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    Published on: February 20, 2015

    by Kevin Coupe

    This morning's Eye-Opener has nothing to do with business. However, it has everything to do with life.

    Oliver Sacks is a well-known professor of neurology at New York University's School of Medicine, as well as the author of a number of books, including “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" and "Awakenings," which was turned into a movie with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams (as Sacks).

    This week, he wrote an extraordinarily moving op-ed piece for the New York Times in which he talks about his life and his death.

    "A month ago," he begins, "I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver ... now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.

    "It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can."

    Sacks goes on: "Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

    "On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight."

    It is a lovely piece of writing, at once brave and wondrous and passionate.

    "I cannot pretend I am without fear," Sacks writes. "But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers."

    Apparently, it is not over. I, for one, am grateful.

    Read the column by clicking here. As I say, it is an Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 20, 2015

    The New York Times reports that Walmart yesterday announced that it will give a raise "to about half-million U.S. workers as part of a $1 billion investment that includes changes that Wal-Mart says are aimed at giving workers more opportunities for advancement and more consistent schedules."

    According to the story, "Wal-Mart is raising entry level wages to at least $9 an hour in April and to at least $10 an hour by February of next year. That includes the less than 6,000 workers who make the federal minimum wage. With the changes, the average full-time wage at Wal-Mart stores will be $13 an hour, up from $12.85. For part-time workers, the hourly wage will be $10, up from $9.48 ... In addition to raises, Wal-Mart is also doing things like offering hands-on training for new workers in areas including teamwork, merchandising, retail fundamentals and communications. It's also rolling out a program that offers some workers fixed schedules so they can be able to choose the same hours each week."

    "What's driving us is we want to create a great store experience for customers and do that by investing in our own people," Doug McMillon, Walmart's CEO, tells the Associated Press in an interview. "A better store experience results in happier customers, resulting in stronger sales."

    The Times writes that "the changes come as the company has faced increased pressure to pay its hourly employees more. But Wal-Mart, which has been criticized for its messy stores and poor customer service, says it's also focusing on recruiting and retaining better workers so that it can improve its business.

    "The company has struggled with disappointing sales for most of the past two years, even though it posted better-than-expected results during the most recent holiday season. Wal-Mart hopes that taking better care of its workers will lead to better-run stores, more satisfied customers and an increase in sales and profits."

    The Wall Street Journal writes that "Wal-Mart ’s pledge to raise pay for half a million U.S. employees reflects a tightening labor market and rising competition for lower-paid workers. It also could amplify gains for low-wage workers across the nation as other companies follow the nation’s largest private employer." And, it notes that "the National Retail Federation, the industry’s lobbying group, said Wal-Mart’s decision shows that lawmakers’ efforts to raise the minimum wages are 'politically driven' and 'unnecessary'."

    The Journal also suggests that Walmart's move "should help it reduce turnover and will likely put the most direct pressure on Target, given that their pay scales for entry-level positions are generally close and there is broad overlap in product lines."

    In other Walmart news, Business Insider reports that in the face of expected 2015 growth that it a little lower than it originally projected, Walmart has decided to invest more in its online operations and less in its physical stores, though the company has committed to improving the customer experience in-store by fixing out-of-stocks and slow checkout lines. In addition, the company has said, it knows that it needs to be sharper on price and broader in terms of assortment.
    KC's View:
    It seems to me that this is less about the money and more about the idea that engaged, committed employees on the front lines will make Walmart a better shopping experience. I have no idea whether these raises will make an enormous difference in people's lives; I suspect that before too long, we'll all see surveys that will argue both sides of this point.

    Is this raise a publicity stunt, or a reasonable attempt to give people a wage on which they can sustain themselves and their families? I'm not sure it can fairly be called a stunt, but I wonder how many of these folks will be able to give up second jobs because of it.

    But I think McMillon is right that happy employees will lead to a better store experience, which will mean happier customers. It remains to be seen whether, in the behemoth that is Walmart, these changes can effectively improve the culture and engage the employees.

    Published on: February 20, 2015

    Billboard reports that Starbucks will stop stocking and selling music CDs by the end of March, and will shortly commence a clean-out sale of all its titles.

    According to the story, "The decision follows a tough environment for the format, which saw a sales decline of 15 percent in 2014. Music has been one of the few items offered at Starbucks stores that didn't have to do with coffee, tea or food, the chain's main revenue streams, and was often at the center of various programs and cultural initiatives."

    A spokesman for the company says that "Starbucks continually seeks to redefine the experience in our retail stores to meet the evolving needs of our customers. Music will remain a key component of our coffeehouse and retail experience, however we will continue to evolve the format of our music offerings to ensure we're offering relevant options for our customers. As a leader in music curation, we will continue to strive to select unique and compelling artists from a broad range of genres we think will resonate with our customers."
    KC's View:
    There's no question that music has long been connected to the Starbucks experience - enough so that the company bought Hear Music, a boutique chain of CD stores, back in the late nineties. While that investment did not bear long-term fruit, Starbucks has remained an active player in the music scene, establishing partnerships with the likes of Paul McCartney and using it to create - no pun intended - a targeted vibe for the brand.

    If you like our coffee, you'll love our music, the company seemed to be saying ... and it long has been selling physical CDs at full price in a market where discounts and music streaming seemed more the norm.

    In other words, it was out of step in a way that it ordinarily is not. It'll be interesting to see if it can catch the beat again.

    Published on: February 20, 2015

    The New York Times reports that Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York has ruled that "a longstanding practice by American Express aimed at keeping customers from using other forms of payment violates United States antitrust laws."

    While American Express fees generally are higher than those for competitive cards, the company has had a longstanding rule saying that merchants taking Amex cannot encourage customers to use a competitive card with lower fees.

    According to the story, "Amex released a statement saying it was 'disappointed' with the ruling and would appeal. The company said the disputed rules for merchants actually increase competition rather than stifle it by protecting Amex cardholders 'from anti-consumer practices, including at the checkout counter, such as being told to pay with another card'."

    While the judge has ruled against the American Express practice, he said he would "determine a remedy" at a future date.
    KC's View:
    Been a bad week for Amex ... it starts by Costco saying that sometime next year it will stop taking Amex, which which it has had an exclusive arrangement for years, and ends with a judge slapping the company down for "restraint of trade."

    While Amex seems to be guilty here, I don't think it is alone - the whole banking/credit card/debit card structure seems utterly rigged against the consumer. So why should Amex's approach be any different?

    Published on: February 20, 2015

    The New York Times is reporting that even as Apple prepares to unleash its smart watch upon the world, it also has "been busy assembling a team to work on an automobile."

    According to the story, "The company has collected about 200 people over the last few years — both from inside Apple and potential competitors like Tesla — to develop technologies for an electric car, according to two people with knowledge of the company’s plans, who asked not to be named because the plans were private.

    "The car project is still in its prototype phase, one person said, meaning it is probably many years away from being a viable product and might never reach the mass market if the quality of the vehicle fails to impress Apple’s executives."
    KC's View:
    As big a fan as I am of all things Apple, I'm not sure I'm totally turned on by this idea ... though I'm willing to keep an open mind.

    That said, I think I may be mostly interested about how they reinvent the car showroom and the car buying experience ... which could be as dramatic as any piece of machinery that the folks at Apple develop...

    Published on: February 20, 2015

    The Wall Street Journal reports that a panel of nutrition experts recruited by the Obama administration to update federal recommendations and guidelines for a healthy diet, said Thursday that the environmental and sustainability issues should be a factor in making eating decisions.

    That means "endorsing a diet that includes limited amounts of meat and more plant-based foods, while also encouraging the consumption of seafood whose stocks aren’t threatened," the Journal writes.

    Also, as expected, the panel said that "dietary cholesterol was no longer a big concern: It scrapped guidance that Americans limit their cholesterol intake to no more than 300 milligrams a day—less than that found in a couple of eggs."

    The story notes that "with obesity rates high, it is unclear how much of an impact the guidelines have on the country’s eating habits. But they do influence billions of dollars of spending on government food programs, including the school lunch standards and the Defense Department’s menu guidelines." And there remains much suspicion about the panel's motives on the part of the meat industry, which often accused of being environmentally unfriendly.

    According to the story, "The meat industry believes the panel, which has been meeting for well over a year, is pursuing a broader anti-meat agenda, even though it doesn’t recommend specific daily reductions in meat or poultry consumption.
    KC's View:
    The idea that people should eat more plants and less meat hardly strikes me as revolutionary or shocking ... this seems to be the same advice that most nutritionists have been giving to people for decades.

    Now, if the panel had suggested that beer, ice cream and bread pudding were the keys to a healthy diet, that would've been front page news.

    Published on: February 20, 2015

    According to the National Retail Federation’s annual Tax Returns Survey, 47 percent of Americans "expecting a refund plan to put the money into savings, the highest percentage in the survey’s history. Nearly two-thirds (65.7%) of those surveyed are expecting a refund."

    According to the survey, "Consumers have a plan for how they will use their refunds: 39.1 percent will pay down debt and 25.1 percent plan to use it for daily expenses. While 13 percent say they will splurge on a vacation, 10.5 percent plan to spend on a major purchase like a television or car.

    "Young adults are making wise decisions for their future as 54.9 percent plan to put refunds into savings. But not all young adults are headed to the bank – 32.2 percent will spend on everyday expenses and 15.4 percent will make a major purchase. More than half of Americans ages 25-34 (53.2%) plan to tuck away their refunds in savings or use their refunds to pay down debt (47.6%)."
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 20, 2015

    • Add Kirkland, Washington, to the list of communities having approved a plastic bag reduction law.

    According to the Seattle Times, "Kirkland’s new ordinance will require large retailers to stop using single-use plastic bags and to charge customers five cents for each recyclable paper bag they provide in order to encourage use of re-usable bags ... The city will join Seattle, Shoreline, Issaquah, Mercer Island and Bellingham in instituting similar plastic-bag reduction policies."

    • Drug store chain Rite Aid has announced its first-ever Innovation Challenge, described as "a nationwide search for original product ideas that will improve the health and wellbeing of Rite Aid customers. Rite Aid’s Innovation Challenge is being conducted in partnership with Edison Nation Medical, a leader in medical and healthcare innovation. Edison Nation Medical will work to design, develop and patent the chosen health and wellness products that will be sold exclusively at Rite Aid stores and"

    The challenge is open to the general public, and submissions will be accepted until the end of March.

    • The Wall Street Journal reports that "a divided Federal Trade Commission sued Thursday to block Sysco Corp. ’s acquisition of rival US Foods Inc., a long-awaited move that sets the stage for a major court battle over a plan to combine the nation’s two largest food distributors.

    "The FTC alleged the proposed tie-up would create a dominant national company that could raise prices and reduce service for restaurants, hotels, schools and other institutions that buy food, paper products and a wide range of supplies from Sysco and US Foods."

    According to the story, "The case is the most prominent FTC merger challenge since nominees of President Barack Obama took the commission’s helm in 2009. The decision to sue split the panel along partisan lines. FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and two other Democratic commissioners voted for the challenge, while the panel’s two Republicans voted against."
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 20, 2015

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

    Published on: February 20, 2015

    I don't think I've made a secret of the fact that I'm an Amazon fan. But never more so than right now, since Amazon is responsible for "Bosch," a 10-part series based on the novels of Michael Connelly.

    Some background. Connelly sold the rights to make a movie about his LA detective hero, Harry Bosch, to a major studio years ago. The project went nowhere, as so often happens in Hollywood, and a couple of years ago, Connelly got the film and TV rights back. At about the same time, Amazon was engaged in the early stages of funding proprietary content - TV shows and movies - that would serve as a differential advantage for its Prime service, allowing it to compete more effectively with Netflix, which has successfully done the same thing with series like "House of Cards."

    The two parties made a deal. Connelly worked with some expert producers, but kept his hand in, making sure that the series would accurately reflect the novels. And Amazon pledged to make a pilot, and go to series if viewers liked it. Which they did. And now all 10 are available to Prime members to watch online.

    It is wonderful.

    Novels adapted into movies often lose the context and depth found in the original books. Occasionally, this is a good thing. (I've generally thought that all of Tom Clancy's books made better movies because they got rid of the technobabble, and I have a low threshold for technobabble.) But generally, movies based on books become like Cliff Notes for the original material. And when books are turned into traditional broadcast TV series, they've often reached for the lowest common denominator, because that was always the safest way to get ratings.

    This is changing, as companies like HBO, Showtime, Netflix and Amazon have decided that they'll do better and can differentiate themselves by not underestimating the taste and intelligence of their audiences. I applaud this approach, and "Bosch" is an example of how it can work.

    Given 10 episodes to breathe, and for its characters and plot lines to marinate, "Bosch" becomes a compelling mystery that weaves in and out of several storylines, using the excellent Titus Welliver, in the lead role, as a kind of world-weary conductor who, while he has seen it all, retains his dignity and desire for justice. "Bosch" is a simple, driven narrative ... without technological bells and whistles ... that works because it is about plot and character, and it is well-acted, thoughtfully written, and skillfully directed. It is about obsessions of various kinds, and doesn't offer easy resolutions or neat packages ... happy endings are for fairy tales, and the City of Angels that is Bosch's beat is more like hell and purgatory.

    Connelly has a lot of novels still to adapt, and I hope this is just the first of many series about Harry Bosch.

    The Academy Awards are on Sunday night, and to be honest, I haven't seen all the major nominated films and performances ... but I find myself rooting for Boyhood to win Best Picture, for Michael Keaton (Birdman) and Julianne Moore (Still Alice) to win best Actor and Actress, and for J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) and Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) to win Best Supporting Oscars. We'll see how I do.

    Spring training has officially begun. Yippee.

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

    KC's View:
    KC's View: