Content Guy's Note: As noted yesterday, "The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket," is as much a look at the secret lives of the people who make up the supply chain as the stores themselves - author Benjamin Lorr has turned five years of research into a fascinating, entertaining and revealing book.
Part one of our interview appeared in this space yesterday.
Here's part two. Enjoy.
You can get the book from Amazon, or from one of the nation's best independent booksellers, Powell's, or at a bookstore near you.
Kroger this morning reported that its Q2 online sales were up 127 percent compared to the same period a year ago, as the retailer continued to deliver on increased demand for online shopping created by the pandemic. Same-store sales were up 14.6 percent compared to the same period a year earlier.
According to the press release, "Total company sales were $30.5 billion in the second quarter, compared to $28.2 billion for the same period last year. Excluding fuel, sales grew 13.9%." Q2 operating profit was $820 million, compared to $559 million during the year-ago period.
These results would seem to deliver on pretty much everything that experts were hoping for - online sales that continue to be strong despite a certain leveling out of the concerns related to the pandemic. (I'm not sure there should be a leveling out of concerns, but there it is.) Plus, double-digit same store sales growth.
The challenge to Kroger - and its brethren - is to continue building on this growth and figuring out how retailers have to be fundamentally different at the end of the pandemic than they were going in. They have to build trust, relevance, and resonance … and, to use a phrase that came up in my conversation with Benjamin Lorr (and that I'll probably be using a lot going forward, because I know a good catchphrase when I hear one), creating a culture of innovation rather than relying on a culture of maintenance.
There is a new NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll saying that "at least half of households in the four largest U.S. cities - New York City (53%), Los Angeles (56%), Chicago (50%), and Houston (63%) - report facing serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak."
The report goes on:
"Serious problems are reported across a wide range of areas during this time, including depleting household savings, serious problems paying credit card bills and other debt, and affording medical care.
"Many of these problems are concentrated among Black and Latino households, households with annual incomes below $100,000, and households experiencing job or wage losses since the start of the outbreak. Serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak are reported by majorities of Black households in New York City (62%), Los Angeles (52%), Chicago (69%) and Houston (81%). Serious financial problems are also reported by majorities of Latino households in New York City (73%), Los Angeles (71%), Chicago (63%), and Houston (77%) during this time. In addition, majorities of households with annual incomes below $100,000 report facing serious financial problems in New York City (65%), Los Angeles (64%), Chicago (59%), and Houston (72%) during the coronavirus outbreak.
"In healthcare, significant shares of households in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston report household members have been unable to get medical care for serious problems when they needed it during the coronavirus outbreak, and they have faced negative health consequences as a result. Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, 19% of New York households, 20% of Los Angeles households, 23% of Chicago households, and 27% of Houston households report anyone in their household has been unable to get medical care for a serious problem when they needed it. A majority of these households with anyone who has been unable to get care when needed (New York City – 59%, Los Angeles – 63%, Chicago – 55%, Houston – 75%) report negative health consequences as a result."
These figures are disturbing in so many ways, but let me bring it back to the conduct of commerce…
"Target plans to increase the diversity of its workforce, pledging to grow its percentage of Black employees by 20% over the next three years," according to a report from USA Today.
It isn't just a goal.
Target laid out four steps it is taking to achieve a higher level of diversity:
• "Developing programs to hire and retain Black team members in career areas with low levels of representation, including technology, data sciences, merchandising and marketing."
• "Increasing Target’s network of mentors and sponsors to help Black team members accelerate and advance their careers."
• "Ensuring benefits and partnerships drive wellness and safety for Black team members."
• "Continuing anti-racism training for leaders and employees that “educate, build inclusion acumen, and foster a sense of belonging."
USA Today writes that "according to Target’s diversity report, based on 2019 information, nearly half of the retailer's workforce of nearly 350,000 are people of color with 15% Black, 25% Hispanic or Latinx and 5% Asian.
"Of the leadership team, 42% are women and 24% are people of color – 8% are Black, another 8% Hispanic and 8% Asian."
This isn't just about political correctness.
The fact is, retailers are better when their employee base - top to bottom - better reflects the customer base. And since we live in a country where, according to US Census projections, whites will be less than 50 percent of the total population by 2045, it makes sense to start re-engineering organizations that are going to be relevant to that world.
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 6,588,181 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 196,331 deaths and 3,880,153 reported recoveries.
Globally, there have been 28,356,252 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 914,311 fatalities and 20,360,488 reported recoveries.
• The Wall Street Journal reports that "the daily increase in U.S. coronavirus infections rose for the third day in a row" even as "states including Louisiana, Illinois and New York moved toward reopening."
According to the Journal, "Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday said the state will enter Phase 3 of its reopening Friday. He called the decision 'probably the hardest' so far, given that the state doesn’t yet have data reflecting the impact of recent events - including schools reopening, Hurricane Laura and the Labor Day Weekend - on infections.
"Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said region seven, which includes Will and Kankakee counties south of Chicago, is seeing improvement in its positivity rate and could revert to Phase 4 if the trend continues. The area’s seven-day rolling average positivity rate is 7.5%. The new phase would mean higher indoor capacity limits for gatherings and businesses like restaurants and bars, the governor said. Elsewhere in the state, the positivity rate is higher.
"New York loosened restrictions on parents visiting sick children in pediatric homes. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that subway riders in New York City would be fined $50 for not wearing a mask. Some New York restaurants are staffing up following Mr. Cuomo’s decision earlier this week to allow indoor dining in New York City to resume later this month with some restrictions."
• The Washington Post reports that Harvard University researchers have released the results of a study that suggest that "the risk to young people has been undersold."
The study of more than three thousand patients between the ages of 18 and 34 "found that 1 in 5 required intensive care, 10 percent needed a ventilator, and 2.7 percent died. An additional 3 percent required ongoing medical care even after clearing the virus."
• The Washington Post reports that "the number of patients complaining of coughs and respiratory illnesses surged at a sprawling Los Angeles medical system from late December through February, raising questions about whether the novel coronavirus was spreading earlier than thought, according to a study of electronic medical records."
The report suggests that "coronavirus infections may have caused this rise weeks before U.S. officials began warning the public about an outbreak. But the researchers cautioned that the results cannot prove that the pathogen reached California so soon, and other disease trackers expressed skepticism that the findings signaled an early arrival."
• From the Wall Street Journal:
"The U.S. Department of Labor fined Smithfield Foods Inc. over a Covid-19 outbreak that infected nearly 1,300 workers at a South Dakota plant and killed four, alleging that the pork giant failed to protect employees.
"The action is the federal government’s first Covid-19 related penalty for a meatpacker, the Labor Department said. It comes after the novel coronavirus rapidly spread last spring among workers that power the $213 billion U.S. meat industry, forcing Smithfield and other companies to temporarily close plants and disrupting the supply of meat to grocery stores."
The fine proposed by the Labor Department, according to the story, is a whopping $13,494 - the maximum allowed by law. Smithfield said it will contest the fine. The United Food and Commercial Workers called it insufficient and insulting. And I'd call both the law establishing such a maximum amount and the number itself a crock. Four people died.
• Brookshire Grocery Co. (BGC) announced that it "is extending its discount programs through Oct. 6, 2020 for senior citizens and critical and emergency service providers in all four of its banners – Brookshire’s, Super 1 Foods, Spring Market and FRESH by Brookshire’s. BGC has offered both discount programs since March." The five percent discount program is available upon request to customers age 60 or older with valid ID, as well as to emergency first responders (EMS, fire department and law enforcement officers), hospital personnel, and active-duty military (including National Guard and Military Reserve) who show an ID.
• The New York Times this morning reports that Major League Baseball has decided, pending a final agreement with the Players Association, that most of the abbreviated season's playoff games with be played at neutral sites, with the entire World Series played at the Texas Rangers' new ballpark, Globe Life Field, in Arlington, Texas - all as a way of creating bubbles that will keep the players, coaches and team employees healthy.
The first round of the playoffs would be played at the home ballparks of the highest-seeded teams, in order to create an incentive for teams to continue playing hard, and then will switch to two stadiums in Southern California (Los Angeles, Anaheim or San Diego) for the American League division and championship series, and Houston and Arlington for the National League division and championship series.
The Times writes that Globe Life Field "would become the first stadium to host the entire World Series since 1944, when Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis hosted both the Cardinals and the Browns. The Polo Grounds also hosted both of its tenants — the Yankees and the New York Giants — for each game of the 1921 and 1922 World Series."
At issue in the negotiations with the players is how family members would be quarantined during the playoffs.
Good piece in Fast Company about the rise of so-called dark stores, noting that in the grocery industry they more likely will have a hybrid component that combines a scaled-down store with a micro-fulfillment center, often powered by robotics … all in the service of bringing the store closer to where online shoppers are.
• Fox News reports that consumer rights nonprofit Public Citizen "is accusing Amazon and its third-party sellers of engaging in price gouging amid the coronavirus pandemic, against the e-commerce giant's own policies."
According to the report, "Amazon listed 15 of its own essential products, including disposable face masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and paper towels, with markups ranging from 76% to as much as 1,000% in comparison to previously listed Amazon prices or other retailers' prices … The nonprofit also found 10 products from third-party sellers, including flour, sugar, hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray, with markups ranging from 225% to 941%."
The report notes that Amazon has suspended thousands of vendors from selling via its Marketplace because of gouging, and has called on the federal government to pass price gouging legislation.
But, "Amazon has fundamentally misled the public, law enforcement and policymakers about price increases during the pandemic," Alex Harman, Public Citizen competition policy advocate and author of the report, said in a statement. "Amazon has publicly blamed third-party sellers for price increases while continuing to raise prices on its own products and allowing those sellers to increase their prices."
• In Pennsylvania, the More Than The Curve website reports that "Amazon Retail, LLC, which is behind Amazon Go and Amazon Go Grocery, has a pending liquor license at 403 West Chester Pike in Havertown. That address is the Llanerch Shopping Center.
"It is not clear whether its an Amazon Go or Amazon Go Grocery, but it is likely an Amazon Go as there are 26 locations of that brand and just two of the grocery version."
• Personalized meal planning service The Dinner Daily announced that it has forged a partnership with Kroger that will make "online ordering for delivery or pickup as simple as a tap for Dinner Daily members who shop at Kroger, Fry’s Food, Fred Meyer, King Soopers, Pick n Save and Ralph’s stores."
According to the announcement, "Members receive weekly meal plans that both fit their personal food and dietary preferences and maximize use of the weekly specials at their selected grocery store. Members also receive an organized, editable shopping list that makes shopping a breeze and is now fully integrated with Kroger’s Pickup and Delivery online ordering. Members using the Dinner Daily app simply need to select the items on their Dinner Daily shopping list and tap 'Order' to send their ingredients directly to their Kroger online cart."
• CNN reports that Martha Stewart is coming out with a new CBD line that includes e hemp-derived, cannabidiol-rich gummies, soft gels and oil drops.
"I was surprised to learn that while most people have heard of CBD, less than 20% of us have actually tried it," Stewart told CNN. "For me, that signals a lot of opportunity to create beautiful, elevated products that help people live well."
According to the story, "The products are the result of the style maven's partnership with Canopy Growth (CGC), the Canadian cannabis company with a multibillion-dollar backer in US alcohol giant Constellation Brands (STZ). Stewart joined Canopy as an adviser in early 2019 for the express purpose of developing cannabis products for humans and their pets after being introduced to Canopy's founder by her friend Calvin Broadus Jr. -- the rapper and businessman better known as Snoop Dogg. His Leafs by Snoop cannabis brand is produced by Canopy."
• United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) announced that it has hired Guillaume Bagal to be its first vice president of diversity & inclusion, charged with "leading UNFI’s commitment to be a company that promotes equity, celebrates diversity, dismantles systemic racism in its workplace, and supports justice in the communities it serves."
Bagal most recently was head of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI), where he "led BCBSRI's diversity and inclusion programming, training, and education. Supported supplier diversity, recruitment, employee engagement, community relations and health equity efforts in the community."
Diana Rigg, whose television career alone spanned her turn as Emma Peel in "The Avengers" from 1965-68 to a more recent casting as Olenna Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns, in "Game of Thrones," has passed away. She was 82.
Rigg has a robust stage and film career, but is perhaps best known to fanboys as Tracy Di Vicenzo, the one woman who James Bond actually married, in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. (Bond was played, for the first and only time, by acting novice George Lazenby; Rigg brought the project style, class and a high level of talent, helping to make OHMSS one of the best Bond films in the judgement of many.)
For almost 19 years, Friday's MNB has featured "OffBeat," consisting of movie-television-book reviews, as well as a sometimes meandering travelog about ballparks I visited, wines and local beers I consumed, and random comments on a variety of subjects. Basically, it was whatever I wanted it to be.
Recently, however, I've developed an itch to add some different elements to OffBeat … and so this morning I'm going to introduce one of them - the first of a series of occasional interviews with authors (or other personalities when the opportunity and urge strike) whose work I like and who I find to be interesting. Basically, I'll be interviewing anyone I want to, just because I want to.
I'll still be doing the reviews and commentaries, but hopefully this will add some additional spice to the mix.
First up - Mike Lupica, one of the nation's best-known sportswriters, who has carved out a significant side hustle as the author of best-selling young adult sports novels. He's also a mystery writer - I first interviewed him back in the mid-eighties for a local newspaper profile when he published his first book in the genre, "Dead Air."
Lupica was kind enough to spend some time with me via Zoom, and we talked about his books, and the challenges of following some pretty impressive acts. He's taken up the mantle of one of my favorite authors, Robert B. Parker, in two of his series - the Sunny Randall books (he's written two and is at work on his third) and the Jesse Stone novels, the first of which, "Fool's Paradise," is out this week.
I've had a chance to read it, and was especially interested to see where he would take Jesse. Lupica is, in fact, the fourth writer to take a shot at this series: there was Parker, and then after his death, Michael Brandman wrote a few, followed by Reed Farrel Coleman, and now Lupica. Brandman is one of the creative folks behind the Jesse Stone TV movies that starred Tom Selleck, and his books seemed to be trying to connect the two universes and suffered because he wasn't really a novelist; Coleman's were terrific, but darker - he immersed himself in Jesse's angst, and few writers write angst better. Lupica's effort has a lighter tone, as he looks to make the series more Parker-like, and that's one of the things we talk about in our conversation.
I hope you enjoy it.
"Robert B. Parker's Fool's Paradise" is available on Amazon, from the iconic independent bookstore Powell's, and at your local bookseller.
Some additional random and OffBeat thoughts …
It has been odd of late. (Probably the understatement of the year.) For some reason, I've found it difficult to focus on many movies or TV series. While there are a bunch of things I'd like to see - new stuff that seems like it might be intriguing and old stuff that for some reason I never got a chance to watch or finish (am I the only person in America who has not seen "Breaking Bad"?), for some reason I can't seem to find the desire to plop myself in front of the TV set.
Instead, I've been on a bit of reading jag. In addition to Lupica's "Fool's Paradise," I went back to the beginning of John Sanford's "Prey" series since you all told me - after I reviewed and loved his most recent book, "Masked Prey" - that I should, and have finished the first and second, "Rules of Prey" and "Shadow Prey," and am about halfway through the third, "Eyes of Prey." It is interesting to see how the main character, Lucas Davenport, has evolved over 30 years; in the early books, he's uncomfortably close to being a sexual predator, and it just doesn't play as well in 2020. But they're fun reading otherwise, especially because I know that at some point his life takes a turn.
I've also read Michael Lewis's "The Fifth Risk," which prompted me to borrow his "The Undoing Project" from a neighbor who recommended it; it is next on the list. I've read the new Ted Bell thriller, "Dragonfire," which is a rollicking good time, as well as Stuart Stevens's "It Was All Lies," which isn't, but is a fascinating read. I've also got Carl Hiaasen's new "Squeeze Me" in the queue, and a couple of novels and memoirs that some publishers have sent along. At the end of next month I have the new Jack Reacher novel, "The Sentinel," on the schedule, and a few weeks later comes the new Lincoln Lawyer novel by Michael Connelly, "The Law of Innocence."
And this doesn't even include finishing "The Secret Life of Groceries" and getting started on the new Reed Hastings' book, "No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention," which is on the nightstand. I've also got Richard Ben Kramer's classic "What It Takes: The Way To The White House," which is about the 1988 presidential campaign, staring at me - I've always meant to read it, and feel like I should try to read it sometime in the next 50 days. But it is more than a thousand pages, and I do have a day job.
Other than putting on the ballgame, who has time to watch TV anymore?
I have, however, been listening to "Letter to You," a new song from Bruce Springsteen that dropped yesterday, part of a new album scheduled to be released next month. It is a terrific song, with classic E Street Band energy, and the Hollywood Reporter writes that "the album includes nine songs recently written by Springsteen, and three new versions of previously unreleased tracks from the 1970s: 'Janey Needs a Shooter,' 'If I Was the Priest' and 'Song for Orphans'."
In a statement, Springsteen said, "I love the sound of the E Street Band playing completely live in the studio, in a way we’ve never done before, and with no overdubs. We made the album in only five days, and it turned out to be one of the greatest recording experiences I’ve ever had.”
Go figure. Old dog. New tricks.
I did find the time to watch the live-action version of Mulan last week, and thought it was a serviceable version - no music, no talking animals - version of the classic Chinese tale that Disney animated - with music and talking animals - 22 years ago.
The movie has some tonal issues - there are times it wants to be a fairy tale, times it wants to be realistic, and times it seems to be taking its cues from The Matrix. But the cast is attractive, the story remains timeless, and the one thing I kept thinking was that if I had a young daughter or granddaughter, I'd want her to see this story of a young woman who pretends to be a man so she can serve in the Emperor's army, charged with repelling an invasion force.
But then I thought more about it, and realized that if I had a young son or grandson, I'd take him to see it as well … because guys may need to learn this lesson of gender equality more than women do.