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American Girl; pumpkin spice latte; Wal-Mart toys: The BloomReach Relevance Report

OK, the long-awaited, long weekend is here. Plenty of time to read the BloomReach Relevance Report. But why wait?

She’s an American girl

American Girl Dolls

If you’ve been the parent of an American girl at any point in the last 40 years, then you know the American Girl doll.

We have been; and we do.

We’ve lived the joy of unwrapping Kit Kittridge’s rolltop desk on Christmas morning and the stress of sending Molly McIntire off to the doll hospital for head-replacement surgery. Today the little dolls’ footprint has grown larger.

Starting this month, Toys R Us will be a place where you can buy certain American Girl dolls and soon 100 or so stores will be home to shop-in-shop American Girl outlets, the Associated Press reports.

The move is huge in toy circles. It’s the first time American Girl dolls will be available outside of the 20 American Girl Stores and the Mattel-owned franchise’s website, according to Marketplace, which you can hear below.

The expansion is part of a strategy to encourage the pricey dolls to pull their weight. AG doll sales have been slipping, down 8 percent last year, and down 19 percent in the latest quarter, The Wall Street Journal says.

You could say, then, that when it comes to American Girl, Mattel is taking baby steps. Though that would be a horrible pun. See, American Girl is not moving its entire line into Toys R Us. Instead, it will start out selling WellieWishers there. No, we don’t know what that is either.

The Chicago Tribune, though, tells us WellieWishers are smaller than the OG AG dolls and come with smaller price tags than their American Girl doll relatives. The idea is to target a younger demographic. American Girl aims for the 8-and-up crowd. WWs are for the 5- to 7-year-old set.

In October, and in time for holiday shoppers, the store-within-a-store concept will roll out and Toys R Us will begin selling the $115 Truly Me dolls, Fortune and others report. The idea behind the Truly Me dolls is to apparently end up with a doll that looks like you.

While some have warned that American Girl might be diluting its brand by moving distribution beyond its carefully controlled and choreographed stores, the BRRR believes the company has shrewdly insulated itself from that problem.

Many of the dolls with real star power will still be available only online and at AG stores, typically located in high-end malls and shopping districts. The stores are a temple to customer experience, some including features like American Girl doll restaurants, theaters for plays, styling salons, museum-like displays and the like. Going to the American Girl Store is an outing as much as it is a shopping stop.

It’s safe to say, even with the Toys R Us expansion, there will be plenty of reasons to visit the old-school American Girl Stores.

Ho-ho hoo-boy

Yes, the holiday season has pretty much started for the nation’s retailers. Wal-Mart Stores, for instance, has come up with its list of the top 25 hottest toys this holiday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Yes parents, you can start stressing. And non-parents? You can start wondering, “Who names this stuff anyway?”

Wal-Mart creates its list by letting kids play with stuff. Then they ask the kids which toys are the best toys.

via GIPHY
 

Topping the list, according to USA Today, is My Life as a Food Truck, which doesn’t sound like an aspirational play thing. There is Doc McStuffins Hospital Care Cart for kids who have a little more ambition, career-wise. And the list includes FurReal Friends Torch — My Blazin’ Dragon, Hatchimals, Sky Viper Streaming Drone and on and on.

Anyway, the point here is that retailers take the holiday season very seriously, as a disproportionate amount of retail sales occur in the last two months of the year. It can also be a time that helps retailers look into the future.

Trends that have been building tend to be amplified during the year-end shopping frenzy. For instance, the move to mobile and post-Christmas shopping were magnified during the 2015 holiday season.

The season also gives retailers a chance to stress test their year-round strategies and an opportunity to latch onto newly acquired customers and keep them. So yes, the preparation in store and online starts early.

The National Retail Federation says the work could pay off. The NRF is predicting that retail sales will be up 3.4 percent this holiday season over last. That’s a slight uptick from the organization’s earlier 3.1 percent prediction. The portion of spending that includes online shopping will be up in the 7- to 10-percent range, the federation said. That’s also an increase, which is based on improving housing and job markets and better wages, the NRF’s CEO said.

Some are also pointing to a robust back-to-school season as a good sign for the holiday, though drawing conclusions from one season to the next can be tricky.

Sometimes you just have to wait and see.

Fall is officially here, well Pumpkin Spice Latte is, anyway

Starbucks Pumpkin Latte

It’s here. The day the world stops — and sits down for a long-awaited Pumpkin Spiced Latte at the local Starbucks. (And let’s face it, no matter where you are, you’re no more than 500 feet from a Starbucks.)

We couldn’t help notice that PSL comes with some other crazy nonsense this year: The Chile Mocha, which is, well, we have no clue. It does come in a chocolate version, though, and apparently combines warmth, spice, apple pie and cinnamon — or things that conjure up those flavors, according to a Starbucks person quoted by CNBC.

The truth is, the BRRR is not a fan. We like to be contrarian. But for those of you who are fans? We’re happy for you.

That said, doesn’t it seem, like many things winter-holiday related, that pumpkin spice is foisting itself upon us earlier and earlier in the year? In fact, yes, says Fortune, which also has a nifty graphic showing the “PSL creep” of recent years. But as Fortune points out, Starbucks and others wouldn’t be serving it if people weren’t drinking it. So, cheers.

Oh, and before we forget: Go ahead Twittersphere: Lose your mind.

 

 

#A little help here

Instagram_AppIcon

As our lives continue to move from the real world into the tiny computers we hold in our hands, more retailers are figuring out more ways to be where their customers are — to sell stuff, sure, but that’s not all.

Luxury Daily reports that Lord & Taylor and Anthropologie have joined retailers that let customers get ahold of them through Instagram. Both retailers have placed “contact” buttons on their Instagram profile pages so customers with issues can get in touch while scrolling through filtered photos. (We’re partial to Crema.)

LD spoke to an e-commerce expert who noted that with the holidays coming up, it’s time for retailers to up their customer service game. Marci Troutman, of SiteMinis, figures that online shoppers are also probably heavy social media users, so retailers should use the big social networks as communication channels. Two-way communication channels.

And she suggested that setting up a social media contact button, but failing to adequately staff the operation, would be a big mistake, which makes sense.

Of course, customers have been using social media to complain about and question companies for years. In fact, I was kind of surprised to see my old buddy and New York Times reporter Vindu Goel chastised for using Twitter as a customer complaint line.

The point is, customers are going to make it known when they feel they’ve gotten lousy service, have been misled or unduly inconvenienced by a retailer or anyone else with whom they do business. So why not create a channel specifically for that and see to it that you can effectively and efficiently deal with problems that arise.

The Forbes story linked above points out a number of big advantages for retailers who formalize Twitter as a customer service channel:

  • First, companies that have done so are showing a 19 percent increase in customer satisfaction.
  • They are saving money. A Twitter response costs $1. The average cost of solving a problem through a call center is $6.
  • Companies with a separate customer help handle (Forbes cites @HiltonHelps) get 10 times better response than those that don’t.

It’s hard to argue with the results. Though, if you have a dedicated customer service button on your social media accounts, somebody just might try.

Color me: Looking for an edge

Sears store

It’s no secret that Sears has been having a tough time of it lately. A lot of department stores have been.

In an effort to get its edge back, Sears is bringing back Easy Living, which hasn’t been its recent experience. Easy Living, of course, is paint and it will be among the brands that Sears’ is bringing back into its stores.

The iconic retailer will also be returning the Weatherbeater brand to its shelves. Sears stopped selling paint in 2014, USA Today says. But it’s now trying to take advantage of a housing boom and a related surge in home improvement.

The BRRR is pleased, given that almost every interior wall in our house is coated in Sears paint. (OK, sure, maybe it’s time to repaint.)

And while the BRRR is celebrating the news, other pundits are wondering whether Sears is trying to paint over some serious problems. Sorry, that was just too easy.

The Street points out that the paint gambit might be too little, too late. It says that consumers have become quite the penny-pinchers since the Great Recession. And it reminds us that when people do shop, they tend to shop online.

We understand The Street’s argument, but we’re not sure the analysis applies in any large way to the paint market. While not exactly a necessity, there comes a time when a home could use a fresh coat. It’s the sort of thing that is going to get done at some point.

And while it’s quite possible to buy paint online, it seems like the sort of thing that most consumers would make a trip to the store for — all the better to see the actual color, plan out the tools that will be needed and maybe get a little advice.

Who knows? Maybe paint is the thing that will bring shoppers back to Sears.

Food for retail thought

Barnes and Noble

As brick-and-mortar stores continue their rapid evolution, a school of thought is emerging that the way to a consumer’s wallet runs through his or her stomach. Barnes & Noble, once known for selling dead-tree-version books is now in the bar and grill business.

The Dallas Morning News reports that B&N will open one of its five bookstore-bar-and-grill combo stores in Plano in March. The move is in keeping with the notion that shopping has become all about the experience.

OK, well, maybe not all about the experience. Retailers are still interested in getting people to buy things. But the developer of the Plano mall that will house B&N said the store will give consumers the opportunity to stop in, browse some books, meet some friends and have a glass of wine, which sounds pleasant enough.

And then there is Ikea, which has always been known as much for its meatballs as for causing Saturday afternoons to devolve into a fury of curse words and fruitless searches for the Allen wrench.

Ikea is upping both its culinary and DIY game, according to Time. The build-your-own home goods store will launch a pop-up restaurant in London, where shoppers can cook their own meals. (Wait. Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of going to a restaurant?)

You do get a sous chef and a maitre de working for you, which is probably a little different from cooking at home.

Ikea says the idea is to celebrate the joy of cooking and eating together, since no one eats or cooks together anymore. So there is that.

Maybe the most interesting thing in the whole Time account of this latest Ikea initiative is this little tidbit: When it comes to Swedish meatballs, Ikea is the bomb. The retailer “sells a billion balls a year,” the story says.

Roll on Ikea. Roll on.

Quote of the week

“Retailers always have robust contingency plans, but this degree of uncertainty is making it challenging to put those plans in place.” — Jessica Dankert, of the trade group, Retail Industry Leaders Association, told the Associated Press, regarding shipments stranded by the Hanjin shipping line bankruptcy.

Starbucks pumpkin photo by Chris Breeze, Barnes & Noble photo by Mike Kalasnik and newspapers by Jon S. published under Creative Commons license. Photo of Sears store courtesy of Sears, Instagram logo courtesy of Instagram. Photo of American Girl dolls by Mike Cassidy.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.