business news in context, analysis with attitude

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Jim Leyland, who won more than 1700 games as a manager with four different teams, and earned one World Championship and three pennants, was elected this week to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  What was remarkable about all the stories was how they sounded a common theme about this management style, which offers all of us some business lessons.

One more thing: This is the link to a Leyland moment with Barry Bonds that I mention in the video. Please note - this definitely is NSFW.

by Kevin Coupe

There was nothing artificial this week about the indignation and alarm that arose after it was announced that Calm - a popular sleep and meditation app - now is offering a new bedtime story - read by an AI-created version of actor Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart - who was a major Hollywood star from 1940 to 1970, with credits that included "It's A Wonderful Life," "Vertigo," "Rear Window," and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" - died in 1997.

Engadget writes that Stewart "was known for his signature drawl and calming voice," and that the company "trained its system with old recordings of the star and merged them with a voice actor's rendition of the story."

"Hello, I'm James Stewart, but you can call me Jimmy. Tonight I'm going to tell you a story," the AI-generated Stewart begins. “It’s a heartwarming story of love, of loss, of hope and of joy, but most of all — it’s a wonderful sleep story.”

The story notes that "the project received the green light from both Stewart’s family and his estate. While this project was created with consent from the necessary parties, the growing use of AI to replicate voices of celebrities and other public figures has sparked ethical debates. There have been several instances of unauthorized use of likenesses or voices, including that of Drake, Tom Hanks and Gayle King."

A few things here.

First, the key word is "authorized."  The Stewart family approved it, whatever their motivations.  So there's no ethical issue that I can see.

Second, I think there need to be strict legal guardrails about how people's faces, bodies and voices are used by AI.  With major consequences for anyone who violates those laws.

Third, I'm wondering if I should get AI to start doing my FaceTime videos, especially after I retire.  Y'think?

And finally:  I've listened to a bit of the AI-created Stewart rendition, and I don't think it sounds anything like him.  It sounds oddly flattened out, like a face that has had all the wrinkles removed via surgery.  It is soothing, but without character.  And I do a better Jimmy Stewart impression than the AI.

Which makes we wonder, why do you need AI?  Why not get Rich Little?  

(FYI, I checked, and Rich Little is still alive.  He's 85 and apparently in residence at the Tropicana in Vegas.)

One other point.  I do think that businesses have to be concerned about the degree to which AI can be used by bad actors to create problems for them.  Sure, AI has a lot of positive implications, but we all have to be on alert, sensitive to the difference between information and misinformation.

New world.  And an Eye-Opener.

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The Information reports that Amazon is testing a new grocery delivery subscription in three US cities - Denver, Sacramento and Columbus - that will offer

"unlimited deliveries on orders over $35 from Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh to Prime members who pay an extra $9.99 per month."

The story notes that "grocery delivery used to be included at no extra cost as part of Amazon’s $139-a-year Prime membership, but Amazon started charging a $9.95 fee for all Whole Foods orders in 2021 and added fees of up to $9.95 on Fresh orders below $150 earlier this year. It then lowered the threshold for free Fresh orders to $100 this October."

KC's View:

In a separate piece, The Information offers this bit of analysis of the numbers:

Apparently Jim Cramer doesn’t buy his groceries from Amazon. During the CNBC host’s interview with CEO Andy Jassy, which aired Wednesday night, Cramer asked why Amazon doesn’t double the cost of Prime, considering how many benefits the $139-a-year subscription includes. Some regular grocery shoppers would say the company has already done exactly that - through a dizzying series of benefit changes and new fees.

"Let’s do the math: At the beginning of 2021, Prime, which cost $119 a year at the time, included unlimited Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh deliveries on orders over $35 at no extra cost. Later that year, Amazon added a $10 fee to all Whole Foods deliveries. In 2022, Amazon jacked the total price of Prime up to $139. Earlier this year, it started charging fees of up to $10 on all Fresh deliveries below $100.

Then on Thursday, Amazon said it was piloting a grocery-delivery subscription that offers unlimited Whole Foods and Fresh deliveries on orders over $35 to Prime members who pay an extra $10 a month. Multiply that over a year and add it to the base Prime fee, and the same service that cost $119 in 2021 now costs a whopping $259. Now that’s mad money!"

And that doesn't even include the monthly fee that people will have to pay if they want to continue watching Amazon Prime Video programs without commercials.  It is a great point.

It makes me think - aren't all these additional fees and options a form of friction, which Amazon long seemed dedicated to eliminating?

The thing is, one of the beautiful things about Prime and Subscribe & Save is that they were simple - the value proposition was easy to understand.  There was a certain elegance to them.

I like the idea of Amazon testing new programs and figuring out the sweet spot that it can best occupy in grocery.  But man, they make things complicated sometimes, which may have the long-term effect of making people wonder if Amazon is really such a good deal.  

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Axios has a story about how "shopping malls across the country are adding lifestyle experiences and off-kilter attractions to draw in consumers in the age of e-commerce … New attractions range from ice rinks and huge entertainment venues to niche gyms."

And, of course, pickleball.

The story notes that "workplaces have also spilled into malls. Coworking companies and doctors' and dentists' offices have rapidly become mall tenants, as stores close …  The goal is a symbiotic relationship between retailers and lifestyle features."

KC's View:

In the Stamford Town Center near me, Pickleball America has taken over a two-story location that used to be a Saks 5th Avenue, converting it to what it calls "one of the largest indoor pickleball venues."  We've started playing a regular 90-minute pickleball game there every Tuesday night, and really like it - but the rest of the mall is akin to a morgue.

But, they're trying.  There is a dance studio and an exercise joint, plus a Macy's and a Barnes & Noble (though why these two anchor tenants still are there escapes me).  Some other stores, too, but the other night, during the run-up to Christmas when you'd think it would be busy, it was dead.

Love the pickleball.  But they have a long way to go.  And I'm dubious whether even these changes can save C and D malls.

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With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

•  The Seattle Times reports that Amazon got significant blowback when it announced that it planned to end a free coffee perk that it used to start luring people back to the office after the pandemic.

The reason:  "Roughly 10,000 employees asked Amazon to reconsider, noting that the perk increased productivity, employee morale and the in-person collaboration the company said it was looking for with its return-to-office mandate."

As a result, Amazon has reversed the decision:  "Amazon said Tuesday it considered a number of factors when it made decisions regarding employee benefits and that it is happy to continue offering free coffee for workers."

For a company that is so big, has so much freakin' money, and is built on a culture of innovation, Amazon sometimes can be amazingly tone-deaf and parsimonious.  

•  From Reuters:

"The District of Columbia attorney general's office on Thursday urged an appeals court to revive the city's lawsuit accusing of artificially driving up prices on its platform and elsewhere through curbs on third-party sellers and wholesalers.

"A three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals heard arguments for an hour, as the city's highest local court weighed whether a judge in 2022 wrongly dismissed the attorney general's case.

"The city's attorney argued that the D.C. Superior Court trial judge 'ignored' factual allegations that provided enough of a basis to let the antitrust case move forward.  The District's lawsuit accused Amazon of anticompetitive agreements, including unlawfully barring merchants on the e-commerce giant's platform from offering lower prices elsewhere."

According to the story, "Amazon has denied violating the District's law prohibiting business arrangements that curb competition.  A spokesperson for Amazon said the company had no comment."

•  Instacart announced that it is expanding on its relationship with Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) to launch a Good Food at Home program in Washington DC, in concert with Building Bridges Across the River, and Martha’s Table.

According to the announcement, "The program will provide 500 Washington, DC families in Wards 7 and 8 with a $60 monthly Instacart Health Fresh Funds stipend to buy fresh fruits and vegetables on Instacart, as well as free grocery delivery."

The move is described as a response to the fact that "nearly one third of residents in the greater Washington, DC area were food insecure within the last year," a number that is "virtually unchanged from the prior year."

The announcement notes that earlier this year, PHA and Instacart partnered with Indianapolis officials to bring a similar program to that community, providing "600 local families with three months of Fresh Funds stipends and complimentary Instacart+ membership. Results from the program found that the produce credits helped 78% of participant’s families build healthier habits."

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• From the Associated Press:

"US applications for jobless benefits ticked up last week, but the overall number of people in the US collecting unemployment benefits fell after hitting its highest level in two years last week.

"Unemployment benefits claims rose by 1,000 to 220,000 for the week ending Dec. 2, the Labor Department reported Thursday. That was in line with analyst expectations.

"About 1.86 million were collecting unemployment benefits the week that ended Nov. 25, 64,000 fewer than the previous week. It's just the second time in 11 weeks that continuing claims have fallen."

•  Publix Super Markets has set an opening date for its first Kentucky store - January 10, in Louisville.

Kentucky is the eight state in which Publix will operate.  The company also has two more stores slated to open in Louisville, as well as two in Lexington and one more in the northern part of the state.

•  United Natural Foods Inc. reported that its Q1 net sales increased by 0.3 percent compared to the same period a year ago, to $7.552 billion, while reporting a quarterly net loss of net loss of $39 million.

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Executive Suite is sponsored by Robin Russell Executive Search.

•  Walmart Health announced that it has recruited two healthcare executives into the company as it looks to bolster its own offerings in this segment.

The company said that Angela Crosby, the former medical group COO for Tampa, Fla.-based BayCare Health System, has been hired to be vice president of operations for healthcare delivery at Walmart.

And Terrie Andrews, formerly a vice president of behavioral health at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Baptist Health, has been hired as Walmart Health's director and clinical effectiveness lead for behavioral health, virtual care and equity.

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In Thursday Night Football, the New England Patriots held on to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-18.

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Robert B. Parker's iconic private detective, Spenser, is back in a new novel by sportswriter Mike Lupica, who has been tasked by the Parker estate to take over the series that has been written with great skill over the past decade by novelist Ace Atkins.  (Parker passed away in 2010.)

Over the past few years, Lupica has been continuing two other Parker series, one featuring a small town police chief named Jesse Stone and the other a female Boston private detective named Sunny Randall.  To use sports parlance, he's been warming up in the bullpen, and now he has a chance to take on Spenser, the literate Boston private eye created by Parker and featured in his first novel, 'The Godwulf Manuscript," in 1973.

"Robert B. Parker's Broken Trust" begins as so many Spenser novels have - our hero is in his office, drinking coffee, eating doughnuts, perusing the Boston Globe spots pages and bemoaning the performance of the Red Sox.  That's when the wife of the sixth-richest man in America walks in the door, asking him to figure out what has been troubling her husband to the degree that he is behaving in uncharacteristic ways.

Spenser, of course, takes the case - the woman happens to be a friend of his longtime paramour, Susan Silverman.  But the case gets complicated pretty quickly - much of it takes place in the world of technology innovators - as Spenser tries to unravel the mystery with the help of Hawk, the ever-present sidekick who would hate being called a sidekick.

I thought "Broken Trust" was entertaining and well-plotted - it is clear the book has been written by someone who loves and respects the series (and was a friend of Parker before his death).  And Lupica certainly knows Boston - he went to Boston College, and has a strong sense of the city's history and geography, which adds to the verisimilitude.

I interviewed Parker about a thousand years ago (actually it was 1986 - it just feels like a thousand years ago), and one of the things he emphasized was that he believed people liked the book for the music of the language.  He was proud of that - the beats and the tone and the patterns of the language.  One of Ace Atkins' great accomplishments was that he managed to capture the musicality of the language without being imitative, but I'm not sure that Lupica is quite there yet.  The patter is snappy without quite being musical.

But that's okay.  It always is great fun to hang out with Spenser, and Lupica acquits himself well.  He quickly disposes of a couple of hanging plot points that Atkins left for him - in one case, I feel bad about it, because it concerned Hawk and I really wanted to see it play out.

But no worries.  "Broken Trust" is a gift to anyone who loves the Spenser novels and the Parker tradition.  If Lupica wants to keep churning out one a year for the foreseeable future, he can count on me to join him for the ride.

I'm not sure if you've seen it, but a couple of weeks ago a video version of "Like My Dog," one of the songs on Jimmy Buffett's last album, "Equal Strain on All Parts," was posted.

I want to offer it here because I know we have a lot of dog lovers in the MNB community.  (We have three, all of whom are asleep here in my office - one wrapped around my feet under the desk - as I write this.)  The great thing about the video is that it was created in collaboration with the ASPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) to encourage pet adoption and features some clips contributed by Parrotheads.

Fins Up!

I have a couple of nice reds to recommend to you this week.  First, the 2021 Planet Oregon Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley - it is from the folks at the estimable Soter Vineyards, who use sustainable farming techniques to create a wine that is juicy and medium-bodied.  Great stuff.

And then, there is the 2016 Chateau Marquis de Terme Margaux from France, which is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot and 7% Petit Verdot, and 100 percent terrific.

That's it for this week.  Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.


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