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    Published on: October 3, 2014

    by Kevin Coupe

    Today marks the end of an era - a short but happy era - in Chicago sausage retailing.

    Hot Doug's, a Chicago institution for a little over a decade, selling sausage made from such meats as kangaroo, boar and rattlesnake - and well as french fries cooked in duck fat - is closing its doors.

    Owner Doug Sohn has said that it simply was time to move on. Since he made the announcement last May, longtime customers have been lining up, sometimes even waiting overnight, to get one last taste - or tastes - of Hot Doug's unique offerings.

    To be honest, I've never had the chance to eat there. But my kids have, and they swear that they had some of the best meals of their lives at Hot Doug's.

    I hope Sohn finds something else to do that can capture the imagination and loyalty of so many people. Because, in the end, that's what wonderful food is capable of - it ignites the imagination, lifts our spirits, makes us happy, and even brings us together … even if it is just on a long line outside a hot dog joint on N. California Avenue….

    It's an Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 3, 2014

    Time has a piece about Walmart's new Bentonville, Arkansas, experiment - a click-and-collect grocery concept called Walmart Pickup - Grocery that allows consumers to order online and pick up their groceries at a depot attached to a small warehouse.

    An excerpt:

    "By launching the concept, Walmart joins a long list of grocery services all created with the common goal of basically eliminating the need to 'go' grocery shopping by actually strolling through store aisles. We’re talking about online grocery delivery options from the likes of Amazon and Instacart, as well as drive-thru and pickup services akin to what Walmart is doing, via more established players such as Relay Foods and Peapod, which work with local supermarkets and often also offer delivery. For all of the above, the big selling point is convenience, saving shoppers the time and hassle involved in the boring but necessary task of gathering of groceries.

    "Walmart is only testing the service in one location, but the move is noteworthy nonetheless because it’s the world’s largest retailer here dipping its toes into what many see as the future of grocery shopping. And rest assured that Walmart is learning from the experiment, and that if it’s successful, shoppers will see the pickup option spread around the country."

    You can see a video about the concept here.
    KC's View:
    I've read on various sites that there are some analysts out there who are questioning this test, calling it things like a "head-scratcher." But to me, it would only be head-scratching if Walmart were not testing this and similar concepts.

    Clearly, Walmart is in a transitional phase right now. You can see it in upper management, as new CEO Doug McMillon seems to be in the process of changing the team to reflect his own sensibilities. (Make no mistake, he's a Walmart guy through and through…but he seems to have a somewhat more modern take on retailing.) And that means trying lots of different things, understanding that some will work and some will not.

    If this works - and that admittedly is an "if" - Walmart will be positioned to build these puppies in a lot of parking lots all over the country. It could be a game changer. And it would be foolish for Walmart not to be testing and analyzing all the possibilities…

    Published on: October 3, 2014

    The New York Times reports on another major data hacking incident, this time with JPMorgan Chase saying that a summer cyberattack "compromised more than 76 million household accounts and seven million small-business accounts, making it among the largest corporate hacks ever discovered."

    The story goes on:

    "Hackers were able to burrow deep into JPMorgan’s computer systems, accessing the accounts of more than 90 servers — a breach that underscores just how vulnerable the global financial system is to cybercrime. Until now, most of the largest hack attacks on corporations have been confined to retailers like Target and Home Depot.

    "And unlike those retailers, JPMorgan has far more sensitive financial information about customers. Investigators in law enforcement remain puzzled by the attack on the bank because there was no evidence that the attackers looted any customer money from accounts.

    "The lack of any apparent profit motive has generated speculation among law enforcement officials and security experts that the hackers were sponsored by foreign governments either in Russia or in southern Europe."
    KC's View:
    It may not be "apparent," but the betting here is that the bad guys have a motive. I've read too many novels and seen too many movies to think anything else.

    The bad news is that we're not going to trust any of our retail or financial institutions. The good news is if you are a mattress manufacturer … because sales of those things clearly are going to be going through the roof.

    Published on: October 3, 2014

    The Financial Times is quoting billionaire investor Warren Buffett as saying that his 2007 decision to invest in Tesco, the troubled British retailer, was not his finest moment.

    Buffett reportedly spent more than $2 billion investing in Tesco, at one point having a five percent ownership stake in the company.

    “I made a mistake on Tesco,” he now says. “That was a huge mistake by me.”

    Tesco has been losing share in its home market, sold off its US-based Fresh & Easy business, and now is being investigated for making financial misstatements.

    Buffett is said to have lost more than $800 million on his Tesco adventure.
    KC's View:

    On the other hand, in his recent letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Buffett said that Tesco was the only stock among his biggest 15 holdings to posted a 2013 loss.

    But it still must hurt. A couple of hundred million here, a couple of hundred million there, and pretty soon - as Senator Everett Dirksen once famously said, you're talking about real money…

    Published on: October 3, 2014

    Walgreen Co. and WebMD Health Corp. said yesterday that they plan to work together " to provide WebMD's virtual wellness-coaching programs directly to Walgreens customers.  Walgreens will also incorporate WebMD content on a variety of health topics, co-branded by WebMD and Walgreens, into its digital experience and stores.   Additionally, visitors to WebMD will be able to easily use Walgreens' prescription refill and clinic appointment scheduling options from within the WebMD site on their desktop or mobile device."

    According to the announcement, "Walgreens will incorporate into its digital experience and stores select WebMD content in various topic areas, including: Allergy, Healthy Eating, Skincare, Fitness, Healthy Aging, Emotional Health, Heart Health, Cold & Flu, Sleep, and Oral Health. In addition, WebMD will make Walgreens' online prescription refill and transfer services and Healthcare Clinic appointment scheduling available across WebMD's desktop and mobile offerings."
    KC's View:
    In modern retailing, more often than not, it is about being more than a source of product, but also a resource for information. This meets that test … at least IMNSHO.

    Published on: October 3, 2014

    The Chicago Tribune is reporting that insurance company USAA "has asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to research how drones could be used to improve how it settles claims during natural disasters … the idea would be to use drones that would get into neighborhoods immediately after catastrophes, lessening the need for humans to take on that risk."

    "We believe this research can lead to safer, quicker and more economical claims service for our members and their communities," Kathleen Swain, USAA property and casualty group underwriter and a commercial pilot and flight instructor, said in a prepared statement.

    USAA serves 10.4 million current and former members of the U.S. military and their families.

    The commercial use of drones has been in the news a lot lately, with companies such as Amazon, Google, FedEx and UPS saying they'd like to test the technology for commercial package delivery. While the FAA has been resistant to this application, it has approved the use of drones by film companies to get aerial shots for movies and TV shows.
    KC's View:
    Seems like a pretty good bet here that by January 2016, at least one major retail-driven company, or major delivery company, will be testing put FAA-approved drone flights for shipping commercial goods. It just seems inevitable.

    Published on: October 3, 2014

    • The Chicago Sun Times reports that "Groupon Inc. launched a mobile app Thursday that lets shoppers receive cash back for buying certain grocery products. Shoppers submit pictures of their receipts via the Snap by Groupon app (Android, iOS) and can cash out once their balance reaches $20.

    Advertising Age reports that Mondelez International has agreed to what is being called "a substantial global advertising commitment" to Google.

    According to the story, "As part of the arrangement, Mondelez and Google will partner on content pilots through Youtube's brand partner program. 'Together with global youth media company Fullscreen, Mondelez International is piloting this new model of high-quality, low-cost video content featuring influential digital stars with Sour Patch Kids in the U.S. and is evaluating expanding the approach across brands and geographies,' Mondelez said in a statement.

    "The marketer said the deal is part of its goal to dedicate 10% of its global ad budget to online video in 2014. Terms of the deal, including dollar value, were not disclosed."
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 3, 2014

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

    • The Tampa Bay Times reports that Publix has "tightened its coupon policy … to discourage shoppers from overusing coupons and buying up everything on a shelf.

    "Among the changes, Publix now limits shoppers to using eight of the same coupons per day, per household. It defines a household as a single family, meaning you can't have your 3-year-old hand coupons to the cashier at checkout. The guidelines also limit dollars-off coupons to one Publix and one competitor's coupon per day, per household. All coupons must be original, not copied, and any individual coupon for more than $5 must receive a manager's approval."

    Company officials told the paper that "the changes were made based on customer feedback and research, but declined to elaborate. Even some coupon fans have complained about coupon abuse, which ultimately could result in higher prices for shoppers overall."

    Reuters reports that British supermarket chain Morrisons is launching its first loyalty card program today, "opening up a new front in an escalating price war with a scheme that guarantees to match discounters Aldi and Lidl as well as traditional rivals … The firm said on Thursday its "Match & More" price match and points card will have a phased roll out across the UK, starting on Friday … Under the scheme if a comparable basket of groceries could have been bought for less at one of Tesco, Wal-Mart's Asda, Sainsbury, Aldi and Lidl, Match & More cardholders will automatically get the difference back in points on their card."

    However, CEO Dalton Philips says that the company is not becoming a discounter. "Match & More is about neutralising on price, so that the rest of our offer will really shine through," he says.

    MarketWatch reports that Sears Holdings said "the company expects to generate up to $380 million by selling 40 million common shares of Sears Canada Inc. via a rights offering. The sale will leave Sears with a stake of around 12 million shares, valued at $113 million."

    Sears has been in the process of closing a large number of US stores as a way of cutting down on expenses, and said two weeks ago that it plans to borrow $400 million from the private hedge fund owned by its billionaire CEO, Eddie Lampert.

    In other words, it is looking to generate cash that it can use to survive. Good luck with that.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 3, 2014

    • The Seattle Times is reporting that Sur la Table has replaced its CEO, Jack Schwefel, who had been with the company since 2007, with Diane Neal, who is reported to have "headed Bath & Body Works, a large retailer of beauty products, until 2011, and is a 22-year veteran of Target and Gap. She is on the board of directors at both Abercrombie & Fitch and the Fossil Group."

    The move is said to be a strategic one, as the 119-unit company ramps up for major expansion, especially on the east coast.
    KC's View:
    Some guys like going to Home Depot. Me, I'll take a Sur la Table anytime … I just think it is one of the coolest retail formats out there. (I think it is a lot more accessible than, say, Williams Sonoma.) I think they have to be careful not to expand too fast, lest they lose touch with their core culture. But I'm glad to see that the company is growing.

    Published on: October 3, 2014

    …will return next week. I promise.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 3, 2014

    • In the American League Divisional Series, the Baltimore Orioles trounced the Detroit Tigers 12-3, and the Kansas City Royals defeated the Los Angeles Angels 3-2 in 11 innings. The Orioles and the Royals each have a 1-0 lead in their best-of-five match-ups.

    • In Thursday Night Football action, the Green Bay Packers spanked the Minnesota Vikings, winning 42-14.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 3, 2014

    In some ways it is just another entry in the middle-aged-man-kicks-ass genre that has been popularized of late by Liam Neeson (the Taken movies, Non-Stop), with an assist from Kevin Costner (Three Days To Kill). But The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington, while it has moments of sheer brutality, also manages to bring a different sensibility to the table - a sense of regret that infuses a soulful performance from its star. This is pulp, to be sure, but it is well-done pulp with a noir sensibility.

    In The Equalizer, Washington plays Robert McCall, who would appear to be a former black-ops guy who has left his previous life behind for a more mundane life working in a Home Depot-type store. He's a little OCD about his personal habits and surroundings; he brings a military precision to his life, even helping to train a fellow employee who would like to become a security guard. But McCall has not entirely forgotten his past, and he suffers from chronic insomnia, spending his nights in a 24-hour diner where he sips tea and reads classic books like "The Old Man and the Sea."

    McCall is dragged back into his old life when he takes revenge on a pimp who has beaten up a young prostitute whom McCall had befriended. He thinks it is going to be an isolated incident, but it doesn't work out that way; once those instincts are reawakened, he begins to see around him situations in which underdogs need to be helped and situations that need to be equalized. As McCall takes action, with precision and economy, he does it without any sort of blood lust, but with a sense of a job well done. But when the pimp he kills ends up being part of a group of Russian gangsters, things begin to spin out of control…

    The Equalizer is based on an old TV series, which starred Edward Woodward as a former intelligence agent who helps people in need. It has enough of the original premise to justify keeping the title, but it updates the concept in ways that I think work overall. And Washington is great in the film which is directed by Antoine Fuqua, who directed him to an Oscar win in Training Day.

    There are two things that really captured my attention in The Equalizer, and neither was an action sequence. One is how the film takes about 15-20 minutes to kick into gear: it has enough confidence in the premise and Washington's personal charisma that it takes its time to get where it is going, which makes the arrival all the more satisfying. The other is a moment, about halfway through the film, as Washington has grudgingly given into his nature. For the first time, he's able to sleep. In its own way, it is a small but powerful moment, and helps to make The Equalizer one of the better entries in this oeuvre.

    On Sunday, "Homeland" returns to Showtime with a two-hour episode, launching its fourth season. The early reviews seem promising. Yippee!

    And what appears to be the real golden age of television continues…

    I continue to work my way through the early novels of Reed Farrel Coleman. I just finished "Soul Patch," the fourth in the Moe Prager series … and I continue to be just blown away by this guy's work. I have the same feeling I had when I discovered writers like Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, and Ace Atkins … it is like new worlds have been opened to me, and it is wonderful to devour their books and, through series characters, watch their development as writers and their protagonists' development as men.

    I have a wonderful red wine to recommend this week - the 2012 Sattler St. Laurent, from Austria, which a wonderfully smooth wine with a bit of muscle to it. I read online somewhere that it was like a Pinot Noir with hiking boots … and that seems like a pretty good description to me. Enjoy.

    That's it for this week.

    Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

    KC's View: