retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Responding to yesterday's piece in which we noted that Edward Lampert, the hedge fund manager becoming CEO of Sears Holdings, compared himself to Jeff Bezos (a former hedge fund guy), MNB user Ray England wrote:

As someone that spent over thirty years in the retail trade as a merchant I find Mr. Lampert’s remarks quite insulting and truly illustrative of why so many LBO’s fail. I worked for three different regional retailers over the course of my retail career all of which through LBO’s. Having lived through three different scenarios, I think I know what I’m talking about. There was a time in this country when regional supermarket retailers, unencumbered with detailed reporting to Wall Street, or in puffing up numbers to satisfy an investment group with the sole desire of maximizing their ROI ruled the roost in most major marketplaces. Maybe not in total market share dollars, but no doubt in meeting the needs of their customers.

Why? Because they were started my MERCHANTS with an idea and profitability worked back from there. Over the course of time they built a brand equity with their consumers based on what they delivered every day and the support mechanisms necessary to keep those real (aka necessary training and labor investment) evolved over time. That brand equity demanded investment and attention to detail….details in place designed to bring the merchants vision to life.

The onset of the LBO era in the late 1980’s caused a dramatic shift from family owned supermarkets being merchant driven to leveraged companies that were now operations driven. AKA raise margins and cut labor…so the emphasis shifted from perfecting and moving forward those things that made these MERCHANTS different to figuring out how to cut overhead costs and drive the top line. I mean no disrespect to “operators”, in the day, great operators were those companies that executed their merchandising programs flawlessly, which is different than operating with a singular focus of driving down costs. There are great operators out there today, oddly enough most are family owned, but not all. I think it’s a great thing when the expectation of a merchants vision comes together with the appropriate operational execution. There is nothing worse in my opinion than stated expectations from ownership that in no way match the investment necessary to make those expectations happen.

It is very difficult today to develop and execute complex merchandising platforms today because so many folks have forgotten what it takes to do so. Back to Mr. Lampert, my guess is that he would have no clue in walking one of his stores and determining what might or might not be working, much less how to fix it, or understanding a merchandising driven effort designed to separate a particular department from its competitors in order to increase sales and customer retention. But when it comes to counting beans, well...

From another reader:

I can tell you that for those of us in the field this is not taken as good news. We are waiting for a true retailer to take the helm and actually try to grow the business instead of finding ways to only drive a profit line through cost savings. There is amazing skepticism regarding any new initiatives and there is a general feeling of dread that as soon as a store's lease expires that's all she wrote. There is very little trust of leadership, or that any leadership outside of Mr. Lampert has any real authority to do anything, permeating the company and this will make it all the more difficult to turn around. So many of us in the field see potential but feel that we are really on the slowest train wreck ever. We don't have to be Target or Walmart- we can't be Amazon, but we can at least try to figure out who our real customer presently is, what customer we are going after, and then make the changes necessary to become necessary to our customers again. Or, we can just enjoy the ride into oblivion...

I wrote yesterday about being delighted by a self-checkout experience I had at the Apple Store.

One MNB user responded:

I too was recently surprised by an Apple experience, although a dash of creepiness accompanied my delight.

Santa kindly left an iTunes gift card in my stocking. When I went to enter the code into my account from my desktop Mac, Apple gave me the option to take a picture with my camera. Out of curiosity, I chose that option. My computer camera came on, I held the card in front of it as it recognized the code and clicked ok. That was it - my credit was in my iTunes account. Cool but a little creepy, right?

Another MNB user wrote:

You need to get out more.  And maybe stay away from the Apple Store.

Still another reader wrote:

Great story about Apple checkout experience and I couldn't agree with you more about Amazon Prime.

Want to share with you my recent stellar customer experience with Amazon. Bought my son an electric razor for Christmas which he decided was not something he wanted right now. I went on line to return the unopened, hermetically sealed razor to discover it is on the list of hazardous materials (who knew!?) one cannot return.

Incredulous, I sent Amazon a question about returning the item.  I received a very polite reply reiterating that it is not returnable and in a VERY diplomatic tone explained how I could make sure my future purchases are not on the cannot-be-returned list.

So far, good but not necessarily remarkable.

Then, the note went on to say that this time only, they would refund my purchase price and I could dispose of the item any way I choose.

Wow. I was blown away.  This was not an inexpensive item.

You can bet that my experience virtually guaranteed my continued use of Amazon (and Prime). I'm not sure that it was the refund that did it or the fact they didn't use the usual "you are an idiot for not seeing this is not returnable and I'm going to make sure to rub it in your face" tone I've gotten from other retailers.  Probably both.

MNB user Jim Swoboda wrote:

As an Apple nut, which you are, I can not believe you just found out Apple allows self checkout.  It's been in place for more than a year 🙂  Must be the miles you travel cause it's not age!

The simple fact is that no Apple employee ever told me about it before.

I did get a few emails asking me why I had not simply ordered the chargers I needed online, and the interesting thing is that I never even thought about it.

Why? Because I actually like going to the Apple Store.

There must be an object lesson in there somewhere...

Not surprisingly, I got a lot of emails regarding my commentary yesterday about nobody being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame because of continued concern and disgust about the steroid era and the use of performance-enhancing drugs by ballplayers.

MNB user Douglas Madenberg wrote:

As a fellow Mets fan, I’m surprised you found this result satisfying.  I found it doubly disappointing that Mike Piazza didn’t make the cut on this first ballot.  With only Tom Seaver wearing our team’s cap currently in Cooperstown, my son and I were looking forward to his being joined by a catcher who (presumably) didn’t take part in the whole PED craze and still managed to put up some of the best historical numbers for the most demanding of positions.  I understand that these things tend to take more than one vote (Yogi Berra also missed on his first try), but to me, this would have been the BEST year to induct some great, clean players while excluding the dope heads.  I fear what will happen is that Bonds, Clemens etc will get in eventually, perhaps in the same year as Piazza, and it will turn into a controversy about the steroids era, rather than a celebration of his career and accomplishments.

MNB user Ryan Tonies wrote:

I agree with your take on Pete Rose and his absence from the HOF (“…eats away at his soul.”), however the issue I have with it is that his banishment is a result of his gambling as a MANAGER; not his accomplishments as a great baseball player.  This clearly isn’t a case of him possibly taking PED’s (Performance Enhancing Drugs) and cheating as a player.  Quite frankly he should be in the HOF as a player in my opinion based solely on his playing merits.  Although I see from the Hall’s POV that it would be somewhat contradictory to now reverse this decision and allow him inducted simply as a player; not the complete package.

Regarding Bonds, Clements, McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, potentially A-Rod, etc., all these guys have a potentially endless battle into the HOF and I really don’t see them ever getting into the Hall in my lifetime.  It’s a shame when you consider their on-field accomplishments, however I firmly believe most people have a real problem with cheating even though none of them were caught with PED’s (except Palmeiro) and there wasn’t testing during the majority of most of the aforementioned players careers.  Palmeiro’s suspension was especially stinging after he went on Capital Hill and vehemently denied ever taking PED’s, but I digress…….

Regarding Rose ... there is a big sign in every locker room reminding players, coaches and managers that gambling on baseball is forbidden. He broke that rule. As far as I'm concerned, he pays the price. No negotiation.

MNB user Carl Morley wrote:

I have to say....your's is the most spot on comment I have heard in two day concerning the Hall of Fame. Thanks a ton.  Players such as Bonds and Clemens hurt the chances of players such as Murphy, McGriff, and Morris.  No telling if these 3 would have made it, but Bonds, Clemens and other cheaters skewed numbers and hurt legitimate players.

From another reader:

Yes, I agree with your comment and think this send a strong message to aspiring professional athletes. It would be gratifying if the writers decided to nominate and vote on someone like Rusty Staub, who not only is a stellar example of a solid player but someone who always helped fellow teammates. Perhaps people need to start to look at the overall person – performance and accountability – before nominating and voting on a place in the Hall of Fame. Life if more than just how much money you have in the bank, or your title, or your stats!
 MNB user Dan Johnson wrote:

I can agree with the assessment of Bonds and Clemens. My frustration would be with including Pete Rose. Rose’s transgression was betting on the game of baseball. He did nothing to alter the outcome based on his ability to perform the task required. He was a Hall of Fame player by all measure. I may not agree with Gambling on the game per se but as it was not a physical enhancement to performance and was never proven to change the outcome of any game. How then can it be treated as the same?. This is more about character than performance; will we not allow Tiger Woods into the Hall of Fame for his choices and bad character? By any measure and arguably he is/was the greatest golfer in modern times.

Oh, come on. Tiger Woods made bad personal choices. But saying that gambling on baseball does not have the potential of affecting the game is absurd.

They are totally different.

MNB user Chris Reading wrote:

Couldn’t the same message be sent by voting players like Biggio or Jack Morris into the Hall?  These guys were not a part of the steroid issue.  Biggio, with over 3,000 plus not going in on the first ballet is a shame.

Finally, I got a ton of email responding to my piece on Tuesday about Vic Magnotta. Let me share just one of them with you...

Hi Kevin, just read this morning’s Eye Opener and it really struck a chord with me.  My eye-opener in this area came 9 years ago when my only sibling, my big brother, was very unexpectedly hospitalized with what turned out to be Stage IV melanoma.  I’ll spare you the gory details; suffice it to say that he went from playing a hockey game on Saturday night to being in a coma 10 days later and dying shortly after.  My brother lived life to the fullest-although he graduated from high school with honors, he quit college after one week and made his own way as a painter of fine old homes in Topeka, Kansas and on the side was a self-taught artist, carpenter, basket maker, tanner and blacksmith among many other things. 

Since his loss I’ve tried to live by exactly those words.  My husband, daughter and I (along with our frequent traveling companion, my father, who has been long retired from the food industry) try never to miss a chance to travel, volunteer, adopt a pet, try a new wine, scotch, restaurant or recipe and take every chance we can to be with family and friends.  Thanks for reminding me again that life is short, death is certain and the only thing you take with you is the joy that you experienced in life.


Thanks for sharing.
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