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    Published on: February 26, 2009

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    Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe and this is MorningNewsBeat Radio, available on iTunes and sponsored this week by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.

    There was a story this week in the New York Times about the fact that while there has been much talk about imposing fines and fees to get people to shift from disposable paper and plastic bags to non-disposable cloth bags, there hasn’t been much action.

    The Times wrote, “Regarded by some as a symbol of consumer culture wastefulness, plastic bags have been blamed for street litter, ocean pollution and carbon emissions produced by manufacturing and shipping them.

    “Momentum for imposing fees or bans has expanded from a few, often affluent, liberal cities on the West Coast — San Francisco was the first big city to ban plastic bags, in 2007 — to dozens of legislative proposals in states like Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Texas and Virginia.

    “Yet as support increased in places, the national economy began to decline. No state has imposed a fee or a ban. Some officials say they fear a public backlash if they were to raise fees in an economic downturn; others say governments need the revenue now more than ever. Still others say a cleaner environment, not revenue, is their only goal.”

    Now, the more I think about this, the more irritated I get.

    First of all, let me be clear about this. I continue to believe that taxes and fees ought to be a last resort for lawmakers confronting this issue…though it isn’t like a nickel per plastic bag is going to bankrupt a lot of people. But, it is a recession, so I can understand why there is some reluctance to levy such charges. However, I also can make the argument that if we ignore environmental issues even while grappling with a troubled economy, by the time we dig ourselves out of this hole and into a new prosperity, we may have some bigger headaches to deal with…and so maybe a nickel a bag, to be used to address specific environmental issues, isn’t so much to pay.

    One of the things I continue to notice when I am in various food stores is the increasing number of customers who seem to have their own bags. I am one of these folks. I carry a stash of bags from various supermarkets in the trunks of both our cars, as well as a bunch of MorningNewsBeat canvas bags that I hand out to people who admire them. And if for some reason I forget them when walking into the store, I will leave my cart in the aisle and run outside to get the bags before checking out.

    I do this because I have been persuaded that this is a small but effective thing that I can do to address the fact that we put too much crap in our landfills. I do this because I have been persuaded that we live on a fragile planet that we are perfectly capable of screwing up…and I say this even though I know I will get email from people who will say that the planet is not fragile and will outlive the human race, and that it is arrogant to suggest that we have the power to destroy the planet. If you feel that way, fine. There’s probably nothing anyone can do to persuade you otherwise.

    But that said, I believe that what government and business really need to do is use their powers of persuasion to convince consumers that they have a moral responsibility to use non-disposable shopping bags, that there is an ethical imperative for them to change their own behavior. If they want to provide incentives, fine…but that ought not be the chief reason for people to make a change. They ought to change their behavior because it is the right thing to do.

    I’m not saying that there isn’t a role for recycling. Of course there is. But in the long run, the best way to address this problem is to shift from disposable bags to non-disposables.

    Maybe if this case cannot be made, it won’t matter how many taxes or fees are levied for the use of disposable shopping bags. People will keep treating the planet like their own personal landfill, and we’ll deserve the planet that we’ll have to live with.

    Maybe government and industry need to treat customers like adults, and say, “This is up to all of us. It’s our planet. There are no other places to live, and no legitimate options to moral and ethical responsibility.”

    Of course, if that doesn’t work…maybe we should tax and fine disposable bag users up the ying-yang.

    What the hell.

    For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.

    KC's View:

    Published on: February 26, 2009 has an interesting story about how in the not too distant future, “people should be able to tailor their diets and supplements to their particular biochemistry … In a consumer-driven food world, the industry would focus its goals on improving all aspects of the consumer's health … People would receive dietary recommendations based on a very specific individualized health assessment, taking into account age, sex and medical history.”

    The story suggests that scientists’ understanding of human metabolism isn’t quite there yet, and that the recommendations right now are far too general to be effective. At the present time, “the blanket recommendations are missing the mark. For example, look at omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Although most people don't get the recommended intake of omega-3s, found mainly in fish oils, different healthy people react very differently to these acids, meaning some need them a lot more than others.” writes, “Another direction that food science is taking is genomics. Researchers are looking at the genes of edible organisms to figure out what about them makes them beneficial to humans, knowledge that may enhance diets in the future.
    For instance, scientists are looking into how human milk evolved. Curiously, one component of breast milk is something that infants cannot digest: oligosaccharides. Research in the last few years has shown that these oligosaccharides stimulate particular bacteria in the intestine, which is a beneficial process.”

    KC's View:
    This is an exciting future, and you can already see glimmers of it in initiatives already being tested in a variety of places. When you look at the in-store health clinics being opened in so many retail locations, and maybe use a little imagination, you can see the seeds being planted for facilities that eventually may be able to connect food to health in new and exciting ways. And while it hasn’t yet taken off, there was a company out there selling in-home DNA testing kits that allow people to test themselves for various genetic conditions; at Byerly’s, the store was actually helping people customize their food choices based on their genetic predispositions.

    Some of this is real “Star Trek” stuff, but then again, there are a number of technologies that were just science fiction when used on “Star Trek” back in the sixties that ended up being part of our daily lives. (Cell phones are a lot like the communicators used by Kirk and Spock, for example.)

    We all spend a lot of time these days wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth about the state of the planet, but when I read stories like these – that actually talk about the scientific advances that we are not just capable of, but close to achieving - I get excited about where we are headed. Just gotta stay focused.

    Published on: February 26, 2009

    The New York Times this morning reports on the troubles that many small companies are dealing with because of the peanut butter-related salmonella contaminations and recalls connected to products containing ingredients manufactured by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).

    As the story notes, more than two thousand products have been recalled because of the contamination outbreak, which has sickened more than 600 people and may have contributed to the deaths of nine people.

    “The recall opens a window not only onto the ubiquity of peanuts in food, but also into the complexity of the nation’s food system,” the Times writes. “Without the resources of big companies, small businesses have a particularly difficult time navigating that system. Even the businesses that thought they had complied with food safety practices ended up with potentially tainted products.

    “And now, in dealing with the recall, they are at a continued disadvantage. While big companies like Kellogg, Kraft and General Mills have the experience and staff to handle recalls, many small businesses have never had to deal with anything like this. Some have had to keep employees on overtime or hire additional help to handle the recall-related work — records have to be searched to identify and track products, and replacement products manufactured. And company officials say they are spending a lot of time reassuring their customers.”

    KC's View:
    This current crisis illustrates a number of things.

    One is that every company in the business of selling food – whether a retailer or manufacturer, big or small – needs to know as much as possible about the supply chain of products and ingredients that they are selling. Trust is no longer an option, because a betrayed consumer isn’t going to take a measured look at the supply chain; he or she is simply going to start assigning blame, and that can wreck a business.

    The other is that a national system of transparency and traceability needs to be created that will allow this information to be accessible by every business and every consumer. It is simply unacceptable that we have a system that allows such transgressions to take place with increasing frequency.

    Published on: February 26, 2009

    USA Today reports on an interview with Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International union (SEIU), in which he says that he thinks there are enough votes in Congress to pass card check legislation, which “would allow workers to form a union by gathering signed cards from a majority of employees, rather than the current method of winning a secret-ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.”

    Stern says that the battle will be waged as a pro-middle class issue rather than a pro-union issue, which may be enough to get the law passed and signed by President Obama.

    However, USA Today notes that the bill died in the Senate in 2007 and has not even been introduced in the current Congress. In fact, Republicans have introduced a bill designed to make any card check bill moot…it would actually require a secret ballot in any union organizing election.

    KC's View:
    I’ve previously made my objections to card check legislation clear in this space. Just as companies ought to be prevented from using any sort of pressure to force its workers to vote one way, a secret ballot ought to be required so that the system is fair to everyone and workers’ ultimate right not to be coerced – by anyone - is respected.

    Published on: February 26, 2009

    BrandWeek reports on a new study by the Hartman Group into the importance of sustainable packaging. According to the story, “The study found that the ability to have some kind of afterlife is the packaging feature that matters to them most – being recyclable reigned supreme. Three in four consumers (75 percent) ranked the ability to return a product’s vessel to the consumer marketplace via curbside bins as either “very important” or “important.” The feature that ranked next in packaging preference was biodegradability (71 percent). Oddly, both these choices outranked minimal packaging (62 percent), which one would think would require less recycling and biodegrading - or exertion to create - in the first place.”

    Then again, maybe it isn’t so odd, since the report also notes that while 88% of the population identifies itself as members of the "world of sustainability,” but only half of those can define what the term means.

    Alison Worthington, the Hartman Group’s managing director of sustainability, tells the paper that “82% of consumers said they think brands’ green claims are mostly true and 42% said they view a certification from a third party on a package as an important factor in their decision-making process about which sustainable benefits are believable.”

    KC's View:
    One can by cynical about the gap between what consumers think about such issues and what they actually know, but it also is reasonable to think that this is just a reflection of people trying to do the right thing. That should be applauded…and followed up with a better educational effort so that consumers know more and speculate less.

    Published on: February 26, 2009

    • Executives at Tesco’s Fresh & Easy operation in the US may have conceded that they made certain miscalculations in developing their American entry, but that doesn’t mean things are standing still. The company said yesterday that it has opened its third store in Bakersfield, California, building its presence in a market where it said its previous two stores – opened last December – have become “top performers.”

    But here’s an interesting note from the official announcement that speaks to what consumers may be perceiving to be Fresh & Easy’s strengths: “More than 60% of the top selling items at the Bakersfield stores have been fruit, vegetables, poultry and dairy products.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: February 26, 2009

    • The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that “makers of household goods and food are paying more attention to the ‘paycheck cycle’ as cash-strapped consumers are showing a tendency to make their largest purchases when their salaries first come in and to cut back as that money runs out. With more consumers living from paycheck to paycheck, some companies have looked at ways to time their promotions around periods when consumers' wallets are likely to be well cushioned.”

    This is the second time this week that a “paycheck cycle” strategy has been mentioned in the news; previously, Tesco said it would adopt a similar approach in its UK stores as it wrestles with the fiscal implications of recession.

    • The Detroit Free Press reports on a new study by the Harvard School of Public Health and Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, saying that it doesn’t really matter whether the food you eat is low fat, low card or high protein. What really matters is cutting calories and increasing exercise, the study says.

    • The coalition called New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes, formed to oppose an increased state tax on juice and soft drinks, said that it will hold its first rally in New York City today. The group said that it has collected more than five thousand signatures from consumers to support its position and has brought together 90 business and citizen groups to fight the proposal by NY Gov. David Paterson.

    Nelson Eusebio, chairman of New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes, said, "The speed and enthusiasm with which these groups have come together in opposition to this unfair and misguided tax shows that New York citizens and small businesses are deeply committed to this cause."

    MSNBC reports that Wegmans “has announced a new program that will lower the cost of nearly 390 select generic maintenance drugs and those used to treat acute conditions. The list is comprised of the most-commonly prescribed generic prescription drugs filled at Wegmans. The new prices go into effect Sunday, March 1.”

    • In Boise, KIVI TV News reports that the Albertsons stores there have seen demand for non-disposable shopping bags has been growing “exponentially,” with a wide variety of sizes and colors being offered and “poised to replace plastic and paper as our primary grocery tote.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: February 26, 2009

    • Dollar Tree Inc. said that its fourth quarter profit was $105.2 million, up 11 percent from the same period a year ago. The company previously posted Q4 sales that were up almost seven percent to $1.39 billion, on same-store sales that were up 2.2 percent.

    The company said that said it will open 210 new stores this year and will add more freezers and coolers to attract new money-conscious shoppers.

    • JM Smucker said that its third quarter sales were up 78 percent to $1.18 billion, with Q3 profits up 84 percent to $77.9 million…a performance that was largely attributed to its purchase of the Folgers brand from Procter & Gamble. However, the company expects to take a hit in the current fiscal period because of concerns about peanut butter food safety; even though Smucker’s products have not been involved in the contamination cases and recalls, consumer trust has been severely affected.

    KC's View:

    Published on: February 26, 2009

    MNB had a report yesterday about how Walmart-owned Asda is editing its SKU count in the UK, which led one MNB user to write:

    Nothing gets a suppliers' attention like the move to reduce SKUs but as you say, they need to be the right SKUs. There tends to be tremendous assortment overlap so my guess is that they might just execute this quite well. Play it right and you can have a great assortment and much lower costs, and prices for your customers, which should help Asda gain further market share against Tesco. The suppliers that remain on the shelf have the potential to dramatically increase their sales. I did this very effectively
    a few times, including when I worked at a company overseas with declining market share. It was the only way we could get price competitive, and it worked surprisingly well.

    More reaction to Tesco’s admitted issues in the US with its Fresh & Easy format:

    There was and is a certain lack of respect for the brokers servicing the markets in which Tesco is opening stores. Tesco doesn't want brokers involved in their business. But brokers are experts in their local marketing areas specializing in the manufacturers that they represent. I believe many of the categories could have been helped with the use of a local expert in the category. Many manufacturers are spread thin and don't have the level of detail on the local market that can be used to make itemization a success in the store.

    I believe the brokerage community could have served Tesco on many levels to help them be successful. I believe Tesco let the pennies get in the way of the dollars in regards to using local resources that would have been happy to serve them. Certainly the brokerage community couldn't have solved all their issues during their introduction and still today cannot solve all their issues but why waste a resource that is available to you?

    We had a story yesterday about how some manufacturers are cutting back on their use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which I said I thought was a good thing. One MNB user said he thought I was misguided:

    Obviously you have been drinking the Kool-Aid - sweetened with sugar of course." But perception is reality and damn the science it is better to give the people what they want, whether it be milk from cows not treated with rbST or soft drinks sweetened with sugar rather than HFCS.

    The HFCS used in soft drinks essentially consists of the mono-saccharides fructose (55%) and glucose (45%). Sugar is a di-saccharide of fructose and glucose. Our digestive process quickly hydrolyzes the di-saccharide sugar into its mono-saccharide components. Use of HFCS to replace sugar was largely an economic decision. Protective tariffs made sugar relatively expensive. Government subsidies made HFCS relatively cheap. With higher corn prices in part due to increased use of corn to make ethanol the economics changed somewhat and that is probably a major reason for the recent switch back to sugar. Actually, the evidence strikes me as compelling that excessive consumption of sugar and/or HFCS just isn't good for us. Unfortunately many people also think the evidence is compelling that sweeteners such as aspartame etc. just aren't good for us". But now these same people are embracing "stevia", a natural low calorie alternative sweetener whose safety has been significantly less proven than aspartame etc.

    There are actually three things that are certain in life - death, taxes, and a sucker is born every minute.

    Another MNB user, however, disagreed:

    Americans consume an average of 50 pounds of HFCS per year…it is approximately 60% to 70% of all grocery items. Every manufacturer that eliminates the use of HFCS helps the health of every American.
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 26, 2009

    Recognizing that shoppers are more eager than ever to save time and money, MyWebGrocer has developed an iPhone App for mobile, sales-seeking ShopRite customers. The new ShopRite Weekly Specials App allows busy customers to review weekly sale items and seamlessly add products to their shopping lists – from anywhere. It is the first application built to showcase weekly grocery specials on an iPhone.

    Click on the image below for a video demo.

    ShopRite partnered with MyWebGrocer to build this portable, interactive sales circular to serve today’s increasingly mobile consumer. The App, which is ad-supported, works like an interactive merchandising placement, because it serves users ads relevant to the category they are browsing.

    Download it for free at the iTunes App Store:

    KC's View: