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    Published on: January 29, 2021

    An enormous entity called Oumuamua paid a visit to our solar system back in 2017, prompting astronomer Avi Loeb to suggest that it could be a sign of intelligent life beyond Earth.  Whether it is or not, he argues, it is in our best interest to believe that it could have been … and KC (of course) found business lesson in that.

    BTW….here's an artist's representation of Oumuamua from the NASA website:

    Published on: January 29, 2021

    The bad news:  The U.S. economy shrank in 2020 for the first time since the financial crisis, and had its worst year since the 1940s.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, "A strong rebound in the second half of 2020 wasn’t enough to overcome the economic shock created by the pandemic earlier in the year. Measured year-over-year, the economy contracted 3.5% last year, the largest decline since just after World War II and the first since 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis. Measured from the fourth quarter to the same quarter a year earlier the economy shrank 2.5%."

    The good news:  "U.S. households have money to spend but limited ways to spend it, priming the economy for stronger growth this year once the pandemic recedes and businesses fully reopen," the Journal writes.

    The story notes that "while government aid programs, a booming stock market and rising home values have put households on solid footing financially, consumers haven’t been able or willing to dine out, go to concerts or on vacation. Late last year, many state and local governments forced businesses to shut down again or scale back operations to combat another wave of the coronavirus."

    KC's View:

    All of which points to an enormous economic boom when the country gets to the  point where people are able to rejoin their lives that were already in progress.

    It is the word when that reflects how tricky all this prognostication is.

    Published on: January 29, 2021

    From the Wall Street Journal this morning:

    "Walmart Inc. is revamping its ad-sales group, adding new advertising technology for brands and selling ad space on its in-store checkout and display screens to reach consumers in stores.

    "The changes at Walmart Media Group, which will be renamed Walmart Connect, signal the company’s growing ambitions to diversify revenue and become a top 10 ad company in the next few years, said Janey Whiteside, chief customer officer at Walmart."

    The story goes on:

    "The company worked with advertising technology company Trade Desk Inc. to create a so-called demand-side platform that will let brands use Walmart data to send targeted digital ads to consumers across the web. Previously, most advertisers used the company’s data to show ads to shoppers on Walmart properties such as its website and app.

    "Large retailers such as Walmart, Kroger Co. and Target Corp. have been investing in digital ad offerings to generate new revenue and help their suppliers reach a fast-growing crowd of online shoppers.

    "While Walmart has a tiny share of ad revenue compared with giants like Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., its access to in-store and online shopper data will set its demand-side platform apart from some rival ad sellers and help it compete for a larger slice of marketers’ dollars.  The company will also start selling ad space on the many checkout and display screens across its 4,500 stores, with the goal of eventually letting advertisers buy personalized ads that target shoppers."

    KC's View:

    The ability to narrow-cast advertising messages, as enabled by the internet, has been a game changer … and it makes total sense for Walmart and these other retailers to monetize relationships with their customers.

    I do think that retailers have to be careful not to follow the lead of companies like Facebook, which are under fire for abusing those relationships to line their own pockets.  I am reminded of the line from The Social Dilemma - "If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product."  Except in the case of the retailers. customers actually are paying for the product, and then are being sold anyway/

    Published on: January 29, 2021

    General Motors announced yesterday that as of 2035 it no longer will sell gas and diesel-powered cars and SUVs, "eliminating all tailpipe emissions from light duty vehicles by that date," the Washington Post reports, adding, "The move won’t affect medium and heavy duty trucks, but it will include everything from cars and crossovers to full-size trucks and SUVs, such as the light-duty Silverado and Yukon."

    The Post goes on:

    "A GM executive, who asked for anonymity to describe details of the GM shift, said that the company would spend $27 billion on electric vehicles and associated products between 2020 and 2025, outstripping spending on conventional gasoline and diesel cars. That figure includes refurbishing factories and investing in battery production in conjunction with LG Chem, a South Korean battery maker."

    Axios writes that "the 2035 'aspiration' would put GM on the same timeline with the state of California, and an identical or similar path to several countries with plans to phase out sales of internal-combustion vehicles."

    KC's View:

    If this is just a harbinger of things to come - and I suspect it is - then there are a lot of retailers selling fuel that are going to need to think about how they're going to deploy assets devoted to that segment.  And I don't mean deploying lobbyists to Washington to try to create legislation forbidding such movies.  (Somebody will do that.  It is inevitable.)

    Moving away from fossil fuels is the smart move long-term, and it is better to embrace and capitalize on the shift than fight it.

    Published on: January 29, 2021

    The Los Angeles Times this morning has a piece about how "drive-throughs are on special order at many restaurants as owners race to put customers at ease during the pandemic and prepare for a food service future increasingly ruled by convenience.

    "Quick-service specialists such as Sweetgreen and Shake Shack are planning their first stores with drive-through lanes, while existing operators are scrambling to build new car service portals or jerry-build temporary openings to serve customers behind the wheel.

    "The efforts run counter to recent urban planning thinking in which some cities seek to limit new drive-throughs to reduce auto emissions and litter, bring down obesity and improve pedestrian safety."

    You can read the story here.

    Published on: January 29, 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 26,338,607 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 443,769 deaths, and 16,070,127 reported recoveries.

    Globally, here are the numbers:  102,117,505 confirmed coronavirus cases … 2,202,722 resultant deaths … and 73,966,647 reported recoveries. (Source.)


    •  The Washington Post reports that "at least 22 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the U.S.  This includes more than 4.5 million people who have been fully vaccinated … 48.4 million doses have been distributed."


    •  The Washington Post this morning reports that "a single-shot coronavirus vaccine from pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson was 66 percent effective at preventing moderate and severe illness in a massive global trial, findings released Friday show. But its performance was stronger in the United States and weaker in South Africa, where a worrisome coronavirus variant now dominates - a complicated result that reflects the evolution of the pandemic.

    "The results, reported in a news release, put a third vaccine on the horizon in the United States — one with logistical advantages that could simplify distribution and expand access to shots in the United States and worldwide.

    "Johnson & Johnson is expected to apply for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration next week. If the review follows the path of two earlier vaccine candidates, the shot could be authorized and available to the public by late February or early March."


    •  From the Wall Street Journal this morning:

    "Hospitalizations due to Covid-19 in the U.S. fell to their lowest level since Dec. 7, as the nation marked its 12th day in a row in which newly reported cases were below 200,000.

    "A total of 104,303 people were hospitalized due to the disease as of Jan. 28, according to the Covid Tracking Project. The number of people in intensive care units also declined slightly to 20,113."


    •  Also from the Journal:

    "A continuing worry in the battle to curb the spread of the virus is the emergence of new variants. Health authorities in South Carolina said Thursday they have identified two people who were infected with a coronavirus variant that was first detected in South Africa and could evade some treatments.

    "The two adults haven’t traveled to South Africa and aren’t connected to one another, authorities said, suggesting that the variant, known as B.1.351, is potentially circulating in the community. The finding means that all three 'variants of concern' identified recently by scientists around the world have now been found in the U.S.

    "Meanwhile, Novavax Inc. said Thursday its Covid-19 vaccine was 89.3% effective at protecting people from the disease in an interim analysis from its late-stage study in the U.K. Yet the vaccine was less effective in a separate, middle-stage study in South Africa. In that country, the Novavax shot was about 49.4% effective against Covid-19 in the study. Preliminary results showed that more than 90% of the sick subjects for whom sequencing data were available were infected with the new variant circulating in South Africa."


    •  The New York Times this morning reports that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has asked the Pentagon to consider "sending active-duty troops to large, federally run coronavirus vaccine centers, a major departure for the department and the first significant sign that the Biden administration is moving to take more control of a program that states are struggling to manage."

    FEMA has said it would like to set up as many as 100 vaccine sites around the country.   This would be in addition to all the sites set up by state governments, many of them using major retailers as a conduit through which to get vaccine into people's arms.

    The Pentagon reportedly is considering the request.


    •   Axios reports that "some teachers don't want to return to the classroom until they've been vaccinated - setting up potential clashes with state and local governments pushing to reopen schools."  The problem is that "most states haven't put teachers at the front of the line for vaccines. Only 18 have included teachers in the early priority groups that can get vaccinated now, and in all but four of those states, teachers are competing for shots with other higher-risk populations, including the elderly."

    The Axios story says that "a pair of studies from the CDC this week reiterated the agency's stance that schools can operate safely with the proper precautions, along with other mitigation measures in the broader community … Although the rise of new, more contagious variants has scrambled the calculus on school reopening, for now the expert consensus is that vaccinations aren't essential to safely reopening schools."


    •  Fast Company has a story about the development of a facemask that serves as a kind of smoke detector for Covid-19 - it actually will detect the presence of the virus.

    You can read it here.


    •  The Washington Post reports that HBO has financed a new documentary called In The Same Breath, described as "scathing" in its evaluation of how China dealt with the early days of the pandemic.

    "When evidence began mounting of a deadly new coronavirus in China a year ago, authorities could have reacted with swift warnings about public safety," the Post writes.  "They didn’t. Instead, they banned social-media posts about the virus, stopped symptomatic people from entering hospitals, punished doctors who spoke of the risks and unleashed a stream of state-TV propaganda downplaying its severity."

    That's the narrative of Breath, directed by "Oscar-shortlisted filmmaker Nanfu Wang. Wang’s movie, which has been viewed by the Washington Post, argues that the alleged suppression led to an untold number of deaths and the virus spreading rapidly, as unaware people kept taking risks."

    No release date has been set for In The Same Breath.


    •  One of the problems with the vaccine is that it has to be held in a deep freeze, and once it is defrosted, unused portions cannot be refrozen.  So you have to use all of it.

    That's the problem that faced 20 employees with Oregon's Josephine County's department of public health who were traveling from a vaccination clinic with about six unused portions - and then got stuck in a snowstorm because of a truck accident that brought traffic to a halt.

    So, the public health employees decided to walk up and down the road and offer the vaccine to other stranded drivers.  An ambulance from the department, with EMT personnel, was o hand in case anything went wrong.

    The Associated Press quotes Josephine County Public Health Director Mike Weber as saying that it was one of the “coolest operations he’d been a part of.”

    Published on: January 29, 2021

    •  CNBC reports that "forty percent of consumers say they plan to shop for apparel in stores either the same amount or less after being vaccinated, according to a study by First Insight."

    In other words, even when the pandemic is over and/or they have been vaccinated, four out of 10 people will continue to shop for clothes and shoes online.

    "Forty-four percent of respondents said they’ll visit stores the same or less to buy footwear post-vaccination, while 45% said they would visit stores the same or less for beauty products, 41% said this about luxury items, and 43% for electronics," CNBC reports.

    "The lesson here is that while it might be widely believed that Americans will rush back to some level of normality after getting a vaccination, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen soon, said First Insight founder and CEO Greg Petro."


    •  The Financial Times reports that "delivery app orders from US convenience stores such as 7-Eleven and CVS jumped 346 per cent in 2020, as pandemic lockdowns gave food-delivery companies an opportunity to expand beyond restaurants.

    "According to Edison Trends, convenience store sales were the fastest-growing segment of the third-party delivery app sector, ahead of restaurant growth, which rose by 112 per cent last year, and groceries, up 121 per cent. DoorDash emerged as the dominant player in the US, with analysts pointing to its ability to leverage its leading position in restaurant delivery to steer users towards convenience goods.

    "After formally launching its convenience store service in April, DoorDash leapfrogged the previous market leader, GoPuff, in September, having already overtaken Uber Eats earlier in the year. It now controls a 58 per cent share of spending nationwide, according to Edison, up from 5 per cent at the beginning of last year."

    However, "Convenience store sales are still a fraction of the third-party delivery app market, accounting for just 1 per cent of overall spend, according to Edison."

    Published on: January 29, 2021

    •  Yahoo Finance has an interview with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson in which he "outlined how boosting wages helps the business, as the coffee chain heads toward a $15 minimum wage for all U.S. partners in the next two to three years."

    Johnson says that the company "always invested in our Starbucks partners and wage and benefits. That's a good investment to make because if we care for our partners and invest in them, they create that customer connection, and if customer connection scores go up, we know customers visit Starbucks more frequently. So, that is a very important investment."

    According to the story, "Johnson told Yahoo Finance that 'roughly one-third' of Starbucks retail partners in the U.S. now earn at or above $15 per hour. He expects all partners in the U.S. to be at or above $15 per hour in the next two to three years.  To offset the wage increases, Starbucks is searching for ways to increase productivity, including using technology to automate administrative tasks."


    •  The Human Right Campaign announced that it has recognized 767 businesses that it said "met all the criteria to earn a 100 percent rating and the designation of being a 2021 'Best Place to Work for LGBTQ Equality' … To earn top ratings, these employers took concrete steps to establish and implement comprehensive policies, benefits and practices that ensure greater equity for LGBTQ workers and their families."

    Among the companies making the list are: Amazon, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., C&S Wholesale Grocers Inc., The GIANT Company, Giant Eagle Inc., Giant of Maryland LLC, Hannaford Supermarkets, Instacart, Kohl’s Corp., The Kroger Co., Meijer Inc., Nordstrom Inc., Office Depot Inc., Patagonia Inc., Peapod Digital Labs, Shake Shack, Staples, Starbucks Corp., Target Corp., Walgreen Co., Walmart Inc., and The Wendy’s Co.

    Published on: January 29, 2021

    Cicely Tyson, who carved out a remarkable career on stage and screen by focusing on roles that celebrated rather than exploited the Black experience in America, has passed away.  She was 96, and just this week had published her autobiography.

    In addition to her Oscar-nominated role in 1972's Sounder, she did some amazing work on television, where, Variety writes, her resume includes:  "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," “Roots,” “The Wilma Rudolph Story,” “King: The Martin Luther King Story,” “When No One Would Listen,” “A Woman Called Moses,” “The Marva Collins Story,” “The Women of Brewster Place,” “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” and the TV adaptation of “Trip to Bountiful.”

    "Miss Jane Pittman" was an extraordinary piece of work, following the title character from her time as a slave to her joining the American civil rights movement at age 110.  Here is a short clip from the film, virtually wordless, that tells that story:

    Published on: January 29, 2021

    In commenting about the naming of Starbucks COO Rosalind Brewer as Walgreens' new CEO, I wrote:

    "…Forget about Brewer's gender and ethnicity…"

    To which one MNB reader responded:

    Not until this happens will true equality be achieved…

    True.

    There's always a temptation not to mention gender and ethnicity, except that there are times that it always should be mentioned because it represents a departure and an advance.  But you're right … we'll really have made progress when such things never get mentioned.


    Lots of email about Kroger opening an all-self-checkout store.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    Sign of the times. We will see more and more. WalMart already has most of their registers self checkout. (Locally) I always get a kick out of our customers when I try to direct them to self checkout. I hear them say I don't work for you, or I don't want to take someone's job. Usually the first thing I ask is "Where do you get gas, is it self-pump or full service?" You can't stop technology, at least not yet.

    From another reader:

    A comment on your comment about self-checkout stores. I do not think casual human contact is “less necessary.” It is sadly in short supply now and I suspect impacts everyone’s overall happiness. I think of all the seniors I used to interact with in stores when doing a store event and how they brightened up with some engagement. Many people live alone and these interactions are important. I recall as a solo traveler for work that my interactions with fellow travelers, hotel, restaurant staff made my days more fun and bright. We are social creatures and will always crave and need this type of interaction. Or else, I fear, life will be less joyful and bright and more grim altogether.

    I think I was mostly referring to how the pandemic has made it less necessary.  But point taken.

    Another MNB reader noted:

    Also in an environment where retailers are faced with an increase in the minimum wage.  Do not be surprised to see more stores go this direction, since the increase in minimum wage can represent an additional expense of 1% to the bottom line for some retailers in an industry will very thin margins.

    And another:

    I fully support technology and actually seek to try new things to force learning.  When it comes to self-checkout, I will always choose to scan/bag my own groceries.  However, I make one serious exception and that is when I do my weekly shopping loaded with weighable produce – leave that one to the experts.  I cannot imagine my panic if I got to the checkout with my broccoli, red cabbage, bananas, etc. and had to find my own PLU’s and scan tags inside a wet produce bag.  No thank you.

    And still another:

    I found your FaceTime today interesting. 

    Recently,  standing in line (and being next), at a check out at Frys (I had a full basket and preferred not to check myself out), the customer ahead of me said  " what happened to the bank? Do you at least have an ATM"? The checker said no, but there's a Chase Bank/ Wells Fargo across the street.  I thought why wouldn't the departing bank at least leave an ATM in the store?

    Second, your Facetime speaks to interaction.  You recently mentioned an all self check out trial store. Where's the interaction there?

    Third. Not that this will ever happen but ..( out of box thinking)..why does the consumer who sometimes is "forced" to use self check out, due to not enough regular check out lines being open, not rewarded (somehow), for doing the work? 1% off your grocery order or something?

    All good conversation to explore. 


    Yesterday, when commenting about an Instacart story, I compared what it is doing to an old TV show:

    Haven't these people ever seen the classic "Twilight Zone" episode about the aliens who come to Earth, saying they want to serve humanity?  In fact, they even have a book about it, "To Serve Man" … which (spoiler alert!) in the final moments, we find out, is a cookbook.

    MNB reader Mary Schroder wrote:

    Thanks for the reminder of the Twilight Zone episode on serving man.  Made my whole night.

    Published on: January 29, 2021

    One Night in Miami brings together four important Black men in 1964 for one evening on which they are all facing transitional moments in their lives … and in doing so, the movie effectively illustrates - to the degree any movie can - the far broader experience of being Black in America.

    At least I think it does.  I'm probably the wrong person to be making that judgement.  But I felt like I learned something from One Night in Miami.

    The year is 1964, and the night is the one on which Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship of the world.  In the Miami arena that night were three friends - civil rights activist Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke, and football star Jim Brown.  They all are facing transitions:  Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) is thinking about leaving football,  feeling exploited by the ownership of the Cleveland Browns.  Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is frustrated by his inability to connect with white audiences.  Clay (Eli Goree) is on the precipice of joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammed Ali, aware of the repercussions this will have on his life and career.  And Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is considering leaving the Nation of Islam, disgusted by what he sees as corruption in the leadership at odds with its tenets.

    On this night, they find themselves in Malcolm X's modest hotel room in an all-Black motel - and instead of having the big celebration of Clay's victory that most of them were planning on, they instead engage in an extended conversation about they responsibilities each one bears - to their people, to society at large, and to themselves.  While the film hangs on the bones of an actual event, it almost doesn't matter how much it actually happened.  We know enough of these very public men to see resonances of fact and legend in their private discussions.

    While there are scenes that take place outside the motel room - most notably in the boxing ring and at nightclubs where Cooke is performing - One Night In Miami is alive with crackling dialogue and vivid performances, all orchestrated beautifully by Regina King in her feature directorial debut.  The film feels spontaneous and improvisational, even though it isn't.

    One of the things that I liked most about the film is the way it illustrates the Black experience of a very specific time, especially because recent events suggest that we have not come as far as one might've hoped in the past 60 years.  I watched these people, and realized yet again that there is no way someone who looks like me can possibly understand or appreciate the burden they carry just by dint of the color of their skin and the history that defines their lives.

    There is a moment early in the film, a brief scene when Jim Brown visits an old family friend played by Beau Bridges, that illustrates everything these four men are facing in their lives, as they endeavor to prove to others - and even themselves - the extent to which they matter.

    I think One Night in Miami is a remarkable film.  You can see it on Amazon Prime Video.


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

    Stay safe.  Be healthy.

    Sláinte!