retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

In the universe dominated by talking heads, there is a very strange question rearing its head: Is it possible that today’s economic crisis is actually good for us?

Don’t laugh too quickly. The point has some merit if we see this as the moment that Americans (and presumably others on this planet) start relearning some very important things, such as living within our means and stop believing that easy wealth is a birthright. There might be some gain from all this pain.

Anna Quindlen’s column in the March 30th issue of Newsweek is must reading along these lines, reminding us about a lot of things that we’ve all forgotten. In the column, Quindlen admits that she really doesn’t understand things like swaps, derivatives, hedge funds and more and offers a bet that most Americans don’t either. Worse yet, she points out that many of us have over the years lost touch with the most basic skills in life, such as how to shut off the water in our homes when a pipe bursts.

So while the column touches on our anger and bewilderment over the friendly folks at AIG and the Madoff clan, it also reminds us how we fooled ourselves and got into this pickle. (By the way, Quindlen is also a sensational author. Pick up a copy of Black and Blue and get insights into spousal abuse like you have never read before. It’s just one of her many fine books.)

The message resonates with this industry. In the middle of this economic storm there are all kinds of strange messages out there. You hear how Americans are permanently changed financially and gastronomically. You hear how eating habits are shifting back to meals at home, which would suggest that supermarkets need do nothing more than open their doors and wait for the money to flow in.

Except, of course, in the middle of a storm it isn’t always apparent where we are really headed once things calm down.

Regular readers of this column know I see opportunity in this period. I do think shoppers are looking for ways to rebalance their spending; eating at home has a chance, but is not a guarantee of growth. But it won’t just happen.

If Quindlen’s point is correct, and I think it is, Americans have forgotten. They have forgotten how to select food, how to assemble menus and certainly how to cook. So simply building displays of low-priced goods isn’t going to solve any problems right now.

More than ever, we need creative merchandising that helps the shopper figure out how to make a meal. Remember, it’s about solutions, not ingredients. They want solutions to busted budgets and bulging waistlines. We have answers, but we need to guide them to it. They may be returning to home cooking out of necessity right now, but it won’t last if they don’t learn something about how to assemble great tasting, healthy meals. We have to grab them while we can.

I ran into a stunning example of how this could happen this past weekend, while doing a stock up shopping trip at Wegmans, the poster child for doing things right. In the produce aisle, I ran into the strangest sampling ever—steamed broccoli, brushed with garlic butter. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most popular sample ever.

The woman handing out the samples (I was one of the few takers) said the demonstration was aimed at teaching people about making good foods taste great. Nearby was a cooking station where a tasty dish of sesame noodles, chicken and asparagus was being prepared. As the woman there explained, the dish is easy to make and everything I needed was right at hand. In short, she was showing me—a bad cook how to make a great meal.

Remember the old Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.

Teach him or her to cook it tastefully, and you may win over a customer too.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com .
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