Category Archives: Lessons Learned

The Best Job I Ever Had

Oscar Museum 2

Ten years ago, in about 2004, I got a call from a prospective client, a newly hired director of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences museum project, asking if I would be interested in conducting some market research for a new attraction/museum themed on the Academy Awards.

Would I Ever!!!

I had been the one lucky enough to do the work for the Dolby Theater at Hollywood & Highland where the ceremony takes place, so it seemed a good fit and logical that I continue on to do the museum feasibility.  But my joy, my heart, for Hollywood, no one knew that!

No One Had Ever Known That:

  • My family had always been in the entertainment business, with my father involved on the business side, having been a pioneer in the cable television industry.
  • My aunt always working for this or that movie star as an executive assistant.
  • I was lucky enough to visit the back-lot of 20th Century Fox before it was Century City!
  • I spent countless hours watching movies being filmed, then sitting in theaters watching them roll by me on the big screen.

Would I be interested?  Heck, yea!!

Since that time, I have been the consultant called upon to do the background market research, analysis and financial projections for the site selection, sizing and operation of museum.

I learned a thing or two during those years like:

  • I gained a deep knowledge of large museums and what keeps them thriving.
  • How an endowment can shrink during a deflation.
  • Money earmarked to never-be-touched has a way of disappearing in hard times.
  • I learned about the conundrum of keeping things fresh so that resident visitors will keep returning, time and again.

I am thankful that my job always changes and that I always learn, no matter the engagement.

Picture of Oscar 2Over the years, we have wrestled with all the issues associated with new development including disagreements about what it should look like, what its mission should be, where it should be sited, who is its targeted audience (please, don’t say everyone!), and what’s the best way to keep the project on-time and on-budget.  To be clear, these issues are complex and are made more difficult when there are many masters to serve.  Still, when the project is to reflect the points of view, hopes, dreams, and legacies of America’s most important cultural export, (which I believe is cinema) there must be the most careful consideration to each one.

This was my best job ever.  Write and tell me about yours in the comments below.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

Rockefeller_Center_christmas_tree

If you are like most Americans, you feel better this year, but there is still a nagging doubt in the back of your mind, “is this as good as it gets?”  True, the economy has picked up, spending is up, the recession is no more, but we are still feeling the pinch.  How shall we shop for Christmas this year?

duluthsnow-w_AQBL

We did some digging to find out how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.

The following figures provide some context for the economic growth since before the recession until after, with per capita GDP not yet recovered to pre-2008 levels:

united-states-gdp-per-capita

The gross domestic product increased from $13.3 trillion in 2007 to $15.1 trillion in 2012.

united-states-gdp 06-12

GAFO retail sales seem to be slowly recovering from the recession, and consumers are spending again.  Consumer confidence is back up to about 73 percent of what it was in 2006, but spending at shopping centers is ACTUALLY DOWN in real constant dollars (adjusted for inflation):

united-states-consumer-confidence 08-12

GAFO retail sales in the nation increased from $968 billion in 2002 to $1,032 billion in 2010,  for a compound average growth rate of 1.1 percent.  However, from 2007 to 2010, compound average growth was  -.03 percent nationally.

As everyone knows, brick-and-mortar stores are in competition with internet retailers for market share.   With the ease of shopping online in the comfort of your home or office, and the ability to compare sale prices amongst retailers, the brick-and-mortar stores have to come up with creative ways to appeal to the consumer as the better way to shop drawing them to their retail store locations.  Some retailers are offering free shipping, extended hours along with other special promotional items available only in stores.

Electronic shopping and mail order retailers suffered only a mild set back during the recession and bounded back with sales for the twelve months through February 2012 accounting for $308 billion.  The overall sales market rose 30 percent since the peak in 2008 as reported in an article, “Retail Sales Recover, Mostly, From Recession”, written in The New York Times, by Floyd Norris.

One of the biggest impacts of the recession on the retail market is the change in the behavior of shoppers.  People are bargain shopping and looking for the biggest bang for their buck.  They are more interested in products or items that are reliable and have lasting value rather than purchasing the latest gadgets.

Consumers are looking to save money where possible, which has increased on-line shopping as well as sales at discount and dollar stores such as Wal-Mart, 99 Cent stores and Target.  Not only are shoppers finding better bargains, they are saving time and money especially when factoring savings of not having to drive with high gas prices.

Target shoppers

The recession has also caused a spike in sales at thrift shops/resale stores,  as  the number of resale shops opened within the last year increased approximately seven percent.

According to comScore.Inc,  holiday retail spending over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend was estimated at $59.1 billion dollars nationally, up nearly 13 percent over last year.   Black Friday online sales exceeded $1 billion, rising 26 percent to $1.04 billion.

How do you feel this year?  Let us know if your pocketbook feels lighter or if you are back to normal.  Have we stabilized at the new normal? We are anxious to hear from you!

The New Face of Retail

Can you smell it?  Fall is in the air!  It may still be 85 degrees in sunny California, but the kids have returned to school, a crispness is the order of the day, and last weekend, I did my annual fall shopping.  The trip this year was much more measured than other years, as I suppose it is for most in the developed world.  The recession is alive, growth from the last few quarters has slowed, and there is still rampant uncertainty in all of our daily lives.

But that is not what I want to blog about today.  On my trip, I did my usual “people watching”  noting a subtle but noticeable shift in the gestalt of the crowd.  We visited our local mall which is owned by Macerich.  The shopping center was renovated in 2007 and a huge Target took over a vacated Robinson’s-May as one of the anchors.  Still, the mall floundered and felt like an unhappy place to me.  And then voila!  In the midst of the downturn, with unemployment still above 9 percent nationally and American companies holding on to more than $1.8 trillion in cash ( not investing, not hiring), a new sense of hope and purpose is in the air.  Unscientific you say?  Yes, but after so many years in the business I am a reader of attitudes, unspoken  intentions, a focus group unto myself.

What has caused this shift in outlook, turned the gray glasses to rose-colored?  I believe it is the retailers, some of whom are doing an excellent job of reading their markets.  With my husband in tow, we were given free treats at Cinnabun, Wetzels Pretzels, and See’s Candy while waiting in line to buy a low-cal coffee at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.  I smelled popcorn and saw several happy families with brightly colored red-and-white boxes.  Where did they get these cheery delicious snacks?  Target!  (Sears, you lose again, even though this was your idea in the first place!) And while waiting in line, I saw the Giant Surprise that H & M, one of my favorites, will be opening in our mall in less than two weeks.  The fast-fashion Swedish retailer made the excellent choice not to locate in a struggling new “upscale” lifestyle center in Oxnard (oxymoron, lifestyle center: Oxnard) which would have been a huge mistake!

As a very wise presidential candidate once said, “it’s the economy stupid!” and retailers that have learned to provide VALUE and fun in the shopping experience and in the goods and services they offer are faring well.  TJX, Ross, Forever 21 and now Bloomingdale’s Outlets are giving consumers what they want and need in today’s difficult world.  Free stuff, fun stuff, inexpensive stuff, value for the money!

So while the economic indicators continue to stump the experts, the American consumer is not giving up!  They will continue to shop (less and cheaper), eat sugar and popcorn, and hope for the much badly needed turnaround.  And this, my friends, is a self-fulfilling prophecy for a better year in 2012!

Shopping, Sears and Me

I love to shop. I’m talking about reason to live, first thing you think about in the morning, when can I go again love! I guess that is why I have been a retail analyst most of my adult life. So I consider shopping, retail, the shopping ambiance, the retail experience, whatever we call it these days since the recession, I consider these my avocation and my vocation. I am an expert!

My mother imparted this love to me, as is the case with most girls. It is imprinted on us like little ducks from an early age, this need to gather, to get the prettiest, most current, loveliest shoes, sweaters, pants, skirts, purses, that we can afford. And as a corollary, there are certain shopping rules, again imparted by our mothers. For example, my childhood in an upper middle class suburb of Chicago, taught me that there were only a few department stores where we were allowed to shop for clothes: Marshall Fields and Carson Pirie Scott. WE WERE NOT ALLOWED TO STEP FOOT INTO SEARS! Now I know this is deathly un-PC and there were not a boatload of clothes to be had at Sears back then, no “softer side of Sears,” still we were not allowed to step foot into the store on a girls shopping trip.

When I became a retail analyst, that had to change, but I still have the “No Sears” song in my head.  As most of us know, Sears has done quite a bit in the last ten years to deserve my scorn. They have made many decisions, none of them based on being a great retailer. Considering the ruthless competitive landscape in retail, it’s a miracle that Kmart (who now owns Sears) has survived. Tough rivals in the discount segment abound, including WalMart Stores, Target, and Costco. All three of these behemoths have much stronger brands and customer loyalty than either Sears or Kmart. And regardless of whether hedge fund manager and Sears chairman Eddie Lampert is involved — his mere presence often seems to make some investors consider Sears’ future as a hedge fund, not a retailer — Sears and Kmart both lost their brand luster many years back.

Why am I blogging about Sears today? One thing Sears had going for it way back when was its great brand of appliances, ease of shopping for them, great repair service and service contracts. They were vertically integrated. So all of our appliances are from Sears and they are for the most part, work horses. But when they break, it has been a tear-your-hair-out nightmare to get an appointment for service. We had a minor part break on our refrigerator this summer and it took six visits to get it fixed because they kept sending the wrong part or the service man didn’t show up at the appointed time or they had to cancel or some other excuse that never made sense. It didn’t bother me too much because the refrigerator still worked, although it was very funny to receive a white door for the unit when the refrigerator is stainless steel! (Doors are very big and bulky to mail!)

The last appliance to break was the clothes dryer. I called to schedule an appointment to get it fixed and knew it was going to be a nightmare, but we bought the service contract so we are on the hook with Sears. The agent at the scheduling center told me I had to wait three weeks. I told him that was unacceptable, at which point he pretty much told me to go “F” myself, that I could take it or leave it, that they had no complaint department, he had no supervisor and if he was in my position he would just leave it alone. So I called a local service to fix the problem and sent Sears the bill with a letter of explanation, a very rational letter, and enclosed the repair bill. I fully expected nothing, but I felt better doing it.

Two months later, my husband got a call (in fact now 4 calls) from Sears. He referred the first caller to me. They told me they were extremely sorry for the way I was treated, but they had no control over their repair servicing arm, which of course, they don’t. He told me he would be sending a check for $18.75 for parts (the bill in fact was $100) and that they would be sending me a $50 Sears gift card for my trouble. Will this make me ever consider Sears again for anything? This is called “customer mop-up.”

So here I was with a $50 gift card for a store that I now had multiple reasons not to shop. I tried to force myself into our local store three times before I finally made it. So what was my experience this time, with the 2010 “softer side of Sears?”

I was sad to see that Sears lived down to my expectations. With so many category killers doing a superb job in their niche, they just didn’t do anything well. They didn’t own the “cheap chic” category, they didn’t own the “cheap/inexpensive” category, and oh my god, the quality of the soft goods was abhorrent!

So they have stuck with the warning from my childhood, “NEVER SHOP AT SEARS!” The store carried cheaply made goods (soft and hard), mostly unattractive, AND FOR A PREMIUM PRICE!!!! .

Why would anyone shop at Sears?

Lessons Learned: The 3 Silliest Assignments I Ever Had

My friends tell me I am one of the funniest people they know.  I can find humor in the most awful or embarrassing circumstances and make people laugh.  Those of you who know me may think this is contrary to my way of thinking, which I would call “the worst case scenario.”  Still, many of my jobs have brought laughter to my family when I tell them what I am working on.  My husband wrote me a case study that I keep in front of me on my desk at all times.  It is called THE BEE MUSEUM, and it is an assignment for a nonprofit client that wants to test the market and financial feasibility for, you guessed it, a BEE MUSEUM.  This nonprofit is in a tiny market, but they project a million visitors per year, each spending a $20 per capita.  This is how many of my jobs go, in a nutshell.

We are hired principally to test new ideas, things that have never been done before.  So there have been some wild-ass ideas in my practice.  But as a very wise man once told me, “you never tell a client what they can’t do; you tell them what they can do.”  So for these very silly assignments, we develop projections based on realistic programs.  They may not be what the client wants (most of the time) and they may generate significantly less attendance and revenue, but they reflect the realities of the market.  So here they are, in no particular order, the three silliest projects I have ever worked on and the lessons learned.

Lesson Number 1:  Test before you build and then trust the results!

Native American casinos often wish to develop a cultural component along with the casino amenities.  Many of these start out as museums detailing the story of the tribe.  In one such instance, we were hired when the huge museum next to the casino was already under construction.  It had occurred to them that it might be good to get a realistic viewpoint on their attendance potential.  Of course, they were projecting one million visitors, who would come on the same trip as the gambling excursion.  This was in a day-market locale.  After studying the market, we told them, no the most you could get is 350,000 annual visitors and this would be from the 50-mile market, not from the casino visitors.  They are there to be BAD and they do not want to be educated or uplifted on the same trip they are losing (or winning, but not as often) their rent money.  Low and behold, they stabilized at about 350,000 before they had budget cuts and attendance lagged.  They were never pleased with us, even though we were correct.

Lesson Number 2:  Arrogance will get you nowhere in the retail and attraction businesses.  Remember the local culture and keep your culture out of it!

A very well-known entertainment company was planning a foreign theme park in a country where wine is consumed with lunch and dinner.  This is not alcoholic behavior; this is the culture and custom of the country.  Focus groups confirmed that it was the custom of potential visitors to have wine with meals.  What did this company do?  They prohibited alcohol from the park because it was against THEIR CULTURE.  Can you see where this is going?  Shouldn’t they have known better?  Wasn’t this obvious without expensive focus groups?  Needless to say, after a few years of low attendance and flagging EBDITA, they reversed their ridiculous stance and allowed alcohol in the park. 

Lesson Number 3:  Get inside your potential customer’s head, and don’t stop at a few interviews.  You could lose hundreds of millions.

This is another strange story about the failure of a whole division of Bullocks, when there was a Bullocks.  These stores are all Macy’s now.  But at this time, Bullocks wanted to expand to Northern California.  In order to do that, they had to open multiple locations, indicating a huge investment at the time.  Federated had the best research department in the business.  So we did all the area research, some consumer research, and several stores called “Bullocks Northern California” opened in the San Francisco Bay Area.  And they all FAILED!  How could this happen?  Are any of you aware of the jaw-tightening dislike that Northern Californians have for Southern Californians?  Well, I knew because I went to Berkeley and heard it every day I was there, being from Beverly Hills, which was a particularly huge transgression.  Anyway, no god-fearing Northern Californian would be caught dead in a Southern Californian retailer, EVEN THOUGH THE MERCHANDISE WAS THE SAME AS MACY’S, the closest competitor at the time.