Bingo Box: China Leads Robo-Retail Revolution

The New York Times: “A global race to automate stores is underway among several of the world’s top retailers and small tech start-ups, which are motivated to shave labor costs and minimize shoppers’ frustrations, like waiting for cashiers … Companies are testing robots that help keep shelves stocked, as well as apps that let shoppers ring up items with a smartphone … China, which has its own ambitious e-commerce companies, is emerging as an especially fertile place for these retail experiments.”

“One effort is a chain of more than 100 unmanned convenience shops from a start-up called Bingo Box, one of which sits in a business park in Shanghai. Shoppers scan a code on their phones to enter and, once inside, scan the items they want to buy. The store unlocks the exit door after they’ve paid through their phones … Not to be outdone, JD, another big internet retailer in China … put readable chips on items to automate the checkout process. At its huge campus south of Beijing, JD is testing a new store that relies on computer vision and sensors on the shelves to know when items have been taken.”

“While such technologies could improve the shopping experience, there may also be consequences that people find less desirable. Retailers like Amazon could compile reams of data about where customers spend time inside their doors, comparable to what internet companies already know about their online habits … In China, there is less public concern about data privacy issues. Many Chinese citizens have become accustomed to high levels of surveillance, including widespread security cameras and government monitoring of online communications.”

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Alexa Challenges Brand Loyalty

The Wall Street Journal: “For decades, the makers of packaged-food, personal and home-care brands have bought shelf space at retailers like Walmart Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. that guarantee them nationwide exposure. They have poured billions into branding to make their products instantly recognizable. Selling on websites offers some of those same advantages: Brands can pay for placement on a webpage and display their packaging and logos. Voice shopping, which currently offers customers just one or two product options, could chip away at that tried-and-tested model.”

“In a test conducted in October, Bain & Co. found that for customers making a first-time purchase without specifying a brand, over half of the time Alexa’s first recommendation was a product from the ‘Amazon’s Choice’ algorithm, which implies a well-rated, well-priced item that ships with Prime. Bain also found that in categories in which Amazon has a private brand, 17% of the time Alexa recommends the private-label product first even though such products make up just 2% of volume sold.”

“For now, brands can’t pay Amazon to offer their products to customers in response to a generic request for a product, like detergent or paper towels …Without that paid-search option, P&G has been tinkering with ways to get noticed by shoppers using voice assistants, such as a Tide-branded Alexa app that doles out advice on how to clean over 200 stains but doesn’t suggest Tide products … Unilever, owner of Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Domestos toilet cleaner, has developed Alexa apps that give free recipes and cleaning tips that may or may not incorporate Unilever brands. Unilever sees the apps as a way to market its products by offering customers useful information when they need it most.”

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Inman Makes Bricks Fashionable in China

The Wall Street Journal: “In the prospectus for its mammoth 2014 stock listing, Alibaba Group Holding highlighted online-only women’s fashion brand Inman as a success story in China’s e-commerce world … Since mid-2015, Inman founder Fang Jianhua has gone in a surprising direction. He’s abandoned the online-only model to open physical stores. To date, Inman has opened 450 stores, mostly in China’s smaller cities. Last year, while Inman’s online sales rose about 39%, its offline business, which is newer and smaller, grew 300%, to 330 million yuan ($52 million), and reached 35% of total revenue. Mr. Fang expects the online-offline breakdown to be 40%-60% in the future.”

“In changing strategy, Inman had spotted several long-term problems. Online sales growth for brands such as Inman is slowing as China’s e-commerce market becomes more competitive, with megabrands such as Uniqlo, Vero Moda and Gap making big online drives. Meanwhile, the costs of online advertising are rising as are the challenges of standing out in a crowded field.”

“In 2015, Mr. Fang figured it would cost less to reach customers in smaller cities through a physical store than via an online store. Given its years of insight into its millions of customers, Mr. Fang thought Inman could manage its supply chain and stores better than purely brick-and-mortar competitors. For example, women in China’s cold, northeastern rust belt aren’t big fans of Inman’s understated cotton and linen clothes, so no need for stores there.” He comments: “The question is not whether a fashion brand needs to be both online and offline. The question is how big you want to be in the two worlds.”

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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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Circular Logic: Paper Fliers Beat Banners

The Wall Street Journal: “One old-school retailing trick has survived the e-commerce shakeout—the lowly advertising circular. Some grocers and other retail chains have learned they risk losing business without a steady flow of paper mailings nudging shoppers to stores. Even online startups that don’t have physical shops are embracing the idea.”

“For now, paper fliers keep piling up on doorsteps because most people still read their mail, even as they easily ignore most online banner ads and many emails.”

“The biggest retailer, however, has cut back on circulars. Wal-Mart is sending out about a dozen mailings a year, down from a hundred two years ago. The retailer has asked suppliers to spend the marketing dollars that used to go into circulars on lowering their prices and chose to send out fewer circulars, a spokeswoman said.”

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Ling Shou Tong: How Alibaba Helps Mom-and-Pops

Quartz: “Alibaba has its sights set on a new goal: to bring its cloud-computing technology to all of China’s 6 million mom-and-pop convenience stores. In the process, it’s building out its physical footprint to tap into the 85% of the country’s retail sales that don’t yet happen online. Alibaba is using a retail-management platform called Ling Shou Tong (which roughly translates to ‘retail-integrated’) to help store owners optimize product procurement and boost sales.”

“Ling Shou Tong’s app gives store proprietors recommendations, based on sales analytics, on what to buy and how to display goods in their stores. In the background, it uses Alibaba’s cloud-computing and logistics businesses to create a digitally connected inventory-management system. Store owners can also use the app to place orders, fulfilled by Alibaba and shipped directly from its warehouses, eliminating the need for middlemen.”

Mom-and-pops have given mixed reviews about the impact Ling Shou Tong has had on their bottom line so far. Some say the storefront decorations and in-store training accompanying the platform’s adoption provides a cosmetic facelift to their stores and makes running them easier. Others worry that relying on Alibaba’s product selection forces them to directly compete with the convenience of online shopping.” However, Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang comments: “We’re working to make the net in the sky and the net on the ground. We will cover all consumers seamlessly.”

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Amazon Has a ‘Basic’ Problem

The Wall Street Journal: “There is one major problem with the idea that Amazon will eat the entire universe … Amazon is good at identifying commodity products and making those as cheap and available as possible … But this system isn’t very compatible with big-ticket, higher-margin items. Could Amazon’s Lab126—famous for both the successful Echo and the failed Fire phone—ever produce something as premium as an iPhone or an OLED TV? Its success in electronics has come from driving their prices to the very bottom.”

“The same goes for Amazon’s other businesses. For example, could Amazon Studios, which has shown little ability to create hits, ever produce a franchise like Marvel’s Avengers or HBO’s Game of Thrones? … Amazon may be mastering commodity goods; its own Basics line went from about 250 products in 2013 to over 1,500 today. But making items widely available at low prices runs directly counter to the way higher-profit businesses work.”

“Consider the makers of high-end handbags, which limit who can distribute their wares and, as a result, who can buy them. Not surprisingly, many of those brands refuse to sell on Amazon at all … The bulk of our everyday goods and services may one day come from Amazon, and everyone from CVS to Uber should watch their backs. Even so, there will continue to be countless competitors that would never dream of branding any of their products ‘Basic’.”

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Why Do Shoppers De-Value Digital Goods?

Harvard Business Review: “Despite the many advantages of … digital goods, companies find again and again that people value and are willing to pay considerably more for … their physical counterparts … experiments suggest that the key driver of this value loss is not the resale value of the good, or how much it costs to make, or how long it can be used, or whether it’s unique or popular. We find that the key difference is that digital goods do not facilitate the same feeling of ownership that physical goods do.”

“Because we cannot touch, and hold, and control digital goods in the way that we interact with physical goods, we feel an impaired sense of ownership for digital goods. They never quite feel like they are ours, and when we feel that we own a thing, we psychologically inflate its value. As a result, digital goods don’t enjoy this premium we extend to things that we own.”

“Ownership may be achieved by increasing users’ feeling of control through touch interfaces, and customization opportunities that involve users in the production or design of the product … people may devalue autonomous devices that require little or none of their input … those devices will not benefit from the value premium extended to goods for which people feel psychological ownership … Because perceived ownership is impaired for digital goods, people may not feel that their piracy causes the same harm to their owners as does the comparable theft of physical goods.”

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Bookstores are ‘Houses of Seduction’

The Globe and Mail: “Unless you’re just about to board, bookshop browsing can be a deeper and more untethered exercise than other kinds of shopping. Just opening a book and reading a few lines can draw you partly into another world, one you might not have planned to visit. According to Vancouver publishing consultant Thad McIlroy, only 40 per cent of bookstore purchases are premeditated. All the rest are decided on impulse.”

“Knowing this, booksellers and publishers think carefully about how to design the space and arrange the stock … a good bookshop is a house of seduction, created to lure the book lover and keep him or her circulating in the aisles. The sumptuous beauty of shops such as El Ateneo Grand Splendid, in Buenos Aires, is part of the game. Systems for displaying the wares may follow a wonderful, idiosyncratic logic. Altair, a travel bookshop in Barcelona, arranges even its fiction and poetry titles geographically.”

“In the online trade, only the books circulate, while the readers stay at home in front of their screens. Algorithms make robotic suggestions, following a practice launched by the London bookshop Hatchards (established in 1797), where live, professional readers still select and ship books to subscribers. Hard-copy books are still published by the thousands; it’s the transactions that have become ethereal.”

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Returns: The New Retail Battleground

The Wall Street Journal: “This year traditional and online retailers have expanded the number of locations and routes consumers can use to return merchandise, from in-store kiosks and lockers to the mall concierge, grocery stores, parcel shipping locations and at-home pickup … Online retailer Amazon.com Inc. said it has expanded options for in-person returns this year, with a network of 2,000 ‘locker’ locations, including 400 at Whole Foods stores, where customers can drop off items to be returned. Amazon also partnered with Kohl’s Corp. stores in Chicago and Los Angeles, which are accepting returns of Amazon goods bought online.”

“Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is touting its Mobile Express Returns kiosks, located in its stores, where it says customers can complete the return process in less than five minutes and receive a refund within a day or so. Returns to Target Corp. and Wal-Mart are free—customers can either bring the items back to the store or print a shipping label online and drop off merchandise at a designated shipping location. Kohl’s and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. have similar policies, but don’t cover the cost of return shipping.”

Meanwhile: “Returns have become a ‘battleground’ among online retailers trying to attract and retain customers, said Tobin Moore, chief executive of Optoro Inc., a logistics provider that helps companies like Target and Best Buy Co. to take back and resell returned merchandise … Mr. Moore of Optoro estimates that goods purchased online are three times more likely to be returned as goods purchased in a physical store. In total, Mr. Moore said roughly $90 billion in holiday merchandise—purchased either in stores or online this season—will be returned over the next few weeks, with more than a third of it coming back before the new year.”

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