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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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The world of fandom – Comi-Cons – is ripe for financial stories

Clark Kent shows his Superman shirt under his dress shirt

A make-believe Clark Kent hints at his super powers. Photo: Kevin Dooley

What’s a multi-billion industry that draws celebrities, corporate exhibitors and hundreds of thousands of free-spending enthusiasts to events in multiple venues nationwide?

No, not talking about NASCAR, the NFL or the beauty pageant circuit.  The movement I’m thinking of is the world of fandom – comic cons (comic conventions)  cosplay (costumed role playing) and related activities that pay homage to pop culture icons, video game villians, comic book heroes and other aspects of the comic, anime and fantasy worlds.

If you haven’t investigated the economic impact of all of the above in your region, you might want to do so soon.  It’s a fast-growing sector of the entertainment/hobby world and this week’s mega conference, the Comic-Con International in San Diego, which expects more than 130,000 attendees, is the perfect springboard to a story about the local scene.   Hashtag

It’s a financial powerhouse; SDMetro.com says the three-year economic impact of Comic-Con in San Diego is more than $448 million.  I don’t know why this whole subculture has flown under the radar as long as it has, but it seems time for financial writers to sit up and take note. 

People looking through boxes of comic books.

Beyond the costumes and zombie walks, Comic-Con finds its roots in comic books. Photo: Kevin Dooley

Corporations sure have; here’s a recent article, for example, about the automaker Hyundai transforming one of its vehicles into a Zombie Survival Machine for last year’s New York comic con.    Hollywood is involving TV and movie franchises big-time – The Wrap says there are more than 2,400 credentialed media representatives heading to the show and gives a round-up of PR efforts like parties and hospitality suites.  And and according to this report from NPR, promoting the shows is becoming big business.  Lego is offering a limited edition Hobbit figure in San Diego, to show you how household names are involved.

Can you find any local companies exhibiting at Comic-Con International or other shows?  (Check expo directorieson event websites, to start.) 

Many regional conventions take place; here’s a sampling in one directory, UpcomingCons.com, from which you likely can find a nearby event in 2014 – and be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page; you’ll see a list of genre-specific cons for devotees of horror, sci-fi, anime and even literature for those who like authors of science fiction, mystery and other tomes.

This WFAA report from Dallasis a good example of a local take – the station reports that the comic con in its market has had to move to a larger venue sooner than anticipated to accommodate a surge in attendees; it jumped from 5,000 in 2002 to 25,000 in 2013.  And this May report from the Deseret News says “Salt Lake comic con building revenue, loyal fan base.” It’s got some good detail you can pursue about the metrics of staging a local show.

Nathan Fillion at Comic-Con 2014 Phoenix

Nathan Fillion, fromhe television series Firefly, is a big draw at regional Comic-Cons. Photo: Ruth Anderson

Whatever is compelling people to dress up like Trekkies, Trons, Hobbits and Wonder Woman, they aren’t stinting on the supplies. Check out this Business Insider video on “Here’s How Much Hardcore Geeks At Comic Con Spend On Costumes And Toys” for ideas; it’s also a great reminder of how this story naturally lends itself to multimedia presentation.

This author might be an interesting source: Tim Leong has published “Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe” and judging by this review on i09 it offers a wealth of data on the industry, including attendance information.

Don’t forget about vendors; someone is selling all of these costume pieces and props.  I did a simple eBay search on ”Batman cosplay”, narrowing the location to within 50 miles of my ZIP code, and found a couple of sellers/stores that specialize in costumes and accessories; they’d make great profiles leading up to a local cosplay event.   

 

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Microsoft layoff news prompts a look at job cuts

Word last week that Microsoft will be jettisoning 18,000 workers raises the specter of mass layoffs, a frequent occurrence several years ago but one we haven’t heard much about lately.

A few industries stand out in terms of recent job cut numbers, according to the outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas; the firm’s monthly jobs cut report is a trove of data that will let you know how the industries on your beats rank in terms of layoff prevalence.  For example, Challenger’s June report notes that entertainment/leisure companies topped the list.  What does that say about consumers and discretionary spending?

Nokia Microsoft

More than two thirds of the up to 18,000 jobs that Microsoft said it would cut will come from Nokia groups. PHOTO: Reuters

Casinos, for example, are a struggling sector — in June, Caesar’s Entertainment closed down a big Harrah’s hotel-casino in the Tunica, Mississippi cluster of gambling halls; that cost an already struggling community 1,300 jobs and $40 million in annual payroll, according to a tourism official quoted by the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.  And in Atlantic City, which once enjoyed near-exclusivity as a gambling destination along with Las Vegas, the slump is pronounced: two casinos have announced plans to close by September and a third may follow; the race is on to find buyers to revive the properties and keep workers employed.  Other job cuts took place regionally. If you haven’t take a look at the casino or entertainment industry in your area lately, you might want to investigate the job scenario are nearby gambling venues.  Between the increasingly easy availability of slots in many states and consumer sentiment that just can’t gain traction, will more casinos become defunct?   You can use a story like this as an illustration of broader regional economic issues, beyond the single-industry focus.

Same for retail, transportation and other sectors.  And note that the Challenger report ranks job cuts by state and region; handy information for adding context to local economy stories.

Fortune jumped out with an interesting juxtaposition of graphics in “Microsoft’s layoffs are huge – or small – depending on how you look at it,” one represents the relative “size” of layoffs since 2000 by raw numbers, the other by layoff figures as a percentage of the companies’ total headcount; in that regard, it says, Microsoft actually ranks as one of the largest layoffs in recent years.

MASS LAYOFFS

Unfortunately for all of us, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics ceased tracking mass layoffs statistics (MLS) last fall as a result of budget sequestration; the agency’s mass layoff statistics site still is up with historical info, however, if you are looking for numbers for full years prior to 2013.  And the MLS program was a cooperative with states; you can contact your state labor department and find the office that reported stats to the BLS to see what they currently are tracking.

And of course, the U.S. Department of Labor’s WARN program – which stands for Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act – requires “companies with more than 100 workers to give 60 days notice of plant closings and mass layoffs.”  Sometimes you can get a heads’ up, and don’t forget unions and sometimes industry trade groups can be sources of interesting layoff news.

DailyJobCuts.com is a clearinghouse of sorts for layoff, bankruptcy and closings news – it’s not clear who’s running the site but it seems a decent source of leads, particularly for local or small/medium businesses; you might want to bookmark it.

From a corporate performance standpoint; here’s an  interesting Motley Fool article about an analysis of downsizers vs. companies that stayed intact through difficult periods; the “downsizers never outperform,” it notes.

You might want to take a look back at notable layoffs that affected big employers in your region; did the companies benefit from drastically slashing payroll or did sales, revenue and quality suffer. I know one person who works as a non-techie Hewlett-Packard employee; she’s literally doing the work that four people formerly did, knows her work quality is suffering, can never schedule more than one consecutive vacation day due to workload and says most of her colleagues are in similar boats.  Yet HP stock is still at less than half its peak and the revenue chart looks like freefall. Makes you wonder.

Why not assess the performance of big job-cutters in your region, and find employees affected in the past – where are they now?

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Do $7 billion deals like Citigroup’s really help consumers?

Foreclosed home

This foreclosed home was found in Haymarket, Va. PHOTO: Andrew Taber

This week’s announcement of a federal government settlement with another major mortgage lender is reviving buzz about the mortgage messes that contributed to the economic meltdown, and might be something you’ll want to use a springboard to consumer stories about the home loan market.

The U.S. Department of Justice agreed to end its civil investigations of the lender and to let Citigroup pay $7 billion in fines and “consumer relief” as penance for what the DOJ says were misleading claims to investors about the risks of securities backed by subprime mortgage notes.

As the Associated Press reports,  “the Citigroup settlement comes months after a similar deal between the Justice Department and JPMorgan Chase & Co., the nation’s biggest bank. After months of negotiations, the bank last year agreed to pay $13 billion after an investigation into toxic mortgage-backed securities.”

And the Charlotte Observer notes that “After Citigroup settlement, all eyes on Bank of America” where reportedly talks with the justice department about that company’s role in the have stalled out.

In the past several years, lenders also have reached major settlements with government agencies over issues that came to light after the economic crash.  Several banks settled due to charges they discriminated against black or Hispanic would-be borrowers; others have been forced to pay reparations for shoddy mortgage servicing practices that led to abusive foreclosures and other problems for borrowers and homeowners.

Most of the settlements include one or more elements of consumer relief – from adjusting mortgage balances to, in the case of the just-out Citigroup settlement, help with closing costs for people who lost previous homes and donations toward the construction of affordable housing.  All of the settlements include hefty federal fines and most allow for payments to state agencies or state attornies general.

citibank branch in the rain

Screenshot of AP video from HuffPost Live

But with tens of billions of dollars at play in these settlements – the Charlotte Observer story says Bank of America alone has spent $60 billion – yes, billion with a B – on legal fees, settlements and loan buy-back agreements – I have yet to read anything about any consumer actually benefiting from all of these investigations, negotiations and gyrations.  I think a “where are they now” piece, if you can find some consumers recovering from the effects of the mortgage crisis, could be quite illuminating.  (Particularly about the relative gains by consumers vs. attorneys, government agencies and other who reap dollars from such deals; it always seems, as with class action suits, that the consumer gets pennies on the dollar compared to other entitites.)

You probably can start with your state’s attorney general for pointers to individuals with valid claims under the settlements. (Keeping in mind there doesn’t seem to be central repository of information about all the bank settlements, the AG is probably your closest bet.)

According to Nolo.com, for example, consumer claims from the National Mortgage Settlement of 2012 – a whopping average check of $1,480 to those who lost their homes – have been paid out.

Here’s another informational site on joint state-federal mortgage servicing settlements; it has links to state level information that might help you.

I didn’t find a similar clearinghouse site for the discrimination settlements; again pursue those directly with the Department of Justice and your state’s attorney.

Here’s an interesting source of information:  The Financial Services Litigation Monitor, a blog published by the Perkins Coie LLC legal firm. It might be one to bookmark for a heads-up on other current industry issues.

And keep in mind that a number of scams arise any time these large settlements are announced; you might ask for an update on past enforcement and any caveats for consumers hearing about the recent deals with big banks.

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What new finger-food trends are replacing cupcakes .. or are they?

The headline-making saga of the Crumbs Bake Shop company – the cupcake chain that closed all of its stores only to receive a last-minute reprieve from an investor group – suggests a few ideas for localizing food-related business stories.

The potential survival of the Crumbs chain is good news for its investors and workers, bad news for those trying to tout days-old Crumbs fare on eBay for $250.  But what does the stumble say about overall demand for the high-carb, high-sugar treats?  First stop, obviously, is a check-in with local and independent cupcake purveyors; the trend has been pronounced “officially dead” by The Week which give a brief history of the cupcake’s rise and fall and says Cronuts – a blend of croissant and donut – are the upcoming popular pastry.   The Wall Street Journal forecast the “battered” cupcake market (pardon the pun) last year; note the metrics so you can ask local shops about their daily sales, etc.  In hindsight: The Atlantic wrote of the death of the cupcake in RIP Cupcake, published Sept. 4, 2009. 

Clever Cupcakes on Flickr Cupcake living room

Montreal's Clever Cupcakes stages a pair in a tiny living room. PHOTO: Clever Cupcakes

This Arizona Republic take on the issue, “Arizona cupcake shops have weathered recession,” includes some fascinating info from the market research firm NPD group about national sales and prices of the sweet treats.  And FoodNavigatorUSA writes about the dangers of oversaturation and single-product specialties.  Here’s a Virginian-Pilot piece about a local baker’s backup plan in case the cupcake fad fades; she won’t say what she’s equipping her shops to produce but maybe you can get more information from your local entrepreneurs.

In addition to specialty cupcake stores, check out demand for cupcakes with grocers, regular bakeries, catering firms and wholesalers.  What’s on the wane and what’s gaining favor?  Check in with wholesale equipment suppliers and even craft stores and others that offer cooking classes and cake-decorating lessons, too.

Another tack for business writers:  What’s next after single-serve cakes?  Food trends shift as tastes become jaded and markets saturated but new opportunities for entrepreneurs are popping up all the time; here’s Forbes’ take on “7 business lessons from gourmet cupcakes.”   What’s heating up amid the lunch carts, food trucks and specialty prepared food retailers in your area?  Another place to find local food-related small businesspersons trying new innovations is the mall-based food court; here’s an  article from QSR, the trade publication for the quick-food industry, about “The New Food Court,” and  how the model is helping shopping centers fill vacant space.   Asian foods, fresh salsa and hot dogs on sticks are some of the cuisine mentioned. 

For ideas on what to look for, here’s a take from the London Guardian on one food retailer’s mission in Austin, Texas to find the next big snack; the article is a fun read but has some serious content about how consumer trends get rolling.

Here are some 2014 food trend ideas; looks like ice-cream sandwiches might become the sweet du jour.   And at the just-completed Fancy Food exposition in New York, items like smoked chocolate, beets and coconut were hot; are any local up-and-comers translating these taste sensations into finger foods that’ll give cupcakes a run for the money?   MarketWatch highlights advocado ice cream, half-popped popcorn kernels and other unusual items in its report on the Fancy Food show.

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As highway fund is debated, how does the local business of road building fare?

The federal Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of money on August 1.   Congress is as usual eschewing a long-term, sweeping vision in favor of a short-term patch.   According to Bloomberg, odds are that a House version of a transportation bill will make it to President Obama for signature.

With looming funding issues, it might be an opportune moment to check up on how roadwork monies trickle out to companies and individuals in your state or region – and what would happen if the cash flow dried up, even temporarily.

State highway crew

Slowdowns in major projects will affect smaller vendors, contractors.

State transportation department sites offer information about bids, awards and contracts that you can readily mine.  I think an interesting story would be to parse a single contract and illustrate in prose or a big graphic how the bottom-line dollar amount meanders through the economy.  How many sub-contractors are on the job?  How many workers got a slice of the funds?  What sort of equipment, consulting, engineering, etc. feeds into a small stretch of roadway or a bridge or drainage system?   What is the cost of each element, the profit margin for the contractors, and so on? 

Who owns the companies?  What sort of warranty is on the work – I’m sure we’ve all wondered who’s accountable when potholes appear on newly-paved roadways.

Here’s a primer from the Michigan Department of Transportation, “From plans to pavement: How a road is built,” that might arm you with additional questions to ask regarding the scope of local jobs.

Some states have handy vendor sites, like this one from Ohio that lists approved vendors (what is the approval process?) for elements of road construction ranging from guardrails to traffic signals to pre-cast concrete.  Some interesting small- and medium-sized business stories in there, no doubt – how are these firms affected by the ebb and flow of federal funds?   

If your state doesn’t provide a convenient list you still can parse out the subcontractors from public records or just by stopping at the side of the road where construction is taking place.  Are they worried about highway funding?  What happens if a fix isn’t found by next month?

Here’s the U.S. Department of Transportation’s online Highway Trust Fund ticker, which shows the dwindling funds in graphic form; the site also offers  a blog, social media links and an FAQ on “cash management procedures” should the August 1 deadline pass without a fix; you might need a veteran bureaucrat to translate but having those FAQs in hand will be helpful when asking your state transportation department officials and contractors about the local impact of a budget impasse.

Roads and Bridges is a trade publication and website with some interesting articles, links and editorials about the industry.  You can follow a variety of hashtags, too, like #FixTheTrustFund and #HighwayTrustFund for leads to other issues and sources. 

Trade groups and lobbying organizations like the American Road & Transportation Builders Association may be helpful or provide info about issues in your region.   There’s also an Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

BEYOND FINANCE, OTHER STORY IDEAS INCLUDE:

Jobs:  How does one get the job, of, say, stop-sign holder at the side of the road project?  What do they earn?  What’s the jobs outlook for roadway engineers, or heavy equipment drivers, or concrete “chemists?”  Is there really a shortage of experienced and qualified workers, as this story from the Rapid City Journal suggests?

Equipment:  What’s the latest trend in orange barrel technology?  What’s the strategy behind the placement of barrels and other traffic management equipment, and the science behind keeping traffic flowing in construction zones? 

Efficiency trends:  Night and weekend work seems to be on the rise. 

Technology:  Robot welders are being used in bridge repair – what else is being automated?

Green elements of road construction:  From the type of plantings used in roadside green space to geothermal heat for rest areas, what are some of the eco-friendly practices at work in the road construction industry?  What areas still have room for improvement?

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Fresh peg on new domain names: “dot-vodka,” “dot-Christmas,” “dot-fail”

Looking for a business story that spans the corporate world, small companies and even consumers & personal finance?

The 2014 rollout of new top-level domain names is underway, but flying surprisingly under most radar screens.   If you haven’t yet written about the upcoming availability of hundreds of alternatives to good old .com and .net, you’ve got a fresh news peg in the release of the July batch.

As I wrote about back in March, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is sort of the sanctioning body of the Internet, has approved 1,400 new “generic top-level domain names” (or gTLD).

 

Here’s a brief primer on what TLDs are and here’s a link to an ICANN site about domain names; note there is a news blog, interviews with domain-name applicants and other food for thought.  Some of the new domain names appear to be global brands like Suzuki and BMW, which isn’t surprising.  Others point to well-known city names or large organizations and efforts such as “navy” and  “cancerresearch.”

But quite a few could be applicable to entrepreneurs, business persons and professionals right in your market, like “plumber,” “dentist,” “attorney,” “accountants,” “mortgage” and “loan.”  Why not check around with the related businesses on your beats; who’s up to speed on the domain name revolution and already taking advantage of it?  What’s it costing them and have they had any issues with domain-name squatters snapping up likely handles and then scalping them for profit?

New Domain Names Donuts Inc.

Image: Promotional video by Donuts Inc.

Other newly approved domain names have lots of possibilities for creative businesses and individuals, like “beer,” “Christmas,” “guru,” “recipes” and “bargains.”   And – speaking of holiday creep – there now is a “dot-BlackFriday” domain that no doubt soon will be rife with merchant ads.  And in rather eyebrow raising development, “WTF” also is a new gTLD. Domain Name Wire, an industry news source, offers other news and commentary that might lead you to local stories.

As mentioned before, some of the gTLDs lend themselves to creative website naming; instead of, say, “HomeCityBeer.com” a local brewery can dub its site “HomeCity.Beer.”   Talk with marketing and branding experts about how individuals and companies can best make use of the new leeway to customize web addresses.

And ask the big-name corporations in your area if they have any plans to change.  Would Delta, for example, go from a dot-com to a dot-flights?  I’d have to imagine the downsides of changing, for a well-established Fortune 500 company site, far outweigh the advantages.  But I’d bet a savvy firm would hedge its bets anyway; ask these companies about how many different domain names they’ve registered and if any are in practical use – i.e., if typed in will they redirect to the real site – or if they’re just being kept dormant for now.

This January article from the marketing size ClickZ says “half of the world’s top brands” will own their own name as a domain; an amusing list of which companies opted for that – and big names that didn’t – might prompt questions for your area’s corporations.  And check with trade groups as well as individual entities; this interesting article says the wine industry is protesting the gTLDs “wine” and “vin” fearing cyber squatting and counterfeiting.

Parents have been known to register domain names for their babies right after birth, but dot-com and dot-net probably weren’t too alluring.  Now that they can get “McKenna.guru” or “Jayden.Rocks,” who knows, demand may be picking up.  Check with parenting groups and domain registry firms about trends.  Here’s a Webroot article that urges a personal URL “will ensure branding opportunities and open doors for your child in the future.”   OK.  What parent wants to take the chance that little Abigail will have to settle for something blah like “dot-report,” or worse that she’ll select “dot-sexy” or “dot-tattoo” down the road?

 

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Christmas in July? Retailers wooing holiday spenders even earlier

How are we spending our summer vacation?   Prepping for back-to-school, Thanksgiving and Christmas, if the displays in retail stores are any indication.

Christmas in July, Germantown, Nashville

Even Santa turned out for the Half-Christmas in July Beer Festival in Nashville. Screenshot: WZTV

Consumers who didn’t buy their swimwear back in March probably found themselves picking through a clearance rack featuring a few “size 2 junior” mismatched bathing suit bottoms and tops the week before the Fourth of July.  That’s been standard for years, in the inscrutable ways of apparel stores.

But it was still a jolt on July 5, when I nipped out for a few quick errands, to see the dregs of the patriotic housewares and summery garden décor relegated to a few sparsely-populated clearance aisles at one of the major craft and sewing retailers.  Front and center was harvest-themed merchandise from dish towels to wall plaques, and the entire floral area was dominated by an autumnal palate, ceramic orange pumpkins and cornstalky fall foliage.

OK.  On to a big-box office supply retailer, where back-to-school mania was in swing.  And clicking through the TV line-up for a lazy weekend movie, the chick-lit channels were featuring holiday movies 24/7 for that festive Christmas in July feeling.

AdAge said June 20 “Get ready for Christmas creep: Walmart starts highlighting hot holiday gifts,” and notes that the world’s largest big-box chain already has held its holiday media event.

And WFIE in Indiana just reported “Retailers offering back to school sales earlier than ever before,” while the Harford Courant reports on Target’s new online gift registry for college-bound students. And its not just big-boxers licking their chops over sales of dorm-room décor and new notebooks; a business-to-business website asks its audience  “Is your small business targeting the college crowd?” and suggests that local merchants and service providers use tactics like loyalty discount cards and personal service to woo spenders.

A mid-year check-in on the so-called “creep” and how businesses are racing to beat one another to seasonal shopping dollars is an interesting and picturesque biz feature to pursue.

On a broader economic tack, quizzing retailers and other businesses about their expectation for the coming fourth-quarter consumer spending mania (back-to-school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other winter observances) is a way to check up on your local economy.  With unemployment ticking down, the stock market on a record roll, home sellers getting a decent buck for their properties and other measures of prosperity gaining, will 2014 be the year they’ve been waiting for since 2007?  Or will the fact that job growth is dominated by low-wage and part-time positions dampen demand; as Bloomberg noted following a disappointing May report, “Restrained consumer spending curbs U.S. growth optimism.”

Ask local merchants specifically how pending orders and inventory compare to their investments in previous years, are they expecting consumer demand to grow this year?   Are they stocking more high-end versions of their goods?  Planning any different promotions?   Hiring more help?

Travel bookings, resort reservations, catering and restaurant bookings/inquiries, reservations at inns and bed-and-breakfast homes (particularly during holiday festivals and home tours, if your area holds them) all might be telling bellwethers of consumer sentiment.

A different tack would be to ask: What is it about the consumer that we can hardly wait for a season to be over when it’s barely begun?  After all, the stores wouldn’t be offering this stuff if we weren’t buying it.  Who IS purchasing her Thanksgiving tableware in mid-July, and why?  Are they worried about narrowing selections later, or just uber-organized, or what?   Are back-to-school shoppers trying to stretch necessary purchases over several paychecks?  A couple of years ago, CNBC reported that “Despite the scorn, consumers embrace ‘Christmas creep,’ – the article offers some interesting insights and sources.  You can talk with marketing experts, consumers themselves, even consumer behavior experts at area business schools and social research departments. Are we responding to signals sent by merchants, or are they responding to us?

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Drivers prepping for the holiday sift through roadside aid deals

With legions of Americans about to hit the road for a three-day weekend provided by the Independence Day holiday’s serendipitously falling on a Friday this year, you might want to take a look at  personal finance quirk related to roadside assistance plans.

AAA forecasts that 41 million people will travel more than 50 miles from home this weekend — and odds are that hundreds of thousands of these vacationers will find themselves in the breakdown lane with a flat tire or worse.  Many of them will put out a plea for a tire change, a tow or help.  But call … whom?

RV Dauphin Island

RV sits by the Gulf of Mexico on Dauphin Island, Alabama. Photo: faungg on Flickr

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. wants you to call them; they’re just out with a new toll-free number , smartphone app and $40 annual service fee that will get you to free towing — with one catch:  Your tow truck will wheel you to a Goodyear auto repair shop.  Interesting marketing idea to launch just before the holiday.

Its a crowded field.  As the Reynolds Center’s Digital Director Robin Phillips recently pointed out, many consumers these days have overlapping roadside assistance coverage.  Gone are the days when AAA was the only provider; today’s motorists may be covered by — and unwittingly paying for — similar coverage from their automobile dealer or automaker, their cell phone plan, insurance policy, credit card and other vendors.

Motorists may wonder if it’s worth it to stay in one program — and which one is the best to call under a variety of scenarios.   Verizon, for example, charges $3 a month – if you already have AAA or a new-car-related program, should you opt out and save the $36 a year, which is hardly pocket change.

Is it worth it to stay in more than one program if you have to pay?  Surprisingly, it might be.   Check out this Consumer Reports piece that points out the different terms, coverage options and services provided by a variety of plans; it may makes sense for consumer to keep overlapping policies.

For example, as the report points out, auto club plans usually follow the policy holder no matter what vehicle he or she is in, so if you’re riding in a friend’s car when the battery dies, you still can summon help.  Cell phone sponsored plans apply to whomever has the phone in hand.  Some plans offer legal defense funds for traffic offenses (except for DUI) while others guarantee auto repairs.

Sounds like it might behoove consumers to spend a few minutes combing through their financial purchases, policies and subscriptions to determine what coverage they have and what the fine print is on each.  Then when misfortune strikes, they can contact the provider that makes the most sense in a given scenario.  A flat tire — who needs guaranteed engine repairs; you might want to call the company with the widest network.  Far from home in someone else’s vehicle; you might be glad you kept AAA as well.

Here’s an older but interesting Popular Mechanics article, “Who really provides your roadside assistance?”  that points out most of the non-AAA plans use a third-party provider and often the same one; the industry biggie is Agero and it handles roadside assistance for many automakers and other plan providers.

In addition to a personal finance piece about the ins and outs of roadside plans, you might want to do a contrarian holiday-weekend story about those who will be working, not loafing, including the tow-truck industry, auto repair shops and even hospital emergency room staffers –  all of those behind-the-scenes occupations that help travelers when the Fourth of July sizzle turns to fizzle.

Another question to ask of towing companies: Is it worth it to them to be affiliated with a roadside service?  It must be, if so many do, but what cut does the plan take?  Do consumers in plans get faster response time than those who just Google for the nearest wrecker?  What else is new or challenging in the tow-truck business model these days?

 

 

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Helping readers if they’re getting stock market fever

U.S. stock market rallyThe U.S. stock markets are having a star-spangled week heading into the Independence Day holiday, as Reuters reports in “Dow, S&P end at records in fireworks before the Fourth.”

With headlines ablaze about major indices hitting never-before-seen heights, you might want to find some local angles to the Wall Street news.

First, it’s always interesting to muster up a big chart or graphic illustrating the year-to-date (or post-recession, or since-2006) share price performance of area companies. You can limit your list to companies headquartered in your area, but I’d suggest also including big local employers regardless of where their corporate seat is located. If your region is home to an airline hub, or an auto plant or a big resort operated by a household-name corporation, chances are its workers may hold its shares in their retirement plan and so might unrelated investors.

Here’s a nice example from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “Stocks rise in first half of year despite declines by half of local companies.” Note that the story is accompanied by a very straightforward bar graph showing stocks of local interest either in red or black, depending on their year-to-date price situation. If you’ve got more resources, you could snazz up the presentation with corporate logos, number of local employees, CEO pay from the latest proxy statement, a blurb or two about YTD company news and other information.

The big question on readers’ minds is, “What do I do now?” Quite a few pundits are predicting that stocks – which have more than fully recovered since the recessionary market depths – are due for a big chill. The Dallas Morning News says “Bull market may be entering final stretch” and one of Forbes’ contributors is posting the dire “23 charts (that) prove stocks are heading for a devastating crash.”

I’ve never thought newspapers and weeklies should dabble in providing investing advice; the best you can do is direct readers to objective advisers (like fee-only, non-commissioned financial planners) or, if they can’t afford that, to relatively tried-and-true strategies like dollar-cost-averaging through employer-sponsored retirement accounts, or the Roth IRA at low-cost entities like Vanguard.


“If I haven’t been investing
in stocks, am I too late?
Is it a mistake to “buy high” ?”

You might be surprised at how well a basic glossary of terms would be received by your audience; there’s a whole crop of people out there who over the last eight years have ignored markets but now are intrigued by the soaring numbers. Even terms like “S&P 500” and “Dow” are a mystery to some, let alone the difference between taxable and tax-sheltered accounts and specialty items like the Solo 401(k) for individuals and self-employed people.

Why not offer, at least online, a primer in basic investing terms. And then enlist area certified financial planners and others to answer two basic questions for readers:

If I haven’t been investing in stocks, am I too late? Is it a mistake to “buy high”? It’s the rare financial adviser who will tell anyone not to invest in the market, but at least you can ask them to offer answers based on a variety of potential scenarios; a 25-year-old may want to go all-in on stocks given her 45-year time horizon; a 45-year-old might want to consider other options.

Don’t forget to make the point that a company match, if available, is a pretty good rate of return no matter what the general market does. And most people who say they “can’t afford” to invest in a 401(k) or similar vehicle will find that they can contribute 3 percent or 4 percent to a tax-sheltered defined contribution account without really affecting their take-home pay, because of the tax savings. Run those numbers on hypothetical wages or real readers’ paychecks and, in a nice big chart, show people that there may be more room for savings in their budget than they realize. (If they’re squeamish about stocks, 401(k)s offer other places to stash savings, like bond funds and cash accounts.)

I gritted my teeth and held on, and even kept contributing, through the depths of the recession and the slow recovery. Now what do I do with my gains? Again, the answer depends on age, the individual’s lifestyle plans, other income streams, tax liabilities and so on. Conjure up some scenarios for people in various demographics – or invite readers to submit real-life dilemmas – and ask financial pros to weigh in on when to cash out, and how. Rollover IRA? And where should the money go – to a safe but non-paying money market account, or an index fund, or bonds, or what? Should people use gains to pay off debt or a mortgage?

What are the key questions planners are hearing from clients, and what are the variables that affect their advice?

 

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