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    Published on: January 14, 2022


    There's an old axiom - if it looks like it is going to rain, don't forget your umbrella.  But now, a New York City startup is challenging that piece of wisdom with Rentbrella, which allows people to rent umbrellas from kiosks using a mobile app.  Needless to say, KC has some thoughts about yet another potentially disruptive business model.

    Published on: January 14, 2022

    The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Biden administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) do not have the legal authority to mandate that private companies with 100 or more employees must have vaccine-or-test systems in place.  However, the Court did allow the government to require vaccinations for most health-care workers at the facilities that receive Medicaid and Medicare funds.

    The Washington Post writes that "essentially, they found Congress had given federal agencies the power to impose the requirement on health-care workers at facilities receiving federal funds, but that there was no authority to impose sweeping requirements in workplaces across the nation."

    According to the Post, "Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh were the only members of the court in the majority of both orders … 

    Liberal Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan would have allowed the workplace requirements. Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett objected to the health-care worker requirements."

    From the Wall Street Journal story:

    "The private-employer requirements, for businesses with 100 or more employees, would have applied to an estimated 84 million workers … The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the private-employer rules in November. Several parts of the regulations, including a requirement for mask-wearing in the workplace by unvaccinated individuals, were set to take effect this week, though the testing requirements weren’t scheduled to be enforced until next month."

    Leslie G. Sarasin, president-CEO of FMI – The Food Industry Association, released the following statement in response to the ruling:

    "“We are pleased the Supreme Court recognized the challenges OSHA’s rule would have imposed on food retailers and manufacturers, our employees and, ultimately, American consumers. The Court’s decision today to pause OSHA’s vaccine and testing mandate for private businesses will help ensure the food industry is able to continue meeting our customers’ needs as efficiently and effectively as possible amid the ongoing supply chain and labor disruptions.

    “FMI and our member companies remain committed to working with OSHA, the CDC, and the White House to encourage and facilitate vaccinations among our employees and communities while preserving our members’ ability to provide their customers with the foods and products they need to keep their families fed and safe in the new year."

    Greg Ferrara, president-CEO of the National Grocers Association (NGA), said, "Independent grocers remain focused on doing what they have done since day one of the pandemic, providing their communities with access to food, essential products and other vital services. The ruling is a great relief for our industry as it staves off a burdensome mandate that would have created further disruptions and impaired our members’ ability to properly serve the needs of their communities."

    The Washington Post writes that "the Supreme Court’s decision that large companies do not have to force workers to get coronavirus shots or tests leaves employers facing a patchwork of clashing state policies over their role in protecting their workforces from the surging pandemic … The decision by the court’s conservative majority was a relief for some firms that had regarded the federal rule as overreaching and burdensome … Other employers said that, with an ideologically divided workforce, they were disappointed to be deprived of a convenient justification for requiring coronavirus shots or weekly tests."

    KC's View:

    No surprise here.

    I just hope that when the history of this is written, the unwillingness of some folks to accept the idea of vaccine mandates won't be pointed to as the reason we were not able to make the progress against the Covid pandemic that we should be able to, and that we need to achieve.

    Published on: January 14, 2022

    Instacart yesterday announced the launch of a new Ready Meals program, which it describes as "fresh, healthy and cost-effective alternatives to restaurant takeout from customers' favorite grocers. With Ready Meals, consumers nationwide can now take a break from cooking and instead get fresh, ready-made meals delivered from the store to their door in as fast as 30 minutes."

    The company has created a new Ready Meals Hub in the Instacart App that features "prepared foods from grocers like Publix, GIANT, Food Lion, Hannaford, Stop & Shop, Martin's, and Kroger. In the coming weeks, ready-made meals from ShopRite will also be featured in the Hub. From freshly prepared grab-and-go salads and sandwiches from Publix, to soups and sushi from Kroger, to rotisserie chicken from Food Lion, customers across 35 states can now access the Ready Meals Hub to quickly get prepared meals delivered from more than 4,100 grocery stores."

    In its coverage, Business Insider points out that FMI-The Food Industry Association "estimates prepared foods at supermarkets are a $13 billion-a-year business and growing rapidly. FMI said 64% of meals made at home include ready-to-eat items such as pre-made salads and ready-to-eat meat. The U.S. chilled and deli food market size was expected to top $40 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach more than $108 billion by 2026, according to market analytics firm Research and Markets."

    The technology behind the new offering is being powered in part by Instacart’s acquisition last year of FoodStorm, a catering order management system.

    The goal, the company says, is to offer "inspiring, more affordable and nutritious food alternatives to restaurant delivery that make it easier for consumers to break up with takeout this year," and, in doing so, "drive more sales and increase their 'share of stomach' when it comes to their customers' daily mealtime decisions."

    KC's View:

    It isn't just retailers' sales that Instacart is hoping to drive.  Here's a nugget from the Bloomberg story about its Ready Meals offering:

    "Instacart’s average order values have seen a steady decline and were about 15% lower in November than the year earlier, YipitData show. The company has pushed into other categories, like virtual convenience stores, to tap new sources of growth. Instacart’s orders grew by 30% in 2021 compared with the year earlier, and sales saw 'double-digit” growth," though the company did not provide exact figures.

    I think the idea of trying to maintain the momentum for fresh foods and foodservice that was created during the height of the pandemic, in part because of all the troubles being experienced by the restaurant industry, is a good one.

    But it will not surprise MNB readers to know that I am troubled by the fact that the Ready Meals offerings of these different retailers, many of which compete with each other, will be given equal time and exposure via the Instacart website.  Sure, that means retailer A may be able to steal customers from retailer B … but that goes both ways.

    Instacart's offerings begins to look like more and more like Priceline's pay-one-price-for-groceries offering back in 1999-2000, which was one of the stupidest ideas ever adopted by retailers, some of which thought back then that this could be their long-term e-commerce solution.  All that did was equalize the competition in ways that did no favors for retailer clients … and I think that in the end, this is going to be the criticism that will stick to Instacart.

    Instacart can deny it all it wants, but this Ready Meals initiative, and all the consumer data it will be able to access, also will give it the ability to compete with its retailers - all it will need is some ghost kitchens and dark stores, and retailers will have been disintermediated from the relationship.

    Published on: January 14, 2022

    Wakefern Food Corp., the largest retailer-owned cooperative in the U.S., yesterday announced a deal with Trigo, an Israel-based computer vision company, "to pilot an autonomous supermarket making use of Trigo's AI-based frictionless checkout technology … Trigo transforms existing supermarkets and grocers into fully autonomous, digital stores, combining their technology with Trigo computer vision to create a seamless shopping experience. Applying Trigo's GDPR compliant technology to various locations will allow retailers to successfully scale their business while maintaining their unique character and layout. Shoppers use an app to scan a QR code as they enter, and then will be free to pick up items and leave without having to checkout – there is no exit gate."

    The announcement says that "following numerous successful launches with some of the top 10 ranking European industry partners like the UK's Tesco and Germany's REWE, Aldi NORD and Netto, owned by The EDEKA Group – the Wakefern announcement marks Trigo's first foray into the U.S."

    KC's View:

    I said from the moment I saw the first Amazon Go store in Seattle that this technology eventually be as widespread and as impactful as scanning … and I'll stick with that assessment.  I'm just guessing that it may happen faster than I would've expected.

    It's interesting … The Guardian had a story the other day about how technology is driving supermarket innovation.

    An excerpt:

    "Welcome to the supermarkets of the future. They may look and feel like the supermarkets we are all used to – and stock the same bread, butter and bananas – but these shops are now fitted out with more than £1m of the latest technology that their bosses promise will put an end to our biggest frustration (queueing) and our most persistent crime (shoplifting)."

    At stores created by companies ranging from Amazon to Tesco, and powered by technology companies like Standard Cognition, "there are no checkouts (self-scanning or traditional), no checkout assistants, and – in theory – no chance of shoplifting … First, you must download an app, register a credit card and scan a QR code on your phone to enter through train station-style gates. Barriers prevent those without the app from entering the shop. Once inside, the technology follows you around the store recording every item you pick up (and put back). When you’re done you just walk out and after a few minutes your phone alerts you as to how much you’ve spent.

    "The supermarkets say time-pressed, easily frustrated people are crying out for a better, hassle-free shopping experience, and if these trial stores are successful they will roll out the technology across the country."

    The story notes that "research backs up the retailers’ hunch about our frustrations with shopping. A recent survey by packaging company DS Smith found that more than a third of 2,000 people polled would walk out of the store rather than wait five minutes in a checkout queue, and 46% said they were so irritated by queuing that they would consider not coming back to the shop again … Many of us are now so impatient that waiting a few minutes for a checkout assistant to become free can feel like an unacceptable hassle in a world where technology dominates and instant gratification is expected."

    Unacceptable hassles are going to become even more unacceptable with every passing day, especially as some retailers find ways to reduce friction, creating pressure on competitors to find and implement their own solutions.

    It'll happen slowly, then suddenly, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway.  

    Published on: January 14, 2022

    Hy-Vee yesterday announced the launch of WholeLotta Good, a new website designed to offer customers "a full range of dietitian-approved health and specialty products that can be purchased online and shipped directly to homes across the U.S."

    According to the company, "Shoppers can find a wide variety of products including grocery items, vitamins and supplements, health and beauty products, household supplies and fitness items. WholeLotta Good will also feature a blog written by
    Hy-Vee registered dietitians. The blog will offer snack and meal ideas, health and wellness tips, and mindfulness and stress-reduction tips."

    “Hy-Vee’s customers know that when they visit our stores, they can find a full range of products to support their healthy lifestyle goals,” said Randy Edeker, Hy-Vee’s chairman-CEO. “With the launch of WholeLotta Good, we can now bring our extensive offerings to customers across the country."

    KC's View:

    Hy-Vee seems to be scratching a go-beyond-its-Midwest-roots itch, both in its physical stores footprint and digital offerings.  It makes sense as long as it makes sense … I'll be interested to see if hy-Vee decides to create WholeLotta Good sections in its stores.

    Published on: January 14, 2022

    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:  65,236,475 total cases … 869,212 deaths … and 42,911,490 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  321,184,278 total cases … 5,541,009 fatalities … and 264,333,060 reported recoveries.   (Source.)



    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 74.7 percent of the total US population and 79.4 percent of the population age five and older have received at least one dose of vaccine, while 62.8 percent of the total population and 66.8 percent of the five-and-older group have been fully vaccinated.

    The CDC also says that 37.5 percent of the US population has received a vaccine booster shot, while 53.9 percent of the US population that is eligible for a vaccine booster has not received one.



    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "The biggest U.S. drugstore chains are shutting some pharmacies on weekends as the spread of Covid-19 and the Omicron variant exacerbates already severe staffing shortages.

    "CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. said weekend shutdowns are unusual but become a reality when locations lack enough pharmacists and technicians to remain open.

    "Supermarkets and U.S. retailers such as Macy’s Inc. and Walmart Inc. are also shortening hours as throngs of American workers stay home because they are sick, awaiting test results or caring for others with the virus.

    "Before Omicron’s spread, the drugstore chains, which collectively operate nearly 20,000 stores nationwide, were cutting hours, raising pay and scrambling to hire tens of thousands more workers to address staffing shortages. But with their roles as major providers of Covid-19 testing and vaccinations, the chains are also dealing with growing discontent among existing staff as well as customers’ concern about service."



    •  From the Seattle Times:

    "Last-minute closures in Seattle Public Schools this week have prompted students to organize a sickout, threaten a strike, demand improved safety protocols and call for more transparency from the state’s largest school district.

    "They’re not alone. Parents and teachers alike say the district failed to anticipate the need to shift to remote learning as a predictable wave of coronavirus cases caused school cancellations around the region. 

    "During this second week back from winter break, classes were canceled because of coronavirus-related staffing shortages and because there weren’t enough substitutes to meet the demand, a trend that has plagued school districts across the country.

    "Seattle students say they’ve decided to join a national, student-led movement calling for remote learning and stronger school safety standards as COVID-19 cases are spiking."



    •  The New York Times reports this morning that "Novak Djokovic, the Serbian tennis star, had his visa revoked for a second time by the Australian authorities on Friday, the latest dizzying volley in a drawn-out drama over his refusal to be vaccinated for Covid-19.

    "Australia’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said in a statement that he was canceling Djokovic’s visa on the grounds of 'health and good order,' adding that it was in the public interest to do so. Djokovic’s lawyers said they would file an appeal immediately, with the Australian Open starting on Monday.

    "Hawke took the action four days after Djokovic won a legal victory that freed him from immigration detention, where he had been held since arriving at a Melbourne airport last week."

    Seems pretty clear that they need to toss Djokovic out of the country as quickly as possible, and that he ought not be allowed to play in the Australian Open.  He's lied, he's dissembled, he's behaved recklessly, and he doesn't seem to give a damn about other players.  No sympathy for him here.

    Published on: January 14, 2022

    •  Yahoo Finance reports that a proposed class action suit is moving forward against Walmart, accusing the company of forcing its female truck drivers to either wear company-approved men's uniform pants or "pay to buy and launder their own uniform-compliant garments … The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave Alabama driver Diana Webb approval to file the proposed class action claiming sex discrimination against similarly situated female Walmart drivers, after the agency said it would not proceed further with its investigation."

    The suit charges that “Walmart is providing and cleaning uniform bottoms for the men."

    The suit says that "in treating male and female employees differently, Walmart is violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits gender-based discrimination. In addition, the claim alleges that the company is unjustly enriching itself by sidestepping the expenses shouldered by its female drivers."

    Published on: January 14, 2022

    •  The Associated Press reports that "The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose last week to the highest level since mid-November, but still low by historic standards.

    "US jobless claims climbed by 23,000 last week to 230,000, the Department of Labor said Thursday. The four-week moving average, which smooths out week-to-week blips, rose nearly 6,300 to almost 211,000."



    •  Winn-Dixie said yesterday that it "is helping its customers save on groceries by offering deeper discounts on more than 150 most-shopped products. As part of the grocer’s 'Down Down' program, Winn-Dixie customers will save more than 15% on average when shopping items marked in store by the red hand on signs and tags throughout the store."

    I suspect we're going to se a lot of these kinds of promotions around the country, as retailers tap into consumer concerns about inflation.  These moves also are going to be necessary as mainstream retailers look to counter the value-driven argument being made by dollar stores and limited assortment stores, which have made discounts a central part of their identity.



    •  The Wall Street Journal has a story about how, "despite the record number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S., fueled by the Omicron variant, people have been flocking to beach resorts, ski lodges and other leisure destinations. Christmas Day hotel occupancy reached a record for that day at 47.2%, just above the previous one in 2015 of 47%, according to hotel analytics firm STR. Demand continued through the week leading into New Year’s Day."

    But there's a challenge:  "With supply chain shortages holding up goods and workers quitting, the industry is having to figure out new ways to be hospitable.

    "Hotels have been searching for mini-bottles of shampoo, towels and sheets, cleaning supplies, appliances and furniture - even plastic cups to use for serving frozen pina coladas and Champagne flutes for celebrations.

    "Some hotels are getting creative, such as attempting to extend the life of towels by placing single-use packs of facial wipes in rooms for makeup removal. Other managers have sent staffers to nearby big-box retailers such as Target or Bed Bath & Beyond for last-minute purchases of sheets and feather pillows."



    •  Fox News reports that "the U. S. Food and Drug Administration is ending decades of regulating just what constitutes French dressing.

    "It comes after a nearly 24-year battle by the Association for Dressings and Sauces.

    "The trade group had argued that the limited definition of what could go into a product called French Dressing blocked innovation and more flexibility of products on the market to meet current consumer tastes.

    "The FDA established a standard of identity for French dressing on Aug. 12, 1950.  The standard was amended several times in the 1960s and 1970s."

    Published on: January 14, 2022

    Responding to yesterday's story about Kroger expanding the usage of Nuro autonomous delivery vehicles, MNB reader Andy Casey wrote:

    This seems rather inevitable but as a Florida user of Kroger home delivery somebody is going to have to help me understand how it improves the customer experience to walk out to the street and carry my groceries in rather than simply opening my front door. 



    And, this email from MNB reader Steve Burbridge:

    Like you I was a big fan of the Reacher series but have turned more towards some of the Baldacci series as I saw Lee Child seem to pass on the mantle to his son who is the co-author on some books.  But, I still like him in general and will continue to give him a shot when new books come out.

    I was never a fan of the movies with Tom Cruise; he didn't fit the profile (and wasn't Reacher supposed to be 6'4" tall?).  I came upon the trailer for the new Reacher series on Amazon and, from the trailer, I think it might have a chance.  First episode is 2/4 so I have added it to my watchlist.

    By the way, you were right about "Dopesick".  "The Pharmacist" is another Oxy-related series that will scare the heck out of you.

    I'll put "The Pharmacist" on my list.

    Also…Lee Child's replacement is his brother, not his son.

    And I'm looking forward to the series, too.  Here's the trailer:

    Published on: January 14, 2022

    I was about halfway through reading my advance copy of "Bye Bye Baby," the new Spenser novel written by Ace Atkins and featuring the iconic Boston private detective created by the late Robert B. Parker, when I saw a news item about how this was going to be Atkins' last contribution to the now 50-book-long series.

    On the one hand, I understood it - this is his 10th Spenser novel in a decade, a time during which he's also crafted his own, excellent series of novels about former Army Ranger-turned-Southern-Sheriff Quinn Colson;  writing two novels a year is hard work, no matter how good you are, and Atkins is very, very good.

    But, as I told Ace Atkins - who I've now interviewed more than a half-dozen times over the years - I kind of felt like I was losing a friend.  (Even though the novels will continue, with Mike Lupica taking over.)  I always have both admired and enjoyed what Atkins has done with the Spenser series, managing to capture Parker's distinctive voice in first-person narration while never seeming imitative.

    "Bye Bye Baby" ends his Spenser tenure with a flourish, a solid entry that puts Spenser and Hawk up against a bunch of neo-Nazis threatening a Boston politician.  Like the last book, "Someone To Watch Over Me," Atkins - a former newspaper reporter - takes elements from recent headlines to create a work that is both timely and utterly of the Spenser oeuvre.  It is terrific stuff, and a great coda to his time with Spenser.

    And so, I reached out to Ace Atkins to talk via Zoom about "Bye Bye Baby," and his own saying goodbye to a character and a series that he first encountered as a fan while in college, and ended up playing a significant role in sustaining Spenser's journey and relevance after Parker's death.  And, we even talked about the relative merits of vodka martinis vs. gin martinis, in this latest addition to MNB's "In Conversation" series.

    Enjoy.

    "Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby" will be available starting Tuesday on Amazon, the iconic Portland independent bookstore Powell's, on Bookshop.org, and wherever books are sold.


    If you'd like to listen to my conversation with Ace Atkins as an audio podcast, click below.

    Published on: January 14, 2022

    Monday being a federal holiday to celebrate the birthday - and, more importantly, the life - of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., MNB will be off.  But we'll be back Tuesday with fresh news and hand-crafted commentary.

    Have a good weekend.

    Sláinte!