Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Random Thoughts

Is there a bigger schmuck on the planet than Adam Sandler? How does this guy do it? Makes one bad movie after another and people keep on paying to see him. Apparently, his signature comedic move is getting hit in the family jewels and then making really grimacy faces. He actually had the cohones to star in a remake of Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", originally starring Gary Cooper. That's like Tommy Sands filling in for Frank Sinatra.

Big flap in NYC over whether people who shovel out a parking space in the snow are entitled to save it by placing their garbage pails in the spot when they are not in it. Letters to the Editor of the Daily News are around 70% No, 30% Yes. Nobody owns the streets and it would be hard to justify saving a spot you had shoveled. On the other hand I'd be hard pressed to pull into a space I knew my neighbor had cleared.

Petty dictators like Hosni Mubarek should be on notice that sooner or later they will be toppled. Egypt's population in young and impatient with the old ways. They want freedom and jobs and futures for their families. Maybe other countries under the rule of despots will take heart and find the courage to do what must be done. It will unsettle this region to be sure, but it might help loosen the grip that fundamentalist Islamic clerics have on this part of the world.

There was an item in today's Staten Island Advance about Ray Larsen, a local man who was tragically killed while celebrating the New York Jets last win. After the game he went outside for a sleigh ride on the hill in front of his house. He traveled down the hill into the street into the path of a passing SUV. At a recent memorial family dinner at the Marina Cafe here in the neighborhood, the family was surprised and touched when the restaurant owner picked up the check for the 60-70 family members gathered there. "Ray was a regular here, a kind and good-hearted man" said the restaurant manager. It does my cynical heart good to read stories like this. There are still many good people in the world.

HBO ran a special on the great Sid Caesar, one of the most original and creative comedians of all time. Sid was smart enough to hire writers like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon to provide quality scripts for "Your Show of Shows" week after grueling week doing the show live...no do-overs. Its hard to believe that Sid was knocked off the air by Lawrence Welk. As middle America got television sets, they just didn't get Sid's humor, but soaked up Welk and his Champagne Music Makers. What a loss.

Every year the Super Bowl hype grows. Over 100 million watched this year's event and saw a good game between two old NFL rivals. The super audience has created a buzz for TV commercial makers. There are people who watch just for the ads, some of which have been great in past years. This year's event was disappointing, from Christina Aguilara's "Star Mangled Banner" to a crop of disappointing commercials. The mini-Darth Vader was cute but it was clearly the best of a bad lot. C'mon Mad Men, you can do better.



Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Is Bigger Better?

A small hardware chain (Ace or True Value, I don't remember) aired a great radio commercial a few years ago poking fun at the big box super stores. In the commercial the poor customer, who was trying to find his way around one of these big Home Depot type places, desperately asked the indifferent store clerk where he could find a hammer. "Aisle 166" answers the clerk, "the next bus leaves in ten minutes from Housewares." That may not be the exact dialogue, but you get the idea. I can't help wonder just how big these stores can get. Is there a point of diminishing returns where size actually becomes a disadvantage? If there is, we must be close to reaching it.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the great selection of products and low prices in places like Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, Stop & Shop and Ikea, but there are times when I wish they did run buses in the aisles because the item I need is always a ten minute walk away. The other issue is that sometimes you can have too many choices. I've done a lot of painting around the house and even I am constantly amazed at the specialized painting products they offer. I think they have a brush just for edging around aluminum bathroom windows! My father's entire tool and home maintenance kit fit into a large Maxwell House coffee can.

Then there is the variation in the caliber of staff in these places. When Home Depot started out, one of their selling points was that employees in each department were experts in the products sold there. And that was true in the beginning...you could be confident that that kindly looking gentleman in the orange apron could tell you anything you needed to know about tile grout. Not so any more. When you open so many stores there are just so many experts to go around. The suburban stores are pretty good, but the inner-city stores (where these chains are learning there is money to be made) draw on local kids when they hire. Now this is great for the local economy, but when you ask them a question, their eyes glaze over and they immediately start the search for somebody who knows the answer.

I think of all the mega stores, Ikea is my favorite. First of all, they don't saturate neighborhoods with stores on every other corner, so the quality of their help is usually good, inner-city stores notwithstanding. Their products are attractive, durable, and most important, especially for young couples just starting out, affordable. They cleverly display their goods in a room setting so that you can see how that sofa would look in a real home with all the finishing touches. Of course you're so impressed by what their decorators have done that you are tempted to buy the whole room, and many customers do just that. Smart people, the Swedes.

I also like their on-site cafeteria where you can get a good basic bacon and eggs breakfast for 99 cents, coffee extra. They also serve lunch and dinner for the convenience of shoppers. I had a little tiff with the Ikea store in Elizabeth, N.J. recently over having to wait in line for an hour to pick up some replacement parts only to find out they weren't in stock. I wrote a letter of course, (its what I do) and the store manager sent me an apology along with an invitation to enjoy a free dinner for two any time. Although I haven't told my wife yet, I think I'll cash in that offer for a romantic Valentine's Day dinner.

Bottom line, things go in cycles. When the big box stores over saturate the market, small store owners will look for ways to fill a niche and draw off some disgruntled customers. (Is the opposite a "gruntled" customer? Nothing to do with this blog, but words interest me.) For example a new chain called Save-a Lot offers greatly reduced prices on store brands...up to 40% over supermarket prices for comparable items. Their stores are typically 20,000 sq. ft. compared to 46,000 for the average supermarket. Fewer brands, less shelf space translates into grocery bill savings and people are responding. That's called Capitalism folks, and you know what, it works!


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