Walmart’s Robots, Instagram’s Impact on Shopping, and Ohio’s Bitcoin Play

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DAYLIGHT  

Looking to reduce labor costs, Walmart is rolling out robots: “The country’s largest private employer said at least 300 stores this year will add machines that scan shelves for out-of-stock products. Autonomous floor scrubbers will be deployed in 1,500 stores to help speed up cleaning, after a test in hundreds of stores last year. And the number of conveyor belts that automatically scan and sort products as they come off trucks will more than double, to 1,200.

“The company said the addition of a single machine can cut a few hours a day of work previously done by a human, or allow Walmart to allocate fewer people to complete a task, a large saving when spread around 4,600 US stores. Executives said they are focused on giving workers more time to do other tasks, and on hiring in growing areas like e-commerce. … Walmart has hired around 40,000 store workers to pick groceries from shelves to fulfill online orders. The company is also raising wages, adding worker training, and buying e-commerce startups.”

MARKETING

Instagram is changing the way people shop in the UK: “Unlike most online shopping sites, it has become a place for customers to browse, covet and discover. … Dear Frances is one of a growing number of brands that might be considered ‘Instagram famous.’ You won’t have seen it on the high street but, one way or another, it may have become a regular feature on your feed.

“While platforms such as Asos offer a much larger and more easily searchable catalogue of clothes, their items are invariably photographed in a studio, against a white background. Instagram brands, on the other hand, specialise in showcasing their wares ‘in the wild,’ or within a stylised set-up that fits their overarching vision of how potential customers might aspire to dress. …

“The appeal of shopping brands that are recognisable only ‘from Instagram’ lies somewhere between the thrill of unearthing hidden gems, supporting small or independent businesses, and being very much ‘in the know.’ It’s exactly what is missing from a trip to the local shopping centre.”

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STARTUPS

“The Good Place” actress Kristen Bell and her four co-founders have developed a mission-driven business that uses sales revenue from a snack bar to fight child malnutrition: “Does it help having the likes of Kristen Bell on your team? Surely. But still, Starbucks gave the fledgling company the smallest of tests; it put the bars in its stores in two cities to see how they’d perform. Sales were promising. So Starbucks expanded the test, and expanded again until This Bar Saves Lives products were in every Starbucks in America. …

“A mission-driven company, they realized, shouldn’t be grown among a small, private group. It should be inclusive from the startgaining as many stakeholders as possible. So they limited investments to just $8,000 each. ‘In capping the investment, we were able to bring in a lot of people who effectively now have a vested interest in the success of the company,’ [co-founder Ryan] Devlin explains.”

Puerto Rico is looking to startups to rebuild its economy: “[Marie Custodio, of start-up accelerator Parallel18,] hopes that by building a start-up ecosystem across the Caribbean, they will be better prepared to deploy regional solutions in response to future hurricanes. [Denisse Rodriguez Colon, of small-business resource hub Colmena66,] also sees tech start-ups, which are adept at aggregating resources across supply chains, as key players in strengthening Puerto Rico’s self-sufficiency.

“‘In Puerto Rico, we imported 85 percent of everything we consumed. After the hurricane, that percentage went up to 95 percent because we lost all our crops. That puts us in a very vulnerable position as a community,’ she said. ‘Our food chain in PR is so segmented and fragmented that that doesn’t happen naturally unless we have entrepreneurs coming in.’ Ms. Custodio has already seen proof of how this can work. Every week, she gets local Puerto Rican produce delivered to her doorstep, courtesy of PRoduce! Home Box, a food delivery start-up that graduated from Parallel18’s latest cohort.”

IMMIGRATION

President Trump has adopted a blunt message in recent days for migrants seeking refuge in the United States: “Our country is full.” But a lot of people see precisely the opposite problem: “In smaller cities and rural areas, demographic decline is a fundamental fact of life. A recent study by the Economic Innovation Group found that 80 percent of American counties, with a combined population of 149 million, saw a decline in their number of prime working-age adults from 2007 to 2017. …

“‘I believe our biggest threat is our declining labor force,’ said Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, a Republican, in his annual budget address this year. ‘It’s the root of every problem we face. This makes it incredibly difficult for businesses to recruit new employees and expand, harder for communities to grow and leaves fewer of us to cover the cost of state government.’”

CRYPTO

In Ohio, businesses have the option of paying their taxes with Bitcoin. The question is why: “The answer starts with the technology known as ‘blockchain’ and a car dealership magnate from Northeast Ohio who wants to see Cleveland become a hub for the technology. …

“Enter Bernie Moreno, president of the Bernie Moreno Companies. For the past year, Moreno has been an evangelist for Blockland, a Cleveland-based initiative that has brought together leaders from the city’s business, government and academic communities, with the aim of making Cleveland a destination for blockchain-based businesses. Moreno has invested in multiple blockchain startups. Although one of those companies, called Votem, recently struggled with layoffs, Moreno recently sold some of his car dealership franchises in order to focus on another blockchain venture, Ownum.

“In a promotional video for Blockland, Moreno said the goal was to make Cleveland ‘relevant’ in the blockchain space, especially for business and government applications, ‘so that, at the end of the day, companies move here and hire people.’”

Chinese regulators are considering banning crypto-mining. Government officials argue mining could be a waste of valuable resources, “…a fact that’s hard to disagree with when you examine the horrific environmental impact. The proposal is available for public comment until May 7.

“Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are mined using specialized computers that sap a tremendous amount of energy. That energy consumption now rivals the amount used by entire countries for normal operations and is doing significant damage to the planet. It’s estimated that as much as 74 percent of global crypto mining is occurring in China, a place where it’s also the most carbon-intensive.”

WORD OF THE DAY

Undercorn: A New York Times piece about Pinterest’s newest valuation refers to the social media company as an ‘undercorn.’ The word ‘undercorn’ appears to have been coined circa 2014 by business journalist Dan Primack. Primack’s original definition, as chronicled by venture capital blogger Ian Sigalow, pertained to a company which achieved unicorn status (i.e. a valuation over $1 billion) and then fell back below this valuation.

“However, the term seems to have evolved since then to mean a unicorn that goes public at a price below its most recent private market valuation. … A startup that becomes an undercorn will by definition leave some of its VC backers with a loss on their investment. And it’s a blemish on the growth narrative that’s at the core of a tech startup’s identity.”

GOING PUBLIC

Chuck E. Cheese is filing for an IPO once again after five years on the private market. “Over the course of the past five years as a private company—out of the view of investors who expect consistent profit growth—CEC Entertainment has made significant investments to its menu, stores and entertainment to help modernize the brand. … It replaced tokens with RFID cards and introducing an ‘all you can play’ model that lets parents pay for entertainment by time. Like other food chains, Chuck E. Cheese has also launched a loyalty program and partnerships with delivery platforms so that kids can eat Chuck E. Cheese food at home.”

SILICON VALLEY

San Jose is leading an initiative to fight homelessness by providing tiny homes: “The city refers to the project as ‘interim housing’—a temporary way to transition homeless people to a permanent residence. To discourage residents from staying too long, San Jose will charge a small rent of either $20 for the unemployed, or 10 percent of a person’s income for employed residents. After six months, the rent will go up by 10 percent.”

HUMAN RESOURCES

Lloyd’s of London, the 331-year-old insurance company, is overhauling its office culture, banning anyone from its building appearing drunk or high, client and employee alike. Day-drinking and drugs have become more common in the firm: “The insurer’s work culture has seen it face repeated claims of sexual harassment. Now the firm says anyone deemed to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol will be stopped from entering the building, with security guards able to remove passes if needed. It follows a decision two years ago by then-CEO Inga Beale to bar the staff from drinking between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The practice is common elsewhere in The City, where finance employees can routinely be seen drinking in pubs in the middle of the day.”

NBA basketball player Kyle Korver writes about how his sense of his responsibilities as a white person in an organization that is 75 percent black has evolved and why he feels this is a moment to draw a line in the sand: “I believe it’s the responsibility of anyone on the privileged end of those inequalities to help make things right. So if you don’t want to know anything about me, outside of basketball, then listen—I get it. But if you do want to know something? Know I believe that.

“Know that about me. If you’re wearing my jersey at a game? Know that about me. If you’re planning to buy my jersey for someone else…… know that about me. If you’re following me on social media….. know that about me. If you’re coming to Jazz games and rooting for me….. know that about me. And if you’re claiming my name, or likeness, for your own cause, in any way….. know that about me. Know that I believe this matters.”

And that’s what’s ahead.

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