retail news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB took note the other day of an NPR/Marketplace story about how the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston is one of some 900 churches around the country that are dealing with the problem of a cashless society - making it harder for people to put money in the Sunday collection basket - by installing collection kiosks, touch-screen units that allow people to donate using a credit or debit card.

One MNB user responded:

The church’s use of a digital kiosk for payment reflects my son’s Boy Scout troop getting over 50% of its dues paid via a Paypal account.  Parents seem to NEVER go to meetings with cash or, even more rare: a checkbook.

I wrote, in the original story:

One thing the story does not address is whether people making the e-donations in Boston are able to use the touch-screens to say where they'd like their money to go - to upkeep of the cathedral, or supporting the free clinic or the food pantry or school programs for low-income kids.

Which some parishioners might want, since reports are that the Boston Archdiocese has paid out close to a hundred million dollars to settle charges brought against it because of the sexual abuse of minors by its priests and the cover up of these cases by local Catholic officials.

Which prompted MNB user Gary Loehr to write:

Taking a cheap shot at the Catholic Church?  No business lesson, nothing funny, not even wise guy sarcasm (which I love).  C'mon you're better than that.

First of all, I think the Catholic Church offers lots of business lessons in how to fundamentally squander its value proposition - moral authority - while trying to protect the organization. Talk about tone deaf, misguided leadership - the Catholic Church protects priests who sexually abuse young people, while suspending and threatening excommunication of an irish priest, Father Tony Flannery, who has the temerity to question the church's leadership.

Second, you're right that I was taking a shot. But it wasn't a cheap shot ... because a cheap shot would be undeserved.

Finally, you're right about something else. It wasn't funny.

It is all disgusting.

Let me be clear about this.

I am a former altar boy who went to Catholic elementary school (taught by Dominican nuns), Catholic high school (Irish Christian Brothers), and Catholic college (Loyola Marymount University, taught by Jesuits, who, unlike the rest of them, actually encouraged thinking and questioning). So I have some expertise in this area, and while I know and like members of the clergy who are good and decent and caring people, I am filled with contempt for an organization that seems to have more regard for the protection of its own bureaucracy than with the nurturing of the people to whom it supposed to be ministering.

So, yeah. I took a shot.

On "House of Cards," so-called "binge viewing," and how Netflix getting into the original content business reflects broader business changes that affect many retailers, one MNB user wrote:

Hallelujah!  I just joined Netflix - specifically  to watch whole seasons of award winning shows that are not on my basic cable package.   My fiancé and I don't have the time to watch during the week so we do marathon Friday date nights and watch 3-4 episodes in one night.  That's the one disc at a time option, which we then have to send back and wait another week to view.  If we have that one disc of an entire season,  (pathetically) we could  watch the whole weekend!

And from another reader:

I couldn’t agree more.  We have cancelled all the movie channels (HBO, TIC, etc.) and are only carrying premium coverage on cable because we need the premium sports package (our carrier won’t let us just buy that – again, we don’t get the purchase what we want.), and watch movies, TV series, etc. on Netflix and Hulu plus.  The folks that say TV doesn’t need to change their model are the same folks that said retail doesn’t need to worry about online shopping – it’s coming, and it will win, if you don’t adjust.

Responding to our story about how airline pricing and customer service models may find their way into traditional retail businesses, one MNB user wrote:

The airlines change prices hourly to balance loads and fill planes.  It is now expanding to other retail areas.  Makes it more of an effort for the purchasers but it is coming so we better learn.?

Weighing in on the eternal argument about online shopping vs. bricks-and-mortar stores, one MNB user wrote:

I shop online and at physical stores.  I can understand people choosing to purchase online at a merchant who has a physical presence, it is easier to make a return at a store, than it is to pack it up and mail it back to an online source.  While I’ve bought some large items, most notably a lawn edger online, the price difference  has to be pretty staggering to make me do that.  Last year I bought a table saw at a local Home Depot.  I could have gotten the saw from an online tool supplier for $50.00 less, but the thing weighs over 150 pounds, returning it if there was a problem would have been a problem.

I love it when MNB readers offer a snapshot of their own customer service experiences:

I wanted to share with you a wonderful experience I had that never took place.  Let me explain.  I had called to make a reservation, to celebrate my wife’s birthday, at a local dinner called Vitor’s.  It is a small high end restaurant where the chef is the owner and cooking is his passion. The menu is constantly changing, everything is done from scratched and the chef is spectacular.

My story starts with me calling on a Monday and leaving my name and number along with the time and day I wanted to make a reservation on their answering machine.  Well it came to be Wednesday and I hadn’t had a confirmation so I called again.  A lady answered the phone and I explained to her I had called on Monday and left my information and hadn’t heard back.  She asked if I could hold and with that the chef/owner came on the line.

First words out of his mouth were, I apologize for this inconvenience and am sorry that we haven’t gotten back to you.  I said that is quite all right can I make my reservation now.  So I told him the time and day and with that he informed me the restaurant had been reserved for a wedding. So I’m thinking okay I’ll just have to go somewhere else.  Before I could say thank you for your time he asked me for my name and address.  I asked may I inquire as to why; he said because we didn’t get back to you right away I want to send to you a gift certificate to be used at your convenience.  I was shocked, and said that wasn’t necessary for I had every intention on coming back at a later date.  He insisted upon it and five days later I had gift certificate and a hand written note apologizing again for the mix up.
How come a small little restaurant can understand the importance of customer service and relationship building while so many larger companies completely take the customer for granted?

I think it is called "skin in the game." In places where people have it, the service tends to be better. If they don't, it often tends to be perfunctory.

On another subject, MNB user Don James wrote:

As a regular reader for many years, I have finally tired of comments disparaging Wal-Mart Wages. I do not and have never worked for Wal-Mart and as CEO of a foodservice disposable manufacturer elected not to sell to Wal-Mart.

Living in a rural area my best grocery option was Wal-Mart and I became friendly with several of the employees. I was shocked when a Wal-Mart “friend” who worked in the service deli shared that she just received a raise putting her over $20.00/hour based on her seniority and performance. She was proud talking about how, growing up poor without a high school education, she had worked her way up at Wal-Mart from minimum wage to her current level.

I wrote recently that while it is great to shop at independent stores, it is the responsibility of independent retailers to give us a reason to do so.

One MNB user responded:

You totally hit it on the head. While I do a lot of shopping at big chains, Amazon, etc., I also try to keep independent retailers in the mix as much as possible, so long as I deem them worthy of my business.  For instance, I enjoy the experience of going to my local hardware store and when I can, I avoid buying from the big box store down the road.  But then, there are others….the ones who cop an attitude or just plain ignore their customers, or—my favorite—the ones whose stock answer is always “They don’t make what you are looking for; either buy what I’m pushing, or leave me alone.”  When I was a kid, my parents were told that shoes were not made in my size.  If there hadn’t been a shoe store in a town a half-hour away that not only cared to check, but actually had my size in stock, I don’t know what I would have worn to school.  Fortunately as an adult, it’s even easier to prove them wrong and give my business to those more deserving, whether online or at a brick and mortar store.

Had a story recently about how Starbucks has a new national policy - baristas have to wear name tags, as a way of providing a higher level of personal interaction.

My comment:

The odd thing here is that I didn't even realize that they didn't wear name tags.

I guess this makes me wonder if there is a little concern at Starbucks headquarters about whether the culture of customer service and interaction is dissipating a bit, and that it needs to create the illusion of personal connections because few of them are taking place.

MNB user Caesar Armenta responded:

Gotta echo your comment; I get my fix every day at my local Starbucks and me and my coworkers who frequent the nearby location have always known all the baristas names regardless of name tags or not.

And another MNB user chimed in:

Call me a cynic... I'm guessing that this has more to do with image than anything else. And just like the "names" at certain "gentlemen's" establishments, I expect the names to be equally staged.  Stormy on the latte, Autumn on the triple espresso. And don't forget to tip your cashiers, they work hard for the money too...

Wait a minute. Y'mean "Stormy" wasn't her real name?

Diane Dietz, executive vice president/CMO for Safeway, recently told the FMI Midwinter Executive Conference that food retailers have to provide a more experiential shopping experience, and "get away from stocking shelves and move to selling benefits."

To which one MNB user responded:

"We have to get away from stocking shelves?"  From my experience, Walmart is ahead of the curve on that one.


Regarding the importance of family meals, one MNB user wrote:

I attended a group pregnancy class with my wife last night.  The facilitating midwife, led a discussion about what family traditions we wanted to carry forward into our new families.  I've got to admit, the most commonly cited response was some variation of eating meals together as a family.  Apparently, it left a lasting impression on the kids (who are now parents or about to become them) and it turns out was more meaningful and generally positive than the second most cited response.....piling into the minivan and driving to visit grandparents/Disney in FL.  I know eating together as a family is a tradition that I carry on and I sincerely hope that my kids do too.

Along these same lines, on the importance of retailers being "curators" of products, rather than just stocking and selling them, MNB user George Denman wrote:

While retailers need to have a curator to ensure that their stores remain relevant to shoppers, so do brands. Our company, Graeter's, has been around over 142 years and is run by the 4th generation of family.

Four years ago the family decided to take the brand national and there were major concerns not only by the family but the tens of thousands of consumers who were currently spending $100+ to have our product shipped overnight on dry ice to them. Would this product that has become revered by its consumers and celebrities all over the US be able to provide the same quality going through retailer’s supply chains. Would our new plant with all its efficiencies before and after the hand-crafting element of our small batch process change the outcome of the final product.

If not for the uncompromised commitment by our CEO and his desire to stay true to the identity of the brand, we would have failed. We had our fair share of hiccups for sure, but overall the brand has been able to grow bigger without growing bad.

Fair point. For any company, one of the first things you have to curate is your brand equity.

Regarding Apple's efforts to trademark its Apple Store concept, one MNB user was skeptical:

The  US Patent and Trademark Office is smoking something. This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of in the store design business. "...a clear glass storefront surrounded by a paneled facade..." Hello!!!! Gee -- I've never seen that before. How unique -- the idea of using glass. I may try to trademark the use of paint on walls. I am beside myself just thinking about this craziness.

MNB user Bob Thomas wrote:

It is more than evident that Apple is really using the US trademark to get a similar one in China.  The Chinese store that copied them even copied how the employees were dressed.  Now that China is buying some famous brands such as Volvo, AMC Entertainment and Lenovo, the Chinese Central Government is becoming more aware of the need for intellectual property protection.

My company receives a lot of help from the Chinese Customs Agency in confiscating counterfeit products before they leave China.  However at the local level, mayors and governors are rewarded for their economic development.  Thus they do not care what is being manufactured as long as it is manufactured in their areas.  Demand for fake products, such as Apple and luxury brand fakes is increasing.

Presently the cost of enforcement lies with the brand holder. If shipping companies (they know who the shippers are) were responsible for the cost of enforcement the problem would decrease.  US brands are well respected in China and the Chinese strive to buy genuine products because of that respect. Walmart and KFC in China recently suffered when it was reported that they allegedly had some quality problems from their suppliers.

Apple will benefit in China because they are making a large effort and investment to protect their brand. The Concorde crashed because of a fake part that fell off of a jet that preceded its take off.  Over 200,000 people a year die because of fake medicines.  Fakes are also linked to organized crime and terrorists.

On another subject, MNB user Jeremy Survance wrote:

Perhaps I’m just having one of those glass half full kind of days, but I found WSJ’s coverage of the troubles associated with rolling out Wi-Fi in retail locations not a cautionary tale, but one that reinforces a potential source of competitive advantage—especially for small retailers.
Written from Bain’s experience working with large scale retailers, it appears that many of the issues they encountered would be much less or even insignificant for small retailers.  I couldn’t help but think of what an operational advantage these mom and pop retailers have if there is a clear benefit for their customers.  A small footprint equals fewer hot spots to install, and thus fewer shoppers that will be accessing their Wi-Fi (ultimately requiring less bandwidth to purchase from the utility).
It’s no surprise, then, the prominence of Wi-Fi in coffee shops: very small shops with lots of folks working/doing business or taking a break and surfing the web—all over a cup of their favorite caffeinated beverage.  If I’m looking to get work done at a café, I know I’m going to choose one with Wi-Fi.  For other types of businesses, that customer need may not be so clear.  So talking to some of your (best) customers about how Wi-Fi would help them is a simple way to gauge, in addition to showing them how you care about making their overall experience better.
I took away that, regardless the size of your business, a clear understanding of the benefits to your customers (both directly and indirectly, via better service) and the real costs of putting in a system is critical.  Even for the mom and pop store that can install the Wi-Fi system on their own, the inevitability of having to deal with the local cable/utility company should make anyone think twice about whether it’s really worth it!

And, regarding the subject of guns and concerns retailers ought to have in this area, one MNB user wrote:

Supermarkets are mostly located on private properties with public access.  I agree, Kevin, that, given the recent Kroger incident, MNB is a good forum for this debate before supermarkets and other public accesses become such fearful places that people will stay home rather than become part of the community of change.  We’ve seen such rancor and arrogant behavior among the various political interests about this issue (and so many others).  Would it not be so much more productive if those who read MNB who are mostly bright, caring people could voice opinions without the common intimidating and narrow-minded responses we are so used to hearing?  Can’t everyone be just a tiny bit more open minded to hearing the opposition?  Do not tear down the opposing side by calling them ignorant or focusing on side comments about Wyatt Earp but rather stick to your logical position and try to convince the other side with facts and solid reasoning.  Let’s stop the bullying, adults, and be respectful and get to a solution.

This conversation was started when a guy brought a shotgun into Kroger as a way of demonstrating his support for Second Amendment rights.

One MNB user wrote:

I’ve been watching your “discussion” about gun, the Kroger incident and various opinions and I am dumbstruck at the egregious use of presumptions!

You stated in your comments: “I'm just glad a firefight didn't break out between some well-meaning and armed private citizen and the guy with the rifle, which could have ended up in the deaths of a lot of people. (By the way, that's going to happen. Just wait. And then the discussion will change yet again.)”

Do you think those of us who carry a firearm, just see a guy with a gun and start shooting?  Do you think that we’re walking around, gun on our hip, full of swagger, just looking for the next fight??

You have stated that you have never fired a handgun, never been to a range, correct?  So why do you presume that, in this scenario, a “well-meaning and armed private citizen” would have opened fire and started a “firefight?”  This isn’t Mogadishu.  Those of us who take on the responsibility of carrying a firearm in the general public, have, first, a duty to diffuse any potential situation.  This isn’t the same as a home, where firing on someone who is in your home who should not be and was not invited in may be warranted.  This is in the public.  So, NO, I don’t believe “it’s going to happen” anytime soon.

I strongly encourage you to get rid of the presumptions and get educated because you look foolish.  Go to range, hold and shoot a firearm.  Talk to those of us who carry a firearm.  And then, maybe you can actually see the perspective, training, and responsibility of the “well-meaning and private armed citizen.”

Let's be clear. I said "could" have happened.

And I think it is foolish to suggest that every citizen with a legal gun is going to do the right thing when faced with such a situation.

Many will. But some won't.

From another reader:

I  beg to differ with what one of your responders wrote for todays blog.  If I see a man in a public place with a gun that has a large magazine attached to it, I’m going to assume he is up to no good and make every effort to call the  police.  If some well -intentioned citizen tried to stop him with a handgun, it would be like taking the proverbial knife to a gun fight and a lot of people stand to be seriously hurt or killed.

And finally, responding to my comment the other day that when Amazon's home page went down for a while last week, I sort of staggered backward - I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I feared something terrible had happened, an MNB user who clearly thinks I pay too much attention to the Star Trek universe wrote:

Thank you for the Star Wars reference!  See?  There is room in the universe for two galaxies to co-exist and equal blog time references!  Live long and prosper, Kevin...

And MNB user Brian Blank wrote:

I guess the server farm on Alderaan wasn’t such a good idea…

See? That's why I love the MNB community. You folks get the references, you build on them, and you're funny.
KC's View: