Archived Money Matters Blogs

Monday, November 30, 2009

Click Till You Drop
By Dena Mellick in Atlanta

While an estimated 195 million people shopped between Thanksgiving and Sunday, including on Black Friday, I was, well...not shopping. I'm sure I'm not the only one terrified by the idea of squeezing through large crowds of people at the mall, all battling for that great deal or must-have product.

For those who agree with me, today is our day: Cyber Monday! The day the ochlophobic (those afraid of crowds) agree to pay for shipping to avoid the hassles of parking, missed sales and even losing sleep. Retailers are banking on us too, in hopes of making up for lackluster sales over the weekend. While more people were out and about (shudder), they were forking out less dough, because average spending for the weekend dropped compared to a year ago.

I'm much more willing to try my hand at getting those hot holiday items by searching online instead of store to store. For instance, I was intrigued to learn one of the must-have toys this season is the Zhu Zhu, electronic pet hamster. Apparently, this lifelike rodent flew off shelves at Toys R Us over the weekend.

For parents, what is better than a pet that looks real, but doesn't need all the attention of a living animal? While I wouldn't stand in line to get one of those fake hamsters, I would consider looking for one online for my 7-year-old sister.

Analysts say shoppers are already "clicking until they drop" or at least develop carpal tunnel syndrome. Strong online sales Friday included GPS systems, digital cameras and the Nintendo Wii, according to the group Retail Decisions. That means, while I may not be tripping over other shoppers, I know I better get on the 'Net soon to grab those holiday hot items. But, at least I can do it in my pajamas if I want!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Shop Till You Drop?
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

I admit it. I love to shop. For clothes, shoes, home goods, electronics... you name it! And I like to think I can find some pretty good bargains in my searches.

So you'd think that Black Friday would be the ultimate day for me, right? Not so much. In fact, the thought of stepping foot into a store today makes me cringe even more than a 200 point drop in the Dow 30 seconds into trading.

But that's me.

Before I left for work this morning, the traffic reports showed major slowdowns near some local outlet malls. As I drove to my train station, I saw a massive line outside my local Best Buy. And I've been keeping an eye on the news all morning and have seen throngs of people nationwide taking advantage of Black Friday bargains.

All the more reason for me to spend my shopping time at the computer. I plan to do a lot of my shopping online this year. And I'm not alone. Analysts at comScore Inc. predict online sales to be up about three percent in November and December to around $28.8 billion.

Holiday sales forecasts on the whole are varied. The National Retail Federation expects U-S holiday sales to drop 1-percent from last year, while other experts think it'll increase. We'll see who's right.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Stuffed Savings
By Dana Simmons-Greco

Thanksgiving has always been a lazy day with my family. It's always included sleeping in, a little zoning out in front of the television, and then on to cook the meal. The bingeing usually starts up around 2 p.m., and winds down, oh I'd say, about an hour later with little food to spare. With the rest of the day ahead of us and barely anything open for the holiday, my Grandmother and I often become antsy. Sometimes to get out of the house, we head to the movies or just take a walk around the neighborhood.

This year though, we can start our Black Friday shopping even earlier. Some stores will actually be open on Thanksgiving this year. Just a few of the stores open this "Turkey Day" include: Walmart; most Old Navys; Kmart; Walgreens; and Toys "R" Us opens at 12:00am on Black Friday. Looks like as retailers struggle in this economic downturn, they are looking to gobble up your holiday shopping dollars and they want to give consumers every chance to shop. Hopefully, all that shopping will help me walk off some of that stuffing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Trouble in Toyland
By Beth Hall

Santa Claus may have to check his list more than twice to see if the toys in his sack are on a very different list.

Sixteen toys are targets of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group's (PIRG) 24th annual report, "Trouble in Toyland." The new list is out just three days ahead of Black Friday, which is traditionally the kickoff to the holiday shopping season.

The toys were examined in three categories: those the group considers dangerously loud; contain small parts that could lead to choking; or toys that may contain toxic chemicals or lead.

PIRG launched a web site to help shoppers navigate children's holiday wish lists and what it considers potentially harmful toys.

Industry observer Jonathan Samet, publisher of thetoyinsider.com, noted that while choking is a big potential issue, the noise warnings did not concern him as much as choking and lead.

My nephews are boys through and through -- they love loud toys and small action figures. I supose it's ultimately up to the shopper to figure out what's safe for the kid on their list.

Although it might be easier just to get a gift card... is that too Bah Humbug?

Well, happy shopping.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Capital Competition
By Dana Simmons-Greco

Several of my friends are job-hunting at the moment, either because they just completed graduate school or they were laid off. It's a tough market, and there's a lot of competition out there with the unemployment rate at 10.2%. I thought New York City would be one of the most difficult places to find a job, but a new study from job search Web site juju.com says the New York Metro area is one of the least competitive cities for job seekers. The search engine's latest "Job Search Difficulty Rankings" report ranks New York City in the top 5. The Web site calculated the rankings by using unemployment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and comparing them to the number of jobs found in juju.com's index of all online jobs in the United States.

There are some cities with even less competition though. If you're looking for a job, our nation's capital could be the place for you. The report ranks Washington D.C. as the metro area with the least job competition in the country. Second on the list is Baltimore. These two cities don't just have any old jobs though. Many of the jobs available require special training, as both of those areas are rich in government and defense jobs, which are in high demand right now. The last place you want to look for a job now is Detroit. The Motor City came in at the bottom of the list, mostly because of the struggling auto industry.

I know my friends that are looking for jobs in New York City have been looking for quite some time, and in some cases more than 6 months. That is a long time to be without work, especially if there's supposedly not as much competition in this city. I can't even imagine how long people in Detroit will be looking for jobs.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Give a Gift to Yourself
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Even the experts are having a tough time predicting how much consumers will be spending when it comes to holiday shopping. There's a lot of conflicting research out there, but Consumer Reports says there is no question who consumers will be shopping for on Black Friday weekend: themselves.

Of course, shoppers will be buying gifts for family and friends, but according to the Consumer Reports Holiday Shopping Poll, 66% of the people surveyed say they will be buying stuff for themselves as well.

I don't know about you, but my family has adhered to a tighter budget all year long. There was a lot of uncertainty a few months ago, and we tightened our belts, just in case. Now it appears like we've made it through the worst of it, and things are beginning to look up.

So it makes sense to me that people might want to take advantage of deep discounts to buy a gift for themselves next weekend. Let's just hope the deals are as good as those "leaked" circulars suggest they will be.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On The Road Again
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

I don't know about you, but my Thanksgiving is going to be pretty mellow this year. While I wish I could be on my way to Florida to spend the holiday with my parents and friends (and maybe get some sun while I'm at it), I have to work very, very, very early here at the NYSE the Friday after Turkey Day, so a trip South is not an option.

Instead, I'm sticking close to home and heading to my aunt's house for the big meal. She lives a mere seven miles away from me, so it's an easy jaunt ... and makes for an easy escape when I have to head home and go to sleep for my 2:30 a.m. wake up call! And after seeing the latest news from AAA, I'm very thankful I won't be traveling far.

AAA is predicting an increase in the overall number of Americans traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday. The group forecasts 38.4 million folks will travel 50 miles or more away from home. That's an increase of 1.4% from last year.

Most of these folks will be driving. Air travel is expected to decline about 7%. And no wonder, given the fare hikes around the holiday and all these extra fees!

So I guess I'm thankful to work the day after Thanksgiving so I can avoid the highways ... and the headaches!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is Half a Billion Enough?
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

There sure is a lot of blame to go around for the financial mess we're in and a lot of people are pointing fingers at the big investment banks. Now, Goldman Sachs' CEO is apologizing for his bank's role in the global financial meltdown.

Speaking at a conference in New York yesterday, Lloyd Blankfein said, "we participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret." And, on the heels of the public apology, Goldman now says it will spend $500 million over the next five years to help "10,000 Small Businesses."

Small businesses can use any help they can get these days. They're hurting bad, because the credit market is so tight and banks can't or won't give them the loans they need to operate. Hopefully Goldman's gesture will help some of them - but now the bank admits some responsibility for the financial mess, is a half a billion dollars enough?

$500 million over five years sure sounds like a lot of money to me, but it's important to put it into context. Goldman Sachs deals in the billions of dollars every day. And thanks to the stimulus money the government pumped into the bank, as well as into the economy, Goldman did quite well in the most recent quarter.

In fact, Goldman made so much money that the Financial Times points out $500 million amounts to only 2.3% of its bonus and salary pool this year alone.

Many critics will probably say the fact Goldman is owning up to mistakes in its investment and trading is a great first step. But considering the kind of cash the investment bank is now raking in, Goldman's $500-million is a modest step.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Easy Come, Easy Go
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Remember that Making Work Pay Tax Credit you got earlier this year?

That's the part of the stimulus that was supposed to pay individuals up to $400 and couples up to $800. But this one didn't come in one big lump sum; that $400-$800 was spread out in your paychecks over the course of the year.

When spread out over the 40 or so weeks left in the year after the credit was issued in April, the credit only amounts to an extra $10 to $20 a week, so you may not have even noticed the difference in your paycheck. But you'll probably notice if you have to pay it back come tax time!

Apparently the IRS didn't account for people who have more than one job, couples with both spouses working, or Social Security recipients with jobs when the credit was issued. The Treasury Department says that could amount to more than 15 million taxpayers, and they were overpaid!

If you fall into one of those categories, the IRS says you should adjust your withholding amounts in your paycheck so you don't get slapped with a surprise tax bill.

It's another incentive to check your paycheck closely, because it doesn't matter who gets the numbers wrong, you're the one who'll end up paying for the mistake in the end.

Monday, November 16, 2009

For What It's Worth
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Over the years, I've managed to acquire quite a collection of gold jewelry, either from presents or accessories I have inherited. Unfortunately, I'm not a huge fan of the bling, so most of it is just accumulating in various boxes tucked away in my apartment. Many times I've thought about selling it off, and putting the money into savings. I just never get around to doing it.

Now might be just the time to cash in, though. Gold prices are hitting record highs lately. The price of gold broke another record today, topping $1130 an ounce during trading. The prices are based on 24-karat gold, so 18-karat gold pieces will clearly be worth less. I don't know how long gold prices will keep on shining, so I'm thinking it would be a good idea to get my jewelry appraised, and see what it's worth.

I weighed in on the matter with some of my relatives who have traded in gold in the past. They all said they didn't take home the full appraisal amount from the buyer, but that it was still worth the money. One relative also warned me to be careful that I don't get scammed, which is why getting an appraisal is important. Looks like I'll be getting my collection of gold jewelry in order, before gold prices lose their luster.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Turkey Dinner on the Cheap?
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Every year about this time, the American Farm Bureau Federation shops super markets around the country and calculates an average price people will pay in the U.S. for a turkey dinner with all the fixin's. And every year, I think to myself: that can't be right!

This year, the Farm Bureau reports that the price of a turkey dinner is actually lower than last year, about 4% less! According to the group, the average meal for 10 people will ring up at $42.91, compared to last year's $44.61.

The bureau says consumers are benefiting at the grocery store because of lower energy prices.

A turkey dinner for 10 for $42.91 seems pretty low to me. Of course, NYC is always going to be more expensive, but I wanted to find out just how much more. So I used the same list of items the American Farm Bureau Federation uses and I went shopping online. (no driving to the supermarket in Manhattan.)

Buying the same dinner online would cost me $81.46, before the delivery fee. Just as I suspected! I've always told my friends we pay about a 100% premium to live in NYC. Now I have proof!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Games People Play
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

On a recent trip to visit family, my 10-year-old cousins asked me to play some Wii games with them. I said "of course." It would give me some quality time with the boys, and surely a grown woman could beat 10 year olds at video games. I mean, I used to totally rock at Ms. PacMan and Atari Space Invaders!

So we fired up the Wii and tried the golf game. Let's just say it wasn't pretty.

Then there was bowling. They schooled me.

Then, because I'm apparently a glutton for punishment, they made a valiant attempt to teach me Guitar Hero. Do I even need to tell you that I failed miserably?

Ok, so that might be a little embarrassing. I can freely admit that I'm not a gamer.

But you don't have to be a videogame aficionado to appreciate the news about "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2." Now, if you are a gamer then you know all about this game. You probably even counted the hours to its worldwide release this past Tuesday.

Get this - early estimates show that in the first 24 hours this game was on shelves, it sold 4.7 million copies, making around $310 million dollars. And that was only in North America and the UK. Record shattering? You bet. The previous record holder, "Grand Theft Auto IV" sold 3.6 million copies on its first day of sales last year.

Activision Blizzard, which makes "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" calls this, "the biggest launch in history across all forms of entertainment." Talk about having game!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Early Bird Gets the Worm
By Dena Mellick in Atlanta

The holiday shopping season is here and that means large crowds of people fighting for good deals. I do not enjoy battling large groups of avid shoppers, so I do my best to avoid peak shopping hours. During the holidays though, retailers are busy pretty much around the clock though!

A number of retailers are planning to have more security this year to prevent the shopping scene from turning ugly. Even so, I think I'm going to opt to do most of my shopping online, as I have the past several years. But whether you're shopping online or in person, analysts are indicating earlier may be better this year.

Experts say retailers were burned last year by a less-than-jolly shopping season, so, to avoid getting left with unsold merchandise, they've ordered less stock this year. As a result, analysts say, you might not see huge sales, so if you see a good deal now, don't wait to grab that gift.

While holiday sales are expected to decline this year, holiday shipping is expected to increase. FedEx is forecasting it will ship more than 13 million packages on December 14th -- the day it expects to be its busiest of the year. That would be an 8% increase compared to last year.

Bottom line...the early bird gets the worm, so get your online shopping and gift buying done early!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Google Giveaway
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I bring my laptop with me whenever I travel and when I'm in the airport, I always want to get online, but I just can't bring myself to pay the roughly $10 fee that many airports charge. To me, paying 1/3 of the monthly cost of my home internet access for just a couple hours of connection time in the terminal is way too much, especially when I don't really need it.

Google must have realized a lot of people feel that way because as a "gift" to travelers for the holidays, the Internet giant is paying for everyone's WiFi Internet access at 47 airports across the country. The free access is available until Jan. 15.

Of course, you'll have to endure a bit of advertising. When you log on, the first page you land on will encourage you to download and use some of Google's latest software tools like its chrome web browser. There's also a request for cash, but in a good way.

Users will have the opportunity to pay-it-forward and make a donation to one of three charities. Google says it will match donations up to $250,000 at each airport.

What's not to like about this deal? Now all I need is an extra vacation so I can take advantage of Google's giveaway!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Rent the Runway
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

I can admit it. I have a passion for fashion. I read the fashion magazines. I've attended fashion shows in New York and Milan. I covet a closet full of my favorites: Chanel, Prada, Gucci, Diane von Furstenberg, Yigal Azrouel, Cynthia Steffe, Abaete and J Mendel. Unfortunately, my freelance producer salary doesn't allow me such splurges, with things like rent and other bills taking priority, and real life spoiling my fantasy wardrobe.

Then this morning, I saw a report in the New York Times about a new Web site. It's called Rent the Runway, and it's got designer clothes available for non-designer prices!

According to the paper, here's how it works: Rent the Runway buys pieces directly from designers. They then rent them to customers. Prices run for $50 to $200 for a four-day rental outfit. They send along the outfit in 2 different sizes, just to be on the safe side. Then, when the customer is done wearing the outfit, they drop it in a pre-paid envelope and send it back. The cost covers shipping and dry cleaning. But if you mess up the dress, you have to pay the full cost of the outfit. It's kind of like Netflix for fashionistas!

Rent the Runway has been up and running for about a week and reportedly already has 20,000 women signed up and 160 styles in its fashion arsenal so far. Will more women sign on? Will more designers toss their hats (and dresses and skirts and blouses) into the ring?

I'll be interested to see how the company grows. Fashion is fleeting. Trends come and go with every season so the turnover on these pricey pieces would have to be quick. Can Rent the Runway keep up? We'll just have to wait and see.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Looks Are Everything
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

When your income is down and extra cash is all but nonexistent, the extras in life are usually the first to go.

Say, for example, you get a big pay cut at work and the future isn't looking much better, would you go out and buy a new custom designer wardrobe?

That's pretty much the case at United Airlines. Apparently, it's time for a modern make over.

Designer-for-the-stars, Cynthia Rowley, is creating new uniforms for United Airlines flight attendants, pilots and other personnel. In an news release, the president of United says "New uniforms, with an improved look and feel, are a key investment in our company and our people, who are the face of United." He did not say how much the new duds cost.

Rowley is now embarking on a month-long tour to meet with United employees around the world. She wants to know what they want in a uniform. Among the requests on the crew members' wish list: a more modern look made of wrinkle-free fabric-- and more pockets.

Of course input is very important, from employees and from customers.

Some customers may offer this suggestion: now that you can afford that new designer look, how about a break on those extra fees?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Retailer Rallies
By Dana Simmons-Greco

I've always been a frugal shopper. I tend to frequent stores with big sales and low prices, and am always looking for a bargain. The cheaper the items, it seems the more I'm likely to buy. Lately, I've noticed several sales at my favorite stores, which means I've been shopping a little bit more than I normally would.

If U.S. retail sales are any indication, there might be other consumers out there also shopping a little more. Stores that are famous for their deals are the ones reporting strong sales for last month. It's a mixed bag for retailers in terms of last October's same-store sales reports, which show varying results.

TJX Co., the owner of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods, says same-store sales jumped 10 percent in October. The discount retailer is also upping its forecast for the year, as it expects strong holiday sales to boost earnings. Gap showed a 4 percent jump thanks to strong sales at Old Navy chain, which is known for its bargains. Sales at bulk discounter Costco are also higher, up 5% on the year.

Meanwhile, some retailers didn't fare so well, though as some consumers took advantage of holiday deals but still held back on big ticket purchases. Macy's, Children's Place, and Abercrombie & Fitch report declines. Sales at Limited Brands stores dropped much more than expected.

The numbers seem to show there are other consumers out there, just like me, shopping for a bargain.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

T-Mobile, Disrupted
by Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Yesterday I got a brand new Blackberry to replace the one my cat decided to use as a litter box. Before ordering it, I was asked if I preferred to stick to my current carrier and pay a replacement fee, or switch to T-Mobile and get a free Blackberry. My frugal side took the bait and agreed to switch carriers for a new phone.

Just a few hours after activating my shiny new phone, I began to notice that the reception during phone calls was not crystal clear, and one was even interrupted by a busy signal and "call failed" message on my screen. I also noticed e-mails were taking awhile to send and my Internet was taking a long time to load. No wonder T-Mobile offered me a new phone, I thought, because this is some shoddy service! It was a very windy day though and I live in a tall building, so I decided to give my new carrier the benefit of the doubt

I was pleased today when I noticed the service was better. E-mails were sending instantly, and calls came in crystal clear. Though, it appears I wasn't the only T-Mobile customer having difficulty with my service last night. Tech blogs and Twitter were filled with complaints about issues with voice, text, and picture messaging. T-Mobile tweeted on its Twitter page last night that functions were fully restored for those affected, but the company still hasn't given a tweet about what caused the disruption in service.

T-Mobile did post a notice on its Web site, in the "Forums" sections, with a message saying full service had been restored, and that the cause of the incident is under investigation. I called T-Mobile Media Relations to talk to a real person about what the hang up was, but had to leave a message with the answering service. I also called the customer service line, but the hold time was almost 2 hours. The company did apologize via the web posting, to all those who were affected.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

More Fees, Again?
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

'Tis the season for giving, so let's all be generous this year and give a little more to airlines. Cash is on many of their wish lists and you're going to have to oblige if you want to travel around Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's.

If this sounds familiar, it's probably because it is. Several major airlines added a $10 ticket surcharge, each way, about a month ago. That's in addition to fees for baggage, early boarding, blankets, pillows, snacks and more. Now many of those same airlines are doubling that $10 holiday surcharge, for a total of $20 each way. Why not? All the cool kids are doing it!

Some airlines say the surcharge is to cover high fuel costs, others have said it's due to supply and demand. I wonder if the airlines aren't raising fees because they're running out of things to charge an additional fee for...?

By the way, isn't it about time for the government to take note of this fee bonanza? Maybe the airlines are onto something? Maybe it's time for a fee tax?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Starbucks Wants My Loyalty
By Katie Shahriari at the NYSE

I admit it. I am addicted to coffee. Not just any coffee - but good coffee.

And in my building at work there are two places I regularly get my coffee from - Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks.

While I prefer the taste of Dunkin' Donuts coffee (and the price) I often splurge at Starbucks for their holiday flavored drinks like the pumpkin spice latte that I've had way too many times in the past month.

There's just something about those flavored coffees that gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.

And now, Starbucks is giving me another warm feeling. They've eliminated the fee from their rewards program.

I don't join rewards programs too often. Only if they're free and I frequent a place enough to benefit from it (hello DSW shoes!).

Starbucks used to charge an annual $25 fee for their Gold Card. The main benefit of the Gold Card was really a 10% discount on most of your coffee purchases. So to break even, you'd have to spend $250 in one year at Starbucks. Roughly 50 grande lattes a year.

Now for someone who gets a specialty coffee from Starbucks on a daily basis, it would have paid off. But Starbucks, listening to the demands from the public, decided to do away with the fee and just make the program simple:

Free membership; a free coffee after the purchase of 5; another free coffee after the purchase of 15; and a free coffee on your birthday.

I can be loyal for that.

I looked online to see if Dunkin' Donuts can offer me a similar rewards program, but the website asks you to enter your zip code to learn more about their perks program. When I put mine in it tells me its currently unavailable in my area. Bummer.

Too bad the Starbucks program doesn't go into effect until December 26th, because my birthday is next week!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Getting on Track
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Just the other day, I wrote about how I prefer taking the Amtrak train for my weekend get-a-ways, as opposed to the bus, but that it is just too costly sometimes. I suppose it was a passive-aggressive attempt at calling for cheaper train fares. Clearly the folks at Amtrak are not keep up with the Money Matters blog. Today it announced a five-year plan to increase passenger growth and revenue. But there was no mention of lower ticket prices. Oh well.

So what is Amtrak planning? It's adding Wi-Fi service to some of its high-speed Acela Express trains, and promising to improve food and drink choices on the trains. It also plans to increase security and safety on its trains, and give cabin interiors a makeover. Amtrak's goal is to increase ridership by 15% over the next five years and boost revenue by 20%. Amtrak says the changes fall in line with the Obama administration's "Vision for High-Speed Rail in America" and Congress' "Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008." This week, a report from Subsidy Scope showed the majority of Amtrak's routes lost money last year.

Once these changes hit the tracks, maybe I'll have to take a ride on an Amtrak train instead of the bus, and see if I think I'm getting my money's worth.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Deal You Can Take to the Grave
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Wal-Mart's newest deal brings the idea of "customer loyalty" a whole new level -- about six feet lower. And the world's largest retailer makes no bones about it, the company still wants your business even after you're dead!

Wal-Mart is now selling caskets and urns online and the prices are "to-die-for!"

Costco was the first discount retailer to sell a sarcophagus for a steal, and apparently it's catching on. But pine boxes for discount prices could be a deadly prospect for funeral homes. I have a relative in the business and I know the significant markup can leave your family coughing up quite a bit of cash for your coffin.

Wal-Mart's casket prices range from about $1000 to $3000 and you can pick up an urn for less than a Benjamin --which might just cause Franklin to roll over in his grave!

Caskets ship within 48 hours, so you don't have to plan too far ahead. But just in case you have a premonition, Wal-Mart will give you 12 interest-free months to pay for your final resting place.

It's good to know the world's largest retailer has you covered for the holidays, just in case you really do "shop 'til you drop!"

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Riding the Pay Train
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Moving to New York meant that I would have to acquaint myself with the act of riding public transportation. Having a car in New York City can be a hassle because there is so much traffic, and very limited parking. So, when I knew I was leaving Atlanta, I sold my wheels. No longer was it possible to slip into my car, and drive where I wanted to go. Whether I was traveling a few hours to visit someone or just headed to the store, I was very accustomed to the ease and comfort of my own transportation.

Now when I want to visit a friend out of town I need to hop on the bus or a train. I prefer taking the train, because it's more comfortable than the bus and a lot faster. The problem with the train is that it is much more expensive. Let's say I want to visit my friend who lives in Boston this weekend. A one-way bus ticket from New York to Boston could cost as little as $15. Not to mention that $15 is an all-day fare. Meanwhile the cheapest Amtrak train ticket I can find is $62, and it leaves at 6 a.m. (ET). The earliest train I can take would cost me $140 one-way.

Occasionally I'll splurge on a train ticket, but mostly I opt for the cheaper bus trip (even though it takes about an hour or so longer). A recent study from Subsidyscope, an arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts, has me thinking about that decision though. According to the study, 41 of Amtrak's 44 routes lost money in 2008 because of a lack of passenger volume. It cost an average of $32 to subsidize each ticket for every passenger on Amtrak trains last year. It turns out, because of government subsidies, U.S. taxpayers are helping to foot that bill. So, it looks like whether or not I take the train, I'm already paying part of the fare.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Avoiding Internet Scams
By Dena Mellick in Atlanta

It never fails. Those scammers are certainly vigilant at keeping up with current events, because as soon as the news breaks, there is a corresponding scam out there, trying to trip you up!

On Friday, the FDIC announced we hit the 100 mark of failed banks this year and then passed it with six more bank failures.

Now the FDIC is warning of an e-mail scam along the same lines. The subject line of the e-mail says "check your Bank Deposit Insurance Coverage." It then warns the recipient that their bank has failed, and it provides a fraudulent link, where you are supposed to enter your personal information. The FDIC says it does not issue unsolicited e-mails to consumers, and you should definitely not follow the link inside the e-mail. A list of failed banks can be found on the real FDIC Web site, which is www.FDIC.gov.

In its 2008 Internet Crime Report, the FBI reports that "e-mail (74.0%) and webpages (28.9%) were the two primary mechanisms by which the fraudulent contact took place." It also says education and awareness are the best ways to defend yourself.

So here are some tips to protect yourself and your loved ones from Internet fraud:

-Never give out personal information such as your name, home address, school name, or telephone number in a chat room or on bulletin boards. (This is information the FBI tells children, but it's still important for adults too.)

-Don't judge a person/company by their Web site. Just because an individual or company has a flashy Web site doesn't mean it is legitimate. Web sites can be created in just a few days. After a short period of taking money, a site can vanish without a trace.

-Do your homework on the individual or company to ensure that they are legitimate.

-Check out other Web sites regarding this person/company.

-Be cautious when responding to special investment offers (especially through unsolicited e-mail).

-Be cautious when dealing with individuals/companies from outside your own country.

-If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

It's always better to be safe, rather than sorry, so research everything, especially if you're not sure of its origin. If you'd like more information about protecting yourself from different types of online schemes, visit www.FBI.gov.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Facebook Changing Face...Again.
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

When I logged into my Facebook account this morning, I noticed something different about my homepage. At the top of the page it read "Live Feed." Right next to that, there's a clickable option that reads "News Feed." So, I clicked on it to see what it was all about. Suddenly my feeds changed from real-time feeds of random friends' status updates, to just a select few updates from certain friends. The updates in the News Feed were those of friends with whom I frequently communicate on Facebook.

What's this new face of Facebook's homepage all about? When did this even happen? According to the social networking Web site's blog, the makeover happened on Friday. This new homepage lets users choose between the Live Feed, which is the real-time stream of everything your friends are doing, or the News Feed, which can filter posts and status updates.

Facebook says the updates are based on user feedback, but some people are already saying they don't like the site's new makeover. While I like having the option to choose, I have to admit having so many on Facebook can make the site somewhat confusing to follow. I feel like I am constantly going into the "Settings" portion of my account, to update my choices. I am constantly falling behind on the latest Facebook addition, and losing track of all of my options. I certainly like being able to choose how I want my account to function. Sometimes though, I wish Facebook would just pick a look and stick with it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Wish I'd Thought of That!
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I have a friend who moonlights as an inventor and he says the biggest money makers are usually the simplest ideas. They're cheap and they do something useful for everyone.

Case in point: The "Green-Box" is a pizza box that solves a problem I'm sure just about everyone in this country has encountered. And it does so while saving the environment!

Picture this: You order a pizza and you only finish half of it. Have you ever tried to jam the box in your fridge? I have and with my small fridge in NYC it's impossible.

The green-box is the brainchild of an American inventor. When your pizza arrives, the top easily separates into four cardboard plates. When you're done, the bottom folds up to become a half-size pizza box that's much easier to fit into a fridge. Genius!

But here's the best part: It doesn't cost any more to produce and it can be made out of 100% recycled material.

I know what you're thinking and it's too late, the inventor already has a U.S. patent.

If I'm the typical consumer, the box could get a "big slice" of the market and they make millions! I just wish I'd thought of it first!

Thursday, October 22, 2009 Googling for the Brain
by Lori Chapman

A new study from UCLA finds Googling might be good for your mind.

The study, which used volunteers between the ages of 55 and 78, found searching online one hour a day for two weeks increased brain activity in people with little or no Internet experience. It triggered key areas of the brain which control decision-making and complex reasoning. The authors say the results suggest searching online is a simple brain exercise that could be used to enhance brain function and cognition in older adults. Previous research by the same university has found searching online leads to a twofold increase in brain activity in older adults who have prior Internet experience.

I have grandparents who suffered from dementia. Even though I'm not yet 30, in the back of my mind I fear someday facing the same fate. I've experienced first hand how hard dementia can be on a family. So I'm always paying attention to the latest news on how to keep my mind healthy. I try to eat right, take vitamins and exercise three times a week. I've heard sudoku and crossword puzzles can also help keep your mind sharp, but I can never seem to find the time to sit down with one of those. But surfing online is something I do everyday! At work I spent a lot of time online researching financial stories. And in my free time I'm always looking something up online.

Even though the participants were older than me, it's good to know how much I might be exercising my brain every day without realizing it. And they may conduct additional studies to determine the impact of the Internet on younger people, and also to identify specific aspects of online searching that do the most to increase brain activation. I'll definitely be Googling that.

Wednesday, October 21

Tuition Increase
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

I remember receiving my first college tuition bill in the mail, and wondering how on earth I would ever pay back all the student loans I needed to borrow. I was paying for my education without any help from my family, and only a few scholarships. Throughout my college career, I worked full-time as a bartender so I could take as few loans as possible. I also took as many classes as possible per semester, because after a certain number of credit hours it all cost the same amount -- I wanted to get the most for my money. Luckily, my tuition wasn't quite as costly as it could have been because I opted to attend a less expensive public university, as opposed to some of the more pricey private institutions that peaked my interest.

It costs even more to be a college student now, just about five years later. A new report from the College Board shows college is more expensive than ever. The survey says tuition for private, four-year schools, is about 4.5% higher than in 2008. While the price of four-year public colleges costs 6% more than it did the year before. When it comes to public schools, it costs much more to be an out-of-state student. On average they are paying $18,500, compared to about $7,000 for in state students. To top it off, states aren't giving out as much money as they used to, so students are borrowing even more money. If I was stressed about tuition when I went to school, I certainly would not be a smiling student now.

Tuesday, October 20

Open Enrollment
By Katie Shahriari

It's that time of year - open enrollment - where employees at companies nationwide have to make selections for their health care for 2010.

Now brace yourselves, because health care is changing.

Many employers across the country are shifting more of the costs for health care to their employees - so expect to see higher out-of-pocket costs, meaning higher employee contributions and higher deductibles.

More companies, like mine, are making the switch from co-pays to co-insurance.

With co-insurance, there is no more flat co-pay fee of say $10 to $35. Instead, employees pay a percentage of the cost of treatment. A healthy person will likely have lower out-of-pocket costs.

And that's the idea.

The plans aim to build incentives for employees to stay healthy by making them more aware of costs.

Now I'm a relatively healthy person, but here's my example of how co-insurance might affect me:

Last year, I got pregnant and had a baby girl in May. When I first found out I was expecting I went to my doctor and paid a $15 co-pay. And besides paying for a few lab tests to meet my deductible, I didn't pay another cent. My health insurance plan covered everything.

But that won't be the case if I decide to have a second child in 2010.

Say it costs $15,000 for a normal birth. I can owe upwards of $3000 out-of-pocket for that hospital stay because co-insurance will require me to pay a percentage of my treatment, depending on which coverage I select.

The best piece of advice I have been given is to put money in a flex spending account. It's tax free money!!!

But even that can get tricky as you have to look into your crystal ball and try to figure out how much you will probably spend on health care-related expenses for the year.

I took one out for the first time last year. I set aside $1000 in my tax-free flex spending account and I haven't used it all just yet. But that's because my husband and I are fairly healthy individuals.

My estimated out-of-pocket expense for 2010, not including having another baby, is estimated to be about $2000 so I plan to put at least that in my flex spending account for next year.

Now, if my husband and I decide 2010 is the year our little girl gets a sibling, it looks like we will have to dig deeper in our pockets to afford it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Groupons
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I remember recently reporting how coupon usage is on the rise again and I'm not surprised, people are trying to save a buck everywhere they can these days. So they're clipping coupons and finding them online.

I don't make a single purchase online these days without doing a quick search for a coupon code to get a discount at checkout.

I probably find one about half the time and when I do, it can pay off big.

Recently I found a code for BlueFly.com that saved me $40 on a leather jacket!

About a month ago I started getting emails from Groupon.com and the discounts are significant, usually 50-80% off a product or service at a local store (for me it's NYC, but Groupon services more than a dozen cities).

I haven't used one yet, but it's a pretty interesting idea.

The coupon only applies if a certain number of people commit to buying the product or service. For example, today Groupon has a deal in NYC for three sessions of laser hair removal for $199. Groupon says the service normally costs about $900, which sounds about right to me, because my wife looked into it once.

So how can a company afford to give this big of a discount?

On its website, Groupon says it's "...the power of group buying."

In the Laser hair removal example, the deal is only good if 25 people commit to buy it.

That guarantees the business 25 clients.

Not bad.

Now if Groupon only offered a group deal on gadgets and beer, we'd be in business!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Home for the Holidays
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

This year, when it come to the holidays my family decided to the spend the holiday season at home this year. I have a small family, so there have been years in the past when my family opted to dine out for the holidays and avoid the mess of making a meal at home. Budgets are tighter than usual all around, so as a family we decided to save our money with a little home-cooking and entertaining in our homes. Even our usual Christmas Eve bottle of champagne will be shared in the comfort of my aunt's living room instead of one of our area's many restaurants, as has been our custom.

The research firm Nielsen reports more Americans will likely make similar decisions, saving money by entertaining at home. And, with so many people shopping to find a bargain that fits their budgets, the cheaper domestic brands of alcohol are seeing a jump in sales. Nielsen reports U.S.-made wine, vodka, and beer all selling better than last year.

This holiday season, it looks like some Americans won't be as concerned about where they are but, rather, who they are with, and how much it costs.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pumped for Pumpkin
By Dena Mellick in Atlanta

When I think of fall flavors, apple and pumpkin come to mind as favorites. I'm especially a fan of pumpkin products, whether it's pumpkin pie, pumpkin bars; I've even been known to try pumpkin smoothies. Granted, there was that one pumpkin soup recipe that didn't turn out so well, but it didn't permanently turn me off to the squash.

So, I couldn't help but feel a little nervous when I heard there is a pumpkin crisis this year! There's a national shortage of pie filling and canned pumpkin. Good gourd! But what about my mother's incomparable pumpkin pie? The holidays won't be complete without it!

Before you start getting nervous too, let me fill you in on what I found out. Nestle produces Libby's 100% Pure Pumpkin, and the company says it has between 80 and 90% of the market share when it comes to pumpkin. Nestle spokeswoman Roz O'Hearn told me, "Mother Nature plays a very important role in the success of our harvests. We experienced unfavorable weather conditions last fall, which limited the size of our harvest which meant we had very little surplus entering this season. This year's planting also was affected by rainy weather, but the harvest is underway now and we are now shipping Libby's 100% Pure Pumpkin."

O'Hearn said Libby's has about 5,000 acres in Morton, Illinois, "the pumpkin capital of the world" and their canning facility works round-the-clock once harvest begins.

She advises you should start seeing pumpkin on your store shelves soon. As for the cost, it will be slightly higher this year. O'Hearn says the suggested price for 15 ounce cans is $1.59, while the 29 ounce cans of pumpkin and the pumpkin pie mix should be about $2.59.

So, will there be another shortage next year? O'Hearn says, they just don't know yet, because it all depends on the weather in Illinois. But, for now, you can breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy some pumpkin pie, while maybe even watching "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

DOW Jonesing for 10k
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Today could be the day the DOW Jones Industrial Average hits 10,000...again.

The closely watched index first closed above 10,000 back on March 29th, 1999. And I know you're probably thinking: You're telling me investors are all amped up just to get back to where we were ten years ago? What gives?

Consider these questions: Is the glass half full or empty? Are you a Bull or a Bear?

I like to think of myself as glass half-full type of guy. (At least today I am.) I see 10,000 as a monumental achievement, considering how low we were just about 6 months ago. On March 9th, 2009, the DOW hit the current low for this financial crisis: 6,547! We've come a long way, and sure, we've still got a long way to go, but that's the point.

The stock market is considered a leading economic indicator; a sign of things to come. Businesses are feeling better about the economic climate, and if investors keep buying, clearly they agree.

People certainly aren't going to be dancing in the streets if the DOW reaches 10,000 today, but maybe some will see that good times are coming again.

If the market breaks through this psychological glass ceiling, people just might start to look at that glass of water and say to themselves: "I can see it filling up again soon."

And that's not just a load of Bull, it's the "can do" attitude we need to beat this economic Bear.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Two Paws Up for Dog Vehicles
By Dena Mellick in Atlanta

I am a dog parent. My two pups aren't just like children, they are my children! And while I don't have to pay for college or weddings for my dogs, I do, admittedly shell out a lot for them. Specialized dog food, organic treats, new toys--they all add up, but it's worth it for my babies!

I'm guessing that Honda is banking on the fact that dog parents (yes, many of us refer to ourselves as parents, not owners) only want the best for their furry children. Honda is "un-leashing" a new "Dog-Friendly" version of the Element, next month. The Dog-Friendly Element includes a cargo-area kennel, fans to keep your panting pooch cool, an extendable ramp for getting your canine in and out of the car, bone-printed floor mats and a spill-resistant water bowl.

If you've ever traveled with dogs, you know they can be a challenge in the car. Maybe not as much of a challenge as a human child, but they still require a lot of attention. So as a dog owner, these details seem like a great idea to me! In fact, I think more things should come dog-friendly!

However, the deal is, the dog features run almost $1,000 extra. Add on the $20,525 for the 2010 Element, and you're looking at a potentially pricey dog-mobile. But, like I said, nothing is too good for my dogs, so I give this idea two paws up! Now, if I can only convince my husband that our dogs need their own car...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Being Bernie Madoff
By Alison Kosik at the NYSE

Who would want to be Bernard Madoff? He's arguably one of the most hated men in the United States. Especially if you're an investor who had money in one of his funds. But apparently there's a huge contingent of people who want to be him, at least for a day: Halloween.

Madoff masks are appearing at retail stores and on costume Web sites. Rubie's Costume Company claims it has distributed more than 15,000 rubber masks with the convicted financier's face.

It may be in poor taste, but apparently dead celebrities will also be out in force this Halloween. There's a brisk market in face masks of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon and infomercial pitchman Billy Mays.

But, in my opinion, there's a ghoulish fascination with being Bernie. The guy stole millions from people and charities. Perhaps it's the shock value. Or maybe you don't mind getting pummeled by apples and candy on Halloween by fellow trick-or-treaters.

But industry insiders say that despite his notoriety, Madoff masks are unlikely to outsell those of the erstwhile King of Pop. We'll find out in 19 days...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Softening Loud Commercials
By Alison Kosik at the NYSE

I never understood it. Why, when I would watch a show on TV, the commercials would blow out my eardrums! Or at least it would feel that way. Just about everyone I know complains about how the volume can dramatically change between the show and the commercial. The phenomenon may soon come to an end. The Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act is working its way through Congress. The legislation would prohibit commercials from being "excessively noisy or strident." The Federal Communications Commission would enact the regulations, if the bill wins final approval.

So WHY are commercials so loud in the first place? At a recent hearing, Jim Starzynski, a Principal Engineer and Audio Architect at NBC Universal, testified before the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. He said that "no single industry segment is to blame for unacceptable loudness variation." And he added that "Coordinated action by all groups is key to solving the loudness problem and achieving viewer satisfaction."

Or, if you don't want to wait for all of that to happen, there are some gadgets on the market that can help even out the audio spikes you hear. If you don't want to get them, here's another solution: Just turn off the TV.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Toy Wars
By Alison Kosik at the NYSE

I'm a mother of 2. And like most moms, I love buying toys for my kids. My son is 4 and my daughter is 6 and like most children, they love playing with toys. But I don't like paying high prices for the toys. I don't think I'm cheap. In fact, you should see the collection of toys at my house. It's just that for kids, the novelty of the new toy wears off fast. And then the new toy just gets tossed into the heap with the other "has-been" toys. To me, that's money wasted.

Enter, the toy wars. With the holiday shopping season fast approaching, Wal-Mart is offering 100 toys for $10 each. And now Target has jumped on the low-cost toy bandwagon, slashing prices on many popular toys up to 50%. Now those prices sound just right. A Barbie fashion doll on sale for $5. Or the G.I. Joe Tough Troopers figure marked down to $14.99. The cheaper prices are definitely an incentive for me to gravitate to the toys that are marked down.

But here's the problem: what to do, when my son only wants that darn DS gaming system? Think he'll go for the $14.99 G.I. Joe instead?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Remodeling to Reel 'Em In
By Alison Kosik at the NYSE

When you eat at a restaurant, which do you want more: good food or great ambiance? Perhaps a little of both. But can the ambiance or decor really bring in business? Burger King may be banking on people answering, yes. The home of the whopper wants you to have it your way-- and sit down and enjoy it too!

The fast-food chain is giving its restaurants a fancy makeover -- complete with red flame chandeliers, TV-screen menus and loft-like corrugated metal and brick walls. Burger King has already redesigned several of its restaurants around the world, and plans to revamp more in the coming year.

But is that enough to get me to eat at a Burger King? I haven't eaten there in years! I also can't remember the last time my kids ate there. Will a new coat of paint make it any less of a fast food joint? Will it make me want to slowdown and stick around? The redesign is said to be hip and urban. Maybe patrons will feel they're "cooler" eating at Burger King instead of dining at competitors like McDonald's.

I must say, I am curious what it will look like. Maybe the decor will reel me in after all. And just maybe I'll grab a burger while I'm there.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Search for a Perfect Copy
By Alison Kosik at the NYSE

If you can't afford a certain luxury item, the next best thing is a copy. A really, really good copy. Let's consider luxury handbags. Here in New York City, a luxury purse is the ultimate status symbol. After all, this is the home of "Sex and the City." Many women (and men) I know put a lot of thought and hard-earned cash into the accessory.

So now comes news that luxury accessory maker Coach is suing retailer Target over handbags which it maintains are an "exact replica of a genuine Coach handbag" and therefore trademark infringement. Target has responded that it thought it was buying the genuine article from a supplier. It's not often that big retailers are accused of selling "knocked-off" goods. In New York people who want a "copy" of a high-end purse go south to Chinatown. The NYPD are often carrying out raids in the area and confiscating fake merchandise - or should I say copies of the real thing. In one raid last year, investigators netted more than $1 million in fake goods.

It's a thin dividing line between the genuine article and something that looks - legitimately - very close to it. A line that may yet again get tested in court unless Target and Coach come to an arrangement.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Halloween and Celebrities
By Alison Kosik at the NYSE

It's the chance you've been waiting for! Now you can be a celebrity! Or, at least on Halloween, you can dress up like one. Retailers are counting on the fascination people have with celebrities, to help them boost their bottom-line. And this time retailers are resurrecting the dearly departed to drive sales. The year was marked by some shocking celebrity deaths. The most memorable: Michael Jackson. And you can bet you'll see plenty of MJs walking around, gathering treats. Other popular costumes you're likely to see include Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon and infomercial pitchman Billy Mays.

If you don't have the money to dress up like your favorite celeb, you can always put together looks with accessories and clothes from your own closet. Maybe that red leather jacket with the studs from the '80s that you haven't been able to give away? Nothing like Halloween to bring back the old favorites.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Coke and a Smile?
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

I admit I am a bit of a brand loyalist. I've driven Acura cars for 15 years. I prefer a cup o' joe from Dunkin' Donuts over Starbucks. And when it comes to soda, it's Coke over Pepsi. So I was intrigued when I saw Coca Cola in the news today.

The soft drink giant is changing the packaging on almost all of its products to display certain nutritional facts more prominently.

This comes as lawmakers are facing pressure to consider taxes on sugary soft drinks and junk foods blamed for rising rates of obesity in this country.

Coke said the change to the labels is its way of helping to promote a healthy lifestyle. But if that's the case, I have to wonder if this move will have an impact on sales.

For the record, there are almost 150 calories in a 12 oz. can of coke and 40 grams of sugar! So anyone trying to be more healthy might decide to steer clear.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Airlines' Addiction to Fees
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Talk about spreading holiday cheer!

Continental is the latest airline to add that little extra something to your holiday travel experience: more specifically, another one of those fees!

The Houston-based airline is now on a growing list of air carriers adding a $10 surcharge to tickets booked for travel around the Thanksgiving and New Year's holidays. The fees apply to most fares on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the two days after New Year's day.

United and American started the latest surcharge trend last week. Delta and US Airways are also now on board. And, of course, the new surcharges are already on top of the other fees you're paying to check baggage, rent a blanket, or eat a snack. You name it. These days there's probably a fee for it.

The DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics says baggage fees alone, for all the US airlines, add up to more than $1.2 billion! And that's just for the first six months of this year!

I don't get it. Why not just raise the ticket price already? I think most passengers can do basic math. We know these fees all add to the total ticket price.

In the spirit of the Christmas season, at least the new surcharges make for perfect holiday colors: passengers' angry red faces, go perfectly with all that extra green airlines are raking in!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Social Networking Status
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

Ok, full disclosure time.

I have a Facebook page and a Twitter page. I write silly status updates. I tweet with my friends...and sometimes celebrities. I post funny pictures. I chit-chat with old friends and new. I check Facebook and Twitter from my Blackberry (it helps pass the time on my train rides to the NYSE!).

Some might say I'm addicted to those sites. Not me. I prefer to think of myself as a social networking enthusiast. That's right. Enthusiast! Not an addict.

The thing is, I know I'm not the only one who does this. Lots of my friends do the very same thing, some even more than I do.

And now there's a new report by The Nielson Co. that's backing me up, and proving that plenty of people outside my circle of friends get sucked into the social networking vortex.

The Nielson report states that Web surfers in the United States are spending three times as much of their Web time on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, compared to just a year ago.

Last month alone, Americans spent 17% of their time on social networking sites, compared with 6%, a year ago.

Advertisers have taken notice. And they're doing the same thing... sort of. According to Nielson, ad spending for those sites doubled, even with the recession!

Now that I've been fully honest with you all, I feel much better. So, if you'll excuse me, I need to go update my Facebook status. And respond to David Cook's latest Tweet.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Not "On the Road Again"
By Dena Mellick in Atlanta

I was catching up with a few former college friends recently, and we were discussing how none of us had moved in a while. Working in the news business as we do often means moving from station to station and state to state, and they were joking about scratching that itch to move by changing living locations, but not states.

I know the feeling well; my father was in the military, and most of my childhood was spent adjusting to new states and new schools. Even after he got out of the military, my father's "state roaming" continued for a while, although my family has been settled in one spot for sometime now. The frequent moving wasn't as bad as it sounds. I learned to quickly adjust to new settings, and I also got to live in some pretty awesome states, Hawaii and California among them!

It seems the American way, historically, has been to move in order to find bigger and better things, thus the legend of the Wild West! But new data from the Census Bureau shows the recession has had an effect on this American trend.

More people are staying put. Only about 2.4% of Americans moved state to state last year, compared to 2.5% the year before. Experts say it's a result of people being unable to sell their homes, as well as wanting to hold on to what they have. Add to that, the fact that a lot of baby boomers are settled into their jobs and are not ready to retire and move.

In fact, the data showed one-time destination places, like sunny Florida, have actually dropped in population. The Sunshine State, hit hard by the housing crisis, may actually have fewer people now than in 2007. California, also part of the housing bubble, saw a decline in new residents.

So where are the few people who are moving, actually going? Try Washington D.C., Alaska and Wyoming. Texas was also a star state last year, when it came to population growth. Seems some of that Wild West desire is still there!

And, with more signs that the economy is heading toward recovery, I'm sure it won't be long before Americans have the "itch" and the means to get "on the road again."

Friday, September 25, 2009

One Wheel is Better Than Two!
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

When I was 10 years old, my dad got me a unicycle. It was a birthday gift, totally out of the blue. I don't remember ever asking for it, and no one I knew could ride the thing, but after a few months of practice I finally figured it out.

I remember being so proud of myself, I rode my unicycle all over the neighborhood. Eventually, I could maneuver it so well, I even pedaled it through a Burger King drive-through to pick up lunch one day.

By the time I was in high school I was getting really good at it, and I moved up, literally, to a six footer. I even rode a unicycle across the stage to get my diploma when I graduated!

My unicycles are long gone now, but the flood of memories came back when I saw Honda debut its newest invention yesterday.

The U3-X looks kind of like a vacuum cleaner but it's really more like an electric unicycle. And forget months of practice, this thing does the balancing for you! Kind of like a Segway, you can move any direction just by leaning; an electric motor drives a small set of wheels underneath. The company says the U3-X is intended for commuters or the elderly, but Honda says it could also be used for fun, and they sure looked like they were having fun demonstrating it!

Sadly, the U3-X is just a prototype and Honda doesn't have plans to actually put it into production. It's too bad, because an invention like that could allow just about anyone to experience the maneuverability of one wheel.

But I'm still glad I learned it the old fashioned way. Good balance is a skill I still have today, journalistically and physically.

Over the years, I've run into street performers on unicycles, and I've even hopped on a few times just to see if I've still got it.

I do.

I guess it's just like riding a bike, except there's only one wheel!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Starbucks, There's an "App" for That
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

This morning I went to Starbucks to get myself a sweet and caffeinated beverage. I walked through the door, and straight into the end of the line. There was no way I had the time to wait in a line that long. I turned around, sighed, and headed to work, wishing that Starbucks delivered or that I could call ahead. If only I had an "app" that could virtually take me to the front of the line.

Well, it may be on its way. Starbucks says its customers might soon be able to place orders, and even pay for their venti vanilla lattes, using their iPhones. The software application is being tested now in Seattle and San Francisco. And, they plan to unveil another app that would help you find the nearest Starbucks, and give menu information.

Apple likes to say "there's an app for that," and when it comes to taming a craving for Starbucks that could soon be true. My job comes with a BlackBerry, so I'm not rushing out to buy an iPhone because of its array of apps, but if there was an app that actually brews coffee, we might be in business.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Twitter TMI
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Here's my problem with Twitter: TMI. As in too much information.

I would like to keep in touch with my friends more, I'm pretty bad at that, but I don't need to know what they're doing every moment of every day. And I don't necessarily want them always knowing what I'm up to either.

I will admit Twitter has come in handy for me once or twice when I really needed to get some information to an anchor at a TV station I was about to do a report for. I knew he was always logged on to Twitter while "on set" and he got the message. But other than that, for me, Twitter just sucks up time I don't have, wading through an ocean of useless information.

Of course, there are countless people who will disagree with me and it turns out there are some serious "Tweetaholics" out there.

According to Internet audience research company Crowd Science, which apparently did some serious "tweetsearch" on the issue, one-in-ten Twitter users admitted to tweeting while driving in the last 30 days!

That's pretty scary on its own, but then the research company dropped this bomb:

17% of Twitter users say they tweet while they're on the toilet!

Now that's really TMI!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Check Your Checks at the Door Please!
By Dena Mellick in Atlanta

Whole Foods is asking some customers to check their checks at the door. Before anyone panics, you should know this move is only in the testing phase, according to Whole Foods. The organic grocer is seeing how customers react at two California stores, and one in Arizona.

When I read this, I wasn't really concerned about the possibility that Whole Foods, a store I frequent, might not take checks in the future. I mean, does anyone really use checks anymore? Since I don't consider myself the standard by any means, I thought, maybe I should ask around.

So, I did a quick, very small, informal survey of some of my co-workers, to see if using checks at stores is the norm. What I found is that most of them don't use checks at the store (this obviously wouldn't include those warehouse clubs that only take checks) and would still shop at a grocery store, even if it did not take checks. As one of my co-workers put it, "plastic is king!" Another person told me she only wrote a check at a store once when she lost her debit card, and she felt very awkward doing so.

But, what several of them did point out is that their parents would be very upset if personal checks were suddenly banned at their favorite supermarket. They said their parents don't like to use debit cards and are in the habit of writing checks. In fact, one colleague said his mother is afraid someone would steal an ATM or debit card, and she thinks checks are safer.

Security is actually part of the reason Whole Foods is thinking about possibly banning personal checks. The company sent me a statement from regional vice president Bill Jordan that said, "While our primary intention is to better speed people though the lines, check fraud is on the increase, and that unfortunately makes it more difficult for the remaining customers who prefer to pay this way. To help reduce fraud, we have a several step personal check approval process that can often inconvenience other customers in line. We're looking a solution that benefits every customer. Cash, debit cards and credit cards can be processed quickly and come with added protections that protect the interests of the consumer and the retailer, and are therefore our preferred forms of payment."

A survey by the Association for Financial Professionals looked at fraudulent attacks on businesses and found that last year, checks were the payment method most frequently targeted by criminals to commit fraud. And a survey of 176 banks by the American Bankers Association revealed that attempted check fraud at the nation's banks doubled between 2003 and 2006.

So no doubt Whole Foods and some other grocers are trying to eliminate the cost of check fraud in addition to the inconvenience to customers.

I have to say, with this in mind, I don't mind checking my check book when I shop.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Healthy" Refund
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

My mother always told me not to believe everything I read or heard in an ad, or saw on a label. It seems nowadays so many products in the grocery store tout their health benefits on their labels. I've always taken my mother's words into consideration when reading such labels and deciding which products or brands to buy, careful not to fall for false overblown advertising lines.

Now, Dannon is facing the consequences of being accused of stepping over the line. The company has settled a class-action lawsuit in regard to claims it made about the health benefits of its Activia and DanActive brands. Without admitting any wrongdoing, the company has set up a $35 million dollar fund to reimburse customers up to $100 each for yogurt they bought.

And Dannon will reword the products' labels to highlight the scientific names of the "probiotic" cultures in the yogurt and remove the word "immunity" from DanActive labels. The company says it is making the move to, quote, "avoid the distraction and expense of litigation." I guess along with "healthy" advertising, Dannon will give its customers a "healthy" reimbursement.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Southwest Cuts Lemons
By Dana Simmons-Greco

Some people prefer limes with their drinks but I prefer lemons, even in a cold beer that is typically served with a lime.

So, it was not sweet news to me when I learned that Southwest is cutting lemons from its beverage service.

What about the lemon lovers out there who aren't into going green for their beverages?

Why would Southwest do such a thing to the lemon fans?

Simple: Southwest says most of its customers prefer limes to lemons.

The Dallas-based air carrier explained that at the end of its 3,000 plus flights each day, it found a lot of lemons while cleaning up.

Southwest estimates slicing lemons from its service will save the company about $100,000 per year, in addition to reducing the airline's waste.

If I'm flying Southwest, I suppose I'll have to learn to like limes, or live without a citrus garnish in my drink.

Southwest isn't all about eliminating options from its beverage service though.

The airline also shared that it's expanding early-morning beverage service to include more than just coffee, water or orange juice.

At least I'll have more options if I take an early flight with the airline.

It appears it's not all sour news from Southwest.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Click and Buy
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Just about everyone I know has a Tivo or DVR hooked up to their TVs these days.

I've got one too, and sure, it's convenient for recording shows when I'm not around, but let's be honest, we all skip through the commercials.

That's great news for TV viewers, but not so great for broadcasters and their advertisers.

Those commercials pay for the free TV programs we love and if we're fast-forwarding through them, the advertisers are really getting the short end of the stick.

And they know it.

Considering the fact that ultimately those commercials end up paying my salary, I think it's safe to say that most of us in the "TV biz" know the commercial viewing process has to change eventually.

Enter Cablevision.

This week the cable provider announced it's going to start offering clickable ads.

That means a banner promoting a product or service will soon appear at the bottom of Cablevision customer's TV screens during the commercial.

Viewers don't necessarily have to watch the commercial, but if they like what they see on the banner, they can use their remotes to click and get more information or coupons.

Eventually, Cablevision says, viewers may also be able to click and buy too.

Other cable operators are testing similar interactive commercials.

I'm not sure how this is going to go over with TV viewers.

But coming from someone in the industry, I sure hope it works because I like my job!

Just please don't use your Tivo to fast-forward through my segments!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Smoking Ban Rolls on
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Planes, trains and now automobiles, it's getting harder for smokers to find a place to light up.

Starting in October, rental car companies Avis and Budget are banning smoking in their entire fleet of U.S. rental cars.

Now I'm sure this is going to get a lot of smokers fired up, but as a non-smoker, it's just fine by me.

A spokesman for the parent company of both Avis and Budget told USA Today their number one customer request is a smoke free car and I can understand why.

I got a rental car in Hawaii this past January that reeked of smoke and consequently for the first few days I drove it, I reeked of smoke too!

We all know how hard it is to get rid of that smell.

I remember when smoking in bars and restaurants was commonplace and the second I got home from a night out, the clothes went in the hamper.

So I'm not terribly surprised the rental car companies made the move.

I'm sure they get a lot of complaints and the cleaning process probably takes a lot longer when a smoker rents a car.

Avis and Budget seem pretty serious about it too.

They're going to do a smell test when cars come back and if it stinks, smokers are going to have to cough up an extra $250 for cleaning!

Monday, September 14, 2009

By Katie Shahriari

Today marks the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers - the event that kicked off a downward spiral of the world's economy.

It's no coincidence that President Obama chose this day to deliver an address from the heart of Wall Street, renewing his push for more oversight, in hopes of preventing another financial free-fall.

Congress has had a year to pass stricter regulations and government oversight of the financial system.

But little has been done to change the regulatory system.

Banks that borrowed billions from taxpayers are still betting on the same unregulated and complex financial products that got them in trouble in the first place.

Just this weekend, the list of banks failing in 2009 grew to 92 with regional banks in Illinois, Minnesota and Washington falling victim to the trend.

So, one year on, why has there been so little government action?

For one, there's been a change in administration. Still, just a month after Mr. Obama took office he called on Congress to quickly reform the "outdated" system of financial oversight. He called for tougher capital requirements for banks and increased transparency of markets in which banks trade complex and risky financial products.

That call was met with resistance from both lawmakers and bankers alike.

Some lawmakers think the president's plan gives the Federal Reserve too much oversight power.

And bankers strongly oppose the proposed creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would regulate products like mortgages and credit cards.

Then there's health care.

The Obama administration has been on a major campaign to push Congress to pass a new health care bill, so stricter regulation in the financial sector has taken a back seat.

But public sentiment is making it clear it's time for the administration to make a stronger push for some level of regulation.

A new poll by Associated Press-GfK shows Americans still fear another financial meltdown.

According to the poll, seven out of 10 Americans surveyed don't think the government has done enough to stop another economic disaster.

There is much work to be done.

And Wall Street won't soon forget the fall of mighty Lehman and the ripples it sent through the global economy.

Friday September 11, 2009

Remembering September 11th
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Something happened this morning at the NYSE that has only happened a handful of times in this building's long history. For one minute, it was completely silent on the trading floor. When the moment was over, the opening bell rang as usual, and the traders were back to work. But there was none of the usual applause.

The streets surrounding the NYSE are also quieter today. Usually it's crowded with tourists snapping photos, but now police have the area locked down for the memorial service. In place of the tourists posing for pictures, there are firefighters and other men and women in uniform, along with family and friends of the victims of the September 11th attacks.

It's fitting that it's rainy and gray outside on this day of remembrance, just a few blocks from the site where the Twin Towers once stood tall.

Thursday, September 10, 2009
The Smarts for Smartphones
By Dena Mellick

Does it seem like everyone you know has an iPhone or an iClone? Smartphone sales are on the rise and some analysts predict sales of the phones will surpass worldwide PC sales by the end of 2011. I just purchased my own iClone and love the quick access to the Internet. But all that easy access is going to create Internet gridlock, because smartphones eat up more bandwidth than normal phones. And in some places, the gridlock is already evident. AT&T, the exclusive iPhone provider, has benefited from sales of the popular Apple device, but it's also discovered problems when big groups of users get together. AT&T's Executive Director of Media Relations, Mark Siegel, tells me the company definitely learned from the frequently-referenced South by Southwest conference in Austin earlier this year, during which a congregation of customers lost service and AT&T had to act quickly to restore it.

Unfortunately, the problem for carriers is only going to get worse. According to the Cisco VNI Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast, released earlier this year, a single high-end smartphone generates more data traffic than 30 basic-feature cell phones. However, a 3G-connected laptop generates more data traffic than 15 smartphones. Add netbooks, wireless connected eReaders like the Kindle, and other yet-to-be revealed bandwidth guzzlers to the mix and you've got a recipe for a major wireless data pile-up. Cisco predicts that mobile data traffic will double every year, reaching 2 exabytes per month in 2013 (there are eighteen zeros at the end of an exabyte for those who are wondering).

I asked Siegel how AT&T, which claims the highest level of wireless data usage of any carrier, is gearing up for not only the increasing popularity of smartphones, but the onslaught of wireless demand from other devices.

Until it can build out the next generation of its network (known as 4G), AT&T says it is expanding the reach of its current 3G technology, adding 1,900 new cell sites this year, and looking to its Wi-Fi network to carry some of the burden. It's interesting to note, in the second quarter of this year, the telecom reported 49% of Wi-Fi connections were a result of smartphone devices instead of laptops. As Siegel points out, people are starting to use smartphones as handheld computers.

Eventually, AT&T's exclusive iPhone contract with Apple will end, giving other mobile carriers a chance to experience some of AT&T's gains and pains, although Siegel says, "We've never talked about the terms of our agreement with Apple, and we're not going do so now."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

No Childcare? How About a Baby Hotel?
By Diane King at the NYSE

What parent isn't looking for more baby-sitting options? Well, how about a baby hotel to help with your little one? According to published reports, a baby hotel was set up by a mom in South Africa who wanted a more flexible day care center for her three kids.

The hotel is open 24-hours a day, seven days a week. The location: an upscale suburb of Johannesburg. The normal amenities, like an on-demand concierge aren't your usual fare; instead it caters to the well-heeled clientele, in the form of potty training, a bath and dinner. Other reports say that free cuddles are available if a client has a nightmare. Hmmm....that idea may be a little risky in the United States.

And how do they deal with the potential dilemma of mixing up infants? The name of your child is taped to the headboard of one of the 50 beds.

A one-night stay at the hotel will run about $70. The overall concept seems to have picked up steam in South Africa as another center is set to open later this year. Although the indulgence may be a bit of a stretch for some parents, and nothing similar exists in the United States yet, it's an interesting take on how to address childcare challenges.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Government Looks to Help You Save
By Diane King at the NYSE

Although the national savings rate has risen to near 4.5% of disposable personal income, Americans haven't been great at stock-piling for retirement or even a rainy day. For instance, take this statistic: roughly 40 percent of individuals over the age of 55 have less than $50,000 in savings, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Given that life expectancy is 78 years, that's not much of a cushion. And about half the workforce don't have a workplace retirement plan.

To address the issue, the government is stepping in. In his weekly radio and Internet address, President Obama says the IRS is making changes to help people build up their savings. Some of the changes at hand include auto-enrollment in retirement plans and allowing tax filers to get their tax refund in 2010 via a U.S. savings bond - by ticking a box on their tax return. The administration is also making it simpler for companies to convert unused sick and vacation days into a 401K plan and making auto-enrollment easier.

Will the changes help? The U.S. government can't quantify how much this program individually will lift the savings rate, but it says it is simply focusing on those who do not save enough.

And the personal responsibility factor is big in this effort to lift the savings rate. The changes are voluntary - so taking advantage of these options rests with the employer or you, the employee.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Women may outnumber men in the workforce
By Diane King at the NYSE

Women are gaining on men, and this time it's in the workplace. As of June, women worked in more than 49 percent of the country's jobs. That's according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the current pace - women could outnumber men in the workforce by October.

As a woman, I was happy to hear the number at first, but it's the reason behind it that is troubling. Men have lost nearly three-quarters of the more than 6 million jobs shed since the start of the recession. That hits home with me personally, as many more of my male friends have been laid off. Experts believe it's because some of the hardest hit sectors - like construction and manufacturing - have traditionally been dominated by men. Meanwhile, the sectors of the economy still showing growth are those that typically hire women, like the healthcare and education industries.

Now, one instance where women are some of the biggest beneficiaries of the tide turning in a truer sense is local government. Cities, schools and local jurisdictions have cut more than 80,000 men from payrolls, while adding nearly double that amount of females. Since there is still hiring there - that seems to signal a skill set advantage.

But while women are gaining on men in holding actual employment, there's not parity across the board. Women still earn less than men on average, and the top-paying executive ranks still represent something of a glass ceiling for the ladies. So equity in the workplace at least when it comes to getting the corner office or equal pay - still looks a way off.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

YouTube Movies
By Beth Hall

Currently, when I see movie trailers on TV, I decide whether the movie is a go-to-the-theater movie or a wait-til-it's-out-on-DVD movie. Most of the time, it's a wait-til-it's-out-on-DVD since tickets, and the obligatory popcorn buy, cost so much. And my DVD viewing is actually through the ON-Demand service with my local cable company, but now there's a new option.

Google's YouTube, the popular video site, is in talks with several major movie studios like Lions Gate Entertainment, Sony and Warner Bros. to stream movies on the site, on a rental basis, according to the Wall Street Journal which quotes sources close to the talks.

To do this YouTube would have to charge for the videos -- something it hasn't done before. The report says rentals would likely cost $3.99 -- comparative to ON-Demand or local video-store rentals. And, the movies may include new releases, available the same day the come out on DVD. The YouTube-Hollywood partnership could be a win-win, with YouTube garnering income it currently only gets from advertisers and Hollywood picking up sales from down market of DVD sales. The venture is also an effort to compete with other download services like iTunes and Netflix. Negotiations are still in flux according to the Wall Street Journal, mainly dealing with advertising and revenue distribution. A YouTube spokesman told the WSJ they're always working to expand relationships with movie studios and videos they offer their community.

It sounds like a good idea, but I'm not sure I want to be tied to my computer to watch movies. I haven't quite moved with all the technical advances, and like my big-screen TV over my computer monitor.

So, I may have to stick with watching laughing babies and reenactments of Michael Jackson's Thriller performed by inmates in a Philippine prison, as my YouTube viewership. As of now those videos are still free!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Early Boarding Fee! What's Next?
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I've flown Southwest several times, and generally, I've had a good experience with the nation's largest discount airline. Prices seem fair and the schedules seem to work well for me, but I've always hated the "cattle call" boarding process.

If you've flown Southwest, then you know there are no assigned seats. So if you're traveling with someone else and you don't get lucky with boarding group A or B, in my experience, you're not going to be sitting together. And, everybody knows this, that's why, long before boarding, you almost always see Southwest passengers scrambling to get in a line that usually weaves though the airport.

Today, Southwest is offering a solution. You can board early now, but...wait for it...you have to pay a $10 fee!

This fee stuff is starting to get really old, really fast. Sure I know airlines are struggling, and I certainly don't want to pay for services I don't need, but I really hate being nickel and dimed to death for things that should be basic!

There's an easy way around the "cattle call" boarding experience: assigned seating. But I suspect there's a reason Southwest chose the fee option instead. And it may have more to do with making extra cash, than passenger convenience.

Convenience and comfort are top priorities when I choose an airline. So the last thing I want to do is pay a $10 fee for the convenience of early boarding, so I can sit on the plane and wait even longer!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

To Get the Shot or Not
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Having the flu is never a fun experience. To me, getting a flu shot is even worse. I hate needles and I tend to get a bit queasy after a flu shot. It's also a rare occurrence for me to get sick with the flu, so I usually opt out. It also costs money to get a flu shot, which many Americans don't have a lot of in this economic state. Many Americans are also without jobs or without health insurance or both, making the flu shot not an option. This year though, U.S. health officials warn this flu season could be a rough one.

Now, several pharmacies are announcing programs to help Americans get vaccinated against the flu. Walgreens says it will give away one million dollars worth of seasonal flu shots to the uninsured. The pharmacy will distribute vouchers for free vaccines, but they are only available in certain stores in select cities across the country on a first come, first serve basis. For self-paying patients, or people with insurance, the shots will cost $24.99.

CVS will have a similar program, offering free vaccines for unemployed Americans who are actively seeking a job. It will give out 100,000 vouchers for free season flu vaccines at the store's clinic locations. For those with a job, or who don't make it to the store in time for a free shot, the cost will be $30. Though CVS says most insurance plans that it accepts cover the flu shots.

Rite Aid has flu shots for $30 also, though only with proof of insurance. I can even get one right here at the clinic at the NYSE for $20, which is about how much it costs for me to visit my doctor anyway. They sure are making it easy for me to be able to get that nasty little shot.

Officials say as children return to school, there could be another rash of the H1N1 flu with a possibility of 30,000 to 90,000 deaths in the country. H1N1, often called "Swine Flu," is different from seasonal flu and requires a different shot. Officials warn that during this year's flu season about 30 percent of Americans will contract some form of the H1N1 flu. More than 1 million Americans have come down with H1N1 flu since April.

On those warnings I might be dragging myself to the nearest vaccination location, and facing my fear of the flu shot.

Monday, August 31, 2009

All in the Family
By Carter Evans

My first experience with investing was back when I was about 14 years old. My mother gave me a few shares of Marvel Entertainment as a Christmas gift. At the time, it was worth a little more than $10 a share, but as comic book sales dwindled, so did the value of my stock.

Later in life, I ended up selling for around $5 a share when I needed some cash. I didn't know much about investing but I figured comic books were dying off and I'd better get some money while I still could.

That was before Marvel shares picked back up with the release of Spider Man, and other successful films with Marvel characters. And today, we're learning Spider Man is going to be getting cozy with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Disney is buying Marvel Entertainment in a deal worth $4 billion, and it means Disney will acquire 5,000 Marvel characters. It's great news for Marvel shareholders.

Today, that stock I sold for about $5 a share, is up 29% from where it closed on Friday and is currently trading at nearly $50 a share. Now I really wish I had held onto it!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Twittering for Jobs?
By Dena Mellick

I was resistant to the entire social networking craze for a long time. Finally, last fall, I joined Facebook and was surprised by 1) how much fun it is and 2) how many people I reconnected with.

I loved e-mail, but before Facebook, I just didn't feel the need to "network" on the Web. I know I'm not the only who has felt that way.

But there's good reason to change that attitude, especially, if you need a job. In addition to being connected to a lot more people who could have job leads, you could actually find a position on the 'Net.

Not every business is posting those want ads in the paper anymore. Some businesses are doing their recruiting through sites like Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Take for instance, Austin-based BreakingPoint Systems, which provides tools for testing computer networks. Instead of running an ad in the paper for "a marketing director with social media expertise," the small business put it on Twitter, where the candidate would have to find it.

After weeks of Twitter exchanges, and of course, an interview, the company found its employee. BreakingPoint says social media tools are ideal for small businesses, because it's a way to cut hiring costs like expensive recruiters or posting ads.

With more job losses every week, it's important to cover all the bases in a job search.

So, if you want to get a leg up, it might just be time to throw in the towel and become a "friend" or a "follower" online!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Camaros and Pizza
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

If you own a Camaro, today you're going to get more than looks if you drive it to a Papa John's pizza shop. You'll get a free pizza. It sure sounds like a strange promotion, but the back story is pretty incredible.

In 1983 John Schnatter made one of the toughest decisions in his young life. He sold his prized '71 Camaro for $2800 to help his family keep their Tavern afloat. He also used some of the money to buy kitchen equipment so he could convert the broom closet into a pizza kitchen. The rest is Papa John's history.

http://www.papasroadtrip.com/

Now Papa John's is a wild success, and it's the third largest pizza chain in the world. These days, Schnatter can afford to buy any car he wants, but the car of his dreams was long gone and apparently irreplaceable. So Schnatter started a nationwide search for his old ride. Now he has it back.

Schnatter paid the current owner a quarter of a million dollars and $25,000 to the guy he sold it to back in the '80s for helping him find it again. A small price to pay, because Schnatter says the decision to sell his car was the foundation for the business he built.

Now he says he's extremely grateful to have both the business and the car of his dreams again because, "...it represents my roots in this business. And, perhaps it can serve as proof to others that hard decisions today can pay off for you later, if you're willing to believe in what you are doing."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

3-D Sports?
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

I'm a sports fan, so if I'm not actually watching a game from the stands, watching in high definition is the only option for me.

But now, ESPN is taking sports-watching to a whole new level and has me really pondering the future of sports broadcasting. The network will be testing its 3-D capabilities during the upcoming USC/Ohio State college football game. The NFL has already experimented with 3-D in theaters - and some NBA games have been shown in 3-D.

But this will be ESPN's first 3-D telecast. The network has been testing the technology for two years and is continuing to figure out how a 3-D scenario could really work in a live broadcast of a game.

To see how it works for this particular game, you'll have to be on USC's campus or in select theaters in Columbus, Hartford, Connecticut or Hurst, Texas to watch the 3-D broadcast.

Will 3-D be the next thing to take over sports-watching?

It'll be pretty cool to see how it plays out with football. But my absolute favorite sport is hockey and the possibility of a 3-D National Hockey League game is pretty amazing. Bone crushing checks... brutal fights... oh yes, I can see it now...through my 3-D glasses, of course!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Thinking Twice at Checkout
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I admit it, I've ditched an item or two at the checkout line that I decided I didn't want. I've also noticed I'm doing it more than usual lately. In fact, I've become so comfortable with it, that I have no problems just telling the clerk at the register, "I decided I don't want this." And apparently I'm not alone.

A retail consultant recently told the Associated Press that these days, about 25% of the time, shoppers ditch at least one item at check out. In good times, that number is closer to 10%.

It's bad news for retailers, but I'm not so sure it's a bad thing for me. For one, I'm scrutinizing my spending more. But secondly, I think I may be eating a little healthier because I'm keeping better track of my cash. These days, when the numbers are increasing on the register at the grocery store I find myself looking at the items left in my cart and saying to myself, "Do I really need that quart of ice cream?" Most of the time the answer is no.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ending Trade-ins, Curbing Trading?
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

This morning I checked the Asian markets to see how they ended the trading week. Most markets were slightly lower, with Japan's Nikkei among the biggest losers. Analysts are saying that falling shares in the auto sector were partially to blames for Japan's losses.

Shares of Honda, Toyota, and Nissan all slipped lower in Asian trading.

None of those companies are reporting sales or earnings today. So, what's sending shares down? Well, it seems that investors are concerned auto sales will spiral downward after news the U.S. government's popular "cash-for-clunkers" incentive is ending sooner than anticipated. U.S. officials say the $3 billion program will end by next Monday, at 8 p.m. EST because the program is running out of funds. The program offered car buyers rebates worth up to $4,500 to trade in their old gas-guzzlers for more fuel efficient vehicles that met government standards.

"Cash-for-clunkers" has been a success in bringing in business to dealerships, and there's growing concern that without these rebates, people won't be buying cars. So far, more than 450,000 dealers are reporting nearly $2 billion worth of rebate transactions. However, without the funds to support the program, it just can't continue. Auto dealers are already pulling out in droves, because they say the government is taking way too long to process payments.

Something to note -- ending this program isn't just affecting automakers in the U.S. From the looks of the Asian auto stocks, you can see it's also affecting automakers overseas. With such major losses posted by automakers this year, I can see why investors would become worried so easily. It has been nice, though, to see a U.S. stimulus effort have such a positive effect on the struggling sector, helping to get consumers buying again and somewhat boosting auto sales.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Airfare Deal Grounded
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Last week there was a lot of buzz about JetBlue's "All You Can Jet" airfare deal. Unlike a lot of airline fare specials, this one was pretty simple: buy a $599 pass and you could fly all you want, anywhere JetBlue goes between September 8th and October 8th.

Some of my friends were seriously considering buying the unlimited pass, but this week, most of them were still trying to see if they could get enough time off work to make it worth while. It's too late now. You snooze, you lose.

When JetBlue announced the program, it said customers would be able to purchase passes through Friday or "while supplies last." Seems supplies ran out and JetBlue grounded the popular program. A spokesperson wouldn't say how many tickets the airline sold, but he did say JetBlue had to shut it down earlier than expected to ensure everyone who had a pass would be able to book a seat.

I'm not privy to the costs associated with this program, but I do know that airlines in general have been operating on razor thin margins lately. It appears, however, to be a success for JetBlue (good PR if nothing else), so maybe other airlines will take note and offer similar unlimited deals in the future.

If they do, I just hope they give enough lead time so I can get the days off of work!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Empty Mailbox, Empty Pockets
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Just last night a friend and I were discussing the amount of junk mail we receive at our e-mail addresses. He was complaining that every morning when he checks his e-mail, he has hundreds of new items in his junk folder. At the same time, I've noticed that I'm receiving less junk mail in my mailbox at home. I don't receive nearly as many fliers from stores, or credit card offers as I did when I first moved into my apartment last year.

I thought I was just getting lucky. Luck might not be the reason, though. Today, I read that advertisers are actually cutting back on the amount of money they spend on junk mail, or as they like to call it in the industry "direct mail." According to market research firm Mintel, the credit card industry sent out nearly 5.5 billion pieces of junk mail in 2008, but for the first six months of this year, only 900 million pieces of mail have been sent. And, that's just one industry that is cutting back on "direct mail." Directmail.com says the mortgage industry, charities, and political groups are also cutting back on the e-mails they send.

But, analysts say it's actually a bad sign for the economy. They say it signals that fewer companies want to sell you their services, as fewer people are out to spend money, and they are losing business. I don't like the idea that companies are struggling in this economy. However, do I like the fact that I will receive less "direct mail."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A New Chapter for Reader's Digest
By Dena Mellick

The publisher of the widely-read Reader's Digest magazine appears to have become the latest victim of a media industry struggling with a recession and changing consumer tastes.

The Reader's Digest Association announced Monday it will likely file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to cut its debt load.

When I heard this, frankly, I couldn't help feeling a little sad, because I have my own memories of the magazine, which has been around since the 1920s.

Growing up, my brother and I would fight over the pocket-sized magazine because we each wanted to read the jokes sections.

In college, I even submitted my own comic vignette, although, it didn't get picked up by the magazine.

After school, thanks to my mom, who loves the magazine herself, I continued to receive Reader's Digest, for a time.

I liked to throw the small magazine in my bag and pull it out anytime I had to wait.

But after a while, I noticed a pile of untouched magazines pile up, and I asked my mother to stop renewing my subscription. I simply didn't have the time or interest to read the monthly magazine anymore.

I remember one time, when my husband saw my Reader's Digest, he asked, "Isn't that a magazine for old people?"

We laughed about it, but it seems he wasn't the only person with that perception. The Washington Post described Reader's Digest as "the publication that grandmas used to love."

And while the magazine will continue publication, that nostalgic, old-timey feel could be partially to blame for the company's situation now.

The average reader's age is 52, according to the magazine, and although it has tried to make editorial changes, circulation numbers, for what has been the most popular monthly general interest magazine, have been slipping.

It even had to start selling ad space on its back cover--a spot that had traditionally been used for art.

It feels like a Catch-22 for the magazine; it has to evolve to cater to readers interested in diet or entertainment news, but in doing so, it loses the Reader's Digest essence.

But as this week's bankruptcy news proves, it is definitely time for a new chapter for Reader's Digest.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Water Waste
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I have an amazing modern convenience in my home; it's called a faucet. I just turn the knob and like magic, water flows instantly! As a bonus, it's fluoridated to keep my teeth nice and strong. But the best part is, it's so cheap, I can use gallons of the stuff and it only costs a few dollars!

That's why the bottled water business has always amazed me. Sure it's convenient, but to my budget-conscious mind, it's not worth it. Here in NYC, a bottle of water at a corner store often costs more than the bottle of soda next to it in the cooler!

So I'm not surprised to hear that sales of bottled water are falling for the first time in years. Last week Nestle, one of the world's biggest water bottlers said second quarter profits were down almost 3%. The company said falling bottled water sales contributed to the decline.

We're all trying to save these days and cutting back on bottled water purchases seems like a very easy way to save a few bucks. In fact if you buy a $1.50 bottle of water every day, that adds up to about $550 a year!

In a recession, the conveniences that aren't necessarily necessities are the first to go. Better look out Starbucks!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Lacking Cents!
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

No offense to President Lincoln, but what's the deal with the new penny?

The U.S. Mint is releasing the third coin in a four penny series today to honor Lincoln's 200th birthday. But I'm thinking Honest Abe would turn in his grave if he knew what the government pays to make those pennies.

A spokeswoman at the Mint told me, with today's copper, zinc and tin prices, the government actually pays 1.4 cents to manufacture each penny. That's a 40% loss before the coin even rolls out the door!

It's nothing new; high cost was the reason the Mint made the penny 5% zinc and tin in the first place - the melt value of the copper in a penny was worth more than the coin! Cost is also one reason many have called to nix the penny all together.

I can't remember the last time I used a penny. When I did, it probably came from one of those "spare a penny" trays at the register and the only reason for "borrowing" that one, is so I wouldn't have to haul around even more pennies in my pocket when I got my change!

It just doesn't make sense to me. In fact, it's a huge waste of cents! We're paying a premium to make a coin that's worth so little, most people I know won't even bother anymore to pick one up when it falls on the ground.

By the way, if you're interested in being one of the first to own the "new" penny, the U.S. Mint will sell you a set of two rolls of 50 pennies each for....wait for it...$8.95 plus tax and $4.95 shipping!

And if that sounds like a good deal to you, maybe you should work for the Mint!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Gotta Jet!
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

It's been awhile since I last traveled out of the confines of the New York area. Between work, out-of-town guests and life in general, scheduling in a vacation has not been high on the priority list!

But JetBlue has just given me something to think about, by coming up with deal that is just "plane" awesome (I know, bad pun). The airline has unveiled an unusual promotion: a one-month unlimited travel pass.

Here's how it works: for $599, travelers can fly as many times as they want between September 8th and October 8th of this year. There are no blackout dates, no seat limitations and you can go to any of JetBlue's destinations. Plus, you can book up to 3 days before you want to take off. But if you cancel your reservation less than 3 days before your flight, you'll get hit with a $100 fee.

The deal is only good until August 21st, so you have to act fast.

In fact, I'm checking my schedule right now.... and to my good friends in Los Angeles and my family in Florida, be prepared. You just might see me very soon!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Good-bye McMansions?
By Dena Mellick

It might be time to say good-bye to those McMansions that have been popping up in some neighborhoods.

For the first time in nearly 15 years, the size of new homes being built in the U.S. is shrinking.

The U.S. Census Bureau says, on average, the footage of newly built homes fell to about 2,056 square feet in the first three months of this year, compared to the same time last year.

There's a little bit of a debate as to why, though. Analysts say it could be a result of the recession. What's unclear though, is whether it's because of a change in attitudes or a change in who is purchasing homes.

One factor may be the fact that more baby boomers have become empty nesters and are now downsizing to smaller homes.

Add to that, the fact that people don't feel comfortable spending more while the economy is in turmoil.

My husband and I are actually in the market for a new house, and while we don't fall into the baby boomers category, we have definitely taken note of the housing crisis and are avoiding the "bigger is better" mentality.

I've even seen stories of renters following that trend. In Seattle, a developer decided to create apartments roughly the size of parking spaces, after spending time at hostels in Europe. And with rent between $400 and $600 a month, the units are being scooped up.

Sarah Susanka, author of the book, "The Not So Big House" says she believes the ethic of quality over quantity is starting to apply to homes. She says smaller dwellings will become as common as recycling, which was rarely done a few decades ago.

While I agree that downsizing our mass consumption is good for the environment and our overall well-being (who wants to clean 3,000 square feet of house?), I'm not yet convinced that we'll be saying good-bye to McMansions permanently.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Food for Thought
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

On my list of current must-see movies is "Julie and Julia," starring the amazing Meryl Streep as the late, great chef Julia Child.

Julia has always been a fascinating character to me. She had a distinct cooking style and love for the culinary art that was rarely rivaled.

Now, 5 years after her death, foodies and non-foodies alike are rediscovering this gem of a personality.

"Julie and Julia" debuted at number 2 at the box office this weekend, bringing in about $20 million.

And at book stores and cooking specialty stores nationwide, Julia's cookbooks are flying off the shelves faster than you can say Bon Appétit!

Probably her most notable book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," was number 1 on Amazon.com's most popular list over the weekend. Not bad for a book that was first published almost 50 years ago! Seems all over the world, people are renewing their love for cooking, and for Julia. I bet she'd be proud.

Monday, August 10, 2009

To E-Read or not to E-Read
By Jeanne Yurman at the NYSE

The technology available to college students today amazes me. Here's one of the latest tech options: A company called CourseSmart, which provides subscriptions to e-textbooks, is teaming up with Apple to make the e-textbooks available on the iPod Touch and iPhones.

They say students will be able to tap into CourseSmart's roughly 7,000 titles. Students will also be able to access full electronic texts and their digital notes as well as search for specific words and phrases.

In practice, however, I wonder how user-friendly this mobile option could possibly be. I find reading simple news alerts on my Blackberry a bit unwieldy so I can only imagine trying to wade through a textbook on a screen as small as that of an iPhone or an iPod Touch. Or maybe it's just that I'm behind the curve. Maybe CourseSmart's target demographic is simply more adept at accessing content on mobile devices.

The CourseSmart service is expected to compete with Amazon.com's Kindle DX, which will also provide digital textbooks. To gauge students' interest in digital textbooks, Amazon.com is reportedly launching a pilot program this fall at seven colleges involving hundreds of students. I'll be interested to learn the results.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Unemployment is Finally Improving
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

The unemployment numbers are starting to look a lot better. For the first time in more than a year, the unemployment rate actually fell. It's down to 9.4% in July, from 9.5 % in June. That's certainly not a big drop, but it's welcome news, especially when analysts thought the number would be even higher.

Employers cut 247,000 jobs in July, and that's still a huge number, but it's nothing like the half-million or more monthly job losses we've seen recently. But we still have a long way to go; the number of people collecting unemployment for six months is still climbing, and it's almost up to 5 million.

Even though the rate went down, it could still go back up. President Obama has said he expects unemployment to rise above 10% this year, and most analysts seem to agree. But, hopefully we're seeing the beginning of the end of the recession, and maybe next year, instead of reporting job losses, I'll be reporting about job gains.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Raising Fees, Raising Awareness
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

If you've got a credit card, examine your statement very closely. It's also especially important to read the fine print in the terms and conditions given by the issuer of the credit card. Some credit card companies are adding all sorts of new fees and rules. There are several published reports out now detailing some of these new fees, and I can tell you from experience it's easy to miss the legally required notification that the changes are being made.

Last month, when I checked my credit card statement I noticed a finance charge. I've had the card for more than a year, and I have never seen a finance charge before. I carefully read through my statements each month. Sometimes I pay the balance in full and sometimes I don't. Just in case I missed something, I went through all of my previous statements. No finance charges. Where did this charge come from, and why did it suddenly appear on my account?

So, I e-mailed the company, and asked about the finance charge. I also asked them to remove it, since I was never informed there would be one. I received a formal response explaining that the fee is a "residual finance charge" which gets tacked onto your bill if you don't pay the balance in full before the first day of the next business cycle. Funny, I don't remember anyone telling me that.

After reading the e-mail, I checked my statement online again. The finance charge was subtracted, though my balance was still not paid in full. Now, I've decided I will be using my credit card less frequently, and only swiping when I know I can pay all of the balance. I can't help but wonder though, what other fees will arise without them raising my awareness?

If they notified me of changes, I sure missed it. I asked them about this in my e-mail, but they ignored the question.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tweeting for "Cheep" Seats
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Traveling is one of my favorite things to do: near or far; trains, planes and automobiles. I love exploring new cities and countries, and I especially love when I can incorporate my friends and families into those travels. Unfortunately, I've found taking these trips has become somewhat more costly than in the past. Lately though, we've been hearing a lot about special discount fares to lure passengers aboard different forms of transportation.

"Cheeps" and "twares" have been the hot discount topic of the week. What are those you ask? JetBlue and United Airlines have starting promoting their discount fares on Twitter. JetBlue's calling them "Cheeps" (http://twitter.com/JetBlueCheeps) and United refers to them as "twares" (http://twitter.com/UnitedAirlines). The airlines think Twitter is a fast and easy way to promote the sales, and even faster than the e-mail generated promotions you can receive if you sign up on their Web sites.

I became a member of the social networking site just to see what these "twares" and "cheeps" are all about. Once I was all signed up, I searched the site for these deals. I have to admit it was a little confusing at first, but I caught on pretty quickly to the search methods. To get the instant update though, you have to "follow" the airlines. Now that I'm a follower, I can see all of the tweets posted by both JetBlue and United Airlines.

The discount fares are there, and cheap. They are, however, limited to travel between certain cities, and restricted to particular dates. If you frequent Twitter, this does seem like an easy way to find cheap flights. I often use the various travel Web sites to find tickets, as opposed to the direct airline Web site, but who knows, Twitter might become a site I frequent more often to check out the "cheeps" and "twares."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Apple and Google: A Tale of Two Companies
By Dena Mellick

Once upon a time, there were two friends, united partly by a common foe.

Even though they were both very popular, it seemed their competition was even more popular, and so they joined forces.

But differences sometimes arise...and, well, things change.

Sounds like an age-old story, but in this case it is Apple and Google who are looking at changes in their relationship.

Today we saw the latest indicator of changing times. Google CEO Eric Schmidt resigned from Apple's board of directors to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. Apple CEO Steve Jobs said it was a mutual decision-- a statement echoed by Schmidt. Just a few months ago, the government opened an inquiry into the companies' "interlocking directorates" under the Clayton Antitrust Act. It is not known if that contributed to the decision.

In a statement, Jobs pointed out that Google is entering into "more of Apple's core business" with products like Android and Chrome OS. Just last week, Apple refused to allow Google to distribute its Google Voice application on iTunes. No word on why-- but the government wants to know. The FCC sent letters to the companies in an effort to determine whether the rejection hinders a competitive marketplace.

The relationship between Apple and Google may still be in tact, but times, they are a-changing, and the two companies certainly seem to be headed toward becoming competitors on some fronts.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Too Many Clunkers

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Lawmakers in Washington are still trying to get a handle on the "Cash for Clunkers" situation, but it looks like they grossly underestimated the popularity of the program. It's only been underway about a week, and already, the $1 billion allocated for rebates might be spoken for.

That money was supposed to last until November and possibly help 200,000 car buyers. I think it's a little scary that lawmakers completely missed the mark on how quickly the funds would be depleted, but aside from that, this is great news.

Consumer spending makes up about two-thirds of the economic activity in America, and lately consumers are not spending. They certainly haven't been buying many cars over the last six months.

The fact that Americans might have purchased 200,000 cars last week because of this program is promising.

As far as the economy is concerned, the huge success of the rebate program suggests consumers still have cash --or at least access to credit. And, they're clearly willing to spend it, as long as they're getting a sweet deal.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Jenny I've Got Your Number
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

For more than 24 hours I've had the song "Jenny" by Tommy Tutone stuck in my head. You know, that one with the lyrics "8-6-7-5-3-0-9...Jenny I've got your number." Well, now you could have Jenny's number too. The number featured in the 1982 hit is being auctioned on eBay.

The posting is listed by a company called JK Wireless Consulting Ltd. from Southampton, Pennsylvania. The lucky bidder will get the number, but it will have to have the Philadelphia area code 267. The listing says the number is on a Vonage Modem, so the winner will get the modem in the mail via overnight delivery. Then, the business name and number will just be transferred to the new owner.

The eBay listing claims this is the last "Jenny" number in existence. Bidding has already surpassed $5,000, and the auction goes until August 4th. I wanted to make sure the number was really in service, so I tried it myself. It went straight to the voicemail JK Wireless, with "Jenny" playing in the background. It works. So, this could be the auction for you, if you're in the market for some digits that will have all your contacts singing your number.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Free the WiFi
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

There are so many people in close quarters in NYC, that every time I turn on my laptop, I probably get 50 options for different WiFi access points. Some signals are from businesses, but most are from people's apartments. Here's the problem: About 95% of them are locked.

Hardcore Internet techies argue that Internet access should be free for all. They say businesses and private citizens should unlock their WiFi as part of a grass roots movement to make it easier for anyone to get online anywhere. We're far from it.

But, big competition between retailers these days may change that. Barnes & Noble says it's working with AT&T to provide free WiFi in all of its stores -- something it used to charge for. A spokesman said free WiFi is something customers are expecting more and more in public places, but I think it's a great idea to get people in the door.

So I hope it works for Barnes & Noble; an increase in foot traffic may encourage other retailers to jump on board and free the 'net.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Near the Bottom of the Barrel?
By Jeanne Yurman

Where oh where is the bottom in this downturn and when will we see the economy pick up again? Those are key questions gripping both Wall Street and Main Street.

Housing data reported yesterday and today may portend a bottoming in at least the residential real estate market. On Monday the Commerce Department said new home sales jumped 11% in June from the prior month. And today we witnessed the first month-to-month gains in home prices in three years based on a report from Standard & Poor's and economists at Case-Shiller.

But even if the economy has technically bottomed, people aren't cheering about it. Americans continue to lose jobs and it's taking a toll on their confidence. Today's Consumer Confidence Index report, issued by New York-based business research group, The Conference Board, reflected a surprise drop in the headline number from a reading of 49.3 in June to 46.6 in July. Even though stock portfolios have rebounded a bit, pink slips are still going out. (Verizon said Monday it would cut another 8,000 jobs.) The fallout? "More consumers are pessimistic about their income expectations, which does not bode well for spending in the months ahead," according to the board's director.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Not Flying the Friendly Skies
By Dena Mellick

I haven't flown in three years. It's not because I don't like to fly or that I haven't had anywhere I wanted to visit.

It's because I'm on my own single-person strike against the airline industry.

Irked by the inconveniences of flying and the unfair airline fees, as well as security's tendency to confiscate personal items (is lip gloss truly a security concern?), I have dug in my heels and refused to "fly the friendly skies."

That means vacation spots have to be within driving distance, and as a result, I've found lots of great places to visit.

As it turns out, my little "strike" has been more wide-spread. For various reasons, people have stopped flying, and the airlines have been hit hard by the slowdown in travel.

Passenger revenue for the U.S. industry fell 26% in June of this year, compared to last year.

And the Air Transport Association of America says that's the eighth consecutive month passenger revenues have been down from the same month a year ago.

Instead of trying to appease customers and offer deals, many of the airlines have announced fee hikes as a way to boost revenue.

Delta, Continental, United, U.S. Airways and now American Airlines have all announced in the past week a $5 increase in baggage fees paid at the airport. It seems to me that sticking it to the customer isn't the best way to pump up business and leisure travel again. Basic economics dictate that if demand is down, prices have to go down too.

I know at some point, I'm going to have to fly again. Work, family -- something will require cross-country travel, and my little strike will be over. I'm guessing that's what the airline industry is banking on as well -- the necessity of its product.

But in the meantime, like any good business, the airlines should pay attention to the reasons why consumers are backing away from its product.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Say Cheese for the Big Cheese
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Quality customer service is a big part of a successful business. When I go into a store or restaurant or talk to a phone rep. for a company, if the employee is in a bad mood, it's a big turn off. I just don't like to be around people who pout or complain. At the very least, it certainly doesn't put me in a spending mood.

Companies know this, but it's hard to make an employee be happy. So Keihin Express Railway in Tokyo has figured out a way to at least make its workers look happy.

The company set up a smile detection system to grade employee's grins when they come into work. Workers look at a laptop and a digital camera registers the size of their smiles! It's just an optional test right now but the railway figures with all its rushed riders crowded into cramped train cars, seeing a happy face can go a long way.

I get it. In theory, it makes sense to me. I like to be around happy people. It makes me feel better. But I live in New York City, where horns honk incessantly and "friendliness" is frequently replaced by four-letter words.

Bad attitudes come with the territory here. If they installed a machine like that at a business in Manhattan, it would probably be smashed by the end of the first day.

So when it comes to a smile-sensing computer in NYC, I say, "Fugetaboutit!"

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sweet Success
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

These days you don't have to look too hard to find someone struggling to pay the bills. And I'm sure we all know someone we'd like to help out, but when the bills are big -- like mortgage payments -- good intentions often go out the the window.

In New York City, the local media's been covering a story about a Jersey woman who's facing foreclosure if she cannot pay a $2,500 bill by the end of the month. You've probably heard a story like that a thousand times by now, but this one's different.

The unemployed mother of three decided to hold a bake sale to see if she could raise the money. She starting baking her "Mortgage Apple Cakes" and selling them to sympathetic friends and neighbors for $40 apiece. She was hoping to sell a hundred. Now that the news picked up the story, she has orders for more than five-hundred!

Of course, all struggling homeowners can't expect their story to end as well as hers, but I think we can all learn something from what she and her community did.

Even with the best of intentions many of us can't afford to give, or even loan a friend thousands of dollars, but we can pitch in a little. This Jersey woman and her friends and neighbors are proving that persistence pays off and that a lot of small donations do really add up!

Now everyone's benefitting. The woman will keep her home and her neighbors avoid another foreclosure in their neighborhood dragging down home values.

Unfortunately, with all the media coverage and publicity boosting her cake sales, the IRS will probably be after her now, with a hefty tax bill. You can't win 'em all!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

No One Wants Watergate
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

The Watergate Hotel went up for auction yesterday. So, who was the lucky winner of this infamous landmark hotel? Apparently, no one. This morning, CNN.com reports that not one bid was placed. That means the lender, who owns the $40 million note on the building, is still in control of the property. Though there were ten bidders registered for the auction, no one placed the opening bid of $25 million. The lender told CNN it will probably look for a buyer.

I was surprised that weren't any takers for the Watergate Hotel. Considering the history of the building (it's part of the complex where burglars hired by President Nixon's re-election campaign broke into the Democratic National headquarters, giving rise to the political affair that became known as the Watergate scandal), I thought for sure someone would want it. A buyer could renovate it for use as a hotel, or apartments or condominiums, and even turn some of it into a museum reflecting its historical significance. Of course, any of those renovations would cost money. I can understand why people might be holding back because it could end up being an expensive risk for any buyer.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

E-Book Wars?
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

Amazon's Kindle has been on my "covet" list for quite some time (along with the YSL Muse handbag, but that's another story for another blog).

In case you haven't heard of the Kindle, it's a wireless reading device about the size of a book that can hold up to 300,000 electronic titles.

The Kindle can be useful for long commutes, like mine to the NYSE in the wee hours of the morning.

But now, Barnes and Noble is throwing a wrench into my program, possibly in a good way! The company has launched its own e-book store, featuring 700,000 electronic titles, 500,000 of which you can download free via Google. Barnes and Noble hopes to have more than a million books in its virtual library by next year. The company says it will make books available to your mobile devices -- including the iPhone and Blackberry, as well as to your personal computer.

The bookseller also plans to become a digital book supplier for Plastic Logic, which is making an e-book reader to rival the Kindle. The book wars are heating up, kids. And it looks like Barnes and Noble wants to turn the Kindle into kindling.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Teenie Beanie Mania

by Lori Chapman

McDonald's has brought back one of its most popular Happy Meal toys ever -- the Ty Teenie Beanie Babies.

I was in high school at the height of the Beanie Baby bubble of the late 1990's, when McDonald's first began offering the toys in Happy Meals. I remember stories on the news about long lines and fights breaking out in restaurants as customers struggled to get their hands on the Teenie Beanies. My friends would collect the toys and show them off in school, or proudly display them in the rear window of their cars.

I managed to gather quite a few of the little Beanies myself, which I prized because they were so cute, but also because they were supposedly valuable collectables.

But the best thing the craze ever got me was my first job. After stopping by McDonald's so often, one day I decided to ask for a job application. Besides earning some extra cash, I figured I would have first dibs on the newest shipments of Teenie Beanies. Instead I found myself faced with an endless stream of customers asking about the toys, repeatedly having to tell them we were sold out.

The mania has certainly tamed in the last decade. I haven't heard any stories yet about fist fights breaking out since McDonald's began offering the 2009 Teenie Beanie Babies last Friday.

Now I'm not sure what to do with all the Teenie Beanies I've collected. I could try to sell them on eBay, though a quick search reveals there are lot of people selling the toys from the 1990's, but no one is buying. On the other hand, complete sets of the thirty 2009 Teenie Beanies have been bid up over $40. Let the mania begin.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"Green" Tech: The Next Bubble?
By Dena Mellick

Wal-Mart unveiled plans yesterday for a new environmental labeling system. Wal-Mart's suppliers will now have to disclose the full environmental costs of the items they make. Eventually (read years), Wal-Mart hopes to pass this information on to shoppers with a new rating system. So next to your price tag, you'll see a label on everything from televisions to yarn, detailing the product's environmental impact.

It's a bold move, especially since industry analysts say Wal-Mart's 100,000 suppliers will have to absorb the costs of providing the mandated information, at a time when many of them are struggling economically. However, Wal-Mart insists there will be no exemptions, even though the efforts could be costly. The company says it doesn't expect consumers to pay more in the short-run, but it believes eventually they might be willing to.

Though Wal-Mart's decision is ground-breaking, it joins a number of companies jumping on the "green" wagon. Just this week, Exxon, a company often criticized by environmental groups, announced plans to invest $600 million in research aimed at producing bio-fuels from algae. And investors have already poured millions more dollars into new eco-friendly technology companies. But what if those companies can't deliver? Could the "green" movement be the next big bubble?

Economists and bloggers have been buzzing about the possibility for a while now; if you do an Internet search for "green" and "bubble," you'll get hundreds of results.

My husband has a theory that you can predict the next "bubble" by the latest MBA gold rush. In the late 90s, newly minted MBAs were flocking to Silicon Valley to work for start-up companies of all sorts, including at least one that sold pet supplies on the Internet (remember the pets.com sock puppet?). And before the current real estate bust, it seemed that B-school grads all wanted to be real estate mogul Donald Trump's apprentice. Now energy (both renewable and non-renewable) is the next big thing, and it seems many MBAs are now trading in previous dreams of lucrative careers on Wall Street for "green-collar" jobs.

Add to this the fact that the Obama administration is strongly pushing the "green" industry, promising that environmental jobs can help fight the recession, and you have the perfect set-up for a boom…and then a bust.

But a move to green technology is inevitable if for no other reason than it's necessary. And you can't deny that after some "bubbles," we've been left with true innovation amidst the rubble, i.e. the incredible Internet!

So, even though the "green" industry may take us for a wild ride, it might just be worth the journey in the end.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Apple Shakes Palm to the Core
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I like watching companies battle for business. And in this economic climate, there's a lot of action.

Fewer customers with fewer dollars to spend means lots of companies that were booming just a few years ago, now find themselves fighting for scraps in a financial feeding frenzy.

In the latest gadget grudge match, Apple is taking off the gloves and throwing bare-knuckle punches at Palm.

There was a lot of tension leading up to Palm's release of its new Pre smartphone. Analysts speculate that Apple could have a very strong competitor in the Pre (which has a multi touchscreen, a lot like the iPhone). And since its release, the Pre has become pretty popular.

It turns out a lot of Pre owners were still using Apple's iTunes software to manage their music and download it to their phones. In response, Apple's now updating its software to make it impossible to sync the Pre to iTunes.

Of course, Pre owners can just use an older version of iTunes or another program to sync their music, but making the switch may not be so easy for everyone.

Apple runs the risk of alienating iTunes users with this switch. It's just protecting its business, but Apple portrays itself as a friendly company, providing a software alternative for the masses that's easy to use. Unlike Microsoft, which has been accused many times of providing programs that only steer people to its products.

To me Apple has always appeared to be a "cool cucumber" in the business world, but the Palm Pre clearly has the company rattled. I can't wait to see what happens next!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Operation Money Matters Backpack"
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

"Operation Backpack" is under way in New York City again this year. The program provides backpacks stuffed with school supplies for homeless children in the city, whose parents couldn't otherwise afford them. You can either donate money, or fill a backpack yourself and then drop it off at a designated location. Here at the NYSE, an employee group is partnering with "Operation Backpack" to provide drop-off centers in the building. Last year, Carter and I stuffed a backpack to donate. We thought we gave a pretty awesome backpack. The stores were full of fun school supplies, much cooler than my back-to-school shopping days. The shelves were filled from floor to ceiling, and from the front to the back of the store.

This year we've decided to tackle the operation again. I set out yesterday in search of a backpack and the school supplies recommended by "Operation Backpack." The store I went to last year had so many options, I decided to venture there again. To my surprise, there were only about half of the amount of school supplies as compared to last year. As for the fun factor, there were slim pickings, though I did notice a small, one-shelf selection of bargain school supplies on my way out. I couldn't even find a backpack in the store (sigh). I moved on to another store and bought a few items, then another store where I bought the last three spiral notebooks.

So, why is there such a lack of "back-to-school" inventory? The National Retail Federation released a report saying "back-to-school" spending is expected to drop nearly 8% this year. The report explains people are tightening budgets because of pay cuts and job losses. The NRF survey shows four out of five people say they're changing their back-to-school shopping strategy because of the economy, and they're looking for stores with discounts and promotions. With bargain-hunters on the loose, it could explain the bargain-shelf I saw at Duane Reade during my excursion, and today's press release from Staples announcing back-to-school shopping discount and deals. Maybe some retailers are preparing for this pullback by keeping inventory at a minimum.

The "Operation Money Matters backpack" is almost complete but I'm still looking for a few items, like a protractor and a backpack. Maybe I'll make Carter go on a hunt for those supplies.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Facebook: Cha Ching!
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

There's been a lot of buzz about the potential for Facebook to go public, but one of the problems is trying to figure out how much the social networking site is actually worth.

Sure, Facebook is very popular now, but is it just a fad? What's its earning potential in the future? Those are a couple of big questions to answer before you can even get an idea of what it may be worth.

Apparently Russian investment firm Digital Sky Technologies (DST) crunched the numbers and they must have come out pretty good, because it's now offering to purchase up to $100 million of common stock.

DST is offering current and former employees $14.77 a share. At that price, Facebook would be worth about $6.5 billion!

And that's DST's second investment in the social networking site. It already bought a $200 million stake in the site in a separate transaction back in May. Since that investment was in preferred shares (which are worth more), that put the site's valuation at about $10 billion!

To me that seems like a ton of money for a Web site that could be outdated in a couple of years. But then, I think about the number of people Facebook reaches. The site reportedly has more than 70 million users now!

Even my 89-year-old grandfather knows what Facebook is!

That's a ton of potential!

And when I think Facebook's success can't possibly continue at this rate, I just imagine what people probably said about the idea when founder Mark Zuckerberg was designing the Web site a few years ago in his college dorm...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Back to Board Games
By Dena Mellick

Last week, I headed to the game aisle of my local Target. I was on the hunt for Scrabble, but I couldn't help but notice how many new games there were. And then my attention turned to the old favorites...Candy Land, Uno, Monopoly. For me, those games bring back memories from my childhood.

It appears I'm not the only one back in the game aisle lately; there has been a resurgence in the sales of board games, according to Fortune Magazine. Recently overtaken by popular video games, board games have seen a bounce in the last year, thanks to the recession. In fact, board game sales grew more than 23% to about $808 million in 2008, and that growth is expected to extend into this year.

Some experts say the game industry is "recession-resistant," because board games are inexpensive entertainment for cash-strapped families. But there may be other reasons to grab some dice. Board games can be classified as "mentally stimulating." Because you use your memory and reasoning, playing a game is like a workout for your brain. The National Institute on Aging says "mentally stimulating pursuits" along with diet, exercise and social engagement can aid in the reduction of cognitive decline and possibly Alzheimer's Disease.

And if you're playing a board game, you definitely have the "social engagement" aspect covered since you're interacting more with friends and family. And game publishers won't hesitate to point out the educational value in games for young children. Game makers say their biggest enemy is not video games, but the movie theater and other forms of home entertainment.

As Fortune Magazine points out, board games have historically been popular during recessions. Monopoly flew off the shelves during the Great Depression, and Parcheesi was the game to have during World War I. Spending on games may decrease once the economy regains its footing, but we'll always go back to board games.

Friday, July 10, 2009

New GM Revs Up
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

General Motors announced this morning it is emerging from bankruptcy. C-E-O Fritz Henderson made the big announcement at a news conference this morning, just about a month and a half after entering into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Henderson said the automaker plans to unveil some new vehicles, including hybrids, in the next year and a half. Plus, GM says the vehicles will be smaller and greener, leaning away from the big trucks and SUVs for which it is known.

I was surprised to hear that GM was able to make this move out of bankruptcy protection so rapidly. Since the troubled automaker first went to the government last year asking for financial help, we've been reporting on the companies losses. We've seen profits disappear. We've watched as GM announced thousands of job cuts and plant closings across the nation. It is hard for me to imagine that the company could even try to operate again.

So, how did it do it? It's shedding brands and dealerships it said cost too much money, cutting jobs, and has some help from the government. GM could get as much as $50 billion in federal money - some of it investment, some in the form of loans. The deal gives the U.S. government and taxpayers a 61% controlling-stake in the company. Henderson says GM will work to pay taxpayers back as quickly as it can.

Hopefully the automaker can find its way back to the top of the American auto industry, and restore taxpayers' confidence in GM. After the announcement, the chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association said he hopes this emergence will restore consumer confidence as well, but called it a "wrenching process." In the meantime, GM will keep on trucking along and everyone else will have to see

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Bottled Water vs. Tap: A Healthier Choice?
By Dena Mellick

You may not know this, but bottled water can be a fashion accessory. To see this, all you have to do is page through the latest fashion magazine where Jennifer Aniston's face promotes Smartwater. Or check out the new 50 Cent commercial pushing Vitamin Water (made by the same company as Smartwater, by the way.) Or watch an episode of The Hills, where the women are all carrying the same water bottle to work out. But what is actually in that water bottle?

New reports from both government and nonprofit researchers say they're not sure! In fact, they say, consumers know less about what's in those pricey water bottles than what is in tap water. The researchers say Americans should make bottled water "a distant second choice" to filtered tap water because the companies that package bottled water aren't regulated as closely as your local municipal water supplier.

This is not good news for the $16 billion dollar bottled water industry, which has been suffering lately as communities try to limit environmentally harmful trash. My husband and I used to purchase water bottles by the carton, because it's easy to grab one and go, especially when you're exercising. I knew in my head water bottles aren't great for the environment, but it wasn't until I read that the plastic bottles might not be so great for you that I decided to rethink the disposable plastic route.

Many scientists say that, while most water bottles are generally safe, if they are stored in hot places, chemicals from the plastic could leach into the water. After I found that out, my husband and I investigated reusable stainless steel and aluminum water bottles. They're better for the environment, and they come in fun colors and patterns. That way, we're making a healthy choice for us and the environment while being economical and fashionable as well!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Google VS Microsoft, The story of Goliath VS Goliath.
By Carter Evans at the NYSE.

Big news from Google late Tuesday night might have Microsoft on edge. The most popular search engine in the world is designing a free computer operating system to compete with the most popular OS in the world, Windows.

There's been a lot of buzz on the Internet about this for a while, but now we have a target date for the OS Google is calling Chrome: the second half of next year.

Like its recent Web browser of the same name, Google says it's designing Chrome OS from the ground up. And that's where Google thinks it's got a competitive advantage. In Google's official blog, the company says that the basis for other operating systems were designed years ago, before the Internet.

Google's designing Chrome to work seamlessly online so that users don't have to worry about where their data is or even product compatibility. Google says Chrome will just work, and fast. The Internet search giant says people want to get their e-mail instantly, without waiting for their computers to boot up, and they want to be able to open Web pages in seconds. Google says it can offer that. We'll see.

Even if the OS does live up to the claims--will people use it? Maybe. With the recent boom in netbook sales, it's clear the computing public is demanding affordable computers that enable speedy Internet access anywhere they are. They don't care who makes the software as long as it's easy to use and maintain. Those are the people Google is after.

Where I think Google may have trouble getting in the door, is with businesses. That's where Microsoft may still have a lock on the market. Changing business networks to a new OS is not easy or cheap (even if the OS is free). And, big corporations already have a whole team of IT employees dedicated to keeping their company computers online.

Businesses want to minimize the security risk and chances for errors. They can't afford down time, so instead of taking a chance on something new and unknown, they may want to stick with the old OS they're used to.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Captured by the iPod Touch
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

My iPod Touch and I have been together for about a year now. What can I say? It was love at first sight (and sound). I know some people aren't fans of Apple's iPods. Maybe, some have never heard of them (on Mars). But most days I am fully satisfied with what the device has to offer.

I think the iPod Touch is user-friendly -- which is good -- because I am not tech-savvy at all. The shuffle option tends to really understand me. I can watch movies or shows, play games, use wi-fi, and it even has a calendar to help me stay organized. But something's missing.

It's always irked me that it doesn't have a camera like the iPhone -- the only Apple handheld device that takes pictures. When I'm walking down the street, listening to my tunes and I randomly see something photogenic I want to capture, it would be easier to just click away with my handy iPod, than to dig through my bag for my camera.

Apple might finally be catering to all my needs. Tech blogs are a-buzz and trying to confirm new reports that Apple's iPod Touch will soon have a camera. Most of them can be traced back to a report called TechCrunch, citing "sources" in Asia. The blog says Apple placed a "massive order" for a new camera module that only costs about $10. They figure it can only be for the iPod. MacRumors also has pictures of an alleged iPod Nano case with a hole for a camera.

Now, we just have to wait to hear from Apple that the news isn't too good to be true.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A New Niche for Best Buy?
By Carter Evans

Looking for a new motorcycle? Soon you can pick one up to go with your flat screen TV at your local Best Buy.

The consumer electronics retailer quietly started selling Segways, scooters and electric bikes at some of its West Coast stores last month. Now, Best Buy is preparing to sell a full blown motorcycle (with an electric motor, of course).

I've been tracking the Enertia electric motorcycle from Brammo for a couple of months now. It certainly doesn't look as "beefy" as a Harley, but it sure packs more punch than a scooter or electric bike.

The Enertia has a range of up to 45 miles and it goes about 50 miles an hour, but the best part is that it charges in about three hours from a regular wall outlet.

A motorcycle maker may not seem like a conventional business partner for a store that sells appliances, computers and other electronics, but to me, the Enertia is more electronics than mechanics.

Because it's electric, there's no carburetor or fuel injectors, no gear box and no exhaust system.

The Enertia powers the rear wheel with just a motor and a chain. The rest of the technology is in the battery and power management systems.

When you look at it that way, it seems to me, that the Enertia is right up Best Buy's alley. But it still doesn't mean people will shell out almost $12,000 to bring one home. At that price -- and in this economy -- it may be more of a novelty than a necessity.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Fine Print
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

These days, it seems like a lot of companies are offering some sort of guarantee to help you continue to pay for their products if you lose your job.

It started with Korean carmaker Hyundai offering to help with your car payments if you become unemployed. Other automakers quickly followed. Now, Sears is offering to help customers pay their bill if they buy an appliance and lose a job. But how good a deal is this really?

Sears says you have to spend at least $399 for appliances between July 6 and August 1, 2009. And, you have to make the purchase on a Sears card that's issued by Citibank to qualify. Then, if you're unemployed for at least 60 days, Sears will make a portion of the payment equal to 1/12th of the purchase price for every month you're out of work.

Those sure are a lot of conditions to meet in order to qualify. But what's really glaring to me about this "deal" is that you have to make the purchase on Sears' credit card. And, the card is issued by Citibank, which just announced today it's raising credit card interest rates.

Most personal finance advisers say you shouldn't ever buy anything on a credit card that you don't plan to pay off right away. When you ride a balance on your card, the high interest charges add up quickly and usually cancel out any savings you're trying to get.

But most of all, if you're worried you might be out of a job soon, you should be saving your money. And going on a plastic spending spree is definitely not a good idea, no matter how good the deal is.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Refunds for Jackson Fans
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

After Michael Jackson's death was announced, not even a day passed before people were selling memorabilia online, in stores, and even auctioning off domain names to make money off of the "King of Pop." I was somewhat saddened by the lack of respect for this man's life, work and contributions to the music world. It seems some people are just out to make a quick buck, or several million, now that he isn't here to do it.

That's why I was slightly surprised today to learn that people who bought tickets for Michael Jackson's upcoming concerts in London are getting their money back. AEG Live, the concert promoter in charge of Jackson's comeback tour, is offering full refunds to ticket holders. In a press release on its website, the company said starting tomorrow people can get their refunds from the ticket agency from which they were purchased, like Ticketmaster or Ticketline. That's millions of dollars going back to Jackson fans.

It's refreshing news to me that people won't lose money for a concert they can't attend. I'm sure the companies are going to suffer losses though, considering the money already spent promoting the tour. They might not have to give all the money back though. AEG is offering ticket holders the option to receive the actual ticket they would have received to attend the concert, instead of the refund. The tickets are printed with a 3-D image "inspired and designed" by Michael Jackson. I guess there is still a way to make some money on a show that won't go on.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Excess Baggage
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Leave it to Ryanair's Chief Executive Michael O'Leary, to shake up the world of air travel yet again.

O'Leary's known for spouting off-the-cuff, quirky ideas to reporters. A few months ago, he mentioned that he was toying with the idea of putting a coin slot of restroom doors to earn some extra cash. We haven't seen that idea put into practice yet, but O'Leary told reporters he's still finalizing the plan. What passengers will see sooner is a ban on all checked luggage.

Last week, O'Leary told reporters his luggage plan should be in place by October, 2010.

From then on, passengers can carry on an unlimited amount of luggage, as long as the bags meet federal guidelines.

Here's the catch: When the overhead bins are full, that's when you take your bags to the cargo hold.

O'Leary says the plan will speed up check-in and help the airline keep airfares low by eliminating the need for baggage handlers. And you thought those baggage fees we pay now are excessive!

On the bright side, heavier Ryanair passengers can breathe a sigh of relief, for now. O'Leary is giving up on his "fat tax" idea to charge heavier passengers more to fly their bigger bodies. The chief exec says it would be too hard to implement right now.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Profiting off the King of Pop
By Alison Kosik

It didn't take long for people to try to make money off of Michael Jackson's death. Just check eBay. A supposedly authentic, personally autographed photo of the King of Pop goes for $550. Or how about Jackson's 1979 vinyl record with the album jacket for $399. The seller says it's 30 years old and looks brand new.

Could he be worth more dead, than alive? A week ago, I'd think that vinyl record would probably have had a tough time going for that amount.

People are even trying to sell his name. I mean an Internet domain name. There's one up for auction on eBay, selling for $5 million. It's called MichaelJacksonGreatestHits.com.

The question remains, will the sellers get what they're asking for? Certainly, Jackson's fan base is loyal, but THIS loyal? The money makers will give it a try and hope that Michael Jackson's most loyal fans will offer up hundreds or millions of dollars to own a piece of a pop icon. Others may be content to just download some of his greatest hits on iTunes.

Sears Tower Goes Green

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Going "green"-- it's all the rage these days. One of the hottest green topics on the table is energy efficiency. Automakers are rolling out smaller, more energy-efficient cars. The economic stimulus plan offers incentives to go green -- including tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements.

Even some of America's iconic buildings are trying to go green. Owners of Chicago's Sears Tower have announced that they are going to make the building more energy efficient. They plan to spend $350 million to replace windows, improve heating systems, add solar panels, upgrade lighting, and install motion detectors so escalators operate only as needed. The owners say the efforts will "result in unparalleled energy savings and reduced CO2 emissions." The Sears Tower is known as the tallest office building in the Western Hemisphere, and the owners hope to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. They also plan to build an environmentally friendly hotel right next door to the Sears Tower (which will be renamed the Willis Tower later this summer.)

I think it is great that people are working to try to make these modern-day technologies, that have become necessities, a little less harsh on the environment. Hopefully other buildings in the U.S., and around the world, will follow the Sears Tower's lead.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Good News on the Job Front
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

A few of my good friends are on the hunt for jobs. They've either been laid off from their full-time positions, or they just completed masters degree programs. All of them are having a really difficult time finding a job, or even landing an interview. Not only is this hard on them financially, it's also hard on them emotionally. I've noticed the change in mood. Sometimes, when I'm around them I almost feel guilty for having a job (well, not that guilty). The more job cuts they read or hear about in the news, the more down they get.

Yesterday I read a bit of good news on the job front, though. Apparently, the job market is supposed to start looking a little better. A survey from global consulting firm Watson Wyatt found that more than 60% of employers plan to reverse hiring freezes over the next year. It also found that nearly 70% plan to eliminate salary freezes. On the down side, more than half the businesses surveyed said they plan to keep staff sizes low, and most expect their employees to work past retirement age.

I guess you never know what can happen in the next year, so these estimates are just that -- estimates. But, if you're looking for a job -- and those estimates turn out to be right -- try to be patient, the job market might make a comeback soon.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mourning a Digital Death
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

We all know "Video Killed the Radio Star," but mama don't take my Kodachrome away!

After 74 years on the market, Eastman Kodak is discontinuing Kodachrome film. The company says it now accounts for "just a fraction of one percent of Kodak's total sales of still-picture films." Still, Kodak says the decision to retire the once fashionable film was difficult.

I learned how to shoot still pictures back in high school photography classes. I started with black-and-white but soon graduated to Kodachrome.

I remember developing pictures in a pitch black darkroom, unraveling the exposed film by hand to get it ready for a chemical bath. Back then you had to do it all by "feel." I also remember winding that film incorrectly many times. I lost a lot of pictures as I developed my skills in what I now consider a lost art.

It's death by digital for sure. Processing film is so passe.

Now, I can't remember the last time I actually shot a photo on film. Chemicals and photo paper, replaced by megapixels and digital uploads.

Shooting prodigious pictures is still a skill, but digital is so drab. Now it's just a computer crunching zeros and ones. At least Paul Simon's Kodachrome lyrics still paint a colorful picture of the film that helped develop modern photography.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Broadband Nation
By Lori Chapman

I remember way back in the dark ages when my parents first connected our home to the Internet. My dad taught me how to enter the password to dial up, then proceeded to tell me not to use it because each time I logged in, it was making a phone call that cost three cents. My parents have now had high-speed Internet for years. They even get their phone service over the Internet, bypassing the traditional phone company all together.

Many Americans, like my parents, have made the switch to broadband. A study by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project finds 63% of Americans now have broadband at home. That's up from 55% last year. Broadband usage is up across all population groups. Nearly a third of senior citizens are now online. And more low-income and rural homes are getting connected too, despite increased costs. The survey finds the average monthly fee for broadband service at home is $39, up from $34.50 a year ago.

Even in a recession, paying for a fast Internet connection apparently takes priority over other economic concerns. To save money, more than twice as many respondents say they cut back or canceled their cell phone or cable TV service, than those who said the same about their Internet service. I am one of those people who pay for hi-speed Internet but not for cable television. When I was planning my wedding a few years ago, I knew I needed to make some sacrifices to save money. I couldn't face parting with my Internet connection. So, even though I'm a producer for a cable television network, I decided I could live without my cable.

The Pew survey also finds only 7% of Americans are still using dial-up Internet. Dial-up users cite a number of reasons including price and availability. But 20% said nothing would get them to switch to broadband. I guess some people just enjoy the beeping and dialing noises the computer makes as it connects -- kind of old fashioned and nostalgic, like the hiss of a phonograph.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

New York Doesn't Make the Cut

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

As a New Yorker, I like to think of my city as one of the world's best. New York City has so much to offer to its residents and visitors in terms of activities, transportation, accessibility and culture. There are plenty of places to go, like cinemas, theaters, museums, parks, and historical sites, not to mention the plethora of restaurants offering all kinds of food choices from different cultures. It's also easy to get around the city, and out of it, with subways, busses, and three major airports.

Overall, I would say New York City offers a good quality of life. Today, I was checking out Monocle magazine's list of "The 25 Most Livable Cities" for 2009 from its latest issue. I was surprised to see that no U.S. cities made the top ten. Honolulu was the only one to make the list at all, coming in at number 11.

So, which city has the best "quality of life?" According to Monocle, it's Zurich, Switzerland. Monocle says Zurich is highly rated for its housing, public transportation, airports, cinemas, and outdoor areas. I've never been, so I can't say whether I agree with the magazine's survey, but it did spark my interest about visiting Zurich. Other cities that made the top five are Copenhagen, Tokyo, Munich, and Helsinki. Maybe next year, my city will make the cut.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I just got back from a quick trip to Florida and, thanks to a couple of lengthy delays, I spent an extra hour on the plane before take-off each way. After being trapped in the "cheap seats" for so long, I noticed a couple of empty seats in First Class and wished I was in one of them.

I didn't think much of it until we got a report on a big drop in sales of premium airline seats.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is reporting a 22% drop in premium seat sales in April. The association also says the number of coach travelers is actually up 0.3%. Apparently, more people are moving to the back of the plane to save a few bucks.

The IATA says the lateness of the Easter holiday this year --- April 12 --- contributed to a spike in cut-rate leisure travel and a slump in high-priced business travel. That probably accounts for some of the decline, but it's not a huge surprise to me, in this economy.

I've never really been a First Class flyer, unless it's on someone else's dime. As much as I long for extra leg room on a multi-hour flight, in the end, I'd rather spend my money at my destination.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Name Crazed
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Last week's blog about Facebook usernames sparked my curiosity about how many people would be competing for the same username as me. A quick search of Facebook users let me know I'm the only "Dana Simmons-Greco" on Facebook, so I would have no competition. I suppose that's why I was a little surprised Friday night when I was out with some friends, and we noticed people frantically reaching for their phones around midnight. Suddenly, various people around us were sighing with disappointment or relief, and shouting out random combinations of names and numbers to their friends.

"What's going on?" my friend asked.

"Facebook usernames," I replied.

"Ohhhh," he said, looking slightly puzzled by the hype.

Facebook began allowing members to choose unique usernames at 12:01am Saturday. The username is to be used at the end of the URL for their Facebook site. And, apparently my neighborhood bar wasn't the only place buzzing with username activity. Facebook says nearly 6 million users signed up for their very-own "vanity URLs" over the weekend. Facebook says more than 200,000 usernames were snapped up in the first three minutes they were available, and a million were taken in the first hour. I just signed up for my dream username yesterday. I've always liked the uniqueness of my name, but I like it even more now.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Six Flags Rides into Bankruptcy
by Jeanne Yurman at the NYSE

Theme park operator Six Flags has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the latest casualty in this economic downturn. The company manages 20 parks in the U.S., Mexico and Canada and attracted 25 million visitors last year turning a profit of $275 million. However, it's facing a debt load of nearly $2 billion that, according to CEO Mark Shapiro, cannot be refinanced currently -- a situation many U.S. companies are facing.

Six Flags is hoping to exit Chapter 11 quickly as part of a pre-negotiated reorganization plan. In the meantime, a spokeswoman said that the parks will continue to operate as normal and that visitors, "...will not see an inch of difference," in operations. That's likely good news for families who are pinching pennies by turning to "stay-cations" or staying close to home rather than taking traditional vacations.

Though any company might understandably worry that customers will shy away due to the shroud of bankruptcy protection, I imagine right now, things may feel a bit different. Not only does Six Flags have a lot of company in Corporate America but also many cash-strapped Americans may be apt to be more sympathetic than usual and perfectly willing to do business with a bankrupt concern. Many people may be looking for a cheery places to escape to in uncertain times like these.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Toy Biz Gets Serious
By Alison Kosik

Toys are getting serious. At least they're supposed to. On August 14, a new regulation takes effect that aims to make the toys we give to our children, safer. As a mother of two, I say that's a good thing.

Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) last year, after seemingly endless toy recalls and the law has been taking effect in phases. The one thing I can recall is digging through my kids' toy boxes, throwing away most of them. I did it without them there. My son and daughter would have been crushed if they knew I threw away their precious toys, many from China!

I hope the new rules will be effective. Some involve stringent new lead testing and certification requirements. I also understand it's going to be an adjustment for some toy manufacturers. But hopefully they'll adapt. We'll see if the new rules will mean more relief for many parents who venture out to the toy store to pick up the latest and greatest item.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What's in a Username?
By Lori Chapman

Millions of Facebook addicts will be logging on to facebook.com/username early Saturday morning (or late Friday night, depending on how you look at it). At 12:01am Eastern Saturday, Facebook users will be able to select a unique username for the first time, which will allow them to personalize their URL. It's already a feature I have on my MySpace and LinkedIn pages.

So instead of a URL that looks something like http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=123456789, you can just tell your friends to find you at http://www.facebook.com/yourname.

The catch is there are more than 200 million people on Facebook and names are first-come, first-serve. It's going to be quite a battle for those of us with more common names to get the URL we prefer. There are 149 people with the name Lori Chapman or something similar. So I'm going to have to be on top of things if I want www.facebook.com/lorichapman...and I do!

But Facebook says this is designed to benefit those with common names. Instead of having potential friends search through all those Lori Chapmans to find me, I'll soon be able to tell them my exact URL. Facebook also says this will make it easier to find its users via Google or other search engines.

You should choose wisely. Once you pick your username, you'll never be able to change it. And it soon may be used for more than just the URL. Facebook says it expects to offer more ways to use your username in the future.

So stay up late Friday night and stake your claim to the username that's uniquely you. And good luck to all the John Smith's out there!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Delayed Reaction
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

In the past year, I've been doing more traveling than usual. Visiting friends and families for different events in several states and cities, I've used almost every form of transportation from planes, to trains, to automobiles. After my experiences using these various modes of transport, my most dreaded has become air travel. It seems without fail, every time I have to take a plane somewhere I encounter some sort of delay.

Most recently, I was traveling from New York to Atlanta. I checked my flight status online a few hours before I needed to leave my apartment to make sure it was on time. To my surprise, it was! Before I left the apartment, I decided to check one last time just in case anything changed. I was utterly confused when I could not find my flight anywhere on the airline's web site. It seemed strange since it was there earlier, so I decided to call the airline.

The automated voice on the other end of the phone told me the flight was canceled. Finally, after holding for about five minutes, a live customer service representative came on the line and helped me book a new flight at no charge. I hurried to the airport, checking the status repeatedly on the cab ride there. Each time I checked, it said the flight was on time. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I was greeted at the airport by a three hour delay.

So, I was surprised today when I read the Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Report which said on-time flights in April for the largest U.S. airlines actually increased since last month, and last year. When I read a little deeper into the report, I noticed that even though the airlines were improving arrival times, one out of every five flights landed behind schedule in April. Hawaiian, Pinnacle and Southwest Airlines topped the punctuality list, all coming in on-time more than 80% of the time. Other airlines, however, were not so punctual. The airline with the worst delays was Cincinnati-based Comair, which was on time only 68% of the time. Southeast and Continental Airlines were also among the worst performers.

Next time I have to leave town, maybe I'll try to take the train.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Crunching the Unemployment Numbers
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Last week, the government reported our unemployment rate is now up to 9.4%, but it turns out it may actually be a lot worse. It all depends on how you look at the numbers.

The unemployment rate you hear about in the news most often, represents people in America who are unemployed and actively looking for work (that the government knows of). That's where the Bureau of Labor Statistics came up with the 9.4% figure for May.

Some analysts say that's not the whole story. They say a truly accurate picture of unemployment should also include the number of Americans who may be working occasionally or part time, but really need a full time job. Those people are considered underemployed.

When you add the number of people who are out of work and looking with those who are working but not enough, in May, that added up to 16.4% of the population. That's almost twice the unemployment rate!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Fee-Free Wednesdays
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Listening to music, and seeing bands perform live are two of my favorite activities. I especially love concerts that offer several bands during the concert, like Bonaroo, Coachella, and Live Nation. Concerts like those tend to be more expensive because of all the musical offerings. On top of it, many charge service fees. Sometimes the bands offered make it worth the expense, but other times I just can't justify spending the money.

Earlier in the month, Live Nation announced a plan to help lure in frugal music lovers like me. The concert promoter started eliminating service fees every Wednesday on millions of lawn seats at amphitheater concerts. Live Nation's first fee-free Wednesday, on June 3, drove up lawn sales to a single-day record.

Live Nation clearly learned it can sell a lot more tickets if it cuts out those service fees. Today, it announced it's expanding the promotion to include regular seats as well. Starting this Wednesday, it will drop service fees on all tickets to its summer concerts at amphitheaters in the U.S. Without those fees, concert-goers could save a little money for their tickets at some venues.

Let's say I bought tickets today to see Def Leppard perform with Poison and Cheap Trick at the Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek in August. I could end up paying a service fee between $12.10 and $18.50 for one ticket. That's a hefty fee to add on a ticket that already runs between $35 and $130. But if I wait until Wednesday, I'll save at least $12. My friend wanted to see No Doubt at the same venue, but with the $14.90 service fee, it brought the price of each ticket to almost $100. To some, $15 may not seem like much, but that extra money was more than I could spend at the time. The concert's tonight, so we won't make it this time around but if there are other Live Nation concerts that spark my interest, I think I'll wait until a Wednesday to buy my ticket.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Green Coke
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

The slogan "Always Coca-Cola" doesn't necessarily mean "only" Coca-Cola. Starting next week in Japan, the popular soda will also have green tea in it.

Coke is launching a green tea-flavored cola and the company is hoping it's a hit with young women who are trying to stay healthy. The soda maker says the drink contains antioxidants and has a slight green tea aftertaste.

You're probably thinking "who would ever want that?"

Well, I'm not an expert in Asian marketing, but I did grow up in Hawaii, where Asian trends are a huge influence. So much so, that all McDonald's restaurants on the islands serve rice and Saimin noodles. Green tea is also extremely popular in Hawaii. So I can understand why Coke probably figured that two popular drinks together -- coke and green tea -- could be one big seller.

Not to be outdone, Pepsi also has a green soda plan in the works. Basil-flavored Pepsi Cola hits Japanese store shelves in late June. But, my Hawaiian-Asian trend education offers no explanation for that combo.

So I think I'll keep my basil in my pasta!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Housing Woes
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Earlier in the week the National Association of Realtors reported pending home sales jumped almost 7 percent in April. It's a lot more than analysts predicted, and the third straight month pending sales increased. It's also about 3 percent higher than this time last year. The buzz around the stock exchange seemed to indicate some people are hopeful the troubled housing market is turning around.

People are still having trouble selling their home, though, for the price they want, or a price that'll cover the necessary expenses for taxes and mortgages. This morning, I read a report that even U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is having trouble selling his house. CNNMoney reports Geithner and his wife put the house on the market in February for an asking price of about $1.6 million. Now, they're renting it for $7,500 a month. Not a huge take when you consider the $27,000 in annual property taxes. With median home prices down more than 30 percent, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, people looking to buy a home are out for a bargain.

I know the experience all too well. Last year, I was trying to sell my mother's house. She still owed money on the mortgage, so I had to get a price that least covered all the expenses. My realtor and I brought the price as low as we could possibly go, but still couldn't find a buyer. When I finally gave up and tried to find a renter, we couldn't even find people to pay enough to cover the monthly mortgage payments. At least the Geithners found a renter!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Social Networking, Big Time!
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

If you're like me, you probably spend too much time on Facebook. But, now it's official -- a new report from Nielsen shows that we spend more time on Facebook than any other social networking site.

In April, Nielsen's research shows Facebook users spent almost 14 billion minutes on the website.

And that's just in a month! Traffic to the site is up 700% during the past year.

Although, 14 billion monthly minutes is nothing when you compare it to how many minutes the average American adult spends watching TV every month.

A study from Ball State University's Center for Media Design suggests that American adults watch more than five hours of TV a day. That's 9,000 minutes of TV for every adult, every month! The number-crunching website Wolframalpha.com estimates there were 206 million adults in the US in 2008, so American adults watch nearly two trillion minutes of TV every month.

Two trillion minutes on TV. 14 billion minutes on Facebook.

Still, 14 billion is a huge number, especially for a relatively new website. 14,000,000,000 has nine zeros, and according to Wolframalpha.com, 14 billion minutes collectively adds up to 26,636 years! That's about how long it takes the vernal equinox to move through all the constellations of the Zodiac.

Of course, those 14 billion monthly minutes are spread across more than 200 million Facebook users, which is equivalent to about two-thirds of the entire US population (every man, woman and child). Using Wolframalpha.com to crunch those numbers as well, that means each Facebook user spent roughly 70 minutes on the site in April.

But, if you break it down further, on average, each user only spent roughly two minutes and twenty seconds on Facebook every day. So even with 14 billion monthly minutes, there's still plenty of room to grow!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fees Fly Away
by Lori Chapman

It's a great time to dig for a deal on that vacation you've been dreaming about. The recession is still causing a slump in the travel industry, so online travel sites are pulling out all the stops to get you to book that trip with them.

Recently Orbitz, its sister site CheapTickets.com, and Expedia have announced they're eliminating fees for booking most flights online.

Travelocity is continuing a fee-free offer for some travel reservations. And Priceline and Expedia's Hotwire.com haven't been charging fees for awhile.

This trend will eliminate one step for me the next time I book a flight. I've recently booked flights from Atlanta to Flint, MI and Seattle. I relied on online travel sites to find which airline has the cheapest rate for my trips. Then I went directly to that airline's website and booked my flights there -- for no fee. The booking fees for online sites used to run as much as $10. And that amount could go a long way toward pay the fee for checking in a bag!

And I'm not the only one who does this. The travel research company PhoCusWright has found almost a third of those who browse the website of an online travel agency end up booking their flight directly through an airline.

The online agencies are hoping to stop this trend by cutting out the fees, even though they are a vital source of revenue. The companies hope an increased volume in online bookings, which would bring more commissions from airlines, will offset the losses.

Some of the sites have programs that guarantee you're getting the best price, on their website at least. For example under Orbitz's "Price Assurance" program, if you book a flight and another Orbitz customer books the same ticket at a lower rate, Orbitz will send you a check for the difference.

Great discounts are out there for travel this summer and these fee free offers sweeten the deal.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The End of GM as We Know It
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

It's official, GM is bankrupt. The troubled automaker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection here in New York City this morning. Even with the concessions from unions and bondholders, GM is just not making any money in its current state and it's been in the red for years.

Investors knew it was coming, and that's probably a good thing. They've been able to price it into the market and stocks are actually soaring today on some good news about manufacturing in China.

But as you might imagine, GM stock is tanking. Trading of GM stock was halted here at the NYSE for about 15 minutes. A crowd of traders was standing at the trading post waiting for news. When it finally opened up for trading again, the automaker's stock was only worth about 50 cents a share.

It's not exactly clear what's going to happen to the stock just yet but it's not going to be listed on the NYSE anymore. NYSE regulators determined GM is no longer suitable for listing here.

And, a bankrupt GM means it can no longer be listed on the Dow 30. The managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, which controls the makeup of the index, is replacing GM with Cisco. Citigroup also got the boot from the Dow today. It's being replaced by Travelers. Both changes take effect next Monday, June 8.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Bird's Eye View of GM Stock
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

General Motors now has a deal with some of its bondholders. Yesterday they agreed to accept a 10% stake in the company. They'll also have the right to buy an additional 15% of GM's stock at a reduced price. GM bondholders have still lost a lot of money but they say compared to the uncertainty of the outcome of a bankruptcy hearing, this new deal is more appealing.

Being here at the New York Stock Exchange, I had a bird's-eye view of how investors were reacting to the news. The NYSE halted trading right before the announcement, and traders were crowded around GM's trading post waiting to get in on the action. There was quite a commotion among the traders once the stock started moving again. It was really exciting to see the action on the trading floor while I kept checking GM's stock and seeing it inch higher. It reached a high of $1.42 per share, which is a far cry from its price of about $17 per share a year ago. At one point yesterday, I saw shares rise about 20 percent.

This morning, however, shares are down about 20 percent from their closing price yesterday. GM shares are hovering just below a dollar per share. And, despite the deal the with the bondholders, the government says bankruptcy is still likely for GM.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

No Free Lunch
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

We're all looking for ways to cut costs these days. Even if your job is secure, watching the movements of global financial markets is probably enough to make you re-think your spending habits.

One easy place to cut back is on the cost of your lunch. I did the math and it shocked me, so now I pack my lunch every day.

I'm not the only one. Have you noticed all the commercials touting lunch specials around $5?

I did a story a couple of weeks ago about how some chain restaurants are coming up with new lunch deals to lure customers back in. They know people are cutting back and they're trying to find that perfect price that gets people in the door, but still turns the best profit. Apparently $5 is a number that's working.

But if a $5 lunch deal sounds pretty good to you, consider this:

$5 a day adds up to $1,250 a year (assuming you take two weeks off work where you're not buying lunch). That's a lot of money, especially when you consider that you're spending after tax income.

Let's say you make $50,000 a year and your tax rate is about 25%. Your after-tax income would be about $37,500.

So if you spend $5 a day on lunch, that's almost 3.5% of your paycheck!

Still not convinced it's a big expense? Break it down monthly and you're spending $104 a month for lunch. That's a gasoline bill for a lot of people and it just might be enough to drive you to pack your own lunch from now on.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Twitter: Coming to Your TV
By Carter Evans at the NSYE

The blogs are buzzing about a new Twitter reality show that would somehow involve regular people chasing celebrities and Tweeting while they're hot on the trail.

Now we can put the rumors to rest. Twitter says there is no "official" Twitter show, but the social networking site is confirming on its blog that it does "have a lightweight, non-exclusive, agreement with the producers which helps them move forward more freely."

The producers are Reveille productions and Brillstein Entertainment Partners. They're the forces behind several hit shows, including "The Office," "Ugly Betty" and "The Sopranos."

There are very few details on the potential show, but it's already getting reaction from some of Twitter's most popular Tweeters. Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore are not happy with the idea.

In several published reports, Kutcher says "it's all fun and games until somebody gets stalked."

His wife, Demi Moore, said she hopes the format isn't true and if it is, "Twitter time may come to a quick and sad end!"

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ridin' the Rails
By Lori Chapman

Gas prices have risen more than 15% in the last three weeks. Meanwhile, airlines are canceling flights which means planes are getting more crowded.

There's always the option of hopping on a train this summer.

Amtrak is cutting fares up to 25% for its Northeast Regional service. Most one-way fares are well below $50. It's also extending a February price cut on its high-speed Acela service which travels from Washington DC to Boston.

The company is attempting lure back passengers after the recession has taken a bite out of business and leisure travel, especially in the Northeast. While Amtrak ridership was down about 2% nationwide in April, it was off 9% in the Northeast.

Full disclosure: I'm a frequent train traveler. I find it much more relaxing to take a train rather than waiting in airport security lines or fighting traffic on the road. Plus I like watching America go by out the window as I relax and read the paper. Sure it takes a little longer to travel by train. But in my opinion, if you're traveling short distances in the Northeast, it might just be worth it to avoid those airport security lines and traffic jams.

And if you're trying to be more green, remember the U.S. Department of Energy says Amtrak is 18% more fuel efficient that commercial airlines.

Or course both the airlines and Amtrak have a reputation for running behind schedule more often than we'd all like. Amtrak says its Acela train has run on time about 87% of the time last year, while it's Northeast Regional Service was on time about 81% of the time. The Department of Transportation says U.S airlines were on schedule about 78% of the time last year.

So, the train might be a good option as you plan your vacation for this summer.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gender Online
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

We all have our favorite online hangouts, but have you ever thought about why you're drawn to a particular website? Advertisers sure do. They want to know how to reach you online, but first, they've got to know where to find you.

According to a new study by eMarketer, your gender may drive your web surfing habits more than race, ethnicity or even your economic status. The study finds that women tend to use the internet more often, but when men are online, they tend to surf more. Men are more visually stimulated then women, so eMarketer says men are more interested in watching videos online. And, when men shop online, they're more goal oriented, while women tend to spend more time browsing.

Another stereotype suggesting that women tend to be caretakers, also holds true online. According to the study, women tend to search health related web sites more than men.

But not all online trends follow the stereotypes you might expect. The study finds that while a typical stereotype suggests men tend to handle family finances, women are just as likely as men to bank online.

So even though you may not be thinking about why you click and where you surf, advertisers may already know more about your habits than you do.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Unemployment Accessory
by Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Each week more people are losing their jobs. The number of Americans filing unemployment claims is at a record-high, and moving closer to 7 million. The last weekly report showed 637,000 new claims were filed in the U.S. Until recently, I couldn't personally put a face to any of those numbers, but a few weeks ago a good friend told me he was laid off. Since then, he's been revising his resume and e-mailing it off to any job that he meets the qualifications. Its been two weeks and he can't even get a call back.

I know he's one of millions of people searching for a job right now, so it makes sense that he might not get many responses as he fires off resumes. We've tried to brainstorm different ways to grab an employers attention, but to no avail. Well, today I read about two women in Florida that came up with a fashionable resume of sorts. Remember Lance Armstrong's yellow bracelet that read "Live Strong?" They're selling one with the words "Laid off. Need a job."

The women are selling them on their website "laidoffneedajob.com" for $3 a piece. The site claims they actually have friends who were wearing them and found jobs. They market the bracelets on the fact you can where them "wherever you go!" There are even color options: yellow or pink. The women claim they've already sold more than 5,000 bracelets in the last three months.

Even if it doesn't work it's still a catchy idea, and who knows it just might help someone strike up a conversation with her/his future boss!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Napster's Singing a New Tune
By Carter Evans

It seems to me, when it comes to music, everyone's always talking about their iPod, or iPhone or their iTunes playlist. So much i-this and i-that, that I-forgot all about Napster, until today.

Once a music sharing site that spurred lawsuits and a huge debate on digital rights management, Napster is now a music subscription service. The deal it's offering today costs $5 a month.

Personally, I've always thought that a subscription service is the only way record companies can police downloads and still make money selling songs. But the reason I've never subscribed (and I don't know anyone who does either) is because the fees are higher than I would like and subscription services usually only let you have access to a music library. You pick the songs you want and stream them over the internet to your computer or mp3 player. But with many subscriptions, you never actually own any songs, so if you stop paying...the music stops playing.

With Napster's new plan you pay the $5 fee for access to its library, but you also get to download, and keep five songs a month. The plan isn't too expensive and it appears to pay for itself in downloads.

Since Apple sells songs for up to $1.29, I'm interested to see if Napster's new plan could pose a serious threat to the iTunes empire. Even with an attractive price, it's going to be hard to beat the iTunes brand. But the biggest challenge will always be how to convince the millions of people who "share" songs online to pay to play. It's hard to compete with free, even when people know pirating your playlist is illegal.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Google Glitch
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

If you're like me (and I think you are) Google is a big part of your everyday online life. I use it regularly for research. I have a Gmail account. I use Google Maps. And the Google service, YouTube, is an endless source of entertainment.

So imagine my surprise yesterday, here at the Stock Exchange, when I had trouble doing a basic Google search. It wouldn't go through. I tried again. No luck. Correspondent Carter Evans and I tried to make sense of it. I mean, it's GOOGLE! Why wouldn't this amazingly large search engine be working? We checked our Internet connection. We called tech support to make sure our computers were working properly. It couldn't possibly be that there was a Google glitch!!

Well, yes it could.

Google's senior vice president of operations, Urs Hoelzle, compared the problem to an airport routing snafu. In a post on Google's blog, Hoelzle wrote: "Imagine if you were trying to fly from New York to San Francisco, but your plane was routed through an airport in Asia. And a bunch of other planes were sent that way too, so your flight was backed up and your journey took much longer than expected. That's basically what happened."

He went on to say, "An error in one of our systems caused us to direct some of our Web traffic through Asia, which created a traffic jam. As a result, about 14% of our users experienced slow services or even interruptions."

Now, I'm a New Yorker. I've lived and worked in Los Angeles. I am used to traffic jams. But I am not used to a traffic jam on the web!

Hoelzle apologized and said, "You can be sure that we'll be working even harder to make sure that a similar problem won't happen again."

We can only hope, Mr. Hoezle!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Double Trouble at Playboy
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Print publications are having a tough time these days and even Playboy Magazine is hurting for cash. As a result, readers will soon be seeing double.

The company announced on its first quarter earnings conference call that it's cutting costs by offering a double issues. It will come this summer, with July and August combined into one.

The magazine has seen a big drop in revenue amid falling ad sales so Playboy has been forced to take on a number of cost-cutting measures, including layoffs.

This latest move is designed to reduce printing and distribution costs. But don't worry guys, apparently you won't be missing out on any playmates with the double issue. Crain's Chicago Business quotes a source as saying there will be two centerfold playmates in the single issue. And talk about double trouble, Miss July and Miss August are twins!

But we'll have to see if the magazine has double the articles too, because that's all that really matters, right?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Social Insecurity
By Lori Chapman

I've heard my whole working life that I shouldn't count on Social Security to fund my retirement. I've tried not to think about it too much. My retirement's so far away, the government will figure something out, right?

But it was hard to ignore new estimates from the government this week that the Social Security trust fund will be dried up by 2037. That's four years earlier than originally estimated, and about ten years before I reach retirement age. Current and near future retirees will be fine, but what about the rest of us?

The reason for these new estimates is simple supply and demand -- more baby boomers are retiring, drawing Social Security benefits, while at the same time millions of jobs have been lost in this recession. There are fewer workers making a paycheck from which the government can take Social Security tax.

The trustees who oversee the Social Security fund now estimate the system will start paying out more money than it takes in in just seven years. Experts agree it would be best to repair Social Security sooner rather than later.

So just how can the government fix Social Security? The trustees have estimated the government would need to increase the Social Security payroll tax by two percentage points -- to 14.4% -- for the system to balance out over 75 years. Or they could cut benefits by 13%.

Both these ideas sound pretty drastic. Experts says it's more likely lawmakers will phase in a combination of increased taxes and reduced benefits, along with possibly raising the age at which Americans can draw benefits. Afterall, we are living longer, which is helping to contribute to the shortfall.

Candidate Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of protecting and preserving Social Security for present and future retirees. He opposed increasing everyone's taxes or raising the retirement age. Instead he proposed increasing taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year to fund the shortfall. The White House website doesn't go into as much detail. It says the president is committed to working in a bipartisan manner to protect Social Security for everyone.

However it's done, I hope something is worked out soon. Meanwhile, I'll be bulking up my 401(k)!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

iPhone Requirement
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

The blogs are buzzing about a new requirement at the University of Missouri School of Journalism: All incoming freshman must have an iPhone or iPod Touch.

The news sparked a big debate about requiring students to buy a specific brand of technology. A school dean confirms the decision to the Missourian newspaper, but he says the requirement will not be enforced. The school says the only reason it was made a requirement was to allow students to claim the expense as part of their financial aid. And, the school handbook now recommends an iPod Touch, but does say other media players will work too.

Controversy aside, it's an interesting idea. Apparently the entire campus is now going to record lectures so they can be downloaded for free through iTunes University. Students can play the lectures back on their iPods or iPhones when they're "studying."

I'm always glad see a school embracing technology. Amazon's Kindle is already being tested for use by six major universities. Imagine not having to lug all those books around.

And, when you consider the price of text books these days, the iPod and Kindle look cheap!

Monday, May 11, 2009

My Two Cents
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

When I heard the U.S. Postal Service is raising the price of stamps again, I was not very happy about it. I don't have the Forever Stamps, (which true to their name are good for a one ounce letter anytime) so it looks like if I'll need new stamps. Starting today, the price of a first-class stamp is jumping two cents, to 44 cents.

So, why another two-cent spike? The Postal Service says it has to raise the price because of increasing production costs. It made the announcement back in February. I guess it slipped my mind. I use stamps occasionally to mail birthday cards, letters, and to mail some bill payments, but mainly I write e-mails and pay bills online. It's certainly not going to drain my bank account. There's even a release on the Postal Service's Web Site that says the increase will only cost the average household about $3 more a year. But, to some people $3 can make a lot of difference. It's also an inconvenience if you don't have the Forever Stamps, because it means you have to buy new stamps or two-cent stamps to supplement the 42-cent ones.

I'm going to quit my whining though, and head over to the Post Office to make my purchases. I just wanted to take a moment to put my own two cents in.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Looking Up
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Finally, things appear to be looking up.

Unemployment numbers in April are still high, but not nearly as bad as they have been. Analysts say it's further evidence the economic decline is slowing down.

Stocks are showing signs of life and so are consumers. Retail sales numbers are beginning to look better, people are feeling more comfortable about spending.

Also, no big surprises on those bank stress test results. The numbers came in yesterday afternoon and they're in line with expectations. Banks still have a way to go, but their stocks are picking up steam again.

And to top it all off, news that will boost patriots' spirits: Lady Liberty's crown will open again on July 4th.

It had been closed since 9/11 because of security concerns.

Soon, thousands of people will climb those last 168 steps to the top of the Statue of Liberty every day. Hopefully, they can cast a gaze on the Big Apple and feel confident that the future is bright once again.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Costly Kindle
By Lori Chapman

I've been interested in Amazon's Kindle since the first model of the electronic book reader was introduced before Christmas in 2007. I've always got my nose in a book and the worst case scenario for me would be to find myself stuck in an airport or doctor's office waiting room with nothing to read. If I had a Kindle I could have thousands of books right at my fingertips.

Unfortunately there was no Kindle under my tree that Christmas, and the over $300 price tag has kept me from buying one myself. The only Kindle I've ever even seen was being read by a man at my gym. I looked at it over his shoulder but stopped short of asking to hold it. Still, devoted readers have been willing to shell out the cash for the device. Amazon won't release sales figures for the Kindle, but does say that e-books now account for 35% of sales of books that have digital editions available. On it's website, Amazon says people are reading books on the Kindle in numbers "far greater" than the company "ever expected."

Now Amazon is hoping to make waves in the news industry. Wednesday it unveiled the third edition of the e-reader, called Kindle DX. It features a display that's two and a half-times larger than the second generation Kindle -- perfect to replicate the experience of reading a newspaper or magazine. It's already forming partnerships with The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe to offer Kindles at a reduced price to some subscribers. It might actually get people to pay to subscribe to news content that they can get for free online. The main reason I don't subscribe to a newspaper is that I hate when all those papers pile up in my apartment. I get enough clutter from a few magazine subscriptions. It would be great if the Kindle could eliminate all that waste.

Amazon is also hoping the Kindle DX will soon become a staple for college students. It's formed partnerships with three textbook publishers that make up 60% of the textbook market, and six universities will be taking part in a pilot program offering Kindles to students. I can imagine how much I would have preferred to carry a slim Kindle instead of all those heavy textbooks when I was going to school.

But it doesn't look like I'll be getting a Kindle anytime soon. The new DX come with a hefty price tag of $489. But if Amazon makes more deals with content providers that would subsidize the cost of a Kindle, I think we'll soon see more people reading Kindles in gyms, airports and on college campuses.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Working in the news industry means I always have to be up-to-date with the latest news and current events. I tend to do a lot of my news gathering on the Internet or by watching my favorite news station: CNN, of course. There are some days I just want to read the daily happenings in print. When that happens, I usually grab a copy of The New York Times at the newsstand.

I have to admit though: knowing I can read the same articles on-line for free sometimes deters me from actually making the purchase, even if it is only $1.50. Soon, it's going to cost even more to pick up the New York Times. The paper is increasing the price when you buy it at the store. Starting June 1, it will cost $2 for the weekday version. The Sunday edition will be even more expensive. It's going up to $6 nationally and to $5 in the New York area.

If you have a subscription, you're in luck. Home delivery prices are staying the same. I've thought about subscribing but I know I don't always have time to sit and read it, so I don't want to waste the money or the paper. I might have to rethink that if the prices keep going up and I want to get my New York Times fix in print.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Full-time Freelance
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

Full-time work is hard to come by these days. Businesses all over the country are cutting way back and have taken to using freelancers to supplement their needs.

A new survey suggests that freelancers now make up more than a quarter of the U.S. working population, 26% to be exact. Kelly Services, a human resources consulting firm, says that number is up from 19% in 2006.

It helps both parties. Businesses use freelancers to keep costs down. They hire workers when they're needed, and only have to pay them for that specific job.

Freelancers, in turn, get that paycheck as well as the flexibility to make their own schedules. There can be a downside, however. As a freelancer, you're responsible for your own health care insurance, which can add up. And no one else is going to contribute to your retirement plan...that's all up to you.

I, myself, am a freelancer. I occasionally blog for CNN from the NYSE and also write about real estate, fashion, entertainment and travel. I can tell you that being a freelancer can be like a full time job - it's a constant hustle to find that next gig and to keep those paychecks coming in.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Google "Goats"? Oh, Google's Goats!
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

I hate mowing the lawn. Luckily, living in New York City, I've been able to cross that chore off my list of things to do. I don't know many people who like the task. What I hated most about mowing the lawn was the smell, and the amount of pollutants produced. I never quite found a way to avoid this when I had to mow, other than letting my lawn grow a little more than perhaps the neighbors would care to see.

But, Google might have the answer. The company says it's using a new way to keeps its lawns in check. The internet giant has turned to a company called California Grazing, which uses a low-carbon approach to lawn care. What does this company use that's easier on the environment? The answer: goats.

That's right, instead of lawnmowers buzzing around the lawns of Google's Mountain View headquarters, there will be about 200 goats grazing. I can imagine that will be much less noisy than mowers, and goats certainly won't emit the same pollutants as a lawnmower. The goats won't just be there to keep the grass short as they chow down, but they'll also handle the fertilizing! Google says the goats stay about a week, and California Grazing handles all the herding.

It sounds like a greener more natural approach, but what's the price tag? It seems every time I try to go a little greener, I tend to spend a lot more money. Well, Google says this will cost them about the same as using a traditional lawn care company.

Overall, it seems like a pretty good idea to me if the goats are okay with it. Now, I'm not recommending buying a goat any time you're sick of mowing. But, if I ever have a lawn again, I might be Googling some goats for myself.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Cappuccino Combat
By Lori Chapman

I'm not a huge coffee drinker, but since I get into work at 4:30am, I often find myself in need of a cappuccino. Lately it just doesn't feel right spending nearly $4 for a cappuccino at Starbucks, so I try not to go more than once a week. Usually I'll turn to Dunkin' Donuts, or -- most often -- the coffee pot in the break room. And apparently I'm not the only one. This week Starbucks reported its second quarter earnings were down 77%, with sales at stores open at least a year down 8%.

There has been speculation the company is losing market share to competitors selling cheaper espresso drinks, but CEO Howard Schultz insists that concern has been "grossly exaggerated."

Now Starbucks is beginning a multi-million dollar ad campaign as a response to attempts by rivals to eat into its market. It seems to be the beginning of an all out war over the specialty coffee consumer.

Samples of the ads posted on the Starbucks website carry messages like: "Beware of a cheaper cup of coffee. It comes with a price" and "This is what coffee tastes like when you pour your heart into it."

Starbucks senior vice president Terry Davenport explains on his blog that the company decided it needs to start letting consumers know how much good Starbucks does for the world -- with it's Shared Planet practices and relationships with Fair Trade, Conservation International and Product (RED). He says value for consumers is not necessarily what's cheapest. Starbucks says 65% of it's coffee is now fair trade.

So Starbucks wants to remind customers that they're not just buying a latte, they're supporting a greater good -- but that may be difficult for budget-conscious coffee fans to swallow in this economy.

McDonald's McCafe stores sell made-to-order lattes and cappuccinos for $3 or less. The fast food giant will soon be launching it's own national ad campaign promoting its specialty coffees. It also recently ran a billboard in Seattle -- the home of the first Starbucks -- with the message "Four Bucks is Dumb." Ouch!

Dunkin' Donuts, meanwhile, has been serving espresso drinks for several years. The company began its own $100 million ad campaign at the beginning of this year -- with quite a different take. The campaign's slogan is "You Kin' Do It." The company says it's designed to offer "encouragement and a spirit of fun during these challenging times" by cheering on "everyday people who keep America running."

That's something that will hit home with consumers today, but it's true the recession won't last forever. There have been some recent signs that it may be easing. Starbucks says its ad campaign will be "long-term," so it may have a shot at getting its message through.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Luring Elusive Shoppers
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what Toys"R"Us is doing lately to boost sales. I'm certainly not a sales expert, but it seems to me, for retailers, half the battle is getting consumers in the door. Once they're inside, of course they're more likely to buy something.

When I first wrote about this, Toys"R"Us had just announced a plan that was essentially a "store within a store," called $1-$2-$3 Fun! And all the toys in that section are $3 or less.

$1-$2-$3 Fun! is conveniently located just inside the front door, with the hope of attracting shoppers with more affordable toys -- an apparent effort to compete with those popular dollar stores.

Now Toys"R"Us is taking it a step further. It's opening another "store within a store" it's calling the "R" Market. Just like $1-$2-$3 Fun! it's going to be in the front of some of its locations.

But "R" Market goes beyond toys -- think snacks and laundry detergent -- and other stuff you'd find in a grocery store. Toys"R"Us sees it as a convenient option for busy parents. Will parents buy the concept? We'll see.

I think it's an interesting idea and another example of the lengths retailers are going to these days to attract shoppers. The goal -- motivating people to come in the store. And just maybe, since they're already there, they might venture further in and buy something else.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine Flu Catches the Twitter Bug
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

It seems like Twitter has the swine flu fever -- or is it the other way around? The swine flu is one of the most popular topics to tweet about. I just did a search for "swine flu" on the Twitter site. This morning it is holding the top two spots in the sidebar called "Trending Topics." People are tweeting about everything from symptom warnings to news updates to criticism about hype, oh and there's even a swine flu haiku out there.

Even public officials are tweeting about swine flu. The World Health Organization, the Department of Homeland Security, the Mexico City Regional Government, and the U.S. Red Cross have links set up for news updates. And, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a few links set up on Twitter: CDC Updates, CDC Flu, and CDC Interactive.

I'm beginning to wonder if this outbreak is getting too much hype though. I wonder if tweeting about the flu could be adding to fears?

But a CDC spokesperson says the microblogging service is good thing for disease prevention because people will be talking about it, and that means they are thinking about it.

I think increased awareness is definitely helpful so that people can take proper precautions to reduce the possible spread, but be careful of your source of info. While some of the tweets are helpful, and some quite amusing, it might be better to seek information from an official health-related web site.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It Pays to Go to School
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

We've all been told at one point in our lives that it pays to earn a college degree. Now the U.S. Census Bureau is putting a dollar amount on it.

The most recent numbers from the Census suggest workers with bachelor's degrees earn more than $57,000 a year on average, while those with just a high school diploma earn about $31,000 a year.

That's a $26,000 difference every year! When you add it up over a 40 year career, that degree can earn you about a million dollars more than someone with a high school diploma.

The data was gathered in 2008, so I wonder how many of those people still have a job?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bulls, Bears and Pigs
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Forget the Bulls and the Bears, today at the NYSE, people are talking about the Pigs - as in the swine flu.

It appears the bug is attacking the travel industry today.

Shares of Continental, United and American were all down about 16% just after the opening bell.

The travel sector was one of the industries hit the hardest during the SARS outbreak.

Now, investors are concerned about the impact a large flu outbreak could have on our fragile global economy.

But it's not just money concerns here at the NYSE.

There are a lot of people in very close quarters here and no one wants to get sick!

So, early this morning, before the market opened, a maintenance crew installed hand sanitizer dispensers at each entrance to the trading floor.

Friday, April 24, 2009

New Credit Card Rules
By Vera Gibbons at the NYSE

I have excellent credit, pay my bills on time and have never carried a balance on my (one!) credit card, so you can imagine how surprised I was to see that my interest rate was jacked up from 14% to 18% -- JUST LIKE THAT!

Now, I normally don't pay attention to these things (again, because I pay my bills in full each month.) But it was the principle that bothered me.

I am therefore delighted (as are the millions of Americans who DO carry a balance, I would imagine) to see that the government is looking to stop this type of activity -- as well as other practices many consider deceptive, such as lowering limits (often lowering to just a few dollars above the revolving balance!) and therefore botching credit scores in the process -- with some kind of reform.

But here's the rub: having rules is one thing. Enforcing them is another altogether.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

NYC and Wal-Mart Go Green
By Dana Simmons-Greco

Just a day after Earth Day, two popular American destinations are going "green." New York City's buildings and some Wal-Marts could soon be more energy efficient.

New York's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg is proposing a package of environmentally-conscious building laws. One part of that proposal would require owners of certain buildings to make energy efficient improvements on their properties every 10 years. Among other things, the purpose of the move is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that come from older buildings. Mayor Bloomberg hopes it will reduce New York's carbon footprint. The move could also create jobs for the city, as workers will be needed to make the energy-efficient renovations, Bloomberg says. But critics say it could result in higher rents.

Wal-Mart is also looking to improve its energy efficiency. It's planning to double solar power use at its California stores and distribution centers. I didn't realize this but 18 Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores already have a solar set-up. The retail guru now wants to add rooftop solar panels to 10 to 20 more stores.

It seems they're looking to go "green" from coast to coast.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Oprah's All A-Twitter
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

We've been all atwitter about Twitter lately and it just keeps getting better for the social networking site.

Last week Oprah dedicated an entire show to Twitter and she sent her first "tweet."

Now, internet tracker Hitwise is reporting that after the show, traffic on Twitter is up 43%! And on April 17th --the day of the show-- 37% of visitors to Twitter were first time users. Hitwise points out that Twitter is still new, so it's not uncommon to see a lot of new visitors. But to put it into context, 8% of Facebook visitors were first time users in March.

Hitwise also says the search term "oprah twitter" was the 35th highest search term with the word "twitter" last week, and the 7th with "oprah."

Proving that when Oprah "tweets," people listen!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Crunching Numbers
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

President Obama wants to cut spending. So yesterday, he asked his cabinet to find $100 million dollars to cut from his $3.5 Trillion 2010 budget. Without getting into any of the politics surrounding this announcement, let's just look at the numbers.

$100 million is such a huge number that most of us can't get a grip on how much that really is. There are eight zeros in 100,000,000 -- and that is a ton of money. So, I want to put it into context, because when you compare it to $3.5 trillion -- that's $3,500,000,000,000 -- the difference could almost be considered negligible.

So let's move the decimal point on that 3.5 trillion and make it $35,000 -- the price of a pretty nice new car. Remember, Mister Obama wants to cut $100 million from $3.5 trillion. In the case of the $35,000 dollar new car, that would be like asking the dealer to give you a deal and cut a dollar from the price. One dollar.

Food for thought.

Monday, April 20, 2009

I "Tweet" Hard for the Money
By Dana Simmons-Greco

Oprah sent her first tweet on Friday. She's usually a trendsetter -- people follow her every move. It seems her recommendations, from books to products, become popular. I have to admit I've never sent a "tweet", or even been on Twitter until Friday's Oprah hype. But it seems some big companies beat Oprah to this trend. They've already been tweeting to build their business base. From Starbucks to Domino's, Twitter is all the rage.

And now, Pizza Hut is looking for a summer "twintern." That's right the company has a job posting for an intern who will tweet about the happenings at the pizza joint. All this Twitter talk has me wondering what happened to Facebook. It's still pretty popular. In fact, Pizza Hut's twintern apparently will be responsible for maintaining other social networks like Facebook and YouTube.

As I said earlier, I'm not usually one to tweet on about my life, but getting paid to tweet is a different story. If I wasn't already happily employed, I might be tempted to apply.

Friday, April 17, 2009

To Tweet or Not to Tweet
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Twitter is becoming a household name and the popular social networking site is about to get a big public relations boost today from the talk show queen herself. Oprah Winfrey is devoting her entire show to Twitter and she will send her first Tweet today.

If you don't know what a Tweet is, you must be living in a cave. Tweet is what you do when you send out a short message to your followers on Twitter. The new term is pretty popular and being a journalist, and a bit of a wordsmith myself, it got me thinking about the syntax surrounding this new Twitter term.

Stick with me here...

If I'm on Twitter, then I Tweet. But, if I Tweet, what does that make me? I can't be a Twitterer, that just doesn't look right. So maybe I would be a Twitteran, as a member of the Twitter community. Just like Chicagoans live in Chicago.

Or, maybe I'm just looking too deeply at this and I'm really just a Twit.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Spam's Carbon Footprint
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

We all deal with junk e-mail every day. Sure it's a hassle, but a new report suggests that all that spam also wastes energy and pollutes the earth.

Computer security firm McAfee says spammers generated 62 trillion junk e-mails last year. The company broke it down and figures that the electricity used to process just one spam message results in a third of a gram of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere -- the same as driving a car 3 feet.

Think about all that time you spend sifting through e-mails. How many of those did you actually want to receive? Well, the report says about 97% of e-mails are unwanted. And, all the clicking, scrolling, reading, and reviewing before you delete an e-mail takes a lot of energy for a PC. The report says it ends up accounting for about 80% of spam's greenhouse emissions.

When you add up all that wasted energy, McAfee says it was enough to power 2.4 million homes for a year! And I always thought the only thing junk e-mail wasted was my time.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

KGC Anyone?

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

KFC is, of course, famous for its fried chicken so how do you feel about KGC -- Kentucky Grilled Chicken?

It's an effort to attract health conscious customers, no doubt. Grilled chicken hits KFC menus this week.

The herbs and spices are still there, KFC said it came up with a new concoction specifically for the Grilled Chicken. Now the big question, will people buy it?

The new KGC has about half the calories and fat (or less), than the fried variety. Here in NYC, that could make a big difference for KFC, um, I mean KGC. Fast food restaurants here are required to post calorie content right next to food items on the menu board.

If this isn't happening in your town yet, check it out on your next trip to the Big Apple. We all know fast food has tons of calories, but to see it right there in black and white? It's pretty scary.

With between 70 to 180 calories and 4 to 9 grams of fat per piece, at least here in NYC, KGC is going to look a whole lot better next to KFC's original recipe, which has 110 to 370 calories and 7 to 21 grams of fat per piece.

Then again, if you're counting calories, you're probably not eating at KFC to begin with.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Business of Convenient Healthcare
By Lori Chapman in Atlanta

Everyone who's still got a job in this economy is at least a little worried they might lose it. So the last thing a worker wants to have to do is call in sick, or come to work late because of a doctor's appointment. So more Americans are heading to the health clinic inside their local retailer.

Retail health clinics can't replace a primary care doctor. But they can take care of many routine medical needs. They staff nurse practitioners who treat ailments like colds, allergies and ear infections, and even offer vaccines and physicals. Customers like them because you don't have to make an appointment, and they're fast -- with a wait time of usually only 15-20 minutes.

There were just over 1,200 of these retail health clinics in the U.S. in 2008. It's still a niche market, but the research firm Kalorama Information expects the number of clinics to grow to 2,400 by 2013, with an annual revenue of about $2 billion. Wal-Mart, Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid are among the retailers operating in-store clinics. Even supermarkets like Safeway and Kroger are starting to offer in-store care.

I seem to get sick all the time and I think retail health clinics are an excellent idea. I've been to one such clinic several times. My health insurance pays for the visits, and I just have to cover the $15 co-pay. It's more than the $10 I would pay for a visit with my physician, but the extra $5 is definitely worth it. There's usually no wait at the clinic, while my physician is usually running way behind schedule -- if I can get an appointment with her at all. Plus while I'm at the drugstore I can pick up the cough drops, tissues, antibiotics and whatever else I need to get me through my illness.

The clinics also treat people who have no health insurance, though many uninsured cannot afford the average $60 fee for a clinic visit. Taking note of the times, Walgreens announced last month it's offering free check-ups at its in-store Take Care clinics to patients, and their families, who've lost their jobs and have no insurance.

So these clinics are great for busy people who can afford it. They're also lucrative for retailers, drawing traffic into their stores. Analysts predict if the clinics eventually collaborate with HMO's and hospitals while expanding their services, they could give the primary care market a run for its money.

Monday, April 13, 2009:

Downsizing your Burger
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I think it's only fair I start this blog by telling you I love burgers. My wife makes fun of me for it sometimes, because it doesn't matter where we are, if there is some sort of burger on the menu I have a hard time ordering anything else.

I also like those little mini burgers (as long as there's more than one). And I've noticed, recently that many more burger joints are starting to offer bite-size items. McDonald's is testing its "Snack Wrap Macs" in some markets and Burger King calls its little menu addition "Burger Shots." With a name like that, I figure they're hoping you'll just toss 'em back in one gulp.

Without consulting the fast food chain PR types, I think we can all safely surmise that at the very least, mini burgers look cute and might attract some consumers. Everyone's looking for bargains these days and most people probably assume smaller burgers mean smaller prices.

The dollar menus are a big draw for the fast food chains. This past summer McDonald's spent a ton of time and research trying to figure out how to keep its double cheeseburger on the dollar menu. MickeyD's was facing higher prices for ingredients that pretty much wiped out the profit on a $1 double cheeseburger. One of the potential solutions: Remove a slice of cheese and call it a double hamburger with cheese.

Now it appears fast food burger joints stumbled on the idea that casual dining restaurants have been using for years. Why not give people the option of buying just one or two or three smaller burgers at a smaller price?

It might allow for a bigger profit margin.

Anyway you look at it, it's perceived value for the customer. And to me, always hungry for a burger, it looks like a deal. Whether or not you're actually getting what you pay for is another question.

Thursday, April 9, 2009:

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

This economic climate of job cuts, pay cuts, and cutting costs has many people looking for ways to increase their cash flow, either to make ends meet or to bolster savings. In a different economic state, I would invest some money in the stocks, but these days, I just don't have the stomach for it.

Other people share my concerns, and the idea of a quick buck is luring some to "cash gifting" programs. What are these, you ask? They can be found online, and offer promises of high cash returns when you invest just a little. Recently, a number of links to these programs have been showing up on YouTube, and the Better Business Bureau is warning people about them.

It says not to click on videos claim to be "cash gifting" or "gifting club" programs. The agency says the video will take you to a site that offers the program. The Better Business Bureau says the sites tend to target certain interest groups such as women's clubs, community groups, church congregations, and social clubs. It will ask for a contribution, usually between $150 and $5,000. Then, it's up to you to recruit more people to give more money. The more people you bring in, the more money you take home -- at least, that's what the programs claim. They might seem like a simple and fast way to make money, and appear to be legal, but the Bureau says they're nothing more than pyramid schemes -- just like Bernie Madoff's.

So, even though the thought of a little extra money that's just a click away sounds nice, I think I'll keep my money in the bank.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009:

Bigger Tax Refunds
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Good news about taxes!

I know that must sound a little weird. I've been in news for about 15 years and I don't remember ever using the term "good news" and the word "taxes" in the same sentence. But here's the deal, you may be getting more money back this year.

The IRS says the average tax refund as of March 20th was $2,740 -- up almost 10% from the year before.

And, more people are filing online and early.

The IRS only gives the numbers, not an explanation for them, but some tax preparers believe the increase in refund amounts has a lot to do with the economy tanking.

First of all, people who lost their jobs lost income and may have overpaid earlier in the year when they were still gainfully employed. Income also fell thanks to shrinking dividends, lower interest rates, and investment losses instead of gains.

So while the "Good News" headline rings true because you may be getting more money back, the "Bad News" is it's probably because you made less. C'est la vie.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009:

Blockbuster May Ride Off into the Sunset
By Lori Chapman in Atlanta

I've been a Netflix subscriber for four years. As a huge movie fan, I was instantly hooked on the concept of getting DVDs delivered right to my door. Meanwhile, l neglected my Blockbuster membership card.

Blockbuster began a service similar to Netflix about two and a half years ago, called Total Access. Some would argue it's even better than Netflix, because customers can exchange movies through the mail or in-store. A friend of mine raved to me about Total Access and tried to convince me to check it out, but I just never got around to it. Maybe because it was just easier not to switch, especially since I didn't want to lose my carefully selected Netflix queue of nearly a hundred movies I'd planned to watch.

So I was happy just waiting for movies to come in the mail. Of course now there are so many different ways I can watch movies at home, that it's been quite awhile since I've needed to run to my neighborhood rental store. I can watch movies online or order them through my cable box with the on demand feature. And if I really need to go out for a DVD, my grocery store has a self-service machine called MovieCube where I can get new releases for just $1 a night.

Faced with all this competition, it's easy to see why Blockbuster said it may not be able to survive. The video rental chain says it has lined up much-needed financing, but it may not be enough. The company lost more than $370 million dollars last year. Analysts say Blockbuster's business model just can't compete with internet and cable options, which don't have the same retail store overhead expenses. Blockbuster's 8,000 stores worldwide may become yet another casualty of these changing times.

Monday, April 6, 2009:

NCAA Finals Boosts Michigan's Spirit
By Lori Chapman in Atlanta

On a recent visit to my hometown in Michigan, I saw signs of the recession everywhere -- empty storefronts, foreclosure signs on every neighborhood street, and noticeably light rush hour traffic. I met up with an old friend from high school who told me her parents, her brother and his wife were all struggling financially because they each worked in some way with the auto industry. I found out my uncle took one of those buyouts, and was now suddenly retired from Ford.

The mood was definitely gray in my home state. But everyone was cheerful at a bar in Ann Arbor where I met some good friends and fellow Michigan State alums to watch MSU defeat Southern California in the NCAA Tournament. Even in Ann Arbor, home to MSU's rival the University of Michigan, the bar was crowded with State fans.

Michigan has been in a recession for six years. I was hearing about it from friends and family there long before the economic downturn was big news across the rest of the country. Unemployment in the state is now at 12% -- the highest in the country. Anything that brings money, jobs or just good news to the state is welcome these days. Even if Michigan State doesn't win the championship game tonight, the NCAA Tournament has still been good for Michigan.

The finals are being played at Ford Field in downtown Detroit. The city is expecting 100,000 visitors, who'll help stimulate the local economy by eating out, checking into hotel rooms, renting cars and maybe even visiting the downtown casinos -- spending an anticipated $30 to $50 million. Detroit is just about 90 miles from East Lansing, home of Michigan State, so tens of thousands of MSU fans will make the trip, giving the team quite a home court advantage.

Friday, April 3, 2009:

Getting Shoppers in the Door
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I'm certainly not a sales expert, but we all know it's pretty tough for retailers in this economy. Even if people have money, they don't seem to want to spend it. And if they are spending, consumers are definitely thinking twice about buying discretionary items.

It seems to me, for retailers, half the battle is getting consumers in the door. Once they're inside, of course they're more likely to buy something than if they had never walked in at all.

Toys"R"Us just announced an interesting plan that might do just that. The toy store is setting up what I would call a "store within a store," called $1-$2-$3 Fun! And all the toys in that section are $3 or less.

The company press release says there are about 100 different items in $1-$2-$3 Fun!, which is conveniently located just inside the front door of its stores.

I don't know anything about the quality of the toys and I'm certainly not making any recommendations, but I think it's an interesting idea. Toys that cheap are bound to draw people in, especially since they're right inside the front door. It accomplishes a major goal -- motivating people to come to the store. And just maybe, since they're already there, they might venture further in and buy something else.

Thursday, April 2, 2009:

Hitting Home
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

When I moved into my apartment in Brooklyn, I was excited about the prospect of living in a developing neighborhood. Condos and apartment buildings were being built down the block. A grocery store was scheduled to open across the street. Signs went up in empty storefronts advertising the various businesses that would be coming soon. A new bakery is set to open a block from my building -- and I can't wait to try it.

But lately, on my walk home from the train, I've noticed differences in my neighborhood, but not the ones I had hoped for. The construction noise that used to wake me on the weekends is much quieter. In fact, I don't think I've seen anyone working on that condo building in days. The empty stores are now littered with "For Rent" signs, and there are more empty ones than even last month as several places have gone out of business. Even though it's been eight months since I moved in, the grocery store and that little bakery still haven't opened. It's not clear why, although opening-day delays are not uncommon. But I'm concerned that the job cuts, slow retail sales, and production cuts I report on each morning are finally hitting home for me.

It seems the economic downturn is making some changes to my neighborhood.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009:

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

When it comes to finding an apartment in New York City, these days, it's a renters market. I should know because I'm looking for an apartment right now. Like everyone else, I'm trying to cut down on expenses and paying less rent can be a big savings.

Usually, finding an apartment in the city is a daunting prospect. Most rental owners here do not post listings that the public can see and there are very few "For Rent" signs. Instead, most owners will list with a broker. The renter hires the broker because he knows where all the good places are. And it's painful, because the standard rate brokers charge is 15% of a year's rent! In Manhattan, it's not unusual to see a 500 square foot, one bedroom apartment listing for $2,500 to $3,500 a month, so an additional 15% gets really expensive quickly.

These days it's different. Because so many people lost jobs and moved out of the city, there is a glut of apartments on the market. In some cases, landlords are so desperate to rent, that they're now paying the broker fee! Prices are still quite high but they are no longer set in stone. The renter can negotiate and owners are flexible. And with so many options, right now the most difficult part of the process is deciding which apartment to take.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009:

From the "Set" to the "Net"
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Coming into work before the sun comes up means I have to go to sleep before the sun even goes down. This means I can't watch some of my favorite prime-time shows. Luckily, some of the major networks offer episodes of certain shows online after they air on both coasts. It's great because I can sleep through the latest "Grey's Anatomy," but catch it online the next day on ABC.com. If I miss "The Office" or "30 Rock," there's an episode waiting for me on hulu.com. Lifetime and TBS have similar viewing options on their websites.

Now, Disney is joining the ranks of online video providers. It reached an agreement with YouTube to provide content to the video site.

YouTube will have channels from Disney's ESPN and ABC, so you can watch sports clips, show recaps and even original web series. Don't get too excited about watching the newest episode of "Hannah Montana" online though, the deal does not include full-length TV shows or sporting events.

With so many networks offering content on the internet, your favorite program could be just a click away.

TBS is owned by Time Warner, also the parent company of CNN, who prepared this report.

Monday, March 30, 2009:

Glued to the Screen
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Sometimes after work I'll sit in my living room and peruse the internet on my laptop, while simultaneously watching television and checking e-mails on my BlackBerry. Once in awhile I'll look at the time, and realize that all I did for three hours, or more sometimes, was look at various screens. That's on top of the eight hours I already spent staring at my laptop screen while I'm working. That means there are some days when I will spend 11 or more hours in front of some type of screen.

I'm not the only one glued to a screen -- a new study from Council for Research Excellence says the average American spends about eight and a half hours a day staring at a screen. And they mean any screen, whether it is a laptop screen, computer monitor, TV or a cell phone. The study says the number one media screen is the television, and computers are right behind. Who's the guiltiest set of viewers, you might ask? The study says it's the young baby boomers, ages 45-54, who spend about nine and a half hours staring away. I remember when I was a kid my father telling me not to watch too much television, now it looks like he might be just the guy to keep from the screen.

Friday, March 27, 2009:

Mortgage rates at 52-year low
By Beth Hall

My 31-year old brother who lives in an apartment is thinking he might finally take the plunge and become a homeowner.

He claims it would be stupid not to take advantage of the low rates.

So, how is he going to get the most house for the least money?

He's told his realtor to look at foreclosed homes.

With newly paid off credit card debt and knowledge about those bad high-cost subprime loans, it looks like now is the time for him to buy.

The housing market is seeing mortgage rates at a 52-year low -- a good time to trade in your old digs for some new ones.

Bankrate.com's daily survey finds the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate is 5.19% -- and that's an average -- so some people are getting fixed rates near 4%.

So what spurred the low rates?

A drop after the government's announcement it will buy more than $1 trillion in debt.

Rates haven't been this low since 1956.

Analysts say the rates may dip a bit lower -- but don't expect anymore dramatic plunges.

Even if you aren't in the market for a new home -- these rates apply for refinancing as well.

Thursday, March 26, 2009:

Facebook Makes Tweaks to Home page After Users Voice Complaints
By Katie Shahriari in Atlanta

A few weeks ago Facebook users logged on and saw a message telling them that the home page was going to be changing.

When the change finally did happen, there was an uproar from the Facebook faithful.

I'm on Facebook, and many of my "friends" were joining groups such as "We Don't Like the New Facebook Format" and other groups that have words in them too harsh to mention here.

A simple search on Facebook for "Facebook Format" comes up with more than 500 groups dedicated to the topic.

So the bosses at Facebook Inc. took note.

Facebook Inc. has taken user feedback and is making some minor tweaks to the new home page design.

While they aren't going back to the previous design, the company says it will make it easier for users to find the information they want.

One focus of the changes, according to a blog from Facebook's director of product, Christopher Cox, is live updating which can help users share more information more quickly.

But it seems not everyone wants to share that much information about themselves, or get that much information about others.

Users complained that the "stream" as Facebook calls it, was too busy.

And some said they just wanted to communicate with friends, but that the new format is too "stalkerish."

The changes make the site a bit more like Twitter.

I am one of those who signed up for Facebook to contact old friends and keep in touch with family.

I have yet to join Twitter because I am not ready to know THAT much information about what someone is doing 24 hours a day.

Nor do I want them to know the same about me!

So is Facebook trying to be more like Twitter?

Who knows.

But Cox points out that Facebook has 175 million users and that each of those folks uses the site in different ways.

Touche.

We'll have to wait and see if the upcoming modifications to the format are embraced by Facebook users over time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Looks like Bernie Madoff's numbers are finally paying off for a few people.

I read in the New York Daily News that some New York State Lottery winners this month say they owe their winnings all to him. A lottery official says there were 501 winning tickets using the sequence 0-5-4; those are the last 3 digits of Madoff's prison number. The numbers were displayed on the cover of the Daily News the day after Madoff pleaded guilty.

I've often heard about people playing the lottery, and using numbers they think are lucky like their mother's birthday, their address, or even astrological combinations. Lottery officials also says that popular number sequences tend to sell out, like during the week after the Flight 1549 crashed in the Hudson River the sequence "1549" sold out. How can you sell out of a sequence, you might ask. Well, the lottery stops issuing tickets once a sequence has the possibility to yield payments over a certain amount.

The lottery is a game of chance, so it makes sense to me people would pick numbers based on luck. That really isn't a word that comes to mind when I think of Bernie Madoff.

But, to those who did, they are now a little richer.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

All A-Twitter...
By Gina Sirico from the NYSE

Hi, my name is Gina and I'm a Tweet-aholic (Hi, Gina).

I admit that I'm newly obsessed with the hottest social network right now…Twitter.

Celebrities like John Mayer, Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Seth Rogen and Diddy share pictures and videos. Athletes like Shaquille O'Neal and Lance Armstrong also tweet with fans. In fact, yesterday, Lance wrote about his shoulder injury and how difficult it is to "tweet" left-handed!

Twitter is also fast becoming a useful tool for different companies to interact with consumers. Corporations like Apple, JetBlue and Starbucks answer customer questions and give tips -- while AOL's Steve Case and the head of Cisco systems also tweet.

And now, a new application by Salesforce will help those corporations take customer service to a new level. Clients using this application can monitor Twitter messages about their companies and be able to respond to questions, complaints, etc.

The application will be available this summer.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What is a Toxic Asset?
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

You've been hearing about toxic assets a lot lately, but they don't come from nuclear waste dumps, so what exactly are they?

When you get a mortgage, your lender will often sell it right away to an investment bank that will package your loan with a pool of hundreds, maybe thousands of other loans. Then, investors can buy into a piece of that pool of loans and trade it, et cetera.

Here's the problem: Let's say a particular pool of loans consists of subprime mortgages and for this example, most of those loans are now in default because the homeowners couldn't afford to pay them anymore.

Let's also say that at the peak of the market, that pool of subprime loans was worth $10 billion.

So the bank borrowed against the $10 billion value of the loan, but now that most of those loans have defaulted and no one wants or can buy the homes associated with it, what is that asset worth?

On the open market, if no one wants to buy something, essentially, it's worth nothing.

That's what we mean when we talk about a toxic asset, it's a scenario where the value decreases so much that it's a drag on the institution's entire portfolio.

And, remember in this hypothetical scenario, the bank borrowed against the $10 billion that loan was once worth.

Now the pool of loans is in default and no one wants to buy it, plus the bank is responsible for the cost of maintaining the properties associated with the loans.

So instead of making money, this essentially worthless asset is costing the bank.

And because the bank borrowed against the loan's original value, this pool of toxic loans taints everything else by essentially throwing the bank's whole balance sheet out of whack.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Wal-Mart Shares the Wealth
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

It's not difficult to understand why so many people around the country were beyond livid when they heard that executives at AIG, Merrill Lynch, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and other big name corporations received HUGE bonuses, even while their companies were getting bailout money because of the billions of dollars they LOST.

Look, I'm sure they worked hard and all, but in these tough economic times, while your company is receiving government funding to stay afloat, how does it look to the rest of America for those executives to take bonuses of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars on top of their salaries -- in some cases pretty hefty -- while others around the country who work just as hard are barely scraping by? People I talked to did not like the way that looked at ALL.

Now, today we got word that Wal-Mart will also be giving out bonuses. But this news is not the kind that incites anger. In fact, I think it's a downright nice gesture.

The retail chain will be giving out $2 billion to workers across the U.S. by way of bonuses, profit sharing, 401(k) contributions, merchandise discounts and contributions to the associate stock purchase plan.

It'll average out to approximately $900 per employee.

Wal-Mart is one of the few companies that has been doing well in the current economic meltdown.

Wal-Mart's CEO says the key to its success is how associates in every area of the company came together to help the common cause of keeping Wal-Mart afloat and profitable.

And I bet those employees are feeling very, very appreciated today.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

With the recent gains on Wall Street, you may be wondering about your 401(k) investments again. Lots of people changed (or considered changing) their contributions and allocations over the last few months. For a while, things were pretty scary and it could get really bad again, so what do you do now?

I'm not in the business of giving investment advice, but I'll tell you what I'm generally hearing from financial advisors.

They say keep investing in your 401(k).

Here are some of the main reasons they give:

1. Many employers still offer some sort of match to your contribution. That's free money that you only get if you continue investing in your 401(k).

2. Most people's 401(k)s are still way down (if yours is up, please call me, I want to talk to you!) and if you pull out now, you lock in your losses.

3. As long as you've got some years ahead of you before you retire, advisers say the market will recover. And, you're getting such a deal on the stocks you're buying now, that it could really pay off in the long run. On March 9th, the Dow hit a low of 6,547, down 7,617 points, or 53.7% from its all-time high of 14,164 on October 9th, 2007.

Even with staggering losses, a newly released survey of nearly 5,000 members of the global human resources association WorldatWork, as well as members of the American Benefits Council suggests that American workers still had faith in their 401(k)s -- or at least were still investing in 2008.

The survey shows two-thirds of the responding employers reported at least 70-percent of their eligible employees participated in a 401(k) plan last year.

As for the free matching money from your employer, the survey suggests it's still happening, though not quite as much as 2007.

Eight percent of employers surveyed said they have either decreased or are considering decreasing the 401(k) match.

Three percent got rid of it entirely.

Seventy-four percent said they're still matching and 15 percent have either increased or are considering increasing the employer match.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Customized Magazine
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Over the past few months, I've noticed how many print publications are struggling amid waning readership. We've heard about Time Inc. asking for volunteers to take a severance package and leave their jobs. And, cutbacks at Newsweek. Others publications are becoming digital, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which will now operate as the seattlepi.com

It seems like print is slowly becoming a thing of the past. When I talk to my friends about a magazine I've read, some are surprised I still read them as opposed just reading articles online. Many use sites with RSS feeds, like Google Reader, that update articles online automatically based on your interests. They are personalized to the settings you prefer, so there will likely be an option that piques your interest. I was resistant at first, as I love to carry magazines with me to read when I have a moment. Lately though, I've begun to enjoy using the Google Reader. Oh, and did I mention it is free?

There's a new publication though that is offering readers a custom magazine with the option of having it in print or digital. It's a 10-week experimental run called "Mine" published by Time Inc., a corporate cousin of CNN. It seems to give readers the personal touch (including personalized ads) offered with RSS feeds, while still offering the familiarity and portability of a print version. Unlike Google Reader, where you can add almost any RSS feed, "Mine" only lets its readers pick five magazines out of its eight options. And, though both versions of the magazine are free, the print version is only available to the first 31,000 people who sign up, and the online version for the first 200,000. I've placed an order for the print version of "Mine," so soon enough I'll have another magazine option to read on the train. I sure hope I like it.

TIME INC. IS OWNED BY TIME WARNER, ALSO THE PARENT COMPANY OF CNN, WHO PREPARED THIS REPORT.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick's Spending
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Even the "luck of the Irish" might not be able to stand against this global economic downturn.

The Irish holiday is often known as a day of merriment with green decorations, parades, bag pipes and, for some, a green beer, or a pint of Guinness. It's one of those holidays who some people I know will go out of their way and spend some extra cash to decorate for the festivities.

This St. Patrick's Day, however, is expected to be less profitable than others for retailers. The National Retail Federation expects U.S. consumers who plan to celebrate St. Patrick's Day will spend about $3 billion, or an average of $33 per person. That's more than $2 less than the amount spent last year. Only the 25-34 age group is expected to spend more on this holiday -- $39.52 -- about a dollar more per person than last year.

Maybe a few pints of Guinness can come to the rescue today though. This year is the beer's 250th anniversary, and many bars advertise the beer on St. Patrick's Day as it is known for its Irish heritage. According to the Guinness Web Site, ten million glasses of the beer are drunk every day around the world.

With a celebration like that, I think at least some bar owners with Guinness on tap could have the chance to see a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Freelance Online
By Carter Evans

So you've been laid off and you can't find a full time job, now what do you do?

A lot of people are asking themselves that question these days and they're turning to freelancing, basically working for an employer on a per-job basis. But where do you get a gig?

Elance.com, guru.com and odesk.com, are a couple of websites helping freelancers find work.

Many of the jobs allow you to work from home while your boss monitors you online. Odesk can even provide managers with screen shots from your computer so they can see you're actually doing what you're supposed to.

While freelancing can provide an opportunity to bring in some extra cash, here are two important things to remember:

When it comes to health insurance, you're on your own.

But, the government has eased eligibility requirements for COBRA, which is a program that allows you to continue paying what your former employer was paying for your health insurance (assuming you had a job with insurance before).

You pay your own taxes.

If you've been paid on a W-2 in the past, then you used to having your employer withhold taxes from your paycheck. When you're freelancing, you'll likely be paid on a 1099. That means no money is withheld and you have to pay your own taxes, usually on a quarterly basis.

Friday, March 13, 2009

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Many people these days are looking for ways to reduce the amount of money they spend.

I've certainly been doing the same.

One area I've been focused on is my healthcare expenses: co-pays for visits to the doctor and prescriptions.

Apparently I am not alone in this matter.

A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates more than half of the people surveyed tried to save money in the past year by cutting back on their healthcare last year.

Thirty-five percent said they used over-the-counter medicines and home remedies instead of going to the doctor.

And, 15% admit to skipping doses or pill-cutting.

Pill-cutting, you ask?

Some doctors will actually prescribe double doses of medications, and advise the patient cut the pills in half to cut costs.

This is of course only works on medications that are the same price regardless of the dose.

At first I thought this sounded like a great way to curb my prescription expenses.

I would get twice as many pills for the same price.

But, I became concerned this might be some sort of insurance fraud.

Well, it turns out that some insurance companies actually favor this practice because it saves them money on copayments as well.

UnitedHealthcare even has a voluntary "half tablet" program, complete with a free tablet splitter.

The program isn't available for all medications though, only the ones it lists on its Web Site. UnitedHealthcare explains some pills are not meant to be split.

Cigna is another insurer that advocates pill-splitting.

Though it doesn't have a program, it lists the method on the section of its Web Site called "Reducing Medication Costs."

Cigna also has a list of permitted medications, and advises pill-splitting must be done with doctor supervision or it could be dangerous.

So, my concern about possible insurance fraud is not an issue as long as my provider approves the medication.

If done properly, it looks like it can be an effective way to save money as a consumer, and a health insurance company.

Time to go split some pills.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Billionaires Go Bust
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Every year Forbes compiles a list of the world's billionaires and this year, there are a lot fewer of them.

Last year, there were 1125 people on the list. This year, that number is down to 793.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett actually swapped places on the list this year. Gates is back at the top, but only because he lost less money than Warren Buffett. Forbes says Gates lost $18 billion, dropping his net worth to $40 billion. Buffett's down $25 billion, leaving him with only $37 billion.

I know it's hard to feel bad for billionaires, especially when they still have a ton of money, but I think it's important to remember how much they contribute to our economy. The wealthiest people in society tend to be big business investors. They encourage business and innovation with their money.

The world's wealthiest are also are big contributors to charity. In a Wall Street Journal article, Gates says the value of his charity's endowment dropped 20% in 2008, though he says this year his foundation will actually increase the amount of money it spends.

So billionaires are a pretty important part of our economy and the impact on their bank accounts is felt by many. If nothing else: when you look at the losses to your 401K, there may be some consolation in knowing a man regarded as one of the top investors in the world lost $25 billion dollars himself.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Reporting Good News
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

My job is to report the news, good or bad. But I'll be honest, it's a lot easier to report the news when the market is up. Delivering bad news day after day takes a toll. It's no fun telling people their investments (and mine) are evaporating daily. And we've had a pretty long streak of bad news lately.

When I saw the market climbing yesterday, I got excited again. That good feeling came back even though the Dow is still down more than 50% from its peak in October of 2007.

The question now: Can this continue?

So far today it has, but I honestly do not believe we have seen the worst of this yet and I am not alone. Some analysts think we just got a break from the bad news because there are very few economic reports coming out this week. Investors looking for an opportunity found it, and they jumped back in.

I think the rally is a reminder that no matter how tough things get, all is not lost. I believe adversity breeds creativity. We will pull out of this eventually. Someone will always be looking for an opportunity in this mess, it's human nature. No one wants the world to be in the midst of a financial meltdown, but sometimes it's hard to see the light. We saw it yesterday, even if it was just a flicker.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

The thought of even trying to find a job in this barren market makes me cringe.

The numbers are scary: unemployment over 8 percent, 4.4 million jobs lost since the recession began 15 months ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But believe it or not, that same agency says there are more than 2 million job openings in the country today.

So the news isn't all bad.

Just today, AT&T announced it would add nearly 3,000 new jobs over the course of the year, as the company beefs up its wireless and broadband services. (Though the communications giant also said it would go ahead with previously announced layoffs in other areas.)

But expect competition for those new jobs to be tough.

Job fairs in various parts of the country are drawing record crowds.

A North Carolina resort got 5,000 applicants for 500 jobs back in February. Three-thousand-seven-hundred people turned out for a job fair in New York earlier this month.

It was the same story in Chicago last week.

Five thousand people lined up for a job fair there.

And in Miami, thousands stood in line for hours just for a chance to fill out an application.

According to the Associated Press, many of today's available jobs are at discount retailers, which have seen an increase in business during the recession. I even saw a "Now Hiring" sign the other day at a fast food restaurant.

Jobs like that likely won't require previous experience, though they probably don't pay much, either.

The best opportunities seem to be in fields that require extensive training: education, health care, pharmacy, veterinary medicine.

The government's record-keepers say those jobs are plentiful if you have the training.

Oh, one more thing.

The federal government says it's hiring, too.

Monday, March 9, 2009

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

If you were waiting till the last minute to get the best deals at the Circuit City Liquidation sale, you're too late.

Other bargain hunters beat you to it.

Circuit City shut the doors for good Sunday at the last of its remaining 500 stores. The bankrupt electronics retailer's liquidation sale was supposed to last for eight weeks, but it ended up selling out of $1.7 billion worth of inventory about a week earlier than expected.

Circuit City opened its first store in Richmond, Virginia 60 years ago and grew to become the nation's second largest electronics retailer.

The company filed for bankruptcy in November and announced it was closing all its stores in January.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

U.S. stocks plummeted even lower yesterday. I watched as the Dow stumbled to its lowest point in 12 years. Shares that once traded in the double digits are now trading below $1. Citigroup's stock fell to 97 cents at one point during yesterday's trading -- that's less than the fee many Americans pay to use some ATM machines. It's also the lowest level for Citigroup stock since 1998, when Citicorp and Travelers Group merged to create the bank. At its peak in 2006, Citigroup traded at about $57. G.M. is another example of struggling stocks. Shares of the troubled automaker have been trading below the average price of a tank of gas in the U.S. Today it's been trading around $1.50. Yesterday, it traded just below $2 before it finally skidded to a halt at $1.86. With stocks trading at such cheap prices, I wonder just how low they might go before they bottom out.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Discount Airlines Expanding
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

While many traditional airlines are cutting flights and jobs and adding extra fees, it appears discount airlines are taking advantage of the opportunity and expanding.

I reported last week about Southwest expanding into Boston, as well as new route offerings from Jet Blue and now Allegiant Air.

USA Today reports discount air carriers are agile and their cost structure makes them better able to succeed in this economic climate. The paper also points out that AirTran -- while cutting flights overall -- is now growing its Milwaukee operations, and WestJet -- Canada's number two airline -- is buying more planes and expanding flying operations by five percent.

At a time when bad economic news prevails and the airline industry is scrambling to cut costs and services, the classic differences between conventional airlines and their discount counterparts are getting harder to discern -- except for the price. It's good to see that there's still room for healthy competition and growth.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

More Jobs Lost
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

We're going to get the national unemployment numbers for February on Friday and it's not expected to be pretty.

It seems like companies are reporting layoffs almost every day now.

Even though the official numbers aren't in, payroll-processing company ADP is estimating that the private sector lost nearly 700,000 jobs in February. That number is calculated with private payroll data and if it's accurate, that's about a 12% increase in job losses from ADP's revised 614,000 job cuts reported in January.

So what can we expect Friday? Economists predict the Labor Department will report about 650,000 jobs were lost in February. If that's the case, it would bump up our national unemployment rate from 7.6% to 7.9%.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It Broke 7,000
By Diane King at the NYSE

Yesterday I was here to witness history. I watched the Dow Industrials fall below the 7,000 mark in the first five minutes of trading and it never looked back. First a hundred point drop, and then later 200 points, and in the end almost 300 points were shed in one day.

While not the most in one day, it certainly set the Dow back. Back to levels of 1997. My colleagues and I asked each other what we were doing in 1997. I said, I was still in college, and probably didn't even notice. This time I did. It was big, because you had a different frame of reference -- just about two years ago, the Dow was at the 14,000 level.

You wondered if anything could turn it around, maybe the last hour of trading could perform a miracle. That hour can often see stocks stage a recovery after being beaten all day. That was not the case on March 2nd, as investors yanked out their positions. Once upon a time, analysts said we would hit 8,000, and then recover from there. Some said 7,000. But now as we sit at levels many didn't expect, no one is still willing to take that risk and say this is the bottom.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Cosmetic Changes?
By Gina Sirico at the NYSE

In tough economic times, it's the little things that seem to make us happy.

Historians say that during the Great Depression, as one would expect, consumers cut way back on luxury items. But one thing they did not stop buying? Red lipstick!

And according to the Chicago Tribune, consumers today are doing the same thing.

Right now, color cosmetic sales are red-hot. ACNielsen data shows that sales are up 4.4% since the recession began a little more than a year ago.

It's called "the lipstick effect." This theory is based on the idea that, in an effort to boost their spirits in times of economic and emotional hardship, consumers will turn to less expensive items like lipstick instead of pricier purchases, like say, jewelry.

In the months after the September 11th attacks, lipstick sales nearly doubled.

Men are not left out of the lipstick effect. No, they're not buying makeup. But men do spend money on items like gadgets rather than new cars.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Fee to Use the Restroom?
By Gina Sirico from the NYSE

Many airlines are trying to eliminate those extra fees. But now one airline may start charging a fee...to eliminate!

Ryanair, Europe's biggest discount airline, may start charging to use the restroom while flying!

That comes straight from Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary on a BBC morning show.

O'Leary says the airline is tossing the idea around of putting a coin slot on the bathroom door as a means of raising quote "discretionary revenue."

Because, you know, charging for food, drinks and extra baggage isn't enough. Though if they're going to start charging to use the bathroom, people might stop buying drinks on board!

An airline spokesman says that O'Leary makes a lot of this stuff up as he goes along and while yes, the idea was discussed, there is no immediate plan to make it happen.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Two for One

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Have you noticed all the "two for one" deals popping up lately?

Restaurants, retailers and even car dealerships are offering buy one, get one free deals to get shoppers in the door. But why "two for one"? Why not just cut prices 50 percent?

Retailers know that when they cut prices we get used to it pretty quickly. It's not long before consumers will refuse to pay regular retail prices, which can be a big problem once the economy starts to recover. "Two for one" deals allow consumers to feel OK about spending money because they feel like they're being responsible and getting a good deal.

Here are a few examples from USA Today:

T.G.I. Friday's is offering two for one entrees. Men's Warehouse is offering two for one suits.

A chain of car dealerships in Wisconsin is offering customers a free used car when they buy a new one. And a home builder in San Diego was even offering a free condo when you buy one of his new homes.

And remember, those deals are good for the economy too. One of the biggest problems in this downturn is that people who still have money are cutting spending big time. It creates a vicious cycle of cutbacks that leads to more job cuts and even less spending. So these days, anything that can get consumers to open their wallets is a good thing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tropicana's New Look
By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Have you noticed the new packaging for Tropicana Orange Juice? I ran across it in the grocery store the other day and did a double take. To me the new carton looks a lot like the generic brand. I thought the old one was fine, why change a good thing?

PepsiCo makes Tropicana and budgeted 35 million dollars for the redesign and an accompanying ad campaign, launched last month. Apparently a lot of people are not happy about it.

Consumers trashed the new look in blogs along with phone calls, e-mails and letters to the company.

Some said it was so different they had a hard time distinguishing the brand. Others just hated the new look.

PepsiCo is listening to all those complaints and is now scrapping the new look. The company says the old familiar packaging will be back on store shelves next month.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Remember that American Express credit card commercial that said, "Don't leave home without it?" Now, American Express is practically begging customers to leave it at home. It's actually asking them to get rid of their cards altogether. I was surprised to read today that the company is offering $300 to select members who cancel their credit cards.

American Express said its annual net credit default rate is up more than a percent. It hit about 8.3 percent in January, up from 7.2 percent in December.

Some rules do apply, though. The offer is only good for customers who've paid off their entire balances between March 1 and April 30.

Monday, February 23, 2009

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

The skies are about to get a lot friendlier for thirsty passengers. Sodas, coffee and water will now be complimentary again on US Airways.

In response to surging fuel prices last summer, the airline began charging $1-$2 for non-alcoholic drinks in August.

It was part of a multi-carrier business move that led to a la carte charges for baggage, aisle seats, pillows and snacks on many airlines.

But US Airways was the only domestic airline that charged for non-alcoholic beverages.

The charges irked passengers and brought a lot of criticism to US Airways. Now, Chief Executive Doug Parker says that being the only airline charging for drinks put US Airways at a disadvantage.

So starting March 1st, non-alcoholic beverages will be complimentary again. But you'll still have to shell out a few bucks if you want a pillow.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Most Affordable Cities
By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Today I learned that not only am I living in my favorite city in the world, I'm also living in the least affordable city in the U.S.

According to the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index, New York City is at the top of the list of cities where buying a house is difficult. About 14% of New York City's homes are considered affordable and the average price of a home is $455,000. A few other cities that I really like are on the least affordable top ten list, too --- San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles are also in the top ten.

That doesn't give me much hope for when I decide whether I want to buy a home in New York City. When it comes to affordability it seems Indianapolis is the place to look. The report says it is the easiest city in which to buy a home, where 93% of homes there are considered affordable and the average price of a home is $103,000. Other cities that made the top ten list of where it's easy to buy a home include Detroit, Cleveland, and Syracuse.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Auto Industry Asks for More Money

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

G-M and Chrysler said this week that they need even more money to keep their gears moving. Today, analysts are digging deeper into the situation, and it seems the final bill for saving Detroit could be much higher than expected. The automakers presented their turnaround plans to the government this week. They're asking for an additional $21 billion in taxpayer money. The automakers have already received more than $17 billion.

Dealers and suppliers are also asking for a cut of the federal bailout. Their earnings are falling right along with those of the automakers amid production cuts and declining auto sales. Some analysts are predicting the final cost of an auto industry bailout could top $130 billion. When you add it all up, the numbers are staggering.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Getting Consumers Spending Again

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Americans are losing their jobs and their homes at a record pace. So if you still have a steady paycheck, you're probably thinking a lot harder about how you spend it.

Much of our economy depends on consumer spending, and these days, we just aren't. We saw the declines in spending over the holiday shopping season and things have not improved.

Sure, we've got to fix the housing crisis, and our banks, but the goal is to get America working again so we can continue to spend. But many of us are simply afraid to part with our cash and now some companies are getting creative -- trying to get us comfortable with spending again.

JetBlue is now offering refunds to people who lose their jobs. There are a lot of conditions, but the bottom line is if you book a ticket and lose your job before the trip, you may be able to get your money back. Korean automaker, Hyundai, announced a similar program in January to help move cars off dealers' lots.

It's not clear if either program will work the way the companies are hoping, but it may be the kind of "out-of-the-box" thinking we need from corporate america to grease the wheels of consumerism. Many Americans feel like any major purchase commitment is a big risk these days and the fact that corporations may be willing to shoulder some of it could be the boost we need to help get things moving again.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wal-Mart is Making Money, Creating Jobs

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Wal-Mart may have missed analysts' expectations slightly when it reported quarterly earnings this morning, but the retailer is still making money and last year, managed to create jobs. Not many companies can say that these days!

According to chief executive Mike Duke, "Wal-Mart recorded the strongest sales result in its history in the fourth quarter." And, in a difficult year for retailers, the shopping giant says it created more than 60,000 jobs in 2008.

Last month, Wal-Mart announced that it was cutting 800 jobs at its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Still, Wal-Mart was generally seen as a ray of light in an otherwise dismal day at the New York Stock Exchange, with the DOW dropping almost 300 points in the first hour of trading. Even though President Obama will be turning on the proverbial "money spigot" when he signs the stimulus bill into law today, investors here and abroad are not impressed.

In general, stocks are tanking today, but not Wal-Mart, which was up more than 3% at the opening bell. Recession-resistant, at least for another quarter.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Instant Starbucks

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

If I ever have a craving for a nice cup of coffee, I don't usually have to travel very far. Living in New York City makes it easy; there is a Starbucks or some other coffee outlet on almost every corner. Today market leader Starbucks announced a product that would make it even easier for me to fill my cravings. Soon people will be able to have the coffee at home, without waiting for it to brew.

Starbucks says it will begin selling an instant variety of its coffee in packets next month. Starbucks executives say the market for instant coffee has become so big, that it had to join in.

Usually when I think of instant coffee, I am reminded of the bitter taste of water dressed with cheap coffee-flavored powder: something that I consumed far too often during my years as a broke and busy college student. I think many coffee drinkers would agree that they don't often associate instant coffee with good quality. One person I asked even called it "brown water." Starbucks claims though, that it will taste just like a freshly-brewed cup of coffee from one of their stores.

So, what's the price? It'll be $2.95 for a pack of three or $9.95 for 12 -- just less than $1 a cup. We'll have to wait until the product hits the shelves to see if it measures up to the company's promise.

Thursday, February 12, 2009:

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Each day at work, Carter and I report more and more bad news. A bulk of our depressing news revolves around job cuts, soaring unemployment rates, and weak retail and auto sales. The bad news is not just in the U.S., but all around the world as well. Countries from Japan to Spain are now in recession. The dismal economic news is painting a bleak outlook. At the moment I am fortunate that I have a job, and haven't been terribly affected by the hard times. Though, I am constantly plagued by the "what if's?" What if I was laid off, and couldn't afford my rent? What if a family member needs financial help?

My worries have prompted me to start saving money by cutting back on spending, and making careful investments. However, it also occurred to me this could have an adverse affect on the economy. That dress I didn't buy the other day to save money is one less sale for that retailer, and I'm certainly not the only person using these budgeting techniques. With fewer people spending money, less money is going back into the economy. Some people simply cannot afford to spend, but others are trying limit spending in order to save for the future. So, does saving money help my future, or could it hinder it?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009:

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

I know everyone has tons of questions about where all this stimulus money is going. http://www.stimuluswatch.org/ is a non-profit that does a great job of breaking all down. It offers several easy options so you can find out exactly where the money will be going. You can look up by state and city, by project, or even by the amount allocated and the importance of the project.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009:

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

In the last five years, I've probably been to one big concert. Don't get me wrong, I love live music, I just hate battling online and on the phone for tickets that are often sold out in minutes.

What I dislike even more, is having to pay much higher than face value to get one of those tickets that was sold out in minutes. It's just not worth it to me.

It's a sore subject for a lot of concert goers, highlighted last week, with allegations that Ticketmaster was redirecting Bruce Springsteen fans to its other, higher priced, re-sale website called TicketsNow. Even the rock star chimed in and the New Jersey Attorney General is investigating.

Ticketmaster CEO Irving Azoff apologized and said it wouldn't happen again.

Now there's another development:

A Canadian law firm is suing Ticketmaster for more than $400 million.

The class action suit alleges Ticketmaster violated Ontario's anti-scalping laws by also redirecting a customer (buying tickets to a Smashing Pumpkins show) to TicketsNow. According to the lawsuit, TicketsNow was charging almost four times the face value of the tickets, which is illegal in Ontario.

Ticketmaster hasn't commented on the suit yet, but denied in a recent interview with The Canadian Press that it diverts tickets to TicketsNow or that it gives the resale site any preferential access or treatment.

This all comes amid news today that Ticketmaster has agreed to merge with its competitor Live Nation.

The merger will create a $2.5 billion concert and live entertainment giant.

The question federal regulators will be trying to answer: Will the merger serve customers' interests?

Monday, February 9, 2009:

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Have you made your Valentine's Day plans yet? Americans are spending less and saving what they can in this economy and now it appears there may be cutbacks for cupid, too.

The National Retail Federation is predicting consumers will spend about $20 less, on average, this Valentine's Day and retailers are bracing for the hit.

Some merchants are reporting pre-orders are slow so far, but they're hoping for a last-minute rush.

I'll admit it, I'm a last-minute type of guy. But that attitude can sometimes cost the most because there's usually not much a of choice and you may end up paying dearly at the florist's for whatever they have left.

So this year, part of my Valentine's Day savings effort includes planning ahead, for once.

Friday, February 6, 2009:

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

American Airlines wants to get you on your way faster by eliminating the tedious phone menu process and adding a new feature that knows who you are when you call.

The airline is implementing brand new speech and customer-recognition technology.

After signing up under American's frequent flier program, the airline claims you will be instantly recognized and greeted by name when you phone in. If you're booked on a flight that day, the system will automatically tell you your gate and flight information.

The technology, of course, is designed to try and save the airline some cash by reducing the need for additional employees. One thing the system still can't do though, is find you a seat on a fully booked plane.

Thursday, February 05, 2009:

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Remember when airlines used to make flying more enjoyable? I remember the days when flight attendants offered free beverages, snacks, headphones - even a nice blanket and pillow to keep you warm and comfortable during your travels. These days, some airlines charge $2 for soda or a pair of headphones. It isn't stopping there - now, US Airways is charging for pillows and blankets. No more reaching into an overhead bin to see if you can snag an extra one. That is, unless of course you're flying first-class or to Europe.

The airline says starting February 16th, 2009 it will sell a pillow-and-blanket kit onboard for $7. It's called the Power-Nap Sack, and includes an inflatable neck pillow, a fleece blanket, foam ear plugs, and eye shades complete with your very own US Airways drawstring bag. But wait, that's not all. You also get a $10 coupon for the SkyMall. The airline says eager passengers can purchase kits ahead of time online. Several airlines already charge for similar kits, such as JetBlue Airways and Air Canada. I definitely miss the good old days when the biggest difference between flying first class and coach was the size of the seat.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009:

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

A financial industry committee that advises the U.S. Treasury on borrowing issued a report today that will probably concern a lot of people.

We all know the government has been injecting hundreds of billions into banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but it's also loaning out hundreds of billions of dollars more under the stimulus plan now before Congress -- and it's all got to come from somewhere.

That money isn't just sitting there. We have to borrow it. The government does that by issuing bonds that are paid back over a period of time.

The report today is long and tedious, so here are a few highlights:

Tax receipts are plunging. They're down 10% in first three months of Fiscal Year '09 and while we're bringing in less, government/Treasury spending is increasing at "breakneck speed." And that's before the nearly $900 billion stimulus plan now under consideration kicks in.

The committee is now worried that the Treasury doesn't have enough financial implements to borrow what it needs going forward and that the amount of debt the U.S. will have to issue is so huge, it could saturate the market, affecting the value of Treasury notes.

The Treasury has already announced it will begin issuing a seven-year note and will double the number of 30-year bond auctions.

Basically, according to that financial industry report, we're spending money faster than we can borrow it. And, we're already borrowing so much, so fast, that our country's debt may not be worth as much in the future.

Tuesday February 3, 2009:

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

Now that consumers are cutting back on spending, that $4 latte doesn't seem as essential as it used to. As a result, coffee chains like Starbucks, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf are taking a big financial hit. It's not that people quit craving a daily caffeine fix. It's just that you can make your coffee a lot cheaper at home.

Here's some news that can save you even more cash.

When it comes to Colombian coffee, Consumer Reports says the most expensive grind isn't necessarily the best tasting. At $6.28 per pound, a widely available supermarket brand called Eight O'Clock Coffee ranked No. 1, beating some popular brews.

For example, at $11.53, a pound of Starbuck's Colombian will cost you almost twice as much as Eight O'Clock Coffee and the Starbuck's home brew got a slightly lower rating of Good from Consumer Reports.

Monday, February 2, 2009

By Dana Simmons-Greco

I didn't have the chance to watch all of the Super Bowl commercials last night. I was able to read about some favorites this morning though. There was some hype about a Bud Light ad mimicking the rough economic times, with employees seated around a conference table, brainstorming ways to cut costs. Cutting the Bud Lights at every meeting certainly was not one of those options. Another favorite was an E-Trade commercial in which the E-Trade talking baby said, "this economy has been a little rough, man."

I read this morning that one ad that has a lot of viewers talking, wasn't even created by an advertising agency. According to USA Today, the Doritos commercial in which a man predicts his office will get free Doritos, then shatters the vending machine with his crystal ball, was actually created by two brothers from Indiana. The unemployed duo entered an advertising contest through Doritos-maker Frito-Lay. They're now $1 million richer, and can sit back, relax, and catch their 30 seconds of fame while eating their own Doritos.

Friday, January 30, 2009.

By Diane V. King at the NYSE

Every day we seem to give doom and gloom stories about the economy. Today, how about a brighter, or at least greener note? A Japan Airlines jet took off from Tokyo today -- powered by biofuel, including a mix of camelina, jatropha, and algae. Who knew algae could power a plane? I guess when mixed with camelina and jatropha it can. The two (camelina & jatropha) are apparently non-food oil-seed crops. Camelina also has it's own special monikers: gold-of-pleasure or false flax. I don't know how I feel about flying on false flax.

That said - the fuel mixture marks the first fuel using an inedible plant that apparently will not create shortages in the global food market. Japan Airlines is the latest carrier to try its hand at alternative fuels. Continental tested a similar flight earlier this month. The Boeing aircraft actually ran on a 50/50 mix of biofuel and traditional jet oil. For Boeing's part, it says it hopes to use biofuels on commercial flights within three to five years.

Thursday, January 29, 2009.

By Diane V. King at the NYSE

Would you work for free for a day? Workers at Mr. B's Pancake House, in Michigan, did just that. The lead server asked other co-workers if they would be willing to give up their pay for a day, and 17 people took on the task. All of the restaurant's employees volunteered to do it, but they agreed to do just one shift. Phew. The workers decided to make the generous move because traffic in the restaurant was down. In fact the owner of the restaurant had to meet payroll more than once by dipping into his own pockets.

When some customers learned of the employees generosity they in turn were a little more generous - tipping more. The terms: the employees gave up their wages for one shift. They did receive tips in compensation for that day. Having once been a waitress, I can tell you tips matter. At the end of the day the workers at Mr. B's split the tips equally, each netting $51.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009:

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

Many people around the world are facing hard financial times.

Everyone has a different way of dealing with it. Some people are cutting back on spending, others are looking for second jobs, and some people have a slightly less conventional plan in mind.

This morning, I read some interesting news from my native country of Italy. Media reports say that almost a hundred people were arrested in Italy today as part of a counterfeit euro operation. Italian officials say this is the largest euro money laundering scheme they've ever busted. They reportedly discovered four facilities where bills and coins were being printed and minted, and found what translates to more than $1.5 million. The group was apparently producing 20, 50 and 100 euro bills, as well as one and two euro coins, which police say were of excellent quality. The busts came after a years-long investigation into drug money.

Officials says they tracked the money out of Italy to Spain, Germany and Lithuania. They believe the group had plans to distribute the money both nationally and internationally. Police believe some of the counterfeit money even made its way to Latin America!

I suppose the counterfeiters thought their plan would put them ahead of the game, but it only put them behind bars.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009:

By Diane V. King at the NYSE

You have to dig deep to find any bright spots in today's consumer confidence report. The single BIT OF GOOD NEWS: a very mild improvement in labor market readings. People who say jobs are "hard to get" fell to about 41% from 41.5% LAST MONTH and people who said jobs are "plentiful" rose slightly to 7.2% from 6.5%.

Where are those people? Because the rest of the report is to put it mildly - dreary. According to the Conference Board, the mood of consumers fell to an UNPRECEDENTED low on Tuesday. It's not just the current state of the economy bothering the consumer, the Director of the Conference Board said people are pessimistic about their own earnings and the future of the economy.

Consumers are getting realistic given the tough times - fewer people were looking for a pay raise. In fact, the number of respondents looking for an increase in their pay fell to 10% --- A DROP OF NEARLY THREE POINTS.

As for those consumers who expect the job picture to brighten, it remains to be seen if the sentiment will last following THE 50 THOUSAND JOB CUTS ANNOUNCED ON JANUARY 26 ---- A DAY THAT IS ALREADY BEING CALLED " Bloody Monday."

January 26, 2009

By Dana Simmons-Greco at the NYSE

While many companies are reducing their workforces and cutting back hours to save money, Japan's Canon Corporation is letting it's workers go home early for a different reason. You might be surprised when you find out why. I know I was.

According to an article I read on cnn.com, it's to encourage employees to have more babies. The Japanese electronics giant is apparently telling its famously dedicated and hard-working workers to knock off early twice a week, and spend more time with their families. Canon is hoping the extra free time will lead to more babies. Its the company's attempt to up Japan's birth rate --- currently 1.34 --- not enough to keep the population stable.

Research shows the country's elderly populaltion is growing faster than most countries which is also a threat to the population. Canon's motives aren't that far off from other companies, it says its "5:30 p.m. lights-out program" will not only help maintain the population, but will also cut the cost of overtime in this economic downturn.

January 23, 2009

By Bonnie Druker at the NYSE

Home prices continued to plunge in November according to a new government report.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency reported that Prices fell a record 1.8 percent in November.

These are the numbers. But what does it mean for the average renter who wants to buy a house?

If home sales dropped in November should buyers wait a few more months to see if prices hit rock bottom? And how hard will it be for the average person to get a mortgage? Is it really a buyer's market?

Some of my friend's who are looking believe a buyer's market is a catch phrase to sway people.

I'm personally learning if you really want something you have to shop around and that means visiting open houses. It means surrounding yourself with trustworthy people. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

Like everything else...you have to look beyond the numbers and separate fact and fiction for yourself.

January 20, 2009

By Carter Evans at the NYSE

By all estimates, more people will attend today's historic inauguration in Washington DC, than any other presidential inauguration in history.

Watching the coverage on television, the pictures of the crowd are incredible and awe inspiring. I don't think I've ever seen so many people in one place - and that says a lot coming from a resident of New York City.

But the inauguration celebration won't be limited to just inside the Beltway today.

According to published reports, many businesses from coast to coast are expecting a slowdown in production, as employees watch the historic event on their computers or TVs. Some companies are joining in the celebration by throwing office parties. Others are giving workers the day off.

The Society for Human Resource Management told USA Today about 5% of businesses are closing altogether.

So if you've got the day off, enjoy it, because while America celebrates today, it's back to work tomorrow and considering the state of our economy, there is a lot to be done.

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