retail news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB Archive Search

Please Note: Some MNB articles contain special formatting characters, and may cause your search to produce fewer results than expected.

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    We had a story yesterday about an MSNBC essay about ten prototypical American foods.

    They were, just to remind you:

    1. New England Clam Chowder (Massachusetts)
    2. Pastrami (NY)
    3. Shoofly Pie (Pennsylvania)
    4. Smithfield Ham (Virginia)
    5. Po-boys (Louisiana)
    6. Fajitas (Texas)
    7. Chicago Hot Dogs (Illinois)
    8. Chile Verde (New Mexico)
    9. San Francisco Sourdough Bread (California)
    10. Olympia Oysters (Washington)

    MSNBC conceded that it was a subjective list and certainly worth debating.

    One MNB user agreed:

    How could they leave Philly Cheese Steaks off the list? Even here in the home of the BEST barbecue, Eastern NC style (go ahead – print that. I can hear the fighting now), the cheese steak has made inroads.

    And I realize that the poboy is a cuzzin, but where is the all-American Hero, Hoagie, Grinder or Sub? Shoo Fly pie - a nice novelty, but, COME ON!!

    Like we said, the list is subjective.

    We noted yesterday that we would have put key lime pie and/or bread pudding on the list…but that’s just us. We also were rather proud of the fact that of the ten listed by MSNBC, the only one we haven’t tasted is Shoofly Pie.

    Which led, not surprisingly, to dozens of emails from people in Pennsylvania offering to take us out for Shoofly Pie next time we’re in town, or recommending specific places to get this unique dessert, or just waxing rhapsodic about Shoofly Pies they have eaten.

    All of which we appreciate.

    It sort of proves the point we were trying to make – that this is a subject simply made for in-store promotions that can resonate with the customer and create a real consumer-retailer connection.

    MNB user Chris Bowfinger had it right:

    I read your comments regarding the MSNBC list of the top 10 foods that have helped define the US and I had to chuckle. Shoofly Pie was a great Pennsylvania-Dutch treat I got to sample every summer...I haven't had it for ages.

    Secondly, it occurred to me that many "great opportunities" that present themselves to retailers, like the recipe contest/book, ultimately fall upon the shoulders of manufacturers. Time and time again retailers define themselves by their product assortment and not by a strong corporate branding, which in effect makes the brands they sell, and not the way they sell them, the retailer's positioning.

    Retailers should not be depending on manufacturers for anything when it comes to these kinds of ideas. Maybe some support will come along, but the retailer that depends on manufacturers to make this stuff happen is simply ceding control of its destiny to outside forces.

    Life, when you think about it, is a do-it-yourself project. And the conduct of commerce should be no different.

    MNB user Kathi Trepper tapped into the mindset we’re talking about:

    Coincidently, the Smithsonian hosted the Annual Folklife Festival on the Mall this past week and featured Food Culture in America. As a volunteer for the Culinary Historians of Washington (CHoW) I answered many questions about traditional American food ingredients and preparation- highlighting memories of the kitchens and food preparation of the past. Thousands of interested people attended and shared stories of their regional cuisine and traditions.

    With the homogeneity of our food culture of late this was incredibly heart-warming to see and hear the continued interest in regional American foods! Many young generation visitors asked questions about basic food preparation- many had never seen a cast iron skillet- and spoke of tastes they remember from their grandmother's kitchen (NOT their Mother's !)

    And, by the way, Whole Foods was a sponsor!

    Almost as many emails came in yesterday responding to our story about a new listing of the world’s great beers and brewers.

    Talk about passion.

    MNB user Jerry Quandt wrote:

    As a native Chicagoan with parents who still reside in Dyer, IN (near neighbor to Munster), and an avid beer drinker I have to say I am highly impressed (but not shocked) that 3 Floyd’s made it to #2 brewer with 2 beers in the top 20. I have been drinking 3 Floyd’s for the past 8 years and I have never experienced a brand more committed to building its customer base and working tremendously hard to keep it.

    I don’t think 3 Floyd’s ever cared about selling one more case as much as they cared about losing just one customer. I guess that is the uncomplicated business focus of a small NW Indiana brewer who is not looking to make the country laugh at their funny creative commercials, or make them tear at a heart-wrenching tribute to our armed forces.

    Beer like wine is about the enjoyment of being with friends and the refreshment it provides. It is about hanging with friends on your back porch, grilling some brats and talking about the stupid things we all did growing up together. It’s about sharing a lunchtime meal with a friend on a hot summer day. It’s about toasting another year gone by and the new one to come. But most of all its about sharing with the people in your life.

    I live in Manhattan now and the bustle of the city and the pace of business here sometimes makes us forget how simple and easy life is.

    Keeping focused on what is important. When manufacturing a product (whether it be a packaged good, a retail store or a small micro-brewed beer) there is nothing more important than your revenue stream...and that comes from people.

    Clearly, we’re going to have to find some 3 Floyd’s beer and report back.

    And MNB user Mark Chesney had another suggestion:

    Now, that's a story worth reading after the holiday! I was pleased to see Kalamazoo Brewing on the list [I'm a Michigander by birth]. I thought I'd recommend to you one of my personal summer favorites from them: Bell's Oberon. It's an unfiltered wheat beer, sometimes served with a slice of orange. Look for it … you won't be disappointed.

    We’ll add it to the list.

    We live for this.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    The Detroit News reports this morning that “Kmart is closing three Super Kmart stores near Memphis, Tenn., in a move analysts say could signal the discount chain may eventually abandon its struggling food retailing concept.”
    KC's View:
    We remain convinced that Ksears isn’t in the retail business. It is in the real estate business…and that this is just a harbinger.

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported yesterday on how the successful retail chain Build-a-Bear, which generally operates stores in major mall locations, uses a mobile unit to travel to events like the city’s Summerfest.

    Once there, the mobile unit allows children to create their own stuffed animals, choosing the kind of animal, the clothing, accoutrements, and even watching the actual stuffing take place.

    “Build-a-Bear Workshop launched the 53-foot-long store on wheels in February as part of an effort to keeps its business growing,” the Journal-Sentinel writes. “The bear truck will be on the Summerfest grounds only through Monday, then will move on to Detroit for the All-Star Game. It will return to West Allis for the full run of the Wisconsin State Fair in August.

    “While there are plenty of stuffed animals being sold by the touring mini-store, its aim is to raise awareness and draw new customers to the Build-a-Bear stores, regarded as one of the best new retail concepts in the past decade. Last year, Build-a-Bear was one of six companies honored with the Hot Retailer Award by the International Council of Shopping Centers.”
    KC's View:
    This just strikes us as smart, aggressive retailing – finding out where the customers are and then going to them with some sort of specific offering that takes into account the location and circumstances. You can bet that when at the All Star game, there will be a plethora of baseball uniforms to choose from when clothing the bears; the State Fair will almost certainly offer something more agricultural.

    Listen, it is too early to tell if this eight-year-old company can be viable for the long term, or whether it will be a flash in the pan. But it isn’t too early to judge that the company is trying to do the right things – keep the product fresh, while seeking new and interesting ways to engage the customer.

    More retailers should emulate this kind of approach.

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    Business Week reports that boxed wine is, in the words of one wine merchant, “an irresistible force making its way to the US.”

    According to the article, “These containers also don't require a corkscrew to open and may keep leftovers fresher longer. Purists may cringe when offered wine from a plastic pouch, paperboard box, or (gasp!) aluminum can, but experts say taste doesn't suffer and in some cases might improve.” And, Business Week writes, “more than half of the wine sold in Australia and Scandinavia is not in a glass bottle.”

    There are several options other than traditional bottles, and the magazine, in order to find out whether the kind of container makes a difference, “conducted an informal blind taste test. Of eight drinkers, five preferred the wine from the bag-in-box, one preferred the same wine from the bottle, and two couldn't tell the difference. Two tasters also couldn't tell whether identical wines were aseptically packaged or bottled. But the others preferred glass to aseptic. No one had a strong preference for either the can or bottle versions of the sparkling wine.

    “Our conclusion: The idea of wine in something other than a bottle may be harder to swallow than the wine itself.”
    KC's View:
    Count us among the purists who are horrified. After all, we object to screw tops – you can only imagine how we’d feel about wine in a box.

    We have to admit to a certain amount of inner conflict on this issue. After all, we’re always preaching about how wine needs to be democratized and demystified so that more people can enjoy it – so why not move to screw tops and boxes, if one of the results will be broader acceptance.

    On the face of it, that’s a good argument. But we also think that the world has too little magic in it, and that everything is being commoditized and dumbed down to the point where there are no differences, no magic moments that differentiate one from the other.

    Someone once said that little plans “have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Wine in boxes and in bottle with screw tops have no magic because they cannot create that wonderful moment when the cork is removed from the bottle.

    Some will say this attitude makes us elitist, but that’s not really our intention. We just want to resist with all our strength the mediocrities that make life less special.

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    Advertising Age reports that by the end of next year’s television season – or less than a year from now – more than half of all Baby Boomers will be 50 years old or older.

    “They will leave the 18-to-49 demographic so coveted by advertisers,” Ad Age writes. “And they will qualify for membership in AARP.

    “Bad news for marketers? Not really. Aging boomers have the means and desire to keep spending. True, annual household spending on goods and services is about 10% lower in 50-plus households than in homes where the head of household is below age 50, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2003 Consumer Expenditure Survey.” But these households also tend to have more money to spend on fewer people, and a willingness to spend the money on things other than necessities.

    They’re also technologically savvy (and technology costs money), unwilling to become their parents (which also costs money), and possessing of broader interests that can require ample funds to satisfy.

    All in all, spending machines.
    KC's View:
    We’re right in the middle of this demographic shift, having turned 50 just about seven months ago. And we believe these assessments are exactly right…especially when it comes to resisting being characterized as aging.

    Things may not work quite as well as they used to, but as Indiana Jones once said, “It’s not the years. It’s the mileage.”

    We’ve said this before, but we refuse to even open the envelopes from AARP (though our kids do, and taunt us with the contents).

    We tend to frustrate/irritate/exasperate Mrs. Content Guy when we say things like this, but we’re just getting ready for the next big adventure. Not sure what it is yet, but it’s out there.

    One of the reasons we became a writer is that we once read that “a number two pencil and a dream can take you anywhere.”

    Update that for a technological age, and the spirit holds.

    We think there are a lot of people like that, for whom aspirations and possibilities are as evident as air. These people, we think, are worth marketing to…because aspirations create desires, and desires create a market.

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    McDonald’s announced that it may draft Russell Simmons, P. Diddy and Tommy Hilfiger to redesign its employees' uniforms into hip street wear.

    The cost: an estimated $80 million.

    The goal is to make the uniforms – and presumably, the chain – relevant to young people both as customers and employees. The company hopes that if the uniforms are cool enough, employees will wear these walking billboards even when they’re not working.
    KC's View:
    We could be wrong about this, but we suspect that the moment these new uniforms are handed out to employees – no matter who designed them, how much they cost or what they look like – they instantly will not be cool enough to wear anywhere other than when saying, “Would you like fries with that?”

    Hell, we have a better idea for how McDonald’s could invest its money so that its employees would be relevant to consumers.

    English lessons.

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    USA Today this morning has an interview with CEO Jeff Bezos on the occasion of the company’s 10th birthday.

    Among Bezos’ observations:

    • How – and why – Amazon grew: “It has gotten so much bigger, so much faster than I predicted 10 years ago — e-commerce has, and Amazon has. We didn't expect to build a company of this size 10 years ago…I think technology advanced faster than anticipated. In that whirlwind, a lot of companies didn't survive. The reason we have done well is because, even in that whirlwind, we kept heads-down focused on the customers. All the metrics that we can track about customers have improved every year.

    • Wall Street’s biggest misconception about Amazon: “I think one of the things people don't understand is we can build more shareholder value by lowering product prices than we can by trying to raise margins. It's a more patient approach, but we think it leads to a stronger, healthier company. It also serves customers much, much better.
      “We are dedicated to the notion of, year in and year out, lowering prices and getting more efficient so we can afford to do that.”

    • The future of e-commerce: “I think there'll be more change and opportunity in the next 10 years than over the last 10 years. Look at all the raw materials we use: computers, disk space and bandwidth. Every year, they get cheaper and more powerful. I love it that our raw materials keep getting cheaper and more plentiful. We have to say, ‘What kind of innovation can we layer on top of that, that will be meaningful for our customers?’

    KC's View:
    Notice that “the customer” is at the core of almost every sentence that Bezos utters. That’s more that just a rhetorical flourish – it reflects a consumer-centric approach to marketing that has allowed Amazon to survive and thrive even as naysayers predicted its demise (over and over and over).

    We did a little checking, and found that our first order with Amazon was placed on March 17, 1997 – a little more than a year and a half after the company started. And we can say that while we know that not everyone has the same sentiments, we have never been disappointed by Not ever.

    We remain both fans and believers.

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    • Wal-Mart’s Asda Group laid out its restructuring plans yesterday, saying that it would lay off 200 headquarters staffers and 1200 store-level managers. Company CEO Andy Bond said the savings eventually would be reinvested in bolstering store personnel.

      Bond also said that he remained committed to the company’s modified EDLP approach – supplementing an every day low price policy with promotional specials – and that he believes the cuts will pay dividends over the next 12-18 months.

    KC's View:

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has issued subpoenas to the Penn Traffic Co. as part of an investigation into the company’s promotional allowance policies.

    The company said it is cooperating with the probe, and has place an unnamed employee on administrative leave pending completion of the investigation. Penn Traffic also reportedly has launched an internal investigation.

    The timing is not good for Penn Traffic, which only recently emerged from almost two years of bankruptcy protection. The company said that the SEC probe will force it to delay “the finalization and release of its audited financial statements for its 2003, 2004 and 2005 fiscal years.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    Published reports say that Harris Teeter has entered a bid for nine of the stores being sold by Winn-Dixie in North Carolina.

    The units are in Charlotte, Greensboro, Burlington, Boone, High Point and Raleigh.

    Cost of the acquisition: $16.75 million.

    The deal has to be approved by the bankruptcy court that is overseeing Winn-Dixie’s affairs.

    Just yesterday, it was revealed that Supervalu bid $9.5 million for seven Winn-Dixie units, and that Bi-Lo bid $9 million for another 20 stores. In all, Winn-Dixie has announced that it is shutting down and/or selling 326 stores and eliminating 22,000 jobs in an effort to stave off complete obsolescence.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 6, 2005

    Bloomberg reports that it is expected that some 1,200 Walgreen-employed pharmacists in Illinois and Indiana will go on strike today. The National Pharmacists Association told its members there not to report for work because of an ongoing labor dispute in which the employees are seeking better staffing levels and improved working conditions.

    The pharmacists rejected a contract offer last week and authorized a strike.
    KC's View: