Customer Service: Loyal Forever

PeerlessOne simple act of thoughtfulness committed me to ACE Hardware forever.

Sunday morning, nearly 25 years ago, I discovered our kitchen faucet dripping uncontrollably into the dark spaces below our sink.

Ever notice how they bury all those pipes in tight dark spaces? If you are 2 feet tall, you have infinite opportunity as a plumber.

The ACE Hardware in our town was one of our happiest discoveries while moving to our new home. It was where I found that most plumbing solutions were assembled and designed for do-it-yourselfers like me.

Fully confident that I could replace the faucet, I walked into the store and with a foggy image of what I needed, armed with drawings and measurements, I bought stuff.

I had help. The plumbing guy there picked it all out for me.

At home, I took a break for lunch, and afterwards spread all the new parts across the floor, preparing to install a brand new faucet, with all the fixings.

One of the basic life rules that I adopted at early age is: “You will need to go back to the hardware store at least once.”

Indeed, after turning off the water, and undoing some foundational pipes, I realized I had measured badly. So packing up the merchandise, I returned to the store, and the plumbing guy set me straight with new stuff.

The afternoon slipped by as I puttered with the pipes, and rings and washers and bushings and other pieces I had never seen before in my life.

The truth is, we had a cold Sunday dinner as the water was still turned off, and I had encountered additional under-the-sink challenges which had telescoped my supposedly quick DIY job into a kind of major plumbing overhaul.

The kitchen floor was cluttered with wrenches and pipes and fittings lined up like the landing craft on D-Day.

A second life rule is: ” ‘At least once’ means ‘probably more like two or three times’ .”

As it turned out, I returned to the store 15 minutes before closing time, desperate to get my pipe problems resolved. The plumbing guy was there, packing up his stuff, thermos on the counter, ready to go.

He walked towards me as I held a plastic bag with the parts, the manufacturer’s instructions, and a look of defeat on my face.


I explained how some part wouldn’t work, how water oozed out, and how I was now the source of my family’s extreme disappointment.

With that, he emptied the bag onto the floor of the store. Next he arranged every piece in sequence according to the manufacturer.

“Yunno, the instructions don’t always account for little details.   Let’s add a couple of these.” He added an additional set of washers.

Satisfied, he watched as I drew the configuration onto my notes, and smiled.

“OK, that’s going to work. Count on it.”

He gathered up all the plastic and bars and steel fittings, put them back into the bag, and walked me to the door as the counter staff was heading for the light switch.

Back home, I was greeted by the family, who looked like relatives called to the hospital, waiting for the surgeon’s bad news.

Again on my knees in the kitchen, I assembled the pipes and clinched the last into place. Down in the basement, I turned the water back on.

Then upstairs to the sink where I flipped on the brand new sparkling faucet, and rejoiced with the steady clear stream of water. Under the sink: dry as a bone.

The lesson from all of this was that DIY is challenging, but also very satisfying when it works. More important, ACE’s plumbing guy had stuck by me, and saw the job through.

As a result, I have been a raving fan, ever since.

direct mail, Economics, Marketing

Just Like Money

<<Spoiler Alert: The incredible reason why retailers flood our pockets with cash every day.>>

Mailbox Money

The mailbox delivers the green– for consumer and marketer alike.

We are having an outrageously good time with store coupons.  As we exit the mall, it takes a 50-pound anchor tied to our belts to stop us from running frantically, eyes over our shoulders, across the parking lot to our get away car.


Kohl’s, one of America’s most renowned stores, mails us $10 cash coupons with no strings attached.  “Just spend it!”


"Here's a discount card, no wait, here's TWO discount cards!  Go shop!"

“Here’s a discount card, no wait, here’s TWO discount cards! Go shop!”

Carter’s throws in a 20% discount for a $40 purchase.  And another– 15% off everything, period.

Bed Bath & Beyond churns out $5 coupons faster than the U.S. Treasury, which is saying something.

Ulta hands us $3.50 just to spend $10.   We have enough conditioner for the entire cast of Muppet Movie 3.

BBBY coupons come so quickly we bale them.

BBBY coupons come so quickly we have to bale them.

For some, coupons are clutter in the mailbox.  For many, they reveal how weak we really are.  Despite our supposed disdain for direct mail, we read each coupon carefully…. and then sneak into the store late Sunday night with a fistful, and a bag over our head.


‘Just can’t spend the coupon fast enough.

At our house, coupons are incendiary devices, capable of exploding into flames when placed in the pocket.

For instance, I am mailed a $5.00 rebate card from ACE Hardware.   The card sits between the salt and pepper shakers, Tasering me to rise from my chair, go to ACE and buy something, even a bag of sheep manure, just to use the money.

ace manure

Buy something— anything!

My wife is a coupon maven.  She gets the deal, but escapes the accompanying load-up the marketer hoped for.

For instance, that $10 cash gift from Kohl’s?   She tenders it, usually on a $20 item marked down to $10.00.  “Look honey:” she beams, “7 pairs of  underwear, for nothing!”   Totally void of guilt.   Butter would not melt in her mouth.

So how does the retailer really fare with these incredible deals?

Not bad, if you look at the right numbers. does an excellent job of capturing all the publicized deals of a retailer.   It spins them back to any shopper savvy enough to ask for them online.   The company regularly totals results, and in the case of Kohl’s, reports the average shopping cart is $66.43 before $18.04 in coupon savings.  A 22% discount.    That’s a promotional cost, and it comes out of gross profit.

"Take this money, please!"

“Take this money, please!”

January 2014 Kohl’s gross profit margin was 36.49%….. 7 and 11 points better than Target and Walmart respectively.

Kohl’s cost of goods (COGS) was 63.51%.

So are the Kohl’s people nuts, or is this normal business to throw gobs of money out the window?

It boils down to how much Kohl’s will pay to get an extra visitor into the store.

Bottom line: a profit with every sale.

Bottom line: a profit with every sale.

Say they mailed a 1,000,000 coupons, and 15% were redeemed.   150,000 purchases!   But set aside 30,000 purchases for those folks who would have bought the items anyway.   So the mailing generated 120,000 additional transactions, each with a shopping cart of $66.43.  That’s $7,971,600 in extra sales.   But the 22% discount takes away $2,164,800.  And subtract the mailing cost of $320,000.   Kohl’s is left with $5,486,800 cash to pay for the goods sold: $5,062,763 ($7,971,600 x 63.51% COGS).

Bottom line, Kohl’s promotion cost $2,484,800  and delivered $424,037 in extra profit. That is a 17.1% ROI.  Not bad.  You can’t run your whole business that way, but to generate extra sales and margin, still a pretty good day.

And here’s another perspective: the promotion delivered 120,000 extra store visits at a cost of $20.71 each.  And because the gross margin on each cart was $24.24 ($66.43 x 36.49%), Kohl’s did better than break even.

So that is why you find oodles of deals in your mailbox every week.   They work!


“Buy one, get one free!”

And my bottom line? I am looking for a deal on rubber boots.  To spread the sheep stuff.


If you got this far, I hope you took in all the math.  As with all retailers, these are big, scary numbers.   But well targeted direct mail makes them work.   Please share this article if you liked it!  Thanks.





Stringing Me Along

twinkle lightsNo doubt you have your lights up.   The annual ritual of hanging Christmas lights started about seven minutes after Master Bradford cleaned the last buffalo wing off the Thanksgiving plate in New Plimouth, in 1621.   Since that very day we, as a reasoning people, have been asking ourselves why we get sucked into buying more of those little twinkle lights every year.

These insidious strings have over 100 small, incandescent bulbs stuck in little sockets like poison darts.   At the store they appear smartly  packaged in plastic frames, efficiently coiling 25 feet of 3-ply electrical cord.   The bulbs are lined up like little glass medical phials, waiting to be plucked from their beds.   There is even a bonus packet containing a blinker bulb which, when engaged, turns the whole string into a tawdry window display for an all night pizza stand.

Lynch House.jpg

And the price for this residential street weapon: dirt cheap.    So it’s not hard to throw a couple more strings into the shopping cart during the weekly trip to ACE Hardware.   The rationale behind the purchase is that this year we are really going to show that supercilious twit across the street how we can tart up our roof gutters, window frames, mail box and chimney wreath better than him any day, hands down.

Which gets to the nut of the problem.   Once the tangle of a thousand lights has been festooned across every stationary object on our front yard including the lawnmower, we turn on the power.   Just like the movies, three strings don’t fully light.   150 bulbs are freezing dead black, at the top of the crabapple, and wrapped in and around a downspout.

string of lights

They worked fine when we tested them in the garage.  The act of hanging however has a terminal effect   I’m sorry–  I can’t begin to explain this many-layered pun to you.

It is the conundrum I repeatedly face: how can a civilized and sophisticated species like ours invent machinery that can create such elegant packaging, but can’t get the blinking (sorry) lights to work??

Christmas Lights

Anyway, moments before the recycling truck came rumbling down our street yesterday, I salvaged the three “dead” strings from the bin, and took them back to the basement.    I threw them onto the workbench like a bushel of seaweed–  this green tangle of plastic, copper and glass spikes.   I plugged in a set, and fingered down the glowing string until I came to the block of 50 dead lights.

Then I did something radical, and unwittingly logical.   Unplugging the string, I cut the dead block of lights off with my pliers.   Plugged the string back in, and the first 50 bulbs lit up, with no spray of sparks or numbing jolt up my arm through the back of my head.    Encouraged, I cut the the other two strings, and smiled at my thriftiness.   I had three strings of lights, shorter, but working.

Getting braver, I wondered if I could save the three dead strings too.   A little more tricky, I attached a new plug to one of  the severed strings.   Flying on one wing now;  metaphorically, driving 60 miles an hour into a fog bank.    I plug this string into the wall, but the lights don’t go on.   In fact, all the lights go out.   Not on the string, but in the house.


I am pretty sure that the circuit breaker in the darkest part of the basement hiding behind a curtain of cobwebs will be switched off, and if I am quick, I can get it back on.    This is not the problem.   The real challenge is to re-set the clocks:  the stove clock, the microwave clock, the alarm clock and then endure a 7-minute blackout on the TV waiting for our beloved cable company to resume its flow of NCIS re-runs.   And then–  to reset my ears.   They have been pinned by my better half, the lady who grudgingly allows me not quite enough rope to hang myself on a daily basis.

This year, I am going to let “Sparky” across the street have his moment in the glow of 18,000 lights.   With any luck, the electric company will make him a “preferred customer”, and send him to Niagara Falls to take notes.

Mean time, I am going to ACE.