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    Published on: February 10, 2021

    The goal of "The Innovation Conversation" is to explore some facet of the fast-changing, technology-driven retail landscape and how it affects businesses and consumers. It is, we think, fertile territory ... and one that Tom Furphy - a former Amazon executive, the originator of Amazon Fresh, and currently CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners (CEP), a venture capital and venture development firm in Seattle, WA, that works with many top retailers and manufacturers - is uniquely positioned to address.

    Today, Tom and KC talk about the privacy concerns that led Amazon to work with the University of Southern California (USC) to develop The Center for Secure and Trusted Machine Learning, part of USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, which will look at new and scalable ways to secure and preserve privacy in machine learning.  They will consider all the various ways that privacy remains an issue for consumers and regulators … and for good measure, chat a bit about the new CEO of Amazon.

    If you're interested in listening to this Innovation Conversation, you can do so here (or can download this file):

    Published on: February 10, 2021

    Today, the second part of KC's conversation with a pair of true e-commerce pioneers - Andrew Parkinson and Thomas Parkinson, who in 1989 created Peapod, the world’s first online grocer.  Now, they're launching a new company, Sifter.shop, described as"an advanced, new online grocery site built for the 200 million consumers who need to avoid certain allergens or ingredients, address a dietary medical need, or follow a specific lifestyle diet."

    Today, they give KC a history lesson as well as a perspective on the current state of the e-grocery business.

    Enjoy.

    You can find out more about Sifter here.

    Published on: February 10, 2021

    USA Today reports that discount grocer Aldi has decided to expand its "curbside pickup to approximately 500 more stores by the end of 2021 after adding the service to about 600 stores in 35 states last summer."

    The story notes that Aldi plans to open 100 new stores this year, primarily in Arizona, California, Florida and the northeast.  USA Today writes that "Aldi has more than 2,000 stores across 37 states and says it is on track to become the third-largest grocery retailer by store count by the end of 2022."

    KC's View:

    Fair to say, I think, that the curbside expansion comes at a price, since USA Today also points out that "Aldi uses Instacart for both curbside orders and deliveries. Prices through the on-demand grocery shopping service can be higher than in-store prices and a small pickup fee is applied to orders to offset costs of the personal shoppers, Aldi says on its website. "

    So it isn't really a differentiated advantage.

    Published on: February 10, 2021

    Food & Wine reports that former First Lady Michelle Obama will bring her passion for healthy eating to Netflix, hosting a "Sesame Street"-style kids food show on Netflix beginning next month.

    "Waffles + Mochi" will be made up of ten 20-minute episodes, the story says, featuring Obama, puppets and "human guests including renowned chefs, home cooks, kids, and celebrities."

    The show is being produced by Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, who have a production company, Higher Ground, that has a production deal with Netflix.

    "The two eponymous puppet leads - Waffles and Mochi - are billed as best friends and aspiring chefs from The Land of Frozen Food.  'When these two taste-buddies are suddenly hired as the freshest employees of a whimsical supermarket, they're ready for the culinary adventure of a lifetime,' Netflix explains. 'With the help of friendly new faces like the supermarket owner, Mrs. Obama, and a magical flying shopping cart as their guide, Waffles and Mochi blast off on global ingredient missions, traveling to kitchens, restaurants, farms and homes all over the world, cooking up recipes with everyday ingredients.

    "'Whether they're picking potatoes in the Andes of Peru, sampling spices in Italy, or making Miso in Japan, these curious explorers uncover the wonder of food and discover every meal is a chance to make new friends'."

    KC's View:

    In other words, the show isn't just about the advantages of healthy food … but also about the magic that can be found in the supermarket.

    Go figure.  Talk about the audacity of hope.

    Published on: February 10, 2021

    PepsiCo-owned Quaker Oats announced yesterday that its Aunt Jemima brand is being renamed the Pearl Milling Company, as it retires both a name and an image that many felt was redolent of slavery and a racist heritage.

    "We are starting a new day with Pearl Milling Company," a PepsiCo spokesperson said. "A new day rooted in the brand's historic beginnings and its mission to create moments that matter at the breakfast table."

    CNN reports that "the new brand is scheduled to launch in June, one year after the company announced the change. Aunt Jemima was one of several food brands — including Uncle Ben's, Cream of Wheat and Mrs. Butterworth's — to announce redesigns as protests against systemic racism erupted across the United States this summer."  The new packaging retains the old colors even as it changes the name and packaging images.

    PepsiCo says that the new name has history - it was the Pearl Milling Company that, in the late-19th-century, created the Aunt Jemima pancake mix brand.

    KC's View:

    What was acceptable in the late 19th century is vastly different than what is acceptable in the early 21st century.   We'd be better off if we'd learned that lesson a lot earlier, but better late than never.

    Published on: February 10, 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've now had a total of 27,799,946 confirmed Covid-19 coronavirus cases, resulting in 479,772 deaths, and 17,639,217 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 107,469,898 confirmed coronavirus cases … 2,352,883 resultant fatalities … and 79,400,992 reported recoveries.   (Source.)


    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "The most severe surge of the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S. has weakened significantly, according to key metrics, though public-health experts and epidemiologists urge caution, given the spread of highly contagious new variants.

    "Newly reported cases have dropped 56% over the past month, based on a seven-day average, marking a significantly steeper fall than the U.S. saw after the spring and summer surges. Hospitalizations have declined 38% since Jan 6. The seven-day average of Covid-19 tests returning positive fell over the past week to 6.93%, the lowest since Oct. 31.

    "Unlike during earlier moments in the pandemic, case counts are heading lower amid a mass-inoculation effort. But even after such a steep decline, cases and hospitalizations remain higher than during earlier surges, deaths continue to hover near records, and the rise of more contagious coronavirus variants could quickly worsen the spread."

    The Journal goes on:

    "Newly reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. remained under the 100,000 mark for the third day in a row, as the White House said it planned to boost vaccine distribution to states.

    "The U.S. reported more than 92,000 new coronavirus cases for Tuesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and published early Wednesday. The data may update later. Tuesday’s tally was a slight increase from the previous day’s revised total of 89,727, but sharply lower than peak levels reached in January, according to Johns Hopkins.

    "Hospitalizations in the U.S. because of Covid-19 fell below 80,000 for the first time since Nov. 18 as of Tuesday, and the number of patients requiring treatment in intensive care units was 16,129, the lowest level since Nov. 20, according to the Covid Tracking Project."


    •  The Washington Post reports that "at least 33.3 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the U.S.  This includes more than 10.2 million people who have been fully vaccinated … 62.9 million doses have been distributed."


    •  The federal government's coronavirus task force reportedly "does not agree with states that have begun to loosen restrictions as cases begin to drop from the all-time peak endured over the last month, warning during a White House briefing with reporters … that the increased risk of variants spreading across the country are reason to keep those restrictions up, not weaken them.," according to ABC News.

    The story notes that "states like New York and Massachusetts have recently backed off some stricter restrictions imposed during the winter months, like banning all indoor dining. And in a more extreme case, Iowa's governor repealed the mask mandate across the state."

    But, ABC News writes, "it's important to note that the U.S. has been here before, experts said, most notably over the summer when states pulled back their restrictions, reopening after lockdowns and bringing on another spike. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt were clear … that they were encouraging states not to go that route again."


    •  The New York Times reports that "the vaccination drive in the United States is entering a new phase this week, with the start of a federal program that will send more doses of Covid-19 vaccines into drugstores and grocery store pharmacies.

    In preparation, pharmacy chains are in the middle of a hiring spree, competing to quickly recruit pharmacists and support staff to inoculate customers.

    "Pharmacies are turning to universities for help finding vaccinators. Training programs are enrolling record numbers of students and workers looking to learn how to give vaccines."


    •  CNBC reports that "Walgreens and Uber are teaming up to make it easier for people who don’t have a car or a nearby pharmacy to get a Covid-19 vaccine.

    "The companies announced Tuesday that Uber will offer free rides to Walgreens stores and clinics for those who book an appointment and live in underserved communities. Uber will work with charitable partners, such as the National Urban League, to identify people who need the rides.

    "The pilot program will start in Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and El Paso, Texas. A Walgreens spokeswoman said free rides will be offered as early as next week in Atlanta and then expand to the other cities."


    •  Finally, there is a lovely story in the Washington Post about Sister André, who will turn 117 years old tomorrow, and who has survived the 1918 flu pandemic, World War I and World War II … and now has survived Covid-19.

    The Post writes that the retired nun lives in the Sainte Catherine Labouré retirement home in the southern French city of Toulon, which has been hit hard by the pandemic - 81 of 88 residents tested positive, and 10 have died.

    Sister André was one of those who tested positive … but yesterday, she was declared to have fully recovered.

    The Post writes that her recovery allows her "to hold onto her title as the oldest living European and second-oldest person in the world, according to Gerontology Research Group’s 'World Supercentenarian Rankings List'."

    Published on: February 10, 2021

    •  Bloomberg reports that Amazon "is developing a new Echo device with a large touchscreen that attaches to the wall and serves as a smart home control panel, video chat device and media player, according to people familiar with the plans.

    "The company’s Lab126 hardware division is designing the device to be a digital command center, showing users upcoming calendar events, controlling accessories like lights and locks, and playing music and video. It would include Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant and microphones and a camera for video conferencing, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private matters.

    "The product would compete with professionally installed smart home control screens from the likes of Control4 Corp. as well as Apple Inc. iPads framed into walls and even Amazon’s own Echo Show used with a third-party wall mount."


    •  Yahoo Finance writes that Burger King "is piloting an app-based loyalty program in key markets, the fast food giant announced on Tuesday, joining competitors like Starbucks and McDonald’s who have aggressively embraced the digital revolution in a landscape transformed by Covid-19 … The 'Royal Perks' program allows loyalty members the ability to earn 10 'crowns' for every $1 spent, and can use them on 'a majority of menu items,' the company states. In addition, there are daily perks like the option to upsize one drink, fries, or hash browns for free per order, per day."

    The program will be tested in Los Angeles, Miami, and in the New York metropolitan area.

    Published on: February 10, 2021

    •  The BBC reports that shareholders led by activist group ShareAction "is trying to pressure Tesco, the UK's largest supermarket, into selling healthier food and drink amid a growing obesity problem … The UK has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world and obesity increases the risk of hospitalisation and death from a coronavirus infection, according to Public Health England."

    The story says that Tesco "insists that it already has a plan to make healthy and sustainable food available."

    According to the BBC, "If the investor group is successful, it will force Tesco to reveal more about the share of sales it makes on healthier food, and publish annual updates on how well it is improving that share.  The investors says rivals Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer have made similar commitments to selling healthier food and that Tesco, with a UK market share of just under 27%, should follow suit."


    •  USA Today reports that "Coca-Cola is launching a bottle made from 100% recycled material in an effort to reduce the company's use of new plastic.   The bottle cap and label will not be made out of recycled materials. 

    "The 100% recycled 13.2-ounce bottle will begin rolling out in February at convenience stores in the Northeast, Florida and California. The new bottle design will be used for Coke, Diet Coke and Coke Zero Sugar and then go nationwide this summer. Select markets will also get Sprite in 100% recycled bottles this month."

    Published on: February 10, 2021

    •  Albertsons announced that Robert Taylor, CEO of its Texas-based United Supermarkets business, is retiring after more than a half-century with the company.  He will be succeeded by Sidney Hopper, president of United Supermarkets.

    Published on: February 10, 2021

    MNB reader Tom  Murphy had a thought about the Price Chopper/Market 32 - Tops Markets merger:

    Very interesting merger and one that could allow them to compete more effectively in their respective markets.  However, the easy part is over, the deal has been signed…the champagne served…now comes the pain and hard work.  Having been involved in numerous grocery M&A’s, divestitures, resizing, etc. I can say that for this deal to work and really generate the necessary results, lots of duplication is going to have to be removed.  That means assets like stores & distribution centers, product and service vendor agreements, and corporate services like IT, accounting, real estate, etc.  This means pink slips, demotions, transfers, etc…none of which help optics both locally in communities and for other stakeholders.

    It is still early days, but there was nothing in the announcement that indicates the plan or scale of this.  Historically, grocers have been too slow to make these hard decisions, frequently touting a “merger of equals” for months or years until that really doesn’t generate the cost savings, revenue opportunities and cultural change necessary for sustainability.  And in today’s world, speed is even more important.  I wish them luck…this should be fun to watch!

    Another MNB reader had a more sobering take:

    Both companies have struggled for years to maintain market share and customers.  PC/M32 hasn’t figured it out and TFM has been limping along since the 90’s. 

    Here is my take on this merger.  When you breed 2 dogs, you don’t get a unicorn!


    We ran a link yesterday to a New York Times column byNicholas Kristof that questioned the treatment of Costco's famed rotisserie chickens.  MNB reader Bob McGehee responded:

    My Grandmother had what would now be called a “Hobby Farm”.   A few acres of various fruits and vegetables, a single cow for milk and the occasional calf for meat PLUS a few dozen chickens for the eggs and a good source of protein to add to dumplings.  When her health failed her and required a move to a nursing home, it had to be dismantled.  When it came time to take to chickens to another location, my wife volunteered to help my mother with that task. 

    When she returned she was soiled, scratched, sullen, soiled (I know I already said that but she was reeeaaally soiled) but she was NOT sorrowful for the pending fate of those chickens.  Her rant to me changed from ‘why didn’t you help your mother’ to ‘why didn’t you tell me how miserable a job that was going to be’?  She not only has zero concern for how chickens are treated and brought to market, I think she may even have a little satisfaction knowing their ultimate role in the food chain. Check out any episode of Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs” to get a better feel for what is necessary to maintain our ‘civilized’ lives. 

    IMHO, torture and abuse only comes with taking pleasure in the task not the task itself.  Has Mr. Kristof ever eaten chicken?  If so, he needs to be reminded of the ‘glass house’ analogy. 

    Just my opinion, I could be wrong.

    My opinion - without passing judgement on how Costco's chickens are treated - is that it is possible to be cruel without taking pleasure in it.


    Yesterday we noted that DoorDash is buying Chowbotics, a startup that uses robotics to make salads and bowls.

    I commented on the fact that DoorDash is looking for unusual places to deploy the technology:

    Am I wrong, or does this deal sound like it positions DoorDash to act as a competitor to its restaurant clients, as opposed to just a service provider?  Because that's how it reads to me.

    One MNB reader responded:

    While I can see why you’d think that DoorDash would be competing against restaurants, but I think it has more to do with it’s entrance into physical stores called DashMart. I can see it going even further and eventually selling in their own branded products to convenience stores they service.  Would you like a DashMart salad with your Slurpee order?

    Maybe.  I am suspicious.


    We took note yesterday of a Wall Street Journal report on how "a battle over vanilla is playing out in federal courts across the U.S., with more than 100 proposed class-action cases filed over vanilla flavoring … At issue is one question: Is vanilla really vanilla without vanilla beans?"

    The story says that the plaintiffs argue that "food manufacturers are duping consumers by implying products are made with vanilla when they contain at most a trace of the plant."

    I commented:

    We live in a world where products described as being vanilla contain no vanilla.  Where blueberry frozen waffles contain no actual blueberries.  (What the hell are those blue specks, anyway?)  Where pancake syrup doesn't have any maple.

    Count me as being on the side of the plaintiffs.

    If you say a products is a thing, but it has absolutely none of that thing, it seems to me that the statement is a lie.

    Consumers don't expect to find the actual ingredient in these products?  On the contrary, it is precise the opposite - many are surprised to find out what these products actually are made of.

    A lie is a lie is a lie.  Saying that consumers don't expect the truth does not change that simple fact.

    MNB reader Tom Kroupa wrote:

    I agree with the plaintiffs too in this lawsuit about vanilla.  Where have they been for the last 25-30 years? The whole natural products industry was forged on consumers wanting to eat healthy foods. They want to know what is in their food more than ever!  As the saying goes, "sunshine is the best disinfectant".

    All they have to do is label honestly! If there is no actual vanilla bean then they should label it as such: "contains artificial vanilla". If it does contain vanilla beans, then the label would read, "contains % of vanilla beans". If it is organic, then they can label it organic. Problem solved, save money on lawsuits.

    MNB reader Chuck Jolley wrote:

    The ultimate slap-in-the-face of truth in advertising/labeling? I was in a Target Superstore a few years ago and saw a display for blueberry muffin mix. I love Blueberry muffins. I bought a box. I got home and started to make a batch. I read the instructions: (1) Add your own blueberries. 

    And from another reader:

    I’m with you on this.  If you have vanilla flavoring then you need to put vanilla flavored, which can be totally different then real vanilla.  I find it interesting the companies listed that are opposing this.  Other than McD’s, most of them have always prided themselves on quality.  The statement that consumers don’t expect to have vanilla in something that says it’s made with???  Come On Man!  That is your go to defense?  So then, if something is made an ingredient, I guess we the “ignorant consumer” shouldn’t really expect that in there? 

    This kind of goes back to what some retailers and manufacturers truly think of their customers.  I guess weez just aint that smart to care bout what we ett.

    And another:

    I most certainly expect there to be real vanilla in my vanilla products, unless the label clearly states “vanilla flavoring”.  I am quite surprised and annoyed to learn this may not be the case.  Also surprised to see Trader Joes mentioned-I thought they were all about natural.  Thanks for the heads up.

    It is all about the gradual lessening of standards.  It is distressing.

    Published on: February 10, 2021

    ESPN reports that as of now, Major League Baseball's spring training is scheduled to begin on time, with some teams having their pitchers and catchers report as early as next Tuesday.  The only things likely to prevent that from happening would be if communities where teams are scheduled to train decide to limit activities because of the pandemic, or if teams themselves suffer outbreaks.

    If all goes well, the regular season is scheduled to begin on time on April 1 … though events could create a change there as well.  The ability of ballparks to take spectators also remains in flux.

    One other note:  ESPN reports that "seven-inning doubleheaders are back. So are expedited extra-inning games as a runner will once again be placed on second base for each team from the 10th inning on. The three-batter minimum rule for relievers is also back, but the league hasn't taken any action toward banning or limiting the shift."

    And - at least this year - it appears that the National League will not have a designated hitter.

    KC's View:

    I'm glad the NL will continue to play real baseball with a DH, but I hate the seven- inning doubleheaders almost as much as I hate going to extra innings with a runner starting out on second base.  That ain't baseball.

    That all said … there are few words in the English language with more promise that "pitchers and catchers report."

    I am reminded of the A. Bartlett Giamatti quote, about how baseball "breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

    Frankly, we need it now.  Maybe more than ever.  (Even if the doubleheader games are only seven innings, which is better than no innings at all.)