GlobalShop, the retail design expo, had its three-day extravaganza in Las Vegas the middle of March. Like Euroshop, its continental counterpart, it is a gathering of brick-and-mortar assets: flooring and mannequin companies; fixture and signage manufacturers; point-of-purchase display companies … and more. There are receptions, cocktail parties and lunches, and lots of meetings to imbibe in adult beverages. VMSD and Design:Retail, the two trade magazines covering the industry, put aside their differences and celebrated the occasion enthusiastically. Still, however happy the gathering was, it is hard to avoid the dark clouds looming on the horizon. [Read more...]
All of us move through our lives with a clock ticking inside our heads. Even in troubled economic situations, time, rather than money, is our most important commodity. That clock tends to tick at relative degrees of loudness. You can meet a friend at Garden State Plaza Mall for the afternoon, and the clock ticks softly, a kind of shopping therapy. At the same mall another time, you want to get in and out as fast as you can. In other words, the meaning of time can change.
My mother was relieved when a 7-Eleven opened a location close to our suburban home in the 1950s. The idea of buying milk for a young family any time of day was a godsend, even if she did have reservations about both the price and quality. Ask a Millennial today where they buy milk, and you get an eclectic list; the drug store, the grocery store, the convenience store, the mass merchant, even the office product superstore sometimes stocks milk. In parts of Europe, you can even buy milk at roadside vending machines. [Read more...]
The most frightening story of 2013 that reverberated across the retail world was the terrorist assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. More than 70 people were killed. One of the key premises that have driven the expansion of shopping malls and the growth of organized retail across the world has been safety. Malls provide a secure, climate-controlled and clean environment, and for both old and new money consumers. In emerging markets like Kenya, it is a leap from the 19th to the 21st Century in one self-contained property. The mall has a suite of interchangeable parts, from brands to food courts, which makes it as close to a global vocabulary as you get. Where it gets different is security.
In Brazil, some mall security services are linked to boxing schools. The guards are well dressed, but have scar tissue around their eyes. In malls in India, your trunk is inspected and the undercarriage examined with a mirror. In Israel and Turkey you pass through a metal detector, like Checkpoint Charlie at the airport. By comparison, North America mall security is window dressing. [Read more...]
The closer you get to the Equator, the more dawn and dusk become switches rather than transitions. It’s dark, it’s light.
I’ve learned as a global traveler to keep the curtains open at night, my goal to be in bed shortly after sundown and up at first light. Recently, I had a corner room at a hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. The view of Paulista and the rest of São Paulo turned on a little before six; the cell phone towers, the park below and the high-rise buildings looked like uneven stubble on the contours of a Brazilian chin.
I was picked up at 7:00 AM by my colleague, the CEO of a publicly traded shopping mall company, in his Land Rover and we headed across town to the private airport to catch our turbo-propped Sky Master. We were headed for Brasilia. The traffic was heavy, and as we inched our way around a traffic circle, I lowered the window on the passenger’s side to stick my hand out and help get us to the outside lane. The driver gasped and I realized the window was almost two inches thick. Bulletproof. I struggled to get the window back up. The stupid Yankee had comprised the moving security perimeter. It took two security guards at the airport to tease the window back to its original position. [Read more...]
America’s Care Providers
My mother died two weeks ago at age 90. She had been diagnosed with Dementia 10 years ago. Her slide into darkness was heartbreaking. Even at the end, part of her remembered who she was; an alpha female with a long history of public service and 50 years of marriage to a successful diplomat and Cold War warrior. When my father, her husband, died of leukemia in 1999, he had been in full command of his faculties. We suspected he planned his death as carefully as he negotiated treaties. It was so different from witnessing my mother over the last months clinging to life in the face of discomfort and confusion. Aging doesn’t always look like the brochures for retirement homes or annuities.
My mother had felt abandoned by her husband’s death. I gather this is an emotion that is not uncommon in a close marriage. She moved from the family compound to a new condo, and the decline started. She totaled her car and was found to have both an expired license and lapsed car registration. The local Baptist minister was driving the car she hit, and thanks to small town ecumenicalism, she was forgiven. But we took away her car keys. The next nine years were difficult. In our family, like so many American families, the burden of elder care fell on my sister. I was just the supporting cast. My sister often described herself as being inside a care provider sandwich – with our mother and her own teenagers as the slices of bread. [Read more...]
For more than 40 years, I’ve been making the pilgrimage to the greenhouses on the campus of Wellesley College. Named for the eminent Horticulturist Margaret Ferguson, the 16 interconnected greenhouses contain some 1500 different types of plants. The Brooklyn and Bronx Botanical Gardens may be bigger in size, but they cannot match the solitude and accessibility of this facility. It is as fast and inexpensive a world tour of nature as you can pack into 7200 square feet. As a troubled teenager in Massachusetts, I’d visit the “tropics” on a cold winter afternoon and experience the rich smells of my youth spent living in Asia. It was as close to the sentiments of The Mamas & the Papas in California Dreaming as I could get.
The greenhouses, then and now, contain rare collections of caudiciforms, mangroves, floating aquatics and my favorite, carnivorous plants. The Desert, Tropic, Hydrophytes and Fern greenhouses are distinctly different climate zones where the look, scent, feel and touch are as sensual and distinctive as any environment I’ve ever experienced. Each is a temple to the synergy of contemplation and botany. [Read more...]
I noted more than a few binoculars focused this morning on the military airfield outside my Caracas hotel. It’s likely they were searching the ground for evidence of the military coup I heard whispers about last night in the hotel bar; but who knows in Caracas. Even the journalist interviewing me this morning made reference to the challenges of living in a Communist country; Venezuela is in midst of crisis. The recently botched election recalls the passionate controversy of George Bush’s results in Florida in 2004, except it’s unimaginably worse.
In 2013, I can’t think of a well-grounded leftist intellectual that can defend actualization of the Karl Marx syndrome we witnessed in the 20th Century. Russia, the former Soviet Republics, and Eastern Europe have all moved on. By most gauges, shedding this ideology has brought improvement and positive change. Poland grew faster last year than any other nation in Europe, which in the midst of our recession may not be saying much, but still says a lot. Of the three Asian remnants of Communist ideology, China and Vietnam have cherry-picked through Das Kapital and added doses of Confucian and Keynesian economics to craft some semblance of prosperity. North Korea has abandoned all logical thought; the only question is how much of the rest of the world they intend to take with them when they go.
Yet dear reader, this is a newsletter about retail, so here is our thread. In my trip to the supermarket in Caracas this afternoon, there was no coffee of any variety on the shelf, and the reek of rotting meat was stomach turning. People wait in long disorganized lines for basic food supplies. We are witness to the tragedy of governmental pricing control for food; Venezuela has gone from an exporter of food to an importer over the course of its Chavezian transformation. Today, much of its basic food needs are imported from the United States.
My economist colleagues predict that global food prices will increase country by country by 10% to 20% over the next year. While the precise number is anyone’s guess, it’s a fact that food costs are increasing by at least twice the rate that global wages increase. How are we going to continue to feed ourselves?
The answer, in part, rests in the world of retail where for almost 30 years we have watched a concerted effort to engineer both value and fair profits from the supply chain. From growing, to trucking, to minimizing waste and mechanizing the modern warehouse, the degree to which the increased costs of basic food commodities have been passed on to the consumer have been limited for us living in First World nations. Thank Walmart, Tesco and Auchan; but also thank the farmers markets, the slow food movement, and the advent of local community-supported agriculture (CSA) organizations.
At both ends of the First World retail spectrum, we are watching innovation and reinvention driven by competition and local entrepreneurship. At best, we ask government to get out of the way. We’d rather have the local farmers market manager certify a farmer’s products than the FDA, although we need to embrace both in the flawed, but preferable, world of Capitalism.
Journalists keep asking me –- whether it’s here or in Shanghai —how are we going to feed ourselves in the next five years, both from the standpoint of cost and safety? My answer is always the same: Price controls are not the answer, but organized retail can, and will, do its part. The process takes time, but it does work. The places that will feel the most pain over the five years are those where global organized retail is not playing a transformational role in a local economy. India is a prime example. Open markets provide incentive and examples for local merchant organizations to do it often better and faster. They provide farmers with stable prices, drastically cut down on spoilage, and most importantly, help get their offerings on dinner tables everywhere while making a profit.
When I arrived at Simón Bolívar International, I was expecting a sturdy intelligence officer with a serious face to meet me at passport control. I did not expect the smiling young woman with braces that giggled when I presented my thick, well-worn passport. She greeted me warmly after a long flight, stamped my passport and let me pass, welcoming me to her country. She deserves better.
You got rid of the landline three years ago because two-thirds of your calls were from telemarketers. Then you downgraded your cable service wondering why you were paying so much for so little. Now you watch stuff on your Tablet and laptop more and more. And when the price of a New York Times went up to $2.50, you decided to read news online from a wider variety of sources, and like it decidedly better.
Today, you live a new kind of life than you did five years ago. You have several e-mail addresses so that you can filter the spam. The snail mail is more than 90% junk so you’ve even stopped opening it; the envelope gets a glance and often gets chucked. When you drive, it’s commercial-free Satellite Radio since traditional ads, with their crazy voices and incoherent offerings, drive you crazy. You loved Marc Gobé’s film, This Space Available, downgrading billboards, and outdoor media in general, to visual pollutant status. You take a pleasure in buying the store’s house brand, not because you have to, but because the ‘superiority’ of branded products is something you seriously question. We watch commercials at the Super Bowl and Oscars for the entertainment value and once in a while on YouTube; the rest of the time you conspire to avoid them. [Read more...]
My consulting practice takes me all over the world. Through my travels, I have the unique opportunity to be a student of human nature and behavior – especially when it comes to the retail marketplace. Recently I visited South Africa. This story is my observation of an emerging DIY trend, framed by a vivid childhood memory. For me, the past is prelude, especially in a key attitudinal shift with your most important customers, women.
Where It All Began
My first crush was on Mrs. Donahue who lived next door. She could not have been more different than my mother. She had short, curly black hair, painted her nails in bright colors, and never seemed to be without red lipstick and perfume. I remember her in sleeveless blouses and tight pedal pushers. There was nothing about her that wasn’t unambiguously female in the 1960s, but she was far from helpless. Mrs. Donahue was a dedicated hands-on DIY’er. She always seemed to be painting a room and ceiling, refinishing a bureau, or planting flowerbeds. Looking up at her on a ladder with a paint roller in her hand is an image I carry with me to this day, more than a half a century later. While my father had his wood shop and power tools and slavishly constructed furniture that even as a small child, I recognized as amateurish and ugly, Mrs. Donahue made things beautiful easily, often with a smudge on her cheek and a smile. [Read more...]
Sam is Palestinian with family in Ramallah. He has lived in the USA for more than 25 years. He and his cousin run a small convenience store on West Fourth Street in the middle of New York’s increasingly tony West Village. It has almost everything—from fancy cookies, canned goods and cleaning supplies, to charcoal and stomach remedies. For 15 years, I’ve bought newspapers, juice, quarts of milk and an occasional BLT (cooked by the Mexican counter man; after all, Sam is a good Muslim). Sam, his cousin, or younger relative, Ali, is on location from 4:00 in the morning to midnight, seven days a week. As this historic neighborhood has gentrified, the population density has declined. The brownstones that were cut up into small apartments 25 years ago have been restored into huge single-family houses for aging globetrotters, many of whom have more than one home. Sam sells coffee and sandwiches to the local residents’ workmen who are constantly upgrading the properties; and bottled drinks to the tourists coming to visit the ‘Sex in the City’ block. Street traffic may be up, but business is trending down.
Immigrants have long been the back-bone of American retail entrepreneurship. Unlike Europe, there is no tradition of a merchant class; no long history of selling goods to a built-in clientele. In the new world, the willingness to invest one’s heart and soul, put in long hours, and often enlist family members to labor for nothing other than meals and clean sheets has been the price of entry. Like the family farm in the American frontier, it has been the family store for the immigrant classes in America for the last 125 years. [Read more...]
Those of us with memories of 1950’s kitchens may remember pressure cookers: a heavy metal pot with a rubber gasket that we were always told was a bomb and a really good way of killing vegetables. I have not seen a pressure cooker in an American kitchen for 30 years. Even my foodie royalty friends don’t have one. And unless you took Home Economics in the 1950s or 1960s, you probably have no idea how this supposedly dangerous appliance works.
Yet across the developing world, it is a primary tool of kitchen liberation. The old bomb we feared, as stories of exploding pea soup splattering grandma’s kitchen wallpaper, has been re-engineered. Pressure cookers are widely available in Walmart and on Amazon.com, in all varieties.
The principle of the pressure cooker is simple. In a compressed environment, water vapor, or steam, can be raised to very high temperatures without burning its ingredients. The steam is forced through the food, cooking it cleanly and quickly with no loss of flavor or nutrition. Thus, you can put a cup of water and three potatoes in a pressure cooker, and seven minutes later, you are eating spuds. Brown rice doesn’t take an hour; it cooks in 15 minutes.
In any cuisine that is based on legumes and grains, from hummus in the Middle East to dahl in India, cooking has traditionally tied women to the kitchen for hours every day. Even if basic staples are made once or twice a week, the preparation and cooking time involved often precludes a woman who is caring for a family the ability to also hold down a full-time job. A good pot of beans can take two to four hours to cook; having a pressure cooker can cut weekly meal prep times by more than half. [Read more...]