business news in context, analysis with attitude

Starbucks recently named its longtime counsel to be chief partner officer, and I commented that if I were an employee I would not necessarily be thrilled to learn that the company's lawyer now is my main liaison to management.

MNB reader Melissa Setser responded:

Come on, let’s not lump ALL attorneys into one bucket…maybe the appointment is a little odd, but…there are many attorneys out there (present company included!) who are compassionate leaders who’d advocate very strongly that a company treat its employees with kindness, giving broad guardrails and opportunities for success and growth within the company.

Fair enough. I gave in to my anti-attorney reflex. The good news is that reflex kicks in far less often than my anti-banker reflex.

We had a story the other day about how President Trump continues to conflate the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post with the Bezos-founded Amazon, criticizing the latter for not collecting/paying taxes while being angry at the Post for what he perceives as unfair critical coverage. MNB reader Brian Blank responded:

The Orange Menace tweeting about ANYBODY’S taxes just raises my blood pressure!  But then I’m reminded of that it seems that anytime he casts aspersions or throws accusations at others - he’s talking about himself (“crooked Hillary”, “lock her up”, “Mexicans are rapists” to name just a few examples).

Our recent story about Albertsons prompted some email suggesting that what the retailer really needs to do is adjust its approach to slotting allowances. One MNB reader chimed in:

I mentioned to a wholesaler client that we weren’t required to pay slotting to any of our customers but them. They replied, “We believe slotting keeps companies from bringing us items that don’t fit.”

This triggered two thoughts, which I kept to myself. (It was actually three thoughts, but the first one was brief and foul and not terribly instructive.) One, slotting is a profit center for you pure and simple and it takes money away from consumer-facing promotions. Two, if you were any good at doing your job you could determine which items “fit” and which don’t and get behind the “fits” and provide a service to your stores who are looking for items consumers want to buy.

I've always believed that slotting allowances tend to be a corrupting, corrosive influence.

Regarding Chipotle's new food safety problems (customers getting norovirus, rats dropping from the ceiling of one of its stores), and the suggestion that the chain could be a victim of a conspiracy, MNB reader Rick Werner wrote:

Full Disclosure:  I am a dedicated Chipotle fan, especially when I’m on the road looking for good food at a reasonable price.
I don’t put a lot of stock in the conspiracy theories, but stranger things have happened.  I am more interested in how many norovirus incidents occur at other fast food outlets that go unnoticed.  It is a very widespread virus that is notoriously difficult to control.  Chipotle may suffer from an excess of scrutiny more than an excess of food safety issues.

From another reader:

If you watch "Billions" on Showtime - Paul Giamatti is fantastic, as an aside -   Episode 11 (which I just streamed last night via my subscription through Amazon) of the current season is a dramatization of the short sell/corporate sabotage you mentioned!  Worth checking out…maybe these conspiracy theorists are on to something!

I'm a big "Billions" fan, and I'd forgotten about that. Good point.

Yesterday I quoted a nutritionist as saying that consumers want good health, not good nutrition. Prompting one MNB reader to write:

I would value a better understanding of how to discern between “better nutrition” vs. “better health.” Did the nutritionist offer any additional guidance?

I think the point was that consumers are more interested in the end result than the process ... and that effective marketing/merchandising is best positioned in that way.

Another email, from another reader:

Hy-Vee recently opened a brand new store in Austin, MN that my wife and I
visited last night. We only go there to get what we can't get at the Aldi
across the road, because we find the prices to be out of control,
especially in the health market area of the store, which is really the only
reason we go there.

It was about 9:00 PM. (Aldi was closed) when we went to the bakery area
looking for a loaf of fresh sour dough and found the cases all empty and
the people staffing the area cleaning up for the night. Assuming the bread
had just been put to bed for the night, my wife asked if she could get a
loaf and was told that it had been thrown away. When we left (after buying
nothing) I drove around to the back of the store, curious and a bit
irritated, and sure enough, there was a worker emptying an entire rack of
fresh bread into a dumpster.

Maybe I'm just naïve, and this is standard grocery practice, but it sickens
my wife and me how they charge exorbitant prices while the store is open,
only to throw away what they're not able to squeeze our community with when
it's time to go home. Seems to me the local Salvation Army....somebody....would be able to make good use of that bread and whatever else they chuck.

As I said, maybe this "if we can't profit from it, then nobody gets it" practice happens all the time, but that doesn't make it right, especially
considering Hy-Vee's website has a Charitable Giving page boasting their
community citizenship practices.

We decided from now on we'll make the 40 mile trip to Rochester to visit a
real health foods store, and a less expensive one at that. We have that
luxury, but many don't.

On the subject of counterfeit products sold via Amazon, MNB reader Bob Thomas wrote:

If or when Alibaba comes to the US market a way for Amazon to differentiate itself is to do a much better job removing suppliers with counterfeit products.  The best way to do that is to work with the Trademark owners.

I totally agree. I've always felt that this is an Amazon responsibility, and that it needs to redouble its efforts not to sell counterfeit items while respecting companies that do not want to sell their products on its site.

Finally, chiming in about LL Bean's new positioning efforts, MNB reader John Rand wrote:

I love their stuff, although I am not by any means the sort of person who buys anything without comparison shopping. But I was an early convert to online for clothing, and one thing has prevented me from being more enthusiastic about LL Bean: in my experience, they offer free shipping but you have to pay postage on returns. Most of the places where I also buy clothing follow the “Zappos” model of zero friction/zero risk for the consumer where return slips are in the box with the purchase and the return freight is pre-paid.

This became quite irksome when they actually made a shipping error to me and sent the wrong item – but expected me to pay for its return and replacement. I complained and they made it right (regaining one point of a two point loss!) but it shouldn’t have needed me to spend time and effort to make the case and get a refund after the fact.

I have friends who work there, they are a great employer, and I have enjoyed their stores since I was a college student in Maine and a trip to Freeport in the middle of the night was one of those odd things students do in a Maine winter (the original store being famous for being open 24/7/365).  I love their stuff. And they make few mistakes, and I make very few a as a purchaser. I usually order the right size, the colors are not usually hard to rely upon, all the odd things that can go wrong between the sales floor and the fitting room are rare – but they do happen
But it is not customer centric to make me pay for the few mistakes that occur.

KC's View: