business news in context, analysis with attitude

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.