business news in context, analysis with attitude

We had a story the other day about how Amazon was trying to lower its returns-related costs.  The Information reported that "Amazon in recent months has started warning customers that an item they’re about to buy has been 'frequently returned,' suggesting customers check 'the product details and customer reviews' before they purchase."  Amazon also has "raised the fees it charges sellers using its fulfillment services earlier this year, in addition to often charging sellers an additional processing fee for 'unfulfillable' inventory that can’t be resold after return."

MNB reader Bob Thomas wrote:

If Amazon is making money on the sale of frequently returned goods and on the charging of the vendor for the returns why would they stop selling them?

I think they're getting to the point that the costs are outweighing the money it is making, and the bottom line is more important than ever.


We took note the other day of a Fast Company story about an online venue called The Drop Store, where "pizza comes in pill form for $163. A bag of rice contains just 5 grains but costs $89. And a 15-milliliter bottle of “pure” water (about 1 tablespoon) will run you $198. If that’s not enough to quench your thirst, there’s also a 20-ounce bottle of “regular” water—but it’s still $199. And it’s brown."  The story emphasizes that "these products aren’t real. And yet they portray a future in which our water crisis worsens and water is a rare commodity. They also serve as a reminder that for billions of people around the world, water scarcity or access to clean water is already a pressing issue."

MNB reader Howard Schneider wrote:

Check out the recent novel, "Something New Under the Sun," by Alexandra Kleeman; it’s a rather fun, though dystopian, view of a not-too-distant future without natural water. Great read.


Michael Sansolo had a column the other day in which he posted a photo from a New York Times column showing how AI can help people figure out how to use the leftovers in their refrigerator:

One MNB reader responded:

Regarding Michael’s column on AI and future uses, the photo from the NYT on what to make for a meal from your refrigerator made me laugh…..I like to eat and be as healthy as possible but I had to think, “no wonder they are leftovers”….


On another subject, an MNB reader wrote:

I have to say I strongly agree with your skepticism and doubt regarding the effectiveness of the NGA commercial that debuted today.  In addition to your two points, it made the shuttered "grocers" look like corner-store cigarette/beer stores which really won't tug at anyone's hearts.  There are plenty of examples where small community full-size supermarkets were closed due to anti-competitive issues and that is the core issue.  I guess I expected a whole lot more.


We had a story yesterday about how Sprouts Farmers Market announced it "will eliminate single use plastic bags at checkout by the end of 2023. With this decision, Sprouts will remove over 200 million single use plastic bags from circulation each year."

One MNB reader wrote:

A couple of thoughts on these topics. 1. I’m curious as to how they are going to reduce water and plastic waste?  Do you have to fill your own bag like at the hotel??  2. Eliminating single use bags is not new so why the big announcement?  They are behind not in front.  Personally, the single use bags were not single use in my house.  We, as I am sure many, use them over again for trash bags, doggie bags, and other uses.  So they don’t give away 200 million bags.  How many are now purchasing more trash bags etc.??  What is the true net effect?


On another subject, one MNB reader wrote:

In today’s article you mention the shift of paper coupons to digital coupons and mentioned Kroger as an example of companies that have gone digital.  In my area (Scottsdale AZ) we have Kroger’s Frys Supermarkets. I will tell you that I absolutely hate having to do coupons at all. Do away with all the b.s. coupons and scan this and scan that and scan this QR code…… I personally think coupons are a PIA for everyone and I’d prefer an EDLP strategy, i.e. Walmart. Ever see a Walmart coupon?  Me neither. And in my area the Walmart is cleaner, better stocked, and less scary than my local Frys.

From another reader:

Old style paper coupons are cost prohibitive and historically have lousy redemption rates. ( unless like the old days when stores would have the “coupon room”)  Digital is much more efficient, thereby enabling manufacturers to provide higher value offers and reach more consumers with greater targeted focus.  Win win for all.  Even BJ’s is transitioning to the digital coupon.  Download the coupons from the app and they automatically come off at the register.  No more cumbersome clipping.


On the subject of Howard Schultz's testimony before the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about the company's anti-union positions and whether it has violated federal labor laws, one MNB  reader wrote:

I watched the hearings on YouTube as I did work around the house yesterday afternoon.  Several things that stood out to me that were not mentioned by you or the excerpts you quoted were:

The worker that started the union push in the first Buffalo store was on the union payroll the entire time they worked at the Starbucks store.  Only 6 of 21 workers in the initial store voted for the union, but only 4 voted against the union, 11 did not want to take a side so the union "won". Almost all of the workers who were at this store left employment after the union vote.

Starbucks management has attended 85 meetings to begin negotiations with union stores only to leave because the union wanted to conduct negotiations by zoom or teams instead of appearing in person for the negotiation. Starbucks wanted to ensure they knew who was attending the negotiation sessions, the negotiations were not done in public and that the negotiation sessions were not being recorded which could not be done if the sessions  were held virtually. They had concerns for employee safety if the identities of local Starbucks management participating in the negotiations were made public and targeted for their roles.

Union workers did not get benefits that were announced to non-union workers after the union votes because Starbucks thought that these benefits would be part of the initial contract negotiations that have been delayed. 

The NLRB Inspector General is investigating several NLRB employees for showing favoritism in disputes between the union and the company where in-person votes were accepted in union elections where only mail-in ballots were to be accepted:

"National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) personnel in NLRB Region 14, and elsewhere, have engaged in highly improper, systemic misconduct involving Starbucks and Workers United. The election misconduct by NLRB personnel has been reported by a NLRB career professional"

One Republican Senator noted the conflict of interest that many senators had in chastising Starbucks as a union buster given the almost unanimous donation activity of unions to democrat politicians.

My lasting impression was that a business owner who started life in public housing could build a company from 11 stores to over 325,0000 employees, offer generous pay and significant benefits, be outspoken for liberal causes would still abused by liberal politicians for not toeing every part of their line.

Not to pick nits, but at least two of things you mentioned - the charge that the worker that started the union push in the first Buffalo store was on the union payroll the entire time they worked at the Starbucks store, and the probe into the NLRB - were mentioned in my commentary.  No problem - there was a lot there, and I had to go back to make sure I'd included it.

And I've written here several times about Starbucks' assertion that the law says it could not offer the same wages and benefits to unionized employees as it did unilaterally to non-union workers.  (Not every legal expert agrees with Starbucks on that, by the way.)

I am troubled by the argument over whether the negotiating sessions had to be completely in-person, with Starbucks refusing to meet when some people were attending via zoom.  Seems to me that this ought to be an easy one for the union - make sure everybody is in the room, which essentially forces Starbucks to the table.

I think that Schultz made his case relatively well.  But I'll challenge you on two points.

One Republican Senator noted the conflict of interest that many senators had in chastising Starbucks as a union buster given the almost unanimous donation activity of unions to democrat politicians.

Is this really a conflict of interest?  Because I would think that conceptually we should applaud politicians who bite the hands that feed them.  I don't think it happens that often.  (I'm also not so naive to think that what we saw in the hearing was about nobility.  It wasn't.  Not on either side of the aisle.  On the Democrat side, it largely was about one set of self-interests outweighing another set of self-interests.)

My lasting impression was that a business owner who started life in public housing could build a company from 11 stores to over 325,0000 employees, offer generous pay and significant benefits, be outspoken for liberal causes would still abused by liberal politicians for not toeing every part of their line.

I don't care how successful a business person is, how many people they've employed, and how many politicians they've bought and paid for.  They don't get to break the law.  I want the law to be applied evenly, fairly and judiciously.   I'm not sure that's what happening here, but I would like to see the process play itself out.

From another MNB reader:

Thanks for the recap. I was interested in what would happen but knowing how painful these hearings are to endure and your penchant for all things Howard I knew I could skip and get your report. Truly not miss TV would be you interviewing Schultz and Sanders in the same room at the same time!

Probably not going to happen.  But thanks.