Tuesday, June 30, 2009

In the Eyes of the Beholder: Technological Change

My grandmother, who emigrated from a suburb of Berlin to the United States in the 1880’s, used to call the television set a radio. Of course, we children found this hysterically funny and used to fool her by hiding behind our monstrous television with the sound off and pretend that we were the actors on TV.

When she died in the 1950’s, she had probably witnessed more rapid and more radical change in technology than I may ever witness. During her life, she saw transportation move from horse to car, the birth of film and the acceptance of photography as everyday phenomena, the eradication of many diseases, and the mechanization of mundane household drudgeries, among so many other technological changes that I can barely list them. She also saw destruction on a massive scale and holocaust—all realities I grew up with that she had never known, but now bore witness too.

Advances in technology—with the exception of computerization, digitalization, and the internet—for me have often been a two-edge sword. Technological advances in food production and the growth of commercial farming have brought forth bountiful harvests, but at great cost to the environment and to food itself. Car transportation, once a symbol of freedom, now chokes us in pollution and ties into an outdated fossil fuel economy. The list goes on.

So, it was with great enthusiasm that I read 13-year old Scott Campbell’s article in the BBC news magazine comparing the original Sony Walkman to the iPod, “Giving up My iPod for a Walkman.”

His amusement is terrific:
“It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.”

Most of his comments—and I believe this is true for much of the technological changes we are seeing now—are about how clunky and mechanical the Walkman was. The size is huge, the buttons too large, the tapes unwieldy and subject to jamming. Miniaturization and digitization are the two most relevant changes. He had little trouble once he figured out the “ancient” technology and managed to adapt a shuffle function onto it (his father warned him that overusing rewind could eventually damage the tape leaving him music-less the rest of the day). Miniaturization is really a matter of degree, not the radical change that exchanging a horse for a car represents.

His mind-blowing conclusion:
Personally, I'm relieved I live in the digital age, with bigger choice, more functions and smaller devices. I'm relieved that the majority of technological advancement happened before I was born, as I can't imagine having to use such basic equipment every day.

I wonder what he would think of the boom box.
(Photo from the BBC News Magazine)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Consumers as Co-Creators, Creatives as Curators

The Obama/Biden Presidential Campaign was awarded the prestigious Titanium and Grand Prix awards at the International Advertising Festival held in Cannes this June. David Droga of Droga5, who chaired the jury, cited the campaign’s sophisticated use of digital media, its ability to build community, and its willingness to allow the brand to be built from the bottom up by consumers rather than dictated by an agency as prime factors in its selection.

He went on to say: "[The campaign's leaders] were curators as much as creators. They created the framework and allowed others to contribute." By others outside the campaign, the jury mentioned will.i.am and the artist Shepard Fairey (for Shepard Fairey’s approach to art and advertising, see him on YouTube).

For quite some time (over 10 years at least), we have been hearing about how customers through customer-generated reviews, customer-powered search, and a host of wiki applications have assumed a dominant role in marketing communications (for those who have been willing to listen, that is). We have heard how new applications of technology—everything from Twitter to Flickr—are changing consumer and citizen behavior in ways we have yet to fully understand. Whether it’s the election in Iran, the sudden and enormous popularity of Susan Boyle, or the Dell Hell created by Jeff Jarvis (author of What Would Google Do?), the shift toward customer-controlled marketing and communications has occurred. And it’s our role as marketers, particularly in the retail arena, to make sure that we acknowledge it.

One of the comments posted by Kevin from Chicago on Advertising Age Online, where this story appeared, is particularly relevant: “Here’s to the new triple bottom line of branding: do great work, build community, listen to it, and let your customer tribe show you how to lead.”

(Illustration by Shepard Fairey)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More on Back to Basics: Curbing Excess

The embarrassment of excess continues. Bloomberg reports that Saks is cutting orders from vendors 20% this year and is forecasting improved gross margins:

“The cuts may rein in what Saks Chief Executive Officer Stephen Sadove calls the ‘enormous excess’ that existed last year in stores that cater to the wealthy.

Across the board you are going to find less of the sizes, less of the availability in almost all of the categories,” Sadove, 57, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “You are probably going to see less aggressive markdowns than you saw last year.”

Is anyone out there besides me saying, “duh?”

Put together the 20% reduction in pricing offered by D&G and other high end designers and manufacturers (previous blogs) with the, at least, 20% overstock issue and you might have a good indication how retailers and designers—not just the economy—have contributed to their own problems.

Now CEOs—from Nordstrom’s to Bloomingdale’s, Neiman-Marcus to Saks—are trying to point out that scarcity is a part of luxury, that their inventories have been bloated lately, and that “we’ll not see these levels of excess again.” Even Gucci CEO Patrizio di Marco chimed in:

“We don’t need 75 variations on the same handbag. Two or three are enough.”

The “greed-is-good” mantra—so eloquently stated by Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street—lies at the root of most of the issues we’re facing from housing to health care, retailing to manufacturing. No one wanted to listen to the voice of caution when the party was raging. It’s only now we’re hearing the plea for “enough,” as the luxury liner, the SS USRetail slowly sinks beneath the cold waters of excess.

BTW, the tagline for the movie Wall Street is “Every dream has a price.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Back to Basics: Giving Customers What They Want at the Right Price

I might also call this blog entry—Hangover, Part II—or How Egotism Overwhelms Business Sense.

Over the past 20 years as a multichannel retail consultant, I have seen egotists willfully drive their companies out of business, close down healthy businesses prematurely, and choose the wrong path, simply because it was it was they path they had chosen. It’s dumbfounding, but hardly surprising.

I tend to be much more forgiving when entrepreneurs act out their bad behaviors than when professional managers do. After all, it takes a healthy ego to envision and start a business, execute it single-mindedly, and will it into success. I also extend this kindly forbearance to designers, who seek to impose their vision onto the world. Artistic vision, unless it is truly divinely inspired, like Mozart’s or Paul Klee’s, is systemically ego-centric.

When Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana announced this week that they were reducing the price of their products approximately 20% across the board, I was very encouraged. Here were two creative people recognizing that their vision is realized through the labors of over 3,000 other people, whose lives and livelihoods are an integral part of their art (see yesterday’s blog entry). They also stressed that fashion, life, whatever, has come somewhat unglued, that there needs to be a return to the more centered life that they found roughly 20 years ago when they entered the business.

Actually, their sense of when consumerism began to overtake rational commerce is a bit off, but that is irrelevant. Both designers and retailers were heavily entrenched into excess in the ‘80’s. The party had long been underway.

It should be no surprise, then, when companies, like Aeropostale, score a magnificent 19% increase in same store sales from May 2008 to May 2009. Many observers might say that it is the promotional policies of Aeropostale that have ensured its growth during these downtimes and that discounting is the root of all evil in retailing, a practice that has conditioned consumers to buy on sale and has ruined retailing in America. Partly true, but consumers were buying on sale precisely because everything was overpriced.

Why Aeropostale is racking up huge points is simply because Julian Geiger, CEO, and his team know how to execute the basics as professional managers. Look at these remarks from a 2004 interview in Business Week:
“We have a promotion going on all the time. We match supply and demand and demand and supply every day by seeing how many weeks of supply we have of an item. Under this umbrella we can fine-tune the elasticity of demand to know what the price should be. If something is selling too fast, we'll actually raise the price. Of course, it's still on sale.

Everyone else tries to dictate what they feel the customer should wear. We generally want to listen to our customer and give them what they want at the right price.”

BTW, are Supply and Demand and Basic Marketing still taught in business schools?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Designers, More Upscale Stores Cutting Prices: Too Little, Too Late?

American consumers, designers, and retailers seem to be waking up with a very bad hangover. The twenty- year-plus spending binge is over. Here are Dolce & Gabbana speaking in the WWD article of the past week:

“The idea is to peel off the superfluous because there are too many clothes, too many seasons, too much advertising — too much of everything that is tacked onto the final price. We want to go back to how things were 20 years ago. It’s about drawing the line,” he said.

Gabbana doesn’t believe customers will feel betrayed or taken for a ride by having paid more in the past. “Our goal is the consumer and to keep the thousands of people that work for us,” he said.

Added Dolce: “This is the only way to save the market and our companies. It’s time to turn the page.”

What most interests me is WWD having asked the question “whether or not they feel their customers will feel betrayed.” Of course they will—in proportion to the amount of guilt they felt when the purchased the overpriced product in the first place. The “I’ve-just-gotta-have-it days, the “IT” bag, the name brand jeans, the whatever—none of this matters much in the New Wave of Retailing. What matters are quality and value, sustainability and responsibility.

D& G designer jeans will now cost $450 instead of $695. Did they get the message?
(Photo credit: www.freedigitalphotos.net).

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Demand A Bit of Luxury in Every Product You Buy or Produce

Nicolas Ghesquiere, creative director of the House of Balenciaga, is quoted in the current issue of Vogue, as saying: “We can’t keep making more, more, more to keep people craving newness. That’s not the value of luxury. It takes time to make something well.”

Ghesquiere, along with Stella McCartney and Francois-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of PPR, were three of the speakers at a conference held the end of March in New Delhi on Sustainable Luxury, which was sponsored by the International Herald Tribune.

Each of the speakers underscored something that I believed to be self-evident—that luxury goods represent the finest in craftsmanship, that they are timeless creations, that their luxuriousness lies in their extraordinary value in terms of their beauty, the skill on the part of artists and craftsmen and –women in their execution, and their respectful use of some of the world’s most precious materials.

Most interesting were Pinault’s comments on corporate responsibility and its connection to sustainability in the luxury business:
“Because a luxury product is the result of such painstaking efforts to meet the highest expectations of quality, it is not subject to the whims of style or season.

Later: “Buyers of luxury goods naturally expect the best. From design to the point of sale, via the working conditions of those involved in the process, everything must be a model of transparency. From luxury, people expect perfection but also sincerity. By ‘sincerity,’ I mean faith in what is being created, belief in what one is doing, and rejection of deceit. These expectations of sincerity should guide the luxury business, make it irreproachable.”

To my mind, these are guidelines for all the products we buy and produce, whether or not they may be termed luxurious. (Pictured above, work by Janet Swartz from JBird Jewelry).

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Slow Food Movement: An Example to Designers and Retailers

Re-engineering our product development and production cycles toward sustainability is a long-term goal and will require patience, compromise, and time getting there. A quick look at what has happened to the slow food movement—both in food production and retailing—provides some interesting lessons for designers and retailers that this blog will look at over the next two days. As this movement has built momentum over the past 40 years, it has extended from the rise of an increased number of organic farms to the flourishing of a number of artisan bakeries and dairies. It has included the national growth health food stores and restaurants, the rise of gourmet restaurants featuring locally or regionally produced menus, and an awareness among certain segments of the public about the nutritional and gourmet value of fresh produce and small harvests.

Small local or what we used to call “truck” farms are now selling produce at Farmers’ Markets in many major cities. Philadelphia, for example, has several farmers’ markets spread throughout the city, some are open seasonally twice a week; others, like the one in Rittenhouse Square, are open all year round. Two other markets—Reading Terminal Market and the Italian Market—sell a mixture of large commercially produced fruits and vegetables as well as local produce year round (with a strong slant toward the larger commercial providers at the Italian Market).

What interests me most about these markets—and their parallels to retail—is not the product being sold, whether or not it is produced by a large or small commercial growers or whether or not the products are organic, although to be sure these are important issues. What is most important is how much transportation is involved in getting the product to me, how much I have to travel to get it, and how much transportation affects pricing. I am also interested in the housing and warehousing issues around the selling of the product because that is another area where our carbon footprint becomes quite large.

The local farmers—many of them in Philadelphia being Amish or Mennonite—have relatively low transportation costs. Besides the transportation costs in harvesting, which in the case of the Amish is often horse feed or, for Mennonites, gas for small tractors, transportation involves bringing the goods to market in the cities. The produce is generally priced competitively with local supermarkets, sometimes higher. Only during peak season, can you find any real deals at the Farmers’ Markets. People shop there because they want to support local farmers, buy fresher, often organic food, and enjoy the give-and-take of buying at an open air market. The Philadelphia Farmers’ Markets also sell meat, eggs, milk, cheese, jams and jellies, bread, and other home-processed foods.

Some local farmers sell at Reading Terminal Market, where there is, for example, a large stand of Amish-produced foods, clothing, and souvenirs. Other produce vendors at Reading and the Italian Market buy from the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market or other produce market wholesalers. Their produce is offered without extensive packaging or cleaning for that matter—packaging and repetitive cleaning being other larger consumers of carbon energy.

Reading and the Italian Markets have no or low warehousing costs. The Reading Terminal merchants share space under the roof of the old Reading Railway Terminal building so that they do not require separate buildings, with separate heating and electricity. Many of the Italian market vendors started out selling their products from outside stands. Although most of them still sell from stands, many have built simple concrete block storefronts where they sell more delicate merchandise and maintain back inventory. Packaging is reduced. Many customers bring their own bags or buy from local deliverers like John (pictured above), who sells paper shopping bags at fifty cents apiece or will deliver your products on foot for an agreed upon price.

All of the markets above cater primarily to inner city residents who walk, bike ride or bus to the markets, further reducing the transportation impact of the food consumption process. Any way you assess buying from these vendors, the reduced amount of transportation, either getting the product to you or you to the product, less packaging, and reduced warehousing and selling costs make these products attractive from a social and environmental point of view. Customers understand that and are seeking them out in greater numbers.

I have looked at the Farmers’ Markets in some length because it helps break down the real costs involved in the organic and slow movements. Because much of the real cost of buying goods in the United States is externalized—that is, we do not necessarily pay for the true social and environmental impact of production—we do not have a full understanding of the true price of products, be they grown or manufactured. As consumers become more conscious of consuming, they will begin to start making inquiries both about the costs of production, manufacturing, selling, and disposal. And we’d better be prepared for them. More importantly, we should start opening up about our practices now so that we do not lose our valued customers we worked so hard to get in the first place. More to follow.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Produce locally, think globally

Localization in the slow food, slow fashion, and slow architecture movements does not imply protectionism and should not be confused with the current push to “Buy American.” Rightly, in an editorial today in the New York Times—“The Peril of ‘Buy American’—the editors note:
. . . as the states and municipalities start spending stimulus money, the idea [of Buy American] is starting to look as counterproductive as it should have looked from the beginning. It is sparking conflict with American allies and, rather than supporting employment at home, the ‘Buy American’ effort could ultimately cost American jobs.

What is at issue is the simple fact that both domestic and foreign manufacturers cannot ensure that every piece of the products they make—including all of the components, the manufactured and raw materials—are made in the United States. Many producers of products are bowing out of bidding for projects funded with stimulus dollars simply because of the provisions in the “Buy American” clause. Efforts on the part of Obama to persuade local and state municipalities to be flexible about this clause or his assurances to the World Trade Organization and our international trading partners that we would not pursue a policy of protectionism go largely unheard.

Again, we have jumped to an emotional solution, not a reasoned one. Buying 100% American-made products is nearly impossible because we have surrendered our role as manufacturers through mismanagement, greed, and/or outsourcing, to name a few of the many reasons that turned the world’s greatest manufacturer at the end of WWII into the world’s largest importer of manufactured goods.

Take the once thriving American apparel industry. It now barely exists. Most apparel companies manufacture off shore although they retain a few domestic manufacturers of some items, primarily to ensure quick turnaround of popular choices. Increasingly, however, offshore production is becoming as expensive as domestic production when you factor in the high cost of transportation and energy, which now are beginning to offset the high cost of American labor. The high cost of American labor is itself becoming somewhat of an outdated concept as more and more Americans are now living in tents and asking to work for food.

Looking back when I was growing up in Oregon—hardly a manufacturing mecca—three apparel manufacturers dominated the region—White Stag, Jantzen, and Pendleton Woolen Mills. The iconic White Stag Sign that proudly displayed the “Made in Oregon” tag at the entrance to what is now Old City has dropped the “made in” to display only Oregon. Its use: to announce the Portland campus of the University of Oregon. Except for the sign and the recent controversy it engendered, White Stag is barely a memory in most Oregonians’ minds.

Jantzen—“just wear a smile and a Jantzen”—similarly was a well known national swim suit brand that was manufactured in Oregon. On the way downtown on the 33rd Street bus from Northeast Portland where I grew up, you could peer through the windows into the orderly factory where women (mostly) stitched away making the suits that bathing beauties wore. Still a thriving brand owned since 2002 by Perry Ellis International, Jantzen has long abandoned its Oregon facilities.

For localization to become meaningful in fashion, as it has become in the slow food movement, which has acted as the germinating force for hundreds of new, small truck farmers in the United States, we have to devote ourselves to job creation, training, and the rebuilding of our manufacturing infrastructure before we can ask Americans to even consider buying American. We need to encourage domestic production—local and regional—while taking into account the global implications—economic, environmental, and social—of all of the decisions that we make, not as some kind of knee-jerk patriotism, but as responsible citizens of our country and the world.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Web Discourse: The human voice of the blog

Ten years ago, four insightful and web savvy guys—Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger—each with an impressive list of internet-related accomplishments—published The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual. Addressing a number of issues, most of which relate to changes in marketing and communications that the internet is bringing about, it puts forward “95 Theses” that state how markets have become different in the internet age, that markets are fundamentally conversations among human beings, not demographic segments, and that human beings now want to engage in human conversation not just hear more corporate hype. They assert, in Thesis #68: The inflated self-important jargon you sling around—in the press, at your conferences—what’s that got to do with us?”

The “95 Theses” provided a kind of line in the sand where the power in American business shifted from corporations to customers. Customers now, they maintained, are demanding a dialog with businesses. They have access to information about companies and are expecting to companies to be open and straight with them, talking in a human voice not in corporate doublespeak. Thesis #61: “Sadly, the part of the company the network market wants to talk to is usually hidden behind a smokescreen of hucksterism, of language that rings false—and often is.”

It is an injustice to pull out a few quotes from Cluetrain to convey what a significant contribution it has made and how it summarized attitudes that are now becoming impossible to ignore. Read it yourself. You can download it. But nowhere are the implications of Cluetrain more apparent than in a blog. Hucksterism, promotional hoo-ha, obfuscating prose, and self-serving advertisingspeak stand out so prominently that you almost start to feel embarrassed—almost. It’s a sure thing that you’ll probably avoid that site, that blog, maybe even that company later.

The best retail, in my opinion, has always employed magic and theater, evoking moods and attitudes that seduce us. But if the lush imagery that builds the retail brand lacks authenticity, is self-directed and not inviting, it will turn customers off, which is why, I believe that few retailers have successfully put together really readable and entertaining blogs. Many of them just tend to be clueless about the voice of the brand, even though they are pretty sophisticated about it when it comes to imagery. Hint: The voice is human, just like your customers.

That is why the Urban Outfitters blog is so refreshing. It is written by staff from different cities who are plugged into the culture of their communities. Take this recent entry from Paris:
I honestly don’t know how they do it. This Chanel Pre-Fall video brings you into this fantasy mindset for just a few minutes before reality sets back in and you then realize you are unfortunately not one of the lucky girls trying on one of those spectacular headdresses. Nice 7 minute daydream though. X – Jen. This entry is tagged with: Europe, Fashion, Gnarlitude, and Video.

Or this one from New York City: It’s officially BBQ season and with it comes the need for BBQ music. Our recommendation? Nick Catchdubs and Mr. Ducker’s Radio Friendly Unit Shifter mixes. The two volume series, presented by Mishka, cuts up 90’s alt rock (Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, etc.) into BBQ-sized doses.

It’s not just that the topics are appealing to Urban Outfitters customers; it’s also the voice. It establishes a human connection.

Another completely different example comes from my client SA VA: Founder, CEO and Community Organizer Sarah Van Aken is blogging about what’s going on in setting up the first store and the garment center (private label clothes will be manufactured in Philadelphia), about finding recycled, biodegradable hangers, and about the desperately long hours an entrepreneur puts in just getting something going. When the store opens, the blog will shift to the customers, the designers and stylists, but will still have entries from the founder who wants to promote the Philadelphia Emergency Center (her community cause), collaboration and openness. And she’ll do this, showing warts and all.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What a Way to Blog (for retailers!)

There is no shortage of retail blogs on the web, not counting ones devoted to the business of retailing, like mine, but ones written, usually by fans or fashionistas, about retailers. Probably one of the best known—Jezebel—sometimes acts as a watchdog to retail outlets, complaining, cajoling, lauding, and gushing over the latest, the best, the hippest in retailing. And Racked: NY is always fun as it ranges from covering the must-attend opening of TopShop to goofy, inflatable toys in the windows at Stella McCartney’s meatpacking district digs.

Fashion even has its own platform at Glam.com, where a crew of its own bloggers, as well as other invited bloggers, write, link to, or show nearly everything on the web about fashion, celebrity, styling, and sex. My personal favorites tend to lie with the photoblogs like The Sartorialist where there are more pictures and less (h)airbrained drivel.

Major retailers have for the most part avoided the pitfalls of offering blogs, probably because good ones are very difficult for them to pull off. The blogs tend to be self-serving or irrelevant or, worse, boring. Lucky Brand is self serving, but not hopelessly so. A recent blog promoted its Lucky Bus tour this summer. Juicy Couture’s is mostly out-of-date, with only two entries for 2009. Diesel’s is unabashedly self-involved, calling itself The Cult. J.Crew takes the designer route with a horizontal scrolling "Behind the Designs" feature, which functioning as a pseudoblog from designers is self-congratulatory (what else would you expect) and overly designed with image-branded photographs and hand-written sepia-toned lettering.

The best in the business to my mind may be found at Urban Outfitters. It is both local and global with correspondents at major US and international cities writing on a vast array of subjects, which are conveniently tagged. Here’s just a few: art, beauty, design, fashion, illustration, awesome, technology, video, magazine, photography, events, books, Europe, Music, DIY, and of course Urban Outfitters among many other subjects. The dual referencing allows you to find what you want by city or subject. And each story carries a large photograph.

So, for me, who grew up in Portland, Oregon and lived in Europe, I can quickly find information that appeals to me. That’s what makes this blog so fabulous—it’s completely oriented to the customer. Since customers incorporate the brand, the UO blog meshes the customer experience both inside and outside of its stores. It’s a vision without the corporate hype—perfectly suited to web discourse, conversations that blow through the self-serving, promotional rhetoric found on many business sites.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Consumption as Religion

Much is being made of Victor Lebow’s statements in a 1955 article about price competition published in the Journal of Retailing about the US economy needing a “constantly expanding capacity to produce.” The attention derives from an enormously popular video now being circulated in schools, which was produced by Annie Leonard, a former Greenpeace activist, called “The Story of Stuff.” More on Leonard’s video in a later blog.

What interests me most today is the assertion Lebow makes that “The very meaning and significance of our lives are today expressed in consumption terms.” I have written about this before (May 4, 2009, “Brand Fervor”). But Lebow’s statements in the middle fifties occur right at the dawn of the consumer religiosity:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and the use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance is now to be found in our consumption patterns.”

The similar stimulus patterns in the brain produced by true religious feelings and brand loyalty that Martin Lindstrom describes in Buyology (2009) are foretold here, over 50 years ago, just as the Age of Branding was getting a full head of steam. True, modern branding and brand management are generally attributed to a P&G internal memo written by Neil McElroy on May 13, 1931, but we were not to witness the full impact of branding until two difficult decades later when our pent-up demand as consumers finally emerged full blown in the ‘50’s.

The link between an ever expanding economy connected to individual identity really lies at the root of the American Experience, but it is not until the 1950’s that our article of faith—The Manifest Destiny—found its inspiration in consumer aspirations not in the divine. Now, as we have finally understood that an ever expanding economy, like Western Expansion, is a delusion, perhaps our social satisfactions may attach themselves to something more lasting, more (dare I say it) spiritual than material consumption.

More on Pent Up Demand, Manifest Destiny, and the New Economy in upcoming blogs.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Every Mother’s Wish, Whether or Not She Has Children

My mother—Gladys Helene Hoegfoss Gould, pictured above in 1938—dedicated her life to nursing. She would join me in repeating Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation (1870):
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:

"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Truth will out: Pentagon Pundit Propagandists and Customer-Generated Reviews

The blogosphere and search might just turn us into truth tellers—or am I being way too hopeful?

Google will shut you out if you load up your page descriptions with terms not found on your web pages. Page ranking cannot be bought off. Only the most popular and most relevant sites find their way to the top. And paid-off citizen reviewers are eventually discovered, given the number of reviews generated on a product. In the review process, the outliers—those with opinions that are extreme—may be viewed within the context of the majority of the reviewers.

But who protects us from misinformation on mainstream media? Now it appears that the blogosphere has stepped up to be democracy’s watchdog. Clearly, many mainstream journalists have abandoned that role.

Case in point: All the major broadcasters—ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC—used ex-military men who were briefed by the Pentagon prior to their appearances on television in the period leading up to the Iraq War. This policy of disinformation shaped American opinion and also lined the pockets of many of these generals posing as media consultants, some of whom also served on the boards of companies whose businesses profited by the Iraqi war.

The Pentagon during the Bush Administration developed a policy to use ex-military men—usually generals—to act as objective commentators—hence, key influencers—to sell the war product in a manner that even the most manipulative of brand managers would think twice about. Truly, an expert campaign aimed at penetrating the distrust of spin by providing the appearance of objectivity and truth.

Listen to 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning, NYT investigative reporter David Barstow today on Democracy Now to see how the tactics of product evangelism can go awry. It appears now that only bloggers and alternative media (much of which is found on the internet) are giving Barstow’s reporting and his receiving such a prestigious prize any airing. Although found on cable, the internet, and radio, Democracy Now! is the only television broadcast to interview this Pulitzer Prize winner.

You might think that comparing Pentagon propaganda to product review or site padding trivializes the seriousness of the charges against mainstream media. It’s offered as a comparison only to show that the mechanism for uncovering the truth is pretty much the same and to sound a plea for our continuing to keep the internet as democratic as possible. It may just be our last hope.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Personally, I'm against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big

Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! devoted her hour long show yesterday to Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday, which was celebrated in grand style in Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Seeger whose life has been dedicated to social activism through music is an unusual celebrity. He purposefully avoided the limelight, but it consistently found him.

As she and guests chronicled Seeger’s many achievements—his pivotal, though often understated roles in the labor movement, civil rights, the environment—what struck me was how he slowly and with great determination tackled big issues in very small ways. A case in point: His singing of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers show in January 1968.

Controversial at the time, this unassuming appearance now seems to have accelerated the changing mood in the country. In March, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not seek another term as president, and, on October 31, he announced that the US would cease “all air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam.” Such a view substantially rewrites history—Seeger’s act was just another drop in the bucket that, when filled to the brim, eventually changed US policy.

“Too many things can go wrong when they get big,” as Pete Seeger stated. Like banks and other institutions that are “too big to fail?” while smaller banks are allowed to go under. By concentrating on institutions that have acquired disproportionate influence over the country, we have allowed smaller organizations—banks, businesses, entrepreneurial start-ups—to fail. This policy is not only unwise; it also counterproductive in that it strains against the counter-intuitive cultural Zeitgeist of early 21st century America.

This Zeitgeist is counter-intuitive only because most of the ways we have conducted business since the ‘50’s at least are being inverted, subverted, or changed in radically new ways. A few examples: Google and its wiki adherents that offer core products for free and make money through the back or side door. A global economy where local and regional products have found greater favor. Millions of online writers, journalists or hacks with their own blogs, videologs, or websites supplanting large daily newspapers, magazines, and television. More later.

Change is afoot in every aspect of our lives, and it will arrive in the aggregate actions of individuals and small organizations that can now wield enormous power helped in part by new technologies. Small is the new big.

To quote Frances Moore Lappe, who wrote Diet for a Small Planet (cited earlier) and her daughter Anna Lappe’s definition of their Small Planet Institute:
We believe that ideas have enormous power and that humans are capable of changing failing ideas in order to turn our planet toward life. At the Small Planet Institute, we seek to identify the core, often unspoken, assumptions and forces — economic, political, and psychological — now taking our planet in a direction that as individuals none of us would choose. We disseminate this deeper understanding of root causes. With a grasp of root causes, citizens no longer disparage their actions as “mere drops in the bucket.” Once we’re able to see the “bucket,” we realize our drops are quite spectacular; the bucket is actually filling up.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Brand Fervor: Applying the Language of Religion to Consumerism

Over the past few years, it has become commonplace to refer to customers whose zeal for a company seems unbounded as evangelists. These customers may or may not necessarily be your best customers, but they can be counted on to act as influencers. They spread the word via word of mouth, on blogs, or in customer review sections of your websites about your products. When enthusiastically happy about your company, their opinions can help skyrocket sales. When unhappy, watch out. You might end up in Dell Hell.

Martin Lindstrom in his ground-breaking work Buyology used fMRI and SST technology to analyze the brain activity of 2081 volunteers over a four year period from 2004-2008. In one of his studies, he examined the correlation between electric brain activity stimulated by religious imagery and commercial brands. Summarizing the work really does it an injustice. The book is a very good read. The point here is that “smashable brands”—those brands that retain their identity, especially among brand zealots, even if you smash them apart (Apple, Coke, Harley Davidson, etc.)—elicit a similar response in brand-loyal folks as religious iconography does when viewed by people of faith.

After extensive interviews with religious and spiritual leaders to determine the 10 pillars of all religions, he concludes that iconographic brands share the same characteristics as the great religions, namely: a sense of belonging, a clear vision, power over enemies, sensory appeal, storytelling, grandeur, evangelism, symbols, mystery, and rituals. I should add that he makes this association not to denigrate religion, but simply to point out that a similar kind of fervor develops among brand-loyalists.

In a similar vein, Stanley Fish, noted author and educator, wrote an editorial in the New York Times today entitled “God Talk.” The editorial is actually a review of British critic Terry Eagleton’s newest book Reason, Faith and Revolution. Again risking oversimplification, Eagleton thinks that we have begun to exact from science what we previously thought to derive from religion. He believes that “faith and knowledge are not antithetical but “interwoven.” If we demand from science answers to the eternal questions of life, we will come up empty. And if we try to seek an understanding of the material world from a religious point of view, we will similarly be at a loss.

Pointing out that those who adhere to “Progress” as an article of faith might be accused of believing in “superstition” to the same degree religious adherents have been, Fish quotes and summarizes Eagleton as follows: “’The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,’ all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.”

The application of the language of religion to consumerism points out, I believe, an underlying social need: A search for Value—material and spiritual—in an otherwise compromised world.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The So-called Benefits of the Great Recession

Maybe it was the simple fact that my parents were, on average, a good ten years older than most of my peers' parents and I was born when my mother was nearly 40. But, for me, The Great Depression informed nearly every minute of my childhood and teenage years—from the “turn off that light. What do you thing we are? Made of money?” to the constant depression-glass lens through which every experience was viewed.

Growing up, I often felt that my parents had more in common with my friends’ grandparents than their parents. They were, after all, in their early 20’s during the Thirties. My father had ridden the rails, working at jobs anywhere he could find them from construction work in San Francisco to building carnival rides and barnstorming with the Eyerly Brothers in his home town of Salem, Oregon. My mother had travelled to the alluring West from the northern, frozen North Dakota plains in search of love and work in that order. At home, we canned, baked bread, sewed our own clothes, and repaired everything. But, then, we were “lower middle or working class,” a term that seems to have disappeared in the economic halcyon days that followed.

Laying my rather peculiar past aside, most of us boomers did have parents who grew up and survived the depression, remembering the scarcity and the deprivation, which was then followed by the war years. But what lessons did we take away—from them, then and now? Very few. It might even be said that we tried very hard to avoid those lessons. Although the Green Movement may have grown out of the social activism of the ‘60’s, most boomers were not socially committed at the time and very few continued along the social activism pathway, except perhaps where it involved social, sexual and personal freedom. Lots to be argued with here.

Mostly, we boomers and our children have experienced over-abundance and have relished in it. I cannot count the number of times people have said to me lately that they could never have conceived the economy turning downward the way it has. Having to cope with less for many of us has seemed like an early death sentence. I am supposed to be enjoying these years. Isn’t that the American Dream?

Now, so many commentators have pointed out that we as a Nation may finally be learning our lessons—about having enough, about frugality, about sustainability, about valuing experiences and people over labels and stuff—that I have lost track. I actually believe, on the other hand, that the current Great Recession is actually only building up pent-up demand among many people. The minute conditions ease, we will probably see ourselves returning to our old ways.

Only this time, we can’t afford such self-indulgence, if we ever could. The abundance we thought we enjoyed was actually a delusion. Remember those books we all bought in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s—Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet and Steward Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog. Their messages have even greater relevance, urgency, and poignancy today. Ignoring them now is not auguring a symbolic early death sentence, but tolling a death knell for the planet.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Slow Fashion in Celebration of Earth Day

The “slow fashion” concept traces its roots back to the slow food movement, which began in Italy in the ‘80’s as a reaction to fast-food retailers, like McDonald’s. Since then, the movement has spread to architecture and now to clothing design, manufacturing, and consumption.

The characteristics all three share are sustainability, transparency, fair trade/living wages, and localization. That means for sustainability: the development of more sustainable products through recycling or re-purposing existing products, using organic or natural materials whenever possible, and developing lasting products that may be reused or recycled after their use.

Transparency, here, usually refers to a manufacturer being open about and communicating complete information about products—for example, how a product was made, where it was made, what materials the product is made of, who made the product and whether or not those workers were paid a living wage. Localization places value on local or regional production and the use of local products.

Nearly everyone associated the “slow” movement recognizes that no one retailer or manufacturer will successfully realize a business that is completely sustainable, transparent, or local. All efforts will involve some kind of compromise. But openness and encouraging consumers to reevaluate their attitudes toward fashion and clothing will, they believe, contribute toward greater sustainability in the fashion industry.

Although “slow fashion” might at first appear contradictory, it is possible to honor fashion while producing and consuming purposefully. In the words of Dr. Hazel Clark from the Parsons New School of Design at a conference held late last year: “Change [toward adopting slow fashion] requires more thoughtful and flexible design, which can retain the cultural significance and magic of fashion while producing clothes that are conscientious, sustainable, and attractive.”

Perhaps the best known company that embraces “slow fashion” is the British “eco-chic” department store Adili. According to CEO Adam Smith, “Slow fashion is not just about responding to trends. It is a mentality that involves thinking about provenance and buying something that won’t look unfashionable after one season.”

As an increasing number of consumers are drawn to the values-led retailers who support slow fashion, the more it would appear that the slow movement will now be on the fast track.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Act Vertical or Be Vertical: Gaining the Competitive Edge in Retailing

According to a recent study by Kurt Salmon Associates, those retailers who “act vertical” are in a greater position to weather the recession because of their ability to offer unique product, demand higher prices, react more quickly to consumer trends, and replenish hot sellers more quickly.

"The recession is forcing retailers to radically rethink their businesses, and many are in survival mode," said Cari Bunch, a retail strategist at Kurt Salmon Associates. "However, in our view, the economic downturn has created much greater clarity about what retailers must do to be successful over the next decade."

“Act Vertical retailers have learned to collaborate internally (by breaking down the barriers between functions), externally with manufacturers and suppliers (without owning production) and externally with consumers by redefining customer research as a continuous conversation rather than a one-off event.”

Although this study recommends that retailers act vertically not actually become vertically integrated, the success of American Apparel, which boasts that its products are “Made in Downtown LA,” has used vertical integration not just for competitive advantage but also as a basis for cause marketing, mostly by calling for immigration reform among several other causes it supports.

As the above quote shows, as well as comments on the American Apparel website indicate, collaboration with manufacturers and customers is central to catching the curl on the new wave of retailing. SA VA, a semi-vertical women’s apparel company that will launch in Philadelphia and online in September, has recognized that true collaboration with customer necessitates her involvement with design as well as the company’s ability to react quickly her needs. To do that, SA VA will develop regional, domestic Garment Centers that will localize production and, in the process, work toward reducing the large carbon footprint affixed to most clothes, most especially the least expensive, as well as creating local jobs.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Okay, Kutcher had help

Lamar Advertising decided to help Ashton Kutcher along in his bid to become Twitter's first "millionaire" and aired a message to follow him on the 1,133 digital billboards it operates nationwide, according to Media Week. That turns out to be 34 million impressions in all when when the campaign ends this week.

Still the point made yesterday holds. Kutcher did not pay for this campaign. It was taken up in the spirit of "let's beat the big guy," not just by the individual, but also by small business. Isn't there a message here? Smaller. Slower. Better. Enough. All words that appear frequently in the subtext of the New Economy, hence the New Wave of Retailing.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Power of One: One to Many, Many to One

If there were any doubts left about the power of the individual via the internet to make a greater impact on the world than larger media organizations, the last week should have removed them. Ashton Kutcher beating out CNN as the first to reach 1MM followers on Twitter and Susan Boyle becoming an instant international success through YouTube are two stunning examples of how an individual can achieve far-reaching impact now through technology. True, Mr. Kutcher is a celebrity with a flair for geekiness, but it is conceivable that any savvy internet user with determination could have accomplished the same feat.

Power now resides in companies that are developing open platforms that allow individuals to build on, find fame, create new products, connect with friends, and reach new contacts and ideas. But this power is open, not controlling (See Jeff Jarvis, What would Google Do?). It finds value by holding people with a velvet glove. It embraces them and sends them on. It appears suddenly as a nudge, not necessarily as a banner hammer. Google, in fact, does no advertising, but controls most of it on the internet. Your success is their success. It’s shared. As is, Twitter’s, and Flickr’s, and Glam’s.

Sharing and openness are not ideas that we normally associate with capitalism, but the new economy and the new wave of retailing will utilize sharing and openness as cornerstones of business. The sooner retailers understand that the blueprint for building successful retail organizations has fundamentally altered, the sooner we will see all retail outlets—bricks and mortar, catalogs, and ecommerce—accommodating the individual rather than winning them over for a one-time purchase often at a discounted price or with free shipping.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

No Longer Business As Usual

A recent piece in Women’s Wear Daily (13 April 2009) speculated on what the new fashion paradigm might look like. Admitting that the industry is “struggling to keep up,” the WWD staff runs through a laundry list of what retailers are facing: cut backs, slow vs. fast fashion concepts, the demise of marketing, overabundance, the nosedive of luxury markets, more distinctive and better targeted merchandise, doing more with less, and so on.

In between, a few designers and retailers make some interesting observations that point toward an exciting future, most notably, Inacio Ribeiro and Andrew Rosen.

Co-designer of Clements Ribeiro: “The consumer is so well-informed today, they don’t want to be told how to buy and they feel conned and manipulated by big flagship stores, and by the disproportionate margins the brands are making. . . . However the consumer will welcome suggestions, and that is the way forward.”

Further on in the article, Andrew Rosen, president and co-founder of Theory, states: “We have to get back to creating innovative product, concepts and merchandising ideas to stimulate and energize the customer. . . . You just can’t get away with making clothes and expecting them to sell. You have to be good at what you do. Clothing is not just a status symbol anymore. There has to be a sense of relevancy to it.”

Oddly, the impact of the internet and the evolving consciousness of the new consumer are otherwise glossed over. In conclusion, the article states: “None of this means companies will outright abandon the strategies and methods that helped them get started in the first place. The future of fashion, however different, seems likely to be based mostly on its present.”

And why are they so sure?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Collaboration, Open Business Practices: Counter-Intuitive to Most Traditional Retailers

In traditional department and specialty stores, boutiques and catalogs, the business mantra has always been to capture “share of wallet” or customers and their loyalty by offering some type of competitive advantage—unique product, great location, fabulous surroundings, convenience, unbeatable customer service, better pricing, exclusives on designers and products, close-outs or discounts, and the like. Negotiating with vendors for carrying certain fabrics or colors, designers or collections, even for picking up out-of-season merchandise could be fierce. The Macy’s/Gimbel’s rivalry has become the stuff of legend and has defined the retail business even before the rise of the great department stores.

Collaborative organizations, open business practices, and other new methods of building businesses are, in fact, anathema to most retailers. These methods as outlined by Wikinomics, What Would Google Do?, and a host of other books appearing in book outlets are for most retailers counter-intuitive. Why risk sharing anything that might give you a competitive advantage with anyone, let alone a direct competitor?

Finding a competitive edge for retailers has always been a challenge. In a world of instant verbal and visual communications via internet and digital photography, the prospect has become daunting. Even couturiers can hardly keep a collection together during a season. Just hours after a collection debuts on the runway, manufacturers have already copied the best, which might even appear in a store in just over a week. The result: the consumer gets the “look” at a fraction of the price, and the retailers offering it cashes in before a more traditional retailer can even receive the product in store. The “look” is almost immediately passé. Adding more pain to the process, the imitators have become so good at knocking off originals that many consumers don’t even seem to care if they have the genuine article or not.

With an increasing number of outlets for product—also due to the internet, which has a comparatively low barrier to entry—companies can quickly react to new products and, in the case of low-cost copiers or rip-off artists, can undercut and under price new, hoped-for best sellers. Of course, copying best sellers is nothing new, but the speed with which it’s occurring is startling. Add in a lingering recession of a magnitude unseen since the Great Depression and price becomes even more of a determining factor in choosing product, as we have seen more and more retailers scurrying to lower pricing even on the better floors.

In-store retailers have always been slow in adapting to new technology. Take most retailers’ failure to embrace CRM and database marketing as a means of communicating with and offering better targeted products to their customers as an example. But attempting to push an outworn 19th century business model into the 21st century will for most retailers simply be a prescription for bankruptcy.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Collaboration: The New Wave of Retailing

Internal, collaborative teams and external collaboration with customers will become one of the hallmarks of the New Wave of Retailing. Collaborative organizations, which are different from team-based organizations because they implement the collaborative process systemically, allow for greater adaptability in implementing and reacting to change, greater flexibility in product development, and greater empowerment among all members of the organization in the decision-making process.

At SA VA, collaboration is being embraced from the outset and is affecting everything from Design to corporate culture and organization. The SA VA Design Teams, for example, work with customer input and consist of members from technical and creative, sewing and tailoring, sourcing, marketing, and customer service. As a customer-centric organization, where information from customer input, the customer database, market research, and analytics, the Customer Experience Group receives data from, responds to, and feeds all aspects of the organization. It occupies a central, through not necessarily an authoritative position within the company.

As horizontal, collaborative systems replace vertical, rigid, command-and-control organizations as the preferred method of business organization, it will become increasingly necessary to find individuals who are comfortable working and learning in non-hierarchical groups. The acid test will be if past experience on the part of retail management can flourish in this new wave of retailing.

(Women's Wear Daily just published an article on retailers struggling to meet new consumer needs. Here is the link: WWD. Unfortunately, WWD subscribes to a paid subscription format, which seems out of place in the world of open communication.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

More on design and merchandising

In mid ‘80’s, when I was editor of Catalog Age magazine (now Multichannel Merchant), I published an account of talk given by Susan Love Edmondson on “me-too merchandising” at the Chicago Association of Direct Marketing annual meeting.
At the time Susie Love was General Manager, Avon Direct Marketing, although she had gained fame for co-founding and merchandising the highly successful, yet ultimately ill-fated Kaleidoscope catalog.

Kaleidoscope, along with Roger Horchow’s The Horchow Collection, broke new grounds in cataloging by developing specialty home catalogs geared to upscale women. These catalogs were fresh, beautifully designed and photographed, and offered expensive, hard-to-find luxurious products—quite a change from the L.L. Bean, the old Spiegel, Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs that had, at the time, dominated the marketplace. Hard to imagine that time since specialty catalogs now rule the mailboxes.

The Horchow Collection is still around. Kaleidoscope, in one of the first big-media hypes in direct marketing, went into Chapter 11 and eventually out of business. Kaleidoscope scored a remarkable string of firsts—including selling hot air balloons on the cover (all sales had to be nullified because of government regulations) and introducing the Galileo clock which still finds itself on the pages of many catalogs.

In her remarks, Susie—now Dr. Love, a specialist in adoption issues in the Bay Area—observed:
Merchandising is the whole package, not just the selection of items. It’s identifying a target consumer group and providing the most highly edited, best value products to serve the needs and desires of that population. And it’s packaging your sales offer in such a way that it’s easily identifiable as you.

Choice, she went on to explain, “must always be made in terms of identity.” By choice, she meant product choice and catalog presentation, but she could well have applied it to design, product development, visual display, and store design.
From the late ‘80’s until the present, we have seen nothing but “me-too” retailing, in spite of the volumes of books, articles, and presentations made about branding. It’s been difficult for quite some time to tell which catalog you saw that item in because so many catalogs offer nearly the same items. Stores with white walls, blonde wood and metal/glass fixtures are so commonplace that you can’t tell a J.Crew from a Banana Republic (remember the original from Pat and Mel Ziegler?) or a Gap from a Benetton.

All of this brings me to Cathy Horyn’s recent remarks in the New York Times about the opening of Topshop—London’s recent import to the US:
The Topshop folks get almost everything right. The atmosphere is fun and exciting (it makes minimalist Uniqlo up the street look anemic). Although the range of merchandise is quite broad, from adorable blouses and cool fleece pants to Kate Moss’s very cute line, you feel there’s a reason for everything—that the Topshop designers and merchandisers said no more than they said yes. And the prices are great, from high to low. I saw at least a dozen things I wanted to buy, most of them for under $150. What’s more, I liked being in the store—and when has anyone said that lately?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Merchandising & Design: New vs. Old

It might be said that truly great merchandisers—maybe even designers—buy or create for themselves. Whether or not that is true, all great merchandisers and designers I have met have a very concrete idea of their customers. Mostly, in the past, they have derived this concept of their ideal customer from their very rich imaginations, acute observation of society, intuitive understanding about art and culture, and a general feel for the Zeitgeist. When all of this comes together, they express their creativity by discovering the next got-to-have-it handbag or knowing that lime green is this season’s accent color or putting their design sensibility to work creating the newest, perfect little black cocktail dress.

Regardless of how much data is now being poured into the design and buying process, how much neuroscience is playing a part in probing the brains of consumers, the simple fact remains that merchandising and design remain more art than science. But how this creativity is applied makes all the difference: Do you as a designer seek to impart your vision to your customers? Or do you seek to meet your customers’ needs and wants in an attempt to fuse your design sensibility with your customers’? The former attitude involves a creative projection onto the world; the latter point of view suggests collaboration or, perhaps more cynically, meeting the market demands of your customer demography.

Having spent a large part of my career writing about and consulting in multichannel marketing, I have observed some of the country’s most savvy and successful merchandisers. To a person, every merchandiser has a highly developed sense of the customer they buy or design for. She has a name, a look, a family. They know what car she drives, what she does for a living. Where she lives, the colors she loves, the schools she went to. They know her hobbies, her frailties. How much money she’s likely to spend on clothing, on her home, on her children. She has become a video clip embedded into the merchandiser’s brain. In the catalog world, some of the best known merchandisers out of this school are Roger Horchow, Lillian Vernon, and Chuck Williams, to name a very few.

Merchandisers in the catalog world, unlike in-store retail, had the opportunity to develop well-defined points of view, find the products that expressed them, and, then, seek out the customers who wanted to share that vision through trial-and-error mailings. In-store retailers, although they might have had an equally well-articulated aesthetic, needed to advertise to find enough local customers who found their merchandise assortment appealing to drive them into the store. As a result, their vision needed to be broader to hit the numbers that would result in enough traffic to make sales.

The internet has changed the game. At its best, the internet brings one to many, many to one—your voice, vision or products can be heard, viewed or bought by the world, whether you reside in Kansas City or Katmandu. The internet allows merchandisers to find highly specific niche markets or to provide more mass appeal products—the former resulting in the SEM game; the latter a battle for customers through discounting.

For designers, in the new world of instant verbal and visual communications via internet and digital photography, the prospect of creating new products and getting them to market before a competitor has become daunting. Even couturiers can hardly keep a collection together during a season. Just hours after a collection debuts on the runway, manufacturers have already copied the best, which, in some cases, might even appear in a store in just over a week. The result: the consumer gets the “look” at a fraction of the price, but the “look” is already passé. It’s far worse than the decline in price of a new car when it’s driven off the lot.

With an increasing number of outlets for product—also due to the internet, which has a comparatively low barrier to entry—companies can quickly react to new products and, in the case of low-cost copiers or rip-off artists, can undercut and under price new, hoped-for best sellers. Of course, copying best sellers is nothing new, but the speed with which it’s occurring is startling.

Designers now are producing far more than Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer Collections. Pre-Resort, Resort, Spring, Autumn—whatever—Collections abound, and most designers can hardly afford to design and turn around a full new line in these short time frames—let alone create an inspired, compelling line that women want to have.

Rather than simply imparting your vision or catering to a particular demographic, there is a new approach to design and merchandising, let’s call it the wiki approach—one that works collaboratively not just with the Design Team but with the customer herself.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A new dress doesn’t get you anywhere

“I mean, a new dress doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s the life you’re living in the dress, and the sort of life you had lived before, and what you will do in it later.” D.V, pp. 147-8.

That observation—provided by the indisputable maven of fashion—Diana Vreeland (1903-1989)—in her chatty, wonderfully rambling book D.V., first published in 1984, has provided a kind of touchstone for SA VA. Sarah Van Aken, founder, head designer and chief community organizer, believes that fashion design for her provides a platform for communicating and promoting ideas about the world community, particularly as they relate to early childhood.

We at SA VA have used this dictum to validate our sensibility about fashion—that fashion is more about the women wearing it than about the designer or the dress. That means, we “want to fuse our design sensibility with [our customers’] sense of style,” as well as provide a platform for developing shared ideas. In other words, we are more interested in engaging in an on-going dialog with our customers about what matters to them most, as well as about their fashion sense, than we are seeking to impose our sense of style.

To be sure, SA VA has a decided pointed view and a wonderfully quirky and irresistible design sensibility. But our customers also know what they are looking for and how they want to express their individuality.

How we’ve used this point of view to create SA VA will be the subject of forthcoming blogs.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Introducing my client SA VA

After a considerable hiatus, I am returning to blogging on a more or less regular basis. I will still comment on retailing, but will also discuss some of the exciting things we are doing at SA VA, a women’s designer apparel brand, store and website that will open in August. Although I have been involved with S.V.A. Holdings for well over a year, we began formal branding in November 2008. Our efforts continue. We are now finishing up our belief statements about our customers, our products, and our business principles (more of that later).

As a way of introducing you to SA VA, I am including the email remarks of Sarah Van Aken, SA VA CEO and Community Organizer, made to Jeff Jarvis, author of What would Google Do? (see his blog at www.buzzmachine.com), who kindly reprinted them in his blog:

I just finished reading your book and I wanted to thank you for writing it! It validated a new direction I am taking with my company. I own a semi-vertical private label apparel company based in Philadelphia. I have three clothing brands, which I have been manufacturing for in a proprietary garment factory in Bangladesh. As I began planning the expansion of my 3rd brand SA VA, I struggled with its purpose and direction and knew that it wasn’t just about making clothes for me. As we started rebranding, the economic crisis hit and without a doubt I knew things in the apparel business would never be the same again.

Since that time I have made some great steps including moving my manufacturing here to Philadelphia with help from the City to create living wage jobs, partnering with the People’s Emergency Center (PEC-cares.org) in various ways (volunteerism, mentoring, food drives), and making my clothing line about the people who wear it, not about a designer.

In doing so, I have decided to simultaneously launch an interactive shopping site where along with purchasing our clothes, customers can send us drawings, tear sheets and ideas of what they are looking for and can’t find (because of my manufacturing control I can turn around goods in 6-10 weeks from concept), show us how they wore garments they purchased from us, access volunteer opportunities (without a huge ongoing commitment) at PEC, and more. We hope to create not just a place where people can buy clothes that are local-made, fair-trade, made in the US, often organic or recycled (and every garment in the store has a paper tag with a check list of all of these things that apply), but they can interact and connect with their community and give back. Our design studio is right inside the store. We are doing video blog profiles of our employees (everyone from janitor to designer to production staff) that will be shown on the website and in the store. As we grow, this Philadelphia garment facility will supply regional stores but as we move across the country there will be garment center for each region creating the same kind of community experience and job creation in the area where we sell our clothes.

So, my point being that from your book it reinforced and grew the ideas that I had about what I wanted to make my business look like and the direction I was taking. We launch the store and web store in late August. In the meantime – I started blogging too!!!! Shop.savafashion.com/wordpress.