business news in context, analysis with attitude

Michael Sansolo had a good column earlier this week about “killer apps,” which prompted MNB user Bruce Christiansen to ponder:

Good piece … on killer apps, and a great reminder that not all killer apps are software.

I hope you can follow the dysfunctional logic below...I was reading your article this morning while I had Fed Chairman Bernanke's testimony on in the background, and while multi-tasking I noticed that one of the senators held up a printed and bound copy of chairman Bernanke's comments (which he was there reading to them...go figure). That got me to thinking about the number of media wonks and congressional knuckleheads I've seen over the past couple of weeks holding up their printed copy of the recently passed 1100 page economic stimulus bill, which then got me to thinking about watching Jeff Bezos last night on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to discuss the release of the Kindle 2. (A side note, but how many paragraphs in the history of the world include references to the Fed Chairman, media wonks, congressional knuckleheads, Jeff Bezos, and Jon Stewart?)

Where I'm headed with all of this I hope has become obvious...Congress is a huge consumer of paper, binding, postage and distribution costs, etc. etc. If they stopped doing that and instead published and read the drivel they created on a Kindle rather than on a piece of paper they could show some relevant leadership by using what's already a private sector killer app (the Kindle) to download the massive volume of drivel they currently print, practice what they preach about fiscal responsibility (less paper consumption), improved use of IT (if my medical records are going to be digitized, certainly congressional drivel ought to be digitized rather than printed), and being more environmentally friendly (paper manufacturing requires huge amounts of resources...both pulp and energy). There would be side benefits of setting a good example of change management, since this would be a huge change for many of the entrenched, stodgy old senators, as well as making a connection with the iPod generation.

I realize there would be some development costs associated with this since the Kindle is not currently configured to do this, and Amazon would be a beneficiary of this kind of approach, but as one of about 12 people left in America who continues to believe that money in the hands of responsible business leaders is better than money in the hands of politicians, I think that's a good thing. And it has the added benefit of making some logical and economic sense. There would be a one time cost to acquire 537 Kindles (535 congress people, one President and one VP) but at 1100 pages per piece of legislation plus the related hearings I'm thinking it would take about five pieces of legislation to break even, and be cost-saving after that …

I Googled "US Senate Committees" to try to figure out which group(s) might make the most sense to approach and outline the Kindle idea. In viewing the sites of the first four committees I selected (the Joint Committee on Printing, Appropriations, Budget, and Commerce, Science, & Transportation), I was gobsmacked that the sites of each of the Senate Committees have a different landing page, with different looks and feels, different architecture, etc., etc. I imagine this also means different/separate development groups, separate site maintenance requirements & costs, etc. Well, I hope you get the picture.

Contrast that with the websites of well-known e-business models (Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, etc.) that have to earn their customers as opposed to simply having taxing authority over them. Each of their sites is intuitive, consistent from page to page, etc. This approach has two key benefits: it's more user friendly, and has the added benefit of being cheaper to develop and maintain.

So now there appears to be two opportunities … the second being an IT opportunity to standardize websites within each governmental branch and make them more user-friendly and less expensive to develop and maintain. Not huge budgetary items but important symbolic signs of leadership and belt-tightening at a time when all are having to be more budget conscious.

Works for us.

I’m just guessing here, but I suspect that as bills are circulated on Capitol Hill, they are sent via email…but I also suspect that the vast majority of senators and congressmen have those bills printed out (before they don't read them).

Of course, the business community should not be too judgmental about this. After all, there are still more than a few senior executives out there who define “having email” as having their secretaries print out their email for them.

I have long felt that if we really want to make government infrastructure more streamlined and modern, the White House ought to pull together a task force made up of people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos…and give them six months to make recommendations. (They won’t need six months. These guys are used to operating on Internet time…)

BTW, MNB user Kevin Stopher had another relevant idea about the Kindle:

I actually think Kindle should be for everyone. As a matter of fact, every parent should think so, too. If I had a Kindle growing up, my school books would all fit in the palm of my hand. Finding the information I was looking for would be as easy as running a search. And I would not have had to ignore all the highlighted passages from the last student who had my book. I see the Kindle as the future for school textbooks. I don't have one yet, but I'm sure I will.

Speaking as a parent who spends a fortune on school textbooks for three kids, I agree completely. Every textbook ought to be available on the Kindle…

On to a different technology issue, as one MNB user wrote:

I continue to see the news highlighting manufacturers glee over online coupons. They need to remember that a significant # of people including elderly, lower income and those living in rural areas DO NOT USE or DO not have access to the web. I also wish somebody would address how if you choose to use online coupons you PAY out of your pocket for that coupon … .it is not free...your ink and paper to print it do cost you AND if you choose to use online coupons you are immediately put onto mailing lists and no matter what they say you will see an increase in spam. Let's tell the full story on on-line coupons. Of course manufacturers like them more ... they cost them less!

Even if all this is true, I think you are missing the larger point…that in just a few years, paper coupons will be as obsolete as VHS machines, because the target customer will be completely wired and open to customized coupons delivered in electronic fashion.

Which is why these technology companies are – and should – be testing different delivery systems. They can't just wait for the entire country to be wired and for elderly non-computer users to die off. They have to prepare now for the inevitable future.

Got a lot of email responding to yesterday’s pro-nondisposable canvas bag rant.

MNB user Amy Richardson wrote:

I have to comment on this subject as it comes up often. I’m curious as to how many people buy plastic bags for their trash can liners inside their home and outside their home for the garbage trucks to pick up. Isn’t this the same thing except the trash can liners are usually bigger yet they still go to the land fills? Don’t get me wrong as I am very conscious about recycling and taking care of what I can for our planet. However, I use grocery plastic bags, cloth bags and sometimes don’t use any bags depending on the size of purchase. I also reuse grocery plastic bags for my little garbage can in my kitchen and I never buy kitchen liners. I guess my comment is I feel if we are going to make such an issue with grocery bags we should also be making an issue of plastic garbage bags as well.

MNB user Lori Putnam wrote:

I use and will continue to use disposable plastic and paper grocery shopping bags, until the stores I shop at no longer offer them-and then I may switch stores. We use plastic grocery bags for trash bags in our house - every Sunday, our can at the curb contains 3-4 plastic bags of trash, neatly tied and very contained. Plastic bags I don't use for trash are used for various other purposes. Plastic grocery bags line my plastic,
aluminum, and glass recycle bins; keep pairs of shoes together off season; protect fragile items in storage; and serve as filler when I mail a package. Paper grocery bags are used to haul my newspapers and magazines to the recycling dumpster in the school parking lot. Neighbors use them for kitty litter and dog doo.

Our unused plastic grocery bags (often those with tears or holes that make them unsuitable for anything else) are recycled at the local grocery store where I got them, along with the plastic bags my newspaper comes in every morning and the plastic bags I put my produce in. If "free" plastic grocery bags were not available, I would buy plastic trash bags, and what has anyone gained? I know this planet is increasingly fragile, but my shunning the "free" plastic bags offered by my grocery store and instead buying plastic bags from Aisle 6 will have a negative-not positive-net effect. My plastic bag-bound trash is still in the landfill - along with yours - but I will not have paid for the bags.

MNB user Ashlee Gossell wrote:

I read the article in the NY Times, and proceeded to send it to several co-workers, the bag “Fee” will not stop people from littering, it will not curb it, they will continue to pay the $.20 per bag or whatever the fee may be and the bags will still end up floating down I-5 caught in the breeze. Banning bags, implementing taxes or fees on them will frustrate customers and small shop keepers, and it will not help an already volatile shopping situation as it stands in most supermarkets now. Attempting to put a little effort into making it easier for people to recycle them and educate them on the current state of our trash problem, and that may stop littering, people tend to always surprise me…who knows.

MNB user R. Dale Blotter wrote:

I have to be honest, Kevin, and tell you that I find this whole issue of grocery bags and moral responsibility to the planet to be the most ridiculous waste of time and energy. Among all the things I have to think about in life, remembering to drag around a bunch of reusable bags for my grocery shopping is not high on my list of things to think about everyday or to be morally conflicted over. While I appreciate the convenience of a supermarket having bags for me when I checkout in order to carry my groceries I also shop frequently at retailers like Costco and Aldi, where they don’t provide bags for me and I just load the groceries directly from my cart into the car. I shop those retailers for their perceived price value and not getting a grocery bag is a luxury I willingly give up in order to get that value. Generally speaking I will adjust to whatever the business model of the supermarket is with respect to disposable bags as I suspect will most shoppers if they perceive other benefits they derive from shopping a particular retailer is more important than whether they got disposable plastic bags. In the end I think smart retailers and consumers will figure out the right balance on this issue without government involvement. We’ve got enough of that already in our current financial system mess.

MNB user Nancy Kurdyla wrote:

I agree with you about having a moral obligation to stop using plastic bags at the supermarket. But, what about the plastic bags we buy to use as trash bags? What's the difference between using supermarket plastic bags as your trash bags, or just going out and buying plastic bags to use as trash.

It's a much bigger problem than simply using canvas bags. Hefty sales have increased since everyone started using their canvas bags to shop. The same people are purchasing and using more Hefty trash bags.

Are we really helping the environment?

Another MNB user wrote:

I am a father of 3 young children. Not knowing the "factual" numbers involved... but understanding my trash content, I believe diapers in the trash far, far, far outweigh (literally and substantively!) the issue of plastic bags.

Don't know how many other "non-biodegradable" items are in the limelight like plastic bags and plastic water bottles... but frozen food packages and other non-recyclable plastics come to mind when I think about what can and can't go in my recycle bin every week as defined by the trash hauler. It's really more of an issue to put recyclables in the recycle bins for the public majority and choosing to buy or use recycle friendly packaging I would think.

However, I wonder how many lobbyists are employed to keep these items off the consumers mind and out of the governments view.

It won't be long for our government's tentacles reaching out into this area, unless the industry and/or consumers can come up with forms of self-imposed behaviors or sponsor/promote regulations on themselves.

Maybe it's time to come back with cloth diapers. I am sure the plastic pants employed outside the diapers contribute much less to the landfills. However, from direct personal knowledge of how they work, I would think that won't happen in our throw away society. In keeping with your final thoughts, what the hell... Diaper Tax anyone?

Another MNB user wrote:

The stimulus plan should have provided 4 USA made bags for the 100mm USA households shipped by the USA post office at no cost to today's taxpayer...achieves the big picture; stimulates economy with jobs/sales and improves today's environment effectively eliminating the $0.05/$0.10 revenue stream that the government does not want to impose but needs to impose for our own good...just like the tobacco settlement and other consumer -oriented programs, these are all money grabs that do not go away and do not accomplish the government's "altruistic reasoning.”

Still another MNB user wrote:

I agree with you in that government should give us some moral guidance in the area of reusable bags (even though moral and government are not usually used in the same sentence). Enough with legislation, fees and taxes! Personally, I never use plastic bags and try to use reusable bags whenever I can. If I cannot, I use paper bags and make sure they are put in my weekly recycling, thus eliminating the landfill dilemma. Because of the flexibility of my community recycling program, I have been able to reduce my weekly trash to less than one 30 gallon bag for a family of four. Maybe more flexibility in community recycling is a better answer.

I agree, BTW, that the trash bag issue needs to be addressed. I confess to using them, in part because I don't get plastic bags from grocery stores, and in part because the trash bags from grocery stores tend to be small and not very strong. (Maybe we just have heavy garbage.) If someone comes out with a better trash bag, that’ll be a real winner.

Had a story the other day about New York State retailers objecting to any law that would legalize wine sales in supermarkets, which led MNB user Mark Delaney to write:

Rather than spend time lobbying, the liquor stores should look themselves in the mirror and ask why a consumer would want to make the additional trip to their store.

I've lived in other states and travel extensively for work and it's always seemed strange to me that one can buy beer in a NY grocery store but not wine. I think though that there is plenty of room for everyone in this model. Yes, it would be convenient for me on a Friday night coming home from the office to pick up a bottle of wine when I'm buying groceries - but most grocery retailers are not going to be able to stock the variety of fine wines that a liquor store could and certainly won't be able to offer much in terms of advice for food and wine pairings ( though the smart ones may ).

However, if I'm entertaining or looking for something for a special occasion I'm probably going to look beyond the limited selection that a grocery store can logistically handle. It seems to me that we talk about this every day in this forum - perhaps they've had a monopoly on this for too long and it's caused them to get lazy. There is a liquor store in nearly every grocery shopping plaza near my home and none of them offer anything unique or even forward-thinking in terms of selection or service. Their prices rarely change and the displays are usually driven by whatever new brand their distributor is trying to push. Rarely do I get asked if I'm looking for something in particular and often they're more interested in selling lottery tickets than asking if I need help. If I'm a winery I'm a little confused why I would shun additional channels of distribution but perhaps they fear losing some control? Good merchants will always find a way to adapt to changing market conditions - those who resist change and in particular consumers' desires - probably need to throw in the box cutter…..

You’re right. Good retailers find a way to adapt and emphasize their own strengths. Mediocre retailers just whine.

KC's View: