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Abandoned mall department stores may become Amazon’s next fulfillment centers

One of the largest owners of shopping mall real estate in the United Stages, Simon Property Group, has been talking to Amazon about transforming its anchor department stores into Amazon distribution hubs, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In the case of Simon Property, the anchor tenants like J.C. Penney and Sears that used to be stable sources of revenue are now weights around the neck of the retail real estate manager, and transforming their ghostly halls of pale mannequins into warehouses for Amazon orders simply makes sense.

The transformation from showroom to storehouse for everything from books and sweaters to kitchenware and electronics won’t be too much of a stretch for the vacant storefronts of businesses that hvae both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Simon’s holdings include some 63 JC Penney and 11 Sears stores, according to the Journal’s reporting citing a May public filing from the real estate developer.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Amazon had turned to mall real estate for fulfillment centers. in 2019, the online retailer acquired a massive physical footprint in Akron, Ohio that it turned into a distribution center.

Gone are the days when gum smacking tweens and teens and their beleaguered parents would head to the local mall for a stroll around the retail block. Now shoppers prefer to peruse online and kids find Fortnite to be the Hot Topic to hang in. 

The deal, if it goes through, would be another nail in the coffin for a staple of late twentieth century culture that now mostly exists in the memory of baby boomers and Gen X consumers (thanks millennials and Gen Z).

Malls these days are lifestyle affairs that promise boutique branded shops than the sprawling department stores that had something for everyone. The big-box spaces that the Journal reported Amazon is negotiating for are the 100,000 square foot, multi-story behemoths, that are likely not long for the long tail world of niche commerce anyway.

These days, consumers are looking for brands that appeal to a persona or the bottom line of a pocketbook, and not the mass casual one-stop-shop of late twentieth century department store off-the-rack identities.

The Journal reported that, if the deals went through, Simon would like rent the space at a considerable discount to what it would charge another retailer. The paper estimated that rents could be as low as $4 per square foot to $19 per square foot, while warehouse rents average about $10.

At this point, shopping malls are looking for anything to bring in money. They’ve already tried schools, medical offices and senior living facilities, but the COVID-19 epidemic has thrown all of those plans into the abyss.

And, as the Journal notes, malls are already located in places that make them attractive distribution hubs. Amazon has bought some sites already and FedEx and DHL have done the same, according to the paper.

At this point, Amazon ownership may be a better fate for the real estate than totally abandoning it to empty space and the lingering soundtrack of 80s rock.

 

U.S. slams Alibaba and its challenger Pinduoduo for selling fakes

China’s biggest ecommerce company Alibaba was again on the U.S. Trade Representative’s blacklist over suspected counterfeits sold on its popular Taobao marketplace that connects small merchants to consumers.

Nestling with Alibaba on the U.S.’s annual “notorious” list that reviews trading partners’ intellectual property practice is its fast-rising competitor Pinduoduo . Just this week, Pinduoduo founder Colin Huang, a former Google engineer, wrote in his first shareholder letter since listing the company that his startup is now China’s second-biggest ecommerce player by the number of “e-way bills”, or electronic records tracking the movement of goods. That officially unseats JD.com as the runner-up to Alibaba.

This is the third year in a row that Taobao has been called out by the U.S. government over IP theft, despite measures the company claims it has taken to root out fakes, including the arrest of 1,752 suspects and closure of 1,282 manufacturing and distribution centers.

“Although Alibaba has taken some steps to curb the offer and sale of infringing products, right holders, particularly SMEs, continue to report high volumes of infringing products and problems with using takedown procedures,” noted the USTR in its report.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, Alibaba said it does “not agree with” the USTR’s decision. “Our results and practices have been acknowledged as best-in-class by leading industry associations, brands and SMEs in the United States and around the world. In fact, zero industry associations called for our inclusion in the report this year.”

Pinduoduo is a new addition to the annual blacklist. The Shanghai-based startup has over the course of three years rose to fame among China’s emerging online shoppers in smaller cities and rural regions, thanks to the flurry of super-cheap goods on its platform. While affluent consumers may disdain Pinduodou products’ low quality, price-sensitive users are hooked to bargains even when items are subpar.

“Many of these price-conscious shoppers are reportedly aware of the proliferation of counterfeit products on pinduoduo.com but are nevertheless attracted to the low-priced goods on the platform,” the USTR pointed out, adding that Pinduoduo’s measures to up the ante in anti-piracy technologies failed to fully address the issue.

Pinduoduo, too, rebutted the USTR’s decision. “We do not fully understand why we are listed on the USTR report, and we disagree with the report,” a Pinduoduo spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We will focus our energy to upgrade the e-shopping experience for our users. We have introduced strict penalties for counterfeit merchants, collaborated closely with law enforcement and employed technologies to proactively take down suspicious products.”

The attacks on two of China’s most promising ecommerce businesses came as China and the U.S. are embroiled in on-going trade negotiations, which have seen the Trump administration repeatedly accused China of IP theft. Tmall, which is Alibaba’s online retailer that brings branded goods to shoppers, was immune from the blacklist, and so was Tmall’s direct rival JD.com.

Taobao has spent over a decade trying to revive its old image of an online bazaar teeming with fakes and “shanzhai” items, which are not outright pirated goods but whose names or designs intimate those of legitimate brands. Pinduoduo is now asked to do the same after a few years of growth frenzy. On the one hand, listing publicly in the U.S. subjects the Chinese startup to more scrutiny. On the other, small-town users may soon demand higher quality as their purchasing power improves. And when the countryside market becomes saturated, Pinduoduo will need to more aggressively upgrade its product selection to court the more sophisticated consumers from Chinese megacities.