I'm going to take a long weekend, not because I have fantastic plans to kick back and enjoy myself, or travel to some exotic locale, but because Mrs. Content Guy is getting one of her knees replaced … and I want to be able to do what I can to make her life a little easier without worrying about MNB.
The plan is to be back Tuesday, November 3, with all-new, hand crafted news and commentary.
Thanks for your patience. In the meantime, have a great weekend, and I'll see you Tuesday.
KC visited a mall that opened just a year ago. He wasn't impressed with it then, and he is less so now. While the pandemic has not been kind to the mall - one recent day, he found that almost every store was empty of shoppers, just as the parking lot was empty of cars - KC also wonders if this mall is a 20th century construct simply not built for a 21st century reality.
CNBC reports that Walmart is converting four of its stores - two near its Arkansas headquarters and two still to be disclosed - "into laboratories that test ways to turn the retailer’s huge physical footprint into a more powerful edge for e-commerce … the stores and their employees will try out approaches that better blend the brick-and-mortar and digital sides of the business and improve the experience for customers."
The story says that "for this new effort, employees will use digital tools, store design features and different strategies that could speed up restocking shelves and fulfilling online orders. They will test an app that uses artificial intelligence to scan multiple boxes in the back room rather than one at a time as they move them to the store floor. They will use new store signage and handheld devices to cut down the time it takes to pick an online order. And product and technology teams will be based at the stores to accelerate the pace of prototyping."
Walmart also said that "it will tinker with the checkout area … testing designs, hardware and software that make customers’ purchases faster, easier and more contact-free."
This ties right back into the observation I made about malls in my FaceTime video this morning.
If you look around your store and see elements that would seem entirely in place in a 20th century supermarket, it is time to do a deep dive and see how they might be made more relevant to a 21st century consumer.
I'm not saying that every part of the store experience has to be changed, but I am saying that every component of the store has to be reconsidered.
Think about how your own life has changed in the past 20 years - of the things that technology allows you to do, of the information you have at your fingertips, of the knowledge you have and the ways in which you've been empowered. Has your store kept pace? Are you thinking about it daily?
And then … though this may make your head explode … go through the same exercise thinking about how your life has been changed by the crapshow that has been 2020.
Excellent piece in Fast Company by business guru Roger L. Martin, using Joe's Stone Crab, the famed Miami Beach restaurant, as an example of how effectiveness can and often should outweigh efficiency as a business priority.
"Joe’s Stone Crab demonstrates that narrow reductionism and the rigid pursuit of proxies for efficiency are not requirements for business success. Considered strictly, Joe’s pursues inefficiently high compensation for both employees and suppliers, inefficient use of space in the restaurant, and inefficient sale of low-price chicken entrées. All that notwithstanding, Joe’s model has been proven monumentally effective for over a century … Despite all its apparent inefficiency, Joe’s has been financially successful at the highest level while benefiting its workers, suppliers, and community. Its model is consistent with operating a complex adaptive system, not a machine, and it achieves the balances that the system requires.
"Joe’s outsize success - while that of only one, relatively small business - points to steps that every business executive in every business can take to contribute positively to the future of democratic capitalism rather than serve as a consistently mixed blessing."
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 9,121,800 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 233,137 deaths and 5,934,052 reported recoveries.
Globally, there have been 44,841,231 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 1,180,349 fatalities and 32,770,227 reported recoveries. (Source.)
• From the Wall Street Journal:
"New coronavirus cases continued to climb in the U.S. as several states reported daily totals near all-time highs.
"The U.S. reported nearly 79,000 new coronavirus cases for Wednesday, the second day in a row the total has come in over 70,000, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University … Illinois reported more than 6,100 new cases for Wednesday, just below a record set Saturday. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Virginia also reported totals that were the second-highest since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins data.
"Across the country, more than 45,000 people were hospitalized due to Covid-19 as of Wednesday, a level last reached on Aug. 14, in the midst of the summer surge in infections, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Wednesday marked the eighth day in a row that hospitalizations topped 40,000."
• The New York Times reports that even as Covid-19 rates have spiked, "survival rates, even of seriously ill patients, appeared to be improving. At one New York hospital system where 30 percent of coronavirus patients died in March, the death rate had dropped to 3 percent by the end of June."
The Times goes on:
"Were the lower death rates simply a function of the demographic changes, or a reflection of real progress and medical advances in treatment that blunted the impact of the new pathogen?
"Researchers at NYU Langone Health who zeroed in on this question, analyzing the outcomes of more than 5,000 patients hospitalized at the system's three hospitals from March through August, concluded the improvement was real, not just a function of changing demographics. Even when they controlled for differences in the patients’ age, sex, race, underlying health problems and severity of Covid symptoms — like blood oxygen levels at admission — they found that death rates had dropped significantly, to 7.6 percent in August, down from 25.6 percent in March."
• Axios reports that the coronavirus "gained strength over the past week in 41 states … Wisconsin reported new single-day records for cases, hospitalizations and deaths — all in the same day. New infections were up 16% in Arizona, 21% in Florida, 22% in Ohio, 23% in Wisconsin, 25% in Michigan and 33% in Pennsylvania."
Can you imagine any scenario under which this all gets better before it gets worse? Because I can't.
• CNBC reports that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview that "the United States is 'going in the wrong direction' as coronavirus cases rise in 47 states and infected patients overwhelm hospitals across the country."
“If things do not change, if they continue on the course we’re on, there’s gonna be a whole lot of pain in this country with regard to additional cases and hospitalizations, and deaths,” he said."
CNBC writes that "Fauci noted … that cities like New York and Philadelphia are more equipped to deal with the surge, whereas locations in the northwest and heartland are going to have a more difficult time with the pandemic."
The story says that Fauci said "that he doesn’t foresee the United States taking the same lockdown measures that Melbourne, Australia took to curb its summer spike in cases. Melbourne only reopened Wednesday after spending three months shut down … Dr. Fauci suggested doubling down on masks, distancing, and avoiding crowds and congregations amid Americans’ coronavirus fatigue, and added that the country would 'be much better than we’re doing right now'."
"There is very little appetite for a lockdown in this country,” Fauci said. “There’s going to be major pushback both from above and at the local level, however, what Melbourne did, what Australia did as a country, was very successful.”
• Fox News reports that Kroger will roll out rapid antibody testing for the coronavirus to its more than two thousand pharmacy locations and more than 200 clinic locations around the country, which it says "may provide critical information about past infection to patients who believe they may have been exposed to the coronavirus but were unable to access testing at the time of infection."
The tests, scheduled to be wisely available at these locations by the end of November, have been available to this point at the company's Michigan and California stores. They will cost Kroger customers $25.
According to the Fox News story, "he rapid antibody testing was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for point-of-care use in September and supplied by medical device company Whitmire Medical.
"Kroger's rapid antibody testing is conducted by a licensed health professional using a finger-prick blood sample and rapid lateral flow technology to detect antibodies for SARS-CoV-2."
• Fox Business reports that Hy-Vee is introducing "an automated cleaning system to sanitize shopping carts … the Sterile Cart system fully cleans and sanitizes shopping carts after each use."
The retailers said that it plans to roll the fully automated system out to more than 200 of its stores by mid-November.
I think this is a very good idea. It would be my perception that the stores I visit are not being as vigilant about cart cleaning recently as they were four or five months ago; they're depending on consumers to wipe them down, which is fine, but maybe not enough going forward as the spikes get more pronounced. An automated cart sterilization system is the kind of thing that could make a difference as people choose which store to patronize.
• The New York Times has a story about how "Long Island health officials scrambled to contain a coronavirus outbreak in Suffolk County when dozens of people tested positive for the virus after attending a high-end Sweet 16 party in September that violated state restrictions on gatherings.
"On Wednesday, county officials said they were coping with the fallout from two more so-called superspreader events that left 56 people with the virus and nearly 300 in quarantine: a wedding that exceeded the state’s 50-person limit and a birthday party that did not … Ninety-one people attended the wedding, on Oct. 17, officials said. Thirty people, including 27 guests, two employees and an outside vendor, later tested positive for the virus, and 156 people wound up under quarantine, officials said."
Is there a legal term for criminal stupidity?
• From the New York Times:
"France will reimpose a nationwide lockdown, while Germany will close bars and restaurants and impose other restrictions for a month in a last-ditch effort to protect hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with virus patients as Europe battles a second wave of the pandemic.
"For months, European countries have tried to slow the spread of the virus through targeted restrictions aimed at avoiding the tough nationwide lockdowns imposed in the spring. But the measures have not succeeded at halting the surge in cases and hospitalizations, putting more drastic limits on daily life back in play.
"This time, though, officials are prioritizing keeping schools and some economic activity open, in stark contrast to the spring, when movement was severely limited across much of Western Europe, and many businesses were ordered to close."
In France, the story says, "the lockdown will begin Thursday night and be in effect through at least Dec. 1, with financial assistance to affected businesses and tenants … About two-thirds of France’s population had already been subject to a 9 p.m. curfew announced two weeks ago. Yet cases have continued to rise: France reported 527 coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, the country’s highest number since April."
In Germany, "Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Wednesday that restaurants and bars will have to close their doors to patrons starting Monday. Professional sports teams will play to empty stadiums, while theaters, gyms and cosmetic studios will be shuttered. The latest restrictions also limit the number of people allowed to meet in public, but supermarkets, stores, schools and day care centers will remain open, Ms. Merkel said … Ms. Merkel conceded that the restrictions are “burdensome” for a public that has grown increasingly weary of — and rebellious toward — limitations. But she stressed that they were necessary. German hospitals have seen the number of patients double in the past 10 days."
• The Washington Post has a story about how "the pandemic has had dramatic effects on the food system, ingredients ping-ponging between surfeit and scarcity. Broken supply chains have resulted in the dumping of milk and eggs, and the rotting of produce in the fields, even as grocery stores have seen shortages of things such as meat, flour and yeast. But spices have been a bright spot, a category steadily increasing in demand since the virus took hold, with plastic and glass container manufacturers straining to keep up."
The story goes on: "There are several things going on. More meals are being prepared at home, which has led consumers to reinforce their existing herb and spice pantry. Also, more young or first-time cooks are taking the plunge and laying in seasonings beyond salt and pepper. According to Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at the market research NPD Group, Americans’ collective embrace of international restaurants has made us pine for certain flavors during the protracted shutdown of food service, and a pandemic surge in the sale of multicookers such as the Instant Pot have put many Asian cuisines — from Indian to Thai — within reach."
• The Boston Globe reports that the Boston Marathon, cancelled this year because of the pandemic, will not be held on its traditional Patriots Day date in 2021 because it is unlikely that the coronavirus will have been dealt with to the degree that a race can be held safely.
Rather, the Boston Athletic Association announced, it is hoped that the race can be rescheduled for later in the year, if feasible.
The Boston Globe video that ran after the 2020 cancellation remains one of the more memorable and uplifting pieces I've seen.
The New York Times has a piece about the iconic Strand bookstore in downtown Manhattan, which has seen its nine-decade legacy threatened by the pandemic, which shut down the city for months and stopped customers from coming into the store.
While many independent bookstores have suffered, the story says, "among the stores struggling most are the larger independents, which have higher expenses for space and staffing and need more sales to keep going. They also tend to be more reliant on events like readings and signings for their revenue. The Strand usually hosts about 400 events a year."
Recently, owner Nancy Bass Wyden "announced on social media Friday that its revenue was down nearly 70 percent from last year and that the business had become unsustainable. 'I’m going to pull out all the stops to keep sharing our mutual love of the printed word,' she wrote. 'But for the first time in the Strand’s 93-year history, we need to mobilize the community to buy from us so we can keep our doors open until there is a vaccine'."
According to the story, "Ms. Wyden said the call for help produced a boom in business on Saturday: a single-day record of 10,000 online orders, so many that the website crashed. That day was also the best single day in the month of October that the flagship store, near Union Square, has ever had, and the best day ever at the Strand’s Upper West Side branch, which opened earlier this year. In the 48 hours since the plea went out, the store processed 25,000 online orders, compared with about 600 in a typical two-day period."
The Times writes that one of those orders was "a purchase of 197 books from a customer in the Bronx. 'I’ll have to write her a thank you letter,' Ms. Wyden said."
If it were me, I would've put the 197 books in the back of my car, driven them up to the Bronx and delivered them myself … and would've checked with the customer to see if I could pick her up some Starbucks on the way.
I hope to hell a thank-you letter isn't all that customer gets.
Because if that's the best the Strand can do to demonstrate loyalty to its customers - as opposed to begging for loyalty from them - then it may explain a lot about its competitive issues, and suggest that the pandemic may just have accelerated them, as opposed to having created them.
With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…
• Ahold Delhaize-owned Stop & Shop said yesterday that it is launching a new page on its website called "90s Throwback" that is designed to provide "a new, nostalgic customer experience featuring favorites from the 90s. As the decade continues to make a strong comeback in fashion, pop culture – and food – Stop & Shop has curated a special selection of groceries that includes some of the most recognizable products across six major categories: breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, desserts and beverages."
“Food is a source of comfort for many people and making sure our stores are stocked with customer favorites – new and old – is a top priority for our brand,” Gordon Reid, president of Stop & Shop, said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to do our part to take care of our customers during these changing times, and we hope this trip down memory lane includes a few treats that will make them smile.”
I have to be honest here. The products featured here did make me smile, but then shake my head, because if I'd eaten less of that stuff in the 90s, I'd have less weight to lose now. I don't want much of this stuff in the house now, because this whole pandemic thing has not been positive for my waistline…
"Walmart's Mexico unit will open stores under a new 'Walmart Express' brand beginning in November, and gradually convert all existing Superama grocery stores to the format, it said on Wednesday.
"The move will give the country's biggest retailer another brand alongside its Walmart, Sam's Club and Bodega Aurrera chains, as it focuses on ramping up e-commerce. Superama stores, while varied in size, are typically much smaller than the flagship Walmart shopping centers and sell only groceries.
"As with its other formats, Walmart Express customers will be able to place orders online for pickup or delivery, said Walmart de Mexico, also known as Walmex."
"The economy grew at a record pace in the third quarter, the Commerce Department reported Thursday, recovering a good chunk of pandemic losses but still below where it ended 2019.
"The gain in quarterly gross domestic product—the value of all goods and services produced across the economy—helps offset a record drop in output earlier in the year when the virus and related shutdowns disrupted business activity across the country.
"The economy rebounded in the third-quarter as businesses reopened, employers restored many jobs, the government provided trillions of dollars of aid and consumers resumed spending.
"Forecasters expect the economy to expand through the fourth quarter, though more slowly, amid a pandemic still disrupting lives and commerce as the virus infects tens of thousands of people a day. Analysts project the economy will end 2020 smaller than a year earlier, but grow in 2021."
• The Journal also reports:
"U.S. jobless claims fell to a 7-month low of 751,000, suggesting layoffs are easing despite a rise in coronavirus infections.
"The number of Americans who filed initial jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs, fell earlier this month to the lowest level since March, when the pandemic shut down much of the country’s business activity. Economists expected Thursday’s report from the Labor Department to show claims fell slightly last week.
"The bad news: Claims remain exceptionally high by historical standards, and the decline has been slowing. Two weeks ago, 787,000 Americans filed initial claims, more than twice the weekly average in early March. Anecdotal evidence—companies big and small announcing plans to lay off more workers as the pandemic persists—suggests the labor market recovery will be protracted."
• C-store chain Yesway said yesterday that "it had completed the private placement of an additional $235 million of equity. The new capital will be used to fund an extensive raze-and-rebuild and store remodel campaign across the portfolio and pursue complimentary acquisitions to further expand the Yesway/Allsup's brand presence."
Tom Trkla, Yesway's Chairman-CEO, said, "We decided to raise additional capital to accelerate our real estate capital programs and to finance additional portfolio acquisitions."
I'm really impressed with Yesway, and MNB recently featured a two-part interview with Yesway chief marketing officer Derek Gaskins, which you can watch below:
• Fortune reports that Kohl's has unveiled a new turnaround plan - originally supposed to be introduced earlier this year but delayed by the pandemic - that "shifts it away from fashion, where it has stumbled, and further into activewear. The plan also calls for Kohl's to lean more heavily on national brands like Nike and TOMS, as well as newer partners like Lands' End and Cole Haan, and shed many of its store brands."
In addition, Kohl's plans to expand its footprint in the beauty business: "Kohl's is now planning beauty shops three times the size of its current ones, staffed with beauty advisors. The category is crucial to solving a riddle that has bedeviled Kohl's for years: how to get more shoppers to come to store and indulge, rather than just popping into the store for a quick in-and-out trip."
And, the story says, "A big part of its plan is to keep building its e-commerce business. Online shopping, which accounted for nearly a quarter of sales pre-pandemic, spiked to as much as 40% at the peak of the pandemic. Ultimately, it's expected to settle in somewhere in the middle of those two percentages."
This week, there has been an unfolding discussion prompted by an offhand remark I made when commenting on a story about malls being converted to senior citizen housing; I suggested that rather than just converting them to one thing, they instead could be remodeled to include health care facilities, community colleges, and maybe even "provide some young person housing, for people just out of college with loan debt that they need to pay off … maybe they could figure out a rent formula based on income and monthly loan payment size."
One MNB reader thought this was a horrible idea, writing:
“Low rent housing inside a mall? Great! Let’s bring the projects to the suburbs! Brrrrilliant!”
I know sarcasm when I see it, and argued:
I was talking about young people just out of college but loaded down with loan debt and who need a place where they can live at low cost while paying off those loans. Paying off those loans allows them to more quickly transition to the place where they can buy cars and homes and become people who contribute to the tax base.
Another MNB reader chimed in:
What a classist a#%hole … my heart breaks every time I realize there’s another person like this among us.
This all prompted an email from the original reader who criticized my idea:
Interesting that so many still wear rose colored glasses. The answer to high debt out of college is not giving extra benefits to those that can’t afford it but rather to provide jobs. Also ask yourself, when you provide this benefit of low cost housing, what will ensure that the debt gets paid down instead of going to something the individual deems more important, like…. you fill in the blank. It is sad that this country is moving so rapidly away from “earning your way” to a country that wants to “give stuff away.” If my strong opinion on this makes me an AH, as you so eloquently put it, then I proudly wear your naïve, offensive, criticism. I guess since I don’t adhere to your rhetoric, I am now less than you too? Maybe you should join me in some sensitivity training.
I'm not going to let this go on much further, just because it'll end up being a rabbit hole.
But … to be clear, I didn’t call you that. Another reader did.
I wasn’t talking about providing “benefits” in the traditional sense. I was suggesting that maybe it would make sense for a community, in the interest of its long-term viability, to figure out a way to help young people encumbered by enormous debt pay off those loans by helping them with subsidized housing. It'd be nice if everybody could have jobs that would pay enough to allow them to both live nicely and pay off their college debts.
We subsidize a lot of stuff in this country … why not young people who have gone to college, done the hard work, and now are looking for a way to become more productive (and higher taxpaying) members of the community? I’d figure out a formula based on the amount of their loans and the amount of their wages, so nobody is being taken advantage of on either side. They'd have to agree to a) be employed, and b) not spend their extra money on frivolous indulgences.
This isn't a new construct, by the way. It is my understanding that after World War II, the government made a lot of housing available to vets who came home but didn't have a lot of money to spend on places to live. So we invested in them, and I think it is fair to say that the investment paid off. I think it would be shortsighted to assume that a new investment would not pay off in the same way.
Now, maybe this doesn’t make sense in the long run. But I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, which is sort of what I thought you were doing by originally suggesting that I was proposing “bringing the projects to the suburbs.” I wasn’t suggesting that you were less than me … I was just disagreeing with you.
Remember ... for most of us in the US, this weekend marks the end of Daylight Savings Time and a return to Standard Time. On Sunday, November 1, at 2 am, it will be time to turn your clocks back an hour. (Assuming, of course, you have clocks that require manual changing.)
Enjoy the extra sleep.
The Wall Street Journal had a story the other day suggesting that the "first clock shift since the pandemic’s arrival in earnest in the U.S. is coming … and for those no longer working in offices, the effects could be more intense than usual. For some people, the switch can upend a hard-won rhythm of working from home, focusing and staying emotionally balanced—but the shift also can make for a powerful tool for getting through the dark days of winter if handled correctly, scientists say."
The problem is that "the stimulation of being with colleagues and commuting - whether stuck in rush-hour jams or not - provided distraction from the dwindling afternoon daylight hours affected by the clock shifts."
No colleagues, no offices, no commuting … no distractions.
Experts tells the Journal that the best was to counteract the possible negative impact of a change in time is to get outside as early in the morning as possible to take advantage of the early sunshine.
"Getting morning sunlight helps synchronize all of the body’s functions to be operating at the same time, so that things like your concentration and your appetite and your sleep are all lined up and mutually supportive of each other," says Michael J. McCarthy, an associate professor in the University of California San Diego’s psychiatry department.
On The Rocks, the new Sofia Coppola film now available on Apple TV+, is a charming romp that reinforces the likelihood that Bill Murray may be the coolest cat on the planet - and that's more than enough for any movie.
Rashida Jones plays Laura, a writer who, while happily married to Dan (Marlon Wayans) and enjoying two young daughters, finds herself unable to write and feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Laura's feelings take a new direction when she begins to suspect her husband of having an affair with his gorgeous, much younger assistant … and so she turns to her father for advice.
Her father, a retired art gallery owner named Felix, is played by Murray as a charming, nicely aged Lothario who knows a lot about cheating husbands - he was one, and is rather unrepentant about his behavior. Felix is sure that the husband is having the affair, and proposes following him around to get proof positive. Laura agrees - in part because she wants to know, but largely because it will give her life a little excitement.
On the Rocks is great fun - it is breezy, it takes its time getting to its points, and exists largely as a platform for Bill Murray's ironic and rumpled charm. Jones is great as his daughter, and Barbara Bain (of the original "Mission: Impossible") has a nice cameo as her grandmother. But make no mistake, this is a Bill Murray show … and if you watch carefully, you'll see someone who in many ways at the top of his game. There isn't a wasted motion or look, and there are a couple of scenes where, if you watch his face, you see a master actor at work.
Just great stuff.
I'm not sure what to say about Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the sequel to the original Borat now available on Amazon.
It is shambolic in many ways, and there are moments that are cringeworthy. But there also are moments that had me laughing so hard I was crying. I suspect that there will be people who will cringe at the moments I found funny, and will laugh at the moments where I cringed. But that's okay … that's the nature of satire.
The weather has been all over the place in recent days, so we've been veering from whites to reds, depending on how warm it may be.
On a lovely night, we sat outside and enjoyed a 2016 Carlton Cellars Pinot Blanc, which is a lovely, balanced white that we like really, really cold - probably colder than the winemakers would like, but that's us.
When it got colder, it was time to light a fire and enjoy the 2015 Carlton Cellars Estate Pinot Noir, which is one of Mrs. Content Guy's favorite pinots, smooth and lovely and aromatic.
The common denominator - Carlton Cellars in Oregon's Willamette Valley, one of our favorites, which makes wines that you can't really find outside the region, but can order online, and which are totally worth it.
I've mentioned them here before, but am happy to do so again. They're a little known jewel deserving of larger exposure.