retail news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB Archive Search

Please Note: Some MNB articles contain special formatting characters, and may cause your search to produce fewer results than expected.

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    USA Today reports this morning that “if 2009's hottest sales pitch was all about buying stuff on the cheap, 2010 marketing will increasingly stress less as more, as in fewer parts, additives or ingredients. While the trend is taking hold in many product categories, including health and beauty items, nowhere is it more apparent than with things we eat and drink ... Consumers these days not only want to know what's in the stuff they eat and drink — they want to know what's not.

    “In a nation bedeviled by a whirlwind of food scares and mounting worries about the healthiness of a plethora of things commonly used in processed foods, folks increasingly are demanding cleaner food labels: no artificial food colorings (some of which have been linked to hyperactivity in children), no chemical additives (such as MSG) and no chemical preservatives (such as BHA). If they can't pronounce it, consumers don't want it.”

    Mintel’s Lynn Dornblaser tells the paper that simplified products will be more popular in 2010 than “organic,” “natural” or even “local” products...and that there have been definable decreases in the average number of ingredients in more than 19 product segments.

    However, nutrition experts such as Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan caution that simplified products are only better for consumers if they are simplified nutritious products, as opposed to snack foods that aren’t any healthier even if the number of ingredients has been reduced.
    KC's View:
    First of all, it is important to keep all this stuff in context - so many of these things are marketing buzzwords, and it is hard to assess whether these are actual trends or just blips on the radar that may not mean anything long-term. One can hope that they do, but it is hard to know and harder not to be cynical.

    That said, maybe there is something going on here.

    There is a terrific column in the Wall Street Journal this morning by Joseph B. White, in which he writes of having simplified his life by moving out of the suburbs and into the city.

    “Boomer professionals like me are destined to find our life choices reduced to marketing archetypes,” White writes. “My new life evidently makes me part of a trend. I am a New Urbanist, a Third Life Boomer or, to the green movement, an exemplar of the new sustainable lifestyle who leaves a lighter, smaller carbon footprint on our planet by driving less, walking more and forgoing the energy-intensive life that goes with owning an edge-city McMansion and two sport-utility vehicles—or in my case, an 80-year-old house in suburban Detroit and a turbo-charged Japanese hotrod with a fuel economy rating of just 20 miles per gallon.

    “Selling my Subaru WRX earlier this month and moving to a loft in the city has changed my life in ways I am still discovering.”

    Not that I am a paradigm or indicator of anything, but I read those words and yearn to make the same sort of decision. Getting rid of the house and the car and all the stuff that goes with it, and moving to a loft in the city (Seattle? Portland?) sounds really good. Maybe it is age, but a simplified life seems like a really good idea...and just maybe it is a reflection of a broader inclination in this country.

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that while brick-and-mortar retailers are concerned about flat or declining sales during the end-of-year holiday season, online retailers are more part because they are working overtime to provide better products ad services to shoppers.

    “At a time when traditional retailers are being ultra conservative, many Web sites have been spending to make shipping times faster, consumer-generated reviews better, and to offer new features such as online layaways,” the Journal writes. “ Inc. is rolling out more ‘frustration-free’ packages that replace hard-to-open plastic clamshells; eBat Inc. is highlighting merchants with the best ratings; and Sears Holding Corp. is launching online layaway.

    “In contrast, many traditional retailers have cut way back on inventory levels and holiday staffing, hoping to avoid the massive profit-eroding discounts of last holiday season ... A recent holiday hiring survey found almost half of retailers said they expected to reduce the number of workers by 5% to 15% compared to a year ago.”
    KC's View:
    Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy. Is it any wonder that, according to the story, “U.S. shoppers on average rate e-commerce shopping more highly than at traditional retailers, according to the University of Michigan American Consumer Satisfaction Index.”

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    There is a new report out from Forrester Research saying that while “almost everyone” under 35 uses online social networks, there is tremendous growth in the number of people between the ages of 35 and 54 availing themselves of this new technology, with use by this demographic up 60 percent in the past year.

    As a result, two things are happening. One is that companies that are targeting this older demographic are beginning to devote time and money to figuring out how to use social networking to further their consumer connections. And the other is that some new social networking sites are being set up specifically to appeal to these people, with interfaces that are easier for them to navigate.
    KC's View:
    Aside from the fact that I am almost too old to be part of this “older” demographic of social networking users, which is by itself a sobering realization, this is an important development to which retailers and manufacturers need to pay attention. At some point, these sorts of vehicles will replace old-world promotional techniques such as paper coupons and FSIs, and the industry needs to position itself to ride the wave in a prudent fashion.

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    A report from Business says that Walmart is requiring that the law firms with which it does business implement flex-time policies for their employees.

    According to the story, the retailer has long required “that their outside firms meet certain diversity requirements and carefully review which firm lawyers comprise their legal teams.” But this new policy goes one step farther.

    “Wal-Mart plans to require firms to have flextime policies, which are generally defined as alternative working arrangements or hours, and require that ‘the policies themselves be flexible.‘ Law firms and legal departments have typically implemented flextime policies to attract and retain working mothers.”

    And not only does Walmart want its law firms to have flex-time policies, but it wants to be assured that the firms have communicated these policies clearly to their employees.
    KC's View:
    Walmart...bastion of liberalism.

    Go figure.

    There was a time, rightly or wrongly, when the only time flexibility that Walmart would have been associated with was asking people to work off the clock. But times of changed, and this apparently is a company with new priorities.

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    The Seattle Times reports that Costco plans to accept food stamps at all of its US stores, described as “a major shift for a company that earlier this year said it doubted there would be enough demand among customers to warrant accepting food stamps in even one market, New York City.”

    About half the company’s 410 US stores are expected to be able to accept food stamps by the end of next month, according to the story.

    "The rules are different today," CEO Jim Sinegal tells the paper. "People who were in good shape financially all of the sudden are needing some assistance."
    KC's View:
    Reality rears its ugly head.

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    The Boston Globe this morning reports that “Super 88 LLC, the parent company of an Asian grocery chain owned by a local father-son business team, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday, putting the chain’s potential sale on hold.”

    The stores reportedly will stay open during the bankruptcy reorganization; there apparently are more than 200 creditors to be reckoned with, and liabilities of between $10 million and $50 million.

    There are three potential buyers of the chain, each of which says that it has a claim on all or part of the company. But this filing is expected to throw the process into further disarray.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    Advertising Age reports that yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the first banner ad , which was on, the online offshoot of Wired magazine. According to the story, the four companies that availed themselves of the opportunity were MCI, Volvo, Club Med and 1-800-Collect.
    KC's View:
    Hard to believe that it only has been 15 seems like far longer.

    May I take this moment, however, to say thank you to all the sponsors who have used banner ads on MNB over the past eight years and enabled me to bring this site out every weekday morning, especially the companies on MNB this morning: (which continues to be a pioneer in the online grocery business), Samuel J. Associates (a terrific executive search company), Eco-Bags (which has a business mission close to my heart and a fabulous product), Aisle 7 (which offers health-oriented technology solutions to retailers), and, of course, California Olive Ranch (which makes the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted).

    Celebrate the anniversary of the banner ad. Support MNB. Click on one or more of these sponsor’s ads and check them out. It’ll be good for your business and, quote frankly, good for mine.

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    Reuters reports that McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner told the Chief Executives Club of Boston that while his fast food chain has done well during the recession, high unemployment has had an impact - primarily on the breakfast business, where in some markets has seen declines because people have stopped buying Egg McMuffins on the way to work because they aren’t actually going to work.

    ABC News reported yesterday that its weekly Consumer Comfort Index was a -51 last week, down from -50 the week before, and the lowest it has been in three months.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    • Rite Aid Corporation announced that Dan Miller, formerly Vice President of Pharmacy Operations, has been promoted to Senior Vice President, Pharmacy.

    And, Rite Aid announced that Karen Staniforth, formerly Regional Pharmacy Vice President, has been promoted to Vice President, Pharmacy Operations.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    Interesting email from MNB user Jeff Folloder:

    I'm trying to formulate a reasoned response to your recent piece on online tracking.  I wanted to get mad at the alarmists touting the fears of lost online privacy.  I wanted to rail against the the targeted marketers and I wanted to sound a clarion call regarding more regulation.  But those paths are merely reaction to symptoms of the issue.  I'm afraid that most folks are blissfully unaware that this genie is already out of the bottle.  Matter of fact, Genie has done quite well and is in the process of furnishing his next condo on South Beach.  With the mountain of data that is innocently, willingly and casually tendered by consumers in a cascade of transactions, it is really just a trivial process to determine who a person really is... regardless of the scrubbing of data.  The interwebtubes have just sped things up.  Take away the accepted bits of personal information from the database and then do a relational comparison of other databases using a bit of computing power and the names pop right back up.  We do not even realize how cavalier we are about our own privacy.

    A social security number is supposed to be a very private thing between you and the government for purposes of financial transactions (taxes and benefits).  How many times have you used it with your doctor, on an application, or to identify your kid in school?  How long do you think it would take to find out the social security number of a complete stranger?  We did this to ourselves.

    I don't think that legislation and regulation can reasonably roll back the privacy issues that are already in full bloom.  Nor do I think that voluntary guidelines are anything but a salve to make us feel better.  Rather, it's time to come to terms with what is and attempt to wrest some measure of personal control and responsibility for what we allow to get out "in the wild".

    On another subject, MNB user Brian J. Donovan wrote:

    It is definitely time to disrupt the status quo with either meaningful state or federal credit card regulation, specifically interchange fee regulation.

    The average interchange fee in the U.S. is seven times the interchange fee set by Visa and MasterCard in countries throughout the rest of the world. Using 2008 figures, if the interchange fee charged by credit card issuers was decreased (via comprehensive credit card reform legislation) from the current 2.10% to 0.60%, the result would be an annual savings of approximately $34.3 billion for U.S. merchants and consumers. Credit card issuers could retain 0.3% as a processing fee, the remaining 0.3% could be a "tax" used to fund a Natural Disaster Trust Fund (NDTF). In 2008, this would have generated $6.86 billion in funding for a NDTF.

    I’ve been a little critical of checkout clerks in a couple of recent postings, leading to the following email from an MNB user wrote:

    This is in defense of check out clerks. At age 51 and the main grocery shopper, I’ve had an occasional poor experience such as an unfriendly or inordinately slow check out clerk. But it is also true that at times I’ve been in a sour mood or in a great hurry and have not been the most delightful human being with which to interact. 

    Here in Minnesota, I shop predominately at Cub, at times at Byerlys and Lunds (as I should, being a SUPERVALU employee!) and on occasion at a competitor’s (but only for “market research”, OK- convenience!).  I honestly cannot recall a single instance of a clerk chatting up their neighboring clerk.  I see clerks consistently scanning as fast as they can, of late inquiring if I found everything desired and on occasion, sometimes making a genuine effort to connect with me beyond a greeting and a thanks (perhaps asking about the weather or commenting on a purchase).

    These folks work awfully hard and I imagine in their shifts meet a far more than their fair share of crabby, harried folks or folks who may not take a moment make the a greeting and word of thanks mutual.  I would not last long standing behind a scanner for a living. Give ‘em a break, Kevin!

    Responding to my piece last Friday about traveling around the Pacific Northwest, MNB user Kayla Anderson wrote:

    Thanks very much for highlighting your transport on your recent business trip—you successfully demonstrated how I, and many urbanites, are re-thinking the commute.  I bike to work seven months of the year, and rely on city buses and light rail for the remainder.  When I need a car, I partake in my local car co-op, HourCar (same model as Zip Car).

    You called it out perfectly:  Yes, it takes a little more planning to get out of the car-commuter rut, but it’s well worth it.  The reasons to do so are many… In the year since I’ve graduated college, I’ve saved over $7,500 on car payments, gas, insurance and parking. I also forego the gym membership during the months that I am able to bike.  I get to spend an hour every day to read, work, etc. rather than sit in traffic.  Not to mention the environmental benefits inherent in this lifestyle.

    Keep up the good work!  MNB is one of my favorite parts of my morning.

    That means more than you know.

    And another MNB user wrote:

    Glad to see another industry member found the alternative transportation of rail worked quite well in this corridor.  I had consecutive day appointments with QFC (Seattle) and Fred Meyer (Portland) last January and opted for rail too.   I was lucky enough to have gotten a seat on the second level of an Amtrak car on the ocean side.  What a great way to unwind, enjoy some of our country’s finest scenery and arrive downtown.  I witnessed several bald eagle en route and made me think twice about returning to the East coast.  As a Southeastern Connecticut shoreline native, which is truly beautiful, it amazes me how much of the left coast is not cultivated with condos and weekend villas like we see everywhere along the Atlantic and L.I. Sound.

    The Zip car is something I’ll ponder next trip.

    What we’re talking about here is very much linked to this morning’s first story - it is all about simplicity and choices. Like I said, maybe there is something really going on here...
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 28, 2009

    Okay. We’ve gotten a lot of emails over the past week about the fact that Michael Sansolo and I, diehard Mets fans both, see the New York Yankees - Philadelphia Phillies World Series as being yet another awful development in what was a long and distressing baseball season.

    This does not mean that we begrudge Yankee and Phillies fans their moment in the sun. Trust us - we know how fleeting such pleasures can be.

    But to answer the question posed by so m,any of you...

    Given a choice, we’re both hoping the Phillies win.

    Two good reasons for this. One, National League baseball is inherently superior to American League baseball. (The designated hitter rule out to be deemed unconstitutional.) And two, the Yankees had a 2009 payroll of more than $201 million, while the Phillies payroll was about $113 million. Gotta go with the underdog on this one.

    We’re just glad that the Phillies aren’t opening their home season against the Mets in 2010. Because watching them get World Series rings would be just too painful.

    Now, could we play ball and just end the damned season?
    KC's View: