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Deserted stores, less choice … has shopping changed for ever? | Retail industry

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After nearly two years of disruption, Covid-19 has changed how we shop for ever. It has altered not only what we buy, but how we buy it. Big purchases involve clicks, not shopping trips, and remote working has turned the home interiors market into the new fast fashion.

It has also signalled the end of overwhelming choice for consumers, analysts say, as gaps on shelves and long delivery times for items such as cars and sofas become a frustrating fact of life.

Lifestyle changes due to health or environmental concerns are also helping new services get off the ground. Investors are pouring billions into rapid grocery delivery, while buying secondhand clothes and renting furniture is entering the mainstream. On high streets, cheaper rents are starting to attract independent stores.

Here is a look at some of the big changes taking place.

Grocery shopping

The pandemic has caused major upheaval in the UK’s £212bn grocery industry. The return of the weekly shop during the strictest periods of lockdown looked as though it had saved the big supermarkets from a midlife crisis, only for an army of rapid grocery delivery firms, such as Getir, Gorillas and Jiffy, to emerge with the promise of delivering your groceries in less than half an hour.

The IGD, the trade body for the food and consumer goods industry, says this so-called quick commerce has “exploded” on to the scene and is now a “channel in its own right”. It estimates 13% of UK shoppers now use these services, with sales hitting £1.4bn this year and on track to double within five.

Bryan Roberts, an analyst at Shopfloor Insights, says the health crisis has created the kind of market conditions where people are “willing to pay a delivery fee for a 20-quid, 15-minute, delivery experience”, although he adds: “Time will tell if these models are going to be sustainable.”

The expanded online services offered by the big chains have also won millions of new customers during the pandemic, but with inflation running at a 10-year high, the sands are shifting again, with discounters such as Aldi and Lidl the likely winners in the coming months as Britons seek out cheaper stores.

There may be more ways to shop these days, but the supply chain problems in the background have prompted the major grocery brands to take a leaf out the discounters’ book and reduce their ranges to become more efficient.

Richard Wilding, professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield School of Management, says that the “abundance of choice we’ve had is going to change”.

“You used to be able to buy 60 different types of pasta in the supermarket: then, during the pandemic, manufacturers started rationalising their ranges so all of a sudden you could only get 20 types,” he says. “Having new and interesting products has traditionally been a way of creating consumer demand, but companies are basically saying ‘we’ve got to focus on the higher-margin things’.”

A Jiffy courier in his blue uniform hands a bag of items to a young man at the door of his flat
Rapid grocery deliveries by couriers such as Jiffy are an emerging threat to supermarkets. Photograph: Mark Chilvers

Working from home

The shift to home working has had such a profound impact on how we live that it has become a retail super-trend in its own right. It has altered spending priorities, as money usually spent on foreign holidays or commuting is ploughed into home furnishings and revamps.

Being home 24/7 has also resulted in an acceleration of the shift to online shopping. It took eight years for online sales to double their share of spending to 20%, but within just nine months during the pandemic, that figure touched 36% last year. This year’s easing of restrictions saw it fall back to a still substantial 26%.

“Working from home has changed both the pattern of shopping and the pattern of demand,” says Richard Hyman, an independent retail analyst. “The shape of markets like fashion, food, beauty and homewares have changed, but the question is: have they alighted on a new, permanent position? It’s still very fluid because no one knows what proportion of people are going to continue working from home.”

The profile of consumer spending has changed dramatically: for example, shoppers have spent an extra £503m in DIY stores this year, according to figures from retail data firm Kantar. Britons also took up new pastimes: 1.2 million new gardeners spent an extra £51m on plants and related paraphernalia.

“Not everybody’s job is home-based but generally the way we are socialising and shopping is much more centred around the home,” says Joanna Parman at Kantar.

“We are travelling less far at the weekend for shopping trips or to eat out. So we’re much more likely to be visiting local or independent stores than before.”

She adds: “Lots of people are divested in how they look and invested in how their home looks so it is Instagrammable and is looking nice in the background when you’re on your phone or video call. They are investing a lot more in their homes and you could argue we are seeing some ‘fast homewares’ trends coming through.”

Fashion

Britons have swapped style for comfort during the pandemic: witness the 88% increase in loungewear sales last year. The closure of high street stores for long periods forced shoppers to buy the clothes they needed online and there may be no going back.

The data firm Retail Economics estimates that half of the £51bn spent on clothing this year will have been bought on websites. Come 2025 it thinks that figure will be two-thirds of the total. This is already the case for electricals, which has been one of the fastest markets to move online.

“What’s clear from the pandemic is that we as a nation have been able to adapt and shift our behaviours, sometimes overnight,” says Parman. “There’s not a lot of policy saying we shouldn’t socialise but people have already stepped back from eating out. We drive a lot of the change in our habits and the longer they are in place, the more likely they are to stick.”

There are other big forces at work in this market too. The fashion industry is a big polluter and under growing pressure to get itself on a more sustainable footing, so more companies are experimenting with selling secondhand clothes or even renting them out, a model that has previously focused on outfits for special occasions.

The UK’s biggest clothing retailer, Marks & Spencer, is running a small trial to test demand for renting its dresses and coats – a trend that is more advanced in furniture, where the likes of John Lewis are renting out sofas, sideboards and desks.

As always, fashion-conscious teens got there first and are already spending their cash on secondhand clothes sites such as Depop and Vinted, which are reporting big sales increases. Parman thinks the clothing rental market is a “trickier” model but predicts the pre-loved fashion market will take off even more in 2022.

A teenager uses her phone to photograph a piece of clothing being held up by her friend for a secondhand clothes app
Sales have soared on secondhand clothes apps
such as Vinted and Depop.
Photograph: Photononstop/Alamy

Cars

The secondhand boom has already arrived in the car market, where soaring used car prices, up 31% since April, are stoking inflation. Usually about 2.5 million new cars a year are registered in the UK but that number sank to 1.6 million in 2020 with a similar figure expected this year as a shortage of computer chips hits production. This shortfall is one of the factors pushing up secondhand prices.

Ian Plummer, commercial director of the Auto Trader marketplace, says Covid has forced a reluctant industry to embrace the web. Buyers want to be able to do more of the legwork online, from getting a valuation for their current car to applying for finance. However, given the cost involved – in expenditure terms, a car is second only to a home for the average household – “seeing, touching, smelling” your chosen vehicle remains an important final step.

There has been some upside to the tumult, with the most recent figures showing a doubling of sales of electric vehicles. Almost 22,000 pure electric vehicles were registered in November, more than double the figure in the same month of 2020.

“A new electric vehicle launched every 10 days in the course of 2021 and there are even more cars coming next year,” says Plummer. “It’s a big shift in the market: more supply, more marketing, creating more excitement, which has been spurred on by the fuel crisis.

Stores

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has been devastating news for store-based retailers as shopper numbers tail off on what are among the most important trading days of the year in the run-up to Christmas. With the Covid crisis seemingly far from over, the jury remains out on what the long-term consequences will be for the high street.

The stream of household names that failed pre-Covid was accelerated by the lockdowns. Recent British Retail Consortium data shows the number of empty stores sitting at a record high of 14.5%.

The crisis has pulled down rents but eye-watering business rates remain a big problem that the government seems reluctant to deal with. There are glimmers of hope, though, with the same data pointing to a declining vacancy rate in some regions, as independents move in to fill the spaces left by defunct chain stores.

But there is, without question, more painful change to come. Hyman points to the £90bn of non-food sales that have moved online over the past 20 years, a period when there has been no “meaningful” reduction in store space.

“The cost of selling something in a shop is now much more expensive because you’ve got a high fixed cost base and lower sales,” he says. “When all this is over, we are still going to have too many shops and too many websites.”

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New York’s mayor is getting paid in bitcoin. But can he pay the bills with it? | Eric Adams

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New York’s new mayor gets his first paycheck on Friday – and as part of his bid to keep the city “on the forefront of innovation”, he’ll be receiving his wages in cryptocurrency.

“New York is the center of the world and we want it to be the center of cryptocurrency and other financial innovations,” Eric Adams said in a press release.

But even in the center of the world, trying to live on ethereum or bitcoin might be a struggle. The subway won’t take it, and it’s hard to fit dogecoin in the quarter slot at the laundromat. So what will Adams actually be able to do with his paycheck?

Will he be able to eat?

Yes. Getting groceries might be difficult – in 2019, Whole Foods began accepting cryptocurrency via an app-based payment system called Flexa, but a customer care representative said on Thursday that the company was not currently taking cryptocurrency.

But the vegan mayor might have better luck at restaurants. Yelp allows users to filter for restaurants that accept cryptocurrency – though calls to the spots and visits to their websites suggest some of the claims are inaccurate.

He could also use a workaround and purchase a gift card with bitcoin using one of various platforms such as Bitrefill and Fold. That could get him a coffee at Starbucks or an order through DoorDash; it also works for Amazon, Netflix and other companies.

(Adams’s cryptocurrency paycheck is itself the result of a workaround, since department of labor regulations require the city of New York to pay employees in dollars. The mayor’s office says the paycheck will “automatically be converted” to cryptocurrency before it is made available to him, using the platform Coinbase.)

That means that Adams’s paycheck must first be converted from dollars to cryptocurrency, then be converted to a gift card, and finally be used to buy a smoothie. Efficient!

Another trick: he could turn to PayPal, which lets users spend cryptocurrency for transactions (Mastercard has a similar program). But the app first converts the cryptocurrency to actual dollars – creating another pointless cycle and contributing to a system that, according to Cambridge researchers, uses more electricity per year than the country of Argentina.

Will he be able to keep the lights on?

Probably not without turning to his actual bank account. Con Edison, New York’s enormous electricity and gas utility, does not accept cryptocurrency payments, a representative said. Cryptocurrency does a great job of draining the world of energy, but using it to buy some back appears difficult.

Of course, he’ll be living in Gracie Mansion, the New York mayor’s residence – meaning, presumably, he won’t be paying these bills anyway. Nor will he have to worry about whether his landlord accepts bitcoin.

Will he be able to get anywhere?

Not if he wants to take the subway like a normal New Yorker or any other transportation provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA doesn’t accept cryptocurrency, a spokesperson said.

If he gets stuck, Adams might be able to hail an Uber using his paycheck, but it could be a long wait at the corner. Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, indicated in February that he was open to accepting bitcoin in the future, but when is unclear. In the meantime, he could buy an Uber gift card.

Will he be able to use the very internet that cryptocurrency depends on?

Again, he could have trouble. Verizon Fios, New York’s biggest internet provider, does not appear to offer a cryptocurrency option for online payments. Adams may find himself turning to his pre-mayoral savings if he wants to check the price of bitcoin.

So what will he actually do?

Adams’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But he may well just “hold on to it as an investment”, says Neeraj Agrawal, communications director at Coin Center, a non-profit focused on cryptocurrency policy. “That has become the more common use of bitcoin these days.”

Or, if he’s feeling really financially innovative, he could go totally virtual: it won’t get him a ride on the subway, but he could buy the word “MetroCard” as an NFT for the equivalent of about $30.

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The assailants were pixelated, I’d know them anywhere • The Register

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? Stop that uterus! It stole my wallet!

What do you mean, “Can you identify the uterus in question?” It looked like a uterus! Or, as we’ve been singing it all through Christmas, a wooooom*.

Talk about getting the new year off to a bad start – I’ve just been robbed by a delinquent reproductive organ. Yet the all signs were there: I knew 2022 would be doomed back in early December when I read that the Salzburg Schokolade company, inventors of the mighty last-minute-airport-gift-shop chocolate ball Mozartkugel, had gone bust.

No, an oversize Toblerone will not suffice. M&Ms? In the bin, pal. Mr Ambassador, you can stick your Ferrero Rochers up your arse. Mozartkugeln were my faux-posh-but-actually-quite-cheap traveller chocs of choice. And now they’re gone forever!

First Bowie, then this. The world is falling apart.

A kindly officer of the law tries to bring me back to my senses following my unexpected mugging. Yes, thank you, I would like a drink. I’ll have an Adios Motherfucker*, please.

Without batting an eyelid, the policewoman strides down the corridor to the drinks machine, taps a few buttons on the display and returns after just 30 seconds with my glass of blue liquid revival. That was quick. The drinks machine must be a Mixo Two: an ingenious local invention that claims to be able to mix any of 300 cocktails in half a minute.

I glug it down, spit out the lemon slice and cherry, and hand back the little umbrella. I decide I’m feeling particularly agitated and may well need more calming down. 299 to go.

Now that my thoughts are clearing, I admit it’s possible my assailant might not have been a uterus after all. It might have been a whole human. I tell my police interviewers that my initial impression of a uterus suggests that it may have been a woman. I am lectured for the next 10 minutes on my questionable observation with the aid of infographics and a flipchart.

Choosing my words more carefully, I try to provide a full description of the thief. It all happened so fast. The last thing I remember, I had escaped the pandemonium at home – workers fixing the WC again – and settled down in a nearby cafe for a break. Well, primarily for a pee in their restroom, then I felt obliged to order a coffee. While waiting for it to arrive, I opened my laptop and continued browsing the hundreds of images taken during Mme D’s recent MRI scan.

Here’s one.

Screenshot of MRI scan of patient's uterus

Protect the innocent: to avoid identification by a web-scraping AI, this uterus has been pixelated. [Click to enlarge]

Prior to this, my only knowledge of MRI scanning comes from British colleagues at the IEEE who are finalising the unveiling of an IEEE Milestone plaque to commemorate the development in London during the 1980s of active shielding of superconducting magnets.

Mme D had a more detailed prior knowledge of MRI scanning as the result of watching every episode of House on Netflix. She reported that her only disappointment was that the operators seemed to concentrate on the scan rather than discuss their sex lives or call each other an idiot before suddenly dashing out the room after answering a call on their cellphone.

What neither of us expected was to be handed a CD of the highlights.

It doesn’t just contain a folder of images but a Windows autoplay program to browse them in detail. My favourite feature of the CD is the Cinema View, which plays back the scans at 25 frames per second. In fact, I had settled down in the living room with a Kia-Ora and carton of popcorn to watch Mme D’s innards on the big screen when the workmen arrived and enforced an early intermission.

It was when the coffee arrived at my table that I realised my wallet was not in my usual pocket, or indeed in any of my unusual pockets either. “Robbed!” I wailed. “No tip!” wailed the waiter. The police were duly called.

What was the last thing I saw before the incident? Er… a uterus. I describe it in as much detail as possible, at 25 frames per second.

So, I ask, are you going run it through your vast, secretive photo-fit database of the population, using some whizzy AI to shortlist the candidates?

Ah no, they respond, we’re not allowed to do that. And then they wink. All of them, in sync, which is a bit creepy. Then I am sent on my way, gently steered back up the corridor in the opposite direction from the Mix Two.

This is the usual conundrum. Scraping the net for the purposes of building a database for security services is still illegal unless you have really good PR, and the use of AI to crawl around the net and randomly apply face recognition to identify ne’er-do-wells is ethically dubious. In most cases, it can’t be done at all (yet).

On the other hand, machine learning is a fabulous tool for health research, if only we can throw enough data at it. The problem is that more people would be happy to share their medical data if they thought it wouldn’t be subsequently misused. And it will always be misused: that’s what personal data is for.

The last thing I’d want is for my photo to turn up on a hit-list of Interpol’s most-wanted criminal uteruses.

Back home, I am comforted by Mme D, who had been wondering what had prompted me to leave the house while a team of plumbers, electricians, interior decorators, plasterers, architects, stone masons, ironmongers, seismologists, stage illusionists, tap dance instructors, steel drummers, and celtic swordsmen were trampling all over it to refit the toilet for the fifth time.

I mumble a reply, collect the now-soggy popcorn and drag myself back into my office.

“By the way,” she calls, “you left your wallet on the kitchen table so I locked it in the filing cabinet.”

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Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. Back when he ran an office in London’s trendy Hoxton, he attended several cocktail workshops – an essential skill for the Silicon Roundabout crowd. The one thing he learnt was that everything is topped up with sugar water. Bleuh. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

*As an infant, I reasoned that “wooooom” was the kind of thing that a sheet-clad apparition moans while a haunting a castle. It was the holy ghost.

**Vodka, rum, tequila, gin, blue curacao, 7 Up, sweet & sour mix.



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‘Hiring is a big challenge for the IT industry’

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Citrix’s Meerah Rajavel discusses the biggest challenges in today’s IT landscape, from remote working and talent shortages to security.

Meerah Rajavel is CIO at Citrix a multinational cloud computing company that provides server, application and desktop virtualisation, networking and cloud computing technologies.

Rajavel has more than 25 years’ experience at well-known tech companies such as McAfee, Cisco and Forcepoint. In her current role, Rajavel she leads the company’s IT strategy.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in the current IT landscape?

Many companies viewed remote work as a temporary solution to the pandemic and business leaders continue to push for a return to the old days where employees work in the office every day. But we just did two polls on LinkedIn and Twitter that show this isn’t likely to happen.

That’s going to challenge a lot of organisations, because working remote isn’t easy. When it comes to addressing the technical aspects of how employees can cope and remain productive, you’ve got to walk in their shoes and understand how they leverage technology to achieve business outcomes.

The key to keeping employees engaged lies in providing consistent, secure and reliable access to the systems and information they need to get work done – wherever it needs to get done. And it takes more than just flipping the switch on technologies. Culture plays a huge role in adoption.

Another big challenge IT is faced with is hiring. It’s difficult to find high quality candidates in the areas of security, design thinking and user experience, data science and analytics right now. And there are a few reasons for this. Security remains a critical priority for CIOs. In the hybrid cloud, remote working, BYOD world we now live in, more resources are required to ensure that corporate networks and assets remain safe. And demand far exceeds supply.

When it comes to design thinking, the paradigm is shifting away from user-centric thinking toward human-and-machine thinking. This requires designers to be well versed with the constructs of the possibility of artificial intelligence and machine learning and analytics in addition to user experience in their workflow design process. And that’s a skill that’s not widely available.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation in a broad sense within your industry?

In the last decade, the digitalisation of everything has caused every company – regardless of industry – to become a software company. From mobile banking and virtual healthcare visits to self-driving cars and automated food prep and delivery services, software applications are embedded into nearly every aspect of the economy and our lives.

And as they embark on digital transformation initiatives to support this trend, IT leaders need to align with their business counterparts and make sure they’re collectively approaching things from an inside-out, company-wide perspective.

For me, any type of change management needs to be broken down into three key focus areas: people, process, and technology. But it’s imperative that you start with the people because without first establishing a culture around the change, it will be difficult to achieve success.

‘Digitalisation of everything has caused every company – regardless of industry – to become a software company’
– MEERAH RAJAVEL

When it comes to people, we are particularly mindful of two important elements: culture and training. First, we’ve worked to establish a culture that encourages risk taking and organisational success over individual success. Second, we’re investing in training programmes that enable individuals to confidently transition to the new technologies or way of working and be immediately effective.

In digital transformation, technology needs to be integrated into the ‘flow’ of business, which demands IT and business to embrace shared methods and process. For process, we’ve anchored on standards like safe agile frameworks that make culture and operational efficiency key pillars of any project, to help iterative value delivery and ease of adoption across all areas of the business.

And perhaps most important, we’re investing in the technology – including our own – to help automate and integrate workflows so we can reduce time to production, minimise disruption to the business and increase effectiveness.

What are your thoughts on how sustainability can be addressed from an IT perspective?

In embracing remote work and enabling it through technology, companies can drive their ESG goals and create a more sustainable business and future.

Using digital workspace technologies, for instance, they can give employees access to everything they need to engage and be productive wherever they happen to be, reducing the need to commute and the carbon emissions associated with doing so.

They can also eliminate the need for applications and data to reside on endpoint devices and transition from energy-intensive desktops to energy-efficient laptops to increase their energy efficiency. And because no data is required to live on these devices, they can extend the life of their equipment and reduce waste.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world?

We did some research that showed 93pc of business leaders think the increased digital collaboration forced by remote work has amplified more diverse voices, resulting in richer idea generation. And as flexible work becomes the norm, the vast majority expect enhanced equity and collaboration to continue and fuel an era of hyper-innovation. And this excites me.

With flexible work, I see more innovation happening to converge physical and digital experiences. Whether it’s concept like metaverse or technologies like AI/ML and VR/XR integrated into the collaboration tools, all aim to enhance the experience and effectiveness for users in a location agnostic fashion.

What are your thoughts on the security challenges currently facing your industry?

The threat landscape has become much more sophisticated as a result of remote and hybrid work and protecting employees has never been more critical – or difficult.

Employees want the freedom to work when, where and how they want using the devices of their choice. And to attract and retain them in what is no doubt the tightest labour market the world has ever seen and keep them engaged and productive, IT needs to serve it up, all while ensuring corporate assets and data remain safe.

It’s among the biggest challenges we face. And to overcome it, we must move beyond thinking that security and user experience are mutually exclusive and take an intelligent approach to workspace security that combines the two following the zero-trust model to give employees simple, unified access to the apps and information they need, when and where they need it, to perform at their best.

We’ve also witnessed two major software supply chain attacks in the last 12 months with SolarWinds and Log4j.

The first is an example of how easily malicious code can be remotely injected into a simple software update delivered to thousands of enterprises and government agencies worldwide. The second highlights how threat actors are increasingly targeting the vulnerabilities in third-party software components to cause widespread havoc.

All of this underscores the importance of securing the software supply chain and adopting practices like DevSecOps.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.



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