retail 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: April 10, 2020

    Only MNB "Content Guy" Kevin Coupe would start an Easter commentary by saying, "I'm not a religious guy."  But the time and place have made him think of his Dad, and a lesson that seems more resonant today than ever.

    Published on: April 10, 2020

    by Kevin Coupe 

    From the New York Times, a story about how a traditional mode of communication has been given new relevance by the pandemic:

    "Phone calls have made a comeback in the pandemic. While the nation’s biggest telecommunications providers prepared for a huge shift toward more internet use from home, what they didn’t expect was an even greater surge in plain old voice calls, a medium that had been going out of fashion for years.

    "Verizon said it was now handling an average of 800 million wireless calls a day during the week, more than double the number made on Mother’s Day, historically one of the busiest call days of the year. Verizon added that the length of voice calls was up 33 percent from an average day before the outbreak. AT&T said that the number of cellular calls had risen 35 percent and that Wi-Fi-based calls had nearly doubled from averages in normal times.

    "In contrast, internet traffic is up around 20 percent to 25 percent from typical daily patterns, AT&T and Verizon said.

    "The rise is stunning given how voice calls have long been on the decline. Some 90 million households in the United States have ceased using landline phones since 2000, according to USTelecom. Wireless calls replaced much of that calling activity, but the volume of minutes spent on phone calls hasn’t changed much over the past decade as people turned to texting and to apps like FaceTime and WhatsApp, according to wireless carriers and analysts."

    I find this fascinating.  Like many parents, I suspect, I have long been a little frustrated when my kids have preferred to use their smartphones for texting messages, and would not answer them when I called;  they would, more often than not, prefer to listen to whatever message I'd leave and then respond via text.  (I still don't understand why, on those occasions when they call me and I don't answer the phone, they don't leave voice mail messages …)

    It will be interesting to see if, when the current crisis has receded, some of these new habits persist.  They are part of a broader swath of activities - sitting in bars and restaurants, shopping at malls and stores, flying on airplanes, going to sporting events, sitting in theaters - that, if we are honest, we have no idea how they will rebound.

    My suspicion is that it will all come back in fits and starts.  I, for one, can't wait to start traveling again … but I must admit to being a little conflicted about getting back on an airplane.

    But I do think that we are craving human contact, which is why phone calls and conversations matter … and why they may serve as the foundation on which the future will be built.

    That's the Eye-Opener.

    Published on: April 10, 2020

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

    •  In the US, there now have been 468,895 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, 16,697 deaths and 25,928 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 1,617,574 confirmed coronavirus cases, 96,919 deaths and 365,743 reported recoveries.


    •  Bloomberg reports that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said yesterday that projections about potential deaths from the pandemic have been slashed, from between 100,000 and 250,000 at the low end to about 60,000.

    "The falling projection," the story says, is "the result of aggressive social distancing behaviors Americans adopted to curb the spread of the virus."

    "“The real data are telling us it is highly likely we are having a definite positive effect by the mitigation things that we’re doing, this physical separation,” Fauci said, adding, "I believe we are going to see a downturn in that, and it looks more like the 60,000, than the 100,000 to 200,000 … But having said that, we better be careful that we don’t say: ‘OK, we’re doing so well we could pull back'."

    I am sure that there will be some who will argue that the reduced projections reflect a media that over-hyped the story and a political/medical mindset that over-reacted to the virus.  But that would be a load of crap.  If the media and the healthcare experts had not done what they continue to do, then we wouldn't be talking about the low end of the original projections, but the high end.  And if people don't take this seriously, and move too quickly to declare the crisis over and that it is time to return to normalcy, then we will suffer the consequences and they may be worse than anything we've seen so far.


    •  CNN reports on the consideration being given by a number of retailers to the practice of taking customers' temperatures before they are allowed to enter their stores.

    "If they decided to roll such a program to their workers, under the assumption that it would prevent infected individuals from being at their stores, I do not see a reason why that wouldn't be rolled out to customers as well," Dr. Luciana Borio, former director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council under President Donald Trump and former acting chief scientist at the FDA, tells CNN. "Even a modest benefit can be of value when our public health options are so limited in the absence of diagnostic tests, capacity for large scale contact tracing or a vaccine."

    Some retailers - Walmart, for example - are saying that they would not make such a move without guidance to that effect from federal health officials.

    But some already are doing it - like City Famers Market in Atlanta, where they are using non-invasive thermal cameras at the entrances to screen for temperatures, and then "discreetly" informing customers with temperatures and finding those people an "alternative" to walking through the store.  (Experts say that this is not a foolproof approach.)

    No question that there are logistical challenges to this, and that some customers would resist.  But I have to be honest - I take my own temperature virtually every morning, and would have no problem if a retailer wanted to take it before allowing me to enter a store, or if an airline wanted to take it before allowing me on a plane.  It is in their best interests, in their other customers' best interests, and, in the end, my best interests.

    It'll probably be some time before this becomes standard operating procedure, if at all … but that is going to depend on how the crisis continues to develop.  If effective testing is available to everyone, and mitigation efforts continue to be effective, then we might not get there.  But if we get complacent and see a bounce back in infections, we might get there faster than we'd like.


    •  NPR has an interview with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who predicted a pandemic in a TED talk five years ago.

    Excerpts:

    -  "It's pretty simple to say there should be a government website that you enter your symptoms, your profession, and it gives you a rating in terms of this very finite testing capacity we have to make sure that you always get results within 24 hours, that health care workers are getting those results very quickly, that it's not random based on where you are in the country or your relationship to the hospital. Rather, we're using that as the indicator of where we need to intensify distancing or where we can back off.

    -  "What I'm saying, what Dr. [Anthony] Fauci is saying, what some other experts are saying, there's a great deal of consistency. We're not sure yet which activities should be resumed, because until we get a vaccine that almost everybody's had, the risk of a rebound will be there. ... As we follow the numbers into May and see if we can get them down to a very low level, then in parallel, this debate about which things have benefits to society and can be formatted so the infection risk is very low, which things should we resume? I do think manufacturing, construction, a lot of things we'll do, but large public gatherings may have to await until we have that vaccine."

    And let's remember … it could be a year before we see a vaccine.  To use a cliche, this is a marathon, not a sprint.


    •  Bloomberg reports on the ongoing frustrations of shopping online as demand grows:

    "Across the country, millions of consumers are turning to Fresh Direct, Instacart Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Peapod and other services to fill their fridges via online delivery rather than brave going to a supermarket. But many are finding that the online grocery networks have been completely knocked flat by a triple whammy of unprecedented demand, unreliable inventory and unavailable employees. While early reports from the pandemic suggested that shuttered stores and shut-in consumers would be a boon for e-commerce, the sudden growth spurt has grocers scrambling to soothe harried shoppers and worried whether disgruntled first-time web shoppers will go back online once the crisis passes."

    The story goes on:  "While some shoppers say they sympathize, others are not so kind, and conspiracy theories now abound on social media and Reddit forums about nefarious delivery algorithms, along with accusations that online grocers are giving longtime users short shrift to lure new customers on board. It doesn’t help that some workers at Instacart and Shipt, a delivery service owned by Target Corp. that delivers to its customers and those of other retailers, have walked off the job to protest what they claim are unsafe working conditions.  Some intrepid web developers have even created browser extensions -- bots, basically -- that will scour delivery slots and ping you when one opens up."

    I don't think that e-grocery will continue at the current pace, but it is unlikely to go back to where it was pre-pandemic … too many people have found it to be a convenient way to obtain groceries for which there is no advantage in going to the store.


    •  Fast Company has a story about how Utah has moved aggressively to test as many of the state's residents as possible for the Covid-19 coronavirus, taking an entirely different approach from many other states (that are hampered by the shortage of available tests to this point).

    According to the story, "On a new 'Crush the Curve' website, everyone in the state is encouraged to answer questions about symptoms. Some answers trigger the system to recommend that someone gets tested and sends them a unique code to take to a testing location; when people have a positive test, the state tracks their contacts to do more testing. Utah will also soon also begin randomized testing to find asymptomatic carriers of the virus. It’s more like the approach used in South Korea - which quickly stopped the spread of coronavirus - than in other parts of the United States."

    The story notes that "social distancing helps, but testing and tracing contacts of those who are infected is also a critical tool. Other states are already beginning to ask Utah about the program as they consider replicating it."

    Some context from Fast Company:

    "If widespread testing had happened much earlier in the U.S., it’s likely that we wouldn’t be facing the same economic devastation now. South Korea and the U.S. both reported their first cases in late January, but while South Korea quickly tested large numbers of people and was able to successfully limit the spread of the virus, the U.S. floundered. The CDC moved slowly and then sent out faulty tests in limited numbers. The FDA was slow to approve new tests. Even when Trump claimed that widespread testing was available, it wasn’t. Testing was so limited initially that the first community-spread cases were detected only when researchers went ahead without government approval."


    •  From CNBC:

    "Thousands of people will soon be able to drive to a nearby parking lot, swab their noses and find out within minutes if they have the coronavirus.

    "CVS Health and Walgreens each opened one drive-thru testing location last month — but they’re now expanding the number of sites and opening them to the general public. Their first drive-thrus were restricted to first responders.

    "Walgreens plans to open 15 more testing sites across seven states, starting this week. CVS opened up two new drive-thrus on Monday: one in Atlanta and one near Providence, Rhode Island. It also relocated its Massachusetts drive-thru to a site in Lowell that has capacity for five lanes.

    "Both are also using a new tool: Abbott Laboratories’ ID Now, which can deliver test results in minutes."


    •  The Financial Times  reports that "Amazon is building its own Covid-19 testing capabilities so it can monitor the health of its employees, as it contends with ongoing criticism surrounding its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 50 Amazon-owned facilities have confirmed cases in the US, many with multiple instances of the virus, according to data compiled by the Financial Times. The company on Thursday said it had begun assembling the equipment to build its first lab, and hoped to start testing on small numbers of its frontline workers, with a view to scaling it across the company."


    •  Bloomberg reports that "smoking may raise the risk of Covid-19 by elevating enzymes that allow the coronavirus to gain access into lung cells, according to a new study.

    "Smokers and people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may have elevated levels of an enzyme called ACE-2, which helps the virus enter cells in their lungs, where it replicates, a study published in the European Respiratory Journal Thursday showed.

    "Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic conditions have emerged as factors that make people vulnerable to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that’s sweeping the world in a pandemic."


    •  Bloomberg also reports that "the coronavirus may be 'reactivating' in people who have been cured of the illness, according to Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    "About 51 patients classed as having been cured in South Korea have tested positive again, the CDC said in a briefing on Monday. Rather than being infected again, the virus may have been reactivated in these people, given they tested positive again shortly after being released from quarantine, said Jeong Eun-kyeong, director-general of the Korean CDC."

    The story goes on:  "Fear of re-infection in recovered patients is also growing in China, where the virus first emerged last December, after reports that some tested positive again -- and even died from the disease -- after supposedly recovering and leaving hospital."


    •  An MNB reader sent me a piece from the Los Angeles Times that I missed, that looked at the plight of the farm worker in California - who makes it possible for so many of us to get the food we eat, and yet are not being included in many of the healthcare efforts related to the pandemic.

    An excerpt:

    "More than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown in California. Stay-at-home orders in California exempt farmworkers as essential employees. But many are undocumented, lack health insurance and don’t qualify for unemployment insurance or federal COVID-19 relief, placing the state’s estimated workforce of 420,000 in a vulnerable position.

    "The United Farm Workers union has called on agricultural employers to protect workers from the coronavirus by extending sick leave, eliminating wait periods for sick pay eligibility, increasing cleaning of frequently touched surfaces and offering assistance with child care amid school closures.

    "Some employers have issued identification cards or letters for workers to show law enforcement if they are pulled over going to or from a job site. Some have taken further steps, including staggering lunch breaks to encourage social separation, assigning workers to every other row of crops, supplying extra hand-washing stations and expanding sick leave beyond the three days mandated by the state."

    This sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, like the infrastructure that is the farmworker system could be at risk of falling apart because of pressures from the pandemic as well as changing immigration policies.


    •  The San Antonio Express News reports that "Favor Delivery, an Austin company that H-E-B bought in 2018, is doubling its coverage area in Texas to provide delivery from more restaurants and stores, and expanding a program for senior citizens.

    "The company is adding 75 new markets across the state, including south San Antonio, Floresville, La Vernia, Lytle, Fredericksburg and Kerrville, and expanding in areas where it already offered delivery.

    "It also is hiring contract delivery drivers."


    •  An indication of the impact that the pandemic has had on sales - Ahold Delhaize says that same-store sales at its US stores  were up 34 percent in March, compared to the same period a year ago.


    •  Nice piece from KIRO-News in Seattle about how "workers at a Lacey Safeway are going above and beyond their typical job duties to help seniors stay safe.  After hearing residents at Bonaventure, a nearby senior living facility, needed help getting their groceries, Safeway workers immediately stepped up to the plate."

    Every Tuesday, the story says, "Bonaventure workers pick up grocery lists from residents.  Wednesday night, Safeway workers shop. They spend hours selecting fruits and veggies, bagging groceries and labeling them with each person's room number.  Thursday, they cart the food out, load it up and send it off."

    Good for them.  It is all about being part of the community.  And particularly necessary - and welcome - at facilities that have been particularly vulnerable for the spread of the coronavirus.


    •  There are food retailers that traditionally have been closed on Easter Sunday that have announced that they will be open because of the pandemic.  There are retailers that traditionally have been open on Easter that this year will be closed or have reduced hours, as a way of giving their employees a break.

    And then there is Roche Bros. in Massachusetts, which announced to its customers:

    "Traditionally, we have closed on Easter Sunday to allow our associates to rest and enjoy their families. This year we will be closed on Easter Sunday, April 12th and Monday, April 13th to give all of our associates time to rest and decompress from the daily toll this has put on everyone. We will be back serving our Community on Tuesday, April 14th, just like we have through this entire crisis.

    "We thank you for your understanding as we try to give our associates time to spend with their families. (While many of you may feel you’ve been in the house with your families too much lately, many of our associates have been working with limited days off.)"

    Published on: April 10, 2020

    There is a really interesting piece in The New Yorker  that offers a slice-of-life perspective on the experience of shopping for groceries in Houston these days.

    An excerpt:

    "Watching the shelves empty all over America on Twitter and Instagram, you’d think everyone in this country only shopped at Sprouts or Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. But Houston is diverse, and its grocery stores reflect that. We’ve got loads of little markets catering to their respective communities, and folks in parallel communities pass through them routinely: African markets in the corners of strip malls, sprawling Asian markets, Latinx groceries in clusters. They carry the staples for their respective flavor profiles (furikake, Scotch-bonnet peppers, ancho chilies, and thirty-four varieties of doenjang), but they sell basics, too. If you can’t find toilet paper at Seiwa Market, chances are you can find it at Karibu Mini Mart or Viet Hoa International Foods. And if they don’t have it then there really is a problem."

    You can read the story here.

    Published on: April 10, 2020

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

    •  It probably wasn't the launch week that Quibi’s founders would have hoped for.  But then again, if they really believe what they've been saying about entertainment consumption habits, there's something to be said for getting the hard part over first.

    Quibi is described as "a mobile-focused video streaming service" that basically offers a wide variety of programs with episodes that never last longer than 10 minutes - it is all designed to be seen on your smartphone.

    Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks Animation, is the company's chairman;  former HP CEO Meg Whitman is Quibi’s CEO. 

    According to CNBC, "The service is set to cost $4.99 per month with ads or $7.99 per month for an ad-free version. But in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Katzenberg said the service will initially be free for 90 days. 

    "There was discussion about delaying Quibi’s release but the company decided against it, Katzenberg explained. 'Our decision was, this is a moment in time in which people actually may really need a distraction,' he said. 'To provide a little laughter, a little entertainment, a little break from the hard things we’re dealing with, our timing actually might be in many ways an opportunity'."

    The fact is, Quibi seems like the extreme distillation of Katzenberg's belief that the entertainment industry is undergoing fundamental changes, and that the system may be more willing than ever to accept the fact that content can exist on movie screens at the same time it is available for at-home consumption.  This notion has been jump-started by the pandemic, which has closed theaters and forced many companies to debut new movies online rather than on theater screens.

    The disruption happening in this industry has to be acknowledged by other businesses, because it reflects what is happening, more or less, to everyone.

    •  The Los Angeles Times reports that "Disney+, the streaming service from Walt Disney Co., has passed 50 million paying subscribers in its first five months, the company said Wednesday.

    "The service, which costs $6.99 a month, has seen 75% growth in subscribers since early February. At that time, Disney said it had 28.6 million paying customers, mostly in the U.S."

    Everybody is home.  It would've been more amazing if Disney hadn't seen that kind of growth.

    Published on: April 10, 2020

    Steve Ravitz, a New Jersey retailer for more than 50 years and a member of the Wakefern food co-op, has passed away at age 72 from complications related to the Covid-19 coronavirus.

    The Courier Post notes that Ravitz was "known for his philanthropy and his commitment to his faith," and his death "drew an outpouring of grief from across the region."

    From the story:

    "Rabbi Emeritus Steven Lindemann described a call last month from Ravitz, a longtime member and past president of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill.

    "Ravitz, who endowed a charitable fund at the synagogue in his parents' memory, was concerned about the impact on others of the approaching economic crisis, the rabbi said.

    "'He said, 'Listen, people are going to be hurting,' recalled Lindemann. 'He said, 'I want you to be sure to use the Act of Kindness Fund to help people. And if you need more, let me know'."

    Published on: April 10, 2020

    Responding to Michael Sansolo's column this week, one MNB reader wrote:

    SKU Proliferation? Are you referring to Store Brands? SKU Proliferation is innovative products, a source of higher margins for the retailer, not to mention slotting allowance revenues$. 

    ECR forced just in time production, long order lead times, causing inadequate available supplies/ingredients all the way down the supply chain during a crisis. Did HEB merely do the opposite of ECR to be better prepared?

    I asked Michael to respond:

    All good questions here and more reason for industrywide debate on how to improve in times of crisis or simply whenever normalcy returns.

    New items are indeed an essential source of innovation and equally essential to satisfying increasingly fragmented consumer needs and wants. But there need be rational as well. Making money on the buy (whether slotting allowances or anything else) isn't the path to success and never has been. Curating the best variety for local consumers is a far better strategy and reducing SKUs could permit more shelf space for top selling items.

    And while ECR did slim down the inventory in the supply chain, that was a necessary step to avoid inefficiencies that made many retailers less competitive. H-E-B didn't do the opposite. Rather the company seemed to have built a system designed to notice a coming storm better and faster than most. My argument is that others need consider similar measures rather than build up large inventories of products in warehouses.

    But there are discussions that we need to have.

    I'll make one other point, if I may - which is that not all SKU proliferation is about innovation.  In fact, I'm not even sure that half of it.  I think more than half of it is about new sizes and flavors that don't really qualify as real innovation … which is why I think that one of the responses in a post-pandemic world could end up being edited grocery selections that are more driven by what customers want and need a opposed to what vendors are willing to support with promotional allowances.

    Reacting to Stew Leonard Jr.'s video message to customers, one MNB reader wrote:

    Stew epitomizes the importance of the personal touch.   He keeps his message simple so everybody can understand it.  He encourages his customers to keep using their services, but at different times of the day. Easily understood.

    'Use gloves, use a mask. Look at me, I am doing it too.’ He leads by example.

    Too few of our ‘leaders’ do the same. His modesty shines through. If I lived in your part of the US, I would visit his stores on a regular basis. Not enough of personal touch left in America as of today- too many small businesses have closed.

    On another subject, from MNB reader Rich Heiland:

    My mask? A hiking neck wrap...probably not worth a damn, but…

    I will add I was at Home Depot two days ago, wearing my mask, carrying hand wipes. They were requiring entrance at one door with an employee monitoring. But inside? Cashiers had masks and gloves. Most floor employees did not. Employees were clustering and talking, getting within six feet of customers. Customers were a mixed bag from heavy duty masks, gloves, to none. Outside at the large loading area, there was no social distancing as stuff was hauled out, trucks loaded. Personally, I wiped down the hand scanner before and after, wiped down my purchases. Wiped my hands before I got back in the car. I really did not feel the warnings were being followed sufficiently inside, by employees or customers.

    And finally, from another reader:

    Thank you for the RIP acknowledgment for John Prine.  In my early days, I used to listen to a local folk/bluegrass duo.  They did a great cover of Prine’s “Hello In There” and always introduced it as a song “about growing old and lonely”. Sad, but a wonderful, thought-provoking, song.  Because of that song, I have been a fan of his for 40+ years.  Thank you again.

    Thank you for reminding me.

    Published on: April 10, 2020

    In the first of a new series of weekly Retail Tomorrow podcasts, Sterling Hawkins, co-CEO and co-founder of CART-The Center for Advancing Retail & Technology, and MNB "Content Guy" Kevin Coupe team up to speculate, prognosticate, and formulate visions of what tomorrow's retail landscape will look like post-coronavirus.

    Episode 1:  How the pandemic has stress-tested the retailing infrastructure like never before, and what business leaders should take from the experience.

    Published on: April 10, 2020

    Here it is, as promised … a video montage of the wide and wild variety of dogs who populate the MNB community.

    Thanks to Content Daughter Allison Joan Coupe, who pulled all this together.

    It all reminds me of that wonderful phrase, "Heaven is where, when you get there, all the dogs you've ever owned are there to greet you."

    I have a couple of wines to recommend to you this week … first of all, the 2018

    Long Story Short Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.  I'm not always a fan of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, but this one was outstanding - bright and refreshing and flavorful.  This is wonderful and totally worth tracking down.

    There's also the 2018 Pagadebit from the Podera La Berta winery in Romagna, made from Bombino Bianco grapes … perfect for the warming days, a little bit subtle with a smooth and balanced flavor.  

    Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

    Stay safe.  Stay healthy.