New ways to pay: Consumers embrace contactless cards while eschewing mobile payments.

What’s up with mobile payments? They’re the epitome of convenience … and yet most people haven’t taken the plunge.

It’s not as if major retail establishments haven’t begun offering mobile payment capabilities. Apple Pay is now available at three-fourths of the top 100 merchants in the United States (and at two-thirds of all U.S. retail locations overall.)  The stats for Google (Android) Pay are much the same.

But just because the capability is available doesn’t mean that people will start using it. Juniper Research recently analyzed the payment behaviors of consumers in the United States and UK.  It found that just 14% are using mobile payments for in-store purchases.

And even before mobile payments have had much chance to get out of the starting gate, another payment option — contactless credit cards — appears to steal their thunder.

Contactless cards act very similar to the way a mobile device would — by simply tapping a terminal at checkout.

Actually, contactless technology isn’t exactly new; MasterCard introduced cards more than a decade ago, and a number of transit authorities like the Chicago and London subway systems were early adopters.

But a critical mass has now been achieved, and market consulting firm ABI Research projects that by 2022, 2.3 billion contactless cards will be issued annually. Companies such as Amex and Capital One are already in it in a big way, and Chase started sending out contactless cards towards the end of 2018.

For consumers, the “tap-and-go” process of these cards takes only a few seconds — in other words, far faster than EMV chip cards that are the most prevalent current practice. Although a few observers disagree, it’s generally believed that contactless cards are nearly as safe to use as chip cards.

Accordingly, the vast majority of card issuers have zero-liability guarantees against fraud, figuring that the faster speed at checkout is worth it to consumers and vendors when weighed against the marginally higher security risk.

What are your preferred payment practices … and why?

Restaurants face their demographic dilemmas.

There’s no question that the U.S. economy has been on a roll the past two years. And yet, we’re not seeing similar momentum in the restaurant industry.

What gives?

As it turns out, the challenges that restaurants face are due to forces and factors that are a lot more fundamental than the shape of the economy.

It’s about demographics.  More specifically, two things are happening: Baby boomers are hitting retirement age … and millennials are having children.  Both of these developments impact restaurants in consequential ways.

Baby boomers – the generation born between 1946 and 1964 – total nearly 75 million people. They’ve been the engine driving the consumer economy in this country for decades.  But this big group is eating out less as they age.

The difference in behavior is significant. Broadly speaking, Americans spend ~44% of their food dollar away from home.  But for people under the age of 25 the percentage is ~50% spent away from home, whereas for older Americans it’s just 38%.

Moreover, seniors spend less money on food than younger people. According to 2017 data compiled by the federal government, people between the age of 35 and 44 spend more than $4,200 each year in restaurants, on average.  For people age 65 and older, the average is just $2,500 (~40% less).

Why the difference? The generally smaller appetites of people who are older may explain some of it, but I suspect it’s also due to lower disposable income.

For a myriad of reasons, significant numbers of seniors haven’t planned well financially for their retirement.  Far too many have saved exactly $0, and another ~25% enter retirement with less than $50,000 in personal savings.  Social security payments alone were never going to support a robust regime of eating out, and for these people in particular, what dollars they have in reserve amount to precious little.

Bottom line, restaurateurs who think they can rely on seniors to generate sufficient revenues and profits for their operations are kidding themselves.

As for the millennial generation – the 75 million+ people born between 1981 and 1996 – this group just barely outpaces Boomers as the biggest one of all. But having come of age during the Great Recession, it’s also a relatively poorer group.

In fact, the poverty rate among millennials is higher than for any other generation. They’re majorly in debt — to the tune of ~$42,000 per person on average (mostly not from student loans, either).  In many places they’ve had to face crushingly high real estate prices – whether buying or renting their residence.

Millennials are now at the prime age to have children, too, which means that more of their disposable income is being spent on things other than going out to eat.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that the oldest members of the millennial generation are now in their upper 30s – approaching the age when they’ll again start spending more on dining out.  But for most restaurants, that won’t supplant the lost revenues resulting from the baby boom population hitting retirement age.

For PCs, a new lease on life.

There are some interesting results being reported so far this year in the world of “screens.” While smartphones and tablets have seen lackluster growth — even a plateauing or a decline of sales — PCs have charted their strongest growth in years.

As veteran technology reporter Dan Gallagher notes in a story published recently in The Wall Street Journal, “PCs have turned out to be a surprising bright spot in tech’s universe of late.”

In fact, Microsoft and Intel Corporation have been the brightest stars among the large-cap tech firms so far this year. Intel’s PC chip division’s sales are up ~16% year-over-year and now exceed $10 billion.

The division of Microsoft that includes licensing from its Windows® operating system plus sales of computer devices reports revenues up ~15% as well, nearing $11 billion.

The robust performance of PCs is a turnaround from the past five years or so. PC sales actually declined after 2011, which was the year when PC unit sales had achieved their highest-ever figure (~367 million).  Even now, PC unit sales are down by roughly 30% from that peak figure.

But after experiencing notable growth at the expense of PCs, tablet devices such as Apple’s iPad and various Android products have proven to be unreservedly solid replacements for PCs only at the bottom end of the scale — for people who use them mainly for tasks like media consumption and managing e-mail.

For other users — including most of the corporate world that runs on Windows® — tablets and smartphones can’t replace a PC for numerous tasks.

But what’s also contributing to the return of robust PC sales are so-called “ultra-mobile” devices — thin, lightweight laptops that provide the convenience of tablets with all of the functionality of a PC.  Those top-of-the-line models are growing at double-digit rates and are expected to continue to outstrip rates of growth in other screen segments including smartphones, tablets, and conventional-design PCs.

On top of this, the continuing adoption of Windows 10 by companies who will soon be facing the end of extended support by Microsoft for the Windows 7 platform (happening in early 2020) promises to contribute to heightened PC sales in 2019 and 2020 as well.

All of this good news is being reflected in the share prices of Intel and Microsoft stock; those shares have gone up following their most recent earnings reports, whereas all of the other biggies in the information tech sector — including Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, IBM, Netflix and Texas Instruments — are down.

It’s interesting how these things ebb and flow …

“Same old, same old”: Retailers are sending the same e-mails to the same people.

As with so many aspects of marketing these days, data segmentation is key to the success of retailers’ sales efforts.

E-marketing may well be the most cost-effective method for reaching customers and driving business, but a recent analysis by Gartner of retail e-marketing activities shows that many retailers are employing tactics that are neither well-targeted … nor particularly compelling.

The Gartner analysis was performed earlier this year and published in a report titled Discount Emails — The New Playbook.  The analysis covered more than 98,000 e-mail campaigns conducted by 100 national retail brands.

Trumpeting discounts is one of the oldest tactics in marketing, of course, so it comes as little surprise that those sales messages are pervasive in e-marketing as well.

In fact, Gartner finds that more than half of all e-mail campaigns by retailers feature discounts in their subject lines.  Those discount messages are typically sent to nearly 40% of the retailers’ e-mail list — meaning that discount messaging targets broad segments of customers.

Gartner finds that those discount offers generate a ~16% open rate, on average.

Contrast this with retargeting and remarketing e-mails. They make up a much smaller fraction of the e-mail volume, but pull much higher open rates (around 31%).  Abandoned shopping cart e-mails generate an even higher average open rate of 32%.

“Welcome” e-mails tend to do well, too — in the 25% to 30% open rate range.

Gartner’s conclusion is as follows:

“Brands that employ less frequent, but timely, relevant e-mails triggered by customer site engagement or transaction outperform their peers.”

Gartner also found that the average national retail brand has more than 25% of its e-mail database overlapping with other national retailer e-lists, making it even more important for brands to differentiate the language of their e-mail subject lines and to engage in more data-driven e-mail targeting in order for their marketing to stand out from the pack.

Let’s see if the national retail brands get better at this over the coming year.

Sears Holdings’ bankruptcy filing: the worst-kept secret in the business world.

Reports that Sears Holdings is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy have to be the least surprising news of the week.

Paralleling that announcement came the one about the pending closure of nearly 200 stores by the end of the year.

Who’s surprised? It seems as though this retail dinosaur has been on its last legs for years now.  Even when Sears merged with Kmart in the early 2000s, I recall one of my business colleagues remarking that it was “one dog of a company buying another dog of a company to create this really big bowser enterprise.”

“Most. Useless. Merger. Ever.” was how another person I know described it.

Indeed, it seems as though Sears’ biggest contributor to its financial bottom-line in recent years has been its real estate holdings. Sales of Sears commercial properties have contributed mightily to the company’s balance sheet, while retail sales seem almost like an afterthought.

Even as the National Retail Federation is forecasting holiday sales to rise nearly 4% this year – a hefty jump in comparative terms – Sears was destined to share in precious little of it.

According to MediaPost columnist Laurie Sullivan, everyone should have seen the handwriting on the wall when Adthena released its latest online retail activity reporting.  Tellingly, Amazon and Walmart collectively account for nearly 45% of all online retail clicks.

“Old school” department store firms such as Macys and Kohls do significantly worse, typically taking between 3% and 4% of clicks apiece.

But Sears has been a poor performer compared even to the weak showing of traditional department stores; Adthena reports that Sears accounts for just 0.7% of online retail clicks.

To add the final nail in the coffin, anyone looking closely at what’s been happening with Sears’ print and online display advertising expenditures can see that the company was busily rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Media measurement firm Statista reports that Sears/Kmart decreased the dollar amount it spent on such advertising from ~$1.5 billion in 2013 to just ~$415 million in 2017.  That’s more than a 70% drop during a period of economic recovery.

When the numbers between market growth and advertising decline cross like that, you know exactly where things are headed …

Will Sears or Kmart even be brand names in another decade? It’s difficult to see how.

Airline fees go through the roof … but are we actually surprised?

For airline consumers, the news has been unremittingly bleak in the past few years, what with ancillary fees rising and in-flight comfort going the way of the dodo bird.

But when you think about it, this is something that was bound to happen.

According to the Associated Press, the average roundtrip fare for domestic flights in the United States today is approximately $500.

Let’s compare this to when I was a student in college 40+ years ago. Back then, coach airfare between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Nashville, TN typically ran approximately $250 — so roughly half of what today’s figure would be.

But when we calculate the inflation factor, that $250 fare translates to nearly $1,200.

The equivalent of $1,200 a pop explains why it was financially necessary for me to stay in Nashville over various holidays such as Thanksgiving break instead of flying home for only a few days or a week.

On the plus side, flying back then was a breeze compared to today. Not just the stress and irritation of the terminal security lines, but also far fewer travelers, with planes often only one-third or half-full.

Deregulation followed by vastly cheaper airfares have led to flying being within nearly everyone’s budget, which is all very egalitarian but also making the air travel experience high on the “frustration factor.”

How about the airlines? They’ve had to deal with all sorts of regulatory developments along with sharply higher operating costs — jet fuel just for starters.

And while the airlines have benefited from serving more travelers, that hasn’t made up for the decline in fare prices.  So it isn’t surprising that the airlines started cutting in other ways.

First it was in-flight meals, moving away from delicious hot platters to sandwiches … then to peanuts or pretzels … and now to nothing sometimes.

Next, it was the removal of pillows and blankets.

Accessing in-flight entertainment costs extra, too — as well as gaining access to cyber-communications.

And has anyone noticed the “squeeze play” going on in the coach section? That isn’t your imagination.  Today’s typical coach seat is 17 inches wide, which is nearly a 10% decrease from the 18.5 inches from about a decade ago.  (That corresponds with an average 8% heavier traveler over the same period, by the way.)

Space constraints spill over into the ever-smaller footprint of airplane lavatories. If you find that you can’t turn around in them, that’s because they’re literally smaller than a phone booth.  I know I try to avoid using them as much as possible.

In any case, all this nibbling around the edges hasn’t been able to make up for airline revenue losses elsewhere. So now we have fees being levied for checked luggage — in the range of $25 to $40 per item.  For a while the charges were levied on extra pieces of luggage, but now Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines are charging for the first checked item, too.  Among the major carriers, only Southwest remains a holdout — but one wonders for how much longer.

And reservation change fees? They’re increasing for everyone — even people who have traditionally been willing to pay more for an air ticket if they’d have the opportunity alter their travel plans without a being charged whopping change fee.  Those fees can sometimes go as high as $200 — nearly the cost of purchasing an entirely new one-way ticket.

According to transportation and hospitality marketing firm IdeaWorks, in 2017 the top 10 airlines brought in nearly $30 billion in ancillary revenues — a figure that’s sure to be significantly larger in 2018. It’s almost as if the ancillary revenues are as important as the base fare.  As Aditi Shrikant, a journalist for Vox puts it, “Buying a plane ticket has been stripped down to mean that you are paying for your mere right to get on the plane.  Anything else is extra.”

In their own lumbering way, the U.S. Congress is now making noises about cracking town on what it characterizes as unreasonable airline fees.  I’m not sure that any such legislative moves would have the desired effect.  Already, Doug Parker, American Airlines’ CEO, predicts that of Congress moves in that direction, the industry would respond by making airline tickets nonrefundable:  “We — like the baseball team, like the opera — would say, ‘We’re sorry, it was nonrefundable.'”

What are your thoughts about the unbundling of services and fees in the airline industry? While that business model gives passengers the choice of flying for less without access to the amenities, it turns the process of purchasing an airline ticket into something that seems akin to a fleecing.

Do you have particular criticisms about the current state of affairs? What would you prefer to be different about the scenario?  Please share your comments below.