Friday, December 30, 2011

The Truth About Black Friday

I expected better from the NY Times. I did not expect The Times would recycle, as it did in today’s article on the troubles at Sears Holdings, the often-reported but factually false statement that “retailers make all their money at Christmas. Or they don’t make any money at all.”

Black Friday. How often have we been “treated” to media reports that Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, derived its name because it is the day when the ledger books of retailers turn from red ink to black as shoppers rush out to buy, buy, buy all the stuff they’ll put under the Christmas tree, or Hanukkah menorah, for friends, family and mostly themselves?

Perhaps at one time, when retailing was an industry of mostly small, independent merchants, the Black Friday tale was true. But in today’s chain-store dominated retail world, most companies already are flush with profits. At the risk of bogging you down with too much data, take a gander at the list of 54 retailers below. All of them are public companies that reported results through the third quarter of their current fiscal year (the period ended for most around October 31, well before Black Friday). Next to each name are its net earnings in 2011 versus the same nine-month period in 2010. Losses are noted in parentheses.

You’ll notice that of the 54 companies, just 12 reported losses this year; nine did so a year ago. Some companies, such as Big Lots and Lowe’s, had lower profits this year compared to 2010, but they still showed black ink well before Black Friday.

It is true a bad holiday shopping season could easily wipe out any accumulated profit during the prior 39 weeks. But that doesn’t excuse inaccurate reporting that retailers make all their money at Christmas. Though we will never be spared the incessant hype for Black Friday and beyond, hopefully next year we won’t be told companies like Macy’s, which recorded more than half a billion dollars in net earnings through October, needs Black Friday to start earning a profit.

Company—9 mos. 2011—9 mos. 2010
Wal-Mart $10.980 billion vs. $10.781 billion
Target $1.948 billion vs. $1.885 billion
Dollar Tree $300.4 million vs. $234.8 million
Big Lots $92.3 million vs. $112.5 million
Dollar General $474.2 million vs. $405.3 million
Duckwall Alco ($550,000) vs. ($5.4 million)
Fred’s $23.6 million vs. $21.0 million
Home Depot $3.109 billion vs. $2.751 billion
Lowe’s $1.52 billion vs. $1.73 billion
Sears Holdings (includes Kmart) ($743 million) vs. ($232 million)
Belk $57.5 million vs. $32.6 million
Bon-Ton ($90.3 million) vs. ($63.5 million)
Dillard’s $322.4 million vs. $70.0 million
JC Penney ($65 million) vs. $118 million
Macy’s $511 million vs. $180 million
Saks $37.8 million vs. $22.9 million
Nordstrom $447 million vs. $381 million
Kohl’s $711 million vs. $626 million
Ross Stores $465.2 million vs. $393.0 million
Stage Stores ($1.7 million) vs. $5.7 million
Stein Mart $14.1 million vs. $29.9 million
TJX $1.02 billion vs. $1.01 billion
Urban Outfitters $146.0 million vs. $197.7 million
Abercrombie & Fitch $108.1 million vs. $57.7 million
American Eagle Outfitters $100.4 million vs. $53.6 million
Buckle $95.4 million vs. $85.2 million
The Children’s Place $53.0 million vs. $51.0 million
Gap $615 million vs. $839 million
Ann Taylor $84.4 million vs. $65.4 million
Cato Corp. $54.7 million vs. $47.9 million
Charming Shoppes $11.1 million vs. ($23.6 million)
Chico’s $115.8 million vs. $94.7 million
Coldwater Creek ($86.9 million) vs. ($7.1 million)
Limited Brands $491 million vs. $352 million
New York & Co. ($28.0 million) vs. ($91.5 million)
Talbots ($58.6 million) vs. $13.6 million
Wet Seal $14.0 million vs. $7.3 million
Big 5 Sporting Goods $11.7 million vs. $16.6 million
Cabela’s $73.0 million vs. $45.9 million
Dick’s Sporting Goods $152.8 million vs. $94.6 million
Golfsmith $6.5 million vs. $222,671
Hibbett Sports $43.2 million vs. $33.9 million
Office Depot $75.3 million vs. $53.7 million
Staples $701.1 million vs. $607.2 million
Books-A-Million ($10.4 million) vs. $2.2 million
Build-A-Bear Workshop ($8.1 million) vs. ($8.2 million)
Michaels Stores $79 million vs. $0
Toys “R” Us ($194 million) vs. ($162 million)
GameStop $165.2 million vs. $170.2 million
Williams-Sonoma $114.3 million vs. $86.8 million
Guitar Center ($64.8 million) vs. ($54.2 million)
Best Buy $467 million vs. $626 million
RadioShack $60.3 million vs. $149.1 million
Tiffany $260.8 million vs. $187.2 million

(Editor’s Note: This will be the last posting of 2011. Thank you all for sticking with me. If you like my musings and rants, tell a friend or relative to log on and sign up. It’s free, and sure to be topical and probably controversial in 2012. I hear there’s an election coming up... Have a happy and healthy New Year!)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is Sears Worth Holding?

It’s the post-Christmas season, that favorite time of year for stock analysts and business journalists to bang out on their keyboards early obituaries for Sears Holdings, operator of Sears and Kmart stores. The latest hospice vigil comes on the heels of the company’s announcement it would close 120 stores after disappointing holiday sales.

For more years than not over the last nearly four decades, I have been part of the annual exercise of wondering just how long these two venerable retail chains could survive. Seemingly year after year, customers have abandoned Sears and Kmart for fresher, more nimble, more price sensitive competitors, be they Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, Old Navy or

A true test of whether a company can, or should, survive, is the answer to the following question—would you miss it if closed its doors forever? Syms and its subsidiary Filene’s Basement are in the process of shuttering. I was a frequent Syms shopper. I must have bought at least 20 suits from Syms over the years. Though I haven’t bought a suit in about five years, I still liked walking the stores, both the one across the street from my former office and the outlet in Westchester. Just last week, for old times sake, I stopped by the Syms in Westchester. It was a depressing visit. Customers were picking over the bones of the remaining merchandise and fixtures. I’ll miss it. Maybe Century 21 will take its place. That would be nice.

Would you miss Sears or Kmart? I would. More Sears than Kmart. I’ve bought many a tool from Sears. Craftsman tools. Break them and get a free replacement. I broke the shaft of an awl back in my firewood-splitting days. Brought it back to Sears for a replacement, no questions asked. I’ve bought washing machines, dryers, a freezer and a refrigerator. I’ve bought apparel there as well, nothing fancy, just some shirts, underwear, Levi’s jeans. Everything I’ve bought at Sears, it seems to me, I bought on sale, perhaps even clearance. And that’s part of the company’s problem. Almost nothing in Sears is worth buying at full price, nothing enticing to make me want to go to Sears. Even its Consumer Reports top-rated laundry machines weren’t appealing until they went on sale and the salesman had to throw in added incentives.

Still, knowing Sears was there, and possibly carried what I wanted, was a comfort, a crutch to my consumerism. I’d miss Sears if it weren’t there. There was a time, from 1980 through about 2000, when I was fortunate enough to be the first journalist to interview every new, incoming head of Sears. I also knew the chief executives of Kmart, back then an independent company not part of Sears Holdings.

I can’t say I enjoy shopping at Kmart. It just never feels right inside its stores. I never find any apparel, except Hanes or Fruit of the Loom underwear, worth buying. Except, one time I bought a silk tie in a Kmart outside Detroit. I can’t tell you how many of my friends complimented me on that tie. I resisted asking them for $3 so I could buy one for them.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Art in the Hinterlands

For the second time this month the NY Times has reported on culture coming to northwest Arkansas, specifically on the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. For those not in the know, Bentonville is the corporate hometown of Wal-Mart, the largest retailer, indeed the largest company, in the world. Crystal Bridges is, in the words of the December 4 Times piece, “the ambitious pet project of Alice Walton, 62, who, as the daughter of Wal-Mart’s founder, Sam Walton, is the third-richest woman in the world, according to Forbes.”

Here are links to the two articles, in the order they appeared:

I met Alice Walton twice, in 1981 and 1982, if memory serves me right, each time at the conclusion of a canoe trip for stock analysts and journalists attending Wal-Mart’s annual meeting weekend. After the Saturday morning shareholders’ meeting, Sam Walton would command a flotilla of mostly New York-based numbers crunchers and Wal-Mart executives. We would end up at a campsite beside the river where Alice was busy preparing Mulligan Stew for the ragged pack. I can’t say it was the most savory meal I’ve eaten, but after you’ve been dipping an oar for more than three hours it was quite appreciated. The cold beer washing it down enhanced the flavor.

Alice didn’t get involved in the retail enterprise, so I didn’t really follow her career which included interests in finance.

I’m not sure where Alice got her penchant for art, but I’d bet it was from her mother, Helen. Before one of her parents’ vacations, a trip to Europe reminiscent of scenes depicted in many a book or movie about an American matron touring the Continent to soak up culture, Sam Walton called our office in a tizzy. Speaking to one of my former bosses, the late Dick Groberg, he pressed him for the names of retailers he could visit while Helen made her way through the galleries and museums of Europe. Sam Walton didn’t build an empire by poring over artifacts and paintings. He took inspiration from current enterprises, wherever they might be.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Season of Giving and Taking

In this season of giving, news reports remind us it also is the season of taking, as in “Shoplifting tab to hit $1.84B,” according to the Associated Press.

The AP story said in the “four weeks leading up to this Christmas, an estimated $1.84 billion in merchandise will be shoplifted from retailers in the U.S., according to The Global Retail Theft Barometer. That’s up about 6% from $1.7 billion during the same period last year.”

No doubt about it, “five-finger discounts” are trending up, what with an economy that hawks purchasing at too many people unemployed or too underemployed to afford all the goodies they and their families want.

The dirty little secret of retail losses from what the industry calls “shrink,” however, is that insiders—retail employees—steal more than customers. It’s been that way for years. Employee theft accounts for about 44% of all losses, compared to 36% from shoplifting. The rest, the AP reported, results from vendor theft and administrative error.

Some years ago I heard about Kmart’s efforts to control insider losses. Management would review each employee’s monthly store purchases. If they fell below a certain percentage of take home pay, red flags would be raised. After all, why would an employee not buy household and health and beauty aid supplies, stationery and other commodity purchases at Kmart, where they’d get an employee discount? One possible explanation would be the employee was simply taking home the goods without paying for them. An investigation would follow.

The story, perhaps, was apocryphal. But I always thought it had a ring of authenticity to it.

Choose Your Obscenity: Which to you is more obscene, the throngs of mostly young men who grappled last week to get their grubby hands on $180 a pair Nike Air Jordans, or the $88 million reportedly paid by the 22-year-old daughter of a Russian billionaire for a 6,774-square-foot penthouse apartment at 15 Central Park West in Manhattan?

Perhaps neither affronts you. By my very question you can surmise I find both disdainful. Push come to shove, as happened across the country with the Air Jordans, I’d have to say I am more repulsed by the real estate transaction (I also wasn’t too excited by another deal at the same address, a mere $24 million for a three-bedroom apartment.)

I’m not against the free market setting prices. But let’s be real, people. The apartment doesn’t come with Central Park thrown in, just a view. I’m not sure if the apartment comes furnished, but even if did and everything inside it was trimmed in gold, $88 million is a little much. I’ve seen castles and mansions, all with extensive grounds, that would sell for less.

As Gilda pointed out, one has to wonder from where the money to afford these purchases came. The Russian father is an oligarch of questionable morality and business dealings. While rank and file Russians struggle, oligarchs and their minions have brazenly usurped wealth, natural resources and power.

The Manhattan real estate market has been pumped up by financial industry bogeymen, er, I mean, moneymen. Naw, I mean bogeymen. Rarely do they contribute anything tangible to human endeavor. Their sole purpose is to make money through arcane, manipulative practices few understand, fewer regulate. Their mistakes plunged the nation and world economies into turmoil. Millions lost jobs, retirement savings, homes. With rare exception, only they and their gilded lifestyles have rebounded. They’ve made it almost impossible for ordinary people to invest without anxiety as their computer-generated trading systems produce huge stock market fluctuations, not just daily but also hour to hour.

It’s hardly a wonder, therefore, when the common folk fight for a pair of sneakers. It’s the most tantalizing asset many of them will ever own. Which is an obscene commentary on our society.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Blink Before Brinkmanship Returns

Now that House Republicans have blinked and joined their Senate counterparts in recognizing politics as the art of compromise, 160 million Americans can enjoy two more months of lower payroll taxes, while the unemployed can breathe easier for another eight weeks with jobless benefits before brinkmanship returns to the nation’s capital in the form of another exasperating debate on fiscal policy.

Try as I might to avoid political commentary, it’s virtually impossible. So here goes...

During his tenure representing the state of Wyoming in the U.S. Senate (1979-1997), Alan Simpson was not on my list of favorite senators. The tall, craggy 80-year-old conservative Republican could be quite charming, folksy and jocular, but his politics was clearly way to the right for my tastes.

Simpson, however, by his own admission on the Brian Lehrer Show on NPR Wednesday, would find it impossible to get a Republican nomination today as he’s an advocate of personal privacy, which means he supports gay rights and abortion rights. As co-chairman with Erskine Bowles of the Deficit Reduction Commission, he also acknowledged the need to raise more revenue through new or higher taxes, heresy among Tea Party members and the Republican faithful who have lined up like lemmings behind them.

Switching over to the EIB (Excellence in Broadcasting) Network to listen to some conservative talk show “wisdom,” I was disappointed Rush Limbaugh was on vacation. But his substitute, Mark Davis of WBAP in Dallas, didn’t fail to deliver more grist to the mill. He praised, for example, Republican members of the supercommittee charged with working out a deal on the budget for sticking to their guns. In other words, for not compromising. It was another unfortunate example of standing on principle at all costs, even if it meant the government might shut down, the public would be hurt and trust in elected officials to effectively govern and legislate decreased.

Davis also debunked the argument that conservatives are racist. His proof—they went “ga-ga” over Herman Cain and their favorite Supreme Court justice would be Clarence Thomas. At the same time he decried Attorney General Eric Holder for playing the race card to explain why he and Barack Obama are viciously attacked. It’s just policy differences that bring on the attacks, he said.

My need for some Rush was somewhat sated by a commercial featuring his mellifluous voice. He was pitching membership in the Heritage Foundation, a think tank dedicated, he said, to personal liberties. I wonder, though. What’s more personal than choosing your sexual orientation, or choosing whether to carry a pregnancy to full term? Not sure, but I would guess Alan Simpson would have a hard time being a member of this right-wing organization.

Simpson also had some interesting thoughts on Newt Gingrich and why so many Republican leaders have trouble supporting his candidacy for president. Seems that when Newt was Speaker of the House he agreed during a private meeting with President George Bush the First to a plan to buttress the economy that included a tax hike. Bush reluctantly agreed despite his “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. But when it came time to vote, Gingrich publicly repudiated the agreement. He is untrustworthy, not a man of his word, said Simpson. Not surprising, therefore, that Bush 1 yesterday endorsed Mitt Romney.

Of course, Republicans aren’t the only ones dishing out disappointment this holiday season. Obama has indicated he would sign a bill permitting indefinite detention for not only foreign nationals but also for American citizens thought to be supporters of terrorism. Incarceration without trial could last as long as hostilities remain active. Since there’s no foreseeable end to terrorism, even after Osama bin Laden was killed, anyone detained could languish in prison forever. Obama has been as bad for civil liberties as Bush 2.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Random, and Not So Random, Acts of Kindness

They are beautiful, heartwarming gestures I do not mean to belittle. But the anonymous charity of Secret Santas randomly giving out $100 bills to those they think are in need, or paying off a stranger’s layaway charges at Kmart, is not the answer to the paralyzing and pervasive poverty enveloping our nation. They are not the solution to a capitalist system that has divided our country, indeed, large parts of the rest of the world as well, into spheres of plenty and spheres of void.

However generous they are, random acts of kindness should not lull us into believing they can relieve our fellow citizens of the trauma of unemployment, of the despair of having a loved one in need of medical care without adequate health insurance, of squelching the pangs of hunger that ache each night in the bellies of too many of our young.

My conservative friends and relatives tell me government is not the answer. They would have the hungry and the needy rely on the generosity of their fellow human to ease their pain and tribulations, all the while exhorting them to bootstrap themselves into success. Newt Gingrich would dismiss child labor laws and have children of poverty clean schools so they can learn a work ethic, as if taking away the functions of school janitors is any way to reduce unemployment or increase the take-home pay of the working class.

I seem to recall George H.W. Bush more than 20 years ago waxing euphoric over a “thousand points of light” to help transform the country. Perhaps people are more charitable these days. But the number of families living at or below the poverty level keeps growing. The gap in income between the average worker and the average chief executive keeps growing. “Shared sacrifice” is a phrase that needs to be parsed in a new way—corporate executives get more shares, while the rest sacrifice.

Temporary generosity has but a temporary impact. Even if all of those who can afford it tithed, we would still require government intervention to bolster the economy and provide a safety net. How else to explain corporate America’s reluctance to invest in the United States, to hire more workers, even as companies sit on a treasure trove of cash. Neither government regulation nor a high tax rate is strangling our economy. Rather, it is the way we compensate our executives. They manage for short term gain, their bonuses tied to an annual bottom line. Say what you will about’s products and services, you can’t deny founder/CEO Jeff Bezos has stuck to his guns in defending a long-term strategy that has bedeviled Wall Streeters seeking more immediate returns.

Mitt Romney wants everyone to know not all businesses succeed, so don’t blame him if some of the companies his Bain Capital acquired filed for bankruptcy or had to lay off workers. Fair enough. So then let’s not allow him to scald President Obama for investing U.S. funds in Solyndra, a solar energy company that went belly up. New technologies need government assistance, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect. An example of the latter is the sales tax exemption many online retailers have enjoyed versus brick and mortar stores.

Compassionate conservatism is another hollow term. Even when conservative dogma is based on religious belief, as with the Right to Life movement, compassion for the unborn is not extended to the newborn. Conservatives want cuts in aid to dependent children, in early education programs, in school lunch programs.

Let’s not abandon the less fortunate. Let’s continue to donate food, clothing, dollars to worthy charities and individuals. But let’s not forget that without government assistance far too many of the citizens of the richest country on earth would not have a roof over their heads, meals to be eaten, schools to attend, pre- and post-school programs to enrich their growth years, doctors to visit, jobs to go to each day. These are not random acts of kindness. They’re the very foundation of what a government is supposed to do—protect and care for its citizens.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cracked Teeth

I’d like to blame AARP for my cracked tooth, but I can’t.

Let me explain. Thursday evening I was leafing through the December 2011/January 2012 issue of AARP The Magazine and came across a nutrition article entitled, “Go Nuts!.” It extolled the virtues of eating various nuts to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol. Almonds, in particular, also were said to reduce insulin resistance, a quality important to someone with borderline high blood sugar levels, as I am.

Friday morning I cracked my tooth on an almond. I can’t blame AARP, however, because almonds have been part of my breakfast regimen for more than 15 years. Almonds, cashews, raisins, red grapes, an apple, a banana, some cheese or Trader Joe’s O’s, with an ample helping of whipped cream—ambrosia of the gods, I call it—have nourished me most mornings.

So you see, it’s not as if I can blame AARP for turning me on to almonds. AARP should have be a little more circumspect in its suggestions, though, considering its age-based membership of 50-plus adults is prone to deteriorating dental work. Perhaps I should have taken a clue from the table of contents teaser copy for the story. It read, “Get Cracking.”

The first time I cracked a tooth on some food was slightly more than 20 years ago. I went to Los Angeles to meet with the president of Vons Supermarkets early one morning at a new concept store, Tiengas, targeted toward the expanding Hispanic community. It was a beautiful store, with lots of food preparation stations, including a tortilla maker in the middle of the store and more fresh food and meat cuts than I’d ever seen (you wouldn’t believe parts of a pig I saw displayed there that I’d never imagined people ate).

Anyway, at the conclusion of the store tour, I was invited upstairs to the manager’s office for some breakfast. As my cholesterol was pretty high back then, I deferred the offer of rancho huevos, essentially scrambled eggs. My host persisted, however, saying it would insult the cook who had come in early just to prepare the breakfast.

On my first bite I felt a crunch. I jumped back asking if the cook had left egg shells in the mix, only to realize I had cracked my tooth on the softest of foods. How embarrassing! How upsetting that I might incur a $550 dental bill for a crown, the going rate at the time.

Talking over my predicament several days later with a friend who headed our company’s human resources department, we agreed I would submit a worker’s compensation claim. After all, the only reason I put the eggs into my mouth was because the Vons president insisted. It was clearly a work-related claim, I reasoned.

The compensation board agreed. I received full reimbursement for the crown.

The same happy result cannot be related about the fate of the Tiengas experiment. Management closed the stores after determining Hispanics preferred shopping in traditional stores with enlarged ethnic offerings rather than their own supermarkets.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Kosher Style

Interesting article in the Dining section of the NY Times Wednesday on how the kitchen inside the White House was koshered in advance of the Obama administration’s annual Hanukkah party for some 550 guests (

Now, I won’t go into how arcane and puzzling some of these preparations must appear to non-Jews, and even to many Jews. After all, to non-believers most religions have practices that seem outlandish, if not downright pagan. It’s hard getting around built-in biases that our own beliefs are sane while others are zany.

One of the main tenets of strictly kosher food is that meat and dairy products must not be co-mingled, neither in their preparation nor consumption. There are a mind-boggling set of rules, codified in the Shulchan Aruch, a mid-16th century compilation by Joseph Caro, that serves as a roadmap for observant Jews to follow in all aspects of their lives. (FYI, the literal translation of the term Shulchan Aruch is “set table.”)

The rules and precepts about kosher food, by the way, are mostly not from the Bible. They were formulated by rabbis and sages who lived before and after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 and the resulting Diaspora. They chose, for example, to interpret the Torah’s admonishment not to cook a baby goat (a kid) in its mother’s milk as a blanket prohibition on mixing and eating dairy and meat products at the same time. They also opted to place fowl into the meat category while keeping fish parve (a Jewish term signifying a food is neutral and can be eaten with either milk or meat).

Today’s observant Jewish family generally has several sets of dishes, flatware and cookware, as only glass utensils may be interchanged for meat and dairy use after proper washing. Crockery, china, even stainless steel, are thought to retain traces of food, so observant Jews have separate meat and dairy utensils. But two millennia ago, even less than 600 years ago when Caro compiled his seminal work, it was hardly common for households to be wealthy enough to afford multiple sets of dishes and cookware. Back then, it was sufficient to simply clean utensils after any use. With rising economic status, household possessions and customs changed, but Caro’s text did not.

Which brings me to a tale I heard several years ago from a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary that puts in context the shifting laws about kashrut. As the story was told, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), a renowned Orthodox scholar considered to be a leading arbiter of religious issues, was left to his own devices by his wife for about a week as she visited family in a different city. When she returned she was appalled to find her kosher kitchen compromised, with dishes, pots and pans used for both dairy and meat meals. How could the learned rabbi been so careless?, she demanded to know. Rabbi Soloveitchik replied he had consulted the Shulchan Aruch, which in 1565 made no mention of separate dishes, requiring only that utensils be cleaned after each meal.

So much for relying on centuries-old texts. And for being a typical male (at least of his generation), who paid no attention to what went on in the kitchen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Déjà Vu, Retail Edition’s promotion last weekend suggesting customers walk into brick and mortar stores to price goods with a smartphone app and then buy them from Amazon with a 5% discount up to $5 has engendered an intense war of words, casting the online behemoth as anti-Main Street and a pox on the small business, national economy.

Naturally, Amazon rebuts the charges, but the brouhaha is just the latest iteration of a century-old battle between entrenched retail operations and newer, evolving, more efficient modes of consumer goods distribution. In this battle, only the most nimble, well-financed retailers survive, yet they, too, may be challenged by future concepts that convey products at less cost to the retailer and consumer.

One of my mentors, the late David Q. Mahler, used to say all revolutions in retailing reflected fundamental shifts in distribution practices. The department store concept that began in the mid-1800s aggregated diverse products under one roof. Five-and-dime stores brought products to the masses at affordable prices. The mail-order houses of Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Co. extended the purchasing options of rural America. Supermarkets transformed the way households bought staples and necessities even as they initiated the self-service revolution by placing products within reach of each patron. Aided by the interstate highway system and the resultant migration of families to the suburbs, the regional mall shifted the nexus of shopping away from urban centers. Specialty stores thrived in the malls, while off-the-mall discount stores and category killers democratized distribution of name brands. As chain stores grew ever stronger, retailers grabbed power from manufacturers. Over the last 10 years power has changed hands once again—the Internet has placed it into the hands of every consumer.

Back in July 2008 I wrote in an editorial for Chain Store Age that QR Codes, coupled with the ubiquitous camera-equipped cell phone, may well change the way retailing is conducted in the future. Well, the future has arrived, with Amazon being one of the first to exploit its potential. Being a big advocate of in-store retailing, I don’t like what Amazon did, but holding back the tide of innovation is not a viable long-term strategy for store-based retailers.

This week I heard some merchants are considering charging consultation fees (good towards a purchase) should a customer mine them for information and then turn around and not buy a product. It might work for big ticket items such as electronics, housewares or furniture, but it’s hardly a prescription for extending a welcome to the public.

Coping with the next retail revolution segregates winners from losers. Traditional, full-price retailers such as Gimbels, Sage Allen and Herman’s Sporting Goods ranted against the discounts extended by the likes of E.J. Korvette, Caldor and Ames. Eventually, they folded, as did those very discounters that didn’t adapt to the fiercer competition from Wal-Mart and Target.

The next retail revolution has arrived. No amount of pouting at Amazon will reverse the sweep of change.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Politics, As Usual and Unusual

You might have noticed I’ve taken a short hiatus from political commentary. It’s hard, repetitive work continually finding fault with politicians. Look what Gail Collins of the NY Times has to do—each time she writes about Mitt Romney she has to figure out some way to include the fact he strapped the family dog to the roof of the car when he took his family on a vacation to Canada. If I were paid to write about politics, I’m sure my keyboard would be ablaze with fiery ire. But since this is just an avocation. I’m trying to keep my biases in check. At least for the short term.

Speaking of my biases, I’m against men showing skin when they cross their legs. So it was comforting to see President Obama learned his lesson and wore appropriate high socks during his Sunday 60 Minutes interview. Correspondent Steve Croft, on the other hand, exposed his shins to America. Disgusting.

(Real long-time readers of this blog might recall one of my earliest posts railed against the “shins of the president.” As it’s a short entry, I won’t make you click a link to it, I’ll just reproduce it here:

“Now a word about proper sock length. Watching a clip Sunday of Barack Obama on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," I was struck by the fashion no-no displayed by the president. Sitting with his legs crossed, Obama showed viewers several inches of bare skin where his pants leg did not meet the top of his socks. It is inexcusable, it’s a fashion faux pas, especially considering his wife’s keen fashion sense, that the commander-in-chief of the United States does not wear knee-high socks when he is dressed up. Indeed, anyone, anyone who is in politics, in business or in any way in a public situation, should wear knee-high socks. There is nothing appealing or sexy about seeing a man’s shin-bone skin. Bottom line—if you’re going to wear socks, make sure they cover all of your lower leg. Here’s hoping someone in the White House reads this before Obama’s appearance on Letterman tonight.”)

Someone with sartorial sense and a keen eye must have gotten to Obama.

My “vacation” from political writing has coincided with the ascent of Newt Gingrich as a key player in the Republican presidential sweepstakes. How interesting that many evangelicals and other supposedly values-oriented religious voters have made light of Gingrich’s rather sordid past. They’ve thrown their support to the twice-divorced former speaker of the House. They’ve chosen to ignore his abandonment of the Protestant religion in favor of Catholicism. They’ve accepted his admission of past sins, even the one where he told a previous wife he was leaving her while she suffered from cancer. They don’t hold it against him that he twice (at least) had affairs while married, that he hypocritically tried to impeach Bill Clinton for actions from inappropriate extra-marital sexual activity while he himself was guilty of the same vice. How beguiling that he ignored one of Jesus’ most famous precepts, “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

But then, it is hard to fathom an electorate blind to the failings of their anointed leaders. Ronald Reagan impregnated Nancy Davis before they were married. Not to be outdone, Democrats stood by Clinton and John F. Kennedy. It’s only when they flaunt their improprieties, as Gary Hart did, or try to cover them up, as John Edwards did, that voters rebuff them. Gingrich, with his deep, stentorian tones, has embraced his imperfections, has recanted his sins, so attractive to an evangelical community that sees salvation in faith by atonement.

What they don’t see is how destructive GOP policies on health care, unemployment compensation, pollution, education support and other social issues have been and would be to the family. There can be honest disagreement over abortion rights, but when did the Bible lose its compassion for the poor, for the downtrodden, for the orphaned? When did it become religiously acceptable for the community to abandon the less fortunate? When did the Bible end its advocacy that the rich take care of the needy? The Bible is not a capitalist manifesto. If anything, it is a social contract where those better off are instructed to help the rest of society.

Perhaps if they studied which political ideology has time and again worked to make life easier and more comfortable for the vast majority of our nation, and not an exceedingly small sliver, they will rethink their support for those who would strip away benefits from the masses while safeguarding the treasures of millionaires and billionaires.

If Only He Had Taken the Bet....I’d be $10,000 richer. Like Mitt Romney during Saturday night’s Republican presidential candidate debate with Rick Perry, I proffered a $10,000 bet, the subject of which was, who hosted the mid-1950s CBS TV show, You Are There?. My adversary, a much smarter fellow than I, whose adult education class I attend, and who shall remain nameless so as not to embarrass him, said it was Edward R. Murrow. He said he had tapes at home with Murrow as the host.

I, on the other hand, vividly remember the host being Walter Cronkite. One of my earliest TV memories is watching You Are There. Cronkite would relate the background for the half hour program that recreated historical events as if they were developing news stories, then place an earphone to the side of his head while intoning, “You are there.” The show’s dramatization of the David and Goliath story stays with me even to this day. At least in my mind’s eye, the climactic scene begins with David reciting the 23rd psalm as he walks out to confront Goliath.

Google “You Are There Walter Cronkite” if you need validation of my claim. Murrow, it turns out, hosted another show, See It Now, a newsmagazine and documentary series, also on CBS.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Christmas Story

They were selling poinsettias at Wal-Mart today, $3.47 for a basic, potted, 6-inch, red-leafed flower associated with Christmas.

I admit it. I was a real rube when it came to poinsettias (and lots of other things) when I left the sheltered confines of Brooklyn in September 1972 to become a reporter for the New Haven, Conn., Register. I had never heard of poinsettias, much less actually seen one. It’s not the type of plant one finds around Jewish homes.

Yet one of the big stories of 1972 in New Haven was the poinsettia scandal. I was too embarrassed at the time to ask anyone what a poinsettia was, too timid to delve deep into this religious crisis. As best I can remember it, one or more people in the city administration took advantage of the municipality’s annual poinsettia purchases, intended for public distribution, to spruce up their own holiday surroundings at, shall we say, less than cost.

Who knew there was more yuletide foliage than a Christmas tree, some holly and mistletoe?

I consider myself fortunate I don’t celebrate Christmas. Not from a religious reason. I’m sure it would be nice to be part of the majority, for a change. No, my reason is far more practical. If I were Christian I would have to decorate a Christmas tree and set up an elaborate outdoor light display. I have no doubt Gilda would mandate it. She’s told me I lucked out not being Christian. I'd have a real problem fulfilling her wishes. No way I would be able to string those lights across our bushes and doorfront, much less get up on a ladder to hang lights from trees, eaves, gutters and other points higher than six feet. I'm fortunate to get our electric hanukkiah to light up on the window sill, though too often I get the number of candles to be lit each night wrong. No, I'm much better off not having been chosen to hang Christmas decorations.

But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy them. In fact, riding around looking at Christmas decorations is one of Gilda’s and my favorite December jaunts. We used to have full cul-de-sac decoration-participation on Briga Lane and surrounding streets a few blocks from our home, complete with bumper to bumper gawkers every night. Over the years, however, many of the homeowners moved, replaced by families who are a little less effusive about their holiday light treatments.

Ah, well, there’s always Dyker Heights in Brooklyn. An area just southeast of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, Dyker Heights was unknown to me as a child. But since Ellie has lived in Brooklyn for the last few years we’ve made an annual pilgrimage to be overwhelmed by the creative, large displays set up on the porches and fronts of the row houses that dominate the mostly Italian neighborhood. It might cost you a few bucks to feed the charity kitty of some of the homeowners, but it’s well worth the donation.

Rather than bring out peaceful thoughts among mankind, Christmas has a way of igniting controversy. Too much of it is politically tinged with liberal vs. conservative doctrine. For a somewhat humorous take on the war on Christmas, here are two clips, one from Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, the other from Bill O’Reilly of The O’Reilly Factor (I’m sure you can guess which side each falls on. FYI, the O'Reilly clip reprises some of Stewart's commentary before getting to his response.). Enjoy:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Remembering Pearl Harbor Day

Most of us can recall September 11, 2001. But where were you December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting U.S. entry into World War II?

Okay. You probably weren’t alive 70 years ago, and those who were likely were too young to remember anything meaningful about the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “will live in infamy.” But as I pondered how to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day yesterday, I realized my regular Wednesday chore of delivering Meals on Wheels in Yonkers would bring me face to face with women who were in the prime of their lives when our nation’s security and relative tranquility ended one Sunday seven decades ago. There wasn’t time for long interviews, just a few questions about how they experienced the war years.

With her marriage scheduled exactly one week later at a synagogue in the Bronx where she lived at the time, Sally picked up her wedding gown December 7. Her marriage to Sol went on without a hitch, but within six months her husband entered the army. She was 20 years old. Like many brides of servicemen of that era, Sally followed her husband around the country as he underwent basic training, first in Hattiesburg, MS, then in Baltimore. After Sol shipped overseas to fight in Italy, Sally moved back in with her parents. She worked as a clerical assistant to an army lieutenant at 55 Beaver Street in Manhattan. Her husband returned safely after the war, as did her two younger brothers who served in the Pacific theater.

Another 20-year-old, Shirley, lived in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, with her widowed mother and 10-year-old brother. Shortly after the war began, her mother developed viral pneumonia. Her doctor recommended an extended stay in Florida, so the family trained down, no small feat in those days when travel was largely restricted to moving military personnel. They stayed in Miami Beach for six months. After returning to Brooklyn, Shirley’s friend got her a job as a clerical assistant in a costume jewelry company. A short while later she was promoted to showroom saleswoman dealing with resident buyers for stores throughout the country.

The youngster of the trio I interviewed, Gertrude was 19 when she listened to the radio reports of the Pearl Harbor bombings. A high school graduate who eventually became a full charge bookkeeper, she hadn’t been able to secure a job before the war, but shortly thereafter obtained one at the Wright Aeronautical plant in Woodridge, NJ. Each morning another worker would pick her up at her home in Inwood in upper Manhattan. They’d drive across the George Washington Bridge to work. Because of her mathematical bent she was chosen to be a precision inspector for assembled impeller shafts, a critical part of the engine of B-29 Superfortress bombers.

After several B-29s crashed, the cause was determined to be faulty impeller shafts. Assembly of the plane engines halted until re-inspection of all impeller shafts could be conducted. As each impeller shaft bore the mark of the inspector who processed it, it was not difficult to pinpoint who had approved faulty production. Over the loudspeaker of the plant, Gertrude was summoned to the manager’s office high above the assembly plant. While she climbed the steps to his office, co-workers whispered she was the guilty inspector. Not a comfortable moment for a young woman not yet 20. Gertrude was told that of all the impeller shafts re-inspected, hers alone were perfect. Henceforth, only she would inspect impeller shafts. The other precision inspectors would be reassigned. She would work six days a week. When she wasn’t there, production would stop.

It was that way for about 18 months, until the Japanese surrendered. That day, Gertrude recalled, Wright Aeronautical announced that the 17,000 employees who had worked three shifts at the Woodridge plant need not come back anymore. Their jobs, the nation’s job of defeating Japan, and before that Germany and Italy, had ended.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Engaging Excalibur

In case you missed the news, as I did during my trip to California a week ago, Steuben Glass closed its sole factory in Corning, NY, last Wednesday, bringing to an end 108 years of iconic American creativity and fanciful gift-giving, the latter once the retail inventory is sold off. Pieces of Steuben Glass grace the homes of high society and were a preferred gift by American presidents to visiting heads of state and royalty. Sadly, crystal masterpieces no longer reflect prevailing consumer tastes. Steuben Glass has lost money for years (

When my brother Bernie asked Annette to marry him more than 42 years ago, my sister Lee and I sought a suitable engagement gift. We sallied forth to Fifth Avenue, inside the Steuben gallery store. Though fascinated by many of the designs, they seemed a bit too stuffy for our tastes. But when we saw the Excalibur, a multi-faceted block of glass with a mock sword protruding from the top, we were enthralled. The combination paper weight and letter opener captivated us. We were sure Bernie and Annette would love it. Until, that is, we found out the Excalibur cost $750 ($4,400 in today’s dollars), way too much for our collegiate bank accounts. We settled, instead, on a carving board and knife set from the Georg Jensen store down the avenue.

We couldn’t resist, however, telling them what they missed out on receiving. So you can imagine my surprise and joy when I opened my birthday present from the betrothed couple a few months later. An Excalibur of my own, which still stands proudly on my desk. Of course, they purchased a $15 or so knockoff, but the sentiment is what counts. Right?
Don’t tell me if it isn’t.

Unsung Heroes: Bernie appreciated my swift publication of his idea for a blog on inventions that have made life simpler and easier ( But he noted I fulfilled only part of his suggestion. I failed to mention a central point of the blog should have been that the creators and inventors of those ideas for the most part failed to gain the public recognition they so deserved. They aren’t celebrated the same way Jonas Salk is lauded for his polio vaccine, or Steve Jobs achieved near sainthood for his Apple products.

Fortunately for me, Bernie didn’t ask me to research the names of the creators on my list. But they do all merit our thanks.

Thank you as well to three thoughtful readers who sent in their suggestions:

Jerry S. for the remote control;
Barbara B. for Post-its;
And Walter S. for the delete button on the computer.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Good News: Gun Sales Are Up

For all you Obama fans, or reluctant fans, out there, here’s a portent of good news—guns sales hit record numbers on Black Friday (

The counterintuitive omen signifies the initial evidence the conservative crowd may have realized the goal of giving the president his walking papers will be harder than getting Congress to pass compromise budget legislation. On Black Friday, the FBI received a record number of requests (129,166) from gun dealers for background checks on prospective buyers. Requests exceeded by 32% the previous high, set on Black Friday 2008.

In case you fail to see the significance of that prior record date, it was the first Black Friday after the election of Barack Obama. Gun toters and Second Amendment advocates feared Obama and his Democratic Congressional majority would push through more restrictive firearms laws (which they didn’t), so they rushed out to fill their gun chests with all manner of revolvers, assault rifles and semi-automatics.

Prognosticators often look for outlier signs to aid them in forecasting the future. For example, to predict manufacturing output they check the level of corrugated box shipments. To audit retail inventory levels and divine sales, analysts scour container shipment availability months before the holiday season.

Though gun enthusiasts explain the surge in purchases to more women wanting protection, as well as those who have newly discovered the sport of shooting and hunting, my money is on the political explanation. Crime statistics also don’t corroborate another reason advanced, that the sour economy has fostered a more dangerous environment. As the NY Times reported last May, “The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years, a development that was considered puzzling partly because it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession.

“In all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States. Small towns, especially, are seeing far fewer murders: In cities with populations under 10,000, the number plunged by more than 25 percent last year.” (

Yes, the reason for higher guns sales seems obvious. Given the antipathy even Republican voters have to their slate of potential presidential nominees, and the outright disdain the public has for the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, fear of Obama’s re-election and Democratic ascendancy in the House appear to be driving gun purchases. It might not be a rational response, but no one ever accused gun purchasers of acting rationally.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

California Winds, Elvis and Nixon

Gilda and I got caught up, actually, grounded would be a more appropriate word, in the Santa Ana winds that pummeled Southern California Wednesday night. The winds knocked out power to Los Angeles International Airport just as we approached the terminals in the rental car shuttle. Suddenly all the street and traffic lights went out, as did the lights in the buildings inside and outside the airport.

For almost an hour we waited inside a terminal lit by just a few overhead lights powered by emergency systems. We were taking the night flight back to JFK in New York. It was supposed to land around 5 am Thursday, early enough for us to beat the rush hour traffic on our way home to recuperate before Gilda goes back to work Friday. But as the delay endured, I realized we would land in the heart of rush hour. I also realized we might not get out because aircraft coming into LAX would be diverted because of the power failure. Indeed, Jet Blue personnel at first asked us to go down to the baggage area to board buses to take us to Long Beach Airport where our diverted plane was headed. After 15 minutes or so of waiting for buses, Jet Blue reversed course and told us to go back upstairs as the plane had reverted to its original destination once power had been restored.

Controlled chaos ensued. Imagine your worse day at the airport, trying to get through the security check. Or imagine the longest serpentine line at Disney World. We finally took off two hours late. I barely slept during the flight. Gilda didn’t sleep at all. The only consolation for us was that the passenger for the middle seat in our row never showed up so we had room to spare. And when we arrived at JFK our luggage was among the first to come down the shute. The ride back to Westchester, however, was just as I feared, almost continuous traffic.

During our trip to Los Angeles, the main purpose being attending the wedding of my sister’s oldest child, Ari, I accomplished a feat I’d venture to say few if any of you have—I can now claim to be among the chosen who have visited the birth homes of both Elvis Presley and Richard M. Nixon.

Elvis was born in Tupelo, Miss., in a two-room house. I had traveled to Tupelo with one of my advertising salesmen. We were early for an appointment, so we played tourist to see where the King’s life began. It was truly humble surroundings.

Visiting Nixon’s birthplace was an intended tourist stop. Gilda and I planned a few extra days in LA after the wedding to avoid any travel delays from the long Thanksgiving weekend (ha!). We chose to go to Yorba Linda and the Nixon Library and Museum because of the new Watergate exhibit rather than visit the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.

Nixon’s birth home is part of the compound. Standing on the very spot where his father built it from a kit, it is a modest home of some 900 square feet. The Nixon boys lived in the attic, now off limits to visitors because of the low ceiling. As his mother rarely threw out anything, almost everything displayed in the house was original to the family.

The presidential museum itself is impressive in appearance but with the exception of the Watergate wing is mostly a whitewashed history of the 37th president. You might be wondering why a facility dedicated to the memory of Richard Nixon would be so honest about his downfall. It’s because the museum no longer is privately run by friends and supporters of the Nixon, but rather, it is part of the National Archives. Watergate was the first exhibit area government historians and archivists worked on. Here’s an interesting article contrasting the Nixon and Reagan libraries: