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.”


De Stijl & Digital Design, Dutch-Style

Backchannel: “2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of a Dutch art movement that has had a worldwide impact: De Stijl. Right up to the present day, De Stijl has influenced art, architecture, and product design. But the impact of De Stijl is particularly apparent in contemporary design—more specifically, in digital design.”

“The key principles of De Stijl still resonate. In the 1990s and early aughts digital design was an explosion of designs, colors, and patterns. But in these times of digital overstimulation, design has shifted. Now we look for something to hold onto, and we often find it in functional, minimalist designs: abstract and elegant, stripped of any frills.”

“Today’s digital design shows a clear preference for horizontally oriented shapes, and a grid-based layout. Naturally, this results in a visual vocabulary that is strongly reminiscent of the characteristic De Stijl compositions, as is evident in the grid-based interface of Pinterest, for example. Other examples include Google’s Material Design, a design theory that explains how every manifestation of Google is constructed. Windows 10, the most geometric looking operating system so far, also invokes De Stijl.”



New Genes For Blue Jeans

Henry I. Miller: “Genetic engineers have developed a way to produce the two principal components, cotton fabric and indigo dye, for less money and soon will make commercial bluejean production cheaper than ever … Genetically engineered cotton is created by introducing into the plant a new gene from a bacterium … The bacterial gene expresses a protein that is toxic to certain insects but not to humans or other mammals.”

“With conventional cotton, farmers control insects by applying huge amounts of chemical pesticides known to harm birds, fish and other aquatic organisms. Lessening the need for pesticides also reduces farm workers’ exposure to those chemicals. The other main ingredient in bluejeans, indigo dye, is usually produced synthetically through a complex, multistep process performed with highly toxic chemicals. It requires special facilities and precautions to protect workers and the environment.”

“But indigo dye can also be made using genetically engineered bacteria. This process has fewer steps, uses water instead of toxic organic solvents, incorporates corn syrup as the primary starting material, and yields nontoxic waste products. While it is not yet efficient enough for commercial use, stay tuned.”


Bike Shops: Does Progress Hurt Innovation?

The New York Times: “Some smaller bike companies have sold their bikes online for some time, but now the industry’s largest manufacturers are offering bikes directly to consumers via their web pages. All of this presents the possibility of better service and perhaps even lower prices for consumers. But it has also raised concerns for the future of the neighborhood bike shop.”

“Some of the problem lies with the big bike manufacturers … The biggest companies provide incentives for shops to carry their brands; generally, if 60 percent or more of a shop’s inventory is from a single top-selling brand, the store will get better terms on its credit … These shops can have a hard time making room for small, innovative companies that may interest more cyclists.”

“Even Raleigh bicycles, the fifth-best-selling brand in the United States, was shut out of many stores … Raleigh used to encourage shops to carry its bikes and accessories, but it recently dropped those incentives.” Chris Speyer, a Raleigh executive, comments: “It was not healthy for anyone anymore. It was more like the mortgage crisis than a proper retail relationship.”


How Does IKEA Name its Products?

Quartz: “IKEA has a crack team of product namers, who assign names from a database of Swedish words. Bookcases are named after professional occupations (Expedit means shop keeper) or boys’ names (The bestselling Billy bookcase is named after IKEA employee Billy Likjedhal). Outdoor furniture are named after Scandinavian islands (Äpplarö an island in the Stockholm archipelago and Västerön is in Aaland). Rugs are named after cities and towns in Denmark (Ådum, Silkeborg), while bed sheets, comforters and pillowcases are named after flowers and plants. (Häxört or circaea lutetian is an herb in the primrose family).”

“The rules for naming were devised by IKEA’s founder Ingvar Kamprad, who struggled with dyslexia and had trouble remembering the order of numbers in item codes. The name IKEA itself is acronym for Ingvar, Kamprad, Elmtaryd (his family’s farm) and Agunnaryd (the village in Småland where he grew up).”

“To simplify inventory for its 389 stores around the world, the Swedish home furnishing chain uses the same name for its products in all its markets. The database is culled for words that may have offensive meanings in other languages—though sometimes things fall off their radar. In the annals of unfortunate IKEA product names: 2004’s Fartfull children’s workbench … Some products are given names that evoke their function. For instance, IKEA’s newly-launched bicycle is called ‘Sladda’ which translates to ‘skid’ in Swedish. In the kitchen section, there’s a spice mill called Krossa, which means to crush or grind.”


Walmart Luxury: $6.96 Wine Gets 95 Points

The Washington Post: “The label for La Moneda Malbec Reserva 2015 from Chile looks like nothing special, until you notice the small decal on the side touting 95 points and a platinum medal from Decanter magazine … So last fall, Walmart introduced the La Moneda Malbec into 577 of its 4,600 or so U.S. stores, priced at $6.96 a bottle.”

“They bring it into the United States through their importer to various distributors, who speed the product through the three-tier distribution network at minimal cost. Because the wine is going exclusively to one store’s various outlets, there’s no marketing cost to build the brand and fight for shelf space. (Though someone at Walmart was smart enough to enter the malbec into the Decanter competition and then market its triumph for all it was worth.)”

“Once in the store, the wine receives prime placement on the shelf — at eye level, or a coveted end-of-aisle display — alongside California chardonnays and merlots that also don’t have the store name on the label but are available nowhere else. National brands are often relegated to less-visible, harder-to-reach shelves.”


Nike Luxury: It Means Better Service

Business Insider: “For anyone who has recently bought Nike shoes or apparel, or walked into one of its latest stores, this won’t be news: Nike has slid upscale recently … The brand’s promotional efforts skew towards its newest and greatest inventions, as well as its more expensive offerings.”

“More recently, Nike has signaled a different approach to welcoming customers into its stores. Its new store in New York’s Soho neighborhood offers customers the opportunity to make one-on-one appointments with Nike staff … Customers can bring in all kinds of concerns for the staff to help with … The store also has areas where customers can test out its shoes and equipment in an ‘immersive experience.’ It represents a shift in how the company sees brick-and-mortar retail, and is being called a guide for future stores from the brand.”

“Nike clearly believes that an elevated price point also means elevated service, and it’s headed full speed in that direction. As Nike places a larger emphasis on its direct-to-consumer division, it’s also taking greater care of how it is perceived by customers, as well as how it interacts with those customers.”


Porky Lights: The Beatlemania of Diet Sausages

The Guardian: “Look out of your window and you may notice we’re living in the midst of the sausage equivalent of Beatlemania – supermarkets selling out as slimmers bulk buy, arguments in the aisles over the last box.”

“Launched late last year, Porky Lights were not an immediate success, selling just 2,000 units a week. Then dieters’ club Slimming World decided to award the Porky Light just half a ‘syn’ on their points table – by comparison, regular bangers are five syns. Slimming Worlders soon realised that, at a 10-times multiple, swapping-out bacon for Porkys meant that the full English breakfast could become a human right rather than an aspiration. Surrey-based manufacturer G White’s reckon it is now shifting 170,000 a week, and supply remains tight.”

“The notion of a diet sausage may appear confusing, but the basic idea has been around for a while. ‘It’s just that most of them aren’t very nice,’ explains Chris Price, managing director of G White & Co … Price is reluctant to talk about exactly what in the manufacturing process makes these different, admitting only that: ‘It’s a third-generation family business. So, these are flavour profiles we’ve had access to for years, and this one seemed to fit.’ Price assures us the key ingredient remains pork, but at 78 calories apiece, the other ingredient may well be voodoo.”


Silicon Valley Informs The Shopping Experience

The Wall Street Journal: “With online pricing and inventory easily accessible, consumers are increasingly becoming brand and retailer agnostic. So retailers are turning to Silicon Valley for everything from artificial intelligence to data to draw consumers in … Even the smallest changes online—facilitated by artificial intelligence and algorithms—can make a difference in sales, retailers are discovering.”

“Italian lingerie brand Cosabella gauged customer response to change the color of its ‘buy’ button to pink and its banner to specify it is Italian family-owned, bumping up revenue by 38%. It is also using image-recognition technology … tailoring its website to individual customers based on the advertising image they click to get to the site.”

“Retailers are also customizing the shopping experience in stores, where around 90% of U.S. purchasing still takes place … For example, Burberry Group PLC can ask for a customer’s name and type it into an app when the person walks in, giving access to personal data, including his or her last purchase and whether the person prefers still or sparkling water—and potentially some of his or her public social media presence, too.”


Costco Golf Balls: The New ‘Two-Buck Chuck’

The Wall Street Journal: Costco, the warehouse retail giant, first began selling golf balls last fall, under its Kirkland Signature brand that is affixed to a wide range of products and carries discount prices. Available for $29.99 for two dozen, the balls instantly ranked among the cheapest on the market … But what made the balls a hot item among fanatical golfers is the revelation that, by some accounts, they perform like rivals that sell for more than twice as much.”

“That idea sent shock waves through a billion-dollar industry, left Costco out of stock for weeks at a time and caused secondary-market prices for the ball to soar. Its popularity is threatening one of the sport’s long-held consumer beliefs: when it comes to the quality of golf balls, you generally get what you pay for.”

“The balls were made at a factory in South Korea by a company called Nassau Golf, which also manufactures balls for TaylorMade, one of the major equipment manufacturers … the company had an excess supply that it sold to Costco through a third-party trader … According to a Nassau executive based in Europe … both Nassau and TaylorMade, its biggest client, are unhappy with the rise of the $1.25 golf ball and that the company won’t sell excess supply in such large quantities again.”