retail news in context, analysis with attitude

It must have been 15 years ago that many of us were first exposed to Encarta, the digital encyclopedia that did more than just provide information on a variety of subjects, but rather spoke by its very presence of a world where printed books no longer would serve a central role in how people learned.

And so, it was something of a shock this week when reports emerged that Encarta itself has been rendered obsolete and will be shut down by owner Microsoft. Encarta was made irrelevant by search engines such as Google and websites such as Wikipedia. It took a lot less time for Encarta to fall victim to technological realities than it did for the World Book Encyclopedia and its brethren, and it makes me wonder what the next iteration will be. Because we’ve haven’t reached the end of the line, not by any means…we’re barely into chapter two, and the book is endless.

But it isn’t printed on paper.

Many people will respond to statements such as these by recalling fond moments spent thumbing through the World Book or some other encyclopedia, and how those times led to unexpected knowledge. Which is true. I remember those times myself. You have to remember, though, that we were doing essentially was surfing a knowledge base. Which is precisely what young people are doing when they surf the web. They end up smarter than us, with access to infinite sources of information that isn’t artificially given boundaries by hardback covers. And they don't get paper cuts.

The broader point is this. At one point in time, encyclopedia sets seemed like they had earned a permanent place on the cultural landscape; after all, they’d been around, in one form or another, since the mid fourteenth century. And then they were pretty much replaced by a technology that seemed at the time to be wondrous and futuristic. Which has itself been replaced – rendered obsolete – in the space of less than two decades.

No mater what business you are in, this is the cold reality with which you have to grapple. Irrelevance and obsolescence are inevitable…unless you constantly are engaged in the act of reinvention, innovation, and renewal that embraces the fact that the world is changing, that customers are evolving, and that nothing stays the same.

You can look it up.

Last June, I took note here on MNB of a story that ran in Time magazine about the changing hotel scene, and that took particular note of an innovation by the Starwood chain:

“The company that started the industry's bedding wars is looking to define a new segment called ‘lifestyle’ hotels: chic, sociable and affordable. The first Aloft outpost opened in Montreal in June, and a further 17 openings are planned this year. Aloft is focused on attracting the road warrior, a customer who has grown up with the irreverent, friendly service of Southwest Airlines, the open office, the work-among-the-crowd Starbucks culture, and is accustomed to innovative design, via Target and Ikea, at a good price. The next generation of business travelers may have meetings with Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark., but they don't want to be separated from their hip, urban social lifestyle.”

Well, on a trip to Minneapolis this week, I stayed in an Aloft Hotel, even though I am not exactly the hip and urban traveler that the chain is seeking. (They took the reservation and didn’t turn me away at the door, so I guess I passed. Must’ve been the jeans and black turtleneck.)

I am here to report that these guys are onto something and that retailers should pay attention to the ways in which Starwood is rethinking the hotel business for the next generation of consumers. The Minneapolis Aloft has a futuristic look to it, all glass and metal. Walk into the lobby, and you actually find a kind of “great room” – the front desk is circular and near the middle of the room, and there is a large bar, a pool table, plenty of flat screen televisions, a news feed running across the top of the wall, and lots of conversation pits where people were engaged in animated and sometimes intimate conversation. It has a kind of neighborhood vibe to it, with real personality and energy, and not at all antiseptic.

The rooms have a neat kind of minimalist décor, dominated by a very comfortable bed and a 42-inch flat screen television (which I’d rather look at than the crappy art you generally find on hotel room walls). The emphasis is on comfort and function rather than form, and it works.

There was a terrific exercise room and pool just off the lobby (neither of which I had time to use, unfortunately, since I spent a bit of time at the bar). Also off the lobby was a self-service snack shop with lots of options (there was a great ham and egg sandwich for breakfast) at affordable prices. Again, function and convenience over form.

Here’s where it got even better. I’m sitting in the lobby sipping a cup of coffee with breakfast, and the woman who was working at the front desk came over and asked if she could top off my cup for me. Unsolicited. With a smile. (It didn’t hurt that she looked like a young Gwyneth Paltrow.) I engaged her in conversation, learned that her name was Rachel, and asked about other locations…and when it was determined that I actually will be visiting another city with an Aloft, she volunteered to call and make me a reservation for the dates in question. Which she did, confirming the reservation with an email later in the day.

I don’t know whether Rachel is typical of the people who work at Aloft, but if she isn’t, they should clone her. But my sense is that Aloft is hiring differently, that they recognize that the next generation of customers is going to want to deal with people who actually seem to enjoy their work and share their priorities. And, by the way, put a delightful and engaging face on the business.

My point here is much the same as in my discussion of Encarta. Old business models are dying, and we all have to figure out what the new ones are…or invent them ourselves.

Aloft is doing that. We all need to pay attention.

One other note. I had a wonderful wine at the Aloft bar – a 2007 French Maid Pinot Noir. Light, delicious, and perfect for sipping while watching the night unfold.

One more thing…

I got a couple of emails last week because I failed to sign off with my usual “Sláinte!!” – best I can tell, it was the first time that has happened since I launched MorningNewsBeat back in 2001.

I guess I was tired. Or distracted. Or both.

But I’m here to tell you that it was an accident, not a subtle hint that something was wrong. All is well.


That’s it for this week.

Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.


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