OConnor, Marianne - Featured Photos

That’s the Spirit

We’ve all seen Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, that heartwarming and inspiring black-and-white film classic where Jimmy Stewart discovers the amazing impact that his life decisions have had on his friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors. Always the guy who put others’ needs first, George Bailey never got to travel the world, go to college, or even join his friend Sam Wainwright in a highly lucrative business career. Yes, one lonely Christmas eve, George found himself “worth more dead than alive,” at last from a financial perspective.

On the off-chance that you haven’t seen the film, I won’t ruin the ending; however, I think we’d all do well to see this movie at least once a year. Why? Because it provides an excellent antidote to Black Friday’s shopping mayhem and Cyber Monday’s $1.5B online spending spree, as well as a welcome respite from the overindulgence that characterizes the holidays in countries like the US.  It’s time we center our thoughts on the right things, the things that REALLY matter. Not what kind of car we drive, house we live in, clothes we wear, or presents we lavish on our loved ones (and ourselves), but rather how we give our time and attention to others less fortunate than we are.

I am not referring to things like Starbucks’ recent promotion of 2 holiday beverages for the price of 1; while a nice gesture for those in need of a caffeine or sugar fix, it’s not really helping anyone in need (and, if we’re honest, it’s really more of a ploy to get people into the stores to buy other merchandise like mugs, CDs, gift cards, etc.). No, what really gets my attention is people and organizations focused on taking action that directly improves the human condition. Whether it’s 9-year-old Rachel Beckwith who gave up her birthday presents to raise funds for clean drinking water; or a teen named Justin Churchman, who took the initiative to build 18 houses in Juarez, Mexico by his 18th birthday; or professor-turned-activist David Batstone, who is actively working to abolish human trafficking.

But I’m far from alone in seeking a Black Friday/Cyber Monday antidote. An idea called #GivingTuesday, incubated out of NY’s 92nd Street Y, has grown to include more than 2,000 U.S. organizations. It is a campaign to create a national day of giving at the start of the annual holiday season. It celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support non-profit organizations. That’s one national holiday I could really support! (Pun intended.) This past Tuesday, they hosted an inaugural tweet jam to discuss giving during and after the holiday season. You can check out the discussion on the hashtag #GivingTuesday and #GNO. Also, if you’d like to share your thoughts on giving and the best and worst this holiday season has to offer over, just join in the conversation using #ThatsTheSpirit.

Now, if you already have a favorite charity or two and want to connect with your friends privately, there’s a new site called Gudville (disclaimer: Gudville is a Sterling client) that just emerged from private beta. In Gudville, you can raise or donate money, organize volunteer time, sign a petition or conduct a poll. It’s early days yet for this new “private social action network,”  but spending some of my holidays working on things I care about with the people in my life that I care about … well, that sure beats fighting for parking spaces at the local mall so I can get more stuff I really don’t need or have space to store.

Follow Marianne on Twitter @marianneoconnor.


Cyber Monday May Not Be the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (For Shopping)

Cyber Monday is Black Friday’s nerdy cousin – the one that was quietly dismissed for several years until all of a sudden, it became the genius creator of a multi-billion-dollar startup and is now laughing all the way to the bank.

The term “Cyber Monday” may seem a bit antiquated now, but in 2005 marketing companies coined the term to persuade people to shop online the Monday after Black Friday. And it worked – according to a study, 77 percent of online retailers said their sales “increased substantially.” 

And the trend continues. As broadband becomes faster, home access to Internet is pretty much the norm, and mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are widespread, shoppers are now avoiding the (often literal) crush of Black Friday insanity and shopping online.

But recent research has surfaced that Cyber Monday isn’t necessarily the best time to find those online deals. Consumer service, Decide*, released findings from research into historical prices of holiday items over the past two years and recommended that consumers “skip the Cyber Monday hype.” After tracking millions of price movements from retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, Sears and Walmart, Decide found that other times of the holidays – not Cyber Monday (or Black Friday) – were the best money-savers. They still recommended buying online for the lowest prices on popular items, but to look at purchasing the week before Black Friday or even the week before Christmas instead.

Technorati also posted about 10 items consumers are better off buying at a later date, such as computers and tablets, cameras, luggage, bikes, televisions, jewelry and winter wear/gear.

That’s not to say that everyone is taking Decide’s advice on skipping Cyber Monday, though. Despite the numbers showing that Cyber Monday isn’t necessarily the best day to buy for the holidays, mobile-and-consumer-electronics news site BGR reports that yesterday showed sales climbing to a record $2 billion, a 17 percent increase from last year. The trend toward mobile is reflected in this, as mobile was up 100 percent from last year, comprising 22 percent of all sales on Cyber Monday.

But even though ShopAtHome.com* – the largest coupon search engine – saw 2,966,096 consumers between November 22 and November 26, Cyber Monday still represented just under 25 percent of the shoppers during those five days. And people are finding that they don’t have to wait until Cyber Monday to find the best deals online.

“While Cyber Monday savings are now an expected occurrence, this year we have seen that you don’t have to wait until you’re back at work to get the best online deals….[shoppers] are spreading out their purchases across the entire holiday weekend, something we expect to continue in the years to come.” ShopAtHome.com founder and CEO Marc Braunstein said in a press release.

So when it comes to holiday shopping online, it looks like the very thing that has created Cyber Monday – access to the Internet – may also be the same thing that makes Cyber Monday not the most wonderful time of the year for shopping.

Jennifer Kincaid can be reached at jkincaid@sterlingpr.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennlkincaid.

Photo credits: Death and Taxes; Chicago Now

*Not a client of Sterling Communications


The Future of Holiday Shopping

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday, Daily Comparison Shopping.

Technology has changed the way consumers approach the holidays. For years now, media and analysts have pointed to Cyber Monday as the prime example of this.

In the next few years, mobile applications could very well outpace the Cyber Monday (and even Black Friday) hubbub.

No, really.

There have been a number of barcode-scanning applications, including RedLaser, ShopSavvy and Barcode Scanner (Android only) for some time now, and last week, Amazon delivered a one-day discount using their “Price Check” application, which uses barcode-scanning technology. This discount encouraged consumers to go into a local store and scan an item. Consumers could then buy the product from Amazon, who would discount the product accordingly.

For most consumers, this was likely seen as an exciting offer. Many merchants, particularly local ones, found this practice extremely angering. Why? Amazon was ostensibly using their storefronts as showrooms, taking advantage of these “brick and mortar” locations to sell their wares.

To look at it another way, while technology may be making things easier for the consumer with these savvy applications, they could also very easily be creating a serious reputation problem for Amazon.

Think of it as the “Wal-Mart-ization” of the massive online retailer.

Amazon has historically had a wonderful reputation: a good place to work, great customer service, high-quality products and fast shipping. But with tactics such as this, they risk being seen as the “big kid on the block,” bullying the little guys and potentially putting them out of business.

Fifteen years ago, Barnes & Noble and Borders muscled their way into markets across the country and were largely blamed for the death of local bookstores. Today, Borders is gone and B&N is gasping for air. Amazon is seen as the reason for their struggling businesses.

Most consumers, however, don’t have emotional attachments or a vested interest in making sure these large companies stay afloat, the way they do for small, locally-run stores.

By encouraging consumers to take advantage of these storefronts (as nicely highlighted in this San Jose Mercury News article) Amazon is playing a dangerous and, possibly ill-advised chance with their corporate citizen reputation.

It may be wise for them to think through the possible negative results of their actions before they do damage that can’t be easily undone.

Devin Davis can be reached at ddavis@sterlingpr.com. Follow him on Twitter @DevinDavis.


Small Business is Big

Big brands are having no trouble luring shoppers in with low prices and extravagant advertising campaigns this holiday season, with Black Friday and Cyber Monday leading the way. Meanwhile, small, local businesses must find other ways to get an edge. Naturally, most small businesses don’t have the cash flow for pricey advertising spots, or the merchandise volume to justify huge price reductions, so what are these organizations doing to compete with the “big fish?”

Many are using grass-roots tactics like word-of-mouth marketing to capitalize on current trends and put the pressure on supporting small, local businesses. Let’s face it, local is trendy these days, and most small businesses are not shy about touting the intimacy and personal touch small establishments have to offer over their larger counterparts.

In addition to capitalizing on the small/local trend, many small organizations now have access to a larger audience, thanks to technology and the Internet. Farmers’ markets, for example, epitomize the small/local movement and are adapting digital technologies to reach consumers. And, according to a survey from MerchantCircle, 12 percent of small- to medium-sized businesses have used deal sites such as Groupon.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that small businesses may have some help from larger companies with a vested interest in their success…

American Express: “Small Business Saturday”

In addition to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a new shopping day was recently coined: Small Business Saturday (along with a whole host of other designated shopping days… but that’s a topic for another day). The Small Business Saturday campaign is backed by American Express, who introduced this campaign by incenting consumers with a $25 credit on their AMEX card for shopping at small businesses that accept American Express.

Yelp small business email campaign

Yelp is also helping to push small business shopping this year, and even sent out an email, urging shoppers to patronize local businesses this holiday season. So what does Yelp, a purported $1.5 billion company, have to do with small businesses? Arguably, small businesses are much more likely to find value in Yelp reviews and therefore reciprocate the publicity. Put it this way: a small clothing boutique is going to place much more value in online customer reviews (and be more adversely affected by negative reviews) than, say, JCPenney. Likewise, you’re more likely to see the “people love us on Yelp” sticker in a local coffee shop, compared to the more ubiquitous Starbucks.

Have your holiday shopping behaviors changed this year? Are you feeling personal convictions (or pressure from others) to support more local/small businesses? How have the marketing campaigns of Yelp, AMEX and others affected your choices? Sound off in the comments, or contact me on Twitter or email. Happy holidays!

Amanda Hoffman can be reached at ahoffman@sterlingpr.com. Follow her on Twitter @hoffmandy.


Why Online Shopping Megabit This Year

With bellies full of warm Thanksgiving goodness, many Americans turn from stuffing themselves to stuffing holiday stockings with Black Friday deals. In last week’s blog post, I explored how the Internet and mobile shopping are changing Black Friday. After countless interviews and maneuvering through throngs of frenzied shoppers, I was able to answer the questions I posed and also learned a valuable lesson: don’t shop on Black Friday.

While mobile and online purchases both set record highs again this year, online shopping failed to compare to the profits from brick-and-mortar stores even though it was the largest e-commerce shopping day in history. Those avid shoppers I spoke with assured me the in-store deals were worth the wait and the mad scramble, and that seems to be the consensus among American consumers who came out in record numbers on this most holy of shopping days. Black Friday brought in $52 billion (online and in-store) while Cyber Monday saw only $1.2 billion in sales, but there were 29.3% more internet sales on Cyber Monday than there were on Black Friday ($816 million). About 50 million Americans visited online sites on Black Friday and roughly 122 million shopped Cyber Monday. Technological devices were the most popular item on Black Friday making Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Target, and Apple the top five online retailers respectively. So why in the mobile era is the Internet failing to reign supreme when its growth outpaces that of brick and mortar stores?

The answer to this is that stores are doing a better job of capturing customers with door-buster and in-store exclusive deals. Most people I spoke with at Fry’s and Best Buy went there for specific items they had seen advertised, such as the 42″ LCD TV Best Buy listed for $199.99. I’ll admit, after hearing that one I was tempted to get in line, but with only a few in stock, I would have needed to show up about 10 hours earlier to get anywhere near the front. It seems that offering exclusive in-store deals is effective in getting people away from their computers and Thanksgiving dinners and into stores. Retailers want to draw people in to their physical location because people tend to buy more in-store than online.

Shopkick, an app that rewards users for just walking into stores, recently teamed up with Visa to offer an integrated purchase reward program just in time for the holidays. Now anyone who has a Visa who shops at a participating store location will earn rewards for walking in and for the purchases they make with their Visa card. The app also shows the user deals the store is offering. So even if Amazon is offering that same 42″ TV for $199.99, consumers may still be inclined to go to the store to pick it up for all the extra rewards points they could earn.

Until online retailers offer the same deals as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, online retailers cannot reign supreme. Realizing the threat that online shopping poses, it is smart for stores to offer incentives to people to come in. When was the last time you got points just for logging into Amazon? If online retailers want to stay competitive they are going to have to team with companies like Visa to compensate shoppers for their purchases because, as we have seen this year, free shipping and no sales tax just isn’t cutting it.

Monika Hathaway can be reached at mhathaway@sterlingpr.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jazzpatron.


The Digital Turkey: How Technology is Changing Black Friday

Black Friday. To some these words conjure images of post Thanksgiving family fun, waiting in line to get the year’s best pricing on hot ticket items. Others grudgingly stand in the freezing cold hoping to score that outrageously priced TV for a steal, and then there are those who forgo shopping of any kind to avoid the lines that resemble an occupy encampment more than anything else. But, regardless of your personal feelings about the most infamous of shopping days, not only is this year is expected to have the largest turnout ever (with over 152 million people busting open their wallets), but many stores are opening even earlier than ever, with places like Walmart and Toys R Us opening on Thursday (at 10 p.m. and 9 p.m., respectively).

But simply opening the earliest or being the cheapest does not ensure that your store will be profitable; you have to keep your core market and your brand in mind. While the earlier and cheaper model seems to be a winner for some, for higher-end retailers such as Nordstrom (open 7 a.m.), Bloomingdales (open 7 a.m.), and Neiman Marcus (open 9 a.m.) this method just doesn’t make sense. The customers for these stores are not going to be lured out of their beds at 4 a.m. to save an extra $50, nor does an early open fit with the store’s more upscale image.

In addition to earlier openings, some stores are taking advantage of a growing population of mobile and Internet shoppers, allowing them to get deals online before the stores open, instead of waiting for Cyber Monday, as in years past. Online shopping is a great way to grab those consumers who would like to get great deals but not at the expense of missing part of their holiday — or for those who would rather skip the crowds altogether, especially in light of the trampling of a Walmart employee that occurred last year. With more and more consumers indicating that they plan to do part of their shopping online, this seems to be the year of the Internet shopper. Even the high-end retailers understand that they have to cater to the growing population of mobile shoppers. Saks is planning to release an app that lets users easily browse products rather than having to navigate the Web page.

Armed with smartphones and iPads, customers can not only shop online, but can compare prices online, while in-store to find out if they are getting the best deal — and retailers know it. The deal gap between Black Friday and Cyber Monday is closing with most deals now being offered both online and in-store. Following the trend of Black Friday turning into Black Thursday, the traditional Cyber Monday became Cyber Saturday last year and is on course to becoming Cyber Friday this year. To try and capture those limited consumer dollars, some deals both online and in-store will be available starting Tuesday.

One of this season’s most interesting innovations I came across was the “Shopping Wall” a Sears/KMart installation. The Shopping Wall is essentially a giant wall that the company put up in high-traffic, captive audience areas such as airports with products available for purchase on mobile devices through QR codes. Stores are trying to capitalize on this growing mobile market by releasing apps that make it easier for consumers to make mobile purchases such as Macy’s and JC Penny’s streamlined pages.

With online and mobile shopping becoming real alternatives to long, cold, Black Friday lines and rowdy crowds, why are we expecting the largest Black Friday turn out ever? Is there a digital divide and the majority of people simply don’t have access to the Internet or have such a slow connection it isn’t worth it? As the designated days of the week become less important, are we seeing the end of the Black Friday/Cyber Monday labels as we know them? I will be braving Black Friday for the first time to answer these questions and more. Look for my follow up post next week.

Monika Hathaway can be reached at mhathaway@sterlingpr.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jazzpatron.