I’ve been spending time this summer barnstorming Barnes and Noble bookstores in New England signing copies of my book on repairing climate change (The Age of Sustainability). This has been my first visit to bookstores as a seller, not a customer, and I hadn’t visited a store in a while. I wasn’t prepared for what I found; the experience was palpable.
Like many people with busy lives, I’d gotten seduced by the convenience of going online to purchase what I wanted without understanding what I was giving up. It’s easy to understand the “get” of online purchasing. Online you have an infinite store shelf that never runs out and has literally everything you could think of. Unfortunately, that’s the problem too, we are increasingly confronted by the reality that we only know so much and, worse, we don’t know what we don’t know.
The bookstore experience is designed for exploration and discovery, not the kind that pairs this purchase with others you’ve made or that others like you have. The exploration happens against a rich background of color, smells, and ideas. Your mind naturally skips from one book or magazine to another without much thought at times. Other times consciousness reasserts itself to make a selection or at least to do some reading.
The CRM industry has taken this natural process as one of the missions it seeks to provide an online analog for. We try to capture customer data in an effort to discover some hidden facts that could result in suggestions that help shorten the infinite store shelf or at least make its contents completely relevant to the customer. But at what cost? We have to accept a society in which all, or at least most, of our most intimate data can be accessed and crunched and, truth be told, sometimes used against us.
We’ve fallen in love with the idea that if we can only capture enough data, we could know or infer everything about a customer and influence how they behave. The idea certainly seemed to work in 2016 when hackers captured enough data about voters to influence their decisions.
As an author, my mission in visiting bookstores is to understand people’s positions on my subject and to try to identify those who might be most receptive to my message. Hopefully, selling a few books this way will spark a trend, but maybe not. I haven’t yet met anyone who believes the hoax mantra of climate change (of course, I live in New England) but that doesn’t translate into immediate sales.
But what I was not prepared for was the assortment of offerings and the really nice (there’s no other way to put it) people who staff the places. At the bookstore, I discovered that some people might be very happy not knowing what they want or need and may enjoy browsing the shelves.
As luck would have it my experiences in bookstores coincides with the Amazon Prime Day sale, a time when “Subscribers to the company’s Prime service get major discounts on everything from flat-screen TVs to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream,” according to the New York Times.
But success has its drawbacks and they’re not all happy problems. For instance, the same article notes that more than 250 retailers have ongoing sales to compete with Prime Day which is really two days. Many retailers are concerned that this sale won’t generate new business but simply borrow from or cannibalize what could reasonably be expected from Back to School sales in August. They might be right.
Retail and capitalism in general have growth as their primary drivers. Modern businesses have to show a modicum of growth every year or risk losing support from the financial markets that keep their stocks buoyant. But there’s a competing phenomenon, a pillar of capitalist economics called Say’s Law, which simply states that all markets clear at a price.
The meaning of this simple phrase is sometimes debated. On one hand, it’s a tautology, yes, markets clear (all goods are sold) and we sell them for a price. But what’s interesting to economists is the price of the clearance. Are margins healthy or are they marked down just to move merchandise. In the latter case, clearance happens but profit may not and while revenues might expand, when profits don’t follow, investors worry about that too. So will Amazon Prime Day be something special or just another exercise in cannibalism?
So the function of any retailer is to move merchandise profitably, maintaining margins in the process. That’s where CRM comes in, especially marketing in all of its forms. But CRM can’t make new demand. It can only organize the demand that’s out there.
Regardless, being a good customer means more than taking the advice of algorithms or engaging with the brand’s just-so experience. It means being true to yourself and your own interests and sometimes that means breaking out of the mold someone else has set for you. Because of that, I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where there’s perfect alignment between the vendor and customer. At least I hope not because it will be the end of serendipity.
On my way out of the store over the weekend, I paused at a magazine section dedicated to art, its practice and the business. I do a little painting and I am not very good but doing it satisfies a need. I saw and bought PleinAir, a magazine about painting outdoors the way the Impressionists first did. I never knew the magazine existed and wouldn’t to this day if I hadn’t taken the time to get away from the infinite store shelf and its algorithms. As Robert Frost once observed, “that has made all the difference.”
Werner von Braun (left) and President Kennedy at Cape Canaveral. At left an early model of a Saturn V rocket designed by von Braun.
On May 25, 1961, 57 years ago today, President Kennedy addressed a special session of Congress with what is now called the Moon-Shot Speech. It was a month after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the country was still climbing out of a recession that dogged the presidential campaign, and JFK’s first hundred days didn’t compare well with the first hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt. In today’s golf terminology we might say he needed a Mulligan, a do-over, and the Moon-Shot speech was the vehicle.
Looking back at the success of the Apollo program you might think going to the moon was no big deal, but from the perspective of 1961, it was a big ask, a heavy lift. The US and USSR were already competing in space with launch vehicles which, to that point, were designed to lift the occasional satellite or more likely a nuclear warhead.
The Russians had much bigger rockets than the US, mostly because their nuclear program could only produce a warhead that weighed an incredible 11,000 pounds compared with the much smaller but no less lethal US warheads. They had bigger rockets because they needed them; we didn’t. Still that was something we didn’t discuss. All we could admit was that the Soviets had superior space lift ability.
They’d launched Sputnik a few years earlier and put the first man into space, Uri Gagarin. A few weeks before the speech the US had launched Alan Shephard making us officially number two in a two-nation space race.
Kennedy would not accept being second and throughout the weeks prior to the speech his staff looked for something else we could be first in but there was nothing. At a press conference Kennedy was prescient but also irrelevant saying, “I have said that I thought that if we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from salt water, that it would be in the long-range interests of humanity which would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.”
According to Kennedy’s Science Advisor Committee chair Jerome Wiesner, as of April 1961, “Kennedy was, and was not, for space. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you find something else we can do?’ We couldn’t. Space was the only thing we could do that would show off our military power . . . . These rockets were a surrogate for military power. He had no real options.”
Though the speech is primarily remembered for Kennedy’s stirring call to go to the moon it was really designed to give him a few legislative wins. In all he made 9 proposals mostly for incrementally adding to budget appropriations for everything from Polaris submarines to missile systems, to job training, civil defense, and reorganizing the Army and Marine Corps. He was offering congress pork barrel spending that could easily pass giving him a needed legislative victory.
But when he got to proposal 9, space appropriations, the speech changed gears. That part of the speech is twice as long as the average for the other proposals and the language is different. He had begun by speaking about “the lands of the rising peoples” the non-aligned countries of what would become the third world and the importance of winning their hearts and minds.
The Soviets were actively recruiting those same countries and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was launching small wars of national liberation and the US and its allies were finding it difficult to snuff out those brush fires once they started. So Kennedy needed a recruiting tool to conclusively prove that our system of democratic capitalism was better than totalitarian socialism. The space program was that tool.
You know the rest of the story. We beat the Soviets to the moon. But more importantly, the economic stimulus of the space program transformed this country from a manufacturing colossus to one that oozed high technology. It prodded a generation of kids to study science, technology, engineering, and math and not just in the US but globally. It’s no exaggeration to say it made today’s world.
From all that came the modern computer, the Internet, geostationary satellites for communications, predicting weather and running GPS systems. In all thousands of practical inventions can trace their origins to the space program but not Tang, the orange breakfast drink.
Today we live in different times. Too often we thirst for power and wealth for their own sake without committing to the demanding work needed. But if history teaches anything, it is that even now, a motivated and committed people can achieve almost anything.