99p is The New Free

Yes, it seems it’s ebook week on The Lunch.

Free books

Free books (Photo credit: randomduck)

On just about every high street in Britain there is some kind of mis-named Pound Shop, selling things for 99p, and it’s a well-known psychological effect that we think that 99p is vastly cheaper than a pound because it has less digits, even if our subconscious obsession with lower numbers in buying but higher in selling leads us to all have jam jars full of pennies.

The odd thing though is a shift in the area of “free” goods.  On Amazon and other ebook stores there are thousands of free ebooks, some are actual out-of-copyright classics, some are good books simply written for the enjoyment of it and given away, others are free just to be generous and helpful.  The problem is that we often assume that if something is always free then it must be of lower quality, whereas we will eagerly grab a book that’s normally £3.99 but is reduced for a day to £0.00.  This idea of low quality is reinforced by many writers and journalists who have said that only crap writers do it for free [Andy looks at own not-for-profit blog and sighs].

This is a problem for new authors who are publishing solely electronically – price it too high and buyers might not want to take a shot at an unknown, give it away and it’s likely that people will see the words “FREE = CRAP” with memories of bookstore remainder bins in the back of their minds.

There has emerged a middle ground, more and more books are being published at 99p, cheap enough to be a potential throwaway purchase but someone thinks it’s worth actually charging money for which gives you a bit of confidence that it’ll be worth it.  It also feels like you’re getting a bargain even if it’s not reduced.

Amongst the ebook chaff there is wheat and if this idea gets it noticed then it doesn’t matter whether crap gets sold at the same price – that’s what Amazon’s reviews sections are for.

 

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Electric Hands and Aluminium Kitchens

chisels

chisels (Photo credit: The Year of Mud)

I was watching a TV show which showed a restaurant and the customers kept talking about all this “home cooked” food, OK it was a family restaurant, owned by the same family for generations but I was sure that they just showed the food being cooked in a very shiny, very metallic, very up to hygiene standards industrial restaurant kitchen behind the counter.  Do they live upstairs?  I thought.  On other shows this pattern repeated, maybe it’s the decor that’s making people think “home cooked”, don’t they know it’s not the owner’s dining room.

Next up came the description of hand-made food items which again didn’t seem quite what I would call “hand”-made, although hands were involved in some ways, moving the ingredients, pushing the button, turning the handle.

“The meat is still prepared by hand” – the guy pushed a piece of meat into a machine.  No knife, no hammer.

“Hand-cut fries” – the guy pushed a potato into a device and pulled a handle.  Again, no knife.

It’s not just restaurants though, more and more (often expensive and exclusive) things are described as “hand-made” when they’re in fact made by a machine and assembled by hand.  A chair leg hand-turned on a lathe is still hand-made, the hand that guides the chisel, but a cabinet where all the joints are routed by a set machine rather than a hammer and chisel – is that still hand-made?

Eventually I’ve come to the conclusion that the term hand-made, along with home-cooked has come to mean the opposite of “made in a huge mass-production facility in China”.  TV shows have shown examples of some mass-production methods used by food producers, occasionally emphasising the less savoury looking aspects – the infamous “pink goo” – which doesn’t look appetising it’s true but restaurants don’t make food like factories, they mass produce just on a smaller scale, I’ve done a large spaghetti Bolognese at home but not enough for a table for ten at eight.

As well as that people know that fast-food or large chain restaurants have frozen food items shipped in nightly to be warmed up which are as such full of preservatives and evil whereas in a small restaurant the food is made properly, just like you’d have at home, hence home-made.  Even if the mass-produced stuff is 100% beef and the home-made one is just as bad for you if you scoff too many.

Maybe I’m being picky over semantics, again, but even home-made “home-made” food can come from a kit you buy at M&S these days.

In our world where just about everything is manufactured in a factory, see How It’s Made on TV, people are more often craving the hand made for its roughness, lack of uniformity – in things like cakes and chocolate bars, but if you phrase it differently “made by hand” or “hand finished by Barry” suddenly you can charge a fortune for it, whether it’s a watch or an Aston Martin engine.  The irony is that less than forty years ago Fiat ran a campaign for the new Strada expressing how amazing it was that it was Hand Built by Robots.

If you can market something as home-made or hand-made you can imply it’s more wholesome in some way, even if many of the ingredients still contain colourings and preservatives, when used deliberately this way it’s tapping into consumers’ resistance to “processed foods” which are full of salt, fat or MSG.  You can also sell to those following the current fashion of seeking out “authentic” experiences, like rustic furniture, timber sash windows, overpriced hearty bangers and mash or real ale at six pounds a pint – yes you read that right, a pub near here is offering an authentic real ale in a real pub experience for just six quid a go. Again they’re selling people the idea that the past was better, that retro is the way forward, so to speak.

I think I’ll stick to my real real pub across the town at half the price, followed by a decidedly not home-made battered sausage.

 

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Who Did The Work, Exactly?

Woman with phone screaming.How do you make someone feel like nothing more than an automaton, like some kind of puppet operated by an all-knowing master, how do you make someone feel like they’re pretty worthless?

I’ll tell you.  It’s happened to me, it’s happened to many people I know, it happened to my mum and her colleagues when she was a care assistant at an elderly people’s home.

As the staff member you spend much time finding out information, you carefully manufacture something, you arrange for some work to be done, you do all you can to make an elderly relative’s final months as comfortable as possible – add your own job role here.  At the end of the process the person who you’ve done all this for – i.e. the customer, the client, (in my experience usually well off, a business owner) doesn’t say thankyou to you but instead says, to your face, “oh, pass my thanks on to [insert boss/manager’s name here] and tell them I’ll owe them a bottle of wine for all he/she’s done.”

Well, you’re welcome, you think.  You may not be doing the job for the thanks or praise but a little of your soul gets worn down.

 

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The Personal Touch

so happy smiling cat

so happy smiling cat (Photo credit: [puamelia])

I’m currently enjoying my week off but on Monday I did have to go to the bank to pay the only bill I don’t pay by Direct Debit and also pay some money in to my account.

As I’ve written about before I’m no fan of the new automated paying-in and bill paying machines with which I have a difficult history, so as the bank was quiet I went to a teller without being dragged back to the machine this time.  I said good morning and so on and told the lady what I wanted to do, she then told me that I could do the same using the machines, I told her in a round-about way that the machine and I are not on amicable terms at the moment.

She glanced at her screen after I’d put my card in the reader and smiled, saying “one thing the machine can’t do is wish you a Happy Birthday.”

Which gave me a smile and a warm feeling inside which technology just can’t match.

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Too Good To Be True?

Texting Emoji

Texting Emoji (Photo credit: IntelFreePress)

So I received a text from my mobile network, it’s an offer to entice me to buy a new phone.  It’s the next phone up in the range from the one I have and if I was to wander down to my local network shop and buy it right now, and top up with £20 I’d get a FREE Bluetooth speaker worth £70.  Seventy pounds, yes, really.  The phone alone costs £79!

Immediately I thought, that’s good, tempting, I could take the old phone to Cash Converters.  It’s all to easy to just go ahead and get the deal but as I do I thought, hang on is that really a good deal?  Via the web I found that the phone doesn’t look as nice as the one I have, the screen is only a smidge larger, the processor only a tad faster, the memory only a whisper bigger and the version of Android only a decimal point newer.

On top of that the FREE speaker can be bought on Amazon for £30.  Which is £70 less than the total cost of the new phone.

It’s easy to be caught in the headlights of a speeding special offer but it’s best to leap aside and have a good look at it as it goes by, think “do I really need this” and if not watch it recede into the distance, maybe wait for the next one.  Which won’t be far behind, inevitably.

The Colour of Fashion

Blue ice

Blue ice (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

When is pastel blue not pastel blue?

When its the colour of a pair of skinny jeans that you’re trying to sell to men and you don’t want them to sound “feminine”.  The colour when applied to mens jeans is “Ice Blue” or “Ice Green”.

Ice.  Green.  Since when has ice been green?  Yellow snow maybe.

But yes, ice is cool.  Literally.  Ice, Ice , Baby, c’mon.  Yes, showing my age there.  Anyway, I am reliably informed by the link suggestions on the side of my WordPress screen that such coloured jeans are the new trend, it’s true, see the links below.   And the colours are not pastel, they’re ice.

This is the odd thing about clothing manufacturers, who do they ask when they’re conducting market research, it certainly isn’t me.  Take outdoor clothing, when it comes to mens’ garments the colour choice is boring to say the least – bright red, bright blue, green, navy blue and black typically.  You see the occasional bright green jacket and sometimes orange ones that just look like safety jackets or yellow ones that make you look like the Jolly Fisherman.  You see a purple one, a turquoise or teal one, a tasteful green or a red other than signal red and it turns out to be a womans’ jacket.  The only exceptions tend to be very expensive which is perhaps the crux of the matter and returns us to the fashion jeans – the only companies willing to take the risk on something different and individual in mens clothes are the ones with the highest price tags and exclusivity as a feature.

Update:  since writing this I have found a lovely almost teal blue winter jacket from Trespass at Winfields at Garforth near Leeds which was a bargain, sometimes you just have to be patient and travel to find what you want.

Unrealistic Expectations

Clock watcher

Clock watcher (Photo credit: Craig A Rodway)

It was once accepted that the average working day was nine-to-five, now it’s about eight-to-five, five-thirty at most.  Most people accept that everyone works generally those same hours but there seems to be an increasing expectation, perhaps perpetuated by supermarkets that are open either twenty-four hours or until late, that companies should work round the customers’ work hours.

You might expect a company to provide an emergency service, plumbing or electrics for example, but I’ve heard of people who were waiting for a visit for something non-urgent actually saying “well it’s ok, he can still come out at six or seven o’clock” – oh, can he?  Like the person carrying out the visit doesn’t have a home life to go to when his actual working day finishes.  The same goes for people who work during the day who often won’t actually ask “do you do evenings?” but just say “you’ll have to come out after six o’clock because I work.”  This just takes the old idea of “the customer is always right” to new levels as people behave increasingly selfishly, with little consideration to other people’s lives.

If I need to have some work done then I arrange to have a day off, so the work can be done in normal hours, unless it’s really an emergency.  If it’s non-urgent and I have no holidays left then it can wait.

Out of The Loop?

Call Centre

Call Centre (Photo credit: The Poss)

The term “Jobsworth” was coined long ago and people who are inflexible in their decision-making at work when they really could be are everywhere but today’s nationwide and worldwide companies are making it worse by making it institutionalised.  The problem with centralised customer services and computerised operations and logistics systems is that a person cannot make an on-the-spot decision to make things easier.

This is true of many things including transport, the prices of goods – where once staff have to jump through hoops to give a bit of a discount for a slightly damaged item for example, or loans where decisions are mostly made by computers based on credit scores.

There can’t be a grey area, decisions are yes, or often as the Little Britain sketch goes “computer says nooo”.  I have another parcel on a courier (Yodel) and they tried to deliver it while I was at work twice and then according to their website the only option then was to collect it from their depot, twenty miles away, that’s only open when I’m at work.  I rang them and the customer service person gave me the option to have it redelivered – when I’m at work.  I had to ring Amazon to change the delivery address to my work one – Catherine at Amazon was very nice and helpful.  What happened next was that I looked at Yodel’s site on the Saturday and the parcel was out for delivery – on a day that, according to their site and the customer service man, wasn’t  even an option; he was only able to look at the same data I had access to.  I was at home, I didn’t know whether Amazon’s request had gone though, whether they were delivering to my home or the work address I wasn’t at.  My parcel was in danger of travelling around more than January’s camera.

This inconvenienced me but it shouldn’t have; if I were able to call the local depot, talk to a person who has the parcel in front of them, someone who could say “we do actually deliver on Saturday, will you be at home then?”  I’d say yes and they’d schedule one more delivery attempt, I wouldn’t have had to ring Amazon.  I had stuff to do but I couldn’t because now I’ve got to wait in, if I’d known I could have done these things the day before as, being Good Friday I was off work – as were Yodel.

