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    Published on: March 12, 2021

    There's a baked-feta pasta that has gone viral on TikTok, with all sorts of food writers offering their own variations on the recipe.  This morning, KC goes it one better … and offers a recipe using feta and tomatoes that he calls "Shrimp It's All Greek To Me."

    Published on: March 12, 2021

    One of the things about going on YouTube is that weird stuff comes up all the time.  Here's one that popped up for me this week:

    Published on: March 12, 2021

    The Dallas Morning News reports that Walmart is closing a North Dallas store and converting it to a fulfillment center for online delivery and pickup.

    It will take about a year to accomplish the conversion.

    The Morning News says that "both general merchandise and grocery orders will be filled from the building. Customers will be able to pick up orders, but the store will no longer be open for in-store shopping … The new set-up will take some pressure off surrounding stores that will also continue to fill online orders."

    Walmart maintains a considerable footprint in the market, which is its largest - 170 Supercenters, Neighborhood Markets and Sam’s Clubs in Dallas-Fort Worth.

    KC's View:

    Obviously, this is a clear recognition of how shopping patterns have changed, and a reflection of Walmart's decision, both through fulfillment centers like this one as well as micro-fulfillment facilities to be installed in some stores, to double-down on an e-commerce strategy.

    I have to say that one of the things that occurred to me when I read this story was if Kroger might have considered turning the stores it is closing in Southern California and Washington because of hazard pay mandates into e-commerce fulfillment centers.  They could keep the real estate, but wouldn't have any front line store employees making hazard pay during the conversion, and by the time they would be ready to open, the hazard pay mandates would have ended.

    Just wondering.

    Published on: March 12, 2021

    The Washington Post has a story about how "the pandemic has rocketed vending machines into new territory," with "vending machines, robotic kiosks and other grab-and-go technology now broadly called 'unattended retail' … putting artisanal pizza, hot bowls of ramen and prime cuts of beef into the hands of consumers 24/7."

    In the words of Carla Balakgie, chief executive of the National Automatic Merchandising Association, “It’s touchless, it’s considered safe and it’s prepackaged so products haven’t been fondled and breathed on.  And technology has made it even safer: Some machines have a hover feature so you don’t have to touch the buttons and you can use an app on your phone or use mobile ordering."

    According to the story, "She said adoption in the past year has been swiftest by first responders needing sustenance on the go, but what might have previously been novelty “stunt” vending machines at trade shows are becoming normalized as regular avenues of commerce: bread-baking machines, customize-your-yogurt machines, even machines that dispense slippers, mascara and sundries at airports."

    One example:  "Luke Saunders, founder of Farmer’s Fridge, a chain of Chicago-area refrigerated kiosks that sells healthy bowls and salads in jars among other items, says he’s doubled the number of kiosks the business has in airports.

    "'So many airport restaurants have been closed that it created an opportunity for us. People have shifted their mindset to being more comfortable using an app and doing digital ordering,' he said."

    KC's View:

    Of course, the airports have to see some robust growth for this to make sense…

    That said, there's reason to think that advances in technology will enable these futuristic vending machines to offer a wide range of foods.  This may provide a range of retailers - from convenience stores to restaurants - to expand not just the range of foods they offer, but their times of availability.  And, it'll create potentially powerful competition to traditional food retail.

    Me, I'll really impressed when they come up with one of Star Trek's replicators, and I can say to one, "Earl Grey.  Hot."

    Published on: March 12, 2021

    The Wall Street Journal has a long piece about how China's government and Communist Party is taking a hard line toward Alibaba, often seen as the Chinese answer to Amazon.

    Here's an excerpt:

    "Under founder Jack Ma, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. had regulators and local officials in its corner as it grew into a Chinese version of Inc. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent crackdown on the empire of China’s best-known entrepreneur has put an end to that.

    "Since late last year, Alibaba has been in Beijing’s crosshairs, along with its financial affiliate Ant Group Co. Regulators already have come down hard on Ant, which they consider a risk to the financial system, forcing it to make changes that will severely hamper its prospects.

    "Alibaba, though, appears destined for softer treatment. Officials familiar with Beijing’s thinking said regulators don’t want to crush a technology powerhouse popular with both Chinese households and global investors - as long as it disassociates itself from its flashy and outspoken founder and aligns itself more closely with the Communist Party.

    "Antitrust regulators are considering levying a record fine against Alibaba exceeding the $975 million that Qualcomm Inc. paid in 2015 over anticompetitive practices, so far the largest in China’s corporate history, according to people with knowledge of the matter."

    The crackdown, the Journal writes, "comes as China’s leaders refashion their relationship with the country’s internet giants, whose troves of data, deep coffers and reach across all aspects of Chinese life have increasingly made them a national-security concern."

    You can read the story here.

    Published on: March 12, 2021

    CNBC reports on how Walmart has begun tucking free samples into online orders that it is delivering or making available for pickup.  And charging for it.

    "Sampling is a money-making opportunity for Walmart," the story says.  "The retailer began a pickup and delivery sampling program in 2014, but it is getting more attention as more customer traffic shifts to the parking lot. The retailer charges companies when their product is added to a curbside or delivery order.

    Walmart is looking for new revenue streams as it juggles additional costs that come with online orders, like picking grocery orders off shelves and shipping purchases to customers."

    CNBC goes on:  "Add sampling to the list of pandemic-related changes that may stick. As more grocery shoppers use curbside pickup and delivery, consumer packaged goods companies have had to experiment with new ways to get their products in front of people. Major retailers are trying to capitalize on the surge in demand by charging brands for access to their shoppers and data they’ve gathered about their preferences — while also delighting customers with freebies."

    KC's View:

    Great idea.  What took folks so long to think of this?

    Published on: March 12, 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 29,925,902 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 543,721 deaths, and 20,790,554 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 119,223,964 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 2,643,905 resultant fatalities, and 94,808,030 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    •  The Washington Post writes that "at least 64.1 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the U.S.  This includes more than 33.2 million people who have been fully vaccinated … 131.1 million doses have been distributed."

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "newly reported Covid-19 cases in the U.S. rose from a day earlier, exceeding 60,000 for the first time this week … Thursday’s figure was higher than the 58,735 reported a day earlier but lower than the 66,463 reported for March 5."

    •  The Washington Post reports that "President Biden on Thursday directed states to ensure that all adults are eligible for a coronavirus vaccine by May 1, and he declared a goal of allowing small celebrations on July 4, setting up significant landmarks in the effort to return to normalcy after the devastating pandemic."

    Eligibility is not the same as shots-in-arms.  Even at the rate of more than two million vaccinations a day, which is the current pace in the US, it will take time to get the eligible - and willing - population vaccinated.  The federal government is ramping up the acquisition of vaccines and expanding the vaccination network as a way of increasing the vaccination rate.

    “If we do our part, if we do this together, by July Fourth, there’s a good chance you, your family and friends can gather in your backyard and have a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day,” Biden said. “After this long hard year, that will make this Independence Day something truly special, where we not only mark our independence as a nation, we begin to mark our independence from this virus.”

    However, there also was a caveat:  “A lot can happen. Conditions can change. The scientists have made clear that things may get worse again as new variants of the virus spread."

    •  The New York Times reports that "a new survey indicates that a sizable minority of Americans - particularly Republicans - are not yet willing to take it.

    "Twenty-two percent of respondents to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll released Thursday said they had already been vaccinated, and an additional 45 percent said they would get the vaccine when it became available to them.

    "But 30 percent said that they would not.  Among Republicans, that number leapt to 41 percent.

    "The poll revealed a stark racial disparity in terms of access to the vaccine. Roughly a quarter of both white and Black Americans said they had already been vaccinated — but among Latinos, that number dropped to 11 percent."

    The good news - while 30 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t get the vaccine, that was "down from a high of 44 percent in a Marist poll in September."

    •  The Boston Globe has a piece about the implementation of a vaccine passport program:  "It has already happened in New York City, at Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center. Starting in late February, hundreds of fans attending Brooklyn Nets or New York Rangers games have displayed a smartphone app or a printed QR code that verified either that they’d been vaccinated or had tested negative for the coronavirus within the previous 72 hours.

    "Delighted sports fans used the Digital Health Pass system from IBM, one of a number of vaccine verification systems under development by technology companies and major global organizations. Some countries, including Israel and China, have begun to deploy them broadly, and the European Union is expected to release details of its digital green pass later in March."

    The story notes that "vaccine passports are familiar to world travelers who carry yellow fever immunization cards. In the United States, people who’ve gotten a COVID vaccination get a similar paper card, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But they’re easy to forge and, unlike yellow fever cards, aren’t officially recognized by other countries."

    In addition, the Times points out, the use of varying systems will inevitably frustrate consumers … which is why the federal government is evaluating the feasibility of a federal vaccine passport program.

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "the European Union expanded its list of approved Covid-19 vaccines to four options, but the addition of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine Thursday appears unlikely soon to accelerate Europe’s lagging rollout.

    "The European Medicines Agency said that the J&J vaccine is safe and effective against Covid-19, and hours later EU authorities formally authorized its use. Distribution is set to begin in the second quarter."

    The story points out that "The EU vaccination campaign has been hampered by late signing of contracts, delivery problems and difficulties distributing the vaccines in some member states. For now, the vaccination rate in the EU is well below those in the U.S. and U.K.

    "In France, Germany and Italy, less than 8% of people have received their first dose, according to Wednesday’s daily data from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control."

    •  The New York Times has a piece about how one year into the pandemic, "the Seattle area has the lowest death rate of the 20 largest metropolitan regions in the country. If the rest of the United States had kept pace with Seattle, the nation could have avoided more than 300,000 coronavirus deaths."

    The Times writes that "Seattle’s success illustrates the value of unified and timely strategies: Although the region’s public health experts and politicians grappled behind the scenes about how to best manage the virus, they came together to present a united front to the public. And the public largely complied … The restrictions that have been in place off and on for the better part of a year have brought widespread disruption to lives and the economy. But as governors elsewhere have cited the economy as a reason to ease lockdowns, Seattle’s success showed that an alternative pathway was doable: Amid widespread economic turmoil, the state’s unemployment rate has been about average nationally, outperforming some places that have pressed ahead with wider reopenings, including Arizona and Texas."

    Seattle, the story suggests, had certain advantages.  Public health experts said that  "Seattle may have benefited from its demographics: a healthy population living in small households and a lot of workers able to do their jobs from home. The city may have also have won more public support for the crackdowns from the shock of experiencing the nation’s first publicized deaths. The high humidity may have helped, scientists say, although the cold weather and gray skies probably did not.

    "Researchers said Seattle also profited from its network of research and philanthropic organizations focused on global health, politicians willing to listen to them, businesses that emptied their offices early and residents who repeatedly indicated a willingness to upend their lives to save others."

    You can read the piece here.

    •  And here's the result of Seattle's strong response to the pandemic -  The Seattle Times reports that "the Seattle Mariners will have real-life opening day fans, restrictions will begin to lift on other outdoor sports events and Washington’s 39 counties will soon move to a new third phase in Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 reopening plan.

    "Inslee’s announcement Thursday to changes in his Healthy Washington reopening plan will allow restaurants, retailers, fitness centers and other indoor spaces to open up to 50% capacity. The changes - most of which kick in on March 22 - will automatically take effect across the state."

    •  The Dallas Morning News writes that "a sweep of several grocery stores in Dallas on Wednesday found that shoppers are abiding by individual retailers’ rules to continue wearing masks."

    Wednesday was the first day that, as a result of a decree by Gov. Greg Abbott, that Texas became "100 percent open," with capacity limits and mask mandates eliminated.

    While a number of retailers said they would continue to have mask mandates, albeit with lax enforcement, that didn't seem to be a problem as customers continued wearing masks.

    In all fairness to Abbott, his position was that Texas citizens were smart enough to do the right thing without a mask mandate.  Which may be happening.  But I'm not worried about the people smart enough to continue acting responsibly to fight the pandemic - I'm a lot more concerned about the people not smart enough to do so.  Because those are the folks who could lead to a resurgence.

    •  Fox News reports that "Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Thursday he will roll back some of the state’s final coronavirus restrictions, lifting limits on public gatherings along with the mandate requiring that masks be worn in state buildings … Stitt reiterated that the coronavirus remains a threat in the Sooner State and advised people to continue to wear masks depending on the circumstance.

    "But the governor also suggested Oklahomans cannot live in fear of the virus, and he is lifting mandates he sees as restrictions on their individual liberties."

    •  Variety reports that "movie theaters in Los Angeles will be able to reopen early next week, public health officials said Thursday. The announcement punctuates nearly a year without cinemas in the film capital of the world, and is welcome news to the exhibition industry, which has struggled over the past twelve months since COVID-19 upended daily life.

    "The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced Thursday that theaters will be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity sometime between Monday and Wednesday of next week."

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that most Major League Baseball teams "are expecting to have at least some fans at their ballparks this spring, with the hope of increasing capacity in the summer. No team has been more aggressive than the Texas Rangers. As the state of Texas on Wednesday lifted Covid-19 restrictions, the Rangers said they would allow 100% capacity—about 40,000 fans—at Globe Life Field in Arlington for their home opener on April 5.

    "After that, the team will designate certain locations as 'distanced seating' sections, where spectators will not fill every seat and can be in close contact only with other people in their party. Regardless, masks will be required for all fans except when actively eating and drinking, although under the Texas governor’s order, that’s no longer a state mandate. It makes the Rangers the first team in any league to open its facility to a full slate of fans.

    "The move marks the most aggressive effort yet among the major professional and college sports leagues to restore some sense of normalcy - and begin collecting significant ticket revenue - after a year when fans were mostly replaced by cardboard cutouts and piped-in cheers. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has informed teams that they are free to work with their local governments to determine their own protocols for bringing fans back to the ballpark."

    Globe Life Field in Arlington is, in fact, the only MLB ballpark I haven't been to, and I'm looking forward to visiting it sometime soon.  But not just yet.

    Published on: March 12, 2021

    •  Variety reports that Netflix is testing a new system designed to crack down on password sharing, with some users seeing a warning screen that says, "If you don’t live with the owner of this account, you need your own account to keep watching."

    According to the story, "the prompt provides three options to users: They can get an email or text verification code to authenticate the account, or they can click on a button that says 'Verify Later.' The message also lets users sign up for a new account."

    The Variety story notes that the warning screen is only being seen by some users, is only seen on television screens (as opposed to mobile devices), and that Netflix isn't saying if it is random or prompted by specific behavior.

    However, the move seems to be contrary to co-founder Reed Hastings' longtime assertion that password sharing was positive in terms of building a Netflix community, even though the company's terms of service forbid it.  Variety offers one rationale - as Netflix gets to a near-saturation point in terms of subscribers, continued growth may rely on enforcing those terms of service to a greater degree.

    •  WWD reports that "Lord & Taylor will reemerge in April as a website only under its new ownership, in yet another revival of a liquidated retailer.

    "Back in October, Saadia Group LLC bought Lord & Taylor and its parent company Le Tote for $12 million, through a bankruptcy auction. Le Tote and Lord & Taylor, impacted by the pandemic, went bankrupt in August 2020 and all the Lord & Taylor stores were liquidated by the end of February 2021."

    According to the story, "the Lord & Taylor e-commerce website will launch in mid-April, initially selling men’s and women’s fashion, beauty, skin care, fragrances and home … In the second quarter of 2021, children’s wear, fashion accessories and footwear will be added to the offering."

    •  Instacart is using NASCAR to burnish its brand image - this weekend, it will sponsor The Instacart 500, part of NASCAR Cup Series taking place at the Phoenix Raceway.

    “We’re proud to partner with Instacart for the first time with the upcoming Instacart 500 NASCAR Cup Series weekend,” said Phoenix Raceway President Julie Giese. “Instacart has provided a very important service to our communities over the last year and we’re honored to partner with them as we kick off the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series events at Phoenix Raceway.”

    Financial terms for the race's naming rights have not been disclosed.

    Published on: March 12, 2021

    •  Orlando Weekly reports that "New Jersey-based Korean grocer H Mart is wading into the crowded grocery-store field here in Orlando" with a new location there that will be the first for the retailer in both the state and city.

    According to the piece, "H Mart purchased the entire Westland Terrace Plaza at 7501 W Colonial Dr. earlier this month, according to OBJ, with plans to convert the space into an H Mart outpost much larger than the typical store's footprint.

    H Mart is the biggest Asian supermarket chain in the country, with nearly 100 stores … H Mart offers up a myriad of fresh produce, fresh fish and seafood, noodles of every stripe, kimchi and other fermented vegetables, rice cakes, marinated meats, teas as far as the eye can see, and the obligatory 'much more'."

    No opening date has been set for the store.

    Published on: March 12, 2021

    Content Guy’s Note: Stories in this section are, in my estimation, important and relevant to business. However, they are relegated to this slot because some MNB readers have made clear that they prefer a politics-free MNB; I can't do that because sometimes the news calls out for coverage and commentary, but at least I can make it easy for folks to skip it if they so desire.

    •  The National Grocers Association (NGA) said it is disappointed by this week's "vote by the House of Representatives to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and will continue its fight against the bill as it moves to the Senate.

    "'The PRO Act overturns decades of U.S. labor policy and awards Big Labor a lopsided advantage against entrepreneurial businesses,' said Greg Ferrara, president and CEO of NGA.  'Adoption of the act into law would severely infringe the rights of workers as well as their employers, including America’s independent grocers, whose tireless efforts drive local economic growth and create jobs within their communities.'

    NGA said that the PRO Act "makes significant changes to long-established employment law, including eliminating right-to-work laws in 27 states; limiting work for independent contractors; removing secret ballot protections for union elections; requiring employers to provide sensitive employee records to unions; limiting employers’ right to counsel during union elections; and advancing a litany of other union-backed policies."

    Published on: March 12, 2021

    We continue to get email about hazard pay mandates and how retailers are responding by closing marginal stores where the pay hikes will drive them into being non-viable.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    Consider this: Kroger’s multiple Divisions operate with differing unions for the employees, if Kroger has to pay the employees at those 3 stores $5 more per hour, they will need to pay ALL union members, in ALL stores the same $5/hour  increase. Rather than the extra $20M in extra bay, over time, that could add up to additional hundreds of millions in the near term. Can you blame them for shuttering? Remains to be seen if these will be permanent closures.

    Another MNB reader wrote:

    You are right on about your stance on this.  There is a right way and a wrong way to do it.  Government interference in this case is definitely not the right way.  If they don’t understand the business, maybe they should before they take these kind of stances. 

    And from another reader:

    Agree with you Kevin and support your POV that it is “bad public policy”.

    MNB reader Frederic Van Roie wrote:

    So easy to look generous while spending other people’s money.

    We noted yesterday that AMC theaters are reopening around the country, but also wrote:

    I am still staggered by one thing, however … AMC had total 2020 revenue of  $162.5 million and yet, according to the Hollywood Reporter, AMC CEO Adam Aron "received compensation of $20.92 million in 2020, up from $9.67 million in 2019."  I'm not sure exactly what the pay boost was a reward for, and his compensation package is more than 10 percent of the company's total annual revenue.  Must be a cold comfort to all the AMC employees who lost their paychecks during the year to know that at least their boss didn't have to suffer.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    Kevin, you hit the nail on the head.  Contracts for execs have always had some disproportionate entities in them.  So, this is probably no different.  How many top execs have you heard of that come in, ruin a company and then get a huge payout going out the door.  Not a bad gig to get paid for a demolition job, and then ride off into the sunset leaving all others in the rubble.  This will come back to bite AMC. 

    On another subject, I got the following email from MNB reader Lee Mannering:

    Last week one of your readers shared the frustration in how vaccines were being distributed in their state.

    I just read this morning about this website which searches vaccine availability across states and multiple retail providers.  

    Thought it worth sharing, especially with those trying to locate appointments for loved ones.

    Published on: March 12, 2021

    Netflix currently is featuring an eccentric little movie called The Dig, which is based on a true story about the excavation of ancient burial mounds in Suffolk, England, in 1939, in the days leading up to World War II.

    Because the demands of the war effort have made it almost impossible to attract serious academics to the site, widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to handle the excavation.  Brown makes clear that he's not an archeologist - he's just an excavator - but his experience and knowledge of the locality makes him an ideal person for the job … especially when he begins to discover more than anyone bargained for.  That's when the academics and British Museum experts get interested, and much of the story concerns Edith and Basil trying to hold onto the reins of their enterprise.

    There's a lot going on in The Dig - lots of interesting peripheral characters, most of them with an interesting backstory, and in some ways the film seems as interesting in digging into their personalities and motivations as into the burial mounds.

    It all works, though, anchored in expert, understated performances delivered by Fiennes and Mulligan.  The Dig is subtle and thoughtful, something all too rare from a lot of movies these days.

    Mrs. Content Guy and I, back in the early 90s, were big fans of a sitcom called "Mad About You," which focused on young marrieds Paul and Jamie Buchman, played by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt.  It was one of those NBC sitcoms that existed in the "Seinfeld"/"Friends"/"Cheers" universe … smartly written, urban in sensibility, designed to be what NBC liked to call "must see TV."

    "Mad About You" probably wasn't as innovative as the others, but one of the reasons we liked it was that it seemed observational in a way that resonated with us.  The Buchmans didn't have a perfect marriage, but they loved each other, and almost every week they'd exchange a look or a line that seemed like it was right out of our lives.  (Their lines were snappier and funnier, but they had better writers than we did.)  It was comedy by people like us about people like us.

    Well, a few years ago, the Spectrum cable folks were looking for some proprietary content, and so they asked Reiser (who'd co-created the original series) and Hunt to bring it back for 12 episodes.  Which they did.  However, it being Spectrum, almost nobody saw them.

    I happened upon them the other day when they popped up on Amazon Prime, and Mrs. Content Guy and I binged all 12 episodes over a couple of evenings - and enjoyed everyone of them, largely because once again, "Mad About You" seemed like comedy by people like us about people like us.  Paul and Jamie are older now, their only child has gone off to college, and now they're negotiating with the vagaries of age and changing circumstances.  Many of the original supporting cast has returned - Richard Kind continues to be a comic delight who brightens every scene he's in - and their timing and rapport is as if they never stopped.

    One thing we did notice.  A common criticism of those old NBC sitcoms is how white they were - they may have been urban in nature, but they seemed to be taking places in parts of the city unoccupied by minorities.  The new 'Mad About You," seems conscious of that problem, and has cast for diversity - and the show is better for it.  (Kecia Lewis is a standout.)

    If you didn't like "Mad About You" the first go-round, then you probably won't like the revival.  But if you did and you're the right age … well, enjoy.  We found it to be an unexpected treat.

    A wine for you this week - the 2018 Domaine Henry Pelle Sancerre La Croix au Garde, a delightful and crisp white.  Excellent with fish.

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

    Stay safe.  Be healthy.