business news in context, analysis with attitude

Reacting to last week's piece about retail executives testifying in Congress against the credit card companies and their high interchange fees, one MNB user wrote:

With the high cost of fuel, why don't all stations offer a lower price for cash transactions to save the oil companies the fees paid to the credit card companies? I might pay cash if the savings was significant enough to make a difference.

Some do. But that doesn’t change the fact that the credit card companies maintain a high level of secrecy about rates, which prevents the kind of transparency that consumers and retailers deserve.

There have been various references in MNB recently to the importance of eating at home, which led one MNB user to write:

Just wondering how "eating at home" will "strengthen the family" more than eating at a restaurant. Perhaps because there's no fighting over the check.

That certainly may help, but there have been studies saying that families that eat dinner together at home five times a week tend to have children with fewer alcohol and drug problems, fewer eating disorders and better grades. That's because it isn't just about sitting around the table eating…it is also about the sense of family and connection that comes from the act of meal preparation. In our household, that's often when we start the dinner conversation – about school, work, the Mets, friends, social plans, the Mets, movies, the Mets. You get the idea.

Responding to last week's rant about the importance of sampling, MNB user Ron Beltramo wrote:

Great article! Sampling is the lifeblood of our company and is simply the best way to directly approach, engage, inform and sell your product to the consumer…right at the point where they can buy it. We, like you, hope that retailers will embrace sampling and partnering with companies that spend their time and resources to help them sell the product on this very direct basis at point of purchase (without shackling manufacturers with in-house demo agencies…which end up being another profit center for many retailers).

Another MNB user wrote:

I agree — sampling works! I was in our new Hy-Vee last week when one of those, yes, "gray-haired ladies in the supermarket aisle " — and what's wrong with gray-haired ladies? — offered me Dutch gouda cheese and told me about how the milk was from cows who romp on open fields. I had visions of idyllic flower-covered pastures and windmills. Anyhow, I just had to buy it, along with the crackers she served it on. So now I have a rather small $8 hunk of delicious cheese that I never would have bought before and that I can only eat an ounce a day of because it will send me way over my Weight Watchers points, but boy, it is it worth it!


Another MNB user wrote:

I still stand by my comments from over a year ago. Sampling gives the opportunity for a store to communicate with their customer. Previously I had responded to your comment about self-checkout taking the human element out of the shopping experience. My response was basically move on...... sampling is the ideal opportunity with the correctly trained person to communicate to that customer.......... to create an atmosphere, a connection to their customers. My wife came home a couple of months ago with some melon. She said she knew it was ripe because the Produce Manager saw her looking at them and came over. He told her about them and how to choose a ripe one. He cut one open and gave her a sample. He prepared the rest of the melon for samples for others to try. No hard sell just a neighborly thing to do.

And another MNB user chimed in:

Amen! and don't forget, rotate your samples...standing at the deli counter, looking at a bowl of spinach dip that has been there all day, with its crusty brown edge and cracker infused not what I want to sample. Keep it fresh, keep it clean and safe...and keep it changing...

MNB user David Rigg wrote:

I think you’re right on with this observation. Too many supermarket chains don’t want to do merchandising unless the manufacturer pays the bill. With that mindset, they end up waiting for brands to come calling with the ideas rather than taking the initiative.

Got the following email from an MNB user reacting to last week's declaration via press release by Tesco that its Fresh & Easy stores were so successful that it is expanding its private label product selection:

As a person who has been in the industry for over 40 years and grew up in California, before moving to the Midwest, I would offer you this. First after visiting many of the Tesco stores, I would say that their selection in many areas is weak. Examples of this are HABA, bakery, beverages, both soda, and liquor. They were not competitive to even other retailers across the street. They stores they bought had little to no work done to them and look like it. People in the towns that I spoke to didn't even know who they were or where they were. To talk up gas and not sell it maybe you get I don't. I know you say you and others are fans of Tesco, it's not that I'm not, I hope I'm just more realistic then you. As for all the retailers saying they will be a force to be reckoned with, well my take on this comment is that they're saying this publicly for several reason while laughing to themselves. (Trust me I been in these types of meetings where you don't want to say negative things publicly ). Again Aldi entry was a lot more impressive. To compare Tesco to a Trader Joe's is unbelievable to me, I grew up and know the founder of Trader Joe's, and Tesco both in the UK and US doesn't even come close. Last in working for a retailer who has stores both in the US and UK, I would tell you that my opinion (and I can get a lot of others to back this ) is that the UK market is 10 years behind the US in most food areas.

MNB user Brian List wrote:

The article that I read about this story says that the customers were asked upon exiting various Fresh & Easy locations, which is also how they computed the average customers per hour entering the stores. While at the FMI Show this month, I went into the F&E on Tropicana Ave. and the one thing that stood out the most to me was the competitive pricing, both on name brands and private label. And of course, the store seemed bland, no-frills feel, very little color and displays/signage, and the sampling booth was not set up (this was during lunch time). I regret not having a microwave, because some of the pre-packaged meals looked pretty appetizing. I settled for a cold roast beef sandwich for $4, which wasn’t bad. As a single guy, this would be a place I would stop for a quick grab-and-go dinner if there was one in my area. Anyway, after doing much research on Fresh & Easy and finally visiting one, I think Tesco is on to something. But it needs to better understand the certain things that lure and keep American grocery shoppers to stores, and focus on becoming relevant during customer’s shopping trips.

Another MNB user wrote:

Regarding Fresh & Easy, from a journalist's point of view, I think they initially made mistakes by being so secretive with the press. Getting any type of interview from them is virtually impossible...similar to Winn-Dixie, Albertsons LLC...weak chains with big plans in an increasingly gloomy economic environment. Generally, the big wigs of these companies are big-time cheerleaders on how wonderful they're doing. Anyone with a smidgen of intellect can easily see through the PR machines.

I wish I could agree about this, but I have to say that I think that Tesco's approach to the media was actually pretty smart. They just let us speculate and speculate and speculate…and probably got a lot more coverage than if they'd given out interviews.

But another MNB user offered:

Nothing has changed. F&E has been about the press release--not the grocery business.

Tough stuff.

I was sort of mean about the quality of Taco Bell food last week, which led one MNB user to write:

I am a Taco Bell eater. It is not something that I eat every day or even once a week, but I do enjoy the food there. Taco Bell is to tacos, what White Castle is to burgers. Neither is known for their quality (or store cleanliness). They are just this guilty little pleasure that people will give in to on occasion. I think that this new (discounted menu) approach will hit a lot of people right where they expect…in the wallet. I think people are going to like knowing that they can dig through the loose change in their car and have enough to buy a couple of tacos.

On another subject, one MNB user wrote:

It is interesting that you ran an inspiring story about the problem of obesity in America followed by an article about a tobacco ban by states. As we become more aware as citizens about the harmful effects of overeating, I wonder (and hope) food will face the same scrutiny tobacco has. In addition to government bans on tobacco, there have been huge market-driven bans on smoking and advertising, governments are merely responding to what they see as both public demand and what is in the common good. I don't think you are being inconsistent because I think the market already has decided and government is just catching up.

This is not so in regard to overeating. The harmful effects of food - and food with no nutritional value that is being sold in mass quantities to Americans - has not received the same backlash as cigarette smoking has, despite a continued campaign to enlighten consumers (Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, etc.) A government ban, or market-demand, to eliminate unnecessarily large portions of nutrient-void food will be the part of the coming trends that companies will have to respond to. They will have the choice to stand up on the side of health or to continue to serve, and help kill, overeaters.

One quick note, if I may.

One or two MNB users wrote to me last Friday complaining (good naturedly) about the fact that there have been more than a few times during the past couple of weeks when "Your Views" has gone missing. Essentially, the message was that as much as they liked my commentary, they really liked reading the comments from other MNB users.

As do I.

By way of explanation – not to be defensive – I think it is important to point out that I do my level best to read every email that I get, and some days that can reach into the hundreds. That alone can take hours, and then editing them down into a "Your Views" section takes even more time.

All of which makes up a process I love, because I learn so much. But there are days when time is just too short (because of a video project or a speaking engagement or my travel schedule) and I can't get to them all. (Sometimes, to be perfectly honest, I just am too tired and make the choice to get extra sleep.) I don't want to outsource the process because I think that would somehow violate the connection we all have. So I store them up and do my best to catch up later. Like today.

MNB is the best and most rewarding professional experience I've ever had, and I'm lucky to have it…just as I am lucky to have you. So I hope I can persuade you to cut me some slack from time to time, and understand that when MNB runs a little shorter than usual, there's usually a pretty good reason.


KC's View: