retail news in context, analysis with attitude

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Hi, Kevin Coupe here. This is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

No question: Numbers are important to understanding how businesses work, how consumers think, and how to make strategic and tactical decisions.

But they don't always tell the whole story.

I recently saw a presentation by a demographer who argued that math tells us everything we need to know about consumer trends. Part of his schtick was to explain how, if you just look at the numbers, you can immediately deduce that China is in big trouble, the US is ascendant, and that all you have to do to understand where the world has been, where the world is going, and how to do business is to be able to do simple math.

Well, I'm with Jimmy Buffett on this one: Math sucks. (Actually, it is not that math sucks so much as it is that I suck at math. Always have.)

One of the things this demographer talked about was how Levi Strauss ran into business problems because it could not or did not do the math. The idea is that it had a very successful business selling jeans to a specific demographic, but that when we got to the point where there were a lot fewer people in that age range, jeans sales went into the toilet...and they could not understand why. Well, this fellow said, it was all math.

Well, he was right - it is all about math. But not just the math of demographics.

There also was the addition of lots of new manufacturing competitors. I happened to work my way through high school and college in the men's clothing business, and one of the things we sold lots and lots of were jeans. There was a time when Levis were the dominant name in the jeans business, and then suddenly everyone and their brother and sister was in the jeans business. I remember being shocked in college when the store where I worked - it was called the British Stock Exchange, it was in Marina del Rey, California, and it was a yuppie store before the term had even been created - sold Britannia patchwork jeans for $25 apiece. That just seemed so extravagant...

And, there was subtraction ... when Gap decided to stop selling Levis and get into the private label business. That move gave Gap a very clear identity - it was no longer just that place to go for Levi jeans - but it had to take a toll on Levi Strauss's bottom line. (in case you missed it, we had a story the other day about how Gap is trying to reinvent itself for something like the third time ... think of it as the circle of life.)

And, there was multiplication ... because not only were there more jeans labels to choose from, but there also was one might call the "cool" multiplier ... jeans weren't just for one kind of wearing, but for a wide variety of occasions ... even to work at the office, depending on where you worked and what day of the week it was ... and I'm not sure Levi Strauss was ever able to take advantage of that shift to the extent it needed to. Which made them, in some cases, less cool ... and even when they were able to stress their cool with an origin story second to none, they weren't able to regain earlier market dominance.

They probably never will. The numbers are against them.

But the point is that demographic numbers aren't the only numbers that one has to count. Marketing is all about context, and I think when you decide only to look at one set of factors or another, you leave yourself open to the possibility that you're going to miss something very important, or deny yourself the option of competing. because you didn't see the whole picture.

Or "the big picture."

Maybe I'm not as bad at math as I think. Because in this case, I think I can do the addition, the subtraction and the multiplication...

Just don't ask me to do fractions. Or calculus. My dad was an elementary school math teacher, and he always said that in all his years, there was just one person he couldn't teach math to ... and you're looking at him.

Anyway, that's what is on my mind this Thursday morning ... and as always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

KC's View: