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    Published on: April 13, 2021

    by Michael Sansolo

    There are few areas of business I find less worthy of admiration than the cable TV/internet provider industry. Frankly, most of them strike me as screaming out for additional competitors and it’s easy to understand why younger generations are eliminating them altogether.

    So it’s somewhat shocking that I find myself quoting a current Comcast business ad on what to think about as we blessedly start exiting the Covid period. To paraphrase Comcast, it’s not about bouncing back, but rather bouncing forward.

    That’s right on the money. Months ago (maybe years ago, who knows at this point) I wrote about how golfer Bryson DeChambeau used the Covid lockdown of his sport to transform his body through diet and weight lifting. DeChambeau still doesn’t win every time he plays, but it’s incredible to watch how he challenges the traditional game of golf in his beefed up body.

    I’d argue that Comcast and DeChambeau are onto something. When normalcy returns it’s very possible that consumers and associates alike are going to simply return to old habits. It’s also possible that won’t be enough and they are going to wonder why the products and services they use haven’t evolved with them.

    There’s an amazing example of this type of change in one of the most unlikely places: Reagan National Airport, just across the river from Washington DC. National Airport has undergone all manner of changes through the years growing from a single classic terminal to a large, glass and steel typically confusing airport in recent times.

    But even at its most modern, National had one incredibly awful feature known and dreaded by anyone who used the airport:  Gate 35x. Originally used by US Airways and more recently by American, 35x was the jumping off point for smaller planes serving smaller cities. Incredibly, numerous flights would leave from the gate at the same time, creating incredible confusion and a rare chance to see an amazing mix of people. (Robert Mueller was captured in a photo as being in the boarding area at the same time as Donald Trump Jr. … while Mueller was investigating Trump Sr.)

    To be clear though, no flights actually left from 35x. Rather, passengers would board buses that drove a few hundred yards to waiting planes. And then, in all kinds of weather, those passengers would try to board their planes. (My wife is still scarred by the memory of climbing the metal stairs during an icy rain.)

    The Washington Post labeled 35x this way: "It’s cramped. It’s depressing. It’s a glorified livestock pen for unlucky travelers…"  That's no exaggeration.

    But here’s the thing, thanks to the quiet of covid times, a new terminal has replaced 35x in record time. So the next time I need travel to Albany or White Plains (we have family in both New York cities) the experience will be completely transformed.

    National Airport isn’t the only location to have undergone transformation and even improvement during covid. Stories abound about how projects at places like New York City's Penn Station and The Louvre in Paris actually have been facilitated by the pandemic.  Hopefully we’ll all find countless road and other projects completed in far less time than expected thanks to the quiet travel and commuting period we’re now enduring. It’s possible we’ll yet see a silver lining in the Covid cloud.

    But the question for your business is how did you bounce forward? What changes did you make (or are making) that will welcome shoppers back with a wow instead of just the way things were? No doubt, people are looking forward to a return to what they remember, but nostalgia goes only so far. Hopefully you are going to take them so much further … forward, that is.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at

    His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

    And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.

    Published on: April 13, 2021

    Taylor Swift has been getting a lot of attention in recent days for her new album, which is actually a re-recording of her 2008 album, "Fearless."  The new album, dubbed "Taylor's Version," is seen by fans as her sticking it to the man (in this case, a man who has not treated her or her career very well).  KC suggests that what it really represents is a vivid case of values vs. value, offering a lesson to every brand.

    Published on: April 13, 2021

    The Wall Street Journal reports that restaurants in New York City, tired of paying fees to the third-party contractors responsible for delivering their meals, "are increasingly finding a way around the issue by avoiding the platforms and assuming ownership of the process themselves. And they say the benefits go beyond the potential savings on third-party fees."

    The Journal points out that "a burgeoning industry has emerged of technology-focused companies that assist restaurants with creating, managing and marketing their own online ordering platforms and connecting them with delivery people … Most of these companies bill a monthly charge for their work instead of levying fees for each order, as the third-party ones typically do."

    It isn't just a matter of owning the experience - it is also about owning the customer.

    The Journal writes:  "Restaurants have issues with the platforms beyond the fees, which is why many are also opting to assume responsibility for their ordering operations. Restaurants note that they can’t connect directly with customers when diners go through third parties, whether it is to promote a future offer or correct a mistake with a previous order."

    KC's View:

    The third party delivery services justify their fees by saying they're providing more than just deliveries, but also the kind of promotion that restaurants cannot achieve on their own.

    But the restaurants referenced in the Journal article clearly have come to a conclusion with which I entirely concur - that if you want to preserve and sustain your brand, you have to own the customer relationship.  You can't outsource it, because when you lose control you run the risk of losing connection.,

    This is, I hope, the conclusion that food retailers, having outsourced much of their e-commerce business to third-part contractors, also will reach.  In the search for a quick solution, they may have engineered their long-term demise.

    Published on: April 13, 2021

    CNBC has a story about how bricks-and-mortar retailers coming out of the pandemic "now need to get creative as shopping habits change and customers become more demanding."  It is, the story suggests, more important than ever to "to get their physical presence right," to redefine how they use their physical spaces, and go beyond the simple "exchange of goods."

    Some of the possibilities suggested by CNBC:

    •  Follow the path being taken by Target, which seems to be trying to develop a mini-mall approach in its stores, doing things like creating Apple boutiques that will draw in shoppers.

    •  Focusing on pop-up stores, "spaces that are open temporarily to show off a particular line or product, and have been gaining in popularity in recent years."  One of the things that a pop-up store or installation can do is create the perception of exclusivity - this item is only available here and now, and may be gone tomorrow.

    •  Embrace sustainability in all its permutations, which plays into the "value versus values debate … the need to be really, really clear on your sustainability credentials, ethical sourcing, etc but at the same time offering great value for money that doesn’t just mean cheapness but value for money to the consumers."

    KC's View:

    I absolutely believe that retailers - especially in the food business - may be about to deal with some of the most competitive times they've ever faced.  The approaches cited by CNBC are just three of the possibilities as retailers seek ways to differentiate themselves.

    Seems to me that one important approach is not to think of e-commerce in an oppositional way, rather have a mindset that integrates it into the broader brand and value proposition.  Go back to the word that was used so much at the beginning of the pandemic - essential.

    Published on: April 13, 2021

    Amazon has announced the launch of a new private label food brand, Aplenty, which it says will include snacks, condiments, frozen foods and other staples.

    In a statement, Amazon said that the Aplenty line is rooted in "a relentless pursuit of deliciousness," and that they were developed using the "highest standards with recipes rooted in quality ingredients to deliver great taste without artificial flavors, synthetic colors or high fructose corn syrup."

    The line reportedly will be available both online and in the Amazon Fresh grocery stores that are being opened up around the country.

    Published on: April 13, 2021

    The Wall Street Journal reports that Grab Holdings, which operates "a ride-hailing, food-delivery and digital-wallet group that operates across much of Southeast Asia," announced that it "would go public on the Nasdaq Stock Market by merging with a special-purpose acquisition company, securing a near-$40 billion valuation in a new milestone for the SPAC boom that has swept U.S. financial markets."

    The move means that Grab's valuation has doubled in less than two years.  Grab is going to merge "with Altimeter Growth Corp., a SPAC sponsored by Altimeter Capital, of Menlo Park, Calif. … The Grab merger adds to a frenzy of SPAC-related deal making. A record $99 billion has been raised in the U.S. by a total of 306 SPACs this year, according to SPAC Research data, and some 435 of these vehicles are still seeking a merger target.

    The Journal offers some context:  "Grab, which started in 2012 as a ride-hailing service in Southeast Asia, has turned itself into a superapp, a single platform that provides a range of services. As part of this, Grab offers food and grocery delivery and financial services. Its top backers include the SoftBank Vision Fund, Uber Technologies Inc. and Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing.

    "Grab has had more than 214 million app downloads across the eight Southeast Asian countries where it operates. The pandemic has bolstered Grab’s delivery services, as drivers were able to switch from transporting customers to carrying deliveries, a flexibility that wouldn’t be possible in many developed countries."

    KC's View:

     Have to wonder if these sorts of combos - platforms that serve as ride-hailing, food-delivery and digital-wallet entities - are going to be the wave of the future, as aggressive entrepreneurs, looking to dominate and grow their niches, try to combine components in a way that will appeal to all this money that seems to be looking for a home.

    Published on: April 13, 2021

    There's a really good piece in The New Yorker that should be must-reading for anyone in the food business, about how French tacos became "essential dining in the home of haute cuisine."

    An excerpt:

    "French tacos are tacos like chicken fingers are fingers. Which is to say, they are not tacos at all. First of all, through some mistranslation or misapprehension of its Mexican namesake, the French tacos is always plural, even when there’s only one, pronounced with a voiced 'S.'  Technically, the French tacos is a sandwich: a flour tortilla, slathered with condiments, piled with meat (usually halal) and other things (usually French fries), doused in cheese sauce, folded into a rectangular packet, and then toasted on a grill. 'In short, a rather successful marriage between panini, kebab, and burrito,' according to the municipal newsletter of Vaulx-en-Velin, a suburb of Lyon in which the French tacos may or may not have been born."

    You can read the entire piece here.

    KC's View:

    If you're a grocer who is serious about being in the food business, I'd check out this piece and start experimenting … with the idea of getting into the French tacos business as a way of stressing innovation and differentiation.  Just test it out … you could sell them pre-made and ready to grill, or sell the ingredients with an instruction kit.

    People are still eating at home more than ever, and this is a way to give something new, something different.

    And then, having done that, start looking for the next French tacos.

    I'm already plotting with my daughter how we're going to try to make our own French tacos.  At least until I can find my way to Paris.

    (I never thought of the lyric … He went to Paris, looking for answers, to questions that bothered him so … as being about the search for a great French tacos.  But, c'est la vie.)

    Published on: April 13, 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 31,990,499 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 576,298 deaths and 24,560,856 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 137,330,383 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 2,961,089 resultant deaths, and 110,526,446 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    •  The Washington Post reports that "at least 120.8 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the U.S.  This includes more than 74.1 million people who have been fully vaccinated … 237.8 million doses have been distributed."

    •  However, Axios reports this morning that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is recommending "an immediate halt of the use of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine, citing cases of a rare blood clot disorder that six women developed within two weeks of receiving the shot … The recommendation was issued 'out of an abundance of caution' as health officials review data and alternative treatments, but it could risk slowing down the U.S. vaccine rollout."

    The story says that "nearly 7 million doses of the shot have been administered in the U.S., and another 9 million have been shipped out to the states … The six women who developed the blood clots were between the ages of 18 and 48, according to the FDA."

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "Newly reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. rose, while a study found that a new variant of the virus that has spread widely throughout the country isn’t deadlier than older strains … As concerns remain high over new coronavirus variants, a new study has found that the variant first identified in the U.K. spreads more easily than older strains but doesn’t lead to more severe disease among hospitalized patients. People infected late last year with the variant, known as B.1.1.7, had more virus in their bodies than patients infected with older strains, a sign the newer variant is more infectious, according to the study published online Monday by the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases. But the patients hospitalized with B.1.1.7 didn’t die at higher rates or have worse outcomes overall."

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "After a year in which toilet-tissue shortages left consumers scrambling for squares, sales are plummeting to below pre-pandemic levels.

    "Bath-tissue sales in January fell more than 4% from the same period a year earlier, before the spread of Covid-19 spurred Americans to load up on staples from toilet paper to sanitary wipes, according to figures from NielsenIQ. The decline, which comes even though legions of Americans continue to work and attend school from home, indicates last year’s stockpiling is starting to have an effect on sales."

    •  From Axios:

    "Michigan can't vaccinate its way out of a COVID-19 spike, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing Monday, during which she called on the state 'to close things down' … Michigan's average daily case count has jumped about seven times from a low point in February."

    Walensky said, "When you have an acute situation, an extraordinary number of cases like we have in Michigan, the answer is not necessarily to give vaccines — in fact, we know the vaccine will have a delayed response … The answer to that is to really close things down, to go back to our basics, to go back to where we were last spring, last summer ... to flatten the curve, to decrease contact with one another, to test to the extent that we have available, to contact trace."

    •  Morning Brew reports that Sam Adams has produced another of its irreverent “Your cousin from Boston” TV ad spots to promote vaccine awareness, challenging some concerns that brands run the risk of alienating anti-vaxxers by promoting the value of inoculation.

    Published on: April 13, 2021

    •  USA Today reports that Domino's Pizza is rolling out "robotic delivery services today. Testing of the new service will take place in Houston, Texas, specifically in the Woodland Heights neighborhood. The robots used are R2 autonomous delivery vehicles, produced by privately held California-based Nuro … pizza-hungry diners in the Texas neighborhood can place a prepaid order which the R2 robot will then bring to their home. Text alerts track the machine's movements, and once it arrives, the customers can retrieve their food by entering a PIN on the R2's touchscreen."

    The USA Today story makes an interesting point - that Domino's now describes itself as "an e-commerce company that sells pizza."  That's not just a semantic difference.

    Published on: April 13, 2021

    •  From Reuters:

    "Zest Labs Inc won $115 million from Walmart Inc. in Arkansas federal court on its claims that Walmart stole a trade secret related to technology for reducing fresh food waste.

    "A jury awarded Zest $60 million for trade secret misappropriation in a Friday verdict in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, and an additional $50 million because the misappropriation was 'willful and malicious.'

    "The jury also awarded Zest $5 million for Walmart’s breach of a non-disclosure agreement."

    According to the story, "Zest sued Walmart in 2018 for allegedly copying its Zest Fresh technology, which tracks produce freshness from farms to stores. Zest said it worked with Walmart and shared proprietary information with the retail giant until late 2017.

    Zest estimated in its complaint that Walmart would save more than $15 billion over the next 10 years from the misappropriation.

    "Walmart denied the allegations, and countered that Zest breached a contract by developing a freshness-monitoring tool for it that was 'essentially useless'."

    “We believe the jury’s verdict is excessive, not supported by the facts and should be set aside,” Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said. “We plan to file post-trial motions and are considering our next steps.”

    Published on: April 13, 2021

    •  From the Washington Post:

    "The Food and Drug Administration, after congressional pressure, is now pursuing a plan to address high levels of heavy metals in baby foods. Although the agency has set maximum allowable levels of metals like lead in bottled water, it has not regulated levels of metals in baby and toddler foods, with the exception of arsenic in rice cereal.

    "But spurred by a congressional report in February that found many of the products made by the country’s largest commercial baby food manufacturers contain significant levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury, advocacy groups, members of Congress and outraged parents have urged the agency to act.

    "The FDA’s plan outlines a multiyear process of evaluating the science, establishing maximum acceptable levels, monitoring manufacturers’ compliance with those levels and taking enforcement actions. These maximum levels will be recommended and voluntary for manufacturers."

    Hilary Thesmar, Chief Food and Product Safety Officer at FMI-The Food Industry Association, weighed in on the FDA plan:

    “As the food industry association, FMI believes FDA should maintain its authority on food safety standards and action levels when it comes to heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium in food for babies and toddlers. We agree the federal standards regarding these elements in baby food should be evaluated by FDA and guided by science, and we urge for speed in the agency’s process to support consumer trust through a process that is transparent and engages stakeholders.

    “FMI is proactively working through both the legislative and regulatory processes, working closely with its member companies that manufacture and sell food items for babies and toddlers.

    Published on: April 13, 2021

    More email about the vote against unionization at the Alabama Amazon warehouse.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    It sounds pretty simple to me. The warehouse workers were making more than the prevailing local wage and didn’t think the union could top it,  especially after dues deductions. Certainly the Covid induced surge in Amazon shipments had a negative effect. But , in the last analysis, you bring in a union to get you more, not less. 

    Another MNB reader chimed in:

    I keep wondering why everyone thinks that Amazon was able to use its clout and alternately intimidate and pull the wool over their employees eyes?  Maybe, just maybe the employees are smarter than the union, the politicians and the pundits and voted for what they think is best for them?

    Turns out it doesn't matter as the union has decided that other forms of pressure against the evil giant(s) are the only way to save those poor laborers.  Self determination be darned!

    Regarding Amazon's opening of new Amazon Fresh grocery stores, one MNB reader wrote:

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  Amazon is a force and now they are taking direct aim at food retailers.  They are definitely positioning themselves for the next generation of shoppers.  Old school like myself will most likely not shop these stores with my flip phone. 

    Responding to my video piece about the new Roche Bros. store outside Boston, one MNB reader wrote:

    Nice to see you out and about, and you looked very happy doing it! 

    My take is that it would behoove the national chains to take a hard, deep look at these formats, because this is the future. Except that it's here now! Kudos to Roche Bros.

    I was very, very happy.