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    Published on: March 30, 2010

    by Michael Sansolo

    I’m not sure we Americans ever produced a better bit of advice than Mark Twain’s famous line: “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

    The problem is that most of us simply won’t question what we know to be true, even if it isn’t anymore (or possibly never was.)

    There are things I know for sure and occasionally they turn out to be all wrong. Years ago I had heard a story about the how the rock group Van Halen always requested bowls of M&Ms in their dressing room with all the green candies removed. The presence of any green intruders would set off mayhem. (Many people I know have heard the same story involving different colors of candies.)

    Turns out, I was completely wrong.

    Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of the excellent book “Ideas that Stick,” recently interviewed former Van Halen singer David Lee Roth for Fast Company and fixed the myth for all time. It turns out there was an M&M story and all the details everyone knew were wrong.

    As Roth explained, Van Halen’s contracts were incredibly detailed to ensure all the correct technical support for the band’s loud and intricately lit shows. Van Halen needed all those details done correctly to perform, but realistically there was no chance to check on each important specification at every venue. So Roth came up with an idea. In the middle of each contract, he inserted a demand that the band be provided bowls of M&Ms in the dressing room, but that all the brown candies should be removed. If the band members found any brown candies in the bowl, they could walk.

    What Roth learned was that if the concert promoter missed that detail, other problems were lurking in the technical details. So the presence of brown candies helped Van Halen know whether lots of checking was needed.

    Beyond that being a creative way to find a problem, the M&M story tells us lots more. Sometimes what we think we know can be very, very wrong. It might be how we heard the information, how it was presented and how it evolved through the journey.

    Years ago a CEO told me one of the toughest jobs he faced was making sure his messages got through his entire organization without being altered or edited beyond recognition. Messages move through the organization like an adult-version of the old game Telephone. Along the way, the message changes thanks to the whims and needs of the many layers of management involved. And in the process, the hoped for improvements erode away.

    In many ways, retail operations are like a rock concert, requiring incredible attention to detail. But unlike Van Halen, there’s no easy way of checking up on those details. I have to believe that’s why one store I visited on March 14th had a beautiful display of corned beef and cabbage without any signage alluding to St. Patrick’s Day, any mention of additional ingredients or even simple cooking instructions. Or why another company sent out a flyer this week promising free salmon for customers switching to prescriptions to its pharmacies - a linkage of products that defies comprehension.

    And certainly it speaks to a story in Monday’s MNB on the blind produce taste test between Walmart and Whole Foods that produced a shocking winner. Or the suggestion that Whole Foods is a much tougher customer for suppliers than Walmart falls into the same category separating what we know from what isn’t true.

    Details matter, but the truth matters more. We need the right information so - to paraphrase Mark Twain - the things we know are actually so. That means clear communication, a willingness to listen and a recognition that all of us may not know all we think.

    Pass the brown M&Ms, please.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 30, 2010

    The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that Supervalu has decided to sell six of its bigg’s stores to Remke Markets, and will close the other five units carrying the banner.

    According to the story, “Financial terms of the deal, which is expected to close in May, were not disclosed. Meanwhile, it hasn’t been decided if the Erlanger grocery chain will re-brand the six stores to be part the Remke chain or retain them under the bigg’s brand, said Bill Remke, president and CEO of Remke Markets ... The purchase marks Remke Markets return to Southwest Ohio and expands its reach to 13 stores in Ohio and Northern Kentucky. Last September, the chain closed its last Ohio store after 14 years in operation in Deer Park.”
    KC's View:
    Somebody I was talking to in the industry commented yesterday that this is the most significant news made by bigg’s since 1987 ... and while I’m not sure this is strictly true, I think it is fair to say that the format has not lived up to the expectations created when it was first developed.

    The move also is yet another indication that Supervalu is moving to trim all the branches that it sees as being extraneous to its current situation. What’s next? Bristol Farms? The rest of Shaw’s?

    Betcha that somewhere in Eden Prairie, some enterprising executive is running a pool...

    Published on: March 30, 2010

    Roundy’s Inc., which is preparing to open its first two stores in the Chicago area this year and next, has decided to create a new banner for the units - Mariano's Fresh Market, named after its chairman, Robert Mariano - who, as it happens, has a long history in the Chicago market.

    According to the company, the stores “will reflect old-world adherence to quality and personal service, blended with Mariano's signature approach to supermarket innovation.”

    Chicago native Mariano says that the stores will offer “aisle by aisle selection and the value every shopper deserves."
    KC's View:
    Roundy’s has been using Mariano in its ads for some time, calling him “Chairman Bob” and personalizing its image in a way that seems to have had a level of resonance with shoppers. This latest move is very smart. Can’t wait to see the stores.

    Published on: March 30, 2010

    Interesting piece in SeattlePI.com about Costco, noting that while “the place may be floor-to-ceiling packages and products, but there are comparatively few unique products for sale at any given time,” offering only about 4,000 SKUs at any given time.

    The site says that the disparity between Costco and many selection-intensive stores is reminiscent of “Barry Schwartz's paradox of choice; the psychology professor argues that when faced with a wide variety of options, we consumers tend to be unhappier with our final selection, as opposed to when we're given a more limited number of options.”
    KC's View:
    The Costco experience - people often come out having bought far more than they intended to - suggests that when people have fewer choices, they may actually buy more.

    Of course, when Walmart tried to cut back on its SKU count by eliminating secondary and tertiary brands, it was reported that some of the traffic went elsewhere, forcing the retailer to bring back some of the items it had delisted.

    Some of it may have to do with expectations. We walk into Costco - or other limited assortment formats ranging from Stew Leonard’s to Trader Joe’s to Aldi to Save-A-Lot - with the expectation that there will be fewer choices, and a payoff for having less of a selection. But when we walk into formats that traditionally promise greater selection, and we feel betrayed by fewer items on the shelves.

    It is all about expectations, brand equity and consistency.

    Published on: March 30, 2010

    The Wall Street Journal reports that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to conduct a probe into the impact of bisphenol-A (BPA), a compound used in plastic bottles and food packaging, on the growth and development of wildlife.

    This is the second federal agency looking into the impact of BPA. Earlier this year, after having previously drafted a report saying that BPA was safe - a conclusion challenged by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) - the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it had some concerns about the effects of BPA “on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children,” and would conduct further studies.

    Among those saying that BPA is safe when consumed in small amounts include the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Authority, Health Canada, the World Health Organization, Health and Consumer Protection Directorate of the European Commission; the European Chemical Bureau of the European Union; the European Scientific Panel on Food Additives, Flavorings, Processing Aids, and Materials in Contact with Food; and the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, as well as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the American Chemistry Council.

    Opposing the use of BPA have been the states of Connecticut and Minnesota, the Canadian government, Consumers Union (CU), the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and Walmart, which said that it would not sell children’s products containing BPA. In New York State, Suffolk County has banned the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in empty beverage containers for children under the age of three.
    KC's View:
    Here’s a pretty safe bet. Once these studies are concluded - and I hope that this happens sooner rather than later - BPA is going to be DOA.

    Published on: March 30, 2010

    Published reports say that Trader Joe’s has committed to sell only sustainable seafood in its stores by December 31, 2012, and to work with third-party, science-based organizations to establish definitions and parameters for addressing customer concerns about overfishing, destructive catch or production methods, and the importance of marine reserves.

    Credit for the shift in policy is being taken by Greenpeace, which says it has been campaigning for the change for months and had given Trader Joe’s a failing grade in its most recent sustainable seafood guide, “Carting Away the Oceans.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 30, 2010

    The Washington Post reports that “‘food fraud’ has been documented in fruit juice, olive oil, spices, vinegar, wine, spirits and maple syrup, and appears to pose a significant problem in the seafood industry. Victims range from the shopper at the local supermarket to multimillion companies, including E&J Gallo and Heinz USA.

    “Such deception has been happening since Roman times, but it is getting new attention as more products are imported and a tight economy heightens competition. And the U.S. food industry says federal regulators are not doing enough to combat it.”

    The story notes that some experts say that as much as five percent or more of the US food supply could in some way be counterfeit, and that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) simply has been too busy paying attention to food safety issues to put counterfeiting on the front burner.
    KC's View:
    The story makes clear that there are high-tech tools the use of which can better detect counterfeit foods than ever before.

    However, there is a question as to whether the government should be spending its time and money on detecting counterfeit foods, or whether it is the purview of the companies that are selling the foods. Is this a case where companies that normally would decry the development of the “nanny state” will actually want toe government to spend more money and impose greater regulations?

    Published on: March 30, 2010

    The Los Angeles Times reports that the National Conference on Weights and Measures has concluded after a multi-state investigation that consumers often are over charged for the fish they buy because a coating of ice often adheres to the fish when it is weighed, thus raising the price. In some cases, the investigation found, ice could account for as much as 40 percent of the weight being charged for.

    According to the story, “More than 21,000 packages of seafood were removed from sale during the four-week investigation, said the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which organized the investigation, and the investigation found that a ‘significant market share’ of seafood packers were not following the law.”
    KC's View:
    Forty percent? That’s the part of this that shocks me. I buy fresh fish all the time, and I guess there could be some ice crystals attached...but never so much that I would notice or even care.

    The 40 percent figure makes it sounds like the fish is covered by ice cubes.

    Published on: March 30, 2010

    The Chicago Tribune reports that “a coalition of health professionals, parents and corporate accountability advocates is calling for Ronald McDonald to retire as a spokesman for the nation's largest restaurant chain, saying he has too much influence on kids.”

    The coalition, which goes by the name Corporate Accountability International, says that it has done research saying that most Americans agree that Ronald McDonald should be shown the door; it was the same coalition that was behind the movement to retire Joe Camel from tobacco advertising.

    In a statement, McDonald’s responds that the clown mascot “is the heart and soul of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which lends a helping hand to families in their time of need ...Ronald also helps deliver messages to families on many important subjects such as safety, literacy, and the importance of physical activity and making balanced food choices. That's what Ronald McDonald is all about, which our customers know and appreciate."
    KC's View:
    Yes, Ronald McDonald is all about these altruistic enterprises. But he’s also about selling hamburgers, fries and all the other stuff that McDonald’s sells.

    However, this may be one of the dumbest initiatives that I can imagine.

    Ronald McDonald is a successful mascot for a successful company. And McDonald’s shouldn’t be victimized for its own success. (And I’m no fan of McDonald’s.) It also says something important that the mascot has been used as an important symbol of corporate philanthropy.

    Joe Camel was something different - a cartoon character being used by a company to sell to young people products designed to addict and kill them. Call me crazy, but my standard is a little different.

    Maybe the folks at Corporate Accountability International could find something better to do with their time. There are plenty of great corporate targets out there, examples of people and companies that behave atrociously.

    Ronald NcDonald ain’t one of them.

    Published on: March 30, 2010

    Nam News reports that UK retailer Waitrose “is in negotiations to take over the EAT food and coffee chain,” a move that could allow the retailer to create EAT outlets in its stores and sell its own merchandise in external EAT outlets.

    BrandWeek reports that MillerCoors is getting ready to unleash a new beer called Miller Vortex, described as “a bottle with specially designed interior grooves that ‘create a vortex as you’re pouring the beer’.” A vortex, by the way, is defined by the dictionary as “a mass of whirling fluid or air, a whirlpool or whirlwind.”
    KC's View:
    Somehow, I have a feeling that the whole vortex idea sounds better on paper than it will in practice. Then again, I’m happy to line up to find out.

    Published on: March 30, 2010

    ...will return.
    KC's View: