The Hot Iron

A journal on business, technology and occasional diversions by Mike Maddaloni


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Macy’s Could Learn From Syms

Marshall Field's logo"An educated consumer is out best customer..." I can still hear those words from the monotone voice on the commercials for Syms, a New Jersey-based "off-price" clothing store chain with locations in 13 states including Massachusetts and Illinois. It is not just in their commercials – it is on their signs and at the top of their Web site as well. It is something they believe in strongly, and something I believe in strongly myself in business in general. The more a customer knows about the vendor and its services, the better informed they will be in their commerce decisions. As old as the statement is, it is ever fresh.

I just finished reading Macy’s reaction to a story on CBS2 about their slumping sales and perception in Chicagoland since they acquired and renamed all Marshall Field’s to Macy’s. Once again, Macy’s is on the defensive, and this time its from a person other than CEO Terry Lundgren; it’s Ralph Hughes, who apparently worked for Field’s and now gets his paychecks from Macy’s. And once again, I had to laugh. Hughes said he was "stunned" and "bothered" by reactions of the growing population of former shoppers of the State Street store and others in the area. "I heard one person say the we had attitude" is another quote, and he later says, "If we had it to do over again we would do what we're doing today, which is recognizing that some people are going to be very angry with this." The attitude is there, alive and well in your statements Mr. Hughes.

Prior to Macy’s acquisition of Field’s parent May Company, there were no Macy’s stores in Chicagoland. So from the get-go, they replaced an extremely well-rooted and known store with one some only know about for their Thanksgiving parade sponsorship in New York City. They repeatedly stated it was a business decision as they were creating a national brand of stores. There was also the promise of a fresh foods market and returning Frango production to Chicago.

So what do you do when business sucks, blame your customers or clients? People with knowledge of the Windy City can tell you about the meaning of Field’s here, and you don’t have to go much farther to get hard data to back it up. About all Macy’s did was change the signs and awnings, mail out a few coupons and expect everything to be the same the next day. Almost a year later it is not. There has been no effort to reach out to customers and introduce Macy’s to the area. No media campaign, no human element, nothing. Frango mints are still not made here, and there is no market, which after the recent bug infestation of the food court may not be a bad thing. Even Chase Bank hired Mayor Daley’s brother and former Commerce secretary Bill as the head of the Midwest operations when it took over Chicago-based Bank One.

Buying a $300 sweater or handbag is not a business decision, rather it is one made by humans with real emotions involved throughout. Macy’s may not be back to square one, maybe square two, and they will go no further without changing their attitude and embracing and educating former Field’s customers.

Posted by Mike Maddaloni on 08/01/07 at 05:10 PM
Business • (1) CommentsPermalink

Sunday, July 29, 2007

My Take-Aways from Clients for Life

Clients for Life coverOnce during an annual performance appraisal I was told I was a generalist, and as they supposedly could not sell me as an expert, I was not going to receive a raise or bonus. This came almost a month after I received a “client service” award from the same person. What was my reaction? I smiled, and thanked my reviewer as I considered it a compliment to be called a generalist, and then pointed out how the 1.5 year project I just completed needed a generalist. A month later I quit that company.

For some reason there is a perception being a generalist is bad. You see this more in medicine, as doctors want to be a specialist and not a general practitioner. I see this often in the IT world, as people want to be solely a programmer or designer or database administrator and only focus on those areas, and see the others as places on the other side of a thick wall. For those of us who consider ourselves generalists or those who don’t understand us, the book Clients for Life is a must read.

This book was written in 2000 so some of the company examples may no longer be in business, but the themes and messages ring true today. It takes a perspective beyond being solely a generalist and focuses on being an unselfish, independent, deep generalist advisor to your clients. Rather than offering specific advice or a service and focusing on a one-time deal with the hope of more business, the authors take the viewpoint that by being there, readily available to advice clients on a wide variety of topics and areas and being able to guide them to specific resources or services is equally rewarding and profitable. This can be summed up as the difference between a transaction and a relationship.

As this is how my career interests have come to form over the years, my primary take away was an affirmation of my goals. It also promotes the sense of long-term relationships in building a client base and as a result revenue. Anyone can tell you that the best source of business is repeat business from existing clients and referrals to others from them.

The book is a good read – at times it seems like it is repeating itself to make its point though. Some of the examples of people who were deep generalists had sometimes tragic or dramatic ends to their lives. Even if you don’t believe in this philosophy 100%, I would recommend reading it as it may help form some of your own thoughts on client development.

Posted by Mike Maddaloni on 07/29/07 at 10:24 AM
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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Falling Prices and Crashing Servers

Netflix logoFile this under not communicating with your IT department about what is going on in the company.

On Monday, DVD rental service Netflix announced it was cutting its prices to better compete with Blockbuster's prices and in-store redemption service. Shortly afterwards crashed and did not come back online until late Tuesday. It was said it was not due to the power outages in the San Francisco area, and though a specific reason was not given, it was reported the Web site was being updated to reflect the price changes.

Updating prices causes an entire network of Web servers to crash? Who wrote that software? When I worked for a publicly-traded company in the past, I was always on alert from marketing and investors’ relations whenever the company would announce earnings or have an investor’s call, as people would hit our Web site for the information or links. We had sufficient capacity with out Web servers and network, but hardware can always fail. This brings back memories of the crash of Wal-Mart’s Web site last year on “black Friday” or the busiest shopping day of the year the day after Thanksgiving.

Planning for such events and having the network, hardware and software capacity can prevent such events. Sure it may be expensive, but what price for such embarrassment?

Posted by Mike Maddaloni on 07/26/07 at 06:28 AM
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Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Zipcar of Bicycles

Photo of Velib servicePSFK recently reported on Velib, a new bike sharing program coming to Paris. The gist of the service is you pay an annual fee, roughly US$75, and you can use a special card to unlock access to a bike for 30-minutes of use, with longer periods available. The Web site is entirely in French, but if you don’t know the language you can see details of the bikes and special stations where the 451 bikes will be available. The service appears to borrow from car sharing services like Zipcar and I-GO.

This is a great idea! Though many people in cities around the world own bikes, they don’t tend to be in the best condition due to heavy usage on the mean streets, and the potential for theft. This service could allow for the casual bike rider to have access on-demand, or encourage others to use one. Not to mention it could free up a little storage space in an inner-city apartment.

Maybe Chicago could be its first US city?

Posted by Mike Maddaloni on 07/21/07 at 06:18 AM
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Friday, July 20, 2007

Happy Birthday likemind

This morning was the likemind coffee meetup in dozens of cities around the world. It marks one year of these coffee mornings, started by 2 gents who finally met for coffee themselves and decided to invite others.

Photo from July 2007 likemind.chi

This is the picture from the Chicago likemind, with Raza, Clay and myself. It was taken outside of Intelligentsia Coffee on Randolph at Wabash, and in the background is the Randolph L station.

By the way, Raza heard about likemind on WindyBits. Hope to see more people next month. And did I mention there is free coffee compliments of Anamoly?

Posted by Mike Maddaloni on 07/20/07 at 09:10 AM
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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Airport Expectations and Usability

After the end of my recent trip to the Twin Cities, my lovely wife and I headed back to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport for our flight back to the Windy City. Being the adventurous souls we are and supporters of public transportation, we decided to take the light rail train from downtown Minneapolis to the airport. After boarding the train and checking out the uniqueness of it over other cities’ service, we saw signs that the train would not take us directly to our terminal, rather we would have to get off at the first terminal and take a bus. Little did we know that in the name of honoring local patriots, we would get lost and have a lesson in usability presented to us.

Recently the airport code-named MSP added a new terminal and named it after former US senator from Minnesota, Hubert H. Humphrey. The other and original terminal is named for aviator Charles Lindbergh. Our flight was out of Humphrey, but the light rail only stopped at Lindbergh. When we got off at Lindbergh and headed to the bus to Humphrey, the signs did not completely connect the dots and we were left wandering.

When I asked people for directions, I kept saying Lindbergh instead of Humphrey, and people would tell me that I was there already. Why the confusion? Usually airport terminals are named things like A, B and C. Sometimes letters skip, like in Atlanta, Boston and Chicago O’Hare, but they are simple letters. As L comes after H, but Lindbergh was the original terminal, this did not help. It wasn’t until I recalled the chronological order of fame by each namesake (Lindbergh before Humphrey, or at least that's how I recall learning history) I realized the new terminal was Humphrey. We finally found the signs, and made the connection in time to fly home.

To add insult to injury, the recorded announcements coming over the PA system were in a British accent. In Minnesota? Now this is not a dig on Midwesterners who are still sore over the accents in the movie Fargo, but a British accent – anywhere in the US? Sure, many international tourists come to the airport to go to the Mall of America, or connect through it, but a British accent?

Build as beautiful of a terminal as the taxpayers will allow you, put up a bronze plaque or statue to a famous person, but keep it simple for those who actually have to use it.

Posted by Mike Maddaloni on 07/18/07 at 01:26 PM
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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My Take-Aways from the book Cancer’s Spouse

Cover of Cancer's SpouseThey say in a relationship there are three sides to every story. There is one person’s side, there is the other person’s side, and somewhere between them is the truth. Understanding this helps in life and in business, and getting reminders of it is, in my mind a good thing.

This was the biggest take-away for me from the book Cancer’s Spouse. It was written by very good friends of mine, Mark and Glenna Sanford. Glenna is an amazing person, and now is going on 5 years as a cancer survivor. The book chronicles the time from when she was first diagnosed to today, and all of the trials and tests that come with it. What is unique about the book is that each chapter is broken into two – Mark’s side, then Glenna’s side. Apparently the book wasn’t planned to be written that way from the beginning, but in the end it is a unique tale of a family’s journey.

In addition to the many sides of life, another great takeaway I got from this was keeping in mind there may be issues you are not aware of. This can be hard for many people, as emotions often come into play. In business, we tend to lose sight of this and overanalyze situations when things may not be going as planned, only to find out something else is going on. The fact that someone hasn’t returned a call, for example, could be due to a family emergency or a surprise visit from a friend.

I highly recommend people read this book, and it’s not just because I know the authors! For anyone who is or has gone through an illness personally or alongside someone close to them, it gives perspective over that trying time. If thus far you have been fortunate to not have gone through such an experience, the book can prepare you for it. Part of the proceeds from the book goes to cancer research, so another side is also enriched by the purchase of this book.

Posted by Mike Maddaloni on 07/17/07 at 08:35 AM
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Next likemind on Friday, July 20

likemind.chi logoThe next likemind will be this Friday, July 20 in dozens of cities around the world. In Chicago, it will be at Intelligentsia Coffee,, 53 E. Randolph, at the corner of Wabash.

What is likemind? I call it a gathering of creative-minded people, from various disciplines. It's early in the morning, and only creative people would get up that early to have coffee and converse!

Posted by Mike Maddaloni on 07/17/07 at 07:16 AM
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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Phone Service?

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about mobile phone service, or cellular or wireless service as most Americans call it. As the rest of the world calls it mobile, and their service and phone offerings are superior to ours here in the States, I use the term mobile in hopes we catch up someday, but I digress.

First there’s the iPhone. I don’t have one and I don’t plan on getting anytime soon. No, I am not an anti-Apple crusader. I bought a Treo 680 less than a year ago and it is working great for me. Plus, iPhones only work on AT&T (oops, at&t) and I am a happy customer of T-Mobile, so I see no need to switch.

A couple of observations on the iPhone – nobody has called me on one yet, and when I went to the Apple store in Chicago last week to look at Apple TV, the clerk was ecstatic that I came in to look at something else.

Then there’s Sprint Nextel who “fired” over 1,000 customers who were apparently calling customer service repeatedly. My one question is simple – what were they asking? Was it how to use the phone, or billing questions, or what? As they tracked the number of calls I am sure they categorized them, and that information would certainly be of interest to more than just inquiring minds.

Every day decisions are made that ultimately impact the service offerings of a company or organization. Sometimes those changes are so small that they are not noticed until after time, when something comes to a head. Apple’s decision to go with one particular carrier has certainly led to many people changing service or wondering how to, as well as people figuring how to hack around it, though the impact on the masses is still small. Sprint Nextel’s decision has wider reach, and it will be interesting to see if or how they come forward with more information, or if other carriers follow them.

Posted by Mike Maddaloni on 07/11/07 at 11:46 AM
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Monday, July 09, 2007

Jakob Nielsen Doesn’t Like Blogs

I am not sure if the title of this post, Jakob Nielsen Doesn’t Like Blogs, is the most suitable. However after reading and re-reading his article about blogging vs. writing articles, it is my only logical conclusion as I don’t believe Nielsen convinced any informed blogger if they are wasting their time.

Dr. Jakob Nielsen is a world-renown usability expert, and you can read more on his background and career on his Web site, For anyone like myself who has even the slightest inclination about the usability of the Web or software, you are familiar with Nielsen. And anyone who is familiar with Nielsen will probably have an opinion similar to my own of him – they generally agree with him, but every once in a while he comes out with something that they do not agree with or is not commercially viable. As many of us earn our living on the Internet, commercial viability is very relevant.

This morning I received Alertbox, his bi-weekly newsletter, and as I was having my first sips of coffee, I read with interest the topic of his latest article, Write Articles, Not Blog Postings. Right away I clicked on the link and read the article. Then I downed another cup of coffee and re-read it. I let the email sit in my inbox and now the end of the day, I read it again twice, and am sitting down to write this still with ambiguity.

The summary of the article reads, verbatim,

“To demonstrate world-class expertise, avoid quickly written, shallow postings. Instead, invest your time in thorough, value-added content that attracts paying customers.”
This made sense to me. In business, the ultimate goal is to make money. Some actions, or in this case writings, are directly tied to that. Others are not. A blog by the president of a company that gives a glimmer of transparency into their organization, and as a result help its reputation, is one that comes to mind.

However reading the article further, the line between thinking and blogging gets intertwined. To begin with, there is not a definition of a blog anywhere in the article or linked from it. I am curious what Nielsen defines as a blog. I can infer that he suggests that anything posted on a blog is not well thought out, as that is the direction he takes the article. Note that nowhere on is any reference to an RSS feed and there is no auto-discovery of a feed URL, so Nielsen himself does not blog. I was also taken aback by this line,

“This has been a very long article, stuffed with charts and statistical concepts -- like standard deviations and utility functions -- that I know most readers find difficult.”
I did not, and most of the people who read this post on The Hot Iron probably wouldn’t find it difficult either.

I have never been someone who believes in technology for technology’s sake. Of all of the clients I have, only two have blogs (I developed one of them) and I did not start my own blog until after I launched the one for my client. One of the goals for The Hot Iron was to give me a venue for sharing knowledge and writing. Should I just write white papers and articles and not blog posts? I don’t believe so, but then again, any answer would fit just me, and for any other client or perspective client, the decision to blog would depend on overall goals for their Internet presence, who their customers are and what their expectations would be. Making a broad stroke recommendation without this information doesn’t serve anyone well.

At a higher level, blogging is publishing content. What have made the concept popular are tools (e.g. WordPress, ExpressionEngine) that allow people to easily publish. People have published Web sites on various topics since they got their hands on the first browser and an HTML editor. However merely publishing content on a blog doesn’t mean that it is shallow or does not add value to you or your business or organization. Sure, with a blog you can share with your readers one sentence, one paragraph just one word - or even a whole article. As a publishing tool, blogs allow content to be transformed into email messages, or posted on a Web site that does not “look” like a blog.

Could Nielsen think that blogging is a threat to his own consultancy and this article is more self-serving than anything? I am sure like any “traditional” author he has been impacted by it. In the article he talks about his own sales lead-time. Part of this may be due to the fact that most people in the world don’t consciously think about usability. When they are struggling with navigating PeopleSoft or joyously playing their music on their iPod, usability may come to mind. Usability is, in my opinion, like the “green” movement, and if anything it has a better chance of going more mainstream. But if it does, it will more than likely come from people reading usability blogs than hundred-page reports.

Or maybe his article was intended to stir some controversy on blogs? If so, kudos Dr. N!

I still have the same amount of concern about the usability of my client’s and other Web sites. I will still refer to Nielsen’s writings and opinions on usability and will still agree to disagree with him on some points. I also recommend you, whoever you are, to subscribe to his newsletter. Make your own informed decisions, and like anything, doing something for the sake of simply doing it, especially when time can be better spent, is a waste. Hopefully reading this was not a waste for you, as it wasn’t for me to write it, even if for a blog.

Posted by Mike Maddaloni on 07/09/07 at 05:23 PM
BusinessTechnology • (2) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink

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The Hot Iron strives to present unique content and perspective on business, technology and other topics by Mike Maddaloni, a Web and business strategist based in Chicago.

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