2013: The Year of Deal-Seeking

Google released its top-searched items of 2013, and Kohl’s, JCPenny and Nordstrom graced the top spots on the apparel brands and retailers list.  Following the top three included Forever 21, Old Navy and Macy’s.

What do these retailers have in common?  All were searched along with terms that indicated shoppers were looking for a deal or price reduction.  For example, Nordstrom shoppers were most likely looking for Nordstrom Rack in their searches.

But this trend of looking for good deals is not exclusive to online retailers.  Shoppers are also more likely to negotiate prices in-store, thanks to multiple resources.

Brick and mortar shoppers now have an arsenal of never-ending resources in the form of smartphones.  Price-checking in-store, or showrooming, has quickly become the norm, and retailers have had no choice but to find creative ways to fight back and ensure in-store sales remain strong.

Best Buy is one of those retailers and is offering a price-match guarantee this year.  What does this mean?  Customers can bargain.  Prices are no longer set in stone.  If a shopper finds a cheaper price online, Best Buy will work with them to keep that sale in-store.

The future of retail is changing rapidly and with each new technological advancement, shoppers get smarter about what they are willing to pay for products and services.  Brands and retailers will also have to continue to get smarter, adopting new technologies and policies that will ensure both in-store and online channels thrive.

Test Drive for McDonald’s Happy Table

Venturing into new territory, a McDonald’s in Yishun, Singapore is testing driving a new form of in-store entertainment with the Happy Table. With the help of NFC (near field communication) stickers placed on the underside of the table, DDB Group Singapore is bringing a new playing field for games to the restaurant.

As shown in the video, people, in this case children, can use smartphones to communicate with the NFC stickers to play games across the table. A whole new world of gaming becomes easily accessible and unveils another excuse for families to linger a little longer in the restaurant, maybe to grab one more drink while they’re hanging out. And while I’d like to think such a game might allow for more peace at the table, I can’t help but wonder how this pans out when the number of children outnumbers the number of smartphones available in Mom’s purse. But I digress.

The simplicity of this technology, from the installation of simple stickers to the basic methods of playing the games, make the Happy Table seem like a no-brainer. Once this pilot program at the single location ends, rollout plans are in the works to spread to more McDonald’s across Asia. How long with it take for the Happy Table to cross the pond to the states? No dates confirmed as of yet.

NFC has not hit mainstream USA, though with every new iPhone or latest mobile phone release, people anxiously await for NFC capabilities to be incorporated. However, it’s easy to see that NFC is drawing closer and closer on the horizon. An NFC-driven concept like the Happy Table could easily be translated into any number of ways. Perhaps, Barnes & Noble could incorporate NFC to its play tables at story time or Starbucks could implement simple games into its tables, with varying games that could appeal to children or to the procrastinating college student taking a study break.

Along those lines, why not have these NFC stickers strategically-placed by the sitting areas in malls, near chairs/tables placed for resting in retailers, or at the beverage station in a convenience store etc, all with the purpose of quick games to increase engagement with their surroundings, when people might otherwise disengage into Facebook posts or their own games or texting their friends. Because at the end of the day, it’s the engagement that will keep your store/product/brand top of mind and keep them coming back for more.

Credits: Youtube, DDB Group Singapore, FastCo

For the Love of Cereal?

Cereal is a mainstay of the American diet. Since the introduction of cereal in the 20th century, which evolved from oatmeal and granola, we’ve been enjoying this simple, ready-to-eat meal around our breakfast tables…. and in the evening, as a quick, it’s just me and I don’t want to clean dishes, dinner solution… and as an afternoon snack… and as a late night I’ve got the munchies but I don’t want to go out hunger fix.

Although considered a basic breakfast staple, cereal has made its way into the American lifestyle as a popular, anytime meal. There are even restaurants purely dedicated to cereal, like R U Cereal in Albuquerque and Cereality Cereal Bar and Cafe at Terminal C in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. People love cereal.

General Mills is embracing cereal lovers everywhere with its website and social media campaign, Hello, Cereal. Its Facebook group alone has 313,000 followers and is growing.

According to a recent article in the New York Times:

The Facebook group is part of a broader online effort by General Mills that includes a Web site, and accounts on social networking sites like Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. While representatives of the company tend to post about popular General Mills brands like Cheerios and Lucky Charms, the company occasionally takes the counterintuitive approach of highlighting rival cereals.
On Facebook, for example, Hello, Cereal Lovers featured a recipe suggested by a user made with Post Honey Bunches of Oats, while on Twitter it reposted a recipe made with Post Fruity Pebbles and Kellogg’s Rice Krispies.
Carla Vernón, marketing director for General Mills cereal, said taking a “brand agnostic” approach was suited to social media.“It is a new framework to consider now that we’re in great conversations with the people that buy and enjoy our products,” Ms. Vernón said. “It’s important for us to be authentic and recognize what they want to share and hear about.”
The first Twitter message was sent in December and the first post to Facebook was made in January, but Ms. Vernón said that the effort had thus far been “piloting and learning” and that “it’s really truly in launch phase right now.”

So by embracing cereal as a whole and being inclusive of all brands (though it does primarily promote its products) has General Mills elevated the conversation about cereal? Through this platform, GM promotes cereal as more than just a breakfast solution and embraced consumers using cereal for multiple usage occasions and different functions. From coatings for chicken to ice cream toppings to crafted jewelry, cereal is versatile, going beyond the bowl and milk.

What can other brands take away from this campaign? Is it enough to embrace the consumers that already love your product or category, in order to get them to buy more? Or does this type of campaign need to incorporate more elements to also drive conversion, to up sales in general? Should your campaign be inclusive of competitors, if consumers are helping to drive the content and conversation? It’ll be interesting to see where this campaign is after a year and how other brands may employ something similar or better.

Retail Technology Takes Consumer Tracking To The Next Level

As the variables impacting shopper behavior continue to increase and diversify, retailers want to know more and more about their shoppers to keep them shopping and coming back for more. Online, retailer and e-commerce websites can track and get to know shoppers through a plethora of tactics (i.e. bread crumbs, click-throughs, mouse hovers, shopping carts, favorites, cookies and social media, just to name a few). In-store, loyalty programs have been around for years that enable retailers to collect data about shoppers’ habits. Many shoppers have caught on, connecting the ads they see online to their search habits or the catalina coupon printed at the register for brand X because they bought brand Y the week before.

Theories behind shopper behavior have been driving retailer research and exploration for years. Technology is now enabling the testing and observation of such theories in store on a whole new level. Today, retailers are experimenting with various technology in-store in an effort get more well-rounded snapshots of their shoppers and to bring those tactics for data collection on par with the depth of data that can be reaped online.

The New York Times recently covered this subject with an overview of an experimental tracking system at Nordstrom, which tracked customer movements via the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones. Nordstrom posted a sign alerting customers of the experiment and ultimately ended the experiment in May 2013, in part because of the complaints.

“Way over the line,” one consumer posted to Facebook in response to a local news story about Nordstrom’s efforts at some of its stores. Nordstrom says the counts were made anonymous. Technology specialists, though, say the tracking is worrisome.
“The idea that you’re being stalked in a store is, I think, a bit creepy, as opposed to, it’s only a cookie — they don’t really know who I am,” said Robert Plant, a computer information systems professor at the University of Miami School of Business Administration, noting that consumers can rarely control or have access to this data.
Some consumers wonder how the information is used.
“The creepy thing isn’t the privacy violation, it’s how much they can infer,” said Bradley Voytek, a neuroscientist who had stopped in at Philz Coffee in Berkeley, Calif. Philz uses technology from Euclid Analytics, of Palo Alto, Calif., the company that worked on the Nordstrom experiment, to measure the signals between a smartphone and a Wi-Fi antenna to count how many people walk by a store and how many enter.
Still, physical retailers argue that they are doing nothing more than what is routinely done online.
“Brick-and-mortar stores have been disadvantaged compared with online retailers, which get people’s digital crumbs,” said Guido Jouret, the head of Cisco’s emerging technologies group, which supplies tracking cameras to stores. Why, Mr. Jouret asked, should physical stores not “be able to tell if someone who didn’t buy was put off by prices, or was just coming in from the cold?” The companies that provide this technology offer a wide range of services.

The article goes on to discuss several companies that are on the leading edge of these new technologies. RetailNext, one such company, uses multiple layers of technology, such as video footage to study shopper navigation and differentiate individuals, smart phone WiFi pings to pinpoint where a shopper is in the store, and mobile device identification codes to identify repeat shoppers and their frequency of shopping. RetailNext can help retailers collect this data to ultimately impact the design of their stores, such as display placement in relation to the shopper path recorded.

Just last week, an European outdoor advertising firm kicked off ads using face detection technology, OptimEyes. This technology promises to enable advertisers to know the number of people seeing their ads and the kinds of people specifically, identifying them by gender and approximate age. According to Todd Wasserman at Mashable:

Amscreen, which has a network of more than 6,000 screens in Europe in gas stations and convenience stores, is using the technology to let advertisers see the results of their ad spends. Such ROI data is common for online ads, but has proved elusive for more traditional forms of advertising, like outdoor and TV… The company isn’t alone in looking to Minority Report-like face detection as a solution for advertising ROI. Last year, Microsoft filed a patent for Kinect that would let advertisers know how many people were using the product at any given time. A company called EyeSee manufactures mannequins for retail stores that use face detection to let retailers assess their traffic.

This area of technology will continue to develop and further push the line. How shoppers will react or adapt to these tactics as they become more main stream remains to be seen. Take into consideration that there are several factors at play here. Some technology gathers data purely through observation, some gather data through submission (think app downloads and email sign ups) and others gather data building off other technology (like smartphones). With that said, some shoppers are participating in the data collection voluntarily, perhaps in hope of a coupon or special sale, while others feel a heated aversion to such tactics and consider any range of these techniques a violation of privacy.

However, I can’t help but wonder if that as generations of shoppers shift and as millennials, who are so accustomed to sharing everything about themselves, grow older, this aversion will become less and less. Until then, as the boundaries of privacy become blurrier and the avenues for retail continue to blossom into more areas of daily life, retailers will have to walk a fine line of learning all they can about their shoppers through technology while not alienating them by trying to learn too much.

Nordstrom Explores Pinterest In-Store

Most brands and retailers these days utilize the image-cataloging social network Pinterest to drive awareness and engagement. Department store, Nordstrom, is taking cues from Pinterest in a trial initiative.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek:

In March, the department store chain started marking its “most-pinned” products from Pinterest with little “P” logos at two stores near its Seattle headquarters. Now Nordstrom has expanded the initiative to 13 of its 248 locations in a trial that will end just before the company’s big anniversary sale later this month. The Pinterest push marks the latest play by the 112-year-old brand to leverage tech startups for in-store sales.

Not only is Nordstrom marking these products to raise their visibility, it’s also using the items followers pin to manage inventory levels. Sales associates can cross-reference most-pinned products with those in stock at their location, thanks to an internal company app. Geography also plays into the picture, meaning inventory levels can be adjusted and shifted among stores to better match the popular pins in their areas.

Though the results of this experiment are still to be determined, Nordstrom is already taking the next step to fold Pinterest into its toolkit with the addition of Pinspiration pages to its website, highlighting the top pinned products.

So what can other retailers or brands take away from this? Pinterest is more than pinning your products on boards, hosting a giveaway or attracting followers. It can be another level of engagement. Given that Pinterest is aspirational and inspirational, highlighting a product in your store or in your brand’s arsenal in the real world also illustrates that it is achievable. One’s Pinterest fantasy dress or dessert doesn’t have to remain a figment of the imagination, instead a shopper can take it home with her. Expand this to other social media. Nordstrom could use Instagram shots in-store (maybe a scrolling ipad display?) to highlight customer purchases and product love. Think woman’s feet in cute sandals on a boardwalk, with a caption like “Love my new sandals! Perfect for vacation! #Nordstrom #Summershoes.”

It’ll be interesting to see how other retailers/brands will try to work in the engagement of social media by bringing it off the computer/mobile and into reality. These tactics are easily scalable for retailers/brands of all sizes and budgets, but the social media of choice also has to be a good fit for the product and consumer for it to work.

Photo credit to Swirl Marketing

From the Westside: Fresh & Easy Exits US Market

It comes as no surprise to many retail watchers that British parent company Tesco announced this morning that it will attempt to sell all 200 Fresh & Easy stores, located in California, Arizona and Nevada. Incredibly, the chain did not make any money during its 5-year duration in the US.

It’s an unfortunate situation for the small-format, innovative stores that launched in 2007 with high hopes for bringing fresh food to “food deserts,” or areas that were underserved by supermarket and grocery store chains. Initial plans were to launch 1,000 stores in California & other western states before expanding east. Those plans were scaled down due to the economic climate as well as lack of performance & profit.

Why did Fresh & Easy fail? Theories abound. Primarily, the US grocery market is competitive, with well-established banners under Kroger, Safeway, and SuperValu brands.There’s also increased competition from high-end/specialty/independent grocery chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, as well as the rise of mass-market retailers with grocery components, notably Walmart and Target.

Fresh & Easy also pursued a self-service check-out model that was not popular with consumers who are used to cashiers, especially for high-volume, check-out intensive purchases. The chain also did not offer vouchers or coupons, which US grocery shoppers are accustomed to. In fact, many grocery chains highlight their coupon program as the primary draw for shoppers, even offering shopping incentives such as double coupons. Fresh & Easy also made a push to sell ready-made meals which were not necessarily compatible with local shoppers and their habits, mainly because shoppers in the west tend to grocery shop once a week and look for a wide range of products rather than shopping more frequently, where they’d be more inclined to shop for a grab-and-go/ready-made product.

Finally, Fresh & Easy launched with a high percentage of private label brands and a reduced SKU assortment in the center of the store. Many consumers were unable to find the brands they were used to purchasing, leading to frustration and an additional shopping trip. Many shoppers willing to give the new concept a try visited once and never returned.

Ultimately, the store failed to find it’s niche in the competitive US grocery landscape and solve a real need for consumers. It tried to introduce a new way of shopping that wasn’t compatible with US shopper needs, desires or patterns.

Retail analyst Neil Saunders of Conlumino in London said “Retail history will likely record Tesco’s American foray as something of an unfortunate misadventure.”

Social Media’s March Madness

The Superbowl may have commercials, but March Madness is nipping at its heels with social media, thanks the medium’s ability to attract and interact with a broad range of consumers – and a lot of them.

Nielsen’s 2012 Year in Sports revealed that among 18-49 year olds, 99 percent of sports events were viewed on various devices the same day as airing. This means brands that ran campaigns during the 2012 NCAA championship game were guaranteed a timely interaction with a portion of the 20.8 million viewers who tuned in for the Big Dance.

To take advantage of 2013’s potential reach, Coca-Cola is spending 10 times what it did on social media in 2012 with a campaign that takes a look into the loss of productivity during NCAA March Madness.

The campaign pairs Coke Zero with Bleacher Report, one of the leading sports brands during March, to provide various insights via multiple channels as to why “it’s not your fault you’ve been slacking off” during tournament time.

Other brands have also embraced social media to connect with the NCAA March Madness consumer.

ESPN took a somewhat political approach by having President Obama fill out his bracket on SportsCenter, followed by YouTube star Robbie Novak, also known as “Kid President,” making his predictions. While the President’s video has only 3,000 views thus far, Kid President has racked up more than one million views, demonstrating the power of a strong social media presence.

NCAA sponsors AT&T and Hershey’s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups have both created campaigns that promise a chance at attending next year’s tournament, all the while ramping up brand page views and Facebook likes. Even more, AT&T and the NCAA teamed up on Twitter to provide “real-time highlights” of games under the NCAA’s @marchmadness handle.

And although the final numbers for 2013 are not yet in, brands that implemented social media campaigns during the past month are sure to see positive results — results that will likely spark an influx of social media campaigns in 2014 and years to come.