Tag Archives: Business and Economy

Opening A Can Of Mistrust

It’s Foodie Friday and I want to talk about a widespread fraud this week. If you cook Italian food every so often, you might have been a victim of this common deception, and of course, it has implications for your business (or else why would I bring it up here?). I’m talking about the lies told by many companies about what lies within a can of tomatoes labeled as “San Marzano.”

If you’ve been to Italy you’ve tasted the difference in what they have there vs. what we commonly use here, and one of the biggest differences is the true San Marzano tomato. Grown in the volcanic soil that surrounds Mt. Vesuvius, these plum tomatoes are protected by an official designation – DOP – which certifies that they are the real deal. Many other types of products receive this stamp which certifies that they are locally grown and packaged in the specific region according to strict standards – balsamic vinegar and mozzarella di bufala are two of the best known along with these tomatoes.

If you walk through your local supermarket, you will find many cans labeled “San Marzano” and yet there is a high likelihood that they are nothing of the sort. 95% of the tomatoes sold here as San Marzanos are fake, at least according to the person who certifies them. If you see crushed or diced San Marzanos, they’re fake, since true ones are only sold whole. If they are grown in the US, they’re fake. If it doesn’t have the DOP seal and the seal of the consortium that sells them, they’re fake. Some unscrupulous packagers put a DOP-looking seal on their cans; some don’t even bother, knowing that the words “San Marzano” are enough to confuse shoppers.

Why do I raise this? First, it bothers me that so many retailers are complicit in perpetuating this fraud. You wouldn’t see a legitimate store knowingly selling fake Dior bags or knockoff golf clubs with high-end labels. Why do supermarkets allow this? Can I trust that the wild-caught fish you’re selling at the fish counter isn’t farm-raised? Second, some fairly big time packagers engage in this, which calls into question what’s in the cans of other products they produce. Are those really organic peas or are you just charging more for the same stuff that’s in the non-organic cans? Lastly, and most importantly, it reiterates the point we’ve made often here in the screed. The most important thing any business gets from customers is trust. Losing that trust can be fatal, no matter how good your service or pricing might be. Knowingly perpetuating a fraud on your customers is way over the foul line.

I don’t want to make too big a point about a can of tomatoes. Most shoppers don’t look for San Marzano tomatoes – they buy whatever is on sale. It only takes one customer, however (like me?), who figures out that you’re profiting off of the deception to put a crack in your reputation. That’s not the type of sauce you want to be serving, is it?

1 Comment

Filed under Consulting, food, Huh?

Cars For Dummies

I bought a new car yesterday. Mine was going on 10 years old and was beginning to show those little warning signs that it was heading downhill. Advocate for proactive action that I am, I decided that 10 years was a good run and that the car and I should part as friends. I know this will come as a shock to you but today’s post isn’t a screed about how my salesperson mistreated me (he didn’t) or how the paperwork takes forever (well, only about an hour) or how I had to negotiate my butt off to get a fair deal (we agreed on numbers in about 30 seconds – yay for the internet bringing transparency).

What has surprised me instead is how much more complex the car is. The decade has turned our vehicles into rolling computers. The owner’s manual – which comes in a few volumes – is roughly the size of a paperback edition of War And Peace. It should have a “hernia hazard” warning on the cover. The car has radar on all sides so that there is no longer a “blind spot”. I can set the cruise control and the radar in front of the car will keep me at a pre-determined distance from the car in front of me regardless of the speed I’ve set. The car will also hit the brakes if it thinks I’m moving toward an object too quickly – useful for idiots that are texting and driving I suppose, but also in case the car in front of you stops short.

I have the ability to connect via Bluetooth, which I had in my old car, but the functionality is much more advanced. In addition, I can link in via a USB cable and have the car perform dozens of functions through my phone and the car’s software. I can install apps in the car, which has its own ISP address. Of course, that’s assuming I can understand how to use all of this. The media center has its own rather large manual as well. My favorite passage in both manuals so far? A warning not to test the collision avoidance system. I suppose some moron thinks driving at a wall doing 40 to see if it works might be fun.

Why am I bring this up? Cars are very complicated machines and while I’m certainly a long-time user of them (as well as a relatively sophisticated user of digital products) I’m kind of overwhelmed. Part of what we need to remember as we introduce new features to current users or our product to new users is that they need help. Jargon isn’t helpful nor are explanations written by technical writers who are engineers first and consumers second. I would have loved a short pamphlet that showed the “Top Ten Things You Will Want To Do First”, written in plain language, highly illustrated, and backed up by a newcomers’ hotline I could call if I ran into trouble. Expensive to support? Sure, but cars are expensive products. Could the dealer have sat with me and provided that service? You bet. Did they? Nope.

Selling the product is only part of the process. Making sure the customer gets every bit of value out of what you’ve sold them is just as important. I’m off to figure out just what I’ve bought here. At least I knew how to get it home!

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

I Almost Did Something Stupid

I’ve mentioned before here on the screed that I have friends of all political persuasions. By definition, that means that some of them diverge quite a bit from where I stand on various issues. I posted something on Facebook the other day about an action the Senate took to restrict press access (since rescinded). While my post had to do with the need for our First Amendment rights to remain unimpeded, a friend replied with a long comment that was a litany of hate speech the left wing had spewed. I suspect he was reacting to the horrible shootings in Alexandria last week.

He had missed my point entirely but that’s not my topic today. Instead, I want to reflect upon my immediate response and why it can be a horrible mistake in business. Within a few seconds of reading his rant, I had flipped over to the place on Facebook where you can block someone. After all, I don’t want my page to be filled with half-truths and venom. Fortunately, I took a breath and remembered a couple of things. First, this guy is a friend of over 20 years, and I know he has a big heart even if his head seems to interpret the world very differently from mine. Second, he and I have had many chats about politics and we’ve actually found that we agree on a lot more than you might expect. But it was the last thing I thought about which is relevant to you and to your business.

One of the biggest problems anyone in business can face is incomplete information. The other thing is that they live in an echo chamber, a place where all they hear is their own voice reflected back at them. Some people like it that way – I’ve worked for guys who never heard anything that contradicted their world view because they made it intolerable for anyone who brought them that sort of information. Closing off your mind to divergent points of view doesn’t improve your decision-making nor does it reflect the reality of the world. If you believe that all your customers are happy and totally satisfied, you’re delusional. Shooting the messenger or writing off the negative reviews is short-sighted. Ignoring data that point to a different direction than the one you’re taking is simply fostering ignorance. When I thought about blocking my friend and his divergent thinking from my page, I was heading down a very dangerous road (and infringing on his First Amendment rights too!).

As I’ve written before, I’m a firm believer in anyone’s ability – inside or outside of business – to express their opinions. I insist, however, that those opinions be grounded in fact. Is that how you approach things? Do you welcome new ideas and new thinking? Are you keeping an open mind?

Leave a comment

Filed under Reality checks

The Health Inspector

For our Foodie Friday Fun this week, let’s talk about the grades restaurants receive from the health department. Depending on where you live, you might see an “A” to “F” scale or some number on a 100-point scale. Most jurisdictions require that the establishment display its most recent grade and I, for one, make a point to have a look at it, especially when it’s an unfamiliar place. I don’t know about you, but I won’t eat in a place where the grade drops below 92 or “A”. Better safe than sorry, right?

I looked up the record of a place in which I eat frequently. It’s well-run and I’ve peeked in the kitchen to see if my opinion might change (back of house and front of house are two very different worlds, after all). It too looked well run. Their last 9 inspections confirm this – they run from a low of 96 to a few perfect scores of 100. Does that make the food taste any better? No, but at least I have no qualms about tasting it.

Why do I raise this since most of us aren’t in the restaurant business? Because each of us gets inspected and publicly rated every day. Search for any business and you’ll almost assuredly see several review sites or actual reviews in the search results themselves. I’m not even thinking of influencers here, just normal folk who have some information (if they’ve patronized a business and you haven’t, that’s knowledge) and the ability to share it. I suspect that Amazon’s product reviews are almost as valuable an information source as their purchase data, and Consumer Reports has built a business in doing unbiased reviews for as long as I can remember.

Everyone who interacts with you business is a health inspector of sorts. The National Restaurant Association has some tips on how to prepare for a health inspection and a few just might apply to your business as well:

  • Walk into your establishment from the outside to get an outsider’s impression.
  • Brief your kitchen staff to review any problems post-inspection.
  • Ensure all staff are on the same page.
  • Know your priorities.
  • Train your managers to ensure they are up-to-date on the latest food-safety techniques.
  • Review your local health code.

In other words, approach things from the customer’s perspective, reinforce that need to everyone on the staff, operate as a cohesive unit, listen and respond to customer feedback, stay current and be sure you’re operating under whatever set of rules govern your field of business. Those tips will keep health inspectors of any sort happy, don’t you think?

Leave a comment

Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Death By 1,000 Cuts

When I was in the TV business, the most sought-after demographic was always young adults. While they often weren’t the key to the heaviest volume of product sales, it’s when we’re young that we build consumption habits and establish brand loyalty. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at some recent trends in media.

You’re probably not surprised to hear that cord-cutting – consumers ditching their cable or satellite TV subscription in favor of streaming and.or over the air services – has continued to accelerate. As the Techdirt blog reported:

MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett has noted that 2016’s 1.7% decline in traditional cable TV viewers was the biggest cord cutting acceleration on record. SNL Kagan agrees, noting that traditional pay-TV providers lost around 1.9 million traditional cable subscribers. That was notably worse than the 1.1 million net subscriber loss seen last year.

They also noted that those numbers don’t tell the entire – and much worse – story. Those numbers report those who canceled an existing subscription. When you take into account the youngsters moving out of their parents’ houses or graduating from college and forming their own household for the first time, there are around another million “cord nevers” who are missed sales by the traditional cable and satellite providers. It really doesn’t matter what business you’re in. When you stop attracting younger consumers, you have a problem.

Why is this happening and how can we learn from it in any business? Techcrunch, reporting on a TiVo study, said that:

The majority of consumers in the U.S. and Canada are no longer interested in hefty pay TV packages filled with channels they don’t watch. According to a new study from TiVo out this morning, 77.3 percent now want “a la carte” TV service – meaning, they want to only pay for the channels they actually watch. And they’re not willing to pay too much for this so-called “skinny bundle,” TiVo found. The average price a U.S. consumer will pay for access to the top 20 channels is $28.31 – a figure that’s dropped by 14 percent over the past two quarters.

There is also the matter of convenience and personalization. Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services do a great job in making recommendations and offering you programming based on your viewing habits. Has your cable operator done that for you lately?

We can learn from this. Cable operators who focus on broadband and “throw in” the TV offerings aren’t doing much better than those who don’t, since the overall out of pocket is sullied by broadband caps and other, often hidden, price increases that help the bottom line but only prolong the inevitable. It also just makes it easier for a lower-priced competitor to enter the market. I know enough about how the TV business works to recognize the issues with skinny bundles (it’s hard to offer channels on an ala carte basis due to contractual restrictions). We’re seeing more and more offerings that bundle channels outside of the traditional providers and that’s going to exacerbate the aforementioned trends as well.

What’s needed is a rethinking of the business model. Getting local governments to preclude more broadband competition isn’t a long-term solution (look at the wireless business!) nor it is the “free and open market” to which most businesspeople pay homage. Listen to your consumers and give them what they want, especially the young ones. Cord cutting isn’t some far off fantasy that naysayers have dreamt up. It’s here, and it’s killing you by 1,000 cuts. The rest of us can learn from this and, hopefully, not make some of the same mistakes. You agree?

Leave a comment

Filed under Reality checks, digital media

Learning From The Apocalypse

While you’re probably aware of the loss of jobs in the coal mining sector, you might not have been paying attention to what’s going on in retail. Department stores alone have lost 18 times the number of jobs when compared with coal miners since 2001. That doesn’t include all the smaller players that have gone out of business nor the number of jobs lost among those who are support people at shopping malls – cleaners, etc. The term you see most often as you begin to research this topic is “apocalypse.” If you’re in the media business, the music business, or many others, you might think of it as just another incidence of disruption.

Inside an abandoned mall in Allen, Texas. The ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most disturbing things I’ve read recently was as study by GetApp, which reported that

Two out of three business owners who currently run both an online and physical store believe that they will close their physical store’s doors within ten years and operate their business solely online, according to new research conducted by GetApp.

In fact, there were over 3,500 store closings from Macy’s, JCPenney, K-Mart, and others this year. It’s happening because of technology and globalization. Ask yourself when the last time you went to the mall to go shopping. The only times I’ve been have been when I needed something in my hands immediately, and even that reason is being addressed by Amazon and others. It’s not going to get better, either.

So what do you do if you’ve invested millions of dollars building malls or other large retail spaces? That’s really the situation many businesses find themselves in. Not with respect to owning physical space but in having to expand their thinking. Landlords who thought of themselves as containers for retail are now having to think about servicing a different clientele. Churches, movie theaters, medical offices, gyms, and other tenants can move in while others move out. I drove through what used to be an outlet mall this weekend, and while it was pretty deserted (and kind of depressing), there appeared to be a couple of small start-up companies who had leased space. I’m wondering if the space was less expensive than comparable space in one of the many start-up hotels that have popped up seemingly everywhere. Of course, servicing these other tenants will require a different set of services and skills but that’s what disruption breeds, isn’t it?

The retail apocalypse is just one manifestation of what’s been happening for the last 25 years. Every business is ripe for disruption and it’s really a case of how far along it is in the process. The real question is how prepared are you as it’s happening?

Leave a comment

Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

How Rude

This Foodie Friday our topic is rudeness. OK, maybe not rudeness per se but whatever it is one would call being brusque with servers in bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and elsewhere. You know what I’m talking about. You probably have a friend who treats the waitstaff as if they are indentured servants rather than food service professionals who work long hours for not a lot of money. Maybe they make ridiculous demands or maybe they manage to find fault with everything that’s sent from the kitchen, causing problems not just for the server but also for the cook who will probably have to refire the dish.

It’s an important business point. When you’re dining out, you’re in a position of power with respect to the servers and, to a lesser extent, the entire kitchen. In an office setting, there are managers who revel in that and they’re the ones whose subordinates can’t wait to find employment elsewhere. No one likes being treated dismissively. The rude manager is probably feeling a need to demonstrate how special (or entitled) they are. To a lesser extent, I think they’re trying to see what they can get away with. Unfortunately, subordinates rarely get the chance to tell the manager’s manager how detrimental this behavior is to the entire team.

I’m not saying we need to be obsequious either to the waitstaff or to our subordinates. I am saying that “please,” “thank you,” and other demonstrations of appreciation (a nice tip to the server, a decent raise if possible to the employee) will get you better results than being demanding and rude. I often wished that I could take every candidate I was thinking of hiring out for a meal, or at least for coffee. You will learn an awful lot about their character, especially if the service really is bad or if their order gets messed up.

One of my bosses told me a long time ago to think about managing as if I were moving a piece of string. If you get behind it and push, it rarely will go where you want. If you get out in front and pull, you can lead it anywhere. Good manners are part of being out in front, whether in a restaurant or an office, don’t you think?

1 Comment

Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud