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: June 23, 2010

    by Michael Sansolo

    Sometimes I just hate people…and you know who you are. A week ago, my wife and I were getting gasoline at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, which is one of the few states where self-service isn’t allowed.

    These stations are large and each line handles two cars at a time. The car in front of us finished first and left, prompting the woman behind us to pull around and into the first slot. Of course, she did this in such a sloppy manner that when our fill-up was done (maybe 30 seconds later) she had managed to pin us in and, in the process, delay our entire line. It made me very cranky.

    What really irritated me was this: the attendant working the pump saw what she did and failed to urge her to pull up just a little more, allowing traffic to continue flowing. In short, the driver was lazy, the attendant uncaring and the rest of us paid the price.

    Now there’s little I can do about that (except urge you all to boycott the Mollie Pitcher rest stop—though that will do little good.) Rather, let’s use another example to remind us how employee inattention can turn well-meaning shoppers into absolute demons. And some of them have power.

    Tony Kornheiser, who many know from his ESPN show Pardon the Interruption, has a local radio show in Washington. It’s fabulous if you (like me) enjoy listening to Tony essentially complain about everything in life. With each passing week, I find myself agreeing with him more, which worries and comforts me at the same time.

    A week ago, Mr. Tony (as he is called) went out for ice cream with his son. To make a long story short, his trip was a disaster thanks to one customer who completed an order and left the shop only to return for more seconds later; and an elderly customer who cut in line and ordered the last bit of ice cream in the flavor that Mr. Tony craved. (There’s more to the story, but it is way funnier spoken than written.)

    Mr. Tony went nuts and called out the store (and his displeasure) on the air—repeatedly. In the process he got sent loads of free ice cream. His son, however, made the best observation; that the problem in the store wasn’t the customers, it was the employees. After all, the employees could have easily observed that the one customer had jumped the line. And the employees could have explained to the customer who left that he didn’t have the right to return back to the front of the line.

    In both cases, such action would have required the employees extending themselves a little. Of course, they would have been right to do it and all the customers would have known.

    The problem is that customers can be demanding and at times irrational and employees get it all dumped on them constantly. But doing nothing is rarely a winning strategy either. In fact it’s a bigger loser. If we train our employees correctly they can figure out how to better handle the difficult moments.

    If we don’t, we create demon customers who sometimes complain on the radio or websites, but who almost always will share the bad stories with friends and neighbors, silently killing your business in the process. It happens one story at a time.

    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: June 23, 2010

    by Kate McMahon

    For the early summer’s hottest trend we turn to “icing” – a viral drinking game that has been played out at frat houses, funerals, Fortune 500 companies and the headquarters of Facebook. It has been celebrated on YouTube and a signature website, and debated on the pages/blogs of the New York Times, Forbes and even the estimable New Yorker.

    It is a stunning example of an “internet meme” – a cultural concept that spreads quickly through cyberspace. It provides a telling lesson on marketing and how companies can best respond to consumer-generated videos and posts running rampant on the internet.

    It is also utterly stupid.

    The “ice” in question is Smirnoff Ice, a treacly-sweet malt beverage typically marketed to females. The game/prank of “icing” started this Spring at Southern college campuses and went viral when the website “Bros Icing Bros” went up. A “bro” (think frat boy, cap on backwards) “ices” you by appearing with a Smirnoff Ice in hand, or hidden. Unless you have an “ice block” (your own personal bottle of Smirnoff Ice on your person) you must get down on one knee and chug the 24-ounce bottle of Smirnoff Ice. Very embarrassing for any self-respecting “bro.”

    Photos and video clips of “icings” were sent to the site BrosIcingBros.com, started by a 22-year-old college student, and then hit the media. One notable icing was 26-year-old billionaire and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who “iced” his Director of Product, Blake Ross, himself the co-creator of the browser Firefox. The bottle was “baked” into Ross’ birthday cake.

    So where was Smirnoff when this campaign making fun of its product began? At first, watching, while some wondered if parent firm Diageo was supporting the viral marketing.

    Then came an early response: “Icing is consumer-generated, and some people think it is fun. We never want under-age ‘icing’ and we always want responsible drinking.”

    Last week, Smirnoff got tough and said it had “taken measures to stop this misuse of its Smirnoff Ice brand and marks, and to make it clear that 'icing' does not comply with our marketing code, and was not created or promoted by [the firm].” BrosIcingBros.com shut down with only the line “We had a good run Bros” left on the site.

    My question: What took so long? I think Smirnoff should have iced the campaign immediately. There’s nothing redeeming about binge drinking or forced alcohol consumption. Not to mention those pesky legal ramifications about having open containers of alcohol in public, in a school or a workplace. Or the underlying sexist implication that it’s comical to be forced to chug a “girl drink” on one knee. It’s idiotic and irresponsible.

    I’m sure I will take some heat for lacking a sense of humor on this. Here at MNB I have written that companies must be prepared for fast-and furious and unpredictable developments in social networking, and engage in a two-way dialogue with the consumer. I stand by that, and feel the dialogue about “icing” can be kept short. Not acceptable.

    There are still “icing” websites which do not name Smirnoff, and spin-offs such as iceashton.com, which offers a prize for icing actor Ashton Kutcher. One can only hope that this internet meme falls as flat as a warm bottle of Smirnoff Ice.

    Comments? Send me an email at kate@morningnewsbeat.com .
    KC's View:

    Published on: June 23, 2010

    The New York Times reports that Gourmet magazine - discontinued last year because of declining subscriptions and advertising - is being revived by owner Conde Nast - as an iPad application.

    In addition to providing free access to decades of recipes, essays and photographs, the application also will provide an interactive experience, with social networking, games, reader-provided restaurant reviews and recommendations, and other kinds of content appropriate to both the magazine’s brand and the technology.

    “It’s not a magazine and its not a digital version of a magazine,” Chuck Townsend, Conde Nast CEO, tells the Times. “It’s a whole new way to engage with consumers.” And Robert Sauerberg, president of consumer marketing at Conde Nast, adds, “We closed the magazine last fall, but we did not close the brand.”
    KC's View:
    This is a great idea.

    One can imagine that there would be all sorts of ways for the Gourmet app to interact with the websites and applications created by food retailers that wish to be perceived as progressive when it comes to food. As in, “Here’s the recipe, here’s a picture of what it is supposed to look like, and here is the local store where you can pick up the ingredients.” The logical extension to this would be the ability to use some sort of one-click technology to order all those ingredients and have them delivered to your house.

    And here’s the thing. Today’s mainstream food shopper may find this all a little ambitious...but tomorrow’s mainstream food shopper (our kids) will expect it and will even choose which apps to use and where to shop based on who is best at pulling all the elements together.

    You have to be in the game. You have to be testing out these technologies, challenging all your preconceptions to find out if down the road they may be misconceptions.

    One other note: Apple said yesterday that it has sold three million iPads in 80 days. Yet another reason to get into the game.

    Published on: June 23, 2010

    • In what Politico.com calls “an unusual fusion of business and politics,” Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs and government relations, Leslie Dach, is drawing reporters’ attention to what are being called “Walmart moms,” who could have an important role in determining the outcome of upcoming elections.

    These moms, Politico notes, “went 46-39 for Barack Obama in 2008 but are now pinching pennies and are now voting generic Republican on the congressional ballot.”

    The Washington Post writes that these moms have been identified in a poll commissioned by the retailer: “Wal-Mart Moms tend to be younger than women overall (71 percent are between 18-44 years old) and white (67 percent); their household income on average falls heavily into two categories -- those who make under $50,000 (46 percent) and those who make between $50,000 and $100,000 (43 percent). Three quarters of them offer support for environmental groups and nearly half (46 percent) describe themselves as moderates ... Wal-Mart Moms comprise 30 percent of all female voters, making them approximately 16 percent of the overall electorate.

    “Their views about politics, at least according to this poll, are decidedly fractured. Slightly more than half (53 percent) of Wal-Mart Moms approve of the job President Barack Obama is doing and 43 percent of the group identify themselves as Democrats as compared to 39 percent who call themselves Republicans.” However, at this point in time they seem to be drifting to the political right.
    KC's View:

    Published on: June 23, 2010

    Advertising clutter may be about to hit the road.

    AutoEvolution.com reports that California - ever anxious to generate new revenue to help it emerge from its fiscal morass - is considering legislation that would turn the state’s license plates into electronic billboards.

    According to the story, “The proposed plates would offer the image of a standard license plate when the vehicle is traveling but would become a digital advertising support or display custom messages when it is stationary for a period of over four seconds. However, the license plate number would be displayed at all times, allowing the vehicle to be identified. In addition to that, the plates could be used for displaying helpful information in emergency situations.

    “The plates could be used as a revenue generator for the State of California, as the advertising space would be governed by the Department of Motor Vehicles. However, the devices can also be used to display a message chosen by the user, thus allowing the owner of the vehicle to show everyone his various beliefs or preferences.”
    KC's View:
    This almost sounds like something out of Blade Runner or Minority Report.

    The four second timing mechanism is the first problem I see. On many California freeways, there are enormous amounts of time during which no cars are moving. One can only imagine how many wrecks will take place by someone who gets distracted by an ad or personal message.

    I also see a problem with the state regulating the ad placement. What if some company that I don’t like or respect buys time on my license plate? California’s has enough discontented taxpayers, but this will send them over the edge.

    Finally, don’t people realize that the more of this stuff there, the less successful it all is going to be?

    Published on: June 23, 2010

    The DailyBeast.com notes that “American chain and fast-food restaurants are engaged in an arms race. Their weaponry: the no-longer-so-simple all-American hamburger, complete with names to suit, from the ‘flamethrower’ to the ‘tangler’ to the ‘monster.’ Not content with single patties, doubles have given way to ‘triples’ and ‘four-by-fours.’ Rather than a mere slice of cheese, these burgers now come topped with eggs, blooming onions, jalapenos or enough bacon to cover a fireman’s breakfast.”

    Not content with just covering the burger warts from afar, the DailyBeast went out and tried more than 100 burgers to come up with a list of its 40 biggest nutritional nightmares, which you can see here.
    KC's View:
    I love burgers, but I’m not sure I’ve had any of the 40 listed by the DailyBeast...which may say more about my aversion to chain restaurants than anything else.

    I much prefer the list of great burger joints that was put together by MNB users a few years ago. To check it out, click here.

    Published on: June 23, 2010

    The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said that it has informed McDonald’s that if the fast feeder does not remove toys from its Happy Meals, it is prepared to sue the company, charging that it is contributing to the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic.

    "McDonald's is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children," Stephen Gardner, litigation director for the advocacy group said in a statement. "McDonald's use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children's developmental immaturity."

    McDonald’s said it is prepared to defend its rights, saying that the toys are part of the “fun, family experience” it offers.
    KC's View:
    Readers of MNB know that I am no fan of fast food in general or McDonald’s in particular. But CSPI has to get a life...or at least a sense of humor.

    I have three kids, and I’ve never felt that Happy Meal toys undercut my authority. The only person who can undercut my authority is me...if I choose not to be the parent.

    Published on: June 23, 2010

    ...sponsored by TCC, “changing shopper behavior”

    Just got into London via a United flight that arrived at Heathrow at about 7:30 am local time. From there it was a reasonably efficient trip through Customs and Immigration, a walk through the maze-like corridors of Heathrow to the Express train that runs to Paddington Station, and then a cab ride to my hotel, where I now sit in the lobby awaiting the availability of a room.

    (The London arrival, it must be said, was not as bad as getting through immigration and Customs in San Francisco, where they seemed to have about half as many stations open as were available, despite the long lines of people arriving from all of Asia. But it all pales in comparison to departing Sydney. I departed on the train from Circular Quay, downtown by the wharves, at 10:30 am...and I managed to get to the International Terminal, get my ticket, check my bag, get through Customs, walk through the bazaar-like Duty Free section and find my way to the Air New Zealand Lounge...which takes in itinerant United Red Carpet Club members...in all of 55 minutes. Remarkable. I got an email from an MNB user who had forwarded my previous raves about the Sydney mass transit system to an Australian relative, and got an email back saying that I was having the rare good experience. If this be true, then maybe I should go to Vegas, because my Australian luck was uniformly superb.)

    If it seems that I digress, it is because I have less to report on this morning than I have over the past week or so, and certainly less than I expect to have during my coming days at the 2010 Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) Summit. (This starts in just a few hours, with a speech - hopefully a passionate and riveting one, considering that I am sleep and time zone-challenged - from Prince Charles about sustainability. I plan an update later today, and will keep you apprised.)

    While my schedule and a need to ration my energy has kept me from posting email as I normally do on MNB, it is not that I haven’t been reading them. I have. And one question that I have heard over and over - almost as often as the email suggesting, quite correctly that I am “living the dream” - is the one asking what exactly I carry around with me on trips like these that allows me to keep putting out MNB. (I have gotten one email from someone who suggested that if I did not put out MNB nobody would notice or care...but I prefer not to take that personally.)

    I assume that the question refers to work materials, since I cannot imagine that my wardrobe choices would be of much interest to anyone. (Just in case, here it is. Unless a jacket is required, I spend all my time in jeans, sneakers and black t-shirts. I have a black merino wool v-neck sweater in case it gets cool, and a cotton LL Bean jacket in case it gets damp. Other than that, it is one black sports jacket, one pair of slacks, one navy blue suit, four dress shirts, a couple of ties - worn under protest and only when absolutely required - black shoes and - here is where it gets complicated - a tux for the black tie event at CGF on Friday night. When things start to run out, I use hotel laundry services. It may be a two-week trip, but it all pretty much has to fit in one garment bag, with overflow going into the gym bag I carry onboard with me.)

    As for my work bag...let me give you the basic rundown.

    • First, the bag itself is important. I’ve taken years, and gone through dozens of bags, to find one that I really like ... and it is only in the last few months that I think I’ve finally landed on the best one I’ve ever had - a large black Timbuk2 Commute 2.0 bag that is lightweight ballistic nylon, with plenty of pockets, lots of space, and a TSA-approved construction that allows me to unfold the computer case when it goes through security rather than actually taking the computer out of the bag. This is a wonderful piece of luggage ... and cost a whopping $120, far less than other inferior bags that I’ve tried.

    • Fifteen-inch MacBook Pro laptop, with a power cord. Plus, a power cord made especially for airline seats - some seats take normal plugs, but some don’t, and it is important to have options. The laptop is the nerve center - everything about MNB from the last eight years is on it, plus all the various drafts of book chapters, video scripts, billing records, etc. (The only downside of being on the road is that the Apple Time Machine system doesn’t back things up with the regularity that it does at home.)

    • Two iPods - an iPod classic and an iPod Touch, each with its own earbud, and one power cord for both of them. Why two? Because I’m paranoid about being stuck somewhere without all the various movies, TV shows and music that I have loaded onto them. And, of course, pictures of my wife and kids. They take up almost no space, so my paranoia doesn’t have any negative packing consequences.

    • My iPhone. Natch.

    • A power converter for global electric plugs.

    • A memory stick with a USB plug.

    • My Kindle. Can’t live without it. (Until, at least, I get an iPad.) After finishing “In A Sunburned Country,” I was able to move seamlessly to “Killing Floor,” the first Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child, whose books I have never read but are highly recommended.

    • On this trip, three file folders with actual paper in them - one with details of the NACS Global Forum, one for the CGF Summit, and one with some backup travel documents, just in case.

    • A notebook that will fit in a jacket pocket for when I’m covering these various conferences. I like the Rhodia pads that look like graph paper, but that’s just me.

    • Two pens - both Cross ballpoints, one of which my family gave me to autograph copies of “The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies.” (Available, by the way, from Amazon.com or by clicking here .)

    • Three copies of “The Big Picture”...because you never know who you are going to meet at a conference or sit next to on a plane.

    • A recent copy of The New Yorker.

    • Spare glasses, plus sunglasses.

    • My passport. I actually carry my passport with me everywhere, even on domestic trips. Never was a Boy Scout, but I believe in being prepared. (I also always have a few Euros and British pounds in my wallet, which I say is my way being prepared, though Mrs. Content Guy says it is an affectation. Either way, I’m ready.)

    • A $50 bill in a hidden zippered pocket. Again, just in case.

    That’s it. Everything the well-equipped 2010 road warrior/pundit/author/video producer needs to survive two weeks on the road. And hopefully enough to allow me to have what I keep saying every business should have - a differential advantage to compete in a crowded marketplace.


    My Web Grocer

    As soon as I can, I’ll post relevant retail pictures from my Sydney trip on our MNB Facebook page.

    Thanks, as always, to TCC ... which is sponsoring “The Content Guy On The Road.”

    TCC offers customized retail marketing programs that change shopper behavior - attracting new customers and building customer loyalty...generating 4-5 percent sales increases and expanding basket sizes...generating in-store excitement and creating real and tangible differential advantages for your stores.

    For more information, Click here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: June 23, 2010

    ...will return. Really.
    KC's View:

    Published on: June 23, 2010

    ...sponsored by TCC, “changing shopper behavior”

    Notes & comment...

    LONDON - The subject was sustainability, and the afternoon’s marquee speaker was the Prince of Wales, who has had a long interest in sustainable agriculture, even to the point that he has created his own line of food products - Duchy Originals - reflecting his priorities.

    The speech by Prince Charles was not nearly as dry as this Colonist expected; he had a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor. (The Prince seemed amused that his competition in the time slot was the World Cup game between England and Slovenia, conceding that most of the Brits in the room were probably far more interested in what was going on in the football game ... which, as it happened, England won 1-0.) But the passion behind the Prince’s words was unmistakable.

    In his comments to the retailers and manufacturers attending the Summit, Prince Charles focused primarily on sustainable fishing, noting that there have been estimates that all commercial fisheries will collapse by 2050 unless the industry takes a more responsible approach to how they are nurtured. And, he said, the impact will be broader than just seafood availability, since the collapse of commercial fisheries also will affect villages and towns and people who depend on fishing for their livelihoods.

    The Prince urged the food industry to become a “formidable force for good,” suggesting that “the health and stability of the world economy depends on the health of the world’s ecosystems.” And, he said, these problems won't go away “if companies just paint their products with a brighter shade of green.” To do otherwise, he said, “is not sustainable, and also is not moral ... I wonder why we are dogged by collective hubris” that makes people think that these problems need not be dealt with.

    The issue of sustainability - and climate change - was also at the center of a joint presentation given by Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, and Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, in which they pledged to help guide CGF toward a strategic and cooperative approach to these issues that affects production, packaging, and even the end use by the consumer. This is good business, Leahy noted, saying that shoppers are concerned about climate change and want to patronize companies with a responsible approach to the issue. Polman agreed, saying that “to say their is a choice between growth and cutting carbon emissions is just wrong,” and he emphasized that his goal is to double the size of Unilever’s business while still cutting total carbon emissions.

    In another presentation, Joanne Denney-Finch, chief executive, IGD, made the same point: “Over a trillion dollars of food is traded between countries each year. We draw on a big share of the world’s resources, including 70% of fresh water. We shape the landscape, and diet has a big influence on human health and vitality. So we’re the world’s most important industry and society is asking more and more of us. We need new and sustainable strategies for growth.”

    Essentially, all of these executives were making precisely the same point, albeit from different directions - that while there may be some barriers to making a more sustainable approach to business a reality (such as price, education of the consumers, and even a sense of hopelessness that citizens actually can have an impact), food retailers and manufacturers have both an ethical and economic mandate for change...and to ignore it is to run the risk of irrelevance in the eyes of the consumer population.

    Other random thoughts ...

    • Not sure if anyone else noticed, but I thought it was interesting that in an afternoon of speeches focused on things like sustainability, energy savings and seafood, the name ‘BP” was not mentioned. Not even once.

    • Gareth Ackerman, chairman of South Africa’s Pick n Pay Stores, noted that one of the challenges facing the food industry is the high rate of consolidation, and he pointed out how much of American supermarket sales are generated by the top five retailers there. What he didn’t point out was that only one of those top five - Walmart - is in attendance here.

    In fact, there are only four US retailers here, and three of them - Walmart, A&P, and IGA - have international connections that explain their presence. Only one US retailer - Price Chopper, of upstate NY - has seen fit to send a delegate here (though there are other Americans from various manufacturers, trade associations colleges, etc... and then there’s me).

    It seems to me that for CGF to be a truly global organization, they’re going to have to do a better job of speaking to and attracting US retailers to conferences like this one. There’s nothing wrong with being a Europe-centric organization, or being both Europe-centric and Asia-centric. But you can’t be really global without the US at the table.

    My Web Grocer

    BTW...I’ve finally posted some retail pictures from the Australian leg of my trip on our MNB Facebook page.

    Thanks, as always, to TCC ... which is sponsoring “The Content Guy On The Road.”

    TCC offers customized retail marketing programs that change shopper behavior - attracting new customers and building customer loyalty...generating 4-5 percent sales increases and expanding basket sizes...generating in-store excitement and creating real and tangible differential advantages for your stores.

    For more information, Click here.
    KC's View: