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    Published on: March 26, 2021

    by Kevin Coupe

    Axios reports that "there's a growing push among federal lawmakers for a road user fee to fund highway repairs," a move that conceivably increase costs for any business the depends on trucks for interstate transportation.

    You know, like the supermarket industry.  Or any national retailer.  Or shipping business.  Or national retailer that also happens to be in the shipping business.

    The reason?  Axios writes that "the existing federal gas tax isn't enough to meet rising costs, and the budget gap will only grow wider as cleaner cars burn less fuel." In addition, "Supporters say it's a way to ensure that electric vehicle owners - who currently pay no fuel taxes - chip in their fair share for road maintenance."

    Here's how it might work:  "A vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) system … would charge drivers a penny or two for each mile logged behind the wheel.Drivers would report their mileage electronically, using a plug-in device in their cars or a smartphone app."

    I'm not saying that this is a bad idea … there would seem to be an element of fairness and pay-as-you-go about it … but I also think it is likely that such a federal system would result in lawsuits from some states resistant to such a mandate.

    But it certainly would be an Eye-Opener.

    Published on: March 26, 2021

    The Financial Times reports that Amazon went before the Texas Supreme Court to maintain that it isn't"realistic" to expect it to vet all the products sold on its platform, and should not be responsible if items sold on the site hurt the people who buy them.

    According to FT, "The court will determine whether Amazon should be considered liable after a 19-month-old child was left severely injured when she ingested a lithium battery from a remote control sold by a Chinese seller on the platform, which the plaintiffs argued failed to meet industry safety standards. In this case and others, Amazon has argued it is a middleman between the millions of third-party sellers on its site and the consumers who buy products."

    The story suggests that Amazon's position seems to wearing thin lately:  "Recent disputes that were ruled in the consumer’s favour have involved a woman blinded in one eye by a faulty dog leash, and a woman who suffered third-degree burns because of a defective laptop battery. The latest case comes as the number of third-party sellers on Amazon has swelled dramatically in recent years, attracting a growing number of lawsuits over safety and culpability."

    KC's View:

    Not a lawyer, so my ability to make a legal judgment about responsibility in such cases is severely limited.

    But I've long believed - and have stated here - that retailers ought to be responsible for the things they sell.

    Amazon's argument seems to be that it is too vast with too many vendors and third-party marketers to be able to held responsible.  But that doesn't seem to be entirely fair … if you are going to tout yourself as the "everything store," it follows that you have to embrace the positives and negatives of that position.  You can't just pick and choose.  (Well, you can try…)

    In the end, I'd argue, it actually is good business - and essentially customer-centric - for Amazon is embrace these responsibilities, despite the cost.  It inspires confidence.  Playing pass-the-buck does not.

    Published on: March 26, 2021

    The New Yorker has an excellent piece about the unionization battle at the Amazon distribution center in Bessemer, Alabama, in which it makes the point that "most contemporary union drives are ultimately about the past - about the contrast that they draw between the more even prosperity of previous decades and the jarring inequalities of the present. But one that will culminate on Monday, the deadline for nearly six thousand employees of an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, to cast ballots on whether to affiliate with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, is the rare union campaign that is obviously about the future."

    The story goes on:  "Amazon’s influence is so vast - touching on issues from wealth and income inequality to antitrust policy, the American relationship with China, the omnipotence of workplace surveillance, and the atomizing effect of big business, in its most concentrated and powerful form, on families and communities - that it can scramble ordinary politics. For a moment, at least, it can put Marco Rubio and Stacey Abrams on the same side. Most organizing campaigns have a symbolic quality, in which the employer and its workers stand for different models of economic organization. The fight in Bessemer is different because it is so direct. Amazon isn’t a proxy for the future of the economy but its heart."

    You can read the piece here.

    Published on: March 26, 2021

    Fintech company Kabbage is out with a new study called the Small Business Recovery Report, saying that "prior to the pandemic, respondents said their average monthly online sales represented 37 percent of total revenue. As of February 2021, these numbers jumped to 57 percent, a 54 percent increase in less than one year."

    In addition, the study says, "77 percent of small businesses agreed they’re more open than ever before to replace old systems and adopt new technologies to run their company more efficiently."

    Published on: March 26, 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 30,774,033 total Covid-19 coronavirus cases, resulting in 559,744 deaths, and 23,196,209 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 126,203,749 total coronavirus cases, with 2,769,594 resultant fatalities and 101,822,326 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    •  The Washington Post reports that "at least 87.3 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the U.S.  This includes more than 44.7 million people who have been fully vaccinated … 173.5 million doses have been distributed."

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "Newly reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. declined, as more states took steps to open Covid-19 vaccinations to younger residents.  The U.S. reported more than 67,000 new cases for Thursday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University that was published early Friday. The data may update later. Thursday’s tally was down from the previous day’s total of nearly 87,000, which included backlogs of data from at least two states, but it was higher than the more than 60,000 new cases reported a week earlier."

    •  From the New York Times:

    "States are racing to vaccinate as many people as possible as the United States’ coronavirus infection curve continues its plateau for a third week at more than 55,000 new cases per day, a level that health experts warn could rapidly escalate into a new wave … At least 31 states have pledged to make vaccines universally available to their adult populations by mid-April, and many more have announced plans to expand eligibility on or before May 1, a goal set by President Biden. Alaska, Mississippi, Utah and West Virginia have already made all adults eligible to receive shots, and some local jurisdictions have also begun vaccinating all adults.

    "The expansion comes at a critical juncture in the pandemic, with 25 states reporting persistently high infections, according to a New York Times database."

    •  The New York Times reports that "Pfizer has begun testing its Covid-19 vaccine in children under 12, a significant step in turning back the pandemic … Results from the trial are expected in the second half of the year, and the company hopes to vaccinate younger children early next year."

    The story says that "Moderna also is beginning a trial of its vaccine in children six months to 12 years of age. Both companies have been testing their vaccines in children 12 and older, and expect those results in the next few weeks."

    •  CNN reports that "Rutgers University is requiring students attending classes in person this fall to be vaccinated against Covid-19," making it one of just a few US universities to establish such a mandate.

    The story says that "students may request an exemption for medical or religious reasons, the university said. Otherwise, proof of vaccination will be required for all students attending in-person classes."

    I think this is a smart move - the kind of thing that we should expect from an institution of higher learning.  I suspect there will be some court challenges - legal scholars suggest that this kind of mandate falls into a gray area - but if I had a kid going off to college, that's what I'd want.

    •  Reuters reports that Amazon "is rolling out on-site COVID-19 vaccination for its U.S. front-line employees, it said on Thursday, as companies step up efforts to get their workers immunized against the coronavirus.

    "The e-commerce company, which has also been testing employees for COVID-19, said that on-site vaccination programs would first start in Missouri, Nevada, and Kansas and then expand across the country as more vaccines become available."

    •  From Variety:

    "New York City is taking steps to revive the theater industry, a sector of the city that has been shuttered for more than a year due to the pandemic.

    "Those efforts, Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed during a press conference on Thursday, include a dedicated COVID-19 vaccination site on Broadway for theater industry workers. There will also be a mobile vaccination unit for off-Broadway employees.

    "'It’s time to raise the curtain and bring Broadway back,' de Blasio said. He’s aiming to reopen Broadway by this fall.

    "The city is also implementing pop-up coronavirus testing sites by Broadway theaters and are developing protocols to manage crowds before and after shows. Recovery for the Great White Way has been especially difficult because theaters bank on sold-out shows in tightly packed venues to operate profitably. It’s nearly impossible to generate enough revenues to keep the theater lights on and pay cast members, producers and employees with half-full auditoriums.

    "Moreover, theater relies heavily on tourists to buy tickets — and the travel industry has also been impaired by the pandemic."

    As someone who loves live theater, I would suggest that one thing de Blasio does not seem to understand is that he cannot reopen Broadway.  He can set the stage, but without instilling confidence in theatergoers that has us coming back to venues that tend to be crowded, the New York theater scene cannot reopen.    None of these venues wants to be held responsible for super-spreader events.

    There's also the problem of economics.  Live theater is expensive, and there will be producers who will say that it simply is not economically feasible to open theaters at anything less than 100 percent capacity.

    Published on: March 26, 2021

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  Newsday reports that Amazon plans to open one of its Amazon Fresh supermarkets in Plainview, New York, on Long Island, in a location formerly occupied by a Fairway.

    Amazon has not confirmed the story, and it is not known whether the location is one of 28 planned Amazon Fresh stores recently reported by Bloomberg.

    Amazon has said that the Fresh concept stores offer "consistently low prices for all, and free, same day delivery and pickup for Prime members," as well as Amazon Dash Cart technology that "enables customers to skip the checkout line," and Alexa-based features "to help customers manage their shopping lists and better navigate our aisles," providing directions to shoppers as well as meal recommendations.

    I'm intrigued by this report because the Amazon Fresh location is about five miles up the road from a Stew Leonard's store … and at the moment, there is a lot of chatter about an Amazon Fresh store potentially opening in Westport, Connecticut, which would be about five miles up the road from the original Stew Leonard's in Norwalk, Connecticut.  As I say, none of this is confirmed - but I'd be very interested to watch a Stew Leonard's vs. Amazon battle, especially if it plays out in several locations.

    •  The Washington Post reports that Amazon is taking "an unusually combative tone on social media in pushing back against reports and tweets that its productivity demands are so intense that workers routinely urinate in bottles because they can’t take restroom breaks."  The reaction comes after several media reports in which Amazon employees said that "they had to urinate in bottles in their vehicles to keep up with productivity rates."

    These claims have been documented by a number of journalists, but Amazon seems resolute about shooting the comments down as inaccurate.

    On its Twitter feed, Amazon posted:  “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.  The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.”

    However, the Post writes, the Amazon tweet "drew immediate pushback from Twitter users, including journalists who linked to news reports documenting workers’ claims of having to forgo restroom breaks. Ken Bensinger, a reporter and editor at BuzzFeed News, tweeted a photo sent by a former driver that purports to show one trucking company advising drivers that they are responsible for cleaning their vehicles at the end of their routes, including 'urine bottles' under company policy."

    I have a feeling about where this may be going - that in the end, it will be contractors that are found to be responsible for foisting such restrictions and rules on their employees, who are not Amazon employees.  And when such things happen among actual Amazon employees, it will be said that it is rogue supervisors who are responsible.

    And then, Amazon will say that it cannot be held responsible for actions that it says are beyond its control.

    Now, I'm not sure that any of this will be precisely true.  And I do think that Amazon's pattern of denial is a dangerous game.  It might be better to simply acknowledge that the company's rapid growth has meant that mistakes have been made and priorities have been misplaced … and then do better.

    Published on: March 26, 2021

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  The Wall Street Journal has a story about how Kroger "hopes to boost its health business through its pandemic efforts. It aims to deliver millions of vaccinations to people nationwide and create more repeat customers for its pharmacies and supermarket offerings.

    "The pandemic, and stay-at-home orders combating it, helped make 2020 a banner year for U.S. grocers."  In Kroger's case, it has administered about 28,250 doses at a single Lexington, Kentucky, mass-vaccination site since February.

    "The post-pandemic path is less clear for Kroger and other supermarket chains," the Journal writes.  "Reopened restaurants will likely reclaim some of consumers’ food purchases, industry executives and analysts say, while pandemic-related safety measures elevate supermarkets’ expenses.

    "Kroger is betting that its in-store pharmacies and clinics can keep its supermarkets central to consumers’ lives even as the coronavirus recedes, with shoppers spending more in a continuation of the company’s pandemic-fueled growth. Over the past year, Kroger also has provided hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 tests in stores and drive-through sites, delivered prescriptions for no charge and offered virtual health services.

    "'Covid has taught us that pharmacy is always really important and will be important as we go forward,' Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s chief executive, said in an interview."

    •  Bloomberg has a profile of Linda Rendle, the new CEO of Clorox, who is the youngest CEO in the company's history and the first woman in that role.

    Rendle is looking at a future in which some will suggest that pandemic-era buying, which played to Clorox's advantage, will not continue.  But when Rendle "looks at all the scrubbing and wiping (and worrying) of the past year, she doesn’t see habits that will disappear along with the pandemic … Rendle points to internal research showing that more than 90% of people say they won’t revert back to their pre-Covid cleaning and disinfecting routines. She’s one of them."

    According to the story, "Her conviction can be seen in an Atlanta suburb, where last week Clorox opened a second production line at a factory that boosted the number of wipes canisters it can ship to 1.5 million each day. To keep that facility busy as Covid-19 recedes, Rendle is increasing the company’s marketing budget by 30% and is using the Clorox brand’s sudden high-profile to push into new places, including partnerships with the NBA and Uber."

    •  The BBC reports that "thousands of Asda supermarket workers have won a major victory at the Supreme Court in their battle for equal pay.

    "The court upheld an earlier court ruling that lower-paid shop staff, who are mostly women, can compare themselves with higher paid warehouse workers, who are mostly men.

    "The judge stressed the ruling did not mean the 45,000 claimants had won the right to equal pay.  However, they are now free to take further action."

    According to the BBC story, "An Asda spokesman said there was a long way to go before the issues were finally settled:  'This ruling relates to one stage of a complex case that is likely to take several years to reach a conclusion.

    "'We are defending these claims because the pay in our stores and distribution centres is the same for colleagues doing the same jobs regardless of their gender. Retail and distribution are very different sectors with their own distinct skill sets and pay rates'."

    I have no idea how this will turn out, but the story reminded me of a Margaret Thatcher quote:  "If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman."

    Published on: March 26, 2021

    Donald C. R. Sobey, the son of the founder of Canada's Sobeys supermarket chain and later the president and chairman of the Empire Company, which was set up to diversify the family's business interests, has passed away.   He was 86.

    One of the most interesting obits for Sobey came in The Art Newspaper, which wrote, "Canada has lost one of its artistic heroes, Donald R. Sobey, a major benefactor and two-term chairman of the National Gallery’s board of trustees (2002-08), an inspiration to often underappreciated Canadian artists through the Sobey Art Award."

    Published on: March 26, 2021

    Yesterday we took note of the CNN report that a man armed with a five guns entered an Atlanta Publix Supermarket Wednesday, and was arrested and charged with reckless conduct. The incident came just days after a mass shooting at a Boulder, Colorado, King Soopers left 10 people, including four store employees and one policeman, dead, and eight days after a series of shooting at three Atlanta-area spas.

    I commented:

    One has to wonder if we're going to see a move by retailers all over the country to beef up their security because of concerns that the events of the last few weeks portends terrible reality with which they all may have to deal.

    Are we going to have to walk through airport-style metal detectors in order to enter a supermarket?  Will there be the obvious presence of armed guards?  Will some of the plexiglass that became omnipresent during the pandemic be converted to bulletproof glass?  I'm not sure any of this is out of the question, especially as businesses look for ways to assure both employees and customers that their stores are safe harbors.

    One other note.  If physical stores are not perceived as being safe by shoppers, then the acceleration of e-commerce and e-grocery may in fact continue in the same way that it did as the pandemic became a fact of our lives.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    This situation I know about  - 6 years ago the retailer I work for updated plans to execute in case of such shooting emergency etc. Sadly in the last 6 years we have not heard one more single word about it. So we are open game especially the newer employees who have received zero training. 

    From another reader:

    My mother took me, as a child, to shop for groceries at Bi-Lo in Greenville SC in the 70's - they always had free popcorn for the kids and I can remember seeing a security guard sitting above the office on a perch with a rifle mounted on the wall behind him..Made me feel safe....a little "carry a big stick" never hurts.

    On the subject of hazard pay mandates, one MNB reader wrote:

    The thing that has baffled me throughout these discussion of hazard pay mandates is that I have not seen any of these local governments pass hazard pay mandates for police or fire/rescue personnel. 

    In my opinion, if anyone has been exposed to the most danger in this pandemic, it has been those front line workers.  Is it because the optics are bad due to all of the negative press related to police?  Is the barrier that the politicians would be forced to make choices regarding funding (increased taxes or reductions of other services) that would be politically unfavorable for them?  They appear to be imposing things on businesses that they themselves are unwilling or unable to deal with.  I also don’t understand why no one has asked this question more broadly. 

    I agree with the position you have put forth that this is bad public policy.  I would also argue that it is far beyond the scope of what local governments (or really any government) should be able to do. 

    I did a FaceTime video yesterday about how one lesson we've taught by the pandemic - that people don't need to be in the office to get the job done - actually opens the door for people to hire from a much wider pool - they can look for job candidates anywhere and not require them to move.

    One MNB reader replied:

    I agree completely.... one challenge we have experienced is that it’s complicated when state income taxes are involved.  HR needs to embrace this, or treat all out-of-state employees as consultants where they are responsible for their own taxes.  But I think the future of all employees being in one location may be a thing of the past.... 

    And yoga pants may be permanent work attire! (I’ll let you think about the trickle-down effect on the clothing industry).

    We took note of an Associated Press report that researchers in Bordeaux, France, are analyzing a unique and expensive bottle of Petrus Pomerol wine - as well as 320 snippets of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapevines - to evaluate the impact of space flight on them.

    I commented:

    I'm a little disappointed that they didn't test the impact of space on a bottle of Chateau Picard.  Maybe next time.

    But one MNB reader wrote:

     I also wonder what affects space radiation might have on the plants.  Maybe the only vineyard that would “sing for its supper”.

    Extra credit for the Little Shop of Horrors reference.

    Yesterday the New York Times reported that while from the beginning of the pandemic there were concerns among Americans about gaining the dreaded “quarantine 15,” a year later the reality may actually be worse.

    According to the story, "a very small study using objective measures - weight measurements from Bluetooth-connected smart scales - suggests that adults under shelter-in-place orders gained more than half a pound every 10 days."  Which would translate to an almost 20-pound average weight gain since the pandemic began.

    I commented, in part:

    First of all, this story is all the reason I need never to get a Bluetooth-enabled scale.

    I do think that these numbers create an enormous opportunity for people in the food business to be newly relevant to their shoppers.  Whether through the promotion of healthier foods or the creation of programs that develop a sense of community among people trying to lose weight in the after-times, retailers ought to be jumping all over this opportunity.

    To be perfectly honest, I count myself among the folks dealing with this issue.  About three years ago I lost 40 pounds, and found myself able to keep about 35 of them off through mildly careful eating and consistent exercise - not just jogging, but also all the day-to-day exercise I'd get walking.  I love to walk.  But over the past year, I've gained about half that weight back - it was the combination of not traveling (not being in Portland, where I tend to get a ton of exercise, last summer was a killer), lazier eating, and then an injury that kept me from jogging for about four months.  (Lousy winter weather didn't help, since the gym was closed.)

    And so I'm trying to regain some discipline, especially because I've booked some live speeches for later this year;  my goal is to get down to fighting weight by the time I hit the road again.  People like me are the center of the target when it comes to marketing healthier eating habits.

    But I'm still not investing in a Bluetooth-enabled scale.

    One MNB reader responded:

    Bluetooth scales are the best…. Gives you short term gratification and immediate results when you are trying to lose weight.  Like taking a step at a time…think small every day and you’ll accomplish your weight reduction goal. Diet is the smaller portions…reduce amount of carbs…drink plenty of water and eliminate sugars.  You’ll be amazed at how much you can los… moderate exercise is needed also…keep the skeletal structure strong….

    Another MNB reader chimed in:

     You’ve commented a lot over the years on how the retailers need to do a better job of communicating meal ideas.  Tie in that observation with this latest insight and yes, I agree, retailers should be all over this.  Honestly, what would it take for them to utilize the e-commerce boom, to provide healthy meal “solutions” for consumers.  Then add to it, the observation of a lot of the new stay at home generation needs some assistance in meal prep since it was something that wasn’t in their wheelhouse.  It is not a bad thing, just a thing.  This would be a huge opportunity to gain customer loyalty and drive sales.  Especially if they tied it to loyalty programs that offered discounts on the component purchases.  

    And from another reader:

    I find it fascinating that more people didn’t use this down time to focus on their health.  I managed to lose over 120 pounds during covid by actually being able to focus on portion control and daily exercise routines.  You would think if we can get vaccine’s in peoples arms, that we could really get serious about public health and environment in which we all live, rather than the window dressing we put around the definition of good health, whether in body, in mind, or in spirit.

    You're a better man than I.

    Published on: March 26, 2021

    Rams is charming Australian comedy-drama that, I have to admit, consistently surprised me throughout its 115 minute run time;  every time I thought it was going to zig, it zagged, and I found it to be really engaging.

    Sam Neill (The Hunt for Red October, Jurassic Park) and Michael Caton play long estranged brothers, each of which raises sheep from their family's prized bloodline, competing against each other at local fairs, living next to each other (they've split the family farm in two), but almost never communicating.  When one of their sheep is diagnosed with a rare illness - sort of the sheep version of mad cow disease - it is ordered that all the sheep in the region need to be destroyed.  It is this crisis that brings them together - sort of - to defy the government order and preserve the bloodline.

    The film - directed by Jeremy Sims and written by Jules Duncan - has a great vibe about it - never looking down on its subjects, and finding a kind of raw nobility in their lives and work.  The cast is terrific, the Western Australia locations are beautiful, and Rams seems like a sharply observed movie about people not often seen on film.

    Great stuff, and available to be seen on Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV.

    My wine of the week to recommend:  the 2019 Il Pumo Primitivo, a red wine from Salento, in Southern Italy, from the Cantine San Marzano winery.  It is deep and spicy, perfect with Italian food - maybe a nice bolognese or fresh pizza.

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

    Stay safe.  Be healthy.