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  • Supermarket Parable

    Posted by Jonathan on August 5th, 2016 (All posts by )

    At the store they offer plain, vanilla and chocolate soy milk. Chocolate is the only flavor that’s any good IMO. Other customers seem to agree as chocolate is always in short supply and sometimes sold out by the time I get to the store. It seems obvious they should stock more chocolate but they never do.

    I complained a couple of times to guys in the dairy department and once to a manager. They didn’t understand what the problem was so I stopped complaining. When they have chocolate on the shelf I load up.

    Today I took two cartons of chocolate and couldn’t reach a third. One of the stock guys climbed up on the shelf and got it for me. He good-naturedly said that it’s great stuff, it flies off the shelves. I thanked him and mildly suggested the store should stock more chocolate because it’s the most popular flavor. He said that, on the contrary, people who like chocolate should be more considerate and leave some for the other customers. He added that there is a God upstairs and He is watching. I believe this man missed his calling. He could have been a successful bioethicist.

     

    31 Responses to “Supermarket Parable”

    1. raven Says:

      And that is why he will stay a stock guy. Or perhaps, a central planner in some socialist hellhole.

    2. Bill Brandt Says:

      I had a somewhat similar experience a few days ago. I lost my pocket knife so went to the sportsman store that I’ve gone to for years to get another one. I like the Kershaw brand it’s. Their well-made if you don’t lose them will last a lifetime. And considering their quality they’re not all that expensive.

      So anyway I go to the store and in their display case it’s almost completely absent of them. It’s almost bare. I ask one of the shopkeepers if they have any more and he says “we keep selling them out and we keep forgetting to reorder them ”

      Seems pretty obvious to me if you’re trying to sell stuff but I guess it’s beyond some people.

      Anyway I ordered one on eBay.

    3. Mr Black Says:

      I’ve noticed a very odd stocking policy in relation to supermarkets. A number of items which I buy regularly were so popular that they were often sold out while similar items remained untouched. One by one the popular items were discontinued, forcing customers to buy one of their second choice items from the range, or simply go without. Does anyone know if this is a deliberate part of marketing, removing an overwhelmingly popular item to spread consumer dollars around the rest of the product range?

    4. Stephan Kolassa Says:

      If they used a good forecasting and replenishment software, it would automatically reorder more of popular items. (Plus, they’d need to allocate more shelf space via their planogram tool.) I’m involved with development for such software, but I’d better not post a link here, don’t want to be flagged as spam…

      In the long run, supermarkets that tick off their customers will (hopefully) lose out to supermarkets that don’t. I know that I have stopped patronizing chains that regularly don’t have enough product on their shelves during promotions. Coincidentally, they just happen not to be using our software.

    5. David Foster Says:

      “If they used a good forecasting and replenishment software, it would automatically reorder more of popular items.”

      If this is a chain, then It is quite possible that they use software that assumes the product mix for all stores is the same, and pushes those items out to maintain the model inventory per-store, regardless of store-to-store differences in what is selling.

    6. Jonathan Says:

      It’s the Publix chain which appears to be well run overall. The soy milk is their house brand, which in chocolate flavor I prefer to any of the generic or branded alternatives sold at Publix and competing stores.

      It occurred to me that they are aware of the issue but don’t want to allocate more shelf space to chocolate, and instead try to restock chocolate on the shelf as soon as it runs out, but do so imperfectly.

    7. Mike K Says:

      I had the same experience with blueberry muffins. The store would be out of blueberry but well stocked with other types I don’t like (and presumably I was not alone). I finally mentioned it to the manager one day and things improved. Then I went on a diet and they are probably overwhelmed with blueberry.

    8. Jonathan Says:

      If this is a chain, then It is quite possible that they use software that assumes the product mix for all stores is the same, and pushes those items out to maintain the model inventory per-store, regardless of store-to-store differences in what is selling.

      I don’t think they do this, since their product mix seems to vary subtly by location. For example, the mix of ethnic foods in each store seems to vary by the neighborhood the store is in.

    9. CapitalistRoader Says:

      Almost certainly the guy is a Bernie supporter, stuck in a 6th grade “that’s not fair” SJW mindset. Considering the number of 60+ Bernie supporters I’ve seen, your stock boy may never progress beyond his current early-adolescent maturity level.

      The Kroger chains don’t stock the same items in my town. The largest store doesn’t carry the store brand diet soda flavors that all the smaller stores carry. I’ve asked several employees why and they shrug their shoulders, as if it were a divine decision over which they had no control.

    10. Grurray Says:

      We used to have only two grocery chains around here for years. Both they and the unions had the market locked up. Then after the recession, things fragmented. Now we have a mix of many specialty markets filling niches on one end and a few big all-in-one chains on the other end. The big stores seem to be surviving by also serving prepared foods for breakfast, lunch, and snacking while you browse around.

      We also have the warehouse stores like Costco, which is sometimes feast and famine. They’ll have an item that we love and it becomes a family staple, then suddenly it will disappear.

    11. Sam L. Says:

      Capitalist Reader, those employees you are talking to are too low in the chain, unless you’ve talked to managers, who might well admit that ordering more is either ignored or not allowed by the higher ups. Neither would surprise me..

    12. Mrs. Davis Says:

      If this is a chain, then It is quite possible that they use software that assumes the product mix for all stores is the same, and pushes those items out to maintain the model inventory per-store, regardless of store-to-store differences in what is selling.

      And the local store manager has no control over what is on the shelf, so talking to him is a waste of time. That’s the way it is at Wal*Mart. They spend all their software resources on beating up suppliers instead of delighting customers. Always a bad sign for the future when a company spends more time on cost control instead of revenue growth. Guess that’s why they had to buy Jet.

    13. Will Says:

      After years of indifferent, or just flat out rude staff at the big city supermarkets that we were used to, we still marvel at the level of customer service we receive at a number of local Publix locations. I find that the closer you get to the city the more the service suffers. Driving through Florida we stopped at one in Orlando and the experience was like being transported back to Brooklyn. We had to laugh at how spoiled we had become.

      Like a number of other Southeastern based companies, they put a real emphasis on customer service and courtesy. Many transplants chafe at this philosophy, finding it beneath their dignity. I’ve noticed that Publix hires a fair number of disabled individuals as baggers, some of which are more obvious than others.

    14. David Foster Says:

      CapitalistRoader…”I’ve asked several employees why and they shrug their shoulders, as if it were a divine decision over which they had no control.”

      It probably *is* a divine decision over which they have no control. One of the downsides of ‘big data’ is the idea that analysts in some HQ operation are always better decision-makers than people on or closer to the firing line.

      I remember years ago reading an editorial by an Army officer…I believe his experience was Vietnam-era…he remarked that prior to automation of the supply chain, the supply sergeants felt personally responsible for ensuring that the right parts were in stock to fix the tanks. After the system was put in place, though, their feeling of personal responsibility was limited to ensuring that the input data on parts consumption was transmitted accurately and in a timely manner.

      Probably an exaggeration, still makes an important point, I think

    15. Subotai Bahadur Says:

      I suspect it is a matter of a combination of two factors.

      First, store management has almost no control over their own store, all authority being at regional and district level, and they never soil themselves by showing up at a working store, except to penalize someone. At Kroger, where I know several local management types, this is especially true. Responsibility and authority are systematically separated.

      The second point is that the battle for shelf space in large stores is a very corrupt battle. Suppliers pay off chains, and sometimes stores and individual managers, for shelf space. This is a significant part of the profit picture for both chains, and at times individual store managers. Publix’ own house brand will not pay a premium for shelf/cooler space. Brand X will. So guess who gets stocked more?

      Add in that stores are cutting staffing to cut costs [especially aggravated since Obamacare came into effect]. Yet, their way to increase customer satisfaction requires more help. Case in point. Wait times in line are monitored and regulated. If the wait exceeds a certain time, the front end manager has to open more registers. Yet he may already have ALL of his reduced number of checkers working registers. He gets yelled at [and downrated] by higher management. Lack of staff is not an acceptable excuse, as he is accused of being unable to manage things properly [pull checkers out of his a**]. So he pulls people out of other areas [meat, produce, general merchandise] who can barely run a register just to try to get the in line wait down. Which affects those departments.

    16. Anonymous Says:

      SB, 100%

      The other issue is that chocolate items are removed from Michelle’s progressive youth diet plan.

      Deaath6

    17. Mike K Says:

      Sam Walton was the real pioneer in using inventory control by computer, which is how he built WalMart.

      The software could be written to track store sales. All the database marketing systems with the “clubs” the chains create should allow them to tailor the store inventory if they want to. Why else create all these clubs?

      I shop at a local southern California chain called “Stater Brothers” that has no clubs or discounts expect manufacturer coupons. They are the lowest price and so far the best quality products. I used to shop at Pavilions, which is related to Safeway and very upscale but I see no difference in meat or produce quality.

    18. Mike K Says:

      Except….

    19. Paul Says:

      David Foster-
      As a physician, I can paraphrase your Army Officers experience. It used to be that we were just concerned with taking care of the patient, but now with CMS/Obamacare/etc our only real concern is making sure the progress note looks good and covers the points needed for “proper” billing.

    20. Mike K Says:

      our only real concern is making sure the progress note looks good and covers the points needed for “proper” billing.

      When I was at Dartmouth in 1995, one of the other students in the masters program was an ER doc from Maine. She had written software that extracted key phrases from dictated ER physician notes and created billing records and sent bills. It just search for strings that made up billable items and added the ICD-9 codes and procedure codes. It calculated the charges and printed the bills. I thought at the time she could expand it to search for quality of care items and so on.

      This could all be automated and generate all the necessary paperwork and leave us alone.

    21. Pouncer Says:

      the invisible hand may direct management to raise the price on chocolate until demand falls back in line with other flavors…

    22. LetsPlay Says:

      I worked for a US manufacturer of systems for supermarkets which included scanners, scales, registers and computers for data base management and inventory control. The idea for inventory management was to maximize store revenue from shelf space by placing products at optimal locations, which was also more expensive to the vendor. However, the key to just-in-time restocking was knowing, even before running out, what products to restock, since the sell rate could be determined and a reorder point established based on sell rate and the time needed to restock.

      Well, I guess things have gone off the rails because I am constantly frustrated, and this is now a couple of decades later, that products I like do not get the shelf space they should get (high demand – always out of stock)while other line extensions fill up shelf space and just don’t sell much. My example is, I love me some Nestle Vanilla Coffee Mate liguid creamer. It is by far their most popular flavor and yet in many stores it gets equal space to Hazelnut, Irish Creme, and any of a half dozen other flavors that just sit on the shelf.

      Like a good customer, I talk to people in the store and suggest, not only for my own desire, but for their own money making initiative, that stocking more Vanilla Coffee Mate would be a very good idea. Why this does not happen is a mystery to me. Someone has their head up their ass and is being by the wrong performance measurements. Both store and vendor are losing at the expense of customer satisfaction. Now … I simply do without my liquid Vanilla Coffee Mate instead opting to use the regular powder Coffee Mate which has less sugar and is a little better for me. But at least I can find that product just about anywhere and can forego the frustration of “hit & miss” looking everywhere for the other.

    23. fiona Says:

      Can you get it from Amazon by the case or subscription? That’s how I get my hair color.

    24. tomw Says:

      If I could paraphrase Yogi

      “That stuff is so bad they don’t even bother to keep it on the shelf. No one buys it any more…”

      I remember from 40+ years ago a thing called EOQ. Economic Order Quantity. Just not sure what it means now, but I know that an empty shelf yields no sales.
      THAT I am sure of. Any retailer that ignores the object to be learned is failing. Customers remember, and vote with their feet. Ignore them at peril to your job. Or not, your choice. I do not care beans about ‘computer models’ as that is not my job. Good managers will figure a way around the ‘help’ from headquarters.
      Beware: “I’m from headquarters and here to help you.” Old TelCo phrase that ran chills up and down our backs…
      tom

    25. Mike K Says:

      “Old TelCo phrase that ran chills up and down our backs…”

      Xerox PARC admonition. “Quit messing around with that stuff and get back to building copiers !”

    26. Jonathan Says:

      Can you get it from Amazon by the case or subscription?

      Probably not, it’s the house brand. I think they tried to get it to taste as much as possible like real chocolate milk, which I like, whereas other brands, especially Silk, seem to follow the current fashion for less-sweet dark chocolate.

    27. IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses" Says:

      He said that, on the contrary, people who like chocolate should be more considerate and leave some for the other customers.

      Your stockboy is a Marxist idiot.

    28. IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses" Says:

      If this is a chain, then It is quite possible that they use software that assumes the product mix for all stores is the same, and pushes those items out to maintain the model inventory per-store, regardless of store-to-store differences in what is selling.

      Indeed, WalMart does this idiocy all the time. One of the local WalMarts has had a plethora of empty shelving. The problem is, some disgruntled employee somehow managed to delete a part of their database. Hence the inventory of the WalMart is/was constantly short of items. I once counted about 200 linear feet of empty shelving, and that was just in a half-dozen areas I happened to walk past. Why they never performed at least a quick inventory during down times is anything but obvious.

    29. IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses" Says:

      I don’t think they do this, since their product mix seems to vary subtly by location. For example, the mix of ethnic foods in each store seems to vary by the neighborhood the store is in.

      Not to rag on WalMart, but they DO do this. Here in FL you can want a replacement box/floor stand fan anytime year round — if it’s cold now it may not be next week… But just try and find a fan from January to March…

      Any store which does do this should make a certain amount of shelving space available to the local managers for use at their own discretion, assuming that they understand their local market in ways that the main office does not. Not saying even a percentage — more like 50-100 linear feet — for local items, with the admonition that what they stock should provide at least as good an overall return as the worst-performing shelves in the location.

    30. David Foster Says:

      Excessive centralization in a corporation is a miniature version of the socialist vision of economic planning, albeit less harmful because the corporation has smaller scope and more limited power. The Russian village elder’s comment to Rose Wilder Lane, when he was trying to get her to see why Communism couldn’t work…

      It is too big – he said – too big. At the top, it is too small. It will not work. In Moscow there are only men, and man is not God. A man has only a man’s head, and one hundred heads together do not make one great big head. No. Only God can know Russia.

      …also applies to business operations. One hundred brand managers, logistics experts, and operations research PhDs in corporate headquarters, extravagantly equipped with ‘big data’ technology, can not fully compensate for local knowledge and insight at the store level.

      An Israeli general, can’t remember who, said that:

      There is no substitute for the alert and intelligent infantryman

      There are too many businesses that have lost sight of this truth.

    31. MCS Says:

      I worked about 6 years indirectly for the 3 largest chains and was in stores every day. To understand a chain grocery you have to keep in mind 3 things:

      the managers aren’t, at most they’re foremen, their major responsibility was no one ever got overtime, now 30 hours.

      The store directors don’t, their time is taken checking boxes on forms to prove that they are complying with the diktats from the home office and building ever more baroque spread sheets to answer any idle question that might occur to some clerk there.

      Stock is replenished once a week, not so much in response to actual sales, but to fulfill elaborate shelving agreements where various brands pay for display and shelf space that are stocked by outside contractors. There is virtually zero stock not on the shelf.

      I remember reading an article 15-20 years ago that praised Wal Mart for pushing these decisions down as far as the individual associate. This is emphatically no longer true. I suspect that the upper management wouldn’t be caught dead actually shopping at a Wal Mart. This shows up every quarter when they announce more poor results.

      Meagan McArdle has written a couple of times about how scheduling software is used to juggle employees and help turn these jobs in to sort that no one would take if they had a choice.

      Not withstanding, the overwhelming majority of the people I worked with in the stores were doing the best they could for both the store and the customer.