Taking Stock

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‘Round The Trade

Just before presstime, we learned that Jonathan Weis has shed the “interim” title and now will become permanent CEO and president. He retains the vice chairman title. Also at Weis Markets, the Sunbury, PA regional chain announced the launch of its “Three More Ways To Save” program, offering discounts on more than 2,000 products throughout every store department in all 165 Weis Markets locations in the company’s five state market area. “In January, our customers look to us for ways to stretch their dollars, not just on a weekly basis but over the long-term,” said Kurt Schertle, Weis Markets’ executive VP. “To meet these expectations, we’ve launched Three More Ways to Save, which offers an expanded range of everyday savings throughout every store department. Equally important, these are savings they can depend on over the long haul.” Components of the “Three More Ways to Save” promotion are threefold. With its “Lowest Price Guarantee,” Weis is offering the lowest price in the market on four weekly items. If a competitor advertises the same item at a lower price, the customer will receive double the price difference with their purchase. Also included is “Everyday Lower Prices” in which Weis has lowered prices on more than 1,000 products throughout all departments. This program is long-term and has no end date. The third component of the program is its “Price Freeze,” now in its 10th edition, in which the retailer has lowered prices for 90 days on thousands of seasonally relevant items that will remain at these prices through April 13, 2014. By the way, Schertle, who last September assumed some of the duties of departed former CEO Dave Hepfinger, is getting high marks from both Weis associates and the vendor community. Weis also received conditional approval to build a new supermarket in Martinsburg, WV on an 18.5 acre site that would be part of a new 151,000 square foot shopping center…at Wal-Mart, the planet’s largest merchant said that its fourth quarter earnings, which will be released on February 20, would likely be lower than anticipated for several reasons including slower than expected U.S sales. Those lagging sales are being attributed to reductions in SNAP benefits, the effects of several winter storms and a restructuring at its Sam’s Clubs where it is laying off 2,300 associates. Most of the riffs will be in the stores and at the middle management level. Sam’s currently represents about 12 percent of the Bentonville Behemoth’s total annual revenue of $469 billion. And while the next Wal-Mart item is about six weeks old, it’s still hard for me to “digest” this story. The mass merchant was forced to recall batches of donkey meat in some of its stores in China, after the local delicacy was found to contain the DNA of other animals, including fox. Selling donkey meat is perfectly legal in the world’s most populated country, but selling fox meat is not. If those were my only two choices for dinner, then I definitely “don’t want to work on Maggie’s farm no more.”…kudos to CVS for announcing that it will stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its 7,600 stores by October 1. Beyond even the toxic health risks associated with tobacco, the fact is that retailers whose business is related to health and wellness should not be in the business of selling one of the least healthy products that’s legally available today. Walgreens and Rite Aid are continuing to assess the situation. There doesn’t seem to be more assessing that needs to be done: do the right thing and follow CVS’ lead…just returned from the National Grocers Association (NGA) convention and once again this year the vibe was very good. The annual Las Vegas event continues to offer good speakers and effective workshops while providing independent retailers (and regional chains) with a lot of one-on-one interactivity without losing its “homey” ambience. This year’s show attracted a record number of attendees (3,100) and also broke its record of exhibitors (nearly 400) who displayed their wares at the show. A tip to NGA president Peter Larkin for once again creating an excellent forum for independents. And a special tip of the hat to Wakefern president Joe Sheridan who in his two years as an NGA officer (he is currently outgoing chairman) has done an excellent job of bringing passion, leadership and vision to the trade group. Sheridan also did an excellent job at the show’s opening ceremonies, noting that independent retailers are well poised to handle issues such as competition and digital challenges because of how close they remain to their businesses. He termed the entire e-commerce initiative as a disruption and that bricks-and-mortar retailers will still be relevant, but added that 2014 will be a “grinding” year with more competitive diversity and the reduction of SNAP benefits affecting virtually all markets. Another excellent speech was delivered by John Phillips, senior VP-customer supply chain and global go-to-market for PepsiCo. Phillips, a dynamic personality and terrific speaker, urged independent retailers to embrace the customer experience and make it personal, “because you know more about your customers than the chains. He then offered up a bevy of new programs and websites designed to gauge and analyze consumer data. As an aging boomer, Phillips provided the most comprehensible connection between digital “theory” and real world application that I’ve ever heard. However, not so dynamic was Bob Woodward, the noted journalist and author, who may be the public’s best link to the last eight U.S. presidents. There’s no question that Woodward is a fount of knowledge and a curator of recent American history. But as a speaker, he’s mediocre at best. His delivery is painfully slow and staggered and it appeared he didn’t do much preparation for his speech, instead relying on references from his books along with a few anecdotal tales from his political crypt. One last shout out from the NGA show. Recently retired Jim Rogers, who ran the Food Industry Alliance of New York for 26 years, was presented with the “Spirit of America” award, an honor that salutes key industry and community figures who have provided leadership in the areas of community service and government relations on behalf of the independent food distribution system. Well deserved…UFCW Local 1500 picketed the Mrs. Green’s Natural Markets store in Mt. Kisco, NY earlier this month in protest of the dismissal of nine employees whom the Westbury, NY Local said attempted to organize the store’s employees. That unionization attempt failed. As for the bigger picture at Mrs. Green’s, I still don’t get it. The natural/organics foods retailer, which is owned by a Canadian hedge fund and is led by former Giant/Landover CEO Robin Michel, opened its 17th unit late last month in Fairfax, VA. Apparently I’m not locking in on Robin’s vision. The newer stores (also including Wilton, CT and Hartsdale, NY – which I’ve visited – and, Chicago and Calgary, Alberta – which I have not) are nice, but struck me as a poor man’s version of a Whole Foods store. And I don’t know what the volume projections for the newer Mrs. Green’s stores are, but my gut tells me they can’t be happy with current sales. Robin seems undaunted though, with plans for more new stores in Manhattan’s West Village; Dobbs, Ferry, NY; West Windsor, NJ; New Canaan, CT and another Canadian unit in Burlington, Ontario…King Kullen will be converting its former 22,000 square foot West Islip, NY unit to its Wild by Nature natural/organic banner. The original King Kullen unit closed last month and should reopen as the regional chain’s fifth Wild by Nature unit in late summer/early fall…sadly, there are too many obits to report this month. From our business, I’m sorry to report the death of industry leader Bob Hermanns, who most recently was director of the Food Industry Management program at the University of Southern California. Hermanns, 70, died earlier this month, which was shocking to me because I spent some time with Bob at the FMI Midwinter Convention in Scottsdale late last month. A truly kind and gentle soul with such a positive outlook on life, Bob also served as an executive for such organizations as Lucky, Jewel, American Stores, Associated Grocers and Weis Markets (where I first met him). The food industry has lost one of its truly good guys. Also passing on were two great actors – Philip Seymour Hoffman and Maximilian Schell. Hoffman, who, simply stated, was one of our generation’s most gifted performers, tragically died of a heroin overdose (what a waste) at the age of 46. An Oscar winner for “Capote” (2005) and multiple nominee, Hoffman simply had the “touch.” Whatever medium he acted in – television, stage or movies – his presence and raw ability improved every production he was part of. While “Capote” was certainly his signature role, he was also well known for his appearances in “Boogie Nights” (1997), “Almost Famous” (2000), and “Doubt” (2008). However, I’d refer you to the 2003 film, “Owning Mahowny,” in which Hoffman played a down on his luck bank manager Dan Mahowny, a sad sack with a gambling addiction and access to millions of dollars. A melancholic and haunting story with a riveting performance by Hoffman that is worth more than the price of a Netflix rental. Also passing on recently was Austrian actor Schell, 81, who won an Oscar in 1961 for his role as Hans Rolfe, the impassioned but ultimately unsuccessful defense attorney for four Nazi judges on trial for sentencing innocent victims to death in the great Stanley Kramer film “Judgment at Nuremberg.” Schell also was nominated for two other Academy Awards and was described by Austrian Cabinet minister Josef Ostermayer as one the “greatest actors in the German-speaking world.” He grew up in Switzerland after his parents fled Austria when it was annexed by Germany in 1938. His last film, “Les Brigands” will be released later this year. The great Pete Seeger has also died. Not only was Seeger one of the early inspirational folk singers in the pre and post-World War II era (he was a disciple of the legendary Woody Guthrie), he was one of the most important public figures in raising social consciousness about racial and economic inequalities in America. Musically, his beanpole physique and 5-string banjo skills made him an unmistakable presence among his musical peers. He was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and either wrote or co-wrote such classic folk songs as “If I Had a Hammer;” “Turn, Turn, Turn;” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone;” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” Politically, Seeger was involved in so many important causes, beginning with helping migrant workers in the 1930s to marching in support of the “Occupy Movement” in 2011. “Be wary of great leaders,” he often said. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.” Seeger, who was chopping wood 10 days prior to his death, was 94…just before presstime we learned of the death of Sid Caesar the iconic comic who practically invented variety television in its early years. With “Your Show of Shows” (1950-1954) and its successor, “Caesar’s Hour” (1954-1957), Sid Caesar not only owned half of America every Saturday night with his vast array of “schtick,” his weekly shows also gave opportunities to some of America’s funniest men and women who would later have great writing and comedy careers of their own. Those included Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart (“M*A*S*H”) and Mel Tolkin (“All in the Family”). Caesar, who shed the spotlight for many years in the 60s and 70s due to struggles with alcohol and pill addiction, emerged a healthy and still funny man in the 1980s with roles hosting “Saturday Night Live” and appearing in the Mel Brooks movie, “The History of the World Part 1” (there was never going to be “Part 2”). Caesar was 91 when he passed. From the world of sports, two-well known Philadelphians have passed on, as has one of my childhood favorites from New York. Tom Gola, arguably the second greatest college player to hail from Philly (nobody can compare to Wilt Chamberlain), is now giving an assist to God. Gola attended LaSalleCollegeHigh School and then LaSalleCollege. For his career (he graduated in 1955) Gola held the NCAA Division 1 record for career rebounds – 2,201- and also scored 2,461 points. In 1954, he led the small school to the NCAA championship. As a rookie in the NBA two years later, he duplicated that achievement when he played for the old Philadelphia Warriors (now the Golden State Warriors). During a 10 year NBA career, he averaged 11 points and eight rebounds per game and was one of the best defensive guards in the league. He also coached at his alma mater, compiling a 37-13 record in two seasons. Gola, 81, had been in poor health for many years following a fall in 2003. Also “movin’ on up” is Harry Gamble, who served as Philadelphia Eagles team president from 1986 to 1994. His association with the Iggles dates back to 1981 when he was invited to help the team as a volunteer assistant coach under then head coach Dick Vermeil. Gamble also served as director of football operations and general manager and was a head coach at two Pennsylvania colleges better known for their academics – Lafayette and Penn. His son Tom is currently VP of player personnel for the Eagles. It’s been a tough period for former baseball stars who excelled at their craft despite managing to occasionally mangle the English language. Last month, we reported on the death of San Diego Padres announcer Jerry Coleman and this month the unforgettable Ralph Kiner has passed away. Kiner, 91, was an excellent power hitting outfielder who played primarily for awful Pittsburgh Pirate teams in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He led the National League in home runs for a record seven consecutive years (1946-1952) and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975. But what I remember most about Ralph was his post-game show “Kiner’s Korner” and his on-the-air malapropisms. “Kiner’s Korner” was the Mets’ postgame TV show which featured the Hall of Famer interviewing the star of the game from a cheesy television booth with even cheesier music. There are many hilarious tales to be told from the show, but one that I remember clearly was in 1985 when Len Dykstra had just been called up from the minor leagues and had a great game. Dykstra’s mom, an attractive looking woman, also attended the game, so Kiner invited her to be on the postgame show, too. It was obvious that Kiner was taken aback by Mrs. Dykstra when he closed the show by saying: “Congratulations on having a great game, Lenny and for having a hot mom, too.” Among the bloopers that Ralph uttered on the air were: “All of his saves have come in relief appearances;” “On Father’s Day, we again wish you all happy birthday;” “The Hall of Fame ceremonies are on the thirty-first and thirty-second of July:” and the classic, “Hello, everybody. Welcome to Kiner’s Korner. This is….uh. I’m…uh.” Kiner could also bungle a few ballplayer’s names. Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter was Gary Cooper; speedy outfielder Vince Coleman became Gary Coleman and catcher Dann Bilardello somehow exited Kiner’s mouth as Dann Bordello. Ralph, I’ll always remember you – I still smile fondly recalling some great memories of my youth. And finally it is with great sadness that I report the death of John Griffin, 82, founder and former owner of The Griffin Report, the first great regional food trade newspaper serving our industry, which John launched in 1966. John Griffin hired me and taught me (along with my now retired partner, Dick Bestany) the foundational skills of both the food and journalism businesses. John was a tough boss – demanding, temperamental, opinionated and passionate. His mercurial personality was only outpaced by his sheer brilliance as a writer. When I was a young (and somewhat brash) 22 year old, John allowed me the freedom to develop my own style; he also knew when I needed a lecture. Always prepared with a scalpel-sharp memory, John worked and played hard. The happy times were always a lot sweeter because when John Griffin was in a good mood, life was rarely more fun. But, even in humor there was always a point to be made, such as when I was the rookie on The Griffin Report team and one of my jobs in those days was to deliver the “flats” (the pasted-up pages of the newspaper) to our printer who was about 30 miles from our Boston office in Lowell, MA. As I took the large box, filled with approximately $50,000 worth of ads, John said to me: “You’ve got to get the flats up to the printer in an hour to meet our deadline. Do you understand?” I nodded affirmatively. He repeated, “Are you sure you understand?” I nodded again. He then said, “What I really mean is that if you have a car accident on the way, find somebody on the road to take the flats to our printer in Lowell. You can worry about yourself later.” To this day, I don’t know if he was kidding. I’ll miss you, John. May you rest in peace.