Published on: October 25, 2011by Michael Sansolo
Supermarkets are special.
Supermarkets are an essential part of every community in a way that few other businesses can claim. Supermarkets interact with shoppers more than any other business. The industry is the front line of all kinds trends, dealing with the most basic products people buy weekly.
And that’s during calm times. Think about the discussion of urban food deserts or the grief that strikes rural communities when the lone supermarket in town closes. It hurts a community when any business leaves, but losing a supermarket is worse.
That special position is a gift, but also a challenge because whatever happens in the community matters to the supermarket and, by extension, the entire industry. That’s why the supermarket industry has to keep an eye on all the trends around us in society.
Take one prime time television show last week. There’s a modestly successful comedy on ABC called “The Middle” that centers on the Hecks, a working class family living in Indiana. The family is quirky in the way that television families always are and yet they are also quite normal. The Hecks and their neighbors are coping with the economy and frequently are doing it badly.
On last week’s show the family noticed that some of their neighbors have disappeared. The talk on the street is these folks have ‘moved in with family,” which is code for having lost their house due to foreclosure. Then we see how the Hecks scrape by with a leaky roof, broken appliances and mounting bills. It’s a reminder of the economic anxiety that faces so many shoppers these days. What’s more, it’s a reminder to other shoppers of how precarious life things are. And that’s from a comedy!
Then watch the news. I can’t pretend to explain exactly what the Occupy Wall Street protesters want, but I’m pretty sure it’s not anything simple. This group, much like the Tea Party protesters who first exploded into town hall meetings more than a year ago, seems angry and convinced that something—maybe a lot of things—are going wrong.
Supermarkets cannot ignore these messages precisely because they occupy a special place in the community. The anxiety and anger in the street and in homes matters because it matters to our shoppers.
This summer the Economist, a wonderful magazine covering Europe, wrote about how Spanish supermarket operator Mercadona is growing despite the tough economic times in that country. The final two lines of the story summed it up perfectly:
“The protesters in the plazas complain that Spain’s politicians have lost touch with how ordinary people live. That is not a mistake a supermarket can afford to make.”
And that’s why the messages of anxiety from primetime television, Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party matter. People are worried and that’s a situation the supermarket industry can ill afford to ignore. Those worries show up in the rising use of coupons, private label products and even the general attitude of shoppers.
Unlike Kevin, I rarely use space in MNB for recommendations, but on this topic, I want to make an exception. While there is no perfect summation of the global economic climate, Michael Lewis’ new book, “Boomerang,” will get you thinking and is totally worth the read.
Lewis - the author of “Moneyball,” “The Big Short” and “The Blind Side” - travels around the world to dig into the economic calamities that have so shaken Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and California. As you read about his travels and interviews you come to learn just how many absurdly bad decisions it took for different countries and communities to so badly mismanage their financial futures. The lessons are stunning and at times even horrifying.
I rarely write about politics in MNB because the polarization of opinions frequently limits our ability to have logical or meaningful debate. Lewis’ book cuts through that. As you read you grow angry with bankers and regulators, management and unions, and both governments and every day citizens who seem to want it all without regard to cost or consequence. And you come to realize just how large a problem we face because it’s what our shoppers face.
Remember: The protesters in the street complain that politicians have lost touch with how ordinary people live. That is not a mistake a supermarket can afford to make.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at email@example.com . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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