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    Published on: August 5, 2011

    MNB is going to look a little different this morning...I’m off to attend a family wedding, and so I’m taking the day off from the usual reportage and commentary.

    However, Michael Sansolo’s column, Sansolo Speaks is making a special Friday appearance this week, and both Your Views and OffBeat are in their regular positions, just so you can get a little bit of your MNB fix.

    I’ll be back Monday, and will see you then.

    Fins Up!
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 5, 2011

    by Michael Sansolo

    Technology is a wonderful thing. Like many of you, I can’t imagine how I’d go back to a time without all my wonderful tools from my smart phone to Google, Facebook or a GPS. (It was a couple of weeks ago that I was bemoaning the existence of baseball stadiums without all the latest in scoreboard amenities.)

    Yet every now and again we get a reminder that technology is only as smart as its users. And when that happens we need to share the story because like it or not, the human brain is pretty wonderful too and sometimes I fear we forget that. It pays to remember that relying too blindly on technological marvels isn’t always a good thing.

    Allow me to explain why I had this epiphany. A recent speech had me driving from the Fort Walton Beach Airport in the Florida panhandle to a nearby gulf resort in Destin. Part of the trip is across the really panoramic Mid-Bay Bridge. It’s a two-lane bridge crossing a good amount of water, which luckily never bothers me.

    One highway department sign along the way, however, did give me pause.

    If you’ve ever seen the original movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, you remember the scene where Chevy Chase drives onto a clearly closed road, but insists it must be fine because closed roads (in the movie’s case, a bridge is out) always have a huge sign warning you of trouble. In Florida I saw such a sign. It wasn’t because the bridge was out, but rather it’s the drivers who are out.

    The sign’s warning was simple: Your GPS is wrong! Yikes!

    Now there are times I have been on a beautiful road while my GPS yells at me because it believes I have somehow driven into the middle of a field. Apparently it happens when a road is new and the signals haven’t somehow adjusted. More likely it’s because I don’t have a package that regularly updates the GPS. Besides, I like making that GPS lady with the soothing voice just a little crazy.

    Well, in Florida those fabulous little guidance units are telling people to turn where they should not. In fact, they are calling for a turn where there is no bridge. Even though we shared a chuckle as we talked about this, the bridge toll taker reminded me that the entire thing isn’t a laughing matter. There haven’t been any accidents, but drivers are getting stunningly confused and are exiting the highway without realizing the bridge is clearly marked and straight ahead of them. They are so convinced the GPS is correct that they ignore the obvious signals that should be reaching their brains.

    One episode of “The Office” played out this same scenario when Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott. turned exactly where the GPS suggested and right into a lake. It’s hard to believe that in real life people make the same mistakes, but sadly they do and the drivers end up on the nightly news. Like Chevy Chase they miss the big sign and like Michael Scott they turn where they shouldn’t.

    So why does this matter? It reminds us that we need to get our brains engaged and not let the technology do all the work. Many of us think about this when we consider the rising power of Generation Y. Clearly these folks are the most technologically capable among us, but we fear that they may not muster the ability to make eye contact, sustain a conversation longer than 140 characters or do anything without guidance of their circle of friends. I’m pretty convinced they’ll manage just fine, but we can and must help.

    For instance, I recently did a favor for a young person and was frankly put off that I never once heard the words “thank you.” To be fair, the person posted a “thank you” to me on Facebook, but that didn’t feel the same. Even though the thanks were more public, I was kind of irritated. I wanted to hear “thank you” in person, not stumble across it on Facebook.

    So just as the younger generation needs to teach us about how to improve our use of technology - and they do - we need to teach them people skills, or how to count change without an automatic cash register or even how to read a map. Because there are going to be power outages and there are going to be times a GPS is wrong and, most of all, there are customers who still want eye contact, a smile and an audible “thank you.”

    And if we need to give them a harsher lesson in this, well, there’s a bridge in Florida…

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .

    KC's View:

    Published on: August 5, 2011

    Yesterday, MNB took note of a Bloomberg story about how an internal Walmart memo indicates that visits to the retailer’s US stores - open at least a year - were down 2.6 percent from February through June of this year ... a trend that does speak well about the short term impact of the company’s much-vaunted efforts to reverse eight straight quarters of stagnant same store sales.

    Analysts say that Walmart continues to suffer from two trends - low-income families that have less money to shop as the impact of the recession continues to be felt, and everybody else deciding to shop elsewhere.

    And I commented:

    Analysts say that Walmart has a price and value perception problem that is working against its efforts to bring in more customers - and that the issue of selection has not really been the problem, despite the fact that Walmart has made a big deal out of adding products back in after its editing process fell flat.

    It creates an interesting dynamic for the Bentonville Behemoth. On the one hand, it is opening small stores, creating new formats, developing an urban strategy, acquiring chains in places like South Africa, and forging ahead with e-commerce, sustainability and healthy food initiatives, while at the same time desperately trying to figure out how to generate more traffic and sales out of its existing fleet of US stores. It is almost like how a magician tries to distract you with one hand while the real trick is happening elsewhere.

    Can Walmart’s existing management pull a rabbit out of its hat? And how long will it be before the board - urged on by the clamoring of investors - decides that a change is needed at the top?

    MNB user Howard Carr responded:

    Walmart’s numbers looked at alone cannot tell the true story.  What matters most is the total overall sales volumes.

    With higher gas prices, you may find that many of their customers, who are financially stressed right now, may be making fewer trips to the store.  You need to also look into the average total check per customer to help determine if this is happening.  If the customers are spending more per trip, but making fewer trips then, that could explain the difference. 

    Also, have their online sales increased?  This could be another bell weather telling a story of fewer trips and letting someone else pay for the gas since they are offering free shipping on so much of the product line.

    Just a thought from a retail real estate guy.

    All of which could be true. But recent history suggests that the reality may be more troubling.

    Another MNB user wrote:

    As someone who witnessed WMT's assault on the grocery industry from the inside, before they were self-distributing, I was amazed by what quick learners they initially were. I think you are correct in your assessment that the excuse of SKU reductions cutting sales is either a smokescreen or an ill-informed argument.

    My perspective is two factors are limiting their growth, poor execution at store level and a loss of their pricing edge, especially in store brands. IMO, as they have expanded into more urban markets they have been unable to hire competent workers at the wages they wish to pay, something that was not a factor for them in their rural markets where they could attract first rate help.

    As I see it the poor shopping experience I receive is no longer offset by drastically lower prices. My personal shopping at WMT has declined from $150 a week to maybe $50 every other week.

    From another MNB user:

    We live in Wisconsin, winter in Arizona. When in WI, we shop in Wal*Mart, Festival Foods, Copps, Target and other major chains. When in AZ, we shop at Fry's Foods, Albertson's & Safeway in addition to Wal*Mart & Target and other major chains. We have found that shopping according to the ads & coupons, Wal*Mart prices are always quite a bit higher on most items. If you want to save money shopping, you have to be very selective as to what you purchase from Wal*Mart. Even their Great Value products are more costly than sale prices on Fry's or Festival's products. Savvy shoppers shop the ads and use coupons and plan their menus accordingly. It appears to me that Wal*Mart has a long ways to go to become the low price leader they once were.

    Another MNB user chimed in:

    This is very true among my family and friends.  Many times, the savings we would get by shopping at Walmart does not pay for the slow check out lanes, the unhelpful and/or unfriendly associates working or the task of finding produce or meat that appears fresh and not like it was just tossed onto the shelves.  I have found shopping at the local supermarkets is well worth the few extra dollars I am probably spending.  The perishable sections usually look great, the associates are usually very helpful and friendly, and the employees running the check out lanes do not look like they can't wait to leave, as they appear in many of the Walmarts I have been in.  In addition, most supermarkets have a much more enjoyable atmosphere.  I can say I am gladly contributing to Walmart's decrease in customer counts as I have not shopped in one of their stores now in almost a year and really do not plan on going back to one.  I'm sure I am not alone in these thoughts.

    Apparently not.

    Speaking of customer counts, we got the following email on a different subject from MNB user Bob Hermanns:

    Carolyn and I completed our move to Southern California last weekend.  On Saturday night about 9 pm we needed coffee to help us drive the next 3 hours.  We chose a Mc Donald’s off I 5 north of Portland.  While parking the car I noticed a group of people milling about along the side of the building.  Was this a problem I thought?

    No... it was people standing 3 deep in line to access two Redbox Machines.  For the 15 minutes we were in the lot, the lines were never shorter than 3 people for each machine.

    KC's View:

    Published on: August 5, 2011

    Not sure if you’ve seen this on the internet or not, but Starbucks apparently is getting some bad press because of allegations that some of its NYC stores have been covering up their electrical outlets so that people will be discouraged from plugging in their laptops and doing everything but declaring residence there.

    The accusation is that Starbucks wants people to stay only as long as their laptop batteries last.

    The Gothamist reports that Starbucks’ “NY Metro leadership team has stated they are against covering the outlets because it is a passive aggressive way to deal with the issue. However, in extreme cases, they have approved this action because (and let's be real here) some people just cannot be reasoned with... If you are one of those people who uses Starbucks as their office, sits in a store for 8+ hours a day, putting all your files on a table, using a separate chair for your laptop case/ suitcase enjoying unlimited free refills with your Starbucks card, asking for cups of water and refuse to to move until you are good and ready all for the $1.85 you pay as ‘rent,’ then perhaps your actions will answer your questions [about covering the outlets].”

    This is an interesting marketing dilemma. After all, part of Starbucks’ core value proposition is that it is a “third place” where people should feel free to hang out, talk, get work done, read, etc... But the question is how to handle it when people start abusing the privilege ...

    I’m not sure it matters if Starbucks starts offending $1.85 customers, but the problem is that whatever it does, the solution will go viral almost immediately. (It already has, in fact.) And I think I’d be very careful about doing anything that would seem to subvert a key corporate value.

    Okay, I have a terrific book for you to read.

    “2030: The Real Story Of What Happens To America,” by Albert Brooks.

    Yes, that Albert Brooks. The star of “Finding Nemo,” and the brilliant comic mind behind such films as “Defending Your Life” and “Lost in America.”

    I wouldn’t exactly call “2030” a comic novel, though it is written with a breezy and sardonic wit that reads just like Brooks sounds. The premise is simple and compelling: Cancer has been cured, which means that people are living much longer lives, which also means that they are draining the nation’s resources and creating a scenario ripe for a class war in which bitter and angry young people are facing off against the “olds.” Play this out against a backdrop of a bankrupt US government, natural disasters, and people of all ages trying to figure out where they fit in 2020 society, and you have a wonderfully observant and highly readable piece of fiction. Except that for much of the book, even though it is set two decades in the future, it didn’t sound like fiction.

    Read it. You’ll be entertained, but glimmers of truth are scattered throughout the book.

    On the movie front....

    Crazy, Stupid Love. is pretty good - mostly funny and charming as it explores the lives of a group of people in the wake of the decision by one couple (Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore) to divorce. There are nice supporting tuns by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and for the most part it is smart enough to get the little moments right.

    Captain America: The First Avenger is yet another movie based on a comic book character. It isn't as bad as Thor, but isn’t even on the same planet as The Dark Knight, which is the scale I use when evaluating these things.

    Cowboys & Aliens. Not sure why, but I think this movie works a lot better than I expected. Maybe it is because it is utterly consistent about its premise - it may be about an alien invasion, but it never loses touch with its western essence, and that counts for a lot. As does a strong leading man turn by Daniel Craig, who seems to be channeling some combination of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. Good stuff.

    Our wine of the week is the Chateau Peyros 2004 Madiran, which is a wonderful blend of tannat and cabernet franc that was perfect with ribs - standing up to the meat with its own mouth-filling intensity.

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

    KC's View: