retail news in context, analysis with attitude

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

•  In the United States, as of this morning there are 764,265 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 40,565 deaths and 71,012 reported recoveries.

Globally, there are 2,418,429 confirmed coronavirus cases, 165,739 deaths and 632,895 reported recoveries.

•  From the New York Times:

"As some governors consider easing social distancing restrictions, new estimates by researchers at Harvard University suggest that the United States cannot safely reopen unless it conducts more than three times the number of coronavirus tests it is currently administering over the next month.

Average Daily Coronavirus Tests in the U.S.

"An average of 146,000 people per day have been tested for the coronavirus nationally so far this month, according to the COVID Tracking Project, which on Friday reported 3.6 million total tests across the country. To reopen the United States by mid-May, the number of daily tests performed between now and then should be 500,000 to 700,000, according to the Harvard estimates.

"That level of testing is necessary to identify the majority of people who are infected and isolate them from people who are healthy, according to the researchers.

•  The California Grocers Association (CGA) noted over the weekend that its president/CEO, Ron Fong, has been appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom "to serve on his bi-partisan Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery, responsible with helping plan the state’s economic recovery following the financial calamity resulting from COVID-19."

The 80-member task force is co-chaired by former U.S. presidential candidate and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer and Gov. Newsom’s Chief of Staff Ann O’Leary, and includes representatives from business, labor, environment, social justice, state legislature and four former California governors.

Good move to have someone from the food retail business - which has been fighting way above its weight class for the past few months - at the table as decisions are being made and recommendations are being formulated.  California was way ahead of the game in terms of dealing with the pandemic and keeping its numbers down, and I would expect that it will be way ahead of the game when it comes to rebuilding the state's economy and dealing with its repercussions in a  way that is nuanced, effective and, hopefully, with an eye on constructing a future rather than just recapturing the past.

•  From the Washington Post:

"Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is encouraging retailers to start operating next Friday as 'retail to go,' in which customers would order ahead of time and pick up items curbside. State parks will reopen Monday, but visitors will be required to wear face coverings, he said. Restrictions on non-coronavirus-related surgeries and procedures will also be loosened."

•  Axios reports that "Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced yesterday that the city will start making diagnostic tests available to all employees of 'essential' businesses, and to city employees performing essential services.  It’s the first program of its kind, and a model for other cities to follow. And it’s a reminder that testing remains the limiting factor in every facet of our response to the coronavirus…"

•  The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon is actually cutting back on its usual policy of suggestive selling, in which it basically tells people that if you like this one thing that you bought, you might like this other stuff.

Now, it actually wants to sell fewer products, since it "is struggling to meet an immense surge in order volumes and contend with worker absences during the coronavirus pandemic."  And so, it is disabling algorithms, coupons and widgets that are designed to sell more stuff.

As part of this approach, the Journal writes, Amazon has decided to cancel Mother's Day and Father's Day promotions, and is postponing its annual Prime Day promotion to a date still to be determined.

•  Vox reports that Amazon "is using thermal cameras in warehouses to screen workers for fevers, in hopes of preventing the spread of coronavirus at its facilities in the United States," and that the cameras “in effect measure how much heat people emit relative to their surroundings” and “require less time and contact than forehead thermometers, earlier adopted by Amazon.”

Forehead thermometers will remain a secondary tool used to check on employees flagged by the thermal cameras.

•  The Wall Street Journal writes that "Walmart is being tested like never before by a coronavirus pandemic that has shut down much of the nation, put 10% of its workforce on leave and led to at least 18 deaths at the company. Managing the health of workers and shoppers, reassuring local officials, and keeping stores and warehouses staffed have become a massive effort inside Walmart at a time when customers are relying more than ever on the nation’s largest retailer … Walmart executives have debated various issues, such as whether to give masks and gloves to workers, when to close and clean stores, how to control shoppers who get too close to workers and each other, and even whether to disable the theft-detection systems connected to self-checkout machines, according to people familiar with the discussions."

Starting this week, the story points out, Walmart is requiring "all workers to wear masks … in line with a new wave of local laws and in anticipation of new standards as businesses open up as the virus wanes."

•  Reuters reports that Walmart plans to "hire 50,000 more workers at its stores, clubs and distribution centers to meet a surge in demand for groceries and household essentials from consumers stockpiling during the coronavirus outbreak … The retailer said it had reached its earlier target of hiring 150,000 workers six weeks ahead of schedule, taking in 5,000 people per day on average at a time when millions of Americans are losing their jobs amid unprecedented 'stay-at-home' orders from state and local governments."

•  From USA Today:

"As cases of COVID-19 spike in Black Hawk County, Iowa, the local sheriff is blasting Tyson Foods, and local officials are calling for the company to shut down its plant in Waterloo, raising concerns for the community's safety and the continuity of the nation’s meat supply.

"Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said he’s concerned that COVID-19 will overrun his community if the Tyson Foods plant doesn’t take proper precautions, including temporarily shutting it down."

Iowa "released figures Friday that showed 138 people had tested positive for the virus and one person has died with the virus in Black Hawk County. Amid more testing, the number of positive cases has nearly doubled in the county this week, according to state figures … Gov. Kim Reynolds acknowledged a potential outbreak at the Waterloo meatpacking plant earlier this week and has sent increased testing materials to both Waterloo and Columbus Junction, where a Tyson plant closed as the virus spread among its workers."

•  The New York Times has a story about what happens when any of the nation's major slaughterhouses are shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, writing that "after decades of consolidation, there are about 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the United States, processing billions of pounds of meat for food stores each year. But a relatively small number of them account for the vast majority of production. In the cattle industry, a little more than 50 plants are responsible for as much as 98 percent of slaughtering and processing in the United States, according to Cassandra Fish, a beef analyst.

"Shutting down one plant, even for a few weeks, is like closing an airport hub. It backs up hog and beef production across the country, crushes prices paid to farmers and eventually leads to months of meat shortages."

The story notes that "more than a dozen beef, pork and chicken processing plants have closed or are running at greatly reduced speeds because of the pandemic. This past week, the number of cattle slaughtered dropped nearly 22 percent from the same period a year ago, while hog slaughter was down 6 percent, according to the Department of Agriculture. The decline is partly driven by the shutdown of restaurants and hotels, but plant closings have also caused a major disruption, leaving many ranchers with nowhere to send their animals … Large numbers of employees have become infected in other businesses where people work close together, like grocery stores and e-commerce warehouses. But the pandemic has caused more serious disruption in the meat industry, where decades of consolidation have given outsize importance to a relatively small number of plants."

This is just another reflection of the tensions that are emerging because of the pandemic, or are being exacerbated by it - businesses of all kinds facing closure because of it, and then facing pressure to open because it will help get the economy back on track, but with concerns remaining that the real problems are not being addressed, and then accompanying concerns that if we handle this wrong, the worst could be ahead of us, not behind us.  Tough moments of decision.

And yet, the thing in this story that sticks with me is that there is a meat analyst named Cassandra Fish.  Which is just so great.

•  CNN reports that "Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Friday he will not reopen schools for in-person instruction because of the coronavirus, ensuring the unprecedented disruption to the education of the state’s 2.2 million students will continue through the end of the academic year.

"The governor announced the decision at his daily afternoon press conference, joining 27 states and three U.S. territories that have either ordered or recommended the same action, decisions that have impacted more than 25 million students."

•  From the Financial Times:

"Walt Disney will stop paying more than 100,000 employees this week, nearly half of its workforce, as the world' s biggest entertainment company tries to weather the coronavirus lockdown.

"Suspending pay for thousands of so-called cast members will save Disney up to $500m a month across its theme parks and hotels, which have been shut in Europe and the US for almost five weeks. But slashing fixed costs in a more severe way than other theme-park owners such as NBCUniversal and Warner Media has raised significant reputational risks for the century-old empire behind Mickey Mouse.

"The decision leaves Disney staff reliant on state benefits - public support that could run to hundreds of millions of dollars over coming months - even as the company protects executive bonus schemes and a $1.5 bn dividend payment due in July."

Wait a minute.  Taxpayers are going to help keep Disney - the largest and most successful entertainment conglomerate on the planet, owner of both the Marvel and Star Wars universes - afloat?  Really?

•  From the Los Angeles Times:

"The burger chain Shake Shack says it has obtained new funding and will return a small-business loan it got to help weather the coronavirus crisis.

"Shake Shack has laid off or furloughed hundreds of its employees and needed the assistance, its CEO Randy Garutti and its founder Danny Meyer said in a statement seen Monday.

"But the company was able to get extra funding late last week through an 'equity transaction' and decided to 'immediately return' the $10 million paycheck protection loan it obtained through the CARES Act."

•  The Washington Post reports that Twitter was awash in #FloridaMorons references over the weekend, as "Gov. Ron DeSantis gave the go-ahead for local beachfront governments to decide whether to reopen their beaches," and both Duval and St. Johns counties decided to do so - leading to droves of people showing up to swim, sunbathe and walk, often without observing the social distancing that has become the accepted norm during the pandemic.

It was sort of amusing to read comments by elected officials saying that people going to the beaches were respecting limitations and guidelines recommended by health experts, even as the pictures and videos showed that a lot of folks there were either ignorant or disbelieving of the recommendations.   I suspect that when it is all sorted out, it won't be quite as bad as the pictures suggested … but the question of whether it was smart to open the beaches at this point will remain open.

But it only is sort of amusing.  It will be considerably less so if Florida sees a new outbreak of Covid-19.

•  Elsewhere in Florida - in Ocala, in the central part of the state, about 80 miles northwest of Orlando - there is evidence of an old business model finding new relevance.

A drive-in theater.

News4Jax reports that "even as movie theaters across the country shut down to help slow the spread of COVID-19," the small Ocala Drive-In theater continues "to show new films and classics to moviegoers desperate for a night out."

The story notes that "only 14 movie theaters were open in the U.S. last week, according to Deadline, and 13 were drive-in theaters. According to research done by writer Ernie Smith, the Ocala drive-in made up the entire revenue of the top-grossing film of last weekend, Swallow, which brought in $1,710."

“Anybody that knows me and knows the drive-in knows I don’t close,” says owner John Watzke.  “I’ve had hurricanes come, I’ve stayed open until the power went off and I had no one in the parking lot … The old cliché ‘the show must go on’ is not a cliché in my family: It’s a way of life."

•  The Boston Globe reports on that city's mask vigilantes, who are pulling few punches in their efforts to make sure that everyone is living up to what they see as a critical social compact.

An excerpt:

"Never mind that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear cloth masks in public settings where social distancing is hard to maintain, that Massachusetts and some cities and towns are urging or ordering residents to cover their faces, and that a new study suggests that simply speaking could transmit the COVID-19 virus.

"Some people still consider the whole germ-transmission thing a hoax. Or they don’t think they’ll get infected, or don’t like having their glasses fog, or their Amazon order hasn’t yet arrived, and they can’t sew, or, apparently, tie a bandana. Or, the rules are so confusing about what you’re supposed to wear where that they actually think they’re doing the right thing and that it’s the mask scolds who are in the wrong.

"Or, whatever.

"Mask tension is turning intense, as believers try to enforce a social contract that some others want no part of."

In all seriousness, I think before long we'll be seeing news stories about fights breaking out, weapons being brandished, and people being arrested … all because of mask etiquette.  The world just feels like that at the moment.  (I'm trying not to be a vigilante about it, but I must admit that I find the people who don't wear masks to be selfish … wearing one helps to prevent people from infecting others.  I figure it is the least I can do as a citizen of the planet.)

I just hope we don't get to the point of mass hysteria…