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    Published on: October 2, 2009

    The Wall Street Journal has an interview with Walmart CEO Mike Duke, who offers an assessment of how the economy will continue to impact the world’s largest retailer. Excerpts:

    • “Our customers are still under a lot of pressure. We can see it by the way they shop, the products that they purchase and the timing of their purchases. We have started seeing in recent months that at midnight on the first of the month, we can see the customer there in the store, more than a year ago. That tells us that there is even more pressure on the pay cycle, and on the customer that is receiving benefits [that] the government provides.”

    • “There are some global trends. Customers are buying basic needs but are not spending as much on apparel. Consumers in mature and developing markets have said, 'I will invest in my basic needs but defer on discretionary items.'”

    • “What is interesting, vitamins have been strong. You might think that would be something customers would cut back on. But customers say, 'I have to stay healthy. I can't afford to miss work. I can't afford to get sick.'”

    • “We're doing a lot of things right. But we need to do them faster.”
    KC's View:
    Just what Walmart’s competitors want to hear… that the Bentonville Behemoth is trying to get faster and more nimble.

    The fact is that Walmart is a perfect example of a company that seems to have navigated the recession with a sure hand on the tiller. Not only has it retained its low price image with a terrific series of commercials that are tightly focused on the notion of saving money, but it also has managed to keep “live better” as a core value as well.

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    USA Today reports that Coca-Cola plans to “start placing calories-per-serving and servings-per-container on the front of nearly all of its bottles sold in the USA and Mexico. That will be extended to all of its beverages sold worldwide by 2011.”

    "Now more than ever, people expect facts about the product they consume to be both readily available and visible," says Muhtar Kent, Coke's chairman and CEO, in a prepared statement. "This global commitment is about making it easier for consumers to quickly see the calories information for our beverages."

    Analysts say that while this makes Coke the first company to announce the policy shift, other soft drink companies could actually implement similar moves faster – if they so choose.

    While the move is designed to silence – or at least assuage – people who say that products like Coke are partly responsible for the nation’s obesity crisis, not all critics are impressed.

    It's a useful step," Michael Jacobson, executive director at the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), tells USA Today. "But listing calories on the front of a Coke is like putting lipstick on a pig. Coca-Cola is basically ... liquid candy."
    KC's View:
    Sometimes, it seems to me, companies like Coke can’t win. Even when they put the calorie information on the front of the package, they get slammed.

    At some point, you have to say that people are responsible for what they eat and drink, as long as they have been provided with comprehensive and appropriate information in an atmosphere of transparency. This is a good step in creating that transparency.

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced that it will begin paying closer attention to how consumer respond to its announcements and recommendations about food and drugs deemed to be potentially dangerous. The announcement follows a 2006 report from the Institutes of Medicine saying that the FDA needed to do a better job of public communications.

    The overhaul, expected to take five years, was launched during the Bush administration.

    "The FDA must communicate frequently and clearly about risks and benefits and inform patients and consumers about ways to minimize risk as they become increasingly involved in managing their health," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement.
    KC's View:
    It would never be argued here that the FDA doesn’t need an overhaul of how it communicates with consumers, but it somehow seems emblematic of the problem that it has taken three years for the overhaul to get traction, and will take five years to implement.

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    The Los Angeles Times reports that Kroger-owned Ralphs seems to winning the price-competitive grocery store wars in Southern California, gaining a full market share point from the first quarter to the second quarter, to a 19.04 percent share of market.

    Safeway-owned Vons is in second place, with a steady 14.78 percent market share. Third-place Supervalu-owned Albertsons is said to be showing the most slippage, dropping “by almost a third of a percentage point to 12.15% in the second quarter, and it lost nearly three-quarters of a percentage point for the first six months of the year,” the Times writes.

    And, the paper reports, “Trader Joe's has gained about a tenth a percentage point over the last two quarters and is now the fourth-largest grocer in the region, with a 6.33% share. Stater Bros is No. 5 with 6.06%, a slight decline from the first quarter. After that, there is a big drop-off. Smart & Final is sixth with 3.23%, followed by Whole Foods at 3.1%, Superior Grocers at 2.87% and Wal-Mart Supercenters at 2.75%.”

    The market share data was provided to the Times by the Shelby Report.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    The National Retail Federation (NRF) is out with a new survey from BIGresearch saying that the most popular Halloween costumes this year will be vampires, princesses, police officers and pirates, while politicians, nurses and Batman are out.

    “The departure of both nurses and politicians from the top costumes list could be an indication that Americans would like to shelve the health care reform debate – at least for one night – to have a little bipartisan fun,” said Tracy Mullin, NRF President and CEO. “Pop culture always influences Halloween costumes, and it will be interesting to see how creative Americans can get this year.”
    KC's View:
    I hate costume parties. Always have. The good news, is I rarely get invited to them.

    But this year, I actually hope that we get invited to one, because I have the perfect costume in mind.

    Mrs. Content Guy and I would go as a Death Panel.

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    MediaBistro.com reports that with its newest commercial promoting its Via instant coffee, Starbucks has managed to upset some conservatives.

    The reason? In portraying a number of groups – ranging from nurses to civil War re-enactors - that cannot tell the difference between Via and fresh brewed coffee, the commercial shows a town hall meeting and portrays one man yelling, irately, “I can't taste the difference!”

    According to MediaBistro.com, some conservative blogs are expressing outrage that Starbucks seems to be mocking the people who were speaking out – sometimes angrily – about health care reform at town hall sessions around the country this summer.
    KC's View:
    It generally has been my experience that if you can’t laugh at yourself, you probably can't laugh any anything. And if you don't have a sense of humor…well, you probably aren’t worth spending a lot of time with.

    That goes for people on both sides of the aisle.

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    First, a little context…

    In the news and punditry business, there is something called an “embargoed press release.” What this means is that public relations agencies send out a press release that, for whatever reason, they say is “embargoed” until a certain date. Sometimes the embargo is set because certain news organizations have been promised a first-shot exclusive, sometimes because there are timing issues surrounding whatever is being announced.

    It is incumbent on those of us who see those releases to respect that embargo, if for no other reason than these are the rules of the game, and I take them very seriously.

    I broke the rules of the game yesterday. Inadvertently, but that doesn’t make it any better.

    The story was about the launch of the Healthy Weight Foundation, which is being launched next Monday in Washington, DC. I reported on it yesterday, and also offered some thoughts about how the involved companies ought to approach such efforts, which can be viewed with cynicism in some quarters.

    What I didn’t see when I read the announcement was that the folks who sent it – in this case, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) - had embargoed the release until next Monday. But it was there.

    I screwed up. It was an accident, but I think it is incumbent on people in my business to admit it when we break the rules.

    Part of the problem, of course, is that once one person breaks the embargo, all bets are off for all the other people who got the release.

    Apologies to GMA and all the other participants in the launch next Monday. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I hope I haven’t somehow contributed to the bloom being off the rose.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    Amazon.com has reached a $150,000 settlement in a lawsuit filed by 17-year-old Justin Gawronski, who objected to Amazon’s decision to delete electronic copies of two books that it had been selling for its Kindle e-reader without actually having the rights. The deletions were made without the permission of the Kindle owners, and the move created outrage about the e-retailer’s ability to invade their privacy; others said it was akin to Barnes & Noble sneaking into people’s houses in the middle of the night to take back books that were the subject of copyright questions.

    The great irony, of course, was that the two books it removed with Big Brother-like precision were George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm.”

    While Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos apologized for the move and said it wouldn’t happen again, and Amazon compensated the affected Kindle owners, Gawronski – who lost his electronic homework notes on the Orwell books along with the texts when Amazon deleted them – was not satisfied.

    Gawronski said that his settlement money would be donated to charity.
    KC's View:
    While I find Amazon’s behavior in this case to be outrageous, and it says positive things about the plaintiff that he is donating the money to charity, I do worry that he’s also learned another lesson – that litigiousness pays.

    If this had happened to my 17-year-old, I would have yelled and screamed. I would have written about it here ad nauseum But I cannot imagine that I would have sued, or allowed or encouraged my kid to sue.

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    • Guiding Stars, the Hannaford Bros.-owned nutrition labeling system, said yesterday that it “has teamed up with a top-selling iPhone shopping assistant application, ReachEverywhere’s Shopper, as the first nutrition navigation system to provide grocery shoppers around the country convenient access to the good-better-best rating system. The application will also allow shoppers to easily identify foods on their shopping list that provide the most nutrition for the calories. The healthy shopping application will be offered to new users for 99 cents and is free for current Shopper users.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    • The Battle Creek Enquirer reports that Spartan Stores has decided to close Zucca’s, described as “a place for artisan breads, unique cheeses and a varied wine selection,” because it has limited potential for growth. Zucca’s was part of Spartan’s acquisition of Felpausch two years ago.

    KTIV-TV News reports that Hy-Vee plans to start selling more local, organic vegetables under a partnership the retailer has created with PrairieSun Organics. Local, organic fruit is expected to be on Hy-Vee’s shelves in 2010.

    • The BBC reports that the UK Competition Commission is pushing for a “competition test” that the story says will “prevent firms with a strong presence in an area from building new stores or making major extensions to its outlets.”

    "We expect that the competition test will have the effect we intend by helping to bring in competition where it is lacking and to stop individual retailers consolidating strong positions in local areas to the detriment of consumers," said the commission's chairman, Peter Freeman.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    • Drugstore chain Rite Aid reports that its September sales were down 1.5 percent to $1.941 billion, from $1.971 billion during the same month a year ago, on same-store sales that were down 0.3 percent.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    • The Boston Globe reports that Dunkin’ Donuts president/chief brand officer William Kussell has resigned, and will serve as a consultant to the company through the end of the year. No reason was given for the decision.

    He will be succeeded in his duties by CEO Nigel Travis.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    We had a story yesterday about how Kraft’s decentralization efforts affected the reformulation of Vegemite in Australia. Which led MNB user Stuart Silverman to write:

    Have you ever eaten vegemite? Its disgusting. Its definitely an acquired taste. My buddies in the UK who grew up on the stuff and spread it on toast in the morning, love it. Reformulating it to make it taste better would not be difficult – couldn’t get worse. But there’s always the risk of alienating the old guard. Like New Coke.

    Haven't tasted it. Can't say I’m looking forward to it.

    By the way, since Kraft is looking for a new name for the reformulated Vegamite, they ought to look no farther than “I Love Lucy”:

    "Vitametavegamin.”




    Had a brief piece yesterday about Winn-Dixie’s new reusable bag collection, which led one Publix employee to write:

    Again, another “a day late and a dollar short”…..

    Winn Dixie is not only late to the game (of providing re-usable bags), they are already priced out of the game. Publix and Walmart (in the same market area as Winn-Dixie) price their bags below the $1.00 price point. And their bags are made from recycled ‘green’ material too.

    For you to even give them recognition in your blog seems a bit odd. At the very least, you make commentary on an apparent achievement that reflects their lack of leadership and simple following of the pack. Recognition should be given to the leaders and not for those that choose to follow.


    Sue me. I saw the pictures of the bags and liked them.

    Can't we all just get along?




    Got the following email from MNB user Jim Mumm:

    I applaud your journalistic ability to get the conversation going on the obesity/healthy eating issues! Regarding the ongoing coverage of obesity issues and attempts to help, I KNEW fireworks were going to fly after reading your comments Monday (blue/red state). However, I also suspected that you wanted to stir the pot a little to raise awareness and dialog to a higher level. Well, you did. Nice job and keep up the good work.

    Not sure it is so much journalistic ability as it is a willingness to be a troublemaker. And a wisenheimer. What my father used to call “a challenge.”

    C’est moi.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 2, 2009

    It has been well documented, here and elsewhere, that men seem to suffering from the recession to a greater extent than women – in part because they earn more and companies can save more money by laying them off, in part because there are more of them to lay off, and in part because women tend to have different priorities are more willing to be flexible in their work hours.

    But the Chicago Tribune reports that men now have another problem: “For years now, women have been earning the most college degrees. That trend is accelerating, leaving experts to wonder if men are somehow missing the latest economic wake-up call … The biggest difference isn't so much who starts college, but who finishes. Men drop out at much higher rates.”

    Now, I’m not entirely surprised by this, since it always has been my contention that women are smarter than men and better able to adapt. If we’re talking survival of the fittest, I’m generally willing to bet on women.

    I do find it amusing that the Tribune quotes Christina Hoff Sommers, described as an “anti-feminist scholar,” as saying that this trend could lead to “a lot of strong women and a lot of disaffected men," prone to crime and unable to form stable families. Because while men may not be as smart as women, that doesn’t mean that we will descend into depravity and chaos if we live in a female-dominated society.

    I also find it amusing that some people think that we are close to actually becoming a female-dominated society. There may be more women in the workplace and more women completed college, but that doesn’t mean that there is a sudden and profound power shift taking place. Far from it. And suggesting that one is taking place is probably a way for men to convince themselves that they are victims. Which is utter nonsense.

    And by the way…I have one daughter. I hope she’s a feminist. We’ve raised her that way. (It seems to be working. She even gets annoyed when I refer to something as a “chick flick.”)

    And I hope my two sons are feminists, too. Because that will only mean that they respect strong women, enjoy relationships with strong women, and don’t engage in old-world beliefs about the superiority of one gender over another.




    What’s amazing to me is that there is anyone out there who is defending Roman Polanski. It all seems pretty clear to me – he pleaded guilty to a charge of statutory rape, and then fled the country to avoid jail.

    Sure it was more than 30 years ago. Sure, the victim apparently doesn’t want him prosecuted any further. And sure, he is an Oscar-winning director and an artist of undeniable talent.

    But none of that matters. We live in a nation of laws. We’re supposed to respect those laws. All of us, no matter your artistic temperament or achievement.

    Just on principle, he has to be brought back here and forced to face the music. Actions have consequences.

    I’m reminded of two lines from “Chinatown” (1974), the classic Polanski-directed thriller. At one point, private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) says about John Huston’s Noah Cross, “He’s rich … he thinks he can get away with anything.”

    And at another point in the movie, Cross says, “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”

    He should think about both lines when he is extradited back to the US and is ushered into a Los Angeles courtroom.




    So apparently Imus is coming back to television next week, with his radio show being simulcast on the Fox Business Network (FBN). This is something of a television relocation for Imus, who until recently was being seen on a network called RFD, which apparently is seen by more cows than people. (Little joke here. It isn’t necessary to deluge me with email saying that I shouldn’t diss farmers and ranchers. Or cows, for that matter.)

    Some of the media columnists are speculating that this will place Imus into more direct competition with “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, the show that replaced Imus a few years ago when he was fired for making racist remarks on the air.

    While I never was one of those who thought that Imus deserved to be permanently kept off the air, I have found when listening to his show on the radio that he’s actually committed another sin. He’s boring. The interviews aren’t as long or as interesting as they used to be, and it seems like he’s lost a step or two. (Maybe that’s because he has cancer, or maybe it is just because he’s old.)

    “Morning Joe,” on the other hand, is a terrific morning talk show – much better than “Today” or “Good Morning, America” or any of their brethren, in my opinion. The conversation is pretty balanced, with all sides heard from, and people are able to disagree without being disagreeable. And Joe Scarborough, the former conservative Congressman from Florida who hosts the show, is smart and provocative.

    No competition in my office. At 6 am, it’s always ‘Morning Joe,” a bowl of oatmeal, and a big cup of home-brewed black Starbucks Café Verona. And, of course, thou.




    It isn’t a movie that will appeal to everyone, but I really liked Steven Soderbergh’s new film, “The Informant!”, starring Matt Damon as a whistleblower at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early nineties.

    Some will find the style of “The Informant!” off-putting…it is shot in what I can only describe as a kind of seventies movie-of-the-week style, and it takes a while for the movie to kick into gear. But once it does…and we find out that Damon’s character is, shall we say, a little more complicated than first presented…”The Informant!” starts to get really interesting.

    Damon is terrific – and nothing like Jason Bourne – as the voluble and impulsive Mark Whitacre, who has dreams of glory and delusions of grandeur. Scott Bakula is great as the FBI agent who is working with and frustrated by Whitacre. And I can’t say enough good things about a movie that finds roles for both Tom Smothers and Dick Smothers.




    HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is back in its groove this season, laugh-out-loud funny in the two episodes aired so far. And this week, they bring back the cast of “Seinfeld” for a pseudo-reunion that will play out – no doubt with uncomfortable and funny results – over the rest of the season.

    Can't wait.

    And, by the way, if you haven't been watching “Fringe” this season, make sure you catch up. Because it is terrific television…like a combination of “The X Files,” “The Twilight Zone,” and “The Night Stalker” (the original 1972 movie with Darren McGavin).




    I hesitate to mention this wine because you probably won’t be able to get it, but the 2007 Velvet Sledgehammer Shiraz from the Winner’s Tank winery in Australia is an absolute knockout – it is described as “entering the palate like velvet and finishing like a sledgehammer.” Which is a better description than I could have offered. It is a limited release and very hard to get…but if you see some, grab it.




    That’s it for this week. This weekend will, for Mets fans like me, be the merciful end of an awful baseball regular season. I’m going to avoid watching any games and maybe go to a movie.

    See you Monday.

    Sláinte!!
    KC's View: