Tide Pod Challenge: ‘Don’t eat poison’

via Tide Pod Challenge: ‘Don’t eat poison’

PDF: Tide pods poison

I’ve written before in this column about the danger of laundry pods, those colorful little plastic pods that contain measured amounts of laundry detergent. Since they were first introduced to the mass market in 2012 as Tide Pods, they’ve been the target of kids, lured by the bright colors and candylike appearance.

The pods were heralded as a time- and mess-saver; instead of pouring liquid detergent from a bottle or powders from a box, all you had to do was throw the pod in with the wash and that was it. The products inside remained dry until the water from the wash cycle dissolved the plastic coating, dispensing the product at the right time. Actually, the concept came from medicine, which has used timed-release capsules for decades. Following the success of Tide pods, Tide parent company Proctor & Gamble and a number of other detergent companies subsequently started putting their products in a pod-like package.

But there was a problem: in 2013, Consumer Reports notes, thousands of children were being rushed to the hospital after eating or biting into the pods, which they mistook for candy. At least one 7-month-old child died after eating one. Soon, senior-citizen advocates began warning that the products could also be eaten by adults with dementia if not kept out of reach.

Now, we have the “Tide Pod Challenge.” In the past several weeks, accounts of teenagers eating Tide Pods on a dare have blasted through social media, resulting in memes such as a pizza covered in pods, and perhaps most disturbingly, teens biting into the pods and spitting out the distasteful contents. Although the possibility of eating a Tide Pod was (according to Forbes) first mentioned in 2015, the phenomenon quickly picked up steam as it erupted on Twitter, then Youtube and other social media, in mid-2017.

According to the American Poison Control Center, centers around the country recorded 39 cases of intentional laundry pod “exposures” among 13- to 19-year-olds in the first two weeks of January. That’s nearly equal to the number of cases in all of 2017.

This rash of apparent insanity has become serious enough for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to warn people about the dangers of ingesting the colorful pods. (“A meme should not become a family tragedy,” warn the CPSC’s social-media posts. “Don’t eat poison.”)

Although you would think most people would understand not to intentionally ingest cleaning products, it bears repeating here. Consumer Reports notes the average detergent pod contains a cocktail of chemicals, of which those in the average bar of soap are just the start. Pods vary in the number and type of chemicals inside, but one recent report estimated more than 700 chemicals are in a standard pod (many of them toxic).

What happens when you ingest the contents of a pod is not a pretty story. The thin layer of plastic starts to break down immediately from your saliva and gastric juices, releasing its contents into your mouth and esophagus. When you ingest those chemicals, notes the Consumer Reports article, they begin to burn your esophagus and continue wreaking havoc through your digestive system. You could die.

Of course, a lot of people on social media are having a lot of fun with the concept, as they did with the Cinnamon Challenge a few years ago. And, the number of people who are actually biting into or consuming Tide Pods is probably a small fraction of those who say they’re doing it. The story will likely continue to build for a while longer, until the social-media world gets bored with it and moves on to something else. The fact the mainstream media is covering it may hasten its demise as a counter-cultural phenomenon. Regardless, this is one fad many of us will be glad to see in the rearview mirror.


What do consumers want?

via What do consumers want?, clarionledger.com

PDF: Consumers want it now

If you’re spending time in Memphis, I’d recommend a visit to the Pink Palace Museum. Your family can easily spend an entertaining day in this wonderful destination. The Pink Palace Museum features several permanent exhibits, as well as some touring, themed ones. Although part of the museum (“The Mansion,” which contains some of the more famous permanent exhibits) is closed for renovation, it’s slated to be back up and running this summer.

Among the Pink Palace’s permanent exhibits (and one of my favorites, along with the miniature circus) is a replica of the original Piggly Wiggly grocery store, which opened in Memphis in 1916. This walk-through exhibit faithfully reproduces what’s billed as the nation’s first self-serve market. Every time I’ve strolled through its aisles, I’ve thought about how amazing it must have seemed for shoppers of the time to have so many items available in a single place. A few of the brands featured on the shelves are still being sold today, while others have faded into history.

To anyone who visits a grocery store today, the choices in that exhibit would seem quite limited. Of course, 101 years ago, shoppers pretty much had to choose from what was on the shelf. There wasn’t a lot of choice in brands, sizes or varieties. Today, people are a lot more demanding, know what they want, and they want it conveniently and balk at paying to have it delivered.

The National Retail Federation, which represents the retail industry, recently came to those conclusions in its quarterly Consumer View, which reports on research into various aspects of consumer behavior and shopping trends.

“Consumers today want what they want when they want it and they don’t expect to pay a premium to get it fast,” said Mark Mathews, NRF vice president for research development and industry analysis. “When they walk into a store they want to find their item, and find it easily, especially if they’ve researched it online beforehand. And whether it’s next-day or pickup-in-store, quick delivery of online purchases at little or no extra charge is growing so fast that it’s something shoppers are coming to expect.”

Mathews discussed the report during a session on developing trends in consumer behavior held last week at the organization’s annual show in New York. It’s important, Mathews noted, for retailers to try to understand the minds of consumers so they can satisfy their needs and wants.
“These findings provide important insights for all retailers into consumers’ shopping behaviors and expectations,” Mathews said. “Reliable research is important because retailers who want to be here tomorrow need to meet consumer demands today and anticipate needs in the future.”
Among the survey’s findings: Most people who go shopping are usually seeking a certain item, rather than “just looking” (regardless of what you might tell that a-little-too-helpful sales clerk). Nearly three-fourths of shoppers at retail stores and just over half of online shoppers have a specific item in mind. While both bricks-and-mortar stores and online sites use various tactics (seen and unseen) to try to lure you to items they want you to see, it can be frustrating for consumers to be thwarted in searching for that particular item. The result is a constant battle for the shopper’s attention, a fight in which consumers are usually outgunned against a formidable army of psychologists, sociologists, and behavioral experts.
A second interesting finding of the NRF study is that most of us really, really hate paying for shipping when we shop online. “Free shipping” is now such an expectation that nearly half of online shoppers say they won’t even consider a purchase that doesn’t include it. While the term “free shipping” is questionable (newsflash: “free” shipping is often incorporated into the cost of items), it’s become an expectation for most people, even in the cases where shipping is next- or second-day, or for less-costly items.
The study also pointed out a few possible new directions for retailers. For example, nearly six in 10 shoppers would be more likely to shop at a store or website that featured special events offering product trials or “exclusive” sales or demonstrations. Millennials in particular said they’d be interested in attending such events, and millennial men were much more likely to attend special events.
For more interesting insights from the research, visit http://bit.ly/2mClhB8.

Do Southerners tip better than Northerners?


via Tipping: Do Southerners tip higher than Northerners?, clarionledger.com

PDF: Tipping1Tipping2

Tipping has always been a source of controversy, and the beginning of many a discussion among people with strong opinions on both sides. Whether to leave a gratuity, how much to leave and why to leave a tip can even make or damage reputations overnight. Stories of extreme generosity (and accusations of extreme stinginess) regularly make the rounds on social media.

You may remember the social-media firestorm of 2013, when New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees got takeout from a California restaurant and left a $3 tip on the $74 order. The internet exploded after someone posted a picture of the receipt online. Many used the opportunity to call Brees a cheapskate, while others rushed to his defense. The restaurant owner apologized for his employee’s behavior and pointed out that it was generous of Brees to leave a tip at all, since most people don’t tip on takeout orders anyway. Furthermore, to call Brees cheap is laughable; he’s raised millions for various causes, and is regularly cited among the NFL’s most generous players.

The incident, though, touched a nerve and rekindled a national debate about tipping. At the center of the controversy is the need to support the hardworking people who serve us meals, cut our hair, carry our bags and help us in a thousand ways. Many people in service professions are notoriously underpaid. And, according to a new study by Creditcards.com, apparently some of us are bigger tippers than others.

The survey, released this week, reports that the best tipper (statistically, anyway) is likely to be a male from the Northeastern U.S., a Republican baby boomer who adds his tip onto his credit or debit card instead of paying cash. He would leave a 20 percent tip at a restaurant. Conversely, the study claims that Southerners (ouch) are the most tightfisted regionally when it comes to leaving that tip for the server. Of course, these claims are likely to inflame political, regional, ethnic and gender tensions, because most of us consider ourselves to be pretty fair and hold our own counsel when it comes to the decision to tip.

For the study, Creditcards.com polled 1,002 adults. The survey found four out of five Americans claim they always tip at restaurants, averaging 18 percent. The statistics indicate people with higher incomes tend to leave better tips. Among other findings:

  • About two-thirds of us tip our hairstylist or barber, while 12 percent say they never do.
  • Nearly a third of people leave a tip for coffee-shop baristas, but slightly more people say they never tip them.
  • More than a quarter of people surveyed say they always tip the housekeeping staff at a hotel, but more (31 percent) said they never do.
  • Nearly 60 percent of men say they tip more than the historic customary 15 percent, while just under half of women say they do.
  • Younger restaurant patrons tend to tip less, older ones more.

Tipping psychology and practices have been studied endlessly, with various results. Some studies allege America’s tipping system is outdated, does little to improve service and might even be causing harm and furthering discrimination. Others say it actually helps improve service (albeit not as much as one might think). Some establishments have policies to stop their employees from accepting tips at all, while others have added a non-negotiable “service fee” to all checks in lieu of a gratuity, or started adding an automatic tip to bills for large groups.

Knowing whom to tip, under what circumstances to leave a gratuity and how much is a moving target, and often results in anxiety. Will the pizza delivery guy consider you a skinflint if you handed him 67 cents in sofa change after he stood in the rain with your extra-large pepperoni while you looked for your checkbook? Most likely. Would it make a difference if that pizza were a few minutes after the promised delivery time, or if he didn’t make eye contact as he handed you the box? All of these things and more affect the decision to tip.

But many people I know lean toward being generous. If you’ve ever waited tables, delivered pizza or cut hair, you may remember what it felt like to have done everything right, yet still get stiffed on the tip. Most people in service professions are not in control of the entire experience, and, like all of us, they have their good days and bad ones. On the other hand, a rotten attitude can result in poor service; most people would tend to be less generous in that case. With all these variables, it’s likely that tipping will remain controversial well into the future.

To read the entire study, visit http://bit.ly/2sVwcfv. And if you’re looking for some advice on whom to tip, and under what circumstances, some good tipping guides have been published; a couple of good ones are from AARP at http://bit.ly/2sX6bw2 and TripAdvisor at http://bit.ly/1XDtG63.

What are the top 100 brands in US?

Source: What are the top 100 brands in US?, clarionledger.com

PDF: Brands

Quickly, before you think about it: What is the first name that comes to mind when you think of quality watches? What about e-commerce companies? Candy? Underwear?

If you named Rolex, Amazon, Hershey and Fruit of the Loom, you would be in good company. Those brands are among the top 10 on a list of the most highly regarded brands in the U.S. today, according to a study by the Reputation Institute.he organization compiles U.S. RepTrak 100, an annual list of the Top 100 brands most associated with positive attributes across a range of behaviors, including quality of products, use of innovation and others. rolexThe survey evaluates responses from 42,000 people who completed a survey in the first three months of the year. All this data is evaluated, analyzed and compiled into a cumulative score, resulting in a ranked list of the Top 100 companies.

The top 10 companies in this year’s just-announced survey are, in order: Rolex, Amazon, Sony, Lego, Hallmark, Netflix, Kimberly-Clark, Hershey, Fruit-of-the-Loom and Barnes and Noble.

“Classic American brands stand out at the top of this year’s US RepTrak 100 rankings, with seven of the 10 companies U.S.-based, and most of these representing what we’d consider ‘nostalgic brands’ like Lego,amazon Hallmark, and Fruit of the Loom,” noted Allen Bonde, Reputation Institute’s chief marketing officer, in an article for Marketing Daily. “Especially appealing to Millennials, we see these types of brands equally focused on good citizenship, active on social media and great at demonstrating their brand purpose across all media channels.”

 While most people know a “brand” when they see one, it’s important to point out the term “brand” is actually a complicated concept through which organizations (and sometimes, individuals) become widely known. Most Americans would instantly recognize most of the brands listed on the Top 100 because they’ve become well-established through advertising, marketing, and retail presence. Most (but not all) dominate their particular market niches, and many are internationally known.

Of course, no brand is immune from reputation damage, and in the social-media-intense world we live in today, a carefully built image can be crushed overnight by many things, including one bad decision by an employee, poor corporate decision-making or just plain bad luck.

There were significant “winners” and “losers” in this year’s report. For example, Rolex edged out Amazon to take first place this year, and Kimberly-Clark (which makes a variety of consumer products, but is best known for its paper products such as Kleenex) broke into the Top 10 for the first time. South Korea-based Samsung took a precipitous drop from No. 3 in 2016 to No. 63 this year after being hit hard by the Galaxy Note 7 recall (but, as the survey authors noted, its previous brand strength helped inoculate it from an even-more disastrous fall.) Yahoo’s reputation dropped after a spate of bad news including a major data breach, and American Express’ iconic image took a hit after a number of recent issues, including ending its exclusive contract with Costco and concerns about its leadership.

The survey also included rankings by industry, categorizing companies into 16 industries by reputation. At the top of the industry rankings were Consumer goods and services, followed by Food and Beverage, Transport, Automotive and Airlines. At the bottom of the list was Energy, followed by Telecommunication, Health care and Financial.

To download the complete report (it’s free, but you’ll need to provide your name, email address and other information), visit http://bit.ly/2nAvLzk.

Dare the dishwasher to do its job



via Dare the dishwasher to do its job, clarionledger.com

PDF: the_clarion-ledger_state_20160831_a002_0

Ever since my family got its first dishwasher in 1970 something, I have been advised often to rinse every particle of food off the dishes before putting them into the dishwasher. This little piece of advice has been ingrained into dishwasher owners — and made reluctant husbands mutter to themselves — since people installed their first avocado-green Kitchenaids and Kenmores. But recently — in what’s certain to cause a monsoon of controversy — the venerable Consumer Reports has recommended we stop doing it.

I admit to having grumbled at having to do this little task. I’m well aware the dishwasher we bought a couple of years ago doesn’t need me to. “After all,” I said to my wife once while feeling especially bold, “that’s the dishwasher’s job.” All I got in response was an icy stare (husbands, you know that stare, don’t you…). It turns out that, as dishwashers have gotten better, quieter and more energy-efficient, they have also been fitted with sensors to determine just how dirty the dishes are, and adjust the cleaning process accordingly. (Of course, for older models, you may still need to pre-rinse.)

And, if the famously unbiased Consumer Reports says it, there’s a good likelihood it’s true. “The easiest way to save time, water and money in the kitchen is to stop pre-rinsing your dishes before putting them in the dishwasher,” noted Consumer Reports blogger Mary H.J. Farrell. “It may cause a kerfuffle in the family so to settle any disputes just try it. You’ll discover that the dishwasher doesn’t need your help and that, in fact, you could be making matters worse by causing the built-in soil sensor to misread the amount of dirt in the water.”

Farrell goes on to write that dishwashers sold in the past five years are fitted with sophisticated technology designed to save water and energy. By sensing whether there’s heavy or light debris on the dishes, the computer can adjust the amount of water. If all the dishes are free of debris, the dishwasher will likely underperform and leave little morsels of food stuck to dishes. What’s more, today’s dishwashers have grinders that pulverize food and wash it down the drain.

And, as Farrell continues her assault on conventional wisdom, there is the matter of the water we waste by pre-rinsing. It takes anywhere from 1.7 to 6 gallons of water every minute to pre-rinse (the average pre-rinse uses 25 gallons), costing more energy and effort. “The costs are starting to add up and all for something that you could stop doing while getting cleaner dishes,” she notes. “It’s a win-win.”

If you are interested in getting the best performance from your little built-in kitchen wonder, here are a few tips:

  • First off, follow the directions in the dishwasher’s manual for loading. Although many of us don’t read the manuals, they are written to help us get the best performance, and since rack designs vary, learn how yours is designed to work best.
  • Secondly, Consumer Reports recommends running a bit of hot water in the sink before you start the machine. It takes less energy if the dishwasher can start with warm water.
  • Finally, use a rinse aid, which helps dishes rinse more evenly, and choose the right detergent.

Now, I know some habits are pretty hard to break, and no matter what Consumer Reports says, many dishwasher owners will stubbornly continue to pre-rinse. Judging from some of the reader comments on the article, some folks aren’t buying it. For example, one reader suggested you need to pre-rinse if you only run the dishwasher once every few days, to avoid a smelly, pest-attracting mess in the dishwasher. Another pointed out not all dishwashers have grinders and food sensors.

But regardless of where you stand on this surprisingly controversial issue, at least now you know there’s an option.

Impulse buying bad for us



via Moak: Impulse buying bad for us, clarionledger.com, 2/3/2016

Next time you visit the grocery or department store checkout line, take a look around. Chances are, you have already noticed the racy magazine covers suggesting juicy gossip about Hollywood stars, colorful candy, little gadgets promising to make your life easier and lots of other stuff you really don’t need.

This is, of course, nothing new; checkout lines have always been full of things we don’t plan to purchase, but buy it anyway. Just as they do today, little kids of 50 years ago threw temper tantrums over that candy bar as their exasperated parents had to deal with the embarrassing spectacle. (The likely difference; parents generally showed far less tolerance for that boorish behavior, and disciplinary action was often instantaneous.)

It turns out buying things on impulse is hard-wired into us, and it’s not just limited to the grocery-store checkout line. Research has shown we buy a lot of things on impulse. According to a new report from Creditcards.com, more than half of Americans report spending $100 or more buying impulse items, and one in five have spent at least $1,000 on impulse. All told, 84 percent of us would sheepishly raise our hand if asked to honestly answer the question, “have you bought anything on impulse?”

“We aren’t rational beings, we rationalize our actions — especially with money,” said Brad Klontz, co-founder of the Financial Psychology Institute and associate professor of economics and finance at Creighton University. Klontz was quoted in the blog post on creditcards.com’s website.

In an informative 2012 article in Psychology Today, psychologist Ian Zimmerman proposed we buy on impulse for many reasons — some of which are rooted in our self-esteem and need to feel control over our environment. Zimmerman notes some people have a trait he calls “buying tendency,” which means they’re more prone to buy stuff they don’t necessarily need. “…impulse buyers are more social, status-conscious, and image-concerned,” Zimmerman explains. “The impulse buyer may therefore buy as a way to look good in the eyes of others.”

He also notes impulse buyers generally have more anxiety and less control over their impulses; a third trait of some impulse buyers is that they just want to feel happy, and buying something temporarily does that for them.

According to Creditcards.com, however, about one in five impulse buyers report being influenced by someone else, especially a child. It seems also our spouses and “significant others” tend to enable impulse buying at least some of the time (no statistics were mentioned on how many domestic disputes happen as a result of impulse purchases, you can bet it would be significant.)

Here are a few other interesting facts on impulse buying, from Creditcards.com.

  • Most impulse purchases (about 80 percent) are still made in bricks-and-mortar stores, as opposed to online. And that makes sense, even in the smartphone era; retailers are well-versed in understanding how we make purchases. Most shoppers are unaware that every nuance of visiting a grocery store — from the color of the lights to the height merchandise is displayed, even the background music — is designed to lower your defenses against spending your hard-earned money. Online sites lack that degree of control over the environment; only 6 percent of people said they made impulse purchases over a smartphone or tablet (13 percent for a computer).
  • It seems the older we get, the less likely we are to buy for ourselves, or to make impulse purchases at all. “Millennials are the most likely to make an impulse purchase for themselves, 30- to 49-year-olds are the most likely to do so for a child and those 65 years old are the most likely to impulse buy for their spouse or significant other,” notes Creditcard.com.
  • Perhaps not surprisingly, higher-income individuals tend to spend more on impulse purchases.

The survey of 1,003 adults was conducted by Princeton Survey Research. The complete study is available at http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/impulse-buy-survey.php. There is also some good advice on avoiding impulse purchases athttp://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/impulse-buying-tips.php.

Prepaid cards becoming the new cash

Prepaid cards have already changed the landscape of commerce, causing profound changes in how we think about paying for things. Whereas formerly cash was king, our increasingly cashless society seems to have nominated the prepaid card as its heir and successor. It’s likely to be a reign of short duration, however; new payment technologies such as the “digital wallet” are expanding rapidly.

It appears that as more and more people turn to prepaid cards to replace cash, many are foregoing the “traditional banking” route. A generation ago, it was a foregone conclusion and rite of passage that a young person would start a savings and/or checking account at a bank, and use checks to pay for things. With the advent of the ATM, however, the game began to change. Suddenly, you could get cash without the hassle of having to write a check for “cash,” then have it turned into greenbacks.

Prepaid cards (known technically as “General Purpose Reloadable” or GPR cards) grew from being niche products to be used in your favorite store to a dominant force in the financial industry. In the past few years, the use of prepaid cards has skyrocketed, by some accounts growing by more than 50 percent between 2012 and 2014.

Pew Trusts recently conducted a survey of adults who use prepaid cards at least once a month. Their findings are providing useful information for businesses and consumers alike, pointing to the need for consumers to better understand these cards while advocating for better protections for users. The results point to consumers who are more financially savvy and disciplined than is commonly believed, people who understand the value of saving and the wisdom of avoiding costly decisions.

Demographically, users of prepaid cards span the spectrum of age, race and income, but in general, there are some trends: Users are more likely to be single African-American females between 30 and 39 who rent their homes and have incomes under $50,000.

Nearly half of prepaid card users have their paychecks directly deposited to their cards, and reload the cards at least on a monthly basis. Many of the users surveyed said they would like more options for saving and budgeting tools built in to the cards. And — in a refreshing rebuff to people who decry the lack of spending discipline these days — more than eight in 10 cardholders said they would rather have a purchase denied at the store than to pay fees for the privilege of overdrawing their accounts.

Here are a few more facts from the study:

For some, it’s replacing traditional checking. “Unbanked” people are using these cards a lot like traditional checking accounts, and to help manage their budgets. For example, if you’re concerned that you’re spending too much money eating out in a month, having a card just for eating out can allow you to control your spending.

Most prepaid card users don’t want the option to overdraw their accounts. This is interesting because — while overdraft services can help you avoid embarrassment at the grocery store — they can be extremely costly and discourage disciplinebased spending. Since overdraft programs are a significant source of income for financial institutions, it’s likely the financial industry is concerned.

People are generally unaware of fraud and theft provisions. Pew notes “most users don’t know whether their liability for fraudulent use is limited, funds are FDIC-insured, or cards have arbitration clauses.” In most cases, these cards do limit liability from fraud and theft, and are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

People need to know more about their cards. For example, most people wouldn’t know the fine print accompanying a card spells out their rights and responsibilities, such as how to arbitrate a dispute. And finally, the authors of the survey results urge the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to quickly adopt a set of proposed provisions which “promotes clear disclosure and ensures protections that limit liability for unauthorized transactions and ban high-cost credit products. The need for these protections is clear, given how prepaid card users — particularly those who are unbanked — view and use these products. Pew commends the CFPB for the proposed rule and urges its speedy adoption.”

Prepaid cards grew from being niche products to be used in your favorite store to a dominant force in the financial industry. In the past few years, the use of prepaid cards has skyrocketed, by some accounts growing by more than 50 percent between 2012 and 2014.

Originally published in The Clarion-Ledger on 7/3/15.

FTC revises “Cooling-Off” Period rule

A generation ago, whole industries were dependent on the use of door-to-door salesmen. Many items, such as encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners and brushes, were sold primarily by people going from house to house, knocking on doors. Many men and women fed their families this way, and images of people like the “Fuller Brush Man” still evoke childhood memories in many of us. Door-to-door sales are still around, of course, but these days you’re more likely to be solicited at home (at best) by hungry college students, alarm companies, people selling Internet service, or more darkly, by hucksters and scammers looking to get your money.

Since 1972, there has been a law saying that you have three days to cancel a decision to purchase something, when that decision was made in your home, or at a place other than the seller’s “usual place of business” (such as a trade show). The “3-day cooling off rule” is widely misunderstood, and is often inappropriately applied by some to any type of purchase decisions. Many retailers are familiar with consumers who have rethought their purchase, errantly thinking they have three days to cancel, and auto dealers often hear from consumers with the same mistaken impression.  But the rule clearly only applies to purchases made in an environment other than where you would normally buy things, and there are numerous exceptions.

The intent of the law is to shield consumers from being taken advantage of by unscrupulous sales people, allowing you to rethink your decision after you have gotten over the flush of excitement generated by the persuasive salesperson. The law doesn’t cover purchases made at a store or other place where the seller does business, because (theoretically, anyway) shoppers are more ready to deal with persuasive sales tactics if they actually go to a place of business to make a purchase.

“Sales in consumers’ homes and at a seller’s transient location have long raised consumer protection concerns, as some sellers employ deceptive and unfair practices,” noted FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, “including high pressure sales tactics; misrepresenting the quality of goods; and placing inappropriate roadblocks to obtaining refunds, including simply disappearing before the consumer realizes that he or she has been scammed.”

Generally, the law allows you to cancel any such purchase over $25.00 unilaterally within 72 hours, and the salesperson must provide you with “written and oral notice of a buyer’s right to unilaterally rescind a contract within three business days from the date of the transaction”. In addition, they must provide you with a completed receipt, or a copy of the sales contract, containing a summary notice informing you of your right to cancel. These rules have applied in both situations: whether you buy in your home or at someplace other than the seller’s “usual place of business”.

But this week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC, which is charged with maintaining and enforcement of the rule) has announced the first change in that rule since it was enacted 43 years ago. After a five-year study-and-comment period, the FTC has announced that although the $25.00 limit still applies for sales made door-to-door, the amount has been changed to $130.00 for purchases made elsewhere. In other words, you still have the three-day right to change your mind in those cases covered by the rule, but your purchase has to be more than $130.00 if you buy the merchandise at a location other than your home or a place the seller usually does business.

In announcing the rule change, the FTC noted that a number of industry and consumer groups had weighed in on the decision, and acknowledged that the $25 in-home fee was left intact because of concerns raised over high-pressure sales and other unscrupulous marketing tactics. The ceiling was raised to $130 for sales made in other locations because of inflation, as well as the fact that “the record does not reflect the “same level of concerns about problematic practices when sales are made at other locations.”

“Sales in consumers’ homes and at a seller’s transient location have long raised consumer protection concerns, as some sellers employ deceptive and unfair practices,” noted FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, “including high pressure sales tactics; misrepresenting the quality of goods; and placing inappropriate roadblocks to obtaining refunds, including simply disappearing before the consumer realizes that he or she has been scammed.”

There are some exceptions to the cooling-off rule, including purchases that…

  • are under $25 (and now under $130 for non-home sales);
  • are for goods or services not primarily intended for personal, family or household purposes. (The Rule applies to courses of instruction or training.);
  • are made entirely by mail or telephone;
  • are the result of prior negotiations at the seller’s permanent business location where the goods are sold regularly;
  • are needed to meet an emergency, or are made as part of your request for the seller to do repairs or maintenance on your personal property (purchases made beyond the maintenance or repair request are covered).

The rule also does not apply to:

  • real estate, insurance, or securities;
  • automobiles, vans, trucks, or other motor vehicles sold at temporary locations, provided the seller has at least one permanent place of business;
  • arts or crafts sold at fairs or locations such as shopping malls, civic centers, and schools.

This is a wide range of exceptions, so it’s important to know your rights. To familiarize yourself with the rule, visit http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0176-protections-home-purchases-cooling-rule.

Weird ice cream flavors increasing

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 7/17/2014.

Once, while we were college students, my old friend Lloyd Young decided to put onion flakes in his ice cream, just to see what it would taste like. He claims it really wasn’t that bad, but the thought of it nearly turned my stomach.

Lloyd is something of an adventurous person when it comes to food (he dreamed of starting a restaurant called Lloyd’s Liver Lair); but I’m not very think-outside-the-box when it comes to food. As my friends and family will attest, my ice cream preferences are like the rest of my food preferences in general…fairly vanilla. I do like chocolate and strawberry, and occasionally will go for a sherbet or some variation of these, but I’d never even think of pouring balsamic vinegar into my frozen treat.

Life has taught me that some things just shouldn’t go together — but do — like Mary Matalin and James Carville, or Beauty and Beast, or frying and Twinkies. And if you try new things often enough, you’re likely to hit on a winner eventually.

Recently, I read a story in a Colorado newspaper about emerging trends in the ice cream industry. The boutique ice-cream industry is exploding around the country, and some intriguing new flavors have emerged. Imagine Tabasco ice cream, or fried chicken and waffle.

“You’re seeing the same kinds of trends in ice cream that you’re seeing in other foods. People are willing to experiment,” said Peggy Armstrong, of the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).

There are also new types of packaging ideas, such as Ben & Jerry’s Cores, which feature two flavors in one pint, with an irresistible core of chocolate in the middle. An example is Peanut Butter Fudge, with chocolate on one side, peanut butter (with tiny peanut butter cups) on the other and a fudgy center.

So what is driving all this experimentation? You and me. Ever since the invention of ice cream, people have been demanding new sensations, although today’s tastes have hardly changed in decades. (An International Ice Cream Association study found that vanilla is still by far the favorite choice, followed by chocolate and butter pecan; also in the running were coffee, Neapolitan and Rocky Road.) These lists have changed little since World War II.

Maggie Briscoe of Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza and Ice Cream Joint notes that flavors are always changing, with 24 flavors in rotation at any time at the Jackson-based eatery. “Local favorites around here are Cookies& Cream and Birthday Cake,” she notes.

But beyond the core of dairy-treat conservatism, the industry appears to be moving towards trying new ways to combine and package their cold confections, noted Laura B. Weiss, author of Ice Cream: A Global History, in a story on the IDFA’s website. “Though we are in an intense period of flavor experimentation, the desire to go beyond chocolate, vanilla and strawberry dates to the post-World War II era,” Weiss noted. “That’s when Howard Johnson, known for his roadside restaurants, tried to persuade Americans to indulge in his famous 28 flavors. Among them: maple walnut, burgundy cherry and fruit salad. “This was really pretty revolutionary,” Weiss said.

Study: men taking more responsibility for shopping, and are enjoying it

Originally published by the Clarion-Ledger on 2/25/14 and in the print edition on 2/28/14.

PDF: CL Men Shopping 02282014CL Men shopping 2

The last time I went to the store for groceries, I went by myself. I have to go by myself if I am going to shop effectively, because I can’t have distractions. I did my research, studying up on the deals and finding coupons to supplement them. A grocery trip can easily take an hour or 90 minutes, so I have to carve out enough time. Looking around, I noticed there were a lot of other dads out there doing the same thing.  When I was growing up, it seemed that the grocery store aisles were dominated by women. Now, the balance has shifted somewhat. This is an emerging trend, and signals a sea change in how gender roles have changed.

A recent study seems to bear out that notion. Defy Media’s second annual Acumen Report: Brand New Man studied more than 2,000 men ages 18-49. The results point out that  men are more involved with brand choices, household duties and shopping.  In the study, based on an online panel performed by Hunter Qualitative Research, more than 65% of respondents said they now hold primary shopping responsibility for several household product categories, with 67% saying they enjoy shopping for the household, and about 63% are open to choosing new brands.

“Men have earned their place as decision makers in the household,” notes Andy Tu, Executive VP of Marketing for Defy Media. “In this year’s report, we uncovered the process that men embark on to discover, connect with, and purchase new brands and products. We found that men are not only purchasing in greater numbers, but in many cases they are the ones actually making the brand decisions.”

More than half the married men surveyed (54%) reported buying more of the household groceries than their wives, with nearly 70% saying they actually enjoy shopping. Many said they usually make buying decisions on their own. “The idea that men are mindless, robotic, or powerless in their decisions about shopping and brand decisions is antiquated,” said Tu.

The study suggests that many men make buying decisions in a four-step process, all beginning with “E”:

  1. Exposure, in which they identify a need. This is often sparked by a life-change (such as moving out of their parents’ house or turning 40), which makes him suddenly more aware that he needs to stop eating so many Chips Ahoys on the couch and start eating more rabbit food and hitting the gym once in a while.
  2. Education, in which they “play the field”, experimenting with different options. Contrary to popular myth, many men seek direction from others, and seek direction online. Thriftiness is still a big motivator: fifty-four percent of respondents noted that, even if they make a bad brand choice, they will go ahead and use it until it’s gone. (I can attest to this; I’ll soldier on with a subpar product just because I paid good money for it.)
  3. Experimentation, in which they try out new products. In this stage, the study noted, many men value performance more than price; products that make them look, smell or feel good are worth paying a little more. Products with a “story” are important, and brands that appeal to a man’s need to support the local economy or make the world a better place are likely to appeal to them.
  4. Eureka! Once a brand has been identified and is now on the “team”, it gets his loyalty. He’ll often recommend brands which perform well to others.

Men are also using technology to help make decisions. Before I go shopping, I go on the store’s website to look for deals. “About a quarter of respondents got information via a mobile device while on site at the store, 31% read online reviews and about 26% watched a video on YouTube during the research process,” noted the website MediaPost.  “About 26% of men 18-34 reported using online reviews to research a new brand compared to their 35-49-year-old counterparts at just 21%.”

Companies who want to sell more products should pay attention; it’s a brave new world out there.