Tag Archives: consumer issues


10 Nov

Everybody seems to be up in arms about it, either defending it or trying to destroy it.

Ideally, it would have provided something called universal health care. A basic level of health care for everyone, regardless of income. It doesn’t do that. But, that’s what conservatives were afraid it was going to deliver, since that smacks of “socialism” and they drag up old Cold War phobias to make us fear the concept.

So, what we really got was federally mandated health insurance.

Sort of.

From what I can find out, it isn’t universal. If you are low income, you are likely to still not have any health care coverage, so you are still regarded as one of the “leeches” on the system and the reason that health care costs keep rising.

From where I’m sitting, in Mississippi, it looks like business as usual, but great for insurance companies.

Okay, I went through the enrollment process.  The website everyone makes fun of worked just fine for me, and this was a couple of weeks ago when it was all new.  We were offered very limited choices to start off.  One company, that’s it, folks.  Reminds me of the electric company, we’ve got another monopoly going on.  Maybe we’d have had more options if we lived on the coast or in Jackson, but even so, we’re only 30 minutes from Hattiesburg now, and that’s one of the larger cities in Mississippi.  So it’s one company with two plans, and they don’t include the highest coverage, the platinum level.  (Not that it mattered, we couldn’t afford either one we were offered anyhow.)

The two lowest plans did not offer very good coverage, and it included a large deductible.  To add to the injury, the crappy plans cost roughly $850-950 per month for a couple.

The state of Mississippi, like a number of other states that have vocalized their dislike of the “Obamacare” Affordable Health Care Act, has refused to consider expanding their Medicaid program.  Likely it’s due to the impoverished state of the Mississippi economy to begin with.  After all, where would the money come from?

They are being generous.  They will not fine those below the income threshold, which I assume is the poverty line.  Whatever that line is, we’re below it.  So, it is status quo.  No fine, no health care, and nothing has changed at all for us.

But let’s do some math.  Let’s assume that a couple who is working 40 hours a week at minimum wage ($7.25 per hour).  That would mean that they got an annual gross income of $30,160.  They are paying an average of 26% of their income to taxes, Social Security, etc.  That’s $7841.60 leaving them with $22,318.40.   Let’s say that they select the lowest cost plan at $850 per month.  Their annual costs will be $10,200.  That leaves them with $12,118.40.

That sounds reasonable, right?  Surely they can live on that, right?

Well, let’s experiment.  The average rent is about $600 per month, totaling $7200.  Their annual income is now down to just $4918.40.

But, they have to get to work, and most of Mississippi doesn’t have mass transportation of any kind.  They don’t live close to work, but they are careful with managing their lone vehicle so they are both able to get to and from work.  Even so, they average 25 miles round trip each day, their vehicle is older so the annual cost of license and tags, combined with the inspection, totals to just $45 per year.  They carry the minimum insurance, but it still costs $90 per month.  Being an older  vehicle, it also does not get good gas mileage, coming in at only 20 mpg, at an average cost of $3.15 per gallon.  It also requires two annual oil changes, which cost $35 each, for another $70 per year.  On average, they have to buy tires every fourth year, which cost $400, adding another $100 to their annual expenses.  They pray it does not break down, as they are already spending a lot on their transportation, a grand total of $2732.19.  That leaves them with $2186.21.

But, remember, they are still left with bills to pay for utilities, clothing expenses, and their grocery bill.  The real problem is that after getting their affordable insurance, paying their rent, and getting to and from work, they are left to figure out how to survive on $182.18 per month.

That won’t even cover their utilities, let alone let them cover their deductible, pay a co-pay, or buy a prescription.  They won’t be able to eat either.

But, a couple earning minimum wage, in the eyes of many, is not below poverty level.

I’m not seeing anything affordable in this.  I’m not seeing anything resembling universal health care either.  I damn sure don’t see anything resembling socialism in it. The only ones who are actually going to have health insurance are the same ones that have it now, barring the ones who can afford it but are too cheap to pay their portion of the premium for their families through the plan offered by their employer.

I can remember those people well.  Back in the “good old days” when I had an employer that offered health insurance and treated their employees as though they were a company asset (like good companies do), we had a giant hike in our health insurance premiums.  They had a meeting with all of us, explained what was happening and why, as well as what their options were in terms of offering us health insurance plans.  They listened to us, then came back with an option.  The costs of extending insurance coverage to our families was going to have to be deducted from our paychecks, and we could elect to have coverage if we so desired.  I desired–I had a kid with a chronic health problem (she was a type 1 diabetic who was often in the hospital).  My co-workers, knowing that I paid about half of my paycheck to health insurance, asked me how I could afford it.  For me it was simple.  I could not afford to NOT have it.  There is a vast difference in the kind of health care one receives with health insurance versus without it, and I had witnessed it first hand.

I also had pretty good insurance.  I didn’t have a lot of out-of-pocket expenses.  Sure, I had a co-pay at the doctor’s office, as well as for prescriptions, but it was reasonable and affordable.  I didn’t have big bills for the hospital stays, and I had both dental and vision coverage as well.

Even if I could afford the insurance plans offered via the so-called Obamacare plan, neither of them included dental or vision insurance.  The co-pays were reasonable, but the deductible was a serious issue.  So was the percentage of coverage on procedures and hospitalization.  With only 60% coverage on these things, how is someone with $182.18 per month to pay utilities and groceries out of, going to pay even a $1000 procedure (far less than a single emergency room visit) which is going to cost $400 out-of-pocket.

The Affordable Health Care Act may have had some great intentions, but some how, along the way, it got left with loopholes and giant black holes that once again put insurance corporations into the drivers’ seat leaving the rest of us clinging to the bumper and terrified.  The worst part is, it hasn’t even gone into effect yet.  We have sticker shock, as well as discovering that we’re ordered to choose from models X, Y and maybe model Z for health insurance, but we’re standing here realizing that the other shoe hasn’t dropped yet.  What kind of problems are waiting to appear?

We, as a population, has little faith in the government in general and even less in the federal government.  It’s notorious for favoring those with mega-money and tromping on the little guy without regard for the welfare of the masses.  It’s all about special interest groups, with an ample seasoning of mismanagement and bureaucratic red tape.

It seems that there is only one escape from the tyranny of the Affordable Health Care Act.

Get elected to Congress.

Yep, they were smart.  They made sure none of them would ever have to deal with this monstrosity that is neither affordable nor healthy.


24 Apr

We went to Lowe’s today.  Greg needed some supplies, and that was where they were to be found, so off we went.

We parked near the garden center, as I wanted to explore what they had available there, as well as search their prices.  As we walked in, a young man asked us how we were and whether he could help us.  Greg was his usual smart alec self.

He asked if they sold sanity by the box.

I kept walking, but part of me regrets that now.  I should have either stood there or ran away, so I either had no clue about the rest of the conversation, or got to watch these rocket scientists in action.

I will NEVER again ask any Lowe’s employee for any help with making a decision, because I know that they also came from the same hiring process.  Sit down, but go to the bathroom first, before you read another word, if  you are prone to springing a leak when laughing hard.

The young man proceeds to tell Greg where the boxes of sanity were found.  Greg, assuming he had not heard him correctly, says no, boxes of sanity.  (emphasis on sanity)

The guy says he’s not sure what that is, so Greg, with far more patience than I would have, tells him its the opposite of insane.  He nodded sagely, and calls his companion for advice.  His companion comes up with the answer.

“We are all sold out.  It’s been on back order for two weeks.”

Now, for most people, we’d assume they were joking, right?  Just like Greg was joking.  The first guy tells the other guy that there might be some left on aisle six.  I’m starting to get very worried.  This pair might have a box cutter or something on them.

Greg starts to finally understand that they aren’t going to understand, and he tells them nevermind, it was just a joke.

Junior rocket scientist assures him that they’ll surely have it back in stock next week.

About this point, I decided that moving indoors to the seeds was appropriate.  This pair scared me, because if it turned out that they had a third brain cell between the two of them, all sorts of things might occur.

Get a book, read there how to fix things.  Do not depend on a store clerk to have a clue!

The Facebook Bubble

18 Apr

There are rumors flying that the Facebook bubble is about to burst, that it has exceeded its own growth potential, resulting in a speedy demise.

Maybe it has, and maybe it hasn’t.  I’m not an expert, but…I am smart enough to learn from the past.  That’s what history is for, isn’t it?

We have had a lot of bubbles related to the internet.  The dot com bubble burst some time ago.  MySpace, once the king of social networking, is pretty much history.  I have an account, but I have logged into it about twice in the last three years.  Even then, it was just to connect with someone who hadn’t moved on to Facebook, not because I cared about my own account.  I didn’t like it much, and I found it awkward and with an excessively youthful nature.  Facebook suited me better, with a more run of the mill air about it as Every Man and Every Woman took to it like ducks to water.  Now, I actually know some people who think the internet IS Facebook, never leaving its comforting pages to wander unfettered through the digital universe we have collectively created.

At the same time, people aren’t going to magically abandon Facebook unless something better comes along.  Google presented us with Google Plus, then disappointed many users as it adopted more and more features that resembled those of Facebook.  We hadn’t flocked to it for a Facebook replacement, we had flocked there to find something DIFFERENT.  Somehow, I think it may have failed to deliver what we were craving, although it does have some of the features people seek.

So what do people want?

That is the million dollar question really.  In general, among the people I have approached , they want some specific things:

Ability to connect with others with similar ideas/interests.

Ability to control how much information is made public.

Ability to integrate and yet separate their private and public personas.  (Yes, they are different!  We all have our pro side, and then we have the side who gets depressed, eats a quart of ice cream, a whole bag of chips, and vegs on the sofa for an entire weekend in their pajamas…featuring My Little Pony on the bodice.  Do we really want our co-worker and clients s to see our angst?)

The ability to share things, especially cute kittens and political  memes.  Oh, and their opinions, of course.  Often.  Without.  Thinking.

The real kicker is that it is hard to keep public and private separate, and yet it is very important.  More and more companies want to take a look at who you are on Facebook before..and after….hiring you.  There have been cases where they wanted the passwords as well, even before hiring you.  (Not sure how legal that really is, and I would object strongly, but desperation in this job market probably inspired many applicants to just give in.)  Law enforcement is looking harder at this information as well, and many people suspect that the government spies on us all continually through social media.  If so, I hope they enjoy the recipes and cute animal pictures  that litter my posts.  Oh, and MouseHunt, the one game that I keep on playing.

So, that big mysterious agency, which is called Big Undercover Liberty Limiting Special Host of Investigating Technicians (BULLSHIT for short) is watching our every tweet and post, whether its on Google Plus, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or Secret Text Updating Data Inside Technology (aka STUPID) status update in search of covert, illegal, or terrorist activities.  That’s a big job, and it’s an important one.  After all, not even the super snooping capabilities of the latest CARNIVORE government spyware program can detect and analyze the language used inside of a cute kitten meme.  They have even found it necessary to put undercover agents into the dating sites in search of terrorists and anarchists who are using these sites to find women to marry and then obtain legal status to continue their illegal activities in the United States.

Sure they are.

The US is notorious, world wide, for their strong stance against illegal entry compared to other countries.

And I have a couple of bridges for sale, one on each coast of the USA, been in the family for a long time…

Go try sneaking into Mexico, China, North Korea, or heck, even sneak into Iraq while  you are at it.  After you have your “vacation” they’ll send you home, free of charge, right?


But that’s okay, we’re okay with that.  Just like we’re okay with the way Facebook is going.  Never mind that we’re already suspicious of their marketing techniques and desires to use our names and images to promote other goods and services.  We’ll happily go along with it, until the rats all find another ship to jump to.  All we have to do is figure out which ship will be the one they choose, so we’re riding along with our own cheese store, right?

At least  we know what it won’t be.  It won’t be Yahoo, MSN, AOL, MySpace, or G+.  Will it simply fracture apart, as people opt to leave the ultra populated space for smaller, more intimate and more user-responsive versions of social media?

Actually, I think that’s what I would place my bet on.  As shifts occur in how we interact, obtain our information and entertainment, how we shop, and where we work, we’re going to see that continual evolution.  Chat programs, while now usually subscription based, are becoming increasingly popular, and often oriented to topic or demographic data oriented.  We want our information and written entertainment also delivered digitally, and that creates another mode of connection.

That makes me wonder.  What if Amazon introduced a social media program, one that allowed people to discuss types of products, literary works by genre, etc.?  Would we see the rise of that type of social media connection, one provided by the seller of goods as a way to encourage people to continue shopping via their website rather than to venture into the “real world” with all of its inconveniences, expenses and dangers?

Or maybe we’ll see the right wing control factor coming into play, and instead of corporations operating the social media, it will become a government sponsored, controlled, and monitored environment.  We’ll all be tagged with our personal data, preventing any more mysterious encounters, as well as encounters of the really dangerous sort that we’ve all heard about.

The ancient Chinese may have regarded “May you live in interesting times” as a curse, but it’s our mantra.  We do live in interesting times, and who knows how they’ll be regarded in the future.  Are we going to be immortalized in unrealistic works of fiction that equate this era to the Wild Wild West that really never was what the movies portray it as?

That could be too.  All I know is that we’re going to see changes, some from evolution, others from reactionary governments.  We’ll see how our data is delivered and censored change, as well as who delivers what will change.  The wild and utterly independent voices of today’s internet radio may be silenced in the coming years, as expenses continue to rise as economies continue to struggle.  We don’t know.

But, it will definitely be interesting to watch and find out, won’t it?


I have to wear shoes??

15 Apr

Tomorrow, Greg makes his first follow up appointment regarding his heart condition.  While I had a lot of concerns the first two weeks he was home, he seems to be doing well now.  That’s not to say he has finished recuperating from his heart attack–not only is some of the damage permanent, but it also takes a lot more than a month to heal afterwards.  We’re just now getting one step closer towards seeing how far he can reasonably hope to come.

So, since I want to hear what the doctor has to say, as well as voice my concerns, that means tagging along to his appointment.  That means wearing shoes.

Yeah, I confess.  I almost never wear proper shoes anymore.  I’ve been living my life in Crocs and Croc-like shoes.  They look dreadful, my current pair.  They used to be bright yellow and I called them my Ronald McDonald shoes, even though he doesn’t wear yellow shoes either.  Maybe Elton John does?  Certainly, Gia Scott does.  Along with stains from dribbles when cooking, gardening, walking, talking, and whatever else.  I can still remember when they were clean enough that my granddaughter chewed on them.  Now, touching them might be hazardous.

It’s funny how we get into odd little habits.  I don’t wear the croc-like yellow shoes when it’s raining and I have to go to town.  They are slippery on wet surfaces.  I do wear them when I’m going to drive though, because they are comfortable, even for a long time in the car.  They are a horrible choice for even the gentlest of  hikes, and across the lawn…well, I have plenty of material in them to add to the compost heap.

My other go-to shoes are long time favorites, and maybe part of my reticence in wearing them is the fear of having to replace them.  I’m a big fan of Keen shoes, and the current version is a Voyageur.  Before that, it was a different Keen shoe, and I have Keen sandals as well.  For me, they are an expensive shoe, and I dread replacing them.  My knock off crocs can be picked up at any store for under $10.  Logic says to wear the cheap shoe to tear it up, right?

Well, maybe not.  My grandmother always preached to everyone how they should take care of their feet because your feet take care of you.

That’s true.  It’s almost impossible to even smile, let alone be NICE, when your feet are killing you.  Your facial expression always sends out a message about how you suck lemons as a hobby, not an interested and animated expression exactly.

Our feet are as individual as the rest of us.  That means that it isn’t one brand fits all, let alone one size fits us all.  Our size even changes over time–I was a nice size 8 before I had my daughter…30 years ago.  Now, I buy the boatlike size 10.  Delicate feet are not a family feature, it seems.  I also have a broad foot with a narrow heel, resulting in most shoes slopping excessively at the heel, resulting in my shoes occasionally devouring my socks.

Having your socks bunch up in your arches is not comfy, I can honestly say.

Then there is the shoe height issue, and I’m not referring to heels.  This is likely more of an issue with those of us who love hiking boots for their comfort, durability and support.  I also wore them for years due to work.  I did learn, the hard way of course, that I had to choose the height carefully, and that in my case, taller wasn’t better.

Years ago, I had a serious knee injury, leaving me unable to walk or even move my foot for a very long time.  I was given a very grim prognosis, but I am happy to say that I came a long ways down the recovery road, even if it wasn’t easy.  It did leave me with a few peculiarities of gait, even after the limp was gone, which also resulted in over-developed calves, even when I was at my ideal weight or less.  This sharp increase in girth from ankle to calf was made worse by relatively short legs (I’m not a tall woman either) and tall hiking boots, even 8″ ones, will blister my legs in short order.

If you have ever nursed blistered legs from boots, you know the misery of which I speak.   If you have to put those boots back on again before it heals, it’s an exercise in agony.  Now that my distance hiking days are pretty much history, I know without a doubt that I should never, ever, buy a pair of boots over 6″.  I guess it’s a good thing that I have nice sturdy ankles and  am not prone to twists or sprains there.  (We won’t mention my knees–we aren’t on speaking terms tonight anyhow.)

Shoes make a difference.  Not only in your appearance, but in your comfort, mannerisms, behavior, and success at your endeavor.  Cheap shoes are also not usually a true bargain.

This cheap shoe problem was illustrated to me  years ago when I lived in hiking boots, both at work and at play.  Most inexpensive boots would be destroyed in 30-60 days, with a few pair making a sad progression to their 90 day birthday.  Then, I invested in my very first pair of “good” boots, designed for backpackers.  They were incredibly expensive to me–running roughly 10x what the cheap ones did.  I was afraid I’d made a huge mistake.  How could these boots possibly survive everything from rocks to ahah lava, with some rain, alkali, snow, mud, and scree thrown in for good measure?

They did.  They took it all, keeping my feet dry and cool in summer while staying warm in winter.  They did it for almost a full three years too.  I would have worn out at least a dozen pairs, and possibly as many as two dozen pairs of the cheap boots during that time.  My feet would have often hurt, frequently blistered in new boots, and never would have been truly happy.  Instead, I had a blissful period of pain free walking and hiking, never worrying about whether the terrain would destroy the boots.  I have, on one occasion, worn brand new boots into an area of an old lava flow, only to throw them away at the end of the day, the entire upper shredded by the sharp surfaces.

I’m not a name brand slave.  I am not impressed by the name printed on your butt, your boot, or your head.  I am impressed by durability, value, performance, and comfort.  I don’t care that my Keens look terrible, especially when I pair them with a denim skirt.  That’s okay, if you don’t like it, don’t look!  I care about my comfort and safety.  I don’t want my feet hurting, and I don’t want to slip and fall.  Try that in high heels, Barbie!


Impending news…

19 Feb

Good news is always a good thing, isn’t it?

For the last year or so, I’ve used Kindle for Android and Kindle for PC.  I like e-books.  They are good for the environment, as well as presenting a lot of opportunity for new authors and changing the dynamics of authors and publishing houses and the reader.  For the first time, between on demand publishing and e-books, we can read books that may not have ever been published or widely distributed before, on topics that we never were able to find before.

I’ll admit, it does present some problems.  I’ve seen some pretty awful e-books.  We all have.  At the same time, we’ve all encountered printed material that was an utter waste (at least in our minds) of the paper they were printed on.  I’ve seen a lot of books that I hated, and I’ve read a lot that I truly enjoyed.  I also have an incredible number of books in our house, and I look at other people’s houses and if there is no bookshelf, I am horrified.

How do people exist without books in their lives?

At the same time, it’s getting more and more expensive, both in terms of our money and the environment, to print books and buy them.  We then spend even more money and “environmental credits” to get the wood for our bookshelves, which also fill up our walls.  Even using the local library for much of my reading material, I still have a lot of books.  The other day, I was discussing with my mother, who has a Kindle Touch, about our Kindle libraries.  I was a bit surprised to discover that I now had over 1600 books in my Kindle library.

Do you realize how much room 1600 books would take in terms of shelving?

Granted, some of these books are pretty short, maybe 30 pages, and would often qualify as short stories or even articles in the printed world.  Even so, most of them are things that I regard as interesting and worth keeping in my e-library.  Few of them are books that I regard as utter wastes of electronic space, although there are a few.  I’ve also rediscovered the wonder of the classics, and exploring some of the ones I’d read only as a result of coercion from my English teacher as a teenager.  They are much more interesting as an adult, I’ll confess.  Even better, if I start reading one and it’s boring me…with the click of the mouse, I’ve exchanged it for another.

But I am rambling now.  I almost forgot about what my big news really was.

I have decided to publish my first official foray into the fiction world as an author myself on Kindle.  It’s not because I couldn’t get it published in a traditional publishing house–I never submitted it to any of them.  It’s been finished, edited, and waiting for over a year.  The sequel is well underway already, too.  I just didn’t submit it, even though I know how to do just such a thing, and even know several publishing houses that would consider it.

I’m publishing it via Kindle because it’s a format that I believe in.  The cover is being designed now, and it’s being proof read by yet another person as a final step.  Some paperwork has to be filed, but I’m anticipating it being officially released very soon.  The e-book publishing leaves the author with the rights to the book, as well as the lion’s share of the royalties, which is as it should be, don’t you think?  Instead of the price being paid going to the printer and the publishing house before the writer gets their share, the vendor gets a much smaller share and the writer gets a fair share.

It does leave the author with some work.  There is no promotion besides what the author is willing and able to do.  Maybe I have an advantage over many people, as there is the audience that is familiar with me already via my radio program, website, and blogs.  Maybe they’ll also tell other people to take a look at the book too.  I hope so.

So, keep your fingers crossed for me and my fledgling book.  Go get Kindle for your Android and your PC too, if you don’t already have it.  If you have a Kindle, you are one step ahead.  I’ll also announce when my “baby” is officially on the market.  In the meantime, remember…the title will be The Survivors: The Time of Chaos.  It’s a paranormal thriller.  After all, how could I write anything that didn’t have a paranormal element to it, unless it was a technical manual.

So far though, no one has asked me to write one of those.  I haven’t written one since I wrote a how-to manual for police dispatchers using the NCIC system, way back when I was a police dispatcher in another lifetime.

Bet you didn’t know I’d done that either, did you?

Profits and employee morale have a direct connection

3 Feb

Recently, I read a long winded article talking about the worst rated companies in the United States.  The writer often drew a parallel between decreasing profits and employee morale.  There are some solid reasons behind this, and it is something that is often overlooked by company CEOs looking to restore a company’s market share and image.

I really think these CEOs must live in a glass bubble.  Surely they don’t ever talk with the lowly employees, or even do much shopping themselves.  This is a concept that should be immediately apparent.

Unhappy employees do not perform well.

Threats of termination or disciplinary action aren’t going to do much to make them happy, either.  That type of reaction to their lack of stellar performance will undoubtedly have the reverse effect, and the increasingly poor performance aren’t going to increase the bottom line either.

Employees as a whole are not incredibly complicated creatures.  They have a few basic needs, and by addressing these, the overall morale improves, along with job performance and efficiency.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a PhD to figure it out either.

Employees want to feel valued.

Employees want to feel as though their opinions and ideas matter.

Employees want to be treated fairly.

Employees want reasonable job security.

Employees want good health care because it shows that the company values its employees and their families.

Employees want reasonable hours, shifts, overtime, vacations, and off days.

Employees want opportunities for advancement.

Employees want to feel safe at their job.

Employees do not want to work with people that are not performing their job or are taking risks/liberties that put other workers at risk.

Okay, so “employees” isn’t a separate sub-species of human.  It can’t be entirely generalized, but the concepts are generalized enough to fit most situations and most people.  It really all comes down to whether or not the company is showing that they do value their workers, really.  Everything from vacation, family  leave, health care policies, advancement, pay raises, safety, etc. are part of that overall concept.  A truly good employer is capable of recognizing that one of their workers is a member of an ethnic minority/religious group that has a particular holiday of great importance and then attempting to accommodate that employee’s desires to observe this holiday.  It’s capable of recognizing that an employee has a sick child/parent/spouse and needs some extra time off and flexibility with their job temporarily and works to make the situation reasonable.

Sure, these situations are capable of becoming quite sticky.  They may cost a bit.  In the long run, the employee being accommodated is happier and feels a sense of connection with the company, and the other employees are also feeling the same positive things.  These aren’t huge things, and aren’t incredibly expensive either.

The same with fair treatment.  Seeing employees being rewarded or disciplined fairly sends a message to other employees, encouraging them to perform better.  Knowing that raises and other concrete rewards exist for positive reinforcement enhance that performance too, the same as fair disciplinary action against those who fail to perform properly does.

Firing employees for minor infractions, threatening to fire, and making statements about how a new hire is waiting on the street sends a very clear message to the employee. The company doesn’t care whether or not they stay or perform well while they are there, since obviously their position could be filled by anyone.  Why bother trying to do anything other than find a better job at any cost when in that situation?

Employee loyalty doesn’t come cheap, and it’s not easy to acquire either.  It requires consistent effort from the company to cultivate, and it can be lost in the blink of an eye and one slip by an incompetent manager.  However, when a company has that employee loyalty, it’s worth millions, often quite literally, in terms of performance.  Companies that treat their employees very well are seldom advertising for new hires, if ever.  They don’t struggle to find warm bodies to fill those slots, because word-of-mouth has already filled the applications needed to find the perfect new employee.  Without a continual turn over of employees, there is stability in the company and a consistent performance that everyone can count on, from customers to shareholders.

So wake up, company CEOs, and smell the coffee.  Happy, healthy, and efficient employees can mean that you are still collecting those bonuses ten years from now, instead of being asked to step down, and it doesn’t matter if you are selling a necessity or luxury.  Your employees are an important cog in your company’s bottom line and it’s long past time to recognize that.

Sears, housing, and our economy

10 Jan

Sears & Roebuck…remember them?  If you do, you are probably in the same age group as me.

I’m no huge historian of Sears trivia, but when I was a kid, we had two fat catalogs that were staples in our house.  The Sears catalog and the “Monkey Wards” (Montgomery Wards) catalog.  At Christmas time, as children, we’d pour through the Christmas catalog, wishing and dreaming.

I think it was the same for my mother’s generation, and probably her mother’s as well.  Those catalogs had everything from underwear to roller skates and appliances in them.  I remember hearing stories from days gone by how the black & white pages were the best during the recycling process.  That’s when they became toilet paper in the outhouse, and I have to admit…I’m not sorry to have missed THOSE days.

I do know that long before I was born, Sears used to sell houses too.  Not like a real estate agent, but rather as kits that the proud new owner could assemble himself.  The kits came complete with plans and all of the lumber, siding, nails, windows, floors, etc.  They had a number of plans available, and once ordered, the complete house kit would be shipped to the nearest railroad station, where the new owner would pick it up in their wagon and bring home to assemble.  I guess it would be considered the ancestor of what is today regarded as “pre-fab”, manufactured, or modular housing.

Wouldn’t it be cool if such a thing was still available?  The novelty of having your house arrive in some crates, with pre-cut lumber and all of the other bits you needed to finish your house, right down to the paint?  Oh, and that it was made to conform to building codes too.

Yeah, dream on, right?

Still, with the new leaning towards smaller-is-better in terms of actual footprints, I think it’s an idea that could do with some revisiting.  The kits, built to UBC’s standards, would have a set of plans that you purchased prior to purchasing the house kit itself, to allow  you to get your permit to erect it.  Then, when you had your approval for the house to be built on your site, the kit would arrive.  Maybe there would be pre-assembled panels that bolted together, maybe it would be mostly cut-to-length lumber and other parts, but it could be done.  The directions would include which points you stop for the various inspections along the way too.  It could be done, I’m certain of it.

But Sears doesn’t sell house kits anymore.  I’m not sure if they even have a catalog anymore.  I don’t bother shopping there anymore either, and it seems that a lot of America has quit shopping there.  Have you stopped to think of why that has happened?

Even when my kids were young, Sears still did the catalog thing.  Sure, you could go into the local store and there were some things in stock to buy, but most of what I bought was ordered out of the catalog.  It arrived in the store for pickup a week or two after I ordered it.  I’d go in, pay cash for my order, and take the treasured item home with me. I ordered a number of things from Sears back then, from my boots for work to my daughter’s canopy bed.  It was easy, economical, and accessible.

Then, they closed down those Mom & Pop franchises, after they nationalized or whatever their repair process too.

Remember how reliable the Sears repair people used to be?  You called, you got a repairman out in a day or two at the latest.  Then, they did their standardizing thing, and the repairman wasn’t local and you had to call some distant call center to get a repairman, who wasn’t coming to fix that broken washer/refrigerator/dryer/whatever for at least a week.  In addition, try explaining where you are located when you live in a remote rural area to someone who has never visited your state.

They told me my address didn’t exist.  Repeatedly.

Then, when I finally DID get a repairman…he was late, rude, and generally made me very uncomfortable with being alone in the house with him.  That was the last Sears appliance I ever bought.  Catalog shopping and appliances were out with Sears, and with the nearest store suddenly over an hour away, in a much larger town, they now were competing solely with other department stores in the mall, in terms of availability, location, and prices.

For me, they didn’t make the cut.  Other department stores seemed to offer more, with more courteous service, for the same or less in terms of dollars.  I already disliked Sears, and they weren’t doing anything to win me back.

As the years went by, there were fewer and fewer reasons to go to Sears.   Then, the internet exploded onto the scene, and suddenly, catalog shopping was back, with new interactive online versions.  Payment was instant, shipping was faster, and companies could let us know within minutes if an item was in stock or not.  Who needed Sears anymore?

Well, it seems that Sears is reaping the benefits of their actions of the past.  Crappy customer service, shoddy imported goods, poor repair service habits, and boom…about all they had going for their company was the credit card.  With the economic bust we’ve had, credit wasn’t a very good business all of a sudden, as more and more people began defaulting on credit lines they could no longer afford.  Sears is in trouble, and now they are bringing in a new CEO.

Will it work?

I am not a financial expert, but I am a very experienced consumer.  Unless Sears begins to give the customer a reason to continue shopping with them, there won’t be much for repeat business.   Crappy customer service and shoddy imported goods are a dime a dozen these days–it’s everywhere.  America is about up to its gills in outsourced customer service and manufacturing too.

If Sears wants to survive, let alone thrive, in the modern times, maybe it better think about covering the basics and standing out from the crowd.  Sure, it’s cheaper to hire a call center in some foreign country, just like it is to have your goods manufactured in countries that have lower pay rates and fewer safety regulations to protect the workers, but that doesn’t mean that cheaper is better.

So what are the basics?  It starts with  your employees, that’s the ones that do customer service.  It’s the ones that make the difference in the stores and on the phone and online too.  Then, it’s what you are selling.  America wants decent goods.  It really does help if they are actually made in America.

What works for Sears is what made Mom & Pop stores across America thrive before the advent of cheap imported goods and massive discount corporations.  We’re struggling, we’re uncertain, and we want security and familiarity.  I’d rather go buy a vacuum cleaner from my neighbor than to go to a store where there are thousands of them lined up in a row and I may as well be receiving assistance from a robot as I make my choice.  I want someone who can answer my questions.  I want a company that promises and delivers service, whether it is during the purchase or when I need the item repaired.  I want to be treated fairly.

I am American.  I am a consumer.  I am their customer.

I would like to be treated with courtesy and respect.  Wouldn’t you?

I think it is long past time for these struggling stores and chains to begin recognizing that basic desire in their prospective and current customers.  There is a reason why a few companies are surviving and thriving, while others are not.  It’s not just about the lowest bottom line, despite the fact that most of us have a lot less to spend than we used to.  It’s about being treated fairly and decently too.  Going shopping should not make us feel like we’re “girding our loins” for a battle.  We shouldn’t be made to feel inferior.  When we have a complaint about something, we shouldn’t ever have a store manager claim we are an “uneducated consumer”.  (I have actually had that happen with one big box electronic store–she called me to chew me out for giving the store a poor rating after a negative experience with an ignorant clerk and very limited stock in the item I was looking for.)

Wake up, corporations.  The natives are getting restless.

How green are you really?

6 Dec

We all hear about being more green.  We may even be making an effort to be more green.  We buy things that are supposed to be green.  We pay attention to advertisements for products that are supposed to be more green.  But…really, are we being very green at all?

We forget that even new products have a carbon footprint.  It costs “carbon” to gather the raw materials, to make them, to ship them, and then to sell them to you, for you to transport them home.  There’s a huge footprint with advertising alone, with the television, radio, internet and print advertisements.  It’s also sucked away a good chunk of your time.  Then, there are the things that nobody mentions.

Like how hard it is to recycle OR dispose of those massive but inefficient batteries for your “green” hybrid car?  How green are they really?

Or those “green” products that are made in some distant country?  All that transportation needed?

Even your “organic” vegetables, fruit, meat, and grain…how far did that have to travel to get to your grocers’ store?  How green is that really?

It’s not practical for us all to change our lives to the simpler ways of our grandparents and great grandparents.  We don’t have a world like that anymore.  We can’t all be homesteaders, there just isn’t enough land for that either.  There are just too many people for all of that.  So what should we all be doing?

Obviously recycling is a really good start.  Collecting metals and plastics and glass, sorting them, sending them to be remanufactured into new goods…it saves resources because they are merely being remanufactured.  But…is that the best option really?

Why not consider used items?

Used items are being re-used for their original purpose.  They save money because they cost less.  They are often very high quality items.  After all, shoddy goods often don’t survive long enough to become “used”, instead becoming “trash”.  This covers everything from motor vehicles to toys to clothing to household goods.

Sure, you have to pay attention when you buy items that are used to make sure that they are in good condition, capable of serving their purpose, whether it is to boil water or cover your head or drive you down the road.  On some items, you also need to pay attention and do some research to ensure they meet current safety standards.  This especially is important in regards to baby gear.

Most items that we can easily purchase used will include household goods, clothing, motor vehicles, outdoor gear, sporting goods, and items such as this.  Certain items are not recommended to purchase used, such as under garments and mattresses.

Many people assume that the only reason someone is selling an used item is because it is “no good” anymore.  That isn’t true.  There are many reasons why everything from electronics, clothing, books, home appliances, and other items may enter the market as “used” items.  Some of the reasons may include things such as:

  • estate sale
  • not the correct size
  • moving
  • reducing amount of material goods owned
  • not used often
  • doesn’t fit current needs
  • change in lifestyle
  • need to raise cash

Some of the reasons that someone should consider used goods include:

  • need to save money
  • item is no longer in production
  • desirable item for collection
  • desire to reduce carbon imprint
  • better value
  • age
  • raw materials used
  • fits current decor
  • from particular era
  • quickly recycles cash through local economy via the seller’s wallet

These are all valid reasons to consider used goods.  Even so, many people feel somewhat embarrassed by purchasing used items, as though it implies some deficiency in their own character.  This is obviously not true, and becomes a case of adjusting one’s perspective into proper alignment with the whole concept of being green and recycling.  Being a savvy shopper when it comes to used goods requires a bit more education and effort perhaps than being the average mall shopper though.

So what is important to know when shopping for used goods?

Know what an item costs new of comparable quality

Know what the market is

Have familiarity with older models/products, especially when considering home appliances and electronics.

Once upon a time, being a savvy shopper in the used world meant lots of effort and experience.  Today, with the internet, it’s much easier.  We can all compensate for our lack of experience with a few clicks of the mouse, and often, we can even locate our desired items just as easily.  There are online auction sites such as Ebay, as well as online versions of the old fashioned newspaper want ad showing listings of items for sale, and there is also the listing features of Craigslist.  We’ve all heard horror stories of people being robbed and worse during transactions, but a few common sense rules help keep everyone safe.

  1. Don’t send cash with a service that doesn’t keep records (such as Western Union) for items you don’t have in-hand.
  2. Don’t go to a stranger’s house alone, especially with a large sum of cash for the transaction.
  3. If using an online auction service, read their recommendations at their website.  They like their buyers to also be happy, and will have some guidelines to help you be a safe and happy customer.

In addition to these ideas, there are other venues for finding used goods and helping you save both your wallet and the planet from unnecessary impact.  These include:

  • thrift stores, often charity operated
  • second hand stores
  • flea markets and swap meets
  • local papers, including the free want ad papers that most areas have
  • local dealers

When you shop at these local businesses, whether charity operated or operated for profit, you are also helping your local economy.  The money you spend is often very quickly recycled into your community, whether through the charity’s efforts or the spending of a shop owner or clerk.  That is always a plus, in any community.

This time of  year, people’s minds are often focused on purchasing gifts, and  yet often disregard the possibility of a “used” gift, fearful of some sort of stigma.  It’s time to rethink  that way of regarding used items.  Used items, which also include both antique and vintage goods, are often excellent buys, costing far less than comparable new items, even if similar quality can be found.  In addition, they have the added allure of showing that you honestly put a lot of effort and thought into the purchase, considering everything from planetary input to the recipient’s desires as you sought the perfect gift for them.

So how do you know what kind of a vintage, antique, or used item to buy for a gift?

Consider the person carefully.  What are their interests?  How old are they?  Do they have any heroes in their life?  What is their lifestyle?

Once you have a list of these things, start shopping.  Ebay is easy, as you can do it from home with just a few clicks of the mouse.  It also lets you examine goods from a wide area than you can reach in your car, as well as harmlessly learning prices and how the ads are worded.  You may get other ideas as you shop too.

A vintage pair of skis might not be interesting to your grandma, but for the ski buff they might be perfect for their den’s decor.  Your sister might be in love with an old tea kettle that resembles the one that grandma used to have…especially when it is fitted out to display fresh or silk flowers.  Your brother in law, that high school English teacher…he might find an old English literature textbook to be a real treasure.

They aren’t used items.  They are gifts that illustrate that you cared enough about the recipient to really look for something that would touch them.  For your immediate family, it may mean that the gifts are more than mere material items, as that new bicycle/car/motorcycle/boat/canoe/kayak can also become a project of camaraderie as it is restored to like new condition or customized.  Maybe instead of just a new backpack, it’s a whole set up for camping, allowing the family to affordably go on a vacation when the weather and schedules cooperate for a getaway.  It can mean the difference between one new electronic gizmo in the latest model and the entire family receiving the not-so-latest model.

For our day to day needs, buying used items can mean we spend 10% or less of what the new items would cost, an important consideration especially when clothing someone who quickly changes sizes (like a child) or ruins clothes often (children or adults) whether due to work or play.  It allows a person to change their wardrobe according to shifting tastes, seasons, styles, and needs without spending an inordinate amount of money too.

For household goods, it saves an incredible amount of money, especially since many items may be only needed for a brief time, such as a specialized baking pan, platter, etc. Items such as these are often found at a fraction of their original prices, and by searching for these items online, there is often a staggering array available, far more than any local department store could possibly offer.

Used items can also be reshaped, retaining most of their original purpose, but getting an artistic twist from those that are so inclined.  Whether it is refinishing a piece of furniture, embellishing a sweater, or remaking a table cloth into curtains…this too is a possibility.

Used goods do no mean that you are impoverished.  Used goods means you are smart enough to save a lot, both in terms of our planet and your wallet.






Morality, the masses, and reality

23 Nov

Watching the news regarding Black Friday sales, it’s dawned on me that most people absolutely do not give a shit about what they do to get what they want.

Morality seems to be non-existent.  So does humanity.

Oh don’t get me wrong, I am a very prudent shopper, often waiting as long as a year to get what I want at an appropriate price.  I’m picky, but I care more than just about the price.

I want quality and customer service too.  I certainly don’t think it’s appropriate to duke it out over a bin of cell phones or iPods or whatever.  I don’t need anything bad enough to act like a starving hyena.  I also don’t need anything bad enough to deal with rude retail staff.  I refuse to buy a second product, no matter how attractive the price is, if I receive crappy customer service.

Yeah, that means that I refuse to buy certain items because of customer service.  I’ll never own another Tassimo and wouldn’t purchase one if it was $5, at a Black Friday sale or otherwise, because I’ve had such horrible experience, both with their online retail operation and with customer support for the coffee maker itself.  Yes, I loved the coffee maker, but it didn’t make such good coffee when I had the bitter taste of THAT experience in my mouth.

I’m just like everyone else, I have to stretch my dollars as far as possible.  Sometimes, we do without.  Sometimes, the sole deciding factor in purchase decisions is the almighty dollar…and sometimes the decision is we-can’t-afford-it.  But to duke it out over a bin of…cellphones?  C’mon!

Why not turn the whole thing into a treasure hunt instead?  Make it fun and a case of getting lucky rather than who can throw the best left hook.  Drawings for the opportunity to purchase one of the limited number items at the special price, with additional entries for every $XX amount spent or something.  Hidden coupons for $XX off a single item, maybe?

Something more civilized.  Something less lethal too.

Anything but this horrible Black Friday national fight.

Black Friday Sales

22 Nov

Black Friday.

It’s starting on Thanksgiving Day today.  I have some pretty mixed feelings about it.  There’s a lot going on with the whole thing.

First of all, whether you want to call it a recession or depression or merely a downturn in the economy, most families are struggling.  Encouraging mass consumerism is just ridiculous.  Many people are worried about paying for the basics, forget mass holiday spending.

Walmart is the hot spot for a lot of people and Black Friday shopping.  They get a little bit crazed over it too.  We’ve seen years where people at Walmart, innocent workers who are not even making enough to live on, end up killed or injured.  Customers have also been injured in the fray for a cheap toaster or waffle iron or some electronic gizmo that will undoubtedly die before the next Black Friday arrives.

The whole name is taking on a more ominous meaning than the original one.  Originally, this was the day that retailers moved into the black with holiday shopping beginning.  Now, it implies grief and mourning and strife and disaster.

For the average family, there are a lot of dilemmas.  First, they have to stretch their budget.  Maybe their toaster died or they don’t have one and really want one even if they can’t afford it.  Buying it at an ultra cheap price means the difference between buying it or not.  Maybe they have four kids, and buying gifts on this mad day means the difference between having equivalent gifts for each child instead of being able to only afford gifts for 2.5 children.  They are motivated by their economic issues to fight the crowds and craziness to try and score that limited buy item.  I understand their motivation.

What I don’t understand is a company that has switched from selling American products to selling mostly cheap imported goods still being welcomed into more and more communities, where it kills the mom & pop and local businesses, then starts reducing the number of items that they carry.  Sure, they’ve ventured into mail order, and from personal experience, they haven’t learned anything about customer service either.  Sometimes, I wonder if it isn’t outsourced to some foreign country where proficiency in English is minimal.

Then, there are the employees.  Too many times, I’ve walked into a store with a manager ranting at the employees about something, haranguing them, and being less-than-managerial in their demeanor.  I’ve known employees of this multi-billion dollar corporation too.  They didn’t make enough to live on, instead depending on help from family, as well as government subsidies such as low income housing and food stamps.  They didn’t have insurance, and their schedules kept them working few enough hours that they just never quite were able to get insurance.  This wasn’t one store, or one town either.  This was many stores in many towns in many states.  This company doesn’t bring prosperity to a town, it sucks the very blood out of a town and smiles while it does it, happy to have been given tax credits and numerous government incentives in many cases to build in that town and destroy its economy.  The government continues subsidizing it by aiding the workers, bringing them from starvation to almost making enough to actually stay alive on.  In these cases, free school lunches, medical assistance, rent assistance, food stamps…it’s all part of the package, folks!

Maybe they should use that as part of their recruitment spiel.

So this very successful company continues sucking the blood of America.  The workers, not represented by a union, attempt to plan a strike to hit at the most critical time for this blood sucker…Black Friday.  It’s also the time when they are most vulnerable, with higher bills, holiday pressures, job fears, and job risks are all coming into play.

Will enough of them walk out and actually strike on Black Friday to make a difference?  Will this vampirish big brother of retail be forced to address their issues?

I have to admit, I don’t think they will be successful.  Too many of the workers depend too much on a paycheck that is too small for what they do.  Their spouses and children need them to go to that job and work every minute they can between now and the end of the year.

For them, Black Friday isn’t about iPods and iPads, laptops and toasters, televisions and shiny trinkets.  It’s about survival and swallowing the bitter pill of the reality of their lives.

Think about where you are spending your money and what you are therefore supporting.  Do you honestly appreciate cheap foreign goods, poor customer service, long lines, chaos, and poorly treated employees suffering through what is not much different than sweat shop treatment?  (We won’t talk about goods made under even worse conditions in foreign countries, which is how they can ship you that cheap item to begin with.)

You are voting with your dollars.  Think about where you are casting that vote.

Fair Trade, reasonable working conditions, human rights, consumer rights…all of these things are actually determined by where and how you choose to spend your dollars.

So when you go to that Black Market sale, look not only at the harried workers forced to give up their Thanksgiving holiday for your shopping experience, but at the labels that tell you where an item was made.  It tells you if it’s a fair trade item.  Think about those working conditions in foreign countries.

If you aren’t one of those harried workers who was left with no choice but to show up to work on Thanksgiving Day….I’m sorry.  I won’t be standing in line to make your day any worse.  I’ll be at home taking a nap.

What will you be doing?


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