As Long As The Joneses Are Doing Worse …

Christina Passariello wrote an interesting article today in The Wall Street Journal about the guilt people have when they are buying luxury goods. I absolutely agree with the article and there was one line in particular that keeps sticking with me because it is one that I’ve heard in research plenty of times.

“It used to be about keeping up with the Joneses, and now it’s about outsaving the Joneses,” says Alexis Maybank, the co-founder of Gilt Groupe

On the surface I think this statement is very true because more than ever we are comparing ourselves to our neighbors and friends (even more to our enemies) to see how we are faring against them while the times are tough.   On a deeper level I’m just not sure how much saving is really going on.

I spent a lot of this year traveling to talk to women about their lives and the economy and what I kept hearing was that they were still spending but they were spending differently.  Some used coupons for the first time (my favorite was a self proclaimed luxury queen who said ‘coupons were her crack’ now) and others shifted spending from themselves to buying for their children or saving for college but not for retirement but the money was still being spent.

Many women talk about being “good” almost Puritanical for a few weeks and then feeling righteous enough to let a little spending slip in.  Before they know it they have spent more than they anticipated and jump right back on the saving wagon. (A pattern us women have learned from years of dieting!) Bottom line though is the money is still spent.

Making sure we are on par with the Joneses protects our egos and makes us feel like we aren’t that bad.  (A little Schadenfreude, anyone?)

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Loyalty programs are HOT, Going into debt is NOT


With the economy stubbornly refusing to “perk up”, in the words of my Southern aunts, many of us are forced to hide our credit cards under the floorboards and assume a scrooge-like watch over whatever assets we still possess.  Many in my generation are embracing these hard times with great gusto—using this as an opportunity to learn how to cook or do their own laundry (sad, but true).  Some of my more adventurous (art school) friends have plunged back into the thrift store trend, labeling their third-hand duds “recession-chic.”

Channeling my glass half full ideology, I acknowledge the need to rein in expenses, but on the other hand refuse to abstain from all treat-spending during the indefinite slump. I had no other choice than to become a smarter shopper.  I took a humbling look at my bank statement and after a few short puffs into a brown paper bag, I zeroed in on the biggest problems–my longtime vices cosmetics and coffee.  I have a childlike obsession with makeup that causes me to pop into every Sephora I pass on the street, and my relationship with Starbucks, well, it’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had.

By doing a minimal amount of research, I found that both of these stores had loyalty programs that I was completely oblivious to.  By becoming a Sephora Beauty Insider, I receive 1 point for every dollar I spend at the store (trust me ladies, it adds up), redeemable for deluxe samples and gifts.  I’m also constantly receiving emails notifying me of sales, combined with coupons you can use online or in-store (if you haven’t heard, coupons are the new pink).  As for Starbucks, the amount I was spending on daily coffee is what can only be described as sinful.  By becoming the holder of a Starbucks Gold card you are privy to countless cost-cutting perks.  10% off every drink, free refills which, when you refill 3 times a day, is huge, free wifi (are you listening, collegiates?), and other exclusives and discounts that I would be dumb to ignore.

We don’t want to stop spending, but we want to be responsible.  Loyalty programs help to absorb our guilt and even leave us feeling good about our indulgences.  And, when the cloud finally passes, we’ll stay true to the companies that made the effort to reach out and hold onto us.

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It’s 2009: Meet the Entitled Frugals

Observing the retail scene during this repressed holiday, I have to give the service industry points for trying their darndest to make people happy. But the customers have morphed into a new breed I’m calling Entitled Frugals.

This past Christmas I headed to Florida with my family and spent two nights at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, thanks to a great recession-fighting discount. And I wasn’t alone. Despite the financial slowdown, the place was packed…and the guests, well, kind of intense. I was wondering if the full house resulted from a “sandwich” situation, with the upscale exotic resort crowd trading ‘down’ to Florida (I love Florida, don’t shoot me!) and the mass chain hotel loyalists trading up to the Ritz because of the deals. And both kinds of customers were feeling ‘owed’ for having either conceded or spent up. The way I see it, luxury spending isn’t dead, it’s just going on sale and a bargain-basement style fight for attention has begun.

Case in point: the pool chair combat zone. Rather than feeling grateful for the discounts (or even just jolly for the holidays), guests seemed stricken with a fever of entitlement. Pre-dawn, guest slinked through the darkness to imprison dozens premium poolside chairs with towels pilfered out of storage. This was way beyond what I’ve ever seen. While the pool guys tried to enforce chair check-in’s every 30 minutes (wonder what that did to restaurant tabs, spa expenditures, hotel margins?), violators sent grandma to sit guard smug as a bug, refusing to budge.

So, how’s a service provider supposed to deal with the irate Entitled Frugals? The Ritz dialed up their well-bred politeness and endured. But as a chair-less customer, I found the way to get what you want when the mob around you is screaming for blood. Go soft. I spoke with a fabulous Guest Relations coordinator named Beverly Spagnuolo and gently asked if there was a way to get a chair since the guests were so piggy. By not acting ‘entitled’, (even though honestly, I felt we were), I got the dream response: six lounge chairs out near the Gulf in our own private area with drinks and beach concierge at the ready.

Will 2009 see us resenting our cutbacks and taking it out at the counter? Is this the beginning of, “I’m not OK, so you’re not gonna be OK” at retail? Or could it be an opening for the kinder retailers and the more savvy customers to find peace in tough times? Here’s to a Kinder New Year.

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Bailout? Put Women at the Wheel

With this morning’s front page photo of a Detroit congregation praying for the success of the Big 3 Bailout, and millions of workers hanging on the funding decision, I hate to come off as a backseat driver, claiming to know what went wrong. But if I were to write a letter to the gentlemen in charge of the US auto industry, it might go like this: 

Dear Sirs, Despite the efforts of thousands of marketers and billions of advertising dollars, you’ve found yourself in a ditch. And, now you’re hitching your wagon to hybrids and smaller cars as the way out. I’d like to suggest another route. 

Legendary GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan proclaimed a “car for every purse and purpose.” Let’s focus on those two “p’s”. Stats show that women buy 65% of all new cars. They’re responsible for about 74% of all the maintenance visits. And, my favorite, when the man of the house makes a mistake buying on his own, she’s got 95% veto power. That puppy’s going back to the farm. 

Although your industry has a history of being very male-dominated, in the headquarters and the dealerships, it’s women who could have saved you. You pooh-poohed minivans and slacked off on their innovation, though moms, who may feel trapped in ‘breeder cars’ for a few years, secretly love them as the best way to maneuver babies and T-ball teams. She’s had the purse and the purpose all along. Where were you? 

I know that there are myths that have propelled your business. That men won’t drive a car women like, but that women will drive a car men like. That if the dealers get wind that you’re becoming a ‘chick’ brand, they’ll erupt. That the typical customer is a cool, young guy, with money to burn and an itchy foot on the gas pedal. (I remember reading that a design mantra was to think of a car as a ripped guy in a tight white t-shirt. Does he come with the car?) 

Hybrids, crossovers, smart wagons and smaller SUVs, did you see them as chick cars? Saturn became successful thanks to women (remember “no haggling”?) But eventually, the brand was drawn back into the cabal and now it’s almost a goner. What about luxury? Who’s pulling down a trillion dollars a year? Women. Who’s outliving men, and soon out-earning them? Women. Who wants performance that’s beautiful, inside and out? Women. 

Welcome to 2008, 2009 and the rest of your careers. Your customer is a ‘she.’ She’s only too glad to tell you what she wants. She’s the buyer, the maintainer, the chauffeur, the speedster, the hipster and the woman behind the wheel. Imagine your future in her hands. It is. And you don’t want to be in her rear view mirror. 

Good luck. Hope you listen, for America’s sake.

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Scrooging the Holiday

I got my first ‘Uh Oh’ when the JCrew outlet store I was grazing last week shoved advance Black Friday coupons in my bag. “Look at the deals you can get! Do you want to have our holiday coupons too? “It’s one thing when conventional retailers are 50%ing their fall inventory when the leaves haven’t turned. It’s another when off-priced centers are predicting they will have to bribe you back to save even more. Cheryl and Co, an online retailer sent me an email, saying how sorry they felt that finances were bad all around, so they’d help me with a discount on their cookies. Feeling a kind of Tiny Tim depression coming on, I wondered if retailer’s lack of confidence in the economy and the coming season wasn’t low enough. 

This advance notice of doom and gloom is making me wonder: 

— Just how long women will wait this year to shop? Over the last few years, women have adopted men’s last minute shopping procrastination as a strategy to catch the best bargains. Now that we feel assured that prices will continue to nosedive through December, will we just wait till Dec 26th to snare the best deals and just celebrate New Years instead?  

–Will the extra gimme’s and super price-cuts be what we brag about? “Hey Honey, you should really love that sweater because I got a triple point discount on it by shopping after midnight–and the matching socks were free!!” Will holiday memories run like this? “Instead of caroling, we just walked the mall and kept track of who was selling the cheapest flat screen!”

–Will we engage in a new kind of Holiday Haggling by sharing stories of diminished 401K’s or using pink slips as bargaining chips? Of course, with retail jobs being slashed, maybe customer pleas for sympathy will fall on deaf ears.

–And perhaps Re-gifting, that staple of the desperate shopper, will come into its own as the ultimate Green Gesture under the tree.

More likely, this year, women, the keeper of holidays, will take on the practical and rewarding role of bringing back the Ghost of Seasons Past…where cookies are baked with whatever’s in the pantry and presents are wrapped in newsprint to save on escalating fancy paper costs and the best gifts are either made by hand or promises of experiences where families can hunker down, wait it out and come out the other side, un-scrooged.

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Identity Theft

The continuing crisis in the economy has thrown America’s financial institutions into an identity crisis. And women, who do most of the banking, might find themselves wondering about the brands they once trusted.  

It came home to us at Just Ask a Woman when our bank of choice Wachovia was first courted by New York goliath Citibank and then adopted by Midwestern-sounding parent Wells Fargo. We loved our Wachovia team, even their hard to pronounce name which my Mom always called “Watch over ya” as a shout out to their terrific customer service.  

Well, just as our account was settling into the new brand digs, we started reading the unsettling news that FDIC might only protect money up to a limit and we had crept past it. So, time to get another bank. We thought we’d turn to Commerce, with its ads featuring spunky and hip Kelly Ripa, since it’s right next door (as is, actually every bank in New York, the city that decided a few years ago, we couldn’t go ten paces without being broke or counting our spare change.) New York is Bank Brand Central, blanketed with WaMu boxes and Bank of America’s…for now. 

Anyway, we waffled a couple of weeks before going to open the new account at Commerce, just long enough for it to be bought and become TD Bank. Gone was the cheery red and blue; now all the employees were in gray with green buttons on their lapels. And as they asked me to produce ID and sign a half dozen forms promising I was me and telling me they’d hold our checks till we had proven ourselves trustworthy, I had to wonder….

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Right on the Money

The financial services category has good intentions as far as reaching out to women, but often their ads end up filled with pantsuits and portfolios, in other words, boring. But two recent campaigns caught my eye for the way they tapped into women’s Whole Truths about money. (For perspective, Half Truths are the reflex, sort-of-true answers women give in typical research. Whole Truths reveal her deeper fears or desires, beyond the ‘politically correct’ response.)  

The Wealth Management group of USTrust hits on the underlying bag lady fears of even the most flush female investors. While many profess they are financially in control (Half Truth), the Whole Truth is that a frugal girlhood can color a woman’s financial confidence later in life. Many successful women harbor worries that at any moment, she’ll be pushing her possessions in a shopping cart.   

The USTrust spot describes a woman who (paraphrased) “owns a villa in St. Barths, a condo in Sun Valley…yet a part of her still lives in a cul de sac in  (smalltown) Ohio.” While most viewers won’t pity her, the target of private wealth clients will likely say Bingo! 

Ameritrade is reaching out to the starter investor with a new newspaper ad that features a hip, successful 30 something: “They said I only had $100,000 in my account and passed me off to some junior guy. Since when is $100,000 preceded by ‘only?’” Good question. But the truth is, to many firms, $100,000 in investible assets is pocket change and it shows. Not so fast, buster.  

Rather than luring young women with a jokey Half Truth, “I would rather spend it on shoes now and worry later,” Ameritrade recognizes that anyone who’s managed to save $100,000 early on promises to be a great client over time. Just because she’s young, doesn’t mean she’s not serious about her bottom line. Now, let’s see how they play that out in service.

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July 24, 2024
by Mary Lou Quinlan

A look at an early production of WORK


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The God Box Goes Global!

“The God Box” has grown to include an app, audio book, philanthropic venture and solo show performed by Mary Lou across the US. Now The God Box Project goes global to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
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