This nation is on the verge of a meaningful leadership transition. Given the craziness of 2020, you can’t help but to think about what the future will look like and who will be guiding us through these tumultuous times. These thoughts are not being driven by the upcoming presidential race, but a different transition that is gaining steam thanks to the pandemic. COVID-19, and its uneven effects on people of different ages, is the latest phenomenon to underscore the differences between younger and older generations. But these differences go beyond age, and, with COVID as the catalyst, are empowering young people to take on larger, leading roles in many areas of modern life.
The pain and suffering that COVID has wrought upon the globe have been devastating and tragic. The pandemic has been particularly cruel to older people. Americans aged 50-64 have a 4x higher chance of being hospitalized due to COVID than those aged 18-29. In the US, over 90% of the roughly 200,000 COVID deaths have been among people over 55, a demographic that I am, reluctantly, approaching. Accordingly, older Americans are proceeding cautiously as businesses and institutions reopen. As evidenced by the many new stories coming from college campuses, younger people feel much less vulnerable to the effects of COVID. Consequently, it is the younger generations that will be on the leading edge as society returns to normal.
It is our younger coworkers that are more likely to be living in a one-bedroom apartment or have young kids at home. Not surprisingly, they will be the ones most anxious to return to the office and leave the isolation and chaos of the home-office behind. It will also likely be our younger colleagues that will be more willing to hop on a plane or train and re-embrace business travel. As a result, our younger colleagues will have an opportunity to accelerate their careers and professional exposure, while the rest of us slowly, cautiously reenter the traditional work environment.
The other impact of COVID has been an increased reliance on technology. Under lockdown, being technologically savvy is critical to everyday living. What was once the bastion of the young, older Americans have been flocking to ecommerce to safely shop for necessities. The Commerce Department noted that ecommerce sales spiked 44% in Q2 2020, as Americans were forced to shop in ways that involved little human interaction. This shift was perhaps most apparent in online grocery, which has long struggled with adoption: Q2 2020 sales were triple what they were in Q2 2019.
Whether it is web-based shopping, video calls or collaborative docs, those among us that entered COVID with strong technical skills have been fairing much better than those of us less tech savvy. While I have always embraced technological advancements throughout my career, it is not as innate to me as it is to recent college grads who grew up tech-enabled. Most 25 year olds probably don’t remember a world before Facebook. And for those in school now, during their toddler years they were probably more attached to their iPad than they were to their favorite blanket. With the advent of virtual learning in our schools, students as young as second grade are being asked to seamlessly transition between Zoom videos, Google docs and web classrooms; skills that many of the teachers are struggling to master.
COVID has created a shift in the age-related power dynamic. The younger generation is being asked, and is often forced, to step up. The older generations are realizing that they don’t feel comfortable doing something as simple as a Zoom call without at least one Gen Z colleague nearby to help address any technological glitches that may arise. Personally, while working from home during lockdown, it was always nice to know that my kids were around to act as a mobile IT department.
The passing of the torch from the old to the young is natural and inevitable. But COVID seems to have accelerated this transition, at least temporarily. So, while COVID will leave behind many painful memories, it may also accelerate the maturation of younger generations. It can be tough for us “seasoned” employees to acknowledge, but more than ever, we will be looking to our younger colleagues to lead us. However, I’m not riding off into the sunset just yet. After all, no matter who wins the upcoming election, I am still going to be a full generation younger than the president.
Headline of the Week
With a large swath of the country continuing to workout from home during the pandemic on connected fitness equipment, the wheeling and dealing in the red-hot space is as strong as ever. Tonal — a digitally connected strength machine that is seen by many as Peloton’s main rival — announced Thursday a fresh $110 million capital infusion from a range of investors — both new and old. Some of Tonal’s newest backers are a who’s who of the sports world: Stephen Curry (NBA), Paul George (NBA), Bobby Wagner (NFL) and Michelle Wie (golf). As for more traditional investors, L Catterton (a main player in the digital fitness space and early Peloton backer) and the Amazon Alexa Fund have returned with fresh checks for Tonal. The size of the investments by Curry, L Catterton, etc. were not disclosed. Nor was Tonal’s valuation following its latest capital infusion. The San Francisco-based fitness company has now raised nearly $200 million since it was founded by tech executive and current CEO Aly Orady in 2015.
Apparel & Footwear
Private equity giant TPG Capital Management LP is in talks to buy Australian bootmaker R.M. Williams from French fashion giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the Australian Financial Review (AFR) reported on Wednesday. The U.S. buyout specialist is conducting “late-stage due diligence” and trying to secure financing for a deal that would value the 88-year-old Australian manufacturer at more than A$250 million, the AFR said. A sale at the price quoted by the AFR would be a mark-down from the roughly A$500 million that was widely reported in Australian media as being R.M. Williams’s valuation when LVMH, via its investment arm L Catterton, put the asset up for sale in 2019. However, fashion retailers around the world have experienced a sharp decline in sales since the COVID-19 outbreak prompted border closures and stay-home orders as governments attempted to slow the spread of the virus.
Apparel retailer Francesca’s said Tuesday its ability to continue as a going concern is in doubt after it reported a quarterly sales decline of 29%, citing major supply-chain constraints. Its shares cratered 27% in Tuesday morning trading. “We are operating within what continues to be an unprecedented and extremely challenging environment,” CEO and President Andrew Clarke said in a statement. He said the retailer is exploring a variety of strategic alternatives and has brought on FTI Capital Advisors to help it look for ways improve its liquidity and financial position. Francesca’s said some of the options it’s exploring include lease concessions, further cuts of operating and capital expenditures, raising additional capital, and restructuring its debt and liabilities through a private restructuring or a restructuring under the protection of bankruptcy laws. The Houston-based company reported a second-quarter loss of $17.2 million, or $5.80 per share, compared with a profit of $1.8 million, or 61 cents a share, a year earlier.
Women’s apparel seller J. Jill forged an agreement with major lenders that allows it to avoid Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the company said in a press release Friday. Lenders representing nearly 98% of J. Jill’s term loan agreed to an out-of-court transaction that the company said would add liquidity and financial flexibility. The deal is expected to close around Sept 30. Under the deal, J. Jill gets an extended maturity on the applicable part of its term loan, to May 2024, while also receiving a covenant “holiday” through the fourth quarter of 2021 and $15 million in a junior term loan facility. J. Jill’s deal with lenders follows months of background talks that started with a breach of its current loan, a forbearance agreement, and multiple deadline extensions. Just two weeks ago, the company signaled that a bankruptcy was possible if it didn’t win the consent necessary from its lender base. Sparking all of it was the company’s initial disclosure of deep financial distress, in the form of a “going concern” warning — language in its regulatory filings that it might not be able to survive over the next 12 months.
Next has signed a joint venture deal for Victoria’s Secret’s UK business after months of speculation, saving over 500 jobs. The lingerie retailer’s US parent company L Brands said it has formed a joint venture with British chain Next, which will acquire the majority of the assets of Victoria’s Secret’s UK business. The UK division of the lingerie giant fell into administration on June 5 and placed over 800 jobs at risk. Next will own 51 per cent of the venture, while Victoria’s Secret will have 49 per cent. Financial terms were not released. The partnership means Next will operate all of the firm’s stores in the UK and Ireland, subject to agreeing to terms with landlords.
Athletic & Sporting Goods
The parent company of Boston Sports Clubs filed for bankruptcy after the coronavirus pandemic forced gyms to close for months. Town Sports International, which owns BSC, New York Sports Clubs and other gyms, submitted a voluntary petition for non-individuals filing for bankruptcy. Boston Sports Clubs released a statement saying that Town Sports International is not going out of business and that members should not notice a break in service as the company works on restructuring. There are currently 28 BSC locations in Massachusetts and one in Rhode Island.
Zwift, a 350-person, Long Beach, California-based online fitness platform that immerses cyclists and runners in 3D-generated worlds, just raised a hefty $450 million in funding led by the investment firm KKR in exchange for a minority stake in its business. Permira, the Amazon Alexa Fund and Specialized Bicycle’s venture capital fund, Zone 5 Ventures, also joined the round, alongside earlier backers Highland Europe, Novator, Causeway Media and True, which is a Europe-based consumer specialist firm. Zwift has now raised $620 million altogether and is valued at north of $1 billion.
Cosmetics & Pharmacy
Symbiome, a soon-to-be-launched skin-care brand, has raised $15 million. The round was led by True Ventures, which has backed Peloton and Sweetgreen, with Bold Capital Partners, Mission Bay Capital and Gisev Family Office and other angel investors. Symbiome is slated to launch Oct. 7 with seven products that aim to shift the skin’s microbiome back to its “ancestral” state, according to Larry Weiss, founder and chief scientific officer. Weiss also helped develop products for Mother Dirt, an early probiotic skin-care range. According to Weiss, the skin’s microbiome has shifted significantly since people went from hunter-gatherer mode to modern-day living. Symbiome’s products aim to get the skin’s microbiome back to where it was back in the day, using 10 ingredients per product, or fewer. The goal, according to Weiss and Symbiome’s chief executive officer Vicki Levine, is skin health.
GNC Holdings Inc. has moved to sell itself to its largest shareholder. The struggling, 85-year-old vitamins and nutrition supplements retailer is seeking court approval to sell its assets to its largest shareholder and original bidder, Harbin Pharmaceutical Group Holding Co., for approximately $760 million, according to filings. GNC canceled the auction because it said no other qualified bids had emerged by last week’s deadline. GNC, which is saddled with nearly $1 billion in debt, filed for bankruptcy in June, with plans to close at least 800 to 1,200 stores and sell itself. As of March 2020, GNC had 7,300 locations globally, including 5,200 in the U.S.
Beiersdorf participated in a $5 million Series B funding round in Lycl, strengthening its existing position in the Korean skincare and tech start-up. Lycl Inc. is a Korean skincare and tech start-up established in 2013. The company combines three different business models: unpa.me, a review and content platform for K-Beauty products, palett.me, an influencer network platform, and unpa.Cosmetics, the start-up’s own skincare brand. Lycl already has a strong footprint in South Korea with the majority of product sales generated through a direct-to-consumer business model via the brand’s own website. Beiersdorf AG is a leading provider of innovative, high-quality skincare products and has over 135 years of experience in this market segment.
Discounters & Department Stores
Kohl’s laid off about 15% of its corporate employees as the retailer tries to “further align its cost base in response to the business impact resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the company said in a securities filing. The job cuts will save an estimated $65 million a year, while adding one-time costs of $23 million for 2020, Kohl’s said. All told, Kohl’s expects to save about $100 million a year from various restructuring actions it has taken this year, including cuts announced in February.
Macy’s on Monday said its 94th annual Thanksgiving Day parade will be virtual this year, “produced solely as a television event,” in order to take precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic. The show will air Nov. 26 nationwide on NBC, from 9:00 a.m. to noon in all time zones. The retailer worked with New York City officials on the changes, including reducing the number of participants by about 75%, requiring social distancing and face masks, barring anyone younger than 18 and employing specialized vehicles in place of humans to handle the giant balloons. Rather than following the traditional 2.5-mile parade route, the event will be staged in and around Herald Square, where Macy’s flagship sits, according to a company press release.
As companies across the country face heightened scrutiny of their record on racial diversity, Target pledged Thursday to increase representation of Black employees across its workforce by 20% over the next three years. The big-box retailer’s workforce of nearly 350,000 employees skews White, particularly among its top executives. About 75% of its leadership team is White and 8% are Black, based on 2019 data. That rises to nearly a quarter, however, when including all people of color like Latinos and Asians. Its overall workforce — which includes hourly store employees who stock shelves and check out customers — is more mixed, with 50% made up of White workers, 25% Latino and 15% Black, as the top three groups.
Walmart announced Thursday that it will boost pay for 165,000 of its hourly associates nationwide this October. The boost in pay will replace the annual increase employees normally receive in February or April, Walmart Chief Operating Officer Dacona Smith said. “When we’ve asked associates, the overwhelming majority say their hourly wages are the most important part of their pay, well ahead of quarterly bonuses,” Smith said in Thursday’s announcement.
Emerging Consumer Companies
Electric bike company VanMoof raised $40 million from Norwest Venture Partners, Felix Capital and Balderton Capital. The Series B financing comes after a $13.5 million investment in May, and brings VanMoof’s total raised to $73 million. The funds will be used to meet the increased demand, shorten delivery times, and build a suite of rider service solutions, while also boosting VanMoof’s share of the electric bike market in North America, Europe, and Japan. The company was founded in 2009 by two brothers in Amsterdam.
Hungry Harvest, the rescued produce delivery company, announced the closing of a $13.7 million Series A round. The investment round was led by Creadev with participation from existing and new investors, including Danone Manifesto Ventures, Quadia and Maywic Select Investments. Hungry Harvest rescues fresh fruits, vegetables, and grocery staples that would otherwise go to waste either due to surplus cosmetic standards for size, shape or color at retail. Customizable variety boxes are delivered directly to subscribers’ homes using a team of local drivers. Every delivery eliminates food waste, ensures farmers receive a fair wage for their full harvest, and supports donations to hunger-solving organizations. Since 2014, Hungry Harvest has reduced over 22 million pounds of food waste and donated or subsidized over 1.5 million pounds of produce to partner organizations and through its own food access programs.
Bulletproof 360, makers of food and beverage items designed to fuel a healthier lifestyle, raised $13 million from Beliv, Rocana Ventures, and earlier backers CAVU Venture Partners and Trinity Ventures. The funding, which brings the total raised to date to more than $80 million, will be used to expand product offerings in both new and existing categories. Founded in 2014, Bulletproof’s product portfolio includes its signature coffee line — with beverages infused with grass-fed butter— along with collagen proteins and assorted supplements.
Grocery & Restaurants
An affiliate of private investment firm Peak Rock Capital has acquired Halo Foods Ltd., a Newport, Wales-based manufacturer of health bars and snacks. Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed. Halo’s portfolio of products includes cereal bars, fruit and nut bars, gluten-free, high-protein and nutritionally controlled bars, including the rapidly growing “Skinny” brand. The company’s diverse customer base includes national retailers and established national brands.
Kelly Mullarney had no clue he’d become a pioneer of the gourmet waffle sandwich craze when he co-founded Bruxie 10 years ago in a decades old walk-up fast-food stand in Southern California. After the fall 2010 opening, Bruxie’s bold-fold waffle sandwiches became a national sensation, leading to major investments from legendary restaurateurs Paul Fleming and Bill Allen and private equity firm L Catterton. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the fast-casual chain’s locations temporarily closed in California and Nevada. TCGM Holding Company LLC, owned by early Bruxie investors Tommy Chua and Gordon Miles, has purchased Bruxie’s assets through a special California reorganization process.
Home & Road
La-Z-Boy Inc. has completed its previously announced asset acquisition of the Seattle business that operated six independently owned La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries stores, with approximately $30 million in annual retail volume in calendar 2019, and one warehouse. Terms of the transaction, the result of the planned retirement of independent dealers, Chris and Lisa Washko, were not disclosed. The stores have become part of La-Z-Boy’s Retail segment, which is now composed of 159 stores. As La-Z-Boy is already recording a portion of the Seattle-based store volume in its wholesale segments, the acquisition of the six stores is expected to contribute approximately $15 million of additional sales annually to the company on a consolidated basis.
In advance of meetings with investors, vertically integrated manufacturer and retailer Ethan Allen reported continued written-order increases. Written orders showed a 10% increase for the two-month fiscal quarter-to-date period ending Aug. 31, including a 26% increase in August alone. According to the company’s announcement, those numbers reflect significant growth from its e-commerce business. Ethan Allen expects that orders in its wholesale segment, while benefiting from strong retail growth, will be negatively impacted by the timing of General Service Administration and other government orders due to pandemic-related disruptions that are delaying issuance of new orders. The delayed orders are expected to be issued in the coming months.
Jewelry & Luxury
Large groups of Chinese visitors have become a pillar of the global tourism industry. Coronavirus has not only disrupted this enormous source of income for major cities and sights around the world, it is having a massive knock-on effect for the luxury goods business. For any tourist, buying souvenirs is a key part of the holiday experience. They might be trinkets such as keyrings or fridge magnets, a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I ❤ NY” or a Russian matryoshka doll. But a significant number of Chinese tourists prefer to spend large sums on luxury items, such as designer clothes and accessories, when they travel overseas.
Federal prosecutors in Florida have charged Jose Angel Aman with wire fraud for operating a diamond investment fund that they call a Ponzi scheme. According to a complaint filed on Aug. 21, Aman and his partners in Natural Diamonds Investment Co. and Eagle Financial Diamond Group, both based in Palm Beach, Fla., collected more than $30 million from hundreds of investors by telling them they would purchase rough colored diamonds, which would then be cut and sold at a profit.
Office & Leisure
GameStop may have unlocked a 1-up in a tumultuous 2020. The retailer started the year in a deep hole and things only got worse. GameStop’s sales fell by nearly 30% last year. Holiday sales last year were down more than 27%. Multiple teams of credit analysts gave the company downgrades while raising concerns about the position of GameStop, with its 5,000-plus stores, in a sector increasingly becoming digitized. But the long, painful wait for the next gen is finally winding down. GameStop announced Wednesday that it is now taking pre-orders for the Sony PlayStation 5, along with other outlets. The excitement over pre-orders created a frenzy. Orders sold out and websites went down, including GameStop’s, according to customers. Snafus aside, the excitement over pre-orders could bode well for GameStop going into the final months of 2020 and into next year.
Twenty million dollars is a good motivator. That was the amount of extra fulfillment spend Chewy reported in the first quarter after two months of surging demand. Less than three months later, the company opened a new kind of fulfillment center in Kansas City, Missouri, intended to make sure that $20 million bill never repeats. The coronavirus pandemic has kept Americans at home, doting on their pets. Chewy reported a 46% year-over-year increase in revenue in Q1 and 47% sales growth in Q2 compared with a year ago. Like many e-tailers with demand surges this year, Chewy discovered that its inventory positioning status quo wasn’t optimized for this new level of volume. The fix is a centrally-located fulfillment center with a limited assortment of products aimed at improving the company’s readiness for volume spikes. The fulfillment center opened in the Kansas City metro area during the second quarter.
The parent company of Chuck E. Cheese wants to destroy about 7 billion prize tickets that have piled up in its supply chain amid the coronavirus pandemic. The company, CEC Entertainment, asked a Texas bankruptcy court to approve settlements allowing three of its vendors to shred the excess tickets at a cost of about $2.3 million, roughly $1 million less than the cost of circulating them. The massive ticket stockpile could be traded in for about $9 million worth of prize merchandise — or $0.0013 per ticket — at Chuck E. Cheese arcades if they were abandoned and ended up getting into the general public, CEC said in a Monday court filing. CEC said its need for tickets — which players win from arcade games and exchange for prizes — diminished as COVID-19 tanked its sales and forced it to close arcades, though many locations have since reopened. The industry’s “rapid move toward contactless service” amid the pandemic also accelerated efforts to phase out the paper tickets, along with the “muncher” machines that count them, in favor of electronic tickets, the company said.
Technology & Internet
Amazon is launching high-end fashion luxury stores — but if you want to buy anything, chances are you’ll need to get in line. The “Luxury Stores” program launched Tuesday as a “store within a store” experience currently available to only select Amazon (AMZN) Prime members in the US. You can shop only if you’re invited, and while you can request an invitation, there’s already a wait list. For customers, Luxury Stores will offer Amazon Prime members features like a “View in 360 feature” on the Amazon app. It also includes exclusive access: Amazon partnered with the Oscar de la Renta brand for its launch, giving Luxury Store shoppers early access to the late designer’s pre-fall and fall/winter 2020 collections, which are currently only available at the fashion house’s own boutiques and website. And for the company partners, Luxury Stores will allow established and burgeoning high-end fashion brands “to independently make decisions regarding their inventory, selection and pricing.”
Amazon.com Inc. plans to open 1,000 small delivery hubs in cities and suburbs all over the U.S., according to people familiar with the plans. The facilities, which will eventually number about 1,500, will bring products closer to customers, making shopping online about as fast as a quick run to the store. Amazon couldn’t fulfill its two-day delivery pledge earlier this year when shoppers in COVID-19 lockdown flooded the company with more orders than it could handle. While delivery times have improved thanks to the hiring of 175,000 new workers, Amazon is now consumed with honoring a pre-pandemic pledge to get many products to Prime subscribers on the same day. So with the holidays approaching, CEO Jeff Bezos is doubling down by investing billions in proximity, putting warehouses and swarms of blue vans in neighborhoods long populated with car dealerships, fast-food joints, shopping malls and big-box stores.
Finance & Economy
U.S. consumer spending appeared to slow in August as extended unemployment benefits were cut for millions of Americans, offering more evidence that the economic recovery from the Covid-19 recession was faltering. The report followed data this month suggesting the labor market was losing speed after astounding employment gains in May and June as businesses reopened after being shuttered in mid-March to control the spread of the coronavirus.
The University of Michigan said the preliminary reading of its U.S. consumer sentiment index in September was 78.9, up from 74.1 in the prior month. Economists polled by MarketWatch expected a reading of 75.9. The sentiment indicator covers how consumers view their personal finances as well as business and buying conditions. While the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index has climbed to its highest level since March, it remains well below its February reading that was north of 100. The amount of confidence Americans have in the economy and their own financial security has a good record of predicting the future. Until they feel more secure, the economy is unlikely to make a rapid recovery from the coronavirus recession.