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    Published on: July 15, 2008

    by Michael Sansolo

    Author Pat Conroy once said the greatest gift a writer can have is a dysfunctional family. The greatest gift for someone like me, who writes about customer service, is quite different. I’m fortunate to be a frequent flyer.

    Traveling the skies these days isn’t fun, but it is simply amazing the difference that individuals can make in the experience. Take two simple incidents from just the past week.

    The first came on Delta Airlines in Atlanta. (Yes, all roads pass through Hartsfield-Jackson Airport…including the routes to hell.) For a host of reasons, my flight was delayed a mere 150 minutes. When we finally boarded, the flight attendant, as if she arrived from another planet, used the intercom to urge us to take our seats quickly “to ensure an on-time departure.”

    The reaction through the plane wasn’t pretty. We’re nearly three hours late and NOW they are concerned with an on time take off. It was incredible, but an uncaring employee managed to make a bad situation even worse.

    Three days later I was catching a United flight for Chicago out of a small Midwestern city. Thanks to changeable weather our flight was on, then off, then on, then off. Every time we started boarding, the process stopped one minute later.

    Our gate attendant was enjoying the moment as little as we were. So he grabbed his microphone and told us a joke about air traffic control in Chicago. He nearly got a standing ovation.

    In truth, there was very little difference between the two experiences. In both cases, my fellow passengers and I were inconvenienced and very unhappy. In both cases our plans were thrown askew. But in one case, we flew thinking that our Delta flight attendant didn’t have a clue why we were so upset. In the other, we left applauding a gate agent for United. Which is hardly a regular occurrence.

    So ask yourself about your employees and how they talk to shoppers. The simple truth is that frequently we have to tell people something they don’t want to hear. Sometimes a product is out of stock. Sometimes there are food safety issues. Sometimes…well, = anything can happen.

    The question is, do we let our people use their best judgment and recognize why a shopper may be upset. (Okay, maybe jokes aren’t always the way to go, but there are plenty of other ways to tell the truth.) Or do we give them a card to read and watch them tell a planeload of people who are long delayed that somehow it is now their fault. Sadly, I’m betting we do the latter way too often.

    Our people can only be as good as we let them. Believe me, United Airlines rarely bowls me over with customer service. But one young man gave me reason to rethink that position. (Or course, he also asked me not to name the location for fear that United would scold him for the very harmless joke … so maybe things haven’t gotten better.) It’s worth thinking about.

    One more thing…

    Words can cause problems in many forms, especially in writing. Recently I was taken aback by a beautiful sign in a Whole Foods that listed five compelling reasons why shoppers should buy locally grown produce. There was just one very big problem: The store was in suburban New York and the produce above the sign came from California, Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

    I guess local is a relative term. Argentina is closer than, say, Mars.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

    KC's View:

    Published on: July 15, 2008

    Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market, with more than two dozen stores in Arizona, California and Texas, announced yesterday that it has launched a new and revamped website that is designed to provide “customers with a friendly, easy-to-use format enabling them to view Sprouts weekly ads, access health information, healthy recipes, and sign up online for events and lectures.

    “The website, designed to help customers achieve vitality and maximum health, includes tools that provide customers with a better shopping experience through educational resources. Customers can access information on topics including natural remedies to help combat fatigue, ease allergy symptoms, manage menopausal symptoms with holistic methods and improve digestion.”

    KC's View:
    Here’s the sentence that blew me away in the Sprouts announcement:

    In 2007, Sprouts hosted nearly 850 events educating customers on a variety of topics.

    And, the company said, it plans even more such events in 2008 and 2009, at a time when the company plans to open another eight stores and expand into Colorado.

    That isn’t a typo – 850 events.

    That strikes me as a lot for a small chain. But it clearly means that the organization is committed to an information-based marketing that makes a lot of sense in the current environment.

    Some will say that a chain such as Sprouts, which has a health-and-wellness orientation, needs to educate its current and potential customers. True enough. But considering all the headlines about food lately, few of them positive, it seems to me that more companies ought to seek to enlighten their shoppers and illuminate the shopping experience.

    Published on: July 15, 2008

    BrandWeek has an interesting piece about a new demographic group that it defines as being “small but persistent” – “people who either don't care or are not interested in America's new passion for sustainable, green products,” and who generally are “overlooked by marketers as they rush to tout their carbon offsets, recycled content and eco-friendly manufacturing.”

    The term for this group – “Never Greens.” The people who make up this group “don't buy green products, don't remember green advertising when they see it and are irritated by it even if they do,” according to the story, which also writes: “Although Never Greens are outliers—most Americans are raising their expectations of companies' green efforts—marketers would do well to pay attention to these naysayers. Why? Because several companies have stumbled as consumers have rejected green products even while ostensibly clamoring for more.”

    One member of this demographic, William Coverley, is described as someone who has 10 cars with not a hybrid among them, and who says that he doesn’t care how much gas he uses.

    "I don't care about the environmental reasons and I'll tell you why," Coverley said. "All this stuff about carbon emissions, no one really knows about the output of the sun and yet it's the single most important input behind global warming . . . Are the Chinese going to be environmentalists? Are the Indians going to be environmentalists? Are the Russians? I don't think so."

    KC's View:
    There also are people out there who think that earth is only 5,000 years old, that cigarettes don't cause cancer, that the missions to the moon were a hoax, and that the designated hitter is good for baseball.

    There are none so blind as those who will not see.

    I’m with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said over the weekend that as a nation we ought not wait for countries like China, Russia and India to do the right thing when it comes to the environment. We’re the United States. We’re supposed to act from moral responsibility as well as political expediency. We’re supposed to go first.

    I suppose that it probably makes sense for some companies to market to the Never Greens. Me, I’m going to keep using public transportation whenever possible, walking to work when I can, using canvas instead of plastic or paper bags, and making plans to get rid of the SUV when the lease is up.

    I’m going to do things because I think they are the right things to do. And I don't care if you market to me or not.

    Published on: July 15, 2008

    The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Supervalu-owned Save-A-Lot, which specializes in a no-frills, discount-driven shopping experience, seems to be perfectly positioned to capitalize on current economic difficulties being suffered in the US. And the numbers seem to back this conclusion up – Willard Bishop Consulting says that limited assortment/discount stores saw their sales increase by 16 percent as traditional supermarkets went up three percent. Big difference.

    “These basic grocers keep costs down by utilizing smaller stores with lower
    employee costs and limiting inventory to products that customers most often
    purchase,” the Post-Dispatch. “ Despite the sometimes Spartan selection, cost conscious consumers are flocking to the stores.”

    However, the story also notes that despite the growth in sales, some consumers have a blind spot for the format. In St. Louis, for example, where Save-A-Lot has 26 stores, the chain found that many consumers either didn’t know about Save-A-Lot or were not aware of its strategic positioning … and so it has launched an aggressive marketing campaign designed to heighten its visibility there.

    KC's View:

    Published on: July 15, 2008

    HealthDay News reports that farm-raised tilapia, generally believed to be a healthy food especially for people with heart issues, may not be everything it is cracked up to be.

    According to the story, farm-raised tilapia has low levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids and high levels of unhealthy omega-6 fatty acids: “New research suggests the combination could be particularly bad for patients with heart disease, arthritis, asthma and other diseases involving overactive inflammatory responses.”

    The same goes for other farmed fish such as catfish. Wild fish is said to be much healthier; the story suggests that the farmed fish are not as healthy because they are not being fed in a healthy manner.

    “Several health groups, including the American Heart Association, recommend eating two servings of fish a week, preferably fatty fish such as salmon. The reason: primarily to increase omega-3 fatty acids,” HealthDay News writes. “But no one has really looked at the nutritional effect of an explosion in farmed fish (increasing at an annual rate of 9.2 percent, compared with 1.4 percent for wild fish). In particular, inexpensive tilapia is exploding in popularity.”

    KC's View:
    Uh-oh. Tilapia has become one of the staffs of life around our household.

    This is just another example of the kind of confusion that exists out there for shoppers…and why retailers and suppliers need to be involved in education-oriented marketing efforts. Better to inform shoppers than to let them walk the store in ignorance.

    Published on: July 15, 2008

    • Walmart Stores announced yesterday that it has joined the Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN), the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) initiative to save the world’s most valuable and threatened forests, WWF announced today. By joining the GFTN, Wal-Mart said that it “has committed to phasing out illegal and unwanted wood sources from its supply chain and increasing its proportion of wood products originating from credibly certified sources – for Wal-Mart stores and Sam’s Clubs in the United States.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 15, 2008

    • The New York Times writes about Safeway’s O Organics and Eating Right brands, which its says “are moving in a different direction. Both were built much more like name brands than like store brands — in fact, both were supported by national television and print advertising. And more recently, Safeway has initiated the Better Living Brands Alliance, with the highly unusual goal of selling these two store-brand lines in places other than the chain that created them — school cafeterias, foreign markets and, ultimately, other U.S. grocers. In the judgment of the trade publication Refrigerated and Frozen Foods Retailer, which recently named Safeway as its retailer of the year, the experiment is ‘breaking the mold on what we all thought we knew about private label’.”

    • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Coca-Cola has imposed a hiring freeze for many of its North American businesses through the rest of the year. The story notes that Glaceau, Fuze, Odwalla and Coke North America's Canadian unit are not part of the hiring freeze.

    • The International Herald Tribune reports that in the UK, more than one out five consumers say they are dissatisfied with their current shopping experiences, a roughly 10 percent increase over just a year ago.

    According to the story, “Disloyalty is highest among supermarket shoppers, at 32.4 percent, which … was potentially good news for discounters such as Aldi, Netto and Lidl, which have been gaining market share among cash-strapped shoppers.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: July 15, 2008

    One reaction from an MNB user to the $52 billion takeover of Anheuser-Busch by Belgian brewer InBev:

    Some things aren't about money. That fact that InBev had to go out of their way to reassure all that they'll keep the Clydesdales pretty much says it all. Life will go on after AB is in foreign hands. However, I can't help but feel a twinge of remorse that seemingly everything has a price, now including brand equity and pride.

    I wouldn’t bet any serious money on the long-term prospects for the Clydesdales, which I suspect could find themselves in a few years put out to pasture and tended by a woman named Frau Blucher.

    MNB user Jerome Schindler had some thoughts about the Ohio milk labeling case:

    The main issue is that food is largely a multistate industry and needs uniform labeling rules, a point I made in both oral and written comments to the Ohio Ag Dept. when it was developing their regulation. I urged Ohio to adopt the Wisconsin regulation that has been on the books for at least ten years. Had Ohio heeded this advice they would not now be embroiled in litigation that is a waste of Ohio taxpayers money.

    This is another area where the federal FDA has failed in their responsibility. If FDA had a clear labeling regulation covering the entire U.S. (not just an fuzzy guidance document) the states would not have had to spend all of this time, effort and resources developing their own regulation on rbST labeling.

    There is an organization of state officials (Association of Food and Drug Officials) that preaches "uniformity" but while AFDO talks the talk, the individual members don't walk the walk. In the end the parochial political interests of the individual states prevail.

    Gee, this seems to have so little to do with science…

    I’m shocked.

    Regarding Starbucks’ decision to start selling a new smoothie drink this summer, MNB user Jim Donegan wrote:

    We were all told that the smells of cooking food interfered with the desired coffee smell that Howard Schultz wanted in his stores so that’s why he discontinued the breakfast sandwiches. Doesn’t he know what these smoothies will smell like with their juice content? Walk in to any Jamba Juice and the smell is unmistakable.

    Interesting how yesterday’s RIP note about former white House spokesman Tony Snow, who died over the weekend at age 53 of colon cancer, elicited two very different responses.

    One MNB user wrote:

    An amazing man whose goodness and purpose of life showed through some of his darkest days. He was the definition of why character and faith are important to the world. God Bless him and his family.

    But for another MNB user, there was more to consider:

    Feel sorry for him on a personal level, but should we also not give an RIP to all the Iraqi citizens and American Service men & women that lost their lives due to his perpetuation of the White House spin on an unwarranted and illegal war.

    To say nothing of the thousand of wounded and maimed (both American and Iraqi) that he helped the White House to justify.

    Tough stuff. And illustrative of the bitterness that seems to pervade so much of the discourse in this country.

    Not much peace to be found here, I’m afraid.
    KC's View: