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    Published on: December 17, 2010

    by Kevin Coupe

    Would you give out your waistline or show size to a complete stranger?

    In the UK, Marks & Spencer apparently is betting that a lot of people will - and has launched a “size detective” service, sending anonymous emails to customers’ friends or relatives to ask for size information that can then be turned by the customer into an appropriate present.

    It is one of the retailer’s tactics as it looks to make online shopping a more comprehensive experience ... which means giving people stuff that actually fits. And it is yet another example of how online retailers are looking to make their stores more compelling, more robust.

    It was just a month ago that MNB reported that has patented a new technology that would make it virtually impossible for people to get a useless gift. In essence, the technology would convert useless gifts bought on Amazon to useful gifts. You Aunt Lorraine buys you a tie, but if you never wear ties, it automatically converts the gift to a T-shirt. Your Aunt Charlotte gets you a Pat Boone album, the technology converts it to a Train CD. And so on...

    There will, of course, be privacy concerns. And I’m not sure whether I would give out my waist size to some anonymous person making an inquiry via email. (Maybe I would now, though ... because I’d be able to surmise that someone wants to buy me a belt or a pair of pants.)

    But one thing seems clear. Technology makes customization and specificity possible. Which means that the retailers practicing it can be more relevant than ever to their customers.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 17, 2010

    The Federal Reserve Board yesterday proposed rules that would impose limits on the debit card interchange fees that can be charged by Visa and MasterCard to banks that issue the cards.

    According to the Bloomberg story, “The new rules, posted today by the Fed on its website, may aid retailers and cut profit for lenders who reaped about $15 billion from interchange fees last year. Currently, card networks charge merchants a percentage of the purchase price, regardless of cost. The Fed rules would force networks to rely on transaction fees, which could be capped at 12 cents each ... The central bank is crafting the caps on “swipe” fees, also called interchange, to comply with financial curbs that Congress passed in July.

    “Analysts have said the limits could erode profit for Visa and MasterCard while reducing costs for retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp.”

    The story went on, “The Fed also proposed rules that would let merchants choose from at least two independent debit networks for routing transactions, potentially creating more competition for Visa and MasterCard. Debit cards have become an increasingly popular substitute for cash with consumers as credit-card issuers cut off accounts and curbed lending amid the financial crisis and recession.”

    The reaction from major trade associations was almost instantaneous.

    “The Federal Reserve Board of Governors’ proposal demonstrates real progress toward a achieving a reasonable goal and having parity between checks and debit cards. Anything that can be done to take excessive costs out of grocery purchases is good for the consumer,” said Leslie G. Sarasin, president/CEO of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). “The broken swipe fee market has resulted in outrageous fees on debit cards, making this convenient payment method less attractive than paper checks which have much lower fees. Today’s ruling is a first step toward providing relief for neighborhood grocers and their customers.”

    "The proposed rules put forth by the Federal Reserve today are a step in the right direction to reduce the unfair debit swipe fees that are imposed on independent retail grocers and other merchants," said Peter Larkin, President and CEO of the National Grocers Association (N.G.A.).  "N.G.A. strongly believes there should be no swipe fees on debit transactions similar to the way checks are treated today. However, the Federal Reserve has taken an important step to fulfill Congress' intent to reform debit swipe fees this year.”

    “The proposed rules are a positive step in addressing the anti-competitive behavior of the banks and credit card companies and an acknowledgement of the voice of American small businesses and consumers,” said NACS President and CEO Hank Armour. “This is what 5.4 million of our customers had in mind when they signed petitions demanding reform.”

    “Any reduction in debit card swipe fees at all, large or small, is a benefit for consumers because retailers are highly competitive and will share that savings with their customers – but the law requires a major reduction,” said National Retail Federation (NRF) Senior Vice President and General Counsel Mallory Duncan. “The combination of reducing rates and allowing retailers to offer discounts will go a long way toward stopping the current scheme where big banks take a bite out of consumers’ wallets every time they use a debit card.”

    Katherine Lugar, executive vice president for public affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), said, “Although Federal Reserve’s proposal is not entirely conclusive, it does validate the long-held claims of merchants and consumers that the electronic payments market is broken and needs to be fixed. Today’s announcement is a step forward for the effort to bring relief to merchants and consumers who for too long have faced excessive fees and unfair rules imposed by big banks and credit card companies. Proposed cost reductions will undoubtedly result in savings for consumers.”
    KC's View:
    Not sure what to add to this, other than to say that this strikes me as entirely proper - to break the stranglehold that the banks have over the electronic payments market, in which retailers and consumers found themselves with few options other than to go along. in many cases, they might as well have been dealing with the Corleone family - the rates might have better, and you’d only have to face the possibility that someday, and that day may never come, they would call upon you to do a service for the family.

    Published on: December 17, 2010

    The New York Times reports on how Target “has expanded to include fresh groceries like steak, chicken, eggs and apples. So far, 350 of the 1,752 Target stores nationwide have been reformatted to include the new food layout, and the company expects to add the arrangement to additional stores at the rate of about 400 a year.

    “The campaign to market fresh food includes direct mail, billboards, television, radio and vehicle wraps, among other elements. The ads focus in part on the three daily meals that could be put together with a trip to the store, and the company hopes its efforts will resonate with mothers, who are a prime target of the campaign.”

    What’s interesting is that Target is focusing on a kind of shopping trip that may not always been seen as compatible with its large store format - the quick, convenient shop.

    “The concept is built around the notion of fill-in trips and convenience trips,” Will Setliff, the vice president for marketing at Target, tells the Times. “There’s a real need for convenient and affordable grocery options.”

    The marketing has been aggressive and at time unorthodox. In Chicago, for example, the “campaign included a food truck parked on Michigan Avenue giving away gift bags of groceries and recipes that visitors could make with the ingredients in the bag. In front of the truck, which was decorated to look like an enormous shopping bag filled with larger-than-life bananas, broccoli spears and tomatoes, Giada De Laurentiis, the celebrity chef, gave live cooking demonstrations and handed out signed copies of her book ‘Giada at Home.’ Target also distributed 500 free copies of Ms. De Laurentiis’s book.”
    KC's View:
    Just another example of how the selling of food is only going to get more competitive, with more players and more formats angling for the shopper’s dollar.

    The most important thing for retailers to remember is this: Shoppers don’t care about formats. They only care about what is relevant to their particular needs and desires.

    Published on: December 17, 2010

    Forbes reports that Rite Aid’s partnership with Supervalu, which added Save-A-Lot- style grocery sections to 10 South Carolina drug stores, has largely been a real success, laying the groundwork for further expansion.

    According to the story, “CEO John Standley told analysts Thursday during a conference call to discuss quarterly results that sales for the front-end, or non-pharmacy areas, of these stores have doubled on average. Some stores have even seen their front-end sales triple, although margins can be lower thanks in part to products like perishable items. He said the company needs a few more months to understand the economics of the concept.”

    Standley said the format could be a powerful concept for urban markets. “I think it could be.,” he said. “And I think it's real exciting to take a store that was a low volume store that was doing $20,000 a week on the front end and make it do $60,000 or $70,000. That's a pretty good answer for us, and we have some real estate that fit this demographic very nicely.”
    KC's View:
    I repeat: The most important thing for retailers to remember is this: Shoppers don’t care about formats. They only care about what is relevant to their particular needs and desires.

    Published on: December 17, 2010

    Folio reports that Lebhar-Friedman, the trade publishing giant, is selling one its flagship titles. Penton Media reportedly will acquire Nation’s Restaurant News, and publisher Randall Friedman will join Penton to run its restaurant group, which includes a number of other titles.

    The story suggests that Lebhar-Friedman is selling the magazine to pay down its debt on financing it got to acquire Dowden Health Media, which it subsequently sold.

    Folio notes that “with the sale of NRN, Lebhar-Friedman retains four retail-focused publications: Home Channel News, Chain Store Age, Retailing Today and Drug Store News.
    KC's View:
    While I used to be a staff writer at Drug Store News (back in the early eighties) and had a regular column in Chain Store Age just a few years ago, I have absolutely no inside information about the goings on at Lebhar-Friedman.

    But one has to wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the company, which almost certainly is enduring the same sorts of pressures that every print-driven publishing company is facing these days.

    Published on: December 17, 2010

    The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) announced a call for entries in the 2011 FMI Store Manager Awards, an annual program recognizing supermarket store managers who generate sales growth, provide great customer service, contribute to attaining company goals and are an integral part of the communities they serve. The awards program will take place at Future Connect™, the industry leadership education event, May 10-12, 2011 in Dallas, TX.

    Companies are invited to submit stories that demonstrate how a store manager created positive growth and customer satisfaction during the past 12-18 months. Entries will be scored based on the overall content and the store manager’s ability to generate sales growth and positively impact the overall business of the store, go above and beyond the ordinary to provide customer service and community relations, execute innovative in-store programs and special events that improve overall customer service and community relations, demonstrate a balance between people skills and operations skills, and lead or mentor the team members from their store.

    Details can be found here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 17, 2010

    Blake Edwards, the writer/director who veered from the romance of Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the slapstick comedy of most of the Pink Panther movies, while also creating movies that ranged from 10 to Victor, Victoria, and The Great Race to Days of Wine and Roses, died yesterday at age 88. He’d been married since 1969 to Julie Andrews.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 17, 2010

    Responding to the news that Walmart has won a temporary injunction preventing one of its former senior executives from taking a new job at CVS, one MNB user wrote:

    At this point, who ISN’T a competitor with Walmart. By this logic, holding a leadership position within Walmart would preclude future employment by virtually all national companies. I’m not a lawyer, but I do believe that should be an infringement on personal rights and unconstitutional.

    Another MNB user agreed:

    So the exec can’t go to work for anyone???? Taken to the extreme, if you are on the management team at  Walmart, that’s the end of working as it is known.  You either work for them or retire???? I don’t think that’s right, and hopefully the court will let this guy exercise his livelihood…

    On another Walmart-related issue - the increasing of toy prices to improve its profit numbers - one MNB user wrote:

    There is now a Walmart not far from my home so I shop there perhaps once a month to cherry pick certain items they sell cheap.  From my experience, while those increased toy prices will be changed in the computer, many of the price tags on the shelf will stay the same, whether intentionally or intentionally.  Many customers probably won't notice that "error" at checkout.   What's fun is to challenge the price at checkout which then requires a 10 minute tie up of that register while they find someone to verify that the shelf price was lower than the price being rung up.   In consideration for my fellow shoppers I only do that if the line is short - usually just tell the cashier the price is wrong and they can keep the item.  A month later I come back and the shelf price still hasn't been changed.   Unfortunately Walmart does not have a "Price Guarantee" like some supermarkets where you get the item free if it rings up wrong.  One time I did complain to Walmart by e-mail, I got a response that the store manager would call me.  Never received any call.  It seems that the majority of the Walmart cashiers are applicants rejected by Kmart - that should tell you something.

    Reacting to my rave about Sears’ at-home servicing offering, one MNB user wrote:

    I had an equally good experience with Sears. I needed tires and after visiting Sam’s where I was told they do not make appointments, first come first served, then Wal-Mart where there was no one at the service counter then a couple of local shops whose prices were 30% higher than what my research said I should pay, I headed home. On the way I passed Sears and pulled in just to check. The service manager Francis was great. He took me through the options available, recommended exactly what I already knew I needed, gave me a price just as good as the Bentonville Behemoth, and asked if he could have about an hour to get it done. I spent the hour walking the store, and bought several gifts. My car was finished on time, the paperwork was finished when I got to the service area and I left a very happy Sears shopper. I will definitely go back again.

    And, regarding another retailer, MNB user Christy Carlo wrote:

    I am about a week late, weighing in on your comments about Amazon Prime and the need to spend $80/year on the service.  When the program was introduced, I did the one month trial and thought the service to be fine but not worth the steep price tag.  I did not auto-renew and went back to utilizing free Super Saver shipping.  My purchasing was fewer and further between. At some point later in the future - maybe a year - I took advantage of yet another free trial. And during that trial period, I ordered a product which gave me a bonus 6 months (did not know that at the time of purchase).  During those months, I started placing a lot more orders with Amazon.  Somewhere shortly after that, Amazon Mom began - and once again, I received my next three free months.  Since I have a new baby, I started taking advantage of the fast shipping and the low prices.  After all of that, last night, I received an email stating I have 9 more free months of Amazon Mom/Amazon Prime.

    The moral of the story is - I've had free Amazon Prime for probably over a year (give or take a month or so in the middle) and have yet to pay for it. Would I now?  Yes.  It took several months of having the shipping to feel it was worthwhile.  I'm willing to bet that even at the end of these 9 months, there will be yet another promotion for free months.   Look at Amazon Student - anyone with access to a ".edu" address can get it for free as well.  I think that those paying the membership are the minority and with some research, you can find free months here and there.  Amazon Prime has been an amazing marketing tool - they have gotten thousands of dollars from me this year that I never would have spent previously.  Between Prime and my Kindle, Amazon has me sucked in as a customer for life - all by waiving an $80 membership fee and providing (almost) instant gratification!

    Never underestimate the power of instant gratification.

    We continue to get emails about our “50 great American movies” discussion.

    One MNB user, responding to my listing of The Searchers, wrote:

    I agree The Searchers is a classic. The thing I always liked about John Wayne was his ability to let the more unknown actors steal the show. It was as if he knew his performance depended on their success too.

    My dad had a stroke almost ten years ago, he loves cowboy movies. So our family has seen all of them about a million times.

    At their best, movies not only provide us with compelling narratives and relevant metaphors, but also can be a kind of connective tissue between generations. I’ve had a wonderful time over the years watching old movies with my kids...and I think they’ve enjoyed it as much. (I hope.)

    And another MNB user wrote:

    The  pleasure of your list of 50 movies is that we all have our personal lists, we may have some of the same movies on them, but we will have differences, and the discussion of the differences is what makes it pleasurable.  I’ve seen The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and I think that Red River is better than both of them.  If I made a list like yours, I’d include some not because they were movies that taught me anything, or had a wonderful story or message, some I’d include just  because they entertained me,  some of them are pretty mindless, but when I’m in the mood for mindless entertainment, I’ll put on of them on.  Anyway, great thread, and it ‘s something we can discuss and debate from now on, because there is no right answer.

    Which actually is a nice lead into my next point...

    Finally, a few thoughts about a “Your Views” posting from yesterday, and the many emails that came in response to it.

    The message to which I am referring, of course, is what I think can be fairly described as a diatribe against me and anyone to disagrees with the political views of this particular MNB reader. As I said yesterday, I debated with myself about running the letter, but in the end decided to because it directly addressed something that we talk about a lot here on MNB - the need for tolerance and civil discourse.

    While I got a lot of emails that took issue with this person’s perspective, I’ve decided not to post them - mostly because, while I have no problem if MNB veers off into relevant political discussions from time to time (as we have with the debate about child nutrition legislation), I’m not really comfortable with prolonging a dialogue that mostly would be people criticizing this fellow for his intolerance. I think my response yesterday made it clear that I think part of the problem we have in this country is the inability to see the other guy’s side of things, to see compromise as an honorable goal to be achieved rather than a word rife with suspicion, a synonym for “sell out” (as one major political figure recently suggested in an interview).

    To be clear, I do not believe that anger and intolerance is the sole province of one end of the political spectrum. There is plenty to go around in both political parties, just as there are wingnuts of all political stripes.

    That said, I’d like to think that most people are calm, thoughtful, and willing to listen to people on both sides of the aisle. They’re not reactionary, not intolerant. They view things from the center, not from the fringes.

    I’ve always believed that America is a centrist country by and large...I would argue that it is center-right on fiscal policy, center-left on some social issues and center-right on other social issues. (I’m not sure where the country is on foreign affairs at the moment, because it increasingly looks like there is nothing in the center but a black hole where none of the nation’s previous assumptions offer workable solutions.)

    I’m glad that people feel so passionately about issues that they offer their emotions and opinions freely here on MNB. When it makes sense and there is relevance, I’ll continue to run them ... even the rants and diatribes, when I think there is a larger point to be made.

    I like what journalist Jim Lehrer had to say on the subject:

    I'm in the civil discourse business. I think it takes all kinds. And more power to everybody.

    KC's View:

    Published on: December 17, 2010

    In Thursday Night Football action, the San Diego Chargers defeated the San Francisco 49ers 34-7.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 17, 2010

    It has been pointed out to me that I never mentioned the free agent signing of pitcher Cliff Lee by the Philadelphia Phillies this week.

    True. I kept wanting to, but it was hard to write the story without crying on my keyboard.

    I’ve gotten control of my emotions now, and so I think I can say something about the decision, which not only took at least some of the air out of the New York Yankees expectations for the coming season, but also effectively ended the 2011 season for the New York Mets.

    Okay, the latter may be a bit of an overreaction ... though it is hard to imagine how the Mets, with questionable starting pitching and a lineup that seems, quite literally, hit-and-miss, are going to be able to compete with the Phillies in their division. After all, with that starting rotation, the Phillies may not even need to get more than one or two runs per game.

    Even though I am a Mets fan, I have to respect the fact that Lee took less money and fewer years to go with the team that he really wanted. It’s not like anyone is going to have to hold a benefit for Lee - he’s making more money for throwing a baseball than some small countries probably generate in total national revenue - but it is nice to see someone who doesn’t go into negotiations with the goal of not leaving any money on the table.

    I know Oprah’s visit to Australia is making all sorts of news Down Under, but I’m much more excited to see that Jimmy Buffett plans to play two shows at the Sydney Opera House on January 23 and 24.

    If I weren’t already booked on my own gig those days, I’d be tempted to look into how many miles I’d have to cash in to head down there for the concerts ... a possibility that I suspect Mrs. Content Guy would view with a certain amount of skepticism and negativity.

    But hey...that’s be the ultimate change in latitude, right?

    I don’t think I’ve watched more than a few hours of “Larry King Live” over the past 25 years. But I did turn on CNN to take a look at the final show last night ... and found it utterly cringe-inducing. I watched about five minutes, and then turned it off. Just awful.

    A bottle of red, a bottle of white...

    Two wines to recommend to you this week.

    The 2009 Ditto Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, a rich red wine that goes perfectly with steak, stew or something equally robust.

    The 2009 Orbit Chardonnay, a bold wine that Mrs. Content Guy really loved.

    BTW...”The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies,” is now available in iBooks for iPad. Very cool.

    If you plan to attend the National Retail Federation (NRF) Show in New York in early January, I hope you’ll let me know. I’m thinking that it might be a good occasion for one of those casual MNB get-togethers...I find a bar, tell you when I’m going to be there, order a beer or a glass of wine, and just hang out and chat with whoever shows up. If you;re going to be at NRF, let me know...I’d love to find a way to connect.

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

    KC's View: