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The Consumerist

eBay Seller Who Sued Customers For Bad Feedback Ordered To Pay $19,250 In Legal Fees

Fri, 2015-09-04 00:43

(Kazuhisa OTSUBO)

(Kazuhisa OTSUBO)

You may remember that back in 2013, an eBay seller filed a lawsuit against a customer who left him accurate negative feedback, claiming that he hadn’t actually read his own suit when the company’s actions led to Internet backlash. Now the case has finally been resolved, with a judge ordering the seller to pay $19,000 in attorneys’ fees to the local lawyers who took the customer’s case pro bono.

The eBay customer left bad feedback when her package arrived with insufficient postage, and the company filed a libel suit in its home state as a tactic to make her delete the feedback, since she was unlikely to travel there or hire a local attorney. This wasn’t the first time the store had filed this type of lawsuit, observers figured out, and ultimately the case led to multiple sanctions trials and the order to pay legal fees.

Sales at the eBay store fell, but it is still in business. Public Citizen’s Paul Levy reports that the company has changed its name twice since this story blew up in the spring of 2013.

The case and the Internet’s negative reaction to it remains a top search result for the company’s original name, MedExpress, and for its attorneys; maybe, Levy speculates, the case will serve as a warning to people who want to file lawsuits for damages to have bad feedback taken down, and for attorneys who would consider taking these cases.

Med Express v. Nicholls [Public Citizen]

Waze Accused Of Stealing Map Data From Competing Traffic App

Thu, 2015-09-03 23:32

waze-fullHow do you catch someone who you think is stealing your map data? Just put locations on the map that don’t exist, and then look for those locations to show up on the alleged thief’s maps. That’s what traffic-alerting app PhantomAlert did when it believed that competitor Waze was stealing its location database. Now PhantomAlert is suing Waze, which has since been purchased by Google.

PhantomAlert alleges that Waze approached the company in 2010 to propose an arrangement where the two companies would share data about points of interest (businesses, landmarks) as well as traffic and map data. They declined the arrangement, and thought both companies would just go on their way.

PhantomAlert alleges that Waze then began copying information from their maps, including fake items that they deliberately placed in the Points of Interest database. “Waze stole PhantomALERT’s database when Waze could not get it legally, and then sold itself to Google for over $1 billion,” the company’s attorney said in a statement.

PhantomAlert works with standalone GPS devices as well as mobile devices, and charges a subscription fee. Waze is free to use, supporting itself with location-based ads served up on the road. PhantomAlert also alleges that Waze’s parent company, Google, uses data that originated with PhantomAlert in its own maps and other services.

Smartphone Traffic Apps: Are You Gambling With Your Commute?

Soft Drink Companies Fund Fitness Programs, Ungrateful Governments Campaign Against Soda Anyway

Thu, 2015-09-03 22:37

(JY O'Reilly)

(JY O’Reilly)

Soft drink companies have an important message to get across to the public: their products can be part of a healthy lifestyle when used occasionally, and when you burn off that Mountain Dew with regular exercise. They’ve even been nice enough to fund fitness programs in many cities, and those ungrateful cities respond by proposing taxes and warning labels for their products.

Take San Antonio: the city has a type 2 diabetes rate that’s double the average in this country, and the city government resisted anti-soda ad campaigns aimed at the public. The county where San Antonio is embarked on its own campaign, which features a guy gobbling sugar packets while sitting at a counter in a diner. The message: if you wouldn’t eat 16 sugar packets along with your meal, why are you sipping a 20-ounce soda?

Some officials are uncomfortable with the idea of telling residents what to eat, even if it’s only a public-health or education campaign. Yet in San Antonio, the Coca-Cola-funded exercise initiatives didn’t lower the obesity rate among adults, or the percentage of people who say they drink at least one soft drink daily.

Sodas, Health Officials Duke It Out City by City [Wall Street Journal]

Pitfalls Of Big Data: Test Prep Company Charges By Geography, Ends Up Charging More By Race

Thu, 2015-09-03 22:03



Many teenagers’ parents want to give their kids every possible advantage when it comes to the SATs. They pony up a few thousand dollars and buy Junior a test-prep course. It’s expensive, but at least it’s the same kind of expensive for everyone, right? Well, no, it’s not. And worst of all: there sure is an awfully high correlation between the race of the family doing the buying and the price that they get charged.

ProPublica crunched the numbers and found that The Princeton Review, one of the most popular test-prep companies, not only sells the same product at different prices depending where you start from — but also that Asian customers, no matter where they live, are likely paying the most.

While higher-income areas generally get charged more for the same package, ProPublica found, the correlation isn’t just that straightforward. New York and D.C. residents pay the most, but customers in regions with high densities of Asian residents were likely to see the highest price — even if those regions are themselves low-income:
When it came to getting the highest prices, living in a ZIP code with a high median income or a large Asian population seemed to make the greatest difference.

The analysis showed that higher income areas are twice as likely to receive higher prices than the general population. For example, wealthy suburbs of Washington D.C. are charged higher prices. But that isn’t always the case: Residents of affluent neighborhoods in Dallas are charged the lowest price, $6,600.

Customers in areas with a high density of Asian residents were 1.8 times as likely to be offered higher prices, regardless of income. For instance, residents of the gritty industrial city of Westminster, California, which is half Asian with a median income below most, were charged the second-highest price for the Premier tutoring service.

The Princeton Review, of course, almost certainly isn’t explicitly setting out deliberately to charge customers different prices by race. In addition to being a scummy thing to do and looking very bad PR-wise, that is also very illegal.

Indeed, the company denied it strenuously. In a statement to Pro Publica, The Princeton Review said, “To equate the incidental differences in impact that occur from this type of geographic based pricing that pervades all American commerce with discrimination misconstrues both the literal, legal and moral meaning of the word.”

But even if the outcome isn’t intended, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Race-based price discrimination may not be the goal, but it is still a real, unfortunate side-effect of the algorithms the Princeton Review is using to set different prices. The publication bases its pricing on ZIP code. They told ProPublica that pricing is based on the “costs of running our business and the competitive attributes of the given market.” Translate that “competitive attributes” into English, and it basically means that if demand for their services is particularly high in an area, they can charge more without losing customers.

The Princeton Review is using algorithms — theoretically neutral pieces of software based on math — to make assumptions and judgements about who wants, and can pay for, what. But those algorithms, like thousands of others that millions of us are classified by every day, are designed by humans that bring their own assumptions and biases with them into the code.

It’s not just SAT prep. The reliance on algorithms to decide who customers are and how you should treat them is pervasive and growing. Sites will use anything from your IP address to your browsing history to decide anything from what search results you should get to what credit card offers you should see.

But the challenge of relying on all those numbers to do the thinking for you is exactly what the Princeton Review ran into here: disparate impact. When you try to privilege or minimize some non-protected attributes — like ZIP code — you can end up prioritizing or deprioritizing consumers by legally-protected statuses, too. If Orbitz thinks Mac users want to pay more for hotels, that’s crappy but not illegal. If The Princeton Review thinks that Asian-American families should pay more for their services than white families, well, that’s a whole other problem.

But in general, right now, the disparate impacts of algorithms on everyone who uses digital services are still, as consumer advocate Ed Mierzwinski put it last year, the “Wild West.” Regulation has not yet caught up with the ability for vendors to discriminate — intentionally or not — against legally-protected populations with a single click.

The Tiger Mom Tax: Asians Are Nearly Twice as Likely to Get a Higher Price from Princeton Review [Pro Publica]
When Big Data Becomes Bad Data [Pro Publica]

N.Y. Bill Seeks To Outlaw Smoking In Hotel Rooms

Thu, 2015-09-03 21:53



Although it’s illegal to smoke in most indoor spaces in New York — office buildings, bars, restaurants, retail establishments, etc. — those looking to light up a cigarette can still do so in hotel and motel rooms that are specified as smoking rooms. That could change soon, if a new bill in the state legislature succeeds.

When the Clean Indoor Air Act was passed in the state in 2003, the hotel industry got an exemption that allowed smoking in rooms, along with other indoor spots like private residences, cars, cigar bars, membership organizations and retail tobacco shops.

Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski has had personal experiences with those smoking rooms that prompted him to introduce the bill to remove the exemption for hotels last month.

“I’ll be honest, I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms,” Zebrowski told Democrat & Chronicle. “One of the things I’ve noticed is if you are above, below or next to a smoking room — even if you’re a non-smoker — it comes right through the vents.”

The bill is going to face stiff opposition from the tobacco industry when lawmakers get back to the Capitol in January: Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris USA, says it should be up to business owners whether or not to allow smoking.

“In indoor public places where smoking is permitted, business owners should have the flexibility to decide how best to address the preferences of non-smokers and smokers through separation, separate rooms and/or high-quality ventilation,” reads the company’s website.

As for how the hotel industry will react, it’s unclear: chains including Marriott and Westin have already banned smoking within their hotels, so they don’t have an interest either way.

“At this point, with the bill being introduced, we will go out to our 1,300 members, survey them and talk to them before we can give industry-wide feedback,” Mark Dorr, vice president of the New York State Hospitality & Tourism Association told the Democrat & Chronicle. “So we really don’t have a position on it right now.”

The bill doesn’t have a sponsor in the Senate yet, but Zebrowski also hasn’t reached out to anyone about picking it up so far.

“I just think from all the evidence of the detriments of second-hand smoke and as much as we’ve tried to eliminate the threat to non-smokers, this I think is a reasonable next step,” Zebrowski said.

Bill would ban smoking in NY hotels (Democrat & Chronicle)

Man Masquerading As Walmart Employee Walks Out The Door With Four Big Screen TVs

Thu, 2015-09-03 21:30
Surveillance video shows a man posing as a Walmart employee stealing four large Samsung TVs.

Surveillance video shows a man posing as a Walmart employee stealing four large Samsung TVs.

Walmart already has a long list of workers vying for the title of “worst employee,” but it’s a thief posing as an employee at the big box store that might take the cake: walking in the door, grabbing four big screen TVs and simply walking back out the way he came.

Police near Dallas are asking for the public’s help in finding the brazen thief who stole four Samsung televisions from a Walmart store last month, the Dallas Morning News reports.

Authorities say the man, wearing a vest and employee badge, walked straight to the store’s stockroom, loaded up a hand truck with thousands of dollars worth of smart TVs and walked out the door to a waiting Nissan vehicle.

The fake employee perhaps wasn’t stealthy as he may have thought. A real employee of the store took notice of the large haul and followed the man outside. The worker was able to take down the plates of the Nissan getaway vehicle.

However, police say the information was a dead-end, as the plate number was connected to a Land Rover.

“He knows what he’s going after,” police Sgt. Robert Eberling said of the their. “He pretty much committed the identical offense” at another store the week prior.

Anyone with information about the fake Walmart employee can call the Grapevine Police Department at 817-410-3200.

Fake Walmart employee walks out of Grapevine store with big-screen TVs [The Dallas Morning News]

Judge Signs Off On $415M Settlement To Resolve Tech Industry Anti-Poaching Conspiracy Case

Thu, 2015-09-03 21:13



More than three-and-a-half years after a group of workers in Silicon Valley filed a lawsuit claiming that some of the technology industry’s biggest bigwigs were involved in a secret, anti-poaching pact to prevent their employees from switching jobs and thus, keeping their salaries down, a judge has approved a $415 million settlement to lay that case to rest.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh ended antitrust claims against Apple, Adobe, Google and Intel over allegations that they’d gotten together and promised not to pillage each others’ workforces with a 15-page order on Wednesday, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

The problem for workers in that situation is that with no one trying to woo them away from their current jobs, there’s no hope of gaining leverage to ask for a raise when the time comes.

The deal had been expected since the proposed settlement was tentatively approved earlier this spring. It’ll will keep the CEOs of those Silicon Valley tech giants out of the courtroom, where a trial could’ve aired embarrassing allegations: the proceedings had unearthed internal emails that cast former Apple CEO Steve Jobs and others in a not-so-great light, including missives where he’d allegedly been the one behind the “gentlemen’s agreements.”

All the companies involved have denied wrongdoing, saying they’re only settling to avoid the risks of a trial, which could’ve cost them an estimated billions of dollars in damages.

Poaching settlement OK’d: Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe must pay $415 million [San Jose Mercury News]

CVS Claims That Booting Tobacco From Stores Has Made Us All Healthier

Thu, 2015-09-03 20:51



Today marks the one-year anniversary of CVS removing tobacco products from its pharmacies. How’s that working out for them? The company reports that sales of non-drug items were down slightly in the last year, but tobacco isn’t a very profitable item. Parent company CVS Health is celebrating the anniversary with a study that it says shows that its decision decreased total cigarette sales nationwide.

How do they know that the decrease didn’t coincide with people switching to another tobacco product, or wasn’t just part of the overall national trend of people smoking less? They used states that have no CVS stores at all as a control group, and also noted that cigarette sales decreased more in states that happen to have more CVS stores. If you want to check out their methodology, they described where those numbers came from in a short research paper.

They looked at two figures to determine how many people in a given area were quitting: cigarette pack sales and nicotine patch sales. Even if someone returned to smoking, using one of CVS’s promotional coupons to buy some nicotine patches is at least a proxy for trying to quit. Where CVS has more than 15% of the drugstore market share, they point out, cigarette sales went down 1%.

Not everyone is buying CVS’s narrative of itself as a national health savior, of course.Lawmakers were already encouraging stores with pharmacies to quit selling tobacco products because of the mixed health message that it sends, even if the cigs are behind one counter and the drugs behind another.

“CVS only sold a very small percentage of the nation’s cigarettes to start with,” a fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research told USA Today, “and financial analysts have said the impact of CVS’ move wouldn’t have a major impact on smoking rates.” Discovering that one store doesn’t carry cigarettes isn’t enough to induce someone to quit when plenty of stores have them available.

We Quit Tobacco, Here’s What Happened Next [CVS Health]
A year later, CVS says stopping tobacco sales made a big difference [USA Today]

Sam’s Club Wants To Help You Buy A Car

Thu, 2015-09-03 20:46

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 2.30.40 PMEarlier this year, Costco reported that it had sold nearly 400,000 vehicles of all makes and models at its stores across the country with the purpose of making its members happy. Today, Sam’s Club launched a similar endeavor that will put keys in the hands of the warehouse store’s faithful following.

Sam’s Club announced today that it had partnered with TrueCar for its new Auto Buying Program that aims to give members discounts and exclusive savings of up to $3,000.

Under the program, Sam’s Club members will have access to more than 10,000 TrueCar Certified Dealers nationwide – more than three times the nearest competitor in the warehouse club channel, the company claims.

“We’ve chosen to launch our auto buying program with TrueCar based on their proven ability to bring car buyers a best-in-class experience,” Seong Ohm, senior vice president of merchandise business services at Sam’s Club, said in a statement. “Our auto buying program will save members both time and money.”

Like the Costco program, Sam’s Club’s version aims to differentiate from the typical car buying experience, avoiding the typical haggling and upselling one might expect.

“By empowering members with critical pricing information prior to purchase, the Sam’s Club Auto Buying Program improves the entire car-buying experience,” the company says.

To access the program, members visit, enter their location and desired car type. They are then given information on what others in their market paid for the car they want, and can then browse pricing information from local dealers.

Once members are satisfied with their choice, they print their Guaranteed Savings Certificate or bring it on their mobile device to the selected TrueCar Certified Dealer to finalize the purchase.

It’s unclear if Sam’s Club will be making money off of their car brokering foray. That’s certainly not the case for Costco: much like its unprofitable practice of selling rotisserie chickens to keep members loyal, the retailer doesn’t actually make money on the car sales it helps broker. Instead, Costco only offers the discounted vehicles to attract and keep members.

Feds: Green Energy Ponzi Scheme Duped Consumers Out Of $54.5M

Thu, 2015-09-03 20:05

(Steven Depolo)

(Steven Depolo)

When someone makes a promise that seems too good to be true: like saying you’ll be “stinkin’, filthy rich” if you invest in their green energy technology, it’s a good idea to look into that proposition with a little more scrutiny. That kind of attractive, yet ultimately worthless deal cost consumers nearly $54.5 million, federal prosecutors say.

The Department of Justice announced today that federal prosecutors filed fraud and conspiracy charges against the three co-founders of Pennsylvania-based Mantria Corporation for their part in bilking millions of dollars from unsuspecting consumers.

Under the scheme, from 2005 to 2009 the group encouraged retirees to drain their retirement accounts and mutual funds accounts to funnel money into empty projects with promises of yields as high as 484%.

The company advertised their projects in ads on television, radio and the Internet, including two in Tennessee: one a 4,500-home development and the other a $3.2 million plant that would produce charcoal substitutes.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that court filings quote one of the operators as saying the company was “on the cusp of a revolutionary technology that’s going to change the world. You guys can benefit from it by putting money in and getting stinkin’ wealthy.”

“Unfortunately for the investors, it was all a hoax,” U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said in a statement Thursday. “These defendants preyed on the emotions of their victims and sold them a scam.”

In fact, investigators found that the Tennessee real estate development consisted of little more than some roads, a model home and a gate.

Likewise, the charcoal substitute plant never generated sales.

“Even while claiming their company made millions, they knew that Mantria had virtually no earnings, no profits and was merely using new investor money to repay earlier investors,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Livermore wrote in charging documents.

This isn’t the first time the group has been in trouble for their untruthful business practices. Back in 2012, two of the defendants were ordered to pay $37 million each after losing a Securities and Exchange Commission civil suit.

[via The Philadelphia Inquirer]

Why Some Pro-Pot Ohioans Are Against An Initiative To Legalize Marijuana

Thu, 2015-09-03 19:58

(Brett Levin Photography)

(Brett Levin Photography)

Although the issue of marijuana legalization can seem straightforward in many ways — either you want medical and recreational to be bought, sold and consumed legally or you don’t — a current initiative in Ohio that would amend the state’s constitution to allow legal pot is meeting resistance from some of the people who are usually in favor of the stuff.

NPR’s All Things Considered talked to folks in Yellow Springs, OH, a college town that I knew during my time living in nearby Dayton as a happy, hippie kind of place, where peace signs and tie-dye abound.

Though you might expect plenty of support around that area for marijuana legalization efforts, there are many people coming out against a measure that will be on the ballot this November, which would make Ohio the fifth state to legalize recreational and medical marijuana.

One 25-year-old woman who says she’s all for legalizing pot is one of those people opposed to the amendment.

“I would rather take the minor misdemeanor fine than let someone have such a massive monopoly in my state,” she says.

She and others who are generally pro-pot have taken issue with a group called ResponsibleOhio that’s pushing the initiative big time with a $20 million legalization campaign. The word “monopoly” has popped up amid opponents of the measure because it specifies only 10 locations in Ohio where growing pot would be allowed, and there are just 10 groups of investors who have laid claim to those spots. Basically, NPR’s Lewis Wallace notes, “they are paying to try to amend the Ohio Constitution to grant themselves pot growing rights.”

The group’s director doesn’t see it that way, however. Ian James says marijuana growing shouldn’t be treated like any old vegetable garden, because produce doesn’t make you high and pot does. Limiting the proposal to only 10 locations makes it easier to regulate and keep an eye on, and later a state-run control board can always add more locations.

“It’s certainly not a monopoly when thousands of Ohioans will be able to own and operate their own retail stores, their own testing facilities, their own manufacturing facilities,” he says.

Instead of voting this measure in, another group called Ohioans To End Prohibition is pushing for a different amendment next year that would create a free market for growers.

Pot supporters want legal pot and a bustling marijuana business in Ohio, says the young woman who spoke to NPR, but “not at the cost of putting that squarely into a few pockets. That’s just as bad as it is right now, where the money’s already in a few people’s pockets.

Fears Of Marijuana ‘Monopoly’ In Ohio Undercut Support For Legalization [All Things Considered]

United Airlines Passenger Tied To Seat After Becoming Aggressive On Transatlantic Flight

Thu, 2015-09-03 19:20
(Adam Fagen)

(Adam Fagen)

The long trip across the Atlantic got a bit longer for passengers on a United Airlines flight from Tel Aviv to Newark after one passenger reportedly became aggressive and had to be restrained for much of the 11-hour journey.

Unlike some flights that have been diverted over disruptive passengers, The Daily Mail reports that United Flight 85 continued on its journey to New Jersey yesterday.

The ordeal began mid-flight when a man became aggressive toward a flight attendant: United Airlines says in a statement that the flight attendant had been attempting to help calm an agitated passenger when things escalated.

Crew members and an air marshal onboard the flight subdued the man by strapping him to the seat with cable ties.

The carrier says the flight attendant was not injured in the incident.

The flight arrived in Newark on time, where four police officers entered the cabin and removed the man from the plane.

“Though law enforcement officials met the aircraft as a precaution, customers and crew members exited and departed normally,” the airline tells The Daily Mail.

Cabin crew and air marshal forced to tie aggressive passenger to his seat on US-bound United Airlines flight [The Daily Mail]

Police Return Woman’s Stolen Car With Drugs, Weapons Still Inside It

Thu, 2015-09-03 18:52



When your car is stolen, you can’t always expect to get it back. And if you are lucky enough to be reunited, you might then expect that a few things could be missing — nice electronics, your collection of road trip CDs featuring cool jams from the ’90s, etc. But in the case of a Calgary woman whose stolen car was returned to her recently by police, she was definitely surprised to find her missing vehicle had a few things it didn’t have when it went missing, including drugs, weapons and other illicit items.

She says cops didn’t do a very thorough job of searching her vehicle before it was returned to her, reports CTV News: the thieves left cocaine, identification, a crack pipe and guns inside the car.

Her car was stolen from an alley behind her home last week, and she was relieved to hear a few days later from police that they’d located her car and she could pick it up after the forensic unit had looked through it.

But as soon as she got in the car, she spotted a piece of paper in the cup holder and pulled it out — and out popped a bag of cocaine.

“And I went to the impound guy, ‘Is this normal? Like, what do I do with this?’ He was like, ‘Just throw it on the ground, throw it on the ground!'” she told CTV. So, she did.

The car kept coughing up more stuff that hadn’t been there before: She says she found a crack pipe in the backseat, four pieces of identification in the glovebox, a knife in the front passenger door and a lead pipe near the floor mat.

She called the police and an officer removed the evidence that had apparently been missed before. After the vehicle was towed to a repair shop, however, she says she spotted the butt of a gun under the seat.

“At this point, I can’t tell if it’s real or fake, but all I know is my hands have been on too many illegal things in the past 24 hours and I didn’t want any more,” she said.

The gun turned out to be a pellet gun, but she’s still angry: she’s filed a complaint with the professional standards section of the Calgary police service, and says she hopes it will keep this kind of thing from happening to other people.

“I’m trying to make enough noise so that hopefully maybe it’ll affect that one officer or even anyone in their day-to-day operations,” says Pickering. “Think of the tax dollars that could’ve been saved if they had just given it 10 minutes more than they did.”

‘Is this normal?’: Impounded car returned with gun, drugs inside [CTV News]

Maybe Warehouse Clubs Have Influenced Our Shopping Even More Than E-Commerce

Thu, 2015-09-03 18:42

(Mike Mozart)

(Mike Mozart)

Americans’ shopping habits have changed somewhat over the last few decades, but that’s not necessarily because of e-commerce. Two economists at the University of Chicago argue that the rise of warehouse clubs is what has really changed Americans’ shopping habits and the retailscape.

Maybe this will change after consumers have had a few more years of buying everything they possibly can from Amazon Prime, but here’s something to consider: online shopping represented only about 4% of consumer spending in 2012, while about 8% of all spending was in warehouse clubs.

While nationwide data only goes up to 2013, Americans spent $348 billion on e-commerce and catalog purchases in 2013, and $420 billion at warehouse clubs during the same year. That data, from the Census Bureau, goes back to 1992, and shows that mail-order and online purchases increased about 990% during that period, while warehouse club sales increased 1,500%.

Much of the catalog industry died out or moved online during that period, yet warehouse clubs, which include BJ’s, Costco, and Sam’s Club, just kept growing. While most retailers are trying to sell online and integrate their Web and in-store inventories in massive “multichannel” efforts, other companies aren’t really trying to imitate warehouse clubs.

However, the e-commerce site had a splashy, well-funded debut earlier this year, and it is trying to imitate warehouse clubs: the company has stated that it wants to sell merchandise without making a profit, and instead make money from the $50/year membership fee that customers will eventually have to pay.

A case that Costco and other warehouse clubs have transformed retail more than Amazon [Washington Post]

West Coast Grocery Chain Haggen Sues Albertsons For $1B Over Misrepresentations In Acquired Stores

Thu, 2015-09-03 17:51


Nine months ago, when Albertsons and Safeway had to sell off a bunch of stores to make their $9.2 billion merger more palatable, the Washington-based Haggen supermarket chain agreed to snap up nearly 150 of those locations. Now Haggen, in a $1 billion lawsuit, says the sale of these stores was really a calculated effort on Albertsons’ part to eliminate competition.

Haggen, which operates primarily in the Pacific Northwest, claims that since it agreed late last year to acquire 146 Albertsons and Safeway stores in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, the company has been forced to close 26 of the stores because the larger chain interfered with its ability to successfully operate the stores.

According to the lawsuit [PDF], which was filed in U.S. District Court in Delaware, Albertsons engaged in “coordinated and systematic efforts to eliminate competition and Haggen as a viable competitor in over 130 local grocery markets in five states.”

Among other things, Haggen accuses Albertsons of pushing it to acquire the store under an aggressive time frame, misusing Haggen’s confidential information to draw customers away from the newly-acquired stores, providing inaccurate data about transferred inventory, providing misleading price information of transferred products and “sabotaging the quantity, assortment and quality of inventory transferred to Haggen.”

The larger chain also allegedly removed store fixtures and inventory that Haggen had paid for, strategically cut off Haggen stores from advertising and failed to perform routine maintenance on stores and equipment prior to signing over the stores.

Haggen claims that problems began early on when Albertsons made false representations in order to convince the smaller chain to purchase the 146 stores for $300 million.

Albertsons allegedly made false representations to both the company and the Federal Trade Commission about the larger chains’ commitment to the seamless transformation of the stores into viable competitors under the Haggen banner.

“During the transfer process, Albertsons launched its plan to gain market power and/or monopoly power in the [purchased market areas], acting in a manner that was designed to (and did) hamstring Haggen’s ability to successfully operate the stores after taking ownership,” the lawsuit states. “In all of the relevant markets, Haggen was a new entrant, and Albertsons’ improper conduct destroyed Haggen’s ability to build essential goodwill among consumers in those markets.”

As a result of these actions by Albertsons, Haggen claims it was forced to close 26 of the acquired stores and “faces the potential closure of additional stores.”

“Haggen never intended to close any of the Stores it acquired,” the lawsuit states. “To the contrary, Haggen saw these Stores as an exciting opportunity to transform itself into a super-regional grocer with a presence up and down the west coast.”

A spokesperson for Albertsons tells The Oregonian that the company did not engage in anti-competitive or inappropriate practices, and maintains that the divestiture followed the process set out by the FTC.

“The allegations contained in the Haggen complaint are completely without merit and we will vigorously defend ourselves in court,” the company said. “Like the process followed by Albertsons in prior divestitures, our process with Haggen was the subject of regular reports to the FTC and review by the Monitor Trustee appointed by the FTC.”

A spokesperson for the FTC, which granted the Albertsons and Safeway merger after Haggen and other retailers bought the divested stores, said the agency is not liable for the store closures or any lost jobs that may result.

“Obviously, our expectation was and remains that Haggen will become a successful competitor to Albertson’s/Safeway, and we are disappointed in the current situation, which we are following closely,” the agency wrote in an email to The Oregonian.

This isn’t the first time that Albertsons and Haggen have sparred since the store acquisition occurred.

Earlier this year, Albertsons filed a lawsuit against Haggen accusing the grocer of fraud for failing to pay for $41 million in inventory.

At that time, The Oregonian reports that Haggen claimed Albertsons had breached the purchase agreement and had notified Albertsons of those violations before Albertsons sued.

The two companies also face legal action from a Southern California union over allegations they violated union contracts.

[via The Oregonian]

Want A Clean-Cut Lawn? A Robot Mower Might Not Be For You

Thu, 2015-09-03 17:40

(Consumer Reports on YouTube)

(Consumer Reports on YouTube)

While your inner child might thrill at the idea of having robots do stuff around the home, if you want to save a bunch of money and have a lawn with that clean-cut, green look, you could be better off sticking with a self-propelled lawnmower instead of the robotic kind.

Much like one of those robotic vacuum cleaners that cats love to ride on, at first glance it looks like a robotic mower would be just the thing for someone who wants to sit back and relax while a device does the hard work. But it’s not quite a “set it and forget it” situation with these somewhat pricy robo-mowers, as our esteemed colleagues at Consumer Reports found out when they recently tested a few models.

One of the big considerations shoppers will have to take into account is the price of robotic mowers — the four models Consumer Reports tested this summer ran from $1,000 to $2,400. That’s in comparison to the $400 price tag on a self-propelled Honda model that Consumer Reports has rated highly.

There’s also the question of installation time: you need to first set a perimeter wire for the robot mowers, driving a stake about every 18 inches into the ground to set boundaries, and then install the docking station and program the mower. All of that setting up can take several hours.

And once it’s going, there’s no guarantee the battery-powered mowers will keep going all by themselves, as they can get stuck on uneven surfaces on your lawn and need human hands to free them.

Another advantage of self-propelled mowers that shoppers should consider is the clean, even cut and straight lines Consumer Reports testers got with the self-propelled model. The robo mowers wander randomly, clipping the grass as they go, which results in an even cut, but a less smooth surface. That rougher cut can cause stress to the grass, drying it out and making it more susceptible to disease.

Check out the video from Consumer Reports below for more information on how robo mowers stack up to traditional self-propelled models:

North Carolina City Is First To Offer Internet Service That’s 10 Times Faster Than Google Fiber

Thu, 2015-09-03 17:25


(Courtesy: Fibrant)

While Google is in the process of deploying high-speed gigabit Internet service in North Carolina’s major metro areas of Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, the folks in the much smaller city of Salisbury, NC, are being offered access to broadband that’s several times faster.

Salisbury, a city of around 34,000 residents located along the I-85 corridor between Charlotte and Greensboro, announced today that it has become “America’s first 10 gigabit city,” as it turns on the city-owned “Fibrant” network running tech developed by a company called Calix.

The city spent five years building its network and has been selling gigabit broadband access since 2014. But it now claims that the Fibrant system will deliver speeds of up to 10Gbps.

The first folks in Salisbury to get the higher-speed service will be at small Catawba College, a liberal arts college with around 1,200 students. The school’s Hoke Hall, which houses Catawba’s IT center, will debut Fibrant, with other campus buildings set to receive the necessary infrastructure improvements in the future.

“Broadband services are essential to our daily operations and the quality of the educational experience our students receive,” said Joanna L. Jasper, chief information officer at Catawba College. “By moving to Fibrant’s 10 Gbps speeds, the College is in a better position to differentiate itself. We can bring world-class broadband services to our campus community to support the next generation of educational applications.”

For now, Fibrant will use point-to-point ethernet to directly connect Fibrant users, but the plan is to use next generation tech, like the NG-PON2 setup that Verizon says could someday provide speeds anywhere from 40-80Gbps.

Verizon isn’t the only major ISP in the race for next-gen super-fast broadband. Comcast has already begun deploying 2Gbps fiber service in a few markets (though it’s not cheap), while simultaneously beginning tests on DOCSIS 3.1 technology that could allow the company to deliver up to 10Gbps over existing cable lines.

As DSLreport’s Karl Bode points out, no one currently needs 10Gbps broadband, but North Carolina is full of high-tech research firms and networks capable of providing tons of data that quickly may attract businesses to the Salisbury area that want to take advantage of the high-speed connection.

One thing that Fibrant may not be able to do is sell high-speed service outside of its home county. a 2011 state law, heavily backed by Time Warner Cable, forbids municipal Internet providers from selling service to municipalities in other counties that may be in need. The city of Wilson, which has its own muni broadband service, successfully petitioned the FCC to void this law, but the state has filed suit to overturn the FCC’s decision.

Elon Musk: Tesla Will Be Taking Orders For The Cheaper Model 3 By March

Thu, 2015-09-03 16:46

(Courtesy of Consumer Reports)

(Courtesy of Consumer Reports)

Have a hankering for a Tesla electric car but don’t have anywhere in the neighborhood of $127,000? If you don’t need insanity mode or the other high-priced options included in the Model S P85D or even the regular Model S at around $69,000, Tesla CEO Elon Musk says he’s got a deal for you — well, in March, that is, when the company starts taking preorders for its cheaper Model 3 car.

As he often does with company news, Musk made the Model 3 announcement on Twitter, saying the Model 3, a smaller and lower-cost sedan at $35,000, will be available for preorders in March. It’ll be a while before customers can get their hands on the steering wheel however, as Tesla still needs to finish its $5 billion Gigafactory outside of Reno to make a cheaper lithium-ion battery to put into the vehicles.

@elonmusk $35k price, unveil in March, preorders start then.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 2, 2015

This isn’t a huge surprise, as Musk told Tesla shareholders [PDF] in a second-quarter letter in August that the company was planning to reveal the Model 3 design in early 2016, with deliveries following by late 2017.

We’ve also known the $35,000 price tag and name since July 2014: originally, Musk had plans to call its $35,000 car the Model E, but that idea was scrapped after Ford got involved.

“We had the model S for sedan and X for crossover SUV, then a friend asked what we were going to call the third car,” Musk said in an interview last summer when revealing the price. “So I said we had the model S and X, we might as well have the E… We were going to call it model E for a while and then Ford sued us saying it wanted to use the Model E – I thought this is crazy, Ford’s trying to kill sex!”

Musk also dropped some more news on customers and the general public yesterday, revealing for the first time that deliveries of the Model X sports utility vehicles will begin Sept. 29.

90,000 Pounds Of Johnsonville Grillers Recalled Because Pieces Of Metal In Your Pork Can Ruin The Barbecue

Thu, 2015-09-03 16:23
Johnsonville recalled nearly 90,000 pounds of Cheddar Cheese and Bacon flavored grillers over possible metal fragments.

Johnsonville recalled nearly 90,000 pounds of Cheddar Cheese and Bacon flavored grillers over possible metal fragments.

If your Labor Day plans included throwing a few pre-made pork burgers on the grill you might want to check your brand of choice. That’s because, just in time for the holiday weekend, Johnsonville announced a recall of pork patties that may contain decidedly untasty metal fragments.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced the recall of approximately 89,235 pounds of frozen Cheddar Cheese & Bacon Grillers under the Johnsonville brand.

Kenosha Beef International and Johnsonville became aware of the issue after receiving several consumer complaints that small pieces of metal were being found in the pork products.

“Although there have been just a handful of incidents reported to us, no injuries have occurred and we believe the risk to be minimal, we take no chances when it comes to protecting our consumers’ health and safety,” Johnsonville says on its website. “Because there’s the potential of this affected product being in the market, the voluntary recall was initiated.”

The cheddar cheese and bacon flavored frozen patties were sold in 24-ounce cartons and 13.5-pound cases at retail stores in Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Texas and Wisconsin.

The products can be identified by an establishment number “EST. 425B” and a “BEST FLAVOR BY” date of “12/29/15” on the end flap of the package.

If you no longer have the carton and just the heat-sealed plastic bag containing the Grillers, you will see both these same numbers printed on the outside of the bag, but in a different format: 425B BFB122915.

Consumers who have purchased these products are urged not to consume them. These products should be thrown away or returned to the place of purchase.

ThinkGeek Will Open First Real-Life Store On September 25

Thu, 2015-09-03 16:15

(Gareth Lovering Photography)

(Gareth Lovering Photography)

Earlier this summer, GameStop acquired ThinkGeek in a $140 million transaction that observers thought might put great geeky collectibles inside GameStop stores. While the two companies have done that, there’s another phase to their plan: later this month, the first offline ThinkGeek store will open on September 25 at the Florida Mall in Orlando.

It’s not clear why they chose Orlando: neither company is based in Florida. The store is described as a “concept store,” which may or may not lead to even more ThinkGeek stores spreading worldwide, in addition to the geeky-collectible merchandise that GameStop stores already stock. Brands mentioned in the press release are Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Nintendo, Marvel, and Minecraft, and the store will offer “collectibles, gadgets, and apparel.”

“We are combining the power of the ThinkGeek brand with the retail expertise of GameStop to deliver a new store concept that will amaze and appeal to a broad range of customers from collectors to pop culture fans,” GameStop’s president of U.S. stores said in a statement in the announcement of this new team effort.

ThinkGeek has been an online retailer since 1999, but this will be its first real-life retail venture. GameStop is best known for its stores under that name, but also operates mobile phone stores that are resellers of AT&T Wireless and of Apple products.