Friday, December 28, 2018

Old Names in the News: Sears, Zakheim, Saporito

Did you get all the presents you wished for during this holiday season? I purposely chose the word “wish” as it conjures up the image of the Sears Wish Book, the once-giant retailer’s annual encyclopedia of gifts for all ages. “In 1968,” according to Sears Archives, “the Wish Book totaled 605 pages, with 225 pages devoted to toys and 380 pages to gifts for adults.”

During this all important shopping season, when merchants often garner most of their sales and profits,  several articles have surfaced about the fall of Sears (and sister company, Kmart) from iconic to catatonic ( and 

Today, Friday, CNBC reported Sears will shutter 80 more Sears and Kmart stores on top of the 182 closings it announced after it filed for bankruptcy protection October 15 ( 

Amazon and other Internet retailers are being blamed for the truncation and potential demise of the once largest retailer in the world. Amazon et al might be hammering the nail into Sears’ coffin, but the truth is Sears was fading into obscurity years before Jeff Bezos conceptualized Amazon in 1994. 

Consider the January 1980 edition of Chain Store Age. The cover story: “Why America Is Not Shopping Sears.” In 15 pages backed by extensive consumer research, articles detailed the troubles Sears faced, some of its own making, some because of newer, more focused competition, some the result of new market conditions including the proliferation of large shopping centers and the elimination of retail price maintenance laws that allowed brand name goods to be sold at discount prices. Shoppers no longer had to wait for sales of major appliances, consumer electronics, sporting goods, tools and other desired merchandise. They were available every day at the discount store located closer to their homes. 

Though still the largest retailer in the world back in 1980, Sears could not maintain that position as more nimble, more focused retailers took bites out of its market share. Best Buy. Circuit City. Home Depot. Lowe’s. Toys “R” Us. Sports Authority. Target. Wal-Mart. Even Kmart snatched sales from Sears. 

Sears reacted by turning commissioned sales people into hourly workers. Bad decision. They lacked incentive to sell. 

Apparel never was a Sears strong point. Baby boomers wouldn’t be caught dead wearing Sears clothing, not when the mall had dozens, even a hundred, specialty stores offered fashion right styles. 

Besides, walking into most Sears stores was like entering a mausoleum. Whereas department store mannequins were freshly dressed and lifelike, Sears mannequins appeared lifeless. Store decor and lighting were old fashioned and stark. There was no drama inside. It was as if Sears executives had never heard of the concept of retailtainment. 

When Sears filed for bankruptcy protection I posed the following: “Will Sears and Kmart be salvaged or scuttled? Ask yourself these questions: When was the last time you shopped Sears or Kmart? If one or both stores disappeared, would you notice? Would you miss them?”

Nothing has transpired to make me change my opinion.

Designer Prices: I have always eschewed clothing that outwardly displays a designer’s name or brand logo. I am okay with wearing Adolpho blazers or Givenchy suits with the labels discreetly sewn onto inside breast pockets (though since my retirement I rarely wear suits). 

Outward chauvinism is not my style. In fact, I have long advocated a reversal of the standard bill of fare. Rather than charging more for a polo shirt or pair of jeans that shout out the designer’s or brand’s name, I believe such walking billboards should be sold at a discount as payment for the publicity they provide.   
Two of my cousins are optometrists. As their practices are in Philadelphia and Jacksonville it was not convenient for me to patronize them when I needed new eyeglasses. 

But I did pick their brains about the differences between designer and generic frames you might find in a mass market optical store such as Lenscrafters or Visionworks. 

Their responses: If you are concerned about the quality of a generic frame, don’t be. If you find a generic frame you like, buy it. Designer frames may provide a design that intrigues you, but the cost will be much higher. 

Their bottom line—find a lower priced generic frame. 

Which brings us to the recent scam Payless ShoeSource performed on fashionistas in Los Angeles. Payless tricked them into believing its $19.99 man-made women’s shoes were leather, designed by Bruno Palessi and worth hundreds of dollars. Here’s a Washington Post article to click on in case you missed the charade:

Degrees of Separation: Many of my blog postings are generated by current events that bring up incidents or people/companies from my past (the Sears piece above is an example). 

So I was doubly stimulated when reading The New York Times on line in the middle of the night earlier this week.

The first article, a profile of acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan, referenced “Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration” (

Dov and I were elementary school classmates at Yeshiva Rambam in Brooklyn some 60 years ago. He, and I, were considered Talmudic scholars by our teachers. Apart from his service in the Pentagon, Dov went on to become a rabbi. 

The second article was an Op-Ed piece entitled “Trump’s King Minus Touch,” by Bill Saporito, a contributor to The Times editorial board ( Bill and I worked together on Chain Store Age Supermarkets 40 years ago. He left to become a photographer for a Pittsburgh paper, if memory serves me right, and afterward began a long association with various Time Inc. magazines including Fortune and Time. 

Seeing their names in print is a nice way to keep up with old acquaintances. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Blogging as an Exercise in Writing

Non use of muscles impairs them. Causes them to atrophy. Singers who don’t practice their chords every day risk losing vocal strength. Professional athletes, be they baseball or basketball players or from any sport, rely on repetitive exercise to instill muscle memory so they can perform at a superior level even under extreme pressure. 

Writers—bloggers—are no different. Writing requires more than a haphazard dedication. I can’t believe it has been two weeks since my last posting. Lots of things have happened since then. I’ve started to write several blogs but laziness, sometimes abetted by real reasons, stifled my creative juices. So, here’s a jumble of thoughts on a variety of topics:

Evening News: Gilda and I eat most dinners while watching the evening news, usually recorded so we can fast forward through commercials. When Dan and Ellie were young we restricted their TV viewing to limit their exposure to violent shows. Yet we justified their watching the most violent broadcast of all, the evening news. 

Perhaps as a carryover from my parents’ home, CBS News was our preferred outlet. From anchors Walter Cronkite through Dan Rather, Connie Chung, Bob Schieffer, Katie Couric, Scott Pelley and Jeff Glor we remained loyal to the Tiffany Network’s newscast. Until recently. I like the CBS correspondents, but Jeff Glor as an anchor just does not measure up. So we switched, mostly to ABC World News with David Muir. 

After several months of viewing I noticed that compared to CBS and NBC, ABC has a different way of presenting female correspondents when they appear in conversation with the anchor at his glass desk. They sit across from him, closer to the camera, wearing short skirts with their legs crossed to the right, directly at the camera. Am I suggesting this is a woke moment during this #MeToo time? You betcha!

Another Genocide in the Making? Its denials of an Armenian genocide 100 years ago notwithstanding, Turkey seems poised to undertake another fateful exercise in ethnic eradication. Emboldened by Donald Trump’s capricious decision to withdraw 2,000 American troops from Syrian territory near the Turkish border where Kurdish forces have been fighting ISIS, Turkey has signaled it will launch an assault against the Kurds ( 

It is to the everlasting embarrassment, shame and dysfunction of America’s political standing in the world that Trump cares more about the wishes of foreign tyrants than the counsel of American politicians and experts. Trump ordered the troop withdrawal after conversation with Turkey’s despotic leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan despite his own advisors’ strong recommendation to maintain a military presence in Syria.

Vigilance for the Truth: I was reminded again of the need to be forever vigilant in pursuit of the truth during this era of instant mass communications. A friend sent an email suggesting the alleged disrespect for the American flag and the national anthem can be traced to Barack Obama. So I checked its veracity by googling “Snopes: Obama Explains National Anthem Stance?” Of course the claim proved to be false.

“Disinformation campaigns, whether inspired by Russia or any extremist entity, succeed only when recipients of such emails fail to research their authenticity. Any democracy demands vigilance and a healthy skepticism. John McCain provided the best (now viral) demonstration of what we all must do when confronted with salacious untruths. During a campaign town hall meeting in 2008 he respectfully disagreed with a woman who claimed Obama was a Muslim and unAmerican. He corrected her misinformation. Maybe it cost him some votes. But he stood up for the truth,” I wrote my friend.  

