business news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB had a story yesterday about a possible ban on he use of trans fats by restaurants and bakeries in the entire state of California…which I commented seemed like an overly simplistic approach to the problem of obesity. Getting ride of tans fats via legislation is one thing…but to really have an impact on the obesity issue, you have to focus on food choices, portion size, sufficient exercise, and nutritional education in school. It can be addressed through public policy, but only can be really effective if addressed by parents with their children.

MNB user Lisa Malmarowski responded:

I agree with you, KC. If only all we had to do was stop consuming trans fat and good health would magically appear. I was just reading an article on MSNBC about how New Yorkers are taking to the new calorie labeling requirements for food chains and was struck by two things - One: just requiring fast food places to label calories feels more like a slap down on chains than a heath initiative and Two: people just don't want to know the caloric count of their favorite foods - even going so far as to ask for an older menu without the calories listed so they wouldn't have to know.

Again, a simplistic 'solution' to a complicated problem that is intrinsically tied to our American bigger is better (bigger portions, etc.) mentality.

Last week, coincidentally, I made a rare foray into a fast food restaurant when I was with my son in NYC and we were looking for a quick bite to eat before going to the theater. So we stopped at a Chipotle, and I noticed all the calorie labeling on the signs…and you know something? I changed my mind about what to order because of the information provided.

Not everyone will, and not everyone should. But I can tell you that at last in my case, the labeling worked. And I appreciated it.

There was a story yesterday about the growth of nutraceuticals, which include probiotics for digestive health, and I commented as follows:

No surprise here. Americans always are looking for the magic pill that will solve their ills.

I remain highly skeptical. But, to be honest, not so much so that I would try any one of these products if I thought it would help me live longer, better, healthier. Or help me run faster or shoot a basketball more accurate. Or keep my hair from graying. Or whatever.

Which led MNB user George Denman – who, it should be noted in the interest of context, is director of new business for Dannon – to write:

What does it take to convince you that probiotics work? Our company has been leading the industry for years in global research and development in probiotics in yogurt and back up our claims through proven clinical results. Whether it is to build the immune system, aid in digestion or reduce cholesterol, there are products out there today that provide effective solutions. Their research center in Vitapole, France has +900 research scientists working on the next big idea including probiotics that moisturize skin from the inside to who knows … maybe slowing the graying of hair....

Fair enough. And actually, now that I think about it, I realize that I eat a cup of nonfat yogurt almost every day and use it in the smoothies I drink on a daily basis. And on the container it says, “made with probiotics.”

Still can't make a three-point shot to save my life. On the other hand, if I weren’t eating it, maybe my hair would be white. Or gone.

What it really comes down to is that I don't really understand the science. But clearly, at some level, I’ve bought into the message.

We’ve had a couple of pieces this week – a column by Michael Sansolo on Tuesday, and a new story from me yesterday – that pointed to the importance of good employees and cheerful customer service as a differential advantage. Both have generated a fair amount of email.

One MNB user wrote:

If after I am waiting in line for what seems like eternity, I want to feel like the cashier or employees are doing their best and even if it is out of their control, they have the attitude of "sorry you had to wait" or "I know you had a long wait, I'm trying to get you out as fast as I can" and be POSITIVE. That's your job! If I am in a negative mood because of the line, I don't want it compounded by a crummy attitude at the end. At least TRY to make me think you care. I actually find many times, I am the one trying to cheer up the cashier…

MNB user Denielle Christensen wrote:

I know the study didn’t mention grocery stores, but I know my own behavior changed when I noticed huge new signs about the checkout lines at my local Shaw’s one weekend day…it said “5pm – 7pm Weekdays No Lines, No Waiting All Registers Open”. I went from visiting only on the weekends and MAYBE one weekday to smaller visits every other day – because I can get in and get out fast. More stores should try this tactic – they certainly got more of my business, and it’s not even my favorite grocery store!

MNB user Ellen Ornato wrote:

When I worked in retail training we always taught our employees to look up, smile and acknowledge the customer and say, “I’ll be right with you” to the person waiting in front of them. It was such a simple thing and yet it was clear that the people we were training would not have done so without instruction.

MNB user Steven Ritchey wrote:

I’ve started to use the self scan machines at grocery stores as I got tired of listening to the checker talk to the package clerk about their plans for that night / weekend, while the clerk put my bread on the bottom under the cans of vegetables. OK, maybe that’s going a bit too far, but you get my point, I’m the customer, their attention needs to be on me, and on the next customer and on after that. The store is there to serve people like me.

It’s nice if a store can be a good source of information for health and health benefits from the foods they sell. But so many forget the basics, keep the store clean, make sure it’s well stocked, be competitive price wise, and make the customer your focus. One of the best, if not the best store manager I ever worked for told us in a front-end meeting, “Unless the customer walks in the door and buys something, we have nothing to do, we have no reason to be here. All of our efforts need to be on making sure the customer feels appreciated and wants to come back.” He got it.

I’ve been shopping the same major chain store for 5 years, I don’t know what the store manager looks like, I think she stays hidden in her office, instead of spending time on the floor meeting the people who make her job possible.

The aforementioned store manager, he took care of his paperwork, had his staff meetings during the slow periods of the day, when the afternoon rush started, he was up front, meeting people, taking care of the customers, doing whatever had to be done to meet their needs and make them feel appreciated. He got it, too many don’t get it.

Amen, brother.

MNB user Jackie Lembke wrote:

I am one of those people who has looked at a checkout line and decided I didn’t need the item in my hand. There are places I am more willing to wait or where I expect to wait, very few where the wait is enjoyable. In today’s climate wouldn’t it be a great approach to make waiting in line at your store a pleasurable experience, maybe even one coveted by the consumer because it meets some need. Most of the time we wait because we have no choice, I need the prescription, groceries, whatever, a clever merchant would make the wait enjoyable, memorable (for a good reason) and maybe even coveted.

And another MNB user wrote:

Hey, KC, it is all about expectations and whether you deliver on them.

In regards to your note on customers rejecting long lines. The term "long" becomes relative. I go to Costco and I expect long lines so I have planned for it and Costco doesn't promise you a short wait, but you have come to expect a great shopping experience otherwise. While the local Safeway promises great service so I expect shorter lines and prompt attention. So ask yourself what expectations have you have for your company in servicing your customers and then find out what their perception is (are you delivering?). You may even have to go out and shop in one of your own stores (yes, really) or how about calling your business from the outside and see what kind of service you actually do provide, (get on the website and ask your customer service department a question and see if you even get an answer).

Example, a part for my yard sprinkler system went out and I could not find the part in my local hardware stores (I have a rant about that shopping experience I may share later but no time today). So frustrated I was, I went to the Toro website (I will name names). Couldn't find the part so I wrote them a note on their customer service page. They responded in 24 hours that they have received my note and within 48 hours they said, ."We are sorry to learn of the difficulty you're experiencing. We are currently in the process of sending you the part you require at no charge. Please allow 10 business days for delivery......"

Oh my, I didn't even have to haggle or negotiate.

On another subject…also in his column the other day, Michael wrote:

Recently I was taken aback by a beautiful sign in a Whole Foods that listed five compelling reasons why shoppers should buy locally grown produce. There was just one very big problem: The store was in suburban New York and the produce above the sign came from California, Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

I guess local is a relative term. Argentina is closer than, say, Mars.

Which prompted MNB user Jessica Duffy to write:

I think I feel the need to add my 2 cents more than I should, but I work for Whole Foods, and I think it should be noted that Whole Foods has tried very hard to provide as many local options to their customers as possible.

We work directly with local growers and offer far more local options than any other standard grocery store. My store just got in the first available local corn of the season directly from the farm where it was grown. Try that at Stop and Shop.

However, especially in the Northeast, we need to take into account a very short growing season along with customer expectations for limitless options regardless of the season. I personally, try to eat locally as much as possible and avoid international produce. The nice thing about Whole Foods is that the produce is so well-marked, that you can make your own decisions. You know exactly what you are buying.

Defense noted, and points taken. I think it is fair to say that Michael wasn’t challenging the quality of what Whole Foods was selling…just the accuracy of the sign.

There was a story the other day about a study suggesting that farm-raised tilapia might not be has good for you as previously thought, which led MNB user Shari Steinbach (who it needs to be noted, works for Meijer) to write:

I sent your Tilapia article to our team of dietitians. Below is the response back from one of them who has looked into this issue. I thought she had some good info.

Yes, tilapia is not a good source of omega-3's and never has been, just like many "white fleshed" fish. The O-6 content, polyunsaturates we know are healthy - unless you over-consume them. So, referring to these fats as unhealthy is misleading and irresponsible. Tilapia have never been an excellent source of O-3, and when you look at all of the research, their farm diet has little impact on their overall health benefits to consumers. Tilapia is a low-fat, high protein food source.

Tilapia has been farm raised for centuries, and the fish, in fact, have developed a natural immunity to many "close contact" diseases that other farmed fish are susceptible too. This means that tilapia are a breed of fish that do not require the level antibiotic use as their counterparts to keep them healthy. Further, the short lifespan of tilapia makes is a very insignificant source of heavy metal contamination, i.e. mercury.


I have to admit that I eat tilapia a lot, and not for health reasons. It just tastes great, especially when I cook it up with tomatoes, onions and plenty of Emeril’s Essence…

Responding to concerns about what InBev might do to Anheuser-Busch post-acquisition, MNB user Dan Jones wrote:

InBev did not spend $56B to destroy the Bud Equity. The Clydesdales, the red white and blue can, the Super Bowl commercials, they will all still be here. Changes will happen, certainly (how fast will they sell SeaWorld?) but they will keep the Bud icons and build the brand overseas.

Hope you are right. But it wouldn’t be the first time that an acquiring company screwed up the asset that it paid so much money for. (One example: FedEx bought Kinko’s, messed it up, and now is even getting rid of the name because it doesn’t really stand for anything anymore.)

But I hope you’re right.

BTW…I joked the other day that the Clydesdales might end up in the pasture of a farm run by Frau Blucher…which led MNB user Jeremy Couture to write:

Well played with the "Frau Blucher" line! I work about 2 miles away from AB headquarters (and the Clydesdales), and I swear to God I heard horses whinny after I read that line.

Had a brief piece yesterday about the All-Star Game, and commented:

: It isn’t just because I’m a Mets fan, but I have to say that the current practice of giving the winning league in the All Star game home field advantage in the World Series is absurd…and gets more so every year. It gives one league an unfair advantage over the other, and MLB ought to go back to the old system of rotating home field advantage between the two leagues.

Okay, enough with the negatives. It has to be said that MLB and the Yankees sure know how to throw a party. The pre-game ceremonies were outstanding (on a par with the Fenway ceremonies that featured Ted William’s swan song), and there were more than a few moments when I got tears in my eyes … Great stuff, and all why baseball is the greatest game – it touches the soul and the heart in ways that no other sport ever can or will.

One MNB user wrote:

You fail to point out that the winning team, in this case, yet again, the American League, earns the home field advantage by winning. What's unfair about that? If you have the best players in your league and you prove it by winning, you deserve the advantage.

Another MNB user chimed in:

Why is it that National League Fans only whine when they are not winning! It seems simple to me that all the National League needs to do is win the All Star game with it's best players and then go on to win the World Series.

It is kind of like the grocery business, only the strong survive and the only way to survive is to constantly improve and be the best you can be every day. Because once you think you are the best you are setting yourself up for failure.

Except that it is possible, even likely, that very few of the players on the field during the All-Star Game will be in the World Series. And the All-Star Game is played with restrictions on who can pitch how many innings, and with managers compelled to get everybody into the game – which is fine, but it also means that winning strategies are often abandoned to other considerations.

And why is it whining to express a contrary opinion about something?

Another MNB user wrote:

Just for the sake of debate, what happened to home field advantage going to the team with the best overall record? Isn’t that how other sports determine home field advantage, also making your overall season long performance important?

To my knowledge, the World Series has never worked that way. Which is silly.

You’re absolutely right.

MNB user Jim Donegan wrote:

I agree with your assessment of the All Star game pre-game show. It was a touching tribute to most of the living Hall of Famers and it brought many great memories of my youth and the times we used to sneak a small radio into school so we could secretly listen to the playoffs.

As my father was the most influential person that got me to learn the game and love the sport, I waited until the opening ceremonies were over and I called my father and we reminisced about the players we saw last night and the memories we had of watching them compete many years ago. Like you, baseball played a major role in my whole family and last night was a special way to remind all of us just how much baseball used to be a part of the public fabric. And in a special memory for me, it reconnected me with my father in a way that can only be done through baseball.

Agreed. Wholeheartedly.

Last week when I was off, we took my 82-year-old father to Yankee Stadium for what I’m guessing will be the last game we’ll see there before they tear it down. And we reminisced about when he took me there for the first time when I was 6 or 7 year old. I can still remember being amazed by how green the field was…because until that time, every major league baseball game I’d ever seen was on a black and white television!

MNB user Stu Sturzl wrote:

I agree with your comments about the All Star Game pre-game festivities. I too had tears in my eyes several times as well as goose bumps. What an awesome thing to see all my childhood heroes on the field at the same time. Great job MLB.

This game gave every American the chance to forget about all our economic troubles (albeit for only several hours) and enjoy a bit of the past and a look into the future of baseball. There are some very talented young players to watch. Our national pastime is in good hands.

And, finally, MNB user Mark Batenic wrote:

Kevin….you are correct on all comments about last nights game. I will forgive you on one point though. The fact that you are a Mets Fan.

Go Phillies!

The season is only half over, and after last year, I am prepared for anything.

On the other hand, the Mets are only one-half game behind the first-place Phillies, something that would have seemed almost unthinkable just a few weeks ago, so hope spring eternal.

(If you think we’re spending too much time on this subject, I can only remind you about what the great Robert B. Parker once said about baseball: “It's the most important thing that doesn't matter.")

And now, about an issue that does matter…

Let me take a brief moment to address something that’s been bothering me…a moment when MNB may have unintentionally gone off the rails a bit earlier this week…

On Monday, as I often do, I wrote two brief “RIP” notes about people who had died, Tony Snow and Bobby Murcer. As is often the case, these people had nothing to do with the food industry or any sort of retailing. They were just people who I thought of as having some significance, and I felt like making note of their passing. So far, no problem.

Murcer was the former Yankee center fielder who had been battling brain cancer, and Snow was the former White House spokesman (I labeled him a “happy warrior” for his demeanor) who died of colon cancer.

I got only two responses to this “RIP” entry (not unusual), but both were about Snow and were jarring in their differences. One essentially canonized him, and the other was a political broadside related to his defense of Bush wartime policies.

Again, no problem. We live in a time when political nerves can be raw and exposed, and since MNB has a pretty diverse audience, getting email from both sides of the spectrum didn’t really surprise me, even though my original note about Snow was deliberately non-political.

The problem – the moment when MNB went off the rails – came when I posted both of those emails. Which in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have done, because they were so overtly partisan and political. I think I did so because the sharp differences in tone and content were just so jarring; maybe I also was a little rusty from having a week off.

Now, to be honest, it isn’t like I got a lot of complaints. I didn’t. One person wrote:

Your paragraph yesterday about Tony Snow's passing was perfect in that it was succinct and you refrained from editorializing about his political affiliation and beliefs. Unfortunately, you allowed an MNB user to use his passing and your site as an excuse to spout their personal views in very strong terms.

I agree with this completely. It wasn’t the place.

Another person – who subsequently decided not to read MNB anymore – was much tougher on me, and wrote that such topics should be completely off limits for MNB:

You will need to leave out your political commentary, unless it pertains to the food or food retailing industries. I don't need any peace, love and understanding commentary from you or your readers.

Now, he’s the only person who said this, but there may be more of you who feel this way…so I think it is worth addressing.

While in this case I probably made a wrong decision, I can't promise that MNB won't ever offer political commentary...just as I can't promise that I won't ever run emails that get political.

It always has been a matter of pride to me that in addition to food and retailing, over the years MNB has managed to touch on religion, politics, sex, movies, books and sports - I like to think of MorningNewsBeat as a more integrated experience than most business sites, even though I know I run the risk of alienating people. No risk, no reward...I think MorningNewsBeat has, in the long run, benefited from also being less predictable and homogenized than most websites.

(Think about it. This week in addition to covering food and retailing, MNB already has referenced the airline industry, baseball, “Young Frankenstein,” conspiracy theorists, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – twice - and the theory of evolution. And it is only Thursday! I expected to get more email when I made a sarcastic comment about people who think the earth is only 5,000 years old….and got only one email from someone who patiently and seriously explained to me that I clearly had not been paying attention in Bible study, since the world actually is 10,000 years old.)

Is this any way to run a website? Beats me. As Indiana Jones said in “Raider of the Lost Ark,” I’m making this up as I go along.

Then again … the folks at Webstop informed me yesterday that 47 people signed up to get the Wake Up Call between 8:45 am on Monday and 6:36 am on Tuesday…which could be some kind of a 24-hour record for MNB, though I haven't been tracking this sort of stuff that closely.

But just so you know …I do pay attention to both content and tone, and in this case, as I said, I think we went off the rails a bit. This isn’t so much an apology as an acknowledgement…as always, I’ll try to do better next time.

BTW...I also can't promise that I won't ever promote peace, love and understanding. I'm a child of the sixties, after all, and while my hair is shorter and grayer, some habits die hard...

KC's View: