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    Published on: April 11, 2016

    by Kevin Coupe

    The Chicago Tribune had a story over the weekend about how "a microbiology professor who has tested shopping carts in major markets, including Chicago, says they're dirtier than public restrooms, diaper-changing tables, chair armrests and playground equipment, among other things." The paper suggested that an uptick in flu cases in Chicago during the flu season even might have been slowed if shopping carts were cleaner.

    It gets worse: "Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiology professor, has conducted tests on shopping carts in several markets, including in Chicago, and found that they're more likely to have E. coli present than escalators, ATM buttons and restaurant tabletops and condiment holders, among other things. Gerba said 70 percent of the shopping carts he examined in Chicago in 2014 had the presence of E. coli."

    While global sales if sanitizing wipes "are expected to grow to $11.3 billion in 2019, up from $9.1 billion last year, partly due to growing awareness about hygiene," there's also a sobering bit of information in the story - "many consumers don't use the wipes, saying they wash their hands enough already."

    In fact, in Chicago, where "Jewel, Whole Foods, Potash Markets, Treasure Island, Plum Market, Mariano's and Target are among the retailers that typically offer wet towelette dispensers," Walgreen doesn't, saying that even do it anymore, saying that "demand for them was very light."

    I just want to say that I, for one, am totally grossed out ... and while I'm not an assiduous user of such wipes for grocery carts, that's about to change. I think that it is possible to be over-cautious about germs, but dirtier than public restrooms?

    KC's View:

    Published on: April 11, 2016

    Whole Foods last week circulated a memo to suppliers in which it elaborated on efforts to make changes in its Global Grocery team as it looks to streamline its processes.

    According to the memo, "one of our biggest opportunities for improvement is timely communication, specifically around new item reviews.," and so the company has established "a new submission process" that it says is "pretty simple and doesn’t require much from you. All we need you to do is submit your new item forms, and respective new item slides, to the following alias:

    "So, instead of sending a new item email to one of our grocery buyers, you simply send it to the alias.

    "Since we will be onboarding new buyers and splitting up the category responsibilities (update pending), this process will streamline the collection of review documents.

    "Our purchasing team will be making product decisions on a weekly basis and sending you status updates regarding your submission. This should provide you with much improved lead time to plan your market strategy according to your product’s status.

    "The status update email you’ll receive will be auto-generated from a database.
    These emails will not be responded to, so please do not reply to these updates. If you have a question regarding the product decision you received, please reach out to the appropriate buyer/category manager.

    "We will have an updated list of purchasing team members and their respective categories out soon."
    KC's View:
    To the unschooled - and I would include myself in this category - this might seem like a logical streamlining, but one supplier told MNB that these moves actually exacerbate what it views as an ongoing "lack of focus on their team regarding new items, the life blood of the industry." This streamlining, the supplier said will only isolate their category managers more. 'Just send us your forms and slides and we will decide for you.' Where is the one-on-one, sharing of consumer insights, identifying needs within the retailer, and old fashioned sampling new flavors?

    That is, I think, an interesting perspective. One has to wonder if the decisions that Whole Foods lately has been making - moving to more centralized buying, opening a new chain ("365") that will be cheaper - are responses to greater competition that will make it more effective and consumer-responsive, or simply more efficient ... which won;t necessarily improve its market position.

    It is the old effective vs. efficient argument, in which too many companies mistakenly decide that they can save their way to prosperity.

    Published on: April 11, 2016

    The New York Times has a story about how, "in the span of a few short years, more than 100 companies have jumped into the meal kit game. Millions of cardboard boxes arrive on urban and rural doorsteps every month, holding everything one needs to cook dinner, down to the rice wine vinegar and panko.

    "Ingredients are packaged in exact proportions, ready to be chopped or sautéed according to well-illustrated recipe cards. In less than an hour, even a mediocre cook with salt, pepper and cooking oil can produce an Instagram-worthy meal."

    The story notes that Technomic predicts "that at the current rate of adoption, the United States meal kit market could grow by as much as $5 billion over the next decade," and that one of the companies involved, Blue Apron, claims to be shipping eight million meals a month. The Times reports that "grocery stores are trying to figure out how to get in the game, and although there are three big meal kit players on the national scene, the regional variations are, by some estimates, more than 100 and growing, each seeming more specialized than the one before."

    However, the Times writes, "Some analysts say meal kits show classic signs of a bubble that may already be leaking air. They make comparisons to the rise and fall of the grocery delivery service Webvan in the first wave of the tech boom, or meal assembly storefronts, where cooks pick recipes online and then show up to put together what are essentially fancy casseroles from precut ingredients. Such companies once opened at a rate of 40 a month in the early 2000s but have faded from view.

    "Others say this is different. Like frozen foods or the microwave oven, meal kits may be a kitchen innovation that fundamentally changes how people cook at home."
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 11, 2016

    The Albany Times Union reports that Price Chopper laid off 47 headquarters employees last week, "as part of a restructuring of the company's administrative ranks." The story calls it "part of the company's effort to streamline administrative functions and outsource others as it spends $300 million rolling out its new Market 32 stores."

    Company spokesperson Mona Golub tells MNB that the company "effected a reorganization that focused on opportunities to consolidate, outsource and eliminate administrative work at our company headquarters, reflecting our efforts to hone a lean and efficient administrative support team while we invest in our stores." She emphasized that "none of the 20,000 teammates who work in our stores or distribution center were impacted."

    Indeed, Golub said that the company has, as it works to "modernize and convert our stores to the Market 32 brand," continues "to grow the 90%+ of our workforce that fuels them. In fact, we’ve hired more than 700 new teammates in our first 4 converted stores, alone, and expect this trend to continue."

    Golub said that the success of the concept to this point suggests that Price Chopper is on the right track, and that it will be opening five more Market 32’s before the end of this month.
    KC's View:
    My general view is that companies have to balance effectiveness with efficiency ... there's nothing wrong with streamlining headquarters if the resources are being put back into the stores, as well as critical HQ functions (like buying) are not reduced to the point where they are less responsive to trends because they don't have the bandwidth. (Which, by the way, seems to be the criticism of Whole Foods in the story above.)

    By this measure, the Price Chopper/Market 32 efforts seem smart ... I'm always critical of companies that do things the way they've always done them simply because they've always done them that way, and Price Chopper/Market 32 clearly seem not to be making that mistake.

    Published on: April 11, 2016

    The Associated Press reports that Ahold-owned Stop & Shop and five chapters of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) representing employees in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract.

    The two sides had been negotiating since January on a contract to replace one that expired in February. While there had been some strike threats, no work stoppages took place and the two sides stayed at the table to hammer out a deal that the UFCW described in a press release as a “victory” for “working people in New England.”

    Details of the deal have not been disclosed. Ratification by union members still is required, and the union is scheduling a series of votes.
    KC's View:
    Glad they resolved their issues without a strike. After all, as Mahatma Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."

    Published on: April 11, 2016

    The Los Angeles Times had a long story over the weekend about how, while virtual reality "is coming to amusement parks, movie theaters and classrooms," the technology "presents a major opportunity for retailers as they try to lure fickle shoppers into their stores, particularly as consumers shift more of their buying habits online."

    Already taking advantage of the opportunity are companies like Ikea, Lowe's, Toms and North Face, which "are turning to virtual reality to sell products, boost their brands and make shopping more fun."

    For example, Lowe's in selected stores around the country is offering "a space that enables shoppers to see a 3-D mock-up of their renovation plans. Called the Holoroom, the simulated space can be personalized with individual room sizes, equipment, colors and finishings. Shoppers can give Lowe's the dimensions of a room and fill it from a selection of thousands of Lowe's products.

    "Then they slip on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to look at how all the elements play together (an employee can switch out parts of the room while the customer is still looking). The design is also viewable at home on YouTube 360 with a Google Cardboard viewer, which Lowe's gives out free through on-site vending machines."

    You can read the entire story here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 11, 2016

    • The Associated Press reports that "a group of former Walmart workers in Utah who said the company violated their right to self-defense by firing them for disarming suspected shoplifters has settled their lawsuit against the mega-chain."

