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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


A fond goodbye and one last tip for your tool kit

Photo via Lulu Lovering, Flickr.com

Photo via Lulu Lovering, Flickr.com

To everything there is a season and after more than 1,000 blog posts on behalf of the Reynolds Center – that’s somewhere north of half a million words, I figure – it’s time for me to move along and make way for other talented business journalists to share their tips and advice.

Over the past five-plus years, my topics have ranged from the global financial meltdown to pet sitting, from Ebola and tsunamis to baby concierges and bacon. That’s the privilege and delight for business writers everywhere – there is no sphere of life that excludes us, because economics pervades every human relationship, transaction and activity. Weather, sports, love, politics, science – financial writing offers the smorgasbord of anything you care to explore.

To narrow down this farewell message to one last piece of advice, I’d say the simple question “How’s business?” is the most useful two-word phrase in your toolkit. It’s rare for me to get through a day, or through any sort of exchange or encounter without making that inquiry, whether I’m on the clock, out on the town or on vacation. And it’s amazing how eagerly workers and business persons and executives respond to sincere interest — and how many fascinating story nuggets you can derive from a simple, non-specific question. Their answers reveal what’s top of mind.

In a cab en route to an airport, the driver regaled me with details about how a competitive limo contract at the airport was affecting his personal finances. The massage therapist fretted about a new competitor rumored to be moving in across town. The construction worker at the house next door railed about the rising cost of roofing shingles and the nurse practitioner staffing a drugstore quickie-clinic gave me the lowdown on local supply and demand for flu vaccine. The CEO of an international tactical-driving school worried about meeting demand for trained chauffeurs – the kind diplomats and executive rely on to get them out of trouble, fast – because of recent world unrest.

The stories that illustrate your community’s economic ebb and flow are there for the asking of “How’s business?” A couple of years ago, my auto mechanic had some fascinating anecdotes about broke and out-of-work patrons exhorting him to fix up their cars just enough to get them out of state to a different jobs market. And then time passed, and the appliance repair guy told me when people started loosening up, post-recession, and buying new washing machines instead of fixing old.

Obviously you have to follow up with solid reporting, but never let an opportunity pass to get some candid insight from tradesmen, ticket agents, restaurant servers, sales reps, ice-cream parlor proprietors, UPS drivers, hair stylists, produce managers in grocery stores and pretty much any one you deal with who can be persuaded to chat for a moment or two. You never know what will have you reaching for a fresh notebook.

To the readers who have shared comments and inspiration, many thanks, happy writing and feel free to keep in touch via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com.

To the Reynolds Center’s recently departed-for-new-challenges Digital Director Robin Phillips and Executive Director Linda Austin, my most heartfelt gratitude for offering me such a stimulating challenge and for your wise guidance; you’ve each helped me to become a more vigilant observer, more pithy writer and avid student of the economy. And to newly appointed Reynolds Center Director Micheline Maynard, all the best as you steer the Center into its next chapter.

Bon voyage!


Sorting out the pros and cons of “bring your own” mobile device policies

Photo via Ed Yourdon, Flickr.com

Photo via Ed Yourdon, Flickr.com

On a recent road trip, our one-hour pit stop at a rural casino was noteworthy for more than the bargain prime rib and the slot-machine jackpot:  A slot-area attendant had a small tablet or large smartphone strapped to her forearm.  Whether answering a question about the location of a popular slot or sending information to the cashier’s office about the need for a player payout, the employee consulted her mobile device frequently and told me it had replaced the computer terminals that used to be scattered discreetly throughout the gambling hall.

A few weeks earlier, an  antique shop proprietor in middle-of-nowhere Missouri asked us to bear with him as he tried out a credit-card processing app on his smartphone.  And just the other day in blustery Chicago, a conference vendor used a smartphone to sell me some books.

It’s no secret that the use of mobile technology is outpacing that of desktop.  But as the use of mobile devices goes beyond accepted to expected, there are a number of  BYOD (bring your own device) questions worth asking.  Here’s a 2014 Sage survey, for example, that finds more than half of U.S. employees use mobile equipment to access work-related information.

First of all, what are the legal implications when an employee mingles business and pleasure on the same device?  And more will be doing so:  A 2013 Gartner survey found that by 2017, half of employers will require workers to supply their own mobile devices, even those used for work purposes. 

What are workers giving up when they agree to install work-related apps, e-mail and other programs on their personal eqiupment?  And what are workers entitled to?  Here’s a CIO Journal piece about the “kill” functions and other cybersecurity tools an employer can install to protect itself and its consumers  — but the article also mentions proposed laws that would require employers to reimburse workers who use personal devices for business use. 

And what are the caveats specific to the beats you cover?  Health care presents huge challenges, for example, because both patient health info and their financial billing records can be at risk.  And of course, data breaches at mega retailers are distressingly common lately (hello, Home Depot) and this recent FierceMobile IT story says “Companies without strong BYOD policies risk major data breach.”  With shoppers increasingly wary of using their plastic at point of sale, yet about to embark on the annual spending frenzy, why not poll area corporations, retailers and restaurants about the evolution of their mobile device polices.  Why shouldn’t consumers be worried that a smartphone equipped server isn’t also skimming their private information, for example? 

Second, when a workforce is increasingly represented by part-time, low-wage workers, can inability to support a state-of-the-art mobile device be one more barrier to the workforce?   With seasonal holiday hiring booming, what are workers expected to provide on the job at restaurants, stores and entertainment venues?

And of course, the question of work-life balance comes in.  CIO magazine asks “Is BYOD burning out your workforce?” and a recent article about Daimler Chrysler’s curbs on vacation e-mails (they let employees set an away function to delete anything that comes in during vacation days) garnered plenty of wistful comments by New York Times readers.  With many people planning holidays in coming months, you could talk with area employers about the latest in formal and informal policies about how tethered workers are to their electronic leashes.


How is social media changing conventional cause-marketing tactics?

Photo via Kim Quintano, Flickr.com

Photo via Kim Quintano, Flickr.com

What do Scotch tape, chewing gum, golf balls and Kentucky Fried Chicken have in common?  Well, at least around October, they are among the myriad products whose packaging blooms pink.

For nearly 30 years, October has been designated by activists as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM); here’s a primer on how it all got started by the American Cancer Society and a pharmaceutical company, though of course for most of its history it’s been more associated with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which started the pink ribbon tradition in emulation of the AIDS-awareness red ribbons. 

In the ensuing decades it’s become almost de rigeur for companies, sports organizations, celebrities and others to embrace NBCAM and go pink in one way or another; recent reports say entities ranging from  the Miami Heat to ABC News to a fire department in Cohoes, New York are commemorating the month one way or the other. Here’s a CBS News report under the headline “Too much?” that shows the pinking of landmarks like Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue, the White House and even Niagara Falls.

But no one tops consumer products makers in their zeal to “support” the NBCAM, and October is always a good time to explore angles to the phenomenon of “cause marketing,” as it is known when corporations hitch their sales goals to an altruistic movement.

 Pink Ribbon Produce is a campaign by the fruit and vegetable industry, according to The Produce Report, an industry journal.   Taking advantage of medical advice that lots of fresh food helps ward off illness, and perhaps hoping to emulate the recent viral success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, the group is promoting via social media the Fresh Plate Challenge encouraging consumption of more veggies and fruits. 

That’s in keeping with what seems to be an emerging theme this year, the notion of using social media more to raise awareness and engage consumers.  The cosmetics company Estee Lauder says it will focus more on storytelling via digital and social media and also will support breast cancer awareness year-round rather than in one big October burst. 

The Mississippi Business Journal notes in a column by an area public-relations consultant that “The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has thrown water on all the competition when it comes to cause marketing success in the social media era. Nothing has whipped up such a viral tsunami as this innovative, inspiring and impactful initiative. All branding gurus can learn much from this sensation that is taking the world by storm.” The writer goes on to enumerate a number of considerations in planning fundraising campaigns these days; you might consult experts in your area for similar advice for charities and businesses.

I wonder if we will continue to see more cause marketing through spontaneous and interactive campaigns, following the $100 million success of the ALS Ice Bucket phenomenon, and if so, what does that mean for consumer goods companies and their vendors (packaging and design firms, advertising agencies, even distributors who restock the pink-themed goods for October) who have come to count on pink-ribbon business as part of their sales cycle.  It’s a question worth asking of those companies in your market. 

I also wonder if today’s “time-pressed families” will increasingly opt for quick methods of participation, like the ice bucket, in lieu of fun runs and other outings that require a longer time commitment.  You might ask local charities and fundraising entities how they are adapting to viral challenges and social-media driven fundraising campaigns, and to some extent crowdfunding.  With year-end giving campaigns coming up I’ll address changing patterns in charitable giving soon, but it can’t hurt to start asking about trends. 


As concern over Ebola spreads, how are local firms affected?

CNN's Sanjay Gupta reports on TKM-Ebola, a new drug in the works. PHOTO: CNN screenshot

CNN’s Sanjay Gupta reports on TKM-Ebola, a new drug in the works. PHOTO: CNN screenshot

Troubling news this week from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about the burgeoning Ebola epidemic:  the CDC issued a worst-case scenario forecast of as many as 1.4 million cases by January. 

While still largely confined to Africa, the Ebola outbreak is of growing concern worldwide and while not primarily a business story, is sure to have financial and economic implications, even in markets far from Liberia and other affected locales.  Politico asks “How prepared is the U.S. for Ebola” and many people in your audience likely are wondering the same thing.

You might want to start at least raising the topic with companies and organizations on your beats.  Some are obvious, such as airlines — which are receiving CDC guidance about infection control procedures; “treat all bodily fluids as though they are infectious,” the guidelines note.  What are the airlines that serve your market doing to change procedures and/or train not only cabin crew but contractors responsible for aircraft cleaning?  Are any new supplies being ordered, like HAZMAT-handling kits for onboard use, or masks or other precautionary equipment?  What about bus lines, railways, cruise ships, charter companies?  It may sound farfetched now but if Ebola cases do grow into the millions, passengers are going to get awfully jumpy if they are encased in a flying tub with someone who’s feverish or otherwise exhibiting symptoms.  What policies are being considered to address mid-air concerns and passenger complaints?

A team of workers stops and says a prayer each time before they retrieve the body of a patient who has succumbed to ebola. Photo: CNN

A team of workers stops and says a prayer each time before they retrieve the body of a patient who has succumbed to ebola. Photo: CNN

Same goes for any company, transportation or not, that deals with a wide swath of the general public.  Hotels, resorts and campgrounds, malls, theaters, child care centers.  Again,  perhaps it’s premature with Ebola not yet on American shores, but you might start the conversation now.


The health care beat is fertile ground for Ebola-related stories; Reuters reports “U.S. hospitals unprepared to handle Ebola waste,” and this is an excellent launchpad for a story not only about hospital biohazard procedures (even those that deal with more ordinary dangers like the United States flu season) but about the specialty companies that handle bio waste from hospitals, doctor’s offices, veterinary offices and even funeral parlors and mortuaries.  The market research firm IBISWorld says medical waste disposal is a $5 billion industry and growing, with U.S. medical facilities expected to generate 5.9 million tons of medical waste in 2014 alone.  Why not check in with such firms in your area — they are regulated by the state, for the most part, according to this Environmental Protection Agency — here’s an interactive map of state laws and regulators likely can point you to licensed companies.

And I would bet that Ebola training — for health care workers, first responders, law enforcement, school staffers and others — will ramp up and even become an industry of sorts as the disease spreads.

Obviously with all eyes on the development of Ebola vaccines, you might want to spin off a story about related biomedical research in your area; in addition to university research departments, check biomed business corridors and incubators.  Even if you don’t find a local researcher or company working on this specific virus, chances are you’ll find another interesting treatment under way and can explain how research funding, commercialization of discoveries, etc. all intersect in the search for disease cures and treatment.   The federal government’s Project Bioshieldd, established in 2004 to fast-track therapies for public health threats like Ebola, may be a way of connecting local entities to the Ebola headlines; check with the administrative authorities — which apparently includes the National Institutes of Health for grants and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority within the health & human services department — for leads to participating local researchers and companies.

Another angle — corporate giving to Ebola relief efforts, either via cash or in-kind services.  And of course you will want to check for ties to Africa among companies on your beat — is the fear of disease hampering business?



Rockefeller move highlights socially-conscious investing trends

Heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune withdrew their funds from fossil fuel investments

Heirs to the fabled Rockefeller oil fortune withdrew their funds from fossil fuel investments. Photo: Reuters

News came  this week — apparently timed to coincide with the United Nation’s Climate Summit 2014 held in New York City — that heirs to the petroleum-based Rockefeller family fortune planned to divest their $860 million charity fund from assets related to fossil fuels as CNBC reported. 

Inside Philanthropy says it figures at least another 100 corporate and family foundations also are working on divesting themselves of fossil fuel investments; you might check with the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment for leads to any foundations headquartered in (or with well-known roots in) your area to uncover a local angle to the Rockefeller story.

With the just-finished summer being called the hottest on record and other social concerns from wars to our effect on wildlife to soda-fueled obesity also making headlines, your readers and viewers might be pondering their own role in the problems and/or the solutions — and how they can tweak that.

MarketWatch already is out with  “How to invest like a Rockefeller list” of socially conscious funds, and also a couple of well-timed caveats about how subjective that catchy marketing phrase really is.  Without squelching the notion entirely, you might want to apprise readers that there are critics of the entire notion; here’s a Truth-Out piece from earlier in the month, “‘Socially responsible capitalism still feeds the disease,'” about the pitfalls of the label and issues with auditing, particularly among tech firms that rely on overseas labor.  Bankrate as well asks “Does socially responsible investing help?” and concludes that in certain cases shareholder activism can exert enough pressure to make a difference — particularly when it comes to specific issues like the way animals are treated by the food-processing industry.

Where do your area’s household-name publicly traded companies fall when it comes to socially responsible investing?  Do any make the cut for such focused funds?  Your audience might wish to know why or why not, and what the corporations say they are doing to make a lighter footprint on Planet Earth and humankind.

Talk with area investment advisers and financial planners about demand by their clients for funds that eschew certain investments.  And talk with benefits and HR managers at your area’s employers — are workers starting to seek more “green” or responsible investments in their defined contribution retirement options?   Which local employers offer the best array within 401(k) or similar plans? 

And will investors benefit beyond warm and fuzzy feelings?  A recent TIAA-CREF report says demand for socially responsible investments (SRI) grew 54 percent from 2003 to 2012, with more than $3 trillion in assets entrusted to these funds (about 10 percent of assets under professional management) but that performance — at least in the short term — is not comparable though SRI funds do compare well to broader indexes over longer periods.

Green bonds are another au courant topic; here’s a recent AP story on the topic and a Reuters piece about London banker Barclays planning to invest $1.6 billion in bonds that finance low carbon emissions projects and other Earth-friendly markets.  That news might be of interest to the planet-conscious fixed-income investors in your audience.

Again, giant grain of salt called for when relaying any of these claims — we’ve all seen how labels like ‘green,’ ‘organic’ and so on turn out to be empty marketing slogans — but an update on who’s claiming what still will benefit readers.






Conference and expo uptick may bring new business to your market

There’s something about the conference, convention and trade show industry that never fails to grab me. The ephemeral nature of these temporary small cities that arise, buzz for a few days with sales and schmoozing and demos and training and news — and then are dismantled forever… it’s intriguing and of course it’s big business too.

Kean University desk at convention

Kean University showcased its programs at NJEA in Atlantic City. Photo: Kean University

The Convention Industry Council (CIC) says an independent study it commissioned by Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLC shows a recovery in 2012 over 2009 spending, and that more than 350,000 trade shows, conventions, conferences and incentive meetings were held in the United States in 2012 – and that’s not counting another 1.3 million corporate and business meetings that fall into another category.

Direct spending accounts for some $280 billion a year – roughly half of that in travel – according to the executive summary (PDF) of the report. Tax contributions to state and local government were about $28 billion in 2012, according to this fact sheet, and the number of both participants and meetings were up.

Clearly conferences and trade shows are significant engines in many sectors of the economy, from airlines and rental car companies to printing and catering services. And there is fodder here for business writers on just about any beat, from technology to economic development to small business.


Convention center trends.

How are the physical plants adapting to meeting trends and technology?  (I was at a hotel-based function recently at which competition for cell-phone charging at outlets clearly hadn’t been contemplated when the rooms were redesigned.)

APIC, the International Association of Convention Centers, said in an August 2013 report that “Centres are challenged by rapid change in event formats and explosive growth in technology and connectivity demands, both of which require greater facility investment in a time of only modest revenue growth.”  The report also notes that many convention centers are pursuing “event creation” and other strategies for revenue growth.  How do challenges faced by local centers compare to industry-wide concerns?

The New York Times reported that new design trends include more outdoor or park-like settings that give conference-goers fresh air and relaxed surroundings.  How is that being incorporated near you by hotels, function centers and civic convention complexes?

Who are their mainstays? There might be surprises here that will reflect consumers’ interests back to them. I recall a couple of years ago hearing that pet competitions were the bread-and-butter for a regional expo center in my area.  Elsewhere I’ve seen toddler pageants and teen dance conventions keep function rooms hopping in between big-ticket seasonal RV, home and boat shows.

Quirky conferences.

From key ring collectors to would-be mystery novel writers to financial therapists to medical examiners, every professional, industry and special-interest niche has its show.  Check out the search engines at the Events in America and Trade Show News Network to find offbeat and entertaining upcoming gatherings in your region.

Convention crashers.

This New York Times story about “convention crashers” — people who hobnob around the edges of conferences hoping to drum up business without paying the registration fees is amusing but it’s also of real concern to trade show and conference organizers.  How do event planners for industries on your beat, or managers of the physical venues, plan to thwart crashers this conference season?

Spin-off business.

From promotional doodads like pens and anti-stress squeezers to exhibit rigging and catering, myriad vendors serve the expos.  At the large auto show held in Detroit, I once chatted with someone who’s on the car-detailing circuit that follows these big shows around the country.  Why not look for other small vendors or even local businesses that have found a niche serving the conference biz?


Holiday hiring stories are coming very early this year

Yikes!  I had hoped to hold off till a little bit closer to, well, at least Halloween before tackling the holiday hiring scene. 

But with word this last week of summer about the upsized holiday plans of corporations like UPS and Kohl’s, that reindeer has left the stable and your audience will be wondering where they might fit in the seasonal job scene.  ABC News reports that “Brighter economy is driving up holiday hiring plans” and says retail hiring could reach its highest point since 1999, in what some analysts are taking as an upbeat sign for consumer spending. 

Walmart employee helps customer at checkout

Grace Tan, right, bags up a grocery purchases for Angela Coffer and her daughters at a Gladstone, Mo. Walmart. Photo: Walmart on Flickr

Why the rush?  Despite some griping about holiday creep, a significant percentage of consumers say they start shopping for holiday in October, according to a CBS News appearance by AdWeek editor Tony Case — and Case noted in the interview that advertisements back in the 1800s urged early shopping; it’s not just a 21st century phenomenon.  He said Millenials are among the most enthusiastic early buyers, which might be one angle you an pursue. 

Obviously UPS, which said it’s adding up to 95,000 workers,  anticipates a big volume of packages and doesn’t want to repeat last year’s slow-delivery glitches; Bloomberg Businessweek reports that “FedEx joins UPS preparing for holiday ecommerce surge,” and says analysts expect a 17-percent hike in e-commerce this year.  Interestingly, the shippers have been meeting with retailers to encourage them to run sales and promotions earlier in the season, so orders and packages don’t pile up to close to Christmas.   If you’re in the mood for a wonkish supply chain story, it might be intriguing to contrast the way the timing of marketing campaigns, sales and so forth affect the conflicting goals of shippers and stores. 

 Why not talk with local consumers about their ratio of online to bricks-and-mortar shopping over the next few months.  Why do they choose online, big-box or local for various shopping decisions?  What are area merchants doing to compete with the to-your-doorstep service offered by online sellers?  A number of grocery store chains are testing delivery services, and Newsday reports that in a few markets, Macy’s and Bloomingdales plan to test same-day delivery service to compete with Amazon. 

The recently-created Small Business Saturday campaign that encourages local shopping (with a boost from credit card issuer American Express) is set for Nov. 29 this year, which seems at odds with earlier-and-earlier promotional activity by national retailers.  Talk with marketers and local shops, as well as small business groups, about whether this strategy might need some tweaking. 

Holiday hiring is also a way to illustrate the fortunes of your local economy.  Perhaps, instead of focusing on corporate giants, you could poll mall operators and Main Street merchants and your community’s small businesses about how the fourth-quarter consumer mania affects employment.  Catering firms, restaurants, hotels, etc. might need more workers — what are some of the actual jobs created in your community this time of year, and how do they compare to chain-store temp jobs in terms of wages, benefits, hours and opportunity to parlay into year-round work?

Other ideas:

Follow a seasonal worker or two.  A blog, diary or weekly Q&A with a seasonal worker to get the inside view of consumer activity, store traffic, what’s hot and quirky observations could be interesting.  I’ve long hoped someone would start a local “Santa Index” with weekly input from area mall Clauses about what kids and families are asking for.  There likely would be anonymity issues to work out with senior editors but the insight might be worth it. 

Beyond retail.  Seasonal help is needed by more than just retail and supply/chain companies.  Hotels, catering services, valet parkers, Christmas tree lots, food distributors — the fourth-quarter crush amps up demand in many sectors.  How about a story focusing on what the holidays mean to aspiring performers who work in seasonal plays, shows and other entertainment productions?   Stately homes and museums often feature costumed performers this time of year, as well. 



Fed to keep interest rates low as savers experience continued woe

Record highs stock market

Stocks rose Thursday and the Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor’s 500 index finished at record highs.

Well, Wall Street certainly appreciated news from the Federal Reserve on Wednesday that the central bank would refrain from changing its near zero-interest rate policy for a ‘considerable time.’   As the Wall Street Journal reports the Dow Jones industrial average chalked up another record close at 17,156.85. on Wednesday and 17,265.99 Thursday.

Investors like low rates because with bonds and deposit accounts paying little or nothing, money is forced into the stock market to buoy prices.  Economists (some) like them because theoretically low rates make it possible for consumers to buy more stuff.

But over on Main Street, you may have heard wails of dismay at the Fed announcement as savers contemplate more years with no return on their cash hoards.  I think the flip side of low interest rates and the damage they have done to non-borrowing households is under-reported and worth your look.

This Bankrate.com chart of historical CD rates (6-month, 1-year and 5-year) will induce nostalgia in many a saver; while we are 30 years out from the heady 12-percent returns of 1984, even in the past decade it was not unheard of to get 5 percent rates on cash savings.   I don’t think anyone realistically expected double-digit returns on CDs, but many is the mature worker or recent retiree who predicated cash flow based on a 3-percent to 5-percent rate of return on money market accounts or certificates of deposit.  That’s potentially thousands of dollars a year they are falling short of projections, for five years and with no end in sight.

Forbes calls the Fed policy a “100% tax on savers” in a pithy column and says that the hit to people with money in interest-bearing bank accounts, money-market funds and CDs has been more than $1.2 trillion in lost income since 2008, and that is not counting the erosion of purchasing power caused by inflation.

Clearwater Public Library coupon club

This library in Florida hosts a coupon club for people hoping to save a little money. Photo: Clearwater Public Library

Bankrate.com highlights “6 ways federal reserve policy hurts retirees,” from poor savings returns to higher long-term care premiums and the hit to pension funds that also depended on interest income.   Here’s a 24/7 Wall Street post, “How low interest rates are slamming corporate pension funds.”

I think you could go to a number of CPAs and other tax preparers, and financial advisors, for some real-life anecdotes (and leads to real savers) about how the zero-interest-rate policy has materially affected their clients.  Ask the subjects if you can publish their case studies — or, if no one wants to go public, at least have the planners and accountants provide some scenarios using actual client financial numbers.

Talk with financial analysts and economists about the drag produced (at both the household and national level) when people who anticipated a certain level of interest income are forced to either forego spending or to dip into capital for expenditures like property taxes, household repairs, medical insurance and other payments they planned to cover with interest.   What economy-stimulating things have these savers not done over the past five years — travel, home improvement, big-ticket purchases like furniture, appliances, cars and jewelry — and how does their restraint offset the spending supposedly stimulated among borrowers by low rates?

And ask about what readers can do if they don’t want to risk money in stocks but still need to generate some sort of income.  This recent article from USA Today’s John Waggoner suggests a few options like corporate bonds and dividend-yielding stocks, though clearly there is little other recourse for the saver.

Here’s the Fed’s own non-technical explanation for the general public on why it’s keeping rates low; you may find some of the links on this page helpful.


Tipping campaign from Marriott spotlights low-paid hospitality industry

From the “seemed like a good idea at the time” department:  Marriott International’s launch this week of a campaign to encourage the tipping of hotel housekeepers landed like a lead balloon, and has a number of angles that business writers can localize to take advantage of the buzz.

Marriott on Monday said it has partnered with two non-profits in a program called The Envelope Please, which involves in-room reminders (the envelopes) for guests to tip what Marriott is calling hotel room attendants. 

Tipping can be arbitrary and in some cases discriminatory.

Critics believe that tipping adds uncertainty to a worker’s income. Photo: Satish Krishnamurthy

Nothing wrong with tipping hotel housekeepers — I do it all the time — but the public backlash to Marriott’s plea is going to rank right up there with New Coke, Netflix’s “Quickster” foray and other PR blunders as a feel-good ploy gone bad.  McDonald’s budget tips for its  low-wage employees spring to mind; that widely derided effort last year had worker advocates pointing out that the meager budget the fast-food chain touted — including $20 a month for health care — wasn’t even possible on one of its own restaurants’ pay. 

Now, Marriott is being reviled in editorials, on social media and in headlines.  CBS News laid it on the line with “Marriott wants maids to get a raise, through your tips,” and even Fortune snarking “Marriott to hotel guests: Please pay our maids for us.”   New York magazine says “Multi-billion dollar corporation encourages you to tip its workers”  and calls the campaign “galling,” noting that Marriott posted well over half a billion dollars ($626 million, actually) in annual profits; according to Fortune, the ‘room attendants’ make a little more than $19,000 a year. 

Working hard for the money

Meanwhile, as CNBC reports, the hospitality industry also is fighting minimum wage laws  and other pressure to raise worker pay. With hospitality jobs among the biggest gainers (the Bureau of Labor Statistics says  they represent one in five non-farm jobs added during the recovery)  and the prevailing topic this year of most jobs creation happening in low-wage categories, a look at how service workers are paid and whether they increasingly depend on tips might be intriguing.   At some levels, tipped jobs can be lucrative — tales are out there of bartenders earning $96,000 a year and the like — but most reports find that tipped workers tend to skew poor.

Here’s a Quartz piece in reaction to Marriott’s news that says “Confirmed: Tipping is a terrible way to pay people,” and notes that when employers are allowed to pay tipped workers less than minimum wage, huge compliance issues arise.   The Economic Policy Institute recently published a briefing paper about the two-tier minimum wage system and the report notes that an astounding 83.8 percent of restaurants in a recent Department of Labor sweep were found to be in some violation of the wage laws related to tipped workers.  Here’s a Tampa-specific release from the Labor Department, for example; you might check in on what data are available for your area.

Tipping the scale

I wonder if a critical mass of tips could bump hotel room maids into the “tipped worker” category and allow them to be paid the lower “tipped minimum wage.”  That might be a question for labor experts, unions and state or federal regulators. 

Another angle is the basic personal finance one of tipping hotel room cleaners; you might survey area motels and hotels to find out what common practice is.  I’ve noticed that envelopes are more common in recent years; previously the etiquette-approved method was to leave a few dollars or more on the pillow or in an area where it otherwise is clear it’s for the maid.  I know travelers who make a point of using the in-room note pads and pens to write a note so that the cash can’t be mistaken for a guest’s left-behind or dropped money.  However, judging by discussions in person and by groups like the Etiquette Hell message forum, not everyone agrees that tipping in hotels is necessary or desirable and the topic can become quite heated.  What is the norm in your community?   What is the tipping norm at other venues from furniture delivery to car detailing to landscaping?