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    Published on: April 20, 2012

    by Kevin Coupe

    There was a cool story in USA Today the other day about hotels that are offering new and unusual services as a way of attracting new customers who “seek to stay physically - and mentally - balanced on the road.” Call it continuing education served up hotel-style, with a number of companies expanding the notion of what an overnight stay can be.

    For example, the story says:

    • “At the James hotels in New York and Chicago, each room is equipped with all the supplies needed to make cocktails, including recipes. Guests can arrange for a bartender to conduct a private mixology lesson.”

    • “At the Swissotel Chicago, guests soon will be able to sign up for free self-defense classes taught by the hotel's sous chef, a trained instructor. Chess classes will also be available.”

    • “The Kensington Hotel, a Doyle Collection property in London, has started one-hour complimentary ‘Petite Etiquette’ classes for children from ages 5 to 10. Kids are taught basic table manners so that parents can feel comfortable taking them out to dinner.”

    • “The Omphoy Ocean Resort in Palm Beach, Fla., this summer will launch a ‘Surf Goddess’ program that will include surfing lessons with overnight accommodations.”

    What makes this interesting - and relevant - to other kinds of businesses is the central premise: that the basic elements of a hotel stay (a room, shower, food and beverages) can be pretty much replicated by anyone. And so, hotels are seeking differential advantages that will serve as distinguishing characteristics, creating interest and hopefully nurturing loyalty among their customers.

    That’s the Eye-Opening lesson - that businesses need to go outside their comfort zones to find unusual and yet compelling ways to attract and keep their customers. And it is part of the ongoing and evolving continuing education of the modern retailer.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 20, 2012

    Excellent piece on by columnist Farhad Manjoo, in which he writes about what Best Buy needs to do in order to survive in what for it has become an increasingly hostile retail environment. “Best Buy is in a lot of trouble,” he writes. “Once the undisputed leader in technology retail - it vanquished Circuit City, CompUSA, and every mom-and-pop electronics store in the country - the company is now being killed by Amazon online and Apple offline.”

    Manjoo says that Best Buy’s big problem is that in an age of commodity electronics, it continues “to wave the banner of endless selection,” which does nothing for the customer except offer clutter and confusion. He writes:

    “It’s time to abandon the idea of endless selection. If Best Buy wants to survive, it’s got to replace its hulking, teeming stores with smaller, less crowded, more intimate spaces. When you walk in to buy a 32-inch TV, the guy in the blue shirt shouldn’t make you choose between a dozen nearly identical models. Instead, he should show you a single set, a TV that Best Buy’s experts have determined offers the best features at the best price. The firm could do the same across its inventory, culling the tech universe down to a few essential, can’t-beat products. In this way, Best Buy would transform itself from a supermarket into a boutique - a place with fewer things for sale and lots of friendly, sophisticated, helpful experts who’ll save you the hassle of researching your next TV or PC purchase. They’ll do all the work for you.”

    Being big, Manjoo writes, “big has become the domain of the Web.” Online stores do it better, can always offer more selection, and almost always will be able to undercut the prices offered by physical stores with higher cost structures; they also can take advantage of - or even encourage - the “showrooming” trend, in which consumers go into bricks-and-mortar stores to look, and then buy online. And so, by becoming more specific and specialized, and putting a greater premium on service, Best Buy at least has the chance of becoming more relevant rather than trying to compete in a game it cannot win.
    KC's View:
    I have no idea if this will work; to his credit, Manjoo concedes that he does not, either.

    But the central point is a good one. If you are going to compete in a cutthroat environment, you cannot do so by playing into the strengths of the other guy, even if those used to be your strengths. At some point, you have to recognize that the world has moved on, and create for yourself a new differential advantage..

    Or, you can kid yourself and just watch the whole thing die.

    Your choice.

    Published on: April 20, 2012

    Reuters reports that “junk food may soon be hard to buy at American public schools as the US government readies new rules requiring healthier foods to be sold beyond the cafeteria - a move most parents support, according to a poll released on Thursday.

    “With childhood obesity rising, the survey found most people agreed the chips, soda and candy bars students buy from vending machines or school stores in addition to breakfast and lunch are not nutritious, and they support a national standard for foods sold at schools.”

    According to the story, “Eighty percent of the 1,010 adults polled said they would support nutritional standards limiting the calories, fat and sodium in such foods. Seventeen percent would oppose it. Most also agreed there are now few healthy options. Just 5 percent of adults said vending machines offered totally or mostly healthy choices compared with 10 percent for school stores and 21 percent for a la carte lunch lines.”
    KC's View:
    As the story notes, “Changes to school foods may be controversial. New standards for more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in traditional school meals announced in January drew scrutiny when lawmakers blocked limits to french fries and counted pizza as a vegetable because it contains tomato sauce.” So no matter what the survey says (and I’m sure that there will be other surveys that will suggest that national standards represent an inappropriate government intrusion), there will be political reasons that some in Congress will not want to go along.

    I actually don’t care about the survey results. From my POV, it seems entirely reasonable to me, since we have tax dollars finding school lunches anyway, to use those tax dollars only to buy healthy foods. It seems entirely unreasonable to me to spend them buying some of the slop currently served in a lot of schools.

    Published on: April 20, 2012

    The Associated Press reports that “two years after the drilling-rig explosion that touched off the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, scientists are beginning to suspect that fish in the Gulf of Mexico are suffering the effects of the petroleum,” finding fish with open sores, parasitic infections, chewed-up-looking fins, gashes, and mysterious black streaks.

    According to the story, the evidence is largely circumstantial and hardly conclusive. However, if suspicions prove out, “it could mean that the environmental damage to the Gulf from the BP disaster is still unfolding and the picture isn't as rosy as it might have seemed just a year ago.

    “And the damage may extend well beyond fish. In the past year, research has emerged showing deep-water coral, seaweed beds, dolphins, mangroves and other species of plants and animals are suffering.”

    You can read the entire story here.
    KC's View:
    I hate to say it, but none of this surprises me. It strikes me as entirely logical that the kind of environmental disaster that hit the Gulf two years ago would create long-term problems, and they are coming to fruition now. And I have no problem believing that only BP - and apologists for BP - would suggest otherwise.

    Published on: April 20, 2012

    Bloomberg reports that the investment community seems underwhelmed by Tesco CEO Philip Clarke’s stated intention to give the company’s US operation, Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, until February 2014 to gain traction and start making money.

    According to the story, Tesco says that after four years of operation, only 30 of its 186 US stores are profitable, though 118 are “very close.”

    “ We’ve laid out precisely what we see the measures of success are, and that is more stores getting to shop-floor profitability,” Clarke said at a press conference this week. “When we get there, we will say some more about it.” But investors remain unimpressed and more than a little skeptical.

     “Because it’s such a unique business, because it’s got such extraordinary capabilities, because the market opportunity is real, I feel we need to persuade our investors we can get there,” Clarke said. And, Bloomberg writes, Clarke “remains adamant he can make the business work, citing economic turmoil on the West Coast for delays to profitability.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 20, 2012

    • The Boston Herald reports that a new website has launched that “is hoping to spread the power of Priceline-style negotiating to all online retail purchases. Netotiate allows consumers to compare prices online and then make a participating merchant an offer.”

    Essentially, Netotiate wants to bring the haggling process online by eliminating some of the uncomfortable back-and-forth that can take place.

    The Herald writes that the site allows shoppers “to make an offer anonymously, and avoids the ‘ping-pong effect’ of haggling by limiting the number of counter-offers a merchant can make to three, all of which must be made at once. Those counteroffers can include some combination of a price and incentives such as accessories, a coupon on future purchases, free or upgraded shipping or a lower discount for buying multiple items.”

    • Insightful quote in Advertising Age, from Jonah Peretti, founder and CEO of social-focused news site Buzzfeed, talking about how businesses need to approach social media...

    “We started thinking it's a game or an algorithm when really it's about humans and what we want to share and making things that are worth sharing. Understanding the social web doesn't mean [just] being smart. Too often we'll sit in a conference room and brainstorm the smartest strategy and try to find the smartest person to figure out how to get stuff to work on Facebook and Twitter."

    He adds that it is about "looking at a piece of content and saying, 'If I saw this on my Facebook wall would I click it, would I have an emotion, would I laugh and then would I want to share it with other people. And when I share it with other people would it make me look like I'm a good person or look smart or would it make me look a jerk?’”
    KC's View:
    I have a dog in this hunt, but I utterly agree with the sentiment. Content is not about algorithms. It is about hearts and souls and minds ... and the most compelling content is the kind that appeals to all three. There are companies out there that put out content, but there is no intelligence behind it ... no sense of context or understanding ... and at least from my perspective, it looks like painting by numbers. It is an approach, I believe, to be avoided.

    Published on: April 20, 2012

    Starbucks announced yesterday, under pressure from vegetarians, that it no longer will use cochineal coloring derived from crushed bugs, a practice that recently was adopted as the company sought to move away from artificial colorings. Instead, the company said, it will begin using a tomato based ingredient to color several products including its strawberry Frappuccinos.
    KC's View:
    The real lesson here is not about cochineal coloring vs. artificial coloring. The real lesson is about how people can, marshaling the power of modern communications tools, create change, even at a powerhouse marketer, in relatively short order.

    Published on: April 20, 2012

    National Public Radio reports that just six months after the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) lifted its ban on the slaughtering of horses for human consumption, a New Mexico rancher has applied for an application to reopen a former beef slaughterhouse as a place that would turn horses into food.

    That said, the story notes that “the meat would be exported to Mexico, one of many countries where eating horsemeat is nothing to flick your tail at. Horse is also eaten frequently in Europe and Asia. And the Canadian grocery chain Metro lists 22 recipes for horse meat on its website.”

    No sign that horsemeat is likely to become popular - or even widely available - in the US, where the consumption of horses has never been embraced by the general population.
    KC's View:
    Let’s face it. We think of horses, we think of Trigger. Silver. Scout. And all those other horses from those thrilling days of yesteryear when all a man really needed was a good horse, a comfortable saddle, and a prairie to ride.

    I have to admit, though, that while it is hard for me to imagine eating horse, I was caught off guard when I saw in the NPR story that horse apparently tastes a little like kangaroo. Fact is, I’ve had kangaroo. In Australia. And I liked it a lot. (Waltzing Matilda, anyone?)

    So maybe one man’s horse is another man’s kangaroo...

    Published on: April 20, 2012

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

    • The Denver Business Journal reports that there is speculation in the investment community that Safeway could be a takeover target = and that Kroger is a potential suitor.

    According to the story, “Safeway’s heavy debt load and pension obligations could be hurdles to a buyout. And Wall Street participants have long speculated that Safeway could spin off its successful Blackhawk Network prepaid card business. Blackhawk sold more than $6 billion worth of prepaid cards through 80,000 retail sites in 2011, taking a small commission on each.

    “Any Safeway buyout will leave some feeling like they’ve seen this movie before. The grocer was acquired in a hotly contested leveraged buyout by KKR in 1986. The grocer’s robust cash flows and real estate holdings would be attractive to private equity firms, which are sometimes called financial buyers.”

    I’m no expert at such things, but I simply cannot imagine that Kroger could buy Safeway without creating all sorts of antitrust problems, which would result in a large part of the company being sold off. If I’m wrong, though, I’m sure folks in the MNB community will point it out...

    • The St. Louis Business Journal reports that Schnuck Markets plans to open two new stores in Springfield, Illinois, which will double its presence in the area.

    Schnuck Markets currently operates 100 stores and 95 in-store pharmacies in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa.

    • The Associated Press reports that “CVS Caremark Corp. will pay nearly $14 million to settle California claims that it illegally disposed of hazardous waste at California stores ... The $13.75 million settlement will be shared by prosecutors, fire and environmental health departments from some 45 cities and counties.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 20, 2012

    Levon Helm, who sang with The Band and contributed memorable performances of songs such as “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” who would go onto a solo career, endure a bout of throat cancer, and yet still continue to make music with a weathered and somehow quintessentially American voice that could reflected elements of the blues, country and rock and roll, died yesterday of cancer. He was 71.
    KC's View:
    One of my favorite albums, and one that I always have played with regularity, is “Before The Flood,” the live album that Bob Dylan and The Band recorded in 1974. I’m listening to it right just seemed like the right thing to do. (It was Dylan’s song, but somehow “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” seemed like an appropriate song to listen to this morning.)

    It's gettin' dark, too dark for me to see
    I feel like I'm knockin' on heaven's door...

    In addition, Helm is the narrator of one of my favorite movies - The Right Stuff. You can watch the opening scene here ... and I don’t know how one doesn’t get goosebumps. (Those opening eight minutes are among my favorite in the movies.)

    I love that voice.

    Published on: April 20, 2012

    ...will return.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 20, 2012

    Robert B. Parker’s iconic Boston-based private detective, Spenser, returns on May 1 in a new novel, “Lullaby,” (G.P. Putnam - $26.95) written by Ace Atkins as he continues the 40+ book series that many of us worried had ended when Parker passed away unexpectedly in January 2010.

    The good news is that Atkins - who has written a number of mystery novels, including “The Ranger,” which I loved - is a real writer who very much up to the task. He has created a Spenser book that goes a long way toward capturing Parker’s musical phrasing as well as his sardonic yet hopeful world view.

    “Lullaby”captures the flavor of Parker’s novels without being too imitative, and allows characters that have become old friends to many of us to continue.  To me, "Lullaby" seemed like Parker’s novels of perhaps 20 years ago…not quite as minimalist as they later became.  (This is not a bad thing.) One of the early reviews I read suggested that Atkins kept the series going without breaking new ground (not entirely true, since we found stuff out about Hawk never before revealed), but I think he did what he had to do with his first effort, and it'll be interesting to see how he moves forward from here. And it was fun to catch the subtle nods to the fact that the books are in new hands now.

    “Lullaby” starts as most great Spenser novels have begun. He’s in his office, drinking coffee, munching on a doughnut, musing about the weather or the Red Sox or the music playing on the stereo, when a client walks in. In this case, the client is a young girl who wants Spenser to investigate the years-ago murder of her mother; she’s convinced that while someone has been convicted or the crime and imprisoned, the real killer remains at large. From there, we are off on an adventure that revisits old characters from earlier novels, ventures into Boston neighborhoods both mean and refined, and offers the customary crackling dialogue and repartee. (I loved the Boston flavor that Atkins - a child of the south - managed to give the book. I didn’t know, for example, that Sam Adams Brick Red is a beer that one can only get on tap in certain Boston restaurants along the Patriot Trail. I have some work to do next time I go to Boston.)

    Atkins isn’t one hundred percent of the way there yet ... but “Lullaby” is a legitimate Spenser novel and a new beginning for the series. Go down to your local bookstore on May 1 and buy it, or order it now from

    I’m already looking forward to the next one. The world, as Spenser might say, is filled with possibility.

    I have a couple of wonderful white wines to recommend to you this week...

    • theFrancis Coppola Director’s 2009 Sonoma County Chardonnay , which is rich and full and my idea of a great chardonnay.

    • the 2010 Abraxas from Robert Sinskey Vineyards ... a blend of pinot gris, pinot blanc, gewürztraminer, riesling that is really something special.

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

    KC's View:

    Published on: April 20, 2012

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    KC's View: