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    Published on: November 30, 2018

    by Kevin Coupe

    The Wall Street Journal has a story about the newest “prized amenity” in modern, tech-oriented, open-plan offices.

    Phone booths.

    According to the story, “Once upon a time, the open office was the answer to a Dilbertian nightmare of endless gray cubicles, which itself was a response to an increasing lack of order found in open-floor plans.

    “Now, the booths are a trendy mea culpa from employers who learned over the past decade that doing away with partitions - part desire to be hip, part cost-saving measure - left workers with no outlet for peace or quiet.

    “In 2015, a single booth maker participated in the NeoCon show in Chicago for the commercial-design industry. This year, there were more than a dozen.”

    That’s not to say that it is a perfect solution. The booths are not as private as some would like them to be, and sometimes the competition for the space can be cutthroat. But it is a good reminder that progress comes in fits and starts, and that there are parts of the way things used to be in which value can be found.

    It can be an Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    CNBC has a story about how investor/venture capitalist John Doerr, who made a fortune by taking an early stake in a small online bookseller named Amazon, believes that the company is about to make a major healthcare play, “expecting CEO Jeff Bezos to roll out an offering for medical and health products that resembles Amazon Prime, which has over 100 million users.”

    Doerr doesn’t think Amazon is alone in this ambition - he also suggests that Apple, Google parent company Alphabet and Microsoft are companies that could help revolutionize the health care business. But he also thinks Amazon founder-CEO Jeff Bezos is ideally positioned: “Imagine what it's going to be like when he rolls out Prime Health, which I'm convinced he will," he says.

    “To tap into health care,” CNBC writes, “technology companies have to get access to data, which remains locked up and stored in formats that computers can't access or can't read. Big tech is aggressively working to address that problem.Amazon just released a service to help mine medical records, Alphabet is working with big hospitals to analyze health data to predict serious illness and Apple is looking to bring patient health information to the iPhone.”
    KC's View:
    Annual health care spending in the US approaches $3.5 trillion, which makes it an attractive and ripe segment for technological disruption. I think this definitely is where the tech world is heading … and I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon got there first.

    One other thought. CVS just acquired Aetna in order to disrupt and expand its corner of the healthcare business. I wonder if Amazon might look at that construct and think about how it might fit in and expand it a little more.

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    USA Today reports on how an increasing number of retailers are not accepting cash: “They include clothing retailers such as Bonobos, Indochino, Everlane and Reformation; Amazon bookstores; Casper Mattress; Drybar hair styling; The Bar Method fitness studios; and United and Delta airlines (both at ticket counters and for in-flight food and drinks).”

    According to the story, “The trend is partly rooted in the growth of credit- and debit-card transactions and the spread of digital wallets such as Apple Pay and Google Pay. Cash isn’t dead, but it’s no longer king. Jerry Sheldon, vice president of IHL, a retail and hospitality consulting firm, foresees cashless restaurants and stores comprising 40 to 50 percent of all retailers within 10 to 15 years as greenback use continues to dwindle.”

    USA Today goes on: “The retailers are largely following shoppers’ habits. Thirty percent of all retail transactions are in cash, down from 40 percent in 2012, according to IHL and the Federal Reserve. Only about a quarter of Americans made all or most of their retail purchases with cash in 2016, down from 36 percent five years earlier, a Gallup poll shows. Millennials are especially cash averse. Twenty-one percent of those age 23 to 34 said they make most or all of their purchases with cash, down from 39 percent five years earlier.”
    KC's View:
    Whenever I hand cash to a checkout person, they seem amazed. It is nice to have that option, but I’m not sure I’d miss it if it were gone.

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    The Boston Globe reports that a local company, Beacon Health Options, is working with Walmart to test the concept of an in-store mental health clinic.

    The idea is being tested in a Texas Walmart, and the story says the “company plans to roll out the program in other retail locations nationwide, with the goal of increasing access to mental health care.”

    According to the Globe, “Staffed for now with one licensed clinical social worker, the clinic offers treatment for anxiety, depression, grief, relationship issues, and the stresses of everyday living. Patients can walk in to request an appointment or sign up online or over the phone.

    “The goal is to fight stigma and simplify the process of finding help, while also assuring quality, said Russell C. Petrella, Beacon Health’s president and CEO.”
    KC's View:
    It doesn’t seem to be part of the same initiative, but this does seem to be part of a recent Walmart theme. Just a few months ago, it filed for a patent application on a “shopping cart that would track things such as shoppers' heart rates and temperatures and how strongly they're gripping the handle … the cart would use this data to figure out whether shoppers are stressed and when they might need help.”

    The idea was to be able to have Walmart employees alerted to check on customers who seem to be internally freaking out, “based on the shopping cart's analysis.”

    Now, I’m going to be honest here. When I saw the story about the mental health clinic, I was prepared to make a joke about how just going into a Walmart makes me a little nuts … and so a mental health clinic might be a good idea. And then yesterday, I had an immediate need to buy some printer paper, and since the nearest Staples has been closed, I figured I’d go to the nearest Walmart, in Norwalk, Connecticut, get stressed out by the experience, and then make even more mental health jokes.

    But go figure. It wasn’t a bad experience. I wouldn’t want to go there often - it is way too big and crowded for my taste - but the thing is, it was crowded. When I couldn’t find the office supplies section, I asked a nice young man in a Walmart vest, and he walked me over to it. When I checked out, I used the self-checkout lanes, and it was fast and smooth and easy.

    The thing is, there was no stress. No Xanax required. Didn’t even need a friendly chat with a mental health care expert. Not my cup of tea, but the difficulty finding a parking space suggested that there are a lot of folks who would disagree with me.

    And I’m sort of glad that I didn’t make any mental health jokes. The fact is that there are a lot of folks out there dealing with anxiety, depression and other issues, and who may be cut off for a variety of reasons from necessary care. Good for Walmart, taking away some of the stigma and making such care more available.

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    The Washington Post reports that Starbucks announced yesterday that “it will soon block access to porn websites via the company’s WiFi network … the company has instituted the filter after pressure from an outside group that advocated for a porn site ban for years. Enough is Enough, a nonprofit dedicated to Internet safety for children, launched a petition encouraging Starbucks to ban porn.”

    The story notes that porn always has been banned at Starbucks, but there was no mechanism in place to enforce that ban. Now, the Post writes, “pervs have only until the end of 2018 to get their jollies in public while sipping on a grande juniper latte.”
    KC's View:
    When I go to my local Starbucks, there are a lot of folks on laptops … it never occurred to me that they might be looking at porn. (Do they wonder what I’m looking at on my laptop?)

    Geez. I never would’ve thought that people would look at porn in public, except that recently, Mrs. Content Guy was taking an Amtrak train and a guy one row in front of her and across the aisle was watching porn on his computer. She was astonished, and so was I.

    It never should’ve taken a petition to get Starbucks to put such a filter on its network.

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    The New Yorker has a story about the unintended consequences of extra attention…

    An excerpt:

    “The promise of an extraordinary hamburger can lead a person to do extraordinary things. Culinary literature—from cookbooks to magazine spreads to travel guides—is chockablock with instructions for making, seeking out, and strategizing the consumption of the supreme patty, the ideal garnish, the perfect bun, and the exquisite gestalt of the meat sandwich entire. With all of this, burgers lend themselves beautifully to list-making: the most expensive, the most elaborate, the most nostalgic. And, of course, the emperor of lists: the best burger.”

    One such burger was “Nick’s” cheeseburger, with grilled onions, and served at Stanich’s, described as “a small, family-owned sports bar in Portland, Oregon.” Stanich’s had been in business for seven decades, and then, in 2016, it made the “best burger” list on

    Seven months later, Stanich’s was out of business.

    You can read the story here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    The Wall Street Journal this morning has a story about how clothing retailer J Crew, having just parted ways with its new CEO, James Brett, has decided to “discontinue its budget clothing line called Mercantile and shut down the newly launched Nevereven brand,” and place a renewed focus on its core brand and its outlet stores.

    The move is likely to disrupt J. Crew’s deal with Amazon; the company had long resisted doing business with Amazon, but had relented recently and decided to sell the Mercantile budget line there.

    “J.Crew plans to focus on growth for its overall lower-priced outlet business, including in stores and on its website,” the story says. “The phaseout of Mercantile next spring and summer is meant to free up staff to work solely on the outlet business, which has 175 stores, currently including 42 Mercantile stores.”
    KC's View:
    I find this to be interesting from a branding perspective. The company created two new entry-level brands that were designed to attract people to the J. Crew ethos at a lower price point, presumably so that as they get a little older and more prosperous, they’ll move to the higher priced/better quality brand. But then they decide to eliminate the two spinoff brands because they’re worried that they will cheapen its brand equity, but does decide to put a greater focus on its outlet business. Which is intriguing, since to my way of thinking, all outlet stores do is cheapen a brand … they sell the mistakes and leftovers and attract cherry-pickers, not cherry buyers.

    Focusing on outlets strikes me as being a short-term cash generator, not a long-term brand play.

    I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m just saying I don’t entirely understand what appears to be conflicting tactics … and I’m wondering how many other retail brands send mixed messages in the same sort of way.

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    Bloomberg reports that Amazon’s “‘double role’ as Germany’s largest retailer and biggest online host for smaller stores is the target of an antitrust probe into the terms the company sets for other sellers, the German Federal Cartel Office said. The investigation into Amazon’s biggest market outside the U.S. adds to European Union scrutiny of whether the company gathers information on rival sellers’ successes to help launch its own products.”
    KC's View:
    I can answer the question right now - of course Amazon pays attention to what branded products sell well, so it can decide where to create own-label versions. So does every retailer with a private label presence. Now, this may be against the law in Germany … but is just sounds to me like the normal conduct of commerce.

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    Bloomberg reports that Jesse Kaplan, the CEO of Walmart-owned delivery business Parcel, has left the company … which could throw a monkey wrench into “the retailer’s push into the grocery business” in New York City.

    Kaplan sold Parcel to Walmart last year. Started in Brooklyn, Parcel uses “routing algorithms and a fleet of leased vehicles to bring everything from meal kits to mattresses to city dwellers. Walmart acquired the company last fall, in a deal valued at less than $10 million,” and its Jet e-commerce division “is now using Parcel to handle deliveries for its new fresh grocery service, which is battling for customers with Amazon as well as Ahold Delhaize’s Peapod unit and local player FreshDirect.”

    The story notes that “Parcel was part of an e-commerce acquisition binge by Walmart, which is experimenting with various ways of getting goods to its millions of customers. The retailer also works with logistics companies including DoorDash Inc., Deliv and Postmates Inc., and has even used its own store employees to drop items off on their way home from work. Walmart’s U.S. online sales grew 43 percent last quarter, and it plans to offer same-day delivery to more than half of the U.S. by the end of next year.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    • Albertsons announced that it has joined the Solera Health network of National Diabetes Prevention Program (NDPP) providers, offering the program in its 20 banners.

    According to the announcement, the NDPP “uses the aisles of the supermarket to enrich the program material and experience. During the program, participants actively sample and discover new foods throughout the store while learning about healthier meal and snack options to complement their health and wellness goals.  Participants expand their understanding by tasting, touching, and seeing new and healthier foods. The pharmacy team continues service by being available every day to help participants better manage health conditions and medications.”

    • The Boston Globe reports on how, in just two weeks, Boston will begin “its transition away from single-use plastic bags in favor of recyclable or reusable options … Only retailers 20,000 square feet or larger will need to have alternative options then, according to the city’s Department of Inspectional Services.

    “By April 1, businesses at least 10,000 square feet will need to get rid of their plastic bags. The last start date is July 1, and that’s for all retail establishments less than 10,000 square feet.
    There could be some lingering plastic bags after that, but that’s only for retailers that were approved for a one-year exemption because they proved ‘undue hardship’ by the ban.

    “Customers can bring their own reusable bags. But if you forget, or just don’t have one, some businesses may begin to sell reusable, compostable, or recyclable bags. These will cost at least a nickel each, and customers will be able to see how much they paid for the bags as it will be broken out on the receipt, the city says.”

    CNBC reports that Kraft Heinz “plans to buy paleo condiment and dressing company Primal Kitchen for about $200 million, as the ketchup maker looks for a platform to help compete against upstart brands … The acquisition marks a change of course for the company whose backers, 3G Capital, made a name in large-scale acquisitions and an aggressive approach to cost-cutting. It gives Kraft Heinz, which also owns Miracle Whip and its branded dressings, a foothold with which it will look to fend off competition from upstart brands like Sir Kensington's and Annie's Homegrown.”

    • The Wall Street Journal reports that “Sears Holdings Corp. is considering offers from liquidators that would result in the closure of all its stores while Chairman Edward Lampert and Cyrus Capital Partners prepare a bid that would keep the bankrupt retailer in business, according to people familiar with the matter.

    “Mr. Lampert, who believes a slimmed-down Sears can emerge from bankruptcy, and Cyrus are expected to make an offer for roughly 500 of Sears’s best-performing stores, the people said. The company’s advisers, however, have contacted a number of liquidation firms seeking offers to shut down Sears’s stores and sell off the company’s merchandise in case the takeover offer falls apart, the people said.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    • The Washington Post reports that US lawmakers “have struck a final farm bill deal that scraps a plan backed by House Republicans and President Trump to add new work requirements for recipients of food stamps.

    “The House and Senate have been deadlocked over multiple issues in the bill, including provisions in the House bill that would add new work requirements for older food stamp recipients and for parents of children age 6 and older. But those provisions have been stripped in the compromise package, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, confirmed Thursday.”

    However, the Trump administration has not yet signed off on the compromise agreement.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    …will return next week.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    In Thursday Night Football, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the New Orleans Saints 13-10.
    KC's View:

    Published on: November 30, 2018

    Since the death of author Robert B. Parker - MNB readers know how much I respected him and his work, and I wrote about my friendship with his widow, Joan Parker, here - the protagonists of his novels have found new and, I think, enduring life. Spenser, the Boston PI, has been the subject of seven excellent novels by Ace Atkins, while Jesse Stone, the alcoholic police chief of Paradise, Massachusetts, has been written about by Reed Farrel Coleman in five new novels. As a fan and devotee,I’ve been thrilled.

    For me, a lesser series of novels by Parker were about Sunny Randall, another Boston-based private detective who was created by the author when actress Helen Hunt was looking for a character to play; the film never got produced, but Parker never wasted anything, so he wrote a half-dozen novels featuring the character. I read them, thought they were okay but derivative, and kept thinking of the Tony Kornheiser book titled, “I’m Back For More Cash.”

    Now, sportswriter Mike Lupica has revived the character and, presumably, the series, with “Blood Feud,” out this week. I’m a Lupica fan - I’ve liked his sports columns and the four or five adult mystery novels he;’s written over the years - and I think he acquits himself well here. He’s as big a fan of Parker as I am, and he gets the lingo, the beats and the vibe right. Like Parker, he writes Sunny in the first person, but he does so without venturing into the occasionally queasy moments that Parker had. (Because his first person narration sounded a lot like his first person narration for Spenser, there were moments in the Randall books that just felt wrong.)

    As much as I liked Lupica’s effort, I must admit that I kept wondering why - since the publisher had the choice of anyone to pick up the series - a woman had not been chosen. If I’d been the publisher, I’d have looked for an accomplished woman writer who understood the genre but was deserving of a larger audience and recognition, and asked her to give Sunny a fresh and authentic perspective.

    Just a thought.

    On the face of it, “The Kominsky Method,” on Netflix, shouldn’t be anything special. It has been created and written by Chuck Lorre, whose snappy dialogue and easily identifiable characters have been getting great ratings for years in shows like “Two and A Half Men,” “Mom,” and “The Big Bang Theory.” It stars Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, two stars with plenty of mileage on them. And its main characters on the face of it are fictional stereotypes - Sandy Kominsky (Douglas) is a failed actor with commitment issues turned acting coach (Henry Winkler is playing a version of this same character on “Barry”); his longtime agent, Norman Newlander (Arkin) is cut from the some of the same cloth as the agent played by Jeff Garlin on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

    But somehow - perhaps it is as simple as chemistry - “The Kominsky Method” works. At least for me. I found it to be compelling and entertaining in its portrayal of two aging men trying to figure out their place in a changing world, wondering if and how they fit in as their circumstances change. It is about the small but annoying physical infirmities that come along with age, poking fun at them and yet being sympathetic. (I’ve had two conversations with different friends in which we’ve said that this is going to be us in 10 years. I just want to have Douglas’s hair.)

    One of the best things about “The Kominsky Method” is that it is only eight episodes, each one about 30 minutes long. It’s not that I’m glad that they’re short; rather,, I’m glad that there’s no padding, no digressions. The first season’s episodes are just right, and I’m looking forward to another season.

    I just have one suggestion. Maybe they ought to change the name of the series. I’m thinking, “The Big Prostate Theory.”

    Just a thought.

    An admission here. I cried at the end of Creed II. My sons were a little bit appalled, but not surprised - I have a long history with the Rocky movies - when I was in college, in 1976, I was in the audience for the first public screening of the original Rocky. (I wrote about the experience here.)

    The thing is, there aren’t a ton of surprises in Creed Ii. Adonis Creed, the son of Apollo Creed, ends up facing off in the ring against Viktor Drago, the son of Ivan Drago, who killed his father in an exhibition match (in Rocky IV) and ended up battling against Rocky Balboa in a grudge match replete with anti-Russia propaganda. It was a brutal match; as Rocky says in , “He broke things in me that have never been fixed.”

    Creed II hits all the beats you expect - exciting boxing matches, enthralling training montages, and heartfelt emotional relationships, all given even more heft by the fact that we know the history and the characters.

    But here’s where Creed II excels. The performances - Michael B. Jordan as Adonis, Tessa Thompson as his girlfriend, Phylicia Rashad as his mother, and, of course, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky - are terrific … the actors are totally invested in their characters. Go figure, even Dolph Lundgren is amazing as Ivan Drago - whereas he basically was a caricature in Rocky IV, in the new movie he gives a deeply felt performance as a man who lost everything when (spoiler alert!) when he lost to Rocky - his wife, his status, his career. He is sad and bitter and clinging to the hope that his son can rescue his shattered dreams, and Florian Munteanu, as Viktor, is an even more bitter reflection of his father.

    It is just a terrific movie, less about boxing than it is about the emotional battles that take place between fathers and sons, even when they’re gone (but hardly forgotten). I heartily recommend it.

    I know I’m in the minority here, but I just couldn’t warm up to the newest A Star Is Born, which seems to me to be less than the sum of its parts. Lady Gaga is amazing, and Sam Elliott is extraordinary … but in watching Bradley Cooper (an actor I like a lot), I kept feeling like I was watching an imitation of Jeff Bridges’ performance in Crazy Heart which was a better movie.

    A Star Is Born is the fourth version of the story to be produced; I’ve now seen three. (I liked the James Mason-Judy Garland version, but not so much the Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson edition.) The thing is, it is a familiar construct - famous but alcoholic star falls in love with the talent of a younger female, then falls in love with her, but as her career ascends his declines, which leads to an unfortunate conclusion.

    I kept hoping for a movie that would take a fresh direction, change things up a bit. Instead, it was pretty much what I expected it to be, and I just couldn’t get with the program.

    I’m pretty much alone in this opinion. Most people love the movie, it is a big success, and expected to be a major player at award time. But in this case, I’m afraid, at least for me the star was stillborn.

    A wine to recommend this week … the 2015 Davis Bynum River West Vineyard Chardonnay from California’s Sonoma Valley. I’m not the world’s biggest chardonnay fan, but this has just enough citrus going for it to make me a happy drinker.

    That’s it for this week.

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

    KC's View: