retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic and how businesses and various business sectors are trying to recover from it, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

•  In the United States, there now have been 2,637,077 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 128,437 deaths and 1,093,456 reported recoveries.

Globally, we now have crossed two lines, with more than 10 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than a half-million fatalities.  Specifically:  10,267,259 cases, 504,757 deaths, and 5,568,672 reported recoveries.

•  The Washington Post this morning reports that "Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, told CNN on Sunday that an eventual vaccine for the coronavirus may not be enough to achieve herd immunity in the United States."

In addition, the Post writes, "in Florida, where the seven-day average of new cases has hit new highs for 21 days in a row, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said that young people who ignore social distancing rules were largely to blame for the rise in infections."

And, "as new coronavirus cases continue to rise in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has shut down bars in some areas of the state, including Los Angeles."

The Post also has an interview with former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb, in which he says that "the surging number of coronavirus cases could result in nearly half the country infected with the virus by the end of 2020.

“By the time we get to the end of this year, probably close to half the population will have had coronavirus, and that’s if we just stay at our current rate,” he told CNBC.  “We don’t need to vaccinate the entire population because a lot of people would have already had this by the time we get to a vaccination.”

The Post writes that "Gottlieb said parts of the country are showing signs of serious community spread that will probably increase in the coming weeks.

"Younger people appear to be the most impacted in those states, which means that death rates and hospitalization numbers might not be as severe as they were in the first wave, but all that could change with transmission … 'Eventually, it will start to seep into older people, more vulnerable people, and you’ll start to see the total number of deaths go up even if the death rate has come down,' he said. 'We’ll probably get above 1,000 deaths a day on average as the infection starts to widen out'."

•  From CBS News:

"H-E-B has announced they will once again be implementing purchasing limits on certain products, as Coronavirus cases continue to rise.

"While some products have remained under a purchasing limit since the COVID-19 outbreak, essential items, such as toilet paper and paper towels, have been added back to the list after buying restrictions were temporarily lifted."

The company said this was "in an effort to make sure all customers have access to products they need."

Texas currently is seeing a spike in coronavirus cases.

•  The Wall Street Journal reports that "at least 15,000 more Americans have died in recent months from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia than otherwise would have, health officials believe, pointing to how the coronavirus pandemic has exacted a higher fatality toll than official numbers have shown.

"As Covid-19 devastated older Americans this spring, often by racing through nursing homes, the deadly outbreaks compounded the devastation of Alzheimer’s and other forms of degenerative brain disorders that are common among elderly residents in long-term care facilities."

The story notes that "although not all the extra deaths were directly caused by the coronavirus, that fatality rate is 18% higher than average for those disorders in recent years."

The CDC also has compiled numbers suggesting that thousands more excess deaths have occurred from various diseases - hypertension (8,000), diabetes (5,000), stroke (3,700) and coronary artery disease (2,900) - during the past few months than ordinarily would.  Again, these folks aren't all dying directly because of Covid-19, but they may be dying as a result of the coronavirus disrupting the kind of care they would've gotten in more ordinary times.

•  The Dallas Morning News reports that Amazon is using its Flex drivers - who use their own cars to make deliveries and are paid $18-$25 per hour on an as-needed basis - to make deliveries to two area food banks chosen by the company "to receive monetary and delivery aid to manage the surge in food assistance needs created by COIVD-related job losses."  Amazon, the story says, "is using its drivers to provide contactless, doorstep deliveries for pre-packaged meals."

The story notes that "one location, Crossroads Community Service, saw a 400% spike in demand since February. The second location, Sharing Life, has seen a 200% increase in demand since mid-March."

•  Fox Business reports that "hourly Walmart employees in the U.S. received another coronavirus bonus … The bonuses were broken down to $300 for full-time hourly employees and $150 for part-time hourly and temporary employees who were employed as of June 5. This includes Walmart store and Sam's Club associates, supply chain and offices, truck drivers and assistant managers. A higher bonus of $400 was paid out to assistant managers at Sam's Club."

The story notes that Walmart has paid out close to $1 billion in various pandemic-related bonuses so far this year.

•  From the Associated Press:

"Lobster prices are falling in New England as the industry deals with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and they could drop even more later this summer, industry officials said.

"The American lobster fishing industry, based mostly in Maine, has had to cope with a supply chain that has been disrupted by the pandemic. Wholesale prices were lower than previous years this spring, and consumers started to see lower prices at markets earlier in June.

"Members of the industry said prices could likely fall more in July. America’s lobster catch typically picks up in the summer, when lobsters shed their shells and reach legal trapping size. This year, fishers will likely bring lobsters to the docks in a time when restaurants are slowed or shuttered and seafood processors aren’t taking nearly as many of the crustaceans, industry members said."

•  Axios has a story about how the pandemic has affected the fast food business, accelerating certain trends that work well for such restaurants.  By moving customers from dine-in options to advance ordering, pick-up and drive-through options, these locations are moving to offerings that have higher margins.  At the same time, many locations have trimmed their menus, which allow them to get rid of extraneous items and offer faster service.

The bottom line, according to Axios:  "Necessity and competition have spurred a solid 5 years or more of innovation in about 4 months."

•  The New York Times reports that "after decades of emphasizing ambience, BOGOs and Dollaritas, big restaurant chains like Fridays and Applebee’s are hyping germ-free dining as they try to coax customers back from quarantine. It’s a difficult sell, but a crucial one as the country attempts a lumbering return to normal."

The chains have to "adapt the familiar, beloved pageantry of chain-restaurant dining — featuring buoyant servers, unlimited breadsticks, ample portions, entrees with 'fiesta' or 'dragon glaze' in their name, and value, value, value — to the Covid-19 era."  The new playbook, the story says, "has particulars on everything from menus (one-page, disposable) to condiments (single-use containers only) to how diners should be greeted by hosts (with hand sanitizer)."

One example … "Several corporations have created a new job: designated scrubber. This is an employee who does nothing but roam the restaurant armed with spray bottles and paper towels, like a bounty hunter for microbes."

You want fries with that Lysol?  We haven't been to a restaurant since February, and to be honest, other than feeling a little cooped up, there isn't a lot calling out to us to get us to venture out.  A number of our friends have gone out to restaurants, and it sounds like it has been a mixed bag - happy to get out, happy with the restaurants where they've gone, but very aware of the other customers and how they are behaving.  It doesn't sound very relaxed … though, to be fair, I'm very conscious of other customers when I go to Whole Foods, Stew Leonard's or Stop & Shop.  Nothing feels very relaxed these days.

•  The Seattle Times reports that Sur La Table is blaming the pandemic for a series of moves it made last week - deciding to lay off 27 corporate employees, or roughly 20 percent of its headquarters staff, without severance packages, and laying the groundwork for the closing of five of its 130 retail stores.

Sur La Table closed all of its stores because of the pandemic on March 20, and says that despite “record growth” in online sales, it continues to suffer the "effects of the pandemic" as a result of those closures.

I happen to love Sur La Table, and so it gives me no pleasure to say this, but this may well be a case of using the pandemic as a convenient excuse to make cuts that probably would've had to happen anyway.  Everything I've seen has suggested that it over-expanded its store network and wasn't making money in the stores, and has had some leadership and strategic direction issues since being acquired by a Bahrain-based investment group.

•  There have been numerous stories in the media about the San Diego Starbucks store where a woman walked in without wearing a mask, and when 24-year old barista Lenin Gutierrez asked her if she had one, she started to curse him, flipped him the bird, took his picture, and then went on social media to criticize him.

The social media posting didn't exactly have the desired effect.  One person who read it felt bad for the barista, and so started a GoFundMe page where people could give Lenin tips and actually reward him for standing up to the customer.

As of this morning, Lenin's tip jar is pretty full:  it has $90,156.  (More than 2,000 people have donated.)

Matt Cowan, the man who launched the page, has pledged that all the money is going to Lenin, and has arranged for Lenin to meet with a financial advisor to help him understand the best way to handle the money.

It is worth noting that California has a state rule saying that you have to wear a mask if you are standing within six feet of other people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the wearing of masks to prevent transmission of the coronavirus to other people, and Starbucks' own request is that customers do so to protect other customers and employees.

Also worth noting that California's numbers have been going up … and so greater vigilance obviously is required.  (California has been pretty progressive about its approach to dealing with the virus, unlike some other states where infection numbers have been spiking, which is concerning to public health officials.)

•  The Hollywood Reporter has a story about how "Disneyland Resort employees on Saturday protested at the shuttered theme park over their disagreement of proposed conditions when the Anaheim destination once again reopens.

"The resort has been closed since mid-March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. However, the company made moves in recent weeks to reopen Disneyland; its initial targeted date for the theme park portions being July 17, which marks the 65th anniversary of its grand opening."

That date has been postponed because of concerns about infection spikes in California.

If Mickey and Minnie don't show up because they are afraid of being infected - after all, at their advanced age (they're both 91!) both would be considered high-risk - then the whole Disney thing falls apart.  

•  Variety reports that Disney has decided to delay the premiere of Mulan, its expected blockbuster summer movie, until August 21.

It is the third delay.  Mulan was scheduled to open in March, then was moved to July because the coronavirus closed all the nation's movie theaters.  While theaters have begun to reopen around the country, New York and Los Angeles - two markets critical to the success of movies released in theaters - remain problematic.

Variety notes that "the move comes after news that Warner Bros. postponed the release of Tenet, a sci-fi epic from director Christopher Nolan, for a second time. That film — starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson — is now expected to debut on Aug. 12.

Seems like a pretty good bet that both films could get delayed until Christmas, assuming that the studios remain firm on not putting them on pay-per-view.  The Washington Post characterizes these moves as "throwing in the towel" on July, but that may be an understatement….