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A daily look at what we buy, how we spend, and the companies that do right - and wrong - by their customers.

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  • Dec 6, 2011
    3:00 PM ET

    Retailers Stuffing Inboxes Before Stockings


    If shoppers thought the “12 Days of Christmas, Itemized” was an example of true love or consumerism gone wild, they may want to check their inboxes.

    Stores have ramped up email blasts to their most loyal customers this year to the point some may regret giving their addresses over freely and willingly, says retail analyst Jeff Green. During the month of December, retailers will send each of their subscribers 21 emails, up 15% on last year, according to a new survey. That translates into millions of email blasts, Green adds. And that doesn’t include the countless email spams customers receive every day from lesser known retailers.

    While well positioned to make suggestions based on previous purchases, “promotional” emails from brick-and-mortar stores sometimes are less specific. As an example, I received these emails from Best Buy in the last week alone: “Don’t miss out with Deals of the Week + free shipping on everything (Dec. 5).”And: “Great selection of hot gifts at unbeatable prices; free shipping on everything (Dec. 4).” Plus, “Shop gifts under $100 + free shipping (Dec. 2).” (To be fair, Best Buy also gives an “unsubscribe” button in its emails. The store did not respond to request for comment.)

  • Dec 1, 2011
    3:22 PM ET

    Facebook “Dislikes” Ad Stunt


    Advertisers want to be “friends” – with benefits – on Facebook. But a condom company’s guerilla marketing effort tied to World AIDS Day, rankled both the social-networking site and, perhaps, its users.

    Brazilian advertising agency Age Isobar found a unique way to market condoms: Scare the living daylights out of a select group of men by sending a “friend request” from their unborn child. It tacked “Jr.” to the end of recipient’s names, added a baby picture, then sent them a “friend” request on Facebook.

    Facebook disapproves of the marketing tactic as fake profiles goes against company policy — even in the interest of promoting safe sex. “Facebook has always been based on a real name culture, and we believe this his leads to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for the people who use our service,” Facebook spokeswoman Annie Ta tells Pay Dirt. “It’s a violation of our policies to use a fake name or operate under a false identity.” Age Isobar declined to comment.

  • Nov 30, 2011
    4:03 PM ET

    Will Sales Tax Give Amazon Customers Pause?


    Will consumers go from clicks to bricks if Amazon starts charging sales tax? Those who relied on the online retailer’s long-held stance against paying sales tax in certain states may think again, unless they still believe they are getting better deals online, expert say. Amazon has long opposed including sales tax in its prices. But that now appears to have changed.

    On Wednesday, Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, said he “strongly supports” federal legislation on state taxes. He told a House Judiciary Committee hearing, “Congress should authorize the states to require collection, with the great objects of protecting states’ rights, addressing the states’ needs, and leveling the playing field for all sellers.” And added, “The time to act is nigh.”

    If and when that time comes, some bargain-hunters will turn back to brick-and-mortar retailers, says Jeff Galak, assistant professor of marketing in the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. “It will impact some consumers,” he says. “Consumers who are after the best deal possible, those who are particularly price sensitive, will be less likely to buy online if they now have to pay taxes.”

  • Nov 22, 2011
    1:56 PM ET

    Netflix: ‘Arrested Development’ For Customers?


    Last month, Netflix was pummeled by disgruntled customers. Now shareholders are fuming, sending stocks plummeting to a new low this year. But if the company’s woes continue, it’s the company’s loyal subscribers who may be the most disappointed, analysts say.

    Netflix customers should be concerned that the digital offerings will not continue to grow as quickly if the company’s fortune’s don’t improve, says Dan Rayburn, a principal analyst with Frost & Sullivan. The Internet movie site has been expanding its catalogue, but not in ways that appeal to everyone, he says. Netflix paid for the exclusive rights for shows like “Mad Men” and is producing a new season of the cult-hit “Arrested Development.” But, despite the media coverage these deals generated, these shows alone are not going to drive customer demand, Rayburn says. “I’m a consumer of Netflix and I could care less about Arrested Development.”

    The company says its $400 million capital-raising measure and its deal for “Arrested Development” are not related. “We did raise some capital, it’s nice to have, but we don’t need it,” says spokesman Steve Swasey. “It has nothing to do with Arrested Development.” (On Monday, it also warned of a loss in 2012 and increased investment in its overseas business.)

  • Nov 21, 2011
    11:21 AM ET

    Will Clicks Beat Bricks This Black Friday?


    Despite all the hoopla over the Thanksgiving kickoff for this year’s holiday sales, an increasing number of consumers expect to find better deals online than in person. In fact, shoppers say Amazon will offer the best value this season, a new survey finds.

    Faith in the online retailer’s offers heading into Black Friday increased more than any other store in 2011, according to a poll of 5,000 shoppers by the market research company YouGov BrandIndex. What’s more, it’s number one among three distinct categories: men, women and parents. No other brand made it into the Top 5 of all three categories.

    Nordstrom, K-Mart, Marshall’s and Neiman Marcus also saw big jumps in their perceived value this year, according to the survey, which measured the change in brands’ perceived value since a year ago.

  • Nov 11, 2011
    11:52 AM ET

    Facebook ‘Friends’ Privacy But May Not ‘Like’ It


    Don’t trust the government or Facebook to protect your online privacy, experts say.

    The social-networking giant’s anticipated settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy concerns may make Facebook more polite about sharing information, but users should remain as vigilant as ever with their data, says Adam Levin, founder and chairman of advocacy group Identity Theft 911. “I applaud the FTC for cracking down on businesses misleading consumers about privacy policy changes,” he says. “But it’s only a small victory for a very large consumer and business issue.”

    The settlement stems from charges that Facebook allegedly misled users about its use of their personal information, according to The Wall Street Journal. “According to people familiar with the talks, the settlement would require Facebook to obtain users’ consent before making ‘material retroactive changes’ to its privacy policies,” the paper reports.

  • Nov 8, 2011
    1:24 AM ET

    6 Investing Tips — Translated for Consumers


    Are you worried about your shopping decisions in the run-up to the holiday season? You’re not alone. Sales are not always what they seem and stores use lots of marketing tricks to keep you shopping, which means people need to consider when/where is the right time to get the best deal in much the same way investors do.

    And not all special offers may be bargains. A 16-ounce pumpkin-spice latte at Starbucks costs $3.79 – 10% more than a regular 16-ounce vanilla flavored latte even though it’s billed a promotion by Starbucks. The Wall Street Journal on Monday gave pointers for investors: “How to Rest Easy in a Crazy Market.” Starbucks did not return calls seeking comment.

    For consumers, it’s the same, but (slightly) different. Here’s a translation of those same tips for consumers:

  • Nov 4, 2011
    12:48 PM ET

    Can the Weatherman Save You Money?


    The iPhone can’t control the weather, but a 99-cent app purports to take most of the guesswork out of planning weddings, ski trips, and other shopping decisions.

    Available on iOS, and in the Android store starting Nov. 23th, the WeatherTrends360 app uses a team of meteorologists, climatologists and mathematicians to help people plan for good and bad weather, says CEO Bill Kirk, a former United States Air Force Captain. The website is free. He claims his company can predict the weather with 80% accuracy up to a year in advance.

    WeatherTrend360’s main business is helping retailers control their inventory, and clients include Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl’s and Coca-Cola. The consumer app offers to help shoppers decide when is best to buy goods at the best prices. Forrester Research gives it 80% accuracy, which sounds impressive, but keep in mind that means the information could be wrong once every five days.

    However, some experts believe the app is probably better used for entertainment purposes only. “I don’t think people will plan any major events around what this application does,” says Andy Nyquist, personal finance and investment blogger. “It may make them more comfortable about the choices that they do make in relation to weddings and trips. But people are more likely to enjoy the entertainment factor from the application as well as using the shorter term weather forecasts.”

    Pay Dirt spoke to Capt. Kirk about the new app.

  • Oct 18, 2011
    3:44 PM ET

    Orbitz’s Fares Were Flights of Fancy


    The Department of Transportation fined online travel company Orbitz $60,000 on Tuesday for misleading advertisements that failed to mention taxes and fees, and in some cases, promoted fares which were no longer available.

    Orbitz blamed the ads, which appeared in early 2011, on a computer “glitch.”  Consumers selecting discounted fares advertised by the site  were instead taken to a page where different rates was displayed.

    To be fair to Orbitz, this is the first time in the company’s 10-year history it’s been hit with such a fine. “Orbitz is in compliance with Department of Transportation advertising requirements and the glitch that resulted in how fares were displayed for a short period of time earlier this year has been addressed,” Orbitz spokesman Chris Chiames said in a statement. But Air Canada, Spirit, JetBlue, United Airways, Continental have all been hit with fines for failing to inform passengers of various charges.

  • Oct 12, 2011
    10:57 AM ET

    The High Costs of a Slow Internet Connection


    A slow Internet connection could be costing you $8,000 a year in lost bargains. High-speed broadband allows consumers to browse more sites in less time (obviously) and seek out bigger bargains, according to a new study released by the Internet Innovation Alliance, a Washington-based non-profit industry group. So the next time you’re waiting for a page to load take a moment to imagine what you could do with all that loot. How about a fancy seven-day trip for two to Morocco? Or a nifty spin in Mitsuishis’s new electric car?

    To be fair, round-the-clock access to online shopping also makes it easy to splurge. But that could be offset by the ability to instantly comparison shop can offer the potential for great savings. (The study says you can save 30% on $391 of over-the-counter drugs, for instance.) But all the bargain hunting could backfire. As Pay Dirt reported, people tend to spend more if they think they are getting a bargain. Experts advise consumers to shop smart. That is, separate the “need” (your weekly grocery shop) from the “want” (your third pedicure in a week).

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to or tweet @SMPayDirt.