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The American Dream: Jersey Style


Patriotism Comes at a Price


"Que es el diablo?"

America is under attack. Our golfers can't putt, our basketball teams can't take home the gold and tin-pot dictators mock our President for a sure-fire applause line. It's a dark time for a nation which sports the oldest system of governance in the world yet somehow is still regarded as an overgrown child.

Being the American Dream isn't all wine and roses, fair Minyans. It requires a 24/7/365 dedication to living the values we purport to hold dear. It's about meeting adversity head on, Hulking Up and showing our critics what we are made of; the gritty stuff which separates us from countries a little less gutty and, let's just say it, less fashionable than we.

Love it, hate it, or consider it a chilling portent of financial doom, America is still the undisputed global king of two things: blowing stuff up and spending money. In the interest of lending my personal skills to the area America needs them most, I'm leaving the former to our military and have instead spent the last 48 hours chucking money around like a Greek shipping heir courting Paris Hilton. Aided by my family's move from the West Coast to Saddle River, New Jersey, I've been finding needs both real and imagined, and have been throwing money all over the place to solve them.

"Vitamins", self-tanning, disposable shades and cool headwear.
-Hulk Hogan: Another Real American

Just since last Friday evening I've bought toys, bedding, electronics, food, clothes for both kids and grown-ups and signed up for a new cable television service. To paraphrase a fellow New Jersey-ite, I've seen a million retailers and I've rocked 'em all. It's been a while since I spent a whole weekend shopping and I'd never before had the occasion to do so in Garden State. As a result of that and the fact that I'm unable to go into any store without sizing it up as a business operation, I drew some conclusions during my patriotic consumption journey.

I'll share the conclusions below on one condition: If the advice-free content below somehow, some way, results in the reader making money through investment, it's imperative that the gains eventually be paid forward through the purchase of American Goods and Services.

Because doing anything else is letting our critics win.

Best Buy (BBY):

There may be people in the world who survive, even thrive, without near constant exposure to television. I am not one of those people. With my California television sets busy "staging" my home for sale, I went to Best Buy needing some fill-ins. The store was packed and rocking, as it should be on any Saturday. It was also in need of about four coats of paint and a thorough scrubbing, which seems to be a constant on this side of the nation. There's a whole world of clean, well-lit stores out there, East Coast Minyans; they just aren't here.

Investment Conclusion: Best Buy hasn't quite solved the mechanics of being both a Super Store (read: help-yourself and bring it to the cashier) and service provider. This is an important quibble for both Best Buy and their rival, Circuit City (CC). The new breed of upscale, complicated televisions generally require some help on both installation and selection. Best Buy is trying to meet those needs with their Geek Squad. While BBY is bullish about the Squad during conference calls, when you actually shop the stores it's easy to fall into the yawning divide between pampered and ignored. I kept getting pushed into the full-service Magnolia department at BBY and then, when it became apparent that I had no desire to develop a relationship with my sales staff, I would be cast into the cold world of help-yourself, where figuring out how to simply take a TV to the front and check-out became a baffling ordeal.

While BBY and CC are meeting a clear need for customers, they are still doing so in a reasonably half-assed manner for the bulk of their shoppers. To the extent that the services are being promoted (and that promotion will accelerate into Christmas), the chains are over-promising that which they can't deliver.

Services may be the next leg of profitability for the big Two of electronics but they aren't ready for prime time yet. I'll be leery of financial projections reliant on these offerings until the shopping experience improves on this front.

Kmart (SHLD):

To describe my Kmart experience I'll largely defer to my father, Ken Macke (CEO of Dayton Hudson/Target (TGT) from 1984-1994). My father was fond of saying "a dirty store is a (screw) you to the customer." If that's the case, and it is, then I spent my time at Kmart being challenged to a fist fight by the disorganized, filthy, bad neighborhood of a store.

Seeking good values shouldn't be personally embarrassing, even to a consuming American. I don't care what financial demographic you live in, you deserve clean aisles and courteous staff.

Investment Conclusion: Eddie Lampert may want to buy Home Depot (HD) or The Gap (GPS), as is widely reported, but he should learn how to actually run the chains he has before he does. Kmart and Sears were distressed when Mr. Lampert made his (great) buyouts of them. Buying non-distressed chains and making money from them will require bringing merchants into the fold (and keeping them).

Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY):

I'm loathe to make too much from one shopping experience (you know, unless I'm being super harsh) but BBBY was the best of our weekend shopping runs. Mrs. Jeffmacke and I found everything we were looking for and left with a ton of stuff that wasn't on our list when we arrived. That's simply great mass market retailing, friends.

Investment Conclusion: Say what you want about the slowing housing market and what it means for the BBBY and the like but Bed Bath & Beyond has a terrific, seemingly very well-managed, retail "box."

Cablevision (CVC):

Unwilling to relocate my DirecTV (DTV) set-up with me to install it in a rental property, I sucked it up and went with Cablevision and their TiVO (TIVO) knock-off DVR system. "Hey, maybe the TiVO nay-sayers are right about the generic DVR's," I thought in an uncharacteristic bit of optimism, "besides, Cablevision has Video on Demand (VOD)... that's gotta be worth something, right?"

I was young and stupid then. I'm older, smarter and stuck with crap television for the next 11 months now. Non-TiVO DVRs are what cable would look like if Microsoft (MSFT) designed it. Insanely, needlessly, complicated and almost hostile to the cable-surfer, it's like watching television through an old version of Windows 95. And VOD would be great if watching it wasn't like trying to stream Star Wars through a dial-up connection.

Investment Conclusion: My long-annoying TiVO investment shoulda worked. Some MSO, somewhere, should have bought TiVO and given their customers what they wanted. Instead the MSO's tried to grab the whole DVR pie and created a baffling system and a remote with more buttons than a Kathy-Lee Gifford sweatshop factory. I was raised by Sesame Street. I have spent the better part of the last year trying to save a tiny corner of television (the financial corner) from its often insipid self. It takes a LOT of work to make me dislike television, regardless of what is on the air at any given moment.

Cablevision turned the trick in the less than 48 hours.


  • Interesting article about ADHD here. Or at least an interesting premise. I was only a few lines into it before I noticed a funny looking cloud out the window then moved on to something else. I did remember to make a note to call mom, however...
  • I really wish someone would have told me that you can't turn left in New Jersey before I moved there. I don't mind commuting into the City, I just don't like having to drive 5 miles past my exit, through a labrynth of a "U-turn" (sic) then back again all just so I can get off the Garden State Parkway by taking a legally-approved right hand turn.
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