retail news in context, analysis with attitude

I continue to get email setting me straight about the Blue Bell ice cream obsession that seems to be shared by folks in one part of the country, and that many feel will not subside despite the problems the company has had with listeria in its ice cream.

MNB reader Mike Julian wrote:

Kevin, never in my all too many years in the grocery business have I ever seen a Brand have a cult like obsession from such a large and wide spread section of the consuming population as Blue Bell. In the marketing area we call TOLA (TX, OK, AR, & LA) I have no doubt the consumer demand will cause retailers to restock the product as soon as production is available. There are people in my neighborhood in The Woodlands TX with signs in the front yard that say “God Bless Blue Bell."

And MNB reader Rich Heiland wrote:

I lived for 11 years in Quechee, VT. Think Ben & Jerry's, particularly the B&J of the old days, and you have Blue Bell mania.

Okay. If you say so.

MNB reader Jim Mahern saw an opportunity to pull together comments on three stories - Blue Bell, A&P's continuing troubles, and the "Millennial Mind" essay written the other day by Portland State University student Chelsea Ware:

Your comments on Blue Bell and Chelsea were thought provoking to an old grocery sales guy like me. I do believe that Blue Bell can survive as a brand with most of their loyal customers. If you remember the Tylenol scare many years ago, a lot of "experts" predicted the brand would not survive. I guess they are allied with those economists who "predicted nine of the last three recessions".

As for Chelsea, every new generation claims that the older generation does not understand them. I am sure that Chelsea is a smart student based on her writing, but I bet her college education will still take four years just as business takes time, hopefully not too much, before figuring out how to attract new customers ... Certainly all businesses must learn how to deal with "millennials" but also continue dealing with "perennials", those who come back repeatedly because of a company's reputation and customer service.

As for A&P, my mother shopped there when I was a kid. I called on an A&P buying office as a young Procter & Gamble salesman in the 60's. They always seemed to be somewhat behind the times even then, both in the store and at headquarters. I guess it has finally caught up with them.

Two quick comments.

The difference between the Tylenol and Blue Bell situations is that Tylenol's problem was not self-inflicted. To me, that's a deal breaker.

As for Chelsea's column, you seem to think she was whining about not being understood. That's not at all what she was doing. Rather, she was making an important point - that in addition to catering to perennials, businesses better start figuring out the most effective way to appeal to young people's hearts, minds and wallets.

One other thing. A reputation is what you got for what you did yesterday. And customer service only matters if it is relevant to today's and tomorrow's customers.

From another reader, regarding Chelsea's column:

Chelsea is spot on in her analysis of preferences of millennials…and she didn’t even need to mention the preference for online shopping which goes hand in hand with her comments about the need to have a car.  My son is 28, likes cars but still finds no need to own or lease one.  He lives outside a major city with great public transportation.  He walks everywhere.  He says he has better things to do with his time than sit in hours of traffic commuting and prefers to put that money toward paying off a student loan.

On the subject of Starbucks opening in low-income, minority neighborhoods, we got a number of emails making the same, legitimate point.

One MNB user wrote:

I do applaud Starbuck’s for opening stores in economically challenged neighborhoods. These young men and women could certainly use the jobs. I am wondering who will be the customers? When I am tight on cash, I don’t spend $3 or $4 for a cup of coffee. Just curious to see how this plays out. I do wish them luck, those neighborhoods have had their share of bad luck, now would be nice to see good luck for a change.

MNB reader Bob Vereen wrote:

I don’t understand this.   Drinks from Starbucks are expensive.  How can people in low-income areas afford them?  If they open, bet they won’t stay open long, unless it is for PR purposes, not profitability.

From another reader:

What's missing from Starbuck's announcement about low-income area stores that will truly serve the community - and I praise that - is what coffee will cost. It would seem that absent some alternative pricing there might be a problem in terms of neighborhood affordability. Can they, and should they, be selling coffee in low-income areas for higher income prices? Some might argue that's not what those folks need to be spending precious dollars on. I can't help but believe Starbuck's has thought of this and I will be interested to see what they do.

And from another reader:

Great employment opportunities for young people in the community but will the community be able to afford the price points offered by the coffee giant?

And another:

From 1983-1986, I worked in the in-house advertising department for Zayre stores. Remember Zayre? It was the discounter that “owned" the East Coast and one of the reasons that Wal-Mart remained a regional player. It was considered a philanthropic outfit — socially committed in today’s parlance. Store managers had a discretionary budget to be used for community and neighborhood projects, like sponsoring Little League and Pop Warner teams or supporting school endeavors (no soccer teams back then). Now this story may be apocryphal — it happened before I joined the company — but according to office legend, when Miami’s Liberty City erupted in riots in 1981, the only business in the area that wasn’t torched was the Zayre store. Why? Because it was more than a business in the area. It was the business that supported the kids in the neighborhood.

My guess is that there are several things at play here. One is that Starbucks will have some pricing elasticity that will allow its products to be more affordable. There's also probably a sense that if you improve a neighborhood by being there and offering jobs, the riding tide will lift all boats, and some of those boats will sail toward Starbucks. And, I think this is in some ways an experiment, and an investment.

Somebody has to do it, and I'm glad Starbucks is embracing the challenge.

Regarding my FaceTime video there about how to learn, one MNB reader wrote:

First time writer, long time reader. This one resonates deep with me. I have worked for my company for 40+ years, which I believe to be a milestone that is seldom achieved this day in age. I started out in retail at the bottom, I bagged groceries for 2 years, before my first promotion. I have since made many “moves” and have achieved what I believe has been an interesting and rewarding career (I will likely retire from a technology role based on the business). What I find interesting about your Tyrone story; technologists (IT Geek types) could be far more valuable if they spent even a week working in a retail store learning about what the customer experience is all about and if they understood how what they build in a technology lab impacts the retail experience and what is on peoples “tables” for dinner tonight. I resoundingly agree with your take. To learn, you have to do.

And MNB reader Krag Swartz wrote:

Beautiful lesson told beautifully.  Thanks for sharing this one.

Finally, from MNB reader Theresa Ruppert:

You could have been writing my story and actually you have helped to write it.  I have read your column for years.  I joined Amazon Prime because it is more than free shipping. I joined Netflix because it had unique content that  I wanted to watch.  I bought an iPhone because I am now an Apple loyalist. They are no longer just products or services, but have become an integral part of people’s lives.  You really should have been a paid spokesman for the 3 companies.

For the record, I'm not. But you point about how superior brands become integral to people's lives is spot on.
KC's View: