Traveling with only an iPad: Part 1

I am an optimizer; I am always looking for ways to reduce waste and work more efficiently at home, at work, or on the road. This weekend during my trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, I decided to do an experiment to see if I could reduce the amount of stuff I take with me on trips.

I usually travel with a checked bag and a small backpack as a carryon. The backpack contains the essentials that I need onboard an aircraft, historically including a laptop. The laptop and the associated accessories (mouse and power supply) are by far the heaviest items that I am lugging around, so I decided to see if I could do without them and save several pounds out of my backpack.

For this trip, I left the laptop at home to see what it would be like traveling with just an iPad.

Work I might need to do

I thought that this trip would be a good experiment to see if I can get away with just bringing an iPad because I have a little bit of work to do, but none of it is absolutely critical, so if I find myself unable to do something, I can just defer it a few days until I return home.

This weekend, I plan on writing this and a few other blog posts, publishing some of them, coordinating a few things for Forbes, managing my resale business, making some travel arrangements, responding to emails, and doing a bit of work on an experiment I am running with Turo.

My gear

I’m running this experiment with a 6th Generation 32GB iPad and a portable Bluetooth keyboard, an AmazonBasics KT-1281 Bluetooth keyboard that I picked up a few years ago for about $20.

What success looks like

Ultimately this experiment will be succcessful if I am able to complete the tasks I need to complete without becoming unduly frustrated. At home, I work with a three-monitor setup, which makes doing things like referencing multiple websites and transfering data between email, websites, and tracking spreadsheets relatively simple. I imagine that task-switching between a web browser, Google sheets, and my email on a single screen, in a different environment will add some complexity.

Well, it’s 2:30am back home and we are on approach into Fairbanks, so it’s time to wrap this post up. So far, so good.

A Big Opportunity for Customer Experience and Operational Excellence: Airline Baggage

If you know me, you know that I am always talking about airlines… from operations, to customer experience, to loyalty programs, to pricing and route strategy. (Some of those who went to business school with me might remember my explanation of how airline deregulation led to the growth of the sugar beet industry.) In every case, you can call me an enthusiast.

I was having a conversation with a friend this evening about customer experience in the airline industry and the discussion turned to baggage.

Ultimately, I think that the way most airlines think about checked baggage is misguided and leaves some huge opportunities on the table. Rethinking checked baggage provides opportunities for both operational and customer experience improvements.

Airlines say baggage fees are a crucial source of revenue. This is wrong.

Ever since American Airlines started the checked bag fee party in 2008, it has been industry orthodoxy that checked bag fees are a critical component of airline revenue. I believe that this assumption should be challenged.

According to the Bureau of Transpiration Statics figures, Major US. Domestic airlines earned $3.6B in passenger baggage fees in 2018. That may seem like a large amount of money, but consider that their total passenger revenue for airfares, freight, and ancillary services was $124.5B, meaning that baggage fees make up less than 3% of their revenue.

Even this figure is likely overstated, as it does not account for the fact that low cost carriers often charge both for carry-on bags and checked bags and that those bag fees are effectively a component of their airfares.

Far from being a large component of revenue at most mainline airlines, baggage fees are simply an opportunistic squeeze on their customers wallets. Airlines get pennies, but at a cost to customer experience and operations.

Operational gains from checked bags are huge.

Most people familiar with the airline industry understand that one of the reasons Southwest’s boarding process goes so smoothly is because fewer people carry on bags, due to their free checked bag policy. (A policy that their new CEO has said is staying, full stop.) But why is this?

It comes down to the fact that separating bags from customers means that bags can be processed asynchronously. When it comes to baggage, there are two deadlines that matter: When the bag gets delivered to and loaded on the plane and when the bag gets delivered to the bag carousel.

Further, when you separate customers from their baggage, it reduces a number of customer and operational bottlenecks:

  • Screening baggage and passengers synchronously at checkpoints.
  • Transporting baggage through the terminal.
  • Passengers handling their carry-on bags, causing boarding delays and lengthening deplaning.
  • Gate-checking excess bags at the end of the boarding process.
  • Valet checking and claiming bags on regional flights.
  • The amount of space taken up by bags in airport boarding areas, airline lounges, restaurants, in trams, and on moving walkways.

I’m sure that I could come up with more, but you get the idea; bags carried on board and through the terminal by passengers cause bottlenecks all over the place.

