Category Archives: Commerce and Marketing

Commerce

Remember When Delivery By Drones Was Not Within the Realm of the Possibile?

The assistant walked into the big office.  “Sir,” he began.  “I – ”

“Hold on.  Here, look at this screen.  Our drones cover 75% of the U.S. airspace.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

“That is wonderful, sir.  But there appears to be an issue with the drones.  People are getting upset.”

“People?  What are people?  Oh, you mean those creatures who are always eating and losing things, and walk around sniffling when it’s cold.  Ugh.  Why don’t they blow their noses?”

“I don’t know, sir.  But yes – those people are now getting upset about the drones.”

“Is this about that accident last week?”

“Well, sir, when a drone carrying a snowblower falls out of the sky into the middle of a bar mitzvah, there is usually some negative public reaction.”

“But I told them, it wasn’t our fault.  The ground-pilot was texting with his wife about what they were going to have for dinner.  Totally unforeseeable.”

“I know, sir.  But these accidents aren’t the only thing.  People just didn’t anticipate that the sky would be filled with thousands of drones at every moment, so that you couldn’t even see a clear patch.”

“Well what did they expect?  Invisible drones?  Hmm.”  He pulled out a little notebook and scribbled something.

“Sir, the point is if we don’t stop the drones soon we may find ourselves the subject of a scathing op-ed piece.”

“Whoa, whoa.  We definitely don’t want that.  But what alternatives do we have?”

“Sir, we could go back to shipping by truck and regular air mail.”

“And go back to the Dark Ages of delivery that took all night?  We may as well trade in our toilet paper for corn cobs while we’re at it.  No, if we have to stop the drones, there’s only one option.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I certainly do.  Delivery by catapult.”

It was an unusual change to the system but soon everyone got used to it.  The delivery centers were reorganized throughout the country so that every home and business was within catapulting range of at least one delivery center, and every delivery center was within catapulting range of another delivery center, so that no matter where the ordered product originated, it could be conveyed via catapult to any place in America.

Instead of the skies being filled with unstaffed aircraft, the skies were filled with packages being lobbed to the next destination.  But there was no noise, and because the calibration had to be done only once – at the point of catapult – the packages did not need constant mid-flight monitoring.  The accident rate dropped dramatically.

The catapults were also amenable to automation.  The packages would be sorted and placed on conveyor belt, but instead of being directed to a drone, the packages were directed to one of the catapults.  There were multiple catapults at each delivery center.  At first the catapults were arranged in a circle, with every point of the compass covered.  But then someone realized that by placing the catapult on a swivel chair, all compass points could be achieved with far fewer catapults.  A computer algorithm calculated the direction, angle, and force required to catapult each package to its destination, accounting for weight, drag, and wind speed.

In the middle of the delivery center was the reception zone, made of a large canvas piled up with couch cushions.  This model was copied at households and businesses across the country.  In every backyard or office parking lot was a reception zone where packages could land.  In households that didn’t have the yard space, the most athletic member of the family would run outside at the scheduled delivery time and catch the package by hand.  The increase in concussions and broken packages was more than offset by the increase in general fitness.

“Sir, I can’t believe it.  The catapult system is a success!”

“Of course it is.  The packages arrive just as quickly as with the drones, but we don’t have to hire ground-pilots.  We’ve been able to lay off so many people!  Think of all the money we’ll save on tissues.”

“Yes, sir, that’s wonderful.  But now the sky is filled with so many packages being catapulted that it’s no longer safe for airplanes.  How are people going to travel?”

“I am so glad you asked.  Let me show you.”  He got up, handed the assistant a helmet and parachute, and led him outside to an empty catapult.

Thank you all for reading this year, and have a happy and healthy 2014.  Can’t wait to see what’s in store!  -MK

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The Private Universe of Shopping Carts

Did you ever notice how a shopping cart in any place other than a supermarket or a supermarket parking lot looks extremely out of place and even a little disturbing?  I saw one during my morning commute a few weeks ago.  It was so near the road that I almost clipped it.  It was there the next morning.  And the next.  And the next.

The evening commute takes me on a slightly different path that did not go past the shopping cart, and so I only saw the shopping cart in the morning.  I did not the shopping at all until I passed it, and when I did, I would be reminded of all previous encounters.  At first I was disturbed just by the sight of the shopping cart, but after a few days I became disturbed more by the fact that I only thought about the shopping cart when I passed it in the morning, and wouldn’t think about it again until the next encounter the following morning.  It was like the shopping cart and I shared a universe for a few brief seconds and then separated into distinct realities.

Did the shopping cart feel the same way about me?  “Every morning a car with Mark Kaplowitz inside drives by,” the shopping cart says to itself, “but I don’t see the car in the afternoon, and I don’t think about it until the next morning when it passes by again.”  Did the shopping cart find the routine as unsettling as I did?  I began think the shopping cart was looking at me when I passed it.  I began to feel self-conscious during that stretch of road.

Then, a few mornings ago, as I approached the shopping cart spot and started anticipating its presence and steely gaze, I saw that the shopping cart was gone.  Then I saw that it wasn’t gone, but merely pushed over on its side.  Someone must have had the same feeling I had, and finally could no longer stand the stare of the shopping cart.  It must have been dangerous to stop a car in the middle of a road to push over a shopping cart.  Maybe it was done late at night when traffic was light.

Whatever the circumstances, the spell was broken.  I can now think about the shopping cart at any time of the day.  And I do.  I picture it lying there, among the tall grass, enjoying the precious last days of summer.

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Remember When There Was Only One Type of Post-It Note?

In the beginning there was paper, and there was tape.  And if you wanted to leave a note on a page of a book, you had to tape a piece of paper bearing the note, and when you removed the note it would not come off easily, but would damage the page with its stickiness.[1]  And to tape the note to another page would take more tape, for the original tape would be unfit[2] to carry out its duties.

And the 3M Corporation said, “Let there be Post-it notes,” and there were Post-it notes.  And the 3M Corporation saw that the Post-it notes were good, and trademarked the name “Post-it.”  The Post-it notes were canary yellow, and the 3M Corporation saw that the canary yellow was good, and trademarked that, too.

And the world was filled with Post-it notes, all of the same size, and the same color.  And the 3M Corporation said, “Look, the Post-it notes are all the same, and everyone buys them.  Who knows how much more we can sell if the Post-it notes were different?”

And the 3M Corporation said, “Let there be Post-it notes of not only 3 inches by 3 inches, but also of 3 inches by 5 inches, and of 4 inches by 6 inches, and of  1 ½ inches by 2 inches, and of 1 3/8 inches by 1 7/8 inches.”  And the 3M Corporation said, “Let there be Post-it notes of not only canary yellow®, but also of blue, and green, and orange, and pink, and of neon colors and pastel colors.”  And the world was filled with Post-it notes of every size, and every color, although the 3M Corporation was unable to trademark the colors blue, green, orange, and pink.

And the 3M Corporation created Post-it notes with lines on them for people who needed to write on lines, and Post-it notes arranged in an accordian-style for people who needed to pull notes out of dispensers.  And world was now filled with Post-it notes of every size and color, and every design and arrangement.

And the 3M Corporation said, “It is not good for the Post-it notes to be alone.  We shall make helpmeets for them, so that they shall not be alone in the office supply storeroom, or mail room, or closet for companies that are too small or cheap to dedicate an entire room to office supplies as I have commanded.  And so that we shall make a greater return for our shareholders.”  And the 3M Corporation put the Post-it notes under a deep sleep, and took a piece of the patented low-stick adhesive, and formed around it Post-it tabs that could mark books of learning and pages of deposition transcripts that contained incriminating testimony so that lawyers could easily indicate which pages they wanted photocopied.

And the 3M Corporation created Post-it tabs of the same material, but that were much smaller, and some were loaded into a pen, and some were loaded into a highlighter.  And the 3M Corporation created Post-it tabs that were more durable, that would not wrinkle or crease or tear with normal use.  And the 3M Corporation created Post-it tabs that were narrower, and called “flags,” some with arrows, and some without arrows, and some that came in pop-up dispensers, and some that did not come in pop-up dispensers.  And the 3M Corporation saw that it was good.

And the 3M Corporation said, “The low-stick adhesive is not sticky enough for some people.”  And the 3M Corporation created a Post-it note with a super sticky adhesive, and called these notes “Post-it® Super Sticky Full Adhesive Notes.”  And these Post-it® Super-Sticky Full Adhesive Notes were truly the stickiest notes that the world had ever seen, and did not drop off pages easily, and gave people the confidence that their notes would stay put, but which sometimes damaged the page or ink when removed, as the 3M Corporation warned on the package.


[1] Older versions had “holiness.”

[2] Others “unclean.”

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Remember When There Were No “TIPS” Jars?

I don’t remember exactly where I was the first time I saw one – a plastic container placed next to a cash register, with “TIPS” enscrawled in black magic marker.  A Dunkin’ Donuts or Subway or the dreaded Starbucks perhaps.  “The gall of these people!” I said to myself.  These cashiers…I mean, these baristas…trying to expand the tip zone like the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War.  Well, I never signed on to that treaty!  See if I care!  And proudly I accepted and kept my three pennies of change.

At the time, I did not think the trend would catch on.  But soon after that I saw a tip jar at the supermarket.  I was picking up Yodels for the week and noticed the plastic container in front of a young man bagging groceries.  So not only had they stopped making new episodes of Sex in the City, but they had spun off the bagging function of the supermarket cashier, so that the cashier could focus more on making small talk with customers and co-workers, and the bagger, or bagging-agent, or comestible transport administrator, could focus more on piling five-gallon containers of laundry detergent atop cartons of eggs.

“Perhaps I’ve been wrong about this tip jar phenomenon,” I said to myself.  “Perhaps the tip jar is this person’s sole source of income.”  And for a moment my mind was changed about the tip jar.  I still didn’t leave a tip, but I at least thought about it.

Unless you’ve been in a coma and without an Internet connection for the last ten years, you know that these tip jars are everywhere now.  Convenience stores, delicatessins…even the guy who sold me fireworks out of the trunk of his car had a little plastic container with “TIPS” written in several different languages.  And I would had left money in the tip jar at the library had the funds not already been earmarked for late fees on Ivanhoe, which I was supposed to read in 11th grade.

I thought back to when I had first started going to the diner with my friends, during high school, and had first confronted that labyrinthine branch of etiquette known as tipping.  I remembered the arguments over my friend’s “no change” rule, which meant that he never left change on the table, even if we only got coffee, which cost $1.50.

“But that’s a tip of, like…” I said, punching my calculator watch, “…like, 66 point 6, repeating, or point 7 if you round-up.”

“So?  Just give ‘em a dollar.  You can’t leave change,” he said.

“Says who?  What’s wrong with change?” I said.  “I love change.  I like the way it sounds when it jingles in my pocket.”  And to demonstrate, I took a few steps towards the cigarette machine, jingling the change that was in my pocket.  My friend rolled his eyes and shamed me into replacing my nickels and dimes on the table with a crisp dollar bill.

As the “TIPS” jars proliferated in the early 21st century, I suffered from more than a little insecurity.  Was I to simply accept this unilateral imposition of custom as I’d forced to accept the “bless you” custom after someone sneezes?  Were these cashiers and baggers doing me a favor by providing a receptacle for the change that must surely burden me and leaving me with more room in my pocket for receipts?  I tried to discuss these issues with someone, but my therapist fell asleep during my diner story.

The only way to solve this dilemma would be to contact the only person I knew who could help me—the same friend who had shamed me into leaving a dollar instead of change.  I arranged to meet him at a bagel shop we both enjoyed, and on my way over I was having second thoughts.  My friend probably left wads of cash in the plastic container.  What if he told me to do the same?  As I got out of the car and pressed the button on the door-locking remote repeatedly until I heard the confirmation honk, I reminded myself that I was not bound by anything he said.

The line was long and I saw that my friend the tipping expert was at the front of it.  He was passed a tray with a bagel, a large chocolate chip cookie, and a Yoo-Hoo.  He handed the cashier a bill and was handed change in return.  And then I saw it—a plastic “TIPS” jar next to his hand, which closed over the change and went in his pocket as he walked away in search of an open table.  I blinked but I had seen correctly: my friend had ignored the “TIPS” jar.

As I approached the cashier, I thought I knew what I was going to do.  I thought I would leave no change, convinced that my rule had won out in the end.  But when the cashier handed me the change, and looked me in the eye, and smiled, and said, “Thank you for your business,” my heart melted, and I saw myself capitulating, and dropping my change as if my hand had been possessed.

“Thank you—‘preciate that,” the cashier said.

Heart pounding, mind reeling, and stomach growling, I took my tray and turned towards my friend, who had not yet seen me.  And I stood there, wavering, not sure if I could bring myself to eat with such a miser.

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Remember When You Could Go To the Supermarket Without Being Offered Something You Didn’t Want?

Remember when you could go to the supermarket without being offered to enter a contest, or asked to make a donation, or join a mailing list, or solicited with anything other than the items you went there to buy?

I do.

My childhood memories of going to the supermarket are sepia-toned.  Mostly I remember buying a lot of cereal, and begging for cookies and soda to no avail. One time I found a $20 bill on the floor in the produce section and did not tell anyone.

But today it seems like every time I walk through those automatic doors I’m bombarded by people trying to get me to enter a contest or make a donation when all I really want to do is get my Mojito Mix and Vanilla Wafers and get out of there.

The other day I went to the supermarket and as the automatic doors opened a man in a shirt and tie greeted me. I assumed he was the greeter – perhaps placed through some community outreach program – and greeted him back. Then he held out a stack of green slips and a pen and asked me if I wanted to enter to win a shopping spree. I entertained a short mental film of myself running through the aisles, like a contestant on that game show Supermarket Sweep, going for the whole roast turkeys and then the medicine aisle. I shook my head and walked on, and felt bad about rebuffing him until I got to the free samples of cheese.

Another time I was greeted by a pair of high schoolers selling candy bars to fund a class on the causes of obesity. I told them that I’d sold my collection of Garbage Pail Kids to pay my property taxes and teenagers still did not seem to know anything beyond a bunch of acronyms.  And they were like, “OMG!”  And I was like, “TTYL.”

But the most memorable supermarket solicitor was a woman taking donations to pay her Verizon bill. No clipboard, no costume, no gimmick.  Just standing there with a sign that said, “I can’t make any cell phone calls. Please help. God bless.” Somehow that one touched my heart. I handed over the few dollars I had on me, and instead of snacking on Vanilla Wafers I spent the evening appreciating what I had.

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Remember When You Weren’t Offered A Rewards Card at Every Store?

Remember when you weren’t offered a rewards card at every store you went to?

I do.

In the beginning supermarkets offered discounts through coupons, which required clipping and a fair amount of chutzpah at the check out line.  Then one day, a supermarket executive says, “Hey, if we’re going to offer discounts, we may as well track our customers’ purchases so we know exactly how many Tombstone pizzas or Cottonelle moist wipes they consume in a week.”

And an intern asks, “But how will you accomplish that?”

And the executive replies, “Don’t they teach you anything at that fancy Ivy League school?  We will track their purchases with plastic.  Plastic is the answer to all our problems.”

And the intern, stinging, asks, “But what will you call this piece of plastic?”

And the executive leans back in his chair, and laces his hands behind his head, and looks out the large window of his corner office at a brilliant Manhattan sunset, and exhales through his nose.  “We will call it a ‘rewards card,’” he says, “so that the customers think they are being rewarded.”

I remember that supermarkets were the first to offer rewards cards.  Then electronic stores climbed aboard.  Then liquor stores.  Then Panera.  Funeral homes will probably be next, offering a rewards card that can be affixed to a toe.

My wallet is thick enough to give me back problems solely because of rewards cards.  And most of my rewards cards are in my sock drawer.  I keep them there so that no one will steal them and get discounts under my name.  Unfortunately, this arrangement carries the risk that I will go to a store without its rewards card.

There is nothing more devastating than shopping at a store and waiting on the check out line and getting to the cashier and getting excited because the next time you walk through the doors of your home will be with a 36-pack of Coors Light and two boxes of Yodels, and then realizing you left your rewards card next to the argyles.  I was involved in one such incident.

“Sir, do you have a rewards card?” asks the cashier, who looks like the guitarist from Phish.

“Oh, uh, yes,” I say, making a show of looking for the card.  “Yes, I think it’s here somewhere.  I know I’ve got one…” I’m expecting him to say, “Oh that’s all right,” and just swipe the “cashier’s” rewards card that should be attached to the scanner by a piece of twine.  But it’s not there, and he’s not saying anything.  And the people behind me are getting impatient.

A woman offers her card.  “Oh, no,” I say, wondering how much protest is appropriate before I save three dollars under the name of this kind stranger.  I even put up one hand while using the other hand to fish around in a pocket I know is empty.

“No, really,” she says, “It’s all – “

“Well, okay,” I say.  The woman offers her card to the cashier.

“Um,” says the cashier, “I’m really not supposed to do this.”

I’m an adult buying Puffins and getting red tape from someone who probably takes cigarette breaks to watch Lord of the Rings on his cell phone. He repeats that he’s “not supposed to do this” and, after some pleading from everyone on the line and my sworn affidavit that I’ll never do it again, he lets me use the kind woman’s rewards card.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I cared about the discount that much.  Had coupons still been the dominant discount vehicle I would have paid top dollar for my Puffins without batting an eye.  Perhaps I’ve been wrong about these rewards cards.  Perhaps their purpose is not just to track the consuming practices of an unsuspecting public.

Perhaps rewards cards are meant to bring impatient strangers closer together.

Thanks to Jennifer Albright for the topic.

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