Stepping Into an Amazon Store Helps It Get Inside Your Head

Infrared light flooded down invisibly as I eyed the pastries in Amazon’s new convenience store in downtown San Francisco. It helped cameras mounted on the store’s ceiling detect that I picked up a croissant, then put it back.

My flirtation with a $3.19 morsel of flaky pastry was recorded during a preview of the Amazon Go store that opened in San Francisco’s financial district this morning. As in the five other such stores in Seattle and Chicago, shoppers gain entry by scanning a QR code in the Amazon Go mobile app to open a subway-style entry gate. Hundreds of cameras on the ceiling, plus sensors in the shelves, then record what each person picks up, so they can walk out without having to visit a checkout.

Amazon Go’s design offers shoppers an eerie freedom. Breezing out of a store without breaking stride feels efficient but also a little like shoplifting. Less perceptibly, the cameras and shelf sensors also log data that provides Amazon a remarkable view of what people do in a physical store. “Anything that you pick up, anything that you put back, is kept track of,” says Dilip Kumar, the vice president responsible for the technology behind Amazon Go.

Tracking shoppers like that puts Amazon in a position to teleport some of the data-driven tactics from its dominant online shopping business to the physical world. Kumar likened the way his system logged my moment of temptation with the croissant to how the company’s online store logs what people click. “It’s the equivalent of interest on an Amazon detail page,” he said.

Peter Fader, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, compares the data that Amazon Go stores could collect to an earlier retail revolution—the debut of barcode scanners. That technology also streamlined the experience for shoppers while revealing new information to store owners, such as which items were frequently bought together.

When someone visits an Amazon Go store, the Seattle company’s technology can see not just what they bought but what they picked up and discarded, and also in what order they handled different items. That information could be used to optimize a store’s selection and design, and to power personalized marketing messages, Fader says. “It becomes possible to figure out what’s the bait to attract and retain and build relationships with the most valuable customers,” he says.

Cashier-less systems can collect impressively detailed data on shoppers. Standard Cognition is one of several startups offering similar technology to existing retailers. The company boasts that, unlike Amazon Go, its system uses only overhead cameras, not shelf sensors, making it easy to deploy in existing stores. Evan Shiue, who leads strategy at Standard Cognition, says the startup’s technology can log things like how often people picking up a can of Pepsi look at its nutrition panel, or whether they put it down and buy a Coke instead.

“You get a lot of great behavioral data in ecommerce—what I added to my basket and then took out and how long I looked at a particular item,” says Shiue. “We can now do this in bricks and mortar through computer vision.”

Visitors to an Amazon Go store are watched closely from above by conventional and depth cameras—aided by infrared illumination—from the moment they scan their app to gain entry. Amazon trained machine-learning algorithms to recognize when items have been picked up using thousands of hours of footage of people grabbing items from shelves, Kumar says. Weight sensors in a store’s shelves help the system confirm what item, and how many, a person has taken.

Kumar wouldn’t discuss in detail how Amazon might use the data it collects in Amazon Go stores. He acknowledged that the company could one day combine information from my visit with my record of Amazon.com purchases—potentially helping customer data analysts at both businesses—but said that wasn’t the project’s “primary purpose.” A company spokesperson said that any sensitive data collected by Amazon Go stores is treated in accordance with Amazon’s existing data security policies, and directed WIRED to a privacy notice in the convenience stores’ app.

The success of other companies that use technology to merge online and offline customer tracking suggests that Amazon could reap considerable benefits. Stacy Smollin Schwartz, a professor at Rutgers Business School, points to Starbucks’ popular mobile app, which uses loyalty points and personalized challenges to lure customers into stores, and Disney’s MagicBand wristbands that track visitors’ perambulations around theme parks. Both have shown that a digital lens on a person’s real-world actions can open up new ways to change their behavior.

For Amazon, that might mean sending people targeted promotions through the Amazon Go app—for example, to encourage someone who grabs a daily breakfast sandwich to also drop by for lunch. “Knowing people’s habits and being able to individually try to manipulate those habits to increase the individual loyalty and profitability of each customer is very valuable,” says Smollin Schwartz.

A few minutes after I walked out of the store’s electronic gate Friday, the Amazon Go app buzzed for my attention. It showed an itemized receipt for the Advil, curry paste, and Amazon Go-branded chocolate bar I had grabbed from the shelves and stuffed into my pockets. The price total and tax were noted. Not visible—what Amazon learned about me.


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Japan tells Facebook to improve data protection

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s government on Monday told U.S. technology firm Facebook Inc (FB.O) to better protect its users’ personal data following lapses this year affecting tens of millions of people globally.

The logo of Facebook is pictured during the Viva Tech start-up and technology summit in Paris, France, May 25, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

The government asked the world’s largest social media network to fully communicate security issues to users, increase surveillance of providers of applications on its platform, and inform regulators of any change in security measures.

The request comes after Facebook this month said attackers stole data from 29 million user accounts. That followed the April revelation that personal data of nearly 87 million users was improperly accessed by British firm Cambridge Analytica.

Japan’s Personal Information Protection Commission, which investigated the Cambridge Analytica incident with authorities in Britain and elsewhere, issued a statement on Monday detailing its request to Facebook. The request carries no administrative orders or penalties and is not legally binding.

Facebook has promised to detail on its Japanese-language website how it will address the request, the Commission said.

It also said the Cambridge Analytica incident potentially affected up to 100,000 users in Japan, and that the cyber attack may also have had an impact on users in Japan.

Representatives of Facebook did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Reporting by Makiko Yamazaki; additional reporting by Sam Nussey; Editing by Christopher Cushing

Gadget Lab Podcast: Pinterest’s Evan Sharp on What Makes Good Software

Why did Apple’s Jony Ive name Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp as one of the figures in technology who he believes will change the future?

If you were wondering about that, here’s a great chance to learn a little bit more about Sharp and make the call yourself. During the 25th anniversary festival for WIRED last week, the Gadget Lab team had the chance to interview Sharp on stage, among other high-profile technologists. Over the next few weeks we’ll be publishing these taped conversations as a part of the podcast.

In this particularly interview, Mike and Arielle ask Sharp what it’s like to receive praise from Ive, how machine learning is changing software design, and whether Pinterest can remain once of the internet’s last happy places.

Show notes: Click here to read more about Jony Ive’s nomination of Evan Sharp for our 25th anniversary issue. And here’s Lauren’s WIRED 25 interview with Kevin Systrom, which we mentioned in this week’s show.

Recommendations this week: Lauren recommends the Dakota backpack from Dagne Dover. Mike recommends these awesome smartphone accessory lenses made by Moment.

Send the Gadget Lab hosts feedback on their personal Twitter feeds. Arielle Pardes can be found at @pardesoteric. Lauren Goode is @laurengoode. Michael Calore can be found at @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. Our theme song is by Solar Keys.

How to Listen

You can always listen to this week’s podcast through the audio player on this page, but if you want to subscribe for free to get every episode, here’s how:

If you’re on an iPhone or iPad, open the app called Podcasts, or just tap this link. You can also download an app like Overcast or Pocket Casts, and search for Gadget Lab. And in case you really need it, here’s the RSS feed.

If you use Android, you can find us in the Google Play Music app just by tapping here. You can also download an app like Pocket Casts or Radio Public, and search for Gadget Lab. And in case you really need it, here’s the RSS feed.

We’re also on Soundcloud, and every episode gets posted to wired.com as soon as it’s released. If you still can’t figure it out, or there’s another platform you use that we’re not on, let us know.

The Airline Says One Thing. The Flight Crews Pictured Sleeping On the Floor Say Another. This Is What They All Told Me

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

An airline’s crew were lying on the floor, apparently trying to sleep in a brightly-lit room.

It looked a little too perfectly damning, to be honest. 

These were, though, 24 members of four Ryanair crews stranded by weather in Málaga, Spain and not provided with a hotel by the airline.

So it took to Twitter and Facebook and posted video of the crew staging the image.

I asked Ryanair whether this wasn’t a slightly unseemly move, one that may even have privacy implications.

An airline spokeswoman told me: 

The publication of this video reveals the facts and exposes the SNPVAC union fake news/false claims.This video proves that the original picture was staged and no crew ‘slept on the floor.’ All Ryanair offices and crew rooms are equipped for security reasons with CCTV cameras and notifications of same as required by GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation]. 

Why, though, didn’t the airline offer the crew a hotel for the night? Ryanair’s spokeswoman insisted: 

Due to storms in Porto (13 Oct) a number of flights diverted to Malaga and as this was a Spanish national holiday, hotels were fully booked.  The crew spent a short period of time in the crew room before being moved to a VIP lounge, and returned to Porto the next day (none of the crew operated flights).

Oddly, local resident Alex Macheras noted that Booking.com showed more than 1,800 hotel rooms available in Malaga that night.

Ryanair’s Chief Operating Officer Peter Bellew insisted that the airline had called 42 hotels.

There was nothing for it but to dutifully ask Bruno Fialho, vice-president of the SNPVAC union, to offer me his two minutes on Ryanair’s claims.

Please Fasten Your Seat Belts. 

Fialho’s version was a little different.

He told me that the 24 crew members were placed in the Ryanair crew room “so that they were kept isolated from the hundreds of passengers that were in the terminal.”

It was 1.15 a.m. Then, Fialho told me: 

For hours, the Crew attempted to contact Ryanair OPS and LESMA (local RYR Ground handling agent) to obtain information about the hotel accommodation and both replied that there weren’t any hotels available. The Crew also contacted directly some hotels in the Málaga area and there were rooms available.

This is already not looking good. Fialho says that the crew were sent to an airport lounge at around 3.45 a.m. There were chairs, sofas and toilets available, but no food or drinks.

Next, Fialho says, the crew were told they’d be flown to Portugal on a 10 a.m. flight, but still no food or drinks were offered. In addition, Fialho says, the crew was guarded by security personnel, preventing them from leaving.

Then, mordant comedy. Fialho told me: 

After the security guard made several phone calls, the Crew was allowed into the airport terminal to have some breakfast. Finally, at 9 a.m. the LESMA duty manager informs that he managed to get a hotel for everyone. However, the Crew was already informed of the flight at 10:00 a.m. (just 1 hour later) which the duty manager wasn’t aware.

No, it wasn’t over. Fialho again:

At 09.55 a.m. the Crew is sent on a bus to the aircraft with the information that 2 pilots were already there to take the aircraft ferry to Porto. When they got there, the aircraft was closed and the crew were left on the ramp. The Pilots decide to open the aircraft to wait inside as the weather conditions were adverse.

So the took off shortly afterwards, right? Well, no, says Fialho.

At 10.40 a.m. the Crew is informed of a 2 hour slot restriction and that they have to wait for another 10 pilots from Málaga Airport and other bases to take the same flight to Porto in order to operate the afternoon flights. The operating captain didn’t have permission to leave Málaga before those 10 pilots arrived.

Please tell me you’re still with me, as there’s more. A lot more. Next, Fialho says:

At 11.20 a.m., the Crew asks the operating Captain to open the aircraft bars and get something to eat, a request that was denied by Operations. The Crew decided to ignore the instruction and opened the bar anyway, as they were feeling very hungry.

Fialho says that the flight finally landed in Porto at 1.42 p.m. Worse, he says, the Crew Controller was convinced that the crews had been given hotels and were properly rested, so they were being scheduled for new flights.

Yes, I hear you cry, but what about the staged photo? According to Fialho: 

The photo was a gesture of protest, that immediately became viral. Laying on the floor was the only option to rest — their ‘suitable accommodation.’ And precisely due to the unusual, deplorable and despicable treatment given to the Crew, Ryanair became the object of a social media frenzy.

Fialho added another kink to the story of the photo: 

Ryanair rushes to call it ‘staged,’ but not before the Company’s Chief Operating Officer apologized to the crew via Twitter.

Fialho believes this is merely another example of Ryanair’s cold-blooded attitude to employee relations. But what about the privacy issue with the video? He told me: 

Regarding the evident breach of the Global Data Protection Regulations we will discuss this in the appropriate institutions. Ryanair did us all a favor by providing evidence that in fact there were no minimum conditions for their employees to spend the night with dignity.

The People’s Verdict.

If you look on Twitter and Facebook, sympathy largely rests with the cabin crews. 

Above all, however, a single impression remains — that relations between Ryanair and its employees are parlous at best. 

How you treat your employees says so much about how your company is run. And once employer/employee unpleasantness reaches the public sphere, please imagine what your customers will think.

Then again, I fear that many will merely mutter: “Yup, that’s Ryanair for you.”

Hacked, scammed and on your own: navigating cryptocurrency 'wild west'

NEW YORK (Reuters) – When Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke learned in January that hackers cracked a 40-character password and cleaned out their cryptocurrency wallet, they did not go to the police or alert the tokens’ issuer, the Berlin-based technology group IOTA.

FILE PHOTO: Giant electronic billboards display adverts for crypto currency investment companies as commuters arrive at Canary Wharf tube station in London, Britain April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Walker/File Photo

They bought more coins.

The Cyprus-based German couple, who describe themselves as financial educators, figured they had no chance of recovering the coins and it was not even clear who might take up their case. Yet they took the roughly $14,000 loss in stride – something that comes with the territory when one bets on a new, exciting technology in a yet unregulated market.

“We really believe in cryptocurrencies. We have studied this for about a year before investing, so we are aware of the risks,” Peggy Lachmann-Anke said. “There was nothing we could do.”

Far from unusual, the episode is emblematic for a market where few rules apply and where investors’ faith in the blockchain technology goes hand in hand with the belief that it also helps criminals cover their tracks so well that trying to catch them is a fool’s errand.

Patrick Wyman, FBI supervisory special agent at the financial crimes section of the agency’s anti-money laundering unit acknowledges cryptocurrencies pose some unique challenges.

“A decentralized currency system like bitcoin, or another form of virtual currency is not governed by any entity, suspicious reporting activity, and any anti-money laundering compliance,” Wyman told Reuters.

Various estimates show cryptocurrency crime is on the rise, keeping pace with the market’s rapid growth. That forces investigators to focus on high-profile cases, security professionals and officials say, effectively leaving small investors to their own devices.

“We do not pretend that every law enforcement agency is devoting resources to every single crime. That would not be possible,” said Jaroslav Jakubcek, an analyst at Europol, which serves as a center for the European Union’s law enforcement cooperation, expertise and intelligence.

UNREPORTED CASES

Officials still encourage people to report cryptocurrency theft to local police like any other crime, saying failing to do so only emboldens criminals.

Yet because many victims simply do not see the point, cryptocurrency theft is far more common than any published estimates suggest, security professionals say.

According to financial research firm Autonomous NEXT and Crypto Aware, which works with investors affected by crypto scams, about 15 percent of cryptocurrencies have been stolen between 2012 and the first half of 2018, representing a cumulative $1.7 billion in value at the time of the theft and with a rising tendency. In the first half of this year alone, more than $800 million has already been stolen, according to the data. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/2Nq3ngy)

Yet Lex Sokolin, a partner and global director of fintech strategy at the firm, estimates that as much as 85 percent of crimes go unreported and says the published statistics only represent publicly reported heists.

Reuters interviews with half a dozen victims paint a similar picture. Out of that group only two reported their losses to the authorities and one soured on cryptocurrency investments.

Armin Fischer, a Vienna-based IT specialist said he lost about $5,300 in ether coins in a phishing scam in the summer of 2017 and immediately alerted the local police just to find out that the duty officer had no idea what he was talking about.

He said it took many months of knocking on doors to get his case ultimately taken up by Vienna prosecutors’ office, but it is still pending. Fisher says by now he has had enough.

FILE PHOTO: Representations of the Ripple, Bitcoin, Etherum and Litecoin virtual currencies are seen on a PC motherboard in this illustration picture, February 13, 2018. Picture taken February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

“I have seen firsthand how big the security leaks are.”

Others are more philosophical.

Dave Appleton, a blockchain developer for HelloGold, a gold trading app company in Kuala Lumpur, said he lost about $3,000 of ether coins when scammed by a fake site touting a startup’s token pre-sale. He said he just moved on, glad he did not lose more.

“The point is there’s no one to report the crime to,” Appleton said. “I am not sure what country or jurisdiction it would come under.”

According ICO tracker Coinschedule a record $21.3 billion flowed into new tokens so far this year as investors keep snapping up “initial coin offerings,” undeterred by high-profile heists, bitcoin’s and other currencies’ slide from late 2017 peaks, and government warnings of widespread fraud and theft.

MILLIONS AT STAKE

David Jevans, chief executive of cybersecurity firm CipherTrace in Menlo Park, California, estimates that even when exchanges or trading platforms get hacked, perhaps only a fifth of stolen coins is recovered because of the ease with which digital tokens can move across several borders.

“You have to get law enforcement in five countries interested enough, have time enough, and have evidence enough to open a case,” he said. “By the time they agree, get the information, do all the paperwork, the money has been moved.”

Security experts say in most cases millions need to be at stake to justify such an effort.

U.S. entrepreneur and long-time cryptocurrency investor Michael Terpin, who says he got robbed twice, learned firsthand that not all hacks are created equal.

He said first time when criminals accessed his cellphone with stolen SIM card credentials, emptied a wallet connected to it, and tricked his friends into sending money by impersonating him on Skype, he contacted a friend at the FBI.

But once she learned that only $60,000 got stolen, she advised him to file a report via the FBI’s internet crime center website. Terpin said he did, but never heard back.

Then, when last January he lost almost $24 million in tokens from his mobile account, he went straight after the service provider AT&T, filing a $224 million lawsuit accusing it of negligence that allowed “digital identity theft,” a claim AT&T denies.

Undeterred, Terpin says he remains committed to blockchain comparing it to the early days of Amazon.com Inc when the online retailer faced much skepticism and even derision.

“That’s similar to today’s narrative that all ICOs (initial coin offerings) are scams and nothing will ever be developed of value because they’re not already fully deployed,” he said.

Steadfast commitment to the new technology and belief that it gives sophisticated criminals the upper hand mean that even some multimillion heists go unreported.

For example, when hackers stole about $9 million worth of ether tokens from a Zug, Switzerland-based company Swarm City in July 2017, the peer-to-peer digital platform did not report the theft to the police, business leader Bernd Lapp said.

“It’s impossible to track and return the funds. We live and die with this technology.”

Reporting by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss; Editing by Tomasz Janowski

SAP raises guidance as cloud transformation gathers pace

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Germany’s SAP said that its cloud revenues grew by 41 percent in the third quarter as its business transformation gathers pace, enabling management to raise guidance for revenues and profits this year.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of German software group SAP is pictured at its headquarters in Walldorf, Germany, May 12, 2016. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski/File Photo

SAP, Europe’s most valuable tech company, said it now expects revenues to grow by 7.5-8.5 percent in 2018 and operating profits by 9.5-11 percent, its confidence buoyed by a strong order pipeline for the final quarter.

“The future has never been brighter at SAP – we’re fired up and ready to go,” CEO Bill McDermott told reporters on a conference call.

($1 = 0.8699 euros)

Reporting by Douglas Busvine; editing by Thomas Seythal

Samsung Electronics buys network analysis firm Zhilabs in 5G push

SEOUL (Reuters) – Samsung Electronics Co Ltd (005930.KS) said on Wednesday it has bought Barcelona-based network data analysis firm Zhilabs, as the South Korean giant gears up to launch products for connected devices and 5G mobile services that require fast data crunching.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Samsung Electronics is seen at its office building in Seoul, South Korea, March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Samsung did not disclose the value of the deal, which marks the first announced acquisition in new technologies since companies in the Samsung group pledged in August a 25 trillion won ($22.23 billion) investment in artificial intelligence, 5G, electronic components for autos, and biopharmaceuticals.

Samsung is betting that Zhilabs, which uses artificial intelligence to analyze network data, would help its transition to newer 5G gear, as it uses automated network analytics tool for fast data crunching.

Established in 2008, Zhilabs provides analyses of network condition, performance, and data traffic for about 50 telecom companies. Fully owned by Samsung, Zhilabs will continue to operate independently under its own management.

Samsung also said on Wednesday that it “will also explore and invest in other business opportunities powered by the emerging technologies”.

Reporting by Heekyong Yang; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier and Muralikumar Anantharaman

Jack Dorsey Has Problems With Twitter, Too

It contributes to filter bubbles, he said. It risks silencing people, he said. And when it’s not silencing them, it might be incentivizing them to behave badly, or basely, he said. His biggest criticism of the social media site he runs was that it could be nudging its users in the wrong directions.

“What does the service currently incentivize?” asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on stage at the WIRED25 summit today. It’s the question he and his whole team are asking themselves right now—about every aspect of the site “Right now we have a big Like button with a heart on it and we’re incentivizing people to want it to go up” and to get more followers, he pointed out. “Is that the right thing? Versus contributing to the public conversation or a healthy conversation? How do we incentive healthy conversation?”

When he co-founded the website 12 years ago, it was meant as a place for friends to share pictures of their lunch. “Now it’s become a place to launch nuclear war,” said Wired editor in chief Nick Thompson. That evolution, from innocuous late-night destination for cryptic jokes to lubricator of social movements to a cesspool of outrage and the platform for geopolitical discourse was not a result of Twitter’s code, Dorsey’s argued. But it was inevitable.

From the second it launched, Twitter was a free app with which anyone could text message the entire world. “Once the world saw that, there was no taking it back,” Dorsey said. “Once they saw it, they needed it. Our job now is to make sure we are actually serving that need.” By which he means the need for a global public square, a place for a global conversation to discuss the most important topics—he cited climate change and poverty as topics that can only be tackled in a global discussion—which he feels it is Twitter’s responsibility to facilitate.

If that means not being an absolutist about free speech, so be it. “We can only stand for freedom of expression if people feel safe to express themselves in the first place,” he said, adding, “A lot of people come to Twitter and they don’t see a service. They see what looks like a public square and they have the same expectation as they have of a public square, and that is what we have to get right.”

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (right) on stage with WIRED editor in chief Nick Thompson.

Amy Lombard

To get it right, Dorsey indicated everything was on the table. Twitter, he indicated, may need to be radically changed. He noted right now the service only allows you to follow accounts, not topics. It only allows you to like or retweet. What should it allow you to do instead? He’s not sure, but he’s considering every option.

And he’s open to your ideas. “When we started the company, we weren’t thinking about [any of] this at all,” he said. “One of the interesting things about Twitter has been this amazing experiment in creating with others—the hashtag, the thread, the retweet—have all been invented by the people using our service, not us.” So if you have ideas for how to fix Twitter, make it known. Dorsey is listening.


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Glen Weyl on Technology and Social Innovation

Social movements have spurred major transformations in society, from the end of slavery to universal suffrage, the rise of labor unions, and universal education. Yet somehow after decades of economic stability, we began to rely on technological rather than social tools to remake the world, says Glen Weyl, a principal researcher for Microsoft.

While technology flourished, we “did not allow our social wisdom and social infrastructure to balance that out,” says Weyl. “I think it’s killing equality and structure of our society, so I think we need to regain that spirit of being open to those fundamental social innovations.”

Weyl spoke at the WIRED25 Festival on Sunday, during a panel that explored the ideas in the book he co-authored, Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society. The book argues that markets, radically reimagined, are the best place to combine social innovation with technology and then disseminate those changes to the masses.

Kevin Kelly

Amy Lombard

WIRED cofounder Kevin Kelly, who was moderating the panel, asked Weyl why he seemed so confident that the world needs to try his sophisticated, but rather mathematical ideas.

Weyl says his faith in economic theory comes from his own political evolution. At age 10, he was a socialist, but that gave way to Ayn Randian libertarianism in his teens. “By the age of 18, I realized that I had inhabited these two completely contradictory ideologies,” and yet believed in both. For Weyl, the puzzle pieces only fit together when when he was studying for a PhD in economics. Deep inside economics were “all these really powerful ideas for transforming the world,” which “allowed me to reconcile my randianism and my socialism,” he said. Finally he was able to connect “my deep economic theory work back to the passions that I had since the age of 18.”

Likewise, the ideas in Radical Markets will only take root if people reconcile different approaches, said Weyl. Take, for instance, quadratic voting, his idea to solve problems caused by majority rule by allowing people with a strong preference to vote more often on issues they care about, if they abstain from other votes.

Amy Lombard

Technocrats could experiment on quadratic voting, but “they can’t press a button and make this happen and we wouldn’t want them to,” says Weyl. “Activists can hope to build imagination” around the idea, but no one will follow them until they see an opportunity to experiment with it. “Entrepreneurs can build things and find areas where you can use quadratic voting to do ratings of online services or polling or whatever, but they can’t figure out what it should feel like to people in order to make them be able understand it.” For that, we need artists and designers.

Weyl’s hope is that the same diverse, intersecting communities needed to bring about these ideas will, in turn, build a world that better embraces diversity and more flexible ideas around individual and collective identity.

As an example of the interplay between social and technological change, Weyl pointed to blockchain technology, which allows for a decentralized and transparent public ledger. Blockchain may not be the answer to every need, but “It’s a great technology for bringing fundamental social change the world that can sustain liberalism,” he said.


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Under Armour – You Cannot Fool All Of The People All Of The Time

“I never want to be beholden to a vote of some board or politics or anyone else.”- Kevin Plank

Sometime last month, Under Armour (UA, UAA) posted the latest in a long line of restructuring updates (fifth within a year), with the 2018 restructuring program now running at $200m-$220m (from $190m-$210m). That’s another $10m to the growing pile of one-offs, and at some point, some tough questions will have to be asked. In the meantime, here’s UA’s reasoning behind the latest update:

“Following further evaluation, the company has identified approximately $10 million of cash severance charges related to an approximate 3 percent reduction in its global workforce.”

With the latest update on the board, I think it’s an opportune time to shed some light not just on the latest restructuring attempt, but also the various governance deficiencies within UA which have enabled the never-ending restructuring “one-offs”.

Don’t Trust the Restructuring

With the $10m severance one-off firmly in the guidance, here’s how adjusted guidance gets impacted:

FY18 Pre-update

FY18 Post-update

Op Income (Loss)

$(50)-(60)m

$(60)m

Adj Op Income (Loss)

$130-160m

$140-160m

Adj EPS

$0.14-0.19

$0.16-0.19

(Source: Under Armour)

Here’s how the math works – we have a $10m charge which brings guided (actual) operating income down $10m and (adjusted) income up by $10m – but only at the lower end. Somehow, the market was fooled into believing this was positive.

(Source: Yahoo Finance)

It appears UA has yet again, adjusted its earnings to paint a more optimistic picture. Aside from the fact that the $10m adj op income raise at the low end ($0.02 raise at low end adj EPS) from severance is hardly positive, there’s two key takeaways the market seems to have missed – 1) the top end of guidance was not raised and 2) UA did not update revenue and gross margin guidance. The former likely implies that UA was heading for the low end of its initial guidance while the latter indicates little improvement from the demand side.

But that’s not all. Here’s UA’s last word on the updated guide:

“The reduction in workforce…represents the final component and update to the company’s 2018 restructuring plan”

If that sounds familiar, one only has to look back to the 4Q17 call when management made a similar promise:

“Also, important to note that we anticipate the majority of our restructuring to be completed in the first half of 2018”

Immediately after, UA announced a new 2018 restructuring program which has ballooned from $110-130m to $200-220m as of Sept . Here’s a nice compilation by Macquarie:

Notably, that brings total restructuring costs since 2017 to a staggering $350m at the upper end. Here’s the thing though – UA has been using some form of restructuring as a vehicle to adjust earnings for a very long time now. Pre-2017, explanation for the one-offs ranged from the Dickerson era (“product flow” and “improving customer service levels”) to the Molloy-era (everything from “promotions” to “foreign exchange rates”).

Here’s how the rationale behind the elevated inventory was explained while Dickerson was CFO:

Event

Dickerson-era Updates

2015 Investor Day

“First, on the near term — over the course of the rest of this year and through 2016, we are focused on delivering our products to our consumers more timely, specifically on key seasonal floor set dates. This focus specifically in comparison to some prior years’ challenges will result in elevated inventory growth rates over this time frame to flow product earlier

3Q15

“Switching over to inventory, as we outlined in our Investor Day, over the next few quarters we are focused on delivering our products to our consumers more timely, specifically on key seasonal floor set dates. We anticipate this will result in elevated inventory growth rates over this period to flow product earlier.

4Q15

“Finally, inventory. As we previously stated, our focus is on delivering our products to our consumers in a more timely manner and improving our customer service levels. As a result, we continue to expect inventory growth rates to be slightly elevated above the revenue growth rate in the front half of 2016, with growth rates expected to level off and be in line with revenue growth in the back half of 2016.”

(Source: Under Armour)

Chip Molloy was a lot more straightforward as CFO – here’s how his narrative evolved:

Event

Molloy-era Updates

1Q16

“As previously mentioned, the strategy to improve wholesale, customer service levels resulted in elevated inventory investments beginning in the second quarter of last year. We expect the growth in inventory will be more in line with sales as we begin to anniversary the strategy during the second quarter of this year

2Q16

“Inventory for the quarter increased 30% to $1.1 billion, compared to $837 million at June 30, 2015. As we noted last quarter, we are beginning to anniversary the strategic inventory investments that we implemented in the second quarter of last year, and expect the growth in inventory to remain relatively in line with sales throughout the remainder of the year

3Q16

“In the quarter, gross margin declined more than planned, driven predominantly by higher-than-expected promotions, both the volume and rate of liquidations, and foreign exchange rates. Despite liquidations having been a headwind on margin rates for most of this year, we now believe that our inventory position is healthier and liquidation should not have the same negative impact moving forward”

4Q16

“In our efforts to manage the brand appropriately for the marketplace, we are planning for inventory growth to be higher than revenue growth for the first three quarters of 2017 and coming more in line with revenue growth during the fourth quarter.

(Source: Under Armour)

The difference between then and now is that UA’s restructuring has expanded far beyond inventory one-offs – the asset and labor cost base has also been trimmed substantially.

2Q18

Sep-18

Pre-Tax Restructuring & Related Charges

$190-210m

$200-220m

Cash Charges

Up to $155m

Up to $155m

-Facility & Lease Terminations

Up to $75m

Up to $75m

-Contract Termination & Other

Up to $80m

Up to $90m

Non-Cash Charges

Up to $55m

Up to $55m

-Inventory

Up to $20m

Up to $20m

-Asset Impairment

Up to $35m

Up to $35m

(Source: Under Armour, Author)

But it may not be enough. In a follow-up with an analyst, management disclosed the following – 1) “the full fruits of the new Frisk era” are “not expected to hit full stride until FY20”, and 2) “Construction costs for UAA’s NYC Flagship have been pushed back until at least late 2019 (and potentially 2020).” In other words, FY19 is going to be another restructuring year for UA. That makes it the fifth consecutive restructuring year.

With high-flying expectations already embedded in next year’s consensus expectations ($0.31 FY19 EPS; +63% YoY implied), it will be interesting to see how the market reacts when the news finally hits.

Don’t Trust the Disclosures

Unbeknownst to most, the restructuring update actually came on the heels of a curious letter from the SEC. Here’s the two comments the SEC noted in its letter to UA:

Comment 1:

“You state that as of December 31, 2017, no impairment of goodwill was identified and the fair value of each reporting unit substantially exceeded its carrying value. We also note that your Latin American segment has experienced operating losses in the past three years.”

Comment 2:

“You present a full non-GAAP income statement for the quarter ended March 31, 2018 when reconciling non-GAAP measures to the most directly comparable GAAP measures. Please tell us how your presentation complies with the guidance in Question 102.10 of the Non-GAAP Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations”

The letter (dated May 23 2018) required a response within 10 business days, a window which UA was unable to meet.

“The comment letter requires that the Company respond within ten business days or inform the Staff when the Company will respond. As discussed with Ms. Suying Li, we hereby request an extension to respond by no later than June 15, 2018. This additional time will enable the necessary internal review related to the Company’s response to the comment letter

Now, on its own, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But a look into UA’s SEC correspondence history indicates a curious pattern – barring one occasion, UA has never been able to respond within the allotted window. In fact, UA has almost always needed 20-30 day extensions.

Query Year

Request for Extension

May 2011

?

Aug 2011

?

Oct 2011

?

Dec 2011

?

May 2017

?

May 2018

?

(Source: SEC)

Clearly, the SEC is asking some tough questions.

When they did finally answer though, UA’s (delayed) reply to SEC comment 1 provided some insight into how they’ve been accounting for their international units.

Per UA management, despite the LatAm business posting three consecutive years of losses, “the fair value of the reporting unit exceeded its carrying amount by approximately $130.3 million”. If that boggles the imagination, here’s UA on how they arrived at the estimate – 1) using a DCF model, management has assumed long-term profitability, 2) revenue assumed to grow at sub-41%, 3) gross margins also assumed to grow via higher DTC contribution, 4) SG&A assumed to fall as a proportion of revenue.

All these expectations are fine and dandy but here’s the reality of UA’s LatAm unit – it hasn’t just been loss making at the EBIT-level for three years, it’s been negative for four.

(Source: Under Armour)

Meanwhile, LatAm sales growth has been slowing significantly – 2Q only saw a 7% rise YoY with no sign of a turnaround in margins. Yet, UA has somehow been allowed to input aggressive growth and margin assumptions into the model.

The $130m LatAm “headroom” is especially strange. As I’ve highlighted in the past, almost all of UA’s goodwill is tied up in Connected Fitness (MapMyFitness + MyFitnessPal + Endomondo). Because of the way Plank as Chief Operating Decision Maker (“CODM”) has allocated the goodwill, LatAm’s ~$40+m in goodwill is mainly tied up in Connected Fitness (“CF”) with a tiny portion (~$1m) tied to the actual LatAm operations.

So, it makes sense that UA hasn’t written down any LatAm goodwill – virtually all of it is Connected Fitness-related and thus, unrelated to the operating losses. UA’s response detailing the $130m headroom without clarifying the source of LatAm goodwill is interesting.

To the second SEC comment re non-GAAP P&L, UA said –“We respectfully acknowledge the Staff’s comment and undertake that in future filings we will reconcile our non-GAAP measures to the most directly comparable GAAP measures without presenting a full non-GAAP income statement.”

Now, all this raises some interesting questions – 1) why is UA being allowed free rein to input unrealistic assumptions into the LatAm DCF, 2) are they using similar methods to stave off a major CF goodwill impairment, and 3) why was UA not more forthcoming about its goodwill composition with the SEC?

Most importantly, just what is going on with UA’s auditor?

Don’t Trust the Auditor

UA’s auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has been in place for a while now at ~15 years. There are two ways to interpret long tenures – that they’ve been around long enough to know their way around UA’s accounting or that they’ve been around too long and have gotten too cozy with the company.

If PwC’s recent fees are anything to go by, the UA gig isn’t just lucrative, it gets more and more lucrative by the year. Here’s UA’s audit fees trend:

(Source: Under Armour)

Note the sharp rise in FY17 – audit fees rose ~48% in one year. Including everything else (audit-related, taxes and all other fees to the auditor), UA paid its auditor a grand total of $3.8m in FY17, a staggering 56% YoY pay hike. It also represents an eye-popping tripling in fees since FY12.

Now, there’s a few reasons why this might be the case, with the most innocuous explanation being UA’s growth (unlikely when benchmarked vs similar growth cos). The more likely reason in my view, may be that the audit may be getting more extensive e.g. digging into areas where results are uncertain.

Don’t Trust the Board

While the media fixates on the deficiencies of Tesla’s (TSLA) governance, UA’s is just as bad, if not worse. With Kevin Plank wearing the CEO/ Chairman/ Founder/ CODM hats while controlling the shareholder vote, there really isn’t much governance here at all.

I noted some interesting points on UA’s Board breakdown – 1) Seven out of ten Board members are at or past the age of 60, 2) Only one has accounting expertise, and 3) The members hold a large number of management roles and Board positions elsewhere.

Name

Position

Committee

Age

Accounting Expertise?

Kevin Plank

Chairman/ CEO

46

George W. Bodenheimer

Acting Chairman of ESPN, Inc.

Comp

60

?

Douglas E. Coltharp

Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Encompass Health Corporation

Audit; Finance (Chair)

56

?

Jerri L. DeVard

Executive Vice President, Chief Customer Officer of Office Depot, Inc.

Comp

60

?

Mohamed El-Erian

Former CEO and Co-Chief Investment Officer of PIMCO

60

?

Karen W. Katz

President and Chief Executive Officer, Neiman Marcus Group LTD LLC

Audit; CG; Finance

61

?

A.B. (“Buzzy”) Krongard

Former Chief Executive Officer and Chairman, Alex.Brown, Incorporated

Audit (Chair)

82

?

William R. McDermott

Chief Executive Officer and Executive Board Member, SAP SE

CG (Chair)

57

?

Eric T. Olson

Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired) and Former Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command

CG

66

?

Harvey L. Sanders

Former Chief Executive Officer and Chairman, Nautica Enterprises, Inc.

Comp (Chair)

68

?

(Source: Under Armour, Author)

Now, UA’s Board also has a bit of an “old boys club” feel and conflicts of interest are rampant. For instance, Olson, who has served with Krongard on the board of Iridium (IRDM), was recommended by Krongard to the UA Board. Meanwhile, Bodenheimer serves with Plank on a separate Board, which may bias his judgment as an independent director.

The low female representation is telling as well.

Besides Plank, Krongard is the key piece – as lead independent director, he acts as the “liaison between the non-management directors of the Board and the Chairman, CEO and President, Kevin Plank and the other members of our management team.” On the UA site, Krongard is listed as the former CEO and chairman of Alex Brown Inc. But his Alex Brown days do not begin to do justice to Krongard’s colorful history.

In fact, Krongard was at some point the executive director at the CIA, following which he held board positions at Blackwater and ArmorGroup. During his tenure at both these companies, he was no stranger to conflicts of interest, for instance, he was brought onto the Blackwater advisory board while his brother (then State Dept inspector general) was tasked with investigations into the firm. Similarly, ArmorGroup faced allegations of counter-intelligence failures and security breaches during his tenure.

A recent lawsuit (see Andersen et al vs Plank et al) highlights, on April 25, 2016, Krongard sold 16,800 personally held shares of Under Armour stock for total proceeds of approximately $762,849.36.

(Source: Andersen et al vs Plank et al)

The timing of this was highly suspicious considering it came right on the heels of the company raising guidance on April 21, 2016. In fact, Krongard seemed to have sold his shares at the same time as fellow Board members Plank and Sanders (ironically the compensation committee chair). From the lawsuit:

“In total, the 933,600 shares sold by Plank, Krongard, and Sanders, and the $39.8 million received from those sales, within mere days after the Company raised guidance on April 21, 2016, represent approximately 19% of the total shares sold and 11.8% of the total proceeds from such sales by all Insider Selling Defendants during the Relevant Period”

Interestingly, the slew of insider sales also came right before UA’s rapid downfall in 2016 and 2017.

(Source: Google Finance)

It isn’t just the audit (Krongard) and compensation (Sanders) chairs that have colorful backgrounds though, finance chair (Coltharp) also has a controversial history. While at Saks, Coltharpwas relieved of responsibilities for accounting and financial reporting matters… in connection with an internal investigation into improper collections of vendor markdown allowances.” He later joined Healthsouth (now Encompass Health), a company plagued by accounting fraud, where he currently serves as CFO.

Meanwhile, McDermott (CG chair) currently runs SAP, where UA is a client. Although UA’s Board claims the relationship is immaterial and has no impact on McDermott’s independence, it seems strange that all four committee chairs either have controversial backgrounds, conflicts of interest or both.

It will be interesting to see how the addition of El-Erian impacts governance. As things stand, I’m not sure he’ll be making much of an impact anytime soon – per the UA site, he isn’t (yet) on any committee:

(Source: Under Armour)

Besides, there’s only so much one man can do. From what I gather, El-Erian holds so many different roles, it seems unlikely that he will be able to devote the time necessary to address UA’s governance deficiencies. Here’s a list of some of his roles:

Institution

Position

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Vice chair

National Bureau of Economic Research

Exco member

Capital Campaign for Cambridge University

Co-chair

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

Board member

The Pegasus School

Board member

Microsoft Investment Advisory Committee

Chair

Council on Foreign Relations

Member

Allianz

International advisory committee

Allianz

International executive committee

Allianz

Chief Economic Advisor

Investcorp

International advisory committee

Under Armour

Board member

(Source: Author, El-Erian Website, Bloomberg)

Contrary to popular perception, I don’t think the addition of El-Erian is in the best interest of shareholders. Seemingly expert board members such as El-Erian add credibility but only possess tangential expertise and thus, cannot sufficiently challenge management. The busy schedule doesn’t help either and it wouldn’t surprise me if El-Erian ends up nothing more than a symbolic figure on the UA Board.

Don’t Trust Plank

UA’s governance issues really stem from Plank’s lack of accountability. UA’s share class structure (approved by the Board without question) – one-vote-per-share Class A, no-vote per share Class C, and ten-votes-per-share Class B stock – is designed to entrench Plank’s control over UA.

That’s a big problem – Plank is widely credited with promoting an overly aggressive culture within UA and since 2015, has been operating with virtually no check and balance. Here’s a particularly interesting excerpt I came across from a the Andersen lawsuit (see Andersen et al vs Plank et al):

“Within Under Armour, instructions for determining growth forecasts were very simple: take what you sold last year and add 20%. The Company’s “top down” aggression came directly from Plank. Plank’s obsession with the 20% growth streak drove the Company’s revenue growth-at-all-costs strategy.”

Along with UA, Plank also has interests in businesses such as a whiskey distillery, horse racing, venture capital and property development among others. The latter was a major source of controversy due to a related party transaction which occurred in 2016 where Plank (via Sagamore) sold a parcel of land to UA for $70.3m (more than twice the initial purchase price two years earlier).

In response to King’s demand letter dated May 25 2017 (see King et al vs Plank et al), UA came up with the following breakdown to justify the inflated price (note the inclusion of a $31m lease buyout).

Value ($)

Cost

35m

+Lease buyout

30.6m

+Development, planning and carrying cost

6.4m

-Loss to Sagamore

1.5m

Total Purchase Price

~70.3m

(Source: UA Review Group)

Meanwhile, a UA rep, Diane Pelkey has been posting the following PR statement in response to media coverage (see comment section here):

“Kevin Plank never made money on the transaction with Under Armour. In fact, he actually sold the land to the company at a loss. Moreover, this purchase is going to enable the company to develop a headquarters campus that can support the company’s long-term growth plans. The company followed a thorough process in reviewing and negotiating the transaction, using independent advisors, including Ernst & Young, with close oversight of the company’s Audit Committee to ensure the transaction was fair to the company and free of any potential conflicts.”

Very noble of Plank to take on losses to fund the latest UA headquarters. In fact, Plank claims UA faced a “pressing need for ~100,00 sq ft of office space with even more thereafter” as justification for the purchase in June 2016.

Yet, barely a year later, UA disclosed that their cost base was far too large and needed to be restructured – so much for the “pressing need”. From the 3Q17 call:

“Walking hand-in-hand with this is the need to address our cost infrastructure, which is built for a much larger company than we currently are”

In fact, Plank’s secretive Port Covington real estate purchases began in 2012 after his plans to expand UA’s Locust Point HQ was scuttled by the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Here’s Plank’s reaction in a later interview:

“Number one, I’ve got the engine in Under Armour. Number two . . . I can afford to make these decisions, so why am I waiting on [the Museum of Industry] board of directors?”

Through Marc Weller, who heads Sagamore Development (Plank’s property development co), Plank began discreetly acquiring land in Port Covington that year. His intention was twofold – to sell some of the land to UA for its future HQ, and to develop a mixed-use neighborhood anchored by UA’s HQ.

Throughout this period, Plank discreetly made Port Covington acquisitions totaling over 160 acres at ~$114 million.

Per a Baltimore Sun piece:

“The use of names and addresses that didn’t tie back to Kevin was all very intentional,” Weller said. “We wanted to be successful in acquiring as much as possible as quickly as possible.”

Companies discreetly owned by Plank purchased his first Port Covington property at a foreclosure auction.

Plank sold well over $300m worth of stock into 2014, with the massive sales continuing into 2016, likely to fund the Port Covington development.

In fact, his total stock sales since listing came in at well over $700m.

(Source: Insider Monitor, Author)

Per news articles cited in the King lawsuit (see King et al vs Plank et al), “Sagamore is expected to make $400 million from land sales during the multidecade project, according to an analysis conducted for the city.”

Here’s where it gets dicey for UA shareholders – assuming Plank has been funding Port Covington via UA share sales, would that not imply that UA shareholders have been subsidizing the project? The strategic use of UA’s HQ as a focal point of the development also likely contributed to the funding etc yet, all the upside accrues to Sagamore/ Plank.

Other notable related party transactions include UA’s lease for jet aircraft and a helicopter as well as industrial space and hotel accommodation (all linked to Plank/ Plank Industries and yes, all okayed by the Board, no questions asked).

You Cannot Fool All of the People All of the Time

With the spotlight shining firmly on Tesla’s governance deficiencies, investors may want to check out Under Armour as well. UA’s constant use of restructuring vehicles and aggressive assumptions to mask its busted growth model can only last so long before the market sees UA for what it truly is.

From a valuation perspective, UA looks extremely lofty – the “hockey stick” needed to hit FY18 is already well-known, but FY19 consensus looks way too high as well. With UA already writing off FY19, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a big reset and consensus’ $0.31 FY19 EPS (implying ~62x fwd PE) gets cut in half. In fact, I don’t see UA’s earnings power being any higher than high-teens EPS. And that’s being generous on margins – I’ve assumed flat gross margins and SG&A going forward. Tack on a 30-40x multiple and you’d have to stretch far to get much higher than a MSD-HSD PT for the stock. With a bit of patience, there’s significant downside to be realized here.

It’s hard to say when the market will finally (de-)value UA accordingly – I’d like to think value/ patience is its own catalyst. As the saying goes:

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time” – Abe Lincoln

Disclosure: I am/we are short UAA.

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.