Walmart: reform Black Friday now

The reports about out-of-control Black Friday shoppers is appalling to read about and watch on YouTube. At a Mesquite, Texas, Walmart, a surging mob nearly crushes a woman to death and destroys a retail display, which evokes the 2008 incident when a Walmart employee was crushed to death by a mob of bargain-hungry Black Friday shoppers in New York. At another Walmart, shoppers tussle over $2 waffle makers, and at a Walmart near Los Angeles, a woman injures 20 people with pepper spray in a violent bid to secure a coveted discounted Xbox game player. It’s only a matter of time before we experience a tragedy akin to the notorious trampling deaths of 11 people at a Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979. And only Walmart can make things right.

As I wrote on my blog yesterday (and back in 2008), Walmart needs to take accountability for the in-store violence. A major first step is respecting the power of the crowd. There’s a reason why crowd psychology is a formal branch of study in the field of social psychology. Crowds create a dynamic – sometimes positive, sometimes negative – that can be as powerful as a surging river rapids. When your local Walmart dangles the promise of 99-cent DVD door busters in front of a surging crowd gathered outside its store, we should not be surprised that a stampede mentality takes hold. And if you’ve been to as many Walmarts as I have on Black Friday, you know how notoriously understaffed its stores are (in an obvious bid to squeeze as much profit out of the day as possible). The formula for disaster is simple: create the conditions for a stampede in an enclosed space and then fail to monitor what happens next. Should we be surprised that these violent outbursts occur?

Jeremiah Owyang shared my post on his Google Plus page and asked, Should companies be liable that potentially chum consumer frenzy? Or should consumers self regulate safety?

Respondents ranged from Eddie Presley, who wrote, “wal-mart may not be super liable, but they are super sue-able. They need to rethink their sale across the board – even to the point of Continue reading

What Black Friday says about us

My November 25 eyewitness Black Friday post suggested that the most famous shopping day of the year is bigger than ever. The official numbers confirm my hunch. According to ShopperTrak, Black Friday 2011 set a new retail sales record. Consumers spent $11.4 billion — the largest Black Friday haul ever and a 6.6 percent increase over 2010 spending levels. So what does Black Friday 2011 say about us? We’re getting increasingly sophisticated with our shopping experience, and we’re bonding socially over Black Friday. Unfortunately, we’re acting ugly, too, with Black Friday shoppers resorting to violence to secure their discounted door buster deals. The Walmarts of the world need to shoulder part of the blame for Black Friday shopper mayhem — and can help put an end to the behavior, too.

Here are four observations about Black Friday based on my four years of reporting:

1. Shopping is part of the American DNA

Black Friday continues to confound many people who don’t understand why Americans are so eager to stand in freezing cold lines and tolerate unpleasant shopping conditions in search of a Continue reading

Black Friday breaks loose

Black Friday has turned a corner. The traditional start of the holiday shopping season has become a cultural phenomenon that spans days, and even weeks. While Black Friday naysayers criticize stores for pushing the opening of the day into Thanksgiving evening, American consumers simply shrug their shoulders, shop, and engage in a ritual that seems to transcend any economic condition. And I don’t see any signs of the Black Friday momentum slowing down.

In past years, I have waken up in the middle of the night, stood in frigid lines with Black Friday shoppers, and studied the shopping phenomenon in places ranging from the Chicago suburbs to a small town in the Wisconsin northwoods. This year, I was already suffering from a serious case of Black Friday fatigue by the time the most famous shopping day of the season arrived on November 25. By then, I had already been inundated with Black Friday promotions from retailers such as Amazon, whose “countdown to Black Friday” sale hit my email in-box on November 13. And you couldn’t do any last-minute Thanksgiving errands at Target without encountering a Black Friday war zone, as Target’s pre-Thanksgiving 4-day sale resulted in aisles saturated with merchandise at door-buster prices. USA Today reported that retailers ranging from Sears to RadioShack were using social media to promote Black Friday deals in a run-up to the day.

For Black Friday 2011, I didn’t even need to wake up in the wee hours to visit Kohl’s and Target for 5:00 a.m. openings. So many stores were open at midnight that I simply hopped in my car and continued my Thanksgiving evening once the dinner and movie-watching festivities at my house had subsided.

Continue reading

How Fair Game creates a social experience for gamers

The challenge is compelling: turn off your TV. Turn on your brain. Those words appear in the front window of Fair Game, a retailer that wants to re-define “interactive gaming” to mean friends and family interacting with each other over table top board games, as opposed to staring at digital screens and killing soldiers in grisly black ops scenarios. And Fair Game is succeeding — not only by selling games that empower people to socialize but also by acting as a social destination for gaming enthusiasts.

Advertised as a place “Where Fun and Family Meet,” Fair Game sells the kind of immersive board games that you can spend hours playing over a long winter’s night: like the popular Settlers of Catan, in which participants compete to build roads, homes, and settlements by trading goods with each other; or Lost Cities, which challenges players to mount expeditions into long-forgotten worlds in places like the Brazilian rain forest. With a game like Conflict of Heroes, you can create the frigid world of the World War II Eastern Front, aided by the power of your own imagination — instead of having a piece of software do all the work for you.

The games jump out at you from brightly colored boxes that form lopsided towers on the shelves of this comfortable, friendly space adorned with comfortable chairs, long tables, and many genres of music ranging from Hawaiian to rock, as programmed from the Pandora channel of owner Josh Stein — whose own childhood experiences are the reason the store exists.

Continue reading

Customer service in the trenches

The holiday shopping season shines a spotlight on lowest-paid, undervalued assets of the customer experience: your front-line brand ambassadors. I’m talking about the clerks, baggage handlers, and waitstaff operating in the trenches of customer service to pour your coffee at Waffle House, process your Blu-ray order at Best Buy, wrap your gift at Nordstrom, or check in your luggage at the airport as you head out to a family holiday soiree. The front-line staff can make or break your brand. They create critical first impressions. Their judgment calls can create either a ho-hum dinner or a memorable night out. And their personal styles can make your brand more human and approachable. Two recent examples:

  • One of the pleasures of shopping at the Oakbrook, Illinois, Barnes & Noble is chatting with Dave, who works in the media department. Dave does not simply process customer purchases or point you to the Sci/Fi Blu-ray section. If you spend more than 30 seconds talking with him, you’ll learn that Dave is a passionate film buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly every movie ever made. Just last night he and I explored Barnes & Noble’s Criterion Collection film collection. Dave critiqued some of the more unexpected choices in the Criterion catalog. Why, for instance, did Criterion choose to feature Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy over Clerks? The question sparked a discussion about Kevin Smith’s career and one of our usual enjoyable exchanges about movies. Dave makes Barnes & Noble a more personal experience.
  • Recently my family and I toted four pieces of luggage to the United Airlines baggage roadside check-in at O’Hare Airlines en route to a weeklong vacation at Disney World. The baggage handler who processed our luggage reminded us that United charges $25 per checked bag. He pointed to one of our bags, which was lightly packed. “You sure you don’t want to carry that bag onboard?” he asked. “It’s pretty lightly packed. You can save yourself $25 if you take it with you.” He was right: in our haste to prepare for our vacation, we had not packed as efficiently as we could have. His taking the initiative saved us money (and got him a bigger tip, by the way).

A couple of take-aways:

  • The baggage handler’s actions cost United $25 in the short term. But he was obviously not thinking in terms of a one-time transaction — he just wanted to make our lives easier. In doing so, that baggage handler created a longer-term favorable impression that is good for United’s business.
  • I don’t think you can train people like Dave or that baggage handler to be the kind of people they are. Dave and my United baggage handler are the kinds of employees who make the customer experience better simply by injecting their own passion (Dave’s for film and the baggage handler’s for helping others) into their jobs.

Do you hire for passion?

From Eminem to Warhol: creating art out of vinyl

Daniel Edlen makes art out of vinyl LPs. Yup, I’m talking about the shiny black LPs that defined how we experienced music in the pre-digital era, which have become in vogue again more than 60 years after vinyl was introduced. Daniel’s business, Vinyl Art, offers stunning images of iconic musicians via portraits hand painted with white acrylic on vinyl.

His website offers a compelling challenge: “Gone digital? Get back to what you lost” by exploring the tactile world of vinyl as experienced through Daniel’s portraits of musicians ranging from Eminem to Elvis. For $350, you can bring Johnny Cash’s brooding face or Aretha Franklin’s soulful gaze to your home — or have a piece of your own commissioned.

By celebrating the joy of the physical musical experience in a digital world, Vinyl Art is succeeding. His work has been exhibited in locations such as the VH1 Corporate Gallery, commissioned by the David Lynch Foundation, and owned by the likes of Lou Reed.

According to Electric Moustache, “Vinyl Art is badass,” and I agree. I recently interviewed Daniel to find out more about Vinyl Art — what inspires him to do what he does and how he uses digital to build his business. He also discusses a brand new Andy Warhol triptych he created to celebrate Warhol’s iconic album designs for The Velvet Underground & Nico, Sticky Fingers, and John Lennon’s Menlove Ave. In the interview, Daniel shares not only a passion for music and art but for giving, as well. To view more Vinyl Art, check out a free eBook of his work here.

Why vinyl art? What inspires you to do what you do?

Giving inspires me. Not giving to get but giving to contribute. I like the question “Are you a miner or a farmer?” Miners take and don’t give back. Farmers take but then replenish, remix, restore. Throughout my earlier years I took from culture, incorporating sights and sounds into who I am today. The opportunity to create my Vinyl Art is an opportunity to give back to our culture in my way. Continue reading

A slice of hip hop: “Imma Beast” by Prince Mick

“Imma Beast” by 22-year-old Prince Mick is raw and powerful, as is the video featured here. The gritty groove, built on top of a driving drumbeat, captures the feel of the stark, bleak Chicago cityscape captured in the video. Prince Mick raps with conviction and hell-bent fury. And no wonder: that’s his neck you see with a bullet hole in it during the opening scenes of the video.

The song is a compelling statement of purpose from someone whose life has changed. “Music is my new hustle,” he raps — and nothing will stop him, not even bullets.

Prince Mick cites inspiration both profane and spiritual for this song and video.

“My change in life inspired me to do that video,” he wrote to me. “I shot that video in my hometown Chicago. I just went to all of my old neighborhoods because it brings back so many memories. I have a story for each location I shot my scenes at. I’m inspired by God and His worship, I’m inspired by 2Pac, Da Brat, and pretty much Music and its legends.”

Prince Mick

Prince Mick, who is based in Chicago, shared “Imma Best” on Global 14 — a social community run by Jermaine Dupri and a hotbed of hip hop. Check out Global 14 and follow Prince Mick on Twitter @princemick1.