Look-over-your-shoulder marketing

Red shiny glossy icon on white backgroundIn 2005, Staples introduced us to their "Staples. That was Easy" campaign. As you would expect from a big retailer, an equally big ad agency, McCann Erickson, was responsible for the creative.  Also worth noting is that McCann Erickson's own tagline is " Truth Well Told" and "every great brand is founded on a powerful truth." Before you read on, let's define what is meant by "brand" and please ignore all of the hoopla and jargon as it is quite simple: your brand is a promise that you will deliver whatever it is that you claim, or is associated with your company. The best expression of a brand is a company's tagline: "We try harder" (Avis), "Invest with confidence" (T. Rowe Price), "All the news that's fit to print" (N.Y. Times).

Here's the thing: beyond the glitz of a Super Bowl commercial (where Easy was introduced in 2005), high priced ad agency or fancy tagline, is a different reality where you have to live by and deliver on the promise you made. And that's where so many 'brands' fail: here's one example:

Staples did not make it easy, not by a long shot.

I needed a new laser toner cartridge for my printer and a quick search on staples.com revealed that it was in stock and priced at $32.99. I had an option to either ship it to my office for free or pick it up at the local store. So far so good, that was easy.

As a Staples Rewards member, I also had a $10 off a purchase of $40 or more. The coupon was not redeemable online. That's not easy #1.

So, I drove to the local store, picked up a rim of paper and asked the clerk to bring the toner over to the cashier. This is when things got ugly: the toner rang as $44.95. Here's the exchange:

"The price online is $32.99"

"I'm sorry you have to show proof of that."

"It's on your website, why do I have to find it?" That's not easy #2.

Eventually the cashier did find it, adjusted the price, and I was able to use my $10 coupon.

I get the whole "web-only" pricing or marketing, I am a marketing guy. What I don't get is why so many companies still engage in 19th century sales tactics or "let's see what we can get away with marketing." These are not decisions that are made inside a cubicle:  no, these are executive high level strategic decisions made by empty suits who should be fired because they miss the point:

It's a question of trust not maximizing gross profit.

What if I just drove to the store because my toner ran out?

What if I was busy and did not have time to wait for my free delivery?

What if, as a loyal Staples customer, I didn't think of shopping anywhere else?

In each one of these real life scenarios I would have been ripped off.

Some would argue that if consumers do not do their comparative shopping homework they deserve to pay a higher price, and Staples has a right to make as much money as they can get away with. Agreed. God bless the free economy.

But that's not the point.

Here's the thing: the "let's see what we can get away with" pricing along with "maximizing profit per transaction" models have a very short lifespan because they destroy the very trust that is needed for brand loyalty.

Customers who are either too busy or missed something in their research should never be penalized; we are in business to deliver value or a great shopping experience at a competitive price. What's infuriating is that all you have to do is observe how the Great Ones are delivering on that promise: Amazon, Zappos, L.L Bean. They are not playing Russian roulette with their future, they stay true to their promise and are consistent. In other words, they build trust and never give their customers a reason to look over their shoulder.

I believe wholeheartedly that a paying customer, even at a low profit margin, is still better than no customers. Any sales transaction is a golden opportunity to engage and nurture what will become the driving force behind long term growth of your business. When an engagement (or touch-point) takes place trust is established and it is immediately followed by expectations that the seller will never violate that trust.

Here's the brand mantra:

We pledge to create a professional and enjoyable buying process.

When you shop with us you can be confident that you are getting the best deal we have to offer.

We don't want you to look elsewhere.

We don't want to give you reasons not to trust us.

We will never behave in a way that will question whether we are the best place for whatever it is you need.

We exist because we are the place you trust and we acknowledge that we have to earn your business every single time.

We are not infallible, we will mess up but it will never be because we tried to pull a fast one on you. We will screw up because we're human and we will go out of our way to make it right.

And so the message for the empty-suit big box marketing gurus is get with the program: your job is not to outsmart consumers or come up with gimmicky fine print. Your job Mr. Staples is to make it easy to trust you.

Why not offer the same price online and in the store? Why complicate the buying process and risk mistrust?

Some gas stations, without fancy ad agencies or Super Bowl commercials, have figured it out: "Same Price Cash or Credit" - here's a great way to differentiate yourself and prove that all you really care about is attracting more customers.

I know one thing: the experience with Staples has left a really bad taste in my mouth and I will never just walk in and buy something. I don't have time to walk around the aisles scanning QR codes and look for the best deal in town. I know where I can find it, more often than not, on Amazon. So all I have to do is pay attention when my printer alerts me that the toner is low. I know that Amazon's Prime will deliver a cartridge to my doorstep in two days. I am also very confident (because I Amazon hasn't disappointed me) that I will be paying the lowest price out there.

As I was paying for my supplies, I notice a giant new sign: "we will match any competitor's price including Amazon" (yes, it does say that).

Another big miss for Staples. That's not what easy means either.

Easy means "why shop on Amazon when you can pay the same price and get your product right now?" See, if your store prices are the same as your online prices, you can use technology to scan, monitor and make instant adjustments to price (like Best Buy does so well). In other words,  you'll give me no reason to shop elsewhere or mistrust you.

We live in a world of instant gratification and if your business can deliver satisfaction at a competitive price you will do very well.

I am going to hashtag this blog with #staples and hopefully someone is paying attention, but I doubt it. As long as there are more naive than informed consumers, Staples and other retailers will continue to play the trust game.

As I was leaving the store I looked over my shoulder: the store was as empty as ever which only means that the price for my toner will remain at $44.99. Someone has to pay to keep the lights on.

P.S I do want to acknowledge the good people that I have encountered at the store. The store manager who told me "that happens a lot" and the cashier who was friendly and did her best.