Talking With…Jayne O’Donnell, author and USA Today retail reporter

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jayneodonnell_lg3After profiling retail executives and solution providers in our Talking With… series over the last several months, we decided to reach out to someone in retail who isn’t often on the receiving end of questions. Jayne O’Donnell, retail reporter at USA Today and co-author of a new book, Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens and Twentysomethings are Revolutionizing Retail, took some time to chat with us about her “a-ha” findings in the book, who she views as the most interesting executives in retail, and what she likes best about this industry. Jayne also offers insights on how companies can have a shot at being mentioned in all of those holiday news stories.

Jayne will be at the Shop.org Annual Summit on Tuesday, September 22 to sign copies of her book.

Today is the day GenBuY is published, and I know it’s been quite a project! Tell me about some of your favorite parts of the book.

I loved hearing and writing the young people’s stories about their relationship with brands and stores. It’s amazing how much what they buy – or long to buy – says about what they’re going through at the different stages of their lives. No matter what I’ve covered, I’ve always been intrigued the most by why people do what they do – whether it’s commit crimes, take driving risks or collect designer jeans.

Some of the teens’ obsessions with, umm, undergarments – one young lady had several dozen bras in every conceivable color and pattern – video games or sneakers were both mind boggling and revealing from a marketing standpoint. How to create or tap into these yearnings for various fashions or technology? We came up with some answers.

I knew we were on to something when I learned what was up with the various collections of “stuff’ – from Webkinz to flip flops – my 9-year-old was amassing in our two years of research and what was driving her fledgling passion for fashion. I’m also far more prepared for at least the shopping side of the teen and 20-something years now.

In researching for your book, what surprised you?

It was quite stunning what powerful consumers these young people are. The more we researched, the more convinced we became that this was truly the generation retailers and marketers need to target to thrive and even survive in the new economy. Their clout comes from their purchasing power (given that they have their own money, plus parents, grandparents and others shopping for them); their love of brands and shopping; and their influence over household buys.

It was also surprising how much the business relationship with them needs to mirror a personal one, including respect for their opinions and involving them in decisions. That’s what some of upstart websites such as Karmaloop and Threadless do and we think it’s going to have to be the way more established brands deal with their Gen Y customers – and employees.

It’s just so important for marketers to understand what’s makes Gen Y tick because that’s what makes them click — and buy!

I’ve heard that the inspiration behind your book came from a Shop.org conference session. True?

Indeed. A few months after I started on the retail beat in 2006, the women at Resource Interactive pitched me to do an article on findings they were going to share at that fall’s summit on Gen Y consumers. I agreed (That’s unusual right there! I probably do 1% of the stories I get pitched. See below.) I interviewed some of the teens in their study and found their digital and retail lives fascinating. When consumer psychologist and marketing professor Kit Yarrow and I decided to write a retail-related book the next year, it was the topic I most wanted to examine more deeply. She agreed it was the most compelling topic we could cover when it comes to retail.

As an outsider looking in on the industry, what do you think retail has in store for the next six months?

Well, I read the same reports everyone else does, but am probably more optimistic by nature than most. I do informal polls of USA TODAY’s 2,000-member Shopper Panel regularly and find many are starting to spend again – at least the ones who are still employed — but most say their buying habits have probably changed forever. Will luxury retail ever return to its pre-recession levels? That’s hard to imagine. But I know I have my own bad case of pent-up demand and many of the subjects of our book – to the extent they cut back at all – are dying to get back to some serious shopping. So I do think sales will start to improve.

What do you love about retail? What frustrates you?

The passion people in this industry have for their work makes retail a far more enjoyable beat than most I’ve covered, such as airlines or antitrust. I do rather love to shop so it’s fun – though expensive! – to do interviews at stores. And it’s very cool to be hearing about the latest trends in fashion and merchandising and to be able to call it “work.”

That said, it is frustrating – and perplexing – that many retail executives are so reticent about talking to the media, particularly when there is no shortage of “experts” out there ready to give their take on what retailers are doing right or wrong. I’m surprised and disappointed more don’t take the time to get to know reporters before they’ve got big news to pitch or bad news to try to spin. As it is with consumers, it helps to have a relationship with the media.

As a retail reporter for the last three years, you’ve undoubtedly spoken to a lot of retail executives. Can you tell me which interviews were the most enjoyable for you?

I loved hanging out with the loss prevention guys – at Bealls in Florida – and interviewing Target and Montgomery County police officials when I did a retail theft cover story a couple years ago. The thieves’ brazenness is horrifying, yet riveting. Unlike me, however, the LP folks aren’t exactly fascinated with why the bad guys (and women) do what they do. They just want them to stop stealing!

Farooq Kathwari of Ethan Allen has to have one of the most interesting life stories in retail and he’s a very nice person to boot. Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops (look for my profile on him coming this month!) has got to be the most down-to-earth CEO on the planet.

With the holiday season nearly upon us, I’m sure your email in-box will soon be overflowing with pitches from retailers and vendors. What advice do you have for companies who want to make a splash in the press this holiday season?

Keep an eye out for trends you may be a part of and pitch an “idea,” not just your company or product. For example, watch what your consumers are buying more of this year than last. Last year seemed to be the year of the practical and the comfort-giving gift. What will the theme be this year?

When you pitch your company, put it in a larger context. Newspapers, like most media, have shrinking staffs and reporters often don’t have time to connect the dots. Few of us have the time or space to report incremental developments at individual companies that don’t have a larger meaning or impact on consumers or business.

Do something that is truly different and newsworthy. Step back from your day-to-day job and think what your company might be doing that would be interesting to an outsider. Or ask new – and/or young! – employees if there’s anything going on that seems unique or newsworthy. I’m sure there will be stories about the retailer that stays open for the most days straight or puts up the first Christmas tree (which has no doubt already happened), but how about some truly new angles on the holidays this year?

And let’s try the reverse: what should companies who want to get their name in the paper never do?

Try to get reporters like me to promote their promotions. Sure, they might get lucky and a deal will get mentioned in a larger story. But PR pitches are far too often thinly-veiled (or not veiled at all) ad copy. I would have gone into advertising or marketing instead of journalism if I wanted to promote products!

It seems the Internet is playing a role in just about everything these days. Can you talk about how the web has changed the newspaper world, specifically USA Today?

Print reporters now have to think much more visually about their stories and consider things including interactive graphics and video. I even shoot my own video now. (Not very well, maybe, but it’s a start!) Our already-thin staffs feel even smaller now that many colleagues are blogging almost full-time. That can make it harder to cover the news, but helps bring new visitors to the site and the blogs give us all another forum to write in, which is exciting. And, of course, everything moves more quickly now with 24/7 news so it has sped up the news cycle. That doesn’t have as big of an impact on the retail beat, but it sure keeps the economic and political reporters on their toes.

How do you get your news, specifically retail news?

I read both SmartBriefs every day and love them. It saves a lot of time I might otherwise spend combing other print and online publications to keep up with trends. I scan the wires, read the major newspapers and get press releases on email from most major retailers or go to their websites when I’m working on a story.

You’ve made no secret about how much you love shopping. Where are some of your favorite places to shop, and what are your favorite things to buy?

I don’t want to name names, but I will confess to loving high-end department store outlets and off-price shopping. Some people say it’s too much work; I think the hunt is at least half the fun. I’m on a few of those discount designer email lists and get some great ideas that way but it’s just not the same for me as sorting through all the stuff in the store and feeling for myself whether that “buttery soft” cashmere really is. Clothes shopping is my favorite, but I’m going to have to return to furniture shopping soon. All these hours at home working on the book has reminded me it’s time to redo the living room.

If you were forced to take a three-month, paid sabbatical, what would you do?

I’m a passionate (not crazy!) cat lady. We foster homeless kittens and have a few of our own. So I’d take a tour of some spots out West I haven’t visited, do some writing and take my daughter to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah to volunteer. Lest I sound too do-gooderish, I’d also map out the closest spa and designer outlet mall and hit them as well.

Now that you’re no longer writing a book, how will you fill those extra hours?

Helping sell it, spending time with my somewhat-neglected family, and shopping — of course!

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2 Comments

  1. Chuck
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I love this book.

  2. Alma
    Posted September 15, 2009 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    GenBuy is entertaining, insightful, and timely.

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