The “Great Reddi-Wip Crisis” has sad origin

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via Tragedy curtails holiday tradition, clarionledger.com

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For many people, Christmas dinner is really just the prelude to mouth-watering, legendary desserts. Yes, we love a good turkey or ham, with stuffing or dressing, accompanied by casseroles and other sides. But really, if we’re honest about it, we really long for the desserts.

No Christmas dinner is complete without a scrumptious pie, created with love, an old family recipe, and no small amount of pecans, cherries, apples or one of a dozens of other orchard specialties. Growing up, our family’s Christmas meal often reached its denouement with a mouth-watering pecan pie, topped with a floret of whipped cream.

In the old days, that whipped cream was whipped with a mixer, but since the 1950s many cooks have quietly put a can or tub of whipped cream (such as Reddi-Wip, Cool-Whip and other brands) into their baskets, resulting in a new holiday tradition. But this Christmas, many consumers may find themselves having to get out the mixers again; there’s a shortage of canned whipped cream this year. It’s already been dubbed the “Great Reddi-Wip Crisis of 2016.”

And while it may not be the Griswoldian undoing of the perfect family Christmas tableau, it’s an interesting story and a reminder of how the interconnected nature of nearly everything we buy makes it vulnerable to unseen, unexpected — and sometimes tragic — forces.

It all started with an explosion back in the summer near Pensacola, Florida, where a tanker carrying nitrous oxide exploded while being refilled at a site operated by Airgas. Tragically, the explosion killed the man who was filling the tank and caused severe damage to the plant. (The cause of the incident is still under investigation.)

According to an article in The Atlantic, Airgas’ two other North American plants (one of which is in Yazoo City, the other in Canada) weren’t able to keep up with the demand for nitrous oxide, so the company halted production for most customers except for the medical industry. ConAgra, the maker of Reddi Wip, halted production of the product until at least January. Supplies have been limited, and many consumers have reported they can’t find it in the stores.

Nitrous oxide, you may remember, is the same gas that your dentist uses, the same stuff that race-car drivers use to supercharge their cars. And it’s why, when you push on the Reddi Wip nozzle, the result is the dairy-sweet goodness on your pecan pie.

We can trace the technology behind canned whipped cream to a man named Aaron S. “Bunny” Lapin, a St. Louis businessman who died in 1999. Lapin’s obituary in the New York Times notes it was his idea to put whipped cream into a can, and use a propellant such as nitrous oxide to push the product out of the can. Lapin made millions, became a celebrity (known as the “Whipped-Cream King”), and Reddi-Wip became a staple in Christmas desserts across America.

All these interconnections and backstories remind us that nearly everything we use in our daily lives is supported by a sometimes-fragile web of manufacturers and suppliers, relying on the assurance of a complicated supply-chain infrastructure, to get products to the stores and eventually to our table. We are really blessed to be able to rely on these things enough to take them for granted, and should be thankful that we live in a place where such luxuries as canned whipped cream are readily available most of the time.

So, this Christmas, although some of us may be put out by the unavailability of Reddi-Wip, it’s important to remember that the shortage is a minor inconvenience, and results from a tragic event, in which a family is experiencing its first Christmas without a loved one. And, perhaps, it’s time for us to count our own blessings, get out the mixer, and rediscover that sometimes, the best memories and gifts are those we make ourselves.

Flying for holidays? Take steps to minimize stress

via Flying for holidays? Take steps to minimize stress

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Recently, I had the opportunity to watch again one of my favorite movies,”Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” This holiday-travel classic features the misadventures of two hapless travelers (Steve Martin as the acerbic Neal Page and John Candy as the cheery Del Griffith), who are trying to get from New York to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. What appears to start well with an easy hop to Chicago turns out to be a travel nightmare, as one hilarious misadventure after another helps form a unique bond between these very different individuals.

Hopefully, if you’re one of the nearly 3.6 million Americans planning to fly during the holidays this year, you’ll have an easier time than Neil and Dell. One frequent traveler complaint is the long lines to get through security checkpoints. Although security lines at some airports should be a little shorter — thanks to more than 13,000 employees added by the Transportation Security Administration —  getting through security still might not be as easy or as fast as it could be. The TSA had planned to have a new program in place that would expedite screening for passengers who signed up for its “PreCheck” program, but (thanks to questionable vendor security and a lack of personnel) those plans have been put on hold.

The TSA announced recently that 4 million Americans had already signed up for the program, which was to have eventually enrolled 25 million. Working with outside vendors to perform background checks would have helped the agency meet its goals and allowed travelers to speed through security more efficiently. But, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the agency has “concerns about the vulnerability of passenger information that it provides when testing potential vendors” and “increased and evolving cybersecurity risks over the past year.”

In a nutshell, the agency is concerned that hackers could access the background check information by invading the computer networks of the firms doing the background checks necessary to complete enrollment in PreCheck. TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, quoted in the Times article, noted the additional employees — plus converting 2,000 part-time screeners to full-time employees and forming a 1,000-employee “deployment force” to be dispatched to trouble spots — could help make it easier to navigate congested security lines at airports around the country.

But security lines aren’t the only thing that can stress you during air travel. Escalating costs, crowded airports, delayed flights and a host of other problems can also ruin your holiday.  On its blog, the TSA makes several good suggestions to help ease the pain. Here are a few:

  • Give yourself enough time. The TSA recommends arriving at the airport a full two hours before your flight time. This will help you avoid missing your flight because (as Murphy’s Law holds), “everything takes longer than it takes.”
  • Check your pockets. Many of us have had the misfortune of arriving at the metal detector, only to find out we’d forgotten about the knives, multi-tools, etc. in our pockets. (I’ve lost a couple of nice multi-tools this way). Also, be sure to check the TSA’s site regarding the 3.1.1 rule for liquids and be sure your carry-on bags are free of firearms, Samsung Galaxy Note tablets and other troublesome items. Checked bags, too, can be problematic, as E-cigarettes and vape pens aren’t allowed on checked bags (but can be taken on your carry-on.)
  • Make sure your furry friends can fly. If you’re planning to fly with pets, be sure to check out the TSA’s rules as well as those of the airlines. Rules and regulations vary, and your pet might (or might not) be allowed to accompany you in the cabin, depending on the size of its carrier and other considerations. If you’re crossing state lines with your animal, a USDA health certificate must be issued by a veterinarian, so give yourself plenty of time to plan. Hawaii has special quarantine rules for pets. And, if flying overseas, you’ll need to check out the destination country’s rules. Check out www.bringfido.com for some great tips.

If all goes well, you won’t have to deal with burning rental cars, diverted flights and insufferable travel companions, and can get home in time to enjoy the holiday with your loved ones.

Black Friday can leave behind a lot of red ink

via Black Friday can leave behind a lot of red ink

Although it may not have felt much like November, the holiday shopping season is here. While really wise shoppers may have already finished checking off their Christmas lists (feel free to gloat; it’s really awesome), the rest of us are going to dive headlong into the fray soon enough. It doesn’t help that the whole thing has blurred into one long spending spree, in which what was once just “Black Friday” has overflowed into Thanksgiving Day itself, spurring legions of turkey-sated celebrants to pile into their SUVs to seek early deals at the mall.

But while retailers may beckon bargain-hunters with their hypnotic promises of 40 percent off and two-for-one deals, wise shoppers know you can easily get too greedy with the deals, only to have to pay the piper when January’s credit-card statement rolls around. So, to help stop the madness before it begins, the American Bankers Association Foundation this week cautioned Americans to formulate a plan before diving in.

“It’s incredibly easy to go overboard buying gifts for loved ones during the holidays, but spending within your means will help keep your holidays merry and your finances bright,” said Corey Carlisle, executive director of the foundation. “There are simple things you can do to avoid a holiday spending hangover, like setting a budget in advance and avoiding impulse buys.”

Doing so may even help relieve some of the stress many of us feel during the holidays. Here are some tips from the foundation (list may be found here):

  • First, plan ahead. Before you start shopping, develop a realistic budget for holiday expenses. Figure out your bottom-line number and set aside holiday cash in increments throughout the year. If you need to use your credit card, think about what you can afford to pay back in January.
  • Keep track of other costs. Don’t forget costs beyond gifts, like postage, gift wrap, decorations, greeting cards, food, travel and charitable contributions. Keep in mind the end of the year is a time when large annual or semi-annual costs like car insurance, life insurance and property taxes arise.
  • Make a list and check it twice. Keep your gift list limited to family and close friends, noting how much you want to spend on each. If you’re donating to charities, factor in the total amount you plan to donate and how much each charity will receive.
  • Shop early and space out purchases. Avoid shopping while rushed or under pressure, which can lead to overspending.  Make sure to comparison shop online first, or download an app that lets you compare prices before you buy anything in a store. Before you head to the cashier (or online checkout), make sure your purchase is within the budget you set.
  • Avoid impulsive spending decisions. Finding a spectacular sale on something you’ve been wanting can easily throw you off course. Stay strong and stick to your budget. Don’t be blinded by limited-time incentives geared toward getting you to spend more.
  • Use credit wisely. Limit the use of credit for holiday spending. If you must use credit, use only one card — preferably the one with the lowest interest rate — and leave the rest at home. Pick a date when you can pay off your holiday credit card bills and commit to paying off the balance by that time. Be sure to check statements for unauthorized charges and report them immediately.
  • Save your receipts. Not only will you need them for possible returns, you’ll need them to keep track of what you’ve spent and to compare with your credit card statement. Knowing how much you spent will help you plan for next year, too.  Keeping receipts for charitable donations will help you receive tax deductions in the spring.

To this list, I’d only add one suggestion: Don’t be a target for thieves. Police departments around the country will be on the lookout for crooks looking to make off with your freshly acquired purchases, but they’ll have a lot of activity to monitor. Thieves have been known to follow shoppers, waiting for them to set down their bags for easy snatching, or even following shoppers to the parking lot. There are lots of people in crowded stores, so opportunities for purse snatching and pickpocketing will abound. Be aware of your surroundings, and don’t shop alone if you can help it.

Seasonal Halloween stores disappear Nov. 1

via Seasonal Halloween stores disappear Nov. 1

Within the next few days, many folks will be getting serious about their Halloween costumes. It wasn’t too long ago that most of us made our own costumes (or had our mom make them), found someone who was really creative and good with makeup, or bought cheap costumes at discount stores.

But the costume industry has exploded in recent years, making it possible for you to dress up as just about anyone (or anything) your imagination can concoct. And with marketing tie-ins from major motion picture franchises, gaming companies and pop-culture icons, supply of high-quality costumes — and other Halloween-related merchandise — has risen to meet the demand. The National Retail Federation reports that we’ll spend $8.4 billion on costumes, candy and various types of holiday décor this year.

In response to this Halloween hullabaloo, the “pop-up” Halloween costume store has stormed on the scene in the past few years. In an amazingly short time, workers can transform a previously empty storefront or abandoned “big-box” store into a costume hunter’s paradise. Shoppers cannot only find row after row of costumes from every dark corner of the imagination, they can also procure party favors, mischief-making supplies, candy and decorations. If they have a good location and aggressive marketing, these stores can lure huge crowds.

But, just like a ghostly apparition that rises from a murky swamp by moonlight, they’ll disappear as soon as the demand vanishes (only to rise, Brigadoon-like, the same time next year). To that point, a recent news release from the office of New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino caught my eye recently. Porrino wanted to warn people that, although these stores are just cashing in on good old supply-and-demand capitalism, some operators could be troublesome if you find yourself to be a dissatisfied customer.

“We want consumers to be aware that these “pop-up” stores come and go in a flash, so shoppers need to be extra careful when making purchases,” said Porrino. “Know what questions to ask to avoid getting shortchanged.”

It’s important to note that Porrino’s own inspection of pop-up Halloween stores throughout New Jersey found no obvious violations of that state’s law regarding refund and return policies, and it’s likely that the same would apply here in the Magnolia State. Still, it’s a good idea to know your rights as a consumer, and to be careful when shelling out Halloween bucks.

Here are a few things you might want to consider when shopping at a “pop-up” Halloween store (from Porrino’s office):

  • Ask store personnel how long they plan to occupy the building. If they can’t give you a clear answer, use caution.
  • Ask how you would be able to contact the store once it leaves, perhaps by website or an alternate address. (Many pop-up stores have year-round headquarters to handle store business; if there’s not a clear answer to this question, consider going somewhere else).
  • Ask for specific details on returns. What types of merchandise will the store take back? Are unworn costumes returnable after Oct. 31? Will you get a full refund or store credit? How is store credit redeemable after the shop has closed for the season?
  • Fully inspect and try on costumes before leaving the store. Halloween stores are busy places and mix-ups occur. Don’t assume the merchandise inside the box matches what’s on the label.
  • Save all your receipts and pay by credit card so you can dispute unsatisfactory purchases through the card’s issuer.
  • Shop at stores that have a proven track record of returning to your town year after year.

And, finally, consider shopping at one of the many permanent party stores in the metro area, which employ local residents all year long, and will be there if you have an issue or concern.

For more on the booming Halloween industry, visit the NRF’s Halloween Headquarters site at http://bit.ly/2cBSpXm.

Retailers hear cha-ching on Mother’s Day

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via Bill Moak: Retailers hear cha-ching on Mother’s Day, clarionledger.com

I remember giving my mom a lot of Mother’s Day gifts through the years, from the old standby plaster handprints to ceramic bunnies, to flowers and candy — even an ashtray (!)  with my kindergarten picture in it (she’s not a smoker, and I still have no idea what was going on in my teacher’s mind). My mom accepted each gift with class, despite how silly or clumsily made. She fawned over every gift from my little hands as if it were manna from heaven. She still does, even though I can now do a lot better than plaster handprints.

It takes a special person to be a great mom, and I have been blessed with one. Many of you can say the same.

Mother’s Day, it turns out, has an interesting history. Far from its reputation as a holiday created by greeting card companies, National Geographic’s Brian Handwerk has found that it started as a way to memorialize war dead. Handwerk dug into the history of the holiday and found that Anna Jarvis, who is widely credited with creating Mother’s Day, wanted to create a national holiday to commemorate the crucial role our mothers play in our lives.

After her own mother (who had organized mothers’ groups to help restore peace after the Civil War) died in 1905, Anna promised she would honor her mother’s wishes for a national day devoted to celebrating motherhood. Promoted relentlessly, it began to grow and spread across the country, eventually resulting in President Woodrow Wilson establishing the first national Mother’s Day in 1914. But companies quickly saw dollar signs, and soon the holiday was commercialized beyond recognition as card companies, flower vendors and candy makers cashed in.

Anna, notes Handwerk, was horrified by the crass display of commercialism and spent her fortune and the rest of her life trying to restore it to its roots. “She organized boycotts, threatened lawsuits and even attacked first lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities,” Handwerk reports. Many sources report she filed lawsuits against businesses and charities that she accused of taking advantage of the holiday.

But the years of fighting took a physical and financial toll on Anna, and in 1948, she died, broke and sick, in a Pennsylvania sanitarium, never having experienced motherhood for herself.

Nearly seven decades later, Anna’s vision remains elusive. As Mother’s Day approaches, retailers are counting on us to spend. And spend we will, in a big way.

The Mother’s Day of today is one of the biggest events on the calendar of many industries. The National Retail Federation estimates Americans will spend $21.4 billion on our moms this year, spending an average of $172.22.

“It’s clear that Americans want to honor their mothers this Mother’s Day,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said this week in releasing the results of its annual survey on the topic. “Whether it’s a special meal at her favorite restaurant, jewelry or a new smartphone, families are planning to indulge mom again this year.”

Here’s the breakdown of just what we plan to buy:

  • $4.2 billion on jewelry (given by 35.3 percent of shoppers)
  • $4.1 billion on special outings such as dinner or brunch (given by 55.2 percent)
  • $2.4 billion on flowers (66.5 percent)
  • $2.2 billion on gift cards (43.2 percent)
  • $1.9 billion respectively on clothing (35.4 percent) and consumer electronics (13.8 percent)
  • $1.6 billion on personal services, like a day at the spa (22.5 percent)

Of course, greeting cards are the most commonly purchased gifts but only accounted for $792 million of that projected spending. Becoming more popular: gifts of “experience,” such as tickets to an event or concert.

The survey also found about a third of consumers will buy their gifts at department stores, about a quarter at specialty stores and about 23 percent at a local small business. Online shopping has skyrocketed in popularity this year, with 27 percent saying they’ll shop online. Mother’s Day has been a national observance for 102 years, and though its traditions are now intertwined with the very things Anna disdained so much, generations have taken the time to stop and honor the woman who has given them so much.

So, this Mother’s Day, perhaps it’s fitting that we tip our cap to Anna Jarvis, who dedicated her life to honor her own mom. And even though buying gifts for our mothers is an established tradition, we can still take the time to let Mom know how important she really is. That’s what Anna was fighting for all along.

Online dating? Love’s labour’s, cash may be lost

woman computer online dating

via Moak: Online dating? Love’s labour’s, cash may be lost, clarionledger.com, 2/15/2016

Love is in the air…and on the airwaves, online, in print and on billboards. Everywhere, we are being bombarded with images of candy, flowers, jewelry and gifts, all leading up to Valentine’s Day. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), the average American will spend $146.84 on and before this Sunday, and businesses of all types want in on the action.

That’s a lot of cards, candy, gifts and flowers to win, keep or just warm the heart of our significant other. It’s also a huge industry; the NRF recently estimated that Americans are going to spend nearly $20 billionon all those cards, roses and dinner reservations in the next few days.

“As the first major consumer holiday of 2016, Valentine’s Day could provide a positive boost in spending our economy needs,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Low gas prices and guaranteed promotions from retailers large and small should help consumers as they look for the perfect gift for their friends and family. Looking ahead, we’re optimistic consumers are in a good place when it comes to spending on discretionary items like gifts.”

In recent years, a new twist has been added to the annual Valentine’s Day onslaught: online dating. More Americans than ever before are going online to find their soulmates (or at least to find someone to stave off loneliness.) But online Romeos and Juliets are warned: There are sharks in those waters, and a too-good-to-be-true online dating profile might be just that.

“Scammers may create fake social media or dating website profiles and pretend to have a romantic interest in someone, when really their only interest is in deceiving people into sending money,” Attorney General Jim Hood warned in a news release. “These manipulators will lie about their backgrounds and their whereabouts and even propose marriage if they think they can bilk their victims out of a few more dollars.”

Hood’s office warned Wednesday that online daters should beware of “sweetheart scams”, which prey on lovestruck online daters in an attempt to steal their money and identities.

According to Hood’s office, The FBI estimated that victims of online dating scams lose an average of $100,000 to their fake suitors. In the last six months of 2014, Americans lost a total of $82 million to the scam. Of the victims, approximately 82 percent are female.

“According to the FBI, the most common targets of these scammers are women over 40 who are divorced, widowed or disabled, although the agency stresses that everyone is at risk,” the release noted. “Typically, scammers build a connection with their victim before eventually asking victims to send money. Some people may even be asked to cash fake checks or ship stolen merchandise unwittingly.”

Fortunately, there are some specific warning signs of con artists on online dating sites. Hood urged consumers to be cautious about online relationships with anyone who:

  • Immediately professes love. (“Although I’ve only known you for an hour, I can already tell we’re meant for each other.”)
  • Quickly wants to communicate through personal email or instant messaging services instead of through the dating site. (“Give me your email address; Romance.com doesn’t like us to say too much online.”)
  • Claims to be an American who is living or working overseas. (“It’s so hard to find a good hamburger over here.”)
  • Seeks money to supposedly cover expenses for various items like trips or medical emergencies, or because they claim themselves to have been victims of crime. (“Trying to type with both of my arms in a cast is quite a challenge; could you send me a few dollars so I can see the doctor?”)
  • Cancels plans to meet or visit their supposed love interest because of unforeseen events. (“Sorry; I have been activated by MI5 and will have to postpone a couple of days. But go ahead and wire the money and I’ll meet you in Lagos next week.”)

For more information about online dating scams, as well as other important consumer tips, visit the AGJimHood.com or call the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division at (800) 281-4418.

How to ensure many happy (gift) returns

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unmconnect.com

via Moak: How to ensure many happy (gift) returns, clarionledger.com, 12/23/2015

All across America, stores are getting their battle plans ready. You might think that they could relax a little, now that Black Friday is a distant memory and the crush of Christmas-gift procrastination has just a day or two left. But not so; every retailer knows the real battle is about to begin, as hordes queue up to return those awful ties, or trade in well-meant gifts for what they really wanted. Return season is upon us.

Holiday returns are huge business. The National Retail Federation estimates that this year shoppers will return $260.5 billion (with a “B”) worth of goods. If returns were an industry, the NRF points out, it would rank No. 3 on the Fortune 500 list, just ahead of Chevron and behind Exxon. That’s a lot of money changing hands.

And, of course, it naturally follows that wherever there’s money, there are people looking for ways to game the system, to take advantage of retailer generosity. Retail fraud is expected to surpass $9.1 billion (more money than the NFL brings in each year). The NRF’s annual Return Fraud Survey found that (on average) retailers believe 3.5 percent of their holiday returns this year will be fraudulent.

“Return fraud remains a critical issue for retailers with the impact spanning far and wide, in-store and online,” said Bob Moraca, NRF vice president of loss prevention. “While technology has played a significant role in deterring many in-person fraudulent transactions that would have otherwise gone unseen, there is little that can be done to prevent a determined criminal who will find a loophole one way or another. When it comes to retail fraud, retailers can build taller walls, but criminals continue to find taller ladders.”

Despite what most people commonly believe, merchants have no legal obligation to accept returned merchandise, unless it’s defective or was sold deceptively.Return policies originated as a way to build good will among customers. For a long time, many merchants have just accepted the reality that some percentage of sales will be returned, and some were very generous. But in recent years, as fraud increased, many retailers began to crack down on return policies. Now, most retailers have some limitations on what can and cannot be returned, and under what conditions.

Causing the biggest concern among merchants is stolen merchandise that is returned for refund or credit (reported by more than 90 percent of retailers). These tactics are often used by organized-crime rings, which target high-value items to steal, then send someone in to “return” the item, getting store credit or even cash. These tactics take advantage of generous return policies, but are likely to cause merchants to carefully weigh the risks against the possibility of losing customer good will.

Another questionable return practice is “wardrobing,” in which people return non-defective merchandise after minimal use. For example, if you want that cocktail dress for an upscale holiday party, but can’t afford it, you might buy it with no intention of keeping it. When you return it, though, the retailer has a problem; they can’t sell it as new, and they take a loss. Some retailers are getting more aggressive when it comes to preventive measures. For example, Bloomingdales has begun putting an obvious black tag on the front of high-end cocktail dresses, which must be in place if the item is returned. This tactic would likely deter style-conscious abusers.

The statistics in the study do indicate some reason for hope, however; it appears some areas of return fraud have declined considerably since last year. But the good news comes with an asterisk: the use of e-receipts to commit retail fraud is growing. Fully a third of merchants reported they had been presented with fraudulent e-receipts.

“Retailers have the difficult task of providing superior customer service by always giving the benefit of the doubt to their shoppers when it comes to returns, while simultaneously working to make sure they protect their business assets,” continued Moraca. “We expect retailers to continue their tried and true ways of combating fraud through increased usage of identification verification, as well as seeking new and innovative approaches on the back end.”

While I know none of you faithful readers would do such things, you are likely to be in one of those return lines. To help keep things as safe and sane as possible in the return line this year, here is our annual advice for returning items:

  • It’s still a good idea to keep receipts. Despite some advice I’ve read, the era of the paper receipt isn’t over. Although many merchants can verify your purchase by using the credit or debit card with which you paid, some merchants require the receipt. At the very least, it will provide some backup should there be an issue, or you can’t remember how you paid. Some stores provide a gift receipt, to be given with the item.
  • Read the fine print of the merchant’s return policy. Stores vary widely in what they will and won’t accept; it would be a bummer to stand in line for an hour, only to be turned away at the return desk.
  • Relax; you have time. Most merchants have a long window for returns. In most cases, you have 30 or more days to return the item, so you don’t need to get in that Dante’-esque return line. But again, read the policies; some items may have shorter windows of time in which you can make exchanges.
  • Expect “restocking” fees. Although many consumers consider it unfair for a store to charge a fee to return something, merchants have put these in place to deter unnecessary returns. But you might be able to get the fee waived, depending on the store and its policies.
  • Stand your ground, but be polite. Retailers know their most valuable asset isn’t the merchandise on their shelves; it’s you, the customer. This gives you a big advantage. In today’s social media-intense environment, most businesses are hyper-protective of their online reputations, and — to avoid an embarrassing Facebook fiasco — may consider making an exception to a return policy. But it’s a two-way street; coming across as demanding or causing a scene can limit your options (or worse, get you thrown out by security or even arrested). Be as polite and patient as possible. Calmly ask for an exception, with the understanding the clerk might not be empowered to make the decision on her own. And, if you are denied, accept the situation and move on, or address it through corporate channels.

MDOT urges winter preparedness

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tirezoo.com

via Moak: MDOT urges winter preparedness, clarionledger.com, 12/23/2015

I don’t know about you, but having warm, wet weather doesn’t feel much like Christmas to me. Even though I’ve lived in the Magnolia State nearly my entire life, I still inexplicably associate Christmas with cold weather. Perhaps it’s the result of growing up with movies, music and TV shows that make us think of sleigh rides, snowmen and some Norman Rockwell holiday fantasy. Regardless, though, we should be used to this by now; if there is one thing that’s predictable about Mississippi’s weather, it’s that it will be unpredictable. One year, the kids have to bundle up to enjoy their Christmas toys outside; the next, we might be running the air conditioning.

Many forecasts say early 2016 will be heavily influenced by a strong El Nino, meaning that — for the South, anyway — temperatures will be below normal and moisture above normal. Add those together, and it’s not inconceivable we could soon be in the middle of a protracted cold snap, with some frozen precipitation possible. And — as you know if you were around during one of our ice events — we don’t have the best (ahem) “track record” when the roads get icy.

With that in mind, the Mississippi Department of Transportation this week sent out a timely reminder that we need to be preparing now for winter weather as we make our travel plans.

“MDOT’s number one priority is the safety of the traveling public,” said MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath. “While weather isn’t something we can control, we can be prepared for winter weather beforehand. MDOT encourages everyone to take the necessary precautions to ensure they are as safe as possible this winter season.”

To help us prepare, the folks at MDOT have produced a special website athttp://mdot.ms.gov/winter/index.html. The site has a lot of great resources; I won’t steal their thunder by listing everything, but here are a few of their tips to help get started on your winter weather preparedness plans:

  • Have your vehicle battery and charging system checked for optimum performance.
  • Clean, flush and put new antifreeze in your vehicle’s cooling system.
  • Have your brakes checked.
  • Make sure your heater, defroster and windshield wipers work properly.

MDOT also suggests creating a winter weather car kit to keep in your vehicle in case of a winter weather emergency, containing these items:

  • Windshield scraper
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Jumper cables
  • Cell phone charger

MDOT does a lot to keep us safe by developing and maintaining our state’s traffic infrastructure, using technology to keep an eye on traffic and road conditions, sending out travel-related information and educating the public about travel-related issues. A host of services is available at www.MDOTtraffic.com, including free smartphone apps, traffic reports, and more.

Online gift exchanges are bogus, illegal

via Moak: Online gift exchanges are bogus, clarionledger.com, 12/9/2015

PDF: Gift scams

Every year around this time, various messages start appearing on social media and email with something that sounds like a really great idea: send a gift to a person on some list, and you’ll be showered with gifts in return! With the season of giving upon us, a lot of folks seem ready to gleefully join in. But be warned: Not only is this scheme unlikely to send the mailman to your door laden with gifts from perfect strangers, the whole thing is illegal.

The “Secret Sister Gift Exchange” (SSGE) is just one of many of this type of solicitations making the rounds on Facebook and other social media. According to Snopes.com, several similar schemes are making the rounds, including ones in which you can allegedly send books to kids.

“SSGE encourages you to mail a gift worth $10 to a stranger at the top of the list,”explains the Federal Trade Commission’s Carol Kando-Pineda. “Supposedly, in return, you’ll get a pile of presents from other participants. SSGE and come-ons like it encourage you to hop on board an enticing cash- or gift-giving experience. Sounds like a good time, right? Sorry, Blitzen, stop that sleigh!”

SSGE, Kando-Pineda explains, is just another version of a pyramid scheme, the well-worn ploy to get people to send money or items to a person at the top of a list, in exchange for the potential of receiving lots of money. But according to many sources, the U.S. Postal Service considers these schemes to be illegal gambling.

A related ploy is the chain letter, which often warns you to ignore it at your peril. Earlier this week, I even saw a Facebook chain post that asked you to “repost this on your wall if you love Jesus; keep scrolling if you don’t.” I sure do love Jesus, but I’m not falling for such silliness. (In fact, didn’t Jesus tell us to show us we love him by serving others in his name, not by guilting people into reposting some Facebook message? I mean, who are the people who cook this stuff up?)

Now, to be clear, there are legitimate (and fun) ways to help people during the holidays that don’t involve participation in some sketchy Internet pyramid scheme. Here are five:

  1. Buy a gift card for somebody and find sneaky ways to make sure they get it, but don’t know who gave it to them.
  2. Help out at a local charity that feeds, clothes or supports people in need. (If you really want to make an impression, you could commit to helping at other times, too.)
  3. Instead of giving gifts that will be forgotten in a few days, take the money you would have spent on that person and give it to your favorite organization in their name. (But be wise about it; check out the charity on give.org, Charity Navigator or similar sites.)
  4. Perform an act of service for a shut-in or neighbor in need. Bushes need trimming, leaves need raking; houses need straightening. Such service will not only benefit the person receiving it, you’ll reap the rewards, too.
  5. Spend quality time with your family. As someone once said, “There is no present like time.”

Keep your vacation plans within your budget and don’t overspend

Americans are taking to the nation’s highways and flyways in droves, thanks to relatively stable fuel prices and travel deals being offered by destinations. But upon their return, many Americans will be packing something extra with their souvenirs — travel debt.

In general, Americans have poor saving habits, and debt is used to fuel increasingly expensive lifestyles. In recent years, Americans have become better at saving money and reducing debt. But when it comes to vacations, many people are willing to rack up debt if it means choosing among taking the kids to Disney, taking time off closer to home or having no vacation at all. And it can be an expensive proposition; a 2013 survey found that the average vacation cost $1,145 per person.

Having available credit to pay for that can look pretty tempting, but the bill has to be paid sometime. In the late summer and early fall, the pattern always repeats itself as the bills come due for that holiday relaxation. Personal debt skyrockets, and many find themselves paying for that beach holiday for years to come, long after the memories have faded.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, notes the Financial Counseling Association of America, which represents the nation’s credit-counseling agencies.

“For those consumers that overspent on last year’s vacation, stop and ask yourselves, ‘Do I want to repeat the same pattern this year?’ ” said Kevin Weeks, FCAA president. “A little planning and compromise will allow you to have a great vacation and return home knowing you have avoided additional debt.”

Since summer’s now officially here, it may be too late for this year if you’ve already made your plans. But the FCAA notes that a sound financial plan for next year starts with a few simple questions:

How much have we saved? Determining your budget is the key to avoiding vacation debt. Calculate what you will have saved before your scheduled vacation and then plan your trip and activities based on that total amount.

Do our expectations match our budget? While a Hawaiian beach vacation may sound great, if your budget won’t allow it you may have to consider a beach closer to home. By compromising on location, you may be able to upgrade your lodging or add an excursion to the trip. The main thing is keep your expenses within the funds you have allocated for your vacation.

Can we stay home and still have fun? Should you find that your budget simply won’t allow traveling for vacation, you can still enjoy time off from your normal daily routine. Become a tourist in your own city or town and take advantage of the cultural and fun venues that are in your own backyard.

Doing your homework may reveal special deals and coupons. And if you’re willing to postpone your vacation to an “off-peak” time, you could save big.

  • Hotels and airlines know when the demand is highest and set their prices accordingly. Just waiting a few days past a peak point — such as a holiday — could save you thousands.
  • Once you have set your budget, stick to it.
  • Even the best budget is useless if you don’t use it. Some experts advise that each family member has an allocated amount they can spend. While giving a cash allowance to each family member is one solution, cash could be lost, stolen or make your family a target for thieves. A prepaid card, preloaded with a set amount, might be a good choice.
  • Start early. As soon as you have put away the luggage from this year’s trip, start planning the next one.
  • And finally, make a pact with yourself not to use your credit card while on the road unless there’s an emergency.
  • Avoiding the urge to pull out the plastic to pay for something you didn’t intend to buy can wreck your careful plans.
  • If you need help planning for your vacation, FCAA counselors are available nationwide with free budgeting advice.

Visit FCAA.org to find a member office.

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 6/25/15.