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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

What you need to know about the historic TikTok deal (for now)

(BUSINESS NEWS) No one really knows what’s happening, but the TikTok deal’s impact on business, US-China relations, and the open internet could be huge.

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Male black hands holding app opening TikTok app.

So, maybe you’ve heard that Oracle and Walmart are buying TikTok for national security!

Um, not exactly.

Also, Trump banned TikTok!

Sort of? Maybe?

But then he said he approved the Oracle-Walmart-TikTok deal!

We guess?

The terms of the proposal seem to shift daily, if not hourly. The sheer number of contradictory statements from every player suggests no one really knows what’s going on.

Just one example: Trump said the deal included a $5 billion donation to a fund for education for American youth. TikTok parent ByteDance, said, “Say what now?”

Here’s what we think we know (as of this writing):

Oracle and Walmart would get a combined 20 percent stake in a new U.S.-based company called TikTok Global. Combine that with current US investors in China’s ByteDance, TikTok’s parent, that would give American interests 53 percent. European and other investors would have 11 percent. China would retain 36 percent. (On Saturday Trump said China would have no interests at all. But that does not jibe with the reporting on the deal.)

Oracle would host all user data on its cloud, where it is promising “security will be 100 percent” to keep data safe from China’s prying eyes. But reporting has differed on whether Oracle will get full access to TikTok’s code and AI algorithms. Without full control, skeptics say, Oracle could be little more than a hosting service, and potential security issues would remain unaddressed.

Walmart says they’re excited about their “potential investment and commercial agreements,” suggesting they may be exploring e-commerce opportunities in the app.

The US Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which is overseen by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, still has to approve any deal.

As for the TikTok “ban” – which isn’t really a ban because current users can keep it – the Commerce Department postponed the deadline for kicking TikTok off U.S. app stores to September 27, to give time for the deal to be hammered out. Never mind that it’s still not clear whether the U.S. government has authority to do that. Unsurprisingly, ByteDance says it doesn’t in a lawsuit filed September 18.

Whatever happens with the whiplash of the deal’s particulars, there are bigger issues in play.

According to business news site Quartz, moving data storage to Oracle mirrors what companies like Apple have done in China: Appease the Chinese government by allowing all data hosting to be inside China. A similar move could “mark the US, too, shifting from a more laissez-faire approach to user data, to a more sovereign one,” says China tech reporter Jane Li.

More obvious: Corporate sales and mergers are now part of the parrying between the U.S. and China, which adds a whole new playing field for negotiations among businesses.

In the meantime, TikTokkers keep TikTokking. White suburban moms continue to lip sync to rap songs in their kitchens. Gen Z continues to make fun of the president – and pretty much everything else.

And downloads of the app have skyrocketed.

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Business News

Hobby Lobby increases minimum wage, but how much is just to save face?

(BUSINESS NEWS) Are their efforts to raise their minimum wage to $17/hour sincere, or more about saving face after bungling pandemic concerns?

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Hobby Lobby storefront

The arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby announced this week that they will be raising their minimum full-time wage to $17/hour starting October 1st. This decision makes them the latest big retailer to raise wages during the pandemic (Target raised their minimum wage to $15/hour about three months ago, and Walmart and Amazon have temporarily raised wages). The current minimum wage for Hobby Lobby employees is $15/hour, which was implemented in 2014.

While a $17 minimum wage is a big statement for the company (even a $15 minimum wage cannot be agreed upon on the federal level) – and it is no doubt a coveted wage for the majority of the working class – it’s difficult to not see this move as an attempt to regain public support of the company.

When the pandemic first began, Hobby Lobby – with more than 900 stores and 43,000 employees nationwide – refused to close their stores despite being deemed a nonessential business (subsequently, a Dallas judge accused the company of endangering public health).

In April, Hobby Lobby furloughed almost all store employees and the majority of corporate and distribution employees without notice. They also ended emergency leave pay and suspended the use of company-provided paid time off benefits for employees during the furloughs – a decision that was widely criticized by the public, although the company claims the reason for this was so that employees would be able to take full advantage of government handouts during their furlough.

However, the furloughs are not Hobby Lobby’s first moment under fire. The Oklahoma-based Christian company won a 2014 Supreme Court case – the same year they initially raised their minimum wage – that granted them the right to deny their female employees insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Also, Hobby Lobby settled a federal complaint in 2017 that accused them of purchasing upwards of 5,000 looted ancient Iraqi artifacts, smuggled through the United Arab Emirates and Israel – which is simultaneously strange, exploitative, and highly controversial.

Why does this all matter? While raising their minimum wage to $17 should be regarded as a step in the right direction regarding the overall treatment of employees (and, hopefully, $17 becomes the new standard), Hobby Lobby is not without reason to seek favorable public opinion, especially during a pandemic. Yes, we should be quick to condone the action of increasing minimum wage, but perhaps be a little skeptical when deeming a company “good” or “bad”.

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Business News

RIP office culture: How work from home is destroying the economy

(BUSINESS NEWS) It’s not just your empty office left behind: Work from home is drastically changing cities’ economies in more ways than you think.

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An empty meeting room, unfilled by work from home employees.

It’s been almost six months since the U.S. went into lockdown due to COVID-19 and the CDC’s subsequent safety guidelines were issued – it’s safe to say that it is not business as usual. Everyone from restaurant waitstaff to start-up executives have been affected by the shift to work-from-home. Even as restrictions slowly begin to lift, it seems as though the office workspace – regarded as the vital venue for the U.S. economy – will never truly be the same.

Though economists have been focusing largely on small businesses and start-ups, we are only just beginning to understand the impact that not going back into the white-collar office will have on the economy.

The industries that support white-collar office culture in major cities have become increasingly emaciated. The coffee shops, food trucks, and food delivery companies that catered to the white-collar workforce before, during, and after their workday, are no longer in high demand (Starbucks reported a loss of $2 billion this year, which they attribute to Zoomification). Airlines have also been affected as business travel typically accounts for 60%-70% of all air travel.

Also included are high-end hotels, which accommodate the traveling business class. Pharmacies, florists, and gyms located in business districts have become ghost towns. Office supplies companies, such as Xerox, have suffered. Workwear brands such as J. Crew and Brooks Brothers have filed for bankruptcy, as there is no longer a need to dress for the office.

In Manhattan – arguably the country’s most notorious white-collar business mecca – at least 1,200 restaurants have been permanently lost. It is also is predicted that the one-third of all small businesses will close.

Additionally, the borough is facing twice as many apartment vacancies as this time last year, due to the flight of workers no longer tied to midtown offices. Workers have realized their freedom to seek more affordable and spacious residence outside the city. As companies decentralize from cities and rent prices drop, it isn’t all bad news. There is promise that particular urban white-collar neighborhoods will start to become accessible to the working class once again.

Some companies, like Pinterest and REI, are reporting that their shift to work from home is in fact permanent. The long-term effects of deserted office buildings are yet to make themselves evident. What we do know is that the decline of the white-collar office will force us to reimagine the great American cities – with so much lost due to the coronavirus, what can now be gained?

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