Adapt or die: The dangers of retailers hiring old-school C-Level marketing leaders

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Store closing everything must go

The days of “status quo” and “incremental improvements” in retail marketing management are long past

Over the weekend, a recruiter for a regional retailer with very inconsistent Yelp and Glassdoor reviews told me the client was, first and foremost, looking for a C-Level marketing professional with “humility” and to “help them build forward by capitalizing on what is already working.” The dictionary tells us the definition of humility is “a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.” First of all, finding a humble — and effective — senior marketer is already a huge needle-in-a-haystack challenge. Second, does this company truly understand the extremely serious market headwinds now facing it — like something they’ve never encountered before?

The Status Quo is already not working

There are many unhappy customers and employees already commenting on this chain on social media; the latter often mentioning “lower pay than competitors” and the family-owned head office being “disconnected” and “reactive” (as opposed to being proactive, which is needed to survive in current market conditions). And then this comment from a field manager: “Marketing has some pretty cringe-worthy / old-fashioned ideas about how to boost sales.” Yikes. Customer reviews are certainly not glowing on average; customer service apparently varies greatly from location to location and department to department according to Yelp. Any chief marketer would be battling all of this — and perhaps intransigence from the owners who allowed this to occur — even before trying to position and brand the company for long-term success.

This retailer may currently or historically be “leaders in their class and many of their categories,” as this recruiter pointed out, but so were many other retailers at one point in the past few years who have recently shuttered (or downsized) or are close to doing so.

I’m all for having humility as a crucial management skill, but with online sales taking a larger piece of the retail pie every day, this is not the time for being so in the marketplace. Hubris, no. Bold, yes. And quickly. Adapt or die (as Geoffrey Colon writes about in Disruptive Marketing)? Definitely. Because consumers are now driving marketing, and even your brand. What worked yesterday may not work today. Or tomorrow.

The Clear and Present Danger

Somebody is going to eat this chain’s lunch if the status quo, or slight improvements to it, is what they are pursuing. Former juggernauts Sears Canada (dead as of this week) and Toys R Us (in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and set to close 182 locations in 2018) may well be the canaries in the coal mine.

Major chains that declared bankruptcy in 2017 include:

  • Sears Canada (liquidated, and its US sibling is sure to follow)
  • Danier Leather – Canada (dead)
  • The Limited
  • Vanity
  • HHGregg (all stores have been closed)
  • RadioShack
  • Gander Mountain
  • Payless Shoesource
  • Rue21
  • Gymboree
  • Perfumania
  • Vitamin World

Many others are on the edge. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, these are some at high risk in 2018:

  • Bon-Ton (and its regional Bergner’s, Boston Store, Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s, and Younkers brands) – it missed a $14 million interest payment in December. Update Feb 5 2018: The chain has declared bankruptcy and will liquidate if it can’t find a buyer.
  • Bebe
  • Destination Maternity (includes A Pea in the Pod & Motherhood Maternity)
  • DXL Big & Tall (I’m 6’7″, by the way, and never shopped there — premium prices for average quality)
  • Stein Mart
  • Christopher & Banks
  • Burlington Coat Factory
  • Men’s Wearhouse / Jos. A. Bank (the latter’s slogan: “We don’t believe our ridiculous regular prices, either.”)

Canadian companies that may not fare well, according to StyleDemocracy, include:

  • Tip Top Tailors
  • Jean Machine
  • Le Château

Even Canadian mall stalwart Reitman’s has closed stores and killed off its Smart Set brand entirely; it blames shrinking mall traffic in all but the busiest shopping centres.

Update August 5: Brookstone, the store that sold stuff that you probably didn’t need but was cool, is shuttering all mall stores.

Other struggling US chains are closing hundreds of locations:

  • Ascena Retail Group: 268 storefronts including Ann Taylor, Loft, Dress Barn, Lane Bryant, Justice
  • Teavana: bought by Starbucks 5 years ago; all 379 to be shuttered
  • Gap and Banana Republic: 200 stores
  • J. Crew: 50 locations
  • Macy’s: 11 department stores
  • Michael Kors: up to 125
  • Sam’s Club: 53 warehouse stores.

Costco is also at risk as millennials are reportedly staying away in droves; many in the US are ordering their bulk products from Boxed.

With Sears being one of two anchor stores in many US and Canadian malls, this does not bode well for the foot traffic that occurred between it and the other anchor.  All of this seismic shifting is happening in a reasonably robust North American economy.

Battling the online ordering juggernaut: the biggest challenge facing retail

According to Willy Kruh, global and Canada chair of Consumer and Retail at consultancy KPMG: “Many Canadian retailers are not keeping pace with the fact that consumers and their shopping habits are undergoing fundamental change.”  A friend and accomplished marketer, recently arrived from southeast Asia, marvels that many Canadian companies seem to be too “complacent.”

The chain that was the germ of this article — and too many others — do not have free ship-to-store, nor free shipping to the customer’s home once a purchase amount threshold is met, to compete with Amazon. That’s simply amazing and a big miss.

Sure, smaller companies cannot battle Amazon on all fronts. But what about convenience and personal customer service? According to CNBC, “Amazon continues to invest in areas of growth at the expense of profitability, something most other retailers can’t afford to do. Meantime, Amazon is growing its brick-and-mortar footprint, while the rest of the retail world is being referred to as ‘over-stored.'” In other words, Amazon is not worrying about making much profit right now.  So, if you can’t beat them on price, at least match them on getting the product to the customer. That’s a no-brainer.

Make the sale at any cost to survive

Retailers usually make more margin from a bricks and mortar purchase than their online operations, so that revenue is hard to give up. But many are realizing they must make sales at any cost if only to keep customers buying from them long-term. This is why some major big boxes in the US, including Best Buy, actually offered free shipping for any order this past holiday season (Canadian Best Buy stores didn’t). In many US cities, Target stores were sending out local deliveries to compete with Amazon (which can now deliver orders within hours in several metro areas) and acquired same-day delivery platform Shipt last month. That will enable fulfillment of same-day deliveries at almost half of its stores nationwide.

Breaking even — or even losing revenue — on one item may result in reasonable profit on another, and will hopefully keep shoppers returning.

Canadian retailers who are taking comfort in that this is not happening in their neck of the woods must not get too comfortable. This intense market pressure will soon be reality north of the 49th Parallel.

One opinion on how retail must refocus to survive

A comment from Simon Burn of Toronto’s SDB Creative Group on my original iteration of this article on LinkedIn: “Retail should focus on how they can offer value and provide an in-store experience, basically something that is not possible through online sales. That’s a tough one, but achievable. And for many it will be the only way to compete and survive. Time to ditch the old school marketing thinking though, that’s redundant now. Sadly, so many businesses have marketing managers who trained prior to digital marketing, and they don’t have a clue how to move business forward. They’ve been so busy all these years working in their company, they’ve not stopped to pull their head out of the sand and look around to see what’s going on.”

Online competitors are far from being humble as they go after retail dollars. In 2018 consumer marketing, disrupters are now needed. Not caretakers.

Do you agree? Or am I completely off track here?

Economy, News

Canadian Government’s stealth anti-immigration policy endangering country’s economic future

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“Temporary Foreign Worker” program an unethical industry cash cow that suppresses wages across Canada and increases unemployment; new “Canadian Experience” requirement is roadblock for skilled immigrants

At heart, I am a capitalist. I could not have survived many years in extremely competitive US markets and industries without that strength. However, I also believe in ethics and taking care of people. Ethical and sustainable capitalism is what, in my mind, defines Canada and being Canadian. Or, at least, it used to. This column started off as an update to one from a year ago, but current news events provide a good reason for a dedicated article.

Government horse hockey?

Apparently, my crystal ball was extremely clear in April 2012 when I wrote in “Canadian Government to accomplished and educated immigrants: Keep Out!” that the current Conservative government might have a “stealth anti-immigration policy.” I surmised that following the cancellation of over a quarter million “skilled worker” immigrant applications. Then, last August, the Canadian feds quietly published new regulations that require new immigrants to jump through language and “Canadian Experience” hoops before being eligible to become permanent residents. Temporary foreign workers have no such hurdle to leap. We’re not talking citizenship here; the US, for example, requires English proficiency and knowledge of American history and government to obtain citizenship, but not resident alien status. This type of restriction is a slap in the face to every potential Canadian immigrant on the planet, especially those who are highly educated, successful and qualified.

CERIS – The Ontario Metropolis Centre in Toronto sponsored an academic paper on “Canadian Experience” concerning this particularly Canadian brand of subtle, “acceptable” and institutionalized discrimination and released it this past March. The report’s principal investigator was Dr. Izumi Sakamoto of the University of Toronto. This is an exhaustive study on the subject, quite a disquieting read, and mirrors in academic terms much of what I discussed here a year ago. You may download it at: “An overview of discourses of skilled immigrants and ‘Canadian experience:’ An English-language print media analysis”

An October 2012 CERIS blog article also tackles this subject: “Major step-back on Canadian immigration system – Only those with ‘Canadian experience’ need apply.” An excerpt:

Over the past ten years, Canada has increasingly admitted more foreign workers under temporary foreign work programs (now numbering over 300,000 [in the country presently]) while introducing ways to scrutinize who is worthy of permanent residence. The new changes to the Federal Skilled Workers Program solidify this pattern of providing employers easy access to “flexible” labour, while limiting (new immigrants) rights and barring most from establishing themselves in Canada.CERIS, October 10 2012

Growing Disparity in Canadian Temporary Foreign Workers vs. Immigrants; unofficial figures show there are actually 500,000 TFW in Canada, which dwarfs the 338,000 official number.

Meanwhile, the country has been renting foreign workers by the boatload and allowing Canadian companies to displace Canadian employees, and even forcing the “getting fired” worker to train the temporary foreign worker who’s taking his or her job. The recent news surrounding the Temporary Foreign Worker program (RBC Royal Bank, et al), has cast a light on this ugly side of the current Canadian government’s extreme pro-industry immigration policy. These “rent-a-workers” are apparently nothing more than cheap and disposable labour for Canadian business. The TFW program as it exists now, even after the arguably ill-conceived 2013 duct-taped reboot, raises Canadians’ and legal immigrants‘ unemployment, discourages future-driven and innovative German-style industry-government-education partnerships and artificially suppresses wages across the country and several industry sectors.

In the only alleged “booming” province of Alberta, 75% of all new jobs are going to these rented transplants according to the Alberta Federation of Labour (see: Temporary foreign worker rules get revamp; Calgary Herald, April 30 2013). The Federation reports that Alberta’s economy actually lost 8,600 jobs in 2010, but almost 23,000 foreign workers were allowed in. I don’t need to crack open my old MBA textbooks to figure out the negative macro and micro economics issues with that math.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s much-ballyhooed changes are just Smoke and Mirrors Public Relations to avoid the issue and keep things “business as usual:”

Kenney’s new rule ending the wage differential between foreign and domestic workers is welcome. So is the provision that only English or French can be used as a job requirement. So is the suspension (which should have been a termination) of fast-tracking foreign worker visas, a process that Ottawa let get out of hand. But his other changes are a PR exercise to placate outraged Canadians. - Temporary foreign worker flood to continue; Haroon Siddiqui, Toronto Star, May 2

The entire TFW system needs to be scrapped and / or completely rewritten. In light of current economic conditions affecting every corner of Canada, it must be extremely targeted by profession and restricted in numbers with effective and stringent regulation, similar to the original intent of the US’ H-1B program, which was enacted to fill gaps in highly specialized areas of employment. Pouring a Tim Hortons coffee or flipping a burger is certainly not that. The new US Senate immigration and border security bill, if passed, will allow guest and agricultural workers for some lower-skilled occupations (mainly to help stop the flow of illegal immigration) but not allow them to work where there is greater than 8.5% local unemployment and will never displace American workers; Canada has no such restriction. It must not be a back door to easily get into the country and get in line ahead of “real” immigrants, as it largely is now. Nor must it be a cash cow for industry like it is today.

The Canadian program starkly contrasts to the program in the US; since Barack Obama’s election, temporary foreign worker visas — especially for IT people from India due to Uncle Sam suspecting visa fraud on the part of Indian consulting firms — are much harder to get in some fields, which favours US citizens and legal resident aliens. And, the US — a country roughly 10 times the size of Canada — allows in only 65,000 workers each year. Canada — with 215,000 allowed in to the country in 2012 — effectively has no limit. If the Canadian program was allowed in the US, that would be 2,150,000 foreign workers, not 65,000; 33 times more than now allowed. Imagine the uproar!

The current Canadian Intra-company Transfer system is also rife with abuses at foreign companies based in countries that are riddled with corruption and where “verifiable” credentials can be bought for a few dollars (or rupees or rubles).

The Huffington Post published an article yesterday that peels numerous layers off the onion with many irrefutable facts: Temporary Foreign Workers In Alberta: Report Shows Flood Of TFW As Jobs Disappear, Wages Fall. Excerpt:



What was intended to be a tool aimed at preventing economic retreat and loss of revenue due to labour shortages has become a go-to solution for companies to artificially keep labour costs down, according to a new report. The Temporary Foreign Workers Program has evolved into an effective tool used by corporations to increase their profit margins.

“The evidence is stark: Alberta employers are bringing in more TFWs than are needed to fill the new jobs the economy is creating… labour market conditions are not dictating TFW policy.”Alberta Federation of Labour report

tmp2002-11As the Huffington Post article points out:

  • Youth unemployment has not improved since the recession. For example, employment levels have been going sideways in Alberta, and are now higher — at 14.5% — than a year ago nationally, while related wages have been going down. Canada’s youth is its future, but young men and women are being victimized and set up for failure by corporate greed and government collusion.
  • Rural and small-city and town Alberta has lost thousands of jobs, but thousands more temporary workers have moved in.
  • 213% more temporary workers have been allowed into the province than there have been jobs created. Simple math shows that Canadian workers are being displaced.

There can be no doubt that this profiteering on the backs of low-paid, and reportedly sometimes abused, foreign workers and the displaced Canadians they replace is not limited to Alberta, but is a Canada-wide phenomenon that has been approved at the highest levels in many corporations, both domestic and foreign-based. The winking and nodding federal government is risking the country’s and its people’s economic futures in favour of short-term corporate profits.

UPDATE June 4, 2013

Toronto Star editorial page editor emeritus Haroon Siddiqui, who is a member of the Order of Canada, apparently agrees. In his June 2 “Fire Jason Kenney and freeze immigration” column, he writes:

Just about everything he has touched — and he touches a lot as minister for immigration and citizenship — is in chaos. The entire system is mired in scandalous delays. Crucially, different elements of it are working at cross-purposes.

About 1.3 million Canadians don’t have jobs. Another million are underemployed or have given up looking for work. The unemployment rate for the young is twice the national average, though they are the most educated in our history.

Yet Kenney has kept bringing 250,000 and more immigrants every year. Many of them can’t find jobs, either. Their unemployment rate is twice the national rate. Of those who do have jobs, three in four are not working in their fields — not using the education and skills for which they were selected as immigrants.

This is Stephen Harper’s Republican economic theology at work — supply businesses with cheap and pliant labour, even as our corporations remain among the lowest spenders in the industrialized world on recruitment, retention, training and skills development.

I agree that Kenney should resign or be fired and his entire program scrapped. Canada is getting a bad name amongst hopeful immigrants while the immigration system has become only a supply of cheap labour for Canadian companies. Even extreme right wing Republicans in the US would be proud of his efforts, and that’s saying something.

Economy, News

The front page “Jobs Report” is never what it seems

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Raw statistics don’t tell The Real Story, like the net loss of 70,000 highly skilled professional Canadian jobs in a year.  Meanwhile, the news media is AWOL.

OTTAWA — The Canadian Press — Jan. 4, 2013 The Canadian economy created 40,000 jobs in December — all of it in full-time work — and drove the unemployment rate to its lowest in four years, Statistics Canada said Friday.

Every time another jobs report is issued by either the US or Canadian federal government, much fanfare is made by national media about the percentage rise or fall.  The most recent in Canada showed the unemployment rate dropping to a “4 year low.”  All the news organizations, whether TV, print or web, touted this as an indication from God Himself that the world was on the right path.

And politicians treated it as gospel.

Something similar happened the next day in the US with the headline “U.S. adds 155k jobs, unemployment rate holds” as seen in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Then, as they invariably do, each story went on to summarize raw numbers by private sector, government, farm, construction and so forth, as well as some regional variations.  With these increases, or at least no losses, all is good, right?  Um, no.



To paraphrase Home Improvement’s Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, back the Brinks truck up for a minute.

This morning, a tweet from University of Ottawa economist Miles Corak linked to the following story on Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper website.  I would have missed it, otherwise, as did most people.  Actually, the article was under a rock in the Economy section, similar to behind the classified ads next to the death notices in an actual newspaper:


Hot or not? Canada’s sturdy job market varied below the surface

Canada’s labour market put in a remarkably sturdy showing in 2012, given the choppy global economic climate and a marked slowdown in domestic activity in the last half of the year. All told, employers churned out 312,000 jobs — all in full-time work — and the country’s unemployment rate ebbed to a four-year low of 7.1 per cent in December from 7.5 per cent a year earlier.

But wait for the punchline…

Considerable variations lie behind how the labour market fared by sector, demographic group and province.

The article went on to spell out what were strong performers in the labour market: older women (55+), modestly paid salaried workers, utilities and education. On the weak side were youth, self-employed (doing so by choice or necessity, or forced into taking a temporary contract position), government, professional and technical workers. Of the latter, 70,000 “typically higher paying” professional and technical jobs were lost in just one year — representing the most serious decline of all sectors. And this is still a “sturdy” job market?


An increase in jobs can actually be misleading and discouraging:  It’s the quality that counts.

“The News Media” puts all this coverage concerning the monthly unemployment rate on the front burner and hypes it for a news cycle.  But, in fact, the overall unemployment rate is raw data that means nothing by itself.  Income levels are rarely discussed anywhere, whether in Canada or the US.  An analytical article like this with The Real Story gets next to no coverage or public interest.  What this data tells me: good middle class jobs are going away and getting replaced with poorly paid service or survival jobs.

How many pre-recessionary mid to upper middle class Canadians and Americans are now scraping by?  Or are long-term unemployed or underemployed?  A 55-year-old former executive in Toronto simply cannot head to northern Alberta’s oil sands and start cutting pipe, unlike the “bulletproof” 20-somethings.  And neither can his counterpart in Chicago or New York drop everything to go fracking for oil in low-unemployment North Dakota.  Those well paid middle class (and often middle-aged) people, and not the Wal-Mart greeters or call center employees on subsistence wages, must be the economy’s engine.

But, we see there are now 70,000 fewer as of these latest numbers in Canada.   If extrapolated out to a country the size of the US, that would be 700,000 well-paid middle-class  jobs lost since December 2011.  How many former $50/hour people are now working in retail or taking calls for Staples in Canada?

Young Canadians and Americans, our next “fuel” for our economic engines, are getting thrown onto the scrap-heap, too.  Worse: almost nobody is paying attention, considering that the “Hot or not” Globe & Mail story is in the bowels of the website’s economy section, and not on Page 1 of the printed national newspaper where it should be.  Just where is the media on this?  This headline should be in big red letters on the front page, and not buried at the back of the business section as it was today.  Middle class Canadians should be ranting and marching on Ottawa, but as comedian and social commentator Rick Mercer has pointed out, Canadians don’t rant enough.

As I wrote in response to Dr. Corak’s January 4 article about “Secure jobs on the rise in Canada, but the young are still shut out of the jobs market:”

Completely missing from all jobs reports is corresponding “drill down” data on mobility: median salaries, professions, level of education, percentages of folks who are underemployed (and by how much and by profession), etc. Data for the entire picture that adds to, or detracts from, an economy is needed. This lack of information is a constant in Canada as well as the US. A job is a job, right? Wrong.

Questions we need answers to:

  • What about median consumers’ / workers’ real purchasing power? Declining? Increasing? And why?
  • Did the lowering of Canada’s corporate tax rate create (or save) any jobs? Or did the saved revenue just get stacked alongside the other that was sitting there already in corporate accounts?
  • Are well-paying industrial or professional jobs being replaced by low paid call center workers and retail? (e.g. how many pre-recession $60/hour people with undergrad or graduate degrees are now working at call centers for $12?)

Of course, these are metrics most politicians in power would want to be kept out of the public domain, or at least under their radar. Raw unemployment statistics as released by Ottawa or Washington mean close to nothing. With real “Big Data,” and a correct analysis, we would know if folks made lateral salary moves, their pay went up, or it was drastically decreased. That information would be a much better and more concise indicator on the direction of the economy.

The professor was right in his response to me that data to answer many of these questions is available from the Statistics Canada website, just as similar data is obtainable on US issues from the Office of Personnel Management and other government sources.  However, are Canadians and Americans heading there in droves to crunch the numbers?  No.  They are depending on journalists to take care of that and tell the public about it.  And that, sad to say, is not happening.

What would be real journalism?  Finding some of those 70,000 people and doing a feature story — heck, a whole section — on what happened and what they’re doing now.  There are so many, that should be pretty easy.  But that would take shoe leather and real reporting, similar to what Paul Solman does on the PBS NewsHour’s Making Sen$e series.  But, why would anyone want to do that?


Newtown’s Sandy Hook Public School Massacre: a direct result of America’s pervasive gun culture

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Only time will tell if Obama’s “Meaningful Action” actually occurs


As American travelers dutifully go through “naked scanners” at airports due to government-amplified and Homeland Security-prolonged Fear, the real terrorists of mass destruction live among us  With assault weapons.

The most likely threat of carnage to affect Americans is not some foreign religious nut trying to light explosives in his underwear on fire… extremely stable explosives that can never be set off with a BIC lighter.  It’s the guy next door with a “legal” Glock and AK-47.  The answer?  Gun control.  Yes, GUN CONTROL.

Approximately 10,000 Americans will be murdered with firearms this year, as in any other year; the highest by far in the developed world, and in 4th place worldwide behind South Africa, Colombia, and Thailand. Quite the Third World Club to belong to. The vast majority of those US homicides will be committed with handguns; in 2009 it was 67%. On the other hand, the UK and French rate is 1 in a Million for all gun murders.

For all firearm-related deaths including murder, suicide, and accidents, 3.2 American lives are lost per 100,000 people. Canada’s rate is 0.76 per 100,000, 23% of the US; many of those Canadian deaths are due to smuggled handguns brought in from the US; Canadians by and large do not use firearms for personal protection, and the vast majority are long guns used for hunting.

If people had flintlocks, and only flintlocks, the Second Amendment that gun lovers hide behind might make sense.  The National Rifle Association, in my opinion, can go to hell, along with its twisted, ideological, and murderous “logic.”

I am a born Canadian and naturalized American.  I grew up without any fear of anything like this occurring, just as students north of the 49th Parallel will be able to keep Newtown at arm’s length knowing that a border separates them from the gun craziness called America.  When I was a child, I saw that the Canadian Tire store was full of hunting gear and still is, but handguns have always been very much restricted or illegal there.  Currently, the largest magazine for a rifle carries 5 rounds, which is more than enough to bag a deer.  Not 30.

After every unfortunate incident in the “civilized” world, such as the 1989 Montreal Ḗcole Polytechnique Massacre, gun laws have been tightened — except America.  However, in the US, the answer seems to be that to fight gun violence even more guns are needed, to the point of some states debating requiring universities to allow students to carry concealed weapons on campus, or to pass open-carry laws.  Personally, I will always vote for the candidate who promotes the elimination of the type of firearms that should only be found on a battlefield or in a peace officer’s holster or locked up in a SWAT vehicle, but were used today by a lunatic against brave teachers and defenceless schoolchildren.

The weapons used in the Newtown massacre. Source: New York Daily News
The weapons used in the Newtown massacre. Source: New York Daily News

I recognize that America, frankly, is too far gone, considering that 47% of Americans have at least one firearm according to a 2011 Gallup poll.  But, I see no reason for high-powered military-style weapons to be in the hands of anyone — rapid-firing semi-automatic pistols, rifles, and extended magazines for them — that are simply designed only to kill humans. And any concealable pistol under the Canadian minimum barrel length of 4.1 inches, or in “Saturday night special” 25 or 32 caliber, should be heavily restricted or prohibited.  The Second Amendment only mentions arms, but it is up to politicians to define what that means.  Currently, pretty much anything short of a bazooka is legal in the US.

Source: The Economist

However, I also realize that reducing guns on American streets or in households to levels similar to Canada, Australia or Western Europe is “pie in the sky.”  If we’re lucky, we will only be able to restrict the kind of assault weapons that killed children in their school by bringing back the Brady law that expired 8 years ago.  Even that is, unfortunately and depressingly, extremely unlikely.  Simply because US politicians are eating at the NRA trough or do not have the political fortitude to pursue such matters.

The numbers tell us that US handguns are the most to blame when compared to a country like Switzerland that has one of the highest gun ownership ratios in the world.  Switzerland is often misrepresented by US gun proponents as a “see, the numbers of guns don’t matter” argument.  However, the Swiss homicide rate by firearm is 4 in a million.  Why?  Effectively, every male is in a national militia and tasked to defend from foreign incursions, so they have fully-automatic firearms at the ready.  However, there are very strong restrictions on how and where firearms can be used and transported, similar to laws in Canada.  And they all need to be locked up by law all the time.  Carrying concealed weapons is banned.  The Swiss just don’t go around killing each other with them, unlike Americans.  The Swiss model is actually an example of extremely strict and effective gun control and not liberalization.

Also somewhat of a red herring is solely blaming violent video games, Hollywood movies or a lack of psychological care for such violence.  Young troubled males around the globe entertain themselves with such products, but they don’t have easy access to handguns or military-style weapons.  Guess which country allows such free access to almost anyone?  Guns are the obvious final piece to this deadly puzzle.

Newtown may be one of the most heart-wrenching examples of this carnage that is a fact of life (and death) across the US.  But it will not be the last.  We will go through this again and again for years on end, decade after decade, until, and if, the Supreme Court swings back to the left enough to allow a different interpretation of the poorly written and ambiguous Amendment that is responsible for so much heartache and destruction.

Canada’s CBC TV News reporters Neil MacDonald and Paul Hunter, both stationed in the US, put that all into perspective below.  Gun Control in the US is a pipe dream.

UPDATE December 23, 2012: Robert J. Spitzer, chairman of the political service department at the State University of New York College at Cortland, and author of several books on gun policy, has an excellent article on the Five Myths About Gun Control in the December 21 Washington Post.  A required read for everyone who is concerned about this issue.

Marketing, News

Black Friday and Cyber Monday: May the Bargains Rest In Peace.

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What once were days for finding real deals has devolved into marketing hype

Canada’s Marketing Magazine ( published a story yesterday about Canadians “flocking” to Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales in that country.  That had me scratching my head, then rolling my eyes at the ceiling.  For those not from Canada, Thanksgiving there falls on the second Monday in October.  There is no reason for a “Black Friday” shopping day after Canadian Thanksgiving, unless you see a really good deal on Halloween candy that week.

Willy Kruh, global chairman in retail markets at KPMG, told the magazine that Cyber Monday is growing at an even faster pace in Canada than Black Friday, as “retailers look for new ways to fight back against U.S. competitors eating into their profits.”  But hold on there.  “Black Friday” started in Canada just three years ago when retailers — mostly US-based companies that ship their profits to their American headquarters, mind you — came up with a whiz-bang idea to pry money out of Canadians’ wallets earlier on in the Christmas shopping season.  The historical big shopping day in Canada is Boxing Day, which falls on the day after Christmas.  (So, if you’re wondering, it is never bad form to give Canadians money at the holiday.)

The End is Nigh for Bargain Shoppers in the US.

5 to 10 years ago, I actually got extremely good deals in the US when they were called “After Thanksgiving” Sales. In fact, it got referred to as Black Friday only in boardrooms back then, and maybe on Fatwallet or Slickdeals deal-hunter sites that were very much under the radar of most shoppers.  Of course, “Black” signifies when the year’s net revenues head solidly into the profit column.

Greed has often replaced goodwill, and not only in the boardroom.
Greed has often replaced goodwill, and not only in the boardroom.

I’m completely unimpressed now.  There were real “doorbusters” years ago when stores opened at 7 AM on Friday with about 15 people in line in front of Staples, for example, and we stayed in our warm cars until 6:45.  When I participated, I hit Staples at 7, then the now-defunct Circuit City (which opened an hour later), then maybe JCPenney or Kohl’s.  I was usually back home in 3 hours, then spent the next 2 hours filling out rebate forms for stuff that were true “doorbusters.”  A typical take of totally free stuff was some blank DVDs, a laptop case, digital camera case, and even a halogen floor lamp once!  Then there were usually some very good deals on things like sheet sets, DVD player/recorders or stereo speakers.  Even then, it was not a good time to buy a TV or computer (hint: wait for January when the new models come out).  Retailers even threatened to sue deal sites that posted their flyers ahead of distribution in the Thursday newspaper.

I remember staying up a couple of Thanksgiving nights or waking up at 4 AM to grab the deals on Staples’ website and suffering through the extremely slow ordering process due to the website getting hammered.   This year: zero real deals.  Nothing.  Nada.  At Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy and everywhere else.  But they promoted these un-specials with millions of dollars of ad spend throughout the week prior, and welcomed all to see the flyers ahead of time.  Maybe it was because there was no reason to hide them?   The same laptop computer I paid $249 for before Labor Day after a coupon and rebate was on “sale” for $549 Friday.  It’s now all hype, rather than substance.

Of course, there were the idiots who lined up back then for hours at Best Buy or CompUSA (also a dead company) in hopes of getting 1 of the 5 loss leader crappy laptops.  Then, the truly hardy (and foolish) camped out only overnight… not for 2 days as now.  However, that is all history from prior to 2008.

This year, I frankly wanted a refund for the $2.00 I wasted on the newspaper.  I was in the US at the time.  I slept in.

Why I’m Playing Taps for Bargains.  And for Time Spent with Family.

As a marketer, I’m to blame for a lot of hype over my career, but within boundaries and ethics.  But now, some profiteering marketers have teamed up with bean counters and are opening stores Thanksgiving evening at 8:00 PM.  There is no such thing as a statutory holiday anymore, apparently.  Or, perhaps, there’s just a complete lack of respect for employees now.  Thanksgiving and Christmas Day were the last remaining holidays most US retail workers could spend with family, but the former is now trashed.  I find this despicable, as poorly-paid retail workers don’t even get that day off any more after working hard to set up for the Friday craziness (and getting ready to referee the fistfights, and practice avoiding getting trampled to death as occurred a couple years ago at a Walmart).  One Walmart employee interviewed for the news said she was scheduled for two 8-hour shifts in 24 hours, with only 4 hours off.  Deplorable.

Black Friday discounts for consumers in the US are now big yawns compared to 5 and 10 years ago.  But, people are lining up in droves.  I guess there is a sucker born every minute, as con-man Joseph “Paper Collar Joe” Bessimer has been credited as uttering (no, it wasn’t P. T. Barnum, who treated his customers very well).

Bricks and Mortar Retailers hastening their own demise?

According to more than one analyst, opening Thanksgiving Day actually could hurt sales.  The folks who ran out even before their turkey was digested were more apt to buy only the doorbusters, then go home.  On the other hand, if they hit the stores Friday morning, there is more chance of them buying more stuff after all the deep discounts are gone and making an all-day family shopping trip out of it.  Also, if deals are lacking at retail stores, as they certainly were in 2012, customers will accelerate their move to online ordering where they don’t buy as much stuff, and are much less apt to make impulse purchases.  Retail revenue will fall.  Best Buy will fail faster than it is now.  Amazon and Newegg will win.  It’s also been widely reported that there’s not much change in prices online or at retail beginning a week or so before Black Friday.  It’s mostly all hype, not real deals.  Frankly, I’m half-wishing these open-on-Thanksgiving Big Box corporate folks end up shooting themselves in the foot so they’ll return to the way it was.

I fear, though, that lemmings will be lemmings.

American-style Corporate Greed Invading Canada

Staples Canada Black Friday Ad.

North of the border, there’s the issue of a complete non-Canadian American holiday being adopted by retailers in Canada with even fewer real deals than in their US stores.  US-based Sears is to blame for this foolishness because it started Black Friday Canadian sales in 2007; Sears stores in both countries are, more often than not, ghost towns at the best of times, so I’m guessing it was a gimmick born out of desperation.

Concerning Cyber Monday becoming big in Canada: there’s not much reason for consumers to truly embrace it, as competition is lacking, shipping prices are disadvantageous, and nobody enjoys the sales tax breaks as most Americans do, who usually pay no tax for Internet orders. selections are horrid compared to, for example, and Canadians will end up paying up to 15% sales tax at a bricks and mortar or online.  So, there’s little advantage to shop online there.

Instead of trying this gimmick, Canadian retailers need to seriously look at their competitiveness.  Prices on almost everything there are inflated, even when one considers excise taxes built-in to prices.  Competition is lacking.  The two major electronics chains, Best Buy and Future Shop, are the same company.  US chains operating there never offer the same deals or loyalty programs as their US stores do. (So, Staples Canada, where’s my $2 for turning in an empty ink cartridge, eh?, and my 2 free packs of free-after-rewards 16-pack Duracell batteries?  And where’s my $10 off $50 coupons I get emailed to me in the US all the time? Oh, right. No competition.)  Grocery and drug chains hand out silly points a customer needs to collect for years, instead of offering double coupons and immediate discount gratification or loyalty coupons that need to be redeemed within a few weeks. If 40% of Canadians are heading south of the border for shopping this holiday season, as has been reported, there’s a reason: your prices are too high!

Why Many American Consumers Are Dissatisfied

Years ago, deal forums would be filled with people bragging about their deals.  That is extremely rare now.  It’s now more Moan than Brag.

Some typical comments from different folks on the Black Friday / Cyber Monday forum at US’; praise was hard to come by:

  • Isn’t today supposed to be Cyber Monday?  So where are all the deals?
  • And last Friday was supposed to be Black Friday.  Where were the deals?  It’s just a gimmick.  Cyber Monday is just 10% off already overpriced trash.
  • Random online deals that are found throughout the year blow away any Black Friday or Cyber Monday deal.
  • BF + CM = BUST.
  • I went to Target and was 100% underwhelmed.
  • Less online stores honoring orders and more and more canceling them every year.
  • Having it start at 8 PM on Thursday at some stores is pretty much what killed Black Friday.
  • What a joke in 2012.  These are the same deals you can find on freaking Presidents’ Day.
  • What a real disappointment.  I bought a 32″ Samsung couple days ago before Friday.  It’s still the same price today.
  • BF and CM these days are nothing more than gimmicks to trick uneducated consumers into thinking they are getting a bargain.

Amen on that last one. Although written by an American, the same reality exists north of the 49th Parallel.

Gee, maybe next year Canadian retailers can start having mattress sales on Presidents’ Day just like those in the States, even if Canada has Prime Ministers.  That shouldn’t matter when profits are in play, right?

Economy, News

Generational and Social Mobility in US Hampered by High Costs of University Education

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The future of an entire American generation is at stake. And the problem begins in public schools.

Miles Corak, one of Canada’s best known economists, is a professor at the University of Ottawa. In July, he was invited to testify to the US Senate Committee on Finance in Washington DC concerning Boosting Opportunities and Growth Through Tax Reform: Helping More Young People Achieve The American Dream (video of the Senate Committee Hearing available via the link).  He is currently completing some fascinating “homework” that Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) gave him as a follow-up, and is presenting some of it on his blog for community discussion.

One entry concerns how current education policy and reality is affecting or hindering the “American Dream,” which is all about mobility when one thinks about it: The US Senate wonders about tax policy for the American Dream: why are schools failing to promote social mobility?

Miles Corak
Miles Corak, University of Ottawa

The question from Senator Baucus: “Education is one of the most important factors in providing every American with the opportunity to succeed. Our education system is one of the reasons that we have one of the most productive labor forces in the world, but not everyone seems to be benefiting. Why is our education system failing to achieve the same level of mobility that we see in other countries? How could the education system here in America do a better job of promoting mobility and opportunity?”

A classic Have and Have-not fight, directly linked to mobility, is currently playing out in Washington concerning extending tax breaks for the middle class and the wealthy, or letting them expire and starting anew with the risk of a “financial cliff,” or perhaps, steep hill, depending on the economist you talk to.  America’s current President is an example of mobility working.  But, will there be future Middle Class Kid Makes Good stories in the White House, or will only the rich inhabit the office?

I participated in Dr. Corak’s call for information concerning both public and higher education south of the 49th Parallel in the US by offering my take on both of them.  I’m no economist, but I led the local “Cable in the Classroom” initiative while working in the Cable TV industry, worked with 330 of the world’s premier universities as Chief Marketing Officer for a university honour society, graduated from secondary school in Canada, and received both my Bachelor and MBA degrees in the US, so I perhaps have a unique point of view on the subject.

The 2-cents worth I offered:

K-12: A Foundation for Mobility Barriers

Senator Max Baucus
Senator Max Baucus, D-MT

Affluent areas in the US benefit from higher and more tax revenues being allocated to schools than others. Less affluent areas suffer due to the reverse. Local laws often need to be passed to increase tax support of education, and those initiatives sometimes fail at the ballot box. This is very different from current realities in Canada.

Unlike Canadian education funds, which are doled out at the provincial level, US states have a much less hands-off approach, while the US federal Department of Education eats up a lot of the funds that, in Canada, would be spent by the provinces.  Imagine Ottawa attempting to control what happens at the local high school in Riverview, New Brunswick, but that is the reality in the US.  American school boards are often party politicized and divided just as city councils are (Democrat, Republican), which is a foreign idea in Canada and many other countries.  During this post-recession period, teachers have been laid off at the local level due to declining local tax funds.  That would not occur in any Canadian city or town, but could, perhaps, provincially.

Senator Orrin Hatch
Senator Orrin Hatch, R-UT

US teachers’ pay is often tied to federally mandated student test scores which are perceived as a sledgehammer by teacher unions.  In Canada, teacher evaluations are essentially meant to help the teacher and not to provoke fear.

Canada at 5.2% spends 0.5% less of GDP than the US does (5.7%) for arguably much better results. (Source:; United Nations Human Development Programme)

Finally, while Canada and Canadians now largely agree on how important public education is, US communities, teachers, teacher unions, school boards and state legislatures are often at loggerheads about the money and direction.

All of these factors and conflicts among adults often put what should be society’s prime concern, the students, at the back of the school bus.

International test scores prove that America is failing its young people even before (or if) they enter higher education, which is discussed next.

Many University Graduates Stymied & Desperate

Public K-12 education is just one piece of this puzzle.  American social and generational mobility issues extend to higher education and its quickly accelerating costs and debts that are, by far, the highest per student in OECD countries.  Outstanding student loans have now exceeded $1 Trillion.  Defaults are increasing. (There’s no need to go over all this in detail here as I address that in my 2011 article Defaults on college & university student loans: The next US economic bubble to burst?)

A Bachelor degree is now, essentially, the bare minimum to get a good job — what a high school diploma was 20 years ago — but the attached price tag in the US places huge walls in the way of mobility for many. Even so, as James Bradshaw reported in the 9/25/2011 Globe and Mail: there is “no firm guarantee of a return on investment in that expensive piece of paper,” the university degree. This is a universal reality in both the US and Canada, but the financial risk for Canadians is much less. There are Pell grants for some people who are essentially poor, but the maximum grant ($5550 annually) does not pay for all expenses, nor even all of the tuition tied to attending most universities, even public state schools.

The Higher Education Ball and Chain

Another reader of Dr. Corak’s series precisely details how easily it is for today’s American university graduates to acquire $200,000 to $300,000 in student loan debt for a 4-year degree, a number most Canadian and European parents and students cannot even fathom.  “Aaron’s” submission below Corak’s article is certainly worth a read, both for Canadian parents (who think they’re paying too much for their kid’s university) and bickering Canadian politicians, and also for Americans who are thinking there must be a better way.  As Aaron so succinctly writes: “I don’t think (this point) can be overemphasized: the post-secondary education system in the US is a key piece of the puzzle underlying the lack of mobility.”

Even unpaid internships are to blame, as only those who are at least reasonably affluent can do work for free and, therefore, are able to take advantage of gaining that on-the-job experience.

Corak has published many pieces, and indeed testified to the US Congress, concerning the fact that mobility in Canada (and some other countries including Australia) is much better than that in the US, which is falling behind, and has been since the Reagan years.  One can easily argue that huge mobility barriers are generated by a failing and inconsistent public school system which is at the mercy of local affluence / taxation, the high cost of education and the consequences of acquiring a lot of debt by young people entering the workforce.  Even worse, with thousands of graduates being forced to put off repayment, and potentially doubling or tripling the amount they have to pay back via deferments due to the lack of jobs, an entire generation is at risk.  So is America’s future.

The current dysfunctional education system, from kindergarten to graduate school, is only one of the founding issues that are hindering mobility, albeit a very important one.  There are many other societal forces at play; many of them interconnecting. I recommend readers of this column follow more of Corak’s “homework” on his blog.

Update November 29, 2012: The Economist writes in its December 1 article Not What It Used To Be: American universities represent declining value for money to their students: “There is growing anxiety in America about higher education. A degree has always been considered the key to a good job. But rising fees and increasing student debt, combined with shrinking financial and educational returns, are undermining at least the perception that university is a good investment.”  The Economist article is certainly worth reading and supports this article and my 2011 entry linked above.

Business Management, Marketing, News, social media

Busting the “80% of All Jobs are Hidden” Myth

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“Unpublicized” is a Much More Accurate Term


And the number is smaller than you think.  Or been told.


As the world (well, the 99% of it that does not include the wealthy) tries to dig out of the morass called the “post recession,” job seekers are blindly following the “sage” advice to ferret out the 80% of jobs that are apparently “hidden” according to many “experts.”  They seemingly believe without question the vast majority of websites and career books that spout this grossly inaccurate number.

Hidden Jobs Myth

Unfortunately, that advice is as old and relevant as paper résumés.

Indeed, that number might be true for CEOs or CFOs who get hired at least in part with the help of their reputations.  However, many of those executive jobs are filled via referrals and highly paid retained recruiters who work via referrals — the “who knows you” factor — not by informational interviews or schmoozing.  On the lower rungs, it’s probably closer to 20 percent, not 80.  So why the myth?

One of my favorite TV shows is MythBusters.  As someone who thinks scientifically, I don’t mind having my beliefs shattered by logic and reality.  So, although I was a little surprised, I was not disbelieving when I came across an article on Quintessential Careers, within which Katherine Hansen burst the 80% “common knowledge” balloon:

I was shocked to read a 2009 statement by a respected consultant, someone who knows the world of hiring extensively, having worked with hundreds employers, that the hidden job market is one of the biggest myths of job-hunting; that, in fact, it doesn’t exist: ‘Maybe a few thousand out of 20 million jobs are unpublished, and they are primarily at or near the C-level,’ said Gerry Crispin, who with partner Mark Mehler, operates CareerXroads which consults with corporations in career planning and placement, contract recruiting, executive search, recruitment advertising, and human resource management.

So, why is it that, wherever job seekers “in transition” look (don’t you just love that politically correct term for “out of work,” by the way?), they see that 80% figure?  Or others ranging from 75% to even 95%?  Perhaps because:

  • it’s just old information that keeps getting repeated ad nauseam; the “world is flat” syndrome
  • some folks have a vested interest in spreading the myth.

Let’s examine the question from the point of view of an employer.  Why would a company keep a job opening secret?  Short answer: in most cases it wouldn’t because it wants to be able to find the cream of the crop.  Successful businesses do not restrict options.  Also, the longer the role remains unfilled, the less money the company will make, or the more stretched and ineffective existing staff will become.

This is how it has worked inside every progressive company I’ve worked in, either early on as a front line employee or in senior management:

  1. The need for a new person is fleshed out and justified, sometimes over months.  The proposal is then discussed at senior levels, and then budgeted as part of the “head count” process. Then, it’s approved or not.
  2. Once approved, “who do you know?” within the office commences, as its simply cheaper to work through a referral than pay for advertising or an expensive recruiter.  And, if referred by an “A” employee, chances are the person he or she refers will also be an “A.”
  3. Word spreads throughout the company, and often employees are given monetary incentives to generate interest outside the company (this usually occurs for positions at lower levels on the career ladder); these external job seekers sometimes (but not always) are allowed to bypass the dreaded “cold-call” on-line HR black hole, errrr, submission system.

This worked for me when I incorporated Canadian operations into the Atlanta head office.  I saw the need for a Canadian to fill the role, as there are cultural issues across borders.  There was also a lack of information about how Canadians think and make buying decisions — and what they expect — amongst the US-based staff.  Many US companies do not realize that Canada cannot be marketed to as a 51st state.  I spread the word throughout my expat community, and even to my contacts at the Atlanta Canadian Consulate.  The employee hired — a recent graduate from a local university, and Canadian — came from those efforts, didn’t cost us a dime to source, and was an excellent hire.  However, this was the exception, not the rule.

At senior management or C-Level, finding people is largely like sales at professional service firms (lawyers, architects, engineers): word of mouth via the hiring manager’s network before anything is advertised or sent to a recruiter.

Only after an ideal candidate is not found this way is something advertised, except at companies or organizations where it is company policy to post all positions.  However, many positions are posted when a candidate has already been identified just to enable the company to report that it abided by its policy, or in the case of the public sector, regulations.  For example, if Uncle Sam posts a job for a week or 10 days, forget it: somebody has already been promised the job.

The “80% hidden” job market may have been the reality.  10 or 20 years ago.  When there was only Monster or printed newspaper / trade magazine advertisements, no company websites, no job posting aggregators like Simply Hired or Indeed, no recruiters Tweeting, nor trade association websites with their own niche job boards.

As Hansen points out, there are only a few instances today where the “hidden / unpublicized” argument may hold some water:

  • The employer needs to confidentially replace a non-performer.  However, these are usually handled by an outside retained recruiter who can keep things confidential.
  • The employer at a public company fears news of significant hiring will hurt stock prices; again, this is handled confidentially by a retained recruiter and is exclusively at C-Level or close to it.
  • The employer does not want to reveal future plans to competitors and others, and publicizing openings could expose those plans; again, senior level.
  • The employer wants to get referrals before or instead of publicizing the vacancy and being inundated with resumes from unqualified candidates; usually, the employer is HR resource-constrained.
  • The employer hires a search firm or recruiter to conduct a confidential search; retained recruiters will fill jobs at senior levels, while contingency recruiters are often not so, ahem, confidential nor picky.
  • The employer uses social media such as Twitter or other non-traditional advertising means to find candidates; but usually, these jobs are usually posted on the company site, anyway, so are not “hidden.”
  • The employer may be very small and does not have the funds to advertise the opening.
  • Human error; the employer simply fails to publicize it (e.g., lack or time, forgetfulness or a simply awful web site).
  • The opening exists, but there’s a hiring freeze, so the job cannot yet be publicized.

Or, perhaps, a company is biased to hiring only people who are already gainfully employed and are not looking, so engages a retained recruiter.

So, does that add up to 80%, or even 50%?  No.  It’s closer to 38% according to Hansen’s report, and that’s on the high end.  The more junior the position, the more that percentage drops.  Just as we found out in the last US Presidential election and the related statistical reporting, numbers don’t lie, but anecdotal evidence presented by “experts” often does.  As anyone who has worked with even basic statistics will tell you, painting everything with the same brush is folly, but that’s what is occurring.  Each profession, industry, geographic location, seniority, etc., will have vastly different percentages tied to them.  Some jobs might be almost all unpublicized, but others might be advertised all the time.  For example, a call center will be advertising for low-paid customer service reps due to the revolving door.  The call center director position might be publicized only on the company website and the aggregators that scan the web.  The CEO’s position may not be published anywhere.  The latter might be said, too, for highly-skilled or specialized positions that internal recruiters fill by stealing employees from other companies and/or don’t want to receive many unqualified resumes to sort through.

So, who’s winning with the repeated utterances of this myth?  Book authors and unscrupulous (or ignorant) job coaches or other third parties who get paid by the job seeker.  Certainly not the one looking for a job.  If someone wants your money and part of the sales pitch includes these ridiculous numbers, you may want to think twice about getting out your wallet.

I’m not saying “don’t try to ferret these jobs out.”  I am saying to take bad advice like this with a grain of salt.  People I know who were not on the executive floor got “hidden” jobs by super-networking and becoming involved in groups like trade associations where they became well-known as subject matter experts.  One of my previous jobs materialized after performing a change management study for a non-profit after I was found on LinkedIn by the executive assistant to the CEO.  Others did so via establishing robust web and social media presences.  They strove to become known quantities.  However, others have done all this and came up dry in this economy.

If it’s 38% or less, then should job seekers be firing 80% of their arrows at it?  Not likely.  It is a tool, but just as with investing and establishing a balanced portfolio, or a marketer implementing an integrated marketing strategy to maximize sales, finding the right mix is the only way to a payoff.  Filling 80% of your days with informational interviews, as some folks do based upon the fictional “80% hidden” factor, rather than taking a balanced approach, may be ill-advised.  If you’re a senior-level executive, sure, put more networking into it than the entry-level staffer might.  But, whether entry-level or C-Level, don’t blow most of your personal and time resources or monetary budget on a myth.

Oh, and by the way, if you ever see me walking to my car during a downpour, it’s because the MythBusters proved you get wetter by running. Almost twice as much, actually.  It’s true, but it defies “common knowledge.”

Economy, News

Single Payer: A $1 Trillion-savings US Health Care Pipe Dream?

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Economically, “ObamaCare” must be just the beginning

Forget screaming or whining politics from the right or the left in this column, as I consider myself a centrist, and that stuff bores me to tears, or infuriates me.  As in Dragnet, it’s just the facts.  Rather than the political fiction that is wall to wall on TV commercials these days, this article talks about potential real trillions in savings and Americans’ health and longevity.

How about starting off with some math?  Arithmetic.  Yup, that stuff that is historically responsible for many students thinking they’re somehow stuck in the Twilight Zone as they wait for the clock on the wall to make its arduous journey towards the second when the bell rings.

If the US reduced its percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) taken up by health care (17.6% as of this year) to the Canadian level (11.4% — not the lowest in the western world, by the way, but is similar to Switzerland, Japan and France) and adopted some sort of health care hybrid program made up of stuff that works everywhere else in countries with comparative economies and standards of living, we would save 6.2% of GDP and cover everyone.  That equates to $904 Billion in annual savings directly related to GDP.  That is roughly equivalent to all outstanding US student loans or credit card debt.  What could the US do with an additional $1 Trillion each and every year for its citizens needing jobs, rebuilding infrastructure (which needs $2 Trillion of duct tape) and paying down the national debt?  I don’t know, but probably quite a lot.

How much is $1 Trillion?  $1,000,000,000,000.00.  A nice $3,209 Christmas Bonus for every person living in the US.  Or about 285 billion Big Macs.

The governments of both the US and Canada spend about the same percentage of GDP on public health care.  Didn’t know that, eh?  Because the pundits and “news” people haven’t told you.  However, Canadians spend far less of their private wealth on health care (3% compared to 8.3% of US GDP as of 2009).  With that knowledge, even Forrest Gump could figure out that the health care industry in the US is making out like bandits on the backs of the middle class.  Because Uncle Sam pays for much of the poor’s or elderly’s care.

The Fiscal Emergency headed our way: according to US government projections, health care expenditures will climb to a crippling 27% of GDP in 2035.  So, obviously, it’s not time for the status quo.  We desperately need cost controls, and the only entity in any position to put that in place is the federal government.  Capitalism is not driving down prices; in fact, it is the reverse.

The US does not have a taxation and fiscal crisis when these numbers are considered.  It has a profiteering health care crisis fed by corporate greed which is promoted by politicians who prey on many Americans’ inherent fear of government to hand big paydays to multinational companies.  The Affordable Care Act (ACA), often referred to as “ObamaCare” by its detractors, is the first step in what must be a future adoption of a single payer system with tightly-controlled fees, whether federally or state operated as in most other western countries, or run by private industry that is uniformly price regulated as in Switzerland.  FYI, Swiss insurance companies cannot make a profit on standard care, but can on optional services, while hospitals and doctors in Canada effectively work as contractors and are allowed regulated profits.

We simply can’t afford the status quo any longer, nor anything the Republicans are recommending (if they are recommending anything — I’ve yet to see a real plan — and that’s not a political statement).

Unlike the untruthful “$2 Trillion ObamaCare tax” as some shadily-funded political ads are touting during this election season, the reality is quite different.  If anything, the nominal “tax” or “penalty” (however you consider it) affects only the 1% of the population who can afford coverage but don’t buy it and risk getting sick or injured — and then get treated at the expense of the rest of us when they don’t pay their bills.  The penalty the IRS collects (or doesn’t if the patient refuses to pay) will be exhausted within a day or two at the hospital, so that is not much of a penalty at all.  It is simply designed to change behavior, not increase tax coffers.

Each of us pays 45% to 275% more than those in other western countries for lesser coverage

Anti-ACA commercials falsely talk about it being “the largest tax increase in American history.”  But, effectively, Americans have had that additional taxation in health care for decades without calling it a tax: spending much more than any other western country as a percentage of GDP — without covering all of its citizens — and realizing extremely high rates of infant mortality (worse than Cuba) while being the richest country in the world.  It’s just been hidden; much of it paid by employers.  If Americans saw a deduction of $833 per month on their paychecks every month strictly for what employers currently pay per employee on average, then the argument against the ACA might not be so ferocious. (Source: Aon Hewitt, 2011)  Then there are individual “taxes” such as deductibles and insurance premiums that add up to much more than what is taxed by governments in other countries.  We just haven’t been calling it a “tax” because it went to private companies that take their piece of the action off the top, and most of it was hidden.

I was in an IHOP restaurant in Indiana last week, and there was a collection box for a server who had cancer — like many minimum wage workers, she has no insurance; that kind of collection is rarely seen in Canada, Europe or Japan.  Opposition arguments to the “individual mandate” are easy to make — until you get sick, or take advantage of Medicare or Medicaid.

The rest of the world looks upon the US and its caustic health care argument with puzzlement.  Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper this week concisely described how their countrymen and other western countries can’t Fathom US Aversion to Obama’s Healthcare Reform:

The requirement that everyone buy health insurance is based on a simple concept, healthcare experts agree. Allowing healthy people to opt out of having health insurance destroys the insurance community and leaves insurers covering only the sick.” It also asks the excellent question: Don’t Religious Americans Love Their Neighbors?: “‘For me the US is a very religious country. It doesn’t matter which religion I look at — love thy neighbor is a very, very important point in religion,’ German health insurance spokesperson Ann Marini says.  For her, the apparent deep religiousness of many Americans doesn’t jibe with their unwillingness to be part of a healthcare community.

Since the “imposition” (as I’ve heard some US politicians call it) of tax-supported socialized health care in Canada several decades ago (a program the vast majority Canadians would not give up now for anything), our neighbors to the north are now outliving Americans by 2.5 years on average — tied for 10th place in the world, while the US is in 38th — again, one place behind Cuba.

Canadians complain and moan about their health care at times, and often for good reason.  None of this criticism is directly related to the policy, but to how it’s practiced from time to time.  Anti-single payer Congressmen and Senators often talk about issues of long waiting times and doctor shortages in Canada, but those problems are more related to good ol’ boy licensing authorities who keep foreign doctors out of the system for a decade and the country historically not educating enough doctors, and are less the fault of socialized care policies.  But Canadians will also say in the same breath that tens of millions of people not having any coverage is stupid.  Even after the ACA is fully enacted, the US will still have 27 million people uninsured, and the health care industry and insurance companies will see their significant profits continue, if not soar.

Questions to consider

From this side of the Pond, a Globe and Mail newspaper reader from Calgary, Canada, in the most conservative province, wrote:

Astonishingly, I have never heard this simple question asked in any US debate on health care insurance: Do poor people have a right to a reasonable standard of medical care, even in the event of long-term chronic or catastrophic illness? Yes or no? Or, to tweak that question a bit: Do poor children have the right to the same standard of medical care as rich children? Again, yes or no? Instead, the debate has become about ‘liberties.’ Americans should first ask themselves the basic questions above, or some derivative of them. If the consensus answer is ‘No,’ fair enough, continue as is.

Perfectly put.

A personal story this week from a visitor to the US from that same Globe and Mail:

I am a Canadian who was in Florida last December on vacation.  Developed an eye infection.  I called my company’s employee insurer as they offer coverage for up to 31 days out of country.  The insurer sent me to a local hospital for treatment.  Within a minute of my arrival at the hospital, I was triaged and admitted to the emergency ward of the hospital.  I was made to lie down in the hospital bed and then swarms of medical personnel came at me.  They hooked me up to various machines, BP monitors, etc. 

I tried to tell anyone who attended me that all I had was a minor eye infection but the staff insisted they had to do this.  Within a few minutes I was seen by a doctor who wrote a prescription for antibiotic eye drops and I was released.  I went to the hospital account department and was told that the billings would be sent directly to my insurer. I asked how much this cost and was told $700!… for a minor eye infection!

I received great service, over the top service, but all I had was a minor eye infection….$700???  I don’t know how anyone in the US can afford medical expenses.

Obviously, the reason for the $700 bill and swarm of medical professionals and tests was that the patient had insurance, so was a target for profit.  If he had no travel insurance, it would have been a completely different story: likely a quick $50 look-see by a physician’s assistant and a written prescription that was all he needed in the first place.

As a US citizen and resident, I had something similar happen to me in Canada recently.  I was charged $20 without insurance at an “after hours” clinic for something about as minor as the eye infection mentioned above.  After 15 minutes with a doctor who took the time to fully review my condition, they couldn’t even find their receipt book, as paying customers without a government health care card were so rare.  No Visa accepted.  No MasterCard.  Priceless!  Oh, and the prescription was $45 at the cash price at the pharmacy.  The same exact name-brand stuff in the US made by the same American manufacturer is $150 if bought without insurance.  To be fair, Canadians should not be completely smug about their system, as it does not provide what the UK and European systems do: prescription drugs (although they are usually much cheaper than in the US), eye care, dentistry and hearing care (even in-home baby care in some countries); those are all covered in Canada by private insurers and employers or are cash based for those without.

Something is deeply wrong here, and needs to be fixed

The ACA is the first step.  But logically and financially, the US must adopt some flavor of single payer program, and incorporate limits on malpractice awards and insurance to help control costs.  A surgeon in the US can pay more than $200,000 per year in premiums; his counterpart in Canada will pay between $10,000 and $30,000, since the maximum pain and suffering award is $300,000 — while the government picks up the hospitalization tab.

Long-term, financially, and for the well-being of all our citizens and country, we can’t afford any other system but regulated single payer.

UPDATE August 8, 2012: The Brookings Institution confirms much of what I argue here in With Health Care Costs, the U.S. Is a Huge Outlier:

If the nation obtained better-than-average health outcomes in exchange for its much-higher-than-average health spending, we would have little reason to complain. However, there is almost no evidence U.S. health outcomes are better than those in other rich countries. A variety of statistics on mortality and morbidity suggest outcomes may be worse in this country than they are elsewhere.

UPDATE January 15, 2013: According to the New York Times, the Institute of Medicine found that, on average, Americans experience higher rates of disease and injury and die sooner than people in other high-income countries:

That is true at all ages between birth and 75 and for even well-off Americans who mistakenly think that top-tier medical care ensures that they will remain in good health. The study found that even upper-income Americans with health insurance and college educations appear to be sicker than their peers in other rich nations.” … “Likely explanations include a large uninsured population and more limited access to primary care.

Per Capita Health Care Costs Chart source: OECD 2011
Health expenditures from 2009  *Japan and Australia data 2008

Marketing, mobile marketing

QR Codes: the new shiny object

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Many marketers overuse a mobile marketing element that most smartphone users are apathetic about

A June 20 story on Geekosystem caught a Google search’s attention this morning. A British family farm apparently adorned a cow (which has the un-bovine name of Lady Shamrock) with a “QR code” in an attempt to drive people to their Dairy Farming website as Ms. Shamrock is taken on tour.

Lady Shamrock adorned with her QR Code

For the non-marketers and non-techies in the audience, QR (quick response) codes are those dot-matrix thing-a-ma-jigs you’ve been seeing on everything from newspapers to advertising posters to business cards to, um, cows.

Smartphone users are supposed to scan the codes, which will then open their phones’ Internet browsers to a specific page. The thing is, the application that is needed to scan the squigglies does not come with any smartphone; not an iPhone, not a Blackberry, nor an Android. The user needs to seek out, download and install a QR reader app.

I’ve seen them on subways in Washington DC, New York and Toronto (deep in the bowels of the Earth far from any wireless signal) and billboards several hundred feet off the highway. Yup, I’m going to try to scan a far-off billboard with my Blackberry across a pasture while doing 70 MPH or in bumper to bumper urban traffic! That’s not dangerous at all, right? Marketers have even stuck them on ads in in-flight magazines (where you can’t use your smartphone, as Alec Baldwin recently discovered) and in emails. Why, oh why, would you fire up your smartphone, activate the app, take a picture of an email on your computer screen, and then wait for it to load the website on the phone, when you can just click on the URL link in the email? Duh. Extremely small splotches have been spotted on bananas, too. Huh?

Here’s the rub: most people really don’t care about them. In a survey at 24 university campuses in the US, only 21.5% of students could scan the thing when asked. Their reasons for not using them:

  • I thought taking a picture would scan it
  • I didn’t want to download the app
  • I tried but gave up
  • It takes too long.

So, why write this article?  Because many marketers and business owners or CEOs have fallen in love with the little squares filled with dots. Often, businesses think this is a good tactic to attract prospective customers to their home pages. That is usually disastrous. A prospect who scans a code is wanting information on the specific product or discount mentioned in the ad, not to start fishing around on a home page for a link to a page buried deep in the site. But, most QR codes do not take users to such a page. Another crime is sending them to a non-mobile website. QR codes are meant for mobile phones, so the web page it links to must be mobile optimized: no Flash, not as wide as a football field (i.e. no or minimal scrolling), no or minimal Java, no mega graphics. Most companies, organizations and nonprofits drop the ball here.

QR codes have largely failed because the majority of users will abandon them just after one bad experience. And they are not magic marketing bullets nor Band-Aids. If a business or organization does not have the web infrastructure in place to support the code’s use, then white space on your marketing communications elements is a much better option. It’s been proven that users will abandon a site for a competitor’s if the experience is not as promised or expected.

A relevant post from CNN: “Why QR codes aren’t catching on

Another more industry-focused piece: “QR Codes Prove To Be A Curiosity

Use them incorrectly and you and your organization (or your client) will look like idiots, and totally lose the advantage of using them in the first place.

We are all better served by creating excellent web properties that are easily searched and accessible via mobile than relying on such add-ons. The fundamentals need to be in place.

QR Codes are just a “bright, shiny object” with limited usability. More like Pet Rock and Mood Ring fads than effective marketing element (those under 35 may need to Google those 1970s references!).

One last thing: there’s nothing like destroying the branding experience of 100% of your prospects who see your ad or marketing communications via a big blotchy square somewhere on it that the vast majority of them don’t care whatsoever about.

UPDATE April 8, 2013: From AdAge’s B. L. Ochman, an early proponent of QR codes: QR Codes Are Dead, Trampled by Easier-to-Use Apps.” Also, Business Insider has a collection of 15 Of The Worst QR Code Fails Of All Time.

UPDATE April 29, 2013: Canada’s Tim Hortons coffee shop chain, which also has a presence in the US Northeast, followed up its arguably marketing genius “Roll Up The Rim” promotion with a “win free coffee for a year” contest. The problem: the entry forms stacked next to cash registers include a huge QR code and, at first glance, have no alternative method of entering. There is an entirely missable “” website listed in small print on the bottom of the sheet, but it’s not readily apparent that it’s related to the contest. In fact, the “contest” is actually a survey that collects personal information before the contest can be entered, but that is not apparent, either. Even so, there’s nothing like excluding a huge percentage (majority?) of loyal customers from entering a contest by using technology everyone can’t easily use or access and has proved to be not very effective.  On a related note, many marketers are now falling off the QR code bandwagon: Mobile Marketer asks “Are QR codes losing their magnetism?”

Marketing, News

Microsoft Outlook for Mac 2011 still not ready for prime time

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My verdict on Outlook? Still a Massive Fail.

Microsoft let me know via an onscreen message that it wanted to update my Office 2011 suite with Service Pack 2 last night, bringing it to version 14.2.0.  So, without expecting much, I gave Outlook another whirl over the past 18 hours — my third time in a year and a half.   I’ve been using Word, Excel and Powerpoint 2011 since, and those were largely many steps ahead of the 2008 suite.

After importing all my stuff from Entourage 2008 last night, it immediately crashed, and has done that intermittently while using it today during launch.  And, yes, it was a brand new “identity,” so nothing was corrupt there.

The New York Times’ David Pogue wrote about many of Outlook’s omissions and problems in 2010’s “Office for Mac Isn’t an Improvement” column, and many of them still exist:

  • Resend was a huge feature missing in action, and that was remedied early in 2011.  But, that one and only change did not redeem it from my condemnation then or now.
  • Cleanup Text is still MIA.  That is a godsend in Entourage and other mail apps, as it fixes those multi-forwarded messages with a million indented >>> forwarding brackets, or gets rid of ugly line breaks.  Microsoft’s advice?  Buy a $40 third-party application like TextSoap to do that.  Uh, what?

Other Entourage missing features Pogue pointed out in October 2010 that have not been restored in 18 months since the official launch:

  • Redirect (lets you forward a message to the proper party, with the original sender still in the “From” box)
  • The option to use the same keyboard shortcuts for editing text that you’ve set up in Word.

Another thing missing is the inability to embed urls in graphics in my signature, like I’ve seen others do with little LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook icons.  I can do that in Outlook for Windows; why not Mac?  By the way, you can do that in Apple Mail.

That stupid close-to-empty Microsoft Ribbon takes up too much real estate in Outlook, so the functionality easily found via convenient menus across the top in Entourage need extra key strokes or hunting.  And some of those missing functions are moved down to the lower left of the screen, cutting off my email folders 3/4 of the way down.  So what if it looks like that in Windows?

Another productivity problem: Ever scanned your email for an attachment after sorting it via the “paper clip?” That is almost useless in Outlook 2011, as even embedded graphics in emails (such as in a signature) are seen as attachments; Entourage wisely ignored those.  Dumb.

The biggest crime:  fonts are displayed much too small due to the way Microsoft decided to render them (I won’t get into the weeds on this, but trust me, they screwed up).  The 10-point fonts in Entourage 2008 appear larger than the 12-point fonts in Outlook 2011 on my 15″ Macbook Pro!  I need a magnifying glass (or need to zoom in) to read emails I’m writing that will display in less than giant type on the recipients’ computers, or to read stuff they send me.

Update April 25: I wasn’t the only user with issues, as Macworld UK wrote about in “Time Machine saved me from Outlook-killing Microsoft Office update.” Microsoft pulled the SP2 update on April 23.

So, Steve Ballmer, I know you won’t fix things, as you don’t care about Mac users.  Not really.  But if I have to use your 5-year-old email tech, I guess I’m stuck.  And I’ll cross my fingers and continually back up my Entourage database, just in case it dies.  With Outlook that would be less likely, as emails are kept as separate files and not inside one huge corruptible database as with Entourage, but Outlook’s other glaring negatives outweigh that risk.

Microsoft is no longer most popular or most used when it comes to Internet browsers; far from it.  As of March 2012, it has declined by 60% to 18.9% market share from 49% when Google Chrome launched in 2008.  With apathy like this Mac Outlook issue, Office may be next.  All it takes is something perceived to be better — and better marketed — to come along.

Now, if Apple actually made a robust Exchange-savvy business email application (Mail is not it), many Mac users would at least have a modern alternative.

Marketing Takeaways to Consider:

  • If you have customers buying your product, ask them what they can’t do without.  And truly listen.
  • If you launch a product that is missing benefits, and there is an outcry from customers, add them as quickly as possible.
  • Even if you’re king of the hill, you can get knocked off, so don’t become complacent.