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    Published on: January 13, 2017

    by Kevin Coupe

    Normally, I like to use this Eye-Opener space to talk about interesting, progressive business ideas - emphasizing, whenever possible, the positive.

    But sometimes I read something that just demonstrates how some companies may not get it, and it illustrates problems that may exist for other companies.

    In this case, the company is Staples.

    RIS News reports that the company is testing a voice-enabled Easy Button system that it hopes will "further differentiate Staples from the competition."

    "Our new voice-enabled Easy Button reordering system integrates IBM Watson’s cognitive platform to simplify office product management for our SBA (Staples Business Advantage) customers," CEO Shira Goodman said at a conference recently. "The Easy Button will enable customers to quickly reorder supplies, track shipments or chat about their needs."

    Now, I think innovation is important. I love the idea of voice-enabled systems, and have often waxed rhapsodic here about the Echo/Alexa system created by Amazon. This is all great stuff, and I think that anything Staples can do to make itself a go-to option for customers is a good thing.


    As I've mentioned previously on MNB, one of the things I had to do over the holidays was move into a new office after almost 18 years in one space. For reasons too complicated to detail here, my desk chair broke and I needed a new one.

    So I decided to go the bricks-and-mortar route. I went up to the Staples in Norwalk, Connecticut, where, as it happened, they were running a sale.

    While there, I spent a half-hour in the chair department trying to get someone to help me. I asked the folks at the front counter to send someone back to the chair department, and they kept promising, and not delivering. I stuck around, partly because I needed a chair and partly because I knew I'd get a column out of it.

    Thirty minutes later, someone finally, grudgingly helped me. I bought a chair, and then asked them to build it for me. (I wouldn't want to sit on anything I built. Not in my skill set. And I was willing to pay the small building fee.)

    They agreed. It'd be ready in 48 hours. Fine. And then, when I returned to pick up my chair, it took another 30 minutes - no exaggeration - to get someone to go in the back room and find the chair.

    Maybe the store was understaffed. (It certainly wasn't crowded.) Maybe the employees simply were incompetent.

    But there was nothing easy about my Staples experience.

    They can build innovative, voice-enabled systems until the cows come home. But I seriously doubt their ability to build and deliver the big stuff if they can't handle the small stuff.

    It was an Eye-Opening experience.

    Next time, I'll go to Amazon. (Which are, by the way, six words that no retailer ever should want to hear.)
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 13, 2017

    The Seattle Times reports that Amazon has laid out plans to hire 100,000 full-time employees in the US over the next 18 months, and that "by 2018 it plans to have more than 280,000 full-time U.S. employees, compared with 180,000 at the end of 2016 ... The jobs cover a wide range of disciplines, from developers and engineers who work on cloud computing to warehouse operators who handle millions of packages."

    In addition, Amazon said that it estimates that some 300,000 additional jobs have been created in third-party companies because of their ability to use Amazon's online Marketplace as a sales platform.

    The story goes on: "A hiring binge by Amazon is nothing new: The company has grown dramatically since its humble origins as an online bookstore, adding 150,000 U.S. jobs since 2011. It is well on its way to becoming the second-largest employer among the Fortune 500, after arch-rival Wal-Mart. As of last fall, Amazon had 306,800 workers around the world, not including temporary hires and contractors."

    The New York Times writes that "the Amazon announcement comes as the company is introducing automation that could one day cost jobs. It uses robots in many of its warehouses, though it says they work in conjunction with people instead of replacing them."

    The Amazon announcement comes in a month when Macy's said it would close stores and eliminate some 10,000 jobs, The Limited shut down the entire chain, and problems at Sears and Kmart only seemed to deepen. Indeed, there are estimates that bricks-and-mortar retailers have eliminated some 200,000 jobs during the past four years.

    The Seattle Times goes on to note that Amazon's announcement is a little out of character; the company traditionally has preferred to fly below the radar as best it can. "Amazon’s louder tune underscores how the U.S. administration, soon to be under a new boss given to mercurial blasts, brings new political-risk challenges to corporate America," the Times writes. "Blazing tweets from the president-elect singling out companies from GM to Boeing have swung stocks and caused fretting in board rooms. Trump’s internet-conveyed wrath is particularly focused on companies that he perceives as exporting U.S. jobs, a common theme during his presidential campaign."

    Indeed, Amazon and the Trump campaign clashed before the election, with Trump threatening antitrust actions and tax investigations against the company and owner Jeff Bezos; it probably doesn't help that Bezos also owns the Washington Post, which was so aggressive in its coverage of the Trump campaign that its reporters were banned from official events.
    KC's View:
    Amazon may be louder about its intentions for political reasons, and I don't blame them for that. I suspect that the vast majority of these hires would've happened regardless of who was going to be the next president - the company's strategy of putting more and more warehouses in more and more places as a way of expanding its ecosystem inevitably would've meant hiring more people in the US.

    But everybody is louder these days, ignoring the old saying that you can get anything done if you don't care who gets the credit.

    Published on: January 13, 2017

    The Chicago Business Journal reports that FedEx is teaming up with Walgreens "to offer package handling services at the pharmacy's retail locations throughout the US."

    According to the story, "FedEx users will be able pick up and drop off their packages at Walgreens stores, giving them an alternative to home delivery or visiting a FedEX store. Customers will have to pack and label their items in advance, however, because Walgreens will not offer other FedEx services or print shipping labels in-store."

    Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
    KC's View:
    There is a certain irony that just the other day, the US Postal Service decided to end a similar alliance with Staples ... not because it wasn't working or didn't make sense, but because unionized postal workers were worried about their jobs being threatened. Classic example, I think, of mistakenly believing that one can force the future to adjust to you rather than understanding that you have to adjust to the future.

    This is smart for Walgreens because it gives customers yet another reason to go to Walgreens instead of CVS or elsewhere, and maybe they'll stay and buy something else. It is smart for FedEx because it give sit yet another touchpoint where they can be available to shoppers, giving it a potential advantage over UPS and the USPS.

    Published on: January 13, 2017

    Reuters reports that a global survey reveals that 31 percent of customers around the world would be willing to switch their bank accounts to Amazon, Facebook or Google if those entities offered financial services. Twenty-nine percent of customers would go to those companies for insurance purposes.

    The study, conducted by Accenture, found that "there was broad consumer demand for banks and insurance companies to use robo-advisory services, or software propelled by artificial intelligence or less human intervention ... When it came to specific services, more than 7 in 10 respondents said they would use robo-advice to figure out what kind of bank account to open, and nearly 4 out of 5 said they would use it for investing.

    "But 68 percent of respondents said they did not want a robot handling customer complaints, and 61 percent said they would prefer a human over an automated system for advice about complex products like mortgages."
    KC's View:
    I think this illustrates two things. One is that many consumers are fed up with the arrogance that so many banks demonstrate in their interactions with customers ... which is one of the reasons that I've always thought that Walmart could make some significant inroads in the financial services industry if it were allowed to get into the banking business. (And why the financial services business is willing to spend so much money to lobby lawmakers to make sure that Walmart can't do so.)

    The other is the degree of trust that companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google have engendered among their customers.

    Both rationales are worth considering, I think.

    Published on: January 13, 2017

    Newsweek reports that Amazon, not satisfied with the idea of delivery drones and blimps that serve as airborne warehouses, now is going to ground - underground, to be precise.

    According to the story, " the Seattle-based company is now looking into delivering goods via a network of subterranean tunnels. A 33-page patent filing describes a system that makes use of conveyor belts and vacuum tubes to transport parcels and containers. According to the patent, benefits of such a delivery system include increased efficiency, more reliable deliveries and less traffic on the roads as less delivery vehicles would be needed.

    And, the story goes on, "Amazon is not the only company exploring the idea, with U.K. firm Mole Solutions unveiling details of a freight pipeline concept in 2016. A video demonstrating the concept describes it as 'the 21st century link in the supply chain process of the future'."

    And, Newsweek goes on, "Billionaire polymath Elon Musk - who came up with the Hyperloop vacuum tube transport system concept - tweeted last month that he is going to build a tunnel boring machine 'and just start digging' because traffic is driving him 'nuts'."
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 13, 2017

    Tech Times reports that Walmart "is making a move to make grocery shopping more efficient" by "relaunching a mobile app through another test run this year, which aims to help you avoid long lines during your grocery run. Called 'Scan and Go,' the mobile app was released on Google's Play Store on Jan. 9."

    According to the story, " The app works as a self-scanning system where all you have to do is to open the app from your phone or tablet, scan the barcode of your items in an in-app shopping cart using your mobile device's camera before dropping them in your trolley. You can also opt to add the grocery item manually if the barcode is not functioning or if you can't find the barcode.
    Once you have all of your grocery items scanned, check out your online shopping cart, and pay for your purchases. Simply show the receipt from your phone on your way out.

    "What makes the app even more convenient is that you will be able to see the running total of the items in your cart, so you will know if you are overspending or staying within the limits of your budget."
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 13, 2017

    ...with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    MarketWatch reports that "grocery-store operator and distributor Supervalu Inc. swung to a surprise loss in the most recent quarter as its retail segment continued to be hurt by competition. Wholesale revenue edged up 0.2% to $1.91 billion, while sales in its slightly smaller retail segment fell 3.4% to $1.06 billion. Same-store sales declined by 5.7%..."

    While Supervalu has sold off its Save-A-Lot business, it continues to own "supermarket chains including Cub, Fresh Farm and Shop n' Save. The company has been stuck in a grocery industry's middle ground as low-price, no-frills chains like Aldi have attracted cost-conscious customers, and specialty chains led by Whole Foods Market Inc. have lured wealthier shoppers."

    • The Associated Press reports that "CVS is now selling a rival generic version of Mylan’s EpiPen at about a sixth of its price, just months after the maker of the emergency allergy treatment was eviscerated before Congress because of its soaring cost to consumers.

    "The drugstore chain says it will charge $109.99 for a two-pack of the authorized generic version of Adrenaclick, a lesser-known treatment compared to EpiPen, which can cost more than $600."

    • Fareway Stores, the Iowa-based chain that operates 117 stores in the midwest, said yesterday that it is rolling out a digital coupon program that "allows consumers to create an online profile by product type for coupons they wish to receive ... Manufacturer coupons for these product types are then deposited into the consumers’ digital accounts.  When consumers shop any of the Fareway Stores locations, they simply present their phone containing a digital customer card at checkout, and digital coupons instantly apply to the transaction."

    The new program is powered by LOC Software and Invisipon.

    We keep arguing here that there is no excuse for retailers not being as customized, personalized and relevant as possible. This is an example of a company moving in this direction.

    Crain's Chicago Business reports that former McDonald's CEO Don Thompson "is back in the food business" with the launch of a new "venture-capital firm focused on building and growing food, beverage and restaurant ventures."

    Its first concept is called Drink, described as "a nonalcoholic beverage bar inside an American Eagle Outfitters flagship store in New York's Times Square ... Drink serves a rotating list of 20 nonalcoholic beverages made by startups and entrepreneurs, ranging from organic slushies to fresh-fruit sodas on tap. The hope is to expand the concept, the company said."
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 13, 2017

    The annual National Retail Federation (NRF) "Big Show" is scheduled to take place next week, from January 15-17, in New York City's Jacob Javits Convention Center ... and I'm planning to spend some time there next Monday, January 16.

    If there are any MNB readers who'd like to get together, I'll be camping out from 1:30-3 pm at the MyWebGrocer booth, #612 ... I'll have some copies of my books to give away, and I'm always happy to catch up with members of the MNB community.

    Hope to see you there...
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 13, 2017

    Got the following email from MNB reader Jeff Folloder about Starbucks' decision to abandon its alcohol-in-the-evenings initiative:

    It seems to me that ditching the "Evening" program was the exact right call.  Don't get me wrong, I am all for a great beer or a fabulous glass of wine.  But maybe Starbucks has recognized that alcohol is not a part of their core competency?  Selling alcohol and managing on premise consumers of alcohol requires a host of skills beyond that of barista, including some significant liability concerns.  Focusing on coffee seems to be a logical thing for the world's leading purveyor of upscale coffee experience.

    On the subject of diversity, we posted an email the other from an MNB reader:

    You said that pretty much every religion believes the other religions are wrong in some way. True enough. But Muslims (not all, but some) are the only ones in the 21st century who killing people who don't agree. I haven't heard of any Jehovah's Witnesses throwing anyone off a cliff lately.

    And I responded:

    True. And as long as we all agree with the "not all, but some" reference, we're on the same page.

    But other readers wanted to weigh in on this subject:

    One reader wrote:

    That statement is simply not true. Majority Hindu and Buddhist populations are killing Muslims in several countries around the world. Tensions between Christians in Northern Ireland continue. Christians in the U. S. have killed Sikhs, Jews, and other Christians. And so on.
    Muslims do not have a monopoly on extremism and violence. I’m not pointing this out to be anti-religion – I’m a devout United Methodist – just to correct the record.

    And another wrote:

    Does anyone remember Northern Ireland? I think “The Troubles” had religious overtones.

    And another:

    Gosh, when I saw the comment that Muslims are the only religion that has folks who kill people who don’t agree, I immediately thought of several Christians who have bombed or shot people in abortion clinics. Or Christian white supremacists who kill black folks to start a race war. Or Jewish folks who kill Palestinians as retribution. When a non-Muslim person does something like this, we blame it on that person. When a Muslim person does something bad, we blame the religion.

    And still another:

    I am not sure you really meant to say “True” to the entirety of that writer’s statement.  Do you believe it to be true that “Muslims are the only ones in the 21st century who are killing people that don’t agree.”?  Recent and past history is sadly replete with people from various religious beliefs harming others in the name of their religion.  While it is dangerous to overly generalize this type of behavior – for the most part the people who are committing terrorism in the name of the Muslim faith today are people with fragile mental states who have been manipulated for political purposes (or otherwise mentally fragile and grab on to a religion as a perverted justification for harming others).
    I would hate to see your column get overrun with back and forth on this.  My 2 cents – you might want to just clarify and try to shut this line of discussion down. 

    Fair enough. I don't want to go too far down this road here, either ... though it'd be a great bar conversation.

    But I think the point is made - that some people are willing to horrible things to each other in the name of religious beliefs.

    Finally, I got as couple of very different emails in response to yesterday's piece about the kerfuffle between Donald Trump and LL Bean.

    To recap, in brief ... family member Linda Bean helped to find a pro-Trump political action committee. Some anti-Trump folks called for a boycott of LL Bean. LL Bean leadership said that more than 50 Bean family members have a wide variety of political beliefs, and that the business takes no political positions. And Trump lauded Linda Bean on Twitter and said that people should shop at LL Bean. Which only poured gasoline on the situation, and ignited debate.

    I commented, in part:

    Well, here we go again ... except in this case, it at least can't hurt LL Bean's stock price because the company is privately held.

    The thing is, Trump got it wrong. Or at least, selectively right. The company took no position on his candidacy or positions. One person did, albeit a person with a strong familial connection to the company ... though she's one of more than 50 family members with some ownership in the company.

    But even while getting it only selectively right, Trump has demonstrated a willingness and ability to profoundly and unfairly affect the operations and image of a retail company. I think it is fair to say that this is something that retailers - and frankly, every business - will have to think about going forward. Trump said, "Buy L.L. Bean," but what if he had said, "Don't buy L.L. Bean"? And had done so while only getting things selectively right?

    (What is he going to say if he finds out that LL Bean imports some of its products from outside the US? I suspect that like a lot of companies that do so, LL Bean could be a little concerned about discussions of import tariffs that could raise the cost and price of such items.)

    This is not a partisan statement on my part. It is an objective observation about the highly partisan climate in which we're currently living.

    To be clear ... I would accuse the people threatening a boycott against LL Bean of being just as wrong as Trump in being only selectively accurate.

    I don't want to ignite a political debate here. That's not my goal. However you voted, whatever you think or feel about the country's direction, the stark partisanship that afflicts our country right now is creating a minefield that could affect everyone.

    MNB reader Philip Herr wrote:

    Thanks for the clarification. I was quite torn over the initial news reports.  As a big fan of their clothing and not so much of Trump – I was torn. I feel better now.
    But MNB reader Jim Cox wrote:

    Respectfully… A thank you….really.
    Interesting; that a thank you from the next president of the United States provides you with another opportunity to share your displeasure and provide an opportunity to spread more bias from your electronic bully pulpit; frankly I don’t think it makes a bunch of common sense …
    Interesting; Mr. Trump also thanked Carrier; Ford; Fiat and many others that are pulling for the USA building stuff here with American Workers; non Union; Union all just wanting to contribute.
    BTW; he’s no longer a candidate for president he will be our next president.
    God bless the United States of America.

    True, I have an electronic bully pulpit. (So does Trump. FYI, his is bigger.)

    Am I simply spreading bias and displeasure? I don't think so. I think I was making a legitimate and highly relevant point about something a lot of businesses need to think about. (BTW...I saw a story the other day about how crisis management firms are making a killing right now, because they're all being hired to deal with the positives and negatives of Trump tweets. So it isn't like I'm the only guy thinking this.)

    When he tweets, Trump has the ability to have enormous impact - positive and negative - on businesses, employees, competition, and the economy. I think there is a legitimate debate to be had about whether this is a good thing, whether this is the best way to make America great again, and the impact these 140-character messages have in an highly divided and polarized country. And I'm willing to have a nuanced, civil conversation about these issues, because I think it is relevant and appropriate, even if occasionally risky.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 13, 2017

    Been a good week.

    I finally caught up with "The Wrong Side of Goodbye," the newest Harry Bosch novel by Michael Connelly, who continues to provide the written version of the soulful, driving jazz that his protagonist loves. In this latest in the long-running series, Bosch has retired from the Los Angeles Police Department, where he was one of its finest homicide detectives, and has begun working as a private detective. In that role he has taken on a job from an aging, dying billionaire, who has asked him to find out if he fathered an heir decades earlier. It is a probe with both economic and cultural implications, and dark forces gather to prevent Bosch from accomplishing his goal. (Plus, for those of us who love mysteries, Bosch's initial meeting with the billionaire has echoes of both "The Big Sleep" and "The Judas Goat," among others.)

    At the same time, Bosch has taken on an unpaid job as an investigator for a small, underfunded local police department, just to keep his hand in ... and he finds himself heavily involved in the search for a serial rapist.

    The two tracks are intertwined beautifully, and while Bosch remains one of the genre's great inventions, Connelly's writing consistently transcends the genre. The great Robert B. Parker told me once that he believed that one reason people liked his Spenser novels is that, even though they read them, they liked the sound, the musicality of the language. Connelly certainly is a great example of that, and "The Wrong Side Of Goodbye" carries the reader along with themes and riffs that make the book impossible to put down.

    Connelly's books always have been strong on both plot and characterization, but the best part of them always have been the ride - through the neighborhoods and mean streets of Los Angeles, and through the psyche of his driven, principled, flawed protagonist. "The Wrong Side Of Goodbye" is as good as it gets.

    Speaking of Los Angeles, I saw La La Land last weekend, and it portrays a very different side of the city. The movie, which has gotten raves from most critics and almost certainly will be a big player during awards season, is a modern musical about Mia, an aspiring and frustrated actress, and Sebastian, a jazz musician who fears the decline of the music to which he has dedicated his life.

    Directed by Damien Chazelle, who last gave us the fabulous Whiplash, La La Land is very original, and I give the moviemakers a ton of credit for being willing to try something so different. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are excellent in the leads - not exactly Fred and Ginger, but closer to Gene and Debbie.

    That said ... I have to admit that it took me some time to get into La La Land. Unlike most people, I'm not an enormous fan of the much-talked about opening number, and I found the early scenes, which show Mia getting rejected during the audition process, rough going. (This may be personal. I went through that experience back in the mid-seventies, and hated it ... so much so that I abandoned acting. I found it almost too painful to watch.) But once Mia and Sebastian get together, I found myself relaxing into the experience, and more willing to go along for the ride ... and by the end, I was enchanted.

    This week we also had the opportunity to go see Billy Joel in concert at Madison Square Garden, and I will tell you that if you are in the metropolitan area, or if he comes to your area on tour, you should make every effort to go see him.

    Joel, who is in his mid-sixties, is a very different singer than he was when he broke into the business and seemed to come up with a hit every other week. He's bald and chubby and not as lithe as he used to be - he spends most of the time sitting on a stool, playing the piano. But while his voice has deepened, it also has gotten more soulful, and man, does he still have the pipes.

    Joel is very funny in between songs (he seems a little amazed by his recent concert successes), but mostly he just sings - "Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)," "Vienna," "The Entertainer," "Movin' Out," "She's Got A Way," "My Life," "She's Always A Woman," "Only The Good Die Young," "Uptown Girl," and on and on and on and on.

    It is just magical - but no moment was more magical than when he sang "Piano Man," and when the sold-out audience sang along with him - it simply is one of the best songs ever, and at one point he stopped singing and let the 20,000 people in audience carry the tune ... and even Billy Joel seemed a little awed.

    Great concert. Great night.

    I have two wines to recommend to you this week, both from Carlton Cellars, a small vineyard in Oregon's Willamette Valley that is one of my favorites.

    First, the 2015 Dolcetto - a robust Italian-style wine that we had with a wonderful spaghetti-and-bolognese. I think this may be their first shot at a Dolcetto, and it is wonderful.

    And then, the 2015 Pinot Blanc, which is a lovely and balanced white wine that we had with a salmon ... but which is just great to sit and sip.

    It is hard to find Carlton Cellars' wonderful wines around the country, but it is certainly worth checking them out and ordering online here. A hint - the Roads End is as nice a Pinot Noir as you can find, and the Auxerrois is both unusual and distinctive.

    That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday. (Hopefully at NRF!)

    KC's View: