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    Published on: January 5, 2004

    In National Football League wild card playoff action…

    Tennessee 20
    Baltimore 17

    Dallas 10
    Carolina 29

    Seattle 27
    Green Bay 33

    Denver 10
    Indianapolis 41

    And in a revelation that will surprise absolutely nobody, disgraced baseball icon Pete Rose tells ABC News that he did, indeed, bet on baseball when he was manager of the Cincinnati Reds - behavior that got him banned from baseball and that he has steadfastly denied for 14 years.
    KC's View:
    Rose no doubt believes that by coming clean after all these years, he will be forgiven and allowed back into baseball and finally voted into the Hall of Fame.

    We have no problem with him being in the Hall of Fame…as long as the plaque notes that he was banned for betting on the game. But under no circumstances should this guy ever be allowed near a professional baseball field again.

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    Regarding the ongoing Mad Cow controversy, one MNB user wrote:

    You are right that the USDA should have taken a pro-active regarding Mad Cow disease. The USDA is run by people who were previously in the meat industry. The meat lobbyists gave 79% of the $4.7M of their campaign contributions to republicans who very recently voted down a bill to forbid "downed cattle" from slaughter. A cow that cannot walk is a downed one and that is one of the symptoms of Mad Cow disease (BSE).

    You ask, "What was the USDA waiting for"? I guess they were too busy counting the dollars from the meat industry and looked the other way when it came to providing meat sage enough for human consumption. One wonders what else politicians are overlooking when it comes to food safety. Is our fish safe? Is our produce safe to eat? Perhaps we should look at how much money all the food industries contribute to politicians to look the other way. I mean it seems to be the easiest method for discovering the truth on the underlying causes of food safety.

    All good questions.

    We criticized People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for a series of anti-beef ads that also suggest that chickens are at risk. Which prompted MNB user Denise Remark to write:

    I agree with your comments about PETA (which perhaps not-so-ironically is pronounced & spelled the same but for one letter, as PITA which stands for Pain In The A--).

    I seem to recall that Dr. Stanley Prusiner was not originally able to establish that chickens were affected by TSE's (Transmissible SE). Nor have I read otherwise recently. Not that PITA--oops, PETA--has ever allowed facts to interfere with propaganda. Education is the key, not fear and gross-out tactics!

    Another MNB user wrote:

    I don't eat entrails, spinal cords or brains, I know how to bone meat and I've been thinking about using that grinder attachment (for my kitchen aid) for something besides sausage. I'd suggest Mrs. Content Guy do the same, as well as your loyal readers.

    I sometimes think our politicians are more interested in pointing fingers and laying blame than resolving problems. O.K. I think that most of the time.....

    Until this plays out, I'd suggest the consumers do their homework or bite the bullet and buy certified grain fed beef. At least for ground beef products anyway. I have friends in the UK that never stopped eating beef during the BSE problems they've had. Let common sense and some research be your guide. Enjoy the lower beef prices that are sure to come your way. That's the way I am looking at it. Don't eat a burger from a fast food joint, grind your own at home.

    The US is made up of people who largely don't know how to cook a hamburger, much less grind their own meat. While we concede the sentiment, we're not sure how realistic it is.

    MNB user Andy Casey wrote:

    The FMI recommendations seem reasonable enough to start and shouldn't cost an arm and a leg to get into place. Beyond that, setting food testing goals that have a reasonable chance of detecting a problem before it becomes widespread without bankrupting either producers or consumers makes sense as something to work toward rather quickly. The fact is that for all its warts, the US food supply is relatively safe and the focus should be on keeping it that way as well as improving it.

    I do not understand the "head in the sand" industry thinking that resists reforms of this nature in favor of short term profits. We have found one -- count' em, one -- cow with BSE in this country and already $300 million of beef bound for Asia is going to be rejected. I cannot imagine the economic disaster (not to mention, the human suffering and long lasting credibility hit to food supply integrity) the food industry would suffer if we had an outbreak similar to Britain's in the 80's. It might literally require decades to repair the damage, if it could be done at all.

    And MNB user Stan Kessler wrote:

    We should increase the regulatory powers and funding of the Dept. of Ag to protect our citizens and their health.

    Response to the federal government's decision to ban ephedra:

    As far as the ephedra issue goes, I don't think banning it is the proper way to handle it. Now all the government is going to do is turn normal people looking for that "natural" pick me into desperate addicts. Ephedra is the natural equivalent to caffeine, and to my knowledge caffeine isn't banned in the U.S. Limit the dosage. Experiment with it and find what would be effective yet safe. Yes, it has been linked to heart problems and others too, but so have many other things that we consume on a daily basis. Cholesterol can kill you, but we aren't required to eat fat free meals. On a very odd stretch I think Ephedra may now be viewed as an illegal drug, and we all know how well banning those has worked.

    Regarding the annual Fortune list of the top 100 places to work in the US, one MNB user offered:

    Hey Kevin, I find it interesting that the largest retailer in the world is not anywhere on this list!

    Maybe the employees at Wal-Mart aren't as happy as some of the people say that write-in accusing you of "Wal-Mart bashing", huh? Or maybe it just isn't a great place to work for slightly over minimum wage? Working for Wal-Mart may be a decent job for some, but for most it is certainly not a career goal.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment, and have a great New Year! Please
    keep this anonymous as I don't know if sometime in the future I may have to apply as a greeter someday.....

    Finally, regarding the new black-and-white M&M's that are hitting the market, MNB user Mark Boyer wrote:

    I think it was Oscar Wilde who once said "The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about." The press from this alone will be worth millions. It is genius. People who like M&Ms will not stop eating them, and people who are lapsed or non-users might be tempted to give them a try.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    • Wal-Mart's Asda Group in the UK reported that the week before Christmas proved to be a record-setter for the division, with 22 of its units there generating more than the equivalent of $5.3 million in sales for the seven day period - nine more than achieved that level a year earlier.

    • While Kmart has not yet released December sales figures, there have been a number of articles in various publications noting that the mediocre results for the month reported by competitors such as Wal-Mart and Target don't bode well for the chain.

      Kmart has some time to put whatever spin it likes on December numbers; the company says that it will release holiday sales and earnings details when it issues fourth-quarter results, most likely in March.

    KC's View:

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    The US Department of Labor reported that the number of workers filing new claims for unemployment benefits last week dropped by 15,000 to 339,000, the lowest level since President Bush's inauguration. The four-week average decreased by 6,500 to 355,750.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    E-Commerce Times reports that early numbers suggest that 2003 holiday e-commerce sales grew almost a third over 2002 levels. One report has e-commerce sales up 37 percent - to $15.8 billion - for the period of November 1-December 17. alone "had its most active holiday season in its nine-year history, shipping 1 million packages worldwide on its busiest day and seeing 630,000 visitors to its U.S. site in a single hour, or more than 10,000 visitors per minute."

    Among the strongest categories: apparel (up about 40 percent), videos and DVDs (up about 58 percent), books (up 39 percent), and music (up 20 percent).
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    Tesco, the UK's biggest food retailer, announced that it will cut prices by an average of eight percent on more than 600 items, with many of the reductions in health and beauty care items.

    The cuts are the equivalent of more than $125 million (US).

    Analysts say that the move positions Tesco to better compete against Boots, the nation's well-known HBC retailer.
    KC's View:
    The immediate battle may be with Boots. But the war is against Wal-Mart's Asda Group. Make no mistake.

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    Fascinating interview in The Boston Globe with Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, who is a partner in O'Naturals, an all-natural fast food chain with five units in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

    O'Naturals is a place where the French fries are baked, where hamburgers fell off the menu because people didn't order them, where the customer demographic takes in everyone from blue collar workers to upscale moms, and where the average check for adults is $7 and kids is $5.

    Among Hirshberg's comments:

    • "Like everyone else, I'm a hostage to what the offerings are on the road. As a soccer dad, I'm always driving kids around to games and I'm horrified by the choices.

      The epiphany came when I was driving down to Foxborough for a New England Revolution game with my kids, 10, 8, and 6.

      I realized there was a Nature's Heartland, so I pulled off the road and said, 'Go to the deli counter and get anything you want.' They came back with salads, taco salads, natural chicken. They were thrilled because they were literally, as Burger King says, having it their way. I realized this was an idea whose time had come."

    • "Consumer research can only go so far. There's a gap between what people say and what they do. But the traffic has been fantastic. We've spent the last few years opening new restaurants and fine-tuning…but the concept, and opening future restaurants, is no gamble at all."

    • "People assume when they hear organic and natural it's not going to taste good, but that mentality is evaporating as people taste the food."

    • "One thing about McDonald's is they have hard seating and uncomfortable lighting. They're trying to get you in and out fast. They need to do that because the dollars per serving are small. We have the opposite attitude. Once you order, our goal is to serve you in 90 seconds, but you can sit in a softer chair or lounge in our recycled leather sofas and spend the afternoon there.

      "We believe places need to be a gathering point and we can only be successful if they're embraced by the local community."

    KC's View:
    Next time we're up there, we're going to make a point of eating at O'Naturals. We'll report back…

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    The Associated Press reports that the growing low-carbohydrate beer segment is proving to be an enormously successful part of the business, with more than a dozen such brews in the marketplace vying for the attention of people who are on the Atkins Diet or one of its brethren.

    For example, Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Ultra reportedly had a better than two percent share of supermarket beer sales during December; Rolling Rock shipped one million cases of Rock Green Light in less than three months; Coors Brewing Co. plans to introduce Aspen Edge in 10 states during 2004?

    The problem? Well, as with so much of the low-carb frenzy, it is difficult to tell whether this is a permanent segment with staying power, or just a fad that will sooner or later peter out.
    KC's View:
    USA Today has another in its regular series of articles about the low-carb trend, and makes an observation that is worth remembering - that the Atkins Diet was conceived three decades ago, and therefore can already said to be have stood the test of time.

    There's some truth to that…though the level of attention it is getting now certainly has propelled it into another category. The question now is whether it will maintain this level of enthusiasm…or slip back into being a fringe diet strategy.

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    The Wall Street Journal this morning reports on how "the low-fat doughnut is the Holy Grail of the food industry."

    Despite ample research and investment by companies that include Dunkin' Donuts, Krispy Kreme and Entemanns, the WSJ reports, manufacturers have not been able to concoct a doughnut that is below the federal low-fat threshold of three grams per serving.

    The low-fat doughnut, Len Heflich of the American Bakers Association tells the WSJ, is "not possible."

    Of course, that hasn’t prevented people from claiming to have accomplished this feat. The WSJ notes that "Robert Ligon, a 68-year-old health-food executive, is scheduled to begin serving 15 months in a federal prison Tuesday. His crime: willfully mislabeling doughnuts as low-fat."
    KC's View:
    Based on the level of weight loss mania sweeping the country, it's surprising that Ligon didn’t get the death penalty.

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    The Detroit Free Press reports that A&P's Farmer Jack division will pull out of the Lansing, Michigan, market, closing its two stores there and laying off 130 employees.

    The move comes just a week after almost 10,000 employees of the chain agreed to take a five percent pay cut effective January 1, 2004.

    The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) agreed to the cut as a way of helping the 105-unit chain to keep most of its stores open in the face of tough competition from Meijer and Kroger.

    The new contract between Farmer Jack and the UFCW says that the cut will be reversed in 2005, with a five percent increase in 2006 and an additional 25-cent-an-hour raise in the last six months of the contract, set to expire in July 2007.
    KC's View:
    Just the beginning of what no doubt is going to be a tough struggle to survive.

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday on the ongoing battle between Wal-Mart and organized labor in California, as the unions look to prevent the retailer from opening 40 planned supercenters over the next five years.

    "The unions have a seven-figure war chest to fight Wal-Mart," the LAT wrote. "The giant retailer is aggressively countering every move, and some analysts believe that Wal-Mart's share of grocery sales in the state could eventually reach 20 percent. The state's first Supercenter is set to open in March in La Quinta, near Palm Springs.

    "'If we have an advantage,' said Robert McAdam, Wal-Mart's vice president for state and local government relations, 'it's that we are offering what people want.'"

    However, the paper notes, when people don't want a supercenter and governments reject Wal-Mart's plans, the retailer "rarely concedes defeat. At least nine times during its latest California push, the company has responded to legal barriers by threatening to sue or to take its case straight to local voters by forcing referendums."
    KC's View:
    It continues to amuse us that even as the state's three largest grocers do battle with the unions over compensation and health benefit issues, the CEOs of these companies must be silently rooting for the unions to be successful in their struggles against the Bentonville Behemoth.

    You’d think that based on this alone, they'd find some common ground.

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    Just in the last few days, there have been two stories that suggested to us the ways in which companies can differentiate themselves by looking for the unusual opportunity.

    • It was announced last Wednesday that FedEx Corp. will acquire Kinko's for $2.4 billion, giving the shipping company a major presence - 1,200 stories globally - that goes beyond its traditional business.

      "The FedEx and Kinko's combination will substantially increase our retail presence worldwide and will enable both companies to take advantage of growth opportunities in the fast-moving digital economy," said Frederick W. Smith, chairman, president and CEO of FedEx Corp. "Our two companies share a similar background, culture and customer focus, and that common ground is extremely important as we prepare for future growth and success."

      "Kinko's successful transformation from traditional copy center operator into a global, digitally-connected provider of an array of valuable business services reflects the outstanding efforts of the company's exceptionally talented leadership team and team members," said George W. Tamke, chairman of Kinko's.

      All 1,200 Kinko's locations worldwide - including more than 400 that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week - will offer new or expanded FedEx shipping options for greater customer convenience, in addition to the traditional copying, printing, computer and other services that they offer consumers and businesses.

    • The New York Times yesterday featured a piece about Barnes & Noble, which has managed to surprise the markets with a string performance despite competition from the likes of Wal-Mart and Costco.

      One of the interesting tidbits in the piece: that best-sellers, which are the focus of the discounters, actually are just five percent of Barnes & Noble's sales.

      The company also has continued to grow by engaging in e-commerce, as well as by investing in a private label publishing operation that allows it to print both classics and original titles at competitive prices - which gives the retailer the ability to both differentiate itself and keep its prices and costs down.

    KC's View:
    We think there are lessons to be learned in both examples…

    FedEx understands that it needs to extend its brand and brand equity into new and related areas, and the Kinko's deals seems like a smart one to us. We've been known to live at Kinko's when we're in cities where our hotel doesn't have high-speed Internet access…these outlets are lifesavers for people like us. Connecting the FedEx brand to it seems like a smart move.

    As for Barnes & Noble, we like the notion of differentiation and private labeling…and think that the idea that best sellers only represent five percent of sales is an intriguing one. Maybe that's an approach that more mainstream supermarkets ought to embrace - since you have discounters dominating the "best seller" category in food, find a way to get consumers to embrace the other stuff that they don't know about, haven't tasted, but might actually like.

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    Here's an update on what's happening in the Southern California grocery strike/lockout.

    New talks have not been scheduled in the battle between the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the region's three biggest grocers - Safeway (which owns Vons), Kroger (which owns Ralphs), and Albertsons - were looking for $1 billion in cuts. The most recent discussions collapsed before Christmas.

    The strike/lockout, which began in early October, affects some 70,000 employees.

    • Reuters reports that the UFCW is suing Ralphs, charging that the company has been secretly hiring back selected workers under false names and Social Security numbers.

      The UFCW says that it has evidence that between 50 to 100 striking worker were secretly hired back and then told to use fictitious names and Social Security numbers or those of their minor children.

      Ralphs and its parent company, Kroger, were not commenting on the allegations at this posting.

    • The Associated Press reports that while the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) expanded its picket lines to Northern California almost two months ago in an effort to put pressure on chain management to be less intransigent during negotiations, the effort by and large hasn't worked.

      There have been some 50 picket lines set up around the Bay Area, but the "message seems to be lost on shoppers here, the best-informed of whom are only peripherally aware of the strike in Southern California."

      Of course, the strife in Northern California could become a little more evident when contracts with the UFCW there run out later this year. And, in the meantime, the AP reports that UFCW workers in Northern California and elsewhere "may be asked soon not to cross picket lines set up by Southern California workers," in essence expanding the strike to areas of the country where there is no labor dispute.

    • The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that one of the major concerns of picketers who are protesting against Southern California's three major grocery chains is the proliferation of automated checkout machines, which many union workers feel is a significant threat to their job security.

      "The machines are not any faster than human checkers," the paper wrote. "But retailers, the technology firms that make the machines and some retail industry analysts are quick to tout the many virtues of automatic self checkout: shorter lines, more engaged shoppers and, to the dismay of grocery workers and the union that represents them, labor savings."

      One particularly damning comment comes from a technology consultant, who told the Union-Tribune, "A cashier is not generating income. They are more a cost of doing business."

    • Published reports say that striking and locked out employees in Southern California will have health insurance through the end of January, a month longer than originally believed.

    KC's View:
    We would refer you to the first point we made in our essay above - that it is time to find new and common ground, and to stop refighting old battles that don't do anything to help anyone compete against Wal-Mart.

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    Since we took a few days off last week for the New Year's holiday, we thought it made sense to catch up with the Mad Cow Disease-related news that's been unfolding.

    As you no doubt know, just before Christmas the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the first confirmed case of Mad Cow Disease on United States soil. The disease has been widespread in Europe and Japan and has been linked to about 153 human deaths, 143 in Britain and 10 elsewhere.

    Since then, all sick or "downer" cattle has been banned from the human food chain. In addition, USDA is banning the use of small intestines and head and spinal tissue from older cattle for human consumption.

    It is known that the cow had lived since 2001 at a ranch in Mabton, Wash., a town 40 miles south of Yakima. The dairy farm is under quarantine, and USDA also has quarantined a second herd in Washington State.

    In developing news…

    • The New York Times reports this morning on the resistance that has been shown in the meat industry to increased regulation that might have led to a prevention of Mad Cow Disease.

      "The financial motive that drove the industry to defend practices like selling downers has been turned on its head by the discovery of mad cow disease," the NYT writes. "Now, in an attempt to rescue the market for American beef, the industry is being forced to accept regulation it has long fought."

      The problem, according to the NYT, is that government regulators sided with those who resisted regulation. "When an animal rights group, Farm Sanctuary, and an individual, Michael Baur, sued the government to force a ban on using downer animals for food, government lawyers persuaded a federal judge to dismiss the case on the ground that mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, had not appeared in the United States."

      The NYT writes, "For years, the industry had a simple strategy: Fight proposals that would crimp its ability to squeeze as much revenue as possible from each cow."

    • The Associated Press reports that authorities have located a cow from the same Canadian herd as the Holstein that was stricken with Mad Cow Disease, resulting in the quarantine of a third herd in Washington State.

      Expectations are that some or all of these animals will be destroyed in order to head off any spread of the disease.

      In addition, the conventional wisdom says that as more cattle from the Canadian herd where the Holstein originated are identified, there will be more quarantines and slaughters.

      It is believed that some 80 cows entered the US from Canada with the Holstein in late 2001.

    • The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said Friday that it may provide "financial incentive" to farmers to get them to bring in "downer cattle" so they can be tested for Mad Cow Disease.

      Downer cattle are unable to walk, and this symptom is believed to be an indicator that the animal may have Mad Cow. Reports suggest that out of nearly 36 million cattle slaughtered yearly, some 200,000 cattle are downers.

      If the downer cows were not turned over to the government for testing, the likelihood is that farmers would destroy the animals and burn their carcasses on their own property.

    • The Wall Street Journal reported on the "varying standards" that exist for BSE testing around the world.

      In the US, for example, 35 million cows were slaughtered in 2002 while only 20,000 were tested. In Japan, all 1.3 million cows that were slaughtered were tested. In the EU, where 10.4 million cows were slaughtered, roughly 70 percent were tested.

      In deciding whether testing in the US should be ramped up, the WSJ reports, at least some of the consideration is financial - the average tab for testing cows is between $30- and $50 per animal.

    • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) "has fortified the firewalls protecting the public against exposure to meat from cattle with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease," said Tim Hammonds, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), commenting on new BSE safeguards announced by USDA.

      "The USDA, acting together with the Food and Drug Administration, has adopted or even strengthened the high-priority recommendations we have made for improving our nation's BSE firewalls," Hammonds said, citing, in particular, the ban on downer cows and withholding animals being tested for BSE from the human food chain until those tests prove to be negative.

    • Crain's Chicago Business reports that organic and natural beef producers have been "inundated" with inquiries about the differences between their products and mainstream beef in the days following the revelation that mad cow disease had been identified in the US for the first time.

      While organic and natural beef producers say there is no guarantee any meat is safe, Crain's reports, "the chances of getting mad cow disease from "organic" beef are much lower than mass distributed beef found at supermarkets."

    • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that fast food chain Chick-fil-A has decided not to use both new and existing advertisements that specifically try to get people to eat chicken instead of meat.

      "It's not the intention of Chick-fil-A to make light or take advantage of any food health crisis," Chick-fil-A spokesman Jerry Johnston said Tuesday. "We are voluntarily withdrawing or delaying our advertising. We don't want people to perceive that we are taking advantage of what is happening in any way."

    • Check out this description of the Mad Cow issue from this week's issue of Newsweek:

      Let a noodle fall into a vat of soup, and America's food-safety net is there to catch it. But let a cow too sick to walk be slaughtered and shipped off to supermarkets—well, that's all perfectly legal under the watchful eye of the USDA…

      "It will be some time before the entire five tons of beef that passed through Verns Moses Lake Meats in Washington state on Dec. 9 are accounted for, but it seemed likely that by the time the recall was announced two days before Christmas, at least some of it had already gone where no USDA inspector could retrieve it - and what the agency considered a 'low risk' didn't seem that way at all to anyone who had eaten a hamburger in the third week of December.

      "The episode cast a harsh light on a food-safety system patched together out of a dozen overlapping jurisdictions, operating on laws in some cases nearly a century old. It's a system that seems dangerously unprepared to cope with the kinds of threats likely to arise in the 21st century, even those as predictable as the eventual discovery of BSE in American beef. Industry critics have long asserted this was only a matter of time - occasionally adding that the USDA's testing regimen seemed almost designed not to find it. In one week, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman managed to re-enact nearly a decade's worth of dithering by the British government, which was forced to destroy 5.5 million head of cattle after admitting in 1996 that eating infected meat appeared to cause a fatal brain disease in humans…"

    KC's View:

    If the actual discovery of Mad Cow Disease hasn’t frightened people, the Newsweek piece ought to go a long way toward scaring the hell out of people.

    But that's the reality of 2004. Transparency is all. And resisting tight regulation when it comes to food safety is an approach fraught with peril.

    By the way, kudos to Chick-fil-A for a reasoned, responsible approach to this situation. It stands in stark contrast to the ads being run with the utterly irresponsible People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which seems to leave no stone unturned in developing tasteless and simplistic approaches to difficult and complicated issues.

