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    Published on: February 24, 2020

    by Kevin Coupe

    Maybe I'm wrong on this, but I think the new Burger King commercial - which endeavors to demonstrate how few preservatives its hamburgers have by showing one rotting, decaying to the point where it is covered with mold - is disgusting.

    I've watched it several times now, and my reaction is consistently the same:  


    The Washington Post reports that this is part of a new, global campaign designed to demonstrate "that more than 90 percent of food ingredients at Burger King are now free from artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, and that 100 percent of ingredients are free of MSG and high-fructose corn syrup."

    The problem, according to the Post, is that this may be more hat than cattle.

    From the Post story:  

    "When asked precisely which preservatives Burger King was doing away with, a spokeswoman for the company said that sodium benzoate would be removed from the pickles and replaced with lactic acid; ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) would be removed from the mayonnaise; and calcium propionate would be removed from the buns and replaced with cultured wheat flour."

    The Post then talked to Lisa Lefferts, senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who described the changes as being more about "public relations then public health."

    “They are replacing propionate with bacteria that produce propionic acid,” she said. “Basically just a natural source of the same preservative, but it sounds better. Kind of like using celery powder instead of sodium nitrate to cure meat.”

    Lefferts tells the Post  that "the other preservatives they are removing are safe and that consumers are leery of different chemical additives, so companies are responding to that by limiting additives … 'Good old-fashioned added sugar and salt are causing more problems than those that have more unfamiliar names.  Artificial sugars, food dyes — we think companies should disclose which specific ingredients they do not permit. Let’s focus on public health and transparency."

    All of which is interesting …  I'm certainly in favor of good public health, but I also have nothing against good public relations.  Deceptive public relations, however, is another story.

    But my biggest problem with this commercial - which, it must be said, is doing its job if the goal is to get the brand talked about - is that I think it is disgusting.

    I like the idea of food being aspirational and making people feel good about eating it, not repulsed by what happens to the food if it doesn't get eaten.  (I know it rots.  I don't need to see it.)

    For me, at least, this commercial is an Eye-Opener.  For all the wrong reasons.

    Published on: February 24, 2020

    A column from Matt Newberg of HNGRY that has been posted on Medium suggests that when it opens, the new, as-yet-officially-unnamed Amazon grocery store in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles will feature "a small-scale, robot-powered version of its retail store that surrounds a hidden perimeter of the store. The permits state hours of operation from 6am until 2am, which would imply on-demand delivery, enabling Amazon to leverage its best in class data about what consumers crave to deliver it with unprecedented speed and efficiency."

    The story goes on:

    "The concept, known within the industry as micro-fulfillment, is the latest advancement within the e-grocery space, which FMI and Nielsen project to quadruple from ~$26 billion today to $113 billion in just two years … These centers can be located on the backs of existing retail stores or housed in dedicated facilities, including parking garages … Instead of operating a single industrial warehouse outside of a metropolitan city, Amazon can now leverage this technology to open dozens of smaller neighborhood stores closer to customers."


    "HNGRY has now confirmed that Amazon is working with Dematic to provide this very technology inside of its new stores, which will ultimately enable faster than average last-mile delivery and in-store pickup. The company has carefully designed this 7,200 sq. ft. area to house room-temperature robotic-picked storage aisles that will house everything from alcohol to packaged food, occupying about 21% of its 33,574 sq. ft. total footprint."

    One expert tells HNGRY that "Amazon will be able to offer 1 hour delivery/pickup windows, but it’s possible that this progresses towards a matter of minutes as more purchasing data feeds the robotic shelves, ultimately driving down picking times."

    You can read the entire story here.

    KC's View:

    I've been saying since the moment this store's existence was reported that it only made sense for Amazon to do something like this if it brings once of its secret sauces to the table, whether making it Prime only, or building in a Subscribe & Save replenishment function, or using Amazon Go-type checkout-free technology.

    If this report is accurate, it means that I was generally right - Amazon is bringing its unique approach to logistics to the table - though I was looking in the wrong place for the applicable differentiator.

    I'll be curious to know the degree to which this technology can be employed in every one of these stores that Amazon plans to build.  If it can, it'll truly be a game changer, making Amazon more efficient and effective as it challenges traditional retailers.

    And, it is yet another example of what Scott Moses of PJ Solomon talks about - how Amazon's size and access to cheap capital gives it an enormous advantage in the marketplace.

    Published on: February 24, 2020

    From Bloomberg, a story reporting that Walmart is losing one of its logistics partners, grocery delivery company Skipcart, which has been working with the retailers since late 2018, serving "about 126 stores in 32 states, mostly in smaller markets."

    The reason?  Skipcart CEO Ben Jones said that despite the fact that his company is making some 50,000 Walmart deliveries a month, it is losing money "hand over first … The grocery model does not work.  It doesn’t work today, and it’s not going to work six months from now. We’re all losing money.”

    Jones said that Skipcart will focus on restaurant deliveries, which apparently are easier and more profitable.

    Walmart has not commented on the Skipcart defection, but reportedly has reassigned those stores to other outside delivery companies.

    Bloomberg writes that "Walmart can’t afford to lose momentum in its market-leading grocery business, which makes up 56% of its U.S. sales … Inc. now offers two-hour grocery delivery for its Prime customers for free in more than 2,000 cities, and grocery orders more than doubled in the fourth quarter.

    "While the web only accounts for about 4% of the $800 billion U.S. grocery sector, adoption is increasing. Over half of all current online grocery shoppers started doing so over the past year, according to a survey of about 3,000 Americans by Morgan Stanley. Walmart and Amazon are neck-and-neck at the top of the market, the survey found, with about half of all web shoppers having used one of them in the past three months.

    "Walmart offers home delivery of groceries from about 1,600 stores today, double the number it had a year ago."

    KC's View:

    So what Walmart really ought to do is centralize all of its various delivery operations into one entity - and it probably would make sense to acquire a national delivery business that would give it scale.

    I'm thinking Instacart would make a lot of sense.  If the number of zeros on the check are sufficient, I'm sure the company is for sale.

    Besides, think of all the data on its competitors that Walmart could get in such a deal.  Be a win-win.

    Published on: February 24, 2020

    The Wall Street Journal reports that the US House of Representatives voted 300-131 last week to end country of origin labeling requirements for beef, pork and chicken, sending the measure to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain reception.

    The Journal puts the House vote in context, saying that supporters of the move hoped "to prevent a protracted battle over the labels with Canada and Mexico."  The vote "follows a series of rulings by the World Trade Organization finding the labeling discriminates against animals imported from Canada and Mexico.

    "Canada and Mexico won a final WTO ruling in May, and are now seeking retaliatory actions valued at a combined $3.7 billion a year. Canada has threatened trade restrictions on a range of U.S. products, including meat, wine, chocolate, jewelry and furniture."

    In essence, the House vote was designed to prevent retaliation on other product categories.

    Some context from the Journal:

    "Country-of-origin labels, known as COOL, were mandated by Congress in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, and require meatpackers to identify where animals are born, raised and slaughtered. The information is then printed on meat packages sold in grocery stores. The labels aren’t required on meat sold in restaurants."  However, the story says, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains that the ultimate costs of COOL regulations "outweighed the benefits."

    In a report to Congress in April, the Agriculture Department said the costs of putting country-of-origin labels on meat outweighed the benefits. It found little evidence to suggest consumers would buy more products with a U.S. label.

    The Journal notes that "consumer advocates, among the biggest supporters of the labels, say international trade deals should not trump consumers’ access to information about their food."

    KC's View:

    I'm with the consumer advocates on this one, though I concede that the WTO does sort of put the US between a rock and a hard place.

    My problem is with the base premise that labeling is discrimination.  That's nonsense.  Labeling is information.  Only people and companies afraid of consumers knowing the truth would argue otherwise.

    If consumers don't seem to be factoring country of origin labels into their buying decisions, isn't that evidence that the labels are not discriminatory?  That said, they may want to use that information in the future, when it seems to be relevant.

    Published on: February 24, 2020

    The New York Times reports that longtime e-grocer FreshDirect continues to grapple with two headaches.

    First, the continuing implications of its move in 2018 into a Bronx, New York, automated warehouse that was, to say the least, a disaster, with orders messed up, delayed, or not delivered at all.  "Trust was eroded," says CEO David McInerney.

    Second, there is the growth of competition in the segment, from players that include Amazon and its Whole Foods business, which is occupying much the same lane as FreshDirect.

    The Times writes that "while it remains the most popular online grocery service in New York, FreshDirect’s share of the market dropped to 46 percent at the end of last year, from roughly 66 percent in 2017, according to the research firm Second Measure. Over the same period, Amazon’s share nearly tripled to around 22 percent, from a little under 8 percent. Rivals like Instacart and Stop & Shop’s Peapod brand also made up ground."

    (Note that the Times defines Instacart as a competitor, not as the outside logistics/delivery contractor serving FreshDirect's competitors.  Just saying.)

    Some excerpts from the story:

    •  "On some level, FreshDirect’s struggles are a normal evolution: A start-up pioneers a new business, before well-funded imitators gradually overtake it. But the company’s future also represents a test of whether Amazon, with its deep pockets and vast logistical infrastructure, can dominate fresh food, a market in which regional companies like FreshDirect have historically thrived."

    •  "At the moment, FreshDirect delivers to New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., as well as some parts of Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware. But Mr. McInerney, a loquacious and energetic former chef, has an expansive vision for the company’s future — a delivery empire stretching from Washington to Boston.  'Our goal is really to control the Northeast corridor,' he said. 'If I were to look into the future, there could be a bifurcation of shopping, where people are buying packaged goods in one place and fresh food in another'."

    •  "Over the last 18 months, the company has made a series of adjustments to regain the trust of customers who felt burned by the delivery issues in 2018. In the past, customers who reported missing items received store credit and an apology. Now, FreshDirect offers to deliver missing items immediately, at no extra cost. And first-time customers get their groceries in a different color bag than a regular delivery, so FreshDirect’s drivers know to be especially careful.

    KC's View:

    I have a real problem with the sentiment expressed in this last excerpt - that you have to treat new customers better than existing customers.  That' such a typical retail mistake to make … I know what they're trying to do, but if I were a FreshDirect customer who had done business with them in the past, I'd want them to be just as vigilant with my groceries as with the person down the street using them for the first time.

    I could be wrong about this, but it just feels like some sort of merger or acquisition is in FreshDirect's future.  Being a pure-play in this environment seems like it might be untenable;  FreshDirect may need a bigger partner with the resources to allow it to realistically pursue that "delivery empire" goal.

    Published on: February 24, 2020

    From the New York Times:

    "Pharmacy employees at Walgreens told consultants late last year that high levels of stress and 'unreasonable' expectations had led them to make mistakes while filling prescriptions and to ignore some safety procedures.

    "But when the consultants presented their findings at Walgreens’s corporate offices this month, there was no reference to the errors and little mention of other concerns the employees had raised.

    "That’s because senior leaders at Walgreens had directed the consultants to remove some damaging findings after seeing a draft of their presentation, a review of internal emails, chat logs and two versions of the report shows."

    The Times writes that "pharmacists in dozens of states have accused Walgreens, CVS and other major drugstore chains of putting the public at risk of medication errors because of understaffed and chaotic workplaces … In letters to state pharmacy boards and in interviews with The Times, pharmacists said they struggled to keep up with an increasing number of tasks — filling prescriptions, giving flu shots, answering phones and tending the drive-through, to name a few — while racing to meet corporate performance metrics they characterized as excessive and unsafe."

    The chains have pushed back on the accusations, saying that such mistakes are rare.

    In the case of Walgreens, the Times notes that the company downplays the information gathered by the consultancy, Tata.  The story says that Tata now has been given a $1.5 billion deal to run Walgreens’s technology operations.

    You can read the Times story here.

    KC's View:

    I know what that $1.5 billion deal sounds like to me.  Boy, I hope I'm wrong.

    If these charges are true - and I must admit that the denials ring hollow, with little persuasive evidence that exactly what the pharmacists are saying is happening isn't actually happening - it would be unconscionable for the chains to be closing their eyes to them.  They may think that they are protecting their companies, but they are doing exactly the opposite.  They are, in fact, putting their companies at long-term risk - financially, reputationally, ethically.

    Published on: February 24, 2020

    The Wall Street Journal has a story about how the introduction of robots in the retail store environment - used to detect things like out-of-stocks and spills - has actually creeped some shoppers out;  they're worried that the robots are stalking them.  Which means that the engineers responsible for the robotic technology have had to figure out ways to humanize the robots, and even come up with "anti-creep software."

    Indeed, Guy Hoffman, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who "has studied human-robot interaction for 16 years," tells the Journal that "technology isn’t close to replacing human contact. Understanding how a person is feeling involves social context and body language … and artificial intelligence isn’t there yet."

    You can read the entire story here.

    Published on: February 24, 2020

    The Los Angeles Times has a story about "Making The Cut," a new fashion series that will begin running on Amazon Prime next month, hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, who used to to "Project Runway" together.

    "The partnership between Amazon and Klum illustrates how the Seattle global giant can intertwine its two most notable divisions — retail and entertainment — and potentially produce new lucrative revenue streams.

    "When Amazon launched its foray into video streaming more than a decade ago and later released original shows starting in 2013, the goal was to have programs that would drive traffic and sales to its site. Until now, however, the company has not used an original, global series to directly promote its products. 'Making the Cut' would be the first, and it could pave the way for other tie-ins between the company’s expanding studio and its juggernaut e-commerce business."

    The story goes on:  "Amazon Prime Video’s cachet not only rises if Klum’s and Gunn’s star power transfers over to their new show, but also if it’s seen as a place where people go to buy high-end fashion and not just stock up on diapers and paper towels.

    "The strategy could also resolve a dilemma marketers face with the popularity of streaming services like Netflix, which do not have any commercials. Shows that integrate shopping and watching as part of a series’ story line could fix that problem."

    KC's View:

    I've never watched a fashion series in my life, but I may actually tune into this one, just to see how they put the pieces together.   If this works, one has to think that a cooking show would be a natural next step.

    I love "The Chef Show" on Netflix, but it would be even more powerful on Amazon, where different foods and ingredients could be sold.  In fact, I think that this could even be a factor in how people decide whether to bring their projects to Netflix or Amazon; if there is a commerce component, they may prefer Amazon.  And, it could push streaming services like Netflix to create alliances with other retailers.

    Published on: February 24, 2020

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

    •  Variety reports that Comcast's NBCUniversal division "is in talks to buy Vudu, the Walmart-owned entertainment rental, download and free-streaming service."  Such a deal, the story says, "would boost NBCU’s digital-video presence as it preps the launch of Peacock, a streaming service that will have a hybrid free and paid model, stocked with originals, licensed content and library programming (including the full run of 'The Office')."

    From the Variety story:  "Walmart, which acquired Vudu in 2010 for a reported $100 million, in 2016 began offering free, ad-supported library content to its service and more recently began delivering original shows on the free platform including a series reboot of ’80s comedy 'Mr. Mom' and live-action kids’ sci-fi movie 'Adventure Force 5.'  Other Vudu originals in the works include a travel/comedy show executive produced by Queen Latifah; sci-fi series 'Albedo' starring Evangeline Lilly; and an interview docu-series with Randy Jackson. Last month, Vudu ordered sports docuseries 'Legacy' starring and executive produced by retired NBA All-Star Dwayne Wade that follows the progeny of top pro athletes (including Wade’s son, Zaire Wade)."

    However, there have been reports going back several months that Walmart was shopping Vudu around.  The story quotes a Walmart spokesperson as saying that "I can share that we’ve built Vudu into an incredibly strong business, with an installed base of more than 100 million devices across America. We’re constantly having conversations with partners but we don’t share details of those discussions."

    I can think of a lot of reasons why Walmart might be interested in getting rid of Vudu.

    First of all, I can't imagine that the folks in Bentonville think of it as being as core business, or a core competency.  It might've looked like a good idea a decade ago as Amazon was ramping up its Prime Video business and Netflix was catching fire, but the landscape of streaming businesses has gotten very crowded and very expensive, as companies are throwing around  enormous amounts of money on things like "The Mandalorian" or various Star Trek series or a new iteration of "The Lord of The Rings."

    I'm sure Walmart's execs look at these numbers - both the plethora of companies getting into the segment and size of the checks they're writing - and figure that if they can sell Vudu and make a profit, well, there's nothing like getting out when they getting is good.

    But … I also have to wonder if Walmart will see stories like the one above - about Amazon using streaming video to drive sales in the fashion segment - and rethink whether it is missing an opportunity to do something more.

    I've always argued here that Walmart is a retailer, while Amazon has its eye on a far bigger target.  This may be yet another example of how this is true.

    Published on: February 24, 2020

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

    •  On Saturday night, the National Grocers Association (NGA) presented Rudy Dory, executive chairman of Newport Avenue Market in Bend, Oregon, with the annual Thomas K. Zaucha Entrepreneurial Excellence Award.

    In making the presentation, NGA president/CEO Greg Ferrara noted that "the company now operates three supermarket that are dialed into the local community, providing excellence and quality to their customers. For Rudy, his love and passion for what he does is as strong as ever and our entire industry is better because of him."

    I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  Great stores.  Great family.  And it has been great to know them and watch them grow and innovate over the years.

    •  It has been five years, but the gorgeous retail space under the Manhattan side of the Queensboro Bride in New York City is about to get a new tenant - Trader Joe's.

    For years it was occupied by a Food Emporium, but has been vacant since the collapse of that banner and its A&P ownership.

    The New York Post writes that no timetable has been set for the opening of the store in the 50,000 square foot, city-owned space.

    •  USA Today reports that Krispy Kreme is "leaping into national doughnut delivery.  Starting Feb. 29, aka leap day, the North Carolina-based chain's fresh doughnuts can be delivered to households across the nation," as long as you live within about 10 miles of one of its one of the 350 U.S. locations in 42 states.

    "On-demand service Doordash will deliver doughnuts by the dozen and boxed coffee, and there's a $4.99 delivery fee from most locations," the story says.

    •  USA Today reports that "signs have been spotted at some Costco stores across the nation indicating a change is coming to food courts, which also sell churros and ice cream."  For the first time, the story says, people will only be able to buy food there if they are Costco members.

    According to the story, "whether the change will be rolled out to all clubs nationwide was unknown Friday. Costco officials did not immediately respond to USA TODAY's request for comment."

    Published on: February 24, 2020

    Responding to our story last week about how there were more Apple Watches sold last year than by the entire Swiss watch industry, one MNB reader wrote:

    My Fitbit device has replaced my regular watch.  I only wore my regular watch on occasion, mostly when I travel.  I wear my Fitbit everyday and use it instead of my phone for telling time.  I can get notifications on it too. 

    From another reader:

    I’ve been a long-time fan of well-made watches and I have been fortunate to have collected a few.   At the same time, I began wearing an Apple Watch about three years ago on the insistence of our sons, each of whom owns one; I found myself appreciating the technology and the enhancements it provided to my other Apple devices as well as the benefits of recording my exercise activity.  A couple of years ago, I finally purchased the Swiss watch that I had been saving for over a long period of time.  I recall asking the jeweler who sold me the watch about my dilemma regarding my ownership of both styles of watches and he suggested putting my Swiss watch on my left hand and my Apple Watch on my right.   At first I was concerned about what others would think of my wearing of two devices simultaneously……and after a while, I just didn’t care.   No one has ever asked me why I do it, but my Apple Watch saved my life late last year when it detected an irregular heartbeat and convinced me to seek immediate attention from my cardiologist. 

    And another:

    Your comments about the Swiss watch industry struck a chord. I very much enjoy my mechanical Hamilton watch, a revival of a classic brand, with a Swiss movement inside. My hope is for a future that is more “bespoke,” that we’ll see a backlash against mass brands, and a resurgence of custom, handcrafted products that offer special experiences, not just another link to an “ecosystem.” At some point I expect to see widespread rejection of ubiquitous technology itself: AI, facial recognition, tracking systems, IOT, autonomous vehicles, and the rest. All I can hope is that it happens before the singularity, at which point it will be too late for all of us!

    Regarding the use of generational consultants to help companies navigate the terrain when five distinct generations of employees - traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation Xers, millennials and Generation Zers - coexist in the workplace, one MNB reader wrote:

    I’m always jazzed by these discussions because I’ve seen many of the changes the generations have experienced along the way; being a still working boomer, parent of a couple of Xers and grandfather to 5 Zers. The thing that bugs me sometimes is the generalities we make about the generations. One of our execs wrote an article about the latest generation of employees in our stores, how they look at work differently and don’t have the same work ethic more mature employees have. Interestingly, this was written back in the 1970’s, basically they were talking about me.

    This generational difference is not new. People are growing up in different worlds with different capabilities based on technology, but they’re still people, going through the growth and development cycles we all did, albeit sometimes more quickly. My Mom, whose been gone for 6 years now, still worked up until the week she died, keeping the books for my sister-in-law’s business using QuickBooks for receivables and payables. She was 88. I’m the oldest person in our workgroup, and yet am usually the one approached with tech questions, so the broad brush of how boomers and traditionalists don’t like or get technology isn’t a slam-dunk for me.

    A few years ago our church did some research with our millennials to learn what it was they were looking for to support them in their faith. Authenticity, compassion, joy, all the things they said were important were things that all of us could appreciate. It’s helpful to understand how each generation is shaped by the experiences of their environment, but we should never let generational, or other, differences overshadow the common humanity we share. We are people first, all other labels must come after that. Today, probably as much as at any other time, we need to remember that.

    Another MNB reader wrote:

    I’m a baby boomer and couldn’t agree more how difficult the multi-generational workforce is, to me, part of the problem is this attitude of “managing people”. If everyone focused on managing business and leading people the upcoming workforce might be better off. Seems like it’s an extension of helicopter parenting into the workplace.

    And, from MNB reader Bob Wheatley:

    This is yet another example of the impact of cultural shift. It was largely a food culture transformation that ushered in the era of people connecting the dots between the quality of the food they consume and their quality of life. This, along with the digitization of everything, caused upheaval as new emerging brands caught fire, offering improved and more healthy ingredients in legacy categories across the store. Shopping the perimeter became the centerpiece for successful grocery store design as fresh ingredients hold sway. All of this points to cultural shift changing the paradigm of what people care about.

    I would recommend a key position be added to the organization chart: Chief Culture Officer whose assignment is to monitor, search, define and design strategy around these shifts – not just to prevent being disintermediated, but also to lay track for innovation and evolution of the business.

    I mentioned several movies last week in "OffBeat," prompting one MNB reader to write:

    Glad to see your review of Marriage Story. I have been avoiding it for the same reason, it looks like it will be depressing. But after good reviews from both you and my brother (who watched it because he practices family law and he thought it would be an interesting perspective) I think I might brace myself for sadness and try it.

    And from another:

    Loved Shoot the Moon - Diane Keaton and Albert Finney were fantastic. Watch it whenever it's on, which isn't often enough, unfortunately.

    FYI … it is available on Amazon, 24/7.

    Published on: February 24, 2020

    Digital strategies aren't just about creating alternatives to the bricks-and-mortar shopping experience.  Done effectively, they can actually bring people back to the store, while also eliminating customer anonymity, creating rich and actionable data, and deepen relationships between the store and consumer in a way that transcends the simple transaction.

    Our newest Retail Tomorrow podcast, which brings together a terrific panel of experts from a wide range of disciplines, was recorded at Google’s New York City offices during the recent National Retail Federation (NRF) Show.  Our guests:

    •  Matt Alexander, co-founder of Neighborhood Goods, an unusual and fascinating take on physical retailing with stores in Dallas and New York.

    •  Patrick Flanagan, senior vice president of digital marketing and strategy for Simon, which has more than 200 properties in 37 states and Puerto Rico.

    •  Tom Furphy, CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners, a member of the Retail Tomorrow podcast family and a regular contributor to "The Innovation Conversation" on MNB.

    •  And Jalna Silverstein, a leader in Ernst & Young’s Transaction Advisory Practice and its Real Estate, Consumer Experience and Retail Strategy.

    You can listen to the podcast here.

    This Retail Tomorrow podcast is sponsored by the Global Market Development Center (GMDC).

    Pictured below are our panel members, from left:  The Content Guy, Matt Alexander, Tom Furphy, Patrick Flanagan, Jalna Silverstein.