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    USPS: “American citizens aren't our customers”

    Delivering unwanted junk mail: that's where the money is

    We get a lot of complaints from people who've had problems with the post office. Last summer, for example, a Manhattan man and his roommates went an entire month without receiving a single piece of U.S. mail, and despite a well-documented paper trail proving that various items had been mailed but not delivered, they never succeeded in getting their month's worth of mail, and the post office went so far as to insist they had no way of knowing exactly who was responsible for delivering it anyway.

    Consumers rate USPS - Lost Mail

    But even if you're one of the unlucky Americans whose bills, legal notices, passports, packagesor magazine subscriptions vanish under the aegis of the United States Postal Service, you can reliably count upon a steady supply of unwanted junk mail.

    There's a mathematically valid reason for that, too: in the past generation, the rise of email, free long-distance phone calls, Skype and other super-cheap and lightning-fast communication technologies have killed much of the market for first-class mail. If you want to keep in touch with out-of-state friends and relatives, you have much faster and cheaper options nowadays than writing and mailing a letter.

    Junk mail pays the freight

    So junk mail (or “direct mail marketing,” the preferred term of junk-mailers themselves) is of great financial importance to the post office. Back in May 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek cited this milestone to illustrate why:

    [The USPS] relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining—in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. This was a significant milestone. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.

    Which explains why the post office opposes any attempt to cut down on junk-mail deliveries, including the now-defunct service formerly offered by a company called Outbox, a once-promising startup which offered to “digitize” people's physical mail — in exchange for a monthly fee.

    Outbox drivers would visit subscribers' physical mailboxes three times per week, collect and make electronic copies of all mailings therein, and send e-copies of the mail to the customer. Here's how CNN described the then-new business in February 2013:

    The idea is that for $4.99 a month, someone can make their pesky physical mail disappear (assuming they can resist the urge to peek in their mailbox between pickups). Using a mobile device or computer, Outbox customers can organize mail in files or forward them as e-mails, ask to be unsubscribed from junk mail, have unwanted items destroyed or request that important mail, such as a wedding invite or a postcard, be re-delivered to their home.

    But the post office opposed the entire business model, and released a statement at the time which said:

    “The Postal Service is focused on providing an essential service in our mission to serve the American public and does not view Outbox as supporting that mission. We do have concerns regarding the destruction of mail -- even if authorized by the receiver -- and will continue to monitor market activities to ensure protection of our brand and the value and security of the mail.”

    Didn't last long

    Tampering with the mail (especially without the recipient's permission) is indeed a federal offense, but Outbox founders compared their service to asking your neighbor to pick up your mail for you while you're out of town.

    The experiment didn't last long. After initial operations in Austin, Texas and in San Francisco, Outbox shut down earlier this year, either because they weren't getting enough paying customers to cover their operating costs — or because they couldn't, unless the post office allowed customers to forward their mail to Outbox.

    A TechCrunch reporter who wrote about the shutdown in January noted:

    “That may not come as a huge surprise to the critics who found the idea impractical or downright creepy. I tried it out myself for a few months, but eventually canceled my subscription. I wasn’t bothered by Outbox employees opening my mail, it just wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped, and it was a pain for me to coordinate with a roommate who didn’t subscribe.”

    On the other hand, while Outbox remained in operation, there were plenty of customers who said pretty much the opposite. In February 2013, the news blog for NPR's Austin affiliate wrote about this new business offering in the area, including some background information about Outbox co-founders Will Davis and Evan Baehr, and quoted an enthusiastic customer:

    Marcia Navratil heard about Outbox from a friend, a former letter carrier for the post office.  Navratil says she hated getting the mail – especially the junk mail. "It works great," saidNavratil. "I love it.  I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t get their mail this way, unless you just really like having paper delivered to your house."

    But all that love is not sitting well with the Postal Service.

    Indeed not. That February 2013 NPR story continued by saying this:

    Early on, Outbox’s co-founders had a meeting with U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to pitch their idea. Davis remembers the moment:"He looked at us and said we have a misunderstanding.  'You disrupt my service and we will never work with you.'"

    Co-founder Evan Baehr says Outbox works with permission from the customer, and at a point where the USPS' job is done: "USPS is protective of the mail stream.  We exist at the end.  We’re doing it not on behalf of the postal service but on behalf of the user."

    Who calls the shots?

    So just who, exactly, is the postal service acting on behalf of? Just this week, three months after Outbox shut down and 14 months after that meeting with the postmaster general, Outbox made headlines again after InsideSources.com posted a story about Baehr and Davis, including a more detailed account of their discussion with Postmaster General Donahoe.

    When they met with Donahoe they'd initally thought maybe Outbox could work together with the USPS — given the post office's constant financial woes, the USPS could save considerable money on delivery costs to Outbox subscribers. However, according to Inside Sources, here's what actually happened:

    When Evan [Baehr] and Will [Davis] got called in to meet with the Postmaster General they were joined by the USPS’s General Counsel and Chief of Digital Strategy. But instead, Evan recounts that US Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe “looked at us” and said “we have a misunderstanding. ‘You disrupt my service and we will never work with you.’” Further, “‘You mentioned making the service better for our customers; but the American citizens aren’t our customers — about 400 junk mailers are our customers.  Your service hurts our ability to serve those customers.”’

    Inside Sources contacted the post office for comment about Donahoe's (alleged) commentary before publishing the story, and copied the post office's response in full:

    Hi Derek
    Thanks for contacting us about your story. Please see our statement below—that is all we have to say on this topic at this time.
    Thanks
    Dave Partenheimer
    Manager, Media Relations
    U.S. Postal Service
    The Postal Service is focused on providing an essential service in our mission to serve the American public and does not view Outbox as supporting that mission. We do have concerns regarding the destruction of mail—even if authorized by the receiver—and will continue to monitor market activities to ensure protection of our brand and the value and security of the mail.

    Sound familiar? It's the same statement the post office released about Outbox in February 2013.

    So for now, there's apparently some room for debate, regarding whether the post office currently serves the American public, or the direct-mail marketers who send unwanted junk mail to the American public.

    Incidentally, on previous occasions when this website has published various consumer-based articles about free online search engines, email providers or social media platforms, it often mentioned a common Internet proverb: “If you're not paying them anything, you're not their customer; you're what they're selling.”

    Where junk mail is concerned, you're not paying the post office for it, so maybe you're not the customer there, either.

    We get a lot of complaints from people who've had problems with the post office. Last summer, for example, a Manhattan man and his roommates went an entire...
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    Home improvement in a can

    A new coat of paint delivers the most bang for the buck

    When you consider making improvements to your home – especially preparing it for sale – perhaps no investment yields a bigger payoff than a can of paint.

    Adding a new coat of paint, either inside or outside, makes a home seem newer, fresher and well cared-for. But not all paint is the same.

    True, color is important but so is quality and texture. Skimping on quality usually costs you in the long run.

    When painting an interior, first consider the room you are painting, its size and shape. Before selecting colors remember that a lighter color can make a small room seem bigger while a dark color brings in the walls of a large room.

    Consider the room

    Think about how the room will be used. A warm color in the living area creates a more comfortable, inviting ambiance than a cooler color.

    The color on the wall should also reflect your mood and personality. However, if you are preparing your home for sale, your choice should be tasteful and neutral.

    In addition to color, the finish is important. Check the paint can label for descriptions like “flat,” “low-luster,” “satin,” “eggshell,” “semi-gloss” or “gloss.”

    A flat finish works best on ceilings or anywhere else that a muted low-reflecting surface is desired. A flat finish is harder to clean so it works best in low-traffic areas.

    Low-luster, satin and eggshell provide a slight reflective sheen. You see this finish a lot in high-traffic areas like hallways and bedrooms.

    Semigloss and gloss are ideal for areas frequently touched like hands, such as kitchens, bathrooms and woodwork. On a sliding scale, imperfections in the painting surface will show the least with a flat finish and the most with gloss.

    Select a high-quality paint

    When buying paint, you'll see that – like most things – higher quality costs more. If you are painting your home, spending more for a top quality paint will make sense.

    A high quality paint will probably save money in the long run, often requiring fewer coats. So it saves both time and money.

    A top grade of paint is usually described as “premium.” Lower quality paints are typically described as “professional” or “architectural.” A “contractor” grade of paint is usually the lowest quality.

    Another simple way to tell quality of paints apart is by price. A top quality paint is going to be more expensive than other grades. That's because it contains more of the paint's principal ingredients.

    Latex or oil-based?

    In addition to choosing color and quality, you will also need to select between water-based latex paint and a solvent-based – often called oil-based – paint.

    According to California Paints, some 75% of all the paint that is sold today is of the latex variety. Do-it-yourselfers use an even higher percentage of this type of paint for both exterior and interior projects.

    Before you open a can of paint and begin applying it you need to spend some time preparing the surface. Remove as much dirt and grease as possible since it will keep any paint from properly adhering to the surface.

    To improve the paint's covering capability use a primer-sealer first. Primers also prevent uneven paint absorption and will even help lesser quality paints but when used with quality paint, your finished project will retain its good looks much longer.

    Realtors say freshening up your home with a coat of paint will help your home sell faster and sell for closer to an asking price. But what if you don't have time and money to paint the entire house, inside and out?

    Then target your paint to where it will pay off the most. According to Realtor.com, that includes the front door and inside and outside trim.

    When you consider making improvements to your home – especially preparing it for sale – perhaps no investment yields a bigger payoff than a can...
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    Gogo faces in-flight competition from AT&T

    But Gogo says AT&T's bid is "too little too late"

    Gogo, a small Illinois company, has had the in-flight broadband market pretty well tied up the last few years but it's about to get a very big competitor. 

    Consumers rate AT&T Wireless
    AT&T has announced plans to launch a high-speed 4G LTE-based in-flight connectivity service for airlines and passengers, with service beginning as soon as 2015.  AT&T says the service will be capable of providing in-flight broadband for customers including fast, reliable wi-fi and onboard entertainment.

    Gogo is putting a brave face on it, noting that it has contracts to provide service to 9,000 of the 40,000 airliners operating worldwide.

    "An entrant to the U.S. market at this state is too little, too late," said Gogo CEO Michael Small, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

    Could be, but as any frequent business traveler will tell you, onboard broadband -- usually provided via satellite -- leaves a lot to be desired, with speeds that range from adequate to poor, often with constant fluctuations that make it difficult to get any serious work done. 

    AT&T says it will build an air-to-ground network in the continental United States, based on global 4G LTE standards, to provide fast speeds and efficient utilization of spectrum that it already owns. 

    “Everyone wants access to high-speed, reliable mobile Internet wherever they are, including at 35,000 feet,” said John Stankey, Chief Strategy Officer at AT&T. “We are building on AT&T’s significant strengths to develop in-flight connectivity technology unlike any other that exists today, based on 4G LTE standards. ... [W]e are truly mobilizing the sky.”

    Frequent frustration

    Honeywell recently issued its Wireless Connectivity Survey indicating that in-flight wi-fi currently causes frustrations for nearly 9 in 10 users worldwide, most often due to inconsistent or slow connections.

    AT&T said it plans to work with Honeywell to provide hardware and service capabilities to deliver the in-flight connectivity solution.

    AT&T said its in-flight connectivity also offers the potential for improved communications between the plane and the ground through transmission of real-time aircraft data for optimizing, monitoring and evolving airlines’ operations.

    Analysts quoted by the Journal were skeptical that AT&T's bid would be successful despite its huge financial advantage. They said Gogo is also spending heavily to upgrade its network. Its wi-fi client list includes Aeromexico, American Airlines, Air Canada, AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Japan Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways and Virgin America.

    Boeing agreement

    In April, Gogo announced that it had negotiated a technical services agreement (TSA) with Boeing to evaluate Gogo's suite of technology solutions on Boeing commercial aircraft.

    "As Gogo continues to retrofit aircraft with its various connectivity solutions, it's crucial to work towards line-fit of these solutions for all new orders so each aircraft comes off the line with Gogo connectivity already installed and ready for service from day one," Small said.

    "By taking care of some of the aircraft modification needs at the manufacturing level, this provisioning agreement will make the installation process much smoother after an airline takes delivery of the new aircraft," added Small. 

    Gogo, a small Illinois company, has had the in-flight broadband market pretty well tied up the last few years but it's about to get a very big competitor.&...
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      Trampolines injure 1 million over 10 years

      Indiana University researchers tally up the broken bones

      For some reason kids like to bounce up and down. That makes jumping on beds a popular but largely frowned-upon indoor activity.

