Published on: September 11, 2012
I often write here about the importance of people on the front lines of retailing, and how they are the most important people in any retail organization because they are the ones who interface with shoppers and populate the store environment. But one MNB user has some concerns about this philosophy:You have made this point so many times that I need to express my concerns. I understand that you want to emphasize the importance of the people who face the customer everyday and it true that they hold a critical role--but the statement should makes no sense to anyone who has worked in the retail food business. You say the people on the front lines are “most responsible.” I would say that the people on the front lines are very important since they are the people who take care of the customers needs and convey the company’s culture, and are certainly no less important than the people who work at headquarters.
However, from the category manager who ensures a steady supply of high quality produce to the warehouse worker who ensures that the product ordered gets to the store, everyone is important and has a critical role in meeting the customer’s needs. I recognize that there is often misperceptions from headquarter associates about store associates, and store associates regarding office associates but in well run companies everyone must work together to support taking care of the customer. Accounting, Finance, Marketing, Human Resources, Operations and Merchandising are all important—and I am not sure any department can operate without the other.
I certainly don't mean to diminish the importance of all the people who work in retail organizations. But...
I always go back to the great Feargal Quinn, who founded the iconic irish chain Superquinn. From the beginning, he mandated that the company's headquarters would be called the "support office," and anyone in the company who called in "headquarters" had to pay a small fine.
And, I think about the words and actions of Jim Donald, who at companies like Starbucks and Pathmark helped to create and nurture front line-oriented cultures, and in doing so had a profound effect on the people who worked there. (Jim is one of those guys who, I've discovered, has legions of people who would follow him into battle; he's the person you want next to you in a foxhole. And he's one of the few people that I'd even consider giving up MNB to work for.)
I get your point about a totality of organizational strength. But for me, the foundation is the store, and the employees there have to be treated like a retailer's most valuable assets.
MNB yesterday took note of a new report released by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, saying that at times during 2011, one out of ten US households were unable to provide their children with "adequate, nutritious" food. The Washington Post
story about it said that "this translates into more than 16.6 million children — or 22 percent of all American kids — who lived in households that could not adequately feed them."
For my part, I think this is appalling and unconscionable, and while the 2011 numbers did not change much from 2010, I wrote that this "strikes me as cold comfort in a supposedly civilized nation where people like to congratulate themselves for their exceptionalism."
One MNB user responded:A comprehensive survey should be done so those of us with adequate food security better understand what the living situations of the hungry are. We would address this problem better if we understood as a society what the range of choices have been that got them to this point—as well as what they choose to buy BEFORE they think about food—IF that really happens.
Another MNB user wrote:While I had read the actual USDA report on food insecurity, I had not read the Washington Post story until I read today's MNB. I was about to call you out on giving bad numbers, but found out that the article itself misrepresented some and outright made up others. While any single child going without food for a day in a country as wasteful as our is unacceptable I don't think we get anywhere by misrepresenting the problem as Tim Carman did in his article.
To frame up the numbers we need to know that the USDA defines "food insecure" as having a worry that you can not provide adequate healthy food for any period of time (by the vagueness of the question it could be interpreted as one minute out of a year). If any eating habits were actually disrupted it is called "very low food security". With those definitions understood the numbers from the report show that 14.9% of all households or 10% of households with children. If we look at where eating habits were disrupted at any point throughout the year the numbers are 5.7% of all households or 1.0% of households with children. The report also states that in the 1% of households with children, the "children are usually shielded from disrupted eating patterns".
This is still too many children, and adults for that matter worrying or going without, but I think it goes to your transparency theme. I also find personally that sometimes if a problem is too daunting many people start to feel overwhelmed. While this is by no means a small issue no matter what numbers you see I do think that by being accurate in defining the problem we are in a better position to do something about it.
From another reader:Agree that it is a bad number… no doubt a legacy of our 2% growth economy. Recently I read that HD TV ownership levels among households getting food stamps is about the same as the rest of the population. This may say that the issue isn't just one of funds availability but more one of spending priority. The projected image seems to be one of hard working parents unable to make ends meet. I'm sure that is the case in some instances. But there also may be an element of selfish parents/guardians who spend on their own pleasures as opposed to nurturing their family.
And still another MNB user wrote:First let me say that my wife and I annually host a Bake Sale to support Harvesters our local food bank. This year’s event was our 9th annual event and our best to date! We typically raise $1200-$1500 that goes directly to Harvester’s Back Snack program which helps kids after school and over the weekends. With the help of lots of friends and neighbors, we strongly support this cause.
What was eye opening to me are two things, the numbers, and the lack of news coverage. The reported 8.2% National Unemployment seems grossly misrepresented and incongruous compared to 22% of our kids with food insecurity. I’m sorry but the math doesn’t add up to me. Add to that the fact that roughly 40% of all households have no kids and you start to get a truer picture of the desperate nature of economy. Why are we satisfied with the Official reporting of our unemployment rate from our government when it is clearly worse? Why don’t we demand a better number?
Second, It seems that today’s modern day recession isn’t receiving the same media attention that the Great Depression did. Where are the images of lines at the soup kitchen that we see so often when reporters reference the Great Depression? I think that we as a nation are in denial. Denial about poverty, inflation, the national debt, and our education system just to name a few. It seems that in today’s political climate our government, and the media to a large degree seem complicit in keeping us in the dark and from knowing the real truth. It wasn’t that long ago that the government “adjusted” how they calculate the rate of inflation. Why would they do that do you think? I doubt it was to give us a better more accurate number.
Education in my view is the only way to combat poverty and unfortunately the system we have is failing our kids just as it did the parents of today’s hungry kids. I love my country and consider myself a patriot and to watch the decline of our nation is disheartening. It makes me angry to see how my hard earned tax dollars get squandered. I guess higher taxes wouldn’t bother me so much if I thought they were doing any good. Having a government that doesn’t lie to me about the unemployment and inflation rate would be a good start.
For the record, I don't think I read, heard or watched any new stories about the unemployment rate last week that did not include the observation that the actual number was far worse, and that the 8.1 percent number was arrived at by specific calculations that did not include a lot of people. So I'm not sure it is entirely fair to say that the media is hiding anything. (And, for that matter, the government is simply using formulas that I'm guessing have been around for a long time. And since even the government numbers include the formulas used for reaching them, it is hard to accuse them of lying.)
As with any numbers, it is possible to slice and dice them in a variety of different ways. And it is always possible to be cynical about the reasons behind the problem, to question how a nation like ours can simultaneously have obesity and hunger issues, or observe that some parents are negligent in how they nurture their children.
For me, it is very simple. I think that allowing any child in this country to be hungry is a disgrace.
Speaking of nurturing children, got the following email from an MNB user about a related subject that comes up here from time to time:I hate reading comments on how parents and students have been suckered into getting college loans. Loaning or giving kids money is like giving a gun to a monkey. Kids should put themselves through college using all the free money opportunities and working. The worst thing a parent can do is to save money up for their kid's college. It only goes to destroy any free financial aid money they could have gotten. Kids who get loans for college, easy to recognize. They lounging around Starbucks playing Facebook. Kids without loans are behind the counter pouring coffee.
I learned the hard way with the first kid. We saved, she saved, only to find out the free money goes to kids with no money. So we made sure the next kid had no money in his name. Both kids worked while their counterparts lounged in Starbucks spending the money on expensive coffee drinks and napping in the chairs. Now both kids have Master's degree and it didn't cost me a dime. I have no sympathy for parents who bitch about the cost of college or kids who can't repay their loans.
I firmly believe in kids working their way through school and contributing to the cost of their educations. I think a strong work ethic is critical to success, and that it always helps for a kid to have skin in the game.
That said...I also believe that for parents who can afford it, there is no greater gift that one can give a child than an education, and the ability to be as loan-free as possible once college is over. And I believe that there should be the ability for families without means to get college aid, and cheap, federally-subsidized college loans are one of the best investments that our government can make.
But it strikes me as morally reprehensible for a family of means to create a situation in which it appears that it has no money so that its children can get financial aid that really could and should be going to kids who really don't have the ability to go to college. It is people who game the system like this who create cynicism about how the system works, and hurt people who really need help.
In fact, it almost sounds like fraud. Maybe not legal fraud, but certainly a kind of ethical and moral fraud.
And what does it say about a person when he is willing to brag about it?
On another subject, from an MNB reader:KC, you made me LOL this am as you described Starbuck’s plan to place coffee vending machines in petrol stations in the UK as possibly tarnishing its premium brand as becoming “ubiquitous”! When I can walk down many streets in U.S cities and find at least 2-3 Starbucks stores within a block of one another (some literally across the street from each other), I think their brand is ubiquitous in the U.S. But, you point was regarding brand and their brand remains strong even with their introduction of instant coffee (Via)!
I certainly did not mean to suggest that Starbucks is not ubiquitous now. But I guess I'm wondering exactly how far the brand equity can be stretched, and I think it is a legitimate question to ask.
On the subject of Ben & Jerry's filing a lawsuit against the porn producers releasing a series of "Ben & Cherry's" adult videos, one MNB user wrote:A friend of mine who is a trademark attorney had this observation: "And by having this lawsuit filed against them, some easily forgotten porno films get lots of free publicity and a resulting increase in sales."
Finally, thanks to all of you who wrote in to support my position in the whole "was the content guy expressing an inappropriate political bias by using Paul Ryan's misstated marathon time as a business metaphor about the need for transparency" debate.
I'm not going to run all of them. (Just one.) They all meant a lot to me, because it means so many of you "get" MNB ... just as the enormous number of suggested mantras that you sent me were enormously heartening.
I'd rather use this space, as much as possible, to give voice to the folks who disagree with me. Those emails make me think about the stands I've taken, and maybe even provoke thought elsewhere in the MNB community. I'd like to think so, and letters like this one confirm that belief:I started reading your blog as a former 25-year employee of the grocery business thinking that I would be able to follow the events and trends in the grocery industry. I have continued to read it every day because it provides me with ‘life lessons” on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter that you and I are roughly the same age, have talented wives to whom we are happily married, or both have children who have just started their first few days of college. What does matter is that you regularly plunge unafraid into thought-provoking topics that often have to do with much more than the grocery business……and that those online discussions provide me with fodder for conversations with my wife and children----conversations that are also thought provoking. Indirectly, through your blog, I have had great talks with my family about things such as morals, ethics, politics, economics, religion, books, movies, and many other topics in which we often do not engage others…..and those talks have been far from one-sided. There are few weeks that go by where my wife and sons do not receive at least one article emailed to them from your blog.
At this stage of life, I believe that anything that gives me an opportunity to participate in intelligent, civil discourse is time and effort well-spent. Too often, I see couples or families sitting in a room where each member is staring at a computer, iPod, or smart phone and little or nothing is being spoken between them. When my children are grown and gone, I don’t want them to look back at the time they spent at home and recall that they were raised in a home with lots of modern technology. I want them to remember that we did everything we could to help them read, write, speak, and THINK effectively in today’s world.
Thanks for giving me the ability to enrich my life and that of the other members of my family.
All I can say is, I want this fellow to write my obit when I finally disappear.
Though, as Jimmy Buffett says, not just yet...