This weekly series of Retail Tomorrow podcasts features Sterling Hawkins, co-CEO and co-founder of CART-The Center for Advancing Retail & Technology, and MNB "Content Guy" Kevin Coupe teaming up to speculate, prognosticate, and formulate visions of what tomorrow's retail landscape will look like post-coronavirus.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. It may be a cliche, but it also never has been more true, especially because the competitive environment never has been more cutthroat. At the same time, technology and the pandemic have combined to create seismic shifts in consumer behavior.
What does this mean? Retailers have to compete not just for every last customers, but every first customer.
In this Retail Tomorrow podcast, Sterling and Kevin use a close-to-home case study to examine what retailers are and are not doing to attract new customers. (And at about 12 minutes in, Sterling comes up with a Big Idea that every retailer ought to adopt ASAP.)
We've got a pandemic. And economic recession. Wildfires that scientists say make vivid the threats of global warming. And a national election that is creating its own heat, not to mention the almost daily publishing of books about politics that are sending off their own sparks.
And so, it was a tough atmosphere to cut through yesterday when astronomers said they'd detected the presence of a gas in Venus's atmosphere that could indicate presence of some form of life there.
The New York Times writes that the astronomers who made the discovery "have not collected specimens of Venusian microbes, nor have they snapped any pictures of them. But with powerful telescopes, they have detected a chemical - phosphine - in the thick Venus atmosphere. After much analysis, the scientists assert that something now alive is the only explanation for the chemical’s source."
On its home page, NASA underlined the word "could."
"Scientists did not announce proof of life on another planet," NASA said.
"What they did find, however, is tantalizing in its potential meaning – though a great deal of work remains to rule out the possibility that other, unknown processes could be creating the phosphine signature detected in Venus’ atmosphere by a team of international researchers using ground-based telescopes on Earth.
"In short, it all comes down to the detection of phosphine in a temperate cloud layer of the Venusian atmosphere.
"The phosphine signature, confirmed via independent observations from two telescopes on Earth, is certainly intriguing because the only natural way we know of for phosphine to form on terrestrial planets is as a byproduct of life. The trick here is that we don’t actually know what specific lifeform it is on Earth that produces the phosphine found in our swamps and marshes. It is believed to be microbiotic, potentially E. coli. But even with in situ research literally in the environment where phosphine is being created naturally on Earth, we still don’t know what causes it."
(Can we note here how ironic it might be that we've now discovered the possibility of E. coli on Venus? Alert the food safety apparatus…)
Actually, what was interesting to me - and the business lesson in this discovery (and you know there had to be one) - was this passage in the Times story:
If the discovery is confirmed by additional telescope observations and future space missions, it could turn the gaze of scientists toward one of the brightest objects in the night sky. Venus, named after the Roman goddess of beauty, roasts at temperatures of hundreds of degrees and is cloaked by clouds that contain droplets of corrosive sulfuric acid. Few have focused on the rocky planet as a habitat for something living.
Instead, for decades, scientists have sought signs of life elsewhere, usually peering outward to Mars and more recently at Europa, Enceladus and other icy moons of the giant planets.
(Quick note here: Do not attempt a landing on Europa. Bad idea. Just ask Heywood Floyd.)
But here's the business lesson. Sometimes opportunities reveal themselves in the places where you're not looking. In fact, competitive opportunities may best be found in such places, because the competition probably isn;'t looking there, either.
Bloomberg reports that Amazon "is experimenting with a new program that pays independent contractors to fetch groceries from shelves in Whole Foods stores and deliver them in their own vehicles."
The program expands on an existing Flex driver program in that rather than having Whole Foods employees picking the groceries and Flex drivers delivering them, the drivers will do the picking themselves.
If the program works, the theory goes, it will save Amazon money - Whole Foods employees get a minimum of $15 an hour plus benefits, while the Flex drivers are classified as outside contractors.
I think this is a mistake and an example of misplaced priorities.
If people are shopping at Whole Foods, they are buying into a level of expertise that they believe most of the store's employees have. I don't want some driver - who I'm sure are perfectly nice people, but their expertise is not in buying groceries - choosing my groceries, especially when it comes to fresh foods.
This is dumb. All Amazon/Whole Foods needs is for a few mistakes to happen because of contractor error, and the entire value/values proposition is imperiled.
"With 2020 proving disastrous for retailers, a group is introducing a new shopping holiday for a much-needed boost -- or at least to help prevent things from getting worse.
"It’s called 10.10, mirroring China’s Singles’ Day, which is held on Nov. 11, or 11/11, and is now the world’s biggest shopping event. More than two dozen major retailers have signed on, says Deborah Weinswig, a retail consultant who masterminded the new event. The rewards app Shopkick Inc. is a partner in the effort and is launching a 10.10 website.
"Companies have yet to disclose their participation. Retailers carefully plan sales events, where the element of surprise can be key in drumming up shoppers’ interest.
"The aim is to pull holiday shopping into October from closer to Christmas so retailers can cope with limits on both shipping capacity and available merchandise. Unprecedented demand during the pandemic has constrained shipping, while product selection is low because the outbreak and subsequent lockdown disrupted holiday planning this spring."
This seems both a little late and a little manufactured to be effective, though anything is possible. The problem is that the 10-10 holiday could be overwhelmed by Prime Day, depending on when Amazon decides to hold it.
But there's nothing wrong with throwing stuff against the wall to see what works.
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 US, there now have been 6,749,828 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 199,027 deaths and 4,028,602 reported recoveries.
Globally, the numbers are: 29,472,046 confirmed coronavirus cases, 933,341 fatalities, and 21,297,131 reported recoveries.
• The Washington Post writes that a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is out with a new report saying that "the blow inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic on the world’s largest economies has been significantly worse than the 2009 financial crisis … Nations in the Group of 20 - which includes China, Brazil, India, the United States and the European Union - saw an unprecedented 6.9 percent decline in growth between April and June of this year. By contrast, the same economies took a dip of 1.9 percent during the first quarter of 2009, which marked the apex of the global financial crisis."
The story goes on to say that "the OECD released its findings on the same day that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released its annual global development report, which concluded that the pandemic had stalled 20 years of progress and resulted in a 7 percent increase in extreme poverty. Long-standing inequalities have been made worse by the pandemic, while marginal gains in alleviating issues like hunger have been swiftly undone, the foundation found."
• From the Wall Street Journal:
"New coronavirus infections in the U.S. fell from a day earlier as governors on the West and Gulf Coasts grappled Monday with how best to contain the pandemic as a spate of natural disasters demanded resources and attention.
"Officials in California, Oregon and Washington were battling catastrophic wildfires, which have begun to hamper some efforts to halt the virus, including closing down some testing centers. The fires have also displaced thousands of people, some of whom are now in temporary shelters.
"In Louisiana and Mississippi, governors beseeched residents to brace for the arrival of Hurricane Sally, which was projected to make landfall as soon as Tuesday morning near Biloxi, Miss., as a drenching Category 2 storm."
The story goes on:
"Texas and California led the nation in new Covid-19 cases. There were 4,260 new cases reported in Texas, and 2,795 in California, according to data from Johns Hopkins. New York reported just 725 new cases, while Florida, another former hot spot, reported 2,423 new cases. Arizona, which wrestled over the summer with a major outbreak, reported 384.
"There were pockets of growth in new cases in the Southeast and Midwest, including Wisconsin, which reported 1,582 new cases, eclipsing a previous high of 1,547 cases recorded Thursday. Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina and South Carolina each reported more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases."
• From the Washington Post:
"New York City’s lockdown this spring reduced the spread of the coronavirus by 70 percent, but more consistency with mask-wearing would have brought it down even further, according to a forthcoming study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"The city began closing public schools on March 15 and imposed stay-at-home orders for everyone except essential workers the following week. Lockdown restrictions remained in place until June, when the city began gradually reopening while keeping indoor dining and other high-risk activities off limits.
"According to the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, reducing contact rates by closing schools and telling people to stay home 'likely contributed to the largest reduction in transmission in the population overall.' But masks also played a crucial role, the researchers wrote. New York City began requiring face coverings on April 12, which helped reduce transmission by an additional 7 percent overall, and by 20 percent among people 65 or older."
• CBS News reports that the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health "announced a new program for Los Angeles County business owners that offers no-cost online training educating owners of the essentials of the county’s health orders and what is needed to ensure they are in compliance with infection control and physical distancing requirements.
"After completing the training, businesses will receive a COVID-19 Safety Compliance Certificate that can be posted on storefronts … The training will be available in 13 languages and can be accessed online, though it is not mandatory."
• The Washington Post reports that in England, health experts are saying that "a staggering number of people are relying on alcohol at “high-risk levels” to cope with stress sparked by fears linked to the global health crisis … raising concerns that addiction support services may buckle under the pressure.
"According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, more than 8.4 million people in England were drinking excessively in June compared to 4.8 million people in February. Research found that those between the ages of 35 and 54 were the most likely to be consuming more alcohol following the nationwide lockdown."
The story notes that "a recent survey of British adults revealed that 1 in 4 people reported feelings of loneliness during the pandemic as social distancing restrictions drove a wedge between colleagues, families and friends."
There may be a reason they are drinking: the Post also reports that "almost 700,000 people have fallen off British payrolls since March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, new figures released Tuesday revealed.
"Data from the Office for National Statistics showed that 695,000 workers lost their jobs from March, when the nationwide lockdown was implemented, to August, with younger people hit particularly hard by the crisis.
"At least 76,000 people between the ages of 16 and 24 have found themselves unemployed in the last year, a drop higher than that faced by any other age group."
• PepsiCo has come up with a new beverage dubbed Driftwell - an enhanced water drink that contains 200 milligrams of L-theanine, an amino acid that’s found in green and black teas and some mushrooms - that is designed to help people de-stress and sleep better. It will be pitched as one remedy to pandemic-related blues.
It will be available via e-commerce before the end of the year, and in supermarkets early next year.
CNBC notes that "Pepsi employees came up with an idea for a beverage to help consumers de-stress and relax before bed as part of an internal competition started last year by CEO Ramon Laguarta. The concept won, and the food and beverage giant went to work to make it a reality."
• NBC News reports that "the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, a nearly century-old New York City institution, will be radically pared down from its usual larger-than-life format due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, officials said Monday.
"The department store announced that it had to 'reimagine' the upcoming 94th edition of the parade on Nov. 26 and said it'll be staged in a manner similar to its Fourth of July fireworks show."
According to the story, "The traditional 2.5-mile parade route will not be a part of this year's event, organizers said. High school and college marching bands from around the country who were invited to perform this year will have their appearances deferred until 2021, with local professional marching bands taking their place.
"The parade's trademark massive balloons will still be in play this year, but 'without the traditional 80-100 handlers,' instead employing 'an innovative, specially rigged anchor vehicle framework of five specialty vehicles tested and approved by' New York City police and transportation officials, according to Macy's."
Hate to say it, but I can see exactly where this is going…
"Amazon.com Inc. has signed up Bollywood mega star Amitabh Bachchan for its Alexa voice assistant, stealing a march over rivals Apple Inc.’s Siri and Alphabet Inc.’s Google Assistant as a country of 1.3 billion people adapts to voice-enabled internet services … Bachchan, 77, is often described as India’s answer to Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro combined. His star wattage and deep voice have featured in hundreds of commercials peddling everything from PepsiCo Inc. colas, Cadbury Ltd. chocolates and even a UNICEF-backed polio vaccination campaign."
The story says that " Amazon will apply neural speech technology to make Alexa sound exactly like Bachchan no matter what question he is answering without needing to record every word in his voice in the studio. Users can buy Bachchan’s voice as a skill to provide weather updates, recite poetry and give advice."
Bloomberg suggests that Bachchan's iconic status in India will give Amazon an advantage there in its competition with other smart speakers.
With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…
• USA Today reports that the nation's largest mall company, Simon Property Group, has decided that all of its m alls will be closed on Thanksgiving this year.
The move follows decisions by a number of retailers - including Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Kohl's and Home Depot - to be closed on the holiday, which is a shift away from opening strategies of recent years.
Closing stores for Thanksgiving has the dual advantage of giving stressed-out employees a day off and reducing the likelihood of possible super-spreader events. It will be interesting to see how they handle Black Friday; while some are guessing that customers won't be as inclined to rush out to crowded stores, retailers can't leave that to chance. Which is one of the reasons that Home Depot already has decided to spread its Black Friday promotions across November and December. Smart move.
• USA Today reports that Hobby Lobby is raising its minimum full-time hourly wage to $17, saying that " it was one of the first retailers to establish a nationwide minimum hourly wage 'well above the federal minimum wage and has since raised its minimum wages ten times over the last eleven years'."
Doing this allows Hobby Lobby to change the conversation away from calls for a consumer boycott that emerged after a picture was posted on social media that promoted President Trump's re-election.
• In Monday Night Football, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the New York Giants 26-16, while the Tennessee Titans beat the Denver Broncos 16-14.
• And, in a development that will cheer many New York Mets fans, it was announced yesterday that Steve Cohen, the controversial hedge fund billionaire (he once paid close to $2 billion in fines to settle an insider trading case), finally has acquired the Mets for a price said to be about $2.4 billion.
Cohen gets 95 percent of the team. Fred Wilpon, the much-despised current majority owner who stopped investing in players because of investments he made with Bernie Madoff, and minority owner Saul Katz will retain a total five percent ownership stake. The deal reportedly does not include SNY, the team's cable network.
Twenty-three of the other 29 MLB owners now have to approve the transaction for it to be finalized.