business news in context, analysis with attitude

We continually are surprised not just by the number of emails we get here at MNB, but the depth of feeling and breadth of interests that they reflect. So let's get to it…

Yesterday, we had a story about how towns like Stoughton, Wisconsin, are resisting Wal-Mart's plans to build a 180,000 sq. ft. superstore to replace its existing 40,000 sq. ft. discount store.

Wal-Mart, of course, wants to build bigger stores in more areas to be able to maintain the level of growth that it has set as a goal. But residents of Stoughton are not so much being anti-Wal-Mart as preferring to see a more modest expansion of the existing location, as opposed to a complete relocation.

In our commentary, we asked what would happen to the stores near the existing Wal-Mart location if it were to relocate. We've heard horror stories about what happens to communities and shopping centers when such moves take place - they can devastate traffic patterns and put entire clusters of stores out of business. Often leases are written so that a Wal-Mart competitor can't go into the abandoned location, which further exacerbates the problem.

One MNB user wrote:

I live near Stoughton and visit regularly (great Norwegian bakery). The Wal-Mart store in Stoughton is located on the main road that brings you to the center of town and currently shares a parking lot with a Pick N Save grocery store (locally owned). If Wal-Mart gets its way, the Pick N Save store would be eliminated. This is only one of the many reasons that Stoughton residents have against Wal-Mart's growth there.

And another MNB user added:

Due to family ties, I've had the pleasure of spending more than a fair amount of time in Stoughton -- it's a gorgeous little town. The town prides itself on the myriad of lovingly restored Victorian-era homes -- it's filled with real neighborhoods of really nice people. The current Wal-Mart sits on the main drag just outside of town, in the same strip as a Pick-n-Save. Both stores stay busy from open til close -- I'm assuming that a supercenter would eliminate the Pick-n-Save, as well as the really good mom-n-pop supermarket a mile away. As far as regional shopping? The wonderful city of Madison is only 30 miles away.

Stoughton also has a very vibrant main street culture -- ice cream parlor, movie theater, coffee shop, third-generation bakery (mmm -- fresh hot Norwegian pastries -- Krispy Kreme, eat your heart out!) as well as all sorts of great independent retail stores -- a gourmet cooking shop, an up-market toy store, etc. etc., etc.

What an absolute crying shame to think Wal-Mart wants to screw this up. Go, Stoughton, go.

We also got reaction to our story about proposed legislation that would prevent Wal-Mart from owning financial services companies, as one MNB user wrote:

Wal-Mart is too big and has too much economic muscle as it stands today. Diversity and small business is what makes economies strong. We have great small and large banks here in Indianapolis that are very customer friendly with several new start ups that are very customer friendly.

We also got reaction to yesterday's letter describing the shopping experience at a Wal-Mart neighborhood Market, and our comment (because it was a positive experience), "Score one for Wal-Mart."

MNB user Alan Binder wrote:

Score one for whom? The narrator of this checkout saga reports that, since the scanner in his line couldn't handle the rate at which he tried to scan the products he was purchasing (which was taking much longer than usual), he neglected to bag his groceries until the computer told him to do so. Then, Wal-Mart personnel felt compelled to bag his groceries for him.

It's a good thing when store personnel are helpful. A very good thing, indeed. But the person to whom the "score" is awarded is the customer - he was able to get service where he needed it most - at the end of the line, bagging his stuff "just like in the good ole days!"

And another MNB user had a different perspective:

In the Report from Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market today, I can agree about the customer service at the self-checkout lines, and also about how AWFULLY SLOW it is. I live in a north Dallas suburb and have a Neighborhood Market about one mile from my house. The service there is good (yes they do bag your groceries) but I don't see it as a plus. They took out so many lanes and made them self-service. They now have fewer people on hand as a regular cashier. Let me just say when you have a cart full, you're hard pressed to find any cashier at the store that doesn't have a huge line. I don't think it's a huge improvement at all. The last time I was there, they didn't have anyone even available at the 10 items or less line.

At least (I'll give them this), they are listening and are working to make that slow process a little better. But, what choice did they have?

But now about what they sell. I have to say that at the Neighborhood Market, they sell old, one-day-from-the-trash produce and expired pre-bagged salads, not to mention really bad steaks!! (Bad steaks, in Texas?) You can't count on them for anything fresh! Lucky for them, the Albertsons across the street doesn't have better produce, so you go for the low prices since there's nothing better.

And you can pass along to the person who wrote about the self checkout. It won't go any faster, no matter is done at the checkout! I've tried. It doesn't work.

I can't wait for the Kroger Signature store that is coming later this year. It won't be hard to earn my business.

Yesterday, in a story about HEB testing a leased Payless Shoe Source Express in one of its store, we commented that this was similar to the trend of putting branded toy departments in supermarkets, and added: "Shoes we get. Toys we don't."

MNB user Bill Moughan responded:

Women view new shoes as a treat and a reward - for doing the shopping. Shopping with a young child in a store with tempting toys (read I'll scream until I get one) sounds like a headache.

Okay. We're not prepared to argue the point. We just figured that the shoe shopping experience was so different from the food shopping experience that it was hard to reconcile. But to be honest, we're not entrenched on this…

In response to a story last week about a study suggesting that customer service as a revived trend, we commented that this study seems "borne out by many of the stories we report on a day-to-day basis, as companies as diverse as Home Depot, Best Buy, , Target and Nordstrom are turning to customer service as the thing that differentiates them from the big, bad giant, also known as Wal-Mart."

MNB user Greg Koster disagreed with us:

Your article today which references the above subject could not be farther from the truth. Go into a Home Depot, Target and or Nordstrom in the Northwest and just try and find anyone to assist you. And should you be lucky enough to find one, their level of company training and ability to truly help or contribute to the sale of product sometimes makes you wish you had not even located them. While this may be their long term goal they are far from achieving it.

We didn’t say they were achieving it…just that they were trying to.

We also had a brief piece yesterday about how Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott amused fellow attendees at a media mogul conference when he told them that he and other Wal-Mart execs often share rooms at Days Inn motels to save money. This didn’t impress one MNB user:

I am really impressed that the CEO stays at a Days Inn. Who are these guys kidding? Mr. Scott is probably a very nice guy, check and see how many shares he received from Wal-Mart and when he leaves Wal-Mart, check out where he will be spending his nights.

These guys kill me, they want everybody to know that they are watching the company's pennies yet they spend billions on knocking out small businesses who could not compete with the giant. By the way, don't these guys know that Wal-Mart sells tents in their stores?

Somehow, asking them to share tents seems like a little much…but knowing the folks at Wal-Mart, this idea may actually get consideration if management believes it will save money.

In response to a recent story about how Woolworths in Australia planned to compete with Aldi, MNB user David Weicht wrote:

I agree with your perspective on Woolworth versus Aldi. It appears that Woolworth is taking the apparent business threat with little concern.

I believe the position taken by Woolworths executive concerning the product assortment as being his clear advantage, needs to take a minute and assess his business. I do agree that variety certainly appeals to consumers, the reality is that the core items within any category segment represent 80% of the consumption volume while the remaining category SKUs become dust collectors.

Point being, that yes, Woolworth will still have an advantage, but Aldi's 600 core items will have a significant impact on Woolworth's overall sales. The second area of concern for Woolworth is whether they'll be forced to adjust current pricing and gross margins to match Aldi's retail pricing?

This reminds me of the early to mid eighties when K-Mart was at their peak performance and wasn't to overly concerned about Wal-Mart! Rule #1: Never underestimate your competition.

And, regarding a story about iris scanning technology used in the UK to track children's school cafeteria eating habits, one MNB user wrote:

It is obvious the ACLU does not operate in the UK. This will never fly in the US because of them. AT $100,000 a pop, what inner city school district will spring for those machines (obesity is high in inner city children)?

We weren't advocating installing the machines in school cafeterias across America…just reporting on how far technology has taken us.

And finally, we've had a brief dialogue on the site about the book "Seabiscuit," and horse racing in general, which prompted the following email from MNB user Kathleen Whelen:

My first horse was a grandson of Man O' War. His owner went off to the Korean war and never raced him. I had a job working for the Jockey Club out of college and I would go back into the files and look at Old Times's baby pictures (front and back, both sides) and think about his incredible
pedigree and what might have been. The world of Thoroughbred Racing is a tough one for all but the very wealthiest, and even they can experience heartbreak.

I bought the book when it first came out in hardcover. I stood in B&N and read it and cried. Even though I know how it comes out! I saw the PBS documentary and I cried again. Now let's see whether Hollywood will do right by this incredible trio of unlikely heroes.

Go Biscuit!

It actually is emails like this one - that tap passionately into unexpected subjects - that are the reason that we love our job.
KC's View: