A Tale of Three Gift Bag

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Over the course of 60 days this past fall, my wife and I attended three black-tie events connected with the art world. One of the things these three events had in common was that, at each, we received a gift bag: a selection of presents, products and toys simultaneously designed to make attendees happy and please sponsors that made significant donations to the events.

While the events bore a certain similarity to each other, the gift bags couldn’t have been more different. Their respective contents, and the way those contents compared with each other, told me a lot about how I felt about the events and the sponsoring organisations. In fact, a comparison of the three gift bags raises some thoughts about how we appeal to and satisfy customers, as well as how we run retail stores.
The first bag was a large, heavyduty canvas tote filled with about 10 pounds of books, magazines and articles. While the bag itself was useful, the emphasis was on its contents, more specifically the knowledge that they would bring the recipient..
The second “gift bag” wasn’t a bag at all, but rather a single, elegant gift from the evening’s principal sponsor, Versace. Each guest received a tag colour-coded by gender, to use at the end of the evening to claim his or her gift. At the end of the event, the guests handed in their tags in exchange for either a beautifully gift-wrapped necktie or scarf.
Later, I went to the Versace store and found out that the retail value of the gifts was over $100 each. This gift had nothing to do with knowledge or information, and had everything to do with underlining the fact that we had just attended a deluxe event. The third gift bag was given at a benefit for a newer, more rural museum, and held products hailing from the institution’s surrounding area. Inside an unassuming brown shopping bag, guests found some literature, a bumper sticker, a bottle of locally made ketchup and a brownie. The overall effect was rural, homemade and utterly charming.
This third bag was all about showing guests that the museum was a do-ityourself kind of place that was inviting guests to become more involved. What does all this have to do with selling groceries? Each of the gift bags communicated something specific and important about the cultural institution involved, but was probably not created as the thoughtful execution of a specific strategy. Rather, they probably came into being almost accidentally, as a function of what was available and who the sponsors were.
This comparison tells us that the personality of a company or institution comes out clearly in the little things that we do every day, in the small decisions made on the fly. We may say that “people are our most important asset,” but on the day before Thanksgiving, how many of us urge an ailing cashier to come into work because she’s really needed, right now? How many times do we talk about the importance of discipline in our buying practices, and yet take a few suspect SKUs at the end of the quarter to make our budgets via slotting allowances? Our intentions are in our deeds, not in our words. Think about what happens in your stores and about how those actions affect your shoppers.
Think about the small decisions you make every day in running your store, how those decisions are reflected in what your customers see, and what they think of you because of these decisions.
It may be easier to tolerate a reliable but brusque cashier, but what does that say about your store? It may be profitable to stock more kinds of salsa than any human being could possibly want, but what does that say about your selection? Make sure that when you do take action, your customers will perceive it as consistent with the various messages you’re delivering. Spend a little less time dreaming up slogans and a little more time bringing them to life.       
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