Saturday, November 28, 2015

When's The Season?

If you are reading this at the earliest published opportunity, it's the day after Thanksgiving. Or maybe you're getting to it sometime over the weekend, either in print or online. Still others are taking a look at it on Monday morning once you get back to the office, pour a cup of coffee and fire up your computer. Regardless, in every one of those cases, a glance at the calendar still shows that you are firmly in the grasp of the 11th month of the year.

And yet the Christmas season is in full swing. Actually, it's not just starting: it's all but over.

True, the Rockefeller Center tree has yet to be lit. And the "official" beginning of the shopping part of the holiday is still marked as the day after Thanksgiving. That said, Black Friday has become less a start, and more of a waystation. Last year, according to Google's Holiday Shopper Intentions research, one in four of us bought a Christmas gift by Halloween, a full month before Cyber Monday.
This year the trend continues, but with a twist. With the increasing spread of smart phones and high speed access, more and more people are not waiting for those big "event" days and mammoth sales and doorbuster events. Instead, shopping has become more about "moments." Over half of holiday shoppers say they plan to shop on their smartphones in spare moments during the day, like when they are taking a walk or sitting on a train or waiting in line. The data puts it this way: shoppers now spend 7% less time each time they go online, but online purchase via those same smartphones have gone up 65% over the past tear. In fact, fully 30% of all online shopping purchases now don't happen on a laptop or desk machine, but on a mobile phone.

It would also seem that we've become more informed consumers, and less impulse purchasers. According to the same Google study, more than 52% of shoppers plan to use a smartphone for holiday shopping this year before they ever visit a store. We check prices, features, competitive products. Target says that mobile is the new front door: according to Casey Carl, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, 98% of their customers shop digitally, and three quarters of those start their experience on a mobile device. And it doesn't stop there. From Nordstorm to Sephora to Best Buy to Urban Outfitter, a whopping 82% of us say we will consult our phone while standing in the aisle. It's more than just a prediction: in September, there were 37% more searches done on mobile phones from inside a department store than they were last year. (Forget the NSA: Google knows you're standing in Macy's RIGHT NOW.)

All that access and research has changed the way that the actual buying happens as well as the shopping leading up to it. Armed with the data we get, we're putting off the buying decision, with the knowledge that we can always find the best deal. As such, the majority of purchasing seems to be taking place later in the season closer to the holiday, free shipping deadlines not withstanding.

Interestingly, even with all this all-the-time access, it seems we still need some down time to process it all. Stores used to gear up for Friday, then Saturday as the biggest shopping days of the week. That's not the case in the online world. There has been a steady shift to Sunday as the biggest day for online purchases, clocking in at 18% more than any other day. Seems if you can buy that sweater set or new handbag while curled up in your bunny slippers with a bagel and a cup of coffee, you will.

All this means that the physical manifestations of the holiday are likely to creep earlier and earlier. If retailers want to push their holiday goods on you, waiting till after the turkey is in leftover status means they have probably already missed the boat. So get ready to see trees not just in November, but lights in October and sleighs in September. However, the consequences of such early merriment cannot be ignored: it's said that for every Christmas light lit before Thanksgiving, an elf kills a baby reindeer. I fear it is already too late to prevent the slaughter from happening.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hasn't started his holiday shopping yet. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

I'm With Tim

Coming from me, there are many things that are going to rankle some about what follows. For one it involves fashion, and Lord knows I'm hardly a style-maven, either in practice or as a knowledgeable observer. Also, while men are involved, the issue at hand predominantly focuses on women. And if my decades on this earth as a male has taught me anything, it's that men judging women's clothing takes you to a place where good rarely comes. As if those two strikes aren't enough – well – actually, those two strikes are more than enough to get me into trouble. But I've got space to vent and something on my mind, and as one of the characters in the new show "Billions" asks, "What's the point of having f-you money if you never get to say F-You?"

So here goes: I hate the athleisure trend.

In case you missed it, that's the official term for the look that says "I'm on my way to spin class" or "I just came from Pilates" even though you're at the grocery store, going to a movie or having lunch. It's spandex and neoprene and leggings and crop tops. It's new offshoot brands such as Tory Burch's Tory Sport and Derek Lam's 10C Athleta, and new outlets like Dick's Sporting Goods Chelsea Collective and Net-A-Porter's Net-A-Sporter. And it's so on-the-radar that Merriam-Webster has announced it will be included in the dictionary come 2016, with the official definition being "casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use." Who knew that Al Sharpton was so ahead of his time in those track suits?

In fact, it's more than just a trend: all those lululemon yoga pants and Nike sports bras add up to big numbers. Just as the business casual trend helped supercharge khakis and button downs, so too does the athleisure movement mean that print leggings and wicking tops are going from being found only in niche catalogs and websites to being front and center at flagships like Macy's and Nordstorm. According to the Morgan Stanley report "Global Athletic Wear: Very Bullish Five-Year Outlook," estimates are that by 2020 the segment could add $83 billion in sales.

But just because it's happening doesn't mean I have to like it. To be clear, and at the risk of sounding, well, male, I'm not talking about how women "look" in the stuff. (And yes, it's mostly women pushing the trend. Sure, there are guys who wear leggings and shrink-to-fit Under Armour tops when they're out walking the dog or going to the Post Office, but that's another story.) As with any fashion, there are some people who look good in it, and some people who should consider a different style, be they tall, short, thin, chunky or any combination of the above. (I feel I am digging myself in deeper here, but in for a penny, in for a pound.)

No, what I'm talking about is what it "says." I try and exercise, and while my preferred attire is gym shorts and tee shirts, there's no way I would subject the rest of the world to my outfit unless the treadmill were on fire. Sure, some dress this way heading to the gym or back, and yes, occasionally you have to stop along the way for a quart of milk. But growth in the segment is all about wearing these togs every day for anything but exercising. Sorry, but the world is not a Zumba class. Tim Gunn, the fashion consultant and TV personality put it this way: "It's vulgar, unless you're Robin Hood." Clothes may make the man (or woman), but wearing yoga pants when your downward dog is the kind that's on a leash is - what? Disingenuous? Dishonest? Arrogant? Smug? Gunn again: "The thing about overly casual dressing is it says 'I don't give a rat's ass about anything.'"

I'm not saying you shouldn't be comfortable. And I'm not saying we should go back to suits all the time. But everyday clothing seems to be on a scale sliding downward. You wouldn't wear a bathing suit to the mall; how is this any different even if your Sweaty Betty Zubhra Layered Yoga Capris cost $230? The only upside I see, as one wag of like mind noted, is now we can refer to a rip in someone's leggings as an "athhole."


Marc Wollin of Bedford exercises in things that aren't stretchy. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

7% Growth

One of the first pieces I ever wrote for this space related to a trip I made to Hong Kong back in 1995. Indeed, it was actually a series of email letters I wrote to family and friends on that trip that formed the basis for that column. Titled "Where First meets Third," it focused on the unique spot the city occupied at the intersection of the developed world and the developing. I wrote about the bamboo scaffolding used to build skyscrapers, and the computer shops that were cheek and jowl with shops featuring live chickens. And I marveled at the frantic energy and vitality of a place that seemed to be inventing itself on the spot.

Twenty years later, as I write this on a plane coming back from my most recent excursion there, I'm struck by how many of the themes I noted 20 years ago are still the same, even if the balance seems to have shifted a bit.

Of course, the biggest change is the fact that the city is no longer owned by the British, having been handed back to the Chinese in 1997. That said, even though it reports to a communist master, it retains its separate and special status as a capitalist outpost. Indeed, it practices, flaunts and displays its economic freedom like few other places in the world. Buildings that were new waterfront property when I was there two decades ago are gone, or pushed inland by the expansion not only of the economy but of the very ground on which it is built. You see it happening before your eyes: as I got off the Star Ferry, I watched a fleet of bulldozers push load after load of dirt into the water with the goal of creating even more land.

As one person said to me, "this is what 7% growth looks like." Sure, there are tenement apartments with laundry fluttering from windows, not to mention the occasional foodstuff. But more and more you see new high rises, some gleaming, some more functional. Hardly a block goes by that doesn't have construction, with some sites taking up hectare after hectare. That adds to traffic which was already legendary: even pedestrians can face a detour of several blocks just to get to the other side of the street.  

The wealth that flows into the city has led to the creation of a huge number of high-end marble, glass and steel shopping malls populated by luxury brand stores. Somebody must be buying, but most look empty, staffed by bored clerks whiling away the time among the Channel bags and Tiffany jewelry and Manolo shoes by tapping endlessly on their smartphones. The old rabbit warren of stores in Kowloon still exists, but among the tailor shops and noodle counters are Starbucks counters and Samsung galleries. And while the Ladies and Temple street markets have become even more infested with knockoff handbags and "copy watches," you can still find the locals shopping at butchers in Wan Chai who display their wares as a bloody meat-wall along the street, or at stalls in Apliu street featuring cheap clothing, interspersed with other specialty sellers, one with old tools, one selling nothing but magnets, another displaying hundreds of old remote controls.

There're lots more of these collisions of old and new. The WiFi is ubiquitous, and the electronic gadgets plentiful and cheap. The MTR, the local subway, still astounds with its gleaming stations and trains with no partitions between cars, creating seemingly endless hallways gliding along. Restaurants flaunting Michelin stars seem everywhere, with prices seeming even more stratospheric because of the nearly 8 to 1 exchange rate.  

But just a few streets away from all that you can find grubby booths with a few rickety tables doling out bowls of soup and piles of prawns for just a few dollars. There are still stalls with live chickens and frogs just waiting to be dinner. And next to a vendor displaying computer cables is an old man selling a collection of old shoes, some pictures, a wooden flute and a wheelchair.  

There was talk of the world taking an Asian pivot, a Chinese 21st century. To be sure, it's pretty early in the game to tell if that characterization will stand the test of time. But Hong Kong isn't waiting. It's still First and Third, but the former is most definitely squeezing the out the latter.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves going to Asia. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Do I Know You?

I like to think I'm generally a helpful person. I hold doors open and offer to help carry things. If something is broken, I'm happy to try and fix it. As needed, I offer to take out the trash, bring in the groceries, stand in line. In the past I have even offered to help with the laundry, but after throwing one too many thing that shouldn't have gone into the dryer into the dryer, I'm been asked by my wife to focus my good intentions elsewhere.

So when I got an inquiry from Amazon about a new computer that I had just purchased, I was quick to respond. Mind you, this wasn't a request for a review. If you buy anything online, odds are you have gotten this kind of followup response. You're asked to rate the item or transaction, give it 3 stars or 4 rainbows or 5 rockets, and asked for any pithy comments you might have. Your responses are used for a crowd-sourced critical evaluation of said product or service. (See GA #941 "Sitting in Judgement") But anyone who has ever read a Yelp review knows that these need to be taken with a large grain of salt ("The hamachi handroll had rice falling out of it. This place sucks."). Still, as long as you view them with a healthy degree of skepticism, they can help you find the Dustbuster of your dreams.

No, this was a specific question, and was even identified as coming from a specific customer: "L. Clark wants to know: How many total USB ports? Is there wifi?" I assumed the question was posted for anyone who had bought that machine recently. True, it wasn't one of those "I've never seen this before, does anyone know how to fix it" type of inquires that the internet excels at answering. ("Old glue smeared on your desk? Try peanut butter!") It was a simple factual inquiry, one that could just as easily been answered by looking the specifications listed online. But hey, as I said, I'm a helpful guy, and so I responded with the facts: "6 ports and yes, wifi." I hit send, and assumed that was that.

But the next day, another one appeared in my inbox. And it wasn't just another random question; that I would have understood. Had that been the case, I would have assumed the system flagged me as a a person who liked answering questions, and so steered others my way. No, this was from once again from Mr. or Mrs. L. Clark, writing as if we now had the basis of a relationship: "Thank you Marc! Do you own this computer? And would you recommend it? Any issues?" I half expected there to be a dinner invitation at the end.

So here's where I stopped being helpful. I quickly wrote back to Amazon, howling my unhappiness. It's one thing if I choose to answer anonymously a technical question about something for which I might have some insight. But it's another for them to be go telling some random person what I am interested in and/or purchased and/or own, and give them my name. Amazon says they don't reveal the emails of those who answer questions. But with identity theft being such a pervasive problem, just how hard would it be to put the pieces together? I'm sure Mr. or Mrs. L Clark is a lovely person living in Charlotte or Des Moines or Santa Clara. But if he/she is really a hacker named Stosh from Estonia, my buying habits are just the kind of info he would need to pose as me online. After all, as Peter Steiner's famous cartoon noted, on the internet no one knows you're a dog.

That said, I haven't become a reformed helper, whose seen the error of his ways. Since this exchange, I helped my wife with her web site. I helped a client carry some boxes. I helped a women on the train put her suitcase in the overhead rack. My natural inclination is still to lend a hand, for people I know as well as those I don't. And I don't want to change that. That said, I don't want Stosh using my good nature against me. But if you really are a Mr L. Clark from Des Moines, them my apologies: the computer works just fine.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't mind answering questions. Usually. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online atGlancing Askance, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter