retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Try as we might, we simply can’t things back to normal. Three stories in MorningNewsBeat last week gave us a stark reminder of how much we might have to challenge the notion of conventional wisdom in very un-conventional times.

The three topics were food safety, store hours and religious habits—incredibly unrelated issues, but all with common threads. And if you examine them through the view of today’s volatile times, you can see how companies might want to radically change how they meet these challenges.

• Food safety came up with the less than startling news that consumer confidence in the food supply is down following months of attention to the Peanut Corporation of America. However, NPD, a really good research firm, predicted the number would rebound soon, just as it always does.

Except that these are different time. In the past, confidence always came back quickly after any kind of problem. But falling confidence in food safety worries me this time for two reasons. First, the PCA problem is different in that for the first time a company seemed casually indifferent to the problem it caused. That could taint consumer opinion for a long time to come.

Secondly, think about how long it has been since we have had a period free of some kind of recall. You can easily stretch back in your memory to the problem with: spinach, dog food, toothpaste, peanut butter, tomatoes (or was it peppers) and more. As if to punctuate the point, just last week we learned of a problem with pistachios that now isn’t going away either.

So sure, conventional wisdom says confidence will come back in food and everything else. But maybe this time it won’t and that means it’s time for a new aggressive approach to bring information, transparency and assurance to shoppers. Sitting back and waiting for confidence to rise might be a risky way to go.

(Sidenote #1: A special thank you to Wegmans for taking pro-active steps. I had a strange case of intestinal distress two weeks ago. A call from my Wegmans notifying me that the “pistachio mix” I purchased was a problem did help ease my mind if not my gut.)

• The second story came from Kroger, which announced it was scaling back 24-hour operations at some stores. This is hardly an earth-shattering announcement, except once again, in unconventional times. Is it possible that the inexorable march toward 24/7 operations is beginning to come to an end? A very good retailer once told me the best thing companies could do to preserve the health of associates and stores would be to find one day of the week to close. That might well be a step too far for most, but reexamining 24-hour operations is probably an excellent idea.

No doubt, there are some stores that do well in the overnight hours. And no doubt, there remain some financial reasons that make it reasonable to be open at 3 a.m. But as with many things, it shouldn’t be a blanket decision. When a company as big and as good as Kroger makes a move like this you wonder who might go next. And then we wonder if the conventional wisdom on store hours is about to crumble too.

• Conventional wisdom also comes into play on the debate we’ve had on this site over the past few days about a Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee who refuses to serve pork because he is Muslim. It’s been interesting to follow the comments and wonder why everything has been discussed but business realities.

Let’s say this franchisee is serving a heavily Muslim neighborhood (many of which do exist in this country.) By selling pork he might lose his entire customer base, which might refuse to visit a store where these products are sold. The exact same conditions would happen in a religious Jewish neighborhood, where the presence of the bacon or ham sandwiches would render the restaurant useless.

In a country of increasing ethnic diversity, we face the challenge of marketing to groups with very different rules and traditions. But if we have learned anything in the past decades it is that companies need to think locally as often as possible. Conventional wisdom says that the company gets to determine the menu; unconventional wisdom says the menu should fit the market.

Unconventional wisdom is why McDonald’s has slightly different menus in different areas; it’s why Coca-Cola sells a special version of Coke during the Jewish holiday of Passover; and it’s why fish fries still dominate Friday sales during Lent in other markets. It is also why certain retailers and restaurateurs refuse to open their doors on Sunday.

George Carlin used to describe the difference in possessions this way: if it’s mine, it’s stuff; if it’s yours it’s junk. Traditions can be viewed the same way.

We won’t all agree on any of this and we won’t all make the same decisions. That’s fine, too. It’s part of the complex world we live in today, which is why unconventional wisdom is so important and why fighting the status quo matters more than ever. No one ever said change would be easy.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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