COVID-19 Update: Michigan Retailers Report Increased December Sales, Detroit’s Sift Debuts New App to Enhance Microsoft Teams, and More

Here is a roundup of the latest news concerning the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to announcements from local, state, and federal governments, as well as international channels. To share a business or nonprofit story, please send us a message.
map of Michigan coronavirus cases by county
Courtesy of Bridge, as of Jan. 28

Here is a roundup of the latest news concerning the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to announcements from local, state, and federal governments, as well as international channels. To share a business or nonprofit story, please send us a message.

Michigan Retailers Report Increased December Sales
Michigan retailers reported an increase in their December sales over November, thanks in part to last-minute holiday shopping, according to the Michigan Retailers Association’s December Retail Index.

The index came in at 54.7, an increase from November’s 46.3. Forty-seven percent of Michigan retailers reported an increase in sales over November, 39 percent reported a sales decline and 14 percent reported no change. The seasonally adjusted performance index is conducted by the MRA in cooperation with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Detroit branch.

“Michiganders know how vital it is to support local and they proved that by showing up for retailers this holiday season,” says Bill Hallan, president and CEO of the MRA. “This nice boost over November sales will give retailers more hope and help financially during the first quarter of 2021.”

The 100-point index provides a snapshot of the state’s overall retail industry. Index values above 50 generally indicate positive activity. The higher the number, the stronger the activity.

Forty-two percent of retailers predict their sales will continue to rise through March, but 41 percent said they expect a sales decline, and 17 percent said they don’t think things will change. That results in a 64.4 Index rating.

According to the National Retail Federation, holiday sales were up 8.3 percent over the same holiday shopping season in 2019. They totaled $789.4 billion, exceeding the NRF’s holiday forecast.

“Despite unprecedented challenges, consumers, and retailers demonstrated incredible resilience this holiday season,” says Matthew Shay, president of the NRF.

Sales tax revenue in December 2020 was up 6.3 percent from the December 2019 level, but $8.5 million below the expected level based on the August 2020 consensus estimates. On a fiscal year-to-date basis, sales tax collections were down 3.3 percent from 2019, and $101.1 million below the expected level.

Detroit’s Sift Debuts New App to Enhance Microsoft Teams
Sift, a people directory focused on humanizing and connecting enterprise organizations based in Detroit, today announced the availability of its enterprise software for Microsoft Teams.

The application is designed to bring “critical people details into Teams to enrich remote collaboration and organizational understanding,” according to the company.

“Organizational knowledge, like who does what and how to find them, is business-critical,” says Larry Angeli, CEO of Sift. “It’s also increasingly difficult to come by as workforces grow and become more distributed and remote. With Sift, that people knowledge is just a simple search away. We’re delighted to join the Microsoft Teams environment to help organizations fuel the collaboration revolution by unlocking the power of their people.”

According to a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of U.S. workers are working either fully or partially remote. With this rise in remote work, organizations have placed additional emphasis on strategic technology initiatives to improve collaboration. This integration comes as many businesses and organizations continue to grapple with the complexities of a remote-first workforce.

Sift says it bridges the engagement gap for distributed workforces by demystifying enterprises and highlighting the humans behind the job titles by providing the ability to enrich employee profiles, developing a comprehensive employee directory search, and creating a dynamic automated org chart all within Teams.

Sift’s new Microsoft Teams application delivers new capabilities into the Teams environment including:

  • Search for employees based on name, skill, location, interests, or education directly from the Teams search bar.
  • Share Sift profiles with others via Teams chat.
  • Access a comprehensive company-wide org chart.
  • Sync directory information from Azure Active Directory with a standardized API.

An added benefit is the ability to aggregate data from different systems like Microsoft Azure Active Directory and large HCM systems into a centralized and data-rich employee profile, ensuring the right information from the right systems is available for your people to use.

Earlier this year Sift was accepted into the Microsoft for Startups program, which provides technology and business support for B2B startups to quickly scale within the Microsoft ecosystem. Sift and the new Sift Teams application are now available on Microsoft AppSource, an online marketplace providing tailored cloud-based business solutions.

For more information, visit here.

State Launches Online Adult Career Education Services Locator
The Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) has launched a new online tool — the Adult Education Services Locator — which allows users to conduct custom searches to identify a variety of adult education programs, resources, and high school equivalency testing centers available statewide.

“There are more than 100 approved adult education programs in Michigan, and the new Adult Education Services Locator tool makes it easier than ever for Michiganders in all 83 counties to find nearby programs to continue their education,” says Stephanie Beckhorn, director of the LEO’s Office of Employment and Training. “Connecting Michigan residents to educational opportunities is an essential first step on the road to a meaningful career pathway.”

Adult education programs allow more than 15,000 Michiganders without a diploma to make educational progress annually, creating pathways to better jobs and financial stability. Connecting adults with these educational opportunities also helps address the skills gap that challenges the success of Michigan businesses and the state’s prosperity. Those who prepare themselves by completing their high school diploma or equivalency can readily take advantage of future postsecondary programs offered by the state.

The Adult Education Services Locator, which is available here, allows visitors to search for a variety of services including adult basic education, adult secondary education, English as a second language, and workplace literacy in relation to their city or ZIP code.

The Adult Education Services Locator also assists those interested in testing to obtain their high school equivalency. The free online tool can help connect users with any of the more than 390 testing centers in the state that provide those services.

Bank of America Partners with CVS Health to Deliver Free Flu Vaccine Vouchers in Detroit
Bank of America has announced a partnership with CVS Health to fund a no-cost flu voucher program for under-resourced people in Detroit, including African American, Native American and Hispanic-Latino populations, as well as senior citizens without access to low- or no-cost preventative flu shots.

The effort is part of the company’s $1-billion, four-year commitment to advance racial equality and economic opportunity.

Detroit area nonprofits partnering to disseminate the free flu voucher program are: Gleaners Community Food Bank, United Way of Southeastern Michigan, Say Detroit Family Health Clinic, Neighborhood Service Organization, Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, Catholic Charities, Global Detroit, Salvation Army, SER Metro, and Lighthouse.

Bank of America also has provided personal protective equipment to support mitigating positive coronavirus cases. In Detroit, 350,000 masks and 25 cases of sanitizer have been distributed to United Way of Southeastern Michigan to help small, community, and neighborhood organizations. The PPE also helped the Detroit Economic Growth Association to support small businesses to stay open and Henry Ford Health System to protect front line workers in the height of the pandemic.

Nationally, the bank has donated more than 15 million PPE masks and more than 7,000 cases of sanitizer to the most vulnerable populations by partnering with local organizations across the country. In the coming weeks, an additional 5 million masks, 2.5 million pairs of gloves, and 160,000, 8-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer to communities most impacted.

“We are committed to working across the private sector as one global community to address this health crisis and to provide resources to protect our most vulnerable populations,” says Matt Elliott, Michigan market president for Bank of America. “Offering access to free flu prevention complements our other health-focused efforts including providing PPE, supporting community-based testing and care, and addressing food in-security.

The flu voucher program also has been rolled out in six other cities, including Dallas, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

United Wholesale Mortgage Initiative Helps Restaurants and Homeless Shelters
United Wholesale Mortgage in Pontiac is working to help local restaurants and homeless shelters across metro Detroit impacted by COVID-19 by purchasing food from a restaurant and donating it to a shelter.

Each day, from now until March 31, UWM will choose a local restaurant from which to purchase $1,000-$2,000 worth of food that will then be donated to a local homeless shelter.

As part of the initiative, UWM is calling on the community to nominate local restaurants and shelters across metro Detroit via a survey shared across social media.

Rocket Cos. to Announce 4Q 2020 Earnings Feb. 25
Detroit-based Rocket Cos. Inc., which includes Rocket Mortgage, Rocket Homes, and Rocket Auto, today announced it will issue its fourth quarter 2020 earnings on Feb. 25.

Management will host a conference call that day to discuss results at 4:30 p.m.

A live webcast of the event will be available online here. A replay of the webcast will be available here at the conclusion of the event.

MSU Researcher is Part of Team Studying Crop Improvement and Climate Change
David Lowry, a plant biology researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing, is part of a study examining the use of switchgrass to fight climate change and improve crop growth.

Going against gardening advice are 10 identical plots located in eight states spread across 1,100 miles. These gardens are all growing the exact same approximately 700 switchgrass plants to help assess the plant’s adaptability to various environmental conditions. Switchgrass is a perennial grass that quickly and easily grows to more than twice the height of basketball star LeBron James in a variety of soils and water conditions.

As reported Jan. 27, 2021 in Nature, the study has produced a high-quality reference sequence of the complex switchgrass genome using samples collected at these gardens.

“This paper is a combination of really cutting-edge genomics and genetic analysis with large scale data collection,” says Lowry, who is part of a team that includes researchers at the University of Texas, the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, and the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Building off this work, researchers have expanded the network of common gardens and are exploring improvements to switchgrass through more targeted editing and to customize the crop for additional end products.

The switchgrass genotypes that were planted into common gardens were sequenced and assembled allowing the research team to conduct association mapping, linking genes to traits. One of the team’s findings is that the performance of switchgrass across the garden sites depended on the origin or collection location of the individual switchgrass plants.

They were able to identify many regions in the switchgrass genome that are associated with genetic differences that lead to productivity in different environments. Plants had their highest performance when grown in gardens with climates most similar to their collection location. While not surprising, the result highlights the importance of local adaptation to climate in perennial grasses. A breeder could look at these genome regions as targets to improve yields under specific climates.

Sourcing plants from so many parts of the country also helped the team understand why some switchgrass plants from the Northeast have traits similar to those from the Midwest, even though their genomes were very different.

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