retail news in context, analysis with attitude

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.