Amazon Tributaries: Three Types of Grocery Store

The Wall Street Journal: Amazon Go is “one of at least three brick-and-mortar formats the online retail giant is exploring as it makes a play for an area of shopping that remains stubbornly in-store. Two of the other store formats Amazon is considering are bigger than the convenience-style Go store … In November, Amazon’s technology team approved a proposal to open large, multifunction stores with curbside pickup capability … Two drive-through prototype locations, which don’t offer an in-store shopping option, are also slated to open within the next few weeks in Seattle.”

“The Amazon Go store, at roughly 1,800 square feet in downtown Seattle, resembles a convenience store-format … It features artificial intelligence-powered technology that eliminates checkouts, cash registers and lines. Instead, customers scan their phone on a kiosk as they walk in, and Amazon automatically determines what items customers take from the shelves. After leaving the store, Amazon charges their account for the items and sends a receipt.”

“Meanwhile, in the suburban Seattle neighborhood of Ballard” Amazon is building “two drive-through prototypes … A wood-paneled building with green trim and an overhang appeared to have at least three covered bays for cars to pull up and pick up orders, with a paved driveway in front … The third concept, the newly approved multi-format store, combines in-store shopping with curbside pickups … will likely adopt a 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot floor plans and spartan stocking style like European discount grocery chains Aldi or Lidl, offering a limited fresh selection in store and more via touch-screen orders for delivery later.”


The New Funereal ‘Experience’

The Wall Street Journal: Foundation Partners, a chain of 50 funeral homes run by a former Disney/Epcot director, is reinventing the funeral with “‘experience rooms’ … Using audio and video equipment, the experience rooms can create the atmosphere of a golf course, complete with the scent of newly mowed grass, to salute the life of a golfing fanatic. Or it can conjure up a beach, mountain or football stadium. The price is included in the company’s funeral-service fees, typically ranging from $4,000 to $8,000.”

“Many funeral homes are eliminating casket-viewing rooms, considered depressing. Instead, customers view service and merchandise options on flat screens, “just like if you shop on Amazon … Casket makers say they believe more families who choose cremation will also buy, or even rent, a casket for viewings. Meanwhile, the choice of urns is growing. offers them for as little as $25, but high-end urns can cost more than $1,000. Some are shaped like motorcycle fuel tanks; others like ducks or baseballs.”

“The funeral industry also offers myriad alternatives for ashes, including services that rocket remains into space. Remains can be incorporated into jewelry, lawn statues and even furniture.”


The Internet: Marketplace or Echo Chamber?

The New York Times: “The root of the problem with online news is something that initially sounds great: We have a lot more media to choose from … A wider variety of news sources was supposed to be the bulwark of a rational age — ‘the marketplace of ideas,’ the boosters called it. But that’s not how any of this works. Psychologists and other social scientists have repeatedly shown that when confronted with diverse information choices, people rarely act like rational, civic-minded automatons. Instead, we are roiled by preconceptions and biases, and we usually do what feels easiest — we gorge on information that confirms our ideas, and we shun what does not.”

“This dynamic becomes especially problematic in a news landscape of near-infinite choice. Whether navigating Facebook, Google or The New York Times’s smartphone app, you are given ultimate control — if you see something you don’t like, you can easily tap away to something more pleasing. Then we all share what we found with our like-minded social networks, creating closed-off, shoulder-patting circles online.”

“Digital technology has blessed us with better ways to capture and disseminate news. There are cameras and audio recorders everywhere, and as soon as something happens, you can find primary proof of it online. You would think that greater primary documentation would lead to a better cultural agreement about the ‘truth.’ In fact, the opposite has happened.”


Ikea Keeps Getting Cheaper & Cheaper

FiveThirtyEight: “In many cases, Ikea’s famously affordable pieces get dramatically cheaper year after year. In others, prices creep up. In some cases, products disappear entirely. The result is an ever-evolving, survival-of-the-fittest catalog that wields an enormous amount of influence over residential interiors. As we tour Ikea’s unique economics, you may want to have a seat in the company’s Poäng chair, 1.5 million of which are sold each year.”

“Furniture has generally gotten cheaper relative to other goods over the years — likely due to effects of globalization — but this chair’s trend stands out. In the early 1990s, the chair couldn’t be had for less than $300, adjusted for inflation. Today, it’s $79 … Other Ikea mainstays have followed Poäng’s path, plummeting in price as the years pass. The warhorse Lack table, for example, sold for $25 in 1985 ($56 in current dollars) but goes for just $10 today. Iterations of the Billy bookcases have seen big drops, as well.”

“More generally, there is another common pattern in Ikea pricing.” Boston University economist Marianne Baxter comments: “If they’re going to increase the price, they do it by little bits all the time. But if they’re going to decrease the price, those decreases tend to be big and noticeable, and they get advertised.” Ikea’s Marty Marston explains: “On average, the prices would go down, from year to year, 1 percent overall.Some prices could go down with a huge jump. Other prices may increase slightly. But overall, year on year on year on year, we’re trying to reduce prices.”


Beauty Boy: Skelotim & Fat B***h Fridays

The New York Times: “His name is Tim Owens, but online he goes by Skelotim, and he is a bald, perma-stubbled man who knows his way around a contour kit. Last week, he posted a video of himself applying dark purple eye shadow, sky-blue eyeliner, fluttery fake lashes and a bold grape lipstick. Then, after shooting the camera a succession of saucy glances, he raised a packaged Smucker’s Uncrustables peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwich, revealing his culinary inspiration for the day’s look. He does this every week. He calls it Fat B***h Friday.”

Skelotim, and other “‘beauty boys,’ as they’re sometimes called, are not just being accepted into the mainstream beauty world. They are helping to give the cosmetics industry a much-needed modern makeover. Maybelline’s mantra — ‘Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.’ — called on women to fix their flaws with makeup tricks and to present as natural beauties. Male beauty gurus deconstruct that illusion. They recast makeup not as a supplement for natural deficiencies, but as a form of joyful creation.”


McDonald’s: Branding in the Streets

The Wall Street Journal: When McDonald’s Corp. recently introduced a grungy, graffiti-themed décor to restaurants across its European market, the company hailed the new design as ‘exciting and fresh.’ Graffiti artists have a different description for the burger chain’s faux-graffiti plastered walls: copyright infringement.”

“The design scheme, officially titled ‘Extreme’ in McDonald’s brochures, is meant to target youthful consumers by using ‘graffiti-like visual language on the walls to remind people that McDonald’s is a brand of the streets’.” However: “Artists who view the urban landscape as a giant canvas are no longer outlaws in the dusk, but are increasingly showcased in museums and galleries and pursued by deep-pocketed art buyers. The embrace of graffiti has made artists more possessive of their designs, more sensitive to their reputation and, along with the higher stakes, more inclined to sue.”

“McDonald’s said its graffiti décor, which also includes scrawl on hanging light fixtures, is one of a dozen interior-design motifs recently introduced as part of a broader re-imaging of stores.”


Beautycounter & Consumer Safety in Cosmetics

The New York Times: “Legislation that would introduce a far more serious degree of regulatory oversight to the personal care products industry is proceeding in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Consumer safety groups are pushing for stricter laws. And the call for more stringent oversight of the industry is coming from a coalition of companies that includes Beautycounter, a plucky start-up that is pitching natural face creams as well as regulation.”

“Beautycounter is the brainchild of Gregg Renfrew, a retail executive who has embraced the cause of cleaner cosmetics … In 2010, she raised money and hired a team that included makeup artists and public health specialists … they identified more than 1,500 chemicals and ingredients they thought might be harmful or linked to cancer, and they resolved not to use them in Beautycounter products … Today, Beautycounter offers nearly 100 products and has more than 25,000 people … who sell its wares. The company also sells its cosmetics through Goop, J. Crew and Target. Beautycounter says its sales are increasing rapidly.”

“As the company grew, Ms. Renfrew kept one eye on Washington … In May, Ms. Renfrew took 100 women to Washington for several days of meetings with senators and staff from both sides of the aisle.” Bryan McGannon of the American Sustainable Business Council, comments: “Beautycounter has really invested in the process in a different way. It isn’t often when you have companies willing to stand up and say: We’re O.K. with more regulation. We need it.”


10 Restaurants That Changed America

The Wall Street Journal: “Through his selection of iconic establishments—Delmonico’s, Antoine’s, Schrafft’s, Howard Johnson’s, Mamma Leone’s, the Mandarin, Sylvia’s, Le Pavillon, the Four Seasons and Chez Panisse,” Paul Freedman, in Ten Restaurants That Changed America, “charts the history of American eating … As Mr. Freedman makes clear, the chosen 10 aren’t necessarily the best restaurants. They made the cut because of ‘influence and exemplification’—each has been crucial in ‘setting or reflecting trends in what Americans think about food and particularly dining out’.”

“Take, for instance, Schrafft’s, the Northeast chain that flourished in the mid-20th century and ‘pioneered the middle-class restaurant experience,’ as Mr. Freedman writes. The food was geared, in the words of founder Frank Shattuck, toward ‘secretaries and stenographers who must watch their pocket books.’ It was also a ‘safe’ environment for these diners: They didn’t have to go with a male escort because the place didn’t serve any alcohol.”

“The Mandarin, opened in San Francisco in 1961 by Cecilia Chiang, a Chinese immigrant, helped popularize stir-fry cooking, kung pao chicken, twice-cooked pork and tofu … Chez Panisse, which opened its doors in 1971, spawned a farm-to-table movement that is dominant to this day—even McDonald’s recently ran a “farm-to-fork” ad campaign featuring their potato farmers.”


Home Depot Re-Sets The Experience

Home Depot CFO Carol Tomé: “About 42% of online orders are being picked up in our stores, so we’ve had to allocate capital to build out storage inside of our stores to stage those products. Who would have thought a few years ago that’s where we’d be allocating capital? But we have to, because that’s where the customer is asking us to allocate capital.”

“We perform merchandising resets that cover about a third of each store annually. That could mean a change in our assortment or it could mean a change in how we display the product. All of this is designed to provide a better customer experience and drive sales. It can be a simple reset like resetting the spray-paint section so that when you take a can of paint, the next one drops into place in the display case, rather than standing the cans side by side. That’s a better experience and actually drives productivity in our stores.”

“Or it could be the reset of a millwork or flooring showroom. If you shopped flooring in our stores, in some of our older stores, it’s not the easiest experience. With our new flooring showrooms, we make it much easier for the customer to self-select. The displays are easier to shop off of, the signing is better. Oh, and by the way, sales are lifting. So it’s a good experience, and it’s driving sales.”


Saks Downtown: Digitized Bricks

The Wall Street Journal: “The newest Saks store, dubbed ‘Saks Downtown’ in lower Manhattan, boasts a slew of web-inspired features aimed at making online and offline shopping a seamless experience … The layout leads shoppers in a circle, mimicking the endless browsing available online … Cash registers are tucked out of sight. Many employees do mobile checkout via iPad.”

“Fitting rooms have plush carpeting, flattering lighting and communal seating … Saks lowered the level of its highest fixtures to about 5-and-1/2 feet, so the shopper can see more of the store. Aiming to offer a range of options on the scale of a website, the small store is making big bets, with more than 1,000 pairs of shoes and more than 800 pairs of sunglasses on display.”

“Saks hopes its stores will benefit from offering online shoppers a customized personal-shopping experience. Visitors to Saks’s ecommerce site can connect with a real human sales associate, not an impersonal bot, which other retail brands are testing … Shoppers get several ways to connect to the employee: Live chat (including notification of whether the associate is available at that moment); appointment scheduling, whether in store, over the phone or online at a later time; and an email form to submit questions.”