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 13, 2020

    by Kevin Coupe

    A couple of stories grabbed my attention this week because they seem to share a common theme.

    First, there was a story in Creative Loafing - which is an unbelievably great name for a media property, and I wish I'd thought of it - about how Publix Super Markets is creating Club Publix, which is designed to create a more personalized shopping experience.

    According to the story, Publix says that "Publix shoppers who already have a account will automatically be enrolled in Club Publix, an exclusive group where members get advance alerts about upcoming deals (that beloved BOGO sale, baby), as well as have the option of electronic receipts and mobile payment.

    "Expect further member perks and customized content when you sign up for Club Publix for free. 

    "Club Publix is the chain’s most recent development in the personalization of its customers’ shopping experience and comes after the grocery chain launched nationwide partnership with Instacart."

    “Customers who join the free program will enjoy a more seamless shopping experience, one that’s more personalized to their individual needs and preferences,” said Mark Irby, vice president of marketing at Publix.

    And then, there was the announcement from Ahold Delhaize-owned Giant Food that it is introducing something called Giant Flexible Rewards, which it describes as "an all-new digital rewards experience. Earn points on every purchase in-store, then visit the Giant app or website where you're in charge! Choose how you use your points to save on groceries and gas or redeem them for special rewards (like FREE items). Or all three!"

    The thing that I like about these programs, different as they are, is that they seem designed to allow these companies to know more about their customers and, ideally, respond more accurately to their needs and wants.

    I do have a few questions.  (I usually do.)

    In the case of Publix, how "exclusive" is the club is everybody already in the online database is automatically enrolled?

    This makes me wonder exactly how targeted the benefits will be.  I'm a big fan of anything that makes the shopping experience more frictionless, but I do believe that best customers need to be treated like best customers, and the more specific the better.

    Same goes for the Giant program.  I think rewards/loyalty programs are great because they do offer the opportunity for creating a tighter relationship between the consumer and the retailer, but I get worried when these programs trend toward being glorified discounting/couponing programs.  They can work, but only in a limited way, and certainly not to their potential.

    These are just questions.  The answers will be evident in the future, as these programs roll out.

    I hope my Eyes are Opened.

    In a good way.

    Published on: March 13, 2020

    Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  From Bloomberg:

    “'Bottom line: It’s going to get worse,' National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci told the House Oversight and Reform Committee. 'If we don’t do very serious mitigation now, what’s going to happen is we’re going to be weeks behind' in containing the spread.

    "Fauci said the U.S. must limit the influx of the virus from abroad and take steps to contain it domestically, including by restricting large gatherings such as sporting events.

    "He said a vaccine is still at least a year away. Responding to questions, Fauci said he couldn’t give a precise estimate of how many people in the U.S. might get infected. 'It is going to be totally dependent on how we respond to it, so I can’t give you a number,' Fauci said. 'If we are complacent and don’t do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could be way up and be involved in many, many millions. But if we sought to contain, we could mitigate it'."

    •  Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said yesterday that "some Starbucks stores in the US and Canada may become drive-thru only while others could limit the number of people allowed inside," one way for the company to address the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the Associated Press reports.

    In a letter to customers, Johnson wrote that "as a last resort, we will close a store if we feel it is in the best interest of our customers and partners, or if we are directed to do so by government authorities."

    The AP writes that "in a separate letter to employees, the company said it is temporarily expanding catastrophe pay for employees who have been diagnosed with or exposed to the virus. Employees can use up to 14 days of catastrophe pay in addition to paid sick leave, vacation time and personal days.  Employees with symptoms are also being asked to stay home."

    The New York Times writes that "Starbucks has long marketed itself as a social gathering spot — a 'third place' between work and home, a symbol of normalcy for millions of people who buy coffee every day. Its bustling cafes are designed to build community and promote interaction between customers and baristas.

    "In recent days, however, that philosophy has come up against the threat of a rapidly spreading pandemic that has made people anxious about gathering in public places and sent shock waves through the global economy."

    •  Bloomberg has a story about the impact that the  COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is having on the service and boutique economy, which thrives on personal contact - not exactly the best business positioning at a time when "social distancing" is being touted as one way to decrease the odds on contracting the virus.

    Examples cited in the story:  "The virus has already wreaked havoc on gyms and spas after about 80 infections in South Korea were traced to Zumba exercise classes … Women-only gym chain Curves Holdings Co. closed all its 2,000-plus branches in Japan this week … In Italy, home to Europe’s worst outbreak, the Aspria Harbour Club near Milan -- an oasis for the wealthy looking to escape the the bustle of Italy’s business capital -- closed even before the government imposed a lockdown on the region and later the whole country."

    Bloomberg writes that "such moves could mean a big hit to a multibillion-dollar sector. The global health-club industry was worth around $94 billion in 2018, according to Statista."

    Picked a helluva year to buy a membership to a better gym than I am used to.  I sort of feel like Lloyd Bridges in 'Airplane.'

    •  CNBC reports that Amazon "is blocking new listings for face masks, hand sanitizer and other coronavirus-related products on its site, marking its latest effort to stamp out price gouging … While Amazon is blocking new listings, it won’t remove existing listings in these categories unless they appear to be gouging shoppers in violation of the company’s fair pricing policy. For sellers whose listings are removed, Amazon said it will reimburse merchants for any fulfillment fees they incur after requesting Amazon return their inventory or destroy it. Amazon charges a fee for each unit removed from its FBA warehouses."

    The Verge describes this as "a notable escalation in Amazon’s fight against price gouging and deceptive marketing on its e-commerce platform due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

    The CNBC story goes on:  "Prior to the ban, Amazon had faced pressure from officials who called for it to take action against price gouging. Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass., wrote a letter to Amazon last week asking it to provide more information about what steps its taking to prevent price gouging. In its response, Amazon said it was aggressively enforcing its fair pricing policy and removing examples of price gouging. 

    "CNBC previously reported Amazon, Walmart and other e-commerce companies have struggled to curb third-party sellers who are overcharging for products that have spiked in demand amid the spread of the coronavirus. Last week, eBay introduced a blanket ban of sales of face masks and hand sanitizer to prevent price gouging."

    •  The Produce Marketing Association announced that it has postponed its Fresh Connections Retail event, scheduled for the end of the month in Philadelphia, and the Women’s Fresh Perspectives event, set for San Antonio at the end of April, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

    •  Axios reports that the US Capitol and the Senate and House of Representatives office buildings, all are being closed to the public at least until April 1.  The buildings "will remain open to lawmakers, their staff members, journalists and other official visitors during the closure," the story says, though some individual lawmakers' offices are being closed because of employees being exposed to infected people.

    •  Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Oregon have all imposed state-wide closures of schools, as have the cities of San Francisco and Houston.

    •  The Archdiocese of Washington has cancelled services this weekend, and the Mormon Church has cancelled them worldwide.

    •  The NCAA, having originally said that the March Madness basketball tournament would be played without spectators, now has cancelled both the men's and women's Division I basketball tournaments.

    •  Major League Baseball has ended spring training and delayed Opening Day for at least two weeks.

    •  The National Hockey League has suspended regular season games for the time being.

    •  In New York City, all Broadway shows have been shut down for at least a month.

    •  Disney has shut down all its theme parks and its Disney Cruise Line.  Universal Orlando also has been closed.

    •  The premiere of Disney's new live-action version of Mulan has been postponed, while Fast 9, the latest film in The Fast & The Furious franchise that was supposed to open next month, now has been delayed until spring 2021.

    KC's View:

    Yesterday's FaceTime commentary focused on my surprise at the fact that while I was getting as ton of emails a variety of retailing and service companies with which I have done business over the years, all of them talking about how they are dealing with the pandemic, their customers and their employees, I had not received anything from food retailers that I knew have me on their mailing lists (as a customer - I sign up for a lot of these).

    It had nothing to do with me or what I said, but over the past 24 hours or so there has been a cascade of such emails from food retailers - Kroger, Trader Joe's, PCC, Wegmans, Raley's, and Price Chopper among them.

    Glad to see that.  It may be, in all fairness, that a lot of companies held off communicating with their shoppers so directly because there has been so much uncertainty at the federal level in terms of addressing this crisis.  This lack of certainty persists, but maybe we hit the tipping point where retailers realized that they needed to talk to their shoppers, regardless of what the federal government does or doesn't do.  (Which is sort of the position that many state and city governments are taking.)

    I think my point and my gentle nudging remain legitimate:  Retailers, and especially food stores, can be and should be core factors in their communities, and it is critical for businesses to embrace that role, not avoid it.  Talk to your shoppers, early and often.  Be part of the ongoing conversations, transparently and candidly.

    Published on: March 13, 2020

    WROC-TV News reports that Wegmans is being "publicly acknowledged" as having supported a pair of advocacy groups in Brighton, New York, that have opposed the building of a Whole Foods there.

    According to the story, "The groups say Wegmans’ support is because of traffic concerns along Monroe Avenue and not because Whole Foods is an industry competitor."

    WROC-TV News reports that the development has been highly controversial and "has been stalled in the courts for years."

    In a statement, Wegmans said that it "is one of several hundred residents and businesses whose legitimate concerns about the Daniele Family Companies’ Monroe Avenue project were largely ignored. We were asked by these groups to help support legal action to correct the traffic congestion and safety problems that will result from this project."

    Wegmans' involvement raised eyebrows because the advocacy groups previously denied that the company was involved in their efforts.

    KC's View:

    Interesting to see this making news.  I think that a retailer has every right to weigh in on community issues - including traffic that may be created by a competitor.  I do think they have to be careful, lest they be seen as trying to shut the competition out.

    But I actually don't think Wegmans worries a helluva lot about Whole Foods.  Wegman sis aware, but not worried.

    Published on: March 13, 2020

    From the Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal:

    "It’s taking longer than expected for Cub Foods owner United Natural Foods Inc. to sell the grocery chain it acquired in 2018, but it's working on a deal for a portion of Cub's real estate.

    Steven Spinner, CEO of Providence, R.I.-based UNFI, told investors on an earnings call Wednesday that the sale of the 79-store Cub chain probably wouldn’t happen until after the close of UNFI’s 2020 fiscal year in August.

    Spinner said a sale was likely “toward the end of calendar (year) 2020 … The timeline has changed since October, when Spinner said he expected 'to have something to announce early in calendar year 2020' regarding the sale of Cub."

    KC's View:

    Selling Cub could be difficult mostly because there may not be that many candidates out there willing to write that check and make that commitment to a segment of the business that has so much competition.

    Published on: March 13, 2020

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "A bankruptcy trust for creditors who lost money in the Toys R Us Inc. bankruptcy sued former Chief Executive David Brandon and several directors tied to owners Bain Capital LP, KKR & Co. and Vornado Realty Trust, alleging they siphoned money out of the company before it went under.

    "The lawsuit also accused Mr. Brandon and other Toys R Us executives and board members of conspiring to keep the company’s suppliers in the dark about its dire financial straits in the months before it collapsed. As a result, suppliers and other creditors lost $800 million, according to the complaint.

    "Toys R Us filed for bankruptcy in September 2017 and liquidated in March 2018, leaving behind a pile of unpaid bills, mostly to vendors."

    Lawyers for the defendants described the lawsuit as “misguided effort to pressure insurance carriers to pay meritless claims."

    •  In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reports that Hy-Vee has decided to replace its 22 in-store Market Grilles with Wahlburgers restaurants.  "The new restaurants will offer counter service instead of table ordering but the seating and bars will remain," the story says, adding, "The transition, which will last into spring, affects only the Market Grille restaurants, not Market Grille Express, which already provide a quick-service model."

    The story notes that "in 2017, Hy-Vee announced a partnership with the Wahlberg brothers Mark, Donnie and Paul to open 26 franchised Wahlburgers locations. The first one opened in Mall of America in 2018. A second one in Maple Grove opened last month. The chain is known for its proprietary blend of beef, housemade sauces and dressings, as well as sides such as mac and cheese and adult beverages such as frappés."

    •  Business Insider reports that "Chick-fil-A is bringing its dipping sauces to grocery stores for the first time … The fast-food chain will sell 16-ounce bottles of its signature Chick-fil-A and Polynesian sauces at all Target, Publix, Walmart, and Winn-Dixie stores in Florida beginning in April.

    "Chick-fil-A will also make 8-ounce bottled sauces available for purchase in its Florida restaurants. Sauces available in 8-ounce bottles include Chick-fil-A, Polynesian, Barbeque, Honey Mustard, and Garden Herb Ranch."

    The company says that the 16-ounce bottles will cost $3.49, and that "profits from the sales will be donated to Chick-fil-A's scholarship program for employees, called the Chick-fil-A Remarkable Futures Scholarship Initiative."

    •  Albertsons-owned Jewel-Osco said yesterday that it has expanded its relationship with Genomind, which it describes as "the leading mental health company bringing precision medicine into mainstream mental health treatment."

    According to the announcement, the companies "have expanded their partnership to provide patients with increased access to pharmacogenetic testing for mental health conditions. Jewel-Osco, with pharmacies in 180 locations throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, Northwest Indiana and Iowa, now offers Genomind Professional PGx Express, the most advanced and comprehensive pharmacogenetic testing service to help guide mental health medication management for pharmacists and clinicians."

    The announcement goes on: "Pharmacogenetics (PGx) refers to how variations in specific genes can influence response to a medication. The FDA has placed gene-specific warnings, precautions, and dosage recommendations on over 270 medications. With Genomind’s technology, pharmacists and clinicians can better partner together to personalize mental health treatment plans for their patients."

    Published on: March 13, 2020

    •  SpartanNash announced yesterday that Thomas Swanson, the company's  senior vice president and general manager, corporate retail, top the role of executive vice president and general manager, corporate retail.

    •  Amazon reportedly has lost two executives.

    The Wall Street Journal reports that Maria Renz, who has been with Amazon since 1999, most recently as vice president of delivery experience, is leaving the company to join online lender Social Finance Inc., where she "will lead the financial-tech startup’s credit card, brokerage and bank-account businesses."

    Before serving as vice president of delivery experience, Ren's roles at Amazon included serving as "technical adviser to Amazon Chairman and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos. The holder of that coveted post acts as the CEO’s shadow, accompanying Mr. Bezos to meetings and strategy sessions. Ms. Renz also served as CEO of Amazon retail subsidiary Quidsi."

    And Bloomberg reports that Greg Hart, vice president of Amazon Video, is leaving to join Compass, a real estate brokerage and tech startup, as chief product officer.

    Published on: March 13, 2020

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

    The US Department of Justice has asked the Court of Federal Claims to give the Defense Department time to re-evaluate how it awarded a $10 billion cloud computing contract to Microsoft - an award that has been challenged by Amazon, which also was in the running for the contract.

    The New York Times reports that "the Defense Department requested 120 days to reassess the award. The judge in the case, Patricia E. Campbell-Smith, is expected to allow the re-evaluation to go forward, though she has not yet made an official ruling."

    Amazon maintains that Microsoft got the contract because of political interference from President Donald Trump, who has been highly critical of Amazon founder-CEO Jeff Bezos and his ownership of the Washington Post, which has been aggressive in its coverage of the Trump administration.

    Microsoft's work for the Defense Department already has been halted because of a temporary injunction imposed by the judge in the case.

    The reconsideration by the Defense Department is said to be focused on how the contract was priced out, and the Times writes that it appears that DOD would like to resolve that issue so Amazon will be forced to prove Trump's interference, which some believe would be harder to do.  Amazon has already said it would like to depose both Trump and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

    Published on: March 13, 2020

    …will return next week.

    Published on: March 13, 2020

    Longtime MNB readers know that I am not just an enormous fan of author Robert B. Parker and his Spenser novels, but also pretty conversant in the details of the books.  I've been lucky enough to interview Ace Atkins - who took over the series after Parker's death a decade ago, and has done a terrific job sustaining the quality and adding new chapters to Spenser's legacy - and also got to know Joan Parker, his widow, in the years after his passing.  (You can read my piece about her, written just after she passed away in 2013, here.)

    While the mid-eighties television series "Spenser: For Hire" was a somewhat sanitized version of the books, it certainly honored the source material;  Robert Urich, who played Spenser, was good, and even better when the scripts gave him more to work with, and he had the right physicality for the role.  Avery Brooks was unforgettable as Hawk, who had known Spenser since their boxing days and who would often aid him in cases (while  having fewer scruples about law and order).  Barbara Stock was Susan Silverman, Spenser's longtime lover, and she was as good as she needed to be, since the stories didn't ask much of her.

    After the series ended, Urich and Brooks did four Lifetime movies, with different actresses playing Susan.  While the movies were more or less based on Parker novels, they were low budget affairs and were almost all shot in Toronto instead of on location in Boston (which is pretty much a character unto itself in the books).

    Parker then got control of the books back, and was involved in the production of three more movies, this time for A&E, recasting Spenser with Joe Mantegna, who understood the character and the cadences even if he wasn't physically ideal for the role.  Hawk was played once by Sheik Mahmud-Bey and once by Ernie Hudson, but neither eradicated the memory of Avery Brooks.  Susan was played by Marcia Gay Harden, and this was actually an improvement.  But these movies also suffered from being shot in Canada on low budgets, and made little impression.  It seemed, since the last one appeared in 2001, that Spenser's onscreen time had come and gone.

    Until last year, when it was announced that "Wonderland," the second Spenser novel written by Atkins after Parker's death, was being brought to the screen by Netflix and the A-list team of Mark Wahlberg, who would play Spenser, and director Peter Berg.  Winston Duke, of Black Panther and Us, would play Hawk.  There was, however, no mention of who would play Susan.

    Then details started to leak out that were concerning.  Spenser was being described as a former cop who would start the film getting out of prison.  (I rationalized that in the books and TV series Spenser had done a ton of things that could've landed him in prison, so maybe this would be okay.)  Hawk would be a young MMA fighter who Spenser takes under his wing.  And no Susan.

    Then it got renamed "Spenser Confidential."  What the hell was that about?

    I tried to be hopeful.  After all, "Wonderland" was a very good book about Las Vegas types trying to horn in on legalized casino banking in Boston.  Timely.  Well-plotted.  Witty.  Sardonic.  Everything one can expect from a Spenser novel.

    Then the movie debuted last Friday on Netflix.  And to be fair, since it has been available for streaming, Netflix has said it is one of of most-watched films on the service.  (Timing may have helped.  It was, after all, in the middle of the coronavirus epidemic, and so people were happy to stay home to watch a Mark Wahlberg movie instead of going to the theater.)

    Here's my big question, having now watched "Spenser Confidential" twice:

    Why the hell did they even bother buying the book?

    "Spenser Confidential" could've had two main characters named Phil and Eagle, and the producers could've saved whatever money they spent to buy "Wonderland," for all the attention they paid to the plot or the tone of the book.

    I've thought about this a lot since first watching the movie, which is why I watched it a second time.  Could it be that my allegiance to Parker and Atkins and the novels was coloring my perspective, preventing me from seeing changes that made the project more accessible to audiences not familiar with the source material?  Am I guilty of what I often criticize others for - wanting things to be done a certain way because they've always been done that way?

    I don't think so.  I'm not sure that "Spenser Confidential" is any more accessible for being, at best, a middling action-buddy comedy with paint-by-numbers character development and a plot that doesn't make a helluva lot of sense (following a modern Hollywood dictum - if it is loud and crass enough, nobody will notice).

    I do think if one is going to buy a book and use characters with a long and even iconic pedigree, there is some responsibility to respect the source material - the characters should at least resemble the essence of what was on the page.  In this movie, Spenser never drinks a beer, never cooks a meal, never reads a book (unless you count a trucking manual), and Wahlberg shows no depth or intelligence; his main motivation, after getting out of prison, is to get his trucker's license and move to Arizona to drive a semi.  Really?

    Duke is amusing as Hawk, but while he is big, there is no menace, no mystery.  And the lack of Susan Silverman - in the books, she is the psychologist with whom Spenser shares a long and deep romantic relationship - means that an essential balance is missing from the story.  In Parker's construct, Hawk and Susan are two sides of Spenser's personality - contained violence and probing intellect - and one of the pleasures of the books is watching him struggle with his id and super ego (usually while cooking a great meal and sipping on a cold and frosty).  There's none of that here.

    Plus, the plot is a shambles.  The whole trucker thing seems only there to allow Spenser to use a truck at one point to smash stuff up.  There's a scene with an attack dog that is stupid and pointless.  And the whole thing seems to traffic in bad Boston stereotypes and lowest common denominator thinking. (Which is kind of weird, since Wahlberg actually is from Boston. You'd think he would be more attuned to the subtleties of place and people.)

    It all came home to me when I was listening to Peter Berg, the director, being interviewed on Marc Maron's "WTF" podcast.  Berg said he'd only read one of the books - "Wonderland" - and said that the series consisted of, like, 700 books that had been written by Ace Atkins, a Boston mystery writer who'd died in his seventies.  This would come as a surprise to Atkins, I suspect, who is a native southerner in his late forties who is, last I checked, still alive and kicking and turning out two novels a year.  Berg wasn't just misinformed.  He was ignorant.

    It is too bad.  Audiences are intelligent, and you don't have to dumb down material to make it accessible.  (I would maintain that this is true in business as well as literature.) A perfect example of this is what Amazon has done with Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels - changes have been made to bring them up to date and fit a serialized format, but they remain essentially true to the character and the source material while being thought provoking and entertaining.  The same goes for what Amazon has done with Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels.

    I wish I could say the same for "Spenser Confidential," but I can't.  It is a shame.

    The only good news is that when Thanksgiving rolls around, Ace Atkins' newest Spenser novel will be out. It is called "Someone To Watch Over Me," and Atkins took to Twitter the other day to reassure fans that in it, "Hawk is still Hawk. Susan is still Susan. And Spenser still quotes the Bard."

    Which means, I'm guessing, that Atkins remembers something that Robert B. Parker wrote in "Potshot":  "One of the secrets of happiness is that you know which battles you can win and which you can’t.”


    My wine of the week - the 2016 Nicolas Idiart Chenin Blanc, which is bright and aromatic, perfect with a light pasta dish or maybe some crab cakes.


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