Grocery Disrupt: Amazon’s Latest Venture Good Become a Store Near You; Tyson’s New Add-Venture; Trump’s Taxing Tariff Tweets

Move over, humans…

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Just when you to start to wonder what else Amazon could possibly do to disrupt and reinvent the retail shopping experience, along comes Amazon Go, an actual brick-and-mortar-store brought to you by the e-commerce giant. Talk about irony. The concept, which is still being tested by Amazon employees, allows shoppers to literally grab food and walk out. No lines. No cashiers. Customers just take their cellphones and tap them on a turnstile to get logged into the store’s network, which in turn connects to the Amazon Prime app, already conveniently installed on their phones. Customers pick items off the shelf and put them into their cart while, with the aid of sensors and artificial intelligence, the same items are also placed in virtual shopping cart. If a shopper decides that they don’t want an item, they simply place it back on the shelf and the item also disappears from the virtual cart. Like magic. Should you crave something a bit more immediate, the store also offers up fresh food, prepared on site. Once customers are done, they simply walk out while the app does all the work, which basically involves adding everything up and then charging respective Amazon accounts. The company has been on the hunt to gain a big presence in the food retail industry, an industry which still fiscally eludes it, and also happens to be one of the biggest retail industries. Ever.  Its fresh food delivery is nice and all, but Amazon’s set its sights on competing with the big grocery players like Wal-Mart, Krogers and Target. The food retailer index took a 1% dive on Amazon’s news while shares of Amazon went up. But established grocers can breathe a very brief sigh of relief easy as Amazon still has a few months before it opens up the store to the public. And humans, fear not. One tech investor said that people are still a very big, necessary component of the retail experience and to scrap the notion that jobs will be lost to machines. Phew.

Speaking of food…

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What to do when you’re a $20 billion company whose prime business is chicken, beef and pork, and you keep losing money to the alternative-meat and fresh-food industry? Why, you set up a venture capital firm, of course. And that’s just what Tyson Foods did in an attempt to compete with a burgeoning industry that is literally eating into its business model. Apparently, plant-based protein and food sustainability is where it’s at these days and if you can’t beat ’em then join ’em by investing in their start-ups. Hence we have Tyson New Ventures LLC, a $150 million venture capital firm that Tyson launched to tap into a market that favors more plant-based and fresh food. The venture capital firm will look to companies that are working on making food-related “breakthroughs” and new innovative technology and business models that relate to food. Tyson already announced its first investment a few months ago, when it bought a 5% stake in Beyond Meats, a company that makes meat-like products. Tyson has got nothing to lose either, considering its last earnings report was nothing short of dismal, and the news that its long-time CEO Donnie Smith was stepping down did nothing to instill confidence in investors. Tyson isn’t the only firm to try out this venture capital idea. Other companies like Campbells Soup, Coca Cola, General Mills and Kellogg’s have all established similar firms with pretty much the same objective: to continue to be a prominent player in a shifting market and industry landscape.  So far this year venture firms have already thrown $420 million into various food and agricultural companies. In 2015 that number approached $650 million.

A day without Trump?

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Over the weekend, President-elect Donald Trump mentioned, in a series of tweets of course, that he wants to get back at U.S. companies who dare shift jobs and production overseas. His preferred revenge tactic would be in the form of a 35% tariff and, strangely enough, his fellow Republicans don’t seem to be on board. The top House Republican, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, does not support Trump’s tariff idea and thinks that the best, most effective way to create and keep jobs in the U.S. is via major tax reform. There seem to be a whole bunch of issues at play with Trump’s (overly) ambitious tax-revenge plans, including the fact that such a move goes against the whole spirit of free trade and has the potential to spark trade wars. And nobody likes wars, whether they involve armed conflict or goods and services. Tax specialists and other assorted experts have also said that it’s fairly debatable as to whether or not Trump’s tactics are even legal.  Republicans are, however, partial to over-hauling the corporate tax code in an effort to keep U.S. companies from fleeing to more tax-hospitable countries. They’d like to cut that pesky corporate tax rate to 20% or less which would allow the U.S. to be more competitive globally. House Republicans are also in favor of imposing corporate taxes to all imported goods and services and scrapping them for exports. But leave it to the critics to argue that changes like that might be seen as violations of the World Trade Organization.  In any case,  it remains to be seen how exactly Trump will get his way, if he does. That’s because tariffs aren’t typically applied to specific companies but rather entire classes of goods. Besides, the president doesn’t get to make those kinds of decisions anyway. That’s for Congress to decide and Congress doesn’t seem, shall we say, receptive, to Trump’s tariff talk.

Trump’s Treasury Trove; Things are (finally) Looking Up for Target; Neiman Marcus Bets on Rentals

 

Trump’s to treasure…

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Leave it to Carl Icahn to tweet that Donald Trump honed in on his choices for Treasury Secretary and Commerce Secretary. And, believe it or not, those choices may not be as bad as you think. Enter Steven Mnuchin, a veteran Wall Streeter and former Goldman Sachs partner who most recently served as Donald Trump’s campaign finance manager. Okay, that last bit may not be his best selling point. But if it makes you feel any better, controversial Trump White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon didn’t care for him and questioned Trump on whether he was “selling out to Wall Street.” Next we have Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor and major NAFTA critic who also served as part of Trump’s economic advisory team. Ross has a knack for restructuring failing companies and has done so successfully in the energy and textile industries. That’s a big resume plus for the Commerce Secretary post. However, if Ross is serious about the post, he’ll have to step down from the numerous boards on which he serves, besides selling off tons of investments or chucking them into a blind trust. As for Carl Icahn, he tweeted that “Both would be great choices” and that they are “two of the smartest people I know.” And, if Carl Icahn thinks that then it must be so. Right?

Target = hipster?

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Things are looking up for Target. At least according to its CEO, Brian Cornell who said today that he is “increasingly confident” about Target’s new plans and endeavors for its 1,800 plus stores. Part of those endeavors include its foray into small-format stores. Those are basically shops that are targeted – no pun intended – to meet the consumer wants and needs of a specific location. With several under its belt already, Target’s latest small-format shop is slated for a 45,000 square foot space in super hip NYC locale, Tribeca. But Cornell’s enthusiasm went way beyond just the new stores. Shares of the retailer went up almost 9% today in pre-market trading because its third quarter sales decline was smaller than expected. Translation: Target didn’t lose as much money as experts thought it would. Those sales were down almost 7% to $16.4 billion, but that was primarily due to Target selling its pharmacy biz to CVS. As for the company’s e-commerce department, those sales were up 26% over the same time last year, which was especially welcome news considering that e-commerce for Target’s second quarter was down.

All rent out of shape…

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Online clothes and jewelry rental companies are betting that if you’re not a customer now, you will be after you visit them at an actual showroom. And so begins a new journey for companies like Blue Nile and Rent the Runway, who have decided that it would be cheaper to install showrooms and hire staff than to find new ways of advertising that would attract new customers. Blue Nile already successfully tested out this timeless showroom concept with just 300 square feet at one lucky Nordstrom department store, while Rent the Runway is set to unveil a 3,000 square foot space at Neiman Marcus’ San Francisco store on Friday. However, many are skeptical that this is a prudent move for Neiman Marcus assuming that instead of buying Neiman Marcus inventory, customers will simply rent it from Rent the Runway. And is it wise for Neiman Marcus to be playing around with such a novel concept after losing $407 million in its last quarter? But the logic is that Rent the Runway has 6 million customers in an age demographic that Neiman Marcus would like to have. The luxury store is banking that the customers who come and pay to rent the high-end brands will end up being big ticket buyers of those very same high-end brands soon after. Plus, for an additional $30 – $75, Neiman Marcus will throw in styling services for Rent the Runway customers. Rent the Runway’s concept might seem cute but the money is definitely serious. A monthly subscription of $139 gets you up to three pieces at a time which you can keep for the month or send back in less than a day. The company so far raised $126 million in start-up venture capital and already exceeded its 2016 sales projections of $100 million.  So maybe Neiman Marcus is onto something because Rent the Runway sure is.

 

New Start-Up That Makes Travel Affordable; One Down, More to Go: Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf Goes Buh-Bye; Delta Gets its Due for August Outage

Coffee, Tea or Affordable Travel?

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.neti

There’s a one year old tech start-up that wants to get you traveling. It’s called Airfordable, and it lets users pay for airline tickets through installments. But first you need to take a screenshot of your itinerary and upload it to the site. Then the company sends you a payment plan. If you want to make it yours, you need to shell out a third of the price for the initial deposit. But once your ticket is paid off, Airfordable will present you with an e-ticket and you’re well on your way. Co-founder and CEO Ama Marfa came upon the idea whilst in college and unable to afford the $2,000 airfare to fly home and see her family in Ghana. And she wasn’t the only one as several students, both domestic and international encountered similar challenges. So how does Airfordable make a buck? By simply adding a service fee of between 10% – 20% spread evenly across the payments. If a user defaults or needs to change plans, all the money that was paid, minus the initial deposit, gets put back into their Airfordable account, where users have up to a year to use the money towards a different flight.  As with any ambitious start-up, the company plans to branch out into vacation packages and hotels. Airfordable already has 27,000 users and scored a seed round of funding from Y Combinator. Not bad for a company that came into existence after America’s abysmal choices in the presidential primaries.

What are you going to do with all that free time?

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The drama continues at embattled Wells Fargo but at least John Stumpf has finally threw in the executive retirement towel yesterday. At first denying and then blaming 5,300 terminated  low-level employees, Stumpf managed to incur the wrath of investors, lawmakers and consumers. Oh my! His abysmal handling of the scandal that involved the opening of countless fraudulent accounts gained extra special attention from Senator Elizabeth Warren. And if for some inexplicable reason you feel sympathy for Mr. Stumpf, then don’t. He’s walking away with over $133 million – and that’s after a $41 million clawback in unvested options courtesy of Congress. That $130 million figure is not a typo. In case you’re wondering how on earth he will be walking away with more money than those 5,300 terminated employees probably made in the last ten years combined, he’s entitled to 2.4 million shares, $4.4 million from deferred compensation plus another $20 million from his pension account. But take heart that he received no severance. Isn’t that reassuring? But that’s not his only source of income. For now anyways. While Stumpf has been CEO at Wells Fargo since 2007, he also still sits on the boards of Target and Chevron and collects…wait for it…about $650,000 frrm those positions. Both Target and Chevron have yet to take an official position on whether Mr. Stumpf will continue his  roles at those organizations. But judging by how events have been unfolding, he might just end up with a lot more free than he anticipated.

Karma…

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Delta Airlines took a profit hit for the third quarter. The airline lost $150 million from its massive tech outage that saw the cancellation of 2,300 flights over the course of three days back in August. Even though analysts expected that, Delta still earned $1.3 billion, a 4% drop over last year at this time, but still adding up to $1.70 added per share.  The company took in $10.5 billion in revenue, which is not as impressive as one might think considering that it was a 5.6% decrease and a $724 million drop from the same time last year. And yes, about $100 million of that was from the outage.  In any case, analysts wanted to see revenues of $10.55 billion. So no matter how you crunch those numbers, they disappoint. Part of the problem was that the airline had too many seats – a fact that was not lost on the number crunchers. Delta will scale back its seat offerings next year in an effort to boost prices. Something to look forward to. Because fuel prices are still a relative bargain, Delta got away with spending just $1.4 billion, 22% less than it did during the same time last year. But experts don’t expect that to happen again. Shares for the airline are down 23% for the year, which only adds to the weirdness surrounding the sudden departure of executive chairman Richard Anderson just two days ago.

Ya-Oops! Internet Biz Breach; Tesla Calling Out Wolverine State; Budget Beauty Goes IPO Glam

Out of breach…

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As if things couldn’t get any dicier at Yahoo, the company is now facing the wrong end of a security breach with roughly 500 million Yahoo accounts caught in the fray of the company’s core internet business. And all this as Yahoo hopes to close a $4.8 billion deal with Verizon so the telecom giant can acquire those compromised core internet assets. It seems talk of a breach surfaced way back in August when a story broke out about a hacker, who goes by the name “Peace,” sold a ton of personal info that included birthdates, usernames, scrambled passwords etc. for the price of three bitcoins. In case you were wondering, because I know you were, that’s around $1,800. The question of the day is should Yahoo have come clean about the breach sooner and been a bit more proactive? After all, there are laws regarding breaches in 48 states that stipulate that companies must alert affected customers within a certain amount of time. But Yahoo might be in the clear since no social security numbers or other financial information was supposedly involved.  For those who have Yahoo accounts and want to take additional precautions, besides changing passwords, they can visit http://www.identitytheft.gov.

Denied…

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Tesla’s not very happy with Michigan right now as evidenced by the lawsuit it filed against the state and its Governor Rick Snyder. Tesla is screaming foul, calling a 2014 Michigan law unconstitutional, because it seems to have been designed to protect auto titan and Michigan darling, General Motors. Apparently, the Great Lake state doesn’t take kindly to automakers selling their cars directly to (gasp!) consumers and refuses to issue a dealership license to the maker of the pish-posh battery-operated cars. Car salesmen find Tesla’s business model positively odious because it has the car company selling its motorized wares directly to the folks who will ultimately be driving them, thereby cutting out the middleman i.e. car salesmen. Tesla, which is also suing Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson – her department officially rejected Tesla’s license application – is hoping a judge strikes down the the law because it impedes commerce between states. Tesla is currently barred from selling and repairing its cars in Michigan, as well as not being licensed to sell them in Connecticut, Texas and Utah.

IPO glam…

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There’s a new darling on Wall Street and this time it’s one that has very little to do with tech. Enter e.l.f. beauty  – which stands for eyes, lips, face (duh!) – a cosmetics company with 9 stores in the New York area, two stores in the L.A. area and is also sold in 19,000 retail locations including Walmart and Target, of course. E.l.f., which trades on the NYSE exchange under the ticker symbol ELF, is positively fabulous if only because of its super-special price point: it’s considerably lower than other brands with most of its products selling for $6 or less. Backed by private equity firm TPG, the IPO was set to debut between $14-$16 a share, but was then later priced at $17 per share with 8.3 million shares up for grabs.  None of that seemed to matter when it opened this morning at $24 a share and then soared 59% to $27.09. That gave the company a value of over $1 billion which is not bad for a company that sells a bargain product in a very crowded $57 billion global cosmetics industry.

Walmart’s Feeling Very Merry; Walmart’s Also Getting Grinchy; Campbell’s: Carrot’s Not Good Food!

Drones, scooters, lip gloss trucks…oh my!

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Those are just some of the goodies that are on Walmart’s top 25 toys for the holiday season. Wait! WWWWhhhhaaat? We didn’t even feast at our Labor Day barbecues yet and already the largest U.S. retailer is already gearing up for Christmas? Well, who can blame Walmart, after all? It has to compete against Toys R Us, Target, but most importantly, Amazon. In all fairness, there are only 114 days left until Christmas.  The toy industry sees 70% of annual sales occurring in the last two months of the year. No reason why that percentage can’t be increased. So it makes sense that Walmart is pulling out all the stops to upset the competition. Starting tomorrow you can even begin putting your holiday shopping on layaway. Just as long as the item(s) are a minimum of $50. Since toys that are inspired by movies outperform other toys by A LOT, Walmart is betting big on Star Wars, Disney and those ever-industrious Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Input for the top 25 toys came from kids between the ages of 1.5 years old to twelve years old, whose faves included a Star Wars Electronic R2D2 and a Num Noms Lip Gloss Truck. Personally I could go for both. Six of the top 25 toys will be exclusive to Walmart, with another 400 more exclusives that didn’t break the top 25. Nothing like a little exclusivity to gain that retail edge, right?

In other Walmart news…

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On the heels of expanding its layaway program, the country’s largest private employer will be laying off 7,000 of its employees. Those employees will hail from the ranks of accounting and invoicing. But don’t be so quick to judge. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. By cutting those 7,000 jobs, Walmart can hire more employees to work in its stores in customer-facing positions. Hey, don’t knock it. It’s the one-thing Amazon can’t do as well given its online domination. And no doubt, if those 7,000 employees want customer-facing roles, its likely Walmart will find a place for them. I think. The irony just warms the heart, doesn’t it? This latest initiative began in the summer, when 500 stores eliminated three administrative positions. The test was to determine if the functions of those positions could be redistributed to other employees, with some even being replaced by machines. Unfortunately for those whose jobs were eliminated, the test worked. Walmart made a huge push shifting spending to employees who work in the stores stocking shelves and dealing with customers. Walmart already plunked down $2.7 billion for wage increases to boost the wages of those employees. There must be something to be said for that approach as the retailer reported 79 weeks of rising customer satisfaction, eight straight quarters of increased sales and improved traffic.

That darn carrot!

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The world’s largest soup maker, Campbell’s Soup, reported smaller than expected adjusted profit for its fourth quarter. But the real story is the culprit behind that disappointing profit…carrots. Yes. Carrots. After all, how can you trust a vegetable that looks prettier than it tastes? Four years ago Campbell’s Soup bought Bolthouse Farms for $1.55 billion in order to expand its fresh and organic offerings. But this year a drought in California put quite the damper on the season’s carrot crop that led to lower sales of carrots – because of their higher-than-normal prices – and carrot-based products. Then there was that pesky recall of its protein drinks that also took those earnings on a very unpleasant dive. Campbell’s reported an $81 million net loss. However, that was tied to a $141 million pre-tax impairment charge from writing down the value of Bolthouse Farms. But still. The loss was painful. If that weren’t bad enough, the company also forecast earnings that were not what analysts were hoping to see. Instead of raking an estimated $3.15 for the year, Campbell’s only expects to take in between $3.00 and $3.09. Wall Street is so not into earnings forecast reductions. But Campbell’s still felt confident enough to raise its quarterly dividend from 31.2 cents to 35 cents. So maybe soup is good food after all.

Twitter’s Attempts to Tweet Out Terror; Wal-Mart Boffo Earnings; EPA Calls Out Harley-Davidson

Tweet this…

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Looks like ISIS is going to have to find itself a new social media platform as Twitter pats itself on the back today after announcing it suspended 235,000 terrorist-related accounts in the last six months. That figure was about double over the previous period and the social media company went to great lengths getting bigger teams to review reports of flagged content on the site on a round the-clock-basis. Better spam detection and language capabilities also helped with the endeavor as the amount of time between content getting flagged and shutting down that content has gone down. But the great effort only really came about after Twitter took a lot of heat for allowing terrorist-related content to gain a big foothold on ISIS’s preferred site. Even the director of the FBI said how “Twitter was a devil on their shoulder” back in 2015. ISIS could have given courses on how to optimize media engagement as the terror organization regularly used Twitter to spread propaganda, recruit fellow murderers, raise funds for their evil ways and publicize its horrific actions. But to be fair, Twitter does have a policy in place prohibiting the promotion of violence and terrorism.  In any case, while Twitter concedes there’s no real “magic algorithm,”  to finding and shutting down terrorist activities on its site, there has been a noticeable drop on Twitter of all things ISIS and other terror-related organizations.

What bad retail landscape?

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It’s good to be Wal-Mart as the largest retailer in all the land posted better than expected results with revenue of $121 billion and a $3.8 billion profit for the second quarter, adding $1.21 per share. Analysts predicted shares would only gain $1.02. That profit was a very welcome 9% increase over last year’s $3.5 billion second quarter profit while the revenue figure beat projections by about $2 billion. If Macy’s Kohl’s and Target are left scratching their heads after their disappointing earnings, perhaps they should take a page or two from Wal-Mart’s playbook. The company made a major push in its e-commerce division, which always helps matters when you’re competing with the likes of Amazon.  Wal-Mart also increased its full year earnings outlook to $4.15- $4.35, up from $4.00 – $4.30. In addition to lower gas prices and warm weather, Wal-Mart brass attribute its great earnings to the boost they gave to employee wages which they think led to better customer experiences. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. But there’s no denying the  company experienced stronger than expected sales growth.

Exhaust-ed…

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Look out VW. There’s a new emissions offender in town. This time the dubious distinction goes to iconic motorcycle maker, Harley-Davidson, who has to pay a $12 million penalty and another $3 million to fund a clean-air project.  The U.S. claims the company violated air pollution laws through its “super-tuner” devices.  These devices, while improving engine performance, also caused the exhaust levels for those engines to increase well beyond what they were allowed. Then there were some 12,682 bikes that were also found to be short of regulatory requirements. Even though Harley-Davidson graciously disagrees with the EPA’s findings, it settled if only to avoid a long-drawn out and very expensive legal battle. As part of the settlement, Harley-Davidson doesn’t even have to admit wrongdoing. After all, who likes to admit when they’re wrong, eh? In any case, the company will cease selling the devices by August 23 and will have to buy back and destroy the devices from the dealerships. Naturally, shares of Harley-Davidson did take an 8% hit following the news of its own emissions scandal, but they recovered relatively quickly. Sort of.