business news in context, analysis with attitude

I haven’t had “Your Views” the last few days, so let’s do some catching up...

I wrote the other day that I am a big supporter of the notion that the retirement age ought to be extended, in the way that Tesco is doing in the UK.

Which led MNB user Michael Phelan to write:

Not everyone is fortunate enough to sit behind a laptop and drink Starbucks as they go about doing their work, but holding up public workers as scarecrows that should take the blame for our current economic mess is disrespectful and should stop.

If my home were on fire or a family member needed to be rescued from an emergency, I wouldn't be confident in a group of 70-year old emergency responders showing up. The same goes for public employees who perform other physical work that can impact public safety. Do you want 70-year olds inspecting and repairing your commuter train or bus? bridges? elevators and escalators in public buildings?  The boilers in your public schools?

Public workers and their pensions have been negotiated in good faith. If pension reform is needed - which most of us can agree it is - it needs to be done thoughtfully at the bargaining table. Sure there are plenty of clerical and desk employees who shouldn't have to retire early, but those numbers have never proven that to be a meaningful concern.

Let's not forget that it is the financial industry which has damaged the real estate market and the value of public pensions, among other things. Rather than fight amongst ourselves on Main Street, we should all be insisting on meaningful reform on Wall Street - before they create the next catastrophe that they'll want to be bailed out from.

Along with other election year  issues of "values and morals,"  which show up like clockwork, politicians in both parties have pointed to this (mostly) red herring  of public employees to distract us from the following:

• their failure to put meaningful financial reform in place, while continuing to receive millions in campaign donations from the financial industry.

• their failure to invest in our own country and create good and meaningful jobs to replace those lost in  U.S.  manufacturing in the last 30 years.

I keep getting emails from people about customer service levels in various industries. Here’s one from MNB user Cindy Sorensen:

On  March 18, I was in the Munich airport waiting for my return flight home.  My flight was delayed and had the potential to be cancelled, and I needed to contact my German host family to let them know I might be staying an additional night in Germany until I could return to the US.  I used a pay phone twice in the gate area of the airport.  I used my VISA card to pay for the calls.  Each call lasted only approximately 3 minutes.  For those two phone calls, I was charged over $18 each to place a call from the Munich airport to a home in Aschheim, a suburb of Munich!  This is really taking advantage of a stranded traveler, who did not have a "handy" (cell phone) in a foreign country, who no longer was carrying any Euros to make a local phone call  and who had to rely on a pay phone to make a call and who had to use a credit card to place a call.   For sure, I will never voluntarily be a mobile customer of T-mobile because of this experience.

I have written a complaint letter to T-Mobile.  I’ll let you know if they respond.  In the meantime, I hope they spend my $36 wisely, because for sure I will never be a mobile customer of theirs.

MNB user Craig Espelien wrote:

I have another customer service story to share – on a completely different product line than the Apple tirade I went on a few weeks ago.  I am a big watch fan and have been fortunate enough to satisfy my wants for timepieces with three Tag Heuer watches – two for me (a Link and a Monaco – the Steve McQueen one, very cool).  I have owned the Link for many years and have sent it in once to have it cleaned – and to have the crown replaced as it had stripped.  It cost $300 to have the crown replace – but what are you going to do?  The crown was replaced in 2007 and I have worn the watch sporadically since (I got the Monaco – and was afraid of stripping the crown again as the stainless steel insert screws into a brass receiver which is never a good choice as the softer brass will always suffer).

The crown started having problems almost immediately after I got it back – so I have been extremely cautious about screwing the crown in when I change the time and date.  Last week, the crown would not screw in anymore and I need to have it serviced.  I spoke with a friend who owns the same watch – and he has had the same problem.  I called Tag today and the first customer service agent “Lance” proceeded to let me know that the only way the crown could have stripped was if I had done something wrong – like screw it in too tight.  After an attempt to get him to understand I was not interested in placing blame but rather in finding a way to keep it from happening, he continued to want to focus on what I had done wrong.  I asked to speak with a supervisor (as my patience with poor service is not good) and he transferred me to Laura.  I would have expected, with a company like Tag Heuer, that she would have taken a different approach – but chose the same path as Lance – blame the customer first.  They checked the records and found I did have the watch serviced – but again said it was likely my fault.  I asked to speak with her boss and was put on hold twice – and Laura came back both times to tell me I would have to send the watch in.  I kept telling he I knew that – but was a bit tired of having the crown replaced when there is clearly a problem.  She elected to reinforce that it had to be my fault.

I finally got her to provide my information to her boss – Michelle – so I will see where things go.
My goodness – what happened to listening to the customer and helping solve the problem????

Another MNB user wrote:

You got to love just how much digital networks have effected customer service. Here is a great store of just that.

A friend of mine goes into a grocery  store and buys a lot of groceries, then he proceeds to the check outs. He greats and  says” hello” to the cashier, who does not reply , nor make eye contact. He then takes out his loyalty card and scans it, and IT replies back “welcome Mr. Smith”. The cashier without saying a work starts scanning his groceries, and when she done, the scanner says “ your total Mr. Smith is $79.52”. At this point my friend scans his credit card and then turns to the cashier and says,” well since you didn’t greet me, or even knowledge me, so I guess a “ thank you is out of the question”? Her reply was “NO, it’s on the bottom of your receipt”, and then went back to scanning the next customer…Wow...

MNB user Cleve Young wrote:

I recently moved to NYC from a small Western NY town. One thing you quickly realize in the city is the customer service in stores, or more accurately the severe lack of it. I understand that no one is ever going to confuse me with George Clooney, but am I really so hideous that the vast majority of store employees refuse to even make eye contact let along be willing to offer friendly help. For most stores I would much rather use an iPad to get help than even try and find or talk with an employee. And I’m very much a people oriented person who prefers talking to a human than a machine. And on those occasions when I do get someone to talk with me the majority of the time they return a blank stare, a shrug of the shoulders, and a very well trained ‘ummm…’ To be fair some employees are wonderful, friendly and very helpful; it’s just unfortunate that they are in the minority. So for a business is it really so bad to replace some of the low/non performers for whom all the training in the world is not going to improve, and then concentrate your training on the select quality employees and give both them and the customer the tools and technology to help provide even better customer service?

From MNB user David Burgess:

I’m sitting and fuming in Dulles on my way back from the Boston Seafood Show, delayed  by plane troubles.  But that is not what I am fuming about.  When I landing in Dulles I went to grab a sandwich to take on my connecting flight home only to realize that I left my noise canceling headphones and iPod in the case on the plane.  So I went back to retrieve them – about 10 to 15 minutes later.  The attendant at the gate went to retrieve them.  She radioed back to the woman working the gate that they were not there.  The woman said – pretty much verbatim – they are not there.  There is nothing we can do.  When I tried to object, she would not even look up from her screen and said, “We have another flight.  We can’t worry about that.”  It’s true that the flight from Boston was going on to Mexico, but it had not yet started to board and she had exactly one other customer there and was almost finished with him.  (He walked about just after I did.)  I could tell she did not care at all about my things.  The tone in her voice made it clear we had nothing more to talk about.  So I left to go catch my flight.  And here I sit waiting.  Here’s the thing.  Maybe one of the other passengers saw their opportunity to pick up a set of headphones, but more than likely the cleaning crew picked them up and took them wherever it is they take them.  But I’ll never know because the attendant had no interest in helping me.  I don’t have a guitar, nor can I write and sing a catchy song, so my little dilemma will never make it onto You Tube, and it’s true that I am the one who lost the headphones and iPod, not United.  But they lost something, too.  A frequent flier who will not pay another nickel for a United flight if they are the last carrier on earth.

From yet another MNB user:

I have so many interesting (I think) stories to tell I don't think you have the time or patience to hear them all.

I am not a TV junkie, but I finally decided that an extra $13 a month for HD service beyond the local channels was a luxury I could well afford and enjoy. I like ESPN; wife likes HGTV.  The kids can live without that part of their inheritance.

Calling WOW they first said they would come out and install and set up this for "only $10". I said wait a minute, I am ordering an extra service for which you are getting another $13 a month from here forward and you want me to pay $10 for installation?

For a new customer you would come out and install everything for zero!  The rep quickly said, "we'll waive that $10 fee".  I didn't even have to suggest I might switch to a competitor. The meek may inherit the earth, but they will pay $10 extra for a cable co. HD installation fee.

We had a piece yesterday about how Giant Eagle is launching a Curbside Express online ordering service, which led MNB user Bill Malloy to write:

Kevin, great story on Curbside. We have the service in our home town of Windham, Maine. It is at the Hannaford banner store. I could easily be biased, in that I work for the parent company, but hope you take my comments as genuine, as this is how I feel. My family loves the service. We organize our weekly dining menu ahead of placing the order, and find we get excellent quality and service. I happen to like my bananas on the green side, and with a comment in the order I get exactly what I want. It has been so successful, that we make sure we get our order in so we can get the pick up time we want. It is definitely a differentiator.

Agreed. I love that store, and have no problem believing that your comments are genuine.

MNB took note yesterday of a survey finding that people in their twenties are carrying average debt loads of $45,000, including educational loans, credit cards, car loans and mortgages.

One MNB user responded:

$45,000 including car loans and mortgages?  Sounds pretty low to me.

I think I actually showed my age on that one. When I was in my twenties, the only real debt I had was a college loan of a few thousand dollars on which I paid $63.86 a month for 10 years. (Amazing how some numbers stay with me...) I was driving a car that I paid a thousand dollars in cash for (I don’t remember that exact number), and I was living in a rental apartment - and making around $7,000 a year as a newspaper reporter. (And, as it happens, had met the girl of my dreams, and so was supremely happy.)

So $45,000 in debt seemed like a lot. In retrospect, maybe not so much.

Especially when reading this email from a reader:

I am 27 and my wife is 28.  We have $288,000 in debt, including Student Loads, Car Loans, Mortgages and other projects.  The assets we have accumulated equal $315,000 (Cash on hand not included).  Our Net worth is not great, but that would be due to student loans, since they have no asset attached.  It would be a more useful statement if we knew how much was free floating vs. how much was asset based.


Got the following email from an MNB user:

You said something a while back about going back to check out Fresh & Easy.  You stayed at Redondo Beach last week.  Didn't you get into one?  There are several close by including one of the new small format stores.

I actually did get into a Fresh & Easy Express store, and actually liked it a lot - more than I even like the regular Fresh & Easy stores. It seems like less space makes the format more focused ... and maybe gives Tesco less space to make mistakes, if that makes any sense.

(Sorry for not mentioning this earlier. I had written this before, but my idiot editor accidentally cut it out. Of course, I’m also the idiot editor around here...)

MNB user Judy Anton sent us the following email:

In response to the comment “Maybe In-n-Out is best served sticking to it’s West Coast roots” – I was in the Dallas area in February to visit family and had a great experience at In-N-Out.  I asked my 23 year old daughter, who lives in the Dallas area, about her impression of their customer service and this is her response (Yoshi is their dog).  “I haven’t been to the one in Las Colinas yet but we have been to the Dallas, Arlington & Frisco locations and all the employees were really nice and friendly like Larry!  Super excited to work for In-N-Out.  I love the In-N-Out customer service when we go.  We just went on Sunday and Yoshi was barking his head off at the lady taking our order (we went to the drive thru) and she still was just smiling all happy taking our order LOL.  Since their drive thru is so packed all the time they have someone standing outside taking orders instead of on the speaker.”

Another MNB user chimed in:

FYI...In-n-Out has at least 5 store if not 7 now in the Dallas area, I have been to three and have not seen any difference in quality or friendliness. What he saw might be just new store start up as they are as busy as any location in California. Plus better burger than Five Guys, especially their fries.

I wrote the other day about how Larry, an In-N-Out greeter, turned the experience there into a pleasure. Which led MNB user Chris Weisert to write:

Clearly Larry is who Larry is…Clean shirt, name tag, hat and the most important piece of dress code, the smile. You are right on target here you must find people who are happy with themselves and provide them an environment that allows them to be just that, happy.

Another MNB user wrote:

Your article on In N Out reminded me of this: SERVICE IS EVERYTHING.

Not just one thing.


I marvel that some businesses just don't get this one simple fact.  They don't need to do thousands of dollars worth of market studies.  The reason Trader Joe’s, and in some eras, Whole Foods, the natural markets, have succeeded to the point they have, is SERVICE.  which includes passion and a sincere interest in the products or business, not just the bottom line.  The bottom line will take care of itself, if SERVICE is the focus.

When a company loses that (think Starbucks, Wal Mart, and more).....they dive.  And if they don't correct it, they die. (A&P?)

I wrote the other day that I thought supermarkets ought to come up with a way to treat best customers better at checkout - that it is absurd that people buying the fewest goods get an express line.

Which led one MNB user to write:

Based on your economic status, you will naturally be able to spend more on food, buying more products and higher-priced food luxuries. A young mother or father buying food for an economically struggling family will need to carefully spend their limited resources on just the bare necessities, saving wherever possible, including buying the cheaper generic products. Why do you think you should get better…quicker service than the struggling family? Just curious.

I’m sure that you meant, people of equal means, each buying different quantities from the same store…the one spending the most should get preferred treatment. I also would be in favor of that…but, you know it will be turned into a class thing.

Of course I was talking about people buying different quantities from the same store ... my contention is that every store ought to treat its best customers better than occasional customers. To use a phrase Michael Sansolo is fond of, cherry buyers ought to be treated better than cherry pickers.

From another MNB user:

Several years ago I was in a short line reserved for higher level frequent flyers checking in for a flight.  The long line for the general public snaked around and one resentful man in that line started loudly berating me, calling me a privileged person who thought I was better than anyone else etc etc.  It was an comfortable situation.  I finally told him that this benefit was offered by the airline to reward their best customers who spend a lot of money with them and that if he had a problem with that he should take it up with the airline, not me.

After leaving my day job, and with the hassles post 911, I do not travel by air very much so now I too am in the long lines with the less privileged.  I don't resent the fact that the frequent flyers get that perk, but I can see that issue developing in a retail setting.

I view the express lanes from a different perspective.  Many of the people with a few items may be very good customers - a ten minute wait when you are buying $100 worth of groceries is more tolerable than if you are buying $15 worth of groceries.

And, from yet another MNB user:

Lines for the customers with the most in their carts, not the least. I like this idea, to further elaborate, man them with your friendliest, fastest checkers. Make sure these lines are open first or always when lines start to back up. If more than 4 or 5 people are waiting in line either open another line or offer the customers standing in line a product sample. Make grocery shopping, if not a fun experience, at least not an unpleasant chore that could be replaced with on-line shopping and either pick-up or delivery.
KC's View: