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.

Not all business people interested in a marketing career will do their best work in the corporate marketing world. Some will do better pursuing a more risky path to success by starting their own company in hopes of making it big financially (e.g., have the company go public) or making a big contribution to society (e.g., starting a highly respected non-profit organization). However, for those with an entrepreneurial spirit and who are not ready to accept the risks associated with starting their own business, there is another option – becoming a franchise owner.

A few months ago, we discussed issues with buying a franchise and, in particular, why one should be cautious when making the decision to invest. And a few years ago, we discussed troubling situations that exist in some franchisee-franchisor relationships. However, this story from Franchise Times takes on a more positive approach to franchising (this should not be a surprise since this is a franchising industry magazine!).

The story discusses franchise opportunities that are available for a relatively small investment (less than $100,000) and it reports on a market research firm's ranking of the top 100 low-cost franchises. While the full list of top franchises is not provided, the story does name a number of franchise operations appearing on the list. Additionally, the story shares experiences from several professionals who have purchased these low-cost franchises.

Overall, the information presented in this story supports what we discussed back in August, namely, when purchasing a franchise it is wise to spend a significant amount of time and energy fully evaluating the franchisor, the industry and the likely customer before making the franchise investment decision.

Last week we discussed how digital marketing was finally taking off after what some feel was a slow start. Today we look at another technology that many marketing experts have been preaching will be a game-changer. The technology is mobile payment systems. While there are many flavors of mobile payments, the ones that appear to be gaining the most traction are systems that conveniently allow purchasers to simply tap, point or wave (a.k.a. contactless payment) their mobile device to make a payment.

Mobile payment technology, to some extent, has been around for a several years and has attracted major banks and credit cards companies as well as Google, with its Google Wallet, and few others. Back in 2012, we discussed this technology and indicated that several leading retailers, including Walmart, Target and CVS, were working together to develop their own mobile payment system. However, the system the big retailers are working on is different because, unlike nearly all the other systems on the market, control of the financial side resides with the retailers and not with the big financial houses.

But is it really a big deal who handles the money? You bet! So big that it appears these retailers are circling the wagons in an attempt to keep out competitive mobile payments. As discussed in stories in both Los Angeles Times and USA Today, top retailers have put a stop to allowing customers to pay using a new mobile payment service introduced last week by Apple. According to these stories, the issue is all about control. The retailers, and specifically the group they belong to (Merchant Customer Exchange) that is developing the technology called CurrentC, want to bypass banks and credit card companies and avoid paying credit card processing fees. These fees range from 2% to 4% per transaction. While these fees may not seem to be very big, consider that the mobile payment market in the U.S. is forecasted to be $90 billion by 2017. Thus, the CurrentC mobile payments system, which is linked to users's debit card accounts, offers retailers the potential for enormous savings while accepting other payment systems may still leave retailers on the hook for huge processing fees.

Whether the big retailers will actually implement their own technology remains to be seen. They are only in the test market phase, and much can still happen to derail their system. Also, potential backlash from customers who want to use Apple Pay or another system could create even more problems. If Apple and others remain strong, one could see that, even though members using CurrentC will have their own system, retailers will have little choice but to accept other payment systems.