Uber Drama Revs Up; Gymboree’s Next Chapter in Life: 11; Aldi Ready to Feed You For Less. Much Less

These are the days of Uber’s life…

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The Silicon Valley soap opera we call Uber is making awkward, unpleasant headlines again. This time it’s because the rumor mill is swirling with talk that Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, is about to take a leave of absence. Which begs the question about how this new development will affect Uber, if at all. Then we turn our attention to the now ex-number two honcho at the ride-sharing company, Emil Michael, who has left the Uber building. It’s doubtful he’ll be missed that much since he was apparently pressured to step down. In fact, Kalanick was advised to let Michael go earlier this year, however he declined to entertain that suggestion – a decision that eventually bit him in his corporate butt. Perhaps had Kalanick let Michael go when asked to do so, he might not find himself figuring out how to spend all his newfound free time. All this unpleasantness – well for Kalanick and Michael, anyway – ensued following a meeting with Eric Holder’s law firm. You remember him, dontcha? He’s the former U.S. Attorney General and if he’s got some recommendations, it’s prudent to follow them. Holder’s firm was retained by Uber to conduct internal investigations following accusations of sexual harassment and gender bias. The findings, his firm reported, were “ugly.” That doesn’t bode well for the world’s most valuable privately held company, now does it?

Another one bites the dust…

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Today’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is brought to you by Gymboree, the children’s clothing store chain which can be found in just about any mall in the United States. Well, maybe not for much longer. The company still plans to remain in business, it’s just going to be shuttering anywhere from 375 to 450 of its stores. But rest assured, if you’re a frequent patron of the chain, there will still be well over 800 stores left from which to do your kids’ clothes shopping. If you are at all shocked about the store closures and bankruptcy filing, then clearly you aren’t one of the many creditors Gymboree refused to pay in the last few months. With increasing online competition and a major slowdown in mall traffic, it’s no wonder Gymboree just couldn’t make bank. The company is staring down the wrong end of $1.4 billion worth of debt and hopes to nail down a plan to help it shed about $1 billion of it.  The kicker, though, is that the company is still profitable, a bonus that a lot of analysts think will help propel Gymboree towards a bright, shinier fiscally nourishing future.

Grab your cart…

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Grocery chain Aldi has got some lofty goals. And if you’re thinking you’ve never heard of the chain, then just wait. The company just announced a $3.4 billion plan to make sure you do. Aldi has set its grocer sights on becoming the third largest grocery chain behind Kroger and Walmart. The grocery store chain currently boasts 1,600 locations from which to purchase your groceries, but by 2022, it expects to have 2,200 stores gracing the country.  Some 1,300 of its pre-existing stores are also being treated to a $1.6 billion remodel. And who doesn’t love a little remodel? However, the biggest thrill of all is that Aldi is going to attempt to price its merchandise over 20% lower than its rivals while adding 25,000 jobs in the process. If that doesn’t sound appetizing, the I don’t know what does.

Amazon’s Kindness Almost Knows No Bounds; Uber Cleans House; Crew-Cut: CEO Drexel Waves a Preppy Goodbye

Yep, they went there…

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It’s the American Dream. Well, for Amazon anyway. Rather than worry about disenfranchising an entire portion of the population that can’t comfortably afford Amazon’s Prime subscription service, the e-commerce giant is now offering this highly esteemed membership privilege for a 50% discount to those on government assistance. All it takes is a valid Electronic Benefits Transfer card. Because why should the fact that someone is receiving government assistance stand in the way of their Amazon shopping experience, right? It is incredibly thoughtful of Amazon to think of those less fortunate by reducing the cost of subscription for them. However, if it were not to Amazon’s fiscal advantage, then this latest initiative might not have been unveiled. That fiscal advantage comes in the form of a competitive edge over Walmart, whose low prices have attracted the very countless customers that Amazon is trying to woo with this new incentive. After all, studies have shown that once customers sign up for Prime status, they tend to beef up their orders. So, we’re talking a win-win for Amazon. And a lose for Walmart.

Job openings…

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Looks like karma may finally be catching up with some folks over at Uber, as the ride-sharing company just fired 20 employees over sexual harassment claims. Apparently 215 claims were leveled against these 20 individuals, which sort of begs the question: Was there anybody left at Uber who didn’t get sexually harassed? The investigation was conducted by law firm Perkins Coie and disturbingly enough, it found that no action was even taken in 100 of those claims. Oh, and there are still even more claims being investigated.  In addition to the 20 terminated fiends, seven other employees received written warnings, while 31 more employees need to get “special training” to teach them how not to harass people and behave like stupid, thoughtless destructive pieces of trash. CEO Travis Kalanick launched the investigation back in February after a former Uber employee named Susan Fowler wrote in a blog post about her personal experiences of sexual harassment and gender bias at the company. However, when asked about the issue back in May, Uber’s head of HR, Liane Hornsey, said it wasn’t an issue that had come up. Especially if you had your head firmly entrenched in the sand, of course.

And that’s a wrap…

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After 14 years, J. Crew’s Mickey Drexler is calling it quits and handing over the reins to West Elm CEO James Brett. While Drexler may be out as CEO, he’ll still stay on as Chairman. And why not? After all, he owns 10% of the preppy apparel company. Drexel decided to step down from his role after declining sales – 6% in just the last year – led to a whole bunch of other problems including restructuring, layoffs and the departure of its pseudo-celebrity, high-profile creative director, Jenna Lyons. Not that any of that was entirely Drexel’s fault. Only a bit of it, some might argue. Because apparently the problems and challenges he faced were industry wide for apparel companies in general, as so many of them continue to struggle to get a leg up on fast-fashion, affordable competitors like Zara and H&M.

 

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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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.

Starbuck$$$ Coffee Buzz Gets Pricier; JPMorgan Ups the Minimum Pay Game; Drop in Job Openings Bums Out Economists

And then it happened…

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If there’s one thing you can rely on at Starbucks, besides the quality of their coffee, it’s that come July, the company will raise its prices. Today, the company did just that for the third year in a row. What Starbucks dubs as a “small price adjustment” shouldn’t be too bad. Well, that is, depending on what you purchased. Hey, if you don’t like it, blame rising coffee costs. And Starbucks, too, I suppose. The amount of Americans who drink coffee is expected to rise by 1.5%. The more people drink, the more the beans cost. Just another case of supply and demand, my friend. Prices went up between 10 cents to 20 cents on its brewed coffee, and between 10 cents and 30 cents on its espresso beverages and tea lattes. However, the price increases vary depending on which region you find your local Starbucks. In the grand scheme of things, purchases only actually increase by about 1%. Plus, the price went up on only 35% of its beverages. Which means that 65% of its beverages remain unchanged, price-wise, for those of you who shun change. But in all fairness, Starbucks is giving its employees a 5% raise come fall, not to mention doubling stock awards for employees who have been there for two years or more. Not that their raises and stock awards had anything to do with boosting the price of your chai latte, mind you.

Dimon in the rough…

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Starbucks isn’t the only company who is giving its hardworking employees a raise. Enter JPMorgan, the second most profitable company in the United States, who is about to give 18,000 of its employees a much appreciated boost in their paychecks. And this time, the employees aren’t even the ones who regularly rake in big bonuses. JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon will be raising the company’s minimum pay by 18% for employees who are mostly bank tellers and customer service representatives. These employees currently receive $10.15 per hour, but over the next three years will see increases of $12 per hour and then $16.50 per hour, depending on several factors. The company is also beefing up its in-house training programs as well, to the tune of $200 million, that will train thousands of entry level employees who work in consumer banking. Mr. Dimon says the new initiative is all about addressing concerns over income inequality, an issue that’s been getting a lot of negative attention, usually directed at Mr. Dimon and his peers. He also says it’s a way to attract and retain talent – an idea that company’s like Walmart, Target and McDonald’s have already started putting into practice. But leave it to the skeptics to whip out their negative spin and question if Dimon’s motives have more to do with a shrinking labor pool, and if JPMorgan is just getting ahead of an issue that might pose a problem in the future. The cost of raising the minimum pay by 18% will cost JPMorgan just about $100 million, which is just $7 million shy of the total 2015 compensation for Jamie Dimon and his four top-named executives.

Book of jobs…

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Even though JPMorgan and Starbucks are giving its employees more money to attract and retain great employees, the Bureau of Labor Statistics paints a very different employment picture. According to its latest report, job openings dropped to a five month low in May, with just 5.5 million jobs up for grabs, even though that same month also saw 5 million people getting hired. Not to be a downer, but that was the lowest rate since November 2014. At least voluntary quits fell to a 4 month low, with just 2.9 million leaving their jobs, presumably for better opportunities. Yet in April, job openings were at an all-time high. All these mixed numbers might just mean that the economy is not as healthy as we think it is. The Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, a.k.a JOLTS, is the division of the Bureau of Labor Statistics that tracks job openings, hires and separations. The Labor Department, which reports just on job creation and unemployment, reported that employers only managed to create 11,000 new jobs in May. In case you’re wondering why that’s a bad thing, then consider that those 11,000 jobs were 25 times less than the amount of jobs created in May of 2015. At least the number of layoffs and firings in May fell to a ten month low of 1.67 million. Economists, however, still think these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Which is easy for them to say since they seem to be gainfully employed.

Lookout China! Here Comes Walmart. Again; To Brexit? Or Not to Brexit? That is the Question; Volkswagen’s Emission Impossible

Ni-hao, Walmart…

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Because Walmart isn’t big enough, the retailer has now teamed up with China’s number two e-commerce site to take on…China. Alibaba, in case you hand’t heard, holds the illustrious top spot. In any case, Walmart will be selling its commerce marketplace in China to JD.com and in return Walmart will gain about 5% of JD.com’s total shares, which comes out to about 145 million shares, give or take. Those shares are said be valued at about $3 billion, depending on whom you ask. By the way, in terms of revenue growth, JD.com has outpaced Alibaba for almost the last two years. Walmart currently has a marketplace platform in place in China called Yihaodian, but JD.com will be taking it over in hopes of finally achieving some solid retail love in China, which has eluded the mega-tailer, thus far. Walmart’s thinking positive thoughts that this deal will help increase its market-share in one of the biggest economies in the world. Walmart opened its first store in China back in 1996, yet it is a bit bummed because it only has about 430 stores there as expansion in China has been underwhelming.

Hail or not to the Brexit?

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June 23rd’s Brexit vote is just around the corner so it would be prudent to discuss why the U.S. should care about British politics, even if its politicians aren’t nearly as entertaining as ours. So, in case you hadn’t heard, at issue is whether Britain should exit from the EU. Hence, the term “Brexit.” Catchy, huh? Brexit advocates cherish their sovereignty and find that as a member of the EU, they don’t find themselves enjoying their sovereignty quite the way they’d like. While that is awfully patriotic, there are major MAJOR economic drawbacks to a Brexit. British Prime Minister David Cameron is worried that a Brexit will hurt wages and usher in an era of uncertain economic stability. Economists and other assorted experts on the matter are worried that the pound, Britain’s currency, will plunge in value, should Britain make a run for it. A plunge in value of a currency is never a good thing, especially for the country whose currency is sent plunging. Of course, tourists and others buying Bristish goods and services might not mind that so much since everything for sale there would become a relative bargain. It’s also important to consider the potential epic losses for Americans whose economic interests are heavily dependent on exports to the U.K. But there are also plenty of other Americans who might become inclined to ditch their investments and other economic opportunities in Britain as well. An exit from the EU would require all sorts of new trade agreements – for everyone  – and those things just take forever to draw up. Britain’s interests would almost certainly take a back seat to the bigger and more profitable interests of the loftier EU. As of now, there are no tariffs between the 27 members of the EU. A Brexit would change that for Britain and make tariffs a way of life, together with high tea and Harrod’s. So I guess it’s a good sign – just not for Brexit advocates – that polls show a Brexit isn’t likely.  The British sterling rose and one of its indexes, the FTSE  (rhymes with tootsie) also picked up some steam as a result of the anti-Brexit poll numbers.

Smelling a rat…

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Ex-Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn is under investigation, which probably shocks no one. He is under investigation because German prosecutors suspect that Winterkorn violated securities laws since he waited too long to disclose to investors the potential cost of the ugly emissions scandal that continues to plague the auto maker. If you recall, the EPA is more than a bit peeved that Volkswagen manipulated results of emissions tests on its vehicles, with more than 11 million diesel vehicles poisoning the air we breathe. Winterkorn apparently knew about the emissions problems for over a year before he made any comments on it. He should have said something well before September 22, 2015. But he didn’t. And herein lies the problem. Even if he did resign days later. Of course, blame games in major companies have become somewhat of a sport, or in this case, a veritable comedy. Executives at the company are pointing fingers at a handful of mid-level employees – I kid you not – and assume that the public is going to believe them when they say that top management were completely oblivious to emissions manipulations taking place right under their executive-polished noses. Incidentally, there is another executive who is also under investigation but his/her identity has yet to be revealed. What has been revealed is that it is not ex-Volkwagen CFO Hans Dieter Poetsch. Lucky him.  According to the investigation, 17 people are said to be involved. But in the meantime, hundreds of lawsuits continue to mount against Volkswagen, and the car company has plans to pony up a $10 billion settlement in the U.S. come June 28.