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: March 6, 2020

    by Kevin Coupe

    This may be one of the weirder stories related to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

    Tito's Homemade Vodka took to Twitter to say that people shouldn't use its product as hand sanitizer.


    The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that "hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol," the company tweeted.  "Tito's Handmade Vodka is 40% alcohol, and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC."

    The statement seems to be a response to people who had bragged about using Tito's  instead of hand sanitizer;  such products are in short supply these days - think the gas lines of the late seventies - and people are casting about for options that will help them avoid being infected.

    But Tito's?

    That seems like such a waste.  Me, I'd use soap and hot water, and then try some oral medication - a Tito's-and-soda-with-lime.

    Published on: March 6, 2020

    The Kansas City Business Journal reports that Walmart 's InHome Delivery program - launched last year for tests in the Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Vero Beach, Fla., markets, and allowing employees to deliver orders into the home and even putting them away into refrigerators - so far is showing positive results.

    "Kansas City is a great Walmart market and a place that customers really love online grocery, so we thought that it would be a good option for one of the three to be rolled out in," says Whitney Pegden, general manager of InHome. "We're hearing a lot of great things (about the new service) from our customers we're serving today."

    According to the story, "The service has attracted customers who already were ordering groceries online at Walmart, but it also has persuaded customers who previously didn't order online to take the leap, she said. One surprising aspect is the number of customers who are home during the delivery, Pegden said. Walmart envisioned that customers would never be home. Instead, they're using the service to maximize their time, whether it's working from an in-home office or spending time with their children."

    InHome costs $19.95 a month and requires a $30 minimum per order.

    KC's View:

    I don't mean to be stubborn on this one, but I just don't get it … perhaps because I don't even like it when Mrs. Content Guy rearranges the refrigerator.

    But I'll concede I could be wrong on this one.  Maybe it is the natural next step in the delivery process.  But the insurance premiums covering all these delivery folks must be murder.

    BTW … what's the guarantee that the folks delivering in-home don't have the COVID-19 coronavirus?

    Just curious.

    Published on: March 6, 2020

    It seems counter-intuitive, but one national retailer is shutting down its e-commerce business because it just isn't doing enough volume.

    MarketWatch reports that Burlington Stores, which used to be known as Burlington Coat Factory, is "going to end its e-commerce operation and focus on growing its bricks-and-mortar business."

    CEO Michael O'Sullivan says that "e-commerce only accounts for 0.5% of sales, and the company’s efforts would be better spent on stores.  'In our business, which is a moderate off-price business, the nature of the treasure hunt and the average price point that we operate at mean that bricks-and-mortar stores have a significant competitive and economic advantage over e-commerce'," he says.

    One thing that Burlington does plan to expand is its store network, which currently consists of 720 units.  There are 54 new ones planned for 2020, but they will be smaller, at less than 40,000 square feet, than the traditional stores that Burlington has operated.

    KC's View:

    I'm not here to lecture Burlington on the questionable wisdom of doing something that seems so contrary to where the marketplace is going.  Sometimes, when everybody else is going in one direction, it makes sense to challenge conventional wisdom.

    But I have to wonder if the problem actually is that Burlington simply didn't execute an e-commerce strategy very effectively.  Sometimes, it is my experience, people say that something didn't work, but what they're missing is the fact that they just didn't do it very well.

    There's a difference.

    Published on: March 6, 2020

    Reuters reports this morning that UK-based Tesco "will start price matching Aldi on hundreds of everyday items, firing the latest salvo in its fight to stem the market share gains of its rival."

    The price-matching policy will apply to both stores and e-commerce.

    According to Reuters, "The UK industry leader still has a 27.2% share of the market, but it has been chipped away by Aldi and rival discounter Lidl, who have been aggressively opening new stores and now have a combined 13.7% - more than treble the level of a decade ago."

    While Tesco has tried a number of tactics to combat the discounters - last year it launched a subscription-based loyalty program - "Thursday’s initiative is the first time Tesco has directly price-matched Aldi," the story says.

    KC's View:

    The question is, does Tesco benefit most from matching Aldi and Lidl, or from creating a clear and compelling differentiated alternative?  At some point, does Tesco dilute its brand equity and value proposition by taking this approach?

    Just asking.

    Published on: March 6, 2020

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

    •  Bloomberg said yesterday that Walmart "is restricting all cross-border international travel" and canceling next week's Walmart U.S. Customer Conference conference in Dallas "due to the escalating coronavirus outbreak."

    Walmart, the story says, said "it was limiting cross-border international travel in all markets it operates to just 'business-critical' trips and that such travel must get approval. For employees currently traveling, Walmart advised them to make plans to return.

    "The company also curbed domestic travel to only 'essential operations,' and will restrict less essential travel for conferences and trade shows, it said. The new guidelines will extend through at least April, it said."

    •  TechCrunch reports that "Walmart is looking to hook more consumers on its online grocery shopping experience by adding Walmart Grocery to its main Walmart mobile application. For years, the retailer has operated two separate apps: its flagship Walmart app (the blue one) and its separate Walmart Grocery app (the orange one). This meant shoppers had to download and switch between two separate apps depending on what they were buying … the change means a more seamless shopping experience, where they won’t have to think so much about which app to use, but can instead just shop from a single place for anything Walmart offers, including its 120,000+ grocery items, local store inventory for pickup and its online assortment of both first-party and third-party marketplace goods."

    It ought to be emblazoned on the walls - and virtual walls - of every retailer - REDUCE FRICTION!

    Published on: March 6, 2020

    •  From The Verge:

    "Amazon’s Alexa quietly gained a few features in February you might not be aware of, including severe weather alerts and the ability to send information about your commute directly to your phone … Say 'Alexa, how’s my commute' or 'Alexa, how is the traffic to the airport?' to your Alexa-enabled device and you’ll hear the current traffic report. 'Alexa, send that to my phone' will generate a notification on your device, and you can tap it to begin navigation using your phone’s maps app."

    Other new Alexa-powered features "include NBA highlights ('Alexa, play the Lakers highlights') for Alexa-enabled device with a screen, or updates on the 2020 US presidential election by saying 'Alexa, what’s my election update' or 'Alexa, what happened in the last debate'."

    Published on: March 6, 2020

    •  Kroger said yesterday that its Q4 same-store sales were up two percent, as total sales increased to $28.89 billion from $28.29 billion during the same period a year ago.  Q4 profit increased to $327 million from $259 million a year earlier.

    Q4 online sales were up 22%.

    For the just-ended fiscal year, digital sales were up 29 percent … same-store sales were up two percent … and total company sales were $122.3 billion, up 2.3 percent (excluding fuel, dispositions and merger transactions).

    In yesterday's conference call, CEO Rodney McMullen said, "We are continuing to enhance the customer connection with investments in our competitive moats of today – which are product freshness and quality, Our Brands, and personalized rewards – and our competitive moat of tomorrow, the seamless ecosystem we are building."

    •  The Washington Post reports that Albertsons-owned Safeway has come to a labor agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) that will cover employees about more than 100 stores in the Washington, DC, area.

    The story says that "union representatives said the agreement would protect members’ retirement benefits. The company’s pension fund is short $1.7 billion and is expected to become insolvent next year."

    •  Costco reported Q2 earnings of $931 million, up from $889 million during the same period a year ago, on sales that were up 11 percent to $38.3 billion from $34.6 billion a year ago.  Same-store sales were up nine percent, the company said.

    Company e-commerce sales for the quarter were up 22.7 percent.

    Published on: March 6, 2020

    Remember ... for most of us in the US, this weekend marks the end of Standard Time and a blessed return (IMHO) to Daylight Savings Time. On Sunday, March 8, at 2 am, it will be time to turn your clocks forward an hour. (Assuming, of course, you actually have clocks that require manual changing.)

    Published on: March 6, 2020

    Yesterday I did a FaceTime commentary that responded to the folks who thought I was falling into a media trap by paying too much attention to the alarms being sounded about the coronavirus outbreak/pandemic, and giving way too much space on MNB to an issue that they saw as being political.

    I argued, in part:

    This is not about politics.  This is about science.  This is about respected scientists who think that this coronavirus could end up being a major problem for a lot of people - especially the elderly and medically compromised.

    There is a huge, huge difference between a 0.1 percent and two percent mortality rate.  Call me crazy, but I think it is worth talking about and putting resources against on a global scale … 

    I hope that the coronavirus ends up not being as bad for people's health and the global economy as some are predicting.

    But let me suggest that if it isn't - if two or three or four months from now we are all saying that it seemed to be much ado about very little - it may well be because the media focused so much on it.  Because the media helped educate the population about how to protect itself.  Because the media reminded people to wash their hands frequently, to cough into their elbows, to be careful about what they touch and who they interact with.

    I say this recognizing that there will be some members of the MNB community who will disagree with me.  To be fair, I have a dog in this hunt - I am a member of the media, albeit a tiny niche of the media.  But I think that for the most part, the mainstream media is doing exactly what it is supposed to do - reporting what the experts are saying and providing context so that consumers know what they are supposed to do.

    Sorry.  But I just can't help myself.

    One MNB reader wasn't buying:

    We understand it’s hard to see what’s around you when your in the middle of it! Those of us who don’t have a dog in the hunt, see the political slant/ blame game very clearly.... We remember when Media only reported facts but those days are gone as long as opinion reporting isn’t held to a higher standard.

    That's probably what some folks said about Edward R. Murrow when he worked to expose McCarthyism for what it was.  C'est la vie.

    From another reader:

    Remember that as more cases of Coronavirus develop, are reported and “runs it’s course” in people like the flu, more will not die thus the mortality rate number being reported with mathematically drop significantly.

    Most readers seemed to agree with me.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    Kevin, you are absolutely correct. I am frankly, taken back by the number of people that think this is nothing. Let's go back, for a moment to Y2K. I was part of the IT staff who were responsible for helping independent retailers manage through the process including upgrading some of their technology. When the clock turned over we had to deal with very few issues not because it was a lot to do about nothing, but because we spent a significant amount of time fixing and replacing outdated software.  Yet a huge amount of the comments we heard, some from leaders in our organization, were that this was all a scam just to sell more products and grow revenue. 

    If we take this the coronavirus seriously, and do a great job minimizing the deaths, many people will say it was a hoax and they knew it.

    Probably.  But it'll be worth it.

    From another reader:

    I agree with you, no reservations. People who see this as a purely political play are absolutely insane; the type who a few hundred years ago would be screaming that the earth could not be a globe, regardless of what the scientists of that time said. Their descendants are members of the Flat Earth Society. If we are lucky enough that media and science-based warnings help prevent this corona virus from becoming an horrific pandemic and (hopefully) it fades away soon with little damage, most of them will say, “I told you so,” without a thought to why. If it becomes a pandemic, many of them will call for the heads of public officials who ‘didn’t do enough.’

    Science gets it right 99 time out of 100. Anti-science prognosticators might get it right 1 time out of 100. I’m baffled at the trust engendered by anti-science people.

    MNB reader Andy Casey wrote:

    I don’t disagree with you but truth is for average people in the USA the current risk is relatively low and much of the coverage borders on the sky is falling. The danger is when you think of how quickly this thing can spread the math gets scary in short order. With 7BB people on the planet, even a 5% infection rate with 2% fatalities is 7MM dead. So making sure everyone is thinking prevention seems a pretty good idea.

    From another reader:

    You have nothing to be sorry about.  You are doing an appropriate level of reporting on the Coronavirus. 

    What I think some people are missing is the economic impact.  In my years in the produce industry many of the people who do the sampling in-stores are paid by the hour and have no benefits.  Many of these people are just hanging on financially.   If they can no longer work their economic well being will suffer.  The people who work on the cruise ships, hotel and foodservice workers who lose hours as business drops off.  This is already hitting the travel industry very hard.

    Its not so hard on someone like me who can work from home and continue to get paid.  As you correctly reported the mortality rates are very high compared to the normal flu and we need to do everything possible to contain it before it spreads even further.

    On my political soapbox it doesn’t help when you have a president who continues to denigrate science in general and who initially said the Coronavirus was a “Democratic Hoax.”

    And another:

    Keep at it!   I am easily irritated but nothing peeves more than when people look at science-based analysis and dismiss it as an “opinion."

    MNB reader Warren Solochek wrote:

    If the government can’t /won’t share info with the general population, somebody has to do it. The press (including you) has a responsibility to give the population whatever info may be available. 

    I understand that it may seem extreme to some. But to most Americans, it is critical info. Where is the virus appearing? What can be done to help fight the virus? This info is particularly important for those of us who have family and friends who are most at risk should they contract COVID-19.

    Keep it up. Your ability to provide useful info to readers very likely can see lives. What is wrong with that? If people don’t believe the news, and therefore ignore it, I wish them luck.

    And from another:

    Thank you for your balanced look at Covid-19.  I can’t believe you are hearing from people who say we shouldn’t be concerned or the media is hyping this story.  For the families that have lost a loved one and for the communities facing the impact, we should all be concerned. 

    And we should be concerned with several things at once – both flu and Covid-19, for example.  And yes, the media might be reporting on one over the other because one is brand new to our eco-system. 

    And still another:

    I just viewed your passionate discussion regarding the Corona Virus. I think you hit the nail on the head. There are enough unknowns involved with this virus that we need to be careful making assumptions. Thank you for the reminder.

    And from another MNB reader:

    Hear! Hear! I applaud you for writing your commentary on the coronavirus.  When I went into Costco last week, the two people checking IDs at the door were armed with antiviral wipes and cleaning each cart as people entered the store. Great customer service and very smart move from Costco. It said to me, “we care”.  I don’t even want to comment on those people who feel this is a political invention and media hype.

    One MNB reader had an additional thought:

    Just a quick note regarding the coronavirus coverage you have had over the last few days.

    I recommend referring to the virus as COVID-19 rather than the generic term "coronavirus".

    WHO officially named the virus COVID-19 and media have been asked to use that name in their reporting.

    It is also the language that the CDC is using in their media briefings. With so much information being published on the virus, I think it's important to drive consistency in our use of terminology throughout the media.

    Thanks for the advisory.  I'll do my best.

    Published on: March 6, 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.

    Published on: March 6, 2020

    I finally caught up with Parasite, the South Korean film that recently walked away with the Best Picture and Best Foreign Film Oscars.  I don't usually think such awards are the best barometers of quality, but go figure.  In this case, I actually think they got it right.

    Parasite is a unique thing - a dark comedy, a social commentary, and a bit of a horror film, all mixed up and yet adept in the tonal shifts that somehow manage to simultaneously lull the audience into complacency while keeping it on the edge of their seats.

    Directed by the estimable Bong Joon Ho, Parasite is the story of the Kim family, nearly destitute and living a life of desperation in a South Korean city.  They are grifters of a sort, trying to figure out how to get themselves out of their dire circumstances.  Slowly, through a series of jobs - obtained, to be sure, through subterfuge and manipulation - they manage to ingratiate and impose themselves into the lives of the carelessly affluent Park family.

    I'm not going to tell you much more than that, except to say that Parasite manages to be consistently surprising - even when I was sure I knew where it was going, it would take an unexpected turn, which only manages to ramp up the tension and dread.

    Parasite may be a South Korean film, shown with subtitles, but it is a universal story with some universal lessons …and none of them say much good about the human condition circa 2020.

    I was thrilled yesterday to hear that the Dixie Chicks are back - they have a new album coming out on May 1, "Gaslighter," and the title song already has been dropped.  It is their first new music in more than a dozen years.

    One of the best things I ever did with my daughter was take her to a Dixie Chicks concert when she was a kid … it was an indelible bonding moment.  (We talked about it last night, and were both a little shocked that she was maybe 11 or 12 when we went.)   At around the same time, we also went to a Taylor Swift concert … I'm a big fan of her seeing empowered, strong women in performance.  Plus, it meant I got to go with her.

    She's an adult now.  If I'm lucky, maybe she'll invite me to go with her when the Dixie Chicks go back on tour later this year.

    Yes, I know that Spenser: Confidential is out on Netflix today.  Yes, I will review it here on MNB … probably next Friday.  Yes, I bring a lot of knowledge about the Robert B. Parker-Ace Atkins oeuvre to the film.  And no, based on everything I've seen to this point, I am not optimistic.

    But I'll try to keep an open mind.

    We've been on a bit of an Italian wine kick this week;  it seemed like the right thing to do, since Italy has been hit so hard by the COVID-19 outbreak/pandemic.  (Just trying to do what we can to help…)

    There are two that I am happy to recommend, each of which is wonderful with seafood or a light pasta dish - the 2017 Coppo La Rocca Gavi, which has a light citrus thing going for it, perfect with crab cakes, and the 2018 Donnachiara Greco di Tufo, which is a little riper and has a little more body, and is great with salmon.

    That's it for this week.  Have a great weekend - stay safe and healthy - and I'll see you Monday.