Robo-Shop: Not an Automatic Win

The Economist: “The idea is that a combination of smart gadgets and predictive data analytics could decide exactly what goods are delivered when, to which household. The most advanced version might resemble Spotify, a music-streaming service, but for stuff. This future is inching closer, thanks to initiatives from Amazon, lots of startup firms and also from big consumer companies such as Procter & Gamble.”

“Buying experiments so far fall into two categories. The first is exploratory. A service helps a shopper try new things, choosing products on his or her behalf … The second category of automated consumption is more functional. A service automates the purchase of an item that is bought frequently … If a shopper automates the delivery of a particular item, the theory is that he is likely to be more loyal.”

“But neither Amazon nor the big product brands should celebrate a new era of shopping just yet … One problem may be the e-commerce giant’s prices, which fluctuate often. Another report … found that far more British consumers would prefer a smart device that ordered the cheapest item in a category to one that summoned up the same brand each time. That suggests that automated shopping, as it expands, might make life harder for big brands, not prop them up.”

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Grass-Fed Beef: Not a ‘Luxury’ Anymore

The Wall Street Journal: “Grass-fed beef, once a niche luxury, is now sold at ballgames, convention centers and nearly every Wal-Mart in the U.S. Beef labeled as grass-fed connotes much more than cattle that were raised in a pasture, say grocers and restaurateurs. Many consumers perceive grass-fed beef as a healthier, higher-quality alternative to conventional beef and are willing to pay more for it, no matter that labeling—and flavor—can be inconsistent.”

“Not every retailer is onboard. Costco Wholesale Corp., the country’s second largest retailer after Wal-Mart, doesn’t sell grass-fed beef, though it sells organic ground beef in every U.S. store. The definition of grass-fed beef is still too ambiguous, the taste too inconsistent and Costco consumers gravitate most to an ‘organic’ label for now, says Jeff Lyons, Costco’s senior vice president of fresh foods.”

“Theo Weening, Whole Foods’ global meat coordinator, expects demand for grass-fed beef to grow well beyond human appetites. ‘When a customer likes grass-fed beef and they have a dog, they want the dog to have grass-fed beef, too,’ he says.”

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Time, Money & The Roots of Happiness

The New York Times: “Given the choice between more time or more money, which would you pick? … Which would lead to greater happiness — the money or the time? … For a research project, we put this question to more than 4,000 Americans of different ages, income levels, occupations and marital and parental status. In a paper in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, which we wrote with our student Uri Barnea, we found that most people valued money more than time. Sixty-four percent of the 4,415 people we asked in five surveys chose money.”

‘We had also asked our survey respondents to report their level of happiness and life satisfaction. We found that the people who chose time were on average statistically happier and more satisfied with life than the people who chose money … But maybe this result simply shows that the people who chose money are more financially constrained and therefore less happy. To check this, we also asked respondents to report their annual household income along with the number of hours they work each week (to measure how much time they have).”

“We found that even when we held constant the amount of leisure time and money respondents had (as well as their age, gender, marital status, parental status and the extent to which they valued material possessions), the people who chose time over money were still happier. So if we were to take two people who were otherwise the same, the one who chose time over money would be happier than the one who chose money over time.”

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Clarence Saunders & The ‘Piggly Wiggly’ Revolution

Jerry Cianciolo: ” … Self-service was a game-changer when Clarence Saunders opened the first Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tenn., 100 years ago this month … The 35-year-old Saunders set out to ‘ the demon of high prices’ … He reasoned that shoppers would gladly hand-select their own merchandise, and pay upfront, in exchange for lower prices and faster shopping. Coin-operated cafeterias had demonstrated as much with self-service sandwiches and desserts.”

“King Piggly Wiggly … stocked 1,000 products, four times the variety of a typical market. Customers entered through a turnstile and, basket in hand, followed a path through the aisles. Goods were neatly arranged with clearly marked prices, something heretofore unseen. There were even scales for shoppers to weigh sugar and other staples. The grand opening was a spectacle, featuring a beauty contest … Each woman entering the store received a flower and every child a balloon. A brass band played.”

“By 1923 … more than 1,200 Piggly Wiggly stores across dozens of states were doing $100 million annually (about $1.4 billion in today’s dollars). The company hit 2,600 stores by 1932 … Saunders didn’t integrate circuits or sequence the human genome. An observer once noted that coming up with a self-service grocery was ‘as simple as looking out the window or scratching your ear.’ Still, it was Saunders who gambled on the unconventional approach, doggedly spread self-service across the nation and shaped the grocery industry we know today.”

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Hotels Scramble For Nickels & Dimes

The New York Times: “Unfortunately for travelers, fees and surcharges are a growing moneymaker for hotels and not likely to go away anytime soon. New research from the Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism at New York University indicates that hotels in the United States will tack on $2.55 billion in fees this year — the highest amount since Bjorn Hanson, a professor at the center, began tracking them in 2000.”

“Hotels all over the country are adding fees for … late checkout or early check-in, or a request for a room on a high floor or one with a king-size bed. Some are adding bellhop charges for help with bags or for holding luggage — fees separate from the tips travelers already give the bell staff.” Resort fees “typically cover amenities like pool towels, beach chairs, fitness-center access and a daily newspaper — and guests are required to pay whether or not they actually use any of those things.”

“Although rates and fees at hotels have been rising for a number of years … hotels have been adding perks like upgraded breakfast offerings, free Wi-Fi and renovated bathrooms and lobbies … The problem now, though, is that prices are still rising, and hotels are running out of ways give guests more for their money.”

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Amazon: ‘Subscribe & Save’ or ‘Bait & Switch’?

The New York Times: What do subscriptions to a newspaper, magazine or Netflix account have in common? Once you sign up, you expect to pay the same rate every month. Yet that’s not the case at Amazon when you subscribe to its Subscribe & Save program, which automatically refills orders for household staples like instant coffee, napkins or trash bags.”

“Buried in the e-commerce company’s terms and conditions is that the Subscribe & Save discount is applied to the price of the item at the time that the order is placed. And on Amazon, prices change frequently — including sometimes rising.”

“In Amazon’s online forums, dozens of people posted about prices of Subscribe & Save items fluctuating, with some calling the program a ‘bait and switch’ subscription scheme. Amazon declined to comment. The company emails people 10 days before a recurring subscription delivery, when it informs customers of a new price of their item so they can change or skip the order. Any sticker shock, analysts said, may be the result of Amazon’s complex pricing system coming into conflict with consumer expectations of a traditional subscription.”

“Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali, an analyst for Forrester Research who follows Amazon, said the retailer was probably pushing prices up to test how loyal customers are to products and how much more they are willing to pay for them. Yet the sharp price changes on Subscribe & Save items caught her by surprise.” She comments: “It doesn’t seem as customer-friendly as Amazon typically is. That’s what’s unusual.”

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Luke’s Lobsters: Rolls From ‘Trap to Table’

The New York Times: “Oil companies have long practiced a vertical integration strategy to track and control the flow of petroleum from the oil field to the gas pump … Now the practice is gaining momentum in the food industry.” Among this new breed of restauranteurs is Luke Holden, co-owner of “19 Luke’s Lobster restaurants, two food trucks and a lobster tail cart in the United States, and five shacks in Japan.”

Luke “holds an ownership stake in a co-op of Maine fishermen, which allows him to track where and how the lobsters are caught, and control the quality, freshness and pricing. He also owns the processing plant, Cape Seafood, that packages and prepares the lobsters for his restaurants.” He comments: “We’re able to trace every pound of seafood we serve back to the harbor where it was sustainably caught and to support fishermen we know and trust.”

“When Mr. Holden agreed to buy all of the co-op’s catches for his restaurants, support its sustainability practices and give the co-op 50 percent of the profits from a Luke’s Lobster restaurant that is attached to the wharf, the fishermen agreed … Mr. Holden is projecting sales of $25 million this year and $42 million in 2018. Plans are in the works to open six new restaurants this year and 40 more by 2020.”

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Airbnb ‘Keeps it 100’ for Hotels

Quartz: “Here is a very bad piece of news for hotels: Airbnb is hurting them on their most profitable nights. That’s per a recent report from UBS, which found that Airbnb is making it harder for hotels to charge through-the-roof rates on “compression nights”—i.e., nights where more than 95% of rooms are occupied. Hotels think about compression nights as a simple matter of supply and demand. When demand shoots up, usually because of a local event like a marathon or fashion show, hotels can raise their rates. Customers who wind up paying those rates often consider it price gouging.”

“Hotels have worried about Airbnb’s impact on their sold-out nights before. In July 2015, Pebblebrook Hotel Trust CEO Jon Bortz admitted during an earnings call that Airbnb was limiting what the company could charge for rooms during ‘leisure-driven’ conventions and events.”

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Brand Promises: Final Sale? Just Kidding!

The Wall Street Journal: “The phrase used to mean a last-ditch promotion, with steep price reductions on end-of-season castoffs and no chance of returns. But lately some brands are using a different sort of ‘final sale,’ strategically discounting slow-moving merchandise in mid-season, even though future discounts may still be possible. The new tactic still means no returns or exchanges … Fickle shoppers, hungry for discounts but accustomed to changing their minds, aren’t pleased.”

“Lauren Taylor Baker, a 31-year-old digital entrepreneur in Atlanta, says she used to get a thrill from finding a great bargain marked final sale … But after several final-sale purchases she regretted, Ms. Baker says she feels burned and no longer believes a final-sale price is the lowest it will go. Now, she says, when shopping for something marked final sale, she ignores the original full price and evaluates it based on quality and fit.”

“Katie Amato, of Buffalo, N.Y., does most of her shopping online. While she likes a sale, she tends to avoid final sale items. ‘Things might not fit, or the quality might not be as expected, and then you are stuck with it,’ says the 30-year-old postdoctoral researcher. Final sales make her feel ‘trapped or manipulated,’ she says.”

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Dollar Shave & The Digitally Native Vertical Brand

The New York Times: “The same forces that drove Dollar Shave’s rise are altering a wide variety of consumer product categories. Together, they add up to something huge — a new slate of companies that are exploring novel ways of making and marketing some of the most lucrative products we buy today. These firms have become so common that they have acquired a jargony label: the digitally native vertical brand.”

“By cutting out the inefficiencies of retail space and the marketing expense of TV, the new companies can offer better products at lower prices. We will get a wider range of products — if companies don’t have to market a single brand to everyone on TV, they can create a variety of items aimed at blocs of consumers who were previously left behind. And because these companies were born online, where reputations live and die on word of mouth, they are likely to offer friendlier, more responsive customer service than their faceless offline counterparts.”

“It’s striking how few of these online companies could have taken off in the presocial age. At the very least, they would have been sunk by the inability to target ads to the demographics they’re aiming to serve.”

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