It’s back to stores for back to school

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Chris Todd, Clarion-Ledger

via It’s back to stores for back to school, clarionledger.com

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20160730_A002_0

For the past several weeks, retailers have been gearing up for the onslaught of parents trying to make sure their kids are well-equipped for the school year. Well-prepared moms and dads who planned ahead will be sitting comfortably at home in the next few days happily sipping their sweet tea, while the rest of us plunge into the nightmarish stampede of parents desperately trying to find the right 3-by-5 cards or the correct brand of No. 2 pencils specified on their kids’ supply lists.

According to some retail experts, this back-to-school season should provide a much-needed infusion of cash, as financial worries have eased for some. According to a recent study by the National Retail Federation, K-12 and college shopping trips are expected to yield nearly $76 billion, well above last year’s $68 billion.

“Families are still looking for bargains, but there are signs that they are less worried about the economy than in the past,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “Heading into the second half of the year, we are optimistic that overall economic growth and consumer spending will continue to improve as they did in the first two quarters of the year. We fully expect retailers to be aggressive with offering great deals both in stores and online for back-to-school shoppers. And retailers will keep a close eye on inventory levels as families spread out their shopping throughout the summer.”

The organization enlisted Prosper Insights and Analytics for the annual survey, which found that families with children in grades K-12 plan to spend an average of $673.57 on apparel and accessories, electronics, shoes and school supplies, up from last year’s $630.36 for a total of $27.3 billion, according to the survey. That’s almost a 10 percent increase over last year’s tally.

There is also expected to be a surge in spending, which coincides with states’ sales-tax holidays, in which consumers can avoid paying sales tax on certain items. Mississippi’s sales tax holiday is this weekend and allows tax-free sales of clothing and footwear up to $100.

The NRF notes that it has observed over the years that each year’s back-to-school spending follows a pattern, in which families typically splurge on supplies one year, followed by a year in which they avoid making larger purchases on more-durable items such as backpacks and computers. The pattern then repeats itself; this year is expected to be a “stock-up” cycle.

According to the survey, K-12 consumers plan to spend $9.54 billion on clothing (purchased by 95 percent), $8.27 billion on electronics such as computers or calculators (57 percent), $5.12 billion on shoes (94 percent) and $4.37 billion on school supplies such as notebooks, folders, pencils, backpacks and lunchboxes (96 percent). Parents say they will spend an average $235.39 on clothing, $204.06 on electronics, $126.35 on shoes and $107.76 on school supplies.

Even with the expected good performance, parents are still bullish on spending money and will be looking for sales. “The budget-conscious consumer is not forgetting about price, quality or value, and we continue to see this when it comes to back-to-school shopping,” Prosper Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow said. “That is why many parents are taking advantage of shopping early, scouring ads and websites for the best deals, and taking advantage of free shipping with online purchases.”

Among other findings from the study:

More families are getting their shopping done early.  Nearly three-quarters of parents started their shopping several weeks ago, with the number of procrastinators down to about 22 percent.

More parents are shopping online. Nearly half of parents have shopped online for school supplies, or plan to. Still, most shoppers choose discount stores.

Older students = more expense. College students and families with children in college plan to spend an average of $888.71, according to the survey. “Whether it’s laptops for class or mini-fridges for the dorm, college simply costs more than the lower grades,” Shay said. “Some of these big-ticket items can last all four years, but when they need to be replaced it’s a bigger investment than pencils and lunchboxes. But retailers are ready to help students and parents alike stretch their dollars and make the investment in college pay off.”

For more on our back-to-school shopping plans, visit https://nrf.com/news/top-trends-2016-back-school-and-college-shopping.

Back-to-school shoppers taking their time

Published in the Clarion-Ledger print edition on 8/27/2015. 

PDF: Back-to-school shoppers taking their time

Where did the summer go? While many Mississippi adults wax nostalgic for the “good old days” when we didn’t go back to school until after Labor Day and point out to today’s “coddled” generation that we managed to make it to adulthood without having air-condi­tioned buses — or even air-conditioned classrooms — the reality is that today’s back-to-school experience is a far cry from what it was back then.

Today’s parents must navigate a maze of required supply lists, lab and workbook fees, back-to-school meetings and endless fundraisers.

When my Mom went to the local dollar store with her back-to-school shopping list for elementary-school me, it was indeed a lot simpler. The list consisted mostly of nonspecific essentials such as “loose-leaf paper,” “lunch box” and “Elmer’s glue.” It was also a far shorter list; much of a student’s supplies were provided at the school (often by the teacher out of her own pocket).

By contrast, the required supply list for a second-grader at one of our Jackson- area schools has 19 separate items, many specific — i.e., “8 folders with pockets and brads 2 (1 plastic, 1 paper) each color — red, blue, yellow, green.” And a note at the bottom reads: “Note: Additional supplies may be requested by your child’s teacher when school begins.”

If you’ve gone to the local big-box retailer recently, the school-supply area can be a zoo. Shopping for your kids has become a stressful event, and it seems at least some people are taking their time to finish. A recent study commissioned by the National Retail Federation bears that out. According to the NRF’s Back-to-School Spending Survey, the average family with children in grades K-12 has completed just half of their shopping at this point.

“As expected, families are carefully measuring where, when and how they should spend on fall apparel items, school supplies, electronics and other necessities,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Late summer promotions and sales tax holidays around the country are likely contributing to the delay in back-to-school shopping this year, which means the next few weeks could be exceptionally busy for retailers large and small.”

Mississippi held its sales tax holiday on July 31 and Aug. 1, with many families taking advantage of the opportunity to buy certain items without having to pay sales tax.

And if you look around, many retailers are still holding sales and promotions to get you into the stores. “Retailers, hoping to strike a chord with both budgetconscious and valuefocused parents, will roll out hard to pass up promotions designed to capture the attention of those last-minute shoppers,” Shay noted.

The survey found about one in five parents admit to not having even started their shopping, but that’s down a bit from last year’s 23.6 percent. A few families (about 13 percent) say they’re done.

Here are a few more findings from the survey:

  • Coupons and promotions continue to resonate; those who have already started shopping indicate about half of their purchases (51.3 percent) were influenced by coupons, sales and promotions, down from 58 percent last year.
  • When it comes to classroom needs, the survey found parents are on the hook to contribute several items. On average, parents say 64.4 percent of their purchases of pencils, folders and other school supplies are influenced by classroom lists or school requirements. In addition, 45.9 percent of their electronics purchases for back to school are influenced by the lists and requirements of their family’s schools.
  • As for where consumers will finish their shopping, discount stores will see the most traffic (53.4 percent), while 46.8 percent will shop at department stores, 36.6 percent at clothing stores and 12.8 percent will wrap up at electronics stores; 27.2 percent will check out retailers’ best online deals, up from 24.8 per­this time last year.

But before we complain about the anarchy in the school-supply aisles or gripe about having to write that check for the lab fee, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that most teachers still pay for at least some supplies out of their own funds and school administrators are trying to stay ahead of a bewildering array of laws and regulations, while they’re all simultaneously trying to help our kids grow and succeed. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess some bias here; I was raised by a teacher, herself the daughter of educators.)

As parents, while it might be hard to navigate the back-to-school maze, it’s part of holding up our end of the partnership to help prepare our children for the day they’ll be the ones doing the back-to-school shopping. So, take some comfort in that truth as you search frantically for that last box of “Crayola fine-tip classic colored washable markers.”

Study: Financial uncertainty ahead

A generation ago, people could pretty much expect that their children would be at least as well-off financially as they were. The Greatest Generation had lived through the Great Depression, which had a major impact on how they spent and saved. Their children — the Baby Boomers — indeed profited from their parents’ frugality, financial smarts and the booming postwar economy. But a new study has cast doubt on whether the Boomers’ children and grandchildren can expect to have as rosy a financial future, while at the same time pointing out that our kids may be better at managing their financial futures than we were.

Financial Finesse, a company that studies trends how Americans spend and save and provides workplace programs to help employees maximize their “financial fitness”, on Wednesday released its 2014 Generational Research Study. The study (www.financialfinesse.com) has pointed to what many consider a “major turning point in the future financial well-being of Americans.” Financial Fitness’ founder Liz Davidson notes out that this could turn out to be one of those historical junctures where a generation made decisions that had big implications for the future.

Buffeted by the lingering effects of the Great Recession, the study noted, the newest generation of adults today (Millennials) appear to be focused on meeting short-term needs, rather than planning for the future, or focusing on “not losing money, rather than growing their wealth for the long term.”  One example is in retirement plan participation for this group, which has the “lowest 401(k) participation rate of all generations at 83 percent in 2014,” the company noted in a press release.

The increased needs have led to a response from the business community, in the form of a growing “financial wellness” industry. “Financial wellness is becoming the next ‘green’ movement,’ says Davidson.

The study also pointed out that the parents of Millennials (Generation X, born from the early 1960s through the early ‘80s) are “in the most danger and the least likely to achieve financial security.” Gen-Xers may be putting their children first, at the expense of their own financial security. While few would fault parents investing in their kids’ education, it could prove costly down the road. Only 17 percent are on track to retire comfortably, yet 23 percent are contributing to a 529 college savings plan.

Even Boomers are vulnerable to financial instability as they face the challenges of living longer. As retirement looms on the horizon for Boomers, they are likely to feel the pain of having set aside too little to support their lifestyles. One key “pain point” is long-term care insurance, held by only 16 percent of Boomers, despite the fact that around 70 percent will need long-term care services at some point during retirement.

Despite the bleak statistics, however, there is reason for hope. The study points out that Millennials are actually doing a “relatively good job with day-to-day money management.”  That’s partly because of increased awareness of the need to develop healthy financial habits.

Here in Mississippi, while we’re certainly not immune to the pitfalls of poor money management, we can also be proud of the efforts being done to equip Mississippians with the tools to become better-educated financially.

That includes bringing public and private agencies together to “move the needle” on economic education, and those efforts are already bearing fruit. In August, Treasurer Lynn Fitch announced TEAM (Treasurer’s Education About Money) to bring businesses and government together to address the issue of financial literacy.

Among the organizations involved in TEAM is the Mississippi Council on Economic Education (MCEE), which has become a national role model for getting financial literacy curriculum into the classroom.  The MCEE was ranked in the Top 10 nationally by the New York-based Council for Economic Education, so I asked MCEE President Selena Swartzfager to give her thoughts on the study and how her organization might have changed the future potential.

“We have been working to meet this mission since 2002 by teaching teachers who then teach students,” Swartzfager noted. “We are teaching students to make the best choices as it relates to financial decisions.  While the mechanics are essential, they are nothing without the ability to make good choices.”

Swartzfager points to the efforts MCEE has made in helping train Mississippi teachers in economics, personal finance and/or entrepreneurship. Teachers can then take that knowledge to the classroom, reaching thousands of students. One key feature of that education is teaching students to understand the power of compounding to either enhance wealth (through investment) or take it away (through debt).

The organization has enrolled thousands of students in financial literacy challenges and the “Stock Market Game”, helping teach practical skills to help them understand everything from balancing a checkbook to making wise investments. Underlying it all is helping empower Millennials to make the right choices.

“When MCEE teaches financial literacy we do so using the ‘Economic Way of Thinking,’ Swartzfager added. “Ultimately this method of teaching educates students to understand that people’s choices have consequences for the future.”

She pointed out that while Generation X’s focus on getting their kids educated amounts to an investment in the next generation, the equation must be balanced so they can plan for the needs they’ll have in retirement. “Society tells parents that college graduation is most important for their children; what we need are adults thinking about the opportunity cost of saving for their children’s college education versus saving for their own retirement,” she noted. “Perhaps the ratio of saving for both needs to be considered so that both goals are addressed.”

Davidson noted that the problems are not insurmountable, but will require an unprecedented focus. “Is this solvable? Absolutely, but it will require a herculean effort,” she said. “Will it be solved? I believe eventually it will, but the question is this: how many generations will have to face these financial challenges before we make the necessary changes in our society to help people improve their financial security? The actions employers, employees, the public sector and financial industry take over the next three to five years will be pivotal to the level of financial security each generation is able to attain.”

Whatever the outlook, the impact of helping our kids make better decisions with money will reverberate well into the future; investments in young minds today is certain to pay off down the road. And that can only be good for Mississippi. “The education we provide for teachers and students,” Swartzfager noted, “has been proven to be effective.  With support from the business community in Mississippi, we will continue preparing students for a better economic future for our state.”

Americans are not saving enough

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger, 4/4/2015.

PDF: Americans not saving enough

I was opening the garage door a few days ago and I heard a loud grinding sound. “That’s not good,” I thought to myself, then noticed that the door wouldn’t open all the way. Looking up at the door mechanism, my youngest son pointed out that the spring appeared to have broken in two. “Oh great,” I muttered to myself. “There goes summer vacation.” From past experience, such repairs aren’t cheap; such an event can detour you from even the most carefully-laid plans.

That’s how life goes, isn’t it? We’re going along just fine, trying to keep our ducks in a row, and suddenly, a garage door breaks, or a water heater goes out, or your kid needs a new band instrument. Having savings can certainly help in situations like this. But a new study from Bankrate.com has found that, while the economy is getting better in some areas, one key factor that is apparently not improving is how much money we’re putting away for the future.

Savings are important, because consumers who have put aside some money for the future are a lot more likely to go into debt, and having money in the bank can bolster our ability to support the economy, and can even lead to less worry and stress.

Bankrate’s study looked at Americans’ savings habits, and there were some interesting findings. Perhaps the most surprising is that it’s not the rich who set the standard for saving; it’s the middle class. More than a third of households with annual income between $50,000 and $74,999 are saving more than 10% of their incomes, a rate that outpaces even the highest-income households.

“This proves the old adage that what counts isn’t how much you make, but how much you have left over,” said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst.

Overall, the study found that most Americans are saving no more than five percent of their incomes, and about one in five are savingnothing at all. More than a quarter of us are saving something, but not more than five percent.

Many financial experts recommend saving at least 10 percent of your income, but that’s a hard sell these days, since the economy has been slow to recover from the recession. Many families are finding themselves in a hand-to-mouth existence, not really drowning, but treading water. Without savings, a financial crisis – such as losing a job, having to replace a car, or a medical event – can send a family over the edge, into a cycle of debt or even bankruptcy.

The study looked at not just savings, but how Americans feel about their financial picture in general. There is reason for optimism in the numbers. Nearly a third of respondents said their financial situation has improved from one year ago and just 18% said it has deteriorated. Overall, the study found the second-highest level of optimism since the monthly survey began in 2010.

Here’s a few more findings:

Job security is rising – Those who are feeling more secure in their jobs than one year ago outnumber those who are feeling less secure by a margin of greater than two-to-one (27% to 13%).

Debt’s causing less discomfort – Consumers’ comfort level with debt decreased slightly over the past month, but continues to remain positive relative to a year ago. 23% of respondents are feeling more comfortable with their debt and 20 % are feeling less comfortable than March 2014.

Men are feeling more comfortable with savings – For the first time since the survey started, men are demonstrating more comfort with their savings than one year previous.

So, how do you put away money when it’s hard just to make ends meet? There are a lot of ideas out there, but I’ve found a lot of great advice from a site called Feed the Pig (feedthepig.org), run by the American Institute of CPAs. Feed the Pig has a lot of advice about clever ways to save. Here are a couple of their recommendations:

Always be saving. Regardless of what else you’re doing, such as paying down debt, don’t neglect the need to put some money aside.

Don’t get discouraged. Don’t let mistakes or detours stop you from achieving your long-term goals.

Also, many experts recommend finding savings in everyday things. For example, if you go to a coffee shop every day, cut back to three times a week and drink coffee from the office. If you spend $6.00 on that mocha latte, take the $12.00 you would have spent, and put it in the bank instead. If you did that for a year, you would have $624.00 squirreled away for the future.

That’s just one of many tips out there for people who are trying to get serious about savings.

If you’re looking for some seriously creative ideas about savings, visit Americasaves.org, which is run by the Consumer Federation of America. While we might not all be natural savers, anyone can learn.

Report: Family farms still the backbone of American agriculture

It’s no secret that family-owned farms have been suffering in recent decades. Beset with a variety of challenges including rising costs of production, volatile markets and economic pressure, it’s been tough. Many family farms find themselves constantly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, or of losing their land altogether.

But despite the perceptions, don’t count out the family-owned farm; a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) finds that family farming still is still (by far) the backbone of the nation’s agriculture. And Mississippi’s 38,000 farms, covering 11 million acres, are playing a significant role.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture Farm Typology report is a special data series that primarily focuses on the “family farm.” By definition, a family farm is any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and individuals related to the operator, including through blood, marriage, or adoption.

“Family farms significantly impact Mississippi agriculture, the state’s largest industry,” noted  Mississippi’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith. “Nearly 97 percent of the farms in the state are family-owned. These families are providing safe, affordable food and fiber to consumers in the U.S. and across the globe.”

Here are a few highlights, provided by Hyde-Smith’s office and Mississippi State University:

Most family farms are small: More than nine out of 10 of the state’s family-owned farms are considered small family farms (gross cash income of less than $350,000), and they produce more than a third of farm sales.

New farms are starting: Eighteen percent of principal operators on family farms started within the last 10 years.

Farming makes a huge financial impact: In 2014, Mississippi farmers yielded $7.9 billion in production, and nearly a third of the state’s workforce was employed in jobs directly or indirectly related to agriculture.  These 2014 figures are from the Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s website at mdac.ms.gov:

Mississippi’s five largest crops, by dollar value, include:

  • Poultry/eggs, with approximately 738 million broilers and 1.3 billion eggs produced on 1,430 farms, valued at $3.13 billion.
  • Forestry, with about 125,000 landowners producing timber on 19.7 million acres, valued at $1.28 billion;
  • Soybeans, with 3,274 farms producing nearly 114 million bushels valued at $1.17 billion;
  • Cotton, with 824 farms producing about a million bales valued at $404 million;
  • And cattle, with about 16,000 farms raising more than 930,000 head valued at $397 billion.

“Whether small or large – on the East Coast, West Coast, or the Midwest – family farms produce food and fiber for people all across the U.S. and the world,” noted NASS Statistics Division Director Hubert Hamer. “It’s due in part to information such as this from the Census of Agriculture that we can help show the uniqueness and importance of U.S. agriculture to rural communities, families, and the world.”

To access all the data products from the Census typology report, including Highlights, infographics and maps, visitwww.agcensus.usda.gov.

Retailers putting a priority on mobile retail experiences

If you were somehow able to travel in time from 1950 to 2015 and walk around any American city, you would likely have a lot of questions: why does everybody walk around, zombie-like, never making eye contact? Why does everybody appear to be obsessed with exercising their thumbs on little hand-held boxes? What’s this “Google” thing everybody talks about? And what for the love of Pete is “Facebook?”

While the cultural canaries-in-a-coalmine have been tweeting (couldn’t resist that one) for years that our society is on the verge of sliding off the proverbial mountain as Google makes us stupid, smartphones have been quietly reorganizing our lives. That’s the world in which we live, and according to many who study such things, it’s not going away any time soon – if at all.

The change is perhaps no more profound than in the marketplace. A recent study by the National Retail Federation (NRF) caught my eye recently, titled (innocuously enough): “Mobile Still Tops Retailers’ Priority Lists, According to Shop.org/Forrester State of Retailing Online Report.” (You can read the entire study at NRF.com.)

As those who own and operate retail commerce are famous for keeping ahead of trends, we should probably pay attention to such findings; mobile shopping has profoundly changed the way we shop, and promises a future that makes today’s hectic environment seem bucolic by contrast. As the “Internet of Things” takes shape, promising to bring connect everything from the dishwasher to the lawn mower, technology is only going to get more pervasive.

One big observation from the study is in how e-commerce has already changed the marketplace. Smartphone sales (as a percentage of online sales) grew from 8 percent in 2013 to 12 percent in 2014, an increase of 50 percent.

“Consumers are flocking to retailers’ mobile sites at a faster pace and with more interaction than ever before, so naturally they expect retailers to offer fast, well-designed mobile services that meet their needs,” said NRF Senior Vice President and Shop.org Executive Director Vicki Cantrell. “With that in mind and with several years of mobile commerce now under the industry’s belt, retailers feel confident in their mobile investments. For retailers – when it comes to mobile strategies, small but continuous incremental changes really do go a long way to keep their savvy customers happy.”

If you asked them to tell you what’s at the top of their priority lists, most retailers would put mobile commerce at the top of the list. Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) consider it the most important priority for the nation’s retailers. That’s a five-point uptick from the year before.

But, while they understand the importance of keeping their toe in the digital ocean and realize consumers are saying, “ready or not, here I come”, most aren’t – yet, anyway – putting their money where their mouth is. Thirty-two percent of retailers surveyed reported spending less than $100,000 on their smartphone development efforts in 2014. However, eight in 10 retailers plan to increase their mobile budgets by at least 20 percent in 2015.

And while the smart money five years ago would have been to bet on apps, it could be that the rush of app development may have stalled in favor of mobile-optimized websites. “More than half (56%) of retailers surveyed say that apps are not a key component of their mobile marketing strategy, and an even greater percentage agree apps are not critical to their employee strategy either,” noted an NRF release. Instead, they are looking to optimize their existing websites to be able to “sniff” when a user is on a laptop, PC, smartphone, tablet or other device, and customize the content appropriately.

From a consumer standpoint, all of this is probably good news. Since we all have these devices anyway, having retailers to customize the experience will create a better shopping experience. And given the competitive nature of American commerce, they’ll be looking for ways to make us consumers happy as we navigate the strange, new world in which we find ourselves.

Barbie loses top spot, but don’t count her out yet

It hasn’t been a good year for Barbie. First, the iconic queen of little-girl fashion dreams was the subject of a scandalous book in which she revealed her inability to do math, having to rely on the boys to solve basic engineering problems. (The book’s release led to an uproar, prompting Barbie maker Mattel to pull the book from Amazon and beat a hasty retreat.) Now, she’s suffered the indignity of losing her perennial first-place on the wish lists of girls to that icy upstart Elsa from the Disney movie Frozen.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Barbie (whose real name was revealed in a 1960s book to be Barbara Millicent Roberts, of the fictional Willows, Wisconsin) has been under attack steadily in recent decades. She’s been accused of being intellectually shallow, giving girls unrealistic body-image ideals, not being diverse enough, and even being made of toxic materials. Despite all that, she has held her ground in the hearts and minds of many a dream-filled young lady, and can still start fights among mothers jostling for limited editions among early Black-Friday sales. (This actually happened this week at a Wal-Mart in Norfolk, Va.)

But now, enter Ice-Queen Elsa and her little sis Anna from Disney’s Frozen. Last year, these fairy-tale sisters grabbed the hearts of moviegoers with their tale of how love can conquer anything – even a deadly tendency to freeze everything you touch. Frozen vaulted to the top of the movie blockbuster charts, earning $1.2 billion worldwide so far and making it the 5th top grossing movie of all time. The movie’s theme songs — the Oscar-winning Let it Go and the catchy Love is an Open Door are well-known to the youngest generation (and no doubt as well to their weary parents).

A slew of tie-in merchandise flooded toy store shelves following the film’s meteoric rise, making it hard to go anywhere without seeing or hearing about Frozen. So, it’s no wonder that young lasses everywhere are asking for Elsa and Anna merchandise this Christmas.

“Barbie has been the top girls’ toy for over a decade, but it is no surprise that Disney’s Frozen has taken the top seat as children have had it on the mind as far back as Halloween,” said Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow of survey group Prosper Insights and Analytics.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) last week released a survey of parents, revealing that one in five (20 percent) parents plan to buy Frozen merchandise for their little girls, while only 16.8 percent are planning to buy Barbie stuff. This is the first time in 11 years that Barbie has not been Number One. It’s worth noting that – not surprisingly – this phenomenon hasn’t affected boys’ Christmas lists; LEGO has kept its No. 1 position for parents of boys.

Retailers are responding to the demand.  “Parents will not have to go far to find good deals on the toys their children have put at the top of their lists,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Retailers have spent weeks preparing for the holiday rush to make sure that the season’s hottest toys are both easy to find in stores and online, and competitively priced.”

Other choices topping the lists: Monster High dolls; generic dolls; American Girl; LEGO (yes, for girls; LEGO has recently introduced girls’ product lines); tablets/iPads, My Little Pony and Disney Doc McStuffins, and clothing.

For boys, LEGO is followed by cars and trucks, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, video games, Hot Wheels, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Transformers, remote-controlled vehicles, Marvel action figures and tablets/iPads.

Although Barbie has been officially dethroned for now, it would be premature to assume her demise. Barbie – who doesn’t look a day over 18 — has steadily held her crown for 55 years. Mattel has engaged in a decades-long sales campaign, and claims to have sold more than a billion Barbies worldwide. There is just something special about this toy that has enraptured generations of little girls, and although she often bucks the waves of cultural change, she remains one of the most successful toys of all time. So, although Frozen has distracted the attention of Barbie’s target demographic, it’s likely to be a temporary distraction; Barbie has beaten the competition for five decades, and will likely reign again.

Gift cards again expected to top Christmas wish lists

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 11/29/2014.

PDF:Gift cards top wish lists of most Americans

If you’re one of the small percentages of those super-organized people who get your Christmas shopping done before Thanksgiving, bless you. Unfortunately, most of the rest of us will spend the next few weeks trying to figure out just what to get Uncle Frank or that brother who seems to have everything.

So, it probably comes as no surprise that the number-one Christmas gift for several years running is the gift card. These little plastic wonders come bedecked with an endless variety of colors and logos. And although most are almost uniformly the same size as the original Diners Club credit card in the 1950s (the shape is said to be based on the “golden rectangle” concept in geometry), this too is changing: cards are increasingly coming in a variety of forms, shapes and materials.

And not only can gift cards can vary widely, they’re incredibly popular. This year, Forbes estimates that consumers will spend $200 billion on gift cards. That’s an astronomically-large number to most of us, but to put it into perspective, it would be almost 12 times the current budget of NASA or just short of the value of all goods produced by Peru in a year.

“No longer impersonal or only about convenience, gift cards have become the perfect, practical gift item for millions of holiday shoppers,” said National Retail Federation (NRF) President and CEO Matthew Shay. “And, as the most requested gift item for eight years in a row, we’re sure there will be plenty of happy individuals this holiday season who can look forward to treating themselves to something shiny and new come January when retailers start to offer promotions on fresh new merchandise.”

According to Cardhub.com, the five most popular cards are from Visa, Amazon, iTunes, American Express and Netflix. (See http://www.cardhub.com/edu/8-things-to-know-about-gift-cards/ for the complete list.)

The NRF reports more than 62 percent of consumers would like to receive gift cards, making them the most popular gift item eight years running.

So, how do you select the best gift cards? Well, it depends on your preferences, and those of your targeted recipient. Here a few questions to ask, from Creditcards.com and other sources:

Where can I use it? Many people love general-purpose cards, such as VISA or American Express, because their use isn’t just limited to certain stores. But watch out for higher costs; some “open-loop” cards carry a purchase fee. If you know someone who loves to hunt, for example, consider a gift card from a sporting-goods retailer.

Do I have to pay full price? Sometimes, gift cards can be purchased at less than the actual value of the card. When I looked at the website Giftcardgranny.com, for example, I saw a $25.00 Amazon gift card for $18.22 at an Ebay auction. (But check to make sure there are no shipping fees, and in some cases, that’s the auction price; your price may be different.)

Can I replace the card if I lose it? If a card is lost or stolen, it can often be reactivated with the remaining balance if the recipient can show proof of purchase. If you don’t have proof, you’re probably out of luck. Fees for reactivation vary. Some retailers offer it free, but it can cost $15 to replace some cards.

Do I have to have the actual plastic card? Increasingly, you can opt to send “virtual” gift cards. For example, many online retailers offer you the option to purchase either “E-gift” or “traditional” cards. E-gift cards are sent in an email, and can then be printed or scanned from your mobile device. Virtual gift cards save time, postage and shipping fees, as well as an electronic verification.

“E-cards make redemption easier in terms of logistics, time, and salience (once you enter the card number to your account, the money is there waiting to be used),” says Ayelet Gneezy, associate professor of marketing in the University of California, San Diego’s Rady School of Management. “In short, this is one domain where I expect digital to provide consumers great value.”

Does the card expire? Be careful of fees, which can take away card value. Thanks to the sweeping CARD Act of 2009, most gift cards must give you at least five years to use the card (unless this is clearly disclosed.) The CARD Act also ensures that you won’t be hit with “dormancy” fees if you use the card at least once in a 12-month period.

Finally, if you have unused gift cards lying around, take a few minutes to gather them in one place. While Uncle Frank might give you a strange look when he gets that “regifted” necktie, he’ll likely not complain about that $25 gift card from his favorite store that you got for Christmas last year.

Ready, set, shop! (And it’s just Halloween!)

Target Corp. made big news last week when it announced that it would be offering free shipping to anyone buying anything from the retailer online through Dec. 20. The retailer beat a lot of competitors to the punch by publicizing its “free shipping” offer, no matter how much you spend. It shows you just how eager retailers are to dangle the bait to shoppers. In reality, Target just grabbed the headlines; many online retailers are offering some type of free shipping deals to start the cash flowing into their coffers from a holiday shopping season that gets longer each year.

“Free shipping” makes online shopping more tantalizing than ever for shoppers who are tired of waiting in line for deals. Typically, shipping fees can cut the value of online shopping considerably, even though initial online prices might be lower. But free shipping can sweeten the deal enough for many shoppers, and since many online retailers are planning to offer shipping deals, 2014 could be the biggest online shopping season ever.

For weeks now, retailers have been working to get Christmas themes into their stores, in what many have called “holiday creep.” Christmas is more than seven weeks away, it’s strange to see Santa Claus jostling for attention with ghosts and Jack-o’-lanterns, while Thanksgiving recipe displays block the aisles at Wal-Mart. Since the holiday shopping season is where most retailers make or break their year, they want to make it last as long as possible, and we are apparently willing accomplices.

Holiday creep has been steadily pushing the holiday shopping season towards the Fall Equinox for years now; if this keeps up, you’ll soon be able to buy your Christmas tree with your 4thof July table bunting. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of personal preference; personally, I find it funny to have such a strange jumble of themes, although the silliness is getting a little out of hand.

But you procrastinators out there (you know who you are; you just haven’t gotten around to calling yourself one) should beware; after last year’s weather and shortened holiday calendar for the second year in a row, some retailers are also pulling back their “guaranteed Christmas delivery” dates. Last year, millions of Christmas trees bore witness to disappointed kids who didn’t get the presents their parents ordered too late.

This year, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation, nearly eight in 10 retailers say they are setting their guaranteed Christmas delivery to expire at least a week before Christmas.

“Possibly having learned from their procrastination last holiday season and with another shortened holiday calendar ahead of us, shoppers could start looking for those shipping offers sooner rather than later this year,” said analyst Pam Goodfellow, with the survey form Prosper.com. In other words, don’t wait.

For their part, shipping companies are trying to create realistic expectations while at the same time warning that late surges could overwhelm their capabilities. FedEx and UPS are reportedly adding more cargo flights and working with retailers to find out their projected sales so they can be ready, and UPS is said to be spending millions on upgraded facilities and personnel to prepare for the onslaught.

But it seems nobody wants to be the Grinch who actually urges people not to shop at the last minute; there’s just too much on the line.

If you just can’t bear to lift a finger to shop until Christmas week, there is hope; however, it’ll cost you. The NRF study found that one in five companies will be offering “expedited shipping” online until as late as Dec. 23; just check the fine print for the details and the inevitable sticker shock when you see how much you’ll pay for that convenience.

Regardless of whether you’re first to the holiday-shopping party or the guy who shows up late to eat in the kitchen, there will be a seat at the table for you; in the world of E-commerce, the more, the merrier.

When Black Friday Comes…

Years ago, the rock band Steely Dan created a catchy tune called “Black Friday”. Although it’s an upbeat tune, the message in the lyrics is one of looming disaster. Every time I hear the term Black Friday, my mind goes to that song. However, for most normal people, when they hear the term they think of the day after Thanksgiving.

Retailers hinge their hopes every year on Black Friday, which traditionally marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season. A little research on the term Black Friday indicates that it was originally a negative term, created because of the gridlock in cities caused by post-Thanksgiving Day shopping. Financial disasters such as the 1929 and 1987 stock market crashes were named “Black Monday” and “Black Tuesday”, respectively. However, as the business world realized the growing importance of the day toward helping them finish “in the black” for the year, they began to use the term more widely.

That brings us to Black Friday 2012. I don’t know about you, but it seems that the holiday shopping season gets earlier each year. This year, in some stores, I saw Christmas decorations in stores in early October, with some perhaps earlier. (Could we be heading for a time when retailers will take a clue from Gretchen Wilson, who “leaves her Christmas lights up on the front porch all year long”??) Anyway, I digress.

So what’s your opinion on Black Friday? Are you one of those night people who are so obsessed with getting that $200.00 TV that you’ll show up before the turkey is in the oven Thursday morning, only to wait until the store opens at midnight? Or do you calculate your plans with military precision, with pen, paper and smartphone in hand, waking up the chickens as you head out the door? Do you eschew the crowds, maddening traffic and lines, and do your shopping with a mouse and keyboard? Or do you think the whole thing is silly?

Please let me know by going to http://blackfriday1.questionpro.com . You were so great to provide a lot of great input into the earlier poll last week about restaurant drive-thru lanes, and so now I’d like your opinion about your plans for Black Friday Shopping.

I’d like to hear from you. Please keep in mind that there are two questions on the poll. The first asks you to pick an option, and the second asks for more information. If you want to be really nice, please email me with your contact info or additional comments at moakconsumer@gmail.com.

Thanks again for the feedback!

Originally published by the Clarion-Ledger on 11/9/2012.