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    Published on: April 6, 2016



    Content Guy's Note: The goal of "The Innovation Conversation" is to explore some facet of the fast-changing, technology-driven retail landscape and how it affects businesses and consumers. It is, we think, fertile territory ... and one that Tom Furphy - a former Amazon executive, the originator of Amazon Fresh, and currently CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners (CEP), a venture capital and venture development firm in Seattle, WA, that works with many top retailers and manufacturers - is uniquely positioned to address.

    And now, the Conversation continues...


    KC: I must say that I felt a little vindicated last week when Amazon announced that it is tripling the number of brands involved in its Dash Button program. (For the uninitiated, Dash Buttons are available to Prime members for $4.99 each, and they're essentially free - with the first order through a Dash Button, members receive a $4.99 credit to their Amazon account. They put the button in a convenient and relevant place, and when running low on an everyday essential, they can press the Dash Button to automatically reorder the item at the same prices they would have paid if they were sitting at a computer, with two-day Prime shipping.) After all, I said at the end of 2015 that the Dash Buttons represented the disruptive technology that I thought was not just as a game changer, but also indicative of broader opportunities and possibilities down the line.

    What did you think about Amazon’s Dash Button expansion?

    Tom Furphy:
    I wasn’t the least bit surprised by the announcement. Given how far Amazon is ahead of the industry in “helping people buy things” it’s not surprising that brands are lining up to work with them. Starting with Subscribe & Save, all the way through to the Echo, we know that Amazon is well down the road innovating replenishment via the IoT. Introducing the Dash Buttons accomplishes two things – it creates a go-to-market engagement model for brands and it trains shoppers to generate an order precisely at the moment of demand.

    Brand engagement is incredibly strong in these models. We saw it with Subscribe & Save at Amazon. Once shoppers subscribed to a branded product, they virtually never strayed away from the brand. Just this week I saw some research from Slice Intelligence that said, for the laundry category, consumers that are using Dash buttons buy just about 100% of their requirements in that category from Amazon. They don’t go back to their prior retailer. It also showed that once shoppers start using a button, they make an average of 90% of their purchases for the given category from the button’s sponsoring brand. Once customers choose a brand, they stick with it. So while the buttons are far from perfect and may even be a little kitschy, they clearly work. And they also enable a clear and logical element of direct-to-consumer engagement for brands. A consumer literally “touches” the brand to generate the order. That is a very intimate connection. And Amazon acts as an important supporting agent in that transaction.

    KC: I'm not sure that traditional retailers understand the implications of these replenishment-based technologies. It isn't complicated - customers get locked into the retailer that is offering them, and the brands that are being offered, and they do it without going to a store, and in doing so they have no reason to ever go to a store for these items again. That's huge.

    TF:
    As more and more Dash buttons are placed throughout homes, and as more shoppers become used to ordering by voice on Echo or Tap (Amazon’s smaller, more portable device that was released last week), they gradually become used to, then come to expect the notion of shopping without the store. They begin to realize that they can rely on the world around them to take care of them. They don’t need to make a physical trip to shop. As IoT expands, this will become further cemented. Dash and Echo aren’t perfect. But they are significant step toward low-touch shopping.

    KC: Is there a way in which you think competitive retailers and brands should react?

    TF:
    Brands and retailers cannot afford to wait any longer. They need to start making strides toward their long-term automated shopping and replenishment strategies. Amazon is out well in front of them and they are innovating like crazy. The lead is only widening. Keep in mind that Amazon’s innovation cycle is aggressive and is years in advance of the market. The Dash strategy was born back when I was at Amazon, and I left in 2009. So you can be sure that Amazon already is working on the next generation of this strategy, and probably the generation after that. By the time brands or retailers are able to measure the impact of Amazon taking share, it may be too late to respond.

    For manufacturers, it is an expensive program. Brands are paying significant trade and marketing dollars to participate in the program. Upfront and ongoing costs are much higher than traditional spending. Brands’ willingness to pay this is an indication of the importance of the “lock-in” strategy. It will become costly to support over time, but they have to play or risk losing customers to brands that do participate. I do think they have to be careful not to over-rely on Amazon, a problem they can mitigate by partnering with other retailers as well.

    KC: Of course, that means other retailers actually have to have a replenishment strategy.

    TF:
    They MUST have one. It can be fulfilled through e-commerce delivery, click and collect or both. But they must have it. Operators of great stores will still be able to attract many shoppers to the stores for the experience. The sensory experience of a great store will continue to be a draw. But it will become less and less important for folks to walk up and down aisles of branded and private label packaged products. Shoppers will come to expect that portion of the trip to be automated.

    We saw this trend coming years ago and are addressing the opportunity through a company we call Replenium. Through a first-of-a-kind technology platform, we are developing what we are coining Replenishment as a Service. We are not yet to the point of fully disclosing the concept publicly and the website is deliberately opaque. However, I am happy to share with the MNB community that we are deeply engaged with some of the most forward-thinking retail and CPG companies in this effort. We are bringing to market a set “replenishment shopping” capabilities that can be used by any brand or any retailer.

    But it isn't merely about catching up with or mitigating Amazon. It is about starting with a clean slate and developing capabilities that enable brands and stores to serve the changing shopper in ways that make sense, and in ways that technology and machine learning enable. In ways that these stores and brands uniquely can, given their understanding of their categories, their existing customer relationships, store locations and shopper databases. These forward-thinking retailers and brands are not willing to sit back and watch. I don’t think any retailer or brand should be willing to sit back.

    Remember, it was just 10 years ago that we started the CPG business at Amazon. As much as that work has impacted CPG and retail in the last 10 years, the innovation that will occur over the next 10 years will be far more significant and far-reaching.

    And the Innovation Conversation will continue...

    KC's View:

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    by Kevin Coupe

    It is a pretty good rule that one should not insult one's customers. Not the ones who spend a lot of money on your products and/or services, or those of more modest means who may not spend as much money but feel no less of a connection to your brand. In fact, they help support your brand. They keep you in business.

    There's lots of reasons to behave this way, even beyond the fact that it simply is the right thing to do ... like today's modest spenders may be tomorrow's big spenders, and it doesn't make sense to insult the customers.

    Well, clearly this is not a rule that the New York Yankees organization has learned. This became evident on Sunday when John Oliver, of HBO's "Last Week Tonight," decided to devote a segment of his program to the team.

    The Yankees, you see, apparently got tired of season ticket holders who spend thousands of dollars on premium seats deciding to sell those seats to what they think of as less-desirable fans who end up sitting in seats far too nice and expensive for people like them. So they banned ticket holders from selling those premium tickets on StubHub ... and in doing so, managed to insult the vast majority of fans who usually can't afford the best seats in the vastly overpriced and unimpressive new Yankee Stadium.

    Now, John Oliver has a terrific take on the problem ... and a unique solution. As usual, the language is pretty colorful, but I still encourage you to watch it, above.

    But the Eye-Opening part of this is how the people who own and run the Yankees communicate that they are better than the fans who support the team through thick and thin. These executives have decided that it is all about them, and they've probably never even used the term "servant leadership." Hell, they probably don't even know what it means.

    Check out the video ... and think about how you treat and think about your customers. All your customers. And then remember who keeps you in business.

    KC's View:

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    The Seattle Times has apiece about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' annual letter to shareholders, noting that "for creating a company that's been so successful," he "sure talks a lot about failure. Or, more precisely, about how being unafraid of repeated failure is key to Amazon’s outsized returns. And how important and challenging it is for Amazon, now that it is a giant, to keep that reckless, swing-for-the-fences mentality."

    "Failure and invention are inseparable twins," Bezos wrote this year, arguing that the company is "the best place in the world to fail."

    The Times notes that while the past year was one in which Amazon has been criticized for having a ruthless, cutthroat culture, it also was a year in which the company generated more than $100 billion in annual revenue for the first time. Bezos says in his letter that this achievement was reached via three "pillars" of the business - the Amazon Prime membership program, the Amazon Marketplace that makes the site available to third-party sellers, and Amazon Web Services, its cloud-computing business.

    Bezos says that Amazon continues to work - so far unsuccessfully - to identify a fourth pillar. And, he writes that Amazon wants to be “a large company that’s also an invention machine ... But I don’t think it’ll be easy.”

    Bezos says, the Times writes, "that many big organizations fall into the trap of pondering too much about small choices. 'The end result of this is slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently, diminished invention. We’ll have to figure out how to fight that tendency'."
    KC's View:
    Whether you are in Amazon's side of the business or not, I think the observation about fighting fear of failure and resultant diminished invention is spot on. Consumers more and more are being trained to expect innovation and invention from the companies and institutions with which they do business (and, I think, for which they work). The companies that do not live up to these expectations risk being seen as irrelevant.

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    The Washington Post has a story about the rash of store closures that seems to be afflicting US retailing, which seems to be a result of both generally stagnant sales in many bricks-and-mortar stores and the move of many consumers to online shoppers.

    With some exceptions, the story says, there is general agreement in both retailing and real estate that the nation is "overstored," and that this is a situation which which more and more companies have to grapple, especially "as shopping and demographic patterns change ... the retail landscape is changing, as individual retailers rethink their store portfolios. The pullback has many shopping center owners looking more broadly for tenants, targeting restaurants, health clubs and other so-called lifestyle businesses."

    While the nation may be largely "overstored," the story says, the reality is that there is less retail square footage per person than there has ever been, and the trend is unlikely to reverse itself: "Indeed, it seems that the rise of online shopping has fundamentally changed what it means for a retailer to give up a store. Now, such a move might fairly viewed as playing offense rather than defense, a proactive choice to move toward a more digital-centric future instead of a worrisome retreat."

    Shutting stores and devoting energy and money to online sales isn't the only approach. Advertising Age has a story about how some retailers - like Staples, Samsung and Bonobos, for example - are changing the nature of some of their stores to adapt to new realities. "This means a retail outlet that in the past would have been designed solely to drive purchases in the moment can now function entirely as a brand advertisement," the story says. "These concept stores allow customers to test products, interact with associates and, ideally, better understand the ethos of the brand. With real estate costs at a premium in key urban areas, the sites also allow a retailer to better use every square foot and not waste precious space on on-site stockrooms."
    KC's View:
    I have to admit that I find myself more and more walking into stores and seeing the wasted space ... I see the square footage that does not have to be consumer-facing, and the differentiated departments that could be expanded in a way that would make the stores more competitive and more distinct. The solutions won't be the same for everyone, nor should they be ... but I think retailers have to be using this new prism to decide how stores and developed and defined.

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    The Hill reports that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finalized a "sixth major rule in a sweeping slate of regulations ... intended to overhaul the country’s food safety laws to protect people and animals from foodborne illnesses."

    Under this new rule, the story says, "anyone involved in transporting human and animal food ­— shippers, loaders, carriers and receivers — will be required to follow best practices for sanitary transportation, like proper refrigeration, adequate cleaning of vehicles between loads and proper protections for food during transit ... The rule, required by the Food Safety Modernization Act, applies to food transported within the United States by motor or rail vehicle, whether or not the food is offered for or enters interstate commerce."

    Food Safety News writes that "businesses will  be required to comply with the new transportation regulation one year from now. Smaller businesses have two years to comply with the new requirements. The final transportation rule is the sixth of seven major rules that implement the core of FSMA ... The seventh rule, which focuses on mitigation strategies to protect food against intentional adulteration, is expected to be finalized later in 2016. These seven rules are designed to work together to systemically strengthen the food safety system and better protect public health."
    KC's View:
    First of all, let me be transparent ... MNB has a longtime and valued sponsor, ReposiTrak, that specializes in FSMA-related solutions. I say that because I'm about to comment in a way that is connected to what ReposiTrak does, and I want to be upfront about it.

    Retailers and suppliers have to take these rule changes very seriously, and have to make sure that not only do they follow the rules, but keep careful and detailed records that prove they are living up to the letter of the law. This is all serious stuff, and consumers have every right to expect that the companies they patronize are doing everything possible to "systemically strengthen the food safety system and better protect public health."

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    The New York Times that just hours following California Gov. Jerry Brown's signing of legislation that will raise the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to make the city the first in the nation "to approve six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents — mothers and fathers, including same-sex couples, who either bear or adopt a child."

    The story notes that the new law "mandates full pay, with the 45 percent difference being paid by employers ... Before the vote, the supervisors amended the proposal to make employees eligible only when they have worked for a company 180 days. The ordinance goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, for companies with more than 50 employees, and a year later for those with 20 or more workers."

    The Times writes that "San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley may have been an influence: The new law follows on the heels of trailblazing policies by tech companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google and Netflix, all of which offer relatively long paid parental leave for employees ... Indeed, by global standards, the San Francisco ordinance is a modest step. The United States is one of two countries out of 185 listed by the International Labor Organization that do not have a national law providing some form of paid parental leave. (The other is Papua New Guinea.)"

    The story notes that "California is already one of only a few states that offer paid parental leave, with workers receiving 55 percent of their pay for six weeks, paid for by employee-financed public disability insurance ... Only two states besides California - New Jersey and Rhode Island - mandate paid parental leave, and none at full pay. The funds for parental leave in all three come from employee-funded public insurance systems."
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    • Add Walmart to the list of companies promising to phase out the use of eggs from caged hens. Reuters reports that the retailer is aiming to do so by 2025, "becoming the largest and most influential food retailer to set a deadline for switching to cage-free eggs."

    Walmart "said it would require that egg suppliers adopt an industry standard for treatment of hens by 2025 and have their compliance monitored by a third party. The new guidelines will apply to the discount retailer's more than 5,000 stores in the United States, including its Sam's Club warehouse chain."

    While other food retailers and fast food chains have announced similar moves, Reuters writes, "The Humane Society predicted Wal-Mart's move would effectively mark the end of the use of cramped cages, citing the retailer's size and purchasing power."
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    MarketWatch reports that Tesco's recent sales decline continues to slow, with sales for the 12 weeks ending March 27 down 0.2 percent; Kantar Worldpanel predicts that Tesco even could return to growth before the end of the year.

    However, the story says, "while the researcher's data showed that the pace of Tesco's sales decline has eased over the past 12 months, it also showed the company's market share has fallen over the period. For the 12 weeks to March 27 Tesco earned a 28.1% share of the market, compared to 28.4% in the comparable period a year earlier."

    The problem: discounters Aldi and Lidl saw their joint market share grow to 10.4 percent, from nine percent, during the same 12 weeks.

    MarketWatch writes that "Sainsbury's market share in the 12 weeks ended March 27 was unchanged at 16.4%, while sales grew 1.2% ... Asda, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., saw its market share fall to 16.2%, from 17.1% for the comparable 12 weeks, with sales 3.9% lower."
    KC's View:
    It is worth noting that in a related story, Business Insider reports that while "Aldi and Lidl may be known for their cheap groceries ... it is their premium products which are smashing the competition right now." Upmarket products and premium lines, the story says, grew more than six percent in the past 12 weeks, or twice as much as more traditionally priced lines ... meaning that even as the economy improves and people have more disposable income, shopping habits that brought them into discounters are not necessarily reversing themselves.

    That's an important lesson to learn as Aldi expands in the US and Lidl makes plans to invade our shores. Once consumers try them, it may be hard to get them back ... because both companies have experience at strategically expanding their offering to maintain and expand their appeal.

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    • The Detroit Free Press reports that Kroger announced "a $180-million investment in Michigan and creating 1,000 new jobs as part of a package of new retail locations and rehabs of existing stores. It comes in the form of three new Marketplace stores; six new fuel centers; 22 new ClickList sites."

    The investment apparently does not include a new Lucky's Market in Traverse City, which would be the company's second in the state. (The first is in Ann Arbor.) Kroger announced a "meaningful investment" in specialty-and-organic food-oriented Lucky's just a few days ago.


    • The Wall Street Journal reports that Starbucks plans to open "its largest store in the world in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood ... The Seattle-based coffee retailer will take 20,000 square feet at 61 Ninth Ave. for its second roastery, which the company describes as 'coffee-as-theater.' The opening is set for 2018, the company said."

    The store will be modeled on a 15,000 square foot roastery in Seattle.


    • The Chicago Tribune reports that "Subway is moving ahead and posting calorie counts on menu boards nationally despite another delay in a federal rule requiring the information. The sandwich chain says its new menu boards with calorie counts are already rolling out around the country and should be up in all 27,000 of its U.S. stores by April 11. The decision to forge ahead comes as restaurant chains have awaited the Food and Drug Administration's final guidance and enforcement of a rule requiring food sellers with 20 or more locations to post the information."
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    • Ahold USA yesterday announced that Andrew Iacobucci has been appointed to the role of executive vice president of merchandising, "leading a merchandising team that supports Ahold USA and its four retail divisions, Stop & Shop New England, Stop & Shop New York Metro, Giant Landover and Giant Carlisle."

    The announcement noted that Iacobucci over the past decade "has held several leadership positions at Loblaw Companies Limited, the largest food retailer in Canada. Most recently, Iacobucci was president of the Discount Division, a $17 billion business."
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    Yesterday in this space, I posted emails from an MNB reader who disagreed with me on a number of issues, one of which was a story about the growing list of companies "voicing opposing to North Carolina's new law that prevents specific anti-discrimination rules for LGBT people for public accommodations and restroom use." (By the way, in just the last 24 hours, PayPal has canceled the building of a new facility in North Carolina, specifically because of its objections to the law.)

    I argued that I thought that as long as the list of companies is, it ought to be longer ... that sanctioning intolerance never is acceptable.

    The MNB reader wrote an email that I posed yesterday:

    Maybe the other business leaders don't want to get involved in such a sticky situation? Maybe, perhaps that they might agree with N. Carolina's GOP lawmakers and that is why they are silent on this manner. Your statement in regard to this is another example of how if you don't agree with today's lefty principals then you are automatically a bad person. I think the left forgets that there are other people in this society that do hold different values and just because they do, doesn't make them bad people.

    And I responded:

    I'm a little confused. Am I being accused of promoting "lefty" principles or principals? Or both?

    To be clear, I never said that the people in favor of the law were "bad" people. Never said that. I would, however, argue that there is plenty of demonizing of people holding opposing views by folks on both sides of the aisle.

    My comments yesterday were largely focused on the business argument against the North Carolina law, which is being made by people many of whom would probably be shocked at being described as leftist.

    But just to be honest about my own position - just in case there is any ambiguity - I will say that I have a problem with anybody or any institution that promotes or accepts intolerance or discrimination, no matter how they justify it. It is not up to me to say whether they are bad or not, but I do think, as noted yesterday, that in the end they'll be seen as being on the wrong side of history.


    This exchange prompted an email from another reader:

    I read your newsletter for two reasons.  Not surprisingly the primary reason is be informed daily on key topics within the retail food industry--just the reporting not the opinions :-). The second reason is to improve my grasp of current affairs by understanding the liberal perspective.

    For you to state that you don't espouse left-leaning  principles suggests to me that you are purposely being disingenuous or, more likely, you are a bit blinded by your own liberal bias.  We all are but we all don't write newsletters.

    I find your views entertaining and helpful.  Not sure I can remember you NOT taking the liberal side of an issue or opportunity.  I find comfort and utility in your left-leaning consistency as I know you'll help me see things through a 180 degree lens.  Often I disagree with your position as I feel your bias betrays your quest to objectively asses an issue. 

    On a related but different note, your consistent and border-line obsession with Starbucks, Amazon, non-brick & mortar retailing (still relatively small vis a vis the coverage), technological gadgetry (w/out clear or at least short-term productivity gains ) and the evil empire in Arkansas is understandable but suggests to me that the retail food industry as it exists today bores you.  I state this because I can't recall a more exciting period within the retail food industry over my 35 years in it.

    My suggestion would be to increase the newsletter's focus on companies in the industry that are winning now.  Focusing more in the near-term future (<2 years).  What companies (retail and vendors) are growing the fastest in produce, dairy, grocery, meat, floral, food service, etc.?  Most importantly, why and how are they doing it ?  It'll take some detective work, but there is a lot of cool stuff going on here.  Perhaps not as sexy as Amazon drones or the next Starbucks continuity program but in my estimation, more insightful for many of your readers. Again, Amazon and Starbucks and WM are very topical; but your readers are looking for insights that will help them this year and next in addition to helping them build their strategic plans. 

    As to the liberal bias, I'd guess that only many of your personal friends and friends/associates in academia would think that you are a "middle-of-the-roader". Just be up front with your readers  OR.......... if you disagree, consult your conservative colleagues on how they view a topic to balance "Kevin's View".  I doubt you can do that and you probably shouldn't.  I'd lose because I'd get one less liberal take on the world and as an admitted conservative, I know I need it.


    To be clear, I wasn't being disingenuous.  At least, I don't think so.  When I referred to my confusion, I was having a bit of fun with the idea that this reader thought I was espousing leftist principals … not principles.  Or maybe both.  Just a bit of wordplay on my part. (Maybe I was being a bit snarky.)

    As for my own politics … I would only suggest that perhaps they are more complicated than some would think.  People can slot me into whatever category they like, and I frankly don't much care.   I might argue, in fact, that if you look at the available slots currently on display in the national political scene, I don't really fit into any of them.  (BTW…you've obviously missed many of the anti-union things that I've written over the years.  Just sayin'…)

    To suggest that I'm bored by the current state of the retail food business as it exists today also would be inaccurate … though it is fair to say that I spend an outsized amount of time focusing on the companies that I think are pushing the envelope more than others.  You are perfectly welcome to define my job differently than I define it, but at the end of the day, my goal is to tell people what I think they need to hear, not what they want to hear.  Again, you might define this differently than I would, and I certainly am open to the criticisms ... but in the end, I have to define MNB within the parameters of my own prism and interests. (I've always felt that the only way to do this job is to write something I'd enjoy reading, and hope enough folks will come along for the ride.)

    Finally … I would argue that I do consult with both liberals and conservatives about how to view each story.  I do it every day when I write MNB, and encourage people to write in to argue with me, suggest other views, or even (occasionally) agree with me.  And I do my best to post as many of the emails as I can … especially the ones from people who disagree with me. Like your email.

    I try to be as intellectually honest as I can, while being as transparent as I can about my views.  I certainly don't succeed all the time, but I try to get it right more often than I get it wrong.




    Lot's of reaction to the minimum wage increases in New York and California.

    MNB reader Martin Carroll wrote:

    Forgive me for being a little crass, but I am highly suspicious of any economic re-engineering that comes from the state of California. Should we really be following a state that has been the “poster boy” of economic irresponsibility (and delusion) for decades?

    I also have an issue with the “moral high ground” banner this flies under. California has the chief broker of low income labor for big industry, also for decades. Am I to believe that CA now realizes it is time to stop taking advantage of low-income earners? Really. Is it possible the state of California isn’t making this move for its own financial benefit? I can think of a few.

    Since I am becoming increasingly angry and cynical as I write this (LOL), let’s really crank up the crass-o-meter. Election year politics anyone?

    I share your hopefulness that wage increases drive productivity/hiring/etc, and as usual, you are right on point to bring executive level salaries into this discussion. “Fairness” is what all this boils down to…connected by threads to responsibility, ability to compete, and greed. It is a sprawling conversation, for sure.


    From another reader:

    This entire wage argument is a joke. Those that think this increase will not cost jobs are delusional at best even though the rhetoric is on their side. What people fail to realize that this increase will shift the entire economic engine forward and leave the same people now earning $15 an hour screaming for $20 in 10 years. That $1.25 cheeseburger will soon cost $1.55, so who will be getting ahead.

    More than 50 years ago a guy by the name of Bayard Rustin organized a march to increase the minimum wage from $1.15 to $2 an hour. His mantra was “so that men can live in dignity”. It appears that not much has changed since then except the cost of that very same cheeseburger was only $.15.


    And another:

    Two liberal states again will learn the hard way! This is not about anything other than keeping low income workers dependent. The cost of business continues to rise and laws like this do nothing but fuel that trend. We moved to Texas thanks to Moonbeam and liberal politics in CA and to be honest...our business has improved creating more jobs along with higher pay. Didn't need a minimum wage increase. Only a state that supports sound business practices!

    To be fair, the Economist did a story about a year ago about how California's economy has improved markedly during Brown's second go-round as governor ... noting that some of this has to do with how bad things were when he came into office and some of it with the improving national economy - but that Brown does deserve some credit for pragmatic leadership.

    And The New Yorker had an interesting comparison of the California and Texas economies, suggesting that some of the hype about Texas is exactly that. (You can read it here.)

    From still another reader:

    What is interesting is that Gov. Brown admits the $15 minimum wage does not make economic sense but he approved it anyway for moral, social, and political reasons.

    I agree. I think I may have found the fact that Brown signed it despite his stated misgivings to be more distressing than the wage increase itself.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    In the NCAA Women's College Basketball Final, the University of Connecticut Huskies defeated Syracuse University 82-51, becoming the first womens' team to win the national championship four years in a row.
    KC's View:

    Published on: April 6, 2016

    This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either ... they are similar, but not exactly the same. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

    Hi, Kevin Coupe here and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy ... coming to you from Gig Harbor, Washington, home of the new Kroger format, Main & Vine.

    I'm actually more interested to see Main & Vine these days than I even was when it first opened, in part because it seems like a piece in a larger puzzle that Kroger is assembling. After all, when you think about this store within the context of Kroger's Harris-Teeter and Roundy's/Mariano's acquisitions, and the investment it made last week in Lucky's, and its apparent attempt to buy at least part of The Fresh Market, it would appear that Kroger is assembling weapons on a number of fronts with which it can do battle.

    I'll include some pictures of Main & Vine with this story, but let me give you some impressions of this 27,000square foot store, located about a half-hour south of Seattle.

    It may share some DNA with Mariano's and Harris Teeter, but in some ways, it reminds me of nothing so much as a New Seasons - it isn't quite as rigorous about the healthy food side of the business, but it has that laid-back, sustainability-focused, fresh-is-best vibe going for it. And the customers seem to be eating it up. (And don't forget that New Seasons is marching north from Portland, looking for a great presence in Washington State.)

    Remember how houses used to have living rooms and dining rooms and family rooms and kitchens, and now they all seem to have great rooms? Well, that's the first thing I thought about when I walked into Main & Vine, it seemed more expansive that I would've expected ... it has a largely open floor plan with a farmers market kind of look. Lots of sampling going on, with employees out on the floor, engaging with customers, offering advice and suggestions and sometimes just a friendly hello. (There were, by the way, lots of customers. Always a good sign.)

    At the front end, there's a combination coffee-beer-wine bar, with plenty of seats upstairs and downstairs. There's also an e-commerce component, with delivery an available option. In fact, I can even imagine a scenario not too far in the future in which the Main & Vine format gets smaller, with almost all the sales floor square footage devoted to fresh foods, and packaged goods were behind the scenes, available for click-and-collect or delivery.

    There is a big focus on local purveyors, which creates the aura that this isn't part of one of the world's biggest retailers ... and to my thinking, that's the secret sauce at Main & Vine .. and will have to be in any of these new formats in which Kroger is investing. Anybody can open a supermarket if you have enough money and space. But to be different, and to make a difference, more than ever one has to create the sense that you're not painting by the numbers ... that you reflect the community in which you operate. That's not to say big chain stores can't be successful, just that Kroger clearly believes that if it is going to continue to grow, it can't just operate in the middle - it has to work the edges aggressively and ambitiously.

    Only time will tell how all these investments play out, and what shape Kroger's evolving puzzle will take. But I can tell you that this is a cool store, and Kroger has the makings of a hit on its hands.

    That's what is on my mind this Thursday morning. As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

    KC's View: