Archive for March, 2010

I shoplifted a wilted lettuce leaf from Woolworths yesterday: a PR opportunity missed

24 March 2010

My first foray into guerilla shopping.

My seven-year-old daughter has caught some tadpoles, and our neighbour told us they’ll eat frozen lettuce leaves. I didn’t want to buy a whole lettuce just for the tadpoles, so last week when I was in Woolies, I spotted an old, discarded lettuce leaf among the crisp, tasteless Icebergs, and asked the shop assistant in the fruit and vegie section if I could have it.

He deadpanned me with an emphatic “No”.

I smiled, sharing the joke, but he went on: “I’m sorry, but it’s against our policy”.

By now the wilted fragment of greenery was almost in my trolley, but its trajectory was rudely interrupted by this surprise punchline.

Improvising quickly, I said, “I’m happy to pay at least a dollar a kilo for it”, to which he replied, “Sorry, you’ll have to discuss that with the store manager”.

At this point I realised that I’d misread his capacity for dry humour.

“But what’s going to happen to this leaf, anyway?”, I asked.

“We’ll throw it out”, he said.

Not wanting to challenge him with a discussion of the absurd logic of this policy, I simply returned the lettuce leaf to its place on the display, and went about the rest of my shopping, muttering to myself about the crazy, bureaucratesque mindset that had given rise to such a policy.

Every now and then, for the rest of my time in Woolies, I checked out the fruit and vegie section to see if the shop assistant was still there. My plan was blatantly criminal and subversive: I was going to save that humble salad ingredient from its fate as landfill.

But there he remained, long after he’d finished replenishing the eggplant display, seemingly finding an endless variety of busywork excuses for remaining to guard the lettuce stand against my kleptomaniacal advances.

Eventually, I gave up. For the time being.

The following week I was again shopping in Woolworths, and I couldn’t believe my luck. There, lying temptingly on top of the lettuce display, was another discard from a wiltophobic salad shopper. But this time it was unguarded: I must have caught him on his coffee break. I casually walked past the display and flicked the leaf into my trolley, taking the time, a few minutes later, to conceal it at the bottom of my cooler bag, where it was unlikely to be detected. From there on, I was home and hosed.

In a way, though, I was secretly hoping I’d been caught on a surveillance camera, or seen by a store detective. I was looking forward to my five minutes of fame in the local newspaper as “the Marrickville lettuce leaf thief”. I had even rehearsed my lines in case the checkout operator happened to lift the plastic flap at the bottom of my cooler bag and discover my booty. But it was not to be. I’d forfeited my chance to humiliate Woolies publicly over its ridiculous policy of refusing to give — or even sell — its rubbish to customers who can use it.

What do you think was the reasoning behind this policy? Here are some possibilities (you decide which is the most plausible):

(a) “If we allowed all our customers to walk out the door with stuff we were going to throw away, we… wouldn’t have to pay so much for garbage disposal, so we’d be able to reduce prices, and we wouldn’t want to do that now, would we?”

(b) “If word got around that we had allowed one customer to take a wilted lettuce leaf free of charge, soon everyone would be wanting wilted lettuce leaves, and then we’d have to… start charging people for wilted leaves, and… then we’d not only reduce our garbage disposal costs but we’d also make more money for our shareholders, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?”

(c) “It’s unhygienic for us to allow stale produce to be taken from the store. It’s much better if it’s left lying around on top of fresh produce as this increases the rate at which fresh produce decays, which means we can then throw it out, too, and that allows us to keep our prices competitively high”.

Whatever the reason, I have to confess that, by going down the path of the guerilla shopper rather than asking to speak to the store manager, I denied Woolworths the chance to show just how customer-focused it can be — once a customer has complained. But unfortunately I’m not on a PR retainer for the “supermarket giant” (as news stories always bill them), so my strategy was just to get my lettuce leaf and run.

If there’s a real learning opportunity in this for big corporations with policies that lend themselves to small-minded interpretations, it’s this: every employee should be trained to recognise a sow’s ear when they see it in their daily work, and to do whatever it takes (within reason) to turn it into a silk purse, from a public relations point of view. And they should be rewarded appropriately for doing this.

In the meantime, Woolies, if you’re reading this, I’m afraid it’s too late to offer me a year’s supply of wilted lettuce leaves: our tadpoles will soon be frogs, so my next adventure in guerilla shopping will be hunting around among the rotting mangoes for fruit flies…

Jim Beattie © 2010. Created 24.03.2010. Last updated 24.03.2010.


Why billboards will outlive newspapers

14 March 2010

I’m certainly not the first person to have noticed the downward trend in market share enjoyed by newspapers and other print media. But will the increasing cleverness of e-readers and smart phones mean that these rising stars of the “virtual press” eventually consign the literal press to the same dustbin of history as slate and parchment?

Sorry, but I haven’t quite figured that one out yet. But regardless of whether print media can reinvent themselves in a way that keeps the logging industry alive, one thing became blindingly clear to me this morning, as I was walking from the train station to my office: the humble billboard will probably end up being the cockroach of the literal media. It has all the attributes that will allow it to survive the extreme evolutionary pressures that are currently exercising the greatest minds behind the world’s leading newspaper conglomerates.

Why do I think this? The first thing to understand is that it has nothing at all to do with the sophistication of the advertising content of billboards. They tend to lumber along more or less unchanged in this respect. However, the big advantage they have is that, no matter how virtual we manage to make our lives, we still need to move through physical space for some purpose or other, whether it be to go to the beach, eat out at a restaurant, take a holiday, or visit family—or even go shopping or drop in at the office, while these quaint practices last. This means that we still need to walk, drive, cycle, swim or fly past spaces where advertisers can scavenge for our attention.

So if I’m right about this, the billboard is poised to be the last outpost of the literal media. But you might protest: aren’t billboards also starting to use all the same digital wizardry of the virtual press? Doesn’t this mean that they’re going over to the dark side already?

Strictly speaking, yes. But billboards remain resolutely a form of physical-space push marketing: there’s no interactivity here, just exactly what advertisers want us to see, when they want us to see it. So even if they become completely digital in the long run, they don’t need to reinvent themselves by tapping into the marketing power of social media, or listening to their customers, or offering us freebies. They just have to sit there.

Of course, that doesn’t stop us from tuning them out, as many of us, with years of practice, already do. They can become just as much the victims of “bannerphobia” as those excruciating websites that bounce us away just a few seconds after we’ve landed on them. And this certainly will diminish their push-power.

But like the cockroach, the billboard doesn’t need to be in your face to be doing its job. (Well, actually it does need to be in your face, but you don’t need to be aware that it’s in your face, if you know what I mean.) Even if its content isn’t compelling enough to grab your full attention, it’s still there in the background, quietly gathering the crumbs of your fleeting awareness for its own inscrutable purposes. And that’s all the sustenance it needs to survive. As for printed newspapers, and many other denizens of the literal press, the writing may well be on your facebook Wall already.

Jim Beattie © 2010. Created 15.03.2010. Last updated 15.03.2010.

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