We are satisfied wading through poorly designed, ad-based experiences. And we allow our most precious resource, our time, to become a commodity to be traded, sold and manipulated. Our data is mined, our privacy discarded and our actions tracked all in the name of more targeted advertising.”

“And it’s not even the best scenario for companies either. In Q4 of 2015 Facebook brought in $5.9 billion in revenue with 1.59 billion active users/month. That’s roughly $1.23 of revenue/user/month. If, in the same quarter, Facebook moved away from ads and instead charged each active user just $1.50 a month for the service, their Q4 2015 revenue would have increased by $1.2 billion dollars, from $5.9 billion to $7.1 billion.”

“Now, what if Facebook started using that extra $1.2 billion to pay content creators for posting quality content on the platform? … Suddenly the revenue sources for content creators starts to diversify. The reliance on advertisers wanes. Feeds … are designed to promote connection and shine a light on creators. Bloated, ad-filled UIs start to disappear … Creators develop more immersive content experiences focused on the people using them. The balance of power flips back to the user … we stop being the commodity and we start being the driver. And when users are the driver, companies will focus on adding value, not just grabbing our attention.”

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Readers vs. Users: A Cure for the Common Algorithm

Quartz: “To be sure, there’s a sick kind of symbiosis involved in so-called metrics-driven journalism. Content farms produce what the metrics say users want, and users give their attention, against which content creators can sell ads … And so it’s no surprise that when publications treat readers as users, they find what they expect to see: vapid, venal, flaky masses who constitute a collective problem to be solved by the data wizards of Silicon Valley.”

“But readers aren’t the problem. Readers are the solution. If publications can reclaim the reciprocal relationship between themselves and the people for whom they tell stories, then they can nurture a different kind of growth. It would not be the fast, social media-driven pageview growth that we see from venture capital-backed media upstarts. It would not be wide growth. Rather, it would be deep growth: fewer users but more loyalty and impact.”

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Shakespeare & Co: Amazon Isn’t Its Problem

Wall Street Journal: “Soon after Dane Neller bought Manhattan bookseller Shakespeare & Co. last May, he shut the doors and built the bookstore where he wanted to shop … After Mr. Neller got done tinkering … the store, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, had a distinctly different look. Space inside the store dedicated to books has been cut by nearly 40% to 1,200 square feet.”

“Mr. Neller … is also chief executive of a company that makes a desk-sized device called the Espresso Book Machine, which prints new paperbacks in five minutes or less. An $85,000 unit is featured prominently at Shakespeare & Co. ‘It’s the secret sauce,’ says Mr. Neller. ‘The machine enables a bookstore to have a much smaller footprint’.”

He “says book sales from September through the end of March are up 10% compared with the same period when the store was under different ownership” and “attributes the gains to better-chosen titles, increased store traffic attracted by the store’s new cafe and the Espresso machine … ‘Amazon isn’t my problem,’ he says. ‘My customer is here because they care about more than price. They want to be greeted, they want a sense of community, and they have a craving for culture’.”

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Tractor Supply: It Has What Amazon Does Not

Forbes: “The typical Tractor Supply customer owns land, keeps pets, raises chickens and drives a pickup … Tractor Supply has approached retail’s cardinal rule of ‘Know Your Customer’ as both mission statement and math problem, and in the process has become an (albeit unlikely) lifestyle brand, famed for an in-store experience so satisfying that its rustic-chic brick-and-mortar operations are well fortified against the onslaught of consumers who want to buy everything on their smartphones.”

“Tractor Supply has 1,500 locations spread across 49 states; the company plans to open around 115 stores in 2016 and about 120 stores per year after that until 2,500 are in operation, mostly in rural or exurban areas … Roughly 15% of store merchandise is tailored to each ‘hyperlocalized’ market: One Kentucky store may cater to equestrians while another mere miles away carries products for life in coal country … the average 16,000-square-foot Tractor Supply store is manned by a team of 12 to 15 local ‘lifestylers’–the type of people who would shop at Tractor Supply even if they didn’t work there.”

The store’s “exclusive lines ensure that customers can’t find an item cheaper on Amazon … Not that Amazon is a big concern. Less than 1% of Tractor Supply’s revenue comes from e-commerce, and increasing that number isn’t a top priority. Physical stores and a deep connection to the countryside remain at the company’s core.”

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Upgrade Downgrade: Bad News for Apple’s iPhone

The Wall Street Journal: “The death of the two-year cellphone contract has broken many Americans from a habit of routinely upgrading their smartphones … Citigroup estimates the phone-replacement cycle will stretch to 29 months for the first half of 2016, up from 28 months in the fourth quarter of 2015 and the typical range of 24 to 26 months seen during the two prior years.”

“Since the early days of Apple Inc.’s iPhone, most customers have avoided paying for the full price for the latest model. But the success of AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. since 2013 in shifting customers into plans that force them to pay the full price for devices—and separate that cost from monthly service fees—has consumers holding on to their devices longer.”

“Analysts see the longer device life as positive for the carriers because it could lead to fewer service cancellations or defections in the competitive industry … The longer upgrade cycle lowers equipment revenue for the telecom companies, but Verizon’s Chief Financial Officer Fran Shammo argued last month that the top-line shift is painless … The shift isn’t as benign for Apple. BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk recently cut 10 million units out of his fiscal 2016 and 2017 iPhone estimates because of shifting upgrade rates in the U.S.”

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Cutting The Cord: Not Just for the Poor Anymore

The Washington Post: “Low-income Americans are still one of the biggest demographics to rely solely on their phones to go online.” However, “even people with higher incomes are ditching their wired Internet access at similar or even faster rates compared with people who don’t earn as much.”

“In 2013, 8 percent of households making $50,000 to $75,000 a year were mobile-only. Fast-forward a couple of years, and that figure now stands at 18 percent. Seventeen percent of households making $75,000 to $100,000 are mobile-only now, compared with 8 percent two years ago. And 15 percent of households earning more than $100,000 are mobile-only, vs. 6 percent in 2013. Stepping back a bit, as many as 1 in 5 U.S. households are now mobile-only, compared with 1 in 10 in 2013. That’s a doubling in just two years.”

“This suggests that having only one form of Internet access instead of two may no longer be explained simply as the result of financial hardship — as might be the case for lower-income Americans — but could be the product of a conscious choice, at least for wealthier people, who are deciding that having both is unnecessary.”

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