retail news in context, analysis with attitude

In my weekly MNB Radio rant last week, I said that I was really getting tired of all the sale ads I was getting both in email and snail mail, and that maybe –while it seems counter-intuitive – the recession might be a good time for retailers to show a little bit of sensitivity about their efforts to separate people from their money. In part, I said:

There are lines that should not be crossed. Some will argue that it is the retailer’s job to sell, and the consumer’s job to decide whether to buy or not, and that’s true. But I think sensitivity is called for here, especially if retailers want to maintain long-term and positive relationships with the shoppers who will determine whether or not they will be successful, short-term and long-term. If you are selling something, I think it is important to be able to demonstrate the differential advantages of the product and the relevance it has to the shopper’s lifestyle. Of course, that’s a good idea all the time…but never more so than these days.

Not everyone agreed. One MNB user wrote:

I've been reading this thing for five or six years and think this may be the silliest, most anti-social opinion you've ever expressed.

Consumers need to SPEND MONEY. It's the only way the economy can recover. Sitting back passively while they cut back spending is guaranteed to accelerate the downward spiral. Money spent voluntarily on things consumers want MULTIPLIES. Money confiscated as taxes disappears into a black hole.

Anti-social? Well, I’ve been called worse. And I suppose that if we are to accept that my plan for the next couple of years – to spend money as much as possible only on necessities, and put off discretionary purchases until the economy gets better – is anti-social, then I’ll plead guilty.

MNB user Jennifer Whetzel wrote:

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with you. Shoppers may not be doing a lot of shopping right now, but that doesn't mean that shoppers will stop consuming. People need to eat. Things break and need to be fixed or replaced. The economy can't and shouldn't come to a complete halt just because people are cutting back on their expenditures.

As a consumer, I am thankful for the coupons and sales because it means that I can find ways to spend less on the things that I need. And I don't necessarily require that the retailer demonstrate the differential advantages of what they're selling and its relevance to me. If I need it, then I need it, and I'm happy that a retailer is helping me to spend less on it.

MNB user Annette Knapp got my point:

Thank you for articulating EXACTLY what I've been feeling regarding your MNB Radio column this morning. Between the TV news, newspaper articles, ads and email promos (which started in AUGUST) on how we should be spend, spend, spending for the holidays (and now beyond) when it is common knowledge that tons of Americans are out of work and can't afford high food prices and that sky high monthly fuel oil contract that they locked into last summer - made me mad enough to not put up a tree or even decorate for Christmas this year. Retail-mas is not a holiday I need to celebrate when I'm trying to stay financially afloat. I was beginning to resent the implication that I don't love my friends and family unless I buy them gobs of material goods on December 25. Do stores really want consumers feeling downright adversarial about shopping?

MNB user John Hall chimed in:

I like you do not want to be bombarded with ads and coupons for items I do not want or will never use and look forward to a 100% targeted marketed world. But, and especially in these tough economic times, this type of advertising is part of the larger puzzle: manufacturers manufacture; producers produce; vendor vend; sellers sell; advertisers advertise but buyers have the final decision to part with their money or not.

The seemingly dozens of ads and coupons that appear in my mailbox almost daily get a quick review and then go to the recycle box. The online coupons and ads rate a quick review and are deleted. Thus is the advertising cycle of life.

A number of people were, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about whatever skills former Nash Finch CEO Ron Marshall might bring to his new job trying to revive Borders. MNB user Harvey Gutman disagreed:

Come on give, Ron Marshall a break. I worked with Ron for almost five years at Pathmark - he was smart, focused and tough. Frankly, I think that is exactly the type of leader which Borders needs right now. I would not bet against him.

MNB took note last week of a study suggesting that supermarket front ends might be incorrectly merchandised. It seems that 74 percent of all customers – men and women alike – pull their carts through checkout lanes, as opposed to pushing them through. This is interesting, Revelation Research suggests, because most front end lanes are designed to market products to people who are pushing their carts…meaning that all sorts of sales and marketing opportunities are being missed in almost three-quarters of all cases.

Lots of response to this one, as people considered their own checkout habits…

MNB user Sara Freitag wrote:

I too am a basket puller, but when I think about what happens when I only have a handful of items or use a hand basket – that’s when impulse purchases occur – the pack of gum, the Reader’s Digest (not the trash magazines, but I do read the headlines). If my hands aren’t busy unpacking a basket full of groceries, I have time to look around! I wonder if my spending dollars would go down if I always bought huge basket’s of groceries, somehow I don’t think so.

MNB user Jackie Lembke wrote:

I believe most of us became pullers when we started to place our own items on the belt. Showing my age, but I remember when someone else unloaded the cart, bagged the groceries and placed them in the car. Looks like in an effort to save something (not sure if it is time or labor), something else was lost.

MNB user Chris Connolly wrote:

I'm usually so concerned with getting my cart unloaded quickly that I, too, rarely make impulse purchases at the checkstand unless I am not using a cart.

After 10 years out of the grocery business, 25 years in the business, and being the grocery shopper in our family, I can tell you that how a person handles their cart at the checkstand is entirely dependent on the design of the cart and whether or not the customer has to unload their own cart (or the cashier does it for you).

Since many companies have gone to using large, deep carts to increase average order size most women (and shorter men) cannot reach the bottom of the carts if they have to unload them from behind.

In this market, Fareway Stores still unloads the customer's cart for them, so I would guess that a very high percentage of their customers push their carts into the checkstands…….ironically, they probably have the greatest need for improving their checkstand merchandising.

MNB user Theresa Ruppert wrote:

I am a puller primarily because of my short stature. It is much easier to reach into the cart and to unload it. It would be interesting to know the research techniques used in this study. In spite of pulling my cart I still am able to peruse the entire front end impulse shopping section. Whether I buy anything or not has nothing to do with my position in relation to the cart. I, like you, choose not to buy for other reasons.

Actually I have plenty of time to look at the high margin items due to my usual wait time in the line. Maybe they should do a research study on that…

MNB user Randy J. Misener wrote:

One issue is the design of the cart. Unless you have five foot long arms, if you push the cart, you cannot reach product in the cart to put on the belt. You have to pull to unload your purchase.

And MNB user Richard Thorpe responded to my comment that I cannot remember the last time I made an impulse purchase at the front end:

Perhaps the reasons you haven’t bought anything at the check stand when going through the register are:

1. You are not a child so candy is out?
2. Magazines like the “Enquirer” and Cosmopolitan are not your thing.
3. There are no interesting wine selections at the register.
4. You actually put everything that you wanted to buy in the cart already and being a disciplined adult you know there is NOTHING there worth adding to your purchase.

Y’know, number three raises some interesting possibilities…

Ron Burkle bought seven percent of Whole Foods last week, which led one MNB user to observe:

It seems hardly a coincidence that a guy who is locked-in with influential Democrats like The Slickster would take a position in Whole Foods weeks before the new administration calls off the FTC. You think maybe he might have checked that out?

It hardly takes a slickster of any party to realize that it seems likely that the FTC could be in for some needed changes once Obama is inaugurated.

I said last week that I liked the notion that you don't need as much regulation if you have complete transparency, and MNB user Bob Gremley wrote:

Great point, Kevin. Take the COOL labeling that was so heatedly debated in this forum recently. The COOL regulations are effectively regulations that CREATE transparency – so sometimes the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Nutritional information, ingredients, country of origin – all these are regulations that create greater transparency.

KC's View: