A blog about business and economics.

April 15 2015 2:45 PM

This Tumblr Mocks Brands for All Those Annoying Requests to “Share Your Story”

You never forget your first #FlonaseStory. You know, your favorite childhood memory involving nasal spray.

Wait—are you saying brands don’t play an integral role in your personal story? That you don’t think back fondly on all the bleachable moments you’ve had over the years, thanks to Clorox, or that you don't have a Purina Cat Chow story inside you just begging to be heard? How sad for brands, and for you.

As the Tell Us Your Story Tumblr demonstrates, brands these days want to be a part of your story. They want you to write in, tweet, and engage with them, and then they want to repurpose your content into marketing that will engender further good feelings toward their products. Copywriter Brian Eden started the Tumblr to collect examples of brands getting caught in the act, our favorites of which we’ve posted below.

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April 15 2015 1:04 PM

Forget Steak and Seafood: Here’s How Welfare Recipients Actually Spend Their Money

Red-state lawmakers have been on a rather unnecessary crusade lately to stop welfare and food stamp recipients from spending their government aid on luxuries like cruises and supermarket king crab legs. This has, thankfully, led to some discussion about how low-income families actually use their money—which is to say, not all that differently than the rest of us. (More of their budgets generally go to food, because people have to eat.)

This all reminded me of one of my favorite graphs on this subject. In 2013, Ann Foster and William Hawk of the Bureau of Labor Statistics used data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey to analyze the spending habits of families who receive public assistance, including food stamps, cash welfare, housing aid, or Medicaid. Unsurprisingly, their budgets tend to be quite modest. Their big budget items are housing, transportation, and food, spending on which came out to about $6,460 per year, or about $124 per week. That's for an average family of 3.7 people—meaning roughly $33 per mouth to feed. Based on some brief online searching, king crab legs cost about $34 a pound these days (though bulk discounts might be available).


Jordan Weissmann

Here are those expenses broken down into weekly totals, which might be a bit more comprehensible.


The point of these charts isn't that food stamp and welfare recipients never overspend, or make what might seem to be poor financial decisions. (Personally, I would love to see a distribution curve showing the range of spending patterns among families). Nor am I suggesting that these programs are 100 percent free of fraud; believe it or not, investigators found cases in California where welfare beneficiaries withdrew their benefits on cruise ships (the state later banned them from doing so). The point is, these are fringe cases, and they're used to demonize a group of people who are often working extremely hard just to get by.

April 15 2015 12:17 PM

Southwest Is Making Its Plane Seats a Fraction of an Inch Less Squished

While the state of the airline industry is broadly declining, Southwest had a bit of good news for customers on Tuesday: Seats are getting wider. Yes, the incredible shrinking airline seat will finally begin to unshrink a bit beginning in mid-2016 when Southwest rolls out new seats on the Boeing 737-800. At 17.8 inches wide, the new seats will be seven-tenths of an inch roomier than their economy-section predecessors and the “widest economy seats available in the single-aisle 737 market,” according to Southwest executive vice president Bob Jordan.

Competition among airlines and the never-ending quest for profits has caused the seats sold to passengers to shrink steadily in recent decades. A once standard 18 or 18½ inches has diminished to 17 or even 16½ inches on some of the narrowest carriers. Legroom has also dwindled, from something between 32 and 36 inches in the mid-1980s to a dismal 30-ish inches (or a tight 28 inches on Spirit Airlines) today. Those increasingly cramped quarters might help explain the popularity of space-protecting devices like the Knee Defender, and the bout of “recline rage” that seemed to sweep flights last summer.


Data from SeatGuru. Chart by Alison Griswold.

Southwest says the new seats are lighter than what it currently uses, which will help improve fuel efficiency. A representative for Southwest said in an email that the updated economy seats will recline and come with 32 inches of pitch—the space between seats when they’re in an upright position. Southwest doesn’t plan to increase the number of seats on its 737-800 aircrafts from its current 175.

Of course another way to make seats lighter is to eliminate the recline mechanism altogether. Ultra-low-cost carriers like Allegiant Air and Spirit already opt for nonreclining seats in part to keep costs down and in part to keep customers from angrily reclining on one another. Slate’s Dan Kois has previously made the case that reclining airline seats are nothing less than “pure evil,” so perhaps eliminating them is something Southwest should consider for a future update. If nothing else, it would at least be a better idea than surprise concerts in the skies.

April 14 2015 3:16 PM

Amazon to Publishers: Set Your Own E-Book Prices! Amazon to Customers: Not Our Fault!

The New York Times reported on Monday night that Amazon and HarperCollins had signed a new multiyear contract to sell e-books. The agreement, which came just a few weeks after news leaked to Business Insider that HarperCollins’ contract with Amazon was set to expire, presumably averted another lengthy, public battle like the one Amazon and Hachette waged for months in 2014.

With the latest deal wrapped, Amazon appears to have reached a truce, of sorts, with the publishing industry. Since last fall, the e-commerce giant has successfully renegotiated contracts with four of the five big publishers—Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. The terms of all the contracts, per the New York Times, let the publishers decide their own e-book prices, but also gave them financial incentives to keep those prices low. Arrangements that give the publisher complete control over e-book prices are known in the industry as “full agency” models.

That Amazon has agreed to let most of the big publishers set their own e-book prices might help explain a line that now appears on many pages in Amazon’s Kindle store: “This price was set by the publisher.” In the screenshots below, you can see the note appended to e-books from Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster right below the publisher’s name. Two of those e-books, you might also notice, are selling for more than Amazon’s preferred e-book price ceiling of $9.99.* Which is probably why Amazon is issuing this tacit appeal, and apology, to customers—we aren’t the one making you pay so much for this e-book, the publisher is. 


Screenshot from Amazon


Screenshot from Amazon


Screenshot from Amazon

The “this price was set by the publisher” line isn’t entirely new for Amazon, but it’s appeared on more e-book pages since publishers renegotiated their contracts. With Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, for example, archived Web pages show the e-book selling for $4.66 on Amazon in January 2014 with no such note. In October 2014, when the Hachette dispute was dragging on, that e-book’s price jumps to $9.99 but the line still hasn’t appeared. Now, it's still at that price, but with Amazon's disclosure.

As we’ve explained on Slate before, Amazon takes issue with high e-book prices because it feels strongly that e-books are highly price elastic. That’s econ-speak for saying that e-books are the kind of thing customers will buy many more of as their prices decline. Amazon argues that cheaper e-books are actually better for everyone; it claims a 33 percent decrease in e-book prices translates to 1.74 times as many sales, prompting a 16 percent increase in overall revenue. Publishers, not surprisingly, tend to disagree. But for now, they’ve found some middle ground.

*Correction, April 14, 2015: This post originally misstated that all three of the e-books pictured were priced above $9.99. Just two were.

April 14 2015 11:51 AM

This Study on Happiness Convinced a CEO to Pay All of His Employees at Least $70,000 a Year

You can thank one Mr. Dan Price for the Internet's feel-good business story of the day. The founder and chief executive of Seattle-based credit card processing company Gravity Payments has decided give out a massive raise that will bring the minimum salary for his 120 employees to $70,000 per year. "If it’s a publicity stunt, it’s a costly one," writes the New York Times, noting that the average annual pay at Gravity is currently just $48,000. Thirty workers will see their earnings outright double. To finance this gesture of goodwill, Price says he will slash his own paycheck from $1 million to $70,000, and spend down much of his company's profits. Assuming the Times hasn't missed some dark ulterior motive, the man is a mensch.

And, apparently, the sort of guy who reads academic literature in his downtime. According to the Times, Price hatched his idea after reading an article by psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton exploring the eternal question of whether money can indeed buy happiness. Their answer amounted to: yes and no. Based on data from a massive survey by Gallup, the pair concluded that people with higher incomes did indeed enjoy a sunnier mood. Asked to recall their emotions the previous day, they were less likely to report that they had been stressed or worried, and more likely to remember feeling happy and smiling. But there was a point of diminishing returns. Once people earned $75,000 per year, extra pay didn't statistically improve their state of mind at all. Hence Price's decision. For people who make low five-figures, a bigger paycheck makes a meaningful difference in the emotional quality of their daily lives.

All this might also sound like validation for those of us who like to think the wealthy are all secretly miserable, or at least no happier than the rest of us. But that isn't quite right. While Kahneman and Deaton found that $75,000 may have been the magic cutoff for cash's ability to brighten our daily lives, the results changed when survey takers were asked to rate their degree of life satisfaction in the abstract. Given a chance to sit back and ponder, people with more money tended to evaluate their lives more positively. And there didn't seem to be any point where an extra dollar stopped making a difference.

You can see the distinction between money's power to influence our daily emotional experience and its influence on how we view our station in life more broadly in the graph below. The measures of mood all peak and flatten out once people reach about $75,000. Life satisfaction, on the other hand, simply climbs with income, albeit a bit more slowly once people start earning around six figures. “Beyond $75,000 in the contemporary United States," the authors write, "higher income is neither the road to experienced happiness nor the road to the relief of unhappiness or stress, although higher income continues to improve individuals’ life evaluations." So money can't make us infinitely more joyful. But it might be able to make us infinitely more content.

This finding has been echoed in work by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, who looked at differences in life satisfaction both internationally and within individual countries, and found that there was no cutoff where additional income seemed to stop making people more pleased with themselves. "We find no evidence of a satiation point," they write. Still, I doubt knowing that would make the employees of Gravity Payments any less thrilled.  

April 13 2015 6:08 PM

How Many Pro Football Players Actually Go Broke? Fewer Than You Might Think.

Pro athletes are notoriously bad with money, and it's hard to blame them. Most have spent their entire teenage and adult lives focused monomaniacally on playing a sport, and many enter retirement with only the barest amount of financial education or guidance, often after years of attempting to support a circle of less fortunate friends and family on their pay. This is an easy recipe for financial trouble.

But exactly how many end up outright bankrupt? Look up that question, and you'll likely be led to a Sports Illustrated article from 2009 that offered something close to an estimate. "By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce," Pablo Torre wrote for the magazine, citing "a host of sources," including "athletes, players' associations, agents and financial advisers." Today, however, a new working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research is challenging that number, at least somewhat.* Using data on all 2,016 players drafted between 1996 and 2003, it finds that after two years off the field, just 1.9 percent of former NFL pros have filed for bankruptcy. A dozen years into retirement, 15.7 percent have filed for bankruptcy.

So, is the Sports Illustrated number simply wrong? I wouldn't go that far. While the article is a tiny bit murky on the provenance of its big stat, a source who was familiar with its origins told me that it had in fact been circulated internally by the NFL and its players union. The likely reason it's so high is that it measures much more than bankruptcies. Any former athlete who wound up unemployed or experienced a divorce would be lumped into the 78 percent total, regardless of how well his finances survived the experience. The authors behind the new NBER paper, on the other hand, are looking exclusively at bankruptcies. Since their analysis only includes former draft picks, they may also be tracking a somewhat elite subset of ex-pros. About 30 percent of players in the league were never selected in the draft, and—while I haven't seen any specific stats on this—I wouldn't be shocked if they generally had shorter, less profitable careers.

People also shouldn't lose sight of the big picture on this issue. Ultimately, the new paper does find some evidence suggesting that NFL stars might really file bankruptcy more often than other similarly aged adults. (The authors say they're planning to explore that issue further in the future.) Beyond that, we also should be careful about concluding that NFL players are faring all right financially just because they aren't filing Chapter 7 cases left and right. High-profile bankruptcies like Warren Sapp's and Vince Young's might be memorable cautionary tales. But it's entirely possible to end up penniless but not bankrupt, assuming you don't have much in the way of debt. And, of course, one can fetter away plenty of money without ending up in serious financial peril. A University of Michigan study found that about half of retired players said at one point they'd experienced a major loss in a business or financial investment. For a real-life example, just consider Dan Marino, who according to some reports lost millions on the company that gave us the Tupac hologram, of all things.

*Correction, April 14, 2015: This post originally misidentified the National Bureau of Economic Research as the National Bureau of Economics Research.

April 13 2015 1:30 PM

It’s Not Just Your Imagination: Airlines Are Getting Worse

The year that brought us multiple in-air scuffles over legroom was pretty bad for U.S. airlines as a whole. Airline quality declined broadly in 2014 as on-time performance slipped and the frequency of baggage mishandling and people being involuntarily kicked off their flights increased, according to an annual report released on Monday. Perhaps not surprisingly, the rate of consumer complaints also ticked up to 1.38 per 100,000 passengers, from 1.13 per 100,000 passengers in 2013. The Airline Quality Rating is a statistical analysis compiled every year using data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Virgin America notched the best overall score among the 12 biggest U.S. airlines for the third year running, while Envoy Airlines posted the worst. Delta budged up a spot from the previous year to rank third in overall quality and JetBlue fell two spots to place fourth. In terms of the particulars, Hawaiian was by far the timeliest airline while the most complaints were lodged against Frontier. Across all U.S. airlines, declining quality “does not send a positive message to consumers that see an industry enjoying positive economic times,” the authors wrote.

The latest airline quality report adds some hard data to otherwise anecdotal evidence that U.S. airlines are getting worse and passengers’ tempers are running shorter. In the middle of last year, a bout of “recline rage” hit travelers as multiple flights were forced to divert because fights over legroom broke out on board. (The instigator in those squabbles was the Knee Defender, a pocket-size travel device that locks on the fold-out tray on the back of airline seats to prevent the person in front of you from reclining. Use of it is banned by most major U.S. airlines.) Once-standard amenities on flights—like seat selection and complimentary checked bags—are being replaced with “optional” service fees, and seats are shrinking as air carriers move to cram more passengers onto each plane.

Customers hate changes like these, and yet they also refuse to pay for something better. In recent years, ultra-low-cost airlines Spirit and Allegiant have consistently outperformed their peers in terms of operating profit. (Spirit wasn’t included in the 2014 quality report because it didn’t meet the threshold passenger revenue, but the authors say they expect it to appear in the following year’s report.) JetBlue, the longtime proponent of roomier seats and “first bag free,” is shrinking its seats this year and introducing a first-bag fee. Between all that and the latest air quality report, airlines probably aren’t winning over any new fans. But until customers start protesting with their wallets, the industry might not do anything about it.

April 13 2015 1:12 PM

Someone Calculated How Many Adjunct Professors Are on Public Assistance, and the Number Is Startling

Once in a while, someone publishes an article about adjunct professors who resort to food stamps in order to survive on the rock-bottom pay that so many college instructors are expected to live on. But until today, I had never seen a statistic summing up how many academics are actually resorting to government aid. The number, it turns out, is rather large. According to an analysis of census data by the University of California–Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education, 25 percent of "part-time college faculty" and their families now receive some sort public assistance, such as Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, food stamps, cash welfare, or the Earned Income Tax Credit. For what it's worth, that's not quite so bad as the situation faced by fast-food employees and home health care aids, roughly half of whom get government help. But, in case there were any doubt, an awful lot of Ph.D.s and master's degree holders are basically working poor.

Low-Wage Occupations and Public Assistance Rates


UC–Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education

I don't think it would be quite accurate to say that 25 percent of all adjuncts are getting aid, since some do in fact have full-time jobs that would show up in the census as their occupation. Still, we're talking about a large group of highly educated individuals. According to NBC News, which reported on some of the labor center's data prior to publication, "families of close to 100,000 part-time faculty members are enrolled in public assistance programs."

Despite their symbolic value, food stamps aren't the most popular program among adjuncts. According to the NBC report (I haven't been able to find these specific numbers published elsewhere), 7 percent of part-time faculty are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, 7 percent are signed up for Medicaid (though the number may be higher thanks to Obamacare's expansion of the insurance program), and "one in five" receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, which boosts pay for low-wage workers.

Over the past several decades, colleges and universities have come to rely on adjuncts in order to keep down education costs and tuition. According to the American Association of University Professors, "more than half of all faculty hold part-time appointments." But despite the awful compensation these teachers receive, the unfortunate reality is that instruction costs per student have still risen faster than inflation at schools in recent years. (Though they did fall a bit during the recession.) If we ever want universities to pay part-time educators a decent wage, one of three things needs to happen: Either institutions will have to find savings elsewhere in their budgets, states are going to have to refund their higher education systems, or students are going to have to pay more. The first two seem unlikely, unfortunate as that may be. And the third is a choice nobody really wants to make.

April 10 2015 5:11 PM

How Silicon Valley Got Behind This Marijuana-Delivery App

This post originally appeared in Inc.

The Uber of medical cannabis delivery has arrived, and the venerable accelerator Y Combinator has given its rubber stamp of approval. Meadow, a San Francisco–based startup, allows card-holding medical marijuana patients to browse different types of cannabis from nearby dispensaries and place an order, and within an hour the goods will be delivered to the patient's door.

If you don't have a medical marijuana card, you can schedule an in-home consultation with one of the doctors Meadow has partnered with and get a recommendation to use medical cannabis.

Meadow was founded by a team of tech startup entrepreneurs—David Hua, Rick Harrison, Harrison Lee, and Scott Garman—who wrote the first lines of code in June 2014 and launched mid-October of that year. Meadow's main functionality—the purchasing of medical cannabis by licensed patients and the delivery of cannabis by licensed dispensaries—is protected by California's Proposition 215 and the statute known as SB420. The app works only in the Bay Area of California, the first state to pass medical cannabis laws, in 1996, although the drug is still illegal under federal law. When Meadow sent its app for review to Apple's App Store and Google Play, the tech giants denied it. So Hua, Harrison, Lee, and Garman decided to focus on their online app—

While Meadow has a lot of competition from other delivery apps like NuggEazeCanary, and Nestdrop (which is in a legal battle with the L.A. city attorney), Meadow is the only one with the backing of Y Combinator. 

Meadow is technically a software company—it does not grow or sell cannabis. Instead, it simply connects legal patients to 10 legal Bay Area dispensaries. The app's HIPAA-compliant software verifies a patient's state-authorized medical marijuana identification card, which must have been recommended by a California state-licensed physician.* Meadow also sells software to dispensaries to help them manage patients and ensure their business is adhering to the laws. Meadow's revenue comes from a percentage of each delivery and monthly software subscriptions from dispensaries.

While the app works only in San Francisco, Hua says the company's main goal for the year ahead is to expand across the state of California. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, California has 682,814 medical marijuana patients. The state is also thought to grow and consume the most marijuana nationwide, so Meadow has a big market to tap. Like Uber, Meadow provides a service for the customers and for the businesses.

California's medical cannabis industry, although it's the oldest in the nation, does not enjoy the same protections and regulations as dispensaries in Colorado do. 

"You'd be surprised, but most of the California dispensaries are small businesses with huge disadvantages—they are constantly under threat of a raid by the authorities, they can't take tax write-offs, and they don't have many tools they can trust," he says. "You have this amazing industry that is ready to grow, but it is lacking the technology and tools to scale. That's where Meadow comes in."

Hua has been in the tech startup industry since 2006. A cannabis user since high school, he's a firm believer in the plant's medicinal benefits. Like the majority of people in the U.S., Hua has come to realize that the war against pot is expensive, unsuccessful, and detrimental to society, and has racist implications. Enforcing marijuana prohibition costs the country $3.6 billion a year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union but has yet to decrease the plant's availability. While rates of cannabis use are essentially equal across races, blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession. 

While working at gifting network startup Sincerely, Hua got the itch to learn about how he could start a business in the industry. So Hua went to weed college in February 2014. This isn't a Dave Chappelle joke. Hua attended the Oakland, California-based cannabis college Oaksterdam University, which was founded by cannabis activist Richard Lee in 2007 and offers classes on horticulture, culinary arts, dispensary operations, the history of cannabis and its prohibition, and science and law relating to the plant. 

Hua had initially planned to launch an edibles company with his wife, who is a food writer, but after he met Debby Goldsberry, who founded cannabis collective Berkeley Patients Group and is an instructor at Oaksterdam, she told him about the various pain points of running a dispensary and he got a better idea.

"Everything that she was saying struck a nerve with me—the processes, technology, and logistics for cannabis businesses are archaic and outdated," Hua says. "She told me about how the current software companies make dispensaries pay an exorbitant amount of money, take advantage of businesses, and are not ideal solutions."

That planted the seed in Hua's head to focus on things he knows well—software and technology. Hua and three colleagues at Sincerely talked about starting a cannabis-related software company and they all decided to take the plunge. Hua, Harrison, Lee, and Garman quit and started to build Meadow.

"Ultimately, we decided to do what we're good at," he says. "We're not cultivators, we're not dispensary owners. We're good at user interfaces, tech, and we believe we can do the most good in that space because we can get into Y Combinator and pitch venture capitalists who may not have been thinking about cannabis."

The team applied to Y Combinator in November 2014, got into the January 2015 class with 114 other startups, and graduated in April. Meadow is officially the first cannabis-related company to graduate from Y Combinator. With $120,000 from YC, for a 7 percent stake, Meadow has launched the app and is already facilitating deliveries to medical patients from 10 Bay Area dispensaries and connecting doctors with new patients. Meadow has partnered with a dispatch and delivery startup Onfleet to help dispensaries complete the "last mile" of the delivery logistics.

Meadow will not share revenue numbers, number of patients, or how many doctors are in the app's network. 

Hua says the company's next step is to help spread the word and educate people about cannabis.

"Marijuana isn't a gateway drug. The drug dealers who are peddling other addictive substances are the gateway to harder drugs," Hua says. "That's why legalization and the legitimization of the industry is so important. When you regulate cannabis, test it, and it's sold from a store, it makes cannabis safer."

The company is staying lean for the time being—the founders work out of their apartments and coffee shops—but it is currently looking for more venture capital. But Meadow isn't going to take just any straight-laced venture capitalist's money. Instead, it is looking for investors like the brother-sister cannabis investment firm Poseidon Asset Management, which made a recent investment in Meadow. Emily and Morgan Paxhia, who started Poseidon after seeing how cannabis helped their cancer-stricken mother, say Meadow is a great tool for dispensaries and a safe and convenient way for patients to receive safe access to medicine. Now, Meadow will be looking for more investors like the Paxhias—venture capitalists who have a passion for cannabis and its medicinal qualities.

"We're looking for progressive investors who don't see us as an opportunity to get into a burgeoning market but understand that cannabis has medicinal benefits and can help spread the word," he says.

*Correction, April 13, 2015: This post originally misidentified the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, as HIPPA.  

April 10 2015 4:03 PM

PayPal and eBay Are Splitting, but They Can’t Quite Quit Each Other

Back in September, eBay finally caved to pressure from activist investor Carl Icahn and said it would spin off PayPal, its payments unit, to create two separate publicly traded companies. The split is planned for later this year, though eBay still hasn’t said exactly when. But in an amended filing on Thursday, eBay did give more details on its spinoff plans—and it seems like the breakup won’t change all that much.

As part of a deal reached between the soon-to-be-separated companies, eBay will continue routing roughly 80 percent of its gross merchandise sales through PayPal for the next five years. For each percentage point of sales above that amount, PayPal will pay eBay the annualized equivalent of $13 million. If eBay falls short of that target, it will compensate PayPal at the same rate for the first 5 percentage points of decline, and at an annualized rate of $50 million for each percentage point beyond that.

What’s more, a noncompete in the agreement prohibits eBay from pursuing its own payments technology, and PayPal from setting up its own e-commerce marketplace. John Donahoe, the current CEO of eBay who will step down to become chairman of PayPal, told the Wall Street Journal that the arrangement will allow both eBay and PayPal to pursue deals with new firms without getting the other’s approval. “PayPal is free to pursue any merchant, to pursue an Amazon, an Alibaba,” he told the Journal. “And eBay is free to bring other payment alternatives onto eBay.”

EBay’s decision to spin off PayPal came somewhat abruptly for a company that had long insisted its two branches were better off together. In late 2013, Donahoe said on an earnings call that eBay and PayPal’s union made “sense for many reasons”—“eBay accelerates PayPal’s success,” “eBay data makes PayPal smarter,” and “eBay funds PayPal’s growth.” But investors like Icahn felt quite the opposite—that eBay had become too slow to adapt and was strangling PayPal’s potential.

With the spinoff announcement, Icahn and his supporters got their way. Based on the operating agreement, though, it might be a while before online shoppers notice much of a difference.