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    Published on: March 8, 2021

    by Kevin Coupe

    I normally don't get into the business of reporting on nuptials, but this one seems with making an exception.  (And no, this isn't a story about the marriage of Megan Markle and Prince Harry.)

    Multiple press reports say that Mackenzie Scott recently married Dan Jewett, a science teacher at a private Seattle-area high school.

    Which would not be noteworthy at all except for the fact that Mackenzie Scott used to be known as Mackenzie Scott Bezos, during her 25-year marriage to Jeff Bezos, the founder-CEO of Amazon.  They divorced in 2019, with a settlement that instantly made Mackenzie Scott the 22nd richest person in the world with a net worth of $53 billion.

    Since the divorce, Mackenzie Scott has been an aggressive philanthropist.  The Associated Press reports, "After donating $1.68 billion to 116 nonprofits, universities, community development groups and legal organizations last July, Scott asked a team of advisers to help her 'accelerate' her 2020 giving with immediate help to those financially gutted by the pandemic.

    "Scott went on to donate a total of $5.7 billion in 2020 by asking community leaders to help identify 512 organizations for seven- and eight-figure gifts, including food banks, human-service organizations, and racial-justice charities.  She was listed as No. 2 among the 50 Americans who gave the most to charity last year, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual rankings."  (Number one was Jeff Bezos, who gave $10 billion to the Bezos Earth Fund.)

    The Wall Street Journal notes that Mackenzie Scott also joined The Giving Pledge, which was started in 2010 by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, in which billionaires promise "to donate most of their fortune to philanthropic efforts."

    Now, Dan Jewett, her new husband, has signed on, too.

    "It is strange to be writing a letter indicating I plan to give away the majority of my wealth during my lifetime, as I have never sought to gather the kind of wealth required to feel like saying such a thing would have particular meaning,” Jewett said a blog posting.

    Now that's an Eye-Opener.

    Published on: March 8, 2021

    Albertsons is working with Tortoise, a Silicon Valley startup, to test remote controlled delivery robots at a pair of northern California Safeway stores.

    According to the story, "Safeway-branded delivery carts equipped with Tortoise’s sensors and software will be able to deliver goods to customers up to three miles from the store location. Remote-control operators located thousands of miles away will guide the delivery cart to its destination.

    "The delivery carts, which can hold up to 120 pounds of groceries in four lockable containers, will initially have a human escort. The aim is the remove the extra guide once the pilot is established. Once the delivery cart arrives, the customer receives a text to come outside and pick up their groceries."

    The test represents a shift in approach at Albertsons when it comes to innovation and technology.

    "Our team is obsessed with trying new and disruptive technologies that can bring more convenience for our customers," Chris Rupp, EVP and chief customer and digital officer said in a statement.  "We are willing to quickly test, learn and implement winning innovations that ensure we are offering the easiest and most convenient shopping experience in the entire industry."

    It is expected that if the initial two-store test is successful, the pilot will be expanded to other stores.

    KC's View:

    It is extraordinary the degree to which robotics are being utilized in a wide variety of pilots and tests being undertaken by retailers.  While I must admit to being a little skeptical about this particular segment of the robotics industry, I could easily be wrong about it.  Besides, the whole point is to try new and disruptive technologies and see what happens.

    Besides, as Jeff Bezos likes to say, it isn't an experiment if you know how it is going to turn out.

    Published on: March 8, 2021

    The Seattle Times reports that "an Amazon telehealth outfit that started as a pilot service for Seattle-area employees and their families has quietly filed paperwork to operate in 21 more states, a signal of Amazon’s expanding ambitions for the $3.8 trillion medical sector."

    Not only is it expanding the number of states where it wants to expand - the  company has filed paper work in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming - but it also reportedly is pitching other companies on using the service.  Among them, Seattle-based Zillow.

    And, Amazon reportedly is hiring health care practitioners, researchers and managers around the country, and plans to lobby "lawmakers to ease regulations on what kind of health services can be performed outside of a doctor’s office — potentially widening the services" it can offer.

    "The service, Amazon Care, launched a year ago as an app providing on-demand chat and video consultations with medical professionals for Amazon’s then-54,000 Puget Sound employees. Users can also book in-person visits at their home or office with clinicians. Payment for the service routes through"

    KC's View:

    Amazon has long seen health care as having enormous potential for its eliminate-the-friction approach to disrupting traditional business models.   Not everything has worked out, like its partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase that it believed might be able to create a new health care model.  But it continues to work on a variety of other fronts, still owns PillPack, and probably has ambitions we can only guess at.

    It has been a fact of life that the pandemic has been good for Amazon, accelerating e-commerce behavior four or five years beyond expectations.  It may well be that the use of telehealth services, which became common when the pandemic prevented people from visiting doctors' offices, has been accelerated as well, and that Amazon will be in the right place at the right time.


    Published on: March 8, 2021

    WLDS News reports that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois),the Senate Majority Whip, and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vermont) have "sent a letter to the CEOs of Visa and Mastercard … urging the companies not to raise interchange fee rates during the COVID-190 pandemic."

    It has been reported that both credit card companies plan to raise their interchange rates, or "swipe fees," in April 2021, after a pandemic-related delay of increases originally scheduled for a year ago.

    In their letter, the lawmakers said that "these fee increases reportedly will apply to a variety of types of transactions, including online card payments made to restaurants and grocery stores that will hurt both consumers and small businesses just as increased vaccination efforts start to give Main Street businesses hope for a summer reopening."

    After the letter to the CEOs was made public, Leslie Sarasin, president-CEO of FMI – The Food Industry Association, issued a supportive statement:

    "FMI applauds Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and U.S. Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) for urging the CEOs of Visa and Mastercard to not raise interchange fee rates this April in a letter today. According to estimates by CMSPI, rate increases scheduled by Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc. next month will add an additional $1 billion more in interchange costs annually. We join Senator Durbin and Representative Welch in their calls to Visa and Mastercard to not raise swipe fees, particularly while so many families are struggling to economically recover from the COVID-19 pandemic."

    Published on: March 8, 2021

    In a memo from Albertsons to CPG vendors, the retailer has laid out expectations for how suppliers will support its e-commerce initiatives.

    The message, signed by Geoff White, the company's Chief Merchandising Officer, and Chris Rupp, Chief Customer & Digital Officer, says, in part:

    "Our customers are continually becoming more digitally engaged as grocery shopping and lifestyle habits have changed.  They are consuming more digital media than ever before including placing their weekly grocery order online, finding the perfect entertainment for family movie night, or just unwinding with social media or web browsing.  It is important we reach our customers when and where they are most receptive to drive an overall fun and exciting omni-channel experience.  Customers who are digitally engaged with Albertsons Companies tend to buy +33% more.

    "Our off-platform Albertsons Performance Media tools and our new on-platform ecommerce tools are the most effective ways to drive sales of your brands and products with our digitally engaged customers.  These tools are our best performing marketing tools offering CPG partners a 5+:1 incremental sales ROI.  They are also directly tied to our 1st party purchase data providing precise targeting and closed-loop sales measurement based on transaction.  Data-driven closed-loop marketing is the future of performance media, a top priority for us, and the best way to deliver personalized relationships, amazing experiences, and marketing efficiency.

    "As we move into FY 21, we need your team to focus plans more on digital media with Albertsons.  We are establishing a new CPG digital media target of 0.75% of annual sales to be invested into our performance media and ecommerce platforms.  This is a joint initiative between our merchandising and marketing teams and supported by corporate and division leadership.  We expect all CPG partners to achieve the target in FY 21, but the funds must be incremental and cannot cannibalize trade funds.  Your progress will be tracked, shared with merchandising and marketing leadership, and factored into ongoing merchandising and distribution decisions.  As an additional incentive, any incremental FY 20 investments will count toward your FY 21 goal."

    KC's View:

    The recognition that e-commerce is an ever-growing component of the business, and then translating that into consumer-focused action, seems like the right - and inevitable - way to go in 2021.

    Though I can tell you that Albertsons is likely to get some blowback on the "incremental to trade funds" part of the memo.  I know this because that's why MNB got a copy of it … 

    Published on: March 8, 2021

    The Texas Tribune reports that H-E-B and Albertsons have reversed their positions on mask mandates.

    If you recall, last week Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was one of several governors announcing that they would be rolling back coronavirus-caused restrictions, including the elimination of mask mandates.  Abbott said in his announcement that while masks were still recommended, they would not be required and that all Texas businesses could open "100 percent."

    The rollback on restrictions, especially mask mandates, came despite the fact that federal public health officials were recommending continued vigilance even as vaccination numbers have been going up and infection numbers have been going down;  at the same time, fewer than seven percent of Texans had been vaccinated even once, and Houston was the first US city where all four variants had been detected.

    A number of companies said they would keep mask mandates in place, despite the governor's announcement.  Among them:  Among them:  Kroger, Walmart, Starbucks, Target, CVS, Walgreens, Costco, Sprouts, Best Buy, Macy's, Kohl’s, Ulta, and Hyatt Hotels - though in some of these cases, the mask requirement will not be actively enforced by the business.  However, H-E-B and Albertsons were prominent among the retailers that said they would no longer mandate that customers wear masks in their Texas stores.

    Over the weekend, that changed.

    H-E-B issued a statement:  "Mask use at our stores will remain."

    And USA Today reports that "Albertsons will continue to require Texas shoppers to wear masks in its stores after the state lifts its face covering requirement March 10," saying:  "While we know that mask requirements have been controversial and polarizing across some of our operating areas, we also know that masks in combination with social distancing and proper cleaning and sanitization can work to prevent the spread of the virus."

    Indeed, the New York Times had a story over the weekend about how "researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday offered fresh evidence of the importance of face coverings, reporting that mask-wearing mandates were linked to fewer infections with the coronavirus and Covid-19 deaths in counties across the United States.

    "Federal researchers also found that counties opening restaurants for on-premises dining — indoors or outdoors — saw a rise in daily infections about six weeks later, and an increase in Covid-19 death rates about two months later.

    "The study does not prove cause and effect, but the findings square with other research showing that masks prevent infection and that indoor spaces foster the spread of the virus through aerosols, tiny respiratory particles that linger in the air."

    KC's View:

    The thing about the rollback on mask mandates is that in doing so, governments taking that position are potentially putting low-wage, service workers at the greatest risk.

    Let's remember - the wearing of masks is an act of empathy and compassion.  It prevents one from spreading the disease if you happen to have it.  And if suddenly people are able to go into full-capacity supermarkets, restaurants and bars without wearing masks, it is possible that they are going to make workers in those establishments sick.  Not good for the people, not good for the businesses, and not good for public health.

    I thought it was revealing that the Texas Tribune points out that "Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, filed legislation last week that would prevent any business entities from being held liable for exposing people to pandemic illnesses."  Burrows was with Abbott when he announced the Texas rollbacks.  If the rollbacks did not have the potential for putting people at risk, then why would such legislation be necessary?

    The companies - including, now, H-E-B and Albertsons - ignoring the state's positions are doing the right thing.

    Published on: March 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, there now have been a total of 29,696,250 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 537,838 deaths, and 20,336,656 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 117,498,137 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 2,606,615 resultant fatalities, and 93,009,351 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    •  The Washington Post reports that "at least 58.9 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the U.S.  This includes more than 30.7 million people who have been fully vaccinated … 116.4 million doses have been distributed."

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "Newly reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. continued to decline, along with hospitalizations, as more people in the country received vaccinations … Hospitalizations due to Covid-19 across the country totaled 40,212, the lowest level since Oct. 20, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Sunday’s total is down nearly 70% from Jan. 6, when hospitalizations peaked at 132,474. The number of Covid-19 patients in intensive-care units also fell, to 8,137, down from 8,409 the previous day."

    The Journal also reports that "some large employers are getting permission from public-health officials to administer vaccines, hoping to speed up inoculations of their employees. Among them, pharmaceutical company AbbVie Inc. has begun giving staff at its North Chicago headquarters doses, according to people familiar with the matter, giving priority to those over 65 years old and then workers in operations and manufacturing.

    "Abbott Laboratories also has begun giving doses at its nearby headquarters to eligible workers, such as those in manufacturing, food service and daycare, a spokeswoman said, and Tyson Foods Inc. has delivered doses to staff at its Joslin, Ill., beef plant and to some workers in Iowa, a spokesman said."

    •  The New York Times reports that "the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected this week to issue eagerly awaited guidance regarding how or whether Americans vaccinated against the coronavirus may set aside restrictions adopted to slow its spread.

    "More than 30 million people in the United States - more than 8 percent of the population - are fully vaccinated, and many are wondering if it is safe to get together with friends and family, to travel or stop wearing masks, or to resume activities like going to gyms and restaurants."

    Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said the delay was because "these are complex issues, and the science is rapidly evolving … Our goal, and what is most important, is that people who have been vaccinated and those not yet vaccinated are able to understand the steps they can take to protect themselves and their loved ones … We are making sure and taking the time to get this right."

    •  The Seattle Times reports that "the next group of Washington residents eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines starting March 22 includes 'high-risk essential workers groups' such as grocery-store personnel, child-care workers and corrections staff — but not, glaringly, restaurant workers.

    "The guidelines for vaccine prioritization indicate that the next group, Phase 1B-2, is meant to encompass those working at 'significantly high risk of exposure and transmission' in settings 'in an enclosed space where they are interacting with a high volume of people (i.e., supermarket) over extended time and not able to consistently social distance (i.e., be more than 6 feet apart).'

    "With indoor dining currently allowed at 25% capacity, restaurant staffers are one of few classes of Washington’s workers that are regularly exposed to the unmasked public at close range. Their omission from the next group to be vaccinated was met with disbelief on social media from many in the restaurant industry."

    •  The New York Post reports that "Texas and California have urged spring break travelers to reconsider plans amid fears of surging COVID-19 cases after pictures and video of college students packing the Florida beaches flooded social media.

    "Popular spring break destinations in Florida saw college students packing the beaches in bikinis, but no face masks in sight. The surge in out-of-state visitors forced a popular Fort Lauderdale destination to ban any visitors under the age of 23 … Other popular spring break spots, including Los Angeles, California and Galveston Island, Texas, have braced themselves for a possible surge in visitors in the weeks ahead.

    "Concern remains high as multiple coronavirus variants across the country increase the likelihood of a spike in cases within any state."

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "Arizona is ending occupancy limits at all businesses as new Covid-19 cases in the state have been steadily declining.

    "Gov. Doug Ducey … issued an executive order Friday that ends capacity restrictions but directs businesses to continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health and workplace safety agencies, including social distancing and providing protective equipment to employees."

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "Russian intelligence agencies have mounted a campaign to undermine confidence in Pfizer Inc.’s and other Western vaccines, using online publications that in recent months have questioned the vaccines’ development and safety, U.S. officials said.

    "An official with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which monitors foreign disinformation efforts, identified four publications that he said have served as fronts for Russian intelligence.

    "The websites played up the vaccines’ risk of side effects, questioned their efficacy, and said the U.S. had rushed the Pfizer vaccine through the approval process, among other false or misleading claims.

    "Though the outlets’ readership is small, U.S. officials say they inject false narratives that can be amplified by other Russian and international media."

    •  Variety reports that "Disneyland, Universal Studios and other theme parks in California - as well as sports stadiums - have gotten the green light to potentially reopen their gates once again after a long shutdown prompted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

    "According to the California Department of Public Health, ballparks, stadiums and theme parks can open outdoors starting April 1 with 'significantly reduced capacity, mandatory masking and other public health precautions,' should certain conditions be met."

    I'd have no interest in going to a theme park, but I'd love to be able to go to a Dodger game … just a little bit of normality that would do wonders for my heart and mind.

    Published on: March 8, 2021

    •  Bloomberg reports that "Hudson's Bay Co. hopes to transform its website into Canada's next online shopping marketplace in a bid to position itself as a premium, home-grown alternative to e-commerce heavy hitters like Amazon.

    "The company will open its website to third-party sellers starting later this month, adding hundreds of new brands and thousands of items to its online assortment of products at a time when pandemic restrictions have curtailed in-person shopping.

    "The new site will include electronics and sporting goods, pushing the retailer beyond tried-and-true categories like clothing and home decor as it seeks to attract and retain customers who increasingly demand a strong online presence."

    Published on: March 8, 2021

    •  United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) said last week that it is extending its agreement with Amazon-owned Whole Foods to be the retailer's primary grocery wholesaler.

    The deal now will run to September 2027.

    •  ABC News reports that Lidl "announced the starting pay for all hourly workers at its Philadelphia area stores will increase to $15 an hour beginning April 15.

    "Pennsylvania's minimum wage, which is the same as the federal one, stands at $7.25 an hour. This has been the amount since 2009."

    "Lidl's new starting wage for the Philadelphia area is more than double the current minimum wage in the state. It is among the highest starting wages for grocery retailers in the city," Lidl said in a press release.

    Published on: March 8, 2021

    I don't think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that someday - hopefully sooner rather than later - we'll be living in what people in a dystopian movie would call the "after-times."  But for the sake of simplicity, let's just call it post-pandemic.

    I've been writing here on MNB almost from the beginning about how retailers needed to think about how they would be different coming out of the pandemic than they were going in … and one of the areas in which I think that virtually every food retailer needs to focus on is fresh.  Especially in an environment where e-commerce has gained market share, bricks-and-mortar retailers are going to have to get better at fresh in order to differentiate themselves as a worth-the-trip alternative, and e-grocery companies are going to work to be better as a way of growing their businesses.

    Which is why I was so pleased to be asked to host/moderate a one-hour webinar next Wednesday on the subject of "The Quest for Quality Produce in a Post-Pandemic World," in which we'll be talking with a variety of expert players in fresh produce business about how they are working to assure a stronger and more reliable supply chain that will deliver the quality that consumers have every right to expect.

    I hope you'll join us for this complimentary webinar, sponsored by iFoodDS.  My goal is to make sure the session is both illuminating and entertaining, while asking the questions that you'll want answered.  And if I don't - you'll be able to.

    For information about how to register for this session, click here.

    Published on: March 8, 2021

    On the subject of vaccination passports, one MNB reader wrote:

    Politics aside, I’ve needed to travel to a part of the world that still has yellow fever.  To enter that country via the airport, my "International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis” (or yellow card) as approved by the WHO and CDC was grilled harder than my passport.  

    There's a lot to be determined about the long term effectiveness of the COVID vaccines, as well as regulations for domestic and international travel, but its not like there isn’t a precedent.  

    I long for the days in which I can travel for both business and pleasure again, and return to some level of normalcy.  If a vaccine and little card that I keep in my pocket or passport is what will allow that - I fully support.

    Gov. Cuomo saying that it's required to enter the Barclays Center is probably an infringement on our freedoms as Americans, and I would also worry about long term privacy concerns as well as how the data can be used negatively in the future.

    And, regarding mask mandates, MNB reader Ron Melton wrote:

    I’m a snow bird here in AZ from WA. Haven’t found a store yet that has 100% mask wearing. I do find 99%. I take it like seats belts. We still haul dead bodies out of cars that didn’t wear a seat belt. The mass majority do wear and are safer for it. I know the virus is different. Yet 99% is pretty good for trying to herd cats/Americans.

    I know this isn’t the answer on mask wearing but helps me cope with morons.

    Last week we took note of a Houston Chronicle report that H-E-B president Scott McClelland says that "while it has the power to require customers to wear masks before entering … H-E-B won't take that step – in part because of belligerent customers (and some workers) who have caused nearly 2,000 in-store incidents surrounding masks at Houston stores alone."

    "What's important to me is, I've got to ensure for the physical safety of both my employees and customers in the store," McClelland said. "That's what we have been doing, and frankly it's the same thing we'll continue to do."

    MNB reader Rich Heiland had a thought:

    In my opinion HEB had the best mask compliance of any store in our community.

    But, I get Scott's point. One day I witnessed a red-in-the-face woman screaming at an employee -a young African-American woman in her teens - that she would "not put on no damn masks" and she went into the store. The young woman was trembling and near tears. I went over to her and told she did fine, try to forget about it.

    I am sure Scott feels that without the state mandate that will become the norm for staff. It is hard to explain to folks outside Texas how hard right and belligerent some places are. East Texas where I lived was one of those.

    We'll know at some point whether Texas is making the right decision.  It'll be in the numbers.