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    Published on: November 16, 2018

    by Kevin Coupe

    File this in the “unintended consequences” folder…

    The Wall Street Journal this morning cites a new paper from the National Bureau for Economic Research pointing out that - not surprisingly - in the 33 states (and Washington, DC) where medical marijuana is legal, marijuana usage is up.

    But what it also found was that “the enactment of any medical marijuana laws increases the birth rate by 0.40 or approximately 4 births per quarter for every 10,000 women of childbearing age. These results provide evidence that marijuana use has a considerable, unintended, and positive effect on fertility.”

    It isn’t just fertility, though. It also is activity.

    According to the paper, “In the specific case of marijuana, it is typically believed that its consumption heightens sensory perception, increases relaxation, reduces stress and diminishes anxiety. A feeling of relaxation may change attitudes toward taking sexual risks by becoming less concerned about the consequences of sexual intercourse, including reducing protection or taking on more sexual partners.”

    In other words, if you are in a state where marijuana usage is on the upswing, the odds are the you may end up selling more baby food, diapers, and all the other products and accoutrements that go with having children. (Also college tuition payments. Not that I want to kill the buzz…)

    That’s what I call an Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    CNBC reports on comments that Amazon founder/CEO Jeff Bezos made last week at an all-hands meeting in Seattle, after being asked by an employee about “lessons Bezos has learned from the recent bankruptcies of Sears and other big retailers.”

    Bezos responded: “"Amazon is not too big to fail. In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years.”

    The key to staving off such an eventuality, Bezos said, is to “obsess over customers … If we start to focus on ourselves, instead of focusing on our customers, that will be the beginning of the end. We have to try and delay that day for as long as possible.”

    CNBC writes that “this isn't the first time that Bezos has addressed the issue of his company's scale with employees. In an earlier all-hands meeting in March, Bezos was asked whether tech companies like Amazon need to be more closely regulated because of their sizable market power and influence. ‘It's a fact that we're a large company,’ Bezos said, according to a recording. ‘It's reasonable for large institutions of any kind, whether it be companies or governments, to be scrutinized’.”

    According to CNBC, “Bezos said at the March employee meeting that the best way to respond to increased scrutiny is to ‘conduct ourselves in such a way that when we are scrutinized we will pass with flying colors.’

    “However, Bezos also stressed the importance of distinguishing Amazon's story so that it doesn't get ‘bundled together’ with other tech companies. For example, he said, Amazon has a ‘good story’ to tell around how it's ‘improving the lives of customers.’ And it also has a very different business model than its tech peers. ‘Facebook is not the same as Google, and Apple is not the same as Amazon,’ Bezos said. ‘I don't want to fight this kind of big tech impression - I want to just talk about Amazon’.”
    KC's View:
    The story notes that there are at least some employees at Amazon who are concerned about the company’s trajectory. They’re worried about Amazon’s rapid growth in terms of size, about possible antitrust challenges that could emerge, and about President Donald Trump’s usage of the company as a political piñata, accusing it of everything from not paying any taxes to acting as a de facto lobbyist to being the reason the US Postal Service doesn’t make any money.

    These all are legitimate concerns … and there’s no question that the bigger and more influential Amazon gets, the more questions it will have to answer about its priorities and policies. We can see that happening with Facebook and Google, and there’s no reason it won’t happen to Amazon. Its greatest defense will be that it helps make people’s lives better.

    That said, I have to say that Bezos’ candor about the company’s future is refreshing … it is that kind of attitude that keeps a company hungry and yes, even honest.

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    CNBC reports that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has introduced a new bill “that would prevent large companies from buying back stock unless their employees are paid at least $15 an hour.

    “The proposal is aimed squarely at the nation's largest bricks-and-mortar retailer: Walmart … The legislation is titled The Stop WALMART Act, or The Stop Welfare for Any Large Monopoly Amassing Revenue from Taxpayers Act … It would also require large employers to give workers up to seven days of paid sick leave for themselves or to care for a family member. In addition, it caps executive compensation at 150 times the median employee wage. Under the bill, companies with more than 500 workers would face these new restrictions.”

    "The Walton family, the owners of Walmart, are the wealthiest family in America with a net worth of about $180 billion. Meanwhile, most Walmart retail workers are working for horrendously low wages with minimal benefits," Sanders tells CNBC. "The wealthiest family in America must pay its workers a living wage."

    The story notes that “after passage of GOP tax cuts, Walmart did increase its starting wage rate for hourly employees in the U.S. to $11 and expand some benefits. Still, the boost falls short of Sanders' target … The Walmart bill is unlikely to move in a Republican-controlled Senate, making it largely a symbolic gesture. Still, the bill is a sign of progressives' momentum within the Democratic Party and a testing ground for campaign messages in 2020.

    “Sanders was elected this week to Senate Democratic leadership, lending extra weight to his proposals.”
    KC's View:
    The bill isn’t going anywhere, but it does serve to start to stake out 2020 positions as politicians prepare for potential presidential runs.

    I’m not sure that this kind of stuff should be legislated, but I do sympathize with the idea that front line workers rarely are treated with the same largesse as the folks in the corporate suites. And I agree that companies ought to invest in their employees before buying back stock and increasing c-suite compensation packages.

    But a law to force it? I don’t think so.

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    Reuters reports that Ahold Delhaize, which owns Stop & Shop and Giant and has a presence largely limited to New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, “is looking for acquisitions in the United States.”

    CEO Frans Muller made the revelation in an interview with a Dutch newspaper.

    “We have a strong market share in regions where we are active. That gives us a good starting point to join in the acquisition game,” Muller told Financieele Dagblad.

    According to the Reuters story, “Ahold Delhaize has said in the past it mainly planned to grow organically in the U.S., where it generates two-thirds of its sales and operates Peapod, the leading online grocery delivery business … There were no details about possible targets or how much the company might spend in the report. “
    KC's View:
    Does it seem to anyone else like the folks at Ahold Delhaize seems to have been drinking a lot of caffeinated beverages lately? I’m not saying this is a bad thing … just that there appears to be a new aggressiveness in how the company is positioning and defining itself.

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    Stater Bros. has opened its first Pasadena, California, store, moving outside the Inland Empire marketplace in which it traditionally has done business and derived its community-oriented strength.

    CEO Pete Van Helden says it is part of a “cautious” approach to expansion that, he acknowledges, puts it into competition with the likes of Vons, Ralphs, Smart & Final, Food 4 Less, Trader Joe’s, Albertsons, Aldi, Grocery Outlet and the food sections at Walmart and Target.

    The 171-unit Stater has opened six new stores in the last 18 months.

    “We’re very careful about new store investments,” Van Helden tells the Pasadena Star-News. “They’re expensive and they consume a lot of capital, so we’re cautious. Measured growth for us is much more important than rapid growth. We’re not a company that’s going to go out and acquire a large number of stores or do something crazy. There is no mission here to double our size.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    Minnesota-based food distributor Schwan’s Co. has been sold to CJ CheilJedang, South Korea’s largest food company, for $1.8 billion.

    The Star Tribune writes that “Schwan’s has about $3 billion in annual sales and offers a variety of frozen and ready-made products, including Red Baron, Freschetta and Tony’s pizzas, Mrs. Smith’s pies and Edwards desserts. It also has food service business that sells to schools, hospitals and other institutions.”

    The Schwan family will retain a 20 percent stake in the company, and will continue to run its food delivery business.

    The Star Tribune writes that “ Schwan’s would keep its name, its corporate office in Bloomington and its main operations in Marshall.” CEO Dimitrios Smyrnios, who described it as a way to grow the company,” plans to remain in his job.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    The New York Times Sunday Magazine has a fascinating piece about the challenges being faced by an aging population, and how business models are being built to cater to their evolving needs and desires. And it uses the new Latitude Margaritaville communities, for people 55 and older, as the petrie dish in which it examines the trend.

    An excerpt:

    “To be sure, Margaritaville is not representative of how most of us will spend our retirement years. Fewer than 14 percent of Americans 75 and older occupy some form of senior housing today. Three-quarters of those over 50 say they would prefer not to move at all. And untold numbers of seniors who might need or want to enter an age-restricted or assisted-living community won’t be able to afford to do so; 30 percent of those 65 and older have an annual income below $23,000, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The least-expensive homes in Margaritaville are more than 10 times that, before the monthly association fee of roughly $200 — and those sums don’t include meals or care … Like all pioneer settlements, however, Margaritaville is not just a place but an idea — an imagined utopia, in this case inspired by a Jimmy Buffett song’s reference to a frozen cocktail.”

    You can read the story, with its strong insights into what is happening to an entire generation, here.
    KC's View:
    I’m fascinated by this, for several reasons.

    First, there is the branding issue. I have to wonder if by associating itself with the aging process - albeit with, in some ways, the denial of the aging process - Margaritaville is putting an expiration date on its brand. I think it might make more sense to figure out how to make the brand more relevant to younger people, so that it is sustainable even beyond the life of its founder. I’d be asking myself, “How do we make sure Margaritaville is a vibrant brand at the end of the century?”

    Second, maybe because I’ve spent a fair amount of time in complexes designed for older folks over the past few years (visiting, not scouting), I’ll admit that Margaritaville sounds more attractive than some of them. But I’d rather do the real thing than some artificial, commercialized approximation.

    As I get older, here is one of the Buffett lyrics that I find most compelling:

    Now he lives in the islands
    Fishes the pilings
    And drinks his green label each day
    Writing his memoirs
    Losin' his hearin’
    But he don't care what most people say.
    Through eighty-six years of perpetual motion
    If he likes you he'll smile, and he'll say,
    "Jimmy, some of it's magic, some of it's tragic
    But I had a good life all of the way.”

    Sounds like a good way to go.

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    • Walmart yesterday US same-store sales that were up 3.4 percent, and e-commerce sales that were up 43 percent, with executives there saying, according to the Wall Street Journal, saying that “they are heading into the busy shopping period with lean inventories in stores and more products online to compete with Amazon.”

    The Seattle Times writes that “since buying two years ago, Walmart has been expanding online by acquiring brands and adding thousands of items. It’s also been ramping up grocery delivery and pickup options. Grocery pickup is now offered at nearly 2,100 of its 4,700 U.S. stores, while grocery delivery is available in nearly 600 locations. Walmart has also revamped its website with a focus on fashion and home furnishings. That all helped to drive a 43 percent increase in online sales in the U.S. during the latest quarter. That was up from a 40 percent increase in the second quarter and a 33 percent increase in the first quarter.

    “Still, Walmart’s online sales remain a fraction of Amazon’s online global merchandise empire, which hit $108 billion last year. Walmart’s U.S. online business was a mere $11.5 billion.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    • The Seattle Times has a story about the competition between Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, noting that the latter is “adding fancy espresso drinks to its menu. Dunkin’ says U.S. customers will be able to buy upgraded lattes, cappuccinos and other espresso-based hot and cold drinks at most of its 9,200 U.S. stores by the holiday season.”

    The story notes that Dunkin’ has its work cut out for it - “Starbucks controlled 56 percent of U.S. coffee cafe sales in 2017, while Dunkin’s share was 27 percent.” One of the ways it is trying to compete with Starbucks is by undercutting it on price, and “Starbucks’ response, so far, has been to move even further upmarket. It has opened high-end roasteries featuring rare coffees and drinks — like a whiskey barrel-aged cold brew — in Seattle, Milan and Shanghai, and will open one in New York soon. It also recently opened Princi artisanal bakeries in Seattle and Chicago.

    “Dunkin’ has been offering espresso-based drinks since 2003. But the company felt it needed bolder flavors and improved recipes to appeal to young customers. It’s spending more than $50 million to buy new espresso equipment and train its U.S. employees to make hand-crafted drinks.”

    • The New York Times reports this morning that “the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced a series of restrictions aimed at combating a growing public health menace — flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco products that have lured young people into vaping and smoking.

    “And in a bold regulatory move, the agency said it would move to outlaw two traditional tobacco products that disproportionately harm African-Americans: menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

    “The proposed menthol ban would be the most aggressive action the F.D.A. has taken against the tobacco industry in nearly a decade, and it was notable given the Trump administration’s business-friendly approach to regulatory issues. But the proposal is likely to face a protracted legal battle, so it could be years in the making.

    “The effort to cut off access to flavored e-cigarettes stopped short of a ban that the F.D.A. had threatened in recent months as it sought to persuade e-cigarette makers like Juul Labs to drop marketing strategies that might appeal to minors. The agency said it would allow stores to continue selling such flavored products, but only from closed off-areas that would be inaccessible to teenagers.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    …will return.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    Roy Clark, described by Variety as “the legendary guitarist and singer, Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry member, Grammy, ACM and CMA award winner and co-host of the ‘Hee Haw’ television series,” passed away yesterday at age 85.
    KC's View:
    To be perfectly honest, I never watched “Hee Haw.” I was actually surprised to read in the obits that after debuting on CBS in 1969, it was cancelled in 1972 … and then ran successfully in syndication for another 20 years. That’s extraordinary.

    And I found this passage from the Variety obit illuminating:

    “His starring stint on the at times deliberately corny ‘Hee Haw’ television show belied his stellar musicianship and deep pedigree as a country-music pioneer, particularly the ‘Bakersfield’ sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s in which he was deeply involved with fellow picker Buck Owens, who also appeared on the show. With the later rise of country stars ranging from Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam to Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, Clark’s vast influence has received its proper due.”

    I had no idea. I know something today that I didn’t know yesterday.

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    In Thursday Night Football action, the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Green Bay Packers 27-24.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    The Old Man & The Gun is an elegiac piece of work featuring Robert Redford - in a role sometimes described as his last film role, though I wouldn’t be so sure - as a fictionalized version of Forrest Tucker, an unapologetic bank robber who has been imprisoned 18 times … and who has escaped 18 times and gone on to pursue his life’s work. Redford also is unapologetic about using that movie star smile and the twinkle in his eye to work both the audience and the characters who populate the movie … it is as if we’re being treated to a lovely bit of performance art from the Sundance Kid and Johnny Hooker (his character from The Sting).

    The movie catches up with Tucker as he continues to rob banks with a group of fellows that has been dubbed “The Over The Hill Gang,” played with verve by Danny Glover and Tom Waits. Tucker’s method is simple - he just goes into the bank, says he has a gun, and then charms the money out of the tellers. When it is over, they mostly comment about how nice and well-mannered he was.

    Most of the movie concerns the pursuit of Tucker by a police detective, played by Casey Affleck, who starts to figure out Tucker’s patterns; it also focuses on Tucker’s romantic pursuit of a widow (a luminous Sissy Spacek), who doesn’t quite know what he does for a living but manages to unexpectedly get under his skin.

    Written for the screen and directed by David Lowery, The Old Man & The Gun is leisurely in its storytelling without ever dragging; it is as if it belongs to an earlier, less peripatetic filmmaking age, which is sort of true, since its subject and performers certainly do. But it is utterly charming, and made me ready to go back to see much of the Redford oeuvre, which has delighted and challenged audiences for decades.

    The Old Man & The Gun is a lovely piece of work, with a movie star at its core who, I hope, will continue to work. He’s still got more chops than actors half his age.

    On CBS All Access, the producers of “Star Trek: Discovery” continue to roll out what they’re calling “Short Trek,” little movies that take place in the “Discovery” universe or at least are tangential to it. It is a smart idea, both keeping audiences engaged until “Discovery” returns for its second season and using the writers room to spread their wings and challenge themselves a bit.

    The newest one is called “Calypso,” written by novelist Michael Chabon, and it goes 1,000 years into the future as a man named Craft (Aldis Hodge) is rescued from his escape pod by Discovery, which seems to be unmanned and in some sort of holding pattern. The entire movie is a dialogue between Craft and the ship’s increasing sentient computer, and it is alternately disturbing and charming, posing very few questions that ever get answered and yet managing to stand well on its own.

    Best thing about it - Chabon also is on the writing staff for the new Star Trek series that will feature the further adventures of Jean-Luc Picard, and this makes me think even more that it will be something special.

    There’s news on both the Jack Reacher and Harry Bosch fronts … which I mention because I know there are plenty of MNB readers who are fans of both series.

    Published reports say that the Jack Reacher film series - Tom Cruise starred in two of them - is done, and author Lee Child is developing a TV series approach that he hopes will be bought by Amazon or Netflix, or one of their brethren. In interviews, Child has conceded what readers of his books always have known - that Cruise was way too small to play Reacher, who is described in his best-sellers as being an enormous human being, and that in fact his bigness is a critical part of the character. I think this is excellent news … and would suggest that Chris Hemsworth would be excellent casting. Apparently they are open to suggestions, and I’m curious how the fans lean on this one.

    As for “Bosch,” Amazon announced that the series has been renewed for a sixth season - even before the fifth season has been aired. (It’ll probably be released early next year.) Again, excellent news - Titus Welliver’s portray of Michael Connelly’s creation is dead-on, and the scripts, adapting various novels, have been excellent. For me, “Bosch” is a template for how to adapt a series of novels for television, and I’m thrilled that it will continue.

    By the way, one of the reasons that “Bosch” works so well on Amazon is that it also sells all of Connelly’s books - it is terrific synergy. Which is why “Reacher” would also work well there.

    I just hope that the new Netflix film of Ace Atkins’ “Wonderland,” which is part of the Spenser continuum of novels, is as good as Bosch.

    A wine to recommend this week - the 2015 Overlook Pinot Noir from Landmark Vineyards, which is described as being a blend of pinot nor grapes from California’s Santa Barbara, Sonoma and Monterey counties. I liked this a lot … I thought it was incredibly smooth, and went as well with a hamburger as with some blackened salmon. All good.

    That’s it for this week.

    Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.

    KC's View:

    Published on: November 16, 2018

    European discounter Lidl, which has struggled to get a foothold in the US since it first opened an office here more than three years ago, announced this morning that it is acquiring Best Market, a privately held, family-owned 27-store chain of supermarkets in New York, mostly on Long Island, and New Jersey.

    Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Scott Moses of PJ Solomon advised Best Market on the deal, while Citibank served as financial advisor to Lidl.

    According to the announcement, “Lidl plans a step-by-step transition process that will begin next year and will involve the remodeling, reinvestment and reflagging of Best Market stores to converted Lidl stores. All Best Market employees in New Jersey and New York will have guaranteed employment opportunities with Lidl following the transition.”

    Newsday reports that Best Market “recently has been undergoing its own expansion, having taken over a former King Kullen store in Syosset in April.”

    The Lidl press release emphasizes that “Lidl stores have been proven to drive down prices for shoppers in areas where they open new stores. Earlier this year, a study from the University of North Carolina found that retailers in the immediate vicinity of Lidl stores dropped prices on individual products by as much as 55 percent on average in areas where Lidl operates.”

    The story also puts Lidl’s interest into context: “Lidl has 10,500 stores in 29 countries. The chain opened its first U.S. stores in summer 2017 and now has 59 stores from Augusta, Georgia, to Union, N.J.

    “Lidl entered the (New York) metropolitan area with the Union store this week and it plans to open a location in Staten Island.

    “When the chain entered the U.S. market, it announced grand expansion plans, with the intent to have 100 stores open by summer 2018. But its expansion plans slowed.”
    KC's View:
    “Slowed?” That seems like considerable understatement.

    There have been a lot of reports about how Lidl has been unable to get the kind of traction it expected to in the markets where it first opened stores, with some people pointing to format problems, others suggesting real estate choices, and still others saying that the company had infrastructure issues that needed to be addressed. And this doesn’t even factor in the fact that competition may have been tougher for Lidl than expected - the company likes to say that when it comes to a market the result is lower prices, but what it may not be saying is that this was a response by competition that prevented it from gaining the kind of momentum it needed.

    This move, I think, indicates that Lidl has concluded that it needs to move into a new phase of US expansion, and that the acquisition of store groups in certain markets makes a lot of sense. My guess would be that this is just the first in a series of acquisitions that Lidl will make, and it seeks out companies with enough stores, favorable labor deals, and strategically located real estate that will give it a jump start in those markets.

    (If I were Lidl, one of the first things I’d do is call IGA and ask how much it would cost to buy everything - every store in the system. I’d tell IGA that it can work out the financial details with its members, but that I’m willing to write a check for what moist people would agree are largely undercapitalized and unprepossessing stores that have some pretty good locations but are a) unable to really compete in this market, and b) are going to get killed by discounters that eventually enter their market. Lidl has total company sales of more than $100 billion a year … it can afford it.)

    One of the things that this move by Lidl does, I’d guess, is raise the bar for what Aldi - still a much larger presence in the US - is going to do to maintain its advantage. Might it look into acquiring some appropriate chains? Will it accelerate its US growth plans? I’d bet the answer is yes to both questions.

    At the same time, companies like Walmart, Kroger and Albertsons have to consider what this means to them, and how they need to sharpen their value proposition. Ahold Delhaize, which has just said it wants to acquire more stores in the US, now is facing an acquisition terrain that is more crowded than it might’ve expected.

    And the dominoes continue to fall, as mainstream, middle-of-the-road retailers see their continued path to profitability narrow considerably. They’ll have a few choices. They can get a lot better at what they do, which is only going to happen with investment of capital and a disruptive attitude. They can do the same-old, same-old, and pray for a miracle. Or, they can tell whoever answers the phones, “If anyone from Aldi or Lidl calls, put them through immediately.”

    This may be a purchase of 27 stores by a German retailer that hasn’t made any sort of an impact in the US. But it has the potential to be much, much more, because there is now another very well-capitalized buyer out there ready to compete with Kroger, Albertsons and Ahold for the regional grocers that would likely benefit from a larger owner.

    Stay tuned. This is just the beginning.