Samsung’s Galaxy S4 emerges to do battle on Apple’s home turf

NEW YORK/SEOUL, Fri Mar 15, 2013 — Samsung Electronics Co. premiered its latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S4, which sports a bigger display and unconventional features such as gesture controls, as the South Korean titan challenges Apple Inc. on its home turf.

The phone, the first in the highly successful Galaxy S-series to make its global debut on U.S. soil, was unwrapped at Manhattan’s iconic Radio City Music Hall on Thursday evening. Some industry watchers were clearly dazzled by its features, setting a high bar for Apple to surpass.

The S4 can stop and start videos depending on whether someone is looking at the screen, flip between songs and photos at the wave of a hand, and record sound to run alongside snapped still pictures. But other industry watchers said the phone would not upturn an industry that lives and dies by innovation.

The plethora of new features “are good steps in this direction, but they can be seen as gimmicks rather than game changers. At this point, Samsung appears to be trying to kill the competition with sheer volume of new features,” said Jan Dawson, chief telecom analyst at IT research outfit Ovum.

“For now, Samsung can likely rely on its vastly superior marketing budget and the relatively weak efforts of its competitors in software to keep it ahead.”

Barclays cuts Microsoft price target, others await Windows 8 launch

SEATTLE, Wash., Fri Oct 19, 2012 – Barclays Capital cut its price target on Microsoft Inc.’s stock after the world’s largest software company reported a greater-than-expected dip in its quarterly profit.

However, most brokerages maintained their ratings and price targets on the stock ahead of next week’s Windows 8 launch, described by Credit Agricole Securities as the most comprehensive product refresh cycle in Microsoft’s history.

Microsoft reported a 22 percent drop in profit on Thursday due to a fall in sales of computers running the Windows operating system in a weak PC market.

First-quarter sales fell 8 percent to $16.01 billion and some revenue was deferred ahead of upcoming releases of its core Windows and Office products.

Shares of the company, which closed at $29.49 on Thursday on the Nasdaq, were set to open 2 percent lower on Friday.

While the weakness in the Windows business was expected, the poor showing by the Office business and the server and tools division was a surprise, Barclays analyst Raimo Lenschow.

Lenschow lowered his price target on the stock to $34 from $36, but maintained his “equal weight” rating.

“… We still prefer to wait on the sidelines until after the Windows 8 launch next week,” he said in a note.

New iPhone boosts forecasts for Apple smartphone sales

SAN FRANCISCO, Thu Sep 13, 2012 – Sales of Apple Inc.’s new iPhone 5 may be double those of the previous model in its first week on the market, and up to 33 million iPhones may be sold this quarter, brokerage houses forecast on Thursday.

Many expressed surprise at how quickly Apple planned to roll out the new model around the world, saying this suggested it would be able to keep up with demand for a bigger, faster and slimmer iPhone, which goes on sale this Friday.

Several analysts raised forecasts for Apple’s share price by as much as $60, to between $750 and $820. The stock closed at$669.79 on Wednesday.

“We are positively surprised that this iPhone rollout is Apple’s fastest yet,” Barclays Equity Research said in a note to clients.

Apple will continue to win sales with older models, brokerage William Blair & Co added.

“The iPhone 4 will be sold for free after subsidies, replacing the 3GS and providing a strong product to compete in the high-growth, low-end smartphone market,” William Blair said.

The brokerage raised its sales forecast for all iPhone models by 29 percent to 33 million for the July-September quarter, at the top of forecasts that ranged from about 20 million to about 30 million in brokerage notes seen by Reuters.

RBC Capital Markets said it expected Apple to ship 8 million to 10 million of the new models by the end of the month.

The brokerage said this could result in additional sales of $4 billion to $5 billion for the period. It increased its price target for the stock by $50 to $750.

The iPhone 5 sports a 4-inch “retina” display screen, can run on high-speed 4G LTE wireless networks and is 20 percent lighter than the previous iPhone 4S.

It ships on Sept. 21 in the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Britain and will hit 100 countries by the end of the year in the fastest international rollout for an iPhone so far.

Barclays noted the rapid rollout as it increased its price target for Apple stock to $810 from $750.

Robert W. Baird & Co, which also raised its price target on the stock, now expects Apple to sell 24.4 million iPhones in the September quarter, up from its earlier estimate of 21.2 million.

Apple’s iPhone needs to dazzle as market gets crowded

SAN FRANCISCO, Wed Sep 12, 2012 – The new iPhone 5 has to be more than just another smartphone as it carries the weight of Apple Inc.’s future on its slim frame.

Five years after the first iPhone upended the mobile industry, analysts say Apple is looking increasingly defensive as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and other rivals have been first to market with phones that sport bigger screens or run on faster wireless networks.

Apple will try to close that gap on Wednesday with the unveiling of the newest iPhone, which is widely expected to offer 4G wireless technology for the first time, and a 4-inch display, up from the current 3.5 inches.

But it remains to be seen if CEO Tim Cook has any surprises up his sleeve, and if he will show off any technological breakthroughs that can put the iPhone 5 head and shoulders above the competition.

“They have been in the crosshairs of a lot of companies for a long, long time,” Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu said.

“They were the upstarts before,” he added. “Now they are more in a defensive role.”

Apple shares typically rally ahead of, and sell off after, a major product launch. They have gained 15 percent in the past six weeks to touch an all-time high on Monday.

Apple has grappled with competitive pressure since the first iPhone in 2007, though its rivals have changed as former market leaders such as Canada’s Research in Motion or Finland’s Nokia struggle, and as Asian powerhouse Samsung has come to the fore.

While no one company has yet been able to match Apple’s seamless integration of hardware and software, Google Inc’s Android has become the most-used mobile operating system in the world, and Samsung has the lead in device sales.

Wednesday’s iPhone 5 launch also comes days after Nokia unwrapped its first phone to run the latest Microsoft Windows software, intended to spearhead a new family of devices.

“It is getting tougher to expand the market share,” Gartner Research analyst Carolina Milanesi said.

The iPhone contributes half of Apple’s revenue and the majority of its profit, so Cook needs to dazzle both Wall Street and consumers. He is praised for having sustained Apple’s breakneck pace of growth since taking over last year, but the jury is still out on whether he has the innovation and marketing genius of the late Steve Jobs in the long run, analysts said.

Weekly options are implying about a 3 percent move for shares up or down between Monday and the close of trading Friday, a marginal fluctuation, said TD Ameritrade chief strategist J.J. Kinahan.

Even though few tech experts expect the new iPhone to mark a sea change in smartphone hardware technology, Wall Street analysts are still expecting Apple to sell 10 million to 12 million phones in September alone.

Ford readies Lincoln launch in China by 2014

DETROIT, Tue Aug 28, 2012 – Ford Motor Co. will launch its Lincoln brand in China within two years as it races to catch up with rivals in the world’s largest auto market and home to a growing number of luxury buyers.

The additional investment to launch Lincoln, which Ford did not disclose, comes on top of around $5 billion that the U.S. automaker has spent since 2006 in a market where it lags some way behind General Motors and Volkswagen.

As Ford builds its top-tier nameplate, it is also developing a low-cost car under the mainstream brand to appeal to more price-sensitive consumers in the fast-growing cities in western China. This vehicle will compete with GM’s Sail car.

The U.S. automaker, which joins several other companies looking to expand or launch luxury auto brands in China, is building its dealership network from scratch and will begin selling Lincoln vehicles in the second half of 2014.

“The brand in China could be a bright spot for Lincoln globally,” Ford’s global marketing chief Jim Farley said during a Beijing media event on Tuesday. “We have a chance to be different here.”

To succeed in China, Ford said it will slowly court dealers who can help burnish Lincoln’s image. Ford is also in the early stages of reviving the brand’s stale image in the United States, where sales peaked two decades ago.

Walgreen is finally ready to launch a loyalty card

DEERFIELD, Ill., Fri Aug 24, 2012 –Walgreen Co. will join the loyalty card game next month as it tries to win back millions of pharmacy patrons, a daunting task as rivals CVS Caremark Corp.  and Rite Aid Corp.  already have well-established programs.

For years Walgreen, the largest U.S. drugstore chain, said it was just fine without a loyalty card that rewards holders for spending more. Now, after testing formats for a year and a half, and after losing shoppers who had to fill Express Scripts prescriptions elsewhere for most of 2012, the chain is embarking on one of the biggest marketing pushes in its 111-year history.

Heading the introduction of the Balance Rewards card is Graham Atkinson, who led United Airlines’ Mileage Plus program before he joined Walgreen as chief customer experience officer in January 2011.

Walgreen’s new program blends aspects of airlines’ frequent flyer plans and loyalty cards from drugstore rivals and Duane Reade, which the company acquired in 2010.

“This program is all about collecting points, saving up for a treat,” said Atkinson. “If we get a more engaged customer, and ultimately a more loyal customer, they will give us a larger share of their shopping wallet.”

Walgreen will bring out its loyalty card on September 16, although patrons can sign up starting early next month with a chance to win 10 million points.

“Today, it’s kind of table stakes in most retail to have some program for rewarding, incenting, personalizing communications to your shoppers,” said Ben Sprecher, co-founder of Incentive Targeting, a software company that helps retailers and brands understand and change shopper behavior. “It absolutely needs to be done, and better late than never.”

Goldman plans web-based corporate bond trading platform

NEW YORK, Fri May 4, 2012  – Goldman Sachs is set to launch by end-May or even as early as next week a single-dealer electronic corporate and high-yield bond trading platform called GSessions.

The platform will look to cross trades for its customers in scheduled trading sessions through the day and promises to deliver narrower spreads than those available outside the network, according to a spokesman.

Goldman would also back the platform with a guaranteed liquidity amount in order to step in, up to a certain amount, to correct supply demand imbalances.

The web-based platform is expected to inject some transparency into a market which is primarily voice-trading driven.

Similar trading venues are reported to be planned by some of Goldman’s rivals, including BlackRock, Morgan Stanley and UBS.

Zynga to kick off IPO roadshow next week: sources

SAN FRANCISCO ― Zynga Inc. embarks on a road show to promote its initial public offering next Monday, two sources familiar with the matter said, the latest dotcom name to try and whet investors’ appetites.

The social gaming leader behind “FarmVille” follows in the footsteps of recent tech companies to test public markets, including Groupon Inc and Angie’s List. It could be the biggest Internet debut ahead of Facebook’s, which a source said is planning to go public in 2012.

CEO Mark Pincus will lead presentations to investors, along with COO John Schappert and CFO David Wehner, the two people told Reuters.

Zynga spokeswoman Cynthia Saw declined to comment.

Four-year-old Zynga, which filed for an IPO of up to $1 billion on July 1, is one of the most hotly anticipated IPOs in technology. It rose to prominence on the strength of viral games such as “FarmVille” and CityVille.”

The plan is to price its shares on Nasdaq before the New Year under the symbol “ZNGA,” one of these people said. Sterne Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia said attention will center on the company’s valuation, estimated at around $14 billion.

That would price Zynga higher than videogame heavyweight Activision Blizzard’s $13.85 billion market capitalization, or Electronic Arts’ $7.2 billion.

Bhatia said the company will need to outline a clear growth strategy during its roadshow to justify that rich price tag.

Some analysts have remarked on Zynga’s heavy reliance on Facebook as the main platform for its games. Facebook takes a 30 percent cut of any revenue earned on the world’s largest social network.

Others point to a track record of profitability.

“Relative to some of the recent IPOs, I would think Zynga will do better,” Bhatia said. “But it will boil down to what the valuation is. The company might be doing well but if the stock price becomes overpriced, that’s the bigger issue.”

Apple expected to unveil new, improved iPhone next week

SAN FRANCISCO ―Apple Inc looks set next week to unveil its much-awaited new iPhone, which analysts say will have a bigger screen and work better with remote computing services.

Apple on Tuesday invited media to a “special event” called “Let’s talk iPhone” next week at its headquarters in Cupertino, an unusual location for a company that typically introduces major products at larger venues in San Francisco.

The invitation did not have any other details, and an Apple spokesman would not provide further information.

The new iPhone would be the first major product introduction under Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, who took over full-time after co-founder Steve Jobs resigned last month.

It was unclear if Jobs, who is now chairman, will take the stage at the event.

“This is the iPhone 5,” ThinkEquity analyst Mark McKechnie said of the event.

Though a good product, the current iPhone4 could use some improvements, he added. “We talked about it having a bigger screen, a dual core processor, and probably integrates pretty well with the iCloud.”

The iPhone — introduced in 2007 with the touchscreen template now adopted by its rivals — remains the gold standard in the booming smartphone market.

Apple introduced the iPhone 4 in June 2010 in black 16 gigabyte and 32 gigabyte versions, with white ones added to the lineup in April. The company typically refreshes its iPhone lineup during its developer event in June, but delayed the new model this year.

Apple sold 20.34 million iPhones in the third quarter ended June 25, which analysts say helped it vault past Nokia and Samsung Electronics to become the world’s biggest smartphone maker.

Shares of Apple were up 0.5 percent at $405.26 in midday trading.

Bringing chocolate back

David Taiclet President, Gourmet Food and Gift Baskets Group, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM Inc.

David Taiclet President, Gourmet Food and Gift Baskets Group, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM Inc.

David Taiclet wasn’t ready for the scene at the Fannie May store in Oak Lawn, Ill., when he showed up around 7 a.m. that day in November 2004. He was there to prepare for the chocolate maker’s first soft launch, scheduled two hours from then, that would set off a chain of reopenings and reignite the brand.

“When a retailer does a soft launch, it means we don’t do a lot of publicity about it, because we’re just trying to get organized to open the store, and then we’ll do a grand opening maybe a couple of days later,” Taiclet says. “We picked that store, because we didn’t think it would attract a lot of attention.”

He wasn’t expecting to find a line of people flooding out the door flocked by TV news crews — not much different from the scene 30 days and 45 stores later when he reopened the flagship store downtown at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, where 800 customers stood in a line three blocks long.

“Picture this: You’re at this store, and you have these TV cameras there,” Taiclet says. “And the TV camera starts talking to a customer who just came out of the store, ‘Hey, I have so-and-so customer right here. What do you think of the product?’ And she’s like, ‘Well, I haven’t tasted it yet.’ So she opens her product up, grabs one and puts it in her mouth and starts chewing on it.’”

Now, keep in mind, this wasn’t quite the same Fannie May that many Midwesterners had fallen in love with when the brand’s mouth-watering sweets became tradition. When the chocolate maker’s parent company, Archibald Candy Corp., sank into its second bankruptcy in 2004, it closed the plant and 250 retail stores and started looking for a buyer. It found one in Taiclet’s company, Alpine Confections Inc., which had recently purchased Harry London, another chocolate company, out of bankruptcy.

So what would the response be now, with new ownership and a few other changes in store?

“She’s like, ‘This is the best Pixie I’ve ever tasted,’” Taiclet says, continuing his story with a reference to the chocolate-covered caramel candy. “You couldn’t pay for that kind of public relations and marketing to say, ‘Hey look, Fannie May is back and our product is outstanding.’”

It was proof that during the tough times that shuttered Fannie May, customer affection didn’t falter.

During the relaunch and beyond — like when 1-800-Flowers.com Inc. acquired Fannie May in 2006 and, after a couple years, asked Taiclet to stay on board as president of the gourmet food and gift basket group — customer service has been Taiclet’s focus. He leads 1,100 full-time and 1,500 seasonal employees under brands like Fannie May, Harry London, Cheryl&Co., The Popcorn Factory and 1-800-Baskets.com with the goal of maintaining the customer experience while staying relevant.

“If you look at any brand, they’re going to have ups and downs through their life,” Taiclet says. “But what makes it an enduring brand is the experience that customers have with it. You can talk about a brand being a logo. You can talk about a brand being a recipe. But a brand is really the experience a customer has with it. As long as you stay focused on that customer experience and maintaining the integrity of that experience, the company may go through ups and downs financially, but in general, you’re going to have a long, successful run.”

Understand tradition

Although the soft launch turnout was surprising, Taiclet already knew about the bond between customers and Fannie May. It’s crucial you understand your brand through consumers’ eyes, too.

Taiclet learned about the customer experience during due diligence, when he had a three-month window to accumulate information before the acquisition. He spent that time with customers and previous retail store managers alike, even hiring back many employees to tap into their understanding of the brand. Then he compiled the feedback.

“The most important thing is we focused on, what is the great part of the customer experience?” he says. “What is the relationship this customer has with the brand? What’s the most important thing? We realized there’s this love affair between the customer and the brand. That love affair is the product quality, one; two, the tradition that people had with this product.

“When people described our brand, it was like, ‘Hey, it’s tradition. It’s a trusted friend. It never fails. I know it’s going to be good. You can’t go wrong with this.’”

From those consumer descriptions of the brand, Taiclet knew that going forward, product quality would have to stand up to the legacy of recipes that hadn’t even changed when ingredients ran low during World War II. Of course, hiring back the same employees and using the same recipes helped ensure that the product would stay the same. But he was so concerned about quality that he sent old and new samples to a university food research group for scientific analysis.

Understanding the customer experience takes more than upfront research — it’s an ongoing endeavor. When 1-800-Flowers.com acquired Taiclet’s brands, he was able to leverage its e-commerce platform and social media presence — in other words, become more accessible to consumers and get more personal with customers.

“Feedback has become a lot easier these days, both good and bad,” he says. “You’re deepening your relationship with your customers by offering them these [interactive] opportunities. You get instant feedback. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Direct contact can even be a business in itself. The company acquired DesignPac Gifts, which created wholesale gift baskets for third-party retailers. Tapping into the capability and name recognition of 1-800-Flowers.com, DesignPac sprouted a direct-to-consumer brand called 1-800-Baskets.com, which has become the fastest-growing brand in the company.

But customer interaction can get even more personal than e-commerce or Twitter can allow. You need to get out and interact with customers, too. Taiclet regularly visits stores, plants and distribution centers, both to work alongside employees and to chat with customers. Whether he’s stocking shelves or attempting to giftwrap boxes — which, he’ll admit, is not one of his strongest skills — he’s facing customers and getting a glimpse into their experience.

“Our management team is active and involved, and I think we know what our customers are saying,” he says. “We live in a world where it’s not hard to get customer feedback, and if you just go stand in a retail store, you know. If you’re standing in your distribution center and you’re seeing the product go out the door, you know the kind of experience that your customers are probably getting.”