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    Published on: May 31, 2016

    by Kevin Coupe

    I know I've always been something of a disappointment to Feargal Quinn.

    I've had the pleasure of getting to know Feargal over the years, to the point where I feel comfortable calling him by his first name, rather than Mr. Quinn or Senator Quinn (which would be appropriate since he spent more than two decades in the Irish Seanad). I've interviewed him for various projects, which always has been a delight because he is nothing if not quotable, but I've also shared a couple of dinners with him, and he pretty much defines what it is to be a raconteur. The man knows how to tell a story.

    One of the things that Feargal has long delighted in is his choice of socks. They're always wild and colorful, and he takes great pride not just in showing them off, but often in telling the story behind them, if there is one. When I've seen him at various events, in places ranging from Dublin to Shanghai, he's usually lifted his pants leg a bit, displayed whatever unique hosiery he happens to be wearing, and then, with a mischievous grin, ask to see mine.

    Alas, I always have been disappointing on this score. (Probably on others, too, but that would require a digression of some time and length.) I basically have only sweat socks in my drawer, and they come in two colors - white, and black. In seeing them, Feargal generally would shake his head, but he'd never lose the grin, and the message - sometimes spoken, sometimes not - was that perhaps next time I'd do better, and that he hadn't lost faith.

    That message - about always working to do better, and always having faith in the ability to be better - is one that pervades Feargal's new memoir, "Quinntessential Feargal," now available on

    Feargal has written two other books, the far more business-oriented "Crowning The Customer" (which is a classic in the genre) and "Mind Your Own Business," both of which also are available on Amazon. "Quinntessential Feargal" is more of a memoir, albeit one that is full of wonderful business lessons mined from a life well and robustly lived.

    The man knows how to tell a story. He talks about his parents, especially his dad, who was an entrepreneur who was practicing disruption in the retail business long before "disruption" became a catch phrase for techies and venture capitalists. During the thirties and forties, Eamonn Quinn became successful by challenging conventional wisdom and not accepting "we've always done it that way" as the foundation for a business plan.

    Lesson learned. Using language that is musical and poetic in that way that one expects of an Irishman, along with an eye for the telling and contextual detail, Feargal Quinn tells his own story as a businessman, using his father's example to create the company eventually known as Superquinn, which set new standards and was known globally for its approach to customer service. Never a big company, Superquinn was a company that always thought and acted big. It was a pioneer in the area of loyalty marketing, and revolutionary in how Feargal invested in the company's people - management routinely shared the weekly numbers with all the people who worked in the stores, on the theory that people who had a sophisticated understanding of the business would better represent the stores and feel invested in their success.

    Not only does the man know how to tell a story, but Superquinn stores always did, as well. Long before product sourcing became trendy, Superquinn featured posters in the bakery, seafood, meat, and produce departments that identified the bakers and fishermen, ranchers and farmers from whom the products had been acquired. Through pictures and narrative, the stores told a compelling story about people and food and national pride.

    This commitment to people can be seen throughout "Quinntessential Feargal," in which the author takes great pains to give credit to the hundreds of people of have been part of his life's adventure - including, of course, his wife Denise and his five children (all terrific people, by the way), and Anne O'Broin, his personal assistant (and one of my favorite people), who has been with him for so much of the journey. Unlike some CEOs, who celebrate themselves and their own accomplishments with braggadocio and edifices both real and virtual, Feargal's approach is to celebrate other people and to understand that service can be its own reward.

    As the Irish market changed, Feargal eventually sold Superquinn in 2005 ... but by that point he had been elected Senator and was deeply involved in the Irish political scene, bringing a businessman's instincts and experience to government bureaucracy.

    Two notes about this section of the book. To Americans, some of the political processes described will seem somewhat arcane and, well, foreign. But I found it to be interesting, if only because it is fascinating to see how another democracy works from the inside. I was particularly interested in how at various points in his career, Feargal found himself fighting against protectionist policies, concluding - as the government usually did - that while they might seem self-satisfying in the short-term, in the long run they were far more likely to work against a nation's ability to be sustainably prosperous.

    In reading "Quinntessential Feargal," I was reminded of a wonderful line from Ernest Hemingway: "Good writing is good conversation, only more so."

    I've been privileged in my life to have some good conversations with Feargal Quinn. Sitting down with his new book was like having another one.

    Only more so.

    KC's View:

    Published on: May 31, 2016

    The Wall Street Journal reports on the latest in online grocery shopping in Sweden, where a a courier company and a local supermarket chain have teamed up to test a new service that hinges on a special lock that in installed on customers' front doors.

    That lock can be turned off via the couriers' smart phone, which then gives them access to shoppers' houses or apartments if they are not home ... where they then can unpack the groceries and put them in cupboards, refrigerators and freezers. Couriers even will take off their shoes if customers desire.

    While the service is being tested in only about 20 homes at the moment, the experiment is described as "part of a global race aimed at solving one of the main headaches facing retailers and logistics companies from Inc. to United Parcel Service Inc.: elusive customers. Without having to juggle the conflicting schedules of customers reluctant to sit at home, PostNord says it can organize more efficient delivery rounds and cut costs."

    Indeed, "in-home, in-absentia delivery could help the logistics industry meet a continued surge in online commerce," the Journal writes. "This year, 8.6% of total retail sales world-wide will happen over the Internet, amounting to more than US$2 trillion in sales, according to digital marketing research firm eMarketer—a rise of 23% compared with 2015."
    KC's View:
    There have been a lot of flirtations with these kinds of concepts, with companies doing such things as installing cabinets and refrigerators in garages that could be accessed from outside walls. These failed, I think, largely because they were too early to the party ..,. people just weren't ready.

    And we know that Audi and Volvo have both been testing methods that would allow courier services to car trunks as an alternative to home or office deliveries.

    There is a lot of innovation taking place in and around this space, and I think it would be foolish to suggest that none will work ... it is far more likely that several of them will catch on, simply because customers are a lot more ready to accept such concepts than they were just a few years ago. Such a service won't be for everyone, everywhere ... but it is not hard to imagine success stories being told at some point down the road.

    Published on: May 31, 2016

    Bloomberg has a story about how Hershey Co. is staking much of its future on a product that, uncharacteristically, is not made of chocolate. Because of declining sales linked to health concerns about sugar, Hershey "is betting on the growing appetite for dried meat.

    According to the story, "Hershey signaled its shift away from chocolate in early 2015, when it acquired Krave Pure Foods, a maker of premium beef jerky with about $35 million in sales. Krave, based in California’s wine country, put Hershey in the fast-growing meat-snack category and gave the company access to Whole Foods customers. Hershey has said Krave could be a $500 million brand.

    "Sales of meat snacks have ballooned in recent years as jerky has shed its image as a salty, overprocessed gas-station staple and been reimagined as a convenient nibble that’s low in carbohydrates and high in protein. Hershey has more than doubled Krave sales and plans to launch a line of meat bars later this year."
    KC's View:
    The ultimate rationale for Hershey's movement can be found in a quote from Tony Tyree, VP of Hershey’s global snack business.

    “We don’t want to be a Blockbuster, we don’t want to be a Kodak,” he says. “You can’t be focused on the rear view.”

    I have no idea if beef jerky will be the answer to potential irrelevance. But it is better than doing nothing.

    Published on: May 31, 2016

    Ralph Ketner, co-founder of the Food Lion supermarket chain and a legendary figure because of his obsessive focus on low prices, has passed away at age 95. He had recently been diagnosed with colon cancer.

    The Salisbury Post wrote about Ketner, in part:

    "In business, Ketner built a reputation as a genius with numbers. He bet the company on a low-pricing concept that eventually became known as LFPINC — Lowest Food Prices in North Carolina. It propelled the sleepy, Salisbury-based grocery chain and its stock to incredible growth and national prominence.

    "Ketner and his lieutenants also installed a system of forward and centralized buying, merchandising, store location, distribution, cost-cutting, training and employee incentives that complemented the chain’s pricing concept."

    But the Post also wrote:

    "As competitive as Ketner was with Food Lion, in retirement he mellowed considerably and became a great advisor and philanthropist, donating millions of dollars to local, state and national causes." And it also quotes Ketner as saying, "I believe it’s true that you make a living with what you get, but you make a life with what you give."
    KC's View:
    I knew some of the Ralph Ketner story - I should, since I've been doing this for 30+ years - but I found the Salisbury Post obit to be remarkably detailed and fascinating. I recommend you take a moment this morning and read it here ... it gives not just a sense of the man, but of the industry's history. I'm a big believer in context, and this offers plenty of it, which is not surprising since Salisbury is Food lion's home market.

    Published on: May 31, 2016

    The Street has a story about how, "judging by the strong first-quarter results from the nation's dollar stores, U.S. consumers have embraced a mindset of thrift. Dollar General, which operates more than 12,700 stores across 43 states, notched a solid 2.2% same-store-sales increase in the first quarter. Both customer traffic and the average amount spent by a shopper increased. Sales jumped in all areas of Dollar General's businesses, led by demand for consumable goods, such as paper towels and home-cleaning products. Sales in the company's consumables segment, which represents more than 76% of its total business, rose 8% from the prior year.

    At the same time, the story says, "Dollar Tree was no slouch in the first quarter, likely benefiting from much of the macroeconomic trends as smaller rival Dollar General. Dollar Tree, which has about 14,000 total Family Dollar and Dollar Tree locations in the US ... Same-store sales rose 2.3%, due to higher levels of customer traffic and more spending per customer, similar to what transpired at Dollar General."

    Not only are both dollar store companies growing in terms of millennial shoppers, but both companies managed to outperform Walmart and Target in terms of quarterly same-store sales growth.
    KC's View:
    Given what I learned recently about student debt, and what I shared here on MNB, it isn't surprising that value-driven formats are doing well.

    Published on: May 31, 2016

    The Dallas Morning News reports that Whole Foods plans to bring its new loyalty rewards program to the city sometime this summer, and move from there to a national rollout.

    According to the story, "The program that’s still in test mode allows you to earn points for free products and dollar-off discounts. There’s no keeping track. Shoppers register a card and log into a rewards website on the grocer’s website to start earning points. It also works with an iPhone app."

    The News notes that this is just part of Whole Foods' broader strategy designed to reconnect with shoppers and change its "whole paycheck" image. The company also has added digital coupons to its portfolio, and has opened the first of its new "365" format stores, which feature lower prices, a more limited selection, and a greater emphasis on technology.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 31, 2016

    The Boston Globe reports that the warring Demoulas cousins are at it again, with a new lawsuit having been filed by the side that lost the battle in 2014 when employees and customers sided with the other side of the family.

    According to the Globe, "Arthur S. Demoulas, a former shareholder and board member at Demoulas Super Markets, Inc., sold his stake in the company in 2014. But both he and his sister-in-law Rafaela Evans now claim in a civil suit in Suffolk County Superior Court that they have been blocked from any involvement in an audit of the supermarket chain by the Internal Revenue Service and demand to be included.

    "The audit’s outcome could potentially affect the pair because, as former shareholders, they say they were responsible for paying taxes on the company’s stock."

    The company, now controlled by Arthur T. Demoulas, responded by calling the suit "ridiculous," saying that the audit only recently was announced, that the audit is being managed by an accounting firm hired when Arthur S. Demoulas was running the company, and that the other side of the family will be included in the process when it is appropriate.
    KC's View:
    This was an interesting story for a while, but I have to admit I am growing tired of the Demoulas family. I'm beginning to think that they're going to end up on The History Channel in a miniseries starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton. (Actually, I might want to watch that...)

    Published on: May 31, 2016

    The State reports that German discounter Lidl has identified three South Carolina locations where it wants to build stores of approximately 36,000 square feet by 2018, in addition to locations in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 31, 2016

    Michael Sansolo is off this week, but will return next Tuesday.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 31, 2016

    Last week, MNB featured a story about how a company was using robots to replace thousand of employees in China (though it claimed to be only reassigning them), and how this reflects a potential labor revolution.

    You can read the story here.

    MNB reader Ernie Monschein responded:

    Interesting take on the march of robotics, but it poses a critical question: if robotics and artificial intelligence continues to advance to it's logical conclusion, what do we do with all of the excess workers? You don't really think there are enough R&D jobs for all of those low skilled workers? So, do we expand the social safety net, create make work jobs? What do we do with them? People won't starve quietly.

    I am not a Luddite, but shouldn't we be considering the unintended consequences of these advances? This discussion is especially relevant during a time when, as a society, we are debating the role of government in employment and the economic safety net. Food for thought.

    The original story noted that "robotics are often held up as a solution to various problems, such as calls in the US for a higher minimum wage. Former McDonald's CEO Ed Rensi recently was quoted as saying that an increase in the minimum wage could force the fast feeder to move in this direction, saying that 'it's cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who is inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging French fries'."

    I commented, in part:

    I suspect that it also is cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to pay an "inefficient" person $12 an hour, or $10 an hour, or $8 an hour. I also think it could be argued that a better motivated and invested workforce might be more efficient, and actually could be good for business; it might come as a surprise to the folks at McDonald's, but an invested workforce actually can be a differential advantage. For the moment, it is more efficient for them to hold out robotics as a kind of "bogeyman" that allows them to justify paying people lower wages. (Robotics will seem preferable only up until the point where they develop a robot who can replace highly paid but inefficient human CEOs ... and then, suddenly, attitudes will change.)

    This prompted one MNB user to write:

    KC, I think you are simply delusional to argue the fact that robots and the minimum wage does effect the employment rate. A robot won’t complain, shows up for work every day, will not demand to use the bathroom of their choice, will treat everyone regardless of their race the same and does not need a “safe room” to decompress after a long day.

    You start to lose credibility when you try to prove the obvious wrong.

    First of all, I think you meant "doesn't affect the employment rate," not "does effect the employment rate."

    Second, I don't think that's what I was arguing. I believe what I was saying is that a better motivated and invested workforce can be a great boon to how productive a business can be.

    Third, your email implies that that employees are out of line if they complain, demand to use the bathroom of their choice, or need to decompress after a long day.

    I'm pretty sure I don;t want to work for you. But that's okay, because I know you wouldn't want to hire me.

    Finally, from an MNB reader:

    I made a bet with a friend a few months ago about which would come first : the zombie apocalypse or robot apocalypse.....

    Having watched too many episodes of "The Walking Dead," I said zombies. After reading your article, I think I owe my buddy $100.

    I would've bet against you. Zombies don't exist. Robots do.
    KC's View: