retail news in context, analysis with attitude

We had a story yesterday about how Instacart seems to be one of the big winners during the pandemic … which I termed as a cautionary story for any retailer client doing business with it.

One MNB reader wrote:

Living in NYC, we decided to try Instacart when we couldn’t get any delivery window with Amazon/Whole Foods for four weeks (and have given up trying given the lack of response).  While not without bumps (we got only 60% of our items on our first try), the in-stocks at ShopRite have improved vastly in the last 4 weeks and I can see using Instacart for as long as the pandemic restrictions are with us.  But after that, it’s a guess, as the service is highly inconsistent and you’re never quite sure how many replacements you’ll get.  We may use it here and there for some items but I think I’ll go back to my smaller shop trips at our local store in the neighborhood where I can be sure the shopper knows the difference between green beans & haricot verts and organic vs non-organic produce.

I will also note that the time savings they promote is misleading – the website is not stellar or easy to navigate with store product listings and it takes time to build a grocery list, and then to pick substitutes for every item is a chore, followed by the back & forth while the shopper is doing their job.  It seems the time savings is more like 20%  at best for our family of 2 at this time.

And from MNB reader Joe Axford:

Someday soon people are going to say about Instacart, "You know what? KC was right!"

Maybe.  We'll see.

From another reader:

I did some shopping for a mom who is not only taking care of her family but her 92 yrs old mother. She ordered through Instacart:  8 strawberries, 2 cups grapes, 8 bananas, 1 melon, 2 oranges, 2 apples.


I shopped at a store:  1 lb strawberries, 4 bananas, 1.5 lbs grapes, 3 lbs Empire apples  bag of 9 BIG  navel oranges and melon  - $16.46 and I delivered to her door… NO CHARGE!


On the subject of grocery price increases over the past month, one MNB reader wrote:

I am a bit surprised the Food Research & Action Center did not include a decline in promoted offerings as a contributing factor to the inflated price. They are assuming price increases, instead of simply a decline in promotional pricing. Some retailers began minimizing their ad blocks when the pandemic began. By not actively enticing consumers to the stores with low pricing it is also helping minimize unneeded shopping trips as we work to social distance as much as possible. Are the retailers profiting by gaining greater margin, most definitely. Are consumers paying more than they did last year, or last month for the same products, undoubtedly. But while some inflation could be contributed to what the Food Research & Action Center found, I’m betting the majority is coming from simply slowing the massive promotional engine of consumerism. Brands will need to find new ways to engage with their audience when shopping trips are limited and browsing is frowned upon.

A note from MNB reader Jerome Schindler:

I am not a fan of the Kroger store in my Columbus neighborhood for other reasons but while supplier promotional activity is surely down, their pricing otherwise appears to be favorable.  (I only put up with this particular store because it is less than 2 miles from my home - what a shame that is their primary draw.)

As for food prices overall, I am not convinced that consumers are paying any more for the food they actually buy.  The price index calculation for food has been criticized in part because consumers react to pricing by altering what they buy.  While I have read that egg prices were above $3 a dzn in  some areas not long ago I have not seen anything above 95 cents here. This week they are 65 cents a dzn at Kroger.  These are not organic, free range or cage fee but are what most consumers purchase.  Last week whole USDA choice tenderloins were $7.99/lb.  That's $2 less than the lowest price I can remember in recent years.  Shrimp and some varieties of Salmon have also been in the $7-8 range.

In general I am in total agreement with those who think that post pandemic, which may not arrive until 2021 at the earliest, the new normal, world wide and not just in the USA, is not going to be the old normal in many ways even beyond commerce.  I predict a significant reset politically as well as economically.  A national debt level approaching 20 trillion will be a part of the reason in the U.S.  Taxing the hell out of the "rich" to pay for all of this will be demanded, but the reality is, in the whole scheme of things, there really isn't that much wealth to tap unless you go down way past the top 5%.  And that will include you, me and probably 90+ percent of your readers.  I am a 77 year old former pharmacist, current lawyer and amateur economist.  My daughter says I am the smartest person she knows.  I will not likely still be around for anyone to judge if she is correct.

MNB reader Mark Dixon wrote:

Hey KC, it would be fair to consider the increased cost of groceries could be largely due to the cancellation of promos by most, if not all retailers during April. Some retailers are continuing this practice into May. These promotions were cancelled either by the retailer themselves to minimize disruption at store level while having to reallocate their teams to placing TPR tags on shelf versus stocking much needed supplies. Also, a large number of manufacturers cancelled their planned promotional activity due to the fact that they were scrambling to provide adequate inventory to retailers to keep their shelves stocked. From my perspective, things are improving and we may see promotional TPR’s resuming later this month, that is as long as the manufacturer is not allocating products and is able to ship the retailers PO’s in full.

But another MNB reader argued:

I spent 33 years in the CPG industry in sales .... Would you expect the industry to pass up making higher margins?  Not to mention, no need for any sales as consumers will pay the price and be happy to get what they need ... 

The good old American Way!   Got to love greed!!! 

Still another MNB reader wrote:

I whole heartedly agree with you about your list of grocery retailers, especially Winco Foods, who are doing a great job of keeping their prices low considering what has happened with product availability in many categories. It is also apparent that many CPG companies have taken away their promotional allowances away or have reduced them, thus that leads to the higher prices that show up in the high demand categories. Retailer ad content pages have been substantially reduced, as product supply cannot be guaranteed in many categories. Two categories that are starting to have product on the shelves are bath tissue and paper towels. Their is no shortage of tissue products, as retailers allowing limited purchases have allowed the shelves to return to some semblance of normalcy. 

Wipes and sanitizing products cannot be found anywhere on the shelves here in the NW markets. If Lysol and  Clorox are producing 24/7 you would think that you might find these products once in awhile on the shelf.

Responding to someone questioning some of the decisions that public health officials have made, I wrote:

I believe with all my heart that all these doctors and nurses and health professionals and scientists are simply doing everything they can to protect people from getting sick and dying - that this is their primary agenda.  Have state governments, therefore, made some mistakes in how they've approached the pandemic?  Sure … but I don't believe maliciously.

I am very grateful for the health professionals and scientists – they are working (and have worked) tirelessly to bring this to an end as quickly as possible.  I also don’t believe (or maybe unwilling to believe) that anyone is doing anything maliciously, however, I see severe abuses of power that continue to this day. 

I do not believe that prohibiting someone from buying paint or seeds has ANYTHING to do with passing the virus to others.  I am deeply hurt as I watch bad actors “doing their job” as they have been instructed to do – but I don’t agree with what they have been instructed to do (e.g. arresting someone who was paddle boarding ALONE in the Pacific Ocean – REALLY?!).  We need to be smart about our behavior, but where government officials have overstepped their bounds, they need to take a step back, acknowledge to their constituents that they were in error, and remedy the overreach immediately.  They need to say “I was wrong.  Let’s fix this”.

We'll have to agree to disagree.  I totally trust Dr. Fauci … and I don't think he believes we've gone too far.

Regarding a proposed return of baseball, MNB reader Arne Hendrickson wrote:

Suggesting some new (tongue firmly in cheek) rules for the chap/lady with the “double switch” comment:

Reduce innings to 3 vs 9. The game is way too long!!

Eliminate 2nd and 3rd..we only need 1 base.

Unless you hit a dinger you are OUT! Singles, doubles, walks, etc clog up the “action” and are boring.

More electronics, please..I can’t stand it when there is any question on a call!!

And on that, umpires are superfluous…get rid of ‘em.

More jumbotrons.

Cork the bats…please.

Let the players bet…

Live gambling during the horse racing…

Let the teams cheat…may the better cheater win.

How hard can it be…let's go!!

It would make things interesting…

Yesterday I did a FaceTime video in which I talked about a generational divide in our house over how to set the table.

Apparently, this touched a nerve.

MNB reader Greg Kerr wrote:

You are not alone….Constant “battle” with my 17 year-old daughter when she sets the table.  I am an X-er and learned from my parents how to set the table.  She will go so far as to not even put out knives, whether we use or not!  Frustrating, but I am to a point that there are bigger battles to fry than this one.  At the end of the day if they want to be “barbarians” in their own home someday, fine, but while in our house…set the table with the knife and fork in the right spots…we do use paper napkins…wife hates having to do anymore laundry than necessary!  LOL

I solved the latter problem - I do all the laundry.  (Always have.)

MNB reader George J. Denman wrote:

I agree 100% with the traditional way you shared on setting the place settings. Having been raised to eat “continental style” using the fork backwards with the left hand and the knife with the right, this makes even more sense. 

MNB reader Jackie Lembke wrote:

Due to the way my kitchen and at least the daughter's kitchen is arranged we don't do place settings. We have everyone get their food from the kitchen, buffet style then go sit down at the table and eat. Table really isn't big enough to serve family style and it works for us. If we were to do a formal meal with family style then except for placement of the napkin the rest I would agree with you. Note that in many restaurants silverware is rolled in the napkin so all is on one side.

We actually eat the kitchen counter most nights … but we always set the table.  Probably just me being a pain in the … neck.

One MNB reader wrote:

I think traditions are important KC, having grown up in the sixties and seventies. We can try to pass them down, but can't force it. I have to admit I'm left handed, so everything to the left of the plate suits me just fine now. My grandmother would be giving me the evil eye had I ever done that at her table though!

From another reader:

This was a DAILY battle with my sister while growing up (and, not to mention, several boyfriends over the years).  You're doing it right, Kevin!!  

And from MNB reader Monte Stowell:

Your missive about table settings probably overloaded the Amy And Emily Post websites looking for the correct way to put together a table setting. Your generation and mine were taught the correct way to put together a proper table setting.

Generations change, and so does the way my kids and now grandkids look at the way table settings are supposed to be. When we have the big sit down holiday dinners, my wife empties out the hutch with all the fine china and about 100+ pieces of silverware. The kids sit down and they do not know where to start with all these shiny knives, forks, and spoons. The puzzled looks on their faces are priceless. Only then do they look around and watch what us grandparents and parents do with this arsenal of utensils that are in front of them. Formal sit down dinners are few and far between, given the casual way most families dine today. Many thanks for the humor in your video about table settings. Cheers.

Another MNB reader chimed in:

Did your folks teach you with the same mnemonic I learned?

“Fork” has 4 letters – the same as “Left”.

“Right” has 5 – the same as knife and spoon.

Mom and Dad didn’t have much use for hors d’oeuvres forks or dessert spoons so “top” was irrelevant.

That's a new one to me.

MNB reader Kathy Means wrote:

You are correct. Fork on the left, with the napkin. Knife and spoon on the right. And if you need more stuff, it goes with its friends in the order of use (first thing used on the outside, e.g. a salad fork to the left of the dinner fork).

I don’t know whether this is why, but in the right/left hand thing, you would pick up your fork in the left hand to hold your food steady while you pick up the knife in your right hand to cut the food.

MNB reader Shawn Robertson wrote:

Had a great laugh over this today KC.  Grew up in NE CT in a very strict family where we had to sit, say grace, eat everything on our plate, ask to be excused from the table (had to insert the please word) then rinse and place our dishes in the sink.  Wow right?  Then the Nuns would beat every lunch time if the same protocol wasn’t followed, ouch again.  Today at 60 years young, we eat off paper with the TV on in the living room and most times with our devices open and reading emails, or sharing the Content Guy with my wife, and, no rules.  I side with the kids on this, however, the ah ha moment is that they are eating with you.  I want those days back.

This is a very good point.  We are lucky that they want to eat with us.  And talk to us.  And even set the table and do the dishes and do some of the cooking.

Who could ask for anything more?

From another reader:

Knife and spoon on the rights side; dinner and salad forks on the left.  Cloth napkin (and here’s where you and I differ) on the right side.  And I was told a “trick” to know where your bread plate and wine or water glass go is to form a lower case “b” with the left hand for the bread plate on the left and a lower case “d” with your right hand for the drink glass.  This came in handy for all those corporate meetings at banquet tables of 8-10 people and making sure one didn’t use the wrong glass or bread plate.  Of course, no chance of that happening now with everyone sheltering at home.

MNB reader Kim Marsh wrote:

I’m a long time reader and I just retired 2 weeks ago after 36 years with P&G, nestle, Gillette, Kraft Foods, Kellogg’s, Ainsworth Pet Nutrition and finally King Arthur Flour- been a pretty good run, of a strange time to retire. 

At any rate, my partner is the former president of the Old Chicago  restaurant chain and not only does he believe it’s important to set a table ‘correctly’, he goes so far as to turn the knife blade to face the correct way on the right hand side of the plate. 

He also makes sure to plate our food beautifully and wipes off any sauce or food in the rim. His philosophy is that a beautiful and ordered presentation makes for a more pleasant eating experience. 

So we would concur with you. We used to go so far as to say no TV or phones during dinner either so as to actually interact with the people at the table. Crazy I know!!

MNB reader Tom Jackson wrote:

Hey Kevin---The first way you set the place setting was perfect. That is the way I learned and I married a Home Economist and we agreed on how the place setting should be. The one thing I had to change was the direction of the knife blade. I always thought the blade should be facing outward but, I am told that inward is correct (just like you did it).

And from another:

I am in 100% agreement with your table setting, including the fabric napkin. I would use a water glass not a wine glass. I have tried to impress upon my 29 year old son the way it should be and I correct the setting every time. Key word, every. He is not going for it.

And another:

I set my table like you. My mother set the table like you too!  I’m 64.   But I don’t think it matters really - as long as I have the right silverware to eat, I’m fine with whatever side it is on.  As for paper or cloth napkins:  I like cloth myself.  But if you have young kids- it is just not practical.

And another:

KC – interesting conversation topic.  This was fun.

Because I have a restaurant background with an “Olde Style English” influence, I’ve always adopted a formal place setting. 

I’ve been teaching this setting to my kids (10 & 15) – the fifteen-year-old had a class/testing on this at his private school.  He’s less concerned about it now as a 15 yr. old.  As his visitation to the dinner table is brief and efficient.  But, my 10 yr. old does like to help and she is eager to set a table based on the formal positioning of flatware, silverware, and stemware.  I’ve always used the “rule of thumb” to position items in the setting, at a length of the knuckle to the tip of the thumb, from the edge of the table to the base of the plate, and silverware.

And from another:

I have to say I have never really given this a lot of thought, but I’m with you fork on the left knife and spoon on the right, with knife closest to the plate WITH the blade turned towards the plate. Now when it’s just my wife and I, it’s just grab what you need and go sit down. I hammered into my kids good manners and I think they have continued to use use them, elbows off the table, close your mouth when you chew, napkin in your lap.

I hope that when we are finally able to eat in restaurants again, the tables are set correctly and people still remember their manners.

Hope so, too.

Finally, yesterday MNB featured a Facebook video in which the drama club at Shorecrest High School in Shoreline, Washington, performed a number from "Les Miserables" via Zoom, since they were unable to do the show live as intended.

It was stirring … and stirred up a lot of email.

MNB reader Tim Callahan wrote:

Thanks for the "Les Miserables" presentation. My wife and I had tickets for the touring production in Philadelphia in late March. Obviously the show was postponed with the rescheduled performance scheduled for some time in 2021.

The virtual performance made me smile and gave me hope for next year’s production.

It is a wonderful show (and I'm not a big fan of "epic" musicals - I hated "Phantom of the Opera, for example.)  But I've seen "Les Miz" twice - once in London and then again on Broadway.  Totally worth it.  (And I've been known, on long summer drives, to put the top down on the Mustang and sing along with the soundtrack.)

From MNB reader Alan Clements:

Just fantastic, Shorecrest!  Well done!

From another reader:

Along with school, proms,  graduations, sports and all their other activities, this is just one more thing this generation has to give up--- But they made lemonade from lemons by posting their video.  They are wonderful!

Hopefully someday they will have the opportunity to share their immense talent on stage.  Thank you sharing!

And another:

Bravo !!!!!! Outstanding !!!!!! Would love to hear more.

And still another:

This was excellent- bravo to this HS team! 

And because the show must (always) go on, one MNB reader wrote:

Just fantastic and a real day brightener! We miss our season to the Broadway plays that come to Madison so this was just the fix.  Thanks for sharing.

I shared your video with my daughter and she sent this video, originally seen on "God Morning, America," back….. and it includes a retailer at the end!