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    Published on: December 20, 2012

    This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

    Hi, I'm Kevin Coupe and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

    So, y'think the world is going to end tomorrow?

    I don't.

    It would be too easy. There's so much to be done. The end of the world - predicted by the Mayans to take place on December 21, 2012 - would allow us to avoid responsibility, ignore challenges, to not reach for the stars.

    I've always felt that people who predict or look forward to the apocalypse very often are people for whom life in the real world is just too hard. Not in the financial sense, though that may be the case in some circumstances. But just believing that the next life has to be better than this one, so they look forward to the end, hoping for a new beginning.

    I've never believed that. If there is a next life, I think that each of us will get the next life we deserve, and that determination will be made based on what we did with this life. And so, we have to make this world the best we can - loving and fair, compassionate and just, peaceful and prosperous.

    I think about that as we approach Christmas and the beginning of the new year. I think of it as so many people deal with the impact of last week's slaughter of innocent children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which has cast a pall on the holidays.

    And I remembered a speech that was written by Aaron Sorkin and put in the mouth of Martin Sheen's President Jed Bartlet, for an episode of "The West Wing" in which a pipe bomb went off at a college, killing innocents, and that some people were killed running into the fire, hoping to rescue those who were trapped there. And he said this:

    "The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They're our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you and God bless the United States of America."

    Here's hoping that in the coming year, what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" are able to achieve some level of peace and justice and love here at home.

    Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

    KC's View:

    Published on: December 20, 2012

    by Kevin Coupe

    Maybe I've just been delusional or colossally misinformed, but I've always sort of worked on the assumption that certain elements were in plentiful supply and that we'd never really have to worry about their availability.

    Not so.

    According to the New York Times this morning, we now are enduring as global helium shortage that means, quite simply, that there are fewer balloons in the air these days and less ability for people to make themselves sound like Alvin the Chipmunk.

    According to the story, "A global helium shortage has turned the second-most abundant element in the universe (after hydrogen) into a sought-after scarcity, disrupting its use in everything from party balloons and holiday parade floats to M.R.I. machines and scientific research.

    "In years past, there have been periodic shortages of helium — in 1958, the giant balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade were filled with air instead of helium and hoisted onto trucks — but physicists, industry experts and federal officials said that this year’s shortage had been one of the worst, for its duration and scale."

    Go figure. Not only are we experiencing a global helium shortage, but this isn;t even the first global experience that has taken place.

    I learn something every day.

    And because I assume that, like me, you may be curious about why this shortage exists, let's go back to the Times story:

    "The shortage is the result of a complex interplay between commercial gas companies and the federal government, which maintains an underground helium reserve northwest of downtown Amarillo that produces roughly 30 percent of the world’s helium.

    "Experts say the shortage has many causes. Because helium is a byproduct of natural gas extraction, a drop in natural gas prices has reduced the financial incentives for many overseas companies to produce helium. In addition, suppliers’ ability to meet the growing demand for helium has been strained by production problems around the world. Helium plants that are being built or are already operational in Qatar, Algeria, Wyoming and elsewhere have experienced a series of construction delays or maintenance troubles."

    Go figure.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 20, 2012

    There is a long (4,000 words) and fascinating piece in the Allentown Morning Call about how is dealing with human resources-related issues in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley ... and how those issues are not painting the e-commerce giant in the most charitable light.

    An excerpt:

    "Its relationship with Amazon has made Integrity Staffing Solutions the biggest temporary-employment firm in the Lehigh Valley and one of the fastest-growing agencies of its kind in the country.

    "Part of its role is fighting to keep its workers from collecting unemployment benefits after they have lost a job at Amazon.

    "Integrity Staffing Solutions is involved in more unemployment compensation appeal hearings — hundreds per year — than almost all other employers in Pennsylvania, according to a state source with access to the confidential records. It even surpasses Walmart, the state's largest private-sector employer that has more than 50,000 workers in Pennsylvania, the source said.

    "In the first nine months of 2012, Integrity Staffing Solutions was involved in more than 200 unemployment compensation appeals, the source said. No other temporary-staffing firm in Pennsylvania comes close to that number.

    "The practice reveals one of the ways Amazon keeps costs down and one tactic used by a temporary staffing firm to win Amazon's continued business. Large employers such as Amazon can bid temporary firms against one another, forcing them to look for ways to contain costs, industry experts said.

    "The pressure to keep costs down means many who take temporary jobs at an Amazon warehouse hoping it will result in long-term stability and independence instead find themselves jobless and fighting for a public benefit that represents their last financial resort."

    Also at issue - the conditions under which these warehouse employees are laboring, which some describe as being oppressive and exploitive.

    You can read the entire story here.
    KC's View:
    Thanks to the MNB reader who brought this story to my attention, suggesting that while Walmart gets a lot of critical press, Amazon gets a measure of it as well.

    Published on: December 20, 2012

    Bloomberg reports that Andy Clarke, CEO of Walmart-owned Asda Group in the UK, is pushing the government there - so far unsuccessfully - to allow stores to stay open later than usually permitted on Sunday, December 23, the last Sunday before Christmas.

    Normally in the UK, stores larger than 3,000 square feet are allowed to only be open for six hours on Sundays. Those rules were relaxed during the London Olympics, but the government has been steadfast in saying that an adjustment would not be permitted during the holidays.

    According to the piece, "This summer’s relaxation of the law for the Olympics received a mixed response from retailers. J Sainsbury Plc CEO Justin King said this year that customers told him they preferred to keep Sunday special with limited shopping hours."

    Forbes has a story saying that while Walmart is spending a lot of time and money dealing with charges that it bribed its way to fast-track expansion in Mexico, which if true would put the retailer at odds with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, it is unlikely to have much impact on US consumers' attitudes toward the company.

    Experts say that Walmart has endured its share of criticisms over the years, for things like hiring practices, discrimination, health care and anti-union attitudes. These things may impact how consumers feel about Walmart, but they'll still go there to buy something that is on sale at a great price ... in part because of the price, and in part because Walmart's ubiquity often makes it the only place in town to acquire the item.
    KC's View:
    Does this make Walmart too big to fail?

    As for the Sunday shopping rules in the UK ... it occurs to me that these are the kinds of rules that inevitably will have to be changed, if only because online retailers aren't restricted from operating, and it gives them yet one more advantage over bricks-and-mortar retailers. And if Sainsbury wants to keep Sundays special, let it do so. I'm sure Tesco would be happy to serve the Sainsbury customers who do want to shop longer Sunday hours.

    Published on: December 20, 2012

    Internet Retailer reports that Staples Inc. has opened its e-commerce-focused Velocity Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, describing it as a facility that "will help the office supplies chain develop e-retail and mobile commerce programs." Staples, the story notes, "has set a goal of tripling the size of its e-commerce and information technology staff by 2014."
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 20, 2012

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

    • The Raleigh News & Observer has a story about how retailers get people to buy during the holiday season: "Retailers have long played Christmas music, knowing it not only inspires holiday cheer but can also impact how long and how often shoppers browse. But research within the past decade, including a new study by Washington State University researchers, has found that combining tunes with simple, store-appropriate smells could help retailers increase sales even more."

    Indeed, a recent study "found that simple scents boost buying the most. For 18 days, the researchers watched more than 400 customers in a home-decorations store as the air held different scents — orange-basil blended with green tea, simple orange and no particular scent at all. The 100 who shopped with the simple scent spent 20 percent more money, the researchers found."

    CNBC reports that Toys R Us CEO Gerald Storch is saying that after a shopping lull following Black Friday, he expects the coming weekend - the last before Christmas - to be extremely busy. "The whole world is expecting it to pick up this weekend heading into Christmas," he says.

    According to the piece, "To ensure consumers have ample opportunity to shop, Toys R Us stores will be open nonstop from 6 am Friday right through 10 pm on Christmas Eve."

    A prediction? Or wishful thinking from a CEO who has struck me as a little out of touch with modern realities? I'm thinking this sounds more like the latter, but we'll see...
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 20, 2012

    • Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia announced that president/CEO Lisa Gersh, who has been with the company for about 18 months, is stepping down. The company is conducting a search for a replacement.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 20, 2012

    • Robert H. Bork, described by the New York Times as "former Solicitor General, federal judge and conservative legal theorist," passed away yesterday of complications related to heart disease. He was 85.

    It was the ultimately unsuccessful nomination by President Ronald Reagan of Bork to the US Supreme Court that, to many people, helped start the era of confrontational and take-no-prisoners politics that endures even today, when getting "borked" is another way of saying that a nominee got rejected for political reasons.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 20, 2012

    On the evening of Monday, January 14, during the annual National Retail Federation (NRF) Show in New York City, MNB will be hosting a special retailer-only reception that is sponsored by Balance Innovations and WorldPay. (Michael Sansolo and I can promise terrific wine and beer, splendid food, and sparkling conversation...and maybe even a cameo appearance by Mrs. Content Guy.)

    If you are a retailer attending NRF, please let me know ASAP (email me at . There are just a few slots left on our retailer-only guest list, and we’d love to have you join us.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 20, 2012

    An MNB user yesterday criticized the media for focusing too much on the Walmart bribery scandal, which prompted another reader to write:

    The issue at hand is the conduct of Wal-Mart.  The person who made the comment about probing others because they might be guilty of similar misconduct is simply deflecting the issue.  Wal-Mart, one of the largest companies in the world, has reportedly made one of the biggest legal blunders in recent business history.  Fairness demands a thorough investigation by all concerned which includes the appropriate federal agencies as well as the media.

    We had a story earlier this week about Hasbro was going to bring out a gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven, which while a good idea, struck me as a little late in the game.

    One MNB user wrote:

    Last week, my son (age 46) did a public call out thank you on FaceBook to me, his mother, for talking my husband into acquiescing to his Christmas request at the age of 4 for the Suzy Homemaker Easy Bake Oven.  [Of course, it helped that he was also asking for Fort Apache.]  The call out was a result of his reading about the petition you reference for a gender neutral version of this oven.  My son remarked in the post that the irony was that his Dad became more involved in cooking as the children grew up.  Anyway, the result was hours and hours of fun spent baking w/the oven.  My son grew up into an absolutely incredible cook and cooks/bakes w/his kids everyday.  It all started w/this oven.

    Good for him.

    Regarding IGA's decision to return to South Africa, one MNB user wrote:

    IGA South Africa started in in the late 90’s, but really didn’t get necessary traction to compete when modern trade retailers were building their presence in & around townships. Historians would say this had a lot to do with the wholesaler (Metro C&C) but in reality there was little differentiation between IGA and other banners.

    It’s hard to fathom how IGA will differentiate itself, competing against Shoprite & Massmart’s own brands that do very well. This feels like a repeat of Tesco F&E to me….

    We had a piece yesterday about how there is an online petition circulating to get regulators to ban the sale of lion meat for human consumption. I had no idea this was even an issue ... but apparently it is.

    I commented yesterday:

    The question I keep asking myself is whether, if I were in a restaurant serving lion tacos, I would order them.

    For better or worse, the answer probably is yes. But I'd do so with the fervent hope that I was not eating Simba.

    (Years ago when my kids were little, I went on a trip to Stockholm and, for the first time in my life, ate reindeer. Which was really good. But my kids were horrified when I told them about the meal, and reported that when I was almost finished, I found this little red bulb at the bottom of the plate...)

    One MNB user responded:

    As a very frequent traveler to South Africa, I have very rarely seen lion meat on the menu in any eatery.  We see a lot of what the lion eats on the menu, but not lion (or leopard) meat.   Good marketing effort by someone – but won’t it just taste like chicken?

    From another reader:

    Go on safari, see these creatures in the wild, and I think you might lose your appetite for lion.  They, like many of the animals in Africa, are endangered.  Look into this female’s eyes. Perhaps if you don’t eat her, she won’t eat you. Fair enough bargain?

    Rhinos are projected to be extinct in 7 years as they are worth $500,000 dead, just for their horns, in Asia, where they are believed to have medicinal value (scientifically proven false) and as a status aphrodisiac.

    I signed the lion petition a while ago. Please, skip the lion burger…do you want to eat the last lion on the planet?  Caribou may be farmed, so no issues there. Enjoy your burger, with or without the rubbery red nose.

    Wait a minute. Perhaps if you don’t eat her, she won’t eat you...

    I'm perfectly willing to make that deal. But you might not get the lion to sign on the dotted line...

    And MNB user Robin Russell wrote:

    It is so OLD SCHOOL to brag about being a carnivore!!   Eating Simba and Rudolph?  Not funny.   You're more hip than that.

    Thanks ... but let's not overestimate how hip I am.

    Finally, yesterday we had a story about how Fresh & Easy had picked a new reusable bag design created by a customer, and I joked that now that Fresh & Easy has a reusable bag, what it needs now is returnable customers.

     MNB user Marcia Wiener wrote:

    New Fresh and Easy reusable bag….a guaranteed collector’s edition for sure!  Wonder how much that’ll get on eBay?

    More in a few months, I'd guess.

    But another MNB user thought I was being a little uncharitable, especially considering the season...

    Kevin, I find it not only an unfortunate truth that F&E didn’t work out in the US, but also unfortunate that you go with a “kick them while they are down” view.  Let’s not forget there are people behind this target of yours who have invested and put at risk a lot into trying to make this company work, people with families that now have uncertain futures.  So Happy Holidays Kevin, and may you have better Karma than what your cynicism at times emulates...

    C'mon, now. It was a little joke. We kid because we love.
    KC's View: