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    Published on: September 23, 2020

    The goal of "The Innovation Conversation" is to explore some facet of the fast-changing, technology-driven retail landscape and how it affects businesses and consumers. It is, we think, fertile territory ... and one that Tom Furphy - a former Amazon executive, the originator of Amazon Fresh, and currently CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners (CEP), a venture capital and venture development firm in Seattle, WA, that works with many top retailers and manufacturers - is uniquely positioned to address.

    Today, Tom and Kevin talk about three Walmart stories that have the potential for being game-changers for the retailer - the debut of Walmart+, its effort to compete with Amazon Prime … the restructuring of its store teams and management … and its continuing efforts to acquire part of TikTok.  What do these mean for Walmart?  And what do they mean for its competitors?

    Published on: September 23, 2020

    by Michael Sansolo

    Hard as it is to find reasons to celebrate the current moment, there are small victories and countless lessons we can find.

    This came through to me recently when a friend commented that Covid world has granted her a great gift. That gift is ample time to allow her hair to grow out and therefore allowing her to stop the process of dying her hair regularly. Doing so puts an end to the damage dying brought her month after month. In other words, Covid freed her. (My hair, in contrast, has not benefitted at all!)

    Yes, there are reasons to celebrate and enjoy the current crazy moment, if that seems possible. And for a second, let’s look beyond the sales gains many supermarkets are enjoying, as food at home is dominant once again. Sure it’s been a boon, as it’s almost as if the supermarket industry is getting a second chance to make a first impression with shoppers who long ago moved a majority of their meals to food prepared outside the home. It’s an opportunity that should not be overlooked at all, so yes, it’s good news in Covid time. 

    But there’s a less obvious benefit to Covid-world that might impact how companies choose leaders and value staffers for years to come. And it might well also be to our benefit.

    Fast Company highlighted this unusual benefit of Covid time recently in an  article that focused on extroverts and introverts.

    As many of us probably have seen throughout our careers, extroverts tend to rise in organizations, thanks to their ability to inspire and interact with others of nearly all kinds. For that reason, most leaders (business and otherwise) have tended to be extroverts. Introverts, no matter how smart or talented, have been historically overlooked thanks to their innate reluctance to make the same types of connections.

    Covid world changes all of that thanks to social distancing and the incredible dominance of distance working. Suddenly, a willingness to speak up loud and fast doesn’t shine through the same way. The result may be that companies will find tremendous talent and potential among those who get overlooked thanks to their relatively quiet personalities. In a very strange way, Covid isolation is helping us discover another facet of diversity, by helping us see colleagues, subordinates and superiors in an entirely new way.

    I write this as someone who is entirely comfortable with public speaking a clear trait of an extrovert, so I recognize that what I am writing might not benefit those like me.  But I think the opportunity to find new strengths in our staffers that could bring untold new benefits to our companies.

    Let’s consider this opportunity as my friend has done with her newly natural hair, finding freedom and an entirely new look despite the challenges of covid. Let’s remember to use this strange time to find new strengths, skills and maybe even new leaders to take us into the future.

    At the minimum, let’s celebrate the restored dominance of family mealtime and find ways to maximize the moment.

    But no matter how you approach it, keep in mind what Monty Python told us years ago in both the film The Life of Brian and the Broadway show,“Spamalot" … 

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at

    His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

    And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.

    Published on: September 23, 2020

    Bloomberg reports on how, despite the conventional wisdom that retail success during the pandemic largely was pegged to a robust online component, some retailers are doing well without having a strong e-commerce operation.

    The fact is, Bloomberg writes, "low-priced retailers are thriving, even with limited e-commerce, or none at all. The global recession triggered by the pandemic has pushed more purchases online, but also accelerated the generational shift toward frugality and discounters that began during the financial crisis more than a decade ago. And middle-tier chains, like department stores, are paying the price."

    The chains that have thrived with bricks-and-mortar offerings in a pandemic environment include "Primark and Pepco Group in Europe, to Dollar General Corp. in the U.S. and Asia’s Miniso chain," the story says.  And, "now that governments are once again imposing tougher restrictions to curtail a resurgence of the virus, discounters may benefit further as consumers shift spending from leisure and entertainment back to groceries and household goods."

    Bloomberg goes on:  "The coronavirus, meanwhile, has exacerbated the struggles of mid-tier merchants like Macy’s Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. Apparel sales have dropped by double-digit percentages in the U.S. in recent months, while the fashion brands that are in demand during quarantine—think Nike or Lululemon—can sell directly to consumers. Mid-tier chains often anchor shopping malls, which, save for the luxury emporiums that cater to high-end shoppers, have suffered massive declines in foot traffic."

    KC's View:

    This isn't particularly surprising.  After all, along with the pandemic has come an enormous amount of economic tsoris, which also has created a good deal of food insecurity.  And I am persuaded that there's almost no way that the broad economy can be revived without a resolution of the pandemic.

    In such a climate, there almost certainly was going to be an outpouring of business for low-priced, value-driven retailers that are seen as addressing these financial issues.

    Published on: September 23, 2020

    From USA Today:

    "Walmart is getting ready for a different holiday season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

    "The retail giant announced plans Wednesday to meet the demands of increased online shopping, gift availability and how it is preparing stores for 'safe shopping.'

    "Walmart is 'promising an all-new Black Friday experience' and says it 'will spread traditional Black Friday savings throughout the season' with more deals available online."

    KC's View:

    I'm glad that businesses such as Walmart and Home Depot are trying to rethink the Black Friday shopping experience so that it safer for all involved.  That said, I have to wonder how many people would be rushing out to crowd into stores the day after Thanksgiving this year.  After all, you'd think that most folks would have figured out that this is not a safe thing to do.

    Published on: September 23, 2020

    From the Cincinnati Business Courier:

    "Kroger Co. has formed a partnership with an artificial intelligence company in an effort to make the self-checkout process smoother," teaming with Everseen, described as a company that "provides artificial intelligence technology for retailers to improve customer engagement and profitability."

    According to the story, "Kroger began using Everseen in March. Its technology aims to reduce errors in the checkout process, particularly with self-checkout. Its goal is to make it easier and more efficient for customers to find and self-correct errors as they’re scanning their items. That reduces the errors and the need to call over an employee to help, which slows the checkout process.

    "The Everseen technology can watch video and understand processes to not only help customers correct errors but also help Kroger reduce 'shrink' which occurs partly from theft of items."

    Kroger's goal is to have the technology available at 2,500 stores around the country, the story says.

    Published on: September 23, 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 are at a total of 7,098,291 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 205,478 deaths and 4,347,172 reported recoveries.

    Globally, we are at 31,816,653 confirmed coronavirus cases, 976,021 fatalities, and 23,420,748 reported recoveries.

    •  The Wall Street Journal notes that the total number of Covid-19 coronavirus fatalities to this point has eclipsed "annual influenza-related deaths, which number between 12,000 and 61,000 each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

    Despite some assertions to the contrary.

    •  The Daily Beast has an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in which he says the public should not pay attention to anyone who claims to know whether vaccines are viable or not.

    "'These are blind placebo-controlled trials. The only ones who see the data intermittently is the safety data monitoring board…. a single unblinded statistician,'  Fauci said.  'Those data are not public data, no one can know what those data show. That person looks at the data and says, ‘OK, let's keep the trial going, we don't have enough data to make a decision.’ Or that person can look at the data and say, ‘You know, there really is a very strong signal of efficacy, let's make it known.’ We bring in the company, we tell the company, then the company can make up their mind, whether they want to use that data to go to the [Federal Drug Administration for approval}'."

    In other words, the story says, "there is no way of knowing how the U.S. is faring in its development of a vaccine until a subset of statisticians decide it’s time for it to be known. The fact that the data is so closely held is part of what is supposed to build trust in the science community and within the administration that the vaccine development was developed in a controlled environment without political influences."

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that "US health regulators have drafted guidelines that would require a Covid-19 vaccine to meet rigorous standards to gain a speedy clearance for use, according to people familiar with the matter, an effort to ensure the shots work safely before they are widely distributed.

    "Among the proposed requirements is that a coronavirus shot reduce the rate of infections by 50% compared with a placebo, which the regulators have already required for a regular approval of any Covid-19 vaccines … The draft requirements indicate the Food and Drug Administration wants to hold Covid-19 vaccines to high standards similar to what it would have used for a typical review of the shots, the people said, even though the agency plans to conduct the review more quickly than normal because of the urgent need created by the coronavirus pandemic."

    The Journal makes the point that these guidelines have to be signed off on by the White House, and that if they are adopted, it probably would preclude any vaccination being authorized for distribution by Election Day.  But if the guidelines are rejected by the White House, it is likely to add to broad concerns about whether politics are being placed ahead of public safety.

    •  From the New York Times this morning:

    "Buoyed by positive results in its earlier studies, Johnson & Johnson has begun the final stage of clinical trials for its coronavirus vaccine.

    "Although they started a couple of months behind the other so-called Phase 3 trials in the United States, Johnson & Johnson’s trials, which began on Monday, will be the largest, with plans to enroll 60,000 participants. And this experimental vaccine may have considerable advantages over some of its competitors, experts said. It does not need to be stored in subzero temperatures, and may require just one dose instead of two.

    "'It would be fabulous if we had something at a single dose,' said Dr. Judith Feinberg, the vice chairwoman for research in medicine at West Virginia University, who was not involved in the study.

    "Only Phase 3 trials, which compare the effects of a vaccine with those of a placebo, can determine if a single dose is indeed effective, Dr. Feinberg said. If it works, that could greatly speed efforts to curb the pandemic."

    •  Deadline reports that "Josh D’Amaro, the new chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Tuesday begged California officials to let Disneyland reopen and to 'treat theme parks the way you treat other sectors.'

    "California Governor Gavin Newsom promised last week that news about Disneyland’s reopening would be coming 'very soon.'

    "But 'soon' is subjective and with nothing forthcoming, executives ramped up the heat during a webcast today for key stakeholders to provide an update on the parks business."

    "The longer we wait, the more devastating the impact will be to the Orange County and Anaheim communities and to the tens of thousands of people who rely on us for employment. With the right guidelines and our years of operations experience, I am confident that we can restart and get people back to work," D’Amaro says.

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for Halloween and is not recommending "classic door-to-door trick-or-treating and crowded, boozy costume parties … The CDC's guidelines group Halloween activities into lower-risk, moderate-risk and higher-risk buckets.

    "The higher-risk category includes both door-to-door trick-or-treating and events where kids get treats from the trunks of cars in a big parking lot.

    "Also no-nos: indoor haunted houses where people will be crowded and screaming, which could send infectious particles flying."

    A less risky approach to Halloween:  "Kids could pick up individually wrapped gift bags at the end of a driveway or yard while still preserving social distance.  You could also organize a small outdoor costume parade where everyone is 6 feet apart. An outdoor costume party would also be considered moderate risk, if people wear masks and stay 6 feet away from each other."

    The CDC also is emphasizing that a costume mask is not a facemask suitable for preventing transmission of the coronavirus.

    Gotta believe that Halloween candy sales this year will not be up to usual levels.  We haven't really talked about what we'll do in terms of having candy available, though it sounds like the responsible thing to do is have a bowl out from which visitors can help themselves.

    Though to be honest, if I were the parent of a young child, I would not take him or her out this year.  I'd try to find an in-house alternative, I'd feel bad about it, but I'd feel irresponsible letting the child go out to trick-or-treat.

    •  National Public Radio reports that the National Football League (NFL) "has fined several head coaches $100,000 for not wearing face masks on the sidelines — a safety precaution that is required at games during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coaches' teams were also punished, with $250,000 fines.

    "The coaches include Pete Carroll of Seattle, Kyle Shanahan of San Francisco and Vic Fangio of Denver … The fines were issued after the NFL completed the second week of games, all of which have been played in stadiums that are either empty of fans or at sharply reduced capacity due to concerns about the possible spread of the coronavirus.

    "Carroll, Shanahan and Fangio have all worn neck gaiters during their teams' first two games, but each of them has often been seen with the covering pushed down below their chin."

    •  Fast Company writes that outdoor retailer Keen "has installed vending machines that serve up branded face masks as easily as you might grab a candy bar to go. Currently in Portland, Oregon; Palo Alto, California; London; and Tokyo, the company plans to roll out additional vending machines in the coming months. A company spokesperson decline to specify where in the U.S. they might pop up next, but says it is 'working with different partners'."

    The story goes on:  "While face masks are everywhere, vending machines are one place we haven’t seen them yet. Keen’s approach offers a shopping experience that is entirely new and one that’s particularly apt for shopping in a pandemic. Since the vending machine is outside, it not only eliminates the possibility of indoor transmission (which research shows is higher), it removes person to person contact at the point of sale. There’s also no need to fret if you need a mask after hours: The vending machines are open 24/7. (Keen’s masks are also available to purchase online.)"

    •  Excellent column in the Washington Post by Steven Pearlstein about how, in the long run the pandemic may be a good thing for cities like New York and San Francisco, which have long been vital, vibrant, expensive and out-of-reach for many people, but now find themselves to be mere ghosts of their former selves, with people working from home instead of offices, stores and restaurants closed, and the tourists who help drive their economies in short supply.

    Now, however,  "Vacated space and falling rents in the most desirable downtown office buildings will allow firms in less convenient or less desirable buildings on the fringes of downtown, or in the suburbs, to move to the buildings they could not afford earlier. And growing companies that might otherwise have shifted work to satellite cities will decide to keep them at headquarters instead.

    "At lower prices, the city’s most desirable condos and apartments would be bought and rented by people who previously had to settle for smaller units or less desirable neighborhoods, or been shut out of the metropolitan area entirely.

    Visitors with three-star budgets will be able to move up to four-star hotels, while those once relegated to suburban hotels during peak seasons can afford to stay downtown.

    "With the demise of department stores and the retreat of many national retailers, independent merchants and restaurants will be able to afford to locate in the shopping centers, retail districts and neighborhoods that attract the most customers with the most money to spend."

    This certainly is a glass-half-full column, and you can read it here.

    Published on: September 23, 2020

    •  CNBC reports that Jeff Bezos is launching the first in what he anticipates will be a network of nonprofit preschools, in Des Moines, Washington.  The schools will be "built in low-income communities and designed for underserved children, offering them access to free programs."

    The schools are said to be Montessori-like in that they will "emphasize hands-on and self-directed learning, with uninterrupted blocks of working time, in mixed-age classrooms."

    According to CNBC, "The school is being launched by a nonprofit organization called Bezos Academy.

    "The school will open for in-person classes on Oct. 19, said the Day 1 Academies Fund, which is overseen by the Day One Fund. The single-room school is planned to accommodate about a dozen students, ages 3 to 5 years old, and will be open year-round, five days a week, the organization said."

    Published on: September 23, 2020

    •  From CNBC:

    "Walmart said it will hire 20,000 seasonal employees who will help pack and ship online purchases at its fulfillment centers as it anticipates more holiday shopping to shift online during the coronavirus pandemic.

    "It marks the first time in five years that the big-box retailer has announced significant holiday hiring. The company is adding the seasonal workers, even after its pandemic-fueled spree. Since March, it has hired more than 500,000 employees across its U.S. stores and supply chain to keep up with demand for a wide range of items, from groceries to hair color and bicycles.

    "Over the past few years, Walmart has largely given extra hours to its existing employees to keep up with the pace of holiday shopping."

    •  Yahoo Finance reports that Walmart will "start testing the use of drones to deliver at-home COVID-19 testing kits. 

    "In a move that advances the trend of contactless customer service in an era of social distancing, Walmart teamed up with Quest Diagnostics (DGX) and DroneUp to pilot drone delivery of the kits in North Las Vegas, beginning on Wednesday."  Walmart also "plans to trial the COVID-19 collection kit drone delivery in Cheektowaga, New York, early next month," the story says.

    "“There’s a lot we can learn from our drone delivery pilots to help determine what roles drones can play in pandemic response, health care delivery and retail,”  says Tom Ward, senior vice president of customer product at Walmart.  “Our hope is the drone delivery COVID-19 self-collection kit launch will shape contactless testing capabilities on a larger scale and continue to bolster the innovative ways Walmart plans to use drone delivery in the future."

    Published on: September 23, 2020

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that Mars Inc. is changing the name of Uncle Ben's rice to Ben's Original, and also is "dropping the image of a bow-tied Black man from its packaging."

    In this Black Lives Matter era, in which there is enormous attention being paid to violence against Black people and social and economic inequality, companies are under pressure to remove names and imagery seen as being racially insensitive or stereotypical.

    PepsiCo-owned Quaker Oats has said it will do a similar thing with its Aunt Jemima's brand, though it has not yet disclosed the new name.

    According to the story, "Mars said it surveyed thousands of consumers over the summer, many of whom said the term 'uncle' was pejorative and the image on the brand’s packaging, of a white-haired Black man in a black bow tie, was reminiscent of servitude.

    "'Times have changed,' Mars Food Global President Fiona Dawson said in an interview.  'Voices are being heard that weren’t heard before'."

    As they should be, IMNSHO.

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon "is limiting the ability of some competitors to promote their rival smart speakers, video doorbells and other devices on its dominant e-commerce platform, according to Amazon employees and executives at rival companies and advertising firms.

    "The strategy gives an edge to Amazon’s own devices, which the company regards as central to building consumer loyalty. It puts at a disadvantage an array of gadget makers such as Arlo Technologies Inc. that rely on Amazon’s site for a significant share of their sales.

    "The e-commerce giant routinely lets companies buy ads that appear inside search results, including searches for competing products. Indeed, search advertising is a lucrative part of the company’s business. But Amazon won’t let some of its own large competitors buy sponsored-product ads tied to searches for Amazon’s own devices, such as Fire TV, Echo Show and Ring Doorbell, according to some Amazon employees and others familiar with the policy."

    I'm sure there will be those who try to make a big deal about this, but it doesn't strike me as any different from bricks-and-mortar retailers that choose where to place national brand products vs. private label alternatives on their shelves, and when and where to allow for in-store promotions.  

    Published on: September 23, 2020

    Gale Sayers, the legendary and first-ballot Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back who, as the Chicago Sun Times writes, "posted 9,435 combined net yards and 4,956 yards rushing during a Bears career that ran only from 1965 to 1971 because of a knee injury," has passed away.  He was 77, and had been suffering from dementia since 2013.

    Sayers remains the youngest person ever inducted into the Hall of Fame.

    KC's View:

    We were just talking about Sayers the other day because Mrs. Content Guy was crying after having happened upon the 1971 version of Brian's Song, which chronicled the relationship between Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams) and fellow player Brian Piccolo (James Caan).  It was based on Sayers' memoir, "I Am Third."

    (By the way ... she said the movie doesn't hold up at all. Though that didn't stop her from crying...)

    Published on: September 23, 2020

    …will return.