Amazon Proves That a Competitive Culture Beats an Anti-Competitive Policy, Every Time

Once more, titans of industry have fallen under censure for perceived monopolization and the abuse of their considerable power. But this time, their names aren’t Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Vanderbilt, but Bezos, Zuckerberg, Pichai, and Cook.

In recent weeks, all four have faced hard questions about perceived corporate misbehavior. The concerns directed towards each corporate icon may differ according to the specifics of their company’s actions, but all ask the same essential question: Can massive tech companies keep themselves from intimidating or using the small businesses that increasingly rely on their platforms to survive?

In late July, the House Judiciary Committee convened a hearing to address the matter. The event marked the culmination of an extensive antitrust investigation that encompassed over a million corporate documents and hundreds of hours of personnel interviews. One reporter for the Verge characterized the hearing as “one of the biggest tech oversight moments in recent years.” Representative David Cicilline, the Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee Chair, made the subcommittee’s belief in the importance of the hearing clear at its outset.

“Because these companies are so central to our modern life, their business practices and decisions have an outsized effect on our economy and our democracy,” Cicilline said. “Any single action by any one of these companies can affect hundreds of millions of us in profound and lasting ways.”

Cicilline further argued that each of the four tech companies under investigation — Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple — comprised a crucial channel for distribution, such as an app store or ad venue, and uses monopolizing methods to purchase or otherwise block potential competitors. He also noted that the companies all either show preference to their branded products or create pricing schemes that undermine third-party brands’ abilities to compete.

As you might have already guessed, each case has a wealth of associated information and considerations. Recapping them, let alone providing commentary, would be challenging at best. So, instead, I want to consider the question of whether or not a business can be both a market ecosystem and fair competitor through the context of one business: Amazon.

Amazon fell under fire earlier this year, when the Wall Street Journal released a stunning report that the e-retailer had used data from its third-party sellers — data that was believed to be proprietary — to inform the development and sale of competing, private-label products.

This revelation sent shockwaves through the business community, despite the fact that it wasn’t entirely unanticipated; according to reporting from the Verge, the European Union’s main antitrust body claimed that it was “investigating whether Amazon is abusing its dual role as a seller of its own products and a marketplace operator and whether the company is gaining a competitive advantage from data it gathers on third-party sellers” in 2019.

Amazon has pushed back on these concerns, claiming that it has policies that forbid private-label personnel from obtaining specific seller data. However, the Wall Street Journal’s interviews of former and current employees found that the rule was inconsistently enforced and overlooked so often that the use of third-party, proprietary data was openly discussed in product development meetings.

“We knew we shouldn’t,” one former employee said while recounting a pattern of using seller data to launch and bolster Amazon products. “But at the same time, we are making Amazon branded products, and we want them to sell.”

And therein lies the core of the problem. Amazon is a company that maintains a laser focus on success — even to the point that its employees are willing to circumvent policy for its sake. But we can’t blame the employees, not entirely. The tech industry has long been known for its move-fast-and-break-things attitude, and Amazon more than most; the e-retailer’s obsession with achievement is near-legendary.

In 2015, New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld published an exposé that painted Amazon’s culture as one specifically designed for intense, high-output, and unforgiving efficiency.

“Every aspect of the Amazon system amplifies the others to motivate and discipline the company’s marketers, engineers and finance specialists: the leadership principles; rigorous, continuing feedback on performance; and the competition among peers who fear missing a potential problem or improvement and race to answer an email before anyone else,” Kantor and Streitfeld described.

“The culture stoked their willingness to erode work-life boundaries, castigate themselves for shortcomings (being ‘vocally self-critical’ is included in the description of the leadership principles) and try to impress a company that can often feel like an insatiable taskmaster.”

The article even noted that Amazon holds yearly firing sessions (dubbed “cullings” in the exposé) to shed those who don’t perform up to its notoriously high standards. Illness, parenthood, and even family loss — none were considered excuses for lapses in performance.

Given the stressful environment and achievement-at-all-costs mentality, is it any surprise that employees would sneak around a barely-enforced policy to obtain data that will help their projects succeed? I would say no.

In a culture that positions cutthroat competitiveness as a professional survival mechanism, an anticompetitive policy is little more than flimsy caution tape: readily seen, easily circumvented, and meant more to provide plausible deniability than to prevent anyone from breaking the rules.

And, of course, we have to acknowledge the point that a company that periodically culls its staff for the sake of efficiency wouldn’t mind pushing blame onto a worker who happens to get caught. Bezos already did so in his hearing. He testified, “What I can tell you is we have a policy against using seller-specific data to aid our private label business but I can’t guarantee that policy has never been violated.”

Another hearing exchange between Cicilline and Bezos is particularly telling.

Cicilline asks, “Isn’t it an inherent conflict of interest for Amazon to produce and sell products that compete directly with third party sellers, particularly when you, Amazon, set the rules of the game?”

Bezos responds: “The consumer is the one making the decisions.”

But how is that an appropriate response, when the data Amazon collects allows the e-retailer an unfair advantage to design and market products designed to outstrip the competition? It remains to be seen whether legislators will ultimately choose to spin off Amazon marketplace from its Basics line, but Amazon has proven beyond a doubt that it is naive to believe that a company that was built with a crush-the-competition mentality should be trusted with safeguarding smaller, vulnerable competitors’ proprietary data.

Company culture beats policy, every time.

Originally published on Medium

By |2020-10-20T05:31:01+00:00October 19th, 2020|Business, Culture, Current Events|

Quarantine Can be a Pressure Cooker for Inspiration

Life in quarantine feels like an odd suspension of real life; a time in which the world grinds to an indefinite, boring, and under-achieving halt.

When you live in New York, it only ever takes a glance out the window to remind yourself that the country is in a state of emergency. The streets are oddly silent; the few who brave the open air wear makeshift masks and veer in fearful six-foot detours around other pedestrians. Flip on the news, and you get a cacophony of news stories that riff on the same two questions — What’s happening with COVID-19? When will it end? — in a continuous loop. Sheltering at home somehow generates as much exhaustion as it does restless cabin fever. Life in quarantine feels like an odd suspension of real life, a time in which the world grinds to an indefinite, boring, and under-achieving halt.

This period of pause is the pits for everyone — but especially so for aspiring entrepreneurs. Currently, over 42 states have implemented shelter-in-place mandates and isolated over 316 million people in their homes. Businesses of all stripes have shuttered their doors or attempted to shift their day-to-day work into a new, remote, normal. It’s a unique and stressful time to be in business; according to a recent study by PWC, nearly three-quarters of surveyed American CFOs are “greatly concerned” about COVID-19’s impact on their operations. While there theoretically could be a worse time to start a business, the current pandemic would be challenging to surpass.

But here’s the thing. Amidst all of this business stress and well-deserved economic concern, there is room for hope. While there’s no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has burdened us with challenges, it has also compelled tech-forward entrepreneurs across countless industries to pivot into a frantic period of innovation.

To borrow a quote from Entrepreneur writer Hamza Mudassir, “Black swan events, such as economic recessions and pandemics, change the trajectory of governments, economies, and businesses — altering the course of history.” The coronavirus will likely be the same — perhaps, even, for the better.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen an explosion of digital teleworking solutions, teaching tools, therapy and stress-relief apps, and retail solutions that, I believe, will benefit us even when the pandemic finally recedes. These offerings are only available because forward-thinking entrepreneurs took the initiative to see beyond the immediate crisis and give consumers what they need. They continued problem-solving even in a world in lockdown.

I’m not necessarily saying that now is the time to build your business — quite the opposite. But there are steps that aspiring entrepreneurs can take to keep their entrepreneurial dreams alive and prepare for when consumers and business leaders alike can finally step into the open air.

“This will be a before moment and an after moment for the world,” Open AI CEO Sam Altman recently told CNBC. “There’s incredible innovation coming.”

Here’s what you can do to get ready for that ‘after’ moment.

Reflect on Your Business Idea

If there’s one fact that we know for sure, it’s that society will feel the repercussions of COVID-19 long after the virus itself fades.

“We’re going to have to work through this quarantine state of mind even when the physical quarantine has lifted,” Sheva Rajaee, founder of the Center for Anxiety and OCD in Irvine, California, recently told reporters for Vox.

Despite our assertions that we’ll make up for lost time and treasure in-person interactions once shelter-in-place restrictions lift, it seems likely that our current fears of infection and interpersonal contact will persist even as we transition back into ordinary life. Aspiring entrepreneurs need to look at their business ideas and consider whether they could be retooled to better suit the needs of a consumer base that increasingly treasures at-home services. Alternatively, entrepreneurs may want to consider how their business could be pivoted to lessen their reliance on in-person contact and maximize their use of digital channels.

Build Your Connections

Entrepreneurship is an inherently lonely profession. While a friend, a colleague, or a partner may sympathize with your anxiety or celebrate your wins, they can never fully understand the nerve-wracking thrill that comes part and parcel with building a business. During hard times like these, that kind of loneliness can feel crippling; it lowers morale, reduces productivity, and dampens creativity.

But, if you can build a network of people who truly understand the struggle from firsthand experience, you’ll be better equipped to face the entrepreneurial challenge head-on. As entrepreneur and writer David Sax put the matter in a recent article for Fast Company, “We need to build a community of entrepreneurs who can lean on each other, learn from each other, and let one another know that while they may feel as though they are facing the world alone, their experience is shared, and in some way, the burden is too.”

Reach out to entrepreneur-based social media groups; get involved with your local small business organizations; forge real connections with the acquaintances you’ve meant to contact but never have. Take the time to build a supportive network, and you’ll see the supportive and creative returns tenfold.

Balance Your Perspective

The pandemic is happening. Yes, it may seem like stating the obvious — but it needs to be said. Society will be struggling through this challenge for a while, and the repercussions will persist for months, if not years.

As Forbes contributor Hod Fleishman recently wrote, “We need to accept that reality is changing, identify what works, and […] define new ways of working. COVID-19 is terrible, it’s a tragedy, but it also opens up new business opportunities.”

We need to find a way to move on and thrive despite the hardship and uncertainty we face right now. Strive for creativity and productivity — and when you feel overwhelmed, give yourself the time you need to process the stress.

I wholeheartedly believe that with persistence, optimism, and effort, entrepreneurs can get through the COVID-19 crisis and do their part to make our world a better, more creative place.

Originally published on ThriveGlobal

By |2020-09-11T21:21:34+00:00September 11th, 2020|Business, Culture|

What Does It Matter If AI Writes Poetry?

Robots might take our jobs, but they (probably) won’t replace our wordsmiths.

These days, concerns about the slow proliferation of AI-powered workers underly a near-constant, if quiet, discussion about which positions will be lost in the shuffle. According to a report published earlier this year by the Brookings Institution, roughly a quarter of jobs in the United States are at “high risk” of automation. The risk is especially pointed in fields such as food service, production operations, transportation, and administrative support — all sectors that require repetitive work. However, some in creatively-driven disciplines feel that the thoughtful nature of their work protects them from automation.

It’s certainly a memorable passage — both for its utter lack of cohesion and its familiarity. The tone and language almost mimic J.K. Rowling’s style — if J.K. Rowling lost all sense and decided to create cannibalistic characters, that is. Passages like these are both comedic and oddly comforting. They amuse us, reassure us of humans’ literary superiority, and prove to us that our written voices can’t be replaced — not yet.

However, not everything produced by AI is as ludicrous as A Giant Pile of Ash. Some pieces veer on the teetering edge of sophistication. Journalist John A. Tures experimented with the quality of AI-written text for the Observer. His findings? Computers can condense long articles into blurbs well enough, if with errors and the occasional missed point. As Tures described, “It’s like using Google Translate to convert this into a different language, another robot we probably didn’t think about as a robot.” It’s not perfect, he writes, but neither is it entirely off the mark.

Moreover, he notes, some news organizations are already using AI text bots to do low-level reporting. The Washington Post, for example, uses a bot called Heliograf to handle local stories that human reporters might not have the time to cover. Tures notes that these bots are generally effective at writing grammatically-accurate copy quickly, but tend to lose points on understanding the broader context and meaningful nuance within a topic. “They are vulnerable to not understanding satires, spoofs or mistakes,” he writes.

And yet, even with their flaws, this technology is significantly more capable than those who look only at comedic misfires like A Giant Pile of Ash might believe. In an article for the Financial Times, writer Marcus du Sautoy reflects on his experience with AI writing, commenting, “I even employed code to get AI to write 350 words of my current book. No one has yet identified the algorithmically generated passage (which I’m not sure I’m so pleased about, given that I’m hoping, as an author, to be hard to replace).”

Du Sautoy does note that AI struggles to create overarching narratives and often loses track of broader ideas. The technology is far from being able to write a novel — but still, even though he passes off his perturbance at the AI’s ability to fit perfectly within his work as a literal afterthought, the point he makes is essential. AI is coming dangerously close to being able to mimic the appearance of literature, if not the substance.

Take Google’s POEMPORTRAITS as an example. In early spring, engineers working in partnership with Google’s Arts & Culture Lab rolled out an algorithm that could write poetry. The project leaders, Ross Goodwin and Es Devlin, trained an algorithm to write poems by supplying the program with over 25 million words written by 19th-century poets. As Devlin describes in a blog post, “It works a bit like predictive text: it doesn’t copy or rework existing phrases, but uses its training material to build a complex statistical model.”

When users donate a word and a self-portrait, the program overlays an AI-written poem over a colorized, Instagrammable version of their photograph. The poems themselves aren’t half bad on the first read; Devlin’s goes: “This convergence of the unknown hours, arts and splendor of the dark divided spring.”

As Devlin herself puts it, the poetry produced is “Surprisingly poignant, and at other times nonsensical.” The AI-provided poem sounds pretty, but is at best vague, and at worst devoid of meaning altogether. It’s a notable lapse, because poetry, at its heart, is about creating meaning and crafting implication through artful word selection. The turn-of-phrase beauty is essential — but it’s in no way the most important part of writing verse. In this context, AI-provided poetry seems hollow, shallow, and without the depth or meaning that drives literary tradition.

In other words, even beautiful phrases will miss the point if they don’t have a point to begin with.

In his article for the Observer, John A. Tures asked a journalism conference attendee his thoughts on what robots struggle with when it comes to writing. “He pointed out that robots don’t handle literature well,” Tures writes, “covering the facts, and maybe reactions, but not reason. It wouldn’t understand why something matters. Can you imagine a robot trying to figure out why To Kill A Mockingbird matters?”

Robots are going to verge into writing eventually — the forward march is already happening. Prose and poetry aren’t as protected within the creative employment bastion as we think they are; over time, we could see robots taking over roles that journalists used to hold. In our fake-news-dominated social media landscape, bad actors could even weaponize the technology to flood our media feeds and message boards. It’s undoubtedly dangerous — but that’s a risk that’s been talked about before.

Instead, I find myself wondering about the quieter, less immediately impactful risks. I’m worried that when AI writes what we read, our ability to think deeply about ourselves and our society will slowly erode.

Societies and individuals grow only when they are pushed to question themselves; to think, delve into the why behind their literature. We’re taught why To Kill a Mockingbird matters because that process of deep reading and introspection makes us think about ourselves, our communities, and what it means to want to change. In a world where so much of our communication is distilled down into tweet-optimized headlines and blurbs, where we’re not taking the time to read below a headline or first paragraph, these shallow, AI-penned lines are problematic — not because they exist, but because they do not spur thought.

“This convergence of the unknown hours, arts and splendor of the dark divided spring.”

The line sounds beautiful; it even evokes a vague image. Yet, it has no underlying message — although, to be fair, it wasn’t meant to make a point beyond coherency. It isn’t making a point. It’s shallow entertainment under a thin veil of sophistication. It fails at overarching narratives, doesn’t capture nuance, and fails to grasp the heartbeat of human history, empathy, and understanding.

If it doesn’t have that foundation to create a message, what does it have? When we get to a place where AI is writing for us — and be sure, that time will come — are we going to be thinking less? Will there be less depth to our stories, minimal thought inspired by their twists? Will it become an echoing room rather than a path forward? At the very least, will these stories take over our Twitter feeds and Facebook newsfeeds, pulling us away from human-crafted stories that push us to think?

I worry that’s the case. But then again, maybe I’m wrong — maybe reading about how an AI thinks that Ron ate Hermione’s family provides enough dark and hackneyed comedy to reassure our belief that AI will never step beyond its assigned role as a ludicrous word-hacker.

For now, at least.

By |2020-06-12T21:03:46+00:00April 17th, 2020|Culture, Technology|

Cable is Dead, Long Live (Streaming) Cable

It’s no secret that cable is on its way out. Ever since Netflix’s sparked an explosion of public interest in streaming entertainment with its 2013 series hit House of Cards, traditional channels of access — cable, satellite, dish — have been rendered all but obsolete.

According to reports published by Leichtman Research Group, a firm that centers its research and analysis in the media and entertainment sectors, the six most popular cable companies lost a whopping 910,000 video subscribers in 2018. Satellite TV and DirectTV services fared even worse — analysts estimated that the former lost around 2,360,000 subscribers and the latter 1,236,000 that same year. The sharp decline isn’t new, either; LRG researchers believe that the user base for traditional services has sunk by nearly ten million since the first quarter of 2012. 

Streaming is slowly outmoding cable — except, of course, in cases where cable has managed to latch onto streaming itself. Interestingly, cable’s primary source of subscription growth has been via virtual MVPDs (vMVPDs), or services that offer a bundle of television channels through the internet without providing traditional data transport infrastructure. LRG analysts estimate that roughly four million subscribers have signed on for vMPVD services such as PlayStation Vue, YouTube TV, and Hulu Live. But these services seem more like a speedbump on cable’s decline than an actual stop, a gateway service to help longtime cable enthusiasts transition into a streaming norm. 

Streaming entertainment is the new normal, and any millennial could build a compelling case for why the change is a good one. After all, why would you pay for expensive cable bundles and struggle with limited viewing schedules when you can see your favorite shows and movies on Netflix or Hulu for less than $15 per month? Streaming offers original content at a reasonable price point and — unlike cable — is accessible from wherever an internet connection is available. It’s so popular that new streaming services have begun popping up like weeds. Apple TV+ goes online on November 1st, Disney+ opens for registration in November, and NBC’s Peacock is set to go live sometime in 2020. 

Cable is dying. But will streaming, the reason behind cable’s slow extinction, one day face the same decline? 

Cable is Dead, Long Live (Streaming) Cable

As it turns out, the streaming coup we see today may be just another remix of the same old industry song. 

Consider the now-giant HBO’s humble roots as an example. The service was arguably the first network to offer premium cable and ask viewers to pay a subscription fee — and it launched its experiment in the town of Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania shortly after Hurricane Agnes hit the area in 1972. The initiative had a rocky start, reportedly losing nearly $9,000 per month as it struggled to lay cable and pay for a microwave link to transmit entertainment offerings from New York City. But the project ultimately paid off in spades, heralding a new era for paid cable television. 

Cable television was new, convenient, and engaging. Its subscribers could view new and exciting content that wasn’t limited by the profanity and nudity guidelines imposed on basic cable programs. Eventually, cable providers began offering bundles to aggregate channels and make accessing paid content easy, convenient, and affordable.  

Sound familiar yet? 

Today, streaming entertainment services offer the same convenience, aggregation, and affordability that characterized cable — but better. Importantly, they also provide channel subscriptions a la carte, a move which cable companies tended to avoid out of concern that it would negatively impact subscription numbers

When giants such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime claimed dominance over the market, streaming seemed like the answer to all of cable subscribers’ problems. However, as more niche entertainment stream providers enter the field, we appear to be falling back into cable’s old woes. 

Today, viewers have over 300 streaming video services to choose from, each with their own subscription price. Many host original content, knowing that high-quality and exclusive offerings attract subscribers. According to one recent study from Deloitte, 57% of paid streaming users — and 71% of millennial users — report subscribing to access original content. However, users’ willingness to pay for content has its limits. As Deloitte’s researchers put the matter: “nearly one-half (47 percent) are frustrated by the growing number of subscriptions and services they need to piece together to watch what they want. Forty-eight percent say it’s harder to find the content they want to watch when it is spread across multiple services.”

Consumers don’t want to make a patchwork out of their streaming services to get the content they want. The fragmentation and consumer difficulty we face now is likely to intensify, given the sheer number of high-profile streaming platforms set to launch soon. As a result, talk of using bundling as a solution to subscriber frustrations has returned; according to IndieWire, WarnerMedia is reportedly aiming to launch a streaming platform that would bundle HBO, Cinemax, and some Warner Bros. content into one service. It would have a higher price point, too — $16-$17 per month. It seems only fair to expect prices to creep up further as other, competing bundles undergo discussion.  

Digital streaming is, without question, more convenient and better-suited to audience needs for affordable original content than paid cable. Streaming’s coup is a well-deserved one. However, it seems naive to think that the problems consumers complained of with cable — higher prices, annoying bundles — won’t appear as time goes on. 

Cable is dead. Long live (streaming) cable.

By |2020-02-11T15:15:14+00:00October 15th, 2019|Culture, Technology|

How AR and VR Could Change Tourism in New York

Tourist itineraries in New York City are predictable enough to be b-roll cliche. Tourists are easy enough to spot: they move in flocks through Central Park, take selfies at the Statue of Liberty, stare in awe from their slow-moving tour buses at the Empire State Building, and — of course — purchase “I Heart NYC” t-shirts from overpriced carts. The New York that visitors enjoy is predictable, yes, but also vivid, exciting, and well-packed with familiar landmarks; each new day offers wide-eyed tourists the chance to experience famous sights firsthand.

But what if the tourism experience could span more than a well-walked map of landmarks? What if visitors could peel back the cliches of New York’s touristy exterior and delve into its rich history? Augmented and virtual reality technologies may provide a means to do just that, revolutionizing the way visitors experience both the city and its history.

VR and AR’s entry into the tourism sector isn’t all that surprising, given its growing popularity. Analysts for Goldman Sachs estimate that the market for both will overtake $1.6 billion by 2025. Figures from Statista further indicate that as of 2018, 117 million people worldwide were active VR users — a notable leap from four years before, when only 200,000 actively used the technology. Both AR and VR are well-known for their ability to create immersive digital experiences; they empower consumers to delve into their favorite fantasy gaming worlds, experience movies in near-overwhelming sensory experiences, and even virtually “trial” products before buying them in a brick-and-mortar store. With tourism, virtual- and augmented reality technologies promise to add another layer of immersion to an industry that already centers on creating memorable experiences.

VR Expands Tourism Possibilities

Every pre-planned walk or guided bus tour has its limits. Tourists can’t duck under the metaphorical velvet rope to explore their favorite attractions; they have to stay within set, guide-approved bounds. With VR, those limitations are less constricting, offering virtual access to the tourist without compromising the security of the site itself.

As Dr. Nigel Jones, a senior lecturer in information systems at Cardiff Metropolitan University noted for a recent article for the BBC, VR provides “something that’s more tangible to the [tourist]. They can see where they’re going to go, see what’s happening in that location […] The other advantage is to give people an experience that they can’t do. You could take them to a place that’s off limits — like a dungeon in a castle.”

New York City might be running low on castles, but it certainly has no shortage of historic attractions and digitally-explorable landscapes. Consider Governor’s Island, a popular tourist hotspot that sits just East of the Statue of Liberty. Today, the island encompasses several historical sites and a national park — but centuries ago, it was a seasonal fishing spot for Native Americans and an outpost for English and Dutch settlers. The island’s history is rich — and relatively inaccessible for most tourists. However, recent AR innovations have begun to allow tourists to walk through history as they traverse the island.

Inventing America is one such tourist-centered tool. Made publicly available in 2018, Inventing America uses an AR-powered app to transport visitors into a 17th-century, post-colonial version of Governor’s Island. The app provides users with the opportunity to delve into storylines, characters, and history even as they explore the real-life Governor’s Island on foot. Experiences in the app are inextricably tied to physical exploration, ensuring that the AR game complements and supports, rather than replaces, a tourist’s real-world experience on the island.

Of course, not all VR- and AR innovations are quite so based in game and narrative. Others, like the New York City-based tour provider The RIDE, use VR and AR experiences to provide tourists with more information as they drive past popular city hotspots. The RIDE melds traditional tour bus routes with augmented reality technology; each of its buses sport 40 LCD TVs, surround sound, and LED lights. This structure, the company notes, allows facilitators to provide “deeply researched audio/visual support conveying the history and growth of Manhattan” during their tours, thereby superimposing a tech-powered view of a past New York onto the view tourists see beyond the bus’s windows.

Emerging virtual tools promise to add all-new layers to New York’s tourism experience, sweeping away the tired tropes of tourist cliches — and we will be all the better for it.

By |2019-07-15T20:51:17+00:00May 30th, 2019|Culture, Technology|

The Rise of “Apartment” Stores: How Retailers are Downsizing to Survive

The Rise of “Apartment” Stores: How Retailers are Downsizing to Survive

Confronted with the rise of online shopping, experiential retail has gone in multiple directions, each one suited to their product. Think of the Apple store, which performs the dual task of selling the company’s products and constructing a brand around them through conscious design choices. For sellers whose wares aren’t so high-tech, there’s been a conspicuous rise in what are called “apartment stores,” the term a play on the department stores they’ve largely replaced in urban centers and upscale retail zones.

What Is an Apartment Store?

An apartment store is generally much smaller than their department store forebears: set up as a warm, inviting space not unlike a well-designed living room. Their simple design belies a sophistication perfectly and unobtrusively designed for displaying high-end clothing and housewares, minus the fluorescent lighting and cold tile floors. Patrons can come in, sit down, even have an espresso or other gourmet treats while they peruse the wares on hand.

The result is an intimacy that has the potential to generate real, loyalty-based consumer relationships. A store that feels like home has long been a goal for many retailers, so it’s almost a surprise that it’s taken so long for this concept to catch on. Some sources place the origin of the trend at around 2015, and it’s since taken root in major cities like New York and Berlin.

Retailers who can take the time and effort to construct such a space aim to achieve the ultimate goal in the age of Amazon: provide a great reason for shoppers to get off the couch and into their doors. It’s no secret that offering something more than a simple transaction is one of the most reliable weapons in the modern retail arsenal, and apartment stores have become one of NYC’s most popular experiential spaces.

Why New York City is Embracing Apartment Stores?

A city such as New York is home to millions and millions of potential buyers, so standing out from the fray is paramount. This rule is especially reliable for high-end customers: they can afford the best, and will expect it when they’re spending their retail dollar. For luxury retailers, this has traditionally meant providing personal consulting, private shopping sessions, and early access to exclusive wares. As luxury has gone mainstream, apartment stores give that personal touch in a place whose doors are open to all (even if the most expensive products on the shelf are still out of reach).

At the same time, the skyrocketing price of real estate means that even established retailers have needed to downsize. An apartment store makes the most of limited space, giving luxury without extravagance. By bringing the high-end shopping experience into a place that feels more like home, buyers have a whole new reason to make their way to the store.

Everything Old is New Again

While a mostly recent trend, apartment stores are in a way a bit of a throwback. Before department stores took off in the early-mid 20th century, most storefronts were small and intimate spaces where sellers knew their customers by name. Shopping was mainly confined to the neighborhood, and destination-style megastores had not yet come into existence. When bigger retailers came along, offering selection and prices that could rarely be beat by mom and pop shops, something reassuring and familiar was lost in the process. Apartment stores bring a bit of that familiarity back to shopping, while still maintaining the high standards today’s customer expects.

In a retail environment where size is not always an asset, apartment stores offer luxury brands and middle-market ones alike space for their customers to call home. Thanks to a market where customer loyalty is as valuable as ever and the cost of entry is often forbiddingly high, expect more of these stores to take up (limited) space at a shopping district near you.

 

By |2020-05-07T19:52:05+00:00March 25th, 2019|Culture|

How Do New York City’s Bookstores Stay in Business in the 21st Century?

With Amazon eating up a growing share of book sales, and the worlds of music and movies going digital, it seemed like it was only a matter of time until local booksellers went the way of the Automat. The convenience and unmatchable selection of online shopping, at Bezos’ store, in particular, was thought to be a death knell for the traditional bookselling model. While it’s true that many bookstores, both corporate chains, and local favorites, have fallen by the wayside, the independent bookseller is far from disappeared.

For devotees of brick-and-mortar bookshops, the current scene is highly encouraging. There’s reason to be optimistic for the next generation of readers in the five boroughs. For a variety of reasons, new and old independent bookstores have been surviving and thriving in this new economy. These are three of them, each with their own qualities to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

 

Know Your Audience – Printed Matter

Funded by a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting contemporary art, Printed Matter has existed in New York since 1977, moving from TriBeCa to SoHo to their current home on 11th Avenue in Chelsea. Managed by an artist’s foundation, Printed Matter is credited with popularizing art books as a whole, making the printed page a viable medium for unique artistic expression and not just pictures of paintings.

A new planned location in the East Village is just one of several art bookstores planned for the neighborhood, proof that this niche is one that inspires visits from devotees in enough numbers to support multiple locations. A retail outlet that knows its audience and even shapes it through thoughtful curation of their offerings can see long life, no matter how much the market churns. Printed Matter proves that customer identity matters.

 

Community Roots – Lit Bar

While this one has yet to open, the story of its origin is emblematic of the new bookstore trend. Barnes and Noble, the nation’s sole remaining major bookstore chain, announced in 2014 that their final Bronx outpost would be closing, leaving the borough of 1.4 million people without one solitary bookstore. Petitions were filed, protests held, but by the end of 2016, the Bronx was bookless.

Enter Noelle Santos. One of the passionate protesters went entrepreneurial to fight the tides, and her store, Lit Bar, a combination wine bar and family-friendly bookstore is slated to open this fall. Modeled on Denver, Colorado’s BookBar with a uniquely NYC twist, Santos’ bookstore will hopefully serve as proof that the Bronx is ready for a new resurgence of bookshops in this century.

 

More than material – Books Are Magic

Author Emma Straub’s Cobble Hill, Brooklyn store has been the toast of the area in the year since it’s opened, serving as the spiritual replacement for long-beloved neighborhood institution Book Court, which closed in 2016 when its owners decided to call it a career.

Straub’s new store wasted no time in making their name known, thanks in large part to a robust social media presence featuring the store’s highly Instagrammable outer mural and a pristinely manicured interior. But it’s not all style and no substance: frequent in-store author appearances and signings as well as sponsorship of larger events (a recent reading featuring Stephen King at St. Ann’s Church downtown drew a capacity crowd) combine with an ever-updated selection allowing Books are Magic to comprehensively serve “New York’s book borough” thoughtfully, pleasing both eyes and minds.

 

These stories may not necessarily be a detailed blueprint for booksellers to navigate today’s market, but they illustrate the fact that unique, independent retailers still have a place in New York City. For any retail outlet, offering the same experience as the place next door isn’t going to cut it in a world where nearly anything can be bought from the comforts of home, and the bookstore scene has adjusted accordingly.

Interestingly, even Amazon runs two brick-and-mortar bookstores in the city, proof that the physical space still has viability for corporate retailers, even if they exist partially to promote online offerings. It seems now that the death of the bookstore was greatly exaggerated. For book lovers of the five boroughs, these and other locations are providing a good reason to get off the couch and head out to get their fix.

By |2020-05-07T19:50:42+00:00September 17th, 2018|Culture|

The Ethics of Bitcoin: Is the Cryptocurrency Better for Banking?

If you’re anything like me, you’re equal parts fascinated and befuddled by the evolving world of cryptocurrency, and Bitcoin in particular.

For those of us used to paper and plastic, the idea of a decentralized, digital payment can seem pretty pie in the sky. But many are quick to call it the currency of the future, and if the buzz is any indication, it could be. According to Realtime Bitcoin there are more than 16.5 million Bitcoins in circulation. The current exchange rate is one Bitcoin to US $3,917.83. That puts the total amount in circulation at almost US $65 trillion.

Created sometime between 2008 and 2009, Bitcoin only took off in 2013 when it hit an all-time high––at the time––of US$1,100. Over the next few years, the price fluctuated. Recently, however, the virtual coin has garnered resurgent interest, skyrocketing to an all-time high of US $4,522.13 in August.

But what caused the newfound appreciation for the cryptocurrency? And what concerns should we have regarding the ethics of Bitcoin? Technology that seems amazing often poses ethical quandaries we need to engage with, as I’ve talked about in regards to AI.

Here’s a look at the current state of Bitcoin and what it means for banking, both today and in the future.

Bitcoin’s Surge

There are a few clear reasons for the recent surge in Bitcoin stock. First, its blockchain technology has been of special interest to some major players in finance. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan believe that this technology may improve the trading of loans, securities, and derivatives.

Second, Japan and China have begun to embrace the cryptocurrency. In April, regulators in Japan introduced certain rules to integrate Bitcoin into the regular banking system (rather than peg it as an outlaw currency). This change has caused many investors to swap their Yen for Bitcoin.

In addition, Chinese authorities who have been critical of Bitcoin in the past have recently gained more tolerance for the currency. This has made Bitcoin-related investments in the region far less risky and far more attractive.

Thanks to these developments, Bitcoin has taken a step forward in legitimacy. People will be less likely to hold it for speculative purposes and start buying actual things with it.

But this begs an important question: Will Bitcoin, blockchain, and other cryptocurrencies bring us to a more ethical level of banking? Or will the challenges of these new systems create an equally murky financial system?

A Case for Bitcoin

Trust plays a key role in finance today. But what if we eliminated the need for trust in conducting business transactions? A successful transaction would be guaranteed, no matter who you were dealing with.

Garrick Hileman, an economic historian at the London School of Economics and University of Cambridge, points out, “A big part of the problem with Lehman Brothers in 2008 came from counterparty risk and the fact that settlement could not be counted on.”

With the advent of blockchain technology and smart contracts (computer programs set to execute a transaction once certain criteria are met), it could be possible to take trust out of the equation entirely. Transactions are conducted on the basis of guarantee because collateral is posted instead of withheld. Potentially, this could avoid a Lehman situation in the future.

Bitcoin also offers the advantage of cutting costs. Right now, banks put a lot of money into the transaction process. Part of the reason is that much of banking is still done manually and saturated with paperwork. This occupies both time and resources. With an automated system, verified by blockchain technology and smart contracts, we would save billions in capital, conduct transactions more quickly, and achieve it at zero marginal cost.

While the engineering behind this technology is still not yet ready to be rolled out for use in banks and other financial institutions, the promises of automated settlements, a higher level of transparency, and an overall reduction of overheads promise a more stable financial sector.

The Challenges

Cryptocurrency doesn’t come without its challenges. Though it has its proponents, some go as far as to call it “evil”. And this isn’t without reason. Those who argue against cryptocurrency have posed concerns on the anonymity of how transactions are conducted. Case in point: Bitcoin has long been associated with shady business transactions and entities such as Silk Road (which was shut down late 2014).

This anonymity, they say, allows the currency to be used for criminal activity in ways that other currencies cannot. It could be argued that this actually encourages unethical transactions.

However, it’s important to note that the anonymity isn’t absolute. Transactions conducted using Bitcoin are made public on the blockchain. That means that parties involved can be found linked to their Bitcoin addresses, although they are often difficult to find. A good example of this is the Silk Road founder, Ross Ulbricht. We were ultimately able to break the anonymity and discover his identity, but it took both time and resources.

In short, we don’t want to create a lawless market. That means there need to be additional measures put in place to ensure that the government, the technology, and the banks are in close contact. We must protect the ethics of cryptocurrency.

What it all means

Finance often falls into ethically questionable territory. That’s why banking needs an ethical solution that’s available to all parties, that is affordable and verifiable, so that there is accountability across the board.

On the other hand, the structure of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology allows for scalable ethical banking. This would be achieved by first combining the digital efficiency of the currency and the scalability of computers and networks. Existing rules and regulations would ensure that the consumer is adequately protected.

We’ll just have to wait and see on which side the Bitcoin lands.

By |2020-02-11T16:45:11+00:00March 12th, 2018|Culture, Current Events, Technology|

Tech’s Growing Role in the Wake of Natural Disasters

Technology has brought us countless conveniences. Order an Uber with a few clicks. Tell Alexa you want a pizza. Let Google Assistant direct you to the nearest coffee shop.

All that’s nice, isn’t it? But tech can (and is) doing much more important things.

One crucial achievement technological tools have given us is the ability to respond to natural disasters more quickly and effectively. Indeed, tech has the potential to save countless lives and greatly reduce the damage when nature strikes.

Social media and mobile improve preparedness and response

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,833 victims and caused $108 billion in damages. Many experts argue social media and mobile technology could have saved lives, only if Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms were available like they are today.

Jason Samenow, a meteorologist and weather journalist, attests that, with social media, “messages about how severe the storm was and the importance of preparedness would have permeated society.” Decision-makers, politicians, celebrities and others would’ve been motivated to spread information across their networks and call others to do the same.

Additionally, responders could have accurately identified where help was needed. Timo Luege, a humanitarian communications and innovation consultant, wrote in a personal blog post about how FEMA director Michael Brown hadn’t known evacuees were stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center without food and water until news reporters got there. Surely this information could’ve reached FEMA much more quickly with social media — and folks could’ve been saved.

Now, compare this to 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit. More than 3.2 million Tweets using the hashtag #Sandy were published on the first day. During the height of the storm, people posted 10 pictures of what was happening on Instagram every second. This enabled anyone with a mobile device or internet access to see the latest information, and helped responders work more effectively. Mobile and social media undoubtedly saved lives.

Big data and IoT create predictions and accurate real-time info

Big — and open — data and the internet of things (IoT) showed its power to be used for good during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Thanks to gauges that had been installed inside Harris County’s intricate bayou system, which is used to collect and drain water, residents and rescuers could see in real time where flooding was most severe. FEMA and other responders were then able to quickly mobilize resources to help areas in danger.

Even before a natural disaster hits, technology can save lives by pinpointing what areas will be hit hardest and identifying the best evacuation routes. This data gives rescuers actionable insights about how to best allocate and deploy resources as well.

For instance, NASA and NOAA, along with municipalities, are now utilizing sensor data, satellite imagery, and other surveillance to give first responders and volunteers valuable information into potential problems — before they happen. As more data is collected and mined, machine learning algorithms will continually improve. And that will improve the effectiveness of all rescue operations during natural disasters.

This is truly a noteworthy development. Everyone must be aware of how technology can aid us during natural disasters. As Chris Wilder, an IoT expert, says, “Although the severity of the disasters might increase, the loss of life has been greatly reduced by improvements in communications and the distribution of information.”

Autonomous technology delivers supplies, finds survivors, and assesses damage

Victims in the midst of natural disasters require food, water, clothes, medical equipment, life jackets, and other supplies to survive. In both rural and urban areas, it can be difficult to reach everyone. New technologies not only help us locate where people in need are, but also actually deliver life-saving supplies.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (that is, drones) can serve an especially important role during natural disasters, specifically when survivors are cut off from evacuation routes. For example, in China, the National Earthquake Response Support Service is using drones to find survivors, deliver food and supplies, and coordinate rescue attempts.

In the aftermath of disasters, drones provide assistance as well. Once Hurricane Irma in 2017 had passed, drones flew over areas in Florida, assessing the damage to buildings, roads, tunnels, bridges, and more. This has made relief efforts more effective, rebuilding more efficient, and insurance claims less time-consuming.

Beyond autonomous vehicles, boats, and aircraft, even autonomous balloons are proving to be very helpful when natural disasters strike. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico so hard in late 2017, Google’s Project Loon sent balloons to the island, and beamed internet connectivity to more than 100,000 people.

Technology: The Key to Drastically Improving Disaster Response

I’ve been amazed by how we’ve come together during natural disasters. Major advancements in technology, especially social media, mobile, and AI, have equipped us with tools to do an even better job. We must be sure to use these tools to the fullest extent when a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or other disaster hits. It’s the key to saving lives.

By |2018-01-02T20:36:18+00:00January 2nd, 2018|Culture, Current Events, Technology, Urban Planning|

Dancers, Rejoice: NYC’s Antiquated Cabaret Law is Dead

New York City’s bizarre Cabaret Law was finally laid to rest on Halloween, at the ripe old age of 91.

Cause of death? Common sense.

The law, enacted in 1926 (i.e., at the height of Prohibition, as well as the Harlem Renaissance), infamously prohibited dancing in bars and clubs that had not obtained a cabaret license. It was unevenly enforced and often amended over the years, but nonetheless remained on the books until city council repealed it by a resounding 44-1 vote at its Oct. 31 meeting.

At different points during its long (and in many eyes, troubling) history, the law effectively muzzled jazz luminaries like Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Thelonius Monk, and turned Frank Sinatra into an activist. Rudy Giuliani weaponized the statute. Others have bristled over it, but until this year it survived many repeal attempts.

Finally Rafael Espinal, a councilman from Brooklyn, introduced a bill quashing it, pending the approval of mayor Bill de Blasio.

“It’s great to see how excited the city is,” the 33-year-old Espinal told the New York Times. “We have shown that there’s an appetite for expanding dancing around the city.”

The law applies only to clubs located in areas zoned for commercial manufacturing; as the Times reported, zoning laws will have to be altered for dancing to be permitted in other parts of the city.

The repeal is in some ways academic. Because of the Byzantine (and costly) application process, few establishments even bothered to obtain a cabaret license. The Times reported that only 97 of some 25,000 spots had one, while a 2016 anti-Cabaret Law petition put that number at 118.

And as mentioned, enforcement has been spotty, though as recently as 2013 club owner Andrew Muchmore was assessed a Cabaret violation when some of his patrons engaged in what was described as “unlawful swaying” during a rock show at his night spot. He responded by filing suit against the city, dropping it only when the law was repealed.

The law was originally enacted to regulate the speakeasies that cropped up during Prohibition, though it is widely suspected that the real purpose was to crack down on jazz clubs, where mixed-race crowds often congregated.

A 1940 amendment also required musicians to obtain cabaret cards, a process that called for fingerprinting, interrogation, and renewal every two years. Parker, Monk, and Holiday were denied cards for one reason or another, and thus barred from performing. Sinatra, citing the demeaning nature of the application process, declined to appear as well, in a show of solidarity; that led to the repeal of the cabaret-card system, albeit after it had been in place for 27 years.

Other permutations of the law prohibited wind, percussion and brass instruments (i.e., the type of instruments used by jazz bands) or barred musical groups numbering more than three from appearing on stage. Those restrictions were eased in 1986 and 1988, respectively.

During Giuliani’s term as mayor (1994-2001), he used the Cabaret Law to crack down on so-called nuisance clubs. One club owner went so far as to say Giuliani’s tactics were reminiscent of a “Gestapo state,” but Giuliani, amid his “quality of life” initiative, argued that he was dealing as best he could with establishments that dealt in illegal activities (particularly drug-dealing), as well as those that had become a nuisance to their neighborhoods because of noise, unruly behavior, littering, etc.

The law has also been used in recent years to ensure that clubs were up to snuff in regards to fire safety and security, though its critics have argued that other regulations (and regulatory boards) were in place to deal with those issues.

So the law died a peaceful death. And everyone was only too happy to dance on its grave.

By |2020-02-11T16:51:35+00:00November 16th, 2017|Culture, Current Events|