The companies everyone love to hate.

Bad company ratingsIt seems that there are certain companies people like to criticize all the time. One that I’ve heard quite a bit of grumbling about in recent months is Comcast.

Now comes along a report from 24/7 Wall St, an equity investment data aggregator and investment firm, which has compiled a list of the “Ten Most Hated” companies in America.

Its list is based on reviewing a variety of qualitative and quantitative attributes. Companies were examined based on total return to shareholders in comparison to the broader market plus competitors in the same sectors.

Financial analyst opinions on publicly held companies were also reviewed, as well as findings from consumer surveys conducted by diverse sources (the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index, Consumer Reports, J.D. Power & Associates, ForeSee, etc.)

Also evaluated was the Flame Index, which uses an algorithm to review ~12,000 websites to rank companies based on the frequency of negative words and terms associated with them.

Lastly, an analysis of media coverage to determine the extent of negative and positive news coverage was conducted.

Stripping away such quasi-governmental agencies as the U.S. Post Office, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, it leaves us with an interesting list of the “worst of the worst.”

Some of the companies that made the 24/7 Wall St list – and the reasons for them achieving the dubious honor – include:

American Airlines – Not only has this airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it’s rated the worst airline for customer service. It’s performing at or near the bottom of the heap on attributes like on-time departures, flight cancellations, and baggage handling problems. American Airlines’ University of Michigan ACS index of 63 is dramatically lower than Southwest – the industry’s leader which scored an 81 on the index.

Facebook – This behemoth may claim a user base of 800 million+, but that doesn’t stop people from having major grievances with the company. A recent customer satisfaction survey conducted by IBOPE Zogby found that ~30% of users consider Facebook’s customer service to be “poor.” (Anyone who has ever actually tried to interface with the company might be tempted to ask, “What customer service?” Facebook has also received negative press coverage for sneakily instituting, with no warning, privacy settings that change how it shares personal information with others.

Best Buy – This company is still smarting over self-inflicted problems during the holiday season when it ran out of popular merchandise it sold online … then neglected to inform buyers of the fact until just two days before Christmas. The retailer’s explanations (excuses?) seemed lame. It’s one reason ForeSee dropped Best Buy from being the second-ranked company for retail satisfaction prior to the holiday season (just behind Amazon). Now Best Buy is ranked so poorly, it no longer appears among the Top 20 national retailers. To make matters worse, Forbes magazine predicts that Best Buy is a prime candidate for simply disappearing … the only question is whether it will happen before or after Sears/Kmart bites the dust.

Netflix – Here’s a company that’s gone from the “highest of the high” to the “lowest of the low” in one fell swoop. Instituting dramatically higher pricing in August 2011 resulted in the rapid loss of more than 800,000 Netflix subscribers … accompanied by the company’s stock price plummeting 30% from over $300 per share to $215 in under six months (and more than 60% for the full year).

Johnson & Johnson – When an iconic brand like J&J can manage to have a slew of two dozen product recalls over a two-year period – including with Motrin and Children’s Tylenol – it’s bound to have a dramatic impact on company performance and reputation. The FDA took over three Tylenol plants in March 2011, and OTC drug sales are off double digits compared to the previous year. While J&J’s stock price hasn’t tanked in the event, it has remained flat – which is horrendous performance compared to the rest of the pharma industry.

For the record, the five other companies named to 24/7 Wall St.’s “Ten Worst” list were:

 AT&T
 Bank of America
 Goldman Sachs
 Nokia
 Sears

… And I’m sure all of us can think of reasons why these also gained entry onto the “rogue’s gallery” of corporations.

End-Game for Borders and Blockbuster?

Blockbuster logoBorders logoTwo items reported this past week are yet more bad news for one of the most beleaguered sectors of the retail industry. Borders Books & Music will be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Blockbuster is preparing itself for sale.

Does this mean we’ve now reached the end-game for these iconic brands – and for the entire retail book/movie store segment?

Actually, we’ve seen this play out before. Less than 15 years ago, Tower Records and Sam Goody were two vibrant national chain store operations selling CDs and other recorded music. But these and most other music merchants are now history.

In fact, the only bricks-and-mortar music retail segment remaining is made up of used record and CD stores – typically one or two shoestring operations operating in major urban markets that manage to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence.

It appears that the same thing may now be happening to books. Consider Borders. It’s tried all sorts of ways to branch into other revenue-producing endeavors to make up for the consumers’ shift to buying books online or downloading to e-readers. Those endeavors have included coffee and juice bars, greeting card kiosks, giving customers the ability to download books and music, and even to explore genealogy and family history. Despite all that, Borders has been unable to stem the decline of its business.

Mike Shatzkin of consulting firm Idea Logical Company contends that the problem is bigger than Borders. He believes bookstores are going the way of music stores. “I think that there will be a 50% reduction in bricks-and-mortar shelf space for books within five years, and 90% within ten years,” he predicts.

The immediate question is whether Borders will be able to restructure its business, or in the end will be forced to liquidate. Borders’ debt is so high (it’s expected to report nearly $1 billion in liabilities when it files), the company is already committing to closing about a third of its ~675 Borders and Waldenbooks store outlets.

It’s possible that book superstore rival Barnes & Noble will see at least a short-term gain from Borders’ travails. It’s a larger entity and is doing better financially. Gary Balter, an analyst with Credit Suisse, believes Barnes & Noble could add as much as $1 billion in sales if Borders ultimately goes out of business.

But that kind of benefit may well turn out to be temporary. After all, Tower Records benefited from the closure of Sam Goody – for a time. But ultimately, Amazon and online sales were the big winners, and there’s every indication that they will be the main beneficiaries now as well.

In the movie rental business, things aren’t any better. I’ve blogged before about the challenges faced by Blockbuster, the nation’s leading movie-rental chain that went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2010. The company is now preparing itself for sale, but there are ominous signs that the initiative may be stillborn.

Some bondholders, led by investor Carl Icahn, are concerned that the company’s value is eroding in bankruptcy court, which has made it more difficult to take the steps necessary to compete with Netflix and other rivals that aren’t hobbled by the cost of running retail storefront operations.

According to business news reports, that is what’s behind the drive to try to sell the company now. Blockbuster’s holiday sales were lackluster at best, and the cost estimates for effecting a successful turnaround are going ever higher. The bondholders have essentially lost their appetite for plowing more money into the enterprise.

So who’s actually going to be interested in buying Blockbuster? That’s a very interesting question, because the company’s business model and financial situation don’t look like strong ingredients for business success. So if a buyer emerges, it may be from among the ranks of those who already have a financial stake in the business – like Mr. Icahn.

Will we look back on this week a few years from now and say that it was the beginning of a turnaround – or the final nails in the coffin? If you’re a betting person – or an investor – where would you place your money?

The End of Privacy

An article by technology author Steve Lohr published last week in The New York Times caught my eye. Titled “How Privacy Vanishes Online,” it explores how conventional notions of “privacy” have become obsolete over the past several years as more people engage in cyber/social interaction and web e-commerce.

What’s happening is that seemingly innocuous bits of information are being collected, “read” and reassembled by computers to build a person’s identity without requiring direct access to the information.

In effect, technology has provided the tools whereby massive amounts of information can be collected and crunched to establish patterns and discern all sorts of “private” information.

The proliferation of activity on social networking sites such as Flickr, Facebook and LinkedIn is making it easier than ever to assemble profiles that are uncanny in their accuracy.

Pulling together disparate bits of information helps computers establish a “social signature” for an individual, which can then be used to determine any number of characteristics such as marital status, relationship status, names and ages of children, shopping habits, brand preferences, personal hobbies and other interests, favorite causes (controversial or not), charitable contributions, legal citations, and so on.

One of the more controversial experiments was conducted by MIT researchers last year, dubbed “Project Gaydar.” In a review of ~4,000 Facebook profiles, computers were able to use the information to predict male sexual preference with nearly 80% accuracy – even when no explicit declaration of sexual orientation was made on the profiles.

Others, however, have pointed to positive benefits of data mining and how it can benefit consumers. For instance, chain grocery stores can utilize data collected about product purchases made by people who use store loyalty cards, enabling the chains to provide shoppers relevant, valuable coupon offers for future visits.

Last year, media company Netflix awarded a substantial prize to a team of computer specialists who were able to develop software capabilities to analyze the movie rental behavior of ~500,000 Netflix subscribers … and significantly improve the predictive accuracy of product recommendations made to them.

To some, the Netflix program is hardly controversial. To others, it smacks of the “big brother” snooping that occurred in an earlier time during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, when over-zealous Senate staffers got their hands on movie store rental records to determine what kind of fare was being watched by the nominees and their families.

Indeed, last week Netflix announced that it will not be moving forward with a subsequent similar initiative. (In all likelihood, this decision was influenced by pending private litigation more than any sort of altruism.)

Perhaps the most startling development on the privacy front comes courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University, where two researchers have run an experiment wherein they have been able to correctly predict the Social Security numbers for nearly 10% of everyone born between 1989 and 2003 – almost 5 million people.

How did they do it? They started by accessing publicly available information from various sources including social networking sites to collect two critical pieces of information: birthdate, plus city or state of birth. This enabled the researchers to determine the first three digits of each Social Security number, which then provided the baseline for running repeat cycles of statistical correlation and inference to “crack” the Social Security Administration’s proprietary number assignment system.

So as it turns out, it’s not enough anymore merely to be concerned about what you might have revealed in cyberspace on a self-indulgent MySpace page or in an ill-advised newsgroup post.

Social Security numbers … passwords … account numbers … financial data. Today, they’re all fair game.

The Movie Rental Business: Blockbuster … or Blockbusted?

Blockbuster logoWhat’s going on with Blockbuster? For several years now, business analysts have wondered whether the company’s movie rental stores could withstand the competitive pressures from alternative delivery systems such as Netflix’s monthly subscription program, or the growing popularity of movie downloads direct to the customer’s own computer.

The latest announcement by Blockbuster’s management seems to suggest that we may be entering into an endgame phase for the company. Blockbuster reported that it will be closing as many as 40% of its stores over the next two years. This figure – nearly 1,600 of its ~3,750 total store population, is significantly higher than had been signaled by the firm earlier in the summer.

Blockbuster seems to be caught in a situation where its business model is no longer attractive – or even relevant – to a large and growing chunk of movie consumers. The company has nicely appointed, well-stocked stores scattered all across the United States. But these outlets are an expensive way to rent movies when compared to Netflix’s “movies by mail” program or Coinstar/Redbox’s $1 movie vending machine kiosks. The Blockbuster stores are losing money – and customers.

Come to think of it, Blockbuster has been playing catch-up ball in the movie rental game for quite some time. When Netflix introduced the idea of “no late fees – ever,” Blockbuster resisted following suit for a time … until it became clear that charging late fees was becoming a deal-breaker for many consumers. And with the end of late fees, a major source of revenue and profits dried up.

Blockbuster has also tried to compete with Redbox, but the latter is expected to have nearly ten times more kiosks than Blockbuster (~20,000 versus ~2,500) installed by the end of this year.

Blockbuster has even tried to compete with Netflix by introducing its own monthly mail-order subscription program. But that program, which had grown to ~3 million customers, sank back to ~1.6 million once its aggressive promotional program for the service had run its course.

And then there’s the direct download business – the proverbial “elephant in the room” that is a threat not only to the Blockbuster model, but also to aspects of Netflix and Redbox’s business as well. Blockbuster is taking a stab at this segment of the business by working out a phone-download program with Motorola plus a TV-download program with Samsung, but it’s not clear at all that these efforts will help preserve Blockbuster’s market dominance.

Looking at the current volume of business done by Blockbuster compared to its competitors, the casual observer might think that the company has nothing at all to worry about. After all, its customer base numbers more than 50 million compared to just shy of 11 million for Netflix. But these point-in-time figures belie the fundamental problems facing the company. Blockbuster – the lumbering ocean liner – is losing upwards of $40 million each quarter, while its rivals – the swiftly maneuvering speedboats – are making profits.

Wonder how much longer that can go on?