In a small feat that’s probably not impressive to anyone but me, I managed to cram all of my ancillary electronics — like the printer and shredder — into a single closet at my house. As you might imagine, getting all the cables wrangled and tied was one of the hardest parts, especially for the power cords. And one cord stood out as a particular pain.

The culprit was my paper shredder. It has a very short cord, probably no more than four feet. And every time I thought I had it wired right, I realized that while the cord reached, the only way to empty the basket would have been to unplug the cord, unsnag it from any other cables, and then lift the unit up.

This made me think a little bit about how long the power cords are for other things around the house. I don’t have a corded vacuum anymore, but from what I recall, the cord was quite lengthy. In contrast, the power cords for some kitchen appliances are so short they barely reach the socket a few feet away.

It seems like a lot of manufacturers are missing an obvious rule of thumb. If a corded appliance moves around a lot — for instance, because it’s handheld or has to be picked up for maintenance — then it should have a longer power cord than something that always remains stationary. By following this simple approach, product designers would make it far easier for consumers to live with those products, while likely reducing the amount of warranty claims for power cords that stopped working after one tug too many.


During a recent trip, I found myself in the airport looking for a quick lunch before my plane left. Of the various options, a store advertising “healthy” food (or something along those lines) caught my eye. But as I walked around the aisles, I noticed that very few of the items could reasonably be considered healthy, at least when you looked at the calorie information.

Long story short, virtually every package of snacks contained at least two servings, totaling 400 calories or more. Considering that these items are designed to eat on the run, I really doubt the typical person is going to consume half the bag and then save the rest for later. But no matter how many times I looked, the store didn’t have anything besides these high-calorie, multi-serving packs.

What did I end up buying? One of the multi-serving bags, which I strategically only ate part of. Anything more would have been a little much, since I also bought a sandwich and a small smoothie-style beverage. Hopefully the people running the store will eventually wise up, and realize that healthy food  in an airport context should have a reasonable number of calories, or at least be packaged in separate servings so that people don’t feel pressured to eat the whole thing at once.


A few days ago, I bought two really neat pieces of art online. Each one was a canvas print mounted on a wood frame, and the price was hard to beat. When the art arrived, one of the items was in great shape, but the other one had a defective frame. No matter how I tried to hang it on the wall, it always stuck out on at least one corner.

So, I contacted the retailer about the problem. What I really wanted was to exchange the picture for another one, but that apparently wasn’t possible. You see, this was one of those daily deal sites where they have a limited quantity of each item. Once they’re sold out, there’s no more inventory to draw from. Thus, I ended up having to return the item for a refund.

Clearly, this situation isn’t optimal. The customer doesn’t get a working product, and the retailer loses the revenue from the sale. But if your business model is to sell things at a discount until every last one is gone, how can you prevent problems like mine?

The answer is actually quite simple. Before you start selling the limited-quantity item, set aside a few units to use for customer exchanges. Then, run your promotion, sell out the rest, and deploy the reserve units as needed when a customer has to exchange one. Finally, if you end up with leftover inventory once the last return window has passed, just run another deal with those extra units. If the original batch sold out, I doubt you’ll have any trouble moving a few more — with the caveat that those final items can only be returned for a refund, rather than exchanged.


One of my exciting tasks last weekend was to break down a bunch of boxes, separate out the recyclable packing materials from the trash, and get everything into bags and bundles that the city will pick up. Cardboard boxes can be pretty sharp, so wearing work gloves was a must. However, trying to use other tools and supplies — like scissors and packing tape — with gloves on was quite a challenge.

For instance, the scissor handles were too small to easily fit my fingers through, so cutting off a piece of tape was an exercise in patience. I already have just about the thinnest gloves you can get, which made me wonder: why doesn’t anyone market scissors, tape and other work supplies that are optimized for gloved usage? Surely a lot of folks use those tools with work gloves on, so it seems logical to offer slightly bigger scissors and so on to accomodate this use case.

Granted, it’s possible these versions already exist, but are only sold through specialized channels. But in a world where we as consumers are often overwhelmed by the littany of variations for even the most basic product, I’m just a little bit surprised that glove-friendly work supplies aren’t easier to come by.


There are several grocery stores within walking distance of my house, but I typically only visit two of them: a big generic chain store, and a Trader Joe’s. Among the many differences between these two stores is the type of paper bags they use. At Trader Joe’s, the bags have sturdy handles and are generally quite durable, while the generic chain uses what I assume are cheaper bags with no handles at all.

Cost considerations aside, I believe these bag choices speak volumes about the positioning of the two stores and their target customers. For instance, I imagine that the typical Trader Joe’s shopper is more likely to:

- Walk to the store, rather than drive.

- Use the handles on the bag to get their groceries home, instead of just tossing the bags into the trunk of a car.

- Reuse the bag in a meaningful way, such as storing items to recycle or food scraps to put in compost.

Accordingly, it makes sense that Trader Joe’s provides high-quality bags that are easy to carry and will likely hold up during repeat usage. On the other hand, that generic chain store can’t even be bothered to give you carrying handles, relegating the bag to a single use — or less, if it tears on the way home.

Granted, the type of paper bags that a store provides is only one detail in the context of the overall shopping experience. But like other seemingly small details, the decision to skimp on this element — e.g. deciding not to bother with carrying handles — can speak volumes about how a store perceives its customers, and in turn, the kind of customers it will attract.


I recently purchased a folding tray table, which in theory is great for supporting anything ranging from a book to a cup of coffee to a laptop (though probably not all of those at once) when you’re working away from your desk. I actually owned the same model before, so buying another one seemed like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, when I received the product, I noticed that the legs were too loose, making the tray table unstable.

Easy enough to fix, right? As it turns out, no, since the legs were attached by some sort of bolt without an adjustment point on the end. The bolt lacked a screw head, and there wasn’t even a place to grab onto it with a wrench and tighten it that way. I ended up having to return the product and get a replacement.

This is an example of poor design, since there’s really no reason the customer should have to return a product when all it needed was a minor adjustment. Putting this another way, if you’re designing a product and you have the option to make a part user-adjustable, then all else equal, it’s probably a good idea to do so. Otherwise, you’re wasting customers’ time and chipping away at your own brand equity, while paying for returns and exchanges that never should have been necessary in the first place.


At something like 8 am last Saturday morning, my phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize. The same number called me the night before, so I figured I’d answer it and see what they wanted. As it turned out, the call was from an automated survey system, and they were trying to get me to rate the process for a recent furniture delivery.

Now, I get up pretty early, so the call certainly didn’t wake me up. But for a lot of people, 8 am on Saturday or Sunday is prime sleeping time. And the last thing anybody wants is to be woken up by a non-urgent call — from a robot no less.

The right way to handle this is rather obvious. If you must resort to using an automated system to call customers and ask about their experience, then be sure those calls are only being made during very safe hours, perhaps 9-6 on weekdays and 12-6 on weekends. And of course, make sure those schedules take the customer’s local time zone into account. Otherwise, your survey might become an unwanted wake-up call, and this otherwise simple interaction could really hurt customers’ perception of your brand.


When I think back to what it was like opening up a new consumer product ten or fifteen years ago, one thing that sticks out is the obnoxious packaging that used to be so commonplace. It seemed like everything in those days came in an airtight container of styrofoam, which turned brittle and covered half the floor when you tried to liberate the product from its package.

These days, most items are wrapped more sensibly, and it appears that cardboard and other paper-based materials are the dominant packing choice. When you do see styrofoam, it’s typically in a more resilient form that doesn’t break off and make a mess. And of course, a much higher percentage of packing materials are recyclable. 

Of course, there are still some holdouts. For instance, I bought a few new lamps recently. When I opened the first box, little styrofoam pellets spewed out and landed all over the floor. I was even more careful with the second one, but no matter how delicately I tried to cut the lamp base out of the styrofoam, I still ended up with pellets stuck to the product, the carpet, and even my clothes.

What’s the takeaway here? Obviously, paper-based packing materials are a smart choice if they’ll work for your type of product. But if you have a good reason for sticking with styrofoam, be sure it’s not the old brittle kind that makes a huge mess. Your customers — and their brooms and vacuum cleaners — will thank you for it.


I spotted a great deal on some really nice, modern kitchen chairs, which came out to something like $29 each for a set of four. When I opened up the box, I was pleased to see that the parts were in fairly good shape. However, once I started counting the screws and washers and such, I realized there were only enough parts to assemble three of the chairs.

Did the manufacturer forget to include the right quantity? That’s hard to say, since the parts bag had torn open during shipping, and some of them may have escaped through the various puncture wounds that the box sustained in transit.

I ended up contacting the retailer to make things right, but this got me thinking: why do manufacturers seem to only include the exact number of parts you need? If even one piece is missing, that means a costly return or replacement, or at least a separate expense to mail you the missing parts.

A smarter approach is to look at the cost of the parts and use some common sense about how many to include. For instance, if you’re selling a $100 item and additional screws are two cents each, then throw in a couple of extras. By making this tiny investment, you’ll save all the money you would otherwise have spent dealing with people who ended up one washer or screw or bracket short, while delivering a better customer experience and fostering positive feelings towards your brand.


There’s a big grocery store about a block away from where I live. More accurately, the store’s parking garage is only a block from me; the front of the store is another two blocks around, assuming you stick to the main roads. After some trial and error, I found out how to walk through the garage and end up right at the front entrance, which is a big time saver. However, I’m a little surprised that the store has done so little to help shoppers navigate the garage side of the building.

Perhaps they never expected anyone to walk into the garage on foot, or maybe they don’t want pedestrians clogging up the vehicle lanes. But short of putting up a gate that only opens for cars, you’re going to end up with people walking in the garage, especially in an urban area.

The sensible approach is to acknowledge that the parking garage serves multiple types of customers, and provide navigation cues for each. In the case of people in cars, that’s pretty much a given. And for people on foot, all it takes is clearly-marked stenciling on the ground and some signage to help them find the store entrance and garage exit. By taking these simple steps, you’ll make it easier for customers to reach the store quickly and easily, which can only mean good things for revenue and profits.




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