Airlines might be able to add additional flights to their schedule by turning planes faster. They could service more customers in their lounges. They could deal with fewer misconnects due to people waiting for valet checked bags.

By getting most passengers’ bags back under the plane and reducing the above bottlenecks (and more) could airlines gain back a 3% gain in operational efficiency? Absolutely.

An opportunity to delight customers.

Of course, I think that there is an operational case to be made for getting baggage under the plane, but I also believe airlines are missing opportunities to delight customers.

I recently returned from a trip to Alaska, which included travel on the Alaska Railroad. When I checked baggage in at the train station, the agent asked me which hotel I was staying at in Denali. I told her that I was staying at the Grande Denali Lodge, and she offered to check my bags to the hotel.

I started thinking… why don’t airlines do this? Would I pay an additional $25 to check my bags in Minneapolis and have them delivered to my hotel at the start of my business trip? Absolutely!

Airlines already have the infrastructure to do this; if your bags are delayed, airlines will use a courier to deliver your bags directly to your hotel or home. Why not take advantage of this infrastructure and offer this as a service? Many airlines even have partnerships with large hotel chains, which means they likely have the ability to ensure quality of service if you stay with their preferred hotel chain. Think of the cross-sales opportunites!

Of course, this is only one idea. A study of customer experience, behaviors, and preferences, combined with a little bit of design thinking could probably reveal myriad ways to use checked baggage to delight customers.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, the major airlines you know and love (or not) make most of their money from passenger fares, not checked baggage fees. As we are emerging from our pandemic lockdowns and people start traveling again, airlines have an opportunity to rethink parts of their business. I think that how they handle baggage deserves such a rethink.

Changing how airlines charge, process, handle, and incentivize checked baggage provides an opportunity to improve both customer experience and operational efficiency. Airlines that can figure this out will enjoy a double-win of better operations and increased customer loyalty.

Testimony Delivered at the Public Hearing for the Clean Cars Minnesota rulemaking

The following is my transcript of my public testimony, given February 22, 2021 at the public hearing for the Clean Cars Minnesota rulemaking. It may differ slightly from the transcript that is a part of the public record.

Thank you, your honor.

Hello. My name is Aaron Hurd.

I’m a resident of Minnetonka, Minnesota and I am speaking on behalf of myself, in support of adopting the Clean Cars Minnesota rule.

My comments are approximately 4 minutes and 45 seconds long and I want to address two points today about the need for and reasonableness of the Clean Cars Minnesota rule.

My first point is that this rule is needed because it corrects a market inefficiency.

I drive a 2019 Hyundai Ioniq Plug-In Hybrid.

Because my vehicle is a plug-in hybrid, most of my in-town commuting is on electric power. Substantively all of my charging is done at home, from a standard 120V outlet, and I fill up my gas tank approximately every 1,500 miles, usually when I am taking a longer road trip. Several times a year, I drive my car from the Twin Cities to Des Moines, Iowa, and back. Even in the winter, my car makes the entire round-trip using a single 11 gallon tank of gas.

In the interest of correcting the perception that clean cars are expensive, I purchased my vehicle, new with the upgraded trim including leather and heated seats. My price after tax credit was $20,679.

I wanted to buy this car in Minnesota, but I couldn’t. Because Hyundai sells many of its EV and PHEV cars only in states that have adopted the Clean Car Standards, Hyundai and the Hyundai dealerships I talked to wouldn’t sell this car in Minnesota. So, I was forced to purchase this car from a dealership out of state. In my case, this was in Maryland. That means that the State of Minnesota lost the opportunity to have that money I spent stay in our community to create jobs and support local industry. I am certain that I am among hundreds, maybe thousands of people who, every year, are forced to take their money out of state to buy the car they want.

So, the money we spend on electric cars is already flowing out of state. Unless and until we adopt the Clean Car Standards, this market inefficiency will continue and an ever increasing number of Minnesotans will end up taking their dollars out of state to purchase their cars.

The second point that I want to make is about how the Clean Car Standards will benefit Greater Minnesota and addresses questions of reasonableness that I hear raised from time to time.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism that adopting the Clean Car Standards is not reasonable because the Clean Car Standards will only benefit people in the Twin Cities. This is based on the fact that people living in Greater Minnesota have different needs than people living in the Twin Cities. They need larger sedans and SUVs. They need vehicles with extended range. They don’t have as much access to public electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

And all of these concerns are valid.

But a point that is frequently ignored, often in bad faith, is that not every electric vehicle is a Nissan Leaf, a Chevy Bolt, or a Tesla.

Maybe someone in Greater Minnesota needs a compact sport utility vehicle like the Subaru Crosstrek PHEV or the Toyota Rav4 Prime. Or maybe they just need a comfortable midsize sedan that can get their family across the state, like the Kia Optima or the Hyundai Sonata plug-in hybrids. Or maybe they would want to drive a super-efficient super-cool Hyundai Ioniq.

Every single one of the cars I listed is a plug-in hybrid. For around-town trips, these vehicles have between 17 and 42 miles of electric range. Every single one of these vehicles requires no charging infrastructure beyond a standard 120V outlet. They charge at night, when power is abundant. While charging, they put about as much load on the electric grid as a residential dishwasher. If someone needs to go on a longer trip, every single one of them has at least 480 miles of range before needing to fill the gas tank. Including federal tax credits, the most expensive of these cars is about $31,000. This is list price, and from my experience consumers often end up paying less than the list price for cars.

Clearly the characterizations of electric and plug-in vehicles as vehicles that nobody wants, have limited range, overburden our power grid, require homeowners to make expensive upgrades to their homes, and are wildly expensive are all false.

The cars I just mentioned are all affordable, desirable options for a single car household or for a family living in greater Minnesota.

The other thing that these cars have in common? Today, none of these vehicles can be purchased in Minnesota because they are only sold in states that have adopted the Clean Car Standards.

Minnesota adopting the Clean Car Standards would provide the incentives that fix this and make the clean cars that people want and can use available in Minnesota.

This concludes my comments.

Thank you for allowing me to participate in this hearing.

Going for the Next Low-Hanging Fruit

I was having a discussion with a friend today about product strategy and we were discussing how to evaluate expansion options in a product portfolio and why companies succeed or fail in transforming their businesses.

If you’re looking to increase your business, launch a new product, build a capability or better your business’ bottom line, heed the following advice:

Go for the next low-hanging fruit.

Searching for the biggest low-hanging fruit is a mistake.

Too often, in a quest to increase revenue or better a KPI, executives engage in a search for low-hanging fruit… opportunities that are ripe for the picking, theoretically are easy to capture, and promise to juice the next quarter’s numbers.

This search for these low hanging fruit usually emphasizes market sizing and opportunity scoring, probably includes a SWOT analysis, a reformulation of Porter’s Five Forces, definitely a two-by-two matrix, and can burn many, many consulting dollars. The search will always turn out something… and the headline number generally will be some multiplier of the consulting fee you are paying.

The problem is that the search for low-hanging fruit too often ignores the fact that you must move the ladder. Moving the ladder is expensive, introduces risk, and takes away resources that are supporting your existing business.

Put another way, don’t underestimate the risk of building a new machine within your business to pursue an opportunity that doesn’t share some commonalities with your existing business. Unless the new business you build is at least as efficient as your existing business, your margins will go down.

A moderate opportunity that requires very little change to your business will almost certainly have a greater impact on your business than a larger opportunity that requires you to move the ladder.

Where is that next low-hanging fruit?

So in the context of a business, where is the next low-hanging fruit?

If you running an established business, you already have a customer base. You have established a set of competencies – things that your business does well. And you have a portfolio of existing products or services that you are currently selling.

The next low hanging fruit exists in expanding either your customer base, your product offering, or your competencies, at the intersection of the other two.

Product – Your existing customers probably have needs that are not being met and your company has certain capabilities. What product or service exists at the intersection of your customers’ needs and your company’s capabilities that you could develop and sell?

Capability – Is there an opportunity to figure out how to do something better? Is there a way you can be closer to your customers? Can improving your processes improve your production efficiency?

Customers – You are almost certainly not selling to 100% of the customers who can use your company’s capabilities and products. Who are the other players in your customer’s industry? Can they be using your products? Can you sell to your existing customers suppliers or partners?

Keep it simple.

We know that our imperative is to constantly improve, to increase profits, and to make our businesses more efficient but too often in pursuit of growth, we take on unnecessary risks and complexity that puts our businesses at risk. I am as guilty as the next person of occasionally pursuing the large opportunity and missing the smaller one right beside me.

Often the right answer is to move the ladder a few inches and pick the next apple over.

Travel Gear – Luggage

I frequently get asked what travel gear I recommend. By far, one of the most common questions is, “What luggage should I get?” Like many things in life, there is no one-size-fits all answer. What is the best luggage for you depends on your travel habits, preferences, and budget.

Here are some things to consider when looking for your next set of luggage.

Go cheap or high-quality?

Believe it or not, there are good reasons to seek out cheap luggage, even if you are a road warrior. Yes, to some extent you are choosing whether to spend more money now or more money later, but more than that, you are making choices about convenience tradeoffs.

Cheap and disposable. I know seasoned travelers who travel with $40 rollaboards. and, though this is not the route I personally choose to go, it’s perfectly reasonable choice. The person toting a $40 rollaboard never has to worry about their luggage being out for repair. If the airline destroys it, they simply buy something new. If the luggage starts to get worn, they buy something new. Generally, if you’re only taking one or two trips a year, this is what I would recommend.

Where to get your cheap luggage: I generally recommend discounters such as TJ Maxx and Marshalls for cheap luggage. You can probably find cheap luggage at places like Kohl’s, Sears, or Walmart as well. The clearance shelves of lower-end department stores are also a good bet. Target price: $40 for a rollaboard.

A sturdy tool. On the other hand, there are people who want to buy luggage that will last them for life. Your well-built luggage is less likely to fall apart on you during a trip. That rollaboard you have been using for the last decade may have a few scuffs and scars, but you will know every inch of that piece of luggage and you will come to know how to optimize every square inch of packing space. Yes, if the airline destroys your luggage, you might be without your luggage for a week or two while it is being repaired, but your luggage becomes a consistent, trusty traveling companion.

Where to get higher-end luggage: Go to a luggage store. In fact, go to a few luggage stores. If you are shopping for luggage that you will use for the next decade, take your time and find a piece that you love. Then wait for a sale. Often, luggage brands will have semi-annual sales where you can pick up quality luggage at a moderate discount.

Don’t go for mid-range luggage. Most mid-range luggage is junk; it is built like the $40 stuff and wears an expensive label. You’re paying for marketing budget. Many years ago, before I started traveling extensively, I bought a $200 TravelPro set because that’s what I saw the flight crews carrying. When my luggage gave up the ghost at the first taste of cobblestone sidewalks, I quickly learned that I had been duped. At the time, TravelPro offered its luggage to flight crews at 90% discounts. I was paying for marketing, not quality. Fortunately, I haven’t made that mistake again.

How to determine quality

Luggage quality varies widely in all categories and price ranges. Paying more doesn’t guarantee quality and I’ve seen $40 pieces of luggage that could handle even the most aggressive airline abuse.

Customer reviews online are largely worthless in determining whether a given piece of luggage is built to any standard of quality. The best way to determine the quality of a piece of luggage is to get out to a store and feel the luggage for yourself. Even if you’ve never shopped for luggage before, there are a few ways you can quickly determine if the luggage is well-built or a cheap piece of junk.

Quality of the zippers. Zippers are the first thing that will break on your luggage. Just remember two things: Big and beefy! I always go for the chunkiest zippers I can find.

Rolling smoothness. Does the luggage roll smoothly? Is there any play in the wheels? Are the wheels big enough to not bounce over tile floors (or get stuck in European cobblestone?)

Balance – Is the luggage going to stand upright when it is empty? When it is fully loaded? Expanded? Zipped up? Trust me, you’ll get tired of a suitcase that requires you to find some place to prop it up pretty quickly.

Telescoping handle – If your luggage has a telescoping handle, does it feel solid? If you twist it, does the luggage move with the handle or does the handle wiggle loosely? Is there a lot of play?

What do I carry?

So you want to know what conclusions I came to for myself after doing the research? Okay. For my main luggage, I carry a Briggs & Riley International Carry-On Expandable Wide-Body Spinner.

The classic, professional look certainly won’t win any fashion contests and it won’t turn heads like genuine Rimowa luggage, but it is a solid piece of luggage that is the right tool for the job. I particularly like the expansion mechanism, which can ratchet down once the suitcase is closed.

For my carryon, I have both a Briggs & Riley Kinzie Street-Convertable Brief and a Kinzie Street Backpack. I take the backpack with me day-to-day as my personal carryon and I use the convertible brief for my work gear. Only one will ever come on a trip with me.

Both of these pieces are built with the quality that Briggs & Riley is known for and are exceptionally well-designed. Pockets for pens? Check. Laptop and iPad sleeve? Check. Accessory pouch for chargers and cords? Yepper pepper! And they both have enough space for a casual overnight trip or a minimalist weekend trip.

Your thoughts

There are no doubt people reading this post who will have their own experience and opinions. Do you use well-built cheap luggage? Or do you go Rimowa all the way? What piece of luggage do you love? Comment below or email me to let me know!

Happy luggage shopping!

How College Retail Can Thrive

Almost everywhere you turn you hear about the demise of retail. Gap, Sears, K-Mart, J.C. Penny, RadioShack, Teavana, Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch… one could fill an entire blog post with just the list of stores that are making major cuts or have gone out of business this year alone. Even Warren Buffett has pulled almost all of his money out of retail. While bricks and mortar retail generally may be in what seems like an inescapable death spiral, there is hope for retailers who are willing to invest in innovation. A unique product mix, becoming a destination, and connecting with customers on their terms will be the keys to stores thriving.

Riches are in niches and service.

Nationwide, stores specializing in vinyl records are thriving; there are three such stores within walking distance of my apartment. All of these stores share two things in common: They offer a unique product that can’t be purchased elsewhere and they have knowledgeable sales people who are truly passionate about the product they are selling.

College stores can replicate this. First, accept that you are not going to be all things to all people and that there are many items in your store where you’re competing with Amazon on price. Eliminate these commodity items, even if it means eliminating some textbooks. If you can’t make a premium margin on it, it should be gone. Focus on items that are unique to your store, or that students need right away.

Knowledge comes from diversity of hiring. Find and hire people who are passionate about the items you sell. Pay more to get that junior year design major to help with art supplies or the computer engineering major to help sell electronics kits. Bring on a parent with kids in college to help with gifts for mom and dad.

Become the destination and don’t be afraid of people using your product for free

There is a reason why I am writing this from a coffee shop near my house. I don’t come here for the food, or for the coffee, though both are excellent. I come here because it is my “hangout” and I end up buying stuff along the way. Certainly I buy MUCH more coffee, but I often pick up other things while here. Gifts for friends coming into town? Those are now usually cookies from this shop.

College campus bookstores are well positioned to capitalize on this, as they generally have access to prime hangout space. Cull non-performing merchandise and spend some of your floor space creating places to meet, enjoy coffee, or work. Encourage students to use your space to meet, work, and play and it will pay dividends.

Barnes and Noble does to great effect. People are welcome to browse, pick out a book, read a chapter, and enjoy a coffee. Sure, there will be people who come in and never make a purchase, but these customers can be dealt with individually. The proof is in the numbers: Barnes and Noble Education’s 2017 revenues were $1.4Bn with 22% gross margins.

Meet your customers where they are.

Younger consumers are native users of technology. The average college freshman was six years old when Facebook launched and got his first smartphone before he was 11 years old. Marketers immediately assume that the solution is bombarding their customers with Google AdWords, Facebook, and Instagram. But invading a person’s social media risks turning consumers off.

For a college freshman, their smartphone is a window to their world and human connections. Rather than cramming advertisements into social networks, use the tools to provide a superior customer experience. First, forget about text message and social media marketing and use the platform to provide as much service as possible. In the college store space, this can mean rental return reminders, book buyback offers based on purchase history, or helpful tips for freshmen on campus. Second, lower the barriers to being reached and respond to your customer’s text messages with a real human. They don’t want to text “Hours” to figure out when you are open, but they do want to ask you “I need 17×22 drafting paper for my design class. Do you have it?” Your approach to messaging could turn these inquiries into additional sales.

Retail is not dead… far from it, but innovation in retail will be the key to retail thriving. Stores that curate a unique product selection, hire passionate and knowledgeable staff, create an experience that draws customers, and foster human connections with their customers will win. For those who don’t bother, well, there’s always Amazon.

 

Aaron Hurd is the Founder and CEO of Flamingo, a retail technology startup that helps retail partners enable customer interactions
that are helpful, meaningful, and natural.