Conversational Commerce: Meet The Chatbots

The Washington Post: “While a Web browser might once have been our front door to the Internet and apps often play that role today, experts say that bots could soon become our primary digital gateway … The case for a bot-centric future goes like this: Smartphone users have proved they are only willing to download and spend time in a limited number of apps. So companies might be better off trying to connect with consumers in the apps where they are already spending plenty of time. And proponents say that a bot can potentially provide greater convenience than apps and Web searches because it can understand natural speech patterns.”

“Because bots are designed for one-to-one conversation, they may ultimately find their most logical home in messaging apps, which are seeing explosive growth in users and are the digital-communication channel of choice for Generation Z … It is against that backdrop that big retailers and Silicon Valley are racing to develop ways to use bots within messaging apps to deliver customer service or to enable browsing and buying … In retail industry jargon, this is coming to be known as “conversational commerce,” and brands are betting on it because of some distinct advantages it could provide in connecting with shoppers.”

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Fake Farms Fool Tesco Shoppers

The Wall Street Journal: UK grocery chain Tesco is launching “76 new food lines,” branded with the names of “seven fictitious farms. Critics say the British-sounding monikers obscure the fact that the products come from a variety of farms, including ones overseas. Blueberries under the Rosedene Farms brand come from Spain, for example, while apples under the same brand hail from South Africa.”

“The British efforts are part of a global trend among supermarket chains and food makers as customers increasingly seek food that appears fresh, lacks artificial ingredients and is locally sourced.” Says Tesco CEO Dave Lewis: “We’ve been very open about the fact that this is creation—we’re creating and launching these brands.”

“Not all of British retail’s farms are fictional. High-end supermarket chain Waitrose on Friday began streaming live footage in train stations across the country from a farm it owns in Hampshire. Passersby will be greeted with footage of beehives, rapeseed and more from dawn to dusk.” Waitrose “said it aimed to let customers see firsthand where their food comes from. ‘Rather than telling customers what we do, we’ve decided to show them in an open and honest way,’ said Rupert Thomas, Waitrose’s marketing director.”

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Late & Great: Giorgio’s Fred Hayman

The New York Times: The late Fred Hayman “was the banquet and catering manager at the Beverly Hilton in 1961 when he invested several thousand dollars to become the silent partner in Giorgio, a struggling women’s clothing store off Rodeo Drive … The location was nothing special.”

“They saw the street, in their dreams, as a rival to Bond Street in London or Fifth Avenue in New York. Mr. Hayman showcased top designers new to the West Coast … He created a sunny, eye-catching exterior with awnings in bright yellow and white and a clubby interior with a pool table and an oak bar, with free drinks, so men could relax while their wives or girlfriends shopped.”

“Drawing on his hotel experience, he lavished the attentions of a concierge on his customers. He sent handwritten thank-you notes, set up a valet parking service and delivered packages to his best customers in a 1952 Rolls-Royce. By the mid-1970s the A-list clients were pouring in … spending tens of thousands of dollars in one go. Some patrons arrived with an extra limousine to haul away their purchases.”

“It was incredible how the money just flowed in,” Mr. Hayman told The New York Times in 1991. “You really didn’t have to sell. You’d just stand there and the customer would say, ‘I’ll have that and that and that and that.’” Fred Hayman was 90.

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Old Flicks vs. Netflix

The Globe and Mail: “We think we are drowning in content, yet often the wonders of instantaneous global distribution seem to be narrowing our choices rather than expanding them. Marvel’s Avengers? Netflix is all over it. But as we chase after those shiny new releases, we risk losing our taste for the old stuff.”

“Meanwhile, the digital technology that was supposed to rescue the back catalogue from oblivion, restoring and preserving fragile celluloid for future generations, poses as many problems as it solves … While archives established in North America and Europe as far back as the 1930s have long worked to preserve film, the truth is that celluloid is fragile and, if you can clean, repair and digitize old film prints, you can’t do it if nobody saved them in the first place.”

“The film restoration community continues debating whether old films should be restored to the original celluloid format or simply digitized. Restoring celluloid to celluloid is actually cheaper, but producing a new digital master is often a film’s best hope for the future, ensuring it can be screened and distributed.”

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New-Breed Pop-Ups Rejuvenate Retail Fun

The New York Times: “Entrepreneurs … are helping revitalize pop-up stores, a decades-old retail concept. More party than hard sell, this new breed of pop-ups is becoming increasingly innovative and fun — far more than the seasonal pop-ups that once prevailed. And they are also increasingly profitable, experts say, since consumers crave these new experiences.”

“Using pop-ups does, of course, still help entrepreneurs stay nimble and lean. They do not need to sign long leases, stash away much cash or carry big credit lines. For their part, consumers can meet the designers and touch and feel their works, which cannot be done online. In the process, brands can be built more quickly, sales can be increased and new products can be tested.”

“Events are, well, popping up in garages, around pools and even in locked storage spaces. Some retailers are even doing 3-D pop-up printed jewelry, say experts. And one artist opened a gallery in a giant Christmas tree.”

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Whole Foods 365: It’s All About Efficiency

The Washington Post: We’re inching closer to the launch of 365 by Whole Foods Market, a new, lower-priced grocery store that the organics giant is betting will help pull it out of a rough patch … The first 365 store is slated to open May 25 in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles … Jeff Turnas, president of 365 … said in an interview that he and his team have ‘looked and turned over every stone to find efficiencies.’ That includes, for example, trying to lay out stores in a way that reduces the time it takes for a worker to get from the stockroom to the shelves.”

“Even the product assortment in these smaller format outposts is designed in part with an eye toward greater efficiency … with a center-aisle grocery item like olive oil, Turnas said, they tried to narrow the offerings … prepared food bars will be ‘a little more get-it-yourself, self-serve’ than those in a traditional Whole Foods … There will also be a kiosk called TeaBot built by a company of the same name that allows shoppers to create customized tea blends that are served up hot to the user in less than 30 seconds.”

“365 is also building its stores around a program called Friends of 365, in which it will turn over a small section of its square footage to like-minded retailers to make shopping more of an experience … Speculation has been running wild about what kinds of retailers might be included … Turnas said they’ve received video pitches or other inquiries from at least one tattoo parlor, more than one marijuana dispensary, and a pet grooming business. The thought process for choosing the Friends will vary from location to location.”

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Fina Finds New Beginning As Dot-Com

The New York Times: “On April 16, Michael C. Fina, which had sales of $16 million last year, will close its sole brick-and-mortar store, laying off about 20 workers and bringing to an end an 81-year run in Manhattan. Instead, the retailer is moving entirely online, including teaming with Amazon.com as part of a planned revamping of the e-commerce giant’s wedding registry service.”

Fina “already operates an e-commerce site, but it can take up to 72 hours for a product to be shipped … Amazon has told him that its fulfillment centers will be able to ship an order in as little as two hours. Mr. Fina also said he expected shipping costs to fall by as much as 50 percent, because of Amazon’s economies of scale.”

The bridal-registry retailer “will also offer its wares on Zola.com … Shan-Lyn Ma, founder of Zola.com, said that because couples in the United States were marrying much later than ever, and because they increasingly lived with their partners before tying the knot, their wedding gift needs had shifted away from the housewares and appliances that traditionally went toward setting up a first home.” She explains: “Couples are really starting to value experiences rather than straight wedding products.”

“On Zola.com, couples can list hiking trips, hot air balloon rides and food delivery subscriptions, as well as funds for puppies, honeymoons and even fertility treatments.” Ms. Ma started Zola in 2013. “But she has since realized that many couples want to add a few traditional items into their wedding registry mix. And a partnership with Michael C. Fina, she said, gave Zola access to brands that the site might have trouble courting.”

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Introducing the Meat-O-Mat!

The Wall Street Journal: “Attached to a laboratory-like plant in this upstate community is a neon-lit vending machine dubbed the Meat-O-Mat, where customers can buy locally raised meat whenever they like. If Joshua Applestone has his way, carnivores will flock to it the way that banking customers visit the ATM. His invention is stocked with pork chops, dry-aged burger patties, bratwurst meatballs and his beloved pork roll, a deli meat native to New Jersey. Customers swipe their credit cards, push a button, slide the door open and retrieve their hormone- and antibiotic-free selection.”

“Mr. Applestone and his partners at Applestone Meat Co., the attached plant, are attempting to develop a new, meat-centric business model. For the past two years, they have been exploring ways of making high-quality cuts available at lower prices by slashing labor costs and considering offbeat distribution methods like the Meat-O-Mat. ‘We’re going for a highway-roadside-attraction type of approach,’ said Samantha Gloffke, the company’s general manager and a part owner. ‘The goal is to make sustainability really exciting.'”

Mr. Applestone envisions them stationed at supermarkets, football stadiums and picnic sites, places where you might welcome the convenience of buying something to toss on the grill. ‘Think about it at any music festival,’ he said. ‘Anywhere someone brings a cooler, you no longer have to bring fresh meat. How much is peace of mind worth?'”

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Parnassus: A Bookstore As Food Truck

The New York Times: “Nashville’s newest bookstore is an old van. The bright blue bookmobile, which hit the road this week, is a roving offshoot of Parnassus Books, a popular independent bookstore. It will roam around town, stopping at food truck rallies, farmers’ markets and outside restaurants. The arrival of a bookstore on wheels is a fitting evolution for Parnassus, which is co-owned by Karen Hayes and the novelist Ann Patchett.”

“A bookmobile made so much sense, because food trucks work so well in this town,” says Patchett. “It’s a great way to get our name out there, too. It’s a rolling advertisement.”

“It is a logical and efficient way for a small bookstore to expand its footprint, especially as big chains have shuttered locations, leaving a vacuum for enterprising independent stores to fill … The van packs around 1,000 books, mostly new releases and best sellers — a small fraction of Parnassus’s stock of 20,000 books. Its owners have managed to make the cramped space bright and inviting: customers can walk the narrow aisles between the shelves, and can linger and sample books on one of the padded blue benches.”

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Is Mall Shopping Greener Than E-Commerce?

The Wall Street Journal: “Could going to the mall be better for the environment than shopping online? That’s the surprising claim in a new study from Simon Property Group, the nation’s largest mall landlord. The argument is that mall shoppers often travel in groups and buy more than one item, reducing their environmental impact. Online shoppers, meanwhile, return products more often, and the shipping requires more packaging.”

“Among the factors Simon looked at was how many people went on the trip and ‘the idea that shoppers combine mall shopping trips with other errands.’ The report also examined the impact of product returns both online and in stores … The report found that online shopping had an environmental impact that was 7% greater than mall shopping, if shoppers bought the same number of products both ways.”

“The issue isn’t settled, however. A 2013 master thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Transportation & Logistics, for example, examined various ways consumers could shop in stores or online. ‘Results show that online shopping is the most environmentally friendly option in a wide range of scenarios,’ the thesis concluded. The MIT thesis examined how some shoppers combine the two channels, sometimes researching products both in stores and online, or buying online but picking up or returning in a store. As a result, the thesis also found, ‘as more consumers leverage traditional brick-and-mortar alternatives to their online buying behaviors, some of the environmental savings quickly erode.'”

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