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    Published on: January 18, 2021

    KC thinks that it makes a lot of sense for retailers to incentivize employees to get vaccinated for the Covid-19 coronavirus as soon as possible.  Not only is it an investment that could cut down on employee sick days, but it also could engender trust and confidence among shoppers.

    Published on: January 18, 2021

    by Kevin Coupe

    There was a lovely piece in the Los Angeles Times' "L.A. Affairs" column the other day, written by Holly Sidell, a self-described writer and performer, about an encounter she had in Whole Foods.

    Not a romantic encounter.  Just a conversation she had with the guy working at the deli counter that changed they way she viewed her life.

    Sidell writes about how, in her early 40s, she was both recovering from breast cancer and the end of a lengthy relationship - physical and emotional scars that left her alone and without much hope that she'd ever find someone with whom to share her life.

    Earlier this year, she was planning a socially distanced date - a picnic on the Santa Monica bluffs - and said she'd pick up the food at Whole Foods.  She took the fellow's sandwich order and went up to the deli counter to order her sandwich and, for her date, "turkey on wheat with no spread."

    The counter guy's reaction:  "Who eats a turkey sandwich dry?"

    Which led into a brief conversation about the challenges of dating during a pandemic.  Here is how Sidell describes it:

    We chatted a little more on the subject until he asked if I had ever been married. I told him I had been engaged a few years earlier, and when he asked if I’d been in a relationship since then, I told him the truth: I had dated casually but needed to take the time to heal my heart and body, because I had gone through a lot over the past few years.

    “It sounds like it’s been a hard time for you. I’m sorry,” he said, his voice soft, his eyes looking at me compassionately.

    “It’s been a hard time for everyone,” I responded.

    “True,” he said, “But I really hope you find love again, if that’s what you want. You can have it, you know. You deserve happiness.”

    She goes on:

    I felt like I was in a movie; one of those moments when you know your life is changing, and so your surroundings sort of fade away. Although I was standing in the middle of a supermarket, in that moment, the fear shifted, and I felt hope start to come back. It was like all the healing work I’d done needed one final thing to make it stick, and it came in the form of the words of a masked millennial with whom I’d had a 10-minute encounter. (Luckily, it was a slow day, so no one was waiting in line behind me.)

    I don’t know if such a moment could have happened pre-COVID and pre-masks. Maybe there’s something about not being fully seen that makes us feel safer allowing ourselves to be fully seen.

    You can read the entire piece here.

    It is a testament, I think, to the power of great people working in a store.  Not every exchange between an employee and a shopper can or will have such meaning, but the connections that can be created between the two can find its deepest expression in the simple act of listening.

    It is the ultimate differential advantage.  And an Eye-Opener.

    Published on: January 18, 2021

    The New York Times writes that a US Department of Commerce report on Friday showed that consumer spending during December dropped, with retail sales declining 0.7 percent.

    The decline - the third month in a row during which spending dropped - reflected an economy that continues to stall and a pandemic that continues to affect consume behavior.

    According to the Times, "The drop was widespread across many categories, including electronics, autos, and food and beverage stores, which had been areas of strong spending last spring and summer but declined toward the end of the year.  Spending at restaurants in December was down again amid a rise in new cases and closures.

    "The decline most likely also reflects how retailers’ strategies of offering holiday deals early in the fall spread out the holiday shopping season across months, and may have dampened sales closer to Christmas."

    KC's View:

    If reports about the new coronavirus variant - said to be more contagious, though not more fatal - are accurate, then it seems unlikely that we're going to emerge from this tunnel anytime soon.

    I do tend to agree with the folks who argue that once we can get the pandemic behind us - through smart public health policy, intelligent individual behavior and widespread levels of vaccinations - we could be in for a remarkable period of growth, and an enormous amount of pent up demand  is let loose.

    We just have to get there.

    Published on: January 18, 2021

    The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has "approved the first fully automated commercial drone flights, granting a small Massachusetts-based company permission to operate drones without hands-on piloting or direct observation by human controllers or observers," the Wall Street Journal reports.

    While the approval limits drones to altitudes below 400 feet and areas classified as rural, the Journal writes that it "is a potentially significant step in expanding commercial applications of drones for farmers, utilities, mining companies and other customers.

    "It also represents another step in the FAA’s broader effort to authorize widespread flights by shifting away from case-by-case exemptions for specific vehicles performing specific tasks … the FAA said that once such automated drone operations are conducted on a wider scale, they could mean 'efficiencies to many of the industries that fuel our economy such as agriculture, mining, transportation' and certain manufacturing segments."

    KC's View:

    How soon will be be before I get an email from Amazon asking me if I want to be part of a test drone delivery program that will simply require me to put out a small landing flag in my front yard"

    Y'think it'll be 2021?  2022?  I'd take the under.

    Published on: January 18, 2021

    The move by Canadian c-store giant Alimentation Couche-Tard to acquire French supermarket giant Carrefour for $20 billion has ended, as "French politicians gave a strong 'non' to the proposed take-over, calling it a matter of national food safety," Reuters reports.

    It wasn't just food safety, though.  Reuters writes that the move also may have been doomed by a political miscalculation by Couche-Tard's founder Alain Bouchard, who "made a misstep by not giving an early heads up to French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who was extremely upset to learn about the deal from the media."

    Reuters reports that "France's swift and firm rejection of the deal sparked a flurry of trans-Atlantic lobbying to salvage the transaction, but the companies ended their pursuit late on Friday. Le Maire reiterated his opposition without listening to the terms of the transaction, sources told Reuters on Friday, and said any such deal should not be revisited before France's presidential elections in 2022."

    However, the French roadblock "is unlikely to end the global ambitions of founder Alain Bouchard.  The low-profile Canadian businessman built Couche-Tard from a single store in Quebec in 1980 to a global network of convenience stores and gas stations with a market value of $33 billion, with 66 acquisitions along the way."

    Published on: January 18, 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, there now have been 24,482,050 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 407,202 deaths and 14,428,351 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 95,553,377 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 2,041,232 resultant deaths, and 68,267,679 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    •  According to the Washington Post, "At least 10.6 million people have received one dose of the vaccine in the U.S.

    "More than 1.6 million people have been fully vaccinated in states reporting … 31.2 million doses have been distributed."

    •  From the Washington Post:

    "It took 12 weeks for the death toll to rise from 200,000 to 300,000. The death toll has leaped from 300,000 to almost 400,000 in less than five weeks.

    "It took just over a month for the U.S. coronavirus death toll to climb from 300,000 to nearly 400,000

    "That is the quickest pace of 100,000 deaths since the pandemic began … Now, with more than 1 of every 1,000 Americans dead from the virus, a University of Washington model that predicted the current totals forecasts 567,000 U.S. deaths by April 1, a number that could jump above 700,000 if mask mandates are eased in the interim."

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "The U.S. reported more than 174,000 new cases for Sunday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, down from 202,758 a day earlier and 216,290 a week earlier. It was the second day-over-day decrease in a row, after Friday’s 241,576 newly reported cases. Daily new case numbers tend to be lower at the beginning of the week, as fewer people are tested over the weekend.

    "Hospitalizations, which have declined daily since Wednesday, were at 124,387 for Sunday, according to the Covid Tracking Project. That included 23,432 people in intensive-care units.

    "The number of deaths reported for Sunday also fell, to 1,723 from 3,352, according to Johns Hopkins data. The number of deaths reported each day also tends to be lower on Sundays and Mondays. Sunday’s figure was down from a week-earlier 1,821."

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "Arizona has the highest Covid-19 infection rate in the U.S. and is on the brink of running out of space in crowded hospitals, according to public-health and hospital officials.

    "The state hit a record for new infections last week, with 11,324 in a single day. It has the highest per capita rate of new Covid-19 infections in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the highest rate of Covid-19 hospitalizations, according to the Covid tracking project.

    "As of Monday, roughly 16% of Covid-19 tests in the state were coming back positive, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, and health officials estimate that one in 10 residents is currently infected."

    Published on: January 18, 2021

    Houma Today reports that "about 20 people gathered outside a Houma Rouses supermarket Saturday in a peaceful protest over a co-owner's participation in the Trump rally Jan. 6 in Washington that led to a riot at the U.S. Capitol.

    "The group held up signs on the sidewalk facing the Rouses store at 561 Grand Caillou Road in a demonstration that ran from 11 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m.

    "Organizers said it was a response to co-owner Donald Rouse Sr. and former Rouses Human Resources Director Steve Galtier attending the Trump rally. 

    Protesters said they were raising awareness about who their dollars are supporting and urged residents to boycott Rouses."

    While organizers said they understood that Rouse says he did not participate in the invasion of the Capitol, they questioned why he had posted his participation in the rally that preceded it on social media.  Rouse has said that he was "shocked and saddened" by the violence, and that "violence and destruction do not represent our country’s values or the values of Rouses."

    There is a potentially broader impact on the business.  In Baton Rouge, The Advocate reports that Louisiana State University, which in 2019 signed a contract making Rouses the "official and exclusive supermarket of LSU Athletics," is exploring whether it can and should sever the relationship in the wake of ther controversy.

    Published on: January 18, 2021

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  Bloomberg reports that some 6,000 employees at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, "will vote by mail in February and March on whether to form a union, the National Labor Relations Board said, setting a date for a closely watched referendum on the relationship between the largest online retailer and the employees who pack and ship its products."

    The vote is being done by mail instead of in person because of concerns about the pandemic.  Amazon has said it prefers an in-person vote.

    The Bloomberg story notes that "Amazon, the second-largest U.S. employer, behind Walmart Inc., has largely avoided unions in its ranks, though some of its workers in Europe are members of labor groups. The vote is Amazon’s first in the U.S. since 2014, when a small group of technicians at a Delaware warehouse voted against joining the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers."

    Sine one of the concerns most often raised by Amazon's warehouse employees have to do with pandemic-related safety protocols, I'm not sure that pushing for in-person voting is the best look for Amazon.  

    Published on: January 18, 2021

    •  The Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council (GNEMSDC), which focuses on companies certified as a 'minority business enterprise,' announced that it "has received a $50,000 investment from Stop & Shop Supermarkets, and an additional $5,000 from the Stop & Shop NextGen Associate Resource Group, a team of Millennial and Gen Z Stop & Shop associates dedicated to economic inclusion. This $55,000 investment will be used to enhance the content and delivery of GNEMSDC's Development Program for minority owned businesses, with a special focus on Black-owned businesses."

    •  The New York Times reports that "Nestlé Prepared Foods has recalled more than 700,000 pounds of frozen pepperoni Hot Pockets that may contain pieces of glass and hard plastic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said on Friday.

    "The recall was issued after Nestlé received four separate consumer complaints of 'extraneous materials' in pepperoni Hot Pockets, the Food Safety and Inspection Service said.

    "The company said in a news release on Friday that contaminated products 'could pose a choking or laceration risk and should be not be consumed'."

    Published on: January 18, 2021

    We had a piece on Friday about how, at Dorothy Lane Market, they SELL milk ... and not just milk, but the experience and the quality that can make their milk transformational.  (And they sell some cookies, too.)  It was, I thought, brilliant.

    MNB reader Craig Espelien wrote:

    Wow - that is some of the best milk advertising I have seen and you are absolutely correct - it “sells” milk in a way that most folks will not. Milk has become commoditized so price is the only thing that too many retailers think matters. What a great way to “sell” milk, their brand and, of course, cookies.  Two other points:

    #1 - Kemp’s in the Minneapolis market went down this pathway as the consumer saw Kemp’s milk (history of home delivery throughout the state) as better than the cheap plastic jug milk - and Kemp’s charged a premium for a better jug and for the quality their name created in milk perception. They could probably take a page from DLM and enhance that to maximize the overall value.

    #2 - when you think about it, this is basic marketing. I was taught way back when that marketing was finding out what people wanted to buy and sell it to them. Sell bolded as I always saw that as a verb (sort of like compete). DLM has chosen to SELL rather than just allow consumer’s to buy based on price. Good for them - and good for their consumers.

    Another MNB reader wrote:

    As a customer I'd be saying to myself, if they put that much thought into their milk, everything else they sell must be fantastic as well!


    Last week there was a New York Times report that consumer activists were urging regulators to take action against Amazon "over a Prime feature that warns people who want to opt out of membership that 'cancellation will mean losing 'exclusive benefits'."  The system also offer prompts in case people want to change their minds.

    I commented:

    Maybe I'm crazy, but it strikes me as being responsible for Amazon to inform consumers what they'll lose access to if they cancel their Prime membership.

    I went on Amazon yesterday because I was curious how hard it would be to find the "cancel account" button.  It took me about five seconds…

    One MNB reader responded:

    Like you, I see no issue with what Amazon is doing here, and they make it extremely easy to walk away.  Much easier than other subscriptions to cancel, like your cable or satellite radio service that takes almost a full hour on the phone to get out of.  If we’re targeting tech giants, however, Apple is the one that should be drawing the focus of consumer advocate groups.  Good luck finding out how to stop auto-renewal of subscriptions without a tutorial on the process!

    I agree.

    MNB reader Dave Parker wrote:

    I don’t get it either. Prime is a product. You can buy it or not buy it. Of course the “penalty” for cancellation is loss of benefits, because the benefits are what you pay for! We should worry more about the loss of critical thinking.

    Got the following email this morning from a reader:

    When will MNB start to label Walgreens as the next version of Kmart?

    I’m not being entirely flippant here.  They are going to be squashed by Amazon in Pharmacy ( two-thirds of their trips).  There’s little new in Walgreens, except for the employees saying “welcome to Walgreens” when a customer enters the store.

    Some of the store managers (and pharmacy managers) I talk with are saying that hours are getting cut.  I recently had a script moved from one store to another and the manager told me their hours were cut and the Rx department was no longer open on Sunday.  I went to the store to collect the RX on Monday, only to wait 12 cars deep in the outside queue.  My wife went inside to find a line of 15 waiting to pick up their Rx. Only two employees were working in Rx that Monday.  I returned to the store two days later to find only 1 person working in Rx (who later told me they were the only one scheduled to work).

    I’m seeing less clean stores, out of stocks in various departments and out of date merchandise in food sections, in Walgreens stores across multiple states. Their cooler are dirty; I really doubt they are being cleaned in support of any COVID protocols.  

    The only thing I can see that continues to go up is their fees to get products on their shelves.

    Yes, they have many stores.  But, with no real innovation they can own, I think we’ll be seeing Walgreens as the “next Kmart” sometime in 2021. Amazon’s going to eat Walgreen’s lunch unless Walgreens comes up with a reason for its existence – soon.

    I wrote the other day that "there will be a tendency, especially among public companies, to look to cut costs in 2021 because they'll be concerned about 2021's comps - the pace of pandemic-driven sales in 2020 will be hard to match and/or exceed this year."

    Prompting MNB reader Joe Axford to write:

    You hit the nail on the head KC!  IMO this will be number one sadly, not innovation. Employee hours will be cut, and morale will be affected. 

    Regarding Kroger's new smart cart, one MNB reader wrote:

    Maybe I just have an old spirit for a 31 year old, but this seems a bit much for me. I already look at a screen in nearly every aspect of my life (work, tv, kindle, online shopping, etc) and I don’t want to change that to literally every aspect of my life. If someone wants to shop on screen, great! Shop from home and pick up at the store…it’s even faster than walking the store and picking up items with a “smart cart”. If you prefer to not have screens staring back at you at every moment, shop in store. Maybe I’ll adjust over time but this kind of innovation seems duplicative and, to your point, also posses the threat of reducing customer-employee interactions that can be a major element to building higher levels of shopper equity with your brand.

    FMI-The Food Industry Association has proclaimed February 22, 2021 as Supermarket Employee Day, urging its member retailers to "recognize employees at every level for the work they do feeding families and enriching lives," and offering a "free toolkit - messaging, logos and turnkey resources - to help celebrate your supermarket employees."

    I commented:

    I think this is a smart move, well deserved, though I do have a few observations.  (Naturally.)

    One is that if retailers don't think about their employees this way, then all the help FMI can give them probably isn't going to change their companies' culture.  (That said, some may feel that way and the FMI approach will give them structure, and that's a good thing.)

    I also know that I get enough emails from supermarket employees who feel that they are underpaid - especially by the big chains - to think that there could be some blowback to this campaign.   I'm sure I will get emails that will say, "Save the money on t-shirts and just pay me better."  And I think retailers have to be prepared for that.

    One MNB reader responded:

    I'm very excited that FMI brought this event forward for retailers.   I like your comments about retailers needing to embrace this and it shouldn't just be on the date FMI gave us.   Although pay is important, store Managers are often limited in what they can do under corporate policies.   Its the recognition that is within their total control. 

    When I ascended into a DM position I instructed all of my Store Managers that certain days would be employee appreciation days and I expected them and the Department Managers to be involved in it.  I'm  proud to say that my dynamic group of managers came up with many great ideas for the appreciation events exceeding not only my expectations but of their employees.   In a world of uncertainty and hardship more then ever we need to show the people on the front lines how important they are.

    Finally, I got a number of emails about my "OffBeat" interview with author Ace Atkins.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    Happy Friday, Kevin! Made all the more happy by your interview with Ace Atkins! I’m finishing up his latest Quinn Colson, with “Someone to Watch Over Me” on deck. Such a great talk with him – congratulations and thank you!  

    And from another reader:

    Thank you for sharing your interview with Ace Atkins…..I’ve read most of the Spenser and all of the Quinn Colson books.

    This is a great surprise.

    Thanks.  I hope to have a few more surprises in coming weeks, if things work out.

    Published on: January 18, 2021

    In the Divisional Round of the National Football League playoffs…

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers  30, New Orleans Saints  20

    Cleveland Browns 17, Kansas City Chiefs 22

    Los Angeles Rams 18, Green Bay Packers 32

    Baltimore Ravens 3, Buffalo Bills 17

    In one of the more charming sports stories of the week … and maybe the year … the New York Times has a piece about Frank Miller, a 74-year-old Dallas man who found himself at loose ends because of the pandemic.   What he really wanted, the story says, was someone with whom he could have a catch.

    "In a world with its cover torn off, the idea of a man in his eighth decade yearning for a baseball buddy seemed to spark something in people."

    Miller's wife went on social media and posted:  "My 74 year old husband would like to have a partner to throw the ball with. He is a former high school and college pitcher and is looking for a catcher or someone who knows how to throw a baseball … How about 3 p.m. Wednesday at Cole Park near the tennis courts?"

    And about a dozen people showed up.

    Probably because, "as Jim Bouton wrote in the classic book, 'Ball Four,' a lot of people spend a lifetime gripping a ball, only to realize 'it was the other way around all the time'."

    You can read the piece here.