Wednesday, January 24, 2007

My Love/Hate Relationship with Consumer Reports

I've been a Consumer Reports subscriber for a couple of years now. I enjoy their honest, unbiased, comprehensive reports on products large and small, and I indeed consult their advice before making purchases that are important to me. I've researched everything from appliances to cell phones to laundry detergents. They are masters of the lab tests.

What they have yet to master, however, is the art of making it easy for customers to do business with them. Case in point: This month I received my subscription renewal notice in the mail. I replied to it via the mail and asked to be billed. Today I received two emails, the first stating that Consumer Reports is grateful for my renewing, and I could easily renew my subscription with my credit card online. So I tried to do this and the window popped up and everything looked fine and dandy... but I looked closer and realized the site was not secure in any noticeable way. No https, no little lock in the bottom corner of the window, etc. I didn't want to chance that.

So I skipped that one and went to the next email where they told me my card from my last renewal had expired (I guess they tried to automatically renew me or something, I really don't know) and suggested I go to the site to re-enter my credit card info. So I did and I got to the secure part where I can log in and enter my information. At this login page, they want my account number, which is only located on the magazine's mailing label, not on the bill. I checked the mailing label to the lastest issue, and sure enough it wasn't there... it must have been in plastic wrap and I threw it out. I tried to login with the information I usually use to look at their info on line, and that didn't work. Ugh.

To make matters worse, there's no listed email address or phone number to contact anybody, and the web site is an absolute maze of trying to find anything other than product info. Nor is there any contact info in their magazine itself.

I must say... This is maddening!!! What kind of organization makes somebody jump through so many hoops to renew a subscription?!? Every marketer knows that when somebody is ready to buy, there should be zero obstacles in their way to do so. I found at least 5 in my path this time around. Not good.

I'd go so far to say that it's a marketing travesty in my honest, unbiased, comprehensive opinion.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Gadges, Gadgets Everywhere

We are no longer in the Information Age. I do declare that we have entered the Gadget Age.

It used to be that we could comfortably leave the house with a car key, house key, and wallet.

Now, try to imagine leaving the house without a car door fob, cell phone, PDA, MP3 player, Bluetooth headset... and that's just to get a jug of milk!

We are infatuated and addicted to gadgets and gizmos, do-dads and devices. And of course each one has its own charger cord, carrying case, and instruction manual. We've got more stuff, with more stuff on the way.

Makes you harken nostalgically back to the days when Grok and Unga could leave the cave with a just a wooden club and be totally happy and totally prepared for any possible scenario that could come their way.

Bet those clubs didn't play all the coolest ringtones though. But I bet they could lay down all the best hits.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Marketing Innovation Hall of Fame: The Tea Kettle

Any house I go to, be it in the city, suburb, or rural areas, I almost always spot a tea kettle (or teapot) sitting on the kitchen stove. Informally I'd say that 80-90% of American households have a tea kettle, and the tea kettles, in turn, are almost exclusively found on the stove at any given moment, rather than being packed away with most other kitchen implements.

The curious thing to me is that I know of few people who actually use these tea kettles on a regular basis. I'm guilty of having a tea kettle on my stove, and I'm also guilty of rarely firing it up. Ever since studying abroad in Manchester, England for a semester, the land where it practically rains tea, I've been a tea lover. But I have no interest in actually using the tea kettle to boil water, instead delegating that job to the microwave. Why would I want to use a tea kettle when it takes longer, requires cleaning, drying of the inside to prevent rust, and makes an obnoxious whistle, when I can put a mug full of water in the microwave and have simmering water 2 and a half minutes later? There's no comparison really.

Yet I still have a tea kettle!

I consider this a true marketing victory. For starters, rarely do I see a tea kettle being advertised, save for circulars where department stores announce a sale. Otherwise, when was the last time you saw a commercial for tea kettles ("Just Brew It," perhaps?). You certainly won't see a Super Bowl ad for tea kettles any time soon. Nor will you see slick publicity campaigns or massive billboards touting the virtues of tea kettles. But amazingly, these things pop up as housewarming gifts and on bridal registries to no end. Even more amazing to me, in a quick search for tea kettles on, I found FIFTY different tea kettles for sale!

All in all I think it's safe to say that the tea kettle has truly mastered the concept of "selling itself", making it a stealth marketing success story. For whatever reason, it's a truly hot item for any household.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

8 Things I'd Like to See Disappear from America by 2010

Sure, there's more than 8 things that I would like to see removed from the American landscape. But, here's a start...
  1. Paris Hilton: Need I say more?
  2. Preposterous health insurance plans: There's got to be a better way than paying skyrocketing premiums for high deductible plans, not to mention having millions of people uninsured or under insured. I understand there are a lot of factors here, but I can't imagine the system being worse than it currently is.
  3. Gas stations: I cannot wait for the day when I no longer have to fill up my car at a gas station. Granted, gas stations have served a long history as being that last resort for getting directions, grabbing an overpriced and undercooked hot dog, or squeegeeing your windshield, but every time I think about where the gas I'm buying comes from (a foreign country), how it gets to me (via sophisticated and dangerous logistics), how much it costs (a good 50 bucks a week for getting to work), and what it's doing to the environment (not much good, that's for sure), I want to gag. I also want to gag thinking about people who actually buy those hot dogs.
  4. American Idol: Yup, I'll be the first to admit I can't stand the show. Are we this desperate for live music and up and coming talent that we have to watch a bunch of karaoke hacks sing other people's songs and generally make fools of themselves? Thanks but no thanks. I'll stick to real comedy, like The Office.
  5. Bad teeth: It is too easy and affordable not to have presentable teeth in this day and age. Brush. Floss. Go to dentist. Done.
  6. Toys, ad nauseum: I know too many kids who have stockpiles of toys, 95% of which are never used more than once (or even opened). I was an only child growing (still am!) and generally got what I wanted. However, I honestly didn't ask for all that much... I've always been tough to buy for because I have rather simple tastes. When I look at the gifts that people shower on their kids nowadays, I can't help but think about what a monumentally spoiled and materialistic society that will be leading our future. Good for the economy, but at what cost?
  7. Bad advertising: It's everywhere. I work in the industry and sometimes I just hang my head in shame about the poor marketing that is done out there. Just imagine how much better this world would be if commercials/ads where entertaining AND effective at driving sales. There's got to be a way.
  8. Wars: Well, I guess I can't have everything. But I can always hope!

Monday, January 8, 2007

My Beef with Creative Labs

Just about two years ago, I finally decided to get an MP3 player. I was (and still am) driving long ways to work, and generally in my car a lot, so I thought bringing a music player along on my trips would be a good idea. And indeed it was. I bought a Creative Labs Zen Sleek to fulfill this gap in my life.

For starters, the reason I bought this player and not an ipod or another brand was because it has a lot of memory (at least 5 gigs, maybe more), a radio, a voice recorder, and the ability to transfer other files. It also got a fairly good writeup in Consumer Reports, which is my Bible for buying big (and sometimes small) purchases. And at the time, the ipods cost more for seemingly less "stuff". So I went with the Zen. It was great. But bear with me as the story takes a turn...

I used this Zen quite frequently to listen to music, but after a month or so, I found that I didn't bother using the other features, such as the radio, voice recorder, and file transferring ability. Oh well, no big deal. I still enjoyed the music part of it.

Then, after about 6 months of using it, I noticed the battery life getting shorter, and eventually it dropped down to about 2 hours of playing time (from probably 8-10 hours when I first got it). I could deal with that... just charge it more frequently, not a huge issue.

Then, after about a year, I noticed that towards the end of the battery life, the player would just freeze and stop working. I started to contact the customer service department through email and got rather helpful instructions on how to un-freeze it, but it didn't necessarily prevent the freezing from happening. At this point I was getting peeved, but still used the player fairly often.

Well, after that, it got to the point where I would charge my player, unplug it and go to turn it on and... nothing. It didn't go on. From all indications the power button stopped functioning. But if I reconnected it to the charger, it would go on automatically. I couldn't turn it on or off after that, however, just had to let it run down. To my knowledge, I never misused the player or did anything wrong, it just broke.

So I contacted the customer service department again via email and they gave me a link to their massive suport page with a rather extensive list of options to consider, each with a whole bunch of steps to follow. Either none of the options applied to my problem or none of the the rest seemed to work or I just couldn't follow all of the steps.. So I had it out with Creative Labs via email and just said that I was really tired of the problems and just wanted the stupid thing to work.

An email was returned to me saying they were sorry about the problems, but it would cost me $122 to send it back and have it fixed unless I had the extended warranty (which I didn't), plus I had to fill out a whole form, yadda yadda yadda. Oh and then they tell me that I also have run out of time to email the support department and I would have to pay to get help, though I could use the massive support page on their website at no charge. Ain't that peachy keen?

So the moral of the story then, kiddies, is either--
  1. Don't expect an item that costs $200 to last too long, even when used properly (unless you pay more for the extended warranty!).
  2. Don't expect a company to do anything it can to keep your business and help you in any way possible when you have a problem with their products. (The customer is only right when they can figure the problem out on their own.)
  3. Don't buy from Creative Labs. (How bout that unique selling point for its next marketing tagline?)
I don't know what the correct answer is there. But if you'd like to find out, please go to my support page at, www....

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Dental Floss: A String-le Hold on Your Wallet...

Sometimes I get the feeling that I'm getting ripped off when I buy something. Buyer's remorse, is the psychological terminology I suppose. But let's look at dental floss. I'm going to start with this key point:

It's plastic string.

Sure, it may be flavored, or it may "glide" more easily than others, but when you get right down to it, it's still plastic string. I cannot possibly see how it could cost more than 10 cents per package to make it. Add in the cost for the box and other packaging, and maybe we're looking at a 25 cent total cost. Let's be crazy and say it costs a buck to make, ship, market, stock, and whatever else for a premium, 40 yard box of dental floss.

Yet, I go to the store, even a discount store like Target, and a package of Glide costs $3.44 to buy this plastic string., sells it for even more at $3.89. Even at a high cost estimate of $1, this is a markup of more than 300 percent!!! Is that just loony or is it me? It's plastic string!

True, the lower end models cost less, but my feeling is that the cost differences aren't all that different. Some plastic string is better than others, but let's be real... plastic string is plastic string.

By the way, I recently read this article about cutting your health care costs (see tip #49) that says you can save $200-$2,000 per tooth by flossing everyday. And my trustworthy dentist verified this notion. So maybe I'll bite my tongue, swallow my pride, and just buy the stupid stuff.

Doesn't mean I have to like it!

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, Meadowlands Style

Today I ventured with two co-workers to a meeting with a client in Moonachie (pronounced Moo-nock-ee), NJ, near the Meadowlands. After conducting business for two hours, we were hungry and headed out to lunch. We wound up at an Italian restaurant called Dolce Novita, which roughly translates to "Disco Inferno," although my Italian is a bit rusty.

But anyway, here's what caught my eye at this particular joint:
  • Overall comfortable ambience
  • White table cloth tables and waiters wearing jackets and bowties
  • Fresh warm bread with olive oil was served to get us started
  • Nice selection of Italian food on the menu-- pastas, seafood, etc.
  • "Business Lunch Specials"-- each dish included soup and salad and was reasonably priced
  • Fully stocked bar with a disco ball
Wait.... Say what?

How, exactly, does a disco ball get thrown into the mix at a fine-dining Italian restaurant? That was a glaring decorative faux pas. I'm guessing somebody missed the first class of Italian Restaurant Design 101 in college. Or perhaps somebody wanted to take a risk and be different. Or maybe that's just a North Jersey thing that I just wouldn't understand. In any event, it left a weird impression in my mind.

Ironically, the disco ball symbolized the overall inconsistency with the restaurant. Some other things I noticed were that the outside was very blah (click here for a photo and review of the food, which was all in all pretty good at least), the waiters didn't come around to fill up drinks, there were three different air fresheners in the bathroom (and none of them seemed to work, if you smell what I'm cookin'), and the Business Specials menu contained mainly dishes with red sauce that could easily be disastrously messy.

Ok, perhaps I've gone too far. I'm not trying to bash the restaurant, it was actually better than average, but I just happened to pick up on those little quirks, not really a big deal. After all, the place is Stayin' Alive, isn't it?

Monday, January 1, 2007

Website Forms: How NOT to Provide Assistance

I frequently trawl the Internet during my spare time. And I find that I often will be searching a site and come up with a question or comment about the company/organization at hand. So I look for contact information to air said question or comment. And what do I find more often than not: the devil's idea of website marketing... "contact forms".

A visitor to a website in some way has interest in learning more about the website owner (i.e.-- I'm not going to go to, say, Manchester City Football Club's website if I have no interest in the team). But contact forms, like this annoying form from Wawa's website, are a direct impediment to contacting somebody on the other end. Why would I want to fill out a form full of questions, often including my name, email address, question topic, and so forth, when simply having an appropriate email address would make things so much more direct. In addition, I find that there's a 50% chance that the recipient will ever respond... which is unfathomable since each and every legitimate question/comment should get a response. I think the information filled out in these forms often gets lost in "cyberspace", never to be found again. Or perhaps the information is found, but only after 3 months of sitting in contact form purgatory.

My advice: provide a direct email link to a real person who can answer a question/comment or who can redirect you to the appropriate person. Ditch the forms.