retail news in context, analysis with attitude

If the purpose of our new “Eye-Opener” feature is to challenge typical thinking, then yesterday’s served its purpose...if only because a bunch of you rose to challenge my thought processes. To recap, I wrote, in part:

So last week I was in San Francisco, sitting at an outdoor table at the Cafe Zoetrope, sipping on a really good chardonnay and dipping bread in olive oil with crushed red pepper. And I noticed that across Kearny Street there is a restaurant called the House of Nanking, with a line out front. Impressive, considering that the restaurant was nestled in between a Thai Oriental Massage parlor and the Grassland Cocktail Lounge, where, the tattered green awning said, “good friends and girls meet.”

When my waiter passed by, I said, “That must be a really good restaurant, huh?”

The waiter chuckled and shook his head. “Nope. It actually isn’t very good at all. But they have really good advertising. But they don’t tell you that not only is the food lousy, but they rush you because they like to turn over tables fast.” And then he recommended another Chinese restaurant a couple of blocks away, saying that the food was much, much better.

I watched the line and thought to myself, that’s an interesting lesson. Two, actually.

One, advertising does matter. Sell a compelling message, and you can attract a crowd, no matter what part of town you’re in.

But the second lesson is even more important: You have to deliver on the promise, because if you don’t, people will talk.

I cannot imagine any circumstances under which I’m going to the House of Nanking. No way. Because word of mouth fights in a different weight class than advertising.

The fact is that around the corner on Jackson Street, there is another Chinese restaurant called Hunan Home. Being in the middle of Chinatown, it is just one of hundreds, but I know this one because 15 or more years ago, Murray Raphel took me and a bunch of other folks there, raving about the coconut shrimp. The shrimp was everything he said it was, and I often have returned...because that restaurant delivered on the promise and had word of mouth - from an advocate - working on its behalf.

And, I concluded, the questions are:

What kind of marketer are you? What kind of message is being spread on your behalf? And are you living up to the promise?

MNB user Alex Bastion wrote:

You have no doubt already received an outpouring of disagreement re: House of Nanking. Many people consider this the Chinese equivalent of In-n-Out. I have dined there dozens of times, and on my last visit was seated next to a couple in their 60's would celebrate every anniversary by flying to SF just to eat there. Many will suggest food preferences are relative, but my wife and I regularly dine at many of your favorite restaurants, as well as most of the well known joints in the foodie world. When she went there she declared it one of the 5 best meals she had ever had.

The lesson? As a successful analyst don't trust the opinion of one (1) waiter, as you run the risk of sending the wrong message that you really don't know what you are talking about.

MNB user Beth Lippert wrote:

I had to smile at your gullibility to ask a waiter about the quality of the food at his competition and then believe him and write about it. I anticipate you’ll get a flood of emails from folks – both native San Franciscans and tourists -- who love dining at “The House” and have never seen an advertisement for it. The popularity of that restaurant has endured for years and years on written reviews. And there are plenty of word of mouth advocates for the House of Nanking out there. Did you think to ask the waiter at Cafe Zoetrope how long they’ve been in business and then find out how long The House of Nanking has been there? Did you think to ask the people in the line out front whether they were first time visitors or loyal patrons? It’s a real experience to dine there and something you’ll unfortunately miss out on.

FYI...Cafe Zoetrope has been there at least a dozen years. But I get your point, and will respond more extensively below.

MNB user Michael Schillo wrote:

A third unfortunate lesson.  You relied on a single person to form your opinion.  Maybe your waiter was fired from their and has a personal vendetta.  Maybe he ate there once and got sick once.

Regardless, a sample size of one is no way to single out a “bad”.

Per Yelp (with 1100 reviewers), House of Nanking is 3.5 stars (pretty good by Yelp standards for a popular restaurant).
Maybe the place is bad, maybe it’s good.  But one should not rely on 1 source to form such a strong opinion.
As an aside, Human Home rated 4 stars.

MNB user Joci Kelleher chimed in:

I have been there many times over the past 20 years, and every time I have loved my meal.  We take out of town guests there regularly (and we live in the East Bay).  We don't like crummy food.  House of Nanking is definitely worth the trip.  As an aside, I have never seen any advertising for it at all.

And the hits keep coming...this one from MNB user John Calvert:

I think the other lesson is that WOM from one person (a stranger nonetheless) does not necessarily validate the truth. Check out the reviews for this restaurant on Yelp and you will find the true WOM value of this restaurant.
Social media is the true conveyor of WOM these days.

And MNB user Jon Poole wrote:

I have visited House of Nanking almost yearly for over 8 years.  Things have changed somewhat…the lines are longer, the clientele is a little more “yuppie-ish”, and it does seem like they are rushing somewhat but I have NEVER been disappointed with the food.  We especially like the seafood dishes and their own proprietary blend flower/herb hot tea.  If the owner is there we usually let him order for us.  I am VERY surprised you would publish a second hand comment from one person (credentials unknown) in your column without checking out the restaurant yourself.   I am a bit of a “foodie” myself and have recommended this place to many people and have never gotten any negative feedback.  I would be interested in seeing a follow up.  You might hate it and I might not have any sense of what “good” Chinese food should be but I think it is unfair for you to declare this a “bad food” restaurant and “marketing phenomenon” based on the comment of one employee at a competing business.
Okay. I get it.

But let me defend myself just a little bit. I really wasn’t talking about the food ... I was talking about the power of advocacy.

But I obviously didn’t do a very good job of it, because only one MNB user - Richard Evans - seemed to “get it.”

Your observation about word of mouth being in a different weight class than advertising is right on.

I have seen many instances of great advertising campaigns that fizzled because the retailer failed to deliver on his promises.

Your question "What kind of marketer are you? What kind of message is being spread on your behalf? And are you living up to the promise?" is one every business person should ask regardless of the type of business they are in.

Ironically - and inadvertently - I picked on a restaurant that actually has a lot of advocates. In some ways, the outpouring of emails sort of proves my point...though I won’t be so disingenuous as to suggest that this was my intention.

You’re right, I did take one person’s opinion too literally. To be fair, I don’t think this waiter had any axe to grind. He was just being honest, best I can tell. Now, he may have been wrong ... but at that moment, his advocacy of another restaurant up the street carried some weight. Which is essentially what I was saying, if not very precisely or elegantly.

See the impact that just one point of view - whether informed or uninformed - can have? Are you engaged in the opinion-shaping business, as well as the sales and marketing business?

So let me pose a different question, with the benefit of your wise counsel.

Does your business inspire the same kind of passion/defense/advocacy that the House of Nanking apparently does?

Because that strikes me as something special, something for which we should all aspire.

And here’s the thing. I’m going to be back in San Francisco very shortly, with my daughter. And I think we’re going to try the House of Nanking (if we can get in without too much of a wait).

I’ll let you know.

Got the following email from MNB user Gary Harris about the leadership style at Wegmans, referring to a previous “Eye-Opener” piece:

Leadership here reminds me of a quote I heard years ago, “The true purpose of leadership is to create more leaders, not more followers.”

That’s definitely the way it is at Wegmans. We all must internalize the principles our company espouses then figure out how they impact our decisions and activities every day. The metrics and bottom line results will follow, principles and values will lead.

Yesterday, I got blasted in “Your Views” by an MNB user who was angry because of my earlier characterization of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as being in favor of a repeal of the just-passed-and-signed-into-law financial reform bill. He felt that I had incorrectly stated that Boehner was against the provisions in the bill that regulate and reform credit and debit card swipe fees, when in fact Boehner actually opposes “government getting bigger.  Like most overreaching legislation, the few positives are far outweighed by the negatives and the last thing we need right now is more onerous government regulation and a giant new bureaucracy.  The nanny state steps in again to try and protect us from our own stupidity, irresponsibility, and/or greed ... If you are going to take time to report on an issue, why don’t you report both sides of the argument?  Do you really just want to be another left-leaning cheerleader for disastrous policies?  It’s your publication – you have every right to print what you want.  And, I have every right to no longer subscribe if it just gets to be more than I can stand.  We are very close to that point.”

I had actually removed the offending paragraph earlier, because I felt that I had not provided the kind of context that it needed to have. And I responded, in part:

My original intention was to do something that I’d done before - which was to point out the irony that Democrats passed a bill that a Republic-leaning retail industry had been pushing for, and to suggest that if people actually talked to each other and negotiated in good faith - as opposed to staking out positions as a way of appealing to the base and getting elected - then we might have a more functional government. I wrote that paragraph as a way of reminding myself that I wanted to do so, but I screwed up and forgot to make my original point. Simply put, I goofed.

I will say this, though. I try really hard to be fair here. It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote a piece praising Boehner for a position he’d taken - and so I hope I cannot be characterized merely as a “left-leaning cheerleader for disastrous policies.” I actually do try to see and comment on both sides of most issues. I try not be an ideologue, simply because I think ideology generally tends to be a substitute for thoughtfulness.

However, another MNB user wrote to say that I’d caved too easily:

Sometimes you need to stand up to your readers a little bit.  Some crackpot threatens to “cancel his subscription” because you mentioned John Boehner is calling for a repeal of the bill and didn’t provide support for his position?  Sounds to me like a typical Fox News (ie, radical) Republican: an arrogant, narrow-minded bully who can’t see past his own anger at the fact that his taxes might go up.  These people have absolutely no clue about what led to the mess we now face and are frantically searching for someone with D before their name to blame.  The fact that he thinks canceling his subscription is some sort of meaningful loss to you is evidence of his arrogance.

The irony is that he’s accusing you of bias while making an outrageously biased argument himself.  It’s these kind of people (ie, those who can’t think for themselves but are happy to spread their ignorance to anyone who will listen) that are destroying this country…

And keep up the good work – we need more voices like yours.

Well, thanks for the support. But for the record, I did not back down because he threatened to cancel his subscription. (The good news here is that I get one hell of a lot more new subscribers each day than I get people canceling their subscriptions in an entire month. I hate to lose anyone, but I’ve always maintained that MNB is not and should not be everybody’s cup of tea. If I stop irritating people from time to time, it means I’ve become as vanilla as all the other guys. And it means that it is time to hang up my spurs.)

I actually thought that he made a reasonable point when he said that I’d misrepresented - or under-represented - Boehner’s argument.

I haven’t read every interview that the House Minority Leader has given on the subject, but the ones I have read have featured him saying that he’d like to repeal the financial reform bill if the GOP gets control of the Congress in 2011. Some of you will now take the opportunity to blame the liberal media, but that’s not what I think happened here.

I’m just guessing, but I suspect that Boehner and many of his GOP colleagues would support regulation and reform of credit and debit card swipe fees. I say that because so much time and money has been spent by industry associations to get them to think that way. (If they don’t, then FMI and NACS and NGA and all the other trade associations that made interchange fee reform such a high priority ought to ask for their money back.)

Here’s the problem. In the current political environment, it doesn’t get Republicans elected if they say that any part of the financial reform bill passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic president is a good thing. It makes far more sense to demonize the whole damn bill...which creates a chasm between the two political parties...which discourages dialogue and reasonable compromise...and, finally, sends the whole country to hell in a hand basket. (IMHO)

And I’m not just picking on the GOP here. Democrats are plenty capable and often guilty of playing the same stupid, counter-productive game of pandering to the base.

I am absolutely sure that the financial reform legislation is not perfect. I have no idea whether its imperfections outweigh its advantages...though I think that it may even be a pretty good bet that this could be the case.

The shame of the whole thing is that I think that the economic events of the past few years suggest that we needed some kind of regulation ... but that the black-and-white approach taken by both political parties, in which they each assume that they are absolutely right and that the other guy is absolutely wrong, probably has assured that the nation did not get the legislation that it deserved.

On the other hand, for tolerating this kind of political malpractice, maybe we get precisely what we deserve.

On the subject of the iPad vs. the Kindle, MNB user Brad Morris wrote:

I have had my Kindle since last December. Even though I tend to be an early adopter, I waited for the second version just to see what they would do with initial feedback from users. I haven’t purchased a paper book since my Kindle arrived. I love it. I especially love that I could make the print a little larger, so I know longer have a dozen pairs of cheap reading glasses lying around the house. If I get stuck somewhere waiting for my kids or whatever I can always pull up whatever I am reading on my Blackberry and spend the dead-time a little more enjoyably and productively.

That said, I also think that the iPad is a wonderful device, although I haven’t yet taken the plunge. When I do, I do not see it ever replacing my Kindle. I have no problem owning a device dedicated to reading that does only that one task really well. This past weekend I spent the 90+ degree days floating in my pool (with radio Margaritaville in the background) with my Kindle in its inexpensive water-proof case. That is something I could never do with a book, nor could I do it with an iPad based on the very bright sunlight.

And, on another subject, one MNB user wrote:

Interesting that someone mentioned  the book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company" in their comments last week.    I can recall that while serving as an assistant store manager for Hy-Vee twenty years ago that then-CEO Ron Pearson discussed the book at one of our meetings and recommended that we all find a copy of it and read it.   At the time, the book was out of print and after much searching I could only track down a copy through an inter-library loan.

While not a great literary tome, it is an easy read……and the message is simple.     It is possible for a company to become so large that it loses sight of its original beliefs and principles and can no longer function in the manner that it once did.   (There are times that I believe that I should be mailing copies of the book to my current employer!)

As someone who has never been a fan of the Bentonville Behemoth, I can only hope that their management doesn't take the time or trouble to find a copy of the book!

Betcha there is a copy in the Bentonville library. And probably one on Mike Duke’s night table.

And, can used copies of the book on for $7.31.
KC's View: