Apple opens stores with mandatory face masks and temperature checks

Gadget giant Apple is slowly looking to return to normal, but that term now requires major qualification.

Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s head of retail, wrote a blog designed to update its customers on the state of things regarding its stores. “As of today, nearly 100 of our stores globally have been able to open their doors to our customers again,” writes O’Brien. Around half of these are Chinese stores, which have been open for a while, since the country seemed to have got on top of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now Apple tentatively starting the process of opening its stores in the US. O’Brien pointed people towards its store list, where you can see if one is open or not. It was clearly not designed for Journalists, however, as you have to click on each store before you can find out, which, frankly, we couldn’t be bothered to do. Apple has a total global store count of 510, so we’re still only looking at a small fraction of them.

The store experience won’t be quite as special as it used to be, however, as Apple is putting in place a bunch of special measures designed to mitigate the threat of catching the plague in its stores. “Face coverings will be required for all of our teams and customers, and we will provide them to customers who don’t bring their own,” writes O’Brien.

“Temperature checks will be conducted at the door, and posted health questions will screen for those with symptoms — like cough or fever — or who have had recent exposure to someone infected with COVID 19. Throughout the day, we’re conducting enhanced deep cleanings that place special emphasis on all surfaces, display products, and highly trafficked areas.”

Sounds like a laugh a minute, doesn’t it? Since Apple has had its delivery service up and running for a while and the look and feel of its products have barely changed for years, it’s not obvious what the great need is to risk life and limb for the chance to fondle some shiny things. But each to their own and it looks like Apple fetishists around the world will soon be able to get their fix once more, so long as they’re judged to be sufficiently untainted.

Carphone Warehouse to close all 531 UK standalone shops

Tech retail group Dixons Carphone has announced it will close all of its remaining standalone Carphone Warehouse shops because they lose money.

The mobile business of Dixons Carphone is expected to make a £90 million loss this year, as replacement cycles lengthen, the secondary market flourishes and people increasingly go online for their purchases. Something has got to give and the snowballing coronavirus situation adds considerable additional urgency to this move.

Dixons Carphone has been consolidating its retail presence for years now; combining the big Curry’s and PC World stores into a great big consumer tech retail destination. It merged with Carphone Warehouse back in 2014 and has special phone zones in all its big stores. The standalone Carphone Warehouse shops are generally tiny and only account for 9% of the group’s total UK selling space.

“Customers are changing how they buy technology, and Dixons Carphone must change with them,” said Alex Baldock, Group Chief Executive. “We’re underway with a fundamental transformation to do so. Today’s tough decision is an essential part of that, the next step in making our UK Mobile business a success for customers, colleagues and other shareholders.

Clearly, with unsustainable losses of £90m expected this year, Mobile is currently holding back the whole business. There’s never an easy time for an announcement like this, but the turbulent times ahead only underline the importance of acting now. I don’t underestimate how upsetting this news will be for our colleagues, and we’ll treat everyone with honesty, respect and care.

We want to keep as many of our Carphone Warehouse colleagues as we can, and expect to find new roles for almost 40% of those affected. We’re working hard to look after those colleagues we can’t find new roles for, financially and otherwise. We’ll pay enhanced redundancy, any bonuses, honour their share awards, and help them find new jobs through an outplacement programme.”

There was also a COVID-19 update. The company says it hasn’t been materially affected by the pandemic yet and that there have been few supply constraints. The one exception has been its Dixons stores in airports, which are empty because nobody is travelling. Dixon Carphone is joining the rest of the world in wondering how long its credit line will last.

Amazon makes retail automation tech available to everyone else

Novel technology that promises to make cashiers a thing of the past is now being offered by Amazon to other retailers.

Amazon has become one of the biggest companies in the world by solving first world retail problems such as having to leave the house and delayed gratification. That same devotion to optimising the customer experience has more recently leaked from etail to bricks-and-mortar in the form of the Amazon Go cashierless store.

The technology that enables Amazon to have shops without any staff in them, without getting ripped off, is called Just Walk Out. Today Amazon announced it’s offering the tech to other retailers in a move that could not only add significantly more cash to Amazon’s already obscene pile, but significantly disrupt the retail experience once more.

On the surface Just Walk Out looks incredibly simple. The busy punter just swipes their credit card to enter the store, grabs a bunch of stuff and then clears off without having to queue for a checkout or even use one of those DIY checkouts. The smart shop just knows what they’ve walked out with and charges them accordingly, automatically emailing the receipt.

“We built Just Walk Out technology leveraging the same types of technologies used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning,” explains the site. “Since launching Amazon Go years ago, many retailers have expressed an interest in offering similar checkout-free shopping experiences to their customers.”

It looks like cameras form the backbone of the technology, augmented by things like pressure sensors and RFID. The cameras are presumably handy for things like facial recognition as well as capturing footage of anyone who reckons they can beat the system and nick stuff. Taking items off the shelf and then putting them back isn’t a problem, apparently.

Amazon seems to have spent its entire history trying to destroy retail jobs and if Just Walk Out takes off this could be its biggest victory yet. The mobile commerce implications could be positive, however, as retailers will presumably insist customers use their app to access the store, all the better to track their buying habits and offer them things they didn’t even know they wanted.

AT&T joins the retail robot revolution

AT&T Business has unveiled a new partnership to target the retail segment, a vertical which might look completely different in a few years’ time.

Working alongside Badger Technologies, the aim here is to improve capabilities which are already in place as opposed to create a human-less shopping experience. With its new 5G capabilities, improvements for indoor coverage and expansion of MEC, the duo are targeting operational efficiencies throughout the super market.

“In-building cellular solutions, including 5G and edge computing, are critical drivers of digital transformation for retailers,” said Mo Katibeh, CMO of AT&T Business.

“These technologies will eventually equip robots with both the compute power and lower latency needed to increase revenue, improve the in-store experience, and elevate employees to better assist customers. Badger Technologies’ robots can help retailers make sure they have products in stock and in the right place, increasing customer satisfaction. That leads to increased revenue. That’s the power of data.”

Robots in supermarkets are not exactly a new idea. In some of the larger retailers in the US, small robots roll through the aisles hoping to identify out-of-stock, mispriced or misplaced inventory as well as store hazards, informing human colleagues of up-coming tasks which need to be completed. However, running these systems over wifi can be inefficient and even impossible when it comes to transmission and processing of data.

Although this is a very simple application focused on improving efficiency as opposed to revolutionising the retail experience, it is an incremental step towards automation in the industry. In a few years’ time, there might not be any need to have humans working in the supermarket whatsoever; MEC and improved connectivity will be critical components.

Firstly, you have to look at the home delivery segment. Not all consumers will buy into this concept, however with improved connectivity, this could be a completely autonomous process. Amazon fulfilment centres already incorporate robotic processes to reduce the need for humans, whereas progress is being made on autonomous vehicles and small robots to make the delivery over the ‘last mile’. In theory, this does not have to have a single human in the process.

One other area which seems to attract headlines every couple of weeks are the cashier-less stores. The concept is not new, self-check out machines are becoming increasingly common, though this idea could be taken up another level. Amazon is once again making progress here, potentially removing the need for self-scan tills completely, though improvements in indoor connectivity and MEC could help this idea progress even further.

Finally, you only have to look at companies like Boston Dynamics to see the advancements which are being made with humanoid robots. Cashiers are heading towards the door and it might not be too long before shelf-stackers might follow them. Robotics is a field which is advancing ridiculously fast (see video at the bottom of article), and while the economics will not make sense for the moment, that is only a matter of time.

The warehouse could be robotic, payments could be managed through sensors and apps, on-shelf-stock and hazards could be monitored by simplistic robotics and cameras, restocking and hazards cleared by advanced robotics and deliveries could be performed by drones or autonomous vehicles. With MEC decreasing latency, cloud-based AI constantly improving all the processes and indoor connectivity ensuring everything runs smoothly, soon enough there might not be any need to have a human involved in the supermarket.

This might seem like an unrealistic idea right now, but always remember this Bill Gates quote; most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.

The threat of Amazon is forcing supermarkets into drastic changes

UK supermarket giant Tesco is undergoing trials with Israeli AI surveillance business Trigo Vision to trial the concept of cashier-less stores, supposedly due to pressure from Amazon.

When Amazon first emerged, few could have imagined the revolution which would have been thrust upon the retailing industry. Even now, more than two decades after Amazon was founded, there are businesses which are still struggling to adapt to life in the digital epoch. The writing has been on the wall for a long-time in retail, and now it seems Tesco is attempting to get ahead of trends for the supermarket segment.

According to The Telegraph, Tesco is currently in trials with Trigo Vision to create a cashier-less store, a concept which Amazon has been playing with in the US for years. Don’t be fooled by the absurdity of the vision, it will soon enough be a presence on the High Street and once the benefits can be seen by all, it will become much more common place.

Take self-checkout tills as an example. When these first emerged everyone hated them, and in some regions, they still do. But you cannot walk into a Tesco or Sainsbury’s in an urban environment anymore without seeing them. And most importantly, no-one really cares anymore. The idea took some time to bed in, but once the bugs were worked out and people saw how much more efficient the system was, they accepted it. The same trend will most likely occur with cashier-less stores.

What is worth noting is that Tesco is not alone in pursuing the future. Sainsbury’s has also announced it is toying with the cashier-less idea, opening its first store in Holborn, Central London, in April this year.

Trigo Vision, the provider of the underlying technology, was founded in 2017 and has been through one round of funding thus far, attracting $7 million from Hetz Ventures and Vertex Ventures Israel. The team already has a partnership with Shufersal, Israel’s largest supermarket chain, to roll-out its automated retail platform in over 272 stores across the country.

The firm supplies both high-resolution RGB cameras, installed on ceilings and an on-premises processing unit that runs machine learning-powered tracking software. The algorithms are continuously honed by Trigo Vision through the data collected at various sites and the team can also help develop customisable apps and kiosks to improve experience.

The technology makes use of artificial intelligence and a dense series of surveillance cameras to track what items are being placed into a customer’s shopping trolley. Customers will be prompted to download an app and enter payment details, or an alternative for sceptics could be using a screen at the exit to complete the purchases.

As it stands, Amazon Go, the eCommerce’s cashier-less business, has launched in several cities across the US and has plans to open its first store in the UK at Oxford Circus in London. This will act as the flagship store for the UK though Amazon is reportedly on the hunt for more sites, 3,000 to 5,000 square feet in size, to expand the footprint.

The stores have been hailed as a success in the US and Amazon is reportedly targeting 3,000 locations within three years. Although this is far from proof the idea is profitable right now, the internet giants tend to run with unprofitable ideas they know will change the world, it should be viewed as a massive red flag for traditional supermarkets.

And while the bookstore segment did little until it was too late, Tesco is at least attempting to get ahead of trends. Another example of this is the ‘Scan Pay Go’ initiative. Here, customers can download an app and carry around a scanner to register products themselves as they wander the aisles, helping keep an eye on spending while also speeding up the check-out process at the end of the trip.

Many companies will state they want to disrupt themselves before being disrupted, though there is little evidence of this. The majority of the time there is an outside influence, a threat from a new player, to alter the status quo. This seems to be the case here, as Amazon is forcing the hand of Tesco, though future success of the Amazon Go business will depend on the ability of the traditional players to scale quickly.

Xiaomi is meeting Huawei domestic aggression head on

Smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi plans to increase the investment in channel and retail development in the Chinese market by $725 million, to improve its position and to counter the expected aggression from market leader Huawei.

Bloomberg cited its source at Xiaomi that the Chinese smartphone company has decided to invest CNY 5 billion ($725 million) over the next three years to shore up its channel and retail position in China’s contracting smartphone market. This will come on top of its current budget and will be spent on channel expansion, partner incentive, and sales force financing, according to the report.

The decision is also made in anticipation of Huawei’s aggressive channel and retail movements in China in the near future, the source told Bloomberg. Huawei, the smartphone market leader in China admitted recently that its business will suffer from the US sanctions and the severance of business relations by companies like Google. In the consumer segment, which now accounts for more than half of Huawei’s total revenue, the impact will mainly in the overseas market with the disappearance of Google services from its smartphones posing the biggest impediments to consumers’ purchasing decision. This will drive Huawei to further strengthen its grip on the Chinese market, where it is already supplying one out of ten of the smartphones being sold.

Xiaomi has reaped the benefits after investing heavily in the overseas markets in recent years, having broken into the top five in a number of European markets while also well received in growth markets like India. It has the ambition to become the market leader in its home market too, but so far, the company has been vying for the fourth position with Apple, trailing Huawei, OPPO, and Vivo.

Huawei and Xiaomi also adopt different retail strategies. In addition to smartphones, Huawei also sells its full line of consumer products in the retail outlets including PCs, tablets, and other consumer devices.  Xiaomi, on the other hand, has carried the “ecosystem” concept from online, which used to its exclusively channel, to offline retail. In addition to its own branded products, centred around the smartphones, partner products on its IoT ecosystem are also offered in the retail outlets, in line with its strategies.

Phones 4U reaches from beyond the grave to claw back millions

Phones 4U administrator PwC has appointed one of the UK’s leading insolvency experts to assess whether there are grounds to make a claim against mobile operators for unlawful collusion.

According to the Telegraph, PwC has pulled in Paul Copley to read the lay of the land and decide whether there is enough evidence to launch a lawsuit against the operators which could be worth ‘hundreds of millions’. The MNOs must have thought they had seen the back of Phones 4U considering the firm entered administration in September 2014, though the emergence of Copley will not be a welcome sign.

Copley is widely regarded as one of the leading insolvency experts in the UK. While he does now work as CEO of Kaupthing ehf, Copley worked at PwC for almost 20 years, finishing as Partner specialising in corporate restructuring and insolvency. Perhaps the most notable inclusion on the CV is his work at Lehman Brothers International where he was Joint Administrator, cleaning up the mess which kicked off a global recession and being responsible for the liquidation of a £15 billion asset portfolio.

The base of Copley’s investigation is the suspicion of industry collusion to essentially screw Phones 4U out of the UK market. Having launched in 1996, the retailer amassed a footprint with more than 600 stores around the UK, with the business model primarily relying on partnerships with the major MNOs. In April 2012, Phones 4U’s contract with provider Three was terminated, with Three suggested it wanted to focus on its own direct sales channels. Two years later, O2 ditched its own partnership, while EE and Vodafone bowed out later in the year. With the final two partnerships ending, Phones 4U went into administration the following day.

The question which Copley will have to answer is whether industry collaborated to effectively end the role of Phones 4U in the UK market.

Governments are often highly sensitive to any wrong-doing which would negatively impact competition, and this sensitivity is almost certainly heightened when jobs are placed under-threat. If the MNOs are found to have participated in any nefarious conversations or activities, the 1700 lost jobs will add fuel to the case. Some of these jobs were potentially saved by the MNOs and Phones 4U competitors swooping in for a good deal on stores, but the impact will have been felt.

This is of course not the first time the MNOs have been blamed for the failings of Phones 4U as a business, the initial administration press release conveyed ‘shock’ at the decisions of EE and Vodafone, though whether there is any evidence to sue remains to be seen. Over to you Paul.

Dixons Carphone profits down, outlook down, shares down 20%

The UK’s largest electricals retailer Dixons Carphone saw its share price plunge after its profits declined significantly and it warned they would continue to do so.

Dixons Carphone managed a like-for-like increase in revenues of 4% in the 2017/18 financial year but despite that saw its profits-before-tax plunge by 24% to £382. Furthermore the company warned that profits are expected to fall another 27% to £300 million in the next financial year. This outlook will have been what caused a sell-off of Dixons Carphone sales such that they were down 20% at time of writing.

“Eight weeks in the business have cemented my optimism about Dixons Carphone’s long-term prospects,” said Alex Baldock, who recently took over as Group Chief Executive after the last guy went off to run the Boots pharmacy chain. “I’ve found exceptional strengths, and though there’s plenty to fix, it’s all fixable.

“We’re number one in each of our markets, with people and capability no competitor can match. Our opportunity lies in making the most of those strengths, which we are nowhere near doing. And we must: nobody is happy with our performance today. We’re getting on with it, through a new leadership team and structure that’s promoted top talent, cleared away unnecessary layers and silos, and started to speed up decision-making.

In electricals, we’re focused on gross margin recovery. In mobile, we’re stabilising our performance through improvements to our proposition and network agreements. In both, we’ll work hard to improve our cost efficiency. We won’t tolerate our current performance in mobile, or as a Group. We know we can do a lot better.”

The Carphone Warehouse bit of the group seems to be especially struggling. The inference seems to be that Baldock isn’t happy with the dynamic between his company and the network operators, whose products and services he resells. It remains to be seen how strong his bargaining position is on this and the sudden decline of Phones4U illustrated what happens when resellers displease their suppliers.

As well as forecasting a further shedding of profit the Dixons Carphone outlook announced it would be closing down 92 of its 650 standalone Carphone Warehouse retail outlets. There has been talk of the smartphone upgrade cycle extending in reports and that’s unlikely to change, so we could be seeing the terminal decline of the UK’s last remaining independent mobile phone retailer.

Square stands up for small retailers in the mobile era

US mobile payment processing outfit Square reckons its new stand will empower small businesses in a way that traditional financial services have failed to do.

Square was launched to much fanfare, thanks to being founded by the bloke who also founded Twitter – Jack Dorsey, in the US in 2009. The first product was a little dongle that you plug into the headphone jack of your phone that allows you to take card payments on it by swiping the magnetic strip.

None of that made it over here for a while though, with Square making its first appearance in the UK via a contactless card reader last year. We met Jesse Dorogusker, Hardware Lead for Square, and he explained that’s because they didn’t support Chip and PIN until then, with the US still reliant on the magnetic strip or even (shudder) those anachronistic carbon paper counterfoil things.

Now Square is adding a stand to its UK offerings, which is designed to support a tablet and turn it into an instant point-of-sale terminal. Before Square Dorogusker spent years heading up the accessories division at Apple and that influence is clear in the design of the stand and the card reader, both of which go hard on the smooth white plastic theme.

The whole bright idea from day one was to utilise all the powerful technology that was being put in people’s hands thanks to Apple and Android, to help smaller businesses get access to the latest, mobile-powered, financial services.

Dorogusker SquareThe barriers to entry for SMEs to get into modern financial services are too high and I would say that’s on purpose,” Dorogusker (pictured) told Telecoms.com. “The mainstream industry sees too much risk in serving small business owners and as a result they’re very underserved, especially in technology transitions where the introduction of additional ways to pay like contactless.

“The smartphone industry has done an amazing job of making incredibly powerful devices widely available at shockingly low prices for how technologically packed they are. We’ve built complementary pieces of technology that connect to these amazing devices and give consumer-grade experiences to small businesses.”

It’s hard to argue with the premise. Imagine the amount of sales lost by, say, stallholders at a music festival because potential customers have run out of cash. The Stand product also comes with point-of-sale software to use on the tablet and even a swivel base so the retailer can present the sale to the customer for approval. As advertised it give small businesses the point-of-sale power of much larger setups and that seems pretty compelling.

Dorogusker also thinks this is something the telecoms industry needs to be aware of. People have challenges with connectivity and we’re now in a world that requires an online connection to make a payment, verify it and issue a digital receipt,” he said. “A lot of networks are focused on peak speeds and not as focused on coverage. 75% of Square’s customers in the UK are outside of London, maybe not near a bunch of cell towers, and they need coverage – not ten bars, one bar will do.

The Stand product launched in the UK today and is on a half price promotion for a month. We’re now off to the street market on Tottenham Court Road where you can buy a delicious Thai green curry and rice with just a tap of a phone. Now that’s progress.