retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Got a number of emails yesterday from folks who wanted to weigh in on the whole question of kids suffering from food insecurity in this country.

One MNB user wrote:

One of your readers had this statement to make:

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.

This viewer seems to be making a huge leap in judgment. One I find very troubling and very judgmental. It plays into the myth of the “Welfare Queen” and the people that abuse the system. Certainly there are people that abuse the system-current figures put welfare abuse at about 2-8%, which includes abuse by the vendors. But did this person ever stop to think that the people that have that HD TV bought that when they had a job? And when they got laid off, unemployment wasn’t enough to quite make ends meet so they are getting SNAP assistance. In addition, with the economy being so bad, other sources that poor people normally turn to-like food banks-are stretched even thinner because people that normally would contribute are instead turning to those resources themselves. It becomes a vicious cycle. Resources are getting stretched further and further for more and more people. But this person seems to think that people getting food stamps are spending their money willy-nilly on HD TV’s and the like. Frankly, I am side-eyeing them and others like them who are quick to rush to judgment and paint a broad brush stroke condemning people who need help pretty hard right now.

Full disclosure-I once had to use public assistance. The job I was working at got yanked out from under me because my employer decided they didn’t want to pay the state their taxes. Unemployment didn’t cover nearly anything close to my basic needs so while I was looking for work, I got cash assistance and food stamps. (And this was back when it was actual paper food stamps). I was able to secure a job within 3 months and get off assistance and am forever grateful for that safety net. That was 22 years ago and am thankful I haven’t needed it since. Knowing it is there to keep me from living in a cardboard box? Makes me thankful still. I sure as hell am not going to judge or begrudge other people who have fallen on hard times and need that help. Remember-most of them have paid into the system. And someday, you might be the one that needs that help.

Another MNB user wrote:

I am astounded by the comments re: your post related to food insecurity in this country. Let’s quibble over the number of people who are really hungry (what level other than zero is acceptable?) or start the blame game and ask what hungry people did to get themselves into this situation (clearly they’ve chosen to prioritize something else over food; maybe a TV that they clearly don’t deserve -- because we all know you only need food to live?).

I understand and embrace the concept of personal responsibility AND I say that if your response to this article is anything other than a desire to RUN, not WALK to your nearest food bank to make a donation, you are in serious need of examining your moral character.
What in hell is wrong with people?

Yesterday, an MNB user challenged my continued emphasis on the notion that front line personnel are the most important in any retail organization. Which led another MNB user to write:

In response to the user who debated your statement that the front line persons are the most important component to any retailer.  They are correct in their logic that in any organization you have a big team and that everyone plays a critical part - absolutely and without argument.  But the hard reality is that even though you have brilliant people at the top and superstars at every level of corporate and support roles, a remarkable marketing campaign and hot ads, a single checkout clerk or a bad experience with any of the number of store level, front line associates will instantly destroy the credibility that has been worked on so hard to create. 

And as the saying goes one bad experience gets told to 10 people or in these wired, connected days thousands of people.  It was told to me when I started in the grocery business 35 years ago that it takes 10 times the dollars to regain an ‘upset’ customer than to gain a new one.   The trend has been to hire the cheapest, least experienced people at store level, those who do not possess the best customer service skills or even train them on how to provide great or even acceptable customer service.   Saying that everyone at store level are awful is wrong too, there are many great caring and friendly people there.  But regardless of what great things are being done above store level, that will and is being destroyed by some uncaring, unmotivated and unchallenged people who interact with the customers and as the saying goes those customers pay everyone throughout the organizations paycheck.  This truism has played out at many great retailers in the past and continues to be played out each and every day to this day.

Another MNB user chimed in:

When I went into the buying/merchandising position, my manager told me – If you’re not serving the customer, you better be serving  the person that is serving the customer. 
He elaborated...

• Serving the front line person is the most important person in the store, since it’s the last contact the customer normally has after paying for their merchandise.

• Give them the exact tools, the information and the support that they need to do their job effectively and efficiently.

• He mentioned that while it may mean more work for me and my staff...when visiting stores, meet as many front line people and thank them for what they do.

I commented yesterday, about a story saying mobile payment systems will render cash registers obsolete, that this strikes me as being both accurate and inevitable. Which prompted one reader to write:

Agreed on the article in today’s morning beat, and with your comment, BUT for the near- to mid-term future there will remain a need to accept, secure and reconcile cash transactions. Whether that becomes blind cash drops or some other collection method, keeping those transactions discrete by sales person will also remain an issue, at least until cash disappears!

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon...

Responding to Michael Sansolo's column yesterday about social media users who disclose too much information, one MNB user wrote:

I have a Facebook page, I seldom  post anything on it, I use it to keep up with friends I don’t get to see anymore.  I even found the twin brothers I graduated High School with and who were my best friends in HS, on Facebook, after not seeing or hearing of t hem in over 30 years.

However, I don’t think of Facebook friends as “friends”, they are acquaintances, a very few are true friends.  I’ve got one friend who used to go to church with me, knew him for years, he’s retired now and is what I would call an Obama hater, he denies that, but it’s the only explanation for the amount of vitriol I see him posting on Facebook.  I used to try to be disagree with him in a civil manner, and would occasionally point out obvious false statements.  He then turned his attacks on me.  I told him I would no longer debate with him on Facebook, that I would no longer be a party to the hatred he spews on a daily basis, however, I would not unfriend  him as I’d seen how he reacted with joy anytime someone who disagreed with him did unfriend him.  I told him I was sorry, I felt I was losing a friend, but he was losing his humanity, and I felt that was the worse of the two losses.

On another subject, an MNB user wrote:

Kevin, with regards to the person discussing paying (or rather not paying) for a child’s education...

I don’t really understand the whole point that person was trying to make. On the one hand he’s talking about not letting kids get student loans and instead scamming the system for free money that isn’t needed. On the other hand he’s talking about having them work to pay for college. But in the end all it really sounded like was that he was worried about his own financial position rather than the effect (good or bad) it was having on his children. This person seems to wear it as a badge of honor that he put his kids through needless circumstances while at the same time fattening his own coffers. What his children really learned is that working hard for little money really sucks and that I need to learn how to scam the system like dad did.

I think the real point being missed is that how education is funded should take a back seat to giving your kids a proper education and perspective on money. If you teach them to “scam” the system, you are not making smart money decisions. If your child has to work for everything without having an understanding of why then you are not making smart money decisions. Giving a child a loan and not expecting them to understand the value of that gift is not making smart money decisions. Allowing a child to bear the cost of an $80K education on a degree in say social work or education or exercise science that will only allow them to make $30K out of college with no hope of repaying that money is not making good money decision and is also allowing that child to commit financial suicide. By the way, I’m not bashing those degrees, I’m simply making the point that a child has to have an understanding of how to do a cost/benefit analysis.

I had to get student loans AND work 2-3 jobs because the cost of the education is only one part of it. There is also rent, a car, food, and keeping the lights on.  As a result it took me nearly 10 years of my working life to repay those loans (along with my wife’s loans) and the number one take away for me was that somehow that situation IS NOT going to happen to my two girls. If that means I have to save up to help give them a boost then so be it.

At the end of the day your child NEEDS that education and part of that education that the colleges wont teach them is how to think of and manage money properly. If parents take it upon themselves to do that, then young people won’t have problems paying student loans (assuming they actually get a job which is a whole other subject), they will have a sense of responsibility, and they won’t be scamming the system.

From another reader about the same subject:

I agree wholeheartedly with your rebuttal, specifically that children should be responsible for a portion of their education, whether through work, loans or scholarship.  The gift of education, for those that are able,  is truly one of the most important and rewarding gifts a parent can provide their children. Providing opportunities for families that cannot is one of the few things our government can do to actually improve quality of life and our nation in general.

As a parent of six children, my wife and I are funding parochial grade and high schools, as well as a significant portion of their college educations.  We also pay real estate taxes to fund public schools.  We have a very simple approach to their college education:  we fund a certain $ amount each year, for four years.  It is up to our child to choose the institution and the approach to cover any shortfall from us.  Our 5th child began freshman year this August and we have seen 5 different approaches to our “model”.  But the previous 4 finished school in 4 (or less) years with minimal or no debt, with degrees (IT, finance, nursing) that offered opportunities in the job market.  We even offered modest cash incentives  for finishing school early or taking on residence assistant (RA) positions.  We fully realize we are fortunate to be able to offer our children these educational opportunities.  My wife and I started saving the day we got married, not taking extravagant vacations, or eating out, or buying big cars or a huge home….I certainly will be working more years than many of my counterparts, but I am happy and proud to make that choice.

But hearing comments like this about how to take advantage of “free money” irks me beyond definition. Remember, nothing is ever free, so taxpayers like me foot the bill. People of means that scam the system take away opportunities for those truly in need and drive up the cost for all of us who have self respect and work hard to provide for our children.  Many claim people like me are suckers and that those that figure out the system are smarter than us.  I agree Kevin, we have a moral and ethical obligation to care for our children and not try to use the system. This is fraud, plain and simple.
I know people much better off than me that have legally and illegally used residency rules to claim in state tuition or hid income from their successful businesses 2 or 3 years before their child attended college to get tuition assistance. I have more sympathy for the person who takes maximum unemployment rather than take a paying job than these wealthy snakes who brag about scamming for their children’s education.  Great lesson for your child….why not just tell them to start cheating on their taxes now?  It is not just the money, it is what we teach our children.  The most important job anyone with children ever has is that of  parent.  Nothing taught in a business ethics class will wipe out what  sleazy and dishonest parents show by example.

And from yet another reader:

I was quite offended by the comments made by a reader who wrote in to you about parents & students getting "suckered" in to getting college loans and how all the "free money" goes to those who are "lounging in Starbucks."

I went to college and have a Bachelor's Degree. My mom was single, supporting 2 kids without child support and no way to pay for college. I worked from the time I was 15 to have my own spending money for things my mother couldn't afford (clothes, sports equipment, etc), but I could never have saved enough to put myself through college.  And I worked 30+ hours/week while going to college full time. I can tell you for a fact, that "free money" isn't free.

There are those who have worked the system to their advantage, but I believe the majority are just like me, working their butts off while in college and now working trying to repay the loans (and I work 2 jobs to do just that).

Yesterday, we had a story about how Whole Foods announced that after months of competition by more than 300 professional butchers from the company, it has crowed a winner in its 2012 national Best Butcher competition - Armand Ferrante, a Whole Foods Market butcher from Middletown, N.J...who, among other things, won a trip to Iceland's Food & Fun Festival (February 2013, Reykjavik).

I wrote:

Really? This guy wins a contest, and his prize is to go Iceland in February? What the hell did the second place finisher get?

Wait. I know.

"Second place is a set of steak knives. Third place is you're fired."

MNB user Daniel McQuade responded:

Hey don't diss Iceland! Went to Iceland this past February, great trip, here's 3 reasons to go...

• Aurora Borealis
• Gulfloss (with walls of ice around it)
• Grillmarkadurinn (one of the best restaurants I have ever dined in, they also have Sjavargrillid, a seafood version)

Honorable mentions:

• Beautiful & friendly women
• Perlan (incredible restaurant on top of the thermal tanks)
• Blue Lagoon Geo Thermal Spa

Did I mention the women?

BTW, IcelandAir has a great offer that time of year (they are the only airline there and own nice hotels so they bundle it...we paid $750pp for RT flight and 4 nights...included breakfast, airport transportation, entrance to Blue Lagoon. We had a lot of fun, food was a bit expensive but price is forgotten once the meal is eaten & enjoyed, easy to get around (great bus system).

I wished we could have stayed longer!

And another MNB user wrote:

Have you been to Iceland in February?  The winner of the Whole Foods Best Butcher contest is from Middletown, New Jersey: average February low is 27 degrees and the average high is 41.  In Reykjavik, Iceland for February: average low is 28 degrees and the average high is 38 degrees.  It is the wind that can be the kicker in Iceland.

I live in Bentonville, Arkansas but prefer the Icelandic winters to the winters here: the temperatures are more uniform and do not swing from -10+ degrees to 70 degrees.  The record low in February for Reykjavik, Iceland is 12 degrees below zero; for Bentonville, it is 16 degrees below!! zero.  And the average low for Bentonville is 28 degrees as well.

Got it.

One final note about this.

When I first posted this story yesterday, I wrote that Ferrante being sent to Iceland in February was sort of like Price Harry being sent to Afghanistan after he showed on in naked pictures taken of him in Las Vegas.

Which led MNB user Linda Brennan to write:

Kevin, I love MNB and I respect much of what you do, but your comment denigrating service in Afghanistan is neither funny nor respectful.  A small percentage of our populations is diligently hammering it out day after day, risking their lives in a ridiculous war that generates indefensible numbers of body bags.   And in making this comment on 9/11, you are being particularly insensitive.  You should do a loud mea culpa for all the men and women who make (sometimes the ultimate) sacrifices so that you can enjoy another day exuding witty comments about retail news.

Denigrating anyone's service in Afghanistan was certainly the last thing I was thinking about when I wrote those lines.  I don't often do this - irritating people from time to time is sort of what I do - but in this case, concerned that other people might share Brennan's concerns, I decided to change the commentary. Michael Sansolo actually helped me come up with ended up being a better joke, and one with a movie reference.
KC's View: