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    Published on: December 15, 2016

    This commentary is available as both text and video; enjoy both or either ... they are similar, but not exactly the same. To see past FaceTime commentaries, go to the MNB Channel on YouTube.

    Hi, I'm Kevin Coupe and this is FaceTime with the Content Guy.

    Y'know, I figure that if I live long enough, I'm going to see almost every futuristic contraption created for the various "Star Trek" series and movies actually invented for real-world use. We may have a way to go until we have holodecks and transporters, but cell phones actually are pretty close to the communicators first imagined for "Star Trek" more than 50 years ago, just as voice activated computers from Amazon, Google and Apple seem pretty similar to those shown on the TV series.

    This week, the Christian Science Monitor reported on yet another example of reality seeming to imitate fiction.

    According to the story, Skype has expanded an existing voice and chat application tool so that people can use it for any mobile phone or landline in a user’s contact list - and most importantly, use to speak with a vast number of people around the world, no matter what language they happen to speak. In real time.

    "Skype and its parent company are contestants in a machine translation arms race to help users lose their pocket dictionaries and tap into more foreign markets," the Monitor writes. "Now that Google Translate can understand the text of 103 languages, the tech world has turned its attention to real-time voice translation. While machine translation is far from perfect, observers say its implications for busting through language barriers are huge."

    Sounds a lot like Star Trek's universal translator technology, which allowed humans to speak and understand Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Andorians, Tholians and Bajorans ... pretty much everybody but those pesky Tamarians, who always wanted to speak in allegories, making actual language less the issue. (But that's a story best left for another time...)

    In so many ways, though, this advance strikes me as more than just a reflection of how "Star Trek" is so important to our culture. It actually is a pretty good metaphor for the importance of communication.

    It isn't just about language, after all. It also is about understanding the meaning behind the words we use ... and understanding that what we say and how we say it can have an enormous impact on people. That can be tough these days, especially when nerves are raw, sensitivities have been laid bare, and even the phrase "political correctness" somehow can seem politically incorrect in certain circumstances. All these things can affect the way businesses communicate with customers, employees and business partners ... and not always for the better.

    I know that I think about this a lot. I'm responsible for some 20,000 words a week that end up on this site, and sometimes it means walking a line. For example, I thought it was entirely fair when a reader pointed out the referring to the Washington NFL team as the "Redskins" was more hurtful to Native Americans than just calling them "Washington," and so I've adjusted. It seemed like a small thing to do. And when a reader recently called me out for referring to the majority owner of Sears as "Fast Eddie Lampert," suggesting that this was just as bad as "Lyin' Hillary Clinton" and saying that it wasn't helpful or fair, I took that advice. No matter what some people say, I'd like to think I'm capable of personal growth.

    But that doesn't mean that I'm not going to be blunt from time to time - even painfully so - when the story seems to call for it. Being forthright doesn't mean being insensitive ... though I concede that this may be seen differently depending on your point of view.

    In the end, though, I think the expanded Skype application is a move in the right direction. But the ability to have our words translated in real time into all languages, Terran or other-worldly, as in "Star Trek," may not be as important as a couple of other sentiments suggested by the series - that we need to understand that living, sentient beings come in "infinite diversity, in infinite combinations," and that we need to allow all of them to "live long and prosper."

    Which strikes me as being as fitting a sentiment for the holidays as that tree back there.

    That's what is on my mind this morning, and as always, I want to hear what is on your mind.

    KC's View:

    Published on: December 15, 2016

    by Kevin Coupe

    In this case, I assume, the fervent hope is that what happens in Vegas won;t stay there.

    Wynn Resorts announced that it plans to install Amazon Echo voice-activated digital assistants in each of its 4,748 Las Vegas hotel rooms.

    Fox Business reports:

    "By the time that all of the resort's guest rooms are fully operational next summer, guests will be able to use a series of voice commands via Amazon's Alexa platform to draw curtains, adjust room temperature, tweak lighting, and turn on the TV.

    "This is just the beginning, of course. It's really just a matter of time before the Echo devices double as concierge proxies, securing dining and show reservations or fetching valet-parked vehicles. If you can seamlessly order fresh towels or the following morning's room service breakfast, it's easy to see how Wynn Resorts stands to benefit through this relationship. Guests will be drawn to the high-tech resort on the competitive Vegas strip, and once they check in there will be plenty of incentives to spend more than they typically do during their stay."

    What I'm wondering is how long it will be before we see an Amazon Go store in the lobby of a Wynn hotel ... because if people don't have to stand on checkout lines, it'll mean they potentially can spend a lot more time at the gaming tables.

    Viva Las Vegas, where Jeff Bezos clearly hopes the bright light city's gonna set his soul on fire.

    It is an Eye-Opener.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 15, 2016

    Three Amazon-related stories this morning...

    • The Washington Post reports that an Amazon drone made its first autonomous delivery yesterday, of an Amazon Fire TV streaming device and a bag of popcorn, to a consumer in the UK.

    According to the Post, "This single delivery hardly means we’ll soon be seeing a flurry of Amazon drones descending on our neighborhoods. Amazon considers the program to be in 'beta test' mode; in fact, only two customers are part of its Prime Air trial so far. In a video, the company said it plans to soon expand the offering to dozens and then hundreds of customers, all in England’s Cambridge area."

    England is seeing all this activity because the government there has been more receptive than US officials.

    The Post goes on: "Amazon has stated for a while now that it intends to use drones for delivering small parcels weighing no more than 5 pounds. However, it is worth noting that the company has said the vast majority of its packages — some 86 percent of them — are under that weight limit. So, if regulators and policymakers around the world clear the way for Amazon to deliver this way, drones could have wide application for the e-commerce site."

    • Meanwhile, Barron's has a story about how, despite all the attention being paid to drones, Amazon " is working on its own logistics system that could position the company as a threat to FedEx and UPS in the immediate future. In a handful of cities this year, Amazon started to use its own carriers for 'last-mile' delivery -- basically, the final step of a package’s journey to your house."

    Amazon, the story says, "has thousands of truck trailers, hundreds of trucks, 40 leased air freighters, and an ocean-freight forwarding license, according to a Morgan Stanley report released Tuesday. Basically, Amazon wants to play a role in every step of the 'logistics' process. And while delivery drones have plenty of hurdles - regulatory and otherwise - to clear before going mainstream, Amazon’s large-scale, traditional delivery dreams might not be too far off."

    There's a rationale for this: "Amazon’s customers increasingly want their packages within two days, sometimes sooner, and it’s expensive for Amazon to ship them all so quickly using traditional carriers. Amazon seems to think it may be cheaper to go its own way. Eventually, the company could charge others to use its new network."

    • The Seattle Times this morning reports that Amazon is bringing Amazon Prime Video "to most of the planet — more than 200 countries and territories," in what is seen as a move that "brings Amazon head to head with Netflix, which is also available in most of the world ... It’s a way for Amazon to capitalize on its growing cultural power. Amazon Studios, its movie and TV-making unit, just received 11 Golden Globe nominations for movie projects and streaming series."

    In 19 countries, Amazon Prime Video is part of the Prime loyalty marketing program, but in other places people have to pay a monthly fee (the equivalent of about six bucks) to access Amazon's proprietary content, in which Amazon is said to be investing as much as $3 billion a year.

    One country not yet included in the Amazon portfolio - nor Netflix's - is China.
    KC's View:
    The point here is simple - that Amazon is working on a variety of fronts to do everything it can to be the go-to choice for consumers.

    MNB reader John Rand actually put his finger on the essential value proposition that Amazon makes to shoppers ... and you can read it in this morning's "Your Views."

    Published on: December 15, 2016

    Reuters reports that Lidl, the Germany-based discounter with plans to invade the US to compete with fellow German discounter Aldi as well with traditional supermarkets, has started hiring store managers.

    The story says that Lidl "has started a recruitment drive in the United States anticipating a launch there in 2017 or 2018. Lidl held a hiring event for store managers in North Carolina on Monday and is inviting potential store supervisors to another event in Fairfax, Virginia on Wednesday."

    According to Reuters, "Lidl, which runs more than 10,000 stores in 27 countries in Europe, is expected to open its first 120-150 stores on the East Coast as early as the end of 2017."

    "We have landed in America and we are searching for talented, friendly and dynamic people to grow with us," Lidl said on its careers website.
    KC's View:
    One interesting thing about the recruitment process is that Lidl makes it mandatory that the people it hires hold a passport, so they can "travel to Europe as part of a six-month training program." Which tells us something about the investment they're going to make in these managers, and the discipline they want to bring to US operations.

    Published on: December 15, 2016

    The Wall Street Journal has an interesting profile of David Trone, who co-founded Total Wine & More as a single Delaware wine shop 25 years ago, and with his brother Robert has transformed it into a "$2.5 billion privately held retail empire" with 149 stores in 20 states, "and plans to open many more next year."

    The story notes that "there’s no question that he’s helped move the needle on the wine business, in part through a program of relentless expansion. Total Wine, which has been profitable since 1991, opened 20 stores this year alone. When it enters a market, the company often opens multiple locations. The Trones also give heavily to local charities (it’s a good way to find new customers), and they work both sides of the political aisle, contributing money to candidates from both parties. In addition, the company employs lobbyists in 15 states and has engaged in lawsuits in Connecticut, New Jersey and Maryland, over what Mr. Trone described as 'unnecessarily restrictive' alcohol laws."

    And here's something I didn't know: "Total Wine’s biggest impact on American drinking habits has been through its “winery direct” offerings. The company took a commonplace practice - sourcing wine directly from wineries - and turned it into a powerful sales tool. Its line of winery-direct bottles currently accounts for half the company’s wine sales."

    Good piece ... and you can read it here.
    KC's View:
    I have a local wine shop that I patronize, but I have to admit that Total Wine has changed my habits to some degree by being do dominant in a category that I shop a lot. Even more importantly, there's something to be said that they are being very public about how they are challenging Connecticut's pricing laws; it is a good way to curry favor with consumers.

    Published on: December 15, 2016

    Marketing Daily reports that new research from the Brick Meets Click consultancy says that bricks-and-mortar supermarket retailers that offer an online ordering option are generating higher basket sizes than so-called pure plays such as Amazon Fresh and FreshDirect.

    According to the story, a study of 19 multichannel food retailers "finds that in more than half of the supermarkets, the average e-commerce basket is between $120 and $180. That compares to $105 for FreshDirect and $84 for Amazon Fresh."

    Marketing Daily goes on to write that "the study comes at a time when interest in online grocery shopping is intensifying: Groceries account for about 19% of all consumer spending in the U.S., but typically as little as 2% of are bought online." But companies ranging from Walmart and Target to Ahold Delhaize have all doubled down on the e-grocery segment, investing in infrastructure and pledging to significantly grow their e-commerce sales.
    KC's View:
    I'm not entirely surprised by this, especially since a lot of the multichannel retailers are investing in click-and-collect operations that make e-grocery a lot more visible and accessible; they also have a base of stores and customers that can be used to grow the business.

    I'm a little surprised by how low the Amazon Fresh average transaction number is; I thought I'd heard numbers that were a lot higher than that. But it also is important to remember that Amazon Fresh doesn't have to make a lot of money, since Amazon knows that people who use Amazon Fresh tend to be much bigger - and more profitable - Amazon users overall. This changes the equation in a lot of ways.

    What I'm not surprised by is the idea that more retailers are taking the e-commerce segment more seriously. If they don't, they're not paying attention to the kinds of stories that are featured on MNB (and sure, elsewhere) virtually every day. To ignore the power and potential os this trend would be tantamount to believing that the world is flat.

    Published on: December 15, 2016

    The Chicago Sun Times reports that Yahoo said yesterday that it believes that hackers stole data information from one more than one billion of its user accounts - in August 2013. According to the story, "Yahoo says the information stolen may include names, email addresses, phone numbers, birthdates and security questions and answers. The company says it believes bank-account information and payment-card data were not affected."

    The hack is said to be different from the breach that Yahoo revealed last September, in which 500 million accounts were exposed.

    The Sun Times suggests that the revelation could result in Verizon wanting to revise the terms of its proposed $4.8 billion acquisition of Yahoo.
    KC's View:

    I'm beginning to believe that Yahoo ought to change its name to "Sieve."

    Though there are a couple of surprising things here ... one of which is that Yahoo actually had a billion users.

    Another is that now - three years after the hack - they're suggesting that people need to change their passwords. I'm not denying that it is important to change one's passwords on a regular basis, but isn't it a little late to do so to compensate for this particular hack?

    Published on: December 15, 2016

    The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) this week offered guidance that is designed to clarify the expiration dates on eggs, meat and dairy products.

    According to reports, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is recommending that manufacturers and retailers use a universal “Best if Used By” date label on their products. If widely adopted, such a move would eliminate the confusion that has been created by some 50 different versions of expiration dates used in the marketplace.
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 15, 2016

    • The Associated Press reports that "Monsanto Co. shareholders ... overwhelmingly approved a $57 billion merger with Bayer, a deal that would combine two of the world’s biggest agricultural companies ... Monsanto expects the deal to close by the end of 2017."
    KC's View:

    Published on: December 15, 2016

    Got the following email from MNB reader Sean Weiss:

    The story about extending the life of produce struck me as the perfect opportunity to make a reference to the classic National Lampoons Christmas Vacation.
    Clark Griswold explaining his breakthrough  - “Yeah it's a non-nutritive cereal varnish. It's semi-permeable. It's not osmotic. What it does is it coats and seals the flake, prevents the milk from penetrating it.”
    So if it doesn’t work out for this produce company, they can always apply their product to the bottoms of metal saucers for one heck of a ride.

    Extra credit for the movie reference.

    And, on another popular subject, from another MNB reader:

    Kevin, Just in follow on to the discussion of Technology, Jobs, and Obsolescence...

    A comment from one of your readers on buggy whips...The "poor buggy whip maker" that fell to the onset of the auto industry - maybe. Its worth reminding that "buggy whip" makers became the largest providers of belts and other fasteners done in leather and rubber at the time to the auto industry. Its also worth noting that carriage makers, companies such as Fisher and Beaudette, became huge suppliers of chassis to the auto industry. In fact, anyone that owned a General Motors car years ago might remember the seal on the instep of the door "Body by Fisher". The Fisher family absorbed Beaudette carriage and eventually Fisher was absorbed as a division of General Motors. Not so obsolete at least in their time.

    You'll remember the Clint Eastwood line and a slogan of the military, "Adapt, Improvise, Overcome". Many companies in that era did just that.

    The reality is that it really is the mantra today - adapt, improvise, overcome, or be run over.

    Retailers today are doing all they can do to adapt, improvise and overcome the challenge to the pace of pace of technology that is outpacing most organizations' abilities to adapt to it and apply it.

    Nevertheless, a couple of examples: 

    Christmas shopping at a Nike store, the sales clerks on the floor were both equipped with the same device where they could handle your sale right there on the spot. (If paying with any form of card payment).  The same was true at Old Navy. Both retailers had more sales people on the floor generating more sales and fewer cashiers. Nike clerks could also take care of anything you needed not stocked at the store by ordering it through a large touch kiosk and ship it to you in two days - free shipping.

    Both cases overwhelmingly increased the ability to push more sales through the store, but greatly improved the experience and utilized in-store and on-line sales instantly for the customer.

    We take the short view too often when we see technology as a job killer. I'd suggest both of these examples had the same if not more staff - never less. Doing a great job of maximizing technology to increase sales and provide an over the top customer experience.

    I can say this, both retailers had smiling and happy associates that seemingly were loving the technology that was creating not just a better experience for the customer, but making it easier for everyone to help and have fun doing it!

    MNB reader Tom Murphy had an observation about Sears Canada's decision to try groceries as a way of driving sales:

    Just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!


    And, the following email from MNB reader Larry Ishii:

    I very much enjoyed your news item regarding the doors of the first Ben Franklin store that Sam Walton opened.

    So many of our population would not even know what Ben Franklin was (as a retail store that is).

    There is no doubt that Walmart is an important part of our American history, particularly our American retailing history.

    I recall a favorite story that I once heard Jack Shewmaker tell when he was on the Board of Directors for The Vons Company in So. CA. He told the audience that he had a meeting to meet and interview with Sam Walton but apparently had the wrong date and left the Walmart office.

    Jack was later contacted by Sam Walton and Sam agreed to meet Jack at a location somewhere half way between the Walmart office and wherever Jack was on his drive.

    The rest is history.
    I might not have been completely accurate with all the details but the real point has to do with the sort of man that Sam Walton was and his willingness to meet in the middle for mutual benefit – in this case literally.

    MNB reader John Rand had some thoughts about the strains that the holidays seem to be putting on UPS and FedEx:

    I can’t speak for others, but yesterday I was filling in a couple of blank spots on the family gift list, which included searching through both Google and Amazon. And at one point I identified an item available through Amazon Prime, and an identical item that was a little less expensive, from a perfectly reputable but substantially smaller digitally-capable outlet.
    I went with Amazon Prime, simply because it is already getting close to the holiday, and I KNEW that every shipper in the universe has consistently underestimated the increase in volume year over year. And I knew that Amazon had clout, would use it on behalf of Prime members (me!) and I would rest easier knowing the item would arrive in time, even if it cost a few bucks more.
    That is a BRAND value for Amazon. It’s called trust.

    KC's View: