Blog/News

Ugly Veggies Might Save the Planet

Sadie Keljikian, Express Trade Capital

Recent studies have indicated that damage to the environment has progressed further than previously believed, so numerous corporations across industries are making changes to reduce waste and increase sustainability in their production processes. The produce industry is contributing significantly to this international shift, promoting more sustainable shopping and eating habits among its consumers.

One of the most prevalent efforts to this end is the recent “ugly produce” movement. As it currently stands, approximately 6 billion pounds of produce is wasted annually in the US. Much of the wasted food is perfectly safe to eat, but doesn’t meet the US Department of Agriculture’s appearance standards due to irregular size, shape, or surface imperfections like spots or minor bruising. Several grocery providers across the US have implemented programs like Imperfect Produce, Hungry Harvest, and Kroger’s Peculiar Picks that sell these items, which might otherwise go to waste.

Obviously, this movement is helpful in the global effort to limit wastage. It cleverly addresses the food waste issue and offers shoppers access to fresh, albeit slightly blemished, produce at discounted prices. However, the movement is the subject of controversy due to its perceived harm to food banks and independent farmers. Historically, grocery stores and suppliers would often donate some or all of their visually imperfect produce to food banks, who are obviously less choosy than the average consumer when it comes to the appearance of the food they receive. The arrival of the ugly produce movement concerned several experts, who speculated that consumers in search of a bargain would dip into supplies that were previously designated to food banks. Several food banks and other charities confirmed, however, that the quantity of wasted (but edible) food far outweighs the amount that food banks need to feed the underserved masses.

Another reason to embrace visually imperfect produce is that organic fruits and vegetables are treated with smaller amounts of less aggressive pesticides and are thus more likely to naturally vary in appearance. Recently, some experts have even asserted that visually imperfect fruits and vegetables may be tastier and healthier than their unblemished counterparts. Orchardist Eliza Greenman conducted an unofficial experiment on her pesticide-free apples, comparing those blemished from fighting off pests, excessive heat and fungus, with their unmarred equivalents. Remarkably, she found that the scarred apples had 2-5% higher sugar content. Likewise, another study found higher levels of antioxidant phenols and fruit acids in organic fruit when compared with those treated with more aggressive pesticides.

We’ve suspected the nutritional benefits of organic produce for some time. Although the spectrum of factors that contribute to antioxidant content isn’t fully understood, many of the antioxidants that naturally occur in fruits like apples develop in response to natural threats like pests and fungus. This means that attempts to artificially protect crops from these natural burdens makes our produce prettier, but potentially less flavorful and healthy.

In short, public embrace of “ugly” produce is good for the planet and apparently, good for our bodies.


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Reading the Retail Room

Sadie Keljikian, Express Trade Capital

Fears of the “retailpocalypse” have died down, but brick and mortar retailers may be overlooking some of the most pressing problems they face in their attempts to innovate and better serve modern customers.

Following dismal sales last year, retailers began frantically creating new, often diversified versions of their former stores. Some are combining low-cost fashion retail with items typically found at grocery stores, others have opened popups and smaller store locations where customers can try items on before ordering them online. Although these methods are objectively good ideas, they fail to address another widespread problem: retailers and developers often ignore the culture of the neighborhoods where they plan to open new stores.

Although brick and mortar sales are improving in general, chic neighborhoods like New York City’s Greenwich Village are plagued with long stretches of empty retail space. Vacant storefronts, particularly on Bleecker Street, are the result of some overeager decision making following the gentrification of downtown Manhattan in the early aughts. Soon after wealthy new residents started arriving, so did a variety of upscale businesses. Some were successful but, eventually, a number of luxury retailers began popping up. They made decent sales initially, but soon it became clear that there wasn’t a demand for so many luxury goods in the Village, and stores began to close.

The fact that high-end retailers didn’t find a demand downtown isn’t shocking in itself, but by the time they closed the problematic lasting effect had already taken place. Since so many luxury brands appeared in such a short time, real estate prices rose so quickly and so dramatically that even the retailers who drove them couldn’t keep up. As a result, many commercial spaces remained empty months or even years after their previous tenants closed up shop. And they continue to remain empty.

It makes sense for high-end retailers to “follow the money,” so to speak, but they should still consider the history and reputation of the neighborhoods where they open stores. Greenwich Village has a rich history of diverse culture and art, including the LGBTQ community, numerous immigrant communities, and artists of every discipline and type. Though many of the people who brought such unique variety to the neighborhood are no longer there, the association remains. Thus, wealthy newcomers choose to move to the village for its historical uniqueness and creative atmosphere, rather than for high-end amenities.

The missing link seems to be that the choice to move downtown says quite a bit about the new residents. Given the income bracket in question, these residents could choose to live in almost any neighborhood, including New York’s Upper East Side, famous for its high-end retail and “old money” residents. The choice to live downtown suggests an interest in creativity and diversity among both the people and the businesses that populate the neighborhood. Although they may have a passing interest in luxury goods, they probably don’t prioritize them.

This same principle applies to retailers across the board. It’s often wise for businesses to swoop in when a town or neighborhood sees an uptick in residents with disposable income, but some basic market research can help determine if the newly popular location will be worth joining. If a neighborhood is populated with young families, a nightclub probably won’t do much business. Likewise, young people who are drawn to famously creative communities probably don’t care too much about high-end brands in their neighborhoods.


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Competing Within Your Industry

Sadie Keljikian, Express Trade Capital

Standing out in your industry can be tricky, especially if you work in a competitive field. To get ahead of your competition, it’s important to develop and demonstrate the unique qualities you and your business can offer. Here are a few ways you can distinguish yourself from other players in your industry and break away from the crowd:

  • Price

It may be the most obvious point of comparison, but if you can distinguish yourself on pricing, you should do so and you should advertise as such. Compare yourself to businesses that provide similar or identical services/products and demonstrate your ability to fulfill the same need at a lower price.

Beware of competing with bigger businesses on price. Larger companies can generally underprice smaller ones because they typically have lower costs due to economies of scale. Moreover, although extremely low prices may bring a surge of new business, it is important to make sure your profits are sustainable.

However, lower prices are not always the answer. Sometimes, a higher price signals quality for which customers are willing, and even eager, to pay a premium especially if they believe those items are better in other ways . . .

  • Quality

If you can provide and demonstrate quality superior that of your competitors, it won’t necessarily matter if your prices are higher than your industry’s average. In fact, counterintuitively, higher prices may attract more purchases in the right circumstances. Many customers are willing to spend more for quality assurance. Whenever possible, use objective data to support your claims.

  • Speed/Efficiency

Some industries are notorious for taking a long time to process orders or engage services. If you have created an effective system to speed up your processes vis-à-vis competitors, let your prospects know! This is an especially attractive perk to offer when you sell products or services that your customers typically need upon demand. Customers want to know you can deliver quickly and efficiently.

  • Scope of Products

If you have a wide variety of goods or services, and/or if you offer a combination of goods/services that is rarely offered in your industry, you’re already ahead of the game. Business clients particularly love a one-stop shop. If they find a business they trust and with whom they like working, they’ll want to take full advantage of that business’s range of offerings rather than shop around for multiple providers.

Having a wide range of products also allows for sharper pricing through bundling, which can increase cross sales by enticing consumers to purchase other products in your line. For example, you can cut the price of one product if a consumer agrees to purchase an additional product.

  • Business Ethics/Values

Good policies and philosophies can be marketed to distinguish the quality of your business. Recently, advertising conscientious business practices has become a massive trend everywhere from independent retailers to international corporations. Whether you focus on helping the environment, meticulously sourcing your goods and labor to observe fair trade policies, charitable giving, or any other activities that demonstrate your business’s ethical beliefs, it’s a good idea to publicize your efforts.

  • Reputation/Client Loyalty

This is more relevant to businesses that have been in operation for a while and have developed a following. One of the most favorable things a customer can hear about your business is that your clients/customers stay on board with you after your initial transaction. It means that you treat your customers well and run your business ethically, so always strive to keep existing customers coming back for more.

  • Honesty

This is similar to business ethics and reputation. Unfortunately, many businesses stretch the truth in the sales process or pull bait and switch tactics to win clients. Many of your prospective customers have heard sales people make over the top claims and gloss over their disadvantages or imperfections. Fortunately, this creates an opportunity for good businesses to capitalize on the poor reputation of their less scrupulous peers.

While deceit sometimes seems like the best way get immediate sales in the short term, prospects will quickly discover the ruse and eagerly post poor reviews. Consumers respect you and your business more if you’re upfront about what they can expect from you, even if the truth is that you cannot deliver on certain requests. The more open your line of communication with them, the more inclined they’ll be to work with you long term. In the long run, it is often better to under-promise and overdeliver than vice versa.

  • Flexibility and Customization

If you can provide more hands-on services or otherwise offer flexibility or customization, many customers are willing to pay more or forego working with larger or more established companies whose operations are too large to accommodate those personalized specifications. Some larger companies deliver goods or services in set ways that have little flexibility because allowing for individualized customization may cost too much to implement on a wide scale.

In fact, many larger companies systematize their processes, which reduces costs and increases efficiency for their clients in many instances. However, systemization can also make larger companies unable to service more specific and specialized consumer demands. Smaller companies can take advantage of this by filling in the gaps where their larger competitors are not willing to venture.


Many of the above listed qualities bleed into each other.  For example, better quality allows for higher prices and honesty is directly related to business ethics and reputation which are both in turn facets of your quality.  Meanwhile, good customer service and sales practices can improve the perception of your business in virtually all areas.

The key is to see your business on a variety of dimensions which will allow you to distinguish yourself on multiple fronts. A competitor may be larger and have many more years’ experience but they may be set in their ways and inflexible when consumers require them to deviate from their standards and practices.  In short, dynamic businesses who stay vigilant can stay ahead of competitors by seeing and seizing on opportunities and gaps left by competitors.

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Pet Industry Booms

Sam Permutt, Express Trade Capital

Despite uncertainty in several consumer product industries, the pet product industry is not only surviving, but growing. Indeed, many would say it’s flourishing as sales of specialized pet services (including groomers, trainers, and boarders) and healthy food (non-GMO, organic, paleo) are on the rise. Last year, the pet food industry (close to $30 billion) grew three times as fast as the packaged food industry – and that doesn’t even account for the toys, Halloween costumes, and GPS tags we buy for our pets.

Here’s a snapshot by numbers of the industry as it currently stands:

  • The industry is now valued at $86 billion.
  • Sales have continually increased year over year, even during the 2007-2009 recession years; average annual growth since 2002 has been 5.4%.
  • 65% of all US households have a pet – up from 56% in the late 1980s.
  • There are more than 24 million millennial pet owners, the largest pet-owning population in the country.
  • Average household spending on pet products is $500 per year, more than spending on alcohol and men’s and boy’s clothing.
  • Total spending on pet products is growing about 50 percent faster than the retail sector as a whole.

76% of owners consider their pets “beloved members of the family,” so it’s no surprise that they spare no expense when it comes to their furry friends.

Happy International Pet Day!


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Retailers Speak Up About Trump’s Tariff Plans

Sadie Keljikian, Express Trade Capital

A collection of the largest global retailers have written an open letter to President Trump following his move to impose tariffs on $60 billion in exports from China.

Since his campaign, Trump has expressed frustration with the trade gap between the US and China, leading many to fear an oncoming trade war. Until today, however, the trade relationship between the US and China was more or less unaffected.

The retailers in question account for more than $1.5 trillion in annual sales and tens of millions of US jobs. They respectfully suggested that they work together with the president to come up with a solution less likely to negatively impact working American families.


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Toys R Us Begins Liquidation

Sadie Keljikian, Express Trade Capital

With consistently falling sales and pressure from several lenders, Toys R Us has begun liquidating its inventory ahead of planned store closures.

The retailer’s difficulties have only increased since filing for Chapter 11 last fall. Debtholders Hasbro and Mattel have seen their stocks fall significantly since then and started pressuring Toys R Us to liquidate its US operations to fulfill its debt obligations after a remarkably weak holiday season. Pressure only increased when news broke that the retailer was in serious danger of default two weeks ago.

While people close to the situation stress that plans are still fluid, it’s looking more and more like there’s little future for Toys R Us.


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Kohl’s Brings in Aldi

Sadie Keljikian, Express Trade Capital

Kohl’s announced today that it will bring discount grocer Aldi into as many as 10 of its stores in a pilot test. The department store chain hopes to cut down on its brick and mortar presence and offer more variety in the space it occupies. Kohl’s announced the decision to share its store space with other retailers in January, but did not specify which ones. CEO Kevin Mansell emphasized “inventory reductions and margin acceleration as a result” when asked about the decision.

Kohl’s is also looking to build a strong relationship with Amazon. Several stores already contain kiosks that sell Amazon devices and Kohl’s plans to get further involved with the ecommerce giant. The bold moves come at an opportune moment, following very successful holiday sales for Kohl’s, and will likely set the tone for the chain’s 2018 activity.


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Toys R Us in Danger of Default

Sadie Keljikian, Express Trade Capital

It’s been a wild ride for Toys R Us and yet again, it looks like there may be a tragic end in sight.

Toys R Us filed for Chapter 11 in September in hopes of restructuring its debt and rebuilding. However, developments since then have been less than promising. Following a disappointing holiday season, Toys R Us announced that it would close 175 of its US locations, 20% of its total retail presence in the US.

Despite efforts to trim the fat and manage the retailer’s mounting debt, rumors are circulating that Toys R Us may breach a covenant in debtor-in-possession financing facilitated by J.P. Morgan Chase prior to the Chapter 11 filing due to insufficient funds. If Toys R Us is unable to pay off the $3.1 billion in financing, the lenders involved may choose to force the retailer into liquidation.

Although Toys R Us officials have dismissed these concerns as speculation, it seems highly unlikely that the toy retailer’s troubles are over.


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Bon-Ton Files for Chapter 11

Sadie Keljikian, Express Trade Capital

Retail chain Bon-Ton has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief.

The apparel retailer has been struggling with sales losses, mounting debt and management upheaval for some time. Late last year, the business invoked a 30-day grace period to pay $14 million in interest in hopes that holiday sales would supplement dwindling funds. Unfortunately, Bon-Ton reported a 2.9% fall in comparable-store sales during the crucial winter holiday period. When news of Bon-Ton’s increasing debt reached vendors, many of them began requiring letters of credit or cash on delivery for goods, which compounded the chain’s financial issues. In mid-January, conditions were so dire that stock fell to a meager $0.29.

As part of the restructuring plan, Bon-Ton executives decided to downsize the chain’s brick and mortar presence (particularly those in malls) in favor of expanding its ecommerce options. Like many store-based retailers, Bon-Ton is hoping to rise to competition from the likes of Amazon and other ecommerce-based retailers. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Bon-Ton plans to scrutinize 100 of its 260 US locations and close at least 40 and as many as 60 of them in 2019. Closures will likely include locations of all the chain’s stores including Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers. The chain also plans to improve its more successful facilities by remodeling flagship stores and potentially opening new stores in more advantageous locations.

Taking a cue from Macy’s, Bon-Ton also plans to expand its private label products so that they make up 25% of total merchandise. For perspective, discount retailers Kohl’s and J.C. Penney (both of which have done remarkably well despite the difficulty facing brick and mortar retailers) occupy 46% and 52% of their products respectively with their own private labels. The chain also plans to renegotiate its leases and potential rent reductions to rein in operational costs. Unfortunately, Bon-Ton stocks have only continued to plummet, falling and lingering below $0.10 this week.

CEO Bill Tracy released a statement addressing plans for the chain’s uncertain future. He stressed that the company would continue operations as usual during the restructuring and that the company is currently discussing options with its debtholders and potential investors. Whether or not it will be enough to combat the significant financial and managerial difficulties facing the business, only time will tell.

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