business news in context, analysis with attitude

I wrote yesterday about a great customer service experience that I had when buying a new TV, but the description prompted the following email:

I just had to share this after reading about your 5-year warranty being 1-year expired.  Whenever I buy a major appliance and they try to push the extended warranty on me, I always ask the annual fee and then decline.  What I do is put that annual fee in my working savings account under its own column “Warranties”.  I then put that amount for that appliance in that fund every year.  If/when I need to fix something or replace something, I use the money from that fund.  The law of averages will always kick in.  While there may be a loss for any appliance overtime, the rest will balance it out.  We had a rear projection TV for, believe this, 13 years. The annual warranty would have been $199.95.  So, every year, I put $200 in the warranty fund toward a new TV. When we replaced it, I had spent $93 at one point over the 13 years on a minor repair.  So, I had over $2500 to put toward the new TV.  When we did replace it w/a flat screen plasma (3 years ago), the annual warranty on that puppy was $499.95.  So, every year, I now put $500 in the warranty fund toward my next TV.  Hey, in the trade, it’s just called being self-insured.

Makes sense. But maybe it requires just a tad more fiscal discipline than I’m capable of. 

From another MNB user:

It doesn’t matter whether he would have done it for anyone who called or if your purchasing history prompted the attention, to you, the customer, it was a personal experience delivered by someone who was willing to spend time explaining why he couldn’t solve the immediate problem in such a manner that you were willing to invest money on a purchase from his store. You may have received the same customer service from one of the other retailers, BUT it sounds like your local store has figured out what it takes to compete with the big guy down the block and price wasn’t it.

MNB user Jim Swoboda wrote:

I strongly believe anyone can compete with the big guys, providing they understand their customer and really, genuinely, strive to take care of them.

Yesterday, I was in Lansing, MI and as I was beginning to back out, I saw a local jewelry store owner walking out of his shop and putting money in the meter for what was clearly a customer’s car.  That simple act told me all I needed to know about him and his business.  He cares about his customer and he will take care of them.

Simple to understand, seemingly impossible to execute in so many places in today's world.

Your local guy did the same and he was rewarded.

Responding to my piece yesterday about how we seem to be moving toward a cashless society, and my comment that I rarely write checks anymore, one MNB user wrote:

When you mentioned that you rarely write checks, I stopped to think about that, as I write about 20-30 checks/month.  So, I got out my checkbook to see what’s going on.  I pay my cleaning lady w/a check.  Only other option would be cash.  When my lawn is mowed (or is it mown?) or the driveway plowed, the guys leave me a bill in the mailbox, which I pay w/a check in the mail to them. Same for the guy who cleans my windows.  He leaves me a bill taped to my front door; I mail it back w/a check.  For all the people who work on my house, paint it, powerwash it, etc, they are all paid via checks.  I am positive none of them have any access to being paid any other way except cash, which makes no sense as I would have it on hand and then insure I get a signed receipt and don’t lose it.  The check is certainly easier all around. 

My family lives all around the country.  When I send money for birthdays/anniversaries/etc, I’m not going to send cash through the mail. I send checks.  When I go to a wedding or graduation open house, I put a check in the card, not cash.  I put a check in my church envelope, not cash.  My hairdresser is not set up to receive payment any other way except cash or check (I pay by check).  Same w/my yoga studio; it’s cash or check.    Now, these latter 2 (hairdresser and yoga studio) will probably move to accepting credit/debit eventually, but they’re not there yet.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  How would/do you handle these types of payments?

I do almost everything using my PIN-based debit card, or I do bill payments online, with the bank doing electronic payments.

From another MNB user:

I want totally cashless where people don’t get paid under the table and never pay taxes on income! I have been self employed since 1984 and I report every cent..every cent that I make. Incomes, payments to everyone should all be done electronically...

I cannot stomach those who ask for they don’t have to report it. I am tired of subsidizing the cheats!

Yesterday, MNB had a story about a new decade-long German study revealing that “coffee drinkers have no more risk of getting illnesses such as heart disease or cancer, and are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes,” contradicting some earlier studies.

I commented:

All the various and conflicting studies are part of the reason that shoppers get confused. But I’m probably typical in this case - I’m going with this study because it validates and reinforces existing behavior. If this study said that coffee was bad for me, I’d think about it, but then I’d just wait for another study to come out.

One MNB user responded:

Don’t you find it interesting that the public will embrace a study that makes it okay, maybe even preferable, to engage in some behavior that is constantly being studied with conflicting results, while at the same time when it has been proven numerous times that moderation in calories with consistent exercise is the most consistent and healthiest way to maintain a healthy weight, we wait for the next miracle drug that allows one to eat hamburgers and French fries everyday while downing a liter of pop in front of the TV. AND blame it on the purveyor of the hamburgers and pop for making the food/drink so tasty. Just my thought after reading another study that validates my consumption of 4-5 cups of coffee per day.

We had a piece the other day about a smarter shopping cart that would even talk to the shopper if her or she seemed to be making mistake - putting a product with gluten into the cart when the shopping history would indicate a gluten-free diet.

MNB user Susan Kemp wrote:

The idea has great potential for people with disabilities or time-crunched shoppers.  If it can be taken one step further,  I would love to have a cart recommend the appropriate wine to pair with the chipotle-cranberry cheddar in my basket.


From another MNB user:

I like it. A shopping cart that would let me know when I am forgetting something on my list would be a plus in my book. If it would steer me away from impulse items at the same time, I would be grateful enough to change stores.

Yet another MNB user chimed in:

Are they equipped with collision sensors?  

Yet another distraction for someone who already is talking on their cell phone instead of paying attention to where they are going.  The bruise on my leg from last week’s “crash in aisle 4” was just healing!

Still another MNB user offered:

Kevin, If I wanted a smart cart I could just take my wife to the store with me.

And, another reader responded:

While these shopping carts are following around shoppers…will they be smart enough to NOT park in the middle of the aisle??? How will they avoid collisions when coming out of an aisle??? Especially during the crowded peak periods???

We had a long discussion here the other day about Monsanto filing lawsuits against farmers who own land on which Monsanto’s GM seeds have spread, and how Monsanto managed to win a suit that sought to prevent it from filing such suits, with the judge saying that the farmers were trying to create a controversy where none exists. Seems pretty controversial to me, and I wrote:

But what I can’t quite figure out is how - considering there have been so many lawsuits - the lawyers for Monsanto were able to make their case. Unless the judge in the case was predisposed to rule in their favor. Or the lawyers on the side of the organic farmers simply did not make theirs.

MNB user Elizabeth Archerd wrote:

Hey Content Guy,

Innocent people have been put on Death Row in lots of states over the decades, too.

Appeals are already underway.

From another MNB user:

As I have said to you before on the subject of Genetically Engineered ingredients, they are so pervasive that if they are required to be declared the consumer will become numb because almost everything has something GE in it except Organic Foods.  The phrase “contains Genetically Modified Ingredients” will become as common place as Made in USA, no wait, maybe more common than even that!!!

And, from another MNB user:

I'm a little surprised by your follow up comments on Monsanto and what they do to small farmers as you come off a little naive, something I would normally never expect from you.

The simple fact of the matter is this - sometimes the process of law doesn't determine who's right but simply works better for those with piles of money who use it's machinations to slowly muscle their weaker opponents out of the ring.

Monsanto has made that a primary business objective and they do it well.

Not naive. Just idealistic (leavened with some cynicism). Hey...I grew up in the late sixties and early seventies. I can’t help it. Some attitudes never die.

On the subject of the increasingly irrelevant and seemingly clueless US Postal Service, MNB user Craig Espelien wrote:

Thought I would share a bit of interesting information on how the postal workers feel about moving to fewer days.  While most of us in the real world understand things change, it seems that the post office is the business that time forgot.  The delivery folks are part of a union (at least I believe they are) and at the very least they have a union mentality.  I had dinner a few months ago with a group that included a postal delivery person.  When the subject of moving to fewer than six days came up the reaction was swift and energetic – the feeling portrayed was that the world would essentially come to a standstill if a day was to be removed from delivery – and the person get only more emotional as the discussion progressed.  I learned later that for postal carriers this is an extremely vitriolic point.

Also, if you check to see what it costs to get a second or third day air package from one of the “other” carriers (DHL, FedEx, UPS) it is pretty expensive - $20 or so even for a letter.  Why not raise the price on letters to $1 or more (as part of the overall retrenchment plan including cutting delivery to four days), raise the cost to deliver junk mail and advertisements (recognizing that much of this is moving to the digital world, milk the cash cow for all it is worth) and turn some of those more remote postal stations folks want open into multiple use facilities (perhaps combine them with the DMV or something similar).

Radical changes require radical thinking.  As Einstein (I think) said – No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.


From another MNB user:

Just some thoughts in response to Ms. Shunks comments today:

"I think the real issue with the post office is that they are being forced to act like a private company instead of what they are, a public good.  No one builds roads, lays electric lines or treats water to make a profit (or even to break even).  This is infrastructure designed to make everything else possible."

This starts her points off on a false premise.  Many companies have built and operated roads, bridges, or other transportation infrastructure under contract with the government, but without government support and these are often cited as being operated more efficiently and with better results. Electric lines are almost always privately owned and maintained, and yes
the utility companies turn a profit.  While less frequent there are private suppliers of drinking water (I happen to be on one of those systems and love it).  I also have a bit of trouble feeling a lot of empathy for postal workers whose pay and benefits are well documented to be significantly above private employees.  That said I do feel for anyone who loses their job over mismanagement like this.

With this, the problem remains that the Post Office is stuck between a rock and a hard place.  They legally must exist unless a constitutional amendment changes that, but they are asked to operate as an independent entity.  If the government needs more money they can simply find a way to tax us more.  The post office can raise prices, but since we are not forced to use them we can simply transfer to alternatives.  Either the government needs to do a full takeover and get rid of the illusion of an independent entity while supporting them with tax dollars, or the post office has to start offering the types of services that people want at a quality they expect.  This will have to start with reducing the costs of operation through radical change.

Personally, I rarely use the Post Office outside of simple envelope delivery because the cost difference between them and their competition is not wide enough to justify the poor service that I have personally experienced over the years.  I think there are many like me.

MNB user Jeff Folloder wrote:

I've offered many options for approaches to course correction for the USPS.  Given that it is a quasi-government entity, real change will likely never happen.  That said, there is a relatively easy, short-term fix that is likely to do a LOT of good: Triple the bulk mail rate.  Bulk mailers are the ones who benefit the most from the subsidized system, so let them pay the freight.  And if the result is that there is less bulk mail... The USPS is reducing the amount of unprofitable delivery and consumers are dealing with less mail that is the most likely to get pitched without even a glance.

We had an email the other day from a young man who spoke eloquently about what he saw as some of the problems inherent in having a career in the grocery business - including sometimes lousy hours and what he saw as a lack of a work/life balance. I offered a fairly long (and, I hope, gentle) response to his email, suggesting that sometimes you have to pay your dues, that a tough economy requires people to do more with less, and that maybe the grocery business is not for him.

One MNB user responded:

While I have worked 50-60 hours on average for most of the past thirty years, I think that you completely missed the point that the young writer made.

I believe that he is WILLING to work the hours necessary to be successful.  HOWEVER, it is a one way street.  The writer gets few weekends off, few evenings off, and forget about time off around the holidays.  The retailer basically works its young managers into the ground as they know that there will be a new flock of young people that will take the abuse (at least for 5-10 years).

I ran institutional food service operations for an operator that was always on the "Top 100 Employers to Work For."  There was always a lot of lip service about being "family friendly" and for the people in corporate positions, it was a great place.  The young managers in the trenches were working long hours, nearly every weekend, and many holidays.  After ten years, I realized that if I could manage 100+ employees in a kitchen, I could transfer my skills to an industry where I could enjoy weekends off and actually spend some time with my family.

The young writer will last maybe another two or three years and join his brother and friend in another industry - and usually at a much higher salary.  And you will still be wondering why young people don't hang around in the retailing industry.

To the young writer, my ONLY regret in life is that I completely missed my twenties.  During those years, I never had the opportunity to join a softball team, do much travel, spend holidays with my close relatives (many are now gone), and the like.

Fair enough.

To be clear, though, I did say in my response that retailers need to find ways to appeal to young people with attitudes like these:

I think it is critical for retailers to understand the mindset of people like this, and to figure out how to deal with it. There’s not much that can be done about the long hours, I suspect, but I do think that it is important to figure out how to help them feel invested in the business, dedicated to the company’s success, able to contribute creatively and constructively and see those contributions realized in the marketplace.

As for young’s what I suggest. Find something you love doing, and make it the centerpiece of your work life. You’re going to spend way too much time working to not find it personally rewarding and even joyous.

Another MNB user wrote:
First time caller, long time listener.  Love your column.  That may be because I agree with you on many of your political, movie, beer and wine thoughts but it also may be because it’s well written and touches on topics that are important to the industry. 

I wanted to send a slightly rambling comment to the young man that complained about the work hours at HEB/Costco and your response.  I too am sympathetic but feel that too many young people have a sense of entitlement as to instantly having a BMW, 4 bedroom house, latest cell phone/iPad without having to work for it.  The generation of my parents (boomers and before) generally started with a modest “starter” home, and moved up as the means allowed.  Everyone seemed to realize and accept this progression.  Work was similar.  You started in the mail room and moved your way up.  Times have changed as very few now spend 50 years with same company and retire with a gold watch.

Some (not all) of my generation (I’m 42) seem to have lost that work ethic/prioritization and want to have the most expensive toy to show off to their friends and family.  I get it - It can be pretty cool to have the latest and greatest.  I think this generally says more about our society and less about the individuals. 

All of this leads to my main thought.  I think this letter warranted a comment about retaining talent.  Retention of talent is a huge issue for every industry and we are no exception.   This evolution in priorities is also about generational differences and we should realize this.  The baby boomers have different expectations and goals than the 25 year olds (Gen Y?).  I think your response to this man’s letter reflected you trying to fit a square peg (Gen Y’s priorities) into a round hole (baby boomer’s work ethic).  One could argue that the Gen Y’s have it right and those Boomers that made work their top priority had it wrong.

My concern is that our industry needs the brightest and best to continue to innovate and thrive.  Hard work and passion is certainly a huge part of that.  A generation ago, I think that was enough.  Now I think we need to supplement that with both education and experience. 

To retain this talent, I think we need to figure out what drives this generation so we can retain without sacrificing hard work and passion.  It may not be easy I would argue it is the reality Some are motivated by money, some by passion, some by work-life balance and most by a combination of many different things.  Figuring that out will ultimately help us be successful.

You had me at “first time caller, long time listener.” It is my favorite line when people start off their emails that way, since I’ve always sort of aimed for MNB to have that sports radio feel to it.

From still another reader:

Kevin, if your position on "doing what it takes to get the job done" regardless of the hours involved is truly politically incorrect then we are in worse shape than I thought.  I suppose there are jobs out there which really are 9-5 (I've never had one either) but I can guarantee from long experience that even in those industries the top performers don't treat them that way.  Just like the rest of life, the rewards and satisfaction people get out of work is typically directly proportional to the effort they put in.

Another reader suggested that a great quote on this subject comes from the late Steve Jobs, who once said:

You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

He said it better than me. He said it first. Go figure.

I noted yesterday, with the passing of Davy Jones of the Monkees, that I wasn’t sure what would be more devastating to Mrs. Content Guy - losing Davy Jones or Bobby Sherman. Which led one MNB user to write:

I am with Mrs. Content Guy, although I would add Donny Osmond and David Cassidy to the mix (good object lessons as they expanded their brands beyond the teen scene). I would add them more because as they are aging so am I.

We’re all aging. It’s awful, but it beats the alternative.
KC's View: