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    Published on: March 19, 2020

    This commentary is available as a video, above, or as text, below.  They are similar, though not identical;  enjoy both, or either.

    Hi, Kevin Coupe here and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

    Okay, let's stipulate something.

    What's going on around us right now - it is bad.

    The Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic is stretching the global healthcare infrastructure to the breaking point, which in turn is pushing the economy to the precipice.

    It was just a couple of weeks ago that some folks were suggesting - even here on MNB - that the coronavirus was a Democratic hoax and media invention designed to undermine certain political figures.  That never seemed credible to me.  There were enough scientists and public health experts sounding alarms that I thought - and said here - that we needed to pay attention.

    I'm no expert, but this seems to sum thing up.

    There's no vaccine, and won't be one until next year.  There aren't nearly enough tests, and what are out there are not being conducted anywhere near to the degree they should be.  There aren't enough hospital beds, aren't enough ventilators or respirators … and, from all all appearances, not enough face masks or gloves or even hand sanitizer.

    Not enough of anything … except virus.  There seems to be plenty of virus, as the number of infections skyrockets.  There are some predictions that we won't emerge from this for more than a year, which actually makes a kind of sense.  Even if some of the hunker-down mentality subsides, there still will be infected people out there, and if we don't figure out a way to prevent them from infecting others, we're still going to have a problem.

    Lots of reasons to be depressed.  And this doesn't even count the fact that kids aren't in school and a lot of them are driving their parents crazy.

    But, this could be a lot worse if we didn't have the internet … it actually is going to allow us to be connected to loved ones and co-workers, to see movies and read books without going to a theater or the library, to get our work done without going to an office or get an education without going to school.  In its own way, that's extraordinary.  Never could have happened that way before in human history.

    Sure, there's the potential for a little bit of depression.  I get that.  But I've found some solace in reaching out to people, to getting on the phone and calling old friends in places from the west coast of the US to the east coast of Ireland, and just saying, "How are you … I was thinking about you … stay safe, stay healthy."

    I've said it before, and I'll say it again - that also, in essence, is what businesses have to do.  Reach out to your customers … tell them you are thinking about them and acting in their best interests … be as transparent as possible … be as loyal to them as possible.

    If we only focus on ourselves, the world is going to be a lonely place.  But if we connect to others - by necessity, because of the pandemic, via technology - we can come out of this better and more connected than before.

    I don't want to be naive about this, but I think there is a moment here … even if we have to practice social distancing, it doesn't mean that we have to be distant.  In fact, precisely the opposite.

    Be safe.  be healthy.

    That's what is on my mind this morning.  As always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

    Published on: March 19, 2020

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

    •  This morning, there are more than 9,000 reported cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus in the US, and more than 150 deaths.  In New York State alone, the number of cases was up 44 percent in just the last 24 hours.

    Scientists and public health experts say that this likely is just a fraction of the total number of cases in the US, and that we cannot possibly know how many cases there are until a substantial number of tests are conducted on the US population.

    This does not seem like it is going to happen anytime soon.

    •  Axios writes that "America is grinding to a near halt to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. It's wreaking unprecedented havoc on the restaurant and retail industries — and their millions of workers … Amid all the discussion about how the pandemic is roiling Wall Street, its most acute impact is being felt on Main Streets around the country."

    The story points out that "it'll be some time before official economic data bears out what plenty are hearing anecdotally. The Economic Policy Institute estimates the crisis will claim 3 million jobs, including many employed by small businesses, by the summer.

    "In one of the earliest signs of layoffs, state labor departments, like in Ohio and Connecticut, say that more people than usual are filing for unemployment benefits.  New York's labor department tells Axios its unemployment hotline received 8,758 calls as of noon on Monday — a 70% increase from the 2,542 calls they received at the same time last week."

    •  From Bloomberg:

    "With anxious shoppers hoarding everyday goods and non-essential stores shuttered, the coronavirus pandemic presents a never-before-seen crisis for American retailers. Walmart Inc. appears better prepared to deal with it than its peers.

    "Hefty investment in e-commerce, health care and its 1.5-million strong workforce have the world’s largest retailer poised to supply large swaths of the nation as governments and other businesses grapple to respond to the unprecedented threat. Rival Inc. stands to benefit as well, but Walmart can leverage its store network and clout with suppliers to gain a leg up."

    The story notes that "Walmart has spent the past five years aggressively expanding that (e-commerce) service, in part to provide a bulwark against Amazon’s dominance of most other areas of online shopping. Now, that investment could pay off as coronavirus-conscious consumers, stuck at home, eschew brick-and-mortar stores for the web … One-third of shoppers surveyed by Gordon Haskett Research Advisors on March 13 said they bought food online over the past week, and of those, 41% were doing so for the first time. For those newbies, Walmart was by far the most popular option, capturing more than half of orders. Amazon and its Whole Foods chain garnered only 14%."

    One expert puts it this way:  "For Walmart, this is the World Series, Super Bowl and Stanley Cup all wrapped up in one."

    You can read the entire analysis here.

    Meanwhile, USA Today reports that "Walmart is trimming its hours for the second time in a week due to the coronavirus.

    "Beginning Thursday, stores will be open from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. local time. Stores that open later than 7 a.m. will continue their regular starting hours, Walmart said Wednesday night.

    "From March 24 through April 28, Walmart's 5,000-plus U.S. stores will host an hour-long senior shopping event every Tuesday for customers 60 and older, which will start one hour before stores open.  In addition to limits on paper products, stores will have limits on milk, eggs, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, water, diapers, wipes, formula and baby food."

    •  Reuters reports that while "Beijing was hit by a record number of imported cases of the coronavirus," yesterday represented a major shift - "new local transmissions in China fell to zero."

    What this meant was that it put "more pressure on the Chinese capital to screen out infected passengers and isolate suspected cases."

    According to the story, "It was the first time since the virus took hold late last year in Hubei province - including the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak - that China has recorded no locally transmitted cases.  In recent days, China has increasingly focused its counter-epidemic efforts on inbound travellers as the coronavirus rapidly expanded its global footprint, raising the prospect of a second wave of infections arriving from abroad."

    •  From the Seattle Times:

    "Customers can be angry and rude. Hoarding is rampant and fights occasionally break out. Hours are longer than usual and filled with more of everything, especially stress. People show up openly sick, coughing and sniffling and touching. And the shelves empty as fast as you can fill them.

    "There’s a siege mentality among a growing number of grocery-store employees, who feel vulnerable as the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads. As schools, restaurants and bars close, some feel trapped in one of the only places left where Washingtonians can now legally gather in large numbers: the grocery store.

    "The state issued new guidelines last week meant to help food-service employees during the outbreak. And over the weekend, Safeway, one of the country’s biggest grocery chains, reached an agreement with the union that represents thousands of grocery-store workers in Washington to provide up to two weeks’ pay for workers diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, or who are required to self-quarantine. But that didn’t do much to assuage the feeling many grocery-store workers have: that the focus is on keeping the public safe, with little regard for employees who can be exposed to thousands of people a day. Some have said their managers have barred them from wearing masks or gloves because it would look bad."

    The story goes on:  "The situation is so stressful that the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which represents 44,000 employees in Washington — 21,000 of whom work in grocery stores — has been working toward getting state and federal governments to include grocery-store workers in the same class as firefighters, EMTs and police in regard to the coronavirus pandemic."

    •  Forbes has a story suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to accelerate the rate of retail closures and the resultant impact on labor.

    "Coresight Research’s CEO Deborah Weinswig predicts that more than 15,000 stores could close in 2020, or double the rate from last year when store closures reached historic highs of 9,300," the story says.  "Retail investment advisor Jan Rogers Kniffen, CEO of J. Rogers Kniffen World Wide Enterprises, said between 30 to 40 retailers could declare bankruptcy as a result."

    And, "A poll conducted March 13-14 by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist found that nearly one in five American households have experienced a layoff or a reduction in work hours, with lower-income households the most profoundly affected."

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "More than 3,600 people, most of them from entertainment and leisure industries, have been laid off in the U.S. due to the pandemic, according to new data released Wednesday from Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an outplacement firm. That count doesn’t include job cuts at bars and restaurants in more than a dozen states and some cities that face restrictions on operations."

    The story goes on:  "People who have lost jobs are filing for unemployment benefits, resulting in a surge of claims in some states. Kentucky typically handles 2,000 cases a week, but received 9,000 claims on Tuesday. State websites that handle benefits in New York and Oregon have malfunctioned due to higher traffic.

    "Shrinking schedules are happening as roughly 40% of Americans said they would have difficulty covering $400 in an emergency, needing to borrow the money from family or friends or put it on a credit card, according to a Federal Reserve Bank survey in 2018."

    •  General Motors, Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler have all decided to close their North American plants, a decision that, the New York Times writes, "will put tens of thousands of people out of work and add to the coronavirus outbreak’s growing economic toll … In addition to G.M., Ford and Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Toyota and Nissan also said they would idle their North American factories. The shutdown of car plants will force hundreds of companies that produce parts and components to follow suit over the coming days."

    •  The Los Angeles Times reports that Powell's Books, Portland, Oregon's iconic  independent bookstore, "is laying off most of its employees in the coming days.

    "The indie bookstore’s owner and CEO, Emily Powell, sent its workers a letter Tuesday night announcing the layoffs during 'these unprecedented and grievous times … When we closed our doors, we also closed off the vast majority of our business without any prospect of it returning soon,' she said in the letter. 'As a result, we have been forced to make the unthinkable decision to lay off the vast majority of you in the coming few days'."

    “My heart breaks for all of us,” Powell wrote. “Our stores are meant to be full, our city bustling, our minds at ease. And for a time, none of those will be true. I know for many of you, your lives will be forever altered by our decision to close our stores and you will never think of Powell’s the same. For all of that and more, I am deeply sorry. I can only hope we might find a way to come back together on the other side of these terrible times.”

    One can only hope that when things return to some semblance of normal - which could take eight months, or 18 - independent bookstores, many of which seemed to have found a way to effectively compete with Amazon, will be able to regain the momentum they've achieved.  It'll be tough - Publishers Weekly says that independent bookstores have laid off more than 600 people in response to the pandemic.

    •  The New York Times writes that "the Union Square Hospitality Group, one of the nation’s most prestigious restaurant companies, laid off 2,000 employees on Wednesday morning 'due to a near-complete elimination of revenue,' the company said in a statement. That number represents 80 percent of the company’s total staff, at 18 restaurants in New York City, two in Washington and its corporate office in Manhattan."

    The story goes on:  "Mass layoffs at other restaurant companies around the country have already begun. The chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio also announced 300 layoffs at his Crafted Hospitality restaurant group in New York and Los Angeles.

    "Other big employers, like the Major Food Group and the Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurants, began layoffs last week, when employers were making the difficult calculation of whether to close altogether out of safety concerns, or remain open for takeout and delivery in order to maintain some cash flow."

    •  The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced that it has pushed the April 15 tax-payment deadline to July 15 this year for many people who haven’t paid their 2019 taxes," the Wall Street Journal writes, adding, "People who want to delay their tax payments must submit their tax returns or another form to the IRS by April 15 to claim this benefit without risking interest or penalties. The three-month extension to pay federal income taxes doesn’t change the obligation to file returns.

    "In short, taxpayers shouldn’t blow off their April 15 IRS filings just because they have heard there is a special extension this year."

    •  The other day, you may recall, MNB reported that the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Expo actually took place in New Orleans this past weekend, with the sponsoring organization saying in advance that there were "no plans to postpone or cancel HPBExpo 2020."  The rationale:  there were "no travel bans for people in the U.S., nor are airlines cancelling flights."

    I called it colossally irresponsible, and organizational malpractice.

    Well, go figure … yesterday the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) communicated with attendees via email, telling them that there were exhibitors at the expo who now have been diagnosed as having the Covid-19 coronavirus, though "we currently do not know whether these individuals had symptoms at the Expo or whether they attended during the COVID-19 incubation period. We are in contact with the relevant health authorities to provide them with this information and to obtain further guidance."

    A little late.  On the organization's website, it is still saying that "this year’s New Orleans-based event provided access to more educational sessions and events than ever before, including onsite NFI certifications and exams. Wayne Visbeen delivered a powerful and educational keynote to transform business for accelerated growth."  And, it may have spread a pandemic.

    My point here isn't to slam this trade organization.  Well, not entirely.  I just think that in this environment, one has to think not just about your customers, but of all their relatives and friends who can be affected by a stupid decision.  Which this was.

    In just the last day or so, the Western Association of Food Chains (WAFC) canceled its annual conference, and FMI canceled its 2020 Financial Executive and Internal Auditing Conference.  They are just two of the many organizations that are postponing or canceling events … because that is the responsible thing to do.

    •  GameSpot points out to its readers that there is a "Google Chrome extension that allows you and your friends to watch Netflix together without having to be in the same room … Netflix Party is a simple-to-use extension that allows people to watch something together."

    Talk about timely.  

    •  Bake magazine has the story of The Gingered Peach, a New Jersey independent bakery that responded to the shortages created by the coronavirus pandemic by sourcing high demand items such as milk, eggs, flour, sugar, spaghetti, bread, produce, and toilet paper from its supplier, Sysco.

    Owner Joanne Canady-Brown then turned her bakery into a makeshift grocery store for her customers, giving them access to products they may have had trouble finding.

    The effort apparently was a big success until yesterday, when The Gingered Peach decided to close down because of the pandemic.

    •  Finally … a story of how the pandemic has inspired entrepreneurial thinking in one specific corner of society.

    You may know that Portland, Oregon, often is reported to have the most strip clubs per capita of any city in America.  (This is not why I like Portland so much.  Really.)

    Well, it isn't hard to imagine that the coronavirus pandemic is putting a crimp in the clubs' traditional business model.  A lap dance is not exactly conducive to social distancing.

    So the Lucky Devil Lounge crafted a solution.  Because the Lucky Devil normally offers a full food menu, it decided to create a take-out business.

    So, if you order from the Lucky Devil, you can have its food delivered by two of the club's dancers, who will hand it to you at the front door, do a little dance, even pose for a picture, and then leave.

    Club owner Shon Boulden tells Willamette Week that in addition to generating from revenue, the plan has the advantage of keeping his dancers employed.  Club bouncers also are working - they're driving the dancers when they make deliveries.

    The story says that the service seems to be a hit:  "We're getting orders right now from Vancouver to Tigard," Boulden says. "It's pretty crazy. We've got a whole team of people ready to deliver food and some cheer."

    It may help that Boulden came up with a name that is, I think, ingenious :

    Boober Eats.

    You can't make this stuff up…

    Published on: March 19, 2020

    On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" today, there were two pictures that spoke volumes about the current situation - and the degree to which different cultures are taking the pandemic seriously.

    On the left, the streets of Paris, which are virtually empty as the French deal with the devastating impact of the coronavirus.  On the right, the beaches of Florida … where the exact opposite seems to be true.

    In part, this seems to be because young people are laboring under the illusion that they will not be sickened by the coronavirus.

    The most important word in that sentence may be "illusion."

    From the Boston Globe:

    "American adults of all ages — not just those in their 70s, 80s and 90s — are being seriously sickened by the coronavirus, according to a report on nearly 2,500 of the first recorded cases in the United States.

    "The report, issued Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that — as in other countries — the oldest patients had the greatest likelihood of dying and of being hospitalized. But of the 508 patients known to have been hospitalized, 38% were notably younger — between 20 and 54. And nearly half of the 121 patients who were admitted to intensive care units were adults under 65, the CDC reported."

    The story goes on:  "The findings served to underscore an appeal issued Wednesday at a White House briefing by Dr. Deborah Birx, a physician and State Department official who is a leader of the administration’s coronavirus task force. Citing similar reports of young adults in Italy and in France being hospitalized and needing intensive care, Birx implored the millennial generation to stop socializing in groups and to take care to protect themselves and others."

    KC's View:

    I usually defend young people from accusations that they can be self-absorbed.

    But in this case, the problem isn't self-absorption.  It is flat out stupidity.

    What I don't understand is why the state hasn't closed the beaches.

    (It isn't just young people.  I have a neighbor who thought that it would be fun yesterday to blow up a big inflatable bounce house, put it on the front lawn and have all the kids on the street pile into it all together, climbing all over each other.  The schools are closed here, but some people seem to be working under the delusion that it is a vacation.)

    Published on: March 19, 2020

    The Wall Street Journal reports that "Federal and state banking regulators approved an application from financial-tech company Square Inc. to start its own bank in Utah."

    Square is a digital payments company with units found in many retailers.

    According to the story, "The bank, Square Financial Services, Inc., is expected to launch in 2021 and will be supervised by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Utah Department of Financial Institutions, the company said on Wednesday. Square Financial Services will offer small-business loans to merchants that use Square devices to process their payments.

    "Square’s banking effort started over 2½ years ago and was marked by opposition from some bank lobbyists and community groups, who objected to Square’s decision to pursue a charter for a so-called industrial loan company."

    KC's View:

    Of course the establishment objected to a non-traditional player having a bank.  Just like it always objects to companies like Walmart owning a bank … because they might actually create consumer-focused businesses that will put in sharp relief the degree to which some traditional banks are better at taking advantage of customers than serving them.

    Published on: March 19, 2020

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

    The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Playboy is publishing its last print edition after 66 years on newsstands.  It now will be online only, with just occasional special print editions.

    "As the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic to content production and the supply chain became clearer and clearer, we were forced to accelerate a conversation we’ve been having internally,” CEO Ben Kohn wrote.  “With all of this in mind, we have decided that our Spring 2020 Issue, which arrives on U.S. newsstands and as a digital download this week, will be our final printed publication for the year in the U.S.”

    They can blame the coronavirus all they want, but they were suffering from the disease of obsolescence.  I suspect that there will be more than a few businesses that will not come back after the pandemic, but no matter what they say, what will be true is that the coronavirus just gave them the final push;  they'd walked up to the precipice all by themselves.

    Published on: March 19, 2020

    I suggested yesterday that it might make sense - and stimulate the economy in all the right ways - if the federal and state governments gave businesses a tax holiday for the first quarter, allowing them to keep more of their money and therefore keep more people employed.

    I conceded that I am not an economist … and invited MNB readers to disabuse me of this notion.

    One did:

    You noted that you wanted to hear why your quarterly business tax holiday is a bad idea, so here's my view.  Oh, and just to be clear, I appreciate that you are thinking about solutions and only write this based on your request, not to discourage you:

     1.  Most business taxes are based on income, not revenue.  The hardest hit businesses will be anticipating a loss for the year, and will instead of making tax payments on their estimated income, they'll be booking tax losses in hopes to offset profits in future years.  The biggest beneficiaries of the tax holiday would be profitable businesses that owe more in taxes because they made more money.  Many businesses in your audience, including my own, are thus far having their best spring ever (financially anyway) as they have record sales.  So grocery stores and their suppliers will get a tax break when they are the least in need, while restaurants, airlines, hotels, barbers, etc post record losses and have no taxes to pay anyway.

     2.  Relief on revenue based taxes, like the new 'Commercial Activity Tax' in Oregon, will cut into a lot of businesses' cash flow at the worst possible time when the first payments come due this April (sorry to get political, but actually I'm not sorry!).  Property taxes would fall into this category as well.  Relief from taxes like this would proportionately benefit all businesses, but not produce outsized benefits for businesses most in need.  If lawmakers did something here, it would be at the state/local level, so less ideal if you are looking for a national solution.

     3.  As for the administrative headache of making sure businesses use the money for the 'right' thing, that just makes my head spin, but I'm sure others will help you with that one.

    The thing that will bring businesses to their knees are fixed cost obligations: payroll, rent, lease & loan payments.

    Rent & Loan Payments:  The more federal regulators can do to leave room for banks to create reasonable forbearance plans for corporate and individual borrowers during this time, the better; that doesn't mean anyone has to forgive loans, but programs to suspend payments for however long we are in this, and re-amortize the loans afterwards will go a long way in helping everyone manage their cash.  More complicated, but just as necessary, would be some mechanism to deliver similar results to renters; if we've given landlords room on their loans its very reasonable to expect that they grant the same to their tenants.

    Payroll:  I think we need to take a hard look at the unemployment insurance system, ensure that it is meeting the needs of the current situation (and it certainly isn't), and not frown on businesses that lay off employees to allow them to turn to this resource.

    Then there's the question of how do we pay for it?  Well, that hasn't stopped us from building new fighter jets or continuing to add layers of security to protect our representatives in DC.  (again with the politics!)

    Now maybe I can hear about all the flaws in my plan.  I'm glad I'm not in politics.

    I wrote the other day about the importance of communicating with customers, and have used both Stew Leonard's and Kroger's Rodney McMullen as examples of how to do it right via video messages.

    MNB reader Larry Ishii responded:

    I cannot agree with your feelings more, Kevin. I spent over 50 years in the grocery industry and have always had huge respect for Kroger. I was with Food 4 Less for Alpha Beta, Ralphs, Fred Meyer and, finally, Kroger. I stayed that first year with Kroger and became all the more impressed for who Kroger is, how they operate, and their respect both customers and associates alike.

    From another reader:

    In an unprecedented time, I found Stew’s message to customers the right balance of being informative about what they’re doing to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 but also comforting.  His communication style is that of “my favorite uncle” reassuring and warm.  Although I live in California I can appreciate why customers love shopping there based on this video.

    On a related subject, MNB reader Don Goodwin wrote:

    Thanks for your story on the companies communicating with their customers. In defense of Airbnb, I want to share that I cancelled a trip to Brazil outside of their refund policy. I challenged them via their help desk. They responded beautifully with a full refund acknowledging the situation.  I am a big Airbnb fan and thanked them for their sensitivity to the situation.

    I'll join you in lauding Airbnb.  My three kids were scheduled to go to Ireland on vacation in a couple of weeks - it was their Christmas present from Mrs. Content Guy and me - and when we reached out to Airbnb to cancel their reservation, they gave us a complete refund, no questions asked.  It took some time to get through to their help desk, but it was worth it.

    On a different subject, MNB reader Gene Wild wrote:

    I saw your video today about CORVID-19 and how you hadn’t gotten any emails from food retailers. Just want to let you know that I received an email this morning from Meijer CEO Rick Keyes. The letter addressed how the company is increasing the frequency of store sanitization (including team member areas) and encouraging team members to remain at home if they’re not feeling well. Rick mentioned home delivery and Pickup services are following the same sanitary guidelines. He also asks for patience for items that are seeing abnormally high demand.

    I found this to be very reassuring. It does however make me wonder what the other retailers in my area are doing to prevent the spread of CORVID-19?

    Regarding whether companies like Walmart and Target should license Amazon's checkout-free technology, one MNB reader wrote:

    If those companies want that kind of technology, personally I think they should create their own or write a very exclusive contract elsewhere. They must maintain exclusivity of their own data. If Amazon offered its system for free they shouldn’t take it. Amazon’s goal is to own all the data. Why should either of these companies pay to give it to them? Why would they want any competitor to have it? 

    Go isn’t about the stores, probably not even about the technology. It’s about the data. 

    (Til the US changes it’s data privacy laws, anyway).

    Published on: March 19, 2020

    Yesterday, I posed a picture of our two dogs, who clearly were not practicing social distancing.  It was just a way of lightening an increasingly dour mood.  After all, there are few things as cute as puppies.

    Well, I got a lot of email saying that you'd like to see more puppy pictures.

    Happy to oblige.

    Spenser (our dog, named after the book character, not the Mark Wahlberg movie version) is on the left.  Zazu (my daughter's dog) is on the right.