business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Sometimes it feels like the bad news will never stop.

This weekend, Ascena - owner of Ann Taylor, Loft and assorted other retail formats - announced plans to close a large number of stores. Reports like that have to leave you wondering exactly what stores are going to be left in malls around America and what formats actually will survive.

After all, stores like Loft or Lane Bryant are arguably niche merchants. Weren’t niche players supposed to survive?

And then there was the full-page ad in one of my Sunday papers (yes, I still get some paper versions) announcing that Gillette, long the scarcely challenged king of razor blades, is admitting defeat to an extent. Clearly battered by upstart rivals like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club, Gillette is promising to cut prices while maintaining the quality that always promised the best.

Of course, that announcement raises the question of how the company will accomplish this. Cutting prices without reducing quality has to mean severe belt tightening or loss of profits, if not both. On top of that, Gillette increasingly advertises it’s new on-demand fulfillment service. That’s got to cost as well, but it may also be simply a new cost of doing business.

So increasingly it feels like the news can only get worse, and there are no answers to how old world companies can survive in the new competitive climate.

Then again, maybe we are seeing the answers and just recognizing how hard they all are. In many ways, that’s what happens every time new competition arrives in the marketplace. Good players toughen up, tighten belts and find a way to march on. It’s happened before and though it’s painful to think, it will happen again.

More than ever, I think we all need to be looking around at the vast experiments out there because with channel lines blurred beyond recognition the likelihood increases that answers may come from other forms of commerce. Or at least new ideas might.

As I said earlier, I like to read lots of newspapers, probably because (like Kevin) I began my career in the newspaper business. And I’m constantly seeing all types of attempts at continued relevance there.

For instance, the New York Times website and app are both worth following these days. No matter what you think of the Times political positions in its editorials, you have to admire how the nation’s premier newspaper keeps hunting for ways to connect with today’s readers.

On a regular basis, on-line stories are accompanied by podcasts with insights from reporters, or even virtual reality experiences. Last week, one Times video allowed me to experience one lap of a motorcycle race in the United Kingdom that is considered one of the most dangerous in sports.

That’s an eye-opening experience and might get even non-newspaper junkies to give the Times a second look.

Or consider the Christian Science Monitor, which went completely electronic a few years back. The CSM publishers now openly admit that experiment is becoming unsustainable and the paper’s website now reflects new ways to attract readers and revenue.

One interesting innovation the Monitor is trying: articles now tell you how many words they contain and how long it takes to read them. I’m not sure that’s a game changing idea, but it might eliminate a hurdle that kept readers from clicking on many stories. If so, the Monitor - like the Times - might demonstrate another way of winning over reluctant readers.

After all, you’ve got to try something. Or if things are bad enough, anything. Sometimes, when the world may think you are grasping for straws, it ends up that you can grasp a little success.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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