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    Published on: August 12, 2009

    by Kate McMahon

    Content Guy’s Note: Kate’s BlogBeat is a new ingredient in the MorningNewsBeat stew – a regular look at what people are talking about on the Internet, and how it impacts the conduct of business by retailers and manufacturers.


    The old adage “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen” could easily be updated to “If you can’t take the heat, don’t write a blog.”

    The heat-and-kitchen metaphor is especially appropriate this week, which is turning out to be “Julie & Julia Week” here on MorningNewsBeat. First, MNB’s Kevin Coupe kicked off the week with an insightful review of the new movie, starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as Julie Powell, an accidental blogger who wrote “Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.” And then Michael Sansolo chimed in with his related perspective on how consumer attitudes toward cooking might change as the economy recovers.

    Now it’s my turn…because the blogosphere is fairly simmering with discussion and debate about the movie, the real-world Julia Child and Julie Powell, and about the roles of food and art and commerce in our online and offline lives. The main lesson seems to be that if you want to exist in the blogosphere, you'd better be able to take the heat – and the prime example is the aforementioned Julie Powell.

    Powell was stuck in a stultifying job and emotional rut when she “chanced” into writing her Julie and Julia project back in 2002, when blogs were relatively new. (There are now some 133 million blogs on the web, give or take a few million).

    The blog led to a New York Times article, a book deal, and now the movie, which raked in $20 million in its opening weekend at the box office. It should be considered a triumph, yes?

    Yet suddenly, online and in the media, “Julie & Julia” has become Julie vs. Julia. And the larger-than-life Child is trouncing Powell in the eyes of the movie critics, the food bloggers and the Monday morning book sales (with Child’s “My Life in France” at No. 1 on Amazon.com and “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” topping the Barnes & Noble.com bestseller list).

    In a pivotal scene in the movie, Julie has to bone a duck for the final recipe, Pate de Canard en Croute. Some critics and food bloggers unsheathed their boning knives with the same Julia-like gusto, accusing Powell of being disrespectful of the iconic Child, littering her copy with foul language, scolding her for cheating on her husband (revealed in an upcoming book), tossing back too many gimlets, and being a fraud and (heaven forbid) a terrible cook. Oh yes, and a narcissist, which is rather ironic, since the same could be said for several million bloggers who write, that’s right, about themselves.

    But the power of the internet gives public discourse a new immediacy, as evidenced by this exchange on Powell’s own blog:

    Elle wrote: “I just finished your book. It was self-indulgent and whiny. This inspired idea was wasted on you. You are a self-absorbed brat.”

    Julie Powell responded: “I find it fascinating about the internet that people who dislike you feel free to, in no uncertain terms, attack you personally in a way they no doubt would never in a million years find acceptable and civil in face-to-face conversation.”

    Countering the critiques were Powell’s ardent fans – “To those food bloggers that despise you ... they hate themselves for not having the heart and soul to TRY!” There was even a Newsweek.com headline that stated, “Stop Hating Julie Powell, Please.”

    Take it from Julie Powell: Whether you write a blog or venture into social networking with your retail product or service, you gotta be able to take the heat.

    (BTW: I am compiling a list of outstanding food blogs. If you have a favorite, please shoot me an email at kate@morningnewsbeat.com).
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 12, 2009

    Crain’s New York Business reports that Walmart is hunting for potential locations in New York City, noting that the initiative comes two years after then-CEO Lee Scott said that opening a store in the Big Apple was not “worth the effort.” Past attempts have been foiled by a coalition of community members and organized labor interests that objected to the impact a Walmart might have both on small and unionized retailers.

    It seems more likely that Walmart will focus on the so-called outer boroughs – Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island – though a Manhattan store has not been ruled out. The ongoing recession is seen as creating an opportunity for Walmart in New York City – more people than ever need both low prices and jobs.

    “Now, more than any other time in recent memory, New York City residents want and need better access to our stores so they are not forced to travel to New Jersey or Long Island to benefit from the savings Wal-Mart provides for working families,” wrote a spokesman, Philip Serghini, in an e-mail message. “Hopefully we will be able to bring a store to New York in the near future.”

    While there is a general concession that Walmart has done much to rehabilitate its reputation over the past few years, Crain’s reports that the retailer is likely to face similar push-back this time around.
    KC's View:
    It always appears in these situations that local merchants are convinced that the only way they can compete with Walmart is to keep the Bentonville Behemoth from opening anywhere nearby.

    One bit of advice to threatened retailers in NYC: start operating now as if Walmart is across the street or down the block. Because it is going to happen. Eventually. New York City is too big, too juicy an apple for Walmart to stay away indefinitely.

    Published on: August 12, 2009

    The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that “supermarkets are trying to educate their meat cutters on the finer points of actually cooking the stuff they cut.

    “Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. is having its cutters watch cooking videos and take quizzes posing questions like ‘What is braising?’ Supervalu Inc. hands out black binders as thick as football playbooks with ‘speak the language of beef’ inscribed on the cover. Some supermarkets are sending workers to Beef Training Camps.”

    The reason: “Mainstream grocers are beefing up customer service at the meat case in a bid to stanch the outflow of shoppers to supercenters, drug stores and smaller-selection stores like Trader Joe's. Fresh meat is key to retaining and luring budget-conscious consumers making fewer shopping trips and dining more at home. Meat itself accounts for about 4.1% of supermarket sales (not including supercenters), according to market researcher Nielsen Co.”

    But there is good news, according to the Journal: “Fresh meat sales at supermarkets have risen 12.2% for the 52 weeks ended July 11, says Nielsen. And supermarkets are now the most shopped retail channel as measured by visits, overtaking mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Stores Inc. for the first time since 1999, according to a study released last week by WSL Strategic Retail, a retail and manufacturer consultant.”
    KC's View:
    I have a couple of reactions to this story. First, I think the move makes sense – it fits into the approach that MNB has long endorsed, that supermarkets have to be a resource for information as well as a source of product.

    But it some ways, I must admit, the story is depressing…because it suggests that so many stores have simply missed the larger opportunity to position themselves this way in the past. There is one butcher quoted in the story who has been cutting meat for more than a quarter-century, and he admits that until recently he had very little idea how to cook different kinds of meat. That’s just a shame. Think how many meat sales have been lost in that time, and how many ancillary sales could have been generated if he’d been better educated and encouraged to share what he knows with shoppers.

    It isn’t the meat cutter’s fault. It is the fault of an industry that too often has lacked imagination of even a sense of its own possibilities.

    It is critically important that the industry cultivate a culture that does not let this happen again, that stresses and rewards innovation and imagination.

    Published on: August 12, 2009

    Reuters has a piece about Burgerville, the Pacific Northwest fast food chain, which has been pursuing an environmental strategy that has had a direct payback.

    According to the story, “Currently more than 60 percent of the restaurant company's garbage avoids ending up in landfills due to an employee-led recycling and composting program begun in 2007; once that amount reaches a company-wide goal of 85 percent, Burgerville expects to pocket some $100,000 in yearly waste removal savings.”

    In addition, “Last year Burgerville recycled nearly 70,000 gallons of used oil from its fryers, the result of an initiative begun in 2006; nine of every ten gallons are converted into cleaner-burning biodiesel fuel. Last year Burgerville introduced a sustainable packaging program.”

    "It's not a moral story I'm trying to preach,” says CEO Jeff Harvey. “It's the pathway to smart and sustainable business."
    KC's View:
    I’ve long said in this space that Burgerville is one of the best burger chains out there, proving day in and day out that a fast food chain doesn’t have to make lowest common denominator product. From the burgers to the smoothies, Burgerville is a superior operation…and one of the things that the Reuters piece points out is that the company’s sustainability initiatives extend to sourcing meat from a cooperative of local ranchers.

    Now, it is fair to say that this works for Burgerville because it only serves an area of the country that is friendly to environmental concerns. But in my view, this is the way of the future that more and more companies are going to adopt.

    And besides all that, they make a superb Tilamook Cheeseburger and Triple Berry Blast Smoothie.

    Published on: August 12, 2009

    The New York Post reports that a class action lawsuit against Costco alleging that the membership club chain was cheating customers has been dismissed by a federal judge as being “simply ridiculous.”

    The case was brought by New York City attorney, Marc Verzani, who claimed that when Costco sold its one-pound shrimp tray with cocktail sauce, it only contained 13.5 ounces of shrimp. Verzani maintained that this amounted to a rip-off that was costing customers as much as $40 million a year.

    In her decision, Judge Colleen McMahon said that the weight “"took into account both the shrimp and the sauce, never mind the lemon wedges and lettuce also included in the package … A reasonable consumer would understand that purchasing a ready-to-serve, prepackaged convenience item is different than purchasing shrimp at a fish counter, cocktail sauce in a jar and a lemon at the produce department.”

    Verzani said he will appeal.
    KC's View:
    This is one of those nuisance cases that illustrate why in some cases plaintiffs ought to be responsible for court costs and defense attorney fees if they lose. (Maybe the rule ought to be that if the judge dismisses the case using the words “simply ridiculous,” you’re on the hook.)

    In this case, “shrimp” may apparently refer to the amount of common sense being used by the plaintiff.

    Published on: August 12, 2009

    The Washington Post reports that “Safeway has lowered prices on thousands of items at its stores in the Washington region as the supermarket chain adjusts to shoppers' increasingly frugal mind-sets. The grocer, the second largest in the region, is slated to announce the initiative Wednesday with banners and signs throughout its stores. The price cuts primarily are targeted at staples sold in the center of each store, such as paper products, laundry supplies and coffee, and the reductions run as high as 25 percent.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 12, 2009

    The Detroit News reports that Kmart plans to close three stores in the metro Detroit area. The company refused to say exactly why the stores were being closed, but factors are said to include poor performance to real estate issues.

    Liquidation sales are scheduled to begin at the end of the month, with closings scheduled for November 15 – which means the three units will not be open for the end-of-year holiday shopping season.
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 12, 2009

    • The St. Louis Business Journal reports that Schnucks has opened its newest store – a 21,000 square foot downtown store that goes under the name Culinaria – A Schnucks Market. According to the story, the store is the only full-service grocery store in downtown St. Louis, and “boasts wine tasting, a Kaldi's coffee bar, downtown’s first pharmacy, tables and chairs, prepared meals and a salad bar for the downtown lunch crowd.”

    • Kraft Foods said this week that it has cut its water use worldwide by 21 percent, reducing its usage by three billion gallons over the past three years. The achievement is in line with environmental and sustainability goals set by the company in 2005.

    • The Chicago Tribune reports that a slowly developing trend in cities from New York to San Francisco has been the usage of vacant or underutilized property to grow fresh produce or raise chickens. Part of the movement may be related to the recession, which may be making people more self-sufficient than in the past; there also seems to be a sense that at least some of these community gardens can provide product to under-supplied facilities catering to the homeless.
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 12, 2009

    • Village Super Market announced that its co-founder, Perry Sumas, died late last week at age 94.

    James Sumas, the company’s chairman, released the following statement: "Village will grieve the loss of Perry as both a strategic and emotional leader. Perry Sumas has embodied the essence of Village Super Market since the Company's inception in 1937. His energy, business sense, and fearless personality have driven a local grocery store into a $1.2 billion supermarket company. He will be greatly missed."
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 12, 2009

    Regarding the possibility that wine could be sold in plastic bottles, MNB user Mat Weeks wrote:

    I see this as a provocation, and a great one. We should challenge the wine merchants to direct their plastic bottle manufacturers to come up with a stiffer, more glass-like "feel" so that the tactile experience is more what we expect. However, I fear, subsequent generations will be more interested in the Green aspect and bio-degradable "features" than the "problem" with the look and feel of the container. I propose that if great wine were to be shipped in a box or big plastic jug, the opportunity that confronts us is to a) defend the taste in blind tastings (99% of the population would fail, both because our taste is not as highly developed as some, and also because the taste is truly not that different), and b) why not be entrepreneurial and create a new line of reusable glass decanters and wine bottles for use at home. We could re-enter an era in which fine glassware was used to serve wine that came from our own property, from our own hands, from our own labors. It may even be that wine stored in said "new-fangled" containers would keep longer if the closures were designed with up-to-date fittings and vacuum features. How's that for making vinegar into salad dressing, or something like that?

    Y’know, this is intelligent and innovative thinking. I still have a knee-jerk reaction to plastic wine bottles, but you may excellent points.

    One MNB user said that my reaction was elitist, and MNB user Philip Herr responded:

    I really don't think you were being elitist, just lamenting one more marker on the way down to the lowest denominator. A parallel can be found in blister packs. Most convenient for retailers (hanging displays rather than stacking and of course discouraging "shrink"), but not at all for the shopper. Interesting that Amazon has chosen to eliminate them wherever possible. The key issue here is keeping the shopper/consumer in mind when making these kinds of changes and asking whether or not it makes for a better brand experience.




    Got the following email from MNB user Tom Murphy:

    You mentioned some of the challenges that Bashas has in your blog. But one that might not be too obvious is the need to compete in a market with rapidly changing dynamics.

    Phoenix is arguably the toughest, most competitive market in the U.S. Key players include Kroger (Frys), Safeway, WalMart (Supercenters, MarketPlace, etc.), and Tesco (Fresh & Easy). All of these companies are supported by reams of data, numerous technology tools for analysis/action, and a mindset of skilled, experienced resources to use these to respond quickly to market forces, e.g., economic, competitive, and consumer changes.

    While Bashas is a good company and a good community neighbor, insiders indicate that they are woefully lacking in the data, tools, and mindset to keep up with the changing market place. In today’s world of grocery, especially in markets like Phoenix, the old mentality of “buy it low, stack it high, watch it go” is a recipe for Chapter 11.


    These days, business as usual is almost never an option.
    KC's View: