Tag Archives: consumers

You’re Getting To Be a Habit With Me

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Random House, $28.00, 400 pages)

Charles Duhigg is a highly educated (Harvard and Yale) business reporter (The New York Times), who is the epitome of the thorough investigative reporter.   In past weeks, Duhigg and his publicist have been circulating a flurry of teaser articles and Twitter posts that include excerpts from his just-released book.   The teasers are eye-catching because most folks in the USA shop at Target, buy household air fresheners (unless they are featured on A&E’s Hoarders) and like to think that the choices they make are acts of free will.   He has also been travelling on an aggressive cross-country tour of major media outlets.

As to whether folks really have the ability to make their own choices, not really, according to Duhigg.   His book supports a hypothesis that most, if not all, daily activities are the result of a habit loop consisting of a cue, routine and reward.   This behavior loop is applicable at the personal as well as organizational and societal levels.   Granted, the author has met and exceeded the burden of proof imposed by such a strong theme; however, too much of a good thing is not always the most pleasing event.

This reviewer was immediately interested in the book after reading an excerpt that focused on Target stores and the extensive shopper profiling that takes place thanks to a sophisticated computer program that slices and dices purchasing data.   A quick glance at my to-be-read shelf revealed an advance reader’s edition (ARE) of this very book.   A few chapters into the book, a familiar feeling arose.   It was similar to the one you get after watching a movie that had fabulous trailers/coming attractions but left little for the actual theater experience.   That’s how this reviewer felt – a bit let down, after reading The Power of Habit.   All the catchy and engaging information was in the teaser articles.   Absent these elements, the book became a traditional survey (overview) of the force of habit.

The sonorous, heavy tone of the text may have been lightened with the final editing process.   It’s doubtful that the notes and sources section was reduced.   It occupies nearly 20% of the book!   Hopefully, the charming diagrams made it to the release version.

Recommended for readers who are extremely curious about the force of habit.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Power of Habit was released on February 28, 2012.   The original title on the ARE was The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It. 

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A review of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business by Charles Duhigg.

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Somebody’s Watching You

The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do by Eduardo Porter (Portfolio Hardcover, $27.95, 304 pages)

“There was a time when the United States offered workers a shot at prosperity.”

“The nicer the nice, the higher the price / This is what you pay for what you need. / The higher the price, the nicer the nice. / Jealous people like to see you bleed.”   Sylvester Stewart (AKA Sly Stone)

Author Eduardo Porter relies on well-known and documented studies for background in supporting his thesis that each thing we decide to purchase has a price.   The price does not always make sense to us.   Moreover, some prices are so attractive that they lead us to make wrong-headed decisions.  

Porter has divided his study into nine elements, each of which carries enormous importance for almost everyone.   The chapter devoted to things reveals some surprising conclusions such as that auctions are searches for fools, those who would actually pay more than an item’s true worth.   The most compelling chapter for this reviewer is about the price of life.   While life is generally perceived as priceless, there are strict rules regarding the criteria used to arrive at the specific figures for victim compensation awards.   (Talk to any law student who has taken Torts and he/she will explain this further.)

The direct approach taken in this book may be a bit jarring for some readers.   And the discussion of the price of women contains phrasing that is sometimes confusing.   This reviewer needed to reread certain passages in order to understand – or attempt to understand – the conclusion(s) drawn by the author.  

This survey book is reminscent of others that have used an organizing principle, like The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, to bring the reader to an intended conclusion.   Recommended – although the price of $27.95 for just 300 pages seems a bit high!

Ruta Arellano

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   “A fascinating journey through what we see every day – but do not think enough about.   Eduardo Porter makes you think hard about the corporate interests at work behind the veil of prices (and much more).”   Simon Johnson, co-author of 13 Bankers.

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Split Decision

The sub-title of Trade-Off is “Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t.”   It is a title that describes the book itself, which both worked and didn’t work for this reader.   In it Kevin Maney describes “the ever-present tension between quality and convenience” in the business world.   A better way of understanding this is his statement that companies can either be needed or loved…  Something he explains by looking at numerous companies that made the mistake of trying to be both needed and loved.

One clear example is Starbucks.   The company went from being a dependable brewer of bold coffee in select locations to – seemingly overnight – a company whose “shops” were everywhere; a company that tried to sell its customers everything from books to records to dishware.   Its standard mission of selling bold coffee seemed to be lost in its great expansion plans.   By getting bigger, Starbucks became smaller in the eyes of its customer base.   And its exclusivity – its value – was lost.

Think of Nordstrom.   If Nordstrom suddenly expanded to the point where you could find one of its stores next to every 7-11 or Wal-Mart, what would you think about it?   At the least, one would think that it had become ordinary and that something must be “wrong” with the merchant.   This illustrates another accurate point made by Maney, “Great companies figure out what they can do better than anyone else in the world, and then relentlessly focus on that.”

Yes, but the all-too-great temptation is to try to do other things, new things, and this is where companies from Motorola (RAZR, anyone?), to Starbucks, to Coach and Tiffany have stumbled.   Right this minute I see the same thing happening with Target, which has gone from being a solid purveyor of quality mid-level customer goods to one which is a sad knock-off of Wal-Mart.   Someone at Target’s corporate headquarters has decided to not let Target be Target, which is unfortunate.

So Maney does a fine job when it comes to making the point, repeatedly, that a business can offer either quality or convenience – it cannot do both.   Many will try to cross the line from quality to convenience – Starbucks again being the best example – and pay a high price for it.   And does anyone remember Krispy Kreme?

About four-fifths of the way through Trade-Off, however, Maney begins drinking his own Kool-Aid.   He began the book by being needed and he succumbs to trying to be loved, giving the reader his prognostications – his guesses – as to how certain businesses can be “fixed.”   His writings become rather silly at this point.   He jumps into the health care debate and decides that “doc in the boxes” are the future, notwithstanding that this trend came and went in the 80s and 90s, and the facts – as he admits – are that they tended to be cash-only enterprises (which does not help those without health insurance) staffed by nurse practitioners and R.N.s rather than licensed physicians.

Maney also goes on to describe the current circulation problems with newspapers.   As a former reporter, his solution is for newspapers to target boomers in their print version, and young people with jazzy internet versions.   This is just plain ridiculous.   Young people avoid certain papers because they’re seen as irrelevant to their own lives.   In my own community of  Sacramento, for example, the alternative Sacramento News & Review sells more advertisements every week, while our mainstream paper claims it cannot find sufficient advertisers due to the recession.   Right… 

There’s simply no way a mainstream newspaper is going to design a website that attracts young readers who are avoiding that paper – that outdated (and un-cool) brand – in droves.   A better solution would be to de-construct what it is that makes the alternative paper attractive [hint: it has an attitude] and attempt to imitate it, although it is probably too late in the day for many of today’s – or rather yesterday’s – newspapers.   It may simply be that their time has come and gone.  

Near the end of Trade-Off  Maney writes, “I hope the trade-off was worth it.”   In the case of this $23.00 list book, the answer is no.   This likely would have made a great airline magazine article, good for passing a half-hour or 45 minutes in the air.   As a business-consumer psychology survey, it winds up being simply ok.   Maney lost more than he gained by going past the book’s logical ending point and filling it with stuffing.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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A review of Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t by Kevin Maney.

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