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 7, 2016

    This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either ... they are similar, but not exactly the same. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

    Hi, Kevin Coupe here, and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

    On Tuesday, while in the Sunshine State to give a speech, I had the opportunity to visit the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. I was there for a specific and highly pleasurable reason: to teach one session of a class that is using the book that Michael Sansolo and I co-wrote - "The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies" - as a textbook.

    That's not as crazy as it sounds. It is actually part of a number of honors classes taught at the University of Florida, all around the concept of "uncommon reading." The idea is to create classes in which students will be challenged in different ways, forced to look at issues from different angles, and think about the world from different perspectives.

    The students in the class that I taught will meet once a week for the entire semester to talk about the lessons from the book, and extrapolate from them to talk about how storytelling can be important in their lives and careers, fictional (and nonfictional) examples of ethical and unethical behavior and their ramifications, and what we all can learn from common mythologies that the movies offer us. While the book has a business focus, these kids weren't all business students - the class was a wonderful combination of really smart kids focused on law, medicine, entertainment, journalism and a bunch of other specialties.

    When I found out that Dr. Allen Wysocki had created the class, I made sure that I worked a trip to Gainesville into my schedule ... and I'm going to do it again this semester if I can make it work. There's nothing like the charge you get from hanging out with smart kids.

    There's also a business lesson to take from this. In business and in education, we sometimes get so focused on specific issues and challenges that we forget to pay attention to the world around us, to get a continuing education in the broadest sense of those words. I feel really good about what the University of Florida is doing here - making sure that students are going beyond themselves and their major concerns to think about the world in different ways. That's good stuff.

    By the way ... I was remembering that, in fact, there was a movie that offered this same lesson. An otherwise forgettable 1983 film called Man, Woman and Child had Martin Sheen playing a college professor who is confronted by a physics major who is dropping his Shakespeare class because he's concerned that he won't excel in it, which will hurt his chances of getting a job as a nuclear researcher. Sheen's character tells the kid that as long as he takes the class, relaxes and enjoys it, he'll guarantee him an A - because "I will personally feel a hell of a lot safer knowing that there is a physicist out there who has read some Shakespeare." (It isn't a memorable movie, and mostly was an attempt to cash in on a novel written by Erich Segal after his "Love Story" hit. But somehow this scene as stuck with me for all these years ... and it has sort of informed my entire approach to writing and, lately, teaching.)

    It isn't just universities that ought to do things like this. It also is businesses, that ought to provide opportunities for people to be exposed to many different disciplines ... they'll end up more experienced, smarter, and might even provide some innovative ideas along the way that others might not have seen.

    So hats off to Dr. Allen Wysocki and the University of Florida ... and to those students, who I hope I'll get a chance to see again this semester.

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

    KC's View:

    Published on: January 7, 2016

    The New York Times reports that Chipotle Mexican Grill has been served "a federal grand jury subpoena as part of a criminal investigation seeking information about a norovirus outbreak at a California restaurant" that left 207 people sick. The subpoena is seen as "yet another setback for Chipotle, which has been struggling to contain the damage to its sales and reputation from a series of food-related illnesses among customers and employees, including outbreaks of E. coli in other states in which it closed some restaurants, and, last month, a norovirus outbreak in Boston."

    The Times writes that the issuing of the subpoena "could represent a highly unusual step by the federal authorities, which generally have tended to focus on manufacturers or farmers, rather than restaurants, in investigations of food-borne illnesses, food safety experts said. In the past, the authorities have intervened when contaminated food crosses state lines, they said.

    "But it was unknown whether Chipotle was a target of the inquiry or whether it centered on some part of the food supply chain. Federal officials declined to comment."
    KC's View:
    I don't want to get ahead of the facts here, but it seems pretty clear to me that if Chipotle is going to survive this mess, it is going to be because investigations establish that the problems originated elsewhere in the supply chain. But if it comes out that the problems are at Chipotle, and that its systems and procedures simply were inadequate or even negligent, then we're going to be adding its name to a list that includes the likes of Chi-Chi's.

    Published on: January 7, 2016

    Fast Company has a story about a new Samsung refrigerator being unveiled at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that "lets users shop for groceries from the kitchen.

    "The new appliance, called the Family Hub Refrigerator, has a 21.5-inch touch screen on its front, from which family members can shop for products at various grocery stores and have them delivered to the home.
    The refrigerator has cameras on the inside that take a photo every time the door is closed. This, Samsung says, lets users know what items need to be reordered.

    "Users can also see that view from an app on their mobile device, and pre-order food items needed for a meal they’ll prepare later when they get home."

    In addition, Samsung has partnered with MasterCard for payment services, and is working with MyWebGrocer, FreshDirect, and ShopRite to provide online grocery ordering.

    “Since launch, FreshDirect has been on a mission to get consumers great, fresh food with less friction,” Jodi Kahn, FreshDirect's Chief Consumer Officer, said in a prepared statement. “This new technology speaks directly to that mission, giving consumers a new, seamless way to shop for groceries right from their own kitchen.”

    “Commerce-enabled devices like the Family Hub refrigerator represent an unprecedented opportunity for our customers because it puts them right where the consumer path to purchase begins: in the kitchen,” added Eric Healy, president of MyWebGrocer. “We look forward to leveraging the open, API-centric capabilities of our Digital Experience Platform to advance our partnership with MasterCard and enable grocers and CPG brands to capitalize on the way in which the IoT revolution will transform the grocery shopping experience.”

    Full disclosure: MyWebGrocer is a longtime and valued MNB sponsor.
    KC's View:
    Innovations along these lines have been much discussed over the years, and it only is a matter of time before dreams and reality met in such a way that products like these could become mainstream. Without a doubt, we're pretty much there ... products like the Family Hub refrigerator or Amazon's Echo are putting us right in the middle of what could turn out to be a pretty remarkable time. And retailers have to be prepared to embrace this revolution, which almost certainly will unfold faster than anyone expects.

    Interestingly, Ford and Amazon announced at CES that they are working on an initiative "granting Ford owners unprecedented access to their connected-home devices from their cars, and vice versa." writes that "the idea is that a Ford automobile owner will soon be able to use the vehicle's Sync Connect system to use touch or voice commands to open a garage door, check a thermostat setting or turn on home lighting. While at home, that owner could ask a Ford smartphone app what the car's remaining driving range is or even program a time to start the engine."

    We had a story yesterday noting that consumers may not be as ready for all this connectivity as industry thinks they are. But I think that when it comes to adapting to and adopting technology, consumers often are way ahead of where we think they are.

    Published on: January 7, 2016

    The Washington Post has a story about how the success of the drone revolution - which is being spearheaded by companies such as Amazon, Google, FedEx and UPS looking to use drones for commercial delivery purposes - will depend not on technical issues, but on how “socio-technical" issues are addressed.

    To put it simply, getting a drone to fly from here to there to drop off a package is not the problem. Rather, it will be things like how neighborhood dogs will react, or little kids, or how neighbors will feel about drones flying over their property. It isn't the "last mile" that will be the issue, but the last 50 feet.

    "People are the problem," the story says. "And people present massive, often glossed-over stumbling blocks for delivery drones ever getting off the ground. While small drones already have been a retail hit — selling an estimated 700,000 units last year alone — some experts fear that people problems could delay the widespread adoption of more advanced, autonomous delivery drones by several years, dwarfing what many think of as the final obstacle for commercial drones: federal airspace regulations, which are expected later this year."

    And, the Post writes, "Not only are people unprepared for drones, but the infrastructure needed to accommodate small flying delivery vehicles also is missing. Houses today have mail slots and curbside mailboxes to accommodate the traditional flow of mail and packages. Nothing yet exists to make the drone’s job easier."

    “It captures the imagination because it feel like the future,” says Matthew Waite, who runs the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. “But the future is a lot harder than they make it out to be.”

    By the way ... the New York Times reports that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is saying that some 181,000 drone users "registered in the two and half weeks since the agency began requiring registration of the popular machines."
    KC's View:
    'm not as worried about Amazon and Google drones as I am about the clown next door who doesn't even know how to parallel park, and now he's out there flying drones around the neighborhood.

    As for commercial drones, they won't be for every area, and I think that certainly for a near future, they will require consumers to agree to have them land in their front or back yard. There will be mishaps and accidents, but it is hard for me to imagine that this particular genie can be put back in the lamp.

    Published on: January 7, 2016

    The Dallas Morning News reports that a new law in Texas allowing "citizens with a permit to carry handguns openly in a holster" is creating headaches for some retailers.

    The new law, according to the story, "has put retailers in a quandary, forcing them to take sides in one of the nation’s most fraught debates. Gun- rights activists are boycotting stores that forbid firearms, saying people shouldn’t be punished for exercising their rights. Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, are shunning stores that allow customers to bear arms, saying no one should have to shop where they feel unsafe.

    "Stuck in the middle are retailers loath to risk losing business from either side. Dozens of stores and restaurants across Texas, including San Antonio-based HEB Grocery Co., one of the state’s largest food retailers, have banned openly carried guns. That’s incurred the ire of activists who have vowed to shop elsewhere. Others, such as Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., have chosen not to ban firearms carried legally, inviting the scorn of gun-control advocates promising a boycott of their own."

    The Morning News writes that "managers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Texas have a new task to add to their list of duties: asking customers if they have a permit to carry a handgun ... to comply with state liquor rules, the world’s biggest retailer sent a written notice last month to stores that sell alcohol, telling managers to ensure that customers who openly carry firearms under a new law have licenses. Cashiers or door greeters who see someone with a gun are to alert the highest- ranking employee, who is to approach the customer and ask to see the paperwork."
    KC's View:
    I can't really comment on this story with any degree of objectivity or even understanding. I wasn't raised in a gun culture, and my comprehension of the Second Amendment is entirely academic, not emotional. When I think about the issue, I think about a school not to far away from where I live in Connecticut, where 20 kids and six staffers were killed by a guy with guns. But I also recognize that this is a complicated and emotional issue for a lot of people, and that my experience - or lack of it - should not be the determining factor in creating a national gun policy.

    That said, I feel really bad for those Walmart greeters who are going to be asking to see gun permits. Again, this may be my lack of experience speaking, but it just seems like a situation ripe for disaster.

    Maybe I'm wrong. And maybe I'll learn something from how this all plays out.

    Published on: January 7, 2016

    As writer Mark Bittman continues his transition from New York Times food columnist to entrepreneur, as he works as chief innovation officer for startup Purple Carrot, described as "a meal kit delivery service for vegans," he's been chronicling his experiences for Fast Company. And we've been linking to them here on MNB.

    The fourth column in the series is out, entitled "Yikes - Does My Startup Need To Become A Tech Company, After All?"

    An excerpt:

    "The main challenge of customer acquisition is lowering the cost of our product without sacrificing our quality or our values," Bittman writes. "But in almost every business that’s even remotely akin to ours—from supermarkets to magazines to online retailers—it’s customer retention that really matters, and for that we’re going to need to know our not only our current but our future customers.

    "This will take sophisticated data collection and analysis, and I’m not sure anyone has packaged what we actually need here (email me if I’m wrong please), because the notion of a mission-driven, for-profit meal kit company is a relatively new one ... We’ll know if we’re connecting with our customers, of course, by analyzing user churn and our staying power. But we won’t know whether we’re maximizing those relationships, marketing to the right new customers, and generally being the best company we can be for them without making a series of data-driven judgments about how to best make those connections."

    It is a very interesting and relevant analysis, and you can read the entire column here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 7, 2016

    • Apple yesterday announced that its customers spent $1.1 billion just on mobile applications and in-app purchases during the two weeks ending January 3 ... with New Year's Day the single biggest say, with $144 million in sales.

    During 2015, Apple said, shoppers spent $20 billion in the app store, which sells applications for iPhones, iPads, the Apple Watch and other Apple hardware products.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 7, 2016

    • The Post and Courier reports that Bi-Lo, owned by Southeastern Grocers of Jacksonville, has announced a promotion that lowers prices on 400 items, in addition to 3,000 items that saw price cuts last fall.

    The program is part of the chain’s new “Down Down” pricing program, “based on a commitment to bring prices down and keep them down,” according to a statement from the company. The story also notes that Bi-Lo is under pressure from competitors such as Walmart, Food Lion and Aldi.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 7, 2016

    • The Fresh Market announced that it has hired Pamela Kohn to be its new Executive Vice President and Chief Merchandising Officer, "responsible for enhancing the customer experience while accelerating the improvement of merchandise selection, customer value, brand messaging, and in-store experience." Kohn most recently spent a dozen years at Walmart, "in supply chain, merchandising, store operations, real estate, sourcing and merchandising operations.  During her tenure there," the company said, "she led Walmart’s perishables business and Neighborhood Market program." Before that, she held merchandising and marketing positions at both Ahold-owned Stop & Shop and Delhaize-owned Food Lion.


    • The Financial Times reports that Marc Bolland, the Marks and Spencer CEO, is stepping down, to be succeeded by Steve Rowe, currently the company's executive director of general merchandise.

    Bolland has been CEO since 2010, and, FT writes, has been under increased pressure to deliver better results: "his decision to leave comes after a tough festive trading period, during which like-for-like sales of general merchandise — essentially clothing and homewares — fell by a far bigger than expected 5.8 per cent."
    KC's View:
    Interesting choice by Fresh Market ... because it is hard to imagine two perishables approaches as dissimilar as those of Fresh Market and Walmart. I suspect it says something interesting about CEO Rick Anicetti's plans to make Fresh Market more relevant and aggressive.

    As for Marks and Spencer ... maybe I'm reading this wrong, but it sounds like they're giving the top job to the guy whose departments were giving the company the most trouble. But maybe I'm just reading it wrong.

    Published on: January 7, 2016

    ...will return.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 7, 2016

    Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza yesterday were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and will be inducted next summer in Cooperstown, New York.

    Griffey, who played his career with the Seattle Mariners and the Cincinnati Reds, ranks sixth on the all-time home run list with 630. Piazza, who played mostly for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets, is arguably the greatest hitting catcher of all time.
    KC's View:
    The good news, from my point of view, is that players tainted by the steroid scandal remain unelected to the Hall of Fame. Call me a purist ... I'm totally comfortable with that.

    The only mystery about Griffey and Piazza i which hats they will be wearing on their plaques. I'm rooting for Griffey to be wearing a Mariners cap, and for Piazza's head to be adorned by a Mets cap. But in the end, it is up to Hall of Fame officials ... the two players can express their preferences, but don't have the final word.