retail news in context, analysis with attitude

I got a number of emails about our story regarding Bill Nye the Science Guy, who has changed his mind and now is in favor of GMOs in food; he apparently was persuaded after spending time with scientists at Monsanto.

MNB reader Timothy A. Bastic wrote:

On this subject I do not put a lot of credence in anything Monsanto or Con Agra say as some of the staff at the governing bodies (I believe it is the FDA) that regulate this industry are former executives of Monsanto and ConAgra.  Seems to me as if this is a “conflict of interest”.  This is  what I have come to know through researching and reading on this topic of GMO’s….. For what it’s worth.  In my opinion anything that is not naturally grown cannot be good for the consumer.

Go figure. A conflict of interest in government. Next thing you'll tell me is that there is a trend toward hiring foxes to guard henhouses.

From another reader:

Obviously, you couldn’t print this, but my first thought was that Monsanto made the Science Guy an offer he couldn’t refuse.

And why can't I print it?

I think a lot of people pondered at least that possibility, though most of us probably dismissed it. After all, if you can't trust Bill Nye the Science Guy...

That said, there is a long history of scientists who are willing to adjust their view or adopt a kind of myopia when one big organization or another is willing to write a check. Just look at all the so-called scientists who were willing to say that smoking didn't cause cancer.

MNB reader Randal O'Toole wrote:

I’m disappointed in your view that there should be mandatory labeling for so-called GMOs. (I say so-called because almost all foods have been genetically modified over the last several thousand years, but the foods targeted here are only a small fraction of the total.)

I can see the point in putting a label on cigarettes or some other hazardous material. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that so-called GMOs are hazardous to anyone. At the same time, due to confusion spun by a few special-interest groups, mandatory labeling of those foods would be the kiss of death in the marketplace.

So-called GMOs have the potential of dramatically increasing food supplies, which is a good thing for everyone. The only labeling should be voluntary. If someone wants to label their foods, “GMO-free,” they should be allowed to do so as long as they don’t falsely imply there are any health benefits. But a mandatory label will confuse consumers even more into thinking that so-called GMOs could have the same effects on human health as cigarettes.


Sorry I disappointed you.




I wrote yesterday about the importance of targeted marketing efforts, which led one MNB user to write:

“Targeted” marketing requires a “loyalty program” which (up to this point at least) requires some type of a loyalty or customer card.

What about those retailers that have resisted card programs? The ones that have even promoted their EDLP or “No Card Required Here” strategies as the antithesis of “gimmick” marketing?

How do they fare in this effective marketing debate?


I think it ramps up the pressure to be really good at what they do.

I'm not saying they cannot do it. WinCo is a great example of a highly disciplined, highly effective company that does not, to my knowledge, use any sort of loyalty marketing scheme.

But I continue to believe that the more you know about individual customers and their specific shopping habits, the easier it is to connect with them in fundamental ways.

It is as simple as this.

I love dogs. I don't like cats. So you should never, ever send me a cat food coupon. Because if you do, you waste my time, your money, and demonstrate that you are irrelevant to my needs and demands.




Regarding the great dress debate, MNB reader Monte Stowell wrote:

I am in total agreement with you as to how trivial this frenzy has been over the color of a dress. The media got ahold of this one and it boggles my mind how simple minded people are today on the inter-net and how the national media has dumb downed in the content of what they report. There are a helluva a lot more important things going on in this world than what color a dress is or is not. Great marketing yes, but don’t people have more important things to do in their lives than to tweet, etc.?

You misunderstand my position.

I don't think the story is trivial at all.

Is it important? Not in the grand scheme of things. But I do think it was interesting, revelatory, and when it was all over, many of us learned a little more about science than we knew before, and how can that be a bad thing.

Plus ... and this is the most important thing to me ... it offered a great metaphor for business about perception and reality, playing in many ways into what Michael Sansolo wrote about when he pondered the notion of a "filter bubble," and what I often write about when I talk about epistemic closure.




By the way, we got a lot of "attaboy" emails regarding Michael's "filter bubble" column this week.

One example:

Great article Michael!

This is a topic that needs to be talked about more and in a larger forum! Consumers are putting so much faith in what they read on line and yet not truly knowing how factual the information is. How often you hear, “ I know this because I read it on line”!

It’s another tear in the structure of humankind, where technology is replacing physical trust and social interaction.  There may be a future where the human race will no longer know how to interact with each other on an in-person environment as opposed to on line.

How often you see children texting and insta-graming and yet when they’re in a room full of other kids they can’t carry a verbal conversation. Maybe it’s a reach, but where is society headed?





Regarding Target's decision to eliminate a couple of thousand jobs, one MNB user wrote:

It continues to undermine the trust employees have in Senior Management when their decisions can affect thousands of employees who many most likely did not have anything to do with the Canada departure. What does it say to an organization that does not care for those who are treated like a cost not an asset.  It’s not just Target. We have seen it time and again; Walmart, Best Buy, Radio Shack, Tesco, McDonalds, on and on and on. Those on the top of the ladder will just move on to another high level job and those at the bottom that relied on their job to provide food on the table now will not eat.  As Yoda might say, “Conscience, none they have”.




I wrote the other day about how Costco is switching from American Express to Citigroup's Visa as its card of choice, prompting one MNB user to write:

Interesting story and I disagree with your take on the affect it will have on Costco.  As a former small business owner, my experience with refusing to take Amex due to their business practices did not affect my volume at all.  In hundreds of transactions, I never had a customer tell me if I didn’t take Amex, they couldn’t pay and 90%+ did not act surprised.  However, if I had not taken Visa, I may have well as closed my doors.

And from another:

This is going to be a boon for Costco in terms of average transaction size as more customers than ever will use a credit card, no longer limited to their bank balance.  I think they may see a similar increase as when grocery retailers started to take cards.

And another:

The problem with Costco changing from Amex to Citigroup is that they made a decision on behalf of thousands of members without member input (unless I missed the vote).  Pretty sure that less people have Amex than other cards due to the higher annual fee.  Costco made it an easier decision to get Amex since you were eventually credited the fees back through your purchases.

If you have the Costco Amex card only because you shop at Costco, then you now have a card you probably don’t need that also will likely require an annual fee.  Then keep in mind that canceling a credit card impacts your FICO score.  Also, what if you had setup automatic payments to that card for such things and household utilities, your Netflix account, internet provider, mobile phone etc.  Now you are stuck with that card or will need to move all those auto-payments to another card.  In this case Costco definitively did not have their members in mind.





Finally, yesterday's Eye-Opener used Hillary Clinton's email flap as a business metaphor.

To recap ... The New York Times reported that when she was Secretary of State during the first four years of the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton did not use an official State Department email account, but rather used a personal email account. What this means is that there is no official record of her email communications as seems to be required by law, and that Clinton - and not the State Department - controls the emails, though she certainly can be compelled to provide them if subpoenas are issued.

I wrote yesterday, in part:

Let's forget the politics of the situation for a moment. Here's what I cannot understand, and where the business lesson is.

There should have been someone in the room at the State Department, or someone in the Clinton orbit, who could have and/or should have said, "This is a bad idea. Not just on the legal face of it, but because it plays into every negative stereotype about the Clintons. Especially if you want a political future beyond being Secretary of State, you need to be not just as transparent as everybody else, but more transparent. The only way you can control the narrative is by subverting conventional wisdom, not by confirming it."

Now, I suppose that it is possible that somebody did say this, and was ignored.

Which is the second part of my point. Somebody has to be willing and able to make the contrarian and unpopular argument, and then somebody has to listen.

I have made this argument in other contexts over the years. Many newspapers now have public editors or ombudsmen who serve as critics of policies, procedures and decision-making processes ... and they do it public, on the pages of those newspapers, because they know that at a time when the media has declining credibility, it is necessary. I've always thought that companies like Walmart (I'm not picking on Walmart here, just using it as an example) or General Motors ought to have a person in senior management whose job is not to drink the Kool-aid. (Some companies seem to be largely run by people who get their haircuts from the same barber, buy their suits from the same shops, drive cars from the same dealership, and worship at the same churches. That's not healthy, in my view.)


But of course, lots of people cannot put the politics aside.

One MNB user wrote:

To be clear, this was a crime also.

And another wrote:

In the interest of accuracy, I am reliably informed there is not and was not a legal requirement for a Secretary of State to use an official versus personal email account, and there is actually precedent for it.

What is NOT customary is for those emails not to be turned over to State (or some Federal agency, not sure about which) and archived by the department. Which is where Hilary apparently differed from the expectation.


And from another:

Colin Powell did it, too.

I guess we know how these folks are likely to vote in 2016.

The thing is, I think what's important to think about here is the lesson that this story teaches us about how to conduct ourselves. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do something. (That's the lesson.)

MNB reader Elaine Howard got my point:

Your comments were on target. Reminds me of one of my favorite TED talks—Margaret Heffernan’s Dare to Disagree. Someone has to not be afraid to drink the Kool Aid!

And every once in a while, it's nice to confound people a bit, as in this MNB reader:

Not bad, KC, for someone I have always been lead to believe leans left.... Having business connections in DC and knowing people who know these kinds of shenanigans...there is no way on Gods green earth that Mrs. Clinton did not know exactly what she was doing !!
KC's View: