Culture

An idea falls out of orbit

Culture | Consumers may be suckers, but the failure of Planet Hollywood and Roseanne show that we can say no

Issue: "Turkey: A terrible toll," Sept. 4, 1999

Planet bankruptcy
It's hip, it's hot, and it's bankrupt. Planet Hollywood International, the chain of gaudy theme restaurants backed by Sylvester Stallone and other movie stars, announced it was filing for Chapter 11 protection after the chain missed an interest payment on $250 million in debt. Back in 1991 Demi Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis helped start this venture that built 80 theme restaurants around the world and will now close some in an effort to save the business. Planet Hollywood is a grand experiment in globocult: an okay menu blasted through the roof with bombastic spectacle. In the wake of the Hard Rock Café explosion, its backers wanted to turn a burger and fries into a trip to Disneyland. But Planet Hollywood, like other themers from Motown Café to Medieval Times, has a problem: Eating at such places isn't like going to Red Robin or Red Lobster. It's more like taking a quick trip to Las Vegas without gambling. You see it, the lights blink, you stand in a long line for food, and you go home. That might be interesting once, but how many repeat visits will people make to the Official All-Star Café just to gawk at memorabilia and giant TV screens? One would think that Planet Hollywood could survive just on its hype, but those leftover sunglasses from last year's blockbuster movies aren't going to do anything new sitting in that bulletproof glass case. The glitz screams "Tourist Trap!" to locals who already know where to find better food up the street. In the end, survival depends on getting a steady stream of new customers. Movies have a similar challenge, but they usually open and close in a few weeks. The plastic monuments to celebrity are supposed to stick around indefinitely. Sorry, Sly. It can't happen. Nobody wants Roseanne
The star now known only as Roseanne was Queen of TV for too many years, but her star is falling with an expensive crash. King World, the company syndicating both Oprah and Jeopardy! tried to build another hot property by putting the former sitcom star in her own daytime talk show. So it signed up stations in 86 percent of the country to expensive two-year contracts to carry The Roseanne Show. When the show launched last September, ratings started out weak and got worse. Critics called the show schizophrenic, saying the star left audiences confused about what it is supposed to be about. Roseanne's demeanor seemed to change from one week to the next. Yet the show wasn't canceled. King World's managers decided to force stations to stick to the deal, which means this turkey will stay alive through September 2000.You wanted it, you've got it, now keep paying for it, they said. With a new season approaching, a backlash is brewing. Stations in many cities like Denver, Phoenix, and Minneapolis decided to burn off the show at midnight or later. Others decided to eat their losses and pull the plug entirely. In fact, NBC yanked the show out of its powerhouse stations in 11 major cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The not-so-subtle message: Get The Roseanne Show off our backs. The obvious question is who thought this talk show would fly in the first place? The Roseanne sitcom was a descendant of All in the Family, but at points even stranger. The star split both with the Barr family and husband Tom Arnold, thus leaving her without a last name. Her cranky persona is the worst of both worlds: ever-trendy radical chic culture married to trashy aesthetics. Yet people watched her for years, so perhaps her unavoidable abrasiveness finally doomed her in a format without scriptwriters. Here's hoping the TV industry learns from those disastrous two-year contracts. How to manipulate buyers
Paco Underhill sends his minions into major stores, watches people shop, and then tells management how to rearrange the coffee, cosmetics, and power tools. He's an urban anthropologist who gives tips to McDonald's, Starbucks, and Citibank and wrote a book called Why We Buy (Simon & Schuster) about all the nitty-gritty details that stores use to slide customers toward a sale. "If shoppers suddenly ceased to buy on impulse, believe me, our economy would collapse," he writes in his collection of merchandising war stories. So every retailer must do his part to get his products before the right customer's eye. Take the traffic pattern at Blockbuster Video: Customers enter the store, head for the back wall where the new releases are, then come back down a center aisle past candy, popcorn, and other profitables. Mr. Underhill points out that renters often check out the cart of recently returned tapes to grab hot items. So he suggested spiking the selection with older tapes that mean higher profit margins for the store. Mr. Underhill makes retailing into mental chess: Move this piece and capture a consumer. (Why not just sell better products?) He says men and women have totally different shopping methods: Ladies go to explore the store and compare items while gents go in to hunt down that thing and bring back the kill. While 65 percent of males who try something on in the dressing room buy it, only 25 percent of females do. Much of Why We Buy discusses how successful retailers today aren't just selling soap, soda, or light bulbs; they're selling lifestyles. Hence the constant use of the American home's cultural gatekeepers: Bob Vila, Martha Stewart, and Ralph Lauren. With more and more retailers trying to reach the same customers, no end of ideas will be tried to win sales. Yet the bottom line is the same combination of ingenuity, salesmanship, and convenience as ever.

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