Jet vs. Jetsons: Amazon Bets on Drones

Farhad Manjoo: “If Amazon’s drone program succeeds (and Amazon says it is well on track), it could fundamentally alter the company’s cost structure. A decade from now, drones would reduce the unit cost of each Amazon delivery by about half, analysts at Deutsche Bank projected in a recent research report. If that happens, the economic threat to competitors would be punishing — ‘retail stores would cease to exist,’ Deutsche’s analysts suggested, and we would live in a world more like that of ‘The Jetsons’ than our own.”

“Amazon … has built many different kinds of prototypes for different delivery circumstances … for instance, drones could deliver packages to smart lockers positioned on rooftops … Amazon’s patent filings hint at even more fanciful possibilities — drones could ferry packages between tiny depots housed on light poles, for example.”

“Amazon has filed patents that envision using trucks as mobile shipping warehouses … a drone might fly from the truck to a customer’s house, delivering the item in minutes … according to Amazon, the earliest incarnation of drone deliveries will happen … within five years, somewhere in the world.”

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Self-Checkout: A Shoplifter’s Dream?

The New York Times: “Self-service checkout technology may offer convenience and speed, but it also helps turn law-abiding shoppers into petty thieves by giving them ‘ready-made excuses’ to take merchandise without paying, two criminologists say.”

“The scanning technology, which grew in popularity about 10 years ago, relies largely on the honor system. Instead of having a cashier ring up and bag a purchase, the shopper is solely responsible for completing the transaction. That lack of human intervention, however, reduces the perception of risk and could make shoplifting more common, the report said.”

“In a behavior known as ‘neutralizing your guilt,’ shoppers may tell themselves that the store is overpriced, so taking an item without scanning is acceptable; or they might blame faulty technology, problems with product bar codes or claim a lack of technical know-how.”

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Simple Products Beget Simple Packages

The Wall Street Journal: “Instead of burying ingredient lists in the fine print on the back of the package, food manufacturers are trumpeting simpler formulas prominently on the label’s front … More people care deeply about what’s in their food and insist on recognizing the ingredients. The litmus test for many consumers is whether those ingredients might appear in their own kitchen cupboards.”

“Simply Tostitos Organic Blue Corn Tortilla Chips boast only three ingredients: blue corn, organic expeller-pressed sunflower oil and sea salt. This past June, General Mills Inc.’s Larabar snack bar line launched Larabar Bites. The bites—available in flavors such as double chocolate brownie and cherry chocolate chip—resemble truffles and contain few ingredients which are prominently displayed on the front of the package.”

“New ads for Haagen-Dazs ice cream in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles show a spoonful of vanilla ice cream. ‘5 ingredients, one incredible indulgence’ read ads, which also list the recipe of cream, milk, sugar, eggs and vanilla … This fall, ConAgra’s Bertolli Frozen Meals is rolling out a new, reformulated line of meals that feature a shorter ingredient list that reads more like a recipe.”

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Grocery Outlet: The TJX of Supermarkets?

Business Insider: “Grocery Outlet wants to be the TJ Maxx of grocery stores … Grocery Outlet says it sells items at a 40% to 70% discount off regular stores’ prices by offering surplus items, seasonal closeouts, and discontinued items. While some of its items aren’t up to manufacturer standards, none of what it sells is past the sell-by date.”

“Like TJ Maxx, grocery outlet says it relies on a ‘treasure hunt’ experience to hook consumers. Because customers don’t know exactly what products they will find at Grocery Outlet, they keep coming back for the thrill. Still, Grocery Outlet executives tell Frozen & Dairy Buyer magazine that they strive to make stores a place where people can do most, if not all, of their food shopping.”

“While Grocery Outlet doesn’t offer amenities like a deli, it tries to excel in customer service. It also sells wine … workers will carry your bags to your car for you … Grocery Outlet is also making a big push into organic, healthy, and specialty food … It plans to open an additional 125 stores in the California and mid-Atlantic region by 2020.”

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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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Game Changer: In-App Purchases

The Wall Street Journal: “In-app purchases are ‘dramatically changing the mobile-entertainment landscape,’ said Andrew Phelps, director of digital media at Rochester Institute of Technology. They ‘engage people in a longer financial discourse than you would have in an upfront sale’ … The secret sauce behind many in-app purchases is the countdown clock—a frustration tax that forces gamers to idle before they can perform duties such as farming crops or replenishing fuel, unless they pay for more turns or items to speed up the action.”

“Converting players into spenders without turning them off is key; gamers have derided free-to-play games as ‘free to play, pay to win’ for years. Developers, though, have gotten savvier about giving players more free things to do to keep them hooked until they start spending. In ‘Pokémon Go,’ players can go weeks capturing dozens of ‘pocket monsters’ without needing to spend money. After investing so much time, players might be more inclined to dole out cash to upgrade their gear so they can carry more items and creatures, for example.”

“Algorithms are playing an increasing part in nudging players to spend. Based on dozens of data points—how often gamers play, what model mobile device they use, location and gender—developers might raise a game’s difficulty level, making no two players’ experiences exactly alike … Data on players’ behavior also are used to strategically tweak prices for virtual goods in real time … Other tactics: tapping into players’ “fear of missing out” through limited-time events, and cultivating relationships between players.”

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The Sweet Science of Designer Deodorant

The Wall Street Journal: “Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Soapwalla charges $14 for a 2-ounce jar of deodorant cream. It has the consistency of buttercream frosting … male customers have said they prefer it over a waxy stick, which snags and pulls hair. Cream also makes it easier to apply to other places on the body, such as the feet.”

“Prices for these offerings are reaching new heights, well beyond the old standard of two or three dollars a stick. Sprays and stronger stick offerings, known as clinical strength, come with $5 to $10 price tags. Natural deodorant often costs $15 or more. Tom Ford has two sticks, from his Oud Wood and Neroli Portofino fragrance lines, priced at $52 a piece … … A spokeswoman for Tom Ford Beauty … says the brand’s $52-per-stick price tag reflects the effort it takes to translate a complex, premium fragrance into a deodorant.”

Meanwhile: “Thirty percent of women reapply their deodorant during the day, according to Procter & Gamble Co., maker of Secret, Old Spice and Gillette; 20% of women say they keep it in their car, 25% in a purse and 30% at work. It all stems from a sneaking suspicion that deodorant could work better or has failed altogether. Executives at personal-care companies acknowledge that could be the case, but say many times a shopper has bought the wrong product or is mistaking a weak fragrance for an ineffective deodorant.

“Now more women buy Old Spice, a line typically targeting men, because of how strong its scent is … It is especially popular with women headed for the gym.”

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Dress Local: Starbucks Fashion in the ‘Hood

The Washington Post: “Starbucks employees will continue to wear the green or black aprons that you’re used to seeing when you hit up their stores. But lots of subtle changes are coming to what workers can wear underneath. Previously, they could only wear black, white and khaki clothing; now, the palette is more varied and includes other subdued colors such as blue, gray and brown. And they are now permitted to wear patterned shirts.”

“By giving employees more flexibility in how they dress, Starbucks is trying to distinguish itself from other employers with comparable schedules and wages … But the dress code for any retailer is not just a talent strategy: It’s also about telegraphing a certain feeling to customers. And by allowing more personalized attire, Starbucks seems to be doing something that is in keeping with a broader strategic trend in retail these days. Mega-chains across a variety of shopping categories are trying to make individual stores reflect their local neighborhoods.”

“Starbucks workers in Brooklyn will likely embrace the dress code differently than those in Miami or in a small, Midwestern college town. And perhaps that can give each of the chain’s outposts a more varied, localized feel.”

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Zappos: A Short Story About a Long Call

Business Insider: “A Zappos employee recently had a customer service call that lasted 10 hours and 43 minutes, breaking an internal record at the Amazon-owned online retailer … Steven Weinstein answered a call from a customer who needed some help with an order of a few items. The two began to chat, and even after she was helped, she stayed on the line.”

“Weinstein said he only took one break during the nearly 11-hour period, about two-and-a-half hours on, to go to the bathroom. One of his colleagues brought him food and water during the call.”

“At Zappos, call center employees are trained to use interactions with customers as a way to build relationships, not make a sale. And if a call is going long during a particularly busy time, then it’s up to the employee overseeing the call center to assign more people to calls rather than encourage an employee to end a call early. The last longest customer service call was set by Mary Tennant in 2012, at nine hours and 37 minutes.”

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