More raps for Google on the “fake reviews” front.

Google’s trying to not have its local search initiative devolve into charges and counter-charges of “fake news” à la the most recent U.S. presidential election campaign – but is it trying hard enough?

It’s becoming harder for the reviews that show up on Google’s local search function to be considered anything other than “suspect.”

The latest salvo comes from search expert and author Mike Blumenthal, whose recent blog posts on the subject question Google’s willingness to level with its customers.

Mr. Blumenthal could be considered one of the premiere experts on local search, and he’s been studying the phenomenon of fake information online for nearly a decade.

The gist of Blumenthal’s argument is that Google isn’t taking sufficient action to clean up fake reviews (and related service industry and affiliate spam) that appear on Google Maps search results, which is one of the most important utilities for local businesses and their customers.

Not only that, but Blumenthal also contends that Google is publishing reports which represent “weak research” that “misleads the public” about the extent of the fake reviews problem.

Mike Blumenthal

Google contends that the problem isn’t a large one. Blumenthal feels differently – in fact, he claims the problem as growing worse, not getting better.

In a blog article published this week, Blumenthal outlines how he’s built out spreadsheets of reviewers and the businesses on which they have commented.

From this exercise, he sees a pattern of fake reviews being written for overlapping businesses, and that somehow these telltale signs have been missed by Google’s algorithms.

A case in point: three “reviewers” — “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” — have all “reviewed” three very different businesses in completely different areas of the United States:  Bedoy Brothers Lawn & Maintenance (Nevada), Texas Car Mechanics (Texas), and The Joint Chiropractic (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina).

They’re all 5-star reviews, of course.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Charlz Alexon,” “Ginger Karime” and “Jen Mathieu” won’t be found in the local telephone directories where these businesses are located. That’s because they’re figments of some spammer-for-hire’s imagination.

The question is, why doesn’t Google develop procedures to figure out the same obvious answers Blumenthal can see plain as day?

And the follow-up question: How soon will Google get serious about banning reviewers who post fake reviews on local search results?  (And not just targeting the “usual suspect” types of businesses, but also professional sites such as physicians and attorneys.)

“If their advanced verification [technology] is what it takes to solve the problem, then stop testing it and start using it,” Blumenthal concludes.

To my mind, it would be in Google’s own interest to get to the bottom of these nefarious practices. If the general public comes to view reviews as “fake, faux and phony,” that’s just one step before ceasing to use local search results at all – which would hurt Google in the pocketbook.

Might it get Google’s attention then?

PR Practices: WOM Still Wins in the End

These days, there are more ways than ever to publicize a product or service so as to increase its popularity and its sales.

And yet … the type of thing most likely to convince someone to try a new product – or to change a brand – is a reference or endorsement from someone they know and trust.

Omnichannel marketing promotions firm YA conducted research in 2016 with ~1,000 American adults (age 18+) that quantifies what many have long suspected: ~85% of respondents reported that they are more likely to purchase a product or service if it is recommended by someone they know.

A similarly high percentage — 76% — reported that an endorsement from such a person would cause them to choose one brand over another.

Most important of all, ~38% of respondents reported that when researching product or services, a referral from a friend is the source of information they trust the most.  No other source comes close.

This means that online reviews, news reports and advertising – all of which have some impact – aren’t nearly as important as the opinions of friends, colleagues or family members.

… Even if those friends aren’t experts in the topic!

It boils down to this:  The level of trust between people has a greater bearing on purchase decisions because consumers value the opinion of people they know.

Likewise, the survey respondents exhibited a willingness to make referrals of products and services, with more than 90% reporting that they give referrals when they like a product. But a far lower percentage — ~22% — have actually participated in formal refer-a-friend programs.

This seems like it could be an opportunity for brands to create dedicated referral programs, wherein those who participate are rewarded for their involvement.

The key here is harnessing the referrers as “troops” in the campaign, so as to attract a larger share of referral business and where the opportunities are strongest — and tracking the results carefully, of course.

All those narratives about Amazon? They’re not exactly accurate.

abI doubt I know a single person under the age of 75 who hasn’t purchased at least one item of merchandise from Amazon over the years. And I know quite a few people whose only shopping experience for the holidays is a date with the Amazon website.

Still, some of the breathless stories and statistics that are put forward about Amazon and its business model seem almost too impressive to be true.

