Movies & Toys: Box-Office Bingo

The New York Times: “With the decline in DVD sales speeding up and the box office stalling on a global scale — even as movies become more expensive to make — studios like Warner for the first time are looking to merchandise as an engine. Film companies will release 25 movies with toy tie-ins this year, according to Bloomberg analysis, up from roughly eight annually in the past.”

“More than ever, consumer products are influencing moviemaking decisions — namely, sequels and more sequels. Retailers are more willing to devote shelf space to tie-in products when there is already proven interest … the opportunity is too great for studios to pass up, and Exhibit A is Disney. Over the last five years, operating income at Disney’s consumer products and video game business has roughly gone from $1 billion to $2 billion … Disney is the world’s No. 1 licenser, with themed products generating $56.6 billion in retail sales last year.”

‘It is not a coincidence that Warner, Universal and 20th Century Fox have turned to Disney veterans to invigorate their merchandise divisions.” Pam Lifford, the president of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, “spent 12 years at Disney Consumer Products, leaving in 2012, when she was an executive vice president … Jim Fielding, former president of Disney Stores Worldwide, took over consumer products at Fox in January. Vince Klaseus became Universal’s consumer products and video game chief in 2014 after a long run at Disney.”


Not SeeFood: App Apes ‘Shazam for Food’

The Verge: “In a peculiar case of life imitating art imitating life, Pinterest has announced a new recipe-finding feature that makes use of computer vision to tell you about a dish when you point your smartphone camera at it … It sounds an awful lot like SeeFood, the fake ‘Shazam for food’ app from the HBO comedy Silicon Valley. Pinterest, of course, doesn’t use that terminology anywhere, nor does its marketing material even reference the sitcom or its ludicrous parody, which manifested itself as an app that could only tell you whether an object was or was not a hotdog.”

“When reached for comment regarding SeeFood, a Pinterest representative confirmed to The Verge that the Silicon Valley episode was ‘separate and completely coincidental’.”

“This is all part of a broader artificial intelligence push in the tech industry to apply machine learning techniques to everyday life. By training neural networks on huge mounds of data and translating that into a real-time algorithm, tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are now developing software products that can digest and understand the world, from text to photos to even videos.”


Split Decision: Bezos Goes Bananas

The Wall Street Journal: “It started with a brainstorm from founder and CEO Jeff Bezos that Amazon should offer everyone near its headquarters—not just employees—healthy, eco-friendly snacks as a public service. After considering oranges, Amazon picked bananas, and opened its first Community Banana Stand in late 2015. It has since expanded to two stands on its corporate campus, which sprawls across several blocks in downtown Seattle, and says it has given out more than 1.7 million free bananas.”

“The response has been split. Most Amazonians like them. Other workers say it is now hard to find bananas in stock at nearby grocery stores. And some eateries in a two-block radius of the stands are feeling squished.”

“Amazon has traditionally been more frugal with its perks than other tech companies, which offer dry cleaning, haircuts, cold-brew coffee, nap pods and in-house yoga classes, among other things … Most visitors take two. Others take close to a dozen, claiming they have hungry co-workers—never, of course, that they hanker to bake banana bread after work. Some post photos on Instagram feeding the bananas to their dogs. The stand offers dog treats for four-legged friends.”


Pueblo Mall: An Outlier in the Amazon Age

The Washington Post: “The Pueblo Mall is an outlier in the age of, when socks and laundry detergent and televisions — nearly anything you can think of — can be delivered to your front stoop within hours … Despite Pueblo’s three Walmarts and the arrival of a Dick’s Sporting Goods and an Ulta Beauty store, the Pueblo Mall is bustling. On weekends, its nearly 3,000 outdoor parking spaces fill up … the mall’s average sales per square foot are healthy, holding at around $400 over the past six months.”

“… When the mall was built, downtown Pueblo suffered and many of its stores closed. The mall became Pueblo’s new town square … Now it’s among the city’s main employers … Civic pride and tradition also play a part. In some markets with older regional malls, people buy from a traditional anchor store such as a Sears because it’s American.”

“Shoppers in southern Colorado are often more willing to drive longer distances for their retail purchases, especially for ­durable goods such as refrigerators and other appliances … Two other factors work in Pueblo’s favor: the distance to other shopping centers and the small-town demographics. Pueblo’s median household income is $36,367, according to the most recent 2015 statistics, compared with the state’s $63,909 … The mall holds community events throughout the year, including a ‘Walk with a Doc’ mall-walking program, health fairs, school concerts and, recently, a Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Day and a ‘Pueblo’s Got Talent’ showcase.”


Michael Ruhlman & The American Grocery

The Wall Street Journal: “Is there any place more American than the supermarket? Forget the airport and the voting booth; for nearly a century, the one-stop shop has remained a temple of consumerism, not to mention our particular form of consumerist anxiety … In Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America” Michael Ruhlman focuses on “his beloved hometown supermarket, Heinen’s Grocery Store, a Cleveland-based chain with 23 locations in Ohio and Illinois. Joe Heinen opened the first one in 1933, three years after Michael Cullen launched ‘the first true supermarket,’ in Mr. Ruhlman’s designation: King Kullen in Queens, N.Y. Heinen, like Cullen, stockpiled meat, seafood, dairy, produce and groceries, often at a discount, under a single roof. (King Kullen’s slogan was ‘Pile it high. Sell it low.’)”

“There are now 38,000 grocery stores in America, some as large as 90,000 square feet. Heinen’s has annual sales of some $600 million—on a margin of only 1.25% to 1.5%, typical of the industry. ‘You do sales of half a billion dollars,’ a Heinen’s executive notes to Mr. Ruhlman, “and you only have profit of $5 million—what kind of a business is that?'”

Now the best grocery stores compete in a crowded marketplace by combining all of the above while becoming obligatory shopping, and even tourist, destinations. Wegmans, an East Coast chain frequently named America’s top grocery, and Central Market, an upscale offshoot of Texas’ H-E-B … have generated the kind of fervent fan bases once limited to sports franchises.” However: “Jeff Heinen fears that the supermarket will eventually go the way of the suburban shopping mall. ‘We’ll be prepared food and specialty products,’ he tells Mr. Ruhlman. Everything else, all those center-aisle products, in his estimation, will be delivered via Amazon.”


Intuition, Math & The Supermarket Checkout

The Wall Street Journal: “We are used to the standard system of one line for each cashier. But what if there is just one big lane feeding multiple cashiers? … The single queue often snakes around, as lines do at airport security checkpoints. Mathematical queuing theory says that the serpentine system should be faster than separate lines leading to separate cash registers, but only with a condition called ‘no jockeying’—the assumption that people in multiple lines won’t hop over to a different line that has become free.”

“But that isn’t realistic, as we can all attest. If you allow jockeying in multiple lines, the serpentine system is no faster on average. It might intuitively seem faster because you won’t get stuck behind a single person taking a long time, but that same delay is just portioned out among more people, leaving the average wait time the same … In a curious twist, one recent study showed that cashiers work faster when they are serving a dedicated line. Perhaps it instills a sense of pride or connection with the customers waiting for one hardworking cashier.”


Brendan Proctor: More than a ‘Lidl’ Different

Retail Dive: “We offer the experience of grocery retooled, rethought and refreshed,” says Lidl U.S. CEO Brendan Proctor. Among the differences: “Packaged goods will be placed on shelves in their cartons, eliminating the work that would go into unpacking. Produce displays will not be precariously stacked, making all the fruits and vegetables equally accessible to shoppers. And shoppers will bring their own bags and bag their own groceries, eliminating the cost of paper or plastic bags as well as employees’ time and effort in bagging.”

“Aside from the food items, Lidl plans to differentiate itself through its specials on non-food items … These specials could be anything from yoga pants to lawnmowers to leather jackets.” Also: “The retailer plans to streamline the grocery shopping experience and pare down customer choices. Proctor said that the product selection will be curated so that shoppers will not be overwhelmed with too many choices for staples like ketchup. Instead of multiple varieties of the same product, shelf space will be devoted to different kinds of items.”

“Lidl’s strong global presence makes imports of premium Belgian chocolates and Italian cookies to the U.S. much easier and more affordable. Lidl’s Preferred Selection brand features the flag of the item’s country of origin on the label ,,, For the time being, Proctor said the supermarket chain will concentrate on locations on the East Coast … Lidl will also concentrate on brick-and-mortar stores for shopping. There are no plans to work on e-commerce models, at least for now. People still prefer going to the grocery store over ordering online, he said.”


Of Puppuccinos & Peanut Butter Bacon Burgers

The Wall Street Journal: “For some restaurant customers, the hottest items to order aren’t on the menu. In recent years, so-called secret menus have cropped up on social media and attracted a cult following. Devotees proudly photograph their McDonald’s Chicken Cordon Bleu McMuffins, Chipotle Quesaritos (a quesadilla-wrapped burrito) and Shake Shack Peanut Butter Bacon Burgers. Fans debate recipes and discuss how to order tricky items without provoking the ire of harried restaurant staff.”

“Some restaurants, like McDonald’s, deny the existence of such menus, although others say their staff will customize orders. Some establishments actually embrace the concept. Many creations are suggested and named by consumers, who detail online what ingredients to request. Sometimes, people put them together on their own.”

“Occasionally, secret menus aren’t limited to restaurants’ human clientele. Last year, Ricky Wolfe and his then-girlfriend, with dog Wally in tow, drove through a Starbucks in College Park, Md. She ordered a coffee and a Puppuccino. The barista, no questions asked, handed over a tiny cup filled with whipped cream. Mr. Wolfe, 28, was incredulous. Wally, a shepherd-hound mix, was apprehensive until her tongue met the whipped cream.”


Hit Factories: Making Songs Like Sausages

BBC: “A new study by Music Week magazine shows it now takes an average of 4.53 writers to create a hit single … Ten years ago, the average number of writers on a hit single was 3.52 … Even solo singer-songwriters like Adele, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, whose identities are deeply ingrained into their music, lean on co-writers …. So why is this happening? Are songwriters increasingly lazy or lacking in talent? Or are they second-guessing themselves in the search for a hit?”

“According to Mike Smith, managing director of music publishers Warner/Chappell UK, it is simply that the business of making music has changed.” He comments: “Think back 20 years and an artist would take at least two or three albums to really hone their craft as a songwriter. There is a need to fast-forward that process [which means record labels will] bring in professional songwriters, put them in with artists and try to bring them through a lot faster.”

“Writing camps are where the music industry puts the infinite monkey theorem to the test, detaining dozens of producers, musicians and ‘top-liners’ (melody writers) and forcing them to create an endless array of songs, usually for a specific artist … British songwriter MNEK, who is one of 13 people credited on Beyonce’s hit single Hold Up, says the song is essentially a Frankenstein’s Monster, stitched together from dozens of demos.” He explains: “She played me the chorus. Then I came back here [to my studio] and recorded all the ideas I had for the song. Beyonce snipped out the pieces she really liked and the end result was this really great, complete song.”