How Alexa Fits Into Amazon’s Prime Directive

From The New York Times:

When “Star Trek: The Next Generation” first aired in the 1980s, it envisioned a number of technological advances for humankind’s future. Set in the 24th century, the show featured 3-D printers, visors that could provide artificial sight and a virtual reality simulator called the holodeck. But perhaps its most prescient creation was the supercomputer onboard the ship. The software — usually referred to only as “Computer” — could locate people, open doors and retrieve answers to complicated questions. Crew members spoke their requests, and an always-present helper responded within seconds.

Amazon brought a version of that computer to life recently — albeit a few centuries earlier than “Star Trek” predicted. Last July, David Limp, a company executive who works on the product, said in an interview with Fortune that the idea of an all-knowing machine, with access to all the world’s information, had captured his imagination since the first time he saw it on television. It took, he said, a team of 1,000 engineers to write its code, and when the device was finished, Amazon decided to call it Alexa, shorthand for Alexandria, as in the ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt. It is designed to work primarily with a suite of wireless speakers, also made by Amazon, called Echo, Echo Dot and Tap.

. . . .

At the beginning of 2016, there were 135 skills designed to work with Alexa, but this year that number increased to more than 7,000. Alexa can now order you an Uber or a pizza, check your bank balance, control your TV, turn your lights on and off and even measure your car’s carbon-dioxide emissions. “ ‘Alexa, buy me coffee’ is just a fraction of what it’s going to be over time,” said Ben Schachter, an internet analyst who covers Amazon for the equities firm Macquarie Securities. “What can they improve with the voice activation? Some of that has yet to be seen.”

Alexa has already evolved from an experimental device to an irresistible household fixture — perhaps surprisingly, given Amazon’s spotty track record with hardware.

. . . .

The fact that I live in New York, a city that thrives on accessibility, might explain why I was slow to grasp the appeal of Alexa. Here we have bodegas on every corner, most open 24 hours, in case you need to pick up a roll of toilet paper or a bottle of hot sauce in the middle of the night. But most Americans don’t live with the luxury of that immediacy. I didn’t really understand this until the holidays, when I went home to visit my mom in Virginia and we ran out of seltzer. Carbonated water is not an essential item. But in that moment, it would have been easier to quickly tell Alexa to place an order for us and forget about it until it arrived two or three days later, rather than try to remember to pick up a case of Poland Spring the next time someone made the 20-minute drive to the store.

. . . .

Anand Sanwal, the chief executive of CB Insights, a trend-forecasting start-up in New York, told me that Amazon has something that its competitors only dream of — consumer attention and trust. “In the last few years, Amazon has become the search engine for consumer products, instead of Google,” he said. “If you’re going to buy something, and you already have an Amazon account, you’re probably going to just buy it there. With Google, you still have to go to Amazon or Walmart.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Jan for the tip.

Amazon Expands Into Ocean Freight

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amazon.com Inc. is taking to the high seas.

The online retail giant has begun handling shipment of goods by ocean to its U.S. warehouses from Chinese merchants selling on its site—taking on a role it previously left to global freight-transportation companies.

The move marks Amazon’s latest step in a multiyear effort to build out its delivery business. The company doesn’t own or operate ships, but is openly acting as a global freight forwarder and third-party logistics provider, categories of companies that book space on ocean vessels and truck goods between ports and warehouses.

Amazon has helped ship at least 150 containers of goods from China since October, according to shipping documents collected at ports of entry that were compiled by Ocean Audit, a company specializing in ocean-freight refund recovery for shippers.

This month, Amazon started posting rates for new services such as sorting, labeling, and trucking shipments that traditionally are handled by global freight companies. The services and rates were posted under the name of its Chinese subsidiary, Beijing Century Joyo Courier Service Co., with Distribution-Publications Inc., a widely used platform for such information.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

PG can visualize large ships with the Amazon smile painted on the side cruising up and down the Hudson and East Rivers in New York, perhaps firing an occasional cannon salute.

That will give Authors United something else to FedEx the government about.

Amazon Launches STEM Toy Subscription for Kids

From PC Magazine:

Subscription boxes have been landing on the doorsteps of geeks, fashionistas, foodies, and bookworms for nearly a decade. And now, kids aged 3 to 13 years old can receive recurring deliveries of niche products, too.

First spotted by Engadget, Amazon this week introduced the STEM Club Toy Subscription—a monthly program that delivers “hand-picked, high-quality” science, technology, engineering, and math knickknacks once a month.

The box costs $19.99 per month (plus tax), and promises a mix of age-appropriate STEM products “from robotics to natural sciences” that aim to encourage kids to learn through play. Available in three age ranges, folks can expect “engaging toys” like a math playbox (3-4), scientific explorer kit (5-7), or chemistry set (8-13).

“Amazon editors work closely with smart and trusted brands we love to handpick the best STEM toys,” the company website said. “From programmable robots to rockin’ crystal kits … to cool arithmetic toys, STEM Club will challenge and inspire while expanding young minds through play.”

Link to the rest at PC Magazine

Here’s a link to the STEM subscription page

Oscar Nominations Validate Amazon’s Hollywood Ambitions

From The Wall Street Journal:

America’s biggest online retailer is now the first internet company to earn an Academy Award nomination for best picture.

Little more than a year after launching its original movies business, Amazon.com Inc.’s drama “Manchester by the Sea” earned six Oscar nominations Tuesday, including best picture.

The film’s nominations included two for writer and director Kenneth Lonergan; and for lead actor Casey Affleck; supporting actress Michelle Williams and supporting actor Lucas Hedges. The Iranian drama “The Salesman,” for which Amazon also holds U.S. distribution rights, received a nomination for best foreign-language film.

Amazon bought the distribution rights to “Manchester,” a somber drama about recovery from grief, at last year’s Sundance Film Festival for $10 million. It was the second-costliest acquisition of the 2016 event.

The e-tailer has also made the biggest acquisition so far of this year’s Sundance: $12 million for comedy “The Big Sick,” according to a person close to the deal.

Both purchases show that Amazon wants to be taken seriously as a player in the prestige-movie business, which has shrunk in recent years as major studios like Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. have exited and established players like Weinstein Co. have struggled.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

Amazon offers to scrap e-book clauses to settle EU antitrust probe

From Reuters:

U.S. online retailer Amazon has offered to alter its e-book contracts with publishers in a bid to end an EU antitrust probe and stave off a possible fine, the European Commission said on Tuesday.

Amazon, the biggest e-book distributor in Europe, proposed to drop some clauses in its contracts so publishers will not be forced to give it terms as good as those for rivals, the Commission said.

Such clauses relate to business models, release dates, catalogs of e-books, features of e-books, promotions, agency prices, agency commissions and wholesale prices.

The Commission opened an investigation into the company’s e-books in English and German in June 2015, concerned that such parity clauses make it harder for other e-book retailers to compete with Amazon by developing new and innovative products and services.

. . . .

Amazon said it was pleased with the agreement but disagreed with the Commission’s preliminary assessment, saying that e-books are not a separate market as they compete directly with print books and other forms of media.

Amazon’s offer, if accepted, would apply in Europe for five years.

Link to the rest at Reuters

Amazon: The World’s First Quantum Business Model

From Seeking Alpha:

According to Etrade, analysts “expect” Amazon’s stock to be earning $23.01 per share by 2019. At the current P/E of 185, that equates to a stock price of $4,255, and those are median estimates. How is Amazon thriving when low-cost retail operations appear to be struggling across the board? The company has employed a new quantum business model that works from the subatomic (or transaction level) up.

The new quantum business model is driven by more than cost savings from market efficiencies of scale. This new business model is driven by a company’s reaction time to changes in consumer demand and preference. While some retailers use Omnichannel to gain insights on customer trends, the data is lagging and changes are not real-time. At Amazon, each transaction tailors the experience for both the retailer and customer as it occurs. From an operational perspective, inventory inefficiencies are virtually eliminated and yet, from the consumer’s perspective, there is a never-ending supply of inventory. The result is increased sales and lower fixed cost.

. . . .

Trade is at the heart of the U.S. and world economy. The retailer buys inventory from the wholesaler and the consumer buys that inventory from the retailer. It’s a business relationship that’s been at the backbone of nation state building for centuries. Today, the new nation is a corporate state and Amazon is among the nobility.

. . . .

Amazon has sellers from more than 130 different countries that fulfill orders to customers in 185 countries. It has created the world’s first global mall, and it is a model of “doing business” that is as synergistically revolutionary to the nature of trade and commerce as the quantum computer.

“2016 was a record-breaking year in sales worldwide for sellers on Amazon. The Amazon Marketplace empowers brand owners and retailers of all sizes, many of them small businesses, to reach customers around the world,” said Peter Faricy, VP for Amazon Marketplace.

Instant consumer feedback, more sophisticated algorithms for search and product features, and a robust solution center provide automated error correction mechanisms for both the retailer and consumer. These mechanisms work to constantly evolve the user experience with each transaction. They enable Amazon’s business model to be more flexible, customizable, reactionary and scalable than peers.

. . . .

It’s also worth noting that this technology rich business model creates a need for jobs. Amazon has committed to creating 100,000 full-time jobs over the next 18 months. That’s a jump from 180,000 to 280,000 full-time US based jobs. These jobs come with incredible benefits like the Career Choice program that pre-pays 95% of tuition for high demand careers such as nursing, medical lab technologies and machine tool technologies.

Perhaps the engine or lifeblood at Amazon is the small business development program, aka ‘Fulfillment by Amazon’, which grew more than 50 percent over the holiday season alone.

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

Amazon launches £20,000 KDP prize

From The Bookseller:

Amazon has launched a £20,000 cash prize for authors who self-publish their work on its Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform.

The Kindle Storyteller Award will be given to an English language title published through KDP between 20th February and 19th May this year.

Amazon said readers will play a hand in selecting the shortlist, compiled using “a number of factors which measure customer interest in the titles” along with a panel of judges made of up Amazon executives and literary figures.

Along with being awarded a £20,000 cash prize at a central London ceremony in July, the winning author will be given a marketing campaign to support the book on Amazon.co.uk and the opportunity to have it translated for international sales.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Amazon and Apple end exclusive deal on audio books

From The BBC:

Apple and Amazon have ended a deal that tied them into an exclusive contract for the supply and sale of audio books.

The deal was signed before 2008 when Amazon bought audio book supplier Audible, which had the Apple iBooks contract.

Pressure from anti-trust regulators in Germany and the European Commission led to the deal being abandoned.

. . . .

The terms of the agreement meant Audible could not offer audio books to any other company and Apple had to take audio books only from Audible.

The investigation into the Apple-Amazon arrangement over audio books was started by the German Federal Cartel Office in late 2015. It responded to complaints from German publishers who said the two tech giants were abusing their market dominance.

In Germany, said the publishers, more than 90% of all downloads of audio books were done via the Apple iTunes store or through the Amazon and Audible websites.

With the deal abandoned, Audible will now be able to supply firms other than Apple with audio books. In addition, Apple can now get audio books from other sources and sign up other publishers who can push their titles through its iTunes and iBooks outlets.

Link to the rest at BBC and thanks to Jan for the tip.

Retailers Turn to Silicon Valley to Lure Customers

From The Wall Street Journal:

In the age of Amazon.com Inc., other retailers are scrambling to find a way to keep consumers shopping on their sites and in stores.

The trick? Personalization, via data and tech.

Sunglass Hut is employing deep learning and image-recognition technology from San Francisco-based Sentient Technologies Holdings Ltd. for its e-commerce site. When a shopper clicks on a pair of shades, the “see similar styles” option uses image recognition to show other sunglass choices, instead of predicting what the person might want based on what other people have purchased.

Personalization “is the Holy Grail,” says Salesforce Commerce Cloud Chief Executive Jeff Barnett, who works with brands including L’Oreal and Under Armour.

With online pricing and inventory easily accessible, consumers are increasingly becoming brand and retailer agnostic. So retailers are turning to Silicon Valley for everything from artificial intelligence to data to draw consumers in.

Deep-pocketed Amazon has been investing in technologies like these for years, aiming to make it easy to find items and click buy. Tech providers are filling that gap for other traditional retailers that don’t necessarily have the means to do the same.

Even the smallest changes online—facilitated by artificial intelligence and algorithms—can make a difference in sales, retailers are discovering.

Using Sentient’s technology to run multiple tests at once, Italian lingerie brand Cosabella gauged customer response to change the color of its “buy” button to pink and its banner to specify it is Italian family-owned, bumping up revenue by 38%. It is also using image-recognition technology similar to Sunglass Hut, tailoring its website to individual customers based on the advertising image they click to get to the site.

. . . .

Technology giant SAP SE is working with retailers on technology to help identify customers and their likes and dislikes as soon as they walk into a store, creating more of a shopper experience, said Lori Mitchell-Keller, global general manager of consumer industries.

For example, Burberry Group PLC can ask for a customer’s name and type it into an app when the person walks in, giving access to personal data, including his or her last purchase and whether the person prefers still or sparkling water—and potentially some of his or her public social media presence, too.

“If they understand you, they know how to interact with you and how to advertise to your likes,” said Ms. Mitchell-Keller.

Amazon has been customizing and refining its site for shoppers for years using deep learning and artificial intelligence—something it touted at its Amazon Web Services conference late last year, when it introduced new offerings for customers based off its expertise. On its retail site, that technology enables better search results and recommendations for customers, among other benefits.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

What We Would Miss in an All-Amazon-Shopping World

From The New Yorker:

A few Saturdays back, I stopped to visit my friends John and Miriam at Mellah, a Moroccan rug shop they opened last spring in Toronto. Mellah is a small store in the city’s West End, set in a neighborhood that’s rich in coffee shops, young families, and dive bars, but not home to a lot of high-end home retailers. Still, the space they leased has one big advantage: a huge south-facing window, which allows pedestrians to glance in and pretty much see every single rug and textile for sale.

Though they are adept at social-media marketing on Instagram and Facebook, the majority of their sales come in through that window, by people who walk by, stop, and enter their shop. A few days before I visited, a lawyer who lives nearby stopped in on his way home from a Christmas party, pointed at a thirty-five-hundred-dollar rug he’d seen through the window, and handed John his credit card, telling him to “charge me now, before I change my mind.”

The story was good for a laugh, but it left me thinking about two big trends in retail today, which predict that sales like these could become increasingly rare. The first is the continued rise of online shopping in America. Online sales during Thanksgiving weekend broke all previous records, garnering more than five billion dollars (up eighteen per cent from last year), according to Adobe data cited in a Bloomberg article, while sales at brick-and-mortar retail stores declined by one per cent.

Though online retail still represents a relatively small percentage of total retail sales (8.4 per cent, according to the most recent Census Bureau figures), e-commerce continues to expand. While the prediction that the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen made three years ago—that traditional retail stores would soon be extinct—still seems overblown, there is a brutal logic behind the popularity of online shopping. It is efficient and succeeds because it brings goods to consumers, often at the cheapest possible price, in a convenient way. No matter how nice the selection at Mellah, there are more Moroccan rugs, at a lower price, just a few clicks away—and you don’t even have to leave your warm bed to buy them.

Now digital commerce is ready to infiltrate the world of brick-and-mortar stores. The physical retail of groceries and food products has remained robust in the digital age, but that may change with the arrival of Amazon Go, a new concept from the leader in e-commerce, which recently opened a demonstration grocery store in Seattle. Customers can fill their shopping carts and simply walk out of the store, as the eggs, milk, and Cheerios they have selected are instantly charged to an Amazon app on their phones. Good-bye to long checkout lines and pesky, eye-rolling cashiers. Hello to the Uber of shopping!

. . . .

Alison Medina, the executive editor of the trade publication design:retail, told me that no one should be worried about the death of physical retailers, and she cited a number of convincing reasons why stores, and the humans who tend them, have a bright future, thanks in large part to the unique way they sell goods.

First, there’s the obvious tactile satisfaction that comes from physical shopping. In a store where you can touch the products, you know exactly what you are buying. Online stores can only provide you photos, descriptions, and a snake pit of questionable reviews. “You can’t touch a dress on an iPad” or smell a cantaloupe to tell whether it’s ripe, Medina said. There’s an unimpeachable trust when you walk out with the product you’ve just bought, but also instant gratification, in a way that even the fastest drone can’t deliver.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are also better suited to generating impulse purchases. The tipsy lawyer was unlikely to wander home and buy a thirty-five-hundred-dollar rug on his phone, but the sight of it in Mellah’s window, and the fact that he was there to see it, made his purchase seem almost inevitable. “In part, it’s the distinction between browsing and searching,” Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing at N.Y.U., said. “You can’t browse online very well. There isn’t room for serendipity online.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG finds tons of serendipity online, far more than in a physical bookstore. As he looks around his cluttered desk, he sees all sorts of things he didn’t know existed before he found them online.

Examples?

Gear Ties have done wonderful things for the rat’s nest of various and sundry computer, cell phone and photo cables that accompany him when he travels and multiply like rabbits in his photo bags.

Absolute War is the best account of the Soviet Union’s battle with Nazi Germany he’s found, based in large part upon documents released only after Glasnost. This is a much-neglected part of most World War II histories. The book was published in 2008 and PG is certain he’s never seen it in the military history section of any bookstore.

Much of PG’s “browsing” takes place as he reads different types of articles online. He’s not consciously “shopping”,  but if he sees an interesting product hyperlink, he’ll check it out.

Alexa Gives Amazon a Powerful Data Advantage

From the MIT Technology Review:

“Hey, Alexa”—a phrase that millions of people call out at home just before telling Amazon their desires at that moment. All those people asking Alexa to order kitchen supplies, turn on the lights, or play music gives Amazon a valuable stockpile of data that it could use to fend off competitors and make breakthroughs in what voice-operated assistants can do.

Recommended for You
For $149 a Month, the Doctor Will See You as Often as You Want
Mathematical Model Reveals the Patterns of How Innovations Arise
Questionable “Young Blood” Transfusions Offered in U.S. as Anti-Aging Remedy
Will Science Have a Seat at President Trump’s Table?
A 100-Drone Swarm, Dropped from Jets, Plans Its Own Moves
“There are millions of these in households, and they’re not collecting dust,” Nikko Strom, a speech-recognition expert and founding member of the team at Amazon that built Alexa and Echo, said at the AI Frontiers conference in Santa Clara, California, last week. “We get an insane amount of data coming in that we can work on.”

Strom said that data had already helped the company make progress on a longstanding challenge in speech recognition known as the cocktail party problem, where the challenge is to pick out a single voice from a hubbub of many people talking.

Initially Alexa could easily tell that someone had called out its name, but—like other voice-recognition systems—it struggled to know which words being said around it were the request being issued. Then Strom’s team developed a system that notes characteristics of a voice that calls out “Alexa” and uses them to home in on the words of the person asking for help.

The data Amazon is amassing to take on problems like that could be unique. Standard datasets available for training and testing speech recognition systems don’t usually include audio captured in home environments, or using microphone arrays like that the Echo uses to focus on speech from a particular direction, says Abeer Alwan, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles, who works on speech recognition.

. . . .

Strom said he also hopes that his team’s data trove could eventually help upgrade Alexa to being able to follow two people speaking simultaneously. “It’s hard, but there’s been some progress,” he said. “It’s super interesting for us if we could solve that problem.”

Strom didn’t say what Alexa might be able to do once that problem is solved. But it might make it more natural for multiple people to interact with an Echo or other device at once, whether that’s kids peppering Alexa with questions or their parents rattling off a shopping list.

The data piling up from Alexa could also help Amazon fend off Google’s Echo competitor, Google Home, which launched late last year. Google can draw on years of work in Web search and voice search, and sizeable investments in artificial intelligence. But its previous products and businesses don’t naturally collect speech like that of a person calling out to a device in the home, or on the same type of requests people ask home assistants to serve.

Link to the rest at MIT Technology Review

Despite What You Heard, The E-Book Market Never Stopped Growing

From Observer.com:

Over the last year, we’ve been talking to writers like A.G. Riddle who have been making a more than comfortable living selling e-books directly to readers on Amazon. That’s why it’s always seemed a bit strange to see media accounts reporting on the shrinking market for e-books.

News outlets like The New York Times report that e-book sales continue to slip, which is true if the data only covers part of the market. Reports from the Association of American Publishers has data from 1,200 publishers. They are the largest publishers, but they are also losing market share.

E-book sales never declined, according to a presentation yesterday at Digital Book World in New York City. In fact, if anything, we don’t yet have an adequate way to estimate how much the market segment has grown.

In back-to-back presentations from from the data site Author Earnings and publishing tech firm Overdrive, it became clear that “unit sales” may not be the best way to measure the size of the book market. In more and more ways it’s becoming clear that there are additional ways for writers to earn money than by readers buying whole books or even buying books at all.

 

. . . .

E-books, Data Guy told the crowd, “Never stopped growing.”

It looks as though sales stuttered because traditional publishers have been losing market share to indie authors who publish directly through online platforms. Amazon is by far the largest of these platforms.

. . . .

Reports on the e-book market tend to ignore Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s Netflix for ebooks. Amazon splits up each month’s Kindle Unlimited revenue among participating authors based on how many pages members read.

Science-fiction author Hugh Howey said that being part of the program increased his revenue so much that it was worth pulling his books from all other platforms, such as Kobo and iBooks.

Data Guy acknowledged that some industry watchers might argue that a Kindle Unlimited download isn’t really a sale, but Author Earnings takes the position that any money in a writer’s pocket counts.

. . . .

 

Local book stores saw a 5 percent growth in sales last year, but every other channel (such as big stores, Walmart and etc) saw a 5 percent decline. Those channels were so much larger that local stores’ growth was more than made up for by the declines everywhere else. “Perhaps 10 fold,” Data Guy said.

Let’s hear it for your favorite local shop, but the truth is that Amazon has been the one closing those new print sales.

 

Link to the rest at Observer.com and thanks to Nirmala for the tip.

Why are print sales up? Data Guy gives his reason—and it isn’t adult coloring books

From TeleRead:

Perhaps the reason print book sales are on the rise has nothing to do with coloring books, digital fatigue, the “ebook fad” or book store appeal. Data Guy has offered a different reason based on the data he has scraped for Author Earnings.

To start, independent book store sales are up 5 percent from 2015, but the rest of the brick and mortar stores are down 5 percent, on average. However, the industry is up 15 percent as a whole with the difference coming from Amazon.

Data Guy states that the real reason print sales are up is because a change in how Amazon priced its titles. In 2015, discounts on ebooks for large traditional publishers was eliminated. In turn, Amazon discounted the prices of print books in mid-2015 – and that’s where we see the change in print sales.

To break down the data even further, when Amazon discounted sales in some of the spring and summers months, sale units on print books were up 7 percent. However, when it scaled back its discounts just a few short months later, the overall percentage of unit sales also dropped and at the end of the year, the industry saw an increase of just 3.3 percent from a year before.

Data Guy surmises that the question really shouldn’t be about print vs. digital. People want to read, and they are going to do it in ways that are easiest and convenient for them. This bigger question is brick and mortar vs. online sales. Online sales are ever increasing with Amazon taking the bulk of the sales.

Because we are currently seeing online sales wallop brick and mortar unit sales, he said about two-third of traditionally published adult books are bought online.

Link to the rest at TeleRead and thanks to Nate for the tip.

Don’t shop at Amazon’s new Chicago store

From The Chicago Tribune:

I have a favor to ask: When Amazon opens its retail store in the Southport Corridor area of Lakeview later this year, please do not shop there.

It will be tempting, because the store will seem shiny and the merchandise will interact with your smartphone, informing you of prices and additional recommendations. You will be offered discounts on Echo, Amazon’s home “digital assistant”; Prime memberships; and access to streaming content.

And the books will be less expensive than at your local independent store.

But those few dollars saved will come at the expense of something more important: our community, our values.

Amazon is not evil, but it is a corporation, and corporations do what corporations do — whatever it takes to maximize profits and shareholder value. In the case of Amazon, in the past, that’s meant subjecting warehouse workers to inhuman conditions and their corporate employees to a kind of white-collar Hunger Games.

. . . .

Beyond the privacy issues, Amazon is unconcerned with quality of life in local communities. We have seen entire towns crash on the shoals after giving in to the siren song of Wal-Mart’s low, low prices.

Wal-Mart moves in, bringing not just those low prices but low-paying  jobs too. Unable to compete, the existing local businesses fail, putting communities into a death spiral, until so many people leave that Wal-Mart also pulls up the stakes.

Instant ghost town.

Obviously, Chicago isn’t going to become a ghost town, but we should be very aware of the cultural and community riches we have in our many independent book stores.

Link to the rest at The Chicago Tribune and thanks to Dave for the tip.

This was a very tempting article, but PG will limit himself to only a couple of observations.

Amazon is a “corporation”.

Gasp.

If the community bookstores the author of the OP is trying to preserve are consulting competent attorneys and accountants, they are probably doing business as corporations or limited liability companies. One good way to preserve a community bookstore is to protect the owners from random spurious lawsuits.

Entire towns “crash” because of Walmart’s low-paying jobs.

When a new small-town Walmart is nearing completion, it starts hiring staff for the store. The line of job applicants is always very long and includes a great many employees of local retailers.

Why?

After the store is finished, Walmart employees will be the best-paid retail employees in town. With much better benefits than small town retailers provide. And a career path that includes wage increases and the possibility of promotions within the local Walmart or in other Walmart stores nearby.

Working at a small-town Walmart can be a career. Working at a local small-town retailer is a dead end.

 

Is KDP getting better?

PG was intrigued by a comment/question from Randall that was part of the discussion of another post:

Is KDP getting better? Most things Amazon just keep getting better. Is that true for KDP too?

What do you think?

Amazon.com – A Vengeful, Simplistic God?

From author Adam Dreece:

Last week (Thurs – Jan 12, 2017), I received an email from Amazon around 11pm. They were “reaching out to me” to inform me that they had detected something called “system generated accounts” and thus, were immediately deleting my account. I’ve recently learned that there were a number of us hit, and all of us had the same thing happen.

Welcome to the world of eBook siege weapons. Launchable by any anti-fan or jealous competitor, an indie author or small press can be utterly destroyed on Amazon without defense or recourse.

Every book, every book review, everything I’ve built up over years, is gone. No proof was provided, no opportunity to defend myself given. Like an ancient, vengeful god who had been tricked, Amazon acted as judge and executioner, with no need for jury or trial.

In December, I’d decided to enter their KDP Select program. This was my reward.

When I got the email, I sprang out of bed and emailed them immediately (They were “kind enough” to provide an email address “in case I had any questions.”). It thought it had been bad enough that I had been hammered with emails by them over the Xmas holidays to prove I had the copyright of each of my books, but I did. Now, things had gone nuclear.

I included in that email to them, an email thread between me and one of their KDP support people from a few weeks earlier. I’d noticed a weird spiky behaviour in KU reads, 25k, 0, 10k. It looked suspicious to me, so being the boy-scout that I am, I raised it. I even posted about it on FB, as it was really weird.

The KDP Support person’s response was clearly they thought me cute and naive, and they assured me there was no problem. I said I was scared that the Fiverr promo I’d used (which was new to me, but had over 650 reviews and was a top seller) could have been a scam or something, and they told me no. I even DOUBLE checked with them to please check everything, and I was told everything was fine. I’ve since learned that scammers have been pointing their bots at other authors, often targeting the #1 in smaller categories, so to throw suspicion away from their fake books. There’s no way for me to know though, because Amazon gave me no information.

The reply I got back from them was terse, “We will need some time to investigate this matter.”

. . . .

Last night when I was on FB, I read in a group that a woman just saw the same pattern happen. An inexplicable, 25k page read bump. She was wondering whether she should report it or not. I was going to share what happened to me, but I didn’t want to freak her out or presume that I was right. I then read elsewhere someone else getting hit with an unexpected 5k bump that was ‘instant’. I wondered what was happening. Then a friend pointed out another author she knew had been nuked by Amazon last week too. I read his FB post, and it was exactly the same as what happened to me. However, he’d been following this story a bit longer than me, and had heard of this type of thing happening. Now, he was a victim of it.

I realized that anyone can do this to anyone, and there’s no defense. Amazon assumes and acts, and doesn’t even leave us a means for proving our innocence. A friend asked if I had a lawyer, and I laughed. Have you ever seen someone go up against a titan? You’re bankrupt before you get anywhere near anything resembling justice.

. . . .

I understand Amazon needing to stop scammers from taking any share of the money from their KU money pool, absolutely, but WTF?! If you can detect these “systematic generated accounts” or whatever, then filter them the F out! Don’t make authors like me collateral damage in your simplistic approach. Give us little guys some kind of defense! Or how about a means to prove our innocence? Is it simply that there are so many authors out there that you don’t have to care? How about looking at all of those legal documents and copyright notices you asked me to provide just before nuking me?

Link to the rest at Adam Dreece and thanks to Randall and several others for the tip.

Unfortunately, PG has heard similar stories from other authors in recent months.

One of the things that most impressed PG when he first met a group of Amazon employees who managed KDP several years ago was their statement, repeated several times, that they regarded authors as their customers. Given Amazon’s stellar customer service, this was an impressive attitude toward authors, far different than the perspective traditional publishing has about all but its bestselling authors.

PG is concerned that this attitude may have eroded into something much less author-friendly.

On some occasions, law enforcement officers sink to a cynical view of the communities in which they operate, forgetting that, even in the worst neighborhoods, most people are not criminals. This is part of an emotional burnout that can effect those who spend a lot of time dealing with bad actors.

OTOH, there are people who try to game KDP Select and Amazon’s sales rank algorithms in ways that are inimical to both readers and honest authors. For obvious reasons, readers and honest authors would like such scammers kicked off Amazon. They stink up the place in many different ways.

PG suggests that Amazon needs to put some additional work on both its back-end systems designed to catch bad behavior and on the people side of scammer detection operations. The company needs to up its game to maintain operational excellence in this facet of its business.

One of the fundamental tenets of customer relations is that it’s much easier to keep an existing customer than to attract a new one. Another tenet is that handling small customer transactions well is important because a satisfied customer is much more likely to return.

The sum of small transactions adds up to a larger and larger number over time and the lifetime value of a customer, including an author who is an Amazon customer, is huge.

 

How could Amazon deliver without an address?

From ZDNet:

Forget Amazon’s much-vaunted testing of drone deliveries to your home. South African startup WumDrop has launched a new precision service that delivers parcels to GPS coordinates taken from a customer’s phone, rather than a physical address.

The Deliver2Me service, which relies on old-fashioned trucks and bikes to drop off packages rather than drones, is launching with the backing of a local retail group but has been on trial since November.

Founder Simon Hartley says during the testing phase, the firm boasted “100 percent accuracy” for delivery, beating traditionally-addressed deliveries over the same space of time.

Delivery to GPS coordinates has long been mooted as a solution to a global problem that impedes the growth of e-commerce in many developing countries. Lots of people in many nations don’t have formal addresses.

Unless you’re the victim of unfortunate circumstances or have made a specific life choice, chances are that if you’re reading this, you probably know where you live. And that’s important, because without an address you probably can’t get a job, a bank account, apply for credit — and you probably can’t buy much online if no one can deliver it to you.

. . . .

UN organisation the Universal Postal Union reckons there are four billion people who don’t have a proper address, while the International Telecommunications Union estimated that 3.2 billion people were online in some form by the end of 2015.

“Even in South Africa, which has arguably the best road and address infrastructure in Africa, address data has an unacceptably high rate of inaccuracy,” Hartley says.

As in many African countries, there are large areas of South Africa which simply don’t have formal street names and numbers. This inhibits the deployment of emergency services, and postal services, even in the relatively wealthy middle classes, are still sub-par and not reliable or accurate enough for many.

Link to the rest at ZDNet and thanks to Felix for the tip.

Amazon Echo and Echo Dot update adds “Computer” wake word to help complete the Star Trek fantasy

From AFTV News:

A new software update for the Amazon Echo and the Echo Dot seems to be rolling out that adds the option to select “Computer” as the device’s wake word. Instead of using “Alexa,” or one of the alternatives like “Echo” and “Amazon”, you’ll be able to get a little closer to the ultimate dream of having the Star Trek computer in your home.

Link to the rest at AFTV News and thanks to Felix for the tip.

Amazon Is Killing Department Stores

From Seeking Alpha:

In our opinion, multiple early data points support the thesis that Amazon dominated the 2016 holiday spending season. Most crucially, we point investors to the Census Bureau’s Advance Monthly Retail Report released on Friday, 1/13. While December Retail Sales fell short of expectations, they confirmed a 2016 sales shift trend which is bullish for Amazon and bearish for department stores like Wal-Mart and Target. Investors have become accustomed to non-store retailers putting up the biggest growth numbers in the Census Bureau’s monthly reports, but that growth rate has been slowing. In 2010, non-store retailers saw a 14% increase in sales in the important holiday shopping months of October, November, and December. In the same time frame the following year, sales were up 13%. That slowed to 11% in 2012, 8% in 2013, and 7% in both 2014 and 2015.

The multi-year downtrend in non-store retailers’ growth rate, though, broke this year, and in significant fashion. In October, November, and December, non-store retailers’ YoY growth rate jumped to 13%. That is the strongest holiday sales growth the segment has experienced since 2010, and is additionally impressive considering how much larger the sales base is today than it was in 2010.

. . . .

Not by coincidence, department stores saw an acceleration in their sales decline rate this year in the holiday shopping season. Department stores have been in decline for several years, but the declines have been predictable and marginal. Since 2010, sales at department stores have fallen between 1% and 3% per year in October, November, and December. That trend broke this year, and in equally significant fashion, as losses expanded to nearly 8%.

. . . .

This is the macro backdrop to poor holiday sales updates from Big Box department stores like Macy’s, Kohl’s, and J.C. Penney. It is also coupled with data from Slice Intelligence, which reported a near-40% market share for Amazon in the rapidly expanding e-commerce market, and First Data, which reported that online sales grew to account for 21.3% of all holiday spending in 2016 (up from 15.4% in 2015), while department stores saw sales decline 4.8%.

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

Amazon Has a Lot More Room to Scale Before the E-Commerce Retail Market is Saturated

From Seeking Alpha:

A lot of investors have looked at Amazon with consternation, as the company has not only not followed the normal pattern or retailers in general, but it also hasn’t followed the pattern most tech companies have followed in the recent past. This has resulted in the company outperforming in many quarters, followed by projections it’ll get crushed under the weight of weak margins and earnings.

Granted, a lot of that happened before the emergence of its powerful AWS cloud service. Yet, even with that as a significant part of the company’s overall growth, the retail segment still is the largest part of AMZN and continues to defy the odds. This isn’t because its model is misunderstood, but I believe because the transition to e-commerce by consumers is stretching out a lot longer than other tech businesses have experienced when scaling and disrupting existing markets.

. . . .

Consumers are increasingly moving toward the convenience of online shopping and all the perks associated with it. Amazon is by far the best at doing this, and e-commerce is far from being a saturated market not only in the U.S., but also globally.

With that in mind, the announcement by Amazon it’s going to add another 100,000 jobs in the U.S. supports the thesis that it sees a lot more room to grow before it considers the U.S. market saturated. As for the rest of the world, there is even more growth potential there.

. . . .

The online U.S. retail trend has a lot of impetus left in it, and when measured by overall retail sales, remains less than 10 percent of all U.S. sales. That is only going to increase, and if Amazon maintains its superior service, it’s going to get by far the largest portion of those sales.

. . . .

What has stymied some of those commenting on what is perceived as Amazon’s weak earnings model, is they’re measuring it by the usual way tech companies perform in the early years of the business. Normally a tech company will seemingly emerge out of nowhere and disrupt a market. It isn’t concerned about generating profits in the early years, instead focusing on scaling and grabbing a big piece of market share before it looks at how to improve margins and earnings.
With Amazon, that hasn’t been how it has played out, and it makes a lot of analysts and pundits nervous, which has produced skepticism concerning whether or not AMZN has an earnings end game in mind.

I think the problem there has been growing market share on the e-commerce retail side is a much longer process than totally disrupting a market. Amazon isn’t about to settle in and work on improving margins and earnings when it could lose its momentum on the growth side.

What I’m saying is this isn’t the relatively quick play associated with the majority of tech segments.

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

My holiday shopping adventures and Amazon’s continued retail dominance

From Kotke.org:

I did quite a bit of holiday shopping this year…went a bit nuts making up for some not-so-great efforts the past two years. The kids and I shopped for Toys for Tots (twice), I bought gifts for them from me and from Santa, I bought non-holiday stuff like clothes for myself, and I shopped virtually for the gift guide. I shopped every which way: small, locally, at big box stores, and online at 4-5 different retailers. My main takeaway from that experience? Amazon is miles and miles and miles ahead of everyone else. It is not even close.

Sure, Walmart had the drone in stock, but when I’d tried shopping with them earlier in the month, the product page threw a 404 error. I switched to Safari and was able to put the item into my cart, but then a form in the ordering flow wouldn’t work, so I had to get that item elsewhere. (When I did finally create an account while ordering the drone, Walmart thought my name was “Ashley”?!)

Target’s site was so slow that it was nearly unusable (like 30-40 seconds for a product page to start loading). But I persevered because they had an item I really wanted that no one else had in stock. I got an email two days before Xmas saying they were out of stock and couldn’t ship until Jan 4 at the earliest, but that if I still wanted the item, I would have to log in to my account to verify the new shipping date. I didn’t want the item later, so I did nothing. Guess what arrived on my doorstep last week?

. . . .

And Amazon? The site is always fast, I have never seen a 404’d product page, the URLs for their products haven’t changed in almost 20 years,
each product page was clearly marked with holiday shipping information, they showed the number of items in stock if they were running low, shipping was free (b/c I’m a Prime member), returns are often free, and the items arrived on time as promised. More than 20 years after the invention of online retailing, how is it that Amazon seems to be the only one that’s figured all this out?

Link to the rest at Kotke.org and thanks to JR for the tip.

Jeff Bezos is the anonymous buyer of the biggest house in Washington

From The Washington Post:

Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood just keeps getting swankier: Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos has bought the former Textile Museum, a 27,000 square-foot property, intending to convert it into a single-family home, according to a person with knowledge of the sale.

Bezos’s neighbors will include President Obama and his family, who are renting a property nearby for their post-White House home, as well as future first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, incoming presidential adviser Jared Kushner.

. . . .

The home — the largest in Washington — sold Oct. 21 for $23 million in cash (a million over its list price) to a buyer described in public documents as the Cherry Revocable Trust. But word about the identity of the new billionaire next door has been circulating around the enclave that ambassadors and Cabinet secretaries have long called home.

. . . .

There are no indications he will move here permanently.

The home is expected to be an East Coast pied-à-terre for the family — allowing him to avoid hotel bills — but the ample square footage means there’s plenty of room for entertaining.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Becca and others for the tip.

Amazon Is Quietly Eliminating List Prices

From The New York Times:

In a major shift for online commerce, Amazon is quietly changing how it entices people to buy.

The retailer built a reputation and hit $100 billion in annual revenue by offering deals. The first thing a potential customer saw was a bargain: how much an item was reduced from its list price.

Now, in many cases, Amazon has dropped any mention of a list price. There is just one price. Take it or leave it.

The new approach comes as discounts both online and offline have become the subject of dozens of consumer lawsuits for being much less than they seem. It is also occurring while Amazon is in the middle of an ambitious multiyear shift from a store selling one product at a time to a full-fledged ecosystem. Amazon wants to be so deeply embedded in a customer’s life that buying happens as naturally as breathing, and nearly as often.

. . . .

“When Amazon began 21 years ago, the strategy was to lose on every sale but make it up on volume,” said Larry Compeau, a Clarkson University professor of consumer studies. “It was building for the future, and the future has arrived. Amazon doesn’t have to seduce customers with a deal because they’re going to buy anyway.”

Or so Amazon hopes. Digital stores live by Alec Baldwin’s maxim in “Glengarry Glen Ross”: “Always be closing.” The retailer has been experimenting with another method of closing a sale. It tells the potential buyer what the price used to be on Amazon.

. . . .

“We’ve been conditioned to buy only when things are on sale,” said Bonnie Patten, executive director of TruthInAdvertising.org, a consumer information site. “As a result, what many retailers have done is make sure everything is always on sale. Which means nothing is ever on sale.”

Amazon has both benefited from that conditioning as well as encouraged it, which is most likely why it is changing cautiously. It began eliminating list prices about two months ago, pricing specialists say, both on products it sold itself and those sold by other merchants on its site. The retailer did not return multiple requests for comment.

“Our data suggests that list prices are going away,” said Guru Hariharan, chief executive of Boomerang Commerce, a retail analytics firm. Last spring, Boomerang compiled a list for The New York Times of 100 pet food products that Amazon said it was selling at a discount to a list price. Only about half of them still say that.

“Amazon is a data-driven company with very few sacred cows,” Mr. Hariharan said. “At the very least, it is conducting a storewide test about whether it should change its pricing strategy.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Allen for the tip.

Amazon to Create More Than 100,000 New, Full-Time, Full-Benefit Jobs across the U.S. over the Next 18 Months

From the Amazon Press Room:

Already one of the country’s biggest employers, Amazon plans to grow its full-time U.S.-based workforce from 180,000 in 2016 to over 280,000 by mid-2018.

. . . .

Over the past five years, Amazon created over 150,000 jobs in the United States, growing its workforce here from 30,000 employees in 2011 to over 180,000 at the end of 2016. Today, the company announced that it plans to create an additional 100,000 full-time, full-benefit jobs in the U.S. over the next 18 months. These new job opportunities are for people all across the country and with all types of experience, education and skill levels—from engineers and software developers to those seeking entry-level positions and on-the-job training. Many of the roles will be in new fulfillment centers that have been announced over the past several months and are currently under construction in Texas, California, Florida, New Jersey and many other states across the country. In addition to direct job creation, Amazon businesses like Marketplace and Amazon Flex will continue to create hundreds of thousands of jobs for people across the U.S. who want the flexibility to start their own business, work part-time or set their own schedule.

“Innovation is one of our guiding principles at Amazon, and it’s created hundreds of thousands of American jobs. These jobs are not just in our Seattle headquarters or in Silicon Valley—they’re in our customer service network, fulfillment centers and other facilities in local communities throughout the country,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon Founder and CEO. “We plan to add another 100,000 new Amazonians across the company over the next 18 months as we open new fulfillment centers, and continue to invent in areas like cloud technology, machine learning, and advanced logistics.”

. . . .

Amazon provides employees with highly-competitive pay, health insurance, disability insurance, retirement savings plans and company stock. The company also offers up to 20 weeks of paid leave and innovative benefits such as Leave Share and Ramp Back, which give new parents flexibility with their growing families. Leave Share lets employees share their Amazon paid leave with their spouse or domestic partner if their spouse’s employer doesn’t offer paid leave. Ramp Back gives new moms additional control over the pace at which they return to work. Just as with Amazon’s health care plan, these benefits are egalitarian – they’re the same for fulfillment center and customer service employees as they are for Amazon’s most senior executives.

. . . .

In addition to empowering its own employees to innovate and achieve their professional and personal dreams, Amazon offers a series of programs that empower people outside the company and create hundreds of thousands of additional jobs in the U.S. Amazon’s Marketplace business fuels 300,000 jobs in the U.S. for people who’ve started or are growing their own businesses by selling on Amazon. Last year alone, more than 100,000 sellers generated more than $100,000 each in sales.

Kindle Direct Publishing enables anyone to self-publish eBooks and paperbacks for free and reach millions of readers. Authors earn up to 70% royalty on sales to customers, keep control of their book rights, and set their own list prices. KDP has empowered thousands of authors to achieve their dreams and make a living writing books for readers around the world to enjoy.

Link to the rest at Amazon Press Room

Fridges and washing machines could be vital witnesses in murder plots

From The Telegraph:

High-tech washing machines and fridges will soon be used by detectives gathering evidence from crime scenes, experts have forecast.

The advent of ‘the internet of things’ in which more devices are connected together in a world of ‘smart working’ could in future provide important clues for the police.

Detectives are currently being trained to look for gadgets and white goods which could provide a ‘digital footprint’ of victims or criminals.

Mark Stokes, the head of the digital, cyber and communications forensics unit at the Metropolitan Police told The Times: “Wireless cameras within a device, such as fridge, may record the movement of owners and suspects.

. . . .

The new Samsung Family Hub Fridge has cameras that carry a live feed of its contents, so shoppers can tell what they need when they are out at the shop. The dates and times that people logon to the fridge, therefore could provide alibis or prove people were not were they said they were.

Mr Stokes said detectives of the future would carry a ‘digital forensics toolkit’ which would allow them to analyse microchips and download data at the scene, rather than removing devices for testing.

Link to the rest at The Telegraph and thanks to Dan, who says, “Nothing to do with publishing, except new story ideas. Not only Alexa sits on the cutting edge of crime investigation.” for the tip.