    While Walmart's policies prevent employees from fighting back against belligerent or violent customers, the Utah Supreme Court recently ruled that "workers can't be fired for defending themselves if they could be hurt or killed." That ruling prompted Walmart to settle the suit, but terms of the settlement have not been disclosed.

    24/7 Wall St. reports that Walmart has "begun a Spring MegaRollback promotion on nearly 900 items," as it looks to re-establish low-price leadership at a time when it is being challenged in the segment both in bricks-and-mortar stores and online.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 11, 2016

    Re/code reports that Amazon is investing in a company called Luma, described as "one of several companies looking to reshape how home networks are managed ... Luma joins fellow startup Eero as well as Google’s OnHub among a new generation of devices aiming to offer simpler and better Wi-Fi experiences than those offered by a traditional router.: The goal is to "offer better coverage through a mesh network of multiple devices and use a smartphone app to set up, monitor and control the network."

    The story also notes that Amazon's investment "was made by the company’s Alexa fund, and Luma says it is working to see how its products might integrate with the company’s voice assistant. For example, one might be able to eventually voice commands through Alexa rather than using the Luma app."
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 11, 2016

    LA Biz reports that "discount grocer Aldi plans to open 10 new stores in Southern California on April 21. The stores include six in Los Angeles County, three in Orange County and one new store in San Bernardino County. The April grand openings are the next step in the grocery retailer’s plan to open about 45 stores in Southern California by the end of 2016, eight of which opened last month."

    The openings are part of Aldi's broader plans "to expand to nearly 2,000 stores nationwide by the end of 2018. Aldi currently operates about 1,500 stores in 33 states."

    • Gelson's Markets in Southern California has added its name to the list of companies switching to cage-free eggs. The company announced that it will convert all of its private-label packaged eggs to cage-free this year.  The company projects that close to 90% of its packaged egg sales will be cage-free by next year, with available eggs exclusively cage-free by 2020."
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 11, 2016

    We had a story last week about the brain-damaged Walmart employee fired just short of his 20-year anniversary with the company, allegedly because he lowered the price of an item to match the competition's without sufficient proof; there are suggestions that he may actually have been fired because he liked to hug customers. One MNB user responded:

    You are correct, there could be more history then we are aware of, but on its face, 20 days short of his 20 year anniversary is the story here.   To my thinking, I am certain he did nothing different then he has done in the past.  Same with the hugging.  My guess is he has been hugging people for 20 days short of 20 years and now they decide to let him go.  Sounds suspicious.  I applaud the community for standing up for him and hope they follow through.  If we all stood together on issues that affect our communities and the people in them, changes would begin to occur on a very large scale.  Companies, organizations and politicians would have no choice but to listen.  One can hope.

    Regarding our piece about the off-the-field customer service efforts of the St. Louis Cardinals, MNB user William Saldivar wrote:

    I will take the SF Giants experience over the Cards, the Giants sell out every game in an area that has a ton of other experiences to offer, Napa, Tahoe and the Monterey – Carmel area.

    I suspect most of us could argue for our home teams, but that sort of misses the point - that the Cardinals are a paradigm of organizational excellence that translates into how they perform both on and off the field.

    Regarding the controversial legislation in North Carolina that is perceived as discriminatory against the LGBT community and has been protested by many businesses as being contrary to their values, one MNB user wrote:

    I’m still trying to figure out why any business would want to alienate a potential customer. I can respect an opinion but I’m certain that going to the far left or far right isn’t a good business decision. I do agree it’s sad the Carolina list isn’t longer but it’s the South. However, I do not agree with the implication if you are not on the opposing list you are supporting discrimination. If being on either side of the list means you could lose a potential customer then it’s a smart business decision to remain silent.  As progressive as we think our country is we still have a wealth of racism, bigotry and ignorance.

    On the other hand, one could cite Edmund Burke: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

    My comments about the North Carolina law last week led to accusations that not only was I being a "lefty," but was even being disingenuous about my politics.

    MNB user Bill Gregory responded:

    I do not always agree with your positions.  

    But I do appreciate the way you avoid the use of overused labels like "left", "right", "conservative" and "liberal" when you express your opinions.   I can overdose on those labels anytime on cable TV, talk radio, and most other media in this election year.

    Such labels usually define the shooter better than the target.

    Please continue to share your honest analysis and I will continue to read, enjoy, and learn.

    I try to avoid being an ideologue ... mostly because I try to keep in mind the line from the great Pete Hamill, who said that ideology largely is a substitute for actual thought.

    Sometimes, though, I apparently am guilty of undue bias, as one reader explained:

    Since the trend on this blog lately has been for the reader to tell the writer how, they the reader, prefers to have their news reported to them. I felt I had to write in to express my concern for your rather blatant bias.

    To continue the trend, I thought you should know that I ONLY read this blog for your unbiased sports coverage. On occasion I read some of the posts about Walmart and Amazon since I work in the industry and am curious about what new trends could be headed our way. But, I mainly rely on your "unbiased" sports reporting to know who won the important games in the major sports.
    Its about time someone called you out on your Mets bias. It's one thing to root for your team but quite another when you only report on your team and ignore the rest of the league. It puts your reader at a major disadvantage when they are making small talk with co-workers and they don't know that other teams even exist.

    To be frank, I don't think I will be able to continue to subscribe to this blog unless you take drastic steps to correct this bias.

    Guilty as charged. But you may be asking more than I can deliver/

    It wasn't about the same issue, but MNB user Chuck Jolley had some thoughts that seemed to be along the same lines:

    Interesting emails from some of your friends with a severe case of conservative bias, a mental state where people think it’s OK for a CEO to be paid several million dollars per month but it’s a job buster for employees who have become 80% more productive in the past quarter century to be paid even a penny more and corporate welfare is a good thing.  May I suggest that a liberal bias is morality based and a conservative bias is financially based?

    You can suggest it, but I don't think I'd agree. I'm really uncomfortable with the idea that conservative ethics are by their very nature immoral, or less moral that those of liberals. (And I certainly don't think that a liberal bias is by definition more morality-based than a conservative bias.)

    I'd like to think that one can be both fiscally wise and morally correct at the same time. (That's not to say that I don't take your highly legitimate point about CEO pay vs. minimum wage arguments.)

    Mostly what I think is that the extremes on both sides of the aisle tend to be hopelessly mired in ideological and electoral quicksand from which it is really hard to escape.

    Here's an idea. Put Barack Obama and Paul Ryan in a room and tell them that they have to come up with a plan to deal with the immigration issue which which they both can live ... and the one thing they cannot take into consideration is how it will play with their separate bases. They have to find common ground, and then negotiate compromises in the areas where they disagree. Having done that, they would then be sent back into the room to talk about other major issues, such as tax reform. My bet is that they could do that, and it wouldn't even take much time ... but the ugly reality is that whatever they negotiated probably couldn't get through the Congress.

    Responding to last week's piece about Kroger's Main & Vine experiment in Gig Harbor, Washington, one MNB user wrote:

    I’m sure you are right that the Main & Vine store is being tested as an answer to New Seasons expansion.  When asked approximately 5 years ago, a Fred Meyer executive said that New Seasons was the retailer that concerned them the most.

    On another subject, I got the following email from MNB reader Lance Hollis McMillan:

    While it might sound clever to denigrate a Palm Pilot, Blockbuster, Borders, or even the dusty library, let us not forget that without those pioneers there would be no Twitter, Smart phones, live streaming,, Spotify,  etc…for someday soon  the “latest and greatest” will also be relegated to the ash heap of days gone by. Guaranteed.

    I was not denigrating their roles as pioneers. I was pointing out that they did not do the things necessary to not be relegated to the list of irrelevant business. And they could have survived and thrived, if they realized that they needed to evolve and change.

    That was the point. That was the lesson. No apologies for that one.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 11, 2016

    England's Danny Willett won the Masters yesterday when he shot a 67 to finish at 5 under, slipping past Jordan Spieth, who had an almost historically poor back nine on the final day of the golf tournament. Willett was just the second Brit to win the Masters.
    KC's View: