business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Traveling around the country as I do, I sometimes get to encounter the most wonderful people. I can add Tom Glynn to that list.

Mr. Glynn, a man deep in his 80s, visited with me after a recent speech and gave me a few minutes I won’t soon forget. He shared with me memories of his long life including a fabulous tale about World War II. Mr. Glynn was one of the first American troops to reach Guadalcanal in the War against the Japanese. His story reminded me of how miraculous it was that the US won that war.

On Guadalcanal Mr. Glynn learned some hard lessons about the lack of preparation for war. The early soldiers in WWII had weapons perfect for fighting World War I. His company was trained in the desert, useless training in the tropical south Pacific. In the hot, humid climate uniforms actually disintegrated, communications systems failed repeatedly and the food rations were a horror. Worst of all, the US troops had no understanding of the army they were fighting and had to learn quickly to adapt.

In short, they were the typical army; fighting the last war rather than the one they faced.

Seems to me it’s a pretty good lesson to remember in the current economic storm. If history has taught us anything it is that competitive response to changing economic conditions is usually shockingly different than the norm. That’s probably the reason why the supermarket itself was born in the Great Depression or why Walmart was able to explode into the food industry so successfully during the recession of the early 1990s.

The question is, what’s next? The truth, and this is something shocking to write in a column is: I have no earthly idea. I don’t think I’m alone.

Yesterday I visited a store I thought would be the answer and walked away stunned in disappointment. The store is Walmart’s new Marketside format and honestly I expected this column to detail how the guys in Bentonville had managed to right every wrong we’ve witnessed at Tesco’s Fresh & Easy. I say the following in full knowledge that everyone at Walmart has forgotten more about retail than I will ever know. But here it goes:

Marketside isn’t ready for prime time.

Sure, the store is nicely done. The presentation of perishables blows Fresh & Easy away. Shelving is interesting, employees (the four or five present) are engaging and the décor is pleasing. The product mix is significantly larger than Fresh & Easy, which gives the store a level of completeness and one-stop shopping appeal. And that’s where the praise ends. Beyond that, well, I’m stunned.

There are simple issues that cry out for attention. For instance, the pricing is pretty good on many key items. But there is nothing in the window signage that would suggest this fact. Of course, there is nothing in the outdoor signage that would suggest that Marketside actually sells food. A shopper has to get really close to figure that out.

There’s also nothing to indicate a tie to Walmart—a company that spends countless ad dollars reinforcing a reputation for “always low prices.” Why not? It seems to me a great opportunity exists for cross-merchandising of “Marketside” products in all Walmart stores in much the way Publix cleverly features its Greenwise natural brand in all of its stores. Instead it makes you wonder if Walmart is hiding from Marketside somehow.

It’s hard for the story to get worse, but it does. Granted a Monday afternoon visit to two stores tells you almost nothing, except for this: In one store, an employee confided in me that the better Marketside was down the road. Sadly, I had just come from that other store first, where I was one of two “shoppers.” And a deliveryman in that store told me his main job is pulling expired product.

It got me thinking of the metaphor of fighting the last war and a recent shocking news story out of Washington. Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed cutting the budget for the F-22 fighter for a simple reason. Though it is a great plane, the military has yet to use it for a single mission in Iraq or Afghanistan. In short, it’s a plane for the Cold War.

Maybe there is something worse than fighting the last war and that is fighting the wrong war. It seems almost impossible that Tesco and Walmart, two of the world’s greatest retailers, would be doing that in Arizona.

But the impossible frequently happens.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

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