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: June 29, 2021

    by Michael Sansolo

    There’s an old bit of philosophy that poses the question: “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer, of course, is one bite at a time.

    That simple line has a powerful message about the only way to approach change. Frequently it requires going step by step or one bite at a time.

    I was reminded of this last week while attending the annual Sweets and Snacks Expo, a stunningly strong show put on by the National Confectioner’s Association. The show, obviously the first for NCA since 2019, kicked off with an award ceremony honoring innovative new products and a thoughtful presentation by Josh Linkner, author of "Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results."

    Linkner outlined what he says are the three steps companies and individuals must take to create those wonderful breakthroughs. The steps are worth sharing and considering.

    The first step is the challenge to start before you’re ready. While the approach of “ready, fire, aim” has led to incredible mistakes through the years, Linkner argues that the approach helps push the pace on innovations and he offered examples of companies that rushed into significant changes and reaped large benefits thanks to taking action quickly. 

    Obviously such an approach requires an environment in which risk taking is both applauded and encouraged. But as another speaker said later in the program, companies need to weigh the risks of change vs. the risks of not changing. As we’ve written here before, the corpses of companies that refused to change for far too long can be found nearly everywhere. (Just visit the vacant Sears or Blockbuster store in your local shopping mall. Soon you may visit the entire mall that way.)

    Linkner’s second step encourages companies to “reach for the weird” or to go beyond the expected and ordinary. And thirdly he urged the audience to “not forget the dinner mint,” or to look for the extra special step to offer to make a product, store or service stand out from the crowd.

    The single entity that encapsulated Linkner’s three points is a minor league baseball team, the Savannah Bananas, who were taken from bankruptcy to prosperity by a young, inexperienced owner who transformed the baseball experience in everything from his team’s colors (yellow, of course) to a host of entertaining interludes throughout home games.

    Obviously innovation isn’t simple or everyone would do it. But Linkner’s points demonstrate the small steps that could transform or at least evolve businesses in a powerful, differentiated and hopefully profitable ways by encouraging creative thinking and risk taking.

    That might sound daunting or even irresponsible, but again consider the warning to think of the risks of not changing.  As Larry Deutsch of dvk Marketing said in another session at the Sweet and Snack Expo, “Change is risky. Not changing is riskier.”

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com.

    His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

    And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.

    Published on: June 29, 2021

    Could kelp be the next big food trend?  KC thinks that the combination of culinary possibilities and environmental advantages could be the secret sauce that makes it so.  Though, to be fair, he doesn't see replacing lobster rolls with kelp rolls.  At least not yet.

    Published on: June 29, 2021

    The Spoon reports that Robomart is launching a fleet of mobile mini-marts in West Hollywood, California, with one version stocked up with snacks and another dedicated to over-the-counter items that normally would be carried by a drug store.

    The company says that versions are under development that would be dedicated to packaged grocery and "Pantry, Deli, and Café."

    Here's a video that Robomart has posted online:

    According to the story, "Robomart customers don’t shop on the app as with other delivery services. Instead, after hailing a Robomart with the app, customers select from the roughly 40-50 different products after the store arrives. Once the customer chooses the items they want, their total is calculated using RFID tags, their credit card is automatically charged, and a receipt is available via the app. The company is working with vehicle fleet provider Zeeba and Avery Dennison for its RFID tag technology."

    Customers are charged a $2 hailing fee.  While the technology originally was designed to make the vehicles autonomous, for the moment each vehicle has a driver, though that person does not interact with customers.

    KC's View:

    It appears, for the moment, that the Robomarts are being positioned as independent retail experiences - they're not being branded with a known retail name that could give them even greater exposure and credibility.

    I've long though that this kind of approach - bringing the store to the shopper, as opposed to expecting the shopper to come to the store - is the next step in the e-commerce evolution (though it actually harkens back to how merchants behaved decades ago).  We've written here about other, similarly themed businesses trying to do the same thing, and I have no reason to be less enthusiastic about the concept.  Retailers should either figure out ays to work with a company like Robomart, or figure out a way to do it on their own.

    One suggestion, though.  If it were me, I wouldn't want the driver to be isolated from the customer experience.  Rather, I'd want him or her to engage with shoppers, and to be a brand ambassador.  The importance of a human connection cannot and should not be minimized.

    Published on: June 29, 2021

    CT Insider has a story about how, "as Connecticut emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic — its economy bolstered by a white-hot housing market — it only seems logical that a retailer known for targeting high-end consumers would want to expand in portions of the state where there are pockets of well-heeled shoppers.

    "But along a vast stretch of Connecticut’s Shoreline, from West Haven to the Rhode Island border, one of the preeminent names among upscale supermarkets — Whole Foods Markets — doesn’t have a presence."

    The story notes that "Whole Foods plans to expand across the country with 43 stores across 19 states, including the two Connecticut locations … There are 503 Whole Foods stores in the United States, including eight currently in Connecticut."

    The CT Insider story continues:  "'Connecticut is one of the most under-stored states in the country,' said Burt Flickinger, managing director of New York City-based Strategic Resource Group. That leave Whole Foods with a lot of potential expansion options in the state, according to Flickinger."

    KC's View:

    One of the things that may make this part of the country attractive to a retailer like Whole Foods could be that a reshaped economy could have more people working from home more of the time.  Which means that the Connecticut Shoreline section of the state, which is really too far from New York, Boston or Providence to make it easily commutable on a daily basis, might seem more attractive - and affordable - for folks who need accessibility to these cities and their airports, but not all the time.  Which it turn would make the area more attractive to a chain like Whole Foods.

    But not just Whole Foods.

    Seems to me that the area also could be ripe for some Amazon Fresh stores.  Or maybe a Wegmans.  Or a Stew Leonard's.  Or maybe Roche Bros.  Or Price Chopper/Market 32.  (I'd love to see Hannaford think about it, but I'm guessing that its sister chain, Stop & Shop, would object.)

    My only point here is that it is a mistake to limit the thinking to Whole Foods, and that there are other retailer who could take advantage of the opportunity.  But those retailers will have to be aggressive, I think - the window won't be open forever.

    Published on: June 29, 2021

    CNBC reports that Amazon " is turning part of its Seattle headquarters into a public cooling center as the Pacific Northwest grapples with a record-breaking heat wave.

    "The air-conditioned cooling center is set up at the Amazon Meeting Center, which is part of the company’s South Lake Union campus in downtown Seattle. The site has room for up to 1,000 individuals, according to the city of Seattle’s website. Many homes in the area lack air conditioning, as Seattle’s climate is usually temperate."

    The story notes that "the meeting center is a stone’s throw from the Amazon Spheres, or the glass orbs that anchor its downtown Seattle campus. Amazon previously converted the meeting center into a pop-up clinic to administer Covid-19 vaccines earlier this year."

    KC's View:

    This is the rare year that, at least from a weather perspective, it actually is preferable for me to be in Connecticut rather than enjoying my usual summer adjunctivity in Oregon at Portland State University.  For the second consecutive summer, school is remote, and so I'm not venturing out to the Pacific Northwest for 6-8 weeks, as is my usual preference and pleasure.

    Seattle has had three straight 100+ degree days, and Portland - where, the first summer I was there about a decade ago, I didn't even wear shorts because it was so cool - has been even hotter.

    CNBC points out the obvious - that "scientists say that climate change is making such extreme high temperatures more common."  But CNBC probably has to, since the notion of climate change isn't obvious to everybody.

    Published on: June 29, 2021

    From the Washington Post:

    "A district court in D.C. on Monday dismissed the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust complaint against Facebook, saying the agency had failed to offer enough facts to prove Facebook has monopoly power in the social media industry.

    "The court said the agency could file an amended complaint with more details to bolster its case. But the judge voiced outright skepticism that Facebook is a monopoly, calling that 'conventional wisdom' for which the FTC had offered no evidence.

    "'It is almost as if the agency expects the Court to simply nod to the conventional wisdom that Facebook is a monopolist,' District Judge James E. Boasberg wrote in his opinion.

    "The decision immediately sparked reaction from both sides of the dispute, with those favoring action against Big Tech calling for a rewrite of antitrust law, which requires a showing that a company is a monopoly before a case can be pursued."

    According to the story, "The court also dismissed a similar lawsuit brought by a group of state attorneys general against the company that challenged the company’s acquisitions of photo-sharing service Instagram and messaging app WhatsApp. The court ruled that the states waited too long to challenge Facebook’s acquisition of the companies in 2012 and 2014, respectively."

    KC's View:

    This won't be over until it's over … and there is way too much political pressure from both sides of the aisle to let this go anytime soon.  But, expect big tech companies to fight back using actual laws as their defense … which only will be a problem if Congress actually changes the laws.

    Which could happen.

    Published on: June 29, 2021

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that Chewy is saying that "recent efforts to expand the pet retailer’s product range are paying off in the form of higher revenue and profit margins.

    "Dania Beach, Fla.-based Chewy, which sends pet food, crates and about 75,000 other products to people’s homes, has seen strong growth in recent quarters as it continues to build out its product portfolio and win more customers. It is also investing in new technologies, such as fully automated fulfillment centers, to keep costs under control … The company recently introduced fresh pet food to its product range and is providing more remote veterinarian services. Chewy also has added services like auto-refilling drug prescription orders for pets, which adds to the convenience for customers."

    Published on: June 29, 2021

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  From the New York Times:

    "Juul Labs has agreed to pay North Carolina $40 million to settle the first of a spate of lawsuits brought by states and localities claiming the e-cigarette company’s marketing practices fueled widespread addiction to nicotine among young people and created a new public health problem.

    "The settlement, which was announced on Monday morning, allows the company to avoid a jury trial this summer as the Food and Drug Administration is deciding whether its vaping products can stay on the market.

    "The company had urgently sought the settlement, but the deal removes just one of numerous legal actions pending against it. Thirteen other states, including California, Massachusetts and New York, as well as the District of Columbia, have filed similar lawsuits. The central claim in each case is that Juul knew, or should have known, that it was hooking teenagers on pods that contained high levels of nicotine.

    "Nearly 2,000 other cases filed by cities, counties, school districts and other plaintiffs in federal courts have been combined into multi-district litigation overseen by a single federal judge, similar to what’s been done with cases against prescription opioid makers, distributors and retailers."

    Good.  I just wish the first settlement was $400 million, so the promise of further and similar settlements would put these guys out of business.  There's no question in my mind that they just wanted to hook young people on nicotine - a conclusion only reinforced when Altria acquired a 35 percent stake in the company.

    They may have to enlarge the special circle of hell that I've always said should be reserved for tobacco marketers.  And maybe raise the heat a little bit.

    Published on: June 29, 2021

    Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic and how businesses and various business sectors are trying to recover from it, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  In the United States, there now have been 34,511,636 cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 619,595 deaths and 28,962,849 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 182,260,988 coronavirus cases, with 3,947,170 resultant fatalities, and 166,805,764 reported recoveries.   (Source.)

    https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 66.1 percent of the US population age 18 and older has received at least one dose of vaccine, with 57 percent being fully vaccinated.


    •  From the New York Times, a story about how "countries across the Asia-Pacific region are scrambling to slow the spread of the more infectious Delta variant, reimposing restrictions and stay-at-home orders in a jarring reminder — for societies that had just begun to reopen — that the pandemic is far from over.

    "In Australia, outbreaks of the variant have forced four major cities — Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Darwin — into strict lockdowns. On Monday, the Malaysian government said nationwide stay-at-home orders would be extended indefinitely. And Hong Kong officials banned flights from Britain, where cases of the Delta variant, which was first identified in India, are rising fast.

    "In Bangladesh, soldiers are preparing to patrol the streets to enforce stay-at-home orders, with new cases rapidly approaching their early April peak."

    Published on: June 29, 2021

    Got the following email responding to yesterday's In Conversation piece about HealthQuarters:

    The concept of HealthQuarters is a great idea, particularly for those of us considered boomers.  I see several different kinds of doctors and a dentist, all at different times.  I also take vitamins and medications, all bought at different places. For me, any of this that can be combined into one place that provides a pleasant experience would make my life easier.  If you think about it, I have already been doing much of this in one place, my computer screen, due to Covid.

    I think it is a terrific concept, and if MNB readers happened to miss the piece yesterday, I'd really suggest that you check it out here.


    Regarding the Teamsters' avowed goal of organizing Amazon, one MNB reader declared:

    Amazon is history if they ever decide to go union……which they will not. 

    I don't agree with either part of your statement.

    I think it is possible that, if Amazon does not make changes to some of its employee-centric practices, the company could see unionization at some point.

    I also think that while unionization would impact the company, assuming that it would kill Amazon off is to underestimate the brain power there.


    In an email last week, MNB reader Tom Murphy made the following observation:

    Conventional retailers think about making money on the buy-side, as well as the sell-side.  In fact, a lot of grocers would have to admit that the buy-side generates the bulk of their margins.  Things like slotting fees, promotional fees, new product introduction charges, off-invoice penalties, etc., etc., etc.  They spend countless hours and human resources trying to maximize these instead of focusing on innovation and the customer.  This is what kills conventional models.  It creates costs and aggravation throughout the supply chain, ultimately resulting in customer dissatisfaction.  That is partially why more people are shopping online…to access more for less aggravation.

    One MNB reader responded:

    KC, I have to agree with MNB reader Tom Murphy. A Northeast retailer just switched from Fresh Express to Dole bagged salads, for which I'm sure Dole paid a fortune, for shelf space, advertising in the weekly flyer, etc.

    Two weeks in a row their truck was rejected, so no bagged salads in the affected stores for 2 days each time. Not to mention the aggravated customers. Unacceptable.


    Along the same lines, this email from an MNB reader:

    Lots of comments about the latest miseries suffered by retailers (especially the supermarket kind) brought up this old memory. More than 30 years ago – it was during the fear-laden days stoked by WalMart getting into the supermarket business - I was attending an FMI event. During one of the breakout sessions, a man who identified himself as a marketing VP for a major retailer made a statement that was roundly booed. Speaking about the shelf rental business that every retailer encouraged, he said and I’m paraphrasing here, “The problem we have is that is that we’re renting real estate, we’re not super marketers anymore.”

    The same conversation made a reference to Market Basket being a preferred store because of price, but one MNB reader suggested that this isn't the only reason:

    The perception is true, but not the whole truth.  I visited both Stop & Shop and Market Basket this week and this is what I saw.  SNS had 14 registers, 2 were open … They had 6 self-service registers with one being used.  The store was dirty, and the shelf conditions were not good.

    MB (which BTW their new format does not look like the ones of old)  was rocking!  22 registers, 14 open, each with a bagger.  Shelf conditions pristine.  People available to assist, IN ALMOST EVERY AISLE.  So no, price is not the only reason MB is eating the lunch of competition.   They give the customer a good price and they get them out the door. 

    Why is MB so successful?  They make their money on SELLING groceries out the door and not on selling programs in the office.  MB built a new store on the same slab as a closed Shaws.  Good luck finding a parking space. 


    Another MNB reader wrote:

    For the past year I have been suggesting that retailers dare not try to return to 2019 practices. In all honesty, what was being done in 2019 was already a decade behind shopper behavior. Then the pandemic affected and accelerated everything – all the long-range planning and future ideas needed implementation then and now. The real winners across the retail ecosystem will be those who not only responded well during the pandemic but continue to accelerate and invent tomorrow’s anytime/anywhere/anything environment.


    And, from MNB reader Craig Espelien:

    Yep - being authentic is hard especially when you start from an inauthentic state (proxy for too many companies today - saying you are authentic does not make you so).

    Marc Lore makes a good point that has been a challenge for marketers for decades. Who is my customer - and, more importantly, who is not? Years ago I was involved in a Gillette Case Study on marketing. The dilemma - does a brand renew for each generation (and thus, marketing shifts to the newer needs, psyche, etc.) or does a brand stay true to the generation that made them a household name?

    Gillette seemed to do a good job of balancing - right up until disrupters appeared. There is an old saying (going way back to futurist Joel Barker) that most change in an industry comes from outside - someone who is not hung up on the current limits of thinking that plague many established brands or industries.

    Warby Parker is focused on staying true to their core - and if a few folks want to be seen as more relevant or hip, then they can also become a customer (but will likely not become a target of their marketing). They will begin to become irrelevant when they attempt to become something for everybody as they will then lose their core appeal.

    I don't think of myself as being particularly hip (and my kids quickly will disabuse me of any illusions in that direction should I begin to have any).  But I love Warby Parker because it is easy, convenient, less expensive, and brings a frictionless quality to a retail experience that can be mind-numbing.  It also seems aspirational - and manages to walk the line in such a way that never makes people like me feel marginalized when I'm in the store.  That's a pretty compelling value proposition, and it cuts across generations.