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    Published on: January 8, 2021

    What do bicycles and Paris have in common?  Historically, not much - bicyclists used to call Paris streets "corridors of death."  But that's changing, which is a good thing because it gives KC a metaphor and a business lesson.  

    Prendre plaisir.

    Published on: January 8, 2021

    Albertsons said yesterday that it has begun piloting a new "automated and contactless grocery PickUp kiosk" at one of its Jewel-Osco stores in Chicago.

    Here's how the announcement describes the unit:

    "The automated, temperature-controlled kiosk, created by Cleveron, provides a contactless pickup experience. Customers who select the 'Kiosk PickUp' option will be offered 2-hr time slots during which to pick up their groceries.

    "When customers arrive at the kiosk, they scan a code on their phone and their groceries are robotically delivered to the front of the unit for pickup. The unit features two temperature zones - regular and a deep freeze. A customer’s order can be stored in two different zones and still be delivered in the same console for pick up."

    Albertsons says it also plans to test a second unit at a San Francisco-area Safeway store.

    “We are supercharging our digital and omnichannel offerings to serve customers however they want, whenever they want,” said Chris Rupp, EVP and Chief Customer & Digital Officer at Albertsons Cos. “This innovative and contactless PickUp kiosk makes it even easier for customers to shop with us in a way that is convenient for them.”

    KC's View:

    I've been tough on Albertsons in recent days regarding its decision to move to third-party outsourcing for deliveries, so let me give them kudos for this move.  These are kinds of things that retailers have to do if they are going to be impactful in the e-grocery space, and Rupp and her team have brought new vigor to how Albertsons innovates in the segment.

    Published on: January 8, 2021

    Bloomberg reports that Amazon this week shut down its Prime Pantry service.

    According to the story, Amazon closed down the service, which was one of its earliest e-grocery efforts, on Wednesday, with "thousands of products previously available under the Prime Pantry banner were folded into the company’s main retail site."

    "Launched in 2014," Bloomberg reports, "Prime Pantry featured a selection of shelf-stable food and snacks, as well as cleaning products, and was designed to get shoppers to stock up on the bulky, often expensive-to-ship products in orders that could fit into a single large box.

    "Initially the service was offered only to members of the Prime free shipping program, but Amazon added a $5 a month subscription option in 2018. Those who were still paying the monthly fee were notified of the shutdown in December and received refunds, the spokeswoman said."

    KC's View:

    I got an email from MNB reader Jamaica White this week who had found a change in how Amazon was delivering on its Pantry promise:

    I used it to get one box of dry goods (cereal, pasta, snacks) about every other week. The key for me is that even if I ordered 10 items they all came packed in one box. I guess you can get the items through Prime but if I order three different boxes of cereal I don’t necessarily want to have them sent in three separate amazon packages as three separate orders. Isn’t this a lot more packages for Amazon to handle? I personally like the efficiency of knowing my items are going from a warehouse to my house instead of the Instacart/shipt model where an item has to take many more steps and go through many more hands before it gets to me.

    Fair point.  The premise behind Pantry was that you had to order enough stuff to make the shipping cost-effective, but if that part of the approach is abandoned, then what's the point?

    I would assume that what Amazon really is trying to do here is reduce friction - I've ordered stuff via Pantry, but it always was sort of frustrating that some items were only available via Pantry and some available through traditional Prime.  If the shipping consolidation advantages no longer are there, then Pantry probably just became a distraction, getting in the way of placing orders rather than enabling them.

    Published on: January 8, 2021

    Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic and how businesses and various business sectors are trying to recover from it, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  In the United States, we now have had 22,137,009 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 374,197 deaths and 13,143,317 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 88,599,836 confirmed coronavirus cases, 1,908,642 fatalities, and 63,688,727 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    •  From the New York Times this morning:

    "Thursday began with a warning, and it was soon borne out.

    "'We believe things will get worse as we get into January,' Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease specialist, said in a radio interview at the start of the day.

    "It didn’t take long for him to be proved right: Things immediately got worse.

    "For the second day in a row, the United States set a record for daily reported deaths: at least 4,111. And public health officials recorded a new daily case record, too: at least 280,028 new infections."

    There was some good news on the vaccine front, the Times writes:  "In the third week of the drive, more people were reported to have received their initial shots than in the first two weeks combined. The government count rose by 470,000 from Tuesday to Wednesday, and then by another 612,000 from Wednesday to Thursday."

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "hospitalizations in the U.S. were at 132,370 on Thursday, according to the Covid Tracking Project, down slightly from a day earlier after four record-high days in a row. A record 23,821 people were in intensive care units, the project reported."

    •  From the Washington Post this morning:

    "The United States on Thursday shattered records for the number of coronavirus-related deaths on a single day, topping 4,000 fatalities for the first time. Experts worry that the new, more contagious strain of the virus that has already been detected in eight states could make matters worse.

    "'We are in a race against time,' Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Washington Post.  'We need to increase our speed in which we act so that we don’t allow this virus to spread further and allow this variant to become the dominant one in circulation. The clock is ticking'."

    •  The Washington Post also writes that "people with no symptoms transmit more than half of all cases of the novel coronavirus, according to a model developed by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    "Their findings reinforce the importance of following the agency’s guidelines: Regardless of whether you feel ill, wear a mask, wash your hands, stay socially distant and get a coronavirus test. That advice has been a constant refrain in a pandemic responsible for more than 350,000 deaths in the United States.

    "Fifty-nine percent of all transmission came from people without symptoms, under the model’s baseline scenario. That includes 35 percent of new cases from people who infect others before they show symptoms and 24 percent that come from people who never develop symptoms at all."

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "Connecticut officials said Thursday a fast-spreading new variant of the coronavirus has been found in two residents.

    "State health officials said they detected the variant, first discovered in the U.K., in two people aged 15 to 25 who live in New Haven County. Both had traveled: one to Ireland and the other to New York state. Both developed symptoms three to four days after returning. The cases are unrelated, Gov. Ned Lamont’s office said.

    Contact tracers have identified the residents’ close contacts."

    The story notes that the variant also has been detected in Colorado, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas. 

    •  The Washington Post reports that "the human body typically retains a robust immune response to the coronavirus for at least eight months after an infection, and potentially much longer, researchers said in a study published in the journal Science. About 90 percent of the patients studied showed lingering, stable immunity, the study found."

    •  Reuters reports that "Pfizer Inc and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine appeared to work against a key mutation in the highly transmissible new variants of the coronavirus discovered in the UK and South Africa, according to a laboratory study conducted by the U.S. drugmaker.

    "The not-yet peer reviewed study by Pfizer and scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch indicated the vaccine was effective in neutralizing virus with the so-called N501Y mutation of the spike protein."

    •  Reuters reports that "Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor, said on Wednesday it is actively preparing for COVID-19 vaccine distribution to employees and has medical capabilities at its U.S. plants.

    "Meatpacking workers were among the groups hit hardest by the new coronavirus last year, as U.S. slaughterhouses became hot spots for outbreaks in the spring, helping spread the virus around rural America.

    "Smithfield, owned by China’s WH Group, is one of the first companies in the United States to say it is preparing to vaccinate workers, although it declined to provide details on its plans and said circumstances vary by state."

    •  If you were planning to come to New York to see "Mean Girls" on Broadway once the pandemic subsides, better make other plans.

    The producers of the show announced that when Broadway shows begin to reopen, hopefully later this year, "Mean Girls" won't be among them.

    The New York Times writes that "the 'Mean Girls' closing was prompted by the costs of keeping the production intact while theaters are dark. Broadway has been closed since last March, and it seems likely that most shows will not return until the fall or later … The show is the fourth Broadway closing prompted by the pandemic: Disney announced last spring that it would not reopen 'Frozen,' and the producers of two plays that had been in previews, Martin McDonagh’s 'Hangmen' and a revival of Edward Albee’s 'Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,' decided not to wait out the shutdown at all."

    "Mean Girls" was profitable during its  run:  "It opened in 2018 and was a hit, recouping its $17 million capitalization costs and grossing $124 million over 834 performances."

    Published on: January 8, 2021

    •  Bloomberg reports that Jeff Bezos, at least for the moment, isn't the wealthiest person on the planet.

    Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, is.

    The story says that "a rally in the electric carmaker’s share price Thursday boosted Musk past … Bezos on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a ranking of the world’s 500 wealthiest people … By the time Tesla shares closed Thursday at $816.04, up 8%, Musk’s wealth on the index had risen to $195 billion versus $185 billion for Bezos."

    Published on: January 8, 2021

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "weekly initial claims for jobless benefits from regular state programs, a proxy for layoffs, fell by 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 787,000 in the week ended Jan. 2, the Labor Department said Thursday. The prior week’s figure was revised up by 3,000.

    "Unemployment claims have remained at high levels during the pandemic—holding at four times their pre-pandemic average at around 800,000 a week through the fall and into the winter. Claims peaked at nearly 7 million in the spring, when a majority of states issued stay at home orders early in the pandemic. The pre-pandemic peak was 695,000."

    •  Also from the Journal:

    "The U.S. shed 140,000 jobs in December and the unemployment rate was 6.7%, ending seven months of job growth and suggesting the economy is weakening.

    "The Labor Department report Friday showed the jobs market has deteriorated this winter as cold weather, rising covid infections, and new restrictions on businesses deal a setback to the recovery from the pandemic.

    "In one positive sign, job growth in November was stronger than previously estimated. The agency said the economy added 336,000 jobs that month instead of the initially reported 245,000.

    "Meanwhile, the department also said that the record surge in the unemployment rate last spring due to the pandemic was higher than it previously reported. The jobless rate hit 14.8% in April, the highest on record, instead of the previously reported 14.7%."

    •  Fox Business reports that Wayfair announced that it is increasing its minimum wage to $15 an hour for all US employees, an increase that it says will impact more than 40 percent of its workforce.

    According to the story, "Wayfair CEO Niraj Shah said the rise in wages is in addition to a slate of 'numerous initiatives' that the company already rolled out throughout the year to support its employees during the coronavirus pandemic … As part of its efforts, Wayfair said it extended employee benefits, including a pay premium for its frontline team, bonuses, emergency paid time off and child care support."

    •  From Fast Company:

    "A typical plastic deodorant stick ends up in the trash within months. A new alternative from Dove is designed to be kept for the rest of your life: The case, made from stainless steel, can be refilled with inserts that click into place.

    Unilever, the corporate giant that owns the brand, pledged in 2019 to cut its use of virgin plastic in half by 2025 and to begin moving away from single-use plastic, with a goal to shrink plastic packaging in absolute terms by 100,000 metric tons.

    "The new refillable deodorant is one step. It doesn’t completely eliminate plastic, since the inserts still use a small amount of plastic packaging. But the design uses 54% less plastic than the brand’s regular deodorant, and 98% of the plastic that it does use is recycled. Over time, it’s possible that the design may evolve to use no plastic at all."

    The story says that "the refillable design will be available in Target and Walmart stores in the U.S."

    Published on: January 8, 2021

    •  CVS Health has hired Michelle Peluso, most recently SVP Digital Sales & Chief Marketing Officer at IBM, to be its chief customer officer,  new position at the company.

    •  Starbucks announced that Rachel Ruggeri, the company's senior vice president of finance for the Americas and a Starbucks employee since 2001, will become the company's CFO, succeeding Patrick Grismer.

    Published on: January 8, 2021

    Content Guy’s Note: Stories in this section are, in my estimation, important and relevant to business. However, they are relegated to this slot because some MNB readers have made clear that they prefer a politics-free MNB; I can't do that because sometimes the news calls out for coverage and commentary, but at least I can make it easy for folks to skip it if they so desire.

    •  From the Wall Street Journal this morning:

    "The Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans and former Republicans, said it’s planning 'a brutal corporate pressure campaign' targeting companies, trade associations, CEOs and others that 'serve as the financiers of the Authoritarian movement that attacked the US Capitol,' Steve Schmidt, a political strategist and a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, said in a tweet.

    "In an interview Thursday evening, Mr. Schmidt said he wasn’t ready to list specific companies that will be in the crosshairs, but said the Lincoln Project thinks there are plenty worth scrutinizing.

    "'It’s a time for choosing: it’s America, or autocracy,' he said. 'There’s going to be a public discussion around it'."

    KC's View:

    I'm sure I'll get grief from some corners for even reporting this, but let's be clear - this is not about partisanship one way or the other.  This is about being clear-eyed about the environment in which businesses now find themselves, and how the political ground may be shifting under their feet, forcing them to deal - fairly or not - with political and/or public policy positions they have taken.

    I know this.  I've seen the ads produced by The Lincoln Project.  I wouldn't want them coming after me.

    Published on: January 8, 2021

    Two noteworthy deaths to report this morning…

    •  Neil Sheehan, the famed New York Times reporter who broke the story in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed government deceptions about the war in Vietnam and then won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam," has passed away.  He was 84 and had been suffering from Parkinson's disease.

    •  Tom Perrotta, the longtime tennis correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, has died at age 44.  He was diagnosed with a brain tumor four years ago.

    KC's View:

    I recommend two articles to read this morning.  One is an appreciation of Perrotta written by WSJ columnist Jason Gay, which you can read here.  And the other is the last article Perrotta wrote for the Journal, back in late November.  Both are lovely pieces of writing that are worthy of your attention.

    Published on: January 8, 2021

    Got the following email from MNB reader Brian Blank responding to yesterday's piece about John Mackey saying that nobody really needs health care if they eat right:

    Spot on take on John Mackey’s interview, and I’m glad you included the Post’s reminder that health care goes WAY beyond diet-controllable issues, as there are a whole host of health issues that have nothing to do with diet.  One GLARING thing he ignores, and which doubles down on his arrogance (and brings misogyny into the discussion) is pregnancy/childbirth.  No amount of organic artisanal kombucha will replace an OB/GYN (or even a trained midwife). 

    Let’s also point out that Whole Foods Market is not a “health food” store.  True it has a lot of healthy food, including the best selection of fresh produce in many, if not most, of its markets.  But not everything they sell is “healthy”—take for instance our mutual favorite: Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chip ice cream.  I’m no nutritionist, but I doubt that fancy cane sugar-sweetened root beer and ginger beer are much, if any, better for a person than Coke or Canada Dry.  I’m even more confident that craft beers are no healthier than Budweiser. 

    Furthermore, Mr. Mackey seems to have a mindset that only people who live within a few miles of a Whole Foods Market are the only people entitled to healthy foods or overall health.  My mother lives in NW Ohio, in a town of roughly 10,000 people.  The nearest Whole Foods appears to be around 2 hours away, so she’s left with Walmart, Sav A Lot, and Chief for her food shopping options.  I’m sure there are parts of this country where a 2 hour drive would be considered close in comparison.  (And should we talk about blood pressure?  Because mine is elevated just talking about this guy…)

    MNB reader Joe Axford chimed in:

    A couple of things, if I may. Mackey has always struck me as pompous and arrogant, and probably thinks he's the smartest guy in the room.

    Having said that, not everyone is a vegetarian like he is, which does make for better health, one would think. But what about genes, things that are inherited like heart trouble or cancer, to name a couple. Time to get off your high horse, John!

    Yesterday, MNB took note of a KABC-TV News report that the Los Angeles county Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 to "request the drafting of a hero pay ordinance" that would mandate that supermarket and drug store chains in the county pay front line employees an extra $5 an hour.

    I commented, in part:

    Five extra bucks an hour sounds entirely reasonable to me.  But I don't think a county government ought to be getting into the business of mandating that one retail segment has to pay its people more than those in other segments for limited and specific periods.  That strikes me as bad public policy.

    Smart retailers will do the right thing for at-risk employees, and will be rewarded, I think.  The other ones … well, they'll reap what they sow.

    One MNB reader responded:

    In California retailers are still operating under price gouging legislation which forbids any retailer to make a price increase of greater than 10% on any SKU based on the store prices on Feb 4, 2020, unless there is a cost increase on that item.

    The Hero Pay legislation means that retailers are now required to increase operating costs and are unable to adjust retail prices.  This change will make our smaller stores unprofitable every day.  Does LA county really want inner-city neighborhoods to have fewer options for fresh produce and groceries?

    Published on: January 8, 2021

    As a matter of consistency, let me start out by saying that I have no problem conceptually with authors taking over for other authors, generally those who have passed away, to write new entries in longtime series.  I've weighed in here about how well Ace Atkins has taken over for the late Robert B. Parker in doing the Spenser novels; I've also interviewed Reed Farrel Coleman and Mike Lupica when they took over other series launch by Parker.

    I've enjoyed to varying degrees some of the James Bond novels that have been written in the many decades since the demise of Ian Fleming, and I was a huge fan of "Only to Sleep," Lawrence Osborne's meditation on how Raymond Chandler's iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, might spend his golden years.  (Ironically, Robert B. Parker had mixed success when writing about Marlowe - his "Poodle Springs" was okay, but "Perchance To Dream"was, shall we say, less than impressive.

    I write all this because over the holidays I had a chance to read "The Sentinel," the new Jack Reacher novel that, according to the cover, is co-authored for the first time by series creator Lee Child and his younger brother, Andrew Child.

    I've always been a fan of the Reacher books, mostly because Lee Child figured out how to make a basic formula almost endlessly entertaining - Reacher, an enormous physical specimen and retired Army military policeman, wanders the country with just a toothbrush (he has the clothes on his back and when he needs new ones, he throws out the old ones), taking odd jobs and finding trouble, usually when he steps in to help someone who needs it.  And pretty much with every Reacher book, I've plowed through them - Lee Child knows how to spin a yarn, and he created a compelling protagonist.

    Except with "The Sentinel," not so much.  I'd pick it up and read it a bit, then put it down and come back to it as few days later.  There was something different about this first collaboration between the brothers Child (who actually are the brothers Grant - Lee Child's real name is Jim Grant, and Andrew Child has published novels as Andrew Grant, but he's adopted his older brother's last nom de plume for this series).  Reacher seemed more condescending towards the people around him than in previous books, and there's something weird about the writing - it is almost as if it is a parody of a Reacher book, not part of the much-loved series.

    It ends up that Lee Child actually didn't write "The Sentinel."  He's decided that he's taken the series as far as he can take it, he wants to spend some time working on the Amazon Prime Video series that he is co-producing, and figured he'd just turn the franchise over to his brother, who says he wants to modernize Reacher a bit.

    That could end up being a problem - Reacher's appeal is that he's a throwback, the opposite of modern.  "The Sentinel" isn't bad, but I found it disappointing.  I hope that if Andrew Child continues with the series, he'll grow into it.  I'm willing to give him another shot.

    In 2003, Thomas Perry gave us "The Butcher's Boy," a terrific thriller that had as its protagonist a contract killer … and he pulled off the feat of making a character that ordinarily would be deplorable seem somehow sympathetic.  Since then, he's interspersed new novels about the character with his other works (Perry's "The Old Man" is a favorite of mine).  "Sleeping Dogs" and 'The Informant" were terrific follow-ups, and now he is out with "Eddie's Boy," which brings back the character and provides some insight into the influences that formed him.

    As always, Perry knows how to get a story rolling.  The first sentence:

    Michael Schaeffer had not killed anyone in years,  and he was enraged at the fact that he'd had to do it again tonight…"

    From there, "Eddie's Boy" takes us on a roller-coaster ride, as the killer tries to figure out who is trying to kill him and why, and tries to take out his enemies before they can accomplish their goal.  "Eddie's Boy" is a great read … once I started it, I couldn't put it down.

    Disney's Pixar division has never been shy about considering the big questions even as producing animated films that nominally are for kids.  In part, that's because its movies generally work on different levels - movies like Up and Toy Story, for example, have subtext (and generally plenty of jokes) that make them highly entertaining for adults as well.

    Just such a movie is Soul, which found its way onto the Disney+ streaming service at the end of the year as many movie theaters around the country remained either closed or relatively unattractive to people trying to cut down on the times and places where they might contract the Covid-19 coronavirus.  In some ways, I think the film's timing was propitious - 2020 had the impact of forcing many of us to consider our choices and priorities at a time when our lives were disrupted by the pandemic and resultant lockdowns and restrictions.

    As with many Pixar films, Soul has a simple premise - Joe Gardner, a jazz musician (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who never has been able to make a living at the thing that gives his life meaning, instead having to teach middle school band, finally gets his big break.  

    And then he dies.

    But of course, it isn't that easy, and Joe spends the movie trying to get back his life.

    Soul, in many ways, reminded me of Heaven Can Wait (the Warren Beatty version) and Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life, one of my favorite movies of all time.  All three films are about the search for meaning, and how the choices we make can have a domino effect on the rest of our lives.  In each case, the protagonist at the center of the movie isn't young;  the argument can be made that in Soul, Joe Gardner actually is finally ready - in terms of life experience and the maturation of his talent - to take advantage of the opportunity offered to him.

    What makes Soul different is that as Joe tries to get his life back, he finds himself in The Great Before (as opposed to The Great Beyond), mentoring a young soul trying to avoid going to Earth, which doesn't seem all that attractive an option.  The young soul, named 22, is voided with great verve by Tina Fey, and she finds a great rhythm in her dialogue with Foxx.

    I don't want to tell you any more about the movie - the plot is full of twists and turns.  But Soul is funny and charming and wise, regardless if you are six or 60.

    (The music, by the way, is terrific - the way they visualize the piano scenes, with musician Jon Batiste, is highly imaginative.)

    See it, on Disney+.

    Soul was supposed to be in theaters, but detoured to streaming on Disney+ because of the pandemic.   I'm not sure it loses anything on the smaller screen.

    I mention this because over the holidays I also watched Wonder Woman 84 and Tenet at home - these are two movies that, as the pandemic was raging, Hollywood believed were good enough to get people out of their homes and into the theaters.

    I'm here to tell you that if movies like these are what movie studios are counting on to get people out of the house, they're badly miscalculating.  Tenet, as far as I'm concerned, is a confusing mess - the big screen would've just made the mess bigger and louder.  And WW84 has none of the charm and imagination of the first in the franchise.  In both cases, it seems to me that someone should have hired an actual writer to try and make sense out of their plots - they depend on spectacle for their appeal, but the lack of coherent and interesting plots makes them practically inert.

    Avoid them.

    That's it for this week.  Have a good weekend … I'll see you Monday.

    Stay safe.  Be healthy.