The past few months have provided us with ample lessons about our social, cultural, infrastructural, economic and medical vulnerabilities. It would be a shame, MNB Content Guy Kevin Coupe suggests, if we did not learn from them. Some businesses will ... which will put those that do not at a distinct, perhaps fatal, disadvantage.
Amazon said yesterday that it will begin prioritizing existing online grocery customers, creating a waiting list for anyone who has not previously bought groceries from its site.
According to Reuters, "Amazon said its online grocery order capacity has increased by more than 60% during the outbreak. Some netizens who said they used Amazon Prime, its $119-a-year subscription service for U.S. shoppers, have nevertheless complained on social media about the scarcity of delivery windows … Amazon said it would have to relegate all new online grocery customers to a wait list starting Monday while working on adding capacity each week.
"In recent weeks, it increased the number of Whole Foods stores offering grocery pickup to more than 150 locations, up from 80 previously."
Amazon says it is in the process of creating "a new feature that will help customers secure a virtual 'place in line' to distribute the delivery windows on a first come, first served basis."
Amazon also plans to reduce shopping hours at its 487 Whole Food stores, the story says, so that it is easier and faster for employees to fulfill online orders.
Reuters writes that "the moves illustrates how the world’s largest online retailer, which showed its ambition to enter the grocery industry by acquiring Whole Foods for $13.7 billion in August 2017, is now leveraging its presence both online and in physical stores to handle high demand from consumers who are stuck eating at home, with many restaurant dining rooms closed to the public."
As Tom Furphy pointed out in last week's Innovation Conversation, we've been propelled several years forward in terms of e-grocery development by the pandemic; it is a kind of rip in the space-time continuum from which it will be impossible to return to the way things used to be. What Amazon - which was far better prepared for that leap than almost anyone else, and still found itself stressed by circumstances - is doing is learning from the experience, adapting to the new reality.
It makes sense for Amazon to prioritize existing customers over new customers. It also would make sense for Amazon to prioritize Prime members over non-Prime members. What would happen if Amazon decided to create two different lines to get into its Whole Foods stores - one for Prime members, who get in first, and one for non-Prime members, who have to wait? It might create riots, but it would a) send a very specific message to Prime members about the value of the program, and b) send a very specific you-better-join-now message to those not yet members.
In some ways, that's sort of what Amazon is doing by reducing shopping hours for civilians at Whole Foods stores so that employees shopping for online customers can be more efficient and effective, especially when you add that to the new existing-customers-first policy.
When you look beyond the pandemic, one wonders how these new strategies will play out in the future, both at Whole Foods and at the new chain of grocery stores it is prepping. Especially at the latter, it seems at least possible that they could offer some unique balance of online and physical shopping, with preference offered to past customers and Prime members. (I've argued for some time that it would be interesting to have these new stores only open to Prime members.)
If we accept Tom Furphy's premise that we fast-forwarded in terms of e-grocery development - and I totally do - then after the pandemic the percentage of online grocery business will be a lot higher than it was just a few months ago, and it will make sense for Amazon to architect a new vision of how grocery shopping is done.
This new vision won't appeal to everyone, and won't be appropriate for everyone. But if Amazon can do it at the high end with Whole Foods, and also in a new, value-oriented chain, it certainly will give it access to a lot of business and will make it an even more differentiated competitor.
The Washington Post reports that Apple and Google are working together in what is called "an ambitious effort … to help combat the novel coronavirus, introducing new tools that could soon allow owners of smartphones to know if they have crossed paths with someone infected with the disease."
These tools would work on both iPhones and Android devices, and if it works "could inject valuable new technological support into contact tracing, a strategy public health officials say is essential to allowing people to return to work and normal life while containing the spread of the pandemic."
According to the story, "Apple and Google are hoping to harness Bluetooth, a technology typically used to connect device owners’ wireless speakers and keyboards. With the aid of the technology, public health officials soon would be able to deploy apps with the ability to sense other smartphones nearby. If a person learns they have the coronavirus, they could indicate on their app they’ve been infected — and people whose smartphones have been in their vicinity would be notified, regardless of whether their devices run on Apple or Google software … The companies said the technology would not track a user’s specific location, nor would they reveal an infected person’s identity to the tech giants or to governments worldwide."
The tools are expected to be available to developers as soon as next month.
There is a challenge, of course - the fact that the use of the tool will be voluntary and "entirely in the hands of users: Because the system is voluntary, it relies on people downloading and using the app properly. To address concerns about potential abuse, users would have to get a confirmed diagnosis from a public health agency that they have the coronavirus — along with a special code, for example — that triggers the signal to other devices, according to Apple."
The single biggest inhibitor to "reopening the economy" is the lack of broadly available testing … we may know that there have been more than a half-million confirmed cases of Covid-19, but the key word there is confirmed. We have no idea at this moment how many people may be infected, how many people may have been a-symptomatic but infected, and how many people can and should return to work and how many can and should not.
Such a tool would be a big step forward. I'll admit that the possibility of using for unwanted government surveillance bothers me, and I hope that one of the built-in options will be the ability to turn it off at some point down the road, when there is no more pandemic. But short of an effective vaccine that stops people from contracting the virus, this will help us to move forward. (By the way, spare me from the few people who inevitably will not want to be vaccinated, and by doing so will put other people at risk. In the words of William Shakespeare from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" … What fools these mortals be.)
In a memo to vendors provided to MNB by one of those suppliers, Ahold Delhaize has thanked the manufacturers for "continued support" meeting the challenges of the pandemic, and told the companies that it needs their help "in making sure we deliver on our commitments."
That help, the memo says, includes "securing necessary product levels," which means "increasing allocations, fine-tuning assortments in conjunction with our category teams, and being both creative and flexible in how we think about rapidly bolstering our supply chain networks will be foundational to our collective response." And, Ahold Delhaize says, it needs trade rates "to remain whole for the year. We understand promotional activity will see some potential adjustments in the coming weeks, while supply replenishment remains the priority. We do expect that when the situation stabilizes, commercial elements will be made whole for each Ahold Delhaize USA brand."
Here's the kicker from the memo: " Pandemic-related costs will be evaluated. As we continue to evaluate the impacts of this pandemic on our business, we will review ancillary costs we are incurring and revisit with each supplier as needed at a later date."
The memo was signed by Kevin Holt, CEO of Ahold Delhaize USA, as well as by the presidents of all the company's US banners.
The vendor who provided this memo to MNB reacted this way: "This struck me as very cold and goes to your point of some advertisers on TV being tone deaf to what is going on. In essence, get ready for Ahold Delhaize to billback suppliers for their COVID-19 costs. I can hear the statement: 'Our store sales were up. We had to hire more associates. You benefitted. Here is your portion of that bill'."
This vendor compared the Ahold Delhaize approach to that of Albertsons, which last week sent a memo to suppliers saying:
"As we look back on the last few weeks – a period of unprecedented business, it is remarkable how much we have accomplished. On behalf of the entire leadership team, we want to thank you for what you are doing to support our stores and customers. Providing our communities with the products they are looking for is central to our mission.
"We appreciate you and your efforts to work together to get through these challenging times. To further express our appreciation, we are pleased to provide you with a $5 off your purchase of $50 or more and a FREE Starbucks Tall Drip Coffee."
The vendor wrote MNB: "Talk about someone that gets it and someone that doesn’t. Suppliers have busted their backs to get products to stores just like retailers have to get those products to consumers. A very nice gesture."
What this vendor is suggesting to MNB, in essence, is that while Albertsons is offering a nice gesture, Ahold Delhaize can be seen as using another gesture - a middle finger - to suppliers.
If this is the broad perception, and I can see how it might be, memories will be long. And maybe some companies will be seen as not learning from the crisis.
Four stories from the past few days about how the Covid-19 coronavirus has had an unexpected on the planet and, especially, the urban landscape:
• From the Washington Post:
"The coronavirus pandemic has put much of the world into lockdown, with factories going idle and city streets turning into eerily empty walkways. With the case count and death toll still climbing, it’s unlikely that countries will be able to flick a switch and rapidly return to pre-pandemic economic activity.
"But one unintended upside to this crisis has been improved air quality, particularly in the hardest-hit areas where the most draconian measures have gone into force. This has been evident in Asia, including China’s Hubei province, where this virus began spreading among humans. It’s also a trend observed in Italy, another devastated region with several thousand deaths.
"Now, given that all but a handful of states have implemented stay-at-home orders, the air-quality shifts are also being seen in the United States. This offers a rare — and unintended — large-scale experiment for scientists to see how human emissions contribute to hazardous air quality and analyze the effectiveness of particular policy ideas."
In addition, the Post writes, "There’s a growing recognition that the coronavirus can be more harmful to those with greater exposure to air pollution, making it a potential risk factor along with such underlying health conditions as diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure."
• From the New York Times, a piece by architecture columnist Allison Arieff:
"Throughout the world, the coronavirus has forced extreme changes in our behavior in just days. And we’re already seeing the impact of those changes: On Monday, for example, Los Angeles had the cleanest air of any major city in the world.
"As a die-hard urbanist, it’s heartening for me to see how many people are adapting, turning the city into a pedestrian paradise. Parks are populated to an extent I’ve never seen before (though some are too populated). Streets are crowded not with cars but with people — and accordingly, pedestrian fatalities (and subsequent emergency room visits) have plummeted.
"Streets are also quieter. Skies are bluer than I’ve ever seen. I saw a dad in the park last week doing a Zoom meeting from a lawn chair while his kids played on the grass. People are saying hello, people are offering to help neighbors, people are rediscovering board games and puzzles, bread-baking and canning."
Arieff goes on:
"Design is certainly not going to solve this crisis, but here are a few small interventions I’ve seen over the past few days that make a difference. Many of them are likely to become the new normal.
"Staying six feet apart to meet social-distancing guidelines is nearly impossible on most sidewalks, which are typically only four feet wide. So some cities are warming up to the idea that they could temporarily close traffic lanes to accommodate pedestrians — a fix that requires only some road cones or other cheap, easily obtainable barriers.
"Urban planners have long argued that more streets should close to make more livable spaces, but governments have always resisted, calling it impractical or impossible. They’ve just proved it can happen — and they should keep it going after the crisis.
"If streets become so much safer, if air quality can change so much in just weeks, can we be more hopeful about our efforts to combat climate change?"
"If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic it may be that the health crisis, which has resulted in the most drastic economic shutdown in Los Angeles history, has also produced the longest stretch of clean air the city has seen in more than a generation … Last month, Los Angeles experienced the longest stretch of days of “good” air since at least 1980. The federal agency’s online data goes back no further, but one expert suspects that L.A.’s air hasn’t been this clean since around the time the United States entered the Second World War."
Ed Avol, a professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center at USC, tells the magazine, "“It’s obviously very unfortunate that it takes a pandemic to get us to think about these things and to see this improvement. It should give us all pause to think about how much driving we each do, and whether we really need to do so much of it … And this experience should make that very clear to people who didn’t think about it before.”
• From the Boston Globe:
"Cities thrive on human connections, on bustling sidewalks, on coming together for a concert or a baseball game, on the everyday interactions that can spark new relationships, or birth big ideas. They’re built on the premise that in many ways, we’re better off living in relatively close quarters, that we thrive in proximity.
"But so does a pandemic.
"And that has a lot of people wondering what the coronavirus outbreak, whose deadly toll rises daily, could mean for the future of dense and vibrant cities such as Boston. Will it amount to a blip in the decades-long rebound of urban life, or mark the end of an era and the start of a gradual turn to social distancing as a way of life?"
The story goes on: "it’s a question with profound implications for the future of Boston. The packed stadiums, lively campuses, and vibrant neighborhoods that supply much of the compact city’s energy and charm depend on people being willing to gather. Our economy, too, is powered by proximity. Just ask the scores of companies from around the globe that have squeezed into a few square miles of downtown and Cambridge, betting the brainpower they can tap here is worth paying astronomical rents."
One revelation: "The current pandemic highlights the inequalities of life in Boston and cities like it, said Alexandra Lee, executive director of the Sasaki Foundation, which encourages design and architecture to combat social challenges. It’s sharpening divides around income, housing, schools, and even between those who can work from home and those who must work face-to-face, putting their health at risk. Lee said she hopes one lesson from all this will be that cities depend on everyone, so they must be designed and built with everyone in mind."
These stories provide powerful metaphors for what retail must do going forward - recognize where it has not been as effective as it would like to be, where its priorities have not served its customers as well as they should, and where it has an opportunity now to make strategic and tactical changes in business models that for too long have existed on momentum instead of being fueled by true innovation.
Not that it will be easy to change course. It won't be for the culture, either … we see that the air is cleaner than ever, and yet the politics of the moment call for emissions rules to be relaxed. Which makes no sense whatsoever if you value the health of the planet.
Axios reports that the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic "may be a defining experience for Generation Z that shapes its outlook for decades to come — disrupting its entry to adulthood and altering its earning potential, trust in institutions and views on family and sex."
Some examples cited in the story:
• "The coronavirus could change the youngest generation's perceptions of safe social distances and what high school and college are about. Some will lose grandparents, parents, siblings and friends."
• "College students are losing internships, summer work and first jobs vital to build networks and careers. In a College Reaction survey, 91% cited concerns about the economy and job market, and more than half worried about their finances."
• "The virus may shape Gen Z's views on the government's role in protecting public health and the economy. They or their parents could lose employer-provided health insurance in the middle of a pandemic.
"That could fuel their already strong support for progressive, social safety net policies such as universal basic income and Medicare for All. They'll have experienced the impacts of biggest government bailout in history — and 70% already think government should do more to solve problems."
The pandemic, some say, is likely to be seen as "the 9/11 of the Gen Z generation."
It isn't just Generation Z - we're all being taught lessons by the pandemic.
Some of us more than others, though.
For young people, some of them are tough lessons. What Robert B. Parker called "early autumn," a time when you have to grow up more quickly than anticipated.
The thing to remember is, we're still the adults. We have to educate them. Hire them. Train them. Lead them. Manage them. Even nurture and understand them. Which is a pretty big responsibility. Not that we have any choice.
Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…
• In the US as of this morning, there have been 560,422 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 22,115 deaths and 32,634 reported recoveries.
Globally, there have been 1,862,028 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 114,980 deaths and 431,613 reported recoveries.
The US now has the highest death toll total of any country in the world.
• From TechCrunch:
"Record demand for online grocery shopping amid the COVID-19 pandemic has sent the apps for grocery pickup and delivery services up the charts. Walmart Grocery, as a result, has now hit an all-time high in downloads — grabbing the No. 1 ranking position across all Shopping apps in the U.S. on April 5, 2020, and surpassing Amazon by 20%, according to a new analysis from app intelligence firm App Annie.
"The Walmart Grocery application retained that No. 1 position for at least two days, the firm said, citing data from both the Google Play store and the Apple App Store, combined. While App Annie’s data was calculated on April 7, 2020, Walmart Grocery is still No. 1 on Google Play as of today, April 9. It’s also now No. 2 on the App Store."
The only downside, TechCrunch suggests, is that this "may complicate Walmart’s plans to wind down the standalone app to instead merge Walmart Grocery into the retailer’s flagship mobile application and website … As of April 5, 2020, the Walmart Grocery app saw a 460% growth in average daily downloads, in comparison with its January 2020 performance. That indicates a surge of brand-new customers to Walmart Grocery who may have never placed an online grocery order."
It sounds like Walmart may want to keep the standalone app up and running as long as it is generating traffic beyond what it used to be doing … and the expectation here is that post-pandemic traffic and online sales, while they won't be what Walmart is doing now, will continue to be far in excess of what it was doing just a few months ago. Walmart has to avoid creating friction were the customer sees none.
• The Associated Press has a story about what some closed retailers - out of the more than 250,000 stores that have shut their doors, representing 60 percent of US retail square footage - are doing to remain relevant to their shoppers, even as their physical units are shuttered and the world reels from the effects of the pandemic.
"Some retailers have responded to the challenge by coming up with creative ways to stay relevant. Nike, for instance, introduced workout apps in China when the coronavirus first surfaced there, resulting in an 80% increase in users within the quarter and a 30% increase in online sales. It’s now pushing a similar campaign in the U.S. and Europe." And, "Yoga pants maker Lululemon is holding online classes in North America and Europe after gaining thousands of new followers in China on WeChat … during its first week of closures in the U.S., it saw nearly 170,000 customers join Lululemon for its live classes."
The AP goes on: "Small businesses are also pivoting in order to hold onto customers. Camp, a new toy chain that set itself apart from online retailers by doubling down on the physical experience, is hosting virtual birthday parties and creating curated gift boxes now that its five stores have gone dark. Politics & Prose, a popular Washington D.C. bookstore, was also forced to temporarily close and is now starting to stream author talks online and offering a curbside pickup service."
Part of the problem that chains are facing is uncertainty. "With spring merchandise piled up and nowhere to go, many chains are slashing prices anywhere from 40% to 70%. Some like Gap and Ralph Lauren have temporarily stopped ordering for the fall season with no clear view of when stores will reopen," the story says.
The stores that are closed that are not pursuing strategies and tactics designed to keep them relevant and resonant to their shoppers perhaps ought to just hang it up now. They probably were in increasingly dire straits before, and there is no reason to think that they'll be able to survive in a leaner post-pandemic landscape.
• From Axios:
"As many as one-third of U.S. jobs may be vulnerable as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and it will disproportionately displace low-income workers that do not have the financial cushion to absorb the economic blow … According to an analysis by McKinsey Global Institute, up to 86% of the vulnerable jobs paid less than $40,000 a year, and almost all (98%) of at-risk jobs paid less than the national living wage for a family of four ($68,808).
"Almost 40% of the vulnerable jobs are in small firms with fewer than 100 employees, which are less equipped than big companies to weather the storm … The potential job carnage spreads far beyond the service industry, affecting builders, transportation services, health aides, mechanics, social workers and some business and legal jobs."
Axios writes that this matters because "the dire economic ramifications of the national shut-down stand to devastate those that can least afford it," and that the implications are likely to last far beyond the moment when the economy starts to reopen.
In other words, a reopening is not a revival. Seems to me that it only makes sense to reopen when the prospects for a revival are greater than just a hope and a prayer.
• The South Jersey Observer reports that this week Wakefern Food Corp. "will implement a temperature monitoring program. As part of the initiative, stores will use Non-contact Forehead Infrared Thermometers to take the temperature of associates and vendors as they arrive for work. Any person with an elevated temperature will be sent home. Wakefern plans to roll out temperature monitoring at all its stores, as well as its warehouses."
The story notes that this "is the latest in a series of safety measures designed to protect both customers and associates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, the cooperative installed Plexiglas shields at cash registers, customer service counters and pharmacies across all its banner brands, including ShopRite, The Fresh Grocer, Price Rite Marketplace, Dearborn Market and Gourmet Garage. Stores also recently began limiting occupancy during peak shopping hours, and in keeping with new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all store associates will wear protective masks."
• The Virginian-Pilot reports that "Lidl this week began using its food truck, normally seen handing out samples, to deliver groceries directly to several retirement communities in Hampton Roads … The deliveries don’t include any fees, and customers of participating communities order from a printed menu that includes essentials (toilet paper, hand soap, multi-surface cleaner, bread, milk, eggs) and some non-essential items (chocolate bar, tortilla chips, salsa) at set individual prices."
• The Macon Telegraph reports that "Fresh Market will require shoppers to wear face masks while in stores during the coronavirus pandemic. The Greensboro, North Carolina-based grocery chain tweeted April 11 that all guests will be required to wear a face covering when in stores starting April 14 in an effort to 'help keep our communities safe.'
"The new rule comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changed their guidelines on the use of face masks by the public."
• Good story in the Washington Post about Washington, DC's Lulabelle’s Sweet Shop, which closed its doors last month when District leadership "imposed sharp restrictions on dine-in food service." Owner Julie Wineinger offered curbside pickup to sell off ice cream that she had in stock, and then "noticed posts online from people scouring for milk, flour, eggs and other staples increasingly hard to find."
So she pivoted - and "added produce and fresh bread to her menu. Orders are available for pickup during a three-hour window on Saturdays. 'I’m not a grocer; I didn’t have grocery store contacts,' Wineinger said. 'I’m just trying to figure this all out as I go'."
Exactly. She's doing what chains like Panera and Subway are doing, and what a growing number of independent restaurateurs are doing - breaking down boundaries as they realize that being in the business of feeding people can have broader implications than previously acknowledged. Hence, the other side of "grocerants," which are supermarkets that segue into the restaurant business … "restaurmarkets," which take it from the opposite direction. The question is the degree to which these lessons - and solutions - stick in a post-pandemic world.
• The Wall Street Journal has a story about the Procter & Gamble plant in Albany, Georgia, which is "one of six that make toilet paper … is P&G’s second-largest U.S. plant … (and) makes products that generate roughly $1.3 billion in annual sales."
At this factory, the story says, P&G "has ramped up production by 20% of both toilet paper and paper towels, even as it revamps its operations to keep its roughly 600 workers healthy. Among other measures, it has instituted pre-shift temperature checks and staggered start times. P&G declined to comment on whether employees have tested positive."
But … it needs to be noted that Albany, Georgia, is "a town with one of the nation’s highest rates of coronavirus … More than 1,020 people have tested positive in Dougherty County, which includes Albany, and 62 have died as of Thursday afternoon. More people have died in the county than in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and has a population more than 10 times larger."
This may just be a leading indicator of how rural America is about to be hit by the pandemic to a degree they may not have been expecting … and for which at least some folks are unprepared. It isn't just the coasts … and a lot of people may be about to get a reality check. I hope we all learn from it.
• It isn't just toilet paper and hand sanitizer that it selling out, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told NBC's "Today Show" last Friday. (And Walmart has sold a lot of it - enough toilet paper in the "last five days to give every American one roll," he said.)
Now, as people continue to shelter at home, the focus is shifting - to hair coloring products and hair clippers.
"People are starting to need a haircut," McMillon said. "You see more beard trimmers and hair color and things like that. It's interesting to watch the dynamic play out."
I told my wife and daughter that I wasn't going to trim my beard until they stopped working from home. (They're teachers doing e-teaching.) That was when I thought they'd be out of the house by mid-April. Now it looks like May 20 at the earliest, with the real possibility that it could be the fall. A which point I will either have gone back on my commitment, or will look like Mandy Patinkin in "Homeland."
• Walt Disney World in Florida announced over the weekend that it will furlough some 43,000 employees who work at its resorts there, which have been closed since last month because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The New York Times writes that "the workers, who are expected to be called back to their jobs, will be able to keep their health benefits during the furlough period. Also, they will not lose their seniority or have their pay reduced … About 200 employees who are considered essential workers will remain on the job, including those in housekeeping, custodial and lake patrol positions."
This was not the most interesting story in the Times about Disney. The really intriguing one was the piece this morning about Bob Iger, the company's executive chairman, who stepped down as CEO earlier this year but now has re-immersed himself in the company's day-to-day management as Disney faces existential threats to a business model that depends in so many ways - from theme parks to movie theatres to cruise lines to resorts and even to ESPN, a television network that broadcasts live sporting events - on people's ability to congregate. "This all means the company is losing as much as $30 million or more a day, the media industry analyst Hal Vogel estimated in an interview," the Times reports. "The company borrowed $6 billion at the end of March, a sign both of its desperate plight and lenders’ confidence that it could rebound."
"Iger is now intensely focused on remaking a company that will emerge, he believes, deeply changed by the crisis," Times media columnist Ben Smith writes. "The sketch he has drawn for associates offers a glimpse at the post-pandemic future: It’s a Disney with fewer employees, leading the new and uncertain business of how to gather people safely for entertainment."
Disney has to learn from this crisis … has to consider remaking itself because of this crisis … and so must every business. Managing through the pandemic is job 1, but job 1-A has to be figuring out what the business looks like at the other end of the pandemic.
• MovieWeb reports that the shuttered AMC Theatres chain, reeling from the impact of the pandemic that essentially put it temporarily out of business, "is reportedly in talks with Weil, Gotshal & Manges in an attempt to work through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. This would help the theater try and manage its massive debt load of $4.9 billion while trying to successfully reopen at the same time."
According to the story, "Sources claim that the chain has ceased paying rent to landlords, which is why the Chapter 11 talks are currently happening. Sources also claim that AMC is 'at risk of breaching its debt covenants as it burns through cash,' amid the world's current state of affairs."
• The New York Times has a story about yet another business segment being ravaged by the pandemic - the comic book business. And even Superman, Captain America, Batman and Iron-Man may not be able to save the day.
"Like every other business that has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, comic-book publishing — a wellspring of material for countless hit films and TV shows — is in considerable jeopardy," the Times writes. "In recent weeks, the industry has been throttled at every juncture. Comic-store owners have shuttered their shops and the distribution of new titles has been frozen. Writers and artists continue to produce work, not knowing how or when readers will be able to see it … The dollars at stake are substantial: in recent years, sales of comics and graphic novels in the United States and Canada have topped $1 billion annually, with printed comic books accounting for more than a third of that figure."
As in the non-comic book universe, bigger companies (Marvel, owned by Disney, and DC, owned by AT&T) are at less risk than smaller companies.
There is an interesting sidebar to the story - which is that the lack of physical stores is a real hindrance to the industry, since many of those locations have nurtured communities of enthusiasts who congregate there to buy and discuss new titles, and usually are owned and managed by people who deeply love the category and have since their youths. Taking away that physical manifestation of community has proven to be an enormous problem, and one only partly addressed through online and social media alternatives.
• And finally … Italian classical singer Andrea Bocelli, as part of a "Music for Hope" concert that he performed all by himself on the steps of Milan's historic Duomo cathedral, did a haunting version of "Amazon Grace" that echoed across the streets of a city shuttered by the pandemic.
Once again, Stew Leonard, Jr. offers a lesson in how to communicate with customers with this video tour of his Norwalk, Connecticut, store, offering suggestions to shoppers about how to safely navigate the experience during the pandemic.
Part of the video's charm is that it isn't too slick - there is a misspelling in one of the graphics ("produce" is spelled "prduce"), there are moments when it is hard to hear him from behind his mask, and there are a couple of moments when physical distancing isn't everything it should be - which makes it feel utterly authentic, with Stew making the pitch that he's looking out for you.
…with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…
• The New York Times has a story about a facial recognition app, Clearview AI, described as "a breakthrough facial recognition system that was in use by hundreds of law enforcement agencies."
Following publicity that that the app got earlier this year when the Times wrote about its use by the public sector, "the company quickly faced a backlash on multiple fronts. Facebook, Google and other tech giants sent cease-and-desist letters. Lawsuits were filed in Illinois and Virginia, and the attorney general of New Jersey issued a moratorium against the app in that state.
"In response to the criticism, Clearview published a 'code of conduct,' emphasizing in a blog post that its technology was 'available only for law enforcement agencies and select security professionals to use as an investigative tool'."
But now the Times writes about "multiple individuals with active access to Clearview’s technology who are not law enforcement officials. And for more than a year before the company became the subject of public scrutiny, the app had been freely used in the wild by the company’s investors, clients and friends.
"Those with Clearview logins used facial recognition at parties, on dates and at business gatherings, giving demonstrations of its power for fun or using it to identify people whose names they didn’t know or couldn’t recall."
One such person - John Catsimatidis, owner of the Gristedes supermarket chain, which had used it to identify shoplifters.
However, the Times writes, it wasn't just about people stealing from the stores. The story tells how, about 18 months ago, Catsimatidis "was having dinner at Cipriani, an upscale Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, when his daughter, Andrea, walked in. She was on a date with a man Mr. Catsimatidis didn’t recognize.
"After the couple sat down at another table, Mr. Catsimatidis asked a waiter to go over and take a photo.
"Mr. Catsimatidis then uploaded the picture to a facial recognition app, Clearview AI, on his phone. The start-up behind the app has a database of billions of photos, scraped from sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Within seconds, Mr. Catsimatidis was viewing a collection of photos of the mystery man, along with the web addresses where they appeared: His daughter’s date was a venture capitalist from San Francisco."
Gosh, I'm so relieved that his daughter was dating someone who wasn't after Catsimatidis' billions. Maybe it is because I don't have billions at risk … but I think that I were having dinner at a restaurant and one of my kids walked in with a date, I'd so something really radical - I'd go over to their table, say hi, engage in some conversation, and then send over a bottle of wine. And then, if I wanted to know more about the date's identity, I'd ask my kid.
This may be facial recognition technology, but it also allows us to recognize something else about the people who use it and abuse it.
It just came to me, I'm sure awhile back before our virus debacle, but even more so now.
You're a cook. I'm a learning cook.
I had two excellent cedar plank salmon pieces in hickory and maple marinade. Side dish of asparagus. Both done in the oven. Side salad my wife made.
All for about $20 for two. Nice wine of my choice. My choice of music. All from Safeway.
You've asked what the future will look like? This I wouldn't trade to go to a restaurant for $100-120. Their choice of music. Those surrounding me enjoying, too (but I don't know them).
Now I'm not complaining about eating out at all. I love it.
But..some things will change in the future. I might need to be just as enticed to go out as going to a particular grocery store to shop.
Thanks to the folks who liked my Easter message on Friday.
One MNB reader wrote:
That was one of the most powerful Easter messages I have heard. Thank you Kevin , for the inspiring and personal message. You have more faith than most! I believe as you do that organized religion has it’s place but true and deep faith lives within.
You may have overstated my feelings about organized religion. But thanks.
From MNB reader David Thorpe:
I have been with Albertsons for 45 years and I found your site about three years ago and enjoy reading the thoughts and articles that you print. It seems even more so in the last three or four week that my interest has risen. And now today … WOW. I enjoyed your thoughts about your father and how he would look at our current state.
Keep up the wonderful work.
And finally … thanks to all the folks who enjoyed our "The Dogs of MNB" feature last Friday. For those who missed it because it was a holiday weekend, here it is again:
I'm happy to announce that on Friday, between 5:30 and 6:30 pm EDT, we're going to do it again … an MNB Virtual Happy Hour.
We did one back on March 27, and people seemed to enjoy it, and so, since we're all still grounded for the duration, I thought it was worth another effort.
The folks at GMDC have once again agreed to sponsor and host it, and I'll have a link and instructions for you later this week.
Hopefully, you can put it on your calendar … choose a libation for Happy Hour … and then prop up your laptop or warm up your computer on Friday for a conversation and a drink.
One other thing - if you are on the west coast and the timing is a little early for you, I'm going to do another one on Friday, May 8, but I'll do it at 5 pm your time just to make it easier. Of course, everybody is welcome to join either one or both.