business news in context, analysis with attitude

The subject of self-checkout systems always generates a lot of debate here on MNB, enough so that when National Public Radio (NPR) wanted to do a piece about the subject, they reviewed all the MNB archives and then called us up to talk about it.

To listen to the segment, go to:

In response to that piece, we got an email from MNB user Jack Allen:

“My view is that for many, shoppers want to take control and some enjoy the technology. But I can't help but think that for many automatic check stands succeed because service checkouts fail to provide consumers with what they want and need. It would be interesting to see some really creative brainstorming on how to humanize the process.

“I like the NYC Whole Foods process of having customers line up to take the next checker. Borders in Orlando does this; and airlines (not champions at servicing customers) take this approach. Now then, the question becomes, what imaginative activities/experiences are possible for persons in line in a food store? Ideas: Sampling, info on food preparation, reading material, for elders a chance to get off their feet. And what store design features are possible?

“Over 20 years ago in Chicago Greek Town, Linda and I and friends waited in line in the biting winter wind to get into the Parthenon restaurant. I will never forget a waiter passing through the line with glasses of Ouzo, to help deal with the wait. I have long forgotten what I ate that night or what I paid; and most restaurant experiences have greatly forgettable experiences. But I will never forget that gesture of taking the sting out of least pleasing aspect of dining out.”

Most of us have memories like that, which stand out (unfortunately) because they seem to be exceptions to the normal course of being a shopper.

We wrote yesterday that Burger King Corp. is now selling its Whopper hamburger for 99 cents, with the promotion scheduled to end on January 20, in effort to shore up the company’s declining market share. Our comment was that while “we’d only choose a Whopper to eat if the other options were egg salad and brussel sprouts, from a marketing point of view, continuing this price war just drives down prices, margins and turns what should be differentiated products into commodities.”

One MNB user wrote:

“What ever happened to BK’s claim-to-fame “Flame-Broiled” as opposed to fried burgers? Wasn’t that what made them distinctive from all the rest years ago?”

Exactly. The core value that made the chain different has been lost in the scramble to commoditize the food and the experience. Which strikes us as nuts.

MNB user Jane Larson questioned our comparisons:

“Hoo boy, you're just looking for it, aren't you? The inevitable backlash from the Egg Board and the Brussel Sprout Coalition? Why don't you just take on apple pie while you're at it? Next thing you know, you'll be picking on McDonald's and...

...uh, never mind.”

Hey, we take on the big boys -- the egg folks, the brussel sprout lobby, PETA. Bring ‘em on…

We reported yesterday that outbreaks of a potentially fatal form of salmonella in the Southeast US are on the rise, linked to consumption of raw and undercooked eggs. Federal health officials say they are puzzled by the increase, and have suggested there should be expanded education and regulatory efforts to prevent the spread of the bacteria.

One MNB user responded:

“I wonder how many of those eggs were from un-caged, organically fed birds? My guess, NONE!”

On the subject of how businesses can position and reorganize themselves to cope with a changed marketing environment and a tough economy, Steve Grossman, a member of the MNB community, wrote:

“I think we are going to end up with three types of retailers per industry, all giving value to the customer.

“One will be low price--private label or closeout stuff with vary little customer support---low labor operation.

“Middle price stores with selection and minimal customer support .

“High end retailers or specialty stores that pamper the customer and they are willing to pay for it.”

We reported last week that Wal-Mart is persisting with a plan to build a store in Dallas despite neighborhood objections…and is doing so by replacing a supercenter with a Neighborhood Market and then renting space to other retailing entities.

An MNB user wrote:

“I just had a similar conversation this weekend regarding a WM that went into Flin Flon, Manitoba, and the small business people complaining and/or concerned about how it will close businesses and potentially bankrupt the town other than the mine there…

“What everyone fails to acknowledge, PARTICULARLY the small towns, is that the city council and other elected or residing officials not only approved their entry, but also the building permits, selling of the land to them and the likes...

“If people are so concerned now, where were their concerns on the front end?”

We reported yesterday that Sara Lee Corp. is developing a chain of Inner Self lingerie stores that will be designed to appeal to mainstream women who find the imagery suggested by Victoria’s Secret to be off-putting. Inner Self will offer a New Age, “spa-like environment” with soft music, calming colors and complimentary hand massages.

We found this interesting because it suggests a couple of things about the mainstream female customer that more retailers ought to be thinking about -- the desire to be pampered, and irritation at a supermodel culture. It seemed to us that there is an enormous fertile ground here for retailers to exploit.

MNB user Jennie Jones wrote:

“As an employee of the Sara Lee Corporation and the Vice President of Executive Women, I am very proud of my company for recognizing that there is a need for a different image for women, both as consumers and as business women. NEW was founded to attract, retain and advance women within the retail, convenience store and grocery industries. This is a great step forward in retailing.”

Another MNB user added:

“Intentional or unintentional... "there is an enormous fertile ground here
for retailers to exploit"...??

“The culture has been exploiting women (that fertile ground) for a long time. Maybe The Inner Self thing is about non-exploitation.”

Exactly. Maybe we should have chosen our words more wisely.

Finally, one member of the MNB community wrote in after reading our Sports Desk recap of the weekend’s NFL scores:

“Not that it's terribly important, but there was also a pretty big COLLEGE football game this weekend that failed to make it into the sports desk update. It's been 34 years since folks in Columbus had a national championship to celebrate - and a pretty exciting game to get us there to boot.”

We plead guilty to ignoring college football…and will try to do better next year. (Maybe we need to get a member of the MNB community to volunteer to contribute an edited list of college football scores next fall…)
KC's View: