retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has announced that it will sue the state of Vermont over a new law requiring the labeling of food with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which led MNB reader Mike Franklin to write:

It makes me so proud to work in an industry, supported by an association, that understands the truth will confuse shoppers.. I can only hope that they can find a way to also suppress books that are negative of our industry. Life would be so much better without those pesky shoppers that want to know what’s in their food…don’t shoppers know our industry knows what’s best for them.

I share your cynicism.

MNB yesterday took note of an interesting piece in the New York Times that essentially suggested that Walmart has been cooking the books - not in any sort of illegal way, but enough to allow senior executives to qualify for bonuses that they might not otherwise have received, based on company performance.

Which prompted one MNB reader to write:

Walmart has done nothing wrong... why make a case?  Oh yes...just because they are Walmart.

Just because something isn't illegal doesn't mean that it should be ignored. I don't know about you, but I think it is fascinating when a company appears to have created an accounting system that rewards senior executives regardless of whether they really hit their numbers, especially at a time when it is making other cuts.

BTW…I would find this fascinating if the story were about any company. (And I'm sure there are other companies that could have been the focus.) This just happens to be about Walmart, which is, after all, the world's biggest retailer.

Besides, I totally believe in the dictum (first said by Finley Peter Dunne) that the role of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Regarding the dispute between Amazon and Hachette, which seems to have the e-tailer slowing the availability of its books in retaliation for not cutting prices enough, one MNB user wrote:

MFunny...when companies are small, all things are great with world...but as they grow and have to compete with other large corporations, then we lose sight of what companies are forced to do to compete.

The problem here is not that Amazon is simply doing what it needs to do to compete, and we've just lost sight of reality. I think the problem is that there seem to be signs that Amazon may be losing sight of the customer-centric focus that always has made it different.

MNB reader Dean Balsamo wrote:

This not directly related to the publisher spat with Amazon but with the possibility that it’s growth might be affecting it’s service.

For over 12 years I’ve been a steady Amazon customer…a Prime member since the service started and like many have seen my purchases grow over the years to the point where I’m now ordering some grocery items like a certain brand of Lapsang Souchang tea and of course tons of books.

But last week two unusual for Amazon  things happened with my orders…things that I’d never experienced in hundreds of orders with Amazon:

One: They sent the wrong 6 box pack of tea. Same company’s tea and similar packing but they sent Scottish Breakfast tea instead of my order. I got to keep the wrong tea and they sent the right one a few days later but…I’d never had a wrong order with Amazon.

Then a few days later they informed me that a book I’d ordered-a used book they said was in the “Amazon warehouse”…was not there…they couldn’t fulfill the order.

Twice in the same week after never having a problem with an Amazon order seems strange to me. Does it  mean anything? I don’t know but it was unusual.

I don't believe in coincidence.

From still another reader:

You are right on when you caution Amazon is messing with a good thing and treading on dangerous ground.   Sensitive thing, the topic of books and manipulations of what you should and should not read… They have enjoyed being my first go-to  place on books for some while now but the appearance of diversion games and power mongering are getting annoying and are alarming. I had to hunt and hunt to find a book in its original state as they kept pushing an Oprah annotated version as an only option.  Gratefully a reviewer warned me or I would have purchased it unwittingly. I like Oprah, but did not seek any annotations, just the author’s artistry. What financial arrangements conjured that diversionary ploy? As I read of the games you write about, my inclinations to wander from Amazon increases. My trusty standby is not perhaps so trusty…  I want a book vendor, not a book gestapo.  Where can they be relied upon to draw the line?

Responding to our piece about Netflix prices going up, but only for new customers, MNB reader Kevin Ellis wrote:

About a week before your report I got a notice from Netflix saying my monthly charge is going up $1 a month.  I have been a subscriber for several years.  Apparently not all current subscribers are grandfathered for not rate increase.

Hmmm…I went back to check the email they sent me, and it read:

In order to continue adding more movies and TV shows, we are increasing our price from $7.99 to $8.99 for new members. As a thank you for being a member of Netflix already, we guarantee that your streaming plan and price will not change for two years.

Do me a favor. Forward me the email that Netflix sent you. I'm happy to check it out and report back.

Another MNB reader wrote:

Sign of the times...Corp Taxes and regulations coming from this Administration continue to raise costs....this will not be the last increase. Some of us remember when your cable bill was only 39.95 per month…hello?

I do find it interesting that for some folks, it doesn't matter that Netflix said - and we reported - that the monthly streaming membership fee was going up a buck because it is investing the money in original productions. Nope, you decide that it really is corporate taxes and government intervention that is causing the increase.

To be sure, I hate it when unnecessary government intervention and expenses cause prices to increase. On the other hand, when those expenses are related to public safety, such as, say, food inspections and infrastructure improvements, I'd rather pay a little more than get sick or have a bridge go out while I'm on it. Maybe that's just me.

One other thing. Yes, I do yearn for those days when the cable bill was $39.95. But if I remember correctly, my cable bill was that low when I had one set hooked up, there were a lot fewer channels, and the cable company wasn't also providing my wi-fi access and my telephone service. Do I think cable charges are out of whack, largely because of lack of competition? Sure. But I also try to keep in mind that you have to compare apples to apples. (When was the last time you paid long distance charges?)

I'm just saying.

MNB reader Edward Zimmerman sent me the following note about yesterday's Eye-Opener about how Nikki, at our local Starbucks, offered my college-age daughter exceptional customer service:

Fantastic story, excellent way to begin a Monday morning – BTW, good luck to Ali on her finals.

Thanks. I'm proud to say that she's gotten four of her final grades back, and so far for the semester she has a 4.0 grade point average. There could not be a prouder father out there right now than I am.

About the same story, MNB reader David Peterson wrote:

I know you have a penchant for bending things in society to fit with your “eye opener” theme, but really – could it be that Nikki was doing it out of kindness and caring for your daughter and not because she is “smart and savvy …, working with her eyes open and making a difference one customer at a time”.


When I wrote that piece yesterday, it never was with the intention of casting a cold and cynical eye on what Nikki did. Rather, I agree with you - I think she was being kind and caring, qualities that made her a better retailer, and allowed her to make a difference. I don't think the two rationales are mutually exclusive…rather, I think they worked together to create an exceptional customer experience.

And from another:

I liked your piece about your daughter's experience with a great Starbucks barista.   Just a thought:  with all the Sbux consumption in your household, wouldn't it be more sustainable for all of you to have re-usable mugs?   I keep one in each of my cars, hermetically sealed in a ziplock bag, so that when I get coffee to go, I just take it into the shop with me.  It's easy to just wash it at home and put it back in the bag.   (When "dining in,"  I always request a real mug.)   If you're using reusable bags for grocery shopping, you can easily remember to do this and reduce the number of coffee cups, lids and sleeves that enter the waste stream.   I don't mean to sound preachy, but we can all do our part, and it's easier than you think!

Just trying to spread the word....  :)

Thats for the advice.

Not to be defensive, but usually the vast majority of my Starbucks coffee consumption is at home, where I make it myself and use a real mug. (I also take it with me on the road.) These days, I must confess, I've been going down to Starbucks to buy coffee more often because we're having some kitchen work done and as anyone who has gone through such a thing knows, it makes life hugely inconvenient.

Finally, I loved this email, received last week:

You feeling ok?

In one post, you criticize Amazon and defend Walmart.

Knock it off – I read you to get an outside-of-Bentonville view of my company. It helps me with my epistemic closure.

I figured those stories would throw people who pay attention to my various biases.

But what can I say? I have to make sure that I'm not guilty of epistemic closure, too.
KC's View: