retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The other day MNB took note of a U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) report that 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, suggesting that in fact, "this is the most fundamental service grocers provide to maintain the trust of their customers … The greater food industry is effective at recall communications, particularly grocers at the end of the supply chain due to the number of recalls they manage with varying products and volume."

I commented:

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.

MNB reader Roger Hancock responded:

Thanks for posting the PIRG research report, FMI response and your commentary on recall effectiveness.  With more than two decades and thousands of recalls, of experience, it interests me to see how all of your perspectives are correct.  Surveying the world of retail, lots of work remains.  Taking a subset of retailers, many are working hard to better communicate with consumers on multiple levels.  From an individual shopper's point of view, recalls can be confusing because they are in the news, items may have been purchased, but perhaps not the specific lot or date code so no message is sent. 

The recall process across the supply chain (or web as I think better describes it) has a level of complexity that would take pages of explanation.  Suffice it to say, the process is improving on many levels - standardization, automation, specificity and waste reduction, to name a few.  No one likes recalls.  Businesses hate them and consumers afraid of them.  Working together, having trading partners standardize information and adopt automation will better serve the public, and streamline compliance efforts.  The industry is moving slowly in this direction, and with your nudging may speed up.

I hope so.  But I am, I must admit, at best a skeptic and at worst a cynic when it comes to many retailers' willingness to be transparent about such issues.  

Regarding Blue Apron deciding to evaluate its strategic alternatives, MNB reader Mike Moon wrote:

My guess is that Blue Apron has two major issues. 1. The cost of the service is a bit high, in my opinion, making it hard to get new subscribers. 2. Once the current subscribers figure out how easy it is to cook from scratch, they find they don't need the subscription anymore. Maybe Blue Apron is missing an opportunity to develop a robust Youtube and Instagram platform, sharing recipes and teaching culinary basics. Subscribers = ad revenue. Also, could they position themselves to be a source for some of the more exotic ingredients that can sometimes be difficult to find?

We had a story yesterday from Bloomberg about how some experts believe we could be entering a time in which consumer spending will begin to soften, which prompted one MNB reader to write:

Hard to take seriously anything reported by Bloomberg right now.

First of all, I think Mike Bloomberg has more important things to worry about than stories about consumer spending - like making sure he doesn't get his rear end kicked again in the next debate.

Also … I know some Bloomberg journalists, and they're not shading stories his way.  Far from it.  And they hate the idea that current events have led to people even suggesting that.

Regarding the problems that Bed Bath & Beyond's new CEO, Mark Tritton, is trying to fix, in part by editing the selection, MNB reader Tom Murphy wrote:

Many of the diseases that Mr. Tritton is looking to fix, have been and are still, a staple of the grocery industry.  For instance, merchandisers have always practiced “wide and deep”…how many sizes, scents and brands of liquid dish soap do you need.  Even better, how many brands of anchovies do you need…which brand is your favorite?  This is driven by poor discipline, but also constant product intros by manufacturers…most of which are cheap line extensions.

Another problem, check the peanut butter section…in addition to the above “wide and deep” issue, how many of the products are on promotion at the same time?  I have seen 12 foot sections of national and private label brands where 80% are on promotion…and many probably have a customer loyalty card discount and/or manufacturer coupon on top.

Finally, if you are under 50 and walk into a grocery store that doesn’t have WiFi…lookout for the stampede as these customers rush out the door.

Unfortunately, a lot of our grocer’s pain and challenges remain “self inflicted”!

I commented:

One of the hardest things that Bed Bath & Beyond will have to do is retrain an entire customer base not to wait for those damned blue-and-white coupons to come in the mail before shopping there.  That's got to be a killer, and undermines its ability to communicate value beyond discounts.

One MNB reader agreed:

Those coupons - nailed it! I don’t even use coupons regularly for anything,  but I’ve learned to not shop there unless I have one.

Yesterday we referenced a New York Times story about "a collective of about 40 bakers, millers, teachers and wheat-breeders who work with the Bread Lab, a famed research center affiliated with Washington State University that has long focused on developing wheat varieties specific to regions of the country. Since last April, using guidelines established by the lab, the collective has pursued a common goal: making a whole-grain loaf that’s familiar-looking and affordable enough to appeal to a mass audience."

I loved this email and picture from MNB reader Michael Pignatello:

Just as I was reading this article, my oven timer beeped. Here’s my contribution to more flavorful and nutritious bread. Four ingredients - flour, salt, yeast, water. All for about 60 cents. 

Save me a slice.  It looks great.