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    Published on: May 15, 2020

    Yesterday, KC showed you the new subscription meat service, Butcher Box, that he's using.  Today, he tests it out by grilling up some pork chops.  And he still thinks that this is a fascinating and competitive entry in a world where going to the store seems less attractive (and meat shortages may be in our future).

    Published on: May 15, 2020

    From the New York Times this morning:

    "Retail sales fell 16.4 percent last month, the Commerce Department said Friday, by far the largest monthly drop on record. That followed an 8.3 percent drop in March, the previous record. Total sales for April, which include retail purchases in stores and online as well as money spent at bars and restaurants, were the lowest since 2012, even without accounting for inflation.

    "Some of the declines in individual categories were staggering. Restaurants and bars lost half their business over two months. At furniture and home furnishings stores, sales were off by two-thirds. At clothing stores, the two-month decline was 89 percent.

    "Increased sales from online retailers didn’t come close to offsetting the downturn elsewhere."

    Published on: May 15, 2020

    The Wall Street Journal has a piece about the problems affecting the global food supply chain, concluding that while the coronavirus pandemic may be a problem, it is far from being the only problem.

    "The coronavirus pandemic hit the world at a time of plentiful harvests and ample food reserves," the Journal writes.  "Yet a cascade of protectionist restrictions, transport disruptions and processing breakdowns has dislocated the global food supply and put the planet’s most vulnerable regions in particular peril."

    The Journal goes on:   "Prices for staples such as rice and wheat have jumped in many cities, in part because of panic buying set off by export restrictions imposed by countries eager to ensure sufficient supplies at home. Trade disruptions and lockdowns are making it harder to move produce from farms to markets, processing plants and ports, leaving some food to rot in the fields.

    "At the same time, more people around the world are running short of money as economies contract and incomes shrivel or disappear. Currency devaluations in developing nations that depend on tourism or depreciating commodities like oil have compounded those problems, making imported food even less affordable."

    Arif Husain, chief economist at the United Nations’ World Food Program, explains to the Journal that in the past we've had supply crises and demand crises - but now we have both at the same time, at a global level, which "makes it unprecedented and uncharted.”

    The irony, according to Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is that we are having "a food crisis with lots of food."

    KC's View:

    One of the points that the story makes is that if, as some predictions suggest, "up to three dozen nations could face famines by the end of the year, potentially pushing an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation," this also has the potential of creating enormous political upheaval on a global scale.  Which would make the problem worse … and possibly make sheltering-at-home seem inconsequential when seen in the context of the bigger picture.

    As I read the Journal  story and thought about it, a soundtrack for what we're going through came to mind…because we may in fact find ourselves "desperately in need of some strangers hand In a desperate land…"

    Published on: May 15, 2020

    CNBC has a story about how "US shoppers are making more trips to the dollar store. They’re stocking up with items from stores’ private-label brands more than usual and cutting back on snacks and sodas at convenience stores."

    The story goes on:  "In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, customers stockpiled food, toilet paper and other essentials for prolonged stays at home. They shopped for different kinds of items, such as hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes to stay healthy, computer monitors to set up home offices and supplies to help kids attend school remotely. And they began filling up bigger baskets as they avoided stores or made less frequent shopping trips."

    What this all suggests, economists tell CNBC, is an economic downtown.

    Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, CNBC writes, " the financial picture has become bleaker. Unemployment has risen to 14.7%, after 20.5 million people lost their jobs in April alone. The total number of jobless claims is up to 33.5 million over the past seven weeks. Pay cuts have squeezed family budgets. Even those with the same income may feel uneasy, as they read unemployment reports or see neighbors, family or friends get furloughed or laid off."

    KC's View:

    The question that both retailers and suppliers have to answer, as they form their own short-term and long-term responses to these circumstances, is whether they believe that the economy is primed to quickly recover from what will be a brief recession, or whether we will be facing something more extended that looks more like some sort of depression.

    I really want to be optimistic here.  But I am finding it difficult.

    Published on: May 15, 2020

    From this morning's New York Times:

    "J. Crew and Neiman Marcus were each facing a host of issues before the coronavirus pandemic forced them to close their stores and eventually file for bankruptcy, including trouble adjusting to the rise of e-commerce and a lack of connection with a new generation of shoppers.

    "But they also shared one increasingly common problem for retailers in dire straits: an enormous debt burden — roughly $1.7 billion for J. Crew and almost $5 billion for Neiman Marcus — from leveraged buyouts led by private equity firms. Like many other retailers, J. Crew and Neiman over the past decade paid hundreds of millions of dollars in interest and fees to their new owners, when they needed to spend money to adapt to a shifting retail environment. And when the pandemic wiped out much of their sales, neither had anywhere to go for relief except court."

    The story adds that "a report from the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy group in Brooklyn, said 10 of the 14 largest retail chain bankruptcies since 2012 involved companies that private equity firms had acquired."

    It is a depressing story, but one totally worth reading here.

    Published on: May 15, 2020

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

    •  In the US, there have been 1,458,126 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 86,937 fatalities and 318,027 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 4,546,961 coronavirus cases, with 303,895 deaths and 1,716,271 reported recoveries.

    •  From the Los Angeles Times:

    "While parts of the United States rush to open restaurants, stores and public places, Canada — fearful of the high coronavirus contamination rates to the south — is rushing to keep the 5,525-mile border closed for nearly six more weeks.

    "Under a likely agreement between the two countries, Canada and the U.S. will continue to permit a portion of the trade that ordinarily accounts for more than $1 million a minute and supports nearly 1.2 million jobs in California. But since border restrictions were put in place, the traffic that in normal times accounts for 200,000 border crossings a day has ground to a virtual halt; 24 of the top 25 border gateways to Canada, for example, had no wait times for automobiles Wednesday."

    The Trudeau government, the story says, remains "concerned that virus cells in states bordering Canada, especially Washington, Michigan and New York, pose a danger to its citizens."

    Build that wall, eh?

    •  Kroger said yesterday that "it has hired more than 100,000 workers in the past eight weeks, including those from the hardest-hit sectors like restaurants, hotels and food

    service distributors."  The company says that prior to the crisis, its  workforce "topped 460,000 associates and recent hiring efforts have helped the retailer to provide continuous access to fresh, affordable food and essential products to communities during the pandemic."

    The retailer says that it has "invested $700 million since March to reward associates and safeguard associates, customers and communities, and in a statement, CEO Rodney McMullen said, “In the coming months, we know that our associates’ needs will continue to evolve and change, and our commitment is that we will continue to listen, be responsive and make decisions that advance the needs of our associates, customers, communities and business."

    The statement about people hired and money invested comes as Kroger looks to back off some of the hourly bonuses it gave to employees as hazard pay during the height of the pandemic crisis.  I get this - this was seen by Kroger as being a temporary solution to a temporary problem.  But the optics don't look great, especially if we discover in coming months that these employees' exposure to health hazards persist because the virus is a foe unwilling to be vanquished.

    •  The BBC reports that "Amazon says it will produce hundreds of thousands of face shields for medics and sell them at cost price in the US.

    "The internet giant said engineers from its drone and hardware divisions had been tasked with developing the product.

    "At first, it will sell them to healthcare professionals, before making them available to all Amazon customers."

    The story says that "Amazon said that it had donated 10,000 face shields in the US and was "on track" to deliver a further 20,000.  But its plan to sell them at low prices on its website will make them available to the general public, something other firms have not done."

    •  From the Washington Post:

    "Covid-19 screening guidelines in Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania suggest that workers with temperatures of at least 100.4 degrees should be sent home because they could be infected with the novel coronavirus.

    "But the cutoff is 100 degrees in Texas. And even lower in Minnesota and Delaware: 99.5 degrees.

    "Some states don’t suggest temperature screenings at all.

    "As states slowly start to reopen after weeks of coronavirus shutdowns, companies and workers face a patchwork of safety guidelines about what temperature should be a covid-19 warning sign."

    The potential here is that the differences between states' and companies' standards will create holes through which the virus can travel … and infect and kill.  How is this not a national standard?

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks will partly reopen to the public next week …  part of a federal push to end several of the closings caused by the coronavirus … The parks are two of the most iconic and popular sites in the national-park system and will both start gradual reopenings on Monday, according to the Interior Department. Many of their services will remain closed, but visitors will get access to some of Yellowstone’s most popular spots, including Old Faithful, and recreation sites across Grand Teton, Interior said."

    Smokey the Bear and Yogi Bear reportedly have laid in a large supply of masks, gloves and paw sanitizer.

    •  The New York Times reports that "in summer resort towns across the United States, livelihoods for the year are built in the 15 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It is during those 15 weeks that tourists from around the country and the world arrive to bask on the beach and gather for festivals and weddings. And it is during those three months that tour operators, hoteliers, innkeepers, restaurant employees and others earn the bulk of their income.

    "But this year, with Memorial Day — the kickoff for summer — approaching, there will be fewer guests to welcome and likely no sizable weddings or festivals to host. Business owners in resort areas, from Cape Cod, Mass., to Lake Chelan, Wash., say that as the start of summer approaches, they are having to face the difficult reality that little money will be made this year … Between canceled trips and uncertainty about how willing and financially able people will be to travel once shelter-in-place rules are lifted, business owners say that even if summer travel starts late, it won’t make up for losses that have already been incurred."

    •  QSR reports that McDonald's "is implementing initiatives to accelerate franchise recovery and enforcing new safety guidelines in preparation of dining rooms reopening across the country."  In addition to spending "one month’s worth of marketing support," McDonald's is "enforcing new standards for dining rooms as states begin to lift mandates … Those new guidelines include closing some seating to accommodate social distancing, increasing the frequency of cleaning high-touch surfaces, continuing to mandate that employees wear masks and gloves and providing masks to customers where it’s required … If customers are dining in, food will be delivered to the table in a double-folded bag. Restaurants may post signage to let customers know which tables have been cleaned.

    "The new requirements come after McDonald’s implemented nearly 50 process changes in its restaurants, like providing hand sanitizer to customers, placing social distancing decals inside stores, closing the soda fountain, and installing protective panels at the front counter."

    •  Steve Hafner, CEO of Booking Holdings’ OpenTable and travel site Kayak, tells Bloomberg that he believes one out of every four restaurants won't come back … With most restaurants being closed or open for takeout only, reservations on OpenTable's services were down 95% on May 13 from the same day a year ago, said the report.

    "The National Restaurant Association says some $30 billion was lost by its members in March, and $50 billion in April."

    •  USA Today reports that "with millions working from home or unemployed due to the coronavirus, quarantine wardrobes opt for comfort versus restricted clothes, be it shape wear or even simply jeans.

    "And new data supports the claims that have already been memorialized both in memes on social media and the butt of many coronavirus jokes.

    "According to Adobe Analytics, April was a record month for apparel, with prices decreasing 12% from March. The cuts helped apparel gain a 34% increase in sales.

    "But consumers shifted their apparel purchases toward comfortable home clothes. Adobe found pants sales dropped 13%, bras 12% and jackets 33% while online pajama sales increased a whopping 143%."

    •  A couple of stories indicate how major cities are rethinking their urban infrastructure in the wake of the enormous impact of the pandemic.

    In New York, WNYC reports, "The city had already opened up nine miles of street space for pedestrians and cyclists to move about while social distancing.

    Today, that number increases to 21, moving the city closer to the mayor's goal of opening 40 miles of streets by the start of summer.

    The 12 newest miles added to the open streets initiative include 2.8 miles adjacent to city parks; 7.6 miles opened with the cooperation of local precincts; and 1.3 miles in Business Improvement Districts. 

    "As the weather gets warmer, people are gravitating to parks," says Mayor Bill de Blasio. "[We] want to make sure there's space so there isn't crowding."

    But, he added, ""We need to see this as a transformational moment. Even with all the pain, even with all the challenges, we are not going to bring New York City back the way it was. We're going to bring it back in some ways that are different and better.  I want to see ideas on how we maximize mass transit, minimize use of automobiles, think about this in terms of fighting global warming and pollution, think about it in terms of fighting congestions, and think about it in terms of equity for communities."

    And, from the Boston Globe:

    "More commuters biking to work downtown. Pedestrians giving one another a wide berth on city sidewalks. More travel lanes dedicated exclusively to buses. Restaurant tables spilling out past the sidewalks and into the streets.

    "To accommodate social distancing as the economy lurches back, business districts are going to need a lot more room outside, while city planners see an opportunity to make biking, walking, and riding the bus safer before Boston’s soul-crushing traffic returns.

    "Mayor Martin J. Walsh is hinting at just such a makeover for parts of the city, largely by taking some street space away from car traffic and redeploying it."

    The Globe continues:  "Boston’s chief of streets, Chris Osgood, said taking street space could serve several objectives: accommodating lines of people outside businesses with capacity limits, creating outdoor seating for restaurants, adding more bus-only lanes to help the MBTA improve service and cut down on crowding, and making more room for walking and cycling."

    One of the challenges in this approach is that it pretty much requires people to use more mass transit - which doesn't seem particularly desirable at the moment because of the crowding inherent in using a bus or subway.  But … these have to be viewed as long-term goals that will make our cities more livable and, in turn, the fragile planet more sustainable.

    Published on: May 15, 2020

    The Wall Street Journal reports that FedEx has imposed limits on the number of shipments some two dozen major retailers  are allowed to send, as it "tries to prevent its network from being overwhelmed during the coronavirus pandemic."

    The problem is that "many retailers have seen e-commerce sales surge since they were ordered to close thousands of their stores, a shift that has unleashed a flood of packages into FedEx’s delivery network. They have converted stores into makeshift warehouses to help fulfill more of the orders, scrambling the normal flow of online shipments from distribution centers to homes."

    Shipping levels at the moment are similar to what might been seen during peak periods like the end-of-year holidays, but FedEx - like its shipping brethren - usually can plan both internally ands externally for how to handle the crush effectively.  But a pandemic wasn't on the calendar, leaving FedEx and its customers making up solutions as they went along.

    Among the retailers affected are Bed Bath & Beyond, Eddie Bauer, Kohl's, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstrom.

    KC's View:

    Particularly interesting in view of our next story…

    Published on: May 15, 2020

    The Washington Post this morning reports that the US Postal Service (USPS) "has begun a review of its package delivery contracts," and is seeking to hire a consultancy "to reassess what it charges companies such as Amazon, UPS and FedEx to deliver products on their behalf - often in the 'last mile' between a post office and a customer’s home."

    The move comes as the USPS undergoes leadership changes that are seen as putting it more in line with the wishes of President Donald Trump, who has consistently criticized the Post Office for charging companies such as Amazon too little.  (The Trump criticisms may have some connection to his antipathy for Amazon founder-CEO Jeff Bezos, who in a private investment owns the Washington Post, which has been aggressive in its coverage of the administration.)

    The Post writes that "recent developments show that Trump’s efforts to reshape the USPS are gaining traction. By the end of next month, every member of the agency’s bipartisan governing board will be a Trump appointee. Democratic vice chairman David Williams resigned April 30, fed up with Trump’s approach to the agency, according to people familiar with his thinking … Also, Deputy Postmaster General Ronald A. Stroman submitted his resignation on May 8. Stroman had years of experience working with congressional Democrats and had become the agency point man on vote-by-mail initiatives for the November election."

    And Trump last week named  Louis DeJoy, the finance chairman of the 2020 Republican National Convention, to be the new postmaster general.

    KC's View:

    Here's the most important sentence from the Post story…

    "Higher package rates would cost shippers and online retailers billions of dollars, potentially spurring them to invest in their own distribution networks instead of relying on the Postal Service."

    This is all "potential," not certainty.  But I would hope that any analysis of existing contracts includes a forecast about what would happen if all that business went away.

    Replacing the Post Office would be harder than it sounds;  just think about the story this morning about FedEx having to limit shipments from some retailers because of stresses on its system.  But they wouldn't have to replace the Post Office overnight, and there may be some innovative alliances that could make it all work.

    Published on: May 15, 2020

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  The Dallas Morning News reports that Amazon is is hiring in that market for a new 855,000 square foot fulfillment center that it says will provide 1,500 jobs "that pay $15 an hour with immediate medical insurance and 401(k) matches."

    It is, the story says, "Amazon’s first new site to open in Texas since the coronavirus pandemic began."

    That last line from the Morning News strikes me as kind of funny, since the pandemic really only has been with us for a few months.  But I guess that tells us something about how fast Amazon is expanding its footprint.

    Published on: May 15, 2020

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  From the Detroit News:

    "Meijer is expanding its store hours starting Friday, including adding more time for dedicated shopping by senior citizens, front-line workers and those with chronic health conditions … Meijer had reduced its store hours from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. March 20 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, and offered one hour twice a week to dedicated shopping for seniors, essential workers, the chronically ill and company employees."

    “These extended hours will best serve all our customers and provide more flexibility to shop Meijer stores,” said CEO-president Rick Keyes. “As communities begin to reopen, it’s more important than ever that we find new ways to adjust and reshape how our important than ever that we find new ways to adjust and reshape how our customers shop for products they need while keeping their families safe.”

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "Grocer Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize NV says it is accelerating development of a robotic arm because Covid-19 created an urgent need for technology to help workers clean stores and process orders.

    "'All the researchers said this Covid situation is so urgent, we see a direct application for our work right now because there’s scarcity of people who can work in stores,' said Bart Voorn, the Dutch grocery giant’s director of data, artificial intelligence and robotics.

    "The robotic arm is connected to a mobile base that eventually will be able to navigate around shops, he said. Developers in the company’s two AI research labs, which it opened last year in the Netherlands, are testing the technology. Ahold Delhaize partners with universities in the Netherlands for its AI research."

    This is, the story suggests, one sign that "some companies will increase automation as they adjust to the economic pressures of the coronavirus pandemic."

    •  The Consumer Brands Association (CBA) - the trade association formerly known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) - has "called on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to prioritize supply chain performance and resiliency by developing a National Supply Chain Index and Performance Dashboard," saying that such an dashboard "would house the necessary data to provide an early warning system about potential supply chain issues and disruptions using both public and private sector data sources. The increased transparency and visibility of a supply chain index could also help drive strategic policymaking, inform private sector investment, forecast inflation and aid in emergency response efforts."

    “Perhaps no time in history has highlighted the degree to which supply chains shape the health and well-being of our nation,” wrote Tom Madrecki, vice president, supply chain and logistics, Consumer Brands, in a letter to Secretary Ross. “The acute evaluation and benchmarking of supply chains would mark an important step toward friction point visibility and pinpointing, prioritizing and addressing supply chain challenges.”

    •  MarketWatch  reports that "J.C. Penney Co. Inc.  is poised to file for bankruptcy protection in the coming days, according to multiple reports … The battered retailer has a roughly $4 billion debt load, and was facing serious financial problems even before the coronavirus pandemic forced it to temporarily shut all its stores."

    The story notes that "Penney operates more than 800 stores in the U.S., employing about 90,000 people."

    •  Bankrupt fast food chain Krystal is selling itself "for approximately $48 million to an affiliate of its senior lender Fortress Investment Group … The deal involves a $27 million credit bid and the assumption of liabilities up to $21.5 million from Fortress affiliate DB KRST Investors LLC," Marketplace reports.

    Krystal, the story notes "oversees approximately 300 units in the Southeast including Mississippi, Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Tennessee."

    •  USA Today reports that there are some projections out there suggesting that by 2026, Amazon founder-CEO Jeff Bezos is likely to become the world's first trillionaire.

    Analyst Comparisun says that its projection "is based on taking the average percentage of yearly growth over the past five years and applying it to future years.

    Comparisun shows Bezos' net worth grew an average of 34% over the last five years."

    It is a projection and status that Bezos might prefer to avoid.  After all, we're in the early stages of a recession that some worry could worsen and become a depression, and Amazon already is being criticized for a variety of labor practices.   Having the boss become a trillionaire isn't necessarily the best look.

    Published on: May 15, 2020

    •  The Global Cold Chain Alliance announced that it has hired Matthew Ott, most recently Executive Vice President/COO of the National Grocers Association (NGA) as well as executive director of the NGA Foundation, to be its new president/CEO, effective June 1.

    Published on: May 15, 2020

    We were casting about for something to watch last Saturday night, and somehow arrived on Instant Family, the Mark Wahlberg-Rose Byrne comedy from two years ago.  To be honest, it wasn't my choice - we've agreed that Mrs. Content Guy and I alternate weekends in terms of making movie decisions.  (The one rule - we have to choose a movie the other person hasn't seen.  Which is important, because it means she can't make me watch The Sound of Music.  Of course, she's relieved that I can't make her watch The Searchers, which she hates … something I didn't know before I married her.  Never considered making her take a Diner-like test before the nuptials.)

    But I digress.

    Instant Family, it ends up, is an absolute delight - what Hollywood would call "a comedy with heart," and in this case they'd be right.

    The plot is a simple one - a couple that has decided to adopt ends up with three siblings, and they have to find their way through a minefield of emotions and expectations.  What gives it unexpected heft is that it feels largely authentic - which makes sense since it is based in part on the experience of director and co-writer Sean Anders.

    Instant Family has moments that are instantly recognizable to anyone who has children, and Wahlberg and Byrne are excellent at finding the reality and mining the natural comedy in their characters' situations and emotions.  Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro are great in their scenes as social workers helping the new parents navigate the system, and Margo Martindale is wonderful in a small role as Wahlberg's overbearing mother who is far wiser than he initially realizes.

    I laughed.  I teared up a bit.  And I came away from Instant Family very glad that I'd seen it.

    "Upload" is a new science fiction/comedy series on Amazon that is terrific - it is as if "The Good Place" mated with Defending Your Life, and their offspring were raised in "The Twilight Zone."  Which is a pretty good creative pedigree.

    "Upload" takes place in 2033, a technological future in which people facing their end of their lives can simply die in the traditional way and move on to whatever afterlife they believe in (if, indeed, there is one), or can have their essence uploaded to one of many simulated afterlives where they can interact with others and even with still-alive friends and families.

    Robbie Amell plays Nathan, a software developer who dies at a young age and finds himself in Lake View, a sumptuous afterlife where his existence is being paid for by his rich girlfriend, Ingrid (played with unexpected depth by Allegra Edwards).  Nathan's path is made easier and supervised by his online "angel," Nora - played by an utterly luminous Andy Allo.

    As "Upload" unfolds, there are mysteries to be solved and unexpected plot turns revealed, and it is never less than fascinating in its rather cynical view of humanity and yet simultaneous belief in people's ability to be good and do the right thing.  I like few things better than thought-provoking science fiction, and "Upload" manages to provide that while also giving us appealing performances and just the right amount of sharp comedy.

    Good stuff.

    I cooked something this week that I never made before - migas, which is sort of a first cousin to chilaquiles, which is one of my favorite dishes on earth.

    I got the recipe from a Mark Bittman video:

    When I made mine, I used crumbled  sourdough bread from Flour Water Salt, the bakery I told you about earlier this week.  I started by sautéeing some chopped onions and leftover cooked fingerling potatoes, then put them aside.  Then, I cooked the eggs and bread part of the dish … and when that was done, I added in the onions and potatoes, then sprinkled in some sharp cheddar and topped it with green salsa.

    Put it on a plate … with some warm tortillas … and it was delicious,  Maybe a little heavier on starch than would be preferable - if I'd had some chorizo sausage or bacon handy, I might've used that instead of potatoes - but we're sheltering at home, need to use what we have, and besides, comfort food is all about comfort.

    That's it for this week.  Have a great weekend … and I'll be back Monday.

    Stay safe.  Stay healthy.