How effective are religious and political billboards?

On a recent long drive, I noticed two additional types of billboards compared to the typical ones selling good and/or services: religious billboards and political billboards. These do not comprise a majority of billboards in my observations – or even a significant minority – but there were at least a few. Such efforts raise several questions for me:

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  1. Do religious and political billboards reach a large audience compared to other forms of media advertising? Compared to some other forms of advertising, the audience along the road might be more known: traffic counts are known and drivers who use a particular road or go through a particular location are a particular group. This may be more targeted advertising with a known number of daily viewers.
  2. Do people seeing religious or political billboards respond to them similarly or differently compared to commercial billboards? The medium of a billboard requires a fairly simple message as people go by them at a high speed. An image or two and limited text are possible. People are used to commercial appeals. So, does anything change if a Bible verse is on a sign? I know there is a religious marketplace in the United States but does a billboard encourage more religiosity? Or, does an image of a politician and a short statement catch people’s attention? Are these just like other billboards, or, because religion and politics can be personal and contentious, do they provoke more engagement or more turning away?
  3. My bigger question about billboards and all forms of advertising: how much does it influence behavior? I saw these billboards, they caused me to think a little and I am blogging about the concept here, and any other ongoing influence is hard to ascertain. In my lifetime, I have seen thousands of billboards, just as I have likely seen hundreds of thousands of advertisements in other forms. I know they influence people but it is hard to connect the dots between billboards and change.

I will keep looking for and reading more unusual billboards. At the least, they help break up a long drive.

In a society devoted to driving and business, what alternatives are there to rental cars?

The rental car industry has had a difficult year, customers are unhappy, and some companies are still making money. In a country that likes driving, has planned around driving, and has oodles of cars plus encourages business activity, what could be done to not depend on rental cars? A few options:

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  1. Car sharing services. There are more of these around today. Cut out the middle-man business and just deal with a private car owner for your transportation.
  2. Taxis and/or ride share companies. These are more available in some places than others and do not allow the same freedom as being able to drive a rental car wherever and whenever you would like.
  3. Public transportation. Even less available outside of denser urban areas. And even in places where mass transit is plentiful, many people still opt for private vehicles.
  4. Walking or bicycling. Very difficult and possibly dangerous in many locations.
  5. Borrowing a car from family or friends or doing without it for a time. It could be done but the location and time frame is very important.

Thinking back, I can recall multiple trips where a rental car was a necessity in order to get where we wanted to go. At the same time, some work trips did not require a vehicle because the location of the meeting was in a large city with public transit options. And if you are in a suburban or more rural setting and your car is in the shop for more than a day, a car rental may be very necessary.

Does this mean Americans must put up with rental cars forever? Perhaps someday there will be fleets of electric vehicles for all to access. Until then, renting a car may be a necessary evil.

Choices: lose out to Walmart and Amazon or adopt partnerships with tech companies to stay alive

The many corner stores around the world may be facing a choice about how to survive in the coming years:

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One risk is that the infusion of tech money winds up making these independent businesses look and feel a lot more like chains. “The more you become digital, the more connected you are to the internet,” Lehr said. “The more connected you are to global trends, the more pressure you feel to do certain things.” The Indian start-up Jumbotail allows shopkeepers the opportunity to open one of the company’s branded J24 convenience stores, and S. Karthik Venkateswaran, Jumbotail’s co-founder and CEO, told me he envisions a world where consumers pass four different J24 stores throughout the course of their day. “Ubiquity is extremely important to us,” he said, but added that owners can still customize many aspects of their operations. “Every single store is different.”

But the other possibility is that by partnering with tech companies, these mom-and-pop shops might avoid the fate of getting squashed by giants like Walmart and Amazon, which can afford to sell the same goods at lower prices. To a certain degree, that’s already happened in the U.S., where Americans have been lured away from small businesses by the conveniences of Amazon Prime. “We would love to have Morocco and developing countries have a different fate,” Belkhayat said.

In the global South, millions of these beloved stores could one day end up part of a new digital economy that looks distinctly different from that of the West. Instead of transitioning to big-box retailers, communities will continue relying on the same shops they have for generations, but they’ll have evolved into futuristic outposts that double as tiny warehouses, banks, and grocery-delivery hubs. At least for now, the global tech industry has landed on the oldest trick in the book: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

This choice – either partner with the big retailers or with the tech, finance, and other industries – is an interesting one. It certainly speaks to globalization in multiple ways. In terms of goods, these corner stores sell numerous important items and can provide key hubs for goods or services within a community. As those on the global scene look for ways to invest and make money, the corner store might be a goldmine. And the reach of products and finance and tech around the globe speaks to the numerous connections between people, organizations, businesses, and more. Then, each individual store might have the opportunity to stand out within its particular setting and because of the proprietor even as it slots into a global system.

I would also be interested to hear more about corner stores as local community institutions. In a private society like the United States, there are limited public spaces and shops are not always local or inviting. While a store involves private business transactions, it may also be a regular place for people to interact or utilize important services. If it provides local banking functions, this might involve might private individuals and communal activity.

Discovering the “unaccounted” time at work and then designing work spaces around that

I have considered the design of offices and work places before (here and here as two examples) but have not seen this particular issue described: when researchers found that workers had “unaccounted” time in the office, this led to changing the workplace and new problems.

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Wilkinson, who designed Google’s 500,000-square-foot Googleplex campus in Mountain View, California, says he had his first epiphany about the office in 1995. While reviewing old studies and surveys about worker habits, he came upon a study that measured how office workers spent their time between 9 am and 5 pm. He was immediately struck by just how much “unaccounted” time workers were spending away from their desks—that is, not in meetings or any other explicit work function. But Wilkinson found it hard to believe that all of these workers were taking multi-hour bathroom breaks or simply leaving the office together. They were still in the office; they were just hanging out in hallways, chatting in foyers, clustering around someone else’s desk as the occupant tells a story.

“It blew my mind,” he told us. “And it made our team realize that the planning of the office was fundamentally flawed.” His realization was straightforward: Office design had long revolved around the placement of desks and offices, with the spaces in between those areas treated as corridors and aisles. But that “overemphasis on the desk,” as Wilkinson recalled, “had worked to the detriment of working life, trapping us in this rigid formality.”

And so he set out to liberate it, shifting the focus of his designs to work that took place away from the desk. In practice, this meant designing bleachers and nooks in places that were once poorly lit corridors, and spacing out desk clusters to incentivize more movement among teams. A kinetic office environment, the idea went, could increase spontaneous encounters, which would then spark creativity. The design also allowed for private areas—many with comfy couches and plush ottomans to replicate a family room feel—to do deep work, away from the noisy bullpen of desks.

This led to tech campuses like that of Facebook, Apple, and Google. What could go wrong?

The danger Wilkinson is describing is, of course, exactly what happened. The new campus design had a profound impact on company culture. Some of that impact was undeniably positive: He created work spaces where people genuinely want to be. But that desire becomes a gravitational pull, tethering the worker to the office for longer and longer, and warping previous perceptions of social norms.

Two thoughts strike me from reading this book excerpt:

  1. The idea of “unaccounted” time. How much of human daily activity is not directly related to productivity or a particular task? How much of that unaccounted time has long-term benefits such as stronger relationships and closer community? Part of the full human experience is having unaccounted time. On the other hand, it is not a surprise that if that unaccounted time occurred on company time, corporations and organizations would want to maximize it. (See this recent post about time, space, and calendars pushed into predictable patterns.)
  2. Humans have the ability to shape buildings and other physical settings to encourage particular behaviors. Offices are not just empty receptacles into which workers are placed willy-nilly. Religious buildings shape worship and communal experiences. Land use policies encourage more private spaces or more public spaces and these choices have consequences. This is simply part of our daily lives where we shape and are shaped by the spaces we are in.

Sears in Illinois began as catalog, became a department store, and ends in a suburban shopping mall

Sears has come to the end of the retail road in Illinois at Woodfield Mall:

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The last Sears department store in Illinois, which closes Sunday in the Woodfield Mall nearly a century after the retailer opened its first store ever in the Merchandise building, looks very, very…beige right now, in its final hours. Like beige on beige. Like the color of back-to-school Toughskins in 1974, the color of your uncle’s Corolla in 1982 and the color of linoleum at the DMV in any decade.

It opened the same day that Woodfield — named for Sears executive Robert Wood and department store magnate Marshall Field — opened in 1971. It was the largest Sears then, boasting 416,000 square feet of sales floor. From the looks of it in late 2021, it’s hard to imagine anything changed in 50 years…

At its peak, Sears, once the largest retailer in the country, had 3,000 locations, so naturally this Woodfield store is far from alone. Also dead after Sunday are Sears department stores in Pasadena, California; Maui, Hawaii; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Long Island recently lost its last Sears department store; Brooklyn loses its last Sears on Thanksgiving Eve.

Indeed, seeing a Sears department store still serve as the anchor for a large mall right now is like a window into just how stormy and unmoored from the 21st century the American shopping mall has become. Sears sits at the south end of Woodfield, while JC Penny is at the northern end; Macy’s and Nordstroms occupy port and starboard sides.

There is a lot that could be lamented here (and is suggested in the piece): the experiences of many shoppers and employees, the connection of Sears and Chicago, bustling shopping areas now languishing, memories of earlier eras.

I find it interesting that the last Sears department store in Illinois closes in a shopping mall. And this is not just any mall: this is Woodfield, one of the largest in the United States, center of the fast-growing edge city Schaumburg. Department stores hit their stride in central business districts in the United States where rapid urbanization helped fuel consumer activity. But, the geography of business shifted as the population shifted to the suburbs. Department stores continued but now as anchors for a full range inside shopping experience primarily accessible by car. While suburbs are still growing, shopping malls are struggling and the fate of their department stores have both contributed to this decline and been affected by it.

The Internet may have hastened the decline of department stores but I wonder how much the move to the suburbs already weakened them. Stores need shoppers and it makes sense to move department stores closer to those shoppers (and other consumption opportunities). At the same time, the department store in a mall is different than the multiple floor downtown department store. Thinking along the same lines, how different are local stores, Sears, Walmart, and Amazon over time – which is the bigger jump and which factors mattered the most for the shift?

Thinking ahead, could the experience be recreated by putting a new Amazon store in the same spot? The location and infrastructure of the current setting is hard to beat. Shopping in person is still an important experience for many people even with Internet sales.

The boom and bust RV cycles of Elkhart

The latest rankings in the Emerging Housing Markets Index has Elkhart, Indiana at the top of the list:

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Small U.S. cities dominated The Wall Street Journal/Realtor.com Emerging Housing Markets Index in the third quarter, as high housing costs and remote-work opportunities drive many home buyers to seek out more living and outdoor space…

Elkhart, Ind., which bills itself as the RV capital of the world because its region is the country’s leading manufacturer of recreational vehicles, topped the housing index this quarter, followed by Rapid City, S.D., Topeka, Kan., Raleigh, N.C., and Jefferson City, Mo…

The recreational-vehicle industry is a major player in Elkhart’s economy. The Covid-19 pandemic spurred more RV demand, as households wanted to travel while keeping their distance from others. Wholesale RV shipments in the first eight months of 2021 rose 53.8% from the same period in 2020, according to the RV Industry Association…

The median home-sale price in Elkhart County rose 12.3% in August from a year earlier to $209,900, according to the Indiana Association of Realtors. There were 163 homes for sale that month, down from 220 a year earlier.

I am glad that Elkhart appears to be doing well at the moment. Having lived nearby for five years, the area has a lot to offer and economic development would be welcomed.

At the same time, it was not so long ago that Elkhart faced a difficult time. When the economy is not doing so well, such as in the late 2000s with a burst housing bubble, fewer people had money for RVs. Demand shrunk. Jobs disappeared. Before that, this area and South Bend were home to numerous manufacturers who went out of business or left. The homes have been cheaper here for a long time because few people want to move in.

It is good that this community in the Rust Belt at least has the opportunity to at times benefit from upticks in RV sales. Such industries and jobs could leave completely. But, having so many fates tied to one industry that can go up and down is trying in the long run. Numerous communities in the United States have looked to diversify their economic base – see the recent rush to add tech companies to their portfolios – even as they might have local economies based around a few companies or a few sectors. RVs may sell well one day and then conditions change and demand drops or new technology moves in. May Elkhart take some of this positive momentum and add to lineup of industries and services.

