Fall in to the (child labor) GAP.

From the Guardian.co.uk:

Child sweatshop shame threatens Gap’s ethical image

An Observer investigation into children making clothes has shocked the retail giant and may cause it to withdraw apparel ordered for Christmas

Dan McDougall
Sunday October 28, 2007
The Observer

A Gap worker straightens up clothing. Photograph: Paul Sakuma/AP

Amitosh concentrates as he pulls the loops of thread through tiny plastic beads and sequins on the toddler’s blouse he is making. Dripping with sweat, his hair is thinly coated in dust. In Hindi his name means ‘happiness’. The hand-embroidered garment on which his tiny needle is working bears the distinctive logo of international fashion chain Gap. Amitosh is 10.
The hardships that blight his young life, exposed by an undercover Observer investigation in the back streets of New Delhi, reveal a tragic consequence of the West’s demand for cheap clothing. It exposes how, despite Gap’s rigorous social audit systems launched in 2004 to weed out child labour in its production processes, the system is being abused by unscrupulous subcontractors. The result is that children, in this case working in conditions close to slavery, appear to still be making some of its clothes.

Gap’s own policy is that if it discovers children being used by contractors to make its clothes that contractor must remove the child from the workplace, provide it with access to schooling and a wage, and guarantee the opportunity of work on reaching a legal working age.
It is a policy to stop the abuse of children. And in Amitosh’s case it appears not to have succeeded. Sold into bonded labour by his family this summer, Amitosh works 16 hours a day hand-sewing clothing. Beside him on a wooden stool are his only belongings: a tattered comic, a penknife, a plastic comb and a torn blanket with an elephant motif.

‘I was bought from my parents’ village in [the northern state of] Bihar and taken to New Delhi by train,’ he says. ‘The men came looking for us in July. They had loudspeakers in the back of a car and told my parents that, if they sent me to work in the city, they won’t have to work in the farms. My father was paid a fee for me and I was brought down with 40 other children. The journey took 30 hours and we weren’t fed. I’ve been told I have to work off the fee the owner paid for me so I can go home, but I am working for free. I am a shaagird [a pupil]. The supervisor has told me because I am learning I don’t get paid. It has been like this for four months.’

The derelict industrial unit in which Amitosh and half a dozen other children are working is smeared in filth, the corridors flowing with excrement from a flooded toilet.

Behind the youngsters huge piles of garments labelled Gap – complete with serial numbers for a new line that Gap concedes it has ordered for sale later in the year – lie completed in polythene sacks, with official packaging labels, all for export to Europe and the United States in time for Christmas.

Jivaj, who is from West Bengal and looks around 12, told The Observer that some of the boys in the sweatshop had been badly beaten. ‘Our hours are hard and violence is used against us if we don’t work hard enough. This is a big order for abroad, they keep telling us that.

‘Last week, we spent four days working from dawn until about one o’clock in the morning the following day. I was so tired I felt sick,’ he whispers, tears streaming down his face. ‘If any of us cried we were hit with a rubber pipe. Some of the boys had oily cloths stuffed in our mouths as punishment.’

Manik, who is also working for free, claims – unconvincingly – to be 13. ‘I want to work here. I have somewhere to sleep,’ he says looking furtively behind him. ‘The boss tells me I am learning. It is my duty to stay here. I’m learning to be a man and work. Eventually, I will make money and buy a house for my mother.’

The discovery of the sweatshop has the potential to cause major embarrassment for Gap. Last week, a spokesman admitted that children appeared to have been caught up in the production process and rather than risk selling garments made by children it vowed it would withdraw tens of thousands of items identified by The Observer.

He said: ‘At Gap, we firmly believe that under no circumstances is it acceptable for children to produce or work on garments. These allegations are deeply upsetting and we take this situation very seriously. All of our suppliers and their sub-contractors are required to guarantee that they will not use child labour to produce garments.

‘It is clear that one of our vendors violated this agreement, and a full investigation is under way. After learning of this situation, we immediately took steps to stop this work order and to prevent the product from ever being sold in our stores. We are also convening a meeting of our suppliers where we will reinforce our prohibition on child labour.

‘Gap Incorporated has a rigorous factory-monitoring programme in place and last year we revoked our approval of 23 factories for failing to comply with our standards.

‘We are proud of this programme and we will continue to work with government, trade unions and other independent organisations to put an end to the use of child labour.’

In recent years Gap has made efforts to rebrand itself as a leader in ethical and socially responsible manufacturing, after previously being criticised for practices including the use of child labour.

With annual revenues of more than £8bn and endorsements from Madonna and Sex and The City star Sarah Jessica Parker, Gap has arguably become the most successful brand in high-street fashion. The latest face of the firm’s advertising is the singer Joss Stone.

Founded in San Francisco in 1969 by Donald Fisher, now one of America’s wealthiest businessmen, Gap operates more than 3,000 stores and franchises across the world. In Britain Gap, babyGap and GapKids are very successful, their own-brand jeans alone outselling their retail rivals’ lines by three to one.

Last year, the company embarked on a huge advertising campaign surrounding ‘Product Red’, a charitable trust for Africa founded by the U2 singer Bono and backed by celebrities including Hollywood star Don Cheadle, singers Lenny Kravitz and Mary J Blige, Steven Spielberg and Penelope Cruz. As part of the fundraising endeavour, Gap launched a new, limited collection of clothing and accessories for men and women with Product Red branding, the profits from which are being channelled towards fighting Aids in the Third World.

On its website the company states that all individuals who work in garment factories deserve to be treated with dignity and are entitled to safe and fair working conditions and not since 2000, when a BBC Panorama investigation exposed the firm’s working practices in Cambodia, have children been associated with the production of their brand.

Gap has huge contracts in India, which boasts one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. But over the past decade, India has also become the world capital for child labour. According to the UN, child labour contributes an estimated 20 per cent of India’s gross national product with 55 million children aged from five to 14 employed across the business and domestic sectors.

‘Gap may be one of the best-known fashion brands with a public commitment to social responsibility, but the employment [by subcontractors ultimately supplying major international retail chains] of bonded child slaves as young as 10 in India’s illegal sweatshops tells a different story,’ says Bhuwan Ribhu, a Delhi lawyer and activist for the Global March Against Child Labour.

‘The reality is that most major retail firms are in the same game, cutting costs and not considering the consequences. They should know by now what outsourcing to India means.

‘It is an impossible task to track down all of these terrible sweatshops, particularly in the garment industry when you need little more than a basement or an attic crammed with small children to make a healthy profit.

‘Some owners even hide the children in sacks and in carefully concealed mezzanine floors designed to dodge such raids,’ he explains.

‘Employing cheap labour without proper auditing and investigation of your contractor inevitably means children will be used somewhere along the chain. This may not be what they want to hear as they pull off fresh clothes from clean racks in stores but shoppers in the West should be thinking “Why am I only paying £30 for a hand-embroidered top. Who made it for such little cost? Is this top stained with a child’s sweat?” That’s what they need to ask themselves.’

· The investigation was carried out in partnership with WDR Germany.

· This article was amended on Sunday October 28 2007.

It’s designed better, and now it’s worth more too!

canadian dollar

From IHT:

The dollar hit a new low against the euro Friday and had the biggest weekly loss in almost four years against the Canadian dollar on speculation the Federal Reserve would keep cutting U.S. interest rates.

The U.S. currency dropped to an all-time low versus the euro after the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, said Thursday that the credit market turmoil might make the housing recession more severe. The central bank’s trade-weighted dollar index was at its lowest since its inception in 1971.

“The dollar weakness will drag on,” said Simon Derrick, chief currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon in London. “The crisis is not over and the Fed is likely to cut rates further.”

The euro rose to $1.4077 in late trading $1.4066 at late Thursday. The dollar rose to ¥115.445 from ¥114.425 and to 1.1734 Swiss francs from 1.1724 francs. The British pound rose to $2.0190 from $2.0098.

The Canadian dollar rose as high as $1.0064 on Friday, the strongest since November 1976, bringing its gain this week to 3.1 percent. The U.S. dollar has lost 6.6 percent against the euro this year.

—————-

Wow, that’s crazy! In 2004, I used to do my grocery shopping in Canada because the Canadian dollar was worth 35 cents on the dollar. Now, the US dollar won’t buy 35 cents of Canadian stuff! If only I would have kept more money in my Canadian bank account — I would have had a 65% rate of return over 3 years, that’s nearly 22% a year!

Notes one blogger: The last time the two currencies were at par was in November 1976, the year Montreal hosted the Summer Olympics and Pierre Trudeau was prime minister.

NYT: Romancing the Flat Pack: Ikea, Repurposed

From the New York Times:

NYT Image

By PENELOPE GREEN
Published: September 6, 2007

Winnie Lam was thinking about food when she made her Chocolate Sundae Toppings footstool, fashioned from a few bags of cotton pompoms hot-glued to an Ikea stool. “It came from staring into a bowl of ice cream one day,” said Ms. Lam, 31, who lives in Mountain View, Calif., and is a product manager at Google. “I’m a chocolate lover, but I’d rather look at it than eat it.”

Alex Csiky, a 43-year-old guitar maker in Windsor, Ontario, was focused, as he always is, on blowing a raspberry at the guitar-making industry while at the same time making a great sound when he built his sleek blond electric guitar from an Ikea pine tabletop.

Meanwhile, Christine Domanic, 28, an artist who was living at the time in Philadelphia, found the inspiration for her rolling bench in the sex ads in the back of city magazines. Her endearing Wiener Bench — a wooden bench festooned with fat pink crocheted tubes — was made from an old Ikea side table, the yarn from 60 used sweaters and the stuffing from a sofa left on her street on trash day.

Ms. Lam, Mr. Csiky and Ms. Domanic have never met but they are nonetheless related, connected by a global (and totally unofficial) collective known as the Ikea Hackers. Do-it-yourselfers and technogeeks, tinkerers, artists, crafters and product and furniture designers, the hackers are united only by their perspective, which looks upon an Ikea Billy bookcase or Lack table and sees not a finished object but raw material: a clean palette yearning to be embellished or repurposed. They make a subset of an expanding global D.I.Y. movement, itself a huge tent of philosophies and manifestoes including but not confined to anticonsumerism, antiglobalism, environmentalism and all-purpose iconoclasm.

“I think there is a movement around looking at all the products that are available — this global stream of stuff — and realizing you can tinker with them and rebuild them,” said Michael F. Zbyszynski, 36, the assistant director of music composition and pedagogy at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at the University of California, Berkeley, whose own hack is a speaker array made from red plastic Ikea salad bowls, and who has made other musical objects from PVC plastic and coffee cans that “live in the zone of the hack,” he said.

“It’s all about not accepting what’s presented for sale as it is,” Mr. Zbyszynski said, “about not just doing a ‘paint by numbers’ of your life.”

The hackers have lately gained a salonnière in Mei Mei Yap, a 37-year-old Malaysian copywriter who lives in Kuala Lumpur and works for an advertising agency there. Ms. Yap, who calls herself Jules, for the Ikea chair she loves, and who has no affiliation with the mammoth Swedish furniture maker that makes it, is not, she said by phone from her apartment, particularly handy, but with her year-old blog, ikeahacker.blogspot.com, she has created a forum for those who are very handy indeed. With a keen eye and an open heart, Ms. Yap has built an encyclopedia of hacks by trawling craft and design Web sites and by inviting personal submissions.

Ms. Yap said she lives with a family of rapidly reproducing guppies and lots of Ikea furniture, but hardly any hacks. “Well, there are maybe three,” she said, describing a tower of wall cabinets, a side table made into a mobile home office unit, and a bathroom cabinet she added doors to. “But they don’t even qualify for my site.”

She presents hacks that are kitschy-useful, like Sara Madole’s bright green rolling cat litter box (Ikea hackers seem to be overwhelmingly cat people), which Ms. Madole, a 27-year-old law school graduate who lives in Houston, said she built from two Ikea Snack boxes. Ms. Yap also collects hacks that are meta in both concept and design, like the Nata Vintage chair — made by Anatomic Factory, a design collective in Florence, Italy — a Duchampian object that marries a walking cane with an Ikea chair.

“Nata vintage” — meaning, roughly, born vintage — “stems from a reflection on the eternal return of the ‘old’ as a recurrent tendency of the market,” Marco Popolo, one of the object’s designers, explained by e-mail. “Therefore let us make a provocation: what better way to sell a vintage chair than to borrow a walking stick (stereotype of the old) to replace a leg of a classic, stereotyped Ikea chair?”

Mr. Popolo wrote that he has been following Ms. Yap’s blog, which he called a “very interesting big container rich with ingenious and original ideas,” since its inception, drawn to the fact that it’s about “stuff made by common people” — as opposed to designers — who are trying to customize their lives. “This is a very contemporary phenomenon,” he said.

More prosaically, Ms. Yap said: “I think Ikea just makes it easy to D.I.Y. because it already has a system in place of mixing and matching this frame with that cabinet and those knobs. Hacking just takes it a little further, repurposing it to fit your needs. And maybe the geek-nerd in us hackers feels a buzz having outsmarted the Ikea system by creating something of our own.”

Some of the most ingenious hacks are as simple as a $6.99 Ikea desk lamp reimagined as a wall sconce, or stainless steel shelving reworked as a coffee table. The word hack is filched, as Shoshana Berger, editor in chief of ReadyMade magazine put it, from computer parlance, as in, “hacking into the mainframe.”

“The idea is you’re getting in through the backdoor,” Ms. Berger said, “and reinventing what’s there.”

In the 1990s, when Ms. Berger was a “cool hunter” at Y&R, the branding, marketing and advertising agency, “we used to call this ‘post-purchase product alteration, ’ ” she said, noting that Ikea hackers’ predecessors can be found in fashion, with the deconstruction movement fomented by the Belgians in the late ’80s, and in architecture.

“There is a long history of hacking industrial artifacts or found objects and turning them into high design,” she said, drawing a straight line from Buckminster Fuller to Lot-Ek, the Manhattan architectural firm that has played with cargo containers, industrial sinks and truck tanks. “But to my knowledge Ikea is the only company that is appealing to the do-it-yourselfer.”

Why Ikea, the 60-year-old megabrand whose perky Swedish style has homogenized living rooms from Europe to Malaysia (it now has 265 stores in 35 countries), should be so hackable has everything to do with its price point and, perhaps, its benign-seeming blondness.

There are hackers who have upended and truly subverted the happy Ikea message, like Guy Ben-Ner, an Israeli video artist who made a treehouse of Ikea furniture and an instructional video featuring a man who is a combination Robinson Crusoe, Jewish settler and Ikea salesman. The piece, which he showed at the 2005 Venice Biennial, was all about “the illusion of creating” that comes from the sort of D.I.Y. that regular Ikea shoppers practice, along with an attendant illusion of individuality. The Ikea-D.I.Y. promise is that “we shall all have, eventually, the same ‘private’ homes,” Mr. Ben-Ner said.

But most of the hackers Ms. Yap has collected aren’t perpetrating truly subversive acts. They are more focused on the pleasures of reinvention, and on modifying Ikea’s wares to suit their homes and personalities.

Mona Liss, director of public relations for Ikea in the United States, took her first look at Ms. Yap’s blog a few weeks ago, pointed there by this reporter. “I could spend all day looking at this,” she said, and then opined that what compels an Ikea hacker to hack, in addition to what she called Ikea’s clean palette, “is this invisible aura of Ikea, something in our DNA that is inviting and unspoken.”

“Being an Ikea worker,” she continued with animation, “I can tell you we’re a culture that’s asked to challenge conformity, to speak outside the box.”

Or outside the flat pack, as the company’s special packaging is called.

Ikea hacking reminded Ann Mack, 31, director of trend-spotting at JWT, the blue-chip advertising agency once known as J. Walter Thompson, of the way ad campaigns are spoofed on YouTube. “Customization is so huge for a demographic that’s skewing younger and younger,” she said. “They don’t want to be told by ‘the man’ what they should consume and how exactly they should consume it. That’s boring. They can make their own playlist. They can take a product and make it truly their own.”

In any case ReadyMade, Ms. Berger’s magazine, which she started in December 2001 and comes out every other month, was designed for hackers of all stripes. It’s a hybrid, part Martha Stewart, part Mrs. Beeton, for a reader who listens to the Silver Jews, reworks ads to display on YouTube and might turn rubbings of manhole covers into backlighted mandalas or repurpose an Ikea Billy shelf into a bed, following instructions that ran in the magazine in 2005 in an article called “Ikea Your Way.”

The magazine itself was a D.I.Y. project until last fall, when it was bought by the Meredith Corporation. Its success — it now has a circulation of 250,000 — has resulted in large part from the mind-set of a generation that came of age in the late 1980s and early ’90s with self-authoring tools, Ms. Berger said, “like editing their own movies and photos on their computers, blogging, creating their own Web sites.”

“They feel very capable and resourceful,” she said.

The rise of the computer culture, as resourceful as it is, means that “we are no longer a tactile culture,” Ms. Berger continued, “so there is this yearning for things that are hands-on and handmade.”

ReadyMade is part of a universe of D.I.Y. media and forums where Ikea hacks appear and are then found by Ms. Yap, who links her blog to them. It’s a universe that includes Make magazine (more science than design-geeky, for the handmade-robot set) and Web sites like instructables.com, which was created by M.I.T. Media Lab alumni as a forum for its users to share knowledge about how to make or do practically anything, including, as a glance at the home page the other day revealed, a quick banana nut bread and “hacking a toilet for free water.” Mr. Zbyszynski’s speaker array, with its goofy “Lost in Space” aesthetic, first appeared there.

The do-it-yourselfer’s agora is the two-year-old Etsy (etsy.com), run out of a 7,000-square-foot warehouse in Brooklyn by Robert Kalin, 27. He founded the site — an online community of 400,000 members, including crafters, designers and, inevitably, Ikea hackers — as an old-fashioned bazaar to sell handmade objects and promote “human-to-human contact,” as he described it. In July, Mr. Kalin said, Etsy sold its millionth item. “I don’t know if it’s anachronistic or ambitious,” he said, “but I just want to make everything I own.”

Mr. Kalin said that to him and his fellows at Etsy, Ikea is a natural resource. “We don’t look to a forest for wood,” he said. “We don’t want to use ‘new’ wood. We look at a Dumpster or an Ikea store as a place to go harvest ‘raw’ materials. It’s a very urban phenomenon: we have the resources we need and we have become expert at repurposing them, like taking these broken Ikea chairs and making them into a table.”

Mr. Kalin is big on “upcycling,” a process whose name was coined by William McDonough, an architect, and Michael Braungart, a chemist, in their 2002 book, “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.” They used the term to describe the process of taking something that’s essentially waste and moving it up the consumer-goods chain. “I love upcycling,” Mr. Kalin said. “I love this idea of bringing something from lower down and elevating it.”

Etsy held an upcycling contest last spring, inviting its users to make something of value out of materials that would otherwise end up on the trash heap. Christine Domanic’s Wiener Bench won first place. Last month, Ms. Domanic joined the Etsy staff as a marketplace coordinator, helping Mr. Kalin restructure the site. She has donated her bench to the Etsy lab.

“Anyone can come and see it,” she said. “It’s really comfortable and fun to scoot around the floor on.”

AM&A’s… Of Course!

AM&A's

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about The Bon Ton. As a Buffalonian, I think it pained me to see AM&A’s close in 1994, and reopen under The Bon Ton banner. I have a good friend in New York, and we always jest that with our nasal upstate accent, it was a cruel joke to rename a store something that sounds so terrible, when uttered through the nose. In any regard, as long as I can remember, AM&A’s was a powerhouse of Buffalo retail. When sold to The Bon Ton, they certainly were in decent shape, and a major economic driver in the Western New York region. It seems to me that The Bon Ton has just mercilessly driven the company in to the ground.

In the early 90s, The Bon Ton was on an acquisitions spree — they took over a number of local chains, and consolidated them under The Bon Ton name. As I’ve said, it was painful at the time, but now in retrospect, it was — from a business standpoint — a stupid move. AM&As was a name engrained in the WNY consciousness. The Bon Ton bled that brand equity, and the hemmoraging continues to this day. Today, I read yet another “sales slip at Bon Ton” article in Business First

—————————–

Sales slip at Bon-Ton
Business First of Buffalo – 10:56 AM EDT Friday, July 13, 2007

Bon-Ton Stores Inc. saw sales fall below expectations in June, and executives blame a slowdown in store traffic.

Total sales fell 8.1 percent to $279.6 million, compared with $304.2 million in June last year.

Bon-Ton operates eight stores in Western New York — in Clarence, Hamburg, Jamestown, Lockport, Niagara Falls, Olean, Tonawanda and West Seneca.

Total same-store sales throughout the chain dropped 8 percent in June, and those sales include those of Bon-Ton and of Carson’s, a company Bon-Ton acquired in 2006. Bon-Ton same-store sales dropped 18.1 percent and Carson’s same-store sales dropped 1.7 percent compared with June last year.

The year-to-date trends are more promising. Total sales at Bon-Ton increased 14 percent to $1.25 billion, compared with $1.09 billion for the same period last year.

Merchandise that sold well in the period included intimate apparel, children’s, juniors, dresses and cosmetics. Home and furniture performed weakly, said Tony Buccina, vice chairman and president of Bon-Ton, in a press release.

“Despite the sales shortfall, inventory levels are well-positioned for the remainder of the second quarter, and we continue to provide our customers with fresh merchandise,” Buccina said.

Bon-Ton operates 279 stores, which includes eight furniture galleries, in 23 states under the Bon-Ton, Bergner’s, Boston Store, Carson Pirie Scott, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers nameplates. It also operates five Parisian stores.

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What’s important about the article is the last paragraph. In 2006, the company reversed it’s take over and conquer appraoch, and begin to recognize that long-standing local names were far more valuable than anything they could hope to sell under some other banner.

Aside from the fact that I quite literally dispise the name “The Bon Ton”, and aside from the fact that since the takeover in 1994, The Bon Ton has closed about half of the stores it acquired, and aside from the fact that the merchandise is dowdy, and the service is well, not service at all, and aside from the fact that advertising for the chain evaporated from the ubiquitious “AM&A’s… Of Course!” to… well, nothing at all, and aside from the fact that The Bon Ton has invested about $35 into capital improvements for former AM&A’s stores over the past 15 years, AND not to mention that The Bon Ton closed the flagship downtown AM&As after pledging not to do so… I still hope that by the grace of god, they succeed to some end.

So, as an olive branch, here’s what I propose to The Bon Ton CEO Mr. Byron Bergen, et. al. on the Board of Directors:

1. Recognize that it’s no longer 1956. Department stores are a dying breed, and The Bon Ton is about 5.5″ under.

2. Recognize that though it’s nearly dead, The Bon Ton is a gold mine just waiting to happen.

3. Dump the stupid name. Look at the same store sales for Carson Pirie Scott compared to the same store sales for the former AM&As chain. It isn’t about the consumer profile in the market, it’s about name and a customer connection to the name. I bet if The Bon Ton changed the name of the stores in WNY back to AM&As and launched an aggressive PR and advertising campaign (that solely emphasized the name change) that same store sales would jump by 10% (putting them at, well, at least at the break even point compared to last year).

4. Clean up the damn stores. They’re dank, packed full of crap, and disorganized. I’d rather see one of something masterfully merchandised than 100 of something dumped in a pile. And while you’re at it, clean up the graphics in the stores, red and white is old school and boring — it says “discount” and not “experience”.

5. Retrain your employees. Friendly, efficient, fun, and helpful. Those should be the four tenets, not old, bored, tired, and unmotivated.

6. How about someone under 55 on the board of directors? That might be a good place to start.

7. Why not emphasize house brands? I would be hard pressed to name one house brand that The Bon Ton features. I’m sure there are some, but who the hell knows what they are?

8. Fashion, fashion, fashion. Why not offer the customer a service in a manner that will make the store a community center (think kids’ story hour at Barnes & Noble). Maybe a plus-size fall fashion show, or an ongoing Thursday afternoon “Tea and Tips” makeup tip hour with catered snacks and tea (I’m sure the cosmetic companies would gladly subsidize and buy in). Home decor lessons, place setting displays, cooking demos, it all costs nearly nothing and goes a very long way.

9. Cut the coupons and the constant discounting No one cares. Everything is always on sale, and yet, strangely nothing is ever really a bargain. Price something fairly and then heavily discount. Or have a standard 10% off MSRP all the time. That would pull them in in packs.

10. Advertise. I would be hard pressed to tell you the last time I saw a Bon Ton ad (or heard one) outside of the newspaper. AM&As used to advertise non stop, Kaufmann’s advertised NON STOP. Macy’s advertises non stop. The Bon Ton? Full stop.

So, that’s the tip of the iceberg. Interested in more, call or e-mail me. I’m happy to offer more. Hell, it’s free, so what do you have to lose… oh, other than the 5 stores that remain in this area.

Supermarket Sweep

Two stories about supermarkets today:

One from the New York Times:

By MICHAEL BARBARO
Published: June 23, 2007
Show New Yorkers a checkout line and they’ll tell you whether it’s worth the wait.

Starbucks at 9 a.m.? Eight minutes, head to the next one down the street. Duane Reade at 6 p.m.? Twelve minutes, come back in the morning.

But now a relative newcomer to Manhattan is trying to teach the locals a new rule of living: the longer the line, the shorter the wait.

Come again?

For its first stores here, Whole Foods, the gourmet supermarket, directs customers to form serpentine single lines that feed into a passel of cash registers.

Banks have used a similar system for decades. But supermarkets, fearing a long line will scare off shoppers, have generally favored the one-line-per-register system.

By 7 p.m. on a weeknight, the lines at each of the four Whole Foods stores in Manhattan can be 50 deep, but they zip along faster than most lines with 10 shoppers.

Because people stand in the same line, waiting for a register to become available, there are no “slow” lines, delayed by a coupon-counting customer or languid cashier. And since Whole Foods charges premium prices for its organic fare, it can afford to staff dozens of registers, making the line move even faster.

“No way,” is how Maggie Fitzgerald recalled her first reaction to the line at the Whole Foods in Columbus Circle. For weeks, Ms. Fitzgerald, 26, would not shop there alone, assigning a friend to fill a grocery cart while she stood in line.

When she discovered the wait was about 4 minutes, rather than 20, she began shopping by herself, and found it faster than her old supermarket.

“By now,” Ms. Fitzgerald said of those competitors, “you’d think everyone else would catch onto this.”

The science of keeping lines moving, known as queue management, is a big deal to big business. Since arriving in 2001, Whole Foods stores in Manhattan have won bragging rights as the top sellers among grocery chains here, with sales of $42 million per store last year, according to Modern Grocer, a trade publication.

Some of its competitors acknowledge they are feeling a bit of line envy. “I should give it a closer look,” said John A. Catsimatidis, owner of the Gristede’s chain, which uses the traditional line system.

Even New York grocery chains that use a similar system but on a smaller scale admire the efficiency of Whole Foods. “It’s very impressive,” said Jon Basalone, a senior vice president at Trader Joe’s.

Lines can also hurt retailers. Starbucks spooked investors last summer when it said long lines for its cold beverages scared off customers. Wal-Mart, too, has said that slow checkouts have turned off many.

And they are easily turned off. Research has shown that consumers routinely perceive the wait to be far longer than it actually is.

“We have good clocks in our heads for roughly three minutes,” said Paco Underhill, founder of Envirosell, a retail consulting firm.

“Once we get beyond that, time expands wildly,” he said. “If somebody is there for 4.5 minutes and you ask them how long they waited, they will say 15 minutes.”

In most of the United States, the wait in a grocery store checkout line is negligible — under a minute, Mr. Underhill has found.

Then there is New York City. Here, hundreds of shoppers, in grocery stores that feel as cramped as a junior one-bedroom, can wait 10 minutes or more to reach a cashier.

Whole Foods executives spent months drawing up designs for a new line system in New York that would be unlike anything in their suburban stores, where shoppers form one line in front of each register.

That traditional system, they determined, would take up too much space and could not handle the crowds they expected here.

The single-line, bank-style system was quickly chosen for its statistical efficiency. Then, Whole Foods paired the system with possibly the largest number of registers in the city, more than 30 per store, and it hired an army of cashiers to staff them throughout the day (including “floaters” to fill in for those who need a break).

The result is one of the fastest grocery store lines in the city. An admittedly unscientific survey by this reporter found that at peak shopping times — Sunday, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. — a line at Whole Foods checked out a person every 4.5 seconds, compared with 19.6 seconds for a line at Trader Joe’s.

Granted, it may not be an apples-to-organic-apples comparison, but when faced with a line of 5o people, it takes about 4 minutes to check out at Whole Foods, half the time it takes at competing chains with significantly shorter lines. (With a 7-person line at Zabar’s one Sunday, it took about 8 minutes to check out. With just 10 people in line, it took about 13 minutes at the Food Emporium.)

“Whole Foods has just figured it out,” said Kelli Wicker, 38, who waited less than two minutes to buy $15 worth of groceries at the Whole Foods at Union Square, despite a line of more than a dozen people.

Perhaps the most important role players in the Whole Foods system are the “line managers,” who monitor the flow of people, direct them to a cash register and, when needed, hold up signs saying how long it will take to check out. In another innovation, color-coded digital screens are now replacing those humans.

Others have tried to copy the Whole Foods system, including Trader Joe’s, a popular California grocery chain that opened its first Manhattan store last year. But with far fewer cash registers, lines often snake around the entire perimeter of the store. The wait on a typical Sunday night is about 20 minutes (which might explain why a screaming match broke out one Sunday after a customer tried to sneak into the middle of the 75-person line).

“It is something that we recognize and would like to remedy,” said Mr. Basalone of Trader Joe’s.

Michael Ridgway, 33, no longer shops at Trader Joe’s. “The line just does not move and makes it impossible to shop in the store,” he said. But every week, he and his girlfriend, Jennifer Tolan, 29, queue up, with 50 to 70 strangers, at Whole Foods in Columbus Circle. “You can’t pick a slow line,” Ms. Tolan said.

and one from The Buffalo News:

Tops considers putting store in former Latina’s on Elmwood

By Matt Glynn NEWS BUSINESS REPORTER
Updated: 06/22/07 9:18 AM

A Tops Markets franchisee is exploring the idea of opening another store in Stuyvesant Plaza, where Latina’s Foodland Fresh recently closed.

Phil Perna, president and chief executive officer of Supermarket Management Inc., which operates a Tops on Niagara Street, stressed that nothing is definite and agreements would need to be worked out before a new store could become a reality.

The Elmwood Avenue shopping plaza has been without a food retailer since Latina’s closed in April. Prior to Latina’s, Quality Markets operated a store that closed in late 2003.

Perna said opening a store there, if it happens, would be an opportunity to grow the Tops name and serve the neighborhood’s residents.

“We’re hopeful at this point,” he said. “We have a ways to go.”

The closings of Quality and Latina’s were considered setbacks for neighborhood residents, including senior citizens, who could walk to the store to buy groceries.

“If we do it, we would like to operate it as a Tops market,” Perna said. “The precise format isn’t something we’ve made any decisions on.”

Perna did say that he would envision operating a smaller-size store than Latina’s did at the same location.

He said his company would still need to work out agreements with the business that ran Latina’s, which leased the space, and the Tops chain before any plans could move forward. Benchmark Group owns the plaza.

The new store would face the challenge of succeeding where two others have closed within the past four years.

“I think what we’d bring to the table is the Tops name and being able to use that format,” Perna said. “I’d like to think the years of experience we have operating a store on Niagara Street would serve us well in this location.”

Supermarket Management also has Tops stores on South Transit Road in Lockport and on Broadway in Depew, plus a B-Kwik store on Seneca Street.