business news in context, analysis with attitude

A great email from MNB reader John Rand:

So I love the well-worn argument about retailers imposing fees on suppliers for supply issues. There is nothing like shooting your trade partners when you are engaged in a multi-front war for their marketing dollars, consumer drawing power, and struggling to retain consumers who are increasingly finding the entire traditional supply chain to be irrelevant.

But the inventory process begins and ends with accurate and effective stock management at the store. I cannot believe I am not more understanding and aware of the potential difficulties in running a store well, after literally fifty years of being engaged in the retail food business. I tend to cut them some slack, after all, I know the issues.

But boy, speaking entirely as a consumer, I truly to want to scream at someone now and then.

Take my most recent irritation from my local Stop & Shop (Ahold- Delhaize). They put something on sale, something we buy and use a lot of in my family – a certain flavor and brand of coffee. It was a BOGO – which runs periodically but predictably from two chains in the area (Golub’s Price Chopper being the other)  and we always stock up. A lot. Like dozens of units.

I have at least three Stop & Shops within a short drive – one in my town and one in each town on either side. On the first day of the sale I visited all three stores. Total available stock amongst three stores: four bags of coffee. No end caps, no bins, no aisle stacks, just empty shelves. I got rain checks.

I repeated this three times in the course of the week. (I know , this was silly, but we drink a LOT of coffee, and I am a Baby Boomer who is both personally and professionally trained to see stores as my first source of supply).  Net result: four more bags, and a fistful of rainchecks.

I interacted with store employees both in the aisles and at the customer service desk. I offered to purchase entire cases but they  claimed they had no mechanism to deal with that (which is surprising to say the least). I would say two out of three encounters  in each store I got a wholly untrained person who knew nothing, couldn’t tell me when a truck might deliver, couldn’t be bothered to look out back to see if there was more stock. In one store the front end manager tried to reach someone in the  grocery department by calling for a response over the store intercom – nice try, we waited together for 10 minutes and no one even responded. (for context, this is a store that does at least 500K a week, probably employs a couple of  hundred people, mostly part time, and has been a fixture in the area for at least 20 years.)

That was late August.  I have been back to try and redeem my rainchecks. They have never (not ONCE) been in sufficient stock. The maximum raincheck is 10 units – I have redeemed four units, which for me is less than two weeks of coffee, in almost 12 weeks of trying. They even advertised the item for sale AGAIN in that period – and never had a unit on the shelf.

I wanted to give them my business, I really did. But at some point, that level of store incompetence has nothing to do with suppliers, supply chains, warehouses, ordering systems, databases, or trucking – that is a people failure, a total breakdown in competency.

Hey Alexa: Order me a case of coffee!!

Ands retailers wonder why Amazon is able to hit them hard and consistently and effectively.

Got the following email about Chobani’s new label from MNB reader Bernie Trueblood:

… shades of Coke Classic. Yikes! Next week millions of shoppers will be looking for their favorite “greek yogurt” and won’t be able to find it! Talk about a classic case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Can’t wait to see how this unfolds.

Regarding the problem that Chock Full o’Nuts coffee is facing outside New York City - people think it actually has nuts in it - MNB reader Jackie Lembke wrote:

If you had asked me without specifying that it is coffee, I would have told you it was a candy bar. AND yes, I live west of the Mississippi River.

We wrote the other day about a revival in mail order catalogs, which prompted MNB reader John James Toner, V to write:

What I do find interesting is the catalogs that are coming around about a specific item, and a specific brand and how well done they are - not the old JC Penny catalogs, or even the Cabelas catalog - but well done "magazine" style from luggage company Away, or glass maker Warby Parker.  The paper stock is significantly nicer too.  Does it make me buy more luggage? probably not but I do love my suitcase - something I have never said before.

Regarding the new Starbucks holiday cup, the ongoing controversy about its holiday cup designs (which I pronounced to be dumb and only promoted by people looking for a fight), one MNB reader wrote:

I had my morning coffee yesterday in the previous design and then again this morning in the latest design (The heart ...) 

The question I had to ask was, "Was there a difference?" No.

The Starbucks Christmas Blend tasted great. Does the cup matter? No. But does the coffee matter? Yup!

In honor of the intent of the new design, to wish someone well by writing their name in the hear, I'll write yours in today.

Wow. I’m touched.

On another subject, from another reader:

Your comment about hearing Christmas music at the dentist made me laugh out loud.    As a store director, I made many errors along the way but one of the worst mistakes I ever made had to do with Christmas music.   The store was struggling to make a profit and I was trying like crazy to cut expenses anywhere and everywhere I could.   Back then, Muzak would charge you every time you changed your music format over the course of a year.   One year, I had a Muzak repairman in my store on November 2 and as a part of the work he was doing he offered to switch over our music to Christmas music while he was there----at no charge.

It sounded like a cost-savings move to me, so I happily agreed.   As soon as the programming change went into effect, I immediately heard a howl from my employees unlike anything that I had ever heard before.   It didn’t even matter what our customers thought about it … our productivity was going to come to a screeching halt if I didn’t change the music back RIGHT NOW.    My genius move ended up costing me more because I immediately had to make another service call to Muzak on November 4th, as well as changing to Christmas music again on Black Friday.   So much for thinking that it wasn’t a big deal.

On the same subject, from another reader:

Couldn't agree more KC, wouldn't bother me one bit if Christmas was every other year, I can't stand how commercial it's become!

Regarding Alibaba’s moves, discussed in yesterday’s Innovation Conversation, MNB reader Glenn Cantor wrote:

It is interesting that one of the reasons that Alibaba invested in a physical chain is to enhance the customized shopping experiences of their customers.  Nearly everyone in the US still shops at physical stores for something, because most people like to venture out of their homes.  They may complain about specific experiences, but not necessarily about the idea of going out, somewhere.  We all gravitate to retailers that make us feel special.

When I think about good personalized, physical retail shopping experiences, I think about the small businesses at which the owners or workers know me.  For example, I am friends with Mike at my local cigar shop.  He knows what I like, directs me to those products, and even gives me the opportunity to sit and enjoy a cigar.  Wegmans does this in a different way, by having many different things, at different parts of the day, that I like.  I can also sit and enjoy my purchase.  The solution, then, would be to customize that big chain shopping experience by making  the store smaller for each loyal customer.  Digitally point me to what I like, and give me special, unique offers customized to my preferences.   Bring the small business experience into the chain model.

Regarding Albertsons’ new e-commerce initiatives, which seem to be a matter of getting religion a little bit late, from a reader who seems to have inside knowledge:

It wasn’t that long ago that they said they would hit 100 Billion in annual sales by 2020, which won't happen unless they could buy a company with the scale of a Publix, for example.  And last I checked they were 560 million in the red for the first 6 months of this fiscal year. 

They have no idea how bad morale is in our understaffed stores, with no training programs to develop new management.  And customers are furious because they can't get checked out in a reasonable amount of time, especially when they are paying more money for the privilege.

It's embarrassing to me, and if I sound disillusioned I probably am, but like my fellow associates still come in every shift and work very hard. Thanks for letting me vent!

I just hope that my readers in Albertsons’ upper management is paying attention. They should care. Deeply.
KC's View: