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: March 8, 2022

    by Michael Sansolo

    For many years now, a church in my neighborhood has posted inspirational (and rarely religious) quotes on its outside message board. A recent one seemed so appropriate to current life, reminding us that getting knocked down isn’t unusual, but getting back up is what matters most.

    I think there’s a lot for businesses to think about in that quote. New challenges are constantly coming and some pack quite a wallop. But the best businesses and people find a way back to their feet.

    With that in mind, I was surprised to read of what may be currently the most unlikely business finding a way to evolve on the fly and regain relevance: the travel guide book industry.

    Think about it. First off, thanks to Covid no one is really traveling. But even before the pandemic, travel books didn’t seem like a growing business thanks to the explosion and ease of smartphone applications. In fact, sales were plummeting. Yet, as the Washington Post reported this weekend, the books are making a comeback - companies like Lonely Planet, Rick Steves and Frommers are managing to grow in two ways.

    First, the guidebooks are finding some credence as reliable sources of information. Whereas app-based guides (think Trip Advisor or Yelp among others) can be corrupted by uncorroborated and unreliable reviews, the guidebooks have a history and reputation for honesty. So, incredibly, a traditional form of information exchange is winning against the far more current trend toward crowd sourcing and universal “expertise.”

    Secondly, to borrow from an old car commercial, these aren’t your parents’ guidebooks. To keep ahead of the competition, the guidebook companies are stepping up their game to focus on travel experiences, make more use of photographs and images and, most importantly it seems, to curate information to avoid reader overload.

    There are lessons here for other types of businesses engaged in a pitched battle against digital forces.

    First, double down on the strengths you always had and remind your consumers why those strengths matter. Play up the experience you give and the expertise you have in ways that make you a shopper’s partner, rather than just a product supplier. You have a time-honed sense of their problems, so help them address those issues with ideas and information they can easily use.

    As part of that remember your roll as a curator of products. Help simplify their lives and shopping trips by removing the extraneous and distracting. Life is complex enough, so find a way to be their partner.

    At the same time, take a hint from the guidebooks and evolve (much as you have had to do thanks to Covid.) New services such as curbside pick up clearly meet with a shopper need and likely won’t go away once the pandemic is tamed. Find ways to emphasize what you do best and what shoppers want most and deemphasize everything else. 

    Remember, the road to relevance is never easy and is constantly changing. You can too by writing your own guidebook.

    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: March 8, 2022

    Interesting confluence of stories this morning about the meat business…

    •  The 2022 The Power of Meat study - released by FMI—The Food Industry Association and the Meat Institute’s Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education - is out today, stressing that "nearly all American households (98.5%) purchase meat, a trend supported by an increase in volume sales (up 3.9% for all meat compared to pre-pandemic levels). This increase is due, in part, to several grocery shopper trends resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, including increased home cooking, record-high online shopping, and a shift to digital sources for recipe inspiration."

    The study goes on:

    "Seventy-four percent of Americans describe themselves as meat eaters. Meat department visits declined slightly less this year (50.4 visits per shopper per year), but shoppers spent a little more during each trip. In response to higher prices and inflation pressures, shoppers are eating out and ordering in from foodservice less often, while trying to recreate restaurant experiences at home instead, and have adjusted retail meat purchase habits. Volume remains significantly above pre-pandemic levels for fresh (up 3.7% since 2019) and prepared meats (up 4.3% since 2019). Fresh beef volume increased nearly 5% since 2019, bacon 7%, and fresh lamb sales increased nearly 20%. More meat consumers shopped online than ever (61%, up from just 39% in 2019), and nearly half of meat shoppers (46%) today shop online regularly."

    The study also offers a number of key findings on the subject, including:

    "Consumers are well aware of supply chain challenges and inflationary pressures, and are adjusting purchases.  75% of consumers have noted higher meat/poultry prices and 43% see fewer promotions. In response, 61% save by eating out/ordering in less and instead try to recreate restaurant experiences at home (62%)" … "Value dominates the meat purchase and private brands grew as a consumer-preferred choice" … "Despite 77% of consumers having access to a full-service counter, a shopper-estimated record 75% of purchases are made at the self-serve meat case" … and "skepticism surrounding cultivated meat remains, plant-based meat alternatives hold steady and blends have potential. 40% of consumers are unwilling to try cultivated meat versus 29% being open."

    •  Meanwhile, the New York Times has posted a piece provocatively headlines, "What Does the End of Beef Mean for Our Sense of Self?"

    The story is considerably more skeptical about the continuing role of meat in the American diet, writing:

    "Meat is primal, or so some of us think: that humans have always eaten it; that it is the anchor of a meal, the central dish around which other foods revolve, like courtiers around a king; that only outliers have ever refused it. But today, those imagined outliers are multiplying.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the consumption of beef per capita worldwide has declined for 15 years. Nearly a fourth of Americans claimed to have eaten less meat in 2019, according to a Gallup poll. The recipe site Epicurious, which reaches an audience of 10 million, phased out beef as an ingredient in new recipes in 2020. Diners at some McDonald’s can now sate their lust for a Quarter Pounder with a vegan McPlant instead. Faux meat products are projected to reach $85 billion in sales by 2030, according to a recent study by UBS, and Tyson Foods, one of the biggest beef packers in the United States, has hedged its bets by introducing its own plant-based line."

    The Times story puts the eating of meat into historical, geographic and cultural perspective, and you can read it here.

    Here's one bit of context:

    "Although the American love of meat has infiltrated almost every corner of the globe, the world’s consumption of meat per capita remains only a third of North America’s. On average, Asians eat a fourth as much meat as Americans; Africans less than a fifth. Outside the West, a number of countries have long-lasting and sophisticated vegetarian traditions, from India — home to nearly 1.4 billion people, of whom 39 percent identify as vegetarian and another 41 percent restrict how much meat they eat — to Ethiopia, where more than 40 percent of the population are Orthodox Christians and the most devout shun both meat and dairy on 250 fasting days a year."

    •  And finally … The Associated Press reports that "US regulators on Monday cleared the way for the sale of beef from gene-edited cattle in coming years after the Food and Drug Administration concluded the animals do not raise any safety concerns."

    According to the story, "The cattle by Recombinetics are the third genetically altered animals given the green light for human consumption in the United States, after salmon and pigs. Many other foods already are made with genetically modified ingredients from crops like soybeans and corn.

    "The cattle reviewed by the FDA had genes altered with a technology called CRISPR to have short, slick coats that let them more easily withstand hot weather. Cattle that aren’t stressed by heat might pack on weight more easily, making for more efficient meat production."

    Dr. Steven Solomon, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, tells the AP that "there’s no reason meat from the animals or their offspring would need to be labeled differently."

    While no timetable has been set,  the FDA said the gene-edited beef "could reach the market in as early as two years."

    KC's View:

    I do think that the headline of the Times piece sort of captures it - for a lot of people in this country, the consumption of enormous amounts of meat seems uniquely American.

    There is a funny anecdote in the Times about how "in the 1840 presidential election, the Whig William Henry Harrison was lauded for eating a plain-spoken diet of raw beef, untainted even by salt, while his Democratic rival, Martin Van Buren, was smeared with the accusation that he preferred hoity-toity delicacies like raspberries and cauliflower. Raspberries lost; beef won."  Of course, the Times notes, "Harrison ended up dying 31 days into his term."

    I suspect that whatever the antipathy toward meat replacements may be in some quarters, the long-term momentum does seem to be swinging in that direction.  In the end, "the power of meat" may find itself diminished.

    I also wish that the gene-edited beef would be transparently labeled as such - not because I am afraid of it or wouldn't be willing to eat it, but because I believe in transparency.  I hate it when institutions - whether governmental or private enterprise - say I don't need to know something.

    Published on: March 8, 2022

    From the Seattle Times this morning:

    "The push to unionize Amazon has come to Seattle — but it won’t play out in the same way as other union drives.

    "Instead of warehouse workers, it’s focused on those Amazon employees serving lunches and stocking grocery shelves. Instead of an organizing campaign that culminates in a formal vote to determine whether the facility will unionize, this group has declared it already is a union.

    "Workers at an Amazon Fresh grocery store at 23rd Avenue South and South Jackson Street in Seattle’s Central District have been organizing for months to form an independent union, Amazon Workers United, according to union member and Amazon employee Joseph Fink."

    The story says that the move "is part of an effort to create a safer and healthier work environment for all Amazon workers. It’s demanding higher pay and better working conditions, and is spreading its message to other Amazon Fresh stores in Seattle. Fink said workers at three locations in the area are planning to form unions in their own stores."

    The Times writes that Amazon Workers United has "accused Amazon of retaliating against their union efforts by announcing the closure of several bookstores across the country. Amazon says those allegations are false and that it is closing those brick and mortar stores to focus more efforts on its grocery business. It doesn’t recognize the union at Amazon Fresh."

    KC's View:

    I'm not sure the charge that Amazon is closing its bookstores and 4 Star stores to retaliate against unionization is going to stick - it seems pretty evident to me that Amazon got everything it wanted to get out of these formats, and determined that it wanted to focus on stores in retail segments where non-digital interaction with products can be an advantage.

    I would expect, however, that this unionization push will only accelerate Amazon's efforts to develop technologies that marginalize the use of people in physical stores, whether it be robots that serve customer needs in its fashion stores or checkout-free systems in all its food stores.

    That said, it just feels to me like Amazon needs to apply some of the ingenuity that it brings to technology in the human resources area of its business.  It clearly has an image problem here - as do other retailers, ranging from Starbucks to REI - but Amazon has the resources and innovation-centric culture to do something about it.

    Published on: March 8, 2022

    The Washington Post reports that Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld has compiled and is circulating a kind of naughty-or-nice list detailing "which companies have pulled out of Russia amid its attack on Ukraine — and which ones have stayed put."

    The story notes that CEOs are "trying their best to avoid being placed on the roster of 'Companies That Remain in Russia With Significant Exposure.'

    "Sonnenfeld, who founded the nonprofit Chief Executive Leadership Institute, said he has fielded calls from CEOs asking 'why we didn’t have them on the right list, and what they needed to do to either clarify or actually take a more strong stance'."

    The Post writes that "on top of skyrocketing inflation and a plummeting ruble, Russians have been left with a dwindling marketplace: Prada stores have shuttered, TikTok has suspended operations in their country, and car companies including Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Volkswagen have stopped shipping vehicles to Russia. Even WWE, the wrestling entertainment company, said it would halt operations there … Even among those on the list of 'Companies That Have Curtailed Russian Operations,' some are taking a stronger position against the invasion than others, Sonnenfeld said. According to the list, BASF SE, a German chemical company, said it would 'suspend new Russian relationships,' while other companies including Apple and Chanel have closed stores or cut off supply chains. FedEx is halting all shipments to Russia, and major oil companies including ExxonMobil have said they will exit operations there, leaving billions of dollars on the table."

    The story goes on:  "Among those on the list of companies keeping business as usual are major brands such as McDonald’s, Starbucks and Coca-Cola. Sonnenfeld said McDonald’s was the 'screaming anomaly that’s bewildering to all its peers,' as it has remained operational in Russia even though it has control over 85 percent of its restaurants there, unlike companies such as Starbucks, which are hindered by franchise obligations."

    The Post notes that the list seems to be having an impact:  "The cosmetics company Estée Lauder had been on the list of those maintaining operations in Russia. On Monday, it announced it would close all of the stores it owned there and stop shipping products to the country."

    Meanwhile, GeekWire reports that "Amazon doesn’t have any direct operations in Ukraine, but as the country suffers under the ongoing invasion by Russia, the tech giant is stepping in to provide support to humanitarian organizations on the ground.

    "In a blog post Monday, Amazon said it would contribute $5 million to such groups as UNICEF, UNHCR, World Food Program, Red Cross, Polska Akcja Humanitarna, and Save the Children."

    KC's View:

    I cannot tell if Amazon has done this yet, but if it hasn't, the company ought to immediately end all Amazon Prime memberships in Russia - no expedited deliveries, no video, nothing.  In fact, it ought to just stop delivering to Russia altogether.

    Of course, there are additional problems being created by Russia's attack on Ukraine…

    From the Associated Press:

    " The Russian tanks and missiles besieging Ukraine also are threatening the food supply and livelihoods of people in Europe, Africa and Asia who rely on the vast, fertile farmlands of the Black Sea region — known as the 'breadbasket of the world.'

    "Ukrainian farmers have been forced to neglect their fields as millions flee, fight or try to stay alive. Ports are shut down that send wheat and other food staples worldwide to be made into bread, noodles and animal feed. And there are worries Russia, another agricultural powerhouse, could have its grain exports upended by Western sanctions.

    "While there have not yet been global disruptions to wheat supplies, prices have surged 55% since a week before the invasion amid concerns about what could happen next. If the war is prolonged, countries that rely on affordable wheat exports from Ukraine could face shortages starting in July, International Grains Council director Arnaud Petit told the Associated Press.

    "That could create food insecurity and throw more people into poverty in places like Egypt and Lebanon, where diets are dominated by government-subsidized bread. In Europe, officials are preparing for potential shortages of products from Ukraine and increased prices for livestock feed that could mean more expensive meat and dairy if farmers are forced to pass along costs to customers."

    Published on: March 8, 2022

    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…

    •  The US Covid-19 coronavirus numbers:  80,979,977 total cases … 985,914 deaths … and 55,013,011 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  448,422,133 total cases … 6,029,410 fatalities … and 382,706,022 reported recoveries.   (Source.)

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 76.5 percent of the total US population has received at least one dose of vaccine … 65.1 percent is fully vaccinated … and 44.1 percent has received a vaccine booster dose.

    Published on: March 8, 2022

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  Business Insider reports that "an environmental nonprofit has sued Kroger over claims that several of the grocery chain's private-label products — including a spinach-and-bacon salad kit, frozen fruit, and pre-sliced bagels — contain high lead levels. The legal spat is just the latest clash between retailers and environmental activists and attorneys over lead levels in products found in stores across the country.

    "Environmental attorney Vineet Dubey filed the suit against the grocery giant on Monday in Los Angeles County's Superior Court on behalf of the Ecological Alliance. Kroger did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment, and has not yet filed a response to the Ecological Alliance's claims."

    •  In Virginia, WAVY-TV News reports that Publix Super Markets "is planning to open up stores in two of Hampton Roads’ seven cities.

    "While the Florida-based chain has yet to make the official store announcements themselves, both the City of Suffolk and Norfolk have approved plans for the stores, both roughly 50,000 square feet, and confirmed Publix is the occupant."

    The story notes that "Publix has had a presence in the region since 2018, with the opening of stores in Williamsburg and Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina."  No timetable for construction has been announced.

    I've been intrigued by the Publix march northward, especially because it is happening at the same time as Wegmans' march southward.  In this case, the Publix store will be less than a dozen miles from a Virginia Beach Wegmans store.

    •  CNBC reports that "Kohl’s, facing activist pressure to consider a sale, wants investors to realize the progress it is making on its own terms to refresh its brick-and-mortar stores and to find ways to lure new and younger shoppers to the business."

    Kohl's says that it is planning to open more than 100 small-store units of roughly 35,000 square feet - a typical Kohl's is about 80,000 square feet - "in a bid to attract new customers."  And, the story says, "Kohl’s also announced that it aims to grow its Sephora business to more than $2 billion in annual sales. Kohl’s has opened about 200 of the Sephora shop-in-shops inside its brick-and-mortar locations, so far, and is on track to hit 850 by next year."

    •  The Specialty Food Association announced that the 2023 Winter Fancy Food Show will return to the Las Vegas Convention Center, from January 15-17.

    The show was moved from its longtime venue in San Francisco this year, at least in part because there were fewer pandemic-related restrictions in Las Vegas;  urban strife that has made life in San Francisco problematic over the past year almost certainly also played a role in the decision.

    The 2022 Summer Fancy Food Show will take place as planned  June 12-14 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City.