Sticker Shock

couponsPrice wars have gotten the best of the consumer packaged-goods industry, reports Serena Ng in The Wall Street Journal (4/4/14). "For decades, Americans’ purchases of basics like laundry soap and toothpaste roughly kept pace with the rate of growth in the overall economy … For the past three years running, unit sales of consumer products have been largely flat, according to market research firm Nielsen." Some of this is attributed to changing habits, and some to "a blitz of deals and coupons."

"People are eating less cereal and drinking less soda," for example. "Razorblade sales are down as many men shave less or grow beards. Pre-measured laundry soap capsules and high-efficiency machines require people to use less detergent. And more people are choosing freshly prepared food over packaged fare." Meanwhile, in categories including "soda, toilet paper and potato chips, more than 50% of consumers’ purchases include discounts, said Gary Stibel of New England Consulting Group."

Bill Schmitz, a Deutsche Bank analyst, comments: "When we see some of the promotional pricing out there, it’s pretty clear someone has lost their mind." P&G, Henkel, Georgia-Pacific and Colgate-Palmolive declined to comment, but Church & Dwight CEO Jim Craigie said this: "Price wars don’t help growth and are not good for the industry … They are the easiest things to start and the hardest to finish." Nielsen’s Doug Bennett notes that discounts can motivate product trial, but also train shoppers simply to wait for a better deal.

April 9, 2014   Comments

Story Science

When you hear a good story, your brain aligns with the brain of the storyteller, reports Alison Gopnik in The Wall Street Journal (4/5/14). Uri Hasson, a Princeton neuroscientist, is using brain-imaging technology to “measure the relationship between the pattern in one person’s brain and the pattern in another’s.” He and his team “have been especially interested in how brains respond to stories.” They have found that different people’s brains respond in the same way to certain stories.

What’s more, the story listener’s brain also matches that of the storyteller. “The more tightly coupled the brains became, the more the listener said that he understood the story. This coupling effect disappeared if you scrambled the sentences in the story. Something about the literary coherence of the tale seemed to do the work.” These “results suggest that we lowly humans are actually as good at mind-melding as the Vulcans or the Borg. We just do it with stories.”

Uri’s work is part of a growing trend, as “the conversation between literature and science is becoming more sophisticated and interesting.” He was among other scientists and scholars presenting at a Stanford University workshop, in March. Other discussions centered on “why reading Harlequin romances may make you more empathetic, about how 10-year-olds create the fantastic fictional worlds called ‘paracosms‘ and about the subtle psychological inferences in the great Chinese novel, The Story of the Stone.”

April 8, 2014   Comments

So, Like, Yeah

speech bubbleWhat might seem like a coarsening of “casual American speech” is actually quite the opposite, writes John McWhorter in The New York Times (4/6/14). The verbal tick ‘like,’ for instance, is associated “with ingrained hesitation, a fear of venturing a definite statement,” writes John, “Yet the hesitation can be seen less as a matter of confidence than one of consideration.” It “softens the blow” of potentially unwelcome news “by offering one’s suggestion discreetly swathed in a garb of hypothetical-ness.”

So, using ‘like’ is like, sloppy, “only because youth and novelty always have a way of seeming sloppy.” Using ‘totally’ “mines the same vein,” John writes. “‘He’s totally going to call you’ contains an implication: that someone has said otherwise, or that the chances of it may seem slim at first glance but in fact aren’t. As with ‘like,’ ‘totally’ tracks and nods to the opinions of others. It’s totally civilized.” Similarly, ‘lol’ “creates a comfort zone by calling attention to sentiments held in common.”

The shorthand construct ‘because X,’ (e.g., because science), “recently celebrated by the American Dialect Society as the word of 2013 is just more of the same” — it’s “another new way to say, ‘we’re all in this together.’” Meanwhile, sensibilities about profanity have shifted from traditional barnyard and religious epithets to taboos on words that degrade certain types of people (e.g, the ‘N’ word). This is progress, John writes, because a “keystone of education is to foster awareness of, and respect for, diversities of opinion.”

April 8, 2014   1 Comment


The latest fashion trend may not be a trend, or even fashion, reports Alex Williams in The New York Times (4/3/14). It may just be a meme called normcore, "a supposed style trend where dressing like a tourist — non-ironic sweatshirts, white sneakers and Jerry Seinfeld-like dad jeans — is the ultimate fashion statement." It all apparently started with K-Hole, a "group of theoretically minded brand consultants in their 20s, as part of a recent trend-forecasting report, Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom." (link)

This was not a report prepared for presentation to a client or an industry confab, but rather "as a work of conceptual art produced for a London gallery." The premise "is that young alternative types had devoted so much energy to trying to define themselves as individuals, through ever-quirkier style flourishes … that they had lost the joy of belonging that comes with being part of a group." So, it’s okay for trendy types "to throw themselves into, without detachment, whatever subcultures or activities they stumbled into, even if they were mainstream."

As such, journalist Christopher Glazek says normcore isn’t a fashion trend. "The point of normcore is that you could dress like a Nascar mascot for a big race and then switch to raver ware for a long druggie night at the club." Nonetheless, New York magazine published a "splashy trend story" on normcore, and "online, the normcore-spotting of celebrities … became sport." Car and Driver, meanwhile, has published "The 5 Most Normcore Automobiles (they selected five Toyota Camrys)."

April 7, 2014   Comments

Saks Fashions

gucci sneakerThe new Saks Fifth Avenue president has decided that customers aren’t interested in bland apparel anymore, reports Christina Binkley in The Wall Street Journal (4/3/14). "Our customers already have everything they really truly need," says Marigay McKee, Saks’s new president. "We really have to offer rarer, more unique things." She is scaling back "safer, more ‘commercial’ styles" in favor of "runway clothing and accessories" from "leading labels."

She is also adding "more emerging designers — a group whose inexperience and often-shaky finances scare off many retailers," and ordered the retailer’s "financial planners to relax their budgeting systems in the field," and trust them to trust their instincts. "What I was telling them, is we have to buy from the gut," she says. Saks fashion director Colleen Sherin adds: "Pieces that were once icing on the cake really need to be the core of the buy." This can mean "prices rising to more than $20,000 for some coats and dresses."

Even the sneakers "range in price from $300 to $1,000 or more." (link) "The colors are aggressive and the prices are aggressive," says Eric Jennings, fashion director for men’s. "There is zero price resistance." After the 2008 economic collapse, Saks was among the first to slash prices — "by as much as 80% within a few weeks." Shoppers learned to wait for deals, and eventually, its "discount-based strategy left it posting quarterly losses on relatively flat sales. Meanwhile, rival Neiman Marcus, focused on top-tier luxury, saw its sales and profits grow."

April 7, 2014   Comments

Creativity Quantified

david schwarzDesign seeks a truth that cuts to the center of the heart and mind. By David Schwarz. The word ‘responsibility’ is laden with meaning. On the one hand, it triggers notions of environmentalism, sustainability, do-gooder-ness, recycling and hybrid cars, or the twinge of guilt when you throw out a plastic bottle. Then there’s the idea of corporate responsibility — related, perhaps, to the ‘green’ version of the term — but conjuring images of dimly lit, greed-infested boardrooms. Then there’s personal responsibility — that weighty thud you hear the minute you become a parent, a business owner, an advocate or a defender.

What I’m writing about, however, is the broad idea of creative responsibility, which is certainly a less-discussed topic, but one that’s important to brands and marketers. We’re all engaged in a daily wrestling match with creativity. In this struggle — often quite outwardly visible — the pitfalls are many and the slippery slopes multi-faceted. Creative responsibility results in that intangible metric. It is much harder to measure than the quantity of Warby Parker one-for-one donations, or miles-per-gallon of the newest hybrid car. However, brands owe creativity to their audience because it establishes authenticity, and in today’s world, authenticity is the only road to longevity. continue

April 7, 2014   Comments

Laurie Colwin

She’s been dead since 1992, but Laurie Colwin continues to inspire cult-like followers of her legendary cookbooks, reports Jeff Gordinier in The New York Times (4/2/14). "She’s like the anti-Martha Stewart," says food editor Ruth Reichl. "It’s not about perfection." In fact, it’s not even really about the food. "It was food as a way of gathering people together." Her apartment was tiny and her style improvisational, "dashing out at the last minute to find some flowers, watercress, a chicken."

Laurie’s cooking was "simple, unstylish grub like boiled beef, lentil soup and potato salad." As one fan puts it: "You can’t be a snob when you’re cooking on a hot plate." Her "culinary philosophy" was "born of necessity, since her fridge was the size of a suitcase and her stove had four small burners and a balky oven — and the oven was mainly used for storage." However, she also "prefigured a lot of what the food world is obsessed with now: organic eggs, broccoli rabe, beets and homemade bread, yogurt and jam."

As a writer — her specialty was short stories — the way she shared recipes also foreshadowed blogging. Her recipes are "more like an eccentric form of autobiography." "She was a great cook, but the fiascoes were kind of fabulous," recalls Juris Jurjevics, her husband. "She cooked haggis once that was like the advertisement for ‘Alien,’ with the cracked egg." Laurie died suddenly, of a heart attack, at 48, but her books, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, live on.

April 4, 2014   Comments

The Strypes

strypesThe youngest member of the hottest new boy band is 16 and loves Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Muddy Waters, reports Jim Fusilli in The Wall Street Journal (4/2/14). The band is The Strypes, they’re from Ireland and specialize in "the kind of raved-up blues, R&B and rock that’s akin to what inspired the Animals, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and other British bands of the 1960s." Whether live or on record, The Strypes "perform with a thrilling blend of ferocity and technical prowess."

"I would’ve known who Chuck Berry was at about age 5," says Evan Walsh, 17, the drummer, who began thumpin’ them pagan skins at 3. The bandmates connected through their parents, who had played in bands together. "Evan’s parents had a great record collection," says guitarist Josh McClorey, at 18 the band’s elder statesman. "We learned the blues through the ’60s groups, and then we’d find out that it was a Howlin’ Wolf song, or Muddy Waters." The band’s debut album, Snapshot, includes two Bo Diddley covers.

Even without parental guidance, Josh says it’s not hard to go to school on the old school. "We have YouTube, Spotify — we have the Internet. We can look it up in an instant. You can learn the history of a band in a day." He adds: "People have this weird hang-up that rock ‘n’ roll is dead. But it’s still relevant." The Strypes just completed their first US tour, including appearances on Conan and Letterman, and at South by Southwest. They will likely return to America later this year, touring Ireland and Western Europe in the meantime.

April 4, 2014   Comments

Christianity & Capitalism

In How The West Was Won, Rodney Stark argues that Christianity was the driving force behind capitalism, reports Henrik Bering in The Wall Street Journal (3/31/14). In fact, Rodney, a Baylor University professor of social sciences, "details how and why the vital aspects of modernity — defined here as a combination of sensible economic arrangements, political freedoms and scientific knowledge — developed in the West rather than elsewhere."

Other great empires, he asserts, were dominated by greedy leaders, "who thwarted their subjects’ motivation to produce with confiscatory taxes and lawless seizure." Their courts banned inventions like the printing press and mechanical clocks as threats, for instance. By comparison, medieval Europe readily adopted "new technologies such as gunpowder, the blast furnace, watermills and windmills." Rodney attributes the difference to cultural values, specifically Christianity’s "emphasis on reason and free will."

"The most fundamental key to the rise of the western civilization, has been the dedication of its most brilliant minds to the pursuit of knowledge," Rodney writes. He cites "the teachings of St. Benedict, who branded idleness bad for the soul" as helping "nudge monastic estates toward an early form of capitalism." He sees Britain’s and America’s leadership in the Industrial Revolution as a function of "the right mix of freedom, property and an educated population … originating in religious belief and practice."

April 3, 2014   1 Comment

Cookie Dough

girl scout cookiesOlivia Cranshaw is only 12, but she is a veteran of the art of selling Girl Scout cookies, reports Anne Kadet in The Wall Street Journal (3/29/14). Olivia "has sold more than 1,000 boxes a year since she was 7. Last year, she was the city’s top dealer and this year, she’s ranked No. 2, selling 2,041 boxes." This compares to the average New York City Girl Scout, who sells just 97 boxes (the national average is 150 boxes). Olivia’s sales plan starts early, with an email blast to her database of previous customers.

This initial pitch goes out in December, and in it Olivia writes: "You can’t place orders online (but) since you’re one of my good clients, you can send me an email with what you’d like to order." She follows this with another email in January, writing: "I’m going selling again today with Mommy, but would love your help to get over my 2,000 box goal." Her campaign continues at her parents’ offices — "both work for French insurance giant AXA" — "on a good day, she covers up to five floors."

Olivia says her pitch centers on her top-seller status. She states that people take this as a sign of competence, adding that "if you explain your goal, people will want to help you reach your goal." She also employs a classic close: "This year, five boxes only cost $20. Can I help you pick out your five?" "People smirk because they think it’s cute," she says. Olivia reports that it works 98 percent of the time, and says she intends to sell 2,500 boxes next year.

April 3, 2014   Comments