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    Published on: September 17, 2019

    by Michael Sansolo

    It may be hard to remember, but not that long ago straws held a benign position in the national debate, if they held any position at all. For the most part, they only mattered if you needed or wanted one.

    No longer.

    These days, straws, especially of the single-use plastic variety, are getting all kinds of attention. Due to the sheer number of them used daily and the problems they are blamed with helping to create, plastic straws have become central to the environmental and political debate. Which is why I want to share with you the Final Straw, a product that I have a feeling may pop on shelves everywhere.

    About a year ago, my wife and I were in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and everywhere we went we saw signs in restaurants explaining they were no longer offering straws to help the island’s beloved sea turtles.

    Since then, I’ve heard of the problem almost everywhere, including many places where sea turtles have clearly never been. As one retailer told me, he is getting letters from school children asking that he eliminate plastic straws and, as he added, school children have a way of influencing parents who do all the purchasing.

    It’s even become a political issue, with the President’s re-election campaign now selling plastic straws and belittling paper substitutes as some kind of liberal hoax. Politics now sucks in a whole new way.

    Before that trip to Hilton Head, I never would’ve imagined the need for such a product, but now I want to tell you about the Final Straw, which I think is the best reusable straw on the market. My wife, moved by the sea turtle argument from Hilton Head, had been looking for the past two years for a reusable straw that she could both easily clean and easily carry in her purse. The Final Straw does both.

    The metallic straw comes in a little “sexy” case (according to the manufacturer). You open the case and coax out the straw in four connected pieces. Then, faster than you can say a Harry Potter spell; the straw connects itself into a useful item. Even the little cleaning brush sits inside the case and telescopes out to become serviceable.

    The entire package (made of recycled paper, rest assured) smacks of tongue-in-cheek messaging that applauds the user for making such a wise purchase without questioning the limited impact of swearing off single-use straws or debating the environmental impact of the need to continually wash the new item.

    Frankly, I think it’s great. It’s cool, clever, easily becomes a conversation piece and, who knows, could become something big. (No, I haven’t invested in it, but I’d consider it.)

    Here’s why I think the Final Straw and others like it will become something big. Scoff if you disagree, but the environment and sustainability are huge issues especially for a food industry that so heavily relies (and often with good reason) on plastic packaging. We’re going to need simple areas to make changes where food safety and security aren’t a concern.

    Reusable straws could be such an area and could help us have a new and important conversation with shoppers who really would welcome such a thing. By this point we shouldn’t need reminders that necessity can be both the mother of invention and and generator of sales growth.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 17, 2019

    by Kevin Coupe

    For some disruptive startups, apparently, improving the act of number two is actually the number one priority.

    Fast Company has a story saying that “after 150 years, toilet paper is getting an update from a new flock of startups that claim their rolls can seriously improve the butt-wiping experience. All of them have made a sense of humor part of their brands, with names like No. 2, Who Gives A Crap, Tushy, Cheeky Monkey, Bippy, and Peach, a nod to the emoji that’s become code for ‘butt’.”

    The industry these startups want to disrupt is considerable, generating some $31 billion in annual sales. The industry also could be described as complacent: “For decades, the major players in the tissue industry, including conglomerates like Procter & Gamble, Georgia-Pacific, and Kimberly-Clark, have treated their products (think Quilted Northern, Angel Soft, Scott, and Charmin) as a commodity, competing largely based on price. And none of them have done much to innovate besides simply selling larger rolls so you don’t need to replace them as often.”

    Fast Company writes that the strategies being used by the startups “include using more sustainable materials, eschewing plastic wrap, improving texture, and perhaps most importantly, designing rolls that look beautiful enough to double as bathroom decor. In exchange, they’re charging more than their old-school competitors, which generally sell a standard roll for under $1. Though Who Gives A Crap has prices starting at $1 a pop, Peach charges as much as $3.”

    As much as these companies are focused on issues like sustainability and aesthetics, they’re also paying attention to basics: “Many offer subscription programs. Enormous boxes of rolls appear on your doorstep on a regular schedule, so you never have to do a last-minute TP run.” Which, of course, you could do on Amazon with its Subscribe and Save program, but the startups are building it into their value proposition … and in doing so, are building a system that does not depend on traditional retail for success.

    Fast Company makes the point that in many ways, this approach mimics that taken by Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club in the razor blade business … and just ask Gillette and Schick if they had any impact.

    “In the end,” the story says, “perhaps their biggest impact is that they’re showing the industry’s old guard that consumers are willing to pay more for better-designed, eco-friendlier toilet rolls. If this spurs them to create a better butt-wiping experience, everyone wins.”

    And it could be an Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 17, 2019

    The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon “has adjusted its product-search system to more prominently feature listings that are more profitable for the company,” saying that last year the online retailer “Amazon optimized the secret algorithm that ranks listings so that instead of showing customers mainly the most-relevant and best-selling listings when they search - as it had for more than a decade - the site also gives a boost to items that are more profitable for the company.”

    The Journal bases its report on comments by unnamed people who said they worked on the project.

    “Any tweak to Amazon’s search system has broad implications because the giant’s rankings can make or break a product,” the story says. “The site’s search bar is the most common way for U.S. shoppers to find items online, and most purchases stem from the first page of search results, according to marketing analytics firm Jumpshot.”

    The adjustment to Amazon’s algorithms “followed a yearslong battle between executives who run Amazon’s retail businesses in Seattle and the company’s search team, dubbed A9, in Palo Alto, Calif., which opposed the move … The Amazon search team’s view was that the profitability push violated the company’s principle of doing what is best for the customer, the people familiar with the project said.”

    There are potential legal and regulatory issues here, sine both “the U.S. and the European Union are examining Amazon’s dual role - as marketplace operator and seller of its own branded products. An algorithm skewed toward profitability could steer customers toward thousands of Amazon’s in-house products that deliver higher profit margins than competing listings on the site.”

    Amazon took to Twitter to deny the report, saying that the "story based on anonymous sources is wrong … We have not changed the criteria we use to rank search results to include profitability. We feature products customers want, regardless of whether they are our own brands or products offered by our selling partners.”
    KC's View:
    If the Journal story is accurate, there are two problems. One is that, as pointed out in the story, it would seem to be at odds with the company’s fundamental value proposition - that the customers always is first. And, it also is true that it could create legal issues, which Amazon has to be sensitive about since it - along with fellow tech giants - is being probed by both regulatory agencies and the US Congress.

    When you think about it, though, isn’t putting profit-centric products central to the shopping experience sort of what many retailers do? Isn’t that why they give private label items premium exposure on shelves and endcaps? Now, if Amazon does this, it has potentially greater impact because of the retailer’s ability to shape markets and make-or-break brands,

    For me, though, it has less to do with regulatory issues and more to do with the question of whether Amazon could be losing its way … if, after all, it is becoming just another retailers. I hope not, and I’d be surprised. But it has to be vigilant about the possibility.

    Published on: September 17, 2019

    The New York Times this morning has a story about the International Life Sciences Institute, described as “an American nonprofit with an innocuous sounding name that has been quietly infiltrating government health and nutrition bodies around the world … the institute now has branches in 17 countries. It is almost entirely funded by Goliaths of the agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical industries.

    “The organization, which championed tobacco interests during the 1980s and 1990s in Europe and the United States, has more recently expanded its activities in Asia and Latin America, regions that provide a growing share of food company profits. It has been especially active in China, India and Brazil, the world’s first, second and sixth most populous nations.”

    The Times writes that “in the 40 years since its creation, ILSI has methodically cultivated allies in academia and government through the conferences it sponsors around the world, and by recruiting influential scientists to committees that work on issues like food safety, agrochemicals or the promotion of probiotic supplements.

    “Although conference topics seldom touch on politically contentious matters, critics say they serve a larger purpose: cultivating scientists and officials who might normally avoid an event directly sponsored by McDonald’s or Kellogg’s.”

    But, “after decades largely operating under the radar, ILSI is coming under increasing scrutiny by health advocates in the United States and abroad who say it is little more than a front group advancing the interests of the 400 corporate members that provide its $17 million budget, among them Coca-Cola, DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills and Danone.

    “Last year, the candy maker Mars withdrew from ILSI, saying it could no longer support an organization that funds what a Mars executive described as ‘advocacy-led studies.’ In 2015, ILSI lost its special access to governing bodies at the World Health Organization after critics raised questions about its industry ties.”

    The controversy grows. The Times goes on: “Over the past year, researchers have documented how the organization’s China affiliate helped shape anti-obesity education campaigns that stressed physical activity over dietary changes, a strategy long espoused by Coca-Cola that critics say was designed to protect corporate profits.

    “In Beijing, relations between ILSI and the government are so intertwined that ILSI’s top leaders double as senior officials at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

    “Through freedom of information requests, authors of a recent study in the United States obtained emails between ILSI trustees, its corporate members and the group’s allies in academia urging them to step up their fight against the W.H.O.’s increasingly tough stance on sugar.”
    KC's View:
    I sort of have a problem with any organization that can be described as having “championed tobacco interests.” And when that same group can be said to be influencing public health policy in any place or at any level, I think it is fair to call them out for likely being on the wrong side of history and in the service of science-for-pay.

    Published on: September 17, 2019

    Bloomberg reports that Walmart has revived the “defunct Scoop label and will position it as a private fashion brand, Walmart’s online fashion chief Denise Incandela said in a statement Monday. Walmart’s website and some stores will carry more than 100 items including tops, shoes and handbags priced from $15 to $65. Scoop’s co-founder Stefani Greenfield, who launched the business in 1996, is involved in the brand’s development.”

    The story says that “Scoop’s styles - which include certified vegan leather and metal studs - represent a departure for Walmart … The move is Walmart’s latest attempt to spiff up its dowdy fashion business, which delivers higher profit margins than food and everyday staples but has never really caught fire. Scoop, which became a fashion destination during its heyday in the 2000s, could lend some much-needed pizzazz to Walmart’s aisles.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 17, 2019

    • Stew Leonard’s will open its seventh food store to the public in Paramus, New Jersey, tomorrow, the first food store the company has opened in the Garden State. The 80,000 square foot unit, in the Paramus Park Mall, is in the space formerly occupied by a Sears.

    In a ceremony last night, the Leonard family hosted a ribbon-cutting by New Jersey native Martha Stewart … and featured a live cow that was named after Stewart, who has been a longtime shopper at the original Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk, Connecticut.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 17, 2019

    • BJ’s Wholesale Club announced that Lee Delany, the company’s executive vice president/chief commercial officer, has been promoted to the role of president, effective immediately. Delany, who joined BJ’s in 2016 from Bain & Company, will continue to report to Christopher J. Baldwin, chairman/CEO.

    • Online grocery retailer and delivery service provider Instacart announced that it has hired Seth Dallaire as its first chief revenue officer. Dallaire joins Instacart from Amazon, where he has spent the last five years as vice president of Global Advertising Sales and Marketing for Amazon Advertising; before that, he was at Yahoo! as vice president of Global Accounts and Agencies.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 17, 2019

    Content Guy’s Note: Stories in this section are, in my estimation, important and relevant to business. However, they are relegated to this slot because some MNB readers have made clear that they prefer a politics-free MNB; I can't do that because sometimes the news calls out for coverage and commentary, but at least I can make it easy for folks to skip it if they so desire.

    • The Los Angeles Times writes that California lawmakers did not act on two controversial measures that “would have made their state the first to partially phase out single-use containers … Two bills, Senate Bill 54 and companion legislation Assembly Bill 1080, sought to eliminate 75% of single-use containers by 2030, reducing the glut of unmarketable plastics statewide and laying the groundwork for a revamped California recycling industry.”

    According to the story, “The bills came in response to China’s decision to become more selective about the scrap it accepts from the U.S., which has created a huge glut of collected plastics and mixed paper, depressing the market for many items. With little revenue coming in, many local and state governments simply shut down their recycling programs, opting to dump previously recyclable items in landfills. The bills zeroed in on plastics, an industry that has sidestepped recycling standards that other producers, such as glass and cardboard, must meet.”

    But, opposition came from “the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., waste management industries such as Athens Services and the California Refuse Recycling Council, and members of the agriculture and glass manufacturing industries. Some were concerned by the authority granted to CalRecycle, the entity charged with overseeing compliance, and a lack of specifics about how the bill would be administered.”

    In the end, the Times writes, “the bill’s authors were able to negotiate changes that garnered the support of the California Grocers Assn. and Dow Chemical, and shifted the stance of large players such as the American Chemistry Council, Proctor & Gamble and Walmart, which dropped their opposition.” Which added to the frustration when supporters of the bills “couldn’t secure the votes as the legislative session came to an end.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 17, 2019

    …will return.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 17, 2019

    In Monday Night Football, the Cleveland Browns defeated the New York Jets 23-3.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 17, 2019

    This special podcast, recorded in front of a live audience at the recent Retail Tomorrow Immersion conference in Boston, goes inside the evolving world of LL Bean, the iconic catalog business that has engineered a dramatic and highly successful shift into omnichannel retailing through transformational leadership and a willingness to disrupt from within.

    Our special guest is CEO Stephen Smith, the first outsider to ever run the company, who offered a unique perspective on how a legacy retailer - founded in 1912 - has been transformed into a model of 21st century marketing savvy.

    The host: Kevin Coupe, MorningNewsBeat’s “Content Guy.”

    You can listen to the podcast here , or on iTunes or GooglePlay.

    This edition of the Retail Tomorrow podcast is brought to you by the Global Market Development Center (GMDC), connecting people & companies to opportunities for growth.

    Pictured, left to right: Kevin Coupe, Stephen Smith

    KC's View: