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    Published on: April 13, 2012

    by Kevin Coupe

    There is a wonderful piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning about how the Jacksonville Jaguars have started using a new technique when wooing NFL free agents - they are talking to players’ wives.

    This apparently is something new for the NFL. (And maybe for a lot of employers.) Free agents usually fly into town by themselves, or with their agents, and engage in conversations with ownership and coaching staffs. Deals are made, contracts are signed, and if wives are consulted, they are not part of the process.

    According to the story, “Shahid Khan, the Jaguars' new owner, who made his fortune in auto parts manufacturing, said he had the idea because he tries to meet all of the spouses of his employees. He said he has retreats in which his employees are encouraged to bring their spouses. Khan figured some of the things needed to be a solid player - like staying after practice or putting in extra work - require a stable home environment. The team's new coach, Mike Mularkey, spoke with Smith about the importance of a good family life during his interview process and just like that, a new NFL personnel theory was born.”

    The wives cited in the Journal story say they’ve been pleasantly surprised by the attention - and they agree (not surprisingly) that a stable home life can lead to better on-field performance.

    Now, the Journal does make another legitimate point: “The obvious and unanswered question is whether married athletes really perform better on the field. History is, of course, littered with successful athletes who were spectacularly unsuccessful husbands. And some of them are, or were, among the greatest athletes to play their respective sports.”

    But I do think that the larger point is a good one - that we all are made better by our spouses. (Not just wives. I like to think that most husbands make their wives better, too. Just not in my house.) And maybe this is something to which smart companies ought to pay more attention.

    Good stuff, and Eye-Opening.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 13, 2012

    The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a study published in Social Science Quarterly saying that there is “a stronger correlation between the number of Walmart stores in a county and local hate group activity than other factors such as unemployment, crime and low education.”

    “Walmart has clearly done good things in these communities, especially in terms of lowering prices, but there may be indirect costs that are not as obvious as other effects,” says Stephan Goetz, Penn State professor and the study’s lead author.

    However, Goetz emphasizes that he is not picking on Walmart: “In this study, Wal-Mart is really serving as a proxy for any type of large retailer,” he says.
    KC's View:
    Who thinks of these study topics, anyway? (I never would have thought to track anything like this.)

    Still, it is interesting. The study says that “ because big-box stores drive away small businesses, they also contribute to the erosion of community values, civil engagement and social bonds, allowing for hate group activity to rise.”

    I’m sure that Walmart will have some sort of rejoinder. Though, maybe not - this may be one of those cases where it makes sense to simply ignore the study and hope it will go away.

    Published on: April 13, 2012

    Market research firm MarketTools is out with a new study saying that “shoppers are more cost-conscious than they were a year ago, and their search for value is changing the way they approach the shopping experience.”

    Some of the results cited by the study include:

    • “63 percent of shoppers have changed their shopping habits to stretch their grocery budgets. To save money on grocery bills, respondents report that they buy items with coupons (80 percent); buy store brands instead of name brands (62 percent); use store loyalty cards that offer discounts (62 percent); buy items only when they are on sale (58 percent); and buy more large-sized products (43 percent).”

    • “In the search for bargains, shoppers report that the reason they purchase store brands is to get better value (59 percent of respondents) and a more attractive price (56 percent).”

    • “67 percent of respondents say they use coupons for at least half of their shopping trips, and 49 percent say they use coupons on every, or nearly every, shopping trip. However, many shoppers don't see coupons as an incentive to try something new: nearly half of respondents (49 percent) say that a coupon would not prompt them to buy an item they don't normally buy.”

    • “Coupon use is most prevalent in higher-income households: of respondents with annual household incomes of $75,000 or more, 98 percent report that they use coupons to save money on grocery bills, with 49 percent saying that they use coupons on every, or nearly every, shopping trip. In contrast, only 38 percent of respondents with annual household incomes less than $25,000 report using coupons on every, or nearly every, shopping trip.”

    • “Only 36 percent of respondents subscribe to a deal site such as Groupon or LivingSocial. 70 percent of daily deal shoppers have made one or more purchases from a daily deal site in the last six months. Most of those purchases were for discounts on dining out (20 percent), services (18 percent), and activities and entertainment (18 percent); grocery items made up only 13 percent of daily deal purchases.”
    KC's View:
    Not to be overly cynical, but is there any number here that really surprises anyone? Not me ... nothing wrong with studies like this that reinforce conventional wisdom that people are more cost-conscious than ever and that rich people use coupons more than poor people, but I can’t say that there is any new ground being broken here.

    Published on: April 13, 2012

    National Public Radio reports that Cargill and Tyson, each of which has sold the lean, finely textured beef popularly known as Pink Slime used as a filler in ground beef, have submitted proposals to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a label that would accurately identify it within products. The story notes that “current food safety and disclosure rules don't require ground beef labels to list LFTB as an ingredient. The USDA says that LFTB is not listed on labels because the material is still beef.”

    The hope is that by labeling LFTB, beef companies can regain consumer trust.

    "The number of customers requesting non-LFTB product increased substantially following the media's inaccurate portrayal of LFTB, but we have recently seen an increased interest in purchasing ground beef containing LFTB as customers and consumers gain access to more accurate information," says Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman.
    KC's View:
    Just label it. I think that’s all that most people want.

    Published on: April 13, 2012

    The Wall Street Journal reports this morning on how French retailer Carrefour is turning to lower prices as its primary strategy in rebuilding sales and profits in its home market.

    “Like many retailers, Carrefour's sales have been pressured by a reduction in consumer spending amid the economic downturn, especially in France and Southern Europe, the region that has been hit hardest,” the Journal writes. “In response, the company has cut prices in a bid to regain competitiveness and put on hold the overhaul of its hypermarkets.”

    Carrefour has been struggling to break the cycle of diminishing returns in its business, especially in France, and also has been dealing with leadership issues - this fall, it is slated to get its third CEO in four years.
    KC's View:
    I must be developing areal cynical streak. It just seems to me that whenever a retailer is about to go off the cliff, leadership talks about the fact that it is turning to low prices to prevent disaster.

    While low prices can be critically important, especially in some markets, the simple reality is that in many ways low prices also are the least defensible of competitive positions - anybody can undercut you at any moment. They also can put retailers into a precarious situation - it can take years to develop a dominant price image in a marketplace, and about 45 seconds to lose it.

    So bonne chance to Carrefour.

    Published on: April 13, 2012

    • The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that Scott Price, CEO of Walmart’s Asia division, is saying that while China is experiencing an economic slowdown, he does not expect it to affect the retailer’s expansion plans there.

    The story notes that “the retailer currently operates 379 stores in China. Wal-Mart expects sales to rise as consumers in China's smaller cities - where the majority of its new stores will launch in the next few years - shift to modern retail shopping in megamarkets from traditional small stores.”

    UPDATE / 9:45 am EDT...

    In breaking news this morning, Walmart announced that Joe Zhou, senior vice president and chief merchandising officer of its China unit, is stepping down and leaving the company “for personal reasons” just six months after taking the job. No permanent replacement was named and Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that China COO Sean Clarke will serve in the role on an interim basis.

    Bloomberg writes that “ Zhou was part of a leadership team that was rebuilt following the exit of the region’s chief executive officer, chief financial officer and COO last year amid store closures because of mislabeled food and difficulty integrating the acquisition of Chinese supermarket Trust-Mart. In February, the company appointed Greg Foran to helm the China unit, which generated $7.5 billion of revenue in 2010.”

    The story also notes that Walmart International CEO Doug McMillon has said “the company needed to improve its merchandising in China and next year would shift to everyday low prices, rather than temporary sales and discounts.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 13, 2012 reports on a new study suggesting that two out of three US consumers with smartphones have used them to help the shopping experience, with 38 percent using them to research products while in a bricks-and-mortar store.

    According to the story, “Customers are using web-enabled devices for a variety of purposes, but the highest percentage of respondents, 47%, said they relied on smartphones to find out more information about a product. Thirty-six percent of those polled had used their phones to read product reviews on retail websites. Price-comparison was also a popular activity, with about one-third of smartphone owners looking up prices at other stores, and slightly fewer researching prices on retailer websites.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 13, 2012

    The Los Angeles Times reports this morning that seasonal beers are becoming all the rage, to the point that they now are getting more attention than ever from national brewers since seasonality is seen as one to generate new sales in what has been a slowly declining category.

    One example cited in the piece: MillerCoors-owned Blue Moon “sells four seasonal variety packs every year that historically have consisted of four beers, one of them a limited-time seasonal offering. For 2012, the brewer is including two seasonal offerings in each pack. Spring's introduction was Valencia Amber Ale, brewed with orange peel. Agave Blonde Ale, brewed with cactus nectar, is slated for summer.”

    Boston Beer Co. CEO Jim Koch, who has been making Sam Adams seasonal beers for more than a quarter-century, notes that its seasonal beer has been one of its biggest sellers ... though sales dropped a bit last year (perhaps because there is more competition in the category).
    KC's View:
    I like seasonal beers, and when I am traveling - which is often - it is a general practice to belly up to the bar (the belly is a little bigger these days) and order a local, seasonal beer. It is a great way to experience a place.

    As the great Robert B. Parker once said, the worst beer I ever had was wonderful.

    Published on: April 13, 2012

    ...with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary...

    Reuters reports that Kraft has decided to discontinue its Athenos line of Greek yogurt, though it will continue to make feta cheese, hummus and pita cheese for the brand. The company said that it would focus on developing new products for the Athenos label.

    Sometimes one is so far behind the curve that it is almost impossible to catch up. I guess that must have been the case here. Maybe Kraft should consider trying to acquire Chobani?

    Stores magazine has a story saying that product sampling leads to consumers buying new products, and retailers generating new sales.

    Really? Shut the front door!

    Perhaps the single greatest sin committed by the food retailing business is the lack of sampling done by most of them. Go into most stores and there are few aromas to smell and fewer items to taste. Food should be the most effective differential advantage that supermarkets have, and the vast of majority of them squander it.

    KC's View:

    Published on: April 13, 2012

    I wrote and spoke here yesterday about the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which was out with its annual list of what it calls its Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books - which is to say books that have been formally challenged in writing by citizens or groups because, according to them, the content is inappropriate.

    I was amazed that there are people out there who think that “To Kill A Mockingbird” deserves to be challenged. Or “Brave New World.” And while I’ve not read the books, the “Hunger Games” trilogy? Really?

    One MNB user wrote:

    My wife and I were on a road trip this week, driving from Minneapolis to Richmond, VA. While 20 hours in a car presents some challenges, one thing we enjoy about these trips is the opportunity to unplug and just talk, without all of the distractions of daily life. Among the topics we discussed (including MNB!) were great literature and film. I mentioned that trying to pick the greatest film of all time is an impossible task; however if I were forced to choose just one, I'd go with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” My wife agreed (!) and commented that everyone should read this book and see the film. Both remain just as powerful, moving and relevant today as they were fifty years ago. As to the news that some are proposing to ban the book? As Atticus tells Scout and she later reminds him, "It would be a sin; sort of like shooting a mockingbird."

    Another MNB user wrote:

    I cannot understand anyone that wants books to be banned…or “challenged”.

    I have 4 daughters. It is hard enough to get kids to read; much less, try to dictate what they should and should not read. I have never taken any books away from my girls nor do I try to prohibit anything from them. I do challenge them after reading the book to tell me what they got from the book and help understand fact vs. fiction, acceptable vs. unacceptable thoughts and ideas, and general thought provoking conversation from the books.

    My older daughters have read The Hunger Games, and have gone to the opening night showing of the movie. Like many that read books and then see the corresponding movie, they were very critical of one venue over the other. My daughters even dressed as characters from the book when they went to the movie.

    I think that reading more books is better for a child’s education, and that NO BOOK should be banned. Each time that a child reads a new book, their mind is opened a little bit further, and helps them to understand even more. I might even go as far as saying that some of the “Challenged” books should become REQUIRED reading so that young minds can understand why they are being challenged and allow them to make their own decisions.

    Is this not what we strive for in raising our children?

    MNB user Steven Ritchey wrote, referring to one of my memories:

    My dad was a great guy, but he would never have taken me to see Easy Rider, or any other R rated movie for that matter.  The last movie he took the family to see was Nevada Smith, and never went to see another one because of the “language” in the movie.  I was very young at the time so I didn’t remember any “bad language”, so  years later, I caught it on cable, eagerly anticipating what made him so upset I sat there appalled, I  heard worse language than that on my elementary school playground.

    Your dad was an educator as I recall, so just maybe he saw in taking you to see Easy Rider a way to create a memory for his son, and a way to connect with the students he educated every day.

    From another MNB user:

    Interesting…How about the folks who have edited out all the "objectionable" language from Mark Twain's classic, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”We now have administrators and teachers in our schools who do not have the leadership ability to discuss "words" with their students.  Political correctness run amuck?

    And from yet another reader:

    How terribly sad!

    At least “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury was not on that list – although I bet if the complainers were aware of it, they’d challenge it as well.

    For me, the people who try to ban books are no different from the people who burn books. And we all know what kind of people those are.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 13, 2012

    Many of you know that Robert B. Parker, who wrote more than 70 books - 40 of them novels about the iconic Boston private detective, Spenser - passed away in January 2010. During his later years, Parker churned out two or three novels a year, and his death left many of us wondering how we would satisfy our addiction to his voice, his characters, his sardonic yet hopeful world view.

    In two weeks, we get our fix of Spenser, as author Ace Atkins revives the series with his first entry in the canon, “Lullaby.” I’ll have my review of the novel next week, but first I want to turn my attention to another Spenser book, just out - “In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the Creation of an American Hero.”

    “In Pursuit of Spenser” features a wide range of writers examining various aspects of Parker’s writing and Spenser’s development over the years. Having read everything that Parker has written, and much that has been written about him - as well as having interviewed him once - it was a subject that I warmed to. Still, in working my way through it, I was reminded not so much of Parker, but of E.B. White, who once said that analyzing comedy was like dissecting a frog - few people are interested and the frog dies.

    I’ve always thought that Parker’s magic was in how he managed to communicate so much about character, theme, plot and place with a minimum of words. Some writers write like they are conducting an orchestra, but to me, Parker was more like a jazz pianist - gently working the keyboard, able to riff entertainingly yet purposefully, a singular performer with a unique sense of timing and sound.

    “In Pursuit of Spenser” has some wonderful essays. Ace Atkins contributes “Songs Spenser Taught Me,” which tracks his personal connection to the character and author; there was a lot of resonance for me, and made me optimistic about his continuing work on the series. Dennis Lehane writes “Voice of the City,” which is not just a look at Parker’s connection to the Boston they shared (though their novels work different neighborhoods), but also has the best Parker anecdote in the book. (It concerns the New England Patriots and an annoying kid.) And a writer named Lyndsay Faye has a good piece called “Spenser and the Art of the Family Table” that looks at Spenser’s love of food and cooking, and more importantly, how this reflects a broader view of the world.

    I’m not sure about some of the rest of the essays. (I am sure that when Lawrence Block writes that he never should have been asked to contribute an essay, he is right. However, I have to admit to being tickled that the worst essay in the book quoted the interview that I did with Parker back in 1985.) Because of the format, they tend to rework some of the same points and dialogue over and over, and I kept wondering if even Parker (who I suspect had to be a more complicated person than many of the essays would suggest) would have rolled his eyes a bit at all the analysis.

    I’m glad that I read “In Pursuit of Spenser.” I’m glad it is next to all the Parker books that line my bookshelves, and it will serve as a strong reference point in the future.

    But sometimes, I think, it is important to simply listen to the music and let it take you away. Sometimes, you don’t have to dissect the frog.

    Next review of “Lullaby.” case you are Robert B. Parker interview can be found here.

    Other stuff...

    I liked The Hunger Games. I haven;t read the books, but found the movie to be entertaining and diverting. The lead-up to the actual games in the movie takes a little long, but the last hour and twenty minutes pretty much fly by. Mrs. Content Guy, who did read the book, thought it was a decent adaptation of a decent book, no more, no less.

    21 Jump Street is, it seems to me, a perfect reflection of what’s wrong with movies today - a rehashing of an old idea that manages to subvert what could have been a good idea (two high school opposites become friends when they become adults, only to be seduced by old behaviors when returning to high school) under the weight of vulgar language and low comedy. I’m no prude, and I don’t think that all comedy has to be Noel Coward. But while I laughed at some of the bits, 21 Jump Street left me cold.

    Two funniest bits I saw on TV this week...

    Jon Stewart on the difference between Easter and Passover.

    Stephen Colbert on Re. Allen West.

    Classic. cool is Cory Booker?

    If you ever are in Wausau, Wisconsin - which is where I found myself for a speech this week - I would suggest that you make your way to the Red Eye Brewing Company. I shared a meal there with some terrific retailers, and can recommend to you the Single Hop Redhead ale and the Redeye Burger. Life is good.

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

    KC's View: