Saturday, December 20, 2008

Transparency...What a Great Idea

With employers in such dire straits due to the economy, and with today's lightning-fast pace of news, I'm still amazed by the smoke screen some firms attempt to put forth. In today's world, nothing, nothing is sacred. Heck, if the SIPRNet can suffer a malware invasion, it's unrealistic to expect that company X's layoffs aren't going to show up in the news (or on Valleywag, which passes for news around here).

This week's "announcements" surrounding Apple's involvement in 2009 and future Macworlds are a good point. Apple marches to the beat of a different drummer on so many different levels, it's almost impossible to compare them to anyone else. Apple's PR department plays by a different rulebook than just about any other public company's PR department. But, this week, they blew it.

Check that. I'm not so sure that Apple PR blew it. In fact, I'd more so say that Apple's executive team blew it. In case you missed it, Apple's ending their Macworld participation after the 2009 show. The bigger news is that Steve Jobs isn't going to be delivering the keynote at the 2009 show.

Big deal? Uh, yeah.

The issue isn't that Apple's pulling out of a big trade show that they don't own. The issue isn't even that Steve Jobs isn't going to be giving his customary keynote, leading to rampant speculation about his health. The issue is that Apple stiffed their partner by being utterly silent until the very last moment about this news, then announcing (or "announcing") the changes only when backed into a corner. Tom Krazit's excellent article on the topic is here.

In this day and age, issues like this won't and can't be swept under the rug. If anyone should know this, it's Apple--maintaining secrecy about a product announcement until a keynote speech is one thing. Not having the traditional keynote speaker show up, particularly when that guy's name is Steve Jobs? What, you thought no one would notice? Apple execs, have you no experience with how not to be seen? Seriously?

So, Apple snuffed it this week on transparency. Not the first time, won't be the last. But, let's have a look at transparency where it worked, and worked well.

I've lived in Silicon Valley for 15 years. And, in those 15 years, just about every piece of technology I've bought at a bricks 'n' mortar store, I've bought at Fry's. If you regularly shop at Fry's (and I'm talking real Fry's like Sunnyvale or Palo Alto, not the ones in Dallas or Fishers where the floor personnel are both helpful and awake), you're used to the concept of courteous and efficient self-service. Meaning, finding it yourself is way faster than asking an employee, who is likely to direct you to a section of the store whose goods bear no resemblance to what you actually were inquiring about. I know Fry's Sunnyvale like the back of my hand, and can get around Palo Alto and Campbell with nary a hiccup, too.

As much as I (and pretty much everyone else I know) like to rag on Fry's, we all shop there for a reason. The reason isn't that I like being sent on a wild goose chase, like I'm competing in some form of silly Olympic games. The reason is, they usually have what I want. And, since odds are pretty good I know exactly where the item is after so many years of shopping there, I can usually go right to the aisle, grab the item, pay, get accosted by the door Nazi, then head home to satiate my geek lust with a new piece of kit.

Now, I have a new favorite place to geek out. Micro Center. I've been driving up and down 101 through Santa Clara for 15 years. At some point, maybe eight or nine years ago, the AMC Mercado shopping plaza was built, including a Micro Center. I barely knew what Micro Center was, although I had a pretty good hunch--a place like CompUSA where I knew more about computers and peripherals than the salespeople. Heck, if I wanted that, I'd just go to Fry's.

But I was wrong. A buddy of mine in D.C. always raves about the Micro Center store in Fairfax, VA. Despite his ravings, I saw no need to go into the Micro Center here. I had Fry's, home of courteous and efficient self-service.

What finally took me into the Santa Clara Micro Center? Transparency. Transparency in the form of a Black Friday ad, available on their website a few days before Thanksgiving. Think back to three or four years ago, when the economy wasn't in the tank, and issues like corporate PR were still more than a little translucent. Opaque, even. The first guys who got their hands on Black Friday ads and starting posting them, by my recollection in 2003 or 2004, were absolutely vilified by retailers. I recall at least one retailer threatening to file (or maybe even filing) lawsuits to force the websites to take down the posted ads, lest people learn that the toaster oven from the brand they didn't want was going to be on sale, but only from 5-6 a.m.

Fast forward to 2008. The dismal economic outlook for retailers continues to level the playing field, to the benefit of consumers across the country. For the first time ever, Black Friday sales declined year over year, according to NPD. That said, quite a few folks I've talked to were very pleased with their Black Friday purchases, stating that the advance availability of retailers' Black Friday ads enabled them to make smarter and more targeted buying decisions. True, these decisions resulted in less absolute money spent, contributing to some of that 8% decline. This would probably be impossible to measure, but I'd be interested to know that despite the decline in spending, were consumers happier with what they did get for their money? And, what percentage of the folks who expressed a better than average level of customer satisfaction had managed to do Black Friday research ahead of time?

As someone who falls into the camp who did my research ahead of time, I ended up at Micro Center mid-afternoon on Black Friday. Their online ad had nine different items that grabbed my attention, ranging from flash drives to netbook computers. I didn't know a thing about netbooks when I first saw their ad two days prior to Thanksgiving, but the $299 price pushed me into research mode. What I found was pretty astounding in terms of what this particular netbook could do, so I decided that if Micro Center still had the unit in stock by the time I rolled in there on Black Friday, I'd buy one. After a whole bunch of years ignoring the big Micro Center sign on 101, I made my first trip into the store. What I found wasn't the CompUSA-type store or personnel I expected to find. I also didn't find the vast expanse of everythingness that Fry's offers. Instead, I found salespeople willing to help, merchandise displayed in logical and organized fashion, and a generally all-around better and more manageable shopping experience than I'm used to, all in a store a fraction the size of Fry's.

Am I done with Fry's? Hardly. I've seen too many people swear off Fry's before slinking back in the next week looking for this widget or that doodad. I won't fall into that trap. But, I have found a new venue at which to geek out, one which hopefully will be able to fulfill many of my technical needs. I would've been content to continue driving by Micro Center for the rest of my days, save for the transparency they put forth (and corresponding value I realized) in the days leading up to Black Friday.

For that, you've earned my business. Bravo, Micro Center. Bravo.

No comments:

Post a Comment