retail news in context, analysis with attitude

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…