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As shoppers stay away, small stores seek refuge online

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As shoppers stay away, small stores seek refuge online

NEW YORK (AP) — For small retailers across the country, the coronavirus outbreak has turned an already challenging business environment into never-ending uncertainty.

Amy Witt might have 20 customers on a good day in her Dallas women’s clothing store, and then none the next.

“It’s a rollercoaster we ride every day,” says Witt, whose store, Velvet Window, reopened May 1 after being closed since March. “We’re doing everything we can to cover expenses and keep the store stocked with inventory.”

Many of Witt’s older customers are still shy about going into stores, especially since the virus has resurged in Texas. As she reopened the store in May, Witt told The Associated Press  she planned to use services like private shopping hours to encourage reluctant customers to come in. The strategy has helped but sales remain well below Witt’s expectations. She hopes to boost sales by selling at an outdoor market where shoppers can feel more comfortable.

Still, Witt is grateful to be open — there are empty stores in the shopping center where Velvet Window is located.

Small retailers, especially those selling non-necessities like apparel, are still struggling months after state and local governments lifted shutdown orders aimed at containing the virus. With the virus far from under control in many areas, however, consumers worried about getting sick are staying home and doing their purchasing online or, if they venture out, going to big stores like Walmart and Target where they can do one-stop shopping.

The weak sales and erratic customer traffic have forced store owners to be creative in hopes of persuading customers to stop in rather than order from a big online retailer. But for some owners, disappointing sales and an uncertain outlook have forced them to close their stores for good and stake the future of their businesses on the internet.

Washington was one of the first epicenters of the virus, and one of the first states to shut down its economy. Ambika Singh felt the impact immediately: Her company, Armoire, rents clothing to professional women. Her customers, suddenly stuck at home, no longer needed outfits for the office, dinners and business trips.

Singh has permanently closed her two stores in Seattle, knowing they couldn’t be sustained. She’s adapted her online business to meet customers’ rapidly changing needs — they wanted different clothes, like luxury loungewear or more dress shirts to look business-like on videoconferences even as they wore sweatpants

Having lost customers due to the weakened economy, Armoire’s revenue is down about 35% from February, which was its best month ever. One of Singh’s biggest challenges now is marketing to new customers as she tries to replace the shoppers who left.

“As we’ve lost the physical connection with customers, can we rebuild?” she says.

The internet has been a refuge for many retailers during the pandemic, says Carlos Castelan, managing director of The Navio Group, a retail consultancy based in Minneapolis. He noted that Shopify, a company that hosts e-commerce websites, had a 71% increase in new stores in the second quarter compared to a year earlier.

“They’re urgently setting up these e-commerce models to serve their customers,” he says.

The most recent retail sales tallies from the government show sales at clothing sellers, which tend to have physical locations, fell nearly 36% from May through July. But online and other non-traditional retailers saw their sales soar 26%.

Small retailers have also learned to be more customer-friendly. They’re using, for example, texts to communicate with shoppers and making pickups easier by setting aside dedicated parking spaces so people can grab and go, Castelan says. And stores are letting shoppers know they are trying to keep everyone safe.

“The primary driver has been as much about convenience and safety. That’s more the story rather than merchandising,” he says.

The internet has been a lifeline for Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. The Austin, Texas, store remained open during the government-ordered shutdown, but many consumers stayed home, sharply reducing store traffic. The shop also sells to restaurants, which stopped ordering as they were forced to close. The shop’s business is still down 20%.

Owners John and Kendall Antonelli say they’ve managed to survive by taking the events they normally run on their premises, like cheese tastings, and putting them online. They’ve had as many as 150 people take part in a tasting, with many people ordering cheese in advance and picking it up curbside. More recently, with fewer people sheltering at home, they’ve been more likely to get 50 people, but that is still about double the number of attendees they had pre-pandemic.

The Antonellis revamped their website so local customers can order a la carte instead of pre-selected packages — that’s more expensive for the store, but it keeps people happy and shopping.

The Antonellis have learned that several cheese shops in other cities have gone out of business, so they know they too could be at risk.

“We are potentially considered one of the success stories — and what I mean by that is we’re still operating,” Kendall Antonelli says.

Business has been slow since Mallory Shelter’s Washington, D.C., jewelry store reopened in June. Shelter, whose store bears her name, responded to the pandemic and shutdown by pouring her marketing efforts into her website. It now accounts for 75% of her revenue, up from 8% before the virus struck, but her overall revenue is down by half. She also has changed her product mix, focusing more on custom items that can have a more personal meaning for buyers.

A big question is whether her in-store business will recover in time for the holiday season that starts three months from now.

“This is the month when I’m preparing for the holidays. But that looks really hard when you don’t know if you’re going to be open, if there’s going to be another wave of the virus or what people’s spending will be like,” Shelter says.

By JOYCE M. ROSENBERG AP Business Writer.

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Phone flip: New Quibi series ‘Wireless’ empowers the viewer

Inside Telecom Staff

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Phone flip New Quibi series 'Wireless' empowers the viewer

NEW YORK (AP) — Most directors insist on having final edit approval of their films. Not the creators of “Wireless.”

The series on the mobile-platform Quibi employs an ingenious way to tell a story on a smartphone: You see different things on the screen depending on whether you hold your phone vertically or horizontally.

Horizontally, a traditional cinematic film follows a college student navigating the snowy Colorado mountains. But flip your phone vertically and you see his smartphone as he scrolls through photos, checks the map or calls his mom.

That means that the viewer becomes the editor. And each viewer sees a slightly different film, depending on at what points they rotate the phone.

“You’re never going to have the same experience as somebody else watching the show,” said Zach Wechter, the director, co-creator and co-writer. “It really is in our viewers’ hands when they’re going to turn the phones at any given moment.”

The 10-episode series that launched this week has the backing of director Steven Soderbergh, an eager adopter of nascent technology whose influential films include “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and “Traffic.”

He signed on to be an executive producer after seeing “Pocket,” a short film by Wechter and his creating partner Jack Seidman that experimented with the two-screen technology.

“It was the first thing I’d ever seen that I felt was designed to be watched and experienced on the phone and absolutely worked,” Soderbergh said.

The show signals a technological jump for Quibi, which launched during the pandemic offering mobile-friendly installments of movies and TV in 10 minutes or less.

The platform initially got fewer subscribers than hoped, despite landing celebs like Chance the Rapper, Chrissy Teigen and Jennifer Lopez. Even so, it heads into the weekend Emmy Awards with an impressive 10 nominations.

The technological leap with “Wireless” means it waves goodbye to passive entertainment. By letting viewers rotate their phones and choose their perspective, Wechter is empowering the audience, letting them feel like they’re controlling the story.

“I’d like to think that our project is something that will inspire filmmakers and artists to consider the possibilities of this new frontier — a new landscape for storytelling,” Wechter said.

“Wireless” stars Tye Sheridan as a college student with an unhappy past and a secret habit who is driving to a New Years Eve’s party to try to rekindle a relationship with his ex-girlfriend.

As he drives over the mountains, we watch what he does on his phone: Scrolling through Instagram, checking maps, firing up Tinder, texting friends, asking Siri questions and cuing up the band Brockhampton on the stereo. The human in horizontal mode and the technological on vertical are fused.

The filmmakers have so seamlessly integrated the phone-in-the-phone that our hero listens to his old voicemail messages and looks at photos from happier times to give context for his emotions. They’ve even created a fake, chirpy online commercial for a fictional vehicle, the Chevy Colorado.

Wechter said he was inspired to create the show based on how much time everyone spends on their phone these days, and says we have almost an emotional relationship with our devices. Soderbergh agrees, calling them “an additional appendage.”

“I think the ubiquity of smartphones is one of the most impactful parts of our lives nowadays,” Wechter said. “It really just was birthed out of realizing how essential these devices have become in our day-to-day lives.”

Soderbergh laughs that filmmakers these days are lamenting how putting their work on a phone is a depreciation of their work. “This is a complete inversion of what you typically hear a filmmaker say: To experience it NOT on your phone would be a diminishment.”

He hopes viewers will watch the thriller and then re-watch it, flipping their phone for more looks at the in-screen phone during the second time or focusing more on the actor’s perspective. “I hope other people will seize on the ability to do their own edits.”

In an interesting twist, Andie MacDowell, who starred in the indie “Sex, Lives and Videotape” 31 years ago, voices the college student’s mom in this Quibi show. Soderbergh laughs at the old technology of that film, which used video confessionals. “Think about how quaint that seems,” he said. “It’s like a Jane Austen novel compared to what we are experiencing now.”

___

By MARK KENNEDY AP Entertainment Writer.

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Celebs join Instagram ‘freeze’ to protest Facebook inaction

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Celebs join Instagram 'freeze' to protest Facebook inaction

LONDON (AP) — Kim Kardashian West, Katy Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio and other celebrities are taking part in a 24-hour Instagram “freeze” on Wednesday to protest against what they say is parent company Facebook’s failure to tackle violent and hateful content and election misinformation.

Hollywood stars and influencers are lending their backing to the “#StopHateforProfit” movement’s latest campaign. The movement asks people to put up a message highlighting what they called the damage Facebook does but otherwise refrain from posting on Instagram for a day.

“I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation – created by groups to sow division and split America apart – only to take steps after people are killed,” Kardashian West posted on her Instagram account on Tuesday.

Facebook declined to comment but pointed to recent announcements about what it’s doing to limit the reach on its platform of groups that support violence and its efforts to protect the U.S. election in November.

With 188 million followers, Kardashian West is one of the most influential people on Instagram and support from her and other big names for the boycott saw Facebook shares slide in aftermarket trading late Tuesday. They were down 1.7% ahead of the market open on Wednesday.

The organizers behind “#StopHateforProfit,” including civil rights groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and Color Of Change, had previously led a campaign that got hundreds of brands and nonprofits to join a Facebook advertising boycott in July.

Ashton Kutcher, Mark Ruffalo, Kerry Washington, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Foxx and Sacha Baron Cohen were among about two dozen Hollywood stars and celebrity influencers supporting the campaign, the organizers said.

DiCaprio said he was standing with the civil rights groups to call “on all users of Instagram and Facebook to protest the amplification of hate, racism, and the undermining of democracy on those platforms.”

Facebook, which earned nearly $70 billion in advertising revenue last year, is facing a reckoning over what critics call indefensible excuses for amplifying divisions, hate and misinformation on their platforms.

“We are quickly approaching one of the most consequential elections in American history,” organizers said. “Facebook’s unchecked and vague ‘changes’ are falling dangerously short of what is necessary to protect our democracy.”

The movement also singled out for criticism Facebook’s handling of online material ahead of the shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin last month. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company made a mistake in not removing sooner a page belonging to a militia group that called for armed civilians to enter the town. It only took the page down after an armed teenager killed two people after violent protests sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, who is Black.

BY KELVIN CHAN AP Business Writer.

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Bill Gates Sr., father of Microsoft co-founder, dies at 94

Inside Telecom Staff

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Bill Gates Sr., father of Microsoft co-founder, dies at 94

SEATTLE (AP) — William H. Gates II, a lawyer and philanthropist best known as the father of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has died at 94.

Gates died peacefully Monday at his beach home in Washington state from Alzheimer’s disease, the family announced Tuesday.

In an obituary the family credited the patriarch with a “deep commitment to social and economic equity,” noting that he was responsible for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s first efforts to improve global health as well as his advocacy for progressive taxation, especially unsuccessful efforts to pass a state income tax on the wealthy in Washington.

“My dad’s wisdom, generosity, empathy, and humility had a huge influence on people around the world,” Bill Gates wrote in a tribute.

Born in 1925, Gates Sr. grew up in Bremerton, Washington, where his parents owned a furniture store. He joined the Army following his freshman year at the University of Washington and was en route to Japan when it surrendered in 1945.

He served a year in war-torn Tokyo before returning to the United States and resuming his education, his family said. After earning his law degree in 1950, he began working in private practice and as a part-time Bremerton city attorney.

He formed a Seattle law firm with two other partners that eventually became Preston Gates and Ellis — now known as K & L Gates, one of the world’s largest law firms. The firm was one of the first to work with the region’s technology industry.

Gates Sr. met his first wife, Mary Maxwell, at the University of Washington. They had two daughters and a son — Gates Jr. — and remained married until her death in 1994. Two years later he married Mimi Gardner, then the director of the Seattle Art Museum, with whom he spent the last quarter-century of his life.

“When I was a kid, he wasn’t prescriptive or domineering, and yet he never let me coast along at things I was good at, and he always pushed me to try things I hated or didn’t think I could do (swimming and soccer, for example),” Gates Jr. wrote in the tribute. “And he modeled an amazing work ethic. He was one of the hardest-working and most respected lawyers in Seattle, as well as a major civic leader in our region.”

That civic work included serving as a trustee of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Planned Parenthood and United Way, and as a regent of the University of Washington, where he led fundraising drives. He also served as the president of the state and local bar associations and in the leadership of the American Bar Association, helping create diversity scholarships and promoting legal services for the poor.

“Bill Sr. was a person who cared about the plight of many, and he had the resources and never-ending civic commitment to do something about it,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “He made the choice to use his wealth and influence to advocate for and improve equity in our communities.”

Gates Sr. was a towering figure by reputation and in person — he stood 6-foot-7 (2 meters) tall — and his counsel was often sought. Former Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz has said that when he was struggling to raise the money to buy the six-store coffee chain in 1987, Gates Sr. stepped in to rescue him from a rival buyer — not only by investing, but by personally taking Schultz to visit the rival, demanding as he loomed over the rival’s desk: “You are going to stand down and this kid is going to realize his dream. Do you understand me?”

Gates retired from law in 1998 and took on prominent roles with the Gates Foundation, helping launch its work in global health.

The family said that due to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, a memorial service would be held later.

By GENE JOHNSON Associated Press.

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