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    Published on: January 5, 2022

    The enormous traffic jam that afflicted people trying to travel on the highways between Washington, DC, and Richmond, Virginia, struck KC as, well, a traffic jam.  (Albeit one on steroids.). But to his 27-year-old daughter, it sounded more like an opportunity, one that spoke to potential, promise … and generational expectations.  Go figure.  

    Published on: January 5, 2022

    CNBC reports that Walmart announced this morning that its InHome delivery service - which "allows Walmart employees wearing cameras to enter a customer’s home to deliver groceries and other purchases or to pick up returns, even when the customer is not there" - is expanding its availability "from 6 million to 30 million households, including in cities such as in Los Angeles and Chicago, by the end of this year."

    The story notes that "Walmart initially launched InHome in 2019 as a pilot in Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Vero Beach, Florida, and it’s since expanded in Northwest Arkansas, Atlanta, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. The company declined to say how many customers the service now has … Walmart’s InHome service costs $19.95 per month with no additional fees, and it’s part of a growing trend of 'delivery as a service'."

    CNBC writes that "Walmart said it will hire 3,000 employees to support its InHome expansion, giving them real world and virtual reality training. They will be paid about 9% more than Walmart’s average wage of $16.40 an hour. Walmart’s 3,700 stores will be used as fulfillment centers and InHome delivery drivers will drive electric vehicles as part of the company’s goal of a zero emissions logistics fleet by 2040."

    KC's View:

    I tend to think of myself as an early adopter - after all, I was using Amazon in 1997 - but I'm not quite at the point where I'd allow any of these folks, no matter which company they are from, into the house and stocking my refrigerator.

    But to me, that's not the real point of this story.  Rather, I think it is notable that Walmart is making an investment that allows it to have some control over this part of the customer experience.  That's the only way to do something like this, but it reflects a mindset that outsourcing this stuff puts the customer relationship at risk.

    Walmart is being smart about this.  Not sure how sustainable the business model is, but taking ownership is critical.

    Published on: January 5, 2022

    Business Insider has a story suggesting that Instacart is considering an arrangement with robotics company Tortoise that would essentially use a hub-and-spoke model, with one dark warehouse and a half-dozen or so "floating" remote control robots that would deployed in specific neighborhoods to make rapid deliveries.

    Tortoise's co-founder/president, Dmitry Shevelenko, says that he sees "Tortoise robots performing rapid deliveries of four to five items or bundled grocery packages — a pitch he said he's making to other ultrafast delivery players. These prepackaged items would bundle popular combinations together, such as chips and sodas or items dedicated for movie night, he said.

    "This saves time and money because the courier doesn't have to pick and pack each item, he continued."   Shevelenko tells Business Insider that "electric-powered 'floating dark stores' could be a game changer for various delivery companies striving for profitability."

    The story notes that Tortoise already is working with Safeway, Shoprite, and Meijer on robot delivery pilots.

    KC's View:

    The story suggests that the savings could be substantial - as much as 50 times cheaper than running a traditional warehouse/dark store and delivering from there.  (Shevelenko posits that "a Tortoise robot cost about $500 a month to lease, while running a dark-store warehouse could easily cost $25,000 a month.)

    That's a pretty persuasive argument, and certainly makes it worth trying this system … though I have no idea if these savings are real or imagined.  That's the thing - nobody knows.  Yet.  

    It is interesting - and instructive - that there are folks out there trying to figure out how to leapfrog the dark store model even before that model has become widely used.  Which tells us something about the state of innovation these days.

    Published on: January 5, 2022

    The Washington Post reports that an estimated 4.5 million workers - or three percent of the national workforce - "quit or changed jobs in November according to new data from the Department of Labor, as labor shortages have helped create one of the more worker friendly job climates in years.

    "That number is up from the 4.2 million who quit or changed jobs in October, and surpassed the previous record of 4.4 million in September."

    At the same time, the story says, there were were "some 10.6 million job openings."

    Some context from the Post:

    "Many workers to have sought different types of work as well, as safety concerns and child and family care issues remain a lingering aspect of the pandemic.  This in turn has lead to a lot of workers changing jobs or industries for better opportunities, as job sites report elevated numbers of people looking to change industries and work from home. Other workers have been prompted into early retirements, or left the labor force entirely, causing the participation rate to tick down."

    KC's View:

    This is just part of a general re-evaluation of Americans' relationship with work, as issues of health and safety, compensation and benefits, work-life balance/integration, and remote work become central to people's decisions about where they will invest their labors.

    I've said this for years - companies that want workers to make an investment in them (and that's what you are asking people to do, whether you realize it or not) have to be willing to invest in their employees.

    Published on: January 5, 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:   58,040,720 total cases to date … 851,439 deaths … and 41,901,183 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  295,814,361 total cases … 5,476,755 fatalities … and 256,276,006 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

    A quick note on this, if I may.  I got an email from an MNB reader who wanted to throw doubt on these numbers from Worldometer by noting that its China numbers - 102,932 total cases … 4,636 deaths … and 95,005 recoveries - seem clearly inaccurate.

    Worldometer says that it "manually analyzes, validates, and aggregates data from thousands of sources in real time … We collect and process data around the clock, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Multiple updates per minute are performed on average by our team of analysts and researchers who validate the data from an ever-growing list of over 5,000 sources under the constant solicitation of users who alert us as soon as an official announcement is made anywhere around the world."

    Now, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that sources inside China are not as forthcoming as in other nations.  And so, if this reader's argument actually is that the pandemic numbers are worse than is being publicly acknowledged, I'd completely agree with that.  Though, I'm pretty sure that's not what this reader was suggesting.

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 78.4 percent of the US population age five and older, and 73.8 percent of the total US population, have received at least one dose of vaccine, while 66.2 percent of the five-and-older group and 62.2 percent of the total population have been fully vaccinated.  The CDC also says that 34.7 percent of the total US population has received a vaccine booster.

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "Walmart Inc. and Kroger Co. are raising their prices for BinaxNOW at-home rapid tests, after the expiration of a deal with the White House to sell the test kits at cost for $14.

    "The two U.S. retail giants and Inc. agreed with the Biden administration last summer to discount the tests, which are made by Abbott Laboratories and generally cost $24 or more for a box with two tests.

    "BinaxNOW, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is among the most commonly used over-the-counter, rapid antigen tests, which have been in high demand as the highly contagious Omicron variant spreads across the U.S.

    "The deal with the White House expired in December, and Walmart said this week that it is raising the kits’ price to $19.98 a box. Kroger now sells them for $23.99. The BinaxNOW tests aren’t currently available on Amazon."

    •  The New York Times reports that "Macy’s began requesting the vaccination statuses of employees on Tuesday, a sign it was preparing for a potential mandate of vaccinations or weekly testing ahead of a special Supreme Court hearing about such rules on Friday.

    "In a memo sent to employees that was obtained by the New York Times, the retailer — which also owns Bloomingdale’s and Bluemercury — told workers in the United States to upload their vaccination statuses to a third-party platform by Jan. 16 'regardless of whether you work in a store, a supply chain facility, an office, or are remote/hybrid.'  For employees who say they are unvaccinated, Macy’s said it would 'review your submission and you may be contacted by someone from the Colleague Advisory team to discuss next steps.'  The company also said it might require proof of negative tests to be uploaded to the same system starting on Feb. 16."

    •  The Los Angeles Times reports that the LA Unified school district has ordered mandatory coronavirus tests "for all students and staff before they return from winter break next week as a new period of high anxiety takes hold among parents and educators amid the explosive surge of the Omicron variant."

    The Times writes:

    "The goal in mandating back-to-school tests, said school board member Nick Melvoin, is to provide safe, open campuses and also 'peace of mind.'

    "The drill in the nation’s second-largest school system will mean anyone who intends to step on a campus next week to work or learn will have to show proof of a negative coronavirus test. The announcement was made hours after a hastily called special school board meeting Monday morning.

    "Employees not already on duty this week would receive two hours’ pay to get the testing this week. If they wait till Monday — when they are back on the clock after winter break — they will receive any time off needed to be tested but no extra pay. School employees return to work Jan. 10. The students return Jan. 11."

    If institutions and businesses are concerned about mandating vaccinations, they certainly can mandate negative test results.  That works for me.

    •  The Washington Post reports that "French President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to make daily life more inconvenient for unvaccinated people in the country, which is facing a spike in coronavirus infections driven by the omicron variant.

    "'I am not for pissing off the French … however, the unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,' he said in an interview published Tuesday in the French newspaper Le Parisien. 'I’m not going to throw [the unvaccinated] in prison. I’m not going to get them vaccinated by force. … We put pressure on the unvaccinated by limiting their access to social activities as much as possible.'

    "Macron’s remarks come as his government moves to impose more restrictions on the unvaccinated. France requires people to present proof of vaccination, recovery from past infection or a recent negative coronavirus test to access venues such as restaurants and cinemas. But the government is pushing through a bill that would remove the option of providing a negative test for entry.

    "The president had said in November that vaccine passports would allow Paris to avoid the strict lockdown of the unvaccinated that countries such as Austria have implemented. The potential tightening of the system has sparked anger among anti-vaccination activists and extremist politicians, though numerous polls indicate a majority of the country supports vaccine passports."

    Published on: January 5, 2022

    •  The Puget Sound Business Journal reports that Amazon plans tom open a fourth Amazon Fresh grocery store in Federal Way, a 38,000 square foot unit that will be the fourth of the format to be opened in the Seattle metropolitan area.  The story quotes Amazon as saying that the store will feature the Just Wal Out checkout-free technology that was pioneered in Amazon Go stores.

    •  The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal reports that "Best Buy Co. Inc. has a new in-house media company that taps its customer data to help brands tailor advertising to reach consumer electronics shoppers … Best Buy Ads utilizes Best Buy's customer insights, collected during previous shopping trips to stores or its website, to provide targeted promotional messages on behalf of clients. Ads could show up on Best Buy's online store or app and on in-store TV displays, but also external platforms like social media or search engines."

    The retailer says that the media company is expected to generate a new revenue stream, though it isn't publicly putting a number to that expectation.

    Published on: January 5, 2022

    With brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  Reuters reports that Amazon and The Gap "have been hit with proposed class actions claiming they violated New York state law by routinely turning away job applicants in the state with criminal convictions.

    "In separate complaints filed in White Plains, New York federal court on Monday, the same named plaintiff says Amazon denied her jobs and Gap fired her without analyzing how her 2017 conviction for misdemeanor welfare fraud could impact her performance.

    New York law bars employers from denying jobs to people convicted of crimes unless there is a direct relationship between a conviction and the job sought, or employing a person would pose 'an unreasonable risk.'

    "Plaintiff Genevieve Suarez in Monday's complaints says Amazon and The Gap did not conduct those individualized inquiries and instead disqualified workers with a wide swath of criminal convictions … In both lawsuits, Suarez is seeking to represent classes of individuals who were denied New York-based jobs or fired by the companies because of their criminal history."

    •  The Morning Call reports that Dunkin' has opened what it is calling a "Next Gen" store in Salisbury Township, Pennsylvania, a 1,400 square foot facility that it says has "a new, warm interior color palette … (and) also offers atmospheric lighting, a convenient, contactless drive-thru, complimentary wifi, and an innovative tap system."

    Find this interesting … because none of the materials I've seen suggest that this new store actually makes doughnuts in-house.  Now, that's not a surprise - Dunkin' made the decision to make doughnuts in central facilities years ago.  While I don't eat a lot of doughnuts anymore, on those rare occasions I go into a Dunkin' I find that they've lost a step - they don't have that great, hunger-inducing aroma that used to distinguish them.

    •  In Minnesota, the Star Tribune writes that "there are two major species of coffee grown in the world, arabica and robusta. One has long been seen as the superior strain — why else would '100% Arabica' show up on so many bags of beans?

    "But the age of arabica may soon be in decline, as climate change forces the fickle plants off of farms … By 2050 the amount of land suitable for growing arabica will be cut in half, researchers say, affecting the livelihoods of the 25 million producers who grow arabica. By 2100 Brazil could lose 95% of its arabica-growing land to climate change."

    And so, the story says, "Robusta beans — climate-resilient, more highly caffeinated but long derided by the industry as bitter and inferior tasting — are poised to take their place."  The negatives, the Star Tribune writes, may be ameliorated by improved processing techniques that at least one proponent says can result in "startlingly good coffees."

    The New York Times reports that "federal aviation officials have agreed not to ask for further delays to Verizon and AT&T’s new 5G cellular service, clearing the way for the companies to start their service while avoiding a major clash with regulators who said it could endanger flights.

    "In addition to delaying the start of their service by two weeks, the carriers will temporarily put in place measures designed to address the government’s safety concerns about the technology, particularly around certain airports.

    "The agency had expressed concerns that the new 5G service uses signals that clash with equipment pilots use to land in poor weather. Officials have said they could restrict the use of that equipment, known as radio altimeters, which could ground or reroute flights under some conditions."

    •  From the New York Times this morning:

    "Toyota Motor unseated General Motors as the top-selling automaker in the United States last year, becoming the first manufacturer based outside the country to achieve that feat in the industry’s nearly 120-year history.

    "That milestone underlines the changes shaking automakers, which face strong competition and external forces as they move into electric vehicles. And it came in a tumultuous and strange year in which automakers contended with an accelerating shift to electric vehicles and struggled with profound manufacturing challenges. New car sales have been damped by a severe shortage of computer chips that forced automakers to idle plants even though demand for cars has been incredibly robust … In addition to that shortage, the coronavirus pandemic and related supply-chain problems depressed sales while driving up the prices of new and used cars, sometimes to dizzying heights … G.M. said on Tuesday that its U.S. sales slumped 13 percent in 2021, to 2.2 million trucks and cars. Toyota had access to more chips because it set aside larger stockpiles of parts after an earthquake and tsunami in Japan knocked out production of several key components in 2011. Its 2021 sales rose more than 10 percent, to 2.3 million."

    Published on: January 5, 2022

    Responding to my FaceTime piece yesterday about Price Chopper's Neil Golub's role in the resurgence of Schenectady, New York, as chronicled in the book ""Metrofix: The Combative Comeback of a Company Town," one MNB reader wrote:

    I have not had a chance to read the book yet, but I can tell you it is a remarkable story. I say this because I had the privilege of working on the formation of Schenectady 2000 from the very beginning, including the logo development. And while many were involved in the effort, no one did more than Neil Golub.  Make no mistake, he drove the bus !! Neil and Lew Golub, and the entire Price Chopper organization , have a legacy of giving back to the community, and this is one shining example. Those of us who served there share a sense of pride for what Price Chopper stood for and how the company walked the proverbial talk. I will always remember fondly my 16 years at Price Chopper and the incredible people who worked there.

    We took note the other day of a Washington Post report that the White House "announced it will devote $1 billion to aiding independent meat and poultry producers, aiming to undercut the four powerful meat producers the Biden administration has alleged are responsible for surging consumer prices."  One MNB reader responded:

    The government announced they are giving money to small meat producers to fight against the 4 big bad meat producers.  Seriously???  It is not the job of the government to pick winners and losers.  This is a free market or at least suppose to be.  I seriously doubt that the 4 large meat producers are manipulating the market and “causing” the cost of meat to go up.  Increased costs in transportation, feed, medicines, wages, benefits, taxes, fuel, etc, etc.  All these affect the supply chain, and for the government to focus on one aspect and say they are the cause is ludicrous.  The larger producers actually drive prices down so that the smaller producers can’t compete, not the other way around.  Then to throw $1 billion dollars at it as a solution, just shows how absurd and out of touch our leadership is.  Plus, we as taxpayers are footing the bill.   KC, how would you feel if the government subsidized another columnist and not you?  And you were paying for it??  You know the sad part, readers comment on your column everyday, but no one commented on this.

    We had a story the other day about how the US Department of Agriculture's new labeling rules for genetically modified foods have gone into effect - the big change being that "GMO" is out, and “bioengineered" is in.  But it isn't that simple - there are a ton of caveats and loopholes and contingencies.

    We posted an email about this yesterday:

    As is often the case, I agree with you – and we have been talking about this forever! However, while the thirst for transparency is seemingly infinite, the space on a physical package is not. This is where SmartLabel or some other digital solution should take over.

    Prompting an email from MNB reader Steve Anvik:

    Smart Labels?  Working on the Fresh side of Grocery for 50 years, it’s amazing how quickly one-size fits all solutions never consider Fresh.  QR codes on store produced/packaged/labeled value added Meat, Seafood, Bakery or Deli products?  Beyond the record keeping nightmare, and the (in)ability of store-based printers to print them clearly, nearly all of the prepared foods regulations are even more vague.  If it wasn’t for the higher margins in Fresh, we’d have been irrelevant years ago. 

    On another subject, from another reader:

    Your reference to “Schneider on Loyalty" newsletter from Howard Schneider is relevant, and timeless.

    Schneider (and many others including myself) have basically rehashed a quote from more than two thousand years ago.

    The Greek philosopher Heraclitus was quoted by Plato as noting that “everything changes, and nothing stands still.” Heraclitus noted that one cannot step in the same river twice.

    Over time his quote has morphed into “the only constant is change.”

    While the pandemic has focused our collective attention on rapid change, it is most often the gradual, less noticeable change that fundamentally changes commerce.

    Most of the “new” practices that are top of mind today are the result of ignoring and/or not investing in required changes based on focusing on next quarter’s financials.

    Few if any companies today will be able to experience the luxury afforded Jeff Bezos in terms of investor patience.

    However, from my POV, every company can drive shareholder value in the long-run by following his lead of being customer obsessed.