2020年5月26日 星期二

On Tech: Amazon’s missed opportunity

The best shopping ideas now are coming from big box stores. Where are Amazon's innovations?

Amazon’s missed opportunity

Timo Lenzen

The most helpful shopping ideas right now are coming from blah big box stores like Walmart and Lowe’s. It’s surprising, yeah. And Amazon, the company that’s determined to reinvent everything, is kinda boring.

There are times when you’d prefer to sit on your couch, pull out a laptop and wait for a pair of curtains to arrive in a cardboard box. But it can also be great to make your purchases online, and then pop by your local Walmart and know that someone is waiting to put those curtains in your car trunk — along with some milk and peanut butter, too.

There’s recently been a surge of people who are picking up their online orders in-person at Walmart, Target, Home Depot and other stores big and small. I’ve been impressed by how old-school companies, from Best Buy to my local cheese shop, have quickly adapted to offering low-contact pickups like this. Some of this activity is a temporary coronavirus-related spike, but I bet some of these habits will stick.

That’s because we want to shop any way we like — all online, all in-store or a mix with the best of both. And I can’t for the life of me understand how Amazon is missing this.

For a quarter century, the retailer has mostly played in the all-online portion of shopping, and that’s been to its advantage. But even Amazon has shown that physical stores matter.

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Three years ago, Amazon agreed to pay $14 billion to buy the Whole Foods supermarket chain. This was the moment when Amazon acknowledged the importance of physical stores, and I couldn’t wait to see how the company reimagined in-person shopping experiences that had not changed much in my lifetime. There would be robots or something.

And then, not much happened. Amazon’s big idea was lockers in Whole Foods for packages? Discounts for Prime members? Not very wow.

Yes, Whole Foods stores are offering home deliveries now. But it’s other retailers that are rethinking how their physical stores can work hand-in-hand with online shopping.

It’s harder for Amazon to have a curbside drive-up option. Whole Foods stores tend to be smaller than Walmarts or Targets, with smaller (or no) parking lots. But come on. Where are the fresh ideas?

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Could Whole Foods have prepackaged kits of standard essentials like milk, eggs, bread and pasta for shoppers who want to grab and go? What about having people reserve a shopping slot time instead of lining up to get into stores? How about personalized suggestions for meals with directions on where to pick up the ingredients? (And I wouldn’t mind if someone washed and chopped my veggies while I shopped, too.)

Amazon’s digital experiments around grocery shopping outside Whole Foods are interesting, but they lack oomph. Three years after Amazon opened two drive-in grocery pickup outposts in the Seattle area, there are still only two. Amazon doesn’t do small things. If these pickup spots are still experiments, it’s a good bet Amazon doesn’t think they’re working.

This may seem to be a shining moment for stores without cashiers, but right now Amazon’s handful of automated stores feels like an afterthought while it’s been busy keeping its e-commerce empire up and running.

My local cheese shop has changed what it does on the fly. The razor sharp, obsessive minds at Amazon haven’t shown much imagination or conviction yet.

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Tip of the Week

How Best to Support Local Restaurants

Brian X. Chen, a personal technology columnist for The Times, has these suggestions for ordering delivery or takeout from your favorite local restaurants, while letting them keep most of the money.

With so many people stuck at home, the use of food delivery apps has surged. That’s not necessarily a good thing for your neighborhood pizzeria.

Apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub charge substantial commissions to restaurants — ranging as high as 15 percent to 30 percent in New York. Recently, a Facebook post from a restaurant consultant and owner in Chicago went viral after it revealed that about $1,000 worth of Grubhub orders shrank to less than $400 in revenue for the restaurant after the delivery app took its cut.

This has led a number of people to ask me: Are there kinder ways to order food?

For starters, calling the restaurant directly to request pickup or delivery is the simplest way to keep all of the money in the restaurant’s pocket. (Make sure to get the phone number from the restaurant’s website, not Yelp, because some apps have found sneaky ways to continue charging commissions even for phone orders.)

And then there’s Tock. After the coronavirus hit, the restaurateur Nick Kokonas reconfigured his reservation app to help restaurants handle takeout orders. The team understands the food business, so it can help restaurants handle orders in a sane way: You reserve a time for pick up.

This way, the restaurants don’t get slammed all at once during peak hours, like what can happen with typical delivery apps. Tock charges a flat 3 percent commission, much less than the fees of bigger apps like Uber Eats.

I’ve used Tock several times to order takeout from my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, and I’m impressed. As soon as I have arrived for my appointed order time, the food is ready, and there has never been a line.

So stay well and stay healthy. But while you’re doing that, try to help your local businesses do the same.

Before we go …

  • Government surveillance is hard to turn off, example infinity: My colleague Raymond Zhong writes that authorities in China were starting to use health-monitoring technologies that were rolled out to help stop the spread of the coronavirus to keep tabs on people after the worst of the epcrisis passes. In one example, a city in China has proposed making a permanent version of a health tracking system to assign citizens a health score and color code based on their medical records and lifestyle habits like whether they smoke, The Wall Street Journal reported.
  • Can the little guy make a living from his passion? The Times media columnist Ben Smith writes about technology options like the newsletter service Substack that try to deliver on the old promise of the internet that you can make a living from just “1,000 true fans.”
  • A plea to Twitter’s C.E.O: Kara Swisher, a contributing writer for The Times’s Opinion section, argues that President Trump’s recent tweet of a debunked murder conspiracy shows the collateral damage of Twitter’s hands-off approach to the tweeter-in-chief who flouts the company’s misinformation rules.

Hugs to this

Arthur the puppy got a lovely letter from 10-year-old Troy, who volunteered to walk and play with Arthur. Get in line, Troy. Get in line.

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The Grand Old Party of never-wrongers

Trump isn’t the only one with an infallibility complex.
Being Republican seems to be synonymous with never admitting to being wrong, says columnist Paul Krugman.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Author Headshot

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

If you’re a member of the chattering classes, you hear a lot about the Never Trumpers — lifelong Republicans like William Kristol and Max Boot who, unlike the rest of their former party, have refused to make peace with the awfulness of the G.O.P.’s leader. Whatever you think of their former role, right now they’re showing impressive moral courage not just in standing up against pressure to conform, but in admitting that they misjudged the nature of the party they served.

But that willingness to face up to past errors in itself marks their defection from the modern Republican way of being.

Today’s column was largely devoted to the carnage wrought by Donald Trump’s inability to admit error. What I didn’t have space to point out is that while Trump’s insistence on his own infallibility is especially lurid, his party in general is now composed of never-wrongers, people who never concede awkward facts. And it has been that way for a while.

While I’m sure there were earlier examples, the inability of many on the right to admit error was really driven home to me in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

For several years following the crisis, the U.S. government ran large budget deficits, mainly because the depressed state of the economy caused revenues to plunge and certain kinds of spending, especially unemployment benefits, to soar. At the same time, the Federal Reserve intervened heavily in financial markets, “printing money” — actually crediting banks with deposits created out of thin air, but close enough — at a rapid pace.

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Many economists, including yours truly, considered these fiscal and monetary developments reasonable under the circumstances. It was, we argued, a good thing to run deficits in a slump, with little risk that these deficits would create any kind of crisis. It was also a good idea to print money, with little risk that doing so would lead to inflation.

But many on the right had a different view. In May 2009, with unemployment at 9.4 percent and still rising, The Wall Street Journal declared that deficits would provoke an attack by the bond vigilantes. Commentators on Fox warned about imminent hyperinflation. A who’s who of conservatives sent an open letter to Ben Bernanke, the then Fed chairman, warning that he was debasing the dollar.

Well, events proved one side of this debate right and the other wrong. There was no debt crisis, and interest rates stayed low. So did inflation. So you might have expected those who got it wrong to engage in some self-reflection about why they were so mistaken.

But they didn’t. Almost without exception, those who predicted disaster from deficits and monetary expansion continued thundering the same warnings year after year, never conceding that they had been wrong. Bloomberg News actually contacted many of the signatories of that open letter to Bernanke four years later; every single signatory who replied insisted that the letter was right, even though the promised inflation never came.

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And now we have an administration that, as far as I can tell, is entirely staffed by never-wrongers. For example, not only did administration economists push a really stupid “cubic model” that seemed to suggest an end to the pandemic around a week ago, they insisted (and continue to insist) that they did no such thing.

So in this, as in many other things, Trump is just a cruder, exaggerated version of what his whole party has become. Being a Republican, it seems, means never having to admit that you were wrong, about anything.

Quick Hits

Alan Greenspan (remember him?) warned vociferously about deficits, then declared it “regrettable” that inflation and soaring interest rates kept not happening.

Stephen Moore, who warned about hyperinflation in 2009, is now a leading advocate of reopening the economy now now now.

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Yesterday marked three months since Larry Kudlow, the administration’s chief economist (and a longtime never-wronger) declared that the coronavirus was “contained” and that the economy was “holding up nicely.”

We won’t have official statistics until next month, but independent estimates suggest that the unemployment rate is close to 25 percent.

Feedback

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Facing the Music

Getting to Yes in quarantine.YouTube

I still have no idea what this song is about, but this performance from quarantine is amazing.

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