Walmart: “Doing Fine, Thank You”

Carolyn Piedmont buys a loaf of bread the way a collector would an antique.

With reading glasses on her nose, she stands in the bread aisle sizing up candidates: Milton’s Multi-Grain: $2.75. Orowheat 100% Whole Wheat: $3.10. Nature’s Own Honey Wheat: $2.38. Nature’s Own Honey 7-Grain Whole Wheat: $1.91.

She grabs one, then another. Mouthing the ingredients, she calculates the figures while ignoring the on-again, off-again Walmart intercom announcing store sales and discounts.

“I go to other stores just to double-check prices,” she says, beside her grocery cart stocked with health foods staples like yogurt and protein shakes.

Piedmont says she always shops at Walmart.

Today, she narrows the choice to two: Nature’s Own Honey Wheat or Nature’s Own Honey 7-Grain Whole Wheat. She adjusts her glasses and picks up another loaf.

Customers Face Tough Choices

With the economy slumping, customers like Piedmont are shopping at Walmart in record numbers.

One customer, Richard Harris, says he just started shopping at Walmart, though he swore he’d never.

“I’d rather pay $100 for something good one time then buy the same piece of crap five or six times,” says Harris, a carpenter who recently retired to care for his wife recovering from a car accident and a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

Harris rarely shops in the produce section, however.

“You never know what you get in your food,” he says, adding that he analyzes food products from the store with a lead-testing kit.

Still, Harris says he is now a consistent–though “conflicted”–Walmart shopper. He credits his retirement and failed investments as the reason.

Company Stock, Profits Rising

Walmart has done well in the last year. Not only in store sales, but in stock value.

Walmart shares are up almost 40% since October of last year, while the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones are both down more than 20%–a sign customers are flocking like never before to the store’s “low, low prices,” especially on food.

“Walmart’s food prices are estimated to be anywhere from 8-27% lower than large supermarket chains for an identical market basket across different U.S. metropolitan areas,” according to researchers Elena G. Irwin and Jill Clark at Ohio State University in their article “The Local Costs and Benefits of Walmart.”

And customers have responded by increasing Walmart profits from last year.

“Net sales for the second quarter of fiscal year 2008 were approximately $101.6 billion, an increase of 10.4 percent from $92 billion in the second quarter last year,” according to a press release issued by Walmart in September 2008.

Lee Scott, president and chief executive officer of Walmart Stores, Inc., during an in-house video interview on Walmart.com, said that even though consumers are reallocating their pocketbook and leaving non-essentials on the shelves, the relationship between Walmart and its customers has grown closer.

“We’ve made our decision to manage our capital a little closer to the vest, at the same time that the customer is having to manage their own lifestyle to the vest and the two things are matching up,” said Scott.

Choices Differ Among Customers

Jay Esperaza and Claudio Alvarado, two undergrads from the University of Texas at Austin, are at Walmart today to buy paint for their living room table. At first, Esperaza suggested they go elsewhere: “Hey, let’s go to Home Depot,” he told his roommate. Alvarado was hesitant. Instead, he convinced his friend to shop at Walmart, knowing it would save the two money. (The Home Depot in question closed its doors a week later).

Esperaza agreed, though he says he prefers not to shop at the superstore. “You have to weigh price vs. quality vs. service,” he says. This time price won out.

“[Walmart’s] a drain on the local economy,” Alvarado admits. “But it’s handy when you don’t have a lot of money.”

Not all customers are turning to Walmart to save money, however.

Kirk Manolis, a weekly patron at Fresh Plus Grocery, a small family-owned grocery in Austin, Texas, says he considers himself a “socially conscious person” and refuses to shop at Walmart for a variety of reasons.

Kirk, an upper-middle class securities trader who has profited in the last year as a short seller, says Walmart is run by “rightwing nuts” and regardless of finances, he would never shop at the retailer.

“Not unless they nationalize it and relocate business to North America,” he says, buying milk at the mom-and-pop within walking distance of his house. “And no more teaching republican politics in staff meetings.”

Fresh Food Plus, Kirk’s grocery of choice, has still been profitable in the last year, even with more customers turning to Walmart for food purchases, says Irene Beurskens, storeowner.  She says nearby customers save money in ways other than direct purchases.

“They’re saving money that they would have spent on gas,” she said, adding that many customers ride scooters or bicycles and park out front. Others just walk like Manolis.

Still, like elsewhere, prices at the store are going up to offset rising wholesale costs, says Randy Sexton, grocery manager, carrying a handful of printouts listing the new price of bananas (up 10 cents) and a six-pack of Blue Sky soda (up 50 cents).

More Profit for Walmart, Analysts Say

In a September 2008 article, the S&P-owned online magazine “Outlook” recommended Walmart stock to subscribers as a short-term investment option. “Consumers will continue trading down to lower-priced retailers [in the coming year],” according to the article.

Piedmont sees the trend in her own life. “I had friends who were Walmart snobs,” she says. “Now they don’t shop anywhere else.”

But Piedmont takes offense to the perception that Walmart only caters to low-income customers. She says she has built up her “healthy savings” thanks in part to buying at Walmart and would recommend the choice to any frugal shopper, especially one in financial trouble.

“We got money,” she said. “I’m a wise shopper. And that’s why.”,

Review: “I’m a PC” Commercial – Microsoft & Apple

Microsoft just can’t stop robbing Apple. First, it was operating systems, now it’s commercials.

Back in 2006, Microsoft released Vista to a roar of boos. Not only was it slower than XP, but it had software compatibility issues, questionable security features, anti-piracy technology that detected “counterfeit or non-genuine” software on a person’s computer (college kids loved that) and not to mention, it sapped laptop battery life twice as fast as XP, according to tests by CNET and others.

And other folks claimed Vista’s aesthetic and user-controls were eerily similar to Apple’s OSX operating system which suggested copyright violation.

Check out the new 3-D chess game Microsoft built into Vista.

Look a little like Apple’s?

But that’s little stuff. How about bigger stuff? For instance, for years Mac users enjoyed a quick app built into the operating system that had an address locator, a calculator, weather reports, language translations, among other things. Apple calls them “widgets” and it’s a Mac staple. Here’s a picture:

Well, Vista now has a similar application. Microsoft calls them “gadgets” (or “stolen ideas” for short):

Other applications in Vista that look and feel like Mac’s include: Apple’s iPhoto and Finder.

So, is it any surprise Microsoft’s new marketing campaign is again ripping off Apple?

Apple:

Vista:

StoogeTV – R.I.P.

uh oh

2008-12-07_1957

StoogeTV is down. Not sure what’s up, but I’m going with terrorism. In the meantime, try http://us.zaptiger.com for games online.

Big Savings on Snobbery

Forget shopping at thrift stores. If you’re broke, head to Fifth Avenue:

shopper-artLuxury Prices Are Falling; the Sky, Too

“THE world is a strange place right now,” a salesman on the main floor at Bergdorf Goodman said as shoppers pawed through handbags piled on counters like discount merchandise at Century 21. “It’s off its axis.”

The handbags, like a lot else at the Fifth Avenue retailer, had been marked down 40 percent and are likely to go lower as seasonal sale days wear on. “Sixty percent off is the new black,” as Patricia Marx wryly noted in the Dec. 8 issue of The New Yorker. Yet the discounts at Bergdorf are far from the deepest among luxury retailers around the city.

In a move that caused consternation among its high-toned competitors along Fifth Avenue, Saks slashed the bulk of its fall fashion and accessories up to 70 percent over Thanksgiving weekend — to what some termed limbo lows.

…yet much of the merchandise is still turning a profit. Even with the 70 percent discount.

Who’s Stevie Jay?

hotseat-savit1I love you, you can’t stop me!

                                           -S.J.

Stevie Jay has this story—about his first apartment. Cozy enough except the bedroom walls were hideous, colored “hospital-green”. So, he hired a painter.

When the job was done, the painter called and Stevie came by. Looking around the room, he saw a spot the painter had missed near the ceiling.

He mentioned it. The painter stretched his neck and squinted.

