Friday Column: Retail Shopping

"A discount gives shoppers the incentive to buy today. Without that, there's no sense of urgency for people to purchase things that, frankly, they probably don't need."

Kit Yarrow, author of Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail.

This quote came from a TIME Magazine article I read on Wednesday. In context, it was referring to an idea that the new head of J.C. Penney is about to implement, this idea that people are fed-up with retail gimmicks (they are) like sales and mark-downs, and that products should be sold at a more or less fixed price (they should be) all the time. Enough of the games, he says. You should know what you're getting. 

I agree with this. Why is it that I have to have a bonus card when going to the grocery store? Trader Joe's figured it out. Even if you don't have a bonus card at a place like Giant they swipe one for you anyway. I understand they just want you demographic information so they can advertise to you, but come on? The J.C. Penney guy is on to something.

But, Mr. Yarrow above, disagrees. He thinks it will fail, because, as it says, he fundamentally believes people might actually catch on the fact that they are being sold stuff they don't need. 

But they probably won't.

Since coming back to the USA on Sunday, I have devoured the past six weeks worth of TIME, trying to catch up on the news I've missed while I've been away. Yes, I am back in the US of A.

I hesitate to write any sort of opinion about the state of the US government, economy, etc etc. Mia is still in Sweden, hopefully only a few weeks behind me once her green card (which I discovered will actually be blue) application gets pushed through. We love the USA and all that rah rah rah stuff, but I feel compelled to comment on a few things if only because of how silly I think they are. We still want to live here.

Item #1: The Contraception Debate!

Is there not something more productive the government can spend time debating? Hasn't anyone figured out yet that every single problem of modern society can be directly or indirectly related to the number of people in it? We don't have to be China, but come on. Mia told me last night that there is an ongoing debate in Enköping about whether or not to spend money upgrading the town's public swimming pool. 'Just do it or don't do it!' she thinks. The endless debate does not get anybody anywhere.

Contraception. Is it so bad for the Catholic Church to allow their people to make choices for themselves? Making contraception available doesn't mean you have to use it. It is two-thousand and twelve. Simmer down everyone. Briggsy sent me this article yesterday with the subject line 'This guy is nuts!'. Which pretty much sums it up.

Item #2: The Economy!

There is a book called The Black Swan which more or less sums up everything I want to say but much more clearly and provocatively, and it has nothing to do with Natalie Portman. 

But to the quote above. Isn't this the entire problem with the modern American economy? Selling people stuff they don't really need? And with our models of economic growth needed to sustain the growth of the country, this will never end. Fundamentally, it relies on more and more people to buy more and more crap that more and more people are realizing is unnecessary for a fulfilling life. To create jobs, as politicians are wont to say these days, requires one simple thing - a business must have a reason to hire new people. There has to be demand for whatever that business is hawking, be it barbecues and mini golf or iPads. You can't tell people on one hand to cut back, to start saving money, when on the other hand you desperately need them to start buying cars from Detroit so they can have jobs.

The way the economy works today, the definition of 'healthy' means growth, and the definition of 'growth' means producing more stuff that nobody needs. We had a perfect opportunity in 2008 to re-set the economy following the collapse, re-set it to something resembling efficiency and constraint. Instead, the Fed created one trillion dollars out of thin air. The same thing is about to happen in Europe. Sweden must be thrilled they never switched to the Euro.

Item #3: Twitter!

Has everyone conceded already that Twitter and the internet generally is another form of media? People accept it as a way of communication, a way of receiving and transmitting news, thoughts, opinions, etc? Then how come television stations insist on showing what's 'trending' on Twitter? Television is another form of media. Leave it alone. Nobody who actually uses Twitter gives a crap that the local news is talking about it, and nobody who watches the local news gives a crap that they care about what is on Twitter. Hasn't anybody figured out that the way to success with old media is not to replicate new media but to distinguish yourself as a totally separate entity offering a completely disparate experience?

I think this is the key to sports stadiums. Why on earth does Dallas have to have a football field-sized television? I'm not going to the game to watch TV. Stadiums should be smaller, closer to the field and decidedly different than the experience I can get at home sitting on my ass on the couch. They should not have music and cheerleaders, they should highlight players and the game. Give me something I can't get at home, not freaking computers at my seat and a television that blocks punts. Forget trying to attract little kids and wives. Give me a 10,000 seat stadium and put speakers on the field so I can hear the players, and sit me close enough to the action that I can see what's going on. This is different from what I get at home. Quit trying to have everything cross over and give me a unique experience.

Dave Eggars and Bill Simmons have figured this out. They are online. Simmons is perhaps the biggest writer on the internet. And they've teamed up. Eggars prints several different publications in such a way that people actually pay for the content! Imagine that - a magazine with no advertisements that is printed on quality media and contains things that people might actually want to read and then keep. Simmons is doing something similar, printing his Grantland Quarterly with Eggars expertise, and re-packaging all that online content into something people want to put on a bookshelf. This is my favorite trend related to technology, that people are realizing they want something tangible, that these little niches are showing up in various places allowing people who still value that sort of thing to have an outlet. With print-on-demand services, normal people can do this themselves. They might not be able to sell it, but at least they can produce something tangible.

Books will never ever go away, just like film photography won't. They might not be mass-produced like they were before, and (hopefully) the bookstore giants like Barnes & Noble and Borders will disappear, but there is always room for the niche, and that will stick around. 

Back to Twitter. The Facebook guys are geniuses. They have created a system in which people willingly and eagerly allow their online lives to be tracked and displayed for the sake of advertisers. That so many people 'like' products and services astounds me. Do they realize they are providing free advertising for all those companies and products they endorse? Advertising value that Facebook is about to take public for an estimated ten billion - BILLION - dollars this spring? People do realize that right?

Something Completely Unrelated

Dad and I fed Buddy T. Goat this morning. The 'T' stands for 'The.' It's nice to be back home on the farm.