business news in context, analysis with attitude

Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

•  In the US, and number of Covid-19 coronavirus cases has climbed to 188,592 as of this morning (up from 164,359 at the same time yesterday), with 4,056 deaths (up from 3,173 yesterday) and 7,251 reported recoveries (up from 5,507).

Globally, the numbers are 872,830 cases … 43,271 deaths and 184,533 reported recoveries.

•  Fox News reports that the White House coronavirus task force yesterday "warned that even if the U.S. were to continue to do what it was doing -- keeping the economy closed and most Americans in their homes -- the coronavirus could still leave 100,000 to 240,000 people in the United States dead and millions infected."

However, "without any measures in place to mitigate the contagion's spread, those projections jump to between 1.5 and 2.2 million deaths from COVID-19."

President Trump, Fox News reports, "told Americans to brace for 'a very painful two weeks' and warned of thousands of more virus-related deaths."

"The surge is coming, and it’s coming pretty strong," he said.

•  From the New York Times:

"In a matter of days, millions of Americans have been asked to do what might have been unthinkable only a month ago: Don’t go to work, don’t go to school, don’t leave the house at all, unless you have to.

"The directives to keep people at home to stunt the spread of the coronavirus began in California, and have quickly been adopted across the country. By Tuesday, more than half the states and the Navajo Nation had told their residents to stay at home as much as possible, with many cities and counties joining in.

This means at least 270 million people in at least 33 states, 89 counties, 29 cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home."

•  In the Washington Post this morning, Bill Gates - the co-founder of Microsoft and a co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation - has an op-ed piece in which he offers recommendations for how to deal effectively with the pandemic.

Gates has a lot of credibility on the subject - in 2015, he delivered a Ted talk in which he urged governments around the world to prepare for a pandemic "the same way they prepare for war — by running simulations to find the cracks in the system."'

In this piece, he recommends three steps - one of them being that "we need a consistent nationwide approach to shutting down. Despite urging from public health experts, some states and counties haven’t shut down completely. In some states, beaches are still open; in others, restaurants still serve sit-down meals.

"This is a recipe for disaster. Because people can travel freely across state lines, so can the virus. The country’s leaders need to be clear: Shutdown anywhere means shutdown everywhere. Until the case numbers start to go down across America — which could take 10 weeks or more — no one can continue business as usual or relax the shutdown. Any confusion about this point will only extend the economic pain, raise the odds that the virus will return, and cause more deaths."

You can read Gates' piece here.

•  Kroger announced yesterday that "it will provide all hourly frontline grocery, supply chain, manufacturing, pharmacy and call center associates with a Hero Bonus – a $2 premium above their standard base rate of pay, applied to hours worked March 29 through April 18. The premium will be disbursed weekly to ensure associates have access to additional cash."

This is in addition to Kroger’s previously announced one-time bonus to frontline associates, which pays out on April 3.

“Our associates have displayed the true actions of a hero, working tirelessly on the frontlines to ensure everyone has access to affordable, fresh food and essentials during this national emergency,” said Rodney McMullen, Kroger’s chairman and CEO. “The Hero Bonus is just one more way we continue to convey our thanks and gratitude not only to our existing associates but also to the more than 30,000 new hires who have joined in the past two weeks and those who will soon join the Kroger Family of Companies.”

Kroger also said that in addition, it is "ensuring associates who are affected by COVID-19 – whether experiencing symptoms and self-isolating, diagnosed or placed in quarantine – can recover with the support of emergency paid leave … Beginning next week, the Kroger Family of Companies is adding ExpressPay – a new benefit that allows most hourly associates to access some of their pay faster, putting money in their pockets sooner than usual."  And, it is "making $5 million available for those facing hardship, including lack of access to childcare and for those considered higher-risk, due to COVID-19 through the Kroger Family of Companies Helping Hands fund."

The company also said that it is "enhancing our daily sanitation practices, including cleaning commonly used areas more often like cashier stations, self-checkouts, credit card terminals, food service counters and shelves … permitting and working hard to procure protective masks and gloves for associates … installing plexiglass partitions at check lanes, and pharmacy and Starbucks registers across the enterprise … adding floor decals to promote physical distancing at check lanes and other counters … adjusting store operating hours to allow more time for associates to rest, clean and replenish inventory … (and) continuing to expand pickup and delivery services and contactless payment solutions like Kroger Pay."

•  BuzzFeed News reports that Trader Joe's employees "working during the coronavirus pandemic fear for their health and the safety of customers," saying that "employees of at least four store locations in New York and Washington, DC, have tested positive for the coronavirus - but the locations have remained open with workers expected to come in as normal … Workers also fear that even if the store itself is not contaminated, they may have been infected by a sick colleague and might be unwittingly passing it on to each other and customers. All this is worsened by communication from their managers and corporate that the workers say has been poor and haphazard, leaving them feeling unsafe and undervalued."

The story notes that "like other supermarkets across the country, Trader Joe’s stores are staying open as essential businesses to ensure people can still get food and supplies during the pandemic. But employees say guidelines around store safety have varied; some stores have brought in professionals for a deep clean after COVID-19 cases were discovered, but other stores have not done so because of the amount of time that had passed since the sick staffer had worked."

According to BuzzFeed News, company spokesperson Kenya Friend-Daniel said that "all Trader Joe’s staffers have been granted seven extra days of paid sick leave and that the company is 'providing up to two weeks of paid sick leave to all Crew Members quarantined for or diagnosed with the coronavirus.'  Additionally, corporate policy now allows for workers to wear gloves and masks — something many store managers were previously prohibiting."

She also said that "in some cases, stores have temporarily closed in order to undergo a deep clean after employees have tested positive for the coronavirus."

•  Ahold Delhaize USA, the largest grocery retail group on the East Coast and fourth largest in the nation, yesterday announced "a substantial $10 million relief package to address critical needs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic."

"We take to heart our responsibility during this time of need," said Kevin Holt, CEO of Ahold Delhaize USA. "We’re inspired by the selfless dedication of medical professionals and first responders, the acts of kindness and compassion across the globe, and the commitment from our own team to serve and feed their families, friends and neighbors."

The funding will include "$2 million for associate care funds – Lion’s Pride, Helping Hands and Take Care. These funds are for employees and their families in times of need. … $3.5 million in new funding to feed and care for communities on the East Coast through local brand efforts with Stop & Shop and Food Lion giving an additional $1 million each and $500,000 each by Giant Food, The GIANT Company and Hannaford … (and) $3 million already infused through local brands, giving local funding and in-kind product donations."

•  Hy-Vee, Inc. announced yesterday that "it will be reserving one hour of Hy-Vee Aisles Online shopping time slots each day for customers who are considered 'high-risk.'  Aisles Online is Hy-Vee’s grocery ordering service available at or via the Hy-Vee Aisles Online mobile app.  Starting this Thursday, the reserved Aisles Online time slots will be from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., seven days a week, which coincides with the in-store hours reserved for these customers:

ages 60 and older, expectant mothers, (and) anyone with an underlying health condition(s) that makes him/her more susceptible to serious illness … All other customers are asked to please respect this hour reserved for these high-risk customers, and limit their online shopping orders to time slots available 8 a.m. or after, seven days a week."

•  Tyler,Texas-based Brookshire Grocery Co. (BGC) announced that all its Brookshire’s, Super 1 Foods, FRESH by Brookshire’s and Spring Market stores will be open Easter Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“As a Christian company, BGC has traditionally prided itself on observing Christmas and Easter holidays but recognizes the calling to serve our neighbors during this difficult time,” said Brad Brookshire, chairman/CEO. “Our founder, Wood T. Brookshire, believed it was his God-given calling to serve humanity through the grocery business. Today, we are also serving God by serving man during these times. It was not an easy decision to break from our 92-year history on closing on Easter, and we do not take it lightly.”

•  It was just two weeks ago that Powell's, the iconic Portland, Oregon, independent bookstore, announced that because it had to close its five locations as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it was going to lay off the majority of its 400-person workforce.

But now, Forbes writes, it has gotten so many online orders from faithful customers that Powell's has had to hire back more than 100 people to process them.

“We don’t know what the future holds – none of us does. We’re going to keep the doors to open as long as we can, and we will open the doors to all of our stores as soon as it is safe to do so,” Powell wrote in an online posting, adding, "Your orders allow us to keep working and keep our team of incredible booksellers employed.”

Meanwhile, National Public Radio's Marketplace reports that, which provides e-commerce services to independent bookstores unable to afford their own online operations, "has 'seen a steady rise in book sales' and that stores are selling 'about 800% of what they were selling four weeks ago'."

This rallying of book readers who want to patronize a bookseller other than Amazon, and for the time being need to do so via the internet, is seen as at least a possible solution to the threat that the coronavirus pandemic presents to the independent bookstore sector.

The independent bookstore segment is getting a lot of attention;  Slate had a piece the other day about the danger that they find themselves in, running "on even slimmer margins than the typical mom-and-pop shop—but the ones that have survived in the Amazon era have made it for a reason.

"Until this month, independent bookstores were experiencing something of a cultural, if not necessarily financial, renaissance. Where they’ve persevered, they are often beloved community institutions, not just selling goods but bringing people together around events and serving as a central gathering place. They can also be ad hoc sanctuaries in times of difficulty."

But the problem is that the pandemic has taken away one of the segment's core advantages - the ability to create communal experiences.  But what at least some of them - presumably the really good ones that are both relevant and resonant to their customers - are finding is that their appeal transcends the physical nature of community.  Which is a nice surprise.

•  C-store chain 70-Eleven announced yesterday that it will donate one million face masks to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

•  LL Bean CEO Steve Smith told CNBC yesterday that he believes that the nation's middle market retailers - mid-sized companies that don't sell essentials like food and drugs - have been virtually ignored in recent stimulus packages passed by the US Congress and signed by President Trump, and need to be included in any future stimulus.

According to the story, Smith said "essential retailers were holding up amid the coronavirus pandemic, while retailers with less than 500 employees are eligible for the small business loans in the $2 trillion stimulus package signed Friday by President Donald Trump.  But there is a 'huge segment in the middle' that is so far 'being missed,' he said."

“All of those apparel retailers, every label of a piece of clothing that someone is wearing right now, all of them are struggling mightily with full rent, full payroll and, if they’re store-based, close to zero sales,” Smith said, adding that this segment of the retail landscape has close to “30 million employees or supporting employees.”

As reported here last week, LL Bean has closed all of its bricks-and-mortar stores, and a number of its employees, who normally make its iconic boots, now are stitching together 5,000 masks daily, with plans to ramp up to about 10,000 by the end of the week.  Those masks will be tested by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before being distributed.

•  USA Today reports that "JC Penney Co. said Tuesday it will furlough most of their store employees. The company employs about 95,000 workers."  The company also said "it would extend the temporary closure of stores and business offices because of COVID-19."

•  CNBC reports that "the biggest U.S. mall owner, Simon Property Group, has furloughed about 30% of its workforce … as the company copes with all of its properties being temporarily shut because of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the story, "The furloughs impact full- and part-time workers, at its Indianapolis headquarters and at its malls and outlet centers across the US … Simon permanently laid off some employees also, but the exact number could not be immediately determined."

•  MarketWatch reports that "Christmas came early for U.K. grocers as supermarket sales in March trumped those usually posted over the festive period and broke all records, new data show … Households facing lengthy lockdowns appear to have panic bought long-life items such as pasta, rice and tins of vegetable, as they splashed out a hefty £10.8 billion ($13.4 billion) over the past four weeks at Britain’s grocers, according to latest figures from market research firm Kantar."

One of the categories affected by the stockpiling:  "Alcohol sales were boosted by 22%, an additional £199 million, in the past month, as Brits hit the bottle," MarketWatch says.

I'm not sure that the "Christmas came early" line was the best choice by MarketWatch.  I'm often accused of being too glib for my own good, but I'm trying to tone it down at the moment.  Maybe MarketWatch needs to do the same?

•  The United Fresh Produce Association announced yesterday that it will replace its annual June show - scheduled to take place in San Diego - with a new, weeklong virtual platform, United Fresh LIVE!

The week of June 15, the organization said, the online platform "will attract thousands of colleagues from every sector of the industry, but (will be) intimate enough to truly engage with business partners throughout the show. You'll explore our online expo floor to discover the latest in fresh produce marketing and merchandising, packing and processing equipment, new labor-saving technologies, sustainable packaging options and more. Further enhance your experience through unique destinations, discussion areas, and special learning pavilions.  Networking experiences will set the mood as participants gather virtually with old friends and make new connections."

Registration will be free for all participants.

Here's a message from United's CEO, Tom Stenzel:

•  The International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, (IDDBA), announced  that IDDBA 2020 scheduled for May 31-June 2 in Indianapolis, Indiana, has been cancelled due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Planning for IDDBA 2021 in Houston, TX, scheduled to take place June 6 -8, already is underway, the organization said.

•  At the same time, Phil Kafarakis, president of the Specialty Food Association (SFA), said that no decision has been made yet about whether the SFA Summer Fancy Food Show - scheduled to take place in New York City from June 28-30 - will be held.  "The SFA continues to carefully monitor developments around the coronavirus," the organization says on its website.

The Fancy Food Show is scheduled to be held in Manhattan's Javits Convention Center, which has been transformed into a 1,200-bed emergency field hospital dealing with the overflow from the city's hospitals;  the convention center apparently can be expanded to hold almost 3,000 beds.  I can understand why SFA may be delaying the decision - for financial reasons, it probably can't cancel until told it has to cancel.  But if I were a regular Fancy Food Show attendees, I wouldn't be making any travel plans … not that they even could these days.

•  Variety reports that a Nielsen analysis shows how the pandemic has affected TV viewing, - "Over the first three weeks of March 2020, the total estimated number of minutes streamed to the TV was 400 billion, up 85% compared with the comparable three-week period in 2019, according to a Nielsen analysis.

"And during the week of March 16, consumers watched about 156.1 billion minutes of streaming content on TV, up 22% from the week prior, and 2.2 times the comparable week the year prior."

The story makes the point that "Nielsen is reporting just streaming to TVs: The analysis doesn’t measure mobile or PC video streaming, so the total amount of online video U.S. consumers are watching is even higher."

In addition, Variety writes, "Netflix has the biggest share of video streaming on TV among the services Nielsen measures, representing 23% of all streaming minutes viewed for the week of March 16. That’s followed by YouTube at 20%, Hulu at 10% and Amazon Prime Video at 9%."

The question - and this can be applied to a lot of industries - is whether at some point in the future consumers (of media, food, clothing, etc…) will return to some semblance of old behavior, or whether these new habits, developed during the pandemic, will remain ingrained and maybe preferred.  If the latter is true, it will create a lot of problems for legacy businesses, which will either adapt or, eventually, fail.