Business

Payless to shutter remaining North American stores

February 20, 2019

Just two months ago, Payless ShoeSource—a privately owned chain of discount shoe stores—pranked fashion influencers when it invited them to try on footwear at what looked like a high-end retailer called “Palessi.”

And it worked! According to The Huffington Post, “Sure enough, [the] influencers appear to have been completely fooled, praising the … look and quality of shoes marked as high as $1,800, but which normally [would] retail for $20 to $40.”

When they revealed their gag, not only did they earn an ovation from the red-faced fashionistas, but they received publicity nationwide for the brand—enough, you would think, to draw in large numbers of customers also looking for “luxury footwear.”

Not so much. The debt-burdened chain already had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April 2017, closing hundreds of stores as part of its reorganization, The Huffington Post reported.

At that time, it had over 4,400 stores in more than 30 countries. It re-emerged from restructuring four months later with about 3,500 stores and about $435 million in debt eliminated.

Now, Payless has announced that it is heading back into bankruptcy—and that, this time, the company will close its remaining 2,500 U.S. and Canadian stores after completing going-out-of-business sales. In doing so, it will deprive 16,000 more workers of their jobs.

Payless simply had too much debt, too many stores, and too much corporate overhead when it emerged from the earlier bankruptcy, Stephen Marotta, who was designated in January as the company’s Chief Restructuring Officer to prepare for the bankruptcy, told Local10.com news in Miami on February 19..

The company will start shuttering its locations in March and should finish closing shop by May.

The company said in an email that the liquidation doesn’t affect its franchise operations or its Latin American stores, which remain open for business as usual. It lists 18,000 employees worldwide.

Research contact: @HuffingtonPost

Between the sheets: A new portable robot called Cleansebot rapidly sanitizes hotel linens

February 19, 2019

Do you travel with your own pillow and sleeping bag, even when you go to a “major” hotel? If you don’t, you might want to start thinking about it: A November 2014 investigation by NBC News—complete with hidden cameras—found that, when housekeeping was called to clean a room at each of three well-known chains (Hilton, Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza); the maid changed the sheets but put the same pillows back on the bed, along with the same blankets and spread.

If that grosses you out, you are going to want to get your hands on a new invention that promises to eradicate all bacteria from between the sheets in a matter of minutes.

Cleansebot is a patent-pending portable robotic hotel room cleaner that’s now in production following a crowdsourcing campaign on Kickstarter that raised nearly $1.5 million.

Clearly there are plenty of germaphobes out there—including the inventors of the new robot, CNN reports..

“My wife and I came up with the idea for Cleansebot when we were on vacation,” co-creator Tom Yang told CNN Travel on February 15.

Back in 2017, Yang and his wife, Cecilia Hsu arrived in a top hotel, ready to enjoy their vacation, he told CNN—and were shocked to discover the bed was messy and the room had been left in, what they call, “unsanitary conditions.”

The couple did some research on the topic, pinpointing a 2012 study from the University of Houston in which researchers tested 19 surfaces in hotel rooms for bacteria. In fact, the study found, fully 81% of surfaces in hotel rooms are covered with germs and harmful bacteria.

It included the skin-crawling statistic that that hotel room light switches had an average of 112.7 colony-forming units of bacteria per cubic centimeter.

While some of the most contaminated samples, including the toilet and the bathroom sink, were no surprise, they also found high levels of bacterial contamination on the TV remote and the bedside lamp switch. Most concerning, some of highest levels of contamination were found in items from the housekeepers’ carts, including sponges and mops which pose a risk for cross-contamination of rooms.

“We realized that even though we couldn’t control how well hotels cleaned their rooms, we could create a way to control our own health and safety while staying there,” Yang explained to the cable news network.

An idea formed—and together with a team of engineers and designers, the couple created a robotic cleaning device designed especially for travel, dubbed Cleansebot.

Cleansebot, CNN reports, is designed to glide over and between the bed sheets in your hotel room, killing bacteria in its wake.

There are robotic vacuum cleaners on the market, but Cleansebot isn’t one of them. It doesn’t suck up debris but instead uses ultraviolet light in what’s called the C-spectrum, a wavelength at which light has disinfectant properties and that is often used in hospitals.

“CleanseBot works by using four UV-C lamps to inactivate and kill bacteria, germs, and dust mites,” Yang told the news outlet.

It’s compact—weighing only 320 grams (0.7 pounds)—and comes with a portable charger.What’s more, iIt’s designed to be easy to pack in a carry-on case.

It takes four hours to charge, and it’ll last for three hours when fully juiced.

“It can go remotely under the blankets and sanitize sheets, but then you can pick it up in Handheld Mode and hold it over literally any surface, toy, item, anything you want to disinfect,” says Yang.

Cleansebot will be available for purchase in April.

Research contact: hello@cleansebot.com

Amazon backs out of deal for New York City corporate campus

February 18, 2019

Following  three months of sustained opposition from state and local officials, Amazon has cancelled its plan to build a new campus across the East River from Manhattan — and, in the process, withdrawn the offer of 25,000 jobs that the move might have brought to New York City, NBC News reported on February 14..

Among those who fought the plan was high-profile Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D- 14th District, New York) whose district abuts the area in Long Island City where the new Amazon headquarters would have been located.

“It wasn’t any one incident,” Jodi Seth, the head of Policy Communications for Amazon, told the network last Thursday in an interview. “It was that the environment over the course of the past three months had not got any better. There were some local and state elected officials who refused to meet with Amazon and criticized us day in and day out about the plan.”

Seth said it came down to a long-term environment that Amazon did not care to work in, in part because different politicians put forward different reasons for opposing the project.

“If you talk to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it’s ‘Never Amazon,'” Seth said. “If you talk to [New York City Councilman Jimmy] Van Bramer, [whose district is in Queens], it’s unions.” (New York is still a heavily unionized town, and Amazon’s opposition to unions was frequently cited by those who fought the project.)

According to NBC News, the main frustration for opponents of Amazon’s project was the $3 billion that the company had been awarded in state and city incentives — a cost that opponents said would have been paid for by New York residents. Many also feared that the move would lead to gentrification and higher housing prices.

And a number of residents of the neighborhood protested that the already overcrowded subway and bus transportation systems could not handle the additional onslaught of commuters.

Conversely, small business owners were unhappy with the decision because they had welcomed the extra business it would bring to the area.

Following Amazon’s announcement, Ocasio-Cortez commended “dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors” for defeating “Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world” on her Twitter site.

Champions of the deal, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, said that the creation of those 25,000 new jobs, plus revenue from property taxes, corporate taxes, and personal income taxes, would have benefited Long Island City and New York in the long term.

In a statement Thursday, Cuomo criticized the “small group of politicians” who opposed the headquarters and put their own “narrow interests above their community.”

Even with support from some officials, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his team concluded that it wasn’t worth sticking around for the fight, NBC News reported. Seth noted that a vote on the move by the State Public Authorities Control Board the State Public Authorities Control Board wasn’t scheduled until April or May 2020.

“We wouldn’t have even known if the deal would be approved until a year from now,” she said. “We were pretty confident the deal would be approved, in that the governor was working hard to make it happen, but looking at the opposition and the timeline we decided we don’t want to work in this environment in the long term.”

Amazon offered no plan to find another headquarters in the area, and Seth told the TV network that Amazon has no intention of re-opening talks with New York state and local

Research contact: @DylanByers

Allswell rolls out tiny home retail concept for mattresses, bedding, and more

February 15, 2019

Bigger isn’t always better, especially when it comes to mattress prices. To celebrate its commitment to offering tiny prices married with luxe quality, Allswella one-year-old digital startup from Walmart that, in addition to mattresses, offers a chic, contemporary line of home goods—has launched a tiny home retail concept this month.

The custom-built, highly-stylized and functional house on wheels will be open to the public for viewings and shopping. Featuring the brand’s two mattresses—The Allswell and The Luxe Hybrid—among a bevy of shoppable bedding elements and social media-friendly vignettes, the home made its debut in New York City on February 7, before departing on a coast-to-coast tour.

The 238 square-foot home, custom-built by Columbus, Ohio-based  Modern Tiny Living, comprises four rooms and showcases the brand’s two signature mattresses—one in a sleeping area and one on a convertible daybed in the living area..

“We have had customers begging us to come to their cities so they could test out our mattresses,” says Allswell Brand President Arlyn Davich, adding,. “We couldn’t think of a better way to do so than … literally welcoming people into our home, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in the brand.”

Upon entering the Allswell tiny home, visitors will be encouraged to pull a surprise promo code from a “Dream Jar.” As guests explore the tiny home’s quarters, they can shop and immediately buy the Allswell mattress and bedding items they see. The “Dream Jar” discounts will range from 10%-20% off and unique codes ranging from $150-$500 off.

From a custom-tiled “It Was All a Dream” shower to a bird’s eye photobooth looking down on the master-suite mattress where visitors cans pose among pillow props and customized signs, the tiny home is also entertaining.

those that just can’t get enough, an Allswell-designed tiny home will be available for purchase beginning February 7on https://allswellhome.com/pages/tiny-home with a starting price of $100,000.

Over the course of three months, the Allswell tiny home will travel across the country, making numerous stops including: New York City, Philadelphia, Washington,DC, Atlanta, Nashville, Austin, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Portland (Oregon). To follow the tour, see specific dates and locations and learn when additional stops get announced, visit https://allswellhome.com/tiny-home.

Research contact: taylorf@alisonbrodmc.com

Under new U.S. tax code, average family’s refund is down by 8.4%

February 14, 2019

The first tax season under President Donald Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is under way—and early filers are saying “Where’s my refund?” according to an NBC News report.

While the White House promised in October 2017, while it was pushing for passage of the law, that the average family “would get a $4,000 raise,” now some taxpayers are discovering that the tax man giveth—but also taketh away. And that’s especially true as it pertains to their annual refund, the network news outlet says.

The average refund this year is down by 8.4%, to $1,865, for the week ending February 1, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service. At that time, the IRS said, the agency already had processed about 16  million returns—down from the 18 million it had received and processed at the same time last year.  That’s down 12.4% from the first week of last year’s tax season.

In a news release on February 8, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said “filing season has successfully launched with millions of tax returns having been filed.”

Early filers vented their frustrations on Twitter, using the hashtag #GOPTaxScam.

“Last year I was able to get $2700 on tax returns but all my deductions are gone this year and was a net-$350. Only saving grace was increased child tax credit which kept my refund in the positive,” wrote @dexternights.

Indeed, the plan, which Trump said would simplify the tax code, also got rid of many deductions that working class Americans relied on to lower their tax bills—among them, home equity loan interest, moving expenses;and certain job costs, including licensing and regulatory fees.

Research contact: @AlyssaNewcomb 

As McDonald’s loses EU trademark, Burger King slyly advertises, ‘Like a Big Mac, but actually big.’

February 13, 2019

After McDonald’s lost its trademark for the Big Mac in the European Union on January 15, Burger King in Sweden revamped its menu in a snarky hat tip to the rival fast-food chain. Imitation, it turns out, is also the sincerest form of trolling, The Washington Post reported on February 11.

The trademark was ceded to Irish entrepreneur Pat McDonagh, whose fast-food chain, Supermac’s, won the landmark legal battle against McDonald’s. The Galway-based firm persuaded the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) to cancel McDonald’s’ use of the “Big Mac” trademark, opening the way for Supermac to expand across Britain and continental Europe.

It also left the way clear for Burger King—maker of the grilled Whopper—to have some fun with its global competitor.

In early February, the Post reports, Swedish outposts of Burger King featured menus with names grounded in Big Mac comparisons, including: “The Kind of Like a Big Mac, but Juicier and Tastier” and “The Big Mac-ish but Flame-Grilled Of Course.

Other options were even more derogatory, the DC-based news outlet said—among them: “The Burger Big Mac Wished It Was” and “The Anything But a Big Mac.”

“It’s too much fun for us to stay away,” said Iwo Zakowski, CEO of Burger King’s Swedish operation, according to report by The Guardian.

Burger King’s marketing campaign was created by Stockholm-based ad agency INGO. The agency released a video of customers awkwardly navigating the newly renamed menu to announce the campaign.

And as for Supermac’s, “We’re delighted,” McDonagh told The Guardian, adding, “It’s a unique victory when you take on the Golden Arches and win.”

In a statement provided to The Washington Post, McDonald’s said it plans to appeal the EUIPO decision.

“We are disappointed in the EUIPO’s decision and believe this decision did not take into account the substantial evidence submitted by McDonald’s proving use of our BIG MAC mark throughout Europe. We intend to appeal the decision and are confident it will be overturned by the EUIPO Board of Appeals,” the statement said. “Notwithstanding today’s decision, McDonald’s owns full and enforceable trademark rights for the mark ‘BIG MAC’ throughout Europe.”

Research contact: taylor.telford@washpost.com

Consumer wallets ‘spring a leak’ as prices soar on diapers, kitty litter, and toilet paper

February 12, 2019

Most of us cut back on everything but the essentials when household prices go up, but our budget remains the same. However, according to a February 10 report by The Wall Street Journal, the cost of staples—including such fundamentals as diapers and cat litter—is expected to increase in 2019, leaving us little choice but to ante up.

Producers of household products, from toilet paper to bleach, are set to raise prices again this year after already hiking prices in 2018, hoping to offset higher commodity costs and boost profits, the financial news outlet says.

New Jersey-based Church & Dwight already has increased prices for about one-third of its products, including Arm & Hammer cat litter and baking soda, and some OxiClean cleaning products.

“The good news is that competitors are raising [prices] in those categories as we speak,” Church & Dwight CEO Matthew Farrell said on a conference call last week, during which the company reported higher quarterly sales and lower profits.

What he left out of that statement to financial analysts was that it was good news for the company and its stockholders—but not for America’s consumers.

The company is now discussing more price increases with retailers, including for personal-care products, Farrell told analysts Tuesday. Those brands include Nair, Arm & Hammer Toothpaste, Orajel, Simply Saline, Waterpik, and Viviscal, among others.

Other household names that are planning to release similarly “good” news, according to the Journal, include Procter & GambleColgate-Palmolive, and Clorox, which are raising prices in response to higher costs of raw materials and transportation, as well as unfavorable foreign-currency swings.

For much of the past decade, the Journal notes, price cuts have been far more common than price increases as U.S. companies were mostly reluctant to test consumers’ spending power and brand loyalty in a fragile economic recovery.

When companies tried to raise prices, “they better have had a uniquely strong innovation or be willing to lose market share to competitors,” Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Ali Dibadj told the news outlet.

Adding to the challenge of raising prices is that more shoppers have been switching to store-branded paper towels and discount detergents, or opting for online upstarts such as Dollar Shave Club.

Traditional brands also have been under pressure from big-box retailers such as Costco and discounters like Walmart Inc. and Amazon to keep prices low—pushing the manufacturers to focus on lowering costs in their supply chains or pare back advertising.

Finally, after failing to see success when they tried to combat weak demand by lowering prices, the industry’s biggest player, P&G, shifted its course last summer, announcing it would charge more for several of its brands—and several rivals followed suit, the Journal reports.

The recent price increases are largely playing out in the companies’ favor, Wells Fargo Securities analyst Bonnie Herzog told the Journal. Sales volumes of household and personal products in the United States. declined 1.4% in January, according to Bernstein’s analysis of data from Nielsen. Dollar sales of those products rose 0.7% in the period, Bernstein said, indicating that the price increases, on balance, are padding the bottom lines at consumer-goods companies.

How consumers will deal with the price hikes long-term remains to be seen.

Research contact: aisha.al-muslim@wsj.com

Chew on this: CBD edibles have not been approved yet by the FDA

February 11, 2019

Last year, Americans bought $264 million worth of hemp-derived CBD (cannabidiol) products—from oils and tinctures, to serums and creams, to gummies and brownies, to CBD infused drinks that include smoothies, quenchers and more, according to the Hemp Business Journal.

But that doesn’t mean it’s legal everywhere. In fact, last week, New York City’s Department of Health embargoed cookies and other pastries containing the cannabis compound that had been on sale at restaurants and health food emporiums around the Big Apple.

And according to Eater New York, other cities also prohibiting the sale of CBD-infused foods and drinks.. During the first week of this month, Maine’s health officials announced a ban on CBD edibles, saying that the food additive has not been approved yet by the FDA.

Indeed, according to the Food and Drug Administration, CBD-infused products cannot be sold yet as dietary supplements or food additives.

However, the popularity of CBD continues to increase—largely based on word-of mouth about its nonaddictive calming properties, as well as its therapeutic uses in the alleviation of epileptic attacks and other disorders; including migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, glaucoma, and PTSD.

What exactly is CBD? It’s a non-psychoactive chemical compound (which means it doesn’t get you high) that is derived from cannabis.  It’s also a different compound than THC, so it won’t show up on a drug test.

And consumers are sold on it, even if the FDA isn’t on-board yet. In fact, a report released last September by the Brightfield Group, predicts that the hemp-derived CBD market will reach sales of $22 billion by 2022—outpacing  the market for cannabis.

Research contact: serena@eater.com

Home Depot ‘guts’ exterior installation workforce nationwide

February 8, 2019

Home Depot is laying off installation workers at its stores nationwide, the company confirmed to Business Insider on January 6.

The retailer says that its cutbacks will affect fewer than 1,000 people. However, if you are looking to buy and install new gutters, you may find yourself putting the work off rather than putting the new system in.

“After reviewing the installation business, we’ve decided it’s right to wind down our roofing, siding, insulation and gutters installation programs,” a Home Depot spokesperson told the business news outlet. “We’re only exiting these four installation programs, so we’ll continue to offer dozens of other installation services.

Home Depot’s website describes its installation services team as a group of professional installers who work in partnership with the company. The blurb also says the team has “a critical role within home services” and requires talent with “top-notch skills” and “a drive for quality and customer service.”

Listed responsibilities for the installation services team include negotiating contracts, contributing to the company’s growth, and working with management.

“Going forward, we’ll focus our efforts on categories that enable us to deliver the best customer experience, while simplifying processes and business structure for our stores and sales team. This does impact some of our associates in our installation business, and our first priority is to take care of them, as well as customers. It’s an extremely small percentage of our overall workforce, and we’re working to identify potential positions for them in our stores and other parts of the company.”

As the news broke, Home Depot employees took to TheLayoff.com to voice their dismay.

“The layoffs are happening at the wrong end of the spectrum,” one anonymous poster wrote on the message board. “Should have been a top down changeover.”

Another commented, “So sad to hear from my current/previous HDE brothers and sisters. I am from Los Angeles and they have hollowed out the work force here from salesmen to management to installers. I now truly believe that they see us as a body count and could care less about how many lives they have [affected]. The worst part is they tried to spin it like it was going to be better for us lol. How dumb do they think we are?”

Research contact: acain@businessinsider.com

Ashton Kusher-backed Calm app is valued at $1B

February 7, 2019

Calm.com—the San Francisco-based startup that claims to have become the number-one app for sleep, meditation, and relaxation since it began doing business in 2017—has been valued at $1 billion in a funding round led by TPG Growth, the company announced on February 6.

According to Bloomberg, Calm raised $88 million in the round, which included existing investors Insight Venture Partners and Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures, as well as Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency.

The funding makes San Francisco-based Calm a major player in the wellness industry—or, as the company says, the World’s First Mental Health Unicorn. (It joins the ranks of 312 other U.S. startups that have been valued at $1 billion or more and are known as “unicorns.”)

The Calm website says that the app “helps users cope with some of the most important mental health issues of the modern age-including anxiety, stress, and insomnia.”  Among its popular features are:

  • The Daily Calm, a ten-minute meditation guided by the company’s Head of Mindfulness Tamara Levitt;
  • Sleep Stories, soothing bedtime tales for adults read by celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Fry, and Leona Lewis;
  • MasterClass: A series of audio classes taught by mindfulness experts; and
  • Music: Exclusive music to help users focus, relax, and sleep.

Companies such as mindfulness app Headspace and meditation wearable maker Muse have also raised money from VCs, although at lower valuations, Bloomberg reports.

“Our vision is to build one of the most valuable and meaningful brands of the 21st century,” co-founder and Co-Chief Executive Officer Michael Acton Smith said in a statement. His co-founder and co-CEO, Alex Tew, added that the company would prioritize spending on international growth and creating new content.

The app has been downloaded more than 40 million times, it said in a statement, and it has more than one million paying subscribers.

Research contact: @calm