business news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB Archive Search

Please Note: Some MNB articles contain special formatting characters, and may cause your search to produce fewer results than expected.

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    Content Guy's Note:  One product that meets the definition of "essential" in the Coupe household - especially during the pandemic - is Graeter's ice cream, and so I wanted to catch up with Richard Graeter to find out how the company has been dealing with the coronavirus.  The conversation ended up focusing on two issues that should be of interest to retailers and suppliers - the nature of compelling storytelling, and the importance of owning the relationship with the shopper.

    Good stuff, I think … with some observations  from Richard Graeter that I think you may find unexpected and revealing.

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    by Kevin Coupe

    The New York Times tells the story this morning of Dick's Sporting Goods, which, as the pandemic forced virtually all of its stores to be closed, in two days developed a curbside pickup model.  It wasn't very sophisticated at first - looking in some cases like a kid's lemonade stand - but it quickly was able to ramp up and utilize technology to a greater extent.

    It isn't just an anecdote, though, the Times suggests:

    "Scrappy or not, curbside pickup not only rescued Dick’s sales during the lockdowns, it has also emerged as many retailers’ best strategy for long-term survival in the e-commerce age. And what started as a coronavirus stopgap is likely to have a permanent impact on the way people shop, along with giving them a new reason to continue to visit beleaguered physical stores."

    But … "The popularity of curbside pickup reveals that the future of retail is not just more packages piling up on people’s doorsteps. Beyond satisfying the need for contactless shopping in the pandemic, it taps into Americans’ desire to drive to a store, a pull that can be just as strong as, or even stronger than, the convenience of home delivery."

    Retailers have responded:  "As of August, about three-fourths of the top 50 store-based retailers in the United States offered curbside pickup, according to Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm that specializes in retail and technology. Anything from a sweater to a book is now as easy to pick up as a sandwich … But nowhere is the shift more significant than at big-box chains that also sell groceries. The 700 percent growth in Target’s Drive Up offering has spurred the chain to add fresh and frozen groceries to the service and create up to 12 additional parking spaces for pickup at stores. It has announced plans to double the number of store employees dedicated to in-store and curbside pickup services during this holiday season. The retailer has even included product samples in orders."

    First of all, kudos to retailers that are figuring out that they can use e-commerce to promote new products through sampling … especially at a time when sampling in stores is pretty much out the window.  This is smart.

    But even more important, they've figured out that the economics of pickup are far superior to delivery.  As the Times says, "curbside allows certain big-box retailers to convert their stores into mini e-commerce fulfillment centers, while avoiding the money-losing step of shipping goods to homes."

    Here's an example cited by the Times:

    "The drive-up service is giving Walmart and other chains another significant advantage — the ability to make a profit on online orders, where the economics are notoriously difficult. Target has said that its order pickup and curbside services at stores cost the company about 90 percent less on average than fulfilling orders from a warehouse.

    "On a $100 curbside order, the labor costs of picking the groceries reduce Walmart’s profit by $1.50 while still leaving $3 in profit, estimated Edward Yruma, an e-commerce analyst at Keybanc. By comparison, Walmart loses money on its traditional e-commerce sales, in which customers order online and the products are shipped to their home."

    None of this should be a surprise.  Fifteen years ago or so, I can remember Rich Tarrant - the founder and then the CEO of MyWebGrocer - telling me that pickup was both faster to implement and faster to profitability than delivery … and that the retailers that were adopting pickup models then would find themselves in a vastly better competitive position in the long run.

    I'd say that was fairly prescient.  And it is an argument - embrace e-commerce sooner rather than later, and do curbside pickup first - that I think we've been making here on MNB for a long time.

    There was one other point in the Times piece worth noting - which is that e-commerce acceptance cuts across generations to a greater degree than ever, especially since "every grandparent in America knows how to use Zoom now because that’s how they spoke to their grandkids for the last six months … The whole population has become much more comfortable with technology and the ability to order things differently."

    Exactly.  And in this story, just one of several Eye-Openers.

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    CNBC reports that Instacart has raised $200 million in a new funding round that gives the company a current valuation of $17.7 billion.

    The story says that Instacart was valued at $7.9 billion at the start of the year.

    Some context from the CNBC story:

    "The latest funding round comes as Instacart and food delivery apps expand beyond restaurants into grocery, convenience and retail. Over the last few months, DoorDash has formed partnerships with PetSmart, Macy’s and Walgreens, and launched its own “DashMart” virtual convenience stores. Uber is also expanding grocery delivery with Cornershop and is in the process of acquiring rival Postmates.

    "Instacart is also expanding beyond its core with partnerships with new retailers this year including Walmart, 7-Eleven and Sephora."

    The story says that "Instacart plans to use capital to expand its ad and enterprise businesses, and for product development."

    KC's View:

    I'll bet they do.

    It is important to note that Instacart's valuation actually is greater than Albertsons', which is about $15 billion.  It is way bigger than UNFI's, at $3.7 billion.  Sure, it is less than Kroger's, which is $38 billion, and not even in the same ballpark as Walmart's ($432 billion) and Amazon's ($1.6 trillion).

    But here's the point.  There are a lot of companies doing business with Instacart that simply do not understand - or care, which is even worse - that they are a) conducting commerce with an entity that is far larger than them and could eat them alive, b) now has control of all their relevant customer transaction data, and c) has established a strong enough brand that customers now think they are shopping with Instacart, even if the groceries are coming from Instacart's client retailer.

    Please, somebody tell me.  How is this a freakin' good idea????????????????

    (A small caveat.  This is a very good idea for Instacart.  Just not for anyone doing business with it.)

    These retailers have traded convenience (Instacart gets them into the ecommerce business quickly and relatively easily, without a major investment of time and money) for their very souls.

    Think for a moment about Airbnb, and how it became such a strong brand and disrupted the hotel business (back in the days when we all traveled) without ever owning a single piece of real estate.  Hotels ignored the challenge for way too long, and have been trying to figure out competitive responses to a model to which they should've paid far more attention.

    Instacart doesn't own a store.  Yet.  But it could - and I would argue, will - open dark stores that will serve all those millions of customers that it has in its database.  It has the technology.  It has the infrastructure.  It has the money.  And it has the best of all possible scenarios - competitors who seem oblivious to the challenge.

    To use my favorite movie metaphor - traditional retailers doing business with Instacart may soon find themselves in a pitched battle with a carnivorous shark, and they will be desperate for a bigger boat.  And it may be too late.  It may already be too late.

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that "Dollar General is launching a high-end retail store called Popshelf, which sells home decor, beauty, cleaning and party supplies plus a lot more for $5 or less per item … The first two Popshelf stores are set to open in the coming weeks near Nashville, Tennessee, where the company is based."

    The company says that it could have another 30 open next year if the first two go well.

    According to the story, "Each store will feature 9,000 square feet of Dollar General’s private labels along with Popshelf branded merchandise that will rotate on shelves to surprise return customers."

    KC's View:
      If there is one thing that Dollar General knows how to do, it is to scale up a format - it has more than 16,000 stores at the moment, and 2020 - with all its challenges - is a year in which it is opening 1,000 new ones.


    This also is a bet, I think, that the economic issues facing so many Americans will persist, and that no matter what happens in the election that is 25 days away, the need for value-driven retail will persist as well.

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    Forbes reports that "office supply chain Staples is following the lead of retailers like Kohl’s and is planning to use its stores as drop-off locations for returns of goods sold by other online brands.

    "Staples is partnering with returns and reverse logistics tech firm Optoro to allow consumers to bring returns to the more than 1,000 Staples stores in this country, and get credit for returned items through a QR code on their phones.

    "Optoro and Staples plan to have the program, called Express Returns, in place in January, in time for the peak holiday returns period. Optoro also hopes to expand Express Returns to additional retail chains in the future."

    KC's View:

    I guess if you can't get people to come into the store for any other reason, you accept the notion that your best shot is to take back the stuff that people don't want.

    The question is, how many of those people will stick around the buy staples (and other stuff) from Staples?

    I'd bet the under.

    Published on: October 9, 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 7,834,289 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 217,750 deaths and 5,025,910 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 36,792,906 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 1,067,469 fatalities and 27,691,035 reported recoveries.

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    The U.S. reported more than 56,000 new cases for Thursday, the highest daily total since mid-August, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. … Wisconsin reported another record on Thursday, with more than 3,000 new cases confirmed. The state’s seven-day average stood at 2,381, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services … Other states also saw increasing numbers of cases. Illinois reported more than 3,000 new cases Thursday for the first time in more than a month. In North Carolina, new cases rose by more than 2,400, similar to levels reached in July during the peak of the pandemic in the state, according to Johns Hopkins."

    The  Journal goes on:

    "Several forecasts analyzed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, indicate there might be increases in hospitalizations across the U.S. over the next four weeks.

    In New Jersey, coronavirus-related hospitalizations rose to 652, the highest level since Aug. 6, Gov. Phil Murphy said at a news conference Thursday. A total of 148 of those people were in intensive-care units and 52 of those patients were on ventilators."

    •  From the New York Times:

    "The Northeastern United States, devastated by the coronavirus in the spring and then held up as a model of infection control by the summer, is now seeing the first inklings of what might become a second wave of the virus.

    "The rise in case numbers has prompted state and local officials to reverse course, tightening restrictions on businesses, schools and outdoor spaces.

    "In Boston, plans to bring children back to school have been halted as cases climb precariously. New virus clusters are emerging in Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. In New York City, the number of new cases each day now averages more than 500 for the first time since June, and the city is putting strict rules in place in some neighborhoods.

    "In New Jersey, where hospitalizations are on the rise and the rate of infection has almost doubled, towns have closed public parks and picnic areas to discourage people from gathering. Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island extended restaurant capacity rules for another month.

    "Michael Osterholm, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Minnesota, said that early in the nation’s outbreak, New York and much of the Northeast had successfully tamped down transmission of the virus with physical distancing and masking, as much of Europe had done.

    "'The point is, once you let up on the brake, then eventually, slowly, it comes back,' Dr. Osterholm said."

    •  From the Washington Post:

    "A senior military official who was quarantining following interaction with another uniformed leader who contracted the coronavirus has tested positive for it, the Marine Corps said Wednesday. Gen. Gary Thomas, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, received the positive test a day after he began quarantining, the service said in a statement … Thomas is the second senior uniformed official whose coronavirus diagnosis was announced this week, following news that Adm. Charles Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, tested positive on Monday."

    •  The New York Times reports this morning that "Broadway is going to remain closed at least through next May 30, which is 444 days after all 41 theaters went dark in as part of New York’s effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

    "On Friday, the Broadway League, a trade organization representing producers and theater owners, announced that it was suspending all ticket sales through that date."

    •  The New England Patriots, for the second week in a row, have seen their weekend game shifted to Monday night because of the pandemic.

    The Boston Globe writes that "Sunday’s Patriots-Broncos game has been moved to Monday at 5 pm … The league’s decision to move Sunday’s game comes after Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore became the second player on the team to test positive for COVID-19. Gilmore’s positive test caused the Patriots to close their facilities and not hold practice on Wednesday or Thursday."

    The story notes that "quarterback Cam Newton reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 last Friday. His positive test, along with Chiefs practice quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, caused the NFL to push that Week 4 matchup from Sunday to Monday night."

    In addition, the story notes, "The NFL is also pushing Sunday’s Titans-Bills game to Tuesday. Tennessee had its 23rd positive COVID-19 test result come in on Thursday. Next Thursday’s Chiefs-Bills game has been moved to the following Sunday as a result."

    •  Variety reports that Disney-owned Pixar has decided to debut its new animated film, Soul, on the Disney+ streaming service on Christmas Day.

    The film originally was scheduled to be released in June, but the pandemic prompted Pixar toi move the opening to November 20.  But the continued problems in the movie theater business forced the company to move it to streaming.

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    •  CNet describes the new Amazon electric-powered delivery van, built by Rivian, as looking like "the result of a wine cooler-fueled night of passion between a FedEx truck and a Sprinter van."

    Got your attention now?


    CNet writes:

    "Amazon released a video on Thursday that showed off what is probably at least a production-like version of its planned delivery vehicle and made sure that it was packed chockablock with fake Philip Glass music and excited delivery people. Despite all that, we're pretty stoked about what we're seeing."

    The van is said to be loaded with safety tech:  "Specifically, it's added tons of sensors for modern advanced driver assistance systems and a 360-degree-capable camera setup. It also strengthened the driver's door for better impact protection and added a bulkhead door to keep packages from clobbering the driver in the event of an accident."

    It is, the story says, "a big part of Amazon's push to become carbon-neutral by 2040, which is cool … The vans are slated to hit the road in 2021."

    Here's the video:

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    •  From Business Insider:

    "Sam's Club will hire 2,000 permanent workers to staff its fulfillment and distribution centers …  Walmart's members-only warehouse chain announced that it will be hiring 2,000 permanent, full-time workers to staff fulfillment and distribution centers and bolster its supply chain. Hundreds of those new employees will be working at the company's newest fulfillment center in Perris, California."

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    •  From the Washington Post:

    "The number of new claims filed for unemployed remained at historically high levels, according to data released Thursday by the Department of Labor.

    "The number of initial claims inched down — from 849,000 to 840,000 last week. The number of new claims for gig and self-employed workers dropped from about 650,000 to 460,000.

    "All told, about 25.5 million people are collecting some kind of unemployment insurance. The number of jobless claims have fallen from their peak in the spring, but the rate has slowed in recent months."

    •  From the New York Times:

    "Best Buy is the latest retailer to announce that it will offer the holiday deals typically found after Thanksgiving on Oct. 13 and 14, following similar announcements from Amazon, Target and Walmart, as the pandemic pulls seasonal shopping earlier than ever.

    "Best Buy said on Thursday that it would offer the Black Friday deals next week, both online and in stores, after Target said that it would hold an event called 'Deal Days' on the same dates."

    • From the Washington Post:

    "The World Food Program was awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a recognition of the critical work by the United Nations agency to battle hunger around the world, especially as the coronavirus pandemic has brought a global spike in poverty.

    "Announcing the prize in Oslo, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the world was in danger of a food crisis of 'inconceivable proportions'."

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    …will return next week.

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    •  In the National League Divisional Series, the Atlanta Braves beat the Miami Marlins 7-0, winning the best-of-five series 3-0.

    And the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the San Diego Padres 12-3, sweeping their best-of five series 3-0.

    The Dodgers will now play the Braves in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, which begins Monday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

    In the American League Divisional Series, the Houston Astros beat the Oakland Athletics 11-6, winning their best-of-five series 3-1.

    And the New York Yankees defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 5-1, tying their best-of-five series at two games apiece.

    •  In Thursday Night Football, the Chicago Bears defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 20-19.

    Published on: October 9, 2020

    One of the great things about Sherlock Holmes is that the character - and the universe in which he exists - has been successfully reinvented and reconsidered so many times - often (though not always) with the adaption managing to be appropriate for whatever time and place in which it has been produced.

    There were, of course, the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories and the Basil Rathbone movies they inspired.  But since then, we've had all sorts of fascinating takes on Sherlock.  There were the Nicholas Meyer novels and the movie version, The Seven Percent Solution.  I've always been a fan of Murder By Decree, with Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson, in which they hunt for Jack the Ripper.  Young Sherlock, directed by Barry Levinson and produced by Steven Spielberg, was an interesting take on the character.  I was not a big fan of the Robert Downey Jr. films, perhaps because they came out at around the same time as Benedict Cumberbatch was absolutely killing in in "Sherlock," of which there were far too few episodes.

    The latest film in which Sherlock Holmes shows up is about based on source material with which I was unfamiliar, probably because it is a series of young adult novels;  I am many things, but a young adult is not one of them.  Enola Holmes, currently on Netflix (because the pandemic made a theatrical release untenable), is the story of Sherlock's younger sister, Enola, who has been raised by her mother to be every bit as bright and perspicacious as the world's greatest consulting detective.

    However, on her 16th birthday, Enola awakens to find her mother has disappeared, and she goes off to try and find her, even though her brothers Sherlock (Henry Cavill - a natural in the part) and Mycroft (an unctuous Sam Clafin) think she should be sent to the kind of young lady's finishing school that her mother would have abhorred.  And so, Enola has to escape the expectations of her brothers - and those of 1884 society - even as she tries to track down her mother.

    Enola Holmes is utterly charming, with a solid mystery to go along with its exploration of sexual politics that in some ways seems incredibly relevant.  Millie Bobby brown ("Stranger Things") plays Enola with gusto - she's all grit and determination, but with lots of humor that often is expressed when she breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience.   The books on which it is based may be for young adults, but the film is terrific for the whole family - which is very nice at a time when families are spending a lot of time together.  I just hope Enola Holmes begets at least one sequel, and maybe more.

    There have been a lot of reunion shows on TV lately.  "Veep," "Parks and Recreation," and The Princess Bride are the first ones that come to mind.

    But for some of us, a reunion that we're really looking forward to is this one, scheduled for HBO Max next week:

    It is a staged reading (for the most part) of a season three episode, "Hartsfield’s Landing," that was all about the importance of voting.  It looks like virtually the entire cast is there, with the exception, of course, of John Spencer (Leo McGarry), who has passed away.  If you loved "The West Wing," it is a pretty good bet that you'll love the reunion.  (Of course, if you hated "The West Wing," you'll hate the whole idea of a reunion.)

    But that's okay.  I always loved the central idea of "The West Wing," which was about the nobility of public service, and how party was less important than a commitment to making the world a better place through negotiation, compromise and the making of hard choices.

    (Okay, maybe it was a little idealized…)

    That's it for this week.  I'll see you Monday.

    Have a great weekend … stay safe … be healthy.