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    Published on: June 4, 2013

    by Michael Sansolo

    Back in my college days I landed a plum summer job in the accounting office of a travel wholesaler. Though I felt more than capable of doing the work, there was one key skill I had to learn really, really fast: how to work an adding machine without looking at the keys.

    Until I could do that, I was pretty much incompetent. (A lesson that caused me to seriously study typing - keyboarding - to help with my one time newspaper career.)

    Luckily for my bosses at both the travel wholesaler and newspaper, I understood the importance of those basic keyboarding skills. It was a lucky realization for me because without those basic skills I might not have kept either job.

    Today I worry that there are some basic skills that aren’t talked about near enough that will handicap companies and individuals.

    Last week, Kevin ran an interesting article about how young people have no idea how to address a letter. That’s an interesting shortcoming, but honestly it’s one that I doubt will stop any career in its tracks. The mail isn’t that important anymore and there is a template for letters and labels in Microsoft Word for exactly this reason.

    But the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! Finance ran a story about an even bigger issue for today’s workers that no template, app or wizard could fix. And it’s one that had better quickly become part of every training session.

    It’s simple: how to make eye contact.

    Let’s start by getting over the age thing because I don’t think this is a problem for generations X or Y exclusively. Parents and bosses have probably emphasized attentive greetings and eye-to-eye contact for millennia and many young people (me included) have struggled to learn the lesson.

    Today the challenge of eye contact is greater than ever because now we all have smart phone vibrations reminding us that someone or something else needs attention. It’s not just vibrations reminding us of Tweets, texts and e-mails. Today we even steal a glance at the phone to get the time since fewer of us than ever are wearing watches.

    That’s bad for connections and that makes it bad for business.

    In this distracted environment eye contact is becoming ever more important. The Journal article, which you can read here, said adults make eye contact anywhere from 30% to 60% of the time in conversation, when 60-70% is what’s necessary for true connections. The better the eye contact, the better the focus and the impact of your words.

    The article demonstrates that eye contact is actually a fairly complex task. In group discussions, the speaker should limit eye contact to 3 or 5 seconds per person compared to seven to 10 seconds in one-on-one conversation. Just as too little eye contact can communicate disinterest or worse, too much can also become a little creepy.

    Likewise, the type of strong eye contact welcome in some cultures is seen as disrespectful and unwelcome by others cultures. In short, this is complex stuff. And that’s why it matters so much at every level of industry - from the store floor to the executive suite. It’s why this needs to become a staple of training because it’s a skill that’s under increased assault with every new app.

    In many ways, the power of eye contact might matter more today than ever because we are more distracted than ever. So while it might make sense to emphasize this skill to younger staffers we need to keep in mind that it’s not just 20-somethings who have the Pavlovian response to pull out their smart phone at the first vibration.

    Competitive advantage can come anywhere - even knowing how to go eye-to eye.

    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: June 4, 2013 reports that Tesco is considering a mobile smartphone application that will be able to give consumers nutritional advice about products they are considering even before they buy them ... by taking advantage of GPS systems that would set off alarms if a person goes near a department that he or she should avoid for health's sake.

    Tesco CEO Philip Clarke says that the system would be pegged to the company's existing frequent shopper data: "The information provided by Clubcard is invaluable. Our customers have told us they’d like help in choosing healthy options, so on an individual level, we want to see whether customers would welcome tailored suggestions for how they could shop more healthily. Customers would need to opt in of course, but we think it could be a really innovative way of highlighting those healthier options."
    KC's View:
    It is an interesting idea, but it better be "opt in."

    Also, I'm not sure how it will affect Tesco's relationships with certain suppliers if it for practical purposes rigs up alarm bells to go off whenever people with certain nutritional concerns or health issues wander down those aisles...

    But when you think about it, the concept is the next logical step from programs like NuVal and Guiding Stars.

    Published on: June 4, 2013

    The New York Times reports that the Connecticut State legislature has approved by a vote of 134-3 a bill that would require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients. Gov. Dannel Molloy is expected to sign the bill.

    However, the legislation will only take effect if "four other states, at least one of which shares a border with Connecticut, passed similar regulations. The Connecticut bill also hinges on those states including Northeastern states with a total population of at least 20 million."

    The story goes on to say that "more than 20 other states are considering labeling laws, including New York, Maine and Vermont." Connecticut is the first state to pass such a law.
    KC's View:
    In a lot of ways, this is legislation with a lot of common sense. Connecticut is not forcing manufacturers to come up with labels just for its residents, but it is making a statement of intent and clearing the way for other states to take the same approach. And since I a) live in Connecticut for the moment, and b) am in favor of such labeling as being an important distinction in a transparent society, I think this is a pretty good approach.

    Published on: June 4, 2013

    Yet another factory disaster in the developing world, as at least 120 people have died in a fire that swept through a poultry processing plant in northeastern China, yet another example of questionable and inadequate safety procedures in countries outside the US.

    According to the New York Times, "Chinese news reports said many of the workers who had died had been hindered from leaving the factory, the Baoyuanfeng Poultry Plant, because the exits had been blocked or inadequate. The plant began operations four years ago and was considered a major domestic poultry supplier."

    New reports out of China said that the people responsible for the deaths have been arrested, but there was no further information.

    Over the past few months there have been major disasters in places like Bangladesh, where a building collapse killed more than a thousand people, and Cambodia, where a ceiling collapse killed several workers and injured at least a dozen more.
    KC's View:
    The whole reason this factory seems to exist is to churn out as much poultry as possible for a country that is hungry for chicken. Not that there's a direct connection, but the whole reason that a different Chinese company wants to acquire Smithfield is to churn out as much pork as possible for a country that is hungry for it.

    I'm not saying there is a connection. I'm just saying that it gives me pause.

    Published on: June 4, 2013

    The Los Angeles Times reports that Walmart has "unveiled a new initiative to speed up delivery of farm-grown goods from the fields to shelves by trimming many of its middlemen and buying 80% of its produce directly from local growers.

    "The strategy strips out the time needed for third-party wholesalers to consolidate produce from farms before sending it off to the dozens of regional Wal-Mart distribution centers.

    "In many cases, executives said, fruits and vegetables will arrive at least a day earlier in the chain’s thousands of stores. The retailer will also be able to better manage its inventory levels, hewing more closely to demand instead of overstocking produce."

    Walmart says that it now receives "local produce from in-state growers in every US state where it operates, is “well on its way" to doubling its produce sales of local produce between 2010 and 2015, is hiring 70,000 produce experts nationally who will be charged with keeping its fruit and vegetable selections in good shape, and is reiterating its policy of offering a money-back guarantee for "fresh grocery goods without requiring customers to bring back the products."

    Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of the grocery division for Wal-Mart U.S., told a press conference that when it comes to staffing levels - something for which the retailer has been roundly criticized of late for allowing its ranks to get too thin - the chain has “exactly the right people in exactly the right place ... We feel in pretty good shape at the moment."
    KC's View:
    Walmart is, of course, about to host its annual shareholders meeting. Making pronouncements like these is one way to get the media to be thinking about positives, instead of negatives like international bribery scandals.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that.

    Published on: June 4, 2013

    The Financial Times reports that Aurélie Filippetti, France's minister of culture, has made attacking Amazon for being a "quasi-monopoly" part of her portfolio of complaints about internet-based companies.

    According to the story, Filippetti calls Amazon a "destroyer of bookshops," and says, "Today, everyone has had enough of Amazon which, through dumping practices, smashes prices to penetrate markets to then raise prices again once they are in a situation of quasi-monopoly."

    Filippetti reportedly has said that the French government may consider outlawing free shipping by internet companies and even the discounting of books by online retailers.

    The story goes on to say that "Her attack on the US company followed a veto last month by Arnaud Montebourg, the leftwing industry minister, of a proposed acquisition by Yahoo, the web portal, of a 75 per cent stake in DailyMotion, a fast growing French video sharing site owned by France Telecom.

    "In April, the digital industries minister labelled Apple "extremely brutal" for excluding a French start-up from its App Store, complaining that the US company had acted unethically."
    KC's View:
    Sacre bleu!

    I get that the French may be experiencing some economic issues these days, but denying the allure of the internet economy doesn't seem like a very smart way to get things jump-started.

    And if Apple decided not to deal with a French start-up company, maybe it has something to do with not wanting to deal with the imbécile running the French ministry of culture.

    (Though the good news is that just writing that sentence made me go to YouTube to watch the Monty Python sketch about the Ministry of Silly Walks, which seems just about as reasonable as something that ought to be called the Ministry of Stopping the Internet.)

    Published on: June 4, 2013

    The Washington Post reports on a new smartphone application that "allows shoppers to compare prices at nearby grocery stores before ever setting foot out the door ... The app uses a smartphone’s global positioning technology to find nearby supermarkets and grocery store," and then compares posted prices so that consumers know where to go for the lowest prices.

    The app, called PriceSpotting, will both pull prices for store websites and develop a personalized database based on product codes that have been scanned by the consumer. In other words, it will know that a shopper bought milk, butter, eggs, cereal and cookies because he or she has scanned that data into the phone, and then will be able to research and compare prices on them instantly, giving the shopper the ability to more efficiently cherry-pick them from stores.
    KC's View:
    Somehow, this doesn't sound completely new, though if it works as advertised, it may automate the process a but for consumers.

    But let's ignore the app for a moment. Let's examine the whole "cherry picking" impulse ... which basically consists of consumers going from store to store to buy products that are on sale, which they do because stores have taught them, through the relentless use of price promotions, that this is what they should do.

    What the development of apps like these teaches us, I think, is the importance of developing key products and services that differentiate stores from other other stores - that are advantages that cannot be replicated or cherry-picked. If you tell the customers that you are all about price, price, price, then that's how customers will respond.

    But if you teach customers that while you are sharp on price, you also are really good at this service or are the only retailer who offers this product, then you are encouraging them to cherry-buy, not cherry-pick. Which may have a bigger impact on the bottom line than all those sales.

    Apps like this one are always going to exist, and always are going to get better and more precise. Shoppers are going to like them and use them. Which is fine.

    If I were a retailer, I think my strategic goal would be to make an app like PriceSpotting irrelevant to my core, best shoppers. Because they'd be making their decisions based on addition, not subtraction.

    Published on: June 4, 2013

    USA Today reports that there is a online photo that has gone viral showing a Taco Bell employee licking a stack of 25 empty taco shells, a situation that " is eerily reminiscent of a video from 2009 that a Domino's Pizza employee posted of another worker putting pizza cheese into his nose and blowing mucous on a sandwich. The unfortunate message to consumers: Unhappy fast-food employees will do disgusting things to the food they sell."

    The story says that Taco Bell's response to the picture has been to say that the shells were only used for training purposes and never were served to customers, and that "we are working with the franchisee to take appropriate action against everyone involved." It will not disclose where the franchisee was, nor what actions were taken against the employee.
    KC's View:
    Could have been worse. The company could have said that the employee was in fact showing affection for the food by giving it a big French kiss.

    For the record ... it is a pretty good bet that the location of the franchisee and the name of the offending employee will be a matter of public record fairly quickly. So not offering up that info only creates the impression that you're hiding something.

    As for "appropriate action," how about having the employee shot? Or having his tongue cut out? Or, if this somehow seems too harsh, having him eat 25 Taco Bell tacos in one sitting, all of which have been licked by random customers? (For me, having to eat one Taco Bell taco would be punishment enough...)

    Published on: June 4, 2013

    USA Today reports this morning that United Airlines, looking for yet another new fee that it can charge customers, "will begin selling 'subscriptions' for a year's worth of certain fees ... The yearly subscriptions begin at $349 for checked baggage or $499 for an Economy Plus subscription that would give fliers access to United's most-spacious coach seats."

    Here's how the story describes the new fee structure:

    "Customers who choose the cheapest checked baggage subscription will be able to travel for one year without paying for up to one checked-bag for flights within the mainland USA and Canada. The $349 rises to $399 for two checked bags.
    Customers can pay more if they want included other regions.

    "Customers who want to include all flights within North and Central America — including Hawaii and Alaska — will have to pay $449 for a year subscription for one bag or $499 for two bags. A global checked-luggage subscription costs $799 and includes two bags.

    "United customers also can pay extra to bundle traveling companions into their subscriptions. United is charging $100 extra for subscriptions that cover a one traveling companion or an extra $200 to for up eight companions traveling as part of the subscriber's reservation.

    "So, for example, the total cost of a full-year subscription that includes global flight coverage, two checked bags and one traveling companion would come in at $899."

    And they haven't even booked a flight yet.
    KC's View:
    In some ways, I find this to be outrageous. And a little redundant. After all, to justify paying some of these fees up front, you'd have to be a fairly frequent flyer. And if you are that frequent a flyer, you may qualify for these benefits for free. (Plus, as someone with a million miles flown on United, it always sort of annoys me that someone can just write a check and buy the benefits that I've earned ... somehow, it devalues the loyalty I've shown and that they're supposed to be showing me.)

    That said ... this seems like United's version of Amazon Prime. Once you pay the sub fee, you are far less likely to fly any other airline, because you're already invested in United. And the more you fly United, the lower these per-flight fees work out to be. Which is smart.

    Published on: June 4, 2013

    MarketWatch reports that a German union is calling for Amazon employees there "to strike over wages and benefits for the third time in a month.

    "The union asked 3,300 employees in Bad Hersfeld and about 2,000 workers in Leipzig to strike for collective bargaining remedies for vacation and Christmas benefits, as well as extra pay for working nights, Sundays or holidays. At present, Amazon uses its own pay scale instead of adopting industry-wide wage agreements."

    The first two strikes, apparently, did not work. Amazon has defended itself, saying that its employees "earn toward the upper end of the pay scale compared to other logistics companies."
    KC's View:

    Published on: June 4, 2013

    • Tyson Foods said yesterday that it is acquiring the assets of Circle Foods, described as a California-based "producer of frozen and refrigerated handheld
    Mexican foods, uncooked tortillas and Indian flatbreads," which the company says will "accelerate the strategic expansion of its value-added foods portfolio."

    Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    • The San Francisco Chronicle reports that 30 people in five states have contracted hepatitis A, a contagious liver disease, after consuming a frozen berry mix made by Townsend Farms and sold at Costco.

    The states involved are California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

    No fatalities have been reported, and the story notes that "vaccination within 14 days of exposure to the virus can prevent the disease from developing."

    • The National Grocers Association (NGA) said yesterday that it has retailed the food safety expert Gale Prince to "provide expert resources on food safety issues to the Association and its members." NGA members will receive exclusive access to Prince's expertise, including "access to members-only webinars on important food safety topics that impact their businesses and customers."

    • The Associated Press reports that the US Department of the Treasury, which regulates the sale of alcoholic beverages in this country, "said this past week that beer, wine and spirits companies can use labels that include serving size, servings per container, calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat per serving. Such package labels have never before been approved.

    "The labels are voluntary, so it will be up to beverage companies to decide whether to use them on their products."

    The Treasury Department is said to be considering final rules about alcohol labeling ... and has been since 2007.
    KC's View: