Austin Benefits Group, a full service employee benefits agency, has been named one of Metro Detroit’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For™. As a third-year recipient of this prestigious award, Austin Benefits Group continues to set the bar higher in its commitment to excellence.
“Attracting and retaining top talent at Austin is essential to our mission to deliver world-class service to clients and their employees. Our strong commitment to each other as colleagues transcends to the client level, which is part of our success story,” says Cathy Siska, vice president of Client Services.
The Best and Brightest Companies to Work For™ distinction award honors companies like Austin that present a commitment to excellence in their human resources practices and employee enrichment. Nominated companies were assessed on communication, work-life balance, employee education, diversity, recognition and retention. Companies are nominated annually and go through a series of assessments to maintain their best and brightest status.
Austin provides an exceptional employee benefits package to staff in addition to offering flexible schedules, opportunities for continuous education and company-sponsored wellness activities. “I’m so thankful that when I come to work every day, I work alongside a group of people who are dedicated to their jobs and their clients. Plus, getting treated to lunch a few times a month as an extra perk doesn’t hurt either,” says Melissa Carey, account manager.
About Austin Benefits Group: Austin Benefits Group (formerly Austin Financial Group) is Michigan’s premier full-service employee benefits agency. Founded in 2000 by Dean Austin, the company specializes in custom employee benefit packages, health insurance, Obamacare compliance and corporate wellness programs.
Following all the hullabaloo at WWDC this week, with OS X Yosemite, iCloud Drive, iOS 8, HealthKit, HomeKit, and a brand new programming language unveiled, you could have been excused for glazing over this tantalizing tidbit: third-party keyboards are coming to iOS. Just as potential car-buyers may express more interest in its coffee-cup holder instead of how many miles they’ll get for the gallon, the little matter of Apple’s stock keyboard has been a perennial issue for many over the years. Not that it’s particularly bad per se, it’s just that once you’ve gotten a whiff of the likes of…
Online shopping has been a boon for retailers and shoppers alike. While the absence of bricks-and-mortar stores help companies keep their overheads down, it also means consumers often pay much less for a product than they otherwise would from a city-center outlet. Coupled with the fact that e-commerce equates to 24-hour opening hours, well, there shouldn’t be a lot to complain about.
A knock-on effect, of course, has seen many once-mighty brands close their doors, including Blockbuster, Borders, and HMV. So does this mean that main shopping streets are on a permanent downwards spiral, and we’ll soon only be able to procure our goods on the Web? Well, not so fast. There are many things that can’t quite be replicated by e-tail. For now, at least.
Same-day deliveries & try-before-you-buy
Same-day deliveries may be on the rise in the digital realm, with the UK’s Currys and PC World getting involved, not to mention eBay and Snapdeal too. But same-day deliveries aren’t yet standard, they often come with a premium, and ‘same-day’ isn’t the same as ‘right now’. There’s a lot to be said for walking to your local shop(s) to procure a new book or micro USB cable, and have the item in-hand in less than an hour.
Moreover, some services are simply better suited to physical stores. Companies such as Fits.me may be trying to bridge the virtual/physical divide by replicating the try-before-you-buy ethos on the Web, but it’s not quite the same as perusing your local fashion outlets to see and feel clothes first-hand.
There are many other scenarios too where physical outlets really begin to demonstrate their worth. And this, perhaps, is why we’re seeing more traditionally digital-focused companies breaking from their roots to forge a presence in towns and cities.
Bridging the divide
Last week, news emerged courtesy of PCR that UK-based electrical retailer Ebuyer.com was considering a move into the physical world. Since launching back in 1999, Ebuyer has emerged as one of the largest independent British e-tailers, with around four million registered customers.
Though it seems like it’s still some way off from actually happening, Managing Director Stuart Carlisle hinted at what’s to come:
“Yes we have considered it [opening physical stores] and once we have found the most effective model for our customer base, we will act upon it. Retail has changed significantly over the last five years and so we are always investigating ways to best meet our customers’ needs. Whether this is through online, High Street or multi-channel retail, the options are there for us to progress.”
While there is a temptation here to view this as one example of how e-commerce isn’t killing off traditional retail outlets, it’s more of an admission that there’s scope for something out in the real world. More…a complementary service rather than a replacement service.
“Online retail will continue to grow,” continues Carlisle. “Simple economics dictate online retailers can usually offer products at better prices – so this is where most of the consumers will go. The High Street will by no means die out, it will just have to adapt. People still want to buy products in store, it’s just clear the current model is not sustainable.”
Though it’s only a temporary endeavor, it’s still interesting to see some of the ideas they have for bringing their digital store into the real world.
Indeed, there’s a screen and headphones with a reel-to-reel setup so visitors can listen to customer testimonies from businesses that use Moo.com’s cards. Then there’s the display on the wall featuring pull-cords and panels, replicating drop-down menus and left-to-right scrolling.
Taking a website and working it out in a physical sense is a playful idea and it works well in a small shop, but this probably won’t work on scale. However, that’s not to say the giants from the online world don’t have one eye on the physical retail pie too.
Launching way back in the early days of the WWW, Amazon is pretty much synonymous with online shopping. It all started with books, but now you can buy just about anything through the company’s myriad of localized e-portals around the world, with giant warehouses serving as product holding-pens.
But could Amazon ever go down the bricks-and-mortar route? And by that we don’t mean selling materials to build yourself a new home.
Rumors have abounded before, and Amazon’s head honcho Jeff Bezos has stated he’d open offline stores if they could find a formula for making it work. The company has been bridging the virtual and physical divide for a while already, however, with Amazon Lockers permeating third-party retailers and public locations in the US and UK.
The premise is simple enough. You’re not at home to take receipt of an Amazon delivery? Have it delivered to a Locker located nearby, and pick it up in person.
For Amazon, it solves some problems and gives them that physical presence out on the street. And for customers, it offers an extra incentive to buy from Amazon. But what about partner retailers? Well, the idea is it will get folk into their shops and buying other things when they collect their goods. Except that’s maybe not how things are panning out.
Back in September, news emerged that US retailers Staples and RadioShack were ditching Amazon Lockers from their stores. The exact reasons weren’t divulged, but it did hint at the inherent disparity between the online world inhabited by Amazon, and the physical sphere occupied by Staples and RadioShack.
The route Amazon is currently trying to venture down makes sense in many ways though, even though Lockers are currently limited in their availability. The online behemoth may have the capital and brand-awareness to launch a bricks-and-mortar offensive if it so desired, but it is very much at odds with its core raison d’être – undercutting the competition with an uber-streamlined, military-like operation. A value-added proposition – through partnering with existing local stores – makes much more sense as opposed to rolling out fully-fledged outlets, as it needs to keep its costs down.
That, however, is not to say Amazon couldn’t launch a handful of flagship stores in key locations around the world. Imagine a giant multi-category emporium in London’s Oxford Circus or New York’s Times Square? It’s certainly feasible, though it’s not necessarily a priority for the company at present.
eBay: High-Street ‘auctions’
Launching around the same time as Amazon in the mid-nineties, eBay is deeply ingrained in the very fabric of e-commerce. But given its historical focus on third-party auctions and fixed-price items, rather than selling eBay-owned goods, bricks-and-mortar stores are perhaps less of an option here. That said, eBay has dabbled with such initiatives in the past.
Timed to coincide with the Christmas rush in 2011, the main caveat with eBay’s temporary pop-up store was there would be no tills, a very limited selection of products and shoppers weren’t allowed to take any of the items away with them. Not your typical shop.
The eBay boutique opened from 1-5 December, and saw 2,500 customers arrive through its doors. Richard Brewer-Hay, a Senior Manager at eBay, called the store “the UK’s first-ever QR code shopping emporium”, with consumers able to browse more than 350 items provided by a selection of the top-rated eBay sellers, with sales completed using mobile devices. So it was more of a concept store – an experiment, perhaps, in what a physical eBay store could look like.
The following Christmas, eBay took to London’s streets again, this time with eBay Social Shopping, an initiative powered entirely by social media. As with their previous exploits, this was timed to coincide with the busiest online shopping weekend, but instead it tapped Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to garner information on product recommendations, and morph it with eBay’s own search data. The upshot of all this, was a live, real-time pulse of what the nation wanted for Christmas.
“By pairing views of social communities with eBay’s own vast selection of top Christmas gifts and mobile expertise, we gave shoppers lots of inspiration and put a little bit of fun into Christmas shopping,” explained Carrie Bienkowski, Head of Buyer Experience at eBay.
“Mobile technology is a catalyst for retail growth and is changing the way we shop,” she added. “Consumers now carry a global showroom in their pocket and are increasingly as inclined to seek recommendations online and shop mobile as visit the high street.”
You can view the official promo skit for yourself here to get an idea of what it entailed, but it gives some ideas on how data can be used to inform in-store sales during busy shopping periods.
Google: Chrome Zone and beyond
Google’s sidling steadily into the hardware realm, with laptops (Chromebooks), smartphones and tablets now part of its arsenal of offerings. And there has been growing speculation in recent times around a possible move into branded retail stores.
Indeed, Google has made at least one small stride into its own bricks-and-mortar store with the Chrome Zone, a dedicated Chromebook retail space at PC World’s Tottenham Court Road branch in London. The store has dedicated staff who have been specifically trained in using and demoing Chromebooks.
And just before Christmas, Google launched temporary pop-up shops to showcase the Chromecast, Chromebooks and Nexus 7, though these were restricted to New York, Chicago, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Paramus, New Jersey.
Though Google has yet to launch a full-on retail store, it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that it could go down that route at some point. Its Android operating system is on more than half of all smartphones, while more and more quality affordable tablets now sport the OS too. Throw into the mix its own Nexus range of phones and tablets, Chromebooks and the associated accessories, then Google retail stores actually seem likely at some juncture.
Microsoft: 63 stores and counting
As with Google, Microsoft was always traditionally a software company. But with its push into hardware and the omnipresence of its desktop operating system on third-party manufacturer’s machines, it’s not difficult to understand why a Microsoft Store makes sense.
But with the Xbox One, its own-branded Surface tablets and Nokia’s mobile phone business under its wings, we’ll likely see more Microsoft Stores crop up across North America and beyond.
Samsung Stores: On the rise
Okay, Samsung has never really been an e-commerce company as such, but it did recently announce it was ramping up its sales and marketing efforts by opening more than sixty new dedicated stores across Europe in conjunction with the Carphone Warehouse.
This deal follows the three initial outlets that opened in Spain back in 2013, and now it’s effectively pushing Samsung front-and-center in main shopping thoroughfares across the UK, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and the Netherlands. Though full details have yet to emerge of what form these new outlets will take, we were told that they’ll have a “premium look and feel”, with Samsung-branded tablets used by personnel on the shop floor to complete sales. Very much like an Apple Store, in other words.
This move follows almost two years after Samsung launched a series of temporary pop-up stores for the London Olympics.
Samsung is almost synonymous with Android already, so by pushing its brand out into the wild with dedicated retail outlets, this can only serve to increase its mindshare among the mobile masses.
It has been interesting observing the evolution of commerce over the past two decades. The initial skepticism back in 1995 about whether people would really shop online was slowly replaced with a worried “Oh, can shops survive the e-commerce revolution?” debate a decade or so later. And now we’re seeing interest from some of the major players in the digital space, who are looking to transcend their online heritage and dip their toes in a shopping mall near you.
However, the examples outlined here are certainly not indicative of a reversal in fortunes for bricks-and-mortar stores. It’s more a realization that humans are social creatures – people like to talk to and mingle with other people. Sure, buying a ream of paper or book from a website offers much convenience. But people still want to venture into physical spaces to touch and test things, and ask questions.
To what degree we start seeing the tech titans of the world embrace dedicated retail stores remains to be seen. But there’s clearly an interest there – from corporations and customers. And if a microchip manufacturer such as Intel is toying with its own outlets, then it’s clear that big tech brands understand the need for a real-world presence.
Recently, there has been much criticism in the media surrounding insurance companies dropping consumers from healthcare coverage due to the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, this criticism is misleading because no one is losing their insurance because of Obamacare. The plans that are being cancelled by health insurance companies provide substandard coverage under the requirements of the ACA. They have to replace these junk plans with newer ones which provide better coverage..
The cancellation notices have only been mailed to some of the five percent of individuals who currently have substandard policies on the individual health insurance market. More than 75 percent of Americans currently get their insurance through their employer, the Veterans Administration, Medicare, or Medicaid and are not affected by these cancellations.
Obamacare Benefits: Health Plans Should Have Minimum Standards
All people who have received cancellation notices from their health insurance companies are gaining health insurance under new plans that meet the minimum standards of the Affordable Care Act. New Obamcare benefits that must be included in each qualified health plan include maternity coverage, mental healthcare, prescription medication coverage, and preventive care. In addition, Affordable Care Act health plans cannot drop you if you get sick and they cannot deny you coverage if you already have a medical issue.
People who have been covered under a substandard health insurance policy can choose to continue with their current health insurance company by enrolling in a more generous plan. They can also shop for affordable coverage on their state’s health insurance marketplace, where they may be eligible to receive federal premium subsidies to lower their monthly costs. The majority of Americans who are in this position will pay less for policies that cover the Obamacare benefits than they were paying for a less comprehensive plan.
Some People May Pay More
Although the federal premiums will be available to help many Americans who are losing their current substandard plans purchase better plans through their states’ health insurance marketplace, Americans who are in the higher income brackets may see their rates increase. This is because federal subsidies are only available to people who earn under a specific income as defined by the Affordable Care Act. Health plans offered on the exchange will generally be more expensive than substandard plans before subsidies because of the additional Obamacare benefits that have to be covered.
This is part of the individual responsibility President Obama mentioned in his speech that further clarified his earlier statements that Americans would be able to keep their current plans if they wanted to. People who are able to afford health insurance should receive less government assistance than people with lower incomes.
The president also said that if Americans had substandard plans that they wanted to keep prior to the Affordable Care Act becoming law, those plans could be grandfathered in. However, if an insurance company sold a substandard plan after the ACA became law, they would have to replace those plans with a qualified plan beginning in 2014. This is why some Americans are getting notices of cancellation, but in the end, the more comprehensive benefits under Obamacare benefit everyone. In general, people will be paying less for better healthcare, which meets one of the goals of the Affordable Care Act.