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    Published on: July 5, 2017

    by Kate McMahon

    The last flash of Fourth of July fireworks once marked the peak of summer. Now it signals the start of the back-to-school (BTS) shopping season and a ramped-up battle between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar heavyweights.

    A new report from the market-research firm NPD Group found that there are now shopping “waves” and stand-alone events that define the BTS season, second only to the winter holiday season for retail sales revenue.

    I’m in complete agreement with NPD chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen, who concluded retailers that “prescribe to the old calendar will be selling themselves, and the back-to-school season, short.”

    The first wave has already begun online, with anxious almost-freshman and other college students perusing options for Twin XL sheets, electronics, mini refrigerators and clothing. Both Target and Bed Bath and Beyond are aggressively courting this market, with shopping checklists and registries on their sites and delayed shipping/pick-up options. Look for Best Buy to challenge Amazon and Walmart on prices for tech and electronics.

    The tsunami of a stand-alone event will hit Tuesday July 11th - the third annual Amazon Prime Day, offering summertime Black Friday-style discounts to members of its $99-a-year Prime shipping service. Last year’s Prime Day set a one-day record for Amazon sales, and this year’s 30-hour event which debuts at 9 p.m. ET on the 10th is expected to eclipse that number.

    The firm eMarketer predicts those two factors will help boost e-commerce 14.8% to $74 billion, representing about 8.6% of total retail sales during the two-month BTS season.

    While Amazon has only released a handful of the deals that will be available on Prime Day, one clearly targeted toward the college market is the chance to get four months of Amazon Music Unlimited, normally $7.99 a month, for just 99 cents.

    The NPD report said three other waves will peak later in the season, as parents shop for younger children in August, stock up on bulk items once school lists are sent, and return to stores right after school starts for different clothes and sneakers (hopefully on sale) after kids react what their classmates are wearing. The National Retail Federation (NRF) last year said families with children in grades K-12 planned to spend an average $637.57 on apparel and accessories, electronics, shoes and school supplies.

    It’s important to note that parents will also be comparing prices online for staples such as backpacks and sneakers in determining when and where to shop.

    Other stand-alone factors impacting sales are the tax-free shopping holidays in certain states, ranging from two days in Mississippi (July 29-29) to the week of August 20th in Connecticut.

    The challenge for brick-and-mortar stores is giving shoppers a reason to come in to shop when so many BTS items are available with one click on a mobile phone app.

    JC Penney is attempting to do just that. The retailer last month launched stand-alone “dorm shops” in 500 of its stores to get a bigger piece of the $6 billion dorm furnishings market. Each curated shop will also feature electronics and houseware items. The chain also is pledging an omnichannel approach, telling customers that they can buy in the store or ship to the JCP store closest to a particular campus. A promising idea, but all contingent on actually getting college students to shop in the store vs. their phone or laptop, an especially difficult proposition when the store in question is JC Penney.

    The more I think about it, the more I believe that among the winners this BTS season will be devices such as the Echo and Dot linked to Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant system. I think they'll be a mainstay on college shopping lists, right up there with storage containers, pillows and surge protectors.

    There is little question that Alexa will be a welcome addition to any dorm room. Not only can she act as an alarm clock and answer basic homework questions, one command to an Alexa device can accomplish a most important task for any college kids – ordering pizza from Domino’s or Pizza Hut.

    Or buying supplies, clothing, or even food from another retailer: Amazon, which seems to have a lot of built-in advantages in this ramped up battle.

    Comments? As always, send them to me at .
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    by Kevin Coupe

    I was intrigued over the long holiday weekend by a story I read in Connecticut's Norwalk Hour, about how even as Stew Leonard's plans to open its sixth store this summer - and its second on Long Island - the retailer is working with a mall developer, GGP, to potentially open a seventh store in one of that company's malls.

    Now, the story was specific about some things - like it would not be opening a store in the long-planned SoNo Collection mall planned for Norwalk, which is just a few miles from its flagship and original store. And it was non-specific about others - like whether the store could be any of the malls in New York, New Jersey or New England that are owned by GPP, or even whether it could be outside the northeastern part of the country that Stew Leonard's always has called home.

    GPP's CEO, Sandeep Mathrani, in the past has been clear about the fact that he believes that supermarkets offer "one promising path for mall operators dealing with department store closures," and he no doubt sees a brand name like Stew Leonard's as having a lot of potential. “The bad fortune of the department store is truly an asset for ‘A-quality’ (properties),” Mathrani says. “Today, essentially, the retailer says, ... 'I am going to go where the best-quality real estate is.’ So GGP, for example, has been putting in a lot of supermarkets into our shopping centers'."

    Now, I sort of have a problem with all of this.

    I should say here, in the interest of full disclosure, that I've been shopping at the Norwalk Stew Leonard's for a long time - spending something like $150 a week, 50 weeks a year, for more than 30 years. (You do the math.) I practically raised my kids there, taking them with me each week, and my daughter actually worked the one summer. So I'm not a disinterested observer.

    But ... I'm not sure how Mathrani can talk about "A-quality properties" and "failing department stores" in the same sentence. These department stores aren't just failing because their products and services seem increasingly irrelevant in a digital/e-commerce world ... it is also because people are finding alternatives to the massive time-sick that going to a mall often represents.

    I know why mall developers want supermarkets. I'm just not sure that supermarkets should want mall developers.

    Sometimes, sure. On a case-by-case basis. But this strikes me as being far from sure-fire bet.

    Stew Leonard's hasn't asked me for my opinion, and they've been plenty successful over the years without it. But here's what I think Stew's actually ought to do.

    Rather than reproduce the big stores with which they've been so successful in the distressed real estate represented by various malls, I think they ought to look in the New York metropolitan area for places where they could open small stores that would be a lot more convenient. I might call them "Stew's 100," and would position them as carrying the 100 most important items (whittled down from the approximately 1500 or so that they carry in their big stores). Milk, bread, eggs, a few kinds of cheese, one or two kinds of bagels, etc... , as well as a strong selection of prepared meals. And I'd put these babies as close as possible to any of the dozens of railroad stations that are in these various communities, from which hundreds of thousands of people commute each day into New York City. They wouldn't necessarily have to be open on weekends, and might even have limited hours during the day.

    And, they might even serve as delivery depots were Stew Leonard's to go into the click-and-collect business.

    It'd be a really interesting experiment that would force the company to adapt to new circumstances and learn new skills and disciplines that might serve them well as people's shopping habits change. And they'd bring the power of a well-known brand name and a ton of marketing/merchandising expertise to the category.

    Like I said, nobody asked me for my opinion. This is just an idea.

    But it could be an Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    CNet has a piece about how the Amazon Go store in Seattle - designed to allow people to shop without having to go through a checkout lane - has been going a lot slower than many expected. Originally slated to open in "early 2017" in most of the press materials as well as in the video announcing the concept (that you can see at left), Amazon Go remains generally off-limits to anyone who is not an Amazon employee or extremely well-connected. Which means that now that we're in July, Amazon has passed the point at which "early 2017" is a possibility.

    CNet writes that "the delay, reportedly caused by glitches at the store, represents a rare and embarrassing misstep for a high-profile project from Amazon, which this year has been riding high on its soaring stock price and blockbuster $13.7 billion deal to buy Whole Foods. The situation also raises questions over when, or if, Amazon Go's technology will be ready for public use, throwing cold water on many consumers' hopes that they can someday purchase stuff at stores without having to stop at checkout."

    And, the story goes on: "The delay may also offer a moment of relief for retailer workers, who've seen stores close at a record pace this year and who may fear Amazon Go's technology will make many of their jobs obsolete. For its part, Amazon has said its test store employs just as many workers as a regular convenience store, but it's able to reassign people to different tasks."

    KC's View:
    Let's stipulate, for the sake of this discussion, that it has taken Amazon Go longer to get going than expected, and that the problems seem to be centered on technology issues.

    First of all, this was always going to be a tough nut to crack. Amazon took a risk by being so public about it. But if, as some say, the problem is that the technology gets confused when there are too many people in the store, that's a good problem to have. In fact, I'd venture to suggest that if they wanted to open it to the public but put a restriction on how many could be inside at any given time, they'd have a line going round the block - it'd become a major Seattle attraction overnight.

    To be honest, I don't think Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos thinks of this as "a rare and embarrassing misstep." This is, after all, a guy who once said that "if you know something is going to work, then it isn't an experiment." I think Bezos, more than anything else, seems pretty fearless about this stuff. He has a sense of the moment, of what consumers will respond to, and he's willing to take his swings, knowing that some things won't work, but that his batting average is going to be pretty good.

    I still think that Amazon Go is going to work. I think that every day that it remains closed to the public is a day when they learn a lot from the experiment. And I think that none of this will dissuade a fearless Bezos from taking another swing, another time, at an idea that seems impractical but has the potential to change the world.

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    CNBC has a story suggesting that if Amazon's $13.7 billion bid to acquire Whole Foods goes through, it could be "the beginning of the end" for the traditional coupon business.

    The story essentially posits that if Amazon is true to form, it is likely to lower prices at Whole Foods, which in turn will force more traditional chains to lower their prices as well. The point seems to be that an Amazon-Whole Foods could propel the entire retail food industry in an Every Day Low Price (EDLP) direction.

    If retailers are pushing "guaranteed low prices" and technology enables shoppers to easily compare prices, traditional coupons - especially those offered via a freestanding insert (FSI) in a newspaper - become less relevant to consumers and therefore less attractive to marketers.

    And then, CNBC writes, one has to put that in the context of broader, already-existing trends: "Couponing has already been on a steady decline as the economy improved following the Great Recession. Overall coupon redemption fell more than 4 percent in 2016 from 2015, while the average face value for coupons as well as the total volume of offers were lower in 2016, according to Inmar, a leading coupon processor. Last year was also the first time ever that digital coupons surpassed traditional paper coupons in popularity, Inmar reported."
    KC's View:
    It probably is a mistake to take an absolutist view of this stuff. Just because Amazon buys Whole Foods - a retailer that was not exactly the world's biggest issuer of coupons - doesn't mean that the entire coupon business is going to collapse.

    To me, the bigger threat to the traditional coupon business always has been the ability to use technology to target consumers specifically, eliminating the need for things like FSIs and broad, indiscriminate coupon distribution. I've used this example here before, and I'm sticking with it - any system that sends me a cat food coupon is one that has outlived its usefulness.

    At the same time, though, it does seem possible that there could be a general move by the industry toward EDLP, though I think at best it would be a hybrid version that also would use targeted promotions.

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    We've had a lot of discussion here on MNB about the federal minimum wage and whether it ought to be increased, and so it seemed timely when National Public Radio reported the other day that while it has been eight years since the federal minimum was increased to $7.75 an hour, local government are moving ahead on their own.

    According to the Marketplace story, "Last November, residents of four states — Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington — voted to increase the minimum wage in their states. So far, ten states have used ballot initiatives to raise their minimum wage. Another 19 states — plus the District of Columbia — raised their minimum wage via legislation and constitutional amendments. Just five states have no state minimum wage on the books and so rely on the federal minimum wage. Another 16 states have kept their minimum wage the same as the federal minimum wage."

    And, "it’s not just blue states that have increased their minimum wage, either. During the 2014 midterm elections, Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and Dakota — all of which tend to vote Republican — voted in favor of minimum wage increases."
    KC's View:
    I have no problem conceptually with the states taking control of this. After all, the minimum wage in New York City or San Francisco absolutely ought to be higher than it is in Norfolk, Nebraska or Buford, Wyoming.

    But ... the idea that the minimum wage has not been increased since George W. Bush was in office seems wrong to me ... especially since average executive pay has more than doubled during that same time period; CEOs now make something like 276 times the amount of typical workers, a way higher ration than in the past.

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    Bloomberg has a story about Dixons Carphone, a British consumer electronics retailer that it says "has thrived in an area where Amazon’s presence is long established. Selling an array of products from mobile phones to dishwashers, the company has boosted its market share by first matching Amazon on price across almost all categories, then redesigning stores to lure shoppers and sell them supplementary services."

    One of the advantages that Dixons has had is that its segment was one targeted early by Amazon, and it managed to survive as smaller companies fell victim.

    “Amazon have seen off the runts of the litter, but it’s not easy for them now as those that are left are formidable competitors,” Bryan Roberts, an analyst at TCC Global, tells Bloomberg.

    But size isn't everything. "Dixons Carphone has a dedicated team that monitors more than 100,000 competitor prices and with Amazon making changes frequently, members run checks several times a day," and "store employees are equipped with tablets to show how prices stack up against rivals to help convince shoppers that buying online isn’t cheaper. " In addition, "Dixons Carphone’s refitted stores seek to offer a more engaging shopping experience, with Nespresso bars sitting alongside headphone testing areas. Suppliers likes Apple Inc. and vacuum-cleaner maker Dyson have deployed their own staff in the outlets to explain their latest gadgets to potential customers, and help fund store refurbishments."
    KC's View:
    This last point is a good one, I think. I have to wonder how many suppliers would be ready to offer expanded marketing and merchandising support to any company not named Amazon or Walmart, just as a way of preventing those two retailers from gaining any more market share than they already have. Retailers and manufacturers have to come to the realization together that traditional rules and boundaries have to fall away if they're going to be successful long term.

    I do worry about one thing. Dixons CEO Seb James is quoted in the story as saying, "Many died and we survived, and we think we’re now somewhat inoculated."

    That'a mistake. I'm not sure they've invented that particular vaccine yet.

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    • The Chicago Business Journal reports on research firm Technomic's take on the proposed $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon, which suggests that the two companies have "colliding missions" that will make integration of their operations more complicated than some might expect.

    The report points out that while Amazon is seen as "a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online," Whole Foods positions itself as a place where "value is inseparable from values."

    But, Technomic does believe that the deal will create "new competitive pricing dynamics," as well as improving Amazon's ability to offer fresh foods that are synonymous with the Whole Foods brand, while helping Whole Foods' ability to deliver such products using Amazon's infrastructure.

    Overall, the story says, "Technomic believes the Whole Foods brand and supply-chain infrastructure should serve as meaningful vehicles for Amazon to grow its role in the food business, which Technomic believes is a 'pivotal element of the company's future growth'."
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    The Wall Street Journal reports that Target, "faced with slumping sales and stiff competition from rivals, including Amazon," is "cleaning house, shedding some of its stalwart brands and launching more than a dozen new ones over the next 18 months in apparel and home furnishings. To make room, the men’s and women’s Merona line and men’s Mossimo offering will be phased out, having grown too big and homogenized to garner shoppers’ affection, executives say."

    Target believes that the moves will encourage shoppers to once again enter its stores, where it is making changes "that it says reflect how customers want to shop today," the Journal writes. "Rampant discounts and promotions, which Target says have diminished customers’ trust in retailers, will be kept to a minimum with the new brands. Thanks to better lighting and more mannequins, displays will resemble a boutique in a mall more than a big-box chain. New racks and shelves will allow for cross-merchandising, like displaying shoes alongside dresses."
    KC's View:
    They'd better do something. I went into the Target store in downtown Portland, Oregon, the other day, and I can only describe the experience as completely uninspiring. There was no panache, no style, no energy. Just stuff on shelves ... and these days, that's not going to cut it.

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    TechCrunch has a story about Infarm, described as a Berlin-based startup that is "developing an 'indoor vertical farming' system capable of growing anything from herbs, lettuce and other vegetables, and even fruit. The concept might not be entirely new - Japan has been an early pioneer in vertical farming, where the lack of space for farming and very high demand from a large population has encouraged innovation - but what potentially sets Infarm apart, including from other startups, is the modular approach and go-to-market strategy it is taking.

    "This means that the company can do vertical farming on a small but infinitely expandable scale, and is seeing Infarm place farms not in offsite warehouses but in customer-facing city locations, such as grocery stores, restaurants, shopping malls, and schools, enabling the end-customer to actually pick the produce themselves."

    Osnat Michaeli, a co-founder of the company, says that they believe they've found an effective and scalable model, and that the challenge now is "finding the right partners. Our initial focus is on supermarket chains, online food retailers, wholesalers, hotels, and other food-related businesses, for whom the superior quality and range of produce — with no fluctuation in costs — makes Infarm an attractive partner. In return, we can reintroduce the joy of growing to the urban population."
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 5, 2017

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

    TechCrunch reports that Amazon's Echo/Alexa system "has now passed 15,000 skills – the voice-powered apps that run on devices like the Echo speaker, Echo Dot, newer Echo Show and others. The figure is up from the 10,000 skills Amazon officially announced back in February, which had then represented a 3x increase from September ... The milestone also represents a more than doubling of the number of skills that were available at the beginning of the year, when Voicebot reported there were then 7,000 skills. That number was officially confirmed by Amazon at CES."

    The story notes that there is a potential downside with this rate of growth, that Amazon is "building out an entire voice app ecosystem so quickly that it hasn’t even been able to implement the usual safeguards – like a team that closely inspects apps for terms of service violations, for example, or even tools that allow developers to make money from their creations ... In the long run, Amazon’s focus on growth over app ecosystem infrastructure could catch up with it. But for now, its Alexa platform is much further ahead than its nearest competitor. Though Google Home saw a spike from holiday sales, it’s the Echo Dot that’s being adopted in droves thanks to its lower price point."

    "Adopted in droves" may be an understatement, especially on the developer side. The story points out that "Google Home has just 378 voice apps available as of June 30, Voicebot notes. Microsoft’s Cortana has only 65."

    • The Associated Press reports that Amazon has completed its acquisition of Dubai-based, the Middle East's biggest online retailer. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed.

    The AP story points out that the deal will allow Amazon to "leapfrog into the crucial Mideast markets of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where the retailer already has local operations."

    • The Wall Street Journal reports that as expected, Nike has begun selling directly to Amazon, reversing course on a long-held policy that seemed rooted in the belief that Nike was so cool that it neither needed nor wanted a presence on the preeminent e-commerce site.

    That has changed, especially since Amazon is tied for first place with Foot Locker as the nation's largest purveyor of athletic shoes, which gives it enormous power in the marketplace. Nike's decision, however, has had two casualties - third-part sellers who were peddling Nike products via Amazon and now are being phased out, and counterfeiters, who are facing far more aggressive monitoring by Amazon (which was a condition for getting Nike to sign on).

    Reuters reports that the Amazon move to acquire Whole Foods has presented stock brokers, analysts and fund managers with a new challenge as they make investment decisions and recommendations - finding categories and companies that they believe "Amazon can't or won't reach."

    According to the story, "Emerging options include theme restaurant chains, recreational vehicle makers and sellers of stuff that's just too heavy to ship via Amazon's network. Meanwhile, some fund managers are increasingly convinced the only way to play consumer spending is to move away from brands and retailers and into logistics and supply chain companies, essentially betting e-commerce will render most consumer companies obsolete."

    Fortune reports that "Chinese tech giant Alibaba will introduce a voice-controlled device to compete with Amazon’s Echo ... the device will be targeted at the Chinese market, and will support voice-controlled shopping on Alibaba’s e-commerce sites." The announcement could come within a week.

    The story notes that "Alibaba’s move would further squeeze Amazon's limited footprint in China, "where its market share is already reportedly under 1%."
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    • French dairy company Danone announced that it will sell its Stonyfield business to Lactalis, another French company, for $875 million. The sale is being executed to assuage US regulators' antitrust concerns about Danone's recent purchase of White Wave.

    Lactalis, the Wall Street Journal writes, "based in the town of Laval, about 175 miles southwest of Paris, is a family-owned company whose cheese, milk and other dairy products are sold under well-known brands such as President and Bridel. It said it has 75,000 employees spread across 85 countries."

    • The Wall Street Journal reports that once private equity group Sycamore Partners completes its $6.9 billion acquisition of Staples, it intends to split the company into three as a way of funding the acquisition.

    According to the story, "The plan calls for Staples to be divided into three separately financed entities ... U.S. retail; Canadian retail; and corporate-supply businesses. The three groups will remain under the same corporate umbrella.

    "The move is designed to make the leveraged buyout of Staples, announced Wednesday, an easier sell to bond and loan investors whose appetite for retail names has soured as the industry’s prospects have waned. Their appetite will be crucial to financing the deal, the largest LBO announced this year."

    • The San Antonio Express-News reports that Canada-based Alimentation Couche-Tard has finalized its $4.4 billion merger with CST Brands Inc ... The CST acquisition is a big get for Quebec-based Alimentation Couche-Tard’s fleet of Circle K convenience stores. After selling off 229 stores to satisfy antitrust regulators in the U.S. and Canada, Couche-Tard will have gained more than 1,300 stores in both countries via the sale, expanding its footprint to almost 9,500 locations including 666 in Texas."
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    • SpartanNash announced that EVP/CFO Christopher Meyers is leaving the company, effective mid-July, for "personal reasons" after just a year in the role. He will be succeeded on an interim basis by Thomas Van Hall, the company's former VP-finance, while a search is conducted for a permanent replacement.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 5, 2017

    ...will return.
    KC's View: