Friday, February 15, 2008

Being Narrow-Minded Can Be Key to Success

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Less could be more in this business climate, and business schools are helping their students understand how to spot the smaller, but hot, niche markets.

Niche markets enable small companies to compete with the giants. Niche businesses can provide their customers with a variety of choices in a specific product or service area. Companies seeking to appeal to a targeted sector of customers are now focusing on a narrow line of products, like lotions and soaps, plus sizes, skin care, chocolate, sneakers, condiments, vitamins, organic food, surfboarding products, natural cosmetics, mature women’s clothing, and natural pet food. Combine the targeted products with quality service and you have a winning formula.

It goes back to the days of the corner hardware store, a place where customers could go to get whatever they needed to fix something, and also find a knowledgeable store employee who could give them some advice on how to do the job. National chains just can’t compete with that. Big box stores are trying to serve everyone in the community by offering just about one of everything.

The niche market has a different appeal, concentrating on a specific product line and the customers who need those products.

One of the fastest-growing niche markets is the sneaker market. Big chains can’t offer every type of sneaker and all the brands customers are looking for. That leaves the door open for sneaker stores that can entice their customers with sneakers designed for running, walking, tennis, volleyball, basketball, cross-training or lots of other activities. These sneaker specialty stores can also fill their shelves with sneakers in an array of colors for the fashion-forward sneaker aficionado.

These niche stores fill a very important need. For instance, there is a whole market opening up in clothing for husky children. In the past, this was a totally overlooked market. But there is a real need for this type of clothing, and parents and kids are not going to find what they’re looking for–certainly not a wide-ranging selection–in a big chain store.

These niche stores generally have well-trained employees who know the products they sell, and if they don’t have an item in stock, they know where to find it. Return customers are critical to these businesses; satisfied customers are a must. The standard big chain answer to a customer query–”Whatever’s out there is what we have”–just won’t cut it in a niche business.

Paying attention to customers, knowing what they want, and offering free services that chains might charge for, such as home delivery and assembly–that’s what drives customers to these businesses.

Not every niche business will be successful in every region, and that’s where a good business school education comes in. Business schools teach students how to conduct market research to determine if there is a customer base and customer interest in a particular niche product and to identify those customers and reach out to them. Demographics figures into this process as well. There may not be a need for two sneaker stores within a 10-mile (16km) radius, so why open a second one? However, perhaps that area doesn’t have a store that caters to holistic shoppers, might need one, and you could tap into that niche market. Finding the right niche product and opening up a business in the right locale are as important as providing good customer service.

But what if an area can sustain two niche sneaker stores or two niche clothing stores–or even more? Then it might be worthwhile for someone to consider opening up a distributorship for that niche product to serve these stores. That propels the growth of the entire niche industry.

Here’s something to think about: While the big retailers reported a somewhat disappointing Christmas 2007 season at the cash register, sales at niche retailers were reported up during the same period.

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Depression risk might force U.S. to buy assets

By John Parry

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fear that a hobbled banking sector may set off another Great Depression could force the U.S. government and Federal Reserve to take the unprecedented step of buying a broad range of assets, including stocks, according to one of the most bearish market analysts.

That extreme scenario, which would aim to stave off deflation and stabilize the economy, is evolving as the base case for Bernard Connolly, global strategist at Banque AIG in London.

In the late 1980s and early 1990's Connolly worked for the European Commission analyzing the European monetary system in the run up to the introduction of the euro currency.

"Avoiding a depression is, unfortunately, going to have to involve either a large, quasi-permanent increase in the budget deficit -- preferably tax cuts -- or restoring overvaluation of equity prices," Connolly said on Monday.

"If conventional monetary policy is not enough to produce that result, the government may have to buy equities, financed by the Fed," Connolly said.

Legal changes would be needed to give the Federal Reserve and the U.S. government the authority to buy stocks. Currently the Federal Reserve can buy only debt issued by the Treasury, as well as U.S. agency debentures and mortgage-backed securities.

While Connolly already sees some parallels with the 1930s, he expects that a more pro-active central bank and government will probably help avert a repeat of that scenario today.

The build up of a credit bubble in recent years was similar to the late 1920s run-up to the Great Depression, he said.

Then, investors were very optimistic about new technologies, and stocks rose against a backdrop of low inflation, and a trend toward globalization. There was even an equivalent of the modern day subprime mortgage debt meltdown in the form of U.S. loans to Latin American countries which had to be written off.

"The big difference is the attitude of central banks and specifically the attitude of the Fed," Connolly said.

Some economists have blamed the U.S. economy's travails in the 1930s on the Federal Reserve's hesitation to inject reserves into the banking system.

However, today's Fed has tried to preempt the danger of a protracted economic slump and has responded swiftly to a credit crunch in the past year and gathering signs of deterioration in the economy, Connolly said.

The Fed has stepped up its temporary additions of reserves to the banking system, and swiftly slashed its benchmark fed funds target rate to 3.0 percent from 5.25 percent in September. Analysts expect at least another 0.5 percentage point cut in next month.

At the same time, "the fed funds rate can't stay significantly above the 2-year note yield," Connolly said.

On Tuesday, the 2-year Treasury note yield was at 2.00 percent, not far above the lowest level since 2004.

The Fed "almost certainly" has to cut the funds rate to 2.0 percent by the end of this monetary easing cycle, he said. If conditions in the banking sector worsen, the Fed could cut the funds rate to 1.0 percent, a low last seen in June 2004.

Global banks have already written down more than $100 billion of bad debts associated with the U.S. subprime mortgage debt meltdown and housing

However, Fed rate cuts alone are unlikely to avert a prolonged period of economic weakness because the danger still exists that a burdened banking sector will choke off credit to consumers and households.

"The Fed probably can't fix it all on its own now," Connolly said. "There is a chance the Fed gets forced into unconventional cooperation with government," which could involve buying a range of assets to reflate their value.

That would be reminiscent of some steps the U.S. government took in the 1930s when the economy was mired in deflation and high unemployment.

One turning point came when agricultural prices were restored to their pre-slump levels, Connolly said. Such measures were among the New Deal programs that President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched to bolster the economy.

Either way, investors face bleak prospects now without some kind of further government intervention, he said.

Those steps might offer clues to investors in stocks and commodities, which Connolly expects the government might be ultimately force to step in and buy to stabilize markets. He expects that a depression may be averted, but only by the state and the Fed reinflating the price of such assets.

Beleaguered housing, non-government fixed-income securities and even the now overvalued Treasury market have little hope of generating substantial returns for investors over the next few years, he said.

"If we don't avoid depression, the only thing worth holding is cash," he added.

(Reporting by John Parry; Editing by Tom Hals)

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After months of delay from privacy and civil liberty advocates, the U.S. is now moving forward with its plan to use spy satellites for law-enforcement an domestic security missions.

Sources within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who requested anonymity, told AP that a plan for an office within the DHS to use overhead and mapping imagery from existing satellites is in the final stage of completion. The new program, called the National Applications Office, explicitly states that existing laws prohibiting the government from spying on U.S. citizens would remain in effect, the official said, adding that under no circumstances would the program be used to intercept verbal and written conversations.

The new program largely follows recommendations outlined in a 2005 independent study group headed by Keith Hall, former chief of the National Reconnaissance Office and current vice president of the consulting firm Booz
DHS is currently awaiting approval of the new program from federal executive agencies. However, the program’s future will likely come up for discussion on Wednesday when DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff presents his department’s spending plan on Capitol Hill.

Last year, during a debate over rules governing eavesdropping on phone calls and email communications of terror suspects, top Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee asked DHS to suspend the program until clear legal framework was in place on how the program would operate
Government use of these surveillance technologies within the United States is not new. For years domestic agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Interior Department have had access to satellite imagery for scientific research, to assist in natural disasters and to map out vulnerabilities during major public events. Requests for these images were made through the Civil Applications Committee, a federal interagency group, since 1974.

Under the new program, these types of uses will continue, but DHS would become the new clearinghouse for the requests, with availability of satellite images expanded to additional agencies in support of homeland security missions. The DHS official said details of how law enforcement agencies could use the satellite images during investigations would be determined once legal and policy questions have been resolved.

Constitutional issues could arise in cases where an agency might request infrared imaging of a home, for example, such as a suspected methamphetamine laboratory. For cases such as these, law enforcement agencies would still be required to go through the normal process of obtaining a warrant and satisfying all the legal requirements. The National Applications Office would also mandate that all laws are observed when using new imaging technology.

Satellite image requests would be receive even more scrutiny than under the Civil Applications Committee, with all requests reviewed by an interagency group that includes Justice Department officials to ensure there are no violations of civil rights and civil liberties.

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Rudd's apology to indigenous Australia

TEXT of the formal apology to Indigenous Australians to be made in federal parliament by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at 9am (AEDT), Wednesday February 13.

"Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia. "

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The Only Scientology Protest That Matters [Pic]

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6 shot dead, including gunman, at Northern Illinois University

DEKALB, Illinois (CNN) -- A gunman dressed in black stepped from behind a curtain at the front of a large lecture hall at Northern Illinois University on Thursday and shot 21 people, five of them fatally, then shot and killed himself, said university president John Peters.


Rescue workers carry a victim from Cole Hall Thursday after a gunman shot 21 people during a geology class.

Four died at the scene, including the shooter, and two later died at the hospital, he said.

At least 22 people, including a graduate student who was teaching an ocean sciences class, were shot, Peters said.

Seventeen victims were taken to Kishwaukee Community Hospital, its Web site said.

Of those, six were in critical condition and were flown to other hospitals. One fatality, a male, was confirmed -- but was not the gunman, the hospital said. Two were admitted, and three others were discharged. The other five were not addressed on the Web site.

Four of the fatalities were female, said Peters.

Most of the injuries are head and chest gunshot wounds, a hospital spokeswoman told CNN.

The gunman started shooting from a stage in the room shortly after 3 p.m. (4 p.m. ET) in Cole Hall, officials said.

Police Chief Donald Grady said authorities do not yet know of a motive.

They know the identity of the gunman but have not released his name, Grady added.

The shooter was a graduate student at NIU in the spring of 2007. Currently he was not enrolled there but, Grady said, "He may have been a student elsewhere."

Kevin McEnery said he was in the classroom when the gunman, dressed in a black shirt, dark pants and black hat, burst in carrying a shotgun. Photo See photos of the scene »

"He just kicked the door open, just started shooting," said McEnery, who was in the class at the time. "All I really heard was just people screaming, yelling 'get out.' ... Close to 30 shots were fired." Video Watch a student describe the chaos at the scene »

There are about 162 registered students in the class that met in the large lecture hall.

A student described the classroom as having four exits - two at the front and two at the rear. "Witnesses say someone dressed in black came out from behind a screen in the front of the classroom and opened fire with a shotgun," Peters said.

At 3:03 p.m., NIU police responded, and four minutes later, the campus was ordered into "a lockdown situation," Grady said.

At 3:20, an all-campus alert went out via the campus Web site, e-mail, voice mail, the campus crisis hotline, the news media and various alarm systems, he said.

"The message basically was: There's a gunman on campus, stay where you are, make yourself as safe as possible," he said.

Rosie Moroni, a student at the school, told CNN she was outside Cole Hall near the King Commons when she heard shots coming from the classroom she was heading to.

The shot was followed by "a lot of people screaming," then people ran out the doors yelling, "He's got a gun, call 9-1-1," she said.

"It was complete chaos. It's very scary here right now."

By 4 p.m., DeKalb police had swept the area "and determined there was only one gunman" and that he was dead.

Grady said the man used three guns: a shotgun, a Glock handgun and a small-caliber handgun, and was still on the stage when he turned one of the guns on himself. The small-caliber handgun has not been recovered, he said.

The shooter started with a shotgun, then switched to a handgun, said Grady.

A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives told CNN that agents were on the scene, and could help trace the weapon or weapons used. Peters said the FBI is processing the crime scene and ATF was interviewing witnesses Thursday.

Events and classes were canceled until further notice, Peters said.

Seven counseling areas were set up throughout the campus, and hotlines were established.

Security around campus was increased in December when police found threats scrawled on a campus bathroom wall that included racial slurs and references to last April's Virginia Tech shootings. Learn about other recent school shootings »

One of the threats said "things will change most hastily" in the final days of the semester.

Peters said there is no evidence that points to a link between the December incident and Thursday's shooting.

Grady said it was unlikely authorities could have prevented Thursday's tragedy. "As much as we do, it's unlikely that anyone would ever have the ability to stop an incident like this from beginning," he said.


Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich declared a state of emergency, which will open the governor's disaster fund to reimburse local government entities for "extraordinary expenses related to the response in NIU DeKalb" and will allow the state Emergency Management Agency to provide assistance, the governor's office said in a statement.

The 113-year-old school is 65 miles west of downtown Chicago and has an enrollment of more than 25,000. The campus covers 755 acres. See a map of where the shooting took place »

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A Pakistani view of U.S. nuclear weapons

"The [U.S.] Air Force has made substantial changes in its handling of nuclear weapons in the wake of a B-52 flight last August during which the pilots and crew were unaware they were carrying six air-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads."

-- "Air Force Alters Rules for Handling of Nuclear Arms," Washington Post January 25, 2008.

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, JANUARY 25--At a press conference in Islamabad today, Pakistani Brig. Gen. Atta M. Iqhman expressed concern about U.S. procedures for handling nuclear weapons. Iqhman, who oversees the safety and security of the Pakistani nuclear force, said that U.S. protocols for storing and handling nuclear weapons are inadequate. "In Pakistan, we store nuclear warheads separately from their delivery systems, and a nuclear warhead can only be activated if three separate officers agree," Iqhman said. "In the United States, almost 20 years after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons still sit atop missiles, on hair-trigger alert, and it only takes two launch-control officers to activate a nuclear weapon. The U.S. government has persistently ignored arms control experts around the world who have said they should at least de-alert their weapons."

Iqhman also questioned the adequacy of U.S. procedures for handling nuclear weapons. He expressed particular concern about the August 29, 2007, incident in which six nuclear weapons were accidentally loaded under the wing of a B-52 by workers who did not observe routine inspection procedures and thought they were attaching conventional weapons to the B-52. The flight navigator should have caught their mistake, but he neglected to inspect the weapons as required. For several hours the nuclear weapons were in the air without anyone's knowledge. "The United States needs to develop new protocols for storing and loading nuclear weapons, and it needs to do a better job of recruiting and training the personnel who handle them," Iqhman said.

Iqhman added the Pakistani government would be willing to offer technical advice and assistance to the United States on improving its nuclear weapons handling procedures. Speaking anonymously because of the issue's sensitivity, senior Pentagon officials said it is Washington's role to give, not receive, advice on nuclear weapons safety and surety issues.

Iqhman pointed out that the August 29 event was not an isolated incident; there have been at least 24 accidents involving nuclear weapons on U.S. planes. He mentioned a 1966 incident in which four nuclear weapons fell to the ground when two planes collided over Spain, as well as a 1968 fire that caused a plane to crash in Greenland with four hydrogen bombs aboard. In 1980, a Titan II missile in Arkansas exploded during maintenance, sending a nuclear warhead flying 600 feet through the air. In a remark that visibly annoyed a U.S. official present at the briefing, Iqhman described the U.S. nuclear arsenal as "an accident waiting to happen."

Jay Keuse of MSNBC News asked Iqhman if Pakistan was in any position to be lecturing other countries given Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan's record of selling nuclear technology to other countries. "All nuclear weapons states profess to oppose proliferation while helping select allies acquire nuclear weapons technology," Iqhman replied. "The United States helped Britain and France obtain the bomb; France helped the Israelis; and Russia helped China. And China," he added coyly, "is said by Western media sources to have helped Pakistan. So why can't Pakistan behave like everyone else?"

Iqhman's deputy, Col. Bom Zhalot also expressed concern about the temperament of the U.S. public, asking whether they had the maturity and self-restraint to be trusted with the ultimate weapon. "Their leaders lecture us on the sanctity of life, and their president believes that every embryo is sacred, but they are the only country to have used these terrible weapons--not just once, but twice. Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the plane that bombed Hiroshima, said he never lost a night's sleep over killing 100,000 people, many of them women and children. That's scarcely human."

While Iqhman glared reproachfully at Zhalot for this rhetorical outburst, Zhalot continued: "We also worry that the U.S. commander-in-chief has confessed to having been an alcoholic. Here in Pakistan, alcohol is 'haram,' so this isn't a problem for us. Studies have also found that one-fifth of U.S. military personnel are heavy drinkers. How many of those have responsibility for nuclear weapons?"

John G. Libb of the Washington Times asked if Americans were wrong to be concerned about Pakistan's nuclear stockpile given the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. Colonel Zhalot replied: "Millions of Americans believe that these are the last days and that they will be raptured to heaven at the end of the world. You have a president who describes Jesus as his favorite philosopher, and one of the last remaining candidates in your presidential primaries is a preacher who doesn't believe in evolution. Many Pakistanis worry that the United States is being taken over by religious extremists who believe that a nuclear holocaust will just put the true believers on a fast track to heaven. We worry about a nutcase U.S. president destroying the world to save it."

U.S. diplomats in Pakistan declined comment.

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