Friday, May 25, 2007

Hamptons, ocean view: Sold, $103M

Cost of new home not included in record buy
By Noelle Knox

Ron Baron, founder of the Baron Funds investment company, has paid a record $103 million for a residential property in East Hampton, N.Y. And get this: That price doesn't even include the cost of the house he wants to build.

The price — equal to what Texas plans to spend on border security this year — tops a record set in 2004, when Revlon Chairman Ronald Perelman sold his estate in Palm Beach, Fla., for $70 million to Dwight Schar of builder NVR.

But Baron's bragging rights might not last long. Three homes — well, estates — for sale are asking even dizzier prices.

In December, real estate baron (with a small b) Tim Blixseth boasted that he'd start building the world's most expensive house. His $155 million asking price tops the high of $149 million for Updown Court in Windlesham, England, still on the market.

"It's amazing how much growth there is in the very high end of the market in terms of wealth," says Rick Goodwin, publisher of Ultimate Homes magazine.

Overall in the USA, home sales slid 8.4% last year, in part because prices in many areas had climbed out of reach for the middle class. But for residences priced at $5 million or more, sales soared 18% for 2006 and 31% in the first quarter of this year — both record highs, according to DataQuick.

"Properties over $10 million are becoming very commonplace," says Jonathan Miller of Miller Samuel, a Manhattan appraiser. "When you compare it to the national median, which is hovering around $215,000, there's a lot of disparity."

Blixseth envisions his project, called The Pinnacle at Yellowstone Club, in Big Sky, Mont., as a 32,000-square-foot home on 160 acres. He says it will include an 8,000-bottle wine cellar, a 26-seat cinema, a hair and nail salon, a private gondola to ski lifts, a fleet of Suburban SUVs for the underground garage, and a helipad with pilot's quarters.

As for Baron, his 40 acres of oceanfront property are vacant. He bought the land from Adelaide de Menil, heiress to the Schlumberger oil fortune, and her husband, Ted Carpenter.

Four antique houses had stood on the property. But the sellers donated them to the town, which moved the buildings and plans to use them as a new town hall.

Baron declined to comment on the deal, which was hush-hush and sold without a broker, says Judi Desiderio of Town & Country Real Estate in East Hampton, who confirmed the sale and price.

Profit slides as Gap reinvents itself (San Francisco Cronicle)

S.F. retail chain sees same-store sales decline, reveals new strategies for two largest brands

Pia Sarkar, Chronicle Staff Writer

Gap Inc.'s profit slid 26 percent in its fiscal first quarter as the company struggled to define itself to customers who have lost interest in its products.

The San Francisco retailer reported a profit of $178 million in the first quarter (22 cents per share), down from $242 million (28 cents) in the same period last year. The numbers include a $45 million loss from the planned closure of Forth & Towne, a brand created for women 35 and older that flopped after just 18 months.

Excluding Forth & Towne costs, Gap would have earned 25 cents per share -- a penny above the average estimate among analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial.

Revenue grew to $3.56 billion in the first quarter, a 3 percent increase from $3.44 billion last year. But same-store sales -- sales at stores open at least a year, considered an accurate barometer of a company's health -- fell by 4 percent, after a 9 percent decrease in the same period a year ago.

Same-store sales at the namesake Gap brand dropped by 4 percent, after an 8 percent decline last year. Same-store sales at Old Navy dropped by 5 percent, compared with an 11 percent decline last year. And same-store sales at Banana Republic, which up until recently had been posting gains, fell by 2 percent, after a 5 percent decline last year.

Online sales continued to be the bright spot for the company, growing to $195 million in the first quarter, compared with $159 million the year before.

Bob Fisher, interim chief executive officer for the company founded by his parents, said Gap is sticking to plans set out earlier this year calling for a simplified hierarchy among management as well as a focus on lowering expenses. It is in the middle of a search for a permanent CEO.

"There's more work to be done, but I feel good about the progress we're making," Fisher said during a conference call on Thursday.

As he has in the past, Fisher acknowledged that the Gap brand -- the company's oldest and second-largest division behind Old Navy -- has had a hard time defining itself to customers. It has been aiming at a broad range of people 18 to 34 years old. On Thursday, Fisher said the brand will stop chasing 18-to-23 year olds, a demographic that is aggressively courted by competitors. Instead, Gap will focus on 24-to-34 year olds, reducing its merchandise selection by 30 percent.

Old Navy president Dawn Robertson, who has held the position for six months, outlined for the first time strategies for the brand, which include getting merchandise into stores much faster than in the past. She also said Old Navy will try to strike more of a balance between value and fashion with its offerings.

Both Old Navy and Gap stores at key locations will be extensively remodeled throughout the year -- something the company has fallen behind on, according to Gap's chief financial officer, Byron Pollitt.

Richard Jaffe, an analyst for Stifel Nicolaus, said that while Old Navy can benefit from a more-efficient sourcing structure to keep it competitive, its bigger problem is the merchandise, which also ails Gap.

"Fixing the product is more important," he said.

As for plans to narrow the Gap brand's audience, Jaffe questioned the logic. "It's not clear to me how fewer choices will make a difference," he said. "It's about better choices."

Gap stock closed at $18.20 at the end of trading Thursday, off 8 cents for the day, with 6,258,603 shares traded.

Best Buy sued over Web price quotes

Connecticut goes to court; retailer denies misleading customers at in-store kiosks

Electronics giant Best Buy Co. is being sued by the Connecticut attorney general after consumers complained they'd been quoted higher prices in stores for merchandise advertised at lower prices online.

The lawsuit alleges that since 2005, the company's stores have pledged to match any lower online price, including from its own Internet site. But customers tapping into in-store kiosks to check prices were misled by salespeople into believing they were tapping into the retailer's online Web site when they were actually connected to an internal company site, the suit contends.

When the kiosks displayed a higher price, the salespeople allegedly suggested that consumers had previously misread the lower online price or that the online price had expired.

"We intend to vigorously defend ourselves," Best Buy spokeswoman Susan Busch said in a statement. "The future of our company depends on our ability to build trusted relationships with our customers."

However, the Richfield-based company acknowledged that a small percentage of customers didn't receive the best price when they should have. It said once the issue was brought to the company's attention, it provided employee training to ensure that customers receive the best price and more changes are being made to eliminate further confusion.

The lawsuit filed in Connecticut Superior Court seeks civil penalties and restitution for "customers who purchased products at a higher price because they were deceived by Best Buy's misrepresentations."
George Rosenbaum, chairman of Chicago-based consumer research firm Leo J. Shapiro Associates, said he believes Best Buy made an operational error and isn't intentionally pricing the same products differently online versus in stores.

The company is probably moving fast to fix the problem because a good online presence is critical for drawing customers into stores with high-ticket items, Rosenbaum said.

"They're highly dependent on their Web site for traffic generation," Rosenbaum said. "This kind of an error, and I call it an error instead of a deliberate strategy, can badly hurt their customer relations if it isn't corrected."

Rosenbaum also believes the company still can do crisis control to avert damage to its image.

Best Buy has maintained its dominant position as the largest electronics retailer in the country while others have faltered recently. Chief rival Circuit City has closed stores, cut 3,400 workers and hired replacements at cheaper pay. Another rival, Comp USA, also is closing many stores nationally, including all of its Twin Cities locations.

Meanwhile, Best Buy posted a 22 percent increase in profit in its most recent quarter and saw the biggest improvement among retailers in the latest University of Michigan American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said his office received at least 20 complaints after the Hartford Courant newspaper in February reported the experience of one frustrated Connecticut shopper.

The man found a laptop computer advertised for $729.99 on, then went to a Best Buy store where an employee who seemed to check the same Web site told him the price was actually $879.99. (The shopper eventually did purchase the laptop at the discount after bringing in a copy of the online sale price to another store that had them in stock.)

Within days of the newspaper report, Blumenthal announced the investigation. On March 8, an open letter was posted at the retailer's Web site by Best Buy Chief Operating Officer Brian Dunn to "clear the air" regarding the investigation. Dunn wrote that the kiosks weren't to be used by employees to check Web prices, but that this process had not been followed consistently. He offered a toll-free number so the company could address customer concerns.

In a separate case, the Florida attorney general has done a three-year investigation into Best Buy for allegations including sale of used merchandise as new and restocking fees assessed on the price of merchandise returned including the taxes charged. Best Buy didn't offer comment Thursday on those allegations.

Best Buy operates more than 820 stores in 49 states, as well as stores in Canada and China. On Wall Street, Best Buy stock closed at $46.67, down 86 cents.

Bausch & Lomb doesn't see layoffs from going-private deal

By Yogita Patel (Market Watch)

Bausch & Lomb Inc. (BOL : Bausch & Lomb Incorporated) said Thursday that it doesn't anticipate layoffs from its $4.5 billion acquisition by private-equity firm Warburg Pincus LLC.
In a communication to employees that was disclosed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, the Rochester, N.Y., eye-care company said it doesn't expect the transaction to affect its day-to-day operations, including its business sites worldwide.
Warburg Pinus, of New York, agreed earlier this month to buy Bausch & Lomb for $65 a share in cash.
Shares of Bausch & Lomb closed Thursday at $70.21.

EU probes Google grip on data

By Maija Palmer in London (Financial Times)

European data protection officials have raised concerns that Google could be contravening European privacy laws by keeping data on internet searches for too long.

The Article 29 working party, a group of national officials that advises the European Union on privacy policy, sent a letter to Google last week asking the company to justify its policy of keeping information on individuals’ internet searches for up to two years.

The letter questioned whether Google had “fulfilled all the necessary requirements” on data protection.

The data kept by Google includes the search term typed in, the address of the internet server and occasionally more personal information contained on “cookies”, or identifier programs, on an individual’s computer.

This is separate to the personal information Google has begun collecting over the past two years from people who give the group explicit permission to do so.

Standard search information is kept about everyone who uses the search engine, and privacy groups are concerned that even this ostensibly non-personal data can be used to identify individuals and create profiles of their political opinions, religious beliefs and sexual preferences.

Google previously kept such data indefinitely, but in March announced it would limit the storage time to two years, in an attempt to assuage concerns.

But many members of the working party feel that even two years is too long to keep data, and the group has asked Google to justify its policy.

Separately, the Norwegian Data Inspectorate began an investigation into Google and other search engine companies last October and has stated that the 18- to 24-month period proposed by Google was too long.

“After the service is finished we cannot see reasons why the company should keep the addresses for a longer period. Of course there can be reasons like security, but 18 to 24 months is to our point of view far to long,” the inspectorate said.

Peter Fleischer, European privacy counsel for Google, said the company needed to keep search information for some time for security purposes – to help guard against hacking and people trying to misuse Google’s advertising system.

Mr Fleischer is set to respond to the working party before their next meeting in June.

He said other companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft had not yet declared a limit to the information they keep.