shopping posts

ChittahChattah Quickies January 24th, 2009
  • Some brands remain untouched by discounts – Yet another (rambling anecdotal) story about changes in purchase behavior. We just did an ethnographic study in this area and didn't see (or probe for) the brand-motivating power described.
    "The reasons fall mostly into three categories: old habits die hard, brand loyalty runs deep and the Economics 101 law of supply and demand means the most sought-after brands can command the best prices. Beyond that, there are some items consumers stubbornly just won't forgo — sale or not — no matter how hard they're trying to stretch their budget.

    "There are certain categories … where there are no substitutes accepted. It's infusing your brand with those things that people then say 'I have to have the real thing.'"

    Heather Fox scours stores for sales and clips coupons for food and clothing discounts. But she won't cut corners when it comes to her Marlboro Lights.

    Corlett puts it differently. "You may drink less Coke, but you're not giving up Coke," she said."
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Local Starbucks exhibits passion for their customers January 6th, 2009

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Recently I was in the Starbucks in the Lucasfilm Letterman Digital Arts Center and was surprised to see what was written on the chalkboard

Starbucks is the same EVERYWHERE. What makes us different is our customers = YOU. We’ve worked all over the city, all over the state and we can honestly say that you are the BEST customers EVER. PERIOD. We see you everyday. People from LUCAS, PAC UNION, YMCA, B&B, THE PRESIDIO, THE MARINA & so many more…
You make us love our jobs, make us love coming into work – thank you! Thank you for being you.
Lucky us!
Happy Holidays.

I am not a regular at this Starbucks, so I don’t know how genuine this acknowledgment of a special relationship feels. It’s a curious example of transparency, asking customers to care about whether or not the workers like their jobs or not, and it’s a curious example of localized empowerment. Does corporate really want individual stores making statements like “Starbucks is the same everywhere?”

What do you think? Is this believable or giddy holiday spirit from someone who used to work on the yearbook team in high school? Should Starbucks be encouraging or discouraging this sort of expression in their stores?

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Veggie Tales June 28th, 2008

Two favorite topics – groceries and stories – collide when the NYT profiles a Cleveland-area grocery chain

“One of the things Whole Foods taught us is the need to tell stories” about our products, Mr. Heinen said. In fact, Heinen’s has 50 stories that it trains employees to tell customers about its meat, produce, baked goods and other items.

This month, Whole Foods took another step forward on this front, designating one employee from each store as a “value guru.” Those employees now give regular tours highlighting sales, local and seasonal items and popular selections from its private label brand.

With all the scaremongering over Americans not taking vacations this summer, perhaps the Whole Foods tour will be substituting?

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Sustainability Biz January 22nd, 2008

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The Loft store in Tokyo has an entire section that offers a huge range of reusable grocery store bags. Do the Japanese values around “choice” and “sustainability” collide? Does it make sense within that culture? Does it make sense to outsiders?

I had an uncomfortable reaction along the lines of “Oh, crap, something else to buy.” It seemed to contradict my expectations of restraint in a product category that carries a meaning of “sustainable.” Of course, that may not be the meaning that these bags have in Japan.

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Pop Culture Osmosis, Tokyo (part 1) January 1st, 2008

What sort of stuff is “popular” in another country? How do we, as visitors, experience, catalog or contextuallize pop culture? More posts on this to come.

Being in Japan means constant encounters with kawaii, or cute, characters. Some will be familiar to visitors, whether imported (i.e., Stitch, Snoopy, Miffy, Mickey, Pooh, Pink Panther) or domestic (i.e., Hello Kitty, Totoro, Domo-kun). We were intrigued to come across a new character, then, and wondered who he was.

A display at Tokyu Hands featured this plush toy and a catchy song, in Japanese.
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Then we saw him (with friends) in an arcade window.
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And then we saw a complete window display in Harajuku featuring this (presumed) bug.
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And that gave me something to Google: bug, and mono comme ca (the name of the store). Success! It’s the Bottom Biting Bug (Oshiri Kajiri Mushi).

As my New Year’s Gift to you all, then, here is the video, with subtitles in Japanese and English. This is what started it all, and is an awesome, awesome earworm. Someday soon, very soon, you will awaken with a slight startle, and as the real world comes into grey focus, you’ll grasp at the fading threads of your dream only to realize that it’s been the Bottom Biting Bug song as your internal, nocturnal soundtrack.

Biting is important business, indeed.

Note: the first of what should be over 1000 images and stories are up on flickr here.

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Foreign foods in foreign lands December 10th, 2007

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Although we were dazzled by the array of Asian cuisines available in the food halls at Taipei 101 we observed the biggest (and most eager) crowd at the KFC. We were further surprised to note the Air Canada promotion (amusingly inaccurate translation here including surprising use of the word urine) where, to honor the culture and flavors of Canada, they’re selling a traditional Chinese egg tart drizzled with maple syrup. We passed, thanks (we had hoped it was a traditional Canadian butter tart, but no luck).

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The outside of the KFC stand was decorated with retro Americana and historical brand imagery.

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The American Road Trip promotion at TGI Friday’s
Around the corner was TGI Friday’s, with an American-themed promotion, throwing together states, highways, and foods that might believably (in Taiwan, I guess) carry a geographic association: Kansas Cinnadunker Donuts, Illinois Mushroom Steak, California Shrimp Martini, Missouri Chicken Parmesan, Texas Dragonfire Chicken, Arizona Cape Cod Shrimp Louie, and New Mexico Tortilla Tilapia.

Check out the press release for this promotion.

Movie lovers must have seen car chase scenes on American inter-state highways, the most notable of which is the No 66 Highway. The new menu features characteristic foods of the eight states through which the No 66 inter-state highway runs. That would include Texas, New Mexico, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and California.

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Start spreading the news
Although not a food venue specifically, it’s worth pointing out the New York, New York shopping mall, noted for the presence of American brands.

It’s a curious part of the experience of being a foreigner — in addition to noting the things that seem strange (and some of those will be appearing here eventually), in our global world we are likely to encounter things that we expect to be familiar, yet through someone else’s lenses they are very very different.

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Retail experience at Cabela’s June 9th, 2007

One of the highlights of Kansas City was the chance to check out Cabela’s, a hunting/fishing/camping superstore. Although it’s chock full of animal killing products (and animal killing accessories), it manages to (in that way that the hunting community has always done) reframe this as pseudo-conservation and love for animals. The awe-inspiring amount of taxidermical displays feels like a trip to the national history museum, but the outdoor grill right next to one of the displays reveals the true nature of the endeavor. Lots of surprise and general challenges to my own perspectives made for a fun visit.

Here is a flickr set of my photos.

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Wal-Mart dramatically retargets (ahem) based on user research March 2nd, 2007

In today’s New York Times

There are “brand aspirationals” (people with low incomes who are obsessed with names like KitchenAid), “price-sensitive affluents” (wealthier shoppers who love deals), and “value-price shoppers” (who like low prices and cannot afford much more).

The new categories are significant because for the first time, Wal-Mart thinks it finally understands not just how people shop at its stores, but why they shop the way they do.

Of course those segment labels are dehumanizing and unpleasant, but the source for this new understanding, years of in-depth studies with customers, must have been some very insightful research. Congrats to friends who I presume were the ones that actually did that research (even though they’ve moved on from Wal-Mart)!

Update: The friends disclaim any credit for this work!
Update2: This leaked PPT presumably explains their methodology.
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Mom and Pop in your Neighborhood or Corporate Big Box at the Mall? January 8th, 2007

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Bruce Nussbaum offers some great insight about the problems and history with leadership at Home Depot (I hadn’t heard any of this). It reminded me of last weekend’s interesting shopping experience…

We were planning on painting the ceiling in our family room/kitchen. We had some paint on hand from our last ceiling job. It was Glidden ceiling paint, and we wanted to match it exactly with the same brand. Ceiling paint from different companies won’t match exactly and the job will look terrible if you switch color/finish midway through. We had bought this Glidden stuff a number of times at our local Ace, just down the road from us. Last time, they had a big display for a new variant, ceiling paint that goes on pink and dries white. It’s tough to paint ceiling white over primer, since you can’t really see where you’ve painted very easily. We were too cheap to opt for the fancy stuff, but we liked the Glidden just fine.

Sure, ceiling paint is just a specific color and finish that they’ve repackaged, but it’s much easier to ask for ceiling paint as a product rather than have one mixed up custom. It’s a great idea to package and brand a solution.

We hit the Ace, with our list of stuff. But no ceiling paint. No Glidden. No pink. No Ace brand ceiling paint. We asked and got an inarticulate and unhelpful “We just have regular paint.” Amazed and frustrated, we checked out (another inarticulate employee). We got in the car and drove north to the next paint store we knew about. They weren’t a Glidden dealer, but they had been helpful in the past with paint. No ceiling paint on display, so we asked for help. Apparently “Mark” who dealt with paint was occupied, so our guy went to ask him for us. He came back and told us “All these paints go on the ceiling.” Uhh, yeah, but that’s not the point.

Back in the car to the next hardware store north. Seemed to be an Ace that had been disenfranchised. Rusted tools on the shelves. Ladders covering the paint display. We were told “we don’t carry ceiling paint any more.” Obviously.

At this point, we just drove the remaining few miles to Home Depot. We got a good parking spot (their parking lot being enough to keep me away from the store) and strode purposefully to the paint department. We found, without help, the Glidden ceiling paint. We walked to the self-check, waited 30 seconds, swiped, weighed, paid, and walked out. We were back in the car in 5 minutes. The most successful Home Depot trip ever.

After all this driving around, we were pretty hungry and we went to the Burger King drive-through across the street (sort of a protein-of-last-resort choice). When we came to the window to pay and pick up our food, they noticed our dog in the backseat, and a small flurry of excitement ensued. “Is that a dog back there?” “Look at the lovely doggie!” and “Can we give your dog a treat?” We said sure, and they went and got him a piece of bacon, wrapped in a napkin. (and in case he’s reading this, sorry, dog, but you don’t get people food, so you didn’t even know about this).

The local stores were unable to provide us with the product we needed (including something we had previously purchased from them) and they were unpleasant and frustrating to deal with. The big box corporate experiences were efficient, satisfying, and/or surprisingly pleasant and touching.

I’ve certainly bitched here extensively about bad experiences at Home Depot and their ilk, but in one hour we had a series of disappointing local retail visits, and two very successful (especially so when the previous ones failed so badly) corporate visits. We tried to shop local and support smaller businesses. What will we do next time?

Postscript: Glidden had changed their label since the last purchase, removing any information about the coverage per gallon. Why? And they changed the formula; this new version smells like sour milk and what Marge Simpson calls “heinie.” But the ceiling looks great.

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Supermarkets begin to open in India November 25th, 2006

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A few tidbits from this story

On a recent Friday morning in the southern India city of Hyderabad, one of the country’s biggest companies, Reliance, plunged into the retail market by opening 11 neighborhood supermarkets simultaneously across the city.

The stores offer customers long, clean, brightly lit aisles lined with deep black plastic bins full of produce, all clearly labeled with prices. There are even modern juice bars near the exits.

“I’m already a Reliance fan,” said one early customer, Amrit Dugar, a wedding planner. “I use them for my telecom and petrol.”

Such a different notion of brand. Phone company, gas station, grocery store? Seems like these large companies in India have unique combinations of holdings, but their brands transcend their categories.

India has only a few dozen very large supermarkets, but Reliance plans to change not just the scale of what Indian retailers have seen before, but also the way they get products to market.

The Reliance Fresh stores are a mere fraction the size of the average Western supermarket, but huge compared to the majority of Indian shops; fewer than 5 percent of the country’s stores are more than 500 square feet. In three to six months, Reliance Retail will open a few flagship stores with about 100,000 square feet of space each (the average Wal-Mart is 85,000 square feet) focusing on foods, not manufactured goods.

It plans to spend $5.6 billion to open more than 4,000 stores in 1,500 towns, cities and villages over the next four years, exceeding 100 million square feet of retail space.

The article goes on to describe the coming of retail in a big way, beyond just Reliance, and the impact that this can have on small businesses, and on employment in India. The numbers in this story, the size of the country and the tiny-ness of the current retail footprint and the plans — all are mind-boggling.

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Slow Down, Merchants October 26th, 2006

It’s a gorgeous sunny day on the California coast. Halloween seems far off. Thanksgiving even further. Yet today we received our first (of many, no doubt) Crate and Barrel xmas catalog? The grocery store is featuring egg nog (as well as other nogs). I don’t know if I can handle multiple streams of holiday pressures.

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The little touches that mean so much September 25th, 2006

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We did an unplanned meal shopping thing at Safeway the other day – went in for that night’s meal, thinking “let’s get some fish, and maybe some vegetables.” We check out the fish and choose Dover Sole, relatively bland. We think about some spices and I go off to the spice aisle for something from Zatarains or whoever has that silhouetted dancing chef (anyone?), but then we see this pretty cool display right in front of our noses (there’s so much crap on display in these stores that I guess we tend to look past it when possible) – a variety of spices and marinades.

The fish-prepping man was incredibly nice, very genial, and asked lots of questions as he prepared our food (“how spicy do you like it?”, etc.). We could get the spices on the fish, or on the side. He pointed out another flavor they had but didn’t have room for in the display. We went from ingredients to meal with an enjoyable and custom bit of service (yeah, you can buy flavored/spiced fish and chicken, already done, but this was done at that moment, just for us).

Of course, there were no ingredients on these containers and if you’ve ever read the packages on marinades and flavoring spices you’ve probably noticed the ridiculous amount of salt they contain. We usually comparison shop at length until we find something that is not going to drown us in NaCl. Well, as you can imagine, the fish was spicy and really really really really salty. Each bit was like someone held your tongue with a pair of tongs and held a container of free-running salt above your head for a full minute.

Interestingly, I don’t blame Safeway for that. I take responsibility – caveat emptor – for purchasing a likely-to-be-salty product without finding out more. I compliment Safeway for providing a value-added experience (with the quality of the service – the human – really making it work). I guess we won’t do that next time, and will take the prep burden back on ourselves.

also: I thought the design of the marinade dispensers was kinda cool, allowing you to measure and presumably prevent overpouring.

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I’d rather spend a weekend locked in a department store (hey…..) August 20th, 2006


My colleagues and I used to talk about productizing the idea of “having a vacation in your own backyard” (pre 9/11, even). The SF Chron is running a series in the travel section detailing just how to do that. In today’s edition, a couple spends their summer vacation at Santana Row (a horrifyingly fake-fancy mall in San Jose)

Inside, sunny Mediterranean gave way to light walls, dark wood and clean, vaguely Asian lines. We made good use of the rooftop pool (as did a margarita-fueled girlfriend weekend party) and small but well-chosen selection of equipment in the gym before having a marvelous dinner at Citrus.

Feeling sophisticated and far from home, we crossed the courtyard to Vbar, whose dramatic red light, setting liquor bottles aglow against the ebony back bar, has won a degree of local fame. From the balcony, we looked across to apartments and condos above the stores. Most were still open, and the streets were buzzing. We hit the sidewalks again, entering a New Orleans-style flow of partiers drifting in and out of bars, restaurants and stores, drinks in hand.

After a late movie at CineArts at the edge of Santana Row, we made our way back through the throngs at 1 a.m. Wiggling through the line waiting to get up to Vbar, we flashed our room key at the bouncer. He made a path for us to the elevator, where we ignored someone’s abandoned drinks. For the second time that day, we retreated into the hotel’s soothing quiet.

The shops and restaurants, perfectly designed to mimic Old World elegance, do feel a bit like Europe’s grand shopping avenues, even if the illusion ends at parking lots or busy thoroughfares within a few blocks. The polished mimicry also feels a lot like Downtown Disney, and the artifice can be enervating. In the morning, we were happy to head back to our ordinary surroundings, but Santana Row’s beautiful buildings, cars, landscaping and people made for a delightfully indulgent and restful interlude.

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Wired on Reinventing Television September 6th, 2005

Pretty good Wired interview with Jon Stewart and Ben Karlin. Wired, being Wired, is pushing these guys to say brilliant stuff about the future, about technology, business models being revamped, distribution channels being introduced, utter changes in how we watch and how they make. But Stewart and Karlin continue to resist, falling back on their stance of hey, we just make a show; we’re show makers. But they get them to give up this quote

Karlin: From a creative standpoint, there used to be this idea that network was the holy grail and that cable was where people went who couldn’t work on network. That’s the old model. And now that there’s just as many quality shows coming out of cable – on FX there’s good shows, Comedy Central has good shows, HBO Ôø? I think the audience is going to cease noticing, “Oh, that’s got the NBC logo on it.”
Stewart: It’s the idea that the content is no longer valued by where it stands, in what neighborhood it lives. What matters is what you put out there, not its location. I think that’s what people have come to learn from the Internet – it doesn’t matter where it comes from. If it’s good, it’s good. Just because our channel is after HGTV and right before Spanish people playing soccer doesn’t make it any less valuable than something that exists in the single digits on your television set.

which just struck me as untrue. I think the networks (and by that I mean cable networks as well as network networks) have built pretty strong brands that attract people. HBO, especially. On one hand, I guess they’re saying that the network (ABC CBS NBC) is not the purest endorser of quality any more, that’s absolutely true, but the statement the location of the content has no meaning and the show is judged on its own merit, well, that doesn’t seem true at all.

Reminds me of some recent ethnographic work with consumers about food and groceries. Without revealing anything confidential, I think I can mention that I was surprised by how strong the grocery store brand was in conveying positive meaning about food choices. Far stronger than any indvidual food producer brand. Perhaps an analogy for HBO (the place you get Sopranos and Six Feet Under). Perhaps not.

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Is Safeway Sucking Your Soul? / Are overlit, heavily toxic supermarkets making you ill and eating your brain? Why, yes May 3rd, 2005

Here’s a brilliant rant about the supermarket shopping experience

Is Safeway Sucking Your Soul?

We are surrounded. We are immersed. American consumer culture is teeming with so many neon-colored, overprocessed, semicomestible, demon-spawn products we can no longer even recognize how bad it is, how it is all meant to drive us slowly insane, so slowly we forget to keep asking why we feel so sick all the time, and we just shut the hell up and buy more giant tubs of Country Crock to go with our liquefied reconstituted pork tubes because we think this is the only way.

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