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Walmart to expand in-store tech, including Pickup Towers for online orders and robots

Walmart is doubling down on its technology innovations in its brick-and-mortar stores in an effort to better compete with Amazon. The retailer today announced the expanded rollout of several technologies — ranging from in-store Pickup Towers to help customers quickly grab their online orders to floor-scrubbing robots. These jobs were, in many cases, previously handled by people instead of machines.

The retailer says it will add to its U.S. stores 1,500 new autonomous floor cleaners, 300 more shelf scanners, 1,200 more FAST Unloaders and 900 new Pickup Towers.

The “Auto-C” floor cleaner is programmed to clean and polish the store’s floor after the area is first prepped by associates. Publicly introduced last fall, the floor cleaner uses assisted autonomy technology to clean the floors instead of having an associate ride a scrubbing machine — a process that today eats up two hours of an employee’s time per day.

Built in partnership with Brain Corp., Walmart said in December it planned to deploy 360 floor-cleaning robots by the end of January 2019. It’s now bumping that rollout to include 1,500 more this year, bringing the total deployment to 1,860.

The Auto-S shelf scanners, meanwhile, have been in testing since 2017, when Walmart rolled out 50 robots to U.S. stores. It’s now adding 300 more to production to reach a total of 350.

These robots are produced by California-based Bossa Nova Robotics, and roll around aisles to scan prices and check inventory. The robots sit in a charging station until given a task by an employee — like checking inventory levels to see what needs restocking, identifying and finding misplaced items or locating incorrect prices or labeling.

In the backroom, Walmart has been testing FAST Unloaders that are capable of unloading a truck of merchandise along a conveyor belt in a fraction of the time it could be done by hand. The machines automatically scan and sort the items based on priority and department to speed up the process and direct items appropriately.

Unloading, the company noted earlier in testing, was also a heavily disliked job — and one it had trouble keeping staffed. Last summer, Walmart said it had 30 unloaders rolled out in the U.S. and was on pace to add 10 more a week.

Now, 1,200 more are being added to stores, bringing the total to 1,700.

The Pickup Towers have also been around since 2017, when they arrived in 200 stores. A sort of vending machine for online orders, the idea is that customers could save on orders by skipping last-mile deliveries, as shipping to a store costs Walmart less. Customers then benefit by getting a better price by not paying for shipping, and could get their items faster.

In April 2018, Walmart rolled out 500 more towers to U.S. stores. It’s now adding 900 more, which will see 1,700 total towers in use across its stores.

The company claims all this tech will free up its employees’ time from focusing on the “more mundane and repetitive tasks” so they can instead serve customers face-to-face.

Of course, that’s what they all say when turning over people’s jobs to robots and automation — whether that’s fancy coffee-making robotic kiosks, burger-flipping robots or restaurants staffed by a concierge but no kitchen help besides machines.

Walmart, however, claims to still have plenty of work for its staff — like picking groceries for its booming online grocery business, for example. Grocery shopping, generally, accounts for more than half its annual sales, and more of that business is shifting online.

The company also said that many of the jobs it automated were those it struggled to find, hire and retain associates to do, and by taking out the routine work, retention has improved.

“What we’re seeing so far suggests investments in store technology are shaping how we think about turnover and hours. The technology is automating pieces of work or tasks, rather than entire jobs,” a Walmart spokesperson said. “As that’s happening, we have been able to use many of the hours being saved in other areas of the store — focused more on service and selling for customers,” they continued.

“We have now added over 40,000 jobs for the online grocery picking role in stores over the last year and a half. These jobs didn’t exist a short time ago. The result so far: we’ve seen our U.S. store associate turnover reduced year-over-year,” the spokesperson added.

The tech announced today will roll out to U.S. stores “soon,” Walmart says, but didn’t provide exact dates.

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Barnes & Noble teeters in a post-text world

Barnes & Noble, that once proud anchor to many a suburban mall, is waning. It is not failing all at once, dropping like the savaged corpse of Toys “R” Us, but it also clear that its cultural moment has passed and only drastic measures can save it from joining Waldenbooks and Borders in the great, paper-smelling ark of our book-buying memory. I’m thinking about this because David Leonhardt at The New York Times calls for B&N to be saved. I doubt it can be.

First, there is the sheer weight of real estate and the inexorable slide away from print. B&N is no longer a place to buy books. It is a toy store with a bathroom and a cafe (and now a restaurant?), a spot where you’re more likely to find Han Solo bobbleheads than a Star Wars novel. The old joy of visiting a bookstore and finding a few magical books to drag home is fast being replicated by smaller bookstores where curation and provenance are still important while B&N pulls more and more titles. To wit:

But does all of this matter? Will the written word — what you’re reading right now — survive the next century? Is there any value in a book when VR and AR and other interfaces can recreate what amounts to the implicit value of writing? Why save B&N if writing is doomed?

Indulge me for a moment and then argue in comments. I’m positing that B&N’s failure is indicative of a move towards a post-text society, that AI and new media will redefine how we consume the world and the fact that we see more videos than text on our Facebook feed – ostensibly the world’s social nervous system – is indicative of this change.

First, some thoughts on writing versus film. In his book of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson writes about the complexity and education and experience needed to consume various forms of media:

The book has been largely unchanged for centuries. Working in language expressed as a system of marks on a surface, I can induce extremely complex experiences, but only in an audience elaborately educated to experience this. This platform still possesses certain inherent advantages. I can, for instance, render interiority of character with an ease and specificity denied to a screenwriter.

But my audience must be literate, must know what prose fiction is and understand how one accesses it. This requires a complexly cultural education, and a certain socioeconomic basis. Not everyone is afforded the luxury of such an education.

But I remember being taken to my first film, either a Disney animation or a Disney nature documentary (I can’t recall which I saw first), and being overwhelmed by the steep yet almost instantaneous learning curve: In that hour, I learned to watch film.

This is a deeply important idea. First, we must appreciate that writing and film offer various value adds beyond linear storytelling. In the book, the writer can explore the inner space of the character, giving you an imagined world in which people are thinking, not just acting. Film — also a linear medium — offers a visual representation of a story and thoughts are inferred by dint of their humanity. We know a character’s inner life thanks to the emotion we infer from their face and body.

This is why, to a degree, the CGI human was so hard to make. Thanks to books, comics, and film we, as humans, were used to giving animals and enchanted things agency. Steamboat Willie mostly thought like us, we imagined, even though he was a mouse with big round ears. Fast-forward to the dawn of CGI humans — think Sid from Toy Story and his grotesque face — and then fly even further into the future Leia looking out over a space battle and mumbling “Hope” and you see the scope of achievement in CGI humans as well as the deep problems with representing humans digitally. A CGI car named Lightning McQueen acts and thinks like us while a CGI Leia looks slightly off. We cannot associate agency with fake humans, and that’s a problem.

Thus we needed books to give us that inner look, that frisson of discovery that we are missing in real life.

But soon — and we can argue that films like Infinity War prove this — there will be no uncanny valley. We will be unable to tell if a human on screen or in VR is real or fake and this allows for an interesting set of possibilities.

First, with VR and other tricks, we could see through a character’s eyes and even hear her thoughts. This interiority, as Gibson writes, is no longer found in the realm of text and is instead an added attraction to an already rich medium. Imagine hopping from character to character, the reactions and thoughts coming hot and heavy as they move through the action. Maybe the story isn’t linear. Maybe we make it up as we go along. Imagine the remix, the rebuild, the restructuring.

Gibson again:

This spreading, melting, flowing together of what once were distinct and separate media, that’s where I imagine we’re headed. Any linear narrative film, for instance, can serve as the armature for what we would think of as a virtual reality, but which Johnny X, eight-year-old end-point consumer, up the line, thinks of as how he looks at stuff. If he discovers, say, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, he might idly pause to allow his avatar a freestyle Hong Kong kick-fest with the German guards in the prison camp. Just because he can. Because he’s always been able to. He doesn’t think about these things. He probably doesn’t fully understand that that hasn’t always been possible.

In this case B&N and the bookstore don’t need to exist at all. We get the depth of books with the vitality of film melded with the immersion of gaming. What about artisanal book lovers, you argue, they’ll keep things alive because they love the feel of books.

When that feel — the scent, the heft, the old book smell — can be simulated do we need to visit a bookstore? When Amazon and Netflix spend millions to explore new media and are sure to branch out into more immersive forms do you need to immerse yourself in To The Lighthouse? Do we really need the education we once had to gain in order to read a book?

We know that Amazon doesn’t care about books. They used books as a starting point to taking over e-commerce and, while the Kindle is the best system for e-books in existence, it is an afterthought compared to the rest of the business. In short, the champions of text barely support it.

Ultimately what I posit here depends on a number of changes coming all at once. We must all agree to fall headfirst into some share hallucination the replaces all other media. We must feel that that world is real enough for us to abandon our books.

It’s up to book lovers, then, to decide what they want. They have to support and pay for novels, non-fiction, and news. They have to visit small booksellers and keep demand for books alive. And they have to make it possible to exist as a writer. “Publishers are focusing on big-name writers. The number of professional authors has declined. The disappearance of Borders deprived dozens of communities of their only physical bookstore and led to a drop in book sales that looks permanent,” writes Leonhardt and he’s right. There is no upside for text slingers.

In the end perhaps we can’t save B&N. Maybe we let it collapse into a heap like so many before it. Or maybe we fight for a medium that is quickly losing cachet. Maybe we fight for books and ensure that just because the big guys on the block can’t make a bookstore work the rest of us don’t care. Maybe we tell the world that we just want to read.

I shudder to think what will happen if we don’t.

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Alibaba Leads $300 Million Funding for India’s Top Online Grocer

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd led a $300 million investment into India’s biggest online grocer Bigbasket, signaling that the region’s segment is firing up.

Hari Menon, Bigbasket’s co-founder and chief executive officer, said the investment values the company at $950 million — just $50 million under the $1 billion valuation that would have earned it tech unicorn status.

“We wanted a strategic investor and saw Alibaba as the best fit,” Menon said in an interview.

He said existing investors Abraaj Group and Bessemer Venture Partners participated in the latest round.

India’s retail market is worth over $900 billion and grocery shopping accounts for about $600 billion of that, Menon said. Bigbasket’s rivals include India’s leading online retailer Flipkart Online Services Pvt, as well as the SoftBank Group Corp.-backed Grofers.

The company will deploy the funds into building farmer networks, warehouses and delivery infrastructure with a goal to penetrate deeper into the more than two dozen cities it currently operates in, Menon said.

The Bangalore-based startup, founded in December 2011 by Menon and four other entrepreneurs, sells everything from fresh leafy greens to kitchen mops, spice mixes and savory Indian tea-time snacks.

Bigbasket has attracted interest from a wide swath of companies and held initial investment discussions with global retailers Inc. and rival Walmart Inc. before the Chinese e-commerce giant arrived on the scene.

Grocery is a challenging e-commerce segment worldwide and Bigbasket, owned by Innovative Retail Concepts Pvt, operates in a country where expansion is hampered by rudimentary logistics and a shortage of refrigerated trucks and warehouses.

Growth will require capital expenditures, and Amazon got local government approval last year to invest $500 million into food retailing. Several high-profile grocery startups — such as PepperTap and LocalBanya — have collapsed in the past couple of years in India.

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    FabFitFun expands its empire with a new app for Apple TV and Amazon Fire

    FabFitFun, the women’s lifestyle subscription service and media company that’s become a household name among influencers of a certain generation, is expanding its empire with the launch of a new video app for Apple TV and Amazon Fire.

    The Los Angeles company founded by Daniel and Michael Broukhim has become one of the darlings of the tech scene in Southern California by virtue of its success in the subscription box business and its reach with the instafamous (cf. the company was recently name-dropped in a New Yorker article; a couple caught canoodling at its latest event made headlines in Page Six; and it created a bespoke box for MTV’s Video Music Awards).

    A common (somewhat envious) refrain among startup founders in LA is: “The Broukhims are printing money.”

    While the brothers Broukhim are mum about the revenue from their retail business, the reach is undeniable, and video is a key component for growth, according to co-founder and co-chief executive Daniel Broukhim.

    It’s also a return to the company’s media roots as an online magazine in 2010. “Brands would send us products for editorial review and provide us with VIP gift bags at media events,” Daniel told us back when the company raised its first (and only) outside cash in 2015. “Nobody was replicating that experience — of getting to try all these amazing products — for public consumption. We thought we could deliver that experience for our audience.”

    Now the Broukhims (and co-founder Katie Rosen Kitchens — the company’s editor-in-chief) are following the rest of the media industry with a “pivot to video.” But unlike other properties, they’re bolstered by a subscription retail business that’s generating significant revenues (I’ve heard well north of $100 million) and a website that reaches more than 3 million visitors per month.

    “We are able to marry content, commerce and community in ways that [subscribers] can’t get anywhere else,” Broukhim told me.

    The evolution of FabFitFun in some ways mirrors the symbiotic evolution of content and commerce online. Influencers, who are integral to how the company markets itself and creates its content, are also now their own brands, much as FabFitFun went from a media property to a retail channel — and also a brand of its own with its own lines of makeup (ISH — in partnership with Joey Maalouf) and clothing and accessories (Summer & Rose).

    The TV app is yet another way to leverage the work the company does across multiple channels with influencers. The boxes inform the videos, which have lived on the company’s website since March. It also complements the company’s iPhone app, which launched earlier this year with an augmented reality experience built around FabFitFun’s subscription boxes.

    The new app will put the company’s videos on Apple TV and Amazon Fire, significantly expanding the footprint beyond its current 400,000 video viewership.

    Most of the content on the app is exclusive to members, but during January a selection of cooking and fitness tips and tricks will be available for free.

    Chefs Silvia Baldini, winner of Food Network’s “Chopped” series, and Pamela Salzman, an LA-based cookbook writer, will offer lessons from the kitchen while new fitness videos will be made available daily on the app and through Facebook Live workouts with popular influencers.

    For instance, Rachel Brathen will be offering yoga classes; oneOeight Fitness Prevail Boxing will be offering boxing lessons; Exhale Spa, is pitching fusion classes of pilates, ballet and yoga; and The Barre Code is offering… well… barre.

    The company also is incorporating its own products into the video content with Burn 60, which uses the FabFitFunTV fitness ball (coming in the company’s next subscription box).

    To help helm this new content voyage, FabFitFun has enlisted Carter Baldwin as the company’s new vice president of content. On the job since August, Baldwin was the former head of his own video shop that worked with brands like JustFab before going in-house at Ipsy to help Michelle Phan grow her beauty empire.

    At FabFitFun, Baldwin will help manage the company’s content creation from the new video production studio space it just set up in its offices.

    “Content is part of FabFitFun’s DNA,” said Baldwin in statement. “We’re excited to build on the momentum of our FabFitFunTV launch earlier this year with the opening of FabFitFun Studios at our newly-expanded headquarters. We expect the space to be a hub for collaboration with our influencer and brand partners to create original content exclusively for our community.”

    New studio space and an app for over the top video distribution are just laying the groundwork for what looks to be a busy year for FabFitFun. According to Daniel Broukhim, there are plans in place for a men’s membership box “down the road” and the company will continue to roll out more brands with its growing stable of influencers.

    “We think the opportunity is to keep launching brands like ISH with influencers as part of our platform,” Broukhim said. “The reason we launched the contour kit is because Joey wanted to do it and our customers wanted it.”

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