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    Published on: April 2, 2013

    by Michael Sansolo

    They say there’s no such thing as a bad question. I beg to differ. Actually there are some terrible questions especially for people allegedly in customer service, especially when dealing with customers with good throwing arms and especially when it involves ME!

    Let me explain.

    Last Thursday I stopped at the supermarket near my gym for one of those quick two-item trips. The store was very quiet so I didn’t mind when a cashier intercepted me on the way to the self-scanning machines. That was my mistake.

    The cashier was a polite young person, no doubt hard working, diligent and possibly good in every aspect of his life. I didn’t mind talking to him briefly, but it’s where he took the conversation that got this transaction into this column. As he rang up my order, he calmly asked:

    “Do you qualify for the senior citizen discount?”

    At first, I didn’t take offense. After all, I’ve seen these discounts offered to people at 55 or 50, both of which would include me and I’d cash in if I could. But not this time: the offer kicks in at age 60.

    Here’s the deal: I’m 57 and proud of it. I’m in really good shape (I had just ridden 20 miles in a spinning class before hitting the store) and while my maturity level may still be in single digits at times, I’m okay with my age. But don’t push it.

    All I could respond to the cashier was a wide-eyed, “Really!” He blushed.

    Now there are so many angles to this, I don’t know where to begin. First, when I shared the story with Kevin (a man who wears a Timex, uses handkerchiefs, and sometimes seems just one week away from yelling at kids to get off his lawn), he responded with two things. First, he laughed…a lot! Second, he asked why I didn’t bean the cashier with my purchase.

    The more we talked, though, the more we realized that this is not a simple problem. We live today in a more diverse society than ever. And more than ever there is no way to know exactly who or what type of person you are talking to at the checkout, the gym, the street or on the social web.

    Today more than ever, companies need to educate front-line employees on things they should and should NOT say or ask of customers. This is a critical issue with the growth of the social web where everyone is now front-line. And it speaks to the need to train our younger associates in face-to-face conversation, a growing need in the world of non-verbal communication.

    Then again, maybe I’m being too hard on this cashier because he was clearly in a no-win position. Here he was, offering me personal service, making a connection with me and trying to offer me an extra discount. Instead he ended up offending me. He owes it to my sense of fairness that his name, store and location aren’t all appearing in MorningNewsBeat today. (Of course, I know the CEO of this company, know he reads MNB and know that he is aware of where I shop.)

    So how to make this a win? The best answer came from Mrs. Content Guy. The store, she said, needs place a simple note on the check stands for the Thursday senior citizen special. The note could explain that shoppers 60 and older qualify for a special discount and let it go from there. It would be up to the shopper to say that he or she qualifies.

    Just like that, no difficult questions, no awkward moments and no lingering questions on whether a pissed off shopper is ready to throw a tub of soft cream cheese at your head. Just a simple note that allows the shopper to choose what to do. Maybe even add that you can be carded, just in case a Justin Bieber look-a-like decides to test the policy.

    I’m all for cashiers making customer connections and I never mind a short chat while I’m checking out. But instruct cashiers that there are questions customers simply don’t like. Make this simple: if it involves our age, weight, marital status, kids or even our nutritional choices ... well, don’t ask.

    One request on that special senior citizen discount sign: Make the font size at least 12 points. I never remember my reading glasses.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 2, 2013

    by Kevin Coupe

    Here's a shift in behavior that many of us probably never have thought about. But it speaks to broader changes taking place in society.

    The Associated Press has a story about how hot lines designed to help young people in crisis are having to adjust the way they make themselves available - young people need numbers they can text to, not call.

    According to the story, "As more teens have gone mobile, using their phones as an extension of themselves, hotline providers have tried to keep up. Fewer seem to operate today than in decades past. A smattering reach out through mobile text, including Teen Line in Los Angeles, though that service and others offer limited schedules or specialize in narrow areas of concern when multiple problems might be driving a teen to the brink.

    "Some text providers operate in specific places or rely on trained teen volunteers to handle the load across modes of communication. Several agreed that text messaging enhances call-in and chat options for a generation of young people who prefer to communicate by typing on their phones, especially when they don't want parents, teachers, friends or boyfriends to listen in."

    It's an Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 2, 2013

    Bloomberg has a story saying that Walmart has received more than 1,000 emails from shoppers across the country complaining about out-of-stocks, suggesting that the problem is more pervasive than previously reported.

    A previous story from Bloomberg, taken note of here on MNB, pointed to Walmart's problems with empty shelves, was disputed by Walmart spokeswomanBrooke Buchanan, who said that it was "based on the comments of a handful of people, is inaccurate and not representative of what is happening in our stores across the country."

    But since the story ran, Bloomberg says, it has received more than 1,000 emails: "The e-mails began arriving shortly after the article was published and were still coming a week later. Most were from previously loyal Wal-Mart customers befuddled by what had happened to service at a company they’d once admired for its low prices and wide assortment. Many said they were paying more and driving farther to avoid the local Wal-Mart."

    The problem seems to be that Walmart has reduced the number of people working in its stores as a way of saving money, which means that there are fewer employees to stock shelves. Empty shelves lead to reduced sales. Lower volume leads to additional labor cutbacks. And the vicious cycle continues...

    But Walmart continues to dispute the story:

    "Those items are missing at a crucial time for Wal-Mart, when the U.S. economy already is restraining its shoppers’ spending. Same-store sales for Wal-Mart’s U.S. locations in the 13 weeks ending April 26 will be little changed, Bill Simon, chief executive officer of Wal-Mart U.S., said on a Feb. 21 earnings call.

    "Wal-Mart said the customers complaining to Bloomberg aren’t a sufficient sample size and don’t represent shoppers’ impressions of its stores nationwide. The company surveys more than 500,000 customers a month, asking them about checkout lines, store cleanliness and the helpfulness of workers, Buchanan said yesterday in e-mailed statement. 'These customers continue to tell us they have had a positive shopping experience and those numbers have trended upward over the past two years,' she said. 'Our in-stock shelf availability is at historically high levels and averages between 90 and 95 percent. We will continue to work hard for our customers and meet their expectations by offering them everyday low prices on the broadest assortment of merchandise'."

    To read the entire story, and the litany of complaints about Walmart's in-stock position, click here.
    KC's View:
    I cannot help but think that Walmart is either kidding itself on this issue, or just thinking that if it says something enough times, it will convince the world that it is true.

    One thousand emails is a lot of emails. One has to assume that it just scratches the surface of discontent ... and that the irritation of 1,000 people can have a lot more impact than the relative happiness of the 500,000 people answering questions phrased by Walmart.

    Keep in mind the lyrics from the song used in Mel Brooks' The Twelve Chairs:

    Hope for the best, expect the worst
    Some drink champagne, some die of thirst
    No way of knowing
    Which way it’s going
    Hope for the best, expect the worst!

    Words to live by.

    Published on: April 2, 2013

    The St. Louis Business Journal reports that Schnuck markets there has been the victim of a cyberattack - unauthorized access to customer credit and debit card information - that was "found and contained," with steps taken to prevent future breaches.

    "After an extensive review, we confirmed that Schnucks was the victim of a cyberattack," Scott Schnuck, chairman/CEO, said. “We have identified the issue and taken comprehensive measures to contain the incident. We are cooperating with law enforcement, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, and the credit card companies to determine the scope and magnitude of this crime and apprehend those individuals making fraudulent purchases. We have been told by the computer forensics expert that the security enhancements we have implemented in the last 48 hours are designed to block this attack from continuing. Our customers can continue using credit and debit cards at our stores. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused our customers, and we thank each of them for their patience while we worked hard to investigate their concerns."
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 2, 2013

    The charges that Walmart used bribes of foreign officials as a way to grease the wheels of its global expansion seem to have applied the brakes to the company's efforts to grow its business in India.

    The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Walmart has not been able to move as fast as hoped in its India expansion because of what is described as a "labyrinthine process for developing commercial real estate and operating stores ... The company opened just five wholesale stores in the country last year—well below the 22 planned. This year, Wal-Mart plans to open eight locations, a person familiar with the company's plans said."

    According to the piece, Walmart's internal probe of the allegations that it bribed its way to dominance in Mexico has led to increased "efforts to keep partners and employees in line with U.S. and Indian laws. Running people through those hoops has slowed its expansion, the company says ... Wal-Mart in the past several months has enlisted a phalanx of lawyers from a U.S. firm to develop compliance procedures and train employees in India. The company also has begun requiring its Indian landlords to attest that they haven't greased any government palms."
    KC's View:
    Things get tough when you have to shut down the slush fund account.

    It remains amazing to me that Walmart, which can be self-righteous when it comes to talking about issues like ethics, has had to a) do so much to make sure its people are doing the right things, and b) is taking so long to complete its internal probe.

    Or maybe not so amazing. It is hard for lawyers to come up with credible non-denial denials and plausible deniability.

    Published on: April 2, 2013

    Advertising Age reports that sex seems to be the line dividing marketing efforts used by Weight Watchers and Slim-Fast as they look to appeal to diet-conscious Americans.

    According to the story, Slim-Fast is looking to jump-start its moribund sales by stressing sex appeal and using "provocative ads that tout the bedroom benefits of losing weight." Weight Watchers, on the other hand, is "more about science than sizzle," and prefers to position itself as a health-care company.

    Ad Age writes, "At stake is a piece of a weight-management market that is estimated to grow to nearly $41 billion by 2016, according to Packaged Facts, which counts diet foods and beverages as part of the total. An estimated 39% of U.S. adults are 'watching their diet,' according to Experian Marketing Services data cited by Packaged Facts."
    KC's View:
    Call me crazy, but somehow the notion of sex appeal and good health don't seem mutually exclusive.

    I aspire to what F. Scott Fitzgerald said (though he probably wasn't talking about dieting): "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

    Published on: April 2, 2013

    Reuters reports that "Walmart is cutting gasoline prices by up to 15 cents a gallon for drivers in 21 U.S. states who pay with its cards in an attempt to woo shoppers grappling with high prices at the pump ... he discount will be 15 cents a gallon for customers paying with a Walmart MoneyCard or credit card from April 1 through July 7, and 10 cents a gallon for those using a Wal-Mart gift card."

    • The Wall Street Journal reports that Walmart plans to invest the equivalent of $80 million (US) "to remodel 50 of its 380-plus stores in China and ... open 30 new stores in the country this year. The company projected it would open stores in cities such as Xinyu, in eastern Jiangxi province, and Shantou, in southern Guangdong province, in the next six months."
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 2, 2013

    • The Chicago Tribune reports that Vani Hari, the author of "Food Babe," visited Kraft Foods headquarters yesterday to deliver a petition with more than 270,000 signatures asking the company to remove yellow #5 and yellow #6 dyes from its food. The dyes are used in the US formulation for Macaroni and Cheese, but not the UK formula, and the signees want Kraft to switch because the dyes "have been linked to hyperactivity in children and other health problems."

    Kraft has said the dyes are perfectly safe.

    The signatures were gathered on

    • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that "the future of retailer OfficeMax may be taking shape in a single store in downtown Milwaukee," which the company has converted to "a new format that is smaller in size but bigger on services it can offer to its key customers - small-business owners.

    The story notes that OfficeMax, which has proposed a merger with Office Depot, "has more than 900 retail stores in the United States, Puerto Rico and Mexico, and the average size is 23,000 square feet. The new format in Milwaukee is 8,000 square feet."

    • Acosta Sales & Marketing said yesterday that it has acquired three foodservice companies: Wolff Group, with operations across the Midwest and Pennsylvania; Basic Sales & Marketing, with operations in Utah; and Progressive Marketing, with operations in Hawaii. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 2, 2013

    • Lund Food Holdings, owner of Lunds and Byerly's, announced that Phil Lombardo, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, has been promoted to the new position of Chief Marketing and Merchandising Officer.

    At the same time, Jim Geisler, the company's Senior Vice President of Operations, has been promoted to the new position of Chief Operations Officer.
    KC's View:
    I don't know Jim Geisler, but I have gotten to know Phil Lombardo a little bit over the past few years ... and he's a great guy. I'm happy for him ... and for Lund Food Holdings, which is lucky to have people like him.

    Published on: April 2, 2013

    First of all, thanks to all of you who wrote in about yesterday's lead stories, which took advantage of the fact that it was April 1 to stretch credibility and accuracy a little bit. It remains amazing to me how many people remember "Mr. Ed." I see a movie revival one of these days...

    Had a piece the other day in which I raved about Bell's Oberon, one of the m,any craft beers that seem to be driving growth in the beer business these days. Which led one MNB user to write:

    Oberon is in my top ten favorite beers of all time!  Good to know we have similar tastes!  While you’re in Kalamazoo, you should try Bell’s “Two-Hearted Ale”.  Another one of my all-time favorites.

