retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Got several emails about yesterday's story about how Cerberus Capital Management is bidding to acquire the 200-store Harris Teeter supermarket chain, and my comments about how I was concerned about the possibility Cerberus might somehow try to align Harris Teeter's operations with those of the more price-driven chains it acquired from Supervalu.

MNB user Steve Hensley wrote:

I agree with your take on this one.  Combining HT with the SuperValu operations will screw up both.  HT has always been a well-run, value based operation here in the Carolinas and Virginia.

Mark Heckman wrote:

I agree whole heartedly that Harris Teeter could do much better than selling Cerberus, given that investment firm's lackluster performance with Albertsons.  I certainly can understand while Cerberus would want a premium asset like HT in their portfolio, but there is no evidence that Cerberus has sufficient retailer acumen or strategy to build on the foundation that Harris Teeter has established. What is far more likely is the scenario where HT would serve as the "cash cow", offsetting Albertson's likely mediocre performance, off course until the cow has no milk left to give.

MNB user Doug Campbell wrote:

Cerberus is a bottom line investment group (can you say high paid bean counters) and Harris Teeter is a well run, profitable grocer.  This cannot be a good thing for Harris Teeter customers, employees or the industry in general.  Short term, it might make stockholders some money.  If they put Supervalu anywhere near Harris Teeter...!

MNB user Chris Utz wrote:

I think Cerberus would not try to combine management of Albertsons and Harris Teeter; especially since your article indicated it would keep Harris Teeter management intact.  Rather, they are probably considering economies of scale in terms of total purchasing power.  This was one of the positive arguments when Supervalu acquired Albertsons. 

Supervalu also elected to keep Albertsons largely intact; rather than try to change management and reinvent ABS corporate culture, which may have made the combined company more competitive.

Cerberus, by the way, is a mythical three-headed dog; with a serpent's tail, a mane of snakes and lion's claws, that guards the gates of Hell.  Perhaps an appropriate name for a company that purchases troubled supermarket chains...

Now, let's move on to the subject of Paula Deen's travails...

MNB user Herb Sorensen wrote:

Your general PR advice on Paula Deen is right on, but the whole world seems to want to ignore this issue: "young African-Americans in her restaurant kitchens often use that kind of language."

Trashing a white person's career for behavior that is glibly excused for black persons is serious racism.  I realize the problem is complicated.  But every time this occurs, damnation needs to be equally spread, in my opinion.

I get your point, but I don't think I was glibly excusing anyone or anything. I find use of that language to be reprehensible, no matter who uses it. I don't listen to music where the word is used, nor do I like watching standup where the comic throws the word around so casually. I understand the rationale for it, but I still have major problems with hate speech of any kind, from anyone.

MNB user Mark Polli wrote:

I understand and agree how wrong hateful the N –word and other words are to people of all races.

I also understand that Paula’s comments were 20 to 30 years ago.

At least admit, there is no freedom of speech. You are mandated to speak within guidelines of what others deem appropriate.

Perhaps we should examine the tax return records of all those critical of Paula Deen. We may find that while at one time Paula Deen was disrespectful of another race at the highest level that those critical of her could be disrespectful to their country at the highest level. The point, was as people who may live in glass houses should not throw stones.

I have to admit that I don't understand this sort of response.

To begin with, in a lot of ways I don't think it is her comments of 20 and 30 years ago that have gotten her into trouble. It actually is her total cluelessness now about those comments, and lack of understanding about how the world has changed.

But your comments about political correctness really concern me, as does your connecting this issue to the IRS controversy.

This is not a matter of government mandate of political correctness, and then investigating people who violate those standards. In fact, this is really about free market forces, pre and simple.

I also would point out that just because you philosophically disagree with someone does not mean that the person with whom you disagree is disrespecting the country. But that's probably another issue.

MNB user Bobby Clemmons wrote:

Well, this is certainly a big news item this week and I see that there is a lot of division here.  I certainly don't use the word but when I was young it was pretty common to hear it in the South.  In fact, my dad who was the most unbiased person I knew, used the word routinely and when I questioned him about it when he was older, he said it was the only word that was used to describe the race when he was a young boy growing up in the South.  Didn't make it right, but it was just the way it was.

On the other side, he probably hired more African Americans than anyone in his similar position in management.  Paula is somewhat a victim of  her culture but that doesn't give her a free ride. The mistake she made compared to those companies who threw her under the bus is that she got caught.  Public relations plays a big part in business today and the companies had to respond to such a wide reaching story even though it's probably only the tip of the iceberg, and rather minor compared to some events that have gone on in the past.

Is it more wrong to use the N word or deny a man a job because of his age or not hire someone because he talks funny?  We are a judgmental people and sometimes we say things through our actions rather than our words that are far more damaging.  Finally, the person filing the charges and the attorneys will probably get more than they deserve and in the end it will all be about money.

Is this really an either/or situation? I don't think so.

I'm not going to judge your dad. Not my place.

But I can judge a little closer to home. The woman who is related to my father by marriage can, on occasion, express the most disgusting beliefs through her use of language to describe African-Americans, gay people, and pretty much anybody who does not fit her idea of what real Americans should look like or be like. I don't give a damn how old she is - it is unacceptable under any circumstances.

Here's what I think. As human beings, we have a responsibility to evolve, to learn, and to grow. Just because I thought something 20 or 30 years ago doesn't mean I was right, and doesn't mean that I have to think the same thing today.

When we're trapped by old attitudes, that's when we get intro trouble.

Responding to yesterday's FaceTime commentary that used a presentation by Steve Spielberg and George Lucas about being willing to change in order to create a metaphor for business, one MNB user wrote:

I found it odd that Spielberg & Lucas would ramble on about all of the "Big Changes" headed our way, but then remind us of the power of the story. "The future is gonna be so crazy and wacky unlike anything we know...but don't forget that it is still the thing that matters!"
Your translation: "The lesson is clear. Stay true to the core mission. But be willing to challenge virtually everything else about the business model. Because if you don't, somebody else will. And that somebody else, as it happens, will be the competition."
And you also note: "Be willing to totally reinvent themselves in order to stay in and sustain the business."
I think the point that most people overlook here--perhaps even you-- is Willing. Yes, you should be willing to consider innovation. But that doesn't mean you necessarily ought to. And in many, many cases people who mistakenly act on these considerations suffer dire consequences. Think of all of the hundreds of millions of dollars folks in the food business foolishly wasted on Second Life. Remember Second Life? Sort of like Cameron's Avatar lite...
At the end of the day, food retailing is about the food. Should you consider all manner of little changes popping out on the horizon?  Sure. Why not. Worth thinking about.
But when I look at best in class food retailers, the thing I notice is that their unwavering focus is on delivering great new products--or old favorites like your meatballs.
And most of them are relatively slow to adopt to things like virtual pay, social media, blah blah...Not because they are cautious or anti-innovation, but because they are focused on the thing.
I often feel as if you are so excited to jump ahead of the "willing" that you forget that a box of technology and innovation will never compete effectively against the thing.

On the subject of obesity, and the American Medical Association (AMA) decision to label it a disease, which Kate McMahon addressed in her column this week, MNB user Craig Espelien wrote:

I have hesitated to comment on this as there is a fine line between allowing people who have a real defect or infirmity that causes obesity and creating another set of victims that can claim that their lack of will power and/or series of continuously bad choices is someone else’s fault.  I am not a fan of allowing personal responsibility for an individual’s well-being to be dumped onto an already stressed medical and healthcare system. From the research I have done and been involved with around healthy eating, this appears to be much more of a choice than a disease.  There are clearly people who have something wrong with them that creates this scenario (thyroid issues as an example) but I am not comfortable putting these folks in the same group with the people who choose to overeat, not exercise, eat food that is way too high in bad stuff (although once in a while an In & Out Burger is pretty good) and exhibit other types of bad behavior that are controllable.

To potentially make this better, the AMA will likely need to provide some additional definitions around this being a disease – what conditions that cause obesity are the true disease (where obesity is an outcome of some other condition other than bad choices) and where obesity in and of itself causes the disease (diabetes, joint issues, heart disease, etc.).
Tough problem – but the key is that most people have a choice on their eating and drinking habits as well as their exercise habits (look at Jarrod the Subway guy) and if they are a bit overweight (or even a lot overweight) start somewhere to change the behavior that led to the condition.  This will identify whether obesity is the result of something or is causing something.

From another reader:

I read your article on obesity with interest mainly because I have struggled with it for most of my childhood and adult years. I think, having reached the later part of my 50’s, that I have made a significant lifestyle change. Believing that my body could not continue to keep the fight with what I perceived to be a losing one. I have for a long time considered obesity a disorder, anything but a disease.

Over the years my view has changed. Granted, we are bombarded by various ads and promotions advocating the virtues of food available to us and we certainly make our choices in relation to what we put in our mouths. However, it is difficult to accept that heart, diabetes and all other forms of related diseases are considered such yet we fail to distinguish obesity as a disease. It is a disease that is symptomatic of today’s society. It should be treated as such….

MNB user Rich Heiland wrote:

I agree with both you and Kate. However, I can't totally discount it as a "disease" if we use the mental illness approach and look at a variety of disorders and addictions. I think many people overeat from an addiction that may have complex underpinnings.

I also think that we need to consider the role poverty plays, in terms of the kinds of food lower income people buy. They buy that which can be extended, go further and much of that tends to be high in carbs, starch, calories, et al.

I also think we need to be careful about talking about what responsibilities people can take on. A friend on Facebook said everyone on Food Stamps should be given a copy of "Diet for a Small Planet." Really?  How many of those people would actually read that book and how many of them could afford to implement what is in it. 

I think we need to face up to the reality that for a lot of people the "healthy eating" lifestyle is a fairly elitist one. I like to think I am a part of it, but I also know it includes things that under our current system and the reality of poverty, a lot of the people who need it most can't access it.

I don't pretend to have solutions across the board. It's a complex tapestry. Disease, I think, has a place in that tapestry along with how we really do, as a society, view poverty and those trapped in it.

From another reader:

On obesity as a disease: here's what troubles me about the AMA declaration: as you mention, Kate, the slippery-slope personal-responsibility aspect.  If Step 1 on this slope is the American Medical Association facilitating people [some people, here; not all by any means] now being able to say, "Don't hate me because I'm fat -- because I let myself let this happen; no, pity me because I'm sick; now throw help [$] my way," can't Steps 2 thru infinity then become, say, the American Psychological Association labeling racism, sexism, ageism, bigotry, and all kissin' cousins thereto as "diseases", because, after all, who would ever willingly manifest any of these evil behaviors, thereby facilitating people being able to say "Don't hate me because I'm a racist, or a sexist, or an ageist, or a bigot, or a whatever; no, pity me because I'm sick; now throw help [$] my way"?  All such possible outcomes, I would say, would be unintended consequences that we as a society really don't need right now.

And another:

Two points, one for Kate and one for Kevin…
With regard to whether the AMA has a financial interest here, the answer seems an obvious “yes”. But the real danger lies one step beyond, in the observation from Hank Cardello that that food companies may be seen as the antagonists. When that happens, the tort lawyer industry gets involved. And we spawn a whole new wave of “class action suit pursuit”. I hope Kraft learned a lot from their days with Philip Morris.
As to Kevin’s song lyrics (good one!) my favorite version of the insight comes from Will Rogers when he said “it ain’t what we don’t know that’s killing us – it’s what we do know that’s wrong!”

And still another:

People need to be held personally responsible! Too much of most anything is bad. Here in Mexico it seems as bad if not worse than the US. Too much coke, too much food. Yesterday I was in the grocery store as school had just let out and it was mobbed with children buying and eating food. A group of 6 was sitting around a table digging into a gallon of ice cream. Not one looked like they needed it!

And from MNB user Martha Quinlan:

It sounds to me as if you assume that all obesity is caused by people recklessly gorging on “double-double cheeseburgers, large fries and 64-ounce Dr Peppers”.  That is a very narrow-minded perception of the issue at hand.  Are you obese?  Have you ever struggled with losing weight? There are people like me, who restrict caloric intake, and ramp up physical exercise, to little avail.  It is certainly easy to boil everything down to “calories in need to be less than calories burned” to lose weight, but you can’t lose sight of the many physical complications, environmental conditions, and economic restrictions we face that thwart those goals.

My boyfriend had a heart attack when he was in relatively good physical condition.  As a result, he is tackling a new weight problem, that has come from age (hormonal changes) and medication regimen.  He never had to work out before to maintain his weight, but he had to join a gym to help stave off the added pounds. It hasn’t helped much.  My point is, don’t equate obesity strictly to gluttony/sloth – there is much more to it than meets the eye.  There are many other causes and conditions, which is why I think designating it as a disease is a valid step in developing effective treatment and reversal.
Here’s a puzzlement from me: Do  you believe alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases, or just lifestyle choices?

Clearly those are diseases. Though, I suppose it could be argued that they stem from lifestyle choices and evolve into disease.

Here's the point that Kate was making, and with which I agree. This is a complex issue, and it does not seem fair to say that obesity is always a disease, nor that it always is a matter of lifestyle and discipline. It would seem that by assigning a single label, the AMA over-simplifies something that should not be drawn in black-and-white.

Responding to yesterday's story about counterfeit foods becoming more available, one MNB user sent in the funniest email of the day:

Whew!  Thanks for the info and the best excuse I can think of to only buy top-shelf vodka.  You made my day!

My pleasure.

Regarding the Men's Wearhouse story, MNB user Russell (Rusty) Findlay wrote:

For the last 15 years I have been a loyal Men’s Wearhouse customer…Why? Because of their folksy, easy going, seem to care about me attitude. Any of their stores in the country, I visited, seemed to be the same. Their willingness to press a suit when I was traveling, just tickled my Customer Service ideals.
Yesterday, was my oldest son’s 42 year old birthday and we made a date for me to give him a birthday president…Where? Jos. A. Bank…If Men’s Wearhouse and George Zimmer can’t figure out how to co-exist I can figure out how to shop somewhere else.
I know one suit, one customer is not very important, but it may indicate a beginning trend.

And from another reader:

On the subject of the Men’s Warehouse and your comment about the mistake of them focusing on Wall Street vs Main Street, from what I’ve experienced over the past 20+ years, that speaks for the majority of companies today. Why else would companies pay over the top salaries to executives while claiming they would need to reduce their workforce if forced to pay minimally increased minimum wages to their front line workers?

The greed at the top has so much more impact on a company’s bottom line than paying a couple dollars more an hour to their lower-paid workers, yet they want others to believe that will break the bank vs the millions they get for many times having done nothing or having brought a company to its knees. If companies focused more on Main Street, there wouldn’t be so much greed at the top, there would be less unemployment, less need for government assistance and programs (after all isn’t that what most conservatives want), more opportunity to live the American dream, more money being spent, i.e. increasing demand, which is what businesses should be focusing on. Demand is what grows business, yet their pay scales do just the opposite.

Finally, I don;t want to spend a lot of time rehashing the meatball/customer service story, except that I want to point out that...

Rosina's sent me two cases of meatballs, which I promptly delivered yesterday to a local homeless shelter. I thank the MNB community for prompting me to do this; it was a very good idea. I also think, however, that if I'd said originally that they were sending me the meatballs but that I was donating them to charity, I would've sounded like a terrible prig.

This was never about meatballs. It was always about customer service. And I continue to be surprised by the controversy my original comments generated.

One MNB user wrote:

I have hung around your site for 10 years.  What we are seeing here is the social media transformation.  Your session and message is reaching more people and thus opinions that are going 9 different directions.  Welcome to the real impact of social networking and meatballs.

MNB user Brian Baker wrote:

Your point was not lost on me, but as generally happens, too many people are concerned with “political correctness” instead of listening to the true issue/problem that occurred.

Customer Service is an “endangered species”. While there are many great associates/employees  in the stores I frequent, consistent good/great customer service is hard to find these days. The only way to improve poor customer service is to let the retailer know that you want better service. Sometimes the truth hurts!

Your PoV is always refreshing – while I may not always agree – your articles and commentary challenge the reader to really think instead of being a “lemming” and following the crowd. Keep up the great work and I will keep reading!

But another MNB user wrote:

Thoughts arise from the meatball reader reaction...  I sense that inside, you had and have clear and consistent motives, you were a customer with an experience, that you shared. You wanted to use it as a teaching moment, to extrapolate for your audience to learn from.

But MNB has grown.  You have a large audience.  With growth, and exposure, comes added responsibility.  You are not a small operation anymore, and you have the potential to influence a much wider audience.  Therefore, like those who become "famous" or who grow their circle of influence, we expect more from you. We expect you to be higher, better, different from the more invisible and anonymous among us.  Like actors ,public officials, spiritual leaders, we expect more from you.  You are no longer just a guy writing a blog.  You are a leader.  You may think its not fair, but it is a fact.  By your sheer scope of influence, you are more intimidating than another with a smaller sphere.  I sense, after reading all these years, you are quite sincere.  I think you don't realize just how large an impact you make.

In your core, you may not think or desire to influence buying decisions, or movie, wine and book choices.  But, you do.

You flatter me.  But I'm unsure what you want.  Should I stop making specific references to specific companies?  Should I stop sharing my own experiences, for better or for worse?  Or should I just stop accepting free meatballs?

I'm not being a wisenheimer here.  I get your point, but I'm not sure what your conclusion is.  

I'm perfectly happy to influence where and what people eat and drink, what they read, and what movies they see.  I'm even happier to influence how they think about such things.  But can't I still do all those things and be just a guy writing a blog?
KC's View: