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    Published on: November 9, 2010

    by Michael Sansolo

    There’s a line from too many movies in which the bad guy basically asks: who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes? Incredibly, we sometimes answer that question wrong.

    It was against that background that I finally report on the Comedy Central Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, held October 30th in Washington, DC. I found myself almost incredulous when I watched the coverage of the rally, which was widely called a Democratic rally or a massive youth rally in so many accounts. Strangely enough, I saw almost zero political signs in my time at the rally. (Unless Papa Smurf for president! counts as a political statement.) Better yet my wife and I (both semi-happily in our 50s) saw many people older than us in the crowd.

    Who am I to believe: my own eyes or what commentators later told me? Tough choice, but I’ll go with my own eyes.

    So why am I writing this article 10 days later? Mainly because I felt the rally wasn’t political, so I had no intention of writing about it before the election. More importantly, I thought the rally gave us a couple of interesting lessons and hopefully with the election behind us it’s easier to talk about such issues.

    Start with the power of a brand. I went to the rally because I really enjoy the comedy of Stewart and Colbert. They are unashamedly sarcastic and ironic, two traits I really love. While I would totally concede that both are liberal leaning, their comic barbs cut sharply on both sides of the aisle, which I find refreshing these days. By running their rally, the political talking heads warned, Stewart and Colbert were damaging their brands. A serious rally, they warned, would ruin both.

    Here’s a shock. The talking heads were wrong yet again.

    Yes, Stewart got serious at the rally, but did so in a way that absolutely upheld his brand. He urged more civil discourse and the importance of civility in public discussions. Plus he chided the media for the breathless way it reports and comments on everything. (His metaphor of the media holding up its magnifying glass of clarity to burn ants on a sidewalk was dead-on.) Colbert, whose on stage persona is more narrowly defined as a somewhat crazed blowhard, upheld his brand too. His goal was to stir up fear, which he did at one point by threatening to release bees coated in peanut butter to attack everyone in the crowd allergic to bees and/or peanut butter.

    Here’s the coolest part: the crowd understood the brand. Among my favorite “protest” signs were: “You can’t spell fear without kittens” or one that simply proclaimed “Sign.” In other words, the crowd understood the brand was irony and sarcasm, even if they were told it wasn’t.

    The entire rally was an interesting concept. As a frequent traveler I had the misfortune of seeing political ads in countless states during the past two months and they were uniformly awful. Our choices seems to be between horrible people each of whom is hell-bent on destroying life as we know it on this planet - at least until November.

    If food companies ran similar ads we’d do nothing more that convince customers that eating a competitor’s product or shopping at their stores would do nothing short of kill them. Good ads and good marketing build our own brand. Only in politics can you win the other way around.

    So maybe a rally about sanity, civility and sarcasm wasn’t such a bad idea. And while it’s awful to think we’re taking advice from comedians, this time we should. Especially when they make us smile and say please and thank you just a little bit more often.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . 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: November 9, 2010

    Amtrak, which never seems to have enough public support to make it profitable or even self-sustaining, nevertheless is experiencing a resurgence - and it apparently has technology to thank.

    According to a story from the Gannett News Service, “Amtrak is setting records for ridership and ticket revenue, fueled by the increased use of personal technology such as smartphones, laptops and iPads.

    “In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, the nation's taxpayer-supported passenger train service says it served more than 28.7 million riders -- up 5.7 percent over the previous year. Ticket revenue was up by 9 percent, to $1.7 billion.”

    Now, to be clear, this trend has not put Amtrak in the black; between the federal stimulus legislation and annual contributions from the federal budget, Amtrak got almost $2.5 billion in taxpayer-supported funding last year. But the trend seems to be headed in the right direction...and one can hope that has Americans embrace public transportation to a greater degree, improved train travel will be part of the equation.

    But Joseph Schwieterman, a DePaul University transportation professor, tells Gannett that the real game changer has been the ability for people to use “smart” technology - laptops, smartphone, iPads and the like - to work and communicate from almost anywhere. "It's kind of a have-iPhone-will-travel kind of thing,” he says.

    That’s a good lesson for retailers - that people respond to and want to occupy environments that embrace the notion of constant communication, that look to put customers in touch with the broader world.

    It is going to happen anyway, especially as applications continue to be developed that allow customers to instantly comparison shop from whatever store they are in, putting products’ prices and attributes side-by-side with those carried by both other brick-and-mortar stores and e-tailers.

    So retailers might was well embrace the trend. Too many will probably respond to it by wondering if there is a way to block such communications from inside their stores...which is exactly the wrong response.

    And that’s my Tuesday Eye-Opener.

    - Kevin Coupe
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    The St. Petersburg Times has a profile of Winn-Dixie CEO Peter Lynch, detailing the hands-on ground game that he is attempting to use to revitalize the company after years of neglect and mismanagement at the 522-store chain.

    Some excerpts:

    • “To stay competitive, a supermarket usually needs remodeling every seven to 10 years. Many Winn-Dixies had not been touched beyond a paint job in 15 years. Some went 25 years.

    “Despite its minimal cash after emerging from bankruptcy, Lynch scraped together $300 million to remodel half the chain so far. The bright and clean updated stores boast a tantalizing array of perishables, a third more produce items, a sushi bar, olive bar, custom sandwich counter and artisan breads. The new layout also includes some unusual touches: 10 types of chicken wings in a grab-as-many-as-you-want deli and a produce section that starts outside like a farmers market with bins of apples, pears and green peppers displayed in an open-air vestibule.

    “The entry doors that used to face the back end of a row of cash registers now open right into colorful floral and produce displays and the flames of a rotisserie oven.”

    • “Realizing Winn-Dixie stores needed a bigger shakeup, Lynch dreamed up a flashy new prototype that costs twice as much — $4 million — to open. The first three opened over the summer in Covington, La.; Mobile, Ala.; and Margate, near Fort Lauderdale.

    “Designed to appeal to affluent shoppers, the stores are on pace to hit sales of $470 a square foot.

    “Lynch ordered 17 more for 2011. About two-thirds of the winning tactics from the test stores will spread throughout the chain, which needs three more years to remodel the rest of the stores.

    “It’s a big change for Winn-Dixie, once a low-price operator that has been earning a reputation for higher prices lately. Lynch sees Winn-Dixie’s future competing with the higher price/product/service offering at Publix rather than trying to beat low-ball pricing at Walmart, Aldi, Save-A-Lot and Target.

    “‘The affluent customer is back,’ Lynch said. ‘There will always be some customers out for the absolute lowest price. But we are convinced most shoppers today are willing to pay for a well-run store, customer service and quality foods’.”

    Still, the story notes, Lynch is fighting an uphill battle as the chain faces sales and productivity decreases.
    KC's View:
    Certainly Peter Lynch is a lot smarter about this stuff than I am, but here’s what occurred to me when I read this story.

    If it were me, I’m not sure I’d be comparing myself with either Publix or Walmart, since both companies have highly specific competitive positions in the marketplace. I think I might be trying to define my company as something else - as a different kind of shopping experience that is changing the rules, challenging conventions, rather than playing the other guy’s game.

    Maybe this is just semantics, and maybe I’m just seeing the newspaper quote rather than the broader strategy. And maybe I’m wrong.

    But that’s what I first thought.

    I’m also a little surprised by the comment about affluent customers being back. Again, maybe this is splitting hairs, but I think he might have been on more solid ground by talking about aspirational customers ... especially since Winn-Dixie’s home market, Florida, continues to be decimated by a tough economy.

    But again, maybe I’m wrong.

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    The New York Times this morning that that National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint on behalf of an employee of a Connecticut ambulance service, saying that the company illegally fired the worker after she complained about her supervisor on her Facebook page.

    According to the story, “This is the first case in which the labor board has stepped in to argue that workers’ criticisms of their bosses or companies on a social networking site are generally a protected activity and that employers would be violating the law by punishing workers for such statements.”

    The question is whether Facebook postings are protected activities under the same law that “gives workers a federally protected right to form unions” and “prohibits employers from punishing workers — whether union or nonunion — for discussing working conditions or unionization.”
    KC's View:
    Expect whatever ruling that comes out of this case to have an impact on almost every working environment.

    To be fair, the Times notes that the worker’s postings were insulting, somewhat vulgar, and went beyond a simple discussion of working conditions. And the company maintains that she was fired for multiple reasons connected to job performance, while conceding that the Facebook postings did play a role.

    This is the new reality of the world we live in. Not always pretty, but almost impossible to avoid. I think my bigger problem is with the incivility of the postings, at least as they are described, rather than the existence of the postings themselves. But it is critical for every supervisor and company to remember that transparency rules, and they have to deal with it. Even when it is inconvenient.

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    In Seattle, KING-5 News reports on how grocery employees there are voting on a strike authorization that could launch a job action against Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer and QFC as soon as Thanksgiving.

    According to the story, union members have complained that months of negotiations have been fruitless, and that they are not satisfied with management’s offers for wages and benefits.

    Seattle Weekly reports that “the union held the first of several strike authorization votes on Sunday, which will be followed by another set of votes today, two more on Tuesday and a final vote on Wednesday.

    “By Thursday, all the votes will be counted. And, depending on what they say, more than 25,000 workers in King, Snohomish and Kitsap Counties could walk off the job, just in time for the holidays.”

    If the authorization vote passes, another vote would be needed before a strike actually takes place, the story says.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    Bloomberg reports that many economic signs seem to be positive as the nation heads into 2011, and that “more U.S. executives than ever are increasing earnings forecasts compared with those lowering them, helped by almost $2 trillion of Federal Reserve spending and a recovery in the global economy ... The last time executives were this optimistic, stocks climbed 39 percent over the next 3 1/2 years, data compiled by Bloomberg show.”

    Among the signs cited in the story as evidence that the global economy is on the upswing is an improved stock market performance, an increase in consumer borrowing (for things like college and car loans), rising demand for products and services, and higher numbers reported by companies like UPS, which is responsible for shipping so many products around the world.
    KC's View:
    Wow. Not only was the election only a week ago, but the people elected haven’t even taken office yet.

    That’s what I call power and influence.

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    In Tampa, Fox 13 reports that two months into Publix’s experiment with online shopping, “the company says there is a bigger demand than they thought, and it is getting good reviews from customers who say it saves them time and calories by stopping the last-minute temptations.”

    Publix is using a customer pickup rather than a delivery model, and is charging a flat rate of $7.99 per order, regardless of size.

    Publix is said to be testing e-grocery in two stores for a year before deciding whether to roll it out chainwide.

    Full disclosure: Publix’s e-commerce business is power by MyWebGrocer.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    Dow Jones reports that the Supreme Court is hearing a case that revolves around whether Costco “can be held liable for copyright infringement for re-selling luxury Swiss watches it obtained through second-hand sources.”
    According to the story, Omega is charging that “Costco violated U.S. copyright law in 2004 by selling Omega Seamaster watches it obtained from third parties who had imported them into the U.S. Costco sold the watches for $1,299, well below Omega's suggested retail price of $1,999. The watches were engraved with a small emblem Omega had registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.”

    Costco maintains that Omega cannot “impose limits on how its watches are imported and re-sold once the watchmaker made its first sale of the goods abroad.”

    Dow Jones notes that the case could have implications beyond how Costco sells Swiss watches: “The software, publishing, movie and music industries, seeking to protect the strength of their own U.S. copyrights, filed briefs supporting Omega,” while eBay, Google, and other retailing entities have filed briefs supporting Costco.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    Advertising Age reports that Target has decided not to engage in much of the Black Friday promotion free-for-all that typifies the traditional beginning of the end-of-year holiday shopping season, but rather will wait until after the tumult to do much of its advertising.

