Roads to … nowhere?

Google Maps admits its business listings are riddled with errors and outright fraudulent entries.

The news reports hit fast and furious this week when the media got wind of the millions upon millions of “faux” business listings on Google Maps, thanks to a new Wall Street Journal exposé.

It’s true that there are a ton of map listings displayed by Google on search engine results pages, but the latest estimates are that there are more than 11 million falsely listed businesses that pop up on Google searches on any given business day.

That number may seem eyebrow-raising, but it’s hardly “new news.” Recall the reports that date as far back as a half-decade — to wit:

  • In 2014, cyber-security expert Bryan Seely showed how easy it was to use the Internet’s open architecture to record telephone conversations and create fraudulent Google Maps listings and locations.
  • In 2017, Google released a report titled Pinning Down Abuse on Google Maps, wherein it was estimated that one in ten fake listings belonged to actual real-live businesses such as restaurants and motels, but that nefarious third-parties had claimed ownership of them. Why do this? So that the unscrupulous bad-actors could deceive the targeted businesses into paying search referral fees.

Google is owning up to its continuing challenges, this week issuing a statement as follows:

“We understand the concerns of those people and businesses impacted by local business scammers, and back in 2017 we announced the progress we’d made. There was still work to be done then, and there’s still work to be done now.  We have an entire team dedicated to addressing these issues and taking constant action to remove profiles that violate our policies.”

But is “constant action” enough? Certain business trades are so riddled with fake listings, it’s probably best to steer clear of them altogether.  Electricians, plumbers and other contractors are particularly sketchy categories, where roughly 40% of Google Maps listings are estimated to be fraudulent entries.

The Wall Street Journal‘s recent exposé, published on June 24th, reported on a search its researchers conducted for plumbers in New York City.  Of the top 20 Google search results returned, only two actually exist where they’re reported to be located and accept customers at the addresses listed.  That’s pretty awful performance even if you’re grading on a curve.

A measure of progress has been made; Google reports that in 2018 it removed some 3 million fake business listings. But that still leaves another 11 million of them out there, silently mocking …

The wider implications of the “deliver it to my door” mentality.

There’s been quite a bit of attention paid to the impact of online retail on bricks-and-mortar sectors like shopping centers.  More than a few of them have started looking like Potemkin Villages. Some forecasts predict that the number of indoor shopping malls in America will contract by as much as one-third in the coming years.

On the other hand, the changing dynamics of e-tailing are having the opposite effect when it comes to shipping logistics … because not only are consumers shopping online in record numbers, they’re also taking advantage of delivery options that are bringing merchandise directly to them in 24 or 48 hours – even same-day deliveries in some cases.

What this means is that the efficiencies in procurement, inventory and distribution that drove many distribution centers to be built in outlying locations aren’t exactly working in today’s “deliver it to me and deliver it to me now” mindset.

[This is why we’re hearing about solutions such as drone deliveries – but that’s still a ways in the future and could eventually begin to cause congestion in a new realm – up in the air.]

In the meantime, more delivery vehicles than ever are competing with commuter traffic on already-congested highways during peak time periods. A shortage of qualified truckers is spurring development of driverless trucking, while the delivery system as a whole is running at full capacity (if not full efficiency).

Of particular concern is the so-called “last mile” delivery aspect in urban environments. It isn’t merely the issue of traffic congestion.  It’s also city planning codes (outdated), parking restrictions (made even more difficult thanks to the current fad in “progressive” cities of adding bike lanes while removing on-street stopping and parking), and load limitations (adding even more challenges and complexity).

But nature abhors a vacuum, and there are some interesting developments happening to address the challenges. The use of data analytics is growing exponentially, with route maps, GPS data, and real-time expected-versus-actual travel time updates allowing for transport rerouting to happen “in the moment.”

Other novel solutions, such as smart lockers that receive multiple shipments in a central location, plus the use of mobile warehouses within urban areas enabling less reliance on the big remote distribution centers, are emerging.

Burgeoning ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are contributing to more congestion in urban areas – just think how many more ride-sharing vehicles are on the road today compared to taxi cabs in the past. But in rural or remote areas the opposite issue is in play – difficult accessibility.  This is where drone deliveries are a welcome development — including during in the wake of natural disaster occurrences where traditional transportation methods might be impossible — or at the very least highly dangerous.

What are your thoughts about the friction between “convenience and congestion”?  Will technology help us smooth out the rough edges — or are we in for even more frustrations?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Have KPIs become a crutch for businesses?

Relying on Key Performance Indicators has become the norm in many business operations. And why not?  Properly defined and managed, KPIs help businesses focus on the right priorities and chart progress towards their goals.

But even well-designed KPIs have their limitations. By their nature, they’re not greatly insightful (they’re indicators, after all).  The problem is that very often, KPIs are used as if they are.

One of the attractions of focusing on KPIs is their simplicity. Managers love boiling things down to concise, action-oriented statements and phrases.  We hear it all the time from senior leadership.  “Give us the bottom-line finding,” they emphasize.

“Business by bullet-point,” if you will.

But here’s the thing: Because of their distilled simplicity, KPIs can lure many a businessperson into overestimating the insights that they’re able to provide.

KPIs do provide a jumping-off point, but the underlying “why” is often still conjecture or a hypothesis. It takes discipline to look for deeper insights and corroborating evidence to really understand what KPIs are saying to us.

Addressing this issue, Shiv Gupta, data analytics specialist par excellence and head of Quantum Sight, has noted:

“Anyone who has worked on developing KPIs knows that it is a game of balance and compromise based on business objectives. The need for actionable information battles with the desire for simple metrics.”

Database marketer Stephen Yu of Willow Data Strategy makes another great point when he writes:

“We all have seen many “death by KPI” [situations] when organizations look at things the wrong way. When someone is lost while driving, [to] keep looking at the dashboard of the car won’t get the driver out of trouble. In a time like that, one must turn on a navigator.  Different solutions call for different analytics, and popular KPIs – no matter how insightful they may have been – often do not lead to solutions.”

What have been your experiences in working with KPIs in your business? How have they helped … or not?  Please share your thoughts and perspectives with other readers here.

New ways to pay: Consumers embrace contactless cards while eschewing mobile payments.

What’s up with mobile payments? They’re the epitome of convenience … and yet most people haven’t taken the plunge.

It’s not as if major retail establishments haven’t begun offering mobile payment capabilities. Apple Pay is now available at three-fourths of the top 100 merchants in the United States (and at two-thirds of all U.S. retail locations overall.)  The stats for Google (Android) Pay are much the same.

But just because the capability is available doesn’t mean that people will start using it. Juniper Research recently analyzed the payment behaviors of consumers in the United States and UK.  It found that just 14% are using mobile payments for in-store purchases.

And even before mobile payments have had much chance to get out of the starting gate, another payment option — contactless credit cards — appears to steal their thunder.

Contactless cards act very similar to the way a mobile device would — by simply tapping a terminal at checkout.

Actually, contactless technology isn’t exactly new; MasterCard introduced cards more than a decade ago, and a number of transit authorities like the Chicago and London subway systems were early adopters.

But a critical mass has now been achieved, and market consulting firm ABI Research projects that by 2022, 2.3 billion contactless cards will be issued annually. Companies such as Amex and Capital One are already in it in a big way, and Chase started sending out contactless cards towards the end of 2018.

For consumers, the “tap-and-go” process of these cards takes only a few seconds — in other words, far faster than EMV chip cards that are the most prevalent current practice. Although a few observers disagree, it’s generally believed that contactless cards are nearly as safe to use as chip cards.

Accordingly, the vast majority of card issuers have zero-liability guarantees against fraud, figuring that the faster speed at checkout is worth it to consumers and vendors when weighed against the marginally higher security risk.

What are your preferred payment practices … and why?

Restaurants face their demographic dilemmas.

There’s no question that the U.S. economy has been on a roll the past two years. And yet, we’re not seeing similar momentum in the restaurant industry.

What gives?

As it turns out, the challenges that restaurants face are due to forces and factors that are a lot more fundamental than the shape of the economy.

It’s about demographics.  More specifically, two things are happening: Baby boomers are hitting retirement age … and millennials are having children.  Both of these developments impact restaurants in consequential ways.

Baby boomers – the generation born between 1946 and 1964 – total nearly 75 million people. They’ve been the engine driving the consumer economy in this country for decades.  But this big group is eating out less as they age.

The difference in behavior is significant. Broadly speaking, Americans spend ~44% of their food dollar away from home.  But for people under the age of 25 the percentage is ~50% spent away from home, whereas for older Americans it’s just 38%.

Moreover, seniors spend less money on food than younger people. According to 2017 data compiled by the federal government, people between the age of 35 and 44 spend more than $4,200 each year in restaurants, on average.  For people age 65 and older, the average is just $2,500 (~40% less).

Why the difference? The generally smaller appetites of people who are older may explain some of it, but I suspect it’s also due to lower disposable income.

For a myriad of reasons, significant numbers of seniors haven’t planned well financially for their retirement.  Far too many have saved exactly $0, and another ~25% enter retirement with less than $50,000 in personal savings.  Social security payments alone were never going to support a robust regime of eating out, and for these people in particular, what dollars they have in reserve amount to precious little.

Bottom line, restaurateurs who think they can rely on seniors to generate sufficient revenues and profits for their operations are kidding themselves.

As for the millennial generation – the 75 million+ people born between 1981 and 1996 – this group just barely outpaces Boomers as the biggest one of all. But having come of age during the Great Recession, it’s also a relatively poorer group.

In fact, the poverty rate among millennials is higher than for any other generation. They’re majorly in debt — to the tune of ~$42,000 per person on average (mostly not from student loans, either).  In many places they’ve had to face crushingly high real estate prices – whether buying or renting their residence.

Millennials are now at the prime age to have children, too, which means that more of their disposable income is being spent on things other than going out to eat.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that the oldest members of the millennial generation are now in their upper 30s – approaching the age when they’ll again start spending more on dining out.  But for most restaurants, that won’t supplant the lost revenues resulting from the baby boom population hitting retirement age.

For PCs, a new lease on life.

There are some interesting results being reported so far this year in the world of “screens.” While smartphones and tablets have seen lackluster growth — even a plateauing or a decline of sales — PCs have charted their strongest growth in years.

As veteran technology reporter Dan Gallagher notes in a story published recently in The Wall Street Journal, “PCs have turned out to be a surprising bright spot in tech’s universe of late.”

In fact, Microsoft and Intel Corporation have been the brightest stars among the large-cap tech firms so far this year. Intel’s PC chip division’s sales are up ~16% year-over-year and now exceed $10 billion.

The division of Microsoft that includes licensing from its Windows® operating system plus sales of computer devices reports revenues up ~15% as well, nearing $11 billion.

The robust performance of PCs is a turnaround from the past five years or so. PC sales actually declined after 2011, which was the year when PC unit sales had achieved their highest-ever figure (~367 million).  Even now, PC unit sales are down by roughly 30% from that peak figure.

But after experiencing notable growth at the expense of PCs, tablet devices such as Apple’s iPad and various Android products have proven to be unreservedly solid replacements for PCs only at the bottom end of the scale — for people who use them mainly for tasks like media consumption and managing e-mail.

For other users — including most of the corporate world that runs on Windows® — tablets and smartphones can’t replace a PC for numerous tasks.

But what’s also contributing to the return of robust PC sales are so-called “ultra-mobile” devices — thin, lightweight laptops that provide the convenience of tablets with all of the functionality of a PC.  Those top-of-the-line models are growing at double-digit rates and are expected to continue to outstrip rates of growth in other screen segments including smartphones, tablets, and conventional-design PCs.

On top of this, the continuing adoption of Windows 10 by companies who will soon be facing the end of extended support by Microsoft for the Windows 7 platform (happening in early 2020) promises to contribute to heightened PC sales in 2019 and 2020 as well.

All of this good news is being reflected in the share prices of Intel and Microsoft stock; those shares have gone up following their most recent earnings reports, whereas all of the other biggies in the information tech sector — including Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, IBM, Netflix and Texas Instruments — are down.

It’s interesting how these things ebb and flow …