One Company’s Strong Suit

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Long gone are the days of men in suits, sporting grey fedoras and bright white handkerchiefs. But just as they’re out, they’re back in.

 Fashion is not static. Never has been, never will be. And with the combined new entity of Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Banks now in place, it’s time to get bullish on this new brand.

 From the USA network’s hit show Suits to James Bond, the allure of the sharp dressed man is eternal. Yet never has there been a better tipping point for this essentially new brand’s 1,500 stores than right now.

The concept of “well dressed,” which on the surface seems to be all about form over function, is still the surest way to impress at an interview, get a loan, garner investors or spark a relationship.

This brings us to the killer value proposition: Impress for Less. It’s not an outward facing tag line. It’s not advertising copy. But it’s at once galvanizing and logical. Emotional and rational. And although Men’s Wearhouse has certainly sold its share of women’s apparel, it is indeed called Men’s Wearhouse, and both Jos. A Banks and Men’s Wearhouse ultimately are all about the suits. And so the opportunity to build a brand platform based on making an impression without having to spend four figures on a suit to do it is the surest way to drive omni-channel traffic.

From a targeting perspective, the conventional wisdom would suggest profiting from the Boomer core, while using retro messaging to drive Millennials and activate ecommerce and data collection. But being well dressed can cast a much wider net by playing to a psychographic profile, not a demographic. And just as traditional segmenting is designed to parse out the differences between consumers rather than binding them together, that flaw can be mitigated by the universal appeal of being appealing.

This is the time for suits. This is the time for the new Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Banks brand. Big things are ahead if they get the marketing right, as literally millions of men want to look better than ever.

After all, there’s a reason they call them suitors.

 

Marketing’s 94th Minute Goal

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 3.03.36 PMSo if the U.S. World Cup team scores a goal to win a game 1-0 with five seconds left on the clock, how much is that goal worth? The easy answer, of course, is that whether it was scored with five seconds left on the clock or 89 minutes, its value remains the same: it’s still a 1-0 victory.

But we know better. The circumstance defines the magnitude of the event. A goal late seems bigger than a goal early. A winning jump shot with no time on the clock in a basketball game is the only shot people will remember, even though 40 shots were made before it. The same goes for a game-winning touchdown.

Timing and circumstance are everything. That’s why such emphasis is given to those people and, quite frankly, those brands that can perform in the clutch. A company or individual that can perform when the stakes are highest and the spotlight is brightest are certainly the most impressive.

But at the end of the day, business success often happens under the radar. Just as the U.S. soccer team last September won their biggest game of the year (a qualifier in which they beat Mexico with no TV coverage and most Americans tuning out), positive comp growth on a slow Monday morning is surely more impressive than the same on Black Friday.

Walmart offers free delivery on orders of any amount, but specifically during the holiday season. But when Best Buy closes stores to protect cash, which at face value seems smart, remember that they’re doing it to stop the bleeding after Amazon has eaten their lunch, not to prepare for the threat of impending commoditization. A great goal, but too late in the game. Barnes & Noble embraced commoditization by introducing a dynamic new e-reader and using its soon-to-be-ghost towns, i.e. brick and mortar locations, as a platform to sell them. But the bookstore game was won in the first quarter by Kindle.

Last-second heroics are dramatic and memorable. But contests more often are decided early through advance planning and a whole lot of sweating of details. In this year’s World Cup, while the 86th-minute goal by the U.S. to beat Ghana was breathtaking, Chile simply scored its winning goal in the game’s 14th minute, which certainly had the same result. And while Brazil superstar Neymar himself beat Cameroon with his two first-half goals, it’s still Portugal’s goal against the U.S. with 20 seconds left on the clock that is perhaps THE most memorable of this year’s tournament so far. Ironically, the tie score in that case is even more impressive than a win.

Winning is about timing and the circumstance defines the magnitude of the event.

So by all means, save your company with a last-second turnaround. Introduce your most exciting LTO right before your leading competitor is about to launch theirs. Report Q3 comp gains a day before your board meeting. Run your category-defying ad during the Super Bowl and steal the show. But never forget that achieving goals isn’t always about what you do in the spotlight or late in the day. Your greatest achievements may be the goals you set early, the goals you reach long before there’s only a minute left on the clock, or they may even be invisible to your customer. Those truly are the goals worth more. Achieving them relieves pressure, allows for learning on how to succeed in the clutch, and gets you on the board, headed for a W. And, always, the win must be the ultimate goal.

The End Of The “We’re Closed” Sign

macys-paradeMark your calendars because November 22, 2012 (Thanksgiving Day, i.e. Black Thursday) will forever be remembered as the date when brick and mortar retailers realized that every holiday, every day in fact is a shopping occasion, and that an open store can be a profitable store no matter what day or time it is: Within the next two years, there will be no days off at brick and mortars. (Hell, ecommerce and pure plays like Amazon never close, why should the mall?)

On Thanksgiving night, Walmart, Target, Sears, hh.gregg and major malls from Opry Mills in Nashville (shuttered 24 months ago but on Thanksgiving night dealing with massive lines at all seven entrances) to Florida’s Sawgrass Mills were just as busy at 1:00AM as they were at 8:00AM as shoppers were clearly galvanized by the chance to grab deals early and beat the Black Friday rush. And by the end of the weekend, an estimated 147 million Americans had been shopping in stores, with 76 million more saying they would track stores and sales throughout the weekend.

But this isn’t just about extending the boundaries of Black Friday. Yes, shopping on Thanksgiving Day became an instant blueprint for 2013. But beyond that, we can now expect to see Christmas Eve shopping that extends straight into Christmas morning, New Year’s Day and Easter to create sales event energy, and more middle of the night madness.

We all know that people will literally trample themselves to death with the lure of a great deal. Is it so hard to believe that on any given holiday the tough will go shopping? Just like Internet pure plays… 2013 will be the year that brick and mortar officially becomes a 24/7 business.

the eight holy s@#t retail trends for 2013

1446204071_03Amazon Will Have Its Carpe Diem Moment: 48 hours free not good enough? $3.99 next day delivery still holding you back? Well get ready for Amazon’s same day delivery which will likely beta bigger in 2013. Hard to believe that Bezos’ behemoth is already taking 10% of all ecomm dollars off the table yet still gets dinged by Wall Street for a paltry $68MM profits on $48B in sales. But Bezos is retail’s true Zen master and Amazon’s investment in Kindle pricing today, and more than a billion dollars of distribution centers in New York, California, Virginia, Indiana and Tennessee – all with state-of-the-art-robotics – will be perhaps their loudest shot across retail’s bow yet. Pick a retailer, any retailer, and imagine what they’ll look like in ten years. Is there anyone you’d pick over Amazon for top dog? I think not.

Appliances and Home Automation Goes Boom: Older Millennials with young, growing families who are considering new homes won’t soon forget their struggles through the recession and will likely be more apt to invest in their current homes than new ones: Enter home upgrades in the form of some fancy new hardware and software: Expect record breaking appliance sales of high-touch, high-tech Whirlpools, Samsungs and LGs – sales strong enough perhaps to drag Sears through a year of a little less red ink thanks to Kenmore – but certainly a boom to Home Depot, Lowes, and h.h.gregg. Also, Time Warner, Comcast, and even Apple – anyone with either a pipeline or a camera in your home will challenge ADT in home security and automation: Suddenly friendlier and more affordable software linked to smartphone aps make it not just possible, but easy.

Xenophobes Beware: While the Devil may wear Prada, he probably bought it at an American retailers like Saks or Bergdorfs. But that about to change because like the automotive category (Toyota, Honda and Nissan), and music (The British Invasion), the American retail landscape is turning international and fast. First you’ve got Japan’s deconstructed playa Uniqlo: Think Gap meets anime, deconstruction meets expansion, and street style fashion that makes other apparel merchants watch and shudder, i.e. a $12B mega brand is focused on quality for the masses. Zarra, perfectly suited to the Millennial attention span with their twice-monthly insertion of new products; Topshop, with their secret spaces and a planogram that’s somewhat derivative of Anthropologie. While Topshop’s Flagship London store offers a nail bar, hair salon and one-hour tailoring, its U.S. stores may eschew much of that and instead deliver “gypsy rocker” designs and designers – Kate, Stella Vine, and others. Once again, value proposition trumps all and “same ‘ole store” for less not remotely as compelling as “fresh and new” and low enough in any language.

Healthier Crappy Food. As fast casual concepts continue to lead the $12B restaurant industry, expect new “healthy eating” concepts to arise like so many fresh avocados. Yes, duplicitous America will continue to at once become more obese and healthy, but while those Americans who crave high fat, hormone rich chicken, or other foods plump with corn syrup or trans fat are amply represented, the other side of the table will now have their day: Look for concepts like Evos or veggie-juice based versions of Jamba Juice to first show up in the fast casual space, but then trickle down to QSR. Gluten-free, organic, and hormone free… these are not fringe terms anymore, and 78 million boomers who want to live forever will exit the treadmill and find themselves craving the good stuff.

Mega Pop-Ups Will Sprout Like Weeds: In 2013, Pop Up retail will venture beyond concepts like Ebay’s social media temp store in London, or the Nintendo demo shop in San Francisco. Instead of these boutique-level brand-centric concepts, look for large scale, multi-unit holiday-based concepts trolling for much more significant dollars. Moreover, with pop-up retailers taking their unfair share of $8B worth of Halloween revenue and big box retailers abandoning their 40k square foot stores as fast as humanly possible, look for “retailtrepreneurs” to start blowing out other heavy shopping occasion opportunities like Back-to-School (ideal for 10,000 square feet from late July though September), or Black Friday, which has clearly burst way beyond the boundaries of a single day. In effect, the “Black Friday store”, online or off, is a locked and loaded winning brand proposition for anyone smart enough to grab and leverage it.

The End Of The “We’re Closed” Sign: While we’re talking Black Friday, mark your calendars because November 22, 2012 (Thanksgiving Day, i.e. Black Thursday) will forever be remembered as the date when brick and mortar retailers realized that every holiday, every day in fact is a shopping occasion, and that an open store can be a profitable store no matter what day or time it is: Within the next two years, there will be no days off at brick and mortars. (Hell, ecommerce and pure plays like Amazon never close, why should the mall?)

On Thanksgiving night, Walmart, Target, Sears, hh.gregg and major malls from Opry Mills in Nashville (shuttered 24 months ago but on Thanksgiving night dealing with massive lines at all seven entrances) to Florida’s Sawgrass Mills were just as busy at 1:00AM as they were at 8:00AM as shoppers were clearly galvanized by the chance to grab deals early and beat the Black Friday rush. And by the end of the weekend, an estimated 147 million Americans had been shopping in stores, with 76 million more saying they would track stores and sales throughout the weekend.

But this isn’t just about extending the boundaries of Black Friday. Yes, shopping on Thanksgiving Day became an instant blueprint for 2013. But beyond that, we can now expect to see Christmas Eve shopping that extends straight into Christmas morning, New Year’s Day and Easter to create sales event energy, and more middle of the night madness.

We all know that people will literally trample themselves to death with the lure of a great deal. Is it so hard to believe that on any given holiday the tough will go shopping? Just like Internet pure plays… 2013 will be the year that brick and mortar officially becomes a 24/7 business.

Throwing The Sale Under The Bus: In 2013, the floodgates will open and marketers will do anything and sacrifice everything for consumer data. I mean, why give anyone a deal if you’re not collecting data in return… a rock-solid email, phone, address, for starters. In the same way Jeff Bezos is practically giving away Kindles and tanking on margin all to built his data fortress, more brands will start seeing data not as icing on the sale, but the very purpose of the sale. So to those bean counters who’ve always said that cash today is more valuable than cash tomorrow, today’s lesson is not always: The new math is this: A low margin sale that collects data today is worth the data-leveraged high margin sale tomorrow.

The Merchandise-to-Marketing Apocalypse: Once there was Main Street, if you owned Tony’s Sporting Goods or Nancy’s Salon or Bill’s Pet store, than just having the merchandise was enough. But as commoditization has run amok, more brands are finally understanding that there simply are no more products and services, only the marketing that decommoditizes them. Remember, at one point Walmart was a world-class merchandiser, having practically invented supply chain management and just-in-time inventory. Yet in 2008 they even their 100,000 SKUs for always low prices wasn’t enough. They reinvented their brand and upped their media 70% to $853 million. That’s great merchandising turning into great marketing. Better still, think about Geico. In a category without a pulse, they turned a brilliant online merchandising model into a marketing juggernaut, not just with a killer value proposition (Give us fifteen minutes…) and watershed creative, but with their own 70% increase in media to nearly $500M, which was twice as much as shell-shocked Allstate and State Farm. Geico used its commodity busting merchandising to marketing model the rocket fuel that took them to #2 in a category where only 11% of the customers change carriers, and will surely take over the #1 at some point. The key is that as more brands have become undervalued and scooped by private equity, more cash is available to quickly pursue a killing. So look for 2013 to be the year that more brands in low-interest, under-marketed categories – insurance, hospitals, pharmacies, bicycles stores, tourist destinations – follow-the Geico lead, turn up volume big time on their marketing, and transforming sleepy categories into top of mind hits. All it takes is a gecko and some very deep pockets.

retail’s blood money

There’s something very scary that happens in retail every October. Something more frightening even than Amazon’s impending same day delivery platform. More menacing than the Dollar Store next door, or another dip into the consumer confidence pool.

The scariest thing in retail is an $8 billion holiday that’s as misunderstood as the Frankenstein monster (fire…. gooood). The holiday when the cash flows like blood and the more blood the better.

But this isn’t just about Halloween. It’s about the proverbial Halloween sandwich, as the sales cycles right before and after Halloween stand to be the periods when retailers can truly make a killing.

Halloween on its own is expected to bulge another 9% this year – about $72.81 per ghoul. But more startling is the trend. Christmas participation has remained relatively unchanged in the past seven years, yet during that same period Halloween participation has jumped from 52.5% to 70% mostly on the heels of adults now in the mix.

Driving this adult migration is the fact that Halloween used to be all about spooky… we’re talking the friendly “trick or treat” for which the modifier Happy was invented, i.e. Happy Halloween. Now, two more dimensions of Halloween have attracted more than just kids: Sexy, as in GenX moms and Cougars who have boosted sales of costumes like Bonjour Kitty Cat, Mile High Flight Attendant, and Dominatrix Barbie. No, mom’s not sitting at home by the candy dish any more.

The other new driver is Scary. Not jump out “boo” scary, but the truly ghoulish images found in today’s Halloween decorations echoing off the walls of the new slasher/horror culture: Saw, Hostel, Cabin in the Woods, and a million disturbing images freely downloadable from You Tube.

While Party City, and their pop-up alter ego Halloween City remain the strongest players in the field, offering the best value proposition in the category, as Natalie Zmuda reports in Ad Age, Halloween retailers are stilling leaving dollars on the table by not putting the holiday on the ad calendar.

Perhaps, but there’s a much larger insight that retailers are missing here.

Target and Walmart take about 40% off all Halloween dollars off the table. Another 25% goes to the full-time party stores and costume outlets. Take the candy out of the mix since relatively impossible to compete with the big boxes, and that still leaves about $2.5 billion of total Halloween dollars that are flowing through – wait for it… pop-up retailers like more than 300 Halloween City stores, about 1,000 Spirit Halloweens, 700 Halloween USAs, and assorted others.

The real question then is not whether full-time retailers are missing the Halloween opportunity, it’s why aren’t more retailers leveraging pop-up retail for quick in-and-out cash to be made during Back-To-School, or Black Friday for instance. $68 billion in Back-To-School cash is 8X more lucrative than Halloween. So where’s the entrepreneur who pops up in July and makes a killing through Labor Day? 10,000 square feet marketed as the Back-To-School Store, perhaps even co-opting the Halloween pop-up space for an extra two months as a lease ad on. A stripped down, deconstructed space with plain 54’ gondolas and walls filled with commodities sold on the cheap. Maybe the pop-up Halloween retailers – who already have the importing engine and the space come September – should just take the space two months earlier and make it happen themselves.

Same with Black Friday, which is not even close to being a single day event anymore. Target was marketing Black Friday as early as September. Other retailers extended Black Friday sales events into December. Fact is Black Friday, including Cyber Monday is a brand name with real juice. And a Black Friday pop-up store that opens on the heels of Halloween and stays open straight through the real busiest shopping day of the year – the last Saturday before Christmas Day – has the built in promise of event-level low pricing and the potential for genuine shopper frenzy.

Pop-up retail has certainly evolved, from eBay’s pop up store in west end London to the much discussed Puma shipping container, but the real opportunity is not out-of-the-blue upper crust retailer going temporary, it’s shopping events being leveraged for the kind of quick gains you’ll find in parking lot-trepreneurs who move Christmas trees.

Retailers needn’t look further than the period before Halloween and the period after to see the opportunity. And just like retailers cashing in on Halloween, they have the chance to make a bloody fortune.

good better best goes bad

Showrooming-1Before Amazon, before the big box, before the mall and even before main street USA, America’s sales engine was defined by the traveling salesmen… the walking talking vaudeville acts that sold Fuller brushes or Electrolux vacuums door to door. It was an era when selling was an art form, and nobody sold the blouse without also moving the matching scarf, or convinced a shopper that they couldn’t possibly buy the couch without popping for the lamp, or up-sold the leather interior in the new sedan, from the good to the better and sometimes the best.

Sadly… nobody can sell anymore.

It’s incredible, because in spite of the overhyped showrooming monster, shoppers continue to spend their oh-so-precious time scoping out products in retail stores. (Note to retailers: They’re in your store… SELL THEM SOMETHING!) So begins the mano-a-mano death match between the stores’ sales associates and consumers’ smart phones (or even home-based computer), all able, in theory, to close a great deal. Yet, in a consumer electronics environment, for example, the sales associate has a floor full of sexy and shiny merchandise, 3D demos, surround sound, a comprehensive tactical and sensory experience, a manager-riding shotgun, and the consumer’s time already vested in the process.

How does the smartphone (or computer) compete with all that? With a lower price option. Period. That’s it. (Convenience is off the table as the buyer is already in the store.)

Is this really a contest? Shouldn’t the brick and mortar win every time, hands down, beyond a shadow of a doubt? Doesn’t human connection > wireless connection? With a better-trained sales associate, wise in the ways of good, better best bringing all the intangibles of trust and human connections to the conversation, shouldn’t the products and store’s benefits negate the marginal savings from the Amazons of the world? Shouldn’t the sales associate actually… well, you know, sell?

This isn’t just the top line strategy against the web, but also versus the close-out guy up the street, with his zero service, zero after sales support, scorched earth pricing, and not a clue or desire on how to up-sell a better product with higher margins or how to leverage good better best.

Sadly, nobody can sell anymore.

So what happens when brands forget how to sell? When they stop investing in training? When they kill their margins to buy the quick sale? When they run ads that lead with price that an internet pure play will undermine within hours? Or run different ads that eschew positioning basics in lieu of obtuse humor, a vague promise or low pricing as lead horse? When they retrench their focus solely on existing customers, milking the same cow to exhaustion to reverse negative comps, literally wiping the words “what could be” from their lexicon? When they forget about good better best?

They start looking an awful like Pennys, or Sears, or Quiznos, and hundreds more. It’s not too late for these brands, but it sure is dusk and they had better turnaround and walk back into the sunlight with the confidence to sell and add value, not just slink into price-slashed blackness.

A large part of the problem is that marketers continue to overreact to the shoppers’ monolog, which is all about price. Consumers tell you that they want to save a few bucks on a TV. That they want to spend less for a new dress, their first SUV, the next come-to-me smart phone. They will always tout low price as their driver. But aren’t these the same people who pay three bucks for coffee when it’s free at the office? Or put four-figure rims on their car at the cost of a needed home repair? Or spend 5% of their paycheck at Victoria Secret and 10% of their yearly income on state-of-the-art Nike golf clubs that in the most perfect of worlds might offer a micron of improvement if not nullified by the six pack knocked back on the front nine?

Retailers must remember that shoppers were, are, and will always be far more satisfied with virtues of quality products that last longer and run better, the up sold better or best option. Recession hangover or not, it’s just a matter of time when people no longer feel the pin prick of having written a nominally bigger check and stop thinking… “I should have spent a little more on the one I really wanted…” It’s about opting for the products that eliminate buyer remorse, delivered through a sales experience that builds deeper relationships that a million and one digital devices, live chats windows, and warehouse sales can’t humanize. Because if, as renowned strategist Alex Hitchen’s reminds us… “60% of communication is non verbal and 30% is your tone”, then digital platforms and pipe racks don’t stand a chance against a well-trained sales associates: Someone who understands good better best, and isn’t afraid to use it.

Two-thirds of shoppers chose the middle price in a good better best scenario, not the lowest option. So retailers gotta butch up. Forget about what consumers say and focus on how they might likely behave if prompted, if sold. At the same time, advertising agencies that insist that they’re in the behavior modification business might want to actually start doing just that.

Instead of making this a race to the bottom, make it an opportunity to pull to the top. You’ll find out pretty quickly that the best is yet to come.

If you build it, they will cuddle

Every bear hits a retail trifecta: Love, Imagination, and DNA.

Howard Schultz didn’t open coffee bars. He envisioned the 3rd place. Apple’s retail lead Ron Johnson didn’t want you being educated by experts, so he hired geniuses. Warren Buffett’s team didn’t want you driving to insurance agents, so they opened a portal online and de-commoditized the industry. And Build-A-Bear didn’t think furry friends should be shelved in a store, so they built workshops.

Such is the soul jogging, experiential-based genius of people like Build-A-Bear’s founder Maxine Clark. It’s not just what leaders like Clark, Johnson, Buffett and Shultz create; it’s what they avoid. Like the ordinary and expected, no matter how tightly operated.

In Build-A-Bear’s case, never has one retailer channeled Mary Shelly so well in creating a store where parents may hand over the money, but it’s children who give something far more important. But hold that thought.

From Stu Leonard’s to The Container Store, stunning case studies in the ROI of in-store consumer engagement abound, and yet most retailers take the concept of “brand experience” to mean pumping up the techno, turning down the mood lighting, fragrancing (Abercrombie’s Fierce run amok), and cheerily reminding patrons that they can receive 15% off if they sign up for a plastic key fob in the name of rewards enrollment.

Build-A-Bear’s management knows better. Much better. And so they created a place where furriness is next to godliness, and children literally bring to life the friend of their dreams. And a lifelong friend at that.

Somewhat contrary to Joseph Pine’s contention that Clark drew her inspiration from his 1998 HBR article about the experience economy, it was really one of Maxine’s early mentors, May Company CEO Stanley Goodman who 27 years earlier taught her that (paraphrasing) all business is theater, and every company a stage. (Which gives me an idea for my next book: Shakespeare on Retailing).

And so what Maxine couldn’t truly engineer at Payless and JC Penney, she literally brought to life in St. Louis in 1997. And yes, Pine’s Experience Economy is firmly on display, right along with Blue Ocean Strategy (from the book of the same name) whether intended or not.

To the degree people are inspired not just by process, but ideas, Build-A-Bear integrates the best of both: The “Choose Me” station, where guests pick their new fluffy friend, is where the process both starts and summarily ends any similarity to other child-friendly retail environments: Over the course of the next seven stages the child imbues their bear (or monkey or dog or other furry friend) with a peerless retail trifecta: Love, imagination, and their very own DNA. To a child, each stage in the store is epic as well it should be: How many times in our lives will we get to play part Wizard of Oz, part Victor Frankenstein and part master of the divine, especially when we’re at our most impressionable?

Although Build-A-Bear faces the same economic challenges as most retailers, you’ve got to be bullish on the Bear. If 90% of all American girls have owned at least one Barbie doll, how can Build-A-Bear not have similar rite-of-passage status? This isn’t Ice-Capades gotta do it once material…. with 11,000 births in the US alone every day, 40 million birthdays every year for children ten and under, and a customer base of 3-103, this retailer’s upside remains pretty impressive.

When it comes to triple net initiatives – making the world a better place, Build-A-Bear is loaded for… well, you know: They’re gearing up for Stop Cyber Bullying month, encouraging donations for Marine Toys for Tots, and are partnering with teen sensation Cody Simpson to act as a brand ambassador with his first charge being to help empower youths to “give back.”

What’s next for this 25 year old, 350-store/den, $400MM retail inspiration? Well, aside from its online community (2.3MM Facebook friends and rapidly climbing), line extensions, ecards, online games, and a robust birthday business, the next step is the logical one from an ops perspective: According to its hometown journal the St. Louis Post- Dispatch, Build-A-Bear is about to unveil is first completely overhauled store concept which “transforms the bear-making process into a more high-tech and sensory experience targeting youth who grew up with iPads”.

But here’s the question: Even as the ‘if it ain’t broke fix it anyway” management philosophy works wonders, are more 4th screens and other upgrades the key to reaching today’s ten-year-old girl? And are ten-year-old girls the ideal answer?

Perhaps, but right now, given less-than-perfect mall locations, lagging employment, a still depressed discretionary spend on non-essentials, share gain is about wicked smart marketing akin to grand larceny: Stealing plush toy share, of course, but also stealing the oh-so-precious minutes mom can afford to spend on a single-item shopping excursion; stealing a spark of single dad’s awareness as to the magnificent bonding platform these products provide; stealing a page in the newborn’s photo album because what Build-A-Bear gives it gives to parents, not just ten-year old girls: stealing the emotion that trumps just about every other store in the mall. Stealing the title of world’s #1 destination brand. There’s a lot of giving in stealing.

As Chief Executive Bear Clark brings technology to her delivery vehicles, the key will be to remember, as she has said herself that to “engage and retain retail customers today is not much different than when (she) was a child.” (As vibrant and energetic as Maxine Clark appears, doubtful a lot of smart phones and iPads were part of those formative years back in Coral Gables, Florida.)

In the future, in addition to Clark the entire organization should remember that the best part of their workshops is the software, and that information enters through the heart.  Because when marketers talk of targets and sweet spots, what a parent gives a child and a child gives themselves at Build-A-Bear is about an emotional connection that will always transcend technology. Surely the sweetest spot of all.

The word “friend” is now most often associated with the bits on your screen that constitute an Instagram photo or a Facebook connection. Yet the bear your child creates at a Build-A-Bear Workshop is far more real, far more sensory, and perhaps the one friend your child never forgets, made even more memorable by their very participation in its existence. The products sold at Build-A-Bear are far greater than the sum of their parts, rich with intangible benefits like soul. Just like the great marketers behind them.

Nowhere to hide: Bounties on your data, your privacy, your soul.

We’re only 24 months away. That’s it. 730 more days until greater than 50% of all our purchases will be digital, mobile, san cash, sans secrets.

Google’s search analytics are already in the tell tale business, alerting retailers as to what you’re shopping for, while at the same time your phone’s GPS is telling retailers where and when you’re actually doing the shopping. Now, with Google Wallet, retailers will also be able to link that data with actual purchases, which, coupled with Google’s new Insight’s crowdsourcing engine, will deliver back to advertisers data on what you’ve purchased relative to your search, your product satisfaction, loyalty, and net promoter score, all with whipped cream and a cherry on top.

It’s the end of privacy, bit by binary bit.

Along with the steady explosion of big data hunting, the most recent sign that the privacy apocalypse was upon us was when The New York Times reported in February that Target knew a teenage girl was pregnant before her parents did. No, it wasn’t just that she enrolled in the baby registry: Target statistician Andrew Pole pieced together purchasing clues based on historical data from Target card spending: Turns out a sudden purchase cocktail of unscented lotion, cotton balls, hand sanitizer, calcium, magnesium and zinc can only mean one thing.

Of course, if you want to opt out and keep your behavior to yourself, simply turn in your smartphone and credit card and fondly recall the moment when, 100 years ago, great Scot Alexander Graham Bell invented the land line and for a brief moment in time we really did believe things were going to be private. (Can you hear me now, Watson?)

But since you’ll unlikely be able to extricate yourself from Google’s tangled web any time soon, perhaps you may want to invest in transparency’s short sale as you’re about to be enticed by a dazzling new array of reward points, cash and other privacy busters. (Caveat f’n Emptor).

That’s right, it’s the great American opt-in party – come one and all because some serious marketers are ready to play data bounty.

Here’s how it works. Want to receive a multitude of valuable coupons? Just join the consumer panel sponsored by consumer analytics firm Locately who will promptly bargain away your every spec of your purchasing patterns. Go forth and shop… their geo fencing software’s got you covered.

Looking for a deeply discounted phone bill? There’s an app for that… just scan and send in your shopping receipts: The ProOnGo software will convert the image files into to structured data and it’ll be sold to marketers all day long.

Of course, not only are we not opting out of privacy busting technology, or eschewing the Pandora’s box of privacy bounties for personal shopping data, we are now a generation of public proclaimers, sharing all our preferences and private moments via facebook, foursquare, Instagram, Pinterest, Vine… you name it. Never have some many shared so much for the promise of so little attention. (“Like” for a mention in my next post)

In case you’re the true outlier, not given to carrying a smartphone, having a facebook page, using Google products and paying with cash, look for the onslaught of scary services like fieldagent.net that use crowdsourcing to document and report your behavior whether you like it or not. Don’t be naïve; Crowdsourcing radars are scary specific.

While a transparent society of consumerism by any other name would still smell dystopian, we need to imagine, in fact to make sure that the pendulum swings back in our favor: No, I’m not referring to a new way to protect our privacy in the future, or even protect us from ourselves. That ship has sailed and we’re the wind is beneath its wings. Rather, let’s hope the curtain of corporate privacy steadily falls as well, so that more consumer generated software and expanded media tools reveal, with an unblinking lens, the true benefits and drawbacks of the products retailers pimp and the services they hustle.

In the end, if we’re going to be such cheap dates when it comes to selling our data souls, how about a little less giveth and a little more taketh away. Or like great poker players, a little more unpredictability when we bet on brands, a little more mystery in our behavior.

We’ll never be off the radar, but we can certainly hide in plain sight.

the naked bun

I first saw livestock slaughtered at the movies. It was the crescendo of Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: An ox was virtually halved by a machete in a tribal rite that seared an image in my mind that I’ve never been able to shake.

When the movie was over, a bunch of us grabbed some burgers and fries and talked about Coppola’s brilliant use of music and light and the futility of war. Talk about an ethics lesson.

Truth is, just because you chow down on sirloin doesn’t mean you support the cruel or inhumane treatment of animals. Whether it’s Coppola’s unfortunate art, meatpacking as chronicled in Schlosser’s best selling Fast Food Nation, or YouTube videos featuring vicious displays of animal cruelty, the very fact that this exposure exists at all reminds us that when it comes to barbarianism on display, we’re all carnivores.

But if this is truly a debate about whether it’s ethical to kill a cow for a cheeseburger, then the real question is whether it’s ethical to destroy anything when it’s not needed for survival. A sockeye salmon, suffocating in a gillnet after being plucked from its Bristol Bay spawning ground – later to be served on a cedar plank at Freddy’s Fish Shack – certainly “suffers” more than a cow executed by bolt pistol. And if survival is the rub, the cedar tree should be spared as well lest the environment suffer. (I shall never see a BLT as lovely as a tree).

A world of scared cows means no buttons (from cow horns), nothing to extinguish fires (hooves are used for fire fighting foam), less cardiac care (some heart patients benefit from pig valves) and plenty more. And the beef from a single steer equals 720 quarter-pound hamburgers, enough for a family of 4 to enjoy burgers each day for nearly 6 months. For some populations in this world, how ethical is starving to death instead?

The real absurdity of discussing ethics and red meat is the implication that 95% of the U.S. population, for instance – those 296 million Americans who are not vegetarians, don’t have any ethics in the first place. As if not feeling guilty about cutting into a slab of filet mignon or gnawing on a rack of baby back ribs means we’re all dishonorable, perhaps victims of mass hypnosis. Are we really all that twisted? What happened to the wisdom of crowds?

Finally, consider that there is not a nutritionist worth their salt who doesn’t first and foremost prescribe to the concept of a “balanced” diet. Nor is there an economist who is ready to bid adieu to the $74 billion cattle industry, a rancher who is proud of pink slime, or a psychologist who recommends strict deprivation instead of moderation. This is about understanding that red meat is but one food we consume, not a defining act or our only choice. Devouring a pastrami sandwich doesn’t preclude us from enjoying steamed broccoli or sharing butternut squash. Munching on the occasional strip of bacon doesn’t mean we stand up for the rights of nitrates everywhere.

By all means, serve some quinoa with your meatballs. Support the ASPCA and (at the least the left wing of) PETA. No animal should suffer an inhumane fate, be pumped with hormones or raised in conditions that don’t hold up to scrutiny, let alone sautéed in anything less than real butter. But don’t lose any sleep over the occasional pot roast. It’s no more unethical than eating just about anything. And besides, a baseball game without a hot-dog… now that’s unethical.