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GP 21 February 2007: A Few Good Buys

President’s Day Sale.  There were markdowns aplenty and eager shoppers were out for President’s Day, combing the aisles for feel-good merchandise.  As importantly, Chinese New Year just began, and it’s the year of the pig.  As we said in “High on the Hog,” it’s time to pig out.  So we feel impelled to get into the spirit of things and recommend unnecessary necessities that you must add to your larder. 

Easier said than done.  There is plenty of stuff on the shelves.  But, increasingly, no matter the cost, it’s not made right.  In fact, the Japanese, who most sparked the incremental quality control movement in the years after World War II, are worried about the hollowing out of their own products.  The strivings for efficiency that set into the developed economies in the mid 1980s have not only taken the fat out of products and services, but have cut into their nerves and muscle as well. Cost-cutting is never done well.  In addition, too many product iterations and a surfeit of useless functions have led to poorly engineered widgets.  But not all are shoddy, and we offer a few winners for your inspection: 

  1. Ha’s Black Pepper Pate for the New Year.  We have begun with GioThu which you can find on the Global Province: it’s pig’s ear pate and it’s a snack designed for this season, when the people of Hanoi put chores aside and set to celebrating Tet (i.e, the New Year) with a bit of drink, rampant gambling, and general good fun.  The cost will be practically nothing, but you will have to go out and buy the ingredients.  Finding the raw materials will probably take you to some ethnic markets, turning this into one of your more interesting shopping experiences.  The idea at New Year is to do your cooking in advance, so that you have abundant dishes ready that require no further preparation.  That way you can dedicate yourself to good cheer and rampant frivolity. 

  2. Brookstone Microbeam Auto Light 540245.  Now don’t worry that the Brookstone website is clunky or that the picture of this flashlight is missing.  This is a pretty handy affair and it only cost $20.  You can use it inside your poorly lit car to read a map or toss off a few pages of a novel when you are waiting for a relative to arrive at the airport.  It also has a blinking function, so the LED light will slow down other motorists if you are disabled by the side of the road.  It easily recharges in the auto lighter you are not using because you are politically correct and have given up smoking. 

  3. Valrhona Chuao 2002.  We’re given to understand that Valrhona has lost its plantation in Venezuela due to some sort of Banana Republic imbroglio.  So you are pulling off a coup if you get to the store and find yourself a Chuao by this chocolate house that got its start as La Chocolaterie de Vivarais, founded in 1924 by M. Guironnet, a pastry chef from the Rhône Valley.   We’ve just had a 2002 and found it most satisfying, especially since we were able to compliment ourselves for consuming a now rare vintage.  We had no hangover.  Meanwhile, if we understand correctly, Amedei has taken over Chuao and pushed the big boys out.  Valrhona, to be sure, is still producing its other chocolate delights.

  4. Ruffoni Acorn-Handle Copper Risotto Pan with Spoon. This comes from Ruffoni in Italy, and it’s not only very pretty but a pleasure to cook in.  Yes, it does make good risotto, but the “risotto” nomenclature is purely an invention of Williams and Sonoma which has an exclusive on this particular design.  It will cost you $155, and you will probably have to wait a month since it’s so popular that the inventory is very thin.  You should regard this pan as a necessity, since the risottos in most restaurants are much too oily and deny the flavor of the ingredients.  It’s a dish best made at home.  Our sister site Spicelines will get around one of these days to sorting out for you where to get your Arborio and your saucepans.  Lately, it has been testing mortars and pestles

  5. Nintendo DS.  A while back, Nintendo realized that its audience was growing up and that populations in the developed world were aging, no where more so than in Japan.  Its customers could disappear.  It needed to tap into oldsters to thrive in the years ahead.  With the Nintendo DS, the background of which we discussed on the Global Province, the company provides training exercises to recharge the brain—appealing to some adults.  But it’s got Advance Wars and Sudoku besides.  Busy Japanese fathers have felt the need to get reconnected to their youngsters and have shown an appreciation for toys that will work for young and old alike.  DS does not clutter up the house, does not cost a fortune, and includes some of Nintendo’s newer hits such as the aforementioned Brain Age.  Maybe it’s a half intelligent response to iPods. We still have to take our maiden voyage. 

  6. Raul Malo.  As we remember, Mr. Malo, once the lead singer for the Mavericks, was born in Miami in 1965.  His full name is Raul Francisco Martinez-Malo, Jr.  He’s just plain mellow and has put together the best love song records around.  He’s what you should have brought your true love for Valentine’s Day.  His website features “You’re Only Lonely.” In fact, you will hear him sing when you dial into it.  But there’s another album on the way—more in the country and western vein.  We notice that the card shops often ran out of Valentines this year, which may mean that ‘love’ is coming back big time.  The Imus Show in the morning elevated itself 15 notches when Malo appeared—on February 14. 

  7. Ryobi 18V Tuff Sucker.  When Black and Decker came out with the Dustbuster, it made it easy to clean up a spill, or a broken glass, or whatever.  But the ‘get up and go’ of the Dustbuster has ‘got up and went,’ as cheaper renditions have hit the market in all the discount hardware stores and all the DIY outlets.  Then, in Santa Fe, we came across the Ryobi, from a Japanese company which, oddly enough, has chosen to sell its consumer products at Home Depot of all places.  The Tuff Sucker works, and we suppose this company will eventually pull a Toyota on Black and Decker, fighting the market leader with quality.  Home Depot advertises this item for $20.00, but that does not include the battery or charger, which add another $40 or $50. 

  8. The Wollemi PineWollemia nobilis is not really a pine at all, but a member of the Araucariaceae family, deriving its scientific name from the Australian ranger David Noble, who discovered a secret trove a few years back.  Up ’til then, it was thought to be extinct.  In any event, it’s a lovely evergreen and will grow very, very tall if you nurse it along properly with correct watering, bark planting, etc.  Now it’s being sold around the world, well publicized by establishment newspapers in various countries.  Part of the proceeds are working their way back to Australia to fund forest preserves.  Apparently you can buy it for $129 at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden or from National Geographic for $99.95.  We had to wait a while, since, as with the Ruffoni, demand is outstripping supply. 

Bruised and Battered Buys.  Perhaps, however, you’re jaded and no longer get any joy out of consuming.  Then we will have to sell you something.  Perhaps some stocks.  That’s a tough sell since the smartest people around say everything in the American stock market is too darn expensive.  “Irrational exuberance” is in the catbird seat, and people are paying too much for both stocks and houses. 

We have a theory that you should take a look at companies that have been to hell and back.  It’s like going to the secondhand store in affluent suburbs and getting a deal.  We say about alcoholics that there’s no hope for them until they fall far enough, become so battered by drink that they finally are ready to irrevocably take up a new course.  That’s true, as well, for our principal companies.  Most are so mired in the bad habits of the 20th century that’s it is hard for them to totally revamp themselves for the 21st.  We alluded to this in “Prometheus Unbound: Catching Fire Again,” where we suggested that all our institutions need to undertake wrenching cultural change.  For this reason almost all our major companies will go through a bad patch before they get better.  The quest is to discover a few good news companies that are promising because they have reported tons of bad news.  Some of them are still suitably priced.  George Putnam’s Turnaround Letter often focuses on this kind of company. 

A few have gone to the wall and come back.  McDonald’s reports good earnings, has cleaned up some of its fundamentals (i.e, dirty stores), has added salads to the menus for the diet-conscious, and has elevated to the top chaps who began at the bottom.  Sun Microsystems now has a different kind of president who, as far as we know, is the only Fortune 500 CEO (Jonathan Schwartz) with a forthright blog and has even pulled in $700 million of advantageous financing from KKR, which we take to be quite a vote of confidence. 

Corning has to be included in any such discussion.  There are times when people have wondered whether it would come apart.  But the broadband revolution worldwide and, as well, the flat panels in your TV sets, have put gas in its tank.  Interestingly, the Houghtons, the family that led it through thick and thin, have had brushes with bankruptcy dating back to much earlier days.  In its iterations in Boston and then in Brooklyn, New York, Corning had several near deaths, but lived to bring much to America and the Hudson Valley.  In other words, they have been pulling rabbits out of the hat for several centuries. Through it all, the company has had a distinguished research capability that has given it nine lives.  We could only wish it had not left the housewares business, for its flameware provided the best 12-cup glass pot in which to make strong coffee.  In fact, if you find one, buy it.  Apparently Steuben is still a Corning subsidiary:  it is a maker of fine glasswares with bowls and vases that make excellent gifts for the Saudis, the Japanese, etc.  Read up on Standard and Poor’s affection for Corning in the February 6, 2007 Business Week

A Good Man is Hard to Find.  Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, including “A Good Man’s Hard to Find,” tell us that good guys are hard to find.  That’s the way it is with products—and companies.  The bad stuff comes easy.  But the good is still around, somewhere at the margins.  You just have to be one devil of a good search engine to find it. 

P.S.  Obsolescence is obsolete, but companies have not caught up with this fact.  It is no longer smart business to make dishwashers and driers that wear out in five years.  Once upon a time we built products to last a lifetime, and now economics have begun to favor that approach again.  Resources are becoming scarce and expensive.  Global competition suggests that companies with wounded products, such as GM, will be overrun by those offering more durability such as Toyota. 

P.P.S.  The time crunch is an enemy of successful buying.  Mobile families, moving to a new town, buy their furnishings and their landscaping in a rush, anxious to get to more compelling business.  At best their surroundings are sterile; more often they are ugly.  Down the road, of course, they waste oodles of time, finding replacements for the instant purchases that wear out too easily.  Just as we have recognized that the Slow Food movement has added much to life, we are beginning to recognize that slow purchasing ain’t bad either.

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