business news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB had a story yesterday about various initiatives that have been taking place around the country regarding the banning of plastic and paper disposable shopping bags, which prompted a number of emails from MNB users.

Len Abeyta wrote:

I am all for the use of reusable bags and other things that retailers can do to go to more environmental friendly packaging. What I am not in favor of is government stepping in to regulate all of this every step of the way. Every day we read where another city bans plastic or tries to. I think it would be much better to let the retailers regulate themselves, which seems to be happening, and yes the fact that it will help the bottom line doesn't hurt either.

And Dian Tucker took note of one thing I wrote about and chimed in:

The entire Wegmans chain has large signs at the door, reminding consumers to use their canvas bags. This sign has sent me back to my car on numerous occasions to retrieve the bags.

Responding to yesterday’s commentary calling for a greater emphasis on retailing that delights and surprises shoppers, Steven Ritchey wrote:

Want to wow me, or delight me when I go to the store?

Have a clean, well-lit, well-organized store.

Have a product mix that works in my neighborhood.

Have people in each dept. who understand their product and can suggest different ways to cook old standards or what I can do with an unfamiliar or new product. Have people in the produce, market and deli who can explain the differences in similar products and what can be done with each one, you know, professionals, not glorified stockers. You don’t have to hit people over the head, but you can gently educate them about your products.

Have checkers and package clerks whose focus is on the customer, not their social plans for that evening / weekend.

Get the store managers and dept. heads out of their offices and on the sales floor to meet the customers. This should be mandated by the ownership during peak business hours. Managers need to see how their employees interact with customers, and it doesn’t hurt for management to interact with the customer also, after, don’t forget, I’m helping pay your salary. You need to know what pleases me and others so you can do more of it, and what displeases us so you can do something about that too.

Market your products, put someone on the front sidewalk in the Spring and Summer on weekends grilling up some chickens and ribs. Have the bakery making breads and cookies throughout the day, make sure the market guy is doing his rotisserie chickens when people are in the store. All those aromas help sell product, they make you hungry. I used to love it when people would tell me (in a joking manner), I hate coming here, all the wonderful smells make me buy more than I came in for. I took it as a real compliment to my store.

Have as many demos as you can afford on weekends. This is something I think Costco does really well. I plan my trips there for weekends to sample the demos in the store, and often buy what they are showing.

This is not new stuff, it’s not rocket science, and it’s not expensive, and it works. Do your advertising over the internet, market to the twentysomethings in ways they understand and embrace, but don’t forget how to treat people when they come to your store. People are shopping online now more than ever, but many of us still go to the grocery store. These are not hard things to do, none of them are large, except the staffing, but they add up to a memorable shopping experience.

Well, that is as close to marching orders as we’re likely to see. And he’s right on all counts.

Jeff Folloder had a unique take on the salmonella situation:

I've got a relative who was hospitalized in Texas with Salmonella during this outbreak. He's fine now, but the docs still aren't sure how he got it. I've got jalapenos (and four or five other kinds of chiles) growing alongside of the last of my tomatoes and other veggies in the back yard. I read on your website how the FDA has attempted to manage this incident. I'm left with a very libertarian agitation on this: our government is woefully incapable of effectively dealing with this issue and I'm growing tired of funding the bureaucracy that really does nothing other than cost money. I never liked the "nanny state" but am even less inclined when the nanny doesn't really know how to take care of the kids.

Perhaps this is an issue of expectations? We expect that the stuff that we buy at the grocery store is going to be safe. The supply chain is aware of this expectation and trusts that the general population will let this expectation override the market dynamics of not accepting inferior product. The supply chain knows that the FDA, USDA, and other alphabet soup bureaucracies are inept and ineffective. So we actually think that a salmonella outbreak can be contained by the government, that pulling or not pulling jalapenos off the produce stand will have an effect, that it's safe to eat that hamburger, or that the dairy manager really wouldn't go and retrieve the out of date butter from the dumpster that was just tossed out by the sales rep who forgot to douse it with bleach.

BTW, the fresh pico de gallo that I made has only one ingredient that didn't come from my garden: the onions. And I'm a little phased because I know the produce guy regularly strips off the outer moldy layers of the onions on display. But I cannot grow everything I eat and certainly don't even try. I trust that the food I buy is mostly safe. I find that trust dissolving over time...

You may have a lot of company.

Steve Lutz had some thoughts about another story:

Thank you for reporting on the whitepaper issued by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) on organics. I had not seen this study and I was able to download it after reading your comments. I appreciate the tip (another good reason to read MNB).

That said, I was disappointed in your observations. The ASCH report is a review of the earlier work from the Organic Trade Associations’ Organic Center which funded a “scientific” evaluation that found organic produce to be “25% more nutritious.” I was surprised that you essentially implicated a peer review by a well-credentialed professor simply because of his affiliation with ACSH. You essentially imply that because Dr. Rosen (professor emeritus, Rutgers University) is affiliated with ACSH he should be suspected of compromising his integrity and scientific principles. While I accept the fact that because Dr. Rosen is affiliated with ACSH, the funding of that organization is relevant. However, you did not raise the same warnings regarding the funding and affiliations of the organic group that sponsored this original “organics are more nutritious” report. If guilt by association is the standard, then you should raise the issue equally.

Which brings me to a larger observation with the commentary on the organic foods movement. That is, information that supports organics are usually given a pass on critical judgment. A report from the Organic Trade Association saying organic foods are more nutritious is accepted, no questions asked and appears in news reports across the county. When individuals raise contrary viewpoints they are implicated as being tools of industry and the information is buried. Your reporting was the first publicity of any kind I’ve seen on the ACSH whitepaper.

Using your words in MNB, “So when I hear a scientist arguing against a position that I think makes sense, I tend to be a little skeptical and to question their motives and judgment.” Fair enough. But wouldn’t it be better to evaluate the merits of the scientific questions being raised by Dr. Rosen?

Fair enough. You certainly are right about the fact that the OTA study supporting the notion that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food comes from an organization that has its own agenda. I thought that was implied in my commentary, but I should have been more specific.

I try to be honest about the fact that I’m not nearly smart enough to be able to make a scientific judgment about these issues. I’m just an ordinary guy…but the following email from an MNB user rings true to me:

Please thank Mr. Rosen for me, for letting me know that a plant stuck in sterile soil and given a chemical enema until it springs forth a vegetable is as good for me as an organically grown vegetable.

As does this one from Jessica Duffy:

Here! Here! If the soil is healthier and filled with more natural nutrients (and not chemical fertilizers, etc), then the plants can take up more of those nutrients and be more nutritious. Common Sense! Duh!

Sue DeRemer had some thoughts about the same story:

The point of difference for organically grown food has nothing to do with nutritional content. Organic food is grown without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. That's it. Some people wish to avoid ingesting pesticides and chemical fertilizers, for various reasons, so they choose organic foods.

So what is this study actually saying? That organic food shouldn't be labeled as such, because the nutritional content is the same?

It always amazes me that when an industry's business is threatened due to changing consumer paradigms, they so rarely evolve with the times. Instead they dig in their heels and fight to the very end against the new paradigm. Kind of like the record companies...

And when was the last time any of us bought a record?

Point taken.

And Michael Sommers wrote:

I was recently camping with my family and my older sister, who is in her late 20s, brought along her own organic cereal for breakfast. My dad asked her what was so great about her organic cereal compared to his non-organic cereal after he looked at the nutritional labels. Without skipping a beat she replied that there are less ingredients used in her cereal than his and that organic food is better for the environment because no pesticides or other chemicals are used in the production of the product. She said that she eats organic vs. non-organic more for the fact that it’s better for the environment vs. because it’s that much better for her…which we learned through this new study, no matter which side skewed the results, isn’t that much better for her vs. non-organic foods anyway.

Finally, MNB reported yesterday that Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena wine estate will be acquired by France’s Chateau Cos d'Estournel. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. And, we provided some context to this deal…

In 1976, at the famous Paris Tasting – where local wine critics were shocked when some California wines won top honors – it was Chateau Montelena’s wines that transformed the image of California’s then unimpressive wine industry. Chateau Montelena has been owned by the Barrett family…and its struggles to improve the quality of California wines is the subject of a new movie, “Bottle Shock,” that is scheduled to be released in the US on August 8.

Not sure why the Barrett family decided to sell, but it can't have helped that the US dollar is in the tank. Chalk up another victim of the current economy.

Steve Riessen had a problem with our analysis:

I love your column and am impressed with your insights (at least most of them). However, please revisit your basic economics course in college. The weak dollar has helped Chateau Montelena, because it's cheaper for a foreign company to buy them.

Stick to baseball, buddy.

First of all, I’m no smarter about baseball than I am about economics.

You’re right, though. I carried a bias with me into that analysis – that it isn’t necessarily good when US companies are sold to foreign concerns. And how is being cheaper a good thing?

But I could be wrong about that.

I am right, however, about the role that great wine can play in our lives. Which is reflected in this wonderful email from David R. Schools:

My father-in-law treated me to my first experience with Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon just after I married his daughter in 1987. I have been hooked ever since and, though usually above my budget, a bottle will find its way to my table when I know I want something memorable. I had not heard about the pending transaction involving the winery and appreciate you including it in MNB. It is a wine that has been a part of some of the best times of my life... I hope it doesn't change.

Me, too. And I’ve never enjoyed this wine…but I may have to look for a bottle.

KC's View: