Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sharper Image Bankruptcy Renews My Faith in Basic Consumer Intelligence

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

well, if they were really sharp, they would not be going bankrupt, now would they?

It’s likely old news to everyone by now that electronic oddity store The Sharper Image is going bankrupt. You may have heard about it on the news or from a friend. Or perhaps you found out the hard way when you tried to use a Sharper Image gift card in the store only to have it refused. That’s right, as it flaps around like a fish out of sound fiscal waters, The Sharper Image will no longer take its own gift cards.

While I could easily talk at length about how wrong it is for a store to stop accepting its own gift cards, I have to say I’m quite amused by this situation. You see, The Sharper Image is the most perfect example of a store that needed to go bankrupt. I can think of no store, not even my arch-nemesis Wal-Mart, for which financial collapse is a more fitting fate. My anti-Sharper Image stance can be traced to the three characteristics of The Sharper Image that led to its demise:

  1. The Sharper Image sells nothing but crap that nobody needs.
  2. That crap is overpriced.
  3. Despite the fact that Americans like to buy useless, overpriced crap, The Sharper Image couldn’t figure out how to sell their own useless, overpriced crap.

The fact that The Sharper Image is going under has slightly renewed my faith in the American shopping public. I’m shocked they were around for as long as they were selling dinosaur robots and other technological amusements that are about as fun as stabbing oneself in the face with the broken shards of a Chia Pet. Even I, someone who is easily amused by every latest shiny blinking contraption (fortunately I possess just enough financial restraint to keep myself from buying them… usually), have no problem passing by The Sharper Image every time I encounter one of their stores.

I think the best indication of just how worthless The Sharper Image is (was?) is the fact that some credit card issuers have reward programs that let you trade in one dollar worth of reward points for roughly $8,000 in The Sharper Image gift cards which is roughly enough value to get you one pack of used Sharper Image-brand AA batteries (batteries not included).

Now that I think about it, there is the possibility that The Sharper Image will emerge from its bankruptcy somewhat intact, still taking up shopping mall units that would otherwise turn into emergency backup Starbucks in case the mall’s primary or secondary Starbucks location ever had an espresso machine failure. If The Sharper Image does manage to return from the abyss, please… I implore you, don’t fall for its shiny blinking subterfuge. Stay far away from those robotic dinosaurs and roll-up piano keyboards like in that one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and hopefully The Sharper Image won’t make it very long into Round Two.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Five Companies I Don’t Actually Hate With a Burning Passion (i.e. I Like Them!)

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

You’d think that with all of the negative comments I make about various evil, horrible corporations, there’s not a company on Earth that hasn’t earned my relentless ire. Not true! You only think that because I never say good things about the businesses I actually like. Well, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to give thanks to the following super-corporations for smothering orphans and burning kittens working hard to make my life a little easier and more enjoyable.

Amazon.com

oh, my gold box is featuring an army of dwarves for twenty bucks

Thanks to Amazon.com, my Christmas shopping will take about 90 minutes this year, and roughly 80 of those minutes will be spent deciding what to get people. That’s because Amazon.com sells everything. Literally. If I want a pink necklace, I go to Amazon.com. If I need a book about animal figures I can carve out of apples in my hands within 48 hours, I go to Amazon.com. If I want a Mexican hooker who juggles deli meats while singing Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits… you get the idea. Five years and dozens of orders later, I’ve never had a problem with the Big A. (Ooh, and my hooker’s estimated shipping date is tomorrow!)

Safeway

and they even let you have sex on the produce shelves late at night

Growing up, my family bounced back and forth between various supermarkets, sometimes making two or three trips a week to different grocers to score the best deals on quality yummies for our tummies. Now that I’m a successful undercover agent for the National Agency of Robot Spy Librarians, I don’t have time to browse prices at multiple stores. That’s why I shop Safeway… or rather Safeway’s online ordering and home delivery service. In my area, Safeway has the best prices on average, their quality is superior, and their internet storefront is like a porn site for food.

Target

perhaps if walmart had a giant bullseye for a logo, more people would aim to shop there

Target is Walmart with three notable exceptions:

  • Target doesn’t try to sell every damn thing on the planet and do a miserable job at it.
  • Target’s prices are a bit higher so it can pay its slave laborers slightly better.
  • Target doesn’t cause me instant depression or make me want to cut myself the second I walk through its doors.

The main reason I like Target enough for it to make it on this list is that it’s as good of a shopping experience as you can get when you need pajamas, batteries, and Rice Krispies in a single store.

Nintendo

nintendo is japanese for sony can kiss my butt

You need an explanation here? Nobody hates Nintendo. Even the Sony executives are playing the Nintendo Wii up in their offices right now. In fact, I’m going to go play with my Wii, Gameboy, DS, and Gamecube all right now at the same time instead of putting a fifth item on this list.

Nevermind. Heroes is on, so I’ll finish this during the commercials.

T-Mobile

they sure have come a long way since they changed their name from t-stationary

At one time or another, I’ve been a customer of nearly every major wireless communications providers. The fact that I’ve switched so many times should serve as evidence that I’ve had problems with at least some of those providers. But for the first time in nearly a decade, I’m finally happy (enough) with a company who makes those magical far-talking boxes: T-Mobile. At least in my area, their reception is like a breath of fresh radio waves, and their To Go service is the cheapest pay-as-you-go package there is and perfect for someone like me who uses his phone 20 minutes some months and 200 the next.

What are your favorite companies? What makes them better than others?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Fear in Advertising: How to Make People Buy Your Stuff By Scaring the Crap Out of Them

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

your ad here, or your competitors ad, its totally up to you, seriously, they are on the other line right now

On a road trip earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to see a lot of advertising billboards and vehicles sporting exciting promotional spots for various products and services. For a good 30 minutes, I drove behind a white van which bore one of the most unforgettable advertising slogans I’ve ever read:

Do you have radon? Your neighbor does!

At first I thought, why isn’t my neighbor sharing some of his delicious radon with me? Then I remembered that radon is a poisonous gas responsible for tens of thousands of lung cancer deaths each year. So either my neighbor is bottling his radon in order to sell it on the black market, or… he doesn’t have radon!

But why would the white van lie to me? Why would it tell me my neighbor has radon if he actually doesn’t? That’s when it hit me: the van’s slogan makes a whole lot more sense when it’s parked at somebody’s house when they’re on a service call. I imagine it inspires conversations like this one:

Wife: (Looking out window.) Hey honey, did you know that the Hendersons have radon?
Husband: Really? That’s a shame.
Wife: And the service van suggests we might too.
Husband: Holy crap! Go outside and give those guys $5,000 right now so they come check our home for deadly poison gas!

Cha-ching. Another sale for the radon guys. And how did they do it? It’s simple: something I like to call advertising terrorism. By suggesting what could happen if you don’t partake in their products or services, a business can scare you into spending lots of money to protect your family, your home, and your collection of ceramic roosters.

This wasn’t the first time I was a victim of an attempted advertising terrorism attack. See if you recognize some of these ad campaigns designed to “scare” up some business.

  • Every thirty seconds, someone dies of a heart attack. You may have seen a television ad for your local cardiac-specializing hospital using a catch-phrase like this one. It’s sometimes followed by “You could be next,” though if they were really trying hard, they’d say “You will be next” or “It’s too late for the guy next to you, but there’s still time to save yourself with a check-up today.”
  • Now with 50% less fat than the leading brand. Translation: don’t buy the leading brand because it will make you fat. If you have the leading brand in your house, throw it away or become 50% fatter.
  • With dual crumple zones and front, side, rear, and overhead airbags—something you won’t find in the competitor’s vehicle. You better trade in your deathmobile for that car or the only thing that will be crumpling in an accident will be you.
  • Refinance now and keep your home! I’ve been seeing a lot of signs like this one lately strewn along city roads. Many people in my area are carrying dangerous mortgages that will adjust soon, so making it seem like they’ll be homeless without your magic loan is a great way to get customers in the door.
  • Join today! Our prices go up January 1st. Why are you still reading this article? Didn’t you hear the man? The rates are going up on January 1st! Get your butt over there and join now!

Fear in advertising must be fairly successful because it seems to be on the rise in virtually every product and service category. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in exchange for most of your hard-earned dollars, you’re left with a sense of safety. No longer will you need to be concerned with radon, heart attacks, or being condensed into a bite-sized morsel by a semi. It’s a win-win situation!

The Top Ten Advertising Terrorism Campaigns They’re Not Smart Enough to Come Up With

It seems that some businesses are having a bit of trouble cashing in on the lucrative advertising terrorism thing. Well I’m here to say that anyone can start their own advertising terrorism campaign. Don’t believe me? Then here are some slogans that should inspire you to strike fear into the hearts of your customers.

  1. Every three seconds, someone in the world dies of hunger. Don’t let the next person… be you. Come on down to IHOP today for our triple-stack pancakes!
  2. Mattel: Buy all our new toys because the old ones are full of lead.
  3. Do you like having an ozone layer to keep the sun’s rays from boiling you alive? Test drive a hybrid Prius at a Toyota dealer near you.
  4. Join the NRA today and protect your gun rights. Because it’s only a matter of time before we piss off the wrong country.
  5. The McDonald’s Dollar Menu: Buy from it now or we’ll start making burgers out of bunnies.
  6. There’s a reason your mouth is home to millions of bacteria: they’re just biding their time until they attack your brain. Use Scope and kill the germs that cause bad breath and maybe brain rotting.
  7. The Catholic Church: Enroll today and save your soul from eternal damnation.
  8. Coming up on the News at 10: A dangerous predator may be lurking in your neighborhood. We’ll tell you where he was sighted and if you could be next. Correction: you will be next if you don’t watch us. And no switching channels on commercials because we’re only going to say it once.
  9. Don’t miss the next exciting episode of Heroes. We might just show the hot cheerleader girl’s boobs. You never know!
  10. Chia Pets: The only thing between you and dying a lonely, meaningless life.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fight Thieving Restaurant Servers With Checksum Tips

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

There’s a fascinating yet frightening discussion over at the FatWallet Finance Forums about restaurant servers stealing their way to higher tips on credit card receipts. Servers upset by low tips that they probably deserved have been known to edit the tip line of credit card receipts to bump up their tip. For example:

changing a dollar tip to an 8 dollar tip is easy for crooked waiters

See how easily a measly tip is changed to a generous one by a disgruntled server or bartender?

The easiest way to combat this illegal and downright nasty behavior is to reconcile your receipts against your credit card statements each and every month. You’ll spot restaurant wrongdoing and be able to phone it in to your credit card issuer faster than you can say “there’s a fly in my soup.”

But for the trillions of people who don’t want to go through the trouble of reconciling their receipts each month, there’s an easier way to stop tip alterations just by glancing over your credit card statement each month. It involves using checksums to add a layer of security to your tip amount. The term “checksum” normally refers to a technique used by computer systems to ensure file integrity. Here, we’ll be using checksums to ensure human integrity.

There are many checksum systems you can use when tipping, but here’s a great example that’s easy to learn and can be performed without the aid of a calculator unless you suck at math really badly.

Step 1: Look over your receipt

You’ll get ripped off far more often for food and drink overcharges than you will by spiteful servers. Check each billed item and compare it to the menu price.

Step 2: Calculate the appropriate tip

Tip as you normally do without worrying about checksums for now. For our example, let’s say you had the following bill but service was slow, so you’d like to tip about 10%.

subtotal 47.16 plus tip 4.71 total 51.87

Step 3: Apply a checksum

That $4.71 is just begging to have ten dollars added to it, and $51.87 becomes $61.87 so easily. Foil these alteration efforts with this simple checksum method.

Adjust the amount of the tip so that the numbers in the final total to the left of the decimal point add up to the right-most digit. In this case, the total has a “51” to the left of the decimal point (A). 5 + 1 = 6, so the final digit should be six. Adjust the total to $51.86 or $51.96 (B) by adding nine or subtracting one from the tip (C).

5 plus 1 equals 6, change the total to 51.86, change the tip to 4.70 to match

Step 4: Check your credit card statements each month

While the receipt will help you ensure no fraud was enacted upon your dining bill, you only need the statement to verify the checksum. For this example, simply locate the dining transaction, add the numbers to the left of the decimal point, and confirm that they add up to the right-most digit. If they don’t, you’ve been scammed.

credit card statement showing thieving server has struck your bill

This technique is not foolproof. If the scammy server had added nine dollars to the total—making it $60.86—the checksum calculation would still come back okay. But because it’s harder to turn a “51” into a “60” than a “61,” it’s unlikely your server will do this unless they’re wise to this particular checksum technique.

Step 5: Deal with the theft

If you hit a checksum that fails, dig out your copy of the receipt to confirm it doesn’t match the total on your statement. Next, do three things:

  1. Call your credit card issuer. It should be fairly simple to get a credit for the difference between your actual bill and what you were forced to pay due to this fraud.
  2. Call the police. You were the victim of a crime, so you should report it, even if it’s just a few dollars. If the stealing server has multiple victims who report his or her behavior, the police will likely take action against the server and/or the restaurant. Hopefully a few thieving restaurant workers behind bars will set enough of an example to discourage similar actions in others.
  3. Call the restaurant (optional). At this point, you’ve likely got your money back and given all the information you can to law enforcement. You can try calling the restaurant to report the theft, but it might not do much. In the best case, the manager will recognize the server’s name on your receipt and confirm he or she has been suspected of wrongdoing. Maybe you’ll even get a free meal out of it for your trouble. Worst case, the restaurant does nothing.

The original poster in the FatWallet Finance Forum topic may be onto something when he or she says that this is probably one of the most widespread types of theft that goes unpunished. Now you have the tools to fight it. The next time you’re at a restaurant, eat, drink, be merry, and do a little extra math come tip time to help combat this rapidly growing problem.

UPDATE: Jeff B. put together a nifty Windows Mobile app for tip checksum calculations that’ll help make it easier to compute the proper tip given your level of service and checksumming method. Thanks Jeff!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mean Things Retailers Do That Piss Me Off

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

kiss my pricing error, circuit city

Ever since the first Egyptian peasant was forced at gunpoint to sell Microsoft Windows by rich Norwegian farmers on the streets of Havana, retailers have been an indispensable part of our daily lives. Unfortunately, they’ve also been screwing over customers for just as long. It seems not a day goes by anymore that I don’t hear a story about some major retail chain being exceptionally mean or unethical in dealing with one of its customers. Sadly, a single customer can’t easily make a difference against these behemoth businesses and their crappy conduct. But at least we can always complain about it on the internet!

Here’s my list of retailer pet peeves that really press my buttons.

Refusing to honor price mistakes

I cannot begin to tell you how many times retailers have tried to stick it to me with that horrible fine print at the bottom of their ads stating “We are not responsible for typographical errors in this ad.” You think you’ve found a really good sale on a product. You drive to the store, search for the item, stand in the long lines, only to have the item scan at a higher price. “Sorry,” says the cashier, “we had an error in the flyer.”

Worst Offenders: Large electronic chains like Best Buy and Circuit City. Pricing errors happen with these guys on such a regular basis that you have to wonder if they’re making them on purpose just to get you in the store.

Potential Solution: How about some legislation requiring retailers to honor their price mistakes? It might sound a bit unfair to retailers, but it’s certainly fairer than putting the “blame” for price mistakes on the consumer who has to pay for it. I guarantee so-called price mistakes would all but disappear because retailers would throw a lot more pairs of eyes at checking over flyers before they go to press.

Not standing by the merchandise they sell

You save your money and finally have the $8,000 for that new MP3 player/vibrator. You stop by your local music store, buy it, take it home… and it lights itself on fire in the most unfortunate place. A few skin grafts later, you return the product to the store, but they refuse to take it back. “Looks like a manufacturer’s defect. You’ll have to deal with the manufacturer.” Not only does the store refuse to take back the faulty merchandise it sold you, but it’ll keep selling it to others until enough people light themselves on fire to warrant an official recall.

Worst Offenders: Retailers refusing to back the quality of the merchandise they sell isn’t limited to safety issues. I find that the retail industry with the worst track record of standing by its products is furniture sellers. Dishonorable mention goes to Wal-Mart because they sell many categories of crap.

Potential Solution: Make retailers partially liable for monitoring the quality of the merchandise they sell. Sure, that All-Paper Artificial Christmas Tree sounds like a great product for your store to sell, but maybe you should do a couple of quality and safety tests on your own before stocking it on your shelves.

Broadcasting useless TV commercials

A snowy mountaintop. A serene river in summertime. A starry night sky. Pan down to the product. It’s there. You should buy it. How many television commercials have you seen like this one where you watch 27 seconds of irrelevant build-up, two seconds of product shots, and zero seconds of information about what the product does and why you should buy it instead of other similar products.

Worst Offenders: Hands down, automobile manufacturers spew the bulk of romanticized but useless TV commercials. Beer makers and their sport-playing equines come in second. Retailers also place highly in this competition. Dear Target, sexy models dancing with bleach bottles does not make me want to buy bleach. Telling me why (e.g. “we sell it cheaper”) I should buy bleach from you instead of another store does.

Potential Solution: Change the channel. Don’t buy the product or shop at the retailer without doing your own research. Or just don’t buy the product or shop at that retailer.

Selling products they know are bad for people

How can retailers who sell cigarettes sleep at night knowing they sell a product that will directly kill lots and lots of people? Oh, that’s right: money.

Worst Offenders: Too numerous to count, but you don’t have to go very far to find one. Your local supermarket likely makes a pretty penny killing its customers.

Potential Solution: To spare consumers from long, drawn-out years of suffering, they should just bring a check for their life savings to the cigarette counter where the sales clerk proceeds to shotgun them to the chest. Quick, far more humane than death by slow poisoning, and the retailer still gets paid. Everyone wins! Or… retailers could just stop selling products they know make people sick or dead.


What bad business behavior really burns your biscuits?