He shrugged. “Oh, that?” he said. “That’s nothin’. Believe me, if you don’t look up there, you don’t really notice.”

Problem is that never happens. Stevie makes his living as a performance artist. And his material comes precisely from looking at those things others ignore. Such as themselves. 

Half comedian, half existentialist extraordinaire, Stevie, the “wisecracking prophet,” as a reviewer once called him, dubs his show “Life Love Sex Death…and other works in progress.” 

Like Bob Dylan’s music and Lenny Bruce’s comedy in the 1960’s, Stevie’s shows often transcends its entertainment value—becoming more a therapy session. stevie2Which is how it began.

In his mid-20’s, long before the stage years, Stevie joined a commune, living with other soul-seekers in a large house in Virginia. They met daily for intense psychoanalysis sessions. For hours, the group would sit in a large circle, often berating each other on their weaknesses, in the hopes of some Buddhist epiphany.

“We were essentially hypnotized into believing we were the scum of the Earth simply because we were human beings,” he remembers.

Rough as it was, Stevie credits the sessions for helping him see the dormant crevices of his boarded psyche that later fueled his material. 

The shows are intensely intimate—dim stage lights, candles, a couch—focusing mainly on relationships, the self and the difficulty connecting the two. 

“The core theme of the show explores the struggles we all go through as human beings,” says Jay. “To live our lives honestly and passionately—to love fearlessly, to risk rejection, and to reach out to people we’re attracted to even when we’re scared.”

Stevie Hat poster 8.5x11 colorHow about tolerance?

“We don’t need tolerance,” he says. “Tolerance implies putting up with something that’s unpleasant. What I need to ‘tolerate’ is the leaf blower on my cul-de-sac. I don’t need to ‘tolerate’ my neighbors.”

Through the decade-long life of the show, he has developed a cult-like following, especially on college campuses where he performs often.

Evan Merida, a graduate of Indiana University, was once an audience member. Now he is Stevie’s booking agent.

“I can say, without hesitation, that you will be hard-pressed to find another program that reaches as diverse an audience and hits as many topic as “Life Love Sex Death…and other works in progress,” says Merida.

Stevie’s desk drawers are filled with thank-you letters. His email inbox a museum of love.

On his website, he shares one such letter from a female student at Indiana University. It’s a common one. 

“When [the performance] was all over, my boyfriend and I went upstairs to our room, closed the door, and burst into tears,” the young woman wrote. “We didn’t have to ask each other why we were crying—we knew why.”

 www.steviejay3.com

A Salute to Odetta

odettaNice piece about Odetta on “All Things Considered” this afternoon. A special tribute by NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling.

Odetta: Legendary Folk Singer Dies At 77

The moment you saw and heard Odetta, there was no way you could forget her. She stood on the stage, back in her prime, like a lioness. Strong body. Strong stance. Short, short hair. Big earrings jangling like swords. One moment she’d grimace like something was hurting.

Then suddenly Odetta would smile. And you’d melt.


Miss You, Sean

fb_aahp082_8x10sean-taylor-postersOn NFL Draft Day 2004, Gregg Williams—the defensive head coach of the Washington Redskins—stood on top of a table to make his point. Looking down at his colleagues, the owner, the General Manager, a Hall of Fame head coach. His message was clear.

For days the debate was “Who do we draft at #5?”. The choice narrowed to two: either Miami University tight-end star Kellen Winslow or fellow Miami star, free safety Sean Taylor.

Both players filled a need. Both were “can’t miss” prospects. Both would be available at #5.

Rumor has it Dan Snyder wanted Winslow. The Redskins owner loves the high-profile, charismatic scoring threat—(but who doesn’t really?)

sean-taylor-memorialWilliams wasn’t having it. If you’ve ever watched Sean Taylor play—either at the University of Miami or with the Redskins—it was obvious. The kid was special.

Williams got his wish.

Three years later, Taylor was not only the most feared—truly feared—defensive player in the most angriest of all sports, but he led the league in interceptions. (Even three weeks after his death)

On Sunday, he was inducted into the Redskins Ring of Fame. We’ll miss you Sean.