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Melissa Preddy

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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Ongoing Ferguson strife highlight economic, business concerns elsewhere

A man protects this storefront with reinforced plywood. Photo: The New York Times

The ongoing civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., sparked by the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown, seems a bit of a stretch as a premise for business coverage.

But with no end in sight to the confrontations and headlines – especially in light of another shooting on Tuesday in the St. Louis area – and involvement by the U.S. Department of Justice and comments by President Obama, it might behoove financial writers everywhere to address some tangential storylines.

Clearly the root issues behind the strife in Missouri – from race to income/wealth inequality to the militarization of community police forces — are some of the most profound of our time and I’m not suggesting they are fodder for frivolous business features.  But realistically the nature of some of the violence does raise questions among consumers, small businesspersons and corporate entities about how they would fare under similar circumstances.

For example, images of damaged and looted stores must raise questions among merchants in your audience about their own liability; you might want to emulate this St. Louis Business Journal piece, “Most business insurance covers riots,” and offer a primer on what’s covered, and what’s not, in residential and commercial hazard policies.  Also talk with sellers of insurance in your neck of the woods; what are they hearing from the financial institutions whose products they represent in terms of guidance?

“Images of damaged and looted
stores must raise questions
among merchants in your
audience about their
own liability.”

One trade publication already is out with a piece called “The riots in Ferguson: What agents need to know,” and I would not be surprised if insurance offices in locales far from Missouri are getting inquiries from small-business clients looking for a checkup on the limits and terms of their current policies.

In addition to after-the-fact coverage, you could look into demand for preventatives such as security systems.  Vandalism is a fear of business owners everywhere – it’s the second-ranked concern voiced by owners  in a recent survey commissioned by security service firm ADT.

And, as always after events that involve fear and adversarial relationships, “gun sales are soaring.”  What are gun and ammunition sellers in your area seeing in response to civil unrest that comes amid a somber period of global political and military strife, including a highly partisan upcoming U.S. election season.  Another way events like those in Ferguson can ripple out beyond geographic borders is via securities markets.

Here’s a fresh opinion piece from MarketWatch.com about “Why Ferguson should matter to investors,” and appears to make points about the economic, social and community ramifications when large local employers (in the case of Ferguson, TWA and Anheuser-Busch) go out of business or are whisked away by mergers – leaving behind places like dollar stores and fast-food joints where the job opportunities will never promise the upward mobility of the long-gone manufacturing, transportation and other employers.

The above notion might be an opportunity for you to take a look at the economic fallout from the departure of any large employers from your region; how are the former employees faring and how has the loss of such jobs rippled out through the community in terms of poverty, crime, migration, the ability of residents to support vibrant small businesses, and so on.   Here’s a University of California-Davis pimer, “Finding Poverty Statistics,” that might help you find the historical data you’ll need for context on such a story.


Tackle a fantasy football story on any business beat

Guys drawing players for fantasy football teams

A foam hat and a Bud Light help get this fan in the spirit during the fantasy football draft. Photo: dabruins07 on Flickr

With both professional football and college football about to kick off their 2014 seasons, the myriad  businesses that depend on gridiron action to generate revenue, from hot-dog sellers to TV advertising executives, are counting down the moments to the first big plays.

But a lot of buzz this pre-season is focusing on the growing industry of fantasy football, and that’s one way you can tackle the topic even if your regular beat doesn’t intersect much with the business of sports.   It’s got technology angles, consumer and personal finance facets, workplace and human resources ties and related issues that can be applied to just about any sector of the economy.

As Fortune reports, the consulting firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas guestimates that at two hours a day of play, this focus on imaginary teams can cost businesses $895 million a week, or more than $13 billion over the course of the season. Some articles and columns pooh-pooh the downside of the distraction, like this piece from a human resources professional association, which says the pastime promotes employee morale, teamwork and good customer relations.  I’m sure there are managers skeptical of that stance and of course the potential ills of distracted working vary by industry; you don’t want your surgeon fretting over her picks but it probably does little harm if the cable guy takes a few minutes to calculate standing.   I suggest talking with local employers, from large to small, about any workplace policies or expectations as the big season looms.  I have heard of some people receiving annual memos from employers reminding them not to play on company time; is that becoming more or less common as the fantasy play industry grows?

And of course, the personal finance angle is of interest, especially as more and more companies get into pay-to-play fantasy football with real prizes.  As Forbes reports, entities like Yahoo!, CBS and even the NFL itself are entering that arena.  Why not enlist a handful of players from among your audience and ask them to track their spending against eventual payoff?  And of course, don’t forget the income tax angle; local CPAs or enrolled agents can elaborate on the points in this Taxbrain blog post, reminding people how to report winnings as income when they file next spring’s return.

As the Fantasy Sports Trade Association notes in its media kit, imaginary play is about more than football, though it remains the most popular fantasy game.  Stats like average player age (34) and other demographic data are available in the kit, which notes the average player spends more than eight hours a week “consuming fantasy.”

To find local companies involved in the business of fantasy sports, try the member search engine on the FSTA site; you can query by state to find your area’s biz players.  What is their annual ebb and flow of business?  How is the market changing?  How is mobile technology affecting the software requirements and player demographics?




Businesses beyond retail chalk up back-to-school sales

It’s axiomatic that back-to-school season is good business for apparel and footwear sellers, purveyors of pencils and gadget suppliers.

But for an interesting twist on the standard end-of-summer stories, how about a look at other businesses that benefit from back-to-school, including unexpected sectors like lice salons and bars.  Services that reflect the realities of hectic family life will be revving up, too. 

School bus

Facebook's full of back-to-school photos and the buses are running. Photo by Flickr user Svadilfari

Even moving companies are in on the act — UHaul offers an array of services for the return-to-college cohort, including a storage service to students need not schlep their belongings home between semesters.  And check out this piece about Bellhops, a by-the-hour packing and moving helper service started by a couple of enterprising students a few years ago.  It’s now in more than 130 cities. 

The National Retail Federation says combined spending on “BTS” and “BTC” (back to school and back to college) is expected to near $75 million in the United States this year — a powerhouse spending season rivaled only by the Christmas/winter holiday mania.    The elaborate NRF portal of BTS and BTC data is a testament to just how crucial this spending impetus is to an array of retailers, from housewares suppliers to discount apparel stores.

But the resumption of academic routines and schedules also can be a boon to non-merchants.  We know that health care checkups are necessary for a lot of kids heading back to class or to sports activities;  Walgreen’s is offering camp and school physicals for $39 at its drugstore clinics — why not check in with area hospitals, health centers and doctors’ offices about trends in the business of medical checkups.  

But for a quirkier take on the health care implications of full classrooms, check into the local business of “lice salons” — practitioners who specialize in eradicating the little pests that proliferate when a lot of kids get together.   As NBC12 in Richmond, Va. reported last fall, the number of lice removal businesses has quadrupled in recent years with busy families paying hefty fees to be relieved of the problem; new technology like heat blowers is subbing for pesticides.  What on earth propels a small business person into the lice removal industry and what’s the business model?   Readers would like to know.

Other services that accommodate time-pressed families include student transportation services; sort of a mobile facet of the day care or after-school care industries.  Companies like All Student Shuttle will drive kids to and from school, appointments and activities when parents can’t, or pick up ill children from school.   This is an interesting example of how businesses spring up to fill gaps created by shifting work and household trends, from parents with longer commutes to single-parent homes with fewer car-pool options.  What considerations — like booster seats and insurance liability — are involved in creating these companies, and what are the revenue possibilities?

Demand for tutoring and  extracurricular lessons such as music, gymnastics and skating ramps up this time of year; with many parents telling the NRF they continue to be concerned about the economy & are looking for shopping bargains, I wonder if that frugal mindset will extend to spending on optional activities and lessons.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the college crowd, businesses that cater to adult needs, like bistros and eateries, are licking their chops at the return of their patrons as well.  As WBTW in Myrtle Beach, S.C., reports, “Back to school means back to business for local  bars and restaurants.”   Not to mention laundry services, salons and barbers, theaters and other firms that rely on the influx of transient residents to stay afloat. 




Retailers delight as people throw showers for all occasions

Oh, the weather outside may be delightful, but to some the forecast is frightful:  Never-ending showers.

The gift-giving type, that is.  Rites of passages of all sorts are nowadays being coopted by retailers and marketers as the ideal occasions for showers involving lots of presents and even registries.

divorce cake with bride on top

No groom was needed on top of this divorce party cake. Photo: Samantha Smith

From college students to first-time grannies to divorcing spouses to man-cave “beer & diaper” soirees, they’re all fair game.  No life transition these days seems off-limits to the idea that they should not only be celebrated, but marked with lots of loot provided by guests.

And no longer is an excuse for a shower limited to our own species; the latest buzz concerns “puppy showers” held for recent adoptive parents of companion animals.  Not surprising in an economy where pet owners lavish some $60 billion a year on furry friends, particularly as “Americans are having dogs instead of babies,” as reported by Quartz in April. At the same time, the article notes, more people are adopting small (baby-sized?) canines than any other size hound; the population of petite pooches has more than doubled since 1999.

Enter, then, the shower for pet owners, promoted of course by industry players such as Beneful dog food and Modern Dog Magazine but also a hot spot on Pinterest and other crafty sites. (Meringue dog bones, anyone?)   Sites like CafePress even offer onesies for canine wear, the better to resemble an infant.  And a number of retail sites offer pet-goods registries, according to PetPlace.com.  (One wonders what is taking the big-box pet stores so long to get on board.)

Have showers gotten out of paw…er, hand – or are they a

While some shower customs date back to ancient cultures, in the 20th century versions they involved small teas at which a handful of close friends welcomed a woman to a new life stage – marriage and motherhood.  Gift traditionally were tokens like dish towels or diaper pins.  Wedding registries were merely a record kept by department stores of a bride’s chosen flatware and china patters, so nuptial guests could discreetly order a place setting or two. Marshall Field’s reportedly launched the innovationin 1924 at its Chicago store.

fluffy dogs in a baby stroller

As birth rates fall, pet ownership grows. Photo: Weijie

Nowadays, as we know, bridal and baby showers can be huge catered affairs at function halls, involving public-address systems, assembly-line gift-opening/tracking and in some circles the services of event coordinators and bridal shower consultants  – a niche business you might profile.  Elaborate showers also likely benefit retailers, caterers, liquor stores, purveyors of party supplies and table favors; why not consult some of these small businesses about trends in shower parties in your region?

And there’s more:

  • Grandparents to be traditionally how heaped largess on their new descendants.  But in a 21st century twist, Granny and Gramps are the giftees.  Yes, outfitting their home for visits by the grandkids – or for providing lots of child care – is a growing trend.  It’s only practical, writes Grandparents.com, though the Huffington Post chimes in that it could cause issues with the real mom-to-be, who don’t appreciate sharing the spotlight.  (And are friends wondering “why don’t we all buy our own playpens?’)
  • And for dad, a “Burgers, Beer and Diapers” party requests that guests stock up the expectant father with bales of disposable nappies while quaffing some ale and enjoying a manly barbecue; Etsy sellers seem to be doing a brisk trade in invitations and related items.
  • Members of a popular etiquette site are up in arms about the notion of a gift shower for the college-bound; CBS Local in Miami also reports on the trends, noting Target stores’ gift registry for college students, too. (As some of the etiquette mavens asked, what happened to the high-school graduation gifts; weren’t they supposed to be earmarked for college costs?)
  • I’ve seen references to the new-job shower, the new-home shower and even a break-up shower for those suddenly bereft of both their boyfriend and their blender.  (Or their girlfriend and their grater, etc.)
  • In a similar vein, divorce showers are not unheard of.  Nor are retirement showers and showers for people who are moving their residence.

If you would rather tackle the consumer angle: Modern showers also represent more than a bit of investment on the part of guests, who often now are expected to pony up non-token gifts for both shower and wedding (or shower and christening, in the case of baby-related events.)  There’s a personal finance story for you – is it becoming more expensive these days to be a doting aunt or cousin of a college kid and now friend of a new pet-owner?

Try a new take on this piece that toted up the cost of being a wedding guest; which as this NBC News article noted last spring it’s up to $592.





Quirky business features: Carnies, damsels, scams and beer

It’s been a month or so since the last edition of Quicktips and those scraps of paper are piling up again in my notebook.

From the sober to the silly, here are a few story nuggets you may want to add to your near-term lineup:

State Fairs.  How did that sneak up?  Summer 2014 is heading for the home stretch and many states and counties will begin holding agricultural fairs and other festivals soon.  

Minnesota State Fair ferris wheel in sunset

Sunset added a golden glow to the Minnesota state fair in 2013. Photo: MJIPhotos

On a serious note, these harvest-oriented events (or what’s left of that aspect in between the carny rides, rock concert and food stands) aren’t a bad time to take stock of the future of agriculture in your state or region.

What are the tensions between the market value of farmland – which the U.S. Department of Agriculture just reported is up 8 percent year over year – and the economics/aspirations of the next generation of family farmers?  Who’s snapping up farmland in your area and for what purpose?  How are environmental and animal rights concerns shaping the farming agenda in your area?  The agricultural fairs are a great opportunity to cultivate sources among farm families and industry officials.

On a less serious note, who wouldn’t enjoy a profile about the job of being an itinerant carny, sleeping in a tractor-trailer bunkhouse and operating the Ferris Wheel or Tilt-a-Whirl?  What do these jobs pay, how long do workers stay in them and what are the pros and cons?  Something tells me it’s not all fun and games — here’s a USA Today story from last year, “Migrant carnival workers need protection, advocates say,” that’ll give food for thought.  Many people might be surprised to know that thousands of workers are here on temporary visas doing these difficult jobs.

Here’s a directory of state fairs from About.com and a more extensive listing of events from Festivals.com. Don’t forget that at least in the northern tier, Renaissance Faires and other reenactment shows are getting set for a last hurrah as well.

Corporate inversion.  That’s the current buzz, highlighted last week when Walgreen’s backed off its plan to move its headquarters overseas; this interesting corporate inversion graphic produced for the office of U.S. Rep. Sander Levin gives a timeline of inversions and is worth scanning to see if any local corporate names are on their; you could do a follow-up on how any moves have affected local workers and communities.

Your state’s booze profile.  Legal marijuana stories are in vogue but traditional highs like beer and wine still pack an economic wallop; the Beer Institute, an industry trade group, was recently out with state-by-state data about who drinks what; North Dakota is the leader when it comes to brew, but Washington D.C. drinkers outpace the nation in wine consumption.  (Wonder why?)  Consumers love stories that reflect their own behavior back to them; consider checking with the state’s liquor commission for sales data by ZIP code – it’s fun to graph which communities favor Meister Brau vs. Grey Goose, and so on.

Phishing.  There was a funeral home phishing scam making the e-mail rounds a few months back; another one trumpeting “Notice to appear in court” is making its way round, and a consumer brief to this effect might be in order.  In addition to consumer advocates, you might want to talk with psychologists and marketing experts about the sort of buzzwords that get even savvy people to click.  Fear of running afoul of the law, death, money – the scamsters seem pretty shrewd about tapping into primal anxieties, especially those affecting older people who so often are targets of these crimes.

And, like everything else consumer, phishing is going mobile, with texts and alerts tricking the unwary.



Racetrack accident highlights pros and cons for corporate sports sponsors

It’s been a rough stretch for corporate sponsors of sporting events, who’ve had to react to public relations fiascos ranging from Lance Armstrong’s drugging revelations to the racist remarks by the soon-t0-be former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling. 

Tony Steward sponsors

Photo: Matthew O'Haren, USA TODAY Sports

Now, a motorsports incident over the weekend has set the stage for another dilemma for corporate underwriters of auto racing.  In case you haven’t heard, one racer died Saturday night after exiting his crashed vehicle and being struck by the car of NASCAR giant Tony Stewart, whom the deceased competitor, Kevin Ward, apparently blamed for causing him to wreck.  The incident is under investigation by local law enforcement and as headlines proliferated  Stewart’s team hastily backtracked on their initial claim that racing would be “business as usual” for a marquee event on Sunday. 

The black eye for a major NASCAR star may prove to be an embarrassment for major sponsors, as USA Today reports in “Ripple effects for Stewart, NASCAR sponsors could be huge.”  As USA Today writes, “In NASCAR, drivers are corporate spokesmen expected to deliver a company’s message with a clean image. Though Stewart is a pitchman extraordinaire whose blue-collar persona offers appeal, Ward’s death is the latest of several on- and off-track incidents that have raised questions about why he always seems caught in a maelstrom of controversy.”

Clearly if your area is home to any of the household names that sponsor Stewart and other NASCAR drivers, from Bass Pro Shops to Coca-Cola to Go Daddy, you’ll want to check in to see what they are hearing from consumers and how they are handling public input, pro-Stewart or con.   Here’s a piece from the American Marketing Association on the loyalty of NASCAR fans and their desirability from the standpoint of corporate sponsors.  What does it take to affect those ties?  That might be an interesting question for local marketing experts.

The article also addresses the potential role of sponsors in determining the damage control strategy following an incident of negative publicity.   If you have any local companies which are household-name sponsors of professional sports, it might be an interesting moment to check in on trends in the expectations and roles of sponsors and the competitors who represent them publicly. Are your area firms relying more or less on sports sponsorships these days to get their word out? 

SponsorHub is a company that claims to analyze the return on investment of corporate sponsorships and would be a helpful source in explaining how corporations make choices about allying themselves with sports figures and what they expect in return.  Here’s another sponsorship consultant whom you might contact for context and explanatory information.

Or, if your area is home to a local NASCAR team, it might be interesting the recap some of the business of this very wealthy sport for local fans.   Forbes values the Stewart-Haas team, which in addition to Stewart features the popular Danica Patrick and other drivers, at $148 million, up 20 percent year over year and No. 4 among all NASCAR teams.  You might peruse this Business of NASCAR portal on the Forbes site for local ties your audience may have interest in.

Here’s a Bleacher Report piece on wacky NASCAR sponsors in history. 


August is the month for getting thrifty, counting resales

BEA Personal Consumption Chart

U.S. BEA released prototype estimates of personal consumption expenditures (PCE) for states for 1997-2012.

Over the weekend a neighbor hefted a brightly-colored plastic outdoor play set and proudly noted that it had been a bargain purchase at a local thrift shop, just in time for another visit by the grandkids.

Wow, I thought, what an illustration of the timid consumer spending that – despite an uptick in June, as Reuters reported last week – is taking its share of blame for the lackluster pace of the economic recovery.   That these affluent retirees – both with pensions and Social Security along with other assets – have taken to pinching pennies – makes me wonder how many consumers are reining in their pocketbooks out of similar fears.

If you’re into a deeper look at consumer spending and the secondhand economy, fate is dishing up a few good news pegs over the next week.  On Aug. 7, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis released its first-ever state-by-state breakout of consumer spending data: Personal Consumption Expenditures by State, 1997-2012 (Prototype Estimates).  As the release said:

  ‘For the first time, we now have rich data on consumer spending decisions in each state, giving us a snapshot of consumer confidence in our economy,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. “The new report BEA released today will help businesses make smarter decisions about hiring and investing. Unleashing more of our data and making that data more accessible are key Commerce Department priorities, both of which will help strengthen U.S. economic growth, job creation and competitiveness.” ‘

Check out the BEA newsroom to sign up for e-mail releases or locate an analyst to help you parse the numbers.  The BEA data to be released Thursday will cover 1997-2012; a substantial period for tracking trends in per-capita spending in a variety of categories.

Baltimore Animal Area and Care Shelter (BARCS) yard sale.

This yard sale is a fundraiser for Baltimore Animal Area and Care Shelter (BARCS). Photo: Mark Peters

Meanwhile, a just-out Gallup survey found that 40 percent of respondents said they are purchasing used goods to save money – no comparison to results of past years’ surveys were published, unfortunately. (But the Gallup site does offer quite a bit of interesting survey data on consumer behavior; worth bookmarking for future context.)

With August being not only the month in which many of those miles-long yard sales are held – in fact National Garage Sale Day is Aug. 9 according to some calendars – but also home to National Bargain Hunting Week (Aug. 4-10) and National Thrift Shop Day, there’s no shortage of news pegs, even if they are those goofy industry-generated observances.

Why not perform a check-up on area secondhand stores and talk with consumers in your area about why and how they’re substituting used for new?   For this piece I wouldn’t focus on collectibles, antiques or vintage items, but the way people are filling everyday needs with used goods.  A sign I pass every day lately is touting “used tires – $20” for cash-strapped commuters; that’s evidence to me that tough times aren’t over.  And a recent impulse stop at a Habitat for Humanity Re-store made it clear that lots of people were willing to consider used furnishings, hardware, lighting and building components for those DIY projects.

How are charity thrift stores faring?  Here’s an interesting piece from Washington’ state’s Whidbey Island about area thrifts collaborating on a treasure-hunt promotion.  It includes a map of area stores for consumers, drawings and other elements.   Are any of your Main Street or strip-center merchants trying similar promotions, and what’s the motivation — fear of waning trade, or a desire to capitalize on strong consumer interest in secondhand shops?

And how’s the competition from for-profit resales shops?  A year ago the market research firm IBISWorld predicted that the economic recovery would lead to the waning of revenue for used-goods outlets; I wonder though with stagnant wages and the fact that most newly created jobs are part-time and low-wage, how that’s panning out.  Have local operators seen much change to traffic?

You also can haunt garage sales over the next couple of weeks and talk with sellers about what’s hot and with buyers about their motivation.  Fun pastime or economic necessity?

The National Association of Resale Professionals is the industry trade group, it may offer leads to members or a national perspective as well as statistics.


Will Santa’s sleigh be full of drones this year?

OK, it’s the first week in August and I’m going to go on record as predicting one of the hot gifts of the coming holiday season:  Personal drones.

In fact, for the selfie-obsessed who want to take it to the next level, there’s the just-out Air Dog, a drone that follows its owner everwhere, shooting video from on high.  Developed via a Kickstarter campaign and fully funded as of July 26, the roving robots are available for pre-order at $1,295 and offered for December delivery, just in time for you-know-what.

3DR Iris personal drone

YouTube is full of demonstrations of drones including this 3DR Iris.

Much has been made of the regulatory problems and commercial possibilities the little flying machines may unleash, from  delivery schemes to robotic home tours by real estate agents, as the Des Moines Register reports.   As PCWorld reports, Amazon has asked government permission to test the drone home-delivery service it floated last year, and other companies are hot to follow.   And Popular Science says the Ohio corrections department is considering the use of drones to patrol its prison walls.

Here’s a blog post I wrote a year about the commercialization of drones and sources for checking out pending legislation of the industry; this year I think you can develop an interesting small business or consumer piece about buying, using and even gifting drones.

I mean, when even Martha Stewart is setting aside her Mason jars and chicken eggs for the control pad of her beloved personal drone, you know it’s only a matter of time before hobbyists and Pinterest posters latch on to the possibilities of aerial views.  As Stewart wrote in TIME, “drones can be useful tools,” for landscaping, property inspection and other homey applications, in addition to fun toys that take interesting pictures.

And oops, I spoke too soon, there already are plenty of drone-related pins and boards on Pinterest. And Dronestagram – a site for posting aerial pix –  has teamed with National Geographic in a photograph contest just for drone shots.

What are consumers doing with the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) they are snapping up at a growing pace –

Here’s a YouTube of one daring droner using the device to walk his Golden Retriever.  The London Evening Standard says the “war machine is going mainstream,” and gives more examples of personal uses.

Man talking about robotic drone

Killboy, who runs a motorsports photography business, explains the highlights of a 3D Robotics Y6 drone

What are the pitfalls?  The New York Times says “Drones outpacing rules as popularity soars in New York,” noting that high-rise apartment building managers and others are trying to rein in enthusiastic operators. Check with local law enforcement, are drone newbies flying their crafts into neighbors yards or otherwise breaching privacy?  (That’s in addition to airspace regulation and other, bigger-picture safety breaches; for a local piece I’d focus on the nuisance factor.)

How are entrepreneurs and small businesses employing these hovering helpers?  CBS News just ran a piece about how “Couples taking wedding photography to new heights,” by engaging drone-equipped firms to capture their nuptial moments.  Is a drone de rigeur for today’s photographers?  What other companies are using them in your market?  Here’s a piece from Iowa’s KWWL about local firms using drones for agricultural and other applications.

The Drone Report, an online blog, may offer other ideas you can pursue locally.

Brainstorming: Where might consumer drones be unwanted?  Will hunters this fall try to use drones to track their prey?  Will amusement parks have problems with drone-equipped patrons wanting to video themselves aboard rides?  How about golf courses?  Hotel, condo and apartment pool areas?  Day-care playgrounds?  What sorts of companies are being forced to implement drone policies, pro or con, to adapt to more widespread ownership of the devices?

Another thing to look out for: books and other media aimed at people who are intrigued by drones and trying to figure out how to make money with them; here’s an online “Unmanned Vehicle University” that purports to teach drone entrepreneurship in a one-day course.


Parched: Drought issues ripple out to consumers, growers, small businesses

With dry conditions or outright drought  plaguing a significant section of the United States,  it beats me why TV weather people still pull gloomy faces when they’re reporting impending storms;  you’d think they would be leading the dance of joy.

Financial writers know that water issues – from crop hydration to the marketing of bottled H2O – are big business issues that ripple out into the consumer and  household pocketbooks as well.  And as midsummer dryness highlights the lack of precipitation, you might want to take a look at drought, water and their economic impact.

hand and water hose,  Bloomberg headline: California Water Prices Soard

California water costs have soared to $1,100 per acre-foot from about $140 a year ago. Photo: Bloomberg

The New York Times just published a series of graphics mapping the spread of drought across the United States; it says as of July 22  about 34 percent of the continental U.S. was in drought conditions.   The U.S. Drought Monitor, a project at the University of Nebraska in conjunction with NOAA,  the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other entities, also offers maps and a plethora of other information you can use in building background.   Note the regional summaries that might be helpful to you.

If you’re in a drought-affected area  you probably already are reporting on the agricultural effects on crops and the woes facing growers and laborers. Voxxi reports that migrant farm workers are losing jobs due to the drought; it cites a study from the University of California at Davis saying that many farmers either didn’t plant or aren’t bothering to harvest due to dry conditions.  Here’s a link to the 27-page PDF; it’s worth a read even if you aren’t in California to help you develop questions for officials and growers in your area.

AgWeb reports that California farmers are paying 10 times more this year for water compared to pre-drought prices –  potentially boosting fruit and dairy prices as much as 6 percent.

No matter where you are, you can talk with grocers, restaurant operators, caterers and food distributors about the effect of harsh growing conditions on consumer prices.  As Reuters reports, meat and seafood prices already are heading up, for example. What adjustments are restaurants making to menus to avoid using higher-priced ingredients?

USDA inspectors in a green field

USDA inspectors evaluate crops in Salinas, Calif. Photo: USDA

Always ask “who benefits?”  As NPR reports, this is a multi-faceted issue; some farmers will actually reap more from reduced harvests than they would otherwise – and then there is crop insurance to backstop others’ losses.  (Note that the writer took a lot of flak in comments but again, use this as an aid to formulating questions for your local officials.)

And speaking of crop insurance,  here’s an interesting report from that industry which notes many farmers have been opting for bare-bones policies in recent  years; it hypothesizes that ongoing drought problems might prompt sales of more comprehensive crop insurance policies. If you cover financial services you might want to see if these trends are happening locally.  But public funds still underwrite a lot of crop insurance policies; here’s a recent report from Harvest Public Media and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting about the intense Farm Bill lobbying by crop insurance companies and related organizations.

If you’re in an area where drought hasn’t struck, is this a boon for your region’s agricultural products; are they substituting for anything that didn’t grow elsewhere?  And here’s a piece from The Motley Fool in 2012 about “Stocks that will benefit from the drought,”  you could revisit that notion especially if any of your big local companies or employers are in sectors that can take advantage of agricultural  hardship.

Beyond agriculture, you might want to check into activities by any local bottled water companies or those that tap water sources in your region.  Here’s a just-out KCBS report on PepsiCo using water from drought-troubled California to fill its Aquafina bottles, for example.  Check with the International Bottled Water Industry trade association for local members; it says  the market largely is served by small businesses.  What are their issues and concerns regarding drought and water rights?

Finally, the players in the water industry (primarily those involved with municipal water supply) have their own issues, from aging infrastructure and retirement of veteran workers to pricing problems.  Check out this report from WeiserMazars LLP, the 2014 U.S. Water Industry Outlook, for story ideas.  One that struck me:  Only 1 percent of water supply is from re-use.  That needs to change, the report says; you can take a look at water-dependent local businesses like car washes, some factories, pools and water parks, commercial laundries, hotels and resorts, etc., to report on the latest technology/strategies for recycling water or reducing its use.

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