    It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the craft beer market is blowing up like it is.  The sheer quality, craftsmanship, ingredients, and attention-to-detail is unparalleled versus the BMC (Bud Miller Coors) brewers of the world.  Plus, customer tastes are evolving for craft beers and this has resulted in double-digit growth in the industry for the past few years, while domestic and imported beers are seeing declining sales year after year.  Why do you think In Bev AB bought Goose Island?!  Craft beer sales have doubled from 2007-2012 from $5.7 billion to $12 billion despite a down economy, PLUS analysts predict that the industry will be $18 billion in 2017!!!!  Time to turn my homebrewing hobby into a full-scale operation!

    So this begs the question, why would you shell out $5 for a six-pack of “watered-down” Budweiser when you could pay $7 or $8 a six-pack for an IPA with 7-10% (sometimes more) ABV and a lot more flavor?!  It’s not a difficult question to ponder….well, not for me at least!

    Got a number of emails about our story last week about Celiac Supplies, a specialty food store in Brisbane, Australia, that decided to start charging shoppers a $5 fee for looking without buying - a solution, it hopes, to the showrooming problem. The store has a sign on the front door that says:

    As of the first of February, this store will be charging people a $5 fee per person for "just looking." The $5 fee will be deducted when goods are purchased. Why has this come about? There has been high volume of people who use this store as a reference and then purchase goods elsewhere. These people are unaware our prices are almost the same as the other stores plus we have products simply not available anywhere else. This policy is line with many other clothing, shoe and electronic stores who are also facing the same issue.

    My comment:

    I think the folks at Celiac Supplies need to get a little more fiber in their diets. Because this is the dumbest idea I've ever heard. The sign may say one thing, but it actually means something else. It means three simple words: "We cannot compete."

    MNB user Steven Barry wrote:

    Think of it this way.  If they actually pull this off and convince their buying customers that they are not paying this $5.00 Charge (which really, they’re not),  many lessons will be learned and US retailers will take notice.  Think of all of the new, hip stores like Whole Foods, Wegmans, Dorothy Lane,  who spend much effort, time and money to develop unique products, product Categories and Merchandizing strategies only to watch an endless flow of Manufacturers, Suppliers, Brokers, competitors on so on, come in and  “borrow” these great ideas to either share with their competition or just plain steel the idea’s all together….all for the very low price of $0.00.   Retailers are always looking for ways to somehow get more money out of the supplier community so  I can see this being another way to create an income source from not only your current suppliers but also the vendors who do not business with you not to mention your competitors.  It’s not like they’re not going to pay in order to do their recon work..  sure they will.    And customers can be trained.  If they’re trained to believe there is something in it for them to slide their cards before entering the store, then they will not have a problem with it.  I hear they get that $5 back when they make a purchase anyway.   It could happen…..

    From another reader:

    Seems to me that “Celiac Supplies” just needed a little more time in thinking through how to combat showrooming.

    Instead of an every visit fee, they could call themselves Celiac Supplies “CLUB”, offer great value and charge an ANNUAL fee...

    Another MNB user wrote:

    Celiac Supplies is a complete embarrassment to retailing. I wouldn’t pay them 5 cents to look around in their store. Down under, someone has a hole in their head!

    MNB user David L. White wrote:

    Celiac Supplies posts a sign indicating a $5.00 surcharge for “just looking” in their store.  I suspect the next sign on the door will say “Going Out Of Business.”

    I loved this email, which happened to come from my younger brother, Tim:

    Forget the three word sign saying "We can't compete." It really is a two word sign: "Go Away!"

    That's the difference between my brother and me. I would've chosen two different words....
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 2, 2013

    The Major League Baseball season started in earnest yesterday, and here at MNB Global Headquarters, there is a certain amount of satisfaction - the NY Mets beat the San Diego Padres 11-2, the Boston Red Sox beat the NY Yankees 8-2, and the Seattle Mariners beat the Oakland A's 2-0.

    Watching the Mets game yesterday, I find myself watching a relief pitcher named Scott Rice throw a three-up-three-down inning for the Mets, and wondering who he was. here's what said about him:

    Scott Rice, a first-round pick in1999 who spent the next 14 years in the minors, earned a spot on the New York Mets' Opening Day roster. Rice, 31, is on a major-league roster for the first time. The left-hander will work out of the bullpen after he compiled a 3.18 ERA in 11 innings of work in the spring. Rice, 31, had a 4.40 ERA for the Dodgers' Triple-A team last season.

    And here's what Michael Sansolo texted me about him:

    He's the real life Crash Davis!

    I love stories like Scott Rice's. in the long run, his presence in the bullpen may speak to the Mets' pitching weaknesses. But yesterday, at least, the sun was out and he looked unhittable.

    The world is filled with possibility.
    KC's View: