Zippin's Checkout-Free Retail Store Uses Cameras to Watch You Shop

The shop has no sign. Or rather, the sign is obscured by some kind of bunting. The glass doors are papered over. You gotta know what’s back there, like a speakeasy.

Venturing to open the door, I find I still can’t get inside. Between me and a cramped 180 square feet or so of convenience store-like shelves—yogurts, bags of exotically-flavored freeze-dried peas, refrigerators full of juice, and pre-packaged sandwiches—is a turnstile. It is a shop. I will shop. There’s a reader on the right. There’s an app.

This is San Francisco, 2018. There is always an app.

Get the app and give it a credit card—just like Uber and Amazon trained us—and the app will spit back a QR code. Krishna Motukuri, the guy running the show, calls that code up on his phone and flips it over for the scanner; the turnstile’s waist-high doors fold back. I saunter through. I’m in! I am shopping. I am free to pick whatever I want off the shelves. When I’m done, I get scanned back out. I have shopped.

But it’s, like, future shopping. Because: No cashiers. No checkout lines. My purchase—well, Motukuri’s, really—is a matter between me, my credit card company, and the store’s tech. It’s running off a system called Zippin, made by a company of the same name. The experience has been available to friends and other folks in the same building where this pop-up is housed, but it’s now debuting a bit more widely. Depending on how you count such things, the Zippin store and an Amazon store in Seattle are the only cashier-free stores in America.

Video by Zippin

The Zippin store is set-up in a sort of lobby; up a short flight of steps, the space extends backward another 50 feet or so, and the company has set up second-hand conference tables, chairs, laptops. Shelves and drawers along one wall are artifacts of the room’s previous life as a hair salon. If all goes as planned, the store will eventually expand back here, too. But that’s not the point. “This is just purely to prove the concept,” Motukuri says. “This technology can be applied in any retail store.”

Zippin, he says, is “a software play.” Software-as-a-service. All the hardware is commodity—the turnstile, the weight sensors in the shelves, the cameras in the ceiling that link your image to your unique QR code. It’s up to the computers to match all that together and charge your card when you leave. (The computer puts a green square around your image from above; there’s nothing biometric about it, unless someone figures out how to characterize individual differences in male pattern baldness.)

But…Amazon, though? That company’s sans-checkout store in Seattle is the 500-pound gorilla riding the elephant in the room, isn’t it?

Well, Amazon gonna Amazon. “For the vast amount of retailers, it’s not available,” Motukuri says. “We expect everyone will want to customize it.” He sees a checkout-free future for gas station stores, convenience stores, airports, hotel lobbies. Right now, Zippin can’t do clothing—too floppy, the cameras and shelves can’t figure it out—but packaged and solid stuff works. “The potential is infinite,” Motukuri says. “We’re hoping our customers can educate us.”

Indeed they might. Checkout is what business folks call a “pain point” for retail. It’s inconvenient, it’s a time delay, and the possibility exists that you may have to interact civilly with another human being. Oy! Barcodes have dominated this world since the 1980s; In the last couple years, RFID has become a player. Attempts at innovation have come at a drip-drip-drip—self-checkout (ugh), scanning items with your phone (come on), buying stuff at an Apple Store with the Apple Store app (wait, you can do that?). Then, in late 2016, Amazon “dropped a nice little bomb on the industry,” says Jason Goldberg, senior vice president of commerce at Publicis.Sapient.

Amazon has been cagey about the details of its cashier-less technology, and a representative of the company declined to answer questions. But it does seem like the system needed a whole new store design. It’s camera-based, and it associates a picture of a user with an app. The camera can tell what objects are even if they’re partially obscured, but still seems to require that nothing can obstruct the machines’ overall vision. That likely means brighter lights, no shopping carts, no blind spots, and no “gondolas,” the shelves that make up the aisles in supermarkets. “They’re building new stores as opposed to trying to retrofit this into an existing store. And Amazon is one of the few retailers in the world that has good app penetration,” Goldberg says. “For most retailers, getting someone to install an app is a huge deal—arguably more painful that getting them to check out.”

Still, the basic technology is probably not going away. Microsoft, Walmart, and Toshiba have announced their own versions. A report from Juniper Research says technology-enabled checkouts account for just about $9 billion a year in the US today, but they’re headed toward $78 billion by 2022. Meanwhile, in China a dozen companies are building cashier-free convenience-type stores from scratch, and everyone already uses a phone-based digital wallet—they made $9 trillion worth of mobile payments there in 2016.

Even if the use case in the US turns out to be airports, hotels, and Kwik-E-Marts, there’s more going on here than checkout. “A huge problem in retail is inventory. In the best case, a store that perfectly knows its inventory knows it because it paid a lot of humans to walk around and cycle-count,” Goldberg says. That’s a sort of core sampling technique that infers what’s on the shelves. “Most stores do that and still get inventory horribly wrong.” That means higher logistics costs and time lost in restocking. But smart shelves and cameras on every SKU mean real-time, perfect inventory.

Motukuri says his team has already seen that advantage at the Zippin store. “It’s much more cost-effective to stock fresh items,” he says. “We get more real-time information on how fast they go out.” That means the restocker’s phone can tell him exactly when it’s time to come back, and exactly how many sandwiches and salads he needs.

This is San Francisco in 2018. It’s always about data. Consider what Amazon already knows about your purchasing habits. Now imagine them knowing how long you spend in front of the peanut butter shelf, when you put back the Grape Nuts and take down the Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, and your actual rate of Coke Zero Cherry consumption. You’ll give it all to them for a Prime discount.

Well, a discount and the ability to walk out of the store without having to say “thank you” to a human. “Everyone who has interacted with it says, ‘This is the future,'” Mokuturi says. The Zippin store opens wide in September. It’s coming; you can see the signs.


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Drive.ai Is the Self-Driving Startup Teaching Cars to Talk

Horns honk. Hands wave. Lights flash. Fingers fly and eyes meet. This orchestra may seem a mess to anyone stuck in the pit at rush hour, but for the most part, it works. Humans may not excel as drivers when it comes to paying attention or keeping calm, but we’re masters of communication, even when stuck in our metal boxes.

Robots offer this resume in reverse: all-stars when it comes to defeating distraction, noobs when it comes to negotiating the human-filled environment. And for the folks aiming to deploy fleets of self-driving cars into that chaos, this is a problem.

“The question is how to replace the driver,” says Bigit Halder, the design lead for Drive.ai. The Silicon Valley-based startup just started a shuttle service in Frisco, Texas, connecting an office park to a nearby stadium and apartment complex. (It keeps a human in the driver seat, ready to take control if the robot falters.) That pilot project is the product of three years of development work by the company, which was founded by a group that came out of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab and now has more than 150 employees.

When Drive.ai first showed off the concept in 2016, it used a single billboard-type display on the roof. Realizing lots of people missed messages riding so high and that people on different sides of the car need different information, it moved to the current quartet of panels on the vans it’s been using since 2017.

Drive.ai

Drive.ai is counting on AI and machine learning expertise to teach its robots to drive, but from the start, it has focused on teaching them to communicate too. In places like Frisco, a suburb of Dallas, this technology is novel and (especially after Uber’s deadly crash in Arizona in March) can make people nervous. A successful service, the company believes, relies on making its customers as well as everyone else outside the vehicle confident in how it will behave. Confidence begets comfort. And confidence comes from communication.

So while the roboticists were writing code and running simulations, Halder and his team were poring over every detail of the Nissan NV200 vans Drive.ai runs in Frisco (the same model used for many New York City taxis, minus the glass partition) to make them easy to understand.

The bulk of the van is bright orange, making it easy to spot—the same thinking behind yellow school buses and red Ferraris. On the left and right sides, “Self-Driving Vehicle” is written in white over a ribbon of blue that pops against the orange, high enough that it’s easily spotted from inside a car. (The team went with “self-driving” over the techier “autonomous,” Halder says, because it’s the simpler term.) On the front of the car, it’s written on the bumper, low to the ground, where pedestrians crossing in front of the stopped vehicle are likely to look, to see if the wheels are starting to move. “We want to be cognizant of the context in which you see the car, and be responsive to it,” Halder says.

On a 13-inch screen inside the car, passengers get the view from the car’s cameras, as well as what its lidar laser sensor sees. The thick red line shows the car’s planned trajectory for the next six seconds.

Drive.Ai

If that context includes you riding inside the thing, you get a 13-inch screen showing you the view from the car’s cameras, as well as what its lidar laser sensor sees. Drive.ai’s setup includes a thick red line showing the car’s planned trajectory for the next six seconds, an easy way to reassure a passenger the car won’t miss their turn, or that yes, it plans on stopping at that upcoming red light.

Drive.ai isn’t the only self-driving outfit paying attention to this sort of design, of course. Virtually every company in the space uses interior screens to communicate with their passengers. What sets Drive.ai’s approach apart is its use of screens on the van’s exterior. These four panels—each 22.5 by 7.5 inches, on the hood, on the rear, and just above each of the front wheels—are the vehicle’s voice. If the car comes to a stop to yield to a wary pedestrian, they flash, “Waiting for You,” alongside a graphic of a person in a crosswalk. For any drivers behind the vehicle who might wonder what the hold up is, the rear panel reads, “Pedestrian Crossing.” When a Drive.ai employee is working the wheel, the panels say “Person Driving.”

Now that Drive.ai is running a pilot shuttle service in Frisco, Texas, it’s getting more feedback from real riders, about ride quality and ways to improve the program. Some have asked for music.

Drive.ai

These messages are just the latest iterations in an ongoing churn, as Halder’s team tries one idea after another. They’ve mixed and matched colors, played with animation and still images, and tested different turns of phrase. Just in May, the pedestrian panel read, “Waiting for You to Cross,” with a small image of a person walking. In June, the team tried the terse “Waiting,” with a larger image, before arriving at the current “Waiting for You.”

“‘Waiting’ is not as clear,” Halder says. “If you talk to me, I respond better. It’s about communicating.” Thus, “Waiting for You.” In the same time frame, the human driving mode sign went from “Self-Driving Off” with an exclamation point in a yellow triangle, to “Human Driver” with a steering wheel icon, to “Person Driving” with a cartoon chauffeur.

The panels themselves have changed, too. When Drive.ai first showed off the concept in 2016, it slapped a single billboard-type display on the roof, slightly smaller than the panels it uses now. Realizing lots of people missed messages riding so high and that people on different sides of the car need different information, it moved to the current quartet in 2017.

The selecting force in this evolution is the user testing Drive.ai does, largely with focus groups, gauging who understands what, and asking for opinions. They show participants renderings of early stage ideas, and observe their behavior around the vehicle. “We have a lot of opinions and ideas. They are not worth anything unless the user says so,” Halder says. “Most of our design is driven by user feedback.”

Riders in Frisco are contributing their opinions too. One, Halder says, compared it to an amusement park ride (as in cool and exciting, not vomit-inducing). And when the designer asked passengers what else they’d like from the experience, a few requested music. The team hasn’t added that in just yet, but Halder is thrilled at the request. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m comfortable. Now entertain me.’”


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United Airlines Just Announced a Truly Mean-Spirited Way of Getting Economy Class Passengers to Pay More

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Let’s talk euphemisms.

It might help ease us in to this week’s less than wonderful news.

It’s sub-optimal, really. 

You see, airlines enjoy slipping the bad news right in the middle of some apparently good news, so that you might miss it.

Last week, for example, United Airlines announced it was launching something called Corporate Preferred seating. 

This allows companies that spend lots of money with United to get their employees a better chance of upgrades, a lesser chance of downgrades, some priority boarding and a few other little benefits that might make employees smile for a second or two.

It’s tough on corporations, after all. They have to make as much money as possible, while being people, too. 

Yet hidden within this corporate preference is some frightful news for Economy Class passengers.

You see, this Corporate Preferred wheeze gives the big spending corporations access to the first few rows behind Economy Plus — the seats with slightly more legroom. 

These first rows behind Economy Plus are ordinary Economy Class seats, but they’re closer to the front of the plane.

But what if there’s a lack of preferred corporate warriors on the plane? 

You can sit in them, dear ordinary Economy Class passenger. As long as you pay extra for them, that is.

You see, these are now Preferred Economy seats. Even, on certain planes, the middle ones.

It’s unclear how much United intends to charge for these perfectly ordinary seats.

But it’s just one more little tippytoey step toward every single seat on the plane enjoying some sort of extra fee. Unless, that is, you have what airlines call status.

And no, of course United isn’t alone in this latest little money-grab. As Zach Honig reports at the Points Guy, Delta’s been at this for some time.

A concomitant joy of all this is, of course, ensuring Basic Economy more differentiated.

With this Sub-Cattle Class fare, your seat is assigned at the last minute, you can’t upgrade you board last and you can’t even bring a real carry-on with you. 

Now, though, the price difference between it and what used to be many normal, ordinary Economy Class seats will expand.

Please consider, though, all the new euphemistic terms the airline may now have to invent to define almost every row on the plane.

Somewhat Preferred Economy.

Occasionally Preferred Economy.

Sub-Preferred Economy.

Middle Class Economy.

Not Your Ordinary Economy.

Parsimonious Economy.

And somewhere, a United Airlines executive smiled and poured himself a prosecco.

Google Just Released Some Staggering Research That Should Shock Every Business

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Everyone’s venal, right?

We all love free, we all have a price and we all want to believe we’re getting the better end of the deal.

This is America. Frankly, we’re all about the Franklins.

You see, so many businesses — especially in the travel arena — believe there’s no point getting to a customer’s heart when you can constantly appeal to their wallet.

So priority is given to loyalty programs over, say, the essential elements of service.

Bribe them and you’ve got them is the general marketing motto.

Oddly, customers are (still) human.

So when the large brains from Google and research consultancy Greenberg asked frequent travelers what was the most important thing when booking travel, respondents didn’t answer loyalty programs.

60 percent said customer service.

You know, the truly basic essence of being able to find help, guidance and, dare I even mention it, humanity.

Loyalty programs didn’t even come among the top three.

Second, at 55 percent, was an easy-to-use website. Third, at 50 percent, was a quite staggering response: online reviews.

The mere thought that people go by the questionable witterings of someone on TripAdvisor makes me shudder to the point of my top teeth attacking the ones beneath.

Loyalty programs staggered in a pitiful fourth, with a mere 46 percent believing they’re so important.

The researchers dug deeper. 

They concluded that there are two sorts of loyalty.

One, they call attitudinal loyalty. This encapsulates the sort of loyalty people claim to feel.

Then there’s behavioral loyalty. 

Now that’s the sort that shows whether they really act on their alleged feelings.

You know, the type felt by Apple fanpersons who’ll buy any product Cupertino emits, regardless of its actual worth to them.

The type felt by those who’ll go out of their way to find a Wendy’s rather than a McDonald’s. 

When it comes to travel brands, there’s a troubling twist. 

Humans behave more loyally toward airlines than toward hotels.

Of course they do.

The joyous cartel that allows more than 80 percent of all airline seats to be owned by just four airlines means that passengers don’t have remotely the sort of choice they do with hotels.

And it’s not as if there’s an AIRbnb. If you catch my (continental) drift.

Both airlines have a reputation for not offering much customer service at all. 

This is in contrast to the other two big airlines — Delta and Southwest — which breed more lasting loyalty. They’re known for a more pronounced customer service bent.

Though this research was specifically targeted toward the travel industry, its learnings are surely applicable to most businesses.

Too many think they can compete on price and efficiency.

Too few stop to think about how it feels to interact with the brand.

Then they look around at the likes of Apple and accuse it of reality distortion, instead of understanding that Apple stops to think about human feelings before doing anything. 

I can’t help thinking about American Airlines’ entertainingly myopic CEO Doug Parker.

How are American’s financials currently? Not so good, I understand.

Elon Musk Is Broken, and We Have Broken Him

Of all the striking things about the interview with Elon Musk The New York Times published Thursday night—the tears, the lack of regrets over certain tweets, the fact that rapper Azealia Banks may somehow be part of Tesla’s financial future—was Musk’s claim that he’d be ready to abandon his role as Tesla CEO and chairman.

“If you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know. They can have the job,” he told the paper. “Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.”

On the surface, the implication—nobody else can do this—is nonsense. Lots of people could run Tesla. Starting with the hundreds of capable executives at the world’s automakers, most of which are larger, more efficient, and more profitable than Tesla. Go a bit deeper though, and you find the truth of the sentiment. Sure, someone might be a better CEO. But there’s no replacing Elon Musk. Because the man is not just a CEO. To many, the man is a legend.

Start with the tale of Tesla. When the company launched in 2003, car salesmen were stocking up on the 12-mpg Hummer H2. The most popular battery-powered vehicles were golf carts. The American auto industry is famously brutal to newcomers, and the idea of one succeeding with electric vehicles racked up the lolz. For years, skeptics waited to bury Tesla alongside Tucker, DeLorean, Fisker. Musk defied them. He made electric cars capable (and sort of self-driving). He made them easy to charge (on an infrastructure he built). But most importantly, he made them desirable. Owning a Tesla became a status symbol; about 400,000 people are on a waiting list to own the Model 3. The entire venture proved you didn’t have to be GM or Ford or Chrysler to make cars in America. And you didn’t have to be BMW or Mercedes or Lexus to make luxury cars appealing to Americans.

Simultaneously, Musk was running SpaceX. Under his leadership, the commercial space company defied entrenched aviation giants like Boeing by breaking into the rocket science business. Musk promised to colonize Mars. As his side hustles, he wished a hyperloop industry into creation, dabbled in artificial intelligence, and won a contract to dig tunnels under Chicago.

And all along the way, much of the world cheered him on. Musk graced magazine covers. He inspired songs. He went on talk shows, appeared on The Simpsons and South Park, made Page Six headlines. Sure, he had a sizable ego (who wouldn’t?) and habit of belittling those who doubted or opposed him (haters!), but the public largely forgave him these minor transgressions given his major skills in proposing big, bold ideas, and delivering on them.

But over the past year, this goodwill has started to fade. Much of that erosion can be traced to Musk’s greatest business struggle: the mass production of the $35,000 Model 3 sedan. The car Tesla had long promised, the vehicle that would bring clean driving to the masses and profits to shareholders, that would make Tesla a real automaker. As ever, Musk set ambitious goals and deadlines. As ever, he missed them. A few times over. Investors were used to this, but the company’s future hinged on the Model 3, a reality that evidently intensified the pressure, especially as the production process hit one snag after another. “This past year has been the most difficult and painful year of my career,” Musk told the Times. “It was excruciating.” He didn’t contain the pain. In the first half of 2018, he raged at the media, insulted financial analysts during a public call with investors, and attacked the National Transportation Safety Board—the Mr. Rogers of federal agencies.

Then, in the final week of June, at the very end of the second quarter, Tesla finally hit its goal of building more than 5,000 Model 3s in a single week (5,031, to be exact), the point at which Musk believes revenue from sales will outweigh the cost of production, and lead to profitability. The automaker has started to offer more versions of the car, indicating it was confident it could keep up the pace. Investors’ confidence in Musk seemed, at long last, justified.

It should have eased the pressure. But Musk kept finding himself the center of unwanted attention. In July, he railed against those saying his efforts to assist in the rescue of a group of boys trapped in a cave in Thailand were more self-aggrandizing than serious. When a diver who helped with the effort insulted him, Musk called him “pedo guy.” (He later apologized.) The same week, he struggled to explain why he donated about $40,000 to a Republican political action committee, given that many Republicans are climate change deniers. None of this inspired confidence in Musk, but Model 3s kept coming off the production line. Investors will forgive a lot if they make their money.

Last week, though, Musk’s erratic behavior and his taste for Twitter struck a blow not just to his reputation, but to his company. On Tuesday, he tweeted that he was considering taking Tesla private, and he had the necessary funding “secured.” The automaker’s stock price shot up, as did eyebrows at the Securities and Exchange Commission. Especially when Musk revealed a few days later that by “secured,” he meant not exactly secured. The SEC is investigating, and serious fines are a possibility. Angered investors have filed four lawsuits—so far. “As a result of Defendants’ materially false and misleading statements, as well as their market manipulation, Tesla securities purchasers were injured to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars,” one reads.

The pressure to perform has eased, but its effects, it seems, endure. Musk cares deeply about what people think of him and his companies. His harsh reactions to negative press often beget more of the same, a surely unsettling shift from the years of mostly adoring coverage he received, of the publicly validated self-worth he must have come to expect. And while he retains a loyal army of Twitter followers, his mantle as a Renaissance Superman, gifted by an enthralled public—and media—is slipping.

In his interview with the Times, Musk said that in terms of Tesla’s operations, the worst is over. “But from a personal pain standpoint,” he said, “the worst is yet to come.” This bodes ill not just for his investors, but for everyone who thinks cars should be fun to drive and good for the planet, who wants to explore space, who believes in a better future.

Musk, then, is Hercules remixed. The greatest of Greek heroes performed his famed labors as penance for killing his children in a fit of insanity. Musk has completed his own labors, landing rockets on boats and delivering a wonderful, affordable, electric car. But the effort seems to have left him mad. And now he threatens to destroy what he has created.


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PK360 Grill & Smoker Review: Well-Built Cooking Excellence

It may have arrived at my home in a box delivered by FedEx, but from the moment I saw it, I wondered if the grill I was testing hadn’t been shipped directly from the set of some 1960s sci-fi television series.

Like no grill I’ve ever seen, the PK360 Grill & Smoker by PK Grills is a cast-aluminum clamshell perched on a base that may have been inspired by the octopods from Arrival. Two semi-elliptical tables clamp firmly onto the sides, a wire rail around them giving the whole thing a “rings of Saturn” look.

As visually striking as it is, the most impressive feature of this grill is the clear amount of thought that went into its creation. As I assembled it, then cooked one tasty meal after another, I kept imagining a circle of designers and engineers sitting around and puzzling their way through problem after problem: How can we clamp the lid down tight and position vents to help hold the temperature steady during long cooks? How can we make this an effective grill and smoker? How can we reengineer a hinge?

What they came up with melds some of the best characteristics of charcoal grills and smokers.

You can certainly dump a pile of hot coals in the middle and grill some steaks directly over them in what’s known as “direct grilling.” But with two vents on top, two below, and a rectangular grill grate, you can put the coals off to one side, allowing you to create two “zones,” one for direct grilling, and the other—opposite the embers—for “indirect grilling,” where the lid is down and you use the grill like an oven or smoker.

I was visiting family in New Hampshire while testing the PK360. I started with a whole chicken, cutting the bird in pieces, getting the internal temperature close to done in low heat in the indirect zone, then opening the lid and moving the parts directly over the hot coals just long enough to crisp up the skin. Then I fully opened the lower vents to increase the oxygen flow and really let the coals rip, allowing me to sear a bunch of asparagus. I lost a few too many spears through the stainless-steel grill grate, whose bars are a bit too far apart for my tastes, but for a first run with a new-to-me grill, I was mighty pleased.

The next day, I started steaks in the indirect zone, then rested them on a tray while I grilled a pile of veggies and some shrimp. Once the coals were ripping hot, I seared the steak.

Frankly, I could have done better—the steaks slipped from medium rare to medium in my pursuit of a good, hard sear, but that error was the result of me getting used to the grill. They were still great. And as my grill-guru friend Dave reminded me, “Every time you cook over coals, it’s a little different.”

I Need to Vent

Cooking the food on the indirect side meant I also got to familiarize myself with the vents, a phrase that even in my profession, I never imagined writing. I became proficient at adjusting the heat with the vents under the coals and above the indirect side, guiding the smoke diagonally through the grill’s interior and across the surface of the food by keeping the other two vents shut.

PK Grills

While you’ve seen versions of the 360’s top vents on other grills, the lower vents (PK calls them “air intake cylinders”) are ingenious. Each side employs an aluminum tube with three holes that slides into the body of the grill beneath three corresponding holes. Twist the end of the tubes like throttles to let ‘er rip or slow to a crawl. Combine the tubes with the firm-closing lid and I quickly learned how well they allowed me to control the heat, a quality on full display as I made my next dinner.

I was excited to have ribs on the menu. I had some applewood chunks to toss on the coals and a nice rub for the ribs themselves. Eight family members were looking forward to that smoky flavor and falling-off-the-bone goodness. and that’s about where I read into my first notable problem: the grill’s not huge. The 360 in its name denotes the number of square inches of its cooking surface, and that’s not a large enough number for slow-cooked ribs for eight; I fiddled around for a while trying to get the geometry to work and never came up with something that allowed for proper “two-zone” cooking, even with the coals nudged up against one of the sidewalls. I ended up buying a rib holder (a stainless rack that holds several sets of baby backs vertically), cutting the racks in half, and cooking two racks’ worth in the oven.

During the cook, the temperature control was excellent—not set-it-and-forget-it, but more like “just check in on it every hour or two and maybe slightly adjust a vent while you’re there.” Impressively, it was so efficient that after an afternoon of grilling, it had only used about a half of a charcoal chimney’s worth of briquettes.

The ribs it did make were splendid. After cooking away for hours, they had a lovely pink smoke ring around the edge and a nice, dark bark. My gang was a happy gang.

One of the things I really learned to appreciate was having a quality thermometer built into the lower left side of the lid. While most grills with built-in thermometers mount them rather uselessly near the top of the lid, the PK’s is just above grate level. Made by Tel-Tru, it passed a calibration test with flying colors and the readings it got compared to my “air probe” thermometer I mounted next to it during most of my cooking were so similar that I found there wasn’t much need for the air probe at all.

I’d also really come to admire how solid and well-designed the whole grill is. The hinge is an ingenious set of thick, interlocking tabs. The top and bottom edges are hand-ground. When it shuts, it feels like you’re sealing a bank vault closed.

Slow and Low

Throughout my testing, I’d been consulting several books, most notably Meathead Goldwyn’s Meathead and I was happy to have that book as a guide for one of barbecue’s big enchiladas: brisket.

Cut from the hard-working pectoral muscles of a cow, brisket is an all-day cook that tests (and exposes) any grill or smoker’s strengths and weaknesses. Having a potentially too-small grill and definitely fewer people than I needed for a full-sized brisket, I bought a 6.5-pound point cut—the fattier, more tender of the two muscle groups in a whole brisket. Like with the ribs, I’d head out to the grill every once in a while and make the occasional vent adjustment, but that cast-aluminum design kept me within 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit of the target temperature all day long—better temperature control than some electric ovens!

When the meat temperature plateaued at around 160 degrees Fahrenheit, a problem commonly known as “the stall,” I was ready, having encountered it last summer. I wrapped the meat in foil to keep the temperature rising toward the target internal temperature of 205 degrees. It did, but then it stalled out again in the mid 190s and I realized the brisket wasn’t going be done by dinnertime. My mom, having run into similar problems with my cooking adventures in the past had already begun rooting around in the fridge, preparing a sort of leftover smorgasbord for dinner.

Thanks, mom!

I later checked in with Meathead himself who assured me that a “second stall” is a common problem, likely because I hadn’t wrapped the brisket tightly enough in foil.

After dinner, I played cards with my brother-in-law Ben as the meat continued to cook. After a couple of hours, it was midnight, Ben had skunked me twice at cribbage, and I was ready for bed. I pulled the brisket at 196 degrees, and packed it into cooler, a trick that Meathead suggests to do for two hours to “allow the internal temperature to even out and the collagens to continue to melt.”

The next morning, I was up at sunrise to fish with my dad and nephew Eli, and stopped on the way to the dock to cut off a few “test” slices. Just lifting the brisket from the cooler, I was optimistic as the beef had a sort of pillowy spring to it that I’d only ever encountered in the unbelievable beef ribs I tried at La Barbecue in Austin, Texas. Cutting slices across the grain, I knew the results were going to be outstanding.

I brought a few slices down to the dock on a paper plate for Eli, dad and I. While I’m not usually the kind of guy who eats a day’s worth of beef before the sun rises, the three of us got an early snack of some on the best food I’ve ever cooked.

Meat Machine

My quibbles with the 360 were minor. If you’re frequently cooking for more than a couple of people, particularly if you’re cooking larger or longer cuts of meat, you’ll want a bigger model, and that isn’t an option. The interior bottom of the grill is not easy to clean; The manual says you can just hose it out, and I did, but there was some gunk in there that didn’t want to be blasted loose.

A little more troubling was the odd choice of the shallow grids etched into the tops of the side tables. While I was able to cut a bone-in chicken breast in two with nary a wobble, that crosshatching was hard to clean and felt like a breeding ground for salmonella. If you’re willing to shell out an additional $200, the teak side tables are smooth. The heavy-duty wheels were stout little buggers, but they’re way too small, making a roll across the deck more bumpy of an adventure than it needs to be.

I was surprised to not find a tiny notch between the top and bottom edges for a thermometer probe cable or two. There are utensil hooks, but they’re on the back of the grill, which means you won’t be hanging your tongs or spatula from them while you cook. My mom pointed out that you could buy some little “S” hooks and hang them from the rail beneath the side tables, which would solve the problem. Finally, taking the base apart clearly didn’t happen the way it’s supposed to, as the pole that holds the grill in place got stuck in the base, an issue a company rep acknowledged. My dad and I had to get creative with a hammer to get the parts separated.

Really though, I loved cooking with the PK360. It’s a durable and works so well at both at both grilling and smoking that it doesn’t feel like it cut corners in a successful quest to do both well. It’s efficient and well-thought out to the point that one afternoon I just stared at it, wondered what, if anything, would break first, and couldn’t come up with much. It’s built to last for decades.

I found the grill to be extraordinary, and if you’re looking for an all-in-one grill/smoker that’s going to last and keep you happy for years, it’d be hard to find one better than the PK360.

Food writer Joe Ray (@joe_diner) is a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of The Year, a restaurant critic, and author of “Sea and Smoke” with chef Blaine Wetzel.

The Healthiest Healthcare REITs

The U.S. Census Bureau categorizes Baby Boomers as individuals born between 1946 and 1964, and the effects of having to care for such a large group will be felt in many areas.

By 2029, when the last round of Boomers reaches retirement age, the number of Americans 65 or older will climb to more than 71 million, up from about 41 million in 2011, a 73 percent increase, according to Census Bureau estimates.

As Ventas CEO Debra Cafaro points out, “we know that the silver wave of the over 75 population will experience a net gain of 70 million individuals between 2020 and 2035, boarding well for our business and giving us confidence in the future while we manage through current operating condition.”

According to CBRE’s 2018 U.S. Real Estate Market Outlook, the aging U.S. population will be a significant tailwind for medical office demand in the years ahead.

We expect demand for medical office buildings to grow, fueled by a shift away from the delivery of patient services on hospital campuses, the adoption of new technology, the aging population, healthcare job growth, tight market conditions and the relative recession-resistance of these properties,” said Andrea Cross, Americas head of office research, CBRE.

The medical office market has performed well in recent years, registering a lower peak vacancy rate than traditional office properties during the 2008 recession and showing a steady decline in vacancy during the recovery. Net absorption has outpaced new supply in 24 of the past 29 quarters, with particularly large imbalances since 2015.

Gross asking rents have been stable, reflecting consistent user demand and long lease terms that limit tenant turnover. New medical space completions have also been low relative to pre-recession levels, and the amount of space under construction has decreased slightly from the Q2 2016 peak. Chris Bodnar, vice chairman, Healthcare, CBRE Capital Markets, explains:

“Investment trends reflect strong medical-office market fundamentals and a broadening pool of interested investors. While uncertainty about healthcare policy poses a risk to the medical office market, favorable demographic trends point to continued strong healthcare demand, regardless of any policy changes.”

The core business of healthcare is inherently driven by demand for patient care, providing a stable foundation to support investment in the sector. The need for more facilities and services to manage the chronic illnesses of this aging population will be a major driver for growth.

Despite the controversy around these and future changes to reimbursement, healthcare is a required service that will continue to need real estate assets, and REITs provide an excellent vehicle for healthcare providers to become more efficient by partnering with “healthy” capitalized companies.

(Photo Source)

The Healthiest Healthcare REITs

So, shoulders back, chin up, deep breath… here’s a handful of hearty and healthy healthcare REITs:

HEALTHY HEALTHCARE REIT #1: Ventas Inc. (NYSE:VTR)

The Big WHY: Champion, diversified healthcare REIT with deliberately constructed portfolio of more than 1,200 assets

Feathers in its Cap: Focused on high-quality real estate well located in attractive markets (with high barriers to entry). Partners with top operators in each asset class – sector leaders, well-positioned for growth. Properties in U.S., Canada, United Kingdom. Portfolio: Senior Housing 62%, Medical Office 20%, Life Science 7%, Health Systems 5%, IRFs/LTACs 2%, Skilled Nursing 1%.

Downsides: Though skilled nursing triple net is 1% of NOI, VTR experienced continued decline in Genesis’s (NYSE:GEN) performance given ongoing industry SNF headwinds.

Performance YTD: 1.2%.

Alpha Insider Management Update: The company’s investments across the healthcare real estate spectrum provide sustainable, growing cash flow during strong economic cycles and resilience during downturns.

Bottom Line: VTR has the absolutely best credit profile and balance sheet. Its net debt-to-EBITDA ratio now stands at an excellent 5.3x and debt-to-assets is also robust at 36%. Substantial dry powder ($3.1 billion on credit facility) for any M&A. Successful history of dividend performance, and growth profile, current yield 5.38%. Payout ratio 78% on FFO. STRONG BUY (as in “buy, and hold onto this one!”)

HEALTHY HEALTHCARE REIT #2: LTC Properties, Inc. (NYSE:LTC)

The Big WHY: Triple net leases primarily in senior housing and healthcare properties via joint ventures, sale-leaseback transactions, mortgage financing, preferred equity, mezzanine lending.

Feathers in its Cap: In business over 25 years. Enterprise value as of June 30 over $2.1 billion. Holds 199 investments in nearly balanced capital allocation: assisted living communities (102, includes independent living & memory care communities), skilled nursing centers (96), and behavioral healthcare hospital. Located in 28 states. Funds From Operations (FFO): $29.6 million for Q2-18, compared with $31.4 million Q2-17 (per diluted common share $0.75 and $0.79).

Downsides: Decreases in Q2-18 results mostly due to defaulted master lease on cash basis in third quarter 2017 and reduction in rental income related to properties sold the past year.

Performance YTD: 6.2%.

Alpha Insider Management Update: Sold portfolio of six assisted living and memory care communities at a net gain of $48.3 million. Completed acquisition of two memory care communities in Texas for $25.2 million with 10-year master lease and 7.25% initial cash yield. Entered into partnership for properties in Medford, OR, and opened new facility in Illinois. New unsecured credit agreement has the opportunity to increase to $1.0 billion.

Bottom Line: Rated as a STRONG BUY. Dividend payout ratio of 76%, yielding 5.09%.

HEALTHY HEALTHCARE REIT #3: Healthcare Trust of America, Inc. (NYSE:HTA)

The Big WHY: Largest dedicated owner and operator of 450 medical office buildings (MOBs) in the U.S. (33 states), across more than 24 million square feet. Over $7 billion invested.

Feathers in its Cap: Provides real estate infrastructure for integrated delivery of healthcare services in highly desirable locations, targeted to build critical mass in 20-25 leading gateway markets generally with leading university and medical institutions, to support a strong, long-term demand for quality medical office space. Q2-18 FFO increased 55.8% to $84.4 million (Q2-17 comparison), or per diluted share +33.3%, to $0.40. During Q2-18, new and renewed leases on approximately 1.0 million square feet (4.2% of portfolio). Tenant retention rate of 86%. Occupancy rate of 90.9%. The company just increased its dividend by 1.6% (payable October 5).

Downsides: MOB is out of favor with institutions, yet sector rotation can provide attractive opportunities for intelligent REIT investors.

Performance YTD: -1.0%.

Alpha Insider Management Update: (“BBB” balance sheet) Announced new development in key gateway market (Miami), and commenced two redevelopments, including on-campus MOB in Raleigh, NC. Sell agreements: Greenville, South Carolina MOB portfolio, $294.3 million. Total leverage 31.8% (debt less cash and cash equivalents to total capitalization). Total liquidity end of quarter $1.0 billion. During Q2, paid down $96.0 million on $286.0 million promissory note in Duke acquisition.

Bottom Line: Founded in 2006 and NYSE-listed in 2012, HTA’s returns have outperformed those of the S&P 500 and US REIT indices. 75% payout ratio, dividend 4.28%. STRONG BUY.

HEALTHY HEALTHCARE REIT #4: Welltower Inc. (NYSE:WELL)

The Big WHY: The operating environment for seniors housing remains challenging, but the benefit of owning a premier major urban market-focused portfolio is attractive. WELL’s operating portfolio continues to show the resiliency expected from the premier operators in top markets and submarkets.

Feathers in its Cap: The REIT’s Q2-18 closing balance sheet position was strong with $215 million of cash and equivalents and $2.5 billion of capacity under the primary unsecured credit facility. The leverage metrics were at robust levels, with net debt-to-adjusted EBITDA of 5.4x and net debt-to-undepreciated book capitalization ratio of 35.6%, while the adjusted fixed charge cover ratio remained strong at 3.5x. WELL increased the normalized FFO range to $3.99-4.06 per share from $3.95-4.05 per share prior.

Downsides: QCP, and partnering with ProMedica is a pretty unique transaction that provides integration and complexity risk.

Performance YTD: 5.9%.

Alpha Insider Management Update: Strong balance sheet with investment grade credit ratings from Moody’s (Baa1), Standard & Poor’s (BBB+), and Fitch (BBB+).

Bottom Line: 5.33% dividend yield, and we are updating from a HOLD to a BUY.

HEALTHY HEALTHCARE REIT #5: Physicians Realty Trust (NYSE:DOC)

The Big WHY: The most important factor in accessing the quality of a medical office building is the health system affiliation, credit quality to tenant, age of the building, occupancy, market share as a tenant, average remaining lease term, size of the building, and the client services and mix of services in the facility. Around 88% of DOC’s growth space is on campus and/or affiliated with a healthcare system.

Feathers in its Cap: DOC’s disciplined approach to investments continues to improve portfolio metrics, narrowing the gap with competitors at an aggressive pace. For example, the company has just 4.4% of leases expiring through 2022 (the peer average is 11.8%).

Downsides: Same as HTA – institutional investors have rotated out of the MOB sector. Also, DOC has yet to increase its dividend.

Performance YTD: -1.4%.

Alpha Insider Management Update: The REIT’s balance sheet metrics remain strong, with debt-to-firm value of 34% and net debt-to-EBITDA of 5.5x. DOC is extremely well-positioned in the rising rate environment. 99% of debt is at a fixed interest rate or is completely hedged, with no significant maturities until 2023.

Bottom Line: DOC’s dividend yields 5.36%, and it’s a STRONG BUY.

(Source: F.A.S.T. Graphs)

Note: We will be providing a detailed SWAN (sleep well at night) research report in the upcoming (September) edition of the Forbes Real Estate Investor.

Note: Brad Thomas is a Wall Street writer, and that means he is not always right with his predictions or recommendations. That also applies to his grammar. Please excuse any typos, and be assured that he will do his best to correct any errors, if they are overlooked.

Finally, this article is free, and the sole purpose for writing it is to assist with research, while also providing a forum for second-level thinking. If you have not followed him, please take five seconds and click his name above (top of the page).

Disclosure: I am/we are long ACC, AVB, BHR, BPY, BRX, BXMT, CCI, CHCT, CIO, CLDT, CONE, CORR, CTRE, CXP, CUBE, DEA, DLR, DOC, EPR, EQIX, ESS, EXR, FRT, GEO, GMRE, GPT, HASI, HT, HTA, INN, IRET, IRM, JCAP, KIM, KREF, KRG, LADR, LAND, LMRK, LTC, MNR, NNN, NXRT, O, OFC, OHI, OUT, PEB, PEI, PK, PSB, PTTTS, QTS, REG, RHP, ROIC, SBRA, SKT, SPG, SRC, STAG, STOR, TCO, TRTX, UBA, UMH, UNIT, VER, VICI, VNO, VNQ, VTR, WPC.

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.

Despite Not Winning a Championship in a Decade, Tiger Woods Shows Exactly How to Adopt a Winner's Mindset

Top performers such as LeBron James, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Tiger Woods have a way of captivating our attention no matter what they’re doing. This concept was on full display recently as Tiger Woods was close to winning another major at the PGA Championship.

Normally winning championships and Tiger Woods are synonymous with each other, but Tiger Woods hasn’t won a major in a decade. In fact, he’s been fairly irrelevant from a perspective of actual contention.

Nevertheless, seeing Woods recent resurgence over the last two major championships reminded me of why he’s still one of sports biggest stars. In fact, if you peel back some layers, you’ll see that Tiger Woods is teaching us about mental toughness and how to adopt a winners mindset with these four principles.

1. Being yourself is more than enough.

In today’s world (especially on Instagram), it seems that there are a plethora of individuals who seemingly have it all. In fitness, it’s the perfectly sculpted body that is on display. In business, it’s another story of someone making six-figures in 3 months. And at the beginning of his journey, Woods was a mythical figure who couldn’t do any wrong.

As we all know, this period of seeming invincibility came to a screeching halt with multiple incidents. Woods plummeted down and struggled massively in both life and his sport. But, this very fall from grace made Woods more relatable to everyone.

I make mistakes each day. Many of you reading this make plenty of mistakes on a daily basis. And now, we saw that Tiger Woods even makes mistakes.

Just as Tiger owned up to his mistakes, it’s imperative that you own up to your mistakes when you make them. While the initial inclination is to feel you’ll lose business, trust, or connection–the opposite will happen.

You’ll garner more respect because you’re being authentic and truthful.

2. Be willing to admit your mistakes.

If Tiger continued to deny all of those past mistakes and deflect them onto everyone else, he wouldn’t have earned back the public’s trust and support.

Looking at the Tiger Woods situation reminds me of a lesson I was told as a teenager which stated that “It can take years to build a strong and powerful reputation, but all of that can be wiped away with one irrational decision.”

However, he also reminded me of the second part of the equation, “People are forgiving even to those who make the biggest of mistakes if they feel they’ve learned their lesson and are truly sincere with their apologies.”

Just as the human life is fragile, our reputations and businesses are fragile. Mistakes are bound to happen, but how will you respond? Anything other than taking extreme ownership of the situation isn’t good enough.

If you’re sulking in your mistakes and not dealing well with the scrutiny, take solace in the fact that the world loves comeback stories. A good second act and redemption arc are more than possible.

But people will only give you the chance of rewriting the script if you’re completely transparent and upfront with what you did.

3. Sometimes taking steps back is the only way to go forward.

If you look at the world from a purely superficial standpoint, you may be inclined to think that success is a straight line projection upward. However, achieving success is anything but a linear climb upward. Instead, success is filled with many dips and setbacks along the trek upward.

Between injuries and missing the cut at 15 of the previous 18 majors, Woods efforts to climb back to the top is teaching us that the journey is anything but pretty. During this time, Woods had to make some changes to his game which may have been tough to adjust to in the short run, but will provide big dividends in the long run.

As you go about your journey, don’t be afraid to take steps back in the short term because often times, that’s a necessary action needed to ensure a more fruitful future.

Hybrid cloud a key milestone on the road to cloud storage

The volume of digital data stored globally is expected to reach something like 163ZB (zettabytes) by 2025, but despite the rapid growth of cloud computing, only a tiny fraction of that data is currently stored in the cloud.

According to Raj Bala, a research director at analyst group Gartner, cloud storage accounts for just a fraction of 1% of all digital data. Cloud-based data storage is, of course, certain to grow.

The challenge for CIOs is to choose the workloads that lend themselves to data storage in the cloud and to plan for the movement of data between or back from cloud storage providers.

“There are two common errors around cloud storage,” says Bala. “That the public cloud is a cheap dumping ground for data, and that it’s easy to integrate tiering of data to the cloud.”

In fact, with current technology, cloud storage can be complex and surprisingly expensive. Things are also complicated by the different approaches to cloud storage by the main cloud providers.

“Microsoft has always aggressively positioned Azure storage as an extension of on-premise storage,” says Edwin Yuen, analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. “AWS [Amazon Web Services] is more focused on migrating storage into the cloud to be used by cloud-based solutions. And we have seen a surging effort by Google to work with partners to leverage Google Storage.”

Cloud storage barriers

At the most basic level, moving data to the cloud is a simple enough process.

Raw storage capacity is available from Google, AWS and Microsoft Azure, as well as a host of smaller providers. Even long-established enterprise storage companies now allow customers to buy storage capacity with a credit card.

NetApp, for example, does this with Azure NetApp Files. But integrating cloud storage with existing IT infrastructure, or with cloud-based compute instances, is much harder.

CIOs considering moving storage to the cloud need to consider data formats, the ease – or otherwise – of integration with applications, and bandwidth.

So far, the most mature part of the cloud storage market is backup and recovery, and archiving.

These use cases involve relatively few data movements, and some providers offer data ingress free of charge. Long-term archiving in the cloud can be cheap: IBM charges as little as ¢0.2 per gigabyte for archiving. And for backup, cloud can provide resilience and recovery times that exceed local provision, at a much lower cost.

“Backup can be costly, but you can do the same at a cheaper price and with a better recovery time objective (RTO) in the cloud,” says Rahul Gupta, a business technology expert at PA Consulting Group.

However, some storage systems and cloud storage gateways use proprietary data formats rather than formats native to local, or cloud-based applications. This reduces data portability, and will slow down transfers as data is converted when transferred to the cloud. Organisations with highly sensitive or critical data might be concerned about data integrity.

Storage is also a bandwidth-intensive use of the cloud. According to Gartner’s Bala, a business that generates 1TB (terabyte) of new data a day would need a 10Gbps link to transfer it. “That is a lot for a single use case and workload,” he warns.

The distance between applications and their data is also a potential barrier. This applies to conventional, on-premise business applications, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), and cloud-based applications such as analytics and machine learning. Data is best kept close to compute resources.

“People recognise data is a bit sticky, and wants to stay where it’s born,” says Alex McDonald, a director of SNIA Europe. “People are moving compute to where the data is. Some people are moving data to cloud, as they’ve moved compute to the cloud.”

The distance between applications and their data is a potential barrier. This applies to on-premise business applications and cloud-based applications. Data is best kept close to compute resources

This trend is set to accelerate, as more software suppliers move to a cloud-centric or cloud-only offering. This will generate ever-larger volumes of data in the cloud, but businesses still face the challenge of integrating legacy data with cloud-based applications and updating storage architectures so that they can tap into cloud storage as its economies of scale improve.

Suppliers make cloud a tier

Storage providers are updating their on-premise and datacentre storage systems for greater compatibility with the cloud. This includes conventional storage arrays and network-attached storage (NAS) systems, as well as software-defined storage architectures.

The model is to allow bulk storage to stay on-site – or in a private cloud – and to hand off storage to a cloud-based provider where it makes sense to do so. This way, IT departments should be able to deploy more cloud storage as the economic and practical barriers fall.

For this to work, however, organisations need to adopt a hybrid model for their data storage and, most likely, a multi-vendor or hybrid model for their cloud provision. And CIOs need to consider supplier lock-in, as well as cost, when it comes to assessing their market.

Current generation hardware, although cloud compatible, uses proprietary rather than cloud-native protocols. The only way to retrieve data is to bring it back to on-site storage, with all the associated hardware and data exit fees. The business benefit of cloud storage needs to be sufficient, to outweigh these costs.

“Whether businesses should consider a multi-cloud strategy will depend on their maturity,” says PA Consulting’s Gupta. “When you are building solutions, look what happens when you move [the data] to someone else.”

From blue lipstick to Facebook Live, home shopping networks refine their pitch

WEST CHESTER, Pa. (Reuters) – The Home Shopping Network is getting an image makeover.

A studio set is seen at the QVC Studio Park in West Chester, Pennsylvania, U.S., June 4, 2018. Picture taken June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid.

A U.S. television network where shoppers can buy everything from electronics to kitchen gadgets, the Home Shopping Network is overhauling its lineup to offer more beauty products while adding streamed video content to win over shoppers without cable TV.

A division of Qurate Retail Group, the network is facing growing competition from Amazon Inc. and Evine Live Inc for consumers like 24-year old Erin Bounds, who regard buying products through TV shows a relic of the past.

“Someone who is 24 doesn’t have the time nor desire to watch an hour-long show about a piece of jewelry or a vacuum when they can get an answer and the product quicker and probably cheaper on Amazon,” said Bounds, a resident of Ellicott City, Maryland.

For decades, the main difference to shoppers between HSN and Qurate’s other shopping network, QVC, typically came down to variations in branding and merchandise, with HSN selling more electronics. Qurate acquired HSN in late 2017 for $2.1 billion so the two shopping networks could join forces to better compete against Amazon and its home-shopping-style online video promotions.

Qurate executives told Reuters they now are culling HSN’s core merchandise offerings to eliminate many higher-priced electronics and some home goods, such as vacuum cleaners and blenders.

Host Sloane Glass sells beauty products during a Facebook live event at the QVC Studio Park in West Chester, Pennsylvania, U.S., June 4, 2018. Picture taken June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Instead, they are adding more niche cosmetic and apparel brands to help draw some distinction with QVC. They are also pushing both QVC and HSN to pursue younger shoppers with click-to-buy links on Instagram and Facebook Live for items such as earrings, shoes and Vince Camuto jeans, in a bid to spark a rebound in demand.

Second-quarter revenue at HSN declined 12 percent to $473 million from $533 million a year later the company announced Wednesday. Stock in the company, which counts media mogul John Malone as one of its largest investors, is down about 8 percent year to date, compared with a 14 percent increase for the Nasdaq index, and 64 percent increase for Amazon.com year to date.

“You’re seeing the impact of them digesting a large organization that is clearly not growing if you look at the numbers,” said Ben Claremon, partner and research analyst at investment firm Cove Street Capital, one of Qurate’s shareholders.

“There’s just not the degree of demand for home shopping products, and the desire to spend hours of the day watching them diminishes as you go down in age,” he said.

BALANCING BLUE LIPSTICK WITH BRACELETS

The new strategy is aimed at creating more distinction with the two cable channels after the merger, according to Rob Robillard, the new VP of Beauty Integration at Qurate.

In beauty, for example, one of HSN’s top selling products is Too Faced “Unicorn Tears” blue lipstick, which sells for roughly $22. One of QVC’s best products is the Doll 10 Nude lipstick with a price tag of around $25, noted Robillard.

Slideshow (20 Images)

“We were sort of hoping there would be this real big difference between HSN and QVC,” he said. “But the two are actually very similar.”

Qurate will partner with Robin Burns-McNeill, chairman of Batallure Beauty, a company specializing in brand strategy, product and package development, sourcing and manufacturing in the fragrance, cosmetics and skincare categories, to create a collection of proprietary beauty brands, the company told Reuters exclusively.

The first manufactured beauty products from this partnership are slated to launch in fall 2019 on QVC.com, and, if all goes well, the company said they would likely tap on Burns-McNeill’s shoulder to create proprietary brands for HSN as well.

They have a tall order. Amazon is the top online destination for beauty and the fifth-most-popular retailer for skincare and cosmetics, according to Coresight Research, behind leaders Walmart, CVS Health, Target Corp and Walgreens. QVC and HSN do not rank on the list.

In March 2016, Amazon launched “Style Code Live,” a daily live fashion show which has since gone off-air.

This June, Amazon unveiled Prime Wardrobe in the United States, allowing Prime members to try on clothing, shoes, and accessories before purchase. Customers have up to seven days to try their clothes on at home, and are charged only for those items they choose to keep.

Celebrity-driven shows and videos on QVC still have their upside, according to vendors such as Xcel Brands Inc Chief Executive Robert D’Loren. A QVC apparel vendor for more than six years, D’Loren cites on-air appearances of fashion designer and QVC host Isaac Mizrahi – D’Loren’s largest, most successful brand on QVC – as strategic advantage for the home shopping network.

D’Loren thinks Qurate, which currently accounts for 60 percent of Xcel’s brand volume, is well-positioned to take on competitors Amazon.com and video retailer Evine, and that it’s “only a matter of time” before millennials like Bounds give Qurate’s QVC and HSN a shot.

“There is something to tuning in, watching, having product fully demonstrated to you that is unique and has great value, and I haven’t seen that anywhere else in the market,” he said.

Editing by Vanessa O’Connell and Edward Tobin