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    Published on: March 8, 2016

    by Michael Sansolo

    Hard as it may be to believe, drama queens and kings are exactly what retailers need to stand out from the competition.

    That was the suggestion made by one wholesaler executive during a panel discussion I moderated at IGA Worldwide, the Alliance’s annual conference that last week helped celebrate IGA’s 90th anniversary.

    And obviously some explanation is necessary.

    IGA stores, like so many others, face a challenging future. The IGA reputation of "Hometown Proud" through community service and local ownership is a fine foundation for independent operator success in the future, much as it has been in the past. But even in the midst of celebrating 90 years the conference in Las Vegas grappled with a serious issue - how to survive the next 90 days or 90 months, much less the next 90 years, especially given today’s pitched competition against traditional competitors, fast multiplying limited assortment discount stores and the coming battle again e-commerce.

    Like many retail groups in similar circumstances the IGA family talked during the conference about improved operations, greater efficiency and better in-store conditions. But the bulk of the discussion was about creating in-store excitement and customer engagement, which led to the discussion to drama queens or more accurately, a suggestion that stores start recruiting workers with some experience in theatrical arts.

    The reasoning was both simple and dead on. Performers are taught how to have presence and connect with their audience, the exact skills so many are saying employees need have to help stores differentiate in the eyes of their shoppers. It’s a simple suggestion, but one so rich with possibilities it has to make you wonder if theater training should become regular for all staffers.

    We all know the power of an engaging employee in any retail experience. Their ability to convey enthusiasm and personality makes any ordinary shopping trip that much better. We talk about the great assistance we got in a clothing store; the humorous waiter in a restaurant or even the friendly cashier that everyone lines up to see.

    So no, it isn’t about Meryl Streep working the deli. (Though, in view of our ongoing infatuation with the movies, it is worth noting that Streep played the owner of of upscale grocery store in It's Complicated.) It is about building store personality through our people, one at a time. It’s about finding people who like to interact with other people to give our store that extra edge.

    Incredibly there was a clear demonstration of this principle at the co-located National Grocers Association (NGA) show. One of the winners of NGA Creative Choice awards was Gordy’s Markets in Wisconsin for a campaign centered on the meat department. But as Mall Selvig, who represented Gordy’s on stage, demonstrated, Gordy’s marketing is driven by something else: An employee (Matt himself) who is willing to do most anything as the face of the company.

    Matt calls himself the “Gordy’s Guru.” For a meat event, he rode around the store dressed as a cowboy and straddling a shopping cart. For a cheese promotion Gordy’s commercials featured Matt singing Meghan Trainor’s hit as, “It’s all about the cheese.”

    Matt believes he’s like Flo for Progressive Insurance, giving his store a personality shoppers can remember ... one giggle at a time. If they laugh with him it’s great; if they laugh at him, it still works. Either way, they remember him and that’s what makes a staffer and a store a little more distinct.

    Time to raise the curtain.

    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 on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 8, 2016

    by Kevin Coupe

    The series finale of "Downton Abbey" aired on Sunday, accompanied by enormous amounts of publicity and, I suspect, extremely high ratings. And on Monday, as one might expect, there was tons of press coverage, including a seemingly endless series of interviews with creator and writer Julian Fellowes, in which he discussed the things that made the series so successful and if there might be a "Downton Abbey" movie somewhere down the road.

    I'll weigh in on the series and the finale on Friday in OffBeat, but I did want to take note of a Variety interview in which Fellowes talked about the show's themes, and made a point about the how the series' Crawley family survived the early 20th century that I thought also was applicable to how businesses can survive the 21st century:

    "There’s a moment when Cora says something like, 'We’ll be fine if we’re flexible.' Those families that approached the changing world with imagination and willingness to do things differently often got through and are still living in their houses and their estates having a lovely time. But the ones who dug in and wouldn’t shift or change a thing all went down, I think."

    That seems like a pretty good prescription for success in 2016. And beyond. And an Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 8, 2016

    The Los Angeles Times reports that Amazon plans to open a bricks-and-mortar store this summer in the University Towne Center Mall in San Diego.

    Last month, the story says, "job listings around San Diego looking for booksellers and store managers also tipped off watchers to the company's intentions to open a physical bookstore in the area. Amazon spokeswoman Sarah Gelman has now confirmed that Amazon Books in San Diego will be an official Amazon bookstore."

    The story also notes that the new Amazon store "will be next to a Tesla Store and across from an Apple Store."
    KC's View:
    This story makes the mistake of going back to the story from a few weeks ago that said Amazon was planning to open hundreds of physical stores in fairly short order - a story that originated with a real estate developer who subsequently walked it back (probably because he got a harsh phone call from Seattle).

    One of the things that this location seems to share with a similar Seattle store in proximity to a university; it is not a coincidence that Amazon also has been opening pick-up centers on select college campuses. This is all about expanding and cementing its ecosystem in the psyches on young people, who largely don't remember a time when Amazon did not exist.

    By the way ... we had a story here yesterday that mentioned how an Arkansas consultant said that Amazon is at a disadvantage when competing with Walmart because the costs for it to establish a physical presence is far higher than for Walmart to ramp up digitally. And I responded by saying that this assumed that Amazon wants to play Walmart's game, which I don't think it does. And I wrote about the consultant's comments:

    Spoken like a guy who has his offices in Arkansas. Not that I have anything against Arkansas, but the view of the world looks different from there than it does from other places. Like, say, Seattle.

    One MNB reader responded:

    There are occasions where you show regional bias, the most recent example provided today ... Not that I have anything against Seattle, but if your view is middle America because that is where your core consumer resides, what exactly would make Seattle a better location to plot WalMart on line strategy?  Just curious.

    Not better. Just different. I really wasn't being geographically biased in this comment (though, in all fairness, I have to admit that I am a creature of both coasts - born in Greenwich Village, lived most of my life in the suburbs of New York City, went to college in Los Angeles, and want to move to Oregon). I was just saying - perhaps more obliquely than I meant to - that it probably is a mistake to think that Amazon wants to play Walmart's game ... just as it seems clear that in pursuing an omnichannel strategy, Walmart believes that it can play a different game than Amazon does.

    This is, I think, a lesson that all retailers need to take to heart. Very few can play Amazon's game, or Walmart's. Rather than fixating on what their games are, one has to focus on developing one's own game plan ... that takes advantages of one's strengths and minimizes weaknesses ... that acknowledges the competitive realities in which one exists without becoming a weak, "me, too" player ... and that understands that effectively delivering what the customers want and need is far more important than being efficient or doing things the way they've always been done.

    I rave about Amazon all the time, but I would never suggest that its competitors need to try replicating or imitating the Amazon experience. But they damned sure better have a compelling and differentiated alternative to that experience, and be prepared to tell their story in colorful terms.

    Published on: March 8, 2016

    Forbes reports on what it calls a surprising statistic recently offered by Jeremy King, CTO and head of WalmartLabs in California's Silicon Valley, who said that "when Walmart Labs competes with top tech companies for talent, it gets the job candidate as much as 70% of the time ... The reason for Walmart Labs’ talent draw, its leader argues, is that developers and engineers who work for the group get to test what they build at a scale few startups ever reach."

    The story also notes King says that when people opt for Walmart's click-and-collect service, "About 40% of people who buy online and come pick up, they’ll go into the store and buy more when they’re there."
    KC's View:
    This actually is a perfect example of how Walmart and Amazon are - and should be - playing different games.

    I've always thought, however, that it is a mistake to think that Amazon, unlike bricks-and-mortar stores, cannot generate impulse sales. That may be true when it comes to candy bars and magazines at the front end, but I will tell you that I've spent way more money impulsively on Amazon over the years than in any bricks-and-mortar stores I can think of ... because Amazon uses its algorithms highly effectively to connect with me based on my interests, not theirs.

    And that's a key difference.

    Published on: March 8, 2016

    The Wall Street Journal reports that Staples management is trying to figure out "plan B" - or what it is going to do if the US regulators reject its bid to acquire Office Depot.

    CEO Ron Sargent told analysts last week that "the office-supplies retailer is planning specific changes to improve its stand-alone performance 'despite the fact that we’re focusing all our energies and efforts on getting this acquisition behind us'."

    The Journal story notes that "Staples has struggled with years of declining revenue as demand wanes for traditional office basics like folders and filing cabinets and as shoppers seek cheaper deals online. Managers last year pinned their hopes for a turnaround on a $6.3 billion combination with Office Depot designed to save on the operating costs from stores, distribution centers and executive offices." And things don't seem to be getting better - Q4 North American sales were down five percent.
    KC's View:
    First of all, I continue to believe that federal regulators need to change their definition of competition to factor in the digital realm. Combining Staples and Office Depot may eliminate some Main Street competition, but there remains plenty of it out there. And while corporations and governments tend to have contracts with companies like Staples, I can't see any reason they can't do business with Amazon or their online brethren. It wouldn't even take all that much imagination ... just a little bit of flexibility.

    Published on: March 8, 2016

    The Boston Herald reports that Dunkin' Donuts plans to "expand the test of its mobile 'on-the-go' ordering to select Massachusetts and Rhode Island locations tomorrow to allow its DD Perks rewards members to place and pay for their orders via an app to avoid lines at its restaurants."

    The test of the system originally launched at 125 stores in Maine.

    According to the story, "Customers who want to place mobile orders simply tap the images of what they want to buy using the Dunkin’ VIP app. Only menu items sold nationally are currently available. Orders can be placed up to 24 hours in advance, and customers can create favorite orders for quick reordering.

    "When they’re ready to pick up an order, customers can tap 'Ready to Pick Up' from the order confirmation page or the 'Order Information' orange bar. The pickup spot is designated in participating restaurants by a pink place mat, where orders will be waiting with receipts with customers’ names for grab-and-go-ease. Customers also can opt to pick up orders at drive-thru windows."
    KC's View:
    This is smart, and not just because it follows a path that Starbucks already has gone down with great success. It is very much in tune with how young people (and not just young people) think and act, and so it makes sense to maximize the uses of this technology.

    It also positions Dunkin' Donuts to take advantage of what it perceives as a potential dropping away of Starbucks customers who have been using their app to make purchases and accrue points, but are disenchanted by what they see as a self-serving change in the rules by Starbucks.

    Published on: March 8, 2016

    Bloomberg has numbers from Kantar Worldpanel saying that during the 12 weeks ending February 28, Tesco's sales were down 0.8 percent, Sainsbury's sales were up 0.5 percent, Asda's sales were down four percent, and William Morrison's sales were down 3.2 percent.

    On the other hand, the story says, "Aldi’s sales rose 15 percent, while Lidl’s rose 19 percent."

    However, the story notes that the numbers suggest that Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrison's could find "some respite" in the numbers, since they are not as bad as they've been in past periods.
    KC's View:
    One person's respite is another person's competitive morass. If these grocers see these numbers as any sort of good news, then they are engaging in a first class rationalization. And, as Jeff Goldblum's character in The Big Chill tells us, rationalizations are more important than sex ... after all, when was the last time you got through the day without a good rationalization?

    Published on: March 8, 2016

    • In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reports that Target "cleared a major hurdle" in ridding itself of the detritus of its ill-fated Canadian expansion strategy "by reaching a settlement Friday with the landlords of the 133 stores in Canada it shuttered last year." Under the new plan - which amends a proposal made last year that a Canadian judge had ruled as inadequate - landlords there will get between two-thirds and three-quarters of their claims.

    USA Today has a piece about "ugly produce," writing that "while European supermarkets have adopted the ugly foods movement by selling produce with superficial blemishes, most major American chains have refused to embrace the runner-ups in the fruit and veg beauty pageants – until now."

    The story notes that "Whole Foods Market says it will sell the 'ugly' produce that would otherwise go to waste at a handful of its Northern California stores beginning in late April. The pilot project, in collaboration with Imperfect Produce, an Emeryville, Calif.-based startup, marks one of the first forays by a national grocery chain into the movement to cut food waste ... Imperfect Produce, which opened in 2015, delivers cosmetically imperfect fruits and vegetables to the homes of about 2,200 Bay Area customers at prices generally lower than grocery stores. For Whole Foods, the company will likely bundle the fruits and vegetable is mesh net bags with Imperfect's branding to differentiate it from Whole Foods' products."

    And the story notes that another supermarket that has taken this approach is "One supermarket has made a go of it. The non-profit Daily Table opened in June in Dorchester, Mass., using recovered food from manufacturers and distributors to sell discounted prepared meals and groceries in low-income communities." The company says that the response so far has been “overwhelmingly positive."

    • The New York Times reports that Mondelez International "is introducing its first new product line in years. The new line of thin, savory crackers, called Good Thins, plays to consumers’ growing interest in unconventional snack ingredients. One variety of the crackers, for instance, is made from sweet potatoes (albeit in powdered form), while another is based on chickpeas."

    The story says that the line was developed after "consumers told Mondelez they did not want things like artificial colors and flavors, cholesterol or high-fructose corn syrup in their snacks. But they wanted good taste and texture, characteristics that often rely on those unwanted ingredients."
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 8, 2016

    • JM Smucker announced that Mark T. Smucker will succeed his uncle, Richard K. Smucker, as the company's CEO, effective May 1. He has been president of consumer and natural foods since April 2015.

    Richard K. Smucker will become executive chairman, replacing his brother Timothy P. Smucker, who will be chairman emeritus and remain on the board.
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 8, 2016

    ...will return.
    KC's View:

    Published on: March 8, 2016

    Tennis star Maria Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam singles champion, said yesterday that she was found to have taken a banned substance in tests administered at this year's Australian Open, calling it a "huge mistake."

    According to the Wall Street Journal story, Sharapova said the drug involved was a heart medication that she has been taking for 10 years, but that recently has been place din the "banned substance" category by the World Anti-Doping Agency: "The drug, meldonium, was added to the banned list in September, and went into effect on Jan. 1. Sharapova said she was notified via email in December that WADA’s antidoping policies had been updated, but didn't click on the link to see what new substances were included. She took full responsibility for having the drug in her system and apologized for letting down her fans and the sport."

    The feeling seems to be that while Sharapova will be provisionally suspended pending a hearing, any long-term suspension is likely to be minimal in view of the circumstances.
    KC's View:
    Kind of refreshing to see an athlete a) admit what she did, and b) take full responsibility. Doesn't happen all that often. (Of course, my admiration is based on the early coverage ... we all know that these stories can change as time goes on and we learn more.)