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    Published on: September 30, 2020

    by Michael Sansolo

    Life is weird at the moment, and one of the most important things retailers can do is remember how shoppers are affected by the weird.  So it’s interesting and instructive to see how various companies are trying and possibly succeeding at making meaningful connections in trying times.

    And go figure, it all comes down to email.  Not text messages, nor social media, and not even TikTok.  Just email.

    It's been more than two decades since Nora Ephron made You've Got Mail, in which Meg Ryan's Kathleen says at one point, "I turn on my computer. I wait impatiently as it connects. I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: 'You've got mail.'  I hear nothing. Not even a sound on the streets of New York, just the beat of my own heart. I have mail. From you."

    Still works.  My household was recently on the receiving end of two email efforts and I think both worked in very different ways.

    Let’s start with Panera Bread, the fast casual restaurant chain that my wife uses for bagels of late. Recently she received an interesting response to a small order - an e-mail with a side of connection.

    “We appreciate you,” Panera told her, adding, “In uncertain times like these knowing we have your support keeps us going. On behalf of everyone at Panera - from our café teams to support staff - we thank you, and can’t want to serve you again.”

    That’s a lot of sentiment for an order of bagels! And it’s well done.

    Honestly, I can’t say that the Panera note is going to change our shopping habits at all as she got that email a week ago and we haven’t been back since. But it did catch her eye in a way that countless e-mail sales pitches don’t. It seemed genuine, personal and meaningful. (She also thought it was perfect for this column, so there’s that.)

    I have no doubt that the unsigned email wasn’t done especially for my wife. Rather, I’d imagine that countless thousands of Panera customers received the same message in hopes that - as it did for my wife - it would break through the clutter. So essentially, a simple effort done at probably minimal cost created a point of consumer connection, which is something we all should want.

    Plus, I don’t recall seeing a note like it from any of the other restaurants or stores we’ve frequented during the pandemic. So kudos to Panera for standing out, but here’s hoping they won’t be alone in this effort for long.

    One day earlier I received another timely email from a company clearly looking to find some new traction in the midst of the current troubles. For reasons I cannot explain (since I haven’t bought anything from them in seven months and likely much more) I got an email from Nordstrom touting their new “working from home styles for women and men.”

    This too struck me as timely and incredibly well aimed for the current moment. Certainly, most of us have no reason to dress up at all, beyond the small piece of our torsos that are displayed on Zoom calls.  Yet Nordstrom saw the opportunity for an entirely new line of apparel called “WFH Style."

    I’m not totally sure I can predict success for the WFH line, but maybe there are people who feel better working in $200 Good Man Brand sneakers, $188 chino pants or an incredible array of shirts and sweaters that will never be seen by anyone. 

    But then again, this may be a great opening to an entirely new branch of fashion marketing, especially for people who, unlike me, are sick of wearing the same few pairs of jeans day after day.

    I think both Panera and Nordstrom demonstrate something far more important though. The emails, simple as they are, remind customers that theses operators are aware of the current situation and are communicating information that actually matters today. Being timely and relevant is something we should all aspire to achieve.

    And to think, it only took a couple of emails. Not exactly an expensive way to make connections that matter.

    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 30, 2020

    Remember those red envelopes that Netflix used to send out all the time?  They used to hold DVDs (remember DVDs?) that were rented online, put in a queue, and then delivered via US Mail (remember the US Mail?).

    KC found one at the bottom of a box the other day.  It led to an interaction with Netflix that turned into Customer Service 101.

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    The Seattle Times reports that " a new cache of company records obtained by … The Center for Investigative Reporting — including internal safety reports and weekly injury numbers from its nationwide network of fulfillment centers — shows that" Amazon officials "have profoundly misled the public and lawmakers about its record on worker safety. They reveal a mounting injury crisis at Amazon warehouses, one that is especially acute at robotic facilities and during Prime week and holiday peak — one that Amazon has gone to great lengths to conceal. With weekly data from 2016 through 2019 from more than 150 Amazon warehouses, the records expose definitively the cost to workers of Amazon’s vast shipping empire — and the bald misrepresentations the company has deployed to hide its growing safety crisis.

    "The internal reports cheer incremental progress in a specific month or region; call out problem warehouses with the worst injury numbers; and detail safety initiatives, action items and pilot projects. While the reports show a committed drive to improve processes with technology or design changes, they don’t propose reducing the intense workload for Amazon’s warehouse employees, which is what helps drive Amazon’s speed."

    The story goes on:  "Amazon often points to the tens of millions of dollars it has invested to enhance safety practices. Yet Amazon’s injury rates have gone up each of the past four years, the internal data shows. In 2019, Amazon fulfillment centers recorded 14,000 serious injuries — those requiring days off or job restrictions.

    "The overall rate of 7.7 serious injuries per 100 employees was 33% higher than in 2016 and nearly double the most recent industry standard."

    Amazon officials did not sit for an interview about the findings, but did provide the following statement:

    “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our teams. So far in 2020, we have committed over $1B in new investments in operations safety measures, ranging from technology investments in safety to masks, gloves, and the enhanced cleaning and sanitization required to protect employees from the spread of COVID-19."

    KC's View:

    This is tough stuff, and the reporting seems entirely credible.

    Unless Amazon is able to refute these accusations in a credible and transparent way, it better deal with them … and do so credibly and transparently.

    This is the kind of stuff that can put a lot of shoppers off.  Like it or not, I think Amazon will be held to a higher standard than other companies.  We've let Amazon into our lives to an almost unprecedented extent, and I think many of us expect better of it.

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    New York magazine's "Grub Street" column has a piece about how delivery app shoppers - "underpaid gig-economy workers delivering groceries through Instacart, Shipt, and Amazon Prime Now" have managed to turn "normally chill grocery stores into high-pressure racecourses as they zipped around trying to quickly and accurately fill orders" - are ruining the supermarket shopping experience.

    The story says that one Whole Foods manager described Prime shoppers as "vulture," who often clean out the shelves before actual customers get into the store and employees are able to restock them.

    The story goes on to suggests that while the increase in e-grocery shopping because of the pandemic has accelerated the problem, it isn't just the pandemic:

    "As is so often the case, the problem is real, but the diagnosis feels wrong. The Prime shoppers, mostly, are not the problem but victims of the problem. So are the Whole Foods employees and the customers who just want to buy tomatoes in person and in peace. It is instead another example of the old phenomenon: By not paying enough for gig labor and by rewarding efficiency at all costs, the delivery giants are turning grocery stores into glorified warehouses — much to the detriment of the overall shopping experience."

    The thing is, "a lot of people have realized that grocery delivery, at least on the consumer end, is actually kind of great. You can just … get food by pressing buttons and have it delivered to your house."

    And, the piece continues:

    "It’s worth noting that for people who are physically unable to visit grocery stores in person or who are immunocompromised and can’t visit stores while the pandemic rages on, delivery apps offer an indispensable service. Even for the 99 percent of customers who could go to stores but simply choose not to, online shopping is, if not strictly necessary, then exceedingly convenient. While delivery is expensive, it is near frictionless, especially if you’re willing to tolerate the wrong kind of apples and some occasionally wilted greens. Of course, for people who still prefer buying food in person, the new model is a problem."

    KC's View:

    This is one of the reasons that dark stores or microhubs or micro-fulfillment centers may be so important going forward for many retailers … they will allow retailers to take the pressure off what we can think of as customer-centric stores.  

    Because there really will be two kinds of stores.  Customer-centric stores.  And logistics-centric stores.   There may be some overlap, but their orientations, by definition, will be different if they are going to be effective.

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    From the Wall Street Journal:

    "Consumers are growing more optimistic about the state of the U.S. economy, according to September surveys, as the labor market continued to gradually improve and a summer coronavirus surge receded in parts of the country.

    "The Conference Board, a private research group, said its index of consumer confidence surged to 101.8 in September, from a revised 86.3 in August. The increase was the biggest since April 2003 - reversing two months of decline and bringing the index to its highest level since March, when the coronavirus pandemic thrust the U.S. economy into a recession."

    The story goes on:

    "Consumer bullishness likely reflected in part consistent improvements in the labor market. The share of respondents in the Conference Board’s index reporting jobs as “plentiful” climbed to 22.9% in September, from 21.4% in August—and compared with just 16.5% in May.

    "The August unemployment rate plummeted to 8.4%, from 10.2% in July."

    Published on: September 30, 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, there now have been 7,406,729 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 210,797 deaths and 4,649,521 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 33,878,383 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 1,013,233 fatalities and 25,175,064 reported recoveries.

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "In the Midwest, rising coronavirus cases are a growing concern, as the weather turns colder and more activities move indoors.

    "Rates of Covid-19 have increased across Wisconsin, including in rural areas, said Laura D. Cassidy, Professor and Director of Epidemiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Rates were particularly high in the young adult population at the end of summer, she said. Wisconsin reported more than 2,000 new cases for Tuesday and the seven-day average stood at 2,255 cases, according to the state’s Department of Health Services."

    The Journal goes on:

    "Federal and state health authorities warned about the threat posed when younger people are infected with the new coronavirus, and recommended universities and colleges strengthen measures to limit transmission. Young people tend to be at lower risk of having a severe case of Covid-19, but they can infect older people they come into contact with, public-health officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in two separate studies."

    •  From the Columbus Dispatch:

    "In normal times, Gov. Mike DeWine would be inclined to oppose a bill passed by the Ohio General Assembly that would deprive local governments of another aspect of their local control and home-rule rights.

    "But these are not normal times. With Ohio in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Republican governor is ready to sign a bill headed to his desk that would forbid Ohio communities from regulating single-use plastics such as grocery bags.

    "DeWine typically respects local communities' home rule, but the pandemic raises health questions about banning plastic bags in favor of reusable bags and containers that are more likely to spread the virus, said DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney."

    •  The Financial Times reports that "the Spanish government is planning new national coronavirus rules that will impose tougher restrictions on Madrid, after days of confrontation over how to respond to the upsurge in cases that has hit the capital harder than any other region in Europe. The central government and the regional administration have been at loggerheads over imposing further controls on Madrid…the government will on Wednesday propose new rules to restrict people's movements and gatherings in urban areas with high levels of infection and hospitalisations, according to criteria to be uniformly applied across Spain."

    According to the story, "The move is likely to translate into the imminent imposition of controls on virtually all of the capital as well as on other hard-hit cities throughout the country."

    •  Axios reports that the federal government, hoping that the cruise ship industry "can sail in a safe and responsible manner and that the companies assume the burden of dealing with any possible outbreaks," is ending a no-sail order on the industry, effective October 31.  The date chosen is the same as the one that the industry itself had chosen for a self-imposed moratorium on new trips.

    However, Axios also notes that Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), would've preferred to extend the order into next year, but was overruled by the federal coronavirus task force.

    •  NBC News reports that "in the hopes of winning back passenger confidence, Tampa International Airport will be the first airport in the nation to offer voluntary Covid-19 testing for all incoming and outgoing flyers.

    "The airport has set up testing sites within its main terminal and while the sites officially open on Thursday, some passengers have already begun taking the two tests available for purchase as part of a soft opening.

    "Before boarding or after landing, travelers can get a $57 antigen test with an 88 percent accuracy that gives results within 15 minutes, or a $125 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test that has 95 percent accuracy but takes 48 hours to deliver results."

    •  The New York Times has the sad story of Chad Dorrill, a 19-year-old college student at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., a young man described an athlete who was living off campus and taking classes remotely, who nonetheless got sick from coronavirus-related complications and passed away on Monday night.

    In this case, the coronavirus attacked his brain, not his respiratory system, as is more common.  It is believed that Dorrill had an undiagnosed case of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which was triggered by Covid-19.

    "Although the coronavirus targets the lungs foremost, it also attacks the kidneys, liver and blood vessels, and a significant number of patients report neurological symptoms, including headaches, confusion and delirium," the Times writes.  "Although colleges and universities have become hot spots in the pandemic, young, healthy people generally have been at lower risk for developing severe forms of Covid-19. Only a few deaths among American college students have been linked to the virus, including a football player at California University of Pennsylvania."

    But, the story says, "A New York Times database tracking the virus on college campuses has recorded at least 130,000 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, mostly this fall, and about 70 confirmed deaths, mostly in the spring among college employees.

    Some might argue that this is not a Covid-19 death, because there was an underlying condition.  I would not be one of those people - most people are able to recover from Guillain-Barré syndrome.  And this was a young, relatively healthy person who never would have died if not for the coronavirus.

    •  The Washington Post reports that "the only U.S. airline of the Big Three that are still committed to distancing seat assignments on flights, Delta will block seats on flights through Jan. 6, 2021. The airline announced in August that the current commitment means it 'will block the selection of middle seats in Delta Premium Select, Delta Comfort+ and Main Cabin'."

    American and United have made no such commitment.

    Smaller airlines that currently, at least, are blocking seats include Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue, and Hawaiian.

    Other airlines not blocking seats include Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit, and Sun Country.

    •  Variety reports that Disney is laying off 28,000 US employees, two-thirds of them part-timers, "due to the pandemic’s impact on Disneyland and Walt Disney World … Disneyland has remain shuttered since mid-March. Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., which also closed in March, reopened in mid-July with increased health and safety measures as well as reduced visitor capacity."

    Disney Parks chairman Josh D’Amaro, in a letter to employees, called the decision "heartbreaking" but  “the only feasible option we have."

    •  From ESPN:

    "The Tennessee Titans have closed their facilities until Saturday after three players and five team personnel members tested positive for the coronavirus, the NFL announced Tuesday.

    "The three players -- starting nose tackle DaQuan Jones, long snapper Beau Brinkley and practice squad tight end Tommy Hudson -- have been placed on the Reserve/COVID 19 list.

    "While no official decision has been made about the Titans' game Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Nashville, the NFL wants and intends to have that game played as scheduled, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    "One of the contingency plans to allow for additional testing and contact tracing would be to move the game to Monday night, a source told ESPN."

    The Wall Street Journal writes that "the situation will be the first rigorous probe of the NFL’s coronavirus protocols and a window into whether the virus’s spread can be stymied in a sport that’s inherently incompatible with social distancing.

    "The NFL spent its summer in unprecedented negotiations with the NFLPA to hammer out both the economics of playing during the pandemic and policies to try to pull off the season. Those included: daily testing of players and critical staffers, overhauled facilities to encourage social distancing, and the implementation of location-tracking devices to allow for contact tracing."

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    •  Amazon has its Prime Days scheduled for October 13-14.  Target has set its Deal Days for the same time.

    Now, Walmart is saying that it will "be holding a 'Big Save' online event that runs Oct. 11-15," CNet reports.  "The retail giant said it'll offer Black Friday-like savings on thousands of items including electronics, toys, beauty items and more. Free two-day shipping will be available on some orders over $35, Walmart said, while some may be eligible for free Next Day deliver or in-store pickup."

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    The New Yorker has a good piece about how the iconic UK-based sandwich shop, Pret A Manger, is navigating the pandemic, which has created enormous hardship for the company.

    An excerpt:

    "When the pandemic stopped people from going to their offices, in March, Pret a Manger was an immediate economic casualty. The chain had grown steadily for thirty-four years, smothering the United Kingdom’s commercial districts, expanding into airport departure lounges, taking chia seeds to Aberdeen and cheese-and-pickle baguettes to Dubai. In 2018, Pret’s five hundred and thirty stores, which include eighty-five branches in the United States, were acquired by JAB Holding Company, a investment fund in Luxembourg, for two billion dollars. Under lockdown, they closed. In July, with sales down seventy-four per cent in 2020, the company announced that thirty of its U.K. stores would not reopen. A month later, about a third of Pret’s employees lost their jobs.

    "The damage to Pret signified something more than trouble for another quick-service restaurant chain. For a disproportionate quantity of Britain’s politicians, business executives, and journalists, the Pret buzz—tactile, hectic, caffeinated, everything tasting somehow the same—stood for work itself."

    You can read the piece here.

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    •  CNet reports that Yale has "introduced a smart delivery box that works with the Yale Access and August Home apps, which normally control each brands' respective smart locks, and major voice assistants to do just that.

    "The Yale Smart Delivery Box comes in two styles, at $230 Brighton style and a $280 Kent style. Both include a Connect adapter to connect them to your Wi-Fi network for smart home integration. Add a smart keypad for another $50. Yale partnered with with Kingsley Park, a Step2 Company for box design and production."

    The story notes that the box is less than 15 pounds, so could actually be easily carried away from wherever it is kept by the same people who might be stealing the items inside.  And so "Yale suggests either tethering or filling the base with up to 40 pounds of sand for extra security."  Which speaks, I think, to why we're going to see new homes with built-in delivery boxes, and may see existing houses retrofitted to include them.  Either way, creating a more secure delivery system seems to make a lot of sense at a time when e-commerce is so prevalent.

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    •  Reuters reports that Coca-Cola will work with Molson Coors as it launches its first alcoholic beverage in the US - Topo Chico, described as a "low calorie drink (that) will compete with the popular White Claw beverage as well as other hard seltzers from companies, including Anheuser Busch Inbev."

    The story notes that "Coca-Cola bought the Topo Chico brand in 2017 from its second-largest bottling partner in Latin America, Arca Continental."

    •  From Bloomberg:

    "Tchibo, one of Europe’s biggest coffee purveyors, is betting that more than 70 years of industry experience will help it take on the likes of Starbucks Corp. and Peet’s Coffee in its first U.S. foray.

    "The Hamburg-based company is introducing its roast and ground coffees to the U.S. in the coming weeks … Tchibo’s coffee will be distributed by Rainmaker Food Solutions and will be available at a broad selection of retailers in the Midwest markets of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. The products include roast & ground, and whole bean -- two categories boosted by lockdowns -- and a coffee machine with grinding capacity will also be offered."

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    •  Kroger announced that Gabriel Arreaga, most recently senior VP of supply chain at Mondelez, will be its new senior vice president of supply chain, succeeding Robert Clark, who is retiring early next year.

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    •  Singer Helen Reddy, who captured the essence of seventies feminism with her 1972 hit, "I Am Woman," has passed away at age 78.  Reddy had been suffering from dementia.

    Other Reddy hits during the seventies:  “Delta Dawn," "Angie Baby,” “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress),” “You and Me Against the World” and “AIn’t No Way to Treat a Lady."

    •  Mac Davis, the country music star who wrote such well know Elvis Presley songs as "A Little Less Conversation" and "In The Ghetto," and himself had such hits as "I Believe In Music" and "Baby, Don't Get Hooked On Me," has passed away after emergency heart surgery.  He was 78.

    While Davis was less well-known as an actor, he did have a major role in one minor classic - opposite Nick Nolte in the film adaption of North Dallas Forty.  (He also was in the regrettable The Sting II, but the less said about that the better.)

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    Amazon yesterday announced what it is calling Amazon One, described as "a fast, convenient, contactless way for people to use their palm to make everyday activities like paying at a store, presenting a loyalty card, entering a location like a stadium, or badging into work more effortless. The service is designed to be highly secure and uses custom-built algorithms and hardware to create a person’s unique palm signature."

    Amazon said it will both use the technology in its own stores as well as license it out to other businesses.

    This prompted MNB reader Mike Moon to write:

    I think that Amazon wanting to license their technology to other merchants was inevitable, but they'd better get the privacy settings right from day one. They must promise to never glean consumer information from any licensee. EVER. Who would want to share their customer list with Amazon?

    Agreed.  I'd certainly think twice about it.

    And from another reader:

    I’m not comfortable with this – another form of unique, personal  “finger prints”.

    On another Amazon-related subject, one MNB reader wrote:

    I went to the Amazon Fresh Woodland Hills store last week with a co worker.  Our plan was to check out the store as shoppers.   I used a standard grocery cart and he used a cart that had scanners.   We were impressed by the shopping cart with scanners.  It had a screen that showed the items in your basket and they were added or subtracted as soon as they cleared the basket edge.   The store was full of people that were mostly from Amazon and the majority of them were shopping for delivery orders.      They did have a wall where they have the best of Amazon and a display table with Kindle’s and Alexa devices.    

    Overall the store was underwhelming to me.  #1 The product selection was very limited. #2 The prices were high. #3 There were lots of holes where they were out of stock. 

    Regarding the contemplated IPO by Southeastern Grocers, one MNB reader was not impressed:

    Seriously, this batch of distressed stores and assets?  Don't want to sound too negative here, but would prefer to bury my money in the back yard and hope for a money tree to grow. It is more likely and at least I would still have the original investment!

    Published on: September 30, 2020

    Four best-of-three-game American League Wild Card series began yesterday…

    Toronto Blue Jays 1, Tampa Bay Rays 3

    Chicago White Sox 4, Oakland Athletics 1

    Houston Astros 4,  Minnesota Twins 1

    New York Yankees 12, Cleveland Indians 3