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    Published on: May 6, 2022

    I'm back in the office after a couple of trips that allowed me to bring you stories from the west coast, and today I have a story about a well known institution that, by thinking beyond its traditional business model, generated lots of new customers and sales.  There's a lesson there, I think, for retailers.

    Published on: May 6, 2022

    CNBC reports that "worker productivity fell to start 2022 at its fastest pace in nearly 75 years while labor costs soared as the U.S. struggled with surging Covid cases, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday.

    "Nonfarm productivity, a measure of output against hours worked, declined 7.5% from January through March, the biggest fall since the third quarter of 1947.  At the same time, unit labor costs soared 11.6%, bringing the increase over the past four quarters to 7.2%, the biggest gain since the third quarter of 1982. The metric calculates how much employers pay workers in salary and benefits per unit of output."

    National Public Radio's Marketplace offers some analysis, establishing right up front that "it’s not because of Wordle."

    According to Marketplace, "There are a few things that could explain the drop, experts told us. A lot of hiring, vacant positions and new workers who aren’t getting as much done … There’s also the supply chain mess. Inputs — parts, raw materials and so on — have been slow to arrive. Workers have been sitting around idle more of the time. And don’t forget about the omicron wave."

    But there is some good news, Marketplace suggests:  "Productivity data tends to be pretty volatile. So one bad quarter doesn’t make a long-term trend."

    In other economic news, the Wall Street Journal writes that "new applications for unemployment benefits rose last week for the first time since early April amid other signs the U.S. labor market remains unusually tight.  Initial jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs, increased by 19,000 to 200,000 last week from the previous week’s revised level of 181,000, the Labor Department said Thursday."

    According to the story, "Filings for unemployment benefits have remained near historic lows since late 2021. The four-week average for claims, which smooths out volatility in the weekly figures, rose to 188,000 from the previous week’s revised 180,000. The four-week average reached 170,500 last month, its lowest point on records dating back to 1967."

    And this morning, CNBC writes that "the U.S. economy added slightly more jobs than expected in April amid an increasingly tight labor market and despite surging inflation and fears of a growth slowdown, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported … Nonfarm payrolls grew by 428,000 for the month, a bit above the Dow Jones estimate of 400,000. The unemployment rate was 3.6%, slightly higher than the estimate for 3.5%."

    Published on: May 6, 2022

    The US Chamber of Commerce has an interview with Chris Rupp, Chief Customer and Digital Officer at Albertsons, in which she talks about the company's digital efforts, and how the pandemic "served to expedite our efforts because so many people demanded e-commerce to shop from the safety of their home."

    An excerpt:

    "When beginning the digital transformation, Rupp and her team thought about all the things they could do for customers and divided them into three different 'buckets.'  The first category was 'minimal lovable product.' That means, Rupp said, the features which 'if you can’t, at a minimum, do these very simple things why would customers ever shop with you?'

    "'It’s things like the app has to be up and running 24/7, you can’t have any outages,' she said. 'You have to be shipping on time. You have to offer a meaningful selection. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the full selection in our store, but it has to be a meaningful selection.'

    "The second bucket was 'all the things customers have come to expect,' and have seen competitors do well, such as a personalized experience that saves you time, or faster shipping speeds, Rupp said.

    ''The third bucket we call differentiated experiences,' she said. 'It would be the reason you would come to us instead of anywhere else'."

    The story goes on:

    "When adding digital capabilities, companies need to decide if it is smarter to build the app or technology themselves, buy it, or form a strategic partnership with another company.

    "'There are a lot of cases where buying the technology will make a lot of sense, if it’s not differentiated and just considered to be very basic,' Rupp said. 'When you start thinking about what the heart of your business is and why a customer would pick you over all the other alternatives, then you would think about building your own [tech] or partnering with someone who can help you create that differentiation'."

    KC's View:

    I think this is exactly the right way to think about a retail value proposition - you have to do all the bare minimum things, then meet consumer expectations, and build on those foundations to create differentiated physical and digital experiences.  And you have to do it all at once, and be vigilant about making sure the delivery of these three priorities is consistent.

    It has always been thus, but heightened competition actually has raised the stakes.

    I've always been frustrated by retailers who talk about "getting back to fundamentals."  My feeling is that if you're not delivering those already, it may be time to get out of the business.

    And I think that one question retailers have to ask themselves is, "What are we doing/delivering that nobody else can or does?"  That's the essence of differentiation.

    Published on: May 6, 2022

    Bloomberg reports that New Jersey is the first state "to ban both plastic and paper bags," which leaves "companies and shoppers to find creative workarounds to get their groceries home."

    According to the story, "ShopRite, with more than 100 New Jersey stores, will charge a flat $1.50 per order for reusable bags. Instacart Inc., which fulfills shoppers’ lists for Aldi Inc., Lidl Ltd., CVS Health Corp. and others, said it will charge a flat bag fee, but didn’t specify the cost.

    "Amazon.com Inc.’s Whole Foods Markets Inc. -- which dropped plastic bags nationally more than a decade ago -- will pack those orders in reusable bags, for which it is “not currently charging any additional fees,” the company said in an email. The Wawa Inc. convenience-store chain will give away 1,000 reusable bags at each of its 272 New Jersey locations starting on Wednesday."

    Bloomberg writes that "New Jersey may not be alone for long: Some studies have shown that paper, though easily recycled, can sap more energy and raw materials than plastic. Reusable bags, too, have drawbacks, as cotton versions are soil-, fertilizer-, and manufacturing-intensive, and synthetic types often rely on fossil fuels.\

    "The 100 billion plastic bags used in the U.S each year require 12 million gallons of oil to manufacture, according to EarthDay.org, a Washington-based non-profit environmental group. 

    "Places that outlawed plastic have seen use drop dramatically. California, the first state to ban single-use bags in 2016, cut plastic carryout bag use by 20,000 tons (18 million kilograms) a year, according to research by University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor. But that figure was offset by a 120% increase in sales of small trash-bin liners as consumers who had re-purposed single-use bags filled the void."

    In related news, this story from the Washington Post:

    "Americans are recycling far less plastic, according to an analysis published Wednesday, with rates falling below 6 percent in 2021. The new findings come as this waste has rebounded from the pandemic, despite global efforts to curb pollution.

    "The research from Beyond Plastics and the Last Beach Cleanup aims to shed light on the state of recycling in the United States given a delay in federal reporting. The Environmental Protection Agency last published recycling rates in 2020 based off data through 2018 and did not update it last year.

    "Drawing on the most recent EPA data available and last year’s plastic-waste exports, the new report estimates that Americans recycled 5 to 6 percent of their plastics, down from the 8.7 percent in 2018. But the real figure could be even lower, it added, given factors such as the plastic waste collected for recycling that is 'sent to cement kilns and burned'."

    KC's View:

    I know there will be a lot of pushback on this, but as a consumer, I must say that I don't really understand it.   It is rare that I walk into the store without carrying my own bags;  I've developed the habit, and we just keep the bags in the back of the car.  It doesn't seem all that hard to do the little things, the right things.

    Published on: May 6, 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…

    •  The United States now has had a total of 83,437,158 total cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 1,023,908 deaths and 80,872,122 reported recoveries.

    Globally, there have been 515,968,559 total cases, with 6,272,457 resultant fatalities and 470,783,855 reported recoveries.   (Source.)



    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 77.7 percent of the total US population has received at least one dose of vaccine … 66.3 percent are fully vaccinated … and 45.9 percent of fully vaccinated people have received a vaccine booster dose.



    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided to limit the authorization for Johnson & Johnson's one-dose Covid-19 vaccine, saying that it now is "only for adults for whom other shots aren’t available or medically appropriate, or who won’t take another vaccine.

    "The FDA said it was making the move after confirming a total of 60 cases, including nine deaths, of the clotting condition known as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, or TTS, among the millions of people who got the J&J shot.

    "The change will likely sharply scale back use of a vaccine that health authorities had once hoped would be a convenient option for many people, but has become a third choice for most people because of the emergence of the risk for the rare but life-threatening side effect."



    •  Southeastern Grocers (SEG) said yesterday that it "is now offering rapid testing for COVID-19 in all Fresco y Más, Harveys Supermarket and Winn-Dixie pharmacies throughout the Southeast communities it serves. This new pharmacy offering will allow patients to conveniently self-administer a nasal swab test under the guidance of a pharmacist.

    Patients receive certified testing results in 15 minutes or less through a secure email or text message and results are valid to present for travel or event attendance, such as concerts, sporting events or other gatherings. The grocer is offering a reduced price on testing during the month of May for $19.99 (regular price $24.99) and patients are asked to bring their ID card or driver’s license, and smartphone (if available) to their preferred pharmacy location for testing."

    Or, in the words of Irish politician John Philpot Curran, :"The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance."

    Amen.

    Published on: May 6, 2022

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports that "DoorDash's revenue rose last quarter, showing that consumers stuck to getting food and household essentials delivered even as more restaurants and stores reopened.

    "Revenue for the three months ended March grew 35% to $1.46 billion from a year earlier, when fresh Covid-19 concerns caused people to hunker down. Analysts surveyed by FactSet on average had predicted $1.38 billion in revenue.  The rate of growth for the quarter marked a sharp slowdown. The company’s revenue nearly tripled year-over-year in the corresponding quarters in 2021 and 2020."

    The story notes that "DoorDash has been one of the biggest winners of the pandemic. The app’s share in the food-delivery market in the U.S. jumped to 57% in March from 44% two years ago, according to market research firm YipitData.

    "Analysts say the company outflanked its rivals thanks to a strong delivery network in the suburbs, a wide selection of restaurants and greater efficiency in delivering the food itself. DoorDash expanded its options during the health crisis to include grocers and convenience stores, pinging consumers as they paid for food to ask them if they also wanted household items from a nearby store."



    •  GeekWire reports that "Amazon is shutting down Selz, GeekWire has learned, about a year after acquiring the small e-commerce startup.

    "Founded in 2013, Selz helps entrepreneurs sell products online. Amazon’s acquisition signaled its continued focus on third-party sellers and raised speculation about Amazon competing more directly with Shopify in providing e-commerce services regardless of whether merchants sell on Amazon.com or elsewhere.

    "'We planned to continue to support Selz merchants, however, after a thorough review, we have made a difficult decision to no longer provide Selz offering as a standalone service,' an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to GeekWire.  'We are committed to supporting Selz merchants through this process by giving a 60-day notice, facilitating their transition to any of the many other providers at merchants’ own choice and immediately waiving associated monthly and annual service fees'."

    Published on: May 6, 2022

    •  Publix Super Markets said that its sales for the three months ended March 26, 2022, were $13.2 billion, a 13.5% increase from $11.7 billion in 2021. Same-store sales were up 11.7 percent.  Net earnings for the quarter were $618 million, compared to $1.5 billion in 2021, a decrease of 58.7%.

    Published on: May 6, 2022

    •  Target yesterday announced that Cara Sylvester, the company's executive vice president and chief marketing and digital officer, is moving into the role of executive vice president and chief guest experience officer.  This is a new job title at Target, and reflects the company's focus "on further differentiating the retailer's end-to-end guest experience."

    In addition, Target said, "Brett Craig has been promoted to executive vice president and chief information officer. He will report to Sylvester. Craig joined Target in 2008 and most recently was the company's senior vice president of digital."  He succeeds the retiring  Mike McNamara.

    And "Matt Zabel has been promoted to executive vice president and general counsel. Zabel joined Target in 2010. Most recently he served as senior vice president of risk and employee and labor relations for the company."



    •  The National Grocers Association (NGA) said that it has hired Stephanie Johnson as vice president of government relations;  she is a former legislative assistant in the office of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).

    Published on: May 6, 2022

    A couple of quick comments from readers about stories that ran yesterday on MNB…

    We had a piece about how LL Bean has announced that for the month of May, it is going off the grid, pausing all social media posting for the month and wiping clean its Instagram page.  The company says the move is way to reinforce its commitment to the outdoors and underline the fact that May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

    One MNB reader observed:

    I saw your LL Bean story. I am still getting emails from them. FYI.

    So am I.

    But LL Bean only said it was not going to post on social media, not that it was going to halt all digital communications.

    I see nothing inconsistent here, and in fact think that what LL Bean is doing is perfectly on-brand.



    Also got this response to my FaceTime piece about the Tartine's bakery in Santa Monica:

    You didn't mention that Tartine is located in the former Gates-Kingsly-Gates mortuary.

    I didn't know that.

    But it certainly explains the killer egg sandwich…

    Published on: May 6, 2022

    There is a moment at the end of the first episode of season two of "Stanley Tucci:  Searching For Italy," when a chef with whom the urbane host is chatting says, "Italy is not a cliché."

    I take her point, though I'm not sure I entirely agree.  Best I can tell, based on the first season and the second season's premiere last Sunday on CNN, the show spotlights a country with wonderful food, outstanding wine, and lovely people.  A place where, no surprise, the culinary arts are core to the national identity.

    Cliché or not, "Searching For Italy" is making a welcome return.  Tucci is charming and droll, expert enough to ask great questions but never jaded - his delight is obvious, and he luxuriates in the food of his ancestors.  (Not so much so that he's not afraid to look at the camera at one point and suggest that maybe an item has too much salt.)

    "Stanley Tucci:  Searching For Italy" is appointment television, as far as I am concerned.  If you're any sort of foodie, I suspect you'll enjoy it as much as I do.



    If "Severance," on Apple TV+, reminds me of anything, it is the 1967 Patrick McGoohan TV series, "The Prisoner."

    Not that it looks anything like "The Prisoner," or has anything to do with the espionage game in which that series was set.  But "Severance" keeps reminding me of it because, as a unique combination of science fiction, thriller, psychological drama, satire and allegory, it is a trippy consideration of notions of freedom and personal identity.

    Here's the setup:  A company called Lumon Industries has developed a technology that allows employees to sever their work personalities from their outside-the-office lives.  Once a chip is implanted in their brains, when they show up in the morning they forget everything about their private lives;  when they leave at night, it is as if work does not exist.  There's no worrying about work-life balance, because it has been entirely eliminated.

    Adam Scott, Zach Cherry, Britt Lower and John Turturro are excellent as four severed office mates who for a variety of reasons start to see their faith in the program erode, asking questions about the company and its motives.  And Patricia Arquette is scary good as their boss, whose management techniques are impenetrable.

    "Severance" - which is produced and in part directed by Ben Stiller - already has been renewed for a second season.  I can't and won't tell you anything more about the series' plot turns and surprises, but I can tell you this:   can't wait.



    Mike Lupica is finishing his run as the author of the Sunny Randall series of mystery novels launched by the late Robert B. Parker;  he's going to continue writing the Jesse Stone series, and is taking over Parker's Spenser series now that Ace Atkins, who did a fabulous job for 10 years, is moving on.

    In "Robert B. Parker's Revenge Tour," private detective Sunny finds herself helping a famous romance novelist who is being threatened by an unknown stalker who has accused her of plagiarism.  At the same time, she's also protecting her father, a retired Boston cop who is being targeted by a mob boss.

    Parker used to say that his novels were rarely about who stole the Maltese Falcon;  rather, they were vehicles for him to talk about the things that interested him, and to do so with dialogue and spare prose that read like jazz sounds.  That's probably to the benefit of his successors, and especially in this book - I guessed who the villain would be by about page 25.

    But the pleasure of these books is always the ways in which the novelists - themselves fans of Parker - allow us to stay connected with a universe and characters we've loved for decades.  In the case of "Revenge Tour," Lupica takes the opportunity to bring in characters from the other series, which is its own delight for those of us in the know.

    BTW … author Alison Gaylin is taking over the Sunny Randall series, making the first time that a woman has taken over any of the Parker books.  I'm looking forward to see how a woman writes these first-person narratives about Parker's female private detective protagonist.



    That's it for this week.  I hope you have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

    Sláinte!!