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Woodstock Museum

Peter Pan buses carried reporters back to Max Yasgur’s Calving Barn, where Duke Devlin, the now-gray hippie who stayed for three days of peace and music in 1969 and never left, waxed pyschedelic about what it all means nearly 40 years after, as reported by Peter Applebome in the New York Times (5/29/08). “I don’t know if this can be recreated,” he said, “but something like it can happen again. We’re back in the ’50s man. The reason we’re all here is because we’re not all there.” Actually the reason he, and busloads of reporters, were there was that a the Museum at Bethel Woods, memorializing the famous festival, will open on Monday in Bethel, N.Y.

Richie Havens was there for the occasion, as was John Sebastian, who played a couple of period-appropriate tunes and reflected on what it all meant. “It evaporated so fast,” said John. “One minute we were there and the next minute we were in Reaganville.” Maybe it was because most of the music actually sucked. “No matter what we say after the fact, most of us disliked our performances at Woodstock,” John admitted. “I can find you a quick dozen people who would look back on that performance and say, ‘Oh, man, I bit the big one.’”

Perhaps that’s one reason the museum is less a tribute to the music itself as it is an icon of a “culminating moment, the capstone of the 1960s,” as Patrick Gallagher, whose firm designed the museum, said. Most of the displays do in fact capture events outside the festival, from war to assassinations to civil rights to the moon to the Beatles, and even Elvis. The 6,728-square-foot museum is “housed in a lovely laminated wood structure” built by the same company that constructed the silos on Max Yasgur’s farm. It is a big part of a local economic development plan that includes a $100 million arts center with a 15,000-seat outdoor performance area.” Yes, a 40th anniversary concert is planned for next year. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Lincoln Memorial

lincoln memorial

Leave it to Warren Harding, arguably the nation’s worst president, to explain Abraham Lincoln, arguably the nation’s best president, notes Andrew Furguson in the Wall Street Journal (5/29/08). The occasion was the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial back in 1922, where Harding said: “Lincoln was a very natural human being … with the frailties mixed with the virtues of humanity. There are neither supermen nor demigods in the government of republics. It will be better for our conception of government and institutions if we will understand this fact.” At the time, some critics were trashing the new memorial as diametrically opposed to that kind of understanding.

“One feels not the living beauty of our American past, but the mortuary air of archeology,” wrote Lewis Mumford, in his architectural critique of the Lincoln Memorial. “Who lives in that shrine, I wonder — Lincoln … or the generation that took pleasure in the mean triumph of the Spanish American [War], and placed the imperial standard in the Philippines and the Caribbean?” More recently, another critic, Christopher A. Thomas, author of “The Lincoln Memorial and American Life,” wrote that the memorial is “a confection of a cultural and political elite bent on stripping Lincoln of his earthly imperfections.”

Andrew Ferguson has a very different take, though, noting that the statue of Lincoln is anything but idealized: “This is one rumpled icon,” he writes. “The imperfections are hard to miss. His hair is uncombed. His tie is askew. His hands betray a fidgety disposition, and his eyes aren’t quite symmetrical. He’s really, really big, but he’s still a man.” Plus, he’s sitting down, not standing up like some imperialist warrior. While it’s true that the temple in which he sits is “so large, so grand, so perfect in form and scale” that grandeur is not meant to convey Lincoln the man but rather his words, as etched in its interior walls, which remind “his country that its potential for greatness lived in its founding proposition,” as much as its individual leaders. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Retail Haimish

“There’s a word for it in Yiddish,” says Denise Matis as she looks around Howard Sportswear, a shop at 69 Orchard Street on New York’s Lower East Side, as reported by Tanzina Vega in the New York Times (5/20/08). “Haimish” is the word Denise has in mind and she says it means “character.” Unfortunately, the word in English for stores like Howard Sportswear is “endangered.” There was a time when the “most Jewish-owned shops” on Orchard and Grand Streets were “bustling on Sundays with shoppers stopping at egg-cream stands and going to Katz’s Delicatessen for corned beef sandwiches. Shops were filled with clerks who could tell a customer’s size in one glance.”

Howard G. Winterfield, who has worked at Imkar Company at 294 Grand Street for 30 years, remembers those days. “In this store, people used to line up outside the door just to come in, and there wasn’t room for everybody in the store. Today, we go hours without seeing a person.” The only reason Imkar is still in business is that its owner, Wolf Karfiol, owns the building and “refuses to sell.” He’s one of few holdouts though, as estimates are that there used to be ten times as many shops like his — underwear shops basically — in the neighborhood. Now there are only about a dozen left. “We’re a dying breed,” says Howard Markowitz of Howard Sportswear.

Perhaps ironically, the main reason Howard is still in business is because he also sells online. “That’s how you survive,” he says, adding, “I don’t do it for my pocketbook, I do it for my head.” However, one exception to this trend is Orchard Corset Center at 157 Orchard Street, where, according to owner Peggy Bergstein, business is great because she has a very special talent. “I can walk down the street, and I can look at a person and tell you exactly what their bra size is.” This sort of thing means a lot to Ayanna Hendricks, who says she’s been shopping on the Lower East Side “since she was a little girl in the 1980s,” and is impressed that Peggy remembers her purchase history. “You can’t get that kind of customer service at T.J. Maxx,” she says. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Kayak Service

kayak.com

“We fix customer problems in real time,” says Paul English, co-founder of travel website Kayak.com, reports Jonathan Blum in Fortune Small Business (June 08). Paul also fixes customer problems with real people — that is, his entire staff of 58, each of whom is responsible for responding to some portion of customer questions or complaints. This not only accelerates response times, it also saves money — to the tune of about $300,000 a year, Paul figures. His software-of-choice is “a relatively cheap and simple online tool called QuickBase,” hosted by Intuit, which he licenses for just $10,000 a year.

That’s as opposed to spending potentially hundreds of thousands “a year in salaries and benefits for an estimated 12 extra staffers he would need to run traditional customer service software.” QuickBase “is a database that automatically gathers many kinds of information — in Kayak’s case, the more than 200 feedback forms that customers fill out each day … Kayak’s version of QuickBase divides the feedback evenly among the 58 employees so that everyone is answering about four messages a day … Slacker employees are marked in red.” QuickBase is not necessarily the most user-friendly piece of software, but Paul likes it because it is easily customized to suit Kayak’s needs.

For example, the most frequent complaint Kayak receives is known as “air quality,” which is “when customers click through to an airline’s website only to find that the ticket has shot up in price.” There’s nothing Kayak can do about this except apologize, but QuickBase does allow Kayak to track airlines with the worst “air quality” in a special section it calls “Wall of Pain.” As Paul points out: “Paying an engineer to do that for 20 minutes is cheaper than outsourcing the problem.” Kayak also uses the system “to manage projects, vendors and some accounts,” and Paul suggests it is one reason the company “is on track to post $140 million in revenue this year, up from $3 million in 2005.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Star-Spangled Retail

Ever since the Iran Hostage Crisis began in 1979, Lord & Taylor has opened each and every shopping day by playing the Star Spangled Banner, reports James Barron in the New York Times (5/26/08). The tradition began with then-chairman Joseph E. Brooks, who ordered the anthem played because, as he said at the time, “with all its problems, this is still the greatest country in the world.” Joseph’s idea outlasted his tenure at Lord & Taylor (he resigned when L&T was sold in 1986) and shows no signs of going away, even as the retailer undergoes “re-branding and re-imaging” to make “it relevant for today,” as spokesperson La Velle Olexa puts it.

Nancy F. Koehn, a retail historian at Harvard Business School, says that by keeping the anthem, Lord & Taylor is “keeping its core attributes.” She also says that the daily ritual is a reminder of a time when shopping at department stores was a day-long event. “To stand for the national anthem in a department store … is to step briefly back into a moment when things seemed simpler and more straightforward and more firmly rooted than they are now, in the sense that people say ‘I remember that’ and ‘I’m looking for that footing today.’”

So powerful is that concept for Lord & Taylor that it has outlasted another of its famous traditions — an employee in starched uniform serving free coffee in cups-and-saucers to early arrivals. “As we updated the store, we needed to update the coffee service,” says La Velle Olexa, the spokesperson. Apparently “updating” means “dropping.” Not so the national anthem, however, in full orchestral splendor. Some people stand, while others sit; some sing along while others do not. For at least one shopper, the message was clear. As the final note was played she stage-whispered, “‘Play ball’” and headed for the aisles. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Empire Art-Deco

empire state uniforms

The $500 million renovation of New York’s Empire State Building includes new, Art Deco-style uniforms for the building’s security guards, reports James Barron in the New York Times (5/26/08). The new uniforms, custom-made by hand by the I. Buss Uniform Company, replace the “plain polo shirts and slacks” that the guards previously wore. “I love that they’re doing this more formal look,” says Jennifer L. Busch, who designed the new uniforms. “They were in polo shirts,” she says. “That’s not a uniform.”

To come up with the design, Jennifer, “scoured old photographs to find a look that was in style when the Empire State Building was new.” It didn’t take her long to decide to go with an Art Deco look. Among other things, this means that the jacket sleeves “bear chevrons” which was a classic Art Deco look. The jacket itself is “Empire State Burgundy,” which matches “the building’s marble corridors.” The neckties also feature a “special logo — the building against a starburst pattern, also an Art Deco touch.”

Jennifer even custom-designed the lettering used on the uniform’s hats, which “will also be used on signs for stores in the building” as “approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission because the building is a city landmark.” A total of “300 uniforms, each including 3 jackets, 4 pairs of slacks and 11 shirts” have now been delivered. They will be stored using an “automated system” where employees swipe an identification card that activates a “rack like something out of a dry cleaner’s shop … A door opens, and the employee can lift out his uniform, on its hanger.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Vanity Cards

“They’re like little gifts with purchase, and I love them,” says Nicole Bugna-Doyle, commenting on the brief messages writer Chuck Lorre posts following each episode of his hit sitcoms, reports Katherine Rosman in the Wall Street Journal (5/14/08). Chuck’s sitcoms are “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and his messages are delivered in “what many in the industry call ‘vanity cards’ — an image flashed on the screen at the end of a TV show.” Vanity cards typically “just identify a show’s creator or production company.” But Chuck uses his card to publish personal essays of up to 200 words, which you can catch on CBS, Monday nights at 8:29 p.m. and 9:29 p.m., Eastern.

Sometimes Chuck vents about network executives, as in: “I received a phone call from a mid-level CBS exec who began the conversation by saying he wanted to give me a head’s up. Having been in this business a while I knew ‘head’s up’ is code for ‘we’ve decided to s—— you.’” Then there was the vanity card he wrote hours before marrying his second wife: “I’m riddled with fear to the point of mind-numbing disassociation.” In other cases, Chuck simply comments on society in general: “Don’t hug men while shaking their hand … The shake/hug (shug?) is probably something Roman guys did when their empire was in decline.”

Chuck has been posting these messages since 1997, starting with “Dharma & Greg,” with his early offerings mainly featuring “existential wonderings and explanations of his personal beliefs.” He has since “written more than 200 cards,” (archives here) a total of four of which have been censored (including this reference to bad behavior by a Catholic priest). Most of the messages are too long to be read in the two-seconds afforded to vanity cards, but Chuck’s fans simply record them and hit the pause button (naturally there’s a Facebook group here dedicated to this). Says Chuck: “These vanity cards have tracked couple of nervous breakdowns, a divorce … You can watch my psyche collapse, rebuild itself and collapse again.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Bodysnarking

bodysnarking

The rise of Facebook, YouTube and social-networking in general has brought with it a “sport” known as “bodysnarking,” in which people post and dump on unflattering pictures of their acquaintances, reports Hannah Seligson in the Wall Street Journal (5/16/08). Hannah, who is author of “New Girl on the Job,” defines bodysnarking as “the snide, often witty, comments that have become a ubiquitous part of under-30 female conversation.” It is a result of the convergence of the digital camera, social-networking websites and a “tabloid culture (that) has made it fine to dissect other women’s looks.”

According to Nancy Redd, a former Miss America contestant, and author of “Body Drama,” bodysnarking had its “watershed moment … a few years ago when Google introduced its advertising program, AdSense.” She notes that this made it possible for “sites to track pages viewed and make ad revenues based on the number of visitors.” Because of this, bloggers such as Perez Hilton “realized that nobody cared about his personal shopping trips.” What they responded to were his snarky comments about celebrity photos, such as the one of Britney’s now-infamous flash, which he said reminded him of a roast beef sandwich.

In other words, bodysnarking can be a real moneymaker. Unfortunately, while bodysnarking may “come with the territory” for celebrities, the same treatment is now being dished out to everyone else — especially young girls. Lily Jay, who is 16, “says Facebook has made her peers much more comfortable commenting on each other’s appearance and has magnified the cruelty already commonplace among teenagers.” Others note this can be very damaging indeed. Molly Fowler, mother of two young daughters says that “when you think about how social networks can exacerbate the already enormous pressure to be thin, it’s terrifying.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Toilet Tapwater

“The Colorado River is not filled with Dasani,” says Scott Peters, making the case for recycling wastewater for drinking water to help address mounting water shortages, as reported by AnJali Athavaley in the Wall Street Journal (5/15/08). Scott, who is San Diego’s city council president makes a good point. In fact, the Colorado River, from which San Diego gets most of its drinking water “gets 400 million gallons of treated wastewater discharged into it each day.” So, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for people to get used to the idea that water that once filled someone’s toilet could be cleaned up and re-purposed through their kitchen faucets. But of course that is a stretch.

I would never touch it, nor would I give it to my dog to drink,” says Carina Sampson, a hairstylist, commenting on a plan in Orange County, Calif., to recycle wastewater as tap water. The reaction may be understandable, but experts say it is unfounded, explaining that the recycled water is actually cleaner than what’s typically found in groundwater supplies. This is because the water goes through an elaborate, and very expensive, purification process. First, the sewer water “goes through a microfilter to remove solids and bacteria.” Next up is “a reverse-osmosis treatment “that removes viruses, salts, pharmaceuticals and other materials.

Then it is treated with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to get rid of contaminants that are left.” At this point, the water is “pumped into a groundwater basin where it mixes with other water and filters through materials like sand, gravel and clay.” And then “it takes about a year for the water to travel to a drinking-water well.” Orange County’s water officials say that the recycled water tastes like chicken. No, seriously, they say it’s comparable to distilled water. “It’s just about as pure as it possibly can be,” says Michael Duvall, an Orange County lawmaker. This of course is not satisfactory to Carina and her pet Chihuahua, both of whom drink bottled water: “I just find it repulsive regardless of what it goes through,” she says. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Maker Faire

cupcake cars

“We’ve been told by corporate America that we cannot fix the things we own,” says Shannon O’Hare, reports John Schwartz in the New York Times (5/13/08). “All we can do is buy their stuff and like it,” he adds. “We are grabbing technology, ripping the back off of it and reaching our hands in where we are not supposed to be.” Shannon is one of about 65,000 who take a similar view, and participated in the third annual Maker Faire, just outside San Francisco, in early May. Sponsored by the publishers of Make and Craft magazines, Maker Faire pulls “a thread that makes is way across America’s gear-head culture,” going back as far as the Wright Brothers and even “those tinkerers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.”

“It’s deeply American,” explains Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing fame. “It’s like Burning Man without all the icky hippie elements, without the pants-free guy on a bike.” It is instead “a gathering of folks from all walks of life who blend science, technology, craft and art to make things both goofy and grand.” For example, there’s Keith Johnson, his baby daughter Karydis, and his muffin car, a “cupcake-shaped runabout, which conceals a tiny electric all-terrain vehicle and the handlebars from a Hello Kitty bicycle. The ‘frosting’ is sprinkled with oversized Prozac capsules. His head, and his baby’s, poke up out of a hole in the frosting.”

Keith’s car is just one of more than a dozen muffin-cars at Maker Faire, and he says he’s simply using both his left and right brains “to create whimsical and wonderful and sometimes useful things.: David Pescovitz of the Institute of the Future believes that guys like Keith “could force enormous change in the ways that goods and services are designed and manufactured. The renewed urge to tinker, along with flexible manufacturing technologies could shift production from big companies and stores to communities of makers and consumers.” As he puts it: “It’s about having a deeper connection with the stuff around you, and through that with the people around you … If you want something done right, do it yourself,” says David. “That’s really what it’s about.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Anti-Heirlooms

The idea of products that can be composted once you’re done with them might sound appealing until you really think about it, suggests Penelope Green in the New York Times (5/8/08). Penelope writes about a company called Montauk Sofa, which is now marketing what it says is a biodegradable sofa, which features “wood frames from sustainably managed forests, uncoated nails, organic fabrics and stuffings” and “non-toxic dyes.” Montauk’s Tim Zyto says the sofa was inspired by the thought that “the sofa just disappears when you’re done with it.” However, Steve Mojo of the Biodegradable Products Institute says the idea just isn’t practical.

The problem, he notes, is that landfills, being “tightly packed, covered and relatively dry … are not exactly designed for biodegradability.” Joe Makower of Greenbiz.com, says “biodegradability seems like a noble attribute but an irrelevant concept.” In addition to the improbability that the product will be composted, he cites “a notorious experiment called the Garbage Project, wherein researchers from the University of Tucson excavated the contents of landfills and discovered layers of mummified natural objects.” Even carrots had failed to decompose over fifty years, “and you could tell how long because of the headlines on the newspapers, also intact, found alongside them.”

Bill Brown, an English professor at University of Chicago, meanwhile says that the very idea of biodegradable furniture is twisted. “Their longevity, in the past, has always been part of the thing that gives them value,” he says of furniture … We all live such cluttered lives in which so much of what we have we’d be better off without, yet most of us are better off with our dining room tables or our sofas.” What’s more, it would seem that the very idea of biodegradable furniture only reinforces the “throwaway society” that a truly “green” consumer would want to curtail. Mark Zucker, a P.R. guy who specializes in sustainability issues, says that many green-leaning consumers are confused, reporting that one man told him: “I don’t know the right answers. I guess at the end of the day I’m trying to buy less stuff.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Overspent Americans

overspent american

“It’s amazing the amount of things a family can acquire,” says Aimee Harris, who grew up in poverty, achieved prosperity, and now, along with her husband, Jeff, wants to give it all away, report Ralph Blumenthal and Rachel Mosteller in the New York Times (5/17/08). Aimee was so poor growing up that she says her family nearly froze to death one winter, and used to cook its meals in the fireplace. All of that changed for her when she got married, and her husband began earning “a ridiculous amount of money” as a computer network engineer. The young couple bought all kinds of stuff — “cars, furniture, clothes, appliances, and after a son and a daughter came along, toys, toys, toys.”

But now the only thing they are buying is “a utopian vision of self-sustaining life on the land as partisans of a movement some call voluntary simplicity,” and “are donating virtually all their possessions to charity and hitting the road at the end of May.” Their plan is to move to “a remote cabin in central Vermont,” with “no electricity … just propane power and a wood stove.” Says Aimee: “We want to be in clean country with like-minded people with access to clean food.” They’re even getting rid of their wedding bands. “They don’t fit our lifestyle,” says Jeff.

The couple blogs about that lifestyle at cagefreefamily.com, and Aimee says she’s been surprised by the response. “Some people seem to be threatened that they’re not making the same choice,” she says. Juliet B. Schor of Boston College, author of “The Overspent American,” refers to the Harrises as “downshifters” and says the lifestyle “owed debts to hippies and the travel romance of Jack Kerouac,” but is also about stress. “They have a lack of meaning because their jobs are too demanding,” she says. Whether this move helps Jeff Harris on that score appears to be in doubt. He’s fretting that a lack of internet access out in the woods will prevent him from continuing to telecommute to his job as a web systems administrator. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Similac Sweets

“This is how breakfast cereal manufacturers compete,” says Dr. Benjamin Caballero, commenting on the use of sucrose in Similac Organic baby formula, reports Julia Moskin in the New York Times (5/19/08). Sucrose is sweeter than the lactose typically used in other “organic” formulas such as Earth’s Best and Parent’s Choice, which Dr. Caballero thinks is cause for concern. “The issue is that sweet tastes tend to encourage consumption of excessive amounts,” he says. His worry is supported by studies suggesting that babies who overeat will experience “rapid weight gain in the first year, which is often a statistical predictor of childhood obesity.”

In addition, sucrose tends to be rougher on tooth enamel than other sugars. Carolyn Valek of Abbott Nutrition, makers of Similac Organic, counters that sucrose is FDA approved and is “safe and well established.” She also notes that Similac Organic contains no more sweetener than any other kind of formula, and asserts that the product was not formulated with its sweetness in mind. Dr. Jatinder Bhatia meanwhile points out the obvious contradiction: “The parents in my practice who would use organic formula are the same parents who would be worried about giving sweets to their babies,” he says. And Dr. William J. Klish observes that a sweeter formula would give Similac Organic a clear competitive advantage.

“Babies love sweetness, and anyone selling a sweeter formula is going to have an advantage, because it would be harder to switch a baby to another formula once they get used to the taste,” Dr. Klish says. The sweeter formula (which is said to compare in sweetness to “grape juice or Country Time lemonade) certainly has been a commercial success for Similac: “In 2007, its first full year on sale, it captured 36 percent of the organic formula market, with sales of more than $10 million.” As a category, organic formula is a $20 million annual business, and Similac Organics “is largely responsible for the nearly tenfold growth in sales of organic formula from 2005 to 2007,” according to analysts. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Monkey Comforts

monkey ice cream

Subservient female rhesus monkeys find comfort in fatty, sweet foods, reports John Tierney in the New York Times (5/20/08). In an experiment at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, lower-status female monkeys were given just as much “high-fiber, low fat” food to eat as their dominant female colleagues. In this situation, the dominant females ate a bit more than the lower-status monkeys, probably because of “the higher level of stress hormones” in the subservient monkeys’ brains. But when both dominant and subservient monkeys were offered “a constant supply of banana flavored pellets” — the monkey equivalent of junk food — the lower-status monkeys binged while the dominant monkeys did not.

One explanation “is that the fatty foods help block the monkeys’ stress responses … Another possible explanation … is that the snacks activated the reward pathways in the brain,” providing a “dopamine reward.” Dr. Mark Wilson of Emory University comments: “The subordinates don’t get beat up, but they get harassed by high-ranking monkeys. If they’re sitting somewhere and a dominant monkey comes over, they give up their seats and move away. They’re always looking over their shoulder.” The behavior isn’t all that different in humans, apparently, as evidenced in “the famous Whitehall study of British civil servants, which found that lower-ranking workers were more obese than higher-status workers.”

The Yerkes study also jibes “with an American study that looked at women’s snacking tendencies,” in which women who were given stressful tasks “ate more of the sweet, high-fat snacks” offered afterwards. In yet another study, by Debra A. Zellner of Montclair State University, groups of both women and men were given puzzles that were either easy or unsolvable. The women given easy puzzles ate more grapes afterwards, while those given the unsolvable puzzles went for M&Ms. However, the men given the easy puzzles ate more M&Ms, apparently because they “had more time to relax and have a treat.” Dr. Zellner thinks the difference is because “more of the women were on diets.” But unlike the monkeys, the sweets-eating women do not feel better afterwards — “they feel guilty and actually feel worse.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Proclivity Systems

That what people do is more meaningful than what they say is the premise of Proclivity Systems, which uses online behavior to figure out what customers will buy next, reports Eric A. Taub in the New York Times (5/19/08). Proclivity’s approach is a departure from that used by e-tailers including Amazon and Netflix, which rely on past purchases and user recommendations. Problem is, maybe you bought that book for your grandmother or rented that movie for your grandchild the activity doesn’t say a whole heck of a lot about you. Or maybe your taste in novels says nothing about what you favor in business books.

Even Netflix ceo Reed Hastings admits that while some five million subscribers have submitted some two billion movie ratings, his system has its limits: “I wish I could tell you that our recommendations system was reliable, but it’s not perfect,” he says. Netflix even sponsored a contest (link here) offering a $1 million prize to anyone who could improve the accuracy of its ratings system, but so far “only slightly better than a nine percent improvement has been achieved.” Sheldon Gilbert, ceo of Proclivity Systems meanwhile achieved a 10 percent sales increase for Barney’s by instead looking at “when a customer visited its site” along with demographic information.

For example, Proclivity focuses on information such as: “Does the customer buy only when an item reaches a certain price? Is the customer more likely to buy on a weekend or during the week? Must it be organic material?” Proclivity then targets its email messages only to customers who, based on past behavior, are likeliest to open the email, click through and make a purchase. “One customer found that 10 percent of its population accounted for 60 percent of bargain sales. So on the day of the sale, you can send a full-price ad to everyone else,” says Sheldon. Not only does the company save money by sending fewer messages, but as Larry Promisel, vp of e-commerce for Barney’s notes, it also creates customer good will by sending only relevant offers. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Retail Creatures

stew leonards

Stopping at the same restaurant, store or even fast-food joint every time you make that routine weekender getaways holds a special kind of magic for some people, reports Joanne Kaufman in the New York Times (5/16/08). “It’s right before you hit the part of the road that gets wind-y,” says Aimee Grove, referring to Ikedas in Auburn, Calif., which she describes as “a funky little store slash hamburger stand slash bakery.” She continues: “You get out of the car, and it’s usually warm. It feels like summer all of a sudden. It signifies that you’re almost at the cabin. It’s almost vacation.” Aimee’s ritual doesn’t end there.

“We always buy a pie,” she says. “Nine times out of 10 it’s apple … We don’t eat apple pie at home — it’s something we always get at Ikeda’s and eat on the first night at the cabin.” Jerry and Judi Lerman understand — the couple always stops at the Stew Leonard’s in Danbury, Conn. during their trek from their Manhattan home to their weekend place in Washington Depot. They always buy the same thing — Caeser salad fixings, peas, carrots, fried rice and a prepared turkey. On the way home they stop again, this time for frozen yogurt cones. “Our kids think we’re crazy,” says Jerry. “But we’re creatures of habit.”

Then there’s Marvin Ross, who never shops at the nearby Home Depot in New York City, but never fails to stop at the one near his Cornwall, Conn., weekend home. Sadly, when such habits are disrupted, it can be devastating. Such was the case with Perry’s Nut House, on the way to William Gamble’s summer home in Maine. Stopping there was a tradition that began with William’s father. “It was full of curiosities, animals that had been stuffed, a giant clamshell which terrified me. We always got fudge, and it was really good,” he says. It closed more than ten years ago, but William still mourns: “It was part of the fabric of going to Maine. You’d get there, and you could see where you were going. It was part of the change in the landscape.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Ikea, Brooklyn

On June 18, Ikea will do what even the mighty Wal-Mart could not — open a big-box store in New York City, reports Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times (5/16/08). Accomplishing that feat took eight years and involved overcoming a lawsuit that objected to issues ranging from environmental to racial, and of course traffic. In response, Ikea is dredging Erie Basin in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where the new store is located. It is also making a priority of hiring from the neighborhood, giving anyone with a 11231 zipcode “a three-week head start in the application process.”

Perhaps most important, it is offering no fewer than five ways to get to this Ikea store. There are “shuttles from three subway stations” and two bus lines “will be extended to reach Ikea … A free water taxi, operated by New York Water Taxi and paid for by Ikea, will leave from Pier 11 in Lower Manhattan and go to Ikea’s own dock every 40 minutes … You can also drive, which is what most people in the world do to get to Ikea,” which will have a parking lot that can accommodate up to 1,500 cars. Finally, Ikea “will be offering a courier service … where a box of three cubic feet can be delivered the same day or the next day.”

Ikea also hopes to ingratiate itself with its new neighbors by playing “to the neighborhood’s maritime history. It has preserved four sweeping cranes that were once used for loading and unloading. Old tools found on the site were painted orange and transformed into a public art exhibit … Chocks, stone blocks used to secure boats, have been lined up and labeled after historic ships that once docked at Red Hook.” If that’s not enough to win over the locals, “there is an absolutely unobstructed view of the Statue of Liberty … from the Ikea restaurant. So, while drinking the bargain-priced ligonberry juice and muching on Swedish meatballs, you can savor a view that has been largely unappreciated in Red Hooks’ recent history.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Ikea, Siberia

mega mall

“Siberia, where Russians waited in long lines to buy food with ration cards not too long ago, is the improbable epicenter of a huge mall boom,” reports Andrew E. Kramer in the New York Times (5/17/08). The boom is because of rising oil prices, which already has fueled malls in the Moscow area. This includes the Belaya Dacha Mega mall, which, at 3.6 million square feet, is slightly larger than the Mall of America. A total of “38 malls are scheduled to open before 2010.” But “trickle-down petroleum money” is now finding its way to “Russian provinces that have, for centuries, been poor,” and so we now have “the malling of Siberia.”

According to Cushman & Wakefield, developers are “expected to open 4.6 million square meters, or 49 million square feet, of retail space in shopping centers in the second half of 2007 and 2008″ throughout Russia. Ikea is at the forefront of the malling, which is turning what used to be Siberia’s “drab gray landscape … into a tableau of Day-Glo green and purple outlets.” The locals are loving, reportedly mobbing an Ikea store in Novosibirsk “with the vigor of a miner’s riot” last winter, loading “their outsize yellow shopping carts with clothes, housewares, appliances and small furniture.”

“Your eyes open wide, there is so much to buy,” says Tatyana P. Salamatina, a retired engineer, who advises shopping with a handbasket rather than a cartso that “then you know by the weight when you have too much.” Siberia’s emerging shopper culture does indeed have its limits, in that may Russians continue to live “with several generations crammed into tiny apartments.” This has made sofa beds an especially popular item, along with cars, cellphones and everything else. This pent-up demand is not lost on Wal-Mart, which knows a growth opportunity when it sees one, and recently began planning its own entry into the Russian market. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Josh George

America’s next great sports hero could be a guy whose legs were shattered, his hips dislocated and his spinal cord damaged following a fall from a 12th-story window when he was four years old, reports Alan Schwarz in the New York Times (5/15/08). His name is Josh George, and at age 24 is poised to become a household name when he competes in wheelchair races at 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing this summer. He already holds world records at various distances and plans to take on Heinz Frei of Switzerland, who is currently “considered the world’s premier wheelchair racer” in six events at the Paralympics, including “the 1,500 meters and the marathon, the sport’s most prestigious races.”

Josh’s edge is partly because he was injured at such a young age, but also because of his “sheer strength” and of course, true grit. Because “pushing motion” is “so ingrained in his joints” he enjoys an “off-the-charts power-to-weight ratio that is crucial to acceleration. Add to that the dexterity to hit his wheel rims at maximum power up to 140 times a minute during sprints, lungs strong enough to handle marathons on consecutive weekends and an eat-my-dust competitive verve” and you have a guy who can power his wheelchair at “up to 23 miles per hour” in a “frenzied flutter only a hummingbird could appreciate.” Josh emerges from races with bruised fingers and burned elbows, but victorious over “athletes with injuries less severe than his.”

On top of that, Josh George has a winning personality: “With a Huck Finn grin atop a weight lifter’s shoulders and sweaty curls straight out of a Mountain Dew ad,” he may well turn out to be “a breakthrough athlete, someone whose talent and personality could attract mainstream United States audiences and advertisers.” If so, he would join other wheelchair athletes, such as David Weir of Britain and Chantal Petitclerc of Canada, who “are considered national sports heroes, worthy of product endorsements and other rewards.” Josh, meanwhile, seems happy with or without such possibilities: “If a doctor said a magic pill could probably let me walk again, I wouldn’t take it,” he says. “I’ve worked very hard to be who I am.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Redbelt

david mamet

David Mamet describes his latest film, Redbelt, as “something between a traditional American fight film and Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai,’” reports Gordon Marion in the Wall Street Journal (5/13/08). Redbelt is about a guy named Mike Terry, a veteran of the Iraq War, who runs a financially-strapped jiu-jitsu academy. Mike could solve his financial worries easily by fighting professionally, but refuses because he thinks that “competition weakens the fighter.” Mamet wrote the script because of his own fascination with jiu-jitsu, to which he was introduced by Ed O’Neill, the actor.

Mamet is now 60, but took to jiu-jitsu, and Redbelt arrives in theaters at a moment when it “has become all the rage in the U.S.” Unlike boxing, which he says “is like watching paint dry,” Mamet “believes that out of the discipline of jiu-jitsu a certain wisdom and moral discernment bubble up. It is as though, with practice, the puzzles that one faces on the mat — of husbanding your strength and energy, and of remaining calm enough to glean your opponent’s mistakes — transmogrify into a general sagacity about responding to the battles of workaday life.” Mamet says he pursued jiu-jitsu not to seek confrontation, but to avoid it. He says it worked.

“It has made me calmer, less inclined to get angry quickly. And it has given me more control over my emotions.” For example, he says he had been betrayed by someone he thought was a friend, and he says his jiu-jitsu mentor, Renato Magno, advised him: “Don’t carry someone else’s weight. Let him carry the weight; let it come back to haunt him.” In filming Redbelt, Mamet says it was hard to capture the fights because there’s little distance between the fighters and “the most dramatic thing might be one guy working to get a hand free and turn the fight around.” Mamet says he managed to get in two jiu-jitsu sessions per week during the filming, and is now a purple belt. ~ Tim Manners, editor