retail news in context, analysis with attitude

I expressed a certain amount of skepticism the other day about a new BJ's Wholesale Club program that allows people to order online and then go inside the club to pay for and pick up their merchandise ... I thought it was a halfway effort that missed the point of modern e-commerce.

Maria Fruci, manager of external communications for BJ's, offered the following response:

Thanks for running an announcement about BJ’s new Pick Up & Pay Service. I read your view on the service and would like to share that our Members are expressing positive feedback about our new Pick Up & Pay service. We have learned that Members prefer to pay in-Club since they would like the choice to not pick up everything they may have ordered and also have the option of easily adding other items to their purchase such as fresh produce and deli and dairy items during their Club visit.

With any new service, we will continue to evolve, research and test ways to improve the shopping experience for our Members. A function that allows Members to pay first online and then pick up in-Club is currently in the works.

Understood. Point taken.

Yesterday, MNB took note of a USA Today report that while Amazon has been expanding its same-day delivery service across the country, to a total of 27 metro areas so far, "in some of the largest cities where the service is available, it bypasses ZIP codes that are predominantly black." The story went on to say that "there is no indication that Amazon is trying to exclude African-American neighborhoods, the Bloomberg writers said, and Amazon says it's a matter of pride that it treats every shopper the same."

A spokesman for the company, Greg Berman, says, “We don’t know what you look like when you come into our store, which is vastly different than physical retail."

Which is, I suggested, a somewhat hollow defense ... since it would be as easy for Amazon's vaunted algorithms to figure out what the "black neighborhoods" are. The optics are lousy. And I commented:

The image of an Amazon truck that will quite literally only work one side of the street brings up images of white people who will cross the street out of some misguided sense of caution rather than share the sidewalk with an African-American.

This story doesn't just look bad for Amazon, but it may even open a window for companies that compete with it to behave in a way that makes a statement about serving everybody, and not just one side of the street.

The analysis and facts may not be entirely black-and-white. But they look that way.

MNB user Clay P. Dockery wrote:

As you pointed out, the system uses “vaunted algorithms” to define where the core consumers exist.  Could it be that the rate of adoption to online shopping has lagged in certain demographics, not because of an exclusionary practice but rather just because?  In the political season when hypersensitivity is at the highest arc, I find the “analysis and summary judgement” to be a sad perpetuation of the challenges we face to be a unified country.

From another reader:

I think the USA Today article on Amazon screams ignorance. The only reason this story was published because it’s guaranteed to generate sales with Amazon and Race in the headline. I know it’s hard for the trolls and unintelligent to believe a company would use current sales data for zip codes that provide the most return on this service. To say they are only serving higher income members with same day service might be accurate but hardly a race issue. Even making suggestions like they are not diverse enough to see this “problem” and need more minorities helping make these decisions is ludicrous.  I would feel different if the writer was reporting the company will not deliver to minority neighborhoods. Does this mean I can label Comcast, Dominos, or any company as racist because all of their services are not available in my zip code?  Sure I can but the statement clearly lacks substance.

Again, to be clear, I emphasized that this may mostly be an optics issue ... but optics matter.

Regarding Amazon's decision to sell certain products only to Prime members, one MNB user wrote:

One of the items sold just to Prime customers is small indie flick “Star Wars – The Force Awakens”. If you’re not a Prime member, your only Amazon-involved choice in through a marketplace seller, some of whom are fulfilled by Amazon and may qualify for free super saver shipping.

An (intended?) side effect of the policy means price-watching website CamelCamelCamel has trouble seeing the Amazon price, and thus can’t auto-alert users (regardless of Prime membership) if the price changes. No idea if other similar services are affected – this is just one I have prior experience using.

We noted yesterday that "CEO/founder Jeff Bezos has said that he wants Prime "to be such a good value, you'd be irresponsible not to be a member." Prompting one MNB reader to write:

I find it an interesting irony that Amazon is so focused on membership while Costco seems to be losing their way - against a major component of their business model.

Five years ago, I wouldn't have thought about cancelling my Executive Membership card.  Costco was an indispensable, last-stop on my shopping trip.  Then, I watched their wine selection become similar to what I could buy at Total Wine. Kirkland Signature luggage, by far best in the industry, now isn't available. The "want" merchandise isn't as compelling as it used to be. Costco services became less compelling to me. It seemed the only reason I could think to go to Costco was for fuel.   When it came time to renew 2 years ago, I chose not to renew my Costco membership.  Instead, I spent the money on Amazon Prime.  Best decision (for me).

Last Saturday, I took advantage of a Living Social deal that "gave me" a Gold Star membership, or otherwise I wouldn't have even considered Costco.  To be clear, I did enjoy Saturday samples and the $1.75 pizza.... but that isn't enough to get me to buy a full price membership when this first year runs out. I did enjoy seeing their energized employees (again).

I'm not sure discounted memberships were ever the plan for Costco. I wonder if this tactic is best approach to make up for a lack of innovation / excitement in their merchandise selection.

Regarding the North Carolina bathroom law, one MNB user wrote:

Long-time reader, first time caller. In response to reader's comment re: Bathroom laws.

First, I should point out that the Constitution protects your reader's ability to practice their religion, insofar as that practice does not conflict with the rights of his/her neighbors. It does *not* shield your reader from criticism from those neighbors.

Secondly, your reader's concept of who is and who isn't male or female illustrates part of why these laws are inhumane (not to mention impractical). "Fully transitioned" is not a bright and shining line. The transition process takes thousands of dollars, and often years of hormonal, psychological, and surgical therapies. Drawing a clear line in that process and saying "men on this side, women on the other" is impossible, especially since which therapies a person decides to undertake, and in what order, and under what span of time is not always at that person's discretion- financial and medical realities come into play. Isn't it more humane (and easier) to just trust each others' self-designation.

Thirdly, if one's religion requires them to put people into clear boxes of "man" and "woman", that's between them and their faith, I see no reason for the state (or businesses) to conform to that binary. Long ago, the state got out of the business of defining "sin", maybe it's time they got out of the business of defining "manhood."

I commented yesterday that "the North Carolina law, in my opinion, was a political act, not a moral or religious statement."

One MNB user responded:

And you deride companies who chose not to get involved in this “political act”? I expect better from you.

Sorry I disappointed you. But I guess what you say is true ... since there was virtually no problem that created a need for the North Carolina law, I think that companies ought to decry craven, cynical acts of political gamesmanship that seem targeted at people who might be their customers.

We had an email yesterday about the law that suggested that the condemnations of the North Carolina law may be anti-religion, saying, in part:

Doesn't religion hold some sort of a place in society that they should also be tolerated and respected?

In Boston, the largest and most successful adoption service was that of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Their successful placement rates and outcomes for the children were second to none. Not even close. The city of Boston decided that it wasn't enough to let other adoption services to serve the gay and lesbian community. The Catholic Church needed to do it too. It was just plain bigoted that the Catholic Church didn't allow adoptions to same sex couples. They past an ordinance that forbid the Catholic Church from practicing their deeply help religious beliefs. If you didn't do it, you're out of the adoption services. The Cardinal pleaded with the city council to reconsider because it would force them to close their highly successful adoption services. One of the council members was quoted as responding "that is the goal". How bad is that. Hurt children because we cannot tolerate sexual beliefs that match our own.

The prompted a response from MNB reader Jeff Gartner:

Hey Kevin, just to clarify the situation with your reader's comment about Massachusetts and the Boston Catholic Archdiocese's adoption services … the State did not ban the Archdiocese from providing adoption services, it just said it could not receive public funds for its adoption services if it also did not serve gays and lesbians, a civil rights protected class. The Archdiocese could have chosen to continue to provide adoption service, just fund it all privately and not with public money. This has happened in other states as well.

And it's comparable to parochial schools not being able to receive public education dollars.

Thanks for the clarification.

Your last sentence actually hit a nerve. I'm the product of parochial education, and one of my memories of elementary school was being marched up to Albany by the priests and nuns who ran our school and told to tell the legislators that they ought to allow tax dollars to fund private, parochial schools. It was a subject about which I knew virtually nothing - like all of my schoolmates, I was simply a prop.

I am, in fact, diametrically opposed to the position that I was brought to Albany to lobby for ... and the one thing I can tell you for sure is that at no point did we ever have a discussion in class about the pros and cons of the argument. Even now, almost 50 years later, I resent the position in which they put me, am irritated at myself for not asking the questions that almost certainly would've infuriated my teachers, and even annoyed at my parents for letting it happen.

I apologize for the digression. But as I said, you hit a nerve.
KC's View: