retail news in context, analysis with attitude

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.
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