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Monday, April 01, 2019

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4.1.19 BREAKING NEWS: Sears’ Lampert Launches Bid To Acquire Amazon

April 1, 2019 - Eddie Lampert, the hedge fund gazillionaire who has managed during his ownership and management of Sears to reduce store count, eliminate scores of employees and reduce the company’s value by billions of dollars, announced early this morning that he is launching a hostile takeover bid to acquire Amazon.

“Look,” he said. “Jeff Bezos was a hedge fund guy, just like me. He’s had a slightly better run of luck than I have recently, but I think I am uniquely positioned to apply everything I have learned about retailing at Sears to Amazon.

“It is, in so many ways, a perfect marriage. They want stores, and we have stores. We want sales, profits and a vision, and they have all of those. It is perfect!”

Lampert said that he anticipates relieving Bezos of all his Amazon duties once the deal has been completed. “Bezos obviously prefers figuring out things like how to shoot explore space, or how to make journalism profitable through his ownership of the Washington Post, to the nitty gritty of retailing, so I’m going to make that possible,” he said.

One result of the deal, Lampert said, would be that it likely would not be long before he could make it possible for the average American to once again own Amazon stock, which has been largely out of reach to all but the richest investors because of its per-share price. (XXXXXXX)

Lampert also said that he didn’t believe there would by any issues raised by government regulators. “To have antitrust problems, you have to be creating competitive issues that will hurt consumers. I don’t think anyone would suggest that Sears is in any way competitive with Amazon.” Asked whether a purchase of Amazon by Sears could hurt consumers anyway, Lampert responded, “I just know it’ll be good for me.”

In related news, there are reports this morning that Lampert, in a personal investment, make an unprecedented move to acquire both the New York Mets and the New York Jets.

Pressed about whether this is true, Lampert refused to confirm or deny it. However, he did say, with a knowing smile, that he’s had a longtime desire to be both a baseball and football general manager, and that if he were to make such a move, he could save money by hiring Tim Tebow to play for both teams. “It’s all about synergies,” he said.

KC's View: You have to love it that stories like these only break on April 1, right?

Survey: America, The Increasingly Miserable

The Washington Post reports that the General Social Survey, described as “one of the longest-running and most highly regarded public opinion research projects in the nation,” has just completed a survey saying that America is becoming less happy.

According to the story, “On a scale of 1 to 3, where 1 represents ‘not too happy’ and 3 means ‘very happy,’ Americans on average give themselves a 2.18 - a hair above ‘pretty happy.’ That’s a significant decline from the nation’s peak happiness, as measured by the survey, of the early 1990s. The change is driven by the number of people who say they’re not too happy: 13 percent in 2018 vs. 8 percent in 1990. That’s a more than 50 percent increase.”

One interesting shift noted in the survey: while it used to be that rural Americans were about 10 percent happier than urban Americans, that gap is narrowing, which the Post suggests could be yet another reflection of the growing urbanization of America.

It also used to be that white Americans were generally happier than black Americans, largely because on average the white population is economically better off than the black population. This gap also has narrowed, the survey says.

One thing that hasn’t changed, according to the story - Republicans tend to be happier than Democrats. In the past, at least, this has tended to be because Republicans tend to be more religious than Democrats, “which other research has linked to happiness and life satisfaction.” These days, however, it could have a more direct connection to politics.

The Post notes that other research confirms the broader trend: “The latest World Happiness Report, released this week, finds that a separate measure of overall life satisfaction took a 6 percent plunge in the United States between 2007 and 2018.”

This is important, it writes, because “economists have become more interested in happiness in recent years, party because of the growing realization that traditional economic measures - such as unemployment or gross domestic product - are incapable of fully capturing the state of human welfare.”

KC's View: I found a bunch of stuff in this survey to be interesting; even though the downward tilt is slight, it seems to make sense because economic well-being and health are so connected to how happy people are. Not surprisingly, people who are well-off financially and relatively healthy remain as happy as one would expect them to be. (Money may not buy happiness, in my experience, but it doesn’t hurt.) But there seem to be more people in the country - or at least in this survey - who are economically challenged and/or facing health issues, and that affects their happiness, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

“Happiness,” it seems to me, is an often intangible attribute. I’ve known some people in my life who, one would think, would have every reason to be happy, and yet they are misanthropes. And, I’ve known people who have every reason to feel happiness-challenged, and they are largely cheerful, optimistic people - happy warriors in the pursuit of happiness, which is all we are promised as Americans.

I worry more about the suggestion that we are not becoming healthier as a nation, nor are we raising people up economically as much or as fast as we should.

I also think there is a core mission inherent in these findings that retailers can and should adopt:

How can I make my customers happy?

I’m thinking beyond just saving them a few bucks or making shopping more convenient, though those certainly can be important factors. I’m thinking about making them happy in a more visceral way.

Like last week, I was in a Hen House store in Kansas City, and from the moment I walked in, I was happy. Some of it was from the energy with which owner David Ball treats his employees and customers. And some of it was from the energy that the store itself gave off - tons of animation, great looking fresh food, and staffers who seemed to be really connecting with the shoppers. From the moment I walked in, I thought to myself, “This is a place I would want to shop.” It made me happy.

I suspect it does that for a lot of people … and I’d be willing to bet that this is one of the things that David Ball and his folks have prioritized. In its own way, it can be the most tangible of goals.

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CPG Companies Sue Chicken Suppliers, Charging Price Conspiracy

The Chicago Tribune reports that “Conagra Brands, Kraft Heinz and other major packaged food companies filed a lawsuit Friday in Chicago federal court alleging that meat processors conspired to inflate the price of chicken.

“The suit names Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms and more than a dozen other chicken suppliers as defendants, companies that together control about 90 percent of the $30 billion wholesale chicken market.”

The suit, according to the Tribune, is just the latest in a series of lawsuits filed by supermarkets, restaurants and farmers against the chicken companies, accusing them of conspiring to inflate prices. “The new suit alleges that the chicken suppliers coordinated to destroy their breeder hens in order to reduce the supply of chickens bred for meat and drive up prices. It also alleges they manipulated a wholesale price index,” the story says. “As a result, the suit says, wholesale chicken prices rose by nearly 50 percent and buyers were forced to overpay for chicken. The suit demands a jury trial.”

Tyson has denied the charges. ConAgra has not commented.

KC's View: The questions here are simple. Are the CPG companies winging it? Can they provide enough evidence to get the chicken companies to make a clean breast of it?

Hard to know, but I’m guessing the a jury trial would scare the chicken folks. Almost everybody is affected by the price of chicken, and so if evidence could be shown that chicken would be more affordable if not for the machinations of some chicken suppliers, jurors might be included to hand down a big verdict, doing a lot more than clucking their disapproval. They might, in fact, want to skin the suppliers alive.

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Poland Spring Water Fraud Lawsuit To Move Forward

The New York Times reports that the United States District Court in Connecticut has decided to allow a lawsuit to “mostly” go forward contending that “Nestlé Waters’s marketing and sales of what it advertises as ‘100% Natural Spring Water’ has been ‘a colossal fraud perpetrated against American consumers.’

“‘Not one drop’ of Poland Spring water actually qualifies as spring water, the lawsuit says. It is common groundwater that has been illegally mislabeled in order to ‘reap massive undue sales.’ The result is that Poland Spring water has become ‘the dominant brand in a market in which it does not even belong,’ the suit says.”

According to the Times, “The suit contends that the famous Poland Spring in Maine, which the company claims is a source of the water, effectively ran dry nearly 50 years ago.

“It claims that the company built and maintained six ‘phony, man-made ‘springs’’ to comply with the law. It also alleges that one or more of the company’s wells are near a present or former human waste dump, landfill or other similar site. Put another way, those famous Poland Spring images of water on a verdant hillside are misleading and deceptive, the lawsuit said.”

The Times writes that “Nestlé Waters said that various state regulators had already determined that Poland Spring water complies with the Food and Drug Administration’s so-called identity standard and has authorized the labeling and sale of the water as spring water. On those grounds, the company asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, or at least dismiss it in deference to the F.D.A. Nestlé Waters remained insistent on Friday. ‘We remain highly confident in our legal position and will continue to defend our Poland Spring Brand vigorously against this meritless lawsuit,’ the company’s statement said. ‘Consumers can be confident in the accuracy of the labels on every bottle of Poland Spring, and that Poland Spring Brand natural spring water is just what it says it is — 100 percent natural spring water’.”

