National / International News
The Internet can tell us how long it takes to walk the length of the Great Wall of China (10 months), how many girlfriends George Clooney has had (lots) and even how many snowflakes fall in a year (about a septillion). But consumers still can’t quickly and easily compare prices for a leather purse (big enough to tote a laptop, please) or a 10-quart aluminum stockpot.
Sure, thanks to aggregator sites like Orbitz and Cheaptickets.com, comparisons of airline tickets are easy to come by. And there’s transparency of pricing on wholesale commodities like butter, eggs and sugar. But that leaves a vast middle ground untouched. There is no Kayak9.com for teapots or women’s sweaters.
Perhaps that is because nobody — neither consumer nor retailer — wants it.
“We think we want all access, to know everything about everything in the consumer space,” said Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “In reality, when we know everything about everything, it is exhausting,” she said.
Especially if consumers investigate options on their own — from new to used, vendors local to national, warranty or no. Too much information, Goldsmith said, can decrease the odds of a consumer buying anything.
There is a psychological aspect to this, too. Finding deals can make people feel good. For some shoppers, it’s about the thrill of the hunt.
“When there’s something I’ve been eyeing and I see it go on sale, it’s like God just sort of put it there for me,” said Elise Ariel, a 37-year-old legal assistant, as she shopped recently at Century 21 in Manhattan. “How do I feel about sales? Like a moth to a flame.”
And while she admitted that shopping through a price aggregator site for a new pair of pumps, as she might for airline tickets, would be better from a practical standpoint, it would mean an end to her love affair with retail. “You come across something with a little red price tag on it in a bin of God knows what. You feel like it’s destiny.”
Then there is the retailer’s perspective. Consider what happened when Ron Johnson, former chief executive of J.C. Penney, committed to transparency and predictability and decided the chain would stop running sales. Shoppers waiting for the dopamine hit that comes with the unexpected opportunity for a bargain were disappointed, and customers fled in droves.
Advertising discounts, deals and perceived steals are often how retailers get shoppers in the door in the first place, said Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “If the sale wasn’t there, well, maybe they wouldn’t go to the store that day,” she said.
For discount chains, slashing prices is crucial and nearly constant. But for midrange retailers, the Lord & Taylors and Banana Republics of the shopping world, sales are meant to be special. Competing solely on price can lead to a downward spiral of ever-deeper discounts.
“I don’t think they want to get into this game that you can’t win,” Kahn said. “They’d rather compete on providing value to the customer.”
Even if retailers agreed that transparent pricing should be more widely available, comparing prices for multitudes of products would take a special kind of brain — one that loves spreadsheets or navigating phone trees run by the Internal Revenue Service.
“There are a limited number of products where consumers have boiled down their understanding to such a limited set of factors that they can be confident truly shopping on price,” said Robert Haslehurst, the managing director of retail practice for L.E.K. consulting, a global management consulting firm.
Take the humble T-shirt and its endless varieties. “The T-shirt from Walmart and the T-shirt from the Gap aren’t the same T-shirt, and you need to be superexpert at the construction of T-shirts, and the shipping of T-shirts and the marketing of T-shirts in order to determine if one retailer was making extra margin off of you,” said Joshua Pollack, an associate partner with the Parker Avery Group, a retail price consulting firm.
Even if you do manage to sharpen your focus — to, say, a black, short-sleeve V-neck in a polyester blend — you will wonder why it costs what it does.
Raw materials are also only one part of the equation, Haslehurst said. “There was the artist who designed it. There was the retailer you bought it from and the person who put it in front of you,” he said. “There’s value in more than just the item. There’s value in the distribution.”
And then there is the variable that retailers rely on, that different shoppers are willing to pay different prices for the same product. Take the ever-changing price of a plane ticket. “One would think that I would pay the exact same price wherever I go,” Pollack said. “But because of this price discrimination capability you actually may not.” When the airline industry first began setting prices based on when customers bought tickets or how many seats were still left, customers were furious, Pollack said. And they still are. “But despite the fact that customers hate the practice, it was so profitable for the travel industry, they just had to bear it out,” he said.
It is unlikely, Pollack said, that consumers will see complete transparency of prices, mostly because comparing products is not always as easy as Apple iPhone to Apple iPhone.
Tell that to Vivian Harrow, 46, a human resources director for a global beauty company, and odds are she won’t mind. Harrow said she enjoyed browsing and scanning, but not online and not with an app. “It’s no fun to go out, and go into a store, buy something at retail, or buy something where you know every place you go it’s going to be priced exactly the same,” she said. “There’s no challenge in that. It’s just not as much fun.”
This story is part of a collaboration between Marketplace and The New York Times called “A Guide to Buying Just About Anything.”
Human Rights Watch says the tests are discriminatory and "harms and humiliates women." The test is listed as a requirement for female applicants, and the group said it is widely applied.
For thousands of years, people have sought to escape or outrun their mortality with potions, pills, and elixirs, often blended with heavy doses of hope and will.
In the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a Mesopotamian king searched for the secret of immortality after the death of his best friend. At least three Chinese emperors in the Tang dynasty died after consuming treatments containing lead and mercury that they hoped would make them immortal. In the late 19th century, a French-American physiologist seemed to have found the elixir of life by injecting the elderly and himself with extracts from animal testicles.
Despite this enduring quest, most scientists say we are no closer to eternal life today than we were all those years ago. The word “immortality” elicits a mixture of laughter and earnest explanations about the difference between science and science fiction.
Conversations about longevity, however, are an entirely different story. Researchers are optimistic about recent efforts to delay the effects of aging and, perhaps, extend life spans.
But at the same time, the scientific community is wary of how quickly these findings are packaged and resold by companies promising a fountain of youth. “It’s probably worse today than it’s ever been,” said Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a research associate at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago. “As soon as the scientists publish any glimmer of hope, the hucksters jump in and start selling.”
Understanding the process of aging and developing treatments that might slow the rate at which people grow old could help doctors keep patients healthy longer. We won’t be able to stop or reverse aging, but researchers are interested in slowing down its progress, such that one year of clock time might not equal a year of biological time for the body. That could delay the onset of diseases like cancer, strokes, cardiovascular disease and dementia, which become more prevalent as people age.
“By targeting fundamental aging processes, we might be able to delay the major age-related chronic diseases instead of picking them off one at time,” said Dr. James Kirkland, a professor of aging research and head of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging at the Mayo Clinic. “For example, we don’t want to have situation where we, say, cure cancer and then people die six months later of Alzheimer’s disease or a stroke. It would be better to delay all of these things together.”
This is where the field known as the biology of aging is moving — to develop drugs that will increase life span and what researchers refer to as health span, the period of life when people are able to live independently and free from disease.
Dr. Kirkland said at least six drugs had been written up in peer-reviewed journals and he knows of about 20 others that appear to affect life span or health span in mice. The goal is to see if those benefits can be translated into humans to increase their longevity, “to find interventions that we can use in people that might, say, make a person who’s 90 feel like they’re 60 or a person who’s 70 feel like they’re 40 or 50.”
Other researchers are studying centenarians, seeking to understand whether certain genes have carried them past 100 years old and kept them in good health.
“Everybody knows someone who’s 60 who looks like he’s 50, or someone 60 who looks 70,” said Dr. Nir Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine who is currently studying centenarians and their children. “Intuitively, we understand that we age at different rates, so the question is, really, ‘What’s the biological or genetic difference between those who age quickly and those who age slowly?’” Drugs that mimic the effect of those genes might be beneficial to the rest of the population who wasn’t born with them.
Dr. Barzilai said that as a scientist his goal wasn’t to help people live longer, but to live healthier, although he does occasionally get emails from people interested in how his work might benefit their quest to live forever. He doesn’t respond — he says he has nothing to offer them.
The global anti-aging industry was worth $195 billion in 2013 and was projected to grow to $275 billion by 2020, according to the market research firm Global Industry Analysts. Products include beauty creams, Botox, dietary supplements and prescription medications, not all of which seek to reverse aging as much as minimize its visible effects.
Dr. Olshansky points to resveratrol supplements and human growth hormones as products that were marketed as having anti-aging benefits soon after initial scientific studies suggested promising results. But resveratrol, often made from the skin of red grapes, is still being studied and commercially available products are premature, he said. Growth hormones are a more severe risk, he said, because they can actually be dangerous for those who take them.
Dr. Barzilai noted many of the centenarians he studied had naturally lower levels or activity of growth hormones.
“We think that’s important for their survival,” he said.
Other dietary supplements promise to help consumers reverse the aging clock. Such products aren’t required to prove their effectiveness or safety with the Food and Drug Administration before their sale, although the F.D.A. can take action against products with misleading labels or that claim to treat diseases.
After being approached to sell a line of supplements, Melanie Young, a health coach who advises clients on weight and stress management, decided to try a series of products that promised to protect her body against the “ravages of aging.” She’d recently survived breast cancer and left behind a public relations and event management career. “A lot of health coaches supplement their own income by selling supplements,” she said.
She thought the company, which she didn’t want to name, had “all the right science.” But the half dozen pills she took each morning and evening didn’t improve her energy as promised; they instead left her feeling dizzy. She quickly stopped taking them and told her clients to eat a balanced diet to get the nutrition they needed.
“People are aware of the aging process and they want to interfere,” Dr. Barzilai said, but he thinks it’s a mistake to turn to Internet remedies. “Some are causing harm. Some, maybe, you couldn’t care less, and some might be even good, but we don’t know that.”
It is a message Dr. Olshansky echoes — instead of spending money on aging “fixes,” he suggests people accept the bland prescription doctors have been offering for decades: a healthy diet and exercise. “You don’t need to spend money,” he said. “Maybe a good pair of running or walking shoes would work. Exercise is roughly the only equivalent of a fountain of youth that exists today, and it’s free to everyone.”
This story is part of a collaboration between Marketplace and The New York Times called “A Guide to Buying Just About Anything.”
While several states have approved so-called right-to-try measures that aim to give patients with life-threatening illnesses access to unapproved drugs, drugmakers don't have to comply.
Pizza Hut, the nation’s biggest pizza chain, is overhauling its brand. There’s a new logo, a more casual uniform, and fresh leadership, but the biggest upgrade is the menu.
Taking a hint from fast casual stars Chipotle and Chop't, Pizza Hut will allow customers to design their own pies with curry-flavored crusts and Sriracha sauce. They're doubling flavor options and going exotic.
The question is, can those changes help Pizza Hut get back on track? It's reported same-store sales declines for eight straight quarters, while rivals like Domino’s Pizza and Little Caesars have enjoyed gains.
At Pizza Hut’s Plano, Texas headquarters, chief marketing officer Carrie Walsh shows off what looks like artisan pizza – a thin-crust pie with bright green spinach and red Peruvian peppers, topped with a spiral swirl of balsamic.
There are more than two dozen new ingredients on Pizza Hut’s “Flavor Of Now” menu. Customers will be able to choose flavors to brush onto crusts – like “Pretzel Piggy” and “Ginger Boom Boom”. There are four drizzles, and a skinny lineup for those seeking a lighter, healthier pie.
“In fact there are now two billion ways you can customize your pizza,” Walsh says.
Walsh says customers want flavor adventure. Why not let them play mad scientist with each pie?
“Pizza is America’s favorite food, we thought it made sense to bring new flavor experiences to pizza,” she says.
Duprey says Pizza Hut needed to sprinkle in a little spice, but not drop in the whole spice bottle.
“Sales 101 says keep it simple,” he says. “A confused mind always says no.”
To keep out chaos behind the counter, Pizza Hut undertook its biggest training endeavor ever. Walsh is confident the plethora of new options won’t slow down service or delivery.
“We’ve been working on [rebranding] for a year,” Walsh says.
The new menu will be up in 6,000 Pizza Hut stores Wednesday.
Yep, even Hawaii, where Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano reaching 13,800 feet above sea level, was below freezing.
The procedure to give people with single eyelids a crease above their lashes often provokes controversy. Kat Chow steps past the debate over whether people should do it to get at the "why."
The kidnapping and killing of Westerners isn't a new phenomenon in the Middle East. But the last time around, it stopped after just a few years. This time there's no end in sight.