Published on: February 13, 2008
Got the following email from MNB
user Joe Walsh:It's apropos that you ended your thoughts on Safeway's animal welfare push with an Abe Lincoln quotation. It may be of some interest to look at another of his many musings: "I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of the whole human being."
It would be interesting to get Honest Abe's perspective on the modern day American Food Machine. I wonder if he would equate "cage-free" with "ethical eating." I doubt it.
Still, I applaud Safeway's push, for instance, to double the amount of cage-free eggs they carry. However, many of their customers would be surprised at what constitutes "cage-free.". While it is obviously true that hens on commercial cage-free farms are not kept in cages, it is equally true that the overwhelming majority of them have their sensitive beaks cut off with a hot blade and are jammed together by the thousands in massive, fecal ridden sheds where they will live for years until their egg production drops. Toward the end of their short lives many (but not most) are starved and deprived of water in a practice called forced molting that increases their egg production before they are totally used up. After hens are no longer useful as egg producers (at less than half their normal life span), they're sent to slaughter. Most of these gals never go outside, breathe fresh air, feel the sun on their backs, dust bathe or do anything else that is natural. They suffer from the same lung lesions and ammonia burns as hens in cages, and they have breast blisters to add to their suffering. However, for cage-free layer hens that are not packed 5 or 6 into battery cages (the bottom of which is not much greater in size than a legal pad), cage-free means a much less painful existence.
Incidentally, retail customers never hear of the 200 million male "layer hens" who at the hatchery are either tossed alive into plastic bags to suffocate slowly or immediately get ground alive for use as fertilizer, pet food or pot pies.
Well, if there was anyone thinking about having eggs for breakfast after reading MNB
, I suspect they may switch to a bagel after having read about “sensitive beaks cut off with a hot blade and are jammed together by the thousands in massive, fecal ridden sheds where they will live for years until their egg production drops.”
I actually envy Abe Lincoln. He only had to figure out how to win the Civil War. He might be considerably more perplexed by how to be an ethical consumer in 2008.
On the subject of Wal-Mart’s new small-store format and the coming battle with Tesco, one MNB
user wrote:I am not so sure the new Wal-Mart format will be as successful as everyone thinks. I suspect you are correct that the ROI on the Neighborhood markets is not what they want when compared to Supercenters. I wonder if the Supercenters would be able to make money if it were not the mix that they have. The margins on edible side are extremely competitive and very low. Without the benefit of consumers buying softgoods, clothing, toys, etc at the same time they were buying food, Wal-Mart would not have the outstanding ROI they enjoy today. The smaller format will make it very hard to take advantage of the mix, because of the smaller size and will put tremendous pressure on the perishables side of the business where they have improved but clearly not mastered. Regardless, it will be an interesting venture based on their ability (and deep pockets) to try new things.MNB
user Paul Schlossberg wrote:The battle between Tesco and Wal-Mart will be interesting. The odds are that they (both) would be planning to source their customers and volume from traditional supermarkets. These are quick shopping formats. For the big weekly shopping trip, the traditional supermarkets and super centers will most likely continue to prevail. But for fill-in shopping, it appears that this is being offered as the new solution. There are more fill-in shopping trips than there are weekly pantry loading trips.
Don't forget that others (Safeway for one) are moving in this same direction.
Saving time for shoppers is important. Those retailers who figure out how to do it will have a lead on those slow to evolve.
Will the new small format stores cannibalize existing stores? Almost certainly. But think about not moving in this direction. The least risk is experimenting with it. If the risk of experimenting is avoided, the potential problem to be expected is that your business will be cannibalized by a competitor.
Somebody is going to do this and get it right. Seems to me that you have a better chance of succeeding if you play the game, and no chance of succeeding if you sit on the sidelines.
I noted yesterday that Wal-Mart’s name does not appear to be part of its new “Marketside” logo, which led MNB
user Mike Griswold to write:This is all about brand. Wal-Mart’s “brand” is not associated with fresh food or easy to shop stores. They are attempting to build a new brand with this format. This was the same approach for Fresh & Easy. Tesco’s goal is to be the best national (local) retailer, not necessarily the best global retailer. We have seen this work quite well with Food Lion’s Bloom stores and despite pulling the plug, Supervalu’s Sunflower market.
On a related subject, speculation that Tesco may have eyes on Chicago for its Fresh & Easy format, MNB
user Mike Parker wrote:Tesco better be on a fast learning track considering their less than impressive results in existing markets. If they apply to Chicago what they are learning on the west coast they will increase exponentially their inability to digest the market segmentation in the US. Unfortunately, success in retail leads to failure when you don’t thoroughly understand the markets you are entering. The US is far more diverse than Europe and European companies just don’t get it and that is why most of them have failed.MNB
continues to get lots of email about the list of retailers deciding to no longer sell tobacco.MNB
user Steven Ritchey wrote:I have to wonder if part of the reason some retailers are ending sales of tobacco products isn’t partly because of the expense and red tape involved and if the profits made don’t justify the problems.
user wrote:Do you think that by just stopping tobacco sales these store are saving us?
No. I think they are preserving their brand integrity. They may also be saving their souls, but that’s a matter for others to decide.
user wrote:What about the Oreo's, lard, coconut oil and many other over produced foods that are KILLING more people than Tobacco. When they really put healthy food in the store then you can say "looking to make real connections between health/wellness and food", of course that will never happen!!!
I disagree. First of all, none of the things you mentioned – other than tobacco – are engineered to addict and kill you.
Second, the industry is moving in that direction. It sometimes seems more like baby steps than giant leaps, but the movement is happening … and at some stores, it is happening faster than at others.
Of course, better and more transparent labeling mandates might help…
On the always interesting subject of food labeling – whether we are talking about country of origin, cloning, or GMOs – one MNB
user wrote:I could not agree more that the products should be labeled. Consumers have any number of reasons to want information, and it is not up to government agencies to decide which information based on reductionist science that "proves" a product is safe.
Frankly, it is the equivalent of patting us on the head and telling us to go home and let the grown-ups worry about the food supply. And look where that got us. Partially hydrogenated oils, a diet comprised of up to 60% refined grain, refined sugar and vegetable oils! Look at the recent concerns that sugar substitutes are contributing to the national weight gain. Do not forget the "qualified" health claims now allowed on food labels - that don't actually give any real information but allow a marketing push.
Consumers want to make choices based on something other than lab reports. Some have religious and cultural concerns, viewing food as part of a larger ecological and cultural, even sacred, context. Where do clones and genetically engineered foods fit for them? Labeling is the least we can do.
As food retailers we answer to our customers, not to the industrial food complex. If I can't tell my customer where a product came from and how it got the way it is, it is not a product I want to sell.
user Dustin Stinett had some thoughts about cloned food:When I read your comments about the "condescending" attitude of the pro-cloning set, I couldn't help but wonder if you are confusing condescension with exasperation. After all, for years now the cloning industry has been answering the same questions over and over. And the follow-up questions are the same question, just asked differently.
"Is it safe?"
The answer is yes. And they give the reasons. Then they are asked,
"Okay, but can the source be trusted?"
"Yes," and they explain why (again).
"Okay, but is it reliable?"
And so on and on. It's like having the kids ask you "Are we're there yet?" on a road trip.
How many times does the same question need to be answered and explained?
Yes, it's safe and there is no difference between a cloned cow and a "real" cow.
I’ll buy that. But I still want it labeled. And it fascinates me that so many people in the cloning business would prefer not to have labels and not to have to mount a patient and persuasive education campaign.
By the way, at some point when your kids kept asking “are we there yet,” you probably turned around that threatened to punish them if they didn’t knock it off.
But in this case, the cloning folks don't get to punish anyone. The consumer has that power – by deciding not to buy any product that they think suspect.
I wouldn’t mess with consumers on this one.
On the subject of GMOs, one MNB
user wrote:I found it interesting that one reader who wrote in last week said the world would be "a far hungrier place without the benefit of GMO crops." The reason that was interesting to me is because the two most prevalent GM crops are corn and soybeans. These crops are usually grown here in the US where they are turned into oils, animal feed, high fructose syrup to sweeten our sodas, and (increasingly) ethanol.
Most GM crops are engineered not to increase yield when grown under any conditions. They are engineered to work specifically with certain pesticides and herbicides. These crops are grown for the purpose of being able to survive large-scale chemical applications that kill all other living things in the area but allow the corn or soybeans to stand untouched. And these crops are heavily subsidized by the American government. The more corn you can produce, the bigger your subsidy check, the more you end up paying back to Pioneer or Monsanto.
The worst part is that this system of growing GM crops to feed livestock (with meat being a luxury largely unavailable to the world's hungriest populations) or to be placed into a myriad of processed foods and heavily subsidizing it is among the biggest culprits in world hunger. A whole host of subsidized American crops drive down world prices and make it impossible for farmers in developed countries to sell their crops and have money left over to feed their families.
While it's certainly each person's right to decide whether or not they want to eat genetically modified foods, to hail them as saviors of the world's hungry is highly disingenuous. Do enough research and it becomes readily apparent that the majority of GM crops are not being engineered with the world's hungry and poor in mind.
Thanks for being willing to provide a space for all the different views available...all this debate, if nothing else, encourages educated decision making when choosing what we feed ourselves and our families.
It’s nice to be appreciated....MNB
user Amy Buttery had some thoughts about another story:In your piece on banks ignoring consumer payment preferences, you comment:
“Analyst Litan has the right idea – retailers can actually turn this situation to their advantage by marketing against the credit card companies. They may have to take these forms of payment, but that doesn’t mean they have to help their shoppers get ripped off.”
Using contactless cards or signature-based debit cards doesn’t rip off the shoppers—it rips off the retailers, through higher processing rates for those transactions (and for contactless, the expense of upgrading terminals). Sure, the retailers may be able to pass off their increased payment-processing expenses through higher prices, but in this economy it’s difficult, and the retailer is caught in the squeeze. I agree that if retailers can steer customers to forms of payment that cost them less (like PIN-based debit) they should, but they have to be careful not to violate agreements with credit card associations (Visa/MC), which stipulate that you have to take all forms of their cards, even when some cards cost the retailer much more to process, nor can you charge more for using certain forms of payment (“cash or credit, same low price” as some still say).
The real catch-22 for retailers accepting various types of plastic is not so much technologies like contactless or mobile, but reward and corporate cards, which look and act in the store exactly like other credit cards but which cost the retailer *much* more in processing fees. Actually, sig-based debits are similar—my bank now rewards me for using my debit card as a sig-based card, which I would have found odd if I didn’t know how processing fees are calculated.
I find this completely unfair—the bank wants to increase use of its cards by paying customers rewards, but fund the program by making the retailer pay more on these transactions. Higher transaction processing rates should reflect higher risk (about which the retailer may have some control), not pay for programs that benefit the banks. Retailers must accept these reward and corporate cards with a smile or risk ticking off the customer, who only wants to earn those miles or other rewards.
You also write: “It is extraordinary how much money has been spent by the credit card companies in promoting schemes that do very little to help consumers and that are only there to improve the companies’ bottom line.” Just a note: the card companies make money on these higher-rate transactions, but the banks make even more. Incidentally, the card-processing middlemen that retailers commonly associate with these processing fees typically have brutal competition and are just passing through the rates enforced on them by Visa/MC. (Yep, I work for a card-processor....) The card companies and the banks together negotiate these rates, so of course they work out deals that are sweet to them, but it shouldn’t be on the backs of the merchants (which in a good economy eventually gets passed on to the consumers in higher prices).
As for contactless cards not catching on—I think it was reasonable for banks to assume they might catch on, and one has to let such technologies have a while to see if they can overcome the unfamiliarity factor. It’s possible contactless will never catch on probably because consumers don’t understand the technology and perceive them to be less secure—but on the face of things, it was a reasonable notion to explore. (I love my contactless card at Meijer and always use its “fast tap” feature when it’s available, so I’m somewhat biased.) I don’t really see any advantage to mobile-phone based payment systems, but I haven’t thought about that one as much—seems like a younger generation concept to me.
Got the following email from MNB
user Thomas Murphy:Glen Terbeek’s commentary on “Can large centralized organizations (i.e., national retailers) and innovation coexist?” was very good. However, just to take a slightly broader view, I don’t think you have to innovate to survive or even to be successful.
You must be able to hear or see innovation happening and then leverage your company’s size and influence to play “me too”. Who is a great example of this in the grocery industry? Kroger, they have been doing it for years. While I was with them from 1993 to 2000 we spent inordinate amounts of time in the IT organization watching, listening, and learning. We then partnered with a business champion and moved forward on everything from Computer Assisted Ordering, to real-time warehouse management, to customer loyalty programs. The same happened with my business counterparts. While it wouldn’t be fair to say that Kroger never had an original idea, it would be fair to say that the “me too” solutions had lower risk and more consistent results.
Finally, responding to the MNB
obituary and appreciation of Roy Scheider the other day, one MNB
user wrote:The last movie I can recall seeing Mr. Scheider in is "RKO 281" in which he played RKO studio runner George Schaefer. While not a blockbuster, it's a fine little film with a pretty good cast (including Liev Schreiber, James Cromwell, and a great performance by John Malkovich).
So I couldn't help but wonder what you meant by saying he was a "flame out" in "lousy" films of late. I had to run to imdb.com to see what you were talking about. I realized that I hadn't even heard of the majority of them until I got down to “RKO 281” (1999). Thank goodness my memories of him are positive, for he holds an important place in my life. "All That Jazz" was the movie my wife and I watched on our first date. I can still remember what she was wearing that night almost 30 years ago. I will never forget that film, Scheider's incredible performance, and Cindy's outfit.
That’s the thing about wonderful movies and wonderful performances…you often can use them to mark great life moments. I’ve been blessed with an enormous number of opportunities to see such movies and plays over the years, and often in unusual circumstances.MNB
user David Livingston also had some thoughts about the Scheider appreciation:For someone who specializes in retail, you have really a skill for finding the extra ordinary talents of lesser known actors.
Thanks. I’ve written enough film criticism and unproduced screenplays in my life that I appreciate it when you all put up with my digressions.
But here’s what’s really funny. Roy Scheider was anything but a lesser-known actor. At the height of his career, he was a major star. But as I said, Hollywood stars often flame out…but they leave in their wake some wonderful work that will last for ages.