Walmart Promotes a Kinder Black Friday – and a Possible Future for Retail

After treating Black Friday like a cattle round-up for years, Walmart is finally injecting a little humanity into the year’s worst shopping tradition. On November 8, the retailer announced measures intended to make Black Friday shopping just a bit more pleasant:

  • Walmart is serving four million cups of complimentary coffee (courtesy of Keurig) and a few million free Christmas cookies from the Walmart Bakery.
  • Walmart will make it easier for shoppers to find top deals in-store via the Walmart app.
  • Check Out with Me store associates stationed throughout the stores and equipped with mobile check-out devices will make it possible for shoppers to purchase items on the spot, thus avoiding long lines.

These changes are long overdue. But why aren’t more retailers improving the Black Friday experience? For years, as part of my first-hand research into Black Friday, I’ve stood in long lines with shoppers in the cold pre-dawn of this massive shopping day. I have waited Continue reading

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

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

Build your brand with your Twitter profile

Most executives on Twitter rely on boring personal profiles that say little about them beyond their titles. And yet your Twitter profile is an opportunity to build your personal brand and humanize your company (even if your account is personal).  Here are three executives who get it right:

1. Clark Kokich

The first few words of Clark’s profile are predictable and necessary – he’s the chairman of Razorfish (where I was once CMO) and director for three different companies. But then Clark drops something different on you: in addition to being a proud dad, he’s a mediocre husband, bad guitarist, and aging Baby Boomer.

Clark (who I know personally) scores points for showing a sense of humor about himself. How many senior executives to do you know who use the words “mediocre husband” and “aging Baby Boomer” in their personal profiles? His profile says, “I’m comfortable enough in my position to exercise some humility and have a little fun.”

2. Rachel Pasqua

Rachel’s profile is short but intriguing.

Like Clark, she starts with the professional – vice president of mobile for my current employer iCrossing. Then she adds something direct (twin mommy) and interesting (“Repairer of the Irreparable.”).

And notice Rachel’s graphic. Technically she departs from a social media best practice by not using a personal picture as Clark does. But her use of the Emily the Strange graphic, along with the cryptic “Repairer of the Irreparable,” piques your curiosity.

I want to ask Rachel what Emily the Strange means to her – is the character a personal inspiration? Maybe she likes the clothing line? Or both? She gives you a clue that she’s a “get it done” type – professionally and personally (you probably have to be if you are VP of mobile and a mother of twins).

Because I work with Rachel (she’s an excellent mobile marketing thought leader), I’m sure I will ask her.

3. Brian Dunn

You have to cut the CEO of Best Buy some slack.

CEOs – especially those who run giant publicly traded companies – have their words and actions watched so closely by investors, employees, lawyers, and business partners that it’s tempting for them to avoid social media completely. (A topic Forrester Research CEO George Colony addressed at a 2010 Forrester Forum.)

Brian might not say a whole lot in his Twitter profile, and I wish his Twitter handle used his name (maybe it was taken already). But he does something Clark and Rachel don’t do: he leads with the personal (“Father. Husband”) before the professional “CEO of Best Buy”).

Like Rachel, he employs a somewhat cryptic statement that makes you want to learn more about him (“Fanatic about the Connected World”). And he links to his Best Buy blog where you can see just how much of a fanatic about the connected world he really is.

Good for Brian. And extra points for using what is obviously not a slick, airbrushed corporate photo. He’s not smiling . . . but he’s authentic.

Authenticity, a sense of humor and humility, and intrigue . . . those are a few of the reasons I’ve singled out Clark, Rachel, and Brian.

Who are some of your favorites?

How Best Buy evolves its brand


How do you keep evolving the brand for a $49 billion retailing giant? At Best Buy, keeping the company brand fresh starts with the vision of CEO Brian Dunn, who addressed 650 Razorfish clients and employees at the 10th Annual Razorfish Client Summit.

At the Client Summit (which I organized), my employer Razorfish challenged marketing executives to succeed by taking ownership of change at a corporate and personal level. The theme of the event was “Evolve.” Brian set the pace for the event by discussing the top five strategies for evolving the Best Buy brand:

  • Meet people where they are. It’s not enough to have a strong message, service, or product. You have to distribute your ideas to where your customers live. Best Buy does so by aggressively using social media, such as the vaunted Twelpforce team of Best Buy employees who provide technical advice to customers on Twitter.  “Too often we rush to try to monetize social media,” Brian said. “Not everything you do is a source of revenue or profit pool.” To be sure, Best Buy is hardly the only big brand using social media; but it’s important when a multi-billion dollar company like Best Buy reinforces its use of social to its peers at an event like the Client Summit.


  • Don’t be afraid to have a little fun. Brian believes in encouraging a fun, irreverent culture inside Best Buy even though some of his counselors have advised him to adopt a more reserved tone befitting a Fortune 100 company. (His reply: “Tweet me.”) Having a little fun inside Best Buy reflects on the company brand, for instance the use of humor to educate Best Buy customers about recycling.

  • Find the core of your story, and shout it from the rooftops. This is a refreshing message at a time when social media pundits have belittled the importance of effective messaging. Yes, it is important for a brand to have a compelling message — it’s how you share it that matters. For instance, Best Buy relies on authentic testimonials to show that the company cares about its customers.

  • Engage your employees. He said, “It’s easy to say, ‘Yep, our employees differentiate us,’ but if you’re not connecting with your employees to listen and learn, then I think it’s just lip service.” Brian puts his money where his mouth is. He has a reputation for visiting Best Buy stores all around the world, hosting town hall meetings and speaking plainly with store employees. And he listens to his people on Facebook and Twitter. But he engages employees in other ways, too, such as pranking employees on April Fool’s Day with a fake employee newsletter story about Keith Richards working part-time at a Best Buy store in its Musical Instruments department.



  • Be relentless with your message. Brian passionately believes in the Best Buy “Connected World” message — or the notion of connecting people through technology to the services they need, the information they crave, the entertainment they desire, and the people they love. Brian shares that message consistently to everyone — analysts, news media, vendor partners, employees, and shareholders.


After the Client Summit, I had a chance to experience what Brian was talking about. I returned home from the Client Summit to discover that the wash machine in our home was broken. So I decided to try a local Best Buy for a replacement — not because Best Buy is a Razorfish client but because I often shop at Best Buy for home entertainment and usually find what I want. I’m happy to report that my experience was positive from the time I stopped by a Best Buy (on Butterfield Road in Downers Grove) on October 15 to the time my new wash machine was installed on October 17 (a Sunday afternoon). Here’s what Best Buy did right:

  • The in-store service was prompt. No waiting around for someone to help me.
  • The salesman, Tony, read my family’s needs perfectly. He understood that we sought an easy-to-use machine at an affordable price. He explained the features of units with different price points so that we made an informed decision, but he helped us find the right Whirlpool model without too many bells and whistles.
  • The in-store experience was actually fun. Think about that: my wife and I had fun buying a wash machine. That’s because Tony had a sense of humor, and he clearly enjoyed trading jokes with his fellow employees and with us. The appliance section just seemed like a place where employees give off a good vibe.
  • The post-sales experience was flawless — an area where many retailers stumble. I received a follow-up phone call confirming the delivery date/time within 24 hours of my purchase. The delivery occurred within 48 hours of the transaction. And — this is really crucial — we were given a brief (two-hour) window. It just kills me when delivery people force you to sacrifice your entire day waiting for them. But I can live with two hours (and by the way, the delivery occurred inside the window with an hour to spare). The delivery team was professional and, like the Best Buy employees, personable.

The Whirlpool is working just fine, too.

Forrester: online experiences define the brand


This blog post comes to you live from the second annual Forrester Research 2010 Customer Experience Forum at the Grand Hyatt in New York. Research Director Harley Manning sets the stage by asking, What exactly is customer experience? Answer: how customers feel about their interaction with your company. To that end, Forrester surveys 133 companies in 14 industries to create a Customer Experience Index that tracks how consumers feel about their customer experience.

The most recent index shows Barnes & Noble coming out on top with retailers in general scoring higher than other industries. At the low end of the scale: health insurance plan providers. And on average, companies who score high on the index also have customers who are willing to buy more products and services from them.

The key to improving one’s Customer Experience Index score: creating breakthrough experiences, the theme of the event.

The first speaker, Principal Analyst Ron Rogowski, discusses the connection between emotional experience design on websites and creating a great customer experience. His premise: online experiences define the brand. As John Thompson, senior VP at Best Buy said, customers are first experiencing the Best Buy brand online.

But there’s a problem: today’s web experiences leave an emotional void. They are, frankly, boring. The website for retailer Fry’s is a boring catalog of inventory, according to Ron. And Canon, which touts “moving photography” in its advertisements, provides a boring catalog of products on its website. In all, more than 90 percent of websites reviewed by Forrester fail to engage the consumer emotionally.

So how do you create interactions that engage consumers by catering to their emotional needs?

1. Address customers’ real goals. Understand customers’ latent needs through research. Anticipate and answer customers’ questions before they ask them, which is the key to creating an intuitive website. For instance Sallie Mae’s Education Investment Planner focuses tightly on goals like giving parents investment information during a time of uncertainty (e.g., planning and saving for family college needs). By using persona design to define customer goals, Sallie May created an online tool — a breakthrough customer experience — that gives parents a benchmark for knowing how they compare with their college savings program. The Sallie Mae online that meets an emotional need (worry and uncertainty about planning for college).

2. Develop a coherent personality. Lady Gaga and Elton John have talent — but they have personality, too. So what does personality mean to your brand? Personality is about being consistently recognizable. Aligning your online experience with your brand attributes. And, perhaps most importantly, adopting a human tone. Example: Progressive Insurance has created a personality for itself though the character of Flo, the fictional cashier on TV who also guides you through the Progressive website

3. Engage a mix of senses. The more senses you engage, the more memorable the experience. And how? Invest in the site’s production values. Provide a purposeful, tactile experience. Heighten the effect of your website with audio and video. Example: Armstrong Floors presents an attractive site that makes you want to hire the company to stain and finish your hardwood floors. Tazo Tea uses sound and motion to make you want to buy its tea products ( so long as you’re willing to install Flash 7).

Undertaking those three steps means making a more serious investment in rich media in your website budget.  Documenting your brand attributes and making those attributes meaningful to consumers. And orchestrating your customer’s emotional experience journey from awareness to consideration to purchase.

In short, make the experience its own reward.

U2 and the revenge of “old media”

Have you noticed U2’s gutsy distribution strategy for the newly released No Line on the Horizon? I don’t mean the predictable release of the album on MySpace prior to its March 3 launch in stores — but rather the heavy reliance on an allegedly dead medium, the compact disc.  At Best Buy, you can find the album available in five formats:

  • Regular CD
  • Limited edition digi pak that includes CD, color booklet, poster, and exclusive downloadable film access.
  • Limited edition magazine that includes a CD, 60-page magazine, and exclusive downloadable film access.
  • Vinyl LP
  • Limited edition box set that contains a digi pak CD, DVD of an exclusive film by Anton Corbijn, a 64-page hardback book, and a fold-out poster

At a time when digital downloads have all but rendered the CD an afterthought, what gives?  Here’s what U2 is doing:

  • Leveraging the power of the brick-and-mortar retailer.   We’ve recently seen the Eagles and AC/DC successfully move CDs through Wal-Mart.  And Prince just struck a deal for Target to be the exclusive retailer for a disc set to be released March 29.  Why?  Not because the CD is obsolete — but rather the old ways of distributing content are dead.  The Best Buys, Starbucks, Wal-Marts, and Targets of the world can act as DJ, distributor, and marketer rolled into one.  During the release of Black Ice, AC/DC provided the soundtrack for the Wal-Mart shopping experience, and well-placed displays opened up the band’s back catalog  to shoppers, too.  All told, Black Ice moved 2 million units in 2008.
  • Fighting the commoditization and degradation of music.  Rock has always been as much about image as it has the music.  Sleek packaging creates an experience that helps build image and differentiate one band from another.  By contrast, digital marginalizes a band’s image and degrades the quality of its product through inferior downloads.  It’s well known that MP3 compression causes a loss of sound quality, and the slightest glitch in your broadband connection is a total buzzkill for streaming songs.  Superior packaging and well-produced sound captured on disc are two weapons in favor of a band like U2, which understands the power of image and the relationship between its image and sonic power.

U2 isn’t the only band embracing the “old.”  In 2008, David Gilmour released at least five versions of his Live in Gdansk, for instance.  Both Radiohead and Beck have released music in playful packages with stickers that consumers can use to deocorate the CD sleeves.

Soon I’m going to learn more about how artists are seizing more control of content distribution when musician and producer David A. Stewart appears at the 9th annual Razorfish Client Summit April 21-23 in Las Vegas.  (I’m putting together the agenda for my employer Razorfish.)

He’s going to discuss how artists like himself are dropping “a neutron bomb” on the current entertainment distribution model.  I can’t wait to hear him speak.  And I hope we see more bands like U2 giving us experiences we can touch and feel.