Tourists Still Spend Big Bucks in NYC

Ronan Healy travels to New York with an empty bag.

“Clothes are much cheaper here,” said the Ireland native while wandering the East Village on a recent Wednesday. “So I basically come over here with an empty suitcase, just fill the thing up, and fly back to Ireland.”

For many tourists, New York is a shopping Mecca where daily purchase is equivalent to daily prayer. Visitors flock to stores with inexpensive retail and extensive selection, much to the delight of storeowners who depend on tourism to stay solvent.

In 2011, the city played host to 50.9 million visitors who spent $34.2 billion, according to figures from NYC & Company, the city’s marketing and tourism organization. Statistics show that visitor spending increases nearly $3 billion annually.

Of those visitors, 10.9 million were international tourists, and nearly one third were Euro users, according to NYC & Company. The Euro exchanged at a rate of 1 Euro to $1.29 U.S. dollars, as of Sept 24.

“It’s at least one and a half times more expensive [in Ireland],” Healy explained. “What is 100 Euros, here you get it for 50 bucks. They’re just adding on the prices themselves; it’s not that it actually costs that much, it’s just the stores are really expensive. There’s way more selection here.”

Like a seasoned bargain hunter, Healy has an intricate strategy for New York expenditures. He flashes his European passport to score 10 percent off purchases at Macy’s. If he feels adventurous, he travels to Macy’s in New Jersey, where the lower tax rate and passport deal shave even more from his bill.

Tourist spending such as Healy’s generated more than 310,000 jobs for the city in 2010, according to NYC & Company.

Joe Barbosa is one proprietor who relies on tourism to keep sales up. He makes his living selling records in St. Mark’s Place, and attributes more than half his sales to tourists. “I believe they spend more money than locals when they’re in town,” he said.

ImageAcross the street from Barbosa is a rock ‘n roll clothing shop named Trash & Vaudeville. Clothing racks boast tight, leopard print pants, skinny jeans with more holes than Swiss cheese, and lacy black vests.

Jimmy Webb, buyer and manager of the store, said the store sees equal numbers of locals and tourists.

He said tourists are particularly drawn to shopping in the city because of its reputation. “It’s this amazing, wonderful island packed with a diversity of people and lifestyles. Everyone wants to go to New York City.”

As Healy shopped, he tried to capture NYC’s character with his purchases.

“I come here and buy 10 or 12 baseball hats,” he said. “I give them to my family as presents, because people want some kind of Americana-covered stuff. In Old Navy—we don’t have an Old Navy in Ireland—it’s quite inexpensive, so we bring that home and they go, ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’ You know what I mean? Anything with a different label that you wouldn’t get in my country.”

He leaves New York with a stuffed suitcase.

Brand Wars: Wal-Mart v. Amazon

Amazon Kindle 4

In a move to protect its own merchandise sales, Wal-Mart announced Thursday that it intends to disassociate itself with Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. This is not a shocking move; in fact, the surprise is that Wal-Mart agreed to carry the Kindle in its stores in the first place.

Brands must protect themselves if they want to survive. This is why McDonald’s does not sell Burger King’s Whopper.

Wal-Mart and Amazon compete for the same customers. Both offer consumers low-priced, accessible goods, and both try to make their “stores” as easy and accessible as possible. While the Wal-Mart and Amazon shoppers likely overlap, one makes a determined effort to drive to a store while another accesses his online.

Wal-Mart has giant box stores, stocked to the nines with popular items promised at the lowest possible price. Amazon prides itself on slashing suggested retail prices and selling much the same stuff as Wally World. Amazon even guarantees free, two-day shipping for users who sign up for Amazon Prime.

Given their competition for the same consumer, my question is why Wal-Mart decided to stock its rival’s brandname e-reader in the first place. Target, too, removed the Kindle from its stores in May, wanting to reduce “showrooming” to customers who turned around and bought the Kindle for cheaper from Amazon.

Even more, the box store model is in jeopardy, and it’s online retailers like Amazon that control the guillotine. Case in point: Best Buy announced it would close 50 stores in April and is refocusing instead on small-format stores.

Wal-Mart continues to carry Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader and Apple’s iPad. I’m sure Wal-Mart still generates sales on both of these items, particularly the iPad, because a Wal-Mart store is often more accessible or less crowded than the Apple store.

But throwing Amazon’s Kindle into stores likely did not generate too many sales for Wal-Mart. In fact, encouraging the Kindle likely sent consumers to Amazon’s website, where they found other items they could order from Amazon, too. The brand was smart to remove a rival name-brand e-reader and focus instead on channeling customers toward electronic purchases such as the iPad that will definitively increase sales.

Jonah Peretti Fireside Chat

Tonight, I’m live-blogging a fireside chat with Buzzfeed and Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti. He’s speaking in a studio in the West Village.

Peretti’s a bit of a hip nerd. He’s got on white tennis shoes with neon yellow laces, jeans (not skinny), and a gray button up. Glasses and scruffy hair. He’s got a slender frame and bright blue eyes. Wikipedia says Peretti is 38, but he looks 10 years younger.

What’s it take to make something go viral?

7:12 pm: “In January 2001, people didn’t think, ‘Oh this might go viral’ … These things happened accidentally.'”

7:14 pm: “When people make things go viral, I think that’s a first moment, when someone comments, ‘Haha that’s funny!’ And you think, ‘Who’s that person?'”

7:18 pm: Peretti talks about getting his start. He and his sister—now a writer on “Parks and Rec”—at one point created a NYC rejection line for people who get hit on at bars and don’t want to give out a real number. The rejectionee calls the number and is informed he has been rejected. Good stuff.

7:21 pm: Peretti created a site called blackpeopleloveus.com. It’s about Sally and Johnny, two super white people, who are so happy to have black friends that they created this site. Spoke to broader race relations and similar ideas. “I think when you look at the NYC most emailed list, you often see this—an article about gay relationships, etc.”
Peretti has a good sense of humor. The audience laughs every other minute in response to his comments.

7:24 pm: No one else was trying to make something that was viral on the web at the time Peretti got into it.

7:25 pm: Are viral videos harder to do? Peretti didn’t used to like video because “it was hard to view on phones, it had higher production value requirements and costs, os it took so much work to try things.”
Peretti is modest. He tries to avoid “grandiose comparisons” to business greats.

7:30 pm: How combatative was the environment of the Huffington Post during the early days with so many strong personalities?
They were drawn together regardless because they shared the goal to create a dynamic company. They also worked independently on many ideas, though. “We did have a lot of strong-willed people who did have a lot of world views … But we would give each other space to work and push on things and there were these little spheres of influence … It did make it a weird company that it felt like there were lots of things happening all at once … It’s different people driving them.”

7:35 pm: What did the creators want Huffington Post to be and how did that change over time? There was always a rise and a crash in viewership. The idea was to create a constant where readers kept coming back, ultimately growing rather than rushing to the site at once and then never returning.

7:39 pm: What inspired Huffintgon Post’s origins? “We wanted to build a great brand… brands really matter on the internet and building a brand isn’t easy to do but it’s important.” They also wanted to create a site that would help Obama get elected.

7:42 pm: How much did it matter to Peretti that HuffPo be taken seriously as a form of journalism? “It’s a balance. You can over-optimize. You don’t want everyone to see every piece of content, you want the people who are really excited about it to see it.”

7:44 pm: “I never liked SEO.” The problem with Google was that companies were creating content for a robot, not a human. “You want things to work for humans but your traffic was coming from a robot.” HuffPost was different because people had a big front page to come to, and that part wasn’t related to SEO.
Google can’t tell the difference between great news and cluster scoops, Peretti says, indicating how the media business is a content business and it’s a disconnect that Google directs so much traffic but can’t differentiate a great scoop until many people and sites flock toward it.

7:50 pm: Does Peretti have an instinct when a piece is about to take off? Like anything, he says, it’s about having a creative team create something they are passionate about. They’re doing three kinds of content: entertainment, reporting, and branding. “We try to do the best of those three things that we possibly can.” Reporters are also given data feedback so they can see which things are taken off—an idea I definitely like, as a reporter.

7:55 pm: Balancing hard news pieces with silly slideshows, Peretti says that humans enjoy both serious and comedic articles. He gives the metaphor of a Paris cafe, where you can sit and read your Sartre, Le Monde, and philosophy, but will turn down to pet the dog tied to a table next to you. “When you turn away from the philosophy and pet the dog, you don’t become stupid.” A publisher can offer both serious and silly without either losing value, he says.

7:59 pm: The original Buzzfeed was pure social content. They then hired Ben Smith from Politico. “We tell reporters come work at Buzzfeed, you don’t have to create slideshows, you don’t have to aggregate other stories, you don’t have to read the NYT and write a third-rate story of the NYT, just go out and get scoops.”

8:04 pm: “With social being the main way people are distributing, the best stuff is worth ten times more than the third-rate stuff. So hiring good people, their work can spread farther than they ever have before … Our reporters generate a lot of traffic, and they generate a lot of traffic without ever thinking about traffic.”

8:06 pm: On why it’s worth paying more for better reporters: Being able to earn credibility as a site that generates scoop took only two days after Ben Smith joined the team.

8:07 pm: This is not a good time for people who are second-tier in the industry. Why would you read a second-tier piece or an aggregated one when you can click the original so easily?

8:09 pm: Will there be a Buzzfeed correspondent at the White House? When the election cycle is over, the reporting will shift to a different kind of journalism, focused more on policies.

8:11 pm: “We don’t have a plan. We talk to a lot of smart people all the time and if an idea clicks—” How ideas come about.
“We’re all teenage girls a little bit. Even the toughest guy, which I count myself among.”

8:14 pm: Buzzfeed has a bit of an indie rock mentality, Peretti says. “My band is good and all the other bands suck.” How did he know that is how I think of my favorite bands…

8:15 pm: Peretti on Jews v. Mormons. “What’s a higher quality religion, in your opinion?” Peretti won’t come right out and say. He’s telling jokes and polling the audience. This isn’t Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
There is a certain tendency to get in your own head and just think about your idea and not think about the dynamics of how it spreads and why it spreads.” That’s what the comparison is about, Peretti says. “I’ve actually talked about this and had Mormons send me, ‘Thanks for the shout out!'”

8:21 pm: Why Peretti decided to start Buzzfeed after his successful experience co-founding HuffPost? Intellectual curiosity about how these things work, Peretti says. “Business was fun. At HuffPo, I was like, ‘Oh, this is fun!’ … It was fun having the ability to do bigger things and have more data.” Buzzfeed started as a lab in Chinatown, the site started to get traction, they raised money, Peretti split his time between Buzzfeed and HuffPo, and Buzzfeed got him back to his passion of disseminating things people were able to share.
“Ben [Smith] just wants to find out things that people don’t know and let people know what those things are.” Basic tenet of journalism. “It’s simple and it works great on Twitter and works great on social web.”

8:27 pm: Advertising was better in the 1950s/Mad Men era because ad men knew which publication they were designing for, knew the readership and vibe of it, and it all worked better. “Now, you have so much fragmentation in the ad industry, one person doing media buy, one doing online, one doing mobile … You have no idea, you throw it over the wall and hope it shows up better.”
“You hold advertising to the same standard as other content.”

8:32 pm: Being a CEO has been less challenging than Peretti expected. You have to hire really good people is a big lesson he learned.

8:37 pm: West Coast companies have created amazing technology infrastructure in the vein of train tracks and Peretti wants Buzzfeed to supply the materials, the trains to move on those tracks.

8:41 pm: Which social network is most perfect for spreading content? Facebook is best for emotionally resonant, humorous content. Broad, deep, emotional human appeal that you’d want your high school friends, parents, and coworkers to see. Twitter is best for news, scoops. Things don’t go hugely viral, but it’s a great way of connecting with information that you want.

8:45 pm: Opening up questions to the audience.

8:45 pm: Is taste in memes regional? Buzzfeed is a lot more global, Peretti says. But there are also surprises, where some meme from Russia jumps over, or Gangnam-style videos become big.

8:51 pm: In answering a question on what he thinks about serious journalism, Peretti jokes that he isn’t a serious journalist.

9:14 pm: Peretti says he was excited to hear Huffington Post was bought by AOL. He was a bit run down running both companies and says the buy-out gave him a chance to focus more on Buzzfeed.

On that note, this serious journalist is out for the night. Thanks for following and reading!

Does America Still Care About American Idol?

The brand once built upon the personalities of its judges announced another shake-up this morning: Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban, and Mariah Carey, the long-rumored judges for the new season, were confirmed to join Randy Jackson at the judges table next season.

The appeal of the show was once that contestants got to face these famous trio of caricatures—Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell, and Paula Abdul—and hear their critiques, however positive or loathsome. Cowell was in all rights a character that may as well have been written by Aaron Sorkin. His pithy, sarcastic reviews of singers drew viewers to the show, and when he was kind and appraising, America knew someone had made it. Paula Abdul loved everyone with ferocity, and even when she critiqued idols, she did so kindly. Randy was the swing vote, his characterization less colorful—his vote perhaps less meaningful or gratifying—but nonetheless necessary to even out Cowell and Abdul.

In early January 2010, Cowell, the evil genius of musical critique, announced his departure from American Idol. The talent competition that made him a household name, and using that new reputation he wanted to create The X Factor to sarcastically mock singers under a different monicker.

Abdul had already left at the beginning of that season, the show’s ninth. This left just Randy Jackson, the infamous judge of “pitchy” contestants, as the original judge.

Since 2010, Jackson has been joined by judges including Ellen Degeneres, Kara DioGaurdi, Steven Tyler, and Jennifer Lopez. All four departed at some point or another, and so early this morning, Minaj, Urban, and Carey were confirmed.

Shifting judges raises a broader question: Does America still care about American Idol?

With the barrage of new judges brought in recently, no one knows what to expect. None of these judges has an identity as a judgeTheir musical success is unquestionable, but that does not mean America wants to hear what they think of wannabe Gavin DeGraws and Colbie Caillats? Do they have anything insightful or fresh to add to the conversation?

The drawback is, by the time these judges do establish themselves as funny or clever or quippy, they may want off the show. That has been the pattern thus far with DeGeneres, DioGaurdi, Tyler, and Lopez.

America may keep watching because they like the watching the realization of the American dream or want to cheer on hometown heroes, but the lack of personality in the judging booth is certainly a downfall of a show that staked its brand on personality.

Mitt Romney as a Brand: What Does He Stand For?

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Let’s say you have a choice between Tide and Bounty to wash your clothes. You’ve been using Tide for the past four years. It cleans your clothes well enough, but you’d like them to be even cleaner. You’d like the Tide to cost you less tax in the checkout line. You’re thinking about switching to Bounty.

The problem is this: though Tide isn’t accomplishing everything you want it to—nor everything the brand has promised it would do—Bounty has yet to prove it can step up to the plate. Bounty has only enunciated broad descriptions of how it might clean your clothes. Nothing about specific microfiber cleaning. Nothing about smelling floral or fresh. And though Bounty promises its tax will be cheaper in the check-out line, it hasn’t given you an explanation of how this will come to fruition.

So, which do you choose? Bounty or Tide?

It’s the $10,000 question. (Really. Mitt promises to pay up if I’m wrong.) There’s been a lot of debate in the country for the past year about what Mitt Romney stands for. The man himself often seems unsure when it comes to personal beliefs and takes on policy, so it’s no coincidence that the public is equally uncertain.

Nonetheless Romney has solidly worked on building himself as the Republican’s candidate to challenge Obama, and along the way, he’s convinced enough voters in 17 states and counting that he’s the man for the job.

There’s just one problem:

“The case for firing President Obama is really pretty obvious, but the case for hiring Mitt Romney is one that has yet to be made.”

That was Charlie Cook, a political analyst, quoted in a story in Monday’s Wall Street Journal about how Romney does not own the swing states he needs to win.

One constant issue with Romney’s branding throughout this campaign is that he has been unable to shed his wishy-washy persona. A great example of this is how he’s wavered on abortion.

Romney was determinedly pro-choice while governor of Massachusetts. He was quoted saying he turned pro-life while in office, being unable to come down on the side of fetal death. However, he’s also said,

“I’ve always been personally pro-life, but for me, it was a great question about whether or not government should intrude in that decision. And when I ran for office, I said I’d protect the law as it was, which is effectively a pro-choice position.”

He said the above during a 2007 GOP debate. But when he beat out moon man Newt Gingrich and handsy Herman Cain to win the Republican nomination, Romney came down on the side of abortion being equivalent to murder. Women’s choice is out the window, and Roe v. Wade needs to be overturned.

I understand changing your mind on an issue. I understand giving something deep thought, investigating it from different perspectives, and talking to friends and family to understand their thoughts on it.

And while I understand caving to political pressure and reversing your opinion on a significant, controversial topic, I don’t condone it.

If Romney wants to win over those eight swing states, he needs to shape up his game, stop speaking in vague generalizations, and be confident and consistent with his beliefs. Until the branding of Mitt Romney is clear and precise, voters are going to resist dropping Tide and walking Bounty all the way through the check-out line.