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    Published on: May 7, 2021

    This morning, KC offers an example of a retailer that has proven its loyalty to its customers for more than four generations and recently saw all those efforts repaid in the extreme.

    Published on: May 7, 2021

    Walmart said yesterday that it is acquiring MeMD, described as "a multi-specialty telehealth provider," saying that the move will "allow Walmart Health to provide access to virtual care across the nation including Urgent, Behavioral, and Primary care, complementing our in-person Walmart Health centers. Our focus on consumer engagement, improved health outcomes, and early, equitable access remains the cornerstone of quality healthcare that can help lower overall healthcare costs across all populations."

    Terms of the deal, which requires regulatory approval, were not disclosed.

    "Telehealth offers a great opportunity to expand access and reach consumers where they are and complements our brick-and-mortar Walmart Health locations," Dr. Cheryl Pegus, Walmart's executive vice president of health and wellness, said in a prepared statement.

    The Wall Street Journal writes that "the strategy comes in response to Amazon's business model, according to people familiar with the situation. Amazon relies on profits from its cloud computing and advertising businesses to fend off competitors online with fast, but often less-profitable, home delivery of millions of products.

    "The MeMD deal opens another front in which Walmart and Amazon will compete, as Amazon recently announced plans to provide its telehealth service, Amazon Care, to its nearly one million U.S. employees by summer. Amazon Care, which now serves company workers in Washington state, will also be offered to other employers.

    "Just as Amazon leveraged its own data centers to create a new business selling cloud computing to customers as Amazon Web Services, both Amazon and Walmart are taking what they learn paying for the healthcare of their giant workforces to offer expansive healthcare services to their customers, helping them move into the huge and growing U.S. healthcare market."

    KC's View:

    Just another shot in what appears to be an ongoing escalation in the health care business, with a lot of players - not just Amazon and Walmart, but also CVS Walgreen and Rite Aid -  all taking up varying but essentially competing positions on the battlefield.

    So much of this is about connecting with the consumer in fundamental and even intimate ways, which will allow these companies to build on those connections … and profit from them.  The question is, who will have the most innovative solution, the most relevant business model?

    Published on: May 7, 2021

    From The Hill this morning:

    "The U.S. economy added 266,000 jobs in April and the unemployment rate rose to 6.1 percent, an unexpectedly poor showing falling well below expectations.

    "The less-than-expected showing exposed gaps in a recovery that some economists were worried would 'overheat' by recovering too quickly.

    "Economists were expecting roughly a million new jobs in the April report and a drop in the unemployment rate. Some firms had projected increases as high as 1.3 million.  Even March's blockbuster figure was revised downward by more than 15 percent, to 770,000 from 916,000."

    The Wall Street Journal writes that "surveys suggest why some can’t or won’t go back to work. Millions of adults say they aren’t working for fear of getting or spreading Covid-19. Businesses are reopening ahead of schools, leaving some parents without child care. Many people are receiving more in unemployment benefits than they would earn in the available jobs. Some who are out of work don’t have the skills needed for jobs that are available or are unwilling to switch to a new career."

    Adding to the mixed messaging … the Washington Post reports that "weekly jobless claims hit a fresh pandemic-era low for the fourth consecutive week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, with 498,000 Americans filing for initial unemployment benefits during the week that ended May 1.

    "That’s down 92,000 from the previous week’s upwardly revised level, a bigger drop than economists expected and the lowest figure since March 2020. The streak of declines, which started with a surprise drop in mid-April, suggests that the recovery is gaining traction, pulling scores of people back into the folds of the labor market as business restrictions continue to loosen and vaccination numbers climb."

    Published on: May 7, 2021

    Bloomberg Businessweek has an excerpt from the new book, "Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire," by Brad Stone, that looks at the Amazon founder-CEO's approach to dealing with tabloid reports about the dissolution of his marriage and relationship with a married former television host.

    An excerpt:

    "Once again, Bezos had come out on top. His navigation of the crisis had been typical of his idiosyncratic approach to building Amazon. He’d bypassed a largely skeptical media to appeal directly to regular people, only slightly bruising the facts in the process … The entrepreneur who’d already commandeered the business of selling books, then much of retail, plus cloud computing, Hollywood, home speakers, and so on now asserted dominance over that unlikeliest of sectors—the celebrity media game."

    The point of the Bloomberg Businessweek piece - which borders at times on the salacious - is Bezos' general approach to any situation.  When challenged, he doesn't back down;  his instinct was to go after the tabloids' management and ownership with a take-no-prisoners attitude.

    Which is worth noting if you're planning to compete with him or any of his businesses.

    You can read the play-by-play here.

    Published on: May 7, 2021

    The Wall Street Journal this morning has a piece about how "perhaps no group has pivoted more quickly and more visibly during the pandemic than the restaurant industry. City landscapes across the U.S. have changed: tables, chairs and plywood structures sitting where cars used to park, pedestrians sharing sidewalks with diners and space heaters, thermometer-wielding hosts working double-duty as health monitors."

    The story goes on:  "For many restaurant owners, pandemic-related labor shortages laid bare what was no longer working in an industry defined by its unrelenting work culture, and provided a window for experimentation. Many restaurants reopened post-lockdown with permanently revised pay structures and operations, as well as new standards to address burnout."

    Among the most prominent business model changes that are likely to persist even as the pandemic recedes are the selling of merchandise, such as meal kits, spices and packaged foods, and the 

    When indoor dining was curtailed, another source of revenue emerged in selling merchandise, including meal kits, spices and packaged foods, and the dedication of more physical space (including drive-through lanes) to the servicing of online orders - the feeling being that in both cases, such shifts allow restaurants to better broaden their offerings so that they can weather sometimes precipitous shifts in consumer behavior.

    KC's View:

    It also is worth noting that these business model adjustments make restaurants more competitive in their battle against traditional food stores, and better able to regain the share of the American stomach that they lost during the pandemic.

    There are other changes cited in the Journal article - such as the use of digital checks, the editing of menus, and the continued expansion of al fresco dining.  But the selling of fresh food and groceries, as well as the maximizing of restaurants' ability to cater to online customers, strike me as the kinds of moves that will allow many restaurants to regain momentum lost during the pandemic.

    Published on: May 7, 2021

    Toronto-based Longo's announced yesterday that it "has become the first grocery retailer in North America to commit to offering only Fairtrade bananas in their 36 stores and through delivery on Grocery Gateway. This is made possible through a partnership with the Canadian company, Equifruit."

    “We aim to be the most trusted and relied upon food partner, and that includes setting sustainability precedents,” said Mike Longo, Chief Merchandising Officer at Longo’s, in a prepared statement.  “We’re proud to be the first North American retailer to initiate what is becoming a global purchasing standard for bananas.”

    The commitment, Longo's said, means that the company "is ensuring that the farmers and communities where its bananas are sourced are guaranteed a fair and sustainable income and that farmers get financial and technical support to lower their impact on the environment. For Longo’s, a full commitment to Fairtrade bananas comes as the latest in a long line of sustainability initiatives centred around environmental stewardship, responsible sourcing, and healthy communities, including waste diversion, use of renewable energy, and community donations."

    KC's View:

    The consensus seems to be that selling only fair trade bananas is one way to assure ethical consistency in the supply chain … and it sounds like Longo's also has concluded that the move gives it a differential advantage.  Which is the very definition of a win-win.

    Published on: May 7, 2021

    The National Grocers Association (NGA) has announced the winners of this year's Creative Choice Awards Contest, which honors and recognizes the best marketing and merchandising programs in the grocery industry, with awardees slated to be recognized - live - at the NGA Show, scheduled for September 19 – 21, 2021 in Las Vegas.

    Here are the winners, by category: 

    •  Connections Through Social Media 

    1- 15 Store Winner: Eddie’s of Roland Park: Holiday Content 

    15+ Store Winner: ShopRite Essential Thanks  

    •  Connections Through Digital Marketing or Mobile 

    1- 15 Store Winner: Dorothy Lane Market: Virtual Wine/Culinary & More  

    15+ Store Winner: Lowe’s Market: Washing Machine 

    •  Traditional Media – TV, Radio and Print 

    1- 15 Store Winner: Newport Avenue Market “We Believe” 

    15+ Store Winner: Met Foods / Met Fresh Supermarkets: Como Tu 

    •  Grand Opening or Remodel 

    1- 15 Store Winner: Labonnes 

    15+ Store Winner: Brookshire Grocery Co.  

    •  Local, Specialty or Emerging Products 

    1- 15 Store Winner: LaBonnes LaBada Bing 

    15+ Store Winner: Associated Grocers of New England Corporate Stores: Brand Creation & Product Launch  

    •  Community Engagement 

    1- 15 Store Winner: Charley’s: Supporting the Best Restaurants in the World  

    15+ Store Winner: Coborn’s Operation Round-Up 

    •  Center Store/Frozen/GM/HBC 

    1- 15 Store Winner: Trig’s Make it Merry  

    15+ Store Winner: Family Fare: Explore Michigan 

    •  Fresh Departments 

    1- 15 Store Winner: Dorothy Lane Market Lobstermania   

    15+ Store Winner: Brookshire: Hatch Chile  

    •  Special Recognition 

    - Supermarket Superheroes Award, presented by Kellogg’s: ShopRite Essential Thanks  

    - Excellence in Agility Award, presented by Unilever: Coborn’s COVID-19 Campaign 

    NGA's sponsoring partners are Kellogg Company and Unilever.

    Published on: May 7, 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 US, we've now had 33,369,192 Covid-19 coronavirus cases, resulting in 594,006 deaths and 26,105,411 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 156,797,599 total coronavirus cases, with 3,272,244 resultant fatalities and 134,189,295 reported recoveries.   (Source.)

    •  Axios reports on a new analysis by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation concluding that "COVID has caused twice as many deaths around the world as have been reported … The U.S. has undercounted by over 300,000 deaths, according to the analysis. Death tolls in India and Mexico — second and third on IMHE's list — were found to be nearly three times the official numbers."

    The reason?  "Many deaths from COVID-19 go unreported because countries only report deaths that occur in hospitals or in patients with a confirmed infection," the study says.

    In addition, Axios writes, "Many countries have weak health reporting systems, and some - including Russia - have narrow definitions of what they call a COVID death."

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 57 percent of US adults 18 years of age or older have received at least one dose of vaccine, with 41.9 percent fully vaccinated.

    •  Fox News reports that "a new COVID-19 vaccine study out of Israel claims the Pfizer jabs are effective against variants, according to a new study published in a medical journal.

    "Two shots of Pfizer/BioNtech's vaccine delivered more than 95% protection from infection, severe illness and death, the Israel Ministry of Health reported in The Lancet."

    Published on: May 7, 2021

    •  Bloomberg reports that Amazon is delaying its Prime Day plans for Canada and India because of concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic.  The pause won't affect plans in the US, where Amazon is aiming for a June Prime Day promotion.

    Published on: May 7, 2021

    •  The GIANT Company said yesterday that it has begun working with TONE Networks, described as "an enterprise solution supporting the professional and personal development of female employees."

    The company said that GIANT will provide its team members access to TONE's "cutting-edge micro-learning platform. The content will be offered on The GIANT Company’s new learning and development platform, GIANT University, designed for team members to build their careers and grow through new opportunities."

    Published on: May 7, 2021

    We had a story the other day about Ikea taking back its used furniture in exchange for vouchers, prompting one MNB reader to write:

    What would happen if Ikea and Rent-a-Center put their models together……more stylish furniture that perhaps one could rent for their semester-long needs, and then do it all over again. Maybe?

    That's a very good idea.

    From MNB reader Clay Hoerauf:

    I think the buy back program is a fantastic idea…. Unless you have to put it back in the original box.

    Fair point.

    Regarding the dropping birth rate, one MNB reader wrote:

    Unintended consequence of social distancing ?????

    That'll be the case if the birth rate is down again this year.  Last year was something else.

    Another reader chimed in:

    Excellent point, fewer births, fewer consumers. This ties back to immigration debate. In 2000-2010 census, 50 % of USA births were to Hispanic households. I support a strong border, but the severe limitations on legal immigration stunt population and economic growth. We are already seeing certain industries like restaurant, construction, and manufacturing facing employee shortages. 

    Mouths plus money = opportunity.

    From another reader:

    Our family has numerous educators.  All of them have seen the decline in school enrollment over the years.  So, this is no new story.  The decrease in upcoming consumers has been trending for many years.  Couple that with an aging population and I predict we will continue to see the consumer pot get smaller.  Plus those full fat ice cream sales will decline too!

    At my age I can't do much about the birth rate.  But I'm happy to help out with the ice cream issue.

    On the subject of "professional shoppers" who I complained have been clogging up checkout lanes, an MNB reader the other day wrote:

    The family needed a few items for dinner on Sunday so I ran up to Target.  I have to say, I was almost hit by the Target online shopper with their ”specialized” red carts about 6 times.

    Which led another MNB reader to write:

    Kevin- no one “almost gets hit six times,” unless they’re looking for confrontation.

    Maybe not.  But I have no reason to doubt what this fellow is saying.

    From another reader:

    I have never been behind an Instacart shopper, so what am I missing?

    I do the bulk of my shopping at Wegmans and LOVE the app. I put the bags in my cart, bag as I go, weigh my produce, scan price, and, boom, all set. I wish they had a separate checkout for app users. Waiting for people who don’t know how to use self checkout is a pain. 

    We took note the other day of a Washington Post story about how mass shootings like the one at a King Soopers in Boulder, Colorado, have resulted in a supermarket workforce that feels under siege.

    I commented:

    Reading this story makes me think yet again that all of the emphasis that was placed on mandated hazard pay in some quarters was misplaced.  If you're worried about being caught in the kinds of mass shootings that have become all too common, and that the FBI has labeled as domestic terrorism, then a few bucks more per hour aren't going to make a difference, aren't going to assuage your anxieties.

    One MNB reader commented:

    Pay them more, and they will come.  Totally agree, just another misplaced attempt to provide a non-real solution.  This government direction says to me, If you get mugged, bombed, held at gun point, shot, knifed, or basically threatened in any way, let’s just pay you more and it will all be just fine.  Yeah, I don’t think so. 

    The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported the other day that Wegmans has no plans to bring back its self-serve hot and cold bars in their previous incarnations at any time soon, but instead will continue offering items previous sold from those installations in pre-packaged form.

    I commented:

    People I know who shop at Wegmans regularly have observed that the pandemic has not been kind to the retailer in terms of how it traditionally has presented itself.  Wegmans, to its great credit, always has had a kind of magic … and some folks say that it is like the retailer has been forbidden to do magic.  The stores are still big and efficient and effective, but I'm told that there is something missing.

    That said, I would imagine that Wegmans - more than almost any other retailer - will find a unique and innovative workaround.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    Agree, on a swing through Chapel Hill last week, visited  Wegmans and was overwhelmed by the dominance of Private label in the grocery sections.

    Our Raleigh friends stated that they visit Wegmans once per month, almost like a Whole Foods or Trader Joes, but do their regular weekly shop at Harris Teeter just to get their favorite brands.

    We had a complaint the other day about misspellings on the signs at New England's Market Basket stores., leading one MNB reader to respond:

    As a customer of MB going back to when Mike Demoulas was still running the show (and Lee Drug and stores named DeMoulas were things) I think DSM's somewhat insular culture is to blame for its idiosyncratic signage (and décor, and flyer design, and...) I think most customers accept this as the (very small) price to be paid for a shopping experience that places a premium on competitive pricing (albeit not as much as before the buyout) customer service and deeper assortment (SKU rationalization be damned!) Having said all that, I do look forward to the impending replacement of their archaic POS systems so my cashier won't have to ask me "debit or credit" every time I check out. Rejection of modernity only gets you so far...

    And regarding my concerns about what Ahold Delhaize is going to do with FreshDirect, one MNB reader wrote:

    Kevin, I agreed with you then and I still do on this subject.  I feel A/D is somewhat a ship without a rudder.  They are constantly changing and rearranging, in an attempt, to recover lost share and consumers. ie decentralization after centralizing.  With that leadership now taking the same mind set to this acquisition, I see that losing focus and connection.  Shame.  BTW, I hear A/D is going to re-centralize buying again.  We will see. Ever changing circles, never a straight line.

    Published on: May 7, 2021

    Without Remorse is Amazon's latest high-profile entry in the streaming wars, an adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel starring the estimable Michael B. Jordan.  All of which sounds great.  The only problem is that it is as flat an action movie as I can remember, almost to the point of being boring.

    And that takes some effort … which would've been better spent on a much stronger script.

    The premise is simple, and fairly typical.   Jordan plays John Kelly, a Navy SEAL who, after a hazardous mission in Aleppo during which he discovers that his team and he have been lied to my US government officials, is almost killed by assassins - who manage to successfully murder the other members of his team and his pregnant wife.

    From there, Without Remorse actually becomes a run of the mill revenge fantasy as Kelly recovers from his near-fatal wounds and solicits another CIA mission in the hope of being able to find his wife's killers.  There are twists and turns and double crosses, but not so much that one ever gets emotionally involved with any of them.

    Jordan is okay in the lead, as are actors like Jamie Bell and Guy Pearce as government bureaucrats who may or may not have honest motives.  The one standout is Jodie Turner-Smith as Lieutenant Commander Karen Greer - related to James Greer who makes many appearances in the Jack Ryan movies and TV shows - who brings grit and toughness to a role that requires - and gets - swagger.

    I really wanted to like Without Remorse.  Kelly - who later in his career became John Clark - has shown up in the person of Willem Dafoe in A Clear And Present Danger and Liev Schreiber in The Sum Of All Fears, and I really like what Amazon has done with the Jack Ryan series (which stars John Krasinski as Ryan, picking up where Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine ably went before), though I do think the first season was better than the second.  

    But maybe Without Remorse is hamstrung by a format that emphasizes action over character, but to be honest, that seems more a choice than a limitation.  I just wish they'd made different choices. Too bad.

    One thing - from all reports, Without Remorse has generated great numbers for Amazon Prime Video.  If they make another one - and the film suggests they will - it seems likely they'll make the same mistakes all over again.

    The novelists who have taken up the various series begun by the great Robert B. Parker at their worst have largely been able to create the literary equivalent of comfort food, and at their best have taken much-loved characters (Spenser, Jesse Stone, Sunny Randall) and given them new dimensions and fresh perspectives.  Either way, each new book is an opportunity to check in with old friends … and Mike Lupica's newest entry in the Sunny Randall series, "Robert B. Parker's Payback," is the third and perhaps the best of his contributions.

    "Payback" begins with Sunny's best friend, Spike, losing his bar to a hedge fund king who lent him money during the pandemic.  (One of the Lupica's smart moves is to place the book in a post-pandemic world … we see the fallout from Covid-19 without having it become a major character in the novel.)   Sunny pledges to find out why Spike was targeted, while at the same time she agrees to help a policeman friend locate a lost niece.  It isn't an entirely a surprise when the two cases intersect, and then the Russian mob gets involved, and, as Sherlock Holmes would've said, the game is afoot.

    One of the curiosities of the book is that so many people from Parker's larger universe keep showing up - Frank Belson, Lee Farrell, Tony Marcus, Rita Fiore, Jesse Stone … and even Susan Silverman, who is Sunny's shrink.  Everybody but Spenser … though his considerable presence can be felt throughout the novel, even in his absence.

    My wine of the week is an excellent French white - the 2019 Gaillac Perle from Nathalie Larroque, which has just enough bite to be excellent with spicy food.  It's terrific.

    That's it for this week.

    I hope you have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

    Stay safe.  Be healthy.