Archive for October, 2008

Retail Tales

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

The biggest story on the front page of Saturday’s Press Democrat was about Mervyn’s closing all their stores. The department store chain was unable to pull itself out of bankruptcy and as a result, will shut down all their stores after the holidays. This is certainly sad news but as mom who spends a lot of time with her daughters doing retail reconnaissance, I don’t think it is surprising news.

When we moved to Petaluma almost 15 years ago, the options for shopping for basic stuff like kids’ shoes, underwear, and Levi’s, were either JC Penney or Mervyns. Penney’s always had a really strange funky smell when you walked through the doors so I usually opted for Mervyns.

As the kids grew, I continued to shop at Mervyns but not because shopping there was any sort of a treat. It was just that after Penney’s closed, there weren’t any other stores in town”¦odoriferous or not”¦where I could shop for bras.

It always looked to me like Mervyn’s merchandising hadn’t been changed since the 1980’s, cashiering help was often in short supply, and there were mountains of discards piling up from the dressing rooms. The shabby atmosphere made it easy not to spend a lot of money there; my goal was just to get what I came in for and get out as quickly as possible. In fact, one shopping experience in the lingerie department was so frustrating ““ it involved some misleading signage about a “Buy two get one free” offer ““ that I vowed never to shop there again.

Mervyn’s lack of attention to its stores, stock, and a sales staff that was inadequate and poorly trained made it the store of last resort for me. Unfortunately, as evidenced by their bankruptcy, I probably wasn’t alone in that. But finding out that they were actually going out of business got me started thinking about what makes a store appealing and I place that I look forward to shopping at?

When Kohl’s opened in Petaluma about three years ago, I knew that it was only a matter of time before Mervyns shuttered its doors.  Sure, just the fact that the Kohl’s store was new made it enticing to check out, but if it didn’t offer a better shopping experience, my guess is that people wouldn’t have drastically changed their shopping habits; they would have continued to patronize Mervyns to some extent.

However, once someone stepped into Kohl’s why would they ever go back to Mervyns? The clothes and prices were basically the same, but the atmosphere at Kohl’s felt fresh and it has continued to stay that way.

I’m no expert in retail marketing strategy, but the company seems forward-thinking. Their partnership with Vera Wang says to me that they want middle class women to be able to have a bit of designer attitude. Although the store is pretty jam-packed, they work hard to highlight their newest merchandise. On a recent visit, I found myself walking past several mannequins and thinking that they were dressed in really cute outfits. Obviously, they are making some smart decisions in their marketing and merchandise; my teenage daughter, who wouldn’t set foot in a Mervyns but has no problem shopping at Target, has the perception that Kohl’s sells better quality stuff than Mervyns.

I think what makes a good store is a combination of quality, price, and atmosphere. At times, I’m certainly willing to trade a pleasant shopping experience for a great deal. The chaotic merchandise and linoleum floors at a Nordstrom Rack are a trade off I’m willing to make because I know I’m getting a really great deal. Even though shopping at a Nordstrom is like being on vacation, price weighs too heavily in my equation to make buying clothes there worth it to me. That means a lot of outlet shopping and always being on the lookout for items that are decent quality at a good price. And right now, I highly recommend the $19.99 no-iron Hathaway men’s button-down shirts at Costco. And the $12.99 bra I bought last month at Target? It’s the most comfortable one I’ve ever owned.

But when it comes to buying underwear at a store that I can get to without getting on the freeway, Kohl’s is the perfect fit.

Survey Says…

Monday, October 13th, 2008

Like owners in a lot of small businesses, I wear many different hats; sometimes I’m the account manager, at other times I’m the bookkeeper, editor, or when the trash cans are full and the cat hair is swirling on the desks, I’m the janitorial staff.

Most recently, I became the research department; a company hired us to survey about twenty different industries nationwide to determine if there was room in the marketplace for their product. They manufacture a material that is used in a variety of industrial applications.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve called about 150 different companies. Whenever I make a call, I tell them who I am and explain that I am conducting research about a certain type of product, and ask if there is someone who could spare about five minutes to answer six very brief survey questions.

Before I started making the calls, my expectation was that if I got through the phone tree to an actual person, that they would direct me to someone in the company who could answer the questions, I would record the answers and move on to the next company on the list. After all, I’m calling businesses and not a home phone number at dinner time to tell them that their name has been selected for an exciting all expenses paid weekend at a time-share in Lake Havasu.

For the majority of the companies I have called, I end up trying to blaze a trail through the phone tree jungle in the hope that I’ll land in a department or with a person who might be able to connect me with someone who understands my inquiry. Many businesses ““ including the one in Texas that was in the process of evacuating for Hurricane Ike ““ have been quite helpful or at least business-like in saying that no one could take my call but that I could leave a voice mail. And when I actually connect with someone”¦which happens about 30% of the time”¦who takes a moment to answer the first survey question so I can determine if the other questions even apply to them, I feel like I’ve scored.

However, when I look back on the notes next to each company on the calling list, there are about 10% for which my notes read, “Drop dead!” These are the companies that immediately assumed that I was selling something that they didn’t want and turned defensive in spite of my explanation that I was only conducting research. It’s always a little jolting to be told to go away.

When I talked this over with Steve, he was actually surprised that the percentage of businesses with the sad face next to their name wasn’t larger. You can pretty much expect 10% of any group of people to be jerks. If you’ve ever been in the parking lot at Whole Foods at 5pm on a Sunday then you know that’s true.

However, the range of responses I have gotten has led me to think a lot about the personality of businesses. We know everyone is busy with way too much to do and that taking my call is an interruption. So why do some companies respond to my request courteously and others react so negatively? Why do some have an attitude of openness while others slam the door shut?

Aren’t businesses in business to answer the phone? They exist to take calls from current clients, potential customers, and even people just making inquiries about the types of services they offer. It would seem to me that even taking a call from someone doing research (like me) would be a smart thing to do. If I am calling with questions, I’m interested in what they do and how they do it. And isn’t it possible that this information that I’m gathering would be used to develop a product or service that has the potential of making their business more efficient, more profitable, or better able to serve its customers?

Given the difficulty of making money these days, it’s still surprising to me that 100% of businesses aren’t working hard to connect with anyone who calls.

Fall in Place

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

I think everyone has a favorite season. For Steve, it is spring. When the days are getting longer and the tax returns have been filed in early April, he begins to feel more optimistic”¦even though it means a brutal allergy season is just around the corner.

However, for me, I love the fall ““ the amazing array of colors on the trees, returning to the more predictable school schedule, wearing jackets and sweaters, and cooking comfort food ““ it always gives me a more settled feeling.

I like the coziness that I associate with fall. Summer seems to carry more of an expectation of activity; the days are long, the weather is warm, and I feel like I should be taking advantage of it. However, in the fall, the shorter days and possibility of rain gives me permission to do what I really like to do anyway, which is to be a homebody. Maybe I’m stuck in the 1980’s when “cocooning” was a lifestyle trend, but home is still my favorite place to be. So in the fall, I start looking forward to the winter months ahead because when it’s dark and wet outside, there is no better place to be than tucked in at home.

Fall was my favorite season even as a kid, probably because I have a September birthday. But I liked the fall because it also meant shopping for school clothes, a process that I really looked forward to. The shorts and t-shirts of summer clothes always seemed insubstantial and weren’t expected to last for more than a season. But when I got a sweater and a wool coat, those had substance. I put them on and felt dressed and prepared for school, much more than when I wore the lightweight spring and summer clothes.

And even though my school days are long behind me, I still find it much easier to feel good about what I’m wearing when the weather gets cooler. I’m happy to stow away the capris and sandals in the back of the closet and start wearing dark jeans and a jacket. And after seeing a lot of middle-aged pale skin exposed in halter tops and shorts, I don’t think it’s too much of a generalization to say that most everybody over the age of 21 looks better when the temperature outside requires that they wear more clothing.

As a homeowner, there are also a lot of practical reasons that my mood improves when I start to see the leaves change color on our maple trees. During the summer, I’m constantly aware of the yard work that needs to be done and I feel guilty when I don’t get to it. I look out onto our front yard from my desk and what I see is a lawn calling out to be mowed and plants that need TLC and hand-watering. Believe me, it’s darn hard to talk on the phone when you’ve got little voices in your ear shouting “Mow me!” “Water me!” and “Prune me!” interrupting your train of thought.

So when I can look ahead to the weekly forecast and see a chance of rain, I feel like a student who just found out that the teacher cancelled a major research assignment. I’m off the hook”¦at least for watering for a few days. And if it rains on the weekend, it’s all the better, because it removes all possibility that I could be out whacking down the lavender with my electric hedge trimmer.

For my kids, August means that summer vacation and their birthdays are behind them and the holidays still seem very far away, so they don’t see the beginning of fall as much cause for celebration. However, there is one bright spot for them: the little brown acorn dish that sits on the counter that I regularly fill with candy corn. Eating the layers of color on each piece of candy corn one-by-one is one of those simple but enduring pleasures of childhood.