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    Published on: January 24, 2019

    This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either ... they are similar, but not exactly the same. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

    Hi, Kevin Coupe here, and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

    There was a story in the Seattle Times the other day that grabbed my attention, focusing on how “you won’t find a single expert on the history of the American Revolution or the Civil War at the University of Washington anymore. Since last year, the state’s oldest and largest university no longer employs a professor who specializes in American history before the year 1900.” And, “its history department has no scholars on the history of ancient Greece and Rome.”

    The problem, the story says, is that “ever since the recession, parents and educators have encouraged students to major in subjects that lead to high-paying jobs, where employment opportunities are seemingly endless. But that swing to STEM is having unexpected consequences. With fewer students studying the humanities — history, philosophy, foreign languages and English — those departments are shrinking.”

    The Times makes the point that the situation has economic implications - history and English classes are cheaper to teach than, say, engineering or computer sciences, but the university charges the same for both. Plus, a lot of the kids who arrive at the university have already taken advance placement courses for college credit, which means that they may not have to spend as much time and money in college as they might’ve in another time.

    Speaking as someone who spends a fair amount of time on college campuses, I am sympathetic to the financial problem, though I think that in many ways some colleges have made this particular bed and now have to lie in it. They’re the ones that keep increasing tuition to the point that many people leave school with crippling debt …

    I was chatting with Michael Sansolo about this the other day, and he remembered a story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from a few months ago saying that the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point was “headed toward phasing out 13 low-demand humanities majors to reduce its nearly $8 million structural deficit.” Majors like history will be, well, history.

    The Seattle Times story makes the point that “academics worry that the nation would be impoverished - both culturally and intellectually - if only an elite few understand the arc of American history, know how to find meaning in poetry, or can discuss the ideas of the great philosophers.”

    Now, I’m no academic … just a sort of dilettante lucky enough to be an adjunct faculty member at Portland State University in Oregon. But I have to say I agree with the idea that college students who don’t learn about literature and history aren’t really getting an education.

    You can learn a lot about how to think and analyze by studying history. You can learn a lot about how to express yourself through literature. I’d feel a lot better about the world if more scientists and lawyers and doctors had read more Shakespeare and Fitzgerald and maybe some Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood and even some Hemingway.

    I’ve done some informal lobbying at Portland State to teach a class that would be a requirement for business majors that would teach them how to read and write effectively … but not business writing. I think the same kind of course could be taught to STEM students … they all might not see the relevance to their jobs and careers and paychecks, but it would be good for their minds and souls, and that’s what college ought to be about, too.

    It’s been more than 40 years since I studied Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” but I can still remember patches of speeches that seem relevant today. Such as Portia’s lines…

    “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

    And from Shylock, a treatise on bigotry:

    ”He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason?

    I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

    That’s what I call an education.

    It is what is on my mind this morning, and as always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

    KC's View:

    Published on: January 24, 2019

    by Kevin Coupe

    I think most of us have been heartened by the degree to which a wide variety of companies have stepped up to show compassion, flexibility and generosity in the face of the partial government shutdown that now is in its second month, with little evidence that it will end anytime soon.

    But I did love this one … in part because it showed innovative thinking by a start-up company that we’ve mentioned here on MNB.

    The company is Filld, which literally goes the last mile to deliver fuel to people’s cars at their homes and offices; I used to think that gas stations would be the one format that would be unaffected by e-commerce, bbut Filld may prove me wrong. Not only does it disrupt the traditional gas station experience, it also provides retailers that partner with Filld a way to strengthen their relationship with shoppers. (I did a NACS podcast in which Filld’s CEO Michael Buhr, participated … you can check it out here.)

    Now, Fox News reports that Filld went to the Washington, DC, area recently to offer 10 gallons of free gasoline to people who could show a government ID.

    There were some limits - each Filld truck only carries 400 gallons of fuel - but the move did a couple of smart things.

    It helped people who are often in dire need of assistance - if they’re trying to make a decision between paying their mortgage or rent and feeding their families, 10 gallons of gas is a big deal.

    And, it created visibility for a retail offering with which many locals may not be familiar … and that can only help Filld over the long term.

    Smart move, and my idea of an Eye-Opener.

    KC's View:

    Published on: January 24, 2019

    Bloomberg reports that Amazon is testing an autonomous delivery robot, called ‘Amazon Scout,’ in the Seattle suburbs.

    The Scout is said to be the size of a cooler and able to to navigate around people and pets; it will make deliveries during daylight hours, Monday through Friday. There will be six Scouts deployed in the test.

    Perhaps more important than the specific test itself is the fact that this is just the company’s “latest experiment to automate the last-mile of delivery that’s a labor-intensive and costly component of buying products online,” as well as just one of a series of tests of delivery robots taking place around the country by different companies.

    Amazon is no stranger to robotics, the story notes, pointing out that it has used them “to move inventory in its vast network of warehouses and has been working on delivery by autonomous drone for years.”
    KC's View:
    In the broader sense, this has to be seen as Amazon’s latest foray into the delivery world, testing new technologies that could help it compete more effectively with the likes of the US Postal Service (USPS), FedEX, and United Parcel Service (UPS).

    It so happens that the Wall Street Journal this morning has a story about how, as Amazon develops its own competitive delivery service, it is “targeting a common complaint: fuel surcharges and extra fees that drive up the cost of home deliveries … To woo shippers, the retailer is promising to forgo many fees that the traditional carriers use to pad their revenue, such as extra charges to deliver packages to homes, during the peak holiday season or on weekends.”

    The story notes that “Amazon recently expanded its nascent home-delivery service, called Amazon Shipping, beyond test markets in London and Los Angeles. The online retailer is offering to pick up shipments from merchants’ warehouses and deliver them directly to shoppers. The end-to-end service is part of Amazon’s quest to handle more of the millions of items sold through its site.”

    This is all of a piece - Amazon testing the limits of what it can and should do as part of its ecosystem-centric approach to business.

    I’m sure there are a bunch of folks out there who will shake their heads and think that Amazon is biting off more than it can legitimately chew. But this is a company that generally tends to live up to its ambitions, and when you think of some of the other things that founder/CEO Jeff Bezos is involved with, using robots to deliver packages or mail doesn’t even seem so tough.

    CNBC reported yesterday on how Bezos’ space exploration venture, Blue Origin, recently completed its 10th flight, and is close to sending astronauts into space. Bezos, from all reports, doesn’t just see this as a business … he sees the poetry and majesty of venturing into the final frontier, of the importance to the human spirit and maybe even the survival of the species of slipping “the surly bonds of Earth” and dancing in the skies “on laughter-silvered wings.”

    When you think that way, so much of the other stuff - you know, the Earth-bound stuff that actually pays the bills - must seem relatively easy.

    Published on: January 24, 2019

    The Wall Street Journal reports that some CPG manufacturers - including Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever - plan to “test selling their products in reusable containers, adopting a milkman-style model to address mounting concerns about plastic waste.” There are, in fact, some 25 CPG companies that this summer “will start selling some products in glass, steel and other containers designed to be returned, cleaned and refilled.”

    Unilever, for example, "estimates a refillable steel container for its Axe and Dove stick deodorants will last eight years - long enough to prevent the disposal of as many as 100 traditional deodorant packages … PepsiCo will sell its Tropicana orange juice in a glass bottle and Quaker Chocolate Cruesli cereal in a stainless-steel container as part of the trial.” And, “P&G will sell 10 brands, including Pantene shampoo in an aluminum bottle, Tide laundry detergent in a stainless-steel container and an Oral B toothbrush with a durable handle and a replaceable head.”

    The Journal writes that "shoppers who the companies select for the trial will be able to order hundreds of products - including Nestlé’s Häagen-Dazs ice cream and Clorox Co.’s wet wipes - from a website for home delivery. Products arrive in a reusable tote with no extra packaging. Once finished, users schedule a pickup for empty containers to be cleaned and refilled. They can sign up for a subscription-based service that replenishes products once empty containers are returned.”

    The program - which will start in New York and Paris - will be run by recycling company TerraCycle, which will “handle delivery, returns and cleaning.”
    KC's View:
    This won’t be an easy sell. People dubious about the impact of switching from single-use disposable bags to a more sustainable version may not see getting their shampoo bottles and deodorant containers refilled as wildly attractive options.

    But .,.. it seems to me that this is an initiative that - even though it will take a long time to get the kind of scale that will allow it to break even, much less see any sort of profitability - could point the way to a different approach to waste, which most people would agree has become an growing problem affecting our fragile planet.

    That’s great … but as I read the Journal story, it seems to me that there are a couple of other things going on here.

    First, there is the fact that if reusable containers are being refilled on a regular basis, it means that the companies have achieved some level of automatic replenishment of their own brands. It is some equivalent of Amazon’s Subscribe & Save, which locks participants into a never-ending replenishment cycle for consumables that they use regularly … which is extraordinarily powerful for both Amazon and the growing list of participating brands.

    At the same time, the program as described also seems to offer manufacturers the potential ability to disenfranchise the retailers that traditionally have sold their products. If P&G and Unilever are showing up at a shopper’s home to refill these items, that means the shopper isn’t going to the store to buy them. This would strike me as something retailers ought to be concerned about.

    Now, let’s be clear. The Journal story makes the point that “TerraCycle hopes to bring big retailers on board so that customers eventually buy and return most of the products in store or online via retailers, lowering the project’s costs and expanding its reach. So far, French supermarket giant Carrefour SA has signed up. TerraCycle said it is negotiating with potential partners in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.”

    This tells me a few things. One, while the program may be tested in New York and Paris, the fact that TerraCycle is negotiating with retailers in all those places suggests that it already has plans to expand the test. And, it tells me that if this initiative takes off, the retailers that are part of it will have an advantage over those that do not … if for no other reason than it creates an ecosystem in which the store becomes more relevant to the brands’ value proposition and customers’ declared priorities.

    Published on: January 24, 2019

    Newsweek has a story in which it seeks to recognize companies that it says provide some of the best customer service in the country - customer service that, for the sake of this analysis, is provided by real people.

    Here’s how it frames the subject:

    “The waitress who knows your coffee order; the dry cleaner who saves your favorite sweater; the bakery you visit every weekend whose manager gives your daughter an extra cookie - those aren’t merely transactions. They’re relationships. Your community.”

    While “those meaningful roles are imperiled by the forces disrupting virtually every workplace in America,” Newsweek writes that “as we examined the larger, impersonal forces that are transforming retail, it seemed like a good time to recognize a more personal factor in business success: the ways in which many companies nurture their relationships with consumers."

    The supermarkets that get the highest marks in the Newsweek study: Publix, ShopRite, and Trader Joe’s.

    The superstores and warehouse stores: Costco, Meijer and Target.

    The convenience stores: QuikTrip, Wawa and Sheetz.
    KC's View:
    The other day, Mrs. Content Guy and I went to Stew Leonard’s to do our food shopping; to be honest, she’s not the biggest fan of food shopping, and only went because we were out running other errands and it was on the way. (The prospect of spending time with me probably wasn’t the biggest selling point.) The experience was fine, but when we got to the checkout, the bagger was spectacular … conversational and funny and completely engaging as he packed our bags. (We talked weather and football and all sorts of other stuff.)

    As we walked out, Mrs. Content Guy looked at me and said, “It is amazing how one great person can make for a great experience.”

    She was playing my song.

    The Newsweek story simply reinforces something that Michael Sansolo and I have been talking and writing about for years - great people can be the ultimate differential advantage. Smart retailers know that, and treat them like assets. Other retailers don’t get it, and treat their people like costs and liabilities.

    Those other retailers may not be around that much longer, because they’re not giving people a reason to go to their stores at a time when bricks-and-mortar stores are increasingly threatened by their own irrelevance and the disruptive forces that surround them.

    Published on: January 24, 2019

    The discussion of “toxic masculinity” - or more accurately, the ad campaign launched by Gillette to address the issue, and the blowback against the company that came from various quarters - has not been entirely welcomed by everybody in the MNB community.

    Some have said they are glad to see the conversation here and elsewhere, and agreed with my supportive commentary.

    Some said they would prefer companies simply make and sell products, and not get involved in such issues because nobody cares what they think.

    A few have argued that they don’t want to see stories about the issue on MNB, and have no interest in my opinion.

    Everybody has a right to their opinions, certainly … and I’m doing my best to be a fair curator of various positions while being transparent about my own opinions (since that is, after all, sort of what I do here). I feel strongly that this is not gratuitous … this is a legitimate business story.

    If everybody has a right to their opinions, that includes the folks at “Saturday Night Live,” where they produced a gently mocking video about persistent “toxic behavior” by a well-known commercial icon. I thought it was pretty funny … and worth posting here.


    KC's View:

    Published on: January 24, 2019

    Bloomberg reports that McDonald’s Corp. is feuding with many of its franchisees over a wall.

    The wall is one that the company wants its franchisees to build, separating the customer counter and the kitchen, believing that it will “hide unsightly kitchen equipment” and improve the chain’s image.

    Franchisees, on the other hand, “are arguing that adding a barrier between cashiers and kitchens … is a waste of money and doesn’t help customer service or operations.”

    Bloomberg writes that “the division shows how McDonald’s big push to revamp thousands of U.S. locations has encountered hiccups lately. In an effort to stay ahead of fast-food competitors and keep same-store sales growing, Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook is championing remodels that include self-order kiosks, new systems for delivery orders and extra drive-thru lanes at some restaurants. But the company recently said it’s delaying those renovations by several years to appease franchisees who have complained about the expensive changes.”
    KC's View:
    Longtime MNB readers know that I’m not the biggest McDonald’s fan … but I actually think that its relatively open kitchens are a positive at a time when we see too many stories about employees behaving badly (and sometimes disgustingly) at fast food restaurants.

    I like transparency. Maybe McDonald’s ought to treat visible kitchens as a positive asset, not something to be hidden.

    Published on: January 24, 2019

    • In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reports on the announcement by Target that its stores soon will “accept Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay and ‘contactless cards’ from Mastercard, Visa, American Express and Discover … Until now, the only contactless payment Target accepted from a smartphone or other device happened via the wallet feature inside its mobile app.”

    The story notes that “Target, along with Walmart and Costco, were viewed by the smartphone makers as some of the last big holdouts in acceptance of contactless payment methods. Costco started accepting the smartphone payment methods last August. Walmart continues to only accept contactless pay via its own app.”

    • The Associated Press reports that the Virginia State Senate has unanimously passed a bill “that would establish the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund to provide $5 million for the construction, rehabilitation and expansion of grocery stores in underserved communities throughout the commonwealth … . The money would be distributed by the state treasurer with approval from the Department of Housing and Community Development.
    Legislators have requested that the annual interest earned and any remaining money stay with the program. Up to 10 percent of the fund can be used to pay administrative and operation costs.”

    The bill now goes to the House for consideration, though the AP story suggests that its prospects for passage there are not assured.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 24, 2019

    • Massachusetts-based Big Y Foods announced yesterday that its chairman/CEO, Donald H. D’Amour, will move away from his day to day responsibilities, with the CEO role to be taken by his cousin, Charles L. D’Amour, who also will continue as company president.

    MassLive notes that “Donald D’Amour is the son of Big Y co-founder Paul D’Amour; Charles D’Amour is the son of co-founder Gerald D’Amour."

    Other company changes:

    Michael P. D’Amour, has added the role of COO to his responsibilities as executive vice president.

    Guy W. McFarlane, Big Y’s vice president of fresh foods since 2011, has been promoted to senior vice president of sales and marketing.

    Richard D. Bossie, Big Y’s vice president of operations since 2016, has been promoted to the new position of senior vice president of operations and customer experience.

    Nicole D’Amour Schneider, Big Y’s senior director of store operations, has been appointed to the new position of vice president of supermarket operations.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 24, 2019

    A brief and sad note this morning … Jeanne von Zastrow, who worked for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) from 1986 to 2015, based in Utah and serving not just as the association’s western emissary but also as Senior Director of Sustainability and Industry Relations, reportedly has passed away. She was 63, and had left FMI to launch her own custom hiking and guide service based in Moab.
    KC's View:
    I don’t have any more details on this and her obituary has not yet been posted. But I did want to mention this, because Jeanne was the kind of person who always seemed smiling and enthusiastic … there were some years when FMI was not exactly friendly to people like me (it was bad when I was a magazine writer and got worse when I became a “blogger,” a word that someone there once used as an unpleasant epithet), but never Jeanne … I didn’t know her well, but she seemed to have this enormous heart fueled by the outdoors that she clearly loved.

    Michael Sansolo, who knew her a lot better because of his time working at FMI, remembers that she was “a stunningly energetic person who was so invested in the retailers she worked with. “

    This is going to hit a lot of industry people hard. Sad news.

    Published on: January 24, 2019

    Yesterday, MNB took note of the newly announced Baseball Hall of Fame inductees yesterday, and that Mariano Rivera, the career leader in saves, became the first player ever elected unanimously to the Hall.

    I commented:

    Nobody is going to argue with Mariano Rivera’s career or Hall of Fame credentials. But I must admit that I have a problem that he somehow managed to be the first player ever elected unanimously. Not Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. Not Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Sandy Koufax. Not Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig. Not Jackie Robinson. Not Stan Musial. Or any one of dozens of legendary players.

    Give me a break.

    Rivera was a great player and competitor - the best closer of all time. From all reports, he is a good man and role model. I’m glad when people like him get recognition, and happy that the Hall of Fame continues to reject players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons that have been tainted by the steroids scandal.

    But the first one to be elected unanimously? Hard to accept that one.

    MNB reader Marty Salerno responded:

    Spoken like a true Mets fan.

    Maybe. But I totally respect Rivera … even though he was a Yankee.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    Isn’t it more a statement on what must’ve been some awfully curmudgeonly writers in the past?

    Maybe. Though it isn’t my impression that modern baseball writers are a gentle, accommodating bunch.

    And finally, from MNB reader Roy St.Clair:

    Not only did the HOF voters not elect Joe DiMaggio unanimously, I’m pretty sure that they did not elect him in his first year of eligibility.
    Can you believe that?
    These folks with HOF votes (writers and members?) are fickle, to say the least.

    That was something I didn’t know, so I did a little research … and in fact, DiMaggio was elected two years after he was first eligible. (That must’ve really annoyed him. DiMaggio was known as a prickly individual, whose various contracts always called for him to be introduced as “the greatest living baseball player.”)

    Now, if I understand it right, the delay had more to do with a change in eligibility requirements (it went from a one-year wait to a five-year wait, though DiMaggio was exempted) and timing issues that had a number of great players lined up ahead of him.

    Still, it is remarkable that he had to wait.

    I love the fact that I got so much email about this (MNB readers are terrific!), and that I learned something I didn’t know before (which happens every day).
    KC's View: