business news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday we posted an email from MNB reader Rich Heiland in which he described a confrontation over masks that took place in an H-E-B store:

One day I witnessed a red-in-the-face woman screaming at an employee - a young African-American woman in her teens - that she would "not put on no damn masks" and she went into the store. The young woman was trembling and near tears. I went over to her and told she did fine, try to forget about it.

This prompted an email from an MNB reader:

Kevin, reader Rich Heiland noted the HEB employee was African American. Why?  What did her race have to do with it?  If the employee had been white would he have called it out?  I doubt it. This is the kind of inherent racism that is alive and well in our country. It needs to be pointed out when it occurs.

I know Rich Heiland, and this was not racism.  But I figured that it would be better to ask him to answer for himself.  And he did:

I debated that. Yes, the basic point was about mask compliance so on one level the race of either party should not have mattered. But, this was East Texas, where Old South racism is alive and sadly well, especially in the wake of the last few years. 

This was a big loud white woman wearing a lot of red, which in East Texas today you can read a lot into. Her behavior was aggressive. For a young black woman in East Texas  to be yelled at in public is much different than for a white woman. I wonder if the woman would have been that aggressive with a white employee? Dunno.

I am an old school reporter. I tend to look at a story as it presents itself to me, not through the lens your reader used, though I understand it. That is why I said I debated it. In this instance it became news to me when I looked at the young girl's face.

But, been on the receiving of criticism and pushback for a lot of years and welcome it, respect it and hope to keep learning from it.

I'll add this.  Rich Heiland, to the best of my knowledge, is the only MNB reader who can be described as a former Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and newspaper publisher.  I totally trust his instincts … and I also appreciate his thoughtfulness.

From MNB reader Phil Herr:

Here’s a suggestion for retailers to enforce mask wearing. Hire “bouncers” — stationed at the entrance. Nothing like a 6’5” person to step up and say, "please put on your mask before entering the store”. And if necessary, an additional bouncer inside to ensure the mask stays on.

Takes the pressure off your front-line workers and gives additional folks meaningful employment.

And MNB reader Howard Schneider wrote:

I agree that stores should not be held liable for harm to customers or staff in Texas – provided the irresponsible state government is.

Excellent idea.  Though it is my experience that lawmakers protect themselves first

Got the following email from an MNB reader about vaccination passport proposals:

I don’t see the necessity of mandating a card to show proof of vaccination.

What about the people that contracted the virus and now have immunity?

What about all those that have been vaccinated and don’t have a card?

What about all the current gov. regs in place?  They seem to be working well.

What about all the protocols in place currently by airlines and businesses?  They seem to be doing well too.

This appears to be additional government overreach and totally unnecessary and a desperate attempt to shift focus.  I wouldn’t take stock in anything Gov. Cuomo says.  He obviously does not have the ability to make prudent decisions or stand behind his actions.

I think Cuomo is the very definition of "imperfect messenger" when it comes to any of this stuff.

I also think that if we all wear masks for the duration and get vaccinated, then passports designed to prove it won't be relevant.  But if we get complacent or arrogant about it, then we may have to take additional steps.  And it'll be only pour fault.

Responding to our ongoing conversation about branding, one MNB reader wrote:

I have 3 sons in their 30’s and I am constantly asking them questions about brands, trends, etc. I am too old to understand what is relevant today….to the target consumers of our brands.

NFL and NBA players constantly talk about themselves as brands….in the end, we are all brands. Hey, you are Mr Content Guy!

Good point.

Yesterday MNB took note of a Seattle Times report that "an Amazon telehealth outfit that started as a pilot service for Seattle-area employees and their families has quietly filed paperwork to operate in 21 more states, a signal of Amazon’s expanding ambitions for the $3.8 trillion medical sector."

Not only is it expanding the number of states where it wants to expand - the  company has filed paper work in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming - but it also reportedly is pitching other companies on using the service.  Among them, Seattle-based Zillow.

Prompting one MNB reader to write:

This is scary AF. I mean, why not sell your personal health information to Amazon? Imagine the ways they can tie into this. Oh, think of the personalized ads and recommendation. 

Note - I am decidedly not a conspiracy theorist, but I’ve grown very wary of this type of centralization. Amazon is too big. Way too big. And please don’t tell me this will be “good” for the consumer.

Okay.  I won't.

Responding to yesterday's story about Albertsons laying out expectations for how suppliers will support its e-commerce initiatives - incremental to existing trade dollars - one MNB reader wrote:

I agree that ecommerce is the way of the future, but to your point, manufacturers are redirecting trade funds for this and not creating another bucket.  It appears to me that Albertsons doesn’t truly embrace this direction.  They are simply implementing a new silo for manufacturers to fund.

Q: If more of their customers are moving to e platforms, then how can Albertsons expect the same level of return from their traditional programs?  You have to wonder, when will retailers understand this and truly embrace this new avenue.  It would seem to me that honest partnering with manufacturers is a far better long term approach, instead of just another revenue attempt.

Finally, I got this thoughtful email from an MNB reader, responding to our coverage of conflicts taking place inside stores between employees and customers:

It's a whole new ballgame.  The Pandemic has changed the "face" of retailing in a way that who we are as a business in terms of our people pales in comparison to what we do in response to the  Pandemic.  Customer loyalty once was defined by our tenured Team Members who provided a sense of comfort and trust.  Now there is little comfort, and even less trust, but that has nothing to do with who we are and everything to do with what we do.

Initial objectives a year ago was to try to preserve the sanctity of our store to provide a respite to those who needed a break from the stress of the blossoming Pandemic.  It was a failed strategy as we quickly discovered that we needed to provide a sense of security and protection above all else, or we were going to lose tremendous market share and be vilified by our community and Team Members alike.  So we adapted and continued to adapt and evolve over the course of 2020.

As we continue to wear masks, and continue to adjust to the purple tiers, the red tiers, and the ever changing definitions of everything "tier" we are still held to the standard of what we are doing to keep our community and our Team Members safe.  Once known for our superior service, that was truly based on close and meaningful contact with our customer base has truly evolved into the protection and care of our customer base and our Team Members, from a distance of at least six feet.  And I wonder if who we are as people, working in this supermarket environment, will ever carry the same meaning again?

It is hard to know.  Will plexiglass be a budget line in every store's list of expenses going forward?  I honestly do not have an answer … I do think we are forever changed by the pandemic and that there is no going backward to what used to be.  Does that mean that close and meaningful connections between shoppers and store employees will beyond our reach?  I hope not … but there may have to be different ways to achieve them.