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    Published on: January 28, 2022

    by Kevin Coupe

    I love this story in The Daily Mississippian about Square Books, in Oxford, Mississippi, which has managed to thrive even during the pandemic and in the face of competition from the likes of Amazon, largely because of how it nurtures a relationship between writers and readers, becoming a key part of a connection that goes beyond the transactional.

    That connection served the business well when the pandemic threatened so many businesses - the store's general manager, Lyn Roberts, says that "here was an international scale of support" in the face of tough times:  "We have customers all over the world, and we ship things, and everyone was very supportive then and I don’t think that was just us, I think people were very sort of outgoing and very supportive of local independent businesses."

    At the same time, Square Books has been supportive especially of local authors, such as John Grisham and Ace Atkins (who has been a friend of MNB over the years).

    “I have a strong bias in favor of independent bookstores. First, I love them. I love to buy books in the indies, to eat and drink, to hang out with booksellers and the people who run the stores, and to say hello to readers,” Grisham says.

    And, Atkins adds, "I love walking into Square Books and coming out with something I never even heard of.  I think that’s what the local, independent bookstore does that you cannot get online and you certainly can’t get from a chain place.”

    You can read the entire story here.

    The Square Books story is more than one of survival in challenging times.  It is an example that can inform the strategies and tactics employed by any retailer.  As such, it is an Eye-Opener.

    FYI … Ace Atkins' latest novel, "Robert B. Parker's Bye Bye Baby" is available from Square Books here.

    And you can watch my recent conversation with Ace Atkins here.

    Published on: January 28, 2022

    Instacart yesterday unveiled new "advertiser solutions" that it says will "maximize brand reach and consumer awareness for consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands of all sizes in the digital grocery aisles."

    According to the announcement, "The new Instacart Ads products allow advertisers to run a full-funnel marketing strategy throughout the entire consumer shopping journey on Instacart – from awareness to consideration to purchase … Instacart’s new brand pages enable CPG brands to drive consumers – both on and off Instacart – to a curated, shoppable destination where the consumer can explore the brand’s product portfolio from their favorite retailers … Advertisers can leverage unique URLs to send traffic from Instacart display ads as well as brands’ off-platform marketing campaigns, directly to a shoppable digital storefront. Consumers can take action to purchase items directly from brand pages, which show products in stock from their last-shopped retailer."

    And, the company said, "The new display products are auction-based ads that appear throughout the shopping journey on Instacart, enabling brands to promote engaging, targeted, creative content to consumers. The new suite of display products includes banners that can be placed across discovery surfaces – from keyword search through browsing storefronts, departments, and aisles. Display ads also equip brands to reach new customers with customized targeting that is based on anonymized purchase behavior or specific keywords."

    KC's View:
      Let's concede for the moment that these ads drive sales to Instacart's retail clients, which is a good thing.  Let's not dwell on the possibility - I would argue probability, but that's a different story - that Instacart could launch its own retail business that is not dependent on client retailers, and that these new programs give it even more ammunition if it were decided to engage in that battle.

    It seems pretty clear that Instacart will be charging suppliers for these ad services.  Which it should - it is providing a service and consumer accessibility.  But … I'm old enough to remember when retailers jealously guarded its ad and promotion money - the one place you didn't want to be was in between a retailer and a supplier with a checkbook.

    I continue to believe that while Instacart has created a terrific business model, it is one that puts retailers' brands at significant risk, as they are disintermediated from their relationships with shoppers and brands discover that maybe they can do without those annoying stores.

    Published on: January 28, 2022

    From CNN:

    "McDonald's fans have long been creating menu hacks like using hash browns as a bun. Now the chain is putting some of them on the menu.

    "Beginning January 31 and for a limited time, McDonald's will sell four menu hacks popularized by its biggest fans. It's the first-time ever that McDonald's has sold 'hacks' by name, which have become prominent on social media platforms, such as TikTok.

    "They can be ordered via the new 'Menu Hacks' section on the McDonald's app or in-person by saying the name. Self-assembly will be required for each hack because McDonald's will sell the ingredients separately, The chain said that is 'half the fun,' but it's also easier (and faster) for the restaurant's employees."

    The story notes that ingredients for four hacks will be available:

    "Hash Brown McMuffin - In a breakfast-only exclusive, this order combines a sausage McMuffin and a hash brown for 'an extra crunch.'"

    "Crunchy Double - An order of 6-piece chicken nuggets, inserting them into a double cheeseburger."

    "Land, Air and Sea - This sandwich combines a chicken sandwich, a Big Mac and a Filet-o-Fish all on one bun."

    "Surf and Turf - This puts together a double cheeseburger and a Filet-O-Fish and is only available on the app or through delivery."

    KC's View:

    I just think this is so smart.  The idea that a retailer would essentially adopt out-of-the-box menu adaptations created by the customer is one way of reinforcing the degree to which the retailer actually is listening to the customer.  It is McDonald's, and I generally am loathe to say anything good about fast feeders, but let's give credit where credit is due.

    McDonald's is having a big year - it said yesterday that its global revenues last year were up 21 percent, with profit up 59 percent … though to some degree that is because of higher prices.  However, McDonald's also says its improving numbers are because of a digital loyalty program, which allows it to be both more targeted and effective in its marketing promotions.

    Published on: January 28, 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: 74,695,333 total cases … 902,140 deaths … and 45,614,212 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  367,423,717 total cases … 5,658,763 fatalities … and 290,556,684 reported recoveries.    (Source.)

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 75.1 percent of the total US population has received at least one dose of vaccine … 63.6 percent is fully vaccinated … and 41 percent has received a vaccine booster dose.

    •  From the Wall Street Journal this morning:

    "Three shots of vaccine cut the risk of death from Covid-19 by 95% in those age 50 and older during the Omicron surge in the U.K., according to an early study that showed immunity from vaccination held up well against the worst effects of the disease even among older people who are most at risk.

    "The analysis, by the U.K. Health Security Agency, offers a glimpse of how effective vaccination is against death from Omicron in a highly boosted population. The U.K. government in December hurried to offer boosters to everyone 16 and older, expanding a campaign that up to that point had only applied to people 50 and older, and those with certain health conditions.

    "The highly mutated Omicron variant can easily evade immune defenses to infect vaccinated people, leading to record-high case numbers across the world as the variant spread, even in highly-vaccinated places like the U.K. But several studies have shown that boosting restores some protection against symptomatic illness and, to a greater degree, against hospitalization.

    "The latest data show that protection is greater still against death."

    •  The New York Post reports that "health officials around the world are closely monitoring a new Omicron sub-variant that has been found in at least 40 countries, including nearly 100 cases in the US.

    "The variant, BA.2, is one of at least four descendants of Omicron that has been detected, and it has already become the dominant form of the virus in Denmark.

    "It is widely being dubbed 'stealth Omicron' because of a genetic trait that makes it harder to detect."

    •  USA Today has a list of the retail pharmacies - as identified by the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program - that are offering free N95 masks (three per person) as part of the nation's efforts to fight the pandemic.  Among them, as identified in the story:

    -  Albertsons Companies, Inc. (including Osco, Jewel-Osco, Albertsons, Albertsons Market, Safeway, Tom Thumb, Star Market, Shaw’s, Haggen, Acme, Randalls, Carrs, Market Street, United, Vons, Pavilions, Amigos, Lucky’s, Pak n Save, Sav-On)

    -  Costco Wholesale Corp.

    -  CVS Pharmacy, Inc. (including Long’s)

    -  H-E-B, LP

    -  Hy-Vee, Inc.

    -  Kroger Co. (including Kroger, Harris Teeter, Fred Meyer, Fry’s, Ralphs, King Soopers, Smiths, City Market, Dillons, Mariano’s, Pick-n-Save, Copps, Metro Market, QFC)

    -  Meijer, Inc.

    -  Publix Super Markets, Inc.

    -  Retail Business Services, LLC (including Food Lion, Giant Food, The Giant Company, Hannaford Bros Co, Stop & Shop)

    -  Rite Aid Corp.

    -  Southeastern Grocers (Winn-Dixie, Harveys, Fresco Y Mas)

    -  Topco Associates, LLC (including Acme Fresh Markets, Associated Food Stores, Bashas, Big-Y Pharmacy and Wellness Center, Brookshire’s Pharmacy, Super One Pharmacy, FRESH by Brookshire’s Pharmacy, Coborn’s Pharmacy, Cash Wise Pharmacy, MarketPlace Pharmacy, Giant Eagle, Hartig Drug Company, King Kullen, Food City Pharmacy, Ingles Pharmacy, Raley’s, Bel Air, Nob Hill Pharmacies, Save Mart Pharmacies, Lucky Pharmacies, SpartanNash, Price Chopper, Market 32, Tops Friendly Markets, ShopRite, Wegmans, Weis Markets, Inc.)

    -  Walgreens (including Duane Reade)

    -  Walmart, Inc. (including Sam’s Club) Pharmacies

    Published on: January 28, 2022

    •  The Washington Post this morning reports that federal labor regulators are accusing "Amazon of illegally surveilling and threatening workers who are trying to unionize a Staten Island, N.Y., warehouse.

    "The complaint … marks the National Labor Relations Board’s latest brush with the e-commerce giant over questions about its tactics. The NLRB wants to compel Amazon to take certain actions to inform workers of their right to organize, according to Kathy Drew King, a regional director for the agency.

    "Amazon 'repeatedly broke the law by threatening, surveilling, and interrogating their Staten Island warehouse workers who are engaged in a union organizing campaign,'

    King said in a statement.

    "Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the allegations were false, adding without elaboration that 'we look forward to showing that through this process'."

    The NLRB ruled earlier this week that the pro-unionization forces at the Staten Island warehouse had accumulated enough signatures to compel an election, though Amazon also has expressed skepticism about that assertion.

    Published on: January 28, 2022

    •  The Wall Street Journal writes that "the U.S. economy grew rapidly in the fourth quarter of last year, advancing to a 6.9% annual rate, capping the strongest year of growth in nearly four decades as the country rebounded quickly from the pandemic-induced recession.

    "But growth recently has run into obstacles that could lead to more modest growth this year, economists say … Thursday’s report contained warning signs. Most of the growth owed to companies’ restocking rather than people and firms buying stuff. In part, the rise in inventory investment reflected a rebound from super-low inventory levels in the summer. Inventory levels remain low because of persistent shortages. Excluding the inventory effects, output grew at a modest annual rate of 1.9% in the fourth quarter.

    "Americans reined in shopping toward the end of the quarter, according to other Commerce Department data on retail sales, as the Omicron variant of Covid-19 triggered a new wave of infections and higher prices cut into their paychecks. A separate Commerce Department report Thursday showed sales of durable goods—long-lasting items such as cars, refrigerators and bulldozers—fell in December."

    •  Bloomberg reports that "initial unemployment claims totaled 260,000 in the week ended Jan. 22, down 30,000 from the prior period, Labor Department data showed Thursday. The median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for 265,000 applications.

    "Applications declined after a surge in recent weeks amid an uptick in Covid-19 cases across the country. Claims have largely been falling in the past year as companies are desperate to retain and attract talent amid ongoing labor shortages."

    •  Also from the Wall Street Journal this morning:

    "Employers spent 4% more on wages and benefits last year as workers received larger pay raises in a tight labor market and period of higher inflation, marking an increase not seen since 2001.

    "The U.S. employment-cost index - a quarterly measure of wages and benefits paid by employers - showed that costs continued to rise at the highest rate in two decades of available records, with a seasonally adjusted increase of 1% in the fourth quarter of 2021 over the prior three months. The fourth quarter gain, compared with a year ago, rose 4% on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, the Labor Department said Friday."

    Labor costs, the story says, "are a significant contributor to rising prices. And the current tight labor market is encouraging many workers with bargaining power to switch jobs and demand more pay, raising the risk of a destabilizing inflation dynamic known as a wage-price spiral."

    Published on: January 28, 2022

    •  Home Depot announced yesterday that it is promoting its COO, longtime company executive Ted Becker, to the CEO job.  Current CEO Craig Menear will remain at the company as board chairman.

    Published on: January 28, 2022

    …will return next week.

    Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.