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    Published on: December 4, 2020

    KC has some thoughts about how the notion of "curling up with loved ones and technologies in our bunkers, watching the world through windows and screens" can be a good thing when the right choices are made.  For businesses, that means making he right sort of enduring connections.  It shouldn't be hard, though .... by one futurist's reckoning, we've had 30 years to work on it.

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    Walmart yesterday announced more than $700 million in additional cash bonuses to its U.S. based associates.

    In a memo to employees, John Furner, president-CEO of Walmart U.S. and Kath McLay, president-CEO of  Sam’s Club, wrote that "all U.S.-based hourly associates will receive another special cash bonus toward the end of this month – $300 for full-time hourly associates, and $150 for part-time and temporary hourly associates. Some additional roles will receive a bonus as well. This bonus will be added to the Dec. 24 paychecks of approximately 1.5 million associates who work in our stores, clubs and supply chain – as well as Home Office hourly associates – who are employed as of Dec. 4. These special bonuses are in addition to the regular quarterly bonuses that were paid in the Nov. 25 paychecks."

    The two executives wrote that "we’re filled with gratitude for how you’ve led through one of the most trying periods for our company and our country. It’s difficult to express our appreciation for all you’ve done – the words thank you simply don’t match the magnitude of what you’ve accomplished. So many of you have stepped up, selflessly serving our customers, members and each other when it was needed most."

    KC's View:

    There are lots of ways to make employees feel essential, which is particularly important right now as the pandemic continues to rage.   A continued bonus program is one pretty good approach.

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    Reuters reports that a new campaign has been launched designed to pressure Amazon and its founder-CEO, Jeff Bezos to "act decisively to change your policies and priorities to do right by your workers, their communities, and our planet."  The campaign, dubbed "Make Amazon Pay," charges that the company has "dodged" its responsibilities, and says that its signatories stand ready to take political action against the company.

    The Reuters story says that "more than 400 lawmakers from 34 countries," including representatives of some 50 organizations," have signed a letter to Bezos, saying, "We stand ready to act in our respective legislatures to support the movement that is growing around the world to Make Amazon Pay.”

    According to the piece, "The letter’s signatories include U.S. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Vice President of the European Parliament Heidi Hautala."

    Amazon is used to the criticisms, and has been dealing with legislative and regulatory challenges in many of its global markets.    Responding to the letter, the company said that "Amazon has a strong track record of supporting our employees, our customers, and our communities, including providing safe working conditions, competitive wages and great benefits," and it said that it pays "billions of dollars in taxes globally."

    Reuters notes that Amazon has also pledged to be net carbon neutral by 2040.

    KC's View:

    I have two reactions to this.

    First, Amazon is being held to a high standard - if you want to be seen as a 21st century company, you have to behave with a 21st century sensibility.  I think Amazon tries, but even they probably would admit that they're not perfect.  But that's not good enough, especially when the spotlight never gets turned off.  It may not be fair, but I'm not sure it is a bad thing for a company so ubiquitous and intertwined in our lives.

    Second … I'd love to know how many of the signatories are Prime members.  Just for the hell of it.

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    The Washington Post reports this morning that "the amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits — the food assistance formerly called food stamps — redeemed at farmers markets has steadily increased over the summer months because of key changes at the Agriculture Department and expanded funding of food benefits for low-income families and school-age children during the pandemic, the USDA said.

    "The amount reached $1.4 million in May and continued to trend upward over the summer, reaching $1.75 million in September, the USDA said. That is a 50 percent increase over last year, according to anti-hunger advocates."

    The story goes on:  "Since January, farmers and markets have been able to get free equipment and support to accept SNAP through a grant. Because many farmers markets operate only in the warmer months, this took effect this spring.

    "At the same time, the USDA expanded funding for SNAP and added Pandemic EBT benefits, a debit-card program for children who would ordinarily qualify for free and reduced-price school meals, enabling low-income American households to combine the benefits. Additional regional grants doubled recipients’ fruit and vegetable benefits at many farmers markets."

    KC's View:

    In other words, we're moving in the right direction, in which federal funding, which comes out of taxpayers' pockets, is used to buy food that keeps people healthier.

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    The New York Times writes that the US Department of Labor yesterday reported that "new claims for unemployment benefits dropped for the first time in three weeks … Nearly 714,000 people filed initial claims for state unemployment insurance last week, compared with 836,000 the week before, the Labor Department reported. With seasonal swings factored in, last week’s total was 712,000."

    The Times notes that despite the decline, "the economy remains under pressure as Covid-19 cases surge and fresh restrictions on businesses loom in some states.

    The Thanksgiving holiday is likely to have delayed the filing of claims, and economists warn there will be more job losses ahead if the pandemic worsens."

    Meanwhile, National Public Radio reports that "U.S. employers sharply scaled back their hiring last month, as the coronavirus pandemic put new pressure on restaurants, retailers and other businesses.

    "The Labor Department said Friday employers added just 245,000 jobs in November, down from a revised 610,000 in October. The unemployment rate dipped to 6.7%, from 6.9% the month before. So far the U.S. has recovered 56% of the jobs that were lost in March and April, and payroll employment is still 9.8 million below its pre-pandemic levels. 

    "The slowdown in job growth comes as new infections are surging, and as Congress wrestles with whether to extend relief measures currently set to expire the day after Christmas."

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    Kroger yesterday posted Q3 numbers that included a 108 percent increase in digital sales and same-store sales that were up 10.9 percent.

    Quarterly sales rose to $29.72 billion in the third quarter from $27.97 billion a year earlier.  Kroger also increased its profit to $631 million (up 140%) from the same period a year ago.

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    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…

    •  In the United States, here are Covid-19 coronavirus numbers:  14,535,196 total confirmed cases, 282,829 deaths, and 8,561,427 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  65,626,723 confirmed cases, 1,513,866 fatalities, and 45,462,244 reported recoveries. (Source.)

    •  The New York Times writes that yesterday was a day on which "officials across the United States reported 216,422 new coronavirus cases, the highest single-day record since the start of the pandemic. Experts cautioned that the number may have been impacted by anomalies in states’ reporting, but it has been part of an overall rise in new infections. At least 2,857 deaths were reported, bringing the U.S. total to over 276,000.

    "More than a 100,000 Covid-19 patients were filling hospital beds — when they could find them. In Lubbock, Texas, on Thursday, they could not. The West Texas city of 250,000 has had a daily average of 382 new coronavirus cases in the past seven days, according to a New York Times database."

    •  The Wall Street Journal writes that "at overstretched hospitals in regions of the U.S., some patients who need intensive care can’t receive it.

    "Hospital administrators say they are racing to hire more nurses, squeezing extra beds onto floors and, in some cases, moving patients across state lines to find room for the critically ill. In some overrun pockets of the country, these emergency measures are no longer enough, doctors and nurses say … An estimated one in four intensive-care beds nationally is occupied by Covid-19 patients, up from one in 10 in September, according to the University of Minnesota’s analysis of Department of Health and Human Services data.

    "That has raised overall ICU occupancy, according to federal estimates, which is further constrained by staffing shortages as health-care workers are exposed or infected. More than 1,000 hospitals on Wednesday reported a critical staffing shortage, federal data show."

    •  From the Los Angeles Times:

    "Californians will soon be asked to comply with strict limits on community outings, travel and in-person shopping under a statewide order issued Thursday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a set of new and far-reaching restrictions tied to regional strains on critical care services as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

    "The rules, which take effect on Saturday, are designed to last for at least 21 days once local critical care facilities approach capacity. But with so many hospitals in the state experiencing a rapid surge of patients with the disease, the 'regional stay-at-home' order described by Newsom is likely to limit activities across California throughout the holiday season and possibly into the new year."

    “The bottom line is, if we don’t act now, our hospital system will be overwhelmed,” Newsom said in a midday news conference. “If we don’t act now, we’ll continue to see our death rate climb, more lives lost.”

    •  President-elect Joe Biden said yesterday that he has asked Dr. Anthony Fauci to remain as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a position he has held since 1984.  Fauci said yes, and also agreed to Biden's request that he become a medical advisor to the incoming administration.

    Biden also said yesterday that he would ask - but not mandate - that beginning on January 20, Americans agree to wear masks for 100 days as a way of trying to tamp down on coronavirus spread.

    •  In Canada, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister went on television yesterday to plead with his constituents to stay home during the upcoming Christmas holidays and respect the guidelines designed to stem the growth of the coronavirus.

    "“If you don’t care for me I understand, I totally do,” Pallister said. “I’m the guy who has told you that you cannot shop. I am the person who has come forward here in front of you 75 times, and has asked you to do things you’ve never done before, and has asked you to do that every day … I’m the guy who has to tell you to stay apart at Christmas and in the holiday season.  I’m that guy. And I’ll say that because it will keep you safe. I’m the guy who’s stealing Christmas to keep you safe.”

    Pallister went on:  "If you don’t think that COVID is real, right now, you’re an idiot.  You need to understand that we’re all in this together, you cannot fail to understand this.”

    Local media points out that Pallister has fast-falling approval rates among Manitoba's voters, probably related to his inconsistency on the issue - he vacationed in Costa Rica during the early days of the pandemic, and has been accused of moving too quickly to reopen the province's economy after it was shut down.  Still, it probably is better to get religion late than never.

    •  The Bellingham Herald reports that "Albertsons Cos. has begun taking daily temperature checks and health screenings of employees and vendors at it supermarkets, warehouses and other locations.

    "The Boise, Idaho, grocery company is rolling out touchless temperature scanners and a digital COVID-19 health questionnaire at its more than 2,200 stores nationwide.

    "Employees and vendors answer several questions about their health on their cell phones. A video monitor scans their temperature and ensures they’re wearing masks. A machine prints an adhesive sticker with an employee’s photo and the word 'cleared' to show the employee has met the protocols and is cleared for work."

    •  The New York Times has a terrific calculator that lets you estimate - based on age, location, occupation and basic health issues - where you'll be on line when the vaccine finally is available.  It only is an estimate, based on available information, but it is kind of fun to check out and compare with the people in your pod.

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague writes this morning that "retail sales figures released by Nielsen last month show that retail sales of wine in half bottles were up 45.5% in the 4-week period ending Nov. 7 over the same period last year. Full-size bottles saw a 19% increase in the same time period."

    There may be a good reason for that:  "Half bottles might be the right size right now. People are drinking alone thanks to pandemic-related restrictions on gathering at restaurants or bars, or at home with friends. And during the holidays, this size suits smaller groups of celebrants too."

    Still, she writes, they can be "a conundrum. They offer oenophiles the opportunity to try a wine for much less money—even if, often, half bottles cost more than half the full-bottle price. They can give a preview of a vintage, since wine in half bottles ages more rapidly. (The amount of air trapped between cork and wine is the same in both sizes, so the ratio of air to wine is higher in a half bottle.) This makes half bottles more readily drinkable but less valuable, too, since ageability is a hallmark of a collectible wine."

    KC's View:

    A half-bottle of wine always strikes me as being sort of like decaf coffee.  What's the point?

    But maybe that's the pandemic talking…

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    •  Amazon announced yesterday that it has joined with YETI Coolers to file a lawsuit "against two US-based individuals … for counterfeiting YETI’s products, including YETI’s popular Rambler mug. The defendants attempted to offer the infringing products in Amazon’s store, violating Amazon’s policies, YETI’s intellectual property rights, and the law."

    The suit "alleges the defendants, Michael White and Karen White of San Diego, California, operated in concert with each other in their attempts to sell counterfeit YETI products. Amazon closed their selling accounts and refunded impacted customers."

    The press release notes that "Amazon strictly prohibits counterfeit products in its stores, and in 2019 alone, invested more than $500 million to protect customers and brands from fraud and abuse, including counterfeit."

    •  E-commerce company Wayfair is ending its brief flirtation with the bricks-and-mortar world.  For the moment.

    The Boston Globe reports that Wayfair "is shutting down its only standalone store, located in the Natick Mall, on Dec. 31. Wayfair opened it in 2019 as a way to test the waters for a broader brick-and-mortar strategy."

    However, spokesperson Jane Carpenter tells the Globe that "Wayfair considers the store to be a success … The store whetted the appetite among visitors for the company’s broader online catalog, she said, adding that management learned lessons about how physical stores can help it build personal relationships with shoppers … Carpenter said Wayfair will inevitably give physical stores another go in the future, but probably in a larger space."

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    •  From CNBC:

    "Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said the discounter wants to grow its new membership program, Walmart+, but won’t sacrifice customer experience for subscriber numbers.

    "'One of the worst things we could do would be to sell a bunch of Walmart+ memberships and then have them be dissatisfied because they can’t get fast delivery times or spots,' he said Wednesday at the Morgan Stanley Virtual Global Consumer & Retail Conference."

    McMillon added, "“I realize we’re going to face some pressure to share numbers and to scale this really quick."  But, he said, "This is not a Disney+ or a Netflix membership for streaming. It requires capacity. It requires humans. This is a different product, but it’ll be a Walmart product.”

    Fair point.  I was critical of what I saw on Walmart+ because there seemed to be no there there.  I'm a little surprised that they'd launch it with so little behind it, but if the goal is to ramp up slowly, and they have the intestinal fortitude to deal with lots of expenses and too little revenue in the short term, then that may be the best way to go.

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    •  Ahold Delhaize-owned Stop & Shop announced that it plans to hire for some 5,000 jobs in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey, with NBC News reporting that the roles will be "permanent and include positions in bakery, deli, grocery, seafood, produce, front end night crew and online pickup. Stop & Shop is also hiring home delivery drivers and shoppers, as well as selectors at its distribution centers."

    These are jobs are in addition to the 5,000 jobs that were created in March at the beginning of the pandemic.

    •  Managed Healthcare Executive reports that Hy-Vee is launching a new subsidiary called Vivid Clear Rx that "will offer affordable pharmacy benefit management services to Hy-Vee’s more than 88,000 employees as well as other employers looking to maximize their employee benefits spending."

    "“Health care spending continues to be a leading concern for employers across the country, and every business wants to make sure they are providing the best benefits for their employees at the best value,” said Randy Edeker, Hy-Vee chairman, CEO and president, in a prepared statement, adding that the company is "leveraging our experience in the pharmacy industry and the expertise we’ve gained from serving millions of pharmacy patients to help other employers make the most of every health care dollar they’re investing in their employees.”

    •  Tyler, Texas-based Brookshire Grocery Co. announced that it is "extending its discount programs through Jan. 5, 2021 for senior citizens and critical and emergency service providers in all four of its banners – Brookshire’s, Super 1 Foods, Spring Market and FRESH by Brookshire’s.

    "BGC is extending the five percent (5%) daily discount for senior citizens which started on March 18. The discount is available upon request to customers age 60 or older with valid ID. BGC is also still strongly encouraging that the first two hours of operations be reserved as a dedicated time for senior citizens and critical and emergency service providers. The company is asking for the community’s help in honoring this practice allowing any senior customers to move to the front of the check-out line throughout the day."

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    Yesterday we had a story about whether employers will be able to mandate employees to get vaccinations for the coronavirus, and I commented:

    As a matter of engendering comfort among customers, I think it will be important for stores, theaters, airlines, museums, restaurants and other venues to be able to reassure them that all employees have been vaccinated … and even, in the short term, only allow in customers who have been vaccinated.

    This may mean, in terms of workers, some sort of incentive program to get some people over their trepidations.  But this is a public health crisis - one that killed close to three thousand people yesterday.

    I think that the powers that be will have to tell the story in a compelling, persuasive way.  They'll have to make the case that being vaccinated is an act of patriotism that will allow the country to regain some sense of normality in terms of the economy and the culture and our personal relationships.  This cannot be taken for granted … the story has to be shaped and then told and told again and then told again.

    One MNB reader responded:

    As I recall, these vaccines don’t prevent the virus from attacking you, but instead reduce your symptoms so that you are essentially asymptomatic. Requiring employees to be vaccinated will not make their interactions with each other or customers any safer in terms of contracting the virus. It may, however, help keep health costs down (like not smoking), so maybe the best option is incentivizing it via a healthcare plan discount.

    I'm not a doctor, nor do I have any sort of expertise in epidemiology.  But my reading suggests that the vaccine creates antibodies, and it is the antibodies that offer some sort of immunity.  At least, that seems to be the expectation … it is certainly not my impression that all the vaccine will do is eliminate symptoms.  

    Another MNB reader wrote:

    I strongly oppose a mandatory vaccination when the recovery rate is 99.5%.  And this is a new vaccine, that truly has had no mass testing.  I’ve heard from some in the test groups, and the side effects/symptoms were worse for some folks vs. the ones I know that actually caught Covid.  Lastly, the vaccine ingredients make me take a pause.  My heart truly goes out to all those that have passed with Covid, Flu, Pneumonia, etc.

    You say that the recovery rate is 95 percent … but I would point out that according to the CDC's website, if I am reading it right, last year the so-called regular flu claimed 34,200 lives.  We're perilously close to ten times that right now.

    Still another MNB reader took issue with my belief in mandatory vaccinations:

    I completely disagree! Vaccines are limited in their effectiveness. Health is an individual responsibility. The body has the ability to heal itself. You have to take care of your immune system and the body will do the rest. The misinformation surrounding this so-called pandemic is ridiculous. It has been handled very poorly by politics and the media who are far from medical experts!

    The body may have the ability to heal itself, but we're closing in on 300,000 people whose bodies were unable to do that, and who probably would've been glad to have a vaccine.

    For the record, I've never passed myself off as a medical expert.  I'm just listening to people like Dr. Anthony Fauci … who is a medical expert.

    And MNB reader Andy Casey wrote:

    I’d love to be first in line for a vaccine – I tried to get accepted into a trial as well – but I think the idea of mandating vaccination is counter productive at best, maybe even crazy at worst. First, none of them are 100% effective so they aren’t a guarantee anyway but more importantly, mandating compliance on anything in this country is just such a long shot. It would almost certainly turn off a percentage of the population who might be on the fence but see a mandate as a reason to resist. And if someone encounters serious side effects (you know there will be some) the lawsuits will be unending, particularly if the government made people do it.

    Another MNB reader wrote:

    “Act of patriotism”.... great way to go with getting most folks vaccinated! Please share your suggestion with the media, celebrities, thought leaders and the powers that be!

    Not sure I have all that much influence.  But I appreciate your confidence.

    On another set of subjects, one MNB reader wrote:

    Many conflicting feelings about your news today. 

    My wife Christmas shopped 75% of our presents online, she loved it. I have witnessed 3 deliveries to our doorstep in one day from Amazon. I wonder how much longer shipping can continue to be free?

    I think that until shipping costs are prohibitive, online will continue to grow. Once the product is cheaper at the brick and mortar stores, then we may see the pendulum swing back. Who knows though. The wallet is a powerful decision tool.

    Concerning your post on vaccines; Making people get a vaccine will be like making them wear a mask. (Full disclosure, i want the vaccine and I want my team to have it, it is about personal safety.)

    So you achieved what a good writer does; induce thought and conversation. Thanks.

    If I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone talk about free shipping not being able to last because of the cost, well, I could afford to pay for shipping.

    I think that free shipping probably is a fact of life … as long as Amazon offers it, it will compel most retailers to offer some version of the same, at least with people who make transactions of a certain size.

    Responding to our posting of the new Ryan Reynolds-produced commercial for yesterday, one MNB reader wrote:

    Hmmm… I suppose it’s terrific if you have a bromance with Ryan Reynolds and everything he does, but the actual dumpster fire as symbolism… WEAK.

    I'm sure sure what I have qualifies as a bromance.

    What can I say?  I liked the commercial.  And the year has been a freakin' dumpster fire … I thought the joke worked.

    Yesterday I posed an email that was responding to my approval of a Nasdaq proposal requiring listed companies to have a certain amount of diversity on their boards.  This email suggested that I needed to practice what I preach … that MNB largely is the province of aging white males.

    I responded that I'm not getting rid of Michael, but pointed out that MNB is a very lean organization - it consists of one staffer.  Me.  I added:

    This actually is something that we talk about a lot, and one of the reasons that, whenever possible, I've asked a diverse group of young people to contribute to MNB … I want as many different opinions as possible, reflecting as many different experiences as possible.  And for the record, we actually have a fair amount of diversity in the "Your Views" section, though much of it is invisible because people are not always named.

    Inevitably, there will come a time when I'll hang up my laptop, at least in terms of five-day-a-week MNB punditry, and hopefully there will be a new Content Person.  I would hope - and will work hard to be sure - that this person is someone who is very unlike me in terms of world view and experiences.

    Prompting another MNB reader to write:

    In my opinion you responded to whoever wrote the above in a perfect way. You were precise, gentle and thoughtful. One of the reasons I could not ever have a job like yours is this : I would have responded with : Mind your own damn business. You do your job and I’ll do mine. ( Smile)

    If you think about it, my job is to listen and respond - and if occasionally I can be precise, gentle and thoughtful, well, that's a good day.

    Published on: December 4, 2020

    Defense attorney Mickey Haller, first introduced in "The Lincoln Lawyer," returns in Michael Connelly's new legal thriller, "The Law of Innocence" …. and as always, Connelly delivers a crackling tale filled with strong  characters, a twisty plot, a deep knowledge of the legal system that makes it all accessible, and an existential sense of dread as the plot unfolds in the months before the pandemic.

    The novel starts with a bang - Haller's car is pulled overt by a policeman, who finds a dead body in the trunk.  Proof exists that he was killed in Haller's garage, and there seems to be evidence that he would've had reason to kill the man, a former client.  Making things even harder - a vengeful judge has decided that Haller is a flight risk, and so the lawyer has to engineer his defense from the county jail.  (Haller acknowledges the old saw that the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, but he also knows that he's the best defense attorney out there.)

    "The Law of Innocence" is imbued with an enormous sense of authenticity, which is one of its best assets.  Haller remains a terrific creation by Connelly, and he loads the deck by bringing in Harry Bosch - who happens to be Haller's half-brother - to help with the defense's investigation.

    Terrific book - a total page-turner that I couldn't put down.

    I'm having trouble remembering a television series that made me feel as good as "Ted Lasso," on Apple TV did, pretty much from the first scene to the last.

    The premise is a familiar one, if you ever saw Major League.    Jason Sudeikis, who also helped create the character and show, plays an American football coach who is hired by a failing British football team (what we think of as soccer) as its new coach, even though he knows nothing about the sport.  Hannah Waddingham plays the owner of the team, who got it in a contentious divorce and would like nothing better than to destroy it, since her ex-husband loved it.

    What makes the show so much fun is Sudeikis's performance as a seemingly naive coach who begins to win people over with pure enthusiasm and a conviction that he knows how to manage people - he is totally invested in the character, who begins to succeed through force of personality.  (It helps that everyone underestimates him.)

    The supporting cast is terrific … the British locations are wonderful … the writing is crisp … and "Ted Lasso" is a total must-see.

    I have a wine to recommend this week:  The 2016 Bastianich Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso … which is wonderfully hearty.  We had it the other night when I made - for the first time - a fresh vodka sauce, and it was really, really good.  

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

    Stay safe.  Be healthy.