Monday, August 8, 2016

Do Nutritional Labels Make Us Eat Smarter?

I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s right there on almost every packaged good in your grocery store, detailing everything from calorie number to calorie size on a white label with black text.

What is “it”? It’s those federally mandated “nutrition facts.”

For years, the look of the label has remained the same. Now, thanks to a new FDA directive, the fonts for calories, servings per container, and service size are getting bolder and bigger. Ideally, you won’t need a magnifying lens anymore to see these numbers.

Yet as prominent and prevalent as this new packing promises to be, here’s something we rarely ask: Will it work? That is, will the fact that you know how much fat your favorite candy bar contains alter your eating habits? Or have customers become blasé about these stickers?

The question isn’t abstract, but goes to the heart of a multimillion-dollar effort by industry and government to make people eat smarter.

Here’s an example: While the labels will continue to catalog various fats — total, saturated, and trans — calories are getting the axe. That’s because knowing what type of fat you’re chowing down on is more important than knowing how many calories you’re consuming.

Yet how many of us can define what a “saturated fat” actually is? How about a “transfat”? More important, how many of us know the true effect these substances have on our health?

Here’s the truth — from a senior retail executive with decades of experience: Saturated fats, which were once considered bad, are now looked upon neutrally. Transfats are the worst. And we all should eat more monounsaturated fat (which is found in olive oil, among other things).

How do I know this? Because I’m a label reader. Because I view knowledge as power. Because I believe I am what I eat, and what I eat has the ability to make me healthier, wealthier, and wiser.

Manufacturers have until July 26, 2018 to comply with the new nutrition facts. Americans should welcome this deadline to get smarter about what we’re putting in our bodies.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Real Reason Why Politicians Are Coming After Your Plastic Bags

To tax or to ban: that’s the question when it comes to plastic bags in grocery stores.

Here’s my view: we can save both money and the environment. We can do well and do good.

As a longtime retail executive, I believe every businessperson should do everything in his power to minimize costs. At the same time, businesspeople also have a responsibility to do everything we can — even if it’s just a little bit — to preserve and protect our precious surroundings.

To wit: We need both to tax plastic (to reduce its use) and to ban plastic (to reduce threats to our environment).

If that makes sense to you, then clearly you’re not a politician. Instead of using money from plastic proceeds to fund environmental concerns, many municipalities are spending this windfall on unrelated initiatives.

Need to plug a hole in your budget? Use the plastic tax! Would the county clerk’s office benefit from new furniture? Use the plastic tax!

That’s just plain wrong. If government compels us retailers to track and report plastic purchases and sales, then the resulting dues should finance relevant expenses.

What do you think? Am I right or wrong? Sound off in the comments below — I’m eager to hear from you.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What's the Best Gift You Ever Got?

What’s the best gift you ever got? Many of us get very emotional when asked that question. Often the answer is very heartfelt – our children, or a favorite trip. On a lighter side, if it’s not jewelry or a motorcycle, it was probably something that you ate that tasted absolutely so good that you couldn’t stop talking about it. When I was small, my father gave me ten pounds of pistachios that I remember as one of the best gifts (after my children) that I’ve ever gotten!

Think Maryland crab cakes with so little filling that all you taste is a a hint of old bay seasoning and lots of lump crab meat. You don’t have to be in Maryland to get some. You can order them from Faidley’s and taste a real Maryland crab cake anywhere in the country. Think Smith Island Cake, located on Smith Island with 14 layers of hand made, not too sweet, pumpkin with all natural cream cheese icing that when warmed up just melts in your mouth. It too can be ordered on line and shipped to you frozen. As retailers, we’ve all read studies that prove time and time again, that families are closer when they dine together. Food is the center of every single important life celebration! Reasons enough for us to figure that a gift of food is just the best!

In recent years, salt in every flavor and in every color and in every type of packaging has become a great gift idea. Consider one of hundreds of varieties of olive oil or balsamic vinegars. Like wine pairings, pair cheese, pair oils, pair mustards, pair olives, even pair chocolate. So, the question I’ve wondered about is why great food retailers don’t pick up on this fabulous opportunity to build gifts of food at the holidays, or everyday to include birthdays, anniversaries, and even just a thank you gift of food.

Catalog companies have - Zingerman’s, Stonewall Kitchen, Gourmet Edible Gifts, and even William Sonoma. So, why haven’t the big retail food chains looked into how they can offer food as gifts? Plagued by the ever present sales per payroll hour goals, even the biggest retailers in the world can’t find ways to build a gift basket program in their stores that’s efficient, beautiful and profitable. What a shame. This is the perfect way to sell an item that just can’t be price checked! It’s a way to build loyalty and distinguish yourself in the marketplace.

There are few who have that we should highlight! H.E.B. Central Market, for instance. All things Texan. Texas home grown, home made, local products are fabulous gift baskets that can be bought premade with Texas wines, Texas BBQ sauces, salsas, and even Tito’s homemade vodka. Gift baskets of Ruby Red Texas grown grapefruit and citrus items are a favorite of customers and are often sent out of state in Texas by H.E.B.

Whole Foods has. Gluten free, sugar free, dairy free, antibiotic free. Whole Foods gifts of food can be purchased in store and on line. In making gift baskets, Whole Foods adds the retail charge of every item it puts in a gift basket to the price of the basket, along with a labor charge of at least $10.00 and then rounds to the nearest 9’s with a minimum of $15.99 or greater. This is a great margin enhancer and drives traffic. Drives up the average basket size and produces truly incremental sales.

So, why are retailers resistant? Most don’t have someone on staff that can make something beautiful and unique. Most feel they have enough on their plates at the holidays to keep them very busy and won’t take the time to devote to this added complexity. Food retail can’t think far enough ahead of the major holiday times to order the baskets or containers they will need or in overcrowded stores don’t have the space to a lot to this effort.

What a shame. They are missing a true opportunity to build incremental sales, margin, and loyalty. I beg you, reconsider your position! When we think about what we can give our friends and family – that is the “perfect” holiday gift, we all fall into the traditional and conservative routine around gift cards, a bottle of wine, gloves, a wool scarf or cashmere socks. I urge you to be a little more creative and give gifts of food! Your gift of food - something that you like or love or make yourself will be remembered as one of the best gifts ever because it means so much to you, and comes with a story that will mean so much when received.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Robin Michel Around the Web

A few comments I’ve recently left on other websites:

1. The Most Frustrating Email in the World (LinkedIn)
You are so right! As managers, we often forget that our staff typically reads more into our emails than we intend. A good manager never unwittingly instills apprehension in his team.

2. What's for Dinner? (National Retail Federation)
Here's another reason the Cheesecake Factory ranks so well: as Atul Gawande reported in 2012, the company has perfected the science of food retail efficiency: each store throws away no more than 2.5% of its leftovers. Wow! Not only is the food tasty and the portions generous; the business is also sound and savvy.

Leadership, Snakes and Chameleons

In my career as an executive in the retail food industry, I’ve led, and I’ve been led. I've come to appreciate that those who rise to the top, do so for a variety of reasons—they know the right person, they are in the right place at the right time, they have high IQ’s, they work hard physically, and some of all of the above. In my opinion, what defines a leader is ceaseless curiosity (backed, of course, by the passion and proficiency to execute on it), and a recognition that, like a snake shedding its skin, one must constantly learn to renew and revise.

Another thing I’ve noticed about leadership is that it requires risk-taking. It’s a long held maxim that in order to grow, we must learn to step outside our comfort zones and “give it a go.” You may win or you may lose, but in either case, you will learn a lesson. Failure may teach you as much, or more than success. But a true leader takes that risk. To allow the possibility of failure to hold you back can leave you stagnant.

The cliches are true—swim or sink, evolve or die—because they revolve around a stubborn fact: to succeed in business, as in life, you must never stop asking questions, but instead remain on your toes, peering around corners. And you must accept the idea that you don’t know it all¬¬—you never do. So you must have the inner drive, the intestinal fortitude to keep searching.

Self-awareness is also vital. A leader must understand that others are always watching and we therefore have to be bold, honest, straightforward, humble and inclusive. Like a chameleon that changes colors based on its environment, leaders know that we can learn from—and be changed by—everyone around us. No one rises to a leadership role alone. Leaders know that, if not for all the hundreds of folks who stand with us, we will not succeed.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, author Bill Taylor cites the work of the late public intellectual and reformer John W. Gardner, who famously wrote and spoke about the importance of self-renewal in personal growth for leaders. Self-renewal is self-awareness in action. Gardner’s advice for leaders was to “be interested.” As the proverb says, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Local: It's Not Just for Produce, Anymore

Via Wonderlane
For too long, American shoppers have used the word “local” only when talking about farmers and locally grown produce. Hence the popularity of farmers’ markets, which are indeed a delight.

Yet let’s not limit our language to produce. For in the right kitchen, “local” can take on any number of meanings. Consider the rich tapestry of producers and products that come to life every day within a 25-mile radius of the typical U.S. home:

1. That corner restaurant that specializes in the very best organic cauliflower soup.

2. Your neighborhood bakery that worships at the altar of “gluten free” and painstakingly produces these items in the safest of environments.

3. The regional caterer that creates specialty items and delivers them in packaging constructed from recyclable items.

4. Homemade jams and jellies, pickles and relishes, pastas and salsas.

5. Farm-to-table herbs.

For the smart retailer, these products present a golden opportunity. The smart retailer will join forces with these independent inventors, and feature their food in our stores.

Do you need more customers? Then partner with a local manufacturer. Want to strengthen your relationship with existing customers? Again, partner with a local manufacturer.

Once a customer becomes a locavore, he begins to see your store as more than just a building to fill up a shopping cart. Your store becomes a brand—a temple that offers endless ways to prepare the freshest, most delicious meals for one’s family.

These strategic partnerships allow retailers to “grow the pie” while supporting our local community. For retailers, non-commodities don’t compete on price, so selling them is a profit-producer. For manufacturers, by gaining greater exposure, they sell more products. It’s a win-win.

Now, none of this is easy. Actually, it’s much easier to stay the course than to embrace change. Supermarkets face unique challenges in selling local products. They have traditionally favored large suppliers, capable of reliably providing a large volume of product and who have large marketing budgets to pay supermarkets for advantageous product placement. The introduction of local products in supermarkets can create special hurdles in delivery, extra work regarding the need for individual contracts and invoicing, and a need to differentiate local products that must be placed near high-volume products, forcing the two to compete on price.

On the other hand, local products provide customers with a more personal connection to the community and to their food. As we see in every industry today, companies that stagnate ultimately die a slow death. By contrast, those that innovate, those that wake up every morning thinking up new ways to perfect the customer experience—those are the companies that are gaining market share.

The above article appeared in Supermarket News on September 10, 2014.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Love Story

Via David Evers
I’ve spent most of my life in the retail food business.

I love it.

It’s demanding.

It’s ever-changing.

It’s centered on slim margins, constant negotiations, a nonperfect balance between shrink and sales, and an ever-changing rotation of fellow associates who want to be home when everyone else is and would rather not be closing down the store at midnight on Christmas Eve!

Early in my career, when we were all going to college to try and avoid having to work the rest of our lives at nights and on weekends, we swore we wouldn’t return to those days of long hours, and yet, many of us did—to continue to work nights and weekends, and Black Friday, and every holiday and remain in this most amazing business.

We wake up at four in the morning worried about what the fresh inventory results will be this period and if shrink will be in line or if we spent more than we made!

We spend time debating on the need to drive customers in the door even if they are cherry pickers! We want all customers, regardless.

We fight for market share.

We debate mystery shop results.

We know that price isn’t the only answer, but it’s an important component!

We strive to be different from others.

We search for unique products.

We develop our own products.

We count every penny!

I remain in love with the retail food business, where we thrive on daily challenges and the opportunities to use our skills to meet those challenges and succeed. It’s truly a labor of love for retailers, and our success means success for our customers, our vendors, and our distributors.

Here’s to each of us who have surrendered our lives—and holidays—for food!

Robin Michel Around the Web

A few comments I’ve recently left on other websites:

1. The Weirdest Eating Patterns of Each U.S. State (Fast Company)
What about salsa in the South? For one, the Lone Star State’s multiplicity of salsas, hot sauces, beans, and toppings is simply amazing!

2. Why I'm Going All-in on Customer Service (Forbes)
Any CEO who doesn't think customer service is part of her job is gravely mistaken. Customer service, whether terrible or terrific, is the easiest and quickest way to lose—or gain—market share.

3. New England Seafood Shacks: 3 to Try (Eat Your World)
That lobster roll looks absolutely delicious! I'll be sure to check out Abbott's the next time I'm in town. Thanks for the mouth-watering write-up!

4. The Best Leaders Are Insatiable Learners (Harvard Business Review)
How right you are! The cliches are indeed true—swim or sink, evolve or die—because they revolve around a stubborn fact: to succeed in business, as in life, requires that you never stop asking questions, but instead remain on your toes, peering around corners.

In my career as an executive in the retail food industry, I've come to appreciate that those who rise to the top don't necessarily have the highest IQs. What defines a leader is ceaseless curiosity (backed, of course, by the passion and proficiency to execute on it).

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Foodies to FDA: Let Us Know What “Natural” Means, Willya?

Via farkomer
Over the past decade, as consumers have become more conscious of their eating habits, they’ve been choosing to make “all natural” food a big part of their daily diet. Consumers eagerly patronize stores that tout this philosophy, including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and now even Walmart. As a result, not only are consumers becoming healthier; “natural foods” have also been transformed from a small niche market into a $22.3 billion industry.

Interestingly, just as the natural foods industry appears to be booming, one key issue has been neglected: there’s no concrete definition of what exactly constitutes “natural.” The fault can be attributed to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has yet to develop an official rule establishing what constitutes “natural” food. While the FDA has an informal policy statement governing use of the term, the agency has never formally issued a definition. This vacuum means that every manufacturer must determine the “naturalness” of its products on a case-by-case basis.

Since the 1970s, federal agencies have attempted to define “natural” as it relates to food. First up was the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in charge of regulating false and misleading advertising. In 1974, the commission proposed a rule establishing “natural” foods to be those that were minimally processed and free of artificial ingredients. But the FTC officially terminated its rulemaking on the matter in 1983.

In 1991, the FDA took up the matter, noting that the use of “natural” on food labels is of considerable interest to consumers and the industry. Two years later, however, the agency had made little progress.

So, where does this leave us retailers? As the demand for “natural” products continues to grow, the FDA will undoubtedly be pressured again to provide a uniform, clear and enforceable policy for the moniker of “natural.” The only question is, When? Until the FDA adopts a formal rule defining “natural,” courts and manufacturers will fill the vacuum and inconsistently decide what the term “natural” means. While a final ruling will undoubtedly require the FDA to incur costly challenges, only a mandated definition, identifying conditions and use, and specific labeling requirements for “natural” claims will offset the patchy use and confusion regarding the term.

The bottom line: until the food retail industry standardizes a definition of “natural” food, consumers will continue to be confused and frustrated.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Robin Michel Around the Web

Just FYI, here are a few comments I’ve recently left on other websites:

1. What No One Ever Tells You About Being the Boss (Inc.)
No doubt about it, being the boss is one tough job. But the opportunities it offers far exceed the challenges. Sure, a good CEO can lift a company’s bottom line. She can also reinvent the given industry.

2. How Does Zillow's CEO Manage By Learning (Fortune)
Speaking as a former CEO, I can tell you that the most valuable employees are those who aren’t afraid to admit ignorance. Of course, they follow this up with corrective action--by immersing themselves in the given subject--but the fact remains: beware the person who claims to know everything.

3. For Chubby Hubby Lovers, a Tale of How Ben & Jerry's Is Removing GMOs (Wall Street Journal)
The whole GMO debate is overblown. And I say this as someone who’s spent the past 30 years in the retail food industry, dealing with these issues at an executive level every day.

4. Is Your Grocery Bill Supporting Your Political Opponents? Now You Can Avoid It (Washington Post)
What an interesting idea! As a longtime food retail exec, I know that empowering the consumer ultimately translates into a richer shopping experience. I look forward to downloading this app.

5. Farmers, Restaurants Work Together to Tailor Locally Sourced Foods to Needs (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Naturally, product that doesn’t sit on a truck from California for over over three days in refrigeration will taste so much better and fresher than product grown locally. Here’s to locally grown and locally sponsored!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Everyone Likes It Spicy!

Fabián Everardo Alvarez Navarro
I recently visited Texas and was once again awed by the Lone Star State’s variety of salsas, hot sauces, beans, and toppings. I counted at least 300 different types of items to spice up any dish anyone might want to cook up. And not only was this variety of food impressive; I was also amazed by the variety of different bottles and names: Cholula, Bull Snort, Huy Fong, and Da’ Bomb, to cite a few.

As I browsed, I couldn’t help but think, what’s in these sauces, and why are people so keen to try something that’s so hot, it could be sold in the allergy section of a drugstore, where it would promise to clear your sinuses?

Years ago, Hatch, New Mexico made it to Texas in a big way. Hatch chile peppers are grown only in Hatch. This variety of pepper is actually grown in many other places throughout the state of New Mexico, but supposedly, the Hatch grown peppers are clearly the best. When these come available in late summer there’s a stampede among retailers to get all they can and to use them in all kinds of dishes.

What makes these peppers legendary? Simple: we believe them to be the best. These are truly superlative green chili peppers, and every summer retailers await their production like a cat eyeing the snack bowl.

Today, the ghost pepper is making its debut. Hotter than a habanero pepper, these peppers are now the latest fascination, and were the best-selling and most often sampled wherever I went in Texas.

As I thought about salsas, and places where peppers are grown, I wondered what makes a food trend like the ghost pepper a trend. Then it dawned on me: it’s because we, as retailers, decide to promote something unique, something no one else is interested in, which then makes it unique to us—the retailer. It’s what we wake up to do each and every day: to do something no other retailer does. Because we want to find ways to differentiate ourselves, we find products and events and support them until they become so big that everyone has embraced it—which then drives us to think about the next best idea.

And that’s what is so fun about the food business—the trends that develop from almost nothing to absolutely something because “we said so.”

So here’s to the next big idea! I predict it will have something to do with caves!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

7 Ways Supermarkets Are Changing the Way We Shop

As a longtime retail food executive, what I love most about my industry is that it’s always changing. Every day is different. We retailers are always looking for new products, new recipes, new ways to solve that constant question, “What’s for dinner tonight?”

We retailers must be able to anticipate the changing needs of our customer base. It’s often a challenge to stay ahead of the next trend. For example, who would have ever thought that coconut water would be such a big hit over traditional soda? Who would have ever distinguished between “clean” and “dirty” produce? Who would have known that non-GMO products would prove to be a deal-breaker?

I know I didn’t, which is why I strive to anticipate the next game-changing product launch, the next big thing in packaging, or the next best seasoning mix that turns a basic burger into an upscale gourmet meal.

Here are seven trends that every forward-thinking food retailer ought to embrace, yesterday:

1. Natural and organic. Customers are demanding more choices about what they put into their bodies, and they’re eager to study labels to discover healthier alternatives. They want straightforward definitions of what “organic” and “natural” really mean, what constitutes a “preservative,” and how much gluten those delicious  cookies contain. (The rule of thumb: the fewer the ingredients, the better.)

2. Sustainability. Retailers need to better educate customers about what is sustainably grown and what is sustainably raised. As retailers, we have a responsibility to understand the sourcing of the products we sell.

3. GMO vs. non-GMO. There’s a lot of confusion, and thus controversy, about GMO products. Retailers need to know what goes through a customer’s mind when he spies the words “genetically modified.” It behooves us to help people understand that “GMO” isn’t necessarily a pejorative.

4. Local. How far can food travel and still be considered fresh? I have a hard time thinking something is “local” if it trekked 250 miles or four hours. To me, “local” means the product is made in the same city where it’s sold. Only retailers that engage with local restaurants, local bakeries, and local specialty suppliers can claim this increasingly important moniker.

5. Meals to go. Today’s working men and women want fresh, healthy meals they can pick up on their way home. The smart retailer will cater to this in-and-out experience. It’s all about convenience for the time-challenged customer.

6. In-store cooking centers. Some stores are offering cooking centers where customers can learn how to bring to life in their kitchen a picture-perfect, mouth-watering meal. This allows employees to share knowledge with customers in a selling environment, and contributes to a more personal shopping experience.

7. QR codes. Want to know more about the calorie count on that box of brownies? How about the ingredients in that supposedly healthier soup? Increasingly, products are being packaged with QR codes. Just because a customer is waving his iPhone around doesn’t mean he’s showrooming; customers are now using their smartphones to learn about their potential purchases from the horse’s mouth.

What did I miss? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Tweet me at @RobinSMichel or link in with me here.

Friday, July 25, 2014

My “Bumper” and Brand

Via Julia Frost on Flickr
Welcome to my blog adventure! This is new territory for me, folks, but I hope to add my own personal stamp on the blogosphere by sharing insights and musings that will reveal, inspire and inform.

My moniker is “a business turnaround and transformation expert.” To be sure, that is what I have been doing the past years. But the first thing to know about me is that I am a foodie at heart! Stemming from that, my passion is to create innovative customer-centered shopping experiences. I pride myself on creating retail experiences that encourage customers to linger, taste, enjoy, learn, and return. In that way, both the customer and the company benefit. On this blog, I will share my experience and point of view on how to make that happen.

But there is more to talk about! I have thoughts to share on what I’ve learned about the interesting world of the food industry, specifically, business turnaround tips, change management, food trends, marketing, the role of technology, the GMO issue, local sourcing, customer service, philanthropy, creating community, loyalty programs, motivation, competition, being a food retail industry female executive, the psychology of the shopper, and much more.

On his much-read blog, preeminent marketing expert Seth Godin defines an individual “bumper” as “the way you sound and look in social media and even in your email.” Please follow me as I create my own “bumper” in this space. I’m Robin Michel and thanks for checking in.

Follow me on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn.

Monday, July 14, 2014


Welcome to my new website! It’s a work in progress, but we’re moving quickly.

Want to know more about me? Read my bio.

Interested in what I’ve been up to lately? Check out my news articles.

And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and connect me with on LinkedIn.