When it comes to smartphone capabilities … buyers want the basics.

With the plethora of smartphone models that seem to be released with ever-increasing frequently these days, one might think that the innovative features being added to the new smartphone models would be in high demand.

After all, the demand for smartphones looks as though it’s unquenchable; quarterly shipments of smartphones numbered some 366 million devices during the 3rd quarter of 2019 alone, according to data compiled by business consulting firm Strategy Analytics.

But the reality appears to be quite different. Recently, technology market research firm Global Web Index studied the popularity of various smartphone features, looking at a large sample of more than 550,000 consumers in the USA and UK.

As it turns out, the most desired smartphone feature is long battery life. And in fact, the top four smartphone features in terms of consumer importance don’t look like anything particularly jazzy:

  • Battery life: ~77% consider it the most desired smartphone feature
  • Storage capability: ~65%
  • Camera picture quality: ~62%
  • Screen resolution: ~48%

At the other end of the scale are four features which aren’t animating the market in any great way:

  • 5G compatibility: ~27%
  • Biometric security features: ~27%
  • Digital wellness features: ~16%
  • Virtual reality capabilities: ~10%

There’s no question that the newest smartphone models can do a lot more than their earlier iterations. But users want them to do the basics — and to do them well. Other capabilities are simply ornaments on the tree.

For more findings from the Global Web Index study, click here.

Amazon is poised to become America’s single biggest retailer, outpacing Walmart.

It’s a measure of how much the American retail landscape has changed in the past decade that Amazon is poised to overtake Walmart as the largest U.S. retailed by 2022.

That prediction comes from a recently published report from market research firm Packaged Facts.

As of today, Packaged Facts estimates that Amazon makes up ~43% of all U.S. e-commerce sales, which is dramatically higher than its ~28% share just four years ago. Continuing its growth trajectory, by 2022 Amazon is expected to make up nearly half of all U.S. e-commerce sales.

That degree of concentration will make it bigger than Walmart — even considering the latter’s huge brick-and-mortar presence which Amazon lacks.

Of course, Walmart continues to possess additional advantages that Amazon cannot match, despite the latter’s acquisition of supermarket chain Whole Foods in 2017. Not only does Walmart have a huge physical footprint in retail, it also offers a wide range of in-store services which entice foot traffic — things like an onsite pharmacy, financial services, and photo processing.

Also working in Walmart’s favor is its dominance in so-called “click-and-collect” shopping orders. According to recent surveys, ~43% of respondents identified Walmart as the pickup location for their last click-and-collect order — three times the share percentage of runner-up Target.

Still, the emergence of Amazon atop the retail industry heap says volumes about the seismic shifts brought about by online retail. The channel hasn’t been around all that long in the grand scheme of things, but its impact has been nothing short of seismic.

How have your shopping habits changed during this time? Do they reflect what has happened in the larger market? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

A Strong Job Market and the “Gig” Economy

The two don’t go together very well.

It wasn’t so long ago that the so-called “gig” economy was all the rage. In the early 2010s, with a sizable portion of companies being skittish to commit to hiring full-time workers due to fresh memories of the economic downturn, many workers found opportunities to make money through various different gig economy service firms — companies like Uber, Lift, Postmates and others.

What those jobs offered workers were flexible schedules, reasonably decent pay, and the ability to cobble together a livelihood based on holding several such positions (while still being able to hunt around for full-time employment).

For employers, it was the ability to build a workforce for which they didn’t have to cover things like office expenses and various employee benefits — not to mentioning paying for payroll taxes like the employer social security contribution.

In the past few years, the environment has changed dramatically. With national unemployment hovering around 3.5% — and lower still in many larger urban areas — “gig” companies have found it more difficult to find workers.

What’s more, those workers who are hired are churning through the companies more even more quickly than before — many staying with these jobs for just a few months.

Tis is driving up worker recruitment costs to their highest levels ever.

In a May 2019 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Micah Rowland, COO of Fountain, a company that helps gig companies acquire new workers by streamlining the hiring process, puts it this way:

“It [strikes] me that in some of these markets, they’re processing thousands of job applicants every month — and these are not large cities.”

In Rowland’s view, gig companies in some markets may be burning through the entire available labor market of people willing to work in roles of this kind.

It isn’t as though turnover rates aren’t high in other service sectors in the more “traditional” economy. In the fast-food industry, for example, turnover is running as much as 150% annually these days. But in the case of gig employment markets, it’s even higher — sometimes dramatically so.

With the tight labor market showing little sign of loosening anytime soon, it may be that we see some firms looking at “regularizing” employment for at least some of their workers. If it makes economic sense to hire some actual employees in order to curb recruitment costs, some will likely go that route .

There’s another factor at work as well. More of these gig economy workers are becoming more vocal about pushing back on pay and working conditions. Noteworthy examples have been recent protests by rideshare company workers in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Others have done the envelope math and have determined that once driver-owned vehicle costs of gasoline and depreciation are calculated against declining fares that have dropped below $1 per mile in some markets like Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul, workers’ effective wages are significantly less than even $10 per hour.

Picking up on these worker concerns, a number of activist groups are making gig economy companies like Lyft and Uber into a “cause célèbre” (not in a good way), but loud, polarizing detractors such as these tend to muddy the water rather than bring fresh new insights to the debate.

As well, one wonders if the activism is even needed; I suspect what we’re seeing now is a pendulum swing which happens so often in economics — where an equilibrium is re-established as things come back into balance after going a bit too far in one direction. In the case of the gig economy, the low unemployment rate in many regions of the country appears to be helping that along.

Alternative communications tools abound, but email’s popularity remains undimmed.

Email has been with us for decades now — for such a long time that email could be considered as “mature” a communications tool as the conventional telephone.

And yet, even as some older tools decline in use as new communications techniques emerge, email continues to be as popular as ever.

The latest confirmation of this comes from a study of ~1,000 U.S. workers conducted in September 2019 by survey research firm Propeller Insights for app developer Spike. The topline result: of the respondents who use both email and messaging apps, nearly 80% prefer email, as compared to only around 20% who prefer the messaging apps.

Not surprisingly, older workers embrace e-mail more than younger ones do — both in terms of preference and usage. Even so, e-mail reigns supreme in terms of usage across all age groups, with messaging apps, the telephone, in-person conversations and video conferencing (in that order) lagging behind.

As for male versus female respondents; their usage and preferences are roughly similar, with perhaps a feather on the scale for males in favor of email communications.

Furthermore, what comes through loud and clear from the study is that people are tired of juggling multiple channels of communication, with nearly nine in ten respondents stating that switching between apps affects their productivity adversely in one or more ways.

The following reasons were cited as contributing to their reluctance to switch between various communication and collaboration tools:

  • Makes it harder to find information: ~21%
  • Creates too many mixed communications: ~21%
  • Slows down productivity: ~18%
  • Wastes time: ~17%
  • Is a major distraction: ~13%

Related to these downsides, more than two-thirds reported that they would welcome having an app that combines all emails and messaging.

Whether or not a combo app is something that becomes available, anyone expecting email to decline precipitously as a preferred method of communications in the coming years is likely to be disappointed.

What are your practices regarding email, messaging apps and other communications methods? Are they substantially different from the Propeller survey results? Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Drones Start Delivering

But will they really deliver the goods?

Drone deliveries just got real. We’ve been reading about them for a good while, along with the occasional news story about a prototype drone model making a product delivery to someone’s doorstep.

But drone deliveries have suddenly taken a major step into the commercial mainstream with the announcement that the first home deliveries of packages from Walgreens have started. They’re being handled by Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet — the parent company of Google.

Wing itself received a special certification from the Federal Aviation Administration recently that allows it to make commercial air deliveries directly to homes in the United States. That’s a first.

In addition to the Walgreens account, Wing is also delivering OTC medication, gifts and other items on behalf of Sugar Magnolia, a Virginia-based retailer.

How do these deliveries work? Customers order products via a special app, and can opt in to receive their items via FedEx Express delivered by drone, which lowers the packages to a designated spot in a yard or driveway.

Wing, Walgreens and Sugar Magnolia aren’t the only people nosing around this method of delivery. Walmart has filed a patent application for a system for retrieving packages delivered by drone, and UPS is also getting into the mix.  The FAA has given approval to UPS’s new Flight Forward subsidiary that will allow it to fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operations. And right on cue, the first Flight Forward agreement for drone delivery services has just been announced, with CVS pharmacies.

So it’s pretty clear that drones have finally broken through to the point where they can be serioiusly tested for consumer use and acceptance. Next, it will be interesting to gauge consumer reaction.  Will drone deliveries break out into the mainstream, or are they destined to remain more of a curiosity?  Here’s one early read from online business owner Mark Reasbeck:

“[It’s] nice that everybody … has nothing else to do but to order stuff from Walgreens and just sit there and wait for the delivery. What happens if you’re not home?  How much [cost] for that service?  They have to pay for a ‘shopper’ and then all the pilots watching the drone.  This is not needed on so many levels.”

What are your thoughts on this latest transport frontier? Is it a flash in the pan? … or poised for phenomenal success?

Why aren’t wages moving in lockstep with the improved employment picture?

If you’ve taken a look at September’s U.S. unemployment figure – 3.5% — you’re seeing the lowest level of unemployment in over 50 years. And for particular subgroups of the population, they’re enjoying their lowest employment percentages ever — at least since records have been kept.

It’s definitely something to cheer about. But at the same time, it’s become increasingly evident that wage growth isn’t happening in tandem with lower unemployment.  And that includes industrial wages as well.

In fact, September results show the first dip in wages – albeit slight – in the past two years.

What gives?

According to Zheng Liu and Sylvain Leduc, two economics researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the cause of stagnating wages in an otherwise robust economy can be laid at the doorstep of automation.

According to Liu and Leduc, as certain tasks move more toward automation, employees are losing bargaining power within their organizations. When people fear that they could lose their jobs to a robot or a machine, there’s a hesitation to ask for higher wages as that might hasten the eventuality.

The net result is a widening gap between productivity and pay.

But does this situation apply across all of industry? Perhaps not. Last year, manufacturing expert and Forbes magazine contributing writer Jim Vinoski noted that “huge swaths of industry remain decidedly low-tech and heavily manual.”

The reason? Complexity, volume and margins are often barriers to the implementation of automation in many applications.  Just because something can be automated doesn’t mean that there’s a compelling economic argument to do so – particularly if the production volumes aren’t in the league of “mass manufacturing.”

Jobs in engineering and R&D are even less likely to become automated. After all, probably the single most important attribute of employees in these positions is the ability to “think outside the box” – something artificial intelligence hasn’t come anywhere close to replicating (at least not yet).

What are your thoughts about automation and how it will affect employment and wage growth? Please share your perspectives with other readers.

LinkedIn’s Weak Link

On balance, most people would agree that the LinkedIn social media platform has been a positive development in the field of business. Until LinkedIn came along, often it was quite challenging to make and nurture connections with like-minded industry or professional colleagues, or to find relevant contacts deep within corporations or other organizations.

I’m old enough to remember the “bad old days” of fruitless searches through the Corporate Yellow Book, Hoover’s and Dun & Bradstreet mercantile listings to try to find good company contacts. Often the information was far too “upper-level,” out-of-date, or simply wrong.  Industry, state and regional directory listings were even worse.

Invariably, any data ferreted out needed to be vetted through phone calls made to beleaguered front-office receptionists who were understandably disinclined to spend much time being helpful.

Of course, as with Wikipedia all LinkedIn “data” is submitted information, and subject to varying degrees of accuracy. As well, the data are comprehensive and accurate only to the degree that each LinkedIn member keeps his or her employment and related information current and complete.

But as a crowd-sourcing database of information – and often with “deep-dive” data on members available to view – LinkedIn is miles ahead of where we were before.

That being said, there is one negative aspect about LinkedIn that seems to have become more pronounced over time — and that’s the burgeoning volume of LinkedIn connection requests that are happening.

Speaking for myself, I’ve spent an entire career nurturing my business relationships. That this has resulted in being one of the LinkedIn members who are in the “500+ connections” club speaks to a lifetime of establishing “real” connections with “real” people – not mindlessly sending out connection solicitations to just anyone.

But that’s what’s happening with many of the incoming requests-to-connect on LinkedIn. These days, I’m receiving requests daily from people I do not know personally and have never even heard of before.

These are the folks who take advantage of LinkedIn’s higher cost”premium membership” programs to gain access to the more detailed information contained in member profiles that is normally off-limits to all except first-degree connections.

In what ways are these people actually interested in connecting with me?  Are they simply sending out a rash of “spray-and-pray” requests in the hopes of getting a nibble … or perhaps making an effort to build their own network and look more like an “authority” in their line of work?

When I click through to view the profiles of those people requesting to connect, it turns out that most them are in fields that relate to my line of work, however tangentially. Likely they’ve identified my name based on shared professional organizations and vocational interests.

But their reasons for requesting to connect — if they even bother to give one — are so generic (or so lame) as to be laughable.

Early on, I did a bit of “empirical” research to see how a few of these connections might actually evolve after I accepted their request to connect. Big mistake, that was.  Recently, freelance copywriter extraordinaire Ed Gandia described something very similar about his own personal LinkedIn experience, characterizing the typical follow-up communiqué from a new LinkedIn connection as “the business equivalent of a marriage proposal” – to wit:

“I’d like to get on the phone with you about [marrying me/having kids/opening a joint bank account]. Here are three times I’m available to talk.  I’m so excited to hear what you can offer me as [my new husband].”

If ever we needed reminding about how not to engage in business development solicitations, these sorry LinkedIn communications are it.

The bright promise of LinkedIn is the ability to identify people with whom we can potentially work or collaborate.  In that regard, the platform can be very valuable.  It’s just too bad that so many people are now using it for ill-conceived (or perhaps desperate?) shotgun attempts to sell themselves, their products or their services.

It won’t work. Communications technology may have evolved but some fundamental things never change.  At the top of the list:  No one wants to be pestered by unsolicited pitches for products, consulting services, employment opportunities and the like.  Not then, not now, not ever.

Hopefully, LinkedIn can calibrate its business practices to ensure that the benefits of interacting with the social platform always outweigh the detriments. We all recognize that this is one way LinkedIn can monetize the data that’s valuable housed on its platform.  But LinkedIn needs to get this just right, lest they turn off their most consequential members – or worse, drive them away.