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    Published on: March 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.

    Are Amazon's efforts to better monetize its website through paid advertising reflective of a shifting focus?  If so, does that create opportunities for retailers trying to compete with Amazon?  Tom and Kevin answer these questions by examining clear changes that are taking place on Amazon, putting them into context by comparing it to other retailers, and caution observers about what might be perceived as Amazon's weaknesses.

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

    Published on: March 10, 2021

    Business Insider reports that as number of fast food chains - including KFC, Burger King, and Smashburger - have "announced plans to bring food lockers to their restaurants," seeing the concept as "a contactless way for customers to collect food."

    According to the story, "Though some restaurant chains already had them in the works pre-pandemic, many have pivoted to food lockers over the past year, as they focus on new methods for delivery and collection.  Customers can order food in advance online or via the restaurant's app and then pick it up from the locker.  Food delivery drivers can also use the lockers to collect orders."

    Business Insider notes that "The trend has been around for way longer than the pandemic, and isn't just being used by restaurants.

    "Food lockers, in their most basic sense, are devices that are used to store food, often for customers to collect. In this way, they're a little like the Amazon Lockers located in neighborhoods, apartment blocks, and inside stores.

    "The lockers vary in size, and they can be different temperatures, too. Some are heated, while others are chilled, to keep food at the right temperature until customers can collect them. More high-tech models even use UV light to kill bacteria."

    KC's View:

    I find myself wondering if this trend actually could play to Amazon's advantage.

    If fast food restaurants (and some fast-casual restaurants) are beginning to adopt the locker system, I wonder if Amazon might be interested in engineering these food-centric lockers, co-brand them with different restaurant brands … and then also use them for delivery of other Amazon orders.  (I order something from Amazon and set it up so that I can pick up the order from a locker where I'm also picking up tonight's dinner.)

    It also could work the other way - restaurants with an Amazon relationship might be able to make their products available for pickup from some Amazon locker installations … bringing those restaurants potentially closer to a subset of their customer base, making them a preferred and more convenient option.

    As I let my imagination run wild on this, I also find myself thinking about all those gray Amazon vans wandering so many places …. and wondering if Amazon would find a way to make some of them available for restaurant deliveries.  After all, it seems likely that before long Amazon will start making deliveries for non-Amazon retailers, just as a way of further amortizing its fulfillment-oriented investments and undercutting the likes of FedEx and UPS.  So why not delivering pizzas after hours?

    I could be wrong on all this.  I must concede that I have limited knowledge of Amazon's R&D process.  But if Amazon does want to define itself as being inextricably entwined in customers' lives, this is one way to do so.  And, when you think about it, is any of this less likely than drone deliveries?

    Published on: March 10, 2021

    Walmart Canada is teaming up with Ghost Kitchens Brands "to bring one-stop meal pickup and delivery to more Canadians," with one location open now and four more on the drawing board.

    According to the announcement, "Customers can order freshly prepared meals in-store and online for contactless pickup or delivery (from a third-party app such as Uber Eats), and mix and match from more than 20 well-known brands including: Quiznos, The Cheesecake Factory Bakery, Pepe’s Perogies, Rocky’s Italian, Canadian Jerk, Slush Puppie, Monster Cupcakes, Saladworks, Beyond Meat, Amaya Indian Street Food, Taco del Mar, Lola’s Latin Food, Tazo, Red Bull, Crêpe Delicious, Nescafé and Ben & Jerry’s with more being added.  All meals are prepared in one kitchen for one pickup or delivery."

    “We believe in Ghost Kitchen’s strategy and vision and we’re very excited to be the first retailer to team up with Ghost Kitchens,” said Sam Hamam, Senior Director of Licensees at Walmart Canada, in a prepared statement.  “We’re always looking at ways to improve our customer shopping experience with greater access to affordable products, services and brands.”

    KC's View:

    Smart move.  Be interesting to see, if the concept works in Canada, the degree to which it is embraced by Walmart in the US.

    Published on: March 10, 2021

    A 77-year-old, longtime Trader Joe's employee at its Coolidge Corner store in Brookline, Massachusetts, finds herself the beneficiary of a GoFundMe campaign after the retailer fired her for selling a six pack of beer to a family member who was a couple of months shy of turning 21.

    The goal of the fundraising campaign was $10,000 … and it already has raised more than $25,000 from some 273 people.

    The customer who started the campaign for Gloria Cocuzzo, Deanna Miller, explains the case this way on GoFundMe:

    There has been no end of shared heartache during this awful year and now a new bit of horror has visited our community.

    The good news is that we can do something about this and do it right now.

    Most everyone who has frequented the Trader Joe’s in Coolidge Corner has had their day brightened by an incandescent and loving connection with Gloria Cocuzzo. Gloria has been a much loved fixture and stellar employee at Trader Joe’s for 16 straight years.

    Now 77 years old, she fussed over our children as they grew while always paying us that uplifting compliment that makes one’s day. Gloria has put us first. She worked straight through the pandemic not taking a single day of vacation at tremendous risk to herself so that we could feed our families and she could earn a salary, allowing her to simply live paycheck to paycheck.

    Last month as her daughter drove her to get her vaccination shots, even as she was healing from a broken rib she only wanted to get back to her cash register. She only wanted to get back to greeting us at the store. And that’s where the worst day of her life happened. 

    Where a simple serious mistake has left her “sick” and “about to shatter” and without hope.

    It’s also left her without a paycheck and with no health insurance. 

    In a moment she’d do anything to live over and correct, Gloria reportedly sold a six pack of beer to a family member who was a few months short of their 21st Birthday. It was a terrible lapse in judgement and she feels worse about it than any one of us can begin to imagine. 

    After a harrowing call to the manager’s office and three sleepless nights of waiting. Gloria Cocuzzo was fired.

    At 77 years old, in the middle of a pandemic Gloria finds herself with no job, no income, no health insurance and no chance for appeal.

    Management knowing how she’s so beloved by the community reportedly tried to pressure her into saying she had resigned. Gloria refused to be part of this untruth.

    Added to this, Gloria was just weeks away from a promised $4000.00 bonus for those who worked through the pandemic. She is no longer eligible for this hard earned bonus.

    How we can help Gloria put her life back together is a tough question. She is utterly devastated. Close friends have been trying to remind her what a bright and much loved light she is and that after all, She’s GLORIA! 

    But facts are facts; she’s a fired 77 year old woman who lived paycheck to paycheck and was fired in the middle of a pandemic. She has no insurance and her prospects aren’t clear.  

    The shame and hurt she’s suffering is just about unbearable.

    Let’s show her how much she means to us! Let’s get her funded in a substantial way to help alleviate the terrible fears she’s suffering, but more importantly let’s show her that a whole community loves her dearly and is here to help in any way we can.

    Let’s return that beautiful beaming smile and the joy her oversized flowers and shiny clunky jewelry always gave us. She gave all of this to us, let’s return the favor and help repair something awful that happened to a special person during this awful year.

    The Boston Globe says that Trader Joe's has not yet commented publicly on the case.

    This is the second case in as many weeks that has painted Trader Joe's employment policies as at least mildly draconian.  Earlier this month, the company was criticized for firing a New York store employee who wrote the retailer's CEO asking for stricter health-snd-safety protocols in the stores.  The firing also came after the employee had a difficult confrontation with a customer, and the company said he was canned for being disrespectful toward customers, but it only was six months ago that he'd been lauded in a performance review for exemplary service and attitude.

    KC's View:

    Let's be clear.  We don't know all the details of this case.

    But … if I'm understanding the recitation correctly, Gloria Cocuzzo actually reported her own misdeed.

    And when I look at that GoFund Me page, I see hundreds of passionate customers and a pretty persuasive 563-word defense.

    If it is legally possible, Trader Joe's needs to find a way to walk this decision back … there's no percentage in the company not siding with its customers on this one.

    Published on: March 10, 2021

    The Los Angeles Times reports that a quarterly forecast published by the UCLA Anderson School of Management suggests that "the US and California economies will experience near-record growth this year thanks to widespread vaccinations for COVID-19 and massive federal relief for struggling workers and businesses … California, buoyed by high-earning technology and professional sectors that shifted to at-home work during the pandemic, will recover somewhat faster than the U.S., even though a full rebound in the tourist-dependent leisure and hospitality businesses will lag."

    “This is a very ‘good news’ forecast,” said Leo Feler, senior economist of the forecasting group. “We have finally turned the corner.”

    Excerpts from the story:

    •  "In early December, the forecast had predicted 'the ‘20s will be roaring' after the COVID-19 pandemic caused the sharpest decline in economic growth in more than half a century. Now 'the roar is definitely getting louder,' Feler said, estimating that gross domestic product, which shrank by a devastating 3.5% in 2020, will grow 6.3% this year, 4.6% in 2022 and 2.7% in 2023.

    "The growth is far faster than it was after the 2009 recession. But payrolls won’t fully recover in the near future, according to the forecast, given the severity of the downturn and the exodus of many workers from the labor force."

    •  "California has suffered a higher unemployment rate than the nation in part because of stringent pandemic restrictions that shut businesses and schools. In the last quarter of 2020, the state’s jobless rate was 8.4% compared with 6.7% nationwide.

    "Economist Leila Bengali and Jerry Nickelsburg, authors of the California section of the forecast, predict Golden State unemployment will average 6.8% in 2021, 5.1% in 2022, and 4.1% in 2023 — still above the pre-pandemic level of 3.9%.

    "Golden State payrolls, which shrank 7% in 2020, will expand by 4.1% this year to more than 16.87 million, they estimate. That’s faster than the U.S. rate of 3.6%.

    California jobs will grow by 3.1% and 2.3% the following years, according to the forecast."

    KC's View

    From their lips…

    There is some of this that strikes me as wishful thinking.  Though I cannot imagine that there is anyone who does not hope that these economic forecasters are right.

    I also try to remind myself that even if we have a second Roaring 20's as we come out of the pandemic, it is important to factor into our thinking that the first Roaring 20's were followed by the Great Depression.

    Published on: March 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 29,801,506 confirmed Covid-19 coronavirus cases, resulting in 540,574 deaths and 20,549,678 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been a total of 118,243,352 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 2,624,068 resultant fatalities, and 93,912,955 reported recoveries.   (Source.)

    •  The Washington Post reports that "at least 61.1 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the U.S.  This includes more than 31.8 million people who have been fully vaccinated … 123.2 million doses have been distributed."

    The Post also writes that "the seven-day average for new daily coronavirus cases in the United States fell below 58,000 this week for the first time since mid-October, after weeks in which a steady decline in new infections appeared to have plateaued. The drop comes as the United States is administering an average of 2.15 million vaccine doses per day, according to data compiled by the Washington Post.

    "But even as more Americans are immunized against the virus, public health experts are warning against the loosening of restrictions in states such as Florida and Texas. This month, spring break starts for tens of thousands of college students in the United States, which scientists worry could accelerate the spread of new variants."

    •  From Fox News:

    "Alaska has become the first state to drop eligibility requirements for COVID-19 vaccines and allow anyone 16 or older who lives or works in the state to get a vaccine, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Tuesday … He described expanding eligibility for vaccines in Alaska as a 'game-changer,' particularly with the summer tourist season looming and as the state seeks to rebuild its pandemic-tattered economy."

    •  The New York Times writes that "the move to open Texas has faced intense resistance. The governor’s medical advisers have said that they were not involved in the decision. And some experts have raised concerns about intensifying the spread of the virus while the vaccination process is underway. Texas, which is averaging about 5,500 new cases a day, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country."

    But, the Times also reports that many Texas businesses are embracing the opportunity to reopen - to take down the plexiglass, eliminate capacity restrictions, and try to recapture customers that they hope are equally ready for a change in approach to the pandemic.

    •  Albertsons said yesterday that "its pharmacies have now administered more than 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine."

    “Our pharmacy teams across the country are working diligently in serving our communities during this national effort. We are deeply grateful to our federal partners and local jurisdictions in delivering this important milestone,” said Omer Gajial, SVP of Pharmacy and Health at Albertsons, in a prepared statement.   “We continue to provide equitable vaccination solutions to underserved and rural customers and will accelerate our services as doses become more widely available.”

    This week, Albertsons said, its pharmacies began offering appointments to teachers as part of the national priority to vaccinate America’s educators.

    •  USA Today reports that "U.S. health officials are exploring a partnership with Dollar General, one of the nation's largest retailers, to accelerate the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the nation's rural areas.

    "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in talks with Dollar General, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.

    "Dollar General does not have pharmacies, but it has more than 16,000 locations.  That's about three times the number of locations as Walmart and more than half as many as CVS and Walgreens, all three of which are delivering COVID-19 vaccines at some of their pharmacy locations."

    •  As Los Angeles and Orange counties in Southern California see their coronavirus case loads decreasing and vaccination numbers rising, the area's theme parks - Disneyland, Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain, all closed for the past year because of the pandemic - are expected to begin laying out reopening plans.

    Disney CEO Bob Chapek said that Disneyland likely would open in late April, just because it would take several weeks to get the park into customer-ready shape.

    “The fact is, it will take some time to get them ready for our guests,” he said, noting that Disney is focused on “recalling more than 10,000 furloughed cast members and training them to operate under the State of California’s new requirements.”

    •  The New York Times writes that "California officials announced on Friday that theme parks in the state could reopen on a limited basis as soon as April 1. Eligibility, however, will depend on coronavirus transmission statistics in individual counties.

    "For instance, theme parks in counties where the virus threat remains the most severe (in the purple tier under the state’s system) must remain closed. But parks in areas where the threat of infection has eased somewhat (red tier) will be allowed to reopen at 15 percent capacity. Even less threat (orange tier) will allow for 25 percent capacity, ultimately rising to 35 percent for the lowest threat (yellow).

    "California will restrict attendance to in-state visitors. Regulators will also restrict indoor dining. Some indoor rides may be required to remain closed."

    •  The Hollywood Reporter says that "cinemas across L.A. County - the top moviegoing market in the country - shut a year ago because of the pandemic."  But now, the story says, "Los Angeles movie theaters may be only days away from reopening, albeit with a host of safety protocols, including 25 percent capacity or no more than 100 people in any auditorium."

    •  The Associated Press reports that "there are going to be more happy campers this summer as more camps choose to reopen despite the pandemic, providing millions more kids an opportunity to gather around a campfire.

    "Most camp directors sat out last summer as the virus raged across the country, either because of state restrictions that barred them from opening or because of concerns about keeping kids healthy. But with cases declining and more people vaccinated each day, many are feeling more confident about reopening this season."

    •  Talk about a silver lining.

    Disney was looking at a very bad year as the pandemic closed its theme parks, grounded its cruise ships, prevented sporting events aired on its networks, and shuttered theaters that showed its movies.

    Now, Variety reports, "Disney Plus continues to grow apace, topping 100 million subscribers worldwide, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said Tuesday during its annual shareholders meeting. That’s up from the 94.9 million Disney reported last month.

    “The enormous success of Disney Plus has inspired us to be even more ambitious, and to significantly increase our investment in the development of high-quality content,” Chapek said. “In fact, we set a target of 100-plus new titles per year, and this includes Disney Animation, Disney Live Action, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic. Our direct-to-consumer business is the Company’s top priority, and our robust pipeline of content will continue to fuel its growth.”

    Published on: March 10, 2021

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  Reuters reports that "U.S. grocery delivery app Instacart is considering going public through a direct listing, concerned that it could leave money on the table through a traditional initial public offering (IPO), according to people familiar with the matter.

    "The move would make Instacart the latest company to snub an IPO, for decades the primary path to a stock market debut, because it risks pricing its offering too low compared to where its shares end up trading. In a direct listing, companies go public without raising money through a stock sale.

    "Shares of newly listed U.S. companies that went public through an IPO ended trading up 36.2% on average on their first day last year, compared to 17.2% in 2019, according to data firm Dealogic."

    The Reuters story says that "investment bankers working on Instacart’s listing have estimated that it could be valued by the stock market at more than $50 billion."

    •  The Washington Post has a story about how Amazon's aggressive efforts to persuade workers at one of its Alabama distribution centers not to unionize reflects the degree to which "seeds of unionization efforts … could blossom into organizing drives at its other facilities and force Amazon to adopt workplace rules it finds restrictive. Among other problems, unions could dent the company’s flexibility, limiting its ability to rapidly hire and cut workers to meet shopping demands that spike and recede throughout the year, said former company executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal policy.

    The story notes that "Amazon sees unionization as a threat to its ability to bring technical innovations to its warehouses that reduce reliance on workers, such as robots, one of the former executives who discussed management thinking about unions said. Another former executive said Amazon leadership worries that organized labor could scuttle expansion plans, forcing the company to negotiate the terms of hiring, laying off staff, as well as the number of temporary workers it could take on, the executive said."

    What really amazes me is that the voting period at the Alabama distribution center is taking seven weeks.  Seven weeks?  Really?  Next thing you know, whoever loses after that period of time will be blaming Dominion Voting Systems.

    Published on: March 10, 2021

    •  From TechCrunch:

    "In December, Walmart partnered with TikTok on the first pilot test of a new livestreamed shopping experience in the U.S. on the video platform. That test seemingly performed well, as today Walmart announced it will return to TikTok to host another livestream shopping event, the 'Spring Shop-Along: Beauty Edition,' which will feature TikTok creators and influencers in an hour-long livestream.

    "The retailer didn’t disclose to what extent its first TikTok live shopping event drove sales, but noted that it netted 7x more views than it had anticipated and was able to grow its TikTok follower base by 25%. These metrics were encouraging enough to send Walmart back to the platform for another go - this time, to promote beauty products instead of apparel, which had been the focus of the holiday livestream."

    Published on: March 10, 2021

    •  CNBC reports that "Target is launching a food and beverage brand focused on snacking and indulging, as the retailer aims to give customers’ reasons to keep coming back even after the Covid pandemic.

    "The new private label, Favorite Day, will include more than 700 products like premium ice creams, bakery items, beverage mixers, mocktails and cake decorating supplies. It will hit store shelves and Target’s website in early April."

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that Conagra is in talk to sell its Hebrew National brand to Brazil’s JBS SA:  "A deal, which the people said could also include the Egg Beaters and Odom’s Tennessee Pride brands, could be valued at around $700 million. Any agreement is likely weeks away and Conagra could end up keeping the business or selling it to someone else, the people cautioned."

    The story notes that Hebrew National's brand equity transcends its size, and that Conagra "has been retooling its portfolio to boost its frozen food and snack brands such as Healthy Choice and Slim Jim."

    Published on: March 10, 2021

    •  SpartanNash has hired Greg Molloy to be its Vice President, Environmental Health and Safety.  Molloy most recently was Group Manager, Corporate SH&E for Nestle USA, and before that was Corporate Director, Risk and EHS for Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream.

    Published on: March 10, 2021

    Roger Mudd, the CBS News correspondent - and later in his career, a correspondent for NBC News and the PBS NewsHour -  who often was blamed/credited with ending Ted Kennedy's presidential aspirations in 1979 when he asked questions - like, "Why do you want to be President?" - that the Massachusetts senator was unable to answer, has passed away.

    Mudd was 93, and the cause was kidney failure.

    The New York Times recalls that Mudd's question apparently caught Kennedy off-guard, even though he was publicly considering a primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter.

    "'Well, I’m — were I to — to make the, the announcement and to run, the reasons that I would run is because I have a great belief in this country,' he stammered.

    "It got worse. He twitched and squirmed, conveying self-doubt and flawed preparation, and stumbled through questions for an hour. His campaign, burdened by many problems, including his conduct in the drowning death of a former campaign aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy on ChappaquidickChappaquidick Island in Massachusetts in 1969, was wounded before it began and never recovered."

    Published on: March 10, 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 this afternoon 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.