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    Published on: June 14, 2012

    This commentary is available as text or video. Enjoy both, or either.

    Hi, I'm Kevin Coupe and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

    Over the years, I've written a lot about Stew Leonard's. In part, that's because the company has always been a leader when it comes to creating a customer service culture. pretty much everybody in retailing knows about the boulder outside each of Stew's stores that bears the inscription, "The customer is always right." And in part, it's because I've been doing the majority of my food shopping there for the past three decades. So, it's the store I'm in the most.

    I was thinking about this earlier this week when I went to visit a local tailoring shop called Sanda's with a complaint. This place had done the alterations on my daughter's prom dress, and to be honest, had done a terrible job. The dress was too short, and they had not tightened the top in the way she had requested. She soldiered through the prom, but if you've ever dealt with a teenaged girl, you know that these sorts of things can be traumatic.

    So, I brought the dress back the day after the prom and explained my problem - I'd spent $90 on alterations and was not pleased.

    The woman who had done the alterations said that she'd done everything we'd asked her to do, and it was not her problem. And the manager looked at me and said that they'd done their job, and that we had not done our job by bringing it back before the prom took place. (There wasn't time, the way things worked out.) By this time, I was getting a little frustrated ... I would have been happy with an admission of culpability and maybe a $20 refund, but that was not happening.

    I asked the manager if he really wanted to take the position that I had not done my job at a time when displeased customers can go on the internet and complain about stores that have not lived up to their promises. He looked at me and said, "Do what you want. I think you're being ridiculous."

    I was shocked. "Really?" I said. "That's your position? Because I know a little bit about retailing and I'm pretty sure that one of the things you're not supposed to do is tell a customer that he's being ridiculous."

    And that's when he said it. Actually, he snarled it: "We're not Stew Leonard's."

    Now, that's a Wow.

    Stew Leonard's should feel pretty good about that. They've established a reputation for customer service that even those people who have no clue about the subject are citing.

    As for this tailoring shop ... well, I'm going to make it my business to tell people what Sanda's did and how they responded every chance I get. Like now.

    It is a cautionary lesson to every retailer. Get it right, and when you don't, be reasonable in how you deal with the customer. And don't call the shopper ridiculous ... even if you don't have a boulder by the front door.

    That's what is on my mind this Thursday morning. As always, I'd like to hear what is on your mind.

    KC's View:

    Published on: June 14, 2012

    The NY Daily News reports that in addition to entertaining the ban on jumbo sugared drinks proposal that has been submitted by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city's Board of Health may be willing to go even farther and ban oversized milk shakes, coffee-based drinks, juices, and popcorn.

    According to the story, at a preliminary meeting on the proposal, members of the board suggested that the ban on sugared sodas may not go far enough, and that there are other items that should be banned as the city tries to reverse its growing obesity problem.

    For example, "Popcorn isn’t a whole lot better from the nutritional point of view than soda is, and may have even more calories,” said Dr. Bruce Vladeck, a member of the city’s Board of Health.

    It is expected the board - which is appointed by the Mayor - will approve the ban. A hearing is scheduled for July 24 and a vote would take place in September. If approved, the ban would go in to effect on March 2013.
    KC's View:
    This is the fastest way to lose any sympathy that people will have for the motivations behind the jumbo soda proposal. It smacks of a weird kind of control freak impulse on the part of the Mayor that most people, I think, are going to find incredibly off-putting.

    I've been a little torn by the original proposal; while I hate the idea of government imposing such limitations, I an sympathetic to the fact that Bloomberg is trying to grapple with a tough problem. I also don't think he's running for anything, so it is not like a craven political maneuver.

    But this? This is a bridge too far, if the board decides to limit other things. What's next? Dictating how many french fries are in an order? Establishing a measurement for onion rings?

    Give me a break.

    Published on: June 14, 2012

    In Washington State, it is reported that the city of Issaquah has "joined a string of cities along Puget Sound to outlaw plastic bags at local retailers June 4, after months of sometimes acrimonious debate about adverse impacts to the marine environment and the regional economy." Among the other cities are Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Bellingham, Edmonds and Mukilteo.

    The Issaquah Press reports that "in the end, concerns about the environment led the City Council to decide 5-2 to eliminate most retail uses for plastic bags. The legislation — and a 5-cent fee on paper bags — go into effect in March 2013 for most businesses."

    The story goes on to say that "consumers should not expect plastic bags to disappear from local businesses altogether. The ordinance includes exemptions for numerous everyday uses, such as plastic bags to carry dry cleaning and newspapers. The legislation also exempts restaurants, so diners can expect compostable takeout containers to come in plastic bags at some establishments. The city mandated compostable takeout containers for restaurants in November 2009."
    KC's View:
    I tend to think that if the bags are going to be banned in some retailers, they ought to be banned in all retailers.

    Published on: June 14, 2012

    Marketing Daily reports on a new survey from Cone Communications saying that "52% of fathers now identify themselves as the primary grocery store shopper. And while it isn’t particularly unusual that dads say they are doing more, the big news is that moms are acknowledging the change, as well. Some 35% of the moms in the sample agree that over the past few year, dad has taken on more shopping."

    According to Bill Fleishman, president of Cone Communications, these men "aren’t just shopping more, they are spending more time talking with mothers and other family members about what to buy. They’re very open, and that’s exciting," he tells Marketing Daily.

    According to the survey, this means that they are open to consulting with other family members about what to buy, open to collecting coupons and being intelligent consumers, and open to planning meals for the coming week. interestingly, they tend to get their information from traditional media - more from in-store promotions, newspapers, magazines and television, and less from the internet.
    KC's View:
    Welcome to my world.

    I am amused by the fact that dads are consulting with their families. I've been doing that for years, and usually the best I can get out of any of them is "get good stuff."


    This report does speak, however, to the importance of re-thinking the store environment for other kinds of shoppers than have traditionally perused the aisles. Are there sections or approaches that can be re-created in an effort to have broader appeal, or maybe even greater male appeal (at least at certain times of the day and on certain days of the week, as appropriate).

    Published on: June 14, 2012

    • The Financial Times reports that Walmart "is facing fresh accusations of selling substandard food products in China just months after a scandal over the mislabeling of products cost its country head his job and damaged the chain’s reputation in a market where food safety is a major concern."

    This time, the story says, Dazhou city officials asked the retailer "to stop selling pork ribs sourced from diseased pigs." The request came in January, but only now is being made public; Walmart said it discontinued sale of the pork in question and stopped doing business with that supplier.
    KC's View:
    No, I'm not going to make the easy bribery joke here. Fooled you.

    Published on: June 14, 2012

    • Tesco-owned Fresh & Easy neighborhood Markets, which operates in the western US, announced yesterday that it "has launched ‘Kitchen To Go,’ several innovative ranges of over 150 chef-created, prepared meal bowls, appetizers, side dishes, and entrees.  The company says that " ‘Kitchen To Go’ is designed to give busy customers new, delicious and wholesome take-out options that can serve one person to a whole family" with "restaurant-quality dishes (that) include American, Italian, Asian and Mexican selections, ranging in price from $1.99 to $9.99."
    KC's View:
    When I think of Fresh & Easy these days, I think of the little engine that could. Not that we know yet if Fresh & Easy can ... but they keep chugging along, making changes, tweaking selection, trying new things, looking to find the formula that will click with consumers and create a sustainable business model expandable to the entire US.

    I'm not sure time is on their side, with all the pressure the mother company is feeling in the UK right now. But I admire the constancy and consistency of it all.

    Published on: June 14, 2012

    ...with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary...

    • Supervalu announced yesterday that "it is expanding its Essential Everyday brand to 2,700 of the most shopped-for products across more than 100 categories throughout the grocery store by 2013." The brand, Supervalu noted, "was introduced in select categories last year."

    Bloomberg reports that Sears Holdings is "open" to selling some of its assets if that will help improve its tough financial situation, though CEO Lou D'Ambrosio says he has not been told by company chairman Edward Lampert to break up the company.

    Among Sears's branded assets are the Craftsman tool line and Kenmore appliances.

    • The Associated Press reports that Burger King is hoping to bolster its summer sales season with the addition of limited-time-only menu items that include a variety of barbecue sandwiches, sweet potato fries, and a bacon ice cream sundae made of vanilla soft serve with fudge, caramel, bacon crumbles and a piece of bacon.

    So much for that whole nutrition thing...though if Mayor Bloomberg has his way, that sundae could be banned in NYC by next Thursday.

    • According to the National Retail Federation, "May retail sales (excluding automobile, gas stations and restaurants) decreased 0.3 percent seasonally adjusted from April but increased 4.8 percent unadjusted year-over-year, marking 23 consecutive months of retail sales growth ... May retail sales, released today by the U.S. Department of Commerce, showed total retail and food services sales (which includes non-general merchandise categories such as automobiles, gasoline stations, and restaurants) decreased 0.2 percent seasonally adjusted month-to-month but increased 7.1 percent unadjusted year-over-year."
    KC's View:

    Published on: June 14, 2012

    Yesterday was Wednesday. But the Eye-Opener was, for much of the morning, headlined as the "Tuesday Eye-Opener."

    Was this caused by a rip in the space-time continuum?

    No. It was caused me me being on a cross-country flight that got in late, followed by a hamburger at In-N-Out because I was starved, and then getting into a Cerritos, California, hotel room after midnight, at which point I finished up MNB. I just forgot what day it was, until I got emails correcting me.

    Just thought you might want to be reassured.

    And thanks to those of you who set me straight.
    KC's View:

    Published on: June 14, 2012

    Henry Hill, the mobster turned FBI informant whose life as a member of the Lucchese crime family was turned into the enormously entertaining and successful Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas, and was played to the hilt by Ray Liotta, has died of complications from a recent heart attack and decades of heavy smoking. He was 69.
    KC's View:
    Actually, in this case, I'm not sure he should rest in peace. He was a bad guy who did a lot of bad things.

    Published on: June 14, 2012

    Yesterday, commenting on an interview done with Chef Daniel Coudreaut, senior director of culinary innovation for McDonald’s USA, I wrote:

    While regular MNB readers know that I am no fan of McDonald's, I have to admit that I pretty much agree with everything Coudreaut says in the interview. And he's right - it is all about choice, balance and moderation.

    That said, I still don't understand why a McDonald's hamburger isn't as good as an In-N-Out burger. Or a Burgerville burger. Or a Five Guys burger. Fast food doesn't have to be crappy food, and there are plenty of examples of how to raise the level of the category.

    One MNB user responded:

    By now we regulars are all more than familiar with your extreme distaste for Taco Bell and McDonalds.  Your “Fast food doesn't have to be crappy food” comment was probably to be expected, but I guess after the hundreds of times I have seen you disparage these brands, it just feels like time to say something.
    With all due respect, I’m not sure you get to be the judge as to the level of “crappiness” one burger represents vs. another; at least not without the requisite “IMHO”, to which you are absolutely entitled.  Notwithstanding the fact that you assume everyone’s taste is (or should be) the same as yours, you also don’t account for the disparity in price between a 5 Guy’s and a Mickey D’s burger.  Nor the total cost of taking a family of four out for a treat.  You say “I still don’t understand why a McDonald's hamburger isn't as good as an In-N-Out burger”.  Really?  Come on, you can’t be that naïve . . . nor that snobbish . . . can you?
    You honestly believe that McDonald’s should be able to make the same burger as In-N-Out and still sell it for the McDonald’s price?  Or is it that you don’t believe the folks who can’t afford the more expensive brands don’t deserve the right to a more economical alternative?
    I’m sorry.  Your comments sound very elitist.  And that’s insulting at best.

    First of all, at least I'm consistent. Maybe a consistent jerk from time, but consistent.

    Second, I've always thought that the term "elitist" gets a kind of bum rap.

    There are "elitists" who really aren't better than everyone else, but think they are.

    And then, there is the idea of being part of the elites, which means you are the best of the best in whatever category you choose to operate. I'd like to be in the second group (though I never will be), and I hope I'm not part of the first.

    MNB user John Hall chimed in:

    "Crappy food" is a matter of personal taste and preference.  I know many people that truly love the the taste and texture of Micky D's burgers and other offerings and if an intersection had a McDonalds, A Five Guys, and an In-N-Out that that they would always go to the McDonalds - Always and without hesitation.  It is not a matter of cost, it is what they prefer and enjoy.  As you said, 'it is all about choice, balance and moderation.'

    My father in law used to say that "where taste is concerned, there is no dispute." So if people really feel that way, I won't argue with them. (Even if they're wrong...)

    Another MNB user also agreed with the criticism of me:

    I read and enjoy your column’s insights.  It’s often the source of a chuckle and consistently thought provoking. I appreciate your willingness to stick to your guns on important issues and to ask tough rhetorical questions.

    Sometimes you take cheap shots that diminishes your message. McDonalds does not serve “crappy” food.  It apparently sells food you do not like but based on its sales, it meets the needs of many.

    I would gently ask you to consider that while you (like me and my peers) may not like to think of yourself as being insensitive to many who live on extremely modest incomes, you occasionally come across as tone deaf on personal economic issues.  For some people, the extra 50 cents saved at McDonalds over an In-and-Out or other more upscale fast food restaurant is what their budget can afford or is what they choose.

    I developed a habit of stopping in McDonalds for their coffee drinks because they are fast, taste great and are a great value over the alternative coffee stores.  I have come to appreciate how in the morning, McDonalds are cheerful meccas for groups of seniors. Each McDonalds I visit is clean, fast, consistent and staffed by friendly folks.  Sometimes I have eaten at McDonalds. The food is freshly made, fast, consistent and OK. Not crappy.

    I am suggesting you critique more carefully. Save your powder for the more important and nuanced issues you discuss.

    Fair enough. I cheerfully concede that sometimes I take cheap shots. Sometimes it's just fun ... and I take them at a lot of people and companies. Just ask Walmart. Or Supervalu. My kids always remind me that I'm only half as funny as I think I am, but I tend to forget that when I'm writing in the early morning hours.

    However, I would like to respond to one point you made. When I flew into LAX late Tuesday night, I was starving. So I went to a nearby In-N-Out Burger to grab something to eat. I had a cheeseburger animal style, fries, and a Diet Coke. (See? I eat just everyone else! Though I did not eat all the fries...I try to limit myself on those.) And the meal cost me $5.25. It wasn't as fast as a McDonald's, in part because even late at night, In-N-Out tends to be mobbed. But I'll bet it didn't cost any more than an Angus Burger, fries and a Diet Coke at Mickey D's ... and it was a lot tastier.

    Another reader, who described herself as "a 56 year old business woman & road warrior," wrote:

    I don’t usually go to McDonalds, however a week ago I needed lunch and McDonald's was the only choice I had.  I haven’t had a burger from McDonald's in several years and when I saw their new Angus burger on the menu I thought I would give it a try.  I won’t make that mistake again, the meat was dry, not juicy, the bun was like day old bread no flavor and dry.  The condiments were all in the center nothing around the perimeter. And the burger wasn’t even hot, it was barely warm.

    A story yesterday about customer service quoted the following passage:

    "Has customer service gotten worse over the past few years, or do shoppers have shorter fuses? It’s hard to say definitively, but one thing is certain: Thanks to the marvels of social media, it’s not just 10 people who learn about a customer service blunder — it’s 10 to the 10th power. And that makes the pressure to get a handle on customer service more intense than ever before."

    To which one MNB user responded:

    As someone with over 25 years of experience managing people in the grocery business, I find the customer service issues discussed here to be inexcusable and reflective of a lack of priorities on the part of store management.   In addition to the potential for poor publicity to be rapidly shared on social media, today’s brick-and-mortar retailers need to continually remember that many of these poor service issues can be completely avoided by a potential customer when the customer elects to purchase the same items from an online retailer.   You say you don’t want to have to deal with the cashier who won’t say “thank you” or the clerk who won’t help you find what you were looking for?   Buying the item online avoids all of those issues….and if you can avoid paying sales tax on the purchase, it’s an added bonus.   As a grocery retail trainee, I can recall being lectured that my competition was “anyone with a cash register”.   Those words are even more accurate today.

    My wife is someone who does not often purchase clothing and rarely finds clothing that fits her properly.   Last week she was shopping in a large Midwestern department store chain when she found a dress that she absolutely loved….but she needed the next size.   When she approached a clerk for help in finding her size at another store, the clerk replied, “Because that dress is on the markdown rack, I can’t help you find that same dress somewhere else.”

    My wife pulled out her smartphone, took a picture of the dress and the tag on the dress and went to a competing national department store retailer with her request.   After showing the pictures to the clerk, the clerk used the UPC code on the dress tag to verify that the dress existed in their inventory in a store in Florida.   The clerk called the Florida store, made sure the dress was in the building, and had the Florida location ship the dress to my wife… full retail price.   My wife was so thrilled to get the dress she wanted, she was more than glad to pay full price for it.  As a retail pharmacist with over 25 years of experience, my wife recognized and appreciated the extra effort and made sure to send a note to the second store’s management team expressing her gratitude to the clerk who took the time to help her. 

    Take a guess which store will continue to receive great comments and more business from my wife?

    I got two very different emails responding to a posting yesterday by an MNB reader who defended Supervalu and suggested that the people drawing a paycheck from the company ought to cut management a break as it tries to put the company on the right track.

    One reader wrote:

    I was very touched by the lead Letter this morning (Wednesday) from the Supervalu main office person who swam against the grain & defended his company, warts and all, in the face of constant withering criticism from without.  I have a quotation from Teddy Roosevelt on my wall here in my office from a 1910 speech he delivered, often referred to as the "man in the arena" speech:

    "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

    This morning's writer is a man in the arena, and I honor & respect him for that.  His company & mine are bitter competitors, but I respect his humanity nonetheless.

    But another MNB user disagreed, and suggested that the letter might as well have been written by Supervalu CEO Craig Herkert. (It wasn't, just FYI.)

    This letter was clearly written by someone making decisions as opposed to impacted by those decisions...Except, of course, in the form of extra compensation.

    If the person who wrote that is actually buying his own BS, SVU is in bigger trouble than originally thought.

    Investment in pricing! That was started and stopped at Shaws in 07- SVU wasn't willing to continue the investment and was actually told to raise prices and tell employees that it was due to economic conditions...i.e. lie.

    The same head merchants who attempted to turn Shaws around went on to other companies and those companies listened, learned and the results - sustainable results - are there. Take a look at Bi-Lo - no more over priced or tarnished than many of the SVU banners, just as competitive of a market and proof that turn around can happen and there is life in the middle.

    I get that some folks think that it is impolite and inappropriate to air dirty laundry and complain in public.

    But sometimes, if people think that their concerns are not being heard internally, they feel compelled to speak out in forums where they will be heard. Like MNB.

    I tend to agree with this. And not just because MNB is one of the places where they can create awareness and discussion of issues that they feel deserve attention.

    Finally, I got the following email from MNB user Don Skiver, who liked it when I responded to a story about how singer Neil Diamond gave great customer service by refunding customers' money after he gave a sub-par concert, by saying:

    Good times never seemed so good.

    Wow, your retort ... made me laugh!  I hope I am not the only one who got it!  Love your newsletter!

    You weren't. And thanks. Because it makes me feel so good when people get the references and in-jokes.

    So good. So good. So good.
    KC's View:

    Published on: June 14, 2012

    ...with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary...

    • Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants pitched the first perfect game in the franchise's history - and the 22nd in the history of the game - last night when he struck out 14 batters and retired 27 in a row - no hits, no walks - in a 10-0 win against the Houston Astros.

    The game was also the fifth no-hitter and second perfect game thrown this year.

    Which may say as much about what happens when hitters stop taking steroids as it says about the quality of the pitching. Not to diminish the achievement - it is remarkable. But I do think it is worth noting that starting pitching seems to have gotten a lot better over the past few years as more attention has been drawn to the use of steroids.

    • It is being broadly reported this morning that the US Anti-Doping Agency is bringing formal charges against former cyclist Lance Armstrong, a move that could lead to him being stripped of his seven Tour de France championships.

    The charges say that "numerous riders, team personnel and others will testify based on personal knowledge" that Armstrong used a variety of performance-enhancing drugs in his quest to win the Tour de France.

    The immediate impact of the charges is that Armstrong will now be banned from competing in triathlons until the matter resolved.

    Armstrong has long denied any use of performance enhancing drugs, and a recent criminal investigation into the allegations was closed without any changes being filed against him.

    Responding to the new charges, Armstrong said in a prepared statement: "I have been notified that USADA, an organization largely funded by taxpayer dollars but governed only by self-written rules, intends to again dredge up discredited allegations dating back more than 16 years to prevent me from competing as a triathlete and try and strip me of the seven Tour de France victories I earned." And he added that the new "charges are baseless, motivated by spite and advanced through testimony bought and paid for by promises of anonymity and immunity."

    I have always been totally unsympathetic to athletes who use steroids or any other performance-enhancing drug, and that will continue to be my position here.

    That said, I must admit that if the charges against Armstrong are proven, it will make me very sad. not just because it will forever tarnish the reputation of someone who has done enormously positive charitable work, but also because it will mean that he lied not just to us, but to himself for so many years. And that will make me sad.

    KC's View: