Category Archives: Commerce and Marketing

Commerce

Remember When Greeting Cards Were Affordable?

“And when I’m elected President of the United States,” the candidate said to the adoring crowd, pounding the podium with every word, “I’m going to take on those greedy greeting card companies, and make them offer cards at a price that people can actually afford!”

The cheers were so loud that no one could hear the rest of the candidate’s speech. No one would have believed that the exorbitant price of greeting cards would become the biggest issue of 2016. But the candidate was the first to grasp the importance of affordable greeting cards to working families, and rode the resulting public response right into the White House.

In the weeks between the election and inauguration, the President’s transition team drafted legislation that certain member of Congress would be introducing on the first day of the new administration and new Congress. This particular representative owed his re-election to the President’s endorsement during the campaign season, which was made at great political risk to the President since the representative had been implicated in a “dollars-to-doughnuts” gambling ring.

With the legislation introduced, the first hundred days was marked by an intense effort to get enough votes in the House and in the Senate to guarantee the passage of the greeting card bill, which had been quickly nicknamed “Hall-Markdown.” Conservatives quickly formed a cabal against the bill and would not even allow the bill to be brought to a vote. Any time someone tried to call the bill to a vote, these obstructionists would sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” very loudly, so that no one could hear what was going on.

Finally one of the bill’s co-sponsors – a Congressman who as a child had been forced to make his own cards out of McDonald’s place mats because his parents worked for minimum wage and had to choose between food on the table and store-bought greeting cards – thought of hosting a combination pancake breakfast and gun show several miles away, and while the opposing representatives were stuffing their faces, the bill passed easily with only one “Nay” from a Congressman who did not eat gluten.

The bill was stymied in the Senate as well. One Senator who had accepted campaign contributions from several greeting card companies tried to filibuster the bill, but the President’s supporters broke the filibuster by telling the filibustering Senator that it was snowing outside, and then seizing the floor when the excited Senator ran to the window.

Even on the President’s desk the bill had trouble.  It passed the Senate just before 5 p.m. and was placed on the President’s desk late that night for signature, long after the President had retired to binge watch Season 3 of “Game of Thrones.”  The President met with foreign policy advisers early the next morning, and placed a thick confidential memo titled “More Middle East Stuff” on top of the greeting card bill and did not see the bill until just before it was set to expire along with all the President’s reward points.

At the eleventh hour the bill was signed into law where it was officially codified as the “Affordable Card Act” and ushered in new era of fairness and level playing fields.  No longer were people charged $5 or $6 or $7 for a birthday or Mother’s Day or Father’s Day card.  The Act created a new class of cards that cost only $0.99 apiece, the price proudly emblazoned on the back of each card next to a tiny picture of the President and the words, “You can thank me at the polls!”

I should know. I received one of these Hall-Mark-Down cards the other day.  And I don’t know quite how to say this, but the card just didn’t have the panache of the expensive ones.

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Remember Shopping on Black Friday?

The CEO took a few deep breaths and repeated his mantra silent to himself, and then addressed the shareholders.

“Esteemed shareholders, I know that our Black Friday sales were quite a bit lower than anticipated,” he said.  “Believe me when I say that this is a greater shock to me then it is to you.  No one could have predicted that people would be sick of Black Friday, and would choose to stay at home with their families rather than run out in the dark night and participate in a stampede for televisions.  Clearly there are forces at work here with which we are unfamiliar.”

The CEO took a sip of water.  The water went down the wrong pipe, and there was a coughing fit for a few moments.

“But do not despair,” the CEO continued upon regaining control.  “There is hope.  We and the other big stores have a plan.  Instead of waiting for the customers to come to us, we’re going to go to the customers.”

At 4:00 a.m. the following morning, employees from all of the major retailers lined up at the home of one of their rewards club members who had failed to show up at the Black Friday sale.  Someone pushed the doorbell, and when the groggy homeowner in his bathrobe opened the door a crack to see who was ringing the bell at such an hour, the employees rushed into the house with all sorts of wares – on sale, of course.

The homeowner was bewildered, but he was so tired and desperate to get back to bed that he bought a few items.  Then the employees left and went to the house next door, where the process was repeated.  And so on until the end of the block.

A lot of people complained about the invasion of privacy and overly aggressive sales tactics.  But it was hard to argue with the results.  It turned out that the real reason people didn’t spend on Black Friday was because they didn’t want to deal with the parking.  Once that was taken out of the equation – along with the traveling, the waiting on lines, the crowds, and the having to wear pants – people were happy to spend money.

Sales not only rebounded, but exceeded all the estimates and set a record for the holiday shopping season.  Soon all the stores were doing it.  People could expect a visit from the employees of a store at least once a week.  Not only was it unnecessary to visit the store in person, but it became unnecessary to shop online.  Why waste time on goods you can’t see, when the goods will be physically in your home within the next few weeks?

Online sales dropped so much that the Internet began to suffer.  Shopping websites that had gotten millions of hits per day during previous holiday seasons, now saw just a handful of visitors.  The brick-and-mortar stores had folded up long before.  Now they were joined by the digital stores.

The stores would do their best to tailor the goods they brought to households.  But it was still guesswork, and some people lamented the loss of personal choice.  Others, however, didn’t care about personal choice, because something else was taking its place.  People were finding that they could learn to like the goods that the stores brought to their homes.  The holiday wasn’t about breaking one’s neck to get the best deal.  It was about learning to be thankful for what one had.

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Remember When Delivery By Drones Was Not Within the Realm of the Possibile?

The assistant walked into the big office.  “Sir,” he began.  “I – ”

“Hold on.  Here, look at this screen.  Our drones cover 75% of the U.S. airspace.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

“That is wonderful, sir.  But there appears to be an issue with the drones.  People are getting upset.”

“People?  What are people?  Oh, you mean those creatures who are always eating and losing things, and walk around sniffling when it’s cold.  Ugh.  Why don’t they blow their noses?”

“I don’t know, sir.  But yes – those people are now getting upset about the drones.”

“Is this about that accident last week?”

“Well, sir, when a drone carrying a snowblower falls out of the sky into the middle of a bar mitzvah, there is usually some negative public reaction.”

“But I told them, it wasn’t our fault.  The ground-pilot was texting with his wife about what they were going to have for dinner.  Totally unforeseeable.”

“I know, sir.  But these accidents aren’t the only thing.  People just didn’t anticipate that the sky would be filled with thousands of drones at every moment, so that you couldn’t even see a clear patch.”

“Well what did they expect?  Invisible drones?  Hmm.”  He pulled out a little notebook and scribbled something.

“Sir, the point is if we don’t stop the drones soon we may find ourselves the subject of a scathing op-ed piece.”

“Whoa, whoa.  We definitely don’t want that.  But what alternatives do we have?”

“Sir, we could go back to shipping by truck and regular air mail.”

“And go back to the Dark Ages of delivery that took all night?  We may as well trade in our toilet paper for corn cobs while we’re at it.  No, if we have to stop the drones, there’s only one option.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I certainly do.  Delivery by catapult.”

It was an unusual change to the system but soon everyone got used to it.  The delivery centers were reorganized throughout the country so that every home and business was within catapulting range of at least one delivery center, and every delivery center was within catapulting range of another delivery center, so that no matter where the ordered product originated, it could be conveyed via catapult to any place in America.

Instead of the skies being filled with unstaffed aircraft, the skies were filled with packages being lobbed to the next destination.  But there was no noise, and because the calibration had to be done only once – at the point of catapult – the packages did not need constant mid-flight monitoring.  The accident rate dropped dramatically.

The catapults were also amenable to automation.  The packages would be sorted and placed on conveyor belt, but instead of being directed to a drone, the packages were directed to one of the catapults.  There were multiple catapults at each delivery center.  At first the catapults were arranged in a circle, with every point of the compass covered.  But then someone realized that by placing the catapult on a swivel chair, all compass points could be achieved with far fewer catapults.  A computer algorithm calculated the direction, angle, and force required to catapult each package to its destination, accounting for weight, drag, and wind speed.

In the middle of the delivery center was the reception zone, made of a large canvas piled up with couch cushions.  This model was copied at households and businesses across the country.  In every backyard or office parking lot was a reception zone where packages could land.  In households that didn’t have the yard space, the most athletic member of the family would run outside at the scheduled delivery time and catch the package by hand.  The increase in concussions and broken packages was more than offset by the increase in general fitness.

“Sir, I can’t believe it.  The catapult system is a success!”

“Of course it is.  The packages arrive just as quickly as with the drones, but we don’t have to hire ground-pilots.  We’ve been able to lay off so many people!  Think of all the money we’ll save on tissues.”

“Yes, sir, that’s wonderful.  But now the sky is filled with so many packages being catapulted that it’s no longer safe for airplanes.  How are people going to travel?”

“I am so glad you asked.  Let me show you.”  He got up, handed the assistant a helmet and parachute, and led him outside to an empty catapult.

Thank you all for reading this year, and have a happy and healthy 2014.  Can’t wait to see what’s in store!  -MK

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The Private Universe of Shopping Carts

Did you ever notice how a shopping cart in any place other than a supermarket or a supermarket parking lot looks extremely out of place and even a little disturbing?  I saw one during my morning commute a few weeks ago.  It was so near the road that I almost clipped it.  It was there the next morning.  And the next.  And the next.

The evening commute takes me on a slightly different path that did not go past the shopping cart, and so I only saw the shopping cart in the morning.  I did not the shopping at all until I passed it, and when I did, I would be reminded of all previous encounters.  At first I was disturbed just by the sight of the shopping cart, but after a few days I became disturbed more by the fact that I only thought about the shopping cart when I passed it in the morning, and wouldn’t think about it again until the next encounter the following morning.  It was like the shopping cart and I shared a universe for a few brief seconds and then separated into distinct realities.

Did the shopping cart feel the same way about me?  “Every morning a car with Mark Kaplowitz inside drives by,” the shopping cart says to itself, “but I don’t see the car in the afternoon, and I don’t think about it until the next morning when it passes by again.”  Did the shopping cart find the routine as unsettling as I did?  I began think the shopping cart was looking at me when I passed it.  I began to feel self-conscious during that stretch of road.

Then, a few mornings ago, as I approached the shopping cart spot and started anticipating its presence and steely gaze, I saw that the shopping cart was gone.  Then I saw that it wasn’t gone, but merely pushed over on its side.  Someone must have had the same feeling I had, and finally could no longer stand the stare of the shopping cart.  It must have been dangerous to stop a car in the middle of a road to push over a shopping cart.  Maybe it was done late at night when traffic was light.

Whatever the circumstances, the spell was broken.  I can now think about the shopping cart at any time of the day.  And I do.  I picture it lying there, among the tall grass, enjoying the precious last days of summer.

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Remember When There Were No “TIPS” Jars?

I don’t remember exactly where I was the first time I saw one – a plastic container placed next to a cash register, with “TIPS” enscrawled in black magic marker.  A Dunkin’ Donuts or Subway or the dreaded Starbucks perhaps.  “The gall of these people!” I said to myself.  These cashiers…I mean, these baristas…trying to expand the tip zone like the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War.  Well, I never signed on to that treaty!  See if I care!  And proudly I accepted and kept my three pennies of change.

At the time, I did not think the trend would catch on.  But soon after that I saw a tip jar at the supermarket.  I was picking up Yodels for the week and noticed the plastic container in front of a young man bagging groceries.  So not only had they stopped making new episodes of Sex in the City, but they had spun off the bagging function of the supermarket cashier, so that the cashier could focus more on making small talk with customers and co-workers, and the bagger, or bagging-agent, or comestible transport administrator, could focus more on piling five-gallon containers of laundry detergent atop cartons of eggs.

“Perhaps I’ve been wrong about this tip jar phenomenon,” I said to myself.  “Perhaps the tip jar is this person’s sole source of income.”  And for a moment my mind was changed about the tip jar.  I still didn’t leave a tip, but I at least thought about it.

Unless you’ve been in a coma and without an Internet connection for the last ten years, you know that these tip jars are everywhere now.  Convenience stores, delicatessins…even the guy who sold me fireworks out of the trunk of his car had a little plastic container with “TIPS” written in several different languages.  And I would had left money in the tip jar at the library had the funds not already been earmarked for late fees on Ivanhoe, which I was supposed to read in 11th grade.

I thought back to when I had first started going to the diner with my friends, during high school, and had first confronted that labyrinthine branch of etiquette known as tipping.  I remembered the arguments over my friend’s “no change” rule, which meant that he never left change on the table, even if we only got coffee, which cost $1.50.

“But that’s a tip of, like…” I said, punching my calculator watch, “…like, 66 point 6, repeating, or point 7 if you round-up.”

“So?  Just give ‘em a dollar.  You can’t leave change,” he said.

“Says who?  What’s wrong with change?” I said.  “I love change.  I like the way it sounds when it jingles in my pocket.”  And to demonstrate, I took a few steps towards the cigarette machine, jingling the change that was in my pocket.  My friend rolled his eyes and shamed me into replacing my nickels and dimes on the table with a crisp dollar bill.

As the “TIPS” jars proliferated in the early 21st century, I suffered from more than a little insecurity.  Was I to simply accept this unilateral imposition of custom as I’d forced to accept the “bless you” custom after someone sneezes?  Were these cashiers and baggers doing me a favor by providing a receptacle for the change that must surely burden me and leaving me with more room in my pocket for receipts?  I tried to discuss these issues with someone, but my therapist fell asleep during my diner story.

The only way to solve this dilemma would be to contact the only person I knew who could help me—the same friend who had shamed me into leaving a dollar instead of change.  I arranged to meet him at a bagel shop we both enjoyed, and on my way over I was having second thoughts.  My friend probably left wads of cash in the plastic container.  What if he told me to do the same?  As I got out of the car and pressed the button on the door-locking remote repeatedly until I heard the confirmation honk, I reminded myself that I was not bound by anything he said.

The line was long and I saw that my friend the tipping expert was at the front of it.  He was passed a tray with a bagel, a large chocolate chip cookie, and a Yoo-Hoo.  He handed the cashier a bill and was handed change in return.  And then I saw it—a plastic “TIPS” jar next to his hand, which closed over the change and went in his pocket as he walked away in search of an open table.  I blinked but I had seen correctly: my friend had ignored the “TIPS” jar.

As I approached the cashier, I thought I knew what I was going to do.  I thought I would leave no change, convinced that my rule had won out in the end.  But when the cashier handed me the change, and looked me in the eye, and smiled, and said, “Thank you for your business,” my heart melted, and I saw myself capitulating, and dropping my change as if my hand had been possessed.

“Thank you—‘preciate that,” the cashier said.

Heart pounding, mind reeling, and stomach growling, I took my tray and turned towards my friend, who had not yet seen me.  And I stood there, wavering, not sure if I could bring myself to eat with such a miser.

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Remember When You Could Go To the Supermarket Without Being Offered Something You Didn’t Want?

Remember when you could go to the supermarket without being offered to enter a contest, or asked to make a donation, or join a mailing list, or solicited with anything other than the items you went there to buy?

I do.

My childhood memories of going to the supermarket are sepia-toned.  Mostly I remember buying a lot of cereal, and begging for cookies and soda to no avail. One time I found a $20 bill on the floor in the produce section and did not tell anyone.

But today it seems like every time I walk through those automatic doors I’m bombarded by people trying to get me to enter a contest or make a donation when all I really want to do is get my Mojito Mix and Vanilla Wafers and get out of there.

The other day I went to the supermarket and as the automatic doors opened a man in a shirt and tie greeted me. I assumed he was the greeter – perhaps placed through some community outreach program – and greeted him back. Then he held out a stack of green slips and a pen and asked me if I wanted to enter to win a shopping spree. I entertained a short mental film of myself running through the aisles, like a contestant on that game show Supermarket Sweep, going for the whole roast turkeys and then the medicine aisle. I shook my head and walked on, and felt bad about rebuffing him until I got to the free samples of cheese.

Another time I was greeted by a pair of high schoolers selling candy bars to fund a class on the causes of obesity. I told them that I’d sold my collection of Garbage Pail Kids to pay my property taxes and teenagers still did not seem to know anything beyond a bunch of acronyms.  And they were like, “OMG!”  And I was like, “TTYL.”

But the most memorable supermarket solicitor was a woman taking donations to pay her Verizon bill. No clipboard, no costume, no gimmick.  Just standing there with a sign that said, “I can’t make any cell phone calls. Please help. God bless.” Somehow that one touched my heart. I handed over the few dollars I had on me, and instead of snacking on Vanilla Wafers I spent the evening appreciating what I had.

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