BIC sees increase in stationery sales

Back-to-school (BTS) trading and new products helped to lift BIC sales in an otherwise tough Q3 for the manufacturer.

In the manufacturer’s stationery division, quarterly sales rose 2.6% on a comparative basis to €191.3 million ($226 million).

Overall, BIC’s Q3 was below expectations with sales down 5% at €465.8 million while profit fell 21.5% to €57.8 million. The group said it would be cutting its full year forecasts of slightly less that 2% sales growth.

For the nine months ended 30 September, sales rose 2.9% to €619.4 million.

Sales in Europe recorded mid-single digit growth. It reported a good BTS period across all European countries, which managed to offset market softness.

The stationery segment gained market share across the board, most notably in France for the 14th consecutive year, and also in the UK.

The group attributed this to improved customer relationships, targeted brand support investment and the success of new products.

In North America, sales grew low-single digit in a slightly declining market. During the BTS period, it remained flat, but new product launches allowed BIC to gain share.

In developing markets, Latin America sales grew low-single digits. In Brazil, it continued to gain market share despite a weak environment. Good BTS trading in Mexico allowed BIC to outperform the market there.

In the Middle-East and Africa, it delivered robust growth alongside market share gains, particularly in South Africa.

Adjusted operating profit margins for the segment were reported at 8.9%, compared to 9.9% for the period last year. Q3 margins were also slightly lower at 3.6% compared to 4% last year. This was due to increased brand support investment.

BIC also announced that it is to invest around €28 million in a new writing instruments facility in India. Its subsidiary Cello has acquired land and building for the construction of a new writing instrument facility in Vapi, Gujarat.

The investment will enhance its manufacturing reach in India, and enable it to meet consumer demand more effectively in this rapidly growing market. The facility is expected to be operational by the end of 2018.

By Joshua Allsopp for OPI

Amazon introduces accounts for teens

Traditionally, teenagers who needed to buy notebooks or new sneakers on Amazon either had to ask their parents to do it for them, or log onto their parents’ account, where Mom and Dad’s viewing history would be on full display (“Fifty Shades Darker? Eww, Mother!”)

Amazon never really had clear rules regarding a minimum age for making purchases, simply stating in its service terms that anyone under 18 “may use the Amazon Services only with involvement of a parent or guardian,” and that you must be 21 to buy alcohol.

Now Amazon is giving teens ages 13 to 17 more autonomy – and let’s be real, hooking them onto the colossal shopping catalog early – by introducing teen accounts.

Parents choose a payment method and shipping address, and decide whether they want to be able to approve every order their teen makes or set a pre-approved spending limit. Then, to start shopping, teens must download the Amazon app, and create a login.

When they’re about to buy something, their parents will receive a text or email with the item, price and an optional note from their kid, saying something like, “Dad, can I get these pants for my ski trip?” or “I really, really need glitter slime.” Parents can reply “Y” for yes, or they can review the order further on the site.

Parents with Prime membership can share “select benefits” with their teen, including free two-day shipping on more than 50 million items, Prime Video and Twitch Prime. Teens and parents can sign up for a teen account at amazon.com/forteens.

By Michelle Woo for Lifehacker

The Amazon con

When Alexander Turney Stewart opened a brand new store in New York in the 1820s, he adopted a radical and original policy.

All goods had a fixed price. No longer would salesmen size up the apparent wealth of a customer and see how much they could get away with charging.

Rival retailers predicted the Irishman would be bankrupt within a week. Instead, he became a multi-millionaire and A. T. Stewart & Co was, for some time, the world’s biggest department store.

The idea that shops charge a set price for goods has been the norm for almost 200 years — but that’s changing thanks to the internet.

Most of us assume that prices at Amazon, the online retail giant, are not just low, but stable.

However, remarkable new analysis of the price of 100 random products during the course of year showed prices fluctuated by up to 260 per cent between the highest and lowest points, leaving customers who bought at the wrong time hundreds of pounds out of pocket.

The research, using data from CamelCamelCamel, a price-tracking website, found that a paddle board, for example, could be bought for as little as £234.87 or as much as £699 — a difference of £464.13 over a year.

A Jamie Oliver stainless steel induction saucepan changed price 51 times between first going on sale on Amazon in November 2016 and August this year, ranging in price from £44 to £18.27.

New analysis of the price of 100 random products during the course of year showed prices fluctuated by up to 260 per cent between the highest and lowest points, leaving customers out of pocket.

Some prices changed by large amounts on a weekly basis. On average, each product changed price every five days and one product changed price 300 times in a year. For example, the DVD of Stephen King’s 1990 thriller It changed price 24 times a month.

This strategy of prices moving up and down on a regular basis — and in real time — is known in the industry as ‘dynamic pricing’.

It is a technique that has long been used in the airline industry to sell as many seats as possible, as profitably as possible.

Some consumers have also experienced it with Uber, the app-based minicab company, which offers low fares compared with black taxis most of the time, but which sometimes adopts ‘surge pricing’ during periods of high demand.
Dynamic pricing is increasingly being used by online retailers, particularly Amazon.

Philip Downer is the former managing director of Borders, the High Street bookstore chain that faced fierce competition from the online giant.

He now runs small gift shops in Dorking, Surrey, and follows Amazon developments closely.

‘This price instability means the only certainty is that you can never be certain you are getting the best price for anything,’ he says.

‘Indeed, you probably never are getting the best price for anything. One senses as a consumer that they are playing games with you.’

Earlier this month, Amazon in the U.S. came under fire for allegedly using dynamic pricing to take advantage of Hurricane Irma.

Customers in storm-hit Florida took to social media to complain that packages of Nestle water were selling for $25 on Amazon, yet prices for those in the north-east of the country showed the same case of water selling for $18.50.
Amazon strongly denied that it was adopting ‘surge pricing’ for bottled water and insisted it did not alter prices according to the area of the country.


That, in turn, was leaving higher-priced offers from third-party sellers that use Amazon.

However, there is strong anecdotal evidence that all online retailers, not just Amazon, tweak prices of some products according to supply and demand.

Another price-tracking website is Idealo, which monitors 183 million live prices across 30,000 shops in Europe, including Amazon, Argos, John Lewis and Asos.

Over the course of three months, it studied a selection of consumer electronics, such as Fitbit fitness devices and computer games, to see how the average price fluctuated throughout the week.

In nearly all cases, prices were lower on a Monday or Tuesday — the least popular days of the week to shop online, according to retailers, and they were more expensive in the run-up to the weekend, when the bulk of online shopping takes place.

For instance, the average price of a Fitbit Charge HR was £89 on a Monday but £94.64 on a Saturday. Call of Duty: Black Ops III, a computer game, cost £12.49 on a Monday but £16.99 on a Friday and Saturday.

The average difference between a Monday and Saturday across all video games is 15 per cent, according to Idealo.

The price difference for a selection of four family games, including Monopoly and Articulate, was 18 per cent depending on the day of the week.

‘It is supply and demand driven, absolutely,’ says John Hoad at Idealo, which is based in Germany.
‘Just look at the Lego Millennium Falcon, which is a marriage of two very popular toy trends: Lego and Star Wars.’

On May 2, it was priced, on average, at £81.66 across all the retailers it monitors, including Amazon. On May 3, the day before so-called Star Wars Day, which occurs each year on May 4 and is hugely popular with fans, it shot up to £94.90, a 16 per cent leap — ‘a simple case of taking advantage of demand around Star Wars Day,’ says Hoad. On May 5, the price went back down to £83.99.

A retailer is perfectly within their rights to fluctuate prices according to supply and demand, but consumer experts worry that retailers have the potential to take it a step further.

With all the data that online retailers hold on customers, could they alter the prices according to who was doing the shopping?

In 2012, a Wall Street Journal investigation discovered online companies, including office-supply shop Staples and furniture retailer Home Depot, showed customers different prices based on ‘a range of characteristics that could be
discovered about the user’.

Customers, for instance, in locations with a higher average income — and perhaps more buying choice — were generally shown lower prices. Another study, in Spain, showed that the price of the headphones Google recommends to you in its ads correlated with how budget-conscious your web history showed you to be.

The travel site Orbitz made headlines when it was revealed to have calculated that Apple Mac users were prepared to pay 20 to 30 per cent more on hotels than users of other computer brands, and to have adjusted pricing accordingly.

Ratula Chakraborty, senior lecturer in business management at the University of East Anglia, and an expert in pricing, says: ‘So-called first-degree price discrimination, when prices are aimed at the individual by identifying them, is a very contentious subject, as Amazon found to its cost several years ago when it started trialling targeted higher prices to consumers based on their shopping history, which it could monitor.’

This was back in 2000, when online retailing was just taking off. Amazon was found to have charged some people more than others for the same DVD, with some alleging that older people were charged a higher price.

Within a fortnight Amazon was forced to apologise, issue refunds and strenuously state it never tests prices based on customer demographics.

An Amazon spokesman reiterated its position to the Mail this week, saying it might alter prices according to a customer’s location but does ‘not engage in surge pricing or vary its prices by demographics. Retail prices fluctuate all the time, and we simply seek to meet or beat the lowest competitive price for our customers.’

But, as Chakraborty makes clear, it is increasingly easy, in theory, for online retailers to use data they have gathered to change prices according to the customer.

Every time you visit a website, the company behind it downloads a tracker onto your computer, known as a cookie. These monitor what pages of the website you use and how frequently you click on a particular page.

In addition, in nearly all cases you have to hand over your email address to an online shop when you make a purchase; this can then be easily linked to your actual postcode, and other details available about you online, which in turn can be used to estimate your wealth thanks to large consumer databases that segment the population of Britain into about 60 different socio-economic categories.

John Readman, marketing director at Summit, a company that helps online retailers use this sort of customer data to boost their sales, says: ‘What’s fascinating with dynamic pricing is the amount of audience data that is now available to retailers, as consumers move around the internet.

‘Potentially, an unscrupulous or profit-hungry retailer could change the price of a product based on how much they want that product. That is technically possible.’

He insists that no retailer he has ever worked with has used data in this way to profiteer.

Instead, ‘it’s more about reducing the price to returning customers or to loyal customers to get them over the line’.
In other words, most retailers want to convert a browser into a buyer rather than make a bit more profit out of an individual buyer.

What is revealing, however, is how Readman shops online.
He does his initial searches for high-value products and then makes his purchases using an ‘incognito logged-out browser’.

This is a button most web browsers, such as Chrome or Internet Explorer, have (see box above for how to find this). Once clicked, users can visit web pages without the sites being able to track the identity of the consumer.
‘I have certainly seen different results from when I am logged in than when I am on an incognito browser,’ says Readman.

He says this is mostly true for travel and hotel websites, but he has also spotted different prices for the same product on Amazon.

Amazon’s strength is in ‘bundling’, he adds.

He is referring to the practice by which once you’ve selected your purchase, up will pop a selection of related items that, apparently, are ‘frequently bought together’ by other customers, in order to tempt you further.
‘Nearly 10 per cent of all their sales come from that extra bundling,’ Readman says. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if they are not showing you the cheapest one on the bundle, but the one they are making the most [profit] margin on.’

In the UK, only £16 in every £100 is spent online. But dynamic pricing could soon enter the High Street thanks to technology called electronic shelf-edge labelling.

A number of retailers have started to experiment with electronic displays, rather than paper labels on their shelves.
Andrew Dark, is the chief executive of Display Data, which has developed electronic labels which are so high resolution they look like a printed ticket.

‘People can’t work out it isn’t paper,’ he says. The main benefit of this technology for retailers is cost-cutting.
Display Data has worked with both Morrisons, at its Guiseley branch in Leeds, and Tesco, at Braintree in Essex, to install a trial of electronic price displays.

‘It means the retailer doesn’t have to laboriously print a label, get a human being to cut it out, walk it to a specific location in an aisle and put it in the shelf,’ says Mr Dark.

‘Changing 50 items in 1,000 stores just isn’t easy to do manually. If you speak to store colleagues, they hate it. It’s so laborious.’

His system allows someone to change the price in thousands of stores within 17 seconds with the push of a button.
The supermarkets are adamant that they have no intention of using ‘dynamic pricing’ to push up the price of bottles of wine to commuters in the evening, for instance, or the price of umbrellas when it is raining.

A source close to Morrisons said: ‘Our customers would murder us if we did that. Yes, it’s technically possible, but as it is so competitive out there, we would be crazy to try this.’

However, electronic shelf-edge labelling has been used to cut prices throughout the day, explains Dark, one of whose customers is Kaufland, a large supermarket group based in Germany, which uses it particularly to encourage customers to buy fresh fruit and vegetables near to their use-by dates.

‘We buy so much with use-by dates and if it doesn’t get sold, it gets thrown away. That’s one of the biggest drivers in dynamic pricing: to reduce that wastage by lowering prices,’ he says.

Mr Dark believes that major British supermarkets as well as DIY shops and electronics stores will start to adopt the technology.

‘This is no longer a trial. The system works. You will see chains roll out this technology from the end of this year; you will start to see mass deployment across various UK retailers.’
If customers really do benefit, by seeing more promotions and discounts towards the end of the day, undoubtedly they will cheer this development.

But so much of dynamic pricing, especially online, with the continual fluctuation of prices, seems designed only to confuse the consumer. As Mr Downer says: ‘What I can’t stand is the message you get from politicians that if you are ripped off it is somehow your fault for not shopping around.

‘As if people have the time, let alone inclination or capability, to do all this.’

By Harry Wallop for The Daily Mail

One of the most important findings of Rand Merchant Bank’s (RMB) seventh edition of Where to Invest in Africa is that the continent could find itself hovering on the brink of disaster if it continues to depend on its current economic fundamentals and does not usher in economic diversification. Where to Invest in Africa 2018 highlights those countries that have understood the need to adapt to the prolonged slowdown in commodity prices and sluggish levels of production growth – and those that haven’t.

The theme for Where to Invest in Africa 2018 is “Money Talks” and this edition “follows the money” on the African continent to evaluate aspects crucial to each country’s economic performance. The report focuses on the main sources of dollar revenues in Africa, which allows it to measure the most important income generators and identify investment opportunities.

“Over the past three years, some African governments have had to implement deep and painful budget cuts, announce multiple currency devaluations and adopt hawkish monetary policy stances – all as a result of a significant drop in traditional revenues,” says RMB Africa analyst Celeste Fauconnier, a co-author of Where to Invest in Africa 2018.

“Some countries have been more nimble and effective than others in managing shortfalls,” says Nema Ramkhelawan-Bhana, also an RMB Africa analyst and co-author of the report. “But major policy dilemmas have ensued, forcing governments to balance economically prudent solutions with what is politically palatable.”

“The last three years have sounded an alarm, amplifying what is now a dire need for the economies of Africa to shift their focus from traditional sources of income to other viable alternatives,” says RMB Africa analyst Neville Mandimika, a contributor to Where to Invest in Africa 2018.

“These years have exposed a number of African nations to severe economic stress – especially that of liquidity shortages. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to infuse into a context as complex as this, and traditional forms of revenue will remain a reality for many years to come,” says RMB Africa analyst Ronak Gopaldas, also a co-author.

In this edition of Where to Invest in Africa 2018, RMB’s Investment Attractiveness Index, which balances economic activity against the relative ease of doing business, illustrates how subdued levels of economic activity have diluted several scores on the index when compared with last year, resulting in some interesting movements within the top 10.

Notable omissions from the top 10 this year are Nigeria and Algeria, which have fallen from numbers six and 10 to numbers 13 and 15, respectively. Ethiopia and Rwanda, on the other hand, have climbed three and four places, respectively.

But probably the most notable change is that South Africa has fallen from first place for the first time since the inception of the report, ceding its place to Egypt, which is now Africa’s most attractive investment destination.

Egypt displaced South Africa largely because of its superior economic activity score and sluggish growth rates in South Africa, which have deteriorated markedly over the past seven years. South Africa also faces mounting concerns over issues of institutional strength and governance, though in its favour are its currency, equity and capital markets, which are still a cut above the rest, with many other African nations facing liquidity constraints.

Morocco retained its third position for a third consecutive year, having benefitted from a greatly enhanced operating environment since the “Arab Spring” that began in 2010. Surprisingly, Ethiopia, a country dogged by sociopolitical instability, displaced Ghana to take fourth spot mostly because of its rapid economic growth, having brushed past Kenya as the largest economy in East Africa. Ghana’s slide to fifth position was mostly due to perceptions of worsening corruption and weaker economic freedom.

Kenya holds firm in the top 10 at number six. Despite being surpassed by Ethiopia, investors are still attracted by Kenya’s diverse economic structure, pro-market policies and brisk consumer spending growth. A host of business-friendly reforms aimed at rooting out corruption and steady economic growth helped Tanzania climb two places to number seven. Rwanda re-entered the top 10 having spent two years on the periphery, helped by being one of the fastest-reforming economies in the world, high real growth rates and its continuing attempts to diversify its economy.

At number nine, Tunisia has made great strides in advancing political transition while an improved business climate has been achieved through structural reforms, greater security and social stability. Côte d’Ivoire slipped two places to take up 10th position. Although its business environment scoring is still relatively low, its government has made significant strides in inviting investment into the country, leading to a strong increase in foreign direct investment over the years and resulting in one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa.

For the first time, Nigeria does not feature in the top 10, with its short-term investment appeal having been eroded by recessionary conditions. Uganda is steadily closing in on the top 10, though market activity is likely to remain subdued after a tumultuous 2016 marred by election-related uncertainty, a debilitating drought and high commercial lending rates. Though Botswana, Mauritius and Namibia are widely rated as investment-grade economies, they do not feature in the top 10 mostly because of the relatively small sizes of their markets – market size has been a key consideration in the report’s methodology.

Where to Invest in Africa 2018 also includes 191 jurisdictions around the world, and measures Africa’s performance relative to other country groupings. The unfortunate reality is that African countries are still at the lower end of the global performance spectrum, which continues to be dominated by the US, the UK, Australia and Germany.

Source: Business Day 

Toys R Us files for bankruptcy

Toys R Us has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the company announced Monday.

The bankruptcy filing helps the Wayne New Jersey-based toy retailer relieve itself of the debt left over from its $6.6 billion acquisition by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Bain Capital Partners and real estate investment trust Vornado Realty Trust in a 2005 deal valued at $6.6 billion.

The retailer has $4.9 billion in debt, $400-million of which has interest payments due in 2018 and $1.7 billion of which is due in 2019.

“Today marks the dawn of a new era at Toys”R”Us where we expect that the financial constraints that have held us back will be addressed in a lasting and effective way,” said Dave Brandon, the company’s chairman and CEO, said in a release announcing the filing.

“We are confident that these are the right steps to ensure that the iconic Toys”R”Us and Babies”R”Us brands live on for many generations,” he adds.

The toy seller also intends to seek protection in parallel proceedings for its Canadian subsidiary.

The company said it will continue to operate as usual its approximately 1,600 Toy R Us and Babies R Us stores around the world. The company’s operations outside of the U.S. and Canada are not part of the protections proceedings, it said.

The retailer said that it has already received a commitment from some lenders, including a JPMorgan-led syndicate, for over $3-billion in debtor-in-possession financing. Although that’s subject to court approval, Toys R Us said it “is expected to immediately improve the Company’s financial health and support its ongoing operations during the
court-supervised process.”

Restructuring that debt would give Toys R Us the financial flexibility to continue its turnaround. Initiatives include improving its website and revamping its Babies R Us business, by focusing on items like cribs that are less likely than diapers to be sold on Amazon.

A bankruptcy filing will also help the retailer manage the the crucial holiday season and give vendors like Mattel and Hasbro clarity into its long-term plans.

For its owners, the bankruptcy filing ends a chapter that started at a time when private equity dove into the retail industry, buoyed by low interest rates and the attraction of recognizable names. That flurry has come back to haunt many, as debt burdens have made it difficult for retailers to make the necessary investments to adjust to the rapidly changing retail industry.

Private equity-backed Payless ShoeSource and Gymboree are among those that have filed for bankruptcy over the past two years.

For Vornado, the deal was a bet on the value of Toys R Us’s real estate. It came just a year after K-Mart and Sears merged in an $11-billion deal based on the idea that combining the real estate value of the struggling stores would strengthen both.

Many retailers have over the past year shed their real estate footprint, finding the U.S. store-base too vast and too out of sync with the many American shoppers that no longer go to the mall.

By Lauren Hirsh for CNBC

Post-it notes with emojis. Locker magnets that resemble pizza and poop. Pencil boxes featuring T.rex. These are some of the many back-to-school items currently sitting on the shelves of a Wal-Mart store in Toronto.

But Rhonda Johnson, of Unionville, Ont., skipped all of that during a recent visit as she was browsing through the store with her nine-year-old son, Jahziah.
“I am the type of parent who buys something that is going to be functional and serve its purpose,” she says. “It’s going to be plain. It’s not going to be glittery.”

Back-to-school supplies, particularly stationery, have changed considerably in recent years, and are now marketed as “fashionable” items. Some feel the items allow kids to express themselves, but others argue that they detract from learning and are a waste of money.
Ms. Johnson finds fun, fashion-forward stationery expensive and “unnecessary.”

“I do not conform to society’s way of dragging you into certain trends,” she says.
The 42-year-old buys only unadorned stationery for her son, and it has always been that way for him and his older brother, Dre.
But that hasn’t stopped Jahziah from asking for a Pokemon binder or a notebook graced with the Minions from Despicable Me.
“I’ve said no for so long … [but] he still asks because it’s attractive,” Ms. Johnson says. “It’s marketing.”
Meanwhile, some 40 students in a small town in Britain won’t be allowed to use fancy gadgets at school, but not because their parents said so.

Ian Goldsworthy, a Grade 6 teacher at a school in Potters Bar, slightly north of London, has banned novelty stationery – erasers in the form of nail polish, that new “it” plastic water bottle, pencil cases almost taller than the child carrying them – from his classroom.
“It was causing too many arguments,” he says, noting that his students would flaunt the latest gimmick and wait for others to notice, get distracted when someone pulled out something shiny or sparkly and become obsessed when things went missing.

He says he had enough around Easter of 2016, when he asked his students to empty their desk drawers and put anything that they didn’t need for the lesson at hand in their backpacks.
“It wasn’t a big revolt,” he says. “There was some disappointment, but they were pretty understanding.”
They talked about the reason behind his decision as a class.
“It wasn’t me just saying from [up] high, ‘This is how it’s going to be,'” Mr. Goldsworthy says. “They could see the logic of the argument. [They] knew it would help [them] focus.”

On the first day of school every year, Mr. Goldsworthy draws up a classroom contract with his students about the rules they think will best support their learning. He’ll be adding “only bring in stationery I need” this time.
Not all teachers feel the same way.

Liane Zafiropoulos, who teaches Grade 5 at a school in Ajax, Ont., doesn’t have a problem with trendy stationery. She says her students already know the general rule that only items that infringe on their learning will be banned.
“As long as the children are writing and learning, I am happy,” she says.
The 40-year-old keeps a treasure box of special stationery in her classroom, which she lets students pick from whenever they exhibit good behaviour.
Ms. Zafiropoulos says children’s stationery is an expression of their individuality. “We might as well put them in uniforms if we are going to give them all plain pencils,” she says.
But what bothers Ms. Zafiropoulos is that some of her students cannot afford certain back-to-school supplies. “They illustrate how commercialism consumes us,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s the corporations who get richer and the families who suffer.”

Households in Canada are expected to spend $883 on back-to-school shopping this year, up from $450 last year, according to a recent Angus Reid poll of more than 1,500 Canadians.
David Lewis, an assistant professor of retail management at Ryerson University, says manufacturers are trying to make stationery – what was traditionally a relatively utilitarian and straight-forward type of product – more “hedonistic.”
“If you can turn a pencil into a toy, then it creates an entirely new market for existing products,” he says, adding that stationery is now “more fun, exciting and pleasurable.”
Mr. Lewis also sees interesting parallels between how cereal and stationery are marketed to children these days. He says both products serve different purposes for the purchaser and the influencer. “Parents are looking at nutrition,” he says. “Kids are looking at fun,” which means cartoon characters and bright food colouring.

It’s the same with stationery, where parents are evaluating functions, while kids are concerned with fun and being unique, Mr. Lewis says.
Patty Sullivan, a Toronto mother of two, doesn’t mind.
“It makes [my kids] more willing to go back to school,” she says. “They complain less.”
She also sees it as a way for children to personalize their stuff and show their friends what they like. She recently bought 18 scented markers – which smell like cotton candy, cappuccino, evergreen trees and brick oven – for $10 at a DeSerres art supply store.
If Canadian schools were ever to follow in Mr. Goldsworthy’s footsteps, she thinks teachers should consult parents first. It would be kind of a big deal for her children, she says.
Her six-year-old, Aliyah, says she would feel “bad,” as would her 10-year-old sister, Veronica.
“I would probably feel disappointed and depressed,” says Veronica. “I like seeing my happy and amusing [stationery] in class.”
A retired elementary school teacher in London, Ont., can still relate to that feeling.
It’s why Debra Rastin discouraged – instead of banned – her students from using pencils with anything at the end, from 2010 to 2015, the last five years of her career. Whether it was trolls with blue hair or soccer balls, she considered them “toys” and too distracting.
But the 63-year-old also remembers what it’s like to be 6 and excited about having something new to bring to school.
“Fifty years ago, a pack of pencil crayons was fashion-forward,” she says.

By Chris Young for The Globe and Mail

Back-to-school season has long been a critical sales event for retailers, but 2017 may go down as a year that defies the trends as shoppers play a waiting game for sales.

Kids started back to school this month, but as of early August just 45% of shoppers have checked everything of their list, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics. It’s the lowest number since 2012.

However, 2012 was a record year for back-to-school spending as shoppers indulged in pent-up demand following the spending lull of the Great Recession. In all consumers shelled out a whopping $83.8 billion, according to NRF that year and are projected to spend $83.6 billion in 2017, up more than 10% from 2016.

And 2017 is off to a slow and worrying start. Many began early, according to NRF, researching needed items, perusing online class lists and comparing prices. But traffic has slowed in August and it’s anybody’s guess if it will pick back up.

What are shoppers waiting for? Discounts, suggests Prosper Insights & Analytics (and fellow Forbes contributor) Pam Goodfellow. This trend follows that of the winter holiday season, where consumer play a game of chicken with retailers, waiting and watching prices drop as the deadline gets closer.

In this regard, back-to-school 2017 could be a preview for the holiday season to come. Already, early reports indicate retailers could have a banner winter holiday season, particularly when it comes to e-commerce, where sales are projected to rise some 16.6%, according to eMarketer.

“People are confidently spending more and really spreading out their shopping throughout the season,” Katherine Cullen, director of retail and consumer research at NRF, told Retail Dive in an interview. The association still expects spending to be higher in aggregate this year than last, but with so many waiting, back-to-school is beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

By Laura Heller for Forbes.com 

Retailers across America have been closing stores in droves this year amid years of declines in sales and customer traffic and an increasing threat from Amazon.

So far in 2017, retailers have shut down more than 6,300 stores. UBS says the sneaker retailers Foot Locker and Finish Line could be the next to start closing stores.

UBS’ findings come following Friday’s dismal second-quarter results from Foot Locker that caused shares to plummet by nearly 30%. The company announced earnings of $0.39 a share on revenue of $1.7 billion, both of which were shy of Wall Street expectations. Additionally, same-store sales sank 6% versus a year ago. Foot Locker shares have plunged 57% over the past three months.

On Foot Locker’s quarterly conference call, chairman and CEO Richard Johnson said he wasn’t worried about Amazon. Here’s Johnson (emphasis ours):

“For our part, we will continue to invest in creating compelling experiences for our customers. At the premium end of the market, most of our customers don’t want to just buy a specific product they see on a screen. They want that product to have a connection to an experience they find meaningful and want to participate in. That experience could be a special event in a store, being notified of or discovering a video on our website or YouTube channel of an athlete or celebrity wearing or discussing the latest product, an interaction with their friends while touching and feeling the product, or simply a conversation about sneakers with one of our stripers or other store associates. For that reason, we do not believe our vendors selling product directly on Amazon is an imminent threat. There is no indication that any of our vendors intend to sell premium athletic product, $100-plus sneakers that we offer, directly via that sort of distribution channel.”

But in a note sent to clients on Monday, UBS analyst Michael Binetti downgraded both Foot Locker and Finish Line and said it’s “almost certain” that the sneaker retailers would lose market share to Amazon. He lays out three reasons he thinks things are about to get a lot tougher for the industry.

First, Binetti sees Nike stepping up its efforts to push sales directly to the consumer. That is especially worrying for Finish Line, which, according to Nike’s October 25 analyst day, sees 68% of its sales come from Nike. Binetti adds, “For Foot Locker in particular, while many of its stores are among the most compelling retail experiences in our US specialty coverage group, we think the company will have to significantly accelerate closure of its lower tier stores to properly absorb market share shifts to the brands own DTC businesses (and to Amazon).”

But the sneaker retailers’ problems don’t stop there. It appears consumers are now choosing to buy their Nikes on Amazon versus going into brick-and-mortar stores like Foot Locker and Finish Line. “UBS Evidence Lab survey shows that in ’17 for the 1st time, more consumers prefer to buy Nike on AMZN vs at FL,” Binetti wrote.

There was a “significant YOY increase in the percent of consumers who prefer to buy Nike product ‘on the brand’s own website,'” Binetti notes. “The combination of an accelerating shift of purchase to both Amazon and the brands’ own website — and the subsequent reduction in purchase intent through athletic specialty retailers like Foot Locker — makes it hard to see the path back to accelerating market share gains for Foot Locker.”

Finally, both Foot Locker and Finish Line have a large presence in malls that have lost the anchors Macy’s and J.C. Penney.
Specifically, Binetti says, “We think FINL is at particular risk (more so than FL anyway) of further deterioration in sales & traffic trends in its stores due to high exposure to lower-tier locations.”

As a result, UBS downgraded Foot Locker from “buy” to “neutral” and Finish Line from “neutral” to “sell.”

By Jonathan Garber for www.businessinsider.com

The Amazon Business office-supply unit has attracted large-business customers, despite a contention by the Federal Trade Commission and a U.S. district-court judge that Amazon would have trouble competing with Office Depot and Staples for these customers.

Amazon.com said its online store for office supplies has logged more than 1 million business customers since launching two years ago — including large firms that U.S. antitrust regulators and a federal court thought it would have trouble luring away from competitors.

The e-commerce giant is trumpeting the client roster of Amazon Business, as the unit is known, as a big success.

It’s 150 percent bigger than in July this past year. And it includes, Amazon says, companies of all sizes, from hospitals and restaurants to local governments and Fortune 50 companies. Amazon cited King County, the U.S. subsidiary of industrial conglomerate Siemens and Stanford University as clients. Amazon didn’t disclose total sales for the year.

Large institutions are key to Amazon’s new venture because they are the turf of rivals Office Depot and Staples, huge suppliers with the expertise to navigate big corporations’ stodgy purchasing practices that hinge on requests for proposal and multiyear contracts guaranteeing discount pricing.

When antitrust officials at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) contested the proposed $6.3 billion merger between Office Depot and Staples in 2015, the companies contended that Amazon Business, as well as regional office-supply firms, would step up to fill any competitive void left by the combination.

The FTC, the companies said in a statement, “refuses to even acknowledge the rise of new competitors, such as Amazon, and the disruptive effects of the digital economy.”

In May 2016, a U.S. court sided with the FTC. Among the arguments wielded by the court was Amazon Business’ lack of “demonstrated ability” to compete in the business-to-business space “on par” with the combined might of Office Depot and Staples within the three next years.

The judge expressed skepticism that Amazon’s do-it-yourself approach to purchasing would fare well with the bureaucratic requirements of large corporations. “The evidence before the Court simply does not support a finding that Amazon Business will, within the next three years, either compete for large (requests for proposals) in the same way that Office Depot does now, or so transform the industry as to make the RFP process obsolete.”

In a news release Tuesday, Amazon said that its business-to-business platform offers “millions” of products from 85,000 sellers. Other customers highlighted by Amazon were Con Edison of NY, Gwinnett County Public Schools in the Atlanta area, Intermountain healthcare, Johns Hopkins University and the Mayo Clinic.

“We are grateful to our customers for helping us reach this significant milestone,” said Prentis Wilson, vice president of Amazon Business.

By Ángel González for Seattle Times 

The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly looking into whether Amazon’s discounts are as good as they seem.

As part of the FTC’s review of Amazon’sagreement to buy Whole Foods, the Federal Trade Commission is looking into allegations that Amazon misleads customers about its pricing discounts, Reuters reports, citing a source close to the probe.

The probe is based on a complaint from the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, Reuters said. The FTC had no comment, saying as a rule it doesn’t confirm the existence of investigations. Consumer Watchdog earlier this month published a report claiming the online retailer “routinely uses inflated and fictitious previous prices to give consumers the misleading impression they’re getting a bargain.”

Amazon refuted the group’s pricing report.

“The study issued by Consumer Watchdog is deeply flawed, based on incomplete data and improper assumptions,” it said in a statement. “The conclusions the Consumer Watchdog group reached are flat out wrong. We validate the reference prices provided by manufacturers, vendors and sellers against actual prices recently found across Amazon and other retailers.”

Consumer Watchdog, which analyzed 1,000 items sold on Amazon, said the retailer often employs “previous” prices, which it alleges are designed to give the appearance of big discounts. Consumer Watchdog said the “previous” prices appear to replace Amazon’s “list price,” which earlier this year came under fire for allegedly failing to reflect the actual market price of an item.

“Amazon displayed reference prices on 46 percent of the products surveyed—a sharp increase from a similar sample taken just months before,” Consumer Watchdog said in its report. “They now employ several different kinds of reference price, including “was” prices, “sale” prices, or simply prices with a line through them (“strikethrough prices”).”

The report also alleges Amazon boosted the reference prices to about 70 percent higher than the historical price of the item.

In one example, Amazon said the before-sale price on a pack of LED light bulbs was almost $100, but offered the pack on sale for $14.99, showing that customers would receive an $85 savings. However, Consumer Watchdog said the site hadn’t charged more than $14.99 for the lightbulbs in the previous 90 days.

“Amazon appears to be increasing its use of reference prices on its site since last year, when it quietly eliminated many list prices,” the report said. “However, the result is the same: Amazon’s customers are being deceived into thinking they are getting a bargain, when in most cases they are not.”

Consumer Watchdog said it believes the Whole Foods acquisition should be blocked unless Amazon changes its pricing strategies.

By Aimee Picchi for CBS News

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