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    Published on: July 14, 2014

    My sister, Debbie Coupe Rios, passed away on Saturday after a two and a half year battle with cancer.  She'd never smoked a day in her life, but had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, which, over time, metastasized and took her at the age of 56.

    I write these words as I fly from Oregon back to the east coast for her funeral.  The end hardly was unexpected;  from the time of her diagnosis, there really was only one likely way for things to end, and after a particularly bad month, she'd been admitted to hospice just a few days before she died.

    As I think about my sister, though, I realize that for much of her illness, it never really occurred to me that she wouldn't beat the cancer.  That's the kind of person Debbie was. Indomitable.  A lot like our mom, who died of cancer in 1998. I always thought Debbie fully expected to beat it, and so I expected the same.

    In the case of my sister, how she died very much serves as an example of to live. With strength, great determination, a certain sense of realism, and maybe even a little irony.  Debbie was not one to suffer fools gladly.  I think in many ways she probably felt the same way about her disease.

    Two quick recollections of my sister…

    I'm the oldest of seven, and Debbie was second in line. However, at a fairly early age she seemed to recognize that she had a more heightened sense of responsibility than I did, and so she took it upon herself to be the oldest sibling. I can't really blame her (though 50 years ago I may have felt differently) … she had me pretty well pegged, and her willingness and ability to simply do what needed to be done and say what needed to be said were qualities that I somehow thought would transfer to how she'd beat the disease.

    Second … and this has no greater meaning other than it sticks out in my memory … Debbie is the person with whom I saw Jaws the first time. It was a summer night, I was home from college in California for a brief visit, and we went to the Bronxville, NY, movie theater together. Scared the crap out of me, and I didn't go in the ocean for two years. My recollection is that it had no such impact on Debbie. In a fight between her and a shark, only a fool wouldn't bet on Debbie.

    But cancer isn't a shark, and life, unfortunately, isn't always a metaphor. Debbie is gone now, but she leaves behind a terrific husband, Angel, and two great kids, Christine and Dan, who know that despite their personal tragedy, Debbie loved them deeply and enduringly. There's real power in that, and there's nothing intangible about it.

    And she leaves behind a father, three brothers and three sisters who will find the extended family dinner table to be just a little bit emptier without her. (That's her in the picture, just to the left of our dad, obviously taking great delight in something that he said.)

    But memories are strong, Debbie's personality endures, and I think she'd want us all to treasure the weeks and months and years we have in front of us. She'd want us to celebrate and cherish the trip we shared but never lose sight of the fact that we need to face and embrace the challenges and opportunities ahead.

    She'd expect it. And I learned a long time ago it is not a good idea to mess with Debbie's expectations.

    To my friends and readers … it is going to be a tough week ahead, but I'm going to do my best to get MNB out each morning. I thank you in advance for your patience and understanding…

    KC's View:

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    by Kevin Coupe

    There is a long piece in the New York Times that does an excellent job of capturing and analyzing the continuing conflict between Amazon and Hachette, and the broader implications of the debate. You can read it here. (By the way…I was sure that this thing would be settled by the time I cam back from my break. So much for my powers of prognostication.)

    Simply put, the argument comes down to money. (Doesn't it always?)

    Amazon, seeking financial concessions that publisher Hachette was unwilling to give, decided to delay the availability of Hachette-published books - even best-sellers - for weeks or months, actually encouraging shoppers to buy alternative titles not published by Hachette or books by the publisher from other bookstores.

    Hachette claims that Amazon is simply looking to improve its bottom line by making unfair demands of the publisher … and that if it wins this round, it will simply embolden the e-commerce pioneer and put every supplier at risk. Amazon claims that publishers take too much money and deliver too little value … and that all they are doing in drawing a hard line is attempting to build a moat around an increasingly endangered business model, And while moats may delay the inevitable, they do not protect a castle's inhabitants from the future.

    What makes this Times story worth reading is the fact that it gets beyond the simple financial arguments and illustrates that a) it may actually be about more than money, b) this no mere white hat vs. black hat debate, and c) it is a debate to which every retailer and supplier should pay close attention.

    Why is it about more than money? Because it is about value and relevance and why perhaps the old rules of this particular game may no longer apply. Even if you accept that Hachette's position is correct, and that Amazon is run by infidels who see no difference between books and widgets and are willing to bring suppliers to their knees over a few dollars and cents (something that has in common with every other big retailer, by the way) it may not matter … because Amazon has shone a bright light on the fact that from a distribution and technology perspective, publishers may have outlived at least part of their usefulness.

    Why is this no mere white hat vs. black hat debate? Because life is never that simple. There are authors and readers who are being hurt by Amazon's current approach, but there also are those who have found a voice and an audience because Amazon has democratized the publishing and book-buying experience. At the same time, publishers are right to be concerned about too much power in the hands of one retailer. (Though one has to remember to take this concern with a grain of salt. After all, it may just be that they are worried about the fact that they used to be the gatekeepers, and that Amazon has taken away their power.) And even if Amazon ends up capitulating in this particular argument - after all, it has been getting a fairly decent beating in the media, which has its own gatekeeper status to worry about - does anyone doubt that it will simply look for another opportunity to pursue its own agenda, which some will see as pernicious and others will see as positive.

    And why is this a debate to which every retailer and supplier to pay close attention? Quite simply, because while the battle may be playing out on one field with two combatants at the moment, it is simply part of a larger war that will envelop us all, as new and old companies on both the retailer and supplier sides seek differential advantages and some sort of sustainable business model that will give them relevance in the eyes of consumers. Amazon just last week became one of the nation's ten biggest retailers. It didn't get there by being complacent, and it is a pretty good bet that somewhere out there, a company or person is plotting how to make Amazon irrelevant.

    It won't be by building a moat. It will be by building some new sort of bridge.

    Today is publishers at risk. Yesterday it was the folks who made buggy whips. There's always someone threatened by change.

    The only thing that is for sure is that there will be a tomorrow, somebody's livelihood will be threatened, and someone will be trying to reinvent the future.

    Better to go into it all with Eyes Open.

    (Gosh, it's good to be back…)
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    The Boston Globe reports that Demoulas Super Markets, where considerable internal strife about management and financials have put the company squarely into the media spotlight, now is being sued by a Massachusetts shopping center owner that claims the company "violated a lease when it failed to open a Market Basket on its property."

    The shopping center says that the chain was supposed to open a store in the Attleboro location by last April; the chain reportedly says that while it does plan to open a store there, the lease does not compel it to do so by a specific date.

    According to the story, "The Attleboro location is one of two Market Basket locations that are fully built but unoccupied. Mayors in both Attleboro and Revere have expressed their frustrations to the company over the months-long delays. Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo told the company in a letter that the city is reviewing legal options, though he insists he’d rather forego legal action in favor of an opened store."
    KC's View:
    Seems to me that this ought to be a fairly simple argument to resolve. Either the lease has a specific date or it does not. Then again, I'm not a lawyer … so this thing probably will end up in the US Supreme Court.

    That said, one has to remember all the tumult that has affected Demoulas lately, with two sides of the same family arguing over expenses and investments and whether money is best spent on growing the company and rewarding the workforce or on lining the pockets of some members of management. (Just the way I've phrased this makes it pretty obvious which side I'm on … though I'll concede that things rarely are quite as simple as they appear, and that I could be completely wrong.)

    What appears increasingly clear is that, whatever your position in this scenario, the Demoulas chain seems to have taken its eye off the ball … which can result in stories and lawsuits like this one. That's not good for business.

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    The Associated Press reports that come dian Tracy Morgan is suing Walmart over the last month's New Jersey Turnpike crash that left him seriously injured and killed a fellow comedian who was traveling with him from a Delaware concert appearance. “As a result of Wal-Mart’s gross, reckless, willful, wanton, and intentional conduct, it should be appropriately punished with the imposition of punitive damages,” the complaint says, in part.

    According to the story, the suit accuses Walmart of negligence since the driver of the Walmart tractor trailer was a company employee; the suit claims that Walmart "should have known the driver had been awake for over 24 hours, and that his commute of 700 miles from his home in Georgia to work in Delaware was 'unreasonable.' It also alleges the driver fell asleep at the wheel."

    The AP story notes that "truck driver Kevin Roper … has pleaded not guilty to death by auto and assault by auto charges. A criminal complaint also accuses him of not sleeping for more than 24 hours before the crash, a violation of New Jersey law.

    "A report by federal transportation safety investigators said Roper was driving 65 mph in the 60 seconds before he slammed into the limo van. The speed limit on that stretch of the turnpike is 55 mph and was lowered to 45 mph that night because of construction.

    "Roper had been on the job about 13 1/2 hours at the time of the crash, the report concluded. Federal rules permit truck drivers to work up to 14 hours a day, with a maximum of 11 hours behind the wheel."
    KC's View:
    I have no idea what Walmart's culpability will be in this case, but I do know that I've driven that stretch of the NJ Turnpike countless times over the years, that there have been many times that the behavior of some truck drivers has scared the daylights out of me. The same goes for much of the Connecticut Turnpike, for that matter, and plenty of other major highways around this country.

    It may end up being a good thing to have a public airing of what public and company policies allow in terms of transportation standards, and whether an emphasis on efficiency and speed is putting too many people at risk. This particular case involved a TV star, so it will get lots of publicity. But it hardly can be an isolated incident, and there's nothing funny about it.

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    The Washington Post reports that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed a lawsuit against Amazon, charging that the e-tailer has made it "too easy for children to make purchases when using mobile apps without a parent's permission … The FTC said in its suit that it seeks a court order for the company to pay refunds to families affected by the unauthorized charges that began in 2011. It also wants the court to permanently ban Amazon from charging parents for in-app purchases without their consent."

    According to the story, the FTC says that Amazon has "charged parents millions of dollars of unauthorized payments for what's known as 'in-app purchases,' typically make-believe items popularly offered within mobile games such as Candy Crush Saga that enhance a game or allow a user to advance levels."

    The Post - which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos - notes that the company has not commented on specifics in the charges, except to say that it was "deeply disappointing" because the company has worked hard to improve its controls.
    KC's View:
    As a parent who occasionally got a surprise when I opened up the cable bill and found purchases that I had not made nor authorized, I'm completely sympathetic to the FTC position on this matter. It isn't just kids who need to be protected, it's their parents wallets … and it seems to me that Amazon maybe ought to be a little more vigilant in creating safeguards. If not, it ought to be forced to do so…

    Of course, it is hard to argue with a retailer that apparently is on the verge of launching its own drone air force…

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    Salon reports that Amazon has officially requested permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to test the use of drones to deliver packages, a program that it has dubbed Prime Air.

    The story says that Amazon's request details "startling advancements" in terms of drone technology development over the past five months, and currently "is testing their agility, redundancy, 'sense-and-avoid sensors,' duration and other algorithms. The company is also working on aerial vehicles that can travel over 50 miles per hour and transport a five pound payload … All of this testing has taken place in its indoor research and development labs, and now Amazon wants to take it outside."

    The FAA currently prohibits the use of drones for commercial purposes, and reiterated that guidance - without naming Amazon - in a recent statement.

    Amazon says that if the US does not allow such testing, it will be forced to move its Prime Air drone development to another, more lenient country.
    KC's View:

    I have to say that I'm not entirely thrilled with the "do it our way or we'll do it elsewhere" approach. I understand it, and maybe it is just the way things are done, but I hate the idea of threats dictating national public policy, especially because it strikes me that there are some pretty decent arguments against private, commercial drone usage, some of them having to do with terrorism. (Haven't these guys ever read a Tom Clancy novel?)

    One thing we do know. Amazon probably isn;t moving the drone program to France.

    Still, I hate to get in the way of progress … and there ought to be a way to test this technology in a way that satisfies everybody's agendas.

    By the way… Prime Air? Is that a great name or what?

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    A new study out of the UK suggests that there is "conclusive evidence that organic crops, and the food made from them, are nutritionally superior to their conventional counterparts," finding that "organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 60 percent higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally grown crops, showed that pesticide residues are found much more frequently in conventional foods, and revealed significantly lower levels of a toxic heavy metal in organic crops."

    Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center (TOC), called it "an important study" that "should help greatly to dispel consumer confusion about the benefits of organic."

    The new study challenges assertions made in 2009 and 2012 studies that organic foods were no healthier than non-organic foods.
    KC's View:
    What's the over-under on how long it will take yet another study to challenge these assertions...?

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    Business Week reports that Family Dollar is turning to alcohol as it looks to increase sales among economically challenged consumers who are its core customers.

    But not in a bad way. (At least, not necessarily.) The story says that "Family Dollar has been experimenting with selling alcohol at about 200 stores this summer, and the results have been strong enough for nationwide expansion of beer and wine sales."

    The story notes that the only problem with beer and wine sales is that they tend to be lower-margin items, so they won't necessarily be contributing a great deal to Family Dollar's profit line. But, the reasoning goes, if it can get more customers in the store by offering booze, they'll buy other stuff, and the long-term impact will be positive because it will eat into other retailers' market shares.
    KC's View:
    Maybe. At the very least, I'd expect sales to go up at Family Dollar stores within two miles of a college campus.

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    USA Today reports that Tony Thompson, the former Papa John's COO now serving as CEO of Krispy Kreme has plans to use the company's iconic doughnut brand "as a springboard to other stuff. Think savory lunch offerings — such as sandwiches served on something sweet. Think licensed products, including ice cream. Think of Krispy Kreme-branded coffee sold in all sorts of places and formats."

    Among the other possibilities: sandwiches sold at lunchtime, and perhaps healthier baked items. Despite his background, Thompson says that pizza is not on his agenda, though delivery could be an option.

    "You have a big advantage when you have an iconic, craveable brand," Thompson tells the paper. "Krispy Kreme can leverage this in ways other brands can't."
    KC's View:
    It is an interesting business problem, best illustrated by the comment made by one analyst who says that Krispy Kreme "has huge brand awareness — but not a lot of brand relevance." in other words, everybody knows its doughnuts but people are not inclined to eat one.

    At the same time, the kind of ubiquity that Thompson seems to be seeking is exactly what was at least partially responsible for some of Krispy Kreme's earlier problems - the company worked so hard trying to make sure its doughnuts were available everywhere that it lost touch with the quality part of the equation. And when the low-carb trend hit, it was like a perfect storm, with Krispy Kreme in no position to weather its troubles.

    On the other hand, it can be argued that diversification can be a good idea - look what happened to Crumbs, the cupcake chain that seems about one level of frosting from going totally belly up.

    It is hard to tell if Krispy Kreme has identified any new business opportunities, or if it is just casting about to see if there are places where it can pick off some business from other players. It sounds like the latter … which means that it doesn't sound terribly promising.

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    • In Los Angeles, the local CBS News affiliate reports that two vendors there "have filed a lawsuit against Trader Joe’s accusing the specialty grocery store chain of manipulative business practices, breaking contracts and intentionally interfering with vendor relationships.

    "The lawsuit alleges the Monrovia-based Trader Joe’s coerced product suppliers and manufacturers in order to get those companies to cancel contracts with Natural Dairy Products (NDP) and Dairy Smart Inc. of Yorba Linda, which sell ice cream and other dairy products.
    The grievances listed in the complaint includes intentional interference with contractual relations, unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and acting in bad faith."

    The suit says that both vendors helped Trader Joe's establish positive and profitable relationships with a number of vendors, and that Trader Joe's then cast them aside when it decided that it could be more profitable doing business without them.

    Trader Joe's has not yet commented on the suit.

    Bloomberg reports that Mondelez international may separate its European cheese and grocery businesses "in a move that may lead to a sale or spinoff … The creation of a stand-alone unit with about $1.4 billion in sales comes as the company jettisons coffee and focuses on faster-growing snack brands amid pressure from activist investors Ralph Whitworth and Nelson Peltz. The strategy may pave the way for an exit from the cheese and grocery business, said a person with knowledge of Mondelez’s deliberations, who asked not to be identified as the plans are private."
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    • Tesco reportedly has hired away Marks & Spencer's CFO, Alan Stewart, to succeed the departing Laurie McIlwee as its own CFO.

    According to published reports, Stewart will join Tesco "after contractual obligations with Marks & Spencer have been met."
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    I may have been off for the past couple of weeks, but that doesn't mean I wasn't paying attention to the news. Here are just some of the stories that caught my attention, with appropriate and italicized commentary…

    • The Wall Street Journal reported that AMC, the nation's second largest movie theater chain, actually is in the process of "spending hundreds of millions of dollars outfitting a number of theaters with La-Z-Boy-type seats that fully recline—a conversion that removes up to two-thirds of a given auditorium's seating capacity. It's a less-is-more approach to a business that has long thought bigger was better."

    The story quotes AMC CEO Gerry Lopez as saying that he is "banking on quality over quantity." So far, the effort seems to be working: "Attendance in renovated AMC auditoriums has leapt 80%, on average, despite the drastic reduction in capacity to sometimes fewer than 70 seats. The company declined to say what the average before-and-after attendance numbers were, though Mr. Lopez acknowledged that the biggest attendance boosts would come in theaters that were weak performers, some of which were losing money."

    AMC is not making the switch in places like New York and Los Angeles, where attendance already is strong, but rather reserving it for smaller markets that have been underperforming. And it is not raising ticket prices for one year after a remodel, but concedes that prices will go up in the long run.

    I know Gerry Lopez a bit, and I am probably one of his bigger customers since I go to 30-40 movies a year, which I think has to be on the high end for someone not actually in the film/TV business. I know just from going to the movies that one the industry's biggest challenges is that so many of us have big screens and decent sound systems at home, not to mention all the other entertainment options that prevent us from dropping ten bucks or more on a first run feature.

    I think that AMC has done an excellent job making its theaters more attractive overall, and the only problem I have with the La-Z-Boy-type seat concept is that I'd be afraid that I'd spend the money and then fall asleep halfway through the movie. And I have to wonder where price resistance will set in.

    Still, I think this is a fascinating idea. In the end, though, I suspect Gerry Lopez and his brethren would agree that there's nothing like great movies to fill a movie theater. Content, in the end, is the most important thing.

    • Walmart last week held its first "Made in the USA" open to call, at which more than 500 American manufacturers were able to meet with the retailer's senior leaders and buyers in order to pitch their products to be sold at Walmart stores, Sam's Clubs, or on the company's website. The company also held breakout educational sessions for potential suppliers, as part of its broader commitment to spend an additional $250 billion on made-in-USA products over the coming decade.

    Sure, there's plenty of skepticism about Walmart's motives and implementation around this issue, but I still think this is very smart. I also think that it won't be long before you'll be able to select "only certified American products" from a drop-down menu on Walmart's and Amazon's sites, which will give the "Made in the USA" even greater currency in the marketplace.

    Interesting piece in the New York Times about restaurant chains that "deliberately pay well above the federal minimum wage. In-N-Out Burger, the chain based in California, pays all its employees at least $10.50 an hour, while Shake Shack, the trendy, lines-out-the-door burger emporium, has minimum pay of $9.50. Moo Cluck Moo, a fledgling company with two hamburger joints in Michigan, starts everyone at $15."

    The reason? "These companies’ founders were intent on paying their workers more than the going rate partly because they wanted to do the right thing, they said, and partly because they thought this would help their companies thrive long term … When fast-food executives offer above-average compensation, it is good not only for employees, but also for the brand. Starbucks, which also pays its employees above minimum wage and offers several benefits, received a public relations lift recently in announcing a program that would provide online college educations for thousands of its baristas."

    Hey, I've made my position on this clear. And I think it is illustrated by the fact that when you go to any In-N-Out Burger or Shake Shack, the people almost always are friendlier and the experience is far more customer-oriented than at a McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy's. Some will say this doesn't matter … but I think it always matters to have employees engaged in the customer-service experience. And that doesn't even address how important it is to have people feeling like they are being treated like an asset and not a cost.

    • The Wall Street Journal reported that Kroger is acquiring Vitacost, described as "an online seller of vitamins and other health-related products," for $280 million. While the deal may be small in financial terms - Kroger, after all, is a $100 billion company - it also is described as important since it will give Kroger "a stronger presence in Internet retailing … Kroger expects the acquisition to enhance its technology expertise and give it a platform for fulfilling home delivery of online orders - an area of increasing importance for grocery chains amid burgeoning competition from companies like Inc. and FreshDirect."

    There's no question that Kroger understands the potential threat from online competitors, and that it is using a variety of means to test different concepts and see what makes sense. Would it surprise anyone to learn that Kroger has a facility somewhere where it is developing some big ideas for the e-commerce space…?

    • The Chicago Tribune reported that Whole Foods has begun construction on a new store in one of Chicago's "most downtrodden neighborhoods … The groundbreaking at 63rd and Halsted streets marks a $22 million bet on the notion that the high-end grocer’s presence in one of the city’s poorest and violent areas will ignite its renaissance."

    According to the story, Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb pledged that the store would be accessible to low income customers. "It’d be stupid to come here and not provide products at prices that people want. That’d just be dumb,” Robb tells the paper. “Talk is cheap, but we will be accessible and affordable for people. Otherwise, we’re not going to succeed.”

    Robb described the project as “one of the most meaningful things we’ve done as a company.”

    It almost sounds like Whole Foods plans to open its version of a Sprouts in Chicago.

    If Whole Foods develops a store where low income customers can afford to shop, I have a suspicion that this neighborhood could see a lot of traffic from outside the neighborhood. Short of that, maybe Whole Foods has some sort of completely different format in mind that will expand its footprint while expanding the nutritional consciousness of a new customer base….?

    Bloomberg featured an interesting video in which Stew Leonard Jr. talked with Gary Vaynerchuk, the social media expert, about the challenges of being a traditional bricks-and-mortar retailer in an increasingly digital world. I posted this on Facebook over the break, noting that it talks about the tension that traditional grocers feel as they face the future of online grocery. I give Stew Leonard a lot of credit for capturing the antipathy he feels pretty succinctly...he explains the bet he's making, but acknowledges that it could be the wrong bet.

    Check it out here.

    • And finally, the Christian Science Monitor reported that the French Parliament has passed a law, described as the "anti-Amazon law," that "would ban online websites from offering free shipping in combination with a five percent discount to customers in France." The law is expected to be signed into law by President Francois Hollande within the next two weeks, and is consistent with a long tradition in France of passing protectionist legislation that helps small independent bookstore survive in the face of larger competition.

    This is insanity. And the French politicians who think that somehow they can stop the evolution of e-commerce through legislation ought to go watch "Jurassic Park." I'm thinking of the scene when the humans who thought they were in control discover that the lab-created dinosaurs, which were all supposed to be one gender so they could not reproduce, have somehow managed to make little baby dinosaurs. "Life will find a way."


    By the way…it is ironic that in the NYT story I referenced in this morning's Eye-Opener, there is a passage suggesting that US publishers doing battle with Amazon view the French approach with a certain amount of longing. They should be careful what they wish for …

    KC's View:

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    …will return.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    Germany won the World Cup on Sunday, with a 1-0 overtime victory over Argentina that gave it the cup for the fourth time.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 14, 2014

    Exclusively available on MWG’s mobile applications, this is the FIRST beacon messaging system built directly within a grocery retailer’s branded app.  Aisle Beacon in-store technology leverages proximity marketing to deliver personalized content to consumers while shopping in a grocery store. 

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    KC's View:

    Published on: July 14, 2014

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    KC's View: