retail 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: December 7, 2021

    by Michael Sansolo

    Ignorance may be bliss, but when it comes to business it’s the essential ingredient in making embarrassing mistakes.

    NBC News recently reported on the kind of ignorant and embarrassing mistake made in some product marketing from retailers Bed, Bath and Beyond, and Party City for the current holiday season.

    The network’s story focused on a number of items marketed for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah that all incorrectly borrowed phrases and connections to a very different holiday, Passover. The mistake wasn’t quite at the level as the famous merchandising of Hanukkah hams - a very non-kosher item - found in a store some years back.

    But the fact that the error was not as egregious is hardly something in which anyone should take pride. However, it does pack a powerful lesson.

    If you have a chance, go back to Friday’s MNB and spend a few minutes watching Kevin’s Facetime video on the problem of epistemic closure and how we all get caught in our own knowledge bubbles. It’s a great reminder that we can only know what we know and we all have to recognize that there’s a lot we don’t know.

    For instance, the Hanukkah-Passover marketing goof found by NBC News could have been easily avoided if the company had simply talked to one - one! - Jewish employee or found another resource on the holiday. In fact, that’s a simple solution to avoid many potential pitfalls in our increasingly diverse society.

    It all starts by recognizing and admitting that none of us knows everything and that frequently we don’t even know what we don’t know. But increasingly, we need to escape our own knowledge bubbles to better appeal to shoppers and staffers.

    Consider the increasing diversity - in every way - of the work force. It’s easily arguable that today’s labor pool is more diverse than ever in terms of ethnicity or racial make-up and certainly in terms of generations. The realities that shape the lives of Gen Z, today’s older teens or younger adults, are quite different than the experiences of their Boomer or even Gen X bosses. 

    The best way to escape your knowledge bubble is to start by listening and even asking questions. At a time when labor is in such short supply, it makes more sense than ever to talk with (and yes, it might be annoying) with young workers. You might well disagree with their attitudes or their desire for incredible flexibility on the job, but if you want to be an employer of choice you need to at least address those issues.

    Recognize that more than ever you are competing with employers (think Uber or Lyft) who trumpet the flexibility of their jobs, something very compatible with a population of gig workers.

    Demanding that young workers suffer the same indignities you faced as a young worker might seem like poetic justice to you, but it’s also a sure fire way to send those same workers scurrying for the exits. And remember, there are plenty of other jobs for them to consider these days.

    Avoid being tone deaf on marketing, services or employee guidelines by engaging with people different than you and learning about their realities. At a minimum you can easily avoid silly mistakes such as building products for the wrong holidays or the wrong populations.

    At best it may make you a more desired place to work and shop - talk about a holiday gift!

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com.

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

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

    Published on: December 7, 2021

    There is a moment coming, KC argues, when retailers have to get more aggressive about nurturing and curating their customer information and then aggressively acting on it.  The reason?  Legislative and regulatory pressures likely will slow or turn off the spigot on information that can be culled from social media.

    Published on: December 7, 2021

    by Kevin Coupe

    Here's a story from CNN that is an Eye-Opener for all the wrong reasons:

    "Better.com CEO Vishal Garg announced the mortgage company is laying off about 9% of its workforce on a Zoom webinar Wednesday abruptly informing the more than 900 employees on the call they were being terminated just before the holidays.

    "'If you're on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off,' Garg said on the call, a recording of which was viewed by CNN Business. 'Your employment here is terminated effective immediately.'

    "He then said employees could expect an email from HR detailing benefits and severance … Garg cited market efficiency, performance and productivity as the reason behind the firings. Fortune later reported Garg accused the employees of 'stealing' from their colleagues and customers by being unproductive and only working two hours a day.

    "'This is the second time in my career I'm doing this and I do not want to do this. The last time I did it, I cried,' Garg said on the call, which remained short and emotionless.

    "Among those fired were the diversity, equity and inclusion recruiting team."

    The story also notes that "Garg has been involved in controversy before, as evidenced by an email he sent to staff that was obtained by Forbes.  'You are TOO DAMN SLOW. You are a bunch of DUMB DOLPHINS... SO STOP IT. STOP IT. STOP IT RIGHT NOW. YOU ARE EMBARRASSING ME,' he wrote."

    Wow.

    I'm trying to figure out how to characterize someone who would behave in such a way.

    I know that business leaders sometimes have to make hard choices.  But based on this reporting, in some ways it seems to me that the people laid off may be the lucky ones.  For one thing, there are a lot of jobs out there right now, and it is a seller's market.  So they'll find something.

    Besides, to use a word I think I've only used once or twice in 20 years of writing MNB, and only in cases where it seemed necessary to express a level of contempt and disgust … this guy seems like a complete asshole.

    Published on: December 7, 2021

    TechCrunch reports that "DoorDash announced today that it’s introducing 'ultra-fast' deliveries in 10-15 minutes beginning with a single DashMart location in New York City. To start, ultra-fast deliveries will be offered from a new location in Chelsea, with more locations and partners coming over the next few months in New York and elsewhere … To ensure the 15-minute delivery time, these ultra-fast deliveries are limited to a smaller radius from the DashMart location, which reduces the courier’s commute and ensures they’ll be traveling familiar routes. Their e-bikes will be capped at speeds of 20 mph, DoorDash says.

    In addition, the story says, DoorDash is "beginning to test a new model of employment which relies on full-time employees, not gig workers, to handle these new deliveries."  TechCrunch writes that "DashCorps, a newly created DoorDash company, will employ courier employees who will work regular schedules and report to a manager. The employees will be paid an hourly wage starting at $15 per hour plus tips and will be offered other full-time benefits like medical, dental and vision insurance, Employee Assistance Programs, Flexible Spending Accounts and commuter benefits, among other things."

    The New York Post story notes that "the Chelsea Dashmart will be open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. and will be wholly operated and owned by Doordash."

    And, the Post writes, this move represents an effort by DoorDash to catch up with the likes of Uber Eats and Grubhub and Postmates, all of which have a larger footprint in New York City.

    KC's View:

    I like the idea that DoorDash is taking greater ownership over the experience it provides, to the extent that it is offering this ultra-fast service out of its own store, not those of its retail clients, and even employing its own people to make deliveries.  But in making these moves, DoorDash also seems to be positioning itself to disintermediate those very same retail clients.  Maybe many of the bodegas with which it does business have little choice but to use the likes of DoorDash, but this construct does have the potential to undermine whatever customer relationships they may have.  And the larger issue that retailers outside NYC need to consider is whether this is just a test run for moves that DoorDash plans to make elsewhere in the country.  MNB readers won't be surprised that I think the answer to that question is yes, and that this approach will be undertaken by other businesses, such as Instacart.

    One other thing.  Ten-to-15 minutes continues to strike me as an often impossible, defy-the-laws-of-physics value proposition.  E-bikes equipped to go 20 miles an hour won't help if the traffic is going five miles an hour, when pedestrians are jaywalking (which we all do in NYC), and in the organized chaos that often characterizes Manhattan traffic.

    Here's the bigger question that I would ask retailers to consider:  Is speed too often seen as the same thing as reducing friction in the shopping experience?  I would argue that they are not the same, and that retailers ought to be focusing more on the latter.

    Published on: December 7, 2021

    Bloomberg has a piece about how, while it has been four years since the opening of the first Amazon Go checkout-free store, " the e-commerce behemoth is a long way from conquering Main Street.

    "But a strategy is gradually emerging that could make Jeff Bezos & Co. a deluge of profit from the concept without opening a single store more.

    "That’s because selling groceries isn’t a great business these days. Selling software, however, often is.

    "The tech is pretty nifty. Shoppers fill their baskets and then, tracked by computer vision technology, simply leave without needing to check out. The cost is debited from their accounts automatically … Amazon seemed to be drawing a new line of battle with brick-and-mortar retailers. But there are still only some 30 Amazon Go locations in the U.S. and the U.K.

    "Back in 2018, admittedly pre-pandemic, Bloomberg News reported that the company was considering a plan to open as many as 3,000 cashierless stores by 2021.

    "Bezos and his lieutenants now seem to be gearing up for a different fight entirely: to control the operating system for the world’s shops.

    "This year, Amazon has signed a flurry of deals to provide its so-called Just Walk Out technology to other stores. Last month, Starbucks Corp. opened a cafe in New York that uses the system, the same week Bloomberg News reported that Britain’s J Sainsbury Plc was deploying it at a trial store in London. Dufry AG is using it at Hudson-branded convenience stores at airports in Dallas and Chicago."

    KC's View:

    You can be on the throne.  Or you can be the power behind the throne.

    The Bloomberg story makes the point that the economics of a checkout-free store have changed.  Dramatically.  

    These stores used to cost $4 million a year to run just four years ago.  Now, they cost as little as $159,000 a year to run.

    At a time when retailers are trying to deal with labor shortages and reduce friction, embracing the Amazon Go model - or one of its competitors, which are out there - makes a lot of sense.  Though I'd be very careful about access to customer data;  there have to be firewalls that protect the retailers' most important asset.

    Published on: December 7, 2021

    The Los Angeles Times reports on an "accelerating campaign by giant technology platforms to use small-business owners to lobby against a series of antitrust bills aimed at Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Amazon.com Inc., Facebook and Apple Inc.

    "To build a chorus of popular opposition to this legislation, Google posted alarming alerts to the millions of marketers and business owners who use the company’s tool for buying ads and promoting themselves in search. A message at the top of Google’s online dashboards now warns these customers that 'proposed legislation could make it harder to find your business online'."

    However, the Times writes, "a network of anti-monopoly and civil society groups are also using small businesses to make the exact opposite claim — that Big Tech preys on the little guys and makes it impossible for them to operate without relying on internet monopolies."

    The Times notes that "the competing pitches featuring small-business owners have played out over the last year in virtual roundtables and Zoom calls with congressional staff, according to tech lobbyists and antitrust advocates. Tech giants and their industry groups are asking lawmakers to take more time to study the unintended consequences of bills that would force covered platforms to change how they present products to consumers and interact with competitors."

    KC's View:

    It is possible for two things to be true at the same time.  Big tech companies do have the ability to provide small businesses and vendors access to an enormous pool of customers, but at the same time, it can erode those small companies' margins in a way that can damage them over the long term.

    Which is why any regulation and legislation need to be nuanced and informed, not knee-jerk and reactionary.

    Published on: December 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…

    •  A sobering number this morning - the US now has had a total of more than 50 million cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus.  The precise numbers:  50,149,325 cases … 810,254 deaths … and 39,672,735 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  266,899,807 total cases … 5,281,719 fatalities … and 240,508,227 reported recoveries.    (Source.)



    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 75.6 percent of the US population age five and older, and 71.1 percent of the total US population, has received at least one dose of vaccine, with 63.8 percent of the population five and older and 60 percent of the total population being fully vaccinated.

    The CDC also says that 25.4 percent of the population age 18 and older, and 23.6 percent of the total population, has received a vaccine booster shot.



    •  The New York Times this morning writes that "under New York City’s new mandate for private employers, employees who work in-person at private companies must have one dose of the vaccine by Dec. 27. Remote workers will not be required to get the vaccine. There is no testing option as an alternative."  The Times writes that as businesses grappled with the implications of the mandate, retailers on Manhattan's Upper West Side were supportive of the sentiment, but skeptical about the city's ability to enforce it.

    According to the piece, "Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, a trade group for the city’s restaurant industry, called on (Mayor Bill) de Blasio to delay the requirement until 2022 because it could be difficult for some people to comply.

    "'Public health and safety is paramount, but Mayor de Blasio’s announced expansions to the Key to NYC vaccine mandate pose additional challenges for an already beleaguered restaurant industry in need of tourism support and revenues this holiday season,' Mr. Rigie said. 'U.S. families visiting New York City for scheduled holiday vacations may not be able to meet the vaccination requirements for children or themselves in time, and children aged 5-11 across the globe aren’t universally authorized to get vaccinated'."

    It is worth pointing out that Mayor de Blasio won't be in office in a few weeks, and so enforcement won't be his problem. Which means that we'll probably see some adjustment in policy in the not-too-distant future.

    Published on: December 7, 2021

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "Amazon hasn’t had the merriest of holiday seasons yet. But the e-commerce giant is in a better position than ever to help shoppers who didn’t get on the ball early."

    The story notes that "concerns about Amazon’s vital holiday season have weighed on the stock, which is down more than 8% since the start of the Thanksgiving week compared with a 3% drop for the S&P 500 in that time. The pandemic gave many other retailers a chance to step up their online game. Shopify, which helps power the e-commerce services of many of those competitors, reported $6.3 billion in sales by its merchants for the Black Friday-Cyber Monday period—a 23% jump from last year.

    "Amazon’s own holiday sales release for the period was characteristically free of useful data; the company only said Black Friday and Cyber Monday were “record-breaking.” Truist analyst Youssef Squali projects that Amazon will lose about 1 percentage point of share of e-commerce sales volume this holiday season."

    But … "One thing Amazon’s rivals don’t have, though, is a massive fulfillment network that is getting more massive by the day. The company is projected to add a record 625 facilities to its fulfillment network this year alone, according to data from logistics consultant MWPVL International. That would bring its total facilities globally to more than 2,000 … The ability to get products to consumers quickly will likely be useful as the holiday season progresses. Not all shoppers heeded the frequent advice to make purchases early to avoid shipping delays and product shortages."



    •  Eastern Massachusetts-based Big Y announced that its e-commerce platform, myPicks Online Ordering, now will offer same-day pickup on orders placed before 10 am at select locations.  The company calls it "a free, easy and contactless shopping experience for Big Y customers" with no additional fee, and "another way for customers to shop for groceries with the ease of choosing when and how they want to shop."

    I write this at the risk of seeming to contradict what I say above in the DoorDash piece, where I said that retailers have to be careful not to equate speed with the reduction of friction.  While I think that the latter is most important, that's not to say that speed is irrelevant … and I have to think that same-day-pickup for orders placed before 10 am is just a place holder for a system that inevitably has to provide faster service if it is going to be competitive.

    Published on: December 7, 2021

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  Community Impact reports that in Austin, Texas, "after more than six decades, the H-E-B at South Congress Avenue and Oltorf Street will be demolished and rebuilt.

    "The H-E-B, located at 2400 S. Congress Ave., originally opened in 1957 and spanned 25,000 square feet at its inception … It was later expanded to 69,000 square feet.

    "That store will be demolished to make way for a new, 145,000-square-foot facility at the same location. H-E-B will open a temporary store located at the adjacent Twin Oaks Shopping Center, according to the press release.

    "Construction on the new facility is expected to take two years to complete."

    The Austin American-Statesman notes that the location will include {shopping and restaurant space and above-ground parking, the company said. It will feature indoor and outdoor seating for dining and an outdoor stage for live performances.  The store will also include curbside and home delivery services and a full-service pharmacy with drive-through service. In addition, it will have a True Texas BBQ, which is H-E-B's in-house barbecue restaurant brand."



    •  From the Wall Street Journal, a story suggesting that anti-globalization trends may be in part responsible for the inflation that is plaguing the markets:

    "While supply-chain disruptions, labor shortages and fiscal stimulus have all been blamed for the rise in short-term inflation, another long-term force could also be at work: 'deglobalization.'

    "Economists and policy makers have long argued that globalization helped to lower prices. As trade barriers fell, domestic companies were forced to compete with cheaper imports. Technology and trade liberalization encouraged  businesses to outsource production to low-wage countries. Generally liberal immigration policies allowed many lower-wage workers to move to richer countries, although the link between immigration and wages isn’t clear-cut.

    "That pattern might reverse as the pandemic speeds up the retreat from globalization that has been under way for several years. While supply-chain bottlenecks should eventually ease, other trends could persist - protectionist policies such as tariffs and 'Buy American' procurement rules, businesses moving production back to the U.S. where it will be less vulnerable to those policies, and depressed immigration inflows."

    I have to wonder if these forces and resultant inflation will make our culture come to grips with what things actually cost, as opposed to what we've been persuaded through canny marketing and ubiquitous supply what we think things cost.



    •  From the New York Times this morning:

    "Infusions of government cash that warded off an economic calamity have left millions of households with bigger bank balances than before the pandemic — savings that have driven a torrent of consumer spending, helped pay off debts and, at times, reduced the urgency of job hunts.

    "But many low-income Americans find their savings dwindling or even depleted. And for them, the economic recovery is looking less buoyant.

    "Over the past 18 months or so, experts have been closely tracking the multitrillion-dollar increase in what economists call 'excess savings,' generally defined as the amount by which people’s cash reserves during the Covid-19 crisis exceeded what they would have normally saved.

    "According to Moody’s Analytics, an economic research firm, these excess savings among many working- and middle-class households could be exhausted as soon as early next year — not only reducing their financial cushions but also potentially affecting the economy, since consumer spending is such a large share of activity."



    •  The Los Angeles Times reports that Jack in the Box plans to acquire Del Taco for $575 million, including the assumption of debt.

    "The acquisition brings together two Southern California fast-food restaurant brands. The combined companies aim to increase profit margins through increased bulk-buying power and deliver $15 million in cost savings over the next two years.

    "In addition, the merger allows Jack in the Box franchisees to tap a Mexican brand concept to add restaurants — perhaps at lower development costs and with better competitive market dynamics in certain cities."

    Published on: December 7, 2021

    •  Bloomberg reports that "Alphabet Inc.’s Google has hired former Amazon.com Inc. executive Miriam Daniel, who oversaw work on Alexa and Echo devices, to help develop the search giant’s maps services."  Daniel, the story says, "is now a vice president in charge of Maps Experiences, which includes the Google Maps app and underlying technologies."



    •  United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) announced that Bob Garibaldi, the company's senior vice president of sales - Pacific Region, has been promoted to the presidency of the region, effective immediately.



    •  C-store chain Sheetz announced that the company's COO, Travis Sheetz - a nephew of founder Bob Sheetz - will be the company's new CEO, affective January 2022.  He succeeds his brother, Joe Sheetz, who will remain with the company.

    Travis Sheetz previously served as vice president of operations and executive vice president of operations at the company.

    Published on: December 7, 2021

    Responding to yesterday's piece about CVS forging a new relationship with Microsoft, oner MNB reader wrote:

    CVS is always looking to the future to create new business opportunities. However, at this time they should be looking to fix their unhealthy Rx business. Short staffed, over worked Pharmacists and Techs are leaving the ship. The result equals poor customer service, delayed script filling time, mistakes on filling scripts and messy pharmacy areas. Added to this are law suits and more unhappy store personnel (front of store) having to listen to disgruntled customers. Makes you wonder where the priorities are???



    Yesterday we took note of a Fox News report that "U.S. labor board prosecutors have alleged that Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market illegally banned employees from wearing 'Black Lives Matter' masks and punished workers who did … The grocery store chain maintained appearance rules at U.S. locations to prohibit staff from displaying Black Lives Matter messages on their apparel, the National Labor Relations Board’s San Francisco regional director wrote in a complaint issued Friday on behalf of the agency’s general counsel."

    I commented:

    I'm not sure about the legislative and regulatory constraints, but I think that a retailer that wants a store environment to remain assiduously non-political - or non-partisan - ought to have the ability to say so.  It ought to apply to everyone - if you ban BLM t-shirts, then you also have to ban MAGA paraphernalia.  You ought to be able to say, "Look, I respect your right to free speech, and urge you to protest, vote, and exercise your political conscience in as many legal and hopefully civil ways as you wish.  But, we're going to be consistent in our neutrality, and want to bring down the temperature in our stores, not raise it."

    There are lot of good reasons for this.  A political message, one way or the other, could alienate a sizable percentage of customers.  And, conflicting political opinions emblazoned on clothing could create active conflicts among employees and between employees and customers - these days, this isn't just a theoretical concern.

    This gets a little more complicated, of course, because retailers, like other businesses, are being drawn into political positions and debates because everything in this country is so freakin' political.  (Even not wearing masks or not being vaccinated, even when such actions would help prevent the spread of a pandemic, are posited as political acts.). And so the ice is thin, and retailers need to be careful where they step.

    But - you'll forgive me for switching metaphors - if a retailer wants to create an oasis from the madness, then that ought to be acceptable.

    One MNB reader responded:

    I agree with your thoughts 100%.  The NLRB opinion would open them up to all kinds of political messages and possible conflict between associates -one with a BLM mask and another with a MAGA mask. Businesses are struggling with a lot of pandemic issues. Government interference on this issue seems overblown .  A possible way around this is to provide every associate with a Whole Foods labeled mask and make it part of uniform. 

    From another reader:

    Couldn't agree with you more on keeping stores neutral. Unfortunately when C-suites enact a measure customers do not like, it puts the teammates in the position to defend it, or take the heat. Not an enviable position to be in.



    And, responding to the cream cheese shortage crisis, which I said could be made worse by a lox shortage, one MNB reader wrote:

    It will be like the scene out of Airplane 2 … “And we’re also out of coffee…"

    Extra credit for the movie reference.  And here, for your viewing pleasure…

    Published on: December 7, 2021

    In Monday Night Football action, the New England Patriots defeated the Buffalo Bills 14-10.