retail news in context, analysis with attitude

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

•  The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has resulted in 488,055 confirmed cases globally, with 22,049 deaths and 117,603 confirmed recoveries.

In the US, there have been 68,594 confirmed cases, 1,036 deaths, and 428 recoveries.

In terms of confirmed infections, New York is by far the hardest hit state with 33,013 (almost half the national total), followed by New Jersey (4,402), California (3.158), Washington (2,588), Michigan (2,295), Florida (1,977), Illinois ((1,865), Massachusetts ((1,838), Louisiana (1,795) and Georgia (1,387).

•  The Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker "says the ability of Massachusetts residents to go to the grocery store will remain an 'unimpeded right' as the state tries to slow the spread of the coronavirus," but he also is setting some new rules, "including a statewide ban on reusable bags in stores and a temporary repeal of local plastic bag bans."

The story says that "the move comes amid concerns that reusable bags can carry viruses, as well as increased lobbying efforts by the plastics industry."

The Globe writes that "the order also mandates new precautionary measures - like hand-washing breaks for employees and social-distancing markers at checkout lines - and requires grocery stores to close free sampling programs and self-serve food stations, like salad bars."

•  Hy-Vee announced yesterday that "to show its gratitude during this historic time," it is "giving a front line employee appreciation bonus to all of its part-time and full-time store employees. The employees will receive a 10% bonus on all their hours worked from March 16 to April 12. The bonuses are a $10 million commitment to employees and will be paid out on April 17."

In addition, Hy-Vee is also offering new benefits to its more than 80,000 employees in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Hy-Vee also said it is providing new benefits to its more than 80,000 employees in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, "offering job protective leave for employees who either test positive for COVID-19 and/or are required by health officials to self-quarantine. This benefit will provide job protection for a minimum of two weeks and applies to all employees, no matter their length of service. Additionally, under this benefit, full-time Hy-Vee employees enrolled in short-term disability will also receive a minimum of two weeks paid time off.

"A second benefit offers employees affordable access to telehealth services, including mental health. Hy-Vee is waiving co-pays for all full-time employees and their dependents who utilize the 24-hour virtual medical service and is allowing part-time employees to use the service for a minimal fee per visit."

•  C-store chain Sheetz announced yesterday that it is giving its 17,000 employees a $3 per hour raise - from March 13 to April 23 - to thank them for their hard and dedicated work during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The company said it will re-evaluate the raise and perhaps extend it as events unfold.  Sheetz also said it is looking to hire for more than 1,300 open positions at the company.

"Our employees are the heart and soul of Sheetz and their commitment to serve our customers and communities as an essential business during this critical time has been nothing short of extraordinary,” Sheetz President and COO Travis Sheetz said in a prepared statement. “This special compensation is just one way to express our gratitude during this difficult time.”

•  USA Today reports that McDonald's is temporarily ending its all-day breakfast offering, saying it needs to streamline operations during the pandemic.

"We are working with our franchisees and local restaurants to focus on serving our most popular choices and will begin temporarily removing some items from the menu over the next few weeks,” Bill Garrett, the senior vice president of McDonald’s U.S. operations, said in a statement.

•  Remember the Waffle House index?

That's the measurement used by some to determine how bad a natural disaster is.  The more Waffle Houses are closed - and the company only closes them when it absolutely has to - the more significant the damage.

USA Today reports that Waffle House is closing 418 of its restaurants around the country, though 1,574 in the southeastern US remain open.

For now.

•  If the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic actually has proven to be a boon to Blue Apron's troubled meal kit business, there is news that higher end meal kits also are coming to market.

The New York Times writes that "Dan Barber, the chef and an owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County, is assembling market boxes for pickup. Each will contain ingredients and cooking instructions for a dish that will serve two to four people. Though the ingredients will vary daily, you can count on a rich broth as one of the components, along with fresh and fermented vegetables, meats, eggs and a flatbread made with freshly milled flour. They are meant to keep the restaurant staff and local farmers employed. The ingredients and recipe will change weekly." Cost of the boxes:  $50.

This story underlines something that NYT columnist Frank Bruni wrote about the other day, that while the "pandemic is first a story about public health," it may also end up being "a story about class, and I think the conversation about income inequality in America, which has increasingly heated over recent years, is about to grow more heated still."  He used as his example restaurants selling $70 orders of veal parmigiana to be delivered to high-end NYC domiciles … the same ones that may be buying $50 meal kits-for-two with fermented vegetables and freshly milled flour.  F. Scott Fitzgerald was right - "The rich are different from you and me."

•  Bloomberg reports that Manhattan's Four Seasons Hotel, which typically can charge as much as $1,000 a night for its rooms but currently is closed because of the pandemic, "will provide free rooms to doctors, nurses and other medical personnel."

"“Many of those working in New York City have to travel long distances to and from their homes after putting in 18-hour days,” said Ty Warner, the founder and chairman of Ty Warner Hotels and Resorts, which owns the property. “They need a place close to work where they can rest and regenerate.”

Ty Warner is the the guy behind the Beanie Baby phenomenon … nice to know that all the money he made from those things is being used for something positive in tough times.

•  USA Today reports that "Starbucks is serving up free coffee for first responders and healthcare workers dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.  The coffee giant announced Wednesday that through May 3 'any customer who identifies as a first responder or frontline worker supporting our healthcare system' will receive a free tall brewed coffee, either hot or iced.

"The offer is for police officers, firefighters, paramedics, doctors, nurses, hospital and medical staff and medical researchers, Starbucks said … Starbucks also said Wednesday that the Starbucks Foundation is donating $500,000 for care packages and medical equipment for U.S. frontline responders."

Of course, Starbucks also has "switched to a drive-thru and delivery-only model as it continues to adjust to the evolving coronavirus outbreak. The change started March 21 and is expected to last two weeks.  The company had previously announced it was closing some stores and switching to a to-go model in response to the government calling for increased social distancing to help contain COVID-19."

•  Interesting piece in the New York Times this morning about how a number of retailers - Guitar Center, Dillard's and arts and crafts chain Michael's - have decided that they are "essential" and are staying open during the pandemic.

"The Department of Homeland Security has laid out guidelines for businesses across the country to follow when deciding whether to stay open, even in regions not known to be hot spots for the virus," the Times writes.  "The agency is careful to note that its definition of a 'critical' work force is not an official standard, leaving it up to corporations to decide for themselves."

The Times goes on:  "That some retail stores are staying open while other businesses have closed reflects the piecemeal approach to combating the pandemic in the United States. There are emergency orders limiting business to essential retailers in about half the country, but much of the South and West has no such government restrictions."

•  Variety reports that AMC Theatres, the biggest movie theatre chain the US - which find itself entirely closed, with virtually no revenue coming in - has furloughed virtually every corporate employee … including CEO Adam Aron.

"At this time, AMC is not terminating any of its corporate employees, however, we were forced under the circumstances to implement a furlough plan, which is absolutely necessary to preserve cash and to ensure that AMC can reopen our doors once this health crisis has dissipated,” the company said in a statement.

•  Variety  reports that Netflix's streaming service was experiencing slowdowns and even some outages yesterday because of high usage rates that spiked in the early afternoon.  Complaints were highest in the Northeast, Southern California, the Pacific Northwest and Texas.