Word of the Day: Convenience

Tim Wu: “Convenience is the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today … In the developed nations of the 21st century, convenience — that is, more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks — has emerged as perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies. This is particularly true in America, where, despite all the paeans to freedom and individuality, one sometimes wonders whether convenience is in fact the supreme value.”

“Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable. Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper. After you have experienced streaming television, waiting to see a show at a prescribed hour seems silly, even a little undignified. To resist convenience — not to own a cellphone, not to use Google — has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism.”

“For all its influence as a shaper of individual decisions, the greater power of convenience may arise from decisions made in aggregate, where it is doing so much to structure the modern economy. Particularly in tech-related industries, the battle for convenience is the battle for industry dominance … The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows.”

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Food Labels: A ‘Natural’ Disaster?

The New York Times: “Consumers, increasingly wary of products that are overly processed or full of manufactured chemicals, are paying premium prices for natural goods, from fruit juices and cereals to shampoos and baby wipes. But as a spate of lawsuits and consumer advocacy efforts show, one person’s ‘natural’ is another person’s methylisothiazolinone. The problem, consumer groups and even some manufacturers say, is that there is no legal or regulatory definition of what ‘natural’ is.”

“Among the brands that have faced legal challenges are several that have long promoted their use of natural ingredients: Tom’s of Maine antiperspirants and toothpastes, the Honest Company’s laundry detergent and dish soap, Annie’s Homegrown salad dressings, Breyers and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Aveeno face moisturizers and Seventh Generation dish soap.”

“A number of more recent cases involve allegations that products labeled natural were misleading because they contained small amounts of materials linked to genetically modified organisms. In December, a New York federal court judge dismissed a lawsuit claiming that Dannon yogurt was falsely labeled natural because the cows might have been given genetically modified feed … Stuck in the middle of this natural-or-not morass are consumers. Unable to trust the labels lining store shelves, shoppers are left with little choice but to examine the small type on the back of the box and try to decipher terms like methylisothiazolinone, a synthetic preservative found in some personal- and skin-care products.”

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What Makes Mexican Malls Thrive?

The Wall Street Journal: “While U.S. malls are dying a slow, painful death, malls in Mexico are thriving … Part of the reason is simple supply and demand. The U.S. is vastly over-retailed … What’s more, a growing middle class in Mexico is gravitating toward more formal retail—shops and malls instead of the urban outdoor markets … Meanwhile, online shopping has barely penetrated here, as low credit-card usage and challenging shipping logistics keep the Amazon.com effect at bay.”

“Perhaps most important, Mexican mall developers learned long ago—partly by watching the struggles in the U.S.—that shopping centers do better with a diverse mix of tenants. Instead of relying on department store anchors to drive foot traffic to smaller apparel shops, a shopping mall should also have a grocery store, play areas for children, sit-down restaurants, and yes, even roller-coasters.”

“Another major factor in malls’ appeal is cultural: Mexicans see malls as community gathering places, especially in cities with public security problems like those along the U.S. border. Last year was the deadliest in at least two decades here, as violence related to drug-trafficking escalated and more than 25,000 people were murdered. Many Mexican families spend hours at the mall every weekend, eating, shopping and socializing in the safe, well-maintained spaces.”

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Is Gucci Today’s Most Innovative Brand?

From a Wall Street Journal interview with Imran Amed, founder of Business of Fashion: “Without a doubt, the single most innovative brand of the moment is Gucci … Gucci has completely overhauled their e-commerce strategy and changed the way they communicate about the brand. They’ve embraced new channels like Instagram but also done beautiful events and interesting advertising campaigns.”

“They’re not doing any discounting on their main runway collection … We’ve kind of trained the consumer to wait for things to go on sale. Gucci’s stopped that. Fifty percent of their customers are millennials. Millennials are the drivers of success for the fashion industry now. Without engaging them, you can’t really operate a successful business today. Gucci has found ways of engaging with that consumer.”

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Valentine Hearts Take Flight on Chicken Wings

The Wall Street Journal: “Somehow, chicken wings are elbowing their way to a spot alongside flowers, chocolate and champagne on America’s Valentine’s Day menu … Restaurant orders of chicken wings—1.1 billion in the U.S. last year—are 14% higher on Feb. 14 compared with other days of the month, excluding Super Bowl Sunday, of course, according to Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst for NPD Group, a market-research firm.”

Marivel Guerrero, who plans to give her new boyfriend a chicken-wing bouquet wrapped in a red bow, explains: “When you’re eating wings you’re really getting to know that other person. Will they pick at them with their fingers? Will they dive in and eat right off the bone?” Charlie Morrison, of Wingstop, “a chicken-wing chain of about 1,100 restaurants,” says sharing wings means “you’re ready to be vulnerable with someone, because there’s going to be food on your face.”

“Duffy’s Irish Pub in Washington, D.C., will offer chicken-wing combinations or ‘flights’ on Valentine’s Day in different flavors … The nine-wing combos require a couple to negotiate over the last piece, says co-owner Casey Callister. The back-and-forth could spark new intimacy.” He comments: “Sharing a partially eaten wing is like sharing a toothbrush.”

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Efficiency Is No Cure for Phony Baloney

The Wall Street Journal: “Over the past 2½ years, thousands of workers lost their jobs, and iconic Kraft buildings, including the original Oscar Mayer headquarters in Madison, Wis., have been shuttered and sold. The cost-cutting project is now wrapping up, giving Kraft Heinz Co. the highest operating profit margin among its peers in the U.S. food industry.”

Troy Shannan, Kraft Heinz’s head of North America supply chain, comments: “We look at pretty much any opportunity we have to drive efficiency. And we use the savings from those efficiencies to reinvest in our brands and our businesses and back into our supply chain.”

“Still, Kraft Heinz is grappling with a problem that can’t be solved by increasing efficiency: U.S. sales of cold cuts and other processed meats slipped to $21.3 billion last year, from $21.9 billion in 2015. Oscar Mayer’s market share dropped to 17.5% from 18% five years ago, according to Euromonitor. Natural and organic brands, as well as small labels buying from local farms, have nibbled away at sales. ‘Consumers are looking for something they think is handmade or looks handmade,’ said Chris Fuller, a consultant to meat processors.”

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Elmhurst Milked: A Not-So-Nutty Idea

Fast Company: When Elmhurst Dairy closed its plant in Queens in 2016, the company had been selling milk in New York City for nearly a century … The company’s owner, in his eighties, decided to pivot: In 2017, it started making plant-based milks, and today it makes none at all from cows. In January, it released the first packaged peanut milk on the market. It also sells ‘milked’ almonds, rice, oats, walnuts, hazelnuts, and cashews.”

“The plant uses a process that mechanically separates raw almonds or peanuts or grains of rice into all of the nutritional components–carbohydrates, protein, fiber, oils, micronutrients–and then reassembles them into a creamy, milk-like liquid. Many other plant-based milks, by contrast, start with water and a mix of ingredients like xanthan gum or carrageenan to give a sense of creaminess, and then add a tiny amount of nut butter or paste.”

“Unlike some nondairy products, like milk made with pea protein, Elmhurst Milked isn’t trying to replicate the taste of cow milk. The hazelnut milk tastes like hazelnuts; the almond milk tastes a little like almonds. Peanut milk tastes like peanuts (a chocolate peanut milk tastes a little like peanut butter cups). While peanut milk isn’t entirely unheard of … Elmhurst Milked is the first to sell it on grocery shelves.”

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Unilever to Weed Out ‘Fake News’ Ad Support

The Wall Street Journal: “Unilever PLC is threatening to pull back its advertising from popular tech platforms, including YouTube and Facebook Inc., if they don’t do more to combat the spread of fake news, hate speech and divisive content.” In prepared remarks, Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed said: “Unilever will not invest in platforms or environments that do not protect our children or which create division in society, and promote anger or hate … We will prioritize investing only in responsible platforms that are committed to creating a positive impact in society.”

“Unilever has been among the more outspoken advertisers pushing for the online ad industry to clean up the ad fraud that exists on the web and offer up stronger measurement standards to ensure that advertisers are buying ads that can be seen by real people. While the company continues to push for those initiatives, Mr. Weed said that consumers don’t care about online advertising measurement issues. They do care about ‘fake news’ and ‘Russians influencing the U.S. election,’ he added. Rather than issue a public list of demands, Mr. Weed said he wants to work privately with the tech companies to come up with solutions.”

“Mr. Weed said that advertisers need to be outspoken about issues on tech platforms, since they are almost entirely supported by billions of ad dollars. ‘One can start by not putting ads on content we do not want to encourage,’ he said.”

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Bad Apples Spoil Bean’s Return Policy

Business Wire: “It used to be that customers could bring back items bought at L.L. Bean’s stores and online any time they felt it didn’t live up to their expectations. The guarantee covered the item’s full lifetime. Now, the policy extends for one year only. After that, customers can only return an item if it proves defective. In another change to the policy, customers will also now need to provide a proof of purchase for a return or exchange.”

“L.L. Bean relayed the news to customers in the form of an emailed letter from Shawn O. Gorman, the company’s executive chairman and great-grandson of founder L.L. Bean. In the letter, Gorman wrote that it was people who took advantage of the generous return policy that forced the company’s hand.”

He wrote: “Increasingly, a small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent. Some view it as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years. Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales. Based on these experiences, we have updated our policy.”

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Sportsneakers: Performance Shoes Trip Up

Quartz: “As sneakers have grown into the everyday footwear of choice—even in the office—for millions of Americans, performance shoes have been pushed aside by styles that co-opt their looks and comfort but shed their athletic intent … In 2017, sales of performance shoes dropped 10% to $7.4 billion, while sales of sport leisure sneakers grew 17%, reaching $9.6 billion.”

“Some brands have capitalized better than others. While Nike is by far still the king of the US sneaker market, Adidas has made significant gains in the US by delivering the fashionable, athletic-inspired shoes shoppers want. Nike has a deep roster of these styles, but its newer shoes, such as the Epic React Flyknit, still emphasize performance.”

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