retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Got the following email from Lynn Olsen:

I’ve been reading MNB for years and had, frankly, grown a little jaded about your constant litany about the seismic influence of digital technology on the future of retailing. Even as I became more adept at using Amazon and B&N to feed my reading habit, I still somewhat resented your almost daily comments about the need to embrace the rapidly changing digital world. Until this week.

Here’s the story. Since last fall I have been trying to replace a favorite bomber jacket that finally gave up the ghost after a decade of dependable wear. I knew exactly what features I wanted and was willing to pay whatever price to get the real deal.  Smooth, brown leather. Epaulets. Front, snap-button patch pockets and side slash pockets. A real metal zipper with a leather flap to keep it dry. Removable insulated liner and sheepskin collar. You know, the kind of jackets aviators wear.

So, as I did the first time, I looked for my store at the giant Mall of America. No dice; the store was gone. Three floors, umpteen stores, and many hours later later, I found out that no other store there had anything close. So, over the next few weeks, I trekked to all the major retail stores in two different cities. Same result. Frustrated, but with winter coming on, I finally drove to an exurban Outlet Mall and reluctantly paid over $300 for a substitute jacket that soon developed a rip due to a flaw in the leather. I was ticked off, but patched the thing and wore it through the winter.

So this week, after listening to me complain for months, my wife used her iPad to search online for “men’s brown leather bomber jackets” and quickly found exactly what I wanted from (through a sponsored link on the marketplace). The site had great 360-degree pictures, a complete description of features, and all 5-star ratings from previous buyers. The jacket was on sale and had free shipping, too. Next, she searched for a Leatherup “promo code”, instantly found and applied one that knocked 10% off the price. The whole process – start to finish – took under 30 minutes.

Yikes! I’m sold. Next thing you know, I’ll be ordering groceries from my iPhone and using Ibotta coupons to feed my PayPal account so I can buy something from eBay!

Kevin, keep sending the message. Retailers, listen up.

I would have suggested LL Bean ... I know exactly what kind of jacket you are describing, have one that I got there and love it. And it comes with a lifetime guarantee.

But hey ... my goal is not to suggest that bricks-and-mortar are going to be killed off by online retailers. Rather, it is to suggest that bricks-and-mortar stores are committing suicide if they don't acknowledge the threat and compete actively against it.

On another subject, an MNB user wrote:

Wanted to weigh in on the negative press that some are giving Wrigley’s new Alert gum. The packaging clearly shows exactly how much caffeine each piece contains and if a person has had “problems with arrhythmias, rapid heart rates” they probably shouldn’t be consuming caffeine in any form. One of the advantages of Alert is that it doesn’t have all the other ‘junk’ that some of the energy drinks contain (citicoline, taurine, tyrosine, etc.). People know exactly what they’re getting when they chew a piece and can select the dosage they want based on the labeling on the front of the package. I think it’s going to be a hit and hope people see the advantages of such a product!

MNB took note the other day of a New York Times story about how some retailers are using a database to essentially blacklist employees accused of theft - but never formally charged or convicted - so they have trouble getting another job in retail.

There are a lot of good reasons for using such databases, but I wondered about the "us vs. them" climate that seems to exist at some companies. It just doesn't seem consistent with a sustainable strategic approach to retailing.

Which led one MNB user to write:

Perhaps management is just defending against the "us vs. them" climate established by their employees.

I would never argue that employees are blameless in creating such a climate in many companies. There's plenty of blame to go around.

But y'know something? Companies have leaders. It seems to me that at some level it is up to leaders to actually lead ... and that eliminating an "us vs. them" atmosphere ought to be a high priority ... especially because front line employees are critical to companies being successful.

There's a line from the movie Black Rain that I love, when a Japanese detective says to Michael Douglas's NYC detective, "In Japan, we fix problems. In America, you fix blame."

Maybe some companies would be better off if so-called leaders stopped fixing blame and started fixing problems.

On the subject of charges that Anheuser-Busch InBev may have been watering down its beer, one MNB user wrote:

I grew up in St. Louis and when I turned 21 I enjoyed drinking any AB Product.  My now husband and Father in Law worked for AB and the beer was actually good.

Throughout my years I've moved on to much darker beers but recently drank a Bud Light.  I thought I was drinking flavored water.  Maybe it's partly because of the many years of dark beer drinking but a Bud Light taste is not something you forget.  Kind of like an In n Out Burger.

A-B InBev definitely did something to cut corners.

I'm pretty sure that this does not qualify as a scientific analysis. But based on a number of emails I've gotten, I have to wonder if A-B has a perception problem it needs to address, regardless of whether the beer actually is watered down.

Regarding the changes at JC Penney, one MNB user wrote:

Your ongoing commentary about JCP has inspired me to share. On a recent shopping trip to JCP, I was checked out by a sales associate using a mobile device. She told me that they are going to be rolling out this type of checkout experience throughout the store sometime soon. I thought it was an interesting development, not necessarily groundbreaking but still a sign of where this retailer is going and how they plan to bring value driven changes to their stores.

I might be one of the few people in the minority but as a longtime JCP shopper, I’ve seen the retailer improve tremendously under Ron Johnson. The shops format is genius because not only is it easier to find the style of clothing/designer I like, but the way they’ve designed the shops creates an emotional connection in how each shop stimulates the senses – an example is the liz claiborne collection, where that shop invites the shopper in via open yellow doors and comfortable lounge seating. Great place to be if you’ve got kids with you. I also find that their clearance sections are superbly organized with minimal clutter and their changing rooms are very clean. But my recent shopping trips to my local Kohl’s are quite a stark contrast; the clearance racks are many and literally packed with clothes with no rhyme or reason to their “organization” and their changing rooms are often littered with clothing. As for their regular priced items, I seldom find a style of clothing I actually like because it’s such a laborious task to navigate through their selections.

I truly hope JCP is able to stay afloat in these murky waters it finds itself in because there are a lot of great things about this retailer that would be simply shameful to helplessly watch sink in a capsizing ship. And please excuse the sailing metaphors.

Last week I posted a criticism by an MNB user that the site veers too often from a "just the facts" approach. My response was that that MNB has never been about "just the facts." It is about identifying stories that I think shed some light on how consumers behave and/or how marketers respond, stating my biases when relevant, and then trying to offer provocative commentary when appropriate, and letting you do the same.

Which led MNB user Gary Harris to write:

I wanted to respond to almost every part of your column today, but ran out of gas. That made me realize that while my own opinions matter a lot to me, the real value you bring is presenting a lot of stuff to your readers in a way that’s enlightening and compelling and to some, sometimes infuriating. But never boring. So thanks for that, and for sticking to your MNB guns about what you want to talk about.

And another MNB reader chimed in, drawing a connection to another story from last week:

Roger Ebert was not a political figure, but he had a platform and a voice and he was 100% authentic, and therefore, there were times he made personal statements, and he had every right to do that. At the risk of flattering you, I feel you also offer authentic, thoughtful commentary, and I appreciate your deft handling of some very difficult topics – which you convincingly argue are relevant to the forum you have created.

Don’t let the nay-sayers get you down!

I am flattered. But thanks.

Following my comments about "Justified" in Friday's "OffBeat," MNB user Ben Ball wrote:

Well, I'll be damned …I actually agree with you on something.
"Justified" is the first and only series my wife and I have actually “followed” (i.e. DVR and watch religiously – saving all the back episodes) in our 10 years of marriage. We actually have a “Raylan returns” dinner party for a few other addicts each season when the show returns.

Maybe there’s explanation for this however. My ancestors hail from Madison County, NC – usually referred to as “Bloody Madison” ever since the Civil War. It is now best known for moonshine and marijuana.

In the process of researching the family tree several years ago, I discovered that some kin folk had been forced to leave Madison “in the dark of night” so to speak in the 1920’s. The next place they appear in history? Harlan County, KY.

BTW, let me know if you ever need any moonshine. My family doesn’t do marijuana though.

Thanks. I'll keep that in mind.

Also in Friday's "OffBeat," I wrote about becoming totally smitten with Shakira on "The Voice," though I also confessed that I don't think I've ever heard one of her songs.

MNB user Catherine Storer wrote:

While skimming through channels the other night, I too landed on "The Voice" and became hooked!   I have such a  crush on all four of the judges!  Usher and Adam Levine are adorable...what a sense of humor from Blake. And Shakira?  Well, I totally agree with your assessment!   So much fun to watch when ego is left out of the show and what you see is genuineness, down to earth people - just like the viewers!"

From another reader:

Nice take on Shakira.  I haven’t watched "The Voice," but I might just to get to know her better.  She is pretty as can be, can dance like no one else does, and she apparently packs arenas around the world.  But what really seems to set her apart is that her stage persona is often a front for her ability to use that power to accomplish powerful acts of charity and support for the disenfranchised.  She is politically astute, and working to accomplish just what you quoted Roger Ebert as valuing: kindness and joy.

And, from another MNB reader:

Time for you to watch the video "Hips Don't Lie." Shakira just makes it happen.

So I immediately went online to check out "Hips Don't Lie."

And at the risk of sounding like President Barack Obama describing the Attorney General of the State of California, let me just say this:

KC's View: