Have We Reached Peak Home Furnishings?

The Guardian: The appetite of western consumers for home furnishings has reached its peak – according to Ikea, the world’s largest furniture retailer. “We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff … peak home furnishings,” Steve Howard (of Ikea) said at a Guardian Sustainable Business debate. He said the new state of affairs could be called “peak curtains.”

But Howard said his comments did not contradict Ikea’s target of almost doubling sales by 2020, and that changes in consumption were an opportunity for companies to rethink the way they did business. Ikea was trying to help customers live in a more environmentally friendly way, he added. “We will be increasingly building a circular Ikea where you can repair and recycle products,” Howard said.

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Strat-O-Matic Reinvents Itself Using Big Data

A board game from the 1960s has been updated with “digital” cards using algorithms and big data, reports The New York Times. In the past, Strat-O-Matic, a “baseball simulation game,” was “played using cards for each player based on statistics from the previous season.” In its latest iteration, called Baseball Daily, the cards are “updated daily,” allowing players “to play games in the present,” says Adam Richman, son of the game’s founder, Hal Richman.

“Every year, we try to push forward digitally,” Adam says. “We need to rethink how we are doing everything.” He adds: “This is a natural evolution that will allow more engagement for our fans and expand our purview.” The hope is that Baseball Daily will “scoop up some daily gamers who have been flocking to the fantasy sports sites FanDuel and DraftKings, although Baseball Daily does not involve cash prizes and is structured differently.”

Strat-O-Matic is also developing apps. Traditionalists will, of course, be able to continue play Strat-O-Matic the old-fashioned way, using last year’s data.

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Going Mental At The Car Rental

Customers can have very different car-rental experiences at Payless and Budget even though both are owned and run by Avis Budget Group, according to The New York Times. David Segal, writing in the newspaper’s “Haggler” column, relays two high-contrast anecdotes. The first, involving Payless, is the story of a 50-minute wait and then driving off in a “filthy” car only after arm-twisting a supervisor to get any car at all.

Filing a complaint afterwards via Twitter yielded no response, an email resulted only in a bounced message, and an online service-desk inexplicably pronounced the issue “closed.” An apology was received and a full refund promised only because The Times intervened.

Meanwhile, a Budget customer who was given “a car smaller than the one he reserved” didn’t have to make a fuss or ask for anything. He simply described his bad experience in a routine customer-satisfaction survey. The next day, he received an email with an apology and promise of a refund check for the price difference. In other words: “One part of this company is taking care of consumers; the other is ignoring them. The secret to good service is no secret to the Avis Budget Group. It is just a secret that nobody bothered to share with Payless.”

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When Dumb Devices Make Us Feel Smart

On Thursday, The New York Times ran a story about Nest, the “smart” thermostat. Apparently, a glitch in a software update caused users “across America” to lose heat on a cold winter’s night. Babies were crying and grandmothers caught chills. Customer support lines were jammed. Those lucky enough to get assistance were talked through a nine-step procedure that required a mini USB cable.

Shortly after I read this story, my own low-tech, “dumb” thermostat went haywire. Part of the house felt like St. Martin in the summertime while other rooms recalled Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant. So, off to Home Depot I went, to buy a new thermostat. At the low end was a basic model, priced at $24.95. The priciest — The Nest — was ten times (ten times!) as expensive. Two hundred and forty-five dollars!

It’s often said that we tend to buy things that make us feel smart — whether that’s based on a relatively rational price-value calculation or a more emotional rationalization. All I can say is, I have rarely felt as smart (even to the point of smug) about a purchase as I did walking out of that store with my $24.95 “dumb” thermostat. The three-step installation took about 10 minutes and specified only a screwdriver.

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How United Airlines Became “Less Awful”

Bringing back free snacks in Economy class and upgrading the coffee are central to United Airlines’ efforts to reintroduce itself to customers, reports Bloomberg Business. “More fundamentally, United is reexamining the way it boards planes.” The airline “came up with a system with only two main lanes: one for the group currently boarding and one for the group that was next. To preserve the prerogative of late-arriving priority passengers, a ‘bypass’ lane was added.”

United is also re-designing its routes, moving from “linear routing” that “maximizes the hours each aircraft is in the air full of revenue-generating customers, but bad weather at one airport can cause delays and cancellations among numerous routes.” It now uses more “out-and-back” routing and “also increased the amount of time budgeted for turning planes around.”

“Recent months have seen marked improvements in United’s performance. Its on-time and missed-connections metrics over the past few months have been the best since the merger. Its rates for mishandled baggage are also sharply down … New planes have steadily been replacing older ones. And fliers are happier: Internal customer satisfaction scores were better in 2015 than in 2014, better in the fourth quarter of 2015 than in the third, and in December were the highest in two years.”

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Don’t Let Them Eat Cake

Some restaurants now charge a “cakeage” fee to patrons who bring their own celebratory cake, reports The New York Times. At some restaurants the fee is as much as $14 per person. Some patrons are outraged, but so are some of the chefs, who think that bringing a supermarket cake into their restaurants is an “abomination.”

At WD-50 in New York, the pastry chef “didn’t want anyone in the dining room to see it and think it was coming out of his kitchen.” At Miller Union in Atlanta, owner Neal McCarthy complains: “These people sought out a nice restaurant, yet they undermine it by bringing in the world’s most hideous cakes.”

However, Vinny Accardi of Room 55 in Queens, New York takes a more accommodating view: “It’s a restaurant and it’s the hospitality industry,” he says. “The whole goal is to make people have a good time.”

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Like Amazon for Your Diet

“Research increasingly suggests that each of us is unique in the way we absorb and metabolize nutrients,” reports The New York Times. “This dawning realization has scientists and entrepreneurs scrambling to provide more effective nutritional advice based on such distinguishing factors as genetic makeup, gut bacteria, body type and chemical exposures.”

Dr. Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel “found a startling variation in the glucose responses of 800 subjects fed the same foods … By combining data gleaned from subjects’ glucose responses with information about their gut bacteria, medications, family histories and lifestyles, the scientists devised an algorithm that accurately predicted blood sugar responses to foods the participants hadn’t yet eaten in the study.”

“The algorithm is similar to what Amazon uses to tell you which books you want to read,” says Eran Segal, also of Weizmann and a co-author of the study. “We just do it with food.”

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App-etite for Munchery

Bloomberg Business: “Munchery is one of dozens of technology startups around the world trying to solve the challenge of mealtime planning with the tap of an app. GrubHub in the U.S., Just Eat in Europe, and Ele.me in China, to name just a few, all connect Internet users with restaurants and their takeout menus. Critics derisively call the proliferation of these businesses the “lazy food economy,” but Munchery is different. It cooks and delivers its own relatively healthy fare.”

“The company is in four cities—San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle—operating industrial kitchens in each. One recent afternoon in San Francisco, chefs and their assistants, wearing white caps and long-sleeved smocks, toiled over trays of grilled salmon atop brown rice with edamame and sweet carrots ($10.99) and pork belly buns with hoisin sauce, shredded cabbage, and pickled daikon ($10.95) … After they’re prepared, the dishes are chilled in refrigerated rooms, packed in compostable boxes, and loaded into cars for delivery. Customers heat them up for about two minutes in a microwave or 10 to 20 in an oven.”

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Americans Are Loving Bowls

“Sales of bowls are rising as Americans prefer more casual, one-course meals that layer flavors,” The Wall Street Journal reports. Tableware makers are reconfiguring place settings. Restaurants are overhauling their china cabinets. Consumers are increasingly cradling their food while perched at kitchen islands, lounging on sofas or multi-tasking at a table.”

“The trend began as a way to make healthy entrees more appealing. If eggs and vegetables are piled into a bowl rather than on a plate, the diner is less likely to mourn the missing bread.” Juliet Boghossian of Foodology comments: “You’re taking away all the carbs, like toast, muffins and potatoes, but you don’t see the empty space on the plate.” Designer Ree Drummond adds: “A bowl is much more flexible and open to interpretation compared to a plate.”

Rebecca Proctor of Aurora Brands says: “The rise of the bowl is really evidence of the shift in our lifestyle from more formal to casual.”

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How Netflix Beats Amazon

The difference between the way Netflix and Amazon use big data is the difference between a hit and an also ran, reports The Observer. Data scientist Sebastian Wernicke, in a TED Talk, “explained how two shows, which were strategically made with data analysis methods creators thought would ensure Breaking Bad caliber success, were created, and how they faired in the ratings. One, Netflix’s House of Cards, worked—the show went on to score a 9.1 on the rating curve. The other, Amazon’s Alpha House, however, fell short and landed at 7.5 on the curving, marking it as a completely average show.”

“When Amazon set out to make a data-driven show, the company held a competition. They evaluated a bunch of show ideas, selected eight of them and then created a pilot episode for each and made them available online for free. Millions watched the free episodes, and the company used data (such as how many people watched each show, how long they watched and what parts they skipped) to create a show they hoped would be destined for greatness. After crunching millions of data points, the results said they should create a sitcom about four Republican U.S. senators. Alpha House was born.”

“Around the same time, Netflix was brewing up something similar. But instead of using a competition, the company looked at the data they already had about viewing on their platform (ratings, viewing history, etc). They used that data to discover small bits and pieces about what viewers like and took a leap of faith … Amazon’s show wasn’t a booming success because it used data all the way. Netflix, however, looked at what users like and used that insight to think up a concept for what they believed would be a hit show, and it clearly worked.”

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