business news in context, analysis with attitude

We wrote yesterday about a Wall Street Journal piece noting that big box stores are trying to do things to make the shopping trip at such units less intimidating. Which prompted MNB user Bruce Roper to write:

Certainly time spent at checkout waiting to give a store my hard earned money is at the top of the frustration list. But one of the most effective tools these stores can utilize, be it a food store (Acme, etc), home supplies (Home Depot, etc), discount (Wal-Mart, etc) or department (JCPenny’s, etc) is simply to have big, easy to read directories posted. And not just at the front door, but throughout the store. There is a ShopRite where I work and it’s not very often that I do my food shopping an hour away from my house so I’m not very familiar with the store, but when I do go in there on occasion, I simply go straight to the giant 6’x10’ sign hanging from the ceiling that lists items/categories and find out where I can locate whatever it is I’m looking for.

Something so cheap and easy makes shopping in an unfamiliar (or even a familiar) store much quicker and easier. This should also work great for Home Depot. In the case of Wal-Mart or Best Buy, they may need to take a different approach since they don’t simply have numbered isles, but I’m sure some kind of listing of what products are in what departments and a store layout for the customers to review would be a huge help.

Especially those of us with eyesight that isn’t what it once was.

Commenting on self-checkout to the journal, Target’s CEO said that he much preferred professional checkout people to the mechanize version. MNB user Bob Reynolds responded:

Did you ever see a "professional" checker at Target. I have not. More often somebody that's 16 and has the people skills of 12 year old.

In my commentary yesterday, I wrote:

I’ve never seen any research on this as far as I can recall, but I wonder if anyone has tried to figure out whether the younger generation – people who do not remember a world without, iTunes or Google – has any emotional connection to the notion of a big box store. Or, more importantly, whether there might be an emotional disconnection. Because it seems to me that shopping a big box store is sort of antithetical to the online experience, and therefore the big box stores run the risk of being completely irrelevant to a significant segment of the population in just a few years.

One MNB user responded:

It’s been a long time since you had young kids. The big box stores are perfect for young families. You may pay more for some items but if you can eliminate multiple stops, buckling and unbuckling car seats, and get in-and-out of the store before your child’s patience runs thin it is a prefect situation. Also, have you ever tried to order something online with a toddler begging for attention? It isn’t easy to do and you can’t do everything around the house while the children are sleeping. There is only so much time to get everything done on your to-do list so many times you have to involve your children in the shopping experience.

Maybe. But it hasn’t been that long, and I’ve been shopping online for more than a decade and have always preferred it to taking kids into stores.

But maybe that’s just me.

Regarding the ongoing debate about the Whole Foods-Wild Oats deal and the FTC’s opposition to it, MNB user Chris Schwartz wrote:

The FTC position is not about where Whole Foods sits within the entire Food Industry, it is about Whole Foods move to block competition on a market by market basis.

I suggest that Whole Foods was very content to have Wild Oats as their sole large scale competitor in the natural foods arena.

I suggest that what they are trying to do is make sure no one else can buy Wild Oats and use their resources to make it a true aggressive competitor to Whole Foods.

Wild Oats is the only quick way that a major player could become a threat to Whole Foods on a market by market basis. If Wild Oats was purchased by a well heeled, astute retailer with a resolve to take on Whole Foods it could create real competition in this arena.

Whole Foods' own documents demonstrate that logic for the move. Buy it, dismantle the threat, use the best parts, discard the remains.....and eliminate the launch pad for any more aggressive player to enter the market.

Yes, every place food is sold there is a growing move towards organic and wholesome products and in that view the field is broader than the two national competitors. But Whole Foods is actually based more upon lifestyle marketing .....using organics to create the differentiation and rationale for removing themselves from the price wars of everyday grocery retail.

If I saw a 535-store chain available at a decent price and could cut off its availability as a launch pad for a financially heeled aggressive player to compete with me, I'd buy it too. That's the real play here and that’s why the FTC is involved.

If Wal Mart went into New York and bought up every one of the grocery chains in retaliation for not getting the freedom to open large stores, and in doing so controlled all chain food sales in the entire metropolitan area would the FTC get involved? You bet your bippy they would. Along with the cries of anguish from every grocery retailer in America.

I’m not sure I see how it would be better for the American consumer for Wal-Mart or Safeway or Kroger to buy Wild Oats than it is for Whole Foods to buy it. But it is an interesting point I hadn’t really considered. I will ponder it.

On the subject of organic regulations, one MNB user wrote:

There another government agency goes again - getting away with "murder". Putting non-organic or unsafe items in food that we "think" is 100% organic and healthy – and being able to label as "100% organic" - is a travesty once more.

The government doesn't need to wonder why so many of us are disgusted with the $$$$$ taking priority over the health of the people they are supposed to be protecting. I am beyond mad, because rarely a day goes by where some lobbyist, pharmaceutical company, etc. etc. etc are winning out over us. I am just numb with frustration.

If it NOT going to be 100% organic, then don't call it "Organic" - label it as 95%!

But that would require the government being 95 percent on the consumer’s side.

On this same subject, I got two different emails making similar points:

There are 4 different levels to organic labeling. People should familiarize themselves with the difference in levels. If the labeling says ORGANIC, it doesn't mean that it is 100% ORGANIC. Everyone who is concerned about this should also read the ingredient statement--the ingredients which do not have 'organic' in front of them are not organic.

Just want to clarify that there already are different definitions of "Organic" according to the USDA's official certification levels. Basically, if something is 100% organic (such as Oatmeal) it can be labeled "100% Organic". But most products are simply labeled "Organic", which already allows for 5% non-organic ingredients. So "Organic" already doesn't mean 100% organic according to the government standards.

I think I understand all this, but I still think it is all semantics and silliness. Most consumers don’t understand the nuances of all this. They think “organic” means 100 percent organic. Simple.

And if we continue down this road, all the nuances and semantics are going to kill off this category.

But MNB user Mary C. Mulry Ph.D. continues to disagree with me:

From the beginning, the goal of the Organic Foods Production Act was to get more land converted to organic production, and it complies with every organic standard in the world. If we only limited the world to 100% organic, we would not have organic milk (must contain mandated fortification of vitamins A and D), organic tortilla chips (there’s a matter of lime, which is not an organic ingredient), and most other organic food, that require the use of small amounts of non-organic materials for their production. Try making bread without baking powder, for example. Adding some non-organic natural food colors to a product makes it appeal to a broad range of consumers and helps to drive conversion of more land to organic production and hardly poisons the “organicness” of the product.

These materials go through extensive review and debate by the National Organic Standards Board (which has public meetings) before recommendation to the USDA. Then, the USDA’s actions must be subject to public comment as well. This is a highly regulated, certified industry and when everyone gets up in arms over 38 non-organic or synthetic substances, they should read the Food Chemicals Codex with its tens of thousands of chemicals that are used in conventional foods. Read the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990…it is instructive to see how highly regulated this industry really is.

Comparing to Kosher (a religious standard) and vegetarian (I think you meant vegan, since vegetarians do eat products of animal production) is not a fair comparison as the organic label was never meant to be a religious or moral choice or food purity standard--- it is food produced using a clear set of agricultural processes that do not rely on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or use hormones or antibiotics, in the case of animal production. The pioneers of organic realized that for the industry to grow, we could not restrict everything to 100% organic. By being pragmatic, the market has been proven and now we have many more organic ingredients than ever before. The approved substances are to be reviewed again every 5 years and once an ingredient is produced organically, it must be used. By the way, there is a 100% organic label, for those consumers who want to look for it. It is hard to find, because even the pioneers in the industry could not produce many products that are 100% organic.

Thanks for the continuing debate… is very productive and I really appreciate your point of view.

You’re welcome.

I could be wrong on this, and you make a persuasive case.

But I’m just trying to think about it from the consumer’s point of view, and I think this is all confusing and, in the end, off-putting.

On the subject of Disney producing and Costco stocking a new wine that carries a label connected to Disney’s new animated movie about a rat that wants to be a French chef, MNB user Glen Syvertsen wrote:

Disney and Costco will not be able to escape criticism for marketing alcohol to minors with their new cartoon wine, and this for a product that may only be a temporary phenomenon during the promotional period of the film. I commend the idea of marketing with wine, that's visionary, but I would re-think the idea of choosing a children's or family film to market.

It does seem to be an ill-considered choice, doesn’t it?

Finally, I was criticized yesterday in MNB by a reader who believes I am relentlessly anti-union and pro-big company…and I responded by saying that “I’m not working under the illusion that anybody on either side would be mistaken for St. Francis of Assisi.”

MNB user Sabrina Wooten, demonstrating yet again why I love the MNB community, made a pithy observation about the exchange:

FYI, St Francis was an extremely indulgent, wild young man.... he outgrew it though. Just wondered if you knew that. Check out the book “God's Fool: The Life of Francis of Assisi.” I think you'll be surprised.

Sort of like St. Augustine, who reportedly once said, “Give me chastity and continence, but not quite yet.”

Or like Simon Templar.

My kind of saints…
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