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I asked a good friend of mine the other night what his opinion was about the social networking world’s newest offering, Google Plus (AKA Google+), which both of us have been trying out to see if it really is the next great thing in networking. His response was to offer an analogy, saying “Google Plus is to Target what Wal-Mart is to Facebook. It’s the same crap but you don’t feel like you need to take a shower afterwards”. He later put his formidable creative talent to work coming up with the photograph pictured at the left to illustrate his point and when I thought about it, he makes brilliant sense on several levels and I credit him with planting the seeds that grew into this article because it made me think about the differences in the social networks and the stores that inspired his thought.

The launch of Google Plus a few weeks ago also reminded me that it was announced just recently that the other social network giant, MySpace, had recently been bought at a fire sale price and that its future was fairly cloudy and uncertain. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that MySpace was all the rage and all you ever heard about? Every teenager was using it and soon many adults were trying to. So where would MySpace fit into this anology? That’s easy to answer. K-Mart.

You do remember K-Mart, don’t you? I certainly do. I am a Southerner and no child of the South grew up without knowing where the nearest K-Mart was located and it mattered not what your socioeconomic status was-sooner or later you and the Big K were going to cross paths. I’m sure as a kid, going to K-Mart was a lot more exciting for me than it ever was for my mother (I don’t think my dad ever stepped foot in one and I now understand why). They were all pretty much the same, a big, single-story box store, identified from the outside by the big red “K” on the building. It was a fun place to go back then. Melting Icee slush drinks on the ground were as easy to spot as fire ant mounds after a rainy week in Georgia and untamed shopping carts freely roamed the parking lot in search of smooth, pristine car doors. I never understood why my mom felt the need to park the car two miles from the front door every time we went there but I remember it always seemed to come up a thunderstorm about the time we headed out the door with a shopping cart full of stuff that you couldn’t ever find at the local grocery stores.

Inside, thousands of long fluorescent lights glowed brightly in their basic, cheap housings and it was always fun to watch one of the dozens that were about to burn out, seeing the dark rings move back and forth inside the flickering tube. Aisle after aisle of goods sat upon the shelves if you were lucky or, more likely, all over the floor if you weren’t so lucky. Parents of other children thought nothing of having a complete thermonuclear meltdown on aisle 14 when the wayward child finally pushed that last button and the entire store would come to watch the show. I can say with complete truth that I was never one of those children because the mere threat of being the subject of a K-Mart parental explosion and all the social stigma that went with it was enough to keep me quietly suffering through hours of figuring out which version of Tide was the best one to get.

The best part of all was being there when the “Blue Light Special” was called. Like a gathering storm, you could almost feel its approach and you felt the excitement explode when those magic words “Attention K-Mart Shopper” crackled over the distorted store speakers. You never could understand what the object of the BLS was but it didn’t matter-you just stood back and watched the craziness as mothers all over would abandon their shopping carts and sometimes their children with them and run for the direction of the flashing blue light. My mother would use this diversion to quickly finish getting what she needed and head for the checkout line which now appeared, given the presence of even more abandoned carts, like everyone had just been raptured. The image of a full shopping cart with an empty pair of flip-flops in front of it and a National Enquirer dropped on the floor in a pile of paper is forever burned in my memory. After checkout, a quick run to the car in the inevitable downpour and then home where Mom always insisted we get a bath because she was sure we had come home with something on us that would turn into the next pandemic event. K-Mart and MySpace had a lot in common-they were both chaotic, illogical and cluttered with useless debris.

Facebook and Wal-Mart had more in common because they changed the game in significant ways. Both offered a more user-friendly experience, more organization, less clutter and soon it caught on. People jumped ship and when the Captain looked around the ship was largely deserted. Over time, Wal-Mart stores grew and offered much more than K-Mart and at a better price too. Facebook grew and added more features to make the user experience better. Everyone shopped at Wal-Mart and then came home and talked about it on Facebook. Never mind that the crowds grew larger and the store packed more and more goods, piling them way too high on the shelves and squeezing every single inch of space they could find on them, always at low prices of course. The crowds on Facebook grew as well, drawing everyone in, from the young to the old, making our lives an open book for all to read while our likes and dislikes became the custom ads that would try to anticipate what we wanted and get us to spend our money on it. When we began to grow tired and it seemed we might lose interest, along came Farmville and Mafia Wars to keep people glued to the monitors. K-Mart and MySpace plodded along and with every new innovation, they lost more ground and grew more irrelevant.

For me, Wal-Mart is a last resort, the place to go when you need that one gift you find out your son wanted for Christmas and nobody else has any left (and Wal-Mart around Christmas…..you don’t want to go there). My wife dreads it as badly as I do and when we find ourselves in one, you can almost feel a sense of panic as the 14 foot high towers of Rubber Maid storage containers close in on you. It’s not that way for everyone of course. You see some come in the door with big smiles on their face, and you just know that they have looked forward to this shopping bonanza all day long, lit with the hot fires of infernal consumption as they are handed their shopping cart at the door. For me, the best part of a trip to Wal-Mart is leaving it behind. I’m not quite there with Facebook but there are times it drives me crazy. As a personal tool used with moderation, it can be a great way to keep up with your family and friends, especially those that you don’t see that often and as a business tool, it can be leveraged in many productive ways but just as Wal-Mart wants to control what we spend and how we spend it, Facebook seemingly wants to know more and more about who we are and make sure everyone else knows it too. Opening an account on Facebook is easy and finding friends is too but start trying to control your privacy and who sees what and you’ll find the steps to do so are not always easy to find….and Facebook, like Wal-Mart, tends to change the rules around every so often, leaving us all confused and vulnerable to those who prey on others.

Fortunately, I have a choice of where to shop and if I can’t find it in my hometown, there is a nice Target right up the road. Target hasn’t been without controversy itself from time to time but it offers something Wal-Mart doesn’t always come through with….a touch of style, a splash of carpet, consistent grocery selection  and products, plus a lot less stress. While they don’t have an employee at the front door to shove a shopping cart in your face, they do have one that goes around and actually rounds up the shopping carts and corrals them where they need to go. My car thanks them for sparing it the dings and dents. Even if they still haven’t figured out how to overcome having 40 checkout lanes and only 4 open at a time, they do have nice, wide aisles, logically arranged items on the shelves and a Starbucks coffee just inside the door. It’s nice to know that if I need fortification, I can get a Venti white chocolate mocha to help motivate me through the store. Target may never be as big as Wal-Mart and its prices may be just a tad bit higher but that’s OK with me. Their stores are better, the shopping experience is less stressful and I don’t feel like I need a bath after being in one. They even have movie theater popcorn in a bag I can get on the way out.

My friend’s analogy that compared Target to Google Plus is right on target, pun intended. Google Plus may never be as big as Facebook but it offers simplicity, wide aisles, a cleaner experience and seems now and then to be a more enjoyable place to be than the Goliath Facebook. In Wal-Mart, if you run into friends, you don’t always feel like stopping to talk-for one thing you would get run over by a shopper because the space that isn’t holding items is there to give you just enough room to move on through the maze. On Facebook, the feed just gets too busy sometimes and you find yourself trying hard to catch up with it as it moves on ahead of you. Google Plus, however, seems to say “come on up on the porch and sit a spell”. Target might not make you feel quite that warm and fuzzy but at least you don’t feel like you’ve been run through a cattle auction.

Whether Target ever overtakes Wal-Mart is something economists can debate and discuss. Whether Google Plus turns Facebook in to the next MySpace remains to be seen but I can tell you one thing….they’ve hit on something good and I hope they will take it slowly and grow it in a structured way, figuring out what doesn’t work well and keeping the best of what does. Once Target quit trying to be Wal-Mart and started focusing on what set Target apart, they achieved something that Wal-Mart has never had….respect. If Google Plus sticks to figuring out what it does best and keeps doing that, I think we will soon be hearing great things about it. By the way, there’s a Blue Light Special over on Aisle 14….we’ve got MySpace accounts going ten for a dollar…….

My personal thanks to Scott Rolfe for inspiring this article.