Shelf Life

The rural neighborhood I live in hosts a Nextdoor electronic newsletter, allowing residents to post online for all sorts of reasons. (Loose animals are a frequent topic.) Today, however, one thoughtful neighbor said to look beyond first responders and hospital staff for a moment and acknowledge other workers deserving of the spotlight: grocery store employees. Talk about people we take for granted. After all, they’re keeping an eye on 20,000 different products on the shelves of the average U.S. supermarket.

I had to double-check that number to believe what I was reading.  Nielsen, the research and ratings firm not only confirmed the number but said U.S. grocery stores experienced a 4.5% decline in 2020 (so more like 18,000 products).  Shouldn’t surprise us, especially with global supply chain interruptions.  And it’s easy to remember the most popular products missing in action.  Bath tissue, cleaning wipes, and canned soup, for example.  Others however, you probably didn’t notice.  Bumble Bee, the tuna maker, reduced its product count from 300 to 225.  Progresso Soup (a personal favorite), dropped its canned choices from 90 to 50.

Now, guess what?  Bumble Bee is not only back to its 300 products but adding new ones regularly.  Progresso is back to its ninety soups and doing the same thing.  So much for the “death of variety”, huh?  And speaking of variety, did I say ninety soups from a single manufacturer?  I’d be lucky if I could name twenty-five (“tomato”, “chicken noodle”, “clam chowder”, uh, uh…)  No wonder soup gets so much real estate on supermarket shelves.

J.M. Smucker is taking a similar tack.  They make a dozen varieties of peanut butter and two dozen more of jelly but last year you had to go without “Simply Jif”, “Reduced Fat”, and “Omega 3” versions of both.  Today, not only are their PB&J’s back but Smucker has introduced “Jif Natural Squeeze” and a smaller snack version of their popular “Uncrustables” frozen sandwiches.  It’s as if the pandemic was a small speed bump en route to ever-increasing variety.

Post Grape-Nuts cereal (which earned solo attention from me in “Ever Eat a Pine Tree?“) disappeared entirely in 2020.  For a while there you couldn’t find any version of the tooth-shattering cereal on the shelves.  But now the gravel is back, and Post is making a bold move to “apologize” for last year’s inconvenience.  If you paid $10 or more for a box of Grape-Nuts from November 2020 to March 2021, Post will issue a partial refund for the “unreasonable” portion of the cost.  You need your receipt, of course.  Clever marketing there.  How many people keep their grocery store receipts from six months ago?

Speaking of bold moves, here’s one I think we should sustain; a sort of pandemic silver lining.  At many hotels “housekeeping” has been reduced to the time between stays instead of every day.  My wife and I recently spent four nights in a Marriott hotel and at no time did housekeeping enter our room.  Instead, we gathered up dirty towels and exchanged for new ones at the front desk.  We emptied our own trash.  We made the mini soap/shampoo/conditioner bottles last.  It was hardly an inconvenience.  It was also nice to know our room was undisturbed the entire time.

Similarly, dropping grocery store product totals from 20,000 to 18,000 was subtly a good thing.  We were forced to simplify our pantries and go more back-to-basics.  We cooked more.  We ate more whole foods (instead of fast foods).  Let’s hope those habits remain, even while consumer goods manufacturers crank out ever-more variety.

There’s a newish bad habit driving grocery store shelf life however; one bound to stay a while.  The percentage of snack/junk foods you’ll find is higher than pre-pandemic days.  Why?  Because working from home drives the demand.  Accordingly, you’ll find 10.9% more salty snacks on the shelves, 11.5% more energy drinks (including PepsiCo’s caffeine-laden Mountain Dew Rise), and 14.8% more pastry items.  And (most disturbingly), you’ll find 79.2% more pre-mixed cocktails.  Whoa now.  Somebody might want to post on Nextdoor for the invention of a web-based sobriety test.  They’ll make a fortune.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “These foods disappeared from grocery stores last year…”, the CNN Business article, “The Grape-Nuts shortage is over…”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Ice Cream Dreams

Before our vacation in South Carolina last week, I took measures to ensure I was fully prepared for the low country’s late-May heat and humidity. I packed a reliable SPF 30 sunscreen. I purchased a couple of bottles of spray-on insect repellant. I added several hats to the wardrobe. I even brought a USB-chargeable mini-fan, which hangs around the neck, operates at three speeds, and adjusts to just the right angle. But guess what? I didn’t need any of these items in South Carolina last week (for the weather gods were merciful). Instead, I should’ve left it all at home and just brought my bed.

South Carolina is nicknamed “The Palmetto State”

Is it me getting older or can we all agree on the exceptional value of a good night’s sleep?  For me, it’s a day of brain fog if I don’t get a quality 7.5 hours in la-la land the night before.  When I’m up past midnight (which is never my intention), I know I’m going to pay dearly at 7am the next morning.  Because, I wake up without fail (and without alarm clock) every morning at 7am.  Even if I don’t hit the hay until 3am.

 Stay in a hotel – any hotel – and after one night you’re reminded how the circumstances of quality sleep are frustratingly beyond your control.  My wife and I booked a charming historic inn our first night last week, and what-do-you-know, our bed was just as historic.  The seemingly elegant four-poster contained a lumpy mattress with a few squeaky springs, and a decided slope from my side of the bed to my wife’s.  Throw in the two-hour time change and we tossed and turned like a washing machine’s most violent agitation cycle.

The second day we drove over to Charleston (half asleep), where you’d think a Courtyard-by-Marriott room would deliver the Z’s just a little bit better.  No such luck.  Our fifth-floor corner space included two windows with not-so-blackout curtains.  Our first night’s sleep was interrupted by the hotel fire alarm, triggered because one of the elevators malfunctioned.  The rest of our night’s sleeps were interrupted by the several amped-up bachelorettes and wedding parties resident in the hotel.  Finally, we were adjacent to the fire exit stairs, with a bangy access door used constantly… because of the malfunctioning elevator.

Once upon a time, I was happy just to afford a bed to sleep in.  But over the years I’ve developed a respect for the crucial elements of quality sleep.  A comfortable mattress is worth the max you can afford to pay.  A mattress where you can raise/lower the head and foot is even better.  Make the room pitch black (which in our case includes a small piece of cardboard to block the fireplace pilot flame).  Adjust the temp to the high sixties °F.  Invest in a white noise machine.  And table the electronic devices and alcohol several hours before bedtime.

If there was a plus side to my Charleston sleep, it was this.  We discovered a very good ice cream place within walking distance of the hotel.  Don’t know about you but ice cream does wonders for my sleep.  Specifically, my dreams.  Maybe it’s the sugar or maybe it’s just the late-night munchies, but I’m guaranteed all kinds of REM-sleep adventures when I’ve had ice cream.  Some are haunted-house scary, others earn a movie-theater R-rating, and still others are a jumbled hodgepodge of individual memories making no sense when thrown together.  Whatever the subject, my ice cream dreams are a ton of fun.  They also disappear from memory as fast as the ice cream did the night before.  I’m not one of those who greet you at breakfast with, “You’re not gonna believe what I dreamed about last night!”  Because I’ve already forgotten.

Dreams are the topic of an entire post and alas, I’ve already used up my typical word count this time around.  But let me leave you with some dreamy trivia.  The average person enjoys three to five dreams a night.  Like me, most people quickly forget their dreams the moment they wake up.  Dreams last longer as the night progresses.  The older you get, the less you dream.  Finally, for all we know about the brain, we know next to nothing about dreaming.

I can’t fit a bed in my suitcase so I already know the next time I travel means quality sleep stays behind.  But maybe I’ll pack a little ice cream on dry ice.  If I can’t get my usual dose of Z’s, the least I can do is enjoy a forgettable sweet dream or two.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

It’s All in the Cards

Back in the Boy Scouts, my troop-mates and I memorized statements designed to make us better young men. The Boy Scout motto was, “Be Prepared”. The Scout slogan: “Do a Good Turn Daily” (help others). The Scout oath – several sentences stated with a raised right hand (fingers forming the Scout sign) – included obedience to the twelve points of the Scout law. Recently I’ve been thinking about Point #2 of the Scout law, Loyalty; showing care for family, friends, and country.  But what about care for merchants?

Customer loyalty programs – those structured marketing ploys designed to tempt continued shopping at particular businesses – are standard retail procedure these days.  The use of plastic and punch cards, account numbers, or scanned apps is as common as pulling out your Visa.  I get suspicious when a merchant doesn’t have a loyalty program.  It’s all about the points, and the allure of discounts or freebies through accumulated spending.

American Airlines, credited with starting the first full-scale customer loyalty program in modern times (1981), had no idea its “frequent fliers” would become the trendsetters for countless programs to follow.  But the drive for customer loyalty started way before AA.  Anyone who remembers pasting S&H Green Stamps into collection books, clipping Betty Crocker coupons straight from the product box, fishing prizes from Cracker Jack caramel corn, or joining the Columbia House Record Club (“8 CD’s for a penny!”) has dipped their toe into the customer loyalty pool before.

I took a quick inventory of my own customer loyalty and the numbers surprised me.  I carry eight cards in my car.  I have another eleven apps on my phone and another ten on-line accounts.  That’s 29 unique programs, and over 30 if I include the couple of credit cards where my swipes eventually equal cash back.  For someone who rarely shops on impulse, that’s more attention to spending than I’d care to admit.

If I did a little spring cleaning, I’d likely reduce my loyalty programs by one-third.  Many sit gathering dust because I haven’t used the merchant or service in years.  Others accumulate points at a snail’s pace.  Fill my inbox with special sales alerts or saturate my voice mails with pleas to “buy now!”; it won’t matter.  I purchase on my own terms.

Here are two recent loyalty experiences; the reasons I chose this topic today.  Last September we took a weekend trip to Aspen, settling for a Westin hotel in nearby Snowmass (Aspen is over-the-top expensive to us commoners).  When I went to Westin’s website for the booking, I discovered their loyalty program (Starwood) was merging with Marriott Rewards (now Marriott Bonvoy).  Hallelujah – my Aspen getaway gets me points! But not so fast.  Logging into Marriott Rewards, the home page alerted me to the fact the program merge was still in progress, and a Westin stay might not result in Marriott points.  Long story short, I called the hotel, spoke to the front desk, and had them book the reservation for me instead.  Yep, you can still do it the old-fashioned way.  And you still get points.

My other recent loyalty experience involved Nicholas Mosse Pottery (Kilkenny, Ireland).  Mosse makes beautiful handmade plates and bowls and the like, and we’ve been collecting a few pieces at a time since visiting Ireland a few years ago.  Points for me (ha) for joining the Mosse loyalty program from the get-go.  Just this week they alerted me me to my quietly-amassed rewards.  I then purchased a $70 plate for virtually nothing.

My Mosse experience is the perfect example of my casual approach to customer loyalty.  I don’t keep track of points until they equate to something significant.  Sure, I favor certain products and services, but I’d still favor Marriott or Starbucks or Costco without their loyalty programs.  For someone who tracks every penny, there’s something very satisfying in the surprise of unexpected discounts.  That’s how it works best for me.

Here’s my advice.  Don’t let customer loyalty programs drive your spending habits.  If you do, the merchant “wins”, because you’re likely spending more along the way than whatever discount or freebie you end up getting.  Loyalty = showing care; yes, but with retail that should only mean preferring one store over another.  Despite what they’d have you believe, it’s not all in the cards.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and from the Wall Street Journal article, “Inside the Marriott-Starwood Loyalty Program Turbulence”.

Wee Wardens of Wash

Let’s wage a debate where the arguments “against” easily beat the arguments “for”, but we’re so stubbornly “for” we wage the debate anyway. Sound like politics?  Not today. Race relations? No way, José. Pepsi vs. Coke? Maybe another time. Today we’re putting a much hotter topic on the table: shampoo. More specifically, hotel shampoo.

Last weekend my family and I stayed at a Fairfield Inn – a low-end entrée on the Marriott hotel menu.  Fairfield’s are fine by us – clean and basic overnight accommodations, (with a free breakfast that actually digests).  In this instance, we entered the lobby to the smell of freshly-baked help-yourself chocolate-chip cookies.  That was a nice surprise.  After check-in, we made our way around the corner to the elevators, and on up to our third-floor rooms.

Let’s pause here for a quick survey.  What’s the first thing you do when you enter a hotel room – check out the view?  Channel-surf the TV?  Flop on the bed?  Not me. I head to the bathroom to check out the small “freebies” on the counter.  Chances are I’ll find (at a minimum) soap for the sink, soap for the shower, boxed tissues, makeup-remover wipes, and maybe even a tiny cloth to polish shoes.  Also for the taking: shampoo, conditioner, and body-wash bottles, lined up like little dominoes just waiting to take the plunge into the nearby shower.  But guess what?  Those little soldiers of sanitation are about to go MIA.

In the next few months, according to a Wall Street Journal article, many of America’s hotel bathrooms will drop “little bottles” in favor of shower-wall bulk dispensers.  In today’s environmentally-conscious world, you have to wonder why it hasn’t happened sooner.  Consider the arguments against these little grime-fighting gunners.  They create tons upon tons of plastic waste.  They get thrown away half-full – so effectively waste on top of waste.  The moment you need them is the moment you’re already wet in the shower (and they’re still over on the counter).  Finally, for anyone who requires reading glasses – hello, me – little bottle labels are impossible to decipher while you’re standing under shower spray. Raise your hand if you’ve ever put body wash in your hair.

More arguments against.  Bulk dispensers keep the shampoo in the hotel and the bottles out of the landfills.  They give you as much or as little product as you need.  Bulk dispensers can easily be refilled by housekeeping (though picture the short-straw employee who has to decant the contents of the leftover bottles into the dispensers).  Finally, bulk dispensers eliminate five billion little bottles a year.  Okay, that last argument is pretty much the only one you need.  And yet…

This change brings me pain.  Staying at hotels won’t be the same without my wee wardens of wash.  My singular argument for?  I’m all about personal touch; the little things that make you go, “wow, I feel special”.  Those little heroes of hygiene do that for me.  So do chocolate-chip cookies.

To add fuel to the fire, I expect hotels to eventually remove everything else from the bathroom counter.  You’ll find nothing but a faucet, towels, and TP.  While they’re at it, they’ll eliminate the logo pens, the paper pads, the stationery, and even the bedside clock-radio’s.  Cleanse the room of anything moveable.  Why do this?  Because hotels know they can condition you to bring your own stuff.  And before you say, “Dave, that’s a stretch”, consider the airlines.  It wasn’t that long ago the ticket agent checked you in, printed your boarding pass, and slapped the luggage tag on your suitcase.  Pretty soon you’ll be flying the plane.

Truthfully, I can do without my little defenders of disinfection, as long as hotels don’t take away my elbow room.  But that’s already happening, isn’t it? Blame Japan for the “little room” concept.  America is now a breeding ground for “capsule hotels”.  Capsules give you nothing more than a bed-closet and a down-the-hall community bathroom.  They’re described as “cheap, basic, overnight accommodations”.  Wait, wait, wait – isn’t that the same definition I gave our Fairfield Inn?  One of these days someone will say to me, “Wow, the Fairfield. Y’all stay nice.”

In the meantime, rest in peace little marines of clean.  Your work is done.  Time for the big boys to take over.