The More We're Offered, The More We Buy

CNBC has been running an hour-long special report on supermarkets -- the "$500 billion money machine" that only manages to eke out margins of about 2%, give or take.

Correspondent Tyler Mathisen and his producers do an excellent survey of the state of the "new town square where people want to come and spend time" -- at least that's the aspiration of behemoths such as the Giant Eagle outside Pittsburgh that has 65,000 products including 400 varieties of cheeses, 250 beer brands, rattlesnake meat and a full-time olive oil specialist among its 650 employees, two of whom perform a song-and-dance routine in the aisles.

My favorite segment is a look at a fisherman in Sitka, Alaska, who trolls for wild salmon with single lines and lures. Within 48 hours, his catch is displayed on the ice at a Whole Foods Market in Chicago at $14 a pound. So, you don't think a fish without bruises or net marks is worth $14 a pound?

Any devoted reader of MediaPost's cadre of newsletters will not be surprised by the segments on how supermarkets track their customers with everything from heat maps to Stop & Shop's handheld devices that buzz with deals when you pass by products you're prone to buy.

Health And Fitness Ads Need A Makeover

Is it over, finally? Please say it is. You know what I'm talking about, right? All those January get fit/lose weight/go on a diet/we're-the-answer-to-all-your-physical-woes ads. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for exercising daily, maintaining a healthy weight and eating the right kinds of foods. I'm a certified personal trainer, in fact, in my spare time. No kidding.

But the way good health is generally marketed is a great disservice to a problem that just keeps getting worse. There are so many options and they all sound plausible but, in the end, the next year rolls around and most consumers have added a pound to their body fat.

Let's get this one out of the way at the beginning because it's so obvious. Nobody looks like that. Nobody who isn't young, genetically blessed, cosmetically enhanced and able to spend many, many hours in the gym every day, at any rate. So, please, start giving us real people in your ads and help those who are 50 or 75 pounds (or more) overweight feel good about walking through the doors of your facility. Don't give us an image most of us will never achieve.

Mattress Wars Get Hot And Heavy

I read with great interest that the mattress folks have gone to the mattresses. Sealy and Simmons are at war over the fact that the former is introducing a new line of with its coils encased in fabric. "Pocketed coils," or "Marshall units," as they are known among bedding wonks, have been the latter's shtick since forever, which is to say 1924, giving it the famous bowling-ball-on-the-bed positioning

It may not be as bloody as a battle between warring Mafia families, or as ruthless as campus politics, but the snarky insults were flying back and forth in the New York Times yesterday.

#1 Sealy doesn't think giving its consumers another option is such a big deal, Stephanie Clifford reports. "To say it's not a major shift -- of course it is," Simmons CEO Gary Fazio fires back. "Do you not have faith in the brand promise you're making?"

"This, to me, feels like the competition is just aggressively going after this," Sealy CMO Jodi Allen tells Clifford. "Consumers could, really, to be honest, care less."

Chia: Pet Superfood Of The Day

I can't believe that there are no M&M's with Chia Seeds yet. Nor have I spotted 15 Whole Grain Bread with Sprouted Chia, or Ritz Crackers sprinked with Antarctic Sea Salt and Organic Chia. But I'm sure they're coming. Chia is the hottest seed since flax.

The very same progenitors of a green-Afroed President -- take your pick, Obama or Washington -- are being touted as an elixir for everything from restoring energy to losing weight -- and a bunch of other wondrous things in between.

Hold the phone a minute on that weight-loss claim, though. The New York Times "Really?" column yesterday took at look at this latest "superfood" and resolved that, based on the findings of two studies, "there is little evidence that chia seeds or supplements promote weight loss." More study is needed, etc., etc.

My wife emailed me the results. She thinks the container of chia gel I keep in the refrigerator -- one cup of chia seeds mixed with two cups of water -- looks like "the drool that comes out of aliens' mouths" in bad science-fiction movies. I'm personally more inclined to think the mixture looks like a convocation of tail-less pollywogs but, either way, I must admit that some people find the presentation ... unappetizing.

Baseball Takes Giants Step To Reach Youth

Brrrrrrrrr. If this isn't weather for the Hot Stove League, I don't know what is. Better make that the Pellet Stove League, as I read in the newspaper the other day that burning wood, as rooted in our cave-people past as the smell and comfort of a stack blazing logs may be, could be "the next eco-crime."

Speaking of our pasts, I was lured into a soft news piece on NewsRadio 88 late last week. A codger named Bill Kent was telling reporter Pete Haskell that when he was growing up as a fan of the New York Giants, Willie Mays was his hero and the Polo Grounds in Harlem is where he fell in love with him. Kent was thrilled that over the coming weekend, the 79-year-old "Say Hey Kid" would accompany rookie-of-the-year Buster Posey back to the site of the old ballpark, which is now PS 46, with the trophy that the San Francisco Giants received for winning the 2010 World Series.

"Isn't that a nice idea," I thought. The Giants were going out of their way to acknowledge the fans that they'd left behind when they followed the Brooklyn Dodgers west in 1957. Great PR.

LaLanne's Image Was Stronger Than His Brand

Jack LaLanne, a one-of-a-kind pitchman for a noble cause, died yesterday. I'd marvel every time he'd pop up on the screen with Larry King, or I'd read about him pulling a flotilla of rowboats in the ocean somewhere. His message of fitness and nutrition seemed heartfelt and personal, he articulated it with an effusive personality and he did things into his later years that would have seemed superhuman for a much younger man.

LaLanne started out as the prototypical troublemaking, scrawny kid eating junk food even before you'd think it was invented. In this snippet from a "Larry King Live" show, LaLanne talks about attending a lecture by nutritionist Paul Bragg when he was 15. He immediately stopped eating food processed with white sugar and flour, he says, and became a vegetarian (although he later ate fish and poultry for protein when he was in weightlifting contests).

LaLanne opened his own gym in 1931 when he was still in high school. "I was the first one to have progressive weight training and I invented a lot of the equipment you have in the gym today," he tells King. "The first weight selector, the leg extension machine, a lot of the pulley things ... I invented way back in the '30s because there was nothing around."

It's Walmart's Ball, And It's Changing The Game

It's getting hard to not like Walmart, or at least the way it has been throwing around its considerable weight to make the world a better place for the last three years or so. I never thought I'd write that.

Just so you know where I'm coming from, I frankly get the heebie-jeebies as soon as I spot a greeter in one of those ill-fitting vests. And 20 years ago, when I was writing for a magazine that covered the business of newspapering, the prevailing storyline was that Walmart was destroying Main Street and, in turn, sapping journalism of its lifeblood, retail advertising. It may still be, but that's the last millennium's news.

Yesterday's announcement about the five initiatives Walmart is undertaking to "make food healthier and healthier food more affordable" is extraordinary for the same reason that the company's partnership with the Environment Defense Funds on environmental issues has been. The EDL makes the case on its website when it states that no company has a greater potential to effect change.

Putting A Fork In Pessimism

When I write about high-tech gizmos like the Intel/Kraft Meal Planning Solution, which scans faces for basic demographic input and then constructs a mass-customized menu and shopping list recommendation, there's always a voice in the back of my head wondering if this is what consumers really want or need. Busy as we are, are we resigned to having a computer chip do our meal planning for us?

And then something crosses my desk that points to a countervailing trend, as it did yesterday. Word Spy's neologism of the day was garden-to-fork, a recent coinage "describing or relating to food grown in a person's own garden." And just a couple of weeks ago, Paul McFedries pointed to locapour, a morphing of locavore that means "a person who drinks only locally produced wine or beer."

The answer, of course, is that our future will accommodate both trends. Kraft's Donald King says most people only have 10 recipes at their disposal. But you can now go to many websites and/or smart phone apps -- take Whole Foods Recipes as one example -- plug in the ingredients you have at hand (or see mysteriously beckoning you at the Farmer's Market) and have a recipe on your screen instantaneously. It's the what-to-do-with-a-spaghetti-squash alternative to the knee-jerk reaction of just nuking another box of Kraft Mac & Cheese.

Rising Above Mediocre-To-Bad Customer Service

I recently received two emails from friends containing links to tales of extraordinary customer service. Make no mistake, the individuals in both stories go beyond the normal call of duty with responses that could not be looked up in any employee manual. But the reason stories like these wend their viral way into so many mailboxes is because people believe this is the way things should be done. And, all too often, they're not.

Consumer Traveler blogger Christopher Elliott tells the heart-rending story of an email be received from one of his readers whose 3-year-old step-grandson had been murdered by her step-daughter's live-in boyfriend in Denver. The woman's husband was in Los Angeles on business. She worked with Southwest Airlines to arrange what looked like a seamless transfer for him from L.A. through Tucson to Denver but the plans went awry when long lines at LAX caused her husband to miss his initial flight. He'd explain his plight to anyone he thought might move things along, but they all seemed oblivious. But when he finally arrived in Tucson, he discovered that the plane that was supposed to have taken off at 11:50 was still waiting for him at the gate at 12:02.

Big Sister Is Planning Your Dinner

When I first read about a new device that scans your face and then suggests which products you might want to put on the family dinner table that night, an oxymoron worthy of an Austin Powers movie immediately crossed my mind: diabolically brilliant. And that's just the cookie around the filling. Having sized you up as a sure-fire sugar and cocoa addict, it can spit out a few Oreos just to make your acquaintance.

Fast Company's Linda Tishler has a fascinating piece about the Kraft Meal Planning Solution, which was part of Intel's two-story, 2,400 square-foot Connected Store concept that made its debut at the National Retail Federation BIG Show in New York last week. It combines Intel's new AIM Suite video analytics technology powered by the Core i5 processor with Kraft's recipe database to lasso consumers wandering by, make a demographic assessment by scanning his or her face, and then offering recommendations for dinner using, of course, Kraft brands.

In a short video posted to YouTube earlier this month, Donald King, vp of retail experience at Kraft, laid out the rationale for the Food Planner.

Who We Were Through The Lens Of TV Commercials

When people talk about the Sixties from a pop-cultural perspective, they generally point to such influences as the Beatles/Rolling Stones (which, for some reason, has become a rivalry akin to the Yankees/Red Sox), Twiggy and Andy Warhol. Or, in certain decidedly diametric quarters, explorers such as John Glenn or Timothy Leary.

Personally, I was partial to Fred and Barney. It has been many years since I watch an episode of "The Flintstones" but I was reminded of the primetime animated show for kids last night by a jaw-dropping spot contained in "We'll Be Right Back ... 60 Years of Television Commercials," a new online exhibition curated by the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

In it, Wilma and Betty, the ever-devoted, wiser and more resourceful wives, are nonetheless bearing the burden of the workload, as they always do. As Fred and Barney banter at a stone fence about how hard their better halves toil, Wilma trims the lawn with an alligator lawnmower and Betty beats a rug with the ardor that only a repressed house frau can summon.

Kenneth Cole: Up From The Streets And Into Cyberspace

The founder of Kenneth Cole, who goes by the same name, is fond of saying that "today is not a dress rehearsal." Recent years have driven home that harsh reality as the company has tightened its belt by laying off staff, reallocating marketing dollars, reducing inventory, renegotiating rents and closing eight unprofitable stores. Yesterday it announced that its flagship store in Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan would be one of an additional nine "underperforming" full-price stores to close in coming months.

But Cole has also been both an inspiration to many and an inspiring start-up story (we'll get to that at the end), and it was nice to be able to hear CEO Jill Granoff say "what a difference a year makes" in a webcast presentation from the ICR XChange Conference in Dana Point, Calif., yesterday. She went on to report that the company has shown growth for the first time since 2006, in all segments, and has had five consecutive profitable quarters. It still has 100 freestanding stores in the U.S. and 70 more in 50 countries around the world.

Unless you are an investor or competitor, or see poetry in phrases such as "efficiencies in the supply chain" and "maximizing value," I don't suggest that you listen to Granoff's entire presentation. It is enough to know that the company is positioning itself as "the quintessential lifestyle brand for modern men and women who are confident, clever and cool"; that it brings "aspirational city living to the world"; and that it garners 88% in brand awareness and 90% in brand favorability ratings.

What Does 'Live Positively' Mean To You?

Quick, and no Googling or Binging before you answer, please. When you see "Live Positively" or "," what comes to mind?

I'm betting your answers are similar to those of some of my colleagues. Most thought it must be an activist group, probably having something to do with HIV, AIDS or another illness. One suggested it was an evangelical organization or Tony Robbins-like self-help enterprise; another said she had a vague sense that she'd heard of it, but no specific recollection of its nature. No one got it right.

It's Coca-Cola's "do-good" site.

Here's how I found out about it: A friend of mine who is in publishing takes a lot of care in selecting a books he thinks will be particularly appropriate for his friends every December. For me, he chose The Master Switch by Tim Wu -- a fascinating and cautionary look at how new information technologies get centralized over time. He has purposefully wrapped his gifts in recycled newspaper for several years now. Less deliberate, I suspect, was the wrapping around my present -- a full-page ad from the New York Times of Dec. 18 extolling the choices that Coca-Cola provides.

When The Chips Are Down, Partner With A Celebrity Chef

If you'd told me in September 1997, when I was co-founding Tower Ridge Poker Cronies, that I would someday put out Blue Ginger Multi-Grain Brown Rice Chips with Black Sesame & Sea Salt instead of something like Lay's (sumptuously salty) Classic potato chips or Wise's (delightfully greasy) as one of the evening's featured snacks, as I did last week at our regular convocation of mirth and games that bear little resemblance to real poker, I would have asked you what frou-frou universe you played cards in. But there I was, serving them up along with the Kirkland Roasted & Salted Peanuts, Kirkland Almonds, Dubliner Cheese, Dare Breton Multigrain Crackers, imported Spanish Clemetines, Gala apples, and someone's organic bananas last Wednesday.

And how did they go over, you ask?

"They're kind of good in that lack-of-any-flavor kind of way," said the Professor of Health Sciences. Reverse translating into academese, I believe that's a qualified positive assessment with certain caveats, which is about as good as it gets.

Be Careful To What You Aspire

I woke up Sunday morning at the ungodly hour that I do when I'm writing this column with an unlikely vision in my head. I was attaching a pearl necklace around a woman's neck. She was beaming. "What's the headline here?" I asked. "The Smile of Acquisition," I told myself before wisely rolling over. But I've been mulling the state of the luxury market ever since.

I will leave it to the academics to explain why people buy things they don't really need, and to the shrinks to tell me why I chose such an anachronistic symbol as a string of pearls to represent this tendency, and will instead concentrate on some commentator's thoughts about where this market is heading. It does, after all, account for a disproportionate amount of sales.

Last October, Bain & Co. proclaimed an end to the "global crisis in luxury goods sales," which it said was the first year-long decline it had seen during the nine years it has released its "Luxury Goods Worldwide Market Study."

In its coverage of the National Retail Federation's annual conference this morning, Stores reports that sales of premium brands did much better over the holiday season that did those of mass-market goods.

The Challenge Of Engaging Online Advertising

If you've not looked at the 30-minute video in which Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conference ("Ideas Worth Spreading"), lays out the rationale for his organization' "Ads Worth Spreading Challenge," I urge you to do so. First, if you're in the business, it will boost your self-esteem. As someone who is "building intangible value," Anderson will tell you about halfway through, you are in "an heroic business."

Don't underestimate the importance of self-esteem. A new study posits that the desire to feel worthy and valuable trumps almost all other pleasant activity -- including sex, drinking alcohol, eating favorite foods, seeing a best friend or receiving a paycheck -- among college students studied by researchers, according to UPI.

But more critically, on the road to laying out why TED has initiated a competition to find ads that "raise the bar, elevate the craft and invent new forms of online engagement," Anderson delves into why the market places so little comparative value on online advertising today. On average, you get about a dollar per hour of attention for print advertising, about two bits for TV spots and less than a dime for online ads.

Anderson thinks this figure should be much higher. And one of the reasons it's not is because, he says, no one has really figured out how to do online well. He says that advertisers look too much at the amount of people that their advertising is reaching, and at whom they are, but not enough at the intensity of the attention they pay to the ads. Unfortunately, online advertising has not reached a point where it's generally worth our paying intense attention to as consumers.

RVs And Minivans Reposition To Stay Afloat

Tempus not only fugits, it also has the tendency to reverse the fortunes of high-flying products with supersonic speed. Take the Concorde, for instance, which that old nemesis of breakthrough ideas, ROI, eventually did.

Straddling terra firma are two classes of vehicles that were rolling along quite nicely, thank you, until they got blindsided by the train wreck of the economy on the one hand, and the curse of the phrase "soccer mom" on the other. We're talking RVs and minivans.

In a story headlined "Mocked as Uncool, the Minivan Rises Again," the New York Times' Nick Bunkley looks at the multitude of ways that a multitude of automakers are trying to make the minivan relevant to postmodern soccer moms and dads. The story features a couple of other "un" words besides uncool: unashamed [of driving] and unflattering [minivan label]. And an alternative online headline gives further indication of the problem the vehicles face: "Minivans Avoid That Name In Search Of A Sporty Image."

What product ever succeeds by claiming to be something other than it really is?

Nothing Gets Between Me And My Cheap Dungarees

I need to clear up two mysteries: One of long standing, the other from Sunday night, when I saw a TV commercial for Pajama Jeans, followed by an effusive pitch in a Daily Cents ("cool products, hot topics") email yesterday.


By any rational measure, I am an expert in blue jeans. Even if you include the baker's dozen years I trudged through Grand Central Terminal in a suit and tie, I estimate I've spent 95% of my waking life in denim or, as they were known in New York when I was growing up, "dungarees." But "dungarees" sounds like something you'd wear when you slud into second base or baled hay and, somewhere along the line, they became jeans.

One revelation of my intense research this morning, however, is that it wasn't Calvin or Jordache who coined the word "jeans." Usage, apparently, was always a matter of where one grew up.

The reality is, however, that I'm an expert in denim no more than a guy who drinks tap water can expound up on the subtleties of Evian vs. Fred.

I've gone through a Lee phase, a Wrangler flirtation and a very passionate Levi's affair. But around the time that Levi's Slim Fits no longer seemed appropriate from an aesthetic point of view, they also climbed above $20 at retail. Hence, the first mystery: Will someone kindly explain to me why anyone would spend more than $20 on a pair of jeans, blue or otherwise? Criminy, Slim-Fits are on sale for $34.99 at JC Penney. Or you can get them in ice cream-vendor white for $70.99 at Saks -- a HUGE markdown from the regular $179. (Do they put those sticker prices there just to make you think that you've successfully hondled them?)

What's Your Strategy If Info Leaks?

Two stories about WikiLeaks and big corporations in the New York Times yesterday serve as yet another cautionary tale about communications strategy to anyone conducting business today. One examines the extraordinary lengths Bank of America is going to to defend itself in the event that Julian Assange's threat to "take down" a major U.S. bank with a hard-drive full of compromising information indeed is directed at it, as has been widely assumed.

Nelson D. Schwartz reports that BOA has a dedicated team of 15 to 20 people drawn from various departments, and led by its chief risk officer, examining documents for compromising information. It's also trying to figure out where the purported information might have come from, reportedly with no success.

The other story, on the front page, reveals that "diplomats are a big part of the sales force" for the two companies that compete for the lion's share of the worldwide airliner business, Boeing and Airbus. Eric Lipton, Nicola Clark and Andrew W. Lehren write that the "politicking and cajoling at the highest levels" includes "letters from presidents, state visits as bargaining chips and a number of leaders making big purchases based, at least in part, on how much the companies will dress up private planes."

Boeing hasn't responded yet, as far as I can tell, and perhaps that's because every $1 billion in commercial jet sales results in 11,000 jobs in the U.S. The court of public opinion is likely to weigh in its favor on this one. But that doesn't mean that it hasn't been engaging in a lot of strategery at the highest levels.

You've Got To Have the Goods

It's the first commandment of sales: Respect thy customer. And building rapport with the audience is generally crucial to those among us who are talented and stouthearted enough to stand before floodlights and perform. We're not that far removed from the times when the audience would not only pelt unsatisfactory performers with rotten veggies and fruits. What's worse is that they'd get their money back for having done so.

Some of the most successful performers have a way of making you think that you're in intricate part of something special. I watched Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch wink and vamp their way into the hearts of a theater full of people on Saturday. The audience immediately rose after the last line and demanded repeated curtain calls. When we do this, I think, we are not only acknowledging the actors' craft, we are also applauding our own good taste for associating with something that seems so magical.

The day before, I'd read about another performance -- that of Ms. Lauryn Hill at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (Brooklyn) -- that was not so warm and fuzzy and it got me thinking about just how important it may, or may not, be to give the customers what they want.

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