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    Published on: May 21, 2009

    Now available on iTunes…

    To hear Kevin Coupe’s weekly radio commentary, click on the “MNB Radio” icon on the left hand side of the home page, or just go to:

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

    I mentioned the other day in the course of doing a commentary that there is “nothing wrong with being an underdog in a dog fight…as long as you bring different weapons and expectations to the battle.”

    The comment, I must confess, was hardly original … and was prompted by a terrific piece by author Malcolm Gladwell that I read in the May 11 edition of The New Yorker.

    Gladwell, the author of such books as “Outliers” and “The Tipping Point,” writes about the world of the underdog and uses a wide variety of examples – from a basketball team made up of 12-year-old girls with little experience, to Lawrence of Arabia, to the Biblical story of David and Goliath – to illustrate a central and compelling point about the ability of underdogs to prevail. When the “Davids” in almost any venue do battle with “Goliaths” and play by the orthodox rules set by “Goliath” and his peers, “Goliath” wins more than seventy percent of the time.

    But when the “Davids” challenge traditional thinking and use unconventional approaches to whatever the battle happens to be, the odds of their success almost triple, and they find themselves to be successful almost two-thirds of the time.

    And why, in the case of the girls’ basketball team, they were able to defeat – mystify, really – teams with far greater talent and experience.

    Gladwell writes: “Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is ‘socially horrifying’ – they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought. All the things that distinguish the ideal basketball player are acts of skill and coördination. When the game becomes about effort over ability, it becomes unrecognizable - a shocking mixture of broken plays and flailing limbs and usually competent players panicking and throwing the ball out of bounds. You have to be outside the establishment—a foreigner new to the game or a skinny kid from New York at the end of the bench—to have the audacity to play it that way … We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability … because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coördination.”

    There is a cost of being an insurgent, of course. You have to be willing to be an outsider in what generally is a mainstream game. You have to be able to revel in the challenge to orthodoxy … and be willing to put in the relentless effort necessary, which is usually more than the other guy is willing to do.

    There are plenty of examples in business of companies that challenged the traditional way of doing things, were labeled as being outcasts, but ended up succeeding in the long run. Walmart may be the best example…it simply didn’t accept that the business practices used by its competition were the best practices, and reinvented the model until now pretty much everybody else is trying to catch up. It is fair to suggest, I think, that the reason that so many companies have trouble competing with Walmart is that they think not like insurgents, but like members of the establishment…which hampers their ability to succeed.

    My friend Glen Terbeek, who has been challenging business models and conventional wisdom as long as I’ve known him, read this piece and said something really smart (as he always does), that “actually, the weak are really strong since they are not encumbered with old practices, large organizations, inappropriate measurements, etc. Size is not the same as strength. That is why most of the really new ideas start from outside, and often smaller startups.”

    The challenge that most businesses have is to think from the outside.

    I cannot recommend this article to you strongly enough. It is entitled “Annals of Innovation: How David Beats Goliath,” and is by Malcolm Gladwell. You can find it online in the archives section of The New Yorker…and if it doesn’t help you shape your competitive thinking, then you aren’t reading it closely enough.

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    The US Senate voted yesterday 90-5 in favor of legislation that will, in the words of the Washington Post, “sharply curtail credit card issuers' ability to raise interest rates and charge fees … The bill prohibits card companies from raising interest rates on existing balances unless a borrower is at least 60 days late. If the cardholder pays on time for the following six months, the company would have to restore the original rate. On cards with more than one interest rate, issuers will have to apply payments first to the debts with the highest rates, which would help borrowers pay off their cards more quickly.”

    The bill now needs to be reconciled with a similar piece of legislation passed by the US House of Representatives last month. President Obama is expected to sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.

    The credit card industry had opposed the legislation, saying that it will force them to charge higher fees and rates and restrict credit. reports that one thing not in the bill – but expected to continue being debated in the Congress – is an amendment offered by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) that would crack down on usurious interchange fees charged by card companies.

    According to the Politico story, “Durbin’s amendment — which was designed to ensure that retailers could offer discounts when shoppers use debit cards instead of credit cards — didn’t make it into the final credit card bill now being negotiated on the Hill. But it raised the issue of credit card fees and sparked a flurry of lobbying, and the issue now lives on in other forms, in other bills. In fact, the amendment was more like the tip of the iceberg. Merchants are pushing for far more sweeping legislation from Congress, complaining that card issuers have aggressively and unfairly raised interchange fees on them over the years, collecting a total of $48 billion in 2008 alone.”

    KC's View:
    There’s no reason in the world that the credit card companies can't be forced to be open and transparent about their fee structures, and that retailers should not have more options in how they deal with the companies and interact with consumers on card-related issues. Hope the Congress gets to work on this sooner rather than later.

    The best thing about the bill that was passed, as far as I’m concerned, is the provision that was developed by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) that restricts the ability of credit card companies to market to students … because I’m both amazed and distressed at how many offers my kids have been getting at a time when they don't need any debt beyond their student loans.

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    Management Ventures Inc. (MVI) is out with its annual list of the top 25 global retail brands…and three of them are owned by one company: Walmart.

    Two interesting observations from the report:

    • “Brands identified with filling needs generally performed better than those focused
    on wants.”

    • “The most successful Top 25 retail brands told a more complex brand story, integrating the advantage of price with appeal to consumer emotions.”

    The list is as follows:

    1. Walmart
    2. Tesco
    4. Carrefour
    5. eBay
    6. Target
    7. Auchan
    8. The Home Depot
    9. Aldi
    10. Ikea
    11. Lowe’s
    12. Marks & Spencer
    13. Asda (owned by Walmart)
    14. Costco
    15. Best Buy
    16. Lidl
    17. Kohl’s
    18. Sam’s Club (owned by Walmart)
    19. Safeway
    20. Boots
    21. Sainsbury’s
    22. Whole Foods
    23. Aeon/Jusco
    24. Macy’s
    25. Barnes & Noble

    “Despite the difficult economy,” MVI writes in its analysis, “which produced changes in shopping behavior in some of the world’s largest retail markets, the retail category grew modestly, by 7 percent, in total brand value. Brands with a strong price-value message
    drove the category growth. Deep-discount grocers Lidl and Aldi increased by 56 percent and 49 percent in brand value, respectively. The brand value of France’s Auchan rose by 48 percent.

    “With an 85 percent growth in brand value year-on-year, Amazon was one of the fastest-rising brands in the BrandZ Ranking. Its performance reflected the particular strength of the brand and the general growth of online as consumers, especially in a down economy, attempted to exert more control over the shopping experience.
    In addition, Amazon was the number one brand, among all categories, in brand
    momentum, a measurement of short-term growth prospects.”

    KC's View:
    No surprise that Walmart has such strong brand equity in the marketplace…one could argue that it is the most recognized brand name on the planet at this point.

    I’d make two points. One is that one of the reasons that Walmart’s brand equity continues to improve is that it has embraced the notion that it has to stand for more than low prices, but also quality of life (which it defines in a number of ways). Some will argue that this is big hat, no cattle, but you can't argue that the Bentonville Behemoth has done an extraordinary job positioning itself in this way.

    Second, look for the big fight, long-term, to be between Walmart and Amazon. That’s the main event…and it is going to be a heavyweight spectacular.

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    The Los Angeles Times quotes Piper Jaffray senior analyst Mike Dennis as saying that Tesco’s Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market format continues to struggle- - it isn’t doing enough sales to come close to justifying the enormous investment that Tesco has made in the US, “hasn’t established much brand recognition and has been forced to offer deeper-than-expected discounts to generate even sluggish store traffic.”

    Dennis predicts that things will get tougher for Fresh & Easy before it gets better, and is recommending that the company fold the format into an existing US retail entity that better understands the US market.

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    The New York Times has a piece suggesting that while current calls for a soda tax – a fee levied on all sugared drinks as a way to pay for expanded health insurance that would, in part, cover people suffering from obesity caused by drinking too many sugared drinks - are not likely to result in legislation creating such a tax, it may be just a matter of time.

    “Given the messy politics of tax increases, the industry seems likely to win this time,” the Times writes. “But the soda tax has already made the journey from unthinkable to plausible. It isn’t too hard to imagine that, some day soon, Congress or a state legislature will see the tax as the least bad way to raise desperately needed revenue.”

    One reason it could happen on a federal level is that President Obama has just named Thomas Frieden, the New York City health commissioner, to be head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – and Frieden has been an advocate for a soda tax.

    KC's View:
    The Times reports that in the view of some, a soda tax might actually have an impact on obesity problems, since there have been reports that as soda prices go up, consumption goes down … as long as you accept the notion that sugared drinks at least contribute to the nation’s obesity problems. Which, of course, not everybody does.

    But the Times also raises another point, which is a good one. Wouldn’t it make more sense to stop federal corn syrup subsidies before hitting up citizens with yet another tax increase? After all, it might have a similar effect…and without the word “taxation” being used in a way that is both fast and loose.

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    Interesting piece in the New York Times about how a number of retailers – including Walmart, Best Buy, OfficeMax, Lowe’s and RadioShack – are developing new formats, “opening scaled-down versions of their stores or inventing outlets entirely to test new concepts without a hefty investment.

    “The stores are a relatively safe bet despite the recession because the space is cheaper and the stores require less inventory, fewer employees and smaller spaces … Smaller formats also allow companies to enter new markets in urban or rural areas that they had bypassed during the boom … They also can attract new customers who might be put off by larger stores or consumers who shop mostly online. Downsized or concept stores are more convenient and take less time to visit than a large store. Lines are typically shorter, and the shopping aisles can be easier to navigate.”

    KC's View:
    It has long been the position here at MNB that retailers in general ought to be more fluid about their format development, that winning retailers these days are the ones who looks for ways to reach out to customers rather than expecting customers to find them. This won’t be an easy leap for a lot of folks to make, because monkeying with proven formats isn’t a natural inclination – after all, developing new formats often means searching for flaws in existing paradigms.

    But that’s something else we’ve talked about for a long time here on MorningNewsBeat. Every organization should have someone on staff who is charged with putting the company out of business, who has as one central responsibility not drinking the corporate Kool-aid. After all, that’s what the competition is trying to do…and if a company can find its own flaws first, it can deal with them more effectively and build business rather than flirting with irrelevance.

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    According to new figures from the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), “retail sales within the U.S. consumer packaged goods health and wellness industry reached more than $112 billion in 2008, representing growth of 9 percent over 2007 … While functional foods and beverages continue to represent the largest category with 2008 sales of $40.5 billion, the second largest category saw a slight shift in the past year, from vitamins/minerals/herbal supplements to organic foods and beverages. The category with the largest growth over the past year also shifted in 2008. Natural/organic general merchandise (including pet products, clothing and household cleaning products) saw growth of 32 percent over 2007. This is likely due to the mainstreaming of these products and greater availability in a number of shopping channels.”

    NMI says that consumer penetration/usage trends break out this way:

    • Functional/Fortified Foods & Beverages: $40.5 billion (5 percent)
    • Organic Foods/Beverages: $23.6 billion (18 percent)
    • Vitamins, Minerals, Herbal & Dietary Supplements: $23.3 billion (7 percent)
    • Natural Foods/Beverages: $14.6 billion (4 percent)
    • Natural/Organic Personal Care: $8.4 billion (7 percent)
    • Natural/Organic General Merchandise: $2.0 billion (32 percent)

    And, NMI projects that “that the health and wellness industry as a whole will remain relatively stable over the next five years at approximately 7 percent growth each year.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    Business Week has an interesting piece in which it focuses on how different companies are engaged in selling more than just the products that they offer, using a strategy popularized by Starbucks with its “third place” approach – making the in-store experience at least as important as the coffee.

    Columnist Carmine Gallo writes that in the case of Virgin’s Richard Branson, he’s always thought of his company as representing “fun” as opposed to being just an airline or CD/DVD superstore (which is a good thing since the company has pretty much closed down its CD/DVD stores in the US). When Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh was asked what his company stood for, “he never mentioned the physical products that Zappos sells—shoes and clothes. Instead, he answered ‘happiness’.”

    “The greatest entrepreneurs don't sell products; they sell an experience like fun, happiness, or a comfortable, inviting place to enjoy a cappuccino,” Gallo writes. “What experience does your product offer? If you're an insurance agent, do you sell annuities or ‘peace of mind’? If you're a financial planner, do you sell mutual funds or ‘financial freedom’? Think hard about what your brand really stands for—it's not always the product itself.

    “Odds are there are hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors offering the same type of ‘product’ that your business provides. Stand out by standing for something.”

    KC's View:
    Of course, this only works if the product you are selling is perceived as being high-quality. A great experience can't compensate for a product that doesn’t live up to expectations.

    But I certainly agree with the conclusion here. The last thing you want to be is generic or vanilla, whether you are running a retail store or a website.

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    Crain’s Chicago Business reports that Sara Lee Corp. has filed a federal lawsuit against Kraft Foods Inc. claiming false hot dog advertising. Sara Lee is complaining about Kraft’s ads for its Oscar Mayer brand saying that they taste better than its own Ball Park franks.

    • The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco is out with a new report saying that while consumers doubled their debt between 1987 and 2007, “now, for a host of reasons including fear of future job losses, many households have reduced debt, curbed spending and boosted savings - steps that will improve their financial pictures but reduce the flow of money in our consumer-driven economy.”

    According to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, “The San Francisco Fed economists think Americans could spend the next 10 years on a frugality trend that would bump their saving rate up to 10 percent of personal disposable income - it had been as low as zero in recent years - while dropping the average debt ratio down to 100 percent, or a dollar owed for every dollar of disposable income.”

    "The subtraction from consumption growth would act as a near-term drag on overall economic activity, slowing the pace of recovery from recession," San Francisco Fed economists Reuven Glick and Kevin Lansing wrote in the report.

    • The San Francisco Chronicle reports this morning that the US death toll due to the so-called swine flu has now reached 10 people.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that swine flu has sickened more than 10,000 people in 41 countries and killed 80…though these numbers are generally considered to lag behind the current reality.

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    • BJ’s Wholesale Club reports that its first quarter net profit rose to $24.3 million, from $17.2 million during the same period a year earlier. Q1 sales rose 0.2 percent to $2.26 billion, and same-store sales were off 1.5 percent.

    • Target Corp. said that its first quarter sales were up to $14.4 billion from $14.3 billion during the same period a year ago, with same-store sales off 3.7 percent. Profit fell to $522 million, from $602 million a year earlier.

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    • The New York Times reports that Daniel Carasso, whose father created the Danone yogurt company in 1919 and named it after his son, and who turned the dairy business into a global brand while popularizing the consumption of yogurt and its health benefits, died last Sunday at his home in Paris. He apparently was an enthusiastic consumer of his own products – he died at age 103.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    MNB reported yesterday that some 75 livestock producers testified before the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) this week, saying that they continue to object to a federal traceability program designed to keep track of the animals on their ranches in case of a disease outbreak.

    Only about a third of US ranchers are taking part in the program – which has cost more than $100 million so far - with the rest saying that the initiative costs too much, doesn’t prevent disease, and that it is nobody’s business what they have in their pastures.

    My comment, in part::

    I understand where these guys are coming from, but they are ignoring reality. We live in a transparent world, and traceability is a cost of doing business. They can fight it if they want to, but eventually the companies that provide complete transparency, do their own testing, and are completely open with consumers will be the ones with a competitive advantage.

    One MNB user responded:

    While I appreciate your POV on the stodgy 'ol ranchers. I think you need to do some more research so that you have a more informed understanding of NAIS.

    The biggest misconception you have about NAIS is that it will allow anyone to trace a pack of meat in the grocery store back to the farm. You see, the ear tag or RFID chip is removed at slaughter and that's where the NAIS chain ends.

    This is a common misconception and I think it's because the word "disease" means different things to different groups of people. To you and other consumer "disease" means E. coli, etc. To the USDA, "disease" means things like cow TB or BSE, etc.

    You also have the mistaken impression that NAIS is supported by pro-consumer companies. Which is not true. NAIS if primarily supported by the four largest meat packers and they have a long and tragic track record of market manipulations to drive ranchers out of business while keeping prices high for consumers. Not to mention pressuring the USDA to lower inspection standards which has resulted in an increase is food-borne illnesses. So the supporters of NAIS are definitely not pro-consumer.

    What NAIS is really about is transparency for the four largest meat packers. They want transparency to be able to easily identify which ranches produce cattle that is to their liking. Currently there is a great deal of proprietary information in the cattle market starting with the ranch and then onto the sale barns and feedlots. If NAIS is adopted, it will devastate the ranching, sale barn and feedlot industries because the four largest processors will be able to put anyone out of business that doesn't produce exactly what they want. So these guys are really fighting for the livelihoods more than fighting "the man".

    While you could take a narrow POV that the above sounds good for consumers, you have to understand that NAIS will short circuit normal market signals that are currently working just fine. It will create an oligopoly in meat which is not good for consumers. Not to mention the fact that all those ranches, sale barns, feedlots pump a lot of money into the economy and so if those sectors contract it will put a lot of people out of work.

    MNB user Ken Wagar wrote:

    Want to share something you may or may not be aware of regarding Beef Ranchers. While the majority of Hog production and almost 100% of chicken production takes place on “factory” farms where hundreds to thousands of animals are raised and marketed each year the average size of a cattle herd in the USA is 15 Cattle. Cattle are raised and marketed by 1000s of small family farms. Since Cattle are a commodity the input costs such as corn are often out of the producers control and as the commodity markets change daily the dollars received for the cattle is also often out of their control. These are essentially very small businesses that survive year to year based on the grain and meat markets with very narrow margins (often negative) particularly over the past two years. Their issue of the cost of the program is very real as their resources are very limited.

    While I am 100% in favor of traceability, the system has to be less onerous that at present or their needs to be some support.

    I think traceability is inevitable but don’t want you to think these are big businesses dragging their heels, they are very small businesses subject to being forced out of business by over regulation. It needs to happen but it needs to happen in a way that does not add significant unrecoverable costs to these small business owners.

    MNB user Bob Wheaton wrote:

    Sinclair Lewis has a follow-novel here. 19th Century mentality in a 21st Century transparent food safety world. I'm all for the ranchers having the personal freedom to do what they want on their land and with their cattle (assuming of course they don't have grazing rights on Federal land). That said, I'd like to know where their product is marketed to enable me to exercise my personal freedom in my buying decision. Maybe someday.

    To be clear, I’m not much concerned about the politics or the bureaucracy of this issue. I am for transparency, pure and simple. Don't care much if you are big or small, public or privately owned. No excuses. No explanations.

    Responding to yesterday’s Kate’s BlogBeat and, I think, the blogosphere in general, one MNB user wrote:

    At what point does a group of committed, passionate, involved consumers become a lynch mob? Is there a time when the self-referential group feeds off its mutual approbation to the point of frenzy?

    For the most part, it probably depends on what side of the argument you happen to be on. One person’s frenzied mob is another’s passionate consumer group.

    But it almost doesn’t matter. Companies have to deal with the reality of these bloggers, whether they like ‘em or not. They are an increasingly important part of the supply chain…and may, in fact, stand between the retailer/manufacturer community and the ultimate consumer. And it is only going to get more so, for better or for worse.

    I made a reference to the troubles being suffered by US auto companies the other day, which prompted one MNB user to write:

    Oh my goodness, the car companies are not in trouble because of fuel standards, they are in trouble because of an outdated model of having to figure out what they could sell a car for based on the labor charges of unions. They had to make junk to be priced close to their foreign competitors due to substantially higher labor cost, and now their shareholders have paid the price. I took a pledge 30 years ago to never buy an American made car until the labor unions went away. I thought I was going to get my wish this year with a bankruptcy court finally breaking this outdated form of collective bargaining, but alas now they own part of the companies, guess I will continue my protest.

    I would be the last person to suggest that organized labor has had no role in the demise of “big Detroit.” But last time I checked, organized labor didn’t force these companies to make enormous cars and trucks that got awful mileage and that were out of touch with economic and environmental realities.

    Plenty of blame to go around.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    In my radio commentary this week, I recommended a piece from the May 11 issue of The New Yorker about how underdogs compete…but there also is an article in the May 18 issue that is worth reading – a terrific piece by Nick Paumgarten entitled ‘The Death of Kings,” which is a fascinating analysis of the causes of our recent economic woes, and of the repercussions taking place all over the country. This could be dry stuff, but Paumgarten turns it into a fascinating narrative, using economic theory punctuated by provocative anecdotes. When The New Yorker is on, it is really on…and this month, it has been must-reading.

    Not too long ago, you may remember, I quoted author Pete Hamill as saying that Walter O’Malley was one of the 20th century’s great villains for having moved the Dodgers out of Brooklyn, and several of you referred me to a Sports Illustrated piece that disputes that common view of baseball lore.

    Not only did I read the magazine article, but I went back and read the book from which it was excerpted: “Forever Blue,” by Michael D’Antonio. “Forever Blue” is part baseball narrative, part history of Brooklyn, and part business book – an intriguing look at the Brooklyn Dodgers and the forces that connected the team to Brooklyn and then uprooted it. Suffice it to say that in D’Antonio’s view, the real villains were Robert Moses and the political establishment that ignored the Dodgers’ plight in Brooklyn until it was too late. But sharing in the blame were the citizens of the borough, who loved the team not wisely but too well and let it escape; and there were certain demographic realities that were at fault as well.

    Well written and compelling, “Forever Blue” makes a strong argument that conventional wisdom about the Dodgers and Walter O’Malley has been wrong…and it paints a picture of the past that is both vivid and credible.

    I told you last week that I liked the new “Star Trek” movie a lot. Well, I can tell you now that it is even better when watched on an Imax screen.

    When I wrote about “Fringe” last week in OffBeat, I got a number of emails from folks asking if I’d ever watched “Castle,” the new ABC procedural that has been playing Monday nights at 10.

    The answer, I’m happy to say, is yes – I came to “Castle” because my sons are big Nathan Fillion fans and I’d never seen him in anything and so figured this would be a good time to catch up with him. Well, I got hooked immediately – in part because he plays a writer, and I’m generally a sucker for any book/TV show/movie in which the hero is a writer. But the scripts are breezy and smart, Fillion is funny and charming, and his co-star – Stana Katic, as a driven NYC police detective – is both tough and gorgeous. Good stuff…though I think these days to see you’ll have to find it online at iTunes.

    Best moment on the season finale of “24” this week was when Jack Bauer’s daughter Kim, discovering that she’s been cut off during an important phone conversation with the FBI because her cell phone battery has died, shouts ”dammit!” at no one in particular – using precisely the same intonation her estranged father has used throughout the series’ seven seasons.

    We had to laugh.

    It was a good year for “24.” Not as good as its best years, but certainly a strong recovery from season six.

    This week’s wine recommendation – the 2007 Hahn Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Central Coast, which is robust and perfect with steak…especially one flavored with my favorite rub (the prime rib rub from Dorothy Lane Markets – a great example of a private brand item that is a small but distinguishing product).

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 21, 2009

    As pretty much everyone in the US knows, next Monday is Memorial Day here in the US, a national holiday that unofficially kicks off the beginning of summer. (There are a lot of us who are hoping that it does more than that this year, since this has been the coldest and nastiest spring that I can remember.)

    Which means that MNB gets to sleep in on Monday. However…and I hope you don't mind this too much…I’m going to push my luck a bit and take Friday off as well and turn it into a four-day weekend. The weather report looks reasonably promising, the ingredients for a Dark & Stormy (several of them, in fact) are in the larder, and I’m ready to put the top down on my car.

    So I hope you have a good weekend, and I’ll see you Tuesday.

    KC's View: