Archives for December 2018

The 10 Most Googled People of 2018 (Who'd You Look Up?)

There’s perhaps no better log of what’s on your mind than your browser search history. (Who hasn’t deleted their search history on a shared computer?)

It stands to reason, then, that getting a window into our collective psyche is as simple as perusing Google’s list of most-searched terms of the year. Google recently released The Year In Search–a comprehensive breakdown of everything we searched for this year, organized by category.

So what was on our minds in 2018? When it comes to people, these individuals were. Don’t worry–if you don’t know one … I Googled it for you:

10. Cardi B

American rapper whose standout hits include Bodak Yellow and this year’s breakout, I Like It, which currently has 674M streams on Spotify and counting. 

9. Stormy Daniels

Her legal name is Stephanie Clifford, and she is an American stripper, porn star, and director who got into a legal battle with Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen this year. Trump and company paid Daniels $130,000 to stay quiet about an affair she says had with Trump in 2006.

8. Hailey Baldwin

Daughter of Stephen Baldwin, she’s a model and TV personality who married Justin Bieber this year. While legally married, the couple has yet to stage a large-scale wedding with family and friends.

7. Brett Kavanaugh

A polarizing figure, Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court this year following what some described as an excruciating and exhausting battle for confirmation. Multiple allegations of sexual misconduct were levied against him. 

6. Jair Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in October, 2018. A very right-wing figure, many have compared him to Trump.

5. Khloé Kardashian

Younger sister of Kim Kardashian, Khloe nearly broke the internet this year when she had her baby girl, True Thompson, in April 2018.

4. Logan Paul

On December 31, 2017, controversial vlogger Paul uploaded a YouTube video showing the corpse of a suicide victim. The video gained 6.3M views within 24 hours, sparked outrage on many fronts, and almost cost Paul his YouTube channel. Paul has since been reinstated on the platform and contributed $1M to suicide prevention agencies.

3. Sylvester Stallone

Stallone did not die this past year, but a lot of people feared otherwise. In February, popular searches included “Sylvester Stallone dead 2018” and “Did sylvester stallone die.” The countries where the hoax was passed around the most? South Africa, Ghana, and Bolivia (the U.S. came in 22nd on the list of Stallone searches).

2. Demi Lovato

A Grammy-nominated musical artist, Lovato was hospitalized this year for a suspected overdose. “I have always been transparent about my journey with addiction,” Lovato said on social media. “What I’ve learned is that this illness is not something that disappears or fades with time. It is something I must continue to overcome and have not done yet. I will keep fighting.”

1. Meghan Markle

Markle married Prince Harry in a royal wedding this year, the guest list of which included Serena Williams, George Clooney, Oprah, Elton John, and the Spice Girls.

Got a McDonald's or Burger King Coupon? Here's the Smart, Surprising Thing to Do With It. (You Only Have 3 Days)

This is a story about a smaller restaurant chain trolling McDonald’s, Burger King, and other giants of the business. And it’s kind of brilliant. Before the details, a quick explanation.

The fast food industry is a smart and fun one to follow no matter what business you’re in, and for two big reasons.

First, there’s the pure scale. Make a menu change at McDonald’s for example, and you’re upending the routines of hundreds of thousands of hungry Americans. You can learn a lot just by watching how they develop and test new products.

But second, there’s the marketing.

Think of McDonald’s, which spends $2 billion a year on marketing and ads. That’s half the entire value of its much smaller competitor, Wendy’s. It’s an incredible chance just to unpack what they do, and figure out why they think that various ideas will work.

Which brings us to some shoot-the-moon marketing campaigns that can actually turn the big chains’ efforts on their heads.

The only catch? You had to place the order from a McDonald’s restaurant. (Technically, just being within 600 feet was close enough to trigger the offer.)

Of course, Burger King isn’t small; just smaller than McDonald’s. But it shows how if you’re creative, you can use a competitor’s strength–in that case the fact that there are roughly twice as many McDonald’s in the U.S. than there are Burger King locations–to your advantage.

But what if you don’t have 1.7 million Twitter followers and a full time social media marketing operation, like Burger King, to get word of your deal out.?

What if you don’t even have a mobile app (or a burning desire to get people to download your app, which is what the Burger King promotion and so many others these days are all about)?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Smoothie King.

Again: not exactly tiny, although very small compared to McDonald’s and Burger King. Smoothie King has close to 800 stores, heavily concentrated in warmer weather parts of the country.

It’s privately held, and even if you’ve never tried it, you might recognize the name from the $40 million naming deal it has for the NBA New Orleans Pelicans home arena (“Smoothie King Center“).

Now, like its bigger competitors, Smoothie King also has a rewards app, and it’s launched a contest to try to incentivize people to download and use it. (The “Change-a-Meal Challenge.”)  

But what attracted me to this whole thing is how Smoothie King is kicking off its promotion: By letting you use any coupon from any other fast food restaurant — McDonald’s or Burger King included — at Smoothie King.

It’s good for only one day, New Year’s Eve, and regardless of the competitor’s coupon’s value, it gets you $2 off a smoothie at Smoothie King on December 31.

And in truth, I don’t know how many people would take advantage of it. But that doesn’t really matter in a way; what matters in this social media age is whether you can find a truthful, fun way to troll your competitors and turn their strengths to your advangage.

As a marketing strategy, I think it’s brilliant.

As for the Smoothies, well, I don’t know. I’m writing this from New Hampshire, and it looks like the nearest Smoothie King would be a three hour drive away. You’ll have to let me know in the comments.

From Meghan Markle to Mega Millions, These Were 2018’s Top Google Searches

Google Trends “Year in Search 2018” is out. And if this year’s version of the annual list proves anything, it’s that people are really obsessed with their eyelashes. Arranged by topics, the list’s “beauty questions” top five list gets straight to it: three of the top five searches were lash-focused, including “How to apply magnetic lashes,” “What is a lash lift,” and “How to remove individual eyelashes.”

But blink that thought away and there’s lots more to see. There was one really big winner on the search front: World Cup. It took the top spot in both overall searches and “news” searches. Whether you call it football (correct) or soccer (oh, fellow Americans!), the game behind World Cup is a frequent top search on Google Trends.

When it came to hope for a better financial future, searches got a bit more old school (and desperate) with “Mega Millions” claiming the third spot in the “News” category, “How to play Mega Millions” grabbing third place in the “How to” category, and “Mega Millions Results” taking seventeenths in overall searches. New money (or, really, new new money) played a role too—though it seems searchers were more confused by it than in search of it. First place in the “What is…?” category was claimed by “What is Bitcoin.” In 2017, the currency showed up in fifth place on the “How to” list, as in “How to buy Bitcoin.”

Unfortunately, death by suicide or drug overdose played a major role on this year’s list. Places three to five on overall searches were, in order, Mac Miller, a musician who died from a drug overdose, designer Kate Spade, who died by suicide, and chef/author/TV personality Anthony Bourdain, who also died by suicide.

On the entertainment front, the year’s big winner in movie search was Black Panther. The top musician slot went to Demi Lovato. And, phew, on the most-searched songs front, “Bohemian Rhapsody” beat “Baby Shark,” which came in third. With wedding watching its own form of entertainment for the search masses, “Royal Wedding” was the top weddings search while “Kat Von D Wedding” came in fourth. Fortnite was, not shockingly, the top search in the “Video Games” category.

Food is, as always, a much-searched category but 2018’s top five veered wildly between excess and food poisoning and restraint (and a serious need for comfort). “Unicorn cake” won the year followed by “romaine lettuce,” “CBD gummies,” “Keto pancakes,” and “Keto cheesecake.” Things were a little tastier on the Spanish-language recipes list where “receta de chocoflan” and “Chimichurri receta” came in numbers two and three.

Politics showed up in rather interesting ways on the list. Newly-appointed but much disputed Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh took the third spot on the “People” list, beat out by singer Demi Lovato and the new royal, Meghan Markle. And the searches for “How to” included “How to vote” and “How to register to vote” in the top two spots. Top searches for politicians? Stacey Abrams in first, followed by Beto O’Rourke, Ted Cruz, Andrew Gillum, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (And if social media companies would think of searches as votes, they would want to take notice of the number five “How to”: “How to turn off automatic updates.”)

Of course, sending the year on its way can be a melancholy time for some people. So, as always, Google queued up some tear-inducing hope in its annual Year in Search video.

General Electric: Expect A Big 2019

To call 2018 a bad year for shareholders of General Electric (GE) would be a grave understatement. Throughout the year, the company has undergone expanded investigations by the government, shuffled top management, sold off various assets, and, on multiple occasions, revise down performance expectations before ultimately eliminating them for the foreseeable future. By practically all accounts, the industrial conglomerate has been hit harder, and in almost every way possible, more than it has ever been hit before in its more than 100-year history. Now, as 2019 approaches, the big question facing shareholders is “what’s next?” While it’s possible 2019 will bring with it even more pain than 2018 has, the more likely scenario is that the firm will use the New Year to restructure its operations (out of bankruptcy) and will, if all appropriate steps are taken, prepare for a turnaround that could bring to shareholders significant value.

Expect the breakup to occur

One thing that very few people will disagree with, I think, is that a breakup of General Electric must occur. The business has become so large that it is, from a management and capital allocation perspective, inefficient. When you have so many divisions, figuring out where and how to deploy limited capital can be hard, while as separate entities, the fact of the matter is that individual management teams can focus on their core operations. By breaking up, the firm will also, for the most part, rid itself of GE Capital, which is likely where any currently undisclosed problems probably reside.

As management indicated while John Flannery was still General Electric’s top dog, I fully expect the company to divest of itself its GE Healthcare segment in some way, shape, or form. Management has indicated that this will take place through an IPO, but it’s expected that shareholders might still retain some of the business, though all of this could change over time. We already know thanks to an announcement earlier this year that the firm is likely to continue winding down its ownership in Baker Hughes, a GE Company (BHGE), by selling off its stake in the firm, but a big question here might relate to timing. Since the end of September, shares of the oilfield services firm have plummeted 34.6%, so while the company has struck a deal for a sale of some of its stock, I suspect that additional sales will only happen following a recovery in unit price.

Following the spinoff of its Transportation segment into a commanding interest in Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation (WAB), also known as Wabtec, next year, I believe management will likely begin monetizing its interests there as well. Personally, I see monetizing both Wabtec and Baker Hughes further as a sizable mistake given the future outlook I have for both energy and transportation in the US, but the cash generated from these deals will allow management to reduce debt and/or to invest further into what operations are left.

One thing I would love to see transpire is the sale or spinning off of General Electric’s Power segment. At this time, the firm intends to separate that into two different sets of operations, which may be setting the stage to sell or spin off at least one of them. I see this new decision under CEO Culp as a sign that he understands Power is General Electric’s most significant problem at the moment, and since plans to retain power occurred while Flannery was still in charge, I have modest hope that management will divest of the segment or at least part of it.

Don’t expect a distribution hike

During its third quarter earnings release earlier this year, management made a significant change to General Electric’s dividend policy. They said that, effective this month, the company would only pay out $0.01 per share each quarter as a distribution, down from $0.12 per quarter previously. This decision, though controversial, will result in the firm’s annual distribution falling from $4.175 billion per year to just $347.925 million per year. While I would have loved to see it cut all the way to zero so that management would have even more cash to put toward debt reduction and investing in core assets, the savings seen are material regardless.

Investors hoping for the distribution to recover in the near future are, I think, engaging in wishful thinking. As of the end of its latest quarter, General Electric had cash, cash equivalents, restricted cash, and marketable securities worth $61.69 billion, which is a lot to work with, but it also had $114.97 billion worth of debt (inclusive of $2.70 billion of non-recourse debt). Admittedly, debt was down from the $134.59 billion the firm had at the end of its 2016 fiscal year, but as assets come off the books, debt also must be reduced. Some of this could be taken off by spinning off various assets (for instance, the firm could probably spin in the low tens of billions of dollars off with its Healthcare segment if it so decided), but it’s likely that a lot of the work toward reducing debt will be tied to asset sales and the cash that otherwise would have been allocated toward its quarterly dividends. Until management can reduce debt, it’s unlikely we’ll see a hike, and that probably won’t occur until, at the very best, late next year.

*Taken from Moody’s

Where does debt need to be in order for management to consider raising its distribution again? The short answer is that it’s anybody’s guess, but more likely than not, it’s by whatever amount would allow the firm’s credit rating to rise back into the As. As you can see in the image above, the firm’s credit rating, as calculated by Moody’s (MCO), used to be Aaa until it fell in 2009. Since then, the rating has fallen further and, today, the firm’s long-term debt rating is Baa1. This still places it in a category known as “investment grade,” as the image below illustrates, but the drop, even though it’s not on watch for a further downgrade at this time, will weigh on financing options until the situation can be improved.

*Taken from Moody’s

A lot of cost-cutting and wheeling-and-dealing

If General Electric is going to not only survive but thrive for the long haul, there’s no doubt the firm will need to cut costs. This is especially true if the company elects to keep its Power segment, but irrespective of it, certain corporate costs will need to be slashed as the firm works to spin off its assets. Although management has, in recent times, done well to push for cost cutting, when the company actually starts to break up, we will know whether, and to what extent, this is actually true. One strategy that could work quite well could be what the firm struck with Baker Hughes. As part of its share divestiture, the two companies have entered into a series of joint agreements that will keep their operations intertwined through things like guaranteed low pricing and joint buying of key assets. I suspect this kind of wheeling-and-dealing to continue as the conglomerate sells off more of itself.

Takeaway

Based on the data provided, it’s clear that 2018 has been awful for General Electric, but investors who are expecting more pain to follow through 2019 might be on the wrong side of the bet. If 2018 was the crash for the business, 2019 will likely be the start of a true recovery for the firm, especially if management can work to restructure the entity in the way that they should. Obviously, whether the firm is successful or not, investors should expect a tremendous amount of volatility during the process, but that could present opportunities to buy and sell at attractive prices for the emotionally-detached investor.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Hate Telemarketers? This Brilliantly Simple Legal Trick Totally Destroys Most of Them (Why Did It Take So Long?)

My fellow Americans, we live in a divided time. But there is one thing we all agree on.

It’s only getting worse. By next month, nearly half of all incoming cell-phone calls will be spam. Half! Sure, the government cracks down on a few of the worst offenders. But they’re fighting with a hand tied behind their back. Now, a small group of lawmakers wants to change that.

So here’s the problem, the reason why it hasn’t been fixed before — and why a laughably simple legal trick could very likely be the solution.

Surprise: it’s totally legal!

The scenario has to do with spoofed Caller ID. You’re at home, or at work, or wherever, and you’re suddenly interrupted by a call you don’t recognize. Only… it’s from the same area code and exchange as your cell phone. 

As an example, my phone number is (424) 245-5687. I might get a call from say, (424) 245-9999.

Now, the call isn’t really originating from that number — or likely from any real traceable number. It’s just set up that way to make it look like a local call, so I might be more likely to answer.

You might assume that doing this would be illegal. I mean, I’m a lawyer (not practicing, but still), and I was pretty sure people had been prosecuted for wire fraud for doing less.

But it turns out that’s not the case at all. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission says it’s only illegal to make this kind of spoofed Caller ID call if you do so “with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongly obtain anything of value.”

No provable bad faith or fraud? No problem, under the current law.

Welcome to Kentucky

It’s in this context that an unlikely savior might come to the rescue.

Meet Kevin Bratcher, a state legislator in Kentucky who introduced a bill to make it illegal to spoof a Caller ID for almost any reason at all.

It wouldn’t matter if you could later prove that, for example, “technically if the person jumped through all these hoops and paid these upfront fees they could get a free trip to the Bahamas.” 

Simply “causing misleading information to be transmitted to users of caller identification technologies, or to otherwise misrepresent the origin of the telephone solicitation,” would result in a very significant fine: $500 for a first offense, and $3,000 for each subsequent offense.

There would be  few minor exceptions for things: things like if the recipient knew his or her true phone number or location, or friends playing an innocuous prank on one another.

But beyond that, it would be a strict law.

“I came up with this because I just had a campaign, and everywhere I went people were asking me, ‘Why can’t you do something about all these calls with fake IDs?'” Bratcher, a Republican who has been in office for 22 years, told me recently. “And I was receiving them too. Just a light bulb went off on my head: Why is anyone trying to give you a call with a fake ID? That needs to stop.:

A big part of the problem

I realized something after Bratcher and I talked: it’s not just the scammers who have latched onto this spoofing strategy. 

For example, Bratcher didn’told me about receiving spoofed Caller ID phone calls from a 501(c)(3) he supports, and that’s based in Washington, D.C. The calls looked like they were coming from Kentucky.

That’s also what he says to those who might suggest that anyone sophisticated enough to spoof a Caller ID might also be sophisticated enough not to get caught. For a big part of these calls — maybe even a majority — the fraud stops with the spoofed number.

Legitimate charities aren’t going to want to be tarred with this brush.

Why can’t the government work for us?

For now, if the law were only changed like this in one state, it would be a complicated and potentially expensive strategy for legitimate charities to risk fines and bad press for spoofing IDs in Kentucky.

But while the initial news coverage of Bratcher’s bill suggested it might be the first attempt like this in the country, I’ve talked with Indiana officials who say they’ve been doing something similar.

It’s hard to believe that other states and the federal government itself would be far behind.

I’ve written a lot recently about other ways to cut down on telemarketing calls. There’s the “Lenny” bot, which is truthfully one of my favorites from an entertainment standpoint, as it’s simply an Australian chatbot designed to waste telemarketers’ time.

And since Lenny hasn’t actually been widely released, I also suggested perhaps we could all team up to do a sort of “manual Lenny” — basically stringing telemarketers along, wasting their time, and driving up their employers’ costs so as to destroy their business model.

Those stories got a giant response. Because it’s a problem everyone faces.

And so, shouldn’t our government work for us, instead of us having to hack together ideas on our own to solve these kinds of problems?

It feels like a winner issue for any lawmaker who wants to run to the head of the crowd, and become known as a champion of the people. People seem to want this.  

3 Coaching Strategies To Help Your Employees Overcome Uncertainty

To keep a business running smoothly, managers need to train their employees on how to perform pre-prescribed duties on a consistent basis. It’s also every leader’s responsibility to hold their team accountable to a high standard of quality and to work with them on streamlining their processes to increase efficiency.

A big challenge, however, is in preparing teams to excel when circumstances take an unexpected turn. Uncertainty is a given in business interactions, whether with clients, partners or colleagues, and leaders must take steps to coach their employees on best practices for handling uncommon situations well.

At my company Amerisleep, we encourage our staff to approach unfamiliar problems with an inquisitive mind. Rather than get flustered by the introduction of new variables, our team members are expected to ask questions to identify the key issue, diagnose the cause, and research the best solution.

Below are three things other leaders can do to ensure their team is comfortable dealing with uncertainty — and that they are capable of thriving too.

1. Create contingency plans teams can use to guide next steps.

When you anticipate the possibility of alternative scenarios, you can pre-plan different ways to respond.

In sales, for instance, one of the most dependable strategies is creating a script that features curated response patterns a salesperson can use to guide conversations based on each client’s reaction. This reduces the negative impact of resistance and rejections because it gives the salesperson a model for how they can best overcome the situation.

When negotiating with vendors, too, you may encounter obstacles that could derail the deal. To prepare our managers for those situations, we walk them through the most common sticking points such as price and timeline. If the costs are too high, we seek ways to cut back on expected deliverables to decrease the overall scope and rework the engagement so that it fits our budget. If the delivery schedule is longer than expected, we dissect the process to discover which steps we can expedite.

As a regular part of the training process, department leaders should provide their team members with guidance for how they should process uncertainty and proceed with a solutions-based approach.

2. Train staff to identify elements under their control and act accordingly.

The unknown can be quite jarring for some people. It often causes those unprepared to abandon all hope of influencing the situation and to accept whatever happens. But participants always have some measure of control, even when the expected outcomes seem less likely to manifest.

Teach your employees to look for elements they can leverage — such as historical data, rapport with other team members or participants, and available tools and technology — to allow them to reestablish their composure. Otherwise, they may view new variables as an obstacle instead of an opportunity. This will also help them become more self-reliant, empowering them to independently push more projects through to completion.

Our employees at Amerisleep take this to heart. When website outages occur, rather than panic, our development team follows a pre-defined process for troubleshooting and resolving the issue. Additionally, they take this opportunity to identify ways to further strengthen the reliability of our online experience, mitigating the risk of future failures. Although it’s impossible for us to predict when our site may experience a bit of downtime, what’s certain is the fact that our engineers are both skilled and process-oriented enough to find the perfect solution in a timely manner.

3. Promote strong analytical and critical thinking skills.

When unforeseen circumstances disrupt a plan, it’s common for people to immediately begin thinking about the ramifications of the uncertainty on their future. In these instances, they’re focusing too heavily on the consequences when they should exert more energy finding meaningful solutions.

Those who excel at dealing with the unknown stay in the moment and follow a successful roadmap: prepare as much as possible beforehand; anticipate the unexpected; look for ways to make a difference; and act decisively.

By taking a structured and strategic approach to addressing unfamiliar scenarios, you maintain your ability to think through the problem rationally rather than reacting emotionally.

Ready, headset, go: Retailers racing ahead with VR for staff training

The circa 5,000 virtual reality (VR) videos viewed over two weeks by Costa Coffee staff, looking to understand how best to prepare the company’s Christmas drinks range, highlight the appetite for learning in the organisation using this technology.

That is the view of Laura Chapman, head of learning at Costa, who says festive-themed training videos were not mandatory for its workforce, but they really captured the imagination of its people at this busy time of year.

“It’s still early days for us, but feedback show us teams are motivated to learn this way,” she says, commenting on the recent introduction to over 1,500 Costa stores of Google Cardboard headsets and associated tools, enabling teams to access 360-degree footage of coffee-making tips and techniques.

The move was announced at the end of October, and was primarily a way of helping induct new staff in the ways and methods of Costa baristas ahead of the busy Christmas trading period. However, it’s a platform that can be used for training all year round.

Chapman says the VR element is embedded into what she describes as an already comprehensive training programme, and currently includes tips on how to make an Americano or the Black Forest Hot Chocolate which appears on the menu in December.

And as consumers continue to seek out more compelling experiences, expertise and different types of engagement during a trip to a retail or food and beverage outlet, there are several ways the Costa VR staff training tool is catering for these demands by preparing staff accordingly.

“We have a high volume of millennials in the workforce, so we wanted to be able to provide an engaging and innovative way of training them, one which would really excite them to learn,” says Chapman.

“The VR 360 videos we currently have provide a wider insight into the coffee growing process with footage of coffee plantations in Peru along with sneak peaks inside our state of the art roastery and coffee lab in Basildon.

“In addition to this, we also feature drinks tutorials on our key products, so teams can learn faster by immersing themselves in a real-life environment.”

Walmart is another big retail business that is well under way with its use of VR for operational gain. Facebook-owned Oculus Go VR headsets are being used by the grocer’s staff across the US, with the STRIVR-created content teaching people about technology and compliance, and aiding soft skill development like empathy and customer service.

To indicate the scale of the technology’s usage, the plan is for four VR headsets in every Walmart “supercenter”, and two units to every neighbourhood market and discount store. In total, the retailer says 17,000+ headsets are in use at Walmart today.

VR training must run deep

Ed Greig, chief disruptor at Deloitte, agrees that some of the best cases of VR usage in retail are around staff training.

“If you want to change the behaviour of your staff, that’s something you can do with VR in a way you couldn’t do with text-based e-learning,” he says.

“Some organisations are still using paper-based learning, and these are organisations that in other areas are very technical, but VR can enhance this process.”

Greig backs VR’s ability to improve the soft skills of store associates to align them with company values or to provide a platform for helping more senior staff improve management and empathy, but ultimately he sees the biggest gains for retailers coming from its wider deployment by human resources departments.

Wider recruitment

He acknowledges the idea of VR being used as a staff training tool has opened up conversations with Deloitte clients about their wider recruitment and subsequent learning strategy. As retailers embark on widescale digital transformation, he sees VR playing a central role in improving store design, supply chain operations, and general processes.

“Our motto is ‘fall in love with the problem not the solution’,” says Greig.

“There is a real danger with a new tech like VR and the subsequent modifications to that tech that people can fall in love with the solution [and forget why they need it in their businesses]. If you’re going to use VR, it should be about reshaping your entire learning strategy and how you look to develop people throughout the organisation.”

“It’s really effective when it’s used as part of the recruitment process, providing a consistency of experience for employees right from the first moment they have contact with a certain company,” he says.

“If retailers can nail that, it gives them a whole load of additional time where they’ve got people thinking about their brand values, and they can hit the ground running once they’re on the team.”

In a future internet of things (IoT) environment, Greig predicts multiple ways VR could play a part in the “digital twin” process, where a retailer’s physical premises are effectively digitally cloned. One can imagine staff using VR in this format to remotely change a retail store’s lighting or signage setting in real time, he asserts.

VR as standalone entertainment

VR is cropping up in various guises across retail, be it Virgin Holidays using Google Cardboard in stores to help customers experience locations before they book them, or Tommy Hilfiger kitting out global flagships with WeMakeVR-loaded SamsungGear devices to showcase its catwalk shows to in-store visitors.

But some of the most impactful uses of it revolve around creating an event out of VR technology. At Westfield Stratford City in 2016, Samsung ran an in-shopping-centre pop-up, enabling around a quarter of a million people to try out its Gear VR to experience roller coaster rides in North America or holidays in remote destinations.

Judging by that success, it is perhaps clear why ImmotionVR, a company that designs content for VR and operates simulators in public places around the UK, is continuing to scale its business based on a similar cinematic-like premise.

With 12 locations across the country, including at Manchester’s Arndale Centre, Birmingham’s Star City, Intu Derby, and most recently, Wembley’s London Designer Outlet, the company is creating theme-park-like, family-friendly experiences starting from £5 in shopping centres around the UK.

Martin Higginson, CEO of Immotion Group, says his company is looking to help the wider retail industry not by selling it VR technology as an internal solution, but by setting up its simulators and VR installations deep within retail – in the aisles of shopping centres or in locations left behind by collapsed or down-sizing retail chains.

“We’re focused on delivering an out-of-home experience,” he says.

“Currently shopping in general needs to bring theatre, because without that retail will wither on the vine. The high street and shopping malls need to change and start creating more theatre be it additional dining spaces, VR or something else; there needs to be a unique mix that creates a ‘theme park’ within shopping centres.”

Incentivising shopping mall visits

Higginson argues that venues from ImmotionVR, which creates its own content from its Manchester studios and offers VR experiences covering scenarios ranging from roller coaster rides to swimming with sharks off the coast of Tonga, can give families an added incentive to visit a shopping mall.

There is also a focus within the business on providing VR-enabled destinations for work parties and educational trips for schoolchildren.

“We want to create Disneyland in Westfield or Lakeside, or wherever – shopping centre owners have massive challenges with the likes of House of Fraser and Debenhams going through turmoil,” he says.

“We can bring experiences to shopping centres and fill them with guests throughout the week, helping malls become leisure destinations rather than venues for straight-out shopping.”

Higginson also argues the continued growth of his brand will open up VR to the mainstream. As a result, the tech might become more widely used in the home and in the workplace. In short, society could be about to see more of it in its various forms.

Costa and Walmart are clearly on the start of their VR journeys, but the staff engagement it has resulted in, and – in the case of Walmart – the rapid extended roll-out of the technology to date, suggests further exploration and usage is imminent.

VR roll-out a reality

Walmart announced in September that its VR technology was set to be accessible for all employee training across its entire US store portfolio, following initial usage solely for staff development in Walmart Academies. More than one million Walmart associates will now receive the same level of training as those in the academies, the retailer said.

Meanwhile, all of Costa’s fully owned stores – as opposed to its franchise and concession partners – have a Google Cardboard headset that allows staff to experience VR. And Chapman acknowledges the business is looking to make them available to its partnerships and international stores, while additional ideas for its usage keep arising.

“We could provide ‘on-the-job’ experiences to potential candidates so they get an idea as to what it’s like working in one of our stores,” she says.

“The coffee growing process and following the coffee journey from bean to cup is also something that we feel would be useful for inductions for everyone in the Costa family both among our store teams and in our support centre.”

Why SMS Marketing Could Be Your Brand's Secret Weapon in 2019

While still an essential marketing channel for brands of all kinds, it’s no secret that email marketing has become a much tougher nut to crack since its inception. With open rates dipping below 25 percent across the board, spam filters becoming more sophisticated and privacy laws continuing to pile on, alternatives to email marketing are looking more enticing than ever before.

Additionally, with social media channels like Facebook continuing on the path of slashing organic reach and becoming a “pay to play” platform, the time to explore new marketing opportunities is now.

One promising opportunity that’s often overlooked is SMS marketing, or text message marketing. Here are the reasons why SMS marketing could be the medium that takes your brand to new heights in 2019, how to get started and some best practices to ensure you’re using the channel most effectively.

People are always connected to their phones.

We live in a mobile-first world where people of all ages are increasingly becoming glued to their smartphones. In fact, it’s been recorded that, on average, people check their phones a whopping 80 times per day. As a result, it’s no wonder why open rates for SMS marketing typically hover around 82 percent. This makes sending texts to customers and members of your brand’s community the closest thing to being absolutely certain your content won’t get overlooked.

Additionally, unless the medium becomes saturated with every brand on the planet, it’s unlikely this trend will change anytime soon given how mobile-centric contemporary culture has become. 

Lastly, when taking a look at how often people change their social media profiles, email addresses and more, phone numbers are certainly updated the least. This essentially guarantees your SMS marketing will have longevity, something that can’t always be said about alternative marketing channels.

Here are some tips for getting started and making the most of your SMS marketing:

1. Get the right software. 

There are loads of mobile marketing platforms out there, but two of the best?–?based both on how long they’ve been in business, reviews and quality of their features?–?are Textedly and Avochato. Take some time to browse through other options though to see which product best fits your organization’s particular needs.

2. Begin collecting user’s phone numbers.

The next step is to begin collecting customer’s phone numbers. In the same way you try to snag the email addresses of website visitors and prospects, you need to begin collecting phone numbers as well. You can get started by inserting a field in all your company’s opt-in forms that asks for a prospect’s phone number. 

You can also run social media ads on Facebook, Twitter and beyond which asks viewers to opt-in through mobile for a discount, for entry into a contest or something similar. Lastly, you can also beef up your phone number list by giving away free content, such as a webinar or ebook, in exchange for their contact information. This tactic has proven fruitful for collecting email addresses, and the same can be done for phone numbers.

3. Make 100 percent sure you have the user’s permission to text them. 

Be absolutely sure you have a person’s explicit permission to use their phone number for promotional purposes. Not only is it the right thing to do from an ethical perspective, it’ll also make sure you’re not breaking the law. On top of that, be sure all your text messages used for marketing purposes have an unsubscribe option. 

4. Don’t bug your audience. 

Don’t exploit access to a person’s phone number. Be mindful of how personal and private a text message is, and act accordingly. Only send text messages when absolutely necessary. If you spam your list with a massive amount of messages, they’ll quickly get annoyed, unsubscribe and lose trust in your brand as a whole.

5. Know the limits of text messaging.

Let me be clear here. SMS marketing should, by no means, be a replacement to your email marketing. Instead, think of it as a supplement to your email efforts.

There are a couple limits of SMS marketing to keep in mind. For one, you have to keep your character count to a minimum, so maintaining your brand voice or telling a compelling story is difficult. Also, you can’t alert your audience as frequently as you can on social media for the reasons listed above.

If you’re looking for fresh ways to market your business in 2019, SMS marketing could be the secret sauce you’ve been looking for. Because of the exclusive nature of texting, stellar open rates and longevity of a person’s phone number, the future of SMS marketing looks bright. Be sure to give it a try in 2019. Best of luck.

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Raises Questions of Bank Stability: Hold Onto Your Hat

The entire financial system that everyone, including all businesses, depends on sits on the need for trust. And in a couple eof tweets, the Treasury Department and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin may have shaken that trust loose.

The Treasury Department said that Mnuchin held a series of calls with CEOs of major banks: Bank of America, Citi, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo.

The CEOs confirmed that they have ample liquidity available for lending to consumer, business markets, and all other market operations. He also confirmed that they have not experienced any clearance or margin issues and that the markets continue to function properly.

Equity markets have been rocky for various reasons, including tariff wars, general uncertainty, and the Fed increasing interest rates. No markets rise forever and we’ve seen a long run. A recent survey of global CEOs showed that chief financial officers overwhelmingly expect a recession by 2010 and many think 2019 will be the year.

In turbulent times, there are tremendous reasons for businesses to be wary and for governments to be concerned about basic banking issues like liquidity. Without enough money available, institutions can’t lend money and an economy can grind to a halt.

But aside from public inquiries like bank stress tests mandated by law, deep inquiries happen out of public views. No one wants to start a panic, undermine public confidence, and potentially start runs on banks, with people looking in total to take out more money than the banks actually have. (The lending business depends on institutions leveraging deposits, which means lending out many times more than they have on hand.)

Mnuchin’s move might have made sense if there were public concerns about bank stability. Bank stocks have been taking a hit with market oscillations. When people worry about the economy, they expect that banks may suffer. When things slow, fewer people and companies take out the loans that are the source of institutional income.

But there hasn’t been a lot of concern about underlying bank stability. At least, there wasn’t until Sunday evening when the tweets hit the fan. Particularly as Mnuchin was reportedly on vacation in Mexico.

While apparently intended to as a pre-emptive reassurance to investors, the tweet may have done just the opposite, stoking fears that the government is bracing for the worst.

MarketWatch then copied a number of investor tweets. Here’s one.

The substance was much of what I heard in my circle of financial people and business and economics reporters. One could only manage “WTF?”

It may be that all is well. But markets react to expectation and emotion and things have been shaken already. You now much reexamine your strategy in the wake of decreasing confidence in the economy and keep a close eye on new statements that could further shake things up.

After What President Trump and Congress Did on the Friday Before Christmas, the Government Is (Partially) Shutting Down. Here's What That Really Means

Less than two weeks ago, President Trump warned he’d shut down the U.S. Government if he didn’t get $5 billion for his border wall with Mexico in the new budget.

Democrats called his bluff; Trump didn’t blink. And so, a partial shutdown began at midnight.

So, what does it mean in practical terms to have a partial shutdown, which Trump himself predicted could go on for a “very long time?”

1.    About 75 percent of the government stays open.

Let’s start with the fact that it’s just a “partial” shutdown. There are some agencies that will be hit much harder than others, but most of the truly essential functions of government will continue.

Among these, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Health and Human Services are already funded through 2019, so they shouldn’t be affected.

2.    But about 38 percent of employees will be hit.

There are 2.1 million federal employees. Of them, about 400,000 will be sent home without pay, and another 400,000 will be required to come to work, but won’t be paid.

Some of the affected departments here include Homeland Security, Justice, State, Transportation, and Treasury. As an example, all 60,000 employees of the Customs and Border Protection would be required to go to work without pay. 

This also includes Transportation Security Administration officials — so airports should remain open and more or less unaffected. It also includes the Border Patrol — ironic, since Border Patrol officers will have to work without pay, in a dispute over funding a border wall.

Also, “air-traffic controllers, prison guards, weather-service forecasters and food-safety inspectors, and would continue coming to work. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, Forest Service firefighters” have to work, according to the Journal.

3.    The National Parks stay open

This is interesting — in earlier shutdowns, the spectacle of National Parks closing became big symbols of government ineptitude in a shutdown. But this time, the Parks Service is keeping most of its facilities open, even as about 80 percent of its employees will be furloughed.

On the National Mall for example, you’ll still be able to tour the monuments, but there won’t be Park Rangers available to offer information and assistance. The Smithsonian museums will remain open, too– at least through Jan. 1.

4.    It’s a good time to cheat on your taxes.

That’s because nine out of 10 IRS employees will be furloughed, so far fewer audits and return exams. That also means less chance of being able to call the IRS to ask for help on a tax issue.

5.    The Mueller investigation continues.

About 85 percent of Justice Department employees still have to go to work, even if they don’t get paid. The special counsel investigating possible collusion with Russia in the 2016 election however, will continue apace. That office’s funding is guaranteed.

6.    You can get your passport (probably) and the mail will still be delivered.

The Postal Service basically continues unaffected too, “because the Postal Service funds its operations through its own sales rather than tax dollars.”

7.    We sort of get a four-day repreive.

The shutdown began at midnight on Saturday December 22, which also happens to be the first of a four-day weekend for the government, since next Tuesday is Christmas.

All of which means that many of the 800,000 employees who won’t be paid, weren’t planning to work anyway the next four days. (In most past shutdowns, they ultimately got back pay when the government reopened.)

So, next Wednesday is that day when people will really start to notice — and then, if it lasts long enough, into the day after New Year’s Day.

8.    Weirdly, many workers have to come in, only to be told to go home.

Acording to the Post: Some will have to — briefly, anyway.

“This is what’s known as an “orderly shutdown,” during which employees who are furloughed can be allowed up to come in for up to four hours to preserve their work, finish timecards or turn in their government-issued phones. … What can we tell you? The federal government is a quirky enterprise.”

9.    Meat will be okay

At the Agriculture Department, the government will still inspect meat and other food. And support programs like food stamps will keep going.

10.    Sandwiches will be free. 

This is mostly for Washington DC area employees anyway, but if they’re affected by the shutdown, celebrity chef Jose Andres says his restaurants will offer free lunch sandwiches