“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.

Amazon and its sellers need each other.

If you speak with small businesses that sell products online, many will tell you that they chafe under the strong-arm tactics of Amazon and its seller policies.

On the other hand, what’s their alternative?

The reality is that it takes about the same amount of time and effort to run a Walmart or eBay store as it does to run a store at Amazon.

The difference? The sales revenue of a Walmart or eBay store is typically less than 10% of what businesses would generate on Amazon for that same amount of work.  That interesting informational nugget comes from James Thompson, a partner at the Buy Box Experts e-tailing consultancy.

(And for small retailers attempting to run their own e-commerce sites, the revenue stream is even lower.)

But even with Amazon’s ascendancy in the world of online commerce, its retail platform remains a frustration to small sellers due to its level of responsiveness to questions and concerns (low) and its sudden, sometimes inexplicable policy changes.

Consumer advocates would counter-argue that Amazon’s seller policies are focused in the right place:  looking out for the end-user customer. But others contend that Amazon’s actions aren’t even-handed, nor applied equally.

Take Amazon’s policies on dealing with product shipments and defects. When a seller’s defect order rate goes as high as 1%, Amazon deactivates the vendor’s account automatically.  To be reinstated, a seller has to go through an arduous vetting process, during which time Amazon holds all monies due to the seller until every order is shipped and received – even orders that are in dispute.

To make matters even more onerous, the customer service phone number of the seller disappears, making it next-to-impossible for the vendor to clear up any misunderstandings with an end-customer other than by going through the Amazon portal.

Here’s another example:  Without prior notification, last month Amazon instituted a new “Pay by Invoice” policy that allows corporate customers a pay period of 30 days.

While this is a great move from the customer’s point of view, most small businesses are used to being paid in two weeks.  The new invoice payment policy squeezes the resources of smaller sellers, which often operate under tighter cashflow conditions than larger retailers.

It is true that bigger brands make up an increasing share of volume in the world of Amazon sellers. Those brands bring in the most money, but small businesses round out the portfolio and remain an important component of realizing Amazon’s aims of becoming the big behemoth with an “always and everywhere” presence in the world of retail.

Considering everything, it would seem that Amazon and its sellers should recognize each other’s worth and how much they mean to each other. Amidst everything, there has to be a win-win position that can be reached to the benefit of everyone.

Celebrity endorsements run out of steam.

“Paid product endorsements are meaningless. I want to learn about the product from experts who are advocating for it – not just some random person who happens to have a job that makes them well-known.” 

— Consumer panel participant, ExpertVoice, May 2018.

The next time you see a celebrity spokesperson speaking about a product or a service … don’t think much of it.

Chances are, the celebrity isn’t doing a whole lot to increase a company’s sales or enhance its brand image.

We have affirmation of this trend in a report issued in June 2018 by marketing firm ExpertVoice, which recently investigated a Census-weighted audience of ~500 U.S. consumers on the issue of who consumers trust for recommendations on what to buy.

The findings confirm that while celebrity endorsements do raise awareness, typically it fails to move the needle in terms of sales. In fact, just ~4% of the participants in the ExpertVoice research study reported that they trust celebrity endorsements.  (And even that percentage is juiced by professional athletes who are more influential than other celebrities.)

As for the reason for the lack of trust, more than half of the respondents noted that their greatest concern is the monetary compensation given to the people from the brands they’re endorsing. Consumers are wise to the practice – and they reject the notion that the endorser has anything other than self-dealing in mind.

By way of comparison, here are how celebrities stack up against others when it comes to influencing consumer purchases:

  • Trust recommendations from friends/family members: ~83% of respondents
  • … from a professional expert (e.g., instructor or coach): ~54%
  • … from a co-worker: ~52%
  • … from a retail salesperson: ~42%
  • … from a professional athlete: ~6%
  • … from any other kind of celebrity: ~2%

A big takeaway from the ExpertVoice research is that more people are influenced by individuals who are making recommendations based on actual experiences with the products in question. Moreover, if it’s people they know they know personally, they’re even likelier to be swayed by their opinions.

In a crowded marketplace full of many purchase choices, consumers are looking for trusted recommendations. That means something a lot more authentic than a celebrity endorser.  Considering the amount of money companies and brands have historically had to pony up for celebrity pitches, it seems an opportune time for marketers to be looking at alternative methods to influence their audiences.

Click here for more information regarding the ExpertVoice research findings.

Amazon’s Spark that Fizzled …

Amazon Spark: Less like a sizzle … more like a fizzle.

It’s now been more than nine months since Amazon launched its social media platform Spark … and so far, it’s hardly sizzled.

In fact, it’s made barely a ripple in the market.

There are plenty of people who contend that the last thing the world needs is yet another social network. But others would like to see new alternatives to the recently beleaguered Facebook platform.

As for its trajectory, it looks as if Spark is following the former rather than the latter path. The question is, “Why?”

Very likely, the answer lies in Spark’s questionable underlying raison d’etre.  Essentially, Spark is a social feed of photos and other images. That makes it similar to Instagram … sort of.

One difference between the two platforms is that Spark is open to exclusively to Amazon Prime members.  That limits the potential number of Spark users pretty severely, right from the get-go.  [It’s true that non-members can view Spark feeds — but they can’t post their own content. And what’s a social platform if you cannot interact with it?  It isn’t one.]

Another difference with Instagram may be even more of a fundamental problem. The rationale for Spark is to focus on products that Amazon sells.  Spark is directly “shoppable,” which differentiates it from Instagram and other social networks.  It also makes it less like a true social network and more like a garden-variety e-commerce site.

In other words, rather than being an interesting and engaging social platform, Spark is boring. Informative – but boring.

It isn’t that Amazon/Spark allows brands themselves to post content there; posting privileges are granted only to people it dubs “enthusiasts” or “onsite associates.” Brands must seek out “regular people” [sic] who are members of Amazon Prime to post content on their behalf about their products.

And I’m sure that’s happening – along with varying levels and forms of compensation flowing to these supposed “enthusiasts” in return for the product plugs. But can anyone imagine less compelling content than what results from this kind of commercialized “AstroTurfing”?  No wonder people are ignoring this social media platform.

Andrew Sandoval, a group director for media planning agency The Media Kitchen, summarizes Spark’s predicament by noting that lifestyle-focused people tend congregate on Instagram — a place that shows people living their lives through products. By contrast, “Amazon Spark is mostly just talking about your products, which is the hard-sell.  Ultimately, the e-commerce social experience is a little too far from the social experience,” Sandoval opines.

Have you interfaced with Spark since its July 2017 launch? If so, do you see redeeming qualities about the platform that the rest of us might be missing?  Please share your comments with other readers.

Gord Hotchkiss and the Phenomenon of “WTF Tech”

Gord Hotchkiss

Occasionally I run across an opinion piece that’s absolutely letter-perfect in terms of what it’s communicating.

This time it’s a column by marketing über-specialist Gord Hotchkiss that appeared this week in MediaPost … and he hits all the right notes in a piece he’s headlined simply: WTF Tech.

Here is Hotchkiss’ piece in full:

WTF Tech

By Gord Hotchkiss , Featured Contributor, MediaPost

Do you need a Kuvée?

Wait. Don’t answer yet. Let me first tell you what a Kuvée is: It’s a $178 wine bottle that connects to WiFi.

Ok, let’s try again. Do you need a Kuvée?

Don’t bother answering. You don’t need a Kuvée.

No one needs a Kuvée. The earth has 7.2 billion people on it. Not one of them needs a Kuvée. That’s probably why the company is packing up its high-tech bottles and calling it a day.

A Kuvée is an example of WTF Tech. Hold that thought, because we’ll get back to that in a minute.

So, we’ve established that you don’t need a Kuvée. “But that’s not the point,” you might say. “It’s not whether I need a Kuvée. It’s whether I want a Kuvée.” Fair point. In our world of ostentatious consumerism, it’s not really about need — it’s about desire. And lord knows many of the most pretentious and entitled a**holes in the world are wine snobs.

But I have to believe that, buried deep in our lizard brain, there is still a tenuous link between wanting something and needing something. Drench it as we might in the best wine technology can serve, there still might be spark of practicality glowing in the gathering dark of our souls. But like I said, I know some real dickhead wine drinkers. So, who knows? Maybe Kuvée was just ahead of the curve.

And that brings us back to WTF tech. This defines the application of tech to a problem that doesn’t exist — simply because it’s tech. There is no practical reason why this tech ever needs to exist.

Besides the Kuvée, here are some other examples of WTF tech:

The Kérastase Hair Coach

This is a hairbrush with an Internet connection. Seriously. It has a microphone that “listens” while you brush your “hear,” as well as an accelerometer, gyroscope and other sensors. It’s supposed to save you from bruising your hair while you’re brushing it. It retails for “under $200.”

The Hushme Mask

This tech actually does solve a problem, but in a really stupid way. The problem is obnoxious jerks that insist on carrying on their phone conversation at the top of their lungs while sitting next to you. That’s a real problem, right? But here’s the stupid part. In order for this thing to work, you have to convince the guilty party to wear this Hannibal Lecter-like mask while they’re on the phone. Go ahead, buy one for $189 and give it a shot next time you run into a really loud tele-jerk. Let me know how it works out for you.

Denso Vacuum Shoes

“These boots are made for sucking, and that’s just what they’ll do.”

Finally, an invention that lets you shoe-ver your carpet. That’s right, the Japanese company Denso is working on a prototype of a shoe that vacuums as you walk, storing the dirt in a tiny box in the shoe’s sole. As a special bonus, they look just like a pair of circa 1975 Elton John Pinball Wizard boots.

When You’re a Hammer

We live in a “tech for tech’s sake” time. When all the world is a high-tech hammer, everything begins to look like a low-tech nail. Each of these questionable gadgets had investors who believed in them. Both the Kuvée and the Hushme had successful crowd-funding campaigns. The Hair Coach and the Vacuum Shoes have corporate backing.

The dot-com bubble of 2000-2002 has just morphed into a bunch of broader-based — but no less ephemeral — bubbles.

Let me wrap up with a story. Some years ago, I was speaking at a conference and my panel was the last one of the day. After it wrapped, the moderator, a few of the other panelists and I decided to go out for dinner. One of my co-panelists suggested a restaurant he had done some programming work for.

When we got there, he showed us his brainchild. With much pomp and ceremony, our waiter delivered an iPad to the table. Our co-panelist took it and showed us how his company had set up the wine list as an app. Theoretically, you could scroll through descriptions and see what the suggested pairings were. I say theoretically, because none of that happened on this particular night.

Our moderator watched silently as the demonstration struggled through a series of glitches. Finally, he could stay silent no longer. “You know what else works, Dave? A sommelier,” he said. “When I’m paying this much for a dinner, I want to talk to a f*$@ng human.”

Sometimes, there’s just not an app for that.

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Does Gord Hotchkiss’ column resonate with you as it did me? Feel free to leave a comment for the benefit of other readers if you wish.