business news in context, analysis with attitude

Responding to various commentaries written by Michael Sansolo and me this week about companies getting ahead of the curve when it comes to things like environmental initiatives, MNB user John Rand wrote:

I read the news and your combined comments over the last several days and couldn’t agree more. I have spoken for several months to supplier audiences about what the changing scale of values that shoppers use to make decisions and a concept we at Management Ventures call the New Premium – the idea that for at least some shoppers, a key part of what makes a product more valuable is not in the product itself, but in the values of the company that makes it and the way it aligns to a host of personal and community values that shopper believes are important. New Premium products and New Premium retailers are those who learn how to be consistent and authentic in their message around one of the many areas of concern – it might be wellness, it might be environment, it might be ethical behavior – but in so many cases, the product – and the store - is viewed as more than just “what’s inside.”

On the subject of Walmart’s environmental decisions, though MNB user Rick Heineman had an different perspective:

There can be many motives for a companies policies. It should be noted that the estate of John T. Walton (Sam’s son) owns 46% of FSLR First Solar corp. These shares are worth over $9 billion. While I agree with everything that you have said about the advantages of being environmentally correct, one should not overlook the greed of Sam Walton’s children. They are also huge contributors to the Republicans in order to avoid estate taxes.

If John Walton can make a gazillion dollars in the solar energy business, that’s okay with me.

Though I would agree that motivation can be a tricky thing to assess.

On the subject of the ongoing food safety crisis involving meat and E. coli, one MNB user wrote:

The Country of Origin (COOL) legislation is about to go into effect in the next few weeks for many food categories. While there will surely be many issues with the initial implementation, it's certain that having this information readily available will be appreciated by many consumers - and will likely impact what they choose to purchase. It's a small but significant step.

With the disgusting revelations regarding the meatpacking industry in the past few months, I wonder why the consumer is not entitled to know where the meat they buy was initially processed. When you think about it, a customer comes into a store, picks up a package of store-brand meat or chicken and has absolutely no clue how it got in the case. The same goes for many items, particularly in the fresh departments. It is mind-boggling that we blindly entrust our well-being to a supply chain that is a completely black box. We have organizations that protect wildlife, fight for the preservation of our waterways, and fund research to cure thousands of different diseases....why not one to address the safety of our food supply? Government agencies don't fix these problems, sad to say, even though there are bureaucrats in agencies all over Washington who are, on paper, responsible for our land, animals, air, diseases, etc.

Truth is, the FDA is no more capable of ensuring a safe food supply than the EPA has been able to clean up the environment or the Center for Disease Control has been able to eradicate communicable diseases. We as citizens need to take a more active and responsible role in the redesign of our food supply and to understand what the costs and benefits will be. No one manufacturer, distributor, retailer, or trade association is going to be able to move this mountain or volunteer to be the sacrificial lamb. This state of affairs will never improve without intervention and education of the public.

Eating will never be without risk and the supply chain will never be truly transparent, so information is the first step.

I look forward to the day that the formation of a Food Safety Association is announced - unfortunately, the events leading up to this will probably be tragic and widespread. I would gladly make a donation to the cause if it means that my family and friends will have more information about their food choices and that the food we eat is handled with the caution and respect we all deserve.

I was buying ground beef at a retailer yesterday and it occurred to me to ask a manager where it came from. So I did.

“Not a problem,” he said. “That’s only at Whole Foods.”

Not exactly, I replied. And you didn’t answer the question, I pointed out.

He told me where the beef was from, which left me satisfied…and then I suggested to him that maybe a sign in the meat department that would reassure customers would be in order.

He looked at me aghast. ‘No, no, no,” he said. ‘You don't want to draw attention to it either way.”

Which in my estimation was the worst comment he could have made. Either way.

On the same subject, MNB user Elizabeth Archerd wrote:

The Nebraska Beef mess is an example of the USDA serving two masters. The agency is supposed to both protect the public and promote the agriculture business. Regulate and promote at the same time. This can't be done in a reliable way.

The government needs to break out the two functions into separate agencies that do not ultimately report to the same cabinet secretary.

Responding to another story, MNB user Jeffrey D. Minister wrote:

The article about customers of convenience stores purchasing more traditional supermarket items speaks as much to the lowly state of urban grocery retailing as the weak economy or gas prices. In many DC neighborhoods, it is quite a trip to a Giant or Safeway store, which are effectively the only choices in this market. For the right retailer, there is money to be made in grocery retailing in urban markets.

On the subject of technology, MNB user Richard Thorpe wrote:

In today’s paper, I read an article about a “Computer Hackers Convention” where all sorts of devices to steal information was available. I am sure that undercover “cops” were there as well. Makes one wonder if one should do business on the internet at all? Too late to stop I guess.

The article was written by Jordan Robertson, Associated Press. The first two lines: “Want to break into the computer network in an ultra secure building? Ship a hacked iPhone there to a nonexistent employee and hope the deice sits in the mailroom, scanning for nearby wireless connections.”

Of course the article was in the business section.

Yesterday, MNB noted that Stop & Shop had decided to stop selling certain over-fished species because of environmental concerns, which prompted MNB user David Livingston to write:

I really wonder if anyone at Ahold really cares about the supply of Chilean Sea Bass or Sharks? Customers will simply go to other stores that give the customer what they want. Another blunder by Ahold. And they wonder why their stores are losing market share forcing them to close and consolidate divisions.

I don't know about that. Sometimes, I think, people and companies actually make decisions for the right reasons.

And if you buy into John Rand’s comments above about “the New Premium” – and I do – then the argument can be made that this is both a good business decision as well as an ethical choice.

Last week, I made a passing reference to Jimmy Malone…and had to come back the next day to explain who that was. (The highly quotable Sean Connery character in “The Untouchables.”)

Yesterday, it happened again. After reporting that Stop & Shop was going to stop selling shark, I commented: “Matt Hooper would approve. Martin Brody, not so much.”

And again the email came:

Who the hell are they?

They are, of course, the Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider characters in “Jaws.”

I’m feeling soooo old.

Here’s the deal, MNB fans. If you’ve never seen “Jaws,” your homework assignment before the end of August is to rent it and watch it, since “Jaws” remains one of the best thrillers ever made by mainstream Hollywood.

Once that’s done, we may have to move on to some other movie assignments. Just so we have some of the same cultural references…

KC's View: