retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Got the following email from an MNB reader challenging my approach to reporting on the pandemic:

Your closing comment in today’s news letter along with the bantering going between you and your subscribers about COVID has given me the spark to write this note. You mentioned the relenting news about COVID.  

Why don’t you stop reporting on COVID?

In June of 2009 The World Health Organization declared a pandemic with H1N1, however you did not mention this in your news letters on 6/11/09 (date WHO declared pandemic), 6/12/09 or 6/15/09. You kept your topics then on subjects that your subscribers expected read about.

I do not want to get into a debate comparing the ‘09 pandemic to the ‘20 pandemic.  They are both very different and the current one is more dangerous. My point is you stayed away from the ‘09 version and today you are regurgitating news stories that most of your subscribers have already read, or saw in the morning news cast.  

Why not take your time off and think about why we signed up for your news letter.  Get back into solid industry issues.  There are other issues facing this industry such as; minimum wage laws, unemployment, data security laws, technology innovation (you cover this very well) and so on.  Please think about dropping the COVID news.

I would appreciate it if you kept my name out.

You certainly are entitled to your opinion.  I would suggest that in various ways I've reported on all those things over the past eight months and the past 19 years … and one of the reasons that I group all the pandemic-related news in one section is so people don't have to read it if they don't want to.

I think that the current pandemic is one of the most important stories of the past two decades in terms of its impact on consumer behavior, trust in institutions, and retail development, accelerating some trends that were happening anyway and creating some that nobody saw coming.  You may think that this is roughly the same as the H1N1, but best to my recollection, stores were not being shut down when that pandemic took place, consumers were not stockpiling, schools were not being closed … and most importantly, not nearly as many people died.

It wasn't the same thing.

In addition, while there are some folks who really don't want to read my pandemic coverage - or disagree with my commentary about it (which I suspect you might) - there are a lot of readers who have encouraged me to keep it up.

Which I plan to do.  Always trying to be thoughtful about it.  Always giving people a choice about whether or not they read it.   And always … always … looking forward to the day when Covid-19 isn't a story anymore, isn't a factor in the daily conduct of business.

MNB reader Kelly O’Connor weighed in on the vaccines that seem to be getting traction:

In addition to the encouraging news about the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine, one of the most positive components of that particular vaccine is that it does not require cold storage, and can be distributed through traditional immunization distribution channels. This will make it much easier to handle throughout the supply chain, especially for developing countries, along with the lower cost per dose. It’s great to see this combination, and I’m hoping and praying that they, along with Pfizer and Moderna, will get approval and be able to start distributing the vaccines soon.

That's something we're all hoping for.

On a related subject, from another reader:

I think it's shameful that retailers have not, at this point, reinstated pandemic pay for their employees.  This pandemic has dragged on for months and now we're facing a surge AND the holidays.  Now THAT would be the right thing to do.

MNB took note yesterday of a CNN report that "shoppers are once again loading up on paper goods and cleaning supplies in areas of the United States hard hit by rising coronavirus infections, leading to empty shelves at some Walmart stores.

"Officials at Walmart, the largest retailer in the country, said Tuesday that supply chains have not kept up with rising demand, and these goods have been harder to stock consistently in locations with sharp spikes in new virus cases."

According to the story, "Walmart CEO Doug McMillon called it 'disappointing' to see 'as many out-of-stocks as we have in consumables right now generally,' although he said the situation had improved since the spring. He stressed that Walmart was better prepared to handle the demand than it was earlier in the year."  Walmart also said that the shortages seemed to be localized, and not system-wide, which is why store managers have been empowered to set limits on purchases of certain items depending on circumstances.

Prompting one MNB reader to write:

For Doug to say they are disappointed in consumables in-stock rates in their stores, I think he should be reminded that “You get what you measure” and Walmart has always been highly focused on measurement in this area, by pushing inventory back to manufacturers. Its worked well for Walmart for awhile.  The out of stock challenge is not solely an issue with suppliers.

We had a piece yesterday about how Walgreens is trying to improve its game.  I was dubious, and was joined in that by several MNB readers.

One wrote:

Look at the number of out of stocks the next time you go to a CVS or Walgreen’s.  The stores either can’t keep up or they don’t care about “the front end”. Why should a healthcare store devote so much space to greeting cards, pet care or beach chairs etc. I think that they should stick to the “blocking and tackling” and do that better.

And MNB reader Frank Loffa wrote:

Standing in line at a CVS or Walgreens is a dreadful experience, they need to make the experience less intense and I must say that the addition of drive-up prescription pick up generates twice the stress on the pharmacists inside the store who are trying to keep two groups of customers happy!

From another reader:

CVS, Walgreens, and to a lesser extent Rite Aid, need to confront the high pricing perception that they have for just about everything sold in front of the pharmacy.  Most of what they sell in the front aisles can now be purchased elsewhere online, with more convenience and at much lower prices.  The national retail drug chains have well over 10,000 physical locations in the US and nearly all of them devote over 80% of their physical footage to front-of-store inventory that cannot possibly turn anywhere near as fast as it does in on-line retailer or mass-merchandiser competitors.    Additionally, a good part of what they sell in this space is unhealthy, like candy and soft drinks.

Radical transformation would be to find a way to better utilize this space to provide consumers with products and services they cannot get elsewhere.  For example, why are urgent care medical centers and chain drug stores in different physical locations?

Good question.

One more email from another MNB reader:

I am of the humble opinion that community pharmacy is headed the way of the independent bookstore, both thanks to the same massive institution. 

Retail pharmacy companies have known for some time that this day was coming, between Amazon’s applications for state licenses with their respective Boards of Pharmacy and their purchase of PillPack.   Amazon will complete the process of commoditizing this industry and drive independent community pharmacies out of business, including the one that employs my spouse.   The loss of these pharmacies might not affect people living in urban areas much, but they stand to have a tremendous impact in areas where patients have to drive to seek help from a pharmacist.   Amazon Pharmacy says that their pharmacists are available 24 hours a day, but if you try to contact them outside of their hours of 8 am -10 pm ET, you have to leave a voicemail and “a pharmacist will get back to you as soon as possible”.  (quote taken directly from their website)   Even if they return your call promptly, when you have a sense of urgency how will they solve your problem to get you what you need outside of those hours?   Or even during those hours?  Not everyone lives in an area where they can reasonably expect an Amazon delivery in a matter of a few hours. 

My spouse carries a pager and has been summoned to help patients in the middle of the night and on weekends as the nearest 24-hour chain pharmacy could be as much as 50 miles or more away for a patient in dire need.  Pharmacists serving in this role will tell you that’s what their job is all about and they are glad to provide the service, provided the patient remembers to also see them for their other medication needs at other times.  When Amazon squeezes all these independents and small chains out of business, who will be meeting you at 2 am to explain to you how to administer a pain med that you need to have RIGHT NOW for a screaming child?   No one. 

Pharmacists are the most frequently visited healthcare professionals in the US healthcare system.  When provided with the opportunity to do so by their employers, pharmacists can be invaluable in helping you to identify drug interactions and other medical issues before they require a doctor’s office visit or an emergency room trip.  If the CVSs and the Walgreens and the mail order pharmacies of the world hadn’t placed such an emphasis on just filling as many scripts as possible and simply handing out a bag to their patients, more people would know that pharmacists should be providing counseling to them every time they come into the store and, by doing so, they can ask you educated questions simply based on their ability to see you face to face on a regular basis.  It’s not unlike the difference between using telehealth for a doctor’s visit versus seeing a well-trained physician in person.  Done correctly, personal service from your pharmacist will do more to take costs out of the US healthcare system than any website can. 

On another subject, I got the following email from MNB reader Joe Axford:

I think your idea of a paid day off for every employee is a great one.

From what I can see, all the big chains in New England are open Thanksgiving, except for Market Basket.  If you must be open, why not close Friday then?  It's a very slow day, and I do realize they have to put the store back together after a busy week.  Kudos to the smaller chain stores closing both days, even knowing the shrink will be high for all dated items, with 2 days less to sell. Food for thought at least.

Regarding how companies are trying to deal with "last mile" issues, one MNB reader wrote:

Not exactly in the same context, however I did notice UPS is advertising for a “Seasonal Personal Vehicle Package Driver”, which I thought was odd yet in some ways brilliant. With the exponential increase in demand and the inability to add short term capacity within the existing fleet they took a page from the gig economy to solve an issue.

On another subject, from an MNB reader:

The BBC story on banning junk food ads on social media is a tad bit off target.  The obesity in UK children is not due to the ads, it is due to what the parents are feeding their children.  Looks to be just a “see what we did” move that will have no impact on childhood obesity.

How about they go play football (soccer)instead of vegging in front of the tube?? 

Point taken.

And finally, from another reader:

The Santa Claus announcement was the best!!!  Thank you.

Agreed.  It is reassuring to know that Santa has built-in immunities to Covid-19.