Zulily Challenges Amazon, US Manufacturing Declines, and the Great Bidet Revolt

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SPOTLIGHT  

Ever wonder what you would do if you sold your business for half a billion dollars? After Carey Smith, who’ll be my guest on today’s Mind Your Business, sold Big Ass Fans for $500 million, he bought a home in Austin that had been owned by Lance Armstrong and a home in New York City that had been owned by Malcolm Forbes. And through his investment firm, Unorthodox Ventures, Smith recently bought into a company called Tushy that bills itself as “a modern bidet for people who poop.” Are Americans really ready to buy bidets? Years ago, Smith, a world-traveler who had sampled bidets in many countries, says he had them installed in all of the restrooms in Big Ass Fans’ Lexington factory. He says the bidets were greeted by employees with skepticism but eventually won acceptance. In fact, after Carey sold the company, a new plant manager came in and ripped all of the bidets out of the men’s rooms. What followed, Carey says, was the Great Bidet Revolt. The Kentucky factory workers demanded their bidets back, and they got them. Got questions about any of this? Or about a challenge in your own business? Give us a call at 844-942-7866 when the show airs today at 1:00 pm ET on SiriusXM 132.Loren Feldman

PRICING

Zulily is taking aim at Amazon and Walmart with a new price transparency tool: “Starting Wednesday through December 19, Zulily’s site will list prices advertised by competitors Walmart and Amazon alongside its own pricing for identical items, the company said. If Zulily’s price isn’t the lowest on any particular item, the company will match the cheapest price advertised by its rivals. Zulily CEO Jeff Yurcisin said the move is part of a broader goal to bring more transparency to the retail industry.

“‘So right on that price tag—right next to where the customer would push ‘add to cart’—we are showing the most competitive up-to-date price from Amazon or Walmart,’ Yurcisin, a former Amazon and Shopbop executive, told Business Insider. ‘Just think about how crazy this is … welcoming in the big retail giants, the global giants, into your store and putting their price right next to your price tag. That’s effectively what we’re doing.’ Two-thirds of shoppers think Walmart and Amazon offer the cheapest prices online, but Zulily beats their prices on 97 percent of identical items, according to a study conducted for Zulily by Wakefield Research.”

TRADE

The World Trade Organization will let President Trump impose $7.5 billion in tariffs on European goods: “The decision—the largest in the trade body’s history—opened the door to a broader trade war with the European Union. The administration plans to impose tariffs of 10 percent on European aircraft and 25 percent on a variety of agricultural and industrial products, once it receives the final WTO approval later this month, a senior official with the Office of the US Trade Representative told reporters. USTR said French wine, Italian cheeses, cashmere sweaters and a range of other popular items would face the higher tariffs beginning Oct. 18. ‘For years, Europe has been providing massive subsidies to Airbus that have seriously injured the US aerospace industry and our workers,’ US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer said. ‘Finally, after 15 years of litigation, the WTO has confirmed that the United States is entitled to impose countermeasures in response to the EU’s illegal subsidies.’”

MANUFACTURING 

September was the worst month for American factories in a decade: “The Institute of Supply Management’s closely watched manufacturing index dropped to 47.8 in September, its lowest level since June 2009 and worse than what economists had expected. The index measures month-to-month changes in the industry. A reading above 50 denotes growth in the sector. … Making matters worse, the contraction in September was steeper than it was in August, when the sector contracted for the first time in three years because of higher prices that factories pay for materials and weaker global demand. And the slowdown isn’t over. Companies that make machinery cited softening demand and reduced backlogs, but food, beverage and tobacco producers said Chinese tariffs are hurting their businesses, the ISM survey showed.”

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STARTUPS

HYPR is bent on eliminating passwords: “[George] Avetisov, 29, got the idea for HYPR after fraudsters targeted his last business, an e-commerce venture that sold jewelry online. Seeing scammers impersonate other people led him to believe that the process of digitally verifying one’s identity could be vastly improved. … The startup’s tech stores private cryptographic keys, secret strings of numbers and letters associated with a person’s identity, on mobile devices. In practice, logging on then becomes as simple as tapping a button on one’s phone. Avetisov compares the technology to the public key encryption used in smart cards, except without the card. ‘We’ve taken that same concept and put it on your mobile phone to eliminate your password,’ Avetisov says.”

Startups are letting people rent apartments without paying a security deposit: “In 2016, New York City renters paid more than $500 million in security deposits, money that largely sat untouched in low-interest bank accounts, according to the city comptroller. Security deposits remain a steep financial barrier for low-income tenants and young renters with minimal savings, even though state lawmakers recently limited the deposits to the equivalent of one month’s rent. Now a spate of startups is offering cheaper alternatives, envisioning a rental market without security deposits as a way to lower housing costs, curb inequality and put money back in people’s pockets. Rhino, which started in late 2017, has helped pioneer an insurance option: Tenants pay a nonrefundable monthly fee (about $13 for a $3,000-a-month apartment) instead of a deposit, and Rhino insures the apartment, paying the landlord for any damages.”

Startup Oollee offers a subscription service that delivers filtered water without the single-use plastic: “The idea is that with ordinary filters, people forget to maintain them and the water quality deteriorates. With oollee, maintenance and cartridge replacements are included in the monthly fee. To subscribe costs $29 per month (so less than $1 a day). Oollee uses the Reverse Osmosis method, where water is forced across a semipermeable membrane, leaving contaminants behind, which are then flushed down the drain. The clean drinking water collects in a holding tank. Usually, the installation and maintenance of an RO filter is costly and is too cumbersome for a house. Umit Khiarollaev, CEO and co-founder of Oollee says: ‘The small device connects to Wi-Fi and allows customers to monitor the water. The app reminds users to replace the filter element and lets them order new filters with a single click. Users can also check water condition, volume, temperature, and other factors.’”

Automatic transcription technology has improved to the point where it is reaching the workplace: “By capturing vast quantities of human speech, neural network programs can be trained to recognize spoken language with accuracy rates that in the best circumstances approach 95 percent. Coupled with the plunging cost of storing data, it is now possible to use human language in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago. … In the past, human speech transcription has largely been limited to the legal and medical fields. This year, the cost of automated transcription has collapsed as rival startup firms have competed for a rapidly growing market. Companies such as Otter.ai and Descript, a rival San Francisco-based start-up started by the Groupon founder Andrew Mason, are giving away basic transcription services and focusing on charging for subscriptions that offer enhanced features.”

OXFORD STRATEGIC ADVISORY DEAL OF THE DAY  

Vice Media, a digital media broadcasting company, has acquired Refinery 29, the digital media company focused on Millennial women. “It’s the latest media mega-merger between two venture-backed companies that are looking to consolidate for survival.

REGULATION

Maine lobstermen say federal mandates intended to save whales are misguided and could negatively impact their way of life: “The still-forming federal regulations will cover other parts of New England, but Maine, where lobstermen dangle more than 800,000 lines from buoys to ocean-floor traps in their busiest months, has the most at stake. Meeting an aggressive federal target for reducing whale hazards could mean pulling half those lines from the water. The state’s lobster industry and political leaders say this is untenable for the armada of mostly small lobster boats fishing the Gulf of Maine. It also misses the target, they say, since most dead whales have recently turned up in Canada, and none in Maine.

“‘We’re not unwilling to adapt, we just want to adapt in a way that will actually benefit the species,’ said Chris Welch, a 31-year-old lobsterman from Kennebunk, Maine, regarding the whales. ‘We don’t want to go extinct, either.’”

Shipping companies have been rigging “cheat devices” onto vessels that dump pollution into the sea rather than the air in order to comply with environmental regulations: “More than $12bn has been spent on the devices, known as open-loop scrubbers, which extract sulphur from the exhaust fumes of ships that run on heavy fuel oil. This means the vessels meet standards demanded by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) that kick in on 1 January. However, the sulphur emitted by the ships is simply re-routed from the exhaust and expelled into the water around the ships, which not only greatly increases the volume of pollutants being pumped into the sea, but also increases carbon dioxide emissions. … A total of 3,756 ships, both in operation and under order, have already had scrubbers installed according to DNV GL, the world’s largest ship classification company.”

E-COMMERCE

UberEats, DoorDash, and Postmates now want to deliver groceries as well as restaurant meals to customer doors: “Postmates said Wednesday that it would start making deliveries from 174 Walgreens and Duane Reade stories in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Postmates said it hopes to take the partnership with the owner of those chains, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., nationwide. Postmates also makes deliveries from Seven & i Holdings Co. ’s 7-Eleven stores and Walmart Inc., the largest US food retailer. … ‘It’s actually hard to do groceries well,’ Instacart’s chief business officer, Nilam Ganenthiran, said in an interview. … [T]he upside for delivery companies that figure out grocery delivery is high, said Robert Mollins, an analyst at Gordon Haskett Research Advisors. Adding supermarkets to their pickup lists could help delivery companies make more efficient use of their fleets because supermarket orders tend to come in earlier in the day than the evening rush for restaurant orders, he said.”

And that’s what’s ahead.

Please send comments and suggestions to mattg@oxfordcenter.com and lfeldman@oxfordcenter.com

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