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    Published on: February 25, 2011

    by Kevin Coupe

    Talk about the law of unintended consequences.

    The 2007 legislation that phases out and effectively bans the use of incandescent light bulbs also is killing the traditional Easy-Bake Oven, which has been sold for almost a half-century and, as the Los Angeles Times notes, has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

    According to the story, “The 100-watt bulb was so energy-inefficient, its main product wasn't light. It was heat — enough to bake cookies and cakes in Easy-Bake Ovens.”

    Manufacturer Hasbro, however, has released the following statement:

    "We are aware that the 100-watt incandescent light bulb will no longer be available beginning in 2012. In fall 2011, Hasbro will launch the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, introducing a new way to bake for the next generation of chefs. This new oven features a heating element that does not use a light bulb and offers an extensive assortment of mixes reflective of the hottest baking trends for today."

    But somehow, things won’t be the same.

    And that’s our Friday Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 25, 2011

    Schenectady, NY-based Price Chopper Supermarkets said yesterday that it has provided United Way organizations and other agencies with thousands of flu vaccine vouchers that, when presented at any of chain’s more than 70 pharmacies, will enable the bearer to receive a free flu shot. Staff members at those organizations are distributing the vouchers to needy individuals within their service areas.

    “We are grateful to be assisted by our longtime partners at the United Way, and by the leaders of other important community organizations, who are helping us get our flu shot vouchers into the hands of those who need them most.” said Mona Golub, vice president of Public Relations and Consumer & Marketing Services at Price Chopper.

    Price Chopper noted in the announcement that according to the Centers for Disease Control, the timing of flu is very unpredictable and can vary from season to season. Flu activity most commonly peaks in the U.S. in January or February; however, seasonal flu activity can occur as late as May.
    KC's View:
    Amazing how things have changed from just a year or so ago, when everybody was worried that there wasn’t enough of the right kind of flu shots.

    Still, this is a good idea. It’s good for business, and it is good for the company’s image as being a community institution.

    Published on: February 25, 2011

    CNBC has a piece about Walmart’s ongoing travails in the US - it recently announced that it suffered its seventh consecutive quarter of declining same-store sales, and its stock has been getting hammered as a result.

    According to the piece, “Walmart locations have long suffered a ‘convenience gap,’ compared with smaller competitors such as dollar stores, Aldi and drugstores such as CVS and Walgreens,” Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, tells CNBC about recent research he has conducted.

    “This is because most families shop differently nowadays. Pressed for time, they make fewer ‘pantry-loading’ trips, where they would spend more than an hour in the store stocking up on a number of goods, Johnson said.

    “Instead, families make ‘fill-in trips,’ where they run into a store and grab a few items they need on their way home from work; or they make ‘rifle-shot’ trips, where they go out shopping for one item that they want to buy. With their massive size, Walmart stores are difficult to manage for these shorter trips. Instead, consumers are looking to smaller stores, where they can run in and run out.”
    KC's View:
    Hence, the new emphasis on the Neighborhood Markets and the new Express format. The question is whether Walmart’s current management can recapture the magic, and how long a rope they’ve been given by the board.

    Published on: February 25, 2011

    Bloomberg has a story about Philip Clarke, who takes over as CEO of Tesco next week with the retirement of Sir Terry Leahy, suggesting that Clarke faces considerable challenges at the world’s third-biggest retailer. Among them:

    Stabilizing the competitive situation in the UK, where Tesco has seen some slippage of late, with gains being made by Sainsbury and William Morrison Supermarkets.

    Convincing consumers and investors that Tesco can grow its non-food businesses, which it has been trying to do with the introduction of financial services, used car dealerships and beauty parlors.

    Figuring out what to do in the US, where the company’s Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market chain has not been a critical or commercial success ... though the company seems determined to make a go of it, expanding from Arizona, Nevada and Southern California into Northern California.
    KC's View:
    What’s the over-under on when Clarke gets knighted? It happened to Ian MacLaurin, it happened to Terry Leahy ... and short of an utter disaster, you have to figure that it’s going to happen to Clarke.

    Published on: February 25, 2011 had an interesting piece about “How Borders Lost Its Soul,” in which author Edward McClelland writes that “Borders ended up caught between the variety of the Internet and the intimacy of the independents. Its outlets could never stock as many books as Amazon. Nor could they duplicate the native flavor of the corner bookstores, with their local author readings and folk music nights.”

    McClelland, who says that he was first enchanted by the whole idea of a super bookstore, says that he first became soured when small independents started getting put out of business. And then, there was what happened when he published his first book: “When I tried to schedule a signing at my neighborhood Borders, I experienced the difference between a bookseller and a corporation that sells books. As a first-time author, I quickly learned that Borders was not going to let me read when it could get Dennis Rodman or Rudy Giuliani instead. The store manager told me to fax a request to the regional events coordinator. I did so, emphasizing that I'd been shopping at Borders before Dan Brown had ever heard of the store. Borders never called back.”

    The small bookstores that are surviving are those that have made themselves community institutions, he writes, suggesting that book co-ops may even be the answer in some cases. And, even with Borders disappearing, the independents will still have to face competition from the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad, not to mention Amazon. But as paper books become a niche product, niche retailers will be the best place to buy and sell them. Book lovers will always want a place to gather and hear recommendations from a bookseller who knows their reading habits, and their community. Borders belonged to an era when book retailing was a big enough business to monopolize. Now that there's no money in it anymore, we may have to go back to shopping for books in stores that let dogs wander through the stacks, and don't even serve coffee.”
    KC's View:
    Oddly, Borders found itself in a kind of muddy middle. It wasn’t designed that way, it wasn’t expected, and then the market moved and Borders found itself in an untenable position. Other retailers, in other venues, have to be careful the same thing does not happen to them.

    Published on: February 25, 2011

    CVS has introduced a new private brand “Just The Basics,” which it describes as “a new line of household essentials that brings smart simplicity to shopping for everyday value. With nearly 100 items available today, and plans to expand the line, Just the Basics offers customers' quality essentials at the lowest prices on CVS/pharmacy shelves every single day.”

    The announcement goes on, “The newest store brand product line available exclusively at CVS pharmacy, Just the Basics offers a large selection of practical items from a variety of categories throughout the store including household, beauty, baby and personal care. Additionally, Just the Basics offers the lowest prices and highest value when compared to store and national brand options with equivalent sizes and quantities.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 25, 2011

    • Target said yesterday that it plans to expand its ‘Pfresh’ concept to 380 additional stores this year, and also plans to open its first CityTarget urban small-store format in 2012.

    USA Today reports that Procter & Gamble “will raise prices to cope with a run-up in commodity costs. The maker of Tide, Pampers and other consumer products would not disclose the size of the increases. It said it will release details in coming months.”

    • The Seattle Times reports that Frito-Lay thinks it has a solution to the environmentally friendly SunChips bag that many consumers complained was too noisy. The company, under pressure from consumers, switched bag to its original, non-environmentally friendly bag in October, but now has found that if it “used a different adhesive to put together the two layers of a bag - one which protects the food on the inside and one which carries the logo and labels on the outside - it created a sort of noise barrier.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 25, 2011

    A note here to follow up on a Michael Sansolo column of a few weeks ago that talked about the experience of the new Broadway musical, “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” which has been a creative disaster in many ways as actors have gotten injured, equipment has malfunctioned, and the critics were vicious in their assessments. (Making it worse has been the fact that “Spider-Man” has not officially opened, though it has been in previews - charging full price - as the producers try to fix its various problems.

    Sansolo’s point was that on Broadway, as well as in business, a great pedigree and all the right ingredients don’t always add up to a successful result - and that the fundamental premise has to be as sound as the implementation if you are going to be successful.

    MNB received numerous emails responding to the column, many of them from people who had seen - and enjoyed - “Spider-Man,” and who seemed to think that Sansolo’s criticisms were an example of the media elite not really getting what audiences want and like.

    Well, several weeks later, “Spider-Man” is still in previews, still charging full price for its tickets, and has hired a new musical director “to help improve the performance, vocal and orchestration arrangements, and sound quality of the songs and numbers,” according to the New York Times. In addition, show composers Bono and the Edge of U2 are writing new songs for the show, and there have been rumors that producers are looking for a new director to help reshape the show.

    The Times writes, “The hire comes amid growing expectation among “Spider-Man” cast and crew members that the show’s official opening, now set for March 15, will be delayed for a sixth time - perhaps for a significant period of time - to undertake a significant revamping of the $65 million show.”

    The story goes on: ““Spider-Man” has been one of the top-grossing shows on Broadway since preview performances began; last week the show grossed $1.48 million, an increase over the previous week’s gross of $1.33 million. But its weekly running costs are also the highest on Broadway, at more than $1 million a week, leaving little room for profit. The show has had some difficulty filling seats on weeknights, moreover; on Saturday, the show began offering a new discount of about 40 percent on rear orchestra and mezzanine seats for performances Tuesday through Friday night between March 1-April 1 — a sign that, in spite of the high grosses, help is needed to sell seats.”

    So maybe Sansolo was right after all.
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 25, 2011

    ...will return.
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 25, 2011

    I step into this minefield with a little bit of trepidation....but apparently not enough to stop me from shooting my mouth off.

    (And I even think there is a business lesson here. Just hang in with me for a minute.)

    I was in Wisconsin this week for a speech, and it won’t surprise anyone to learn that the news and the conversation there is largely focused on the political standoff between the Governor, who would like to see legislation passed that would strip collective bargaining rights from public employees, and those same public employees - especially teachers - who, not surprisingly want to protect what is theirs.

    To be completely transparent about this ... I should begin by saying that Mrs. Content Guy is a public school teacher, and a member of the union. One of the reasons that I am able to do MNB and live a reasonably autonomous life is her health benefits package. So I am neither dispassionate, nor completely objective, on this issue.

    That said, it seems to me that the bigger problem is the fact that collective bargaining rights have removed any semblance of a meritocracy from the teaching profession, at least in the public schools. Your union negotiates a contract, and you get your raises and benefits regardless of how good you are. It is hard to justify any such system.

    (I will not presume to speak for Mrs. Content Guy, but I think it is important to point out that she is not a lifetime educator. She was a stockbroker and banker before leaving the business world for a decade to raise our kids - a move, I would argue, that is the best investment we ever made. So she is, I believe, unusually enlightened on the subject of management-labor relations and its impact on the classroom. But I digress...)

    I’m not sure it is on purpose, but I do think that we are in a period right now in which teachers are being demonized - portrayed as having benefits that are too generous, a work schedule that is too easy, and an entitled attitude that - thanks to tenure - does not promote the finest educational interests. While I think it is fair to say that some teachers are guilty of some of the above, not all are. The problem with the system is the inability to distinguish between the two, or do anything about it.

    ( also occurs to me that the people who are advocating the taking away of certain rights by legislative fiat would be the first group to stand up and scream if rights they they thought were intrinsic to their well-being were in danger of being taken away by legislators who did not share their values. This kind of legislative myopia is not unique, nor new. But it is sort of amusing. But again, I digress...)

    Here’s what I keep thinking about.

    As the same time as teachers are being criticized, and with some justification, we also live in a world where you often hear sentences like the following: “The problem with our cultural values is that teachers make $50,000 a year, and some guy who can hit a curve ball successfully 30 percent of time can make $10 million a year.”

    I don’t know many people who would disagree with that comment.

    The other thing you hear a lot about when the conversation turns to education is the need to attract better, smarter people to the profession - to value our teachers to the point where a person, faced with the choice between being an investment banker or a high school teacher, might choose the latter.

    Now, I don’t expect teachers to make investment banker money. Not going to happen.

    But I do think we have to be careful about how we frame the issue, and how we discuss it.

    And not just in the newspapers, online and on the steps of the state capitol. This subject hit home for me this week when I was waiting for a plane in the Milwaukee airport. A family of four was sitting nearby, and the vitriol about teachers that was coming from the parents’ mouths was startling ... and their kids were hanging on every word. Pity the poor teacher who, now having been totally undermined, now has to deal with those children in the classroom.

    I know that many state economies are a mess, and that political and governmental leaders are looking for solutions ... or, at the very least, ways in which to prevent the situation from getting any worse.

    Still, we need to be keep our eyes on the bigger picture, and understand that we are talking about fundamental cultural values. The dollar we cut today, or the profession we devalue tomorrow, could set in motion societal events from which it could be difficult to recover.

    The sustainable strategy we have to reach for is a more responsible use of tax dollars and a educational system that reaches for the highest possible goals, helping our children learn not just the fundamentals, but also how to reason, to think, to keep an open mind.

    As in business, the tactics that seem most effective for the moment may not be the ones that best serve the long-term strategic goals. And while I’m wandering into a minefield here, my only real suggestion is that we exercise care in our rhetoric, care in our thinking, and care in how we view both the short-term exigencies and the long-term imperatives.

    MyWebGrocer NGA Campaign Okay, let’s get into something a little less controversial...

    I heartily recommend the new Jane Leavy book, “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle And The End Of America’s Childhood.”

    Leavy, who also wrote the fabulous “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” is both candid and compassionate as she examines the life of one of the most magical names in the history of sports, a personality with a dark side that undermined both how he played the game and how he lived his life. While never suggesting that Mantle was anything but responsible for his own behavior, Leavy also makes the argument that in many ways, Mantle was let down by his parents, by the New York Yankees management that exploited him, and by a culture that puts too much of a premium on athletic excellence. It is the stuff of Greek tragedy, and compelling from beginning to end - he was, to be sure, a deeply flawed individual, a philanderer and alcoholic, but he also was plagued by injuries to an almost unimaginable extent. (Leavy does a great job of explaining of precisely how much pain Mantle played in for most of his career.)

    “The Last Boy” is an extraordinary read, punctuated by Leavy’s own encounters with Mantle, and leavened by hundreds of recollections by Mantle’s family, friends and teammates. I won’t pretend that I had a rooting interest in the subject matter - I was born in 1954 in Greenwich Village and raised in the New York suburbs, and Mickey Mantle was a magical figure to me, dominating the newspaper headlines and even somehow reaching through the tiny black-and-white television screen to grab my imagination. When we’d play stickball up at Murray Avenue School, I can remember modeling my hitting stance on Mantle’s (not that I could hit much, but it was a rich fantasy life).

    Reading “The Last Boy” made me think back to a trade show I attended many years ago (I don’t remember which one it was, nor when it precisely took place), when I actually got to shake Mantle’s hand and get a signed baseball. In decades of covering such shows, it is the only time I have ever waited on line to meet someone. I still have the ball. and the picture ... which you can see above ... that shows a very young me shaking Mantle’s hand.

    Had a wonderful white wine this week - the 2009 Paringa Estate Chardonnay, from Australia, which is a wonderfully balanced wine that is not too fruity, not too creamy...but just right. Great stuff, and I think you can probably get it for about $15 a bottle.

    The Oscars are Sunday night, and I have two lists...the movies and people I’d vote for, and the movies and people I think will win.

    Best Picture (my vote): 127 Hours
    Best Picture (will win): The King’s Speech

    Best Actor (my vote): James Franco, 127 Hours
    Best Actor (will win): Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

    Best Actress (my vote): Natalie Portman Black Swan
    Best Actress (will win): Natalie Portman Black Swan

    Best Supporting Actor (my vote): Geoffrey Rush The King’s Speech
    Best Supporting Actor (will win): Christian Bale, The Fighter

    Best Supporting Actress (my vote): Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
    Best Supporting Actress (will win): Melissa Leo, The Fighter

    Best Director (my vote): Danny Boyle, 127 Hours (not even nominated!)
    Best Director (will win): Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

    Best Original Screenplay (my vote): David Seidler, The King’s Speech
    Best Original Screenplay (will win): David Seidler, The King’s Speech

    Best Adapted Screenplay (my vote): Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
    Best Adapted Screenplay (will win): Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

    Unknown, the new Liam Neeson Euro-thriller, continues the star’s unlikely transformation into a fiftysomething action hero. The process really began a couple of years ago with Taken, in which Neeson played a distraught father cutting a bloody swath through the seedy side of Paris searching for his kidnapped daughter. It was a surprise hit, and now, in Unknown, Neeson plays a doctor visiting Berlin with his wife, played January Jones; he is in a car accident, wakes up after having been in a coma for a few days, and discovers that someone else (Aidan Quinn) seems to have taken over his life ... and even his wife doesn’t seem to known him.

    Probably the best description of Unknown is that it is a solid B-movie thriller ... and I mean that as a compliment. Neeson is great, there are terrific supporting performances by Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella, and while the movie’s denouement is not a total surprise, there are enough twists and turns to keep the viewer engaged.

    It is what it is. And what it is, is perfect for a February evening at the movies.

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

    KC's View: