Tennis balls and the failures of the Amazon ecommerce model

I played tennis Monday afternoon and noticed our tennis balls were just about through their useful life. After dinner, I started wondering how to replace them, living in my Upper West Side apartment, closer to the tennis courts than anyplace that would sell balls (the courts don’t, although they should).

Offhand, I couldn’t think of anyplace local to run in. Modell’s closed down, taking both local sporting goods stores out of our neighborhood. There’s a Target up here, but it’s way over on Columbus Avenue, and I don’t go over there much. We have some bodegas and 99-cent stores, but I’m not familiar with most of them, and didn’t want to wander around asking who has a sleeve of Pro Penns.

In an attempt to solve my problem immediately, I went, as we have been conditioned, to Amazon. Surely I could get some tennis balls shipped to the apartment before our next court time, on Thursday. (Disclosure: we are Amazon shareholders and Prime members.)

Turns out, yes, I could. But not in any useful way. Because Amazon’s model is cost-effective shipping, there’s no reasonable size worth buying; the site pushes you toward bulk: sacks of 18 balls, packs of 12 sleeves. Not what I’m after.

In addition, because Amazon is a marketplace focused on generating shipments with margin, the prices were awful. A can of tennis balls is $2.99 at retail, give or take. Not on they’re as much as $12, as I write this, for one sleeve of three balls. Even in bulk sizes, the prices don’t budge: I found $27.50 for four sleeves, for example ($6.88 per sleeve), and $59 for twelve ($4.92 per). Sure, you can get tennis balls tomorrow, but only if you’re compelled to leverage the free shipping and ignore the exorbitant prices.

Amazon’s current business model takes 34 cents on the dollar from its vendors. To sell me a four-pack of tennis balls, a reseller on feels the need to charge $27.50 (at the time of this writing). After the reported 34% Amazon take, the vendor’s recognized revenue is around $18—still not three bucks a can, but at least not egregious. But Amazon isn’t concerned that the product is overpriced, it has that Prime lock-in. The site thus converts an ignorant shopper, traps a hurried one, or turns off one who’s paying attention. That last one, tonight, was me.

After a detour to the Dick’s Sporting Goods website, where tennis ball prices were fair ($18 for six cans) but free-shipping hurdles were high, I wound up on They sold me a four-pack of cans for $11.19. And because I have a similar relationship with Target as I do with Amazon, I threw in a few household staples and got free shipping, albeit a day or two slower than

And it turns out that Target on Columbus has individual tennis ball sleeves in stock. Maybe I’ll walk the dog over there and pick some up for Thursday.

A simple step to customer satisfaction: databases with long memories

I’m flying United Airlines later this month for the first time since 2004. A few days ago, United emailed me: “Don’t miss out on award miles on your trip.” The email encouraged me to sign up for MileagePlus, United’s customer loyalty program.

I’m no United regular, but as I actually have three flight legs booked with them through April, I figured they had a point.

But I decided to do them one better. Digging around old text files, I found my old Continental OnePass number.

I pulled up my flight details and dropped in the old OnePass number. United recognized the account instantly and added it to my itinerary.

Pleasantly surprised, I proceeded to log into my account, using the same number and the decade-old PIN I had on file. had no trouble pulling my account together, listing my lifetime miles flown while simultaneously updating my address to the one I entered for my upcoming travel.

This is what all customer loyalty programs should look like. With the right investment in database architecture, companies can have information about their customers readily available, and utilize that to surprise and delight even the most passive of patrons. Like me, the once-every-twelve-years infrequent flier, now pleasantly blogging about a company I once publicly rebuked.

I recently had an unsatisfying discussion with Hyatt via Twitter where I challenged their policy of expiring accounts. Seems they are deleting my Gold Passport account next month because of lack of use—not expiring my points, but wiping out my ID entirely. Why? I asked. I got back a corporate version of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and a suggestion I buy some points to stay in their good graces.

Compare Hyatt’s attitude with United, where any customer stickiness remains part of my lifetime value, regardless of frequency. Or AMC Theatres, where my Moviewatcher account worked for roughly 20 years, despite being forgotten for a good 15 of them between uses, when I lived out of reach of one of their locations.

AMC welcomed me back with open arms (and I’m now a highly satisfied Stubs customer, too). United has now done the same, and suddenly I’m looking forward to my flight.

Day 1 with an Apple Watch

I’m on Day Four wearing my Apple Watch, and I like it very much. I’m finding it useful, attractive, comfortable, interesting and fun.

Of course, my first day wearing it was something else entirely. And while reviewers intentionally give new products some breathing room, I thought I’d take a stab at quantifying the first impressions of a Watch wearer. This is a product with a learning curve—does it create impediments? Frustrated expectations? Or would it all be part of the fun?

So I live-tweeted my day getting used to the watch (to the chagrin of my friends on Facebook, where my tweets cross-post). I’m a few days removed from the experience, so they are presented below as-is. All in all, it was a very good first day.

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.


“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?

On quality

I discovered Energy Kitchen in 2004 or 2005, when it had but one lonely outpost, randomly, on Second Avenue near 59th Street in Manhattan. I wandered in looking for a fast meal and emerged with freshly grilled chicken and brown rice in a healthy wrap. Low calorie, fresh and delicious—oh, and by the way, low-calorie and low-fat, too. Genius!

A few years later, Energy Kitchen went into expansion mode, and in short order had what felt like a dozen or more outlets around the city. One opened on West 23rd Street by my then-office. I excitedly stopped in shortly after opening, and found an updated menu—now with more nouveau options, like bison—as well as modern decor and a ticketing system for the lunch rush. Oh, and by the way, every entree was under 500 calories. Still genius.

Only now, Energy Kitchen wasn’t a friendly novelty restaurant. It was one of a growing chain, and it showed. The lunch rush at the store on 23rd was poorly managed; staff actually set up a holding pen for people to wait for their food, forcing us to loiter uncomfortably next to the trash cans. The wait times were often rather long. And despite the new fast-food underpinnings, the prices stayed high; if memory serves, that bison burger was a $12 item. (I never got around to trying it.)

And, most importantly, the food went downhill. As a burgeoning quick service chain with a fair number of stores, Energy Kitchen had to harness economies of scale. That meant pre-packaging some food items rather than cooking them fresh, which degraded both the quality and the flavor of a meal. I once watched in disappointment as the cooks carried a tray of chicken up from the basement: many small plastic bags of parboiled chicken, already cut, ready for a quick spin in a microwave and an unceremonious dump into a wrap. So much for fresh and grilled.

So today’s news of Energy Kitchen’s demise, while unexpected, is not that surprising. The chain positioned itself as having a smart product: healthy, flavorful and satisfying. But Energy Kitchen charged upscale prices for a product that ceased to be upscale, despite the claims on the front window. I imagine many health-conscious customers went looking for organic and locavore cuisine rather than save a few calories on pre-bagged poultry. It’s a classic case of failing to deliver on the brand’s promise.

Which is a shame, because at the outset, Energy Kitchen had a great idea and great execution. Above all else, the quality of the product will ultimately define the success or failure of an organization.

Instead of just narrowing airline seats, charge for better ones, too

The Wall Street Journal’s expose on airlines narrowing coach-seat widths seems, to me, yet another market opportunity for the airlines, if only they’d position it correctly.

Now, I’m no advocate of skimpy seating. I want to travel in as much comfort as I can afford. But the key word there is afford. 

Consumers have continually shown that they have strong price sensitivity when they fly. This forces the airlines to keep their base fares low, which in turn forces them to find ancillary revenue sources. Upcharges for baggage, exit rows, and priority boarding are all designed to offset the cost of keeping airfares at competitive rates and aid profitability. (It’s working, too.)

So why not use this seating to their advantage? Selling more-hiproom seats in the same manner as more-legroom rows would undoubtedly prove profitable by servicing that segment of the policy (such as this author) that is willing to pay a small premium for an upgraded experience. If that extra seat in a nine-across row generates another $300 fare, having a handful of eight-across rows generating $40 per passenger in upgrade fees would be similarly profitable.

I do not look forward to my first 17-inch-wide airline seat. Here’s to hoping the more-space movement hits the front of the coach cabins on these planes sooner than later.

On AT&T’s new data tethering

For all the fuss about AT&T’s new data rates (both pragmatically good and knee-jerk bad) the main point to keep in mind is whether those rates are actually good for consumers. For the most part, they are: John Gruber notes in his post that 98% of AT&T’s users fall below the new 2GB monthly plan, and that even with overages these rates beat the competition.
datausage.pngI’m a daily, heavy user of data on my iPhone 3GS, so I logged into my phone bill to see where I land. And lo, a surprise: not only do I not need unlimited data, I can actually drop down to the 250MB plan. Because I regularly use my home and work wifi, and I don’t download much media, my 3G bandwidth usage has been 230MB or less for the past six months.
I like the idea of an open meter, and when I change plans, I’ll probably switch to the 2GB/month plan, even if it costs me a few bucks extra. I will be happier paying $25/month and never hitting my limit than paying $15/month and worrying about, or getting slapped with, overages when I download some videos. Still, that’s found money for me, and for 98% of AT&T’s smartphone users.
One could gripe all day about AT&T’s signal strength or its needlessly expensive text messaging plans. But its data plans are well considered and decently consumer-friendly, no matter how the blogosphere reacts.

The ROI of UX: Continental Airlines

From my post on aiaio:

Yes, there are premium seats available; no, you can’t have them. I asked if I could pay extra to reserve those seats: no. I asked if I could get a seat assignment, any seat assignment, so I knew I would make it on the plane: no. I eventually gave up my attempts to cajole customer service into helping me, and after a few hours of deliberation, I took my business elsewhere.

My story isn’t all that uncommon, but it still strikes me as a miss on Continental’s part. Why must they hold a random middle seat for an unbooked elite member, thereby denying a paying customer a chance to confirm travel?

Between this and Continental’s other discomforts—a small 31″ seat pitch in coach; 60,000 miles to book coach-class reward travel—I haven’t flown CO in more than five years. In the interim I’ve been on American, JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic, Northwest, Alitalia, Midwest, US Airways, United and Virgin America, and I’ve enjoyed all of them more than I enjoy my typical interaction with Continental. (Well, maybe not Alitalia.)

Duane Reade, testing customer loyalty

From my post on aiaio:

The new program is more confusing and far less valuable. Consumers now get two points per dollar spent and the same $5 reward now comes at 500 points. Or, in layman’s terms, after $250 spent rather than $100. Earning the five bucks just became two and a half times as difficult.

My wife and I probably spend around $1000 a year at Duane Reade. With our normal memory patterns (read Amy doesn’t use the loyalty card very often) we got $40 in store credit last year, and were eligible for $50: not bad for just showing up. Now that $1000 spend is worth just $20 in reward dollars, or $10-15 when we factor in the days we forget to use the card.
Ten bucks a year is below my worth-the-trouble threshold, so I’m basically done with the rewards card. I wonder how much less I’ll look to DR as my default convenience store as a result.

UX Critic: Time Warner Cable DVR

Earlier this fall, Time Warner Cable introduced a grand new interface for its digital cable offering. But in its efforts to add features and visual flair, Time Warner Cable managed to worsen many of the features that previously made its system so easy to use.
TWC began by breaking some of the functionality. Not all of it, but enough of the essentials to drive one crazy.
Like the screensaver, for example: on my unit, at least, the blackout that kicks in after pausing for 15 minutes doesn’t actually black out the sidebars beyond the 4:3 screen width. Oops. Good thing I don’t have a burn-in-susceptible plasma TV.
Or the rewind, which, on higher speeds, snaps forward when play is pressed. Forward! Why? I find my self re-rewinding over and over again.
Worst of all is the 10-second back button, which used to be my single favorite feature on the old TWC remote. Missed a sentence? Pop! Hear it again. Click twice to create an at-home instant replay during a sports broadcast; click three times to watch a commercial from the beginning.
For some reason, this button, while still jumping backward, no longer does smooth 10-second increments. Often, the first click only runs back two or three seconds, which is basically useless. Press twice and the system picks what feels like an arbitrary jump-back interval. It’s now almost impossible to pinpoint a moment during playback without rewinding past it and waiting–not horrible in and of itself, but the system used to be perfect.
The list goes on. There’s no more “view this channel now” button in the program guide. No option to view extended program descriptions while in the DVR. Even the movie listings were rejiggered, so that the star ratings systems and year of release were moved to the end of the one-line summary, and directors are no longer mentioned.
Of course, TWC didn’t set out to break things; the company was trying to add features. But here, too, unnecessary problems were created. Introducing features into the current structure means rethinking the user interfaces, and not always for the better.
I was a huge fan of Time Warner’s old font face, which was narrow but easy to read (unlike, say, Adelphia’s narrow, non-anti-aliased displays). On the new TWC system, the fonts have been replaced with a more contemporary, wide font. It’s harder to read at a distance, and the increased width means program names cut off much sooner in lists.
On-screen cues that used to be straightforward have gotten more confusing, not less. TWC’s progressive rewind and fast-forward used to show an increasing number of arrows: >> >>> >>>>. Now, they’ve decided a number count is more useful. Only the number doesn’t appear until two clicks in, when it says “2,” not “3.” So >>> now renders as “>>2” and >>>> now says “>>3.”
My TWC system uses a Scientific Atlanta remote that has three color- and shape-differentiated buttons: yellow triangle A, blue squre B, red circle C. And TWC’s old software made the most of them. Some examples:
– In the program guide: A for show grid, B to sort by genre, C to search
– In the DVR: A for saved shows, B for upcoming shows, C for series management
For this new release, TWC introduced features that pushed the number of options in the program guide and DVR past three. Rather than find ways to nest them, the entire functionality moved into a horizontal scrolling list, which is accessed with a series of arrow keys and a Select button. To find a show by title, I used to click Guide, then C; now I have to click Guide, then scroll right several times to Find Shows, click Select, then scroll right to chose Search. The effort has been doubled, or worse, for many functions.
The new UI also has fade-in, fade-out transitions, which are a huge mistake. The system used to have zippy little central wipes that made screens feel like they were snapping to attention. In contrast, the fades make the system feel slow–the opposite of what I want when I’m channel-surfing.
I still like my Time Warner Cable digital television and DVR. But I enjoy it a whole lot less.
This is a cross-post from aiaio.