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To carry or not to carry that is the question (Grocery shopping in the U.S.)

I’m a loyal customer to the brands I choose

Supermarket shelf with laundry detergent

Store shelf with Calgon detergent included

Presented for your approval. to you dear reader. These two seemingly benign mobile phone pics were taken from a nameless, faceless supermarket store chain (I will withhold their name for now).

I have shopped at this store regularly since around 2005 or so and since at least 2006 have shopped there once every two weeks spending anywhere from $50-$100 (not much compared to big families I’m sure). But what ticks me off is that no matter how refined the Inventory and Tracking systems are for any regional grocery store chain, and no matter how much I use my ‘loyalty’ surveillance card for that particular regional grocery store, they still seem to be stuck in the 20th Century. I say that as I have observed the following bad habits time after time, and not just with one regional grocery store but with the top two store chains where I live. Neither one, no matter how much data they collect can seem to keep carrying some items I purchase once every two weeks. Or maybe less frequently than that depending on the product. For instance look at the two photos presented at the top of the webpage. On the left you see what I would describe conservatively as the ‘oddball’ or ‘old-fashioned’ specialty laundry supply shelf. In this regional grocery store, that’s on the very top shelf where it’s less convenient to reach up and haul down a 5 pound box of some kind of laundry product. All the ‘average’ mass market stuff is at waist level or on the bottom where it can easily be slid onto the shopping cart’s bottom cargo shelf (so it’s already a struggle to get to this stuff). The product I like to purchase is the Calgon water softener. Why you ask? Well let me first turn back the clock to the 1970s and this old TV commercial:

As a kid I didn’t do laundry. My Mom would do all the washing and folding up until I was in my later teens. That’s when I had a few experiences washing and folding myself (and occasionally fixing the washing machine too!). I never once in that time really thought about fabric softener or any of those additives market to the heads of households. Whether it was for fragrance or softness or any of those other qualities I didn’t really care once I left home. I just wanted the soap to dissolved completely, do it’s job and rinse completely out of the clothes. Over time the soap/detergent issue came up time and again where a load of laundry would be fouled with undissolved detergent granules that just wouldn’t rinse clean. Which is EXACTLY the opposite of what a clothes washer is supposed to do. At the very least, a clothes washer should do no harm, and not make your clothes dirtier by leaving this sugar like residue clinging tenaciously to your jeans and shirts. But I digress, what I’ve always wanted was a measure of insurance that I wouldn’t suffer from undissolved detergent. The surest way towards that is using really hot water at the initial stage or using a chemical like Calgon to help all the detergent mix into the water. And that’s the refinement I eventually developed all on my own living by myself, doing my own laundry. It took years to get to this point.

So the day that I eventually caved into buying Calgon (I don’t remember when it was exactly but I did it  some years before I got married), I stuck with it. My grocery store had no problem keeping that product in stock along with such other oddities as 20 Mule Team Borax and Color Safe Clorox bleach (in the blue box). You can see both of them in the pictures above. The other store I visit also keeps a handy supply of Fel’s Naptha and Downy Flakes as well for the people who crave the old-fashioned products that aren’t designed to ‘Do-it-All’. In fact I think I’ve even seen little blue bottles of ‘Bluing Agent’ to get white dress shirts extra white too. I fully understand the connection, nay emotional tie some seniors and very valuable store customers might have to their favorite brand name cleaner. I too count myself among their ranks.

However, now you can imagine my surprise when I discovered for the first time in 9 years or more that my grocery store has suddenly run out of Calgon. Worse yet as the ‘Before’ picture shows, it’s GONE. No shelf label, no space set aside. It would have been located roughly in that gap between the two Oxy-Clean bottles near the middle (one with green cap, one with yellow). That’s where the Calgon had been sitting for literally 9 years at that store. But I paused and I thought I might become and old man and complain bitterly that, ‘they keep moving things in this store, I can’t find anything’. In fact I did a hardcore search up and down and on successive visits, never once seeing the Calgon return. So I gave up. I stopped using it because I couldn’t find it anywhere else. Months pass, almost 5 months in fact. Out of the blue I decided once more to look and see if they ever got anymore Calgon boxes. I had not looked in that long because it showed no sign of ever returning. I even had looked at buying it by the case online through Amazon (minimum 10 boxes per case at roughly $5.20 per box=$52.00 plus shipping). When I looked this time however, I found it!

Reckitt Benckiser's Calgon logo

Image via Wikipedia

Calgon had magically re-appeared not in the same spot, but at least near it’s friend 20 Mule Team Borax on the top shelf as always. There it was, and not just one box. I counted at least 7 boxes in total so someone must have purchased at least 3 boxes out of the case they put on the shelf. Whew! I thought, how lucky am I that whatever oversight, misstep or mistake was made it is now rectified. But it wasn’t enough for me, to just be happy and let this go. I have had more than one of these episodes occur at both the grocery stores I visit. Let me tell you another story about a loyal shopper in search of a brand name product that suddenly vanishes altogether.

My favorite gum, Trident Xtra Care (in any flavor whatsoever, I’m not picky)

Trident Xtra Care gum, I’ve seen it come and go. And now I can’t find it anywhere even after a small glimmer of hope at a national drug store chain. I’ve been buying it every week from two different supermarkets. And yet, no love in return. I had hope when one of the supermarkets it started carrying it after dropping it for a while. Now even the drugstore where I had found a stash of gum has now dropped it too.

Trident Xtra Care gum

Why can't stores in my area keep this in stock?

Hershey’s Extra Dark is not the same as Hershey’s Special Dark. They are in different leagues, worlds apart from one another.

Hershey Special Dark chocolate bar

Not as good! Hershey Special Dark

Hershey Extra Dark Chocolate bar

Good! Hershey Extra Dark

Special Dark as you recall from your trick-or-treating days is the Bit-0-honey of the Hershey’s Mini Assortment  bag. It was like black licorice, blech! It wasn’t all that special, but more bitter than anything else. I despise Hershey Special Dark. However it’s cousin Hershey Extra Dark is different. It’s a 60% Cocoa dream and smoother than any Cadbury, Ghirardelli or Scharffen-Berger. It is the most inexpensive choice save for Cadbury but Cadbury Dark is a dead ringer for Hershey Special Dark and just as objectionable from a taste standpoint. However as I have been pointing out, my favorite product apparently is too difficult for the local grocery stores to keep in stock. I have to go for weeks without a decent chocolate bar usually ending in me buying a Cadbury Special Dark which as I have said is no different than Hershey Special Dark. The best way for me describe it is like eating Nestle bittersweet chocolate morsels (somewhat bitter but WAY too much sugar and 0% cocoa butter).

I guess I should be thankful I make enough money to buy these items regularly. I am so lucky, how lucky I am to have the ability to earn money and have spare time to write about these minor annoyances. It’s true. But at the same time I am achingly curious over the decisions that drive what stores choose to stock and those they let lapse through a fiscal quarter and fiscal year. Is it all a big mistake or is it absolutely necessary to meet your quarterly sales targets? So one customer (namely ME) is inconvenienced and is unlikely to say or do anything about their favorite product going missing without explanation. But this is where I’m drawing the line and asking why, especially give the technology underlying the whole product mix and stocking practices at any retailer. Those guys know what they are doing and I’m an unhappy customer. I am writing this as a way of identifying the damage in the network and will have to begin routing around just like the Internet. Goodbye Supermarket brick and mortar store, hello Amazon dot Com.

Written by Eric Likness

March 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm

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June 13, 2009 at 10:02 am

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June 5, 2009 at 10:03 am

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Frontline: News War (Episode 3)

In this episode we discover the economics that drive the so-called ‘News Business’. Apparently up until 1968-69 the networks ran their news divisions in the public interest as dictated by the FCC. Everything changed when CBS with Don Hewitt at the helm created “60 Minutes”, which turned a profit for the news division. It was all downhill from there. Personally I kind of like ’60 Minutes’ as both an investigative news show and as entertainment. The proof that things had changed was when the Loews Corp knuckled under pressure from the ‘Cigarette Industry’ and buried the Jeffrey Weigand whistle-blowing expose on the research done on the effects of cigarettes and the correlation with cancer. I wrote once in an ironic way (probably ripped off of another article I read at the time) that this time Dan Rather’s vaunted eye of CBS blinked. That was proof that ’60 Minutes’ was not like other news programs. It had financial interests to protect.

And whither the old grey newspapers? When public ownership became all the rage and stockholders drove decisions at the newspapers, things took a turn for the worse. The financial obligation a publicly traded company has to its stockholders and the profit margins required outweigh any public interest the newspaper may serve. Knight-Ridder was profiled in its takeover of the L.A. Times and the what followed as the profit margin shot up to 20% year over year. Every quarter attempts were made to show stockholders that management was actively involved and that profits would stay high. Which requires constant publicly visible attempts to cut costs. This is the merry-go-round every company suffers from, and in the era before publicly traded Newspapers, was unnecessary. Families owned newspaper operations in the prior age, and didn’t require 20% profit margins year over year. And therefore, newspapers didn’t have to go through a quarterly charade of cutting costs to maintain profits and growth.

The measure of success for the public interest oriented newspapers and broadcasters are the St. Petersburg Times and National Public Radio. St. Pete is run as a non-profit trust and they are able to be profitable, but are not required to maintain year over year profits and growth in the range of 20% profit and 1% growth each year. As a result the St. Petersburg Times is the most popular newspaper in ALL of Florida, central and otherwise. The only thing I remember coming from the St. Petersburg Times is Dave Barry’s humor column. In retrospect, it makes sense that Barry would have found a comfortable home at this newspaper. The other measure of success is any news organization that is able to keep reporters permanently stationed in Baghdad since before the invasion began. As it stands today National Public Radio can count itself in the same league as N.Y.Times, AP, Reuters, etc. Very few organizations outside the newswires are able to bear the cost of reporting daily from Baghdad. And now NPR is counted as the most trusted broadcast news reporting organization in the U.S. with 26million listeners. Thank God someone is doing something right. Let’s hope private ownership and private trusts can reverse the trend of poorly managed publicly traded media companies.

Written by Eric Likness

February 28, 2007 at 9:50 am

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I inform people against their will

Borrowed from the podcast of “This American Life” #326. Full attribution is a good thing. Mystery Hunt @ MIT. New Puzzles keep coming. There are no instructions but there is an answer. However in real life, outside of MIT, most problems don’t have an answer. Thirteen and half straight hours, 30 straight hours. Dave tells the story of his time at Hallmark in Kansas City, MO. He moved from humor to serious and couldn’t figure out why he was told not to use so many allusions in his day to day speech. “Ooooh, that’s the problem. I inform people against their will.” The thing that makes you annoying in the regular world is not annoying here. Some people have talents that require the right context in which to shine. Truer words were never spoken, thankyou Lisa Pollock.

Written by Eric Likness

February 23, 2007 at 2:09 pm

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Podcast addendum – Bomb Run 021

After posting the show and listening to it some thoughts occured to me. Stuff I would have included if it wasn’t boring or made the show go too long would have included:

References to the history of  Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research

References to Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert’s book: Perceptrons

The role of AI Research in missile defense planning/budgets

The re-invigoration of AI Research with the missile defense program under Reagan et. al.

These topics will stay off the podcast until I get through the first round of scripted podcasts. An art professor of mine once said, “Where do you come up with all these stories?” And I looked at her, smiled a big dumb grin and said, “Oh this?! I got a million of ‘em.”  So don’t be surprised if we revisit the MIT AI Lab and it’s history and contributions to the computer industry and society in general.

Written by Eric Likness

February 8, 2007 at 3:39 pm

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Thinking about the weather

cardinal in tree

10,000 Maniacs: The color of the sky as near as I can tell is called grey

Thinks finally cooled off, below normal in fact for many quarters in the eastern U.S. The ice wasn’t too bad. We could have had power outages, but we seem to have escaped them. Tonight is the big chill however, the prediction is 10 degrees fahrenheit. I’m kind of glad the weather is acting somewhat more normally. And I hope it stays this way for the duration. Snow of any kind isn’t a burden if it melts occasionally.

Written by Eric Likness

January 16, 2007 at 10:05 am

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