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    Published on: January 19, 2023

    Today, I'm featuring a conversation with Alan Ying, a cardio-thoracic surgeon turned technology entrepreneur, and the co-author of a new book entitled "The Risk Paradox."  This book offers "life lessons from 102 amazing risk takers," and focuses on how different kinds of people deal with moments of decision in their lives and businesses.  In many ways, they argue, the worst risk you can take is not to take a risk at all … and I thought it would be fun to talk to talk about how companies (including his) create a risk-taking culture that serves growth and innovation.

    If you'd like to download and listen to this conversation as an audio podcast, click below.

    "The Risk Paradox" is available on Amazon, at the iconic Portland independent bookstore Powell's, on Bookshop.org, and wherever books are sold.

    Published on: January 19, 2023

    Amazon yesterday sent customers an email that read, in part:

    "In 2013, we launched AmazonSmile to make it easier for customers to support their favorite charities. However, after almost a decade, the program has not grown to create the impact that we had originally hoped. With so many eligible organizations - more than 1 million globally - our ability to have an impact was often spread too thin.

    "We are writing to let you know that we plan to wind down AmazonSmile by February 20, 2023. We will continue to pursue and invest in other areas where we’ve seen we can make meaningful change - from building affordable housing to providing access to computer science education for students in underserved communities to using our logistics infrastructure and technology to assist broad communities impacted by natural disasters.

    "To help charities that have been a part of the AmazonSmile program with this transition, we will be providing them with a one-time donation equivalent to three months of what they earned in 2022 through the program, and they will also be able to accrue additional donations until the program officially closes in February. Once AmazonSmile closes, charities will still be able to seek support from Amazon customers by creating their own wish lists.

    "As a company, we will continue supporting a wide range of other programs that help thousands of charities and communities across the U.S."

    KC's View:

    As someone who has used AmazonSmile for years, I must admit that I'm disappointed by this decision.

    I went back to see if I could find an email that I'd received from the program about previous donations, and this is what I found, from late October 2022:

    This is the quarterly notification to inform you that AmazonSmile has made a charitable donation to the charity you’ve selected, Susan G. Komen Global Headquarters, in the amount of $48,138.82 as a result of qualifying purchases made by you and other customers between April 1st - June 30th. 

    Thanks to customers shopping at smile.amazon.com or using the Amazon app with AmazonSmile turned ON, everyday purchases make an impact. So far, AmazonSmile has donated: 

    $837,936.12 to Susan G. Komen Global Headquarters*

    Over $377 million to US charities

    Over $422 million to charities worldwide

    I'm sure that in some cases, the donations are thin … but donations are donations, and for me, it just felt good.

    It seems to me that this could be seen as a case in which Amazon is prioritizing itself over its customers, which is a cultural/perception shift for the company.  Maybe in a vacuum it wouldn't matter, but at a time when Amazon is going through a lot of changes, this is troubling, and adds to a narrative about Amazon that does not serve the company's brand equity.

    Published on: January 19, 2023

    Checkout-free solutions provider Zippin has released a new iteration of its technology, Zippin Walk-Up, which is designed to reduce friction at concession stands located in stadiums and other public venues such as airports and arenas.

    According to the announcement, the installations use "existing appliances, kitchen, and counter space, reducing CapEx to virtually zero.  Importantly, minimal construction is required, and existing stands can be converted in just days. And the best news is that the all-inclusive monthly subscription starts at under $4,000 with no upfront CapEx."

    Here's a video that shows that Zippin is up to:

    Simply put, the concept eliminates the need to have employees dealing with transactions at concession.  Rather, those people can work on food prep and making sure units are stocked in an efficient manner, while the technology allows people to pay for their purchases automatically.

    KC's View:

    This would seem to build on what I saw at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn last weekend, with Zippin powering five different checkout-free experiences there.  The one kind of retail at which it was not being used was the traditional concession stands - people still had to pay for their hot dogs, burgers and such in traditional ways - where traditional lines were very much in evidence.  Certain traditions are worth disposing of, and this would be one of them;  especially when at a baseball game, I hate it when lines means that I end up missing an inning or two.

    It seems to me that this is all about momentum, getting to the point where checkout-free is less exception and more expectation.

    Published on: January 19, 2023

    Good piece in the New York Times about how, in Florida's Miami-Dade County, vendors "can be found in parking lots and along busy roads … They turn their open car trunks into makeshift cafeterias or grocery stores, selling produce, tamales, seafood and meats. They shout their sales pitches, lighthearted Spanish rhymes, as they follow shoppers coming and going from the stores."

    Many of the vendors "are from rural Cuba; they are familiar with growing, maintaining and selling produce. Other roadside salespeople make meals like tamales from their homes and sell them on the streets, sweating in the humidity as they sit in lawn chairs next to their cars … Many of these vendors operate alone, but others, like Sabor de Mi Cuba, have a fleet of cars throughout the county that deliver tamales to customers all year. They also sell in parking lots or at businesses that welcome them, like barber shops and nail salons in shopping centers."

    The Times notes that "many of these peddlers are unlicensed. In Hialeah, a Cuban American neighborhood, street vendors can get an annual license for $50 to sell items like bottled water, flowers and whole fruit."  But those licenses do not extend to things like baked goods and tamales made with corn and pork."

    KC's View:

    A lot of these folks are just trying to make a living, though that doesn't address the issue of food safety;  it also doesn't help traditional retailers that find themselves competing with these insurgents.

    That said, if South Florida is like most other places around the country, there must be a lot of retailers looking for motivated, experienced employees who would love to have more traditional jobs with regular paychecks and benefits.  You'd think that somehow retailers could find a way to access all these street vendors and make them appealing offers.

    Now, it may be that the regressive immigration laws we have in this country make this impossible.  That's a different problem.  But there ought to be a way to match people who want to work, wherever they happen to be from and whatever their immigration status, with companies that can't find enough employees.

    Published on: January 19, 2023

    Ecommerce Bytes has a story about how Amazon is dealing with storage capacity issues in its Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA) program - it is simultaneously putting limits on what vendors can store in its warehouses and turning the problem into a new source of revenue.

    The story says that Amazon has announced "a new system for sellers it says will give them more control over managing their capacity. It is combining weekly Restock limits and Storage limits together into a single new 'FBA capacity limit' that will apply monthly … FBA capacity limits are influenced by sellers’ IPI scores (Inventory Performance Index), as well as other factors such as sales forecasts for their ASINs, shipment lead time, and Amazon fulfillment center capacity."

    The story says that "Amazon will also display capacity limits in cubic volume 'which better represents the capacity sellers’ products use in our fulfillment centers and transportation vehicles,' but Amazon will continue to show inventory usage in units, providing an estimate of how many units specific cubic volume capacity limits are likely to permit."

    And here's the revenue opportunity:  "Another major change is how sellers can request more capacity once the new system is in place. Marketplace Pulse called it an auction system – 'Amazon will allow sellers to go beyond the allocated warehouse space by bidding for more,' it wrote … 'With our new Capacity Manager, sellers can request additional capacity based on a reservation fee that they specify. Requests are granted objectively, starting with the highest reservation fee per cubic foot until all capacity available under this program has been allocated'."

    Ecommerce Bytes notes that "when additional capacity is granted, sellers’ reservation fees are offset by earning performance credits from the sales they generate using the extra capacity. Performance credits are designed to offset up to 100% of the reservation fee, so sellers don’t pay for the additional capacity as long as their products sell through."

    KC's View:

    I'm not begrudging Amazon's desire to get paid for its logistics and warehouse capabilities.  I just think it is interesting the degree to which it seems to be looking for every opportunity at the moment.

    Y'think Andy Jassy wanders around Amazon's various buildings checking the couches to see if spare change has fallen between the cushions?

    Published on: January 19, 2023

    Business Insider reports that Whole Foods' new CEO Jason Buechel, wants to triple the number of stores that the retailer opens each year, to roughly 30.

    Buechel also says that "Whole Foods is looking at new store formats, including 'new ways that we can serve customers' with new store sizes and shapes. 'I can't share a lot today, but we've got a couple of examples that we've already done,' Buechel said. He pointed to the chain's 'Ideal Market Denver,' a Colorado store where Whole Foods is offering more organic products as well as additional sustainable offerings, such as bottled water that doesn't rely on single-use plastic containers … It also opened a location in New York City's financial district on January 11. The store features art deco design as well as a wide array of products local to New York, Whole Foods said of the opening. Shoppers can also stop by the meat counter to see the store's butcher at work."

    Business Insider notes that "Buechel's goal contrasts with Amazon Fresh, which has reportedly paused new store openings," and "also contrasts with other Amazon-owned store chains. Last March, Amazon said it would close 68 stores, including all of its Amazon Books and Amazon 4-Star locations. "

    Buechel's ambitions also come "as consumers resume visiting stores and turn away from grocery delivery services, which gained popularity during the early months of the pandemic. Grocery delivery sales fell 1.8% in December, even as sales through pick-up orders rose."

    KC's View:

    I'll be interested in seeing some of these new Whole Foods formats, especially because it has become a common observation that in its post-Amazon years, the company has lost a few miles off its fastball.  Opening more stores is one challenge, but opening better stores may be the more important goal.

    Published on: January 19, 2023

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  From Gizmodo:

    "Amazon’s prime members plateaued last year according to a Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) report released this week. The number of subscribers has been in decline since July of last year, according to the CIRP, which claimed in the first six months of the year, Amazon Prime did not add net new members in the U.S.

    "Amazon spokesperson Maggie Sivon said in an emailed statement to Gizmodo that the CIRP’s reports are false. 'Just because an analyst firm reports something doesn’t make it true or fact, and in this case, the research is not accurate,' she said. 'Prime membership continues to grow as the value members receive continues to increase'."

    I don't want to give too much credence to the research report - it may or may not be true.  But … it does add to a narrative of vulnerability at Amazon, which could be problematic in terms of stock price and, perhaps, Andy Jassy's long-term job security.


    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "Federal authorities have cited Amazon.com Inc. for safety violations at three of its warehouses.

    "The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Wednesday it had issued citations to the company after inspections at facilities in Florida, Illinois and New York.  It said workers at those sites were exposed to ergonomic hazards or hazards with equipment, including having to perform tasks that could lead to lower back injuries and other muscle-related conditions … The company faces a fine of about $60,000 for the violations, the agency said. The Labor Department opened an investigation after referrals from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York."

    The Journal notes that "an Amazon spokeswoman said the company would appeal the decisions, which 'don’t reflect the reality of safety at our sites'."

    Published on: January 19, 2023

    •  Walmart this week announced the expansion of a pilot program designed to give "supply chain associates in select parts of the country a path to earn their commercial driver’s license (CDL) and became full-fledged Private Fleet Walmart drivers."  Now, Walmart says, it is "expanding the pilot program so that associates working in stores, distribution centers, fulfillment centers and transportation offices in participating locations will be able to take advantage of this incredible program.

    "Through this expanded pilot, associates in stores, distribution centers, fulfillment centers and transportation offices within a 50-mile radius of a participating transportation office will be eligible to apply to the Associate-to-Driver program. After they complete the 12-week training course and earn their CDLs, they have a coveted Walmart driving job ready to step into. Walmart drivers can make up to $110,000 in their first year with the company, in addition to the suite of benefits the company offers. And that’s just a start – drivers who have been with Walmart longer can earn even more, based on factors like tenure and location."

    Published on: January 19, 2023

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  From the Associated Press:

    "Wholesale prices in the United States rose 6.2 percent in December from a year earlier, a sixth straight slowdown and a hopeful sign that inflation pressures will continue to cool.

    "The latest year-over-year figure was down from 7.3 percent in November and from a recent peak of 11.7 percent in March. On a monthly basis, the government said Wednesday that its producer price index, which measures costs before they reach consumers, dropped 0.5 percent from November to December.

    "The producer price data can provide an early sign of where consumer inflation might be headed. The data reflects the prices that are charged by manufacturers, farmers, and wholesalers, and it flows into an inflation gauge that the Federal Reserve closely tracks, the personal consumption expenditures price index.

    "The ongoing slowdown in wholesale price growth is adding to evidence that the worst bout of inflation in four decades is steadily easing, though it remains far above the Federal Reserve’s target of 2 percent."


    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "U.S. consumers cut back on retail spending at the height of the holiday season as consumers spent less on vehicles, in popular gift categories, and furniture.

    Retail sales, a measure of purchases at stores, restaurants and online, declined a seasonally adjusted 1.1% in December from the prior month, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. That was the biggest monthly decline of 2022 and marked the second consecutive month of decline. November’s retail sales were revised lower to a 1% drop.

    "Sales declined in a number of gift-giving categories in December, including electronics, clothing, at department stores and online. Dining out at bars and restaurants dropped 0.9% on the month. Sales of furniture and vehicles, which are sensitive to higher borrowing costs, both fell sharply.

    "Wednesday’s data follows signs that consumer demand is cooling in the face of high inflation and rising borrowing costs. Some retailers have said the recently completed holiday shopping season turned out to be weaker than expected."


    •  From the Associated Press:

    "Party City has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after struggling with rising prices and a pullback in customer spending.

    "The company, based in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, said that its franchise stores, subsidiaries outside of the US and its foil balloons Anagram business are not part of the restructuring and will remain core components of its business.

    "Party City Holdco Inc., said its more than 800 company-owned and franchise stores throughout North America will remain open, and customers can still shop on the company website.

    "The chain is planning an expedited restructuring that it said would substantially lower its debt and free up cash."


    •  From Engadget:

    "Oil and gas company Shell is buying electric vehicle charging operator Volta for $169 million through a subsidiary. The deal, which the companies expect to close in the first half of this year, amounts to 86 cents per share, around 18 percent more than Volta's closing price on Tuesday.

    "Volta's board of directors approved the deal unanimously, though it still requires the green light from shareholders. It's subject to regulatory approval and other closing conditions too. Shell will provide loans to Volta to give it a hand through the closing of the transaction. On September 30th, Volta had $15.6 million in cash and cash equivalents, compared with $262.2 million at the end of 2021."

    The story points out that Volta "has more than 3,000 charging stations across the US and a handful in Europe, typically at grocery stores and malls … Odd as it may seem that an oil company is buying an EV charging network, it isn't the first time Shell has done so. It snapped up UK network Ubitricity in 2021 for an undisclosed sum. Last year, Hertz and BP announced plans to set up a charging network in the US."

    In other words, Shell is not in denial about where the world is going.   

    Published on: January 19, 2023

    •  The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) announced that Jen Johnson, most recently  c-store channel account manager at NCR Corp., has joined NACS as director of business development, localized business solutions.

    Published on: January 19, 2023

    Got the following email reacting to Michael Sansolo's column yesterday about how his temple has begun offering seminars 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 is, Michael wrote, a reminder of the degree to which so many institutions - from temples to stores - are vulnerable these days.

    This article reminds me back in the early 2000’s our church in Dallas started requiring all children’s care worker to pass a background check, and installed cameras in the kid’s building.  Had the same thing happen when we moved to Boise in early 2010’s, where our church did the same thing with background checks and cameras.  My wife and I (male) used to help out with the infants (under 2 yrs) and was told at one point some of the mom’s weren’t comfortable with a man watching their baby.

    We now live in San Antonio, where our church also requires background checks and has cameras, but we also have 2 police officers on campus during services.  And since this is south Texas, it’s my understanding that about 60% of the congregation is packing during any given service.  Sad times, but reality.


    Good observation from MNBV reader Joe Ciccarelli:

    Whenever a retailer says they are going to work jointly with manufacturers to reduce costs the message to manufacturers –“ hold onto your wallets."


    Reacting to our piece about Barnes & Noble's resurgence, one MNB reader wrote:

    I tried to buy a book at B & N over the Holidays.  There was only one of six registers running but there were four employees milling around the help desk.  I stood in a line of about 10 customers long.  While in line to check out I went onto Amazon on my phone, found the same book for half the price.  The convenience of having the book that day was not worth half an hour of my time standing in line.  I purchased the book from Amazon and was out of the store in less than 5 minutes.  Sorry B & N, but you have to do better.  Convenience of product on-hand does not matter if you make it laborious to actually purchase the book.