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PODCAST: Waiting at Wal-Mart

Wed, 2015-09-02 03:00

On today's show, we'll talk about job growth in August; Wal-Mart's attempts to reinvent; and selling bonds during wartime to support U.S. efforts.

Selling bonds to fund the war and fight inflation

Wed, 2015-09-02 02:00

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end World War II — May 8 was the anniversary of victory in Europe and September 2 marks the formal surrender of Japan.  

Central to the war effort at home was the war bond. The U.S. sold more than $150 billion worth of them to help fund the war, fight inflation and give those who stayed home a way to contribute.   

Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour spoke to Ken McGee, who sold those bonds as a child. 

Click the above audio player to hear more about the history of war bonds, and the below audio player to hear McGee's full story about his war bond-selling experience.    

I’m Ken McGee, B Kenneth McGee, 84-years-old. I live in the middle of the woods near a little crossroads which is called Centerville, North Carolina, in like the middle of nowhere.

In 1944, I was 13 years old. My dad was Irish Catholic, my mother was Jewish, and my dad had very strong feelings about the war. My mom had people in the caps some which got in some which didn’t. So of course we felt very strongly about the war. 

Dad was really too old to go back in but he volunteered to go back in. He was gone for probably 2 or 3 years he was at D-Day in Normandy plus a couple days, he was in all the major battles. I will never forget the day the Normandy invasion began. I think my mom and I listened to the radio all night. I remember listening wondering if dad was on that.

I felt like I had to do more than just collect tin foil like all the other children were doing. So I volunteered in the war bonds effort.

So I went door to door selling war bonds — And you could do that in those days; a little boy, going door to door.  They were 18 dollars and 75 cents each; maturity date they were 25 dollars. 

I was so thrilled to be doing it, and I can remember the day I sold 10 bonds in one day. I thought I was a hero. But I think a lot of people were buying those not as an investment but as a contribution to the war.  In those days, that was our lives. We were consumed by the war.  If you weren’t at war you felt like you had to do something to contribute, you know?

Selling bonds to fund the war

Wed, 2015-09-02 02:00

This year marks the 70th anniversary of World War II — May 8th marked the anniversary of victory in Europe, and September 2nd marks the formal surrender of Japan, ending World War II.  

Central to war effort here at home was the war bond. The U.S. sold more than $150 billion dollars worth of them to help fund the war, fight inflation, and give those who stayed home a way to support the war effort.   

Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour spoke to a gentleman named Ken McGee, who sold those bonds as a child. 

Click the above audio player to hear more.  

I’m Ken McGee, B Kenneth McGee, 84-years-old. I live in the middle of the woods near a little crossroads which is called Centerville, North Carolina, in like the middle of nowhere.

In 1944, I was 13 years old. My dad was Irish Catholic, my mother was Jewish, and my dad had very strong feelings about the war. My mom had people in the caps some which got in some which didn’t. So of course we felt very strongly about the war. 

Dad was really too old to go back in but he volunteered to go back in. He was gone for probably 2 or 3 years he was at D-Day in Normandy plus a couple days, he was in all the major battles. I will never forget the day the Normandy invasion began. I think my mom and I listened to the radio all night. I remember listening wondering if dad was on that.

I felt like I had to do more than just collect tin foil like all the other children were doing. So I volunteered in the war bonds effort.

So I went door to door selling war bonds — And you could do that in those days; a little boy, going door to door.  They were 18 dollars and 75 cents each; maturity date they were 25 dollars. 

I was so thrilled to be doing it, and I can remember the day I sold 10 bonds in one day. I thought I was a hero. But I think a lot of people were buying those not as an investment but as a contribution to the war.  In those days, that was our lives. We were consumed by the war.  If you weren’t at war you felt like you had to do something to contribute, you know?

Wal-Mart's goal: Reinvention

Wed, 2015-09-02 02:00

Customers don’t like waiting, and the country's largest retailer knows it.

Notes Charles Fishman, author "The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works," “The number one complaint people have about Wal-Mart is it takes too long to give you my money.”

The problem, says Fishman, has a simple fix — more workers at the check out line. But increasing the hours for workers who’ve just been given raises can create another problem altogether.

“It’s more expensive to pay people more," he says. "At least at the start.”

Wal-Mart has a plan in place: to spend an additional $1 billion a year on wages. But "we are going to be controlling costs, that’s what we do at Wal-Mart," says Kory Lundberg, a company spokesman. And that includes trimming worker’s hours at what Lunderberg says is a small number of stores using staff significantly above the hours budgeted to them.

The country's largest retailer is trying to reinvent itself, says Enrico Moretti, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. “From a low margin, low profit, very cheap store, to one where customer experience is better.”

But that costs money.

Would dumping the Iran deal hurt the dollar?

Wed, 2015-09-02 02:00

Secretary of State John Kerry will speak in Philadelphia on Wednesday about the Iran nuclear deal. It’s part of the Obama administration's push to round up votes in Congress. One of the administration's main arguments suggests the dollar is vulnerable as the world’s go-to currency if the U.S. goes it alone on rejecting the deal.

President Barack Obama says walking away would weaken U.S. credibility, not to mention create financial complications with markets around the globe if the U.S. unilaterally imposesd sanctions on Iran and its trading partners.

Chris Sheridan, senior editor for Financial Sense, says there’s been fear that the dollar will lose its reserve currency status for decades. But that assertion comes with some pretty big implications.

“To say the U.S., or the U.S. Dollar is going to lose its reserve currency status is really to say that the U.S. is going to no longer be the world’s largest economy," he says.

That would take a while, maybe decades. Backing out is sure to put the U.S. in an awkward position with its allies and international banks. But is it really as dire as Kerry suggests?

Jim Gelvin, history professor at UCLA, says the U.S. could certainly reprimand a country for trading with a nation that it has sanctioned. “But can we really sanction the British pound, the Deutschmark, the franc, and the Chinese? It’s impossible.”

Secretary Kerry has continued to point to Russia’s suggestion that continued sanctions could jeopardize the dollar’s dominant global position.

Using colleges' names? They're looking for you.

Wed, 2015-09-02 02:00

It’s that time of year again — college students are back on campus. It’s also the busy season for college and university licensed merchandise, from hoodies to umbrellas. The collegiate merchandise market takes in $4.6 billion in annual sales. That’s up from $2.9 billion 10 years ago. And the revenue from those licenses is fiercely protected. 

Mary Cesar of Mary's Cakes and Pastries

Gigi Douban/Marketplace

Mary Cesar owns a small bakery  in Northport, near the University of Alabama campus. There’s lots of school spirit in the cookies and cakes she sells: houndstooth hats, for the hat legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant  wore; elephant heads; elephant bodies for the school’s mascot, Big Al

Cesar also sells cookies with a script “A” on them, some with the phrase “Roll Tidel” It wasn’t a problem until a few years ago, when the university sent her a cease and desist letter.  

“I was in shock,” Cesar says. “I mean I truly was like, 'holy crap,' excuse the expression.” 

Those cookies and cakes, the university said, had to be licensed. It was a week away from football season, and Cesar didn’t want a long, drawn out legal battle. So in a few days the matter was settled: she bought a license.

Cookies from Mary's Cakes and Pastries

Gigi Douban

Susan Alessandri, who teaches advertising at Suffolk University, says the stronger a school’s brand, the more people want to see it on everything.

Cory Moss, senior vice president and managing director at Collegiate Licensing Company, says brand protection is at the cornerstone of what CLC does. And to him, it’s clear cut. Take a t-shirt that says “Alabama”.“But also the bigger brands, say the University of Alabama, they have the resources to go after offenders,” Alessandri says, “and they’re going to.”

“Is it in crimson, is it sold around other Alabama product, would an average consumer look at that product and say that’s referencing the University of Alabama?” he asks.

CLC trolls the Internet for people selling unlicensed merchandise. Moss calls them counterfeiters. Selling unlicensed items, he says, robs universities of revenue that goes toward scholarships and athletic programs.

Lego in space

Wed, 2015-09-02 01:59
20 plastic figures

That's how many Lego statuettes were up into space with Denmark's first astronaut Wednesday. As Reuters writes, the company also reported strong earnings — it enjoyed an 18 percent rise in first-half sales. 

$12

That's how much you'll have to pay for Hulu's newly announced commercial-free subscription. The move puts the streaming service in line with competitors like Netflix, Amazon and HBO Go. The move is partly in response to social media outrage over commercials during popular series carried on the site, like "Seinfeld," the New York Times reports.

