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    Published on: February 20, 2019

    Content Guy's Note: The goal of "The Innovation Conversation" is to explore some facet of the fast-changing, technology-driven retail landscape and how it affects businesses and consumers. It is, we think, fertile territory ... and one that Tom Furphy - a former Amazon executive, the originator of Amazon Fresh, and currently CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners (CEP), a venture capital and venture development firm in Seattle, WA, that works with many top retailers and manufacturers - is uniquely positioned to address.

    This week, we talk about how to monetize the meal kit business and retailer data in generating ad dollars. And, of course, we talk about Amazon’s NYC HQ2 decision.

    And now, the Conversation continues…

    KC: I wanted to ask you this week about some of the recent failures in the meal delivery business, with companies like Munchery, Sprig, Spoonrocket, Maple, Bento and Pronto … and from what I gather, most of these companies seem to have something in common - they’re able to raise money, but find profitability to be elusive. (Sounds sort of like Webvan.) In some ways, I think there may even some commonality with problems faced by the meal kit business; companies like Blue Apron seem to getting a second wind, though, because of alliances they’re creating with traditional retailers. You must see a lot of these pitches, and I’m wondering what your impression is about the mistakes they may be making, and what they need to do to survive.

    Tom Furphy:
    Yes, we were pitched by a few meal kit companies in 2011 to 2013 or so back when the traditional venture capital firms were jumping in. Most had similar business models of central production, some angle to lower delivery costs and were usually based on a subscription model. We could never get the math to work.

    Production was always going to be costlier than they were projecting once you properly accounted for food, shrink and labor costs. Customer acquisition was expensive and would only work with strong retention. As in many novel subscription programs, retention was going to be a challenge. And the delivery economics were going to be an uphill battle unless a premium could be charged, or crazy density could be realized. All of the companies above suffered from some combination of these issues.

    We’ve always felt that this space was there for traditional grocery retailers to lose. Shoppers rely on their local grocer to solve at least some portion of their mealtime needs. They have foot traffic, production environments that can be scaled across product lines and they can include meal kits as part of larger basket of goods, providing for better economics. Even moving toward delivery, they can include the meal kits in with larger orders to defray the costs. These offerings are likely here to stay with traditional retailers.

    KC: The other day we took note of a Bloomberg report on how retailers, inspired by Amazon’s success in converting its massive amounts of data into manufacturer advertising dollars, “are quietly courting big brands with a sales pitch that goes something like this: Facebook might know what your customers like, and Google might know what they want, but only we know what they actually buy.” We’re seeing retailers like Walmart, Kroger and Target all try to make up ground in this area, in part because there’s another important factor about the data - the dollars in can generate can help fund the technology initiatives they need to embrace.

    Thoughts about the degree to which this data and could be weaponized, and the potential privacy issues that these approaches could create?

    We see Amazon’s ad platform up close in our Ideoclick business. We’re one of largest and fastest-growing advertisers on Amazon, using our platform to run search and other placements on behalf of our clients. The growth of Amazon in this area has been amazing. They are now the third largest advertising platform behind Google and Facebook.

    Amazon owns search. Half of all product search starts on Amazon. Next comes Google with about a quarter of searches. Then all other platforms and retailers round out the last quarter. People search on Amazon because they know Amazon most likely will carry the product, there will be good product information and a wealth of customer reviews, and the price will be representative of the market price of the product. And of course, with 100 million Prime members, most shoppers are only a click away from ordering. This is a compelling value proposition for advertisers and creates a formidable competitive moat over other retailers.

    That said, other retailers should rightfully look to monetize their customer traffic. However, they can only do so in relation to the scale that they have. Amazon will remain in the driver’s seat, but there is certainly some market available for others to appropriately market to their shoppers. Also, as retailers look to find ways to defray the cost of their ecommerce infrastructure, advertising is a good means to do so.

    It will be imperative for retailers to use the information in ways that benefit, not exploit, the customer. Amazon is super tight about security and use of personal information. Customers are shown ads based on their behavior and indicated interest. They have built in safeguards to ensure that targeting is not abused and ads are relevant to customers.

    We have good exposure to other retailers’ search and recommendation capabilities in our business. Most are woefully behind Amazon and underutilize the information at their disposal. In CPG, Amazon uses the power of suggestion to lead customers to solutions. Once they find a solution Amazon looks to lock them into longer term relationships with programs such as Subscribe and Save. It works well, and customers appreciate the convenience. Others will need to close this gap to keep their share.

    KC: Finally, I need to ask you about Amazon’s decision to pull out its NYC HQ2 plans … were you surprised? Does this tell us something about what happens when public policy collides with private enterprise?

    This is a tough one, and I want to be careful to not take a political side. I do think that companies, especially large ones, have a responsibility to their locales. And I think there is some validity to arguments that Amazon has not been a model citizen here in Seattle. However, creating what is now more than 50,000 jobs locally, with current plans to grow toward 100,000 has been a boon to the area. The boon has resulted in stresses, yes. But stresses on infrastructure, housing affordability and homelessness were going to come anyway. Amazon’s rapid growth has certainly accelerated and exacerbated them.

    Amazon probably didn’t approach the political environment of NY State and NY City as adeptly as they should have. To think that they could be awarded $3 billion in tax incentives and not have to engage with political leaders over the myriad issues that growth will bring to an area is naïve. They should have been prepared to proactively engage there, with an open mind and plans to ease the concerns of the opposed. Based on media reporting, it’s difficult to tell how much or little they did that.

    In my opinion, to say that the creation of 25,000 jobs paying an average of $150,000 is not worth $3 billion in tax incentive is crazy. I think it’s completely reasonable for a municipality to co-invest with corporations. Also, it’s not like the city was going to cut Amazon checks totaling $3b. These are incentives that Amazon would realize in tax breaks. That is, tax income the city wouldn’t receive when due. But the positive economic impact of these jobs cannot be overlooked.

    Here’s some simple math. 25,000 jobs at $150,000 each would put $3.75 billion into the state’s and city’s economies every year! People would buy houses, pay property taxes, buy food and clothing, go to restaurants. Buildings would have to be built and services would need to be rendered. This is all positive. And with an average NYC tax rate of 3.5% and a NYS tax rate of 6%, that is over $350m directly into government coffers every year! And that’s before the benefit of secondary and tertiary jobs and the economic benefits they create. I’m struggling to see how some politicians are calling this a victory.

    The Conversation will continue…

    KC's View:

    Published on: February 20, 2019

    by Kevin Coupe

    TechCrunch has a story about how in the competition for smart speaker market share between Amazon’s Alexa system and Google Home, “Amazon has soared ahead — the number of available voice skills for Alexa devices has grown to top 80,000 the company recently announced. According to a new third-party analysis from Voicebot, Google is trailing that by a wide margin with its own voice apps, called Google Assistant Actions, which total 4,253 in the U.S. as of January 2019.”

    Now, Google is doing its best to catch up - “Google Assistant Actions have grown 2.5 times over the past year — which is slightly faster growth than seen on Amazon Alexa, whose skill count grew 2.2 times during the same period” - but it is off a much smaller number, so it has a way to go.

    The story notes that “it does matter that Alexa is the platform developers are thinking about, as it’s an indication of platform commitment and an investment on developers’ part. Google, on the other hand, is powering a lot of its Assistant’s capabilities itself, leaning heavily on its Knowledge Base to answer users’ questions, while also leveraging its ability to integrate with Google’s larger suite of apps and services, as well as its other platforms, like Android.”

    But what this all tells us is that there is a lot of brain power behind the smart speaker movement … which means that, inevitably, the means will be found to draw consumers more and more into its ecosystem. That’s important, because this technology - especially the Alexa-based systems - are designed to facilitate the shopping experience. And every dollar spent via Alexa or Google Home probably is a dollar not spent elsewhere.

    That, to me, is the Eye-Opener.

    By the way … I’ll be doing a session on this subject at the upcoming National Grocers Association (NGA) convention, engaging with Dan Bourgault, the VP - Sales & Business Development at Replenium about what this all means short-term and long term. The session, entitled “Giving Voice To A New Consumer-Retailer Connection,” is scheduled for Tuesday, February 26, 2019, at 10 am, and I hope that if you are in San Diego for NGA, you’ll join us.

    Come say hello.
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 20, 2019

    Kroger yesterday announced its second and third locations for the robotic customer fulfillment centers on which it is partnering with Ocado - they will be located in the company’s Central Florida and Mid-Atlantic regions.

    Kroger already has announced the first location, in Monroe, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati.

    The announcement notes that “Kroger has committed to building 20 CFCs, powered by Ocado, to accelerate its ability to provide customers with anything, anytime and anywhere. The CFC model – an automated warehouse facility with digital and robotic capabilities, also known as a ‘shed’ – will be replicated to serve customers across America.”
    KC's View:
    The general feeling seems to be that we’re going to see these projects gain a high level of momentum, in part because of a belief that fortune favors the bold, with little room in the competitive mix for companies that dither and move slowly, and in part because the clock is ticking for Kroger … it reportedly has to hit certain benchmarks if it is to retail Ocado exclusivity in the US.

    Published on: February 20, 2019

    CNBC has a story about how CVS and Walgreens, the nation’s two largest drug store chains, “have both opened redesigned stores that dedicate more space to health services and less space to staple products like greeting cards. As people shop online more, CVS and Walgreens are trying to give people reasons to keep coming into their drugstores.”

    Some of this has been reported previously on MNB, such as CVS’s decision to open three Houston-area HealthHUBs that “offer more health products like sleep apnea masks and devote space to services aimed at helping customers manage chronic conditions.”

    In addition, “while not health related, Walgreens dedicated a desk to ‘services,’ including recent partnerships with FedEx and Sprint. In 2017, Walgreens inked a deal with FedEx to allow deliveries to be dropped off and held at Walgreens' stores. Walgreens has also been working with Sprint to advise shoppers on phones and plans and let them pick up products they bought online in its drugstores.” This doesn’t even count Walgreens’ deal with Kroger, which will allow customers who order product from Kroger’s website to pick them up at Walgreens.
    KC's View:
    It is interesting to me how, to some degree, CVS and Walgreens seem to be choosing divergent paths to relevance, with CVS doubling down on trying to be an important element in the broader health care system, and Walgreens working to be part of a larger consumer-retailer ecosystem.

    They could both be right about their choices, but I must admit that while I’m not always the biggest CVS fan, I tend to like its strategic choice better … it has the advantage of being both more audacious and having greater recognition of gaps in the health care system where it can create accessible solutions. I like that way of thinking.

    Published on: February 20, 2019

    Berkeleyside reports that Albertsons-owned Safeway, which bought and then converted several former Andronico’s stores in northern California to the Safeway Community Markets banner, may reactivate the old banner.

    According to the story, Safeway is “exploring the idea of re-establishing the Andronico’s brand in the Bay Area,” likely by renaming one of the Safeway Community Markets in Berkeley.

    The story says that “Currently, there are four Safeway Community Markets in the Bay Area, two in Berkeley, on Solano — the site of the original Andronico’s supermarket founded by Frank and Eva Andronico in 1929 — and Shattuck avenues, and two more in Los Altos and San Anselmo. At this time, Safeway operates two markets under the Andronico’s Community Market name.”

    Soon, there could be more: “Although the former Andronico’s markets in Berkeley have become more like regular Safeway stores in that they sell Safeway-branded products and accept Safeway Rewards cards, they differ in noticeable ways, such as being smaller in size, not having a Starbucks café (which are in most larger Safeway stores), and selling higher-end products and deli options not available at a regular Safeway.”
    KC's View:
    Yesterday we had a story about the Pathmark banner being revived, and today it is about the Andronico’s banner perhaps getting a new burst of energy. I always thought a lot of Andronico’s … for many years, it was a creative leader within the supermarket industry. It fell on hard times because of over-expansion, which led to its eventual acquisition by Safeway.

    I’m don’t think - though I’m willing to be corrected on this if I’m wrong - that the Andronico’s brand ever violated its core value proposition (high quality) to the degree that Pathmark did when it started raising prices. So it may be that it has greater equity in Northern California, and can build on it … as long as Safeway is true to what used to make Andronico’s special. If the name is just a name, then why bother?

    Published on: February 20, 2019

    CNBC has a follow up on yesterday’s Walmart report on Q4 revenue and earnings, noting that it shows the “largest bricks-and-mortar retailer in the world is making progress in building out its website, despite Amazon's looming presence and massive share of U.S. internet sales.

    “Walmart's e-commerce sales were up 43 percent during the fourth quarter, and it achieved online sales growth of 40 percent for all of 2018, matching its own expectations. For 2019, it's calling for internet sales to be up 35 percent, with growth each quarter of this year falling between 30 percent and a low 40 percentage, according to Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs.”

    The story quotes Moody's lead retail analyst, Charlie O’Shea as saying that "Walmart has nailed the [question of]: 'How do we transition online? … Now, they aren't building stores, but are spending about the same on capex ... that's going into technology spend and going into e-commerce.”

    CEO Doug McMillon says that “the thing that's taking longer than what I would have guessed is to build that merchandise assortment [on].” The company is trying to get to a "repeatable, healthy mix of business online," he added. "We're pedaling fast, trying to make that happen, and disappointed it's taken so long.”

    And MNB fave Burt Flickinger, managing director of New YoStrategic Resource Group, tells CNBC, “In the next two years, Walmart will become one of Amazon’s worst nightmares.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 20, 2019

    Digiday reports on how Kroger “is on a mission to reformat its stores to push pickup and delivery shopping options, which will then drive more online business, which will then bring in more online advertising revenue, which it can then use to invest more in the online-offline capabilities. And it’s not doing this in a vacuum: Kroger has to figure out its own flywheel model before Amazon devours the market.”

    “It’s a lot of complexities that we face, and in response, we’re putting together a new ecosystem that makes it effortless for customers to get what they want when they want it,” said Matt Thompson, Kroger’s vp of digital. “All the pieces and components have to come together because the customer is demanding it. We’ve moved aggressively because the future is now. It has to be simple and seamless no matter what we’re talking about: in store, pickup, delivery.”

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

    Published on: February 20, 2019

    In the UK, the BBC reports this morning, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has said that it may block the merger of supermarket chains Sainsbury and Walmart-owned Asda, pointing to its belief that such a deal would result in higher prices and fewer choices.

    According to the story, the competition watchdog said that it could either prevent the deal or “ force the sale of a large number of stores or even one of the brand names.”

    Stuart McIntosh, chair of the CMA's independent inquiry group, is quoted in the story as saying that it had found "very significant competition concerns in a number of areas - they are to do with grocery shopping in supermarkets, grocery shopping online and the companies' petrol stations … if one recognises that the competition concerns are quite broadly based... putting together a package of measures which addresses those concerns is likely to be complex and quite challenging.”

    Sainsbury CEO Mike Coupe (no relation, as far as we know, to the Content Guy) tells the BBC that the CMA analysis is "fundamentally flawed” and totally outrageous … They have fundamentally moved the goalposts, changed the shape of the ball and chosen a different playing field.” He pledged to fight for the deal to occur as planned.

    The BBC writes that “supermarket bosses know that British competition regulators have always had a strong interest in the grocery market. There has been a string of inquiries over the last two decades, both into individual deals and the bigger question of how well the market serves consumer interests.

    “So Sainsbury's board members would have been nervous when they proposed a takeover of Asda last year - but they did at least have the encouragement that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) had approved a tie-up between Tesco and Booker just a few months earlier.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 20, 2019

    The Financial Times has a story about Swedish furniture retailer Ikea, noting that while its roots are in a kind of democratization of style by offering a specific kind of furniture at low cost, it currently is undergoing a kind of transformation.

    “It is no secret that Ikea is in experiment mode,” FT writes. “The retailer is looking to capitalise on an emerging millennial market in which employment regulations are lax and income is disposable. Taking advantage of the gig economy’s asset light business model while simultaneously fighting off increasing competition in the flat-pack furniture market, Ikea is evolving to fit the demands of platform consumers. But it may be sacrificing its democratising pedigree in the process.”

    The focus these days is on new store formats, such as smaller planning stores and pickup locations … new services, such as furniture rentals … and new customers, such as young people employed in technology jobs where they may be working at home and need functional home office furniture that is relevant to their needs and resonant to how they feel about their lives. And, it acquired a company called TaskRabbbit, described as a company that “uses its online marketplace to connect 60,000 freelance workers, or ‘taskers,’ with people looking to hire someone to do chores like furniture assembly, moving and handyman fixes. In their listings, workers specify their hourly rates.”
    KC's View:
    The FT story asks a perfectly legitimate question - “how do you compete on quality, product duration and craftsmanship when your market niche is all about being cheap, affordable and disposable?”

    This is the challenge for so many retailers … figuring out ways to be true to one’s tradition and roots and essential value proposition while still exploring new avenues of trade and new ways to connect with evolving consumer needs and desires. But it is a challenge they must take up, because to avoid or ignore it is to risk obsolescence.

    Published on: February 20, 2019

    Don Newcombe, the first truly outstanding black pitcher in Major League Baseball, debuting with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, where he played with Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, has passed away. He was 92.

    Newcombe was the National league Rookie of the Year in 1949, and subsequently was a four-time All-Star, a Cy Young winner, and the league’s MVP in 1956. He also was the first black pitcher ever to start a World Series game. However, his career was cut short by a severe drinking problem, and his decline as an effective pitcher meant that he never received the recognition that many of his teammates believed he deserved.

    Later in his life, once he was in recovery, Newcombe became a spokesman for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. He joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1970 as director of community relations, and when he passed away he was serving as a special adviser to the Dodger chairman, Mark Walter.

    In its obit this morning, the New York Times writes that Newcombe “once said that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King came to his house in the weeks before his assassination in 1968 and told him, ‘I would never have made it as successfully as I have in civil rights if it were not for what you men did on the baseball field’.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: February 20, 2019

    Yesterday we posted an email from an MNB reader that read:

    Probably apropos of nothing, but I thought it strange to see a Kroger TV commercial for their Simple Truth brand of products, considering I live in NH.  It was Sunday night during the Grammy's.  Unusual, no?

    I responded:

    It was a national buy, I’m sure.

    On the other hand, now that people will be able to buy Kroger products online and pick them up and a local Walgreen store, it may be that Kroger is starting to play the awareness game … believing that it may be able to generate market share even in places where it has no physical stores.

    I’d certainly be testing that premise if I were at Kroger. Then again, I’m not nearly as smart as Rodney McMullen and his folks.

    Which prompted yet another MNB reader to write:

    I would love to see Kroger have a physical presence in New England, I just don't see who they could buy that would have enough scale - unless Albertsons would unload Shaw’s?

    Hey I can wish, right?

    Gee, I wonder where he works.

    Responding to Walmart’s Q4 numbers, one MNB reader wrote:

    Not a big Walmart fan, but I have to give props to Doug McMillon.  He's really turned the company around, making them a very nimble company considering how large it is.

    MNB reader Clay Dockery had some thoughts about a study we posted yesterday regarding a study suggesting that “last year’s $300 billion business tax break, which was ‘pitched as a way to boost hiring and wages,’ instead only had ‘a modest effect on employment, no effect on wages and probably has accelerated the rate at which companies are able to replace workers with machines’.”

    The study referenced by Duke University and Grinnell College seems to have an Incomplete grade.  If they are going to gauge the impact of technology replacing workers, shouldn’t they also evaluate how many people work to bring that technology to life and to maintain / service it?  After all someone has to build the product, someone has to install the product and someone has to be available for service calls and replacement parts.  To only look at the industry being adversely effected by the change is to presume the worst possible outcome.  I’m sure that the carriage manufacturers were in real trouble at the dawn of the automobile industry, but I don’t think history suggests that we should have looked at the carriage manufacturer job losses in a vacuum!

    We also took note yesterday of a Washington Post story looking at a study from the Institute for Self-Reliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, arguing that dollar stores - which have “gained attention as success stories in the country’s most economically distressed places” - in fact are more hurtful than helpful when it comes to helping residents deal with poverty … The response to this sense is that some cities - like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Mesquite, Texas - are developing legislation that will prevent or inhibit the expansion of these kinds of stores in specific neighborhoods, with a greater emphasis on finding ways to attract grocery stores that will sell fresh, healthier food.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    Being an older person, I find it amusing, that cities want to stop "Dollar" stores.

    It used to be, if you find a need, fill it and your store will be profitable. Now, the cities wish to say the hell with our people, we don't care about there needs.

    I get your point … but I just think they are defining needs differently.

    Finally, a note from MNB reader Gregory Grudzinski, responding to a piece we posted yesterday from New York Times columnist Kara Swisher about the Amazon HQ2 fiasco in NYC:

    I happened to be a fan of KS and saw her piece in the New York Times yesterday, that I too thought was a must read.

    There was another op-ed piece in the Times, entitled "NY Returns 25,000 Jobs to Amazon", which included the following paragraph - which was so witty I thought for a moment I was reading MNB:

    “We have the best talent in the world, and every day we are growing a stronger and fairer economy for everyone,” the mayor said. “If Amazon can’t recognize what that’s worth, its competitors will.”

    Because, you know, Amazon’s competitors have a great track record of seeing the future more clearly than Jeff Bezos.

    KC's View: