retail news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB Archive Search

Please Note: Some MNB articles contain special formatting characters, and may cause your search to produce fewer results than expected.

    Published on: September 26, 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.

    Today I want to offer some commentary that is a little far afield from the territory I usually work. (Though, to be fair, I've been known to wander and digress a lot here on MNB.) In the end, if you'll stick with me, I'll try to draw a business lesson from it.

    I've been particularly annoyed by the behavior of some parents - all rich, entitled parents - who believed that they could get away with essentially bribing their kids' ways into colleges at which they had no right to go. I find this whole thing really galling, and to me there is no excuse for it.

    The other day, actor Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty to these charges early in the process and seemed willing to take her medicine and put the whole embarrassing episode behind her, was hit with a fine, community service and 14 days in jail. This last part of her sentence was particularly upsetting to a lot of people, who felt that a lot of black people who have committed lesser crimes have been sentenced to more in time in jail because they don't have the resources to defend themselves and negotiate their way through the criminal justice system.

    I actually think that as a society, we missed an opportunity with that sentence. How great would it have been if the judge had looked at Huffman and said that her rehabilitation for this crime would be to put four kids through college - full boat, including room and board and books. The court would find four kids who were qualified to go to college but could not afford it, and it would then be Huffman's job to pay their way. We've all put kids through college, and we know that this could amount to a million bucks, depending on where the kid goes.

    Now that strikes me as an appropriate sentence. And, by the way, if I were Huffman's manager or publicity person, I'd urge her now to do the same thing on her own - it would be a great way to perform a little public penance and change the narrative.

    The business lesson? I think that a lot of businesses, when making strategic and tactical choices, opt for the traditional - sort of like a judge handing out a prison sentence, community service and a fine. But I think businesses - and the courts - sometimes can do a better job by choosing the unconventional course, which may in the end also be the more appropriate one.

    Anyway, that's what is on my mind this morning. As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

    KC's View:

    Published on: September 26, 2019

    by Kevin Coupe

    The Los Angeles Times has a story about how Discovery, parent company to the Food Network, is launching a new streaming service "called Food Network Kitchen that will be integrated into’s digital assistant, Alexa."

    For just $6.99 a month, users can take online cooking classes from Food Network stars such as Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray, and can "use the app to text their questions, which may be answered by the instructor during the live show."

    The story notes that the Food Network has a built-in audience that may be transferable to the new service - close to 100 million US households have access to the channel, and 80 million people visited its website just during last year's Thanksgiving holiday season.

    The Times writes that "the effort comes 18 months after Discovery spent $12 billion to acquire Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., then parent of such popular cable channels as Food Network, home improvement channel HGTV and the Travel Channel. The New York company is looking for ways to adapt its cable programming business for the digital age. More consumers are dropping their cable subscriptions and are opting to entertain themselves with a growing number of streaming video services."

    The service also will be available for Apple and Android devices.

    A couple of thoughts here…

    First, it seems at the moment that pretty much everyone is starting a streaming service. (Do I have to start thinking about launching one for MNB?)

    Second, and more importantly, this points to the direction in which technology is taking us. While I think this certainly is a great example of how Alexa-powered systems and their ilk can connect businesses and consumers, it also seems to me that this is just a stop along the way. MNB readers may remember our coverage of a company called Rival Theory, which is developing the technology that conceivably could create virtual versions of Flay, Ray and other Food Network stars that could interact with consumers and not just offer online cooking classes, but - by using AI - allow those experts to learn and grow and evolve in how they respond to people's needs and questions.

    This is fascinating stuff, and the Eye Opening possibilities are endless.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 26, 2019

    Amazon yesterday announced what it called "an array of new programs, devices, and features that make it easier than ever for customers to find, setup, and enjoy connected devices in their homes. Amazon is making smart home simpler with Certified for Humans, a new program that helps customers find products that are tested to be simple to setup and work dependably with Alexa, and new devices like the Amazon Smart Oven that make cooking easy. New Alexa Guard capabilities help customers keep their home safe, and new features like WiFi access and easy reordering of household supplies with Alexa make homes even smarter and more convenient."

    Amazon says that "every device that carries the Certified for Humans badge offers Frustration Free Setup, which cuts down on the number of steps needed to connect to Alexa. In many cases, it’s as easy as plugging it in. And after that, it only gets better. Certified for Humans devices are tested against over a dozen requirements to help ensure they offer a dependable Alexa experience; no more waiting around for software updates or unresponsive devices. Customers can find the Certified for Humans badge on select smart home devices starting this fall from brands including Amazon, Philips Hue, Hamilton Beach, Kasa Smart by TP-Link, and more."

    In addition, the Seattle Times reports that Amazon "unveiled scores of new products, including three that would move Amazon’s microphones directly onto people: earbuds, eyeglasses and a ring (for your finger) – the latter two positioned as experiments to be offered initially on an invitation-only basis."

    Among the other entries:

    • The Amazon Smart Oven, "a combination convection oven, microwave, air fryer and food warmer. When paired with an Echo, customers can ask Alexa to preheat the oven, start or stop cooking, and be notified when the oven is preheated or their favorite lasagna or fresh-baked cookies are ready."

    • Alexa Guard, with which "customers can keep their home safe when they’re away. When you set Guard to Away mode, if an Echo device detects the sound of smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, or glass breaking, Alexa can send you Smart Alerts, via notifications to your phone. Starting this fall, Guard will begin supporting a new Smart Alert that can notify customers if the sound of activity like footsteps, talking, coughing, or a door closing, is detected while Guard is in Away mode. Customers can also create Alexa Routines that include Guard to provide even more peace of mind and convenience: set Guard to Away mode, lock the back door, and turn on the porch light with a simple phrase like 'Alexa, I’m headed out'."

    The Financial Times offers the following analysis:

    "Amazon’s headlong dash into so many new pieces of hardware has made it the anti-Apple. Forget about carefully crafting a product in secret until it has been brought to a point of perfection, with a lofty price tag to match: Amazon is all about rapid experimentation and cut-throat prices … What makes Amazon such a fearsome competitor, however, is that it doesn’t know only one game. That has been evident this week as it has made forays in a number of areas, all of them with one aim: to put its services at the centre of the widest array of new hardware. Having missed the smartphone market, it is making up for lost time."

    And, the Seattle Times writes:

    ""These wearable devices would fill a gap left by Amazon’s failure to develop its own viable smartphone. That puts it at a disadvantage to competitors Google and Apple, whose voice computing technology travels everywhere that Android and iPhone users take their devices. (Alexa can be used on smartphones through an app.) Amazon’s vision of ubiquitous sensing and voice control relies on wireless connectivity, which — using existing technologies such as Bluetooth and home Wi-Fi, and even forthcoming 5G cellular networks — has limitations, particularly beyond the boundaries of the home."
    KC's View:
    Michael Sansolo and I were chatting about these various announcements yesterday, and reflecting on commercials that we've seen recently for a kitchen faucet that is Alexa-controlled, allowing people to say things like, "I need six ounces of cold water," and have exactly that much come out.

    We agreed on a couple of things. One is that it won't be long before these kinds of faucets will be standard operating equipment in kitchens. They seem amazing now, but our kids and grandkids will taken them for granted. And the same would seem to go for a lot of these innovations.

    It is interesting how Amazon comes out with a range of items at the same time. Flooding the market has its advantages in terms of getting attention and training a spotlight on innovation, though I suspect it also creates the possibility that there also could be a flood of glitches with which Amazon has to deal.

    But that's okay. All this stuff is changing the world, bit by bit, and I'm intrigued by the possibilities even as I have some concerns about some of the implications and consequences.

    Oh, and the other thing that Michael and I agreed on? It is that we are not that far from being able to look at a food replicator and saying, "Earl Grey, hot," and actually having it materialize.

    Published on: September 26, 2019

    Fox Business reports that Walmart-owned Sam's Club is "teaming up with several health care companies to offer discounts on everyday care its customers might delay or skip because of the cost … Customers will be able to buy one of four bundles of health care services ranging in annual fees from $50 for individuals to $240 for a family of up to six members."

    The story notes that Sam's is being careful not to call this a kind of health insurance, but rather define it as a "discount health program that can supplement insurance and bring down out-of-pocket costs" for "individuals, business owners and families who are delaying or skipping basic care because of high deductibles."

    The program will be rolled out next month in membership clubs located in three states - Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina - but could see a national rollout if it is successful.

    And, CNBC reports that "Amazon has launched a virtual health clinic with in-home follow-ups for employees in Seattle, dubbed Amazon Care," describing it as "a combination of telemedicine and in-person services."

    Here's how the story frames the pilot program: "Its virtual offering includes an 'in-app video visit with a doctor, nurse practitioner, or registered nurse ... for advice, answers, diagnosis, treatment or referrals,' according to the web site. Employees will have an option to see a health provider via a mobile app or website, and they can text a nurse on any health topic in minutes. If an employee needs follow-up care, Amazon Care can arrange for a nurse to pay a visit at home.

    "Amazon will also prescribe medications via Amazon Care within a few hours, or offer a way for employees to pick them up at a preferred pharmacy."

    The story notes that "health care represents a $3.5 trillion sector for Amazon, which is looking at ways to bring in technology ranging from cloud computing to medical record technology. The company in 2018 joined up with J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway for an effort, later called Haven, to explore how to move the needle on health-care expenses, without compromising quality, for their combined 1.2 million employees." And, it also "has a pharmacy group under PillPack, a company it acquired in mid-2018."

    Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that CVS is looking to put people to sleep.

    According to the story, CVS "is encouraging employers to cover the costs for their workers to use Sleepio, an insomnia app featuring a cartoon therapist that delivers behavior modification lessons," a move that "could help mainstream the nascent business of digital therapeutics, which markets apps to help treat conditions like schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis. The company recently introduced, along with Sleepio, a way for employers to cover downloads as easily as they do prescription drugs."

    The story goes on: "Big Health, the start-up behind Sleepio, is one of more than a dozen companies that are digitizing well-established health treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, or devising new therapies — like video-game-based treatments for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — that can be delivered online. Since last year, a few pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis, announced partnerships with start-ups to develop digital treatments for mental health and other conditions.

    "So far, the use of treatment apps has been limited. But with the backing of CVS Health, which administers prescription drug plans for nearly one-third of Americans, those therapies could quickly reach tens of millions of people."
    KC's View:
    Some of this stuff is internal and some external, but there's no question that we are seeing an extraordinary confluence of innovations here, all focused on healthcare and selfcare. I'm looking forward to discussing some of them at a pair of sessions/podcasts that I'll be doing in about 10 days at the GMDC Selfcare Summit in Indianapolis … if you're there, I hope you'll join us.

    Published on: September 26, 2019

    CNN has a story about how the plant-based Impossible Burger "will be available in select grocery stores along the East Coast, less than a week after making its grocery-store debut on the West Coast. The burgers will be available in 100 Wegmans supermarkets in seven states, and two Fairway stores in New York's Manhattan -- increasing the number of nationwide retailers that sell the Impossible Burger fivefold."

    The story notes that "the Impossible Burger made a splash last week when it debuted in California -- in its first full weekend sale in Gelson's supermarkets, Impossible Burger outsold ground beef from cows, in terms of both revenue and the number of pounds sold."

    The Impossible Burger is hardly alone: "Its main rival, Beyond Meat, has meatless burgers, sausages, and more at retailers like Safeway and Kroger. Kellogg plans to launch a line of meat substitutes called Incogmeato under its Morningstar Farms brand next year."

    Meanwhile, CNN also reports that Nestlé is getting into the plant-based burger business, introducing the Awesome Burger, described as "Nestlé's answer to the Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers."

    According to the story, "The product, currently rolling out to retailers including Fred Meyer, Hy-Vee, Ralphs, Safeway, Stop & Shop and others, is hardly a breakthrough. Like Impossible and Beyond's version, the plant-based burger is designed to cook, look and taste like real meat. And like Impossible and Beyond Meat's products, a bite of the Awesome Burger patty, when topped with condiments, lettuce, tomato and onions and served in a moist bun, is a satisfying approximation of a real beef burger."

    But unlike the other two companies, which are startups, Nestlé is the largest food company on the planet, and is seen as having the scale to really drive sales and acceptability.

    Even McDonald's is getting into the act. Reuters reports that the fast feeder "will test a new 'plant, lettuce and tomato' sandwich using Beyond Meat's patties in 28 restaurants next week." It will call the item the "PLT sandwich," for … natch … plant, lettuce and tomato.
    KC's View:
    I've noted here before that I've had Impossible Burgers in two places - the excellent Irving Street Kitchen in Portland, Oregon, where it was as delicious as everything else on the menu, and at White Castle, where it made me as sick to my stomach as pretty much everything else on the menu.

    I went to a Burger King the other day to see how it is doing with the Impossible Whopper … and would like to report that it doesn't suck, but mostly is tasteless, serving as a delivery system for tomatoes, onions, lettuce and mayonnaise. Not the worst item on the market, but I wouldn't call it a reason to go back to Burger King.

    Published on: September 26, 2019

    Vaping company Juul - under fire for allegedly promoting its products to minors even as apparently vaping-related illnesses continue to claim lives (nine people have died and more than 500 people appear to have related respiratory illnesses) - said yesterday that it will suspend all of its advertising in the US.

    At the same time, the company said it was replacing its CEO, Kevin Burns, with K.C. Crosthwaite, who most recently was chief growth officer for … wait for it … tobacco giant Altria.

    According to the story, Juul also said "it would cease its lobbying efforts against the Trump administration's plan to ban flavored e-cigarettes."
    KC's View:
    Lipstick on a pig.

    If these people think that changing CEOs is a way to alleviate some of the pressure - especially when the new guy comes from an industry that has systematically addicted people young and old to the poison they peddle - I think they are, to say the least, misguided.

    I can understand the impulse to make the executive move, since Altria invested $38 billion in Juul and owns roughly a third of the company. On the other hand, tobacco execs are really good at lying to the public and, I suspect, lying to themselves … and so this is unlikely to be helpful long term.

    Both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are investigating Juul. This company and its industry are facing a tough road ahead. I, for one, hope they go over a cliff at the end of the road.

    Published on: September 26, 2019

    …with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    CNBC reports that Amazon founder/CEO Jeff Bezos said yesterday that "the company’s public policy team is working on proposed regulations around facial recognition, a fledgling technology that has drawn criticism of the technology giant’s cloud computing unit." The goal is to come up with proposed regulations that could be communicated to the federal government, which could then adapt and/or adopt them.

    Bezos said that it "makes perfect sense" to regulate facial recognition technology: "It’s a perfect example of something that has really positive uses, so you don’t want to put the brakes on it. At the same time, there’s lots of potential for abuses with that kind of technology, and so you do want regulations."

    According to the story, "Amazon has faced more criticism than rivals in part because it has marketed the technology to police, and it has defended its practices. The company has said all users of its service, known as Rekognition, must follow the law.

    "The growing interest in regulation underscores discontent in the United States over the technology, which government agencies have used for years and now has become more powerful with the rise of cloud computing and artificial intelligence technologies. San Francisco and Oakland voted this year to ban city personnel from using it."

    • Amazon yesterday announced "the Voice Interoperability Initiative, a new program to ensure voice-enabled products provide customers with choice and flexibility through multiple, interoperable voice services. The initiative is built around a shared belief that voice services should work seamlessly alongside one another on a single device, and that voice-enabled products should be designed to support multiple simultaneous wake words.

    According to the announcement, the Voice Interoperability Initiative is built around four priorities: "Developing voice services that can work seamlessly with others, while protecting the privacy and security of customers … Building voice-enabled devices that promote choice and flexibility through multiple, simultaneous wake words … Releasing technologies and solutions that make it easier to integrate multiple voice services on a single product … (and) Accelerating machine learning and conversational AI research to improve the breadth, quality and interoperability of voice services."

    The announcement says that "more than 30 companies are supporting the effort, including global brands like Amazon, Baidu, BMW, Bose, Cerence, ecobee, Harman, Logitech, Microsoft, Salesforce, Sonos, Sound United, Sony Audio Group, Spotify and Tencent; telecommunications operators like Free, Orange, SFR and Verizon; hardware solutions providers like Amlogic, InnoMedia, Intel, MediaTek, NXP Semiconductors, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., SGW Global and Tonly; and systems integrators like CommScope, DiscVision, Libre, Linkplay, MyBox, Sagemcom, StreamUnlimited and Sugr."

    Not involved, interestingly enough, are Apple and Google … and while interoperability is to be applauded, the "inter" has some limitations if those two companies aren't involved. This sounds like it has a lot of similarities to the Open Voice Network; MNB had an interview this summer with its founder, Jon Stine, that you can read here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 26, 2019

    WLWT-TV in Cincinnati has a story about the newest Kroger store to open there, reporting that "the downstairs of the two-level store includes everything you'd need in a neighborhood grocery store. There's an abundance of fresh produce, frozen foods, spices and meats. Kroger executives also hope to cater to the people living in the apartments above the store with household items."

    But above it is the real innovation, with the second floor featuring " a whole new world of the Kroger dining hall experience. On The Rhine Eatery is 7,000 square feet of restaurants, a bar and an outdoor patio space for entertainment."

    CNBC reports that Inspire Brands, parent company to Arby's, is acquiring Jimmy John's and its more than 2,800 locations. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    Other Inspire restaurant brands include Sonic Drive-In, Buffalo Wild Wings and Rusty Taco.

    The story points out that "the acquisition comes as Jimmy John’s faces increasing competition from Potbelly, Jersey Mike’s Subs and Firehouse Subs. Subway, which remains the largest U.S. restaurant chain by number of stores, is trying to stage a comeback after a massive expansion across the U.S. and an unprofitable sandwich deal hurt its business."

    The CNBC story also notes that unlike many of its rivals, which use delivery services like GrubHub and UberEats, Jimmy John's has its own in-house delivery service.

    • In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reports that "Target’s checkout registers, website and mobile app went offline for a short period Tuesday afternoon, the third time in three months that a technical glitch affected its shoppers. The outage was brief and didn’t cause as much disruption to shopping as the lengthier shutdown on June 15 did … Target said the difficulty was not related to the security of its systems."

    • The National Grocers Association (NGA) yesterday announced that the NGA Spirit of America Award has been given to Wettlin Treppendahl, owner of Treppendahl’s Super Foods of Woodville, Mississippi. The award recognizes him for "dedication and service to the independent supermarket industry" and for his "willingness to engage policymakers" and help shape public policy.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 26, 2019

    …will return.
    KC's View:

    Published on: September 26, 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: