retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The other day we had a story about how Patagonia planned to stop doing customized vest orders for large corporate clients that it essentially feels are out of synch with its company’s social/cultural priorities. I said I approved, which led one MNB reader to suggest that maybe I was being a tad inconsistent, since I earlier had criticized a bakery for not being willing to bake wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies.

I said that I thought the charge of hypocrisy was a legitimate one; I agreed with Patagonia because I approve of its priorities, and didn’t extend the same consideration to the baker.

Got a lot of email on this one.

MNB reader Doug Wheeler wrote:

In response to your response to the reader's response on Patagonia, the comparison to the baker is a separate legal argument from Patagonia's situation. (I'm not a lawyer, so check me on all of this).

There are commercial laws, like Patagonia can't sell the same quantity of vests to JP Morgan at a different price from what they sell that amount to a solar energy company. It doesn't appear they are doing that. But Patagonia has every right to refuse to sell to JP Morgan because they are legally allowed to choose what businesses to contract with for a sale in almost all cases. I believe B2B sales differ from B2C in these types of laws (more leeway in B2B given contract laws and so many variations of contracts vs. retail sales).

In the baker's case, the reason they didn't sell the cake to the gay couple is precisely because they're gay - a protected class (well partially, depending on state and on judge) - same as if they were Hispanic or Jewish or blind. A Patagonia store couldn't refuse to sell a bunch of retail products to an LGBTQ organization either (assuming that organization can reasonably prove that was the reason).

Investment bankers aren't a protected class, nor should they be. That's why your comparison is off, at least legally. You could make the case that Patagonia shouldn't pick customers like that and "discriminate" against certain companies, and perhaps you do feel that way. I don't agree, but it's a fair point and I appreciate your willingness to acknowledge your biases.


From another reader:

The rebuttal to your comments where another reader drew a parallel between the Patagonia issue and the bakery case smells like a "reverse racism” argument.  Are we really going to believe that Wall Street, and the cultures they create are credibly impacted by being prevented from having their brand associated with Patagonia? These are the same guys who protested the Fearless Girl's location facing down the Charging Bull. 

In the bakery case, the harm occurred when the customer (who is in a protected, frequently discriminated against class) wasn't able to purchase that specific cake, from that specific baker.  In the Patagonia situation, do we believe that a Wall Street firm or VC firm qualifies as a protected class?  The short answer is:  no, probably not.  

I understand that the bakery customer could've gone elsewhere, but the point is that we should protect those who have historically been subject to, at a minimum, less-than-ideal equality norms.  

It's funny to me that there is so much hand wringing over this.  It doesn't strike me as discrimination.  At all.   

And for the record, I don't own any Patagonia, but you know I'll be buying a jacket this fall!



MNB reader Derek Woo wrote:

I don’t believe you’re a hypocrite here.
 
That reader’s logic is wrong.  All the differences that the commenter points out are considered protected classes in the US. Being a Wall Street guy is not a protected class. These aren’t the same situation.
 
Sellers can pick and choose their buyers all they want, just as long as it’s not discriminatory according to law.


From another:

I’m not sure your commentary rises to the level of hypocrisy. Discrimination is fairly well defined legally. If a business discriminates based on those things, then they could be compelled to change their behavior or penalized. If a business discriminates on non-protected things (like Wall-street types or maybe Mets fans), then they can. Some people, in playing the ‘moral equivalency’ game, seem to forget this.

And, from MNB reader Rich Heiland:

Methinks you might have rushed to judgment of yourself.

Patagonia did not, as I read it, say a fleece could not be sold to an individual customer. What it said was that it would not engage in co-branding - allowing its logo to be used by companies and organizations that are not ones with shared values.

I do not feel the comparison with the baker and gays is valid. If an LGBTQ walks into a bakery, wants a cake and is turned down because of their individual status, then this is a one-on-one situation. Is it legal? it appears we remain in limbo between absolute court opinion and what some of us may feel is right or wrong.

But, in the case of Patagonia, the firm has said to another corporate entity that it does not want to share its brand. Citizens United notwithstanding, I do not consider a corporation to be a living, breathing human entity subject to all the rights that go with that.

When I taught branding with my clients, my common warning was “the brand never sleeps.” You are the brand. if it is on your car, don’t flip off someone who cuts in front of you. If it’s on your shirt, don’t get in the 10-items or fewer lane if you have a full cart.

And, if you are Patagonia and your core values are earth-centered, don’t co-brand with a dirty coal company.

So, to me, if Patagonia, living within its corporate and cultural values, wants to maintain the integrity - and hence ultimate value - of its brand by setting criteria for how that brand is used and shared, it can and should do so.

Since I am, by a few years, older than you I gently would advise you to be more fair with yourself. 🙂




We had a story the other day about how European Union lawmakers are considering new legislation that would prevent plant-based products being described using words that imply they that they are made from meat.

I commented:

I’m basically in agreement with the idea that if something is not meat, it ought not be called meat. I like accuracy in labeling - it is the least that consumers can and should expect from retailers and manufacturers.

MNB reader Shelley des Islets responded:

I differ with you on this.  Regarding the terms ‘milk’ and ‘meat’—we already use the term milk for things sourced somewhere else besides mammary glands.  The milk of the dandelion, for example (and a bunch of other ‘milky’ plants) is a thing easily understood long before a vegetarian diet was more of a choice than a necessity.  We have called the liquid inside a coconut ‘milk’ for a really long time, too. Second, we are accustomed to ‘milk’ being predicated with other information such as ‘whole,’ ‘skim,’ ‘goat,’ ‘chocolate,’ etc. If I see ‘almond’ or ‘coconut’ before the word milk, I am not going to be confused about which animal’s breasts were accessed for it.  It does not impede my understanding of cow milk to know it can come from goats or coconuts.  Nothing is confused.   Similarly, ‘meat’ is used for other things other than ground or sliced muscle tissue.  ‘Meat’ is what we’re after when we use the little pick tool after employing a nutcracker.  We are accustomed to seeing clarifying terms here, too—‘crab,’ ‘lean,’ ‘ground,’ ‘filet,’ and so forth.  Seeing ‘vegetarian’ or ‘plant-based’ doesn’t take anything away from my understanding of a beef steak or ground turkey patties.  Seeing ‘swordfish steak’ doesn’t confuse me about whether it came from a cow or not.  If I see that I’m offered ‘medallions’ I can usually discern whether it is an edible item made from pork, beef, or seafood or it is to be awarded to the top player on a team.  Would we suddenly disallow ‘paper’ towels because they’re not made from cloth?  or cease referring to lemon and lime rinds because they are not the same as pork rinds?  Can we still have icing florets AND broccoli florets?  And let’s not even discuss ‘fingers!’
 
All of this to say that ‘beef’ refers to cows, ‘pork’ to pigs, ‘seafood’ to water creatures, ‘poultry’ to feathered, two-footed animals, and ‘vegetarian’ to plant-based products.  What they’re processed to look like or taste like is immaterial to me.  The first concern (after food safety) has to be whether people are likely to be confused by how a product is labeled and be misled into consuming one thing that they thought was something else.  The biggest words on Boca patty packaging are “Boca All American Flame Grilled Veggie Burgers.”   If it said “Jenny O All American Flame Grilled Burgers,” I’d probably guess at turkey, but it could be chicken.  If it said “Jimmy Dean’s All American Flame Grilled Burgers” I might check to see if it was a sausage patty or a plain beef patty.  It’s rare, I think, to see only ‘burger’ without a clarifying word like ‘beef’ or ‘turkey’ but beef enjoys the spot as the assumed default for burgers.
 
All of that to say that I think ‘meat,’ ‘milk,’ ‘cream,’ ‘burger,’ ‘sausage,’ ‘steak,’ ‘medallion,’ ‘fingers’ and anything else are generic terms, and require clarifying words in nearly every case to understand what is being referred to.   Certainly, if someone munches on some Morningstar Chik’n Tenders and finds out they are not chicken, they may be surprised, they may even feel they’ve been wronged on some level, but they won’t be sick.  If they have food allergies or sensitivities, they are reading the label anyway.
 
Thanks—I have to admit I was a little surprised at your remark, though I know you are a champion on truth in labeling.  I am adamant about transparency, too.


And, from MNB reader Stephanie Steiner:

I think it’s time for producers to deal with competition just like the rest of the world. “Moo juice,” is an oft-used slang term for milk, and  a quick internet search shows that Pillsbury had no trouble using it: even though it was not juice.
 
A burger did not come from a cow.   If a product is plant based, it should not be legally allowed to be called “ground beef,” certainly.  But “burger,” or “patty?”  Those terms are invented and should be available for usage.




Responding to the story the other day about the battle for the last untethered screen - the one found in cars - one MNB reader wrote:

Been some time since I wrote in but this one seems to miss one huge issue - distracted driving. I will never be an autonomous car "occupant" as I enjoy driving & prefer being in control - just my preference - no issue with those that like the autonomous approach. However renting cars often as I do I run into situations where the car finds my phone or wants to configure something as I'm driving and I've often been momentarily distracted as a result - and I've been driving for a long time. Enter newer drivers like my older children who have enough distractions to contend with and we're OK letting marketers take over vehicle dashboards? I'm not arguing against maintenance or safety related notifications but my car alerting me to an Instagram post or a Starbucks offer when my eyes and attention should be on the road - yikes! No thanks - they have plenty of other opt-in ways to market to me.

Similar but related subject - did convenience stores do any research at all before they placed monitors at the pump that shriek offers to you that likely aren't relevant to you at all while all you're trying to do is pump gas and move on down the road? It's auditory pollution and to me demonstrates that they have little interest in me as a customer. If they did they would leverage the loyalty ID that I swiped (tapped if they ever upgrade their equipment) before I started pumping to know what I like or don't like and present me with a relevant offer. Instead they blare useless information to me and demonstrate that I'm just a marketing opportunity versus a valued customer.

There's a fine line between targeted offers and distractions that could drive accident rates even higher than the unacceptable level they're at today.


And, from another reader:

I read this also and wondered “how many more distracted driving accidents will we have ?” I get radio/audio only but it seems that using all the old ad tricks to get screen attention could be counter productive. And, as I recall, most cars only have one occupant (the driver) so a passenger only option would fall short of these glorious projections. Most humans can’t do 2 things at once effectively.



Yesterday, Michael Sansolo wondered in his column what The Who would need a french horn player for.

MNB reader Peter Talbott wrote:

Gentlemen, surely you recall the horn from The Who’s Quadrophenia’s  “Helpless Dancer” (which was bassist Keith Entwistle’s theme, and he played it live onstage) as well as in Tommy’s  “It’s a Boy”.

Surely.

And from MNB reader Mark Wright:

As a recovering horn player, I advise you to dig out your old vinyl copy of “Tommy” and start with the overture.  That should answer any questions about why The Who needs French horns…



Got the following email weighing in on the discussion of retailers curtailing their greeting card sections:

I am of that generation that collects things. Baby Boomers . . . now trying to figure out how to get rid of it all and scale down, and confronted with it, which reminded me of some of my beloved "stuff" because it relates to greeting cards.

There was a time "before" greeting cards, long, long, ago, when people gave each other framed mottos. They were cheery, corny, had colorful graphics, and almost always sweet sentiments. You put them on the wall, in the kitchen, or the living room, or the den I suppose to remind you of the person who sent them.

Primarily they were manufactured by the Buzza Print Company of Minneapolis, MN. There were a few other competitors, but Buzza was the best known. And then came the Great Depression, and people could no long afford to buy framed prints to give to each other, and the Buzza Co. went out of business in 1931. 

Shortly thereafter, a new startup company called Hallmark started making something new to replace frames, and cheaper, too. The greeting card was born! Sure, there were cards around before, but Hallmark marketed cards to the masses, and the concept stuck, until you pointed out via data from the purveyors of most cards, people aren't sending them anymore. 

While I lament the demise of cards, especially better cards than Hallmark (I admit, I'm a card snob), no one wants to spend $3 to $6 for a Papyrus card or Punch card. And people are just too lazy to write. I hate that. I miss getting letters. I miss people organizing their thoughts for me, generally in more positive form that the drivel that comes across in text most times.




Reacting to a financial analyst’s comments about Kroger’s recent quarterly numbers, one MNB reader wrote:

Boy, that Scott Mushkin is a genius, he figured out price cuts will affect profits, really? Kroger seems laser focused on what they need to do, and the Street be damned. Seems so silly that the stock drops because Whole Foods may drop prices, but that's the way it goes on Wall Street.

Which is why I try to pay a lot more attention to Main Street than Wall Street.



On another subject, from MNB reader John Carroll:

Restaurant delivery is here to stay, because it’s all about what the consumer wants. Variety, Convenience Speed and Quality all play roles in the value equation. Restaurants and vendor partners will need to work together to develop a better plan for the disruption. Beverage providers (usually one of the top contributors to profit in many formats) will need to develop tactics to drive incidence, packaging partners will need to provide vessels that keep fries crispy and food warm, and they all need to work together to design a better digital menu .

The biggest difference to me between grocery and restaurants is the product / brand offerings. I order Doordash from my favorite greek place because their dolmas and tzatziki are awesome .When Instacart delivers my Diet Coke, Bounty, Tide and K-Cups does it really matter if it's delivered from Publix, Kroger , or Walmart? The big lesson and insight here for the food industry is how can retailers differentiate though delivery ….. we have seen the discounting / price movie before, so it’s time to get creative.




Regarding CVS’s decision to expand same-day delivery, one MNB reader wrote:

I had to laugh...There is an independent pharmacy in Greenville, SC (Fowler's Pharmacy - check out their web site) who has been offering same day delivery since the 1950's and at no extra charge! 

BYW - Walgreen's built a store across the street from them several years ago...never hurt their business….




Regarding Albertsons’ future, from an MNB reader:

I think at this point it would behoove Albertsons to find either a global partner to merge with, or a national player like a Target, CVS, or Walgreens.  Either that or I fear the company will have to be broken up and sold in pieces in the next few years.

Hopefully it's not too late, and I kind of think that's why Jim Donald stepped aside.




The other day I made a joke about gas lines, which prompted MNB reader Jim Huey to write in and note that while he was not alive during the gas lines era, he had studied them in history classes. Which, I responded, was one of the meanest things ever written to me by an MNB reader.

Jim Huey responds:

My apologies Kevin.

I am 49 and my sons who are teenagers or in their early 20’s tell me I am old all the time. I guess I didn’t think about how that comment would read to someone who did experience it.

The 80’s still seem very recent to me, but my kids studied the fall of the Berlin wall and communism in history class. I guess it means I am old but I can still run more miles than they can.  I love your blog. It has really helped me to deal with change at work and understand why it needs to happen. I reference stuff from it at meetings all the time. Have a great day Kevin and thanks for all you do.


No worries … I was just joking around. My goal was to make fun of myself more than you.



And finally, MNB the other day took note of a Wall Street Journal report that Amazon “is positioning Alexa, its artificial-intelligence assistant, to track consumers’ prescriptions and relay personal health information, in a bid to insert the technology into everyday health care.”

I commented:

I fully expect that at some point, Alexa is going to say to me, “Please state the nature of the medical emergency.”

Prompting MNB reader Steve Yandel to write:

Loved the ‘Star Trek Voyager” reference in the Doctor Alexa story.  Hopefully Amazon is reaching out to Robert Picardo as we speak – the commercials would almost write themselves…

Knowing how Jeff Bezos feels about Star Trek, I think that there are always possibilities.
KC's View: