Walmart & Home Depot Build With Bricks

The Wall Street Journal: “Wal-Mart said more shoppers came to its stores and spent more when they did, as the company invested heavily to lower prices and improve customer service … The retail behemoth is investing billions to raise U.S. store worker wages, lower prices and expand e-commerce sales to better compete with Amazon … Wal-Mart’s sales grew in most of its categories, particularly clothes and health products … The company has worked to strengthen its e-commerce capabilities, purchasing Jet.com Inc. for $3.3 billion last September.”

“Home Depot’s same-store sales rose 5.8% in the fourth quarter, driven by a strong housing market that prompted customers to start bigger home-improvement projects and replenish their toolboxes … The retailer also pointed out that while its online sales are growing, nearly half of those orders were fulfilled through in-store pickup.” Home Depot CEO Craig Menear comments: “While we are seeing significant growth in our online business, our stores have never been more relevant.”

“Wal-Mart and Home Depot’s performance contrasts with many other brick-and-mortar retailers, which are challenged by shoppers gravitating to less-profitable online shopping and discounters offering low prices.”

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Alibaba Buys Bricks: Real Life & Big Data

The Wall Street Journal: “Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. is forming a strategic partnership with brick-and-mortar retailer Bailian Group in a deal that underscores the continued importance of traditional retailing.” Alibaba states: “The companies will leverage the power of big data to achieve integration between offline stores, merchandise, logistics and payment tools with the ultimate aim of elevating efficiency and overall consumer experience.”

“Bailian Group operates more than 4,700 supermarkets, convenience stores and department stores, and … traditional retail still forms the bulk of consumer spending in China. She said the partnership gives Alibaba access to Bailian’s customers when its own growth is slowing … Alibaba will also put its Alipay mobile-payment system in Bailian’s stores, helping it expand its influence in China’s online-payment race as competition with Tencent’s WeChat Pay intensifies.”

“Bailian, meanwhile, has been losing market share and can use access to Alibaba’s technology, including its wealth of customer insight and e-commerce know-how, to expand online.”

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Almonds vs. Cows: Milking or Bilking?

The New York Times: “If milk comes from a plant, can you still call it milk? Not according to the dairy industry. Facing growing competition from dairy alternatives like almond, soy and coconut milk, the nation’s dairy farmers are fighting back, with an assist from Congress. Their goal: to stop companies from calling their plant-based products yogurt, milk or cheese. Dairy farmers say the practice misleads consumers into thinking that nondairy milk is nutritionally similar to cow’s milk.”

“But critics say consumers know exactly what they are buying when they choose almond or soy milk instead of dairy milk.” Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, comments: “There’s no cow on any of these containers of almond milk or soy milk. No one is trying to fool consumers. All they’re trying to do is create a better alternative for people who are looking for that option.”

“And what about other nondairy products with dairy names? Will milk of magnesia, cocoa butter, cream of wheat and peanut butter have to change their names as well? … Marsha Cohen, an expert on food and drug law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said that the dairy industry faces an uphill battle. She said the government’s definitions for milk and other foods — known as ‘standards of identity’ — are intended primarily to protect consumers from financial harm, such as being duped into buying cheap or imitation foods masquerading as more expensive ones.”

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Can ‘Artificial Intelligence’ Actually Think?

The Daily Beast: “Artificial intelligence has gotten pretty darn smart—at least, at certain tasks. AI has defeated world champions in chess, Go, and now poker. But can artificial intelligence actually think? The answer is complicated, largely because intelligence is complicated. One can be book-smart, street-smart, emotionally gifted, wise, rational, or experienced; it’s rare and difficult to be intelligent in all of these ways … Thus, the quest to develop artificial intelligence begets numerous challenges, not the least of which is what we don’t understand about human intelligence.”

Perhaps the major limitation of AI can be captured by a single letter: G. While we have AI, we don’t have AGI—artificial general intelligence (sometimes referred to as “strong” or “full” AI). The difference is that AI can excel at a single task or game, but it can’t extrapolate strategies or techniques and apply them to other scenarios or domains—you could probably beat AlphaGo at Tic Tac Toe.

“This limitation parallels human skills of critical thinking or synthesis—we can apply knowledge about a specific historical movement to a new fashion trend or use effective marketing techniques in a conversation with a boss about a raise because we can see the overlaps. AI can’t, for now.”

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The Yeti ‘Museum’: Cool Retail for Cool Coolers

Fast Company: “Yeti makes coolers. They’re very good coolers—they can keep ice for longer than the competition, they’re very sturdy, they can survive being mauled by a bear … but ultimately, they’re still just coolers … when it came time to launch their first retail store, the goal was less ‘find a way to sell a lot of coolers to people who come inside’ and more ‘create a permanent brand activation that allows people to interact with Yeti in ways that they’ll hopefully take with them in the future’ … while you can buy a cooler there, the space was created with that being a secondary—or maybe even tertiary—goal.”

Corey Maynard, Yeti’s Vice President of Marketing, explains: “Yes, we’re selling coolers, and you can get drinkware and shirts and hats and stuff, but it was much more important to us that people could have fun with the Yeti brand and see it brought to life in the three-dimensional world than just be a place that’s driven by transaction … What they came up with very much feels like a museum, complete with a variety of displays and marquee exhibits … There’s a boating exhibit, featuring a skiff built by angler fisherman Flip Pallot … complete with taxidermy redfish, stingrays, brown shrimp, blue crabs, and more. The BBQ exhibit features the backyard BBQ pit of legendary Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin.”

“That approach folds into the retail displays, too. The display for the Tundra—Yeti’s signature cooler—features half of a pickup truck, so visitors can get a feel for how much space a cooler takes up in a truck bed, and what it’s like to lift it up and put it in there. The Rambler display, which shows off the brand’s drink ware, is housed in a giant replica of what you’d see if you cut a Rambler mug in half.” Says Maynard: “I like to think of it as like a children’s museum for Yeti, where there’s a lot of fun things that you can read, play with, and interact with.”

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Book Capella: Library as Luxury Showroom

The Guardian: “Tapestries, leather armchairs, candelabras, sculpted woodwork and figures of the apostles: Book Capella, a newly built, gothic-inspired library in central St Petersburg, is complete with all the expected luxuries of an ancient athenaeum – and a price tag to match. To enjoy the library’s collection and atmosphere, you have to pay a ticket of just under £100 for a four-hour reading session – a markedly different experience to the free access readers can enjoy in Russia’s public libraries.”

“All the books date from between the 16th and 19th centuries and are displayed in thematic rooms with names including The Book of Wars and The Book of Travels. Its motto is a phrase from Jorge Luis Borges: ‘I have always imagined paradise as a library’.”

“However, while Book Capella proclaims its motto to be Borges’s heavenly vision, the space appears to be less library, and something more akin to a luxury showroom.” Project director Irina Khoteshova comments: “One hundred pounds per visit is certainly not a low price, but it is less expensive than tickets to the opera or ballet. People aren’t really surprised by the price itself. They are surprised that it’s the price for a visit to a library … Book Capella is not a library in the traditional sense, and it is not a museum, although elements of the museum are presented. It’s also not the bookstore, although you can buy our books here. [It] is a new way for people to communicate with rare books.”

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Vegan Condoms? Introducing: ‘Sustain’

The New York Times: “The latex in Sustain condoms comes from a Fair Trade rubber plantation in Southern India … The factory is solar powered. And the condoms are free from nitrosamines, possible carcinogens found in many popular brands … With Sustain, Meika Hollender is trying to do for the contraceptive industry what brands like Honest Company, Mrs. Meyer’s and Seventh Generation have done for cleaning products — introduce all-natural alternatives to household staples such as diapers, hand soaps and paper towels.”

“That’s no coincidence. Jeffrey Hollender, one of the founders of Seventh Generation, is Meika’s father and runs Sustain with her … After founding Seventh Generation … he lost control and was forced out by his partners in 2010. On the beach … he zeroed in on condoms. Condoms, he figured, were a product that hadn’t yet gotten the full environmental treatment. And he knew that they were an inherently sustainable product — latex is made from the sap of the rubber tree, an endlessly renewable resource.”

“But vegan condoms are shaping up to be a more difficult sell than recycled paper towels … Three years after founding the company, sales have topped $1 million annually, and big stores like CVS and Target are carrying their products, but the brand has yet to really crack the mainstream … What’s more, the Hollenders have come under fire for what critics describe as dangerous alarmism … its Twitter account posted a video titled Are Condoms Killing You’… Yet Sustain still touts the fact that its condoms are free of nitrosamines on its packaging. Ms. Hollender explains: “This is what resonated with consumers. Maybe because it’s a big, scary chemical word.”

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Etsy Studio Takes On Real-Life Crafts Shops

Quartz: “Freed up from the constraints of retail space, Etsy Studio will launch with eight million craft supply items, compared to the 40,000 items typically carried by brick-and-mortar craft retailers, the company says. It also plans to appeal to conscientious artisans with detailed information on products, including where they were made, and by who. The Studio’s website will also provide original online tutorials for DIY-enthusiasts—alongside the supplies required for the project, of course.”

“Etsy also unveiled Shop Manager, a dashboard that brings together inventory, marketing, payments, shipping, and other types of services for sellers. The company also announced several rollouts for Etsy.com, including more filters to help buyers refine their searches, a new guest checkout option allowing shoppers to make purchases without creating an account, and clearer policies on what makes a product ‘handmade’.”

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Lidl Has Big Plans for the American Market

The Washington Post: “Lidl (pronounced lee-duhl) is a global grocery juggernaut, with 10,000 stores in 27 countries … Now, it is ready to descend on America … set to open 20 stores this summer in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina … Within 12 months of opening its first U.S. stores, it is slated to have 100 locations up and down the East Coast.”

US CEO Brendan Proctor comments: “A lot of the supermarkets are so large, it’s a challenge for people to go shopping. If I wanted to go in and get a bottle of ketchup — first of all, there are probably about 24 aisles in the store. I have to find what aisle it’s in. I get there, I find that there’s 50 types of ketchup. Who honestly needs 50 types of ketchup? So we can streamline that.” He adds: “What we’ve seen and heard is that a lot of customers feel they’re being forced to compromise. So they’re either getting okay quality at a cheap price or they’re getting good quality and having to pay very, very high prices.”

“Lidl will feature a large section dedicated to non-grocery items … as diverse as drills, yoga pants and garden lawn mowers in this part of the store, which is to feature a constantly rotating array of items that cycle in about every week. That could be an interesting way for Lidl to differentiate itself in the market, and it could introduce a T.J. Maxx-like ‘treasure hunt’ vibe to the stores.”

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Plenty United: Produce for People Not Trucks

The Wall Street Journal: “If all goes to plan, the 51,000-square-foot warehouse run by startup Plenty United Inc. will yield as much as 3 million pounds of leafy greens each year. In the coming months, the company plans to begin marketing produce bred for local tables rather than shipping durability … Plenty is among a wave of startups seeking to shift part of the $49 billion U.S. retail produce market from sun-kissed crop fields to giant warehouses, old factories and repurposed shipping containers.”

“These indoor facilities are tricked out with sensors that measure temperature and moisture, automated systems that pump in water and nutrients, and strips of LED lights to provide energy—with no need for sunlight or soil … Plenty’s systems reuse water, largely avoid pesticides, and can reduce the fuel needed to power tractors and deliver products; but the climate-control systems and LED lights add to power consumption … Plenty believes it can lower costs by farming in big warehouses on cheap land outside city centers, and improve efficiency by using a technique called machine learning that enables computers to review huge data sets and make decisions.”

“Some agricultural investors say large-scale indoor farms will struggle to balance capital-intensive operations with the low prices consumers expect to pay for lettuce and other greens … Plenty can today produce more than 150 times as much lettuce per square foot a year as an outdoor farm, and with 1% of the water. (Plenty co-founder Matt Barnard) declined to specify expected prices for its products, but he said this year Plenty should be able to raise and market heirloom lettuces and herbs at the same cost as field-grown versions.”

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