Cbus Coffee

Columbus is blessed with lots of really good local coffee houses.  Kish and I particularly prize Stauf’s Coffee in German Village, which roasts its own beans, has a wide selection for every kind of coffee taste, and then grinds the java to order depending on the kind of coffee maker you use and whether it uses a basket or cone filter.  It’s got pretty good baked goods to go with the brew, too.

IMG_5438Experience Columbus, one of the local booster organizations, has teamed up with some of the Cbus coffee shops to offer The Columbus Coffee Experience, which aims to encourage the uninitiated to sample some of the finest joe you can get anywhere.  The participating beaneries are Boston Stoker, Impero, Mission Coffee Co, and One Line Coffee, all of which are in the Short North, Cafe Brioso, Cup O’ Joe, and Roosevelt in the downtown area, and the Stauf’s shop at the North Market.

I’m a big fan of both Stauf’s and Cup O’ Joe, and there are lots of people at our firm who are stone-cold Cafe Brioso java junkies.  I’ve not tried the other places, but if I take my Columbus Coffee Experience booklet and have it stamped after trying the fare at four of the establishments, I can stop by the Experience Columbus office and get a free Columbus Coffee Experience t-shirt.  Sweet!

It’s a small promotional effort, as promotional efforts go, but it’s a simple way of getting folks to recognize a little part of the great stuff Columbus has to offer, and support local businesses, besides.

Dubious Branding

Today I noticed that one of the businesses I pass on my walk to work has a logo that consists of “T&A” over a stately Greek column.  The “T” stands for a person’s last name, and the “A” stands for “Associates” — so there’s a legitimate reason for the “T&A.”

IMG_4955Still . . . T&A?  It’s memorable, I’ll give it that.  Any red-blooded American male is not likely to forget that name.  Of course, whether they associate the name with this particular business, or with something else, is another matter.

Obviously, the brand is fraught with lots of baggage and is, well, easily misconstrued.  For example, let’s suppose, hypothetically, that this specific company wanted to hold a holiday party to thank their clients for another successful year.  How many clients are going to want to get an invitation to the “T&A party,” especially if the invitation is delivered to their home address?  Who wants their secretary to see a calendar entry for “T&A meeting,” or have someone overhear them talking about “T&A”?  Do they answer their phone “T&A.  How may we help you?”  Do their marketing brochures say “If you need help, call for T&A”?

You’d think someone, somewhere, sometime, would have suggested that “Big T Associates” might be more suitable.

 

A Complaint As Old As Commerce

The other day I went through a drive-through window at a fast food restaurant.  I made my order through the crappy intercom set-up, was handed my bag of food by a disinterested teenager at the window, and drove back on to the interstate — only to learn that the restaurant had screwed up my order.  Arrgh!

Everyone who has ever bought goods has probably experienced the sensation of being ripped off.  It’s an old complaint — in fact, as old as commerce itself.

This point was driven home by a 4000-year-old Babylonian tablet found in the British Museum — a tablet that is, in its entirety, a complaint about bogus business practices.  A merchant, Nanni, is upset because Ea-nasir cheated him in a transaction for copper ingots.  Ea-nasir, the charlatan, promised high-quality ingots, delivered crappy ones, and kept Nanni’s money nevertheless.  Nanni was upset — so upset that he hired a scribe who prepared the complaint tablet.  Why did Ea-nasir keep the tablet so that it survived for 4,000 years?  Who knows?  Maybe conniving bastard got a chuckle out of the sense of utter powerlessness that radiates through poor Nanni’s predicament, even to someone reading the message after the passage of millennia.

What really bothered Nanni is what really bothers those of us who get screwed in our business dealings:  he felt that he was being treated with contempt.  And he was!

Fast Failure

Richard had a story recently about the unexpectedly rapid demise of a Jacksonville-based company called Body Central, which sold clothing to teenage girls and 20-somethings in the “fast fashion” industry segment.  After years of strong growth and expansion of its outlets into new malls, Body Central suddenly hit the wall and closed its doors.  Richard’s story is an interesting treatment of the arc of a company’s existence in modern America.

What happened?  Basically, capitalism.  Body Central, and other stores catering to the same market segment, kept expanding to new locations and storefronts and expected the demand for clothing from teenage girls and young women prowling the malls to continue to grow indefinitely.  But the tastes and buying habits of Body Central’s target audience changed.  They decided that going to malls wasn’t necessarily the bees’ knees and started looking for more clothing on-line.  In the meantime, Body Central had growth-related problems, like managing distribution centers.  Revenues shrank, efforts to redesign stores to reattract customers failed, and ultimately the enterprise crashed.

Capitalism has a long and proven track record for incentivizing production, creating wealth, and enhancing efficiencies — but it’s a messy process.  Businesses begin, occasionally thrive, and often fail.  Sometimes the failures are of mom-and-pop shops, but sometimes they are of companies that experienced some success but just couldn’t move to the next level, and sometimes the failures are of mega-corporations like Blockbuster that are killed by new technologies, changing consumer tastes and buying habits, and competitors who develop a better product or service.  It happens, but it doesn’t make the situation any more enjoyable for employees who are out of a job when the company hits the wall.

Goodbye, Body Central!  You’re just the latest in a long line — and you won’t be the last.

The Megabus Hour

My standard departure hour from work is about 6 p.m. or so, which happens to coincide with the time that the Megabus coaches roll through downtown Columbus.  The Megabus stop is at the corner of Fourth and Spring downtown, which is right along my route home.

IMG_2088Megabus is an interesting business concept.  Owned by a British company called Stagecoach, it’s scheme is to provide low-cost, high-quality intercity bus service that competes with Greyhound.  Unlike Greyhound, however, Megabus doesn’t have bus terminals — it just stops on the street at the appointed time, drops people off, picks people up, and rolls on.

Russell has used the Megabus and thinks it is a pretty good deal.  The coaches are clean and equipped with the modern amenities, like plug-ins and wireless, and since there’s there’s nothing particularly glamorous about bus terminals he doesn’t feel like he’s missing out on anything by waiting on the street to catch a ride.  Judging by the number of Columbusites I’ve seen using the Megabus, he’s not alone in that sentiment.  There’s always a crowd waiting to board and always a crowd debarking, too.

The Bus-Riding Conservative is a big fan of bus companies like Megabus, and thinks we are foolish to try to rebuild rail infrastructure when Megabus can offer reasonably priced long-haul passenger transportation.  I see the merit to the BRC’s analysis.  Companies like Megabus use existing infrastructure and don’t require the expenditure of cash needed to permit high-speed rail travel in rail-free states like Ohio.  Megabus also won’t need the ongoing governmental subsidies that rail travel seems to demand.  If businesses like Megabus fail, taxpayers won’t be on the hook and stuck with a white elephant terminal — the intersection of Spring and Fourth will just be a little less crowded come 6 p.m.

Richard At The Trib

This week Richard started an internship at the Chicago Tribune, on the business desk.  He’s living in Hyde Park, just across the street from the President’s old house.  If you’re interested you can follow his work through the Tribune website, here.

Internships often are derided these days, but they have gotten Richard some wonderful experience.  Between San Antonio, Pittsburgh, and now Chicago, he’s gotten a real taste of what it’s actually like to work on a big-city daily newspaper.  In the process, he’s covered some great stories and compiled an impressive set of clips.  He’ll get a chance to add to that set this summer; Chicago is one of the best business cities in the country.

Richard has always had a strong affinity for Chicago, and now he’s back in the Windy City, working for one of America’s finest newspapers.  This will be an exciting summer for him!

Bitcoins, Bubbles, And Beanie Babies

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of two individuals affiliated with “bitcoin” exchanges. The two men are charged with using the bitcoin exchanges — which allow people to trade bitcoins for currency like U.S. dollars — to obtain bitcoins that could then be sold to users of another on-line exchange, called Silk Road, where the bitcoins could be used to buy drugs anonymously, in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act.

Bitcoins are a kind of token to which some people have assigned value. Each bitcoin is represented by a supposedly unique online registration number, created when a computer solves a difficult mathematical problem with a 64-digit solution. There are supposed to be a finite number of such 64-digit solutions and therefore a finite number of bitcoins, which is why bitcoin investors believe they will only appreciate in value. Users receive bitcoins at unregistered, anonymous addresses, which means the bitcoins themselves can be used to conduct anonymous transactions, as a kind of on-line currency. And, as the announcement yesterday reflects, bitcoins can be traded for real money.

I don’t pretend to fully understand bitcoins and how they are supposed to work — but I wonder how many people who have them and use them really do, either. It’s hard to understand how real value could be created simply because a random computer solves a complex math problem, and I expect that many bitcoin investors don’t have the mathematical and computer capabilities to really understand whether bitcoins are truly unique and just how limited their supply really is. And the anonymity of bitcoins means there is plenty of opportunity for mischief in how they may be used.

People who trade in bitcoins and are banking on their appreciation in value are taking a lot on faith. Of course, at a certain level you can argue that every form of currency involves a similar act of faith, but at least there are public, functioning markets for U.S. dollars, Treasury bills, stocks, and bonds and they are backed by functioning, publicly known entities. Bitcoins remind me of subprime mortgage bundles, or for that matter Beanie Babies. For a time, each of them was a hot commodity. Everyone seemed to be buying them and the word on the street was that their value was only going up. Then one day the frenzy ended, people stopped buying, and the investors were left with pieces of paper or a pile of children’s toys — and a big hole in their balance sheets and bank accounts.

Maybe bitcoins will be different . . . or maybe they won’t.