How to fix Woolworths: what the overpaid executives won’t find in their spreadsheets

wooliesAustralia’s biggest retailer, supermarket group Woolworths, is floundering.

It’s share price and market value is down almost 30 per cent since April last year, sales are stagnating and profits are forecast to fall 35 per cent over the six months to December.

The Woolworths business is in a mess, while its competitors Coles and Aldi continue to perform strongly and steal market share.

No doubt, Woolworths is spending millions on expensive reviews and turning to its overpaid executives for answers. But I think – judging by their latest announcement – they have probably missed the point entirely.

Scouring the seven page ASX release, I found plenty of the usual management jargon like “customer metrics” and “change programs” but not a single mention of the word “quality”.

As a regular Woolworths shopper, this says a lot, but is hardly surprising.

We buy most of our groceries at Woolworths, not out of any sense of loyalty or because we like shopping there, but simply because its convenient – there is a grocery store literally up the road from our house.

When we have the time, we prefer shopping at a nearby supermarket extravaganza called La Manna, with its funky cafe, ice-cream and dessert bars and amazing selection of fresh and exotic produce.

Indeed, the demise of Woolworths is a perfect example of having too much market power and becoming utterley complacent.

  1. The real problem is quality.

My biggest gripe is with the many crappy products sold in my local Woolworths. Often they are dressed up as bargains, but what they really are, are over-priced duds.

Many people may have laughed at the story about the Woolworths scissors that needed a pair of scissors to open the packet but  that’s just the top of the iceberg I reckon.

There were a lot of mandarin pips. A lot!

There were a lot of mandarin pips. A lot!

From the packet of mandarins I bought recently infested with so many pips they were inedible to the book-reading light I returned three times because it didn’t work, my general feeling is that finding savings, rather than providing quality products is the overriding motto at Woolies.

Not surprising “value perception” rather than “real quality” is considered a key customer metric in the latest bit of corporate spin.

  1. Stop confusing customers

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I have been caught out on many occasions thinking I have bought a discounted item only to pay more at the till. This is because price labels often don’t relate to the items above them. I am certain this is a deliberate strategy. Another one is promoting items with bright labels, when there is no discount. This is highly annoying. And cutting the price by 10 or 20 cents on an item is just an insult to shoppers.

3. Keep stores properly stocked

Perhaps I am being pedantic, but I am always a bit gob smacked when I stroll up and down the aisles only to find the store has run out of such staples as skim milk and brown rice. How is this possible for a company with access to the best supply chain technology and automated ordering software in the world?

4. Make shopping a bit more interesting.

If only Woolies were a bit more like Aldi...

If only Woolies were a bit more like Aldi…

Woolworths could learn a thing or two from German supermarket giant Aldi, which mixes up the standard grocery items with strange and exotic products that change from week to week. You never know what you will find in an Aldi, but in Woolworths its the same boring stuff, week in and week out.

5. The new rewards program sucks

Woolworths new rewards program is a badly thought out idea and feels like a bit of a fraud. The newly introduced scheme does not pay out loyalty discounts on items immediately as it did in the past. Instead you accumulate them on your rewards card until they reach a certain value.

So instead of immediately getting a bit of reduction in your bill, you have to make multiple visits to the store to get anything back. Whichever marketing genius came up with this idea, should be sacked or at least forced to eat some of those pip-infested mandarins.

So, those are just a couple of ideas for whoever replaces Grant O’Brien as Woolworths CEO.

And here’s another tip for those overpaid Woolies executives. Forget the high-powered meetings, power point presentations and slick marketing campaigns. Get out of your wood-panelled boardrooms and take a stroll instead down some of the aisles of your supermarkets to get the real picture.

And stop and have a word with some of your shoppers, you might learn a thing or two.

Note: I have made changes to this story. The original version made comments about my local Woolworths supermarket staff. This was wrong and I apologise. The problem is with its management.

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How to survive a horror movie marathon this Halloween

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“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie” – so says Randy, the geeky virgin played by Jamie Kennedy in the original Scream movie.

But can you survive a Drew Barrymore movie?

Randy’s rules are a) you never have sex b) you never drink or do drugs and c) you never say “I’ll be right back” – because you won’t!

Sound advice, although doesn’t Randy end up dead too at some point? Perhaps its in one of the rubbishy sequels. I can’t remember.

Never mind. Halloween is coming up soon (October 31) which means it’s the perfect time to re-acquaint myself with Scream and other horror classics, both good and bad.

lost_boys_ver2_xlgI should warn you. I am a terrible horror movie watcher, always in a state of perpetual terror, heart racing. Once in the cinema, when I was a teenager, I threw my popcorn straight up in the air when a vampire awoke in The Lost Boys (Kiefer Sutherland with fangs) and did the same, unfortunately with a glass of red wine this time (on someone else’s couch) when one of the masked intruders in the very creepy (and underrated) The Strangers made a sudden appearance.

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I have also been known to bury my head behind a pillow, hide behind the couch, hide behind the curtains, block my ears and close my eyes – much to the amusement, but also annoyance of my fellow film watchers.

But if you had to ask me what I would need to survive a movie marathon of my favourite horror movies, these are things I’d pack in my man crate*:

gloves

Extra thick gloves so I don’t get touched up by evil psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lector, and night vision goggles for later so I can shoot transvestite serial killer Buffalo bill squarely between the eyeballs before he gets me in the dark basement of his creepy old house (For The Silence of the Lambs).

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A good local map or perhaps a decent GPS device so I don’t get lost while inexplicably taking a walk on a moonlit night in the barren Yorkshire Moors, plus a little note-book to write down handy hints like “Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors” and “Beware the moon, lads”. Also, a gun loaded with silver bullets in case a deranged hairy monster leaps out at me (For An American Werewolf in London).

I’d need a beach bag, with towel, but no bathing suit so I would have a damn good excuse for not getting into the water and a scary book about sharks to convince me I really don’t need to go in for a swim in my undies. (For Jaws, the original, where the shark actually looked real).

For later in the evening, three books, “A guide to old Manhattan apartment and their ghoulish histories“, “How to know if your partner is a Satanist” (pocket size) and “New York’s most reputable obstetricians: the Definitive List“. (For Rosemary’s Baby)

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A few more odds and ends: Extra strong coffee so I don’t fall asleep while having a bath (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and my anti-psychotic medication to keep the subway demons at bay (Jacob’s Ladder)

And of course, a decent recipe for pea soup! (The Exorcist).

GreenGarlicSoup

*I was invited to write this post for mancrates.com, an American gift company that makes up collections of nostalgic gifts and then ships them out in actual wooden crates, complete with an Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style crowbar, to open them.

I haven’t been paid to write it, nor did I get a free man crate (I did ask) but I loved the concept when I checked out their website. Pity they don’t ship to Australia.

I especially liked the crate filled with exotic meats crate (including biltong), the coffee crate with genuine NATO ammo case and one I am sure would be sought after by many blokes, the retro gamer man crate.

There is no place in Judaism for intolerance

As far as being Jewish goes, I am no great role model: I don’t keep  kosher, I don’t observe the Sabbath, I don’t fast on Yom Kippur and I have married outside my religion.

But I consider myself Jewish in my upbringing, cultural connections, appreciation of Jewish food, jokes and more deeply a sense simply of always, no matter what, being a Jew.

Then of course there is just being a decent human being: fair, just, kind, compassionate, empathetic. These too I consider very Jewish values (and ones that I try to uphold), though they are also the values of good and decent Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists.

For me they have always been more important than going to synagogue, observing the high holy days, not mixing milk and meat or wearing a kippah on my head.

Which is why I have always believed so strongly that intolerance has no place in Judaism or Jewish life and why I reacted so strongly when I read a letter, published  recently in the Australian Financial Review, written by a fellow Jew, Michael Burd of Toorak, Melbourne.

Written soon after the Australian government had agreed to take in an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees and amidst the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, Mr Burd’s contribution to the debate was not to naturally as a Jew, identify with the persecuted, tortured, and frightened people fleeing genocide, but argue against compassion and call for the protection of the Jewish community in Australia – one of the most privileged minorities in one of the world’s most prosperous countries.

In his letter, Mr Burd wrote of the threats to Jewish schools from Muslim extremists (never mind that the greatest threat to Jewish kids comes from the paedophiles that work in these schools) and other Jewish institutions, ending his indignant letter by saying:

With 12,000 Syrian asylum seekers  coming to Australia our government is playing Russian roulette with Jewish community safety.

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

It appalls me that an educated Jewish man, who probably lost relatives in Europe during the Holocaust, and would well know the long history of Jewish flight from persecution to set up new lives as refugees in countries like South Africa and Australia, should hold such intolerant beliefs and paint modern day refugees in such a negative light, particularly given current events in Europe, and around the world.

But it does not surprise me at all.

So many of the memories of my very Jewish upbringing (I had a Bar Mitzvah, attended a Jewish Day School, went to synagogue on the Sabbath) in South Africa are darkened by intolerance.

Here’s a phrase I remember well: ” Shiksas are good for sleeping with, just so long as you don’t marry them.”

A Shiksa, for those who don’t know is a non-Jewish woman.  Another word used constantly for non-Jew was ‘Yok’.

Then there were the constant references to the ‘schvartze‘ – a derogatory Yiddish word referring to a black person.

When I was growing up in South Africa, the schvartze was the black domestic worker toiling silently in the kitchen or the garden ‘boy’ (in fact a grown man) raking up the leaves from the swimming pool.

Words like shiksa and schvartze was said all the time by the very people who should have been my role models: my peers, older relatives and even those observant, ultra-religous Jews with their disapproving judgements of non-religous Jewish life.

Of course there have been many heroic Jews around the world who have fought for human rights and justice, who would be equally appalled at Mr Burd’s letter.

In South Africa, people like anti-apartheid heros Joe Slovo and Albie Sachs  and war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone spring to mind. Indeed, there is my own cousin Henry Brown,  who represented Nelson Mandela as a young lawyer in the 1960s.

But it is the intolerance within the Jewish community that has seen me drift further and further away from my faith.

Instead, i see my Jewishness, purely through cultural references and reminscences: the comedy and witticism of Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the mournful hymns we use to sing in the beautiful old Germiston Synagogue on Saturday mornings, the lavish meals of chopped liver, marrow bones on challah, mock crayfish, matzoh ball soup, roast meats, potato kugel and parve chocolate mousse served for dessert.

Sad to report, another rich relative in Spain has died, leaving me a small fortune

IMG_0318Mr Thomas Schlesinger, a distant relative of mine and his poor wife died in 2010 on the Barcelona Motorway, writes his personal attorney, the barrister Alejandro Gomez (Esq) of Lanx & Associates, (located at 42 Arc del Teatra, Barcelona) in a letter that arrived by post last week, dated September 14.

Before his death, Mr Gomez writes, Thomas deposited $8.5m in the Spanish Finance Bank, but tragically did not make a will.

All efforts to trace Thomas’s relatives have been ‘abortive and a mystery”.

Rather than risk having the funds confiscated, “as according to Spanish Inheritance Law on article 101-102 amendment”, Mr Gomez has kindly offered to present me (L Schlesinger) as the next of kin of Thomas Schlesinger, who I am told was a “formal contractor/engineer” at mining giant BHP Billiton” to share the $8.5m with him, minus 10 per cent to go to “some charity organisations”.

Because of his personalities (of which I assume there are multiple) Barrister Gomez writes and says that I should keep the matter “secrete and confidentiality as our primary working conditions” but that I should email him at his private address, or phone or fax as soon as possible “to ensure the success of the project”.

As I pondered the words of Mr Gomez, I reflected on a double tragedy: almost three years ago I received another letter from Barrister Mateo Pinto from Madrid to inform me that another distant relative of mine ‘Albert Schlesinger’, an oil magnate who lived in Spain for 28 years died with his immediate family in an “auto car accident on the Damascus Highway in Syria in December 2004”.

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The 2012 letter informing me of Albert Schlesinger’s passing

Sadly, he too had not left a will (it must run in the Schlesinger family on our Spanish side: car accidents and not writing wills) leaving US$9.6 million unclaimed in a vault at the Madrid Central office.

So much death, yet so much unclaimed money…

I have now received two letters from Spain at two different home addresses (I moved house in 2013).

The only thing genuine thing about them are of course the charming Spanish stamps and postmarks on the envelopes.

The latest letter has a lovely one euro stamp depicting Felipe the Sixth, the current Spanish monarch, in a red-brown tint.

The first letter had two stamps: a 35 cent stamp depicting the back seat of a car with a teddy bear and a 50 cent stamp of a red ship of some kind.

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So the scammers have spent 1.85 euros (A$2.92) of their own money, trying to get me to give them thousands of mine.

I haven’t given them a penny and it seems hard to believe that anyone else would fall for this scam. But they do, and in droves.

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The September 2015 letter

According to the Australian government’s Scamwatch website, losses for the first seven months of the year from ‘inheritance scams’ – as these are known – total $4.43m from 2500 reported cases, making up roughly 10 per cent of the $45m lost to scams of one sort or another.

“Scammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their attempts to get your money or personal details. Scams succeed because they look like the real thing and catch you off guard when you’re not expecting it,” writes Delia Rickard from the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission

But surely only greed, naievety or stupidity – perhaps a combination of all three – can be driving people to divulge their personal information and lose tens of thousands of dollars to people like “Alejandro Gomez” (For an explanation of how this scam works, click here.)

While the posted letter, stamps and postmark adds an air of authenticity and the letterhead has an actual address (Arc del Teatre in Barcelona does exist) there is no firm called Lanx & Associates.

BHP Billiton, is of course a real company, but never employed a Thomas Schlesinger, who never deposited money into the Spanish Finance Bank, because no such bank exists.

As for Alejandro Gomez, no such barrister is currently practicing in Barcelona according to Google, though there is an Argentinan football player and a Columbian tennis player with the same name, so maybe the letter writer is a sports fan.

And type the name of his “law firm” Lanx & Associates into Google and you come up with consumer forums (like this one) packed with people telling identical stories about letters from lawyers in Spain.

Greetings from Germany. My new best friend Barrister Mark Torres Esq. (Spanish Lawyer and Doctor in Law) located at Calle Velázquez 53, 28001 Madrid Tel.: 00-34-692-838-947 barristermark.torres@lawyer.com, wants to share 7.5 million euros with me, left by a person with the same surname who died in a car crash in 2004.
Anyone want to take up the offer?
I am glad I wasn’t in Spain in 2004. It seems to have been a catastrophic year for accidents!