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    Published on: July 24, 2020

    A planned vacation, cancelled.  A headline that reinforces how good an idea cancellation was.  And a story that illustrates just how delicate a balance we're maintaining right now as we deal with the pandemic.  KC reports.

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    The Wall Street Journal this morning reports about numerous cases in which Amazon or its venture capital arm has met with startups, sometimes made investments, but then launched competing products using at least some of the information that it gleaned from meetings and investments.

    "In some cases," the Journal writes, "Amazon’s decision to launch a competing product devastated the business in which it invested. In other cases, it met with startups about potential takeovers, sought to understand how their technology works, then declined to invest and later introduced similar Amazon-branded products, according to some of the entrepreneurs and investors."

    The Journal quotes an Amazon spokesperson as saying that "the company doesn’t use confidential information that companies share with it to build competing products."  And "former Amazon employees involved in previous deals say the company is so growth-oriented and competitive, and its innovation capabilities so vast, that it frequently can’t resist trying to develop new technologies - even when they compete with startups in which the company has invested."

    The story notes that "dealing with Amazon is often a double-edged sword for entrepreneurs. Amazon’s size and presence in many industries, including cloud-computing, electronic devices and logistics, can make it beneficial to work with. But revealing too much information could expose companies to competitive risks."

    You can read the story - with all the gory details - here.

    KC's View:

    If I were Amazon, this is not the story that I'd want to be coming out at the same time as I'm facing antitrust scrutiny from various arms of the federal government, not to mention testimony by founder-CEO Jeff Bezos before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.

    For the record, this story does not surprise me - I've had conversations with entrepreneurs over the years in which they've offered anecdotes about meetings with Amazon that went nowhere, but suddenly, months later, competing products or services were announced.

    If often has been noted here how Jeff Bezos is a Star Trek aficionado, but behavior like this makes him more like the Borg.

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    Politico reports that Monday's scheduled Congressional hearing that would have brought Amazon founder-CEO Jeff Bezos (virtually) in front of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee for a discussion of antitrust issues, is likely to be postponed.

    The reason:  Civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis, who passed away a week ago, is scheduled to lie in state in the Capitol next week, with a private ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday.

    A date for the rescheduled hearing has not been set.

    Also scheduled to appear virtually before the committee are Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    From Media Post:

    "Nearly half of Americans(45%) report they have changed at least one brand preference already, and a majority (62%) expect that their brand preferences will change permanently before the pandemic is over, according to new research from Omnicom’s Ketchum agency.

    The combination of the public health crisis and the movement for social justice has ushered in new priorities for most consumers, particularly around ethics and safety, per the report."

    The story goes on:  

    "The report segments consumers into four categories:  “Retro Re-engagers” (33% of consumers) who politically conservative and "ready to return to the world as it was" … 

    “Open-Minded Explorers” (22%) "have new priorities as they return to a world reopening" and "are most likely to change brand preferences post-COVID, more likely to be urban and educated" … “Worried Withholders” (20%) are not easily influenced, are politically centrist, somewhat conservative and the oldest persona. They are least likely to have changed their brand preferences during the pandemic" … and “Cautious Questioners” (25%), who "are politically liberal, twice as likely as the average American to feel very uncomfortable visiting shared spaces, most likely to have an underlying health risk, and most likely to feel positive about companies prioritizing diversity and inclusion in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests."

    KC's View:

    I think that the vast majority of people - regardless of their age or politics - would like the world to return to what it once was.  Many even might think that such a thing is possible, and, in the words of Ernest Hemingway in "The Sun Also Rises," "isn't it pretty to think so."

    The world has changed.  Not just by the pandemic, which could end up being just the second or third most important story of the year.

    There's another Hemingway line that captures the moment:  "The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    Bloomberg has a story about how Unilever-owned Ben & Jerry's has been taking its business online, finding a variety of ways to get product to customers during the pandemic.

    Here's how Bloomberg frames the story:

    "As restaurants shut down during the pandemic, crimping out-of-home sales, Unilever stepped up to the challenge of accepting customers’ orders at the click of a button and getting Ben & Jerry’s tubs to them before they liquefy.

    "Unilever’s Ice Cream Now online business, started about three years ago, is in full gear, delivering flavors such as Ben & Jerry’s Netflix and Chill’d. The Anglo-Dutch company has been forming partnerships with the likes of Domino’s Pizza and Deliveroo to build a wide network of e-commerce avenues. As heat waves spurred demand in recent months, Unilever could quickly adapt to changing consumer behavior because it had the online ice-cream business ready.

    "That helped Unilever defy analysts’ expectations for a slump in second-quarter revenue because of lockdowns. Growth in at-home consumption offset a 35% drop in on-the-go sales of ice cream. Online sales helped because they typically command prices higher than at supermarkets."

    The story notes that "Ben & Jerry’s has its own online store, and the flavors are also available through food-delivery specialists such as Grubhub and DoorDash that have enjoyed a surge in demand during global lockdowns as people tire of cooking extra meals for their families. The dessert arrives in a cooler with dry ice that keeps it at about -110 degrees Fahrenheit (-79 Celsius), cold enough to stay frozen until the evening of the delivery date, according to the website."

    KC's View:

    I think this is very smart … and also ought to be motivation for retailers to forge more innovative partnerships with suppliers, lest they be disintermediated out of the relationship.

    For years I've been ordering ice cream online - I love Graeter's, and while some of its flavors (like its Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip) are carried by some local supermarkets, I can go online and have access to a lot more flavors (like Maple Cinnamon Crunch, which in my house we refer to as French Toast ice cream).  I think of this as a long and particularly delicious tail…

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    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, we now have 4,170,333 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 147,342 deaths and 1,980,432 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 15,676,899 confirmed coronavirus cases, 636,966 fatalities and 9,562,907 reported recoveries.


    •  The New York Times reports that "officials in Washington State announced new restrictions on gatherings at restaurants, bars, weddings, funerals and other businesses. 'This is not the easy thing to do, but it is the right thing to do,' Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.

    "Alabama set a daily record for cases on Thursday, with 2,390. Four other states - Hawaii, Indiana, Missouri and New Mexico - also hit their single-day peak for new cases, while Florida and Tennessee had more virus-related deaths than on any other day."


    •  The Washington Post reports that "Florida set a single-day record for fatalities and the number of coronavirus-related deaths across the United States surpassed 1,000 for the third consecutive day. More than 71,500 new cases of the virus were reported nationwide, as the U.S. infection rate has doubled in less than a month."


    •  Referring to the substantial outbreaks in Florida, Texas and California, Dr. Deborah Birx, the Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told NBC's "Today Show" this morning that "what we have right now is essentially three New Yorks … and that's why you see us calling for masks and increased social distancing."


    •  From the New York Times:

    "As global cases keep soaring, the virus rebounds in places that seemed to have tamed it.

    As the pandemic continues to grow around the world — new cases have risen more than 35 percent since the end of June — troubling resurgences have hit several places that were seen as models of how to respond to the virus.

    "An outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, has rattled officials after extensive testing and early lockdowns had limited outbreaks for months. Hong Kong — where schools, restaurants and malls were able to stay open — has announced new restrictions in the face of its largest outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic. And cases have surged in Tokyo, which has avoided a full lockdown and relied on aggressive contact tracing to contain flare-ups.

    "Spain’s reopening has stumbled in the month after it lifted a national lockdown. New cases have quadrupled, with high infection rates among young people, and forced hundreds of thousands of people to return to temporary lockdown.

    "As governments around the world look to relax rules put in place to combat the virus, the experiences show how difficult it will be to keep outbreaks at bay. And they reflect, in some places, a weakening public tolerance for restrictions as the pandemic drags on."

    The Times goes on:  "The biggest sources of new infections continue to be the United States, Brazil and India; the director general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, noted this week that almost half of all cases worldwide came from just three countries.  But the quick turn for the worse in places that once seemed to have gained the upper hand shows the range of vulnerabilities the virus is able to exploit."

    This is the hard part, folks.  It actually ought to be sort of easy to lock things down and shelter at home when people are dropping around you.  It is a lot harder to continue to be vigilant and disciplined when things seem to get better, because that's when things can go south.  Fast.  (That's why I remain skeptical about the return of sports and downright negative about the reopening of bricks-and-mortar schools.)

    Yes, I know a lot of you think I'm beating a dead horse here.   But I remain hopeful that the horse ain't dead yet, and that as a culture we'll find the gumption to do what is necessary to beat this thing.


    •  President Trump yesterday announced that the Jacksonville, Florida, segment of the Republican National Convention, scheduled for a month from now, is being cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak that is ravaging the state.

    The Wall Street Journal writes that "the president said delegates would still travel to Charlotte, N.C., the initial site of the convention, on Monday, Aug. 24, to formally nominate him for president. Mr. Trump said he would still give an acceptance speech, but didn’t offer other details, adding that he hadn’t decided where that would take place."


    •  In the UK, the Independent reports that "supermarket giants have said they will not enforce new laws that make it compulsory for customers to wear face masks from Friday.  Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda are among the retailers who have said they will not challenge customers failing to wear a face covering and that it falls on police to penalise people."

    The government yesterday "issued guidance on regulations that require people to wear masks in shops, takeaways, supermarkets, shopping centres and transport hubs."

    First of all, it is a shame when people don't do what is necessary to keep their families, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens safe - because that's what masks do.

    But it also is a bit of letdown to find out that the Brits may be falling into the same trap as some Americans.  When I think of the UK, I think of Winston Churchill, who once said, "As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us."

    In other words, people should do the right thing, and responsible retailers - that want to keep their employees and customers safe - need to carry that mantle … and consider another Churchillian bit of wisdom:  "Don't argue about the difficulties. The difficulties will argue for themselves."


    •  From the Los Angeles Times:

    "A conservative group that has fought California’s stay-at-home orders is suing Gov. Gavin Newsom over his school-closure mandate for counties with high rates of COVID-19.

    "The lawsuit announced Tuesday by the Center for American Liberty is aimed at halting Newsom’s order, announced Friday, that forbids all public and private schools from reopening for in-person learning in counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list until those counties meet certain criteria.

    "The lawsuit accuses Newsom of putting politics ahead of children and denying children access to a meaningful education. It says school closures will disproportionately hurt students of low-income families, students with disabilities and students of color."

    There is no question that school districts and state and local governments have to do a better job making sure that "low-income families, students with disabilities and students of color" are not disadvantaged by e-learning (though I'd argue that in a lot of places, those kids are disadvantaged by their school systems in the best of times).  But sending these kids into what essentially are petrie dishes of virus so they get sick and potentially pass the disease along to their family members, seems just plain stupid.  


    •  The degree to which the pandemic has completely disrupted the traditional film industry became clear yesterday as the major studios tore up their upcoming release schedules because they simply don't know when movie theaters will reopen and seem appealing to audiences.

    Variety reports that "Disney has pulled Mulan from the studio’s release calendar as cases of coronavirus continue to rise across the country and new outbreaks roil major foreign markets … This is the fourth big-screen delay for Mulan.  It was initially scheduled to debut on March 27, but the film was pulled just before its planned release as coronavirus first began to spread in North America. Disney moved the film to July 24 and then to Aug. 21."

    USA Today writes that "Paramount Studios delayed two of its biggest 2020 films on Thursday, horror sequel A Quiet Place Part II and Tom Cruise vehicle Top Gun: Maverick, to next year.   Walt Disney Studios pulled Mulan off its release schedule and pushed the next Avatar and Star Wars films a year."

    The A Quiet Place sequel, which was set for a September 4 release, now will come out on April 23, 2021.  Top Gun: Maverick, which was scheduled for a December 23 release, now will come out on July 2, 2021.

    Variety reports that "AMC Theatres has delayed plans to reopen its cinemas as coronavirus cases surge across the United States. The company, which ranks as the country’s largest movie theater chain with more than 600 locations, will now open its venues in mid to late August."

    Want to bet?

    At the same time, Variety reports that "Warner Bros. is adjusting its movie production and distribution plans in light of the prolonged shutdown of theaters driven by the coronavirus pandemic, AT&T CEO John Stankey told investors Thursday.

    "Stankey emphasized that the studio still 'believes in the theatrical experience' but said it is inevitable that some titles planned for a traditional theatrical will have to shift to streaming platforms including WarnerMedia’s newly launched HBO Max."

    AT&T, which owns Warner Bros., probably will be as open to shifting technology as anyone, since it services so many screens and devices.  It is more wedded to the idea of eyeballs than it is to venues.  So it is willing to not just accept disruption, but enable it.

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    From Marketing Daily:

    "Buffalo Wild Wings aims to bring the in-stadium experience to its locations for fans  who would rather be back in the stands cheering for their teams.

    "To celebrate the return of sports, the restaurant will debut a 60-second spot from The Martin Agency on ESPN during the Washington/New York game that features beloved beer vendor Clarence Haskett, aka 'Fancy Clancy,' a fixture at Baltimore Orioles games for 45 years. The emotion-laden spot shows empty stadiums and laments all the things sports fans will miss by not attending in person. The happy ending shows how the restaurant aims to compensate with in-store activations.

    "B-Dubs will recognize the return of baseball at its sports bar just steps away from the stadium in Washington --  where the game will be played without fans -- by recreating the sights, sounds and atmosphere of a ballpark."

    The thing is, this is a very good commercial … except for the fact that when it is over, one realizes that for the same reason that it doesn't make sense for fan to crowd into the ballpark, it doesn't make sense to crowd into a Buffalo Wild Wings.  In fact, they don't really show us the inside of the restaurant, or people distancing, which seems like a bit of a balk.

    So for me, it is a swing and a miss.

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    •  From USA Today:

    "Amazon is introducing boxes with a built-in play factor.

    "Starting this week, some Amazon orders will be delivered in 'more environmentally friendly' boxes that can be turned into a rocket, car or fort for your pet, a robot costume or a mini-golf windmill … The boxes are part of Amazon's 'Less Packaging, More Smiles' program and include a call to action to recycle the boxes and a QR code that directs consumers to Amazon.com/ThisBox for how to make the cardboard creations."


    •  Reuters reports that Amazon is negotiating to take a 9.9 percent stake "in the retail arm of Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries."

    According to the story, "Amazon wants a preferred, strategic stake in Reliance Retail for JioMart, according to tweets by the television channel.  JioMart, the e-commerce venture of Reliance's retail arm, was launched in May and poses a formidable challenge to Amazon.com's local unit and Walmart Inc's Flipkart."

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    •  The Boston Globe reports that "the lead attorney in the class-action lawsuit against Whole Foods over the grocery store’s decision to discipline employees who wore Black Lives Matter face coverings is ripping the company for 'falsely attacking' one of the plaintiffs in the case."

    After the suit was filed, a Whole Foods spokesperson went public with comments that "Savannah Kinzer - a former employee at the chain’s River Street location in Cambridge who was fired over the weekend after organizing protests against the policy - was fired for 'not working her assigned shifts, reporting late for work multiple times in the past nine days and choosing to leave during her scheduled shifts' … The company, which is being sued for alleged discrimination and retaliation, emphasized that no employees were fired for wearing a Black Lives Matter mask. Kinzer is the only Whole Foods employee involved in the action who has been fired."

    Shannon Liss-Riordan, the labor lawyer representing Kinzer and 13 other plaintiffs in the case, tells the Globe that "their decision to retaliate against employees expressing support for this racial justice movement was bad enough, but their efforts to disparage an amazing activist and leader are beyond the pale … We look forward to making our argument in federal court."

    Obviously, I have no idea if Kinzer was fired for legitimate reasons, or if this is retaliation.  But from a business point of view, this just seems both off-brand for Whole Foods, and the wrong hill to die on.  


    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "Brooks Brothers Inc. reached a deal with Sparc Group LLC - the venture created by Authentic Brands Group LLC and mall owner Simon Property Group Inc. - to sell the company for $305 million.

    "Sparc’s offer will be subject to higher and better bids due by Aug. 5 and has been designated as the 'stalking horse,' setting a minimum for others to beat. The company has set a deadline of Aug. 11 to complete a sale to a buyer.  Sparc has also committed to keeping 125 of the company’s stores open."


    •  Bloomberg reports that "Ascena Retail Group Inc., owner of the Ann Taylor and Lane Bryant clothing chains, will close more than half its stores and hand control to its lenders after the Covid-19 pandemic tipped the debt-laden retailer into bankruptcy.

    "The court filing on Thursday is the latest among U.S. retailers that have been pushed over the edge by shutdowns tied to the outbreak. The Chapter 11 action allows Ascena to avoid a permanent shutdown, cut its borrowings and close weak stores to minimize costs."

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    The pandemic shortened Major League Baseball season began yesterday, with the New York Yankees defeating the Washington Nationals 4-2 in a rain-shortened six-inning game, and the Los Angeles Dodgers beating the San Francisco Giants 8-1.

    Some other baseball notes…

    •  ESPN reports that "Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agreed Thursday to expand the playoffs to 16 teams for the 2020 season, the sides announced … All second-place teams in the six divisions will now qualify for the playoffs. The seventh and eighth teams in each league will be chosen by best record.

    "The first round of the playoffs, scheduled for Sept. 29-Oct. 2, in each league will be four three-game series with all games played at the higher seed's home stadium. The rest of the rounds will be their customary length: The two Division Series in each league will be five-game series, while the AL and NL Championship Series and World Series will be seven-game series."


    •  Variety reports that "when Major League Baseball kicks off its 2020 season, fans won’t be allowed to sit in many of the ballparks. Viewers who watch any of four games broadcast over Fox or Fox Sports 1 this Saturday may not notice.

    "The Fox Corporation-owned outlet intends to fill the seats of Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, Nationals Park and Petco Park with hundreds of virtual attendees, and will do the same at all the ballparks from which it broadcasts games over the next several weeks. It’s part of the company’s effort to bring fans of the national pastime a game that looks and sounds like a traditional event, not one played in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic."

    When you consider the degree to which the networks can use digital technology when covering the games, it makes perfect sense that they'll be able to put virtual fannies in the seats.

    KC's View:

    Dr. Anthony Fauci threw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals game, and it was a less than impressive effort.

    But I think it is important to see it a different way.  As one commentator said last night, if you looked at it one way, it appeared that he was flattening out the curve…

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    A couple of weeks ago we featured a conversation with Aaron Meyer, the Portland, Oregon-based rock violinist who we talked about a few years ago on MNB as an example of competitive differentiation.

    Aaron also offered the MNB community a brief preview of a virtual concert that he's going to do this Sunday to benefit musical education programs for underserved communities, a concert that has garnered considerable support in the Pacific Northwest food community.

    For more about Aaron's concert, "Harmony in the Vineyard," which will be streamed online on Sunday, July 26, go to AaronMeyer.com.

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    …will return next week.

    Published on: July 24, 2020

    When last we saw Sheriff Quinn Colson, he had just barely survived an assassination attempt by The Watchmen, a militia group in Tibbehah County, Mississippi.  Colson at that point had spent nine books, starting with "The Ranger" almost a decade ago, trying to clean up the place where he'd grown up after having returned from the service.  But it always has seemed as if he's been pushing a boulder up a very steep hill, facing off with criminals both sophisticated and crude, as well as the politicians who enabled and exploited them.

    In his newest novel, "The Revelators," Ace Atkins begins by returning to the scene of the crime, but then advances forward by about a year to find Colson still struggling to return to duty, dealing with both nagging injuries and a growing dependence on pain killers.  He's been replaced by a corrupt sheriff, who has been brought in by a magnificently corrupt Governor, and who in turn has peopled the police department with equally corrupt deputies.   But Colson, despite the odds against him, remains at his core a good man;  think Gary Cooper in High Noon, or, more recently, Steve McQueen in Bullitt - resolute in the face of daunting odds.  The fact that events have put family members in danger, and his wife is about to give birth, only raises the stakes.

    One of the things about Ace Atkins' work in the Quinn Colson novels is how he has effectively created a tapestry of people and places that make fictional Tibbehah County such a specific and realistic place.  The supporting characters - good and evil - are painted with care, and even (maybe even especially) the bad guys (and women) are given their due … we know their motivations and priorities in detail.  Actors often say that bad guys are a lot more fun to play than good guys, and I suspect that Atkins might say that they're also more fun to write.

    Two of the best characters in the series are women - US Marshal Lillie Virgil, who is more Clint Eastwood than Clint Eastwood, and Fannie Hathcock, who has graduated from running a strip club to becoming a crime queen dominating Mississippi and with even greater ambitions than that.  They're terrific … and there is a sense that their final collision will be like when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

    It is the complexity and depth of the narrative that will serve Atkins and his creations well now that HBO has optioned the books with the intention of turning them into a series.  It also is the timeliness of the book's context - there is much in "The Revelators" that reflects the conflicts that seem to typify the American south at the moment - that has the potential of making it a must-see series.  The Confederacy never seems to be in the distant past in this and other Colson books;  it is like a ghost that keeps reaching out from the grave, trying to drag people into a past in which bitterness and entitlement are plentiful, and in which good men and women struggle to not just do the right thing, but to enforce justice.

    "The Revelators" is a terrific book - the best kind of page turner, crying out for the next installment to be published sooner rather than later.


    "Defending Jacob" is a new Apple TV series, and eight-part production focusing on what happens when a Massachusetts assistant district attorney's 14-year-old son is suspected of murder.  Examining the impact of the charges on his family, "Defending Jacob" reeks of ambiguity … it is one of those series where you start to develop convictions about what happened and what didn't, only to have your beliefs undermined, and you have start figuring it out all over again.

    Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery are excellent as the shell-shocked parents, while Jaeden Martell, as their son, will keep you guessing.  Cherry Jones also is terrific as the son's defense attorney.

    If I had one criticism of "Defending Jacob," it is that it probably could have been six episodes, but that seems like nitpicking.  I was never bored, and as the series moved to its conclusion, I was on the edge of my seat.


    It is an entirely different experience, but I also liked the first four episodes of 'Little Voice," an Apple TV series about a young woman in New York City trying to find her voice as a singer/songwriter.  The music is lovely, there are some very appealing performances (especially by Brittany O'Grady in the lead), and the whole thing plays like a fairy tale - especially now, when clubs and bars and new intimate relationships seem like a long-ago memory.


    My son, Brian, has converted me to his preferred summer drink:  Hendrick's gin, tonic water, and several thin slices of cucumber.  It is delicious, and once again, the parent learns from the kid.  (He's 31, and probably would not like being referred to as a "kid."  But he'll always be my kid.)


    That's it for this week.  Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

    Stay safe.  Stay healthy.