business news in context, analysis with attitude

Reacting to Amazon's plan to create a pay tier for its Alexa smart speaker system, one MNB reader wrote:

Our main household use for Alexa is to control lights, heat, and A/C.  If they start charging for it, we will stop using it.  There are many other platforms available for home control that do not cost.  Simply asking the score to game is just as fast by using voice assist on my phone.  Just like Netflix sharing, this sounds like a half baked plan.  Could do more harm for consumer loyalty than they expect.  It will be interesting to see the fine details of the plan as they emerge.

On another subject, one MNB reader wrote:

On Sam's using AI to check out orders at exit will this get customers out the door faster or bring the exit line to a screeching halt when the system has an issue or challenges an baskets' contents. Now if Sam's copies Costco on using kiosks when checking in and most customers use the self checkout (rarely are more than two checkouts manned by associates) you can complete the entire shopping experience without interacting with any store associates. except for the individual trying to get you to sign up for a wireless phone program.

Got the following reaction to my anecdote about how, some 30 years ago, an Ahold senior executive seemed ignorant and/or insensitive to local priorities:

As a 35+ years Bills fan who practices Change Management in the grocery industry – I was hooked on your FaceTime today. Such a valuable lesson to consider, a mini-lesson in local culture awareness and the importance of empathy and perspective taking in our professional lives. Not only were those folks upset (understandably for passionate sports fans, given the situation), they were also likely less engaged and less effective in that meeting than they might have been with some consideration for what was happening. And, further, a lesson in both situation and point in time. A regular season game likely would not have caused quite the same impact.

Reacting to my commentary about the 40th anniversary of the first Macintosh computer, MNB reader Robert Wheatley wrote:

Great post Kevin. In 1984 Apple created an achievement called Graphical User Interface. The point-and-click intuitive ease to navigate and create. Apple’s greatest achievement, in a sense, was Jobs understanding of his audience and nth meaning of what Mac represented. Along with their partners at ad agency Chiat Day they created the most powerful TV ad ever produced and brought to life an idea that anyone could change the world. Their machine was presented as an enabler of creativity and expression. So many businesses think because they work so hard on their technical achievements that you must lead your marketing with that work. Look at us. See what we’ve done. People don’t buy technology, they don’t care even about a Graphical User Interface. They do, however, respond to inspiration, emotion and ideas centered on them. That was Apple’s great move on the chessboard – focus on people, what they can do, your brand as enabler and guide, not features of your recipe, technology or process. Like you I’ve been an Apple fan since day one.

Got the following email from MNB reader Steve Anvik about my coverage of the food safety issues that enveloped Stew Leonard's:

In 50 years in food, with 35 in Bakery – Retail Ops, Production, Manufacturing Sales/Broker, Category Merchant & Director – I can see (always feared) how the process can crumble.  Of course, the first worst thing is the loss of an innocent life.  We discuss only to learn from our past, really to reduce the chance of repeating it. And we litigate to enforce the lesson(s) to be learned” 

Of the literally billions of food purchases in the U.S. annually, this severity is not common.  It is due to specific processes.  By design that process is rigid, but those processes often can become siloed.  How can a middle manager, from these organizations - under enormous time pressure, know 100% of all details in the end-to-end process?  They do … 99.9999% of the time.”

I agree it’s abominable to add 1 of the worst food allergens to the food chain, and worse to not inspect what one expects, from a notification.  One missed email Cc or notifying department 1- step removed from food safety. Or retailer potentially handing off an out-of-process notification, to another person 1-step removed from food safety training, to ‘simply’ update a scale label …

Many lives will be wrecked in this sad story.  It was my most recurring nightmare in all my years, in similar positions of responsibility.  There but for the grace of God, goes many of us.  My prayer and hope is that the benefits of everyone applying the learnings from this tragic event, will be one positive blessing to come out ultimately, to avoid future tragedies.

MNB reader Tom Thomas chimed in:

I think we need to review the content of the advisory email from Cookies United to Stew Leonard’s regarding the change. The decision to add peanuts, a known allergen, was made and the email should have stated the effective date of that change. Subsequent contact should have been initiated to ensure follow through was implemented before the change in ingredients was initiated.

Your comments were spot on; a procedure to ensure the emails were received and acted on by the recipient(s) should be in place on both ends by both parties…..especially with lives potentially at stake.

MNB reader Mike Carter wrote:

Thanks for your report on the food safety issue at SL. I wanted to add some comments on the difficulty of getting both food manufacturers and food preparers (restaurants) to comply for the safety of their customers. I will use the example of sesame, which my daughter is allergic too.

There are many nuts she is allergic too, but the most severe reactions she gets is to sesame. This has been a problem all her life as this is an ingredient that rarely was on any warning labels and menus. She does carry an EpiPen. After many years of consumer lobbying it was added was added as the ninth major food allergen when the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act became effective on Jan. 1, 2023. This means that sesame is now required to be listed on food labels as a major allergen.

It is reported that many manufacturers have complied with the new rules from the FDA. However several major companies decided it was too expensive to exclude sesame from potential cross contamination, so they added sesame as an ingredient and labeled it such. Not the intended behavior the FDA was looking for. Chick-Fil-a, Wendy's, and Olive Garden are examples.

Just last week our family tried a new restaurant in our neighborhood. When the burger came, it was covered in sesame seeds. I politely told the waiter she would have to order something else and that but they should declare the sesame on the menu. He said they had allergy training a few weeks earlier and sesame was never mentioned.

To your point, a lot more attention to detail is needed by many on this topic, to save lives.

MNB reader John Couch wrote:

As a person who champions full transparency, how about you advocating for packaging that declares manufactured by rather than allowing distributed by. I would prefer to know who made the product than who hauled it from the warehouse to the store. Even more transparent would be cobranding as Costco has sometimes employed. 

Ironically, one MNB reader had the following observation about Costco's move to be more transparent about how it prices services:

In regards to this article, I'd love to see Costco be more transparent with their online pricing of food, for home delivery.  If you use Kroger or Walmart for home delivery, their in-store pricing is the same for home delivery.  When you build an order on for home delivery, it does not reflect in-store pricing, and in fact, the only way you know the in-store price is to be standing in front of an item, in the store.  The games Costco plays with this is very frustrating, especially since their main grocery competitors don't play this game.  Costco should be better than this.

Responding to my criticisms of CVS's ability to be a real and effective player in the healthcare business, MNB reader Barbara Watters wrote:

I'm in an interesting group of humans who rarely get sick.  Last time I saw a doctor for anything significant was well over 20 years ago.  I don't even have a primary care provider.  But I did find myself in a CVS MinuteClinic while I was out of town for a wedding when I realized I had pink eye!   Ugh.  I made an appointment within 30 minutes and was seen instantly upon check in.  The attendant (I think she was an RN) took all my vitals and a brief medical history before prescribing the necessary eye drops.  It was a pleasant and efficient process and somewhere I would go again for the rare occasion I need "simple" medical care.

And from another reader:

I was tempted recently to move my prescriptions from Walgreens to Amazon – but then the pharmacist called me yesterday to see if I was okay with the new prescription. ‘How was I feeling?’ ‘Any side effect?’ ‘Anything else that I can do for you?’ I said I was fine and hung up with a smile.

This was a conversation with a real person – and that has some value to me. I don’t go into the store if I can help it, but it’s right down the street from me and shares a parking lot with Whole Foods so it’s convenient as well.  Chalk one up for humans.

But another MNB reader agreed with me:

 Regarding CVS, the one thing that no one ever talks about, but which I find both horrible and problematic to the image of a healthcare provider?  The freakin’ carpet in the stores.  It just screams “dirt and filth” and yet they continue to use it, even in their new locations (including one within walking distance from my house).  Call me crazy, but between the labor shortage and the empty shelves, the drug channel is a dumpster fire these days

This email goes into the sometimes-things-don't-work file:

Regarding self-checkout, retailers investing in the equipment anticipate lowering labor dollars among other benefits.  This past weekend my girlfriend and I went to visit her Mother in the nursing home.  The facility is located in a small rural Missouri town with limited retail options.  There is a DG Fresh store a block from the facility, so we often stop there to pick up various items for her Mom. 

The store is clean, kept, and a vast improvement over the DG traditional retail store where I live, complete with four self-checkout lanes and only two traditional checkout lanes.  With only one cashier working the registers and a long line, we opted for self-checkout.  We both use self-checkout all the time, so we started the order.  Everything worked to plan until we attempted to weigh and scan (with the handheld) the PLU code for the four bananas in our order.  The retailer had a page of printed out PLU codes on a sheet of paper, complete with pictures of the items, inside a see-thru folder.  The handheld would not pick up the PLU code.  We flattened it, smoothed it out, tried every trick, and it would not pick it up.  Out of desperation, we folded the sheet and attempted to scan the PLU code in the traditional manner, only to have the system pick up the PLU codes for bananas, broccoli, and cauliflower.

As a result, we needed assistance so we chose that option from the screen.  Tick, tock.  The casher had to wait for his customers to be checked out before he could come over, only to say he needed the manager to come and void the broccoli and cauliflower.  He proceeded to walk the store apparently in a search for the manager.  Eventually, his search took him outside the store (it was below freezing this particular day), where the manager was located (obviously on a smoke break) to come and assist. 

Investments in technology are great in theory, but in this case improvements are needed.  In this example, should DG consider selling bananas, or random weight produce, or bundled with a scannable PLU?  I don’t have the answer, but the efficiency of self-checkout for us as consumers evolved into a ten minute event. I am nearing 60 years old, with over 40 years in the industry KC; but this real life example left me shaking my head.    

Also regarding self-checkout, MNB reader Patrick Smith wrote: 

I would be one of the customers who do not like to use self-checkouts and readily admit that it may be generational. But, my comment deserves some context. I have three traditional grocers where I occasionally shop. Kroger and Safeway use digital coupons that offer occasional challenges for the consumer due to not being properly loaded, or very difficult to find in their app. Also either key in, or scanning their your loyalty cards. If there are these kinds of issues at a checkstand a traditional checker can usually help with this. Both of these chains have their self-checkouts permanently manned and the person assigned is almost always  helping customers. During busy shopping hours customers can occasionally be seen waiting for help while the clerk is busy with another customer. On the other hand WinCo is a straight forward process. No gimmicks and no steps except to simply scan and go. I have yet see an employee assigned to self-checkout area actually helping a customer. I will use them at WinCo, but a definite no at Kroger or Safeway-Albertsons.

Regarding the economy and inflation, one MNB reader wrote:

I truly believe that we will see prices on commodity items come down further in 2024 or level off from any current declines, barring any unforeseen natural disasters or other factors.  I do not see pricing on center of store products moving down as the new “norm” is pricing is now established.  Penalties like price protection from retailers come at a very high price and many companies simply will not be able to invest in this strategy.  I believe many of the large retailers are less interested in making money selling groceries and more interested in higher returns like selling data, non-grocery items and services. 

This email touches on some of the claims being made about the advantages of a Kroger-Albertsons merger:

So this is a bit off topic but my wife was just going thru the sale items online for in this case Safeway. She finds not just Safeway but Kroger “savings programs” to be highly frustrating. The conditions and qualifications put out to get the “deals” is getting more and more difficult/confusing. We are digitally adept if you will, but the skeptic in me thinks this is probably by design.

It might be worth a look for a future topic across a broader base to see if it is an industry standard now in place. Between slotting, add fees, etc, it seems they make more on the buy than sell.

I've been doing this for almost 40 years.  From pretty much the day I started, the observation by people smarter than I has been that many retailers have been making more money from various fees and promotions than by actually selling product.

Regarding Amazon's decision to include commercials in Prime Video programming, one MNB reader wrote:

I watched my first movie since this change and cursed at the screen through every commercial.  Paying extra to lose something I didn’t want to begin with is not sitting very well.

And guess what – Walmart+ is cheaper, faster, and more reliable that Amazon has been recently. It’s feeling more and more like I can live without Prime.

We've had a number of stories about how streaming services are using proprietary event programming as their version of private label, to increase subscriptions and revenue.

As one MNB reader observed:

So MLS (Major League Soccer) struck up a 10 year exclusive deal with Apple last year.  To watch all MLS games you have to be a subscriber to MLS Season Pass.  The subscriptions are $14.99 per month.  However, IF you are a season ticket holder for one of the teams (we are for the LA Galaxy), you get a free 1 year subscription.  

Although I have a MAC and an iPhone where I can watch the games, to watch on a regular television, we had to buy an Apple TV unit to watch on our “not so smart” TV.  Of course, now I have a subscription to Apple TV +, so I guess they got me!

From another reader:

The elephant in the room on streaming vs. not: every month I get this monolithic bill from Xfinity for cable TV services. When I receive this thing my heart races, my blood pressure escalates as I’m reminded once again I’m paying for 500 channels of which I might be interested in six or seven. Lighter packages from Xfinity don’t really make much difference. Streaming services are vastly less expensive. Some are free of ads or you can opt for a version that is. The picture quality is improved. The sound is better. And the pocketbook impact is decidedly less offensive for programming that is wanted and mostly superior to what’s available on the mainstream networks save some live NFL playoff games. When the balance of power and economic value shifts, the world goes with it. Thus the distributors of mainstream TV play a role in bringing down the house. As local channels become available through streaming, as you can opt to do through Hulu, the end draws ever closer. I for one am thankful and so is the household budget. Spending less for more is always a winning concept.

Regarding the decision to allow one NFL playoff game to only be shown on the Peacock streaming service, MNB reader Steve Burbridge wrote:

I was a little miffed about the choice, but understand the economics and the desire by NBC/Peacock to monetize the playoffs and sell the advertising.  But, I wonder what the retention rate will be.  I heard many stories from listening to sports radio about buying a subscription and cancelling the next morning.  Of those who keep their subs, how much of that is simply forgetting to cancel?

Also, there were many issues with streaming according to what I saw on X and other boards. 

Lastly, the choice of phraseology of the person suggesting the topic was interesting; Peacock streaming causing "feathers (to be) ruffled..."   Very well done.

From MNB reader Rex Lieurance:

I want to comment on the football game on Peacock complaints.  Amazon has been "streaming" the Thursday Night games all season and it's apparently no big deal.  Streaming is the way we're headed so I guess we just need to get used to it.

Another MNB reader wrote:

Glad you weighed in . Sadly, I think your comments are a Gretzky observation. Skating to where the puck is going. 

But allow the everyday fans a chance to vent. I have been a season ticket holder of an NFL team since 1976. Have supported them every step of the way. Blessed with a great owner. But most owners seek hundreds of millions from cities and states to build/upgrade stadiums. Then take $ from deals such as Peacock on top of that. And raise ticket prices. In the end it is  all about the money as you say. Still, everyday fans deserve a Howard Beale moment. 

On another subject, from MNB reader Benjamin Brill:

I found an interest resonance between today’s commentary on Kroger’s estimation of the subject, “What Customers Want,” extolling Smart Carts and Digital Screens, and your commentary a few days ago warning of third-party advertising platforms souring those same solutions.  There is a conflict there, hinging exactly on “What Customers Want,” and that inconsistency prompted me to think about this 84.51 study: does it actually describe what it advertises?

The blurb under the “Future Experience” notes that almost a third of respondents had NO interest in any of “the grocery innovation options listed,” which gives away the trick.  This is not a measure of What Customers Want, but “What Do Customers Think of These Choices We Gave Them?” Given the setup, one can imagine a large number of interviewees saying Yes to any number of “innovation options” they’d never before “Wanted” or even considered.

(I do agree with you that some technology is soon to supersede Self Checkout Stations, but yoking it to a Media Platform that sells out your customer while they shop, is going to hinder acceptance.)

It seems like a month ago that I reported on NFL head coaches losing their jobs, but I did want to post this email from an MNB reader:

As a long time Seahawks fan I agree that it’s time for a change, but I will greatly miss Carroll’s positive attitude and energy on the sidelines.  I will never forget how fun it was to attend the games, especially during the winning years where the fans were deafening and the Legion of Boom was in full bloom.  He’s going to be hard to replace on the sideline and in our hearts.  Good luck Pete!

Love this email, which speaks to a bygone business model:

Back in the 70’s in Albuquerque NM, my brother and I had a ‘69 Ford Econoline van outfitted with a propane oven and a cold table with all of the pizza toppings.

We advertised on Dialing For Dollars. Of course there weren’t any cell phones so we would call the restaurant from a pay phone to get our orders.  We drove to the home and made and cooked the pizza right there. We used pre-made crusts which helped to speed things up. And we also made great subs!  Business was good.

Our most profitable nights were of course Friday and Saturday when we would park at the UNM dorms and students lined up down the block.  We had a great time! To be young again making new friends face to face – not tethered to a phone or computer….

I'd just like to be young again.

MNB reader Phil Smith wrote this about Walmart's plan to award stock to store managers:

I could not agree more that giving stock creates a sense of ownership. Sam Walton said this was the single most important thing he ever did. Winco does the same thing to ALL employees, look at their performance. Other retailers could equally benefit doing the same. 

Reacting to the conversation that Michael Sansolo and I had about the New York Times and the book about its efforts to adapt to the digital age, MNB reader Glenn Cantor wrote:

I will have to read the new book about the NY Times.  I subscribe to the NY Times digitally and read it almost every day.  Their news coverage is global and their supposed liberal disposition is easily discerned.  One of the best things they do is inform the reader, at the click for each article about how long it will take to read each article.

The New York Times is an important part of my life.  I read it online every day, both for work and pleasure.  Mrs. Content Guy still prefers the dead-tree version, so we get it delivered every day.  And the games have become a huge attraction - we play Wordle, Connections and the Mini Crossword everyday.  It is the best.

Finally, I got a number of emails about my video talking about the thank you note I received from the nurse who supervised my care right after surgery.

MNB reader Gary Harris (who, for the purposes of this email, needs to be identified as being from Wegmans) wrote:

Great example of the importance of that personal relationship created on the sales floor (or hospital room).

I remember going to our Nazareth, PA store several years ago to deliver a training session. I stopped by the coffee bar to grab a cup before heading to the conference room; really friendly staff on hand, but they were obviously busy working on something. When I inquired what was going on, they mentioned one of their regular customers was due in a few minutes and it was his birthday. Sure enough he shows up a few minutes later and these folks greet him profusely, give him his coffee and a cupcake with a candle in it and sing Happy Birthday to him. The guy was floored, and so was I.

It really doesn’t take a huge effort to make a great impression, but we so often miss the opportunities put in front of us every day. It helps when the bosses and the company culture encourage this kind of behavior, but we need to slow down, listen to our customers, and take those opportunities when they come our way. Carpe diem.

MNB reader Rich Heiland wrote:

Years ago Tom Peters wrote in one of his books that writing thank-you notes was one of the most important business actions a person could take. He said he did it religiously. I filed it away, tried it for a while then drifted. I had the opportunity to work with him on something and once when I was in the Palo Alto area I dropped into his office to leave him a book I thought he would like. He was with someone and I was on a tight schedule so couldn't wait. I left the book, and left.

Two months later I get this envelope. I open it and inside is a sheet of bedside note pad paper from a Holiday Inn. On it was scrawled "Rich, sorry I missed you. Loved the book. Hope our paths cross again." I was floored. First, this was when he was "the guy" and I could see him lying in bed, late at night in some Holiday Inn writing a thank you to me. Second, I realized that this was a guy who modeled what he wrote.

Since then I have been faithful about thank-yous, if not on paper at least by email - anything to tell someone I appreciated our relationship or interaction.

And, from MNB reader Eric Williams:

I listened to your piece today and I needed to comment on your Facetime piece this morning regarding the handwritten note from the hospital.

Since I'm about the same age as you, I know that you also get a colonoscopy about every three years.  I have done this religiously since I was around 50. That means I have had 5 or 6 of them in the past 15 years.  I too received a custom note from the medical facility for the first time this past month. It was signed by the 4 nurses on staff that day and had a small note from the primary nurse that was involved with my short stay. Like you, I had never received a note from a hospital thanking me for choosing them for my colonoscopy. I was so amazed that I looked up the CEO of the hospital and sent a note back to them thanking the CEO of the hospital for the effort that their team did and specifically how amazed I was to get a thank you note. 

I have told this story to a number of people who had the same thoughts as me…. The hospital did what!!! 

People need to realize how a simple act like this can mean so much.  Just for your edification it happened to be HCA which is one of the largest health care services in the country and not one that I would have put on the top of the list to be sending this type of information to their patients.

Eric, you have inspired me.  I hadn't thought to do it, but I am going to drop a note to the hospital CEO.  Today.