Penny auction sites: The house always wins

Source: Penny auction sites: The house always wins, clarionledger.com

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20170424_A003_0 (1)

If you were in the market for a ring that would ordinarily cost $1,000, but only had to pay $50 for it, you might consider that a good deal. Owners of some websites are betting you would and have made millions doing it.

Brands such as DealDash and Qbids are called “penny auctions” and are part of a fast-growing online industry. They work quite differently from traditional auction sites such as eBay. With traditional sites, a seller places an item for bid, and potential buyers place their bids. As time runs out, whoever bid the highest amount is the winner and then must purchase the item.

But on penny auction sites, bidders pay regardless of whether they win. Participants pay for every bid and often buy bids in “packs,” sometimes costing hundreds of dollars. With each bid, the cost rises by a penny or more. With many auction sites, you’re not necessarily buying the item; you’re buying the right to buy it at the final price. If you win, you must claim the item within a specified amount of time or lose not only the item, but your bid money as well.

Consumer watchdogs and government regulators have warned the public for years about penny auctions. Last week in a Minnesota district court, a man filed a class-action suit against DealDash, one of the larger online penny auction sites, complaining that the company was advertising top-name brands, but was actually selling generic items sold by companies with a connection to DealDash’s founder. In addition (among a host of other allegations), the plaintiff alleges the deals advertised don’t really reflect the true cost paid by winners — or losers.

The plaintiff called DealDash auctions “perverse lotteries in which U.S. consumers have lost tens of millions of dollars in their fraud-induced pursuit of sham merchandise.” One concern, the suit contends, is that participants must register up front, and enter a credit or debit card number. The customer then is required to purchase a certain number of bids in a bid package (between 60 and 2,400), with costs varying. (The lawsuit contends the bids cost between 12 and 15 cents per bid). Thus, the consumer ends up paying a lot, sometimes exceeding the amount it would have taken to purchase the item at full price.

 There’s much more in the lawsuit; Consumerist (a blog run by Consumer Reports) has it available at https://consumermediallc.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/dealdash.pdff.

If you’re considering entering a penny auction, you should be aware of a few things. In a blog post about penny auctions, the Federal Trade Commission notes there are several potential problems with penny auction sites, including:

  • Time lags. Many auction sites are slow to deliver merchandise, and sometimes the quality of merchandise isn’t as advertised.
  • Misleading terms. Terms like “bonus bids” might trick you into thinking the bid is free, when it isn’t.
  • Hidden cost. Some sites make you pay membership or subscription fees, or have other costs hidden in the fine print.
  • Complaint problems. Many dissatisfied customers have tried to complain to the company hosting the auction, only to find that they get no response or are told they have no recourse.

And finally, you’re betting against the house. These sites would not be in business if they didn’t make money. To ensure that, some operators are using automated software to push bidding higher, and the sites are designed to build excitement around a bidding process with flashy graphics and countdown clocks. If you participate, it’s a good idea to remember the old gambling adage: The house always wins.

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Phishing scams targeting PayPal and Amazon users, Hood says

Source: When hackers phish, cut bait, clarionledger.com

PDF: when-hackers-fish-cut-bait

The 18th-century British writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson famously described fishing as “a stick with a hook at one end and a fool at the other.” Whether you’d agree with that particular snarky assessment, you’d have to admit it’s pretty clever. Personally, I love to fish, although the fish apparently laugh when they see me coming because my fishing skills are not much of a threat. But regardless of whether I catch anything, the trip is nearly always time well spent.

The ancient concept of putting out bait and waiting for a bite has been adopted very successfully in the digital world. Back in 1996, according to Computerworld writer Russell Kay, hackers began noticing that a lot of scammers were posting emails with links that appeared to be legitimate but took the user to nefarious sites designed to dupe them into divulging passwords and other critical information. Because the term “phone phreaking” had been adopted years earlier to describe technology used to hack telephone systems, hackers similarly began using the “ph” to replace the “f” in fishing.

In the two decades since, scammers have gotten a lot more sophisticated at luring unwary consumers with links that appear to be from well-known merchants and companies. And it’s hitting near home. Last week, Attorney General Jim Hood warned Mississippians that users of PayPal, Amazon and others are at risk from phishing scams.

“These online services and businesses make it easy for consumers to shop and pay for items online, but there are people out there who want to use this convenience as a way to steal your money, or even worse, your identity,” Hood said in a news release.

Hood reported that computer users were getting emails warning them their PayPal accounts had been compromised and limited for security reasons. They were encouraged to click a link (unsecured) to a spoof site where they were asked to enter their PayPal username and password. Once they provided the information (of course), the scammers could “log in to the consumer’s legitimate PayPal account to spend any remaining funds, bill credit cards or steal personal information.”

One red flag that was apparently missed by many was that the PayPal was misspelled on the spoof site (spelling ability is apparently not part of these guys’ job descriptions).

Hood went on to describe a scam appearing to be from online giant Amazon.com that takes various forms, including emails that ask for information to confirm bogus Amazon orders, requests to update usernames and passwords, links to sites that will install malware and others.

Hood recommends consumers who have PayPal or Amazon accounts and receive similar emails not click on any links or submit any usernames, passwords or personal information via email. Instead, go to the companies’ actual websites and use the sites’ secure login to verify any account activity. “Although these scams have been around for quite some time, they continue to try to lure victims,” Hood said. “I encourage consumers to protect themselves from fraud and identity theft on the internet through education and awareness.”

Hood added these suggestions:

  • Don’t respond to any unsolicited e-mails.
  • Do not click on any attachments associated with such emails, as they may contain viruses or malware.
  • Don’t reply to emails or pop-up messages that ask for personal or financial information.
  • If you’re concerned about your account, contact the organization in the email using a telephone number you know to be genuine, or open a new internet browser session and type in the company’s correct web address. In any case, don’t cut and paste the link in the message.

More tips can be found in the news release at http://bit.ly/2iMCRTj.

If you suspect you’ve fallen victim to such a scam, call Hood’s Consumer Protection Division Hotline at  1-800-281-4418.

Time to change those passwords

data-breach31

Experian.com

via Data breaches becoming all too common, clarionledger.com

PDF:data-breaches

A decade or so ago, the term “data breach” was unfamiliar to most of us. That’s changed dramatically in the past couple of years. We have gotten used to hearing about bigger-and-bigger thefts of consumer information, each more audacious and troubling than the last. And because there are so many incidents reported every day, it takes something really, really big to get the attention of the media.

Last week, we passed a milestone in this regard as Yahoo, one of the biggest players in the e-commerce world, announced that more than a billion of its e-mail accounts had been compromised more than three years ago. That announcement was on the heels of a September revelation that data thieves had made off with information from 500 million accounts in late 2014 in a different data breach.

Consumers with Yahoo addresses have been warned that passwords were likely compromised in the attacks (but no direct financial information). Still, the amount of information that was lost could be used for identity theft and other nefarious purposes. Many experts have concluded that consumers are increasingly vulnerable. PC World Magazine issued this stark advice for consumers: “If you’re a Yahoo user,” wrote blogger Lucian Constantin, “you should consider your password compromised and should take all the necessary steps to secure your account.”

As the announcement was being made, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sent out a news release, warning Mississippians to remain vigilant. “Our personal information is becoming increasingly vulnerable to hackers, so we must stay vigilant about our online habits,” Hood said. “We can no longer have the expectation that sensitive data will be secure on the internet, so it’s up to us as consumers to be cautious, stay informed and take action to protect ourselves when incidents like this occur.”

In past columns, I’ve written about various topics surrounding internet security. In most cases, a secure password remains key in helping thwart identity theft. We may not like to go through the hassle of changing our passwords frequently, but it’s crucial. And since the approaching new year is a good time to think about changes, it’s also a good time to adopt this habit. Unless and until we have some better ways to ensure our security, we’re going to have to live with passwords.

Hood noted that Yahoo users should use extra caution. Here are a few of his suggestions:

  • Consider “two-factor” authentication when using email or financial services online. This simply means that getting into your account requires at least two steps, such as a password and security code via a linked phone or other device.
  • Avoid unsolicited emails that seek even more personal information or financial data. “Following a large-scale data breach, scammers may attempt to steal a consumer’s identity or access bank accounts by sending out fake notices,” Hood warned.
  • Monitor financial accounts for any unusual charges or activity. Report unauthorized charges immediately.

Here are some other of Constantin’s suggestions from his great article in PC World:

  • Don’t save emails you don’t need. Thieves could easily comb through archived emails and get clues to help steal your identity. While most of us don’t regularly clean out our email accounts since storage space is not an issue, it’s a good idea to go through past emails and delete them (and empty the “deleted items” folder).
  • Check your forwarding settings. Once hackers get access to your email, they can go in and create rules that automatically forward certain emails. It may take a few minutes to locate the controls for these features, but turning off auto-forwarding can keep this from happening.
  • Never reuse passwords. I know, I know … it’s hard to remember all those passwords, and having to enter a new password is a pain. But having unique and hard-to-crack passwords is necessary. Good passwords should be long, contain a mixture of letters, numbers, cases and symbols, and difficult to guess. One good habit is to intersperse symbols with similar letters. For example, instead of making your password “Mustang1”, instead you might want to use “Mu$tAnG1”. And unless you have an eidetic memory, you’ll probably need to use an app (or some other secure method) to remember them all.

Feds: Blood pressure app unreliable

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Pharmafile.com

via Blood pressure app unreliable, clarionledger.com

PDF: the_clarion-ledger_state_20161219_a003_1the_clarion-ledger_state_20161219_a005_3

Remember the old “medical tricorders” which became a fixture in the various “Star Trek” shows? Dr. McCoy and his fellow starship physicians were constantly waving these small devices over their patients, doing everything from scanning blood for toxins to mending broken bones. While some of us may have believed these devices actually existed, they were no more than Hollywood props, the technology behind them still in the realm of science fiction.

Many futurists believe the notion of the medical tricorder is not only possible, but in some ways, exists now. Already, wearable devices can track your heart rate, respiration and estimate your calorie count. And in the next few years, medical science promises even more wonders. A lot of those developments will be coming through today’s smartphones and their descendants.

But one thing that’s apparently not within the ability of a mobile device — at least yet — is accurately recording your blood pressure without using traditional methods. Such claims have landed at least one company in hot water with federal regulators.

The Federal Trade Commission has reached a settlement with a company called Aura Labs Inc., doing business as AuraLife and AuraWare, after charging it with deceiving customers into thinking their “Instant Blood Pressure” or “IBP” app could provide blood pressure readings that were as accurate as a traditional blood pressure cuff. In a $595,000 settlement with the FTC, Aura Labs settled allegations the company’s owner provided positive customer reviews for the product without disclosing his conflict of interest.

 “For someone with high blood pressure who relies on accurate readings, this deception can actually be hazardous,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “While the commission encourages the development of new technologies, health-related claims should not go beyond the scientific evidence available to support them.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, Aura sold the IBP app through Google Play and Apple’s App Store for between $3.99 and $4.99, garnering more than $600,000 in 2014 and 2015. Marketing messages included claims the app “could be used to replace around-the-arm cuffs and would be just as accurate as the traditional device,” the FTC charged. Users were instructed to place their index finger on the phone’s camera lens and hold the base of the phone over their heart.

But — at least according to the FTC — that wasn’t enough to get a good measurement. The agency reported that the readings from this activity were “significantly less accurate” than readings obtained the traditional way. “Although defendants represent that the Instant Blood Pressure App measures blood pressure as accurately as a traditional blood pressure cuff and serves as a replacement for a traditional cuff,” the FTC charged, “in fact, studies demonstrate clinically and statistically significant deviations between the app’s measurements and those from a traditional blood pressure cuff.”

Of course, a visit to the Apple or Android app stores will reveal thousands of apps that make similar promises. Shutting down one is not likely to stop the sale of apps with questionable medical value. Many medical experts have become increasingly concerned about the proliferation of these apps, which — even though they may include disclaimers that the app is “for entertainment purposes only” — could give people false information about their health with possible disastrous consequences. If you’re considering buying one of these apps, most experts advise you to be careful, and not rely on them for something as important as your health.

But there is good news on the horizon; if the meteoric rise of technology over the past few decades is any indication, science fiction will eventually become science fact. In the not-too-distant future, a descendant of the smartphone you live with every day will really help you live longer, healthier lives, eclipsing the wildest dreams of “Star Trek.” Dr. McCoy will be jealous.

2.7m AT&T customers getting refunds

cellphonecramming

fcc.com

via 2.7M AT&T Customers getting refunds, Clarionledger.com

PDF:att

It seems few people bother to actually read the details of their telephone bills these days. And there are some folks who would like to keep it that way; they can make a lot of money if you don’t notice charges appearing on your bill for services for which you didn’t know you had signed up — or for which you never signed up in the first place.

The practice of placing unauthorized charges on phone bills — known as “cramming” — goes back decades. It’s widely considered an unscrupulous practice, although it has stubbornly refused to go away. Cellphone users have found their bills can contain charges for everything from ringtones and horoscope services to credit monitoring and seedy 900-number calls. Of course, you can have a lot of things charged to your phone bill; things like in-app purchases and texting donations are convenient and commonplace. But sifting through your bill might result in some surprises.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission announced that more than 2.7 million customers of AT&T Mobile services will be getting checks in the mail, as part of a 2014 settlement with AT&T and two companies called Tatto and Acquinity over various types of unauthorized charges that appeared on AT&T customers’ phone bills. The $88 million in refunds will be issued in the form of bill credits and, in some cases, checks. Refunds will be sent out over the next 75 days and will average about $31, according to an FTC news release.

The refunds represent the most money ever returned to consumers in a mobile cramming case, the agency noted. “AT&T received a high volume of complaints related to mobile cramming prior to the FTC and other federal and state agencies stepping in on consumers’ behalf,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “I am pleased that consumers are now being refunded their money and that AT&T has changed its mobile billing practices.”

The FTC charged that AT&T had kept at least 35 percent of the money gained from the unauthorized charges on customers’ phone bills, which averaged $9.99 per month. Under the settlement, which involved all 50 states and the District of Columbia as well as the Federal Communications Commission, AT&T will notify current customers who were billed for unauthorized third-party charges of the refund program and has agreed to “significantly change” its process for third-party billing.

If you’re due a refund, you should have been notified by Epiq Systems, the refund administrator for the refund program. The FTC reports that checks and bill credits began Dec. 8.

Most experts agree the best way to stop unauthorized charges is to read your phone bill thoroughly. Cell service providers — as well as land-line providers — are required to provide you with a clear and understandable phone bill that details all the charges. It’s a good idea to take a good look through the bill to make sure you know exactly what you’re being charged, and for what. If you see anything you didn’t authorize, call your provider immediately to dispute it or seek further information.

One caveat: Don’t assume just because you don’t recognize the name of the company, that it’s not legitimate. Many companies use the name of a corporate parent company or doing-business-as (DBA) name to charge you for things you actually did order. For example, if you text a donation code to your favorite charity, the charge might not say the name of the charity to which you donated because they’re using a third-party service to collect the funds. So you might want to get into the habit of jotting down the date, time and amount of things you ordered, so you can verify it when the bill comes.

If you do file a dispute, be sure to write down the person you spoke with, the date and time, any promised actions and confirmation numbers. That way, you can go back later to make sure the company followed up on its promises. If you have any questions about the refund process, you can call the FTC consumer redress hotline at 1-877-819-9692.

Be wary of payday loans online

via Be wary of payday loans online, clarionledger.com

ftc-stop-payday-loan-scam.jpg

Pymnts.com

PDF: online-payday-loans

The online loan industry is booming, and with it, the potential for fraud. Every day, cash-strapped Americans fill out loan applications from ads they see on websites, social media and emails. While some of these companies are really offering loan services or connecting borrowers with real loans, many others are just a way for scammers to make a quick buck.

Some consumers who thought they were applying for payday loans online got a nasty surprise a couple of years ago when their information was allegedly sold to scammers who cleaned out their bank accounts and maxed out their credit cards without their consent. The Federal Trade Commission announced last week that they’d closed down one such operation.

The FTC reports that it has charged one defendant, Jason A. Kotzker, and co-defendants with taking the information from consumers (which was supposed to have been sent to payday lenders) and instead passing it to companies like Ideal Financial Solutions, which then “raided consumers’ accounts for at least $7.1 million.” Then, the agency alleges, Kotzker and fellow defendants helped Ideal Financial hide the fraud from banks.

This isn’t the first time the feds have shut down such “data broker” operations, which target consumers seeking online payday loans. Instead of offering them the loans they sought, these operations have often signed consumers up for “membership programs” which are nearly impossible to stop. Such scams are plentiful and lucrative for their operators and won’t stop anytime soon.

If you’re looking for a loan online, you need to be careful. Many legitimate-looking sites are just fronts, designed to reassure you that you’re dealing with a legitimate company. The FTC has some good advice to avoid becoming a victim. Here are a few suggestions, from the FTC and other sources:

  • Keep a close watch on your information. Merely filling out the fields on an online application — whether or not you hit the “submit” button — can be dangerous. Many scam sites use keylogging, software that tracks and records your keystrokes.
  • Read the fine print. If any part of the application or fine print is hard to read or decipher, don’t follow through.
  • Review your bank accounts for unauthorized charges. Scammers can hit their victims pretty quickly online, so it’s important to review your bank statements thoroughly, or (better yet) track your bank accounts daily through the bank’s website or app. This will let you know if anything’s fishy so you can report it.
  • Beware of “no-credit-check” loans. Most lenders are going to perform a credit check to determine your creditworthiness before offering you a loan, even if it’s just an employment verification. If there is no evidence the lender has checked into your credit or background, it could be a red flag.
  • Beware of unsolicited offers. Often, tracking software can help flag web users who look online for loans. This can lead to pop-up ads and unsolicited loan offers. Disreputable companies often use these tactics to find victims.

Online reviews too grrrreat?

 

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govdelivery.com

 

via Online reviews too grrrreat?, clarionledger.com

PDF: the_clarion-ledger_state_20161203_a005_2the_clarion-ledger_state_20161203_a006_0

Previously, we have written about how companies sometimes hire people to write favorable reviews about their products, with endorsements often appearing on social media and advertising. This sort of self-dealing is what has gotten a lot of companies in hot water with regulators and consumer groups, largely because it tends to muddy the waters when consumers rely heavily on what they see and read on the internet. Many people who rely on online reviews about a product before purchasing would be less likely to consider the review reputable if it were known the reviewer was paid to say positive things (especially if they didn’t clearly disclose that fact).

It’s all reminiscent of the Payola scandals of the 1960s, when the music industry was shaken by revelations that some disc jockeys were regularly being paid to play certain songs, boosting the records’ perceived popularity and in turn making them much more lucrative. The scandal helped destroy the careers of “Father of Rock” Alan Freed and others.

The most recent example of “pay for play” review practices is the venerable Kellogg Co., which has become known to generations of cereal-eating consumers as a brand associated with quality products. But last week, The Associated Press reported that its reporters had obtained a copy of a contract between the company and a group of “independent experts” called the “Breakfast Council.”

The group included nutritionists and other experts who allegedly received an average of $13,000 a year to review Kellogg’s products, post favorable reviews on social media and use “talking points” provided by the company in their reviews. According to the AP’s story, participants were prohibited from offering media services “competitive or negative to cereal” and required to conduct “nutrition influencer outreach” on social media or with colleagues.

“I’m still feeling great from my bowl of cereal & milk this morning! Mini-Wheats are my fave,” a council member posted during a Twitter chat with Kellogg about the benefits of cereal. Kellogg introduced the dietitian as a “Breakfast Council Member.”

For its part, Kellogg defended its practices in the AP’s story, but noted it understood such blurred lines could cause confusion. The Breakfast Council has since been abolished.

Still, the issue has also helped erode trust in all types of media at a time when the media’s reputation as reliable and unbiased is already a shambles. In September, the Gallup Organization reported that Americans’ trust in the mass media had reached a historic low, with an average of 32 percent of people saying they don’t trust the media. That’s the lowest number since 1976.

It should be noted that, if you think navigating the online-reputation world is easy, you’d be wrong. Companies spend millions to develop their reputations, and being on the wrong end of negative news can destroy everything practically overnight. And, while there’s nothing wrong with encouraging online reviews, optimizing your company’s search engine profile and making sure your company puts its best foot forward online, it can be tempting to go further.

In recent months, scandals have erupted after it was discovered that companies paid people to post fake reviews on sites like Amazon.com or Yelp; paid popular bloggers to write positive reviews or failed to (clearly and conspicuously) disclose that payments were made.

Since the internet has become the “watering hole” where people share news, information and reviews about products, consumers are looking for valuable and accurate information to help them make choices. Of course, everybody understands advertising and marketing are there to help sell a product, and they understand what they see, hear and read in advertisements is bought and paid for. But when it’s discovered the line between fact and claim isn’t clear, reputations can be irreparably harmed.

Many companies already belong to organizations that have a code of ethics; every company that sells products should adopt one (and adhere to it). If it’s not sufficient or broad enough, write your own, or adapt one such as this one, by blogger Morten Rand-Hendriksen: https://mor10.com/code-of-ethics-for-bloggers-social-media-and-content-creators/. Of course, just signing on the dotted line is easy, but having enforceable and robust company policies can help protect your company’s most valuable asset: its reputation.

AGs make case for Internet sales tax

via AGs make case for Internet sales tax

If you didn’t pay sales taxes the last time you bought something online, you can thank a 1992 Supreme Court decision known as Quill Corp. vs. North Dakota. It all started when the state of North Dakota tried to make Quill Corp., which sold office supplies, collect sales taxes on floppy disks it sold by mail order. The Supreme Court ruled that North Dakota could not make Quill collect sales taxes on remote sales, in effect because it didn’t have a physical location in the state. The decision came with a complex legal argument in which the court eventually suggested the law could be overturned by Congress.

The decision set an important precedent, which has been applied broadly in our online-ordering world. But several attorneys general, including Mississippi’s Jim Hood, have said it’s time for online retailers without a physical location in the state to start collecting taxes from Mississippi residents who buy items from them. In a “friend-of-the-court” brief, Hood and 10 of his counterparts have asked the court to overturn the decision and hear arguments in a newer case.

“More and more, the marketplace is moving from Main Street to the Information Superhighway, and our local merchants are at an unfortunate disadvantage,” Hood said in a news release. “If local stores are unable to compete with out-of-state online retailers, we lose jobs, an important tax base and a critical investment in our communities. We’re asking the Supreme Court to even the playing field for merchants and to allow the states to gain the revenue that should be due to them.”

Hood and other state attorneys general encouraged the court to hear arguments in a Colorado case called Direct Marketing Association vs. Brohl and reconsider the question of whether states can collect sales tax on internet purchases.

In a news release, Hood cited U.S. Census Bureau figures reporting that U.S. retailers made about $300 billion in 2014, with e-commerce accounting for nearly 7 percent of all retail sales that year. Online sales were up more than 15 percent from the previous year, a trend expected to continue since most Americans own smartphones that often come preloaded with online shopping apps.

Any move to collect sales tax from online purchases have been met with reluctance and outright opposition from retailers. Among other objections, they cite the nation’s labyrinthine sales tax system, in which sales tax rates can vary significantly by the address of the purchaser, and complicated by individual sales tax rates in thousands of communities. In their brief, however, Hood and other attorneys general argue this problem is easily resolved with software that can calculate sales tax rates.

Hood noted, in his release, that collecting sales tax on purchases would benefit the state by infusing cash into a state government that has seen layoffs and cutbacks in services. Other states have addressed the issue with their own efforts to work with e-commerce giant Amazon and others.

“At least 13 states now have laws to levy sales taxes on purchases through third-party affiliates like Amazon, for example,” Hood said. “Courts in New York have upheld this type of tax, and I will be asking the Legislature to stand up for our local businesses and adopt a similar tax next year. I also remain hopeful that the brief we filed today will move the Supreme Court toward opening the door for states to collect sales tax on all internet sales.”

Jet.com redefining grocery shopping

via Jet.com redefining grocery shopping

You’ve probably noticed the postcards popping up in your mailbox for a new service called Jet.com, promising that you can get groceries delivered to your home. I got mine last week (complete with a promise of $10 savings), and it prompted me to do a bit of research.

It turns out this company, which didn’t even exist a couple of years ago, has now become a major disruptive force in the grocery business. And it’s not just groceries; while the company focuses on groceries in its marketing, you can buy just about anything on the site.

 

After the site’s creation in 2015, its meteoric rise caught the attention of Wal-Mart, which wanted to position itself at the front of the online-retailing race. In September, the superstore behemoth acquired Jet.com for about $3 billion.

Of course, the grocery business is no stranger to innovation, but this could be one of the most profound. While it’s taken awhile for the sedate industry to embrace e-commerce, it appears that long-awaited day has arrived.

The roots of the grocery business reach back into antiquity; people have always needed a market to buy and sell food and other essentials. Innovations through the years have brought a lot of changes, with none (at least until recently) more important than the invention of the first true self-service grocery stores. An entrepreneur named Clarence Saunders is credited with helping bring about this revolution with the opening in 1916 of the first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis. This store and others like it changed the way we think about shopping. (If you’re ever in Memphis, stop by the awesome Pink Palace Museum to see a mockup of Saunders’ revolutionary concept.)

In the century since Saunders opened his doors to customers, technological innovations have slowly changed the shopping experience. But the recent developments with Jet.com and other online retailers have promised that the shopping experience will soon be transformed. Now, you can peruse a website, place your order and have your groceries delivered — all without ever having to leave home.

When I got my Jet.com postcard (which promised $10 off my first purchase and free shipping if I bought more than $35 worth of groceries), I decided to give it a try. The site is pretty easy to navigate, and does appear secure, although you must provide your contact info and payment information. I put a few items in my “virtual” basket, and noticed that as I did so, the prices for some of the goods already in my basket were dropping. In other words, the more items you buy, the bigger the discounts. Jet.com says this is because they can group certain items in a box, therefore saving the cost of shipping.

Compiling my order on a Wednesday, I gave the packers a challenge; among my choices were a cumbersome 15-pound bag of dog food, a 150-ounce container of clothes detergent, three boxes of cereal and a few small items. The prices were competitive with what you’d pay in a local store, with no taxes or shipping charged, and my $10 coupon code applied. After completing the order, I clicked “submit” and then waited. Delivery was promised within two days. Sure enough, on Friday, a box was waiting by the front door, delivered by FedEx.

Inside, the items were arranged neatly and efficiently. My only issue was that one of the cereal boxes had gotten a little crushed, but the contents appeared none the worse for wear. All in all, it was a pretty nice shopping trip — no checkout lines, no germy cart handles, no wrestling of grocery bags to and from the car. And, of course, Jet.com will remember your list and preferences for next time (and will probably start bombarding you with ads and promotions.)

It’s also important to note you can save a few pennies on your order by giving up your right to “free returns” of certain items; you may want to consider carefully whether you’d want the ability to return items for refund or replacement.

While Jet.com’s services are an end-run around the built-in challenges faced by bricks-and-mortar stores, some retailers have recently been upping the ante on their own convenience services, such as online ordering and pick-up at local stores. For example, Kroger’s ClickList allows you to order online and pick up your groceries at curbside. ClickList costs $4.95 (more for an “expedited” order), while Wal-Mart’s is free. And both companies promise delivery services soon in local communities.

One thing is prominently missing from Jet.com and similar services, at least for now: the ability to buy fresh or perishable groceries. Jet.com says fresh products are available only in selected cities, but promises to bring fruits, vegetables, dairy and frozen foods to us in due time. In the meantime, you will have to get your milk and bananas through a local bricks-and-mortar store, but at least you’ll be able to pick them up without having to leave your car.

For now, no one knows whether — or how — these innovations will change the grocery store experience in our local communities. And long-term relationships built between local, knowledgeable grocers and their customers (which put sales tax dollars and payrolls to work in local communities) will be hard for online retailers to overcome. It won’t be apparent for a while whether we’re seeing the cutting edge of a complete transformation of how we shop for basic necessities, or just a test of what proves an unsustainable model. Still, it’s an interesting time to be a shopper.

Broadband funds target rural areas

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Actiontec

via Broadband funds target rural areas

PDF: rural-broadband-gaps

As much as we seem to depend on the internet for just about everything, it’s hard to imagine that some of our neighbors still do not have a good way to get the services so many of us take for granted. If you live in a city or even a small town, on a college campus or in an area with sufficient infrastructure, you probably have broadband service available to you. But many areas of Mississippi are still without a fast, reliable or relatively cheap on-ramp to the Information Superhighway.

This fact was emphasized again earlier last week when I got a news release from the Mississippi Public Service Commission announcing the availability of $99 million in grant funds for companies that want to fill in the gaps of broadband service.

The PSC announcement included a link to a website maintained by the Federal Communication Commission, which showed an interactive map of the U.S., with orange splotches indicating places where there is no reasonable option to broadband service. Mississippi, like its surrounding states, was quite splotchy.

Of course, if you have the means, many Mississippians in rural areas can get at least a basic level of service through existing telephone services or more-expensive satellite services. But these options are not really good enough for many people in an age where files have grown larger and require ever-increasing bandwidth. While people in cities and towns can usually rely on having fair-to-excellent bandwidth, folks in rural areas may have little, if any, access at their homes. Some of this is mitigated by the availability of mobile phone service, but if, for example, your child needs to download files for school, this might not be the best option.

Many have likened this disparity to the early days of the Rural Electrification Administration, which sought to provide electrical services throughout Depression-era America at a time when nine out of 10 of the nation’s farms lacked electricity. The REA was so successful that, in just a little over a decade, about 80 percent of the nation’s farms had electricity. Many older Mississippians can still remember “the night the lights came on.”

“Internet is the electricity of the 21st century, and we at the PSC are dedicated to expand broadband service to all parts of Mississippi, no matter the location,” noted PSC Chairman Brandon Presley.

In the announcement, PSC Commissioners Presley, Sam Britton and Cecil Brown urged existing utilities, telecommunication companies and entrepreneurs to consider applying for a portion of the $99 million being made available for the next decade through the Connect America Fund Phase II auction. The PSC will certify the eligibility of companies participating in the funding and will assist in administering it statewide.

If your business is interested in finding out more, contact the PSC or the FCC. No application dates have been announced yet, but you can still express your interest. For its part, the PSC promises to expedite the certification process for participation from the FCC 180-day eligible carrier designation timeframe to 90 days. Furthermore, the PSC will work to help coordinate, where possible, with any willing public utilities to use existing infrastructure to possibly alleviate costs associated with expanding broadband service.

“We don’t want to leave a single dollar on the table when we can use it to help the people of Mississippi, therefore we are cutting the turn-around time for a decision from the PSC in half for companies eager to help meet this goal,” Presley added.

For more information about these funds and rural broadband service, contact Donna Chandler, director of telecommunications for the Public Utilities Staff at 601-961-5453 or donna.chandler@psc.state.ms.us. You may also contact Michael Douglas at 601-961-5407 or Michael.douglas@psc.state.ms.us.