business news in context, analysis with attitude

(At least, according to Content Guy Kevin Coupe)
Normally, the custom is to do "year in review" pieces on the last day of the year.

But not here.

In part, that's because we're going to refrain from looking at the year past, and instead focus on the year to come.

A great poet/philosopher once wrote (and sang):

    Yesterday's over my shoulder
    So I can't look back for too long
    There's just too much to see waiting in front of me
    And I know that I just can't go wrong…

We look forward to a 2004 in which genuine strides will be made in the food industry. Absent genuine strides, we'll settle for tentative steps in the right direction on specific issues.

Of course, not everyone will necessarily agree with us on what the so-called "right" direction is. But if we had our druthers, this is what'll happen in the next 12 months and beyond…

  • Labor relations. It'd be nice if management and unions would come to the realization that 2004 is a new era in labor relations. While clearly times have changed, it probably is fair to say that unions aren't going to just vanish (despite the fervent wishes of many executives). And despite the apparent delusions of labor leaders, it has to be conceded that retailers are living in a Wal-Mart universe, in which the playing field is hardly even and the competition is fierce, fiercer, fiercest.

    Which means that it is time to stop refighting battles of the past, and establish a new, progressive working relationship. Find a way to share the risks, find a way to share the benefits and rewards. If intractability and ego continue to drive the process, no good can come of it.

  • Redefining "health food."There is a part of us that's never really understood the whole concept of "health food." Does it mean that everything else is unhealthy food? And more to the point, does it mean that all these manufacturers and retailers are making money by selling food that is designed if not to harm us, to do us absolutely no good?

    Maybe it is time for the industry to start breaking the silos that exist between health food and other kids of food. The decision by companies like Kraft to get rid of the trans fats in cookies and cereals and similar products is a good first step…but we just think that a more holistic approach to food products and nutrition ought to be a central target. Is it too much to ask for food to taste good and to be good for you?

    Okay, maybe not all food is going to be good for you. But that leads right into our next "druther"…

  • Information is a great sales tool. Let's stop all the bickering about labels. Let's just tell the consumer everything he or she needs to know to make an intelligent decision - what's in the product, where it came from, and the nutritional impact of consuming it. If all the effort and money put into staking out positions around the issue were put into coming up with a clear and specific food label template, we think it wouldn’t be nearly as impossible a task as people expect it to be.

    No, there doesn't seem to be an enormous outcry by consumers for this kind of information. But events can transpire that will force new concerns and desires…and we think that it is foolhardy to be reactive to events.

  • The soul of the matter. We hate to quote ourselves, but a year ago we noted in this space:

    Can retail entities be said to have souls? Perhaps the problem for many of them is that too few do. They have no soul, no heart. They have a brain, used mostly for counting money and calculating efficiencies and projecting profitability and productivity. But no soul. No heart.

    Go into most supermarkets in the United States -- not all, but most -- and within about 15 seconds you know where everything is. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been there before. You can figure out quickly where produce is, and from there knowing where the meat and seafood departments are located, and where the deli and bakery are, is no big deal. It’s intuitive. Habit. There are no surprises.

    There will be those who would suggest that this predictability is a good thing, that it helps people navigate stores easily and confidently. This may be, but it also is the surest path to boredom. And beyond that, to irrelevance. And finally, perhaps, to extinction.

    It is way past time for retailers to embrace differentiation as a key - maybe the key - to survival. And then act on it.

  • One more family meal. Finally, we'd like to continue to advance an idea we've suggested before.

    Food retailers should take as an industry goal the idea that every family should enjoy together one more at-home meal a week. Just one more meal, at which they would sit around a table, eat, drink and converse.

    This is a big idea. It has business implications, but it also could have social/cultural ramifications. And it would position the industry squarely on the side of the family, which is a pretty good place to be.

These are just four "druthers."

They seem to us to be actionable ideas, and worthy targets.

But it's time to get busy. There are only 360 days left.
KC's View: