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    Published on: May 9, 2017

    by Michael Sansolo

    It’s time for a mea culpa here: despite my endless calls for diverse points of view inside of companies and teams, I struggle as much as anyone when it comes to engaging people who aren’t really like me.

    The simple truth is that most of the people I interact with on a regular basis are pretty similar to me in outlook, economic and educational standing. So I found it pretty eye opening this week to have to literally and figuratively cross the tracks at home to a visit a very different kind of neighborhood.

    First some background: recently, Kevin wrote a sweet note about his upcoming 34th anniversary of his wedding to Mrs. Content Guy. He explained that thanks to unfortunate circumstances (his washer, dryer and dishwasher all conking out within weeks of each other), they chose to give other appliances to celebrate the date.

    Just like that, he cursed me. With my 34th anniversary a few weeks off, my washing machine died and my wife and I were suddenly copying the Coupes for presents. There’s one wrinkle though: our washing machine of choice is on back order, so for three weeks we’ll have to go without.

    That meant a trip to the Laundromat for the first time in many years, except for occasional emergencies while traveling.

    Driving just six miles from home, I was out of my element and suddenly in a very different world. First off, I had no idea how things worked. For instance it was pointless that I came armed with quarters. Today you load money on a card and use that in the machine.

    Second, there was no Wi-Fi available. More surprisingly I was the only patron playing games and reading the news on a smartphone. Everyone else seemed content with conversation, magazines and newspapers; choices I thought no one made anymore.

    And third, and least surprising, was the relative lack of English. The neighborhood I visited is largely Hispanic, so every television and conversation was in Spanish. That reality was apparent throughout the strip center around me.

    So why does this matter?

    It was a good reminder to me that I need get out of my comfort zone more often. Here I was six miles from home and just discovering a very interesting shopping center with many stores and merchandising techniques I don’t see often enough. With a little effort, imagine what I might learn so I’m committed to some return visits to see those very stores.

    It also was almost an embarrassing reminder about shopper diversity. I’d bet that most of the folks in the Laundromat aren’t temporarily awaiting a new machine like me. This is their on-going reality. I’m curious what I might learn on my visits if I can find easy ways to engage others in conversation. (One bonus of the trip was finding that my Spanish skills are better than I thought. I was perfectly able to understand some of the television shows, especially the woman giving detailed insights on birth signs. Apparently I’m supposed to open my heart to love! Who knew?)

    The only downside to this learning is personal. Once my wife reads this blog it’s obvious who is going to be doing the laundry for the next few weeks.

    No pain, no gain.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 9, 2017

    by Kevin Coupe

    Thanks to the MNB reader who passed along a story from the Star Tribune in Minnesota that detailed a new service from the US Postal Service (USPS) that emails digital images of cards and letters to recipients before it actually shows up in their mailboxes.

    According to the story, "The free sign-up service, called Informed Delivery, quietly launched nationwide last month. Subscribers receive up to 10 black-and-white snapshots of the front side of letter-sized mail heading for delivery that day, along with a link to view more. The automated images remain available for seven days."

    The story quotes USPS spokesman Pete Nowacki as saying that "it brings back that anticipation [factor] of the mail ... If you’re looking for an important piece of mail, it gives you a reason to go in and check to see if something might be coming soon.” It recognizes, he says, that "people are spending a lot of time on their phones and on their devices," and allows the USPS to "remain relevant."

    The Star Tribune writes that "the service uses existing technology like bar code readers and optical scanners, which already take pictures of 'flat' mail."

    To be fair, I'll give the USPS a B for effort ... recognizing the importance of digital communications is important, if a little late. (The USPS should have gotten into the email business years ago.)

    And I'll give them this - one advantage of this system could be addressing mail fraud issues; if someone gets a scan of a piece of mail that never physically shows up, red flags will go up. That's a good thing.

    But ... somehow, it all seems redundant and desperate. So much of traditional mail has migrated to email that I cannot imagine checking email to see what traditional mail I'm going to be getting. I've got better things to do.

    Quite frankly, I think the USPS has better things to do. Not to sound like an old crank, but I remember a day when one could mail a letter in Connecticut and it would get to New York City in a day. Lately, it seems like it takes a week ... and in general, it seems like so-called snail mail moves more snail-like than ever. (I'll probably get mail from the snail lobby on this one, complaining that I'm unfairly characterizing snails. Point taken.)

    Finally, here's the thing that makes me think that this has been poorly thought through.

    The story says that "Informed Delivery is not yet available to customers with post office boxes."

    You'd think that post office box customers would be the first people to get access to digital images, since they are not actually getting mail delivered to their homes and offices, and have to make a special trip.

    But the USPS clearly does not have anyone on staff who actually is thinking this stuff through ... a mistake that a lot of companies make, but shouldn't.

    It is an Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 9, 2017

    The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon plans to "unveil a new Echo speaker with a screen that will incorporate video calling capabilities, according to people familiar with the matter, keeping the online retailer one step ahead of tech rivals in seeking to control smart homes."

    The new device "will also allow users to make internet-based telephone calls, according to these people, setting the speaker up to be core to a home’s communications. Equipped with a 7-inch touch screen, the device will be able to visually summon answers to verbal questions, providing information like e-commerce search results in a more digestible fashion. The new Echo, which has been in beta testing with employees for a few months, could start shipping to consumers as early as next month."

    Amazon is expected to announce the new device, expected to be priced above $200, as early as next week. This is a different entry than the already-announced Echo Look, which is equipped with a camera but no screen, and is designed to allow users to access fashion device.

    Here's how the Journal frames the competition in this segment:

    "Amazon is in a broader race with a number of tech giants to create and install speakers using digital assistants to eventually run homes, cars and offices. Alphabet Inc.’s Google Home is the biggest competitor so far to Amazon and its Alexa digital assistant. Microsoft Corp. on Monday introduced its new voice-controlled speaker, Invoke, made by Samsung Electronics Co. , that can make phone calls. Consumers are able to use devices like the Echo and Google Home to turn off lights, close the garage door, lower the temperature and - in Amazon’s case - order online. But none have expanded their speaker devices to include screens yet."

    It is a race that, so far, Amazon seems to be winning.

    Reuters has a story saying that research firm eMarketer is out with a study saying that the "Amazon Echo and Echo Dot devices will claim a 70.6 percent share of the U.S. market this year ... That puts it far ahead of Alphabet Inc's Google Home, a similar gadget that has a 23.8 percent share, and less successful offerings from other tech companies.

    "The number of active U.S. users will more than double for the devices this year, to 35.6 million, eMarketer said.

    "The report underscores Amazon's progress in making Alexa and its speech-recognition technology an integral part of customers' lives. More users means more data that can improve Alexa's understanding and could make it a top platform for voice, like Windows is for desktop."
    KC's View:
    First of all, you can sign me up for the new Echo. Right now. It sounds totally cool.

    Some of the studies I've seen indicate that while at this point the Google Home device is better at answering general interest questions, the Amazon devices are more accomplished at actually acquiring things ... which makes it even more important that they are expected to own a 70 percent market share this year.

    What I'm really looking forward to is the day when the interactions build upon each other and allow the devices to actually become intuitive; right now, interactions are transactional, and each one is individual in nature. When this happens, that'll be when they move from being voice assistants to being artificial intelligence ... which will create new challenges, prompt new reasons to be vigilant, but also offer enormous new opportunities.

    Published on: May 9, 2017

    Austin360has a story about the new 365 by Whole Foods store that opened this week in the Texas capital, the fourth of the format that has been opened by the chain. (The others are in California, Oregon, and Washington State.)

    There are a couple of points made by the Austin360 writer that are worth noting here:

    • "Good luck finding a reasonable amount of cilantro. Two small nits, but ones I wanted to bring up. For the most part, I was pleased with the store’s grocery options, shopping flow, vibe, etc, but I had two memorable hiccups. I went to buy cilantro, and the only option was this 10-pack of cilantro for 95 cents that was so huge, I couldn’t even wrap my hand around the stalks to show you how much cilantro was bunched together. The roots are attached, so it’ll last longer, but I certainly didn’t need all that cilantro. I mentioned to the produce guy that this was waaaaaaay too much cilantro and that I wasn’t going to buy it because I knew 9/10ths of it would go to waste. He said, 'Well, that’s how the local supplier gives it to us' and didn’t seem to care too much about getting the feedback, which also rubbed me the wrong way. It’s opening day. Customers are going to give you feedback. It’s your job to take that feedback, even if you can’t do much about it."

    • "The small selection isn’t too limiting, until it is. My other nit: The 365 stores have about 8,000 products, a small number compared to the 30,000 or so in a traditional store. I didn’t mind having fewer options in each category, but that changed when I went to buy tortillas, and the only flour tortilla option they had were these rustic flour tortillas from California for $2.59. Maybe I’ve been living in Texas for too long, but I want several different options when it comes to tortillas. They had corn and other gluten-free tortillas, too, but I wanted a couple of different sizes to choose from — or at least tortillas that hadn’t been on a truck for a few days before getting here. They were also high priced for a store trying to sell itself on value."
    KC's View:
    Forgive me, because I don't want to be too negative about a format about which I've already expressed skepticism here. But ... to my mind, these two anecdotes reflect potentially serious problems.

    Whole Foods always has made a big deal about people who are living the life, not just doing a job. If you have someone who is almost curt in the treatment of customers on opening day, that's a problem.

    And while I may be wrong about this, it seems to me that selling California tortillas in a Texas store - especially in a format like 365 - is almost unforgivable. There is an enormous difference between fresh/local tortillas and the packaged variety ... and one of the reasons I go to Stew Leonard's (in Connecticut, hardly a bastion for great ethnic food) is because they make fresh tortillas on the premises.

    To be fair, I haven't seen this new Whole Foods ... but I've seen the other three, and the whole affair still seems flawed to me. Maybe not fatally flawed, but with problems that need to be addressed.

    Published on: May 9, 2017

    The Tampa Bay Business Journal reports that Publix is jumping into the meal kit business, joining traditional retailers such as Kroger, Peapod and Whole Foods that to various degrees have embraced a business model launched by the likes of Blue Apron.

    The story notes that "the meal kits — pre-bagged, pre-measured ingredients for meals that feed anywhere from two to four people — are available in three levels of preparation: simplest, which requires heating the food; simpler, which could mean up to four steps; and simple, a meal that takes up to six steps ... Publix has launched the meal kits under its Aprons department — the grocer's recipe development arm, which also includes cooking schools, event planning services and the recipes it demonstrates in-store."
    KC's View:
    Well, maybe not jumping. In fact, Publix is only offering meal kits at two of its more than 1,100 stores, in Tampa and Orlando. But if it works, expect a rollout.

    Published on: May 9, 2017

    Business Insider reports that "Facebook has kicked its push for TV-like shows into high gear and is aiming to premiere its slate of programming in mid-June ... Facebook plans to have about two dozen shows for this initial push and has greenlit multiple shows for production, according to people familiar with the discussions. They said the social network had been looking for shows in two distinct tiers: a marquee tier for a few longer, big-budget shows that would feel at home on TV, and a lower tier for shorter, less expensive shows of about five to 10 minutes that would refresh every 24 hours."

    This move would reflect a strategic shift for Facebook because it would require a more pro-active role for the company in creating content, rather than just depending on user contributions. But, the story says, "Facebook sees high-quality, scripted video as an important feature to retain users, particularly a younger demographic that is increasingly flocking to rival Snapchat, as well as a means to rake in brand advertising dollars traditionally reserved for traditional TV."

    It also ratchets up the competition for original programming that not that long ago existed only among a few networks, but now extends to a wide swath of cable and online entities.
    KC's View:
    And, it continues to make the broader case for why private label - whether it is food or a TV show - is incredibly important for any company that wants to build a brand and establish an enduring relationship with consumers/viewers.

    I, for one, love the idea of Facebook taking more control over content, especially because it has gotten so much criticism for allowing the posting of outright lies and scurrilous commentary. I'm not sure how far Facebook can go in monitoring and curating these comments without violating its essential brand promise, but I think this all is promising. Especially because the more I read about Mark Zuckerberg, the more I am persuaded - and hopeful - that he is a person with a steadily evolving sense of public policy and potentially someone who can play a leadership role in the national dialogue that goes beyond technology.

    Published on: May 9, 2017

    The Wall Street Journal reports that troubled office supply retailer Staples - which is said to be looking for a company to which it can sell itself - wants to convert its "Easy" button concept into "an artificially-intelligent assistant for all office business needs ... In addition to helping assistants order office supplies and track shipments for supplies like pens and sticky notes by voice commands, it can also find and deliver other products that Staples itself might not carry."

    Staples is said to be ready "to launch a pilot program where office assistants at 100 medium and large undisclosed businesses will test the AI-powered Easy System to order office supplies by voice and text, said CTO Faisal Masud ... The Easy System, which includes the physical easy button as well as a mobile app, email and text message capability, has been in development since last year."
    KC's View:
    Since I think there is very little about Staples that is actually easy, I'm a little skeptical about this. Still, I think the impulse is the right one ... though I have to wonder whether it makes sense for Staples to try to do this on their own, or throw in its lot with the likes of Google Home, where it would add functionality without having to do its own device.

    Published on: May 9, 2017 reports that Walmart has introduced no-interest financing plans for its Walmart Credit Card and the Walmart Mastercard Credit Card, which extends for either six or 12 months. "The six-month period has zero interest tied to purchases made in-store at levels between $150 to $298.99, and on 12 months that tally comes at a threshold of least $299," the story says.

    The story also says that "in recent months, the notion of financing purchases on credit cards with some flexibility has taken root.  Late last year, Mastercard linked with BRD-Groupe Societe Generale to bring payment options to cardholders with no interest rates attached across several months.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 9, 2017

    • The Verge reports that "Amazon has lowered its free shipping minimum back down to $25, the latest policy change amid a free-shipping battle with Walmart ... This is the second time this year that Amazon has lowered its free shipping minimum. In February, Amazon lowered the minimum from $49 to $35. Now that it’s down to $25, the minimum has returned to the place it sat at for more than a decade, before Amazon starting raising it back in 2013."
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 9, 2017

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

    • The Dallas Morning News reports that "many supermarkets, convenience stores and chain restaurants that operate in North Texas say they are moving forward with adding nutrition labeling, even though federal requirements that were supposed to go into effect Friday have been pushed back a year.

    "Most companies, which have already done all the prep work, see no reason to hold off, especially supermarkets with elaborate prepared meal sections." These companies include HEB's Central Market and Sprouts.

    • Got a press release yesterday relaying the fact that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has issued a decision saying that sucralose - the sweetening ingredient in the original Splenda Sweeteners – is "safe and does not cause cancer."

    EFSA concluded that studies saying that sucralose can cause cancer were not supported by data and "used an unconventional design leading to inconclusive, unreliable results and were unable to prove any probable effect of sucralose on tumor development."

    I had to laugh when I read this press release since I just recently finished reading the new Spenser novel, "Little White Lies," by Ace Atkins, and there is an exchange in the book where private eye Spenser is drinking coffee with a state policeman named Lundquist. At one point, Spenser says that "Lundquist reached for a couple of fake sugars and added them to his coffee. I'd rather drink rat poison." I guess Spenser hasn't seen the new research...
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 9, 2017

    • Schnuck Markets has announced the naming of Dave Peacock, a former president of Anheuser Busch, as its new president/COO. Even beyond his leadership role at Anheuser Busch, Peacock has a prominent public posture in the St. Louis community - he has led efforts to keep the St. Louis Rams NFL team in the city (which failed when the team loved back to Los Angeles) and bring major league soccer to the city (which failed when voters rejected $60 million in public financing for a new soccer stadium).
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 9, 2017

    Got this email from MNB reader Chris Esposito about the purchase of craft breweries by the behemoth brewing companies:

    My biggest issue with this purchase and some of the others recently is the potential control of available taps at any establishment you visit, be it a bar, restaurant, or brewpub.  While not the best example, since I was in St. Louis, but at the airport, I noticed that the restaurants had Bud, Bud Light, Breckenridge, and two Goose Island taps.  All AB InBev taps.  Thus, when it comes to the point that the local craft brewers are unable to get tap space, lose business and possible go under, that’s when this really becomes an issue.  I hope it doesn’t come to that.

    My experience in this space has me believing that real lovers of craft beer will take a negative approach to AB Inbev products, unless faced with no other option.  I do know of owners of establishments that have a large craft beer selection immediately taking various AB Inbev products off their taps upon hearing news like this.  But I am sure they are in the minority. 

    I wonder if BrewDog’s approach of having its own bar/restaurants will become a larger phenomenon.  But even they recently sold 22% of their business to a private equity sponsor.  At least that’s not as bad a selling to AB Inbev.  Just my opinion on the matter.

    Yesterday, MNB took note of a Washington Post report that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put aside $3 million to "fund a campaign to promote genetically modified organisms in food" and "tout 'the environmental, nutritional, food safety, economic, and humanitarian impacts' of biotech crops and their derivative food products." The decision to fund such a campaign was a result of the agreement reached last week in the US Senate to avoid a government shutdown, which allocated the money to FDA for this specific use. Just last month, the Post reports, "more than 50 agriculture and food industry groups" signed a letter "urging the funding to counter 'a tremendous amount of misinformation about agricultural biotechnology in the public domain'."

    The Post wrote that "some environmental groups and House Democrats have derided the provision as a government-sponsored public relations tour for the GMO industry," and that "an attempt by Democrats to redirect the project’s funding to pediatric medical projects within FDA was unanimously voted down by Republicans."

    My write that any such education ought to be the role of the industry, not the government that works for me, and added:

    Once again, an example of the best government money can buy.

    I am consistently amazed and dismayed by the decisions our elected representatives make about what is worth funding at the federal level and what is not ... This is B.S. It reflects terrible priorities. It tells me exactly who lawmakers think they work for. (It'd be interesting to see how much biotech companies have contributed to the folks who promoted this program.) And as far as I am concerned, it pretty much defines the corruptibility of our system.

    This generated different responses.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    I always defend my being a Republican with the excuse that the Democrats are even worse.  Maybe I need to find another reason.  This is a total waste of $3 mil as the general population seems to distrust FDA even more than big food.

    MNB reader Jessica Duffy wrote:

    Government-sponsored propaganda funded by tax payers and some fat cat republicans with some very fat pockets paid for by Monsanto and Bayer and their stoolies at the GMA. Sorry, I do not want to eat “derivative food products” from some giant biotech machine.

    But another, Dan Jones, wrote:

    The FDA has an annual budget of nearly $5B, so this $3M represents 0.06% of the annual budget.  If this $3M creates so much outrage, you must really be upset about the $3.8T in spending that occurs every year.  I assure you more than 0.06% of the total federal budget is more poorly spent (and 0.06% of the federal spend is $2.4B!).

    I wouldn't argue with that. My priorities might be different from your priorities. But this just happens to be the one that grabbed my attention at the moment.

    (FYI...I'm also upset about the net neutrality issue, and have weighed in on that one, too.)

    On the subject of school lunches, MNB reader Jeff Gartner wrote:

    Kevin, as a researcher who does an approximately equal proportion of qualitative and quantitative studies and finds great value in the verbatim responses to open-ended questions, I still shake my head at those who rely on anecdotes as evidence to guide their judgments and decisions.

    One of your readers quoted "a neighbor who works in the cafeteria at a school and tells us frequently that the children are throwing away the food they are given … She also tells us that many of these same children have no interest in math and science and only disrupt the educational system."

    Really? How does that cafeteria worker know what level of interest a student has in math and science? She is a cafeteria worker, not a classroom teacher. This jump causes one to find her entire anecdote incredulous and just more political BS.

    Unfortunately this BS was exceeded by the BS displayed by the FDA and Congress in their agreement to "fund a campaign to promote genetically modified organisms in food," with Republicans voting down an amendment to redirect the project’s funding to pediatric medical projects within FDA. 

    No doubt this occurred because of opaque campaign contributions. Citizens United made this type of stuff acceptable, and just ethically corrupt rather than illegally corrupt.

    KC's View: