Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Color Splash Effect

Watching HGTV is hazardous to my wallet. Donna and I enjoy several HGTV programs, but we’re hooked on Color Splash with David Bromstad. We watch. We learn – or at least I do. We look around our house and that’s where the trouble starts. The living room needs updating. The bedroom needs a makeover.

Donna has a great eye for design and color, just like her mom. I don’t. I’m functional, utilitarian when it comes to furniture and accessories. Donna’s got her foot on the accelerator, mine’s more on the brake. And as a shopper, I don’t buy things often, but when I do, it can turn into a cascade. Thanks to Color Splash, it just did. New artwork for the living room walls. A new area rug, throw pillows, TV and stand. A new bed frame and comforter.

I prefer to buy locally whenever possible, but shop online when we can’t find exactly what we want. Using the classic 4P’s of Marketing, let’s look at brick-and-mortar and virtual store experiences:
• Product – I like to see and feel the rug, pillows and furniture at a local store. And you can’t beat up close and personal when shopping for a TV. But the depth of product choices is vast online. Add buyer reviews – even if some of them seem “planted” – and you get a dimension unmatched by a smiling salesperson.
• Price – is often lower online, sometimes dramatically so. The advantage is enhanced if the virtual store charges no sales tax and offers free shipping.
• Place – do you want immediate gratification? If so, the local store has the advantage. Two days after ordering a TV stand online, a phone call from the vendor informed us that the style we chose was out of stock. When we found a replacement – at a different virtual store – it took 10 days to be delivered. Meanwhile, our new TV sat on the living room floor.
• Promotion – local radio ads helped us choose where to begin shopping. Google key-word ads have made telephone yellow pages nearly obsolete; we searched locally and the vast Internet expanses with iPhones in hand. There was nothing we could not find!
• Pleasing the Customer – Marketing’s 5th P is where local stores can and should make their advantage evident. Customer service, going the extra mile – helpful advice, quick delivery and set-up, scheduling delivery according to the customer’s needs – can make the difference in clinching the sale.

Donna and I just watched a Color Splash kitchen redesign for the Yemoto sisters – and it was a stunning transformation. If we didn’t live 250 miles south of San Francisco, where David films his home re-design projects, I’d love to have him come up with something uber-fabulous for us. We better start saving for new countertops and appliances now. I can feel a new project bubbling to the surface.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Place for Mom

It all started with phone message. Followed by a letter. The assisted living facility my mother has called home for a dozen years was shutting down. Not one who takes change easily, even in her younger years, this was going to be a challenging process finding mom a new place to live.

In passing, I mentioned what was going on to a friend at work. She told me that her husband was going through something similar for his mom in Los Angeles. The next day, Bruce sent me an email with a link to a resource he had used to find housing for his mother. A Place for Mom, Inc. is a nationwide information service about eldercare options including nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult family homes, independent living and home care agencies.

After poking around on their website, I decided to enter basic information on the home page and start a search. Within 10 minutes, I received a call. I tend to be suspicious by nature, so I was expecting a “sales” pitch. But, I wanted to leave no stone unturned, and was willing to listen if it helped me make a better decision. I was pleasantly surprised – Barbara was empathetic, seemed to know what she was talking about, and provided helpful suggestions, particularly about applying for additional financial help for mom.

Barbara followed up by email within an hour, with 10 senior facilities that fit our budget and location requirements. All at no cost to me. I’m not na├»ve, and on their website it’s clearly stated: “In order to provide the information service to consumers at no charge, participating facilities or agencies pay a fee to A Place for Mom, Inc.” I also leaned heavily on mom’s current assisted living facility, which provided solid information about senior housing in the area.

So, off we went to search for mom’s new home. Every few days, I’d get an email or call from Barbara. She sent articles about other families’ experiences. She asked how I liked the facilities we’d toured. She provided particularly helpful information about a little known financial assistance program for surviving widows of veterans. Barbara treaded that fine line between showing real interest and coming on too strong. I appreciated her as a resource.

What I liked about A Place for Mom (www.aplaceformom.com) was that Barbara provided a service that offered real value – saved me time in identifying options we could afford, provided information I didn’t have about financial resources, and followed up to get our impression of the facilities they’d recommended. The final step was a survey Barbara sent me to rate their service. Oh, and yes, we are on track to get mom moved in to her new home next month.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Shop Local, Eat Fresh

I prefer summer fruit and vegetables. Nothing against apples, pears and squash, but give me strawberries, nectarines, tomatoes and cantaloupe any day, everyday. Fresh is always better and locally grown is best. That’s why I enjoy Farmers Markets, but don’t go as often as I’d like.

A couple of years ago, Donna discovered Rutiz Family Farms, not far from our house in Arroyo Grande. It is open for just a few hours each week, so you have to work around that if you’re typical 8-to-5 working stiffs like us. But the slight inconvenience is worth it. As you’d expect, the fruit and vegetables they offer are as fresh as can be – we’ve been at the produce stand when a box of new lettuce heads comes in, just harvested a few yards away.

The Rutiz family does things which pique my marketing instincts. In addition to selling produce ala carte, they assemble a “Harvest Box” of assorted popular fruit and vegetables bundled together for pick up; it’s a convenient way to have produce ready and waiting for you, and I would think offers customers a chance to try vegetables they might not otherwise purchase individually. On the website, you may sign up for a weekly eNewsletter that tells you what’s being harvested along with recipes.

Early each fall, kids can go out into the pumpkin patch, select their favorite, and etch their names and designs while it’s growing in the field; then refine their artwork each week as the pumpkin matures. During the berry growing season, you may buy the fruit in baskets at the stand or go out and pick your own. Family friendly fun.

Their brand positioning is strong, too: “A family farm with 20 years experience growing quality, pesticide-free vegetables, berries and flowers.” A compelling message in an era of tainted-food scares and ever-higher gasoline prices. At Rutiz Family Farms (www.rutizfarms.com) we get to shop local, eat fresh and feel good about it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Save Money, Live Better?

It’s easy to pick on Wal-Mart. The 800-pound gorilla of retailing. From social issues like claims of sexual discrimination and not providing healthcare for its workers, to community issues like the accusations that it crushes local mom-and-pop businesses when it moves into town, Wal-Mart has been portrayed as the poster child for the sins of “big business.”

But Wal-Mart’s marketing position is clear: Low prices. Especially in the current economic environment, a solid appeal. Add to that an extensive breadth and depth of product selection, an expansive distribution network of stores and lots of money to spend on promotion, and their marketing success is impressive.

Donna and I bought a TV this weekend. The last time we did that – probably 10 years ago – we went to Circuit City in Santa Maria, now a casualty of the Great Recession. So, off to Wal-Mart we went. Lots of TVs from which to choose. Well known brands. Low prices. But customer service – not so much.

Granted, we don’t shop at Wal-Mart very often – maybe a handful of times a year. But what happened to the senior-citizen “greeter” that I always remember bellowing “Welcome to Wal-Mart!” as I stepped inside the store? From what I can tell – at least at the store in Arroyo Grande – the smiling, cheerful “greeter” has been replaced by a less enthusiastic “exit door checker” who asks to see your receipt as you cart your TV out of the store.

No one offered to provide any sort of help in the Electronics department, where TVs of every size were competing for attention, turned on and mounted to the wall. Checkers at the cash registers seemed cheerless. Kind of made me want to use the self-service kiosks which now occupy prime spots in the middle of the check-out area.

My overall buying experience: functional and efficient. But I didn’t want to linger in the aisles. Get in, find what I need and get out. Did I pay less? Yes, almost certainly. Will I return in the future? Probably, but just for the items I perceive Wal-Mart (www.wal-mart.com) offers at a steep discount. However, it is not a retail experience which I look forward to fondly.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Loan Guy

It all started with a “Happy 4th of July” email message. It was from the home loan consultant who had financed our house when we moved back to the Central Coast in 2006. Jim Smith had stayed in touch with low key communications – sometimes by email and sometimes by snail mail – that included just enough information about the housing market to be useful.

This time, it got me thinking. I had a home loan that would adjust in 6 more years, but rates were low right now. I sent Jim a return email, he responded and I determined that the time was not quite right for me to refinance.

But then Thanksgiving rolled around, and in the mail came a holiday card from Jim, a few more nuggets of real estate news and a 2010 calendar. I just had to contact him again – by phone. And this time, the stars seemed to align – rates, the right loan, etc. Donna and I signed all the paperwork for our new 30-year fixed loan on December 28, and the loan funded before year end.

Two loans with Smith Lending Group – on the same house – in four years. Why? Because Jim stayed in touch. He offered real value in his marketing communications. And because I trusted him. He earned that trust the first time we worked together. I felt that he was on my side – he did what he said he’d do, he didn’t take short-cuts and he let me know what was happening every step of the way. That earned him a second opportunity. And he was just as good this time around.

Jim Smith (www.TheLoanGuy.com) finished with a thank you card and gift. And I’d work with him again – the next time I buy a home.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A New Year's Eve Marketing Lesson

My in-laws from Colorado were in town for the holidays, and we were planning a New Year’s Eve dinner. I suggested McPhee’s Grill. My wife and I have eaten at McPhee’s in Templeton, but we’d yet to try the newer Avila Beach location. Since we live in Arroyo Grande, the short drive to Avila seemed perfect for New Year’s.

In my first marketing course at UCLA, the professor warned the 300+ future captains of industry in attendance to avoid careers in food service: grocery stores (because of razor thin margins) and restaurants (because of their significant business failure rate). So, as I sat down for dinner and reviewed the menu, I thought about why patrons choose (and choose to return to) one restaurant over others.

Positive word of mouth is crucial. Friends telling friends, face-to-face, voice-to-voice, and increasingly via digital social networks, quickly share personal experiences – both good and bad. But what impresses people enough to recommend or pan a restaurant? If you ask restaurateurs, I’d bet you’d get fairly consistent responses: good food, attentive service, pleasant environment, etc.

As with other service industries, my experience is that it’s often the little things at restaurants that leave lasting impressions – like keeping the water glasses filled and presenting the check promptly when it’s evident the diners are ready to wrap it up.

Since it was my suggestion of where to eat, my reputation was on the line. Fortunately, I was not disappointed. Attentive service? Yes. Pleasant environment? Yes. Water glasses filled? Yes. Good food? Yes – each of us had an excellent meal, served hot and to our liking.

When I asked my wife later what impressed her most about our dinner, she focused on the menu choices and how the food was prepared and presented. In other words the “product” McPhee’s offers. For me, it was more about the meal as the centerpiece of an experience – having a good time – which included attentive service and a pleasant environment; the quality of food was a given for me, but not the most memorable aspect of the evening.

So here’s my New Year’s Eve marketing lesson: different consumers weigh the importance of different factors when choosing to purchase, and whether to come back to purchase again. My wife and I are likely to return for dinner, but for at least slightly different reasons. Businesses need to understand what attracts their customers and what brings them back or turns them off. McPhee’s Grill (www.McPhees.com) seems to have a good handle on what their patrons want. And my father-in-law seemed impressed with my choice for New Year’s Eve dinner.