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    Published on: September 16, 2008

    by Michael Sansolo

    This week’s column is dedicated to the Ohio State University football team, not that they care. It’s a strange subject for me because I really don’t follow Ohio State and I’m not much of a fan of college football. Now, while there’s always danger in writing what you don’t know, I figure I crossed that line for good a few months back when I wrote about pantyhose.

    The thing is, I do however love writing about competition and a great example should never be left alone.

    So I was fascinated this past week with the hoopla surrounding the game between Ohio State and the University of Southern California. It was a voluntary game, in that neither team had to schedule the other. Usually they don’t play unless they are paired in a post-season game. But at times, the top schools meet voluntarily, such as happened this weekend when OSU traveled from Columbus to get manhandled in Los Angeles.

    And I’m thinking it was a good thing.

    The reasoning is this. OSU is a dominant team in its conference, the Big 10, but football there is frequently criticized as less creative than in other parts of the country. From what I hear on sports talk radio (the source of all relevant knowledgeable), Florida teams have the speed and western teams have the creativity. The Midwest has great players, but more conservative plans that fail when those teams travel south and west.

    Now, OSU had no need to schedule USC. It could have found many other respectable teams to play last week. The Buckeyes could have scored a ton of points and probably watched their rank rise a little. Instead, they got beaten and they are better for it.

    Competition, difficult as it may be, is a good thing. Competition makes us stronger, sharper and more creative. Competition focuses us and helps us push to new levels. Yes, it’s a headache, but it’s also a motivator.

    Think of your market, whatever your market is. Without competition or with weak competition, you would probably be a lot happier and more profitable. I know many companies that chuckle when they think they have the perfect competitor - a weak number two company in their market that fills up space while not causing major problems. It is a great scenario, but only for a while.

    And that’s where we have to think about OSU. Like them, we should be benchmarking against the best competition, even if it means traveling across the country to get our head knocked off or turned by a great example. By benchmarking the best, we learn and we grow.

    In the retail industry, it’s not even hard. We should all be out there, checking out the newest and latest stores. We should be visiting Wegmans or Dorothy Lane; the Apple Store or Whole Foods, Costco, Winco or Tesco; or even Cabellas and Bass Pro Shops. We should also be looking at successful products and services in all parts of the economy.

    We should all be talking with our business partners and asking them to honestly rate us against the best, so we can find out how to grow and improve. Wherever there’s a good lesson, we should be studying even if the lesson doesn’t represent the business you are pursuing.

    Benchmarking the best might be intimidating and even frightening. But it guarantees to be instructive and that makes us better tomorrow than we are today.

    Sure, Ohio State got clobbered this past weekend. But in truth, the Buckeyes were big winners because their future might have just been changed. Sometimes losing can be a good thing.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 16, 2008

    Agence France-Presse reports that China is vowing to improve its food safety systems and supervision, as that nation deals with the repercussions of reports that some baby formula manufactured there contains melamine, the compound that was found to be in pet food last year that killed or sickened thousands of pets.

    According to the story, the Chinese government has arrested 19 people in the case and is interrogating 78 other people and has pledged to “severely punish and discipline those people and workers who have acted illegally.”

    KC's View:
    Based on history, one can guess that there will be at least a couple of suicides of so-called guilty people in the next week or two.

    The Chinese government can make all the noise it wants about tightening up controls, but it seems to me that it always says the same thing…and there’s always another event.

    Published on: September 16, 2008

    Consumers Union (CU) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) said yesterday that they have concluded that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has erred its its draft assessment that bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical commonly found in household products such as baby bottles and food containers, does not pose a health hazard when people are exposed to small amounts.

    According to the two groups, the FDA assessment “does not adequately account for the large body of mounting scientific evidence to the contrary. In addition, CU and CFA believe that materials made with BPA should not be used in any food or beverage containers and should be replaced with safer alternatives.”

    While the FDA has said that BPA is safe when used in food containers at current levels, the two consumer groups noted that it “contradicts a report released in early September from the National Toxicology Program (NTP), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, and which held that there is some concern that low-doses of BPA may affect brain, behavioral and prostate development.”

    The FDA is hardly alone in its assessment. Among the groups that agree are the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Authority, Health Canada, the World Health Organization, Health and Consumer Protection Directorate of the European Commission; the European Chemical Bureau of the European Union; the European Scientific Panel on Food Additives, Flavorings, Processing Aids, and Materials in Contact with Food; and the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, as well as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).

    However, the Washington Post> recently reported that the FDA finding “stands in contrast to more than 100 studies performed by government scientists and university laboratories that have found health concerns associated with bisphenol A (BPA). Some studies have linked the chemical to prostate and breast cancers, diabetes, behavioral disorders such as hyperactivity and reproductive problems in laboratory animals.” And, both the Canadian government and Walmart have decided that baby products should not contain BPA because of these concerns.

    The consumer groups say that the FDA should “account for the entire body of scientific literature, not only 2-3 studies; revise its safety threshold calculation; convene independent expert panels with representatives from consumer and unbiased scientific groups to discuss how to include important, modern-day toxicology tests and results into future risk assessments; and expand the toxicological endpoints required for safety testing.”

    KC's View:
    As said here before, this is one of those cases when consumers end up utterly fahklumpt…with no idea who or what to believe. And in an era when shopper uneasiness about food safety issues already exists, ambiguity and confusion doesn’t help the food industry.

    Published on: September 16, 2008

    HealthDay News reports on a new study by the RAND Corporation saying that banning soft drinks in elementary schools may not have as much impact as hoped by people who believe that such bans can help alleviate childhood obesity.

    The study looked specifically at fifth graders in schools that banned soft drinks on campus, and found that the policy reduced their overall soft drink consumption by just four percent – a statistically significant number, but lower than expected by the researchers.

    The story says that researchers believe they now have to look at surrounding environments to see what else needs to be done to curtail soft drink consumption.

    KC's View:
    This only proves that we’ve been saying around here for a long time. If parents don't want their kids to drink soda, they have to stop buying it for the home and have to be role models by not drinking it themselves. Sure, they can work to get their schools to not offer these products, but parents have to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk.

    That said, it makes a lot more sense to me to educate both parents and kids about the importance of moderation and intelligent consumption. Outright bans, as this study suggests, have limited effectiveness.

    Published on: September 16, 2008

    It has been widely reported that plans to start selling wine online later this year, and now it appears that there will be yet another competitor in this space as well.

    The Wall Street Journal announced yesterday that it will launch, “a new service offered to its readers and other wine lovers. WSJwine offers access to quality wines of outstanding value through a direct-to-home wine service.

    “WSJwine will offer wine from all over the world through a dedicated website, toll free number or standard mail. Customers will have the option to purchase individual bottles, full cases or receive ongoing shipments of mixed cases delivered to their homes or businesses.”

    The Journal has partnered with Direct Wines -- a direct-to-home wine merchant with four decades of experience-- to source and manage this service on behalf of WSJwine.

    KC's View:
    The Journal has had a long history of offering some of the best, most consumer-friendly wine reviews that are available, in its Friday edition. If it can integrate that content with sales functionality, this has the potential of being a real home run.

    Published on: September 16, 2008

    The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. (A&P) released a statement yesterday saying that, in response to shareholder inquiries, its consolidated balance sheet and liquidity “were not impacted by the September 15, 2008 bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (“Lehman”) and certain of its subsidiaries, including Lehman Brothers International (Europe) (“Lehman Europe”) which was placed in administration in the United Kingdom. Lehman is not a party to the Company’s indebtedness under its Revolving Credit Agreement with Bank of America N.A. or its Senior Note obligations. Availability under the Revolving Credit Agreement was approximately $160 million at the end of the second quarter ended September 6, 2008 and there are no financial covenants under the Company’s loan agreements.

    “In addition, Lehman Europe is party to a 3.2 million share lending agreement with the Company entered into in connection with the Company’s Convertible Note financings in December 2007. However, until the Company has more information regarding the bankruptcy proceedings involving Lehman and Lehman Europe and can properly assess whether Lehman Europe will be able to fulfill its obligation to return the borrowed shares, the Company will continue to consider the shares outstanding for corporate law purposes only and not for the purpose of computing and reporting per share results.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 16, 2008

    • Ahold-owned Peapod and supermarket chain Stop & Shop announced the opening of a new facility to serve the needs of consumers from New Jersey's Monmouth and Ocean Counties looking for the convenience of online grocery shopping and delivery to their home or business.

    "Peapod by Stop & Shop has seen exciting growth in New Jersey and we are delighted to be able to expand service to Monmouth and Ocean Counties," said Peapod President Andrew Parkinson.

    Peapod by Stop & Shop is expanding service in two phases to communities in these counties. Phase one will consist of 27 zip codes closest to Tom's River including Freehold, Neptune and Jackson. The second phase of service will begin later this fall and will extend to Asbury Park and zip codes further north.

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 16, 2008

    Business Week reports that Starbucks has signed a new deal with Unilever to make Starbucks-branded ice cream that will be positioned as “super premium with coffeehouse flavors.” Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    • The Toronto Star reports that the city of Toronto is conducting a study that could lead to the legislation that could ban or limit the use of beverage cups, takeout food containers and plastic bags. The city has a stated goal of diverting 70 percent of its garbage from landfills by 2010, and is considering tactics that could range from an outright ban to taxes or fees on such items.

    • Shareholders of Wendy's and Triarc have approved a $2.34 billion acquisition of the hamburger chain by the company that owns Arby’s.

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 16, 2008

    The Los Angeles Times reports that Hallmark has come out with a line of same-sex marriage greeting cards, a move that follows on legislation in California and Massachusetts to legalize same-sex marriage.

    According to the story, the language inside the cards is relatively neutral, so they also are appropriate for civil unions and commitment ceremonies.

    Hallmark says that the line has been rolled out in response to consumer demand, and that its stores can make their own decisions about whether to carry the cards.

    KC's View:
    Could it be coincidence that this story comes out (no pun intended) as the news hits the wires that actor George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu on the original “Star Trek,” just married his male companion of more than two decades?

    Though it occurs to me that the opportunity is there for “Star Trek”-themed gay marriage cards that could use phrases like “engage” and “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.”

    Make it so.

    Published on: September 16, 2008

    Responding to yesterday’s story about Walmart looking to open a bank in Canada, something that US regulators have not allowed it to do here, and my comment that I couldn’t imagine that Walmart could do any worse than some of the other financial institutions in the news, MNB user David Metz wrote:

    After reading that Merrill Lynch Sold itself to Bank of America for @29.00 a share and Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11, maybe it would be a good thing to have a NEW financial institution on the horizon they cant do any worse then the OLD financial institutions. And I believe that this puts us officially into a recession. Hold on to your hats … it's going to get bumpy.

    MNB reported yesterday on the closing of a plastic bag plant, noting that this is the unfortunate collateral damage of the canvas bag movement. MNB user Tom Brown wrote:

    Sad to read that the plastic bag maker in North Carolina will close. No doubt that many the reusable bags being favored will come from China, whereas at least some of the throwaway plastic bags are produced in the US. I wonder if the city councils banning plastic considered that?

    Another MNB user responded:

    Free trade is not free, when our biggest exports are our jobs. If the new premium ( 8/12/08) is the changing scale of values that shoppers use to make decisions…then…let’s think about the values of companies that would chose put 160 Americans out of work to save a penny on their plastic bags from China…

    Here’s a question certainly worth considering, I think. Should the company that made those plastic bags have made the adjustment to the changing marketplace and figured out how to capitalize on the non-disposable trend? Isn’t that part of the company’s broader responsibility – to be able to see around the corner at where the industry is going?

    I’m certainly not disputing that the closing of this plant and elimination of 160 jobs is a shame. But some of this probably is inevitable as a matter of progress toward a more sustainable environment … and it is up to companies, governments and even the culture to adjust so that there are new jobs for these people to move into.

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 16, 2008

    In Monday Night Football action, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 41-37.
    KC's View: