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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: October 2, 2010

John Wilcock

TRADER JOE’S IS SO secretive about its operations that they declined to cooperate when Fortune planned a cover story. “No ordinary grocery chain, raved the magazine, nevertheless, “It’s an offbeat, fun discovery zone that elevates shopping from a chore to a cultural experience.”

Fortune spent a couple of months asking about the company from everybody it could reach (most requested anonymity) and suggested that TJ’s success derived from


++Stocking a few of the most sophisticated brands available for a product in lieu of too many choices. “Customers may think they want variety but in reality too many options can lead to shopping paralysis, says author Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice). “People won’t want to feel they’ve made a mistake”;

++ Instituting its own brand, now 80% of the stock, (“see Private Label Chic”) with most of the products made anonymously by famous names.“ TJ’s wants neither shoppers nor its competitors to know who’s making its products.” Nor do suppliers want customers to know they’re making a lower-priced version.


After saturating California and four Western states, TJ expanded to its 344 stores and is now in 25 states. It strives tirelessly to retain a “small town” air and a hip perception of its customers which took it early to eastern college towns. New York’s first crowd-pleasing branch in currently-trendy Union Square store came relatively recently. (For years New Yorkers had resented Californians’ boasts about Trader Joe’s.) Fortune says that it brings good jobs and a branch in your community “is like an affirmative that you and your neighbors are smart.”

Owned by the billionaire German supermarket family, the Albrechts (“famous for not talking to the press”) leave their U.S. chain in the care of CEO Dan Bane, 62, a former USC grad who predictably declined Fortune’s request for an interview.

Queen Elizabeth II

BUCKINGHAM PALACE FOOD BILLS topped half a million dollars last year and after even Queen Elizabeth recently pleaded poverty, a British supermarket chain sent her a polite letter suggesting she change suppliers. “Your most loyal subjects at Asda… wanted to let you know that the royal household could save thousands if they made the switch.” The letter, quoted in Stores magazine, went on to explain that “Asda’s shopping bill will be roughly 27% cheaper than at Waitrose, so you could immediately cut your bills to £365k per year, saving you £135 per year – without compromising quality.” The magazine didn’t reveal whether the Royal household had replied to the letter which also included a comparative price list which emphasized the ‘Asda Price Guarantee’.

THE HONG KONG PUBLISHER who produced an animated re-enactment of what he guessed (incorrectly) happened on the day the Tiger Woods’ wife supposedly swung at him with a golf club, then fabricated videos about Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, and Steve Jobs. His latest Next Media segment, on YouTube, speculates about Sarah Palin’s 2012 presidential bid.

    Intent on animating the “news of the day” tabloid tycoon Jimmy Lai, 62, made his fortune from buying a bankrupt garment factory in which he’d once worked as an underage laborer. Currently, he needles the Chinese government with a scathing magazine plus a daily paper and a provocative television station whose 700 staffers include what are the world’s fastest animators.  Eventually, the plan is for more than two-thirds of the newscasts to be imaginative animations.

“Next Media is well on the way to developing a visual vocabulary combining the stylistic conceits of comic books, political cartoons, videogames, and nightly news segments” observes Wired.


Q: Is it likely that someone might time-travel someday? What conditions would need to exist?”
Stephen Hawking: “I was one of the first to write about the conditions under which this would be possible. I showed that it would require matter with negative energy density which might not be available.”


MORE THAN 200,000 pieces of space junk ranging from rockets to old screwdrivers are whizzing around in earth’s orbit, says Popular Science. Even a piece less than half an inch could kill an astronaut. The Economist estimates that at orbital velocity a fragment as small as a centimeter could knock out a satellite. Offering solutions to this potential catastrophe, PS suggests that a radar detection system should be set up and then either lasers, solar sails, nets, frozen mist, or “sticky balls” deployed to nudge the fragments out of orbit and into the atmosphere where they would harmlessly burn up.

Usain Bolt

FOR DECADES the athletic community dreamed that one day someday would achieve the four-minute mile and in 1954, Roger Bannister finally did it. (Since then runners have brought the record down 17 seconds). Today, the yearning is for somebody to make the 100-meter dash in 9 seconds which experts think is within reach. Currently, the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, a 24-year-old Jamaican who’s an Olympic gold medal winner, holds the record at 9.58 seconds.

YOU PROBABLY DIDN’T NOTICE that the lemon-lime sodas Sprite and Sierra Mist (owned respectively by Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola) trimmed their advertising by 80% a few years ago, deciding to concentrate on cola drinks on which they upped their budget ten or twenty times. Unsurprisingly, sales dropped precipitously and both companies have now decided to jump back into the battle for lemon-lime drinkers, as has the company that owns 7-Up (Dr. Pepper Snapple Group). “The return to focus on core (carbonated soft drink) brands in North America is both smart and overdue,” Beverage Digest publisher John Sicher told Advertising Age.


“By escalating the Afghanistan war, Obama is accomplishing one thing: he decisively ends the debate regarding accountability for Iraq. There will be none…… Culprits will escape (some to enrich themselves by writing self-exculpatory memoirs).

Thus does a Democratic administration obscure the misjudgments and missteps (in the eyes of some, the crimes and misdemeanors) of its Republican predecessor.”
— Boston U professor Andrew J. Bacevich in the Spectator


IF THERE’S A SINGLE issue that could win California for Meg Whitman, it’s her pledge to dock legislators per diems & expenses for every day beyond the budget deadline. As governor, would she have the authority to do it? Whatever. An inevitable overdue battle, nevertheless.

THE WILCOCK WEB: Now we’re supplying Yemen with billions in military equipment, training, and “advisors.” Isn’t that how the Vietnam War began?…Raising money for the Tea Party is making a lot of people rich….Britain is anticipating the European Commission’s permission to import and sell camel’s milk, reputed to be high in vitamin C, lower in cholesterol, and more digestible than cow’s milk…. Nominated for an Academy Award (Brooklyn Bridge ) as far back as 1981 and honored since for documentaries about the Civil War and National Parks, Ken Burns, 57, has completed his six-part series on the years of Prohibition which will be screened next year followed by The Dust Bowl in 2012 …. “The art of diplomacy,” explained an anonymous Indian diplomat, “is letting the other fellow have your way”…. Jonah Goldberg suggested in the National Review that a Muslim-themed gay bar be opened across from the 9/11 mosque. “It would turn things back on the supposed Islamic champions of tolerance …something they’re great at demanding but not so great at demonstrating”….Surely Henry Alford’s Crib Sheet in the NYTs Style section must be the most pretentious column in all of journalism….Anticipating more Chinese visitors, Marriott International announced it would install more Mandarin-speaking desk clerks in its U.S. hotels…. Vowing in 1974 to visit the world’s 195 countries, John Rheinbeger, 61, of Stillwater, Minn., has only three left: Cuba, Libya, and Somalia….Freezing tanks of rooftop water at night and using it to cool the building — via an evaporator coil as it melts in daytime — allows the air conditioners to be turned off for a few hours…. How do you tell when you’re out of invisible ink?….Marihuana energizes the mind…. Concerning sex, Lady Gaga told Vanity Fair: “I’m afraid of depleting my energy. I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone they’re going to take my creativity from me through my vagina”….. “I’m, the female equivalent of a counterfeit $20 bill” says Cher. “Half of what you see is a pretty good reproduction, the rest is fraud” …. topped the list of favorite consumer websites compiled by Stores magazine…..Retailers estimate that more than five per cent of returns were fraudulent last year accounting for $9.6billion in losses….The dairy departments of supermarkets are due for promotion and expansion after a company that studies retail sales pointed out that they account for 25 per cent of store sales while occupying only 5% of space…. A team from Leeds University has discovered a previously-unknown secret door in Cairo’s Great Pyramid of Khufu and is designing a robot to find out what’s behind it….Sir Richard Branson paid $700,000 for a new type of open-topped submarine in which riders wear oxygen masks and shields that deflect the water over their heads. It’s small enough to carry on his yacht….“I have found the best way to give advice to your children,” said Harry Truman, “is to find out what they want, then advise them to do it”…When University of Utah researchers tested 200 volunteers as they texted while driving on a simulator, only half a dozen of them were able to do both successfully….In a 12-page section devoted to television, the September Wired shows how to quit cable or satellite and breaks down the costs of the alternatives….Chance is a word void of sense; nothing can exist without a cause.” — Voltaire (1694-1778)