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    Published on: December 14, 2011

    by Kevin Coupe

    Here’s something right out of Star Trek and its use of holodecks...

    The Aloft hotel chain reportedly is testing a new holographic greeter, according to Marketing Daily, to increase its level of customer service.

    The story describes the use of the technology this way:

    “A holographic image projected onto a life-sized cut-out is so unique and lifelike that guests can't help but stop and stare. Aloft is using the greeter to provide information to their guests about their hotel’s amenities and offerings.  Aloft also provides information on the best local shopping destinations, golfing, spas transportation and restaurants.

    “The concierge also presents high definition images of actual plates of food or products. Guests  are further enticed with smell through their AromaFusion technology as the image is projected.”

    How cool is this. I can’t wait until I get a chance to go to an Aloft (one of my favorite hotel chains) and check it out ... and get a sense of how such holograms might be applied to other retail environments. A virtual butcher, for example? Or virtual employees that might appear in any aisle or department to help customers in need of assistance? (The unions aren’t going to be happy about this one...)

    From here, one can imagine, it is just a short leap to holosuites, holodecks, and other sorts of augmented and artificial realities.

    Totally cool.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 14, 2011

    Marketing Daily reports that a new study from the Chief Marketing Officer Council (CMOC) suggests that while marketers are investing in social media strategies and tactics, they are in fact struggling “to fully integrate social into their overarching marketing strategies,” unable to find the sweet spot where synergies can generate sales.

    A potential disconnect: “Social consumers indicate they are looking for exclusive experiences, savings, and perks from the brands they like. But marketers still believe that content and connection to peers are the primary drivers to likes and follows.”

    Another problem is that many marketers feel that despite all the money they are investing in social media, they do not have the right information or benchmarks by which to judge return on investment (ROI).

    The CMOC study concludes: “Brands that gain social business advantage in 2012 will be those that feed unmet appetites for deeper engagement with each other and the brand. People are seeking more rewards with special offers, greater privilege, rank, and reputation. They want better experiences with games, contests, and other online engagement apps.”
    KC's View:
    Essentially, this seems to come down to the same old confusion that marketers often have about the difference between strategy and tactics. Social media is just another arrow in the quiver, another tool that allows them to achieve the kind of relationship with the shopper that they are seeking. It has to be part of a broader canvas of tools, like the superior in-store experience, appropriate pricing, transparent communications, and (at least in my view) great food.

    In a vacuum, it is limited. But the sum of the parts can be much greater than the whole.

    Published on: December 14, 2011

    The Boston Globe has a piece this morning about what it views as a kind of dining renaissance at the supermarket, as more and more chains invest in better restaurant experiences to give themselves a competitive advantage.

    Here’s how the Globe frames the story:

    “Ten years ago, Whole Foods Market, Wegmans, and the Texas chain Central Market began to experiment with bringing a high-quality dining experience into their stores. At the time, the idea of eating at a supermarket was unseemly, and it often meant a smattering of tables where you might wolf down the contents of a Styrofoam clamshell. Prepared food was intended - if you had any manners - to transport home.

    “Now in-store dining is a new market segment, no longer something you do on the sly, but a destination for families, couples in a hurry before the movies, tired shoppers who want some- thing to eat before they hit the aisles, even the fussiest foodies. And in these waiterless situations, there are no gratuities, which contributes to attractive pricing.

    “As new supermarkets spring up, plans invariably include kitchens run by chefs, dining facilities, and more - in-store classes (Whole Foods in Dedham has a glassed-in Wellness Club), live music, poetry slams, wine tastings (nightly at Shaw’s at the Prudential Center), and full-fledged pubs (as at some Wegmans locations). Add fancy bakery cafes (like the excellent Tous Les Jours at H Mart in Burlington), throw in a bank and a post office for good measure, and there may be no reason to ever go anywhere else ... Across the board, supermarket companies argue (in a way that seems almost scripted) that they can create better dishes than fast-food or fast-casual restaurants, in part because they have many aisles of fresh ingredients. And in-house chefs usually have surprising autonomy to cook what they want, catering to local tastes and leveraging talents (and ethnicities) on staff.”
    KC's View:
    For me, the key to a differentiated dining experience - no matter where it is - is food that does not cater to the lowest common denominator. And if there is one change that could be working in favor of supermarkets, it is the trend - finally - toward a higher common denominator food experience.

    Published on: December 14, 2011

    Here’s potential legislation that could affect virtually every businessperson in America.

    The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that the National Transportation Safety Board is asking states “to prohibit the use of cellphones and other electronic devices while driving.”

    According to the story, “the NTSB can't force states to adopt such bans, but the recommendations of the five-member board may influence states to toughen cellphone regulations. Hands-free devices, which are designed to let drivers keep both hands on the wheel while talking on a cellphone via speakers or a headset, would be prohibited as well under the guidelines ... Although it might seem that hands-free devices would be safer by allowing drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel, the Department of Transportation has said research shows that drivers are still distracted by the phone conversation itself and miss audio and visual cues that would normally help a person avoid a crash.”

    Two interesting sets of statistics from the story:

    • “More than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents, the Department of Transportation said. By comparison, more than 10,000 people were killed in crashes caused by alcohol-impaired drivers.”

    • “No state bans use of both hand-held and hands-free cellphones for fully licensed drivers, although some have such a ban for younger drivers. Nine states and Washington, D.C., prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones, and 35 states and D.C. have a ban on texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, a group that represents highway-safety offices.”
    KC's View:
    Forget whether this rule makes sense or not. If states start to pass such a ban, you’re going to have businesspeople all of America committing wanton acts of civil disobedience. They’re going to get pulled over and ticketed. They;re going to have to pay fines...and that money is going to help rebuild states’ depleted treasuries...

    Wait a minute. I think we’re onto something here. This isn't about safety. This is about taxation without actual taxation!

    Published on: December 14, 2011

    The Seattle Times reports that the Seattle School Board, faced with a cash shortfall that threatens the existence of numerous programs and after-school activities, is considering a relaxation of the strict vending machine regulations that banned the selling of unhealthy foods.

    According to the story, “The policy, approved in 2004 — before any state or federal regulations on school nutrition had been established — put Seattle on the cutting edge of the fight against childhood obesity.

    “But board members now acknowledge they probably went too far. The restrictions, which are more strict than the now-crafted state and federal nutrition guidelines, allow only products such as milk, natural fruit juice, baked chips and oat-based granola bars.”

    The Times notes that the school system generated $214,000 in vending profits in 2001 ... this this year, has made just $17,000.

    "It doesn't make any sense at all," says school board member Sharon Peaslee. "We definitely need to modify the policy so we can have all these new food and beverage possibilities in our schools and you can make money on them."
    KC's View:
    I am actually sort of conflicted on this one. I feel bad for school systems that are caught in a cash crunch, often unable to pay their teachers what they deserve, provide them with ample supplies, or even offer the kinds of programming that they should because of funding issues.

    On the other hand, I do think that one of the things that schools ought to be teaching is proper nutrition, and that food offerings in cafeterias and vending machines ought to represent an educated point of view.

    In the end, though, I think what schools ought to be encouraging is independent thought and the ability to make intelligent choices. (And, of course, they can only do that if they are supported by parents who want their children to be capable of independent thought and intelligent choices.) Vending machines are but a small part of how this is reflected in a school ... but sometimes you have to pay attention to the little stuff.

    Published on: December 14, 2011

    Forbes reports this morning that “big chains aren’t as timid as they once were to market by wishing their customers a ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of the bland ‘Happy Holidays’.”

    According to tracking done by the American Family Association, a conservative group that could be described as pro-Christmas, 60 of 84 major chains are said to be “Christmas friendly,” 14 unfriendly and 10 neutral. “The criteria: the company’s willingness to invoke Christmas in its print and broadcast advertising, its website and store experience (will you be greeted by signs and employees actually willing to wish you a ‘Merry Christmas?’).

    “The list’s pro-Christmas bent is a reversal from six years ago, when the AFA scouted America’s 100 largest retailers and found that the vast majority were exclusively or primarily using ‘Happy Holidays’ in their marketing.”
    KC's View:
    I’ve always thought that this is something of a canard, just like the old “war on Christmas” argument that some people make.

    The thing is, smart marketers know who their customers are. If you know that your customers celebrate Christmas - and the vast majority of Americans do, whether in a religious or secular fashion - then it makes sense to say “Merry Christmas.” And even non-celebrants won’t be offended by this. If your customers are likely not to be celebrating, however, it makes sense to perhaps be a little less specific in one’s promotions.

    This is all about common sense. To follow up on something I said yesterday about a different - but, I fear, related - story, I just wish people would spend more time in the act of celebration and less in demonization.

    Published on: December 14, 2011

    The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that “the U.S. Postal Service and 15 U.S. senators struck a deal Tuesday to delay any post-office closures until May 15, 2012, halting for now the possible shutting of thousands of locations.”

    The USPS has been considering radical measures to close a multi million dollar budget gap. The senators said that the extension will give Congress time to consider and pass comprehensive reform that will put the USPS on a more competitive footing.
    KC's View:
    The story says that “Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), the number-two Democrat in the Senate, said postal legislation will be a top priority of Congress early next year.”

    I would have two observations about this.

    One is that there are a lot of top priorities in the Congress, and none of them get acted upon. Hard to imagine that postal reform is going to break through partisan gridlock, especially in an election year.

    Two, I have absolutely no confidence that hundreds of politicians have either the will or the ability to really fix an obsolete system.

    Published on: December 14, 2011

    Price Chopper Supermarkets officially announced that Jerel T. Golub, current president and chief operating officer of the Golub Corporation, parent company of Price Chopper Supermarkets, will assume leadership as both president and CEO of the progressive 128-store chain effective January 1, 2012. Golub has held positions of leadership in merchandising, marketing and finance throughout his nearly 30-year career with Price Chopper.

    At the same time, Neil Golub, the company’s current chief executive officer and chairman of the board, will serve as the family-managed company’s executive chairman of the board Neil Golub has held the position of CEO since September 2000 and also served as president from 1982 to 2010. He will continue to have oversight for legal and internal audit functions, while working on design concepts for the next generation of Price Chopper stores.

    Price Chopper also announced today the addition of Scott Grimmett, who will assume the role of executive vice president and chief operating officer, reporting to Jerry Golub. Grimmett, who most recently served as the president for Safeway’s Denver division, brings with him 37 years of multi-faceted experience in the supermarket industry.
    KC's View:
    A brief personal note here. From pretty much the beginning of MNB’s existence, there have been few more supportive people than Neil and Jane Golub. And I thank them for that.

    I think their stores are terrific, I think they are terrific, and I look forward to watching what Jerry Golub does with a company that is one of the best regional operators in the business.

    Published on: December 14, 2011

    Bloomberg reports that “retail sales rose in November at the slowest pace in five months, indicating American consumers were trying to live within their means heading into the holiday shopping season as wages dropped. The 0.2 percent gain in purchases fell short of the 0.6 percent median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News and followed increases in the prior two months that were larger than previously estimated, according to data from the Commerce Department today in Washington.”

    Beverage Industry reports on a new study from Technomic saying that coffee is helping to dictate where people eat breakfast: “Thirty-three percent of consumers who drink coffee at breakfast say they are loyal to a coffee brand or restaurant that serves their preferred coffee, which is an increase from 25 percent who reported loyalty in 2009.”

    The story also notes that “Technomic estimates that the breakfast segment accounts for 12 percent of the total restaurant industry, generating about $42 billion in annual sales. Breakfast patronage has increased at foodservice locations, particularly fast-food restaurants where 46 percent of consumers now occasionally purchase weekday breakfasts, compared to 33 percent in 2009.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 14, 2011

    • Safeway announced that Al Duran, the company’s Vice President of Retail Initiatives, will be returning to the Denver division where he started in 1979, and will become president of that division. He succeeds Scott Grimmett, who as noted in an earlier MNB story this morning is moving east to join Price Chopper.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 14, 2011

    ...will return.
    KC's View: