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    Published on: March 29, 2006

    The Contra Costa Times reports that a number of public health experts have called for a federal ban on the sale of selected soft drinks in public schools until it can be ascertained that these beverages do not contain the carcinogenic chemical benzene.

    According to the paper, “Benzene isn't an ingredient in soft drinks, but it can form when two commonly found ingredients react: ascorbic acid, otherwise known as vitamin C, and the preservatives sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate. The reaction can happen when products are exposed to light or heat.

    "’Soft drinks that contain ascorbic acid and sodium or potassium benzoate include Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry, Fanta Orange, Hawaiian Punch, Mug Root Beer, Pepsi Vanilla, Sierra Mist, Sunkist and Tropicana Lemonade, among others,’ the letter said, urging that these drinks be banned from schools “until you can look parents in the eye and assure them that their children will suffer no harm.”

    The Times notes that “the possible presence of benzene in soda, juice drinks, sports drinks and bottled water became a concern recently when testing found that some products had levels two to four times higher than is considered safe in drinking water.”

    Kevin Keane, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association (ABA), the letter is “irresponsible and reckless.” Keane said, "It would be gullible for schools to bite on this letter," Keane said. "The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has given no indication there is a public health concern here. We are working with the FDA. There is no way we would put any product in schools or anywhere that is unsafe.”
    KC's View:
    While we agree that it is important not to overreact to studies, we also think that it is possible that parents won’t agree that it is reckless and irresponsible to pull products that may have two to four times the carcinogens normally deemed to be acceptable. The problem with such statements is that if further tests come back and prove the benzene concerns, they can be thrown back at the industry.

    Published on: March 29, 2006

    The Denver Post reports that one of the hottest commodities on the marketplace is breast milk – which some mothers are selling on the Internet for between a dollar and $2.50 per ounce, and that one for-profit company is actually selling for $48 an ounce.

    “This is all going on with little regulation, raising ethical and safety questions,” the Post reports. “Such ventures are also prompting concerns that the steady flow of donated milk that nonprofit banks supply to hospitals and mothers could dry up.”

    The reason for the heightened trade in breast milk is because of studies showing that it is better for babies than manufactured formula. But the question remains about whether the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should be regulating the use of breast milk the same way it does human tissue and blood.
    KC's View:
    Seems to us that the simple answer to this is “yes,” especially if certain companies are charging more than 12 times the amount for breast milk. While we are leery of new government regulations, this whole thing seems like the basis of a Stephen King novel.

    Published on: March 29, 2006

    The Seattle Post Intelligencer reports that Washington State has enacted new legislation that restricts the amount of phosphorus that can be in dishwashing detergents, which expands on similar restrictions that exist there on laundry detergents. The bill “takes effect in Spokane, Whatcom and Clark counties in July 2008, and will be effective statewide in July 2010.”

    According to the paper, “The law prohibits sale or distribution of dishwashing detergent that contains more than 0.5 percent phosphorus by weight. The detergent commonly used in dishwashers now contains as much as 9 percent phosphorus, which industry spokesmen say helps clean dishes, break down grease and eliminate calcium stains.

    “Phosphorus in detergents and fertilizers that get into rivers and lakes through wastewater and runoff promote algae blooms, which reduce the amount of oxygen available for other aquatic plants and fish, the state Department of Ecology said.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 29, 2006

    Forbes looks at the appeal of Trader Joe’s, which just opened its 253rd store (in Manhattan) and has opened 33 since the end of 2004, generating annual sales of $4.5 billion. “Trader Joe's devoted customers like the food, the prices and the sense of humor,” the magazine writes. “Plastic lobsters are suspended in fishnets by the seafood section and staffers wear Hawaiian shirts and tags that read ‘Captain’ and ‘First Mate.’ Hand-lettered signs include lots of exclamation points - as in ‘$1 less than last year!’ and ‘Organic!’ - and invite customers to sample new offerings. Adding to the allure, the product choices, although limited (2,000 items, against 45,000 in a large Safeway), are not entirely predictable. With as many as 10 to 15 new items every week a store becomes the scene of a treasure hunt.”

    In addition, Forbes writes, Trader Joe's differentiates itself by carrying “mostly goods with its own labels” that are sourced from a “fiercely guarded” list of small companies that would be ignored by giant retailers. “There's ‘Trader Giotto's’ for Italian items, ‘Trader Ming's’ for Chinese. Product ingredients and serving suggestions are detailed, in the style of clothing retailer J. Peterman, in stores and in the food company's newsprint circular ... Some of the items are knockoffs of national brands. Joe's O's look like Cheerios but cost half as much.”

    The challenge for the company, Forbes notes, is to maintain its folksy, quirky culture as it continues to grow, and to find new ways to differentiate itself as competitors increasingly take notice of its success.
    KC's View:
    It actually is sort of interesting that more companies don’t look at an operation like Trader Joe’s and say to themselves, “Gee, maybe the idea of selling mostly products that nobody else carries, and to carry only a limited selection that sparkles with imagination, would be a good thing to try.”

    Of course, the biggest problem would be that a copycat format would be sort of like the photocopy that loses definition with each generation. Trader Joe’s is original precisely because it is original, and an imitation might be flattering without being threatening.

    While Forbes correctly notes that the company has to “to maintain its folksy, quirky culture as it continues to grow,” we think there is another challenge – to be willing to reinvent itself on a regular basis, to not fall back on formula as a replacement for ongoing innovation.

    Published on: March 29, 2006

    The Pueblo Chieftain reports that Kroger plans to rebrand all of the 800 convenience stores that it operates in 16 states under five different brand names.

    These chains include Loaf 'N Jug stores in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming; TurkeyHill in Pennsylvania; TomThumbs in Florida; KwikShop in Kansas and the Midwest; and QuikStop in California.

    The goal is to create a common marketing theme – “Quality Across America” – that will be used in each of these chains’ logos, developing a common identity to go along with improved and enlarged stores.

    KC's View:

    Published on: March 29, 2006

    Business Week reports on the progress being made by companies like Pay By Touch in moving the world to a place where cash, car keys and credit cards will no longer be necessary, and where they will be replaced by biometrics. It isn’t just fingerprints, currently the most popular biologic trait – it could be palm prints, irises, or even voice recognition technology.

    “Founded in 2002,” Business Week writes, “Pay By Touch has signed up more than 2 million people willing to have their fingerprints used as a surrogate for checks and credit cards at more than 2,000 stores, including several large grocery chains. When making a purchase, a customer presses his pointer finger to a pad and then keys in an identifying number as an added security measure before his purchase is deducted from a checking account or added to a credit-card bill. On Mar. 21, Pay By Touch said its device would be installed in all of Albertson's Jewel-Osco stores, a chain of more than 200 outlets that combine supermarkets and pharmacies.”

    And, the magazine writes, “It's not just stores that are using biometrics. Elementary schools have installed iris scanners to keep out intruders. Companies increasingly use fingerprint scanners to authenticate computer users. And fingerprint readers have also been installed on locks for house and office doors.” In addition, it seems likely that people’s health information could be linked to their personal biometrics, which would make it possible to both speed up medical treatment during an emergency and make it more accurate.

    Use of biometric technology could, of course, be challenged by privacy advocates who are concerned that people’s personal information could fall into the wrong hands. And Jay Stanley, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Technology & Liberty Project, says that “The main problem with the situation we're in right now is that the technology is really ahead of the law,” though the ACLU does not oppose biometrics technology – it just wants to see what it views as the appropriate legal protections put into place.
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 29, 2006

    Crain’s Chicago Business reports that the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. has created the Wrigley Science Institute, which will engaged in a “multimillion-dollar, multi-year effort” that will look to elaborate on “emerging research” suggesting that chewing gum can help people reduce stress, keep weight down and improve mental acuity.

    Surinder Kumar, Wrigley's chief innovation officer, tells Crain’s that “the 115-year-old company has been hearing from consumers for decades about chewing's benefits - some of them, he contends, ‘just plain common sense.’ Now it is looking for scientific proof to back up the anecdotal evidence.

    “The company hopes the results, which won't be known for another year or so, will give people a whole new reason to chew gum - any gum, although as the world's No. 1 gum purveyor and with 63 percent of the U.S. market, Wrigley clearly would reap the biggest revenue rewards.”

    In fact, as Crain’s notes, “Wrigley is so confident of a favorable outcome that it is going public with the effort and already has compiled the earlier, preliminary research in a glossy 48-page booklet with the upbeat title, ‘The Benefits of Chewing.’”
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 29, 2006

    • Add the National Grocers Association (NGA) to the list of companies and organizations that have filed objections to the possibility that Wal-Mart could start its own industrial bank with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Wal-Mart has made the application because it wants to cut the fees on credit card and debit card transactions, but opponents are concerned that the retailer would use the charter to get into the retail financial services business.

    • Numerous published reports are profiling the Nebraska college student, Skyler Bartels, who engaged in an experiment – to spend his entire spring break in the local Wal-Mart.

    He ate there, slept when he could (sometimes in the toilet), got his hair washed at the in-store salon, and wandered from department to department, watching and talking to both consumers and employees. He didn’t tell the store what he was up to, but wanted to do a kind of sociology experiment to see if Wal-Mart could cater to all his needs on a 24-hour basis.

    While he enjoyed the experience, it also led to a certain level of paranoia about being caught – so when he saw department managers meeting and pointing at him, he decided to leave after only 41 hours in the store.

    It also has led to a level of fame. Bartels has appeared on national television, and already has been approached by book publishers and move producers.

    Wal-Mart officials were not amused upon learning of the experiment. "We weren't aware of this," said corporate spokeswoman Sharon Weber, "but it's not something we condone. We're a retailer, not a hotel."
    KC's View:
    Target should invite this kid to beat the record at one of its stores. Just for the fun of it.

    Published on: March 29, 2006

    • Kroger Co. has signed a deal with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) for a new four-year contract covering about 2,000 employees working at 23 stores in the Richmond and Hampton Roads, Virginia, region.

    • The Conference Board said that consumer confidence seems to be improving, with its index rising 4.5 points to 107.2, the highest level since May 2002.

    "The improvement in consumers' assessment of present-day conditions is yet another sign that the economy gained steam in early 2006," Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, said in a statement. "Consumer expectations, while improved, remain subdued and still suggest a cooling in activity in the latter half of this year."

    • Wild Oats has changed its rules in such a way that Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa Cos. has been able to increase its ownership in the company to 20 percent from 15 percent without triggering a “poison pill” takeover defense.

    • In the UK, published reports say that poultry sales are down as much as 20 percent because of avian flu fears, with some consumers saying they only are interested in buying British poultry because the nation has not yet seen a bird flu outbreak.

    • Kroger Co. reportedly has filed a lawsuit against three drug manufacturers - Sanofi-Aventis, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Apotex – accusing them of entering into an illegal settlement of a patent lawsuit. The settlement was of a dispute over Plavix, the popular blood thinner, which now will not be available in less expensive generic form until 2011, a delay to which Kroger objects.

    The Plavix agreement still has to be approved by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 29, 2006

    • Bankrupt Winn-Dixie reported February sales of $600.5 million, up 2.7 percent from the same period a year ago. The company also reduced its operating loss for the month – down to $4.3 million, from a $12.7 million loss a year ago.
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 29, 2006

    We had a story yesterday about an in-store video provider signing a deal with CBS to run clips from the networks’ various shows on in-store networks, and we expressed some concern that much of this footage would become just so much noise that does nothing to improve the shopping experience.

    MNB user Glen Terbeek observed:

    I find this very interesting. Shouldn't retailers be focused on making their stores the center of entertainment through innovative products, merchandising, services and fun shopping experience? Instead, they are relying on an outsider to introduce programming that may not even be relevant?

    Isn't this another example of the retailers abdicating their responsibilities to their shoppers for the sake of the almighty trade dollars?

    Go figure.

    MNB user Gary Cohen wrote:

    That is EXACTLY what those in store networks are…more noise, to go with the cell phone noise, the PA announcements noise (which in many cases either drowns out the TV noise or is drowned out by the TV noise…

    On the subject of certain groups attacking Wal-Mart for its willingness to sell the new DVD edition of “Brokeback Mountain,” MNB user Andrew Hartnett wrote:

    I think these action groups need to ask themselves what it is about this film that upsets them so much. Is it because it is a Gay love story or is it because it represents the iconic American cowboy as a homosexual?

    We’re not sure that this is an either/or situation.

    And another member of the MNB community wrote:

    Do you think that the same people who are protesting Wal-Mart's decision to sell “Brokeback Mountain” based on "family values" are the same ones who bought their unrated version of “Old School” at Wal-Mart?

    Just wondering.

    There’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around.

    We were wondering if maybe Wal-Mart would allow DVD department managers to decide not to sell “Brokeback Mountain” if it offends their personal sensibilities…

    On the subject of the USDA deciding not to cut back on mad cow inspections – at lest for the moment – MNB user Denise Kaplan wrote:

    It's nice to know the only reason the USDA has reversed their opinion on BSE testing is to ensure Japan will accept our exported meat....and that it has nothing to do with keeping the people in the US healthy and out of harm’s way.

    Regarding the possible resurgence of craft beer even as bigger beer companies are suffering sales declines, one MNB user wrote:

    We have 4 craft breweries in our small town of 15,000 souls. Two of them bottle and sell out of the area. When traveling, I always look for a locally brewed beer when it's "beer:thirty." However, I weary of the ales that compose the bulk of the offerings. Every brewery everywhere focuses on ales. I understand why, but it is nearly impossible to create different ales.

    They end up, nearly, all tasting the same because they all work from the same recipe book. It's time for the thousands of craft brewers to buck up, take some chances--a lot of chances, and make their own recipes, to celebrate what makes their town/brewery unique with methods other than crafty (excuse the pun) labels. That will bring the regionality that micro-brewers can really sell. I can see a new travel industry tour based on sampling regional brews.


    On the subject of Sears trying to use its Sears Grand format to replace what it views as a failed Sears Essentials format, one MNB user wrote:

    Fast Eddie and his minions are taking a "Field of Dreams" approach to retailing: If we build it they will come. What they consistently fail to understand is that no matter what you build, if you provide the same poor customer service AND raise prices no one will come. From the first day Fast Eddie took over his mantra has been Increase Share Holder Value. When he gets tired of playing retailer there will only be one way to do this...For Sale by Owner.

    MNB user Bob Vereen wrote:

    Having been in both stores several times observing and taking pix, I found little difference. I think Sears Essentials suffered because it converted old and declining Kmart locations to Sears Essentials and used a layout that tucked strong Sears brands like Craftsman and Sears paints into the far corner, whereas Sears Grand played them strong up front.

    However, having said that, Sears Grand seemed to me to be a cross between a Target and a Wal-Mart, somewhat more upscale than Wal-Mart but not as classy as Target.

    What these conversions do, however, is bring Sears brands closer to customers. Whether doing this will attract more consumers to become Sears brand boosters is yet to be proven, I think.

    And, we continue to get emails responding to our anti-screw top diatribes.

    MNB user Wayne Wood, who hails from Melbourne, Australia, wrote:

    You can stick your Corks where it will not harm the wine.

    Australia has swung to screw tops and I for one am pleased, nothing makes me angrier that having a $90 bottle of wine corked by the seal.

    It is amazing what we eventually adapt to when we get over the snobbery of "Old World Heritage". - "I would rather drink the wine than sniff the cork".

    MNB user John Crowell wrote:

    I, like you do not care how they market wines, if wineries feel gender based marketing is the way to go so be it. I buy based on recommendations from friends and others, like yourself, who enjoy what they drink. But I must take exception to your comment "spare us from the screw-top bottles" what difference does it make whether we pull the cork or twist the cap", good wine is good wine. In fact, I served a friends mother, who is visiting from France, she turned her nose up too when she saw the screw top, but had nothing but praise for the wine once she tasted it. A great everyday White Table Wine called Conundrum from Caymus Vineyards. Whether it’s a pull cork or a screw cap, who cares, enjoy the moment, the person your with and wine.

    The accusation seems to be that we are out of step…something we cheerfully admit to on a number of levels. (We’ve been driving the same car for 12 years and wearing the same watch for 25. The other day we told Mrs. Content Guy that we are finally beginning to like men’s sports jackets with three buttons in the front instead of two…and she said that this is clear and inarguable evidence that three-button jackets are on the way out.)

    But there’s something else here. We keep arguing that for us, the sound of a cork being removed from a wine bottle is one of the great sounds on the planet – it evokes more than just a beverage, but rather suggests romance and magic. It heightens the experience rather than diminishing it or making it common.

    We recognize that not everyone feels this way. However, we think that allowing wine to be opened like a bottle of soda only helps to eliminate one of its differential advantages. It makes the category less special rather than more so.

    Here’s a metaphor that will probably get us in trouble…

    The difference between a bottle of wine with a screw top and a bottle of wine with a cork is the difference between sex and love.

    KC's View: