Digging deep

There is a lot going on in the nonfoods world, even if we have to look a little harder to find the news.

By Seth Mendelson

The dog days of summer always seem to offer some interesting stories. Here are some tidbits:

It seems that a small Tennessee-based newspaper and Kroger went head-to-head on the issue of free speech in late June. According to news reports, The Rutherford Reader, a family-owned business, had been running a series of stories involving the construction of a controversial mosque in their neck of the woods.

Someone complained and the paper was dropped at area Kroger stores after company officials determined that its material was offensive. The paper sued, saying that it was a blatant breach of its First Amendment rights.

As a journalist, I understand how important it is to fight to maintain the freedom of the press and to continue to have the ability to disseminate information to the public. On the other hand, I also realize how important it is for retailers to do whatever they can to make the shopping experience pleasant for their customers. Having a newspaper that screams out what some view as hate messages is not what supermarkets want to sell.

So while I strongly defend the First Amendment, I understand what Kroger officials did. It is not something I am comfortable with, but it makes sense. The bottom line is that the food store is not the place for this type of debate.

Even the great Apple can have a public relations problem. The high-flying computer company, which has had a pretty good run for the last decade or so, seems to have finally been caught up in a bit of a mess as it was forced to report that the bars on its iPhone do not necessarily accurately show the reception for the phone.

Frankly for most companies this admission would be no big deal. But for Apple, which prides itself on accuracy, it shows that the giant company may be taking its collective eye off the ball. Who can blame them? After so many successful product launches, Apple execs were sure to drop the ball on something.

The moral of this story is that even for the best of companies—and as I write on a MacBook Pro, I firmly believe Apple is—mistakes and missteps can happen. The question is what happens next. Does Apple quickly fix the problem and allay any consumer fears or does it act like nothing happened?

More and more I am hearing from retailers about how specialized many segments in the health and beauty care category are becoming. Interestingly, many of these merchants say in the very next breath that they are looking to hold the line on SKUs and, even further, seeking dramatic SKU rationalization programs.

Of course, these two trends are polar opposites and the struggle to find the perfect world between them is creating problems on store shelves. Some retailers are becoming more aggressive with their HBC product mix, expanding selection and paying close attention to price points so that consumers have as many choices as possible. Others are eliminating SKUs in the hopes that fewer products will reduce overhead and, perhaps, more room for other departments.

From this angle, retailers need to determine exactly what they want to be to consumers when it comes to HBC. If they want to compete with the drug store down the road, cutting products in the HBC aisles is not the answer. On the other hand, for those retailers who are looking to use HBC as simply a convenience category to their consumers, cutting back on space may not be a bad thing to do.

What is the hottest nonfoods category right now? Without a doubt, it is the razor segment. The major players in the category are actively introducing products into the category, each with new features and, more importantly, higher price points. The question is whether the razor category is going to get too expensive for the average consumer and whether sales will eventually struggle. Stay tuned.

Seth Mendelson can be reached at 646-274-3507 or at smendelson@groceryheadquarters.com.

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