Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Google and data - there's a cost, but there are benefits

(DISCLAIMER: I face similar issues in my day job.)

As I've previously noted, Google depends upon data to serve its customers - and the average person who enters a Google search is probably NOT one of Google's customers. The advertisers are.

So why should anyone turn personal data over to Google, Facebook, or whoever?

Google is making its case.

The basic premise is that if you give your data to Google (and its customers), Google in return will make your life better. Based upon your personal data, the information that Google provides to you will be more beneficial to you.

For example, if you have entered a search "How can I join the Woman's Christian Temperance Union?" Google will be smart enough to NOT show you The Most Interesting Man in the World.

For more reasons to give your personal data to Google, go here. Or skip it and try to get a map from your local gas station.

Monday, October 26, 2015

What you know about popular websites is wrong

Over the last couple of decades, there have been a number of web companies that have appeared and disappeared. Some were extremely popular a couple of decades ago, or even a decade ago, but since that time have faded away to obscurity.

Or have they?

Most of us would not challenge a statement that I read online on Sunday afternoon. When I noted that Yahoo live-streamed an NFL football game, I received the following reply:

Yahoo doesn't even exist.

Yahoo was, a long time ago, one of the web's big success stories. But afterwards it lost its way as new companies emerged and surpassed Yahoo. The company still makes a splash here and there, but it has shriveled away to nothingness, joining AOL and others in the web graveyard.

After I saw that "Yahoo doesn't even exist" statement, I figured I'd check the actual numbers and see exactly how far Yahoo has fallen with respect to its competition. The first thing that I ran across was a comScore ranking report from January 2015, which ranks the top 50 media properties during that month. To no one's surprise, Google was number 1. But I'd like to see if you can guess the next three sites on the list.




None of those sites even made the top 25.

Nope. The number 2 property in January 2015, with over 221 million unique visitors/viewers (right behind Google's 240 million), was...

...well, it was Yahoo, which had more visitors than Facebook (208+ million).

And number 4?

AOL, with over 194 million.

Both Yahoo and AOL have expanded from their original concepts, primarily through acquisition, and have continued to provide pages that people visit, despite the fact that most people ignore them for the latest shiny thing.

Guess which sites have less than 100 million unique visitors per month - or half of what AOL has?

In addition to the aforementioned Pinterest, Netflix, and WordPress, you can count many other sites in that number. Twitter. ESPN. Yelp. BuzzFeed. Gawker.

But one of our assumptions actually is true - MySpace did not make the top 50.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

True pork barrel politics

"Whether you like it or not," the sheer size of the federal government dictates that its purchases, or lack thereof, will have a huge impact on the economy. This will impact various special interests, who will then contact politicians to save the nation from untold horrors resulting from H.R. whatever.

Which brings us to the Bureau of Prisons. No, this isn't about tilapia. This is about pork. Specifically, the Bureau of Prisons determined that pork should be eliminated from federal prison menus.

The decision didn't stick, in part because of the intervention of Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, who heads a Senate committee that oversees prison menus. Senator Grassley, who happens to be from the state of Iowa, made the following statement:

“The pork industry is responsible for 547,800 jobs, which creates $22.3 billion in personal incomes and contributes $39 billion to the gross domestic product.”

Or, to put it more bluntly, the pork industry has lobbyists who give out money.

Of course, the chicken and beef industries also have lobbyists, which probably helped grease the initial decision to eliminate pork. According to the Bureau of Prisons, prisoners just don't care for pork. Even bacon - which sends social media practitioners into drooling ecstasy - doesn't sit well with the prison population, which caused the Bureau of Prisons to eliminate bacon, sausage, and pork chops from the menu.

According to The Crime Report, one special interest group that didn't take a stand on the issue was the Muslim community. Muslims do not eat pork, and there are active Muslim prison ministries, but Muslim groups apparently feared that any anti-pork statements on their part would result in an anti-Muslim backlash. However, CAIR did lend support to the original proposal.

And Senator Grassley is presumably happy, based upon the kinds of things that he says to the National Pork Producers Council:

I am glad to be here with you, and I hope you had a good breakfast that included either ham or bacon to get your day started.

Of course, there are some types of pork that Grassley just can't stand.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Your money? Yeah, we'll get around to it.

There are a number of people who hate Walmart, and who really want it to fail. In their minds, the demise of Walmart will result in an environment in which kinder, gentler companies will treat employees and customers with respect.

Guess what? Walmart WILL fail - every company fails at some point or another. However, Walmart will fail because a newer company will emerge that makes more money than Walmart does. How? By being even more ruthless.

By definition, the road to success for a company is to maximize profits. In addition to cutting costs - for example, paying low wages and benefits - you can maximize profits by optimizing your cash flow. When you're owed money, get that cash as quickly as possible. When you owe money, hold on to that cash as long as possible.

We all know that large companies such as Walmart have significant purchasing power over their suppliers, and in some cases the suppliers have no choice but to agree. As Bloomberg recently noted, Walmart can take over 30 days to pay its suppliers. And they just have to grin and bear it.

But it could be worse for the suppliers. They could be suppliers for Amazon, who takes over two to three times as long to pay its suppliers. Since 2011, it's taken Amazon over 90 days to pay its suppliers.

Of course, this could lead to trouble for companies in the long run.

Years ago, I knew someone who was an employee at a company (while the company no longer exists, I will not name it). The employee happened to be a musician, and when the local company office hosted a special event, he rounded up a group of musicians to play for the event. The employee paid the musicians, billed his employer...and waited. And waited. After waiting a very long time to get paid (after paying off HIS suppliers), the employee vowed never to play an event for his company again.

Of course, the company didn't care. It just found other musicians to stiff.

And if someone doesn't want to wait three months to get paid by Amazon, Amazon will just find someone else.

And people will long for the good old days, when companies like Walmart ruled the world.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Living wages and family-owned tilapia suppliers, the sequel

Remember my post from July about Quixotic Farming, a family-owned supplier of tilapia to Whole Foods, HyVee, and other grocers? In their heartwarming story, they kinda sorta didn't really promote the fact that their tilapia were farmed by Colorado prison labor.

According to WTOP, Whole Foods has decided not to carry the product (or a similar product, prisoner-produced goat cheese) any more.

Whole Foods will stop selling products made using a prison labor program after a protest against the practice at one of its stores in Texas.

The company said the products should be out of its stores by April 2016, if not sooner. Whole Foods said it has sold tilapia and goat cheese produced through a Colorado inmate program at some stores since at least 2011.

But will this satisfy the prison reform advocates? After all, when Whole Foods was buying the product, prison labor was getting as little as 74 cents an hour. But if everyone discontinues using the product, the prisoners will get zero dollars an hour - which doesn't really help decrease recidivism rates.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The fiction of brands - how Apple, Hilton, McDonald's, Uber, and others are not single entities, but thousands of independent companies and contractors

"Repetition," Jeena Paradies. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Apple. Hilton. McDonald's. Uber.

Four well-known brands that work very hard at protecting their brands.

Except in one significant respect.

I'll illustrate this by taking some information from a Neil Nisperos article that appeared in my local paper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, on Friday.

According to Nisperos, four housekeepers who worked for - and were fired by - an Inglewood company named Pro Clean have filed a lawsuit. The suit alleges that they were fired for engaging in protected union organizing activities.

So they filed the lawsuit - against Doubletree Hilton Ontario Airport.

But if they were working for Pro Clean, then why did they fire the lawsuit against a Hilton-branded entity?

Because Pro Clean is a staffing agency that assigned the four to work at the Doubletree, where things were allegedly not all that great.

We wear the same uniforms, have the same supervisors, and eat in the same cafeteria. We also suffer under harsh working conditions,” said Maria Sanchez, one of the subcontracted housekeepers fired from the DoubleTree by Hilton.

(Nisperos noted, precisely, that the four were not fired BY the Doubletree, but FROM the Doubletree.)

The Doubletree itself has provided a response to the allegations.

“The Doubletree Ontario Airport Hotel complies with all local and federal labor laws and is an equal opportunity employer. The hotel is committed to providing a positive and supportive environment for all of its employees.”

The general manager who provided that response was also very precise. Note that the response states that the hotel provides a good environment for its EMPLOYEES.

Maria Sanchez and the other three, of course, were not employees of the Doubletree. They were employees of Pro Clean.

But the Doubletree is not the only establishment that has non-employees providing services. A year or two ago, someone that I know went to an Apple Store for a training course. Apple's brand image relies not only on the quality of its products, but the quality of the services that it provides. Thus Apple Stores have Genius Bars, training courses, and the like.

The person who provided the training course - a course upon which Apple's brand image is highly dependent - was not an employee of Apple.

Which brings us to McDonald's, which is kind of a mixed bag. Fast food outlets are a target for the living wage folks, who berate McDonald's and other employers in the industry for their low wages. McDonald's recently responded as follows:

On July 1, 2015, starting wages at McDonald’s company-owned restaurants in the U.S. will be one dollar over the locally-mandated minimum wage. The wages of all employees up to restaurant manager will be adjusted accordingly based on tenure and job performance. By the end of 2016, McDonald’s projects that the average hourly wage rate for McDonald’s employees at company-owned restaurants will be in excess of $10.

Also on July 1, full- and part-time crew employees at company-owned restaurants, with at least one year of service, will begin to accrue personal paid time-off. For example, an employee who works an average of 20 hours per week will be eligible to accrue approximately 20 hours of paid time off per year. If these employees don’t take the time off they’ve earned, they will be paid for the value of that time.

These two benefit enhancements apply to McDonald’s company-owned restaurants, which represent more than 90,000 employees and about 10 percent of McDonald’s restaurants nationwide. The more than 3,100 McDonald’s franchisees operate their individual businesses and make their own decisions on pay and benefits for their employees.

Another precisely worded statement, with repeated mentions of the words "company-owned" - as well as a note of the fact that 9 times out of 10, that so-called "McDonald's" restaurant that you are visiting is not owned by McDonald's.

Last but not least, this brings us to Uber. Uber clearly has a brand, and Uber has an app that allows you to obtain a ride from over 160,000 independent companies in the United States alone.

Yes, 160,000. That's roughly the number of Uber drivers in the U.S. as of last December - and as you've probably heard, Uber drivers are not employees of Uber, but independent contractors. So that "Uber driver" isn't an Uber driver, but just someone who has agreed to take requests from the Uber app.

Of course, that's not the way that Uber - or Apple, Hilton, McDonald's, or other large companies - want you to see it. When you get a ride in an Uber car, or take a training course at an Apple Store, or pick up a cookie at a Doubletree hotel, or get a Big Mac at a McDonald's, the companies want you to think about the Uber, Apple, Hilton, or McDonald's experience. And the companies lay down strict rules for their independent contractors and franchises - the age of the car that you use for "Uber" trips, the quality of the parts assembled for your "Apple" phone, the number of "Hilton" rooms that have to be cleaned, the size of that "McDonald's" Big Mac.

But when push comes to shove, these companies - and most others - say that the entities providing those products and services are legally distinct entities. We're not responsible for the criminal record of the driver, or the working conditions that the Chinese factory worker encounters, or the number of rooms that the room cleaner must clean, or for the wage that the Big Mac assembler makes.

But the companies aren't the only beneficiaries of that brand fiction. The four Doubletree workers could have only sued Pro Clean for firing them, but they saw an advantage in going after the Doubletree itself. Living wage proponents don't want to deal with all of the 3,100+ independent franchisees - it's much easier for them to pressure one entity, McDonald's, into mandating that franchises pay a particular wage.

Where does this leave the consumer? There are countless other examples of cases in which we think we're dealing with Company A, but instead are dealing with some other company that we've never heard of.

The answer is to stay educated. Some things are not what they appear to be.

Oh, and by the way, that Doubletree Hotel in Ontario, California is owned by the Blackstone Group. So do you deal with Pro Clean (no website), the Blackstone Group, or Hilton Worldwide if you have a problem with your room?