      It may also explain the increased popularity, in recent years, of trampolines. Though they are largely unregulated, trampoline sales are up and you see more of them in back yards and on playgrounds. Doctors are horrified.

      “Despite previous recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discouraging home use of trampolines, recreational use of trampolines in the home setting continues to be a popular activity among children and adolescents,” AAP said in a recent policy statement.

      New research from the Indiana University School of Medicine found trampoline-related accidents sent more than 288,000 people, mostly children, to hospital emergency rooms (ER) with broken bones from 2002 to 2011. The total bill? $400 million.

      1 million injuries

      If you count all the injuries – not just fractures – more than 1 million trampoline users made unscheduled trips to the ER during that time, costing just over $1 billion.

      "There have not been any large-scale studies of these injuries," said Dr. Randall Loder, the study's lead author. "We wanted to document the patterns of injury. This gives us an idea of the magnitude of the problem across the country."

      According to the study, what starts out as fun often ends up in serious injury. About 60% of the fractures were upper-extremity injuries, notably fingers, hands, forearms and elbows.

      Lower-extremity fractures are also quite common. Things like breaks in the lower leg -- the tibia and fibula -- and ankles.

      Life-threatening mishaps

      A smaller percentage of the injuries are extremely serious, with fractures of the spine, head, ribs and sternum. Over 10 years nearly 3,000 people were treated for broken spines as the result of a trampoline accident.

      According to the AAP policy statement, most trampoline injuries occur with multiple simultaneous users on the mat. Spine injuries may occur when someone falls off the trampoline or makes an ill-fated attempt at somersaults or flips.

      "Fortunately, there were fewer spine injuries than might have been expected, but those can be catastrophic," said Meagan Sabatino, clinical research coordinator for pediatric orthopedic surgery and a study co-author.

      While the average age for most of the injuries was about 9, the average age for more serious axial skeleton injuries was substantially higher at 16.6 years old.

      "They're probably jumping higher, with more force," Loder said.

      Risk-takers

      Loder attributes part of that to the fact that teenagers tend to be risk-takers. Younger children might be unaware of the potential danger of their actions, but when then are aware they take fewer risks.

      "Teenagers, they'll just push the limit," Loder said.

      The study found that trampoline-related ER visits rose through the 1990s and peaked in 2004. Since then, they've declined – but not as much as doctors would like. For his part, Loder would like to see trampolines banned.

      "I think trampolines should not be allowed in backyards. It's that simple," he said. "It's a significant public health problem."

      Victims urged to sue

      As an interim step, the Foundation for Spinal Cord Injury Prevention (FSCIP) is urging litigation as a way to discourage the use of trampolines.

      “If you or a loved one has suffered a serious injury as a result of a trampoline accident, you should consult with a lawyer as soon as possible to determine your legal rights,” FSCIP says. “An accident that may appear to be no ones fault or your own fault could still result in economic recovery for you.”

      The foundation says people injured in a trampoline accident may be unaware of all the factors contributing to the accident, and the liability of other parties “can be a complicated point of law.”

      For some reason kids like to bounce up and down. That makes jumping on beds a popular, but largely frowned-upon indoor activity.It may also explain the i...
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      Bad crops and criminal cartels lead to higher lime prices

      This wasn't a good year for worldwide lime production

      Good news if you're among the statistically tiny number of Americans with healthy productive lime trees growing in their backyards: the price of limes is so high, restaurants and bars in places like Arizona and southern California are giving “free” drinks or food to any customer who brings in a bag of home-picked limes.

      Bad news for the vast majority of American (and worldwide) lime-lovers who don't and can't grow their own: the price of limes has skyrocketed, from $15 for a case of 200 last year to anywhere from $80 to $130 per case today.

      The Christian Science Monitor reports that no one single factor is to blame for this, but a variety of problems added together which have drastically reduced worldwide lime output. Despite the handful of Americans with productive lime trees in their backyards, there really isn't much land in America where the climate is consistently hot and humid enough to make lime farming commercially viable.

      The one exception is in Florida, which had a thriving lime industry until 2001, when a highly contagious citrus canker outbreak threatened the entire state citrus industry. So officials ordered the destruction of most lime groves, and the lime industry there has yet to recover.

      Extortion and shakedowns

      Then Mexico started producing a significant portion of limes consumed in the U.S. Unfortunately for Mexican lime farmers, the drug cartels in that country also engage in Mafia-style extortion and shakedowns of legitimate businesses, including lime growers.

      To top it all off, storms killed the lime crop in one Mexican state, and a different plant disease threatens the crops in another.

      For some recipes demanding lime juice, you can easily substitute an equal amount of lemon juice, vinegar or dry white wine. But for other recipes – including guacamole and margaritas – the lime itself is often considered essential to how the finished recipe actually tastes. (The sourness of lime works well in certain mixed drinks; the sourness of vinegar, not so much.)

      Good news if you're among the statistically tiny number of Americans with healthy productive lime trees growing in their backyards: the price of limes is s...
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      Today's USA, as seen via Facebook

      "Facebook Newswire" may not be polished but there's a lot of it

      A few days ago, Facebook announced with much bravado the inauguration of "Facebook Newswire," something it billed as a tool for journalists. Considerable scoffing ensued, with many journalists saying they would rather take tips from psychics than rely on Facebook.

      But you know what? Facebook Newswire may be rough, but it's proving itself ready, if not for prime time then at least for the lead-in to prime time, as they say in the TV biz. 

      The idea is simple: consumers -- you know, regular folk -- see something, they shoot it with their smartphone and upload it. Human editors find the most newsworthy and compelling material and post it to FB News.

      You might call it first-responder journalism -- the first, fragmentary reports from the scene of a disaster, riot or particularly cute story involving pets.  

      Take today's train derailment in downtown Lynchburg, Va. One of the first reports came form Adam Miller, who saw the smoke that billowed from the wreckage of the train, which later reports said had been carrying crude oil.

      While heavy black smoke was billowing from that derailed train in Virginia, lighter but still dense smoke was coming from a wildfire in California, as shown in this photo from KTLA5 News.

      Smoke would have been a welcome site in much of the Southeast and Midwest, where torrential rains and tornadoes inflicted heavy property damage and many deaths.

      OK, it's not Pulitzer Prize material but you can't say it's not breaking news. It's also a platform that, while still just a few days old, could grow into something pretty powerful. 

      It's not hard to image behind-the-lines documentaries exposing outrages and injustice in totalitarian countries or in prisons, nursing homes or other places where the powerless are too often voiceless.

      The postings are curated and verified by professional editors at Storyful, which calls itself a social news-verification company, so it's not a totally wild-and-crazy gathering spot.

      “Our goal is that the Newswire will be an invaluable tool for journalists, helping them to tell richer, more engaging stories using public content from Facebook,” said Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s director of news and global media partnerships, the Wall Street Journal reported.

      While it's aimed at journalists, anyone can visit https://www.facebook.com/FBNewswire. Take a look. It's what they used to call "news as it happens." 

      // Post by Rob Wooters.A few days ago, Facebook announced with much bravado the inauguration of "Facebook Newswire," something it billed as a tool ...
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      New-car fuel economy hits all-time high

      More than 50% of new cars get more than 23 mpg

      It may seem like improvements in fuel economy are barely creeping along but in just 5 years, fuel economy has taken a big leap in the right direction, according to the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).

      CFA says that this year, for the first time ever, more than 50% of the current year’s vehicles get more than 23 miles per gallon (mpg) -- especially significant considering that just 5 years ago only 19% of models got 23 mpg.

      “The number of models getting over an impressive 30 mpg is 11.6%, a huge jump from the 1.3% that got over 30 mpg just five years ago. And, for the first time, there are no 2014 models getting below 13 mpg,” said Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for CFA and author of "The Car Book."

      CFA selected 23 mpg as a benchmark for this analysis because it is the EPA fuel economy label equivalent to the 30.6 mpg overall corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirement for 2014.

      Very good year

      Much of the progress came in 2010, which saw the largest single annual increase (over 50%) in the number of vehicles with a fuel economy rating of more than 23 mpg.

      “The automotive industry’s shift away from gas guzzlers in the past 5 years has been stunning with the number of models getting over 23 mpg more than doubling. Automakers are well on the road to meeting the 2025 standard of 54.5 mpg,” said Mark Cooper, director of research for CFA.

      Fuel economy remained relatively stagnant from 2002 to 2008, with the first real increase coming after the passage of the Energy Security and Independence Act (EISA) in 2007 during the Bush administration.

      Another jump occurred in 2009 when the “Phase 1” standard for 2012-2016 was announced. (“Phase 1” accelerated the EISA requirements and called for a CAFE average of 35.5 mpg by 2016.) Knowing these standards were coming, the car companies began to significantly improve their offerings in anticipation of the requirements. 

      54.5 mpg

      Gillis said the CAFE standards have been effective in getting automakers on the road to meeting the 54.5 mpg standard by 2025.

      “Fully implementing the standard will protect consumers from volatile gas prices, prove profitable for automakers, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and lead to a cleaner and healthier environment,” he said.

      Equally encouraging, he said, is that this year's most fuel-efficient cars are also among the top sellers. For 2014, all 25 top sellers have at least one model that meets the 2014 CAFE standard. In fact, for 16 out of the top 25 vehicles, the model expected to be the most popular meets the 2014 standard.

      “This demonstrates that manufacturers are meeting the standards with popular vehicles and consumers are buying them,” said Gillis.

      It may seem like improvements in fuel economy are barely creeping along but in just 5 years, fuel economy has taken a big leap in the right direction, acco...
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      Kansas City gets a drive-in supermarket

      Zoomin promises convenience, competitive prices, but will it take off?

      Everyone's trying to find the right formula for online grocery shopping. It's one thing to set up an attractive website with easy ordering options, but it's another matter to figure out how to get the stuff delivered to consumers.

      Companies large and small have been trying a variety of approaches in selected cities.

      Peapod, Amazon Fresh and Door to Door Organics deliver to your door. Relay Foods parks a truck in a convenient location several times a week. Harris Teeter has just started Express Lane Online, which lets you order online, then pull up to the curb of your local Harris Teeter and have the items loaded into your car.

      The Harris Teeter approach sounds good to a new Kansas City venture called Zoomin. It's basically a drive-in supermarket, sort of a stripped-down version of the Harris Teeter approach. You place your order online, then drive over to Zoomin, where an employee helps you load up. Food is kept at the proper temperature until you arrive.

      Unlike most of the others, Zoomin does not charge extra for its service and does not allow tipping its curbside helpers. 

      So far, there's only one Zoomin, in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, and it's only been open a few weeks. But founder John Yerkes says he has his eye on two additional sites and, if the concept works locally, hopes to roll it out on a larger scale over the next few years.

      Kansas City Star reporter Joyce Smith tried Zoomin recently and found it all worked as promised, even though she forgot to bring the print-out that contained the order number. She found the prices roughly comparable to other area markets.

      Yerkes hopes his business model helps him keep prices competitive. He notes that, unlike home-delivery services, he doesn't need trucks and drivers. and unlike full-service supermarkets, he doesn't need display space and cashiers.

      It's an interesting idea but will it catch on? Yerkes told Smith that it seems to resonate with shoppers who are hard-pressed to pack everything into their day. 

      Everyone's trying to find the right formula for online grocery shopping. It's one thing to set up an attractive website with easy ordering options, but it'...
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      The economy limps along in early 2014

      Growth slowed considerably from the end of last year's pace

      With apologies to T.S. Eliot, the economy started 2014 with a whimper, not a bang.

      After posting a growth rate of 2.6% in the fourth quarter of 2013, real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States -- expanded at a miniscule annual rate of 0.1 percent in the first three months of this year.

      The “advanced' estimate of expansion released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis is based on source data that are incomplete or subject to further revision. A "second" estimate for the first quarter, based on more complete data, will be released in about a month.

      Businesses pull back

      What little increase there was in real GDP in the first quarter, was primarily due to a rise in consumer spending that was partly offset by negative contributions from exports, private inventory investment, nonresidential fixed investment, residential fixed investment, and state and local government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, decreased.

      The first quarter slowdown in growth was due largely to downturns in exports and in nonresidential fixed investment, a larger decrease in private inventory investment, a deceleration in consumer spending, and a downturn in state and local government spending that were partly offset by an upturn in federal government spending and a downturn in imports.

      Inflation dips

      The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, increased 1.4% in the first quarter, compared with an increase of 1.5% in the final 3 months of last year.

      Excluding food and energy prices, the price index for gross domestic purchases was up 1.4%, versus an increase of 1.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013.

      The full GDP report is available on the Bureau of Economic Analysis website.

      With apologies to T.S. Eliot, the economy started 2014 with a whimper, not a bang. After posting a growth rate of 2.6% in the fourth quarter of 2013, real...
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      Mortgage applications trend lower

      The decline is the second in a row

      The number of people applying for mortgages is lower for a second straight week.

      According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey applications plunged 5.9% during the week ending April 25.

      The Refinance Index was even worse with a drop of 7% from the previous week, dropping the refinance share of mortgage activity by 1% -- to 50% of total applications, continuing a trend that started in May 2013. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity remained unchanged at 8% of total applications.

      “Both purchase and refinance application activity fell last week, and the market composite index is at its lowest level since December 2000,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist. “Purchase applications decreased 4% over the week, and were 21% lower than a year ago. Refinance activity also continued to slide despite a 30-year fixed rate that was unchanged from the previous week."

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was unchanged at 4.49%, with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.50 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) fell 4 basis points -- from 4.41% to 4.37%, with points decreasing to 0.14 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was down from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA dipped to 4.17% from 4.20%, with points dropping to 0.10 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs slipped 2 basis points to 3.53%, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate fell from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose to 3.26% from 3.16%, with points decreasing to 0.35 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

      The survey covers over 75% of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

      The number of people applying for mortgages is lower for a second straight week. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage App...
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      Is mom getting stiffed this Mother's Day?

      A new survey indicates spending on gifts will be down this year

      “We still love you mom, but we're cutting back.”

      That seems to be the message in National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2014 Mother’s Day Spending Survey. Conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, the survey shows consumers will spend an average of $162.94 on mom this year -- down from a survey high of $168.94 last year. Total spending is expected to total $19.9 billion.

      Still, retailers are an optimistic bunch. “As one of the most universally celebrated holidays, retailers will take this opportunity to attract Mother’s Day shoppers with promotions on ladies apparel items, health and beauty products, jewelry and even restaurant options,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Now fully into spring, retailers are hoping consumer sentiment and spending intentions continue to grow as we round out one of the busiest retail seasons of the year and prepare for summer.”

      When you care enough...

      The survey found that most will show their appreciation of mom with a greeting card (81.3%), though it appears many will also look for special gifts. Two-thirds (66.6%) will buy mom her favorite flowers, spending a total of $2.3 billion, and 33.5% will look for spring sweaters and blouses, spending a total of $1.7 billion on apparel and accessory items.

      Also high on the list are books and CDs ($480 million), housewares or gardening tools ($812 million), personal experience gifts like a day at the spa ($1.5 billion), jewelry ($3.6 billion), and special outings like brunch or dinner ($3.8 billion).

      Gadgetry spending slipping

      Having spent the last few years treating mom to electronic gifts like tablets, smartphones, cameras and more, consumers this year may have less of a reason to purchase those items: 13.1% say they will buy mom a consumer electronic item and will spend a total of $1.7 billion, compared with $2.3 billion last year.

      However, if mom does have her eye on something special for herself, there are still good things to come in the form of gift cards: 43.3% of those shopping for a gift for mom will buy her a gift card; 41.5% did so last year. Total spending on gift cards is expected rise slightly to $2.1 billion.

      Practical gift-giving

      “Americans haven’t forgotten about the state of the economy and are treating their finances and gift-giving budgets in a way that keeps practicality top of mind,” said Prosper’s Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “But like we saw with Valentine’s Day and Easter, people this year will look for special ways to treat mom to something nice without breaking the bank, knowing it’s the thought that counts.”

      Most shoppers will head to specialty stores to find gifts (33.5%), but others will shop at department stores (32.4%), discount stores (24%), and online (29%).

      The survey found 18-24 year-olds are the most likely to shop at department stores among all other age groups: more than half (51.6%) will visit a department store in search for their perfect gift for mom. But it’s 25-34 year-olds who will spend the most on mom, spending an average of $216.53.

      Nearly two-thirds (63.9%) of those surveyed say they will shop for their mother or stepmother, while 22.5% will shop for their wife, 9.2% will shop for their daughter and 6.6% will shop for grandma.

      “We still love you mom, but we're cutting back.” That seems to be the message in National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2014 Mother’s Day Spending Survey. Con...
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      GE brand dehumidifiers recalled

      A component in the dehumidifier’s compressor can short circuit

      GE Appliances & Lighting of Louisville, Ky., is recalling about 15,500 GE brand dehumidifiers.

      A component in the dehumidifier’s compressor can short circuit, posing a fire hazard.

      There4has been 1 report of a fire contained within the dehumidifier unit. No other property damage or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves 30-pint portable GE brand dehumidifiers. The dehumidifiers are white plastic and measure about 19 inches tall, 13 inches wide and 9 inches deep with a front-loading water bucket.

      “GE” and digital controls are located on top of the dehumidifier. Model, serial and manufacture dates are located on a label on the back of the dehumidifier. The model, serial and manufacture dates included in the recall are:

      Model Number

      Serial Number Begins with:

      Manufacture Date

      ADKW30LN

      AT1, DT1, FT1 or GT1

      2010/01 through 2010/04

      (for January 2010 through April 2010)

      The dehumidifiers, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Walmart stores nationwide from March 2010, to December 2010, for about $170.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled dehumidifiers, unplug them and contact Midea for instructions on returning their recalled dehumidifier for a free repair. Consumers should not return the recalled dehumidifiers to the retailer where purchased.

      Consumers may contact Midea toll-free at (855) 861-2799 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

      GE Appliances & Lighting of Louisville, Ky., is recalling about 15,500 GE brand dehumidifiers. A component in the dehumidifier’s compressor can short circ...
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      U.S., U.K. governments advise against using Internet Explorer

      At least until Microsoft fixes the zero-day exploit. But for XP users, it will never be fixed

      Last Saturday, a tech security firm made the appalling discovery that ever since the 2001 release of IE6, all versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer have been plagued by a zero-day security flaw which hackers could use to easily gain remote control of your computer.

      Just how bad is this security flaw? Bad enough that the governments of the United Kingdom and United States have advised everybody to stop using Internet Explorer altogether, at least until Microsoft develops and releases a patch to fix that gaping security hole.

      (But remember: if your computer still runs on Windows XP, Microsoft will probably never develop a patch for you, because the company stopped supporting XP earlier this month.)

      What to do

      Even if you don't use XP, if your computer is one of the 55 percent (according to some estimates) worldwide using any version of IE6 through IE11 to go online, you need to stop using IE and switch to another browser right now.

      Alternate browsers include Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera and, for Mac users, Safari, included in all Mac operating systems. All are excellent and all are free. 

      You can download free, easy-to-install versions at these locations:

      Zero-day

      The security firm FireEye Research Labs announced the discovery of the zero-day exploit on Saturday, April 26. By Monday, the Department of Homeland Security's Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) updated its website to give the following warning to anyone using Internet Explorer versions 6 through 11:

      “US-CERT recommends that users and administrators review Microsoft Security Advisory 2963983 for mitigation actions and workarounds. Those who cannot follow Microsoft's recommendations, such as Windows XP users, may consider employing an alternate browser.”

      However, as of Tuesday morning, that Microsoft Security Advisory still had not been updated since April 26, the day FireEye first announced the IE security flaw. Presumably, when Microsoft does figure out how to fix the problem, it will update Advisory 2963983 to let everybody know. For now, it still says this:

      “On completion of this investigation, Microsoft will take the appropriate action to protect our customers, which may include providing a solution through our monthly security update release process, or an out-of-cycle security update, depending on customer needs.”

      Prediction: when Microsoft does finally develop a fix they'll release it right away in an out-of-cycle update, rather than wait until the next regularly scheduled monthly update. Regardless of which option Microsoft chooses, though, the security updates will only apply to those operating systems Microsoft still supports — which is another way of reminding Windows XP users, “These security updates will not apply to your computer, so you need to stop using XP.”

      Last Saturday, a tech security firm made the appalling discovery that ever since the 2001 release of IE6, all versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer hav...
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      How to get a job after graduation

      Networking, studying a prospective employer and being persistent will pay off

      No doubt next month's college graduates are feeling some pressure right about now, and it has less to do with upcoming final exams than what comes after. The job hunt.

      They've spent the last four or more years pursing a college degree and have spent a small fortune doing so. Chances are they'll graduate with a sizable student loan debt.

      That makes finding a job all the more important. College placement officers say the biggest mistake students near graduation make is starting their job search too late. And putting off the job search until after graduation is just one of many mistakes new grads make.

      Don't panic

      Anne Scholl-Fiedler, Vice President for Career Services at Stevenson University, says new graduates entering the job market make other mistakes, usually out of desperation. When weeks go by without a nibble, applicants tend to act in ways that hinder, not help their job search.

      Her advice? First, don't blindly apply for jobs, especially for jobs for which you are not qualified. Guess what? This small and elite group of HR professionals often communicate with one another about jobseekers in their local markets.

      Don't just apply online and leave it at that. The online application process is just the first step. Actually, networking should come first. Establishing contacts within the company where you want to work will give you an edge.

      Be prepared

      If you go to a networking event or a job fair, go prepared. Be ready to talk about your skills, academic areas of study, strengths and interests.

      Do some research about the companies that will be represented at the event. If you can talk knowledgeably with recruiters they will be more likely to take you seriously.

      Don't be so choosy. If your first job isn't what you had set your sights on, maybe it's a good starting point. Can you learn something and move on? Remember, you're going to have many jobs over the course of your career.

      "The key for college seniors is being deliberate, not desperate, in their job searches," Scholl-Fiedler said.

      And maybe additional advice might include, “try not to display a sense of entitlement.” For some that might prove a challenge.

      A study of college career development specialists compiled by the Center for Professional Excellence (CPE) at York College of Pennsylvania found college students' sense of entitlement has increased since 2009.

      “Fifty-three percent of our respondents reported an increase in students showing a sense of entitlement, while only 6.3 percent noted a decrease,” said Matthew Randall, executive director of the CPE.

      Some good news

      Fortunately for young job-seekers, the job market appears to be improving. The nation's unemployment rate is slowly dropping and a new study from CareerBuilder and CareerRookie.com finds that 57% of employers say they plan to hire new college graduates.

      That's an improvement from the 53% who were hiring last year and the 44% who were in 2010. But the survey also finds corporate recruiters have some concerns about the new crop of applicants.

      In short, recruiters see it coming down to a lack of preparation. A majority of recruiters – 53% – say recent graduates often lack real world experience and perspective.

      Not ready for prime time

      Part of the problem, as they see it, is preparation. Thirty-five percent says students tend to specialize too much. Instead, they would like to see a blend of technical skills and soft skills gained from liberal arts.

      Also, 26% of employers say on-the-job training is often impractical because entry-level jobs have become more complex. They look for people who have had prior experience, either through internships or apprenticeships.

      According to employers, recent graduates are less prepared for certain business functions than others. Those roles where deficits are noted include customer service, public relations/communications, business development, sales, general office functions, and IT.

      Does that mean colleges – charging $50,000 or more for a bachelors degree – aren't preparing students for today's job market?

      “The vast majority of employers feel that the skills and knowledge base students gain at academic institutions are aligned with their company needs, but nearly one in four sense a disconnect,” said Brent Rasmussen, President of CareerBuilder North America. “As roles within organizations grow more complex and demand for certain degrees outpaces graduation rates, there is an opportunity for employers to work more closely with schools to help guide learning experiences for the next generation of workers.”

      No doubt next month's college graduates are feeling some pressure about now, and it has less to do with upcoming final exams than what comes after. The job...
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      Never trust a zip file in an email

      and other all-purpose malware-protection rules

      Another day, another countless thousands of spammy emails cluttering inboxes all over the world.

      Luckily, most such emails can be easily identified as spam, if you know what to look for. Consider last March, when news of the Netflix phishing scam first broke: would-be thieves sent out a mass of emails purportedly from Netflix and warning of a problem with the recipient's Netflix subscription. Anyone who fell for the bait hard enough would eventually give the thieves full access to their computers, and any personal files therein.

      But that scammy phishing email contained plenty of hints that it wasn't a genuine Netflix communique — even before you do your own independent online search for Netflix's customer service contact information and (unsurprisingly) discover a phone number entirely different from the one the phishers wanted you to call.

      Another example of “spam deconstruction” can be found on the PhishMe security firm's blog, which on April 29 posted a seven-point takedown of a piece of email spam with a particularly virulent piece of malware in an attached file. (If you had to choose one of those seven points as being most important, it's most likely number three: “Zip file – It is uncommon to receive a legitimate zip file in an email. More times than not, it’s bad.” That, in turn, ties in to the well-known malware-protection rule “Never download a suspicious or unsolicited file.”)

      Ask yourself ...

      PhishMe pointed out some other red flags indicating possible spam, including the fact that the email, which started out with the words “Hi, there! This is your neighbor writing here. Today your attorney popped you, but you were out, so he left a message for you,” actually had a Russian sender (is your neighbor Russian?).

      The alleged attorney's message was in the infected zip file (which, if opened, would give hackers the ability to steal pretty much any files in your computer). But if you read the full text of the email – and imagine it's an email which actually landed in your inbox, rather than something you're reading on a security blog — you'll notice some other indications of spamhood which are quite obvious, if you think about it for more than two seconds.

      For example: even assuming you do currently have an attorney, and are expecting her to give you some files, what are the chances she would ever say “Hmm, since my client's not home, I'll just give an e-copy of these super-important files to one of the neighbors”? (Hint: close to zero, because any attorney who tried this would be disbarred for violating client confidentiality.)

      Another sign which most (though not all) spam has in common is its complete lack of specific, personalized details. Suppose you, personally, had to send an unexpected note (or email) to a neighbor. Which format are you most likely to use: “Hi there, this is your neighbor,” or “Hi [neighbor's name], this is [your name]”?

      If someone knows you well enough to have your email address, they should know you well enough to know your name.

      Another day, another countless thousands of spammy emails cluttering inboxes all over the world. Luckily, most such emails can be identified as spam...
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      Hackers target Adobe Flash security flaw

      A fix has already been released. Make sure you update your Adobe Flash Player

      The bad news is, there's a zero-day flaw in Adobe Flash software which hackers are already exploiting to attack people's computers. The good news is, Adobe has already released a fix for the problem.

      Adobe's April 28 security bulletin said the affected versions are

      Adobe Flash Player 13.0.0.182 and earlier versions for Windows

      Adobe Flash Player 13.0.0.201 and earlier versions for Macintosh

      Adobe Flash Player 11.2.202.350 and earlier versions for Linux

      To verify the version of Adobe Flash Player installed on your system, access the About Flash Player page, or right-click on content running in Flash Player and select "About Adobe (or Macromedia) Flash Player" from the menu. If you use multiple browsers, perform the check for each browser you have installed on your system.

      Adobe then offers a list of browser-specific solutions; depending on which browser type you use, you might need to allow a Flash update, or you might simply have to close out of your browser and then re-open it.

      Adobe's posted list also includes specific instructions for people using IE10 or IE11. However, if you use Internet Explorer for your online browsing, it's worth remembering that, until Microsoft develops and releases a patch for the zero-day security flaw affecting all versions of Explorer beyond IE6, the governments of the United States and United Kingdom have advised people to stop using Internet Explorer altogether.

      The bad news is, there's a zero-day flaw in Adobe Flash software which hackers are already exploiting to attack people's computers. The good news is, Adobe...
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      Researchers: laughter really is the best medicine

      Humor may keep you young and thinking clearly

      Aging can bring with it cognitive decline. Everything from full-blown dementia to those frustrating “senior moments,” when you lose track of your thoughts.

      Researchers have found that stress can be an aggravating factor. It saps both physical and mental energy as we get older.

      It can contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Stress releases the hormone cortisol, which can damage brain neurons and make it harder for seniors to learn and remember.

      Damaging cortisol

      But researchers at Loma Linda University have looked deeper into cortisol’s relationship to memory and come up with a novel theory.

      You've heard the expression “laughter is the best medicine?” The researchers take that literally.

      The researchers gathered a group of healthy elderly individuals and a group of elderly people with diabetes and had them watch a 20-minute funny video. At the conclusion both groups completed a memory assessment that measured their learning, recall, and sight recognition.

      Their performance was recorded and compared to a control group of elderly people who did not view the video. Cortisol concentrations for both groups were also recorded at the beginning and end of the experiment.

      Results

      Cortisol concentrations were sharply lower among both groups that watched the video. Perhaps not coincidentally, the senior who watched the video also showed greater improvement in all areas of the memory assessment.

      The seniors with diabetes showed the most dramatic benefit in cortisol level changes. The group of healthy seniors produced the most significant changes in memory test scores.

      Dr. Gurinder Singh Bains, an author of the study, says the results potentially offer an effective and inexpensive addition to wellness programs for the elderly.

      “The cognitive components — learning ability and delayed recall — become more challenging as we age and are essential to older adults for an improved quality of life: mind, body, and spirit,” he said. “Although older adults have age-related memory deficits, complimentary, enjoyable, and beneficial humor therapies need to be implemented for these individuals.”

      The take-away, the researchers say, is seniors can slow memory decline by reducing stress, and laughing is an easy and pleasant way to do that. Not to mention inexpensive.

      History

      Laughter therapy is not exactly new. In the 1970s writer Norman Cousins recovered from a debilitating arthritis, he said, by taking massive amounts of vitamin C and spending several minutes a day laughing at Marx Brothers movies.

      "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep," he wrote. "When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval."

      Previous research

      Previous research has also indicated a link between humor and health. Keith Adams, a British laughter therapist, cites a September 2011 study from from Oxford University, demonstrating that continuous laughter significantly increases people’s pain threshold, by as much as 10%.

      Berk explains it this way; the act of laughter – or simply enjoying some humor – increases the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain. That, in turn, provides a sense of pleasure and reward.

      These changes make the immune system work better. There are even changes in brain wave activity towards what's called the "gamma wave band frequency", which also amp up memory and recall.

      “So, indeed, laughter is turning out to be not only a good medicine, but also a memory enhancer adding to our quality of life,” Berk said.

      Aging can bring with it cognitive decline. Everything from full-blown dementia to those frustrating “senior moments,” when you lose track of yo...
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      Stroke risk sometimes reduced when blood vessel malformation isn't treated

      Study finds many patients do better with conservative treatment

      A fairly common condition called AVM -- arteriovenous malformation -- affects about 1 in 2,000 people. It's a tangling of the blood vessels in the brain and heightens the risk of a stroke. It's often treated with surgery.

      But a new study finds that surgical interventions actually increases the patient's risk of stroke in some cases. Some patients have a better outcome if doctors treat their symptoms only and not the AVM, according to the study conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh.

      "Many patients feel that living with AVM is like living with a time bomb in your head that could explode at any time," said Prof. Rustam Al-Shahi Salman. "Patients and their doctors face difficult choices when deciding whether or not to pursue treatment. We have found that, for most people whose AVM has not caused a bleed, the risks of treatment exceed the risks of leaving it alone over 12 years."

      While the findings may have statistical significance, they do not necessarily apply to every individual with the condition. Patients should consult carefully with their physicians about the treatment that is most appropriate for them. 

      No one should ever make a decision about their personal healthcare solely on the basis of news reports about medical research.

      Study details

      Salman and his team looked at the long-term outcome of patients with the condition, which is caused by abnormal connections between the arteries and veins in the brain.

      They found that, over a 12 year period, patients who chose not to be treated for their condition were less likely to have a stroke or die from related causes. These patients were also less likely to suffer sustained disability compared with those who opted for an intervention to treat the tangles.

      Of 204 patients, 103 underwent intervention. Those who underwent intervention were younger, more likely to have presented with seizure, and less likely to have large AVMs than patients managed conservatively.

      During a median follow-up of 6.9 years, the rate of progression to the primary outcome was lower with conservative management during the first 4 years of follow-up, but rates were similar thereafter. 

      This is the first study to compare the risks and benefits of treatment for AVM in the long term. The findings build on previous research that reported an increased risk of stroke in the first three years after treatment for AVM.

      The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

      A fairly common condition called AVM -- arteriovenous malformation -- affects about 1 in 2,000 people. It's a tangling of the blood vessels in the bra...
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      Snobbish sales staff may boost sales of luxury items

      Study finds a "true" snob can impress customers, causing them to buy

      True or false: a rude and snobbish retail sales staff chases away customers.

      Surprisingly, the answer appears to be "false," at least if we're talking about luxury stores, according to a study conducted by the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

      The forthcoming Journal of Consumer Research study reveals that consumers who get the brush-off at a high-end retailer can become more willing to purchase and wear pricey togs.

      "It appears that snobbiness might actually be a qualification worth considering for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci," says Sauder Marketing Professor Darren Dahl. "Our research indicates they can end up having a similar effect to an 'in-group' in high school that others aspire to join."

      But the effect appears to work only in the short-term. The researchers found that the improved impressions gained by rude treatment faded over time. Customers who expressed increased desire to purchase the products reported significantly diminished desire two weeks later.

      Must be a "true" snob

      The effect only held true if the salesperson appeared to be an authentic representative of the brand. If they did not fit the part, the consumer was turned off. Further, researchers found that sales staff rudeness did not improve impressions of mass-market brands.

      "Our study shows you've got to be the right kind of snob in the right kind of store for the effect to work," says Dahl.

      For the study, participants imagined or had interactions with sales representatives – rude or not. They then rated their feelings about associated brands and their desire to own them. Participants who expressed an aspiration to be associated with high-end brands also reported an increased desire to own the luxury products after being treated poorly.

      Based on the study's findings, Dahl suggests that, if consumers are being treated rudely, it's best to leave the situation and return later, or avoid the interactions altogether by shopping online.

      True or false: a rude and snobbish retail sales staff chases away customers.Surprisingly, the answer appears to be "false," at least if we're talking abo...
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      Home prices show little change in February

      Values rose on an annual basis, but at a slower rate

      Home prices were steady from January to February, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

      The leading measure of U.S. home prices shows both the 10-City and 20-City Composites were relatively unchanged month-over-month, with 13 of the 20 cities declining in February.

      Cleveland had the largest decline -- 1.6% -- followed by Chicago and Minneapolis at -0.9%. Las Vegas posted -0.1%, marking its first decline in almost two years. Tampa showed its largest decline -- 0.7% -- since January 2012.

      Annual rates

      Meanwhile, the annual rates of gain slowed for both Composites in the 12 months ending February 2014, with the 10-City Composite up 13.1% and 20-City Composite showing a gain of 12.9%.

      Thirteen cities saw lower annual rates in February. Las Vegas -- the leader -- posted 23.1% year-over-year versus 24.9% in January. The only city in the Sun Belt that saw improvement in its year-over-year return was San Diego with an increase of 19.9%.

      A huge cool-down

      “Prices remained steady from January to February for the two Composite indices,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The annual rates cooled the most we’ve seen in some time. The three California cities and Las Vegas have the strongest increases over the last 12 months as the West continues to lead. Denver and Dallas remain the only cities which have reached new post-crisis price peaks.

      “The Northeast with New York, Washington and Boston are seeing some of the slowest year-over-year gains,” he continued. “However, even there prices are above their levels of early 2013. On a month-to-month basis, there is clear weakness. Seasonally adjusted data show prices rose in 19 cities, but a majority at a slower pace than in January.”

      Rising prices, weaker stats

      Despite continued price gains, most other housing statistics are weak. Blitzer notes that sales of both new and existing homes are flat to down. The recovery in housing starts, now less than one million units at annual rates, is faltering.

      “Moreover,” he points out, “home prices nationally have not made it back to 2005. Mortgage interest rates, which jumped in May last year and are steady since then, are blamed by some analysts for the weakness. Others cite difficulties in qualifying for loans and concerns about consumer confidence. The result is less demand and fewer homes being built.”

      Little improvement

      Only 5 cities saw their annual rates improve in February. After posting annual gains of over 20% for their 12th consecutive month, Las Vegas and San Francisco both showed deceleration in their annual rates. San Diego narrowed the gap with a return of 19.9%. Washington, D.C., recorded its 8th consecutive improvement with an annual rate of 9.1% -- its highest since May 2006.

      Thirteen cities declined in February. Cleveland and Tampa showed their largest declines -- 1.6% and 0.7% respectively -- since January 2012. Seattle improved from a decline of 0.8% in January to an increase of 0.6% in February.

      Denver posted a small decline and is less than 1% away from its peak set in September 2013. Dallas increased 0.2% and continues to reach new index highs. Detroit remains the only city below its January 2000 level.  

      Home prices were steady from January to February, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. The leading measure of U.S. home prices shows both...
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