I’m not just talking about news reports of drone deliveries (a whole lot of “hat” and far less “cattle” there) or the idea that fully-robotic warehouses are just around the corner – although these stories do make for attention-grabbing headlines.  (Despite the continued need for human involvement, the way that robots are being used inside Amazon warehouses is still quite impressive.)

Moreover, a study published recently by BloomReach based on a survey of ~2,200 U.S. online consumers finds that Amazon is involved in most online shopping excursions, with nine out of ten online shoppers reporting that they check Amazon’s site even if they end up finding the product they want via another e-commerce resource.

More than half of the BloomReach survey respondents reports that they check on the Amazon site first — which is a new high for the company.

But are all of the reports about Amazon as credible?

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett

Recently Doug Garnett, CEO of advertising agency Atomic Direct, penned a piece that was published in the December 2016 edition of Response Magazine. In it, he threw a dose of cold-water reality on some of the narratives surrounding Amazon and its business accomplishments.

Here are several of them that seem to contradict some of the commonly held perceptions:

“Amazon is a $100 billion retailer.”

Garnett notes that once subtracting Amazon’s non-retail revenue for 2015 (the last year for which financial data is available), the worldwide figure is more like half of that.

In the United States, Amazon’s retail sales are closer to $25 billion, which means it makes up approximately 6% of total retail sales.

That’s still very significant, but it isn’t the dominating presence as it might seem from all of the press hype.

“Amazon is profitable now.”

Yes, it is – and that’s after many years when the company wasn’t. However, approximately three-fourths of Amazon’s profits are due to selling cloud-based services, and the vast majority of the remaining profit dollars come from content delivery such as e-books plus music and video downloads.  So traditional retail hard-goods still aren’t generating profits for Amazon.

It turns out, just as retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and K-Mart have discovered, that replicating a retail store online is almost always a money-losing proposition.

To underscore this point, Garnett references this example of a merchandising campaign in 2016 as typical:

“When one unit was sold on Amazon, eight were sold at the retailer’s website and 80 were sold in the brick-and-mortar stores. The profit is in the store. 

For mass-market products, brick-and-mortar still dominates. Amazon is a nice incremental revenue stream, [but] not a valid alternative when you’re playing in the big game.”

It also means that companies that are looking to Amazon as a way to push their products into the marketplace should probably think twice.

At the very least, they should keep their expectations realistically modest.

More business management tools than ever … yet many small businesses stick with spreadsheets and other “outdated” processes.

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It seems like there’s never been more information – and technologically based solutions — available concerning marketing, sales and other business operations support than there is today.

Just go online, type in a few keywords, and watch how many hundreds – in some cases thousands – of web links pop up. And there’s a lot that’s really quite beneficial and instructive.

But even with such a smorgasbord of information – much of it available free of charge – it can actually be overwhelming for owners and managers of small businesses.

Maybe it’s “analysis paralysis.”  Or perhaps something more fundamental.

Typically, small business owners wear many hats inside their companies — a jack of all trades and master of maybe just one or two.

The same dynamics are at work in the field of customer information management as well. Last year, the Harris Poll surveyed a group of small business owners on their practices in this realm, and the results were published this past December by SalesForce Research in its 2016 Connected Small Business Report.

The results showed that small business owners continue to rely on outdated processes such as spreadsheets (or even paper-based systems) to store and track their customer information.

As for more modern (digital) tools like CRM and analytics, it isn’t happening much at all.

For starters, more than 80% of the companies surveyed by Harris reported that they do not have any dedicated IT staff – so it comes as no surprise that nearly three-fourths of company owners are the ones responsible for making their companies’ technology buying decisions.

Here’s what the survey found:

  • Small business owner typically makes technology buying decisions: ~72% of respondents
  • A co-owner or business partner: ~28%
  • Chief technology officer, chief information officer or head of IT: ~4%
  • An outside vendor: ~3%
  • Chief financial officer: ~2%

Note: Tally above exceeds 100% due to multiple mentions.

Where is the technology spend going? Hardware expenses are the most significant, with financial software second in importance:

  • Hardware: ~46% of respondents cite as the majority of their annual technology spend
  • Financial software (e.g., accounting/bookkeeping and bill payment): ~33%
  • Productivity software (e.g., Microsoft Office): ~26%
  • Internet hosting/ISP services: ~22%
  • POS/POP software: ~20%
  • Telecommunications/VoIP: ~15%

E-mail and spreadsheet tools continue to dominate in terms of customer information management, and quite a few of the companies surveyed are still working with paper-based systems:

  • E-mail tools (Outlook, Apple, Gmail contact, etc.): ~44%
  • Spreadsheets (Excel, etc.): ~41%
  • Written customer ledger: ~34%
  • Basic database (e.g., Access, Quickbase): ~29%
  • CRM system or app (housed within the business): ~20%
  • Other paper-based practices: ~15%
  • CRM system or app (cloud-based): ~12%

And when it comes to customer service, small businesses rely on three major practices:

  • Direct phone contacts with customers: ~51%
  • Direct e-mail communication with customers: ~47%
  • Social media interaction: ~32%

So on balance, it looks as though most small business aren’t really tapping into many of the “new tools” that could help them manage their businesses and their sales, marketing and customer retention programs better.

It may be a similar dynamic to what we see with small investors. Today there’s more investment information available than ever before – and it’s right at people’s fingertips, too.  Even so, often the result is … to do nothing.  Whatever the choices are, so many investors make no changes at all to their investment portfolio.

And just like there are financial planners to assist the timid investor, there are plenty of business consultants ready and willing to guide small business owners in ramping up their operations.

But that’s another entire discussion, of course.

To access a copy of the 2016 Connected Small Business Report, click here.

America’s shopping malls struggle to avoid becoming dinosaurs.

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America’s department store chains – and anchor stores at countless shopping malls across the country – are reporting another rounds of disappointing sales and profit figures following the 2016 holiday season.

It underscores what we’ve been seeing all over the country – dead or dying malls.

In fact, retail industry analyst Jan Rogers Kniffen predicts that about one-third of malls in the United States will shut their doors in the coming years.

That’s about 400 of the ~1,100 enclosed malls.

Equally startling, of the ~700 that remain, all but around 250 are expected to continue to struggle.

The problem is multi-faceted. At an estimated 48 sq. ft. of retail space for every man, woman and child in America, that’s a footprint that gotten too big.

“On an apples-to-apples basis, we have twice as much per-capita retail space than any other place in the world,” Kniffen says, adding that the United States is “the most over-stored” country anywhere.

The oversupply of retail space is challenged by changing customer tastes, too. Online shopping is a huge problem for malls, as is the rising popularity of off-price stores in lieu of the department stores like Macy’s and Penneys that have served as important anchors for mall properties all over the country.

Now we hear reports that Macy’s is planning to close numerous store locations during 2017, joining Sears and Penneys which have been doing the same thing over the past several years.

How will malls survive in the future? Recently, the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm issued a report that highlighted five ways malls can remain relevant to consumers today and in the future:

Mall of America (Bloomington, MN): Expansion Rendering
Mall of America (Bloomington, MN): Expansion Rendering

Entertainment – Even in the age of “interactive everything,” consumers – particularly younger ones – continue to seek out gathering places and “experiences.”  It’s one reason why some shopping malls have had to deal with large numbers of young people flooding their spaces – not always with pleasant results.  Malls seeking out tenants that provide entertainment hubs — such as theme parks and gaming parlors, edutainment, and even virtual-reality content and immersive experiences — will be able to draw customers from a wider geographic area who crave social interaction.

Food and drink – “Food is the new fashion,” some people like to say.  Successful malls are getting on that action, incorporating popular dining options along with unique ones as a way of becoming destination locations.

Retail – Still a core aspect of malls, but with new twists, such as creating retail centers that are also learning zones that bring together consumers, retailers and entertainment.  McKinsey uses the example of a sporting goods store that also includes a fitness studio, or offline showrooms for online retail players.  More reconfigurable spaces that can be used for pop-up stores, special product launches and seasonal offerings are also options with potential.

Transportation – Getting to and from mall properties with ease is growing in importance, and where some creative thinking might go a way towards making some malls more attractive than others.

Technology – The more that malls can create a “seamless chain” between online and on-site shopping, the better their chances are for staying relevant in the new retail environment.  McKinsey posits a number of initiatives, such as creating “virtu-real” formats that provide consumers with a more interactive retail experience through the use of touchscreen navigation portals, virtual fitting rooms, allowing smartphones for e-checkouts, and click-and-collect services to help blend the offline and online shopping experience.

In sum, for shopping malls it means fundamentally rethinking their role — and then adapting their strengths to those of the virtual/interactive world.

If we check back in another five years or so, we should have a pretty good idea which tactics have been successful – and which mall properties, too.

Hopefully, the shopping mall closest to your home won’t look like the one at the top of this article.

Holiday online shopping dynamics: The 2016 season’s results are already coming in.

ohsOne of the neat aspects of online shopping is the ability to learn about consumer behaviors almost in real-time. No waiting around for published reports that are released months after the fact.

Moreover, we can know quite a bit more than simply gross sales figures, including traffic stats.

In fact, we already have extensive information available about consumer online shopping activities in the 2016 holiday season, thanks to data released by firms such as Connexity’s Hitwise division, which measures consumer behaviors across desktop, tablet and smartphone devices.

From Hitwise, we know that its Top 500 retail websites received more than 335 million visits on Thanksgiving Day alone. That averages out to just under 14 million visits per hour … but the time period of 8 pm to 11 pm had more than 50% greater traffic compared to the hourly average for the day.

Amazon.com was among the retailers receiving extensive traffic volume from 8 pm onward – in its case ~25% of its total traffic on Thanksgiving came in those final four hours of the day.

One supposes that after the “big meal,” the “big game” and the “big cleanup,” consumers decided cap off the day by plunking down at their computers or smartphones for some heavy-duty online shopping.

Hitwise found that Black Friday online shopping dynamics were different, with the top retail sites being busiest in the late morning hours, when site visits were around half again larger than Black Friday’s daily hourly average.

As for Cyber Monday, Hitwise found that consumer online shopping dynamics weren’t very much different from any other typical Monday – except that the overall volume (nearly 330 million visits) was substantially higher than the typical Monday volume of ~200 million visits. That, and a slightly greater-than-average share of online shopping happening in the early morning hours of 6, 7 and 8 am.

hwlAs for the persistent belief that Cyber Monday has more people shopping online during their time in the office, Hitwise is not seeing that phenomenon any longer.

Again, not very surprising in that more consumers have 24/7 access to digital devices in 2016 than they did ten or even just five years ago.

The Hitwise report for 2016 includes extensive findings not just on hourly shopping patterns, but also on product searches and key traffic drivers for the major online shopping websites. More data can be found on the Connexity/Hitwise website.

Will consumer spending bring holiday cheer to businesses in 2016?

hdsThe holiday season isn’t yet upon us, and already there are a plethora of prognostications being made as to how holiday sales will stack up compared to prior years.

These predictions come courtesy of numerous forecasters including the National Retail Foundation, Deloitte, Kantar Media, eMarketer, the International Council of Shopping Centers, Market Track and others.

So what’s in store? On balance, forecasters predict that holiday sales in the United States will post an increase of approximately 3.5%.  That’s higher than the 10-year rolling average of 2.5% but down a tick from last year’s 3.7% increase.

Still, at more than $655 billion in total sales, holiday spending continues to be the biggest single driver of the U.S. consumer market.

Hardly surprising, e-commerce sales are expected to continue their double-digit growth over last year’s holiday season, with various predictions ranging from 14% to 17% growth in this sector. Not only are consumers attracted by the convenience of online shopping, many of them believe they can find products at the cheapest price via online sources rather than taking a trip to the shopping mall.

Another factor that drives at least some people to shop on their online devices is their aversion to the crush of holiday shopping at the stores. A McKinsey study has found that nearly one-third of U.S. consumers basically hate Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving), and make it a point to stay as far away from it as possible.

But there’s one drawback for businesses about online holiday shopper dynamics, however:  Those consumers tend to be less brand loyal than is typical. RJ Metrics calculates that the typical e-commerce business acquires nearly 25% of its new customers during just the months of November and December.  Tempering that healthy statistic is the lifetime value of those consumers, which RJ Metric has determined is about 13% lower than the lifetime value of customers acquired at other times of the year.

You might be wondering what amount of money the typical U.S. consumer will spend on his or her holiday shopping this year. Wait for it:  The 2015 per capita amount is expected to be $935.

That figure may seem quite rich … but it’s actually a little bit lower than 2015’s average spend-per-person, which at $953 happens to have been the all-time high ever recorded.

Does the new $935 forecast signify a reversal of a trend … or is it just a pause in an otherwise ever-increasing amount of money that consumers are willing to plunk down as part of their celebration of the holiday season?

Check back in about a year and we should have an answer.