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

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Loyalty...a forgotten quality

By Dick Hirsch

Nothing is the way it used to be. No matter how old you are, I’m sure you have discovered that. Cycles seem to dominate; either matters are on the way up or they are on the way down. Pizza is a handy example. We have more pizza purveyors per capita than most places, yet even in a dreadful economy, aspiring entrepreneurs are investing in and opening new pizza parlors.

Don’t they know that everyone already has a favorite source for pizza, the supplier they have relied on for years? Each such favored place has a reputation for providing crusty and succulent pies, the best available, laden with cheese as well as an array the popular toppings, always generously applied. And the sauce, oh, the sauce; in a superior class by itself. Besides all that, they are reliable, delivering on time, and the prices are fair. There is no reason to seek another source, right? Wrong.

Yes, wrong. There may not be any obvious reason, but the majority of customers are so fickle they will find a reason. Pizza is just a homely example, used here to make a point: we are currently deep in a cycle during which loyalty is continuing its long decline. Before that approach became so common people would actually become advocates for their suppliers, recommending them and the services or merchandise they supplied, extolling their virtues.

Now the era of brand loyalty is over. The market place has been commoditized. More and more consumers are either unable or unwilling to differentiate by brand. Rightly or wrongly, they have come to believe they are all the same. In the old days, everyone had a favorite brand. Cigarettes haven’t been certified and embraced for years as examples of marketing success. Now the only cigarette smokers are the addicted and those who believe they are immortal. However, once cigarettes were the best example of brand loyalty. Those involved in tobacco marketing offered seminars detailing their methods and listing their sales successes. People really would walk a mile for a Camel, insist on Lucky Strike or call for Philip Morris. A survey some years ago disclosed that 71 percent of all smokers were loyal to one brand, straying only in rare circumstances. I can remember discussions that ensued among persons who were regarded as relatively intelligent, each explaining the many positive qualities of the brand they preferred...smooth, mellow, satisfying, milder; that was the epitome of brand loyalty.

Gasoline provides another illustration. I suppose there are still a handful of motorists who use only a particular brand, but gone are the days when a driver would insist on Texaco, Gulf or Exxon, dispensed by those familiar guys at the gas station in the neighborhood or on the route to work. Gas is just a commodity now and there are very few places where there are any familiar guys, even unfamiliar guys, who will wash the windshield and check the oil. They disappeared. What happened to all of them? What are they doing these days? They helped to create brand loyalty and now they are missing in action.

Gasoline is a convenient example but there are so many others: toothpaste, canned goods, bread, detergent, breakfast cereal and soap are just a few. Brand loyalty is virtually dead, a victim of changing attitudes among consumers. More consumers are buyers, not customers. There is a major difference. The buyer is motivated by price, determined to find the least expensive. The customer is more likely to consider other factors, such as brand recognition, anecdotal evidence or personal experience.

Price is dominant. The manufacturers and merchants created that atmosphere. They created the private label products, emphasizing them rather than established name brands. They made price the critical consideration. They advertised sales every week. The sale formerly was a once-in-a-while promotion. Retailers depended on periodic sales to bolster volume. Sales now have become so regular it is difficult to know whether the stores ever sell anything at the regular price. And, if they do, who is buying?

So price trumps quality, convenience and other factors that once were part of the decision-making process. There is another issue that needs to be mentioned because it, too, has a major influence on shopping: choice. There are too many choices, too many models, versions, flavors, colors, sizes or other variations on the basic theme. Yes, it can be maddening, but is part of the equation; if you can find what you want on sale buy it. Loyalty has been eclipsed and forgotten.


Saturday, October 01, 2011

The rise and fall of the fax machine

By Dick Hirsch

Things were different just a few years ago in what we now refer to as the old days. At the time we certainly didn’t realize that what we were experiencing would soon be a part of the "in the old days" category because the object of our interest and admiration was so new and exciting.

It was the fax machine.

I remember how it was when the fax telephone began to ring, signaling that a message was about to be transmitted. Many of the people within earshot would immediately stop whatever they were doing, jump up from their desks, and hurry over to the fax to see who was calling and what they were sending. For most of those spectators, it was none of their business. They had other work to do, but they would stand transfixed as the printed sheets emerged.

That was the beginning of the glory days for the fax machine, the days when it was regarded as a sensational new time and labor saving device. It lived up to that billing. Think of it: the ordinary office or residence had suddenly gained the ability to transmit and receive documents by phone. It meant that if the intended recipient was in Los Angeles, Anchorage, Munich or wherever, the message would not need to be mailed. It would be sent and arrive instantly.

The fax machine traces its ancestry back to 1843 when a Scottish inventor named Alexander Bain patented a gizmo designed to permit the transmission of images over a telegraph line. Although I was familiar with the work of James Watt, Cyrus McCormick, Alexander Graham Bell and other imaginative figures from history, I never heard of Bain until today. Of course it took over a century for the concept of facsimile transmission to evolve from idea to reality in the market place. The machines were introduced in the ‘80s.

I remember a business trip to New York during which I met with a man who was assessing my capabilities as well as those of my company. Among the unexpected questions he asked was this: “Do you have a fax machine?” I lied, but only a little. I told him we had ordered one and it was being installed next week. Later that day I called the office and told the boss we had better get a fax because I had a new client who was eager to do business with us, but insisted on us having a fax. The boss wasn’t that thrilled with the news because he characterized the fax as a gimmick, the popularity of which would be temporary. He grudgingly agreed to install one and it operated for years, proving itself to be an essential office tool.

But depending on your definition of “temporary,” maybe the boss was right in his assessment. Over the years, the fax has been chased into virtual extinction by e-mail, which is ideal for the transmission and delivery of letters and scanned images.

The fax now has a unique status. Despite the technological changes which have changed the office, the fax hangs on. It is not obsolete, although it totters on the precipice of obsolescence. It no longer occupies an essential role, but is regarded as an appliance that must remain operational for that dwindling number of situations when someone decides to send a fax.

In our office, the majority of faxes that are received fall into the category of junk. We regularly receive announcements of upcoming trips to Acapulco or Jamaica, offering hotel rates that are suspiciously low and include room, meals and all drinks all day and all night. We also are regularly notified of health insurance plans at bargain prices and offered deals to install vending machines that would delight our staff and add profit for our business. There are other similar communiques too numerous to mention. One regular correspondent is a roofing company that sends fax after fax warning of the consequences of leaky roofs and offering to give us a new one at a ridiculously low cost. No one pays any serious attention to any of those transmissions.

Yes, the status of the fax has declined; where once it was the favored mode for urgent ASAP material, now it is used to shill for travel agents and home improvement contractors, along with an occasional document of some importance. It had a short but eventful period in the office limelight. How fleeting was its time as a star performer...