Amazon’s revamped Alexa app makes it easier to manage your smart home

Amazon’s Alexa app has just been given a major visual overhaul, largely focused on helping users set up and control their smart home. From the app’s new devices tab, users can view all their different Alexa-enabled devices and groups on one screen, as opposed to switching between tabs like before. And the app is much more colorful, too. Instead of a set white icons on a dark background, Alexa’s device groups – like Living Room, Kitchen, Bedroom, etc. – now feature colorful backgrounds, so you can find the one you need with just a glance.

An overhaul of the devices section was needed, not only for aesthetic reasons, but because Alexa owners are stocking their house with more than one smart device.

According to a Nielsen report on smart speaker adoption released earlier this month, 4 out of 10 U.S. smart speaker owners today have more than one device, for example. Smart home device sales are also expected to reach nearly $96 billion in 2018 and grow to $155 billion by 2023, another report estimates.

Amazon itself sells a variety of smart devices, like Cloud Cam, Ring doorbells and Ring cameras. And it just introduced a whole mess of new Alexa-enabled devices at an event in Seattle last month, including everything from wall clocks to subwoofers to Alexa-powered microwaves.

It’s clear the retailer expects people to continue to build out their smart home, and its app needed to adapt accordingly.

In the new version of the app, the device types are displayed as icons across the top of the screen – starting with “Echo & Alexa” devices, then “Lights,” “Audio,” “Plugs,” and others. Below this are the colorful groupings of devices by room, each with their own “On/Off” button.

A small “+” button at the top right of the screen allows you to easily add your newest device, too.

Adding Bluetooth speakers to multi-room music groups is also now supported, the app’s update text says.

The redesign also makes it simpler to call, message or “drop in” on your other Alexa devices – the latter being the feature that turns Echo speakers into a voice-controlled intercom system of sorts, triggered by saying “Alexa, drop in on…” followed by the device name. It’s especially handy for larger homes, where there is an upstairs and downstairs, for example, or for reaching family members in another part of the house. You can also Drop In on trusted contacts, like grandma or grandpa.

Now, these communication options each have their own button at the top of the messaging screen in the app so you can just push a button to call, message or drop in, as you prefer.

The new Alexa app is live on the iOS App Store. Amazon hasn’t made a formal announcement about the changes, as they still be rolling out to users following the update.

 

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Mattress Firm files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, will close up to 700 stores



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The mattress manufacturing and retail industry is having its share of nightmares over upheaval from online-based retail disruptors, and scandal within an industry giant.
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Mattress Firm, which has been grappling with declining sales amid an overexpansion and a scandal at its parent company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Friday.

The Houston-based retailer has been ailing amid a surge of bed-in-a-box online retailers, too many physical stores and an accounting mess at its parent company, Steinhoff International.

Mattress Firm plans to close as many as 700 of its 3,230 stores. Those stores are located “in certain markets where we have too many locations in close proximity to each other,” Mattress Firm CEO Steve Stagner said in a statement.

About 200 will close within days. The company has nearly 10,000 employees.

“We intend to use the additional liquidity from these actions to improve our product offering, provide greater value to our customers, open new stores in new markets, and strategically expand in existing markets where we see the greatest opportunities to serve our customers,” he said.

Mattress Firms said in a court filing that it will not conduct typical going-out-of-business sales, where customers might score a deal.

Instead, it will transfer mattresses to other stores, warehouses or distribution centers, or could “decide to abandon” showroom products, according to a court filing.

In Chapter 11 bankruptcy, retailers typically try to get out of expensive leases and slash debt to have a better chance of surviving profitably.

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The retailer ballooned in size in recent years through a series of acquisitions – Mattress Giant in 2012, Sleep Train in 2014 and Sleepy’s in 2016.

It was too much, too fast.

The company has since closed hundreds of locations, seeking stability amid upheaval in the mattress market.

Rebranding all of its stores as Mattress Firm worsened the retailer’s troubles. In a court filing, the company also acknowledged “several well-intentioned, but ill-advised, marketing and sales promotions” in 2017 and 2018.

Mattress Firm expects to lose $150 million in its 2018 fiscal year after making a profit before earnings, taxes, interest and depreciation of $251 million in 2017.

Overexpansion is at the heart of the industry’s troubles. There are now more places to buy a mattress in the U.S. than places to buy a Big Mac.

Mattress Firm filed for bankruptcy in a federal court in Delaware. The company said it had secured enough support from secured lenders to stay in business, but a federal judge must approve with the company’s restructuring plan, which is not guaranteed.

The case could have significant collateral damage:

Landlords that bet big on Mattress Firm’s expansion will be left with empty stores.

Mattress makers could face huge losses. Mattress Firm owes Serta Simmons Bedding alone more than $90 million, according to a court filing. Serta Simmons representatives had no immediate comment.

Serta Simmons last year won a contract to supply Mattress Firm after rival mattress maker Tempur Sealy International had a falling out with the retailer. But sales have since disappointed.

Competitors could face a flood of cheap mattresses. If the company can’t survive bankruptcy, enormous disruption would ensue.



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Bed-in-a-box sellers like Casper and Leesa have surged in recent years, offering free trial periods, free delivery and easy ordering. 

“I think Casper is the reason why they are in this position,” Casper CEO Philip Krim said Friday. “Casper has really pushed the industry to reinvent itself. We continue to give the customer what they want, and that’s not how the incumbents in this space operated.”

Krim said Mattress Firm needs to “make some big changes,” but he doubts it will happen.

“I think they’re going to try to hide the fact that they’re going through this process from consumers as best they can,” he said. “It’s hard for them to change the way they operate.”

Online retailers could capitalize in the long run. But online mattress makers are facing their own problems, including steep discounting, intense marketing and the threat of Amazon out-muscling them.

About 10- to 12 percent of mattress sales are online, Krim estimated. He said it would likely double within a few years.

Meanwhile, Casper plans to open more than 200 stores within the next three years. Leesa is also expected to open stores.

Mattress Firm has its own bed-in-a-box offering, but Krim said it “has not impacted us.”

“Candidly, it’s not a great product,” Krim said. “If anything, it’s helped us because it validates to the market that bed-in-a-box is here to stay and it’s a great way to buy a mattress.”

Complicating Mattress Firm’s situation is a scandal at Steinhoff, a global conglomerate that has acknowledged accusations of “accounting irregularities,” including an overstatement of how much cash it had. Steinhoff sells more than 40 brands throughout the world in areas such as household goods, clothing and automotive dealerships.

Asked for comment, Steinhoff referred to a statement by CEO Danie van der Merwe: “Mattress Firm has been facing significant operational challenges which management is addressing through its turnaround plan” and bankruptcy “is the best way to support and accelerate the turnaround plan so as to ensure a future for Mattress Firm and its employees and unlock value for shareholders over time.”

Mattress Firm told a federal judge in a court filing that Stagner’s turnaround efforts since being appointed as CEO March 1 have begun to bear fruit. The company said it’s focusing on improving advertising, “financial accountability,” “a rewarding in-store customer experience,” better products and an upgraded e-commerce offering.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.

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With 8 Years of Job Gains, Unemployment Is Lowest Since 1969

The Labor Department released its official hiring and unemployment figures for September on Friday, providing the latest snapshot of the American economy.

■ 134,000 jobs were added last month. Wall Street economists had expected an increase of about 168,000, according to MarketWatch.

■ The unemployment rate was 3.7 percent, the lowest since 1969.

■ Average earnings rose 8 cents an hour and are up 2.8 percent over the past year.

■ Hiring figures for July and August were revised up by a combined 87,000 jobs.

The unemployment rate fell to a nearly five-decade low in September, punctuating a remarkable rebound in the ten years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers set off a global financial crisis.

The 134,000 jobs that employers added in September reflected the slowest pace of growth in a year, and the growth in wages cooled slightly from August.

But there is little evidence that those mildly disappointing figures suggest a broader slowdown. The report on Friday extended the current run of monthly job growth to eight straight years, double the previous record.

By nearly any measure, today’s labor market is the strongest since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Job growth has repeatedly defied economists’ predictions of a slowdown. African-Americans, Latinos and members of other groups that often face discrimination are experiencing some of their lowest rates of joblessness on record.

“I view this as the strongest labor market in a generation,” said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at the career site Glassdoor. “These really are the good times.”

The current economic expansion is already one of the longest on record, and there is no sign that it is losing steam. Economic output last quarter increased at its fastest pace in four years, and the current quarter looks strong as well. Yields on United States government bonds have risen sharply in recent days, an indication that investors expect faster growth, and more inflation, in coming years.

For months, the one knock on the economy has been that strong hiring has not yet translated into robust pay gains for many workers. There are signs that that could finally be changing.

The 2.8 percent increase in average hourly earnings last month compared with a year earlier was down slightly from the 2.9 rate in August. But earnings growth has drifted upward in recent months, and other measures show stronger growth.

Workers at the bottom of the earnings ladder are seeing particularly strong growth: Amazon announced this week that it would raise the minimum wage for all of its employees in the United States to at least $15 an hour.

Amy Glaser heard the Amazon news on television while preparing for a meeting with a rival e-commerce firm. Ms. Glaser, a senior vice president at the staffing firm Adecco, helps companies hire for the holiday season, a task that Amazon had just made even more difficult.

“There was definitely a feeling of concern,” Ms. Glaser said. “It puts increased pressure on them in a market where they already knew they were going to have to make significant adjustments on wages.”

Higher pay alone may not be enough. The combination of a tight labor market and rapidly growing online sales has made the competition for warehouse workers particularly fierce this year. Ms. Glaser said that companies were moving up their hiring timelines, easing job requirements and giving workers more control over their schedules, a big shift in an industry where employees have traditionally been expected to show up when and where they were needed.

“The demand for workers is higher than ever and the supply just isn’t out there right now,” Ms. Glaser said.

Low unemployment and faster wage growth are good news for workers, but policymakers at the Federal Reserve are watching warily for signs that the economy is “overheating” — that the tight labor market and strong economy are sowing the seeds for faster inflation down the road. If those concerns mount, the Fed might raise interest rates more quickly than planned, which could bring the recovery to an end.

Friday’s report should ease those fears because the jobless rate fell sharply without bringing a sharp rise in wage growth. That suggests employers are still finding the workers they need.

“I think the Fed’s going to really like this report,” said Michelle Meyer, head of United States economics for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “This report will not prompt them to have to make the hard decision to think about going faster” on rate hikes.

The report appears to fit with recent comments from Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chairman, who said this week that the economy was good but “not too good to be true.”

Some economists had warned that the numbers for September might be skewed by the effects of Hurricane Florence, which hit the Carolinas in the middle of the month. But the report released on Friday suggests the storm’s impact may have been muted.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said survey response rates were “within normal ranges.” About 300,000 people reported being not at work because of bad weather — more than in a typical month, but far below the 1.5 million kept out of work a year ago, when hurricanes hit Florida and Texas.

Florence affected a smaller part of the country than last year’s storms did, and hit at a time in the month when it was less likely to disrupt data collection or measurement. Still, the storm could help explain the slowdown in job growth in September. The retail and hospitality sectors, which are particularly sensitive to bad weather, cut a combined 37,000 jobs. Economists also cautioned that the storm might have muddied measures of earnings and working hours, at least in some industries.

The report on Friday was one of the last major economic releases before November’s midterm elections. The next round of jobs data will come four days before Election Day, and most voters’ minds may be made up by then.

Republicans are counting on a strong economy to help hold off a potential “blue wave” of Democratic victories in the House and Senate. President Trump has repeatedly played up the low unemployment rate as evidence that his policies are working. On Friday, he cheered the report on Twitter.

It is not clear, however, that economic data will have much effect at the polls. Surveys show that views of the economy are split along partisan lines, with Democrats and even many independents expressing less optimism than Republicans.

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OPEC’s Wildcards Could Push Oil to $100

Sharp oil-price movements above $80 a barrel have become the norm, making a break above $100 before the end of the year a real possibility. A big reason: OPEC has little visibility into how much oil it can pump to make up for production shortfalls in politically troubled countries including Iran, say analysts and officials in the group.

Many Gulf-region oil producers are already nearing production records. “If there is another disruption in a producer at risk or a rise in Middle East tensions, we are staring down $100” a barrel,…

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Red October rumbles on ahead of US jobs data

LONDON (Reuters) – World markets steadied ahead of U.S. jobs numbers on Friday, as a four-year high in oil prices and the biggest weekly jump in Treasury yields since February left investors wondering where to go next.

The usual drop in activity ahead of the monthly non-farm payrolls couldn’t prevent Europe’s main bourses following Asia into the red – but it wasn’t the deep shade of crimson of the previous day.

Lingering worries about Italy’s finances pushed Milan down 1 percent again, while London’s FTSE, Frankfurt’s DAX and the CAC in Paris were off 0.6-0.8 percent. [.EU]

Wall Street futures were also modestly weaker but it was the bond and currency markets [/FRX] where the attention was really trained.

The dollar barely budged against its main sparring partners the euro and the Japanese yen after testing a 10-week high, but rising bond yields – which drive the global cost of borrowing – were causing a headache again.

Benchmark U.S. Treasury yields were at a seven-year top of 3.2 percent on their way to their biggest weekly yield rise since February as European yields added to their biggest rise in months as well. [GVD/EUR]

And with talk of plenty more U.S. interest rate hikes growing louder, it put all the more focus on the U.S. jobs data later.

Eaton Vance portfolio manager Justin Bourgette said though there was too much hype around the payrolls figures, whichever way you approach it, the U.S. labor market is currently super strong.

The latest Reuters poll sees 185,000 new jobs pushing the unemployment rate to an 18-year low of 3.8 percent. Average hourly earnings are expected to increase 0.3 percent after leaping 0.4 percent in August.

“Whatever the Fed’s concept of the neutral interest rate is, it must be rising,” Bourgette said. “And it is going to be trial and error to some degree (on how high rates go), because you just don’t know where the choking point is.”

The German share price index DAX graph is pictured at the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Staff

HOT OIL

Tied in with the rise in borrowing costs has been the latest spike in oil prices, as energy costs tend to have an outsized impact on inflation which is what most major central banks focus on when setting interest rates.

Brent crude futures nudged around $85 barrel, and U.S. crude went quiet at $74.5 a barrel. That kept both just under 4-year highs. They have also risen an staggering 15-20 percent since mid-August. [O/R]

“Iranian exports could fall below 1 million barrels per day in November,” U.S. bank Jefferies said, referring to looming U.S. sanctions on Tehran.

The bank said there was enough oil to meet demand, but “global spare capacity is dwindling to the lowest level that we can document … meaning any further supply disruptions would be difficult for the market to manage – and could lead to spiking crude oil prices”.

The painful combination of rising oil prices, borrowing costs and a climbing dollar have also been rocking emerging markets which tend to be vulnerable to all three.

MSCI’s 24-country emerging market equity index was down 0.7 percent and headed for its worst week since February and plenty of currencies were carrying heavy losses too.

The Indian rupee fell to new record low after the central bank kept its interest rates on hold despite clear inflation places. The rupee has been hammered by higher oil prices, and is the worst performer in Asia this year.

Indian stocks also fell for a third straight session, dragged down by energy firms, a day after the government announced a cut in fuel prices.

That cut sparked fears of the country going back towards the regulated regime where the prices of diesel and petrol were controlled by the government. Petrol prices were regulated until 2012, while diesel prices remained so until 2014.

A new Reuters poll also pointed to more pain for this year’s worst performing currency, the Argentine peso. It showed analysts think it could fall almost 20 over the next year, doubtful about the government’s ability to tame inflation.

FILE PHOTO: An electronic board showing the Nikkei share average is seen as market prices are reflected in a glass window at the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) in Tokyo, Japan, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

“In general, what’s driving emerging market weakness is a stronger U.S. economy … there is a lack of clarity on the effectiveness of rate hikes as a currency defense,” said Sunil Sharma, chief investment officer with Sanctum Wealth Management.

Additional reporting by Arnab Paul in Bengaluru; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Raissa Kasolowsky

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Snap shares pop in early trading after CEO Evan Spiegel targets profitability in 2019

Snapchat co-founders Bobby Murphy (l) and Evan Spiegel (c) ring the opening bell on March 2, 2017, as NYSE President Thomas Farley looks on.










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Snapchat co-founders Bobby Murphy (l) and Evan Spiegel (c) ring the opening bell on March 2, 2017, as NYSE President Thomas Farley looks on.

Snap shares slipped on Friday even after it was revealed that chief executive Evan Spiegel said in a memorandum to employees that he wants the company to turn profitable in 2019 and issued a slew of new strategic goals.

first reported on the memo.

Snap is trying out new designs for its Discover section, which showcases professional companies and celebrity accounts. He also explained challenges the app faces from competitors and from growth.

The stock sank 5.2 percent Thursday after Evercore ISI said growing competition from Facebook’s Instagram is “irreversibly reducing Snap’s opportunity to deliver on long-term investor expectations.”

The stock hit a new all-time low following the Evercore note and fell to as low as $7.56 per share shortly before 1 p.m. ET Thursday.

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