Think about your message.

Living as I do near Washington, DC, I’m aware that I do not live in a typical part of this country. Forget the incredibly entertaining presence of the federal government and just think about this: our area still does not have a single Walmart Supercenter.

Beyond the retail issues, it’s easy to argue that my local newspaper, the Washington Post, doesn’t represent the mainstream either. And that’s why I was stunned recently to see an incredibly clear demonstration of the changing face of retail wars on the pages of the Post.

A week ago Sunday I was stopped in my tracks in the Post’s news section by a bright red, two-page spread ad from Target. The message of the ad was simple: a few months earlier Target asked for suggestions to improve its stores and it wanted to report on the 627 responses it received. The questions were good and the answers complete, offering good explanation or responses to shopper ideas…

Except once I turned the page, it became clear how badly Target had missed, well, the target. Because exactly one page later was a full page ad from Walmart touting “unbeatable prices every day” and featuring a $12 special on assorted small appliances.

The difference could not have been more startling. Target talked about how they are going to improve the shopping experience; Walmart talked price and value.

It almost seems like piling on to mention the props Walmart got for free later in the same edition, but the reference is too importance to miss. That same day the Post’s auto editor glowingly reviewed the Hyundai Sonata with the following terms: “Hyundai is the Walmart of car companies. It has turned ‘value’ into a word meaning substantially better than ‘cheap.’ It has given dignity to the concept of ‘bargain.’”

Then later in the article the review wrote: “My hunch is the people at Hyundai studied the people at Walmart to learn how to consistently deliver a higher meaning of value – excellent products and excellent service at an excellent price.”

It’s impossible to know how many people actually read the auto column, but those who did got a glowing review of value from Walmart.

Obviously, Target couldn’t do anything about that and probably couldn’t prevent Walmart from getting the ad slot right behind them that day. However, the lesson of the two ads shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Think of the message each company got across and then think of the following.

The late Mike O’Connor, the longtime president of Supermarket Institute (FMI’s predecessor) and someone who deserved the title industry expert, had one of the best philosophies for business that I have ever heard. Mike would say: “Less of how it came to be and more of what it means to me.”

In short, talk about what matters to the customer, not how hard it was to make it happen. It occurs to me that the Target/Walmart ad comparison played that beautifully. Target, one of the best companies around at building customer loyalty, this time talked about process in hoping to make a case; Walmart shouted them down with value. One talked about what it took to be; the other about what it means to me—the customer.

I bet we know how this fight turns out. Think about your messages.

Editor’s Note: Michael Sansolo, Aisle7 board member, Retail Food Industry Consultant and former SVP of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), has a weekly column on MorningNewsBeat called Sansolo Speaks. You can read today’s news here MorningNewsBeat or reach Michael direct at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com

Food Industry Perspective: Sometimes a napkin is more than a napkin

Dining at a recent conference, I saw no great symbolism in placing my napkin of my lap. My friend Joy Nicholas, however, saw it very differently. She called over the server and asked if she could get a black napkin instead of the white one provided.

I had to ask why. White cloth napkins, she explained, tend to leave some color behind on dark slacks. Almost instantly, three women at the table pulled away their white napkins and agreed that Joy was correct. Apparently white napkins leave some color on women’s slacks, not men’s. One of the women said she didn’t know the reason, but it happens and they don’t like it.

It was a marvelous insight courtesy of Joy and the three other women who were now insisting on black napkins at my table. As women become an increasingly large portion of the audience at conferences and banquets, you’d think someone in the hospitality industry would have noticed Joy’s issue. I have to imagine that the cost of supplying black napkins instead of white would be negligible, yet the impact would be huge.

As the wonderful Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” It is something we all need to do.

Finding those little things that make the difference between satisfying a customer or leaving them wanting is always the key to business. The problem is figuring out what those things are and making sure your focus never wavers too far from them.

We had a classic business case of attention to detail play out this week on the front pages of the Washington Post. Two major US companies were on the front page on successive days: General Motors for its slide into Chapter 11 (and it announcement of new plans) and Walmart for its annual meeting.

The General Motors story has elements that every business needs to study, discuss and learn from. From losing control of costs to underestimating emerging competitors to – most importantly – losing touch with core consumers, General Motors has sadly delivered us an object lesson in steps to avoid. Yet I understand how this paragon of American business is fallen into such disrepair. Years ago my father and I bought cars within months of each other. Mine was a bottom-end Toyota; his was a high-end GM product. The next car my father bought was from Toyota. My experience was that superior.

Instead of winning me as a young customer, GM lost both me and my father’s loyalty at the same time. Here’s hoping that their new plan and cars are good enough to turn that around.

In that light, it was coincidental and strange to see Walmart’s annual meeting featured on the front page of the Post, with a picture of two celebrities and a Walmart executive. It’s hard to imagine that Sam Walton ever imagined that day would come. Yet, today, Walmart is the paragon of American business for better or worse and the Post was right to recognize it. (Maybe they read Kevin’s coverage of the meeting on MNB and decided they, too, needed to get on board.)

The question for Walmart and indeed all of its competition is, what will the future bring? Will Walmart keep its focus on cost containment, understanding emerging competitors and serving changing consumer needs? Will competitors or complacency catch up?

Want a clear sign? The following appeared in the New York Times coverage of Walmart CEO Mike Duke’s speech. “The most popular items that families buy — groceries, health and beauty goods, pet products and baby products — will be located on the same side of the store, so customers do not have to trek from one end to another. Shelves will no longer be stacked so high, so stores will feel airier and easier to navigate.”

It looks like Walmart is paying attention to black napkins. Others take notice.

Editor’s Note: Michael Sansolo, Aisle7 board member, Retail Food Industry Consultant and former SVP of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), has a weekly column on MorningNewsBeat called Sansolo Speaks. You can read today’s news here MorningNewsBeat or reach Michael direct at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com

Food Industry Insights: What they don’t know

In the universe dominated by talking heads, there is a very strange question rearing its head: Is it possible that today’s economic crisis is actually good for us? Don’t laugh too quickly. The point has some merit if we see this as the moment that Americans (and presumably others on this planet) start relearning some very important things, such as living within our means and stop believing that easy wealth is a birthright. There might be some gain from all this pain. Anna Quindlen’s column in the March 30th issue of Newsweek is reading along these lines, reminding us about a lot of things that we’ve all forgotten. Quindlen admits that she really doesn’t understand things like swaps, derivatives, hedge funds and more and offers a bet that most Americans don’t either. Worse yet, she points out that many of us have over the years lost touch with the most basic skills in life, such as how to shut off the water in our homes when a pipe bursts. So while the column touches on our anger and bewilderment over the friendly folks at AIG and the Madoff clan, it also reminds us how we fooled ourselves and got into this pickle. (By the way, Quindlen is also a sensational author. Pick up a copy of Black and Blue and get insights into spousal abuse like you have never read before. It’s just one of her many fine books.) The message resonates with this industry. In the middle of this economic storm there are all kinds of strange messages out there. You hear how Americans are permanently changed financially and gastronomically. You hear how eating habits are shifting back to meals at home, which would suggest that supermarkets need do nothing more than open their doors and wait for the money to flow in. Except, of course, in the middle of a storm it isn’t always apparent where we are really headed once things calm down. Regular readers of this column know I see opportunity in this period. I do think shoppers are looking for ways to rebalance their spending; eating at home has a chance, but is not a guarantee of growth. But it won’t just happen. If Quindlen’s point is correct, and I think it is, Americans have forgotten. They have forgotten how to select food, how to assemble menus and certainly how to cook. So simply building displays of low-priced goods isn’t going to solve any problems right now. More than ever, we need creative merchandising that helps the shopper figure out how to make a meal. Remember, it’s about solutions, not ingredients. They want solutions to busted budgets and bulging waistlines. We have answers, but we need to guide them to it. They may be returning to home cooking out of necessity right now, but it won’t last if they don’t learn something about how to assemble great tasting, healthy meals. We have to grab them while we can. I ran into a stunning example of how this could happen this past weekend, while doing a stock up shopping trip at Wegmans, the poster child for doing things right. In the produce aisle, I ran into the strangest sampling ever—steamed broccoli, brushed with garlic butter. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most popular sample ever. The woman handing out the samples (I was one of the few takers) said the demonstration was aimed at teaching people about making good foods taste great. Nearby was a cooking station where a tasty dish of sesame noodles, chicken and asparagus was being prepared. As the woman there explained, the dish is easy to make and everything I needed was right at hand. In short, she was showing me—a bad cook how to make a great meal. Remember the old Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. Teach him or her to cook it tastefully, and you may win over a customer too.

Editor’s Note: Michael Sansolo, Aisle7 board member, Retail Food Industry Consultant and former SVP of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), has a weekly column on MorningNewsBeat called Sansolo Speaks. You can read today’s news here MorningNewsBeat or reach Michael direct at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com

Aisle7 IN-STORE 2009 Is Released to Market

I am very excited to be able to announce the release of Aisle7 IN-STORE 2009, our first new product since becoming Aisle7.  Before going into any details, I’d like to take a moment to thank all of our customers and partners that have helped make Aisle7 IN-STORE 2009 a reality.  Without your commitment, counsel and feedback the product would not be what it is today.

Aisle7 IN-STORE 2009 delivers on the two very important market trends we first discussed last May when we became Aisle7:

  1. Wellness as a mainstream issue that drives sales in every aisle, everyday
  2. Shopper marketing as the most effective way to reach consumers, as they look for fresh, relevant product ideas that they can incorporate into their busy lives

Just last week, Deloitte and Touche and the GMA published a shopper marketing study, indicating that 60% of the retailers surveyed now have a department in their organization dedicated to shopper marketing – up from 0% last year! Why?  Consumers are tuning out traditional marketing channels and tuning in messages that are relevant, personalized and meaningful.  With the store serving as the new medium to influence shoppers, it’s the natural place to reach and inspire shoppers.

With that in mind, we have focused on three key elements in Aisle7 IN-STORE 2009:

  1. Customization – With Aisle7 IN-STORE 2009, retailers can now customize their Aisle7 program to fully reflect their brand, marketing programs, and promotions.
  2. Integration – Too often, programs at the store level are islands on to themselves.  Now the Aisle7 program can serve as a hub of shopper services, adding programs such as product scanning, product locator, and loyalty programs, all with targeted, relevant information and promotions
  3. Impactful Content – In the end, the shopper has to take action based on great content.  On top of our current award winning articles, we’ve added dozens of new features on wellness, sustainability and budget tips to appeal to what is most important to shoppers.  We are also pleased to announce our new partnership with Martha Stewart Living’s Everyday Food magazine.  We know from shoppers that recipes are a powerful driver of in-store sales, and that they prefer recipes from cookbooks and magazines like Everyday Food.

We’re excited for this day as it signifies so many great things.  Most of all, we’re excited to see this product in stores where we know it will further enhance the shopping experience, inspire loyalty and drive purchases – something we all need in today’s economy.

To learn more,  go to our product page or see the product in action on our demo page.  And please, don’t be shy with your feedback.  It’s what keeps us focused on striving to produce great products!

What the Nebraska Beef Recall Can Teach Us About Branding

Much has been written about the Nebraska beef recall this week, causing many retailers across dozens of states to notify their customers about a potential E.coli outbreak. It’s a tough story because there are so many losers. First you have consumers, whose trust continues to be challenged, requiring them to question the source of every purchase they make. Next are the many retailers who are forced into a reactive position and must navigate the negative publicity (yet again). Then we have the government agencies who are coming under increasing scrutiny about the overall process. As you consider the food processors, manufacturers and the animals (yes the cows), the list seemingly goes on an on.

And yet there are some winners in this story of losers. I was reminded of this yesterday as I was instant messaging with a couple of friends over the BBQ we had earlier this week. First of all, it was a great BBQ. Beautiful steaks, hamburgers, sausages, you name it. It was a verifiable feast, and we all basked in each others company and the wonderful times a backyard BBQ presents. Inevitably someone brought up the recent news and how a local retailer was pulling beef products off their shelves because of the Nebraska beef recall. And then the $64,000 question was posed “where did all those wonderful steaks and hamburgers come from?” (Sidenote: I typically like my steaks medium rare to rare) Silence on the other end.

As the answer appeared across our computer screens, a collective sigh of relief washed over us. It turns out that those wonderful steaks were purchased at New Seasons Market, a local retailer who specializes in locally sourced foods. If you haven’t heard of New Seasons you really should check them out. It has become one of my favorite places to shop. Not only do they do a good job of working with local food providers, they do a great job of marketing to their customers and letting them know exactly where their foods come from. In other words, they have done a good job of positioning their local point of view into a competitive advantage, so much so that it is intrinsic to the New Seasons brand.

And so I am reminded that in every story there are two sides. The Nebraska Beef story reminds us that we have a long way to go to providing our country with a reliable food supply. And yet there are some retailers like New Seasons that are taking measures into their own hands, working with local suppliers and providing consumers with a transparent message that reassures customers and strengthens their brand in the process.