"If this were your company, would you really spend your money this way?" -- Bill Ford, CEO of Ford Motor Co., on a new, cost-conscious "mindset" he'd like to instill in employees Brace yourself for the Next Big Thing in the mutual-fund mess: investigations into whether investors were steered into inappropriate share classes, which are identical except for their fee and commission structures.
Investors can buy several types of mutual-fund shares. Class A shares are more appropriate for longer-term investments since they have lower annual expenses. But they have higher up-front sales charges, which are part of a broker's pay. Class B and C shares have higher annual expenses with no up-front fees, though they may have deferred charges.
Regulators are increasingly scrutinizing the recom-mendations of investment advisers selling mutual funds, asking if their choices of A, B, or C shares were in investors' best interests. The NASD says it is investigating more than 50 potentially unsuitable class B sales. And regulators are starting to ask questions about the appropriateness of class A shares in cases where investors got out a year later. They might have been better off with B shares.
Some financial firms' execs think the share class probes go too far, since it's hard to predict how long investors will stay in a fund. "This is really Monday morning quarterbacking," says Richard Kovacevich, CEO of Wells Fargo (WFC). "That could be a real problem for us and the rest of the industry." For those who feel a bit sheepish flipping through XXX-rated DVDs at the local video store, Virgin Megastore has a message: Walk tall. The British-based chain is opening a porn-themed area in its San Francisco store. Starting Dec. 3, shoppers there will be able to revel in adult entertainment -- erotic art books, the latest flicks and music, even sexual board games. Virgin's Adult Entertainment zone even comes with a dancing pole, so the local club talent can entertain shoppers.
The porn section is only one of a number of specialty nooks in the retrofitted San Francisco store. "The idea is to appeal to all sorts of lifestyles," says Dave Alder, senior vice-president for marketing at Virgin Entertainment Group. There's a gay and lesbian area called Virgin Pride and a Mind & Spirit section for the yoga crowd. Virgin's British section will sell Christmas puddings and raffle off Triumph motorcycles.
If San Francisco's theme areas bring in enough customers, Virgin plans to spread the concept elsewhere in its 23-store chain. The New York store in Times Square could be an early choice, Alder says. The Salt Lake City outlet? Maybe a tad later. Food marketers are betting the Atkins diet really will work -- to bulk up their sales. More than 50 million Americans have tried a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet in the past six months, and restaurant menus increasingly flaunt low-carb offerings. Casual dining chain T.G.I. Friday's is set to go its rivals one better, BusinessWeek has learned, by getting the Atkins seal of approval for some of its menu items.
Starting Dec. 9, the 523-restaurant chain will offer nine new or revamped choices developed with Atkins Nutritionals staffers. Six of them contain fewer than 10 grams of carbs, the limit for all phases of Atkins, and none contain more than 17. Atkins-approved dishes include Tuscan spinach dip, buffalo wings, and garlic chicken with roasted vegetables. "At Friday's, we're rock stars when it comes to protein," boasts Richard Snead, CEO of parent Carlson Restaurants Worldwide.
Snead admits the Atkins logo won't mean much to frequent Friday's diners, who seem to eat and drink whatever they want. But the restaurant's research shows more than 40% of its occasional visitors have been on Atkins in the past six months. Now they can eat right -- at least if they can resist those $2 pints at happy hour. There's a new scourge in cyberspace: cheaters in multiplayer online games. Cheaters pull the plug when they're losing, keeping their win-loss records strong. Others degrade opponents' performances by twisting the cord on their game console as their rivals make a move. And some use software called "game sharks" to tamper with scores. Game makers fear cheaters may repel honest players, hurting sales. So Electronic Arts (ERTS) is banning players using sharks. Lesser cheats are grouped. "We segregate the cheaters so all the jerks are in one room," says EA President John Riccitiello. Too bad it's not that easy in the real world. New York's meatpacking district now has its very own corporate sponsor: discount airline Song. The Delta Air Lines (DAL) subsidiary is set to expand service in New York and hopes the deal it signed with a local business group will raise its image among the upscale but downtown types who live in the district. Song will sponsor events with a trendy flair, such as the Manolo Marathon -- a shopping spree named for the pricey women's shoes -- an AIDS benefit, and a contest among bartenders to invent new drinks for the airline. When Weyerhaeuser (WY) CEO Steven Rogel launched an $8 billion hostile bid for forest-products rival Willamette Industries last year, Willamette execs put Rogel's picture on a voodoo doll. That didn't stop the deal, but Rogel, 61, could be forgiven for thinking he has been hexed. Today Weyerhaeuser is saddled with $13 billion in debt, and "it's taking longer to pay [it] down," says analyst Dennis Ruggles of Fitch Ratings, which on Oct. 13 cut Weyerhaeuser's debt to junk status. Standard & Poor's (MHP) has a negative outlook, and Moody's Investors Service's (MCO) rating is just above junk.
Rogel is on the case. He has closed 32 paper and wood mills, cut 3,050 jobs, and sold off 4% of the company's timberland. "We've indicated that debt paydown is the priority," he says. If the economy picks up, Rogel aims to double debt payments, which analysts say could reach $600 million a quarter. With only $1 billion paid so far, Rogel's hoping for his own economic magic. Along with white lights, balsam wreaths, and plastic reindeer, free shipping for online orders is starting to look like a holiday tradition. E-tailers can thank -- or curse -- mammoth online merchant Amazon.com (AMZN), which last year set the bar by offering the promotion year-round. Now, merchants look positively stingy if they don't pick up the tab, at least during the holiday shopping season. So they do. This season, 65% of e-tailers, including Target (TGT), jewelry merchant Blue Nile, and Toys 'R' Us (TOY), offer free shipping, up from 45% last year, estimates Jupiter Research (JUPM).
Still, the heyday of freebies with no strings attached is over. Many e-tailers have figured out how to make their free shipping promotions pay off by putting restrictions on them, usually minimum order sizes. Gap and Nordstrom (JWN) require that customers spend more than $100 to get free shipping, while KBtoys.com starts at $75. Typically, that increases the order size, improving gross profits and making the shipping cost easier to swing. "Retailers saw last season that many consumers came to sites because of the draw of free shipping, and it didn't hurt the bottom line of companies that offer it," says analyst Carrie Johnson of Forrester Research (FORR).
Amazon is the model others are following. By offering free shipping on most orders over $25, the e-tailer is boosting sales and heading toward its first annual profit. Still, the promotion can quickly go awry if merchants miscalculate. They may give free shipping to customers who would buy loads anyway or lower their minimum order size too much and lose money on every sale. After all, only Santa can afford to offer free shipping to everyone. At a Nov. 8 protest in Rome, researchers who had been promised posts -- then lost them to a government hiring freeze -- waved passports and threatened to take jobs overseas.
They'd hardly be the first. Every year, 5% of Italy's new college grads leave, compared with less than 1% of European Union grads. The sciences get hit hardest. "It's like taking an investment and throwing it out," says Giovanni Peri, 34, an expat professor at Uni-versity of California at Davis.
Politicians are trying to lure young professionals back with bonuses. They're also trying to find money to end the hiring freeze and to offer 90% income tax breaks. But to bring back scientists, Italy needs to revamp its research system to promote competition and reward innovation. And that will take a lot more homework.