Visual Noise: The Open-Office Downside

The Wall Street Journal: “After taking down walls to create open offices and foster lots of interaction and collaboration, some companies are finding they’ve done the job too well. All of this social engineering has created endless distractions that draw employees’ eyes away from their own screens. Visual noise, the activity or movement around the edges of an employee’s field of vision, can erode concentration and disrupt analytical thinking or creativity.”

“A loss of visual privacy is the No. 2 complaint from employees in offices with low or no partitions between desks, after noise, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology of 42,764 workers in 303 U.S. office buildings.”

“Some employers are dealing with such distractions by giving employees a lot of choices, allowing them to leave their desks and relocate to other kinds of workspaces over the course of a day … AT&T has installed about 20 Steelcase Brody workstations at its San Ramon, Calif., offices. They have privacy screens on three sides to block distractions … The company also has 66 ‘focus rooms,’ small rooms with a single desk. These are popular among employees because they allow them to close the door, turn away from the window and work facing a wall.”

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Flowlight: Giving The Busy Signal

The Wall Street Journal: “Interruptions are the bane of workers in open-plan offices, with some resorting to headphones, busy lights and other paraphernalia to ward off chatty co-workers … Academic researchers and collaborators at ABB have developed an automated solution: a light that turns red, green or yellow to indicate when interruptions are OK and when they aren’t. The team says that the system, known as FlowLight, reduced interruptions by 46% for 36 users who reliably logged such intrusions.”

“To avoid making red lights into status symbols, they were at first limited to going on for 18% of the workday … Not all interruptions are bad. Ill-timed or trivial ones tend to hurt productivity, but many interruptions lead to valuable discussions that can benefit a firm … So the idea isn’t to do away with them but to channel them between periods of intense concentration.”

“The researchers were also surprised by the extent to which FlowLight became a useful feedback system to encourage concentration by professionals whose jobs offer considerable opportunities for distraction. One user told the researchers, ‘If I see the red light, I sense I am in the flow, and I keep working’.”

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‘Amazon Charts’ Re-Define ‘Best Seller’

The New York Times: Amazon now tracks “not only the top-selling digital and print books on Amazon, but the ones that customers spend the most time reading … With its lists, Amazon aims to redefine the notion of a best seller, expanding it to include books that are ‘borrowed’ from its e-book subscription service, and ones that are streamed on Audible. As a result, the lists give increased visibility to books that might not typically appear on other best-seller lists.”

“All of Amazon’s acquisitions and new features are having a cumulative effect, allowing the company to draw on its vast customer base and troves of data to discover what is popular, and return that information to customers, creating a lucrative feedback loop … Crowdsourcing and data mining are also driving the company’s approach to its bookstores, which act as showcases for books popular with customers on the site. While the stores have traditional categories, like fiction, nonfiction and travel, the most eye-catching shelves feature categories culled from Amazon’s customer data.”

“The first thing customers see when they walk into the store is a large display table, labeled Highly Rated, which includes books with an average rating of 4.8 stars or higher on a scale of 5 … Another display case, labeled Page-Turners, features books that people finish reading on their Kindle in fewer than three days … Another section features the most ‘wished for’ books from Amazon’s website … The books are all displayed face out. Under each book is a card with the average customer rating, the number of reviews and a featured review from an Amazon reader. Displaying the full cover of each book mimics the visual look of Amazon’s website, and might lure customers to unfamiliar titles.”

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Google Eyes: Watch While You Shop

The Washington Post: “Google executives say they are using complex, patent-pending mathematical formulas to protect the privacy of consumers when they match a Google user with a shopper who makes a purchase in a brick-and-mortar store. The mathematical formulas convert people’s names and other personal information into anonymous strings of numbers.”

“The formulas make it impossible for Google to know the identity of the real-world shoppers, and for the retailers to know the identities of Google’s users, Google executives said. The companies know only that a match has been made. In addition, Google does not get a detailed description of the individual transactions, just the amount spent.”

“Google would not say how merchants had obtained consent from consumers to pass along their credit card information. In the past, both Google and Facebook have obtained purchase data for a more limited set of consumers who participate in loyalty programs. Consumers that participate in loyalty programs are more heavily tracked by retailers, and often give consent to share their data with third parties as a condition of signing up. (Not all consumers may realize they have given such consent, according to the digital privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation).”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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Pueblo Mall: An Outlier in the Amazon Age

The Washington Post: “The Pueblo Mall is an outlier in the age of Amazon.com, 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.”

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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.”

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