If you have visited New York City in the last few years and wandered over to Times Square at night you would almost think it was the middle of the day. Not only are there a large number of people but the number of brightly lit billboards and advertising signs makes it seem like its a sunny day. Of course, New York is not alone in lighting the night sky.  Plenty of large cities in Europe, Asia and around the world have plastered their shopping areas with lighted signs. And, while the total number of signs in these areas has probably not grown that much in recent years, what has changed is the growth in the number and the size of digital signs.

Digital signage advertising has become big business for several reasons. First, unlike old-style billboards, where an advertiser purchases the space for a particular period such as six months, digital signage can be easily programmed to change to different ads, thus allowing the space to be shared by several advertisers. Second, digital signage is not limited to a still image and, instead, can include moving video.  For both reasons, frequent passersby may be more likely to pay attention and not ignore the sign in the same way they may if the ad remains unchanged for an extended period.

So if you think digital signs are more like television or website advertising then that is probably correct. Essentially, it is video advertising brought to public locations. Moreover, just as we see with television and desktop computers, the size of outdoor video screens is expanding. As discussed in this New York Times story, a new digital sign was just unveiled in Times Square. It is massive, measuring eight stories tall and spanning an entire city block (nearly 300 feet). Initially, this space will be occupied by a single advertiser, in this case Google. And how much will they pay to advertise? Well, this is not entirely clear though the story suggests it may cost $2.5 million for one month. At this price expect to see this space move from a space dedicated to single advertiser to one that is shared by multiple advertisers.

As discussed in this Stores Magazine story, the Chinese economy continues to grow at double-digit rates and has averaged 15% growth for the last five years. The number of people who are now in the middle class or higher has also soared. Moreover, these people are buying more, with one research firm predicting that by 2022 retail spending in China will be double that of the U.S. market.

Many leading U.S. and European retailers have been drawn by the potential of the Chinese market and have been doing business there for several years. For instance, in the last few years Gap,Walmart and Apple have seen enough positive response to their presence in the country that they now plan major expansions. Starbucks is also going strong to the point where customers are willing to pay a high price for the opportunity to not only drink the product but to show others they are doing so as holding a Starbucks branded cup has become something of a status symbol.

While the potential for retailers to open stores in China is extremely tempting, the story says that any company considering this needs to proceed cautiously. The key issues are primarily cultural and governmental. For instance, on the cultural side, there is a thriving counterfeit market for top products, including store brands, which can potentially erode a brand's image. While governmental issues include the potential for Chinese officials to become involved in ways that can potentially derail a successful business.

Unfortunately, several U.S. retailers, including Best Buy and Home Depot, entered the market without fully understanding what they were getting into. After several years of being unsuccessful, both have departed China with many pointing to their lack of fully adapting to the market as a reason for their failure. Others, such as Walmart, Carrefour and Tesco, found it took much time and money before they found the right strategy.  And Starbucks has not been immune as they have faced criticism from the Chinese media.

For anyone curious about what the retail market is like in China, this is definitely a story worth reading.

It is now a few weeks before Thanksgiving in the U.S. and once again retailers are battling to gain the upper hand as the Christmas selling season gets is about to get into full swing. To do so, it has now become a custom for retailers to introduce non-traditional ideas in order to strengthen their holiday sales. For example, since the early 1900s, retailers have been using the Friday after Thanksgiving, dubbed in the 1960s as Black Friday, as the holiday shopping kickoff date. A few years ago retailers looked at this day and felt they could obtain an advantage by moving back the opening time, such as moving it back from 6:00 am to 4:00 am. Then last year things really changed as the idea that Black Friday actually starts on a Friday was shattered as nearly every major retailer opened on Thanksgiving evening.

Now the idea of what Black Friday really means is likely changing again. The perception of most shoppers who venture out on Black Friday is that it is a day when retailers offer tremendous bargains to those who stand in line for hours prior to a store opening its doors. Once open, shoppers often run to locate the great deals. These bargain sales would, in some well publicized cases, lead to physical conflict between shoppers looking for a great deal.

The reason these shoppers fought for the products comes down to the simple economic concept of high demand for low supply with a time constraint thrown in just to make shoppers even more motivated to purchase. Retailers view these products as significant loss leaders and because of this they have little intention of upping the supply beyond what is needed to attract initial customer attention. Instead, they hope customers, who could not get the product they stood in line to buy, will instead purchase something else that would be profitable to the retailer.

Now in 2014 things are changing again. According to this Time story, retail king, Walmart, not only says Black Friday now starts on Thursday, but they now say it is a shopping day that lasts five days! During these five days, customers will still obtain products for the same low price they would receive if they were first in line when stores open on Thanksgiving night.

The obvious question is whether competitors will match this move. If they do (and we think they will), we again see the idea of Black Friday becoming blurred and possibly on the road to becoming irrelevant.

As we note in our What is Marketing? tutorial, being creative is a trait needed by most marketers in most industries. Some marketers will argue that real creativity in marketing is really only needed when it comes to designing attractive products or creating memorable advertisements. But that is not the case. Many other marketing decisions require a thinking-outside-the-box mindset. For instance, being creative by using a sales promotion tactic to achieve a public relations goal.

In our Types of Sales Promotion tutorial we see the message being sent by many sales promotions, such as coupons, trade-ins and promotional pricing, is that customers will be saving money if they accept the promotion. For most marketers, the goal of these promotions is to generate additional sales. For instance, back in July we talked about a $10 all-you-can-eat appetizer promotion offered by TGI Fridays. This promotion was clearly intended to drive more customers into the restaurant with the hope they will spend money on additional food and drinks.

However, some promotions, where the price appears to be lowered, may actually not have a goal of generating more sales, rather its objective is to generate interest from the news media. In effect, these sales promotions are intended to aid public relations rather than directly impact sales. For example, as discussed in this Time story, back in September the restaurant chain Olive Garden ran a Never Ending Pasta Pass promotion where customers, who bought a $100 pass, can eat an unlimited number of pasta meals (that also includes salad, soup and few other things). The difference between Olive Garden's promotion and the one run by TGI Fridays is that Olive Garden only made available 1,000 passes, which sold out in just a few minutes.

So it is obvious the goal of this promotion was less about driving up sales and more about driving up publicity. Moreover, if that really is the goal then it is likely a very successful promotion as it not only caught the attention of the news media, but also lead many customers to share their experience online.

How Customers Are ChangingMany marketers believe the necessary first step to being successful is to have a complete understanding of their customers. In fact, in our What is Marketing? tutorial, we push home this point with a statement that reads: "Arguably the most important marketing function involves efforts needed to gain knowledge of customers, competitors, and markets..." To accomplish this, marketers have been taught to engage in marketing research in an effort to know as much as they can about their customers and what needs they have.

However, marketers know there can be lots of mistakes made when interpreting what they think customers really want. This is because most marketers gauge customer interest based on research driven by statistical analysis, where results may not tell the complete story of what the market really is and what people really want. Why? Well, there are a few fundamental reasons. First, most marketers cannot ask all their customers what they want because there are just too many people to ask. For instance, if Coca-Cola wanted to conduct a survey they would likely only sample a few thousand customers who drink their products. While statistical theory tells us that gathering information from a few thousand customers may still be quite useful in explaining what millions of customers think, the fact sampling is used to gain information on a large population means there is still a chance the results will not be accurate.

Second, even if you could examine all customers or use solid statistical methods, people are prone to change so what their needs were six months ago may be different than what they want now. Thus, many marketing organizations, that are traditionally subjected to rapidly changing customer attitudes/needs (i.e., certain food categories, exercise routines, high-tech products, movies, etc.), need market research to be ongoing all the time to figure out what customers will want in the future.

A good example of how marketers struggle with understanding customers is found in this Trendwatching story. They make the point that using demographics alone to identify target markets may not be the best strategy. They present interesting market information and statistics that may startle some marketers, such as a retirement community in Brazil hosting skateboard exhibitions for their residents or a statistic from the U.K. that says more women play video games than men. The story goes on to suggest reasons why consumers seem to be changing, including having greater access to more information and to more product options.

The takeaway from reading this story is that marketers cannot afford to stand pat. Instead marketers may need to work much harder understanding customers in order to segment at Stage 2 and Stage 3. Doing so is not going to be easy or cheap, but the evolving customer may leave them little choice.