business news in context, analysis with attitude

I'm feeling much, much better after suffering from a minor case of plague last week that slowed me down a bit. (Thanks, by the way, for all of the kind notes, not to mention the plethora of remedies that you suggested.) I've now had time and energy to go through a lot of recent email...

On the subject of GMOs, MNB user Philip Herr wrote:

I believe that what DuPont was to napalm in the 1970’s, Monsanto will be to GMO’s in this period. The bigger fear is that we could see (and smell) napalm, but GMO’s are a lot more insidious.
I hasten to add that I have no idea what impact GMO’s have on the human body, but without transparency there will always be uncertainty and with uncertainty comes fear and paranoia.

This essentially is the point I think is most important - that the lack of transparency actually hurts the case for GMOs. Label them, explain them, educate people about them ... and you make your case, allowing consumers to decide. But the burden is on companies like Monsanto to teach us about GMOs, not on consumers to accept them.

From another reader:

Looks like there may be another reason to look for locally sourced foods from farmers and ranchers in the community.

Hopefully they have been able to do the same for the feed they are providing their animals given the lack of transparency in the food chain.

And another:

Although I am not by any means an advocate for GMO usage in food, it needs to be made clear that all GMO’s are not necessarily harmful and their usage can result in increased yields and lower costs.  (In a world where hunger persists, what is the bigger danger GMO’s or starvation?)
The issue I have with the Statist mentality is that the Government shouldn't be passing laws that limit the freedom of choice instead of getting out of the way and allowing the free market to provide solutions.  It seemed like the free market was well on its way handling this issue with the help of the Government.  The recent announcement by whole Foods is an excellent example. 
By passing such regulations, marketing opportunities for smaller niche companies to promote their products as GMO free is taken away. Now products produced by large multinational companies (which now will move to become GMO free) will begin to roll into these higher margin segments pushing out the smaller guys.

Responding to our piece the other day about how kids don't know how to do things like address an envelope (which certainly goes hand-in-hand with our story today about how an envelope company is going bankrupt), MNB user Kevin Watkins wrote:

Had a very similar conversation with my daughter when she was a senior in high school a few years back (she'll be a senior in college this fall).  Her reply when I said something like, "What, you don't know how to address a letter?" 
 "Why would I?" she replied.

From another reader:

Thanks Kevin--so TRUE.

They also don't know how to make change, or to set a table. Somewhere, the fundamentals have been lost.

Weighing in on the stories about how American retailers are dealing with unsafe conditions that are being exposed in various factories outside the US, one MNB user wrote:

Here is one way for Walmart and others to deal with this issue. Don’t buy from outside the US…. But that would cost money and profits so guess that’s out. Here one to work on, next time you in the frozen food isle or even in center store, see how many items such as coffee, rice, cashews, fish, vegetables etc are coming out of Viet Nam…. Don’t get me wrong, I get that they are a world player and the war is over (for most), but the question I have asked (my CEO and industry experts) is what is the half life of agent orange and is or has anyone test the soil and water………. The only answer I get is a blank stare and I’m not sure...

Regarding the story about how the Chicago Sun Times has fired all its staff photographers, reasoning that it will just ask reporters to take their own pictures - a decision that I was very critical of, because, as a former newspaper reporter, I know how lousy a picture taker I was - one MNB user wrote:

Business as we know it is phones, paparazzi, blogs, etc... unfortunately are now the way when it comes to news... I don't begrudge any business to do what is necessary to survive.

I'm just not sure that this helps them survive. It actually reduces the gap between professional journalism and citizen journalism. Both are valuable. But they are different.

From MNB user Darren Josey:

I believe a have a generational different point of view on this issue, I think this can be a positive for the Chicago Sun Times and to more than just their balance sheet payroll.

I’m 29, currently there are over 1,200 photos of me on Facebook. That’s just of me, not total that I’ve taken nor total of me pre-Facebook / non-phone digital camera. There are more photos of me in just my college years than of every generation of my family before me combined. My generation has become so good at taking photos or really the aps we have on our phones have made the photos we’re taking so good, bloggers have become anti-Instagram since it’s no longer special to take an amazing photo.
If the Chicago Sun Times lets their young journalists take their own photos with their New York Times cover quality iPhone 5’s, they will get a very similar quality of photo than what they were getting before except faster and with one less person on the payroll. This is a savvy move, yes high price digital cameras do take high quality images but with every person on the street with a camera in their pocket you don’t need a professional photographer on staff. Pay by the photo from the public or have your staffer snap a pic from their phone, this isn’t the future, it’s the present.

Why do we still have wait staff at restaurants? Scary thought but these jobs are the next to go, text your order to the bar or on an iPad is already out there, just a matter of time…

I'll differ with you on the phrase "quality of photo." Amateurs may be able to take photos as easily, but you discount how great a great photographer can be.

The problem, I would argue, is not that quality of photo has become irrelevant, but that the Sun Times allowed this point of differentiation to become less of an advantage.

And that's a decision that has resonances in a lot of other businesses...

We had a piece the other day about how Kmart followed up on its irreverent "I shipped my pants" video commercial with a "Big gas savings" video ... which led one MNB user to write:

Kmart’s ad is irrelevant to half the country.  Why?  BP doesn’t sell gas west of the rockies, nor does Speedway.  They blew a good promotion by not figuring out half the country couldn’t do this promotion.  Kmart’s promotional people squandered a great opportunity by not doing their homework.

Maybe. But I think the bigger point may have been to get people talking about Kmart in new ways, making them seem (almost) hip. The point isn't to sell gas - the point is to sell Kmart's (new) attitude.

Gas availability is almost beside the point.

Last week, MNB took note of a Washington Post report 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.

I commented:

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.

 MNB user Rosemary Fifield responded:

The cherry-picker’s app should add in the estimated cost of gas and perhaps put some value to the shopper’s time to give them a clearer picture of how much they’re going to save by running all over the place.

From another reader:

Hum, I wonder how some companies like WalMart, who is using “Ad Match” as its main competitive program, will deal with this since, they are also pushing customers into using mobile. Bet they start rewriting the policy to state advertised prices only. As allowing a customer to match every item in their basket will not only tie up the front ends, but will hit their bottom line hard.

On another subject, one MNB user wrote:

Your note this morning about the French culture minister taking potshots at Amazon caught my eye, as we are just returning after living in France for five years.  Yet another example of a close-minded administration making knee-jerk reactions to things they really aren't up to speed on.

Really interesting to see this, as NONE of the internet booksellers in France charge shipping on books -- actually, in five years, I ordered a LOT of books, in French and in English, and never paid shipping on a single one.

This minister is going to take a swan dive with a triple half-gainer off her ethnocentric high horse as soon as she realizes that her anti-Amazon rant will also gore the sacred bull of FNAC, the French retailer who has both physical stores in every shopping mall in the country as well as an enormous position in the virtual marketplace of France.  They consistently beat Amazon on pricing for books, consistently had books that Amazon didn't have, and I received everything I ordered from them exactly as I'd ordered it (also bought electronics and things), within days. 

The stock availability was particularly important to me as a mom -- my kids' teachers were really good at telling the kids that they needed to have a particular book on hand to read by next week, making quick availability and fast delivery a must-have. 

I love independent bookstores, so we spent a snowy Saturday driving all around our region battling bad roads, horrible traffic, and heavy crowds to visit SEVEN local bookshops, not one of which carried the book that was needed the following week.  Learned that lesson fast -- sitting in my pajamas, I bought the book in 10 minutes flat, and it arrived in the mailbox on Tuesday.  Never went looking for another assigned book again!  Still love browsing bookstores, though, and still leave enough money behind to feel no guilt about buying schoolbooks from FNAC.

Despite France's best intentions, buying habits are moving online, and throwing a hissy fit about the biggest name in the business isn't going to change the fact that nobody is making French buyers click over to Amazon...or to FNAC.

We had a story the other day about an online photo that has gone viral showing a Taco Bell employee licking a stack of 25 empty taco shells ... 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, but that it will not disclose where the franchisee was, nor what actions were taken against the employee.

My comments, in part:

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...)

MNB user Sonia Eschenauer wrote:

Really?  Do we need to use violence rhetorically as commentary for an underpaid employee licking some tacos?  We live in a country where guns, weapons are rampant and their violent use takes away thousands of innocent lives…must you use this type of language for such a benign story?

You are absolutely right. While I was using hyperbole, it wasn't the right turn of phrase, especially these days, when gun violence seems to be on the front pages with unfortunate frequency.

From another reader:

Have you not even tried the Doritos Locos Supreme Taco in either Nacho Cheese or Cool Ranch?  I don’t eat Taco Bell much either but these tacos were a surprise.  I guess the only thing that could have made this grosser would have been Michael Douglas as the featured employee.

No comment. 

On another subject:

I have to just write and tell you that I've stayed up late (too late some nights) to watch the entire season of House of Cards - primarily because of your review and recommendation.

And I have not been disappointed.  Kevin Spacey is deliciously repugnant and intriguing all at once. The writing....just spectacular.  I'm riveted.

AND....because I can stream as much as I want, I've had major House of Cards hangovers the next day.

Love it.   Netflix is looking up for me.

...From a former Redbox member.

Responding to a story about how much Supervalu paid its three CEOs last year, one MNB user wrote:

It's funny how easy it is to criticize these circumstances when on the outside looking in... If these executives can get someone to pay the tab, then more power to them. However, I would bet that your way would not net the results needed. You want "Captains" of industry talent theses days, you should and will have to pay to get them to leave their current positions to jump on a sinking ship.

First of all, I make a living criticizing people from the outside looking in.

Second, I want so-called "captains of industry" to lead. I think leaders concern themselves more with the troops than themselves. As a CEO I know once said to me, "The more you give, the more you get."

From MNB reader Chuck Jolley:

I’ve always been troubled by sky rocket c-level pay and plummeting ‘associate’ level pay.  It seems top execs want to be compensated at the expense of their employees, not because of their performance.  If a top level exec insists on no top end for his paycheck, it should be tied to performance.  If he or she fails to improve the bottom line (and not by trimming payroll costs to artificially boost profit margins) then that person should quietly vacate the premises sans golden parachute.

I often quote the late, great Robert B. Parker on baseball: "It is the most important thing that doesn't matter."

But one MNB user thought I needed some new lines...

Kevin, Should you need more baseball quotes, here are a few I found:

“Baseball is simple but never easy”—Roger Angell.

“In the great department store of life, baseball is the toy department”—Anonymous.

“Baseball is the only sport where you can do everything 100 percent right and still fail”—Wade Boggs.

“Baseball, my son, is the cornerstone of civilization”—Dagwood Bumstead.

“Baseball is not unlike war, and when you get right down to it, we batters are the heavy artillery”—Ty Cobb.

“Baseball is a romance, marked by good days and bad, heartaches and thrills, ups and downs, but always with each day promising something new”—Michele Walters Costa.

“Baseball is the only game you can see on the radio”—Phil Hersh.

“It is said that baseball is only a game. Yes, and the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona”—George Will.

“A good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.”—Nuke Laloosh in Bull Durham.

“Baseball is never boring. Which makes it like sex.”—Anne Savoy in Bull Durham.

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."—A. Bartlett Giamatti.

"Baseball is dull only to dull minds." —Red Barber

“You may glory in a team triumphant, ... But you fall in love with a team in defeat.”—Roger Kahn.

Finally, on Friday we took note of an AP story about how over the weekend "some of the world’s most powerful people are gathering near London for a shadowy annual gathering that has attained legendary status for anticapitalist protesters and conspiracy theorists." Included on the guest list: former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, Amazon founder/CEO Jeff Bezos, and Google chairman Eric Schmidt. They will meet, the story said, at the annual confab "for prominent politicians, thinkers and business leaders" that "has been held since 1954 in either Europe or North America. No minutes are taken, there is no media access and the public is kept away by a large security operation." It is not secret enough, apparently, since the AP is writing about it and protestors intend to get as close to Watford’s Grove Hotel as security will let them. I imagine the group has a name. Like Spectre. Or Quantum. Or something similarly sinister. (The Trilateral Commission?)

A number of people wrote in to note that the group does have an actual name: Bilderberg.

Just FYI ... I knew that. I was just having some fun.

MNB user Steve Sullivan got the joke:

You mean it’s not KAOS??

The first time I saw and heard Henry Kissinger, a picture of him wearing a white suit, sitting in a chair, stroking a cat flashed through my mind.  I still think I wasn’t too far off.

Also FYI ... I tend not to be too concerned about shadowy groups controlling the world. Mostly because if such groups exist, they're doing a lousy job. Because the world is a mess. 
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