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Monday, June 29, 2009

The Retail Experience Roadmap

This article, titled "The Retail Experience Roadmap," appeared in the February 9/16, 2009 issue of Floor Covering Weekly, in my column "flooring the customer."

What serves as your retail experience roadmap? Three resources ground me when I think about the retail experience: Paco Underhill’s "Why We Buy," Raymond R. Burke’s "10 Principles of Retail Shoppability," and Pamela Danziger’s "Pop! Equation: Field Guide to Shops That Pop" from her recent book Shopping.

Paco states that amenability and profitability are inextricably linked. To that end, he applies the tools of an anthropologist to retail environments, examining how shoppers behave and interact with product, displays, signage, and people in stores. The more comfortable and convenient a store, the more likely a shopper is to spend time and eventually buy. Makes sense.

Raymond R. Burke, professor of business at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, studies retail including marketing research, retailing, shopper behavior, and data mining. His "10 Principles of Retail Shoppability" represent the common elements he identified across a range of successful retail formats. Although the 10 principles may seem basic, they are critical and yet often aren’t addressed in the retail environment.

Show the product
Provide effective navigational aids
Simplify product organization and presentation
Minimize clutter
Maximize product affordance
Showcase new items and new ideas
Make the shopping experience convenient
Make the shopping experience enjoyable
Speak with authority
Maintain flexibility

Pamela Danziger’s "Pop! Equation: Field Guide to Shops that Pop" captures the soul or magic that great stores infuse into their retail experience. Her equation assumes that the basics have not only been covered, but also elevated to new heights to deliver more for the consumer. Such stores should:

Offer high levels of customer involvement and interaction
Excite consumer curiosity to explore & experience
Exude contagious energy & excitement
Represent a fine synergy between tangible and intangible elements
Capture an authentic concept
Offer superior value at a reasonable cost
Welcome all with an inclusive [not exclusive] attitude

Let’s take a visit to the Apple Store as an example. You position yourself first outside the store and watch to see how subjects approach the store, what they look at, how they enter. You follow. Once inside, what do they do? Where do they go? How do they interact with displays? How long do they stay? Do they buy?

Then, step back and observe the store itself. Remember that a store is about bringing people and product together, so both can interact. Successful store experiences engage the senses, as a store is about the product seducing the shopper into making a purchase.

The Apple Store is a sparse contemporary environment: plain white box; bright ethereal lights; very clean. The product, though, shines! It is available throughout the store on simple, accessible rectilinear tables. Shoppers are encouraged to play with it, interact, consult MapQuest, listen to music, ask questions, consult a Genius, obtain training. Bold graphics celebrate the beauty of the product, its stylishness, its newness.

If you need help in an Apple Store, you can easily consult the Genius Bar or an employee dressed in uniform t-shirt with an identification badge hanging from his or her neck.

Listen to the buzz of the store. It’s alive with energy, excitement, enthusiasm. Not only are shoppers involved with product, but they interact with one another. They are curious about what they don’t know and eager to share with others. It’s contagious! It also demonstrates the value associated with Apple products. An Apple product welcomes you into the Apple community. Whether you buy or not, you are invited to spend as much time in the store as you’d like.

Now, leave that Apple store. Keep that template or roadmap in mind and go back to your store. What do you now see that would improve your retail experience?

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Flooring The Consumer: Three Years Old!

The Magic of Number Three - A Visual Puzzle originally uploaded by Kornel Mezo.
Blogging continues to inspire and amaze me, particularly as I reach the three year anniversary of Flooring The Consumer.

I can document my reasons for getting started, but that doesn't adequately capture my rich and rewarding personal journey where I have encountered so many unexpected wonderful friends, new perspectives and intriguing possibilities....

As I begin my fourth year, I thought it would be interesting to look back and share with you the posts that have attracted the most interest:

Top 2009 Stories
+ Getting Ahead By Being Local
+ Martin Linstrom's Buyology
+ Social Media, Marketing, Retail & Customers
+ 16 Social Media Tips Relating to Listening
+ Retail Experience Of the Future

Top 2008 Stories
+ A. Alfred Taubman: Overcoming Threshold Resistance
+ Retail Window Displays Matter
+ Meet Kim Gavin Editor, Floor Covering Weekly
+ How Might Flooring Displays Tell Better Stories?
+ Jon Trivers: How To Create Your Own Flooring Empire

Top 2007 Stories
+ Wal-Mart Plano - Like No Other Store!
+ A Store That Floors: Aggieland Carpet One Floor & Home
+ Bathroom Brand Manifestations: Bass Pro Shops
+ How Do You Define Customer Experience?
+ Brand Manifestations in the Bathroom: Advertising

Top 2006 Stories
+ Dove: What is Real Beauty?
+ Atlanta's Atlantic Station - A Lifestyle Center
+ Shelly Lazarus on the Future of Advertising & Marketing
+ An Architect's View of Better Lifestyle Centers
+ Hallowe'en Bathroom Horror Stories

All Time Top Stories [which deliberately do not overlap with links above]:
+ Trader Joe's - Where Values Drive The Brand
+ Southlake Town Square - A Lifestyle Center
+ Hall of Shame Inductee: LabCorp
+ "Sorry Pumpkin" - The LabCorp Saga Continues
+ Engaging The Consumer... Via Store Windows

I'm so very excited about this next year, and I thank all of you who have joined me over these past three years.

A big thank you, too, to those who have taken part in my Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old:

Mack Collier, Ann Handley, Steve Woodruff, Toby Bloomberg, Amber Naslund, Lewis Green, Laurence Borel, Susan Abbott, Arun Rajagopal, Kristin Gorski, Dan Schawbel, Chris Kieff, Alan Woody from Carpets By Otto, Karin Hermans, Mario Vellandi, Jay Ehret, Lori Magno, David Polinchock, Peg Mulligan, Yvonne DiVita, Rich Nadworny, Doug Meacham, Valeria Maltoni, Jeanne Byington, Kristin Golliher from OtterBox, and Andrea Learned. And those soon to take part - Phil Gerbyshak, Jason Baer, Nesh Thompson - and many others whose voices I hope to share with you.

Thank you for being part of my journey and allowing me to be part of yours.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Andrea Learned on Bridging New & Old - Social Media Series

This week's guest for Flooring The Consumer's Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old is Andrea Learned.

Andrea Learned, a "marketing dot-connector with a focus on gender and a longterm view on coming trends," is a wonderful practical source of marketplace wisdom. Simply spend time on Learned on Women and you'll understand.

I got to 'know' Andrea because of my interest in marketing to women. Her insights on how women [and men] buy are wonderfully grounded and reflect cultural trends. Take her most recent post On Nurturing A Fresh Gender Perspective and note her generational observations, or Marketing to Women for the Common Man.

In fact, Andrea has evolved 'marketing to women' by focusing on right- and left-brain traits and gender perspectives, thereby avoiding the "gender trap and instead serv[ing] the highest consumer standard represented by 'women's ways' but serving everyone." [I'm certainly aware that, depending on the circumstances, my left-brain traits will take over; at other times, you had better not get in the way of my right-brain demands!] This evolution captures the value that comes from 'bridging new & old.'

Andrea co-wrote Don't Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy -- and How to Increase Your Share of This Crucial Market, writes for The Huffington Post, and her most recent post on MarketingProfs Daily Fix is Targeting' Women Indeed: Satirical Widsom. Oh, and be sure, too, to read her Cool Friends Interview with Tom Peters.

C.B.: Andrea, how/why did you get involved in social media?

Andrea: I got pulled in, kicking and screaming, by my business friends - first to Facebook and then a few months later to Twitter. Their pitch was that it'd be a way to get my blog posts and my personality/brand in front of a lot more people with similar interests. I was skeptical... still.

C.B.: What do you like most about social media?

Andrea: I have seen that my old friendships were made richer via FB/Twitter, and I have made a lot of new friends, specifically in my local Vermont area, via Twitter - which I never expected. I like that it's an immediate way to share the random interesting articles that come my way but that I don't have time to think/blog about. I also like that I see immediate referral of my blog posts out to a broader world. I guess it sort of maps out the spread of my "influence" and also is a way that I gather even more cool articles/things to look at - many times from famous writer/editors of the publications I love. So, I can even get into conversations with people that otherwise would seem so out of my reach. I'm a natural connector, so this whole thing enhances that ten-fold.

C.B.: What do you like least about social media?

Andrea: That so many people post about how great they are (which are interestingly mainly male marketing types.. as in "I just met with the CEO of Microsoft and he's going to pay me $1 mill to do a presentation.") or to demonstrate how busy/high-flying they are. ("I just landed at SFO. So tired from my trip back from Hong Kong...") I have also seen people get way too intimate/personal with what they share, and they are a lot more free with their four-letter words and mis-spellings (which fascinates me because Twitter, especially, seems to be mainly about business use).

C.B.: How has social media changed how you interact with the marketplace as a consumer or customer?

Andrea: I feel like I have more "back story" from the few brand Twitter presences I see. I don't follow or join any "fan" clubs on FB, though. Random interactions work best and most resonate with me. (I'm a very deliberate shopper, so it's hard to "get" to me.) I haven't given this much thought though...since I really use Twitter (and I mainly use that, over FB, now) for business research and connecting purposes, not personal business.

C.B.: What 5 suggestions do you have for companies to implement so they can more effectively bridge old media with new media and connect with end users?

1- Don't make it a bigger deal than it is, or you'll never get started. Get onto the various platforms and follow a few people you already know you respect and see how they do things.

2 - Don't assume "social media" as next big thing is truly a good fit for your brand. It may not be - just depends who you are trying to reach.

3 - Do share, share and share... links and helpful information you'd pass along to your best buddy in your work-world. Then, when you have a blog post of your own or announcement to make, more people will see it as authentic and helpful rather than self-promoting.

4 - Don't be afraid to engage a bit with those who seem to question or take issue with your perspective. Interesting conversations and connections usually emerge.

5 - Select 3-5 (tops) key topics you want to be known for sharing about and those parameters will help you decide when to send a tweet or post something on FB. Make 1-2 of those topics the ones that are personal to you. For me, I don't have any significant work in socially responsible business, but I am personally passionate about it (and would love to someday work within that realm). I also have a thing for fitness/health so occasionally those Tweets will squeak out of me too.

C.B.: Any other thoughts to share about the effectiveness of social media in forging stronger relations with customers and how best to do so.

Andrea: My "customers," I guess, are my readers/prospective clients - and I find that the more you interact, or that they even see your name with an interesting Tweet, the more you will be remembered and sought out - beyond social media. If you are a cool, helpful person via social media and show integrity in all things - that, just like in the offline world, will bounce back as great connections/goodwill for future work.

Thank you, Andrea!

Comments? Questions? Feedback?

I love the notion of the 'back story' on a brand. That's what I consider 'texture' or 'dimension' - understanding what the greater context is and how it is relevant to me.

What do you think about what Andrea shares in her 5th suggestion: selecting 3 to 5 key topics that you want to be know for sharing about, with 1 or 2 of those being personal? Do you have approaches that work similarly?

For additional insights from participants in the Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old, please visit The Entire Bridging New & Old Series.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Retailers Shift Strategy, Sync With Seasons & Other Novel Approaches

The front page of the 6/20/09 New York Times featured a fascinating article titled In Recession, Strategy Shifts for Big Retailers. According to the author, Stephanie Rosenbloom, the country's largest retailers "are seizing the moment to reinvent their business strategies."

More specifically, "high end stores... will offer more midpriced merchandise. Many chains ... will carry less inventory and fewer brands. The likes of Sears and J.C. Penney will put self-service computers in stores so customers can browse collections or buy out-of-stock items. And retailers of all stripes will offer more exclusive merchandise and more attentive customer service... One of the biggest changes... is greater personalization and regionalization of merchandise."

On one hand, I consider this exciting news. On the other, I'm amazed that so many retailers have been asleep at the switch and not paying closer attention to their customers - especially when other non-US retailers [e.g., Zara and H&M] and US non-apparel retailers like Trader Joe's have.

Zara uses hand-held devices to immediately communicate product feedback. Macy's intends to send its merchandisers and other planners into stores each week to learn from the sales staff, who will "keep logs at the sales registers", and fine tune product offerings to meet the specific needs of a locality. Getting Ahead By Being Local makes sense, especially in an age where everything looks the same.

The article says that "at high-end stores, ... consumers will still be able to buy chic brand names, but at a wider range of prices." Furthermore, brands will be streamlined. "Consumers are 'time-starved' and looking for simplification in the entire shopping experience." I've walked away from purchase decisions where the choices were too many. It's exhausting to have to sift through so many choices, and I hate the negative emotions.

I'm particularly intrigued to read that "seasonal transitions for apparel will probably have shorter lead times." Makes sense to me. Retailers have been jumping the gun on too many seasonal fronts [see The Grinch Who Stole November's Christmas and Elmo Saves Christmas... But, Not From Retailers]. It's time to get back in sync as Retailers keeping clothes in sync with seasons by Anne D'Innocenzio explains. She brings up an interesting point in her article: that the change in strategy leads to a change in product quality in favor of innovations that enhance wear and durability. I'm hoping that means we can say goodbye to disposable products and instead focus on acquiring better quality products that last longer. That's sustainable.

Back to the NYT article. It brings up more designer - retailer collaborations for exclusive products, more blurring between on- and off-line store experiences with more opportunities to do research [including competitive research] in-store, and cellphone shopping [something already well established in Japan].

It also addresses an increased focus on customer service.

That's right, a lot more effort on improving the customer's retail buying experience and having knowledgeable, customer-focused sales staff on hand.

Music to my ears!

Now, although the article focuses on apparel [with a few Sears and Home Depot comments], it in every way applies to retail stores across the board including flooring.

1. Listen to your customer. Observe your customer. Pay attention to the trends that are relevant to your market place. What products styles, attributes and colors matter to your customer base? What problems can you help them solve?

2. Simplify your product offerings. Make sure they make sense to your customers. Can customers readily determine the value each offers?

3. Are your on- and off-line experiences fully integrated? Can you help customers do research within your store? Do you offer them all of the information they need to make the decision that matters to them both in-store and on-line?

4. Is your retail buying experience absolutely top-notch and memorable? From beginning to post-installation? Do you create long-lasting relationships?

Retailing is in for interesting change as strategies shift and we re-adjust to truly focusing on how to add value to our customers' lives.

Do you agree?

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Meet Jim Gould - Floor Covering Institute Series

In this series, I introduce you to the members of the Floor Covering Institute. This post focuses on James C. [or Jim] Gould, president and founder of the Floor Covering Institute.

I first met Jim in mid 2004 shortly after he joined CCA Global Partners as chief product officer. Very quickly, I realized that his product knowledge and marketplace perspectives were unlike any I had encountered so far in the flooring industry. Not only had Jim developed a comprehensive perspective of the flooring industry, in terms of product categories, end uses possible, marketplace success and how to distribute products effectively, but he also brought a global understanding of industry dynamics. Plus, he spoke French!

Many in the flooring industry consider Jim a “visionary.” You see, he has the ability to envision opportunities before others do. Examples: Pergo laminate, Casa Italia ceramic, Resista fiber at CCA [see below for more details]... Jim examines a problem and comes away with a totally different perspective and solution. And, not just in the flooring industry...

Take St. Louis Children's Hospital on whose board he has served for the past 15 years and where he heads the Patient Care and Quality Committee. St. Louis Children's Hospital has just made U.S. News Honor Roll of Top Children's Hospitals in America - the only children's hospital ranked in the Top 10 of every measured category and it ranks #5 nationally in a study by Parents magazine.

Jim is also a past Chapter Chairman of the Young President’s Organization and chaired a week long International YPO University that included such notables as Presidents George W. Bush, Shimon Peres and F.W. de Klerk aboard Cunard’s QE2...

C.B.: Jim, please tell me about yourself.

Jim: I started my career in the family business, Misco Shawnee, in 1969. When I joined Misco we were a Mohawk Carpet distributor serving the Midwest. In those days a Mohawk distributor was only allowed to carry Mohawk carpet so that represented 100% of our business. By 1979, we had grown to be their largest distributor with warehouses in St. Louis, Chicago, Louisville and Columbus, Ohio. It was then that I was promoted to president of the company and Mohawk agreed that we could expand into Armstrong vinyl. Next to Mohawk, Armstrong was the best known name in floor covering and it wasn't carpet, thereby broadening our product selection.

We became an Armstrong distributor first in Chicago, then expanded into our other markets. In 1985, Mohawk still represented 60% of our volume when they made the decision to eliminate all distribution and service retailers direct. We had a one year transition period during which we concentrated on growing the Armstrong business and bringing in new lines like Bruce Hardwood. As a result, we never lost money!

In 1991, I started a company called Distribution Services Inc. [DSI] which took Misco’s distribution expertise and offered those same services to foreign manufacturers trying to enter the US market. With additional warehouses in Dalton and Los Angeles, DSI was ready when Pergo wanted to enter the American market.

The decision to launch DSI came about from asking ourselves two critical questions:

+ What is it that we do that is really needed by the industry?
+ If we disappeared would anyone say, ‘Gee, I sure miss Misco'?

As a result, we identified as a unique strength our market and product knowledge, combined with warehousing and logistics.

Next, we asked: who really needs that and quickly came to the conclusion that it was a foreign manufacturer with great products and no understanding of the US. For that we needed to be national, behind the scenes and a great partner. Lars von Kantzow would tell you today that we saved him millions of dollars and years of time launching Pergo because of our expertise. What I do today is no different: I guide foreign manufacturers on how to get their products into the US market.

Pergo is an interesting story. I first noticed Pergo laminate flooring in Germany in the early 1990s. It struck me as an ideal flooring product for the US market because it easily exceeded consumer expectations in performance and maintenance. In fact, consumer word of mouth became our most important advertising vehicle.

I returned to the US with samples and proceeded to talk to everyone in the industry about this new thing called laminate flooring. Through DSI, I was able to bring Pergo to the U.S., provide the parent company with the logistics and administrative services they needed to get started and took on the line at Misco before anyone else. That pushed Pergo into the U.S. market and literally changed the face of the hard surface industry.

In 1997, Color Tile, the largest ceramic flooring retailer in America filed for bankruptcy. I believed that ceramic would become another important segment of the floor covering retail offering and purchased the company.

Some history to put this into perspective. If you go back to the 70s, wood and ceramic were not sold by specialty floor covering stores. They were unique products that were sold through their own, unique channels. However, when “prefinished” wood was introduced, it was easier for the store selling carpet and vinyl to add in wood. No artistic expertise for sanding and staining was required.

Ceramic remained outside the norm for floor covering stores until owners realized that some customers “walked” when they couldn't get all flooring products from a one stop shop. Color Tile had tried to expand into carpet -- unsuccessfully (one of the reasons they went bankrupt) although expansion made perfect sense. I became partners with an Italian resource and created the ceramic line Casa Italia specifically targeting the full line floor covering retailer. My distribution network helped this unique ceramic line and other regional distributors get a foothold in that segment well ahead of others.

I sold Color Tile, DSI and Misco in 2003 with the expectation of starting a consulting business. Long time friend and business associate, Alan Greenberg convinced me to become the Chief Product Officer of CCA Global Partners instead. I was intrigued by the size of CCA and the opportunity they had to dominate the industry. I was also involved with Alan since he first thought of the concept and, like everyone else, was astounded by its success. I believe that retailers can share the cost of marketing and buying resulting in not only great savings in time and money, but also giving them peace of mind that they end up with a fair price from the supplier and receive expert advice on how to sell and merchandise. While at CCA, I saw the opportunity for a proprietary fiber to further differentiate CCA Global retailers. That's how Resista came about.

But, in 2007, after Alan’s tragic death, I left CCA Global to start my consulting business, the Floor Covering Institute LLC, where I share my expertise in flooring products, international sourcing, and channel strategies for distribution and marketing.

C.B.: How did you get started in the flooring business?

Jim: Our family business was started by my grandfather in 1912 as a second hand furniture store and auction company. With today’s modern marketing, it would have been called an “antique store.” I worked summers at the family business and attended the week-long Mohawk Carpet school in 1966 when Mohawk was still located in the Mohawk River Valley in Amsterdam, New York. Following a little time in law school and the Air Force, I joined the company as a commercial specifier for Mohawk in Chicago; one of the best jobs I have had. My father was my mentor and the Young President’s Organization was my training ground.

C.B.: What do you like most about flooring?

Jim: I love the relationships. I worked retail part time while I was in college, but was frustrated that I might never see a satisfied customer again. As a wholesaler, I created lifelong friendships with retail customers, manufacturer/suppliers and fellow distributors. Helping friends and keeping up with changes in products and companies make this an exciting and personal business.

C.B.: What do you like least about flooring?

Jim: In the absence of knowledge, the consumer has only price to differentiate between products. I am very bothered by those people who commoditize products due to lack of product knowledge or interest. The reason manufacturers make different qualities are to meet the varying needs of consumers. It is a disservice to the consumer and the manufacturer to say the difference between a $4 wood floor and an $8 wood floor is $4. By ignoring subtle differences in product it cheapens our industry and its ability to make a fair profit margin for what we provide.

C.B.: What 5 opportunities do you see for the flooring industry?

• Better education and product knowledge of the people interfacing with the consumer as well as an appreciation for product differentiation.

• Improved product attributes regarding maintenance, installation, acoustics and performance.

• Better stewardship of the environment. Engineered wood instead of solid, recycling carpet fiber, establish networks of collection centers

• Commercial market for laminate

• Export from the US into emerging markets

C.B.: What do you see being the greatest advantage that the Floor Covering Institute offers?

Jim: With the combined expertise of the Floor Covering Institute's consultants, we offer a very broad source of knowledge, specific problem-solving abilities and unique insight on the global flooring industry. Many in our industry focus on a specific product segment and lose sight of the big picture. That’s where the Floor Covering Institute can truly help. We have the ability to bring the industry together, to address problems affecting all segments of the floor covering industry and share best practices from outside the industry. Bottom line: we can help industry participants become better informed, resulting in greater profitability.

C.B.: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Jim: The floor covering industry is my home; the Floor Covering Institute was a dream and is now reality. My hope is that the Institute will help build my dream home.

Thank you, Jim.

Previous post in this series: Meet Carl Ruland

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

I attended NeoCon... Virtually!

That's right! I attended NeoCon 2009. I'm not kidding and here's the proof [note the @cbwhittemore] drawn on this awesome new "white board with Tabrasa by IdeaPaint - a dry erase paint that turns any working environment into a high-performance writing space" from MDC Wallcoverings.

@cbwhittemore is this inspirational enough? We're far better ... on Twitpic

Talk about a brilliant way to create conversation around a new product! Just look at all of the images that Tabrasa by IdeaPaint generated. That's how I got in on the act and attended NeoCon.... virtually. Thanks to Twitter. Here's how.

In TweetDeck, I set up a search for carpet early Monday morning and came across a reference to #NeoCon09. I draw your attention to the # symbol [i.e., hashtag] which, according to the Twitter Fan Wiki, are "community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets." In other words, it's a terrific way to track Twitter conversation around common themes.

Once I discovered #NeoCon09, I created another search and came across a Tweet from fellow blogger @DarrylOhrt, author of BrandFlakes For Breakfast. I thought Darryl was attending NeoCon and hoped to live vicariously through his tweets.

He wasn't, but I did learn from his Tweet that he knew of something exciting going on. The Tweet pointed me to his post on whiteboard anywhere where I got the lowdown...

The MDC Wallcovering showroom [#10-155 in the Chicago Merchandise Mart] had artist Phil Lubliner illustrating live at their booth. The scoop? Tweet your request to @mdctabrasa with the hashtag #mdctabrasa and he would draw it.

My request was for "simple, beautiful, inspiring flooring."

The result was the photo above, tweeted back to me, which you can enjoy in larger format via this TwitPic link. An unexpected bonus.

[BTW, seems that for those there physically, you could get a free stuffed monkey, too, and some extra freehand doodling.]

For those of you interested in what Twitter contributed to NeoCon, I suggest that you read through the #NeoCon09 coded Tweets.

[Note: they will appear in reverse order, with the most recent Tweet first.]

You'll notice plenty of situational exchanges: who's where; the elevators; no cell service; getting started, etc.

You'll find what I consider broadcast advertisements "come to my booth to see my new product."

Links to photos.

Lots of immediate reactions to new products.

Also, announcements about special recognition and awards.

But, you'll also find links to more detailed observations and reviews:

Furniture Goddess
NeoCon Impressions
3rings - A Product Blog for Architecture + Design
Ponoko Blog - with pictures of the NeoCon Twitter board

With more sure to come.

And, don't forget to check out #NeoCon09 on Flickr [note the monkey]. It's fascinating.

The energy is palpable. The reactions are immediate.

This is what makes social media so magically potent. It allowed me to attend NeoCon virtually!

Thank you, Darryl!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Kristin Golliher, OtterBox on Bridging New & Old - Social Media Series

This week's guest for Flooring The Consumer's Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old is Kristin Golliher.

Kristin Golliher is the Public Relations Executive for OtterBox, a company I discovered when I wrote Press Releases, Newsletters and Otterbox on the Simple Marketing Blog. Otterbox manufactures laptop, PDA, smartphone and other protective cases and has been experimenting with non-traditional marketing to promote its business.

C.B.: Kristin, how and why did you get involved in social media?

Kristin: Handheld technology has rapidly become the preferred gateway for communication. People worldwide are absolutely obsessed with using the iPhone™, BlackBerry® and Treo™ smartphones and other devices to keep in touch. Whether it’s in a business meeting, on the subway, at the airport or while you’re in the middle of a conversation, handhelds can be found everywhere. Since OtterBox makes protective cases for these devices, it was a no-brainer for us to get involved with social media as a way to connect with our customers.

We started with our blog - the Otter Blog - in September 2005 and have recently expanded that with a Facebook page, Twitter account and Planet OtterBox, a site where people can share their OtterBox adventures. Social media is an excellent way for us to communicate and engage with our customers; it’s cutting edge!

C.B.: What do you like most about social media?

Kristin: I absolutely LOVE how it is always changing! You know the Forrest Gump line, “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get,” that’s totally social media! There are always new and different ways of communicating which keeps it exciting (and keeps us PR people on our toes).

Twitter is a perfect example. This relatively new social media platform has grown exponentially and has become an incredible resource for sharing information and gaining first hand accounts of breaking news. It’s a great way for us to connect with our customers and media by sharing cool stories, OtterBox happenings, answering questions and following other companies and individuals to offer our support as well. I’ll admit it’s rather humorous to go into a board meeting and tell the CEO we are now “twitterers” and will be “tweeting” and attending a “tweet up”— we promise this is perfectly legitimate (even though the lingo sounds somewhat questionable).

C.B.: What do you like least about social media?

Kristin: Although it’s awesome people can speak their minds, sometimes social media sites are host to extremely offensive comments! I’m amazed with the posts a select few people have made over the years. The cardinal rule to, “think before you speak,” should be applied to social media too. It seems a small percentage of people have absolutely no filter whatsoever to their comments. Criticisms are always appreciated and serve as building blocks for growth and change at companies like OtterBox, but downright vulgar, degrading or otherwise unprofessional comments fail to be constructive.

C.B.: How has social media changed how you interact with the marketplace as a consumer or customer?

Kristin: Social media has definitely allowed us to connect to customers on a more personal level. Before it was a very “transactional” experience—they placed the order, received the product and used our cases to protect technology and valuables. Now, through social media, it’s more of an “interactional” experience—customers can chat on forums or interact with other customers on Facebook to decide if our cases are right for them. Once they buy the case, they can share their experiences and photos on Planet OtterBox, join in on the OtterBox culture, check out our Blog, ask questions on Twitter, etc. By offering these platforms, we can engage with our customers in conversation and create a lasting relationship. It’s all based on the OtterBox experience, once people buy a case they become part of the “OtterBox family” and connect with us in dialogue. We get some awesome stories too, so it’s definitely fun on our end to hear how customers are using our cases in the real world!

C.B.: What 5 suggestions do you have for companies to implement so they can more effectively bridge old media with new media and connect with end users?

Kristin: No doubt about it, this whole social media thing is confusing and you’ll hear 50 million people tell you 50 million ways to approach it. Here are my top 5 suggestions:

Understand your customer: Contrary to popular belief, social media is NOT for everyone. Are your customers even using social media outlets? If not, social media is probably not a good fit, if so then it’s definitely worth checking into.

Investigate: Read articles about the social media outlet, check out other sites for ideas, follow forum comments before piping in to see what’s being said and if it’s appropriate for you to dialogue. Basic research can go a long way!

Make a plan: How do you want to handle the social media outlet? Who will be in charge? How does the platform work and are you ready for the commitment? We do this a TON in our PR department at OtterBox. Carefully laying out a plan ensures there will be no surprises and everyone knows what their responsibilities are with the social media outlet. For example, if someone asks a question on Facebook you need to determine who responds or who is in charge of blog entries and forum comments.

Be open to change: Social media is always changing which is the exciting part. If a social media site isn’t working out for you, becomes too overwhelming or takes a nose dive in popularity then it’s time to re-evaluate. Try putting multiple people in charge—we have several voices that contribute to our blog and have “behind the scenes” people working on the design of the landing page as well. At some point, you may find you need to switch outlets. We did this at OtterBox from our MySpace page to a more popular, more interactive Facebook page.

Have fun: Social media is definitely not your typical kind of communication. You can tell if people are too serious in their posts and portray a corporate façade. Trust me, we’ve made this mistake! While it’s great to generate sales, it’s also important to connect to readers, followers and friends by interacting with them. Sharing insider scoops, exciting happenings, linking to interesting information or sharing details about the industry as a whole show you care about more than just the bottom line.

C.B.: Kristin, any other thoughts to share about the effectiveness of social media in forging stronger relations with customers and how best to do so.

Kristin: At OtterBox we have a unique and exciting culture that we enjoy sharing with others and since it’s all online we can communicate on a local, national and worldwide scale. Social media is different from traditional media outreach, so there’s definitely a learning curve (especially since many of us PR practitioners were not taught this in school). Embracing this new medium, however, can bridge the gap between companies and customers and prove to be extremely successful in establishing a people oriented, personable and helpful company.

Thank you, Kristin!

Comments? Questions? Feedback?

How have social media tools changed how you interact with companies? What do you like most about hearing other people's experiences with products?

What about Kristin's top suggestions? I love her suggestions in 'be open to change' and the notion of have several people and voices involved for a variety of perspectives on writing and interpreting feedback.

For additional insights from participants in the Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old, please visit The Entire Bridging New & Old Series.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Rethinking the Mall & Uncovering Retail Creativity

Mosaic Mall originally uploaded by /\ltus.
What's next for retail? How to reinvent the mall experience? How to adapt to 'changing consumer attitudes about consumption' and the desire for more sustainable environments? Start by reading the article Allison Arieff from The New York Times wrote on 6/1/09. It's titled Rethinking the Mall and reviews entries to the inaugural ICSC Future Image Architecture Competition.

In addition to touching on some of the retail frustrations I've encountered in Las Vegas, she expresses disappointment that so few of the entries "paid [attention] to things like sustainable architecture, alternative transit or changing consumer attitudes about consumption."

However, Arieff highlights intriguing concepts around rethinking the mall, looking at human behavior in conjunction with physical space and at "technology not as some sci-fi fantasy, but as something that could enhance not only the shopping experience but environmental and social conditions as well."

One example reexamines the relationship between customer and retailer, to offer services like:

- "assist[ing] consumers in budgeting for purchases"
- how to deal with the "brilliant dilemma of 'after-wear' management"
- allowing customers to "donate a percentage of their purchase price to charity"

No surprise, "walkable mixed-use community" comes up -- enhanced for "multi-modal access [not just car but rail, transit and pedestrian]." Social center, too [the author brings up The Ainsworth Collective in Portland Oregon's Cully neighborhood as successful interpretation of a local, cause-oriented retail mall]. Another concept refers to "self-sustaining, self-generating scenario of distributed shopping experiences" that work hand-in-hand with iPhones for easy purchase online. And, yet another concept specifically addresses the "powerful forces shaping a retail renaissance... Internet, social networking, women, food, energy, sustainability factors will determine their [i.e., surviving retailers'] functionality, form and location."

In addition to validating previous posts like Injecting New Life Into Dead Malls, Getting Ahead By Being Local and Retail Experience of the Future, what I appreciate from this article is that there's wonderful creativity yet to be uncovered at retail. And, although about malls and rethinking the mall experience, the learnings, observations and possibilities from this article are much wider-reaching. They are relevant to any retail experience.

David Polinchock makes that same point in his post Rethinking the Mall - Allison Arieff Blog - NYTimes.com, touching on the growing trend to "socialize the retail environment instead of just merchandising the real estate space."

I don't think that the Sears new test concepts [see Sears tests MyGofer prototype store in Joliet] is the answer.

But, look at how museums are socializing their spaces. Intriguing, don't you think?

The question then becomes: how do you socialize YOUR retail space -- regardless of the product category?

Other posts that address 'Rethinking the Mall':
+ From Labelscar: The Retail History Blog, see New York Times on Rethinking the Mall.
+ From Greater City: Providence Blog, see Rethinking the Mall.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Meet Carl Ruland - Floor Covering Institute Series

Back in April, I announced in Whittemore Joins Floor Covering Institute that I've become part of the Floor Covering Institute - Jim Gould's global flooring consultancy. We've started discussing, planning and imagining exciting possibilities and I'm discovering how talented my fellow members are. So much so that I thought you might enjoy 'meeting' them and learning more about them. I plan, then, to introduce each one to you individually, starting with Carl Ruland.

Carl Ruland is president of Global Flooring Consulting, based in Bonn, Germany. A true European, he speaks many languages in addition to his native German [an opportunity for me to brush up on the German I learned many years ago in my French-speaking school in Abidjan, Ivory Coast! Luckily, he also speaks French...]. He also has an affinity for cultural and marketplace differences that can make products like flooring challenging to sell -- as you can appreciate from his responses below -- if you don't know the lay of the land.

C.B.: Carl, please tell me about yourself - your business, your expertise, etc.

Carl: Yes, indeed, I am a true European and Europe is a fascinating continent with 27 countries, 25 Languages, 500 million people.

Consumers in Italy like tiles and natural stone; in the UK they install broadloom carpet even in bathrooms; in Austria they buy mainly wood floors.

In Germany you have the highest density of DIY stores in the world; in the UK the majority of flooring is sold through wholesale and in the Netherlands you have the small shops-around-corner.

There is a CE mark, which marks the European conformity of products; however if you want to sell to the public building sector in Germany you need additional certifications which are different from the ones you additionally need in France.

I have gained considerable experience from 25 years in senior positions in companies that produce solid wood, engineered wood, laminated flooring, broadloom carpet, vinyl sheet and vinyl tiles and can help flooring manufacturers that want to do business in Europe better understand the marketplace. Perhaps they need help with a market survey, market research, M&A, strategic sales network, portfolio strategy, or even product certification.

I speak 5 languages [see Carl's LinkedIn profile: German, English, Dutch, Danish and French], I have worked and lived in three European countries; I have travelled to all of them and done business in most of them.

Some examples of my work: I have established original equipment manufacturing business for a European manufacturer in the US, pioneered laminated flooring in China, realized a multi-million Euro investment in a manufacturing plant in Europe and help different management team positions including product management, sales- and marketing management and general management.

C.B.: How did you get started in the flooring business?

Carl: 25 years ago as a manager of retail sales at a wood wholesaler and retailer in Bonn I noticed a growing demand for engineered wood floors. This growing demand was driven by consumers while the installers still wanted the traditional stuff: 1 inch thick, 2 inches wide and about 24 inches long solid parquet.

So I began to realize that the core of contention was not between industry with pre-finished products but with installers with their experience and craftsmanship. It was the beginning of a new business model for my traditional wholesale company: we began to import directly from producers in Sweden, Finland, Italy and Malaysia and started distributing this in Western Germany to installers. I had left sales and was in business.

C.B.: What do you like most about flooring?

Carl: Unlike most other industries where you always meet limited users, literally everybody on this beautiful planet stands on a type of flooring. So this will be a never ending learning curve about differences in climate conditions, architecture, engineering, design, taste, application..... (this sounds a little bit like Bubba in Forest Gump).

C.B.: What do you like least about flooring?

Carl: Poor quality that destroys consumer acceptance, leads to no-profit and produces even poorer quality.

C.B.: What opportunities do you see for the flooring industry?

Carl: The biggest opportunity for the industry is that flooring provides the biggest surface in a building that remains unchanged and unmanipulated. Flooring will be installed as manufactured and supplied by the industry. In other terms: the industry itself determines the quality, design, life cycle, etc. of the floor. This is a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility. I see, and maybe this is a very European vintage point, the opportunity from three main areas:


In the future not only the use of ecologic material is important but the ecology along the entire value chain, from raw material, production, transport to the point of sale. What seemed to be the whim of a relatively limited group of LOHAS consumers will be more and more KO criteria for the entire business model. Reach, Leed, Low Carbon, etc. are regulations that force the industry to look at things through green glasses. Those companies that realize the importance of this approach and that are able to adapt their current business to this future model will not only survive but will make profit. It offers the chance to reformulate the business strategy to either differentiation with low volume and high profit or penetration with high volume and high profit.

Quality, Design and Sustainability

I see a big opportunity in the respite of this current crisis. Product quality, design quality and architectural sustainability should be big drivers for the flooring industry in the future. Value for price should matter again, world class designers should create appealing floors and all application should be sustainable in the sense of: if I am installing this can future users continue to use this or change it with reasonable efforts?


A German professor, now teaching in the Netherlands, asked the question why most people mean downcycling when they speak about recycling. We all know that recycling cost money both in landfill and re-use. Other than in the past where the value chain for the flooring industry stopped at the cashier the chain should continue, as all flooring removed from a building can be converted into another flooring. This costs money, but could generate contribution for our industry.

C.B.: What do you see being the greatest advantage that the Floor Covering Institute offers?

The big advantage of the Floor Covering Institute is the versatility of the expertise you can find there. Where else outside a company do you find a group of experts in flooring that go from 'is the subfloor good enough for installation?' to 'how do you think should I approach the market for my high end product?', and from 'can you help me to find a source in China?' to 'do you think this would sell in Russia?'

Danke schön, Carl!

Comments, questions, feedback?

I am fascinated with the glimpse that Carl offers us of the European marketplace and its complexity as well as his perspective on the opportunities ahead for the flooring industry.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jeanne Byington on Bridging New & Old - Social Media Series

This week's guest for Flooring The Consumer's Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old is Jeanne M. Byington.

Jeanne Byington, an accomplished public relations and marketing consultant, is principal of NYC-based JM Byington & Associates, Inc.. She's also passionate about excellent customer service, a topic she addresses in her blog, The Importance of Earnest Service. Look for Jeanne on Twitter as JMByington.

I met Jeanne through David Reich of My 2 Cents who thought we would have plenty to talk about given our common home furnishings background. He was right! But, there's more as you will discover when you read what she has to say about Bridging New & Old.

C.B.: Jeanne, how and why did you get involved in social media?

Jeanne: I’m involved in social media to communicate--for the same reason at one time I learned to use a computer, BlackBerry, e-mail as well as a few phrases of Turkish when I lived in that country for two years. I feel claustrophobic when I can’t. Guess that’s why I’m in communications.

I started with a blog and coordinating web site. I did for my business precisely what I advise clients to do: increased its visibility. This is no time to shut down communications initiatives. Invest time and money to promote your business, its products and services, in spite of less than spectacular economic outlooks and income projections. Might as well close shop if you don’t let others know what your company is doing.

Today’s information comes faster and faster in tinier and tinier bytes. Pelted by it night and day, people’s attention spans/memories shrink. Participating in social media keeps your conversation in play and your business in focus in potential and actual customers’ lines of vision in cost-effective ways.

I use my blog as an evolving case history, an effective way to illustrate many ways to dice and slice a single concept. The blog gives dimension to my web site.

People have promoted and publicized products and services in a range of lights for eons using traditional PR methods from press releases and speeches to PowerPoint slide shows, newsletters and bulletins.

The same core PR technique applies to a blog or to tweets: They can’t be too commercial or self-serving.

The blog led me to explore LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to promote my business, bring traffic to the web site and blog.

Web sites in combination with blogs are today’s business cards. Twitter allows a company to speak directly to its clients. It doesn’t require passing through gatekeepers.

C.B.: What do you like most about social media?


+ I’ve met great people through my blog, some are strangers and all take precious time to share their expertise with me in guest posts and comments. I’m surprised at how simple it is to publish and illustrate posts [though it can be complicated to comment on some people’s blogs. I wonder why they make it tricky as there are simple, effective ways to control what’s posted].

+ I’m always thrilled when I find someone on LinkedIn whom I couldn’t otherwise locate or when a former contact finds me. And the groups, such as public relations and communications professionals on LinkedIn, hold promise.

+ From my Tweetdeck, I get news-as-it-happens from the New York Times and am often first with what may be an important development for a client or colleague.

+ Google Alerts act as a free clipping service and monitor.

+ iPods are amazing and promise marketing opportunities we can hardly fathom. Turn pages of a downloaded book with your finger in a far more realistic simulation than changing pages on a Kindle. Speaking of realistic, I watched beer fill the screen as if in a glass and was waiting for it to leak on my hand.

+ I’m fascinated by YouTube and its potential marketing applications. Social media tools link to some great video segments.

C.B.: What do you like least about social media?


+ It’s a time-gobbler. Like wild hair, it needs to be tamed. I don’t want to receive tweets on my BlackBerry, so apart from direct messages, I don’t. I resent the hours it takes to identify people I should follow on Twitter for my business, though I wouldn’t mind spending that time on behalf of a client.

+ Some of the tools have multiple personalities, with applications for business, pleasure, the trade and consumers all at once. I’m so used to targeting messages. This was a recent tweet: “WOW, upstart bit.ly is now bigger than tinyURL: http://bit.ly/18Dghk - maybe its bc bit.ly is 6 char. & tinyURL is 7.” I know what it means, but do I care?

+ I’m awestruck by how self-centered some people are to think I’d be interested to know that they attended a meeting or trade show or film or were planning a vacation, returned from the beach, landed in Chicago and the like. I’m not their Mom. Is this spam-like sharing on LinkedIn, Twitter and elsewhere a lack of judgment? People should more carefully target who gets what information. It’s no different than sending out information to the press. News of a new flooring collection doesn’t go to a fashion accessories editor. If someone’s attended a trade show and they have something important to tell me about it, then write me, not all of their 328 contacts.

+ In addition, there are too many social communities. Who can participate in them all? I don’t like having to reject someone by refusing their invitations to join so I write a polite e-mail as to why I can’t. It’s like belonging to too many associations: Impossible to take advantage of the many updates and opportunities that seem to grow geometrically.

+ Finally, I have a big problem with trust these days. I am reluctant to use Facebook or LinkedIn to initiate and reply to messages. You want to reach me? Send me an e-mail or call. [I’ll get used to it. Some considered risky the first ATM machines.]

Meanwhile, don’t you ask a person you’d like to do business with whether they’d prefer to communicate by phone or e-mail?

C.B.: How has social media changed how you interact with the marketplace as a consumer or customer?

Jeanne: While the Internet has totally changed the way my family interacts with the marketplace—buying and selling stock; buying airline and train tickets; finding the nearest branch of a store; specking out the styles a store carries; buying books on Amazon.com; using for other things the space formerly taken up by printed directories and so forth, I can’t say that social media has changed how I interact with the marketplace as a consumer or customer.

Feeling insecure about being so out of it, I asked a 23 year old friend who works for a website—her second job in that industry. She thought of one instance—she admired a friend’s photos on Facebook and hired the photographer to take her wedding pictures.

I continue to get a tremendous amount of information from traditional media. From The New York Times I read that only 40 percent of Twitter users in February returned to the site in March and about Stephen Wolfram and his search tool, WolframAlpha. [On the other hand, my husband reads 98 percent of his news on the web.] I also hear about travel bargains on the radio.
C.B.: What 5 suggestions do you have for companies to implement so they can more effectively bridge old media with new media and connect with end users?

1) From medical to marketing, ours is a country of specialists. You don’t have to explore the world of social media yourself if it holds no interest or you have no time. Just as you’d hire a video expert to produce and place a satellite media tour [SMT] or graphic designers to create fabulous merchandisers, web sites and logos, there are experts, such as Christine Whittemore, [Thank you, Jeanne!] who can hold your business by the hand and guide you to select new media options.

2) Speaking of video experts, you don’t want your YouTube videos to look like loving hands at home. Best use a professional. A company that conducts excellent SMTs would be the place to start. Staff has a nose for news and marketing as well as the video expertise to advise and provide a topnotch product. Paul Gourvitz, Gourvitz Communications in New York is A++.

3) Hire professional writers for your new media marketing materials otherwise you’ll lose readers as quickly as a click of a mouse. Ideally, the writers should be succinct and clear and sensitive to marketing and public relations issues. Faux pas travel fast.

4) When the Internet became popular as a marketing tool, many businesses largely dropped everything else and spent the majority of their marketing budget on their web site. Trouble with that was that nobody knew that they had a web site. Consumers weren’t Internet-savvy and didn’t Google. A company still needed to promote its site in traditional ways—through newspapers, radio, TV, trade and consumer magazine publicity and advertising.

No different today. You need to orchestrate your options to remind people that you are there and tap more than one note. Zagats does a good job. They have a 30th anniversary contest going on that you can participate in daily, but who remembers? They help remind with e-mails along with traditional and more innovative bells and whistles that direct you to their web site. Some restaurants, hoping you’ll give them a good review, provide handouts to the site. I passed a bagel shop on Third Avenue in NYC with a handmade sign on its front door, asking you to vote for them for “best bagel” on zagat.com. [They actually do have the best bagels.]

Like the early web days, some customers aren’t up-to-the-minute on technology. They still read, see and hear newspapers, TV and radio respectively. Don’t forget them. And now that we don’t get that much anymore, mail stands out.

5) Minding the basics is critical because consumers know how to spread news of their discontent through social media and the Internet as efficiently as a company can boast of its benefits. It’s easier to erase words etched in stone than to eliminate negative news from Google and other search functions.

Social media is exciting, energizing, efficient and relatively inexpensive, but toll-free number operators still need to be informed to provide accurate information, sales staffs must be knowledgeable and courteous, products have to work and customer service teams must be patient and compassionate problem-solvers or you’re wasting your time focusing only on social media to show how hip your company is.

C.B.: Any other thoughts to share about the effectiveness of social media in forging stronger relations with customers and how best to do so.

Toss out your calculators and cost per million stats. You’re communicating with clients and customers in a different way and traditional measurements—that some dispute, especially in PR, in any case--don’t apply. For example, tweets are conversations, not midget advertisements or endorsements. You can also use the technology to hear what’s being said about your brand while remaining silent with your brand’s ear to the ground. And as you’ve always done, understand the benefits and limitations of each option you decide to pursue so you know what to expect.

Thank you, Jeanne!

Comments? Questions? Reactions?

I love that Jeanne approaches social media tools with her clients specifically in mind.

She brings up an interesting point with respect to Twitter: how to target information effectively given one's audience. As Twitter transitions from a narrow-cast medium to a broadcast one [I am stunned by the number of folks with 20K+ Twitter followers deciding to follow me lately. What gives? How can anyone make meaning from the tweets of so many?], Twitter will need to evolve and offer users more effective means of truly receiving and sharing relevant content. I'm curious, though. What kinds of effective work arounds have you developed?

For that matter, how do you deal with the onslaught of communities and groups to join?

What about Jeanne's suggestions for more effectively bridging old media with new media? How might you implement some of those ideas?

For additional insights from participants in the Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old, please visit The Entire Bridging New & Old Series.

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