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    Published on: January 21, 2022

    MNB has long reported on a problem - a shortage of truck drivers and the potential impact on the supply chain - that has gotten worse and been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic and current events.  But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (who knew such an agency existed?) apparently has a solution that KC thinks could be ingenious or scary.  Maybe both.

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    In an interview this week with CNBC and the New York Times, Lina Khan, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), pledged to maintain the agency's vigilance about potential antitrust activities by major tech companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple in spite of well-financed pushback from the companies and their lobbyists.

    "As we've seen the growth of new technologies, the market dynamics have changed,” Khan said. “And so we need to make sure that the tools we're using, the frameworks we're using, the questions that we're asking, are actually still mapping on to the reality that we're seeing in these markets.”

    Khan also said that "these are enormously well-resourced companies, they are not shy about deploying those resources … I think in these moments, it's important to kind of ensure we're really showing these companies but also showing the country that enforcers are not going to back down because of these companies flexing some muscle or kind of trying to intimidate us."

    As Khan was making those comments, the US Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would, if eventually signed into law, would stop technology companies from favoring their own private label products over those of competitors that are featured on their sites.

    The Wall Street Journal reports that "the bill targets dominant tech platforms, including Inc.’s e-commerce site, Alphabet Inc.’s Google search engine, Apple Inc.’s App Store, and Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook. Those companies have been working for months to stop or alter the bill, deploying teams of lobbyists and top executives to Washington. Some have funded advocacy groups that oppose the measure and publicly warned that the bill could disrupt popular services.

    "Supporters, which include smaller tech companies such as Yelp Inc. and Sonos Inc., say the bills will benefit consumers by boosting competition on platforms that are abusing their market power. Senators in favor of the bill say it makes exceptions that will protect features consumers like.

    "'This bill is not meant to break up Big Tech or destroy the products and services they offer,' said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), the top Republican on the judiciary panel. 'The goal of the bill is to prevent conduct that stifles competition'."

    The Journal goes on:  "Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), the bill’s primary sponsor, said the provisions reflect testimony by Sonos and Tile Inc., both tech equipment makers, about how big tech companies made it difficult for their products to work on large platforms. She also pointed to a report in the Wall Street Journal about Amazon accessing data to copy products created by Amazon sellers."

    FYI … here's a link to a transcript of the conversation.

    KC's View:

    I think there are lines that clearly should not be crossed by any company, not just big tech companies.

    But if I am reading the coverage correctly - and to be sure, I am not a lawyer, nor a legislator - it seems to be entirely possible that the bill goes too far in the way it is targeting the big tech companies.

    Every retailer has the ability to favor its own private label items over those of national or local brands, through pricing and shelf placement and marketing.  Every retailer always has had that ability.  In fact, I might be willing to make the argument that retailers that don't do this may be guilty of a kind of retail malpractice.

    Does Amazon do it better than most because of better analytics and algorithms, and a greater willingness to act on that information?  Sure.  But it escapes me why that particular behavior should be illegal.

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    FMI-The Food Industry Association said yesterday that it is rescheduling its annual Midwinter Executive Conference, originally slated to take place later this month but postponed because of concerns about the pandemic.

    The new dates are at March 28-31, 2022.  The conference will take place at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando.

    FMI also announced that the conference, which is dominated by one-to-one top-to-top meetings, will be keynoted by Dana M. Peterson, the Chief Economist & Center Leader of Economy, Strategy & Finance at The Conference Board.

    KC's View:

    FMI Midwinter had the bad luck of being scheduled for January at a time when the Omicron variant simply made a meeting inadvisable. March seems a lot safer bet ... I think we're all counting on the idea that in a few weeks, the world may look like a different place.

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    The New York Times this morning writes about how "the pandemic has led to price spikes in everything from pizza slices in Manhattan to sides of beef in Colorado. And it has led to more expensive items on the menus at fast-food chains, traditionally establishments where people are used to grabbing a quick bite that doesn’t hurt their wallet … Last year, the price of menu items at fast-food restaurants rose 8 percent, its biggest jump in more than 20 years, according to government data. And, in some cases, portions have shrunk."

    The Times writes that "making customers pay more for a burger or a burrito is a tricky art. For many restaurants, it involves complex algorithms and test markets. They need to walk a fine line between raising prices enough to cover expenses while not scaring away customers. Moreover, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Chains that are operated by franchisees typically allow individual owners to decide pricing. And national chains, like Chipotle and Shake Shack, charge different prices in various parts of the country."

    KC's View:

    For supermarkets, the word for this is "opportunity" - certainly they are having their own supply and pricing issues, but in the end, food bought in the supermarket is almost always going to be less expensive than restaurant food.  It is going to last longer, since leftovers can be one of the great pleasures in life.

    And if supermarkets educate their customers about how to shop, cook and eat smartly … well, it is the old story about the difference between giving a person a fish and teaching a person to fish.

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    From the Seattle Times:

    "PCC Community Markets formally opened its new location in downtown Seattle Wednesday morning - and the ceremony, which drew business leaders and elected officials, a heavy media presence and a well-heeled crowd stretching down Fourth Avenue, often felt less like a ribbon-cutting than a rescue operation.

    "Located on the ground floor of the new Rainier Square tower, the 20,000-square-foot natural foods store is one of the biggest new businesses to open in Seattle’s embattled commercial core since the pandemic started two years ago.

    "For many at the opening, everything about the new PCC - from its well-stocked aisles and smiling staff to its vast deli and striking art by Andrea M. Wilbur-Sigo of Puget Sound’s Squaxin Island Tribe - offered small but potent signs that one of Seattle’s hardest-hit neighborhoods is emerging from the ravages of COVID-19 and the social crises the pandemic has exacerbated."

    Still, the Times writes, "These are heavy expectations for a single high-end grocery when downtown is still laboring under the intertwined crises of homelessness and street crime, not to mention the continued effects of COVID on retail, tourism and downtown employment."

    KC's View:

    Always been a fan of both Seattle and PCC, and I hope that I soon get the chance to visit both.

    This story makes an important point that retailers never should forget - the role that a terrific retailer can play as the core of the community.  There are big expectations being placed on PCC's shoulders, but I have no doubt it will rise to the occasion.

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    Axios has a story suggesting that "for years to come, companies are going to need new creativity and flexibility to attract employees … Companies need to give workers a reason to want to work for them beyond a paycheck."

    Chris Floyd, a restaurant-industry recruiter in the D.C. area, tells Axios:  "If you treat people with respect and compassion and see them as whole people, they feel that — and tend to be more loyal even if they could be making more elsewhere."

    The story notes that this represents a major change:  "For the past few decades, employers could hang out a 'Help Wanted' sign — literal or virtual — and count on people lining up looking for a job."

    KC's View:

    Too bad it takes a pandemic and a hiring crisis to make this evident to some employers.

    Published on: January 21, 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:  70,544,862 total cases … 883,903 deaths … and 44,047,799 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  343,734,241 total cases … 5,595,480 fatalities … and 275,190,944 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 75.3 percent of the total US population has received at least one dose of vaccine … 63.2 percent is fully vaccinated … 39.3 percent has received a vaccine booster shot … and 53.2 percent of the total US population that is eligible for a booster shot has not received one.

    •  The Washington Post this morning reports that "unvaccinated adults aged 65 or older who contracted the coronavirus were 49 times more likely to require hospitalization than seniors who had received booster vaccine doses, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    "Unimmunized adults in that age group were also 17 times more likely to be admitted to hospital than those who had received either two shots of a mRNA vaccine or one Johnson & Johnson dose. Meanwhile, unvaccinated people between 50 and 64 years of age were 44 times more likely to need hospitalization compared with their boosted counterparts."

    •  The Sanatoga Post reports that "Redner’s Markets, which operates 13 local grocery and convenience store locations and more than 50 others across Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, has again temporarily raised the wages it pays hourly employees for their efforts during the coronavirus pandemic … the increase offers an extra $1 per hour worked for all front-line staff, it reported. A potential end date for the temporary increase was not mentioned."

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    •  Netflix yesterday said that during Q4 it added 8.3 million new subscribers worldwide, lower than the 8.5 million it had projected;  the company said that it expected to add 2.5 million during the current quarter.

    The Wall Street Journal writes that Netflix said that it is adjusting "to growing competition and lasting disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic," which is expected to keep the numbers down despite high-profile new content that is in the pipeline.

    Some more context from the Journal:

    "Last week, Netflix increased the price for its monthly plans in the U.S. and Canada, the first such boost from the streaming platform since 2020. Netflix isn’t raising prices across the globe. It cut prices in India last month where it has struggled against strong competition in a market it sees as crucial for growth.

    "The company cited programming expenses as the primary reason for the price increase.

    "While Netflix has always spent heavily on content, growing streaming competition is driving the company to flood the market with new shows and movies. At the same time, Netflix is canceling shows faster than it used to. New programs have a shorter window to prove themselves than in previous years, producers who work with Netflix said."

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    •  Walmart said yesterday that Casey Carl, its top e-commerce executive for the past two years, is leaving the company, and will be succeeded by Tom Ward, Walmart’s senior vice president of last mile deliveries. Ward has been named executive vice president and chief e-commerce officer.

    Reuters writes that "Carl is the latest executive to exit the company. Last week, Scott McCall, Walmart’s chief merchandising officer of its U.S. unit, announced his retirement and was replaced by grocery chief Charles Redfield. Brett Biggs, Walmart’s former chief financial officer left the company in late November."

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    •  CNBC reports that "jobless claims took an unexpected turn higher last week in a potential sign that the wintertime omicron surge was hitting the employment picture.

    "Initial filings for the week ended Jan. 15 totaled 286,000, well above the Dow Jones estimate of 225,000 and a substantial gain from the previous week’s 231,000."

    The Wall Street Journal writes that "while the number of job postings is still around 60% higher than the pre-pandemic baseline, the weekly average dropped by 1.3 percentage points for the week ended Jan. 14. Indeed economist AnnElizabeth Konkel attributed that drop to two factors: Lots of people are out sick, including employers tasked with making hiring decisions, and 'uncertainty about consumer demand means it’s hard for businesses to determine how many workers to hire'."

    •  The Albuquerque Journal reports that "agrocery store workers’ strike similar to the one occurring in metro Denver may be brewing in New Mexico, as Smith’s Food & Drug employees are seeking better pay and improved security, among other demands.

    "The most recent round of meetings between The Kroger Co., the parent company of Smith’s, and the New Mexico chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents around 2,500 grocery store workers across Smith’s New Mexico locations, ended Thursday without a new contract in place.

    "UFCW chapter President Greg Frazier characterized the two sides as remaining far apart in negotiations. He told the Journal on Thursday that a strike is a strong possibility if the two sides cannot reach a deal by Jan. 30, when the current agreement expires."

    •  Save-A-Lot announced that as part of a broader strategy of divesting corporate stores, it is selling 33 units in Florida to Ascend Grocery.  Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    Ascend's CEO is Chris Sherrell, founder and former CEO of Fresh Thyme Market and former CEO of Sunflower Farmers Market. 

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    •  BJ's Wholesale Club announced that it has hired Amanda Irish to be its new SVP/GM - Own Brands and Innovation.  Irish comes to BJ's after a 22-year career at Target, where most recently she was VP of Dry Grocery and Owned Brand Food.

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    Gorillas Technologies Ltd. has hired Luanne Calvert as chief marketing officer as the company tries to solidify its brand in the increasingly competitive rapid-grocery-delivery space.

    "Berlin-based Gorillas was founded in 2020 and promises delivery on groceries—from pantry staples to condoms to premade salads and soups—in minutes. Gorillas says it offers more than 2,000 essential items at retail prices for a delivery fee of €1.80 or $1.80, depending on location. The company says it employs all of its 12,000 delivery riders and offers service in more than 60 cities, including Amsterdam, London, Paris, Madrid and New York."

    Calvert previously "served as the chief marketing officer for airline company Virgin America and held marketing positions at companies including retailer Walmart Inc. and technology company Alphabet Inc.’s Google," the Journal writes.

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    A thought from MNB reader Rich Heiland about Starbucks' decision to no longer require staffers to be vaccinated or tested:

    It could be Starbuck's decision has to do with not having the government behind it. When I still lived in Texas Gregg Abbott was one the of the first governors to pull the state mandate on masking. That left it up to the stores to enforce. HEB (see below) and others dropped the requirement for customers while urging them to mask up. What it came down to was that without the government standing behind it, stores did not want to ask employees, often young people, to confront non-mask wearers.

    Speaking of HEB...your item about Scott McClelland brought back memories of our time in Texas. He will be hard to replace. For many of us Scott was HEB. He was in commercials, he was in stores. He had a knack for always seeming to make the right moves (maybe because he actually spoke with customers) and when he made a wrong one he was quick to own it and move on. I am sure, though, that HEB's culture has led to a "deep bench" and someone will step up. 

    On another subject, from MNB reader Steve Burbridge:

    Your description of a world in which we never really interact reminds me more of the movie Wall-E.  Although we may have to substitute the "Buy-n-Large" corporation and President Shelby Forthright with "Ama-World" and a President whose name rhymes with Bezos (Blue Planet anyone?).   

    And finally, one of my favorite kinds of emails, from MNB reader Tom Ewing, about a unique consumer experience:

    My 94 year old Mother-in -Law lives in St. Louis with my Sister-in-Law and a recent birthday request gave an employee at Schnuck's the chance to show exemplary service to someone on the end of a phone. 

    On Saturday afternoon, my Mother-in-Law suddenly remembered that my Sister-In-Law's birthday was Sunday and called my wife here in Ohio to see if she could help her out.  Now my wife is very resourceful and has a contact at a Schnuck's floral department near my Sister-In-Law's house for just such occasions.  However, that afternoon, her contact was not working and she spoke to another employee,  from a different Schnuck's store, who was covering the floral department.

    After a little small talk about the weather, the employee and my wife had a reunion of sorts as they found out that they were both at a small private junior college in Missouri at the same time (over 40 years ago when 12" bell bottoms and platform shoes were the rage)  and had several mutual acquaintances.   Needless to say, the employee went out of his way to get a wonderful bouquet of flowers delivered to my SIster-in-Law in time and made my Mother-in-Law relieved and my wife feel like a champ.  It is still, and always will be the personal interactions that mean so much and this employee made several people happy by just being a great human being !!!

    Here's the great thing about Schnuck's … I think it is entirely likely that your wife would have gotten the same service without any of the common ground that she found with that employee.

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    Meat Loaf, one of the best-selling musical artists of all time with his "Bat Out Of Hell" album, which featured the songs "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" and "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad," has passed away.  He was 74.  The cause of death has not been divulged.

    Meat Loaf was born Marvin Lee Aday, and in addition to his highly theatrical rock-opera performances, also acted in a number of movies, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Fight Club.

    KC's View

    I know what I'm going to be listening to all day today...

    Published on: January 21, 2022

    A gap in my cultural knowledge, I must admit, has been that I had never seen an episode of "Succession" on HBO.  (I also never have seen an episode of "Game of Thrones," "White Lotus," or "Better Call Saul," and only one season of "Breaking Bad."  I can't watch everything … though I must admit that of all of these, the only one I'm not sorry to have missed is "Game of Thrones," which I can tell from the ads just isn't my thing.)

    I started the process of making up for lost time over the past few weeks by watching the entire run of "Succession" on HBO Max, and I found the show to be filled with disreputable, abhorrent, entirely despicable characters - there is hardly a likable person in the bunch.

    I couldn't take my eyes off them.

    In so many ways, "Succession" is three seasons' worth of business lessons, largely in how not to run a company.  The company, in this case, is Waystar RoyCo, a global media and entertainment conglomerate.  The controlling family is the Roy clan, who, while the firm is publicly traded, treat it as their own fiefdom and piggy bank.  Logan Roy, the patriarch of the family, is played with magnificent brutality by Brian Cox;  his treatment of his children, all of whom would like to succeed him someday, and most of whom have made one kind of play or another to do so during the course of the series, can only be described as malevolence leavened (slightly) by ther toughest love imaginable.

    One of the things I find so fascinating about the series is the number of times I have found myself talking to the television screen:  "Don't do that!"  "Look out!"  "That's a really bad idea!"  "Don't trust him/her/them!"

    I hate them.  But I love "Succession."  Can't wait for season four.

    While I may have been late to "Succession," I've been on the "Billions" bandwagon from the beginning … and I'm thrilled that the Showtime series is returning Sunday for season six:

    Not sure why, but I've sort of been on a Cary Grant jag for the past few weeks.  Maybe it is because he reminds me of  simpler times … though "remind" may not be the right word since the films I've chosen to watch were made during my early childhood.  (Let's just say I never saw them during their original runs.)

    I started and ended with two of his films by Alfred Hitchcock - To Catch A Thief (1955) and North By Northwest (1959), which bracketed a Stanley Donen film, Charade (1963), which was one of the last films he made before retiring from acting in 1966.  (Grant died in 1986.)

    It has been a delightful detour;  Grant is so charming, so seemingly effortless, and so perfect in roles that typify the screen persona that he crafted over so many decades.  It'd been some time since I'd seen any of the movies, and I can report that they've aged marvelously well.  While they have moments that dated in terms of sexual politics, they also feature three female leads - Grace Kelly in Thief, Eva Marie Saint in Northwest, and Audrey Hepburn in Charade - who struck me as unusually and gratifyingly liberated for those places and times.

    Sometimes it is fun - and not just for movie nerds like me who went to film school - to go back and revisit the (often idealized) past as seen through the prism of motion pictures - and managing to tell compelling stories without the need for superheroes or the use of computer graphics - and you can't do much better than these three.  But, I'm going to try … next I plan to watch Hitchcock's Notorious (with Ingrid Bergman) and Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (with Rosalind Russell), and then maybe onto some Humphrey Bogart classics.  (The Maltese FalconThe Big Sleep?)

    Play it again.

    I really love chianti.  Which works, because I also really love pasta with a nice rich red sauce.

    The other day, I made a fresh bolognese sauce and served it with spaghetti - nothing fancy, but the house smelled great for most of the afternoon, and then we opened a 2019 Uggiano Chianti Colli Fiorentini … a simple but hearty Tuscan red that complemented the meal perfectly.  Add to that a fire in the fireplace, and the evening was pretty much perfect.

    Molto bene.

    That's it for this week.  Have a good weekend, and I'll see you Monday.