Archive for 'Observations'

Hall of Mental Cultivation

may-july2011 293Translating a pertinent phrase from one language to another is always accompanied by challenges! This sign I saw in the forbidden city in Bejing a few years back though, is one of the better examples and has left a lasting impression with me. “Hall of Mental Cultivation” has a beautiful ring to it. ‘Hall’ – not room or closet or corner but ‘hall’, which immediately conjures up for me a wide and roomy space, yet defined because a ‘hall’ provides warmth and comfort. ‘Cultivation’ takes me down the process road as opposed to the ‘want it now’ attitude, and as a former nurseryman I can relate to ‘cultivation’ just like any fruit or vegetable grower. ‘Cultivation’ talks of effort, of skill and of patience. None of that instant gratification nonsense we are exposed to so often these days.  We could all probably do with at least a virtual version of our very own Hall of Mental Cultivation to keep us on the straight and narrow as the pace of change and the speed at which business is conducted is increasing.

The high cost of low prices

A few weeks ago we had the PMA Australia New Zealand Fresh Connections Conference here is Auckland. An all-round success in terms of attendance.  One of the industry stalwarts I bumped into there was Lex Wilcox, retired potato and onion grower/packer/shipper from Pukekohe and one of the brains behind the success of AS Wilcox Ltd in his day.  Lex has earned his retirement through decades of hard work for his company, the Pukekohe Vegetable Growers Association and the Vegetable & Potato Growers Federation, one of the predecessors of Horticulture New Zealand.

Catching up with Lex reminded me that he had sent me a 2006 article from the Sunday Start Times recently, entitled, “The high cost of low prices”, together with a philosophical statement by John Ruskin on the common law of business balance. Ruskin’s authorship of this ‘law’ can not be verified.  The one sentence version is “There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey”.

Lex sent the article in response to my blog entry on “Supermarkets, Growers and Food Prices” which introduced an earlier Guardian article on the topic.  Long before the supermarket bread war kicked off last weekend.  Lex’s article makes interesting reading – as does the longer version of the Ruskin quote.

It is an interesting social dilemma that is being played out.  Supermarkets compete for market share on the basis of product/price specials. Nothing wrong with that.  Consumers have come to expect ‘hot deals’ every week.  And they’d better be good or they vote with their feet.  Should suppliers contribute to supermarkets lowering their retail prices to attract more shoppers through their door? I don’t see why not, as long as the consultation process is alive and well, suppliers are not expected to produce loss leaders on a scale that threatens the viability of their overall business and when accompanied with a ‘give and take’ attitude.

These bread wars are not the last product/price action we have seen.  The game is changing. Online shopping is gaining favour with consumers globally.  Brick and mortar investments into new stores are getting harder to justify and being caught in the middle is not a pleasant experience any longer.  Tesco is the perfect example right now.

TURDUCKEN ANYONE?

Turducken Source: wikipedia

Turducken
Source: wikipedia

December, 25th, 2013

This is a Christmas story of a different kind. As you read on, you may well think that I have lost the plot altogether, you may wonder where the Christmas connection  takes us, but rest assured there is a Christmas aspect to this story, one that reaches beyond the Christmas Day we are celebrating today in 2013. I watched the news last night and in addition to the guts and glory coverage that television news is all about these days there was a human interest story related to Christmas that that caught my attention. The central theme of the news item was a unique Christmas roast that few people had heard of, that was in increasing demand and had its origins in the Middle Ages.  The roast is called a Turducken, which is a chicken, complete with stuffing, stuffed into a duck and the duck then stuffed into a turkey. The news item featured a Farro Fresh Market and one of its founders was being interviewed about the Turducken phenomenon. A fascinating food story, told in an innovative fresh food retail environment. What a fantastic marketing opportunity.

Cut. Change of Scenery.

In 1996 I rejoined Progressive Enterprises, then owner of Foodtown, Countdown and Three Guys supermarkets and itself owned by Foodland (FAL) , then  a grocery co-operative in Perth, Western Australia. The management team was given three core objectives by the owners. Firstly, streamline the merchandise and operations departments run separately hitherto, into one effective system; secondly, develop the food retail concept of the future; thirdly, improve operating profits. By 1998, the first objective had been achieved. The category management and buying teams had been combined and the operations management structure had been merged into one. A new meal solution concept had also been established and it was being “road tested” at Foodtown Meadowbank. This concept reduced emphasis on selling ingredients and meal components and focused instead on providing shoppers with complete meal solutions depending upon the time they visited the store. An entire kitchen team inclusive of an executive chef was based at the store. The third objective, improving margins, proved a little more difficult.  Restructuring does take time and costs money.  The fact that the Foodtown and Countdown IT platforms were incompatible and needed to be reconstructed from the ground up did not help either.  Nor was margin growth assisted by the fact that the Countdown merchandise sales management & reporting process was a store by store affair which caused major difficulties in understanding category profitability across the group.

In early 1998 FAL lost patience with its New Zealand division – which they did not understand at the best of times.  To put this statement into perspective…Perth based FAL in the nineties was akin to a bunch Four Square grocers having come together and with Progressive they had a tiger by the tail.  The FAL owners understood the grocery business very well…but grocers are not necessarily known for their innovation and strategic foresight when it comes to fundamentally reinventing themselves. And having paid top dollar for Progressive when they bought the chain from the then Coles Myer a few years earlier, they wanted to see a return on investment.

Source: www.allposters.com/

Source: www.allposters.com

Graeme Kelly, the CEO they had only hired a couple of years early was sent packing and after a short intermezzo by Barry Alty, a Kiwi grocer turned Perth based Aussie, FAL recruited Ted van Arkel, a Kiwi based grocer of Dutch heritage as Alty’s deputy and eventual successor.

Ted was a grocer from way back, Woolworths trained, who knew the grocery business upside down, back to front and left to right.  The Meadowbank innovation was initially parked for review and then quietly abandoned. The stores were refocused on the core grocery business, integration of operating systems was further strengthened and the bottom line started to show the improvements the owners in far away Perth were expecting.

Cut. Change of Scenery.

I am a father of three adult children these days.  Doesn’t time fly. My daughter works for a global market research company in Frankfurt, Germany.  My older son is both a history teacher and New Zealand naval officer (don’t ask…it’s complicated). My younger son has just finished a Bachelor of Design and Visual Arts (Photography) degree at Unitec and will hopefully find his fulfillment as an artist.

Earlier this year he started talking about Unitec wanting to essentially make the entire design faculty redundant. He was concerned about that, both from his perspective as well as from that of the affected staff.  Naturally, once these plans were made known to the lecturers, they were no longer entirely focused on the learning needs of their students. Unitec’s position was that the Faculty and the courses it offered needed to be realigned with the core focus of Unitec as a technical tertiary institution.   Reading between the lines….someone clearly thought that there was too much art going on and that the place needed to concentrate on churning out craftsmen instead of artists.

Staff got their redundancy notices on the day the students opened  their end of year exhibition – where they could have benefited from the support of focused staff.  Instead, the staff involved the students in black armband protests and other forms of “passive resistance”. It was not good to observe what was going on.

I had not fully tuned in when my son started talking about the demise of his Faculty.  Partly because I was busy with other things and partly because I knew that by the time these changes were due to take place in 2014, he would have graduated and be on his way.  So it was not until a couple of weeks ago that I went to the Unitec website to check on the composition of the Unitec Council. Interesting.

Cut. Change of  Scenery

Christmas is the time for reflection. When I reflect about how my shopping behaviour has changed in the last three years, I realise that I spend quite a bit of my time, and more importantly money, at Farro Fresh Markets.  They sell the food I enjoy eating. Their stores offer a mix between grocery retailing and retail theatre that I don’t find in the traditional Countdown, New World or Pak’ n Save outlets.  They sell decent Spanish and French wines for a fraction of the price one has to pay for local Pinot Noir.  Their cheese selection is a shoppers’ magnet. A Farro Fresh Market is not necessarily exactly what the 1996 Progressive team  had envisaged…but Farro is the closest to the retail concept Progressive had in mind back then…and their opportunity came when Progressive consigned anything other than the expert grocery model to the ‘too hard’ basket.

What are the big learnings here for me?

  • Horses for courses.
  • Timing is everything.
  • There is a difference between a supermarket and a Design School.
  • The consumers’ food procurement model is changing at a rapid pace.
  • The shopping model I grew up with does not  meet the needs of today’s consumers.
  • Thank God for options, choice and innovation.

The clock will tick over soon. 2013  becomes history and the fledgling 2014 will spread its wings. Let’s hope we can learn from past mistakes and avoid repeating them.

And the practice of stuffing birds within birds and serving them fried or baked at table seems to date  back way beyond the Middle Ages, right down to the Romans and their famous banquets.

 

We Would Not Want The Truth Get In The Way Of A Good Story

As I mentioned in blog entry “The Grocery Fullfilment Conundrum”, there was a second element in that NZ Herald article  of 3 August 2013 which caught my eye. Here is the offending paragraph…”Our survey showed some fresh fruit and vegetables were cheaper at Countdown than at an independent fruit shop but Fox said they would likely not last as long. She said the best place for fruit and veg was a Saturday morning market. There, people could buy in bulk and it would be fresher and better quality.”

There is absolutely no denial that visiting  markets is a very popular Saturday morning pastime for many city dwellers the world over. And if the image displayed in this blog is anything to go by, then we need to get used to Farmers Markets not being a passing phenomenon. They are here to stay alright. (The image is the back cover of the NZ Herald’s most recent weekend magazine and it is actually an advertisement for a radio station.Farmers market image) But none of that means that wild statements made by people with little knowledge should be allowed to go unchallenged. What industry and industry observers like myself are used to is the unrelenting negative commentary on supermarket pricing by people who have no comprehension of the intricacies of the fresh produce supply chain. So when Countdown then gets reported as having cheaper fruits and vegetables than independent greengrocers, what happens? Instead of letting that fact speak for itself, we need to immediately find some opinionated commentator to offer a negative angle, because the facts don’t suit the editorial direction. To imply that produce that reaches the consumer through the supermarket channel “will not last as long” as that purchased from an independent fruit shop is an outrageous piece of misinformation. Yes, there are some Saturday markets where indeed fruit & vegetable growers  are offering their produce direct to the consumer. In many cases that produce can be fresher if it has been harvested the night before or early the same morning. But to expect that to be the case with all produce sold at all markets  is based on a romantic myth fed by a lack of knowledge, a fair degree of ignorance, an unwillingness to put in the hard yards to establish the facts and an unfortunate tendency to generalise. It has been my experience that supermarkets take freshness and quality far more serious than journos give them credit for. Could they do more to increase awareness? Sure. Do they at times get it wrong? Sure. But give me a UK newspaper anytime. Their journos still know how to write an objective story.

Brand Exposure Is Not Always Positive

chiquita I took the photo recently on the main railway station in Munich. I am digging it out again because I have been contemplating the DOLE position vis a vis the Oxfam report on banana plantation ethics. On one hand, here is DOLE trying to position its fruit at the sustainable/ethical/credible end of the supply spectrum. On the other hand, CHIQUITA is busy trying to break out from the produce shelf, aiming its offer direct at the consumer.

There is a common theme here. Both companies have built up considerable brand equity in their brand over the decades. Naturally, when one is in such a position, one can be forgiven for looking for arising commercial advantages. In both cases, it involves a positioning exercise with the consumer. Which approach is more plausible do you think? Saying to commuters, “hey look, you can also trust my brand when it comes to buying quality and healthy fruit, fruit snacks and juices for you to eat on your train journey” – or telling shoppers, “we believe we are good corporate citizens and are prepared to tell you that by way of a label to that effect on each bunch of fruit?”

I don’t actually think a straight comparison is possible…but both efforts would not have been undertaken lightly because no business owner goes and deliberately exposes his brand to unnecessary risk. Any new development or initiative undertaken in companies with a high degree of brand equity will sooner rather than later trigger the question, “Do we fully understand how this possible decision would impact on our brand?”

So at the very least , we need to assume that DOLE has not rushed like a headless chicken into a situation where they issue labels which blatantly provide incorrect information. A more likely scenario is this: DOLE would have over the years invested considerable sums into improving the working environment on the banana farms and through that the living standards of employees. Results would have been measurable, prompting the DOLE marketing department to come up with the label approach. The marketing guys would not have had any qualms about this approach, because they believed the results were visible and the campaign justified.

Unfortunately, the discerning first world consumer with a bend towards sustainability, fair trade, political motivation and a transfer of wealth from developed to developing nations cannot agree that the level of positive changes achieved warrant the label and the campaign. Particularly in New Zealand where three vocal people can represent a pressure group which Government is prone to listen to. On any topic…not just bananas.

Then there is the small matter that the charity crying wolf about DOLE’s label happens to be supporting a competing banana project… where are the ethics in that?

In the meantime, DOLE has done the decent thing and suspended the use of the label.

If my attitude towards marketing managers sounds a bit cynical – I remember a Foodtown marketing manager who had a giant guillotine built for a TV commercial. He parked the monstrosity at the top of the Whangaparoa Peninsula cliffs, and filmed cabbage and other unsuspecting produce being chopped in half and chucked down the cliff onto the beach in an attempt to convince customers that produce prices had been permanently reduced…Needless to say, the campaign was a total flop.

And I will, by the way, read the Oxfam report and comment more in due course.