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    Published on: January 18, 2023

    by Michael Sansolo

    A few weeks ago I received an emailed update from my temple announcing a series of upcoming seminars. The first topic seemed both benign and timely:  The power of saying hello.

    Makes sense.  During a time of social isolation, this is an appropriate subject, designed to help people understand how to better make social connections with strangers.

    Then things got dark.  A lot darker.  Because the next three seminars were focused on a) how to survive a hostage situation, b) how to recognize suspicious or potentially dangerous behavior and c) how to minister to others who might have significant wounds.

    It was a reminder of the reality in which we all live.  Especially at a temple, in a time when anti-semitic behavior is on the rise.

    My temple has already had one episode of vandalism and a few years back changed the landscaping to create permanent impediments to a truck bomb. I am not a regular temple-goer, but it’s been a long time since I attended services that didn’t have a substantial and visible armed police presence on site.

    Sad to say, there is a business lesson in all this.

    Far too many recent events have reminded us that stores have become especially vulnerable to attacks and that the presence of firearms in open carry states can quickly lead to panic.

    For that reason, I think the sad, yet pro-active approach being taken by my temple is something others need to emulate. We all hope that our personal worlds - schools, churches and temples, stores, malls and more - will never experience random violence, but hopes aren’t enough. We need to prepare for whatever might happen and hope that preparation is never put into action.

    Much like my temple, retailers need to educate staff on all the same kinds of issues so that they and customers can best be cared for in case the not-so-unthinkable happens.

    But I'd like to think there is a lesson in my temple's offering a seminar on the power of saying hello. 

    Perhaps by greeting people (both customers and fellow staffers) and making that a standard and regular occurrence, and by giving staff tips on how to spot potentially dangerous situations, we can prevent things from escalating.  At a minimum it might help create a friendlier store environment for everyone.

    Most certainly, it couldn’t hurt.


    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: January 18, 2023

    Alamo Drafthouse, the movie theater chain, has demonstrated that by hustling - not just putting movies on the screen, but creating events that magnify and supplement traditional experiences, it can outperform its rivals by double digits.  The lessons, I think, are entirely applicable to retail, and reason to Remember The Alamo!

    Published on: January 18, 2023

    The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that Albertsons can pay its shareholders a $4 billion special dividend, refusing to even consider a case brought by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

    The Seattle Times writes that this was "the last legal obstacle" to payment of the dividend, which Ferguson argued "could financially weaken Albertsons and lead to closures of locations of Albertsons and of Safeway, which Albertsons owns."  The Times writes that "in a terse, two-page ruling … the court declined to review the case or extend a temporary restraining order blocking the dividend."

    The dividend became an issue because it was announced at the same time as a proposed $24.6 billion acquisition of Albertsons by Kroger.  While executives said that the dividend was unrelated to the merger, and was part of a previously announced goal to enhance shareholder value.

    Key to opposition to the payment was an argument that if the merger does not go through, the dividend would leave Albertsons less able to compete independently.

    "Albertsons Cos. will immediately begin the process of paying the Special Dividend and amounts will be distributed as soon as practicable to stockholders of record as of the close of business on October 24, 2022," the company said in a statement.

    “We respect the decision of the Court, but we are surprised and disappointed the Supreme Court decided not to hear this case,” Ferguson said in a statement Tuesday afternoon, adding, “This merger is far from a done deal.  My team and I will be conducting a thorough review.”

    The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) also released a statement:  "We are disappointed to see a ruling that favors a small number of ultra-wealthy shareholders over the many thousands of essential workers and millions of Americans who will be left to suffer the consequences of the outright financial looting of Albertsons. Despite this setback that allows the $4 billion dividend to be issued, the delay allowed the United States Senate to scrutinize the dividend payment as well as the mega-merger and alerted the public to the disastrous consequences if the merger were to go through."

    KC's View:

    I'm willing to concede that the dividend was a separate issue from the acquisition, though the optics weren't great, since they were announced at virtually the same time.  But now the checks are being issued - with a particularly largely one going to Cerberus Capital Management and Apollo Global Management, the private equity firms with major positions in Albertsons.

    The merger of the two companies is another matter, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is expected to spend a year or more considering its implications in terms of both consumers and competitive issues.  This may be a longer and tougher slog than some expect, since the current leadership at the FTC and the Biden administration have signaled a somewhat broader and tougher approach to such issues.

    I think it is likely that the FTC will consider stakeholders as well as shareholders when scrutinizing the deal, and I would hope that it will shine a bright light on the impact a deal could have on the fees and allowances that a combined company may be able to charge suppliers.  I'm not sure it is - or should be - as simple as just allowing for the divestment of a bunch of stores and then permitting a combined Kroger-Albertsons entity to go on its way.

    I'm not saying that the FTC should reject the merger.  In fact, if I had to bet, I'd wager that eventually it will go through, with some significant conditions.  But I'd like to see a nuanced and comprehensive discussion of retail competition in America within the context of what the world actually looks like, not some antiquated construct based on how things used to be.

    Published on: January 18, 2023

    Wakefern Food Corp. announced that it is working with Trigo, the Israel-based computer vision company, "to pilot an autonomous supermarket making use of Trigo's AI-based frictionless checkout technology."

    First up is a test convenience store operating on Wakefern's New Jersey campus, only open to company employees, who will test the technology before it is used in stores open to shoppers.

    This is Trigo's first foray into US retail, after launches with the UK's Tesco and Germany's REWE, Aldi NORD and Netto, owned by The EDEKA Group.

    The technology is described as similar to that used by Amazon and Zippin:  "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."

    KC's View:

    I'll say it again - checkout-free, frictionless technology will at some point be as ubiquitous as scanning.

    Published on: January 18, 2023

    The Seattle Times reports that as Amazon proceeds with its plans to lay off 18,000 employees, a number of those workers are the people recently hired in human Resources to deal with warehouse workers.

    Here's how the Times frames the story:

    "In August, Amazon rolled out a new system to help its warehouse workers connect with a human — rather than a chatbot — when they had questions about things like time cards or time off.

    "Amazon’s goal? Respond to questions within 10 seconds.

    "For warehouse workers, the COVID-19 pandemic — and the unprecedented number of questions about sick time and corporate polices — exposed flaws in the system that left some workers confused about how or why they were fired, and unable to reach anyone who could fix mistakes. Strict attendance rules, workplace expectations and high injury rates mean warehouse workers are often searching for answers that can be elusive in a network that includes thousands of warehouse associates.

    "Less than six months after launching the new system as another resource for those warehouse associates, Amazon trimmed the workforce in charge of responding to those questions.

    "As part of a wave of layoffs that could total 18,000 workers, Amazon is cutting from its human resources department, including teams meant to assist warehouse workers with everything from terminations to protected leave to questions about day-to-day operations … For a mostly remote team that Amazon calls its Regional Centers, the cuts mean fewer people to help answer questions from the network of warehouse employees who turn to HR for assistance. Most Amazon warehouses have an on-site HR employee or team to answer immediate questions. But employees can also contact the Regional Center if those teams are jammed or unable to answer the question."

    KC's View:

    The optics ain't great.  Amazon has come under considerable criticism for working conditions in its warehouses, and reducing the support teams that are charged with helping distribution center workers navigate the system may not be the best look.

    I'm sure there are arguments on both sides, but it seems eminently possible that Amazon, given a choice between efficiency and effectiveness, and facing financial pressures, is going with efficiency.  That may not be the best long-term choice.

    Published on: January 18, 2023

    Fascinating story from the New York Times detailing how when many workers start jobs in the restaurant business, they are required to "pay around $15 to a company called ServSafe for an online class in food safety."

    What they don't know - or at least, didn't know until now - is that ServSafe "doubles as a fund-raising arm of the National Restaurant Association — the largest lobbying group for the food-service industry, claiming to represent more than 500,000 restaurant businesses. The association has spent decades fighting increases to the minimum wage at the federal and state levels, as well as the sub-minimum wage paid to tipped workers like waiters."

    In other words, the Times writes, employees who generally would argue for an increase in the minimum wage actually are helping to fund a lobbying group that has effectively worked against any such increase.

    The Times offers some context:

    "The federal minimum wage has risen just once since 1996, to $7.25 from $5.15, while the minimum hourly wage for tipped workers has been $2.13 since 1991. Minimums are higher in many states, but still below what labor groups consider a living wage.

    "For years, the restaurant association and its affiliates have used ServSafe to create an arrangement with few parallels in Washington, where labor unwittingly helps to pay for management’s lobbying. First, in 2007, the restaurant owners took control of a training business. Then they helped lobby states to mandate the kind of training they already provided — producing a flood of paying customers.

    "More than 3.6 million workers have taken this training, providing about $25 million in revenue to the restaurant industry’s lobbying arm since 2010. That was more than the National Restaurant Association spent on lobbying in the same period, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

    "That $25 million represented about 2 percent of the National Restaurant Association’s total revenues over that same period, but more than half of the amount its members paid in dues. Most industry groups are much more reliant on big-dollar donors or membership support to meet their expenses. Most of the association’s revenues come from trade shows and other classes."

    The Times notes that "the president of the National Restaurant Association, Michelle Korsmo, declined to be interviewed. In a written statement, she said the group had sought to protect both public health and the financial health of the industry.  'The association’s advocacy work keeps restaurants open; it keeps workers employed, it finds pathways for worker opportunity, and it keeps our communities healthy,' Ms. Korsmo wrote."

    KC's View:

    First, I'd suggest that the National Restaurant Association needs to get better public relations advice - that written statement consists of the kind of gruel that most of its members should be embarrassed to serve.

    Second, I would just observe that this story - which should go viral pretty quickly - won't do a lot for management-labor relations in the restaurant industry.  A lot of operators may now feel pressure to move to a different training company without the same lobbying connections.

    Published on: January 18, 2023

    •  Starbucks announced an expansion of its partnership with DoorDash, "with new delivery service launching today in Northern California, Texas, Georgia, Florida and other select markets. Starbucks delivery with DoorDash will expand to additional markets over the coming months, with full nationwide availability anticipated in all 50 states by March 2023."

    According to the announcement, "This expansion follows on the heels of positive feedback from a successful pilot in Atlanta, Houston, and Sacramento, and additional market expansion in Seattle, Portland, and New York City last year."


    •  The Information reports that "Microsoft is preparing to lay off as many as thousands of staff in multiple divisions starting as soon as Wednesday, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The percentage of staff that would be impacted couldn’t be learned … Among the new cuts will be teams within a group led by executive Omar Abbosh that help Microsoft’s sales teams pitch customers on Azure cloud services, this person said. Teams that don’t generate revenue or whose roles don’t carry specific sales quotas are especially vulnerable, the person said. Some of the roles Microsoft is eliminating are expected to be outsourced to consultants that work with the company."

    The layoffs are happening despite the fact that "Microsoft hasn’t been under the same pressure as other companies making cuts because it didn’t hire as aggressively during the pandemic."


    •  From TechCrunch:

    "Amazon is quietly piloting a new tier for its Prime membership in India, providing customers with access to popular benefits such as free two-day delivery and ad-supported Prime Video in standard definition at a lower price.

    "The new tier, called Prime Lite, is currently available to select customers at a discounted annual price of $12 (999 Indian rupees). This is a cost-effective alternative to the regular Prime membership, which is priced at $18 (1499 Indian rupees) per year, or $2.20 (179 Indian rupees) per month.

    "Amazon’s Prime membership has been available in India since 2016. It was priced at $12 a year for some time, though the company increased its pricing to $18 in December 2021. In the U.S., the Prime subscription is available at $139 per year or $14.99 per month."

    Published on: January 18, 2023

    •  From Fox Business:

    "Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said Monday the company has been working with its manufacturers on how they can work together to reduce costs as its customers remain under financial strain.

    "'About half of our customers are under a lot of strain from a financial perspective … their wages haven't kept up with the inflation they've incurred,' McMullen said during a keynote session at NRF 2023: Retail's Big Show in New York City on Monday.

    "McMullen said the company is always thinking about how to make things affordable and accessible for its customers, especially as they remain under pressure from inflation, which he predicts will moderate or flatten toward the end of the year.

    "'Our expectation is as you get later in the year, you start seeing quite a bit of moderation in inflation or flat inflation,' McMullen said. 'We still don't see much deflation now'."

    Published on: January 18, 2023

    •  Weis Market announced the promotion of Tonya Woytowich, formerly general merchandising category manager, to the role of director of general merchandise (GM) and health and beauty care (HBC).