retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Responding to yesterday’s story about how Amazon is investing in a prefab housing business, with a goal of integrating its smart home technologies into these homes, MNB reader Scott Nelson wrote:

I did not know until earlier this year that Sears was in the pre-fab home business.   There is a restaurant in Rockwall Texas called Bin 303 that is located in a Sears house.    Sears was a great company at one time.   It is too bad Fast Eddie is at the helm now.  It has been sinking for a long time. It seems like Eddie has been rearranging the deck chairs while getting ready to head to his luxury lifeboat.  

There were about 400 different styles of homes Sears sold, sporting such names as “The Argyle,” “The Crescent,” “The Hamilton,” “The Kilbourne” and “The Sherburne.” The 1922 Sears catalog listing for the Crescent, a one-story home, promised a five-room dwelling for either $1,855 or $2,228 ($27,235 and $32,712 in 2017 dollars), with Sears furnishing, among other things, the millwork, kitchen cupboard, flooring, shingles, porch screens and lumber to build the structure. The catalog offered two floor plans, and stated, “To the folks who like a touch of individuality with good taste, the Crescent makes a special appeal.”

MNB reader Bill Purcell wrote:

On the article about Amazon getting into pre-fab housing via investment in modular construction factories --  that might be true, but there might be more important objectives.

These types of “mini stores” (under 300 sq feet) are skyrocketing in China.  They can be placed anywhere – even moved - and provide all of the basics similar to a small C-store with about 500-750 SKUs. Chinese start-up companies like Bingo-Box have raised over $100 million to deploy hundreds in China (there are about 5 other major VC-backed startups in China doing the same), and Alibaba and Tencent have each announced possibly tens of thousands of these in China over the coming years – not only on the busy corners, but also in every larger office building, apartment, school, park, etc. 

While small, they can be equipped with lockers, even refrigerated lockers, opening them up to for all sorts of grocery related ecommerce distribution.

The Chinese-style small box stores can’t be deployed the same way in the US, because they use facial recognition, RFiD, and the WeChat app for payment, none of which are doable here.
BUT – if you could efficiently build this mini-store format – under 500 square feet can be done in a modular factory easily – and combine that with the current Amazon Go tech, Amazon could launch thousands of these across the country over the course of a couple of years, tying up all of the “good corners”, and catching the rest of the industry flat footed, and have a huge local distribution network in addition to the store locations.
I know a couple of venture-backed start-ups around here in the Bay Area that are looking at similar things, combining a small format with the new staffless checkout tech similar to Amazon Go, but they are looking to sell and support them in conjunction with retail chains – so there might be an effective counter-punch for traditional retailers if Amazon tries this.
So, while getting into prefab housing may be involved, you can call me paranoid, but…

In her column yesterday about FEMA’s Waffle House Index, Kate McMahon wrote that this is no joke … even though the existence of a Waffle House Index is ripe for comedians. Back in 2o11, Stephen Colbert - then hosting ‘The Colbert Report’ on Comedy Central - said that ‘it is no accident Waffle House has become FEMA's syrup-smothered canary in a coal mine,’ which, he then cracked, is ‘also available on the menu’.”

Prompting one MNB reader to write:

Stephen Colbert is a Pompous Ass. I had never heard this before, but those that were born in, or have lived in the South for any period of time, hopefully have spent time in a Waffle House…such an index does give a new meaning to smothered and covered. And should tell you a lot about the folks that work there.

I think you’re half right. The old “Stephen Colbert” character on Comedy Central was designed to be a pompous ass. I happen to think that the real Stephen Colbert is pretty funny.

Also, for the record, he was raised in South Carolina, in and around Charleston - so he’s a southerner. And I did a quick check, and there appear to be more than a half-dozen Waffle House locations in and around Charleston, so he’s certainly better positioned to make such jokes than, say, I am.
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