retail news in context, analysis with attitude

There were numerous reactions to last week’s “MNB Radio” commentary about what we viewed as the stunning possibilities of space solar power for changing the game when it comes to energy production and independence.

One MNB user wrote:

Excellent commentary this morning. The idea of "space solar power" is really exciting. I agree with your comment for big oil companies to "play by the changed rules" or don't play." That statement isn't exclusive to the oil industry. It has certainly applied to virtually every other industry. Companies have had to embrace technology and change with the times in order to survive and thrive. So too should oil companies.

Another MNB user wrote:

I am absolutely in favor of solar power, and I think roofs should sport solar panels instead of shingles wherever it makes sense. That said, it seems to me that having a significant amount of our power generation hanging in orbit where it could be shot down by bad guys is a pretty, but unwise option. I’m with you in spirit, though!

I don't know. I think there is plenty of proof out there that our buildings aren’t all that safe from bad guys, either….at least in space they’d be a moving target, tougher to hit.

But the bigger point is this. We can always find excuses not to do something. What we need to do is stop looking for excuses and start being innovative. Or fall into inevitable irrelevance.

Another MNB user chimed in:

Seems like a promising concept . . . so long as the investment-spending is done by the energy companies and not us taxpayers. Let's keep the government far, far away from this one.

I can go either way on this. I don't want to give carte-blanche to private energy companies, because you end up with some of the same problems we have now with the oil companies. But I agree that governmental bureaucracy isn’t the way to go, either.

MNB user Bill Drew wrote:

You're right on, Kevin. Developing and utilizing solar space technology would mean we would be using a safer, cleaner, and more abundant energy source.

However, I have to say that if either McCain or Obama were to stake claim that because of this new technology the U.S. would no longer be held hostage by foreign governments that control the flow and price of oil, I'd know then and there who I was NOT going to vote for, because I'd know which candidate is most ignorant. This technology is an electricity play; therefore, it won't materially decrease U.S. dependency on oil unless every house that is currently heated with oil converts to electricity, and even then, I'm not sure, given our endless appetite for gasoline.

If it made sense, why not convert houses to electric heat? And only sell cars that run on electricity?

I disagree that this is only an electricity play. As I said last week, I think it can be a much bigger game-changer.

MNB user Richard Lowe wrote:

What is to prevent solar junk from punching holes in this system and what are the maintenance requirements. Seems like we should do something more down to earth! Where we can afford to pay people to maintain it.

Down-to-earth thinking only gets you down-to-earth solutions. I believe we have to begin thinking and dreaming big, because that’s the only way you really innovate.

MNB user Rush Dickson wrote:

Interesting. Hopefully it will not take a disaster to propel such an initiative (the Lunar program was conceived as a way to recover from Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco).


Regarding the suggestion – often repeated here – that stores ought to post signs in their parking lots reminding shoppers to bring their reusable, non-disposable bags with them instead of leaving them in the car, one MNB user wrote:

They could place the signs over the cart storage area if allowed by local ordinance. I’m a member of the county zoning committee and stores are limited to the amount of signage that they can have. If a store is at the max, they would have to ask for a variance, which would add costs to doing business. I get some additional exercise when I have to walk back to my vehicle to retrieve the canvas bags.

There always will be reason not to do something. I can't imagine that the increased cost of doing business – getting a zoning variance – would not be offset by the overall savings if customers stopped using disposable bags.

BTW…Stew Leonard’s, where I shop every week, put up the signs in the parking lot. On Saturday, despite the fact that I am a religious user of canvas bags, I was on my way into the store when I spied one of them…and realized that I’d left them back in the car. And I was grateful for the reminder.

It works.

Got some reactions to our piece last week that reflected on the impact that Starbucks’ closings may be having on inner city neighborhoods where the existence of the store was more important that just coffee, but rather reflected that these neighborhoods were sharing in a mainstream American experience.

One MNB user wrote:

I appreciate your view here on Starbucks, and retail stores in general thinking of "being something more"...of course businesses need to be profitable, that is a given – but to me, Starbucks means - a safe place, a great cup of java, internet access (if I want to pay), a clean bathroom, a 'cool hip" environment, with atmosphere and unique music, and eclectic group of people as clientele - and familiarity in a new environment; travel frequently with my work. I often visit them on my travels all over the country, and the brew is consistently good everywhere…

All of which add up to, in my view, a mainstream American experience. There are neighborhoods in this country where none of these things you describe exist.

MNB user David Livingston wrote:

I agree that if the stores are not making money then close them. However if the community knows that even a low volume Starbucks adds value to the neighborhood and the local community wants them to stay then they should offer Starbucks and economic package the same way larger factories and even Wal-Mart are given corporate welfare. If I were at Starbucks I would go back to those cities and ask for some financial incentives to stay. I'm not a Starbucks fan but I do know their brand has value. I wonder if Starbucks is using that brand value to negotiate free rent and cash subsidies?

On another note, it seems a shame that when a community changes the name of a street to Martin Luther King Boulevard, it like giving a death blow to local businesses. The name is widely associated with "bad neighborhood" and renaming the streets had backfired terribly. I was at a nice hotel recently that was on MLK Boulevard in a nicer downtown metro area, however the hotel went the former street name, the highway name, and would emphasize the side streets when giving directions. Nowhere on their stationary, web site, or promotional literature was MLK listed. They were not being racist, they were trying to maintain the reputation of their business.

If that’s true, it is a sad commentary indeed.

MNB user Marc Priebe wrote:

I agree with you completely. The places we congregate, live our lives, and get our sustenance for our physical, mental and spiritual (yes, this includes food!) needs are important to every community. As a diverse, fragmented nation it is in our communities that our culture evolves or dies. It’s apparent to me that those retailers who don’t embrace the social role they play will be left behind culturally or sadly lumber along like soulless machines never truly realizing their potential and stunting the growth of us as a people. …Or they could just offer free Wi-fi like everyone else does and then maybe people would go to Starbucks again!

I wrote last week that I find product placement – the insertion of sponsored products into non-commercial programming – annoying. Which led MNB user Jerome Schindler to write:

Not nearly as "annoyed" as I get when an unstoppable pop-up ad from your beloved NetFlix (among others) gets in my way when checking local news. Here is the response to my complaint that I received from the General Manager of TV4 in Columbus.

"I apologize for the trouble you are having with pop-ups on We are part of a larger media organization called Media General. We receive our pop-up ads through a national vendor. Unfortunately they are writing a script into their code so when a user clicks on the page, it triggers the pop to display even if you have pop-up blocker. Again I apologize for the inconvenience. We are working to control the situation."

I wonder if the CEO of NetFlix is aware that his marketing genius' are spending money on ad techniques that have minimal chance of success in attracting new subscribers and in fact might cause some people (like me) to add them to my "don't do business with" list.

You’re right. It is annoying. Very.

Got the following email from an MNB user after I bemoaned the sale of a pioneering California winery to a French company:

Last September I moved from the United States to England because I married an Englishman (what can I say, I was a sucker for the accent). In both countries, I've worked in customer marketing for food companies. But now that I've moved to England, getting paid in pounds and have the unique feeling of feeling rich when I go back home to America and poor when I go to Europe, I have a different opinion about your continuous bemoaning of the fact that recently some US companies have been purchased by foreign companies. I can't believe you don't see the potential benefits and strengths these could add to the US companies. Take this California winery, for example. Do you know how poor the selection of California wines is over here? It's shelves and shelves of Gallo, maybe the occasional Mondavi. I would bet anything that French ownership would increase distribution in Europe, and that's what California wine really needs, and could be why this winery sold to the French. Maybe it was still in the spirit of enhancing California's wine image, as this winery apparently has.

On another point, recently you claimed that the Budweiser Clydesdales don't have long to live if they are under foreign ownership. Budweiser will always be considered an American brand (which actually was ripped off from a Czech beer, don't forget). But they won't get rid of the horses if the horses work and can keep the brand growing. In the current economic climate, sometimes a foreign company has the stable stream of funds that can support and invest in growth, both in the US and abroad. In fact, the US needs as much foreign money as possible, to fill where US companies and consumers cannot.

Over here in Britain, a lot of our banks are in trouble, partly because they had bought up the sub-prime US mortgages. So who is stepping in (besides the government, of course)? Well, in a recent case, it was a Spanish bank, because the Spanish economy is stable and the bank is in a position to acquire and keep the British banks afloat. So, don't always despair when a foreign company buys a US company. That doesn't mean that it will lose its national identity. Heck, when Ford bought Jaguar, did you stop thinking of it as a British brand? Did it suddenly become American then (not the best example, because then Ford sold it). But, in short, California wines need to globalize further, and Budweiser, for good or bad, will always be associated with America. Foreign ownership isn't the end of the brand, and may be a new beginning.

Sorry, this was a long ranting email, but obviously your comments have been stewing in my brain for a while and the pot needed to bubble over a bit!

First of all, I was kidding about the Clydesdales…mostly because it gave me the opportunity to work in a “Young Frankenstein” joke.

Second, when I express concerns about US companies being acquired by non-US companies, it is mostly because it sometimes seems to go just one way. How come so few US retailers other than Walmart play on the global retailing scene? It’s a concern, but I don't get hysterical about it. Long before last week’s events in Berlin, I thought that the phrase “citizen of the world” – especially because it has been uttered by people as varied as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in describing themselves – was the ultimate compliment. I think people and companies have to be citizens of the world…and my concerns more have to do with US companies that don’t look beyond their borders.

And finally, one MNB user disagreed with my review of “Wall-E” last Friday in OffBeat:

An hour of Eva…..Wall-E, Wall-E…… Eva, I can do without anytime again real soon. I don’t need an Al Gore-esque cartoon to offer up social awareness brain washing disguised as kid’s entertainment. The best part was the roach eating the Twinkie.

One man’s “brain washing” is another man’s “thought-provoking.”

We’ll have to agree to disagree.

KC's View: