Shopping Holidays Are On A Roll

As an inveterate procrastinator and hater of crowds, I’ve always avoided Black Friday, except as a business angle for retail clients. And Cyber Monday, despite a similar usefulness, seemed a little like Grandparents Day…you know, an attempt by marketers to create a commercial holiday that never really, um, clicks. Maybe it’s the “cyber” label, which hasn’t been in the vernacular since the nineties. As a PR professional, I take it seriously, but as a consumer, not so much.

Things are different this year. For one, Black Friday’s morphed into a “cyber”-social occasion, with shoppers tweeting, posting, and blogging about the “doorbuster” deals they’ve found by scouring the Web. As Reuters reports, major retailers took advantage of the sharing to get more involved in social networking than in any previous year or season. Crowdsourcing deals is really hot.

And, surprisingly, so is Cyber Monday. When the National Retail Federation coined the term in 2005, it conjured images of frantic shoppers rushing to the desktops to power through their holiday lists. Yet, online sales that day were easily beaten by those later in December. Even last year, December 9 was the biggest online shopping day, racking up $887 million in sales. Cyber Monday’s, by contrast, were only $846 million, making it seem more virtual than real.

Not any more, apparently. What started as a marketing gimmick is turning into retail reality. Some 87 percent of online retailers are offering special promotions this Monday, according to the NRF. And as a recent New York Times piece suggests, it seems to be influencing shoppers.‘s annual Cyber Monday promotion drew only about 32 percent of its member retailers four years ago, but this year’s participation will reach nearly 75 percent. Hopefully, the shopping snowball effect will keep on rolling.

It’s all an attempt to get deal-hungry shoppers, and procrastinators like me, to get an earlier start to the holiday buying season. Yet, the shopping “holidays” might have a snowball effect of their own. I just heard about a new one being pushed by a mobile firm.  Mobile Tuesday will feature coupons from various retailers, including MacDonald’s, Finish Line, and RedTag, delivered to participants via cell phone.

But, here’s the problem. We shopping slackers like to push the limits of what’s possible. At this rate, I’ll be holding out for yet another faux holiday. I’m thinking some kind of “midnight madness” sale on December 23, the ultimate deadline for holiday gift deliveries. Last-Chance Wednesday, anyone? Keep an eye out, and let me know.

Zappos And The Social Media Myth

It’s a common perception that Zappos, which was just acquired by, was able to build its brand, and even its business, on the strength of social media.  After all, CEO Tony Hsieh is a Twitter celebrity with over a million followers.  Zappos encourages its employees to Twitter, and more than 400 do. A model of transparency, it aggregates public mentions on a page on its website.  No wonder it’s been hailed by traditional and social media as the one company that does it right.  One writer even opined that Amazon was motivated to acquire Zappos to get a little of its “social media stardust.”

That’s nonsense. The soul of Zappos, and the open secret of its success, has nothing to do with Twitter. It bears remembering that long before Hsieh tweeted his first update, Zappos had taken the lead in the online shoe market. Hsieh’s really big idea wasn’t showing his personal side on Twitter.  It was making returns a competitive advantage. It was, in essence, beating Amazon at its own game. It was focusing, really focusing, on the customer.  And, to Zappos, customers are not only shoppers, but employees and vendors, too.

If you search for articles and posts about Hsieh and Zappos long prior to 2008, when he opened his celebrated Twitter account, your eyes will glaze over at the numbing repetition of its customer service mantra. Hsieh describes the employee recruiting and training program, including the counter-intuitive “quitting bonus,” as shaping a customer service culture. He philosophizes about transparency, openness, and authenticity – all in service of the customer, of course.  He, and the partners who back him, take the long view on the company’s ultra-liberal returns policy, betting that no investment is too great if it supports customer retention.

Basically, Hsieh did two things very, very well. He articulated a customer-obsessed culture. Then, he walked the talk. Social media came naturally for Zappos later because the company never looked at it as a marketing channel, but as another way of building customer relationships and adding service.  In essence, the shoe fit.

Jeff Bezos doesn’t give a rap about Zappos’ social media profile. As Bezos himself said in describing its customer service obsession, “It is the place where Zappos begins and ends.”  I’m hoping that, for Zappos, this is a new beginning, and not an end.