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Walmart+ hopes to beat Amazon at their own game

(BUSINESS NEWS) Walmart has long been trying to become a serious Amazon competitor. Is their new membership program the edge they need to make that happen?

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Walmart grocery

We at AG have been watching Walmart’s moves in the online grocery shopping market for a while now. Their latest attempt to usurp Amazon’s throne is called Walmart+, and it’s being billed as a competing service to Amazon Prime. For $98 per year, they’re offering perks like same-day home delivery from stores and discounts on fuel. Walmart+ is promising, but whether it will truly rival Prime remains to be seen. They’ve tried a few times now, but Walmart has yet to substantially threaten Amazon’s near-monopoly on internet retail.

In 2016, Walmart rolled out Jetblack, a startup from their Walmart Labs incubator, that offered a text message-based shopping experience. Jetblack charged an eye-popping $50 monthly membership fee and, perhaps because of this, it drew very few users. Jetblack was scrapped in May of this year, but not before hemorrhaging $2 billion. Reportedly, Walmart was losing nearly $15,000 yearly per member.

…Ouch.

Way before this, Walmart Labs also introduced a short lived food box subscription service – remember those? They called it Goodies Co., and it barely lasted a year before being killed in 2013.

Now flash forward to one year ago when Walmart submitted a patent for what they dubbed the “Fresh Online Experience”. This came after Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods brought the two retail behemoths into direct competition.

The FOE system would incorporate real images and 3D scans of store products. The patent goes on to propose that employees filling these online orders will photograph individual fresh items like produce or meat, presumably in order to build consumer confidence in their quality when buying online, rather than in person. However, this has the potential to be a labor-intensive and slow process for stores, and it remains to be seen if this will be worth it for Walmart.

It’s unclear exactly how much Walmart+ intends to take out of the Amazon Prime playbook. It hasn’t announced features like video and audio streaming, for instance. Certainly they’ll have big plans for incorporating the “Fresh Online Experience” in there somehow, and that could be a game changer for Walmart.

One thing is for sure, though: Walmart+ faces an uphill battle to climb out of Amazon Prime’s shadow. Honestly, it’s just hard to imagine Walmart really competing with an entity like Amazon. Roughly 40% of all online purchases in the U.S are made on Amazon, and it is almost synonymous with the concept of buying stuff on the internet in general.

Yet, it’s difficult to discuss Amazon’s success without also thinking about the enormous elephant in the warehouse that enables it; Amazon is becoming increasingly notorious for having inhumane working conditions. Their treatment of employees has incited boycotts and protests, most recently due to the company allegedly ignoring COVID-19 social distancing guidelines in their warehouse facilities. And spoiler alert, Walmart also exploits their workers. If there’s going to be a big, exciting disruption in online shopping any time soon, it’s hopefully going to be an ethical one.

Either way, it’s about time we stop thinking of Amazon as king of the jungle. Consumers and workers are begging for a change, and it’s only a matter of time until the right challenger steps forward. But let’s face it… that’s probably not going to be Walmart.

Desmond Meagley is an award-winning writer, graphic artist and cultural commentator in D.C. A proud YR Media alumn, Desmond's writing and illustrations have been featured in the SF Chronicle, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, The Daily Cal, and NPR among others. In their spare time, Desmond enjoys vegetarian cooking and vigorous bike rides.

Business News

Missing office culture while working remotely? This tool tries to recreate it

(BUSINESS NEWS) This startup just released new software to help you reproduce the best parts of in-person office interactions while you work from home.

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Loop Team product page, trying to create an office culture experience remotely.

Are you over working from home? Feeling disconnected from your co-workers? Well look no further: The startup Loop Team just released a tool that reproduces the office culture experience virtually.

“We’ve looked at a lot of the interactions that happen when you’re physically in an office — the visual communication, the background conversations, the hallway chatter,” said Loop Team’s founder and CEO Raj Singh in an interview with TechCrunch. “[W]e built an experience that effectively is a virtual office. And so it tries to represent the best parts of what a physical office experience might be like, but in a virtual form.”

Singh’s company, founded pre-COVID, is posed as a solution to feeling “out of the loop” while working remotely. During the pandemic, where virtually all of us are working from home, this technology is needed more than ever.

How it works is by essentially recreating an office experience on a virtual platform. Somewhere between Zoom and Slack with some added features, Loop Team lets you know who’s free to chat, who’s in meetings, and allows you to have private discussions using audio, video, and screen share. It’s ideal for working on projects together.

Loop’s layout is unique in the sense that it is designed to show you conversations in a clear, direct way – exposing relevant items and hiding the rest. Also, employees who miss meetings have the ability to review what they missed, making it perfect for companies that hire across time zones.

The platform was made available December 1st free of charge, but Singh is hoping to introduce a paid version next year. Pricing will likely reflect team size and should remain free for teams of 10 or less.

I’m a big fan of software that allows you to feel closer and more connected to your co-workers. Do I think anything will ever compare to a true, in-person office experience? Definitely not. That being said, I value this kind of progress, especially since I don’t think office culture en mass will make a return any time soon, regardless of vaccinations.

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Business News

MIT report reveals serious flaws in US unemployment system

(BUSINESS NEWS) In the wake of COVID-19, the US unemployment system is floundering to cover all who need the aid but it comes with serious flaws.

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Stressed couple discussing options during unemployment in dimly lit room.

Last week alone, nearly 1 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits. Now that it’s urgently needed, this safety net is full of holes, leaving many Americans in freefall.

A newspaper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has highlighted several of the critical weaknesses in our country’s unemployment social safety net.

The report outlines how benefits fall short in three major ways: Duration, eligibility, and payment amounts.

The historical purpose of the benefits system was to replace half of lost wages for 6 months while they looked for another job. (The MIT paper even suggests that a more appropriate “replacement rate” would be higher than that.)

As of 2018, unemployment payments only cover Americans for one-third of their lost wages on average.

The income caps for these benefits have stayed fixed while wages have increased over time. That’s bad enough without considering that wages haven’t nearly kept up with worker productivity in the US, meaning those caps haven’t kept up with the real worth of those workers at all.

Compared to other developed nations, the US has lagged behind in public benefits since well before the pandemic.

In 2014, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development compared the duration of unemployment payments around the world. Out of 34 developed countries, the US ranked 33rd— offering less than every country on the list but Hungary.

To quote the research brief for the paper: “Even aside from changes driven by technology and trade, employers’ increasing reliance on contract workers and on-demand scheduling rather than on permanent employees who work predictable schedules has added to the precariousness of many workers’ jobs.”

And those economically vulnerable groups who need the support most are more likely to have jobs that aren’t covered under federal unemployment eligibility.

This includes gig workers (thanks to prop 22), part time workers, and the self employed: People often work these jobs due to constraints like parenthood or disability.

The CARES Act, which passed in April, temporarily allowed certain groups who would usually be ineligible, like the self employed (who are poised to grow in numbers as the job shortage persists) to collect unemployment benefits.

But CARES and HEROES are going to end in December, taking the extensions to unemployment, the eviction moratorium and the COVID sick leave requirements with them.

And instead of extending them, Congress may soon be looking to cannibalize those programs and their unused funds for another round of corporate stimulus spending.

But if the coronavirus relief acts are allowed to expire, nearly 14 million Americans will lose the aid that they provide.

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Business News

Tis the season for employment scams – here’s what to look out for

(BUSINESS NEWS) Fueled even further by COVID unemployment numbers, seasonal employment scams are back on the menu. Here’s how you can avoid them.

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A serious man considers a clipboard in potential employment scams.

With the sheer amount of desperation people are feeling these days, it’s only fitting that employment scams would see a resurgence this holiday season. Thanks to the Better Business Bureau, there are some clear warning signs that can help you spot and avoid seasonal scams this year.

The typical crux of any employment scam revolves around a prospective employee’s willingness to pay for something upfront, be it training or some other kind of quasi-justifiable item (e.g., a uniform). However, other iterations of the scam actually involve an “employer” overpaying for something at the onset—albeit with a fake check—and then asking the recipient to wire “back” the extra money.

Either way, these scams can leave you jobless and with less money than you initially had, so here are some things for which you should watch out.

Firstly, employers shouldn’t ever charge you before hiring you. Some industries do require employees to make small purchases on their own dime (i.e., the aforementioned uniform), but payroll will usually deduct the cost of these materials from the employee’s first paycheck—not require payment upfront.

As a general rule, it’s probably best to avoid companies that charge you at all. Aramark, for example, is known for requiring employees to buy company clothes—and they’re no peach to work with. But desperate times may warrant an exception in this regard.

It’s also to your benefit to avoid postings that boast an “interview-free” experience. Put simply, no one is hiring sans an interview unless it’s nepotism or a scam. If you aren’t related to the poster, that doesn’t leave much up for interpretation. Similarly, advertising a large sum of money for disproportionately low amounts of work is a pretty big warning sign–again, in this economy, people aren’t shelling out for packing or wrapping jobs.

Finally, watch out for jobs that ask for a work sample before hiring. While this is common for internships, most entry-level positions aren’t going to require you to complete a project for free before determining whether or not you’re good for the job. At best, this is a tactic to get free work from you; at worst, your application information can be stolen.

It’s sad to think that people would stoop to the level of scamming others amidst the dumpster fire of a year it’s been, but if you avoid these red flags, you should be able to keep yourself safe during this holiday season.

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