Clicking Locally

29 11 2011

If there is anything that is emerging this nascent holiday shopping season, it is that people are clicking away with almost reckless abandon. Folks may have made their way outside Thanksgiving night and Black Friday to fight for discounts, but this one item stands out: Online sales are up over last year.

Way up.

Apparently, people had no sooner gulped their last bite of gobbler than they had headed to the computer to start shopping. Online sales on Thanksgiving day were up 39% over last year. And the party continued into Black Friday with online sales up 20% over 2010. It’s still a little early to tally yesterday’s Cyber Monday sales, but I suspect they are equally impressive.

So what’s the problem, you ask? Simple. There’s a huge disconnect going on, especially right here in Amarillo. The City, Chamber and Amarillo Globe-News have all been championing their Shop Smart, Shop Local campaign for over a year now, but with zealous fervor of late. Editorials implore us to spend our money among local merchants, or run the risk of reduced city services. Mayor Paul Harpole even played the Scare card by saying that if sales tax revenues go down, and yet we expect city services to remain constant, there is only one alternative: higher property taxes.

Yikes.

But maybe all of this would make a little more sense if the Amarillo City Commission had not just approved the $571,000 purchase of new police cars…from Caldwell Country Ford of Caldwell. (Be sure to read the linked article…all the way down to the bottom.)

Gulp.

Now I realize that these types of purchases are put out to bid, and that governmental agencies are usually bound to accept the lowest of at least three bids. But what message does it send when the local police department makes such a significant purchase out of town? Are local car dealers (we have three Ford dealers) so high that they cannot compete? And what about all of our other retailers? And what effect does it have on “shop local” campaigns, especially in the era of one-click shopping?

A lot. A big stinking lot.

It is one thing to try to encourage us to all think before we click, but it is quite another to speak out of both sides of one’s mouth. We have been guilted and browbeaten into considering local sources, but then we see the City Commission marching to a different drummer. I can just imagine local retailers poetically crying, “Et tu, Brutus?”

The fact of the matter is, I actually applaud the City Commission for buying from the lowest bidder. It has a fiduciary responsibility to spend taxpayer monies efficiently. But guess what? We, too, have our own familial fiduciary responsibilities. This is not so much about the local economy as it is the personal economy…and this is something for which I am not only in control, but also responsible.

Which may help explain why so many people were busy clicking away the last few days. It’s all about perceived value. Value is in the eye of the purseholder, which means that price, convenience, service and a variety of other factors play a role. And if local vendors cannot provide the best value, then maybe they should reconsider why they are in business in the first place. Subsidizing inefficiently run local businesses for the ostensible purpose of avoiding future property tax increases is just not a good use of one’s finances. It’s also a fallacy. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, he says in his finest Latin.

And don’t get me started about Amarillo having the highest gas prices in the state.

It’s a strange collision of shady rhetoric, convenience, price, selection and value that have me thinking long and hard about where I will spend my money this holiday season. Nationally, the trend is pretty obvious (the forecast is for a 15% jump in online sales from last year), but locally I can see all the more reason to get clicking.

Or driving to Caldwell. I hear they have good deals on cars there.

Dr “Shop Free Or Die” Gerlich

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wrAPP It Up

29 11 2011

I remember shopping in an Apple Store a few years ago and trying to find the cash wrap station. There was a huge line, and I came close to setting my intended purchases down. I have an aversion to lines, you know. I don’t do them.

A young man in a colorful Apple t-shirt saw my pained expression and came running. “I can take care of you right here,” he said, quickly pulling out a wireless credit card reader that allowed him to process my transaction quickly. Within a minute I had a receipt in my .mac account, and was back in the mall. I was happy, but knew this was no new leap in tech.

In fact, I had seen something similar in the early-1990s at The Incredible Universe store in Arlington TX. A division of The Tandy Corporation (think Radio Shack), IU was a monster electronics store that sought carry everything under the sun. While the format eventually got the better of them (inventory, my dear), the fact that they had roving sales clerks with wireless devices caused my jaw to drop. Remember, it was the early-1990s…dinosaurs still roamed parts of Texas. Around Granbury, I think.

But it took the friendly folks at Apple to raise the bar and cause my jaw to drag bottom this weekend at one of their Las Vegas stores. I was preparing to buy a new iPhone case for my daughter, and was ready to hand the young guy my Visa card. He said, “Hey, have you tried the new Apple Store app yet?”

“Huh?” I replied. “What does it do? Is it a store locater or something?”

“Nope. You can check out right from your phone.”

OK, that settled it. I was all ears. I came clean and told the dude that I not only live for this stuff, I get to teach it. “Do tell,” I implored.

He walked me through the steps, which, of course, involved first downloading the app. I wonder how difficult it is for Apple to get iTunes to approve its own app?

But I digress.

In just a couple of minutes I had the app downloaded and configured (I had to link it to my iTunes account, of course). Before I could say “there’s an app for that,” I was walking out. It was as easy as 1-2-3. Scan. Tap. Carry. And we can thank said daughter for creating the screenshot collage at left, showing the process in its beautiful simplicity.

Basically, customers can be their own cashier. No lines. No handing your credit card over to a stranger. And while it is limited to only off-the-shelf items, it speeds up the transaction process considerably. Remember, the Apple Store is always the busiest store in the mall. Finding an unoccupied Apple fanboy (or girl) can be frustrating.

The app is not without a few little quirks. You have to first hop on the Apple Store’s wifi (ensuring quality connection). And you do have to enable GPS for the app in order for it to locate the specific Apple Store you are in.

The app also allows customers to simply find out more information without making a purchase commitment. But assuming you’re ready to check out, scan the barcode, tap that you want it. and that’s it. Yours. Done. Cha-ching.

I had my receipt in my inbox before I could walk 10 feet.

I had so much fun using it that I went back to buy something else. Yeah, I can be like a little kid sometimes when it comes to geeky novelties.

The clerk did mention that a lot of customers were actually reluctant to try it, and nearly every one of them voiced concerns over being accused of shoplifting. After all, you have the choice of leaving without a bag. It would look like you were trying to slip out without paying.

But Apple always positions a couple of gatekeepers at the entry to keep an eye on things, and it would be easy to show the emailed receipt. More importantly, though, I suspect that Apple’s little in-store app will quickly be copied by other large retailers. It makes good sense. It’s a labor-saving device, and it save shoppers time. I long for the day when I can do this at Walmart or Home Depot. It’s faster and more reliable than the self-check stations they currently employ.

Just don’t lose your phone. Someone could have a lot of fun shopping.

Dr “APPetite For Innovation” Gerlich





(Ad)Busted In Vancouver (Remix)

23 11 2011

(Note: The following is a re-posting of an essay I wrote for my students back in Canyon on 28 November 2003 while I was in Vancouver BC teaching in our Canada MBA program. With Buy Nothing Day rapidly approaching (25 Nov 2011), I thought it apropos to pull this one from the archives.)

I often make references to the Adbusters group in my courses. They are very much against commercialism, materialism, rampant consumption, free trade, and other hallmarks of a free society. The word “liberal” is almost too conservative to describe them.

In 1997 they started Buy Nothing Day, to be held on “Black Friday,” the day after American Thanksgiving. Black Friday is one of the biggest shopping days in the US (and erroneously referred to as the biggest day). The Adbusters group, known for their “culture jamming,” decreed that we should NOT buy anything on this very important shopping day.

They have received a lot of free publicity from their endeavors. That year (2003), CNN ran a story on BND on the 27th of November (American Thanksgiving).

Well, as you know, I was in Vancouver BC Canada during Thanksgiving. I also happened to recall that Adbusters is headquartered in Vancouver.

Ah ha…and now you know where I’m going with this!

I thought it would be extremely appropriate for me to visit them on Black Friday, or BND, as they call it…to see if they would sell me something. Now I realize that we actually were in Canada, and their Thanksgiving is in October, so maybe the whole BND thing did not apply there. I also now realize they have split the “holiday” in two…one for the US, the next day for the rest of the world. And I also accept that while I was trying to bust them for selling me something on my BND, they could theoretically wave the “But We Weren’t Buying Anything” flag. Who is the devil to argue when it’s the sinners who get in trouble?

Having awakened to a downpour (nothing new in wintertime Vancouver!), I got my oldest daughter ready, and dove into Vancouver a.m. traffic, headed for an address I had peeled off the Adbusters website and Mapquested. (Remember them? Everyone uses Google Maps these days. Or their smartphone. But I digress.)

I traveled westward on West 7th Ave, and managed to go right past the place. I was confused, because I was in what appeared to be a residential district. I turned around, and headed east a little more slowly…and then saw the little sign on the north side of the street. The main entrance was a few steps down into a basement of a large, old house.

Stepping across the threshold, daughter in my arms, I beheld the headquarters of the anti-marketer.

A couple of very casually dressed people said hello, one a woman, the other a man. Stylish Mac computers adorned several desks. Magazines were stacked everywhere in huge bundles. Buy Nothing Day posters hung on the wall, along with other evidence of their political leanings (like their opposition to the western hemisphere free trade talks in Miami earlier that month). Had I known then what I know now, they were probably holding planning sessions for the then-nascent idea of a Wall Street occupation. Great rainy day activity.

The two were very thin and had all the necessary traits of an Apple Store employee: tats, piercings, asymmetric haircut. Why is it that some of capitalism’s biggest critics look like they couldn’t get a job anywhere else? Ba-da-shhhhh.

I said hello in return, began thumbing through some magazines, and then picked up a 2004 Adbusters calendar.

I casually asked the woman, “Hey, are these for sale?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“How much?”

“They’re $15, but we’ll let you have it for $10 here in the office.”

“How about magazines?”

“Six dollars in the store, but $3 here.”

“Can I have one of each?”

“Sure!”

Man, I never thought it would be so easy to catch someone in the act of hypocrisy. Here it was, their self-proclaimed Buy Nothing Day, and they were tripping over themselves trying to sell me things.

I handed over a CAD$20, which they had difficulty handling. They returned with a handful of parking meter money.

Then I told them, “In real life, I’m a marketing professor. I’ve used your site for years to have my students see what the other side is saying.”

You should have seen their jaws drop, for they knew they had just been busted.

Continuing to play with them, I seized the moment. Carpe diem, baby. “Yeah, I like to use the Fox News approach to teaching…you know, a ‘fair and balanced’ education.” Even though I don’t like Fox News, it was a convenient card to play.

“So, do you have any literature I could take back to the classroom with me?”

“Hmmm….we don’t actually have anything…but wait, we have some back issues here.”

I walked away with a year’s worth of magazines, my ill-gotten calendar and current issue, my daughter, and the satisfaction of knowing that even the most anti-capitalist of folk have a capitalistic gene in their DNA. Money may be the root of all evil, but try living without it. Milton Friedman argued that our capitalist system is predicated upon greed, and that greed is not a bad thing, for it drives us to produce and provide ever more.

I loaded my daughter and propaganda into the rental van, drove to Toys ‘R Us to buy my kids a treat, and returned to the hotel to pick up the rest of my family. We then headed off to the magnificent MetroTown mall (over 450 stores bedecked in all their greedy capitalist glory!).

And we proceeded to spend unimpeded. This. That. One thing. Another. A turkey-fueled tryptophan-induced euphoria spent on the couch never felt so good.

So much for Buy Nothing Day. Cha-ching.

Dr “You’re Busted!” Gerlich





This Space For Sale

23 11 2011

They say that death and taxes are about the only things you cannot avoid, but whoever that ubiquitous “they” is apparently forgot the omnipresence of advertising. Every media invention of the last 500 years has ushered in a new era of communication between sellers and intended buyers. Print. Radio. Outdoor. Mail. TV. Internet. Apps.

And now just about any other space you can imagine. Even governmental infrastructure and schools.

Not that this is exactly new news. State toll roads have bid out exclusive service station and restaurant contracts for years. Higher education institutions public and private have sold stadia naming rights. College bowl games are seldom ever referred to by their original names, but rather that of their corporate benefactor.

But now it is getting worse, and we can blame the recession in large part. With all levels of government strapped for cash, the idea of every observable surface being prime advertising real estate has gotten traction. Schools, college and universities have also embraced the idea, selling naming rights for virtually any and every physical location on campus.

Right here in WT’s College of Business we have sold naming rights for nearly every classroom. We are trying to finding a significant donor who would like to see his or her name on the wall. And after that the departments need to be named, research labs, you name it. Even the broom closet.

But one must ask this important question: When is all this advertising too much? And are there no more sacred places left that can be declared ad-free?

It reminds me of the world gone haywire in Idiocracy, where everyone drinks Brawndo (“The Thirst Mutilator”) all day long and mumbles advertising taglines.

While I understand the rationale in selling public space for advertising, I will be frank and say that in some instances it is simply beyond the pale. The Dr Pepper logo on a Texas school roof may raise funds for the school, and even catch the attention of people flying overhead. But it is utterly distasteful, and sends the wrong health message to students.

I wonder how long it will be before we see corporate logos in our national parks (beyond the usual concession licensees). On the Golden Gate Bridge. Government office buildings. Military bases. Sections of interstate highway.

Wait. We already talked about that earlier this semester with those Zappos.com “Sponsor A Highway” signs on I-15 near Las Vegas.

From a marketing perspective, all is fair in love and advertising. No space is so sacred that it could not bear a sponsor’s well-placed logo. But from our mere human angle, there is a line beyond which all tact and decorum is lost. A line beyond which not only is beauty or sanctity compromised, but an advertisers actually risks running afoul of soured public opinion.

I can only imagine returning to Rocky Mountain National Park next summer only to find signs begging me to climb the XYZ Long’s Peak, drive So-And-So’s Trail Ridge Road, and shop at Big Company’s RMNP Gift Store.

Yes, I know that times are tight, and tax revenues short. State funding of schools has tanked. There’s scant little money to fill potholes, much less build new infrastructure. And there are are still quite a few companies flush with cash and eager to spend it on marketing.

Commercial graffiti can be a lot like pornography. You can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it. And if companies are not smart enough to draw the line, they may pay the ultimate tax in their very own death.

Dr “Water Is Just That Stuff From The Toilet” Gerlich





For Better Or Better Yet

23 11 2011

It’s been in the news. We hear about it all too often. Children are bullied for being different. And sometimes that bullying leads to suicide.

It was in response to bullying and resulting suicides that prompted Dan Savage and his partner to start the It Gets Better Project in September 2010. Specifically, Savage wanted to tell bullied and otherwise tormented LGBTQ youth that things really do get better. Do not give up. Do not hurt yourself.

In the words of the website, The It Gets Better Project was created to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years. The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it WILL get better.

But what started as just a small grassroots effort to encourage adults to shoot short videos offering their own messages of hope has turned into one of the most effective viral campaigns ever unwittingly launched. Tod ate, over 22,000 videos have been recorded and posted online, by straights and LGBTQ community members, celebrities and the person next door.

And it is an area in which my colleague and I wanted to study.

A couple of days ago at the National Communication Association conference in New Orleans we presented the first research paper from our exploratory study. In this study we examined the attitudes of WT students toward gays and lesbians, their perceptions of bullying on campus, and their interest in seeing a campus-specific video posted embracing this message. Students also watched an IGB video produced for a major state university outside of this region.

The findings were interesting, to say the very least. Given that we live in the buckle of the Bible belt, we expected a decided slant toward the right side of the spectrum. We were pleasantly surprised in many regards.

Our sample was small by design (it was exploratory, remember), with a total of 175 usable responses. The first task in this paper-and-pencil classroom survey was to complete Herek’s 20-item ATLG Scale (Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay men). The ATLG is comprised of two 10-item subscales, one about lesbians, the other about gay men. We found that overall scores on the ATLG were more open-minded and favorable than a statistical middle ground (we expected the opposite).

