How One Company Beat the Tariffs, Businesses Aren’t Spending, and a Funeral Home’s Tough Choice

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HUMAN RESOURCES

A business owner says that allowing a transitioning employee to continue as a funeral director would have hurt his business: “Now, my family’s livelihood and our legacy hang in the balance before the Supreme Court, and what it decides could impact small business owners across the country. Our company—RG & GR Harris Funeral Homes—has a professional code of conduct and sex-specific dress code to ensure that families can focus on processing their grief. In 2007, we hired a biologically male employee to serve as a funeral director based on that employee’s promise to follow those codes. Six years later, the employee gave me a letter expressing an intent to start dressing and presenting as a woman when working with grieving families.

“I felt deep concern for the employee. I care about all the people who work for me; they’re part of my family, and I want the very best for all of them. I spent a few weeks thinking over what the proposal meant for other employees and our clients. … Our long-held, gender-specific dress code requires male funeral directors to wear dark suits and female funeral directors to wear dark skirt suits when interacting with families at funerals we host. It’s key to our work, standard in our industry and fits squarely within the guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which allows businesses such as mine to ‘require male employees to wear neckties’ and ‘female employees to wear skirts or dresses.’

“After much thought in processing the letter I received six years ago, I determined we could not go along with what it proposed. The focus of our business and our policies needed to remain on respecting the needs of the grieving families we serve.”

THE ECONOMY

Consumers are spending but businesses are not: “American consumers keep buying stuff, driving solid growth through the first half of the year. On Friday, the Commerce Department reported that consumption spending rose a healthy 0.4 percent in May (with a 0.5 percent rise in personal income). But American businesses are sounding a more pessimistic note, pointing to softer growth ahead, or even contraction. Trade wars and the fading impact of the 2017 corporate tax cuts seem to be holding back businesses’ investment intentions. Perhaps most worrisome, indications about the future are looking gloomy. Numerous surveys of industrial activity have declined in their most recent readings, suggesting that manufacturing companies in particular are entering hard times.”

TRADE

Here’s how the owner of a consumer-electronics company has avoided passing Trump’s tariffs on to his customers: “The moment the tariffs went into effect, we were on the phone with our Chinese factories, demanding price adjustments on our orders. Every single factory conceded. My company is established but it’s not enormous. So why were the Chinese factories willing to accommodate our demand for lower prices? First, pressure in the raw-materials supply chain. Standard terms in China are a 30 percent deposit with the purchase order and 70 percent or balance due upon shipment.

“To meet the manufacturing schedule, the Chinese factories we work with must purchase raw materials several months in advance of our order and deposit. They need to deliver to recoup the material expenses and overhead that preceded our order. If a factory refuses our request for a price concession and we walk away, my company loses the 30 percent deposit—five percentage points more than we stood to pay because the tariff. Meanwhile, the factory is saddled with an abundance of raw materials and any finished goods sitting on the factory floor. In China’s highly competitive market, it doesn’t take long to find a different factory willing to absorb the tariff.”

FOOD AND BEVERAGE

The dairy industry could be shifting toward a fair-trade model: “The yogurt maker Chobani is working with Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit group in Oakland, Calif., on creating a label that would signal that the milk in its products came from farms that treated their workers and cows humanely. Chobani will pay a small premium for milk supplied by farms that agree to the Fair Trade USA vetting process, in which auditors periodically inspect the herd, interview workers and look at environmental issues like the containment of runoff. … 

“Chobani’s fair-trade initiative—and likely marketing push—could help the company continue to stand out in an increasingly competitive yogurt market. Chobani says it believes the premium can help farmers hit by persistently low milk prices and highlight good practices in an industry that’s under enormous strain and scrutiny.”

Latin restaurants and caterers from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh are serving “morale boosting food” to a high profile market: Major League Baseball’s ever more Latin American and Carribean workforce: “Restaurants and caterers around the country are building reputations as the best places for [MLB] players and teams to get Latin food, including Salazar, a Colombian restaurant in Cincinnati; Mil Jugos, a Venezuelan restaurant in Los Angeles; El Barco Mariscos, a Mexican restaurant in Chicago; and Gaucho, an Argentine steakhouse in Pittsburgh. 

“The network often grows by word of mouth. In Pittsburgh, Mi Empanadas was started in 2017 as a pop-up caterer, and plans to open a storefront in Pittsburgh later this year … [after] The New York Mets and Kansas City Royals placed orders after hearing about them at a party, said Rachel Jenkins, who started the business with her husband. [Another] popular stop is Empanadas Acqui, a Venezuelan food truck in Cincinnati. Owner Brett Johnson started the business in 2014 and makes Venezuelan-style empanadas … with corn instead of wheat. Johnson usually serves food in business lunch areas and festivals, but baseball ‘has become a major part of our business,’ he said.”

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STARTUPS

More restaurants are using robots to perform jobs usually done by humans: “Spyce bills itself as ‘the world’s first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen that cooks complex meals,’ a distinction that appears to reference burger-flipping robots like ‘Flippy,’ who plied his trade in a California fast food kitchen before being temporarily suspended—because he wasn’t working fast enough. At Robot Captain Crabs Cajun Seafood & Bar, five battery-powered machines, which the restaurant’s website refers to as the business’s ‘robot family,’ have been part of the operation for about a week.” 

But the owner points out that a robot hasn’t taken away a human job yet. “After being greeted by a human host, the party is registered in a computer that monitors open tables. Once a table opens up, a robotic hostess introduces herself to customers in a female-sounding voice before escorting them to their table. Human servers take orders using a computerized system that alerts the kitchen, the owner said. Once those orders are ready, the plates are delivered via the robotic servers, which roll from the kitchen to the dining room.”

Houston-based re:3D is using plastic waste as the feedstock for its newly-designed 3D printer: “The printer, known as the Gigabot X and currently in its beta version, could one day help a pressing problem: What to do with the mountains of plastic waste choking the oceans and piling up in landfills. It’s the latest large-scale printer from re:3D aimed at tackling societal challenges. Its Gigabot 3+ printer, for instance, is providing the means to affordably create products from prosthetics to casts for broken limbs to flooring for refugee camps. [T]he Gigabot 3+ is priced off-the-shelf from less than $10,000 to more than $30,000, depending on size and assemblies. The printer can make objects that are roughly three feet tall.”

MARKETING

Grubhub is disputing accusations (previously reported in the Morning Report) that it registered more than 23,000 domains in restaurants’ names without their consent in an attempt to generate greater commission revenue and prevent restaurants from building their own online presences: “After enduring four days of outrage from restaurant owners and critics, Grubhub went on the offensive on Tuesday. In an email obtained by The Times, Chief Executive Matt Maloney said the allegations were ‘outright false,’ insisting that restaurants using its food delivery platform had explicitly agreed to web domain purchases and the creation of websites advertising their businesses.

“If Grubhub’s actions were interpreted as a sinister power grab, it may be a result of broader concerns by small businesses that find themselves increasingly at the mercy of huge internet platforms with the power to commandeer their customer relationships and skim their profits. Over the last year, Grubhub has faced a slew of accusations of exploitative business practices, including posting fake phone numbers on its site, charging restaurants thousands of dollars in commission for calls unrelated to food orders and raising commissions to unsustainable levels, sometimes as high as 30 percent.”

Popular file-storage startup 4shared has been caught giving people invisible ads and making purchases without user permission: “The researchers say the app contains suspicious third-party code that allowed the app to automate clicks and make fraudulent purchases. They said the component, built by Hong Kong-based Elephant Data, downloads code which is ‘directly responsible’ for generating the automated clicks without the user’s knowledge. The code also sets a cookie to determine if a device has previously been used to make a purchase, likely as a way to hide the activity. … It’s the latest app in recent months to be accused of using invisible ads to generate fraudulent revenue. In May, BuzzFeed News reported similar suspicious behavior and fraudulent purchases in Chinese video app VidMate.”

Firefox is giving users a way to thwart the advertisers tracking their search history: “[In Track This] You choose one of four personas—hypebeast, filthy rich, doomsday, or influencer—and then the tool will open a deluge of browser tabs with websites related to each of these areas, designed to trick advertising trackers into thinking that you’re actually an apocalypse prepper gathering supplies for the end of the world, or you’re obsessed with the latest sneaker and music drops. It’s the latest way for privacy-focused users to fool the companies that aim to track their behavior and use it to serve personalized ads online.”

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Square is bringing thousands of jobs to Oakland, but Oakland isn’t thrilled: “Square’s lease of the 1920s-era property known as Uptown Station, which was once proposed as a headquarters for Uber, marked one of the biggest real estate deals in Oakland’s history. Square plans to start moving in employees later this year, and the building has capacity for up to 2,000 workers. But housing advocates fear Square’s arrival will also invite other startups and tech companies to invade the East Bay city, and advocates say the real estate industry’s anticipation of the project is already impacting Oakland’s housing market. ‘Oakland is the new ground zero in terms of the housing affordability crisis,’ said Camilo Sol Zamora, an organizer with Causa Justa, a local tenants’ rights group. ‘It’s a shrinking, shrinking working class.’”

And that’s what’s ahead.

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