Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

...and life became one big sale

By Dick Hirsch
Everyone loves a bargain. That’s true, isn’t it? I’m absolutely, positively sure that all the people I know would agree with that statement. Having just completed the holiday shopping period, the busiest time of year for most retailers, it seems timely to wonder about the authenticity of the seemingly endless cascade of bargains that are constantly competing for our attention.
Yes, I do wonder about the sale prices. “Sale,” presented directly as an unadorned four-letter word, has become the most powerful single motivational term in the dictionary of retail advertising. Words like “fabulous,” or “dazzling,” once favored in some ad copy, can no longer compete with “sale.” Even “just arrived” or “new fashions for the family” have been swept aside.
When did they start revising the traditional sale periods? Historians have been pondering that question for decades and the answer has proven to be elusive. When is a sale timely? Christmas sales are the most visible example. They were traditionally held after Christmas, most typically starting in mid-January. The stated goal was obvious: to offer reduced prices after the holiday shopping period ended; the stores were able to charge the full price in the weeks before the holiday, then marked down the prices after to clear out merchandise, make room for the next season’s stock and generate more cash.
For the customers it was always an easy decision: most shoppers bought at the list price so the gifts could be presented at Christmas; if they were not embarrassed to wait until after Christmas, they might save 20 percent. Otherwise, in the spirit of the season, they gladly paid the price on the ticket.
Now it is upside down and inside out. It is all sales all the time, a procession, one sale after another. It is difficult to chart the sales because when one promotional “event” is completed, the next one begins. Somewhere along the way---no one recalls exactly when or where it happened---a sale was elevated to the status of an event. Today, most retail is one big sale...or so it seems. People want to believe they are getting bargains, that the 20 percent off coupon, which every shopper has, places them in an enviable position.
List price? Are you kidding? Charging the list price has become a policy practiced in an increasingly rare number of locations. It’s always satisfying to buy at a discount from retail. That philosophy includes businesses far removed from traditional retailing. Consider the plight of travelers on airlines: the airlines have so many different fares that it’s difficult to find a fellow passenger making the same trip on the same flight on the same day who paid the same amount for a ticket.
(On the other hand, a small but insistent voice within me keeps repeating this observation: If you walk into certain stores where the price is the price, some comfort can be derived from knowing you are paying the same price as anyone else, no more, no less. Yes, there are sales, and they usually materialize just two or three times a year and when they end, they end. They are not followed by another event and another...)
There were always incentives to stimulate sales. Premiums were popular. For years, sets of encyclopedias were offered periodically in supermarkets, the first copy covering, say, from A to cacti, would be offered for about 99 cents. Other books were offered each week or month at a higher price. Glasses and dishes were popular promotional items. One of the longest lasting was the so-called trading stamp, popularized by the S & H Green Stamp, and later followed by Plaid Stamps and Blue Chip Stamps. Customers would get stamps from food stores, pharmacies, gas stations and other retailers, the number of stamps received depending on the amount of money spent. The stamps were then pasted in a book and when the book was filled it was redeemed, either for cash or for merchandise.
Just last week I stumbled upon a term that defeated me, and it is related to this area of sales and promotions. I knew it was an acronym, but I couldn’t guess what it meant. Acronyms are terms that enter the language and are made up of the initial letters of a familiar phrase. Some of the most popular ones need no explanation, ones like ASAP, FYI and SNAFU.
The term that puzzled me was BOGO. Soon, however, I learned BOGO means Buy One Get One. Watch for that offer at the next event. It’s almost like getting the stuff for half price.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

Doing more than one thing at a time

By Dick Hirsch
With most back in session after the holidays, I believe this would be an appropriate time to restate my position on education which is: you‘re never too old to learn something new.
That is a difficult policy to argue against, so I will refine it a little further. We all know there are many things we can learn from our children. How about that? There is a statement that should please at least one generation.
My assignment today, however, is to carry the mission of generational learning (and teaching) one step further and say that it can be both illuminating and satisfying to learn something new and important from a grandchild.
That’s how I learned about multi-tasking.
A few months ago, I placed one of my phone calls to my grandson, Jake. He happened to answer the phone and greeted me cordially, but I could sense he was preoccupied. I was right.
“I can’t talk right now,” he said. “Can I call you back?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
“I’m just real busy,” he explained. “I’m multi-tasking.”
“Oh,” I replied. It was an unfamiliar term but I got the message and the meaning. “Go ahead. Call me later.”
As I hung up, I felt that flush of grandfatherly pride, pride in a student who is busy with his homework, probably loaded with problems in math, confronted with some of those awful problems, the kind where you’re on a train going 68 miles an hour and it stops six times, for four and a half minutes each, to take on passengers, and...oh, you know what I mean.
I had just recently read that high school students were being required to do an increasing amount of nightly homework, so I imagined he was probably balancing that math along with conjugating some Latin verbs and reviewing a chapter to prepare for a physics quiz.
As I mentioned, I’d never heard the term multi-tasking before, but it had a nice ring to it, and it was descriptive, a good phrase to know in a world filled with busy people, many of them doing more than one thing at a time.
It prompted me to think of my own situation and to ask myself whether I could be rated as a multi-tasker. I quickly decided I qualified, although I’ve been too busy to realize it.
Ask yourself that same question and I think you’ll discover that you, too, are a multi-tasker, as are most of your friends. Juggling various tasks becomes routine.
When I reflected on my career and my various activities, I concluded that I very seldom had the luxury of doing just one thing at a time. At this very moment, my desk is covered with unrelated files and notes, all of them concerned with different matters. On the left side of the desk, at the top of a pile of papers, I have always maintained a “To Do,” list, and when an entry is done, I draw a line through it.
After Jake said “multi-tasking,” I realized that although I was unfamiliar with the term I was very familiar with the routine.
He called me back later and we talked. I find that during such conversations I ask quite a few questions of my grandsons. Sometimes I even get answers.
“You were busy earlier,” I said, in case he had forgotten. “You said you were multi-tasking.”
“Right,” he said.
I told him of my own experiences, multi-tasking over the years in various situations. I wasn’t boasting, just trying to establish that there was a common bond. Then I inquired about the work that had been occupying him.
“No,” he explained, “it wasn’t homework. I was doing too many things. I was watching a movie on TV, sending instant messages to a girl in my class, and talking on my cell phone.”
“Oh,” I said. There wasn’t much else that I could think of to say. Yes, it was a little disillusioning to hear that he wasn’t busy doing his homework. But, on the other hand, it was reassuring to discover that he was nimble enough to handle those three things at the same time, and realistic enough to know that he couldn’t add a conversation with me to the mix. I’m just thankful he didn’t put me on hold.
The lesson is clear. Multi-tasking is a recent 21st century term, and while the meaning of “multi” is obvious, a precise definition of “tasking” remains unwritten.


Grocery shopping as a hobby

By Dick Hirsch
Most people go to the supermarket to shop. The majority consider it a chore. Others clearly enjoy the shopping, walking the aisles and stopping to select an item.
I’m more of a shopping hobbyist. I like shopping as long as I don’t have a list. I realize that sounds peculiar, but I become extremely nervous when given a list of items. When presented with such a document, I invariably discover that most of the products are secreted on shelves far removed from the preceding item on the list and often in what appear to be the most obscure locations. No, for me the use of a list is very intimidating. It takes all the joy out of a trip to the market.
I would prefer freelancing. In using that system---I’m not really sure I should call it a system---I treat the store like a smorgasbord. I go wheeling up this aisle and down the next, surveying the inviting array of products, considering all the factors that are involved in making a purchase, and then making an on the spot decision about what to buy and what to leave behind for the next shopper.
I realize this is an approach that would never be endorsed by The Ladies Home Journal or any reasonable person responsible for the weekly shopping. It is a style that would probably be applauded by the supermarket management, because it plays directly into their clever marketing schemes.
They can be very sly. They arrange the store to merchandise certain items, often higher profit items, placing them in strategic locations, high visibility spots where they are certain to be noticed. They will probably be ignored by those dedicated people working from a shopping list, but they may appeal to a freelancer such as myself. So up and down I go, scanning the horizon for items of interest.
Every shopper has a favorite aisle. The produce is always a high traffic area. So are the meat department, and the place where they have all those naughty salted snacks like potato chips, pretzels and peanuts.
For me, perhaps the most compelling area in the store is the cereal aisle. I’ve been in supermarkets near and far, and the cereal aisle is always chock full of bright and spectacular packages, each laden with healthy contents that are supposed to be good for you. Vitamins and minerals abound, and the aisle stretches on and on. The prices are interesting, too, because it always seems kind of expensive for boxes that are half filled with air.
One of the things I’ve noticed about the cereal aisle is that more reading takes place there than any other place in the store. You are free to challenge that statement if your store has a major newspaper and magazine department, offering chairs for browsers. With that possible exception, I’ve found a tremendous amount of reading taking place in the cereal aisle. Often, those aisles are so crowded with people reading the cereal boxes that traffic comes to a complete stop.
I believe the primary reason for this involves the issue of fiber. Don’t laugh, but when I was growing up, fiber was discussed in terms of socks or underwear, not cereal. In those days there were occasional whispers about roughage or bulk, and what became known as “regularity,” but few people paid serious attention, and cereal was sold primarily based on taste. Some, such as Wheaties, raised the possibility of stardom on the athletic fields, but that claim was never substantiated.
People are reading all the boxes much more than years ago. It happens in other aisles, too, but there is so much more to read on the cereal boxes. One of my cereals claims that a mere half cup---hardly enough to satisfy the morning munchies of a working stiff---in fact provides 14 grams of fiber, which is 57 percent of the daily requirement. Wow! And it totals only 60 calories and zero milligrams of cholesterol.
Printed on the box is a guide to the presence of fiber in other foods which, if ingested daily, will help you achieve your fiber goal. That is the kind of information you cannot readily find in such a handy and succinct presentation. You could search for an hour or more at the library and never find that information, not to mention the intriguing sidelights on thiamin and riboflavin.
Yes, the boxes are truly educational. Meanwhile, there is also a school of thought that claims each box actually costs more than the contents.