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10 Items or Less: How FX and Costco make retail marketing weird and wonderful

Each week, Retail Dive Editor Jason Ankeny weighs in on the industry headlines and trends capturing his attention. This time around: Speed, sunglasses and Spice Girls.

Each week, Retail Dive editor Jason Ankeny weighs in on the industry headlines and trends capturing his attention. This time around: Sadcoms, speed and Sears. If you want more, check out last week's 10 Items or Less on why retailers need to rethink what they think about mobile

With two episodes remaining in its second season, cable network FX’s oddly poignant (and poignantly odd) sadcom “Baskets” has cemented its stature as one of television’s most compelling programs — an absurdist masterpiece resolutely unlike anything else on the air.

“Baskets,” created by Zach Galifianakis, Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel, stars Galifianakis as Chip Baskets, a failed professional clown facing existential crisis and familial strife in his dusty, distressed hometown of Bakersfield, CA. Galifianakis also plays Chip’s twin brother, Dale, who heads up a floundering vocational school, while veteran comedian Louie Anderson last fall won a Primetime Emmy Award for his portrayal of their mother, Christine.

“Baskets” also co-stars Costco. In much the same way that urban environments play key roles in other TV shows and films, the warehouse retailer is an omnipresent supporting character in the Baskets family’s lives. Not only is Christine a diehard Costco loyalist and brand evangelist, stocking her home with a range of products from its Kirkland Signature line, but Chip’s blank-faced pal and confidante Martha (portrayed by standup Martha Kelly) works as a Costco insurance adjuster.

This is not conventional product placement. For that matter, it’s not product placement at all. Neither Costco nor fast food chain Arby’s (where Chip briefly worked during “Baskets’” first season) paid to incorporate their brands and products into the show, although the two companies were given advance scripts and granted the production crew permission to film in their respective stores.

"Both are brands that we just wrote it into the script and then asked them if we could do it. There's no money involved," Krisel told Adweek last year. “We're not advertising for them, but it's more about the authenticity of having the real thing and not having it be a fake brand. And both of them were accommodating in that we're not celebrating them; we're not making fun."

The result is a warts-and-all depiction of the role Costco — and consumerism as a whole — plays in contemporary American life. "I love and hate Costco,” Krisel told Adweek. “I think it's ruined America and made America great. One of my favorite lines I wrote for the show was when [Christine] says, 'You know, you can get two for one!' And Penelope [Chip’s French wife] says, 'I just want one for one.' Because in Europe, you get what you need. In America, you get an excessive amount. And that's partially Costco's fault, in a way."

That penchant for excess wreaks its most profound damage on Christine, a morbidly obese diabetic who seeks comfort in food. But “Baskets” also celebrates the simple pleasures and therapeutic benefits of the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. Sure, Costco is the place where Christine buys in bulk the sweets and snacks that jeopardize her health. But it’s also the place where associates treat her kindly — more kindly than her own family, to be sure. It’s a place to sample new delicacies and score ridiculous bargains. And maybe it’s even a place where money really can buy happiness: In one recent episode, for example, Christine asks a patient Costco staffer for recommendations on board games, hoping against hope that a night of old-fashioned family fun might bridge the growing divide between her and her man-child sons.

What’s most remarkable about “Baskets” is that its refusal to make fun of Costco extends to the people who shop there. There’s nothing cool, edgy or sexy about the Baskets family, their colleagues and friends; these are vulnerable, fundamentally broken people out of step with the mores and demands of modern life, far removed from the big-city millennials who populate other acclaimed FX sitcoms like “You’re the Worst,” “Man Seeking Woman” and “Atlanta.” Nor is Chip Baskets even a distant cousin to the protagonists of Louis C.K.’s own “Louie” and Pamela Adlon’s C.K.-produced “Better Things” — middle-aged sad sacks who’ve nevertheless enjoyed some fame and success in their own creative pursuits. Comedic exaggerations notwithstanding, the Baskets clan are simply marginalized people struggling to get by in a marginalized rural community — the kind of everyday folks rarely portrayed on scripted television — and while it would be easy to play them for rubes, “Baskets” depicts them with genuine compassion.

It also portrays them with unerring attention to detail: Christine Baskets fits the real-world profile of the typical Costco shopper to a tee. Research suggests the chain’s typical member is older than the average consumer and a few years older than the general population, with suburban baby boomers — i.e., people with garages or other options for storing bulk goods — making up the company’s core demographic. Moreover, California is by far Costco’s biggest market, generating close to a third of its annual sales.

FX recently renewed “Baskets” for a third season, and it seems a safe bet that Costco will remain a fixture of the series moving forward — provided Costco continues playing along, of course. Here’s hoping that it does. Given Costco’s indifference to digital commerce and social media marketing, many pundits have wondered how the retailer can compete with Amazon to capture the millennial demographic. But studies show how much millennials value authenticity and how much they discount conventional advertising: Just 1% say a compelling advertisement would make them trust a brand more. “Baskets” is not a Costco ad, but it is an authentic portrayal of what Costco’s selling — literally and metaphorically. Maybe you can’t buy happiness, but you can’t exactly buy that kind of advertising, either.

Here’s what else is worth your time and attention this week…

Touch of modern: Wal-Mart is testing touchscreen monitors at some Texas stores that help toy shoppers identify what they might want, posing searching questions to help customers decide which item suits their needs. The technology also enables consumers to order specific products they can’t locate on shelves.

Beauty and the beat: Cosmetics retailer Ulta Beauty topped Wall Street forecasts by 11 cents a share on the strength of surging fourth quarter sales in stores and online, and outlined plans to open another 100 stores in the months ahead.

Need for speed: Nike unveiled the Zoom Vaporfly Elite with Nike ZoomX midsole, a concept shoe that will be worn by three elite marathoners in a special event race later this spring as part of the Breaking2 effort to bring the world record marathon time under two hours.

Squad goals: Best Buy denied that its Geek Squad tech support employees and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have a more formal relationship than previously revealed after a report stating the federal agency is working with technicians to help them determine whether illegal files like child pornography should be reported.

Diamonds and dirt: Signet Jewelers, parent company of Sterling Jewelers (which owns chains Kay and Jared), will add a “respect in the workforce” committee to its board and hire an independent consultant to review its workplace culture in the face of claims the company fostered an environment that allows sexual harassment and discrimination.

Tux neverlasting: Tailored Brands, owner of Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank stores, said it will halt expansion of its Macy’s tuxedo concessions after the effort tallied operating losses between $19 million and $20 million.

STAT OF THE WEEK

70%: The share of retail decision makers who say they are ready to adopt Internet of Things (IoT) technology, with 65% planning to invest in automation solutions for inventory management and planogram compliance by 2021, according to a study from Zebra Technologies.

PARTING SHOT

“[It’s] akin to taking an Advil to cure a heart attack.” — Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, on Sears’ efforts to resuscitate its failing business.

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