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•  Albertsons announced yesterday that "it will rebrand its Signature Farms, Signature Care and Signature Cafe products under one master brand, Signature SELECT, which features a refreshed, modern logo, bold packaging and a new marketing campaign designed to build an emotional connection with customers. The transition to Signature SELECT is currently underway across stores including Albertsons, Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s and more, and is expected to be complete in early 2024."

According to the announcement, "Signature SELECT is already the largest brand in the company’s Own Brands portfolio boasting over 8,000 products including packaged salads, ice cream, frozen pizza, coffee, paper goods, pasta, snacks, canned vegetables and fruit as well as ground beef, pork and chicken.

Following the consolidation of Signature Farms’ fresh poultry and produce, Signature Cafe’s deli items and Signature Care’s line of personal and baby products, the master brand will feature the modern Signature SELECT logo with a unified package design across its broad assortment of product categories so shoppers can easily identify the brand throughout the store."

“Signature SELECT is our flagship brand offering shoppers an incomparable assortment of quality products at an incredible value,” said Jennifer Saenz, EVP and Chief Merchandising Officer at Albertsons Cos., in a prepared statement.  “We are incredibly proud of our Signature family of brands and by bringing these sub-brands together under one name, we are building greater brand recognition, driving brand loyalty and creating customers for life.”

•  From Bloomberg:

"Vacancies at US employers unexpectedly surged in April to the highest in three months, giving the Federal Reserve more reason to consider hiking interest rates again soon … The number of available positions increased to 10.1 million from an upwardly revised 9.75 million in March, the Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS, showed Wednesday. The figure beat all estimates in a Bloomberg survey of economists, which called for 9.4 million openings."

Executive Suite is sponsored by Robin Russell Executive Search.

•  At Home, The Home and Holiday Superstore, announced yesterday it has hired Jeff Evans, most recently the Executive Vice President, Entertainment, Toys and Seasonal for Walmart US, to be its new President and Chief Merchandising Officer. 

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We've spent a lot of time here on MNB talking about the problems - and, I would argue, the continuing promise - of America's cities, which prompted one MNB reader to write:

In a very recent interaction with a woman who said she would not come into downtown Minneapolis, fearing crime, and thus remaining in her 20 mile-away sleepy suburb, I commented “ so you wont see a Twins game at Target Field, you won’t see Hamilton at The Orpheum, you wont go to the Guthrie Auditorium for theater, no Taste of Minnesota on Nicollet Mall, no Basilica Block Party, no downtown Farmers Market, no Stone Arch Bridge, Vikings Game at US Bank, Manny’s Steak House, and no Springsteen at Excel Center…..”.

I enlightened her on how much crime has recently taken place in the Minneapolis suburbs, but it was no use. When I asked what she and her husband do in the suburbs, she told me they hunt a lot. Ahhh, the irony of it all.

They hunt in the suburbs of Minneapolis?  For what?

Thanks for making it clear what your city has to offer on any given day.  It is a reflection of the advantages and pleasures, even these days, of many cities.

We also had a piece the other day about how Kroger, acknowledging that smartphone-challenged customers would be ill-served by its elimination of print advertising and coupons, said that those customers "can receive the discounted pricing at any customer service desk.”

One MNB reader reacted:

Kroger provided a great career for me, and I enjoyed working for them for 40 years but …

Have you ever tried to get service at the service desk?

The other day we reported that "the nonprofit ParentsTogether coalition has come out against Kroger's proposed $24.6 billion acquisition of Albertsons, saying that in its estimation the deal will 'likely raise grocery prices, undermine competition, and lower worker wages.'

"According to the statement, 'Over 13,000 parents signed a petition demanding that the Federal Trade Commission complete a thorough investigation and ultimately block the merger to prevent a grocery monopoly and protect the wellbeing of economically strapped families'."

I commented:

Kroger and Albertsons, of course, would dispute the assertion that a merger will raise prices and lower wages and be bad for competition - it will make the argument to the FTC that precisely the opposite will happen.

I'm not sure the degree to which the opposition will affect the FTC's deliberations and eventual decision, though the current FTC leadership seems more inclined to put up roadblocks to these mega-mergers.  The noise at the moment seems to be coming from the opposition, but there almost certainly is a lot of groundwork being done by proponents who hope they will be able to smooth the path to a merger.

One MNB reader responded:

Parents Together is another left of center group that is supported by Teacher’s Unions. 

Doesn't necessarily make them wrong.  Doesn't make them right, either.  I think it is better to consider the quality of the argument and weigh it against the other side.

For the record, I should point out that I live in a family of public school educators.  Mrs. Content Guy is a retired teacher but still a member of the teachers' union.  My daughter is a teacher and member of the teachers union.  I have a sister who is a teacher and member of the teachers union.  My dad was a teacher and member of the teachers union.  So, I'm not one of those folks who demonizes teachers unions - I don't always agree with them, but I certainly wouldn't characterize Randi Weingarten, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, as “the most dangerous person in the world."

One final note:  To those of you who worried that I was only getting emails from one side of the culture wars (the side that told me that I'm going to hell), I just wanted to say, thank you.

I'm good.  I have a thick skin.  I know I have a lot of brothers and sisters in this debate.  And the good news is that, unlike businesses that have to sell stuff and legitimately worry about taking positions, I actually trade in opinions and (hopefully civil) discourse.

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Content Guy's Note:  Today, we introduce a new regular feature to MNB - "The Bigger Picture," which builds on the book that Michael Sansolo and I co-wrote several years ago, "The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies," in which we employed movie scenes, characters and plot points to construct lessons about Leadership, Marketing and Building a Narrative for a Business and/or a Career.

If you've been reading MNB for any period of time, you'll know that Michael and I are mad for metaphors, and often use any number of cultural touchstones to teach business lessons.  What we're going to do in "The Bigger Picture", essentially, is put our frequent conversations on the record - this is the stuff we talk about all the time.  We're not going to limit ourselves to the movies as we focus on storytelling, though.  We'll also use TV shows, plays, music, books and pretty much anything we can think of as we consider how to both learn and teach.

Our plan in every episode is to each consider both a current cultural moment and one that is at least a decade old - today, Michael will offer lessons from "Ted Lasso" (new) and "The Devil Wears Prada" (old), while I look at "Succession" (new) and "The Hunt for Red October" (old).

Enjoy.  And let us know what movies, television shows, books, plays, and music you believe offer compelling business lessons.

If you'd like to listen to and save this "Bigger Picture" episode as an audio podcast, click below.

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Last night I had the opportunity to attend the grand opening of a new kids' swim school built and operated by the iconic food retailer Stew Leonard's.  Born out of tragedy - their son, Stew Leonard III drowned at age two - the school is a passion project developed by Stew Leonard Jr. and his wife, Kim, in the hope that other parents can be spared their pain.  It also, I think, illustrates the unique role a retailer can play in its community.

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by Kevin Coupe

Y'know the old saw that "a picture is worth a thousand words?"  Well, I have one for you this morning that is an Eye-Opener.

I received an email this week from Good Stuff, a little restaurant on The Strand in Hermosa Beach, California, that I love:

I love it when business personalize themselves, which is exactly what Good Stuff has done here with Alex.  He sounds great, and I would expect that restaurant patrons will be looking for him next time they visit Good Stuff.

I also learned something.  I had no idea what "fire buffing" was (this is cited as one of Alex's interests).  According to Wikipedia, "A fire buff is a person with considerable interest (a fan) in fire fighting and emergency services, while not being an active member of these services."

The question I would ask most retailers is whether they are introducing their people to their customers in this way, on a regular basis.  Both are stakeholders in your business, and creating connections between them, in the end, can strengthen the connections both feel to your store.

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Wegmans said yesterday that it will close one of its six Massachusetts stores, located in the Natick Mall, about 20 miles west of Boston.

The company said that "the Natick store opened in 2018 and was Wegmans’ first multi-level store within a major mall. At 134,000 square feet, it is one of the company’s largest locations."

Brien MacKendrick, the human resources director for Wegmans' New England division, said that, "Unfortunately, with this non-traditional location we are unable to attract enough customers for our business model to work.”

The closing is slated for "later this summer," with the exact date not yet disclosed.  Wegmans emphasized in its prepared statement that " Wegmans does not have plans to close any other stores" in the Boston area.

"We love our Natick community and customers, and we’re eager to pursue new store locations in the area for the future,” MacKendrick tells the Boston Globe. “In the meantime, we hope to continue to serve our Natick customers through our e-commerce offerings and our other area stores.”

The Boston Globe also offers some additional context:

"The Natick Mall location, which took the place of a JCPenney, opened to much fanfare in 2018, boasting two stories, nearly 70,000 items, and a 32-seat wine tasting room. It initially housed the 260-seat Blue Dalia Restaurant and Tequila Bar, but that closed in 2019.

"'Everyone in the industry is paying attention,' said company spokesperson Jo Natale to the Globe in 2018.  'We’re not sure how people will shop the store because we’ve never done this before.'

"This move comes as mall space across the region is being repurposed into apartment buildings and lab space as the suburban shopping palaces rethink their reason for being. The Natick Mall has embarked on several of these conversions in spaces formerly occupied by Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus, and has also welcomed experiential retail concepts such as entertainment complex Level99 and, soon, another location of the Puttshack mini golf venue.

"Wegmans joins the ranks of a few other grocery stores in the region that have gone dark in recent years — Market Basket in Billerica and Whole Foods in Brookline both closed their doors in 2022. Openings, however, tend to be more common; Nubian Markets in Roxbury opened in May, and Addie’s, a pick-up only spot in Norwood, began welcoming customers in January. Trader Joe’s recently sought a liquor license for a potential new store on Boylston Street in Back Bay."

KC's View:

As it happens, I've done two FaceTime videos from the Natick Mall store, both back in 2018, and while I was impressed by the Wegmans offering, at various times I expressed some doubt about the decision to locate it in a mall.

I also talked about the idea that while the store's top floor, with a plethora of fresh offerings, was animated and energetic, the lower floor, focused on grocery, was considerably less busy.  The reason, I thought at the time, was that there were few differential advantages offered by the lower floor, and so it might never justify the space it was given.

I conceded that if Wegmans is successful at driving more customers into its grocery departments, this store will be right-sized. But I actually made the opposite argument - that for the future that inevitably will come, that space is way too big. In fact, you think it is big now, just imagine how cavernous it will seem when five, 10 or 20 percent of CPG sales move online, which I think they inevitably will.

I do think it was interesting that MacKendrick suggested that Wegmans might be able to serve the area with its e-commerce offerings;  I'd suggest that it might make sense to open a fresh-only store in a far smaller footprint, and try to do almost all its packaged grocery sales via e-commerce, using both a pickup and delivery model.  Wegmans always has been willing to break the mold, and this might be one of those times to do exactly that.

In one story, I commented:

For the moment, I think, Wegmans is fine. (It is not like they need me to tell them they’re fine. They are, after all, freakin’ Wegmans. I offer this critique in the knowledge that even a scintilla of skepticism about Wegmans’ offering could undermine my credibility.)But I do wonder if down the road - five years from now, maybe? - they will find that the store has been overbuilt, considering the changing buying habits of consumers?

It took a year longer than I expected, but I also didn't know in 2018 that there would be a pandemic.  I also overestimated the Natick Mall's vitality, and the ability of the restaurants being operated by Wegmans to drive a sustainable level of traffic.

I continue to believe that retailers, in their physical locations, need to focus on the things that make them different rather than the things that make them similar to other retailers.  I think they have to have a compelling fresh offering, and use that as a differentiator, and position themselves for a future in which more and more CPG items are sold online and often are fulfilled via automatic replenishment programs.  And I continue to believe that malls, with some exceptions, are problematic for supermarkets.  

In fact, many of the nation's malls are problematic for retail in general.  Look for at least part of the Wegman space, once it is vacated by the grocer, to be taken over by pickleball courts, or something else along that line.

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Aldi announced yesterday that it is working with Instacart to launch what they are calling Aldi Express, described as a "virtual convenience store."

According to the announcement, Aldi will use Instacart to get "Aldi-exclusive products to customers’ doors quicker than ever. From convenience items such as prepared foods, snacks and drinks to grocery staples and household essentials, Aldi Express gives customers access to nearly 2,000 of the most-shopped Aldi items, delivered in as fast as 30-minutes. Aldi Express convenience delivery is now available to customers from more than 2,100 Aldi locations across the country."

The announcement notes that "Aldi began offering delivery services via Instacart in 2017. Instacart now delivers from more than 2,200 Aldi stores and powers pickup for more than 1,500 Aldi stores nationwide. The companies expanded their partnership in 2018 to include alcohol delivery, and Aldi was one of the first retailers to accept EBT SNAP online through Instacart in November 2020."

KC's View:

I think this is indicative of what is possible for retailers with a savvy use of technology.  Aldi isn't normally thought of as a c-store, but with a little programming and some innovative thinking, it manages to create a virtual c-store chain that, I imagine, can be competitive with more traditional venues.

This is where "thinking outside the box" becomes more literal and less metaphorical - a smart use of technology by a retailer can actually create an entirely new business and revenue stream.  It is all about slicing and dicing things differently.

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The New York Times had an op-ed piece the other day entitled "The Real Reason Your Groceries Are Getting So Expensive," in which author Stacy Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, made the argument that enforcement of the Robinson-Patman Act, "which mandates that suppliers offer the same terms to all retailers," needs to be reinvigorated.

That's not the case today, she writes:

"Major grocery suppliers, including Kraft Heinz, General Mills and Clorox, rely on Walmart for more than 20 percent of their sales. So when Walmart demands special deals, suppliers can’t say no. And as suppliers cut special deals for Walmart and other large chains, they make up for the lost revenue by charging smaller retailers even more, something economists refer to as the water bed effect.

"This isn’t competition. It’s big retailers exploiting their financial control over suppliers to hobble smaller competitors. Our failure to put a stop to it has warped our entire food system. It has driven independent grocers out of business and created food deserts. It has spurred consolidation among food processors, which has slashed the share of food dollars going to farmers and created dangerous bottlenecks in the production of meat and other essentials. And in a perverse twist, it has raised food prices for everyone, no matter where you shop.

"A level playing field was long a tenet of U.S. antitrust policy. In the 19th century, Congress barred railroads from favoring some shippers over others. It applied this principle to retailing in 1936 with the Robinson-Patman Act, which mandates that suppliers offer the same terms to all retailers. The act allows large retailers to claim discounts based on actual volume efficiencies but blocks them from extracting deals that aren’t also made available to their competitors. For roughly four decades, the Federal Trade Commission vigorously enforced the act. From 1954 to 1965, the agency issued 81 cease-and-desist orders to stop suppliers of milk, tea, oatmeal, candy and other foods from giving preferential prices to the largest grocery chains."

However, in the late 1970s, a time of high inflation, "the law fell into disfavor with regulators, who had come to believe that allowing large retailers to flex more muscle over suppliers would lower consumer prices. For the most part, the law hasn’t been enforced since.  As a top Reagan administration official explained in 1981, antitrust was no longer 'concerned with fairness to smaller competitors.'

"This was a serious miscalculation. Walmart, which seized the opening and soon became notorious for strong-arming suppliers and undercutting local businesses, now captures one in four dollars Americans spend on groceries. Its rise spurred a cascade of supermarket mergers, as other chains sought to match its leverage over suppliers. If the latest of these mergers — Kroger’s bid to buy Albertsons — goes through, just five retailers will control about 55 percent of grocery sales. Food processors in turn sought to counterbalance the retailers by merging. Supermarket aisles may seem to brim with variety, but most of the brands you see are made by just a few conglomerates."

In the absence of rivals, Mitchell writes, "food conglomerates have over time increasingly been able to raise prices and as a result have reported soaring profits over the past two years. Inflation gives them a cover story, but it’s the lack of competition that allows them to get away with it."

As smaller retailers fade away, she suggests, it "stifles innovation. New food companies rely on independent retailers to introduce products. But as this diversity of retailers gives way to a monocrop of big chains, start-ups have fewer avenues to success. This results in diminished selection for shoppers, who find store shelves stocked with only what the big food conglomerates choose to produce.

"We need to stop big retailers from using their enormous financial leverage over suppliers to tilt the playing field. By resurrecting the Robinson-Patman Act, we could begin to put an end to decades of misguided antitrust policy in which regulators abandoned fair competition in favor of ever-greater corporate scale."

You can read the entire piece here.

KC's View:

Essentially, this crystalizes the decision that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will have to make when evaluating the Kroger-Albertsons merger.  The issue of whether it will lower prices can be debated, though I'm not sure how a reasonable argument can be made that this will be good for competition overall.  But should that be the FTC's concern?  Should it worry about "fairness to smaller competitors?"

I do think that it is hard to argue that robust enforcement of the Robinson-Patman Act is bad for competition.  Either enforce it, or repeal it.

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•  From TechCrunch:

"Instacart is launching a new AI search tool powered by OpenAI’s ChatGPT, the company announced on Wednesday. The new 'Ask Instacart' search tool is designed to help customers save time and assist them with shopping questions by offering personalized recommendations. The new tool is starting to roll out today and will be available to all U.S. and Canadian customers over the coming weeks.

"The new search experience is directly embedded in the search bar in the Instacart app and provides customers with product recommendations, as well as additional information about food preparation, product attributes, dietary considerations and more. Ask Instacart incorporates personalized question prompts, reminds users about their their needs based on their shopping history and encourages them to discover new products."

•  From The Information:

"Grocery upstarts Instacart and Gopuff haven’t been able to deliver two things at once this year: growth and profits.

"Privately held Instacart disappointed some investors last week by reporting the number of grocery orders it facilitated declined by 2% in the first quarter from the same period last year, and was flat compared to last year’s fourth quarter, people familiar with the matter said. The company’s gross transaction volume - the amount of money customers spend on grocery orders - inched up by just 3% from the same period last year.

"But Instacart reported that profit improved by trimming costs and improving delivery processes. It pulled in about $125 million in net income, based on generally accepted accounting principles, for the quarter, one of the people said. The amount of income it generated before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization and share-based compensation, or adjusted Ebitda, increased by roughly one-quarter, or tens of millions of dollars, from the prior quarter, to roughly $170 million.

"Gopuff offered a similarly mixed picture recently. Its first-quarter revenue didn’t grow at all from the same period last year, and the number of orders only ticked up slightly, a person familiar with the matter said. The company reduced how much money it was losing, but still was burning cash, the person said. Its adjusted Ebitda loss improved by about 60% in the first quarter, compared to the same period the previous year, another person familiar with the matter said. More precise figures couldn’t be learned."

•  Amazon said yesterday that "it has more than doubled the capacity of its Disaster Relief Hub in Atlanta by prepositioning 2.4 million relief items ahead of the 2023 hurricane season, which officially begins today. The items will be distributed in the wake of natural disasters to nonprofits and other aid partners that quickly help communities impacted by hurricanes or other disasters. The Disaster Relief Hub is a dedicated space within Amazon’s global logistics network to store and quickly pack items that are most-needed following damaging storms and other emergencies."

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•  From the Wall Street Journal:

"The Supreme Court on Thursday said lawsuits could proceed alleging that the supermarket chains Safeway and Supervalu defrauded the government by claiming Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements at list price for drugs that they typically sold to consumers at steeply discounted rates.

"Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Clarence Thomas said the central question in the suits wasn’t if a reasonable person hypothetically could have misunderstood the reimbursement rules, but rather if the executives actually did. And evidence suggested that the supermarkets knew they were cheating the program and took steps to hide it, he wrote.

"The decision 'sends a strong signal to anybody who would try to exploit legal ambiguities to cheat the public that such tactics won’t fly,' said Tejinder Singh, who argued the cases for whistleblowers who filed suit under the False Claims Act. 'I’m hopeful that today’s decision will help promote honesty, transparency and accountability in the administration of government programs'."

•  From the Associated Press:

"The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits rose slightly last week but remains at healthy levels that continue to show a strong US labor market.

"US applications for jobless claims were 232,000 for the week ending May 27, an increase of just 2,000 from the previous week.  The weekly claims numbers are considered representative of the number of US layoffs.

"The four-week moving average of claims, which flattens out some of the week-to-week volatility, fell by 2,500 to 229,500."

•  In the UK, the Retail Gazette reports that supermarket chain Sainsbury's and baked goods retailer Greggs "have partnered for the first time for an in-store concession.

"The new Greggs shop has opened inside a Sainsbury’s Biggleswade petrol station, located in Biggleswade … Both the baked goods retailer and the supermarket chain are expected to open further concessions together later this year throughout the UK."

Sainsbury’s food commercial director Rhian Bartlett tells the Gazette, “We’ve launched this new concept as part of our ongoing plan to transform our takeaway food offer with top brands – bringing even more innovative and delicious food and drink to our customers."

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Executive Suite is sponsored by Robin Russell Executive Search.

•  Retailer-owned co-op Wakefern Food Corp. announced that it has hired Parul Aggarwal, CPA, as its new Vice President, Controller for Wakefern Financial Services.  Prior to joining Wakefern Food Corp., Parul served as Senior Finance Manager of Mondelez International, and previously held finance roles at Reckitt Benckiser, General Mills Canada, and Kellogg’s Canada.

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One of my favorite novels last year was "The Handler," by M.P. Woodward, a first-time novelist who has a background in intelligence as well as experience as an Amazon executive.  It was, I thought, a well-crafted page-turned about a divorced couple who find themselves hip-deep in a CIA plan to bring in a mole who can help derail Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

Now, John Dale and his ex-wife, Meredith Morris-Dale are back in Woodward's "Dead Drop," which picks up where the original novel left off - the mole is in the wind, Morris-Dale is working with both US and Israeli intelligence services to find him, and Dale - who remains an unfairly disgraced and unemployed ex-spy - is in the middle of it all.  

Woodward is a terrific storyteller, and "Dead Drop" is as propulsive as his first effort - I still think that the exploits of the two Dales are the stuff of a streaming TV series.  

Speaking of which, the final season of "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan," starring John Krasinski as the eponymous CIA analyst, will premier on Amazon Prime Video next month.  As usual, it looks great:

The last week or so has been a time of endings.

Last week, "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" ended its five season run on Amazon Prime Video.

Then, over the weekend, "Succession" and "Barry" both came to an end, each after four seasons on HBO.

And finally, this week, "Ted Lasso" ended (we think - star/creator Jason Sudeikis has been vague on the subject) after three seasons.

As I thought about these four series, it seemed to me that they all had something in common - a willingness to evolve in how they told their stories.

"Maisel" ended its run with a series of episodes that flashed backward and forward in time, giving us greater insight into how Midge Maisel - a 1950s housewife turned standup comedian - challenged the patriarchy as she relentlessly pursued her career.

The final episodes of "Succession" undertook a different challenge - each of them played out over a single day, with the entire season taking place in less than two weeks.

"Barry" continued its descent into darkness - what started out as what seemed like a satire about a hitman who decided to go to a Hollywood acting school has steadily shifted gears, becoming a dark fable about self-delusion,  narcissism, and murder.

And "Ted Lasso," while it didn't really change the way it told its story, branched off to a greater extent in exploring different characters' backgrounds and motivations.  (Its sunny optimism about human nature remained.  Thank goodness.  "Ted Lasso" was a fable, and to expect it to be something else is to miss the point.)

I loved all these series, for different reasons, and especially respected the fact that they all took risks, and all decided on their own to get off the stage.  It is easy for properties such as these to stick around and to milk the audience's goodwill, becoming over the long run a ghost of themselves, shedding audience members slowly but surely, as people forget about what made them innovative and interesting to begin with.

I'll miss them.  Sunday nights on HBO have suddenly gotten considerably less interesting, since "Succession" and "Barry" are gone, and John Oliver has been sidelined by the writer's strike.  But I'll find something to watch.

There are more than a few series that I need to catch up with.  "The Americans."  "Breaking Bad."  "The Handmaid's Tale."  And probably a bunch more that I cannot remember off the top of my head.

In the end, though, the willingness to move on, to try something new, to not keep doing the same thing over and over, is the lesson that I'll take from their conclusions.

I have a wonderful red wine to recommend to you tis week:  the 2020

Collina Serragrilli Langhe Nebbiolo, from northern Italy, which is muscular enough to stand up to the pasta and grilled sausage meal I made the other evening.  At about $20, it is a bargain.  And delicious.

That's it for this week.  Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.