70th anniversary

World War II officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945. Central to the war effort at home was the war bond. The U.S. sold more than $150 billion worth of them to help fund the war, fight inflation and give those who stayed home a way to contribute. We spoke with Ken McGee, who remembers selling war bonds as a child.

$4.6 billion

That's how much the collegiate merchandise market takes in on an annual basis. That's way up from $2.9 billion it took in 10 years ago. It's why in addition to promoting school spirit, universities ... are pretty litigious.

 

Lights, camera, helicopter, open house!

Tue, 2015-09-01 13:13

It used to be when you wanted to sell a house, you put up a sign in the yard and hosted a couple open houses. Not anymore, at least for the especially high-end stuff.

When a couple from Argentina visited Southern California recently, they couldn’t decide whether they wanted to live in Malibu or Beverly Hills, so a company called Heli-Realtors took them on aerial tour of homes in both well-to-do areas.

Of course, you could drive to the properties, but who’s in a mood to shell out tens of millions when they’ve just been crawling along Los Angeles freeways?

“You cut out the traffic,” says Matthew Gaskill, who sells luxury real estate for Sotheby’s. “You don’t spend two hours in the car just commuting from home to home.”

He says time is of the essence, because many buyers of the priciest properties these days are foreign — usually from Asia or Europe. They’re looking for a good investment in a market they see as more stable than home — plus a vacation pad.

“They may come to town for a few days to shop for a house,” Gaskill says.

Or, he adds, buyers may not come to town at all, preferring to browse listings from the comfort of an internet connection. As a result, Gaskill says real estate agents have to devote time and money to digital marketing. 

“We don’t put out any of our homes on the market these days without a video,” he says.

When Gaskill and his partner, Alisa Peterson, were selling a celebrity home, they commissioned a video showing what the estate looks like at sunset.

“It’s a Hollywood production,” Peterson says. “It’s actors. It’s a full day shooting. It’s large production teams.”

Peterson says the idea is not only to sell a house, but a lifestyle.

When a $35 million Malibu mansion went on the market, the seller hired a Hollywood director to make an elaborately short. “The Spider and the Fly,” as it was titled, was delivered to a few perspective buyers on gift-wrapped iPads.

But Peterson says bigger budgets are not always better. Glitz and glamour can work for modern mansions.

“Other homes you want to have more of a home feel,” Peterson says. “You want soft lighting. You don’t want a model rolling up in a Ferrari.”

Funding these movies and helicopter tours can take a substantial bite out of an agent’s commission; Peterson could shell out thousands and get nothing if a prospective buyer decides that Los Angeles is not for him.

“It is the cost of doing business, and you have to have an attitude where [you think],  "If I don’t get them on this one, I can get it on the next one,” Peterson says. 

Peterson just has to remember the next sale could bring a million-dollar payday.

Why buy water when you can have it for free?

Tue, 2015-09-01 13:00

Despite having some of the best and safest tap water in the entire world, most of us are buying bottled water in droves.  Our love for drinking water out of little plastic bottles is creating an environmental disaster, and we're spending money to buy water that we could be drinking for free. Roberto Ferdman wrote about how bottled water is becoming the drink of choice in American households for the Washington Post.

“If you go back to about the 1970s or so, bottled water was unheard of. What’s happened is…there’s been a marked campaign to get people to want to drink it,” says Ferdman.

This is through a villainization of tap water and the presentation of bottled water as a healthy alternative to soda. Bottled water brands also try to sell a lifestyle associated with them, and these campaigns are working. The average American drinks about 35 gallons of bottled water per year, which comes out to about 270 bottles. This number continues to increase, and by 2017 bottled water is projected to become the most popular packaged beverage in the United States, beating out soda, which has been in the lead for several decades.

While most water bottles are recyclable, only about one third of bottles get recycled. The rest end up in landfills. Producing these bottles also raises environmental concerns, as it takes about three or four liters of water to produce a bottle that will hold one liter of water.

A snapshot of Polaroid’s turnaround

Tue, 2015-09-01 13:00

Polaroid is back in the camera game with the Cube, a tiny action camera, as well as an instant snapshot printer. As a brand, it's name is on televisions and even a line of low-cost Android phones mainly sold in Mexico.

The company has also been raising its profile at big consumer electronics events, like IFA, happening this week in Berlin.

Since becoming CEO of Polaroid, Scott Hardy has helped put the company on a successful track.

“We feel like that Polaroid as a brand is going through a tremendous resurgence right now,” he says. It’s the company’s history that was enticing to Hardy.

“To me, it was all about being able to get involved in something that had an iconic brand. You know, Polaroid is a brand that has 100 percent awareness around the world. It’s one of the few trademarks in the world that is classified by the different international trademark offices as being a famous mark,” Hardy explains. Plus, there was the "retro cool factor."

To stage this comeback, Hardy says the company had to expand beyond what it had always done. He says, “I also saw an opportunity to make Polaroid more than just what it historically had been.

"The brand has such power and interest and relevance with the consumer that we really just had to change our business strategy.” He notes that changing the strategy helped “effectuate a pretty successful turnaround.”

When it comes to competitors, Polaroid is up against varied international companies. He explains, “we’re really a global company. So every market around the world has different competitors. We sell in 100 markets around the world right now, and depending on the region, depending on the territory, you know, you can have local competitors,” in addition to bigger ones.

But, like so many things in the tech world, “everybody looks at Apple.” Hardy says, “Steve Jobs idolized Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid … and what [he] loved about Edwin Land was that Polaroid was always about the intersection between art and technology. And so we’re always saying, ‘How can we take design and infuse that into our products better?’”

So the hard part then is to find this intersection in an overly saturated tech market. Hardy says that all of Polaroid’s new products “were designed to invoke emotion and be inviting for consumers to want to actually hold them and experience them.”

Plus, they’ve got one other unique thing going for them: “They have our brand DNA infused into them.”

Migrant crisis challenging EU identity

Tue, 2015-09-01 13:00

The European Union is threatening legal action against several of its member states. The branch of that economic bloc which deals with migration says at least 10 countries — they won’t say which ones — are being served a final warning. Why? The EU says these countries are not properly following procedures for dealing with asylum seekers.

More than 2,600 migrants and refugees have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. An unknown number of others have died as they make their way across land, often at the mercy of smugglers.

The hundreds of thousands of people who’ve survived — flooding into Europe fleeing wars and poverty — are straining the ties of the European Union, a grand economic experiment that was supposed to unify the continent. A big part of that was the open-border policy, which is now being challenged.

“It has prompted Europeans to do a lot of soul-searching,” says Kostas Kourtikakis,  a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign.

He says Europeans have been able to move around Europe to live and to work “with very few restrictions for the last 20 or 30 years. So I think this principal is so much deeply enshrined, if you like, in European Union consciousness.”

Kourtikakis worries the migrant and refugee crisis is making many countries want to limit that movement.

Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says Germany is warning it might reinstate border control if the EU doesn’t act as a whole to deal with the problem. He says there's a disconnect in Europe “because you have these supranational open borders inside the Euro area that allows people to physically move around freely, but then you have national rules for asylum.”

Heather Conley, the director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says people who land in Greece might prefer Germany, which has more generous asylum policies.

“Because the external borders have not been able to be secured," she says, "what’s happening is that the problem is being passed along — country by country.”

And those countries are struggling to find a unified response to the growing problem, she says.

When markets are turbulent, it's time for Rule 48

Tue, 2015-09-01 13:00

Many of the recent wild openings of the stock market came with a footnote: the New York Stock Exchange invoked Rule 48. Tuesday was one of those days. Normally an obscure rule in a rulebook full of them, Rule 48 is currently having a star turn because of recent volatile trading.

Rule 48 is long and complicated. But to keep it simple, think of Rule 48 as letting the NYSE floor staff get straight to opening the market.

It’s unique to NYSE, because real people manage the exchange’s opening. The folks in blue jackets you see on TV in front of computer screens are called designated market makers, or DMMs.

A look at how market makers work:

On a volatile morning, determining a stock’s opening price can take more time. Stocks don’t open at the same price where they closed the day before because stuff happens overnight that affects companies. If crazy stuff happens to a company, the DMM may have to give out additional information, which can delay the stock’s opening.

But if the whole market is volatile, that could mean a widespread NYSE opening delay. Rule 48 is designed to avoid delaying the opening and the market anxiety a delay could create. Even if it’s a rocky day on the floor, Wall Street still wants to know the numbers.

StubHub gets snubbed after publishing full prices

Tue, 2015-09-01 13:00

So much for that approach: StubHub, the online ticket reseller, has bagged its all-inclusive pricing model. Seems ticket buyers don't really like the full truth, even if they ask for it.  

The plan, first instituted in January of 2014,  factored all fees into the stated price of a ticket. StubHub's research showed that buyers want transparency. 

 But the move cost StubHub, the industry leader, market share.  Some ticket brokers said their StubHub business dropped by as much as half.

The problem was that few of StubHub's competitors matched its new pricing model, so StubHubs tickets looking pricier by comparison, says Curtis Cheng, CEO of DTI Management. Cheng operates Dreamtix, a service that facilitates the sale of tickets to live events across multiple marketplaces.

"When consumers search on Google and they see that StubHub is $100 with the fees,  and everybody else is around $90 or $80," that can cause ticket purchasers to go elsewhere, says Cheng.

John Gourville, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, says consumers don't want to think too hard about prices. "A simple shortcut is just to do what you think of as an apples-to-apples comparison, and choose the least expensive one"  Gourville says. 

Companies know consumers think this way, and take advantage of it, by creating what look like apples-to-apples comparisons, when they are actually apples and oranges. Gourville points to an example of one brand of yogurt  charging slightly less than a competitor, but also offering a slightly smaller amount. 

E-commerce analyst Sucharita Mulpuru of Forrester Research says those types of pricing practices have left consumers skeptical, and even when a company like StubHub tries to be transparent, it doesn't work. .

"There's a psychology of not trusting anyone anyway," Mulpuru says. "There's never that level of transparency anywhere really in American retail."

Helping low-income college students feel at home

Tue, 2015-09-01 12:56

Gabriel Ramos remembers the first time he felt out of place at Vassar College. He was in his dorm, talking to a fellow student about high school. When the student had been assigned a project about the Holocaust, his family flew to Europe to visit Holocaust museums.

“I was like, ‘okay, you are very different from me,” Gabe recalls thinking.

Gabe did not grow up in the kind of family that could just jet off to Europe to do field research. His mom worked as a bus driver. His dad moved from job to job. Neither parent went to college.

Gabriel Ramos, a junior, is now a peer mentor in the Transitions program. (Amy Scott/Marketplace)

There are a lot more students with backgrounds like Gabe's than there used to be at Vassar. Over the past eight years, the school's  financial aid budget has doubled. Sixty percent of students now receive aid. But that means 40  percent come from families that can afford to pay full price — more than $63,000 a year.

At the beginning, the divide was stark.

“What our students were telling us is that they felt that they didn't belong,” says Benjamin Lotto, Dean of Studies at Vassar. “They were great students. They graduated. They did good work. They got good grades, but they weren't happy here. They felt like the school was for someone else.”

Those students pushed the college to make changes, and the Transitions program was born.

Now in its sixth year, Transitions is a pre-orientation program for low-income, first-generation and veteran students. Students arrive on campus several days before the rest of the freshman class — almost two weeks before classes start.

At the welcome dinner for students and their families, they’re told over and over that they belong here.

“This is your Vassar,” Luis Inoa, head of residential life, tells them. “This institution is not a gift to you. You are a gift to us.”

Students learn about all the different support services on campus. There are workshops on financial aid, career development and tutoring, and lots of opportunities for students to bond with each other. They tour the city of Poughkeepsie and go bowling together.

The Transitions program includes a session on financial aid. (Amy Scott/Marketplace)

“I liken it to a little bit of Miracle-Gro,” says Inoa, who was the first in his Dominican family to go to a four-year college. “Transitions is just important to kind of give them a head start with some of those necessary relationships.”

Selective colleges have been under pressure to do a better job of serving high-achieving, low-income students. Where those students go to college, and whether they graduate, can make a big difference in their economic lives. Vassar’s efforts have won the college accolades. Last spring it received a $1 million award from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for its success in attracting and graduating low-income students. Vassar’s president, Catharine Bond Hill, has spent much of her career studying college access and affordability as an economist.

Low-income students at the college are graduating at the same rate as students overall, “which is, I think, a very important measure of success, because the advantages of going on to higher education come from actually getting the degree,” Hill says

For this new crop of Transitions students, though, graduation is still a long way off, and things could get rocky along the way. In a session called “Counseling and Self-Care,” students are encouraged to take advantage of the college’s mental health services.

“The first thing we want you to remember (about) the counseling service is that we are free,” Wendy Freedman, director of the counseling service, tells them. “Free. Number one.”

Money is out in the open in these sessions. Part of helping low-income students fit it is recognizing that they can’t afford a lot of the extras other students take for granted. Junior Gabriel Ramos, the student who told the Holocaust museum story, says that can make for some awkward situations. When some of his friends went to Mexico for spring break last year, he stayed on campus.

When classmates go out for dinner, “I’m like ‘uh-uh, I’ve got to pay my phone bill,’” he says. “So yeah, those moments do happen.”

Then there are deeper insecurities. Incoming freshman Catherine Hernandez was a top student at her vocational high school in Las Vegas. Even so, “my biggest fear is not meeting up to the rest of the intellectual expectations,” she says. “Sometimes I’m afraid just that because I don’t have the natural aptitude to do things that I’m not going measure up.”

That’s a pretty common feeling among first-generation college students. It’s known as imposter syndrome. To build confidence, students get a dry run in the classroom. They spend a few days taking mini classes, taught by professors who were first-generation college students themselves.

Along with the reading assignments and homework, sociology professor Eréndira Rueda takes her students through an exercise called Common Ground. They stand in a circle and students step to the center if they share something in common.

“Common Ground if you grew up translating for your family,” she says.

Several students step forward. They talk about helping their parents file tax returns or explaining water bills. Freshman D’Angelo Mori was among them.

Vassar freshman D’Angelo Mori (Amy Scott/Marketplace)

He grew up in Gaffney, SC, one of just a handful of Hispanic kids in his mostly white high school. It wasn’t until he arrived at this elite campus in the Husdon Valley that he felt he finally fit in.

“I’m pretty excited,” he says afterward. “I'm very surprised to see that there are other people like me, because all my life I felt very alone in my situation.”

Taking stock of minimum wage around the world

Tue, 2015-09-01 11:17

Myanmar has introduced  a minimum wage for the first time, which takes effect Tuesday, according to Reuters. 

The new policy would require employers to pay workers 3,600 kyat, or  $2.80, for an eight-hour work day, which equals about 35 cents an hour. 

Minimum wage standards vary greatly even among the Southeast Asian country's neighbors, with Thailand's minimum about three times Myanmar's amount at 300 baht, or nearly $8.40 per day. Bangladesh's daily minimum wage is about 74 cents outside of the cotton and jute textile industries and the engineering industry.  

Amid Myanmar's wage announcement, let's take a look at the different minimum-wage standards set by countries around the world, in particular, members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development:

Must be nice to live in Luxembourg, right? But here's another perspective: compare each country's minimum wage to what its citizens typically earn:

PODCAST: Consumers love coupons

Tue, 2015-09-01 03:00

On today's show, competition for the arctic heats up; medical debt collectors are up in arms over a new ruling by the FCC; and how habits adopted by consumers in the midst of recession are hard to shake.

Medical debt collectors up in arms over FCC ruling

Tue, 2015-09-01 02:00

27 million Americans were contacted by a collection agency about unpaid medical bills last year.

A new FCC ruling now makes it more difficult to track those bad debtors down on their cell phones, according to the collection industry. 

The new rule clarifies that collection agencies can ‘robo-call’ someone on their cell, but only if that person consented to those calls for billing issues.

Robert Foehl with the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals says the problem is when a person changes numbers.

“You are still on the hook from a liability perspective if you make a call to a new person who owns that phone,” he says.

That means companies could face fines of up to $1500 per call. 

Medical debt is big business in the U.S. 

According to NerdWallet, Americans paid three times more for medical debt than bank and credit-card debt combined in 2012, collecting $21 billion from consumers.

Margot Saunders, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, says the FCC ruling may prompt the industry to curb its practices.

“This is a situation where debt collectors are calling the wrong people far too many times,” she says.

Saunders says companies will only pay fines if consumers feel harassed and file a complaint.

She says industry has other options including email, ‘non-robo calls,’ and snail mail.

The industry argues that adds expense that will be passed on.  

The recession changed how we shop

Tue, 2015-09-01 02:00

Susan Samtur’s bargain-hunting ability made her famous because of shopping trips like a recent one to Walgreens, where she sliced a $19.08 bill nearly in half at checkout by applying in-store savings and multiple coupons. To top it off, she had points on a loyalty card, which brought her out-of-pocket payment down to mere pennies.

“It cost us 68 cents. What do you think about that?” she beams.

''Coupon Queen'' Susan Samtur plots her next move. 

Mark Garrison/Marketplace

Eye-popping receipts like that are why a TV show dubbed her the Coupon Queen some years back. The name stuck, and she launched a whole career sharing savings tips through books, appearances, her own website and more recently, an app that’s something of a Tinder for discounts.

Samtur has made a nice living doing this; enough to support a comfortable life in suburban New York and a gleaming silver Lexus that she drives from store to store. Even though she’s under no pressure to pinch pennies, she still clips coupons and scours the web for deals, hitting multiple stores per week to get the best prices.

Samtur’s habits may sound a bit extreme. But these days, more and more Americans are shopping like her. Recent data from Deloitte, which tracks these things, finds consumers are visiting six stores per week on average to buy groceries. That’s about a 20 percent boost from the previous year. Frugal habits developed during the recession show no signs of going away, even as evidence of economic recovery grows.

“The behaviors that they developed in terms of using coupons, in terms of hunting for deals, those are entrenched,” says Rich Nanda, a principal at Deloitte.

That means retailers have to figure out how to deal with armies of Susan Samturs. With customers searching online for bargains and willing to travel to get them, old-school pricing tactics don’t work as well. Stores have long discounted certain items to get customers in. But that only works out for retailers if shoppers stick around to buy other stuff.

Stores need people to stay and shop, not score deals and dash. Faced with a new consumer reality, stores are having to try new things.

“Supermarkets are offering kind of in-store cooking demonstrations. They have in-store chefs that are helping families and trying to engage them,” says David Fikes, a vice president at the Food Marketing Institute, which represents the food retail industry.

Stores now have to work harder to build an experience that’ll keep customers in stores longer. That includes everything from textbook customer service to new ideas, such as bars where shoppers pick up cocktails to sip while browsing produce.

The economic downturn made the American shopper craftier. Now it’s retailers finding they need to evolve along with them.

Stop thinking Netflix is a movie service

Tue, 2015-09-01 02:00

Netflix says it's giving up its partnership with the cable network Epix. So by the end of this month, if you want to watch "Hunger Games: Catching Fire," you'll have to go to Hulu, Epix's new partner. Netflix is focusing on original content for its 65 million members. Is Hulu's gain Netflix's loss?

Netflix calls itself the world's leading internet television network. Key word: television. Jennifer Holt, associate professor of film and media studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says people are thinking of Netflix less as a place to catch big movies, "and more toward Netflix as a source for original television-like programming."

Holt says that's why losing blockbuster movies to Hulu won't be a big blow. "In the industry, most of the money is made in television anyway," she says.

Abe Sauer covers entertainment marketing for Brandchannel.com. He says no one's going to leave Netflix because it doesn't have "Thor."

"But people will come to Netflix because Netflix has 'Orange Is the New Black' or some really popular show that it owns," he says.

There were huge licensing expenses for films that most people had already seen by the time they showed up on Netflix. For Netflix, Sauer says, playing the middleman just wasn't worth it.

iOriginal iProgramming

Tue, 2015-09-01 01:57
$200 billion

That's about how much cash (likely more) is at Tim Cook's disposal for spending at Apple. And according to new reports, one focus of expansion for the company will be original programming. As Variety reports, Apple has come under some criticism for allowing Netflix and other streaming services to completely dominate this corner of the market. 

6

According to new data from Deloitte, that's how many stores on average consumers visit per week to buy groceries. Why so many trips? Habits developed by shoppers during the recession are sticking around. It's how conscientious buyers like Susan Samtur found their way to couponing. And now, Samtur has made a career out of it.

$20

That's how much Hubert Tang found on the ground outside San Francisco International Airport last week. If you're already bored with this story, you should know that Tang used the money to buy two scratch-off lottery tickets in his hometown of Millbrae, California, one of which led to a $1 million prize. As the Associated Press writes, Tang could also still win $25,000 from the other, ticket he purchased.

27 million

That's how many Americans were contacted by collection agencies about an unpaid medical bill last year. But that number may soon come down. A new ruling by the Federal Communications Commission clarifies that collection agencies can "robo-call" someone on a cell, but only if that person consented to those calls for billing issues. That becomes tricky for companies making the calls if people change their number, especially if someone new takes over an old number. Faulty calls could cost debt collectors $1,500 in fines per call.

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