Archive for the ‘retailing’ category Customer Service Way Off the Mark

January 9th, 2011

Over the years I’ve generally been a big fan of Target, particularly the ambience of its stores and its product selection.  However, I just had the type of disappointing experience with that makes me wonder if things are starting to unravel as this well-respected retailer.

Our son, who recently moved to China, gave my wife a e-gift card for Christmas.  Redeeming it this afternoon, however, proved to be a major ordeal. First, when when I tried to enter the payment information, I got a message saying that e-gift cards can’t be used on–even though the email announcing the gift made it clear that e-gift cards can only be used on  After wasting several minutes of my life trying to figure out what was going on, I stumbled upon some fine print informing me that the problem was that we were doing the transaction as a “guest”, and that e-gift cards can only be used if the recipient has a account.

So is this a ploy by Target to force people to create online accounts?  Or, worse yet, is it a ploy to frustrate gift recipients and induce them to help Target’s bottom line by simply giving up on redeeming their e-gift cards? I don’t know the answer, but I know it’s not good for Target to have its policies create such questions in the minds of its customers.

Anyway, I then created an online account, but the site wouldn’t accept the password I created–and didn’t tell me what, if anything, I was doing wrong.  So I had to call their toll-free number, where a very nice–but very hard-to-understand–telephone rep was finally able to set up a password for me that worked.  (What had I done wrong in trying to create the password on my own?  Nothing, according to the rep.)

Home free?  Not quite.  When I placed the order, the cost of the least expensive shipping option was $17–or 4 times what had charged me an hour earlier for a heavier and larger shipment.

So now I’m left wondering if Target has suddenly become greedy, incompetent, unethical, or some combination thereof. I know they and the financial analysts following them have been disappointed in their recent revenue trends, but whether this is resulting in pressures to cut corners on customer service in order to boost the bottom line is impossible to me for say.

What I can say is that, in my mind,  the service I received today has served to replace Target’s red bullseye with a red flag.

Back on Target!

April 29th, 2010

For years, Target had one of the most consistent and stylish TV ad campaigns in any category.  The ads never said the brand name out loud, and they only revealed the brand logo at the end of each spot–normally two big no-nos in my book.  On top of that, the music varied from ad to ad.  Yet as soon as any given ad came on, you knew almost immediately that it was for Target.

One reason is that the ads were visually connected via a red-and-white color theme and the placement of circular objects to reinforce the design of the brand’s logo.  Another is the fact that all of the songs–while not necessarily familiar–shared an upbeat, contemporary, smart sound.  Add it all up, and you had a campaign that was fun to watch and that appears to have helped drive above-market sales growth for Target for several years.

But then Target’s advertising started to miss the mark.  Its ads no long stood out, and its brand personality was suddenly unclear.  The situation reached bottom as recently as Christmas 2009, when a new series of ads caused me to post a rant entitled, “Does This Campaign Seem Off-Target to You?”

But based on their new TV commercial, it appears that Target’s advertising is back and better than ever.  The first time I saw it, I knew within 5 seconds that it had to be a Target spot, even though there are even fewer conventional branding cues than in their past successful ads.  Frankly, I’m not quite sure how they pulled this off, but to me this spot screams “Target” from start to finish.

The intent of the spot was clearly an ambitious one:  to help reestablish Target as the leading-edge fashion mass merchandiser for young consumers while making those consumers aware of the many leading-edge brands it carries exclusively.  And as far as I can see, this mission was accomplished–big-time!  The ad’s song–”The A.B.C. of L.O.V.E.” by Pravda–is a high-energy tune that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.  And the visuals are as fashion-forward as just about anything on the air right now.

Of course, I’m not exactly in Target’s target audience–at least for this campaign–so maybe the fact that it appeals to me is actually a bad sign.  Only time will tell, but until it does, I can’t wait for Target’s next ad.  And I’m betting that Target might be a good place to target not only your consumption dollars, but your investment dollars as well.

Jonathan Adler’s Capitalist Manifesto

March 23rd, 2010

jonathan adler
I would never admit it publicly–like in a blog or something–but my wife Mary has introduced me to many interesting things over the years that I would likely never have discovered on my own. These include various foods, restaurants, books and retail establishments, some of which I end up liking at least as much as she does. A great example of this is Jonathan Adler, a one-of-a-kind retailer of pottery, furniture, rugs, lamps, art, candles and other household items. While not everything they carry is a match for my personal tastes (which is a good thing for them, BTW), I could not be more impressed with the job they’ve done creating and maintaining their branding.

Have you ever noticed how often the most successful companies are a manifestation of their founder’s personality and vision? Just as Steve Jobs is Apple, Richard Branson is Virgin Atlantic, Jeff Bezos is Amazon and Howard Schultz is Starbucks, Jonathan Adler is, well, Jonathan Adler. And Jonathan is not only a very talented designer and retailer, he is a brilliant marketer. Everything his company does–from the products they design or carry to the layout of their stores to the design of their website–exudes the same sense of style, cleverness, personality and, most of all, fun. This is a company that knows exactly what it is, and what it isn’t.

So how do they maintain this impressive consistency? Do they have a sophisticated Vision Statement or Mission Statement or both? Actually, they have something much better: a Manifesto. It’s the first page after their home page on their website, and it’s showcased on a large sign in all of their stores. And it does more to capture the essence of their company, their brand, than any Vision Statement or Mission Statement I’ve ever read.

The opening line of the Manifesto is, appropriately, the simplest and most powerful: “We believe your home should make you happy.” But the second line adds a little flavor to give you an even better sense of the uniqueness of this brand: “We believe that when it comes to decorating, the wife is always right. Unless the husband is gay.” The rest of this wonderfully-crafted document contains several other gems, including “We believe our lamps will make you look younger and thinner,” “We believe colors can’t clash” and “We believe our designs are award winning even though they’ve never actually won any.”

I love the fact that they share their Manifesto so transparently with customers–and prospective customers. I suspect that anyone reading it for the first time in one of their 12 stores will have one of two possible reactions: either “Uh, I think I’d better leave now,” or “I LOVE this place!!!” Which is to say that Jonathan Adler isn’t for everyone; it isn’t intended to be. That’s the essence of effective branding.

No, Jonathan Adler isn’t for everyone, but for your sake, I hope it’s for you.

Does This Campaign Seem Off-Target to You?

December 9th, 2009

For much of this decade, Target was one of the most sophisticated and effective advertisers in the retail industry. Their ads were bright, upbeat and infectious, and they made their products the heroes of every one. Most impressively, these ads were instantly recognizable as Target ads, even if you didn’t see the Target name or distinctive logo until the very end of the spot. In a word, this advertising was smart.

Several articles in various business journals have discussed Target’s recent strategic shift to increase its emphasis on low pricing in response to its soft sales trends. Changing your strategic stripes is always dicey, and based on the slew (sleigh?) of holiday ads Target has launched in recent weeks, it looks like they’ve yet to get a handle on their new tack. And the result could be a real dent in Target’s brand equity.

Several of the ads involve vignettes in which a gift recipient is concerned that the gift-giver has spent too much on them. Each time, the ad ends with the giver saying that the gift didn’t cost as much as it appears, and that’s fine. What I don’t like is what happens in the middle of the ad, which is invariably a downer. In “Confession”, a young daughter’s guilt forces her to confess bad things she’s done, like reading her older sister’s diary and forging her mom’s signature. In “There Yet”, a young woman feels compelled to let her gift-giver know that she’s not as into the relationship as he appears to be. Both spots are only marginally funny and leave you feeling a little sad, a little uncomfortable, or both.

Another ad called “Is It Working?” shows a boy projecting his father’s rear-end onto their big-screen TV, while the unsuspecting father is trying to fix the TV that his son has led him to believe is not working properly. Written or directed differently, this ad could be amusing or even charming, but instead it comes off as sophomoric at best and mean at worst. All of these ads end with a voice singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” but the feeling you’re left with is hardly a warm one.

A prior series of ads, including one called “Gingerbread”, featured an over-caffeinated Martha Stewart-like “perfect homemaker” who is clearly stressed out keeping up with all of her holiday projects. The first ad made me smile slightly, but by the third one I wanted this lady to leave me alone and return to her asylum.

I’m all for using humor in advertising, but–especially for a mainstream advertiser with Target’s upbeat brand image–the humor should be smart, uplifting and light rather than clumsy, cynical and dark.

It seems clear that Target’s marketers have abandoned their brand’s distinctive persona without identifying an appealing replacement, and I suspect that the result will be a 2009 holiday season with decidedly off-target sales.

Amazon Not Afraid to Play with Fire

April 27th, 2009

Amazon recently announced financial results that virtually any company would die for, and it’s hardly a surprise. This is a company that possesses not only a crystal clear vision but an exceptional ability to execute. But for all the well-deserved praise they’ve received over the years for being the world’s most innovative online retailer, I don’t think they’re receiving all the praise they deserve for their bold launch of the highly innovative Kindle and Kindle 2 wireless reading devices.

I don’t own a Kindle (yet), and I realize that it has its critics, but I also know a lot of people who are head-over-heels in love with their Kindle. One of the most impressive aspects of the Kindle story is the fact that Amazon didn’t wait until the products were perfect before launching them. Rather, they gave it their best shot, introduced it to the market, listened to user feedback, and acted on it. As a result, the Kindle 2 represents dramatic advances over its predecessor, and I have no doubt that the same will be true of the Kindle 3.

It takes a lot of audacity to launch a product as technologically challenging as a wireless reading device, especially when you make a good part of your living selling paper-based books. Amazon, however, clearly realized that sooner or later someone would launch such a product, and it’s far better to cannibalize yourself than to let someone else eat away at your market share. Moreover, given the deep insights Amazon has into into its customer base, I suspect that they felt the Kindle would increase overall book readership rather than merely cannibalize paper-based book sales.  And from some of the reports I’ve read, it appears that Amazon was right.

While I doubt that I would have come up with “Kindle” had I been given the naming assignment for this innovative new product (given that the name is associated primarily with igniting fires and bearing offspring), I think the name works quite well. It has a pleasant, comfortable feeling to it, and congers up images of cozying up to a warm fire with a good book. Or maybe even a good wireless reading device.