business news in context, analysis with attitude

Continued reaction to the decision by Federated Department Stores to convert Marshall Field’s stores to its Macy’s banner, which we decried as a move tied more to accounting efficiencies than any sort of recognition of consumer loyalties…

One MNB user wrote:

I live in Minnesota and it was hard enough when they converted Dayton’s to the Marshall Field’s name, I can’t imagine what will happen when it becomes Macy’s. Another tidbit regarding Macy’s – the one that is located at the Mall of America has never been a favorite place to shop. The customer service is horrible and the store always looks and feels cheap. I certainly hope that Marshall Field’s doesn’t end up that way.

Another member of the MNB community wrote:

In reading the 9/22 MNB comments about Federated Department Stores changing the long established Marshall Fields, Foley’s, and Bon Marche banners to Macy’s, Randall’s in Houston came to mind. Safeway took away everything that had made Randall’s the success they had become. They turned it into just another group of Safeway stores.

Certainly there are synergies to be had in these mergers in back side operations like accounting, payroll, purchasing, distribution, and etc. that will produce cost savings, but I believe they should concentrate on the sales, marketing, customer service, and the identity that has been the benchmark for these retailers. Cost savings are great, but sales fuel the fire.

There is a huge difference between being efficient and being effective, just as there is a huge difference between CEOs who get it and CEOs who don’t.

Interestingly, another MNB user brought up a similar example…

Recall that Safeway screwed up Dominick’s when they introduced the Safeway label, and then Kroger discarded the Smiths brand in Salt Lake City and the intermountain area....Guess Federated saw the food industry as an example and are following suit…

Except that it is a cheap suit that ends up not fitting anyone. Especially not the shopper.

One MNB user signing himself as “Bitter in Chicago” wrote:

One has to wonder what Macy's wants to do to America's little bits of identity. Will Chicago's Field Museum become the Macy's Museum? Will they cancel the Chicago Thanksgiving Day parade to showcase their New York one further? This is more than the great Chicago retailers going one by one to their graves - Alvah Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Richard Sears, Marshall Field, it is further homogenization of American identity and culture.

One day, the statues honoring the great Chicago retailers outside the Merchandise Mart will have to come down, as they no longer hold any meaning besides failure. Most Chicagoans are angry and cannot believe they are dropping the Field's name - which is such a large part of Chicago history. What happened to the customer is always right? - Oh wait – that was Marshall Field's philosophy. Unfortunately, since Macy's now owns a significant number of the brands of department stores in Chicago, there isn't much choice for shopping, so Chicagoans won't make much of a statement. Macy's is doing itself a disservice in one area: women love to try new stores when traveling to a new city. For women, shopping is tourism. Now there are no new stores, so why bother? Can't they compromise and call it Macy's Marshall Fields?

And another MNB user chimed in:

Next time Federated Department Stores goes looking for a new CEO, they ought to pick up Larry Johnston's contract. It looks like they think along the same lines.

On the subject of the California Attorney General’s move to force good companies to label acrylamides in foods, MNB user Jack Acree wrote:

While I do not doubt the California Attorney General's office has good intentions in it's acrylamide lawsuit against French fry and potato chip manufacturers, it is clear that they are proceeding with a laboratory mentality without any thought to how real people eat in the real world. Edward Wiel of the Attorney General's office is quoted as saying "If people ate as many olives as they do French fries, we'd have to be concerned about it." Perhaps Mr. Wiel is not aware of the phenomena that accompanied the "Low Fat/No Fat" trend in the 1990's. Manufacturers replaced the fat in their foods with a variety of different ingredients (mainly sweeteners) and in the end, Americans ended up more obese. If people were to reduce their consumption of potato chips due to acrylamide, they will replace those calories with something. Would Mr. Wiel recommend a snack of black olive tapenade on crackers washed down with a cup of coffee? All three of those foods contain acrylamide.

Without clinical data that first actually proves that acrylamide in food is unsafe AND at what level, all that the Attorney General is doing is helping to confuse an already confused consumer. In labeling the accompanying chart showing acrylamide levels in foods "Ugh. Another thing to count?" The Times, wittingly or not, clearly outlined the danger of the Attorney General's rush to action. Consumers will be confronted with incomplete and contradictory information. Trans fat is a clear and incontrovertible danger that is currently found in many potato chips and French fries. It is clear that removing any amount of trans fat from ones diet will help them to lead a healthier life. After much research and consideration, labeling altering consumers to the presence of Trans Fats goes into effect on January 1, 2006. If we give people clear information from which to make clear choices, they will pay much more attention. Children are told the story of the boy who cried wolf for an important reason. It's a shame too many adults forget that simple lesson.

We had a piece yesterday about how Whole Foods is opening up a lifestyle store adjacent to one of its West Hollywood, California, units. MNB user Rosemary Fifield offered some perspective:

Unfortunately, natural foods co-ops don't have the sound byte capability of Whole Foods, but three natural foods co-ops in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area have this type of store already, one of them (Lakewinds) since 1998:

Lakewinds Natural Home, in Minnetonka, sells safe paints, stains, and sealants; non-toxic cleaners; natural and organic items for infants, adults, and children including clothing, bedding, and other linens; allergen-free pillows; and products made by artisans in developing countries, who would otherwise be unemployed or not paid a living wage, including jewelry, baskets, decorative items, picture frames, wood carvings, children's toys and much more.

Linden Hills Natural Home, in Minneapolis, opened in March, 2005, specializes in sustainable household goods, cleaning products, earth friendly items for kitchen, bed and bath, organic garden supplies, non chemical paints, organic clothing, natural pet food and accessories, and Fair Trade and local gifts.

Northfield Community Mercantile, newly opened in the last few months, is a branch of Just Food Co-op in Northfield, MN and carries the same sorts of products as those listed above.

The reality is, natural foods co-ops have led the way for over 30 years now as the ORIGINAL source of consumer education about organic foods, natural products, and ethical business practices. Food co-ops - which are owned by the people who shop in them, rather than private investors - have always had a triple bottom line, giving environmental and social issues as much importance as they give to being financially sound. Whole Foods may have more money to put into marketing, but that doesn't make their ideas original.

We consider ourselves chastised.

MNB user Jeffrey Minster offered the following thought about our story reporting how five former Fleming executives have been hit with fraud charges by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC):

I find it amazing that none of your readers have so far commented on this news item. Many former Fleming employees were wondering when some SEC action would take place against those who drove a great company into the ground. I only hope there are more indictments to come. There are other culprits.

We think that a lot of people are wondering when the other shoes are going to drop. And how high up in the former organization the charges will go.

We got the following email from an MNB user about the P&G “Moments of Truth” program that emphasizes first impressions:

I'm all for emphasizing and reinventing the retail experience as a means of retailer differentiation, yet the P&G initiative seems to serve a slightly different objective. Their "moment" is focused on improving P&G brand sales and it follows from the often quoted 1995 POPAI study that led to the conclusion that over 70% of all purchase decisions are made inside the supermarket. While the study is accurate on one level, it obscures the reality that purchase decisions are a little more complex and that many levels of that decision are actually made outside of the store. These other levels are important.

Today's data, from competitor Unilever and other sources indicate that in most cases, purchase decisions begin long before entering the store and that they can be tied to store selection for different types of trips. With retailers needing help to attract and retain the different types of shopping trips their customers take, the "moments" that matter most to retailers are the ones that influence store selection and which categories shoppers will visit during each type of trip...not brand selection.

And, we got a ton of email about the Starbucks discussion that launched a couple of days ago.

It all started when MNB reported how the Starbucks coffee shop on the campus of Baylor University in Texas, operated by Aramark, stopped using some of the familiar paper cups that bear a specific quote. (All of Starbucks’ paper cups carry one of more than two dozen quotes that are designed to range from the inspirational to the provocative.) The reason? Baylor is a Baptist institution, and the quote is from novelist Armistead Maupin, who happens to be gay – and the quote is seen as being inappropriate for a religious college.

The quote: "My only regret about being gay is that I repressed it for so long. I surrendered my youth to the people I feared when I could have been out there loving someone. Don't make that mistake yourself. Life's too damn short."

We noted that Starbucks likes to use the cups as “a way to promote open, respectful conversation among a wide variety of individuals.” And, we commented that we didn’t read the Maupin quote so much as promoting a gay lifestyle as promoting the notion that life should be lived without fear…which doesn’t seem like such a radical concept to us.

This upset and annoyed some folks, who felt that Starbucks couldbe justifiably accused of promoting either a gay lifestyle or unfettered liberalism – maybe both. (We’re not sure which is worse.) And in one case, we were told by an MNB user to stop commenting on issues that have nothing to do with business…though we would argue that this is very much a business discussion.

One MNB user wrote:

Corporations walk a fine line with stuff like this. Seems you just can't win when a corporation tries to get its consumers to think - " promoting open, respectful conversation among a variety of individuals".

I'm off to start burning some Starbuck's "liberal" quote cups......

Another MNB user wrote:

Thanks for the laugh this morning! Somehow the idea of simply repeating a quote from a 'known homosexual' is also promoting a radical homosexual lifestyle strikes me as funny. Starbuck's is not promoting a liberal lifestyle - they're promoting and selling their products to whomever is buying - be it a flaming liberal or crusading Christian. They don't stand for or behind 'liberal' values - they stand behind the money they make and the market share they grow.

One MNB user did make a point that nobody else did:

Wait a minute . . . this is the same company that refused to carry the latest Bruce Springsteen CD because of that single, small, mumbled bit of lyrics about dealing with a prostitute? Hmm . . . maybe Starbuck's ridiculous banning of the CD is their way of stirring up "open, respectful conversation?" I suppose prostitutes and the people that frequent them (not that I advocate it, but neither do I criticize it) are not included "among a wide variety of individuals" Starbuck's references.

We wouldn’t agree with the Starbucks decision on that one. But they’re allowed to make mistakes.

And another MNB user wrote:

I am not a coffee drinker so I am not a customer.

I ask the question "Why does everything have to have a message, an issue, a cause?" What would be wrong with them putting facts about coffee on their cups? (Perhaps the tea companies would object.)

I have my opinions about the homosexual agenda, and they are not positive. Why should I have to deal with that when I go to a store to buy something? I have other avenues for expressing my opinion.

If I were a coffee drinker, I would, however, vote with my feet because the company has forced the issue.

Actually, we think we have an answer for this.

It is by putting quotes on coffee cups that make people think – and even create discussions like this one – that Starbucks becomes more than just a coffee shop. It gains for itself a larger role in the cultural consciousness…and we think that it an enormous advantage.

Still another MNB user chimed in:

MNB user Brad Morgan really nailed it when he asked if Starbucks would put a quote from Jesus Christ on their coffee cups. This is the real irony of the whole liberal/PC movement. The supposedly “edgy” and “thought-provoking” quotes like the one from Armistead Maupin are now boring and predictable. Quoting Jesus Christ -- now that would actually be edgy and controversial.

MNB user Barb Ramsour wrote:

You go "guy" - always keep raising the bar on the level of consciousness - it makes us think, form opinions, and write notes to MorningNewsBeat. By the way Starbucks announced a 2 for 1 stock split yesterday - they must be doing something right?!

Still another MNB user wrote:

Pretty interesting stuff on Starbucks and Baylor University. We are fortunate that everyone in our country is blessed with the right to make choices. If you don’t like the quotes that are on Starbucks cups, don’t buy their products.

At the same time I believe Baylor can ask, and even demand that any retailer selling a product that as an institution they find disagreeable, to stop selling that product is okay, too. Baylor is a private, faith based school, not a state university funded with public funds. They can run that university any way they want. If someone does not like it they can choose not to attend that school.

To our knowledge, Starbucks hasn’t said anything about the issue, and certainly hasn’t objected to the cups being pulled. We suspect that it understands that it needs to be sensitive to religious beliefs, and tolerant when people object to something like this on faith-based grounds. And we would agree.

Tolerance, it seems to us, is what this discussion is all about.

Another MNB user wrote:

Your page is the first thing I read in the morning. Please continue to either disregard or chastise those who tell you that your readers don't want to hear plain talk and truth spoken about some of the companies that have such a huge impact on our society. The nonsense written by people who urge you to censor yourself or only present the party line of power does not reflect the view of most of your readers I am sure. I think you presented the issues around the Starbuck's cup quotes perfectly.

Notably, I was raised a Southern Baptist and I can assure you that the lessons I learned in Sunday school about Jesus' teachings of humility, charity, compassion, and tolerance are entirely missing from many "Christians" today. In fact most of his teachings would be viewed by liberals as exactly in line with their beliefs and would conflict directly with many "Christians" hateful rhetoric. I cannot recall any time that Jesus even voiced an opinion on homosexuality and I suspect he would have embraced Maupin as he did so many others that the rest of society deemed outcasts.

MNB user Sue DeRemer wrote:

It never ceases to amaze me how people who choose to call themselves Christians can act anything but.

And still another MNB user took a similar view:

As a Christian I think Jesus’ agenda was to love, and his message was to love one another because we are forgiven. How can that person say that “to Christians, the homosexual lifestyle is a radical concept.” It’s about love. It’s about acceptance, not rejection. It’s about tolerance, not hatred.

But mostly, it’s a viewpoint, just like Starbuck’s offering viewpoints on their cups, and not even huge, complicated discourse. Boy, someone’s viewpoints and values must be pretty shaky if a simple quote will lead their sons and daughters astray with that!

MNB user Karl Heink wrote:

"Stick to business commentary"?????

Open discussion of cultural values as it pertains to business policies and decisions is one of the greatest things the MNB brings to the table. As soon as you stop sharing your point of view and bow to other people's opinions, you are no longer 'differentiating yourself' and are 'homogenizing' the generally accepted topics of discussion. Having diverse views and opinions (and being able to share them with others) is what make the USA such a great country (and the MNB a required piece of morning reading each day).

Should you decide to honor this person's feelings of "sticking to business commentary", you can unsubscribe me to your newsletter. There won't be any value in reading it if I cannot get some opposing opinions and evaluations of values contrary to my own.

Keep up the good fight.

We’re blushing…and we promise not to change.

By the way, we joked yesterday that we’ve been engaging in inappropriate discussions and asking questions that nobody wanted us to ask since we had Sister John Aquin in second grade.

To which MNB user Richard L. Gramza responded:

Amen brother. I never heard it put quite that way before Kevin. For me it was 5th grade and it was Sister Mary Jacques…I never thought that it might have fostered in me the desire to not be satisfied the pat answers that the church was trying to push on us at the time.

MNB user Ruth Waters wrote:

Thank God that Sister John Aquin couldn't make you keep your mouth shut. I enjoy your commentary. I look forward to MorningNewsBeat each day. Sometimes you help put a different perspective on issues, enlighten me, or just make me laugh. Thanks and keep on asking questions and raising issues.

And another member of the MNB community wrote:

I think there is a silver lining to this story. People like Sister John Aquin may be partly responsible for outstanding writers like you. You are able to tell your stories now and you do it well. I have to read MNB every day. It's that good.

Nothing like a ruler across the wrist early and often to teach you how to write a decent sentence.

And thanks.

(Sister John Aquin, we suspect, may be rolling over in her grave. Or somewhere aiming a lightning bolt at us…)

And finally, this email from an MNB user:

Just wanted to say I love the way you set fire to things – you HAVE to have known that the Starbucks coffee cup story, like so many others you touch, would wake up a few people who bite, and even some who froth at the mouth.

Good for you for having fun and not letting the “new PC” deter you. I encourage and support you, which might help balance the “mail bag” as others start in on you for having a different opinions from theirs

I rarely disagree with you (which is scary in itself – I am rarely in really consistent agreement with anything or anyone , but I argue with my wife of 35 years more than I talk back to your column…) But I would “defend to the death your right to say it” which is the basis of rational discourse and remarkably missing these days in this country.

(By the way – does the idea of having “liberal” thinking quotes on Starbucks cups not pass the same test that so many defended for Wal-Mart to edit the covers and merchandise assortment? It’s their store, they can do what they want, and let the marketplace decide. Isn’t that the same position?)

Go get ‘em, guy. Keeps everybody from falling into ruts.

As often as not, these discussions make us think about our positions and feelings on various issues. By engaging in them – and we think you’re right, nobody else in this territory would go near these arguments – we hope that we’re contributing to intelligent discourse and provocative thought. And maybe, just maybe, of greater tolerance for other people’s opinions.

If nothing else, though, we’ll settle for just keeping the conversation lively.
KC's View: