retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Despite my endless efforts to find interesting and sometimes obscure business lessons, I get powerful reminders of two contradictory bits of business wisdom.

1. Keep it simple, stupid, because simple usually works.

2. Sometimes it has to be complex and if you do that well, you can win.

Last week I had the opportunity to join a group of retailers from Latin America on a tour of supermarkets in the New York City area. Just on the surface, that’s an interesting turn of events. Not so long ago, New York was hardly the most innovative retail market in the country.

Now, thanks to new entries, the Big Apple and surrounding suburbs provide a wide range of retailers breaking barriers in supermarkets, convenience, drug and almost every other kind of retail. Yet it was one of the market’s long-standing operators that gave the group a lesson in world-class execution of simple ideas.

That operator was Stew Leonard’s. Sure, the group loved the quirky layout, the colorful décor and the incredibly engaged staff. But what got the retailers talking endlessly were two simple items.

First was a display of avocados, an item you can find in pretty much any supermarket. Yet Stew’s did it differently. At Stew’s store in Yonkers, NY, the display featured a simple selling device, dividing the avocados in three groups: today, two days and four days. In other words, the display explains exactly when a shopper needs to start making guacamole.

So simple, yet so brilliant and the retailers loved it.

What’s more they were blown away by the sensible nature of Stew’s cross merchandising. At two locations in the store tomatoes, basil, olive oil and mozzarella were merchandised together as the building blocks for caprese salad. Simple, but brilliant.

Yet not everything is so simple. In Northern New Jersey the retailers were taken aback, with good reason, at both Wegmans and the new Village ShopRite in the Morristown area. Both stores feature stunning prepared food departments, each with a wide range of cuisines from the most basic pizza and sandwiches to increasingly complex international fare.

Still that wasn’t what got the group. Rather it was that both stores - especially Wegmans - featured a heavy emphasis on price in both fresh departments and throughout grocery. As one retailer from Buenos Aires protested, that combination isn’t ever supposed to exist.

That retailer - who is very successful in his own country - said the conventional wisdom in retail is you cannot offer too many attributes. You can’t win on price and service, convenience and pizzazz all at the same time. He likened it to the age-old business adage that when it comes to “good,” “fast” and “cheap,” you can only have two of the three benefits. Never all three.

The more the retailers compared notes, the more they came to the realization that old adages aren’t as relevant today. The non-stop competitive battles taking place through the US have forced every retailer to make one of two choices: get a lot better or prepare to close up.

The looming specter of means the rules are likely to change even more.

So the lessons were clear. Creativity and simplicity matter more than ever, especially when it comes to building a great shopping experience. At the same time, being good is no longer good enough.

Today you must be confounding as well.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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