business news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB Archive Search

Please Note: Some MNB articles contain special formatting characters, and may cause your search to produce fewer results than expected.

    Published on: July 1, 2021

    For most of the past decade, I've spent my summers in Oregon, where I am an adjunct faculty member at Portland State University, team-teaching a retail-CPG marketing class with Tom Gillpatrick.  Not only did I teach, but I enjoyed the great advantages of the Pacific Northwest - biking, hiking, wine tasting, beer drinking, jogging, reading, attending the Portland Waterfront Blues festival, and enjoying some great food.

    Last summer, of course, that didn't happen. The pandemic got in the way.

    This summer, same thing.  PSU remains in remote learning mode.  (They go back to in-person classes in the fall.). So I'm staying put.  (Though I will be traveling some this summer, for some speaking gigs that, thankfully, are returning.)

    And starting as soon as I sign off this morning, I'm going to be taking the first of several short summer breaks … recharge a bit … get some fresh perspective … crack a couple of books … and who knows what else.

    I'll be back from this break on Monday, July 12.

    Between now and my return, the MNB archives will, of course, be open.

    Thanks…I hope you'll also get some time this summer to recharge your batteries.

    And, as always…

    Stay safe.  Be healthy.


    Published on: July 1, 2021

    The goal of "The Innovation Conversation" is to explore some facet of the fast-changing, technology-driven retail landscape and how it affects businesses and consumers. It is, we think, fertile territory ... and one that Tom Furphy - a former Amazon executive, the originator of Amazon Fresh, and currently CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners (CEP), a venture capital and venture development firm in Seattle, WA, that works with many top retailers and manufacturers - is uniquely positioned to address.

    Tom & KC consider a number of different Amazon-related stories that have broken this week, including the Wall Street Journal piece revealing that Amazon is making the ability to acquire stock warrants at a discount a condition of doing business with some companies, and the Bloomberg piece about how algorithms are responsible for evaluating and sometimes firing Amazon employees.  The optics may be terrible, especially at this time, but Tom and KC dig deeper to understand Amazon's motivations.

    If you're interested in listening to an audio version this Innovation Conversation, you can do so here (or can download this file):

    Published on: July 1, 2021

    Amazon yesterday filed a motion with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), arguing that its new chair, Lina Khan, would recuse herself from any investigations and decisions concerning the company.

    The reason? "Khan rose to prominence with a law review article about the antitrust issues posed by Amazon, and her appointment as chair of the agency was cheered by Big Tech critics who want to see the government rein in the companies, Axios writes, adding, "In a 25-page recusal motion filed Wednesday, Amazon highlighted Khan's previous work for antitrust advocacy group Open Markets Institute, her academic paper 'Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox' and her work on the House Judiciary Committee's digital markets investigation."

    In the petition, Amazon wrote, ""Although Amazon profoundly disagrees with Chair Khan’s conclusions about the company, it does not dispute her right to have spoken provocatively and at great length about it in her prior roles … But given her long track record of detailed pronouncements about Amazon, and her repeated proclamations that Amazon has violated the antitrust laws, a reasonable observer would conclude that she no longer can consider the company’s antitrust defenses with an open mind."

    The FTC has not responded to the recusal filing.

    KC's View:

    This is one of the subjects that Tom Furphy and I discuss in our Innovation Conversation this morning, but let me just suggest that Amazon doesn't really want a person on the FTC with an open mind.  It just wants a closed-minded person who will agree with Amazon.

    That said, I'll be surprised if Khan recuses herself - every person named to organizations like the FTC has an opinion about the subject with which that entity concerns itself.  If we asked all of them to recuse themselves, we've have know-nothings running the government, and I think we have the right to expect a modicum of competence.  You may disagree with Khan's point of view, but she's nothing if not competent.

    Published on: July 1, 2021

    Ahold Delhaize-owned Hannaford Supermarkets announced the other day that it will "demonstrate its commitment to diversity by making it easier for associates to publicly express their gender identify through the option to add a preferred pronoun to their name tags, email signatures and other collateral."

    The program, introduced during Pride Month, "arose from conversations with both associates and customers and via feedback from an associate engagement survey," the company said.  "The survey’s findings showed that gender identity is an important aspect of one’s lived experience and that recognizing and honoring gender identity is important to creating and nurturing safe and inclusive environments."

    Hannaford added that "in addition to providing an outlet for associates to voluntarily express their gender identity, the name tags offer an opportunity for allies to show their support of the LGBTQ+ community. Associates will also have the option to add their veteran status or spoken languages to their name badges. Resources will be available to associates to help them understand more about gender identity and expression."

    “Our world is changing,” said Hannaford Supermarkets President Mike Vail in a prepared statement.  “More and more, transgender and gender diverse people are having the courage to be themselves and share their identity. They are able to do so, in part, because of the safe spaces in which they live and work and from the support they receive from the people around them. I want Hannaford to be one of those safe spaces, and I am proud of our gender diverse associates and the bravery they demonstrate to live their fullest lives."

    KC's View:

    Good for Hannaford and Mike Vail for taking such an inclusive approach to diversity.

    We live in a world where, in some cases, the powers that be try to take the microphone - both literally and figuratively - out of the hands of people who want to be clear about who they are and why they should be respected.  Such efforts often backfire, as these so-called people of authority find that the world is a more tolerant place than they realized, and their myopia and biases get exposed (often on social media, often to millions).

    "I want Hannaford to be one of those safe spaces."   If I were one of these folks, or the parent of one of these folks, Mike Vail's words would make me feel a lot better about a world that can be heart-breakingly, soul-crushingly hard.

    Published on: July 1, 2021

    AdWeek reports that Walmart is releasing 11 "shoppable episodes" of an interactive cooking series produced by Kraft Heinz on its Walmart Cookshop platform.

    "Two installments of the food giant’s sponsored series, 'Tasty Toast,' by Philadelphia Cream Cheese and 'Summer Refreshers' by Country Time and Kool-Aid, are available as of June 29. Kraft cheese and Heinz condiments will make their debut later in the series.

    "In each episode, shoppers are prompted with a series of choices, like 'Tangy Country Time lemonade or Tropical Kool Aid?' which are followed by short, step-by-step recipe clips. Kraft Heinz will roll out other virtual food experiences throughout the year, including a 'Sandwich Shop' and seasonal holiday food guides.

    KC's View:

    Considering that CookShop isn't that old, I must admit that the site seems reasonably robust, and the celebrities involved - Jamie Oliver, Sofia Vergara and Patty LaBelle among them - add a veneer of show biz to the proceedings.

    The interesting thing will be to see the degree to which Walmart can convert the audience into shoppers - if I watch La Belle's recipe for peach cobbler, for example, are there ways that it can use that information to sell me something, whether online or in-store?

    I'm not saying they should abuse my good nature.  But they good create an. opt-in feature that gives them permission to sell to me in categories where I have a demonstrated interest.

    Published on: July 1, 2021

    Variety reports that "streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon and Disney Plus, will soon have to invest between 20%-25% of their French revenues in French content under a new decree that was just unveiled by the French government following an 18-month process."

    This, apparently, is just the beginning.

    "The French decree is a stepping stone in the implementation of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMS), a legislation put forth by the European Commission to place streaming giants on an even playing field with existing players across Europe," Variety writes.  "France is the first country to have set new rules and regulations as part of the AVMS and other countries within the E.U. are expected to follow course."

    KC's View:

    I always wonder why such laws will apply to streaming companies, and yet they don't decree (at least, not yet) that foreign retailers such as Walmart or Amazon need to sell a certain percentage of French goods in their France-based operations.

    The idea that this mentality is likely to spread to the entire European union is, I would imagine, a little scary to some of these companies.

    Published on: July 1, 2021

    The New York Times has a piece about how Target opened a store in Mondawmin, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Baltimore, opening to jump-start a turnaround in an area struggling with poverty and crime.  But a decade later, it closed the store, and "a marker of the community’s self-worth was suddenly taken away."

    The Times writes:

    "Many national retailers have faced criticism in the past for failing to open in Black and poor communities, creating food deserts or a lack of access to quality goods. In Mondawmin, Target invested in a struggling area, but the outcome was almost more disheartening: The company ultimately decided that, despite its social goals, the store wasn’t financially successful enough to keep open.

    "The closing is a sobering reminder of the realities of capitalism in a moment when corporations are making promises to support Black Americans, saying their commitment to racial equity is stronger than ever."

    You can read the piece here.

    Published on: July 1, 2021

    •  The Associated Press reports that " Amazon said Wednesday that its carbon footprint grew 19% last year as it rushed to deliver a surge of online orders during the pandemic," though "the amount of carbon it emitted for every dollar spent on the site fell 16% in 2020."

    According to the story, "The online shopping behemoth said activities tied to its businesses emitted 60.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year — the equivalent of burning through 140 million barrels of oil. Amazon’s carbon footprint has risen every year since 2018, when it first disclosed its carbon footprint after employees pressured it to do so … the increase in its total carbon footprint shows how hard it is for a fast-growing company like Amazon to cut down on pollution."

    Published on: July 1, 2021

    •  The New York Times this morning reports that "Gap will close all its 81 stores in Britain and Ireland by the end of September as it increases its focus on online shopping … The retailer also plans to shed its 32 locations in France and Italy."

    The story notes that Gap said last October "that it would close 30 percent, or 350, of its Gap and Banana Republic stores in North America by January 2024 as it tries to reduce its exposure to declining indoor malls. Gap also plans to focus on its Old Navy and Athleta brands, hoping to open at least 50 more of locations by the end of the year.

    "Only about 17 percent of the company’s overall sales came from indoor malls in the first three months of this year."

    Published on: July 1, 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…

    •  Here are the US Covid-19 coronavirus numbers:  34,540,845 total cases … 620,249 deaths … and 29,026,688 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  183,054,755 total cases … 3,964,501 fatalities … and 167,613,108 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 54.4 percent of the total US population has received at least one dose of vaccine, while 46.7 percent has been totally vaccinated;  66.5 percent of the US population age 18 and older has gotten at least one vaccine, while 57.4 percent of that group is fully vaccinated.

    •  The Wall Street Journal this morning writes that "people who became infected with Covid-19 after getting a messenger RNA vaccine carried less virus and had shorter cases than unvaccinated people who became infected, a study by government health researchers found.

    "Sixteen people in the study who got infected, despite taking a Pfizer Inc. or Moderna Inc. vaccine, had on average 40% less virus in their nose compared with the 155 unvaccinated people who became sick, according to the study, published online Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

    "The vaccinated individuals also had a 66% lower risk of having detectable virus for more than one week, and they had a shorter duration of illness, with about two fewer days spent in bed, the study said.

    "The findings provide further evidence supporting what health authorities promoting vaccinations have been saying for months: While getting vaccinated can’t prevent all cases, the relative few that develop tend to be milder."

    Published on: July 1, 2021

    Got the following email from MNB reader Steve Ritchey:

    The column about Amazon using computer algorithms for HR functions made me think of a couple of things I've been exposed to over the years.

    Decades ago as a very  young college student, in my Economics 101 class which was Macro Economics, the Professor, Dr. Shorow was talking about unemployment rates and how at that time unemployment of 5% was considered healthy for an economy as it was considered to be cyclical unemployment with people who are simply between jobs, moving from one to another rather than truly unemployed and frantically looking for another job.  He admonished us, saying, "It's easy to look at these statistics and forget something crucial , behind these relatively low and seemingly healthy percentages are people who are out of work, frequently through no fault of their own.  They aren''t statistics, they are people who need a job and frequently need one badly, don't ever forget that."

    The second one is a rant done by George Carlin many years ago.  He was on a rant about language and how frequently it becomes softer so hide the pain and suffering beneath seemingly benign terms.  He used the WWI condition, Shell Shock as an example, he traced how it morphed from that to "Battle Fatigue", to "Operational Exhaustion"  and by the time of the Vietnam Way, it was known as "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder", and all the humanity had been squeezed out of it.

    I believe Amazon, in it's zeal to be profitable and to be the worlds largest retailer may be heading down that slippery slope to where the humanity has all been removed from the equation.  I've already worked for several employers where I was a number, and expense to be written off the books when it became convenient to do so, I wasn't considered an asset, but a liability and a cost.

    On the same subject, MNB reader Monte Stowell wrote:

    "Star Trek" was one of the best TV shows of all time, especially the shows that highlighted The Borg - "Resistance is futile."

    Fast forward to today, the modern version of The Borg is Amazon. Is resistance futile today in trying to do business with Amazon? It sure looks that way.

    I've always argued that Amazon is either the Federation of the Borg - it all depends on where (or on what planet) you are sitting.

    Yesterday we took note of a Wall Street Journal report that when product and service suppliers want to do business with Amazon, the retailing giant often has a condition for making a deal - those companies have to be willing to allow Amazon to "buy big stakes in their companies at potentially steep discounts to market value."

    One of the companies that made such a deal - food wholesaler SpartanNash.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    I would have thought that someone at SpartanNash (or, at least, NashFinch) would have recalled how things worked out for them when they started out as the grocery supplier for Target in its early days of selling groceries until Target built out its system to the point where they could self-distribute…..wonder if this is heading down the same path with Amazon?  

    Another reader made an interesting point:

    I find it interesting that SpartanNash after years of demanding slotting allowances from their suppliers now has to pay what is essentially a slotting allowance to Amazon.  What goes around comes around.   I love it!

    From still another reader:

    A Jack Nicholson movie quote comes to mind:  “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

    Extra credit for a movie reference I wouldn't have thought of.

    I did a FaceTime yesterday about how Amazon has engineered a frictionless approach to returning items bought from Whole Foods - you just go on the app, say you didn't want it, and they refund your money without you having to even go back to the store to return it.

    One MNB reader wrote:

    Doesn’t amazon charge back the supplier of the brioche?  That’s my experience on their return policy.  Another example of Amazon leverage on the supplier.  Fortunately, the return amount is small most of the time and just absorbed by the supplier.

    Here's the deal - the consumer doesn't give a damn who pays for it.  What's important is that the consumer didn't.

    And, from another reader:

    Or you can do what Walmart did to us recently.  My wife bought some refrigerated packaged fish.  She found out when she got it home that the package was torn open already.  The next time I was there, I had some reading glasses to return, and I told them about the fish.  I reminded them that this is Texas in June, and there was no way I was putting an open package of fish in my car to return to the store.  They refused to refund my money, even though they clearly would not be able to resell the item.  They told me they needed the item so they could return it to their supplier.  For $4.74, they could have made a customer happy but chose not to.

    Published on: July 1, 2021

    "Bosch," the Amazon Prime Video streaming series based on the Michael Connelly novels, returned with its seventh and (sort of) final season last Friday, and I'm happy to tell you that the eight episodes are as strong as any that have come before it, giving "Bosch" an excellent and fitting send-off.

    Those of you who have watched the series or read the novels know that Harry Bosch - played to gritty, tortured perfection by Titus Welliver - is a longtime Los Angeles police detective who takes the notion of justice very seriously;  his creed is summed up in one line - "Everybody counts, or nobody counts."  In books and on television, Bosch has fought an often frustrating battle against bureaucracy, politics, and the conflicting priorities of a world that does not share his passion for justice and underdogs.

    One of the real pleasures of the final episodes is that we watch Bosch take a path that has ben pretty much preordained since the first season (and that those of us who have read the books knew was coming).  It was never going to end well, as he tries to solve the murder of a young girl whose fate seems irrelevant to the powers that be and comes into conflict with, well, almost everybody.

    One of the pleasures of the series, I must say, has been the shadings that Welliver has been able to give Bosch.  I was reminded of this during the seventh episodes, when Bosch is by himself at home (still one of the great locations for any detective series, ever).  In the show's early days, he would've just been alone, but now, having evolved over seven seasons and been influenced by the relationship with his daughter, Maddie (the excellent Madison Lintz), he seems lonely in a way that never would've seemed possible before.

    When I said that this is "sort of" the last season of "Bosch," it's because Harry and Maddie and attorney Honey "Money" Chandler will be on a new series based on later Connelly books that will be on IMDB at some point in the future.  Same production team, same writers, and Connelly will continue to help guide his creation.  So there's something to look forward to.

    "Bosch" has always struck me as the very model for how to adapt a book series for film and television - taking the source material seriously while understanding that film and television are visual media that require different approaches, and so a religious adherence to the original incarnation does not make sense.

    This trailer debuted yesterday, for an upcoming movie called The Many Saints of Newark, which is a prequel to the groundbreaking HBO series, "The Sopranos."  If the young fellow playing Tony Soprano, circa the late sixties, looks familiar, it is because Michael Gandolfini is the late, great James Gandolfini's son.  Written by series creator David Chase, this just looks great.  And at the end, I got chills.