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    Published on: August 7, 2017

    by Kevin Coupe

    Excellent piece in the Washington Post that challenges some of the assumptions about the use of robotic technology in the workplace - namely, that robots are being used because they don’t get sick, don’t join unions, don’t need a lunch break, and can replace human beings who can and often will do all of those things. Conventional wisdom is that the employers who use robots are as heartless as the robots they are bringing into the workplace.

    But it may not be that simple, as the story frames the situation this way:

    “In factory after American factory, the surrender of the industrial age to the age of automation continues at a record pace. The transformation is decades along, its primary reasons well-established: a search for cost-cutting and efficiency.

    “But as one factory in Wisconsin is showing, the forces driving automation can evolve — for reasons having to do with the condition of the American workforce. The robots were coming in not to replace humans, and not just as a way to modernize, but also because reliable humans had become so hard to find. It was part of a labor shortage spreading across America, one that economists said is stemming from so many things at once. A low unemployment rate. The retirement of baby boomers. A younger generation that doesn’t want factory jobs. And, more and more, a workforce in declining health: because of alcohol, because of despair and depression, because of a spike in the use of opioids and other drugs.

    In earlier decades, companies would have responded to such a shortage by either giving up on expansion hopes or boosting wages until they filled their positions. But now, they had another option…”

    This story is Eye-Opening in its detail, sharply observed and worth reading here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 7, 2017

    CNBC reports that JPMorgan analyst Ken Goldman has written a note to clients suggesting that Sprouts Farmers Market is the “most likely” takeover target among publicly traded grocery chains, and that "Sprouts is large enough to move the needle for most large retailers but not so large as to generate huge integration or balance sheet risk.”

    The analysis maintains that Sprouts’ business model - it “has relationships with farmers and is able to buy their excess produce at below-market prices and move it quickly into its stores” - gives it a differential advantage, but that it probably would make more sense if it were acquired for strategic reasons by another retailer than for it to be bought by a private equity group.

    The story suggests that Amazon’s pending $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods may have made Sprouts even more appetizing as a takeover candidate looking to ameliorate possible advantages that an Amazon-Whole Foods combination may create. However, “ risks do remain for Sprouts, and Amazon is one of them. Amazon Prime Now has been providing e-commerce services for 10 of Sprouts' stores, with plans to double that number in 2017 and expand the partnership further in 2018.”

    There is no sense at the moment that that Amazon-Sprouts relationship is going to be terminated. But the Whole Foods deal certainly raises questions that are still to be answered.
    KC's View:
    This strikes me as pretty spot on, and to be honest, I wonder why Walmart is fooling around buying Bonobos when it could be buying Sprouts. The low-price message is consistent, and yet Sprouts could make Walmart a lot more effective in how it approaches the produce side of the business.

    I have no idea if there could be regulatory/antitrust issues affecting a Walmart bid for Sprouts. But it would be an interesting move by Walmart to counterpunch against the Amazon-Whole Foods deal.

    Published on: August 7, 2017

    Barron's had a really good piece over the weekend illustrating yet another example of how technology-driven companies are disrupting revenue models used for decades by traditional companies. It is an example that has been cited from time to time over the years on MNB, but it is so powerful that it is worth referencing again.

    The business is television sports, and it starts from the premise that Amazon's deal to pay $50 million for streaming rights to 10 Thursday night National Football League (NFL) games this season does not auger well for traditional broadcast networks that traditionally have spent hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars to buy the rights to cover specific teams, sports or leagues, using them as a way to generate large audiences and significant advertising dollars.

    But, "Viewership trends in television are weak, and they’re worse without sports," Barron's writes. " Whereas TV networks own many of their scripted hits, they rent sports. Wisely, they have locked up rights for years to come, albeit at rich prices. As those rights come due, the networks could enter an unwinnable bidding war with Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet."

    Part of the problem is that "traditional television is losing its reach. Over the past five years, viewership among teens and young millennials (ages 18 to 24), including delayed viewing on DVRs, but not online streaming, has plummeted by more than 40%, according to Nielsen data. Among older millennials (25 to 34) and Gen Xers (35 to 49), it is down 28% and 13%, respectively. Only over-50s are sticking with their clickers."

    In this case, the grass actually is greener on the other side of the fence: "Alphabet, which owns YouTube and Google, and Facebook, which owns Instagram, are a mirror image of broadcast TV. Their audiences are vast and growing. Consider: Various Super Bowls dominate the list of the most-watched U.S. telecasts ever. But there are more than 40 YouTube videos that have each been watched 10 times more than any Super Bowl. Advertisers are quickly shifting dollars online. Digital ad spending passed advertising outlays for TV for the first time last year. This year, the gap will widen to $10 billion—with $83 billion for digital, and $73 billion for TV, according to industry forecaster eMarketer. By 2021, the gap could be more than $50 billion. And while TV is in a spending race for content, YouTube and Facebook get free content created by their users.

    "Meanwhile, Amazon seems to be trying—and failing—to spend money as fast at it makes it. This year, it is likely to generate $10.5 billion in free cash, more than any television network’s parent company. And Amazon’s free cash flow could triple by 2020. By then, Wall Street predicts, the big four TV networks and their parent companies—with their theme parks, movies, and other ventures—will generate a combined $30 billion in free cash flow. Alphabet, Facebook, and Amazon are seen combining for more than $100 billion."

    Scott Galloway, marketing professor at New York University, looks at the sports television horizon and offers this assessment to Barron's: "Winter is coming."
    KC's View:
    To me, this is kind of metaphor to which traditional retailers need to pay attention.

    Let's be clear. It isn't like suddenly the Super Bowl is only going to be available to Amazon Prime members, or that next year YouTube will be home to the Final Four. There are a lot of moving parts here, and the degree to which technology and innovation-driven companies are able to compete for the rights to various sports and events will depend on how competitive and aggressive traditional companies are in reinventing their business models.

    Sports broadcasting always has been a big business. Teams and leagues got rich as broadcasting entities paid more and more for rights, and broadcasters were able to charge more and more for ad time because there were fewer "live" events that attracted eyeballs. Everybody was feeding at the same trough ... but now, it looks like technology/innovation-driven companies may be able to offer an alternative.

    The sinking feeling that some of these legacy companies' executive are feeling should seem familiar to many retailers, who if they are paying attention ought to be able to see that their traditional models are under attack from a variety of angles, and by companies that see consumers and opportunities through different prisms.

    Published on: August 7, 2017

    Bloomberg has a story about the continuing troubles being faced by the shopping mall industry, where softness in the bricks-and-mortar business and changing consumer habits are "pushing property owners to redraw development plans to keep up with rapid changes in the industry. With store closures accelerating, landlords are having to change course and find ways to create malleable space that can accommodate a revolving roster of tenants.

    "More than a dozen retailers have filed for bankruptcy this year and chains such as Macy's Inc. are planning to shutter locations amid the rise of online shopping and changing consumer habits. As many as 13,000 stores are expected to close next year, compared with 4,000 in 2016, according to brokerage Cushman & Wakefield Inc."

    Mall developers in places like Atlanta to Detroit are finding themselves abandoning old plans that were retail-centric and moving to mixed use development strategies that often include homes, apartments, hotels, offices and conference centers. The business climate is changing so fast that things designed just two years ago suddenly look vulnerable, and in some cases retailers and other consumer facing businesses are having to revamp their plans at the last minute so as to be more relevant and financially viable.

    There was one interesting passage that stand out in terms of how developers have to think:

    "Malls that survive the current retail shakeout will be in places where the community has grown up around the property, rather than the generic shopping centers at highway interchanges that dominated the U.S. suburbs for decades, according to David Kitchens, an architect with Cooper Carry … Landlords that want to be successful are thinking about lifestyle first and retail second, he said."
    KC's View:
    It is stories like these that make me wonder why supermarket chains would consider moving into mall locations that other large anchor tenants no longer want. I understand why the developers would want them - to generate traffic - but I’d be concerned about going into a situation that seems to be on the downside in terms of national trends.

    That’s actually an interesting comment by Kitchens, that landlords have to think about lifestyle before thinking about retail. I’d suggest that retailers actually need to do the same thing, especially at a time when the nation is over-stored and the competition is coming at them from a variety of different directions.

    Published on: August 7, 2017

    The San Francisco Chronicle has a story about See's Candy, a company founded in 1921 that now is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, and that has the kind of simple business model that Warren Buffett said he prefers - it "makes and sells premium chocolates. Pure and simple. Case closed."

    Except that life no longer is pure and simple.

    "Nearly half of See’s 240 stores are located in malls, a format suffering from dwindling traffic and the financial stress of anchor tenants like department stores," the story says. Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resources Group consulting firm, says that while See’s has a “good business model today, " it is "increasingly becoming a broken one.”

    The Chronicle writes that “the rapid rise of online players like Amazon has not directly impacted See’s, since premium chocolate is something people still like to sample in physical stores … but Amazon is hurting See’s in a less obvious way. About 45 percent of See’s locations are in indoor malls, which have been struggling, in large part due to the growing popularity of e-commerce.”

    Flickinger tells the paper that “the loss of an anchor department store reduces customer counts at adjacent mall shops by 10 to 15 percent.” And See’s is typical of the kind of adjacent mall shop likely to be affected.
    KC's View:
    I was absolutely shocked when I read this story to find out that See’s has roughly one-third of the nation’s premium chocolate market share, and almost twice that of Godiva. To be honest, I don’t hang out a lot in premium chocolate shops; maybe I occasionally pick something up for Mrs. Content Guy, but rarely. I cannot even remember ever having been in a See’s store … it always struck me as someplace my Aunt Bessie would go, but not me.

    So I have to keep that in mind when trying to comment intelligently on this story. In fact, it probably better that I just accept the wisdom of Burt Flickinger, who is pretty much always right about this stuff. Like pretty much everybody else in America’s malls - with the exception of Starbucks and the Apple Store - the model is broken. In fact, if I were a retailer I wouldn’t even want to be in a mall where there isn’t an Apple Store, or a Starbucks, and maybe an Amazon Books.

    Published on: August 7, 2017

    MarketWatch has a story suggesting that while meal kit company Blue Apron has faced challenges of late - mostly in the stock market, where Amazon’s announcement that it is getting into the meal kit business “pummeled” its share price - in fact the company has a lot going for it.

    For one thing, while it is not yet profitable, it has seen strong growth, delivering some eight million meals a month to customers. And, the fact that “Amazon sees so much potential in the industry is proof positive that the meal kit represents a new American staple, and not just—pardon the expression—a flash in our collective pots and pans.”

    What Blue Apron now must do, the story says, is differentiate itself by focusing
    “on the needs, wants, and values of its target audience: mainly millennials.

    “First, Blue Apron should make taste innovations a priority through partnerships with organic farms and ethnic food suppliers. Second, Blue Apron must work on its environmental record by investing in a greener supply chain and more eco-friendly packaging for its ingredients. Finally, Blue Apron must communicate its strategy to customers in an inspirational and compelling way … Blue Apron can survive the threat of Amazon. It just needs to follow a recipe for success by resisting the temptation to play the discounting game and investing with a laser focus on delivering on millennial tastes and values.”

    The Wall Street Journal also has a piece about meal kits, though it argues that Blue Apron’s are less about Amazon and more about a simple fact - “Americans don’t want to cook and never really have. Despite the nostalgic halo around home cooking, we have always seen mealtime mostly as a hurdle to clear, not as a cherished tradition.” And that even includes the prep work that meal kit services like Blue Apron require.

    Companies like Blue Apron are, however, beginning to adapt: “Blue Apron recently introduced recipes that are faster to prepare. Amazon and other more recent entrants such as FreshRealm, Gobble and Terra’s Kitchen are going further, dialing back the prep work to almost zero. An Amazon recipe for catfish includes pre-made guacamole, already shucked corn and pre-sliced jalapeños. Tovala, launched in July, requires no cooking at all: The meals arrive prepared in aluminum trays. All you do is scan the bar code on the package, and the custom-made ‘smart oven’ (yours for just $399) will bake, broil or steam it to perfection.”

    To be viable over the long term, the Journal argues, “To succeed, meal kits won’t just have to be easier than starting from scratch; they will have to be as easy as takeout.”
    KC's View:
    I’m not sure I am quite as negative on the American people’s interest in cooking as the Journal, but I get the point.

    The thing of it is, every business needs to adapt and evolve and find new advantages, not to mention focus on the tastes and values of target customers. Frankly, that ought to be seen as the price of entry.

    Published on: August 7, 2017

    CNBC has a piece about the jobs fair that Amazon held last week as it looked to fill 50,000 positions at its warehouses around the country. While such jobs “account for the vast majority of the company's 380,000 employees,” the story says, “the fastest-growing part of Amazon's workforce has nothing to do with stocking and packing products. Sales jobs at the company's cloud and advertising businesses are growing at a faster pace than any other position.”

    Indeed, “the growth in the company's sales force for its sprawling cloud and advertising units shows Amazon's focus on expanding two of its fastest-growing and highest-margin businesses. It also suggests Amazon is signing up bigger corporate customers who pay larger checks.

    Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky said during an earnings call last week that “more salespeople are needed in those businesses as Amazon goes beyond customers who rely on self-serve tools to the ones that need individual sales contacts and support. Business customers typically speak to salespeople before making purchasing decisions.”

    Interestingly, MarketWatch had a story over the weekend pointing out that the US Department of Labor said last week that “as many transportation and warehouse jobs were created in July as retail ones … 900 new retail jobs were created, matching the new positions in transportation and warehousing.”

    The increase in transportation and warehouse jobs, the story says, reflects the realities of “the Amazon economy.”

    Of course, any increase in retail jobs is an exception to what has seemed to be the rule.

    “Over the last 12 months - a time of U.S. expansion and job creation more broadly - the retail sector has shed 7,000 jobs,” the story says. “Department stores have slashed 23,400 jobs in the past year.

    “Amazon’s jobs would be in the category called nonstore retailing, which has added close to 28,000 jobs in the last 12 months. The transportation and warehousing category, by contrast, has created over 90,000 positions.”
    KC's View:
    Some jobs are going to become more plentiful. Others are going to become obsolete. I think that’s called progress.

    Keep in mind that prediction from Google that I quoted earlier this year after attending the GMDC “Retail Tomorrow” conference - that 65 percent of children entering elementary school this year will end up working in jobs that currently do not exist. That doesn’t mean they’ll be unemployed … just invested in a future some of which we cannot yet envision, but for which we must begin to prepare.

    Published on: August 7, 2017

    In Minnesota, the Star Tribune has a story about how the biggest retailer in the Twin Cities, Cub Foods, “has half the market share it did 20 years ago, with competition coming from new big-box store chains, boxes arriving on front porches, and a parent company that makes most of its money as a wholesaler rather than a retailer.

    Mark Gross, CEO of Supervalu, which owns Cub, says he believes the chain can recapture past glories. “We’re giving Cub the capital, the leadership, the talents, resources and innovation. I’m optimistic.”

    While some have speculated that Supervalu is likely to sell Cub - Albertsons and Kroger are mentioned as possible purchasers - Gross says that it won’t happen, and that the sale of the company’s Save-A-Lot limited assortment stores actually “infused the company with capital to upgrade Cub stores and take on new competitors, notably Iowa-based Hy-Vee, which runs big stores like Cub and will have eight Twin Cities stores open by the end of the year and seven more in the works.”

    The story points out that the person in charge of re-engineering the Cub offering is Anne Dament, who once was supposed to do the same thing for Target. She’s Supervalu’s senior vice president of retail, merchandising, marketing and private brands, and “she’s in the process of rolling out hundreds of new items in Cub’s new Quick & Easy line of meals that can be prepared at home or come fully prepared. In addition to this line, and an expanded deli department, “Cub is also shifting more labor to nights and weekends when more people shop, instituting more training to keep shelves stocked, enhancing more-profitable private labels such as Wild Harvest and Culinary Circle, and expanding the grocery selection with more ‘mainstream’ foods that were once considered specialty. The delis will soon be stocking tamales and burrito bowls, for example.”
    KC's View:
    I want to believe … but I must confess that I remain skeptical.

    There’s a line for Dament in the story in which she says, ““Meal solutions in grocery are changing the game … Supervalu and Cub are going to be in the meal program in a meaningful way.”

    To which I would suggest that it isn’t like meal solutions is a new concept. In fact, I’d argue that they’re a little late to the party.

    And then there’s this passage:

    “Shoppers could argue that competitors such as Whole Foods, Lunds & Byerlys, Kowalski’s and Hy-Vee have been offering extensive grab-and-go choices for a couple of years. Gross, who stressed that he’s only been in charge for 18 months, said being slow to innovate isn’t always bad. ‘Sometimes people can be a little ahead of their time,’ he said. ‘They’ll put in sushi and then say it doesn’t work. Actually, you were too soon, but it does work now’.”

    Which strikes me as a first-class rationalization. I think being slow to innovate is a death knell for any company that actually thinks that way … because the best competitors know that they have to move quickly, even at the risk of failing, just to keep up in the current competitive environment. (Actually, I’d bet that Gross doesn’t think that slow to innovate is a good thing. I just think he’s rationalizing the fact that Supervalu has a lot of catching up to do.)

    As for selling Cub … we’ll see. Maybe someone makes them an offer they can’t refuse.

    Published on: August 7, 2017

    The New York Times had a piece the other day in which the reporter wandered into Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan “hoping to learn how a venerable department store was dealing with the upheavals throttling the retail industry. As stores around the country reckon with, discount chains and changing consumer habits, they are turning to ‘experiential’ offerings that entice people to enter their doors. Saks, I figured, would be trying out some new concepts of its own.

    “But I was unprepared for what I found on the second floor. There, spread across 16,000 square feet that until recently displayed ready-to-wear Armani and Burberry, was what Saks is calling The Wellery,” which the story describes as “an ad hoc assortment of upscale fitness products and unusual New Age remedies, “ that features “kiosks offering avocado juice and futuristic fat removal processes. It also has group fitness classes taught by ex-convicts and vegan nontoxic nail treatments that promise to ‘help with focus, memory, increased confidence and overall wellness’.”

    Marc Metrick, the president of Saks, explains it this way: “The wellness thing is big. We’re calling it ‘the new luxury.’ It used to be about fur and leather. But people just want to feel better.”

    Though at Saks, one could assume, they’re also feeling better by being wrapped in fur and leather, in addition to getting a lemon scrub.

    The point is that Saks, like so many department stores, is under siege, challenged to find new ways to be profitable at a time when people simply are going to bricks-and-mortar stores less and less. So they’re challenging themselves to find new ways to be relevant to their shoppers.

    Interesting piece, and you can read it here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 7, 2017

    Bloomberg reports that Walmart has announced its participation in “the Chemical Footprint Project, which seeks to help companies root out dangerous substances from the products they sell. Two dozen companies have joined the effort, including Johnson & Johnson, HP Inc. and Staples Inc. … The idea was to create a standard modeled on carbon-footprint scores.”

    The story notes that “Wal-Mart’s involvement gives a big boost to the three-year-old program and underscores the growing movement by corporate America to regulate itself. Consumers are increasingly checking ingredient labels of the products they buy -- and pushing companies to rid products of controversial chemicals, such as formaldehyde or phthalates.”

    The story notes that “the Chemical Footprint Project was created by an organization called Clean Production Action in 2014. The move was a response to demand from both consumers and investors, who are increasingly concerned about the hazardous chemicals that companies use, said Mark Rossi, the group’s executive director … Before the Chemical Footprint Project was started, companies lacked a third-party standard to evaluate supply chains and risks posed by hazardous products, Rossi said.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 7, 2017

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

    Reuters reports that Sainsbury, the UK’s second largest grocer, “is considering cutting 1,000 head office jobs as part of a drive to save 500 million pounds ($652 million) in costs … Sainsbury's has recruited management consultants McKinsey to come up with cost reduction plans, and is likely to announce the number of job cuts next month.”

    The story notes that “Sainsbury's axed 400 in-store staff in March, and its larger rival Tesco said in June that it planned to cut 1,200 head office staff.”

    You can trace these cuts directly to the inroads being made by discounters Aldi and Lidl. And you should think about these cuts within the context of a US market that they clearly are targeting.

    Simplemost has a story about how Target has announced that “ all of their in-house food brands will be free of artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners, colors, trans fats and high fructose corn syrup by the end of 2018,” up from the 75 percent of own-brand kids’ foods that currently meet that criteria.

    The site then offers its own perspective on the decision: “In a country struggling with childhood obesity, a move like this from a top-tier retailer like Target sends a serious message about healthy diets for children. While a little red dye or corn syrup here and there likely won’t make a big difference in one child’s diet, research has shown negative effects when children regularly eat trans fat or high-fructose corn syrup.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 7, 2017

    Got the following email from an MNB reader:

    Does anyone find it fascinating that brick and mortar is moving toward Amazon and Amazon is moving toward brick and mortar?

    I guess it’s what it’s always been, service, convenience and quality options for the consumer and oh yes speed. The grocery business has always been a business of attrition…taking market share from your competitor and help them retire. Kroger and especially Walmart have played that out for decades. For the Krogers, Walmarts and strong independents, the need is to continue to shout what they stand for and be even greater than they are at it is priority #1.

    That something to stand for is customer service, clean stores, being in stock and quality products at a value! Does anyone think that brick and mortar will go away completely, really! All this without losing sight of what is happening around you that you cannot control!
    Today will be the good old days, maybe as soon as tomorrow!

    To be clear, I don’t know anybody would would seriously argue that bricks-and-mortar will go away “completely.” I certainly never have.

    But could online shopping have a 10 percent market share, even in the food business? Sure, that’s possible. Ten percent of the US food business is a lot of money…and I don’t know anybody who would look at a 10 percent reduction in their market share and say that they could live with it.

    Maybe it’ll only be five percent. But maybe it’ll be 15 or 20 percent.

    The point is that innovation-driven businesses are going to have an advantage over a lot of traditional companies.

    Regarding our story about the rumors circulating online about Chipotle supporting devil worship, which I dismissed a stupid stuff being spread by stupid people, MNB reader Bob McGehee wrote:

    I think a George Carlin quote is appropriate here:

    “Everyone knows how stupid the average American is.  The scary part is that 50% are even stupider.  Plus they vote and drive cars.”

    I miss George Carlin.

    We had an exchange last week in which one supermarket executive talked about taking staff out to Chipotle for lunch (their choice), and one MNB reader argued - and I agreed - that the exec should be asking serious questions about why those employees wanted to go to Chipotle rather than eat the store’s food.

    Another reader chimed in:

    I thought your comment that store personnel would rather eat catering then from their own store was taking a big leap to say the least! Once every three months the team gets to mix it up and get a special lunch - no biggie - and I don't see it as a necessary reflection of the quality of their work or product. I know many chefs that deliver high quality food every night, but after closing love to hit a dive bar for a burger or grilled cheese sandwich! Why assume there's a problem?

    And from another:

    Probably those workers eat at that deli every day they work.  I think it's not about the quality of the food, it's about rewarding and engaging employees by giving them something different.  There's no reason they can't use the occasion to discuss bettering their own product.

    Fair points.

    I described a new sandwich program at McDonald’s the other day as “a swing and a miss,” which prompted MNB reader Kathy Miller to write:

    The industry and general population take swings at McDonald’s for not upgrading their menu, not trying to change with the trends – and then you slam them for an attempt.  How can they win?

    Amazon is quite well known for Swings and (often big) Misses – but gets credit for the attempt.

    I’m not even a huge fan of the new sandwiches necessarily – but have to applaud the effort.  Launch and learn, perhaps…

    Fair enough.

    And finally, last week we took note of a Seattle Times story about a Starbucks store concept operated by the company that has, on one side, "an area, complete with refrigerator, sink, grinder and brewer, that can be partitioned from the rest and sets this store apart.

    "It’s intended to be a community space and training area," the story says, "where young people aged 16 to 24 who are not working or in school can receive training on skills such as résumé writing and customer service, preparing them for jobs at Starbucks and elsewhere.”

    I applauded Starbucks for the effort, even though some say they are enabling gentrification. One MNB reader responded:

    I also don’t understand those people who don’t appreciate what SB’s doing. Of course they’re trying to make money! That’s what companies do! But it’s ironic that those who often complain the most are the same ones who complain about too much government. A job is a social good.
    KC's View: