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    The Year Ahead: Gridlock ends at last, errorism is defeated

    All the news you need, before it even happens

    With the price of newspapers rising faster than the price of milk and online paywalls replacing the Berlin Wall, Americans face a news gap in 2013.

    Of course, if one already knows what will happen, one doesn't need to read the news, so in that spirit, the editors present The Year Ahead, a synopsis of events nearly certain to occur, based on current trends.

    January

    A new Congress is sworn in at the bottom of the fiscal cliff. It immediately deadlocks over committee assignments.

    President Obama is stymied in his effort to move ahead with his promised gun control initiative by the inability of Congress to organize itself.

    The Postal Service runs out of stamps and doesn't have the cash or credit to print more.

    February

    With Congress hopelessly gridlocked over office assignments, Obama issues an executive order outlawing the private sale of ammunition and makes the U.S. Postal Service the nation's official ammunition depot and post office. Anyone wanting to buy bullets can "Go Postal(tm)" at their nearest post office, where stamps will also be available soon. Quantities (both stamps and ammo) will be limited.

    This makes the Postal Service solvent and is expected to reduce the incidence of unwarranted firing of weapons by 2050, when the existing suppy of privately-held ammo is gone.

    FedEx and UPS immediately file suit, seeking to sell bullets at five times the price charged by the post office, a marketing strategy that served them well in the document and parcel delivery business.

    March

    After an unfortunate series of post office shootings, the Transportation Security Administration is deputized to screen postal workers as they arrive and leave their work stations.

    Amazon buys Walmart, Kmart, Sears, Best Buy, Costco, Macy's and what is left of J.C. Penney, turning their former stores into warehouses. A section of each is set aside as a homeless shelter, to be used by employees unable to afford traditional housing.

    The Federal Trade Commission sues Google, seeking a fine of $1 trillion and a court-ordered break-up of the company. Google's stock price hits an all-time high.

    April

    Google offers to buy the Federal Trade Commission for $1.5 trillion in cash but Congress is unable to act on the offer because House Republicans are still wrangling over the selection of a Majority Leader. Google's stock price breaks $2,000.

    Apple buys all the major movie studios and television networks and makes an offer for the Defense Mapping Agency.

    Amazon buys Starbucks and assorted other Seattle businesses. CEO Howard Bezos announces that baristas will be trained to troubleshoot problems with Kindle devices. In addition, anyone ordering from Amazon will get a free grande latte from the Starbucks location nearest them.

    May

    Google offers to buy the federal government for $5 trillion in cash, with each Member of Congress being named a Senior Vice President for Life and receiving a $10 million signing bonus. Congress immediately accepts the offer, over the objection of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

    The deal closes quickly. Google merges the Federal Trade Commission into its Motorola division and moves it to Dallas.

    Apple holds a very cool developers conference in San Francisco and, using the world's biggest LED screen ever, screens a brief memorial to the Federal Trade Commission and announces a new pricing plan for music and movies. iAnything owners will continue to pay 99 cents while for everyone else, the price goes to $99.

    Amazon buys The Associated Press, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and closes them down. "Everything anyone needs to read is already in the Kindle store. This will save consumers from having to shop around for content," Bezos notes.

    June

    Amazon buys all of the remaining major book publishers for $1, twice its original bid. Bezos asserts it was a "steal at half the price"

    July

    Google's lawyers issue a statement asserting that all activities, actions, findings, documents, studies, drafts, reports and all appurtenances thereunto of the federal government are now its property and access to all such data, information, material, publications and whatever is henceforth restricted to authorized users.

    The newly-named CEO of Google's United States subsidiary, Mitt Romney, legalizes driverless Google cars. 

    August

    Google issues a beta version of its new Unmanned Google Drone. Unexplained property damage is reported in Seattle.

    Apple desperately bids $55 for Mexico. The offer is accepted but auditors later find an unexplained payment of $1.5 trillion in cash to unknown persons.

    Amazon and Apple immediately challenge Google's "content land grab" but are unable to find the offices of the Federal Trade Commission. The federal courts have moved behind a firewall and are similarly unapproachable.

    September

    Mysterious troop movements are reported along the Mexican border.

    Texas launches a leveraged buyout of itself but because of an unexplained communications breakdown, the deal is never consummated. Unexplained property damage is reported in Austin.

    Google announces its United States subsidiary is launching a War on Errorism.

    "We seek only to find and eradicate error," CEO Romney insists. "The faithful and true have nothing to fear."

    October

    [redacted]

    November

    [redacted]

    December

    In a ceremony simultaneously carried by all broadcast, cable and Internet outlets, as well as all computer-equipped eyeglasses, Google announces that all of the world's information has now been organized and all errors and errorists eliminated. 

    Anyone seeking more information should register at the nearest post office.

    With the price of newspapers rising faster than the price of milk and online paywalls replacing the Berlin Wall, Americans face a news gap in 2013.Of cou...
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    2013 will see some new taxes

    Most are associated with phase-in of new health care law

    Regardless of what does, or does not happen with the “fiscal cliff,” some consumers will see some tax increases in 2013, part of the Affordable Care Act.

    And while Republicans and Democrats spent the last two months arguing over whether families earning $250,000 or more a year should pay a higher income tax rate, it's already been decided that that group will face a higher tax on investments in 2013.

    It's called the Net Investment Income Tax. It imposes an extra 3.8 percent tax on investment income earned by individuals, estates and trusts that have certain investment income above certain threshold amounts. That group will also pay more in Medicare tax.

    The 0.9 percent Additional Medicare Tax applies to an individual’s wages, Railroad Retirement Tax Act compensation, and self-employment income that exceeds a threshold amount based on the individual’s filing status. The threshold amounts are $250,000 for married taxpayers who file jointly, $125,000 for married taxpayers who file separately, and $200,000 for all other taxpayers.

    An employer is responsible for withholding the Additional Medicare Tax from wages or compensation it pays to an employee in excess of $200,000 in a calendar year.

    Medical device tax

    An excise tax on medical devices, such as artificial hips, goes into effect in 2013 as a way to help pay the cost of expanding health care coverage. Most consumers won't feel the tax directly but could eventually see higher health care premiums as the costs of these devices go up.

    One potential tax increase many consumers could face in 2013 is a change in the way the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) treats employer-paid health benefits. Currently, this benefit is not taxed, providing a huge financial benefit to consumers who have it. It's the biggest middle-class tax break on currently on the books – even bigger than the mortgage interest deduction.

    For example, if your employer pays $1000 a month for its share of your health coverage, you would have to report that $12,000 as income on your taxes. Many economists believe Congress will have to consider that change in 2013, although there will be strong bipartisan opposition.

    Payroll tax

    There's another tax increase, unrelated to health care, that all workers will feel in 2013. The payroll tax, used to finance Social Security and Medicare, will revert to its normal level. For the past two years the government reduced the employee share by two percentage points, as part of an effort to stimulate the economy. Since neither Republicans nor Democrats have suggested extending the tax holiday another year, it seems certain that consumers' paychecks will be a little smaller in 2013.

    Regardless of what does, or does not happen with the “fiscal cliff,” some consumers will see some tax increases in 2013, part of the Affordable...
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    The Trusted Traveler Program rolls out to 35 airports

    Most consumers are in favor of the program expanding, despite some security snags along the way

    If you were waiting for your local airport to join the new trusted travelers Pre Check program, you may just be in luck.

    TSA has just announced that it expanded the expedited passenger service to 35 airports across the U.S. for passengers of Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines US Airways and Alaska Airlines.

    Those who are a part of Border Protection in the United States, U.S. Customs, Global Entry and SENTRI, can also use the trusted travelers program that began in October of last year in Detroit Metropolitan Wayne Country airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Fort Worth and Dallas International airports and Miami International airports. 

    TSA Administrator John Pistole said the program will also be rolled out to many other U.S. airports in the coming future.

    28 largest

    “Over the past year, we’ve expanded TSA Pre Check to 35 airports, covering all 28 of the largest airports along with seven others across the country,” he said in a statement.

    “In the coming year, we will continue partnering with airlines, airports, and the traveling public to further expand TSA Pre Check making air travel safer and more efficient for the traveling public.”

    The Trusted Traveler Program was designed to give what the TSA calls low-risk travelers the ability to go through special lines and kiosks when making domestic flights.

    In order to be a trusted traveler, passengers have to be part of a frequent flyer program and undergo an intense level of pre-screening, and if the screening checks out, that information is placed on the passenger’s boarding pass by a bar code.

    Once a TSA worker reads the barcode, the passenger is pointed to a specific lane where they may be able to forego the traditional screening by not having to remove their shoes, belt, jacket and laptop from its case.

    Also, if a trusted traveler is toting a carry-on that’s compliant with TSA guidelines, they may be able to proceed to the plane without removing the bags' contents or opening it.

    In addition, children who are age 12 and younger can also go through the designated security lanes and pass some of the traditional screening measures, if they’re traveling with a person in the trusted travelers program.

    Eager to expand

    Pistole said the TSA is eager to expand the program to just about all U.S. airports, since it cuts down on the high cost of screening each passenger the traditional way, and the more TSA agents are able to screen passengers before they get to the airport, the more cost effective and convenient it will be for both the trusted traveler, and the regular passengers who isn’t in the program.

    The TSA explained the need for this type of program will only continue to grow, as the rate of air travel will increase by extremely large margins within the next couple of decades.

    “Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and TSA Administrator John Pistole deserve our thanks for their commitment to expanding the PreCheck trusted traveler program and reaching their goal of 35 participating airports by year’s end,” said Roger Dow, U.S. Travel Association president.

    “Air travel continues to be the gateway to commerce and improving efficiency while maintaining the current high level of security is a win-win for travelers and the American economy.”

    Not trouble-free

    Although many consumers are pleased that such a program is being rolled out, critics of the program say just because a person passes the pre-screening test, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still be checked by security agents before getting on a plane, and according to some recent problems with a couple pf trusted travelers, those critics may be right.

    Just a few days before Christmas, a passenger on the trusted travelers program was found with a shotgun in one of the expedited security lanes before entering the U.S. from Canada, which critics say is proof that the trusted traveler program has some huge flaws that need to be dealt with.

    The passenger was quickly removed from the trusted traveler program for having a shotgun on airport grounds, and security reps said airports will take a zero tolerance approach to similar infractions.

    “Participation in the NEXUS program provides a unique privilege of a higher level of trust for members,” said Roderick Blanchard, the Director of the Detroit Port of Entry. “All violations will result in removal from the program.”

    The TSA also said just because someone is in the trusted travelers program, doesn’t mean they still can’t be checked at the security gate, as agents still have the full right to screen anyone they would like the traditional way.

    If you were waiting for your local airport to join the new trusted travelers program, you may just be in luck.TSA has just announced that it expande...
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      Study: Female college students more likely to binge drink than males

      Researchers also say it takes less alcohol to get women drunk

      It's no secret that many college students tend to overdo it when it comes to consuming alcohol. A number of recent studies have sounded an alarm about students' unhealthy and dangerous behavior.

      But a new study from researchers at the University of Vigo, in Spain, found that drinking might be more unhealthy and dangerous for female students. The study concluded female students get drunk faster than males and live a more sedentary life. The results also show that 56.1 of female students are considered binge drinkers as opposed to 41.3 percent of males.

      "The amount drunk per unit of time is higher among women,” said José Cancela Carral, co-author of the study published by the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. “In other words, even though male students drink more often, females do so more intensively in shorter periods of time, which is known as binge drinking.”

      The researchers selected 985 students at random to gauge their behavior. Of the females interviewed, 51.2 percent lead a sedentary lifestyle, while the percentage in males is 41.7 percent. While physical activity was low, drug use was fairly high.

      "We were also surprised by the high consumption of illegal drugs among university students – 44.9 percent of men and 30.9 percent of women – which we understand could lead to significant future health problems, mainly related to the nervous system," Carral said.

      Other studies

      New research at the University of North Carolina (UNC), published earlier this year, shows that heavy alcohol use actually rewires brain circuitry, making it harder for alcoholics to recover psychologically following a traumatic experience.

      Binge drinking has been identified as a growing problem on college campuses. A 2010 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more

      than a quarter of all high school students and adults ages 18 to 34 engaged in binge drinking during the previous month.

      The study also showed that each year more than 33 million adults reported binge drinking -- defined as having four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men over a short period of time, usually a couple of hours. And the report said levels of binge drinking have not declined during the past 15 years.

      Many college students tend to over do it when it comes to consuming alcohol. A number of recent studies have sounded an alarm about student's unhealthy and...
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      New rules to allow faster approval of in-flight Internet

      Feds to make satellite-delivered Internet the official in-flight system

      More airline passengers are a step closer to having a wider array of Internet services available when they fly. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has established rules to help speed the process.

      The FCC action enables broadband providers to offer more in-flight services. As of now in-flight Internet services are limited to a few airlines and not available on all planes.

      Since 2001, the FCC has authorized a few companies to operate Earth Stations Aboard Aircraft (ESAA), i.e., communicating with Fixed-Satellite Service (FSS) geostationary-orbit (GSO) space stations. That's a fancy way of saying in-flight receivers capable of receiving Internet connections via satellite.

      How it works

      Installed on the exterior of the aircraft, the satellite antenna carries the signal to and from the aircraft, providing two-way, in-flight broadband services to passengers and flight crews. The agency's Report and Order makes ESAA the official in-flight Internet systems and sets up regulations to make sure other radio service operations are protected from harmful interference.

      There's currently a ban on the use of cellphone and other devices aboard aircraft for fear the radio signals could interfere with sensitive navigation operations. The FCC is currently studying this policy to determine if it can be liberalized.

      By formalizing ESAA as the means of providing in-flight Internet services, the FCC is making it easier for individual airlines to get FCC approval. By adopting the approved system, the FCC can be assured the service will meet standards and not cause interference.

      Faster approval

      The FCC said it expects the new rules will allow airlines to be approved for in-flight broadband services in half the current time.

      "Whether traveling for work or leisure, Americans increasingly expect broadband access everywhere they go," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "These new rules will help airlines and broadband providers offer high-speed Internet to passengers. This will enable providers to bring broadband to planes more efficiently, helping passengers connect with friends, family, or the office."

      A few airlines have already gone through the cumbersome approval process to provide in-flight Wi-Fi.

      In September JetBlue announced it would partner with ViaSat to bring the Web to its fleet beginning in the first quarter of 2013.

      More airline passengers are a step closer to having a wider array of Internet services available when they fly. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)...
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      2012's most surprising real estate markets

      Honolulu, Austin and the Twin Cities have served up some pleasant surprises

      In many ways the 2012 real estate market has been something of a surprise. A mostly pleasant surprise.

      Sales have risen each month on a year-over-year basis. Prices have also registered monthly increases. All of this has happened in spite of a lackluster economy, stubbornly high unemployment and stringent lending standards.

      Perhaps most encouraging has been the improvement in the nation's hardest hit markets. While prices remain well off their bubble highs in Nevada, California, Florida and Arizona, cities in those states have seen strong improvement this year.

      While the focus has been on those states, as well as some of the hard-hit Midwestern states like Illinois and Michigan, RealtyPin, a national real estate brokerage, has highlighted some often-overlooked markets where it found some surprising developments this year. Some of the surprises were good -- some not so good.

      Honolulu, HI

      Hawaii's capital is perhaps best known as a vacation destination but it has also been a red hot housing market in 2012. Lots of sales, according to Redfin, have been to international buyers. As you might expect from a sheer location standpoint, Asian buyers are the most common here. Surprisingly -- maybe not so surprising, when you look at the weather reports -- Canadians have also made up a big chunk of Honolulu's buyers this year.

      This has served to strength Honolulu's housing market because foreign buyers tend not to default on their mortgages. In fact, many pay in cold, hard cash. The number of Honolulu foreclosures in the first half of 2012 was 49 percent lower than what it was in the first half of 2011.

      West Palm Beach, FL

      Despite its warm temperatures and sandy white beaches, West Palm Beach is one of those unpleasant surprises. On the bright side, the number of home sales was up in July. However, the median sales price was $217,500 -- a 15 percent drop from the month before.

      West Palm Beach also has a very high foreclosure rate, which is not healthy for the market. In July 2012, over 22,000 Palm Beach County homes received a foreclosure notice. That's one out of every 349 houses.

      Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

      One of 2012's surprising housing trends was the increase in building activity, and much of that activity has taken place in the Twin Cities. There were 766 building permits issued in June and 1,100 the following month. That's a big contrast from March, when the number was barely over 400. Perhaps one reason builders have been drawn to this market is data showing home values there have climbed nearly six percent since the start of 2012.

      Austin, TX

      It may not be as big as other cities in the Lonestar State, but Texas' capital city has an active real estate market. For years, Austin has been a destination for new startups and a place for more established companies to set up shop. However, 2012 has been even better than expected.

      In July, the median sales price was up four percent year-over-year. Plus, days on the market continued to fall. Demand for moderately-priced homes also increased, with homes priced at less than $200,000, spending three months or less on the market before selling.

      Richmond, VA

      For years, foreclosures have been a major problem all over Virginia. Despite that, sales boomed in Virginia's capital in 2012. Pending sales jumped 20 percent in July. The median asking price is ending the year close to $210,000. The only problem? That's what Richmond sellers were getting in the mid 1990s.

      “It's nice to see that people are getting more excited about real estate in Richmond, but when you look at the numbers, their enthusiasm is a little surprising,” the RealtyPin report concluded.

      2013 outlook

      What will 2013 bring in terms of housing? Many analysts remain bullish. Rising home values could prompt mortgage lenders to relax their stringent lending standards a bit, allowing more people to buy homes.

      As long as interest rates remain near record lows, the cost of monthly mortgage payments will compare favorably to rents, which have risen 10 percent or more in some markets.

      The foreclosure outlook may also be improving. According to a report by Lender Processing Services, 7.12 percent of U.S. mortgages are delinquent at the end of 2012. That's higher than normal, but lower than the 9.06 rate at the end of 2011.

      In many ways the 2012 real estate market has been something of a surprise. A mostly pleasant surprise.Sales have risen each month on a year-over-year bas...
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      'Ted,' 'Total Recall' top DVD and Blu-ray sales and rentals for week ending December 23

      Comedy and action movies were at the top of the heap

      What were we watching as the year was drawing to a close? Here is Rentrak Corporation's rundown of the Top-10 DVD & Blu-ray sales and rentals for the week ending December 23, 2012:

      RENTRAK TOP-10 DVD & BLU-RAY SALES*

      RANK

      TITLE

      STUDIO

      WEEKS IN RELEASE

      1

      Ted

      Universal (NYSE: GE)

      2

      2

      The Dark Knight Rises

      Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX)

      3

      3

      Pitch Perfect

      Universal (NYSE: GE)

      1

      4

      Total Recall (2012)

      Sony (NYSE: SNE)

      1

      5

      Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

      Fox (NASDAQ: NWS)

      1

      6

      Brave

      Disney (NYSE: DIS)

      6

      7

      Ice Age: Continental Drift

      Fox (NASDAQ: NWS)

      2

      8

      The Bourne Legacy

      Universal (NYSE: GE)

      2

      9

      The Dark Knight Trilogy

      Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX)

      3

      10

      Resident Evil: Retribution

      Sony (NYSE: SNE)

      1

      *Week ended December 22, 2012

      RENTRAK TOP-10 DVD & BLU-RAY RENTALS

      RANK

      TITLE

      STUDIO

      WEEKS IN RELEASE

      1

      Total Recall (2012)

      Sony (NYSE: SNE)

      1

      2

      The Watch (2012)**

      Fox (NASDAQ: NWS)

      6

      3

      Men In Black 3

      Sony (NYSE: SNE)

      4

      4

      Savages (2012)**

      Universal (NYSE: GE)

      6

      5

      Lawless (2012)

      Anchor Bay/Starz (NASDAQ: LMCA, LMCB)

      4

      6

      Hope Springs (2012)

      Sony (NYSE: SNE)

      3

      7

      Brave (2012)**

      Disney (NYSE: DIS)

      6

      8

      The Expendables 2

      Lionsgate (NYSE: LGF)

      5

      9

      The Campaign (2012)**

      Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX)

      8

      10

      Stolen (2012)**

      Millennium

      1

      **Titles have delayed availability in certain rental outlets

      The rundown was compiled by Rentrak's Retail Essentials and Home Video Essentials tracking services, which are based on estimated consumer spending.

      What were we watching as the year was drawing to a close? Here is Rentrak Corporation's rundown of the Top-10 DVD & Blu-ray sales and rentals for the week ...
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      CareerBuilder: More jobs likely to be available in 2013

      But the annual forecast says the hiring environment will remain cautious

      If you're job hunting, 2013 may be your year.

      According to CareerBuilder's annual hiring forecast, 26 percent of hiring managers plan to add full-time, permanent employees in the New Year -- up three percentage points from 2012. The study also points to heightened competition for high skill labor and improved compensation trends.

      The nationwide survey was conducted by Harris Interactive from November 1 to November 30, 2012 and included more than 2,600 hiring managers and human resource professionals and more than 3,900 workers across industries and company sizes.

      "More than 60 percent of employers reported that they are in a better financial position than 2012 and more than 40 percent said their sales increased over the last six months," said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. "While this bodes well for job creation, employers are still assessing the implications of a weakened global market and a modest recovery at home. The guarded approach to hiring that has been evident over the last few years was sustained in part by concerns over the fiscal cliff during the time of the survey."

      Full-time, permanent hiring

      While the number of employers adding headcount is trending up from 2012, so is the number planning to reduce staffs -- reflecting a mix of optimism and caution that has been characteristic of this recovery. Twenty-six percent of employers expect to hire full-time, permanent employees in 2013, three percent more than in 2012. Nine percent plan to decrease headcount, two percent more than in 2012. Fifty-five percent anticipate no change in their staff levels, while 11 percent are unsure.

      The top two positions companies plan to hire for in the New Year -- Sales and Information Technology -- are also where employers expect to see the biggest salary increases. Hiring managers plan to recruit full-time, permanent employees for:

      • Sales – 29 percent
      • Information Technology – 27 percent
      • Customer Service – 23 percent
      • Engineering – 22 percent
      • Production – 22 percent
      • Business Development – 18 percent
      • Administrative – 17 percent
      • Research & Development – 15 percent
      • Accounting & Finance - 14 percent
      • Marketing – 14 percent

      Temporary and contract hiring

      More companies are turning to staffing and recruiting companies and temporary workers to help meet increased market demands. Forty percent of employers plan to hire temporary and contract workers in 2013; it was 36 percent in 2012. Among these employers, 42 percent plan to transition some temporary workers into full-time, permanent employees over the next 12 months.

      Small business hiring

      Fifteen percent of small businesses (500 or fewer employees) reported they plan to take out new lines of credit in 2013. While small businesses are showing more confidence in their hiring intentions, there are still concerns over financial stability and market demand. Plans to hire increased at least three percentage points across small business segments while plans to downsize trended up the same amount.

      • 50 or fewer employees – 19 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013, up six percent from 2012; six percent plan to reduce headcount, up three percent from 2012.
      • 250 or fewer employees – 24 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013, up four percent from 2012; seven percent plan to reduce headcount, versus four percent in 2012.
      • 500 or fewer employees – 24 percent plan to add full-time permanent staff in 2013, up three percent from 2012; seven percent plan to reduce headcount, up three percent from 2012.

      Hiring by region

      Similar to previous forecasts, the West and the South house the most employers planning to recruit new employees over the next 12 months.

      • West – 28 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013,versus 24 percent in 2012; nine percent plan to reduce headcount, the same as in 2012.
      • South – 27 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013, four percent more than in 2012; nine percent plan to reduce headcount, compared with seven percent in 2012.
      • Midwest – 24 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013, up slightly from 2012; ten percent plan to reduce headcount, versus six percent in 2012.
      • Northeast – 23 percent plan to add full-time, permanent staff in 2013, up two percent from 2012; ten percent plan to reduce headcount, also up two percent from 2012.

      Navigating the skills gap

      There are an increasing number of areas where demand for skilled positions is growing much faster than the supply. As companies work to remedy the situation and get qualified talent in the door, workers should be on the lookout for three trends in the New Year:

      • Employers Scouting Talent at Other Organizations – Employers may come knocking, solicited or not. Nearly one-in-five workers (19 percent) reported they have been approached to work for another company in the last year when they didn't apply for a position with that organization. Sales workers were the most likely to report being courted at 33 percent, followed by 31 percent of Professional & Business Services workers and 26 percent of Information Technology workers.
      • More Employers Willing to Increase Compensation – In an effort to retain and attract top talent for skilled positions, employers expect to provide higher compensation for both current staff and prospective employees. Seventy-two percent of employers plan to increase compensation for existing employees -- up from eight percent in 2012 -- while 47 percent will offer higher starting salaries for new employees – a 15 percent surge from 2012. Most increases will be three percent or less.
      • Employers Creating the Right Candidate Instead of Waiting for One – Employers are taking measures to "re-skill" workers themselves. Thirty-nine percent plan to train people who don't have experience in their particular industry or field and hire them for positions within their organizations, up a tick from 2012.  
      If you're job hunting, 2013 may be your year. According to CareerBuilder's annual hiring forecast, 26 percent of hiring managers plan to add full-tim ...
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      Payday lender settles charges with Minnesota

      State sued Sure Advance LLC for violating consumer laws

      In the last few years a growing number of states have enacted laws making it less profitable for payday lenders to operate within their borders. The rules don't outlaw lending, but they have the same effect.

      The state of Minnesota has reached a settlement with one payday lender -- Sure Advance LLC -- it says violated a consumer protection law enacted in 2009. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson says Sure Advance not only charged more interest than the law allowed, it wasn't licensed to do business in the state.

      “Unlicensed Internet lenders charge astronomical interest rates, and many consumers who have applied for loans on the Internet have seen their private information end up in the hands of international criminal fraud rings,” Swanson said. “People should not take out loans from unlicensed Internet lenders, period.”

      Fake debt collector scam

      The scam to which Swanson refers is the “fake debt collector” scam. Using a call list with financial information about victims, an offshore “boiler room” called thousands of people between 2010 and 2012, claiming they owed money for an unpaid payday loan and threatening them with arrest.

      “He knew my bank account information and everything,” Laura, of Englewood, Colo., told ConsumerAffairs in 2010. “He stated that if I could pay $786.87 today he would not have me arrested," she said.

      Swanson's office, in the course of last year's payday loan investigation, concluded that these scammers were obtaining information, in some cases, through online payday lenders. Earlier this year a California man who worked with bogus debt collectors in India agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that he and his companies deceived and threatened consumers into paying debts that were not owed or that the defendants were not authorized to collect.


      $760,000 payment

      Under its consent decree with Minnesota, Sure Advance, LLC has paid $760,000 into a consumer restitution fund. The proceeds will be utilized to refund Minnesota consumers for unlawful interest charges and fees.

      Swanson says the company, based in Delaware, made over 1,200 loans to Minnesota residents. The attorney general filed a lawsuit against Sure Advance, LLC in Hennepin County District Court in September 2011, accusing it of violating state payday loan laws.

      Under Minnesota law, for loans between $350 and $1,000, payday lenders cannot charge more than 33 percent annual interest plus a $25 administrative fee. For loans less than $350, Minnesota law caps the fees that may be charged on a sliding scale as follows: $5.50 for loans up to $50; 10 percent of the loan amount plus a $5 fee on loans between $50 and $100; 7 percent of the loan amount (minimum of $10) plus a $5 fee on loans between $100 and $250; and 6 percent of the loan amount (minimum of $17.50) plus a $5 fee on loans between $250 and $350.

      While payday lenders don't specifically charge an interest rate, their fees – if converted to an annual percentage rate (APR) can be well over 100 percent. In the case of Sure Advance, Swanson says some of its fees were more than 1,000 percent.

      In the last few years a growing number of states have enacted laws making it less profitable for payday lenders to operate within their borders. It doesn't...
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      Congress tries to head off increase in milk prices

      Average price could double to $7 per gallon if nothing is done

      The "fiscal cliff" drama is center stage these days but there are lots of back stories going on as well, including the possibility of a huge increase in the retail price of milk.

      Forget millionaires' tax rates and the eternal guns-vs-butter debate, we're talking about pricing milk out of the mouths of infants.

      It all has to do with Congress' nasty habit of deadlocking on just about every single issue. This time it's the Farm Bill, which covers a vast array of subsidies, price controls and other topics that rank as great mysteries to most consumers.

      The current farm bill expired three months ago and, in typical Congressional fashion, no one could agree on whether to renew it or begin the tedious process of reworking it.

      If nothing is done, milk prices would revert to rules that date back to 1949. Under complex price support rules, the retail price of milk would be expected to reach $6.00 to $8.00 a gallon versus current levels of about  $3.50.

      The retail price of milk would not immediately increase but it would do so as the existing supply of milk worked its way through the pipeline.

      Possible agreement

      Farm-state lawmakers in the House and Senate said Sunday afternoon that they had reached agreement on a one-year extension of the expiring bill but no one knows whether the full House and Senate will approve the extension and whether President Obama will sign it.

      For that matter, no one knows if the House and Senate leadership will even bother to bring the matter to a vote. After all, there is the little matter of the fiscal cliff to deal with. Also, one mustn't forget that many lawmakers are lame ducks. Their terms end when this session of Congress whimpers into history, so it's not like they have to face the voters again anytime soon.

      Nor are the solons happy to be in Washington when they could be curled up at home or basking in the sun on a "fact-finding" mission to some warmer clime.

      It could all be a recipe that leaves a sour taste in consumers' mouths.

      The "fiscal cliff" drama is center stage these days but there are lots of back stories going on as well, including the possibility of a huge increase in th...
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      2013 might be a good year to buy a car

      Expiring leases may flood the used car market

      If you've been wondering how many more miles you have in the car you're driving, the time may be at hand to make a change. Chances are you can get a pretty good deal on either a new or late-model used car.

      It turns out that as many as 500,000 more consumers are coming off car leases in 2013 than in 2012. That's good news for new car dealers, but growth in new car sales is still not expected to grow as fast next year as it did this year.

      That means new car dealers will still be eager to deal and manufacturers may chip in more incentives when it comes to cash back and financing. At the same time, many of those three-year old vehicles coming off leases will end up in the used car market, increasing inventories and providing a bit more leverage for buyers.

      Balanced market

      It may be that 2013 shapes up as a year when the market is in balance. Sellers will still do well but consumers will find plenty of good value.

      "What's especially encouraging is the current competitive strength among the automakers," said Edmunds.com Chief Economist Dr. Lacey Plache in a preview of 2013 auto sales trends. "Consumers will continue to benefit from exciting new models and technologies — and potentially lower prices — as automakers continue to battle for market share."

      Edmunds predicts car sales will grow in 2013, but that growth will slow to a single-digit pace. The automotive site projects 15 million new car sales in 2013, a four percent increase over 2012.

      Good deals on used cars

      For consumers who prefer a late-model used car, off-lease vehicles and more trade-ins should flood the used car market and help to bring down prices. Edmunds.com expects the average used car price to fall $200-$300 per vehicle in 2013, which will continue the price drop seen this year after used car prices peaked in 2011.

      Fears of used car shortages and higher prices, in the wake of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, are apparently unfounded.

      A valid questions, however, is whether consumers will feel confident enough to purchase a new vehicle in 2013. If the government fails to reach an agreement to head off automatic end-of-the-year tax hikes and spending cuts, known as the fiscal cliff, many economists think the U.S. will experience a recession.

      Just this week the Conference Board reported its Consumer Confidence Index fell in December to its lowest level since August.

      "The sudden turnaround in expectations was most likely caused by uncertainty surrounding the oncoming fiscal cliff," said the Board's Lynn Franco.

      But Plache remains bullish on the automotive market, pointing to other data showing that home prioces continue to rise, restoring some of the equity lost over the last four years.

      "Rising home prices make consumers feel wealthier, which translates into greater consumer confidence to make large purchases such as a new car," Plache said.

      If you've been wondering how many more miles you have in the car you're driving, the time may be at hand to make a change. Chances are you can get a pretty...
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      DirecTV tunes up a price hike

      Higher programming costs blamed for 4.5% increase

      DirecTV has a last-minute addition to your holiday stocking: an average 4.5% price increase, starting Feb. 7. The company blames higher programming costs it expects to pay next year.

      The satellite TV provider said on its Web site that  "almost all programmers who provide channels to the DirecTV platform are increasing their rates at a level we've never seen before."

      Cable and satellite TV providers routinely raise fees on at least an annual basis. They typically blame the programming fees they must pay to the likes of HBO and CNN. DirecTV says its price increases are generally lower than its competitors.

      The company said the increase will apply only to regular, nonpromotional rates. Customers paying a promotional price will continue to pay that price until the offer expires.

      Consumers rate DirecTV

      Of course, those promotional rates don't always turn out the way consumers expect, as Michael of North East, Md., said in a ConsumerAffairs posting earlier today:

      I was a DirecTV member for 13+ years. I never had a late payment or complaint during the entire duration, but that's because I remained on the "billing cycle," and  never called them for anything. I found out that our local cable was much cheaper and attempted a simple "switch". DirecTV then offered a cheaper rate, but then never applied it accurately to my account. After months (almost a year of monthly phone calls), I demanded cancellation. DirecTV then fabricated an "early termination fee" of over $300.00. Now DirecTV has me in "collections," and is impacting my credit report. Wow. Explain an "early termination fee" after 13+ years of being a loyal customer! Unreal.

      There've been a lot of cat fights between content providers and distributors over the last few years, including a spat between DirecTV and Viacom, which had resisted higher fees sought by channels like Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and MTV.

      DirecTV has a last-minute addition to your holiday stocking: an average 4.5% price increase, starting Feb. 7. The company blames higher programming costs i...
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      Study: Alcohol is worse for the teen brain than marijuana

      In a separate study, researchers find that kids don't think pot is as bad as they used to

      One of the main warnings that kids hear about the dangers of pot smoking is that it will ruin their brain cells, but researchers from the University of California-San Diego along with the University of Pittsburgh, say otherwise.

      In a recent study, 92 young adults and teens were examined for a total of 18 months to determine the true effects of extended alcohol and marijuana use. Each of the participants had records of using both substances in the past, and brain scans were taken before and after the testing period.

      One half of the group continued to use alcohol and marijuana in their usual amounts during the study and the other participants either kept away from both substances or dramatically reduced their levels of consumption.

      At the end of the study, researchers learned the participants that continued to use alcohol showed signs of brain tissue damage, while those who continued to smoke marijuana during the study didn’t show any brain tissue damage.

      Joanna Jacobus, who co-authored the study, said that because of the various ways the herb is grown today, it's hard to pinpoint its effect on users.

      “One reason is that marijuana can really vary, is made in different ways, and with higher or lower levels of THC and other marijuana components,” she said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “For example, one component, cannabidiol, may actually have neuroprotective effects.”

      Opinions changing

      In a separate study released by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers found that opinions about marijuana being harmful among teenagers is at a 20-year low, as 41.7 percent of kids in the eighth grade said periodic marijuana use is bad, compared to 66.9 percent that said dangerous results are attached to regular use. 

      And although previous studies have also confirmed that many commonly-used substances are actually worse for teens and adults when it comes to brain tissue damage, researchers of the NIH study still warn young people of the lasting effects of pot smoking, and say that the younger one starts, the greater chance they’ll eventually become addicted.

      “Marijuana use that begins in adolescence increases the risk they will become addicted to the drug,” said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, who directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

      “We are increasingly concerned that regular or daily use of marijuana is robbing many young people of their potential to achieve and excel in school or others aspects of life.”

      In regards to the University California-San Diego study, Duncan Clark, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says the white matter—which is the part of the brain that researchers were observing during the study—may have been damaged among the teens before the study was conducted, especially since both test groups used alcohol and marijuana regularly in the past.

      “The areas of the brain that are composed mostly of connecting axons have been termed ‘white matter,’ since these areas appear white in color,” he said.

      “However, prior research has not clearly demonstrated that this white matter disorganization is caused by alcohol or marijuana use. In some studies where adolescents are studied only once, white matter disorganization may have been present prior to alcohol or marijuana use.”

      More damage

      However Jacobson and her team did conclude that among the two substances, alcohol clearly caused more damage to the brain than marijuana did.

      “We found evidence for poorer white matter tissue health in teens who engage in heavy alcohol and marijuana use compared to those who abstain,” she said.

      We also found that “increasing alcohol use over 1.5 years in late adolescence was related to a decline in white matter health 18 months later, supporting a negative effect of alcohol use on the brain despite potential pre-existing differences.”

      One of the main warnings that kids hear about the harms of pot smoking is that it will ruin their brain cells, but researchers from the Universit...
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      7-Eleven wants you to eat healthier

      The company says by the year 2012, 20 percent of its products will be fresh foods.

      Let’s face it, when you think of places to get a healthy bite, 7-Eleven isn’t the first place that comes to mind.

      But executives for the company are looking to change that by adding healthier meal items to its existing menu options of hot dogs, Slurpees and snack foods.

      The new initiative has already started being rolled out in U.S. and Canadian stores, and by 2015, 7-Elevens will contain about 20 percent of fresh food items compared to only 10 percent that are in stores now.

      One could say 7-Eleven really deserves a lot of credit for trying to go healthier, but it may be the chain really doesn't have much of a choice, as not only have many fast-food places and supermarkets gone healthier, the entire country seems to be shifting its tastes towards healthier fare.

      Although the U.S. still has some very serious health and obesity issues brought about by unhealthy eating and a lack of physical activity, the general attitude of the country seems to be less accepting of these lifestyle choices, as national debates and new health initiatives are being birthed everyday.

      Change or die

      So 7-Eleven executives are trying to change its brand image from being a place that drunken college kids go to after parties, to somewhere adults, professionals and families can stop and get something that’s not slathered in cheese or looks like it should come with a complimentary bottle of cholesterol medicine.

      7-Eleven CEO Joseph DePinto admitted that his stores are  catering to new attitudes that consumers are developing about healthier eating, and that by ignoring these changing attitudes, it would do a disservice to customers, 7-Eleven’s brand and the country at large.

      “We’re aspiring to be more of a food and beverage company,” he said. “And that aligns with what the consumer now wants, which is more tasty, healthy, fresh food choices.

      7-Eleven is also trying to make its stores a triple retail threat, by adding healthier foods that can serve as breakfast, lunch or dinner for people, instead of being a place that just serves snacks and a couple of overly cooked hot dogs.

      “We’re working to create a portfolio of fresh foods," said a 7-Eleven spokesman. “Some will be snacking, some for a quick meal, but we hope everything we offer our guests is convenient and tasty.”

      However the challenge for 7-Eleven and other brands trying to pull off an image change is changing the minds of consumers, who already look at the convenience store chain largely as a place for snacks and junk food, or maybe a quick quart of milk on the way home.

      And even if 7-Eleven changes all of its items to offer healthier options, consumers may not ever make the mental shift required to consider 7-Eleven a healthier place to eat.

      A long road?

      It's good 7-Eleven is getting to work on turning around its image, but it has a long way to go, judging from the reviews posted to ConsumerAffairs.

      Consumers rate 7-Eleven
      “Egg price for Large AA eggs are usually $1.89, a little expensive but worth it for the quality," wrote Ramon of Brooklyn, NY.

      “Walked in today (after a snow fall) and the price is $2.49. A sixty cents increase, almost 33 percent. I want this price gauging recorded and investigated. There are many elderly and frail tenants in the Mitchell Lamas across the street from the 7-Eleven, and the practice is unfair.”

      Indeed, it will be interesting to see how prices will be affected by the healthier food options coming to 7-Eleven, as fresher and healthier usually means pricier. It will also be interesting to see if consumers are willing to pay more for fresher foods.

      There’s certainly a possibility the store chain could spend millions of dollars sprucing up its food offerings and people will still go there for items they’ve always purchased like coffee, cigarettes, gas in some locations and junk food.

      But either way, 7-Eleven offering healthier food items is certainly a step in the right direction for the company if it’s looking to compete with other stores and eateries that have made a healthier switch too.

      Plus, if 7-Eleven doesn’t make an effort to improve its offerings, it could eventually become a brand that’s synonymous with junk food eating and not caring about the health of its consumers or the country, and no business wants that.

      Not even one that built a business on selling junk food for so many years.

      Let’s face it, when you think of places to get a healthy bite, 7-Eleven isn’t the first place that comes to mind.Apparently, executives for t...
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      2012 housing market ends on bullish note

      Sales are up late in the year and so are prices

      The looming fiscal cliff not withstanding, the outlook for the U.S. housing market in 2013 continues to look brighter. A flurry of data at the end of 2012 is adding to the optimism.

      Pending home sales, a measure of contracts signed but not yet closed, rose for a third straight month in November, reaching the highest level in two-and-a-half years, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

      "Even with market frictions related to the mortgage process, home contract activity continues to improve," said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist. "Home sales are recovering now based solely on fundamental demand and favorable affordability conditions."

      Pending sales hit their highest level since April 2010, when buyers rushed to get their contracts in under the expiring homebuyer's tax credit. The last time pending sales were this strong without an outside incentive was February 2007, early in the recession.

      New home sales rise

      This month also brought news on an increase in new home sales, the slowest part of the housing market to recover. The U.S. Commerce Department reports new home sales increased 4.4 percent in November. While any gain is good news, economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, in Holland, Pa., says the market has a long way to go.

      "We need to see something closer to one million units sold not the current pace of 377,000 so there is a long way to go before the market is considered to be strong," Naroff said.

      There was also a lot of volatility in the numbers as demand jumped by double-digits in the Northeast, which was a surprise given Sandy, as well as South but was off double-digits in the Midwest and the West.

      "The number of homes for sale is on the rise, an indication that builders' confidence is growing," Naroff said.

      Gain in home prices

      The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, also released this week, showed a strong year-over-year increase in home prices in October. The monthly 10-city index showed the average home price was up 3.4 percent. For the 20-city index, prices were up 4.3 percent.

      Las Vegas saw the strongest gain at 2.8 percent. On the downside, Chicago and Boston continue to show weakness.

      “Looking over this report, and considering other data on housing starts and sales, it is clear that the housing recovery is gathering strength," said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Higher year-over-year price gains plus strong performances in the southwest and California, regions that suffered during the housing bust, confirm that housing is now contributing to the economy."

      The looming fiscal cliff not withstanding, the outlook for the U.S. housing market in 2013 continues to look brighter. A flurry of data at the end of 2012 ...
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      Losing weight is a lifestyle choice

      Experts say it's part of a permanent commitment to change

      If you ask people for a New Year's resolution, chances are a lot of people will tell you they resolve to lose weight in the coming year. Chances are also good they will fail.

      Despite the numerous diet programs and products available to consumers, losing weight and maintaining that new weight is not easy to do. Where most people run into trouble, says Shaynee Roper, clinical nutrition manager for the Harris Health System, is how they view the challenge.

      Losing weight is not a change in diet, she says, but a change in lifestyle.

      “A lot of people set goals and are really gung-ho in January and February, but then their energy fades because they’re not making a lifestyle change,” said Roper. “Most want a quick fix, but if you have more than 8-10 pounds to lose, it isn’t going to be a quick fix. You have to stay on task and stick with it for 6-12 months to see results.”

      Small goals

      How do you make losing weight part of your lifestyle? It starts with setting small goals. You might set a weekly goal of losing a pound or even five pounds over a month. Or better yet, don’t establish weight goals. Just try to reduce or eliminate bad foods like fried food or sweets.

      Keeping track of what you eat and drink is also important. In the beginning it helps to write it down. If you know how many calories -- or approximately how many calories a food item has -- write that down too. Knowing how many calories you're taking in and how many you are burning is a good way to stay on track.

      If you notice that there are certain foods you tend to over-consume, try to cut back. Eliminate them altogether if they aren't healthy. Replace them with fruits and vegetables.

      Food is not a reward

      Roper says it's fine to reward yourself for hitting certain goals, just don't reward yourself with food. Buy yourself something special or treat yourself to an event like a concert or movie.

      The important thing to remember is the change can be gradual.

      “When eliminating or reducing certain foods from your diet, pick one or two to start," Roper said. "Work on these for two weeks before adding more.”

      Exercise is also part of a lifestyle change and 30 minutes a day will provide results. But again, don't feel like you have to do it all at once. Roper suggests breaking up the 30 minutes of recommended activity into small 5-10 minute segments throughout the day. The idea is to get your metabolism revved up and into gear.

      Mayo Clinic advice

      While hundreds of fad diets, weight-loss programs and outright scams promise quick and easy weight loss, the Mayo Clinic also stresses a healthy lifestyle as the foundation for a successful weight-loss program. And these changes must be permanent.

      "It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to change your habits," the clinic staff says in a website posting. "So as you're planning new weight-loss-related lifestyle changes, make a plan to address other stresses in your life first, such as financial problems or relationship conflicts. While these stresses may never go away completely, managing them better should improve your ability to focus on achieving a healthier lifestyle."

      If you ask people for a New Year's resolution, chances are a lot of people will tell you they resolve to lose weight in the coming year. Chances are also g...
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      Amazon again tops customer satisfaction poll

      Apple, Dell and JC Penney lose ground in annual survey

      Consumers are not only doing more of their shopping online, they appear to be increasingly satisfied with the results, at least with some retailers.

      The annual Holiday E-Retail Satisfaction Index from analytics firm ForeSee shows Amazon.com maintained its Index rating of 88 this holiday season, matching last year and leading the pack of other online retailers.

      LL Bean was second with a rating of 85, up four points from last year.

      Eighth annual survey

      The survey is based on interviews with more than 24,000 customers, collected between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year's survey -- the eighth -- expanded the universe of e-retailers from 40 to 100.

      The survey found that Amazon.com continues to set the standard for customer satisfaction, matching the record high of 88 it set last year in the holiday edition of the Index. It's not exactly a new trend. Amazon has had the highest scores in the Index for eight years in a row, consistently setting a pace that other retailers don’t seem to be able to touch, according to ForeSee.

      “At this point, Amazon has been dominant for so long and has such a history of focusing on the customer, its hard to imagine anyone else coming close,” said Larry Freed, ForeSee president and CEO. “Companies should emulate Amazon’s focus on the customer, which is clearly linked to superior revenues over the years.”

      Exceptions

      As with any large company, however, not everyone is happy. Ramon, of North Brunswick, N.J., wrote to say he had a bad Amazon experience during the holidays.

      "Simple, I paid $30.00 dollars for a 2 day delivery and it is taking the whole week," Ramon wrote in his ConsumerAffairs post. "This is wrong."

      Though satisfaction with top retailers essentially remains the same, a few big-name retailers suffered declines in this year's survey. At the same time it's stock price was plummeting on Wall Street, Apple’s online retail store slid four percent to 80, slipping from a tie for second place and out of the top five entirely, registering its lowest score in four years.

      PC seller Dell.com also fell four percent to 77 and below the Index average. But the biggest year-over-year decline went to JCPenney.com, with a six percent decline to 78.

      Companies at risk

      “This year, we’re seeing that even some of the largest companies in the country are at risk if they lose sight of customer satisfaction,” Freed said. “Satisfaction with the customer experience, when measured correctly, is the most important predictor of future success, and while Amazon clearly gets it, Apple stumbles from their usual focus on the customer experience. Dell and JC Penney seem to be struggling to find their way, which could make them extremely vulnerable to competitors.”

      Companies have a lot to gain by making their customers happy. Compared to shoppers who report being dissatisfied with a Website, highly satisfied shoppers say they are 67 percent more likely to consider the company the next time they purchase a similar product.

      Satisfied shoppers also report being far more likely to return to the site, recommend it and stay loyal to the brand. Analysis of top e-retailers in the U.S. has also shown that, on average, a one-point change in Website satisfaction was found to predict a 14 percent change in the log of revenues generated on the Web.

      Consumers are not only doing more of their shopping online, they appear to be increasingly satisfied with the results, at least with some retailers.The a...
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      Consumer confidence takes a dive

      Uncertainty about what's likely to happen in the new year is a factor

      Jitters about the so-called “fiscal cliff” have consumers on edge.

      The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index, which had declined slightly in November, posted another decrease in December. It now stands at 65.1 (1985=100) -- down from 71.5 in November.

      The Expectations Index declined sharply to 66.5 from 80.9, while the Present Situation Index rose to 62.8 from 57.4 last month.

      The fiscal cliff

      “Consumers’ expectations retreated sharply in December resulting in a decline in the overall Index, “ said Lynn Franco, director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “The sudden turnaround in expectations was most likely caused by uncertainty surrounding the oncoming fiscal cliff. A similar decline in expectations was experienced in August of 2011 during the debt ceiling discussions. While consumers are quite negative about the short-term outlook, they are more upbeat than last month about current business and labor market conditions.”

      Other views

      • Consumers’ assessment of current conditions improved in December. Those seeing business conditions as “good” rose to 17.1 percent from 14.6 percent, while those who think business conditions are “bad” decreased to 27.3 percent from 31.2 percent.
      • Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market was mixed. Those saying jobs are “plentiful” edged down to 10.3 percent from 11.0 percent, while those see jobs as “hard to get” declined to 35.6 percent from 37.4 percent.
      • Consumers’ optimism about the short-term outlook plummeted in December. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months declined to 17.6 percent from 21.3 percent, while those expecting business conditions to worsen increased to 21.5 percent from 15.8 percent.
      • Consumers’ outlook for the labor market also turned more pessimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead declined to 17.0 percent from 19.5 percent, while those expecting fewer jobs increased to 27.3 percent from 21.2 percent.
      • The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes was virtually unchanged at 15.4 percent. However, those expecting their incomes to decline rose to 18.7 percent from 15.6 percent.

      The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was December 13.

      Jitters about the so-called “fiscal cliff” have consumers on edge. The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index, which had declined slightly in...
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      Uh-oh, gasoline prices are rising again

      Despite falling demand, the average price has risen every day this week

      Motorists should have known it was too good to last. After falling steadily for more than three months, prices at the pump started moving higher this week.

      The national average price of self-serve regular today is $3.279 per gallon, compared with $3.232 last week, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. That's about 14 cents lower than a month ago. Prices are about two cents higher than at this time a year ago.

      The average price of diesel fuel today is $3.917 per gallon, versus $3.920 a week ago.

      Annual January price increase

      For the last two years January has brought higher gasoline prices. Both in 2011 and 2012 political turmoil in the Middle East provided an incentive for oil traders to bid oil prices higher. During both years belief the economy was recovering also made traders bullish on oil.

      This year, however, the economy has slowed into the end of the year and concerns that Congress and the White House can't agree to head off automatic tax hikes and spending cuts have further raised the prospect of a recession. Inexplicably, oil prices are rising.

      "As crude oil prices have firmed, the decline in retail gasoline prices has slowed and now reversed," said Avery Ash, AAA's manager of federal relations. "Whether gas prices continue to rise or again turn lower will be impacted by action -- or inaction -- in Washington surrounding the looming fiscal cliff.”

      Demand is falling

      Prices at the pump have risen this week in the face of declining demand. MasterCard reports U.S. retail gasoline demand fell sharply from year-ago levels in the week before the Christmas holiday.

      The AAA survey also shows sharp price swings in the west and Midwest. In the last week the average pump price plunged 13 cents a gallon in Utah and Idaho and eight cents in Wyoming and Colorado. Wyoming now has the cheapest average price in the nation. South Carolina, which led the nation for most of the year with the cheapest fuel, fell out of the top 10 states for least expensive gasoline this week.

      The states with the most expensive gas prices this week are:

      • Hawaii ($3.976)
      • New York ($3.732)
      • Connecticut ($3.667)
      • Alaska ($3.566)
      • California ($3.547)
      • Vermont ($3.531)
      • Rhode Island ($3.523)
      • Maine ($3.508)
      • Massachusetts ($3.457)
      • Pennsylvania ($3.455)

      The states with the lowest gas prices this week are:

      • Wyoming ($3.013)
      • Missouri ($3.025)
      • Oklahoma ($3.035)
      • Colorado ($3.046)
      • Utah ($3.074)
      • Idaho ($3.078)
      • Texas ($3.084)
      • Kansas ($3.089)
      • Minnesota ($3.091)

      Tennessee ($3.110)

      Motorists should have known it was too good to last. After falling steadily for more than three months, prices at the pump started moving high this week....
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      Toyota agrees to $1 billion settlement in acceleration case

      About 16 million consumers will be eligible for payments and safety updates

      Calling it a "significant step forward," Toyota said it will pay more than $1 billion to settle lawsuits growing out of unintended acceleration incidents. About 16 million owners of Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles will be eligible for payments and safety updates to their cars.

      The settlement is one of the largest ever in an automotive lawsuit, according to Steve W. Berman, one of the lead plaintiff lawyers. U.S. District Judge James Selna must still approve the terms of the settlement.

      Just last week, Toyota agreed to pay $17.35 million -- the maximum fine allowable under the law -- in response to a federal agency's assertion that the automaker failed to report a safety defect to the federal government in a timely manner. It's the single highest civil penalty amount ever paid to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for violations stemming from a recall.

      Toyota paid nearly $50 million in fines in the U.S. in 2010 and millions more conducting recalls and fighting lawsuits, most of them related to alleged incidents of unintended acceleration.

      In May 2011, a panel of experts appointed by the automaker said it hadn't done enough to address the safety problems that have plagued the company and its customers.

      The panel, headed by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, said the recalls of more than 10 million vehicles since 2009 were largely attributable to Toyota's centralized decision-making process and the company "skepticism and defensiveness" towards consumers.

      "Step forward"

      As is usual in such cases, the company issued a statement saying it decided to settle to spare the expense and distraction of a lengthy trial, neglecting to add the possibility that it might have lost had the case gone to trial.

      “This agreement marks a significant step forward for our company, one that will enable us to put more of our energy, time and resources into Toyota’s central focus: making the best vehicles we can for our customers and doing everything we can to meet their needs,” said Christopher P. Reynolds, group vice president and general counsel, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A, and chief legal officer, Toyota Motor North America.  “In keeping with our core principles, we have structured this agreement in ways that work to put our customers first and demonstrate that they can count on Toyota to stand behind our vehicles.”

      Toyota recalled millions of vehicles over the last few years to correct problems linked to reports of sudden, unintended acceleration. The company has denied its electronic throttle system was to blame, a position supported by most safety regulators but contested by owners of cars involved in accidents.

      In some, but not all, models, a floor mat that could slide forward and interfere with control pedals was blamed for the problem.

      “This was a difficult decision – especially since reliable scientific evidence and multiple independent evaluations have confirmed the safety of Toyota’s electronic throttle control systems," Reynolds said.  "However, we concluded that turning the page on this legacy legal issue through the positive steps we are taking is in the best interests of the company, our employees, our dealers and, most of all, our customers.”

      More information

      Reynolds said that if the settlement is approved by the court, Toyota will launch a "new customer-support program that will provide prospective supplemental coverage for certain vehicle components and will retrofit additional non-hybrid vehicle models subject to the floor mat recall with a free brake override system (BOS) to provide an added measure of confidence."  Toyota also said it would offer cash payments to eligible customers who sold or turned in their leased vehicles in a period during 2009-2010, as well to some other owners.

      For more information on the economic loss settlement, consumers are asked to visit www.toyotaelsettlement.com or call 877-283-0507.

      A Virginia man was severely injured in an unexplained single car accident involving this Toyota Camry. (Staff photo)Calling it a "significant step forw...
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