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Updated: 57 min 41 sec ago

Are no jobs safe? Outsourcing sign-spinner jobs ... to robots

Thu, 2013-12-26 07:22

It's hard to think of a job that is more unlikely to be outsourced than a sign-spinner outside a store or restaurant. They're low-wage retail jobs that have to be done at the location.

But retailers in cities across the country are experimenting with robotic road-side retail promotion.

Tyson Miltenberger of Bakehouse Water Bagels in Portland, Ore., employed a motorized female mannequin to advertise his adjacent bagel and taco shops along a busy commercial strip.

The robot business is growing fast. By the end of 2013, author Marshall Brain (Robotic Nation) predicted there would be more than one million industrial robots worldwide, or about one for every 6,000 humans.

And the robot industry is booming. Including the robots themselves, plus software and engineering to make them tick, the industry is generating $26 billion in sales, according to the Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics, a trade group.

Some of the smartest tech guys in the room have caught the bug, too: Google has made eight acquisitions in the robotics field just this year.

Of course, there are downsides — for the humans who interact with robots, or are replaced by them in the workplace. Twenty deaths have been linked to robots and other automation in factories, according to the U.S. Occupational and Health Administration (OSHA).

U.S. factory output is up more than 50 percent in the past two decades, while manufacturing employment is down by nearly 30 percent, according to Bloomberg News. Some of that is the result of people being displaced by ever-smarter and more capable machines.

Experts predict service industries will be the next to see serious inroads made by robots. According to an article in Business Insider, the most vulnerable service jobs include pharmacists, paralegals, retail cashiers, library clerks, babysitters, reporters ... and perhaps we should add retail sign-spinner.

PODCAST: UPS's Christmas fail

Thu, 2013-12-26 07:15

Many people who ordered their Christmas presents via UPS got a nasty surprise yesterday. No presents! The company says the volume of packages exceeded its capacity. 

This month marks the third anniversary of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, where the uprising began, the economy is still trying to find its footing. Many Tunisia watchers say fostering entrepreneurship will be critical to establishing a sustainable recovery.

It can be worth it to drive your golf cart off the green. And, around the country, at local council meetings from South Dakota to Kentucky to Wisconsin, new regulations making it legal to do just that are being proposed.

You found the perfect gift. Ordered it UPS. And uh-oh... It didn't arrive.

Thu, 2013-12-26 06:33

Many people who ordered their Christmas presents via UPS got a nasty surprise yesterday. No presents! The company says the volume of packages exceeded its capacity. Marketplace's Noel King has the latest on the story. Click the audio player above to listen.

Verizon and AT&T to issue transparency reports

Thu, 2013-12-26 06:16

By now, the tech world is familiar with transparency reports from companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook. The reports detail a number of metrics, like how many law enforcement requests have come in for email data. The takeaway from Google this year was that government snooping is way up. Now, just before 2013 draws to a close, the world is getting a new set of reports from older tech companies like Verizon and AT&T. Count Time Magazine tech reporter Sam Gustin among the surprised. Click the audio player above to hear the story.

Mexico's corruption problem

Thu, 2013-12-26 05:30

Corruption in Mexico was one of the focal points of President Enrique Peña Nieto's election campaign. But Transparency International hasn't given Mexico very high marks. Enrique Acevedo, anchor and correspondent for Univision, tells Marketplace Morning Report's Lizzie O'Leary about the issues dogging Mexico's government.

Nikkei 16,000!

Thu, 2013-12-26 05:17

Japan's stock market is on a tear, with the Nikkei closing above 16,000 for the first time since 2007. The news comes after the Bank of Japan's campaign of monetary easing, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's aggressive attempts to revive the Japanese economy. The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes has the latest on the story. Click the audio player above to hear more.

Three years post-revolution, a look at Tunisia's economy

Thu, 2013-12-26 05:11

This month marks the third anniversary of the Arab Spring.

In Tunisia, where the uprising began, the economy is still trying to find its footing. Many Tunisia watchers say fostering entrepreneurship will be critical to establishing a sustainable recovery.

So how easy is it to set up a business? One way to see: Drop in on a networking party for young start-ups and venture capitalists in the capital of Tunis.

Get your kid a golf cart when she turns 16

Thu, 2013-12-26 05:09

It can be worth it to drive your golf cart off the green. And, around the country, at local council meetings from South Dakota to Kentucky to Wisconsin, new regulations making it legal to do just that are being proposed.

Ten years ago, the local high school in Peachtree City, Georgia had to build a special parking lot with hundreds of new spots, tecause the teenagers there drive golf carts.

“They definitely get out and use them," says Sharon Lee, with Peachtree City Golf Cars. She says for parents, the carts make good financial sense. “You’re not paying near the insurance that you do when you have a teenager,” she says. And when you think about the cost of gas, notes Lee, it's hard for drivers to miss the potential savings of driving an electric cart,  "when you have an SUV that gets nine miles to the inch."

Peachtree has 90 miles of special paths for the carts, and Georgia doesn’t require them to be insured. Currently, there are ten thousand golf carts registered in Peachtree.

The city has been a trendsetter, but now, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safeway, all but four states allow golf carts to be driven on some public roads.

Brandon Ruiz, an industry analyst at IBIS World, says part of their popularity can be chalked up to a certain...greying population.  “As the baby boomer generation continues to get older, you're more likely to see them use golf carts to get from point A to point B,” he says.

The average cost of an electric cart, says Ruiz, is $3,500 dollars. And he says sales are expected to hit almost 700 million dollars this year.

Boxing Day? Is Dec. 26 still a day for sales?

Thu, 2013-12-26 05:07

Dec. 26 has historically been a day to visit the shopping mall. One, to buy stuff on sale. And two, to exchange unwanted gifts. But sales keep moving earlier in the holiday season. So is the day after Christmas still a big deal for retailers?

“Dec. 26 is already institutionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year because it’s the busiest day for returns,” says Brian Hoyt, a spokesperson for the digital coupon company, RetailMeNot.com.

Of course, returns don’t make money for a store. In fact, the volume of returns can cause some businesses to lose money on Dec. 26.

The popularity of gift cards has been a blessing for many retailers, helping them to offset the returns.

“A lot of consumers are telling us -- about 79 percent -- that they plan to shop at these end of year sales that kick-off historically on the 26th of December," Hoyt says. "And a lot of them are going with the gift card money that they received for the holidays.”

Some industries benefit more than others. Britt Beemer is chairman and founder of the consumer research company, America’s Research Group. He points to clothing companies.

“Those retailers that rely upon that high school/teenage customer base, it’s by far their most important week of the year,” says Beemer.

Same goes for businesses that sell furniture.

“That week between Christmas and New Years for the furniture retailers is referred to by many of them as their 13th month,” says Beemer. “They’ll do as much business in those last five or six days as they did in the previous month of December.”

So much for express shipping

Wed, 2013-12-25 13:39

This final note: Maybe one of the presents you ordered didn't make it to your house in time to put beneath the tree.

Well, UPS says some shipments were delayed this year. Why? "Heavy volume," the company says.

In other words, too many packages, people!

Last week, Big Brown delivered a 132 million packages. On Monday alone, it processed 7.5 million shipments.

So, a note to shoppers. Remember, all those promises made in the online world, about what'll get where by when, still have to be carried out in the real world.

A 'Weird Wednesday' Christmas for the economy

Wed, 2013-12-25 13:16

For anyone who has been scrambling through the malls this week doing last-minute shopping, it may have been hard to tell, but retail activity has actually been a bit slow.

ShopperTrak reports that there were 21 percent fewer people shopping during the week that ended Sunday, compared to last year, and that sales were down 3 percent (not including online sales).

Part of the reason might be the calendar.

“I think this is one of the most stressful Christmas weeks,” says Golden Gate University consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow. "Because the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas are shorter, plus Christmas is falling on a Wednesday, so that means that people are in massive time-crunch.”

Yarrow says many Americans only get Christmas Day off as a holiday. Most employers don’t give the day after Christmas as a gift, and many employees can’t afford to take extra time as vacation, or don’t have the time accrued to take by year’s-end.

Yarrow points out — this happens about every seven years. “So it’s like the arrival of the locusts — not the best year in terms of both enjoyment of the holidays, and also productivity at work.”

Patty Edwards is experiencing this first-hand. She’ll be driving the crowded freeways around Seattle to spend Christmas at her step-daughter’s home, and then turning around to head home again. “As much as I love everyone in the family,” says Edwards, “I am dreading the fact that I have to get up the next morning and be at work because I have meetings.”

Edwards is managing director for investments and a consumer-economy expert at U.S. Bank. She says retailers dread the calendar this year, too.

“We know that the most ideal time for Christmas to land is on a Monday, because you have the entire weekend to shop, and then you can just relax and the retailers get what they want,” she says, adding that Christmas on Wednesday is the worst timing for retailers. That’s because people had to shop, and work, on Monday and Tuesday.

Although, Edwards also thinks the post-Christmas retail situation may be better this year compard to last. “Online sales for those folks who got gift cards will probably be higher on December 26, because it is a Thursday.” Edwards says just like on Cyber-Monday, people will be shopping from their desks, instead of working.

Next week will also be a productivity-mess at work, when New Years Day falls on a Wednesday.

At least on December 26, when people do go back to work or out sale-shopping, one stresser will be removed — the ubiquitous Christmas music at the mall.

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