Live from ACC: Simon Says, Keep It New

Orlando, FL–If there’s one thing multichannel marketers can’t do these days, it’s the same old thing. Todd Simon, senior vice president of Omaha Steaks International, made that point forcefully in Tuesday’s keynote presentation at the Annual Catalog Conference. Using his own company as an example, Simon described some “big ideas” and questions that leading-edge marketers should be thinking about.

Omaha Steaks, a $300 million multichannel foods merchant, keeps all order processing, call center operations, IT, and systems development inhouse. “We’re a bunch of control freaks,” Simon said. But this total control, he pointed out, enables Omaha Steaks to own and shape the customer experience–a strategy that gives the firm its competitive advantage.

One way in which the company enhances the customer experience is by turning a commodity, beef, into a branded product. It leverages the product’s regional quality (premium midwestern beef) and the fact that it is naturally aged, hand-trimmed, flash-frozen, and vacuum-sealed. A sophisticated shipping system, featuring multiple cooler sizes and heavy use of dry ice, ensures that the product stays fresh until it reaches the customer. In addition, Simon said, Omaha Steaks makes liberal use of “brand enhancers” such as its four cookbooks, credit card, and signature products such as catsup, mustard, and Pet Treats.

Perhaps the most interesting Omaha Steaks product is the firm’s line of frozen meals, A la Zing. The concept ties in with something that direct marketers “must become extremely proficient in trading in: time,” Simon said. “You must help solve the customer’s time crunch. Think of yourself as providing solutions for your customers, as b-to-b marketers do.”

With female baby boomers influencing an estimated 83% of all purchases, it is extremely important for marketers to free up these women’s time. A la Zing, noted Simon, accomplishes this by solving a problem that busy women face every day: how to find the time to prepare dinner. Similarly, other marketers can bundle products and services to solve a problem.

Simon emphasized the human element as a vital factor in marketing success: “People are good. Robots are bad. People acting like robots are even worse.” Although voice menus and e-mails are necessary, they distance merchants from customers. Simon suggested that marketers “treat every incoming call as an opportunity to add value, eliminate the robots that put barriers between you and your customers, and humanize the ones you have. It is far better, for instance, to solve a customer’s problem in 30 minutes than to send an auto-response e-mail saying you’ll get back to them in 24 hours.”

Technology will revolutionize multichannel marketing in the next few years, Simon said. He offered up a wish list of ideas and predictions, some of which are already a reality:

* The invention of a hardware shopping “wallet” or key that holds all of the owner’s personal information will resolve privacy concerns.

* Web-based and IP-enabled personal shopping services will take off.

* Personal assistant services will become increasingly common. For example, Paytrust ( aggregates bills and enables the customer to pay them with one click.

* The advent of “intelligent continuity” will take clubs a step further, allowing marketers to contact customers to ask if they still want their shipment and to cross-sell or upsell.

* The surge in wireless and networking services will spur the development of “smart” products that track their own usage of consumables (for instance, a printer that “orders” its own toner) and merchandise such as wireless digital cameras for Website creation.

* Cable operators might consider a service such as “My Cable TV” that tailors ads for each household, although the customer would control this process.

* Decentralized contact centers, already common, will enable marketers to draw from a nationwide labor pool, perhaps even from their own customer base.

Cosponsored by MULTICHANNEL MERCHANT magazine and the Direct Marketing Association, the Annual Catalog Conference took place May 23-25.

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