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: September 28, 2017

    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, I’m Kevin Coupe and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

    This week’s FaceTime was recorded in Portland, Oregon, where I was invited last weekend to emcee the annual City of Hope’s 29th Annual Harvest Celebration Ball, which is where members of the food industry in the Pacific Northwest came together to celebrate - and more importantly, raise money for - the hospital and research center.

    I was privileged to do it.

    It was an extraordinary evening, punctuated by a lovely speech by Dr. Bart Roep, who talked about some of the amazing diabetes-related research being done at City of Hope.

    It always has been amazing to me that kind of commitment that the food industry has shown to City of Hope - this year alone, the Pacific Northwest sector of the industry has raised more than a half million dollars. Some of it is because there are people in the industry who have been affected by cancer, and some of is just because these are good people willing to spend time and money to help those less fortunate.

    It is worth pointing out that this kind of charity does not begin and end at City of Hope. As it happens, Terry Halverson, chairman of Seattle’s Metropolitan Markets, received a lifetime achievement award from City of Hope a few years ago; just a few days ago, Terry sent me a note about a fellow named Jon Rowley, who helped bring Copper River Salmon to US supermarkets and restaurants and who, Terry said, lived a life dedicated to finding raw products and helping growers and producers popularize them and grow their businesses. Terry noted Rowley has fallen on hard times in terms of his health and finances, and needs assistance … and a Go Fund me campaign has been created, which can be found here.

    Terry thought that there would be MNB readers who would know of Rowley and been affected by his work, and he asked if I could help. I’m happy to do it.

    It is all part of the same continuum, created by an industry that believes fervently in giving. I often use this soapbox to point to companies that I believe have come up short, but today, I want to celebrate something good.

    That’s what is on my mind, and as always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 28, 2017

    by Kevin Coupe

    Businesses like the food industry depend on certain traditions continuing to take place … continued prosperity and growth, for example, depend on people of a certain age deciding to get married and have children, which inevitably leads to these same people spending more money in the store. It doesn’t matter whether they are rich or poor … the circle of life continues.

    Sometimes, though, the circle does get broken.

    The New York Times had a story the other day about how “marriage, which used to be the default way to form a family in the United States, regardless of income or education, has become yet another part of American life reserved for those who are most privileged. Fewer Americans are marrying over all, and whether they do so is more tied to socioeconomic status than ever before. In recent years, marriage has sharply declined among people without college degrees, while staying steady among college graduates with higher incomes.”

    The story goes on: “Currently, 26 percent of poor adults, 39 percent of working-class adults and 56 percent of middle- and upper-class adults ages 18 to 55 are married, according to a research brief published today from two think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and Opportunity America. In 1990, more than half of adults were married, with much less difference based on class and education: 51 percent of poor adults, 57 percent of working-class adults and 65 percent of middle- and upper-class adults were married.”

    Now, there isn’t unanimity about why. The Times notes that people on the left tend to blame the economy, while those on the right say it is a decline in moral values. I tend to think that there is a third option - that a lot of people have watched their parents endure lousy marriages and a high level of misery, and have decided that it simply isn’t for them.

    But whatever the reason, people aren’t getting married to the same degree. Which means that traditional behaviors may be falling by the wayside, which in turn means that retailers may find that traditional business patterns may be disrupted as well.

    There is, however, one other piece of Eye-Opening news. According to the Times, “as marriage has declined, though, childbearing has not.” So maybe it’ll just be single parents driving around in minivans and navigating supermarket aisles.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 28, 2017

    Consumer Affairs reports on a new online shopper study commissioned byThe Retail Feedback Group (RFG), concluding that Amazon and Walmart both get high marks.

    According to the story, “About half the consumers who engage in online shopping said they plan to continue to buy groceries online in the coming year. Those who are already making food purchases online rate Amazon highest in customer satisfaction, giving the online retailer a score of 4.63 out of five. Walmart was not far behind at 4.41.

    “Amazon edged out Walmart in several categories, rating higher for the online checkout process, the overall ordering experience, the availability of food items, and the delivery system. Walmart outstripped traditional supermarkets in the areas of the online ordering process, easy-to-find discounted items, good value, and convenient delivery/pickup.”

    The study points out that while traditional retailers with online functionality have some level of parity when it comes to delivery, in virtually every other metric they are seen as considerably behind Amazon and Walmart. And while consumers still prefer bricks-and-mortar food stores, RFG principal Doug Madenberg says that “continued improvements in the online experience - especially regarding the product selection process - could shift that balance in the future.”
    KC's View:
    I don’t there is any question that traditional retailers have to get better about improving their online experiences, integrating online into what they presumably see as their broader messages to shoppers. It should be worrying to them that Amazon and Walmart are so far ahead … because the balance is shifting to online, and they have to be relevant if they want to remain credible. Not every customer nor every shopping trip will shift to online, but how much business can they afford to lose? Ten percent? Fifteen?

    Published on: September 28, 2017

    The San Diego Union Tribune has a story about a “panel of retail experts, gathered at the University of San Diego’s Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate forum to peer into the near-term future.”

    The conclusions included: “Stores are showrooms and your purchases are delivered to your home” … “malls are places where you work out and then eat, go to your office and live around the corner” … “an autonomous car takes you to and from other shopping centers, and parking lots are repurposed for a higher and better use” … and “artificial intelligence makes it possible to order a piece of apparel without even trying it on or leaving the couch — but you still go out because you crave human interaction.”

    The surfeit of retail square footage was very much at the heart of the discussion, with the general feeling be that real estate companies will have to figure out ways to use that space, with multi-use properties appearing to the strategic key.
    KC's View:
    I think it is fair to say that there will technological developments that will make malls and physical shopping experiences even less necessary, and that we don’t even know what many of them will be. Which means that it is imperative for every bricks-and-mortar retailer to be innovating at least as quickly, finding ways to be more relevant and compelling.

    Published on: September 28, 2017

    Bloomberg reports that Walmart plans to begin offering free, same-day delivery in the New York City market, building upon two-day shipping that it has been offering there.

    Walmart, which does not have stores in Manhattan, has been heavily promoting its online capabilities through signs like the one at left, at Madison Square Garden.

    The Bloomberg story points out that “Wal-Mart and Jet have offered free two-day shipping for orders of $35 or more, an attempt to blunt the popularity of Inc.’s two-day guarantee for members of its Prime program. Rival Target Corp. offers same-day delivery for in-store purchases to parts of New York City for a fee, and will broaden that offering to more cities next year. Earlier this month, electronics retailer Best Buy Co. expanded its same-day delivery from 13 to 27 cities.”

    USA Today reports that Walmart has announced its intention to expand its Parents Choice private label baby products line, “adding nearly 120 new items and upgrading roughly 100 more … The products include eco-conscious wipes, spill-proof sippy cups, a new 53-piece bedding collection and an expanded menu featuring organic baby food.”

    The story goes on: “Enhancing its baby-product line could give Walmart an edge at attracting younger consumers just as they are starting families, an important consideration as the chain seeks to woo Millennials. The move also comes a week after a major competitor, Toys R Us, a leader in baby products with its Babies R Us sub-chain, filed for bankruptcy reorganization.”

    Bloomberg reports that Walmart “is expanding its program to clean up the products it sells, setting a 2022 target for reducing potentially harmful substances and widening the list of chemicals it wants to avoid,” aiming “to reduce the chemicals in products such as household cleaners, cosmetics, skin care and infant items by 10 percent by then, according to a company statement Wednesday

    “The new goal is the latest in the retailer’s efforts to respond to consumers seeking greener products and more information about what’s in them.”

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 28, 2017

    Amazon announced a number of new products in the Alexa voice technology system yesterday, including:

    • Echo Plus, which “has a built-in smart home hub to easily connect your smart devices—set up and start controlling lights, locks, and more in minutes—just $149.99, with a Philips Hue smart lightbulb included while supplies last.”

    • Echo Spot, which is about the size of an alarm clock and which “delivers everything you love about Alexa with a smaller design and the added convenience of a circular screen so that Alexa can show you things. The all-new Echo Spot is $129.99.”

    • Echo Connect, which serves to “connect your home phone to your compatible Echo device to call any phone number, using just your voice … Echo Connect uses your existing home phone service to make and receive calls.”

    • A new Echo, which features a modified design and better speaker.

    In addition, Amazon announced that it has struck a deal that will have Alexa technology available in every BMW and Mini starting in mid-2018.

    According to the announcement, the mobile availability will allow drivers to “ask Alexa in-car to get directions, call a business, play music or Audible content, control your smart home, check the news, and more while you're on the go - without downloading a separate app. Customers will also have access to tens of thousands of Alexa skills from third-party developers like Starbucks, NPR, and TED Talks, among others. For many requests, Alexa will provide voice responses paired with visual cards on BMW's and MINI's control display, such as to do lists or weather forecasts.”

    CNBC has as related story pointing out that “Amazon has quietly assembled a team of over 5,000 people working on Echo and the Alexa ecosystem … That’s more people working on Alexa products than consumer device makers Fitbit and GoPro have combined. Fitbit has a little over 1,700 employees, while GoPro has about 1,500.” The story notes that Amazon has close to 400,000 employees,, so “Alexa and Echo represent a tiny portion of the entire company. But rapid hiring growth reflects Amazon's willingness to invest heavily in expanding the Alexa voice platform. That number is likely to keeping increasing. According to Amazon's jobs site, there are almost 1,500 openings for jobs related to Alexa and Echo.”

    And, in one other related story, Reuters writes that “in a rare public feud between large technology companies,” Amazon said that “its Echo Show devices could no longer play videos from YouTube because the site’s parent, Google, stopped supporting the service.” There is, Amazon said, “no technical reason for that decision, which is disappointing and hurts both of our customers.”

    Google responded: ““We’ve been in negotiations with Amazon for a long time, working towards an agreement that provides great experiences for customers on both platforms … Amazon’s implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violates our terms of service, creating a broken user experience. We hope to be able to reach an agreement and resolve these issues soon.”
    KC's View:
    I am going to find the lack of YouTube videos on my Echo Show to be annoying, since I’ve really enjoyed watching recipes being prepared and then copying them; this is a big part of its functionality, and I hope they resolve this issue soon.

    As for the rest of it … wow. There is a lot about these developments that I like, though I’m wondering where I’m going to put the new devices since we already have an Alexa-based machine in almost every room of the house. But I’m also beginning to feel a little bit like Amazon is the Borg, they’re assimilating every part of my life, and resistance is futile…

    Published on: September 28, 2017

    • Staring today, Publix announced, it “will begin testing curbside grocery pickup at two locations: store #0006, Wesley Chapel, Florida, and store #0878, Valrico, Florida. In addition, Metro-Atlanta stores will begin testing curbside pickup by the end of this year.”

    Publix says that it “has been aggressively rolling out grocery delivery since July 2016. By the end of this year, Publix Delivery will be available from more than 90 percent of our stores, and we remain committed to making this service available companywide.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 28, 2017

    • Nice story in California’s Press-Enterprise about how when canyon fires in Corona forced people from their homes, a number of them found themselves in a parking lot of a local Ralphs grocery store. Which was when management and employees of the store told the residents, “If you’re hungry, take anything you’d like,” asking only that they give staff the barcodes “so they could keep track for inventory.”

    Assistant Manager Michael Soria explained it this way: “Honestly, that’s why we do this … We do this because we’re part of the community.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 28, 2017

    • Department store chain Kohl’s announced that its chief merchandising officer, former Starbucks executive Michelle Gass, will be its new CEO, succeeding the retiring Kevin Mansell.

    Kohl’s COO Sona Chawla will succeed Mansell as president.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 28, 2017

    • Hugh Hefner, who launched Playboy magazine with just a few hundred dollars in 1953, describing it as representing a fresh - as well as resolutely adolescent and male - reflection of a nascent sexual revolution, has passed away at age 91, reportedly of natural causes.

    Hefner, often seen wearing silk pajamas and squiring young and voluptuous women arounds the grounds of the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, turned the magazine into the foundation of an entertainment empire, albeit one that lost much of its relevance - and economic value - in recent years. And Hefner had intellectual pretensions, featuring in the magazine “top writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin and Alex Haley for men who liked to say they did not buy the magazine just for the pictures. In-depth interviews with historic figures such as Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and John Lennon also were featured regularly.”
    KC's View:
    One does not have to like Hefner or his Peter Pan-like existence to concede that he was a seminal figure in American publishing and an important cultural figure in terms of his ability to foment and exploit changing mores.

    Not to be unkind, but there was always something of a lounge lizard or used car salesman about Hefner. I’ll also tell you this. Probably 35 years or so ago, Mrs. Content Guy was working for a small stock market-related firm, and she worked with three or four men. They decided one year to have the office Christmas party at the New York Playboy Club, and spouses were invited. These guys all thought that it was the coolest place they’d ever been to, and saw nothing improper about the choice of venue. I went, and can tell you that we thought that it was perhaps the weirdest Christmas party we’d ever been to … and worse, the food and booze was of a lower quality than you’d get on an airplane.

    Published on: September 28, 2017

    Got the following email from MNB reader Jeremy E. Couture:

    I enjoyed your take on the movement to force those in the coffee industry to post warnings about hazardous chemicals.  Your view that “I’m going to keep drinking coffee, Black. Caffeinated. The hell with it. It is one of the great pleasures of my life” is identical to mine (I’m suspicious of the cream and/or sugar crowd).

    For me, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink alcohol, and I’ve essentially given up gluten (with an occasional indulgence).  If coffee is the cause of my demise, I will go out with a highly caffeinated, jittery smile on my face.

    We’re not entirely alike. I don’t smoke, either. But I remain a big fan of both alcohol and gluten.

    MNB reader Ray England wrote:

    I moved to California from a free state about three and a half years ago. California is such a nanny state that one can’t go into any retail establishment here without seeing these stupid “State of California Warning” signs posted everywhere. Restaurants that serve grilled foods have these signs up that warn about the cancer risk from eating foods prepared in a way that could unleash carcinogens upon you! Heck, I was at my local Lowe’s returning something that I had purchased and noticed a sign posted that warned about the cancer risks of inhaling sawdust! Why? Because Lowe’s sells wood! It is absolutely idiotic. But it is California.

    Price of living in Paradise.

    Responding to Kate McMahon’s column comparing roasted chickens - and roasted chicken prices - at Whole Foods, Costco and Stop & Shop, MNB reader Lisa Malmarowski wrote:

    The Costco chickens may be cheap but how are they raised? Where are they from? Who are the farmers?

    You’re comparing apples to oranges here but I get it - cheap meat no matter the real cost. But that’s cool - a $4.99 chicken is pretty much everything wrong with our American food system summed up in one, cheap bird.

    Kate quoted a Costco exec as saying that his company was willing to lose a lot of money on roasted chickens in order to keep the price point at $4.99, prompting MNB reader Joel Yochem to write:

    Those folks coming in for the $4.99 chicken walk out with a whole lot more than a $4.99 chicken. Costco is by no means “eating” $30 to $40 million a year.
    Costco is a smart marketer.

    On another subject, from MNB reader Alana Larrick:

    One of the other readers today had a comment about the NFL players having a “long standing rule that players must stand for the national anthem.” Unfortunately for that reader, that isn’t true. In fact, several sources point out that standing for the national anthem wasn’t even really a practice until 2009. Eight years seems like a long time for some people, but considering that the NFL was founded in 1920, eight years is nothing.

    The whole kneeling issue is ridiculous and is a blatant redirection from the real reason that Colin Kaepernick took a knee last season: racism. I find it incredibly disturbing that our president condemns Muslims, Mexicans, and now black professional athletes, but a few weeks ago was tweeting about how there were some “good people” siding with the white supremacists.

    KC's View: