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    Published on: July 17, 2009

    The New York Times reports this morning that card-check legislation - which would have allowed unions to organize in workplaces by just getting a majority of employees to sign cards, rather than going through a secret ballot election if one is demanded by the employer – appears to be dead in the US Senate.

    According to the story, six senators viewed as pro-labor have decided to drop the provision from the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), instead backing a bill that will require shorter unionization campaigns and quicker elections.

    Labor had made passage of the card-check provision its central focus in the new Congress, and the business community had made its defeat a major priority as well.

    According to the Times, “Though some details remain to be worked out, under the expected revisions, union elections would have to be held within five or 10 days after 30 percent of workers signed cards favoring having a union. Currently, the campaigns often run two months.

    “To further address labor’s concerns that the election process is tilted in favor of employers, key senators are considering several measures. One would require employers to give union organizers access to company property. Another would bar employers from requiring workers to attend anti-union sessions that labor supporters deride as ‘captive audience meetings’.”

    The Times notes that the business community is not entirely satisfied with the bill revisions since it still objects to some of the new elements in the bill.
    KC's View:
    Still, after months of lobbying and debating, the business community has to feel pretty good about the way events are unfolding. Card-check legislation has always been, in my view, a bad idea. So this is a positive step in what appears to be a moderating Congress when conservative Democrats are going to control the agenda to a degree.

    Published on: July 17, 2009

    Nice piece on this morning as it considers the rumored sale of Ukrop’s and points out the ten things it likes most about the grocer: its White House Rolls, Rainbow Cookies, grocery carryout service, salad bar, fried chicken, local ownership, items placed on sale early in the morning and late in the day, birthday cake, commitment to community and clean restrooms.

    And the website makes an excellent point: that while there are things that rival grocery chains do well that also can be appreciated, like the fresh food quality at Wegmans and the online shopping offered by Harris Teeter, it is the unique confluence of qualities offered by Ukrop’s that makes it special if not quite unique.
    KC's View:
    There are some out there saying that if Ukrop’s is sold, sales can be expected to instantly plummet. Which might happen. On the other hand, you know that the stores will almost immediately start opening on Sunday and selling alcohol, which should give a sales boost. So maybe it’ll be a wash. Time will tell.

    It’s an interesting question that can be posed to Ukrop’s ownership. They’ve always resisted the calls to open on Sunday and sell booze as a matter of principle. But now, if indeed the company is in danger of being sold, is there a temptation to compromise a bit on those issues? And what is more important – the principles that keeps you from opening on Sunday and selling booze, or the principles that keep you in business, serving the community, hiring local people, influencing and shaping people’s lives?

    I have no answer to this question. And maybe framing the dilemma in such stark terms is overly simplistic. Still, it does strike me as something of a moral conundrum, and you know how we Jesuit-trained folk like considering moral and ethical dilemmas.

    BTW, I did have a thought. Supervalu is rumored to be one of the companies in the market to acquire Ukrop’s, though there is some skepticism that it can afford to take on more debt. If it does, however, it would certainly signal something about the new CEO’s intentions.

    Another thought – if Supervalu were to acquire Ukrop’s, it should move to somehow merge its operations with those of its Bristol Farms chain and let Kevin Davis run the whole thing. Davis is one of the smartest guys in the business, and he’ll get Ukrop’s in a way that a lot of other people won’t.

    Published on: July 17, 2009

    Fast Company writes that Microsoft is following through on its promise to start opening retail stores – the first ones will open this fall, and the company says that at least some of them will be located next to or near Apple Stores.

    Here’s how the magazine frames the Microsoft decision:

    “Does the company which brought you the brown Zune … really think they've really got this architecture/retail/service thing whipped? It would be one thing if they wanted to experiment quietly, and start small - just like Apple did - so that they could work out the bugs. Instead, they're just offering themselves up for public humiliation.

    “The designs of the store aren't public yet - but their recent “concept store” on the Redmond campus manages to look exactly like the love child of a Circuit City and a Walgreens.”
    KC's View:
    There’s an image that’ll haunt me.

    But Fast Company also makes another point, one that is absolutely germane to virtually every kind of retailing…in fact, to every kind of business. (In fact, it is so important that I’m going to put it in italics and boldface.) It is a point that we’ve making here on MNB almost from the first day that we posted almost eight years ago.

    Why is it that everyone competing with Apple chooses to compete on Apple's terms?

    If you've got to beat Lance Armstrong at something and you get to choose the game, would you really roll up to his front door, pedaling your Huffy?

    No. You'd pick a game that he's not good at. Duh.


    Play the competition’s game, and inevitably you end up playing defense. And lose.

    Play your game, and ignore the other guy’s rules, and you end up playing offense and stand a much better chance of winning, not to mention throwing the other guy off his stride.

    Published on: July 17, 2009

    The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that at least some of the nation’s livestock and grain farmers are objecting to the Obama administration’s proposed revisions to the nation’s food safety regulations. At issue are rules that they believe could give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the ability to regulate their businesses, a concern that resonates with at least some influential Congressmen.

    "Live animals are not 'food' until the point of processing, which is why this bill needs to clarify that the FDA does not have regulatory authority on our farms, ranches and feedlots," said Sam Ives, a veterinarian who spoke for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

    The perceived vagaries of the legislation’s language also has created something of a dispute between Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a main sponsor of the FDA food-safety bill, with Peterson threatening to kill the bill if he is not satisfied with the specificity of its language.
    KC's View:
    I hope this is just a bureaucratic snafu, as opposed to a serious challenge to changes in a system that desperately needs to be overhauled. If it is the latter, it would be a shame. But probably, considering the ways of Washington, not an enormous surprise.

    Published on: July 17, 2009

    The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that attorneys general in a number of states – including California, New York and Connecticut – are investigating the marketing techniques employed by United Brands, the maker of Joose, and Phusion Projects, which makes the rival Four Loko and Four Maxed drinks.

    According to the Journal, the two companies are being probed because their drinks are perceived as having an alcohol and caffeine content that is dangerous, and that they are being marketed to underage drinkers.

    The story notes that the states reached an accord with Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors last year over similar products, which led to their reformulation, but that the smaller manufacturers seemed to slip through the cracks. The attorneys general are trying to rectify that now, especially in view of reports that Joose sales have been growing faster in c-store outlets such as 7-Eleven than any other alcohol product.
    KC's View:
    These just feel wrong, like they’re going to end up giving the beverage industry a black eye.

    You just know that the wrong people are drinking these things and that it isn’t doing their bodies any good.

    Published on: July 17, 2009

    Bloomberg reports that Campbell Soup Co. plans to launch five new low-calorie versions of its condensed soups in a move to better cater to health-conscious consumers.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 17, 2009

    • Supervalu announced yesterday that Brian Huff, president of the company’s Cub Foods division, has been promoted to be senior vice president of specialty retail for Supervalu, responsible for its bigg’s, Cub Foods, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher's, Shop 'n Save, and Shoppers Food & Pharmacy banners.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 17, 2009

    On the subject of Ukrop’s possible sale, MNB user Chris Roy Dean wrote:

    Having had the pleasure of leading a number of Australian retailers on a tour of Ukrop’s stores just on three years ago a couple of points stood out. In a taxi to one of their stores the driver commented that you could eat your food off a Ukrop’s store floor, how many retailers could boast that, also the welcome that we were given was fantastic, I had a pre meeting with Jackie Legge who not only gave me four hours of her time but was our keynote speaker to our retailers and held them spellbound regarding the growth and business principles of the Ukrop family.

    The advent of developing gymnasiums within store complexes and having health and wellness centres in store was inspirational to our retailers looking for the point of difference and understanding their customers concerns.

    Hopefully the stores will continue in to the future, as they are synonymous with the Richmond and Virginia area.

    From your lips…

    Yesterday, MNB reported that Starbucks is testing yet another new marketing approach as it tries to recapture its mojo - it is renovating its store on Seattle’s Capitol Hill and giving it an entirely new name, 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. Not only won’t the Starbucks name be on or in the store, but it also plans to sell beer and wine as well as sponsor live music and poetry readings. (There are subsequent reports that Starbucks is considering testing the same idea in other cities.)

    My comment:

    I can understand wanting to get more in touch with local neighborhoods and communities, but taking one’s name off the door doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense…especially because everybody is going to know who owns the store anyway.

    I like the idea of expanding into wine and beer and hosting live music…but it seems to me that maybe they need to change the management style a bit, decentralizing and localizing, rather than going incognito. The way they’re doing it has just a hint of desperation…

    One MNB user responded:

    De-branding the Capitol Hill store isn't desperate, it's bold. With such high brand equity, there's a short list of possible reasons for this move.

    Most likely, they've recognized they're selling an experience, not just coffee. Unfortunately the brand has become divorced from the experience in the minds of many consumers. So what do you do? De-brand. The more I think about this, the more brilliant it seems. The current brand image, whatever you believe that to be, has been established over many years and millions upon millions of consumer experiences and impressions. Instead of flushing gazillions of dollars trying to suddenly change the consumer's mind, they're doing what they do best and stepping it up a notch sans
    branding. If this little experiment really gets legs it may eventually (years from now) cannibalize the Starbucks banner which would open up a world of new strategic choices for the corporation.

    And MNB user Garry E. Adams wrote:

    My opinion on Starbuck’s 15th Ave Coffee and Tea is that’s what good retailers do. It’s not desperation, it’s innovation. It may not work but you don’t know until you try it.

    Think of Wal-Mart’s Marketside concept. The Walmart name is in very small letters and the look/feel is quite different than the plain vanilla big box...If SB wasn’t doing new and different things … like other good retailers… they would die.

    Fair enough. Maybe I judged too harshly and too quickly. (Go figure. What were the odds on that?) I can be convinced.

    MNB took note yesterday of a Dayton Daily News report about how Dorothy Lane Market is selling fresh fruits and vegetables that have been harvested by people involved in the “TransPlant Project, in which prescreened ex-offenders work for local farmers helping to cultivate and harvest fruit and vegetables destined for the dinner tables of Dayton-area families … The TransPlant Project is the brainchild of Howard Solganik, who has operated restaurants in the Dayton area and consults with grocery chains and eateries .. Solganik plans to expand the project so ex-offenders can cultivate organic fruits and vegetables on vacant lots in urban settings, while learning skills that can help them become productive and self-sufficient.”

    MNB user Velena Prunty wrote:

    I agree, I love this too! I worked with “offenders” for several years and heard the same complaint from them all the time. They couldn’t obtain legitimate work, since employers were unwilling to hire them. They ended up working for bad employers who paid “under the table” with no health insurance or even a chance at a better job. I always felt awful for them, especially those who really wanted to turn their lives around. When I see an employer willing to take a chance, or someone as creative as Howard Solganik, I want to cheer! Bravo, Bravo!!
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 17, 2009

    It isn’t terribly relevant to anything that we talk about here, but someone pointed out to me yesterday that the Christian book business has embraced two sub-genres in an effort to bolster sales. One is something called “Amish fiction,” which features romances and family sagas that appeal because of their old fashioned values; the other is “Christian vampire lit,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

    So my first thought upon hearing this was that the book I’d like to read would be a combination of the genres – a good vampire story that takes place in an Amish community. In fact, that might make a pretty good teen horror movie, when you think about it.

    Then again, maybe not.

    Because vampires probably wouldn’t want to go to an Amish town. Because, when you think about it, that’s one place where there probably would be an ample supply of crosses and wooden stakes.

    USA Today reports that a new study – possibly the first to probe the connection between commuting and health – suggests that only 17 percent of American workers either walk or bike to work each day. Those that did, however, showed higher fitness levels on treadmill tests, suggesting that even casual exercise can have beneficial effects.

    The problem, of course, is that too few communities have infrastructures – walking and bike paths – that encourage such methods of commuting. Which is too bad. Maybe some of the government’s stimulus package should be spent building bike and walking paths, which would then help to lower the nation’s health care costs.

    That’s what I call synergy, baby.

    Just for the record, I walk to work each morning…after rolling out of bed at 5 am, I stagger about 14 steps into the kitchen, where the laptop awaits. And then, later in the day, I generally walk the quarter mile or so down to MNB World Headquarters.

    Though I don't think any of these efforts are going to do me any good on the treadmill.

    It is amazing what one can find on the Internet. I saw something the other day on a site called “Ethonomics Weekly,” in which it was reported that scientists will shortly be able to produce hydrogen from human urine, which could then be used to fuel hydrogen cars.

    This sort of takes recycling to a new level, and sounds like a wonderful idea…especially if they could come up with a way to make the whole process happen inside the car, which would dramatically reduce the likelihood that anyone would ever run out of gas again.

    Just finished one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read: “The Night of the Gun,” by David Carr.

    Subtitled “A Reporter Investigates The Darkest Story Of His Life: His Own,” this is an absolutely harrowing book about the New York Times media columnist in which he frankly looks at his own drug and alcohol addiction while working as a reporter in the Minneapolis market. It is no-holds-barred, in part because Carr doesn’t trust his own memories and goes back to the scene of his personal crimes to interview people with whom he partied and crashed, people he victimized, people who were helpless as he came perilously close to completely destroying his own life. He makes no excuses, nor does he look for forgiveness; Carr is just looking to understand his own motivations and actions.

    As I said, this is a profoundly disturbing read. But I couldn’t put it down, because both the story and the writing are utterly compelling. It helps that we know as we begin the book that it has a happy ending; but the journey is gripping. I cannot recommend it enough.

    Sad news from Boston, where a Cambridge fixture for more than a quarter century, Kate’s Mystery Books, will close down on August 1.

    Owner Kate Mattes has been a dedicated and passionate supporter of the genre, and writes ranging from Robert B. Parker to Dennis Lehane has passed through her front door.

    Such changes are inevitable in a world of Kindles and superstores. But that doesn’t mean that we are richer for them.

    I have a little something different to recommend on the beverage front this week…something called a St. Germain cocktail.

    St. Germain is a French liqueur made, believe it or not, from elderflower blossoms. (I can't even believe I just wrote those words, but there it is. The fact is that St. Germain is refreshing and tasty and perfect for a hot summer evening, which is enough for me.)

    Here’s how you make it. Nice tall glass. Two shots of Champagne (I like Prosecco) or Sauvignon Blanc. One-and-a-half shots of St. Germain. Two shots of sparkling water. Add ice. Stir. Add lemon twist as garnish.

    Thank me later.

    Interesting news from the BBC which reports that moderate consumption of alcohol can lower your risk of dementia…though if you veer into “high consumption,” defined as more than 14 drinks a week, you may double your dementia risk.

    BTW…I also had a wonderful beer that I’d never tasted before: Captain Lawrence Pale Ale, a perfectly balanced ale that is made by a Pleasantville, NY, brewery. Great stuff.

    I’m sorry. Was I saying something about dementia?

    By the way, for those of you convinced that I’m wrong on the whole “movie downloads inevitably will replace DVD rentals” issue, I submit for you consideration the following from the Los Angeles Times this week:

    In its bid to keep pace with rivals, Blockbuster Inc. has reached a deal with Samsung Electronics America to offer its OnDemand movie rental service through Internet-connected TVs, Blu-ray players and home theater systems.

    The rental giant said the service, available this fall, would give Blockbuster customers the option of renting newly released movies without driving to the neighborhood video store or waiting for home delivery of a DVD through the mail. Viewers could browse, order and watch films using their remote controls -- as long as they have the right hardware, and the TV set or Blu-ray player is connected to the Internet.

    Now, to be fair, Blockbuster isn’t giving up on the DVD rental business. But the folks running the company understand that the world is changing – after all, they used to rent VHS tapes. They need to be in the downloading business because that’s where the world is going.

    That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.

    KC's View: