Thoughts that count

As I write this it’s the day after my birthday. Among my gifts was a plastic gadget from my daughter that allows me to make omelets in the microwave. Never mind that I’m not an omelet lover — my daughter loves using the gadget when she visits her grandmother, so she probably figured we’d have fun using it together in our kitchen. Besides, as I’ve told her more than a few times, it’s the thought that counts.

I also received a 15%-off coupon from Borders. Granted, the bookstore chain has e-mailed me a discount coupon just about every week since I signed up for its loyalty program earlier this year. But there was something about Borders’ e-mailing me a coupon on my birthday, complete with a picture of a cake and the message “we’d like to help you treat yourself,” that reminds me why I rarely purchase from Amazon.com anymore.

I’d wager that Amazon knows more about me than anyone except my husband and my accountant. It knows enough about my tastes to periodically e-mail me when a new book by an author I’d previously purchased is published. Over the years I’ve trusted Amazon with my credit-card information and a few wish lists; I still post reviews on the site from time to time. But did Amazon send me birthday greetings? No.

My relationship with the online giant seems one-sided. Amazon contacts me only when it wants to make money off me. Now, I’m not naive enough to think that Borders sent me a birthday coupon out of the goodness of its corporate heart. But at least Borders makes an effort to pretend it values me as a person in addition to as a consumer, and in exchange for the money I’ve spent with the company and the information I’ve given it, Borders is willing to give me something in return.

All of this pertains to the continuing commoditization of just about everything tangible. The only thing that can’t be turned into a commodity is the customer relationship. As Love Goel, chairman/CEO of investment firm Growth Ventures Group, pointed out at the MIX (Merchandising Innovation & Xcellence) Summit in Chicago in May, no matter how innovative or distinctive your product, Wal-Mart or Target can knock off its own version in a matter of weeks. What Wal-Mart or Target can’t knock off is your history with your customers.

This is no doubt an unsettling thought for many multichannel merchants, particularly those who started as catalogers when the mantra was “merchandise is king.” And certainly, without the right merchandise you won’t be able to win over any buyers with whom to develop a relationship.

When discussing loyalty programs, many companies focus on the discounts and promotions. Yes, we customers love discounts, but we also love being appreciated. Those Borders coupons I receive just about every week and print out? Most of the time when I head to my local store later that weekend, I forget to bring them. But I usually buy something anyway. Because it’s the thought that counts.

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