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Business
Rome-Floyd County Development Authority forming E-Mobility task force

As automakers and even heavy equipment manufacturers continue to go electric, the Rome-Floyd County Development Authority is working to create a task force to assist local businesses about changes in the industry.

The plan is to pull together stakeholders, RFCDA President Missy Kendrick said, because there’s a strong push toward electric vehicles.

Missy Kendrick

“I don’t want to be reactive,” Kendrick told the authority board this week. “I want us to be proactive. ... I don’t want us to be left behind in that effort.”

As automakers shift toward putting more and more electric vehicles on the road, they’re also looking at battery production.

That brings more people to the South, where electricity is cheaper than in many traditional manufacturing states.

The competition is fierce to bring in Toyota’s new $1.29 billion factory to produce batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles. The factory would create 1,750 jobs and start operating in 2025. The states where Toyota already makes vehicles — like nearby Alabama — are already seen as early front runners.

Ford in late September announced an $11 billion investment into manufacturing a strong, dependable supply of essential parts for electric vehicles. Two battery plants will be built in Glendale, Kentucky. A battery plant and the truck assembly plant will be built in Stanton, Tennessee.

General Motors Co. said in early October it’s switching to source 100% renewable energy power at all of its U.S. sites by 2025 — five years ahead of its previous target date.

It’s not just cars. There are a lot more electric heavy equipment and construction vehicles now, and coming in the future.

Cassandra Wheeler

“You’d be surprised,” said authority member Cassandra Wheeler, Georgia Power’s Northwest Georgia regional director. “When we think about electric vehicles, we just think about transportation, but in industries many (electric) vehicles are also used in manufacturing and industry.”

For example, Amazon’s biggest and newest warehouse in Delaware boasts a massive number of robots. The site has been touted as a vision of an automated future when machines do all the work of moving everything from groceries to laptops, from makers to users.

The scene in that five-story plant is described as eerily quiet by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“An electromechanical ballet performed by robots takes place in an eerie quiet. Robot vehicles, guided by optical and motion sensors, make turns tightly adjacent to one another, selecting and carrying Amazon’s vast array of merchandise from storage to delivery,” the story stated.

Amazon is also developing drones and self-driving vehicles, all of which require electricity.

Doug Walker, File 

Electric automobile charging stations were installed in front of the Forum River Center in Rome in late 2020.


Business
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‘People are hoarding’: Food shortages are the next supply chain crunch

In Denver, public-school children are facing shortages of milk. In Chicago, a local market is running short of canned goods and boxed items.

But there’s plenty of food. There just isn’t always enough processing and transportation capacity to meet rising demand as the economy revs up.

More than a year and a half after the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life, the supply of basic goods at U.S. grocery stores and restaurants is once again falling victim to intermittent shortages and delays.

“I never imagined that we’d be here in October 2021 talking about supply-chain problems, but it’s a reality,” said Vivek Sankaran, chief executive officer of Albertsons Cos., who echoed the laments of other retailers. “Any given day, you’re going to have something missing in our stores, and it’s across categories.”

‘Whack-A-Mole’

In Denver, broken parts at the milk supplier’s plant affected shipments of half-pint cartons, on top of disruptions at one time or another in cereal, tortillas and juice.

“We’ve been struggling with supply-chain issues with different items since school started,” said Theresa Hafner, the executive director of food services at Denver Public Schools. “It just continues to pop up. It’s like playing whack-a-mole.”

In Chicago, Dill Pickle Food Co-Op ran out of certain dry goods because its two main distributors haven’t been sending orders in full in recent weeks.

“Early in the pandemic, panic buying was the cause of many of the out-of-stock situations that grocers experienced,” general manager I’Talia McCarthy said in an email to store owners this month. “Although the food industry was able to somewhat rebound, the sustained nature of the pandemic, combined with the slow pace of vaccination globally and the recent surge caused by the delta variant, have resurfaced the problem.”

The shortages aren’t as acute as they were earlier in the pandemic. At supermarkets, on-shelf availability has stabilized since dropping drastically in November last year, according to data from NielsenIQ.

Still, one key metric is trending down a bit. The total on-shelf-availability rate was 94.6% in September, a decrease from 95.2% in August. That means that 94.6% of expected revenue was generated last month, NielsenIQ says.

Price pressure

Many food suppliers are planning for these hiccups and shortages to last.

Saffron Road, a producer of frozen and shelf-stable meals, is holding extra inventory, keeping about four months of supply on hand instead of the typical one or two months.

“People are hoarding,” said CEO and founder Adnan Durrani. “What I think you’ll see over the next six months, all prices will go higher.”

A&W Restaurants earlier this year had to cancel a marketing deal for chicken tenders when its supplier couldn’t get extra stock of poultry. Instead, the chain, which has about 560 locations domestically, went with chili-cheese fries.

“Rather than running short, we replaced the promotion with something we could get,” said CEO Kevin Bazner. Supplies are improving, he said, but the chain is still only getting about 80% of what it orders, he said.

Not enough styrofoam

Food producers complain of supply-chain headaches of their own.

Land O’Lakes Inc., one of the biggest U.S. farm cooperatives, said its members are producing abundant amounts of milk at their dairies.

“The challenges in the supply chain continue to be issues such as driver shortages, labor and congestion at the ports,” Chief Supply Chain Officer Yone Dewberry said in an email.

Meat processors tell a similar tale. Earlier this month, one pork supplier couldn’t get products out because there weren’t enough Styrofoam trays, said Steve Meyer, a consulting economist for the National Pork Producers Council.

Labor issues are also roiling the meat supply. Plants are running but not at full capacity due to a lack of workers and truckers, Meyer said. The problem is so bad that at least one U.S. meatpacker has tried to lure new employees with Apple Watches.

In most cases, animals are being harvested but there aren’t enough people to handle normal value-added processes such as boning, trimming and curing. That may make it harder for grocery-store customers to find such high-value products as boneless hams.

Said Meyer, “You name it, it’s going wrong somewhere.”


Business
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Consumer Confidential|
Consumer Confidential: Hertz refused to let facts get in the way of an unwarranted late fee

Mark Stanley makes his living advising corporate clients on how to improve their customer service. So it’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about treating people right — especially if the goal is to expand business.

His recent experience with Hertz, therefore, should be taken not just as yet another horror story involving the formerly bankrupt rental car company, but also as a case study in how not to win friends and influence people.

“I travel about 150,000 miles a year. I know how these things should work,” Stanley, 64, told me. “Hertz seemed more interested in collecting an unwarranted fee than in gaining a long-term customer.”

To be sure, Hertz isn’t the only rental car company that tries to push people around. I’ve received tales of woe involving Avis, Budget and other companies.

But Hertz, which also owns the Dollar and Thrifty brands, keeps turning up at the center of some of the most egregious examples of questionable corporate decision-making.

In June I related the story of a Los Angeles nonsmoker who was hit with a $400 smoking fee because a couple of attendants at a Hertz lot claimed they smelled smoke in the vehicle.

Hertz subsequently cut the fee in half but refused to eliminate it, even though the customer, Sean Dungan, was a member of its Gold Plus rewards program. Dungan told me he’d be switching to Enterprise.

Then, in July, I shared the story of a Utah woman who found a used condom in her Hertz rental car. Hertz acknowledged that “our cleanliness standards were not met in this situation,” but nevertheless imposed a $50 cleaning fee for what it said was dog hair in the vehicle.

The woman, Faith Cenobio, told me she wasn’t traveling with a dog. She said she’ll never rent from Hertz again.

And now we come to Stanley, author of the book “Experience Design for Customer Service: How to Go From Mediocre to Great!”

Again, helping companies improve their interactions with customers is what the Los Angeles resident does for a living. Current and former clients include Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Anthem Blue Cross.

Normally, Stanley told me, he rents from Avis when he travels. But Delta Air Lines offered a special promotional rate for Hertz when he flew in July from L.A. to Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, so he gave the company a try.

Stanley was scheduled to return his rental car by 8:15 p.m. July 13. He said he dropped it off, fully gassed, around 7:45 p.m. so he could make a 10:20 p.m. flight home.

“The guy in the Kona office said their computers were down, so they’d email me a receipt,” Stanley recalled. “When they did, it said I returned the car at 10:14 and that I had to pay a late fee of $201.05.”

Considering he was on the plane at that time awaiting takeoff, this seemed like a stretch on Hertz’s part. Stanley emailed the company and pointed out the discrepancy. Hertz didn’t respond, he said.

Stanley then disputed the charge to American Express, his credit card issuer. AmEx looked over the situation and Stanley’s supporting documents. It waived the Hertz late fee on Aug. 17.

Problem solved? Not quite.

In late September, more than a month after AmEx resolved the dispute in his favor, Stanley received a letter from Hertz reiterating that he owes the company $201.05 for turning in his car at 10:14 p.m.

If Stanley wanted to challenge this, it said, he’d have to write a response and snail-mail it to Hertz. Otherwise, “the company may report you as delinquent,” which means it could sic debt collectors on him and trash his credit score.

Stanley recently wrote back to Hertz, repeating what AmEx already concluded: That he was sitting on a plane at 10:14 on the night in question, and that he indisputably was on the flight because he used his credit card for a Lyft ride home after landing in L.A.

The Lyft booking also serves to show that the plane took off and landed on schedule.

All of which is to say, there’s no possible way Hertz’s late-fee claim held up.

Stanley took the extra step of reporting the matter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Businesses are required to respond to any complaint lodged with the agency.

So why was the company still pursuing this?

I put that question to Hertz. It took them a week to provide a response.

“Upon further review, we have agreed to waive the late fee as it appears that this matter was not properly researched when Mr. Stanley initially reached out to us before disputing the charge with his credit card,” said Lauren Luster, a company spokesperson.

She added that Hertz has contacted Stanley and “apologized for this inconvenience.”

Stanley told me he was pleased with the outcome — but surprised he had to spend three months jumping through hoops just to get Hertz to acknowledge it screwed up.

He noted that Hertz had multiple opportunities to “properly research” the case — his initial email, AmEx’s investigation — and kept coming up with the wrong conclusion until both a federal agency and a journalist were involved.

“Their time would have been better utilized trying to attract and keep customers, particularly when an incident like this was easily validated,” Stanley observed.

He speculated that many consumers might not have gone to the lengths he did in challenging an unwarranted fee.

“If you were my mom,” Stanley said, “you’d get scared and write them a check.”

He also marveled at Hertz’s choices throughout this process.

“Think about it,” he told me. “This was my first rental with the company. This experience sets the tone for our relationship.

“Even if I did return the car late, the right way to handle it is to send me a letter saying you understand that mistakes happen, waive the fee and say you’re looking forward to my next rental.”

The more Stanley discussed it, the more animated he became.

“How does this build a future relationship?” he asked. “It doesn’t. It says they’re more interested in a $200 fee than they are in having a long-term customer.

“Here was a chance to steal me from Avis, handed to them on a silver platter. They chose instead to come after me for a charge I didn’t even owe.”

Stanley makes great points about customer service in general. I’ve written previously about how service has been given short shrift by many companies during the pandemic.

Stanley’s key lesson is so obvious it shouldn’t have to be repeated. But I’ll do so anyway: The way to win customer loyalty is to treat people respectfully and fairly.

Or as Stanley put it: “All the marketing in the world won’t compensate for a poor service experience.”

Hertz and other businesses should pay attention. This guy literally wrote a book on good customer service.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, he’s sticking with Avis for his future rental car needs.


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