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Gripes and Grievances

Junk mail, charitable shakedowns and stepping beyond one’s bounds—retailers have been getting on my nerves of late.

EdNote-cupNot too long ago, I received an e-mail at 3 a.m. on a Monday from a nationwide discount retailer alerting me of a special offer on patio furniture. While it was the onset of summer, this apartment-dwelling New Yorker—who doesn’t have much room for a fold-up chair, let alone chaise lounge chairs, dining sets, an umbrella and a gazebo—hit the delete button. That’s what I do with so many daily e-mail offers from retailers, regardless of whether it’s of the slightest interest or use to me. This shotgun barrage of advertising seems based on the assumption that eventually there will be a match—and a sale. However, it’s a relatively cheap and crude algorithm that has scant hope of ever producing a sale.

I could just unsubscribe (and I assume many people do), but I cover the retail business, so such e-mails are a job requirement. I’m also curious to know whether this retailer (one of several sending me similar daily scattershot pitches) will ever put any analytics behind their marketing effort. The fact is, I’m a regular shopper for a handful of specific items, yet the e-mails never include offers for those items or even related ones. Why not target me with an offer I’m more likely to buy? Wouldn’t that significantly increase the odds of me going into the retailer’s actual store?

As if that wasn’t bad enough, this particular retailer and a growing number of others now make the in-store experience uncomfortable through their incessant charitable donation requests at checkout. Good intentions aside, it counteracts the shop-for-savings premise of mass marketers. Consumers shop there to extend their dollar, not to feel obligated to donate with each purchase, regardless of whether they donated the last time they shopped. I feel cheap and uncaring if I decide I want that extra dollar or two in my wallet. Perhaps they don’t intend to shame customers, but the approach makes the in-store experience less pleasant—at least for me. Can’t I just shop for cat food, napkins and laundry detergent without a guilt trip?

Many of you might be thinking, what’s the big deal? We should all pony up a few bucks for worthy causes. Fair enough. But I’m in these stores multiple times a week buying essentials, so it adds up. What’s more, these retailers have no idea how generous (or not) I am when it comes to charitable donations. It’s not their business. They would be better off sticking to their savings premise or finding another way to contribute to charitable causes. For example, why not give shoppers the option of transferring their rewards points dollars to a charity instead? The contribution wouldn’t come directly from the customer’s wallet and it could be a relatively seamless transaction. It’s just a suggestion.

This brings me to gripe No. 3: unsolicited suggestions that go beyond a retailer’s bounds. I’m referring to the recent campaign by Starbucks that had its baristas write “Race Together” on select cups to spark conversations with customers about race relations. Worthy intentions aside, encouraging people to vent when receiving their Ventis brewed up unnecessary controversy, pardon the puns. Apparently, a lot of people—many of whom are probably already agitated awaiting their caffeine fix—just want their coffee. Is that so much to ask these days?

All this suggests that many retailers are falling into the trap of trying to be everything to everybody. Call it Amazon or Alibaba syndrome. In an online retail age where inventories and customer reach can appear limitless, retailers are losing focus. Perhaps they’re afraid that if they don’t expand exponentially, they will become irrelevant. I say the opposite holds true. The ability to curate combined with expert product knowledge trumps a watered down, all-everything format. Online or in-store, helping to take the guesswork out of the equation and improving shopping efficiency are worthy points of differentiation against these behemoths.

What’s the alternative? A landscape where everyone becomes a mass purveyor and price is the only point of differentiation. Such an utterly bland dystopian retail world would take the joy out of shopping entirely. Now that would be something to gripe about!

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