An Arranged Relationship Gone Wrong: Bethenny & Me

I have of late become very closely acquainted with a woman named Bethenny.  In fact, I know just about everything about her. She lives in Manhattan with her fiancé Jason and her dog Cookie. They are planning a big, lavish wedding and she is pregnant.  She is the author of one or more books and the creator of something called the “Skinny Girl Margarita.”

Of course, I refer to the former “Real Housewife of New York,” whose spin-off series, “Bethenny Getting Married,” can be seen on the Bravo network.

I have never heard Bethenny’s voice.  Nor have I ever heard the voices of several other women who have recently entered my life as well.   There’s Patti Stanger, the woman behind “Millionaire Matchmaker,” the show with, well, let’s say a not very politically correct premise – rich men choosing dates from a harem of beautiful women, most often, ten years younger than they are. You’ve come a long way, baby!  And then there are my girls, the “Real Housewives of New Jersey.” So lovely, so erudite, so charming.

Never a fan of reality programming, it is now force fed to me on nearly a daily basis when I work out at the gym I love to hate, L.A. Fitness.  If you have a portable radio you can tune in for the audio, but I prefer the musical sets generated randomly by my iPod.   So I always watch without sound, but I am able to follow along with the subtitles displayed on the screen.

This particular L.A. Fitness location is a really a nice facility, but they do some screwy things.  I wrote about their “Member Appreciation Day” earlier this year, a day exclusively focused on selling members third-party products and services along with upgraded memberships and personal training. Thanks a lot L.A. Fitness! I sure feel appreciated now! Yesterday, as if to lob me a huge softball as I was ready to finish this piece, there was another Member Appreciation Day to celebrate the third anniversary of the location’s opening.

They got it a bit more right this time around, at least making a few gestures of appreciation to members.  There was a table of free cupcakes, because nothing says “fitness” like cupcakes! There was also a DJ on hand blasting loud, pulsing, dance music to make our workouts more fun. The yoga classes did not seem amused, nor did the people on the stationary bikes by the speakers. Nor did anyone else.  But I digress.

Their latest scheme to enhance revenue with complete disregard for their members comes from contracts with Bravo and the Headline News Network.   There are multiple monitors facing the cardio equipment alternatively tuned to three stations.  Now, two out of three must be set to Bravo or HLN, by prior agreement.

Did anyone ask the members what they wanted? Of course not. In pursuit of “eyeballs” and advertising dollars, businesses continue to push more  advertising in more places. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf chain, based in Los Angeles now features big monitors with nothing but advertising messages. Yes, there’s a bit of traffic, weather, stock news and trivia questions streaming across part of the screen as a diversion, but these monitors exist for no other reason than to force feed ads to customers. You’ll find these in independent coffee houses and restaurants as well.

This is a sign of our times.  Long-term planning for Fortune 500 companies and mom & pops alike often means next week.  We need the cash now.  Let’s blast video ads to people on airport shuttles and elevators.   Let’s fix the settings on our TV’s to collect the spiff from the networks, not let the members choose what they want to watch.  Sure, they might squirm a bit, but the small number of people we lose won’t compare with the gains in revenue. At least for now.

I wonder how much consumers even care anymore about any of this. Have they just accepted the fact that they are powerless?  Conjoint analyses by the airlines tell us that people will trade off legroom for lower fares anytime. Give me a deal and it’s OK to treat me like cattle.

Our downwardly mobile, uncertain economic environment exerts a strong influence on encouraging people to get it cheap, rather than seeking out better, higher quality, more dignified, but more costly experiences.

At this moment in time, when consumer spending is so restrained, this phenomenon is likely to continue. But I have to believe that exploiting consumers in these ways will ultimately backfire. Some businesses, such as the airlines, have been both poorly run and victims to circumstances outside of their control (fuel prices, 9/11, etc.).  They’re in no position to improve the customer experience because it’s just not financially feasible.

But businesses holding their own right now could profit handsomely by rededicating themselves to customer service, cutting margins to win market share.  It’s classic business strategy and good sense, but don’t hold your breath.

When are those quarterly earnings reports due?

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