Category: Money

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Amazon Across America

My first reaction to Amazon buying Whole Foods is “Huh?” Few brands could be any more different. The online retailer is all about giving customers the most for the least amount spent, while the grocer is the pricey purview of the alt-organic lifestyle elite. No moment is better metaphor for Whole Foods’ clientele than the exchange I heard between a thirtysomething couple standing at the deli holding chicken luncheon meat. “Is it free range?” the women asked her husband. It had to be, or she wouldn’t buy. They argued. I silently chuckled: luncheon meat—not a bird! It’s all pressed meat, Honey. You do know that?

But from another perspective, and one transcending retail store presence, are other considerations, like brand affinity and buyer demographics. For the first, Amazon may be all about value, but in an increasingly middle-class and well-to-do demographic kind of way, particularly among city dwellers. Despite sharing similar cut-throat margin, expansive business philosophies with Walmart, Amazon doesn’t carry the same stigma among the socially conscious “better-thans”. For the second, who do you think plunks down 99 bucks a year for Prime membership or can’t wait for two-day free delivery or is too busy to go to the store to buy groceries? Without hard numbers to back the supposition, I’d bet there is lots of existing and potential regular shopper overlap among these customers and those who walk Whole Foods’ aisles. 

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Fly the Unfriendly Skies

Spanning most of my career, whether working as analyst or journalist, I have repeatedly railed against how U.S. law treats businesses—essentially as people. Reason: Moral dichotomy, where the ethical priorities of publicly-traded companies vastly differ from—and often contradict with—values of the people founding, running, or working for them. Keyword is value, where one usage refers to beliefs and another to money; meaning stock price and proceeds returned to shareholders.

My first, best articulation of this concept came during an April 2006 radio interview—I believe for NPR marketplace—when discussing major U.S. search providers Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo censoring results in China, at the government’s insistence. Behind the action there loomed censorship’s morality, such as restricting search terms like “democracy”. I expressed that there is no moral high ground in business. The high ground is quagmire, because all public companies share a single, moral objective: Make profits for stockholders. Plain, pure, and simple. Sadly, that moral agenda explains why United Airline’s PR week from Hell is Heaven for shareholders. Overbooking means the carrier fills seats; operations are lean and mean (quite literally, the latter). 

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Sign of the Times

Two weeks ago, while walking around Hillcrest, my wife and I briefly stopped by the local, massive, used bookstore. To my surprise, the place was three-quarters emptied and going out of business. Yikes! I hadn’t shopped there for nearly a year, when purchasing a paperback for myself later given to my father-in-law. While 5th Avenue Books is gone, online counterpart Schrader’s Books will continue selling used titles through Amazon. As someone who almost exclusively reads ebooks, I occasionally—but, honestly, rarely—shopped out-of-prints not available in digital format, almost always finding the sought-after read.

That last purchase: The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein, an old-time favorite selling for three bucks. When I first bought the anthology in high school, it came as a set with two other titles: Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love. During the last year of my father-in-law’s life, reading became his main recreation. I donated the Heinlein title to that cause. Following the 95 year-old’s death nine weeks ago, I reclaimed the book to read and as remembrance. 

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Lemonade Stand

The Fujifilm X100F is now my nearly-always outdoor companion—a role iPhone 7 Plus had filled. The camera is compact and light and comfortably slings over the shoulder attached to the ONA Lima strap. Earlier today, my wife and I walked down Maryland Ave. toward The Hub plaza in Hillcrest. Along the way, we passed a lemonade stand, with some kids fundraising for the local elementary school, Alice Birney. They had already raised $60 when I snapped the pic, at 1:15 p.m. PST. Somebody paid more than the requested 25 cents a cup. Hehe.

The Featured Image is a crop of the original, which is visible below the fold. Both versions are unaltered, except for horizontal cropping to the first and straightening of both. The visual cue is different in each, though. The first is aligned vertically with the lemonade stand and the original against the house in the background. 

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How Did It Come to This?

Surely somewhere in the collapse of retailer American Apparel there is a metaphor appropriate for the policy platform put forth by Donald Trump. The President talks about bringing jobs back to the United States and renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. Ironically, with AA, we see the demise of an iconic, hip “Made in the USA” brand, with its remaining assets being sold to Canadian-based Gildan. What’s up with that? Eh?

The Featured Image, and the pic following below the fold, tells a different story: Recent remembrance of another American Apparel, which allure popped pop culture’s cherry, for coolness and sex-appeal. On May 8, 2010, the retailer’s San Diego store held a rummage sale that drew long lines that wrapped around the block such that the end overlapped the beginning. I captured the moment with the Sigma DP2s. What a change in 7 years—and not just for the one clothier. Last year, local company Sports Chalet went out of business, around the same time as national chain Sports Authority. The Limited is shuttering all its stores, and Macy’s nearly 70. Should we blame China or, hehe, Amazon

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Apple Fiscal Q1 2017

The measure of Apple fiscal first quarter 2017 isn’t record revenues ($78.35 billion) but comparison to major competitors: More than three times Google ($26.06 billion) or Microsoft ($24.1 billion). Amazon announces tomorrow, Groundhog Day. Will the retailer’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, see his shadow? The 3x multiplier nearly applies to net income: $17.89 billion, versus $6.64 billion and $5.2 billion, respectively, for the two rivals. Looked at differently, compared to Apple’s same quarter in fiscal 2010, seven years later, profits exceed total revenues ($15.68 billion). That’s an astounding comparison.

The results defy pundits’ prognostications, including my own, about gravity pulling the company back to Earth. iPhone, as major source of revenue, can only stay up for so long, before slowing smartphone sales wreck havoc. That said, credit where it’s due: CEO Tim Cook is, as I’ve asserted before, a logistics and manufacturing genius. He is a strategist, but not an innovation leader like predecessor Steve Jobs. Cook masterfully manages his inheritance, but he, nor Apple observers, should get lost in the quarter’s glow: iPhone remains boon and bane. 

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Amazon Books San Diego

My wife and I drove to Westfield UTC to walk around on this bright sunny day, and to reminisce. Soon after we moved to San Diego in late 2007, my daughter started skating at Ice Town (since renamed UTC Ice), which is inside the mall’s food court. There, Firefighters gave her a Santa’s hat on Christmas Eve, 2008. We hadn’t visited the La Jolla retail complex for at least six months, and I suspect much longer. Hehe, we missed out. In September 2016, the second Amazon Books store opened there. The first is in Seattle, and there is another in Portland, Oregon.

Eleven months ago, when Wall Street Journal broke Amazon’s plan to open the shops, I offered some good reasons why the strategy makes sense, even if it might seem nonsensical when bookstores are shutting around the nation— the online retailer’s Kindle ebook business being a major reason. I had no idea then, or until today, that San Diego was among the locations. UTC is a good choice. Amazon Books is diagonally across from Apple Store, in a mall that is very outdoor shopping/walking friendly and courts a clientele that would shop for titles they can hold and read; no device or screen required. 

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This is Me Then and Now V

My past personal photo comparisons focused on a decade’s separation. Two years can make a difference, too, in terms of weight, health, and appearance. Both pics are self-portraits—the left from Jan. 11, 2015 and the other Jan. 7, 2017, shot using iPhone 6 and iPhone 7 Plus, respectively. In the older photo, I weighed 63.4 kilos (139.8 pounds). The newer: 15 kilos (10 pounds) less, or about the same as 40 years ago, during my senior year of high school.

Occasionally, someone locally who hasn’t seen me for awhile will with concern ask if I’m ill, for being so skinny. Not at all. I tightened up my diet, cutting carb consumption by 80 percent-plus—and sugar by even more, when aware of its presence. The sweetener is in everything, and it is not so easy to expunge from the diet. Before changing my eating habits, and weight-loss was a byproduct not the purpose, I tipped the scale to 82.6 kilos (182 pounds). 

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Apple Store, Bah Humbug

Apple sure knows how to keep its store stocked for the holidays. Ho, ho, ho, bah humbug. The shelves are bare, and you can get your must-have pretty thing some time next year. If you’re lucky. Let’s start with the delayed AirPods, which went on sale online last week. They arrived in stores on Monday, and whoosh were gone before the waiting line ended. My local shop had about 30 pairs. If you want them, first available retail pickup date is—cough, cough—February 8th. That is 2017. I had to confirm not 2018, because you never know with these dumbfounding delays. Straight-to-ship orders move your way in six weeks. Donald Trump will be president sooner!

Perhaps you’re pining for one of those pricey MacBook Pros—you know, the ones with Touch Bar that no sane person knows what to do with. Apple will miss Christmas, but you can still beat Martin Luther King’s birthday, with orders made today delivering sometime between January 4-10 or available for in-store pickup on the tenth. God Bless America and Made in China! 

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Outrageous! Digital Wall Street Journal Costs 708% More Today Than Did My First Subscription!

As a journalist, I appreciate the importance of paying for quality journalism—but my budget only can absorb so many paywall subscriptions. I am disappointed to, once again, abandon the digital Wall Street Journal. Cost is too high. I resubscribed this year for a 6-month, election special promotional rate of $87—and received great value. The Journal became my newspaper of record during the brutal, belabored, blood-sucking Presidential campaign.

My sub would have auto-renewed on December 9th. But for how much? Nowhere (that I can find) does the account page disclose this vital information. So yesterday afternoon, I called customer service and received a shock that required the guy to repeat the renewal amount four times. Surely I misunderstood him: $98.97 for three months. That’s $395.88 per year! I pleaded for a deal and got one that isn’t low enough: $130.44 for six months. The WSJ rep compared the monthly costs for the incredible savings: $21.74, rather than $32.99 monthly. But as I told him, the meaningful comparison is to my other paid papers (digitally). 

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You Don’t Need Overdraft Protection

I knew it! Today’s Wall Street Journal story “Wells Fargo Managers Pushed Overdraft Services” exactly recounts my experience as the bank’s customer. Few years back, during a routine phone call, a banker offered to add overdraft protection to my account. She pitched it as an important benefit. I paused and replied that the account never overdraws. But she pressed, encouraging me to take the service—and did so four more times.

See, we had an exchange, where I pushed back hard. “If I overdraw the account, you don’t pay, right?”—being well aware of the 2010 Federal Reserve regulation regarding overdrafts. If customers don’t opt in, the bank doesn’t pay the bill and there is no fee. “You can charge only for overdrafts if I sign up, right?” She sidestepped, at first, avoiding the answer and touting the benefits to me.