But we also found that WT is little different from the rest of the nation in that gay men are held in lower regard than are lesbians. We also found that males in general had harsher views toward gay men and lesbians than did women. This, too, is consistent with the rest of the nation. What was troubling was that 48% of respondents scored on the other side of that midpoint, demonstrating a fairly high degree of bias exists on campus. That the scores of this group of nearly one-half the sample were more than offset by the other 52% suggests that ours is a bifurcated campus, with a slight and encouraging tendency toward no bias.

We also discovered that the campus is fairly receptive to the idea of launching our own IGB Project video campaign and has fairly low perceptions of bullying on campus, but that there were significant differences based one whether respondents were LGBTQ themselves, knew someone who is, or were friends with someone who is. In other words, exposure is critical to open-mindedness toward this proposition.

Finally, we collected several measures of religious intensity, such as belief in a supreme being, frequency of prayer, frequency of reading scripture, frequency of attending religious services, and self-identified level of spirituality. It was at this point we noticed very confusing results. People who identified as not being very spiritual as well as not praying very often, were significantly more in favor of a WT IGB campaign. But there were no differences based on frequency of reading scripture, frequency of attending religious services, or belief in a supreme being.

Religious intensity, thus, is not a very strong correlate of views on bullying and a localized campaign.

We still have many questions that need to be answered. Why is the perception of bullying rather low here? Is it because bullying really is low, or is it because it is just not that visible? Or is our campus more accepting of the LGBTQ community than we expected?

Our results show some promise for a campaign of this nature at WT. We are anxious to broaden the scope of our research, at WT, into the broader community, and nationally. That 22,000 videos would be posted in 14 months shows that the digital grapevine has done its job, and millions more youth have been exposed to a message of hope.

It really does get better.

Dr “Spread The Word” Gerlich





Hard Recovery For The Big Easy

20 11 2011

It is perhaps the worst natural disaster in American history. On 29 August, Hurricane Katrina made landfall just southeast of New Orleans. And while the fury of Katrina’s wind may not have wreaked as much havoc as initially feared, it went on to completely devastate the Big Easy in ways that only Noah could truly appreciate.

After the water finally receded, the city was left to dry itself off, clean up, pick up, and move on. And in a remarkable display of resolve and resiliency, its healing has proceeded with remarkably (This book pays tribute to the amazing recovery in progress.).

Never mind the federal bungling and local finger-pointing. Never mind that the core of Nawlins’ tourist area was actually high and dry the whole time. It’s just that the face of the Crescent City did not look all that good on national television, and people started staying away. In droves.

While New Orleans’ mainstay is supply chain-related (petroleum products and cargo). it is also a prime tourist destination. But conventions immediately started pulling out, long before the mold and water lines could be removed. It was like New Orleans had the plague. And no one wanted to be a part of it.

I will attest that the face of this historic town was ugly. I was here in April 2006 for one of the few conventions willing to stick it out here (actually, hotels had started offering killer deals). A local friend took me on a 4.5 driving tour of hurricane damage, which was still quite vivid even 8 months after the fact (view the pics here). My jaw hung the entire afternoon as I shot about 200 frames to document it all.

But whereas Bourbon Street and the usual touristy places were noticeably quiet in 2006, this year it is more like business as usual (and it’s not even close to Mardi Gras). I have been for 5 days and have noted a turnaround that is nothing short of incredible, at least from a tourism angle (see this year’s pics here).

Let’s face it. After infrastructure repairs were made, the city was faced with a marketing problem of enormous size. Its image was as tarnished as the building that were submerged. Tourism rules in New Orleans. It would be like sucking all the visitors’ money out of Las Vegas. For without it, Vegas would be just another truck stop town in the desert. And that’s nearly what would have happened to New Orleans.

Over 1800 people died. Property damage was tallied at $81 billion. That’s nearly three Googles. Query that for a moment.

While the French Quarter is still a rather dirty place to be (in more ways than one), its historicity is legendary and unparalleled in the Deep South. Savannah may be a small-scale New Orleans, but there is only one NOLA. The city’s still labor to survive poverty. Las Vegas may have street performers on every vacant section of concrete, but it pales compared to the musicians, painted people, magicians and crooners trying live off money tossed into a bucket.

Take away the tourists, and suddenly you have little need for hotels and restaurants, as well as the workers employed there. Drunkenness and debauchery may well be NOLA’s middle names (especially before Lent), but there’s far more to do here than just get plastered. Fortunately for New Orleans, it figured out that complaining about how FEMA and local politicians dropped the ball, it decided that life goes on. To say that it has completely recovered would be to lie, because some 100,000 people left after the storm, never to return. And there are still neighborhood infrastructures that still have not returned (like the many stores that were completely wiped out).

But maybe that means that New Orleans is now a leaner, meaner fighting machine. The ones who stayed are bootstrapping a recovery. Residents, tourists and entrepreneurs are optimistic. There’s plenty of signs of growth after the meteorological summer of their discontent. The restaurant trade is now booking (oh my God, I have not eaten this well in a long time. I’ve eaten more beignets than any so-called athletic man should be consuming).

Are things perfect? Not at all. But it’s a far cry from the Nawlins I saw in April 2006. Back then I thought I was viewing a broken city, a people who were so down on life that recovery was out of the question. Just tear it all down and haul it to the landfill.

But today the picture is quite different. All I have to do is find another conference to attend here. I’ll be back for sure.

Dr “Hooray For Beignets!” Gerlich





Mo Mo Mo

20 11 2011

Billy Idol may have bragged about his midnight hour exploits and his conquest wanting mo, mo, mo. But this year, it looks like Santa is going to be the one singing this tune as shoppers start to embrace yet another shopping paradigm. Analysts predict that mobile shopping may account for up to 16% of all e-commerce sales this holiday season.

It’s almost enough to make Santa phone home.

M-commerce attests to our increasingly mobile lifestyles. Whereas 15 years ago it was mind-boggling to even consider staying at home and shopping in our pajamas, this thought is now passe because we need to be able to shop from anywhere…not just the sofa.

But there is one nagging thing that bothers me: I’d be willing to bet a stocking full of cool gifts that the vast majority of m-commerce sales are cannibalizing e-commerce sales.

How’s that again?

Simple. Whereas e-commerce certainly steals sales away from brick-and-mortar stores, I sincerely doubt that there are many m-commerce shoppers who skipped that vital phase. In other words, if you have yet to one-click your way through Amazon’s rain forest of goodness, I just can’t see you tapping away on your iPhone with reckless shopping abandon.

Fortunately, e-commerce does continue to grow, so all is not lost. It’s just that I see the pot of e-commerce sales being a colander. Sales are pouring in through the top, but leaking out at the bottom.

So does this then mean that we should all avoid m-commerce like a digital plague?

Not in a New York minute. If anything, being m-comm capable is rapidly becoming a necessary defensive posture. If you don’t have mobile-friendly commerce, you risk losing sales to those who do. Just like e-commerce rapidly became the norm nearly a generation ago, m-comm is poised to do likewise.

Now in all fairness, m-comm is a rather broadly used term. It means any sales conducted via a hand held device, such as a smartphone or tablet. And one need not be away from home to make these purchases. Heck, I have spent a fortune on my iPad from Amazon, all from the cushy comfy coziness of my recliner.

So much for e-commerce. That would have required me to get up off my duff and head to my computer area. Oh, the fatigue I am envisioning.

All laziness aside, I have also made plenty of iPad purchases while on travel. Have wifi, will shop: e-books, e-magazines, apps, software, movies, and tangible items for all those things that can’t be reduced to a series of 1s and 0s.

And to a lesser extent, the same goes for my phone.

If anything, the combination of more people (still) migrating toward e-commerce, and of that crowd a small but growing leakage to m-commerce, the result is that BAM stores are finding they have a little less relevance each year. Banks are already discovering this reality, with a small trend emerging of closing branches. And electronics giant has already initiated an effort to reduce store size by up to 10% by either partitioning it off, or subletting.

Of course, it doesn’t (yet) mean that BAM stores are all going to curl up and die. But it does mean that the terms of engagement for all businesses have changed, and that a multi-channel approach is necessary for survival. With the holidays right around the corner, it behooves all retailers to hop on this sleigh ride, or risk missing sales.

I think I hear Santa starting to sing.

Dr “Rebel Yell” Gerlich