Many happy returns: Retailers are ratcheting up the competition over fast, convenient delivery. Next up? Returns.

November 25, 2019

U.S. shoppers are starting to expect instant gratification. Buy something online and you’ll see it on your doorstep sooner rather than later. But when you want to return that item? Not so fast.

Now, The Chicago Tribune reports, a growing number of online retailers—from e-commerce giant Amazon to small apparel and footwear brands—are teaming up with brick-and-mortar chains to make returns less of a hassle; or at least no worse than the  transaction a customer would experience in a traditional store.

“If people can’t see it or touch it (when they first buy it), they want the option to return it,” Scott Rankin, principal at KPMG BrandVoice in the retail sector, told the Tribune. “Sometimes, they want to do it in a physical store because it’s just easier.”

The trend already is in evidence: Since early 2019, customers have been able to return many items bought on Amazon at any Kohl’s store. And delivery companies UPS and FedEx are partnering with chains like CVS and Walgreens to give shoppers more places to pick up and drop off packages.

Even some smaller online brands now offer in-store returns through Happy Returns, a California-based company that lets shoppers return items from more than 300 digital brands at more than 700 locations nationwide, mostly in malls and in cooperation with national chains like Paper Source and CostPlus World Market.

The Happy Returns service enables companies such as Revole, a women’s apparel brand, and Rothy’s , a footwear brand, to tout easy returns on their websites, The Chicago Tribune reports.

In-person returns with Happy Returns, Revolve’s website says, require “No receipt, return label or shipping box necessary! You just provide your email address or order number and your refund will be initiated immediately.”

In-person returns generally mean quicker refunds, which seems to be the biggest attraction for shoppers, Happy Returns co-founder and CEO David Sobie told the news outlet. But customers also like being able to skip the “arts and crafts project” of prepping items for shipment, he said. Happy Returns gives customers refunds on the spot— no box required.

For stores accepting other brands’ returns, it can be a way to get new customers in the door. Online retailers, meanwhile, know hassle-free returns can make customers more confident about clicking “buy.”

With the holidays fast approaching, in-store returns programs are about to undergo a major test, the Tribune says. U.S. consumers are expected to spend nearly $144 billion online this holiday season, up 14.1% from last year, according to Adobe Analytics.

And those same consumers will be sending millions of unwanted items right back.

In fact, UPS told the Tribune that it expects to handle a record-breaking number of returns this holiday season, with more than 1 million return packages expected to be shipped each day in December, peaking at an estimated 1.9 million packages on January 2.

As for the retail partnership, when they are fully rolled out, both UPS and FedEx said 90% of the U.S. population will live within five miles of a location where they can pick up or drop off a package.

Most of the packages people drop off are returns, and they generally choose the location that’s closest or has the most convenient hours, Scott Harkins, FedEx’s SVP of Customer Experience Marketing told the news out.

“Really, it just comes down to convenience,” Harkins said.

Research contact: lzumbach@chicagotribune.com

A new kind of ‘Goop’: Marie Kondo’s new website sells highly curated items that ‘spark joy’

November 21, 2019

Just as actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s website, Goop, sells curated—and expensive—items in a “shop of clean beauty, fashion, and home”  (think: Luxe Brass Fire Extinguisher for $250), now decluttering expert Marie Kondo is producing a lifestyle platform that offers pricey products that will “spark joy” (think: cement live edge bowl for $145).

In her best-selling book and popular Netflix series, both entitled, Tidying Up With Marie Kondothe Japanese organizing consultant advises clients to clean up their homes (and, by extension, their lives) by decluttering and getting rid of excess junk so that they can be happier and healthier overall.

But isn’t buying new stuff at an online store just a way to clutter up again? It seems counter-intuitive.

“The shop came about because I always like to share how I tidy every day, and in the process of doing that, I always ask myself, ‘Well, why do we tidy in the first place?’ The answer is to live a life that sparks joy,” Kondo told Fortune Magazine in a recent interview.

Kondo explained that she received a lot of queries and feedback from fans about the products she uses  on an everyday basis, and this is meant to be reflected in the catalog of items.

“When something sparks joy, you should feel a little thrill, as if the cells in your body are slowly rising,” is just one of the Kondo quotes serving as taglines for the collection.

The collection will launch with approximately 150 items, ranging in price from $10 to $300, applying to various situations that one might encounter around the home and organized by activity—dinner parties, bathing routines, aromatherapy, and purification rituals. Kondo helps illustrate the concept of a purification ritual with a tuning fork ($50)—among her favorite products included in the collection—which she uses to purify the air in her home

Among Kondo’s other favorite items are incense and a donabe (a $150 Japanese clay pot described by Bon Appetit  magazine as a “one-pot wonder”), which she uses on a daily basis. As Kondo explains, it’s one of the oldest types of cooking vessels in Japan; and in the wintertime, it’s Japanese tradition to have a “donabe party,” at which hosts have their friends and family over, make a big pot with vegetables and tofu, and share it over conversation.

Each item was chosen for its ability to enhance the owner’s daily rituals and inspire a joyful lifestyle. They come from brands deemed to specialize in simple, elegant design across categories, including kitchenware, decor, bath essentials, and aromatherapy. And of course, there are be tidying products, including trays, shelves, and baskets.

“They are ‘tidy chic’ because even your dustpan should spark joy,” notes a spokesperson for the brand.

Arguably, it may seem counterintuitive that the next step for KonMari is encouraging followers to go out and buy more stuff, especially given the fervor to start spring cleaning in midwinter earlier this year.

“That’s something we carefully considered, of course,” Kondo replies. “For me, the emphasis is not on trying to throw out as much as possible but to choose what sparks joy for you. The ultimate goal with my method is for people to really hone their sensitivity to what sparks joy for them so they can make a considered, cautious purchase.”

In regards to how this should work, Kondo advises that you first finish tidying. Once you’ve done that, you might then consider looking at the shop. “It’s not my intention at all to encourage you to buy something that is redundant to you,” Kondo explains.

The collection will went live online on Monday, November 18, via KonMari.com, with new products expected to be added monthly.

Kondo offers a closing piece of advice: “I know it’s an odd thing for a founder to say—they’re lovely products—but don’t overbuy! Tidy first, and then consider the products.”

Research contact: @FortuneMagazine

Double take: Winklevoss brothers buy a startup founded by identical twins

November 20, 2019

They are best-known for losing the Facebook concept—which they had named ConnectU—to the ambitious Mark Zuckerberg when they all attended Harvard University. And for winning $65 million in a suit against Zuckerberg in 2008.

But now the Winklevoss twins—Tyler and Cameron, age 38—have become crypto entrepreneurs. And Bloomberg reported on November 19 that they have made their first-ever acquisition, from a duo of entrepreneurs to whom they bear a strong resemblance.

Duncan and Griffin Cock Foster, 25, are also identical twins, Bloomberg says. While the Winklevoss brothers rowed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the other twins rowed in high school. That said, the Cock Fosters weren’t involved in the birthing of the social network Facebook.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Tyler Winklevoss told the financial news outlet in a phone interview. “There are so many great parallels, it was just the right fit.”

The two sets of twins came together over their belief in the future of so-called nifties. A niftie may be a cat from the CryptoKitties game, in which players breed the digital felines, or a token representing ownership in art, stamps, and comic books—an asset that is being kept track of via a blockchain digital ledger and is tradeable.

To buy such collectibles, people typically have to open digital currency wallets, buy cryptocurrency on an exchange—a process that can take hours and can be confusing.

The Cock Fosters’ Nifty Gateway, which the Winklevosses’ Gemini Trust bought for an undisclosed sum, lets anyone pay for nifties with a credit card, via a streamlined experience similar to checking out through Amazon.

The company currently lets people buy nifties from Open Sea marketplace and CryptoKitties and Gods Unchained games.

It doesn’t disclose its customer numbers or payment volume. But Duncan Cock Foster forecasts that nifties could one day attract as many as one billion collectors, Bloomberg reports. The Winklevosses expect that the market for nifties will be as big as the collectibles, art, and gaming markets combined.

 “We believe in this future where all your assets will be on a blockchain and you may want to buy, sell and store them, and Nifty fits that vision,” Tyler Winklevoss said.

While initially Gemini, with more than 220 employees, and Nifty, with three workers, will continue to operate as stand-alone companies, that could change, and some of Nifty’s features could make way into Gemini services.

Duncan now owns about 300 nifties; and his brother, 100. While most people currently don’t even know what the word means, the two sets of twins hope that will change.

“All great companies, all great ideas there’s a period where you see a truth and many other people don’t, and you have to have that conviction,” Tyler Winklevoss said.

Research contact: @business

Cosmetic changes: Kylie Jenner sells $600 million stake in beauty business to Coty

November 19, 2019

Kylie Jenner will continue to give “lip service” to her line of lip kits, makeup, and skincare essentials—however veteran beauty brand Coty announced  on November 18 that it will pay $600 million for a controlling stake in Kylie Cosmetics—wagering that the reality star’s brand can revive a tanking  beauty business based on CoverGirl, MaxFactor, and Rimmel.

According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, the fragrance and cosmetics company plans to buy 51% of Kylie Cosmetics, valuing it at $1.2 billion. Jenner, the youngest of the five Kardashian-Jenner sisters, founded the brand in 2015. She will remain the public face of the brand.

Known for nude lip liners and lipsticks, Kylie Cosmetics this spring added a skincare line.The retailer, Ulta Beauty,  last year started carrying the makeup at its more than 1,100 stores nationwide.

Kylie Cosmetics is on track for roughly $200 million in sales this year, Coty said. It is part of a wave of fledgling cosmetics lines–including Glossier and Fenty—that are capitalizing on celebrity founders and social media-driven marketing.

“This is where the growth of the market is,” Coty Finance Chief Pierre-André Terisse said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. The brand is attractive both for its skincare business and online presence, he said.

Research contact: @WSJ

AA flight attendants are ‘begging’ not to work on the Boeing 737 Max when it returns, union boss says

November 18, 2019

As Popular Science reminds us, flying is actually the safest way to travel, statistically speaking—but now, even airline flight crews are worried about boarding the Boeing 737 Max when it is finally cleared to take off again next March.

By that time, fleets of Boeing aircraft worldwide will have been grounded for a year, following two crashes that killed a total of 346 people.

But that’s not long enough, the head of the pilots union for Southwest Airlines, Jon Weaks, wrote in a letter last week. He accused the aircraft manufacturer of rushing the  plane back into service and of “arrogance, ignorance, and greed,” in its approach to the 737 Max, Business Insider reported.

What’s more, American Airlines flight attendants are “begging” not to have to work on the 737 Max when it returns to service after its grounding, the head of the union representing them said on Thursday, November 14, according to a report by the same news outlet.

“I will tell you that I hear from flight attendants every day, and they’re begging me not to make them go back up in that plane,” Lori Bassani, the president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said, according to The Dallas Morning News.

In fact, earlier this month, Bassani warned that many of the airlines’ 28,000 flight attendants could refuse to board the 737 Max once it is cleared for takeoff, if they do not believe it is safe.

American Airlines has 24 737 Max planes in its fleet, with 76 yet to be delivered by Boeing.

In separate comments Thursday, Bassani said that despite her worries about the Max’s return, her union would not join the scores of airlines, pilots, and victims’ families taking legal action against Boeing over the 737 Max crashes and its subsequent grounding.

Airlines and staff are suing the plane manufacturer over lost wages from the plane’s grounding.

“It’s not our only aircraft, so our people didn’t really lose wages,” she told the Dallas Business Journal. “Their schedules were changed and they were impacted, but they could always get another flight on another airplane.”

Research contact: @businessinsider

For the age of global warming, IBM offers a super-specific, precise weather forecasting platform

November 15, 2019

Who better to predict what’s coming at us from the wild blue yonder than “Big Blue”— otherwise known as multinational computer colossus IBM?

The Armonk, New York-based tech company announced on November 14 that, along with its subsidiary, The Weather Company, it was rolling out a new supercomputer-driven weather forecasting system that “will provide fresher, higher quality forecasts in parts of the world that have never before had access to state-of-the-art weather data.”

According to the company’s press release, the platform—dubbed the  IBM GRAF (the Global High-Resolution Atmospheric Forecasting System) can predict conditions up to 12 hours in advance with detail and frequency previously unavailable at this global scale.

IBM GRAF will provide much finer-grained predictions of the atmosphere and update its forecasts six to 12 times more frequently than conventional global modeling systems. Current global weather models cover 10-15 square kilometers (6.2-9.3 miles) and are updated every 6-12 hours. By contrast, IBM says, GRAF forecasts down to 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) and is updated hourly.

To date, this level of forecasting precision only has been available in the United States Japan, and a handful of Western European countries, the company says—noting that the launch of IBM GRAF marks the first time that such enhanced forecasts cover more of the globe.

“We view the launch of IBM GRAF as a true inflection point in forecasting science, where technology helps democratize weather data for the good of society,” said Cameron Clayton, head of The Weather Company and general manager of IBM’s Watson Media and Weather. “The enhanced forecasts could be revolutionary for some areas of the world, such as for a rural farmer in India or Kenya. If you’ve never before had access to high-resolution weather data but could now anticipate thunderstorms before they approach your fields, you can better plan for planting or harvesting.”

To build the new modeling system, The Weather Company collaborated with the National Center for Atmospheric Research to base the platform on NCAR’s next-generation open-source global model, the Model for Prediction Across Scales, which uses state-of-the-art science to forecast the atmosphere down to thunderstorm level on a global scale.

Research contact: @IBM

Over and out: Nike to complete pilot with Amazon Retail; sell its own products directly

November 14, 2019

Nike is breaking up with Amazon, Bloomberg reports. The athletic shoe and apparel brand will stop selling its products directly through Amazon Retail—ending a pilot program that began in 2017.

The split reflects a massive pivot in Nike’s retail strategy. It also follows the hiring of ex-EBay Inc. Chief Executive Officer John Donahoe as the company’s next CEO, effective January 13, 2020—a move that signaled the company is going even more aggressively after e-commerce sales, apparently without Amazon’s help.

Indeed, the footwear titan says the move is just one piece of its plan to shift to a “more direct, personal” retail experience.

Specifically, the company said in a statement, “As part of Nike’s focus on elevating consumer experiences through more direct, personal relationships, we have made the decision to complete our current pilot with Amazon Retail. “We will continue to invest in strong, distinctive partnerships for Nike with other retailers and platforms to seamlessly serve our consumers globally.”

Nike said it will continue to use Amazon’s cloud-computing unit, Amazon Web Services, to power its apps and Nike.com services, Bloomberg reported.

Amazon, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. The company has been preparing for the move, according to two people familiar with the matter. It has been recruiting third-party sellers with Nike products so that the merchandise is still widely available on the site, they said. Amazon has also been working to stem the flow of counterfeits on the site through various initiatives, including one project that lets brands put unique codes on their products to make it easier to identify fakes.

Nike shares rose as much as 1.4% in New York trading Wednesday, while Amazon was off as much as 0.6.

The question now, according to Bloomberg, is whether other Amazon partners follow Nike’s lead. The financial news outlet said, “Few other brands possess the kind of muscle Nike has, so it may be harder for them to leave.”

“Nike has enormous reach and its products are in demand, so it can afford to be selective about where its products are distributed because customers will come find Nike where it is offered,” Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail, said in an interview. “I don’t think as many brands can be as selective as Nike.”

For years, the only Nike products sold on Amazon were gray-market items—and counterfeit—sold by others. Nike had little control over how they were listed, what information about the product was available and whether the products were even real.

That changed in 2017, when Nike joined Amazon’s brand registry program. Executives hoped the move would give them more control over Nike goods sold on the e-commerce site, more data on their customers, and added power to remove fake Nike listings. The news of the Amazon tie-up, which Nike executives called a “small pilot,” sent shoe-retailer stocks tumbling and left many wondering if other major Amazon holdouts would quickly follow.

But Nike reportedly struggled to control the Amazon marketplace. Third-party sellers whose listings were removed simply popped up under a different name. Plus, the official Nike products had fewer reviews and, therefore,received worse positioning on the site.

Analysts said physical sporting-goods retailers would benefit from Nike’s departure from Amazon.

Research contact: @business

Are you really a ‘Director of First Impressions,’ or is this a case of putting lipstick on a pig?

November 13, 2019

Underwater Ceramic Technician? Shaft Serviceman? Brand Warrior? Job titles used to be straightforward. They conveyed areas of responsibility, levels of knowledge, and status within an organization.

However, according to Fit Small Business—a New York City-based digital resource for SMBs—thanks to a diverse economy and an historically talented workforce, companies and job-seekers are finding creative ways to stand out.

This trend, FSB says in a November 12 press release, “has paved the way for absurd titles like Waste Removal Engineer (a.k.a. Trash Collector) and Director of First Impressions (a.k.a. Receptionist). These inflated titles not only exaggerate a person’s skill set and expertise, but they also tend to emphasize meaningless distinctions that can create a toxic work culture.”

The editorial staff at FSB has evaluated hundreds of inflated titles—and has created a list of the 15 most inflated job titles of 2019.  The best of the best (or the worst of the worst, depending on how you see them) are the following:

  • Underwater Ceramic Technician: Your average dishwasher
  • Therapeutic Integration Specialist: A fancy term for a teacher’s aide
  • Sandwich Artist: A staff member at your nearby Subway restaurant
  • Director of First Impressions. Lavish jargon for a receptionist
  • Loss Prevention Officer. A mall cop
  • Meat Distribution Engineer: A title used to describe the kind folks who staff the deli counter at your local supermarket
  • Trust and Safety Wrangler: A term for the community moderator who polices online sites for malicious activity and content
  • Waste Removal Engineer:  Your friendly neighborhood trash collector
  • Reprographics Associate: A fancy name for an individual who specializes in making copies and sending out faxes
  • Customer Happiness Hero:  An elaborate alternative for customer service representative
  • Vision Clearance Engineer: Another term for the window washer
  • Shaft Serviceman: The industry jargon for an individual who works in a mine
  • Brand Warrior:  A marketing associate
  • Actions and Repercussions Adviser: A more befitting moniker for the human resources officer
  • Digital Prophet: A website marketing manager

Research contact: @FitSmallBiz

Greater Chicago Food Depository plans massive kitchen that will provide home-delivery of 4 million meals annually

November 12, 2019

The Greater Chicago Food Depository is cooking up plans that will provide what it describes as a “seismic shift” in the scale and dispersal of its operations, as it anticipates mounting demand for home deliveries from the elderly, people with disabilities, and others who can’t always to make it to a food pantry, The Chicago Tribune reported on November 11.

The Midwest’s largest food bank plans to build a 40,000-square-foot kitchen on a vacant lot adjacent to its headquarters on Chicago’s Southwest Side, where it will prepare meals for home delivery. Once fully operational, the kitchen will be able to produce 4 million meals a year.

The $50 million project, which it plans to fund with philanthropic help, represents a major expansion of the mission of the food bank, which primarily gathers and delivers groceries to food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and other organizations throughout Chicago and Cook County.

With the population of older adults poised to explode, and many people still struggling to put food on the table despite the nation’s economic recovery, the food bank had a “deeply sobering” realization that a new strategy was necessary to address the need, CEO Kate Maehr told the Tribune.

“We have a recovery that has left many people without their own personal safety net, underemployed, and there is a new tidal wave of need that is poised to hit this community, and we have a responsibility to be ready for that,” she said. “This is a seismic shift.”

The food depository estimates that there is currently an unmet annual need of about 10 million home-delivered meals for low-income older adults and people with disabilities who have a hard time leaving their homes in Cook County. That number could grow to 13.8 million by 2030 as the population ages.

The number of adults over 65 in Cook County is expected to rise 48% by 2030, the news outlet reports—adding about 117,000 lower-income older adults to the area, according to an analysis by the food depository based on census and other projections.

The food depository plans to deliver the meals it prepares at its facility to its community partners, who will then do the last-mile deliveries to people’s homes. Some groups may use the meal service to hold communal dinners to bring people together.

The meals prepared at the kitchen will include hot, cold and frozen meals, some individually packaged and others for communal eating, like a pan of lasagna. The goal is to produce healthy, restaurant-quality meals tailored to cultural, medical or dietary specifications, with user-friendly packaging.

“One thing we have learned with older adults and people with disabilities is that sometimes a package can create a real barrier to accessing healthy food,” Maehr told the newspaper.

The food depository’s expanded campus will include a nutrition education center and community cafe, run by a yet-to-be-announced partner organization, that will connect the new kitchen with the headquarters. The center will feature a demonstration kitchen for classes on how to prepare healthy food, for use by students, health care professionals and others in the community.

There also will be an urban garden for growing produce, run in partnership with a nonprofit.

The depository has promised that the new meal prep focus will not disrupt the its existing work collecting and delivering groceries across a network of 700 partners. The network received nearly 1.5 million visits to grocery programs like food pantries during the fiscal year that ended in June.

The food depository plans to break ground next summer and open by summer 2021. It has no public funds for construction at this point and is relying on donations to make it happen. The organization purchased the land where it plans to build for $3.6 million last December from BNSF Railway.

Research contact: krmaehr@gcfd.org

Study: Most Americans feel ‘pressure’ to work sick

November 11, 2019

It won’t be any surprise to most working stiffs that, no matter how Americans feel on a given day—from hale and hearty to feverish and weak—most will give in to the pressure to show up at the job site.

Indeed, SWNS Digital reports, if you dread taking a sick day, you are far from alone.

Nearly four in five Americans—78%—give in to management expectations “to power through an illness” at the workplace, based on findings of a survey of 2,000 adults (1,930 of them, employed) conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Robitussin.

Compare that with the four in ten Americans (41%) who would prefer to take on extra work than to deal with a sick co-worker. In fact, 83% say they are annoyed if somebody shows up at the office with a cough. However, fully 69% said a bad cough is not a valid reason to take a sick day—and one in three said his or her boss would agree.

Finally, more than one-third of respondents said they actually would be willing to give up vacation time (37%) or social media (36%) for an entire year, if it meant the promise of 12 months without a cough or a cold.

Research contact: @SWNS