Using capitalist means, such as TV shows and consumer goods, to critique capitalism

Capitalism is the economic system of the United States and many other parts of the world. Can actors use capitalist means to critique capitalism? Two recent examples.

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First, television shows, films, and cultural products more broadly often contain critiques of capitalist systems and outcomes. For example, one writer highlights how this happens with the popular series Squid Games:

One of the key things wealth can buy is the ability to make decisions and change your circumstances. Money gives you options and choices. For everyone else in the vicinity of Just Getting By (or worse), choice is often little more than an illusion. Most of us fall into the latter category and perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Netflix Korean series “Squid Game” has become such a global phenomenon since premiering last month, with its brutal critique of capitalist imperatives and the traps therein…

Because is it really a choice — such a slippery word — when you’re this desperate? Is it really a choice when the systems we live by are put in place by the rich and powerful to deliberately create that desperation? Put another way: Scarcity in modern life is as manufactured as the life-or-death scenarios in “Squid Game.”

In the show’s view, we are powerless to band together, to refuse to play along or create a different reality. When pushed to the brink, we become selfish or scared or just beaten down. And ultimately, we turn on one another. Another clear thematic through-line: It is men who run and enforce these games, and it is men who watch them from afar as spectators numb to (or thrilled by) the suffering at hand…

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — the real-world embodiment of the show’s exploitative VIPs — tweeted congratulations to Netflix’s head honchos before adding: “And I can’t wait to watch the show”? Nothing bizarre or surreal about that, nope, nope, nope. Is this the part where I also mention that Netflix and Amazon are among the studios playing hardball with the union for TV and film crews in the U.S. on issues like livable wages, reasonable work hours and meal breaks? Everything is fine, pay no mind to all the contradictions we live with every day!

So wealthy studios, streaming services, and individuals put together and promote a series critiquing capitalism and there is plenty of money to be made off of this.

Second, consumers are regularly asked to purchase items or experiences that funnel money to worthwhile charities and causes. This could be celebrity-backed lines that donate a portion of the price to charity, religious organizations or civic groups selling items, or companies donating money through purchases. All of this assumes that purchases will be made and that consumers will want to purchase products or experiences that give back as opposed to ones just sold for profit. Consuming is the way to give, as opposed to just giving without the need for consumption.

Perhaps this is a consequence of the fact that anything can be made into a commodity. This includes items needed for daily survival to luxury goods to experiences to things that once were “sacred.” If anything can be bought and sold, including objects that critique the very system under which they are bought and sold, is there hope of a different reality?

Consumerism is also a powerful force. Whether consuming TV shows – binge-watching a critique of capitalism? – or consumer goods, the consumer is in a particular position of taking things in. I like the distinction I have heard from multiple sources over the last decade or so: there is a difference between being a consumer and a citizen. The first primarily takes while the second contains the ideas of duties, responsibilities, and obligations alongside personal or collective benefits.

What does it mean if the suburb of Naperville is the first US community to have two Amazon Fresh locations?

Signs point to a second Amazon Fresh store in Naperville and if it comes to reality, the suburb will be the only community in the country with two locations.

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All signs point to a second Amazon Fresh grocery store opening soon in Naperville.

While city officials haven’t been notified of definitive plans for the site at 1351 E. Ogden Ave., Naperville Director of Communications Linda LaCloche said Amazon Fresh recently applied for a liquor license at the location. An opening date is unknown, but the building is currently being renovated and looks similar to the city’s other Amazon Fresh location on Route 59.

Naperville would become the first city in the country with two Amazon Fresh grocery stores…

According to Amazon’s website, there are only four Amazon Fresh locations in Illinois. In addition to Naperville, there are stores in Bloomingdale, Oak Lawn and Schaumburg.

Naperville may not be the only two store location for long and being the first means something. What is so attractive about Naperville as a location? Here are a few possible reasons:

-It is a wealthy and large community: over 148,000 residents with a median household income of nearly $126,000 (both 2019 estimates). This adds up to a lot of potential customers. Naperville is known for high white-collar jobs and tech jobs. These could also provide a good customer base.

-Naperville as a community has received many accolades. It has a high quality of life, high performing schools, and a vibrant downtown. It is a high status community and companies like to associate with such communities.

-Naperville is in favor of business and growth. This dates back decades with pro-growth decisions in the postwar era, includes tax incentives for corporations, and a desire to improve the streetscape along Ogden Avenue, a major roadway.

-Naperville is outside Chicago and in the Midwest, “normal America” locations for testing new concepts and ideas.

Put this all together and Amazon finds it worthwhile to go forward with two locations in Naperville.

Amazon rediscovering department stores?

Amazon’s online empire is vast but it is also expanding its brick and mortar operations with plans to open department stores:

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What solves all of these problems—the high return rates, the cost-prohibitive last-mile freight, the logistics nightmares, the buyer frustration, and the monumental volume of consumer waste it all sends to landfills—on some level? Stores. Going to a store. In America especially, this notion was obvious for more than a century. Department stores were actually such a good idea, something that people like so much and that works so well, that the Gilded Age barons who invented them used their stores to create middle-class identity from near whole cloth and keep it going for generations.

Amazon helped kill most of those stores, but that has only created a vacuum into which more Amazon products and services are ready to be inserted. If Silicon Valley has taught us anything in the past two decades, it’s that if you have a bottomless pit of money, you can remake an industry in your image. You can acquire customers so quickly that they might not realize they don’t totally love everything you’re doing, and you can embed yourself in their lives in ways that would be tangled and inconvenient to remove, largely by snuffing out competition. Which leaves the retail industry in a precarious position: Amazon, and maybe a handful of its largest competitors, will go about deciding how you get to buy the things you need, with very little meaningful pushback. They’ll set prices, they’ll set labor conditions, and they’ll decide which things are too inefficient for you to buy online. Apparently, those things will go into a store.

Amazon and the companies like it invent the solutions to the problems they created, and you pay for them to be implemented. At least in some cases, physical stores may ultimately win out. You can try on your new pants, sit on your new couch, and leave with the thing you wanted immediately, which, it should be noted, is considerably faster than two-day delivery. Yes, you have to go to the store, but doing so will likely obviate the need for you to go to the post office—the dreaded post office—next week. Work smarter, not harder. It’s what Amazon would do.

A physical location offers certain conveniences. But, do not discount the embodied experience of shopping compared to online shopping. In a building, you can:

  1. See and possibly touch the item you want to purchase. This may matter more for some consumer goods than others.
  2. Browse and bump into things – literally. You can end up following rabbit trails online but this is different than seeing something unexpected or just look around.
  3. Be around other shoppers and enjoy the atmosphere. I wrote about this at Christmas; part of the fun is being around people and activity.
  4. Physical spaces can project status and emotions in ways that online portals cannot. The size and layout of department stores can impress and invoke particular feelings. Would you rather think about a soulless and endless Amazon warehouse or a fashionable and high-tech store?

Of course, some of these things can go awry. The item might not be in stock, you do not find what you are looking for, you have negative experiences with other patrons, and the experience is off-putting rather than exciting. But, Amazon might be at the point where they can offer compelling experiences in both realms in ways that others could not.

Is Visa a network more than a credit card?

Visa has a new campaign where they say they are a network. Here is what it looks like on their front page yesterday:

What is a social network? Here is how one sociology source talks about social network analysis:

Social network analysis is a way of conceptualizing, describing, and modeling society as sets of people or groups linked to one another by specific relationships, whether these relationships are as tangible as exchange networks or as intangible as perceptions of each other.

Visa argues that they connect people. Because people can use Visa at a wide range of stores, restaurants, and other settings, this brings people together. Imagine all of these organizations as different nodes in a network and Visa provides the connecting link. Without Visa, they would not connect.

Yet, is the social network sustained by Visa or used by Visa? Now that the network exists, Visa claims they are the network but similar things could be said for Mastercard or paper money. Without Visa, would many of these actors still connect, perhaps through other economic means?

It would be interesting to know whether and/or this economic network facilitates other kinds of network interactions. Does Visa use lead to new social networks? Is this not just about economic exchange but also exchange of information, experiences, and culture? This gets at larger processes, like globalization, that depend on familiar economic means across places.