Thursday, January 30, 2014

Spoiler Alert: The Winner of Super Bowl XLVIII ...

I haven't read articles predicting the outcome of Super Bowl XLVIII, I haven't checked the point spread though I should, considering I'm in a pool where I could win $250 if I guess right and my closest competition fumbles.

No matter. Here's my prognostication for Sunday night’s ultimate football contest. Long time readers of this blog might recall that I came eerily close to forecasting most details of the last few games, especially two years ago when the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots.

So here goes. The Denver Broncos will take an early 6-0 lead over the Seattle Seahawks. A troublesome start as Denver could not pierce the end zone for a touchdown on their first two drives.

Seattle will convert an interception into a touchdown either on a run back or a short drive of less than 20 yards. The first quarter will end with Seattle ahead 7-6.

In the second quarter Denver quarterback Peyton Manning will throw a touchdown pass to Wes Welker. The first half will end with Seattle kicking a field goal to narrow the score to 13-10.

In the third quarter Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson will use his legs to drive the Seahawks to a 17-13 lead.

The fourth quarter will begin with a Denver field goal followed by a sustained Denver drive of 80-plus yards for a touchdown.

Denver's 23-17 lead will appear precarious as Wilson leads a long drive into Bronco territory, but with less than two minutes in the game Denver's defense will force a turnover, sealing a victory.

Having won the Super Bowl and been named the Most Valuable Player of the game, Manning will announce his retirement.

As I’ve written in the past, now you are free to concentrate on the commercials.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The President and I Went to Costco Today

President Obama spent part of his day-after-State-of-the-Union-speech in a Costco store. So did I. I was shopping for food and general merchandise. The president was shopping for public approval for his pitch to hike the minimum wage and close the opportunity gap in America. But in a more distant, more important, sense, he was shopping for votes to secure his legacy.

Though he outlined half a dozen areas where he said he would take executive action if Congress did not act as he wished, 2014 will be remembered more for the impact the president will have on the elections next November than anything else.

Simply put, Obama must electioneer hard and long for Democratic Senate and House candidates to avoid facing Republican majorities during the last two years of his second term. If he fails, he will become the “veto president” as Republicans try over and over to undo any and all of the progressive legislation passed in the last five years, especially the Affordable Care Act, more commonly referred to as Obamacare. He also must support state candidates so more “blue” governors and state representatives and senators are elected.

Obama is surprisingly aloof for a politician who has achieved the highest office in the land. He does not mix well with his former peers. His disinterest in hitting the hustings in 2010 led to a GOP majority in the House and, more disastrously, to Republican victories in many state legislatures and governorships. In turn, that led to realignment of many congressional and state districts into safe, gerrymandered Republican territories, safe, that is, until the next census in 2020 mandates a new reapportionment of legislative seats. 

It might be impossible for Democrats to retake control of Congress until 2022. Keeping their majority in the Senate, therefore, becomes a priority, for Obama and any Democrat who hopes to inherit his chair in the Oval Office in 2017. So Hillary, Andrew, Joe and anyone else who has White House aspirations, now’s the time to really crave the type of chicken served at all those political dinners across the country. 

Aside from being aloof, Obama has also shown a tendency to have limited concentration on any one key issue, with the possible exception of sending drones or Navy Seal teams to excise terrorists. But if he is to be believed, that his presidency will be judged by how well he manages to place the country on a journey toward economic equality, he, and Michele, must hit the road, together and separately, to stump for Democrats. For it’s his legacy that is at stake.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

News of the Day: Seeger, Killing Fields, Snow in Chicago, Clean Desks, State of the Union

As most of you did, I awoke this morning to the news that Pete Seeger died. He was 94. 

I believe the first time I saw Pete Seeger in concert was in the summer, in the late 1950s. Camp Massad Aleph took us to a concert by The Weavers, the folk singing quartet Seeger helped organize. I recall sitting in the covered stands of what appears in my memory to be a racetrack, with The Weavers performing on the turf in front of us. Among the tunes they sang was one of their hits, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” an Israeli folk song, music to the ears of embryonic Zionists from Massad. It was a song from the days when Israel was young, vibrant and considered by many the paradigm of new socialism, an obvious appeal to the left-leaning Seeger.

Seeger’s career fell into a trough during that time and well into the 1960s because of his political views. Obituaries have noted it was mostly on college campuses that he was able to secure concert gigs. So it wasn’t a surprise when he appeared at my school, Brooklyn College, in March 1969. As an editor of one of the college newspapers, I had pretty good seats to many of the top folk and rock singers of the time who appeared on the stage of Walt Whitman Auditorium, including Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Ponies, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell. I sat close enough to be able to see the writing on Seeger’s five-string banjo—“This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Some of the obituaries called Seeger a troubadour, what the dictionary defines as “somebody who sings while strolling around an area such as a restaurant.” I sincerely doubt Seeger tiptoed around tables. But he did canvass our country, indeed the world, gathering folk songs for his repertoire. Among the songs he wrote or co-wrote are “”Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and “If I had a Hammer.” He was the creative spirit behind “We Shall Overcome,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and “Wimoweh”. 

Interestingly, when CBS Radio broadcast his death this morning it played a snippet of Seeger singing “This Land Is Your Land.” He did not write that song. Woody Guthrie did.

Past Perfect: I was brought back to my past by several other stories in the news these last few days. Tuesday, The NY Times carried an article on the extermination of Jews in Eastern Europe by bullets in killing fields rather than gas chambers in Nazi death camps ( 

I’ve mentioned before how my father’s family in Ottynia, in what is now western Ukraine, were killed. Here’s how it was described in the history of the society of immigrants from Ottynia: 

“We learned from correspondence with Ottynia survivors that the Jewish inhabitants of Ottynia were taken in two groups by trucks towards Tolmitch where a mass grave had been prepared and our people were shot and buried there.” 

Snow Job: Reports out of Chicago say the cold and snow are the worst in 31 years. 

January is when The National Housewares Show has been held in Chicago. The show was a leading source of advertising for my magazine and its sister publications. Each publication would send about six editorial and sales staffers to cover the show and sell ad schedules. 

Getting to Chicago after one of the Windy City’s legendary snowstorms is nearly impossible. Flights are cancelled. Trains don’t run. Forget taking a bus. 

In 1979, a blizzard struck just before the start of the Housewares Show. None of our associates could get to Chicago. Even our Chicago-based salesmen could not drive to McCormick Place, site of the exposition. 

While corporate officers in New York anguished over the lost opportunity, one determined vice president, David Q. Mahler, demonstrated that where there’s a will there’s a way. From his home in Levittown, Long Island, he traveled down to Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, DC, to board a plane to Japan. Why? Because he knew that flight had a stopover in Chicago and like the postal carriers of old, “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” would stay the airline from canceling its international schedule. David deplaned in Chicago, only to find almost no one else in attendance at the show. It was a glorious trek, ultimately one without financial reward.

Speaking of financial reward, the debate over raising minimum wages for restaurant employees ( recalls a similar battle in 1977 when I worked on Nation’s Restaurant News. As I wrote before, I won a company writing award for debunking the restaurant industry’s argument that higher wages would be harmful. 

Cleaning Up: Ten days ago, in a Times article on Michael Bloomberg’s return to his company after 12 years as mayor of New York City, the third from last paragraph reported managers in the Washington office of Bloomberg News “recommended that staff members clean up their desks so as not to catch the notice of the famously neat former mayor.” 

The owner of the publishing company I worked for also failed to appreciate the disheveled desk of an editor was a badge of respect. Accordingly, during one of my trips away from the office he ordered my desk to be cleaned up. One admin assistant dutifully stacked all of my papers, without throwing any away. When I returned, I exploded, screaming that I couldn’t find any of my notes. I told Barbara I would fire her if she touched my papers again. I was all bluster. A short while later I promoted her, made her a copy editor. One of the best staffing decisions I ever made.

State of the Union: President Obama gives the annual State of the Union speech tonight. I’ve not read any pre-speech commentary, but he no doubt will say the state of our union is strong. I, personally, concur, as far as Gilda’s and my state of the union—today is our 41st anniversary. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Xanadu Redux

An hour away from returning home to Massachusetts after their last visit, Dan and Allison Wi-Fi’ed their home thermostat to raise the temperature. Welcome to the programmable home.

A few months ago I mocked LiftMaster’s ad that extols the ability of homeowners to open or close their garage doors from anywhere in the world. Welcome, bemusedly, to the programmable home.

For years, some refrigerators have been able to build virtual shopping lists based on what food is removed from the cold storage. Welcome to the programmable home.

Of course, these examples are hardly new. Indeed, almost 31 years ago, in the May 1983 issue of Chain Store Age, my staff (mostly, associate editor Jeff MacCallum) chronicled how existing or nascent technologies would transform the lifestyles of tomorrow (meaning, by now, but that's a story for another day). 

We correctly forecast the boom in compact discs but failed to see the iPod/iPhone /iTunes making CDs all but obsolete. We predicted widespread Internet shopping, what we called “teleshopping,” for at the time the Internet was barely more than a scientific and military communications protocol. We predicted families would disdain albums in favor of viewing photos on their big screen televisions. We predicted robots would be common household members. We predicted electronic watches would convey information (okay, that turned out to be the smart phone, but recently Samsung has advanced a Galaxy Gear smart watch). We predicted technology would automate cars, making drivers all but non essential. Detroit is close to that reality. We made lots of other predictions that have come true. 

We profiled Xanadu, outside Orlando, the first of several experimental homes built to showcase the interface of technology with daily living. The Orlando Xanadu attracted some 1,000 visitors a day. The homes no longer exist, however, victims of the relentless advance of technology that overtook their once-advanced concepts. Still, it is humbling to recall how my magazine anticipated many of the innovations we take for granted today. 

During his next visit Dan said he would check to see if our programmable thermostat wiring could accept a Wi-Fi version (or else we’d have to have an electrician come in). I hope it does. I can’t want to enter the future.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Partnering for Profit

In my last post I referred to a second type of special report first published by Chain Store Age in 1990, one produced in partnership with an accounting/consulting firm. Here's the background of how I developed that transformational genre:

A short while after NCR signed to become the sponsor of a special report on technology (, I received a call to meet with the head of Ernst & Young’s retail practice, Stephanie Shern, in her Park Avenue office 10 blocks south of but 30 stories higher than mine. When we met, she said she wanted to discuss partnering on a survey of retail technology trends. 

At the time, each of our organizations conducted similar studies. I knew they were similar, extremely similar, because our tech editor had patterned our study on the E&Y model. The major differences centered on the size of each printed study and our distribution methods. 

Chain Store Age would publish just four pages of data. We employed a classic push distribution strategy. All of our 35,000 readers received those four pages as part of our magazine’s regular 35,000 circulation. 

On the other hand, Ernst & Young depended on a pull system. It waited for existing or perspective clients to ask for a copy of its 32-page report. It printed just 5,000 copies, and often had way too many leftovers sitting around when the next study came out in print. E&Y wanted to partner as a means of upping its profile with retailers.

On the spot I quickly agreed to work with E&Y, but equally as quick thought up a more elaborate and daring partnership. I proposed the following:

E&Y would be responsible for all editorial work in developing the survey, fielding it, analyzing the results and writing the copy. CSA would be responsible for the study’s design, layout, production and distribution. But instead of printing just 5,000 copies for E&Y, I said we would print 55,000 of the 32-page report and push it out as a freestanding section of our October issue. The 55,000 copies would include 35,000 for our normal circulation plus 5,000 for E&Y, 10,000 for distribution at various technology trade shows and 2,000 for a direct mail campaign to retail executives.

That last 2,000 was the linchpin of the whole idea, for the recipients would be chosen not by CSA or E&Y. Rather, they would be selected by a sponsor of the study (that would receive the final 3,000 copies of the production run).

For my plan to work, Ernst & Young would have to agree to do something no other accounting/ consulting company had ever done before. It would have to allow its proprietary work and expertise to appear in print next to an ad of another company.

I guaranteed we would print the 55,000 copies of the study even if we did not secure a sponsor. In return for assuming the risk of production, I said Chain Store Age would keep any and all sponsorship revenue.

As revolutionary as my idea appeared, it came at a propitious time. Accounting/consulting firms were embarking on a new era of marketing, of battling for name and service recognition.

For two or three days Stephanie's colleagues weighed the proposition. On the one hand, E&Y was committed to doing a study with or without CSA. On the other hand, pushing out 55,000 copies of the report would be a 1,000% increase in marketing exposure at no additional cost to E&Y. 

It was too good an offer for the numbers crunchers to pass up.

Within days of agreeing to my proposal, our top salesman, Chris, secured a sponsor, GE Information Services, for $100,000 net. Thus, our October issue would carry two special reports, each priced at $100,000 net, one sponsored by NCR, the other by GE Information Services. 

When the Ernst & Young study of retail technology trends appeared, three things happened. First, other accounting/consulting firms came a’calling. They, too, wanted to partner with us. Second, advertisers who had limited their spending with us suddenly found deep pockets to be associated with these high impact studies and reports. In short order we were partnering with all the major accounting/consulting companies on topics as diverse as loss prevention, logistics, payment systems and the state of the retail industry. It was a truly heady time juggling partners and study concepts.

The third result was an unintended consequence. We could do only one survey study a year for each topic. That meant other publications could seek partnerships with other accounting/consulting firms on the same topics. We were still the gold standard, and charged accordingly, but our competitors benefited from my concept, as well. As they say, a rising tide lifts all ships.

1990 was a watershed year for Chain Store Age, a year in which the topography of retail publishing changed because I listened and reacted quickly and creatively to the needs of the marketplace.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

AN NRF Convention Memory Worth Noting

Today is the Tuesday of the annual get-together of the National Retail Federation in New York City, an event I attended for 30 years until I retired four years ago. Twenty-four years ago this morning I pulled a rabbit out of thin air and transformed the way my magazine, Chain Store Age, conducted business. Indeed, my spur-of-the-moment idea became a template for other retail business publications, as well.

Some background: In 1990, we were fortunate if our advertisers spent $30,000 net a year. For that princely sum they would receive four full-page, four-color ads. My idea catapulted select accounts into a $100,000 net program, details of which I will explain later.

The NRF convention is mostly about technology, a subject that causes my eyes to glaze over. Normally, I would shun meetings with technology companies, assigning the chore to a more well-informed staff editor. For an early breakfast meeting with NCR at the New York Hilton, only I was there representing the editorial side. With me were the magazine’s publisher, John, and our top salesman, Chris. 

There we were, sitting in a round booth in the basement level of the Hilton, listening to Marshall Fey of NCR lament that the world’s largest maker of electronic point of sale (POS) systems had a problem: Whenever NCR pitched for business, low-level techies chose it over rivals like IBM or Digital. But when the multi-million contract made its way up the corporate ladder, the CEO invariably would ask, “We’re buying IBM registers, right?” Clearly, NCR had an image problem that haunted most of its sales efforts.

NCR had not advertised with us for years. If we could help resolve its dilemma, maybe we'd get a few ad pages. An idea popped into my head. “If your problem is CEOs don't know who you are,” I said, “the solution goes beyond informing them about your name. You must educate them about technology. Would NCR be interested in sponsoring a special multi-page report titled, ‘Retail Technology: What the Non-MIS Executive Needs to Know’? It would be 20 pages dedicated to educating non-techies about the merging importance of technology to retail operations. It would be objective reporting. It will be chock-full of cutting edge features on the power technology can bring to retailers. Most importantly, to convey authenticity and objectivity, none of the articles would mention NCR. NCR could include regular ads inside the freestanding report, but the report itself would be free of any reference to NCR.”

I sweetened the proposal with seven ads, a direct mail campaign of the report to 2,000 executives, and distribution of the report at several technology shows as part of an overall print run of 50,000 copies (our normal print run was 35,000).

When Marshall asked the price, I said $100,000 net. 

He didn’t blink. He said he'd bring the idea back to headquarters in Dayton, Ohio.

Back in our Park Avenue offices later that day John and Chris were excited, but wanted to know how I arrived at the $100,000 net price tag. I stuck my index finger in my mouth and raised it to feel which way the proverbial wind was blowing. It just sounded right, I said. A bold idea (made up on the spot) demanded bold pricing.

Marshall called a few days later. Could we come to Dayton for a presentation? A few weeks later we trekked out to Dayton, made our pitch with story boards just like you see them do on Mad Men, closed the sale. The NCR-sponsored report appeared in October 1990.

Special Reports became one of the most successful programs ever produced by Chain Store Age or any trade publication. Over the next 18 years we produced hundreds of special reports, some in conjunction with major consulting/accounting firms, another format I innovated on the spot during a meeting with Ernst & Young a few months later (if I’m industrious, perhaps I’ll write about that story next time). Competitors copied both ideas. Competition forced us to lower the price. But the Special Report program remained a mainstay of our market share leadership and profitability for the next two decades. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Birth: As Painful as a Stubbed Toe? Not!

I did something Monday I had not done in many a year—I stubbed my shoeless left foot toes real hard against the wooden leg of a couch. Man did it hurt. 

After I recovered from the dry mouth that accompanied the pain, I thought back about 35 and a half years ago to the time our friends Eleanor and Dennis had their first born a few months before Gilda delivered Dan. We had planned a natural childbirth a la the Lamaze method, as drug free as possible. 

Eleanor, on the other hand, had no interest in experiencing even the slightest bit of pain. When she arrived at the hospital she was hooked up to an IV to receive scopolamine to put her into a “twilight sleep” during labor. Scopolamine has since been banned from the delivery room. For good reason. It can induce hallucinations. Eleanor acted out a scene from the darkest of comedies about childbirth. She cursed her husband for putting her in such a painful situation. In her altered mind state she punched her obstetrician in the face or stomach (Gilda and I can’t agree on the location).

When Dennis tried to comfort her and gain some insight into how much pain she was in, he offered the following comparison: “Is it as painful as when you stub a toe?”

Eleanor might not have been fully aware of her surroundings, but she was conscious enough to react violently to Dennis’ suggestion. 

A few months later it was our turn to head to the hospital. Dan was a slow mover through the birth canal. Hour after hour dragged by, with few contractions. Reluctantly, very reluctantly, Gilda agreed to the administration of some pitocin to induce more frequent contractions. 

The pitocin was marginally helpful as the labor extended for more than a dozen hours. With Dennis’ experience as a guide, I did not venture to ask the degree of pain Gilda was in. I’m sure it exceeded the pain threshold of a stubbed toe.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Explosion in the Chemistry Lab

Did you hear about the NYC public high school science teacher who blew up her lab in an experiment gone wrong on Thursday? (

The excitement brought to mind a similar foul-up during my junior year at Yeshivah of Flatbush High School in Brooklyn. I wasn’t there. The incident happened in one of the other classes of my grade. They were studying the reaction of sulfuric acid with water. 

Now, there is a proper way to mix sulfuric acid and water, and there is a wrong way to mix the two. The proper way is to add the acid to water. Then there’s the other way. As explained by Wikipedia, “Addition of water to concentrated sulfuric acid leads to the dispersal of a sulfuric acid aerosol or worse, an explosion.”

Guess which way the teacher conducted the experiment? 

Yes, and no. At first, Mr. Nash, the chemistry teacher, who, it should be noted, really was a biology teacher pressed into chemistry service at the last minute, did the experiment the right way, adding acid to water. But the intended result, a rise in temperature in the glass beaker, was inconsequential. That’s when Mr. Nash made his monumental mistake. He listened to some of his students egging him on to add some more water to the mixture. 

Not being a true chemistry teacher, Mr. Nash was not acquainted with the consequences of his action. The resulting explosion, with glass shards flying about, injuring several students, taught him and the class a lesson they would not quickly forget.