    “It's an unusual -- maybe even brave -- move in an environment where its rivals begin hawking ‘Black Friday’ deals in October and flog ‘Mega Christmas Sale’ events in mid-November,” AdAge writes. “After all, the holidays are far from a time of comfort and joy for retailers; the 55-day sales period accounts for some $450 billion in sales, or about 20% of their annual take.”

    While Target won’t be completely silent during the post-Thanksgiving rush, the company says that recessionary shopping patterns have shown that consumers are waiting to see if they can get better prices or find different items, and may not be quite so prone to spending all their limited finds on Thanksgiving weekend.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    • Walmart announced that “it is introducing a five-year, $10 million commitment to improving the employment outlook of veterans,” saying that “the funds will be used to support nonprofits ‘that assist our veterans in their pursuit of higher education and enable them to more easily reintegrate into civilian life.’ Walmart says 250,000 veterans were unemployed as of March 2010, and that is one of the leading employers of vets.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    • Raley’s announced that it is expanding its portfolio of digital services, adding new digital circular, mobile and social media solutions.

    The initiatives will include the deployment of an iPhone application; the development of online planning solutions, which are comprised of interactive weekly circulars, store locator, and shopping lists; and the expanding of digital advertising to their weekly circular, mobile and widget content.

    The additions, like Raley’s online shopping offer, are powered by MyWebGrocer.

    Full disclosure: MyWebGrocer is a longtime and valued MNB sponsor.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    • Wegmans announced that it has pulled the caffeine-and-alcohol drink Four Loko off its shelves, citing media attention to the fact that after drinking the beverage, a number of college students have ended up in the hospital.

    The product also has been pulled by retailers such as Haggen in the Pacific Northwest; a umber of college campuses, and has been banned by the state of Michigan.

    USDA Today reports that “evidence of salmonella has been found at an Ohio egg farm that's received financing from the owner of an Iowa egg farm that was behind a massive recall earlier this year.

    “Cal-Maine Foods, the nation's biggest egg seller and distributor, said it is recalling 288,000 eggs the company had purchased from supplier Ohio Fresh Eggs after a test showed salmonella at the Ohio farm.”

    No illnesses have been reported. However, the story says that Oil Fresh Eggs is financially connected to Austin "Jack" DeCoster=, who owns Wright County Egg, one of the two Iowa egg farms that recently recalled 550 million eggs when the products were linked to as many as 1,600 illnesses.

    • The Kroger Co. announced that it has negotiated a new $2.0 billion revolving credit facility.  The facility replaces a $2.5 billion facility that would have matured in November 2011. The facility will be used for general corporate purposes, including commercial paper backstop.

    AppScout reports that the Apple iPhone and Google Android phones seem to be consumers’ smartphones of choice: “More than 56 percent of smartphone users are seriously considering an Apple iPhone and 44 percent are considering an Android device for their next smartphone. Both could nearly double their shares of shipping products in the U.S. in the next 12 months, the study finds. Meanwhile, only 24 percent are considering a Blackberry and 10 percent are considering a Windows smartphone.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    Lots of email about the Four Loko controversy.

    One MNB user wrote:

    As a 24 year old male, I'm probably exactly the demographic the drink targets. I can tell you, it has reached similar levels of attention among my young adult peer group that "getting iced" with a Smirnoff Ice drink did just a few months ago. I even saw a couple of people dressed up for Halloween as different flavors of the drink. I had a can with me that night, and I laughed at how easy it was to give away to a friend. ("You mean it? I can have ALL of the rest of it???")

    I was kind of shocked it was on the market when I first learned of it, and my friends and I all knew it wouldn't be around for long. If Sparks couldn't survive, Four Loko had no chance.

    Of course, we all know that banning ! it won't stop kids (or young adults, or whatever) from getting sick from over drinking. I laugh when news articles about Four Loko mention reports of young people getting sick from drinking too much of the stuff, as if over-drinking among college students is rare enough to be newsworthy or unique to Four Loko. Four Loko is a chance for lawmakers to posture about public health concerns. I know it will be gone soon, but banning Four Loko will do nothing to stop young people from drinking too much or mixing caffeine and alcohol. At bars, jager bombs (as well as Vegas bombs or any kind of bomb) and Red Bull Vodkas are some of the most popular drinks, not to mention a more mundane Coke and whiskey.

    I have to admit though, Four Loko is krazy...

    From another MNB user:

    What’s next? Banning Rum and Coke because the Coke has caffeine? What about all the sugar in alcohol?

    If you’re an adult, you should be left to make up your own mind, not have the government doing it for you. Look where that got the last round of politicians.

    And another MNB user wrote:

    I support you in theory. A great take from a parental viewpoint, but the reality is now the twenty something kids just have to walk from the beer & liquor department to the energy drink aisle and end up with the same thing.

    Remember prohibition?

    Another MNB user chimed in:

    As a parent, I completely understand your position, and emotionally I want to agree. But this seems to me an over-reach by another government organization.  If the drinks are harmful, then force them to comply like any other harmful vice…warning labels, limited access, etc.  But to allow an outright ban is not the way we in a free society control these type of products, and again where does it stop.  If I am not mistaken, cigarettes have a similar effect, a short term awakening while simultaneously providing a narcotic effect and I am not hearing any outright bans going into effect here!!

    You put up a referendum to ban all smoking, and I’ll vote for it. It is a product designed to addict and then kill you.

    Another MNB user wrote:

    I believe this should be a significant concern for everyone and am please to see someone somewhere is doing something about it.

    Not only do I agree with you when you state “How much notice needs to be given? So we need a fatality?” I would say that if the truth be known there may have already been a fatality or certainly damage done to someone from the practice of combining caffeine with alcohol.

    My own experience being from having a son of legal drinking age, using what was obviously not sound judgment, spend a overnight visit in the hospital with a blood alcohol level of 0.28 from drinking Jagermeister and Red bull hovering somewhere just above, or should I say below, an alcohol induced comma. This poor judgment I believe stems from the fact that because of the caffeine, a potentially deadly amount of alcohol can be consumed and then it’s too late. Not to mention that in college it’s a socially acceptable thing to do.

    What is most concerning is in knowing for any of us that work for a company that sells both Jagermeister and Red bull, that few if any company would even consider pulling either of these items off their shelves.

    And you already know the majority of retailers will put any new item on their shelves such as Four Loco or the like, for a marketing fee. So, what is truly at the root of this issue? Hmmm? Watch, someone will likely blame our President for this too, just to “feed the fear” for 2012.

    My problem with products like Four Loko is that while they say they are in favor of responsible drinking, they are designed to promote irresponsibility. They won’t admit it, but that’s what they are implying.

    Do I want situations like this in which the government steps in? No. I prefer that companies act in a socially responsible way when they create products. But when they do not, I react like a parent, not a constitutional lawyer. (And I continue to maintain that if these companies were run by people who had any semblance of parental common sense, they would not be making this crap.)

    I saw my college senior son yesterday, and I asked him if he’d tried Four Loko. he said yes, and that it knocked him on his butt. He said that he prefers to nurse a beer, and that Four Loko seemed designed to have a big and fast impact. (He’s over 21, by the way.)

    I just think these products are irresponsible.

    Will people - especially young people - find a way to combine alcohol and caffeine on their own? Of course they will. Young people tend to have DNA that often is set to the “behave irresponsibly” mode. I was that way, and I have no reason to think my kids won’t experiment.

    But do we have to wrap up the tools of irresponsible behavior, put them in a brightly colored can, throw a promotional campaign behind it, and sell them on the bigger high, the faster thrill, the deeper dive into reckless behavior that can end up with them in the hospital, or worse?

    I think not.

    This isn’t about prohibition. This is about common sense.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 9, 2010

    In Monday Night Football action, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 27-21.
    KC's View: