said in April after sealing the deal. “I don’t care about the economics at all.”

He cared a little more when the subsequent plunge in the stock market meant that he was overpaying by a significant amount. Analysts estimated that Twitter was worth not $44 billion but $30 billion, or maybe even less. For a few months, Mr. Musk tried to get out of the deal.

This had the paradoxical effect of bringing the transaction down to earth for spectators. Who among us has not failed to do due diligence on a new venture — a job, a house, even a relationship — and then realized that it was going to cost so much more than we had thought? Mr. Musk’s buying Twitter, and then his refusal to buy Twitter, and then his being forced to buy Twitter after all — and everything playing out on Twitter — was weirdly relatable.

Inescapable, too. The apex, or perhaps the nadir, came this month when Mr. Musk introduced a perfume called Burnt Hair, described on its website as “the Essence of Repugnant Desire.”

“Please buy my perfume, so I can buy Twitter,” Mr. Musk tweeted on Oct. 12, garnering nearly 600,000 likes. This worked, apparently; the perfume is now marked “sold out” on its site. Did 30,000 people really pay $100 each for a bottle? Will this perfume actually be produced and sold? (It’s not supposed to be released until next year.) It’s hard to tell where the joke stops, which is perhaps the point.

Evan Spiegel.

“What was unique about Twitter was that no one actually controlled it,” said Richard Greenfield, a media analyst at LightShed Partners. “And now one person will own it in its entirety.”

He is relatively hopeful, however, that Mr. Musk will improve the site, somehow. That, in turn, will have its own consequences.

“If it turns into a massive home run,” Mr. Greenfield said, “you’ll see other billionaires try to do the same thing.”

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Kroger and Albertsons Announce Plan to Merge in $25 Billion Deal

“Divestiture is always a bright idea for merging parties, and it’s not always a very good idea for consumers.,” he added.

Albertsons shares fell on Friday, a sign that investors are skeptical that the deal will get past regulators. By late morning, the stock was trading below $27 a share, more than 21 percent below Kroger’s $34.10 a share offer price.

In announcing the deal, Kroger also sought to ease concerns about the impact on consumers by saying that it expects to save about $500 million in costs, which it plans to use to “reduce prices for customers.” Whether it follows through with those plans will likely be a key focus for regulators.

Though cost savings in acquisitions often come from layoffs, the grocers may also point to fact that their workforces are unionized as part of their discussions with regulators. The Biden administration has been a significant proponent of unions. Neither Walmart nor Amazon are unionized on a large scale.

Consumer protection groups raised concerns about the deal following reports of a possible merger on Thursday. The American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit that promotes antitrust legislation, criticized it as a “bad deal for consumers, workers and communities.”

“There is no reason to allow two of the biggest supermarket chains in the country to merge — especially with food prices already soaring,” Sarah Miller, the group’s executive, said in a statement on Thursday.

As part of their pitch to regulators, Kroger and Albertsons will likely try to convince them that their scale is needed to compete against big box stores like Aldi, Lidl — two European chains that have been expanding quickly in the United States — and Costco, as well as Amazon.

The agency, though, has not always allowed retailers to use Amazon as a boogeyman to help clear their deals. In 2015, the F.T.C. successfully sued to block a merger between the retailers Office Depot and Staples, even after they had positioned the deal as an effort to take on Amazon and lower prices.

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Amazon Labor Union, With Renewed Momentum, Faces Next Test

The Amazon Labor Union has built momentum leading up to an election this week at an 800-person warehouse near Albany, N.Y.

A federal labor official recently endorsed the union’s election victory at a Staten Island warehouse in April, which Amazon has challenged, while workers’ frustrations over pay and safety have created an opportunity to add supporters and pressure the company to bargain.

But the union faces questions about whether it can translate such opportunities into lasting gains. For months after its victory at the 8,000-person warehouse on Staten Island, the union appeared to be out of its depths. It nearly buckled under a crush of international media attention and lost a vote at a second Staten Island warehouse in May.

At times, it has neglected organizing inside the original warehouse, known as JFK8, where high turnover means the union must do constant outreach just to maintain support — to say nothing of expanding. Christian Smalls, the union’s president and a former JFK8 employee, seemed distracted as he traveled widely. There was burnout and infighting in the group, and several core members left or were pushed out.

attempt to overturn its victory, which consumed time and resources, as supporters and leaders testified in hearings that dragged across 24 business days beginning in mid-June. The union delayed plans to train more workers as organizers. A national organizing call was put on hold.

a party in Hollywood and decided that the Amazon Labor Union “understood where we were coming from,” she recalled in an interview.

could spend years appealing the election result on Staten Island, and the company still has enormous power over JFK8 workers. After workers protested Amazon’s response to a fire at the site last week, the company suspended more than 60 of them with pay while, it said, it investigated what had occurred. The union filed unfair-labor-practice charges over the suspensions; Amazon said most of the workers had returned to work.

unusually high injury rates, among other safety issues. The facility was evacuated after a cardboard compactor caught fire last week, two days after the JFK8 fire, which was similar.

“The timeline to fix things is before something tragic happens,” Ms. Goodall said.

She accused Amazon of running an aggressive anti-union campaign, including regular meetings with employees in which it questions the union’s credibility and suggests that workers could end up worse off if they unionize.

Mr. Flaningan, the company spokesman, said that while injuries increased as Amazon trained hundreds of thousands of new workers in 2021, the company believed that its safety record surpassed that of other retailers over a broader period.

“Like many other companies, we hold these meetings because it’s important that everyone understands the facts about joining a union and the election process itself,” he said, adding that the decision to unionize is up to employees.

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Less Turnover, Smaller Raises: Hot Job Market May Be Losing Its Sizzle

Last year, Klaussner Home Furnishings was so desperate for workers that it began renting billboards near its headquarters in Asheboro, N.C., to advertise job openings. The steep competition for labor drove wages for employees on the furniture maker’s production floor up 12 to 20 percent. The company began offering $1,000 signing bonuses to sweeten the deal.

“Consumer demand was through the roof,” said David Cybulski, Klaussner’s president and chief executive. “We just couldn’t get enough labor fast enough.”

But in recent months, Mr. Cybulski has noticed that frenzy die down.

Hiring for open positions has gotten easier, he said, and fewer Klaussner workers are leaving for other jobs. The company, which has about 1,100 employees, is testing performance rewards to keep workers happy rather than racing to increase wages. The $1,000 signing bonus ended in the spring.

“No one is really chasing employees to the dollar anymore,” he said.

By many measures, the labor market is still extraordinarily strong even as fears of a recession loom. The unemployment rate, which stood at 3.7 percent in August, remains near a five-decade low. There are twice as many job openings as unemployed workers available to fill them. Layoffs, despite some high-profile announcements in recent weeks, are close to a record low.

Walmart and Amazon have announced slowdowns in hiring; others, such as FedEx, have frozen hiring altogether. Americans in July quit their jobs at the lowest rate in more than a year, a sign that the period of rapid job switching, sometimes called the Great Resignation, may be nearing its end. Wage growth, which soared as companies competed for workers, has also slowed, particularly in industries like dining and travel where the job market was particularly hot last year.

More broadly, many companies around the country say they are finding it less arduous to attract and retain employees — partly because many are paring their hiring plans, and partly because the pool of available workers has grown as more people come off the economy’s sidelines. The labor force grew by more than three-quarters of a million people in August, the biggest gain since the early months of the pandemic. Some executives expect hiring to keep getting easier as the economy slows and layoffs pick up.

“Not that I wish ill on any people out there from a layoff perspective or whatever else, but I think there could be an opportunity for us to ramp some of that hiring over the coming months,” Eric Hart, then the chief financial officer at Expedia, told investors on the company’s earnings call in August.

Taken together, those signals point to an economic environment in which employers may be regaining some of the leverage they ceded to workers during the pandemic months. That is bad news for workers, particularly those at the bottom of the pay ladder who have been able to take advantage of the hot labor market to demand higher pay, more flexible schedules and other benefits. With inflation still high, weaker wage growth will mean that more workers will find their standard of living slipping.

But for employers — and for policymakers at the Federal Reserve — the calculation looks different. A modest cooling would be welcome after months in which employers struggled to find enough staff to meet strong demand, and in which rapid wage growth contributed to the fastest inflation in decades. Too pronounced a slowdown, however, could lead to a sharp rise in unemployment, which would almost certainly lead to a drop in consumer demand and create a new set of problems for employers.

Recent research from economists at the Federal Reserve Banks of Dallas and St. Louis found that there had been a huge increase in poaching — companies hiring workers away from other jobs — during the recent hiring boom. If companies become less willing to recruit workers from competitors, and to pay the premium that doing so requires, or if workers become less likely to hop between jobs, that could lead wage growth to ease even if layoffs don’t pick up.

There are hints that could be happening. A recent survey from another career site, ZipRecruiter, found that workers have become less confident in their ability to find a job and are putting more emphasis on finding a job they consider secure.

“Workers and job seekers are feeling just a little bit less bold, a little bit more concerned about the future availability of jobs, a little bit more concerned about the stability of their own jobs,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.

Some businesses, meanwhile, are becoming a bit less frantic to hire. A survey of small businesses from the National Federation of Independent Business found that while many employers still have open positions, fewer of them expect to fill those jobs in the next three months.

More clues about the strength of the labor market could come in the upcoming months, the time of year when companies, including retailers, traditionally ramp up hiring for the holiday season. Walmart said in September that this year it would hire a fraction of the workers it did during the last holiday season.

The signs of a cool-down extend even to leisure and hospitality, the sector where hiring challenges have been most acute. Openings in the sector have fallen sharply from the record levels of last year, and hourly earnings growth slowed to less than 9 percent in August from a rate of more than 16 percent last year.

Until recently, staffing shortages at Biggby Coffee were so severe that many of the chain’s 300-plus stores had to close early some days, or in some cases not open at all. But while hiring remains a challenge, the pressure has begun to ease, said Mike McFall, the company’s co-founder and co-chief executive. One franchisee recently told him that 22 of his 25 locations were fully staffed and that only one was experiencing a severe shortage.

“We are definitely feeling the burden is lifting in terms of getting people to take the job,” Mr. McFall said. “We’re getting more applications, we’re getting more people through training now.”

The shift is a welcome one for business owners like Mr. McFall. He said franchisees have had to raise wages 50 percent or more to attract and retain workers — a cost increase they have offset by raising prices.

“The expectation by the consumer is that you are raising prices, and so if you don’t take advantage of that moment, you are going to be in a pickle,” he said, referring to the pressure to increase wages. “So you manage it by raising prices.”

So far, Mr. McFall said, higher prices haven’t deterred customers. Still, he said, the period of severe staffing shortages is not without its costs. He has seen a loss in sales, as well as a loss of efficiency and experienced workers. That will take time to rebuild, he said.

“When we were in crisis, it was all we were focused on,” he said. “So now that it feels like the crisis is mitigating, that it’s getting a little better, we can now begin to focus on the culture in the stores and try to build that up again.”

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For Gen Z, TikTok Is the New Search Engine

When Ja’Kobi Moore decided to apply this year to a private high school in her hometown of New Orleans, she learned that she needed at least one letter of recommendation from a teacher. She had never asked for one, so she sought help.

“Teacher letter of recommendation,” she typed into TikTok’s search bar.

Ms. Moore, 15, scrolled TikTok’s app until she found two videos: one explaining how to ask teachers for a recommendation letter and the other showing a template for one. Both had been made by teachers and were easier to understand than a Google search result or YouTube video, said Ms. Moore, who is planning to talk to her teachers this month.

dance videos and pop music. But for Generation Z, the video app is increasingly a search engine, too.

TikTok’s powerful algorithm — which personalizes the videos shown to them based on their interactions with content — to find information uncannily catered to their tastes. That tailoring is coupled with a sense that real people on the app are synthesizing and delivering information, rather than faceless websites.

On TikTok, “you see how the person actually felt about where they ate,” said Nailah Roberts, 25, who uses the app to look for restaurants in Los Angeles, where she lives. A long-winded written review of a restaurant can’t capture its ambience, food and drinks like a bite-size clip can, she said.

TikTok’s rise as a discovery tool is part of a broader transformation in digital search. While Google remains the world’s dominant search engine, people are turning to Amazon to search for products, Instagram to stay updated on trends and Snapchat’s Snap Maps to find local businesses. As the digital world continues growing, the universe of ways to find information in it is expanding.

said at a technology conference in July.

Google has incorporated images and videos into its search engine in recent years. Since 2019, some of its search results have featured TikTok videos. In 2020, Google released YouTube Shorts, which shares vertical videos less than a minute long, and started including its content in search results.

TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance, declined to comment on its search function and products that may be in testing. It said it was “always thinking about new ways to add value to the community and enrich the TikTok experience.”

Doing a search on TikTok is often more interactive than typing in a query on Google. Instead of just slogging through walls of text, Gen Z-ers crowdsource recommendations from TikTok videos to pinpoint what they are looking for, watching video after video to cull the content. Then they verify the veracity of a suggestion based on comments posted in response to the videos.

This mode of searching is rooted in how young people are using TikTok not only to look for products and businesses, but also to ask questions about how to do things and find explanations for what things mean. With videos often less than 60 seconds long, TikTok returns what feels like more relevant answers, many said.

Alexandria Kinsey, 24, a communications and social media coordinator in Arlington, Va., uses TikTok for many search queries: recipes to cook, films to watch and nearby happy hours to try. She also turns to it for less typical questions, like looking up interviews with the actor Andrew Garfield and weird conspiracy theories.

elections, the war in Ukraine and abortion.

TikTok’s algorithm tends to keep people on the app, making it harder for them to turn to additional sources to fact-check searches, Ms. Tripodi added.

“You aren’t really clicking to anything that would lead you out of the app,” she said. “That makes it even more challenging to double-check the information you’re getting is correct.”

TikTok has leaned into becoming a venue for finding information. The app is testing a feature that identifies keywords in comments and links to search results for them. In Southeast Asia, it is also testing a feed with local content, so people can find businesses and events near them.

Building out search and location features is likely to further entrench TikTok — already the world’s most downloaded app for those ages 18 to 24, according to Sensor Tower — among young users.

TikTok “is becoming a one-stop shop for content in a way that it wasn’t in its earlier days,” said Lee Rainie, who directs internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center.

That’s certainly true for Jayla Johnson, 22. The Newtown, Pa., resident estimated that she watches 10 hours of TikTok videos a day and said she had begun using the app as a search engine because it was more convenient than Google and Instagram.

“They know what I want to see,” she said. “It’s less work for me to actually go out of my way to search.”

Ms. Johnson, a digital marketer, added that she particularly appreciated TikTok when she and her parents were searching for places to visit and things to do. Her parents often wade through pages of Google search results, she said, while she needs to scroll through only a few short videos.

“God bless,” she said she thinks. “You could have gotten that in seconds.”

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Retail Sales Up 0.3% In August From July Amid Inflation

By Associated Press
September 15, 2022

Consumer spending accounts for nearly 70% of U.S. economic activity.

Americans picked up their spending a bit in August from July even as surging inflation on household necessities like rent and food took a toll on family budgets.

U.S. retail sales rose an unexpected 0.3% last month after falling 0.4% in July, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Excluding business at gas stations, sales rose 0.8%.

Sales at grocery stores rose 0.5% , helped by rising prices in food.

There was, however, weakening in some areas of discretionary spending with Americans fully aware of inflation’s bite. Business at restaurants ticked up 1.1%, but the pace has slowed. Sales at furniture stores fell 1.3%. Online sales fell 0.7% last month after Amazon’s Prime Day boosted e-commerce sales in July.

“Retailers would probably like to be growing more, especially relative to inflation, but I’m not sure they could realistically hope for much more,” said Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at Bankrate.com. “Consumer spending habits are changing as the pandemic continues to recede and inflation remains high.”

Consumer spending accounts for nearly 70% of U.S. economic activity and Americans have remained mostly resilient even with inflation near four-decade highs. Yet surging prices for everything from mortgages to milk have upped the anxiety level. Overall spending has slowed and shifted increasingly toward necessities like food, while spending on electronics, furniture, new clothes and other non-necessities has faded.

On Thursday, it appeared that the U.S. dodged a national freight rail strike, which could have sent retail prices higher.

Still, inflation remains stubbornly high. Lower gas costs slowed U.S. inflation for a second straight month in August, but most other prices across the economy kept going up — evidence that inflation remains a heavy load for American households.

Consumer prices rose 8.3% from a year earlier and 0.1% from July. But the jump in “core” prices, which exclude volatile food and energy costs, was especially worrisome. It outpaced expectations and sparked fear that the Federal Reserve will increase interest rates more aggressively and raise the risk of a recession.

The government’s monthly report on retail sales covers about a third of all consumer purchases and doesn’t include spending on most services, ranging from plane fares and apartment rents to movie tickets and doctor visits. In recent months, Americans have been shifting their purchases away from physical goods and more toward travel, hotel stays and plane trips as the threat of the virus fades.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Source: newsy.com

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‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ Services Can Actually Lead To More Debt

Companies that allow consumers to complete a purchase after the point of sale are often unregulated and can lead users into deeper debt.

There’s a long history of paying for things in installments: There’s the way old commercials advertise, there are rent-to-own products, or shoppers can put purchases on a payment layaway plan.

But recently, more options have popped up that give consumers the items right away and takes away the threat of repossession.

Companies like Afterpay, Klarna and Affirm have become a more frequent resource for people looking to buy things using a stretched-out payment plan. They have increasingly been showing up as payment options on websites of major retailers, including Target, Bed Bath & Beyond and Amazon.

It’s a huge business. A report from the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation found that 91% of consumer loans taken out in the state in 2020 were from buy now, pay later lenders.

But unlike leasing a car or taking out a new credit card, there isn’t much regulation of this space because of how new it is. Buyers get both the instant gratification of getting their purchase right away, and it doesn’t necessarily affect their credit score.

“A significant portion of people take out multiple buy now, pay later purchases,” said Nadine Chabrier, litigation policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending. “There’s no consideration of the ability to repay, and there’s no specific date on which a person can count on their final pay later coming out of their account. So, people tend to take on multiple purchases and get overwhelmed.”

Chabrier is concerned that the short-term nature of these loans has helped buy now, pay later providers avoid existing rules.

“Some of the things that we’ve advocated for is to regulate buy now, pay later like a credit card,” Chabrier said. “There are really important protections there for consumers that you have under credit cards that you don’t have when you take out a financial planner.”

These types of services often have a younger, more diverse user base. A Morning Consult poll conducted earlier this year found that Gen Z, as well as Black and Hispanic Americans, were more likely to use a buy now, pay later service than the average American.

Elyse Hicks, from the consumer advocacy group Americans for Financial Reform, says that lines up with other trends in economic inequality. 

“On a basic level, BIPOC communities have less, so they’re more inclined to use products like Buy Now, Pay Later, Klarna, in order to get the things that they need or want because it puts those bite-sized pieces or bite-sized installments, something that they feel like they can handle, in front of them,” Hicks said.

The same Morning Consult poll found that one in five borrowers using buy now, pay later missed a payment in January, the month they took the survey.

It can spiral into some big fees for consumers.

In August, after President Biden announced his intent to forgive $10,000 or more for Americans with student loan debt, one Twitter user’s question about whether President Biden would forgive AfterPay debts too went viral.

For now, consumers like Grace Oppy, who is an Afterpay user currently in debt, and the millions of others who use these services are at the mercy of the companies. Affirm, for example, does pitch consumers on the fact that it has no late fees, but it does note that it would charge up to 36% APR depending on your credit, which is higher than even the highest APR on most credit cards.

But in the moment, the seemingly great deals can be really tempting.

“It started with a lot of strategy,” Oppy said. “I was like, ‘If I just do this, then I will be glam and perfect. I will definitely get my promotion.’ And now… I have $90 earrings. So really, it’s a slippery slope in my mind. My dopamine receptors are just, boom, firing away when I use it.”

The advocates Newsy talked to said that dopamine hit Oppy feels — a rush of satisfaction — is exactly what makes it so tempting to use these services when shopping.

“It just feeds on millennials and Gen Z, of how we like to get things very instantly,” Hicks said. “We all know we want something, that we can get it at a discounted price and get it to our doorsteps very quickly. It hits that dopamine, and we’re onto something else. So, it kind of it puts you in a cycle, and kind of like a debt trap, as well.”

Influencers on social media are pitching buy now, pay later as a life hack for those who want something and don’t want to worry about the cost today.

“You have people who you admire, who look like they have great lives, who then have this clothing item or this product, and it’s just aspirational,” Chabrier said. “It’s understandable for people to aspire to a particular lifestyle or feeling, and that’s what I think this type of marketing plays on.”

It’s not lost on consumers either. 

“They make it seem so frivolous… like a fun app,” Oppy said. “They’re partnering with influencers. It’s really nefarious, and it’s subtle. But, making these people that we all try to base our lives on advertise this pretty predatory lending practice that’s so unregulated: sneaky. And they got me. They got me there.”

But regulation and standards could be on the way soon. Many buy now, pay later loans aren’t reported, meaning that while there’s no guarantee your credit score takes a hit if you miss payments, you also might not be building credit that can help you get other loans or credit cards in the future.

Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — the three largest credit bureaus —announced plans this year to incorporate buy now, pay later loans into their files, but implementation of that is still to be determined.

Meanwhile, state and federal regulatory authorities are looking at how to account for buy now, pay later services.

A group of 21 state attorneys general wrote a letter calling for federal officials to set standards on this. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced during last year’s holiday season that they had started a review of the buy now, pay later industry, with an eye toward federal regulations protecting consumers from debt and ensuring companies tell consumers what fees they could incur.

Advocates are hoping rules will lift the burden from consumers and make the companies themselves have to give more information up front. But until then, they say to make sure to read the fine print. 

“Please look at all of your products or your apps,” Hicks said. “See how much you currently owe these buy now, pay later companies, and just be aware of your spending habits. It’s so easy to get out of control with this, but just be aware until regulation comes.”

Source: newsy.com

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Store Shelves Are No Longer Bare, but Baby Formula Remains in Short Supply

More than six months after one of the largest infant formula manufacturing plants in the United States issued a recall and was then shut down because of contamination concerns, a newborn staple remains in short supply.

In parts of the country, parents and their families are scrambling to locate precious containers of formula for their babies and many large retailers remain out of stock of popular brands. Some companies like Walmart and Target are limiting the number of containers that can be purchased at one time.

While the situation has improved since mid-July, the out-of-stock figures for powder formula on store shelves in late August remained at 23 percent, still above the 10 percent it was before the recall and shutdown, according to the Chicago-based market research firm IRI.

infections in four babies — two of them fatal — who had consumed formula manufactured at the plant. On Feb. 17, two days after the shutdown, Abbott recalled batches of three powdered formulas over complaints of serious bacterial contamination. (Abbott has said that there is no “conclusive evidence” to link the company’s formulas to the illnesses.) That disruption made it clear just how dependent Americans were on a few formula manufacturers, and the Biden administration found itself scrambling to figure out how to make more product available.

ending around Nov. 14, the F.D.A. said it would release guidance this month on how the new companies can continue to sell in the United States past this fall.

“Parents in the U.S. have been looking for a better product than what they were being offered,” said Will McMahon, one of the members of the family who owns the British baby formula Kendamil. The company has spent the last three years working through the formal process, including clinical trials, necessary to get its organic infant formula approved by the F.D.A.

Kendamil was one of the earliest formulas to get its application approved by the F.D.A. in the wake of the Sturgis plant shutdown, and the company has begun sending two million cans of formula to the United States.

dropped in early August after it said the F.D.A. had notified it that it was “deferring further consideration” of its application to import formula into the United States.

resume manufacturing of Similac formulas at its plant in Sturgis.

The company also said that it increased production at other U.S.-based manufacturing plants and one in Ireland, and that it would supply the United States with more than eight million pounds of formula in August, an increase from the year before. But it noted it would take six weeks for the Similac product from the Sturgis plant to start to hit store shelves.

But some industry experts say it will take time for Abbott to gain back the market share it once had. “To be frank, there is a lot of consumer mistrust around Similac right now,” said Mr. Dittmeier of the W.I.C. program.

That could be a boon for Reckitt Benckiser, which has been running its formula manufacturing plants at full tilt all summer, hoping to hold on to the market share it has gained at Abbott’s expense. Its market share has climbed to nearly 60 percent from 35 percent before the recall, said Robert Cleveland, who oversees the Mead Johnson nutrition business at Reckitt.

“We remain committed to making as much formula as we can,” Mr. Cleveland said. “We continue to maximize our domestic manufacturing, running overtime and going 24/7.” He added that the company had received approval to bring in formula from its plants in Singapore and specialty formula from its facilities in Mexico.

Still, in late August, when Lori Sharp, a first-time mother in Port Hueneme, Calif., realized she was down to one container of Reckitt’s Enfamil Sensitive infant formula for her 3-month-old daughter, the formula was out of stock on Walmart.com.

Panicking, she scoured more websites and widened her geographic search. She eventually discovered a container of formula at a Target 40 minutes away in Moorpark, Calif. “I went into the store and they actually had four more, but their shelves were so bare,” Ms. Sharp said. “I bought all of them.”

In Georgia, some of the most acute shortages are in rural areas. Jennifer Kelly, who is the family services manager at the early Head Start program in Swainsboro, which is between Macon and Savannah, said trying to find formula earlier this summer had become a “daily chore.”

The 14 babies she watches drink seven different kinds of formula. She and her staff were often driving to Walmart, Walgreens or a local grocery chain or scouring Amazon for some of the more obscure brands.

“It’s not like it was a few months ago when the shelves were bare,” Ms. Kelly said. “I am hoping we are on the other side of this dilemma.”

When the formula shortage was at a crisis point in May, Ms. Robinson of Bucks County, Pa., created a Facebook group that connected parents around the country. The group, called Formula Hunters, does not exchange money to keep out profiteers who have been hoarding formula and seeking to resell it at a markup.

The group operates on the notion that a parent who buys a hard-to-find formula brand and sends it to another parent in the group will eventually be repaid when others do the same for them.

Formula Hunters now has 1,500 members, who are still actively helping each other locate formula. “This has been going on for so many months,” Ms. Robinson said. “The frustration has been high.”

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Former President Barack Obama, First Lady Unveil White House Portraits

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden invited Obama and the former first lady back to their former home to unveil their official portraits.

Former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle returned to the White House on Wednesday for the unveiling of official portraits with a modern vibe: him standing expressionless against a white background and her seated on a sofa in the Red Room wearing a formal light blue dress.

“Barack and Michelle, welcome home,” President Joe Biden said before he invited the Obamas to the stage to unveil the portraits. Some in the audience gasped, others applauded.

“It’s great to be back,” Obama said when it was his turn to speak. He praised Biden — his vice president — as someone who became a “true partner and a true friend.”

The artist whom Barack Obama selected to paint his portrait says the “stripped down” style of his works helps create an “encounter” between the person in the painting and the person looking at it.

Robert McCurdy likes to present his subjects without any facial expression and standing against a white background, which is how America’s 44th and first Black president will be seen here for posterity, in a black suit and gray tie.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden invited Obama and the former first lady back to their former home to unveil their official portraits. It was Mrs. Obama’s first visit since her husband’s presidency ended in January 2017. Obama himself visited in April to help celebrate the anniversary of the major health care law he signed.

The former first lady chose artist Sharon Sprung for her portrait.

The portraits do not look like any others in the collection to which they will be added, in terms of style and substance.

McCurdy told the White House Historical Association for the latest edition of its “1600 Sessions” podcast that his style is “stripped down for a reason.” He’s also done portraits of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and the Dalai Lama, among others.

“They have plain white backgrounds, nobody gestures, nobody — there are no props because we’re not here to tell the story of the person that’s sitting for them,” McCurdy said. “We’re here to create an encounter between the viewer and the sitter.”

He compared the technique to a session with a psychiatrist in which the patient and doctor tell each other as little as possible about themselves “so that you can project onto them.”

“And we’re doing the same thing with these paintings,” McCurdy said. “We’re telling as little about the sitter as possible so that the viewer can project onto them.”

McCurdy works from a photograph of his subjects, selected from hundreds of images. He spends a year to 18 months on each portrait and said he knows he’s done “when it stops irritating me.”

Sprung, who also was interviewed for the podcast, described feeling as though she was in a “comedy sketch” when she met with the Obamas in the Oval Office.

She kept sinking into the couch she sat on while they sat on sturdier chairs. Then the president “flicked” away the printed talking points she had handed out to everyone in the room. Then she just “went still” and had to “gasp for air a little bit” when someone else in the meeting asked her why she paints. Then she started to cry.

“So who knows what put the interview over the top, but that’s how it went,” Sprung said.

She had planned on having Mrs. Obama stand in the portrait, “to give it a certain dignity,” but said the former first lady “has so much dignity that I decided to do it sitting just because … it was too much looking up at her. I’m that much shorter than her.”

Sprung worked on the portrait for eight months, day and night, the most time she’s ever spent on a single painting. She worked entirely from photographs taken in various locations on the State Floor of the White House. Getting the dress just right was the hardest part, she said.

“The color was so beautiful and I really wanted to get the strength of the color and the light,” said Sprung, who has done portraits of the late Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, and Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress.

Recent tradition, no matter political affiliation, has had the current president genially hosting his immediate predecessor for the unveiling — as Bill Clinton did for George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush did for Clinton and Obama did for the younger Bush.

Donald Trump, who criticized almost everything about Obama and deviated from many presidential traditions, held no ceremony for Obama. So President Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, scheduled one for his former boss.

Obama’s portrait is destined for display in the Grand Foyer of the White House, the traditional showcase for paintings of the two most recent presidents. Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s portraits currently hang there.

Mrs. Obama’s portrait likely will be placed with her predecessors along the hallway on the Ground Floor of the White House, joining Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush.

Both McCurdy and Sprung said it was hard to keep their work on the portraits secret. McCurdy said it wouldn’t have been a problem “if it had not gone on for so long.” Sprung said she had to turn the portrait to the wall whenever someone came into her studio in New York.

The White House Historical Association, a nonprofit organization that is funded through private donations and sales of books and an annual Christmas ornament, helps manage the portrait process and, since the 1960s, has paid for most of those in the collection.

Congress bought the first painting in the collection, of George Washington. Other portraits of early presidents and first ladies often came to the White House as gifts.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Source: newsy.com

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The Supply Chain Broke. Robots Are Supposed to Help Fix It.

The people running companies that deliver all manner of products gathered in Philadelphia last week to sift through the lessons of the mayhem besieging the global supply chain. At the center of many proposed solutions: robots and other forms of automation.

On the showroom floor, robot manufacturers demonstrated their latest models, offering them as efficiency-enhancing augments to warehouse workers. Driverless trucks and drones commanded display space, advertising an unfolding era in which machinery will occupy a central place in bringing products to our homes.

The companies depicted their technology as a way to save money on workers and optimize scheduling, while breaking down resistance to a future centered on evolving forms of automation.

persistent economic shocks have intensified traditional conflicts between employers and employees around the globe. Higher prices for energy, food and other goods — in part the result of enduring supply chain tangles — have prompted workers to demand higher wages, along with the right to continue working from home. Employers cite elevated costs for parts, raw materials and transportation in holding the line on pay, yielding a wave of strikes in countries like Britain.

The stakes are especially high for companies engaged in transporting goods. Their executives contend that the Great Supply Chain Disruption is largely the result of labor shortages. Ports are overwhelmed and retail shelves are short of goods because the supply chain has run out of people willing to drive trucks and move goods through warehouses, the argument goes.

Some labor experts challenge such claims, while reframing worker shortages as an unwillingness by employers to pay enough to attract the needed numbers of people.

“This shortage narrative is industry-lobbying rhetoric,” said Steve Viscelli, an economic sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.” “There is no shortage of truck drivers. These are just really bad jobs.”

A day spent wandering the Home Delivery World trade show inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center revealed how supply chain companies are pursuing automation and flexible staffing as antidotes to rising wages. They are eager to embrace robots as an alternative to human workers. Robots never get sick, not even in a pandemic. They never stay home to attend to their children.

A large truck painted purple and white occupied a prime position on the showroom floor. It was a driverless delivery vehicle produced by Gatik, a Silicon Valley company that is running 30 of them between distribution centers and Walmart stores in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Here was the fix to the difficulties of trucking firms in attracting and retaining drivers, said Richard Steiner, Gatik’s head of policy and communications.

“It’s not quite as appealing a profession as it once was,” he said. “We’re able to offer a solution to that trouble.”

Nearby, an Israeli start-up company, SafeMode, touted a means to limit the notoriously high turnover plaguing the trucking industry. The company has developed an app that monitors the actions of drivers — their speed, the abruptness of their braking, their fuel efficiency — while rewarding those who perform better than their peers.

The company’s founder and chief executive, Ido Levy, displayed data captured the previous day from a driver in Houston. The driver’s steady hand at the wheel had earned him an extra $8 — a cash bonus on top of the $250 he typically earns in a day.

“We really convey a success feeling every day,” Mr. Levy, 31, said. “That really encourages retention. We’re trying to make them feel that they are part of something.”

Mr. Levy conceived of the company with a professor at the M.I.T. Media Lab who tapped research on behavioral psychology and gamification (using elements of game playing to encourage participation).

So far, the SafeMode system has yielded savings of 4 percent on fuel while increasing retention by one-quarter, Mr. Levy said.

Another company, V-Track, based in Charlotte, N.C., employs a technology that is similar to SafeMode’s, also in an effort to dissuade truck drivers from switching jobs. The company places cameras in truck cabs to monitor drivers, alerting them when they are looking at their phones, driving too fast or not wearing their seatbelt.

Jim Becker, the company’s product manager, said many drivers hade come to value the cameras as a means of protecting themselves against unwarranted accusations of malfeasance.

But what is the impact on retention if drivers chafe at being surveilled?

“Frustrations about increased surveillance, especially around in-cab cameras,” are a significant source of driver lament, said Max Farrell, co-founder and chief executive of WorkHound, which gathers real-time feedback.

Several companies on the show floor catered to trucking companies facing difficulties in hiring people to staff their dispatch centers. Their solution was moving such functions to countries where wages are lower.

Lean Solutions, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sets up call centers in Colombia and Guatemala — a response to “the labor challenge in the U.S.,” said Hunter Bell, a company sales agent.

A Kentucky start-up, NS Talent Solutions, establishes dispatch operations in Mexico, at a saving of up to 40 percent compared with the United States.

“The pandemic has helped,” said Michael Bartlett, director of sales. “The world is now comfortable with remote staffing.”

Scores of businesses promoted services that recruit and vet part-time and temporary workers, offering a way for companies to ramp up as needed without having to commit to full-time employees.

Pruuvn, a start-up in Atlanta, sells a service that allows companies to eliminate employees who recruit and conduct background checks.

“It allows you to get rid of or replace multiple individuals,” the company’s chief executive, Bryan Hobbs, said during a presentation.

Another staffing firm, Veryable of Dallas, offered a platform to pair workers such as retirees and students seeking part-time, temporary stints with supply chain companies.

Jonathan Katz, the company’s regional partnerships manager for the Southeast, described temporary staffing as the way for smaller warehouses and distribution operations that lack the money to install robots to enhance their ability to adjust to swings in demand.

A drone company, Zipline, showed video of its equipment taking off behind a Walmart in Pea Ridge, Ark., dropping items like mayonnaise and even a birthday cake into the backyards of customers’ homes. Another company, DroneUp, trumpeted plans to set up similar services at 30 Walmart stores in Arkansas, Texas and Florida by the end of the year.

But the largest companies are the most focused on deploying robots.

Locus, the manufacturer, has already outfitted 200 warehouses globally with its robots, recently expanding into Europe and Australia.

Locus says its machines are meant not to replace workers but to complement them — a way to squeeze more productivity out of the same warehouse by relieving the humans of the need to push the carts.

But the company also presents its robots as the solution to worker shortages. Unlike workers, robots can be easily scaled up and cut back, eliminating the need to hire and train temporary employees, Melissa Valentine, director of retail global accounts at Locus, said during a panel discussion.

Locus even rents out its robots, allowing customers to add them and eliminate them as needed. Locus handles the maintenance.

Robots can “solve labor issues,” said Nathan Ray, director of distribution center operations at Albertsons, the grocery chain, who previously held executive roles at Amazon and Target. “You can find a solution that’s right for your budget. There’s just so many options out there.”

As Mr. Ray acknowledged, a key impediment to the more rapid deployment of automation is fear among workers that robots are a threat to their jobs. Once they realize that the robots are there not to replace them but merely to relieve them of physically taxing jobs like pushing carts, “it gets really fun,” Mr. Ray said. “They realize it’s kind of cool.”

Workers even give robots cute nicknames, he added.

But another panelist, Bruce Dzinski, director of transportation at Party City, a chain of party supply stores, presented robots as an alternative to higher pay.

“You couldn’t get labor, so you raised your wages to try to get people,” he said. “And then everybody else raised wages.”

Robots never demand a raise.

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