Walmart & The Uneven Rise of E-Commerce

The Washington Post: “According to new data, the rise of online shopping across the United States is rather uneven, with more affluent states marching more quickly toward a lifestyle in which buying happens on a screen instead of at the mall … Look, for example, at Alaska and Hawaii, which are affluent states that don’t fit the pattern of having strong per-person online spending … this likely reflects the fact that shipping to those states can be pricey and relatively slow — factors that make online shopping less attractive.

“The data also offers hints that perhaps our varied adoption of online shopping is not just about relative affluence, but other lifestyle factors. Take, for example, how much the District of Columbia stands out in the data set. It’s a city, and its growth and spending look much different than in any of the 50 states … perhaps the gap is telling us that urbanites, in general, have migrated to online shopping much faster than their counterparts in less densely populated areas. After all, there are unique pain points to brick-and-mortar shopping in cities: Checkout lines at high-traffic stores can be excruciatingly long. Nabbing an on-street parking spot can feel like a miracle. Many city residents don’t own a car, and it can be hard to lug purchases on public transit or on foot.”

“Similarly, people sometimes ask .. how Walmart, for example, could possibly be sustaining over 4,000 U.S. stores in the digital era. This data helps explain that: You may see a tower of Amazon boxes in your big-city condo building each evening, but that isn’t a good proxy for how people are shopping in, say, rural Tennessee. Even if you’re personally doing less of it these days, there is still enormous appetite for shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.”


Are Smartphones Worse Than Drugs?

The New York Times: “Researchers are starting to ponder an intriguing question: Are teenagers using drugs less in part because they are constantly stimulated and entertained by their computers and phones? The possibility is worth exploring, they say, because use of smartphones and tablets has exploded over the same period that drug use has declined. This correlation does not mean that one phenomenon is causing the other, but scientists say interactive media appears to play to similar impulses as drug experimentation, including sensation-seeking and the desire for independence.”

“Or it might be that gadgets simply absorb a lot of time that could be used for other pursuits, including partying … Though smartphones seem ubiquitous in daily life, they are actually so new that researchers are just beginning to understand what the devices may do to the brain. Researchers say phones and social media not only serve a primitive need for connection but can also create powerful feedback loops Alexandra Elliott, 17, a senior at George Washington High School in San Francisco, said using her phone for social media ‘really feels good’ in a way consistent with a ‘chemical release.’ A heavy phone user who smokes marijuana occasionally, Alexandra said she didn’t think the two were mutually exclusive.”

“However, she said, the phone provides a valuable tool for people at parties who don’t want to do drugs because ‘you can sit around and look like you’re doing something, even if you’re not doing something, like just surfing the web’.” Eric Elliott, “who has counseled young people for 19 years, said he had seen a decrease in drug and alcohol use among students in recent years. He said he was ‘more likely to have a challenge with a student who has a video game addiction than I am a student who is addicted to drugs’ … In the case of his own daughter, he worried more about the device than the drugs.” He explains: “I see her at this point and time as not being a person who is controlled in any way by smoking pot, but her phone is something she sleeps with.”


Edible Regimen: Food as Beauty Products

The Wall Street Journal: “A blurring of the lines between food and beauty products has some shoppers raiding their kitchen cabinets to replace everything from blush and lip plumper to deodorant and conditioner. The trend has people rubbing mayonnaise in their hair, lemon juice in their armpits and pork fat on their face. Erica Strauss said she buys a pig every year from a local farmer in Seattle. In addition to cooking chops and roast, the 37-year-old chef renders the fat into lard for use on her hands and face … Other animal grease can also be used to substitute for hand cream, though she doesn’t recommend bacon.” She explains: “It’s way too smelly. Every dog in the neighborhood will come up and lick you.”

“The idea of using edibles in a beauty regimen dates back centuries. Cleopatra is believed to have bathed in milk. Mary, Queen of Scots, is said to have washed herself in white wine. The Romans and Greeks doused their bodies in olive oil. In a memorable scene from the 1993 movie Mrs. Doubtfire, actor Robin Williams dunks his face into meringue cake to mask his identity as a man.”

“Beauty companies, too, are blurring the lines between kitchen and bath. They tout food ingredients on the labels of everything from shampoo to nail polish. Some are putting makeup in containers that resemble condiment jars or making creams that look like hors d’oeuvres … Organic beauty companies insist that using food isn’t as easy as rubbing apple juice on your face … Faz Abdul Gaffa has learned the hard way. She tried rubbing turmeric on her face after hearing about its skin-brightening qualities. She ended up with yellow stained palms for several days.” And her face? “I looked jaundiced,” she said.


Gummy Pills: Helps The Vitamins Go Down

The New York Times: One reason gummy vitamins are so popular with adults these days is “pill fatigue.” A 2005 AARP study found that, on average, adults 45 and older said they take four prescription medications daily. But some people say that switching to a gummy version of a vitamin or supplement makes them feel as if they aren’t taking so many pills. Gummies also appeal to people who … have difficulty swallowing pills. The flavorings in gummy candy can also hide the taste.”

“But the pleasures of chewing come at a cost. Consumers can take one Nature Made Vitamin C 1,000 milligram pill costing about 10 cents … To get the same amount of vitamin C from a Nature Made gummy vitamin, consumers would need to take eight gummies, at a cost of about 70 cents … And gummy vitamins typically contain one to two grams of sugar each.”

Susan Pica agrees. Ms. Pica, 40, … saw a gummy vitamin C display at CVS, along with a coupon to ‘buy one get one free.’ She had fond memories of the Flintstones chewables she took as a child, so she thought she’d try them … After seeing sugar sprinkled on the vitamins and settled at the bottom of the bottle, she checked the ingredients on the label. The bottle listed sugar, corn syrup and sodium citrate among the ingredients.”


Gucci & Groceries: The Malling of Supermarkets

The Wall Street Journal: As the internet reshapes the way Americans shop, landlords of mid- and low-quality mall properties are adapting to stay relevant, trying everything from restaurants to indoor skydiving. Now a few are bringing in supermarkets … The goal for landlords of covered malls is to provide one-stop destinations where consumers can pick up a broad array of items and, ideally, visit multiple times a week. These massive rectangular structures surrounded by vast parking lots are usually built to serve shoppers up to 25 miles away.”

Tom McGee of of the International Council of Shopping Centers, comments:”Consumers, particularly millennials, are placing a high priority on experiences while also valuing convenience. As a result, among other things, we are seeing more restaurants, movie theaters, health clubs and grocery stores serve as anchors.”

“But supermarkets might not do much to lift other retailers in struggling malls, analysts said. Grocery shoppers, especially seniors, often are sensitive to the distance between their car and the store, and might not want to navigate busy malls with grocery bags in tow, or supermarkets with mall purchases in hand.” Jeff Edison, a mall grocery-store operator, observes: “You’re not going to buy a Louis Vuitton bag or a dress when you’re carrying your groceries.”


Nokia 3310: When Dumbphones Are Smart

The Atlantic: “How is it possible … that Nokia has announced an updated edition of one of its most popular phones of the early aughts, the 3310? In short, because nothing has become less sexy or less useful than a smartphone … there are reasons to prefer a phone as a portable communications tool instead of a compulsive, general-purpose computer.”

“Some of those reasons recall the original uses of the cell phone … mobile handsets often were bought as insurance against surprises or emergencies. People tossed them into automobile glove boxes, or carried them in pockets or purses only when the perception of risk or the need for coordination seemed required … An inexpensive, reliable handset with a long-lasting battery might turn the Nokia 3310 a second phone, or a backup phone … Should Nokia rekindle the cultural allure of the feature phone, perhaps its potential as a communications tool absent the urges of the smartphone will inspire parents to stop handing over these glass-and-metal temptations to their progeny without a second thought.”

“The simultaneous fragility and expense of smartphones also helps explain why the Nokia 3310 might appeal even to consumers who can afford better … when attending a concert or sporting event, thin smartphones might risk getting lost or stolen. In these instances, a $50 Nokia 3310 offers clear benefit … perhaps the need to keep a smartphone powered and connected to the network—not to mention the compulsion to use all those apps—would be reduced given a second device meant solely for communication … The future promise of Nokia’s device isn’t this particular device, but the alternate, unthought future it represents.”



Infinite Personalization: A Layer Cake of Fake

David Siegel: “Infinite personalization comprises the artificial intelligence-driven, big-data based tools that allow algorithms to build a personalized Internet echo chamber customized just for you, designed to make you feel great. Infinite personalization feeds you the real, the fake, and everything in between, with the simple goal of holding your attention and getting you to come back for more. It is the process by which companies can measure, match, and predict consumers’ individual preferences with amazing accuracy and then tailor offerings to maximize revenue.”

“Particularly when it comes to information, however, infinite personalization has a dark side … Today, each and every one of us has a custom-designed experience based on our past preferences … One result is that Americans seem to be losing a certain commonality of experience—even, in some cases, within the same household … The problem is likely to get worse. The technology of infinite personalization is getting so good that it’s debatable whether we choose our information sources, or the other way around.”

“The scientific method and the advent of artificial intelligence offer us the promise of greater empiricism and a more evidence-based understanding of reality. Perversely, infinite personalization seems to deliver the exact opposite. Worse yet, we are still in the early days of this information revolution. The ability to use such tools to shape our thinking will only grow more powerful in the coming years. As individuals and as a society, we should be very wary about their potential to warp our perspectives.”


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.”


Footwear: How Saks Attracts Men

The New York Times: “Next week, Saks will open its first free-standing store specially for men, in Brookfield Place, the retail, office and dining complex in Lower Manhattan … The 16,000-square-foot Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Store will include leather and shoe repair services, made-to-measure suits and a tech bar selling the latest gadgets … In the spring, an in-house Sharps barbershop and Fika coffee shop will be added. And a monthly rotating pop-up shop will feature, in the opening weeks, 200 styles of sneakers, 40 of which are Saks exclusives.”

Saks President Marc Metrick explains: “Footwear is a gateway drug.”

“Saks is luring the stylish new man with a palette of whites, taupes and silvers and chevron-patterned porcelain flooring. Gone is the brown-wood, Morton’s steakhouse look of the uptown men’s department. The vibe is not unlike the Saks women’s store at the opposite end of the complex.”


The Happiness Effect: The Dark Side of Social Media

From a review of The Happiness Effect, by Donna Freitas, in The Wall Street Journal: “The real downside of Facebook, Instagram and their ilk … is constant cheeriness. Young people learn that any hint of unhappiness or failure may not be posted; it can haunt their futures and damage their ‘brands.’ This imperative then creates a vicious circle.” Freitas writes: “Because young people feel so pressured to post happy things on social media, most of what everyone sees on social media from their peers are happy things; as a result, they often feel inferior because they aren’t actually happy all the time.”

“Young people feel that they have to be online almost all the time, but they cannot share their real selves there, a situation that produces even greater unhappiness … Yet avoiding social media is almost impossible; professors, for instance, create discussion groups on Facebook. So the beast must be mollified and a ‘personal brand’ maintained: that of a studious yet social person who does the right activities and holds the right opinions. ‘Many students have begun to see what they post (on Facebook, especially) as a chore—a homework assignment to build a happy facade,’ Ms. Freitas reports.”

“Some of her interviews contain real gems … One young man tells her that he doesn’t think his generation is any more self-centered or self-obsessed than any other … ‘Everybody wants to be noticed,’ he says. ‘Everybody likes feeling approval. They all like it when other people like them.’ Anyone who has posted a photo on Instagram and then checked 10 times over the next two hours to count the number of ‘likes’ … knows this feeling.”