business 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: October 18, 2019

    by Kevin Coupe

    Two interesting stories over the past few days about how new transportation-oriented business models are adapting to consumer desires and realities.

    The Tampa Bay Times has a story about a new function within the Uber app that is being tested there - Uber Pet, which allows users to bring along their pets when they order up a car, for a $4 surcharge.

    “We anticipate cats and dogs to be the most frequent, but Uber Pet allows for any kind of animal to be brought on a trip — at the drivers’ discretion,” Uber said in a statement. “Riders are responsible for their animals’ behavior during an Uber Pet trip.”

    In the past, pets could be brought along on any trip, but it was completely up to the drivers whether to allow the animal in the car. Now, the pet part of it is being institutionalized. And monetized. And, as it happens, Uber drivers will now be rating not just their passengers, but also their passengers' pets.

    Service animals can be brought along in any Uber, and their owners won't be charged the extra fee.

    Meanwhile, the Washington Post has a story about how a Boston-based startup, Piaggio Fast Forward (which happens to be own by the Vespa scooter folks), has developed a new transportation option, Gita, described as a "brightly colored, carbon-fiber robot that looks like some futuristic mixture of an exercise ball and cooler, or perhaps a commercial-size rice cooker flipped on its side and strapped to a pair of rubber bicycle wheels."

    Gita's purpose is simple - it is a robotic pack mule. If you're out walking, it'll carry your stuff for you so you don't have to.

    There are limits. Gita can't go upstairs, for example.

    The Post writes: "Following its owner at up to six miles per hour, gita can carry up to 40 pounds of belongings inside an inner compartment that is big enough to hold about two grocery bags … The 22-inch-tall vehicle has up to four hours of battery time, relies on multiple cameras for navigation and is designed to operate on hard surfaces (no snow or sand) …. The robot pairs to its owner’s legs with cameras that scan and track their motion. The vehicle can also discern when other people enter its field of view, allowing the robot to go around them and continue following its paired user."

    The notion is that all the various transportation-focused technologies that have made it possible for us to ride everywhere - whether Uber or Lyft or bike shares or scooters - also are conspiring to prevent people from getting needed exercise. Gita will enable to people to go for walks when they do their shopping, but not worry about having to schlep stuff around.

    "“We’re trying to unlock the value of walkability in American towns and cities with a device that will appeal to people that are primarily driving and taking Ubers for their short errands and trips,” says Greg Lynn, the company's co-founder and CEO. "And we’re trying to convince people that it’s mentally and physically healthier to walk that mile instead of electric scootering or bicycle-sharing it."

    Interesting stuff, and all Eye-Opening indicators of how the world is changing.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 18, 2019

    USA Today writes about how Walmart's new Health Center - being tested in Dallas, Georgia - is different from the other instore health clinics opened by retailers.

    "Walmart says its Walmart Health center in Dallas, Georgia, goes further and is the first of its kind to put all of the following services under one roof, outside of a hospital or dedicated medical facility: Primary care … Urgent care … Lab testing … X-rays and X-ray diagnostics … EKG tests … Counseling … Dental care … Optical care … Hearing services."

    The story says that "the ability to take care of all these health needs under one convenient blue roof and pick up supplies you might need while feeling poorly -- like tissues, over-the-counter medicine and bandages -- sounds appealing.  And current in-store quick care facilities don't have the capability to do blood tests or labs in-house. The redesigned store in Dallas, Georgia, also offers a pet-care clinic."

    USA Today goes on: "While Walmart hasn't announced specific plans to offer specialized medical services, changes to its employee health network could find their way to the consumer side if they prove effective. The company is testing out programs that utilize 'data and proven results' to connect patients with specialists. Additionally, it is testing a 'personal health care assistant,' which works as a concierge that simplifies health care logistics including scheduling and  billing and also helps patients with things like understanding a diagnosis."
    KC's View:
    A core tenet around here long has been that retailers can be most successful when they go beyond just being a source of product and evolve into being a resource for shoppers. At the same time, it has become a truism that the nation's health care systems are lacking … and that government seems incapable of fixing it and making it both more affordable and accessible.

    It simply makes sense that companies like Walmart will see the confluence of these two realities, and identify opportunities that can simultaneously be good for the company's growth as well as for the well-being of their customers. It is from such efforts that enduring relationships can be formed.

    Published on: October 18, 2019

    Bloomberg this morning reports on how in the UK, Marks & Spencer's newly renovated store in London’s Clapham neighborhood "looks more like a Whole Foods Market than one of the 135-year-old British retailer’s more traditional outlets. Alongside piles of avocados and herbs grown with the help of artificial intelligence -- there are three kinds of basil -- it features a wood-fired brick oven coated with glittering mirror tiles like those on disco balls."

    The story says that "the new store moves the company beyond the comfort zone its food business has occupied until now -- offering niche items and lunch fare like hoisin duck rolls that aim to make grocery shopping more exciting than a trip to the supermarket, at prices accessible to a middle-England clientele. The company jazzed up the Clapham site further with services such as wine and coffee experts, setting it apart from Marks & Spencer convenience stores."

    It is, Bloomberg writes, Marks & Spencer's effort to deal with the fact that a combination of e-commerce and competition from German discounters Aldi and Lidl have eroded its sales and profitability.

    One thing that the story says is missing from the new store - clothing, which always has been a Marks & Spencer mainstay buts seems to be hampering its turnaround efforts.

    "The company plans to open several similar stores before the end of the year to test whether they can turn around its fortunes," Bloomberg writes. "The stock has lost more than half its value since 2015. The clothing arm has suffered a long decline as it failed to stay as nimble and cheap as rivals. As clothing revenue shrinks, Marks & Spencer now gets almost two-thirds of its sales from food."
    KC's View:
    I'm not there, so I have no idea whether this works or not. But I would just point out that Marks & Spencer is feeling the squeeze that so many retailers feel … pressure from both sides of the consumer continuum. Choices have to be made, and they're different for everybody, but here's one thing I do know … The middle of the road is where you find roadkill.

    Published on: October 18, 2019

    Good piece in the Wall Street Journalabout how Fred Smith, the founder/chairman/CEO of FedEx, "who pioneered the business of moving packages around the world at lightning speed, is confronting some of the greatest threats to the company he founded.

    "Global trade is slowing and tariff fights have companies rethinking supply chains. A key partner, the U.S. Postal Service, is struggling. Amazon has morphed from a customer into a competitor.

    "The threats have sapped FedEx’s finances at a time when the Memphis-based company is racing to adjust to modern delivery demands. Most of the growth in shipments is coming from e-commerce orders, which increasingly need to travel from a warehouse to a nearby home, not long distances overnight."

    The story makes the point that there likely are no easy answers for FedEx, which, it could be argued, has a system built for another time. It decided to divorce itself from Amazon, which always was a costly and demanding customer, when that company started building out its own delivery infrastructure … but that means it is trying to succeed in the e-commerce business without doing business with the biggest e-commerce company. The separation of its Ground and Express businesses is seen by some as being a potential inhibitor tio success. And some analysts suggest that FedEx has been slow to recognize the structural changes that were taking place at retail that were inevitably going to hurt its revenue and profits.
    KC's View:
    These folks are all a lot smarter than me, so it is not like I can come up with the solution to FedEx's problems. But I can tell you this - the scenario as described by the Journal is one that faces even the most innovative businesses. You have to keep innovating, or you risk obsolescence.

    Even FedEx, which, it can be argued, is one of the world's most innovative business models.

    Published on: October 18, 2019

    Bloomberg writes about how Amazon's annual holiday toy guide, which purports to offer a "thoughtfully curated" list of products that customers would want, is in fact a list of products that often have been bought and paid for by toy manufacturers that spend millions just to be considered for the list.

    "Amazon sells Holiday Toy List sponsorships for as much as $2 million, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg. The more sponsors pay, the more products they can nominate to be on the list and the more prominently their own products will be featured on the popular website. Amazon aimed to sell at least $20 million in sponsorships for this year’s list, the documents show. Amazon also published a summer toy list with lower sponsorship prices."

    Amazon defends the practice as being like what traditional retailers do when they charge manufacturers to be included in ad circulars: "Every product on our annual Holiday Toy List, which features family gift ideas from new releases to customer favorites, is independently curated by a team of in-house experts based on a high bar for quality, design, innovation and play experience. We source product ideas from many places, including our selling partners who have an opportunity to nominate their best toys for the season and increase visibility of those toys."

    Bloomberg goes on: "Parents looking for independent recommendations can turn to toy lists produced by third-party reviewers such as Toy Insider and Toys, Tots, Pets & More (TTPM). But in an era when customer reviews can be gamed and social-media influencers push products without always disclosing that they’re getting paid, consumers sometimes struggle to distinguish between objective online recommendations and paid promotions."
    KC's View:
    It is true that this isn't different from what most retailers do, but in some ways this is the most problematic of the arguments. I'd suggest that Amazon has consistently presented itself as being not like other retailers … and that one of the things it needs to do is occasionally rise above standard operating procedures and continue carving out a uniquely consumer-driven position.

    It needs to be different. Not the same. Right?

    Published on: October 18, 2019

    Bloomberg business columnist Joe Nocera has a terrific piece about the seemingly bipartisan passion for breaking up tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, suggesting that these companies present different challenges and require different approaches.

    An excerpt:

    "I’m a proponent of breaking up Facebook, mainly because I believe if you force it to disgorge two of its prized platforms, Instagram and WhatsApp, you’ll instantly create serious competitors. That could help raise the bar on privacy, data usage and other concerns. But I’m not sure that would work with Amazon," against which it is harder to make a traditional antitrust case.

    Nocera argues that regulators can deal with Amazon effectively without breaking up the company … first, by requiring that Amazon not favor its own products over those of its competitors. And second, "the government should hold Amazon accountable for counterfeits," the selling of which is both illegal and unethical.

    You can read the entire column here.
    KC's View:
    I continue to believe that the counterfeiting issue is a big problem for Amazon, and that it needs to do a lot more when it comes to assuring customers that the things they are buying actually what they say they are. Amazon says it is trying, but it needs to try harder.

    Published on: October 18, 2019

    • The National Grocers Association (NGA) said yesterday that "in anticipation of a vote on drug pricing legislation in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, over 40 independent grocery companies and state associations" sent a letter to Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi "asking that the House fix DIR fees and bring about reforms and transparency to pharmacy benefit managers … representatives from the independent supermarket industry advocated for an end to retroactive DIR fees and outlined the harm these fees have had on independent pharmacies."

    "Independent supermarkets operate approximately 3,000 pharmacies across the country and are a vital component to keeping America’s communities vibrant and healthy. Pharmacy direct and indirect remuneration (DIR) fees have had a significant impact on our ability to conduct business and serve our communities. In many of the towns we serve, our pharmacies are one of the few options available for Medicare Part D beneficiaries to fill their prescriptions,” the letter said.

    • E-cigarette company said yesterday that it no longer will sell fruit flavored products, responding to criticisms that such products primarily exist to addict young people. The move comes ahead of expected regulations from the Trump administration that would ban all flavored pods, leaving only tobacco flavored e-cigarettes on the market.

    The decision also comes as health officials deal with a teen vaping epidemic and an outbreak of a deadly vaping-related lung disease.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 18, 2019

    …will return.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 18, 2019

    There is a health, beauty and wellness revolution taking place, driven by enlightened consumer thinking about selfcare and startup companies that are innovating in the space. In this new Retail Tomorrow podcast, recorded in front of a live audience at the recent GMDC Selfcare Summit in Indianapolis, two such startup companies - in very different spaces - talk about how their strategies and tactics are helping retailers perform more effectively and efficiently.

    One important shift that has to take place: Retailers need to say "help me," rather than "show me." Which is more than a semantic difference.

    Our guests:

    • Monte Ahlemeyer, chief revenue officer at Accelerate, which is on the front lines of the CBD marketing revolution.

    • Dan Bourgault, VP, Sales & Business Development at Replenium, which provides consumer-level replenishment services to retailers.

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

    You can listen to the podcast here, as well as on iTunes and GooglePlay.

    This edition of the Retail Tomorrow podcast is brought to you by GMDC, the Global Market Development Center.

    Pictured, below, from left: Kevin Coupe, Dan Bourgault, Monte Ahlemeyer

    KC's View:

    Published on: October 18, 2019

    In Game Five of the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros beat the New York Yankees 8-3, taking a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven game series.

    And, in Thursday Night Football, the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Denver Broncos 30-6.
    KC's View:

    Published on: October 18, 2019

    MNB readers know that I love detective fiction - whether in novels, movies or television shows, I'm an enormous fan. The most recent book in the genre that it has been my pleasure to read is "Only To Sleep," by Lawrence Osborn, which focuses on the later years of Philip Marlowe, the iconic detective created by the immortal Raymond Chandler.

    Osborn is the third novelist to have been hired by the Chandler estate to wrote about Marlowe. The first was Robert B. Parker, who finished "Poodle Springs," which Chandler had been writing at the time of his death in 1958, and then wrote an original, "Perchance To Dream," which was a direct sequel to "The Big Sleep." ("Poodle Springs" was okay, and certainly better than "Perchance To Dream," but neither was Parker's best work.) Then John Banville wrote "The Black-Eyed Blonde," a sequel to "The Long Goodbye"; I've never read it.

    I was intrigued by "Only To Sleep," I think, because it has an original setup. The book takes place in 1988, and Marlowe is in his seventies, having retired to Baja, California. He's no longer the tough private eye who wandered the mean streets of Los Angeles; no longer young, he is a little tarnished and a little afraid that his swan sing has been sung.

    That's when Marlowe gets a case. A pair of insurance executives ask him to look into the drowning death off the coast of Mexico of a man with a large life insurance policy; it occurs to them that if he's not dead, then they're off the hook for the insurance, and they believe that Marlowe's familiarity with the terrain makes him the best man for the job.

    In many ways, "Only To Sleep" is like a memory play; it proceeds, with first person narration, with language that is highly specific and descriptive, and yet has a slightly washed out feeling, as if the sun has bleached both landscape and memory. So much of Chandler's writing concedes that Los Angeles is, in the words of an excellent piece about crime writing by Jeffrey Fleishman in today's Los Angeles Times, "both lie and delusion," where "paradise betrays" and "virtue is transactional." An aging Marlowe seems grateful to have survived, and yet unable to forget what he has seen and done to get to this place … and yet, he embraces the chance to saddle up one last time, to assemble one more small piece of the Southern California jigsaw puzzle that keeps shifting and morphing.

    "Only To Sleep" is a lovely piece of work, dreamy and gritty and even hopeful. As I read it, I kept thinking that I'd love to see it turned into a movie … there are even a couple of actors out there who've played Marlowe in the past and who would be the right age to reprise the role - Elliott Gould, 81, who played him in Robert Altman's subversive The Long Goodbye, and James Caan, 79, who did the HBO version of Poodle Springs, which I actually thought was superior to the Parker book (maybe because it was adapted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Bob Rafelson). Both Altman and Rafelson are gone now, as are other recent Marlowe interpreters such as James Garner and Powers Boothe, but I think "Only To Sleep" offers a unique opportunity to revisit an aging genre and see it through fresh eyes.

    Until that happens, though, read the book.

    I have a couple of wines to recommend to you this week … the 2018 Chateau Val-Joanis Rosé from France, which serves as a wonderful cold accompaniment to things like poke or conch fritters … and if you are looking something heartier, the 2015 Fratelli Ponte Dolcetto, which I had the other night with some amazing lobster ravioli.

    That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend.

    Back Monday.

    KC's View: