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.”


Etsy Studio Takes On Real-Life Crafts Shops

Quartz: “Freed up from the constraints of retail space, Etsy Studio will launch with eight million craft supply items, compared to the 40,000 items typically carried by brick-and-mortar craft retailers, the company says. It also plans to appeal to conscientious artisans with detailed information on products, including where they were made, and by who. The Studio’s website will also provide original online tutorials for DIY-enthusiasts—alongside the supplies required for the project, of course.”

“Etsy also unveiled Shop Manager, a dashboard that brings together inventory, marketing, payments, shipping, and other types of services for sellers. The company also announced several rollouts for, including more filters to help buyers refine their searches, a new guest checkout option allowing shoppers to make purchases without creating an account, and clearer policies on what makes a product ‘handmade’.”


Lidl Has Big Plans for the American Market

The Washington Post: “Lidl (pronounced lee-duhl) is a global grocery juggernaut, with 10,000 stores in 27 countries … Now, it is ready to descend on America … set to open 20 stores this summer in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina … Within 12 months of opening its first U.S. stores, it is slated to have 100 locations up and down the East Coast.”

US CEO Brendan Proctor comments: “A lot of the supermarkets are so large, it’s a challenge for people to go shopping. If I wanted to go in and get a bottle of ketchup — first of all, there are probably about 24 aisles in the store. I have to find what aisle it’s in. I get there, I find that there’s 50 types of ketchup. Who honestly needs 50 types of ketchup? So we can streamline that.” He adds: “What we’ve seen and heard is that a lot of customers feel they’re being forced to compromise. So they’re either getting okay quality at a cheap price or they’re getting good quality and having to pay very, very high prices.”

“Lidl will feature a large section dedicated to non-grocery items … as diverse as drills, yoga pants and garden lawn mowers in this part of the store, which is to feature a constantly rotating array of items that cycle in about every week. That could be an interesting way for Lidl to differentiate itself in the market, and it could introduce a T.J. Maxx-like ‘treasure hunt’ vibe to the stores.”


Plenty United: Produce for People Not Trucks

The Wall Street Journal: “If all goes to plan, the 51,000-square-foot warehouse run by startup Plenty United Inc. will yield as much as 3 million pounds of leafy greens each year. In the coming months, the company plans to begin marketing produce bred for local tables rather than shipping durability … Plenty is among a wave of startups seeking to shift part of the $49 billion U.S. retail produce market from sun-kissed crop fields to giant warehouses, old factories and repurposed shipping containers.”

“These indoor facilities are tricked out with sensors that measure temperature and moisture, automated systems that pump in water and nutrients, and strips of LED lights to provide energy—with no need for sunlight or soil … Plenty’s systems reuse water, largely avoid pesticides, and can reduce the fuel needed to power tractors and deliver products; but the climate-control systems and LED lights add to power consumption … Plenty believes it can lower costs by farming in big warehouses on cheap land outside city centers, and improve efficiency by using a technique called machine learning that enables computers to review huge data sets and make decisions.”

“Some agricultural investors say large-scale indoor farms will struggle to balance capital-intensive operations with the low prices consumers expect to pay for lettuce and other greens … Plenty can today produce more than 150 times as much lettuce per square foot a year as an outdoor farm, and with 1% of the water. (Plenty co-founder Matt Barnard) declined to specify expected prices for its products, but he said this year Plenty should be able to raise and market heirloom lettuces and herbs at the same cost as field-grown versions.”


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.”


Reformation Re-imagines Clothes Shopping

“No more cluttered fitting rooms and messy racks. Reformation’s founder wants to make buying a dress like buying a MacBook or Tesla,” reports Fast Company.

“Rather than using the front of the store to hold racks of clothes, there are just a few best-selling outfits on display, giving the space an uncluttered, clean, minimalistic feeling … Around the store, there are touchscreen monitors that allow customers to scan through outfits. When they find one they like, they can click on the size and it will appear in the dressing room, as if by magic. In reality, an associate will go to the stockroom to pick out the item in question and lay it out neatly for the customer.”

“Since the whole process is automated, there’s almost perfect inventory accuracy … Meanwhile, the computer system is gathering a lot of data about which outfits or sizes are popular and how long customers are spending trying on clothing … Since the front of house is so pared down, there’s space to make dressing rooms larger … Instead of rushing customers to make room for more people, the goal is to allow the customer to spend as much time as they need to try on outfits and style them just right.”


Dreamscape Immersive: Virtual Reality For Malls

The Wall Street Journal: “A new venture backed by three studios and director Steven Spielberg has raised $11 million as it aims to launch its first VR storefront at a Los Angeles mall this fall with plans for a wider rollout next year … Dreamscape Immersive will feature original VR experiences and ones tied to major film franchises, said co-chairman Walter Parkes, a former DreamWorks motion picture chief and longtime producer.”

Mr. Parkes comments: “Studios and shopping centers have the same challenge, to create experiences that draw people in. That overlap is where we saw an opportunity.”

“The Dreamscape VR experiences are expected to last about 10 minutes each and cost a little over $1 million to produce. Tickets will cost $15 to $20 … The startup’s retail locations will feature multiple ‘pods,’ where people can have a VR experience in which they interact with each other and physical objects. Eventually, Dreamscape hopes to move into adjacent businesses where it could use virtual reality such as military and medical training, communications and tourism, said Mr. Parkes.”


Oil City: The Gold-Plated Gas Stations of Iraq

Wired: “The 70-mile stretch of dusty highway connecting Kirkuk to Sulaymaniyah in Northern Iraq looks like any other road in the world—except for the 70-plus gas stations lining the shoulder. Some look more like a temple. Or have gold-plated pillars. Or brandish a snappy set of Kurdish flags … In a country with 140 billion barrels of crude oil reserve, pretty much anyone can start a gas station. Some families own a bunch. The economics of the business push prices as low as $1.60 per gallon. And everyone along Sulaimani-Kirkuk Road is selling pretty much the same stuff. So the filling stations have had to find some way to set themselves apart.”

“Photographer Eugenio Grosso visited the road last September, and the visual experience sent him grabbing for his camera … Grosso’s series Oil City showcases an array of architectural frippery, from delicate ivory towers to sinuous, googie-style roofs. Some enterprising owners even rip well-known oil brands’ logos—’BO’ instead of ‘BP,’ ‘Shall’ instead of ‘Shell.’ Humbler spots slap on bright stripes and a string of lights.” Here’s a link to some of his images.


Amazon’s Treasure Truck: Method or Madness?

The New York Times: “Amazon is using Seattle “as a lab for its expanding array of unconventional experiments in bricks-and-mortar retailing … Seattle has long been receptive to new ideas in retail. REI, Costco Wholesale and Nordstrom are among the store chains that got their start here. Starbucks opened its first coffee house in the Pike Place Market in 1971.” Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, comments: “It’s very much a community of early adopters.”

“One of Amazon’s more puzzling retail experiments in Seattle is the Treasure Truck, a roaming delivery truck retrofitted with carnival-style lights and signs, from which customers can pick up items offered during flash sales through the Amazon mobile app. The truck, which seems like the offspring of a billboard and an ice cream truck, has sold wild mahi-mahi steaks, paddle boards and Nintendo game consoles. Adam Croft, an audio producer for Microsoft, described the Treasure Truck as a ‘party bus’ and said he had bought a drone and a Star Wars BB-8 droid toy from it.”

“Some Seattle retailers are looking at Amazon’s local experiments with more bafflement than fear. As owner of one of Seattle’s most prominent bookstores, the Elliott Bay Book Company, Peter Aaron … can’t figure out why Amazon, with its size, would bother with the relatively low sales volumes of physical bookstores.” He comments: “I know these are very smart people. I assume there’s some kind of design or plan that makes sense. I can’t figure out why they’re doing it.”


Capital One Café Connects with Community

Business Insider: “Capital One’s latest venture, the Capital One Café, is … a move to win over their hard-won loyalty and lay a new foundation for relationship-based banking. The company is opening a string of cafés in some of the nation’s largest cities that function as co-working spaces open to the public. Anyone, regardless of bank affiliation, can grab a cup of coffee, sit on a couch, and, if they want, get coached through their money problems by professionals — for free.”

“Capital One partnered with Peet’s Coffee, a Bay-Area coffee roaster and retailer, to provide beverages and snacks for purchase in each café … All pastries are supplied by local bakeries — a nod to millennials’ penchant for supporting local businesses in their community … Though you don’t have to be a Capital One cardholder to hang out in the café and co-working space, your card will get you 50% off any drink purchase … With the coffee counter off to the side, the split-level space is open, airy, and lined with floor-to-ceiling windows, letting plenty of California sunshine in. But perhaps most importantly, there’s free Wi-Fi.”

“Indeed, it feels more like a co-working space than a bank or financial center. There are plenty of device charging stations, and comfy seating, to encourage an extended stay … Other tech offerings include iPads throughout the café that invite customers to click through short finance lessons or take a quiz to test their money knowledge … Small, closed nooks are also available for private conversations with a money coach. And there’s a larger conference room that seats about 10 people, which can be reserved online, free of charge, by local businesses and non-profits.”