retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday MNB took note of a Wall Street Journal report about the continuing problems affecting self-checkout lanes at retail, which are becoming more used even as their issues become more pronounced.  But here's the thing in the story that really got my Irish up:

Terrance Thomas said he accidentally walked out of a Kroger with a case of bottled water he didn’t scan. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to turn around,’ ” the 30-year-old Houston resident said. “ ‘I’m just going to take it.’ ”

Now he intentionally mis-scans items, he said. “I’m not filling up a basket with T-bone steaks,” Mr. Thomas said. “I’m going to steal some kale or vegetables.” He enters the code for a less-expensive vegetable or smaller quantity, he said. He reasons that self-checkouts are annoying for shoppers and that “this is restorative justice” because of his own views about these companies’ practices.

I read that in the Journal, and responded:

Who the hell thinks like that?  Who the hell acts like that?  And who the hell admits it to a newspaper and allows himself to be quoted by name?  This simply confirms my general belief that the fabric of society is breaking down, that the things that used to make people feel shame no longer do, and that a culture in which these things occur cannot sustain itself going forward.

One MNB reader responded:

Hey Kevin, spot on with your commentary on this!  How do we fix it?  What’s wrong with people?  What happened to our moral compass and conscience?  Just sad all the way around.

Another MNB reader wrote:

Terrance Thomas, age 30. That pretty much says it all to me. A Millennial! I am NOT surprised. As a 22-yr rider of Chicago’s METRA system, I see it every day!

Each car has a number of bench seats marked “Handicapped / Seniors” and yet these seats are prized because they offer several things regular seating doesn’t. 1) space, to spread your legs, 2) convenience, near the door for a fast exit 3) space to text, because there’s more room to hold your arms up to hold your phone and type. So here I am, an old guy now, who’s gone through a heart attack, 2 knee surgeries (one only partially successful), and 2 foot surgeries and a chronic back pain sufferer. When I first started commuting, I went up top where there was more room and I rode to the end of the line, so it seemed more logical to be out of people’s way. But after my knee and foot surgeries, I couldn’t climb the little stairs anymore, and I started using the handicapped seating. And, and . . . I’m asthmatic now, too, and frequently I’m huffing and puffing when I sit down, only to have the “Space Invaders” stare at you with contempt because you’re “Eeeuuww, possibly in ill health.” You almost have to fight to get that seating! And it’s only a small percentage using it that are handicapped and/or senior. I’ve seen many seniors walk by to other seating simply because Millennial and Generation X are sitting there. It’s not because there’s a scarcity of other seating. I’ve sometimes gotten on early, which is my preference, in order to grab a seat, and 80% of the car will still be empty. Oh, and don’t even think about bothering a Conductor, they act like it’s not part of their job to be the “seating police.” (I’ve been told that, by someone in a union position who’s starting paying is $56,000 a year).

So, it’s clearly posted! Do these same people go to the ball game or theatre and immediately think, “Oh let’s look for handicapped seating close up in front” instead of the regular seating. How rude. I never even thought of sitting in Handicapped seating until, well, I became Handicapped.

And from MNB reader Andrea Meurer:

Although I have never done it, I have often thought how easy it would be to lie, cheat and steal when it comes to the self checkout. How tempting it is to enter in the lower priced strawberries when I am actually purchasing the organic version or to ignore the heavy bag of dog food on the bottom of my cart and omit scanning it.

My father-in-law, who successfully ran a chain of 15 bakery/deli/restaurants for many years once told me when I complained of a babysitter stealing money I had left out on the counter:  "That was your fault - if you tempt people by making it easy for them to lie, cheat and steal, you can only blame yourself when they do". 

I hate to disagree with your father-in-law, but I do.  I don't care how easy someone makes it for me to lie, cheat or steal … if I do any of those things, it is my fault, not theirs.  They may not be all that bright in their actions, but that doesn't make them ethically or morally compromised.  It does make me both those things.

Beyond the ethical issues created by self-checkout, there are also the problems pointed out by people like MNB reader Tim Callahan:

CVS has added self check out in the Philadelphia area.  Now longer lines and more unhappy customers.

Some points about this, if I may.

I've always thought that self-checkout is about control, not speed.

Retailers that used self-checkout as a way of cutting labor costs made a mistake, in my view.  Nothing wrong with self-checkout if you take some of those employee hours and devote them to having people on the floor interacting with customers, making sure there aren't out-of-stocks, etc.  But, no … some retailers think the way to go is to get rid of checkout people and use robots to detect out-of-stocks.  And then these same retailers wonder why the hell their shoppers prefer the "impersonal" experience of shopping online to coming into their stores.

Finally, retailers will sometimes say that self-checkout is preferable because few checkout people ever added anything to the shopping experience … and they make that observation without any sense of irony or self-knowledge.  Maybe the answer is to hire and train people who do add to the shopping experience.

This stuff isn't all that hard.  The retailers who don't get it are committing suicide, not falling victim to homicide.

Yesterday we wrote that the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) reports that, believing "consumers have a right to know about food recalls to protect their health from dangerous pathogens, chunks of metal, and undeclared allergens," a survey of "26 of the largest grocery stores in the United States to determine the efficacy of their policies and practices notifying consumers about food recalls" revealed that most were not getting the job done.

FMI-The Food Industry Association begged to differ, arguing that "the food supply chain works within the regulatory framework and acts quickly to remove recalled product from shelves and notify shoppers. This is the most fundamental service grocers provide to maintain the trust of their customers."

No offense to my friends at FMI, but I'm not buying it.

I wrote:

This is just anecdotal, but I do not think I have ever - EVER - received a notification from a supermarket chain with which I have done business about a recall.


Also anecdotally, I would suggest that during various recent recalls - like of lettuce - while the product may have been pulled from the shelves, there was little if any signage in stores I visited explaining why the items were gone, and what the store knew about the situation.  And when the recalls were over, those items magically returned, but again without explanation or reassurance.

Failing grades on this issue for most supermarket chains don't surprise me.  Most retailers I talk to about it think that being educational and informational puts them at risk if the facts change or new data becomes available, and so they'd rather say nothing.  And then they wonder why their relationship with the shopper can be put at risk by disruptive influences that understand the importance of making and maintaining such connections.

There were those who disagreed with me. 

One MNB reader wrote:

PCC Community Markets and Costco send out emails to their members regarding recalls.

From another reader:

Wegmans always lets us know if we have a recalled product via our shoppers card purchase. Always!

But not everybody.  Not by a long shot.

On another subject, from MNB readerChris Grathwohl:

Malls aren’t dying, they are just being re-purposed.

In Cincinnati, the parking lot of one of the suffering-a-slow-death malls, (Forest Fair Mall, The Mills – it has changed names many times as it tried to extend its relevancy) is filled with Amazon Prime delivery vans.  It has become a distribution center.  Amazon has taken a brick and mortar building that they are accused of running out of business, and turned it for their own use.  The Evil Empire – a term once reserved for Wal-Mart – has struck another gold mine.  Centrally located, with easy access to highways and suburbs.  Plenty of cheap square footage, inside for product and outside for their vehicles.  Brilliant! 

Another example of seeing beyond the obvious that has made Amazon successful.

And finally, regarding Amazon's plans for its new supermarket chain, one MNB reader wrote:

Can’t imagine what Amazon is going to do different that is not being done. Frankly their impact at Whole Foods is non-existent and savings at the checkout with Prime is nothing spectacular. HEB and others still offer more in Savings, Inventory, and Service! 

Stores that specialize in Customer Service will always have longevity & loyal customers.