The Slow Death of Black Friday and the Birth of Couch Commerce

I readily admit that I am one of the freaks that enjoys Black Friday. The competitor in me enjoys the rush, the socialite in me enjoys the crowds and the bargainer in me enjoys the hunt. I mull over the newspaper ads like I'm trying to find the meaning of life. I'm not the "trample-the-old-ladies-for-the-door-buster" type, but I like getting up early and getting in line to get "first turns" for the holiday season, as skiers like to say. I've written about Black Friday plenty before, too.

This year was something different.

My dude Scott has equal, if not more passion for Black Friday deals, and he and I discussed the game plan on Thanksgiving. Scott is more than willing to stand out in the cold for hours for the right deal. Put him in camouflage in the middle of the woods and that's how he spends his time hunting anyway. It's his nature.

Coincidentally, we landed on the same store agenda this year and planned to march like brothers in arms. Scott wanted to get a new TV and I wanted a Blu-Ray player at Best Buy, so that was a midnight opener that required us to get in line before 10 p.m. After that, Sears had a 4 a.m. opener where he was planning to get a washer and dryer set and I was planning to pick up a new refrigerator.

Lowes was another stop on both of our lists for miscellaneous items ($1 poinsettias, people!) but had put all of its Black Friday deals online on Thanksgiving -- an entire day before everyone else. We were shocked to see this and instantly bought everything online to ensure nothing we wanted sold out. I didn't see it then, but it was the first domino to fall from our freeze-your-ass-off holiday tradition.

Scott called me later in the night claiming that he had found another good deal on Lowes.com for a washer and dryer set, which would take Sears off his list. Based upon the trend, we both jumped on BestBuy.com and sure enough the TV Scott wanted was available online already. He clicked to buy there, too.

Suddenly, the only outstanding item on the list was my refrigerator that I couldn't find anywhere online for near the Sears "door buster" price. Scott and I had completed the rest of our Black Friday shopping over the phone by 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving as we simultaneously searched websites and punched in credit cards.  There was no suffering from the cold or early hours, just convenience and comfort.

It also felt like opening Christmas presents after learning the "real" Santa story: You're still happy to get gifts but it's not the same exciting experience.

Amanda and I woke up at 3 a.m. for the Sears trip. She agreed to join so that I wouldn't be a lone warrior to fight amongst the masses. My wife is a supremely smart woman and suggested I check the sales price online at Sears.com before we left. Sure enough -- 45 minutes before the store opened -- the price had dropped online. I could not believe it. I was back in bed 10 minutes later with the refrigerator purchased and scheduled for delivery. The last domino had fallen. I couldn't sleep over the shock of it all.

I just read the TechCrunch headline: "Thanksgiving Day Online Holiday Sales Up 39 Percent; Mobile Shopping On The Rise." Stores made the bet online and won this year. They win every year and that's why the bets get bigger. eBay is counting on more mobile purchasing -- "couch commerce" -- where more and more people buy on their mobile or tablet devices. According to TechCrunch, "The number of consumers using a mobile device to visit a retailer’s site reached a high of 15.2 percent, up from 6.45 percent in 2010. The number of consumers using their mobile device to make a purchase increased to 11.09 percent, up from 4.25 percent in 2010."

It's a natural evolution: Why stand outside in the cold and dark at 10 p.m. or 3 a.m. when you can purchase online at home during the day? Why walk all the way to your home office when you can purchase on your iPad or smartphone from the couch?

You bet I'll be regularly buying more and more online and on my phone. I'm an early-adopter in that sense. I want to order groceries online (come to Tacoma already, Amazon Fresh!). I want to buy movie tickets on my phone while I'm taking the bus home from work.

But next Black Friday, I just might rough it one more time.

The College Cost Conundrum

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the day on campus at Western Washington University sitting on the Professional Advisory Council for the journalism department. I was honored to participate considering many of the people sitting in the room were the same who prepared me for the career track that I enjoy today.

We talked about curriculum and the demand for skills in the professional world. We talked about budget cuts. We talked about the value of education relative to the state of journalism.

We didn't talk about the bottom-line return on investment for a journalism degree. That's difficult to measure without extensive surveying and the forum wasn't appropriate, but I have to admit I've been thinking lately about the value of any higher education degree.

It's no shock that college is more and more radically expensive year after year. Due to rising costs, student loans are rising in parallel. A USA Today article reports:

The amount of student loans taken out last year crossed the $100 billion mark for the first time and total loans outstanding will exceed $1 trillion for the first time this year. Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit cards, reports the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the U.S. Department of Education and private sources.

A Huffington Post columnist smartly put the student loan crisis in context to home loans: "An 18-year-old with no credit history and no job walks into a bank and requests a loan to buy a $100,000 condo. What is the loan officer most likely to say?" Obviously, the 18-year-old never gets the home loan but always gets the student loan. That's incredibly inconsistent and doesn't set up those taking student loans to be in any financial position to get a home loan for years to come, even with a down real estate market.

Of course, students are taking the money handed to them. You can't blame a young person for taking a multi-year financial vacation when given the choice. Who doesn't love a vacation? Heck, I try to take two a year myself!

The financial vacations don't end after four (or five or six) years either. In this economy where jobs are more difficult to find, graduates have two immediate choices: Take on at least two unpaid internships to build work experience, or go to graduate school -- building more debt.

Due to the loan environment, many people have pursued higher education, but because of the economy the U.S. now has a saturated market of M.A.'s, M.C.'s and even M.B.A.'s., making those degrees less valuable. Oh, and they have those student loans to start paying off at hundreds of dollars a month. I'm paying $400 a month on student loans from graduate school, which greatly impacts why we're a single-car household.

This all brings me back to the original point: We're in an education bubble.

Graduates' wages are falling while the price of education skyrockets. Take a look at the UW's "Ten Year History of Tuition and Mandatory Fees" and compare that to the graph above.

At peak, graduates were earning $73,000 in 2010 when UW in-state undergraduate tuition and fees costs were about $3,800. That's a reasonable ratio of earning potential versus student loan potential. In 2010, graduates were earning $59,000 while tuition and fees costs jumped to $8,700. Over a 10-year period, earnings dropped 20% while tuition rose 228%. Yikes.

Those trends position education for a shitty ROI. Keep in mind, the pre-med students are better positioned than comm students to dig themselves out of this hole, ceretis paribus.

But all things aren't equal. Education -- the great class-leveler -- continues to be a class-divider as tuition prices move higher and out of reach of even progressive lower classes. Those who take on loans to access higher education are held by the anchors of debt accrued. Yes, a fraction of motivated, qualified students take advantage of scholarships, but what happens when fewer scholarships are available because the endowments don't scale with the rise of tuition?

Things can change. In a recent GOP presidential debate, Newt Gingrich cited the College of the Ozarks, which has an innovative-yet-obvious tuition solution that sets a path for its graduates to graduate debt-free. According to Wikipedia, "The College charges no tuition for full-time students, due to its student work program and donations. The program requires students to work 15 hours a week at an on-campus work station and two 40-hour work weeks during breaks. A summer work program is available to cover room and board costs." You work while you study. You're immediately accountable for the debt you incur and have opportunity to eliminate it. What a concept, huh?

That's really the best model I've heard for getting higher education costs under control, but is it realistic? Systematically changing the cost structure would need a culture-shift that I'm not sure anyone's ready for or wants. Unfortunately, that's the reason this is called an education "bubble." Nothing is going to happen and the bubble is going to pop.

A few days after my meeting at WWU, I saw a tweet from an acquaintance and former journalist that said: " [My] Son says he's taking 2 courses in journalism, my old job, at WWU next semester; torn between excitement or trying to talk him out of it."

I can't blame his reaction, especially as a former journalist forced out of the profession by technology advancements and market declines. Journalism doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for success. As a career track, it's not.

I consider journalism today a skill set expressed in many different forms. The journalism department at WWU is no longer a trade school but provides a curriculum of marketable skills -- researching and reporting. That's not an exclusive dynamic for journalism but for all degrees. They're providing skill sets, not job training. And it's not about getting the degrees, it's what you do with the skills acquired to get a job.

Expectations for education need to change with the times, as Occupy Wall Street demonstrates.

College costs will continue to be in crisis due to politics. Student loans aren't going away; we're not getting a bailout. However, people will have the choice in the future, as they have in the past, to take loans and enter higher education with a renewed expectation for what they earn -- networks, sharpened minds, maturity and verification of that experience by degree. No more, no less.

In a sense, we're back to an Old America economy, where only the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed. Only those who work hard -- by entrepreneurship, invention, education or trade -- will earn success. Education will be one path in the pursuit, and I expect that if we stay on this track, it will be a path less traveled.

Learning the Fine Arts of Publicity and Tastemaking

Earlier this summer, I sat around the table with Sergio and his friends talking about how to take Sergio’s photography business to the next level. I had an earful of “new media” ideas about how to create huge online exposure, but Sergio wanted none of it. When I reverted to “old school” tactics like targeted media relations and influencer outreach, he was buzzing. Why? Because Internet accessibility is mainstream – commoditized and average. Sergio wants to appeal to a particular audience, and broader appeal dilutes his brand. He doesn’t need or want to be known by everyone, just a small circle that wants to purchase exclusivity and style. If they fly first class, he wants to be their first-class photographer. Mass marketing just puts you out to the masses in coach.

I’m going to reference Seth Godin again because I’m the last educated marketer on earth to liken his philosophy, which is simple and redundant: Be remarkable and memorable. This translates into a lot of different terms like “niche” and “specialized.” Take that to an extreme and you’re so niche you’re misunderstood; you’re so specialized you’re inaccessible. These frays of culture define what’s cool and what's worth time, attention, energy and money.

He wrote in "We Are All Weird":

“During the age of mass (mass marketing, mass manufacturing, mass schooling, mass movements) the key was normal… But what happens when mass disappears? When we can connect everyone, customize and optimize--then what happens to normal?”

Normal is and always has been uncool. That’s why first wave punk rock and Star Wars influenced their generations. They weren’t normal. They were weird.

But what happens when normal changes?

The Atlantic published a story about this phenomenon in music: “For Indie Bands, the New Publicity Is No Publicity.”

“'Mystery’ is quickly becoming the default PR strategy for breaking indie acts. Over the past two years, groups like WU LYF, the Weeknd, jj, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Shabazz Palaces have drawn attention even as they've turned down interviews, concealed their likenesses, and, in some cases, withheld their own names.”

Music, like photography, is widely accessible. Anyone with a computer and a voice can record a song. Anyone with a smartphone can be a photographer. So, how can you be unique amongst the masses with access to the same tools?

Avoid all likely paths of distribution.

The Internet has allowed us to have access to anything, and hiding in its outskirts are the artists and the tastemakers. Tumblr and Stumbleupon have become sensational tools to "stumble upon" those online gems that would be difficult to find, and remain difficult to find, otherwise.

Since Gutenberg and before him, we have tried to make communications, publishing and distribution as widely available as possible, and those that had access to the newest tools had influence. Musicians, let’s say pre-MySpace, were made big because they were the only ones that had access to mass communications and distribution. No band could come up and become Nirvana unless the labels granted that wish. That unattainable distribution model created bigger-than-life, aspirational bands, despite their actual talent. After we flipped on the Internet, mass communications and distribution were at the finger tips of the masses, and our taste quickly changed. We cared more about quality and talent. MySpace and YouTube made stars from the bottom-up. Then those became to easy and boring, so we all ditched MySpace and shit on Rebecca Black, the latest YouTube star.

We do not desire that which we can easily access. We want something alternative, something cool.

To be influential and sought after, you need to be as inaccessible as you are well-known, and that's a tough balance to strike. Above all else, it's about creating a product -- difficult to mimic -- better than anyone else and letting the quality of your work attract publicity for you and your corner of the world. That's the hard part.