    Published on: January 5, 2004

    (At least, according to Content Guy Kevin Coupe)
    Normally, the custom is to do "year in review" pieces on the last day of the year.

    But not here.

    In part, that's because we're going to refrain from looking at the year past, and instead focus on the year to come.

    A great poet/philosopher once wrote (and sang):

      Yesterday's over my shoulder
      So I can't look back for too long
      There's just too much to see waiting in front of me
      And I know that I just can't go wrong…

    We look forward to a 2004 in which genuine strides will be made in the food industry. Absent genuine strides, we'll settle for tentative steps in the right direction on specific issues.

    Of course, not everyone will necessarily agree with us on what the so-called "right" direction is. But if we had our druthers, this is what'll happen in the next 12 months and beyond…

    • Labor relations. It'd be nice if management and unions would come to the realization that 2004 is a new era in labor relations. While clearly times have changed, it probably is fair to say that unions aren't going to just vanish (despite the fervent wishes of many executives). And despite the apparent delusions of labor leaders, it has to be conceded that retailers are living in a Wal-Mart universe, in which the playing field is hardly even and the competition is fierce, fiercer, fiercest.

      Which means that it is time to stop refighting battles of the past, and establish a new, progressive working relationship. Find a way to share the risks, find a way to share the benefits and rewards. If intractability and ego continue to drive the process, no good can come of it.

    • Redefining "health food."There is a part of us that's never really understood the whole concept of "health food." Does it mean that everything else is unhealthy food? And more to the point, does it mean that all these manufacturers and retailers are making money by selling food that is designed if not to harm us, to do us absolutely no good?

      Maybe it is time for the industry to start breaking the silos that exist between health food and other kids of food. The decision by companies like Kraft to get rid of the trans fats in cookies and cereals and similar products is a good first step…but we just think that a more holistic approach to food products and nutrition ought to be a central target. Is it too much to ask for food to taste good and to be good for you?

      Okay, maybe not all food is going to be good for you. But that leads right into our next "druther"…

    • Information is a great sales tool. Let's stop all the bickering about labels. Let's just tell the consumer everything he or she needs to know to make an intelligent decision - what's in the product, where it came from, and the nutritional impact of consuming it. If all the effort and money put into staking out positions around the issue were put into coming up with a clear and specific food label template, we think it wouldn’t be nearly as impossible a task as people expect it to be.

      No, there doesn't seem to be an enormous outcry by consumers for this kind of information. But events can transpire that will force new concerns and desires…and we think that it is foolhardy to be reactive to events.

    • The soul of the matter. We hate to quote ourselves, but a year ago we noted in this space:

      Can retail entities be said to have souls? Perhaps the problem for many of them is that too few do. They have no soul, no heart. They have a brain, used mostly for counting money and calculating efficiencies and projecting profitability and productivity. But no soul. No heart.

      Go into most supermarkets in the United States -- not all, but most -- and within about 15 seconds you know where everything is. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been there before. You can figure out quickly where produce is, and from there knowing where the meat and seafood departments are located, and where the deli and bakery are, is no big deal. It’s intuitive. Habit. There are no surprises.

      There will be those who would suggest that this predictability is a good thing, that it helps people navigate stores easily and confidently. This may be, but it also is the surest path to boredom. And beyond that, to irrelevance. And finally, perhaps, to extinction.

      It is way past time for retailers to embrace differentiation as a key - maybe the key - to survival. And then act on it.

    • One more family meal. Finally, we'd like to continue to advance an idea we've suggested before.

      Food retailers should take as an industry goal the idea that every family should enjoy together one more at-home meal a week. Just one more meal, at which they would sit around a table, eat, drink and converse.

      This is a big idea. It has business implications, but it also could have social/cultural ramifications. And it would position the industry squarely on the side of the family, which is a pretty good place to be.

    These are just four "druthers."

    They seem to us to be actionable ideas, and worthy targets.

    But it's time to get busy. There are only 360 days left.
    KC's View: