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    Published on: July 28, 2021

    by Kevin Coupe

    Terrific piece from Bloomberg about a new and potentially disruptive business looking to upend how one industry does things.

    In this case, the death industry.

    Bloomberg writes that "with the arrival of Covid-19 in America, traditional funerals were suspended to reduce crowds and slow the virus. In response, mourners held services over streaming video or postponed them. That led to more cremations, which as a cheaper alternative to caskets and cemetery plots had been an increasingly common choice before the pandemic."

    But the greater number of cremations meant that people had to decide what to do with all those ashes.  Store them?  Scatter them?  And the fact is that a lot of people have horror stories about dealing with loved ones' ashes.

    “We don’t accept this type of poor experience in any other part of modern life, so why are we accepting it around what should be one of our most treasured possessions?” says entrepreneur Justin Crowe. “It shocked me that for all of the inspiring stories I heard about people’s lives, there were these really tragic stories about living with cremated remains.”

    And so, Crowe created a new company - Parting Stone, which for $695 will take your loved ones' ashes and turn them into smooth rocks in a variety of colors.  The number of stones depends on the size of the person and the volume of ashes. "Parting Stone’s lab reduces the ash to a fine powder and then adds water and binding material to make a claylike substance that’s molded into stone shapes," the story says.  "They’re then baked in a kiln that would be typically used for ceramics."

    The process takes about six weeks.

    Even better, for $345, Parting Stone will perform the same service for your pet's ashes.

    The company promises "100% individual batch processing" (that's reassuring), an "anytime money-back guarantee," and "step-by-step process tracking."    And if you're not satisfied, Parting Stone says it will turn the rocks back into ashes and return them to you.

    Bloomberg writes that "Parting Stone is part of a growing category in the nearly $16 billion funeral industry. It’s winning converts as religious observance and ties to traditional houses of worship experience a decadeslong decline. Americans seeking new forms of spirituality are looking for alternatives to celebrate the passing of their loved ones."

    Parting Stone has already raised almost $2 million in capital.

    I have to say that I love this idea … and I'm already forwarded the company's website to Mrs. Content Guy and my kids.  Maybe they could toss a few rocks into the ocean, or lay a couple on the edge of a nice Oregon vineyard.

    Or maybe they'll come up with some other Eye-Opening idea for how to deal with Dad's rocks.  (Insert your own joke here.  I'm sure they will.)

    Published on: July 28, 2021

    Walmart announced yesterday that it will begin offering all of its 1.5 million US employees college tuition reimbursement and free books, an investment worth close to $1 billion.

    According to the Washington Post, the move is "the latest effort by the country’s largest private employer to attract and retain workers in a tight labor market.

    "The retail giant said Tuesday that it will invest nearly $1 billion over the next five years in career training and development programs for workers who want to pursue majors in high-demand fields, such as business administration, supply chain and cybersecurity. The company had previously required its Walmart and Sam’s Club workforce to pay $1 a day to participate in the program."

    “We are creating a path of opportunity for our associates to grow their careers at Walmart,” Lorraine Stomski, the company’s senior vice president of learning and leadership.  “This investment is another way we can support our associates to pursue their passion and purpose while removing the barriers that too often keep adult working learners from obtaining degrees.”

    Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, points out to the Post that tuition reimbursement was "once a cornerstone of Corporate America" but has been "pared back in recent decades as companies looked for ways to cut costs."  He says that "as hiring becomes more competitive, large employers have begun offering such incentives in hopes of attracting motivated workers and getting them to stay longer."

    There is a difference, though.  

    “The companies that are doing this — Amazon, Starbucks, Walmart — are very concerned about their reputation in the labor market, and they have the resources to do something about it,” Cappelli says. “But these are not your father’s tuition reimbursement programs. They are far more targeted and self-interested than the traditional tuition reimbursement programs, where you can get them from any university and study whatever you want.”

    KC's View:

    First of all, kudos to Walmart.  Smart move, especially because this is the kind of thing that creates future leaders and innovators, which every company needs in order to continue to grow.

    I especially love the cybersecurity reference.  I've been thinking that considering the level of cybersecurity threat that we seem to be facing in the US, the federal government ought to fund its own cybersecurity training efforts - it would train people and offer them a path to continuing education in the field, but then would require that graduates work for a federal cyber task force for a period of 2-3 years (paid, of course) as a way of paying for their education.

    Published on: July 28, 2021

    The New York Times writes that "rapid grocery delivery is the next step in the wave of venture capital-subsidized luxury serving a generation used to ordering taxi services in minutes, vacationing in cheap villas through Airbnb and having ever more entertainment available on demand."

    One example - Getir, a Turkish company "that says it will deliver your groceries in 10 minutes.

    "The speed of Getir’s deliveries, from a network of neighborhood warehouses, matches the astonishing pace of the company’s recent expansion. After five and a half years pioneering the model in Turkey, it suddenly opened in six European countries this year, bought a rival and, by the end of 2021, expects to be in at least three American cities, including New York. In just six months, Getir raised nearly $1 billion to fuel this outburst."

    What's interesting is the clock is ticking - Getir has to expand fast because, well, it has to expand fast:  " In London alone, five new rapid grocery delivery companies have taken to the streets in the past year or so. Glovo, a six-year-old Spanish company that delivers restaurant meals as well as groceries, raised more than half a billion dollars in April, just a month after Gopuff, based in Philadelphia, raised $1.5 billion from investors, including SoftBank’s Vision Fund."

    It is all predicated on the notion that habits developed during the pandemic will have long-term traction.  "Shut at home for months on end during the pandemic, millions of people started using online grocery delivery," the Times writes.  "Delivery subscriptions for many things, including wine, coffee, flowers and pasta, surged. Investors have seized this moment and are backing companies that will bring you whatever you desire, not just soon, but within minutes, whether it be baby diapers, frozen pizza or a chilled bottle of champagne."

    To be fair, "The road to profitability has been elusive in the food delivery industry," the Times writes.  "But that hasn’t stopped venture capitalists from investing about $14 billion in online delivery grocery businesses since the start of 2020, according to data from PitchBook. This year alone, Getir has completed three funding rounds."

    KC's View:

    Ah, profitability.

    As Shakespeare might say, aye, there's the rub.

    Seems to me that as all of these companies ask themselves the or not to be, knowing that there is a time limit before a lack of profitability will force them to shuffle off this mortal coil, they must grunt and sweat under a weary life.  It must give them pause.

    In my opinion, it is all going to come down to one word:  consolidation.  

    If not, many of these companies and their investors may find themselves suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…

    Published on: July 28, 2021

    The New York Times has a piece about the annual American Time Use Survey, which "asks thousands of people to track every minute of a single day. Most years, the data reflects the ways in which changes in technology, society and the economy subtly shift how we spend our days. For 2020, it reflected the sudden rupture of daily life."

    According to the story, "The Labor Department, which oversees the survey, paused data collection in mid-March last year because of the coronavirus outbreak, and didn’t resume it until mid-May. That means the year’s data is missing the most intense period of lockdowns and business closings last year. But it offers a glimpse of how we adapted to a different way of living as the pandemic dragged on, when we were left to figure out how to shop, work, entertain ourselves and connect with others in brand new and perhaps enduring ways."

    The Survey looked at a lot of different behaviors, but here is the chart from the Times that was particularly interesting from an MNB point of view:

    What it tells us is that compared to 2019, in 2020 people 65+spent four more minutes a day cooking … people 45-64 spent six more minutes a day cooking … people 25-44 spent two more minutes a day cooking … and, perhaps most interesting, people 15-24 spent six minutes less cooking each day.

    Also remarkable - nobody is spending an hour a day cooking, and people in the youngest cohort are spending about 16 minutes a day preparing meals.

    Which doesn't seem like very much.

    KC's View:

    I am intrigued by this survey, largely because it varies so much from my experience.  There rarely is a day in normal times when I don't spend an hour cooking, and that time went up during the pandemic.  And if I don't, my 27-year-old daughter does.  Hell, I can spend 16 minutes just deciding what wine to have.

    But what I am trying to decide is whether this survey suggests that the food retailing business has done a good job, or a bad job.

    If one works on the premise that food retailers' role is reduce the time that people spend cooking, then the industry has been pretty successful, especially when it comes to prepared meals and the like.

    But I wonder if the industry's greater goal ought to be to help people find satisfaction, even solace, in the kitchen, to see it as a place of emotional, not just nutritional, nourishment.

    I suppose that's sort of an existential question, and, to be fair, the answer will vary, depending on the retailer and the customer;  it may even vary for the same customer, depending on the day of the week or even the time of day.

    The question stands, though:  Does this survey suggests that the food retailing business has done a good job, or a bad job?

    Published on: July 28, 2021

    Bloomberg Businessweek has a story about PopUp Republic, "which helps brands create and market temporary locations, estimates the pop-up retail industry has grown to $10 billion in U.S. sales across numerous categories from fashion to tech. Retailers such as Inc. and Nike Inc. have tried out temporary locations, and Macy’s Inc. a few years ago began opening pop-up marketplaces in its own department stores."

    The story notes that brands around the world are trying to be creative in how they employ the concept - "Gucci rented a Milan apartment to show off its home decor, Pantone served pastries and coffee from a cafe in Monaco, and Lego opened an art gallery in London."

    But, as some of these brand names suggest, the pop-up format can be expensive, because it involves "outfitting an entire storefront for just a few months, weeks, or days."  Or it can involve something even more elaborate (like the Gucci-outfitted apartment).

    One example of a recent effort was "Cuyana, a San Francisco-based premium fashion label, (which) is taking its traveling showroom on a summer road trip. The portable pop-up presents retailers and malls with a new way to sell goods, gather data, and try out locations without committing to a larger lease or paying repeatedly for major renovations. Just load the whole thing onto a truck and plop it down somewhere … In this case, the areas in question are shopping malls, which have struggled to find uses for idle square footage in an era of fewer visitors and higher vacancy rates. The pitch for mall operators is that they can take an area they’re not trying to rent long term—a few parking spaces, a courtyard, or an empty atrium—and make some money off it."

    KC's View:

    I tend to think of pop-up stores less literally than Bloomberg Businessweek does in this case, because I think they offer a thematic ideas about how more food retailers ought to approach business.  Rather than be locked into doing business traditional locations, why couldn't retailers - for example - use the pop-up store concept to allow shoppers to pick up holiday pre-orders from locations that are away from the store, and maybe even are in neighborhoods the retailer doesn't traditionally serve?  Why couldn't they use the pop-up concept to test out remote hubs for both pickup and delivery of all online orders?

    Or why couldn't a retailer use a pop-up to test a new format - maybe one that is fresh food-focused, with all center store-type products available online - without having to make a major investment in new real estate?  Or go the other way, and test a pop-up convenience store format?

    I would think of pop-up stores as another potential weapon in a quiver that can also include dark stores, ghost kitchens, and food trucks.  It isn't a bad idea to keep customers guessing, competitors off-balance, and employees engaged in something new that can create new opportunities.

    Published on: July 28, 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:  35,353,923 total cases … 627,351 deaths … and 29,571,434 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  196,005,941 total cases … 4,193,322 fatalities … and 177,690,407 reported recoveries.   (Source.)

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 66.6 percent of the US population age 12 and older has received at least one dose of vaccine, with 57.6 percent being fully vaccinated.

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that "vaccinated people resume masking in public indoor spaces in areas with high or substantial Covid-19 transmission as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads … The move marks a change from the top health protection agency's guidance in May that vaccinated people no longer needed to mask or physically distance in most indoor and outdoor settings.

    "Some public health experts had called on the CDC to revisit its mask guidelines for vaccinated people as cases have surged in some parts of the country and vaccinations slowed."

    Axios writes that "in another reversal, the CDC also recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools this incoming school year, regardless of vaccination status.

    CDC director Rochelle Walensky said yesterday that "I know at 18 months through this pandemic, not only are people tired, they’re frustrated. We have mental health challenges in this country. We have a lot of continued sickness and death in this country … I know in the context of all of that, it is not a welcomed piece of news that masking is going to be a part of people’s lives who have already been vaccinated."

    But, she said, "We’re just a few mutations away from it being able to evade our vaccines."

    In other words, we have to kill this thing now.

    I'm willing to take that seriously.

    Clearly, we spiked the ball way too early, with some people celebrating touchdowns that they never made, even if they never got on the field.  I'd like to say that it isn't the CDC's fault, that it had every reason to believe that the American people would rally around the vaccine as a way to get back to pre-pandemic lives.  But I can't say that, because I'm not sure there was any reason to think that.

    The Financial Times refers to the CDC's move as a "u-turn."  But I don't think that's correct.  It is more like a detour, because the road ahead is blocked by rubble.

    •  The New York Times reports that "as coronavirus cases resurge across the country, many inoculated Americans are losing patience with vaccine holdouts who, they say, are neglecting a civic duty or clinging to conspiracy theories and misinformation even as new patients arrive in emergency rooms and the nation renews mask advisories.

    "The country seemed to be exiting the pandemic; barely a month ago, a sense of celebration was palpable. Now many of the vaccinated fear for their unvaccinated children and worry that they are at risk themselves for breakthrough infections. Rising case rates are upending plans for school and workplace reopenings, and threatening another wave of infections that may overwhelm hospitals in many communities."

    Which is why, the Times points out, there is a rising sentiment "to support for more coercive measures. Scientists, business leaders and government officials are calling for vaccine mandates — if not by the federal government, then by local jurisdictions, schools, employers and businesses."

    You can totally count me as one of the people losing patience.  Virtually every person getting sick now and ending up in the hospital - stressing out our healthcare infrastructure and creating new doubts about the degree to which the economy can reopen - could have avoided it by being vaccinated.  But no, there are people who don't want to wear masks, nor do they want to get vaccinated, and they put the country's ability to enjoy an economic resurgence at risk.

    And yes, I take this personally.  I make part of my living - and get a large part of my enjoyment - from giving speeches.  That hasn't been a big business over the past 18 months.  If there's another resurgence, and parts of the economy have to be shut down - like conventions and meetings - that has real meaning to me.  And I'm not the only one.

    So count me in on coercive measures.  If you want to get on a plane or take any form of public transportation, you have to be vaccinated.  You want insurance coverage if you get sick from Covid, you have to be vaccinated.  You want your government benefits, you have to be vaccinated.  You want to work in any sort of healthcare, educational, government, or public facing job, you have to be vaccinated.  I love what the NFL did - they couldn't't mandate vaccinations among the players, but informed them that if a game has to be canceled because of Covid, everybody loses that week's pay.  (Talk about creating peer pressure.). And if some restaurant owner wants to offer a promotion saying that only non-vaccinated people can go there (I'm not making this up - it actually happened), let him - he'll eventually have to deal with the fact that he has a dwindling clientele.

    •  The San Francisco Chronicle reports that "the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, which includes more than 500 San Francisco bars, announced Monday a new policy requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a 72-hour negative COVID test for entry into their establishments. 

    "The policy will go into effect Thursday."

    According to the story, "The Bar Owner Alliance said in a statement that guests without a COVID vaccine or negative test are able to sit outside at parklets or other outdoor spaces but will not be allowed inside. Individual bars will decide the best way to enforce this new policy for their customers, the alliance said.  'This decision is based solely on our need to protect our workers, customers, and their families,' the statement reads. 'However, we hope it might also influence some who have not yet received vaccinations to do so as soon as they are able'."

    I think this last bit - the thing about protecting employees and customers - is the best way for retailers to position there requirements.  I know that enforcement for many companies is problematic, and I don't think retailers should be in the position to be mask/vaccine cops.  But I think the time has pretty much come when retailers should start asking customers to wear masks, and require employees to do so.  Most people will do the right thing, I think … we understand that sometimes the people who follow the rules have to overcompensate for people who do not.  (That's the curse of being responsible.)

    •  One industry that continues to feel the impact of the pandemic, and seems to be seeing any recovery hampered by the resurgence of the virus, is the movies theater business.

    Axios reports that "so far in June and most of July, with more than 80% of all theaters open, ticket sales are still about one-third of what they were on average during those months pre-pandemic."  While "a few early summer hits may have provided some much-needed enthusiasm at the box office," films like Black Widow and the Space Jam sequel disappointed in their second week performances, something that theater owners attributed to the fact that both films also were available for home streaming.

    Bu experts said that it seems likely that continued Covid-19 concerns, exacerbated by the Delta variant, are keeping people home.

    The thing is, what movie studios have to figure out is the economics of the streaming business … Black Widow seemed to do very well as a streamer (audiences had to pay extra to see it), and so this may force studios to reckon with budget sizes, compensation issues, and whether the pandemic has in fact exposed a structural weakness in the previous business model that they now have a chance to address.

    I said it almost from the beginning of the pandemic - businesses had to come out of the pandemic different than they went in, or they would have missed an opportunity to determine what their customers see as essential, and how they needed to reorganize around those determinations.

    Published on: July 28, 2021

    •  CNBC reports that Walmart its working with Adobe to sell small and medium-sized retailers buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) technology, including an easy way to add products to Walmart's third party marketplace platform.

    The idea, according to the story, is to mimic Amazon Web Services, which "is the profit center that powers much of Amazon’s other businesses."

    CNBC writes that "as of last December, Adobe and market researcher IDC estimated the total addressable market for content and commerce software as a service was worth around $44 billion."  In other words, it is an opportunity, and CEO Doug McMillon figures that Walmart ought to get a piece of it.

    Published on: July 28, 2021

    •  Reuters reports that "Electric car startup Rivian said on Friday it has closed a $2.5 billion fundraising round led by investors Inc,, Ford Motor Co., and T. Rowe Price.

    "The announcement came the day after the California-based company said it was exploring building a second U.S. assembly plant. Reuters, citing unnamed sources, reported on Thursday that Rivian's planned plant, dubbed 'Project Tera,' will include battery cell production."

    The Reuters story notes that "automakers are racing to develop EVs as China, Europe and other countries and regions mandate lower carbon emissions. Rivian aims to compete when it rolls out its R1T pickup and R1S SUV, as well as a delivery van for Amazon."

    Published on: July 28, 2021

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  The National Grocers Association (NGA) announced that Jimmy Wright, president of Wright’s Market in Opelika, Alabama, is the winner of this year's Clarence G. Adamy Great American Award, for his contributions in government relations.

    The presentation was made at this week's Alabama Grocers Association 2021 Convention, in Destin, Florida.

    Also honored by NGA at the convention was Alabama State Sen. Jabo Waggoner, who received the NGA Spirit of America Award, "for his commitment to the independent grocery industry."

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "the maker of Lysol has ridden a wave demand for its cleaning products since Covid-19 hit. Now Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC is grappling with a pandemic-recovery double whammy: slowing sales of disinfectants and rising cost inflation.

    "Reckitt posted record sales last year, boosted by demand for its products like Dettol soap and wipes that strained its ability to keep stores stocked. But with Covid-19 vaccines being rolled out across the world and restrictions easing, the company says those trends have started to moderate in recent months."

    Can't speak to the inflation issue, but when it comes to pandemic-related sales, maybe they shouldn't panic just yet.  That train may be coming around again…

    •  Starbucks announced that it "will sell the entire 50% stake it owns in its South Korean venture to local partner E-Mart Inc and Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC … E-Mart, which currently owns 50% of Starbucks Coffee Korea, will acquire an additional 17.5% interest, while GIC will own 32.5%, Starbucks said.

    "E-Mart said its additional stake will be worth 474 billion won ($411.89 million).

    "Starbucks said the deal in its fifth-largest market is expected to be completed over the next 90 days."

    E-Mart is the owner in the US of Good Food Holdings, which counts among its assets Bristol Farms, Metropolitan Markets, and New Seasons Markets.

    Published on: July 28, 2021

    •  Kroger announced yesterday that it has named Keith Shoemaker to be the new  president of its Dallas division.  Shoemaker has been VP of operations for the division since 2018.  He succeeds Adam Wampler, who passed away unexpectedly earlier this month.