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Are your spidey senses tingling?

Quartz reported that synthetic spider silk producer, German biotech company AMSilk has teamed with luxury-watch maker Omega on a watch strap that blends polyamide and AMSilk’s “Biosteel” synthetic. Because spider silk’s strength is comparable to steel (scientists believe it actually can stop trains), synthetic spider silk has long been the white whale of textile research. AMSilk has made silky headway in the medical and cosmetic industries. But in the apparel industry, AMSilk has only spun up prototypes, like the sneaker it made last year with Adidas... until now. Recent tech advances have finally made it possible to spin synthetic silk at scale, and the Nato watch strap marks the first commercially available product made with AMSilk’s Biosteel. "With great power comes great responsibility."

Invest to keep up with Amazon?

An article in the AFR reported that Australian retailers must make further investments in price, range and service online as sales shift from physical stores to e-commerce, warns UBS. Online spending now accounts for 9% of total retail sales, up from 7% before Amazon's arrival in December 2017 and the launch of buy-now, pay-later services such as Afterpay and Zip Money. UBS expects online penetration to reach 14% by 2023 - broadly in line with the global average - with more than a quarter of the growth (27%) driven by Amazon. UBS says that discretionary retailers in categories most exposed to Amazon will be hardest hit. Looking abroad, the evidence suggests that it's the retailers who tried to beat Amazon at its own game that failed. Businesses such as Best Buy, Nordstrom, and Lululemon Athletica have defied the media narrative to find a strong position in an Amazon-dominated world. Aussie retailers should take note.

Noni B set for wage hit

The AFR reported that fashion chain Noni B will be forced to significantly increase pay for thousands of staff after its long-expired enterprise agreement was scrapped. The company's newly acquired Speciality Fashion Group brands, including Millers, Katies, Crossroads, Autograph and Rivers, have been paying staff across 785 stores below the retail industry award for the past five years through an old EA. The EA, which expired in 2014 but continued to operate, legally permitted SFG to not pay overtime, evening or weekend penalty rates to 5,500 managers and sales assistants, giving it a significant market advantage. However, the Fair Work Commission this month ordered the EA's termination following union and employee applications and directed SFG and Noni B to move its workforce to the higher-paying award by March 4.

Smiggle turns up heat on UK landlords

The AFR reported that landlords in Australia aren't the only store-owners copping heat from Solomon Lew's Premier Investments. It's understood Premier has been in talks with landlords in the United Kingdom about rent reductions for Smiggle stores following the worst Christmas trading since the global financial crisis. According to the British Retail Consortium, retailers reported zero year-on-year total sales growth in December, the worst performance for the month since 2008, as Brexit woes exacerbated weak consumer confidence. The flat figure compared with 1.4% growth in December 2017. The reaction from beleaguered UK landlords has been similar to that in Australia - some are standing firm while others are more inclined to reduce rents in order to retain the fast-growing Smiggle brand. Smiggle, a Retail Directions client achieving tremendous success abroad, opened 36 stores in the UK and the Republic of Ireland last year, and plans to open another 20-odd, including concessions.  

New Look may have to put itself up for sale

The Guardian reported that struggling UK clothing retailer New Look may be forced to put itself up for sale in order to complete a rescue refinance. New Look, which has 500 stores, will hand bondholders up to 92% of the company in return for reducing its £1.35b debt pile to about £500m. The company closed 85 stores last year through an insolvency procedure after an annual loss of nearly £235m, which its chairman blamed on its product range becoming too young and edgy and on an ill-starred international venture. It launched the financial restructure after sales at established stores fell 5.7% in December. Experts said New Look may need to demonstrate there was no better alternative to the restructure in order to avoid any legal challenge from creditors, particularly from those holding £176m in unsecured bonds.

Intelligent automation and retail transformation

CS News reported that IBM and the NRF have released their latest joint thought leadership report, The Coming AI Revolution in Retail and Consumer Products. The report involved a global survey across 23 countries and approximately 2,000 retail industry leaders. Key findings include: 85% of retail companies and 79% of consumer products companies plan to be using intelligent automation for supply chain planning by 2021, 79% of retail and consumer products companies combined expect to be using intelligent automation for customer intelligence by 2021, and retail and consumer products executives project that intelligent automation capabilities could help increase annual revenue growth by up to 10%. In 2019, retailers and consumers will need to adapt to new retail interfaces/capabilities across AI, machine learning, 5G, blockchain and more.

Coles to overhaul distribution network

Inside Retail reported that supermarket giant Coles plans to make a $146 million pre-tax provision in its 2019 interim results as part of an overhaul of its distribution network. The supermarket chain has signed contracts with Witron Australia to develop two new automated ambient distribution centres to replace three existing dry goods facilities across Queensland and New South Wales. The provision is related to the costs of existing leases as well as redundancies from the closure of existing distribution centres over the next five years. The two centres, one of which will be based in Redbank, southwest Brisbane, and the other in Kemps Creek, western Sydney, will cost Coles a total of $950 million over six years.

ASIC: tougher Afterpay rules 'not unreasonable'

The AFR reported that ASIC said it sees some merit in arguments that buy now, pay later providers should be forced to meet responsible lending rules, to ensure consumers are not being inappropriately loaded up with debt they can not afford to repay. However, under examination by Senators on Thursday, ASIC did not go as far as saying the regulator would force regulatory change on providers like Afterpay and ZipPay. The issue of whether or not Afterpay and Zip should conduct responsible lending check, such as income testing, has also split the two providers. Zip advocates for scaled-back responsible lending requirements to be applied to buy now, pay later businesses, such as conducting credit checks. Whereas Afterpay does not support such regulation, arguing instead that giving ASIC the product intervention powers the regulator has requested is the appropriate action.

The hidden costs of online shopping

Inside Retail reported on the hidden costs of online shopping for both consumers and retailers. The article notes that “customer first” is now generally the basis of all retailer strategies. But now retailers are struggling with the consequences of the rush to meet this objective. The return rates from e-commerce are quoted as two to three times higher than those for in-store purchases. Additionally, KPMG found that the cost of handling a return can be as much as three times the cost of delivering the item in the first place. Then there are costs involved in the returns support systems and return fraud is increasing. When you add to the picture the surprising number of additional costs in being an omnichannel retailer, which materially impact margins, it begs the question: how long can the ubiquity of free returns last?  

EU fines Mastercard more than 500M euros

137 reported that the European Commission has fined Mastercard €570 million for preventing retailers from looking for better card payment terms at banks around Europe. The Commission, which monitors competition, said that Mastercard's rules prior to 2015 forced retailers to pay certain bank fees in the country they are located rather than let them shop around - ultimately increasing costs for customers. The Commission said the infringement ended after Mastercard changed its rules following the introduction of the Interchange Fee Regulation. The fine would have been higher, but Brussels reduced the amount by 10% to thank Mastercard for cooperating.

Afterpay regulatory risks fading?

The AFR reported that the potential for buy now, pay later market leader Afterpay Touch Group to be forced to adopt bank-like credit checks appears to have faded further after a Senate hearing demonstrated how policymakers are struggling to come to grips with the extraordinary rise of the company, and the wider sector. Heads of both Afterpay and its market rival Zip appeared at the first hearing of a Senate inquiry into the hot sector yesterday, and were split on whether or not the sector should be regulated to impose bank-like responsible lending checks - Afterpay is against the idea, while Zip supports it. Overall, Afterpay, Zip and FlexiGroup all want to keep working with ASIC on data collection, monitoring, and further reforms. This seems a sensible course of action, particularly considering the open banking regime will kick in in July.  

Uber to build autonomous bikes and scooters

TechCrunch reported that Uber wants to develop autonomous technology for its JUMP group, responsible for its bike and scooter-share programs. Aptly named “Micromobility Robotics,” Uber’s new unit will integrate driving and sensory tech into its vehicles to be less reliant on humans to charge them. Instead, the scooters and bikes will drive themselves to charging stations or relocate to locations with higher demand. Of course, Uber will also have to deal with local laws and, more importantly, the public. It will be intriguing to see how this project evolves.