Jan

7

 One recently waited 15 minutes after making a big purchase at Barnes and Nobles while they held me up because the computer went down and they couldn't take cash, exact payment, credit card. At the end, they sardonically told me that if I had a complaint about the wasted time, effort and treatment, I should talk to their manager. On the other side, I read in John Mackey's new book Conscious Capitalism about how when a hurricane hit a Whole Foods in Conn, the computer broke and a lower level operative without any feedback from headquarters gave everyone in the store free goods for the 1 1/2 hour that the computer was down. They got millions of good will and publicity as an unintended consequence. A study in the book shows that companies that cater to the customer, and employees and suppliers as well as the stockholders have better performance than the average. Panera and The Container Store are examples. I wonder whether this is a real effect and whether these companies will perform better or worse—- and the former will never get my business again and the latter will. What's your experience and view.

Vince Fulco writes:

My wife works in the textile area of Target, I have tried to look at its operations with a jaundiced eye as a financial analyst would. I've always felt welcomed and well treated there without their knowing we were an employee family.

anonymous writes: 

 I bumped into a colleague at Costco today who quizzed me about the recent tax changes. Not sure why he thought I would know, but after 5 minutes of listing the various relevant increases I asked, "Do you have time for more of these?" "Not really", he said, adding "You've already depressed me enough". "What are we going to do, raise fees?" he asked.

In the wake of recession we have not raised fees, and in many cases lowered them. It is better to stay busy and build good-will when people need it, and raise later when discretionary demand increases.

Increased taxes ordinarily reduce demand. But for businesses with existing demand, they are inflationary.

Maybe the FED gets what it wants (inflation preferable to deflation), and the agrarian organizers do too.

Rocky Humbert adds:

The chair asks a very important question; and the implications transcend business. With the caveat that I'm rather better at asking difficult questions (than answering them), I'd pose the question this way:

1. To what extent do people and organizations act in their self-interest?

2. If (1) is 100%, then any act of altruism MUST BE motivated by either reciprocal altruism or goodwill. If (1) is less than 100%, then any attempt to answer (1) is hopelessly complicated using a rational/analytical framework. And I won't go there since it's a moral argument.

3. A paradox arises because except for reciprocal altruism (i.e. keeping your counterparty in business so he can buy your goods and continue to service your needs), there is a irrationality that occurs for any action which isn't in one's self interest (for both the seller and the buyer) For example, if the customer is rational and self-interested, then ANY warm and fuzzy feelings towards a vendor are not rational if those warm and fuzzy feelings arise because of a historical and non repeating gesture (giving away goods during a power failure assuming that the goods wouldn't otherwise spoil.) However, in contrast, convenience IS rational and is part of the value proposition. That is, a vendor who doesn't make you wait in line when the cash register breaks has a superior product at the same price for SOME (not all) customers. And ceteris paribus, that should garner more business (for some, not all) customers *IF* he doesn't have to raise prices for a massive fault-tolerant computer system. If he has to raise prices for a massive fault tolerant computer system, then the customer who doesn't care about waiting in line won't shop there anymore. But the lone vendor who tries to gain a lasting competitive advantage by giving away milk and bread during a blackout will fail — since the goodwill generated by this will quickly fade and there's no lasting benefit to the customer.

Every economics question can be solved by recognizing that: 1) Incentives Matter. 2) Resources are limited. And … then it's simply a question of utility curves. BUT BUT BUT if there is a moral aspect to the question, then all of the rational analysis goes out the window. And that is, I think, what Whole Foods was trying to do.

Jeff Watson writes: 

 Right before Hurricane Andrew hit South Dade County and went across the state to hit Naples and Collier County, Home Depot was giving away 4×8 sheets of plywood……just had truckload after truckload, bringing it in to offload it to anyone who wanted it for free to board up windows etc.

Their main competitor, Scotty's was gouging, and charging $40 per 4×8 sheets. In the aftermath of the storm, Home Depot kept their prices down while Scotty's jacked them up. Scotty's did the same thing after Hurricane Charley. Much editorial space was spent discussing this in the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Sun Sentinel etc. Scotty's reputation suffered greatly and eventually went out of business at the end of 2005.

There was lots of bad karma and my builder friends avoided Scotty's like the plague. Scotty's said they closed all their stores because of the hyper-competitive building supplies market…..this was when Florida had the biggest construction upswing in history. Again, real bad karma. Home Depot is still a viable corporation. Because of Scotty's actions(and that of others), Florida passed a non-gouging law in 1993 which Scotty's still ignored in 2004.

Steve Ellison writes:

 In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely devotes a chapter to "social norms" (the friendly requests people make of one another) vs. "market norms" (you do x, I'll pay you y). People generally see social norms and personal relationships as being on a higher plane than mere market transactions. In one study cited by Professor Ariely, implementing fines for picking up children late at day care centers actually increased the frequency of late pickups. Before the fines, the parents felt bound by social norms and felt guilty for inconveniencing the day care providers if they were late. After the fines were implemented, a late pickup was reduced to a mere market transaction: I want to be late, and I am paying for extra service.

My guess is that companies such as Whole Foods that serve customers beyond the bounds of how customers expect a profit-seeking corporation to behave elevate themselves on the social vs. market scale and thereby gain much customer loyalty.

Russ Sears writes: 

People are cooperative beings, they want to feel they are in a partnership where one looks out for the other. While the individual is the driver of innovation and change, progress is made by the most connected in ideas. Arts, science and technology thrive is these highly cooperative environments such as the big cities. Ideas are one thing that the sum of the parts can become exponentially more.

If the business really is adding value, then they display it by highlighting cooperation with their customers. Because long term the good will makes them more resilient and able to grow.

Whereas if every transaction is a zero sum game, then the signal to the customer and investor is short term thinking. There is a tinge of buyer beware for the customer and an touch of desperation to next quarters results to the investor.

The entrepreneurs I know who are successful only do it because they love the business otherwise the risk the stress and the heartache are not worth the money or the effort.

I believe Jobs showed the world that at some point it is no longer is about the money, it is about making a difference, giving others what they want and of course "beating" your competitors. If you can do these 3 things well it is like having a blank check written by the world.
 

Gary Rogan adds:

 Yes, that's another way of looking at the situation. But Jobs is Jobs, and regardless: when confronted with a situation where a person (or an entire business enterprise) who doesn't know you from Adam is particularly accommodating and friendly to you, you have to decide whether (a) that's just how they are (b) they are doing this to get repeat business as a calculated move (c) they are conning you (d) they saw you and really fell in love with you. The thing is, it could be any combination of these or something else. All I'm saying is that a "they are giving stuff away" or some equivalent to "therefore I will make them by business/partner of choice for a long time" isn't always the most rational thing to do. One really should only feel gratitude to people who are doing it for un-selfish reasons while recognizing that a good businessman will often behave "nicely" as opposed to being a jerk.

Clearly almost all expressions of "good will" and cooperative behavior by businesses are self-serving. The rare exceptions are of the nature of some owner or executive clearly touched by the misery of his customers and/or employees and doing something good for them just because. Cooperative, reliable, and resourceful businesses do add value by not wasting their customer's time and money and not aggravating them, so often everybody wins. Sill in many of these situations have to be analyzed carefully because you are typically not dealing with friends or relatives. Otherwise one can become a "victim" of deception, as someone who buys a company's product because its advertising agency made a particularly effective commercial that is often in no way related to the quality of the product. 

Jeff Rollert writes:

I'd like to share a story that happened this weekend.

A number of you know my hobby is racing sailboats. Well, I'm on a number of forums and they have members that range from the grouchy to super nice and helpful.

About six months ago, a fellow I'd never met or spoken to offered to lend me a sail to test an idea I had been struggling with. There was not a request on when to give it back; in fact it was open ended. After dealing day in and day out with the squids of our occupation, the offer seemed too nice. Something worth $200-$500? Just drive over to my house and you can have it. Really? This is Los Angeles!

Well, in a race this weekend we all got to talking about boats we had owned and one of the guys had the same as mine. We started to compare notes, forums, parts suppliers etc.

It turns out he was the guy who made the offer. I was ashamed at how genuine and nice a guy he was, and what I had suspected.

I only bring this up as a probability point…no matter how pissed you can get at humanity, the percentage of genuinely nice folks is always above zero. I'd forgotten that lesson.

You guys often remind me of that lesson too!
 


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