business news in context, analysis with attitude

Time to catch up with just some of the emails we’ve received over the past few days…

We had a story earlier this week about how the American Family Association (AFA) of Tupelo, Miss., described as “a conservative, Christian-values group,” has announced that it has lifted its boycott of consumer packaged goods company Procter & Gamble that was launched because the group objected to P&G’s sponsorship of gay-themed television programs such as “Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

In our original commentary, we supported the rights of people and organizations to boycott…but we suggested that we would have preferred if P&G had told the AFA to stick it…especially since P&G has been subjected to irrational boycotts because of allegations that it sends its profits to Satanists. Our feeling is that gay people wash their clothes and brush their teeth, too – and P&G has the right to sell them detergent and toothpaste without fear of being attacked by fringe groups.

Not everyone agreed. One MNB user wrote that ”there was a time when it was not necessary for consumers to use the power of money to speak to advertisers using things not suitable for family viewing to advertise their products because advertisements used to be rated G. Sadly, that is not the case any more. Advertisements are often distasteful. Companies quietly support things that are distressing to the majority when they come into the light. Letting the company know that there are other ways to advertise is now necessary. Speaking out against things companies quietly support, that are not supported by the majority, should be done.”

However, this particular response drew an objection from another member of the MNB community:

In answer to your reader who supported the idea of the P&G boycott with his assertion that democracy is based on majority rules I have to point out that our country was most explicitly NOT founded on “principles of democracy where the majority rules”. This is unfortunately a popular misconception.

Our country’s founders were far more concerned about avoiding tyranny, including tyranny of the majority. Everything about the checks and balances of our system, everything about the constitutional separations of powers, the existence of two houses of Congress, one of which does NOT have proportional representation…all of it is to prevent the majority, or anyone in temporary power, from dictating the entire agenda, or dominating the legal and social framework without dissent.

I have no problem with a majority speaking their mind, or boycotting something or someone they don’t like. Go for it, it’s all good. I have a serious problem when a group, that may or may not be in majority, decides that their aim is to restrict everyone else’s choices to just whatever they approve themselves

That is tyranny, whether you call it democracy or not. And cloaking it in the dark language of conspiracy, like, “the minority group using behind the scenes tactics” is just nonsense. If someone wants to watch a TV program in New York or L.A. that doesn’t sit well with the good folks in Oklahoma or Utah…I see no reason why P&G can’t advertise there. The folks who don’t approve have control of their own TV. Hopefully, they don’t have control of mine.

We may be going out on a limb here, but it sounds like this person was talking about more than just the P&G boycott.

Another MNB user wrote:

What was your thought process in determining AFA is a fringe group? Their web site lists membership over 2 million members. AFA also works in conjunction with several other Christian groups. Yes, some Christian organizations, as well as some others, overdo it on the rhetoric. I find it hard to agree with an MNB user who calls AFA a special interest group when AFA's main issue is morality. I have seen true fringe groups with 30 members and bizarre reports get more media attention from the press if they agree with the slant.

I think the public has a hard time figuring out what groups stand for. Also, many times there seems to be little middle ground on issues. Either the group's true intentions are obscure or the group name sounds so good that people inherently support them. Who could be possibly be opposed to a group with the word children or environment in the title?

The MNB user's point on tasteless commercials is well taken and that's part of the bigger picture. By objecting to tasteless commercials or objectionable television shows, people have decided to take a stand against what they see as the decline of our moral standards. These are people that are fighting against "normalizing" things.

Why do things seem to be more out of control with our youth? Partly, it's just me getting older, but there is one other big thing at work - lack of appropriate limits. Any parent knows from their own experiences as a parent and a child that children will push the limit and sometimes exceed it. If the bar is set at 6, kids will push it to 7 and 8. As parents, we are not as apprehensive with the choices are children may make exceeding these lower limits. If we let society raise the height of that bar to 9 and 10, children will be off the scale and in real danger.

Teen sex and sex ed continue to be a topic from when I was in high school, although at that time no one was silly enough to suggest handing out condoms. I had sex ed in school, but my parents never really spoke to me about the subject. That was until they found out I had a condom, which I took from my dad's dresser. The thing is though - I never really intended to use it. But after my parents spoke with me I felt like they were giving me reluctant permission to have sex, like the permission parents sometimes give you on other things. I wished the message I received was an adult level discussion on why abstinence was the best choice. Abstinence is the ONLY method that is 100% effective against pregnancy and STDs.

AFA decided to boycott P & G for its efforts to "normalize" homosexuality on television and by giving money to pass a local referendum on gay issues. In general, I am confused by the way that this issue plays out. Although the bible is clear that homosexuality is a sin (not sure how people are still disputing what the bible says on that), Christians should not condemn it any more than other sins. But Christians are taught that we are all sinners by nature, so why doesn't the church seem to welcome homosexuals the same as any other sinner?

We’re going to let these questions go without answering some of them…mostly because as open as we try to be about our life and beliefs, there are a very few things that simply are none of anyone else’s business.

But we will answer one question – what led us to label AFA as a “fringe group.”

Any group that looks to institutionalize prejudice – against anyone, liberal or conservative, gay or straight or whatever – is what we would consider to be a fringe group.

We wrote yesterday, as part of an article about the sale of Ahold’s c-stores, that rumors were rampant that Tops would be the next to go, and soon.

One MNB user responded:

I disagree with the rumors of Tops being sold. Giant Food Stores is making great strides with the Tops division and with the introduction of the Martin's design, I think you will see a steady turnaround of that chain.

Tops has tough competition in Wegmans and Wal-Mart is a growing threat, but Giant has met with the likes of Wal-Mart in PA and has done an excellent job of differentiating themselves from the smiley face and the rest of the competition.

You may be right. But the fact of the rumors is undeniable.

We had a piece yesterday that referred to the fact that even as the government publishes a new nutrition pyramid to get people to eat better, the Bush administration, in its 2006 budget proposal, suggests a cut in federal funds for physical education teachers and equipment from $74 million to $55 million.

We suggested in our commentary that it is ironic that at a time when parents are criticized for over-programming their kids in soccer leagues, baseball leagues, basketball leagues, tennis lessons and the like, their kids actually are getting fatter. Two reasons for this: One is that we’re all driving our kids to all their practices and games, instead of making them walk or ride their bikes, and the other is that our kids have lost the habit of just going outside and playing, choosing up sides for a quick game of basketball or stickball or whatever.

MNB user Carla A. Alexander responded:

I agree that there is a gap in the exercise regimen for kids. However, as a mother whose children are involved in sports activities, there is NO WAY in this time of rampant child abduction that I will let my children WALK anywhere! If they ride bikes in the neighborhood, I am walking right between them, never letting them out of my sight. They are allowed to play in my fenced in back yard only if I am in the kitchen where I can keep an eye on them. I come from the generation where I left my house at sunup and my mother didn't see me again till the street lights came on. Can you imagine that now? Your children could be three states away by the time the street lights come on! I may be overprotective, but I'll live with that rather than have to get on television and plea for the improbable safe return of my child.

You describe a different problem, albeit a big one. Not sure what kind of neighborhood you live in…but we have to admit that in our town, we allow our kids to walk the mile or so home whenever they want to. They know the rules, they know they have to be in pairs or more…but we think that it is important that they a) get the exercise, b) have some degree of autonomy, and c) not live in fear.

Though we always check the clock and pay attention to when they are supposed to be home.

Another member of the MNB community wrote:

I couldn't agree with you more. The school has some responsibility to the children as far as physical education goes, but when did it becomes the schools job to tell kids how to eat and exercise. As parents we must take the time to take our kids to the park or for walks. Their health is our full responsibility not any one else's including the government or the education system. Children learn good eating and exercise habits from their parents.


MNB user Charles Bartell wrote about the possibility of supermarkets helping to feed school kids in a more healthy fashion:

School nutrition offers a small opportunity for grocers. The problem is growth of the government funded National School Lunch Program. In the program the government reimburses schools for free and paid lunches distributed. The program was designed to ensure that low-income children receive a nutritious lunch. The lunch program has spread to all schools in the past few years. Since the lunch program's objective is to ensure primarily that students receive a nutritious lunch the government established nutrition standards that had to be met by schools. Each meal had to meet a required protein, fruit and grain benchmark. Once the school met the benchmark they qualified for reimbursement. The amount reimbursed is up to $2.41 per student per day for lunch.

Since lunch worked so well - the program was expanded to offering breakfast and after school snacks. The breakfast program grew out of the same need for nutrition among low income students. In the last few years the breakfast program has been expanded to higher income areas based on the studies that showed students who ate breakfast had increased test scores performance. The breakfast program reimburses schools up to $1.47 per student for a qualifying breakfast.

Since the breakfast program worked so well the government is rolling out an after school snack program. The logic is that with many mothers working children need to be fed in the evening prior to dinner. The government will reimburse schools .61 per student for qualifying snacks.

Now whenever you mix government reimbursement based on standards the schools will figure out how to subsidize their entire food program costs through the reimbursement and hopefully make a profit. The key is to provide the lowest possible cost foods that meet the grain, protein and fruit requirements.

Schools can profit by offering menu items that meet multiple nutrition benchmarks. Products such as fortified donuts that meet grain, protein and fruit requirement are the weapons of choice among the schools. The donut costs about .25 to .29 each. Combine the donut with milk and the total cost of a qualifying lunch is less than .70. The school is reimbursed up to $1.47 - making a profit. Profit is probably not a good word - the excess funds may be applied to the staffing costs for school cafeteria. Many schools are faced with shrinking budgets forcing schools to get creative and offer more foods that meet dual requirements. Taste is secondary.

One last note - the government also distributes commodities to all schools without income tests. The products come from commodity price support programs. An example is ground beef. Every school in a state, no matter how wealthy their student base, is allocated ground beef commodities. The schools can take delivery of the raw commodity and add value in the school or send it to processors and have it made into final use products such as burgers.

As government funded feeding grows in the schools - you guessed it – another eating occasion is lost in the grocery store. Lunch for most schools is gone - breakfast is going (though may never go as far as lunch) - and after school snack programs are growing. All of this means that grocers will continue to see diminished sales in the categories that supply these eating occasions.

Competing in this arena for grocers would be very difficult - hard to beat

And MNB user Kevin McCaffery added:

When the options for a 10 year old at school are a hamburger and fries or fried chicken and fries what are there options? where is the healthy choice? The point is they have no choice.

When schools make a grilled cheese sandwich, could they make it with wheat instead of white? With one piece of cheese rather than 2 or 3? and do they have to coat it in butter before they toast it?

The change does not have to be huge, just small changes could make a great difference.

We got several emails in response to yesterday’s story about Target’s new pill bottles.

One MNB user wrote:

I recently had several prescriptions filled at Target, and got a chance to experience the new vials first hand. Having worked 16 years in retail pharmacy, 10 of those with the current number one chain nationally, I'm more than familiar with the challenges faced by patients, particularly those who are elderly and taking multiple medications. This new vial is incredibly effective, addressing issues that have plagued those taking medications and their pharmacists for years.

Hats off to Target for putting the health and well being of their customer first, and taking on what had to be a very costly venture. It's deplorable to me that this was never addressed by companies whose business is driven by pharmacy. And as an aside, I received a call from the Target pharmacist the following day to see whether I had any questions regarding my therapy.

Pretty impressive....

MNB user Jerry Sheldon added:

Not only are the colored rings a nice thought, but they have this new system for dispensing liquids. Instead of pouring the liquid onto a spoon or in a little cup, they give you a metered syringe that allows you to get out just the exact amount through an opening in the top, which prevents spillage. As a parent, it is a welcome improvement.

We love getting unsolicited emails like this one, from MNB user Paul Schlossberg wrote:

We were on an extended weekend in Phoenix and beyond. Looking for lunch, we drove in to a very nice strip shopping center (at Thompson Peak and Frank Lloyd Wright). Great store...good use of lighting. Layout is very engaging. Lots of demo's and sampling. Non-food and cooking related merchandising was very strong. Fresh food was involving and seemed to be set in European style. Outdoor grill and seating with overhead fans…

Looks like they skipped the class in retail merchandising that every
store must be the same.

We reflected yesterday about a New York Times story about so-called “girlie wines,” packaged “in gift bags resembling see-through organza negligees and bearing cosmetics-counter names like Seduction or hip-cute ones like Rosé the Riveter or Mad Housewife.” For example, the NYT noted, Beringer Blass Wine Estates is introducing a low-alcohol, low-calorie chardonnay called White Lie Early Season Chardonnay. “The wine, its pedicure-red label and romance-novel cursive lettering - to flaunt on supermarket shelves - has a promotion involving Jennifer Weiner, a best-selling chick-lit author. The corks carry messages, familiar white lies like ‘I'll be home by 7’ and ‘It's my natural color’.”

The big reason for these changes: Women buy 77 percent and consume 60 percent of the wine in America.

We wondered – based on almost 22 years of marriage – if some women would find this offensive or insulting. (We asked…and Mrs. Content Guy was even more appalled than we expected.) It’s like the manufacturers don’t trust them to appreciate the real qualities and benefits of wine, and therefore feel the need to seduce them into buying some cutesy version.

One member of the MNB community observed:

Re: Wine in negligees -- how utterly, unbelievably stupid do these people think we (women) are? That we'll buy a wine because it's wearing a nightie or has a pedicure? What, and the wine is vapid and dumbed-down too? Early season (nice euphemism for "too young to drink"), low-alcohol and low-calorie?
It's fruit juice, then.

Let's face it -- the smart women -- the ones who will not only NOT fall for such blatant pandering, but will be disgusted by it -- are the ones who have had some exposure to good wines, have developed their own tastes and palettes -- and most importantly, are the ones who earn the money to buy the wines that fit those tastes and palettes. The intelligent women I know don't read bodice-ripper novels (they read anything by Dan Brown or Carl Hiaasen), gossip rags or the magazines that try to tell us 50 new ways to look emaciated, (try Smart Money, Working Mother...and MNB, of course!) they are comfortable with who and what they are, and aren't afraid to buy what they like -- or to try something new that intrigues them.

Get real, Beringer -- attracting a woman usually consists of catching her eye AND appealing to her mind. Do that, and she'll love you forever. Treat her like an idiot (or worse, a bimbo, which is what this sounds dangerously close to) and she'll kick you to the curb.

What do you want to bet that this strategy was thought up by a room full of guys?

We had another story yesterday about how “multitasking” women and becoming “multiminded” women – which, according to BrandWeek, means that means that “today's typical woman, even if she appears to be relaxing in front of a late night television show, reading a magazine or tackling an array of projects at work, is constantly thinking about and preparing for the multiple dimensions of her life, mentally juggling an unending array of work, home and self-care concerns while tackling or embracing the moment.”

The message is that the demands of modern life and the enabling facets of technology have allowed the line between work and home to get ever-thinner, and that women are the beneficiaries/victims of this trend. After all, a recent US Department of Labor study noted that the average working woman spends almost twice as much time as a working man on household chores and childcare, and that while 85 percent of men work for a living, 78 percent of women are in the workforce.

The article suggests that marketers need to keep this trend in mind when creating messages – and by extension, retail environments – that appeal to women in 2005 and beyond. The author says that marketers have to spend more time asking women what they want instead of making assumptions; have to be far more conscious of the demands on her time, and create targeted, relevant messages; and take her needs and desires seriously.

To which MNB user Samantha Cessna responded:

Wow, really interesting article. I loved it. It provided some really fun and challenging material to think about on our own and together as women in this day and age.

It is important to keep in mind that if women are the primary consumers and they are more and more overextending themselves, that companies are going to have to reach them in new and creative ways. I love reading and learning about these new market trends and how they effect business today.

To me, I thought this article was a little depressing though. Although women want to "do it all," it feels like it is at such a cost to our selves as individuals, as friends, etc. I hate to hear that the line between work and home is becoming increasingly blurred. to me, even now without children, a home, and real financial responsibility, it’s impossible to find time just to be still. I admire women who have the capability to juggle it all, but I by no means envy them. but how lucky we are to live in a place where we can make these choices. What a juxtaposition it is to think that we are in a society where we are changing the ways business' operate and there are women on the other side of the world who are fighting for simply the privilege to define their own destiny. god bless America!

but really, in the area I live in, what choice do most women have but to bring home income in order to sustain this "orange county" lifestyle.

Some fun deep insight for today... fascinating!

Regarding A&P, which we described this week as “dead company walking,” MNB user David J. Livingston wrote:

When you have a CEO who can't be fired, regardless of his ineptness, you end up the way A&P has. Sometimes we in the industry are just taken back by the blunders made at A&P - usually the same recycled blunders. Its
gotten so bad at A&P that making a profit is a dream. They get excited and cheer when their losses are narrowed. They get excited over small same store sales increases, even though the stores are still low volume. Basically A&P has such low expectation of themselves, they have lost touch with reality.

And another MNB user wrote about A&P’s decision to fold Food Basics stores in Toledo:

Having worked there (although I left sometime ago) it appears they have still not figured out how to match consumers and formats. The master of this is Loblaw’s in Canada who understands their customers and knows who shops where and why. Just building/opening low price stores is not any company’s answer. You need to know which trading areas are ready for them and which are not. A&P has been able to figure that out in Canada but apparently not in the U.S. Who would have taken a gamble in Toledo to begin with?

We had a piece earlier this week about Wal-Mart offering a new online service, allowing people to create their own CDs, choosing their own music mix and having the final disk shipped to them. We observed that this sounds like old-world technology to us…that kids today don’t buy CDs…they download music off the Internet.

To which one MNB user responded:

Your piece on Wal-Mart's new custom CD included the line, "...Kids don’t use CDs. They download music off the Internet, and have no need or desire for the physical disk." The real problem in custom CDs from Wal-Mart, I would wager, is less that the idea is out of touch, and more that the Wal-Mart PC Filter would strip the selection/delivery of songs to the point that the service would be shunned by the "Kids That Don't Need CDs".

It's often much easier to load a CD into iTunes than it is to wait for a download. In addition, even 'pirated CDs' are still recognized by the software and catalogued against Apple's database for the publication info, song titles, etc. If Wal-Mart creates CDs that the available software can recognize, then this could be a 'slam dunk'...

...if they don't strip the available tunes of everything the Kids That Don't Use CDs want to hear, of course.

And MNB user Julie Diane Davenport chimed in:

While "kids" may not use CD's, many college students still do. Many people who download music still burn music on the "physical disk." One of Wal-Mart’s problems is that they are charging a per song fee. The majority of the population has figured out how to download music for free. Still, this venture is probably of very little cost to Wal-Mart. There is always the opportunity to bring in customers who generally loathe Wal-Mart.

Besides, Napster and other online music stores seem to feel that they will be able to sell music online instead of giving it away. Wal-Mart isn't alone on this. Not everyone is up to date. Yes, the demographic that buys CD's is aging, but isn't that how the technology industry always works? I believe that whoever decided to try this did not believe that there would always be a viable market for CD's. At the present time, many people are still using CD's and many would like to have custom CD's without the trouble of downloading the music.

We based our observation on the fact that when we went to a college campus recently to host a seminar, the students there told us that they don’t buy CDs…they download. And we have a college-age son, a high school-age son, and a 5th grade daughter – and the older two only download. The only reason the younger one doesn’t is that she doesn’t have the open access to the Internet that would allow her to do so.

We got several emails about the trend toward installing in-store television networks.

MNB user Susan Kemp observed:

My local stores have the TV’s installed. My teenage children were shopping with me and their comment was "TV in the store? There are commercials everywhere! We're sick of ads on everything trying to get us to buy stuff!"

My children are not anti-TV, they are the products of a multi-media environment, but they were annoyed--they did not view it as an enhancement.

Of course, although my children are uber-consumers, they are not the grocery shoppers in the family--I am. I noticed the TV, and promptly tuned it out. It was just one more noisy distraction. I won't avoid Jewel because of the TV, but I certainly don't find it an enhancement.

And MNB user Mark Heckman wrote:

I am generally a big fan of any innovation that could enhance the shopping experience. Unfortunately, in-store video networks thus far have not achieved that lofty plateau. There are several reasons why , but generally they just become irrelevant "noise" in an already cluttered environment.

I led a project 10 years ago at Marsh Supermarkets to implement such a network, albeit with much more primitive technology than by today's standards. "In a nutshell" Austin Powers would put it, if you don't have lots of content....mega content, and you don't have a solution for "ambient noise", that is making the audio loud (if audio exists) when the store is noisy and softer when it is not, you will drive your employees nuts and likely find your shoppers annoyed with the new diversion.

"Narrowcasting", however, that is getting the message closer to the point of purchase with on shelf or near-on shelf messaging with smaller screens and potential interactivity, is the way to go in my view. That is really what the brands want to do, break through the clutter..... not add to it For the shopper, if the message is related to "item and price", it becomes an actionable benefit, instead of watching unwanted commercials while you try to concentrate on which aisle the tomato juice is on!

Time will tell if these new emerging networks have cracked the code on success. In the meanwhile, I will be working on the development of a companion product for these new networks called "Supermarket TiVo"!

We also got an unsolicited email about the legislation signed into law this week that is aimed at helping parents keep their children from seeing sex scenes, violence and foul language in movie DVDs. The bill protects companies that create filtering technology that helps parents automatically skip or mute sections of commercial movie DVDs.

We suspect that we got this email because we ran a series of commentaries some time ago that were very critical of companies that were editing R-rated movies and turning them into PG-13 versions…without the permission of filmmakers.

MNB user Madelyn Matijevich observed:

I am all for it. There are many really good movies that I (61 year old female) cannot watch because the excessive frightening violence and some of the explicit and/or unnatural sex makes me very uncomfortable - but I want to watch the good parts of the good movies!

Case in point - the HBO series Sex in the City - I am thoroughly enjoying watching the sanitized version of it on TBS. When it was on HBO, I was not able to watch it. (Tried, but couldn't) Even the sanitized version is often pretty raunchy, but at least I can enjoy it.

We went through a time when Hollywood couldn't seem to make a movie without sticking some really gross stuff in it - but if you could take out the gross stuff, you had a pretty good show. I agree that there are times when the violence or sex serves a purpose in the story - but the popularity of shows like Law & Order prove that most of the time it just isn't necessary and doesn't add to the plot. I know that's a TV show, but it proves my point.

We are completely sympathetic to this point of view, and we’re sort of torn on the issue of filtering technology. On the one hand, it is sort of the technological/automatic equivalent of using the remote…but you don’t have to be quick on the draw…which seems reasonable. On the other hand, we think that if you don’t approve of a movie or TV show – all of which carry ratings – then don’t watch.

We object to any censorship efforts that affect copyrighted material or that attempt to dilute the vision of artists. (Full disclosure: we studied filmmaking in Los Angeles during the mid-seventies, have spent some time working in the TV/film industry, and have written numerous unproduced screenplays as well as one produced script for an animated TV series…so we have some perspective and experience in this area.)

Some films and TV shows are art. Some are crap. But when it comes to being protected from censorship, we don’t think it matters.

And we know that many of you will disagree with us.

Finally, we had a story yesterday about a man who went for a walk in the woods near Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France, and found 40,000 pounds of gourmet salami and cured hams wrapped in plastic and apparently perfectly edible.

The meats