This reliance on computer systems is fine if the person accessing them has all the relevant data they need but often they don’t and these systems don’t often allow any flexibility whatsoever in the decision-making process.  “The computer says Tuesday so Tuesday it is, except it could be Saturday but because I’m two hundred miles away from the depot I don’t know that they have a van going out on Saturday and I wouldn’t have the authority to ask them to deliver on Saturday if I did anyway, and they might even just try again on Saturday even though the computer says you’ve got to fetch it yourself.”

Our company, and other small firms we work with have that flexibility, we can slot extra jobs in dynamically because not everything is set in stone.  Admittedly that can work the other way and things have to be rearranged.  It’s not just computers though that cause the problems, so many companies have inflexible rules that don’t allow people to give a little to provide good service.

If you can say to a customer who’s not got quite enough money with them “it’s only 20p difference, I’ll take what you’ve got there” or give them a little something for free whether it’s a bookmark, a pen, a handful of tacks or whatever it makes them feel that you’re doing something to help them, it gives them a warm feeling inside and makes them more likely to come back.  Not being able to bypass a rigid system, or not having the right information because of rules or “yes and no” computers makes the customer feel like they’re fighting a battle to get what they want.

Sometimes there’s no choice, as I’ve said before about warranties and the time it takes to make things but where a little flexibility is possible it shouldn’t be held back but allowed to make everyone’s life a bit more pleasant.

Sign of The Times

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We have two sites, a glassworks with trade counter and a plastic window factory.  Outside the plastic window factory is a sign with our logo on it which contains the word “glass”.  Nowhere does it say “glass sales” or “get your quality cut glass here, guvner.”

It does have a phone number on it.

A few weeks ago our chap at the factory rang me to warn me about an irate individual who was upset that he couldn’t get glass from our plastic window factory.  “It says glass on the sign and you’re telling me I’ve got to go to the other side of town, it’s disgusting, your managing director needs to take that sign down immediately, it’s misleading!”  He’d said, unnecessarily angrily.

When the man arrived at my counter I was in the middle of taking an order.  I said “I’ll be with you in a moment” but it seems he didn’t hear me because when I turned my attention to him he began to shout “Don’t bother, I’m not being treat with such ignorance by you, all the staff of this company are rude and arrogant, obviously you don’t have any customer care training.”  I told him I had and he demanded to see my certificate, which is at home, I don’t tend to carry it around in my wallet.  This exchange continued for a while, he’d clearly arrived looking for a confrontation as he felt he’d been wronged by our sign.  He wrote a letter to complain about the sign.  He didn’t get his glass.

About half an hour later a woman rang asking for an appointment for a quote, she lived quite a way out-of-town but had been to the main post office and seen the sign for our company on the building next door, and as she hadn’t been aware of our existence up until that point she thought she’d get a price from us for her windows as well as the other firms she’d asked.

Can you guess where she’d seen the sign?

The Sweet Smell of USB

From the random multi-purpose accessories department.

SAM_0064med

In a shop that sells a variety of items I saw a USB hub for 99p, now as I wanted a powered hub anyway I thought I’d get one.  On the box I noticed it had a disc on top marked with Open and Close.  Was this cable storage, batteries?

The cover was difficult to open but when it eventually gave in beneath it was a cotton pad in a holder screwed into the centre of the hub with no apparent means of removing it.

Stranger and stranger.

SAM_0062medThe box text was all in German, as were the instructions in the box.  So to find out what this strange device’s special feature was I turned to other technology.  I scanned the instruction sheet, used OCR software that came with the scanner to turn it into text for me then copied that into Google Translate.  Less than a second later I had my answer.

“USER GUIDE – USB Hub with Scented Oil Distribution”

I’ve seen USB drinks warmers, fans, reading lights, dancing flowers and Christmas trees but now I’d inadvertently found a USB hub that was also an air freshener.  Sweet.