Communicating value to customers

Southwest Airlines has been running an ad during the NCAA basketball tournament that touts its frugal ways. The ad is transparent, honest and pragmatic.

“You save money dealing directly with us,” the voiceover says of its website, and “we save money dealing directly with you.”

From there, the ad touts its low airfares—see? See?—as a clean extension of the value proposition behind the company.

I love this commercial for its win-win approach. Southwest is calling out on national television that they’re not playing games. If you work with us, they say, it costs us less, and in turn, we’ll help you spend less, too. In today’s savvy shopping environment, it’s great to see a brand talk frankly about minding costs and passing savings onto customers.

Compare this with the sign I see in the building cafeteria when I’m in my New Jersey office. It covers the front of every napkin dispenser they have.

napkins

“When our costs rise,” it says, in bold red type, “Your [sic] prices rise.”

This little sign could be a win-win, like Southwest’s ad. But it’s not. It’s antagonistic. It’s a threat. There’s no mutual benefit, no collaboration, just a warning. Waste our money, and we’ll take it right out of your pocket, bucko.

It helps that the cafeteria is the only place to grab lunch without a decent walk. They have a bit of a monopoly, and it shows: the food is somewhat expensive, the cooks refuse to go off-script, and certain stations randomly don’t open some days. All of which mirrors the attitude on the napkin dispensers. Don’t mess with me, eater. I’m all you’ve got.

The cafeteria misses an opportunity to create customer loyalty that could have been communicated simply and effectively. How much better would the napkin dispenser make customers feel if it said, “Keeping costs down keeps your lunch prices down,” instead of going toe-to-toe with diners?

How industry consolidation affects you: eyeglasses

Luxottica is in the news in the digital realm right now for its forthcoming collaboration with Google on Glass-wear.

Google went straight to the top on this one, as Luxottica is by far the industry leader in eyewear. The company makes eyewear under 27 different brand names, for both its own brands, such as Ray-Ban and Oakley, and a variety of high-profile licensees like Chanel and Prada.

Luxottica has the market pretty well covered on the retail side, too: if you’ve ever set foot in a Lenscrafters, Pearle Vision or Sunglass Hut, you’re on their turf. The company also takes care of the eyeglasses at Sears and Target, among others.

In total, Luxottica has roughly 80% of the major eyewear brands under its control. Main competitor Safilo has an impressive portfolio of licensing partners but a much smaller footprint and fewer known in-house brands.

Me, I’ve been wearing American-made Bevel glasses of late, and independent ic! berlins before that. But it’s interesting to know that when I made a big switch a number of years ago from Oliver Peoples to Paul Smith, I wasn’t really changing much of anything.

This is the latest in a series of summaries of industries whose corporate consolidation has led to a small number of players controlling the majority of a sector, creating oligopolies in the mass market. Previously

Tea

A friend of mine asked about tea, and in answering, I realized I drink quite a lot of tea and have discovered some very good things to drink, which I thought I’d share here.

Hot

I drink hot tea sporadically for enjoyment and all the time when I’m sick. And my hot tea appreciation reached its apex with Mighty Leaf tea. They’re all delicious. The organic mint melange is in my house right now.I’ve always enjoyed Tazo Calm, which you can get at Starbucks and which tastes great with honey instead of sugar.

I’m also on a simple chamomile kick right now. Twinings is fine at this. (My kids prefer chamomile, too, and I’d love to find a 50- or 100-pack of chamomile tea bags. For now I’m buying the Twinings 20-packs.)

And, frankly, ordinary black tea is underrated. A 12-oz Lipton’s with honey–keep going with the honey, a little bit more, no seriously, ok that’s enough–is pretty great in its own right, even in decaf. You’ve probably never even tried it.

Iced

We keep a regular supply of Honest Tea in the house. The basic Honest Lemon Black is my favorite. It’s the right amount of sweet, although it’s sweeter than it used to be, before Coke bought the company out and made it more mass, but it still has 40% the sugar profile of a Snapple and fully organic. I buy it by the case. I also enjoy the peach white tea on occasion, and several of the esoteric versions they sold a decade ago in glass bottles that are now hard to find, like their peppermint tea.

Most other bottled and canned iced tea is horrifically sweet. The best ones actually shy away from being “tea” and include elements of fruit juice. One exception to this is Arizona’s Diet Green Tea with Ginseng, which is a terrific lunch accompaniment.

On the sweet but awesome side, try some Turkey Hill Orange Tea. I buy the diet decaf which is as good as the regular. It’s made with real orange juice and an embarrassing amount of sweetener, and if no one’s looking, I can drink a half-gallon of it in pretty much one sitting. Every person I’ve introduced it to–dating back to 1994, in my college apartment–has become addicted to it, most recently my parents, who otherwise avoid artificial sweeteners. It’s like umami tea.

As a counterpoint, it’s wonderful if you have the determination to home-brew iced tea. I say determination because it’s incredibly unsatisfying: you’ll want some tea, so you’ll heat up a lot of water, which takes a long time, then pour it into a pitcher with half a dozen teabags, which makes you yearn for it, only now you have a quart of hot tea that you have to chill for an hour before you can drink it. If you’re responsible enough to brew it the night before, then it’s tasty. I’ve found moderate success with an assortment of “brewed iced tea” brands, none of which were special enough to stay in memory.

Time to get something to drink.

One of these things is not like the other

New York City has also issued a hazardous travel advisory.

Government offices are open, but nonessential New York State employees can seek permission to stay home, Governor Cuomo said.

“Because of its timing and intensity, this storm is going to make both the morning and evening rush hours extremely difficult,” Mayor de Blasio warned on Wednesday night. “If you do not need to drive, you will help yourself and everyone else by staying off the roads.”

Wet snow and ice on trees and wires could cause power failures…. The National Weather Service warned, “Heavy, wet snow may cause some weak flat-roof structures to collapse.”

Public schools in New York City are open.

The on-again, off-again discussion about living walking distance from school is definitely on again.

(Source: New York Times)

On Michael Sam and gay rights

I am occasionally asked, with a degree of bemusement, why I am so strong-minded and outspoken on the subject of gay rights. It’s a topic I’ve supported at length in this space, from cheering on gay marriage to actively tracking open gay players in pro sports.

I thought I’d take a moment this morning, in the wake of Michael Sam’s groundbreaking announcement, to clarify that support. On some level, it’s personal, as I have numerous gay friends, many of whom are now married, which is heartening.

But on another, more important level, gay rights are about equality. I have never understood humanity’s need for a majority or ruling demographic to suppress the liberties, opportunities or comfort of another. Be it race, gender, religion or nationality, the fear and jealousy that drives this suppression has always upset me. I am strongly in favor of abortion rights, for example, and for multi-racial and interfaith marriages, in addition to institutionalizing support for gay rights.

Even while my own profile is rather straightforward—I’m an ordinary guy who married a woman of the same religion and similar cultural upbringing—I was allowed to choose my path to happiness, and I believe everyone should be afforded the same opportunity. And as a member of a minority religion, albeit a successful and well-assimilated one, I have an appreciation for what it means to be persecuted as well as accepted.

The world is a long way away from universal tolerance. But America comes pretty close, much of the time, and every small step toward openness and understanding is to be cheered. I am rooting for Michael Sam this year, not because he’s gay, but because he’s strong, and honest, and deserves to be a professional football player this spring. I hope he succeeds.

The real effect of surge pricing

While Uber is coming under a lot of fire (including from me) on its surge pricing, Wired’s latest piece on Uber’s situation clarified a point that is worth highlighting.

Surge pricing, according to Uber, is intended to stimulate supply and curb demand to ensure the two match. Otherwise, the logic goes, would-be riders are left stranded without a car. Last month, during the height of the backlash against Uber over fares reported at seven times the usual during a New York snowstorm, Kalanick told WIRED that the bad publicity his company faced over surge pricing would pale compared to the impact of Uber not being able to offer a ride at all.

(Emphasis mine.)

This is what Uber and CEO Travis Kalanick are doing with surge pricing: they’re getting the masses to back off. Anyone who’s encountered a surge pricing screen on Uber in the past few months has done so while trying to reserve a car that’s only a few minutes away, as usual. That car is available because of surge pricing—specifically, because higher prices get fewer people to grab at finite inventory, maintaining a decent supply.

Of course, Kalanick can’t say that out loud, so he talks at length about bringing more cars on the road. Yet that’s only part of the story, and he’s been challenged on whether surge pricing really aids supply. In truth, what surge pricing really accomplishes is throttling demand.

And this makes sense: if an Uber user tried to call for a car in bad weather, and the nearest vehicle was 27 minutes away rather than 6, or not available at all, what would the response be? Customers would give up on the service for lack of reliability, and return to hailing cabs and calling car services, which are equally imperfect but entrenched in society. Uber is not, at least not yet. To the company, “Uber doesn’t work” is a worse fate than “Uber is sometimes too expensive.” So premium fares continue.

Uber has decided that supply is the most important link in its chain, and is using surge pricing to maintain it. Which, while not the most satisfying thing to Uber users, is a rather logical approach.

Update: this wonderfully in-depth look at Uber’s economic and business decisions sheds additional light on the subject.

The bottom line is that the only real alternative to dynamic pricing is a ton of customers staring at screens that read “No Cars Available.” This is the fact that is least appreciated by Uber’s critics.

Obsolete vs. useless

Quartz and Wired is making a big deal today out of a new survey that shows 58% of American households still have a VCR.

“It shows,” writes Christopher Mims*, “that a majority of Americans are holding onto a device designed to play a media format that isn’t even available anymore.”

But there’s a reason for this “lingering on past their expiration date,” as Mims nicely puts it: old VHS tapes.

While millions of Americans have moved on from tape formats, decades of media were created and stored on them before discs, drives and cloud storage appeared. And while it’s easy to replace that videotape of “Dirty Dancing” with Blu-Ray or a stream, doing so with home movies and one-offs taped from live TV is much harder. Many families have paid for a service to migrate their essentials; mine has dubbed its childhood videos from Super-8 to VHS to DVD over the past 15 years. But many others have not. And until they do, they’re not ditching their VCRs.

I still have roughly 800 cassettes in my possession (well, technically, they’re in my parents’ basement, to my mother’s ongoing chagrin, but still), including a number of bootlegs, one-offs, hard-to-find albums, and irreplaceable moments, from a Taj Mahal concert at summer camp in 1989 to my college radio shows. It’d be great to digitize them for posterity. But seeing how hard it is even to move all my CDs to MP3, the digitizing of my tapes won’t come for awhile. And while I wait for myself, I’m glad to have a working cassette deck, still gorgeous in its anachronistic 1988 glory.

So color me unsurprised at the persistence of the VCR. It remains peripherally useful for many, even in the rarest of moments. And so it remains, unbothered in many homes’ wall units, biding its time, and probably blinking ––:–– as usual.

* Of course, Mims is the author behind the recently infamous “2013 was a lost year for tech,” which suggests he’s in the dot-com-needling-provocateur game right now, much like Farhad Manjoo a couple of a years ago.

Creating vs. creating

Sploid, on Thomas Julien’s Instagram short film: “Seeing all these pictures in a pseudo stop animation you realize how similar all of our photos end up being. Nothing is original. We’re all just frames in someone’s next movie.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about our collective propensity to take photos, and wondering: why? Why do we need to chronicle a moment that is being captured by another? What is the intrinsic value of a photo that someone else can (probably more capably) take on one’s own behalf? It’s one thing to grab a picture of a loved one, or a sunset on an unpopulated beach, when you’re the only person that can take that picture. But when hundreds of fellow onlookers are snapping the same photograph, unless your DSLR skills trump the crowd, is there value to your taking a shot, too?

Jillian Edelstein, on the remoteness of photography: “It’s image taking rather than image making.”

What’s more, with the interconnectedness of social media, not only are those many other photos being taken, but in a matter of moments you and I can download and share them as well, rendering the multiplicity moot. Sometimes these efforts have value; last month, when a large fire raged up the block from me, I posted photos from my vantage point, then shared others’ images from different (and largely better) angles. But certainly my experience of the moment was interrupted by my fiddling with my iPhone, which, it should be noted, occurred while I helped my two young children stand on my next door neighbor’s radiator cover for a better view.

This can’t be where our future lands. Whether ubiquitous, wearable computing simplifies the media taking-and-sharing process, or whether we slowly learn to find the right moments to engage and disengage with our devices, or whether some other paradigms arise, I strongly hope that we evolve past the current heads-down phones-up phase. Because, if not, sooner or later we’re all going to miss something.

The year in cities, 2013

Ninth edition: listed here are the places I visited over the past 12 months. Per the annual rules, only overnights are listed; repeat visits (from anytime in the past) are denoted with an asterisk.

New York
Akron, OH
Atlanta, GA *
Livingston, NJ *
New City, NY *
London, England *
Avignon, France
Paris, France *
Cleveland, OH *
Groton, CT
Edgartown, MA *
North Creek, NY *
Jacksonville, FL
Portland, OR
Paradise Island, the Bahamas