business news in context, analysis with attitude

We spent some time last Friday chatting on the phone with MNB users about our choice of stories, with a few of them asking if perhaps we were spending too much time and effort reporting about Kmart and Fleming. (We make a practice from time to time of calling folks who write us emails; it usually is instructive, and it’s just a lot of fun to talk to people with whom we correspond.)

We mention this because perhaps it is worth reiterating our philosophy about story selection. Sure, sometimes it seems like Kmart and Fleming (and, of course, Wal-Mart) get an awful lot of mention and analysis in MNB. But we think that these stories offer object lessons for other retailers. Last Friday’s story about Kmart, for example, focused on Kmart’s decision to eliminate self-checkout…and we thought it worth some analysis since it suggested to us that the bankrupt retailer was focusing on issues that have nothing to do with creating a unique and transcendent 21st century shopping experience.

Just out point of view, and certainly open to discussion. But not discussing it would, we think, be a mistake.

For example, MNB user Tim Anderson disagreed with some of our characterizations of the Kmart experience:

“This is really to mourn for...and feel sorry for all of those out there who have to suffer through what you all interminably refer to as the "slow...or slower" checkouts and service and Kmart. I would simply like to relate that only this afternoon I was at my local Kmart with a rush of other last minute Valentines Day card shoppers (by the way, there were surprisingly more women in the aisle last minute than men) and, perhaps, not surprisingly, we all seemed to end up at the checkouts at about the same time with our one or two items. This lead to checkout lines growing from three people to six or seven in several lines in no time flat. The upshot was that the checkers immediately recognized it, the call went out and within 60 secs. three more check lines were open and running and getting people through.

“I know you, and many others, may want to dismiss that as a fluke, or an unusual occurrence. I assure you, at this Kmart it is not. Furthermore, I recently moved to this community from another where we had an equally responsive Kmart.

“My point is this, it is not all Kmarts, it is not even "corporate" Kmart -- I'm sure the people in Troy would not want to present the type of service to which you keep referring -- it is indeed the individuals in the store, the people who are getting paid to work there, and not unfairly with regard to the rest of their local markets. It starts with the management of the store projecting the image of what they (he or she) want to have happen in that store, in that community, on that day.

“If you have the bad experiences around you, I would suggest it is a result of the people around whom you live and how they feel about service -- and, I suspect, they would provide the same level of service in any circumstance in your market. The people in Wisconsin, the people in Minnesota care about doing a good job.”

Of course, not everyone feels that way:

“Kmart's "self-checkout" (and I use the term loosely) lanes are probably increasing theft, because customers get fed up with trying to operate them and walk out with their merchandise.

“Last Saturday, I went in to the local Kmart (one slated for closure) and opted for self-checkout, as the TWO lines that were open (out of 15 available) were at least 6 customers long. I walked up to the self-checkout, and scanned my items – no problems there. I scanned a coupon, and the machine blurted that I now had to have someone approve my coupons. A very frantically over-worked clerk came over and was very nice about entering the approval code. Two seconds later, she had to approve my credit card swipe. At the door, I had to have someone inspect my purchase to make sure that the receipt matched what was in my bag.

“This isn't self-checkout, this is an exercise in trying to accuse the average shopper of theft! While I understand that subcontractors are supervising the closing sales (oh yes, -- clearance sale -- a whopping 10% off the regular price. That's not a clearance sale -- that's not even enough to warrant calling it a regular sale! The signs on the door say up to 50% off -- never did see any discount that big.)

“Then, to put the frosting on their insult cake -- they printed a $10 savings certificate to be used at another Kmart -- 25 miles away. As if. I have to drive past two Targets and three Wal-Marts to get there. Not likely.

“Bottom line -- the self-checkouts are not self-propelled in any way, shape, or form -- they're still requiring the full-time attention of someone, but that poor clerk has to divide her attention across FOUR registers, instead of one. They stop just short of accusing you of being dishonest, and then they just flat assume you're stealing by having the receipt check at the door. And all of this in a dirty, poorly lit store that has never, ever had fully-stocked shelves and apathetic employees (who I genuinely feel sorry for.)

“I've darkened Kmart's door for the LAST time.”

And MNB user Lew de Seife wrote:

“I wonder if Kmart’s desire for a speedy emergence from bankruptcy, and the attempt to block anyone else from filling another plan has anything to do with the size of the bonus some one person might collect?

“Is this really in Kmart's best interest, or rather in that person's best interest?”

Reaction to our preference for William Morrison Supermarkets, the original bidder, to be the winner in the sweepstakes to acquire Safeway Plc in the UK, as MNB user Bob McMath wrote:

Your point about the first bidder getting the prize is fine -- unless you are a stockholder. The other companies thinking and coming in with bids are doing it for more money or offering potentially better terms. So, aren't the present owners of the company entitled to the best offer? In fact, if all the bids are looked at and the specific government agencies study the results of the takeover by each bidder, it should be able to set up the terms on which each of the bidders can get the prize, i.e., close or sell some stores, etc., to remain fair and offer the right competition in the market, overall.

“To do less makes a mockery of the bidding system -- when the government comes in and tells the company they have to take the potentially lowest bid because it was "first" and some of the better bids would cause complications in the competitive marketplace.”

We were just stating a selfish journalistic preference -- that a successful Morrison bid probably creates a more competitive UK market, which gives us more to write about.

As for the rest of it…well, that’s the UK’s problem.

We got some interesting reactions to our article about how Albertsons is using a motivational speaker, Ed F. Foreman, to help managers think positively about their lives and work.

MNB user Ian Ricketts wrote:

“I have to say I like this risk that attempts to have managers see the world through a different set of eyes. Although the individual learning styles of many of these managers can and will vary and I consider this a bit of a "Mass Market" approach to creating change, I give Johnston full marks for doing what some might deem ludicrous. It will, however, need follow-up with very aligned top level behavior or it will foster cynical behavior to the very people it was intended to make more affective.”

MNB user Ed Nalley wrote:

“Albertson's employees at every level will be very reluctant to embrace this program until a few key executives and customer service managers attend—and very key is HR Managers--who will then Very Positively embrace this Training.

“I went to Ed Foreman's 3-day program in the Texas Hill Country area after my wife had gone and I know it put us both back on a positive track 14 years ago and this April 12th we will be Celebrating our 40th Wedding Anniversary. It was so good that we sent both our Teenagers(at different times). I have encouraged many other Couples to do same and everyone has positive results.

“My point is --You change a Family or Company One Person at a time. A quote I received ---- that is posted on my office wall is :






“Thanks for a Positive Story in the Business World.

You’re welcome.

(It’s a thrill to be thought of as being positive…so many think that we’re jaded beyond redemption. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
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