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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Small Local Retailers Struggling To Compete With National Brands (As Usual)

Have you noticed #brands in your feed, invited or not? Of course you have. Social media and email marketing are powerful channels for anyone selling a product to reach potential customers. The goal is to usher people toward the gaping maw of a sales funnel. Granted, at the moment ecommerce accounts for less than ten percent of retail sales, but the numbers are higher when it comes to apparel. A tenth may not seem like much, but the market-share is steadily growing.

Amazon logistics center in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Álvaro Ibáñez.
Amazon logistics center in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Álvaro Ibáñez.

National or international brands have the resources and know-how to use digital sales channels with utmost savvy (notwithstanding marketers’ cringeworthy affinity for youth culture). Can smaller businesses keep up? It’s more difficult to coax a customer into your brick-and-mortar shop than it is to get them to click a link. Even when small businesses are based online, lacking economies of scale means that they can’t offer the tempting perks and discounts that big brands do. Keeping everything on sale, all the time, eats into your margins.

The proprietor of a now-closed outdoorsy retailer in Wisconsin, who prefers not to be identified by name or city, doesn’t see big brands “supporting the little guy”. In an email she explained, “Certain brands keep separate inventories for their retailers versus their online business […]. It is hard to explain to a customer that you can’t get an item, when they can go to the brand’s website and buy it direct. The brands generally offer free shipping and many times 15%-off coupon deals just for sharing their email.”

She observed, “Customers are being trained to only buy with a deal or incentive.” On the phone, this former store-owner described a man who went into a local sporting goods shop to examine the products, while as the same time searching for the best deals on his smartphone. “He had absolutely no qualms about that,” she told me. Instead of buying from the store whose inventory he was touching and evaluating, he bought from Amazon or a similar retail aggregator, in order to save a couple of dollars.

Instagram post by REI.
Instagram post by REI.

From the customer’s point of view, shopping online for the best possible deal makes complete sense. Most won’t even bother to take advantage of testing a local store’s physical goods. Why wouldn’t you purchase the same thing cheaper without even having to leave your home? Everyone knows Amazon is a cutthroat company willing to crush competitors of all sizes, but that doesn’t stop people from shopping there, and it never will. If you can pay less to buy a parka online, and have it delivered to your doorstep, the alternative must be very attractive to entice you to do otherwise.

In 2013, technology analyst Ben Thompson wrote, “With the loss of friction,” meaning hassles and barriers to action, “there is necessarily the loss of everything built on friction, including value, privacy, and livelihoods. […] The Internet is pulling out the foundations of nearly every institution and social more that our society is built upon.”

Thompson continued, “Count me with those who believe the Internet is on par with the industrial revolution, the full impact of which stretched over centuries. And it wasn’t all good. Like today, the industrial revolution included a period of time that saw many lose their jobs and a massive surge in inequality. It also lifted millions of others out of sustenance farming.” It’s not all good, but it’s not all bad either. However, when you’re a family business-owner who is being “disrupted”, it’s almost entirely bad.

Traffic on Pyrmont Bridge in Sydney, Australia. Photo via Powerhouse Museum.
Traffic on Pyrmont Bridge in Sydney, Australia. Photo via Powerhouse Museum.

The analogy doesn’t work in every respect, but mostly this is the current state of affairs: Traditional retailers are horse-drawn carriages compared to steam-powered trains, or traditional taxis compared to Uber. Because of the internet, anyone can easily set up the infrastructure to sell directly to end users. Adjust your value proposition and differentiate or die, because the market doesn’t care about your ability to put food on the table.

This is the hard truth retailers have to confront: If you can’t compete on price or convenience you have to compete on quality, but it’s impossible to compete on quality when you’re selling the exact same product that people can easily buy online for less money. All you’re left with is the experience, the feelings you can evoke and the values you extol, urging customers to “shop local” and, as the anonymous Wisconsin store-owner said, “support the little guy”. She suggested staging events and collaborating with other local businesses, all boosting the community together. Her store used to host yoga classes run by a local instructor. Then Lululemon moved in down the street and also hosted yoga classes — free ones.

Castle in the Air is a truly gorgeous shop in Berkeley, California.
Castle in the Air is a truly gorgeous shop in Berkeley, California. Photo via Yelp user Michele C.

This is all very grim. Does the internet revolution mean that retailers based in physical stores should give up hope entirely? Of course not. It means that you have to be intentional about your business strategy, and understand the ways in which you can and cannot compete. It means you have to double down when it comes to reaching the customers who you can actually serve, to whom you can offer a benefit that is meaningful to them.

Understand that shopping in person instead of defaulting to the cheapest, highest-rated item on Amazon is now a luxury. Craft a rewarding experience, whether rustic or glossy, for the customers who show up in person.

Written in early June, 2015. Languished in my Google Drive until now.

Tech Is Only Awful Like People Are Awful

News-media analyst Ken Doctor wrote, “The web may have opened unbelievable frontiers of human thought and interaction, but it’s driven by the same business principles as all other enterprise.” Basically, the market is always the market. Self-interest is a perpetual motivator and supply-demand dynamics continue to exist.

The internet changes a lot, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals of economics. It changes the cost (or lack thereof) of some specific things, like distributing information, but it doesn’t change basic human behavior. It’s kind of ludicrous that anyone might expect it to.

DARPA's Warrior Web project may provide super-human enhancements
Photo via US Army RDECOM.

So here’s the point, which has been made before: Everything we don’t like about the implications of technology boils down to something we don’t like about the way humans organize ourselves. Because — to risk repetition — technology doesn’t change humanity; it simply enables us to express our persistent nature in new/different/tweaked ways.

For example, as Adam Elkus wrote on Slate, “Algorithms are impersonal, biased, emotionless, and opaque because bureaucracy and power are impersonal, emotionless, and opaque and often characterized by bias, groupthink, and automatic obedience to procedure.” An algorithm like the one that defines Facebook’s Newsfeed didn’t spring into being independent of people’s choices; it was constructed and enacted based on such choices.

DARPA's Warrior Web project may provide super-human enhancements
Photo via US Army RDECOM.

Most consumers don’t know, think, or care about the value judgments being made by the engineers and programmers who design the functionality of apps, phones, thermostats, cars, etc. As long as a product gives us something pleasurable or useful, we brush aside collateral concerns. (Apathy toward data collection is a great example of this.)

Industries respond to what people — and aggregates of people — actually care about, which is expressed via money. As Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker, “Markets are designed to make their own rationality. Where people put their cash reflects what they think and desire.”

Society is unjust because people are unjust, individually and collectively. We often don’t truly care about the things we claim are crucial, or the principles we tout as cherished values. (God save reporters’ salaries.) This is reflected in how humans make and use technology, just as it’s reflected in every other human endeavour. Susie Cagle’s series “The Crooked Valley” illustrates this (literally) very well.

The Negatively Promising Future of Bitcoin

physical bitcoin
Photo by Antana.

I could have called this post, “Why I’m Bearish On Bitcoin”. The draft has been in my notes for a long time. I might as well see if anyone will bother to flesh out the idea, or disagree with me — either reaction is welcome! Digital currencies are on my mind today because I had lunch with my friend Eva Gantz, who is the community manager at Stellar. She is, coincidentally, stellar! Anyway…

Bitcoin believer needs micropayments
Photo by scottks.

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin will fail because of the feature for which they are most lauded: theoretically, no trust required. Veteran journalist Felix Salmon has noted this flaw, as has Sidney Sida Zhang. Cryptocurrencies don’t just incorporate anonymity and lack of trust — they depend on it. Unfortunately for the future of techno-libertarian money, trust is what makes human systems work.

I struggle with this in my personal life. I like to be in control, but I have to outsource what I don’t know how to do, or don’t have time to do. For example, someone else grows the food that I eat. Someone else wrote the code for my website. Someone else takes care of plumbing infrastructure. I have to trust all those people to do their jobs. To a certain extent I can verify them, through consumer and political procedures, through tracking journalism, but eventually it comes down to trust. Trust is essential societal grease.

bitcoin accepted here
Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

That’s my entire hypothesis, pretty much. Here’s some interesting cryptocurrency reading (in addition to the articles I linked above by Salmon and Zhang):

I emailed Martin Weigert about this a while ago, and he told me, “I have not worried so much about trust when it comes to Bitcoin. But probably that is because I have only bought like a half Bitcoin so far, so there was always the acceptance of a potential total loss.” Then he asked if my qualms were about Bitcoin specifically or the whole technological basis of it. The following is my response:

beautiful bitcoin wallpaper
Artwork by Jason Benjamin.

From what I’ve read, the base technology is pretty sound. People are very excited about the blockchain. The concern is re: wallets and banks. Inevitably you have to trust a third party to “take care of” your Bitcoins, and sometimes that doesn’t go well, when banks are hacked or abscond with the funds. So the third party must be trustworthy. There have to be checks and balances, leading to centralized authorities, which is what Bitcoin enthusiasts wanted to circumvent.

Then I dropped more links into the thread:

So? What do you think?

Computers Can’t Take All The Jobs Without Ruining The Economy As We Know It

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about computers making people’s jobs obsolete. Zeynep Tufekci writes in The New York Times, “Yes, the machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs.” Okay, everybody panic.

scary computer
Illustration via

But wait—if a huge swathe of the people who formerly had disposable income are unemployed, it’ll wreak havoc on the economy. When people don’t have money to buy things/services, businesses will stop making things and providing services. Supply and demand, right?

Purely hypothetical example: Whole Foods lays off a logistics analyst because software does the job faster, cheaper, and possibly better. The unemployed analyst can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods anymore. Therefore Whole Foods has lost a customer because of its new software.

Picture this happening on a massive scale, and consider the cross-company effects. Laid-off analysts or middle managers — or whoever — also can’t afford Apple products, or fancy branded clothes, or [insert product purchased with disposable income, frivolous or not].

Am I missing something here? I feel like this is a big problem with the idea that computers are going to take all the jobs and we won’t figure out new occupations for people. If you have thoughts on this, please actually respond!

The Facebook comments are interesting, as is the thought my dad posted below.

Would George Orwell Buy The Apple Watch?

grumpy Apple Watch
Photo by @cajigasjd on Instagram.

I pulled quotes representing some essential insights from Martin Weigert’s article on how smart wearables (specifically the Apple Watch) will accelerate mass surveillance. It’s arguable that the tech press has done an about-face on this issue. As Weigert remarks:

“[M]any of the people who have expressed their concerns about systematic mass surveillance now eagerly line up for an Apple Watch [even though] a universal wearable like that is one more major step towards a world of constant and ubiquitous surveillance.”

Perhaps people trust Apple enough that they’re not worried? Tim Cook is explicitly pro-privacy and Apple has been decent about keeping user information safe. But it’s more likely that people don’t actually care about day-to-day surveillance. I mean, I’m apathetic personally, just not politically.

IMO, mass surveillance by the public of the public would be a good thing. Everyone watching everyone would be okay if all the data was publicly available and publicly negotiated. However, the world where people with power surveil little-suspecting citizens and privately hoard the reams of data is terrifying. Corporations and government bodies don’t have a good track record re: human rights.

To be clear, this is not an abstract future. We already live in a plutocratic oligarchy of citizen data, or rather we live in sets of overlapping plutocracies and oligarchies. Google shares with the CIA and shrugs off the tiny PR hit whenever journalists try to remind people ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Illustration by Hisham Almiraat via Global Voices Online.
surveillance graffiti
Photo by nolifebeforecoffee.

Weigert gives an example of how law enforcement agencies could use the body data that wearables collect:

“A person for whom the algorithm finds slightly suspicious online behaviour, and whose body values indicate a high level of unusual stress? Flagged for closer examination.”

Lest you scoff at the proposed ubiquity of wearables, Weigert reminds the naysayers who expect the Apple Watch to fail:

“While smartwatches do not seem essential from the get-go to many, the history of the digital age taught us that we usually suck at evaluating the future perceived or actual value of new technology.”

Apple Watch Edition, gold
Photo by Jacky Liang on Instagram.

The Apple Watch is here, possibly here to stay, and there’s a high likelihood that we should be worried. This device is not the first of its kind, and surely not the last.

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