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    Published on: April 16, 2021

    KC offers an assessment of "Wahl Street," a new (semi) documentary series on HBO Max, that offers a sometimes shallow and self-aggrandizing look at actor Mark Wahlberg's entrepreneurial efforts.  Where it goes deeper, and actually seems to focus on genuine emotion, is when the pandemic hits mid-production, hammering virtually all Wahlberg's businesses.  Also in the mix - Portland, Oregon's Green Zebra;  its founder-CEO Lisa Sedlar (KC is a big fan) pitches Wahlberg to invest in the company even as the world is collapsing.

    Published on: April 16, 2021

    In his final letter to shareholders as Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos spends considerable time focusing on the company's treatment of employees, which has come under the microscope with criticisms of working conditions in its distribution centers and the recent failed unionization effort at its Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse.

    While Bezos is quick to cite positives about the company's employees, he also writes that "it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for our employees’ success. We have always wanted to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company. We won’t change that. It’s what got us here. But I am committing us to an addition. We are going to be Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.

    "In my upcoming role as Executive Chair, I’m going to focus on new initiatives. I’m an inventor. It’s what I enjoy the most and what I do best. It’s where I create the most value. I’m excited to work alongside the large team of passionate people we have in Ops and help invent in this arena of Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work. On the details, we at Amazon are always flexible, but on matters of vision we are stubborn and relentless. We have never failed when we set our minds to something, and we’re not going to fail at this either."

    Bezos goes on:

    "When we lead, others follow. Two and a half years ago, when we set a $15 minimum wage for our hourly employees, we did so because we wanted to lead on wages – not just run with the pack – and because we believed it was the right thing to do. A recent paper by economists at the University of California-Berkeley and Brandeis University analyzed the impact of our decision to raise our minimum starting pay to $15 per hour. Their assessment reflects what we’ve heard from employees, their families, and the communities they live in.

    "Our increase in starting wage boosted local economies across the country by benefiting not only our own employees but also other workers in the same community. The study showed that our pay raise resulted in a 4.7% increase in the average hourly wage among other employers in the same labor market.

    "And we’re not done leading. If we want to be Earth’s Best Employer, we shouldn’t settle for 94% of employees saying they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work. We have to aim for 100%. And we’ll do that by continuing to lead on wages, on benefits, on upskilling opportunities, and in other ways that we will figure out over time.

    If any shareowners are concerned that Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work might dilute our focus on Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company, let me set your mind at ease. Think of it this way. If we can operate two businesses as different as consumer ecommerce and AWS, and do both at the highest level, we can certainly do the same with these two vision statements. In fact, I’m confident they will reinforce each other."

    In reeling off statistics about Amazon's performance over the past year, Bezos writes, "Last year, we hired 500,000 employees and now directly employ 1.3 million people around the world. We have more than 200 million Prime members worldwide. More than 1.9 million small and medium-sized businesses sell in our store, and they make up close to 60% of our retail sales. Customers have connected more than 100 million smart home devices to Alexa. Amazon Web Services serves millions of customers and ended 2020 with a $50 billion annualized run rate. In 1997, we hadn’t invented Prime, Marketplace, Alexa, or AWS. They weren’t even ideas then, and none was preordained. We took great risk with each one and put sweat and ingenuity into each one."

    Bezos also offers an interesting construct when it comes to how Amazon calculates consumer value creation:

    "Customers complete 28% of purchases on Amazon in three minutes or less, and half of all purchases are finished in less than 15 minutes. Compare that to the typical shopping trip to a physical store – driving, parking, searching store aisles, waiting in the checkout line, finding your car, and driving home. Research suggests the typical physical store trip takes about an hour. If you assume that a typical Amazon purchase takes 15 minutes and that it saves you a couple of trips to a physical store a week, that’s more than 75 hours a year saved. That’s important. We’re all busy in the early 21st century.

    "So that we can get a dollar figure, let’s value the time savings at $10 per hour, which is conservative. Seventy-five hours multiplied by $10 an hour and subtracting the cost of Prime gives you value creation for each Prime member of about $630. We have 200 million Prime members, for a total in 2020 of $126 billion of value creation."

    Bezos will be succeeded as CEO by Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services, later this year.

    KC's View:

    I've been saying for some time now that Amazon needs to behave like a 21st century company in every way, including how it treats its employees.  I want to take Bezos at his word, but he's going to have to put points on the board.  First step - go to Bessemer, sit down with employees, and get a real feel for how the reality of the situation diverges from perceptions … and don't be defensive.  Bezos actually has a lot of personal and political capital that he's earned over the past half-century, and this would be a good time to spend some of it.

    I'll also say this - the consumer value creation construct is brilliant.  In fewer than 200 words, Bezos has explained to me why my first, best choice ought to be Amazon.  

    If I'm a physical retailer, I have to focus on those 168 words and figure out what my 168 words are.  What is your consumer value creation construct?  

    Published on: April 16, 2021

    Nancy Lebold, who spent 25 years at WinCo Foods working in the Pacific Northwest before becoming vice president of merchandising at Food4Less in California, has been named the new CEO of  New Seasons Market and New Leaf Community Markets.

    Lebold succeeds Forrest Hoffmaster, who last month announced his plans to step down .

    New Seasons and Good Leaf are owned by Good Food Holdings, a subsidiary of Emart, which is part of The Shinsegae Group of South Korea.  Good Food Holdings also owns Bristol Farms in Southern California and Metropolitan Markets in Seattle.

    Lebold held several leadership roles throughout the Pacific Northwest while at WinCo, including senior vice president of retail operations, vice president of procurement in Idaho, and vice president of general merchandise in Oregon.

    “As we emerge from the challenges of the past year, I look forward to bringing a people-centric leadership approach to New Seasons Market and New Leaf Community Markets as we reconnect communities around good food,” Lebold said in a prepared statement. “In close partnership with the current senior leadership teams, I’m committed to creating reinvigorated experiences at both banners that offer staff, customers and the communities we serve more reasons to fall in love with us all over again.”

    KC's View:

    I met Nancy Lebold a number of years ago while speaking at a WinCo management retreat in Phoenix.  Then-CEO Steven Goddard took everybody to an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game one evening, and I got a chance to have an extended chat with her.  I remember turning to Michael Sansolo - we were doing a joint gig at the retreat  - and saying, "Wow.  She's going to be a CEO somewhere someday."

    I'm glad Nancy got the New Seasons leadership job … it says a lot about Neil Stern and his team that they're hiring that kind of talent, and New Seasons is one of those places that I love to shop when I'm spending extended time in Portland.

    I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

    Published on: April 16, 2021

    The Washington Post writes about how "department stores, once a middle-class mainstay of convenience and indulgence, had been spiraling downward long before the pandemic turbocharged online shopping and helped tip a number of big-name retailers into bankruptcy. Nearly 200 department stores have disappeared in the past year alone, and another 800 — or about half the country’s remaining mall-based locations — are expected to shutter by the end of 2025, according to commercial real estate firm Green Street Advisors.

    "Those closures, analysts say, will have a cascading effect on American shopping malls, which already are battling record-high vacancy rates and precipitous drops in foot traffic, as well as on the commercial real estate market and the broader economy."

    The story goes on:

    "The pandemic set off an economic chain reaction that rippled through the country’s department store chains, forcing several into Chapter 11 proceedings. Neiman Marcus, Stage Stores and J.C. Penney filed for bankruptcy last May, followed by Lord & Taylor and, most recently, Belk in February. Even companies on relatively stable footing, like Macy’s, are shuttering dozens of stores as they try to move away from traditional shopping malls. Overall sales at department stores plunged more than 40 percent at the beginning of the pandemic and have yet to make up for lost ground, according to Commerce Department data, as Americans do more of their shopping online and gravitate to specialty brands and discount chains."

    KC's View:

    A week ago, when I visited the new Roche Bros. store at Arsenal Yards in Watertown, Massachusetts, I felt like I was seeing one of the ways in which malls can be saved - the entire Arsenal Yards development essentially was a rethinking of a traditional enclosed mall.  The whole thing had been converted into a so-called lifestyle center, with mixed usage - there were office buildings, condos, restaurants, retail and a movie theater, and lots of green space.  Rather than shrink wrapped, it was exposed to the open air … and there was something refreshing about the experience.

    It'll be different for department stores, I think, especially the brands that don't have a real differentiated advantage, don't have a clear and distinct brand identity, and  have not adapted to an e-commerce world with the alacrity of others.  The sad reality may be that many of them have outlived their usefulness, at least in terms of their traditional construct.

    Published on: April 16, 2021

    From CNBC:

    "Retail sales boomed 9.8% higher in March thanks to a jump in spending at bars and restaurants as well as multiple other groups.

    "Economists already had been expecting a gain of 6.1% as consumers received their $1,400 government stimulus checks."

    At the same time, the story says, "A separate report showed first-time filings for unemployment insurance plunged, with the Labor Department reporting 576,000 new jobless claims for the week ended April 10. That was easily the lowest total since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and represented a sharp decline from the previous week’s total of 769,000."

    KC's View:

    Expect the next set of consumer confidence numbers to follow suit … as long as the pandemic somehow does not get out of control.

    Published on: April 16, 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 32,224,139 confirmed Covid-19 coronavirus cases, resulting in 578,993 deaths and 24,770,980 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 139,807,715 coronavirus cases, with 3,002302 resultant fatalities and 118,834,719 reported recoveries.   (Source.)

    •  The Washington Post reports that "at least 125.8 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the U.S.  This includes more than 78.5 million people who have been fully vaccinated … 255.4 million doses have been distributed."

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "a study by the University of Oxford found the risk of rare but sometimes-deadly blood clotting is roughly eight to 10 times greater in Covid-19 sufferers than in people who have received any of the first three Western-developed vaccines that are widely available—from Pfizer and BioNTech SE, Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca PLC.

    "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified about 5,800 cases of Covid-19 infection among the 66 million-plus Americans who have completed a full course of vaccination. That’s a rate of 0.009%, and in line with expectations, officials said."

    •  The New York Times reports that Albert Bourla, the CEO at Pfizer, said yesterday that " a third dose of the company’s Covid-19 vaccine would 'likely' be needed within a year of the initial two-dose inoculation — followed by annual vaccinations.  'There are vaccines like polio where one dose is enough, and there are vaccines like flu that you need every year,' he said.  'The Covid virus looks more like the influenza virus than the polio virus'."

    •  The Washington Post writes that "the coronavirus pandemic in the United States has turned into a patchwork of regional hotspots, with some states hammered by a surge of infections and hospitalizations even as others have seen the crisis begin to ease. The spring wave of the pandemic has driven hospitalizations above 47,000, the highest since March 4.

    "Thirty-eight states have reported an increase during the past week in the number of people hospitalized with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, according to a Washington Post analysis of data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services.

    "But the national statistics don’t capture the intensity of the coronavirus emergency in the hotspots. Michigan reported more than 10,000 new infections on Tuesday alone. The state on Wednesday reported an average of 46 deaths a day, up from 16 a month earlier."

    •  In New Orleans, a number of restaurants and bars are working with public health officials on a "shot for shots" promotion - people go to select establishments, get vaccinated, and then  are able to get a free shot of booze.

    Laissez le bon temps rouler.

    Published on: April 16, 2021

    •  The U.S. online grocery market finished March with $9.3 billion in sales, a return to January’s record spending levels, as over 69 million households placed an average of 2.8 online orders during the month, according to Brick Meets Click/Mercatus Grocery Shopping Survey fielded March 26-28, 2021. The 43% jump in sales, versus a year ago when sales were $6.5 billion, quantifies the disruptive impact of a pandemic that continues to alter the way people get their groceries.

    The study found that "69.3 million households placed one or more online orders during March 2021, compared to 74.5 million during the same period a year ago when stay-at-home orders and retail restrictions first went into effect.

    "While this represents a 7% decline in the monthly active user base, the decrease was entirely driven by fewer households making online grocery purchases that are shipped to the home via common or contract carriers. In fact, the ship-to-home segment of the online grocery market lost 27% of its monthly users on a year-over-year basis, while the pickup segment gained 12% and delivery gained 23%, illustrating one way the pandemic has changed the way people engage in online grocery shopping."

    Published on: April 16, 2021

    •  CNBC reports that Walmart is making an investment in General Motors' Cruise self-driving vehicle subsidiary, though the exact size of the investment has not been disclosed.

    The story says that Cruise now has a valuation of about $30 billion;  the Walmart investment is part of a new $2.75 billion funding round.

    “This investment is a marker for us – it shows our commitment to bringing the benefit of self-driving cars to our customers and business,” Walmart U.S. CEO John Furner said in a blog post.

    Walmart has been doing a test with Cruise for deliveries in Scottsdale, Arizona.  The company also said it will continue to work with other autonomous vehicle companies.

    •  Walmart announced that it will run a test with the  la Madeleine French Bakery & Café company, testing a la Madeleine Express concept in 10 stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth market.  The concept will have both a grab-and-go and sit-down functionality, as well as offer some of the brand's more popular items as packaged products for home consumption.

    Published on: April 16, 2021

    My FaceTime commentary yesterday was prompted by a New York Times story suggesting that some students who have been learning remotely may not in fact go back to the classroom - they've actually thrived in their new circumstances.  I said that this is a lesson to retailers - not all customers are served by the same kinds of stores, which is why format and channel diversification is so important.

    MNB reader Amy O’Neil wasn't buying the metaphor:

    The thought that school districts/states are considering not having kids go back into schools is terrifying to me as a career-long educator and trainer of retail workers. I absolutely agree that you have to teach (lead, market, etc.) people differently to be successful, but in this day and age, in-person social skills are also paramount to the growth of our next generation of workforce.

    It is already a challenge to have effective and respectful discourse when it is so easy for people to hide behind an anonymous user name, just send a chat message, or turn off the camera. This translates to what we see every day in the news when people are reactionary and turn to violence rather than use intellect to face an issue and work toward a solution. And, it also translates to the discussion from last week with John Grant about the violence and other challenges workers have faced during the pandemic in how to deal with both customers and employees during these times. I know this veers a bit away from the message of learning how to be essential to customers, but eventually, if you can’t learn to relate to people during your formative years, then you may not be able to do it in the workplace.

    One of the things I said yesterday was that I learned a lot from Mrs. Content Guy, who came to teaching as a second profession and who believed that you have to teach the student, not the subject.

    MNB reader Allen F. Wysocki responded:

    God bless your wife for her attitude and approach to teaching. We face the same “opportunities” in higher education and many of our faculty have discovered new ways of teaching and of reaching our students as a result of being forced to teach online as a result of Covid.

    We have long promoted the idea of encouraging our faculty to be mindful of the different learning styles of students and to adapt their teaching to them when possible. Covid has reminded us that some students can thrive in a remote teaching context. I am hopeful that our faculty will continue to evolve with our students as we continue to move beyond the traditional model of 120 credit hour degree programs and towards more micro-credentials, certificates, etc. to stay engaged with students as a life-long process.

    MNB reader George Denman (of Graeter's ice cream) had a comment on yesterday's Kroger CFC story:

    I had the opportunity two months ago to tour the new Monroe facility just 20 minutes from our home in Lebanon. Impressive work of technology and massive operation. I am not an engineer and cannot imagine the brain power required to develop this infrastructure but Kroger is all committed behind the investment. The key point that Rodney McMullen shared explains why Kroger is all in. “CFCs need to be seen as a part of a broader ecosystem - in which stores remain the lynchpin - that "will be able to serve customers however they want to be served."  

    Our company has significant distribution in both the Monroe and Groveland facilities. One of the Kroger friends and families associates shared that they ordered 4 pints of Graeter’s this week-end from the Monroe facility and it arrived in perfect condition along with (4) watermelons also ordered.

    I love the idea of Graeter’s being in the Groveland facility in FL. Think of all those Ohio, KY, and IN snowbirds spending their winters in FL can now find Cincinnati favorites like Graeter’s, UDF Homemade Ice Cream and SkyLine Chili products that they have grown to love. I just got back from FL vacation on the west coast of FL last week and it seemed nearly 50% of the guests at our Marriott were from OH or MI. This customer base now has a new way to shop groceries and have them delivered to their home or hotel. I’m in…..

    From another reader:

    I’ve been in the food industry for over 30 years and share a mutual passion for food, food retailing, and food preparation.  Our family members have fast adapted to, Amazon Prime, and Instacart as means of experiencing the ecommerce medium, and as practical fulfillment options in a pandemic environment.  As convenient as these options are, they are a far cry from the experiential aspect made by some of the best grocery retailers like; Wegmans, Stew Leonards, Dorothy Lane, and Marianos (pre acquisition).

    These retailers have been some of the most innovative, experiential, customer satisfying purveyors of culinary artistry that have ever curated customer meal solutions.  All I can say to the bots is “danger danger Will Robinson”.....may we never forget the service of the customer and the personal connection that a creative grocery merchant can deliver.  Sears Roebuck had a very interesting and efficient direct to consumer catalog program, a precursor to, that excited school age children every July/August (BTS) & October (Holiday) in the 1970’s........where are they today?

    I get your point, but I think there is a vast difference between Sears and Amazon … not least of which is that Amazon is steadfastly determined not to be Sears.

    MNB reader and Portland State University professor Tom Gillpatrick weighed in on some of our Amazon coverage:

    Is Amazon losing its way?  We talked in class, many students think of Amazon as the new Walmart......

    And regarding accusations that Amazon is bullying its vendors, one MNB reader wrote:

    Geez, I wonder where they learned that tactic.  Traditional retailers have been doing it for decades.

    Responding to our story about Walmart moving to a higher percentage of full-time store employees, one MNB reader wrote:

    It is a good move for Walmart for sure, but there are other factors involved in the decision as well.  The turnover rate of part time associates is extremely costly, and in some roles it is fairly high.  Training new associates, losing experienced associates, and building consistency in operations are also driving factors.  Operational challenges of running a SuperCenter is huge and having to constantly fill roles is time consuming and inefficient.  

    The interesting piece is with more full time associates, there will be higher benefit costs associated with it as they will be eligible for full benefits.  I am sure Walmart will not want to raise prices to the consumer to offset, so suppliers will be squeezed again.  The premise of Walmart being a low cost operator to suppliers is diminishing as charges and fines are increasing.

    Interesting times at the big W.

    From another reader:

    I think it is interesting that Walmart is reversing its position from years ago, that they were downgrading the positions to part time in order to “employ more associates”.  I always felt that this direction never enhanced empowerment of its employees.  I feel, it has always been, that an empowered associate is a powerful force for your business.

    They have a much greater knowledge of the company.  They have greater knowledge of products. They become empowered through pride in their workplace.  The food industry, as a whole, went in the direction of more part-time associates to save money.  Maybe now, they are realizing that the lost so much more.   I think this is a good direction for Walmart, as long as they can maintain or increase customer interaction, and truly provide a path to a future for its associates and not just a paycheck.

    And from another:

    When you compare the cost of 2 part timers to the cost of one full timer, it almost is equal.  But then when you include turnover of 20 % for full per year vs over 100% per year for part time, they are making a smart move.  Overall much better customer service and greatly reduced new hire training cost.  I will add that it is much harder decision in a unionized company that has full time scheduling restrictions. 

    On another subject, from another reader:

    Regarding your perception on the Taylor Swift situation 

    1. Big Machine is TS former managers company known as Scooter Braun

    2. TS never owned her masters she  negotiated them away to Scooter and he sold they were his 

    3. TS could have bought her masters but did not

    4. She even could have bought Big Machine but did not

    5. She could have exercised her termination rights under existing copyright laws she did not 

    6.This is only about licensing and who owns what

    7. TS still retains and received  all royalties on past albums 

    8.lets not forget litigation TS never sought litigation because she did not have a leg to stand on 

    Know your facts withhold your innuendos.  Stay in the grocery aisle where you won’t get your helmet dented.

    Been doing this 20 years.  My helmet has more than a few dents. I'm good with that.

    But you are still missing my point - and I went out of my way that I wasn't really commenting on business ethics in the music industry.  I was making the point that Taylor Swift has created a sense of solidarity with her fan base that seems to transcend that of many other artists, and has cultivated a stick-it-to-the-man image that appeals to many people.

    That's not innuendo.

    And finally, a note from an MNB reader about last week's review of The Father:

    I saw the trailer and was intrigued, certainly by your commentary about the acting. And Anthony Hopkins is certainly worth the visit.

    Now this was our first time going to the theatre since Covid so well over a year if not longer. I am a big fan of taking in a movie late Friday afternoons to end the work week and start the weekend so I surely missed going. Plus, I was totally surprised that the cost was just $5 per person??!! What a way for Harkin's to get their consumers back.

    I found the movie to be very intriguing and moving. The different phases of his life even had me confused about what was real or not. And the interaction of his daughter and caregivers was impressive too.

    Thanks for passing this very impactful movie along.

    My wife, of 38 years, was diagnosed with Dementia/Alzheimers nearly 4 years ago at 56 years old. We have had many tests and confirmed markers on her DNA confirm that. She is roughly stage 2, currently in a Clinical Trial which is very hopeful (phase 3 trial awaiting FDA approval - the first potential drug to actually improve cognitive capabilities by 6-10%). We have an incredible Neurologist who has been able to get her into these trials primarily because she is so young. I work from home so she is able to be around me in my office during the day as we both listen to the radio. If and when I travel, I have a daughter who lives 20 minutes away that can come and stay, so far it's working out but I might contemplate early retirement so that I can take care of her better (hence my association with Anne in the movie). 

    I am writing this so that you can understand how we had a very specific interpretation of the movie

    My heart goes out to you and your wife, and I cannot express enough my appreciation of your willingness to share.

    Published on: April 16, 2021

    I am a little perplexed about what to tell you about the Danish film, Another Round, which has been much praised by critics and within the film industry.  I found it to be fascinating, provocative … but to be honest, having read a lot about the film, I feel like in some ways I was watching another movie.

    Directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg (who has gotten an Oscar nomination for best director), Another Round focuses on a quartet of aging men, all teachers at a local high school, and all feeling that life has passed them by.  They're half-dead inside, finding virtually everything about their personal and professional lives to be stale.

    Then, they start discussing a theory by psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who suggested that people who are able to maintain blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent will be more creative, relaxed and fulfilled.  It is a theory they decide to test out, essentially working to maintain a light buzz from morning to night.  

    As one can imagine, in the beginning it works … work seems more fulfilling, teaching styles become more compelling, marriages become more romantic.  But, of course, it doesn't stay that way.

    The thing is, most of the reviews about Another Round seemed to emphasize its life affirming message, its portrait of men successfully recapturing some measure of youthful energy, and called it things like a "hymn to life."

    But I didn't see it that way.  As much as I admired the film, I found it to be profoundly depressing;  scenes that others described as being embracing and energetic I found to be desperate and sad.

    I'm not saying they're all wrong and I'm right.  Regardless of how you see it, Another Round is worth watching, with a fabulous performance by Mads Mikkelsen at its core.  I'll just be curious if anyone agrees with me.

    Minari is a film, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, that portrays what happens to a family of Korean immigrants that, in 1983, moves from California to Arkansas, where they have bought a small farm where they hope to grow Korean vegetables to sell to specialty markets.

    This is a film that shows a very American story … hard-working immigrants looking to capture a small share of the dream, which to them is a tangible benefit to being in America.  The performances are strong, the direction sure, but Minari, to my mind, fulfills expectations without exceeding them.  It is a modest piece of filmmaking, but it makes modesty a virtue.

    My wine of the week:  the 2015 Farmstrong Suisun Valley Field White, a blend of Grenache Blanc (41%), Albariño (35%), and Verdelho (24%) - it has a nice tropical balance to it, and it would be great with seafood.  Or, just while sitting outside enjoying the warning weather.

    That's it for this week.  I hope you have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

    Stay safe.  Be healthy.