Retail: Old and New

Commercial retail was a way in which American commerce thrived, but it has changed dramatically – or it hasn’t actually, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the lack of changes and what the future holds.

Some issues with old retail include:

Failing business models: the rental market in some locations is astronomical by comparison to units sold per day or month in order to cover the overhead. I think a new model for retail spaces is needed and I don’t yet know if it’s collaborative spaces or something else, but I am always intrigued to visit or read of new places. It’s ironic to me that Amazon took over bookstores through its online sales and is now they are setting up brick and mortar bookstores.

The other issue related to a traditional retail business model of course that is hard to combat is the labor costs which are a fifth cheaper overseas if not more.

Lack of training and knowledge: Employees  in many retail stores have very little training in customer service and specifically in the products that they sell. On one occasion within the last couple of years I was looking for a Wi-Fi repeater or an extender. I researched online and based on the info I found and the reviews I’d read I narrowed my search to a couple choices. Because I value retail stores, I went to Best Buy in Goleta. When I asked about recommendations on these and for a specific brand, the sales guy didn’t have a clue. When they found another guy to sort of help out they told me they could order the product and it would be there within a week (maybe sooner) for significantly more than what I would’ve paid for online. So of course I bought it online instead.

Store owners or managers must wonder if it is worthwhile to invest time in employees’ education about products although these employees ‘may’ leave the company – maybe even quickly after being hired. However temporary, the question remains: Would a returning clientele be retained due to a good education of employees and thorough information about the goods that they sell?

A couple months ago, I was at the Carters outlet and an item I wanted was out of stock. They offered to ship it to my house for $8 or so dollars or free to the store, but I live 45 min from the store so by not matching the existing convenience of technology they force people toward existing external sales sources. I’d rather pay the same retail price to Amazon and get the item shipped free to my house. Yes, I pay a membership fee each year, but by waiving the shipping costs of my items, I save more than I pay for that membership in any given year – especially once you factor in household not just individual purchases.

Lack of caring or bad customer service: As a teen and young adult I held retail jobs, I worked at Banana Republic, Coldstone Creamery, and the movie theaters. I’d say they all provided basic job training but none was overly customer oriented, or really had high of standards. As a customer, with the exception of Trader Joe’s, I can’t remember having exceptional customer service. Trader Joe’s is the exception because I almost always engage in enjoyable if not memorable interactions. The people who work at Trader Joe’s seem happy to be there whereas most others in retail seem like it is a temporary thing.

In my interest to know more, I wouldn’t mind a conversation with TJ’s HR manager to find out what is their secret.

appstoreDisorganization and clutter and uncleanliness: Oh, this is a big one for me. Cluttered stores stress me out. While I like a bargain as much as the next person, the idea of looking for a  treasure or new outfit somewhere like Ross stresses me out. It’s possible some don’t mind the mess but my favorite thing about the apple store is how clean it feels – as in not cluttered. I will confess however, that with the diversification of the goods at the retail store, it’s possible they may begin to clutter it. Last time I was there, there was a coffee mug for sale, and a ball that syncs to your TV. These items, feel out of place although they are remotely related they are not proprietary to the company so they maybe shouldn’t be there. I’m curious to know about who will lead their retail in the future, as Angela Ahrendts, the VP of Apple’s Retail has just announced that she is leaving the company.

Constantly competing against technology with the same old tools: Retail stores cannot compete on price with a lot of online companies by the very fact that the overhead of a brick and mortar location and staff are costly, but they also don’t seem to embrace or equate existing technology.  When screens, apps, code readers, and mobile payments are king, how is it possible that retail stores have antiquated signs, and labels? I want to be in a futuristic store, with videos, and interactive screens. How these are used, I don’t know, but I have some ideas.

Did we fail or did retail fail?

Maybe we are doing a bad job as customers too, it’s possible we are to blame. I see people all day long run through checker line while they are still on their phones, barely making eye contact. I’ve read that if we keep buying cheap products, ‘they’ will keep making cheap products. Maybe we have lowered our expectation and as a result we’ve gotten a lesser product, customer service and experience.

What would happen if we only supported stores that had a happy employee base, that was paid a living wage, that was educated in the products they sell, that was invested in the customers that walk in through the door, and their experience. What if these stores were clean, uncluttered, maybe included new or different technology, what if it was a place to connect with others. Maybe a place that has a clean bathroom too or imagine, a lactation room. Somewhere comfortable to go into on o cold or hot day with your kids, or your parent or grandparent that wheelchair bound. A place people could enjoy. Would such a place find support or would the unbeatable free shipping of Amazon, and cheap Chinese goods still prevail?

By Olivia Uribe Mutal – @osum on Twitter

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A post-COVID life

Things aren’t possible until they are.

The most fascinating thing to me about COVID-19 has been all the things that are possible with regard to a variety of sectors. These, of course, are policy changes driven by either the government or the private sector. If some of these changes were inevitable and merely sped up due to this virus, we will never know. It will be interesting to see how many of these policies will revert to pre-covid status. Whenever possible I have included links to the original articles where I came across this information.

Policies implemented by the government:

Policies or changes implemented by the private sector:

  • Working from home for those that couldn’t previously work from home, until now that they magically they could.
  • The end of even more retail stores.
  • Girl Scout cookies sold online with home delivery.
  • Movie studios release movies directly online, skipping the theatrical release.
  • Finding ways to connect people
  • Companies pitching in:
    • Companies pivoting to manufacturing needed items such as masks (Bauer Hockey, New Balance) and ventilators (Dyson and Tesla)
    • Joann’s fabric is giving away free mask kits.
    • Companies donating money or resources as needed
  • CVS free deliveries of medications and essentials – which private pharmacies have done forever.
  • Adopting a senior online – in reality, developing a friendship online with seniors in a retirement home.

Things that may change in the future include:

What have you seen that you’ve found as things previously not done which could continue into the future? These could be good or bad.

Leave a comment or send me a tweet @osum

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The New York Time preps America for a Halliburton bailout.

Here’s something that we shouldn’t feel too bad about. Looks like it’s assumed that oil will be trading at $30 to $35 for the remainder of the year when at its height it was $150/barrel.

This article is written with language that should be reserved for real losses – like those that will be suffered by American individuals – you have to constantly remind yourself they talk about some of the greediest companies of our lifetime. (See excerpts below)

“Since 2016, when oil prices began to drop, 208 North American producers have filed for bankruptcy involving $121.7 billion in aggregate debt, according to the Haynes and Boone’s Oil Patch Bankruptcy Monitor report released in late January.”

“Among those hit hardest from the latest oil price plunge and pullback in exploration and production activity will be oil service and drilling companies such as Halliburton, Schlumberger and General Electric’s Baker Hughes, along with hundreds of smaller companies.”

The real question is why this is a feature in the NYT? The natural suspicion is that the government will want to come rescue any victims of this tragedy – Halliburton execs and friends – and wants us to prepare our hearts and minds to get in line and do the right thing by supporting this move.

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Highlights from ‘When Breath Becomes Air’

When Breath Becomes Air was one of the highest-rated books on my ‘want to read’ Goodreads list. With 357,890 ratings of an overall 4.36 stars and multiple word-of-mouth recommendations, I was excited to finally get to read this – it also helped that it’s a fast read.

This book explores death from a couple different perspectives through one personal account. I am no stranger to death or contemplating death. Working at a hospital has helped to put death front and center for me as a constant reminder of the finality that we all are to encounter. What I enjoyed about this book is that I could relate to some of the encounters that Paul Kalanithi relates from a personal perspective. I have seen the challenges of long term unsuccessful chemotherapies, waited for the time of deaths to be called, watched mothers hold their babies after fetal demise and have been present to explain a brain death. Like Kalanithi, I have spent time and tough moments seeking explanations for the meaning of life, for the meaning of someone’s life specifically, for the reasons for short-lived lives. The way in which I read this book was like talking with a colleague who has been there for these experiences and then debriefing together. These are some pieces I highlighted because they caught my attention.

Some of these were merely beautiful prose: 

“Like a premature lung, I felt unready for the responsibility of sustaining life.”

“Most lives are lived with passivity toward death.”

“Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.

“Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.”

“Everyone succumbs to finitude… Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present.”

“He remained vigorous, open, full of hope not for an unlikely cure but for days that were full of purpose and meaning.”

Quotes from others:

Alexander Pope: ” A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.”


“For most people, cancer in the brain suggests death within a year, maybe two.”

“Sometimes the news so shocks the mind that the brain suffers an electrical short. This phenomenon is known as “psychogenic” syndrome, a severe version of the swoon some experience after hearing bad news. ”

“Kaplan Meier curve.”

“The main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time. Not only that but maybe the basic message of original sin isn’t “Feel guilty all the time.” Maybe it is more along these lines: ” We all have a notion of what it means to be good, and we can’t live up to it all the time.”

In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eighth, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world and still it is never complete.”

Some of these passages did prompt me to think; or reminded me of thoughts that I’ve thought and have heard about death.  Most importantly, these do come up time and time again during difficult conversations:

“At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability — or your mother’s — to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage?… Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”

“Before operating on a patient’s brain, I must first understand his mind, his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end.”

“After someone suffers a head trauma or a stroke, the destruction of these areas often restrains the surgeon’s impulse to save a life: What kind of life exists without language?

“Paul’s oncologists’ top priority: preserving mental acuity as long as possible.”

Ultimately when considering choices about the future of an individual on life support or something similar, healthcare professionals in a helpful manner tend to ask, “What the individual values and what makes life worth living to them?” The answers vary from activities, foods, and enjoying time with loved ones. Often the question that follows is, “what if they could no longer partake in these previously stated joys; is this life worth sustaining and the suffering worth prolonging?” The answers vary by family and individuals and it’s interesting to see the calculus play out. It’s unfortunate at times to see family dynamics play out.  Most importantly it’s worthwhile to allow for the opportunity to contemplate one’s own answers to these questions.

“The problem is that you can’t tell an individual patient where she sits on the curve: Will she die in six months or sixty? I came to believe that it is irresponsible to be more precise than you can be accurate. Those apocryphal doctors who gave specific numbers: Who were they and who taught them statistics?”

Who knows what the right answer is to Kalanithi with regards to the doctor’s responsibility to inform patients of statistics and survival rates? I have heard patients on more than one occasion remind doctors that they are not God and that their faith is strong. (Usually, it’s an A, therefore, B statement in that order.)

“As I sat there, I realized that the questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context. In the actual situations where one encounters these questions, it becomes a necessarily philosophical and biological exercise. “

Although it has been also my experience that I see people’s faces when they first contemplate the likely death of a loved one, I never concluded as in this quote that these important questions arise in this medical context and at this moment. For me, as a face-to-face interpreter, it highlights the importance of having someone there, in that moment when one’s life will be altered, to be able to provide this information in the patients’ or patient’s family’s native language.

“Bereavement is not the truncation of married love,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “but one of its regular phases — like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too.”

Death, like other life themes – childhood, parenthood, and love – has to be introspected for the self at first, and only then can it be contemplated as others may experience it. For example, you only experience and think about yourself being a child and about your childhood and then your siblings’ and much later, you ponder about your parents as children with an entire childhood. I’ve thought about myself dying, my grandparents dying, and even my parents. I have never deeply thought about experiencing the death of my husband until reading the quote above. Despite being around death more than the average person, I was stunned at this realization. Which goes to show why this is such a shocking theme.

Other highlights were simply lessons:

“From that point on, I resolved to treat all my paperwork as patients and not vice versa.”

“You’re doing great. You’re working again. You’ve got a baby on the way. You’re finding your values and that’s not easy.”

The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out.

I’m also going to share that the most important thing I’ve learned from being in a room when these conversations take place is that the best gift you can give your family in these situations (if you’re unable to speak for yourself) is an advanced directive or instructions written ahead of time deciding for yourself what makes life meaningful for you, and what kind of life-sustaining care you wish to have or not have. If you leave it in writing, then your family doesn’t have to guess what you would have wanted. More importantly, rather than placing the burden on them as caretakers of you, they can fully be in the moment as your loved ones.

Sorry about the downer there.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed that it raises the themes that are worth pondering; what makes life worth living? how do you continue to re-evaluate your values? What gives meaning to life and to each day?

By Olivia Uribe Mutal – @osum on Twitter




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The market of thinking

I’m easily sucked in by content producers; Tim Ferriss (@tferriss with 1.6 M Twitter followers), Brain Pickings by Maria Popova (@brainpicker with 908.6k Twitter followers), I recently came across The Browser and signed up as well. I also follow news aggregators and specific subject aggregators such as The Skimm (news), The Hustle (about business and entrepreneurship), Mashup Americans (articles curated around race), Flipboard newsletters, and of course, I find all sorts of interesting (and timely) content on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Because I can’t possibly read through all of this, I have ginormous lists of things to read saved in my Pocket, Flipboard, Linkedin and Facebook. Even during maternity leave, while reading at odd hours of the night while breastfeeding a newborn, I’ve haven’t yet begun to scratch the surface of all this content.

At one point I even started a newsletter of aggregated content, Mind Grub (since I consume so much of it at times) this was done via TinyLetter which I enjoyed but found to be too time-consuming. My question, I guess is, what is exactly the market of information, and sourcing information and the question is more relevant to the times in which we live.  When there is so much content to consume (watch via streaming services), listen to via podcasts and audiobooks and read, what process do people utilize consciously and purposefully to sift through it, and decide what to focus on? But more importantly, what do they do with it?

My grandfather was an amazing conversationalist and without a doubt, he would be the kind of man, that if he lived today, he would continue to be one of the most informed individuals I know. He read about so many topics and absorbed so much information that he was always able to relate and inform anyone with whom he engaged. Today, I find that few people have the ability to do so. I know only a handful of people of my age range that can speak to almost any topic with knowledge, and insight,  who have developed a perspective, or opinion in addition to factual data. I have come across people primarily in academic settings (and toastmasters) who enjoy reading, thinking, writing or contemplating, but otherwise, I find this very attractive set of skills to be missing in most day to day interactions – and to be honest, it bums me out a bit.

How can we advance society if we don’t speak with information about topics larger than ourselves, and with some critical thinking skills? How can we learn to grow if we don’t have the opportunity to debate structured thoughts? How can we hone in the ability to articulate when we don’t practice it?

By the way, I in no way am self-proclaimed a know-it-all. I tend to avoid show business and sports (sort of one and the same). However, I can be easily enticed into forming an opinion and argument for and against anything, and continue to learn more about things that I do not know.

“Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale. Breathe.” – Sahil Lavingia (@shl)

By Olivia Uribe Mutal – @osum on Twitter

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Books read in 2019

Since 2005 when I started a log of Hopeful Resolutions, I included ‘Reading More‘ as one of my 10 resolutions in the years: 2009, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. It wasn’t until the year 2016 that I even started actively reading and tracking books and it wasn’t until 2019 that I made a significant change in my book consumption.

In 2019 I read the following books:

2019 Books

I read 15 books in 2019. Some fiction, some non-fiction, some excellent and some eh – not so much. My longest book was the phenomenally written biography of First: Sandra Day O’Connor written by one of my favorite authors Evan Thomas; it was 496 pages. I didn’t quite yet write a blog post about all the books I read after Hillbilly Elegy, but I intend to write about the ones I enjoyed the most. In order of how much I enjoyed them, these are the books I read. Books ranked 1-5 were all really good and very close in ranking in my opinion. Books ranked 9 – 15 were all mediocre to unenjoyable and I could’ve done without reading them.

As an obsessive-compulsive individual, I really struggle with leaving books partly read. So I tend to muster all the patience and diligence into finishing books I don’t enjoy. I don’t know if I will continue this trend in the coming year. What are your thoughts on the matter?

2019 Books with ratings

  1. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
  2. First: Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas
  3. Rising Strong by Brené Brown
  4. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
  5. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
  6. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
  7. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
  8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  9. The Kiss Quotient (The Kiss Quotient, #1) by Helen Hoang
  10. Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
  11. What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast: And Two Other Short Guides to Achieving More at Work and at Home by Laura Vanderkam
  12. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin
  13. The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan
  14. An Innocent Abroad: Life-changing Trips from 35 Great Writers by Don George
  15. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

My goal for 2019 was to read 10 books which I completed by June 21st of 2019. It was then that I extended my goal to 20 books but only got to 15. My goal for 2020 is to read 20 books including 2 written in Spanish. I enjoy non-fiction and books that will become films. I welcome any suggestions.

Below are the other three years in which I did track my reading habits. Goes to show old dogs can learn new tricks.

Previous Books 2016 -2018

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I often enjoy reflecting on my birthday upon life so far, and what’s coming and what it all means. I turned 35 just last week.

35 is an interesting number to me, you’re no longer young but also not old.

Hopefully, there’s still time to do a lot of things, but a good amount of years where things could’ve been accomplished have also passed.

I feel like I no longer have to be who I have been so far. Meaning primarily just because I’ve had certain habits, attitudes, hobbies and such (good, bad or indifferent), it’s a good time to re-evaluate each one and decide to adopt it for the future or let it go. There are parts of myself that I used to like, perhaps a youthful optimism – or anything -that I can choose to embrace again. There are parts that I may not have liked and now is a good time to leave them behind, just by letting them exist in the past.

35 feels like the second part of my adult life. Having kids at this age – being a somewhat new mom, feels good. I feel like I have learned enough about myself, and how to face the world and yet these boys are and will be teaching me how to see things from a different perspective, as a mom, and from their perspective with fresh eyes again. 35 is also a very good time to continue working on personal characteristics and traits I would like to develop.

Once I have some sort of balance with two kids, I would like to work again toward helping my community, but for now, they need all the attention and time that I can give to them – of that, I am certain.

35 is also a good time to make strategic choices for my future, which is inextricably tied to the future of my family. There are certain things I still want to learn, two, in particular, are basic coding and graphic design – so that I can use these in the ideas that come to mind. I have lists of great ideas both of which require one or both of these skills. I also have to learn to trust myself enough to go with some of those ideas. When I have committed to ideas and pursued them putting one foot in front of the other, they’ve worked out, so there’s no reason why they wouldn’t work again.

I also want to learn to cook. So much time is spent eating together and so many memories are created surrounding good food, I would like to be able to do that for my guys – my husband and boys.

All in all, I think the first 35 have been good. I think the next 35 will be as well. Check back in 2054 for an update…

By Olivia Uribe Mutal – @osum on Twitter

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Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

This book was all the hype in 2016 and it vaguely intrigued me. I enjoy nonfiction and though it would offer insight into what happened to the rust belt that has created Trump voters. It isn’t a political examination in the way that I expected but thorough a personal story it sheds light on some misperceptions and myths of the poor working whites of Appalachia.

When I first started reading – or rather listening to it from the library as an audiobook – I was concerned and a little apprehensive that it may be too much of a book that seeks to find excuses for the collective poverty, perceived lack of education and societal decays. However, I kept listening and was sucked in by the author’s story, easy style and the way he told the story. I came to learn something that sadly we learn repeatedly about attitudes of discrimination. In fact having to rethink this in a different context is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I don’t actually know any “hillbillies” personally and only have a construct in my mind which has been created by serotypes and the media. But to ‘know’ or hear the story first hand from a self-proclaimed “hillbilly” was elucidating.

Part of me worries that – although I’m not an ivy league educated elite – that I and my peers that laud this book were better able to consume this book because it came from someone with authority for not only having the background it seeks to share but also because of the successful trajectory which he completed.

Overall, this book was enjoyable. Like many books I have read by now, it touches vaguely on public policy (which is really the reason for my interest) although I have not come to expect that of books like this one, Evicted and Nickle and Dimed. What I do enjoy beyond the stories are the statistics and facts peppered throughout. I was most impacted by this quote, although there were many others that were eye opening as well.

“In certain parts of Kentucky, local life expectancy is sixty-seven, a full decade and a half below what it is in nearby Virginia. A recent study found that unique among all ethnic groups in the United States, the life expectancy of working-class white folks is going down.”

I found out that Ron Howard is making it into a movie, and I’m curious to see how that turns out. If you’ve read it, I’m curious to hear what you though.

By Olivia Uribe Mutal – @osum on Twitter.

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