KC's View: I have to be honest here - I really
You’d think it would all be cut and dry. (Okay, maybe not dry considering the subject.) But certainly there shouldn’t be a lot of ambiguity about who is right and who is wrong in this case. Either the damned stuff is natural spring water, or it isn’t.

Now, I’m perfectly willing to believe that there is plenty of ambiguity in whatever definition the government has established for “natural spring water.” That wouldn’t surprise me at all. But you’d think, at the very least, that nowhere in the definition for “natural spring water” would be the term “man-made” … except maybe to say that “:in no way should natural spring water come from a body of water that is man-made.”

Things should be what they are, and what they are said to be. If there is deceit, then they should be called out for it. If it isn’t deceit, then the plaintiffs should have to pay Nestlé Waters’ legal bills.

Seems reasonably straightforward to me. On the other hand, it probably is a good thing I am not a judge.

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New York State Enacts Plastic Bag Ban

The New York Times reports that the New York State Legislature has “agreed to impose a statewide ban on most types of single-use plastic bags from retail sales,” making it the second state in the union - after California - to impose such a ban.

The New York version, which takes effect in a year, will “forbid stores to provide customers with single-use plastic bags, which are nonbiodegradable and have been blamed for everything from causing gruesome wildlife deaths to thwarting recycling efforts … The plan would have an additional element allowing counties to opt in to a 5-cent fee on paper bags, revenue that would go to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund as well as a separate fund to buy reusable bags for consumers.”

The bill, which is expected to be passed into law today, has been the subject of considerable debate, with some criticizing the state for not allowing retailers to keep any portion of the five-cent paper bag fee as a way of defraying some of their expenses. Others have argued that the impact on the environment will be negligible, while still others have suggested that years from now, people will wonder what took us so long to make this move.

KC's View: I know there will be a lot of pushback on this, but in the end, I would suggest that for most people, it isn’t so hard to simply have cloth, reusable bags … you just have to make the commitment on the theory that less crap of any kind going into landfills is a good thing. yes, I know it isn’t a perfect system … but it just seems to me like a step in the right direction.

Barney’s Looks At Future & Sees It Shrinking

Business Insider reports that Barney’s New York, a Manhattan department store institution, “is looking to reduce the footprint of its iconic New York flagship store on Madison Avenue by more than half, giving up five of its nine floors.”

The story notes that “the upscale department store chain joins retailers including Gap, Lord & Taylor, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren who have taken decisive action to cut expensive flagship stores in recent months.” While the flagship store traditionally was seen as a marketing tool that went beyond a retailing function, “increasingly the flagship has become a less relevant - yet still costly - marketing tool due to changes in consumer shopping habits.”

KC's View: This is a decision that almost all bricks-and-mortar retailers are going to face - at what point do we need to think smaller, simply because there is less need in an e-commerce world for buildings the size we used to build them? Even institutions have to make adjustments, or those institutions will crumble.

It is interesting to me that one retailer that has faced the future head on - Nordstrom, with its radical new Nordstrom Local format in Los Angeles - also chose this period of time to build its first stores (the men’s and women’s stores are separate) in Manhattan. Seems a little counterintuitive to me, but then again, I wouldn’t know how to run a department store to save my life.

Worth Reading: Substance Abuse On The Job

USA Today has a piece saying that “a new survey from DrugAbuse.com, which offers educational content and recovery resources to people dealing with addiction, found that 23 percent of U.S. workers responding to the survey say they have used drugs or alcohol on the job. Roughly six in ten say they have used alcohol at work, outside of office parties or functions, while nearly 23 percent say they’ve smoked pot on the job … And even if they don't use themselves, 62 percent say they know at least one person who has had an unsanctioned drink or used narcotics at work.”

You can read the entire story here.

KC's View: It is worth taking a look at, largely because I’m sure this is taking place at retail … plus it is a fascinating time in terms of how the nation thinks and acts about drugs. On the one hand, we have a national opioid crisis, but we also have a country in which the legalization of marijuana is becoming a reality, where some people find that cannabis can help them with their opioid addictions, and companies are trying to figure out what to do with their drug testing procedures.

E-conomy Beat

SiliconAngle reports that Amazon “may be gearing up to expand its presence in the fast-growing and increasingly competitive video streaming market,” and that this particular expansion may include a free news service that would “offer consumers access to programming from a mix of national news networks and local stations.”

The service would be advertiser-supported, and it is said to be “not yet clear which broadcasters will make their content available on the service at launch.”

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FastNewsBeat

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

• The Wall Street Journal has a story about the latest index of consumer sentiment issued by the University of Michigan, which concludes that it was “98.4 in March, up from 93.8 in February. That was above the 97.8 that economists had expected and the preliminary reading reported earlier in the month.

The survey’s chief economist, Richard Curtin, says that “rising incomes were accompanied by lower expected year-ahead inflation rates, resulting in more favorable real income expectations.”

Curtin also tells the Journal that “the last time a larger proportion of households reported income gains was in 1966.”


• The Washington Post reports that “the Texas attorney general has launched an investigation to determine whether the San Antonio City Council violated religious-liberty laws by barring Chick-fil-A from opening a restaurant in the city’s airport.

“The council voted late last week to exclude Chick-fil-A from a concession agreement with San Antonio International Airport, citing, in part, the religious views associated with the fast-food restaurant chain – specifically, the anti-same-sex marriage values.”

Calling the decision religious discrimination, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said “the Constitution’s protection of religious liberty is somehow even better than Chick-fil-A’s chicken. Unfortunately, I have serious concerns that both are under assault at the San Antonio airport.”

Shortly after the San Antonio decision to exclude Chick-fil-A went public, the Buffalo, NY, airport reportedly made a similar move.

I was a little surprised by this, mostly because it was my impression last time this all came up that it has been pretty well established that while Chick-fil-A’s top leadership said he believed in the Biblical definition of marriage, the company - and especially its franchisees, many of whom did not need to be associated with that belief - had done their best to say that belief does not necessarily equate with discrimination. I’d suggest that maybe someone is looking for a fight that is going to get some publicity, but I also think it is important never to minimize the feelings of someone who may feel personally attacked by LGBTQ-oriented discrimination, however it may be manifested.


MarketWatch reports that Kellogg Co. near a deal to sell its Keebler, Famous Amos and fruit snacks units to Ferrero in a deal worth between $1 billion and $1.5 billion … Kellogg has been looking to sell some of its snack-food brands for months as it looks to refocus on its core products.

The story notes that “Ferrero owns Nutella and bought Nestle's U.S. candy business in January 2018,” and that “Ferrero beat out Hostess Brands” for Kellogg’s cookie brands.

Executive Suite

• Barney Barnett announced last week that after 50 years of service to Publix Super Markets, he will retire from his role as the company’s vice chairman at the end of this month.

Publix said that Barnett will remain on the board of directors for Publix Super Markets Charities, and will be named the company’s Vice Chairman Emeritus.

Barnett is said to be one of only 20 people who worked for Publix for a half-century. He Barnett began in 1969 as an internal auditor in Lakeland, Florida. He was promoted to controller in 1977 and vice president of administration in 1986. In 1988, he was promoted to executive vice president, and in 1998, he moved into his current role.


• PepsiCo Inc. announced that when Vivek Sankaran leaves the company to become president/CEO of Albertsons, he will be succeeded as chief executive officer of PepsiCo Foods North America by Steven Williams, who joined PepsiCo in 2001 when it acquired Quaker Oats.

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From Samuel J. Associates...

"It’s a bad time to be in the business of selling groceries, and the headlines are as bleak as you’d expect: "The Retail Apocalypse Is Coming for Grocery Stores" ... "Grocery Retail ‘Bloodbath’ Is Here" ... Conversely, it is a great time — arguably the best time ever — to buy groceries."
- New York Magazine/Grub Street


At Samuel J.Associates, we have a response to this assessment:

Bull.

We think it is a great time to be selling groceries, whether you are a retailer or a supplier. That’s because a more educated and demanding consumer, no matter the demographic, will reward businesses that are innovative, disruptive, and in touch with what people need, even if they don’t know they need it.

And, we know this: Those businesses require, and are fueled by, great people.

People who don’t just get the job done, but who set the tone in an organization, establish cultural and business priorities, who build teams, and who are able to not just adapt to competitive realities, but see the future and thrive in it.

And yes, ignore dire warnings about a "retail apocalypse" and see opportunities.

At Samuel J. Associates, we have a winning record of connecting great talent and innovative businesses ... as well as innovative talent with great businesses. We exceed your expectations so that you can do the same thing for your customers.

No bull.

Click here to find out more.

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Your Views: Mayo Mashups

Responding to Kate McMahon’s column of last week about differing degrees of success at Kraft Heinz in their varying attempts at mayonnaise-mashups, MNB reader Ron Tuchler wrote to Kate:

Loved your post this morning.  As someone who writes a monthly-ish blog on this sort of thing, I wish I’d followed this story.

Having had my first job (in the 80s) on Kraft Mayonnaise, I can tell you these 'mayo + something' concepts are nothing new. We even introduced an herbed mayonnaise product (called Chantelle)- - which died a pretty quick death.  Which is good, because it was gross.

But at that time we were still innovating with basic stuff like squeeze containers and Light Mayo (how far civilization has come!), so the risk of knocking one of these bigger brand-extension children off the shelf in favor of a niche brand-extension child didn’t seem like a good idea.

But now it seems like social media feedback has become a proxy for a concept test, reinvigorating the Confirmation Bias Market Research military-industrial complex.  If it sounds cool on Twitter, then we’re pretty sure people will immediately vote with their dollars. 

Best line:  “They were so preoccupied with whether or not they mayocould, they didn't stop to think if they mayoshould”.

Love it.  Keep up the good work.


From another reader:

Almost 50 years ago I was pre-mixing my own concoction of condiments - none ever was paired with mustard however.   One of my favorites is Hellmann's Mayo, Heinz Ketchup and A! sauce.  I mix them together and put in a squeeze bottle container.  And it is a lot less expensive than paying Kraft 3x the costs of having them put those together.



Responding to some comments I made last week about innovations at 7-Eleven, one MNB reader wrote:

The Laredo Taco Company has already been a huge success due to convenience store chain Stripes who until their recent move to Dallas, was HQ’d in deep South Texas.  So NO innovation from 7-11 only copycat.  Also, the issue that 7-11 will never overcome is the fact that their stores are Franchised.  Try convincing a Franchise owner already operating in a “penny business”  to take on “fresh food”.  Food cost, consistent quality and cleanliness alone are all aspects that they are not prepared to handle.  Plus, 7-11 tried “fresh” sandwiches’ a few years ago.  Quick-Trip, RaceTrac, Speedway continue to “define” the new convenience store. 7-11 is an afterthought at best.



And, responding change in the president/CEO job at Albertsons, one MNB reader wrote:

It seems odd that the CEO of the food division of PepsiCo would leave the security, dominant market share, consistent growth and earnings for a “B” retailer at best in a VERY CROWDED competitive, grocery retail landscape.  Just seems very strange.

You may not be the only person thinking this.



Finally, weighing in on the ongoing greeting card conversation we’ve been having here, MNB reader Duane Eaton wrote:

I still like to send cards for most birthdays, but I don’t buy them from a retail store.  I order them online from NobleWorks.  They print them as they are ordered and sell them significantly cheaper than retail outlets, other than a dollar store.  Admittedly you need a warped sense of humor to buy most of their cards, but that fits me perfectly.

Good to know.

Department of Corrections

Last Friday, MNB reported that Bed, Bath & Beyond “plans to lay off some 1250 employees, which is a small fraction of its total worker base of 65,000.”

That was a typo. The actual number was 150.

Apologies for the goof.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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From The MNB Sports Desk

This year’s NCAA Final Four is set, and there will be some new faces taking the court.

Next Saturday, Auburn, which never has reached the Final Four before, will play Virginia, which hasn’t been there since 1984. And, Michigan State, the only team playing next weekend that actually has won a national championship, will play Texas Tech, which has never before made it to the final weekend.

A New Retail Tomorrow Podcast: The Cannabis Opportunity

Recorded at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, this Retail Tomorrow podcast offers a deep dive into the promises and challenges inherent in the cannabis industry. While it still is not part of the mainstream retail world, the momentum is there for an inevitable explosion of product, marketing muscle, and profit, especially in the self-care segment.

Taking us inside the business are two cannabis industry experts: Genevieve Gilbreath, co-founder and general partner at Springdale Ventures; and Mary Olivar, managing director at Greenbelt Capital.

Here’s where you can check our guests’ websites:

Genevieve Gilbreath: https://springdaleventures.com

Mary Olivar: https://greenbeltcapitalinc.com

The Retail Tomorrow Podcast is sponsored by the Global Market Development Center (GMDC), seeking to focus not just on best practices, but next practices. This podcast, as well as past editions, also can be found on the site. In addition, check out more details about GMDC’s Retail Tomorrow initiative here.

Pictured below, from left to right: Mary Olivar, Kevin Coupe, Genevieve Gilbreath





Meet The Content Guy at Home Delivery World 2019

I’ll be attending the Home Delivery World 2019 conference and exhibition this week at the Philadelphia Convention Center, and If there are any MNB readers who'd like to get together, I'll be camping out from 1:30-3 pm, on Thursday, April 4, at the Fleat booth, #005 - just inside the main entrance, to the right.

Fleat also is making copies of my book available, and I’m happy to sign them, as well as catch up with members of the MNB community.

Hope to see you there…

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HOW TO BE A RETAIL PIRATE: Authentic, Relevant, Resonant, Rapid, Revolutionary (ARRRR!)

A NEW PRESENTATION BY KEVIN COUPE

Steve Jobs once said, “Better to be a pirate than join the navy.” In today’s cutthroat retail environment, that attitude needs to be at the core of every business’s strategic, tactical and operational approach - challenging the status quo, doing the unexpected, creating customer-centric business initiatives and then disrupting them internally … appealing to people’s hearts and heads and aspirations … acting with piratical verve and always moving forward. In this brand new, lighthearted, illuminating and uniquely pertinent presentation, filled with examples and anecdotes and lessons, MorningNewsBeat’s Kevin Coupe brings a passion for storytelling and a unique perspective on business that will entertain and energize audiences.’’

Here’s what Lori Stillman, Executive Vice President - Analytics, Insights and Intelligence, Advantage Solutions, has to say about a recent appearance:

"Kevin joined us as a moderator and facilitator for a two-day client executive event we hosted. His role in the success of the event went far beyond his time presenting and sharing his great wisdom and content. From the moment our planning process began and we selected Kevin as a key part of our program, he dove in and worked with our team to review session topics, ideate on programming and help ensure our overall event delivered on the goals we had established. His quick wit, deep industry knowledge and ability to synthesize conversations into key take-aways enabled us to hit a home run!”

And, from Joe Jurich, CTO of DUMAC Business Systems:

”Kevin recently participated in and spoke at our Annual User Conference.  Our group consisted of independent retailers, wholesalers, and software vendors – a pretty broad group to challenge in a single talk.  While his energy, humor, and movie analogies kept the audience engaged, his ability to challenge them to think differently about how they go to market is what really captured them!  Based on dinner conversations afterward, he appeared to have left everyone thinking of at least one new approach to their strategy!”

To book Kevin for your upcoming event, click here , or call him at 203-253-0291.


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On A Personal Note

Last but not least…I wrote here in January about the passing of Richard Coulter, for whom I worked in a men’s clothing store during much of high school and college, learning about retailing and, to a great extent, life.

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of eulogizing Richard at a memorial service for him in Larchmont, New York, and I wanted to share it with you here…

A reading from the book of Richard Coulter…

Several men are in the locker room of a golf club.
 
A cellular phone sitting on a bench rings and the man sitting there picks it up using the speakerphone function.

“Hello?” he says.

A woman responds: Hi Honey, it's me. Are you at the club?”

"Yes."

"I'm at the shops now and found this beautiful leather coat. It's only $2,000; is it OK if I buy it?”

"Sure, go ahead if you like it that much."

“I also stopped by the Lexus dealership and saw the new models. I saw one I really liked.”

"How much?"

“$90,000."

"OK, but for that price I want it with all the options.”

"OK. I'll see you later! I love you so much!"

"Bye! I love you, too."
 
The man hangs up, and turns to see that everyone in the locker room is staring at him, their jaws hanging open. They can’t believe what they’ve just heard.

The man smiles, holds up the phone and says, "Anyone know who's phone this is?”

This is one of the countless jokes that Richard Coulter used to send so many of us on an almost daily basis. Often they made us smile. Sometimes, we’d laugh out loud. Occasionally, because they were often politically incorrect, they’d make us wince. (The list of jokes I couldn’t tell here is longer than the ones I could.) But they were an almost daily ritual and I think I speak for everyone when I say I miss them.

What those jokes illustrated, day in and day out, was the size of Richard Coulter’s heart - filled with love and joy and enthusiasm for so many of us and so much of life.

He was the kind of man who, while in college and wanting to demonstrate to everyone his undying love for Linda, went out and bought the largest pair of women’s underwear he could find, wrote “Linda, be my valentine” on them in bold letters, and then literally ran them up the flagpole to see what would happen. There was never any doubt where he stood. (It must’ve stuck … )

Richard was the kind of man who, when Linda and he got involved in an ecumenical group that involved all matter of Protestants and some Catholics, including my parents - and this was somewhat radical for the time - mentioned at the first meeting that when he was a kid, he wasn’t allowed to play with Catholics. (Sometimes, you never stop rebelling from your parents, no matter how old you are.)

At one meeting, Father Henry Mansell from Sts. John & Paul was late for one of these ecumenical meetings that he was supposed to attend because his car broke down. So he borrowed an old pickup truck from the parish janitor, and when he pulled up to the house where the meeting was taking place, Richard looked out the window and quipped, “I guess that’s what he uses to collect all the converts.” (I loved that sense of humor.)

He was the kind of man who didn’t quite understand everything about his daughter Susan’s move to Northern California - for a time, she lived in an old school bus that had no amenities, with neither a toilet nor running water, and then moved to a small house with, to be kind about it, had limited amenities. But rather than challenge her decisions, he just talked about how he didn’t understand how the hippies who moved into the old school bus after her had two little kids who ran around without clothes on and were named after trees: “What happens where they get their diplomas?” he asked, as if that was the biggest obstacle facing little Sequoia and little Cedar…

But Susan remembers always feeling as if Richard understood her need to live a different life, that this is sometimes necessary if you are going to be your best self. (“Sequoia” was just a little too much to wrap his head around, but he did love the idea that his teacher daughter once lived in an old school bus.)

I loved the story that Steve told about Richard taking his grandchildren to follow fire engines that went roaring by … that was so him. It was an adventure and he was curious and he wanted to share the moment. (I have to wonder if this is when his grandson Steven got the journalism bug … after all, one of the things that reporters love to do is follow fire trucks to see if there’s a story there.)

He asked me years ago to do this eulogy. When I saw him, for what ended up being the last time late last year, he reminded me of my commitment. It was never a responsibility I looked forward to, but there was no way I could or would disappoint him. He was way too big a part of my life for that - he and Linda were, in fact, my other parents.

I knew Richard Coulter for most of my 64 years, but my life as part of his extended family really started, best I can remember, in the summer of 1970, when I was 15, and he asked me to go to work for him at County Boys’ & Men’s Shop. In one capacity or another, in any of the three stores depending on the season and staffing levels, and with time commitments depending on what I was up to, working for Richard Coulter at County Boys’ was a formational experience. He taught us to take care of customers, to stack jeans, and to navigate the occasional floods we’d get in the store’s basement.

In many ways, I learned a lot from him about how to be a responsible adult. I had to behave - people often assumed that he was my dad. (Must be the Irish thing.) I learned to drive from him, because he’d always pick me up on the way to work and drop me off on the way home … and as soon as I got my permit, I had to do the driving.

It wasn’t always about being responsible, though - I got drunk for the first time at a County Boys’ Christmas party, when I had punch that I didn’t know had been spiked. (My parents weren’t pleased when I had to stumble out of midnight mass that night, but Richard saw it as a necessary part of my education. And he was right … and, in retrospect, I know that he was looking out for me. Which, when you think about it, is the best way to get drunk for the first time.)

As you might imagine, I’ve thought a lot about those years at County Boys over the past weeks, and I think that my main memory of the Heathcote store is of it being a boisterous place. We worked hard, but there always was a lot of laughter and a lot of jokes - many of which will not and cannot be repeated here - and I know that this was an extension of his big and boisterous personality.

It was a constant education, but one that was not unique to me. Richard took enormous pleasure in hiring local kids and family friends to work in his stores, because he knew how important an experience that first job could be.

I wasn’t even the only one in my family to work at County Boys - my brother Tim and sister Amy both worked there, too. Years later, I told him that Tim and I had engaged in a friendly debate about who had been the better employee, and had agreed to give him the final word. So I asked him: “Who was better? Tim or me?”

He didn’t even hesitate: “Amy,” he said.

He really knew how to cut through it. I was chatting with his grandson, Steven, about today, and we both agreed that as loving and big-hearted a man as he was, Richard had little tolerance for nonsense - and he had a single, favorite word to describe it: “Bullshit.” When Richard said it, this wasn’t just a word. It was a soliloquy. It was almost musical.

(We debated, by the way, who was going to use that word in church today, and agreed that it should be me, since I don’t have to share Thanksgiving and Christmas with you people, and Steve does.)

In the mid-nineties, after a decades-long run as the prototypical mom-and-pop neighborhood clothing store, it came to an end for County Boys. While it was his life’s work, on the outside, at least, Richard was unsentimental about its passing. He knew that there are no indelible links between a shop and its customers, that change is inevitable, and that in the end, County Boys’ simply was unable to compete in a radically changed retail environment.

Time to move on. In his case, literally.

The end of the business could’ve meant just closing the stores, abandoning creditors and just washing his hands of all his responsibilities. But that’s not what he did because that’s not who he was. Richard and Linda moved to Chicago where they ran a camp supply business for a number of years, paying off every debt and, at the same time, exploring every facet of the city of Chicago that they could. I saw them there fairly often - we met for dinner, went to Cubs games, and they’d even come to parties that my business would host, and would have a great time chatting with my readers and my friends; our son moved to Chicago while they were there, was very active in the storefront theater community, and I think they went to every show he was in. (Richard confided to me once that he thought David was better onstage than I had been at his age. I didn’t take it personally because, as always, there was no B.S.)

I always thought that Chicago was transformative for Richard and Linda … that they were largely freed from the limitations imposed on them by expectations, and they were able to create a new life for themselves. They always seemed so happy … it was an adventure, and they lived it to the fullest.

The last few years haven’t been easy for either Richard or Linda health-wise. I think I had a sense, when I saw him late last year, that it might be the final time … there were hugs and a few tears and we have a selfie of the three of us, with Richard’s big Irish smile dominating the frame, that I’ll always treasure.

When my dad died, Richard sent me a poem that, at the time, struck me as being unusually sentimental for him; I was used to just getting politically incorrect jokes. But it is possible that it wasn’t just about my dad. The poem read:

God looked around his garden
and found an empty space,
He then looked down upon the earth
and saw your tired face.

He put his arms around you
and lifted you to rest,
Gods’ Garden must be beautiful
he always takes the best.

God knew that you were suffering,
He knew that you were in pain,
He knew that you would never
get well on earth again.

He saw the road was getting
rough and hard to climb,
So He closed your weary eye lids
and whispered ‘Peace Be Thine’.

It broke our hearts to lose you,
but you didn’t go alone,
For part of us went with you
the day God called you home.



Finally, because I am who I am, I want to finish by remembering a scene from a movie … and appropriately enough, it is an Irish movie - Waking Ned Devine.

There is a scene in which the lead character is delivering a eulogy from a church pulpit in a small town on the coast of Ireland .… but because of a variety of circumstances too complicated to explain here, the man he is talking about, Michael O'Sullivan, is sitting in the first row. And he says:

"Michael O'Sullivan was my great friend. But I don't ever remember telling him that. The words that are spoken at a funeral are spoken too late for the man who is dead. What a wonderful thing it would be to visit your own funeral. To sit at the front and hear what was said, maybe say a few things yourself. Michael and I grew old together. But at times, when we laughed, we grew young. If he was here now, if he could hear what I say, I'd congratulate him on being a great man, and thank him for being a friend.”

We miss you, Richard. Thanks for the jokes, the laughs, the friendship, the caring, the continuing education and for making our lives better for having you in them.

You were the best.

PWS 59