A blog about business and economics.

Nov. 26 2014 2:59 PM

Be a Decent Human Being and Don’t Go Shopping on Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will slide back from their dinner tables, get in their cars, and head for a postprandial shopping trip to snap up deals at a holiday sale.

Please, please do not be one of those people—both for your own sake, and out of respect for the retail staff who get dragooned into coming to work on a day they should have off with family. 

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I know. Complaining about our mania for holiday bargain-hunting, and that Black Friday now begins on Brown Thursday, is already a bit of a cliché. Progressive-minded writers seem to spend every November lamenting the misfortune of employees forced to show up to their job on Thanksgiving. The econ bloggers at ThinkProgress have practically devoted an entire month of coverage to the subject. Meanwhile, stores like Costco, Crate and Barrel, and Marshalls now brag about the fact that they don’t open on our national day of gluttony as a way of painting themselves as family-friendly.

But it bears repeating. Thanksgiving shopping, as it currently stands, is an awful tradition that should be boycotted.

To start, Black Friday (and its Thursday lead-in) is a bit of a sham. Yes, some of those cut-rate flat-screen TVs are a real steal. But, as the Wall Street Journal explained last year, many of the supposedly great deals are a “carefully engineered illusion.” Retailers regularly mark down merchandise from heavily inflated prices to trick shoppers into believing they’re getting a bargain. Meanwhile, prices often drop further as the holiday season progresses and stores try to clear out inventory, and better deals can sometimes be found at other times of the year. Plus, in binge-shopping over Thanksgiving weekend, behavioral psychology suggests you’re pretty much dooming yourself to overspend, including on full-price items that just happen to be sitting next to those marked-down toaster ovens.

In short, those who shop on Thanksgiving are practically begging to be fleeced.

Now about all those poor Walmart, Best Buy, and JCPenney* employees who are stuck working instead of watching football. The big-picture problem here is that the United States is, of course, the only rich nation where workers aren’t guaranteed paid vacations or holidays, which is why companies like Walmart, which has stayed open on every Thanksgiving since 1988, can ask their staff to come in whether they want to or not. If we had a humane national vacation policy, none of this would be an issue.

But we don’t. And so retailers are mostly free to keep whatever hours they choose, and demand their workforce deal with it. Some companies, like Walmart and Kmart, do say they offer their staff bonus pay for working Thanksgiving (though exactly how much, in Walmart’s case, is a bit of a question). But in some cases, workers don’t have any choice but to clock in. Kmart employees, for instance, say they’ve been told they could lose their jobs or be otherwise punished if they don’t come in. Target workers are also reportedly not allowed to ask for time off work. Lots of retail workers are probably thankful for the extra holiday paycheck. But many would probably prefer not to be forced to babysit while a bunch of rampaging bargain-hunters tears through the television aisle.

What’s especially galling about this is that early Thanksgiving day sales don’t necessarily benefit the retail industry as a whole. Instead, they’re the product of a massive collective action problem. Opening up on Thursday doesn’t increase sales overall. But companies are worried that if they don’t, their customers will simply do their shopping elsewhere. “Retailers are trying to get a jump on the competition,” Bill Martin of mall-traffic tracker ShopperTrak told MarketWatch last year. “Thursday is simply selling the stuff at the expense of Black Friday.” Many of the stores that do choose to stay closed on Thanksgiving, like Neiman Marcus, Sam’s Club, Costco, and Crate and Barrel cater to somewhat wealthier clientele and don’t rely on massive markdowns to court customers. They have the luxury of sitting out of the competition. But we can’t rationally expect big-box stores like Best Buy, Walmart, and Kmart that cater to the cash-strapped middle class to do the same.

We could try to solve this problem with regulation. Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island ban stores from opening on Thanksgiving. A state lawmaker in Ohio has introduced a bill that would force stores to pay employees triple wages for working on the holiday and allow them to take the day off without facing retaliation.

But until workers can freely choose whether to show up for the job on Thanksgiving, consumers who take advantage of these overhyped sales are simply voting for the gross status quo. Right now, Brown Thursday is a terrible bargain for society. Don’t fall for it.

*Correction, Nov. 26, 2014: This post originally misspelled the name of retailer JcPenney.

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Nov. 26 2014 1:42 PM

How to Buy a New iPhone for Someone on an Old Phone Plan

The iPhone 6 has already carried Apple to a record-breaking quarter and on Tuesday led the company to an unprecedented $700 billion valuation. According to a report this week, that's likely only the beginning. By one analyst's estimate, Apple will sell another 71.5 million iPhones during the current quarter and holiday season. More than half of those devices will be the big-screened iPhone 6.

It's quite possible that you too want to get in on the iPhone 6 gift action—maybe for a friend, a family member, or for yourself. Which leads to the inevitable question: How do you buy a new smartphone for someone who's still locked into an old contract?

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Ideally, the gift recipient either has an available upgrade or is on a plan with someone else who has an upgrade. If not, though, the options are going to depend on the carrier. With Verizon, giving a new device to a customer who does not have an eligible upgrade requires paying full price for it. Once that's done, the gift recipient doesn't have to pay any fees, and can simply switch the device on their Verizon account. (It has to be unlocked and compatible with the Verizon network to work.)

With AT&T, customers in existing two-year contracts who are gifted new devices need to pay a $40 upgrade fee and then can continue under that same contract. They can also choose to switch to AT&T Next, which allows for upgrades every 12, 18, or 24 months, or go on a plan without an annual contract.

T-Mobile, which calls itself the "uncarrier," is unique for pushing plans with no annual service contracts. Because of that, T-Mobile users generally have to buy their devices outright. Depending on how much data you tend to use, this can actually end up saving money in the long-run. And if your friend/family member/other gift recipient is open to switching carriers, then T-Mobile is the way to go.

As part of its "contract freedom" model, T-Mobile pays off early termination fees (the charge to leave a contract prematurely) of up to $350 for people who switch from AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon and trade in their old devices. T-Mobile also says it guarantees the "best trade-in value" for devices. Verizon, by contrast, gives customers who switch from other carriers an account credit of $150, but charges a $35 fee to activate the new account and does not cover early termination fees. Like Verizon, AT&T gives customers who switch over a $150 credit but does not cover early termination fees either.

A few months ago, the folks over at Wired also compiled a helpful guide to breaking your phone contract without paying through the nose. Their recommendations include selling your plan, tracking changes in terms, finding a carrier like T-Mobile that will pay the early termination fee, and complaining your way out. Then again, these tricks are probably more helpful for personal use than for giving someone a holiday gift.

So when it comes to gifting a new phone, there really isn't an ideal solution to getting around those two-year contracts. Maybe you should give a rain check, and buy the device when the person's upgrade finally rolls around.

Nov. 26 2014 11:53 AM

If You See These Clothes for Sale on Black Friday, It’s Because They’re About to Be Uncool

Oh, printed pants: We hardly knew ye. Come Black Friday, retailers will slash prices on everything from iPads to high-end loose leaf tea. These price cuts are far from random—they’re strategic, designed to boost profits and prevent buildup of inventory that might later require even deeper price cuts. To help fashion retailers make the most of their sales, EDITD, a retail technology company with more than 10,000 subscribers, recently released a report containing, among other things, suggestions for clothes to discount because they’re about to be unfashionable. The company used its analytics software and crunched numbers from its “apparel data warehouse” of pricing, assortment, and product metrics to determine what’s on its way out in the fashion world. Read ahead at your wardrobe’s peril.

Fashion crime No. 1, it turns out, are printed pants. Discounts on legwear with flair have been climbing since August. At the end of October, the average discount for printed pants was 25.5 percent. Unfortunately, neither throwback bohemianism nor lovers of geometric pant patterns could keep this movement alive. If you see some of these guys hanging out on the rack come Friday, think long and hard about whether you want to make that kind of commitment, even at a discount.

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According to EDITD, statement outerwear (read: intentionally weird coats) are second to go. They’ve also seen a discount spike since August, averaging price slashes of 22.4 percent. The Panda Oversized Moto Jacket by Tibi at Bloomingdale’s, which indeed is oversized but is baby blue and thus looks nothing like an actual panda, is one of the report’s recent examples, although it's mercifully now unavailable.

Fur items are also a no-no—and not just coats, but accessories, too. Sleepwear is next (hopefully because it sells well and makes for attention-grabbing Christmas gifts, not because more people are sleeping in the buff). Next, stores are advised to unload their onesies—to the delight of homebody college students everywhere.

Rounding out the list are Christmas sweaters. We all know Christmas sweaters are timeless—in fact, arrivals this October are up 126 percent from last October—but they also don’t do much good after December. This being the beginning of the Christmas shopping season only makes it more logical for stores to start dumping green, red, and gold coziness on everyone that moves. (From EDITD's discounted examples, I’d recommend for particular ridicule the puff ball–adorned Christmas Pudding Sweater by New Look at ASOS.)

Then again, ugly Christmas sweaters seem to come back every year. Will the printed pants, furs, and weird coats join them as seasonal standbys, or quietly fade to mega-clearance obscurity?

Nov. 25 2014 3:42 PM

Where Have All the Canadian Cowboys Gone?

Bloomberg has an interesting take today on Canada's oil boom. In addition to fueling cheap gas prices, the boost in crude output is also creating a shortage of cowboys.

Here's the logic behind that. As oil production and energy investments have taken off, jobs in that industry have started to pay two-thirds more than those in livestock. According to Bloomberg, specialized livestock workers in Alberta were making about $39,700 last year, while petroleum workers were earning $65,000. Nearly three-quarters of farm employers said they had trouble hiring:

"It’s impossible to find workers," said Tim Stewart, 57, who has four unfilled jobs and is considering selling the 4,000-head ranch in Rockglen, Saskatchewan, that his family has owned since 1910. "If someone came along with a big fat checkbook, we’d probably walk away."
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The Canadian cattle herd is at its smallest since 1993 with 13.3 million livestock as of this July. One analyst told Bloomberg that meat packers are expected to slaughter just 2.4 million cattle in 2015—the smallest number since 1963. Meat packing plants are operating at their lowest capacity since 2008.

In the U.S., the cattle situation isn't any better. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has described the current cattle herd of 87.7 million as the smallest since 1951. Beef prices have been on a tear, boosting everything from the steak costs in your local grocery store to the sticker price on the beef burrito options at Chipotle. A recent report in Reuters noted that beef prices, predicted to rise 11.5 percent this year, could add another 5 percent in 2015 on drought and disease.

A bit of Thanksgiving cheer though: Despite the lift in beef prices, all poultry costs fell 0.9 percent in October and the subcategory that includes turkey dropped even more. Give thanks that you're not supposed to buy roast beef for Thursday.

Nov. 25 2014 1:31 PM

Amazon Wants to Sell, Deliver, and Now Install Your Air Conditioner

Amazon already sells and deliver things. Now it wants to add installations to its roster of tricks. Starting this week, Amazon is rolling out Amazon Local Services, a sort of handyman platform, in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The goal is to help customers connect with local service providers who advertise and contract out through Amazon's marketplace. According to the Wall Street Journal, it's another way for Amazon to edge onto the turf of brick-and-mortar retailers.

In an effort to differentiate itself from other home-service providers, Amazon plans to offer a money-back guarantee to customers. That makes sense for a company that built itself on the promise of exceptional customer service but that some feared had strayed from that mission lately. Installations and repairs also seem like an obvious target for Amazon to take on—there's plenty of room to improve those hours-long installation windows and no-show deliveries that frustrate customers routinely. The Journal also notes that Amazon will show customer reviews of the service providers on its website.

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According to Amazon's site, businesses and service providers will have to undergo background checks and pay monthly subscription fees to list on "Selling Services" beginning in July 2015. Amazon will take a 20 percent cut of services up to $1,000 and 15 percent of services over $1,000. The fees will be "segmented by service profession," but so far the ones listed apply to handymen, plumbers, electricians, computer technicians, auto mechanics, car electronics specialists, home media specialists, and appliance technicians.

The local services rollout comes about a month and a half after Amazon took another big step to compete with traditional retailers: deciding to open a physical store. The space is planned for 7 West 34th St. in Manhattan and, according to reports at the time, was set to open for the holidays. While there hasn't been much word on the effort since then, Vornado Realty Trust did say last week that Amazon had signed a lease for the 470,000-square-foot spot. It's good for 17 years.

Nov. 24 2014 6:07 PM

Barnes & Noble Has a Plan to Make Physical Books Popular This Black Friday

Instead of competing head on with Amazon this Black Friday, Barnes & Noble is looking to offer something that the online retailer can't. The bookstore announced today that come this weekend, it will sell 500,000 signed copies of the latest works from 100 prominent authors. On the nonfiction side, authors include George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Malcolm Gladwell, Neil Patrick Harris, and Amy Poehler. In fiction, Dan Brown, Jodi Picoult, and Donna Tartt are among those taking part.

Barnes & Noble says the effort has been in the works for more than half a year, with each author signing thousands of copies of their books for readers. "Some went beyond their signature to personalize the books," the chain notes in its release. Mo Willems, a children's book author and illustrator, sketched the head of one of his characters in signed editions. Mary Amicucci, Barnes & Noble's vice president of adult trade and children's books, told MarketWatch that authors weren't paid for their efforts but were "hugely enthusiastic" about the plan.

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The key to this particular Black Friday deal is that it's available in stores only. In that way, it's a pretty obvious ploy to get book lovers off of Amazon and into Barnes & Noble's physical locations, but it also seems like a savvy one. After all, if you come in to snag an autographed copy of The Goldfinch or The Polar Express—the kind of thing you can't just download onto your Kindle—you might also decide to pick up that copy of Pride and Prejudice you'd been meaning to get instead of ordering it online.

Barnes & Noble is under significant pressure to perform well this holiday season; its same-store sales have sunk for seven straight quarters, though its stock is up 60 percent year to date. Signed copies alone might not be enough to reverse that decline. But if nothing else, the amount of foot traffic and sales they generate should be a good test of whether big-name authors still have enough fan power to make a physical book worth its often hefty price.

Nov. 24 2014 4:06 PM

A List of Tech Internship Salaries That Will Kill Your Sense of Self-Worth

In case you were feeling a bit too content with your life and career choices today, here's a list of the pay packages that tech firms are apparently offering software engineering interns these days, which has been making the rounds this afternoon thanks to Twitter. Between salary and housing stipends, $9,000 to $10,000 a month isn't abnormal, apparently. The lowest number on the list: $7,000 a month, which annualizes to $84,000 per year.

About the source: This list was originally compiled by a 19-year-old intern-to-be who solicited numbers from Reddit, colleagues, and other contacts.* So the data might not quite be up to Woodward and Bernstein's standards. But the salaries aren't much more outrageously high than what's previously been published. Given the never-ending competition for top talent in the tech world, it's not surprising to see market rates escalating.

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And aside from the slight sting of knowing a Fitbit intern is probably earning more than you, that's not such a terrible thing. There are lots of people in the world whose pay should be a matter of public concern. Corporate CEOs. Wall Street types who will risk blowing up the financial system in pursuit of a bonus. Unpaid interns who do real work for free while real entry-level jobs disappear. It's fine to fret about all of them. But if anything, we should celebrate the fact that tech companies are paying their interns in line with normal employees. And, as I've written before, it's not uncommon for summer recruits in other high-pay, high-competition industries like law and finance to make significant amounts of money. In fact, the highest paid internship on that list isn't at a traditional tech company at all; it's at Jane Street Capital, a proprietary trading firm. (Think of a hedge fund without clients. Instead, they just trade their own money.)

Anyway, not every intern is getting paid pennies to fetch coffee. And that's a good thing.

*Correction, Nov. 26, 2014: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the author of the list was anonymous. The list was compiled by a 19-year-old intern-to-be who first shared it publicly on Facebook.

Nov. 24 2014 1:39 PM

Are We Actually Facing a Chocolate Shortfall?

Chocolate, in case you haven't heard, is in danger. According to a recent report in Bloomberg Pursuits, by the year 2020 there could be a gap of 1 million metric tons between how much cocoa the global population wants and how much farmers produce. By 2030, that gap could widen to 2 million tons. "Here, now, as you read these words, the world is running out of chocolate," Bloomberg Pursuits direly declares.

In 2013, the U.S. alone spent $20.1 billion on chocolate, data from Statista shows. By 2017, that sum is expected to reach $22.4 billion. Global chocolate consumption has also grown steadily since the 1990s and is predicted to hit 8.5 million tons in 2020. At least part of the chocolate crunch has been chalked up to the rising popularity of dark chocolate, which can take significantly more cocoa to produce. Other concerns include dry weather and "frosty pod," a fungal disease that has crippled an estimated 30 to 40 percent of cocoa production.

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The chocolate fears have reached such a frenzy that last Thursday, even Stephen Colbert addressed them. "Soon we may run out of chocolate completely—it'd be the cocoa-geddon," he told Colbert Nation.

So, is it time to start stocking up? Not quite, according to the International Cocoa Organization. Late last week, the ICCO put out a statement aimed at quelling the cocoa agita. A million ton deficit in cocoa production, it said, was "overstated in the extreme" and "in no way" borne out by its own projections. As prices for chocolate increased, the ICCO explained, farmers would be incentivized to produce more of it, causing supply to rise. "There is no immediate cause for concern about the supply of cocoa for the next five years," the group stated. "While our projections show that supply deficits are likely to occur during the next several years, stocks of coca beans should cushion this development before production growth accelerates."

That's not to say prices won't rise some. Chocolate is considered price inelastic, which means demand for it tends to stay the same even as its price rises and falls. One potential explanation for this is that chocolate doesn't have an obvious substitute—if the price goes up, you can't just swap out all your chocolate needs for another good. So if you see a good chocolate sale, maybe take advantage of it. Or just ask yourself: What would Willy Wonka do?

Nov. 24 2014 12:38 PM

Americans Now Drink More Craft Beer Than Budweiser

Here's a very cool graph from today's Wall Street Journal that says an awful lot about America's changing taste in alcohol. Americans now buy more craft beer than Budweiser. (Not Bud Light, mind you. Just Bud.)

budweiser_craft_beer

On the one hand, this chart is a reminder that craft brewing is still a niche—albeit a fast-growing one. According to the Brewers Association, craft labels make up about 14 percent of the U.S. beer market. Take Allagash, Lagunitas, Dogfish Head, and all your other favorite little breweries, toss them together, and they barely outsell the third most popular brand in America.

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On the other hand, it's also a very specific testament to the decline of Budweiser, which these days is basically a beer without a purpose. Twenty years ago, when Americans were less health-conscious and had more homogeneous tastes, selling a mass-market, midpriced lager designed to appeal to the largest possible demographic made lots of sense. But now, it's a brand without a natural audience except for older Americans who drink it out of habit and maybe a nostalgic sense of brand loyalty. If you walk into a bar, there will almost always be a cheaper beer, a less caloric beer, and plenty of tastier beers on tap. And so it's not totally shocking that, by Anheuser-Busch Inbev's account, 44 percent of Americans between the ages of 21 and 27 have never tried a regular old Budweiser. It's not as if they're missing anything.

This isn't to say Budweiser is in immediate peril. Again, thanks to all those old fans, it's still the third most popular brand in the country. But it's obviously a bad sign for the future, which the WSJ reports is why AB-Inbev is starting a new marketing effort to rehab the beer's image with young drinkers, in part by getting rid of the Clydesdales in its commercials this holiday season and substituting relatable twentysomethings.* Per the paper:

The marketing push is accompanied by an effort to get Budweiser back on tap. Theory being: If Levi’s and Converse can end years of sales declines by winning over young consumers, so can Bud.
“This is a very considered, long-term view of what will turn around the brand,” said Brian Perkins, AB InBev’s vice president of marketing, Budweiser.

But this analogy strikes me as a bit flawed. Levi's could change up the look of its jeans. Fashion loves to go retro. But Budweiser can't radically change its formula, and its not obscure enough to be rediscovered (not that Chucks were ever totally obscure). Bland, midpriced, beer is bland, midpriced beer. Budweiser is stuck in the middle, and some new commercials aren't going to pull it back out.  

*Correction, Nov. 26, 2014: Based on the Wall Street Journal's reporting, this post originally incorrectly suggested that Budweiser was eliminating Clydesdales from all of its future TV advertising. The newspaper has since corrected its story to clarify that while the company will not use the horses in their ads this holiday season, they may in the future. Budweiser has also released a statement saying that Clydesdales, "will continue to play a central role in our campaigns, including holidays and Super Bowl."

Nov. 21 2014 6:03 PM

It Took 12 Trucks to Haul Away All the Cash This Corrupt Chinese General Hid in His Home

The Chinese government has been making a great show of cracking down on official corruption, and in the process, finding some truly mind-boggling stashes of bribery money. Today, the Financial Times reports this incredible tidbit:

When investigators searched the Beijing home of Xu Caihou, one of China’s highest-ranking army generals, they found so much cash and precious gems they needed a week to count it all and 12 trucks to haul it away.
The cash was neatly stacked in boxes, each with the name of the soldier who had paid the bribe in exchange for promotion up the chain of command. Many of the boxes, each containing millions of renminbi, had never been opened, said people familiar with the case.
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In total, the cash weighed more than a ton, which according to the FT suggests it was worth at least $16 million. What's more, this is apparently not the largest cash hoard investigators have come across.

In May, investigators detained Wei Pengyuan, the deputy head of the National Energy Administration’s coal department. It took 16 machines to count the more than Rmb200m he had stashed in his home, according to Xinhua, the official news agency. Four of the machines reportedly burnt out due to the workload.

It's possible that these corruption charges are being trumped up or exaggerated by the Chinese government for public-relations purposes. But if the stories are true, Chinese officials are managing to execute acts of official corruption on a scale and with a degree of meticulousness that crooked American pols haven't been able to pull off in a long, long time. Just think: In the United States, everybody got excited when FBI agents found $90,000 stored in Congressman William Jefferson's freezer. Why, that'd barely be low-level-bureaucrat bribe money these days in China.

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