In The Wearhouse

31 08 2011

Not too many years ago, I was wandering the aisles of Kohl’s. And not that I was particularly worried about what I might find, I began looking at clothing tags in the Men’s Department. It took only a couple of minutes to conclude I was standing in the middle of a textile league of nations. China. Guatemala. Pakistan. Bangladesh. Heck, there were countries I didn’t even recognize.

Maybe they were new or something.

As a business kind of guy, I fully understand why companies source their wares overseas. It’s all about cost, and the most important cost factor is labor. So important is this factor that the US often ships cotton and fabric to other countries to have them assembled into clothing.

And shipped right back here. So you can buy them in Kohl’s.

Although I get the cost savings aspect of the equation, I never really gave much attention to other variables, things like working conditions, living conditions, safety, child labor practices, etc. Yes, I know all about the various boycotts that have been waged against American retailers for selling goods allegedly produced in sweatshops, and I recall the problems Kathie Lee Gifford had in the 90s when suddenly she became associated with the whole mess.

But when I read Kelsey Timmerman’s Where Am I Wearing? this summer, I realized there was something I had missed entirely.

WAIW is the Common Reader selection for West Texas A&M University this academic year. All freshmen are required to read the book. I have chosen to make it a required reading in my MBA Seminar in Marketing course as well. Kelsey has graciously agreed to work with my colleagues and me in conducting research regarding people’s views toward the examples he cites in his book. He’ll be on campus at the end of September to speak at Freshman Convocation, as well as make at least one other nearby appearance.

Kelsey’s preoccupation with the “where” of what he was wearing came, coincidentally, from a similar such “let’s look at the tag” experience as had I. The only difference is that Kelsey was motivated to write a book about it. So he traveled around the world, trying to find the factories that manufactured his t-shirt, jeans, etc. He was able to get inside factories and meet workers. He lived and walked among the people who made his clothes. He walked a mile in their shoes. Literally. Or maybe it was flip-flops.

It’s not that Kelsey is against foreign-made clothing. He’s not opposed to free trade. But he is concerned about the people who effectively work for us, often in less-than-perfect conditions. Yes, he understands that wage comparisons must be put into cultural and economic perspective, and he is very much aware of the fact that some employment sure beats no employment. Because the latter often leads to hunger, homelessness, and even prostitution.

More importantly, though, Kelsey has realized that, in rather stark opposition to the TOMS shoes model of donating a pair of shoes for every pair we purchase, third world conditions are not about being shoeless. It’s about poverty.

Which will make for a very interesting campus visit this fall given that TOMS’ founder Blake Mycoskie was just on campus last April as a Distinguished Lecturer.

So at the end of the day, Kelsey’s mission is not to simply toss people fish, but rather to teach them how to do it themselves. And by drawing our attention to the country of origin of everything we wear, he hopes to make this our focus. It’s not about being pro-union. It’s not about guilting people into buying American. No, it’s about raising the collective consciousness about the need for more global education.

In a Facebook Message to my colleagues and me, Kelsey said it perfectly: “My book has converted “free trade will save the world” folks to anti-sweatshop activists and anti-sweatshop activists into free traders. I’m not sure what success is to me. I guess I want to get the reader empathizing with the workers and those who live in poverty and start thinking about these issues in terms of the people impacted for better and/or worse by them.”

Which gives all of us something to think about the next time we find ourselves in Kohl’s

Dr “Tag, You’re It” Gerlich

Cemetery Of Sounds

30 08 2011

So I was listening to Bob and Tom this morning on the radio, and sandwiched between a rather lengthy dialogue on dog names and a skit featuring songs with cowbell, was a short bit on Sounds We No Longer Hear. The one that stuck out the most was the sound of a phone booth closing.

Yeah. When was the last time you used a phone booth? Even the iconic red booths in London are disappearing, and most are simply there for decoration…sans phone.

Which all got me to thinking. Surely (“Stop calling me Shirley!”) there should be a cemetery where dead sounds go to reside, a place to be remembered, even revered, by generations to come. For there are many sounds that have already taken up residence in this purgatorial state (or are looking at buying a plot).

Like the following:

  • The sound of a VHS tape ejecting (or being loaded)
  • “You’ve Got Mail!”
  • A manual typewriter carriage return
  • A rotary phone dial
  • The hiss of an audio cassette
  • A dial tone (if you have cut the cord, that is)
  • The sound of film being advanced (or rewound) in an analog camera
  • The screech of a 56K modem trying to connect
  • The sound of a cash register making the sale (cue Pink Floyd’s Money)
  • A call center worker based in the US

Interestingly, there are new sounds that have arrived to take their place, as well as throwback sounds that are more metaphor than anything. The fake shutter click sound on my DSLR camera is intended to evoke memories of cameras gone by. The classic old telephone ringtone on my iPhone hearkens to an era much before my time.

And think about how many people reflexively jump…in church, in class, in restaurants…when they hear the familiar 3-tone chirp of an incoming text message. My God, for a brief moment there, everyone thinks they are supremely important or something. “Where R U?” Yeah, sure. Now that’s important.

But sounds truly are an important artifact of cultures, eras and societies, as are smells. They are our sensorial fingerprints on the picture window. But they, just like the kids who smear our own windows, grow up, leave home and eventually die, only to be replaced by the progeny of Progress.

I can only imagine what the sounds of tomorrow will be like. Beeps? Blips? Pulses? I’m sure it will take getting used to, especially for all of us (yes, that means you who are reading) who have grown up surrounded by other sounds. For these new sounds will be alien at first. Disruptive. Maybe even an intrusion. But they will be welcomed and embraced quickly by our young, for they will know no better. Or different.

Change is continuing its march, like Sherman from Atlanta to the Atlantic. It’s taking no prisoners, leaving those who remain to bury the dead, be they sounds. Smells. Luddites.

But there is one thing for which I am happy has not yet changed, and that is being able to listen to Bob and Tom. I listened to them in the early-1980s on their home station, WFBQ Indianapolis. It’s a sound I remember well (“Q95…Kick-Ass Rock ‘N Roll!), yet it still elicits a response from me 30 years later.

Kind of like those incoming TM tones. “I’m right here. Reminiscing about yesterday, but looking for tomorrow. Where R U?”

Dr “All My Troubles Seemed So Far Away” Gerlich

Pocket Change

29 08 2011

It has been said that the Road to Hell is paved with good intentions. While I am not going to argue the theological implications of such fiery demises, I’d like to note that the Marketing Freeway is far less smooth, and is instead littered with potholes. Dangerous curves. Bad drivers. And no guard rails.

Every inch of the way, it’s a Thelma and Louise moment. Except you really do hope to stay on the pavement.

And it’s all because Marketing operates within an atmosphere ruled by a climate of change. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s all a blur, and if it feels like your rear wheels are falling off a cliff, you’re probably right.

Because someone moved the road.

I remember my very first job. I was a high school senior, and had recently been redirected by my Father The Accountant to pursue business instead of journalism (“There’s money in business, Son,” he said.). As part of my participation in DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America), I would be placed in a local business to ostensibly learn the ropes. With a dose of humility in the air, I joined Dugan’s Office Supply in Lansing IL for the lofty wage of $2.30 an hour.

Don’t worry, Warren Buffett. I was never destined to compete with you.

And so for one whole year I stocked shelves, uncrated office furniture, swept floors, affixed price tags. And delivered office supplies all over the south side of Chicago. It’s where I learned how to drive like a maniac. A very polite maniac. Because I’ll signal before I cut you off.

But I digress.

I toted boxes of letter pads, typewriter ribbons (remember them?), Liquid Paper (gack), and all manner of stationery items. “Sign here,” I’d say, and be on my way to terrorize more motorists.

It was a god job. I learned a lot. I even decided that Marketing was indeed my life calling (never mind Dad’s prompting). But I was too young to understand the dynamics of change, of how markets evolve. And that some businesses, like so many dinosaurs before, will die.

I returned to Lansing one day in the mid-1990s, hoping to drop in and see the gang. But there on Ridge Road, in that familiar little shop, was a printing businesses. Dugan’s had died. I went in the shop and poured out my heart. “They closed a little after Office Depot came to town,” the man said.

Ouch. Big Box Retailing 101. David, say hello to Goliath. Good luck with that sling.

I left with a tear in my eye. I would never be able to take my kids there. All I will be able to do is regale them with stories of how it used to be. How we once used typewriters. How Dugan’s once repaired them, and I returned them. How people did everything on paper. And computers were not something that sat on desks, but instead occupied large rooms.

I should have known better than to think that Dugan’s could have survived that long. I had already seen LPs and cassettes fade away, having been replaced by CDs. Black-and-White had gotten some color. And Main Streets everywhere had started moving to saccharine strip malls anchored by retail behemoths with all the personality of Styrofoam.

But that’s just the reality of Marketing, and business in general. Things change. And if we don’t learn to change with it, we’ll be the next one posting that grim “Out Of Business” sign in our window. Better to have change in our pocket, our friend. Our ally. And not our master.

Our task as Marketers is to learn to recognize it. Embrace it. Love it. For to not change is to die. From that perspective, this should be a no-brainer. The alternative sucks. But it isn’t always that easy.

And sometimes I don’t always understand the change (for example, Burger King is now offering oatmeal, and Subway is trying to go upscale), but I give them credit for trying. Maybe they know something I don’t.

Like I said, this freeway has a lot of crazy things going on. Buckle your safety belt. You might even want to consider a helmet. Keep your eyes on the road. But most important, get your motor running. We’ve got an adventure ahead.

I just wish Dugan’s could have been along for the ride.

Dr “Can’t Drive 55” Gerlich