retail news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB Archive Search

Please Note: Some MNB articles contain special formatting characters, and may cause your search to produce fewer results than expected.

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

    Hi, I'm Kevin Coupe and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

    One of the things I often write and talk about here on MNB is the importance of a store not just being a source of product, but also a resource for information.

    That isn't always easy. Not for anyone.

    And sometimes, the folks who drop the ball surprise me.

    Case in point. We've been making a concerted effort to try and eat healthier food in the Coupe household. Sometimes, that can take an extreme form … Mrs. Content Guy, for example, currently is engaged in an 11-day cleanse. I'm trying to be supportive, but I have to admit that I'm not doing it with her. I'm just not sure I could get MNB out each day if I were on her regimen, and I don't want to take the chance.

    As part of our efforts, trying to eat healthier, trying to eat less processed food, we were in Whole Foods the other day, looking at various things and picking some stuff up for dinner. At one point she turned to me and asked the following question:

    What exactly is gluten?

    Now, she's a really smart person, but she didn't know., not exactly. I sort of tap danced around the question because I didn't want to be inaccurate, and then I made a recommendation: Go ask the folks at customer service. They'll be able to give you a precise answer.

    But they couldn't. She must've asked a half dozen employees, and nobody knew the answer. Finally, one guy behind her on line at customer service checked Google on his smart phone and came up with the precise answer: it is a protein compound found in foods precessed from wheat. (I knew that. Even if my wording would've been less precise.)

    I have to admit that the fact that nobody at Whole Foods knew the answer amazes me, especially these days, when gluten-free is such a big category. I'm almost more amazed that nobody bothered to look it up, as opposed to leaving it to another customer to answer. (We could've looked it up ourselves, I know. But I sensed a column.)

    This wasn't just a question to Whole Foods. It was a sales opportunity for Whole Foods. And while it isn't a big deal, Whole Foods lost a little bit of credibility in our eyes.

    And that's not supposed to happen. Especially when it comes to a subject like this, at a place like Whole Foods.

    That's what is on my mind this Thursday morning. As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

    KC's View:

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    by Kevin Coupe

    The Washington Post has a worth-reading blog posting that looks back on the just-completed National Retail federation (NRF) show in New York City, concluding that much of the focus was on a company that wasn't even there - Amazon.

    There were more than a few opportunities at the show to find out how to compete with Amazon, with a sense that no matter who you are, where you are located and what you sell, you almost certainly are competing on some level with Amazon - something that we've been saying here on MNB for as long as we've been in business.

    The good news, the Post writes, is that the "playing field is starting to level up. A few years of overhauling technological infrastructure and rethinking distribution is turning traditional retailers into the kinds of entities that have a chance to survive in the new world Amazon has created. The bad news is that they're not focusing on the one thing … that Amazon doesn't do well: interaction with actual people in actual stores that have traditionally been better at selling merchandise than any newfangled technology could ever manage."

    Which is also something that we've been writing about here for a long time. It is the thing that Tom Furphy and I, in our "Innovation Conversation" presentations around the country, focus on at every opportunity.

    And now, with this link to the blog posting, are pointing out again.

    You can't just compete with Amazon on price. You have to offer a compelling shopping experience that does things that Amazon - a company that is built on algorithms, formulas and data - cannot or will not do.

    Just as, if you are competing with Walmart, you have to compete on something other than Walmart's "always low prices" home turf.

    This is Retailing 101 for 2014. It shouldn't be an Eye-Opener.

    But it is.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that eBay "plans a new marketplace for brands to sell directly to consumers." The online site, called "The Plaza," would be separate from eBay's traditional online auction site.

    The goal of "The Plaza," the story says, would be to allow eBay to compete for effectively against Amazon as well as allow manufacturers to find new and more direct ways to connect with consumers.

    eBay is not commenting on the reports.
    KC's View:
    We can put this in the "everybody is competing with Amazon" file, as well as the "manufacturers are open to ways to circumvent traditional retailers" file.

    Yet more evidence that traditional retailing is under attack from numerous directions. It isn't like bricks-and-mortar retailing is going to go away. However, there are so many companies looking to create alternatives to old-world retailing that it would be foolish if traditional businesses did not look for new ways to compete and find a place in the new continuum.

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    Fortune is once again out with its annual list of the best places to work, and for the first time in years, there are no retailers in the top 10.

    Google is number one. The first retailer on the list is Wegmans, at number 12; last year, it was number five, and in the past it has been atop the list.

    Other companies on the list include The Container Store (28), Nugget Market (36), Zappos (38), Whole Foods (44), General Mills (64), REI (69), Publix (75), Sheetz (87), and Nordstrom (89).
    KC's View:
    I never worry about who makes the list or does not, or even about where they are ranked. The thing is, applying to be considered takes an investment of time, effort and money … you have to decide that the returns, both internally and externally, are worth it. Some companies just reach the point that they've milked the cow for everything it is worth, and move on.

    In addition, the companies that have done the rankings for Fortune sometimes change, as do the criteria and priorities. Which is how Wegmans or The Container Store, for example, can be number one on a given year, and lower the next. It isn't that they are less great places to work; it is just that Fortune has to keep mixing things up.

    Still, making the list is an achievement. Congrats to the companies that made it.

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    • In California, the Press Enterprise reports that a federal judge as ruled that Walmart cannot be removed from a lawsuit filed against the owner of a distribution facility that served the retailer.

    The suit, filed by employees of the warehouse, charges that the companies operating the facility engaged in widespread wage-and-hour violations of workers' rights. Lawyers for the workers maintained that the distribution center only ships product to Walmart, the retailer is both responsible and culpable for labor violations; Walmart tried to get itself removed from the litigation, but the federal judge disagreed, which means, the paper suggests, "that it is now likely the world’s largest retailer will have to answer workers’ allegations in open court."


    CNN reports that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed a complaint against Walmart "for allegedly retaliating against workers who staged Black Friday protests in 2012."

    The story continues:

    "The complaint, filed Tuesday and circulated Wednesday by union representatives, details times when Wal-Mart allegedly illegally threatened "reprisal" against workers who protested on November 22, 2012, both on national television and to employees directly.

    "The agency also said Wal-Mart stores in 14 states unlawfully threatened or disciplined workers who participated in legal strikes and protests. The complaint involves more than 60 employees, 19 of whom were allegedly fire as a result of their participation in the protests. It also named more than 60 Wal-Mart supervisors and one corporate officer."
    KC's View:
    Want job security? Get a law degree. Work for Walmart.

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    The New York Times reports this morning that JC Penney has announced the closing of 33 "underperforming" stores, which will result in the elimination of about 2,000 jobs. Total expected savings from the cuts: $65 million a year.

    However, the Times writes, "some analysts and industry experts said that with 1,100 locations and such extensive difficulties, shedding 33 stores would not be enough to move the needle on the company’s performance."

    JC Penney continues to try to recover from an unsuccessful turnaround effort begun when CEO Myron Ullman was replaced by Ron Johnson, formerly of the Apple Stores, who was brought in to reinvent the department store chain and move it away from its discounts-and-promotions approach to marketing. When that didn't work out - sales, traffic and profits plummeted - Johnson was fired and Ullman was rehired.
    KC's View:
    MNB fave Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director at the Strategic Resource Group, tells the Times that "the hole is too deep … this is a warning shot across the bow to landlords to try to provide accommodations or concessions, like on common area maintenance charges or lease reductions."

    I cannot imagine why anyone would invest any money in JCP, nor why anyone would shop there. Having been unable to convince anyone that it offers any sort of differential advantage as a retailer, the company is doing the only thing it really can do - cut its way to prosperity. Which is more an act of desperation than an implementation of any sort of coherent strategy.

    Pretty soon, it seems to me, we'll be able to add Penney's logo to the MNB "wall of ignominy," which also includes the logos of companies such as Borders, Virgin Superstores, and Blockbuster.

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    Crain's Chicago Business reports that Instacart, the online personal shopping service, has expanded its Chicago operations from downtown to the North Shore, serving Rogers Park, Evanston, Wilmette and Kenilworth. Residents in these areas will be able to use Instacart to shop for food at Whole Foods and Jewel-Osco, with the expectation that Mariano's and Costco will be added soon. Instacart also is negotiating with Trader Joe's, hoping to add its stores to the company's list of retailers.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    • The New York Times reports that "in the first unionization vote ever held at an Amazon facility in the United States, a small group of technical workers at the company’s warehouse in Middletown, Del., voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday against forming a union." The vote was 21-6 against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

    The story notes that "Amazon has vigorously opposed unionization by its employees, saying that it has competitive wages and an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their concerns directly to management … Officials of the machinists’ union said safety and promotions were among the main concerns of the Delaware technical workers."


    • Aldi said this week that it has created a new Advisory Council of five nationally renowned registered dietitians that it has charged with assisting consumers looking to eat a more healthy diet.

    According to the announcement, Aldi "makes healthy living simple and affordable by offering a variety of high-quality food products, including nearly 70 varieties of fresh produce and a selection of organic produce, as well as fresh meat, dairy and bakery items … As Aldi expands the resources available to its shoppers through this council, it also continues to expand its offerings of food options, including organic, specialty and gluten-free products, as well as nearly 70 kinds of fresh produce."


    • In the UK, Marketing reports that Sainsbury is airing a TV commercial that takes a "direct swipe" at Tesco, focusing on values as well as value.

    The ad "highlights how Sainsbury’s basics eggs are not only the sale price as Tesco’s Everyday Value eggs, but also sourced from non-caged hens," the story says, adding that "the attack is the latest incident in a long-running dispute between Sainsbury’s and Tesco that erupted after the ad watchdog failed to ban a Tesco ad that Sainsbury’s believed unfairly compared the prices of own-brand goods."


    • The Seattle Post Intelligencer website reports Starbucks stores in Washington State will offer a tall coffee for just 12 cents to any customers there who walk into its stores tomorrow wearing Seattle Seahawks colors.

    The Seahawks will be playing the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in the NFC Championship at Seattle's CenturyLink Field, with the winner to play the AFC champion in the Super Bowl.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    Got some reactions to my negative take on the naming of Gerald Storch, the former CEO of Toys R Us, as non-executive chairman of Supervalu. To put it bluntly, I cannot understand why anyone connected to the Toys R Us debacle would be hired to lead anything.

    One MNB user wrote:

    So, what are you trying to say? The Titanic has a new captain?

    No … I'm just saying that somehow the captain of the Titanic has gotten a new job.

    I suggested that Storch would be better off running Fort Courage … which led MNB user Michael Flaherty to write:

    Loved the "F-Troop reference. I do not know much about the man but just seeing how a Toys R Us was run, I would have thought Larry Storch was leading the charge also.

    Exactly.




    MNB reader Andy Casey had some thoughts about our piece yesterday about the grief that Ahold-owned Giant of Landover is getting for running an ad welcoming students at local Howard University back to school after the holidays and letting them know that a nearby Giant store had reopened while they were away. The only problem was that the ad featured a picture of a young woman shopping in a Giant store. A young woman who was white. And Howard is a historically African-American university where the majority of the students are, well, African American.

    Casey wrote:

    While I couldn't agree more with your assessment that Giant screwed up with this ad, it always bothers me when we see this kind of reaction.  Sure, it would have been smarter for Giant to feature a model of the same ethnicity as the target market but many react to this stupid mistake as if it was offensive of Giant not to. I don't get that reaction at all and it makes me wonder how we are going to get to a colorblind society by focusing on our differences rather than similarities.

    I had some of the same feelings when I wrote the piece yesterday … but in the end, I think it less a matter of being colorblind or insensitive, and more a matter of simply not really knowing the customer in any sort of granular way.

    It also is worth paying attention to how the issue became far more than just a local snafu because of social media. Nothing is local in the 21st century … which is why everybody needs to be more vigilant.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    The 2013 Academy Award nominations are out this morning, and here are some of the major categories…

    Best Picture
    American Hustle
    Captain Phillips
    Dallas Buyers Club
    Gravity
    Her
    Nebraska
    Philomena
    12 Years A Slave
    The Wolf of Wall Street


    Best Actor
    Christian Bale, American Hustle
    Bruce Dern, Nebraska
    Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
    Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
    Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

    Best Actress
    Amy Adams, American Hustle
    Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
    Sandra Bullock, Gravity
    Judi Dench, Philomena
    Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

    Best Supporting Actor
    Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
    Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
    Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
    Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
    Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

    Best Supporting Actress
    Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
    Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
    Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave
    Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
    June Squibb, Nebraska

    Best Adapted Screenplay
    Before Midnight
    Captain Phillips
    Philomena
    12 Years A Slave
    The Wolf of Wall Street


    Best Original Screenplay
    American Hustle
    Blue Jasmine
    Dallas Buyers Club
    Her
    Nebraska


    Best Director
    David O. Russell, American Hustle
    Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
    Alexander Payne, Nebraska
    Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
    Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

    The Oscar show will take place on Sunday, March 2.
    KC's View:
    No picks … at least, not yet. I still have some movies to see … Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, and 12 Years A Slave. (I've seen all the other major nominees…) I'm also reasonably sucre that my "should win" list will be different from my "will win" list.

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    NBC News reports that "two women and one man are dead after a shooting inside a Martin's Super Market grocery store Wednesday night" in Elkhart, Indiana.

    According to the story, "Police shot and killed the gunman, a 22-year-old white male, who lived in the area. They say the gunman had his weapon pointed at a third person when he arrived, then pointed the gun at them before they fired the fatal shots … The victims are described as a 44-year-old female shopper and a 20-year-old Martin's employee … The relationship, if any, between the two victims and the shooter is unknown. Police said the victims' bodies were found 10-12 store aisles apart."

    An investigation into the shooting continues.
    KC's View:
    Schools. Shopping malls. Retail stores. It never seems to stop. To be honest, I am not a product of a gun culture, so some of this stuff is beyond my experience. I am sympathetic to the constitutional issue, though I am not a constitutional absolutist (not even on free speech guarantees) …. and I know that sensitivities on this issue run so high that Ive hesitated in the past to comment.

    But I'm tired of hesitating.

    I figure it is only a matter of hours before someone stands up to suggest that if all the checkout people had been armed, this might not have happened. Which strikes me as utterly nuts.

    Published on: January 16, 2014

    NBC News reports that "two women and one man are dead after a shooting inside a Martin's Super Market grocery store Wednesday night" in Elkhart, Indiana.

    According to the story, "Police shot and killed the gunman, a 22-year-old white male, who lived in the area. They say the gunman had his weapon pointed at a third person when he arrived, then pointed the gun at them before they fired the fatal shots … The victims are described as a 44-year-old female shopper and a 20-year-old Martin's employee … The relationship, if any, between the two victims and the shooter is unknown. Police said the victims' bodies were found 10-12 store aisles apart."

    An investigation into the shooting continues.
    KC's View:
    Schools. Shopping malls. Retail stores. It never seems to stop. To be honest, I am not a product of a gun culture, so some of this stuff is beyond my experience. I am sympathetic to the constitutional issue, though I am not a constitutional absolutist (not even on free speech guarantees) …. and I know that sensitivities on this issue run so high that Ive hesitated in the past to comment.

    But I'm tired of hesitating.

    I figure it is only a matter of hours before someone stands up to suggest that if all the checkout people had been armed, this might not have happened. Which strikes me as utterly nuts.