How the pandemic helped Walmart battle Amazon Marketplace for sellers

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Between 2009 and 2014, Walmart’s Marketplace business, where outside merchants hawk everything from baby blankets to power tools, counted no more than six sellers, and was described by one expert as “in limbo.”

But what was treated as an afterthought for years has emerged as an important leg in the world’s biggest retailer’s long-term strategy to take on Amazon Inc, which it is battling for advertising and ecommerce dollars.

Walmart Marketplace grew to an estimated 70,000 sellers in 2020, fueled by a surge in online shopping due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a series of investments in technology and vendor relationships reported here for the first time.

That is expected to rise 146% by the end of 2022, according to projections by data firm Marketplace Pulse that have not yet been published.

The rapid growth is starting to stress the system, some merchants said, a growing number of whom worry that if the pace picks up, Walmart risks damaging its reputation as a haven for quality sellers. Reuters spoke with vendors from Walmart.com and Amazon, analytics companies that help merchants sell on both marketplaces, industry experts, consultants and executives.

“A year or two ago, every brand on Walmart.com would be trustworthy but now it’s getting very similar to Amazon and that’s a huge risk,” said Cal Chan, who sells supplements and skincare products on both Walmart and Amazon. “Amazon let everyone under the sun in – that helped them grow, but now they’re trying to clean up the riff-raff and it’s very hard to close Pandora’s Box.”

Amazon disputed the characterization by merchants and said it has a thorough vetting process designed to help honest sellers set up accounts quickly. The company employs more than 8,000 people to remove counterfeit products, false listings and identify intellectual property theft. In 2019, Amazon stopped over 2.5 million suspected bad actors from opening Amazon selling accounts, and blocked more than 6 billion suspected bad listings, an Amazon spokesman said in an email.

Walmart has distinguished itself as a safer, less crowded marketplace than rivals like Amazon, making it easier for merchants to stand out and sell products. But it is now expected to see a surge of new vendors after it said last month it will open its online store to international merchants, which are less accountable to U.S. consumer protection laws. Walmart has already added over 130 new Chinese sellers, Marketplace Pulse said.

(Graphic: More Chinese merchants join Walmart Marketplace – )

Reuters Graphic

The retailer said it is actively courting foreign vendors including from ecommerce giant Flipkart, which is bigger than Amazon in India and in which Walmart holds a 77% stake. It vowed to maintain quality control.

“We do not plan to lower our bar or change our vetting standards, our monitoring or management of sellers,” Jeff Clementz, Vice President of Walmart Marketplace, said. “We are aiming to attract the best from around the world.”

Walmart said its sourcing teams in other countries have begun vetting potential sellers by their reviews, licensing permissions, reputations and items.

The business of providing a storefront for outside sellers is, as one analyst called it, a “secret weapon” for Amazon and a major growth engine that has caught the attention of Target and big tech rivals Google and Facebook, which are eager to expand similar businesses.

Sales generated by Amazon’s third-party vendors totaled $189 billion last year in the United States, or nearly 60% of the company’s total U.S. retail ecommerce sales, according to eMarketer data from Insider Intelligence.

Amazon, which declined to verify these numbers, dwarfs Walmart’s marketplace and is estimated to have more than 3 million sellers on its U.S. third-party store at the end of 2022, and 7.5 million globally, according to Marketplace Pulse.

But the lure of Walmart’s over 5,000 stores and clubs – more important than ever as pick-up and delivery hubs take off due to the pandemic – is a big attraction for many vendors.

“Walmart has something Amazon can’t match: brick-and-mortar stores. If you do well on Walmart.com, there’s potential you can get into a regular Walmart,” said Bradley Sutton, who works at third-party seller consulting firm Helium 10.

“It’s like the Holy Grail for vendors. That’s way bigger than Amazon.”

(Graphic: U.S. third-party merchants’ sales surge – )

Reuters Graphic

‘STRATEGIC PRIORITY’

Marketplace’s elevation to what Clementz in June called a “strategic priority” tracks Walmart’s reinvention from digital also-ran to the No. 2 spot behind Amazon.

The transformation began with the 2016 addition of serial entrepreneur Marc Lore to lead Walmart’s U.S. ecommerce business. That year, it agreed to spend $3.3 billion on Lore’s less than three-year-old Jet.com.

“This company, over time, is going to look like more of an ecommerce company,” Walmart Chief Executive Doug McMillon said at the time.

By early October 2016, 17 days after joining Walmart, Lore laid out a strategy that included a plan to not only lure hipper, urban, millennial shoppers to Jet.com and Walmart.com, but also to make both sites attractive to smaller merchants.

Lore eyed an opportunity to lure sellers of “more premium-type brands that don’t typically want to sell on marketplaces” of rivals.

(Graphic: Walmart Marketplace vendors seen rising sharply – )

Reuters Graphic

Some vendors described a rigorous process to get on Walmart Marketplace that can take weeks and includes submitting bank account information, sales records and social security details.

When Clementz, previously COO of Walmart.com, was put in charge of Marketplace, the first order of business for the veteran of PayPal and Intel was to improve “glitchy,” complicated software for listing products and simplify the process of connecting analytics and delivery firms for vendors, said sellers.

Walmart spruced up its advertising platform, rolled out software to protect sellers’ intellectual property, launched a delivery and logistics service, and introduced its version of Amazon Prime, called Walmart+, a membership program that “100% boosts sales,” according to fitness equipment merchant Michael Lebhar.

Hoping to address complaints from sellers, Walmart hired “strategic account managers” who cater to top vendors. On Tuesday, Walmart emailed vendors to apply for “a chance to win the opportunity to sell” U.S.-made products in stores.

To sweeten the pot, Walmart has also undercut Amazon on the commission it takes on sales of some items. Walmart takes a 3%-20% cut of items sold versus Amazon’s rate of 6%-45%, depending on the type of product.

The month Walmart opened its market to international sellers, new vendors were told they would not have to pay a commission at all for a limited time.

But concessions like this generate concern among some sellers.

“This is alarming and will end up with Walmart having similar counterfeit or quality issues like Amazon is having,” said Ryan Ebel, 30, a third-party seller from Las Vegas.

Lore, who left the company at the end of January and remains an advisor, said he is “not worried” about Walmart’s expansion to foreign sellers.

“The magic is finding that white line, the right balance between adding more assortment but not going down a path of letting anybody on the platform,” he said.

Reporting by Richa Naidu in Chicago; Editing by Kenneth Li and Nick Zieminski

Business-to-business e-commerce boom only just beginning: DHL

Courier services company DHL Express forecasts the global market for e-commerce between companies will grow by more than 70% to $20.9 trillion by 2027, it said in a study released on Tuesday.

The company, a subsidiary of Deutsche Post, saw its own revenue jump by almost 12% last year to 19.1 billion euros ($22.41 billion) as more companies and consumers switched to e-commerce because of the pandemic.

The trend is now firmly established and will outlive the pandemic, it said.

One factor driving the growth in business-to business (B2B) transactions is the millennial generation, which was already accustomed to using digital platforms for business-to-customer (B2C) transactions.

The millennial generation has grown to account for 73% of all business-to-business (B2B) purchasing decisions, DHL said in the study.

It expects 80% of all transactions between suppliers and business customers to take place on purchasing platforms and other digital channels by 2025, it said but gave no comparative figures for current usage.

($1 = 0.8524 euros)

By: Kwamed2k

UK retail sales rise 2.1% in February

Retail sales rose 2.1% in February, recovering some ground from a steep fall in January.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said sales were still down by 3.7% on a year earlier, before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Food and department stores benefitted from essential retailers remaining open, it said, though clothing shops continued to struggle.

Online sales continued to grow and hit a record 36.1% of all UK sales.

Jonathan Athow, ONS deputy national statistician for economic statistics said that despite national restrictions, “retail sales partially recovered from the hit they took in January” when they fell by 8.2%.

He said mixed stores, which were allowed to stay open as they sold some foodstuffs, had benefitted, with budget-end department stores increasing sales. 

Mr Athow said anecdotal evidence from retailers suggested people had been spending on home improvements and on outdoor furniture, as people prepared for lockdown easing, which will allow gatherings in gardens again.

Covid: Welsh tourism businesses prepare to reopen

Tourism businesses in Wales have said they are making plans to reopen ahead of Friday’s lockdown review.

Welsh government ministers and health officials are expected to discuss on Thursday whether travel restrictions can be eased to allow limited tourism in Wales over Easter.

Safe-catered accommodation could reopen from 27 March and outdoor hospitality will be considered for 22 April.

Businesses said they were “champing at the bit” to get back.

At the last lockdown review hairdressers, garden centres and some non-essential retailwere given their dates to open.

The first minister also announced tourism could start to reopen by Easter if case rates stayed low, but he warned a decision would not be made until “the last moment” and that tourism openings would come to a halt “if bookings were made from outside Wales”.

People in England cannot go on holiday elsewhere in the UK until 12 April.

Graphic showing possible openings

‘90% of our customers come from England’

Catherine Hummel
image captionCatherine Hummel said different rules across the border made it more “complicated” to reopen

Catherine Hummel, co-owner of Riverside Camping near Caernarfon, said she was expecting a “softer reopening” due to having to decline English bookings, but that they were making preparations to open.

She said: “Ninety per cent of our customers come from England, but we’re looking forward to welcoming people back.

“We’ve been out all week cutting the grass and painting to make it as welcoming as possible.

“We have had to cancel around 100 bookings from England for Easter already, some were double cancellations from last year, so that’s a double cancellation for some which isn’t nice to do. 

“Business-wise I’m sad we can’t welcome guests from England back just yet, but as a parent and member of the community I want to keep staff and guests as safe as possible.

“We’re still not sure on when we can welcome back people from England, the complication there lies in the reopening being different across the four nations like it was last year.

“Last year we had thousands of emails assuming the rules were the same here when they weren’t – it makes it complicated.”

Anglesey Case rates graphic
image captionAnglesey at one point has some of the lowest case rates in the UK but is currently 35th – Holyhead is now second highest of the Wales localised hotspots

‘It’s a double-edged sword’

Nia Rhys Jones, joint chair of Anglesey Tourism Association and owner of some self-catering accommodation, said for some businesses it was “just not worth the cost of reopening”.

She said: “It’s all good allowing self-contained accommodation to reopen, but a lot of businesses on Anglesey are not opening because the bulk of trade comes from England, so opening is not worth the cost for some.

“There is some nervousness about people from parts of south Wales travelling up here and potentially seeing rates rise again.

“It’s a real double-edged sword, businesses need trade from England, but also don’t want to be bringing coronavirus back into our communities.”

Sean Taylor
image captionSean Taylor said the “most important thing is notice”

Sean Taylor, founder of the Zip World group of attractions in Snowdonia, said he would be glad to see businesses open but “the most important thing is notice”. 

He said: “We’re a well-run business, but we need to be able to plan ahead. Any reopening after lockdown will need some time for staff training to take place and for us to organise things with suppliers. Even the most basic things as tea and coffee need a moment to get sorted before you can open the doors.”

‘Champing at the bit to get back’

Paula Ellis
image captionPaula Ellis said the last 12 months had been “the most challenging time of our careers”

Paula Ellis is the group general manager for Retreats Group Ltd, chair of South West Tourism Forum and a member of the Covid Emergency Taskforce Group for Tourism, Hospitality and Events. 

She said lockdown had been “the most challenging time of our careers” and that without government support she did not know how the industry would have survived.

She said she hoped the plans can go ahead to open tourism by Easter and that preparations have been under way since ministers announced in February it was a possibility, but she said she would understand if it was not the case.

“We understand that if further strains are found or the R number changes in Wales that the Welsh government would have to retract the opening.

“For all our hopes and aspirations, the health of the nation does need to come first.”

She said she was hoping for a busy summer however, and was “very much looking forward to a phenomenal demand for domestic tourism”, which she said Wales may never see again.

She added she would feel “a lot more confident to open safely” this summer as opposed to last as people have begun to be vaccinated and a lot of her guests tended to be older so would probably have had their jabs already.

“My main concern since last year is how I can look after my colleagues, community and guests, and in that order.

“My team are champing at the bit to be back and you can really feel the camaraderie.”

What do the people living in tourist destinations think?

Fiona Christie lives in Porthcawl and said she was nervous about the influx of people that could come to the town if rules allowed.

Fiona Christie
image captionFiona Christie lives in Porthcawl and said crowds in the summer can be “pretty hideous”

She said: “I am nervous – I think Porthcawl is going to be pretty hideous in the summer to be fair. I think everybody is going to just come.

“It’s lovely for people to come, but I think there’s going to be an influx of people.

“I think people were more nervous last year and so they were careful, but this year I think everybody’s probably had enough.”

Carolyn Peers
image captionCarolyn Peers said it can be daunting for people living in tourist towns

Carolyn Peers, who also lives in the seaside town, said: “It happened last year and we couldn’t even walk along the prom there was so many people – and whilst I understand people wanting got come out, it’s daunting if you live here as well.”

Marilyn and Ralph Greenslade are from nearby Kenfig Hill, so have been able to visit Porthcawl since the “stay local” rule came into place.

Mr Greenslade said: “It’s absolutely delightful to come down here once again. We come down here as much as we can, we’ll always have a coffee, we meet up with friends, and to be able to do that again – it’s a treat.

“If people are sensible, everything will be okay – it’s when you get masses of people meeting, not social distancing, then you really begin to worry.”

Ralph and Marilyn Greenslade
image captionRalph and Marilyn Greenslade said not being able to travel to Porthcawl before “stay local” was introduced had been like a “prison sentence”

Mrs Greenslade said they were both teachers and go to Porthcawl to blow off steam.

“Not coming for three months – it was like a prison sentence. So that feeling of freedom, and meeting my lovely friends, I’ve been singing and dancing all week,” she said. 

“Porthcawl has got something for everyone so I don’t worry too much about the summer months because we are quite good at avoiding crowds anyway. But I am delighted, and I can’t wait for other people to enjoy and keep the businesses going.”

John Lewis announces eight store closures

John Lewis has said it will not reopen eight of its stores once lockdown eases, putting 1,465 jobs at risk.

John Lewis store Tunbridge Wells
image captionThe Tunbridge Wells store, on the list to stay closed permanently

The retail giant said some locations could not sustain a large store.

The closures include four “At Home” shops in Ashford and Tunbridge Wells in Kent, in Basingstoke, Hampshire, and in Chester, Cheshire.

Department stores in Aberdeen, in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire and in Sheffield and York in Yorkshire, are also closing.

John Lewis that the eight shops were “financially challenged prior to the pandemic”. 

Earlier this month, the retailer warned it would be making more store closures after the impact of the pandemic led it to report a hefty annual loss.

The latest move comes on top of the closure of eight stores that John Lewis announced last year.

Click-and-collect

The company said it planned to create more places to shop for John Lewis products across the UK. It suggested it would not entirely move out of areas where the main store was closing.

“In areas where we propose not to reopen stores, we will look at the right combination of options for that location to ensure we remain convenient for our customers, so they can continue to access John Lewis products and services.”

It added it would invest in improving click-and-collect in its Waitrose stores and offer more local collection points through third parties. It also will continue experimenting with John Lewis shopping areas in Waitrose stores, as well as trying out smaller, local neighbourhood shops.

John Lewis said 34 stores would start reopening from 12 April, subject to government guidance, with the exception of Glasgow, which will reopen from 26 April, and Edinburgh, which will reopen on 14 May. 

Woman carrying John Lewis shopping bag.
image captionJohn Lewis expects 60-70% of its sales to take place online in future

The company said it would “enter into consultation with the 1,465 affected partners” about the proposals.

Should it proceed, it said it would make “every effort” to find alternative roles for as many as possible.

John Lewis has a unique structure in that its staff are also partners in the business, and receive a share in the profits in good years. 

It said the stores that were closing were in locations where it did not have enough customers. “Given the significant shift to online shopping in recent years – and our belief that this trend will not materially reverse – we do not think the performance of these eight stores can be substantially improved.

“We expect 60% to 70% of John Lewis sales to be made online in the future. Nearly 50% of our customers now use a combination of both store and online when making a purchase.” 

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Analysis box by Emma Simpson, business correspondent

John Lewis has now axed around a third of its stores in less than a year. It wasn’t all that long ago that the chain was opening stores. In 2007, it had 26 when it decided to embark on an aggressive expansion plan, almost doubling the number of stores in a decade, even though internet sales were starting to climb.

This is now a painful correction. Of the 23 department stores it went on to open, only 12 will still be trading when lockdown ends. Its Birmingham store was the most high-profile casualty last year. The company is also reining back on its smaller “John Lewis at home” stores. Only four of the original 12 remain. But it’s also losing some older main department stores in regional cities, which will have a huge impact.

John Lewis has been a presence in Sheffield for some 80 years, for instance. The business insists that as the High Street changes, it has to change with it, reflecting changing shopping habits. It expects 70% of its sales to be online by 2025.

John Lewis is betting on fewer bigger “destination” shops as well as relying far less on retail in the future for its overall profits – from expanding financial services to using excess space for housing.

Some bold decisions are being made across retail given the turmoil over the past 12 months, but the question is whether John Lewis can pull off its turnaround plan without losing its competitive edge.

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Despite the shift to online, John Lewis said that stores were essential to its business, as people still wanted physical proximity: “They provide a sensory experience that online cannot, supported by the expertise of our partners.”

The pandemic caused the chain’s first ever annual loss of £517m for the year to January, against profits of £146m the previous year. At the time of that announcement earlier this month, the firm said it would reshape its business in response to the change in customer shopping habits.

Much of that loss was due to a write down in the value of its stores because of the shift to online shopping, as well as restructuring and redundancy costs.

Pandemic leaves digital laggard Italy scrambling to catch up

MILAN (Reuters) – Small Italian car filter supplier Ecofiltri took out a state-backed loan last year, just like thousands of other businesses fighting to keep afloat during the pandemic.

But instead of burning through the cash to pay overdue rent and bills, Ecofiltri is investing the money on a technological revamp of its business. Already facing a longer-term switch to electric transport, the company was spurred to act after the virus crisis cut the number of drivers on the road.

“We’ve expanded our facilities, bought high-tech equipment and even created an R&D department where we are working on three projects we hope we can patent to provide more intelligent products and services,” Ecofiltri co-founder Simone Scafetta told Reuters over a video call.

Italy ranked fourth to last in the EU for digital competitiveness in 2019, according to the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI). By forcing a huge technological acceleration on the country, the pandemic is offering Italy a one-off chance to boost its feeble productivity and economic growth.

For a graphic on DESI index 2020:

Reuters Graphic

Faster economic expansion is essential for Rome to sustain the world’s third-largest public debt which the pandemic has inflated to 1.6 times gross domestic product (GDP).

Research by Milan’s Politecnico University shows Italy could add 1.9 percentage points a year on average to its GDP growth if its small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) bridged a 40% gap versus Spanish peers measured by indicators ranging from e-commerce capabilities or electronic invoicing to use of big data.

“But the trick only works if businesses switch from a (crisis-driven) reactive approach to technology to a strategic one, and the environment where they operate evolves with them,” said Giorgia Sali who heads Politecnico’s research hub on SMEs and digital innovation.

For a graphic on DESI Index Connectivity:

Reuters Graphic

Italy estimates its businesses in recent years fell behind the rest of Europe in terms of digital investment by an amount roughly equal to 2 percentage points of GDP.

The pandemic has brought a welcome shift, with 86% of Italian respondents in a survey of mid- to large-sized firms commissioned by Dell Technologies saying they sped up digital transformation plans in 2020, above a 75% European average.

“The pandemic has forced Italian companies to confront the country’s huge digital gap,” said Francesca Moriani, CEO of IT services provider VAR Group, adding Europe as a whole lags the United States and China.

The euro zone’s digital economy is only two-thirds the size of that in the United States.Slideshow ( 2 images )

Encouragingly, 92% of SMEs polled by VAR Group expect to invest in digital capacity in the next two years, despite the blow to sales from the pandemic.

RECOVERY FUNDS

Italy’s digital deficit has a number of roots.

In a country where broadband access is below the EU average, large companies which can sustain programmes of technological investment make up only a tiny proportion of businesses.

Many firms are family-owned and run, meaning they tend to lack managers with the right skills to lead a digital transformation.

A European Central Bank study also highlighted funding constraints when businesses rely mostly on bank financing like in Italy, saying traditional lenders often struggle to evaluate the risk involved in projects based on complex technologies.

Add to that an ageing population, and a very low share of ICT graduates – around 5,000 a year compared with around 18,000 in smaller Spain, according to Eurostat figures here – and Italy has fallen behind in the digital race.

To support the adoption of cutting-edge technologies by its companies and ultra high-speed connectivity, Rome has earmarked 46 billion euros in yet-to-be disbursed EU recovery funds for digital investments.

It also offers tax breaks to firms seeking to boost digital spending and appointed former Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao as its technology czar to oversee efforts in coming years.

Like in Greece, the modernisation push also targets public services which Ecofiltri’s Scafetta said set a bad example.

“We’ve given our staff palmtops and screens to share information non-stop and interact with customers … people don’t add value by walking next door to carry paper documents, like you see state employees do,” he said.

Located in the central Abruzzo region, Ecofiltri has found success by developing a process which gives a second life to diesel particulate filters.

To fund its projects, which include sensors to more easily detect issues with its filters and a digital warehouse management system to feed information to its website and liaise with e-sellers such as Amazon, Ecofiltri last September borrowed 100,000 euros from Credimi, a fintech lending firm.

Credimi says digital innovation is an important driver of credit demand it faces from SMEs.

“With a few exceptions, the pandemic has caught small- and mid-sized Italian businesses unprepared, sending them scrambling to catch up with digital progress,” Fabio Troiani, CEO Italy and Global digital services at Milan-based BIP Consulting, said.

“For some it’s become a matter of life and death.”

FALLING FURTHER BEHIND

Many smaller Italian businesses are rising to the challenge.

The share of SMEs using e-commerce in 2020 rose 50% to a third of the total, as first-time e-shoppers surged by 2 million during a nationwide lockdown last spring, according to data by Politecnico and e-commerce lobby Netcomm.

For a graphic on SMEs selling online:

Reuters Graphic

Politecnico data also point to a 42% jump in cloud services for SMEs as remote workers increased by 11.5 times to 6.6 million.

So far, Italian government programmes aimed at fostering digital investments have been mostly taken up by larger companies.

The challenge is to bring onboard companies like Ecofiltri, which is one of more than 4 million Italian businesses with fewer than 10 staff, or 95% of the total.

Small firms find it hard to attract people with the necessary skills in a country where ICT graduates make up only 1% of the total, the lowest in the EU, contributing to Italy scoring last in the DESI human capital index.

“It wasn’t easy but we’ve brought in an engineer and the next person we hire must also be an engineer or they wouldn’t fit our development plans,” Scafetta said.

Diego Ciulli, senior public policy manager at Google, warned that a failure to fill Italy’s digital gap when consumers globally have turned to online channels would be more than a missed opportunity.

“The real risk is falling further behind,” he said.

“If Italian wine producers wait for trade exhibitions to resume to find new foreign customers, while French ones get really good at selling their wine online you don’t just lose a chance to grow, you lose market share.”

China’s ambitious COVID-19 vaccination plan to test its production capability

BEIJING (Reuters) – China aims to vaccinate at least half a billion of its people against COVID-19 in four months, a challenge that will test the country’s formidable industrial might just as it accelerates efforts to help inoculate the rest of the world.

Reuters calculations indicate China could ramp up capacity enough to vaccinate the world’s biggest population and hundreds of millions beyond, in dozens of countries from Africa to Latin America.

But little is known about how fully the three approved domestic manufacturers are using their capacity – a lack of information that leaves a huge question mark over global efforts to end the pandemic that began in central China.

“It is important for the public to have an understanding of what the government is doing, what the private industry is doing, how fast or slowly they are doing,” said U.S. researcher Jennifer Pancorbo.

More precise production data that help people get some sense of whether shots will be available in May or July will affect how people plan their return to normal life, said Pancorbo, director of industry programmes and research at North Carolina State University’s Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center.

China got an early start, invoking emergency-use authorisation for vaccines in July. But it has inoculated less than 4% of its population, far behind such countries as Israel, Britain and the United States, as it largely focussed on preventing transmission.

Now Beijing is shifting gears, aiming to inoculate 40% of its 1.4 billion people by the end of June.

With 65 million doses administered as of Sunday, China needs to average around 4 million shots a day to meet that target.

Vaccine developers’ statements suggest manufacturers could reach an annual capacity of 3.6 billion doses by the end of the year, according to Reuters calculations: 3.1 billion doses of the three approved vaccines that require double injections and 500 million single-dose shots.

That would be enough to vaccinate China’s entire population eventually and honour its commitment to supply at least 463 million doses overseas through donations and exports.

But none of the makers of the approved vaccines – China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm), CanSino Biologics Inc (CanSinoBIO) or Sinovac Biotech Ltd – has detailed how many doses they are producing after their latest scale-up.

“Chinese vaccine manufacturers are still expanding, and with the continuous release of production capacity, the output will gradually increase,” Tian Yulong, an official with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, told a news conference on Monday.

He declined to disclose China’s vaccine production rate or supply levels, when asked by Reuters.

Even if they have enough capacity ready, if disruptions in the supply of raw materials and key components occurred, they probably could not run their factories at full speed, experts caution.

‘HARD TO PREDICT’

“All the vials, boxes, syringes, needles, all that stuff, where does it come from?” said Harris Makatsoris, professor of sustainable manufacturing systems at King’s College London, “The question is these companies – do they have sufficient capacity, because they serve the internal market as well as the global market?”

Sinovac said in early February that its capacity to make finished products lagged behind its bulk production capacity, but overseas partners could help fill bulk vaccine into vials and syringes.

A Sinovac spokesman told Reuters it does not expect a shortage of vials and would be able to quickly expand production if China or other countries accept a larger vial that can hold multiple doses of its vaccine.

Unlike AstraZeneca PLC, which puts 10 doses in a vial and Pfizer Inc, which uses five, Sinovac uses a single-dose vial or syringe.

Sinopharm and CanSinoBIO did not reply to Reuters requests for comment.

Drugmakers worldwide are struggling, as they run flat out to meet the unprecedented demands from competing countries at record speed.

Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, thinks China has sufficient production capacity to meet its goals, but cautions that translating capacity into products that meet standards is complicated.

Before starting mass production, a newly built line needs to go through test runs and fine-tuning that could affect the production schedule, making it difficult to disclose precise production rates.

“You may produce a batch and it doesn’t meet the requirements, and then you have to do it again, make a change to something,” said Zoltan Kis, an Imperial College London researcher specialising in vaccine manufacturing. “This is the same everywhere in the world, not only in China.”

Established Western vaccine makers have hit production snags – AstraZeneca faces growing anger as it falls far behind commitments to supply the European Union.

“Companies have consistently overestimated their ability to produce and deliver vaccines,” partly because a scarcity of information makes it hard to estimate supply, said Jerome Kim, director general of the nonprofit International Vaccine Institute.

While China has other challenges to address in its vaccination campaign, Kim said he would “worry first about supply, then about delivery and finally acceptance.”

Covid pandemic: Biden eyes 4 July as ‘Independence Day’ from virus

President Joe Biden has said he is hopeful that America can “mark independence” from Covid-19 on 4 July if people get vaccinated.

In his first primetime address as president, Mr Biden said he would order states to make all adults eligible for vaccinations by 1 May.

Current measures prioritise people by age or health condition.

Mr Biden was speaking exactly a year to the day after the outbreak was classified a global pandemic.

Half a million Americans have since died – more than the death toll from World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam War combined. 

Schools have been closed, businesses shuttered and people kept apart.

In his speech, President Biden set a timetable for when small groups could potentially meet again.

“If we do this together, by 4 July, there is a good chance you, your family and friends can get together in your backyard or in your neighbourhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day,” Mr Biden said.

He predicted that the country would be able to not only celebrate Independence Day but also “independence from this virus”.

Chart showing US cases and deaths

The US health system is complex and individual states are in charge of public health policy. While the federal government is responsible for getting the vaccine distributed to the states, it has largely relied on them to handle the distribution.

But as part of the plans to expand vaccinations, President Biden said the number of places where people could be immunised would be increased, with veterinarians and dentists among those also allowed to vaccinate people.

Mobile units will travel into local communities to provide vaccinations in underserved communities, he said.

Mr Biden previously set a target of 100 million vaccinations by his 100th day in office, but in his address on Thursday, he said this target would be reached on day 60.

Despite the good news, he warned that the “fight is far from over”. “This is not the time to let up,” he added.

He called on people to maintain social distancing measures, hand washing and wear a mask.

“Beating the virus and getting back to normal relies on national unity,” he said.

This time last year, there were 1,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US and about 30 people had died.

All US major sport was cancelled and then-President Donald Trump suspended travel from Europe, saying he hoped the US would be open again for Easter 2020. This prediction was repeatedly revised.

President Biden said last month he hoped that life would return to “normal” by Christmas 2021. Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, described this timetable as “reasonable”.

The president’s caution is at odds with some states such as Texas and Mississippi, which are relaxing restrictions in order to boost their economies.

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Analysis box by Anthony Zurcher, North America reporter

One year ago, the United States joined the world in facing a brutal truth. The coronavirus pandemic was going to fundamentally alter everyday life. Businesses shuttered. Citizens sheltered in their home. Life ground to a halt.

On Thursday night, in his first prime-time televised address to the nation, President Joe Biden said there was light at the end of the tunnel.

The big news from his speech was that all adult Americans would be eligible for a vaccine by the beginning of May – a pace, he boasted, that was the best in the world.

His most important message, however, may have been his urging that all Americans should get the jab when it’s their turn. “I know they’re safe,” he said.

A recent opinion poll showed that nearly half of Republicans are sceptical of the vaccine. If their doubt becomes inaction, Mr Biden’s promises – widespread school openings, an ability to travel and Independence Day celebrations – will go unrealised.

His speech was part promise, part warning. Get vaccinated, continue social distancing, wear masks – or else.

“America is coming back,” he said. But, he added, Americans needed to do their part.

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Huge stimulus bill signed into law

Also on Thursday, the president signed a $1.9tn (£1.4tn) economic relief bill that marks an early legislative victory for his administration. 

The bill includes $1,400 payments, an extension of jobless benefits, and a child tax credit that is expected to lift millions out of poverty. The stimulus payments are set to begin this month.

It also allocates $350bn to state and local governments, some $130bn to school reopening, $49bn for expanded Covid-19 testing and research, as well as $14bn for vaccine distribution.

Mr Biden said the relief package will rebuild “the backbone of this country”.

The spending bill, one of the largest in US history, passed Congress without a single Republican supporter. 

Republicans objected to the bill’s price tag, calling for various elements of the package to be smaller. They suggested that stimulus cheques be given only to those who have lost income over the past year. 

The pandemic has left more than 529,000 people dead in the US and infected over 29 million.

International Women’s Day: Women’s work

The pandemic has had widely varying effects on different generations, races, nations, sectors and genders. Nearly a year in, the data shows women in the UK have not been more likely to lose their jobs, but they have been harder hit in many other ways.

They are more than half the population, so a focus for one day each year is bound to look tokenistic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the try. 

So, for International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at the way the pandemic has affected them, particularly in the workplace. March 8 brings a lot of new evidence.

In sectors including key workers – health care, schools, social care and supermarkets – women outnumber men by 4.8m to 1.6m, according to the Living Wage Foundation.

However, within these sectors, women are more likely than men to earn less than the real Living Wage (the non-statutory one calculated on basic needs, at £9.50 per hour and more in London). In schools, it found that is true of 22% of women and 8% for men. In supermarkets, it is true of 50% of women and 41% of men.

Women business owners are more likely to have found the pandemic stressful. NatWest/Royal Bank of Scotland reports its own survey finding that is true of 71% of businesswomen and 55% of male entrepreneurs. The gap is larger when asked about struggling business demands with family life.

The Economist publication runs an annual Glass Ceiling Index across 29 developed economy nations, combining data on higher education, labour force participation, pay, childcare costs, maternity and paternity rights, business school applications and representation in senior roles. 

To no-one’s surprise, northern Europe does well, with Sweden top, followed by Iceland, Finland and Norway. Britain ranks 20th out of 29, up three places on last year because it does relatively well in the share of senior roles occupied by women. The USA is two places higher.

Home-working through the pandemic is thought to have landed women with a disproportionate workload in childcare and home schooling, while disparities in housework persist.

With childcare centres closed or restricted through lockdowns, the Institute of Fiscal Studies noted that the paid childcare sector has been particularly vulnerable to financial distress. 

Many such businesses are run by women and employ mainly women, and run on very narrow margins. The drop in income risks putting many out of business altogether, risking a worsening of access to affordable childcare when the crisis phase is over.

Medics wearing face masks and shields
image captionWomen outnumber men in the health care sector

Is the gender pay gap important, and a top priority right now? In a recent survey of 1,000 British people for Ipsos Mori and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership in London, 28% said it has that urgency. 

That was much lower than other west European nations, with France at 51%, Spain 46% and Italy 44%.

But are claims about the pay gap for real? The study compared 28 countries and found the British are more likely than others to agree that it is a problem (61% of women, 48% of men). 

But 18% think is is an example of political correctness gone too far, and 15% of men questioned think media reports about it are “fake news”.

Julia Gillard, former Australian premier who chairs the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, commented: “It’s been said that we’re at a coronavirus crossroads: we face a choice between building back better or allowing progress on gender equality to stall or even be reversed.

“If we’re to have any chance of ensuring women don’t lose out further because of the crisis, we need to keep this issue high on the agenda.”

What are the facts? This is what the House of Commons Library published last week: “Median weekly pay for female full-time employees was £543 at April 2020. This compared to £619 for male full-time employees.

“After adjusting for inflation, median pay for female full-time employees was around 2% higher than its 2008 level, while median pay for men was around 8% lower”.

(Median is the person half way along the population: in this case, half paid more, half paid less.)

Woman engineer

It used to be assumed that male brawn was required to drive a train, and more to shovel the coal. That was a while ago, yet rail union Aslef reckons that only 6.5% of British train drivers were female as recently as 2019.

LNER, the publicly-owned operator of the East Coast Main Line, says it has raised female driver applications from 7% of the total in 2017 to 17%, and it is aiming for 40% within four years.

Last month, the Resolution Foundation, a think tank specialising in labour market issues, reported on many labour market trends through the pandemic.

It did not bear out the expectation that women have been more likely to lose their jobs, because they’re more likely to work in the worst affected sectors. That is true of young people, but not women.

Job losses have been much lower than expected, with 1.9% of men losing jobs, and 1.1% of women.

However, a study of lockdown last year found that women were significantly more likely than men to be furloughed.

Surveys for the Resolution Foundation over the past year found there was not a significant gender difference between the share who were either furloughed, or lost their jobs, or lost pay.

It cites research at the London School of Economics concluding that men have been more likely to face job losses during recent recessions.

Debenhams
image captionDebenhams are among the businesses to have closed during the pandemic

However, there is some evidence that employers have been less likely to supplement furlough pay, above the 80% provided by the UK government.

The report also notes evidence from Public Health England that women are facing a tougher impact on mental health through the pandemic.

Close the Gap, a Scottish pressure group on women’s inequality in the workplace, does not agree on all the Resolution Foundation findings: it cites research published last year suggesting women have been more likely to lose jobs through this recession.

A briefing for MSPs ahead of International Women’s Day raises its expectations for improvements after the Holyrood election in May: “Action on women’s labour market inequality has been rendered even more pivotal by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. 

“The social, economic and labour market impacts of Covid-19 have the potential to reverse gender equality gains and exacerbate women’s pre-existing inequality.”

An inquiry by MPs into the UK government’s response to Covid found repeated instances where rapidly-designed emergency measures had failed to take account of gender differences.

The Self-Employed Income Support Scheme has several holes in it, which have been controversial. One of those to have got less attention than most is that its dependence on recent tax returns makes little allowance for those who took maternity breaks.

Beauty salon

It noted that “government priorities for recovery are heavily gendered. Investment plans skewed towards male-dominated sectors (‘shovel-ready’ etc) make for unequal outcomes and exacerbate existing inequalities.

MPs on the Commons’ Women and Equality Committee also reported last month that they were “gravely concerned by evidence of potentially unlawful and discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave during the pandemic”.

Not directly linked to Covid, Scottish Widows tells us today of a £100,000 average gap in pension funding. 

In the first 15 years of work, women contribute two-thirds of the sum put into pension pots by young men. Why? Mostly career breaks to raise children.

There are, meanwhile, positives to take out of the side-effects of pandemic. Home working can be made to work for women who are juggling careers with family responsibilities. 

If working from home is becoming the norm, and a more flexible routine is likely to last, then women have a better chance of mixing family life with work and career progression.

There’s a positive for fathers too, at least those who have the traditional role as primary household earner. Where their jobs demand long hours, and previously meant absence in the office or while travelling for work, they have more chance of being active parents and seeing their children grow up – into a fairer jobs market, perhaps?

Douglas Fraser
Business/economy editor, Scotland

Why remote work could stall your career

Remote work has a lot of benefits, but one major drawback: it may be harder to climb the career ladder when you’re at home.

File image of a worker and supervisor in the office

When Mike Ali started working from home in 2016, he worried his colleagues would forget he existed. Ali, a 31-year-old marketing automation consultant, was relocating from Raleigh, North Carolina to Richmond, Virginia. “I think they just didn’t want to fire me,” he says of the mid-sized tech company he was working for at the time. “So instead, I became the test case for working from home. There were definitely growing pains.” 

Ali’s colleagues were slow to adjust to using video chat tools. “People would forget to call me into meetings,” he says. “They’d say, ‘Oh, I’m having trouble setting this up, or getting you access’, and it’s like, well, will somebody please just call my cell phone? I discovered quickly that I had to be much more assertive. Because, I realised, if I just sit here quietly, they will forget all about me.” 

Ali’s worry about feeling invisible to his colleagues after transitioning to remote work isn’t unfounded. Research shows that home workers – however productive – suffer from a lack of facetime with colleagues and managers, which negatively impacts promotions, and ultimately may stall careers.

Being in the office gives you more opportunity to show your skills and connect with people – which helps with promotions (Credit: Alamy)
Being in the office gives you more opportunity to show your skills and connect with people – which helps with promotions (Credit: Alamy)

This could create problems as many of us seek to retain our newfound work flexibility after the pandemic. If we opt for a work-from-home future, will it be at the expense of our career prospects – or are there ways to mitigate visibility issues? 

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ 

The problem of inequity in promotion between remote and in-person workers has existed since well before the pandemic forced many people into home-work situations. In a 2015 study conducted in China, researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that while people working from home were more productive – 13% more, to be exact – they weren’t rewarded with promotions at nearly the same rate as their in-office colleagues. 

“It was striking that promotion rates plummeted,” says Nicholas A Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford, and the study’s lead author. “It was roughly half the promotion rate, compared to those in the office.”

I realised, if I just sit here quietly, they will forget all about me – Mike Ali

In interviews with workers and management, Bloom and his colleagues found there were two major reasons for the lower rate of promotion among the remote workers. People who weren’t in the office, he explains, didn’t develop relationships and managerial skills as readily, or didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate those skills. Plus, adds Bloom, when the people giving out the promotions aren’t getting any facetime with remote workers, “you’re basically forgotten about. Out of sight, out of mind”. 

That tendency to forget about someone is a sort of unconscious bias, says Ioana C Cristea, a Zürich-based remote-work expert. “People are not necessarily doing this on purpose, but even though on some level I know the person at home is working just as hard as the person working in the office, [the remote employee’s] name’s not in my mind when I’m making a decision about who gets the promotion. Visibility plays a super important role in the way we get ahead.”

So, however good you are at your job, it can make a big difference when managers actually see that you are working, explains Cristea, co-founder of BELONGin, a start-up aimed at helping STEM companies attract and retain a diverse workforce. 

A 2019 paper Cristea co-authored while at the University of California, Santa Barbara, showed that being observed by others while at work resulted in positive outcomes for employees “because it is a strong signal of their commitment to their job, their team and their organisation”.

Remote workers often find themselves working long hours to prove they're just as good as in-office counterparts (Credit: Alamy)
Remote workers often find themselves working long hours to prove they’re just as good as in-office counterparts (Credit: Alamy)

It even holds true when employees aren’t performing all that well. “We take being there – being present – a bit for granted,” says Cristea. “You may have a bad day at work, but you’re at work. Your boss sees you and thinks, ‘I see her struggling, but she’s here, and she’s working hard’.” 

When the work’s being done remotely, that same boss is more likely to see only the finished product, not the effort it took to get there. Even if the result is great, subconsciously, your boss may not realise how hard you worked. 

“A workaround for this for the employee is, maybe in your one-on-one meetings, tell the manager how much time you’ve spent and explain the struggles.” But it’s a fine line, concedes Cristea, between making yourself look like a hard worker and implying you aren’t up to the task. “You don’t want to come off as a complainer.” 

A heavier load 

Remote workers whose promotion prospects are suffering for lack of facetime may find their workload increasing. Because office-based colleagues are often perceived to be working harder, says Cristea, remote employees end up going above and beyond to make up the difference. Ironically, the resulting stress can make the promotion less appealing.

Visibility plays a super important role in the way we get ahead – Ioana C Cristea

“There’s a tendency to try to overcome not being present in the manager’s mind by putting in extra effort,” she says. Workers tell themselves, “’I’ll be in every meeting, on every call, answering emails well into the night’. We see people putting in all this extra effort not even to get ahead, but just to put themselves on the same level as the people in the office.” 

And having to work twice as hard to get to the same place, she adds, is a recipe for burnout. Sure, you might land the promotion – but by then it may not feel like a win. 

“After you’ve tortured yourself, you realise, ‘Hey, maybe this wasn’t worth it’. You’ve gotten your promotion, but your family life suffers,” she says. “People work so hard to get noticed and get that promotion, and then when they get it, the sacrifice they’ve had to make to achieve it is far greater than the reward.” 

Levelling the playing field 

Though his research clearly shows working from home is a career disadvantage, Bloom doesn’t see the pandemic as a promotion killer, because no one is in the office. “Right now, everyone who can work from home is working from home. It’s like running a race where we’re all carrying gallons of milk, so no one’s fast.” 

But we won’t all be at home forever. As workplaces re-open, Bloom says the issue will be more relevant than ever. Many companies are expected to use some kind of hybrid model, with some people in the office and others at home.

When the pandemic is over, having everyone work the same schedule could create a more level playing field, says Bloom (Credit: Alamy)
When the pandemic is over, having everyone work the same schedule could create a more level playing field, says Bloom (Credit: Alamy)

“Last spring, I wrote that we should let people choose,” he says. But newer research has changed his mind. In fact, he says, giving people complete freedom to choose whether and when they work from home could have serious ramifications. 

“If you look at who wants to work from home, it’s not random. People with disabilities, people with children and women all tend to have a higher preference for more days working from home. What could happen, if you let people choose, is that young ambitious single men who don’t want to work from home come into the office and charge ahead. Women who are at home with children fall behind, and don’t get promoted. A few years down the line, there’s a lack of diversity in leadership.” 

As comfortable as many have become using tools like Zoom and Slack to stay connected to colleagues over the last year, Bloom believes having some members of a team working remotely while others come to the office will inevitably disadvantage those working from home. “Anyone who’s ever tried to join in on Zoom with a group of people who are in the room together knows how hard it is,” he says. “It leads to a two-track system of insiders and outsiders.” 

The simple solution, says Bloom, is to keep everyone on the same kind of schedule. “Either everyone works from home, everyone comes in, or everyone on the whole team – including the managers – works from home two days a week.” 

The formation of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ groups can also be avoided by being deliberate about team building. There are a lot of effective ways to do that virtually, says Cristea. “I know a team that uses an online platform where you can play Risk or Settlers of Catan online together,” she says. “Anecdotally, this seems to work. Even if you’re not seeing people or talking regularly during the day, if you participate in group events, you’re making yourself visible and being part of the team.” 

Cristea says the pandemic “has shown companies that remote work can be done” and she expects to see many industries transition to permanently working from home. There will be some kinks to iron out and a period of experimentation, she says, but “with the proper training for leadership and team members, this can work”. 

It’s working very well for Ali. For the last few years, he’s been at a fully remote company, which he says has changed the promotion equation completely, and for the better. Not only is the playing field level, but with in-person happy hours and breakroom politics eliminated, the game is based entirely on merit. 

“Ten years ago, getting promoted was just about being the most popular person on your team,” he says. “Now it’s like, well, if you’re all distributed, no one’s really popular. So, it’s going to be based on effort and skill, and how well you do your job – even if there’s no one watching you do it.”

By: Kate Morgan – BBC