Amazon

How Grifters Gamed Amazon to Sell the ‘Mueller Report’ Already

16 April 2019

From The Daily Beast:

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report on the Trump campaign will be released Thursday, the Justice Department announced Monday. Like all public reports, the document will be free to read.

That hasn’t stopped people from trying to sell Mueller report books on Amazon for months.

Amazon’s book listings are an SEO cesspool where grifters try to peddle ebooks on every trending topic. In recent months, self-published works on the anti-vaccination and QAnon conspiracy theories have soared in Amazon’s ratings. So as readers clamored to see the full Mueller report, publishing houses and self-published authors rushed to sell books on the still-unpublished document.

Alan Dershowitz, the celebrity lawyer and frequent Fox News guest, has not read the Mueller report yet. No one has, aside from Mueller’s team of investigators and Attorney General William Barr. But for more than a month, Dershowitz and the publishing house Skyhorse have been selling a book with the full text of the report, plus a foreword from Dershowitz.

. . . .

“There has never been a more important political investigation than Robert S. Mueller III’s into President Donald Trump’s possible collusion with Russia,” a product description for Dershowitz’s book reads. “His momentous findings can be found here.”

Of course, Dershowitz can’t write a foreword for a report he hasn’t read, and Skyhorse can’t publish the still-unreleased report’s text. Instead, Skyhorse has advertised the book on Amazon for more than a month, moving its anticipated release date back as weeks pass. The publisher now advertises as “placeholder” release date of April 30. (It was originally March 26.)

The flexible release date hasn’t stopped buyers from pre-ordering Dershowitz’s book. Amazon currently lists it as the “#1 Best Seller” in “federal jurisdictional law” category.

. . . .

Melville House, a Brooklyn-based publisher, is one of several outlets to reformat these reports as books worth buying. The publisher did brisk business selling physical copies of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, repackaging the dense report as a readable paperback. Melville House is one of several publishers promising to sell physical copies of the Mueller report as soon as it can get the text through the printing presses.

But the crush of Mueller report titles on Amazon can leave smaller publishers scrambling to differentiate their reprints of the public report. One such book promises to be an “exclusive edition of Robert Mueller’s full-length report” and “the first to contain” a selection of accompanying documents. Other Amazon titles offer breathless praise for the yet-to-be-seen document. “History may judge The Mueller Report as the most important document of our time,” reads the product description of a Mueller report book with introductions by two former congressmen.

. . . .

Empty gag books like these, which hope to climb Amazon’s charts by latching on to popular search terms, are relatively common. In 2017, a blank 266-page book called Reasons to Vote for Democrats reached the top spot on Amazon’s book charts.

Link to the rest at The Daily Beast

PG thinks Amazon is tarnishing its brand by not working to stem this sort of activity. It has to be hurting legit indie authors.

The Golden Age of Youtube Is Over

13 April 2019

From The Verge:

The platform was built on the backs of independent creators, but now YouTube is abandoning them for more traditional content.

. . . .

Aanny Philippou is mad.

He’s practically standing on top of his chair as his twin brother and fellow YouTube creator Michael stares on in amusement. Logan Paul, perhaps YouTube’s most notorious character, laughs on the other side of the desk that they’re all sitting around for an episode of his popular podcast Impaulsive. Anyone who’s watched the Philippous’ channel, RackaRacka, won’t be surprised by Danny’s antics. This is how he gets when he’s excited or angry. This time, he’s both.

“It’s not fair what they’re doing to us,” Danny yells. “It’s just not fair.”

Danny, like many other creators, is proclaiming the death of YouTube — or, at least, the YouTube that they grew up with. That YouTube seemed to welcome the wonderfully weird, innovative, and earnest, instead of turning them away in favor of late-night show clips and music videos.

The Philippou twins hover between stunt doubles and actors, with a penchant for the macabre. But YouTube, the platform where they built their audience base, doesn’t seem to want them anymore.

. . . .

The Philippous’ story is part of a long-brewing conflict between how creators view YouTube and how YouTube positions itself to advertisers and press. YouTube relies on creators to differentiate itself from streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, it tells creators it wants to promote their original content, and it hosts conferences dedicated to bettering the creator community. Those same creators often feel abandoned and confused about why their videos are buried in search results, don’t appear on the trending page, or are being quietly demonetized.

At the same time, YouTube’s pitch decks to advertisers increasingly seem to feature videos from household celebrity names, not creative amateurs. And the creators who have found the most success playing into the platform’s algorithms have all demonstrated profound errors in judgment, turning themselves into cultural villains instead of YouTube’s most cherished assets.

. . . .

YouTube was founded on the promise of creating a user-generated video platform, but it was something else that helped the site explode in popularity: piracy.

When Google bought YouTube in 2006 for $1.6 billion, the platform had to clean up its massive piracy problems. It was far too easy to watch anything and everything on YouTube, and movie studios, television conglomerates, and record labels were seething. Under Google, YouTube had to change. So YouTube’s executives focused on lifting up the very content its founders designed the platform with in mind: original videos.

The focus on creator culture defined YouTube culture from its earliest days. The platform was a stage for creators who didn’t quite fit into Hollywood’s restrictions.

. . . .

Between 2008 and 2011, the volume of videos uploaded to YouTube jumped from 10 hours every minute to 72 hours a minute. By 2011, YouTube had generated more than 1 trillion views; people were watching over 3 billion hours of video every month, and creators were earning real money via Google AdSense — a lot of money. Jenna Marbles was making more than six figures by late 2011. (In 2018, a select group of creators working within YouTube’s top-tier advertising platform would make more than $1 million a month.)

By 2012, creators like Kjellberg were leaving school or their jobs to focus on YouTube full-time. He told a Swedish news outlet that he was getting more than 2 million views a month, boasting just over 300,000 subscribers.

. . . .

Between 2011 and 2015, YouTube was a haven for comedians, filmmakers, writers, and performers who were able to make the work they wanted and earn money in the process. It gave birth to an entirely new culture that crossed over into the mainstream: Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl series would eventually lead to HBO’s Insecure. Creators like the Rooster Teeth team and Tyler Oakley went on tour to meet fans after generating massive followings online. YouTube had reached mainstream success, but in many ways, it still felt wide open. Anyone could still upload almost anything they wanted without much input from YouTube itself.

. . . .

Behind the scenes, things were changing. YouTube had begun tinkering with its algorithm to increase engagement and experimenting with ways to bring flashier, produced content to the platform to keep up with growing threats like Netflix.

In October 2012, YouTube announced that its algorithm had shifted to prefer videos with longer watch times over higher view counts. “This should benefit your channel if your videos drive more viewing time across YouTube,” the company wrote in a blog post to creators.

This meant viral videos like “David After Dentist” and “Charlie Bit My Finger,” which defined YouTube in its earliest days, weren’t going to be recommended as much as longer videos that kept people glued to the site. In response, the YouTube community began creating videos that were over 10 minutes in length as a way to try to appease the system.

. . . .

In 2011, YouTube invested $100 million into more than 50 “premium” channels from celebrities and news organizations, betting that adding Hollywood talent and authoritative news sources to the platform would drive up advertising revenue and expand YouTube to an even wider audience. It failed less than two years later, with what appeared to be a clear lesson: talent native to YouTube was far more popular than any big names from the outside.

. . . .

Then, suddenly, creators started encountering problems on the platform. In 2016, personalities like Philip DeFranco, comedians like Jesse Ridgway, and dozens of other popular creators started noticing that their videos were being demonetized, a term popularized by the communityto indicate when something had triggered YouTube’s system to remove advertisements from a video, depriving them of revenue. No one was quite sure why, and it prompted complaints about bigger algorithm changes that appeared to be happening.

Kjellberg posted a video detailing how changes had dropped his viewership numbers. He’d been getting 30 percent of his traffic from YouTube’s suggested feed, but after the apparent algorithm update, the number fell to less than 1 percent. Kjellberg jokingly threatened to delete his channel as a result, which was enough to get YouTube to issue a statementdenying that anything had changed. (The denial sidestepped questions of the algorithm specifically, and spoke instead to subscriber counts.)

These perceived, secretive changes instilled creators with a distrust of the platform. It also led to questions about their own self-worth and whether the energy they were spending on creating and editing videos — sometimes north of 80 hours a week — was worth it.

. . . .

YouTube was exerting more control over what users saw and what videos would make money. Once again, the community would adapt. But how it adapted was far more problematic than anyone would have guessed.

. . . .

By the beginning of 2017, YouTube was already battling some of its biggest problems in more than a decade. YouTube’s founders didn’t prepare for the onslaught of disturbing and dangerous content that comes from people being able to anonymously share videos without consequence. Add in a moderation team that couldn’t keep up with the 450 hours of video that were being uploaded every minute, and it was a house of cards waiting to fall.

YouTube had come under fire in Europe and the United States for letting extremists publish terrorism recruitment videos to its platform and for letting ads run on those videos. In response, YouTube outlined the steps it was taking to remove extremist content, and it told advertisers it would be careful about where their ads were placed. It highlighted many creators as a safe option.

But neither YouTube nor Google was prepared for what Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg — one of YouTube’s wealthiest independently made creators — would do.

. . . .

In mid-February 2017, The Wall Street Journal discovered an older video from Kjellberg that included him reacting to a sign held up by two kids that said, “Death to all Jews.” The anti-Semitic comment was included in one of his “react” videos about Fiverr, after having pivoted to more of a variety channel instead of focusing just on games.

His video, along with reports of ads appearing on terrorist content, led to advertisers abandoning YouTube. Kjellberg was dropped from Disney’s Maker Studios, he lost his YouTube Red series, Scare PewDiePie, and he was removed from his spot in Google Preferred, the top-tier ad platform for YouTube’s most prominent creators.

“A lot of people loved the video and a lot of people didn’t, and it’s almost like two generations of people arguing if this is okay or not,” Kjellberg said in an 11-minute video about the situation. “I’m sorry for the words that I used, as I know they offended people, and I admit the joke itself went too far.”

The attention Kjellberg brought to YouTube kickstarted the first “adpocalypse,” a term popularized within the creator community that refers to YouTube aggressively demonetizing videos that might be problematic, in an effort to prevent companies from halting their ad spending.

Aggressively demonetizing videos would become YouTube’s go-to move.

. . . .

The January 2017 closure of Vine, a platform for looping six-second videos, left a number of creators and influencers without a platform, and many of those stars moved over to YouTube. David Dobrik, Liza Koshy, Lele Pons, Danny Gonzalez, and, of course, Jake and Logan Paul became instant successes on YouTube — even though many of them had started YouTube channels years before their success on Vine.

YouTube’s biggest front-facing stars began following in the footsteps of over-the-top, “bro” prank culture. (Think: Jackass but more extreme and hosted by attractive 20-somethings.) Logan Paul pretended to be shot and killed in front of young fans; Jake Paul rode dirt bikes into pools; David Dobrik’s friends jumped out of moving cars. The antics were dangerous, but they caught people’s attention.

. . . .

Jake and Logan Paul became the biggest stars of this new wave, performing dangerous stunts, putting shocking footage in their vlogs, and selling merchandise to their young audiences. Although they teetered on the edge of what was acceptable and what wasn’t, they never really crossed the line into creating totally reprehensible content.

. . . .

It wasn’t a sustainable form of entertainment, and it seemed like everyone understood that except for YouTube. The Paul brothers were on their way to burning out; all it would take was one grand mistake. Even critics of the Pauls, like Kjellberg, empathized with their position. Kjellberg, who faced controversy after controversy, spoke about feeling as though right or wrong ceased to exist when trying to keep up with the YouTube machine.

“The problem with being a YouTuber or an online entertainer is that you constantly have to outdo yourself,” Kjellberg said in a 2018 video. “I think a lot of people get swept up in that … that they have to keep outdoing themselves, and I think it’s a good reflection of what happened with Logan Paul. If you make videos every single day, it’s really tough to keep people interested and keep them coming back.”

Still, Logan Paul was small potatoes compared to YouTube’s bigger problems, including disturbing children’s content that had been discovered by The New York Times and more terrorism content surfacing on the site. Who cared about what two brothers from Ohio were doing? The breaking point would be when Logan Paul visited Japan.

. . . .

Logan Paul’s “suicide forest” video irrevocably changed YouTube.

In it, Paul and his friends tour Japan’s Aokigahara forest, where they encountered a man’s body. Based on the video, it appears that he had recently died by suicide. Instead of turning the camera off, Paul walks up to the body. He doesn’t stop there. He zooms in on the man’s hands and pockets. In post-production, Paul blurred the man’s face, but it’s hard to see the video as anything but an egregious gesture of disrespect.

Within hours of posting the video, Paul’s name began trending. Actors like Aaron Paul (no relation), influencers like Chrissy Teigen, and prominent YouTubers called out Paul for his atrocious behavior.

YouTube reacted with a familiar strategy: it imposed heavy restrictions on its Partner Program (which recognizes creators who can earn ad revenue on their videos), sharply limiting the number of videos that were monetized with ads. In a January 2018 blog post announcing the changes, Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s head of business, said the move would “allow us to significantly improve our ability to identify creators who contribute positively to the community,” adding that “these higher standards will also help us prevent potentially inappropriate videos from monetizing which can hurt revenue for everyone.”

. . . .

The only people who didn’t receive blame were YouTube executives themselves — something that commentators like Philip DeFranco took issue with after the controversy first occurred. “We’re talking about the biggest creator on YouTube posting a video that had over 6 million views, was trending on YouTube, that no doubt had to be flagged by tons of people,” DeFranco said.

“The only reason it was taken down is Logan or his team took it down, and YouTube didn’t do a damn thing. Part of the Logan Paul problem is that YouTube is either complicit or ignorant.”

. . . .

[B]y the middle of 2018, lifestyle vloggers like Carrie Crista, who has just under 40,000 subscribers, were proclaiming how the community felt: forgotten. “YouTube seems to have forgotten who made the platform what it is,” Crista told PR Week. In its attempt to compete with Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, she said, YouTube is “pushing content creators away instead of inviting them to a social platform that encourages them to be creative in a way that other platforms can’t.”

Even people outside of YouTube saw what was happening. “YouTube is inevitably heading towards being like television, but they never told their creators this,” Jamie Cohen, a professor of new media at Molloy College, toldUSA Today in 2018.

By promoting videos that meet certain criteria, YouTube tips the scales in favor of organizations or creators — big ones, mostly — that can meet those standards. “Editing, creating thumbnails, it takes time,” Juliana Sabo, a creator with fewer than 1,000 subscribers, said in 2018 after the YouTube Partner Program changes. “You’re just prioritizing a very specific type of person — the type of person that has the time and money to churn out that content.”

Individual YouTube creators couldn’t keep up with the pace of YouTube’s algorithm set. But traditional, mainstream outlets could: late-night shows began to dominate YouTube, along with music videos from major labels. The platform now looked the way it had when it started, but with the stamp of Hollywood approval.

. . . .

The RackaRacka brothers are tired.

“We loved it before when it was like, ‘Oh, you guys are doing something unique and different. Let’s help you guys so you can get views and get eyes on it,’” Danny says. “I’d love to go back to that. We have so many big, awesome ideas that we’d love to do, but there’s no point in doing it on YouTube.”

Link to the rest at The Verge

The OP is a very long article. PG has excerpted more than he might have from an article with a different topic, however.

While reading the article, PG was struck by parallels between how dependent indy videographers were on YouTube and how dependent indy authors are on Amazon.

A year ago, PG doesn’t believe he would have had the same response. The amateurism and arrogance demonstrated by YouTube management in the OP contrasted greatly with the maturity and steady hand at the top levels of Amazon. Amazon has not made many dumb mistakes. Amazon has also treated indy authors with respect and generosity beyond that shown by any other publisher/distributor/bookstore in the US (and probably elsewhere).

This is not to say Amazon is a perfect company or that it hasn’t made some mistakes, but Amazon has demonstrated good business judgment, done a pretty good job of fixing its errors and hasn’t changed the way it operates in a manner that has harmed indie authors in a serious way.

Obviously, Jeff Bezos, his attitudes, judgment and approach to dealing with others has imprinted itself up and down the corporate hierarchy at Amazon. That sure hand on the corporate helm has caused PG to trust Amazon more than he does any other large tech company.

Additionally, Amazon has been leagues beyond any other organization in the book publishing and bookselling business in attracting smart adults as managers, making intelligent business decisions, treating partners well and managing the business as if it wanted long-term success as a publisher and bookseller (see, as only one example of business as usual in the publishing world, Barnes & Noble).

However.

PG admits his faith in Jeff Bezos’ solid judgment took a big hit with the disclosure of Bezos’ marital misconduct and divorce.

This struck him as an immature example of the runaway hubris that has brought down quite a few large companies, particularly in the tech world.

PG is old-fashioned in his belief that the behavior of a virtuous individual will manifest itself in all parts of that individual’s life. He understands the common explanation for such behavior in terms of a person being able to segment his life into business and personal spheres and continue in public excellence while making serious mistakes in private behavior.

PG also understands that marriages can fail for a wide variety of reasons and assigning blame for such failure (if there is blame to be assigned) is impossible for someone who is not privy to the personal lives of each party. That said, PG suggests at least a separation, if not a divorce, would be a more standup approach by a mature adult exercising good judgment to a marriage that has declined to the point of a breakup.

A secret affair that is leaked to the press is not, in PG’s admittedly traditional eyes, up to the standards he has come to expect from Bezos. The general reaction PG has seen in the press leads PG to believe he is not alone in his opinion.

Mexico’s Walmart Pressures Suppliers on Pricing, Forcing Some to Ditch Amazon

8 April 2019
Comments Off on Mexico’s Walmart Pressures Suppliers on Pricing, Forcing Some to Ditch Amazon

From Nasdaq:

Walmart’s Mexico unit has penalized food companies supplying groceries to rival Amazon, pressure that has forced some to pull their products from the world’s largest online retailer, four people familiar with the matter said.

The tough tactics come as the two giants battle for supremacy in one of their most important foreign markets, one that Walmart currently dominates.

Two suppliers told Reuters they moved swiftly to pull their brands from Amazon, wary of jeopardizing their relationship with Walmart de Mexico. The companies, both of which sell common pantry goods, said Walmart accounts for more than half their supermarket sales in Mexico.

. . . .

“We could never tell anybody that they can’t sell to someone else,” Ignacio Caride, Walmart Mexico’s e-commerce head, told Reuters.

“If we think there’s an opportunity to lower our prices, because we see better prices at other retailers, we’re going to negotiate for that access,” he said.

. . . .

Amazon declined to comment.

Walmart is Mexico’s largest retailer, commanding nearly 60 percent of the country’s supermarket sales through more than 2,400 Walmart, Superama, Sam’s Club and Bodega Aurrera stores. Its online business in Mexico is growing fast, but it represented just 1.4 percent of revenue last year.

. . . .

Amazon launched its Mexican website in 2015 and is now one of the country’s biggest online retailers. It began selling groceries here in August.

Supermarket analyst Bill Bishop said Walmart wants to avoid a repeat of its experience in the United States, where Amazon quickly took the lead in online grocery sales. Walmart Inc’sMexico unit is its second-largest overseas market by sales after the United Kingdom, on par with Canada.

Link to the rest at Nasdaq

PG says it appears Walmart may have stopped sleepwalking.

Amazon Shoppers Misled by ‘Bundled’ Star-Ratings and Reviews

5 April 2019

From The Guardian:

Badly translated versions of classic books and critically panned remakes of Hollywood films appear to have glowing endorsements on Amazon thanks to the website’s policy of bundling together reviews of different products.

Analysis by the Guardian shows products that have actually been given one-star ratings appear alongside rave reviews of better quality items, making it impossible for consumers to judge the true value of what they are about to buy.

The Guardian found numerous examples of “bundled” reviews that make poor products look highly rated – rendering the star rating effectively meaningless.

. . . .

The research found:

 Badly translated or updated Kindle versions of Emma by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which include references to “moms”, “guys” and “buddies”, but appear to have 4.5-star ratings from hundreds of reviewers.

 A 2017 TV version of Dirty Dancing that shares the 4.5-star reviews of the original film, despite being described by Hollywood Reporter as a “bloated” remake “that nobody asked for and nobody is likely to truly enjoy”.

 Reviews for Wuthering Heights appearing under listings for Jane Eyre, and vice versa.

 Complaints from consumers who said they had been misled when buying books from a variety of authors – from JK Rowling to Shakespeare.

 Star ratings being combined for different products in other departments, from electronics to gardening equipment.

The problems with some reviews seem to go back years, with complaints from readers pointing out they were appearing under the wrong works and editions since at least 2014.

. . . .

The combinations of formats and editions make it impossible for readers to pick between multiple versions of the same products, and allow those selling badly put together editions to piggyback on good reviews.

Anyone glancing at the reviews for a Kindle version of Emma retailing at £4.36 might believe it is worth buying, but a look at the opening pages reveals a poor translation of the original.

Emma’s mother has become her mom, and her love interest, Mr Knightley, is “a sensible guy” who uses the word buddy instead of friend.

A passage that is supposed to say “poor Miss Taylor” will be missed, instead reads: “She is surely very sorry to lose terrible Miss Taylor, and I am positive she can leave out her more than she thinks for.”

. . . .

A review from a reader, which appears to be about this edition, gives it just one star and describes it as terrible.

“Each page has a dozen errors. It reads as if it has been translated from a foreign language. ‘Dog’ in the original is ‘canine’ in this version; ‘file’ in the original has become ‘document’; ‘tremendous’ has become ‘maximum incredible’; ‘man’ has become ‘guy’.

“That is just a short summary of the errors in the first two pages. The whole thing is unreadable and a waste of money.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

And iBooks?

26 March 2019

PG did a quick Google search and couldn’t find any mention of iBooks in Apple’s big “moving to services” announcement yesterday.

Is there any reason to think Apple is going to pay much attention to iBooks going forward? Anything Amazon should be worried about?

Apple Doesn’t Have Prime’s Number

26 March 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

 Apple ’s extravagant unveiling on Monday of AppleTV+, its new video content streaming service, unveiled very little. Celebrities talked about their must-see shows without showing any clips. Apple executives trumpeted their plan to offer a bundle of content from different content partners without offering any details on pricing. So what to make of this newest entrant into the fiercely competitive and crowded streaming race?

Apple’s service will offer original shows in addition to content from companies like HBO, Starz, and Showtime. In that respect, it looks a lot like what consumers get on Amazon Prime—a mix of original and partnered content—curated by a tech company that has decided to maximize its current business by leveraging mass desire for incessant entertainment. For Amazon Prime members, however, viewing is free; Apple’s service almost certainly won’t be.

And does it make sense for the iPhone maker to be getting into content anyway? The company first put out its streaming box in 2007, but it has never commanded much market share. (Around 13% of connected TV users use the Apple box, according to eMarketer). The new service is mostly a way to draw more revenue out of Apple’s existing users.

That said, Apple is going to be writing big checks. The main point of its glitzy event seemed to be to showoff the talent it already has signed: names like Steven Spielberg, Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, M. Night Shyamalan and J.J. Abrams.

. . . .

If Netflix investors were worried, however, they didn’t show it. At the end of the big day, Apple shares were down 1.21% and Netflix’s were up 1.45%. Beneath all the glitz and fanfare, that may be the core takeaway: Apple is late to the game, and Netflix has an enormous lead. The newcomer also will be competing against media stalwarts such as Disney , Hulu and CBS. Consumers opt in and out of services with a few clicks, tuning in for a show on one service only to drop it after a few weeks in favor of another.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Walmart Builds a Secret Weapon to Battle Amazon for Retail’s Future

21 March 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Epiphany Davis arrived at work in lower Manhattan on a recent morning, consulted her cellphone and set off by foot in search of products ordered via text message by wealthy New Yorkers.

From her company’s loft-like headquarters, Ms. Davis walked to a health food store to get SmartyPants Kids vitamins, but the variety was out of stock. Checking her cellphone often for instructions, she walked to a grocery store for a single bag of Guittard milk chocolate chips. She rode the subway to a Nespresso store for three boxes of coffee pods, then walked to Bloomingdale’s to pick up a $245 navy blue MZ Wallace backpack.

Ms. Davis works for Jetblack, a personal-shopping company targeted at mothers launched last summer by a surprising newcomer to the field— Walmart Inc. A few hundred shoppers in New York City pay $600 a year to order anything by text message except for fresh food. Members were invited by Walmart, or referred by current members, and need to have a doorman to join.

Their orders go to Jetblack headquarters where dozens of agents sit at computers and field requests, from reordering diapers to making suggestions on high-end cribs, organic snacks and yoga attire. Couriers fetch the items and bring them back to a Manhattan delivery hub, where they are wrapped in black packaging and hand delivered, usually the same day.

It’s a labor-intensive operation that loses money. But making money isn’t the goal, at least not right away.

. . . .

Walmart is using Jetblack’s army of human agents to train an artificial intelligence system that could someday power an automated personal-shopping service, preparing Walmart for a time when the search bar disappears and more shopping is done through voice-activated devices, said Jetblack CEO Jenny Fleiss.

“It’s the tech of the future, right? It’s not what everyone is doing today,” said Ms. Fleiss, who previously co-founded apparel rental company Rent The Runway. The CEO said it could be five to seven years before the system is mostly automated and less reliant on humans. “This is a long journey,” she said. “And I think we were aware of that going in.”

Walmart is competing with Amazon, which has $233 billion in annual sales, including web services. In addition to Prime, the online giant has same-day grocery delivery from Whole Foods stores in some cities, plans to open dozens of small physical grocery stores and has sold millions of Echo speakers that let shoppers skip stores and websites altogether, and shop for products or request music with their voice.

Walmart is the world’s biggest retailer by revenue, with $514 billion in annual sales, but e-commerce makes up only a small percentage. That’s out of sync with where retail is growing fastest. Across the U.S., online shopping accounted for 9.7% of total retail sales last year and grew 14.2% from the previous year, according to the Commerce Department.

. . . .

Jetblack is a small piece of Walmart’s online investments, but it is one of the biggest gambles Walmart is making to attract wealthy shoppers and burnish its tech credentials.

Walmart primarily views the company as a research hub on AI and voice shopping. Some pieces of the business “could very readily be applied to the broader ecosystem in time,” she said. Jetblack’s software is learning to make agents more efficient, already suggesting language to use for many text interactions, said Ms. Fleiss.

Jetblack’s goal is that over time, through these interactions, the computer algorithm will learn to respond to requests with humanlike nuance but machine efficiency.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Most Amazon Brands Are Duds, Not Disrupters, Study Finds

18 March 2019

From Bloomberg:

The explosion of Amazon.com Inc.’s private-label products — batteries, baby wipes, jeans, tortilla chips, sofas — has prompted concern that the world’s biggest online retailer could use its clout to promote these house brands at the expense of merchants selling similar products on the web store. The issue even surfaced in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent proposal to breakup big technology companies.

Turns out most Amazon-branded goods are flops that don’t threaten other businesses at all, according to Marketplace Pulse. In a study, the New York e-commerce research firm examined 23,000 products and found that shoppers aren’t more inclined to buy Amazon brands even when the company elevates them in search results.

The study suggests popular political and media narratives about Amazon’s market power are overblown, despite the company capturing 52.4 percent of all online spending in the U.S. this year, according to EMarketer Inc.

. . . .

“This idea that Amazon can introduce a product and magically use data to dominate a category is just a conspiracy theory,” says Juozas Kaziukenas, founder of Marketplace Pulse. “There are a couple of successful examples everyone uses, but most of their products aren’t successful at all and many other companies continue to outsell Amazon even after it introduces its own competing brands.”

The study used sales rankings and the number of customer reviews as indicators of sales volume for different products, including Amazon’s own brands and brands sold exclusively on the site. Amazon’s success has been limited to basic products like batteries where shoppers are inclined to seek generic alternatives to save money, the study found.

Link to the rest at Bloomberg

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