retail news in context, analysis with attitude

On Friday, we took note of a joke that Safeway senior vice president and general counsel Robert Gordon told to warm up the crowd at the company's annual meeting last week, a joke that some folks thought was in questionable taste:

You know, this is the season when companies and other institutions are interested in enhancing their reputation and their image for the general public, and one of the institutions that's doing this is the Secret Service, particularly after the calamity in Colombia. And among the instructions given to the Secret Service agents was to try to agree with the president more and support his decisions. And that led to this exchange that took place last week, when the president flew into the White House lawn and an agent greeted him at the helicopter.

The president was carrying two pigs under his arms and the Secret Service agents said, "Nice pigs, sir."

And the president said, "These are not ordinary pigs, these are genuine Arkansas razorback hogs. I got one for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and one for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton."

And the Secret Service agent said, "Excellent trade, sir."

I thought the joke was dumb and not funny ... but I thought that not too much attention to be paid to it. (I recognize the irony of suggesting this even as I was paying attention to it.) But I also wrote:

Here's the deal. There are a lot of us who make a living talking and writing, often on short deadlines or in front of live audiences. Do it enough, and you're going to screw up - you are going to tell a joke that isn't funny or is somewhat offensive, or you are going to tick someone off, or you are just going to go off the tracks.

For some of us - like me - that is part of the job description. But for others - like general counsels at public corporations - this can be treacherous territory.

The responses were all over the map.

One MNB user wrote:

The lesson is that humor and political-correctness are totally incompatible concepts.

From another MNB user:

That joke is as old as the hills and has been adapted to many prominent couples. The problem with it is that, whichever women are named in the joke, it’s offensive to anyone who recognizes the character and integrity of those women (you don’t have to agree with their politics, you just have to respect and honor them as fellow human beings).

MNB user Ron Rash wrote:

I have no vested interest in any of this, but could not resist adding my two cents.

Basically, everyone should just lighten up on Mr. Gordon and the joke.  It was funny, period.

If there was a lesson to learn here it is that almost everyone is offended by almost anything these days.

Now that's a joke.

From another MNB user:

I got a chuckle out of it.  I guess one man's pig is another's bacon. Or maybe it's because I'm a Republican?

Still, it was told at the wrong audience - would have been a hoot at some conservative events.

And from yet another reader:

I'm torn on this joke situation. Personally I think shareholder meetings can be pretty staid and boring. A few jokes or lighthearted comments could go a long way in making the meetings more interesting. Sure we all want to hear the financial results and understand where the company is headed, but I would also like to know the personality of the people behind the logo. That being said it is always smart to not talk about politics, religion or any other touchstone issue. So, while I like the effort I am disappointed in the choice of topic. Still, not a career ending move.

From still another MNB user:

I’ve heard and seen that “joke” several times, usually using Hillary Clinton as the punch line.  It stopped being funny several years ago.  However, I like your last line on this story, “Let's not overreact. But also, let's not forget the lesson.”.

MNB user Bryan Nichols wrote:

As someone who works with people from around the world, I would also remind people that humor is largely based on cultural references.  There is too great a risk of creating at the least misunderstanding—or offending someone unintentionally—to use humor recklessly. 

Humor is always up for interpretation.  Sometimes I find your humor funny, often clever, rarely offensive but sometimes just not funny at all - which is exactly like the rest of us.

MNB user David Hanneman wrote:

I am a fan of quotations. I collect them. I couldn’t help but think that there may be some good advice for Mr. Gordon from some things that have been said famously by others:
For instance:

“It is better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret.”
--Jackie Joyner-Kersee, U.S. Olympic athlete, track and field  
The minimalist might recommend:

“Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”
--Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thirty-second U.S. president  
Another philosophic interpretation:

“Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.”
--Plato, ancient Greek philosopher

From another MNB user:

Regarding Robert Edwards joke at the shareholders meeting. This joke opened a tiny spy hole into the inner workings of the c-level suite. For years the C's have viewed analysts and politicians as almost contemptible fools. While Robert is generally a really good guy, the view from on top has been a shade divorced from reality for the past several years and a shake up from the Chairman on down is overdue. While there are some great people at Safeway, one can only wonder how long they can continue to tilt at windmills and defy guidance from internal and external sources, before realizing their current path is not bearing fruit, rather their disconnect from the analyst community also portends their disconnect from customers.

And from another MNB user:

I continue to be amazed at the level to which the food industry is so blindly Republican ... without regard to reality.

At any Association Event, we see the same speakers, President Bush (either will do), Condi Rice, Colin Powell, or various Public Officials with an "R" after their title.   Never once do we get input from the other side of the Aisle, whether it be Democrat or Independent.  We continue to honor the same team with blinders on - as if they have always done good and everyone else has always done bad.  Short memories...considering the ongoing mantra within the industry is loss of business due to the expansion Walmart or the Recession, both of which were fueled by the Republicans.

Then there is the issue of perceived bigotry or prejudice.  For a decade now, we have supported the notion of consumer segmentation and target merchandising / marketing to better meet the needs of the local consumers.  We worked hard to understand the Hispanic and African American well as the Evolving Adult and Mature Couples.  Everyday, these segments walk in through the doors and everyday, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, Green Party and Agnostics walk through these same doors.  We all work so hard to understand consumers; their lifestyles, behaviors and attitudes...except when it comes to their politics.

If we spent as much time trying to understand the political ideologies of each other; as customers, business partners and colleagues, we may just find new ways to meet their needs - and who knows, we may even improve the hate-filled rhetoric that is tearing our country apart.

For some, the joke is a nothing issue. For others, it signifies something more profound.

It seems to me that the joke is problematic because it is a) old, b) ignores the possibility that it might offend half the audience, and c) probably was being told in the wrong place.

I love politically incorrect humor. (Why not? I find both political parties to be laughable, almost as much as I find political and ideological posturing - on both sides of the aisle - to be nauseating.) But there are places you don't tell those jokes. (It would have equally misguided, BTW, to tell the same joke but, say, use Sarah Palin and Ann Romney in the punchline.)

The other day, MNB took note of a National Public Radio report on how Californians going to the polls this November likely will "have the chance to make California the first state in the nation to require labeling of genetically engineered food. That's according to California Right to Know, which filed a petition to force a statewide vote." While some 40 nations require the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients, the US does not, with the FDA maintaining that GM food "is essentially the same" as traditional food.

In addition, the story says, "a new analysis of the labeling initiative suggests that if it passes, it would create a complex mandate for food companies that may make it harder — not easier — for consumers to figure out what's really in their food. That's because the initiative muddies the definition of a 'natural' food. "The word 'natural' on a food label is already pretty controversial. It's more of a marketing tool than anything else — seducing consumers into thinking it means healthier, or nearly organic, although it may simply mean minimally-processed and free from artificial ingredients. The federal government has so far declined to make the term clearer, which has led to many processed foods using the 'natural' label. "The activists behind the labeling initiative say they want California consumers to know what they're eating. So they're calling for any processed food or raw agricultural commodity (like corn) that has been or may have been partially or wholly produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as such. And they want to prevent processed foods with GE ingredients from using the 'natural' label, too."

I commented:

Maybe I'm misunderstanding the initiative. Or maybe I just don't understand the definition of the word "muddled."

Here's where I come down on all this stuff. We all know what "natural" ought to mean - as opposed to the crappola definition provided by the federal government. So why can't we have a common sense definition that everybody abides by, as opposed to definitions that companies have to maneuver to adhere to, even though these movements defy common sense?

Same goes for GM products. Just label them. Putting labels on them doesn't muddle anything. It just provides consumers with transparent information and a clear choice.

I get frustrated with this stuff because it all seems to be about maneuvering and manipulation and flirting with the the borders about what is acceptable and legal. In today's technology-driven environment, in which information is easily available and PR wildfires can be created whenever companies seem to be obfuscating rather than being honest, the approaches that so many companies - and quite frankly, the government - seem to be on the wrong side of where things are going. And all they are going to do, in the long run, is erode trust.

I got the following email from Kathy Fairbanks:

I work for the campaign against the CA GE labeling ballot proposition which will likely be on the November ballot. It has not officially qualified yet, but all indications are that they turned in enough signatures to qualify. I’m hoping you might be willing to modify or update your post to be more clear and discuss the impacts to your grocer readers.

I was forwarded your May 16 comments about the measure by the CA Grocers Association. CGA is expected to oppose this measure when it officially qualifies for the ballot.

They are opposing for good reason: The GE labeling requirement in California is being used by the trial lawyer who wrote this as a way to establish a new legal avenue for trial lawyers to file lawsuits alleging labeling violations. The targets of these lawsuits will be everyone on the food chain: grocers, food producers, processors and farmers.

Grocers, of course, are on the front lines to get hit with lawsuits as they will be held responsible for selling products to the consumer that lawyers will allege are violating the labeling requirements. Your grocer readers should be aware of this.

The threat of lawsuits will force family farmers, food producers and grocers to implement record keeping and labeling mandates that no other state or country requires. They’d be forced to keep special records for all food products they sell – tens of thousands of products – so they can prove whether or not their products contain GE ingredients in the event they are ever sued. 

We agree labels should provide food information that is factual. But putting a label on foods with GE ingredients will not provide the consumer with factual information. All GE ingredients in foods today have been studied and approved for use by the FDA, USDA or EPA. There have been more than 300 separate studies of GE ingredients, including by the National Academies of Sciences, World Health Organization, American Medical Association, and many others. All have found that foods with GE ingredients are safe for people to eat.

The labels required under the CA measure will give people the impression the food is unsafe, when it’s not. That’s the opposite of providing factual information.

As it relates to the issue with labeling products “natural,” it’s bungled in the initiative. The proponents say they intended to ban processed foods with GE ingredients from using the term “natural.” But the way they drafted the language is such that ALL processed foods, even if they contain zero GE ingredients, are banned from being called natural.
Processed is defined in the measure as: “Processed food means any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any food produced from a raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, smoking, pressing, cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation or milling.”

A fresh apple, for instance, could be labeled “natural.” But if it’s milled into apple sauce it could no longer be called “natural” even though it’s the same apple. A bag of raw peanuts could be called “natural,” but if it those very same peanuts are roasted and salted they could no longer be called natural.
And unfortunately, CA law prevents initiatives from being changed or fixed before Election Day.

And, another reader wrote:

I wanted to clear up a bit of confusion or perhaps lack of information on this ballot initiative.  While I am admittedly not a lawyer, I will give you some of my understanding of the law.   Bottom line is that the bill says you can't label ANY processed food as "natural" unless the processed food happens to be organic.  Makes no sense and definitely muddies the waters.  My understanding is that organic is supposed to be held to higher standard than natural.  Yet, this bill makes specific exemptions in order to hold organic foods it to a lower standard.

So, let's say that we raise a dairy cow in a way that meets a reasonable person's definition of natural-- no hormones, no antibiotics, steroids or anything else.  We take the simple milk and do nothing to it except pasteurize it. That product cannot be called natural.   However, let's say that milk meets USDA organic standards... now we can add sugar and starches and thickeners and chocolate to the milk as long as the ingredients meet USDA organic standards.  This product can be pasteurized and processed in many other ways and it can still be called natural and organic.  Makes no sense.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but is it possible that the "activists" pushing this ballot initiative happen to have an interest in the organic food business?  My understanding is that they do. The result of this bill would be that nearly every non-perishable (and much of the perishable) food product in a grocery store would be labeled "GMO" or couldn't be labeled "Natural" except for organic products.

Regarding the debate taking place in Vermont over the growth of dollar stores there, one MNB user wrote:

Being someone who works at the corporate office for one of the 3 dollar chains and was born in Vermont and spent over 25 years there I am torn. With a population of over 625,000 in the whole state and more wild life than that, it's a touchy subject on any new growth. The majority of people that live in the state have grown up there and saw the general stores as a child and shopped them regular basis. Slowly but surely the children of the state are moving away to find better jobs that pay more money , better shopping , better living and better access to travel. Other than Burlington , the University of Vermont , Ben& Jerry's , and skiing there is not a lot to keep the youth from living there. So those who stay end up growing old & bitter and get mad when things change.

With the average median household in Vermont making a little over $ 51,000 a year they need options on buying their everyday needs. I think when a retail chain opens a store ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 sq feet it's not the end of the world. There are numerous small towns that have empty " big box " stores ( grocery and department )  that left the area and need someone to fill them.  At the same time , people who are complaining about the dollar chains and live on the border of VT & NH will cross the river into NH to save money on taxes when they buy product.

Currently Aldi's is working on putting a store into a small town of around 8,000 people. The site that was selected was where a movie theater sits empty. Locals are up in arms that they want to tear down the building to make way for a new store. Well , if they were that mad they would have been going to see a movie there and it would not have shut down in the first place.

I am sure some day when I decide to retire I will end up back in Vermont. It's a great place to raise a child , go for a scenic tour , visit friends and find a quiet place to see nature. Eventually as we get on in our age things changed and we just need to slowly adapt to it. Heck , if you're mad about a new store opening then you don't have to shop it. Give it a try , you may actually like it...

On another subject, MNB user Craig Espelien wrote:

I have followed with interest the discussion your comments around “Back to Basics” has generated and, while I agree that this is a bit of a trite saying, I do feel that too many industries and outlets within those industries lack a certain amount of focus on getting the fundamentals right.  When someone talks about “back to basics” being trite, I always think of the Power Sweep the Green Bay Packers employed in the late ‘60’s.  They knew they were going to do it, the opposing team knew they were going to do it yet it was their bread and butter play.  Why?  They simply executed their assignments in a flawless way leading to outstanding results.

There is an entire continuum of retailers who either do or do not execute the fundamentals properly – as you see in your store and market visits all the time.  Think of Aldi and Trader Joe’s – two sides of the same coin (both limited assortment, both part of the same company) that execute very well against their mission – low prices and no frills vs. inexpensive foodie products that are monumentally different than traditional offerings (or at least appear to be).  The key is that they EXECUTE.  Compare this to various chains around the country – Weis Markets EXECUTES at a very high level (when current management came in, they spent a lot of time on the fundamentals of running a grocery store and it has helped), Target EXECUTES at a very high level while other chains and groups simply do not.

Our business is not brain surgery or NASA level engineering but there are still folks who cannot seem to get even the simplest things right.  I was speaking with a friend in the store design business yesterday and we both identified the foundational items as being a necessary condition for success – but not sufficient.  You still have to provide a reason for the consumer to choose your store – and that may be fundamentals (in low competition areas) or it may be sophisticated consumer targeting (in high competition areas).

So, I think that a regular review of are you executing against the fundamentals of your business is sound advice – but then layer on that extra consumer centric piece to make you stand out from the crowd.  Not complex – but requires constant reinforcement of both pieces.

We had a story on friday about a study suggesting that coffee consumption can help you live longer, which led me to comment that this means I'll probably live to 200, which in turn prompted MNB user Bill MacDonald to write:

After some college, 20 years with franchisees of McDonald's and 20 more in a General Store ... if that report is true and you do die at 200, I will be able to attend your funeral. Not that I want to be there but I'm sure to outlive you.
KC's View: