retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Wall Street Journal had a story the other day about the ways in which Barnes & Noble is trying to revive a business in decline. The company practically invented the super bookstore format, but now is under pressure from as well as the digital revolution that “is rewriting the rules of the book industry, upending the established players which have dominated for decades. Electronic books are still in their infancy, comprising an estimated 3% to 5% of the market today. But they are fast accelerating the decline of physical books, forcing retailers, publishers, authors and agents to reinvent their business models or be painfully crippled.”

The concern, for a company like Barnes & Noble, is that it could eventually go the way of Virgin, which has closed down all its music/movie retail stores in the US, or Blockbuster, which is desperately trying to save an antiquated business model imperiled by companies like Netflix and Redbox.

Over the next three to four years, company chairman Leonard Riggio tells the , “a different, more diverse Barnes & Noble retail store will evolve, selling a variety of merchandise and serving as a showcase for digital products.”

The question is whether it is too little, too late.

Here’s the irony (and something I did not know):

“When the fledgling digital book business emerged in the mid-1990s, Barnes & Noble was one of the first to embrace it,” the writes. “In 1998, it made a small investment in NuvoMedia Inc., maker of a handheld device called the Rocket eBook reader.

“In what would prove to be the retailer's largest strategic blunder, Barnes & Noble abruptly pulled the plug on digital reading in 2003. E-book prices at the time about $20 or more, compared to a $25 hardcover—turned off readers. And there weren't many titles to choose from ... In hindsight, the move cost Barnes & Noble market share and momentum.”

Now, you have the Kindle. The iPad. And the new Barnes & Noble Nook, which at the moment seems to be at best an also-ran.

Timing is everything. But innovation also is everything. The difference, it seems to me, is that companies like Barnes & Noble seem to operating resolutely in the present, while companies like Amazon and Apple have their eyes trained on the future.

Along the same lines ...

Yesterday, Apple Inc. became the world’s most valuable technology company with a market capitalization of $222.12 billion, passing Microsoft, which sits at $219.18 billion. It is the second most valuable US corporation, trailing only ExxonMobil.

It is, to be sure, one of the most remarkable corporate turnarounds in history, considering that Apple was almost dead about a decade ago, when Steve Jobs returned to the company it co-founded.

Now, let me be clear about something.

While I am writing this morning on my MacBook Pro (just the latest in a long line of Mac laptops that I have owned and loved), and my wife and kids own and use a wide range of Mac computers, laptops, iPhones and iPods (nobody owns an iPad...yet), and we even have Apple TV (an under-appreciated entry in the company’s catalog), I take no particular delight in Apple passing Microsoft in this particular category. To me, it is interesting and ironic, but little else. (Maybe I’d feel differently if I owned stock in either company.)

The company I’m rotting for is the one being started today or tomorrow in some teenager’s garage or basement...the one that sees possibilities in directions where the rest of us aren’t even looking. The company I’m rotting for is the one that is going to push innovation and design, that sees opportunities in areas where most people don’t even see need. I’m even rooting for Microsoft to get its mojo back...because that pushed everybody else to innovate.

Over the past few years, that’s been Apple. But as a company, it will only remain relevant if the folks in Cupertino keep their edge...and, in fact, continue to think different.

if they start thinking and acting like a behemoth, if they start believing their press clippings, that is the beginning of the end.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has the reassuring news (at least, reassuring to some of us).

The era of the metrosexual man is over.

Welcome, if you will, the new era of the “retrosexual.” The paper writes that the new man has “had enough of unisex salons, simpering emo music and the emasculating kryptonite of the Oprahsphere,” and that his “attitude and style hearken back to the strong, silent type of the '50s and early '60s. The retrosexual keeps things simple. He does not own more hair and skin care products than his wife or girlfriend. He does not ‘accessorize’.”

Among the fictional characters cited as examples: Don Draper of “Mad Men,” Michael Westen in “Burn Notice,” and Raylon Givens in “Justified,” described as “alpha males who live unapologetically by their own code.” (Sometimes, as in the case of Draper, the code is not an entirely positive one, but c’est la vie...)

Another word being used for this trend: "menaissance.”

Now, I have to say, this news comes just in time. I now have a legitimate, media-sanctioned excuse to not see “Sex and the City 2.” (Michael Sansolo keeps trying to get me to see it. He even got me a copy of the first movie for Christmas. I am appalled.)

However, it does seem to me that one of the qualities of a retrosexual man, if such a thing really exists, would be a steadfast refusal to pay attention to any such stories about such things.

In some ways, it is all noise.

To which, of course, I have now contributed.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...

Speaking of the “retrosexual” movement, by the way...I’ve decided that one of the movies I am most looking forward to this year is called “The American,” a thriller due in the fall about a professional assassin, played by George Clooney, who has to do one last job in Italy before he gets out. It looks totally cool - like the kind of movie that would have starred Burt Lancaster or Steve McQueen in another era.

Check it out.

I have some thoughts about the series finales that have aired since last we talked...

“Lost,” it seems to me, had an amazing amount of emotional resonance to those of us who have followed the show for six years, despite the fact that some of it was confusing, there remained many unanswered questions, and there were plot holes big enough to drive a truck through.

In some ways, it reminded me of the finale of Patrick McGoohan’s original “The Prisoner,” which abandoned logic for metaphor, and thereby offered a kind of truth more important than linear narrative or fact. This isn;t to suggest that “Lost” was more than it was; after all, in the end, it is just a TV series. But there was a kind of charge to the ending, which provided both a conclusion and plenty of fodder for people to debate, if they so choose. I loved it.

“24,” on the other hand, failed this test. Despite the fact that many of us have followed the exploits of Jack Bauer since 2001, the final episodes provided an unsatisfying conclusion ... almost as if the writers knew they had run out of ideas, but thought they could hide that from the audience with smoke and mirrors.

Maybe the expected movie version of “24” will be better. Maybe they just need a new canvas on which to paint. They have a fascinating character in Bauer, and Kiefer Sutherland created a compelling portrait even when his writers abandoned him. But there was no resonance there.

“Law & Order” went out with a whimper, not a bang, probably because they shot the episode before the 20-year-old series had been cancelled. The best moment was when Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy delivered a moralistic diatribe against a teacher’s union representative - it gave the episode real juice. And then it was over.

I must confess that I have not watched “Law & Order” regularly for years, and don’t watch any of the spinoffs. But I’m sorry the original series has been was reassuring to know that it was there. (Of course, it probably will live forever in reruns, which seem to be always on somewhere.)

One of the best things about my Connecticut office - known around here as “MNB Global Headquarters” - has been the fact that it is over a pub. The bad news is that two years ago the pub closed down, the victim of a slowing economy and a rent increase that it could not absorb.

Today, however, all is right with the world. There is a new bar and bistro just downstairs from my office, called “The Goose,” and it is wonderful - the very essence of a great neighborhood saloon with a strong wine list, excellent tap beers, and killer food (my favorites to this point at the caprese salad and the sliders).

If you are anywhere near Darien, Connecticut, check out “The Goose.” It’s terrific.
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