Is It Christmas Yet? CBS Sunday Morning reported a survey that found 51% of Americans said they have sent a letter to Santa Claus. I chuckled when I saw that, but truly snorted when I read a Facebook post shared by my sister Lee: “Before you mock children who believe in Santa Claus, remember that there are still adults who believe in Donald Trump.”

Over a picture of takeout Chinese food, my cousin Stan posted on Facebook: “Ok......Hanukkah is over, time to start planning a traditional Jewish Christmas Eve !!!!”

Why do many Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve? Here’s a defining reason from an article in Tablet:

“Whether they have fully thought it through or not, Jews who eat Chinese food on Christmas are proclaiming that, for them, Jewishness is what philosophers call a second-order value. In contrast to valuing Judaism on the first order—enjoying the rituals themselves, sincerely adhering to the tenets themselves—they value the fact of their Jewishness. They go out of their way to do it. They may or may not enjoy General Tso’s Chicken, but if they are eating it on Christmas, their prime motivation is not the general’s sweet, spicy deliciousness, but rather the knowledge that they are doing something that in some adapted way reinforces their Jewishness. They are moved by their hearts, not their tastebuds.” (

Gilda and I will be eating Chinese food Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Want To Get People Talking? Ask Them for Their Opinion on Joe Biden for President

The conversation during Friday night’s dinner started to take on an edge when the discussion turned to potential Democratic presidential candidates. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick just dropped out, someone lamented, adding that former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu also withdrew his hat from the ring. As should Senator Elizabeth Warren, a third voice chimed in.   

At the mention of Joe Biden a chorus of “god forbids” or words to that effect cascaded across the room. I disagreed. Loudly (I was, after all, the host, so raising my voice was within the bounds of master of the house). 

While I have not jumped on the Biden bandwagon I reject arguments that he is too old or that his admittedly lapsed leadership as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation during the former’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing utterly disqualified him from seeking the presidency. These were among the arguments Frank Bruni laid out in The New York Times the next day ( 

God has yet to create the perfect candidate. All politicians make compromises. All have skeletons, some visible, some not, that inhabit their closets. Has Biden atoned through his work over the last quarter century for his failure to believe and protect Anita Hill in 1991? I’d like to think so. 

As for the age factor, absent examples of dementia, Biden’s age should not disqualify him. As a society we have come a long way in recognizing the contributions senior citizens can make. Keep in mind, Biden’s learning curve for what a president has to master would be much lower than any other candidate, including the current occupant of the White House.  

The main obstacle Biden must overcome to secure his party’s nomination is the primary and caucus system. He doesn’t generate rabid enthusiasm, the type of momentum needed, especially now that the power of superdelegates has been diminished. Primary/caucus voters often are looking for a fresh face. 

Short of nominating a total disaster, however, Democrats should be able to count on winning at least the same states Hillary Clinton did in 2016, I believe. To garner at least 270 Electoral College votes the nominee needs to win some combination of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. 

Those are older, working class population states with voters who align well with Biden’s core constituencies. Biden might not carry those or any state in a primary where young zealous advocates often opt for the fresh face, but against Trump in a national election he would present solid Democratic values. 

On the other hand, most of the other possible nominees lack the working class credibility Middle Western voters seek. And Biden exudes an aura of accessibility, even a vulnerability given the tragedies that have befallen his family. Down on their luck voters may find it easier to identify with him. 

Coupled with a qualified ticket-balancing vice presidential candidate, someone like Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, or Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Biden could defeat Trump and restore dignity to the Oval Office and our standing in the world. 

I am not endorsing Biden. I just do not believe he should be dismissed out of hand. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Facing Up to Mistakes

Have you ever made a mistake at work? Perhaps you are an accountant and you put an extra zero at the end of a number or placed a decimal point one column to the right. Or maybe you are an attorney and failed to file a motion in a timely manner. Or you are a shipping clerk who sent a package to London, England, instead of London, Ontario (that last one is a homage to All in the Family and the reason Archie Bunker did not get a Christmas bonus one year and thus could not buy Edith the vacuum cleaner she desired). 

The point is, people make mistakes, and so do computers if they are programmed incorrectly by humans, of course. No matter how many levels of review an organization has, human error cannot be totally eliminated. 

Try talking out loud for several straight hours a day without fumbling your words. Naturally, you will mispronounce some words. But when I refer to fumbling I mean something far more sinister, far more detrimental, to your societal position and ambition. 

In the age of instant mass communication any gaffe, any untoward remark, may be blown up out of proportion to your intent. The tragedy, the threat to our civil and political comity, and potentially our democracy, is that it usually is. 

Did Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” comment cost her the election? Didn’t help. Howard Dean’s outburst of enthusiasm after the Iowa caucus in 2004 surely blew up his presidential hopes. In 2006, George Allen got caught on a cell phone camera calling one of his opponent’s campaign trackers a “macaca” (monkey). It submarined his re-election bid as a U.S. senator from Virginia. 

Which brings us to a recent brouhaha over an erroneous news report. I classify it as a “brouhaha” not to discount the culpability of the media, in this case, NPR, but rather because when journalists make mistakes they are held to a higher standard than politicians who regularly and deliberatively lie. 

NPR screwed up in a report linking Trump ex-attorney Michael Cohen’s plea deal confession to testimony Donald Trump Jr. provided to the Senate in 2017. NPR alleged Trump lied to the Senate about the family’s business plans in Russia. NPR issued a correction shortly thereafter.

But admitting its mistake did not stop right wing journalists and Web sites from excoriating NPR. Indeed, a Google check of “NPR Donald Trump Jr.” finds that the top sites covering this faux pas were Sputnik News, The Daily Wire, The Daily Caller, Breitbart,, National Review and The Federalist. It is a conservative onslaught when the most objective site I could cite was Fox News.

Only Trump Sr. seems immune from fallout from vocal flatulence. Indeed, his base laps up his lies and libertine lewdness. Of course, foreign governments and independent entities such as the stock market are not necessarily impassive to Trump’s discordant trumpet. Here’s an article from The Washington Post highlighting the chaos from Trump’s erraticism:

The PC police long ago lost the war with Trump. But the PC police remain vigilantly active when it comes to Trump’s detractors. Eric Holder and Hillary Clinton are held to a higher standard. As is The New York Times. 

Back in September The Times published an erroneous report that U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley had spent lavishly on draperies for her official residence in a high rise building near the U.N. The Times apologized for the error and issued a correction stating it was the Obama administration that authorized the purchase. 

In no other profession are mistakes as publicly acknowledged as they are in legitimate journalism. 

I made my fair share of mistakes as a reporter and editor. My most egregious mistake was not one of fact but of judgment. After a particularly negative experience trying to buy an electric snow shovel at a now defunct local home center chain, I avenged my treatment by recounting the details in the editor’s column of the next issue of Chain Store Age. I not only named the chain but also the store manager. I overstepped the bounds of civil criticism. In the next issue I apologized.

My most amusing mistake was printed on the cover of a December 1992 issue profiling retail industry entrepreneurs of the year. Chain Store Age partnered with Ernst & Young as part of the latter’s national all-industry program to recognize corporate leaders.

From the 29 retailers selected as winners that year, we chose to put Randy Acton, president of U.S. Cavalry, on the cover. U.S. Cavalry, now part of Galls LLC, sold military and law enforcement apparel and accessories. 

For the cover shoot Acton dressed in a military camouflage outfit, helmet and all. The headline read, “Soldier of Fortune,” under which we printed, “Randy Acton, president U.S. Calvary.”

Did you catch the mistake? I didn’t, until I received a thank you note from Randy. He gently pointed out his company was U.S. Cavalry, not U.S. Calvary.

Jesus, what a mistake that was!