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The Consumerist

Fourth Of July Candy Corn Is Now A Thing

Tue, 2014-04-22 16:44

13958617102_c4d69d774a_zMarshmallow Peeps and Reese’s peanut butter eggs have branched out into other holidays and are available more or less year-round. Depending on your opinion of these treats, that’s a wonderful thing or a terrible one. What you may not know is that candy-makers are trying to turn other treats into year-round confections, which is how we’ve ended up with Fourth of July Candy Corn.

There’s nothing wrong with this, exactly. Corn is a vegetable native to North America, so there’s nothing wrong with celebrating one of the world’s greatest grains in honey-laden form. It just has fruit flavors and doesn’t resemble the natural corn that we’re used to. (Red and blue corn do exist, but not on the same kernel.)

As we looked into this, we learned that alternate-holiday candy corn is nothing new. It’s been around for a few years, and Brach’s and other companies have tried some new ideas in the category of candy corn for holidays other than Halloween. How about pastel Easter candy corn?

SPOTTED ON SHELVES – 4/22/2014 [The Impulsive Buy]

Survey Says: People Still Hate The Airlines… Especially United

Tue, 2014-04-22 16:33

(James Vaughn)

(James Vaughn)

The folks at the American Customer Satisfaction Index have released their annual report on the airline industry, once again confirming that it’s awfully hard to please consumers when you treat them like cattle and charge a premium for the privilege.

The airline industry average score of only 69 for 2014 is a slight improvement over last year’s average, but still only puts it ahead of industries that are even more despised, like pay-TV and Internet service providers.

Of the large legacy carriers to be listed in the survey, only Delta beat the industry average with a score of 71, while American and merger partner U.S. Airways tied with 66 (so at least they can’t complain next year that one of them is bringing the other down).

And poor ol’ United, which got leap-frogged in the size rankings by American this year, remains in the rear with a dreadful score of 60, putting it below Comcast’s most recent score of 63 and tying with Time Warner Cable for having the second-lowest ACSI score.

What specifically do people hate about the airline industry?

ACSI says two of the largest contributors to low scores were poor in-flight service and lack of seat comfort, categories that scored 67 and 63, respectively.

One bright spot is the improved booking and check-in processes at most airlines, where you no longer need to deal with a human being for most flights. These two categories each scored 82.

“Travelers are happy with airlines before they get on the plane. Even areas that might be considered stereotypical customer pain points, like late departures and arrivals or baggage handling, score high these days,” says David VanAmburg, ACSI Director. “The one area that continues to plague airlines is the in-flight experience, which can really sour satisfaction with the airline overall.”

Even on the above average side of the ACSI survey, things weren’t great. JetBlue repeated as the highest-scoring carrier but saw its score drop by 5%. Likewise, runner-up Southwest’s score declined by 4%.

Surveys like this seem to highlight that, barring some sort of major innovation that allows airlines to carry large numbers of passengers efficiently and inexpensively without having to cram them in like sardines in a tin, it may just be impossible for air travel to ever be more than marginally satisfactory for those of us who can’t afford to pony up for business- and first-class seats.

Palcohol, We Hardly Knew Ye: Feds Quickly Reverse Approval Of Powdered Alcohol

Tue, 2014-04-22 15:47

Palcohol, we hardly knew ye.

It’s been real.

Yesterday it was like you couldn’t turn around on the Internet without running into the hubbub about Palcohol, a powdered alcohol meant to be mixed with water sort of like Kool-Aid, but boozy. The astonishing thing? The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau had apparently blessed the product with its approval. That approval proved fleeting, as the agency reversed itself last night.

The agency’s director of congressional and public affairs, Tom Hogue, said in an email that the group had approved the powdered vodka, rum and other booze mixes “in error.” But he didn’t respond to further questions, reports CNNMoney.

The company behind Palcohol, Lipsmark, says that “there seemed to be a discrepancy [about] how much powder” is in each packet, and that it will resubmit the product for approval.

“We have been in touch with the TTB and there seemed to be a discrepancy on our fill level, how much powder is in the bag. There was a mutual agreement for us to surrender the labels,” says a statement on the Palcohol site. “This doesn’t mean that Palcohol isn’t approved. It just means that these labels aren’t approved. We will re-submit labels. We don’t have an expected approval date as label approval can vary widely.”

Critics of Palcohol say it could be dangerous due to its portability and the fact that it hasn’t been proven safe for use with food, which was reportedly something the product’s site mentioned before that recommendation was taken down yesterday.

The product would now need to get not only approval at the federal level (again), but states would also have to sanction it as well.

Regulator reverses approval of powdered alcohol [CNNMoney]

Netflix Increasing Prices, Thinks Comcast-Time Warner Merger Is A Terrible Idea

Tue, 2014-04-22 00:10

(Eric Spiegel)

(Eric Spiegel)

Everybody panic: Netflix is raising prices! This afternoon, the company released its latest earnings report, where the company told the world about its $53 million quarterly profit and impressive growth in subscriptions. That’s all very interesting, but not what we at Consumerist are interested in. We care about one other piece of information that Netflix mentioned: they plan to raise prices for the first time in years.

The company’s pricing has remained pretty much the same since 2011. That’s when DVD and streaming subscriptions were split after the company’s attempt to spin DVD rentals off into a separate, strangely-named business called Qwikster.

Competing service Amazon Prime provides both streaming video and free shipping of mundane items in comically oversized boxes to your doorstep. Yet consumers took the announcement earlier this year that Amazon would be hiking the yearly Prime membership fee by $20 fairly well.

Except…not for a few months, and only for new customers at first. Eventually, the increase will hit current customers. The company tried a similar increase in Ireland, and there were no Qwikster-style mass consumer revolts.

On a section about the report that discusses the overall state of the information and entertainment businesses, the company decided to make note of its opinions of net neutrality and the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Their very predictable positions: for net neutrality, against the merger. “Comcast is already dominant enough to be able to capture unprecedented fees from transit providers and services such as Netflix,” the company notes. “The combined company would possess even more anticompetitive leverage to charge arbitrary interconnection tolls for access to their customers. For this reason, Netflix opposes this merger.”

Letter to Shareholders [Netflix]

Frito-Lay Inflicts Mystery Dorito Flavors On Public Again

Mon, 2014-04-21 22:53

doritosjacked_3x2Are you willing to volunteer your taste buds for flavor science? Do you also want to pay for the privilege? Frito-Lay is at it again, offering a selection of mystery flavors to find out which ones the public likes best. It’s similar to the “Do Us A Flavor” contest at sibling brand Lay’s, but without actually telling consumers what those flavors are.

We’re amused that no one seems to remember that this is nothing new: the brand has done mystery flavors in the past, including X-13D, a promotion where the company wanted customers to name a mysterious new variety. They turned out to be cheeseburger-flavored, a variety that didn’t really win over the public.

Instead of names or branding, the bags simply have “test flavor” numbers, and labels in simple shades of blue, red, and yellow. Those colors might be hints: we’re hearing whispers that the yellow bags might be Mountain Dew-flavored.

AdAge points out that asking customers to pay to take part in a taste test is a test of loyalty and of trust in the brand. They need to have some faith that the chips will be edible and worth the money. It may also help that there’s a sweepstakes associated with the taste test.

As part of the promotion, they’re giving out prizes: snackers can win an ounce of gold (you know, because Doritos means “little golden things”) or Xbox Live memberships.

Aereo Supreme Court Case Could Change TV & Cloud-Based Tech Forever, Regardless Of Who Wins

Mon, 2014-04-21 22:48

(Ben Balter)

(Ben Balter)

Many big court cases involve one side arguing to maintain the status quo while the other contends that the current situation needs revising. But tomorrow, the broadcast TV networks face off against startup streaming video service Aereo in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could have far-reaching implications no matter which side is victorious.

THE BASIC FACTS
• Aereo is a streaming video service that takes freely available over-the-air broadcast signals and makes them available online to paying subscribers. It is available in around a dozen markets around the country.

• It is being sued by the major broadcast networks. They allege copyright infringement because Aereo is retransmitting their signals without consent and (more importantly) without paying the huge fees paid by cable and satellite operators for retrans rights.

• Aereo says it is not violating copyright or retransmitting broadcast signals. In each market it operates, Aereo uses arrays of tiny antennae to capture the broadcast signals. Each antenna within an array is dedicated to just one end-user. Aereo contends that this one-to-one connection is no different than a consumer having a really nice rooftop antenna on her roof to improve reception.

• In each region where Aereo has launched, the broadcasters have sought injunctions that would halt the service pending the outcome of a trial. In all but one case, the courts have sided with Aereo and refused to issue an injunction. A U.S. District Court in Utah is the lone legal victory thus far for the broadcasters, shutting down Aereo service in six states.

• Top executives at News Corp (owner of the FOX channels) and CBS have both threatened to take their networks off the air if Aereo wins. Similarly, both the NFL and Major League Baseball have threatened to take their balls over to basic cable.

• In its petition to the Supreme Court, the broadcasters try to double-down on the copyright claim by alleging that Aereo’s cloud-based DVR violates copyright because each time a recorded program is stream constitutes a new “public performance.” Broadcasters made similar claims in recent years in a lawsuit over Cablevision’s cloud DVR, but a federal appeals court disagreed and the Supremes opted to not hear that case.

IF THE BROADCASTERS WIN
Had the broadcasters not tried to involve the legality of cloud-based recording, it’s possible that an Aereo loss would only mean an end to the service and the establishment of a precedent blocking similar services in the future.

But their decision to bring up the DVR question means that a broadcaster victory could put all cloud-based technology at risk.

Cablevision, which believes that Aereo is violating copyright law but thinks the broadcasters are going too far with their attack on cloud technology, recently issued a white paper arguing that the networks’ argument against the Aereo DVR “threatens a whole host of innovative cloud-based services offered by companies such as Google, Amazon, and Apple.”

While the broadcasters claim that their attack on Aereo’s DVR is focused enough that it won’t affect established cloud-based storage and computing services, Google and others counter (in a brief [PDF] filed by the Computer & Communications Industry Association) that the broadcasters fail to adequately distinguish between Aereo’s cloud service and those offered by others.

Even if it’s not the broadcasters’ intention to spoil cloud-based technology, a win before SCOTUS would open the door for legal challenges from those that do oppose cloud tech.

“If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the broadcasters, their opinion might create liability for various types of cloud computing, especially cloud storage,” Mitch Stoltz, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recently told ArsTechnica.

IF AEREO WINS
In recent interview, Aereo CEO Chet Kanokia has tried to downplay the impact of SCOTUS siding with his company, saying Aereo will just continue to expand and that it will take years before the TV landscape changes.

He’s right that it won’t happen overnight, but that slow change could have huge, long-lasting results.

Expect copycats. An Aereo win would legitimize the underlying idea behind its one-antenna/one-user setup. Multiple cable operators (DirecTV, Time Warner Cable, Charter) have already been quietly working on similar technology that would allow them to capture over-the-air signals and transmit them directly to specific end-users. The cable/satellite companies could use this tech to avoid paying billions in retransmission fees to the networks. Not that any of these savings would be passed on to consumers…

The big question is whether the broadcasters and sports leagues will make good on their threats to flee the airwaves and go cable-only. That possibility seems highly unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Aereo is not a cable competitor, as it only offers channels that are already freely available over the air and only to users within their local markets. So while it appeals to a number of consumers who simply want good reception and DVR service without having to pay out an orifice for basic cable, it will never replace the hundreds of cable channels full of reality shows about really loud people.

And even if Aereo becomes more popular, that is actually good news for broadcasters as viewers are watching network TV shows. Considering that the service is most widely used in densely packed urban areas where TV reception is poor. Many of these Aereo subscribers are people who likely weren’t watching TV before the service, so the networks should be happy to have additional eyes on their programs (and more importantly on their ads).

Aside from the occasional weekend game and parts of the playoffs, Major League Baseball has long disappeared from network TV, so MLB’s threat to leave completely if Aereo wins rings hollow. The NFL is a different story, as its highest-rated games are almost always on network TV each weekend. That’s partly because the people who pick the Thursday and Monday night games for the NFL Network and ESPN, respectively, are really bad at their jobs, but it’s also because many American TV watchers — whether they have cable or not — still look first to the networks when they sit down in front of the tube.

An Aereo win won’t lower your cable bill or convince the networks to finally start streaming their feeds live online, but it will insure that a disruptive, positive force remains in the market while clearing up some lingering questions about the legality of cloud-based technology.

Spooked By Specter Of Competition, AT&T Considering Gigabit Fiber Expansion In 25 Cities

Mon, 2014-04-21 22:44
(So Cal Metro)

(So Cal Metro)

In a move that could theoretically bring something like the actual first glimmering hint of real broadband competition to a couple million more consumers nationwide, AT&T today announced major plans for expansion to their “GigaPower” Uverse service. The expansion could potentially bring the gigabit fiber broadband network to as many as 25 major metropolitan areas.

AT&T already offers their GigaPower service in Austin and is launching soon in Dallas. Their announcement today brings the full list of cities are considering potentially expanding into to include: Atlanta, Augusta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Ft. Lauderdale, Ft. Worth, Greensboro, Jacksonville, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, Oakland, Orlando, Raleigh/Durham, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and Winston-Salem.

Much as with Google’s fiber expansion plan announcement earlier this year, there’s no guarantee that AT&T will expand to all of the potential markets, of course. As their press release makes clear, top consideration will go to “communities that have suitable network facilities” and that make the best business cases “based on anticipated demand and the most receptive policies.” In other words, the cities that will cut them the biggest tax breaks and that can guarantee them the highest number of subscribers.

And speaking of Google Fiber, they already operate in Kansas City, are expanding in Austin and Provo, and have also announced potential expansion to include Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Phoenix, Portland, Raleigh/Durham, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, and San Jose.

In other words, six out of the nine markets where Google has said they might soon expand their Fiber service, and two of the three where they already run it, are also on AT&T’s potential gigabit shortlist. That’s 75% of Google’s potential areas, and that’s probably a bit too much to be strictly coincidental.

The overlap is no doubt due at least in part to the fact that low-hanging fruit is low-hanging for everyone. Several of the cities on the list already have fiber laid out that isn’t in use or are sprawling cities (rather than steeply vertical ones like New York) where running infrastructure can be easier. Cities like Winston-Salem and Raleigh and Durham have also already indicated their willingness to work with a company willing to run gigabit broadband to the area.

But there’s probably more than just convenience driving AT&T’s list of potential targets. When consumers get their hands on gigabit connections, they love them. Google’s list of potential new cities was, as much as anything else, a warning that they intend to plant their flag and claim at least some of those territories. It’s not at all surprising that a competitor would suddenly feel the urge to get there first.

And of course, it’s not just other fiber companies that AT&T is really worried about competing against. With Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s proposed merger working its way through the regulatory process, there could well be a huge new national player in almost every town before the end of the year.

Now a select few cities (lucky, lucky Austin) are suddenly finding themselves with an embarrassment of riches, and have multiple companies clamoring to offer super-fast, efficient broadband. Most of us are not yet so fortunate. Are we on the cusp of a corporate race to bring gigabit broadband to the masses? Only time will tell. In the meantime, if you want to start downloading faster it seems like North Carolina and Texas are the places to be.

AT&T Eyes 100 U.S. Cities and Municipalities for its Ultra-Fast Fiber Network [AT&T Press Release]

Brewers Claim Proposed FDA Animal Feed Rules Would Raise Prices For Beer

Mon, 2014-04-21 22:00

(afagen)

(afagen)

One might not make the obvious connection between animal feed and beer brewing, but every year the nation’s brewers provide millions of tons of low- or no-cost animal feed to farmers in the form of spent grain left over from the brewing process. But a proposed rule update by the Food and Drug Administration may make it harder for brewers and farmers to continue this relationship.

For every gallon of beer produced, there is about 1 pound of spent grain that remains. While there are numerous other uses for it, this food-grade product is no longer of any use to the brewer.

Under current FDA regulations, brewers and distillers are exempt from the documentation and tracking requirements that other feed providers must follow. Thus, beer makers can easily unload the stuff on livestock farmers always looking for an inexpensive way to keep their animals fed.

The proposed rule change would, among other things, pull the plug on that exemption, compelling brewers to keep extensive records of their spent grain and possibly undertake new drying and packing procedures.

The goal is to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses entering the food supply through animal feed. If an outbreak were to happen among a farm’s animal population, the records would aid investigators in tracing and identifying possible sources. However, the FDA admits that it doesn’t know of any cases in which spent grain from a brewer has been linked to such contamination.

Some brewers say that the new rules would put too much of a burden, both financial and logistical, on beer makers.

“That would be cost prohibitive,” vice president of brewery operations at Widmer Brothers in Oregon tells the Oregonian. “Most brewers would have to put this material in a landfill.”

If brewers are forced to dry and repackage the spent grain before selling or giving away to farmers, he estimates it could cost up to $13 million per brewery just to update their facilities.

The Beer Institute says that farmers receive about 90% of the nearly 3 million tons of spent grain produced every year. But it’s more a matter of mutual convenience than making money. Brewers are willing to let it go cheaply just to save the expense of having to store or dispose of it, and farmers are more than happy to serve it up to their animals.

“It’s one of those rare things that’s been a win-win for livestock producers and the beverage industry,” explains the director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association to the Oregonian.

In the wake of the unexpected backlash to the proposal, the FDA says it will open up the rule to comments again this summer and then revise the proposal accordingly; that may or may not mean continuing the exemption for brewers.

New Powdered Alcohol Is Like Kool-Aid For Adults Looking For A Quick Drink

Mon, 2014-04-21 21:00

palcoholKool-Aid might be the drink of choice for children, but a similarly powder base drink could be the next big thing for adults. That’s because it’s alcohol. Yes, you read that right, powdered alcohol.

Joining the ranks of sports drinks, milk and other drinks that have been turned to powder, the new product called Palcohol aims to speed up the cocktail making process, CNN Money reports.

The new powder has even been given the green light by federal regulators. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau recently approved flavors including vodka and rum, as well as cocktails like Cosmopolitans and Lemon Drops. Consumers can add five ounces of liquid to the powder for a standard size cocktail.

While the new product might be perfect for time-strapped adults, critics fear that same convenience will appeal to teens. The concerns were exasperated when Palcohol manufacturer Lipsmark LLC suggested uses for the product including bringing to college football games.

CNN Money reports the posts on the company’s website have since been taken down. Officials with the company say the marketing attempts were not meant to go public.

“As Palcohol is a new product, we have yet to understand its potential of being added to food,” a Lipsmark tells CNN Money.

The product still faces regulations on the state level and retailers and wholesalers need to agree to sell it. However, Lipsmark official say they don’t foresee any problems and plan to have the product on the shelves by this fall.

Powdered alcohol could be in the mix [CNN Money]

What’s The Fastest Way To Beam 10 Bucks To A Friend?

Mon, 2014-04-21 20:49

(Chris Rief)

(Chris Rief)

Let’s say that you owe a friend money, but you can’t just hand them some cash and call it a day: your friend lives in a different state. What is the easiest, most cost-effective, and most importantly the fastest way to beam money from one person to another? Over at the Wall Street Journal’s Marketwatch, staffers decided to race four different services and see how they differed.

Here’s the funny thing about the modern banking system: it isn’t terribly modern. Here in the United States, transfers of money generally only move from one place to another during business hours on weekdays. That means that some cash-beaming services might seem surprisingly slow as soon as we want that money back in the standard banking system.

The competitors: Popmoney, PayPal, Google Wallet, Square, and an old-fangled check. $10 traveled from a reporter in New York City to a colleague in San Francisco. They tracked how long the money took to get from one bank account to another. That’s the easy part: a transfer from one PayPal or Google Wallet account to another takes seconds, but the part where it enters the regular banking system gets complicated.

How did the competitors do? The race began at 3 P.M. on a Friday, to find out how the services would fare at the end of the business week.

Popmoney: This transaction could be funded from a credit card, and did require both parties to sign up for an account. The transfer took three days in total, and cost 95 cents. It would have taken longer to move a larger amount of money or fund the transaction with a bank account.

Google Wallet: This account was relatively easy to set up, and the transfer was quick, but the process becomes slower and more complicated if you need to move cash to a regular bank account instead of using it to get some pizza with a side of free chicken or something. The transfer was free if funds came from another bank account instead of a credit or debit card, and took four days to hit the recipient’s bank account. You’ll need your account and routing numbers to withdraw the money.

PayPal: Out of these services, this is probably the one most readers are familiar with, but the problems and pricing structure were very similar to those of Google Wallet: free transfers if you use a bank account to fund the transaction, but small fees otherwise.

Square Cash: You might be most familiar with Square as one of the first smartphone credit card readers to hit common usage. They aren’t just for merchants, though: you can use Square Cash to send money to anyone, whether they already have an account or not.

The service doesn’t require users to sign up for an account: you send an e-mail to your friend, copy Square on the message, and then follow up later with your financial information to fund the transaction. This makes it easy to use, cash-sender Jonnelle Marte a little nervous, noting that “anyone who hacked into our email account could theoretically empty our bank account.” This transaction had no fees, and the money reached the recipient’s bank account the same day.

Paper check and snail mail: This venerable method didn’t take that much longer than the others: the check showed up on the recipient’s desk in San Francisco only a day after the Google Wallet transaction had cleared. The fee for this transaction was 46 cents, the current price of a postage stamp. The transfer took a total of four days.

Square, Google, Paypal, Popmoney — who’s faster? [MarketWatch]

Banks Turning To Interactive ATMs To Reconnect Customers With Tellers

Mon, 2014-04-21 20:00

interactiveDepositing a check, transferring funds between bank accounts and withdrawing cash used to entail a drive to the bank and sometimes a long wait in line to see a teller. Today, with the advent of mobile banking consumers rarely have to come face-to-face with another human being. But the newest development in banking aims to reconnect consumers with the teller, kind of.

Interactive teller machines, which combine customers and virtual tellers, are joining the plethora of options available for consumer’s banking convenience, The Washington Post reports.

Customers visiting one of the new machines can now complete a number of transactions via the two-way video which connects to a teller in a remote location. The virtual option has been gaining ground recently as banks and credit unions have been exploring ways to cut costs.

“It’s a great use of self-service technology but it’s also personal because you’re face-to-face,” Brian Bailey, a vice president at NCR, a New York-based technology company that sells interactive tellers, tells the Post.

Consumers can expect to complete a number of transactions, like withdraws and deposits, at the interactive tellers. For more nuanced transactions customers can use the built-in signature pads and audio and video capability to easily connect with a teller.

While the new machines are similar to ATMs, there are several stark differences. Consumers can withdraw larger amounts of funds. Because the machines offer an array for coins, checks can be cashed down to the cent, Bailey says.

The new teller machines have found a bit of a niche with smaller banks looking for alternative means of increasing their presence in communities without building storefronts. Bailey says that community banks and credit unions have been among the first to experiment with the new technology, but more recently NCR has provided the tellers to large banks such as Bank of America and U.S. Bank.

The State Employees Credit Union in Maryland has been using the machines in a handful of locations for nearly a year with positive results.

“Customer reaction has been quite good,” Peggy Tucker, senior vice president for member relations and branch operations at SECU, says. “Members are easily adapting to the new technology. One of the biggest benefits of having the video teller is that we are able to offer expanded teller hours.”

Three employees operate the machines from the SECU headquarters in Linthicum, MD. So far the machines have proven to be a cheaper and more efficient than hiring more employees, Tucker says.

Banks turn to video tellers to cut costs [The Washington Post]

Was This Walmart Doing A Bad Thing By Being Closed On Easter But Asking Employees To Work?

Mon, 2014-04-21 19:28

(Reddit)

(Reddit)

When a store says it’s closed on Easter so its employees can spend time with their families, does that mean the entire store should be a ghost town? Or is it okay to have a volunteer skeleton crew in to keep things moving behind the scenes? And should the workers who do volunteer to come in be paid extra for giving up their holiday? These questions and more are being debated about a Walmart Supercenter in Maine.

Last night on Reddit, a user posted the above photo in reference to a Walmart in Auburn, ME, which apparently had a sign on its door explaining that it was closed for Easter Sunday so that employees could enjoy the holiday with their loved ones, but which also had associates working inside while it remained closed to the public.

(Note: The Walmart in the image does not appear to be the actual store, but is presumably being used just to indicate that it’s about a Walmart store)

There is much debate in the Reddit discussion about whether or not this is true, even though the user who posted the image cited the location and phone number of the store in subsequent comments.

We contacted Walmart to see what it had to say.

A rep for the retailer confirmed to Consumerist that this store, along with others in Maine, was closed because state law requires that retailer locations over a certain size close their doors on certain holidays, including Easter.

So yes, it was closed, but only because Maine law required it to be closed for the day. Some might say it’s insincere to claim that the location was closed for the benefit of the employees. Others might say it just sounds better than saying “The state made us do this.”

What about the employees working inside?

The rep from Walmart HQ claims that all the associates who came in yesterday did so on a voluntary basis. The total number of volunteers was about 20 at the Auburn store.

As for wages, the volunteers were paid their standard wages, confirmed the rep, rather than any special holiday pay.

There are multiple ways to think about this situation.

On the one hand, one could argue that some volunteers may have felt obligated to work yesterday just to keep paying the bills and because management rarely looks poorly at an associate who chooses to come in on a holiday without seeking bonus pay.

On the other hand, there’s the argument that Walmart had to close these stores yesterday and that the volunteer-worker option was a way to work around the state law and get these employees paid.

And there will be some on both sides who contend that anyone working on Easter Sunday deserves an extra dollar or two per hour, regardless of whether or not they volunteered.

Here’s where you vote:
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Doughnut Ice Cream Sundaes Coming To Krispy Kreme This Summer…In Japan

Mon, 2014-04-21 19:14

140327_img_01Here in the United States, hot donut shop Krispy Kreme might stick a little bit of coffee in its pastries, but otherwise lets outside companies do strange and wonderful things with its food, like using a doughnut as the base for a Sloppy Joe sandwich. In Japan, the chain puts together its own unreal and slightly nauseating creations. Like the Doughnut Sundae.

Actually, it’s name is approximately “Doughnut Ice” in Japanese, and it’s not hitting the streets until July. They’ve just announced it early…well, possibly in order to get the rest of the world really, really excited about the concept, even though we can’t have the sundaes. As far as we know.

The confection comes in two varieties. The Caramel & Yogurt has caramel and yogurt (not the frozen kind) drizzled over the ice cream, then caramel corn and toasted almonds sprinkled on top. If you aren’t into caramel corn, how about sort of pretending to be healthy? The other flavor pairs yogurt and blueberry sauce, and is topped with granola. You know, for a healthy breakfast. On top of your doughnut and ice cream.

If anyone should try this combination, it’s Dunkin’ Brands, which does have some combined Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin-Robbins shops where they could conceivably make donut-based sundaes. We aren’t the first ones to have this idea: a petition drive last year was surprisingly unsuccessful. The company’s own chefs provide guidance for creating doughnut sundaes at your next fancy dinner party, but they won’t make one for you in the store.

Krispy Kreme Japan makes the dessert of our dreams: Doughnut ice cream sundaes [Rocket News 24]

McDonald’s Trying To Stop Differentiating Between “Girls” And “Boys” Toys In Happy Meals

Mon, 2014-04-21 18:19

McDonald's current Happy Meal toy options.

McDonald’s current Happy Meal toy options.

McDonald’s has long offered two types of choices in its Happy Meal toys — one targeted to boys and one aimed at girls. But not every boy wants a robot fighter and not every girl craves a pink winged pony; an idea that a number of McDonald’s employees didn’t seem to understand. So in response to concerns that the fast food mega-chain was ignoring some young customers’ requests, McDonald’s is now teaching workers to leave gender out of the Happy Meal discussion.

In an article for Slate.com, Connecticut high school student Antonia Ayres-Brown writes of her years of trying to get McDonald’s to understand that you can’t simply assume what kind of toy kids will want based on whether or not they have a Y chromosome.

When she was 11, she wrote the McDonald’s CEO and raised questions about whether it was proper for employees to ask customers if they want the “girl toy” or the “boy toy,” pointing out that you wouldn’t ask a job applicant if he or she wanted “a man’s job or a woman’s job.”

The response from McDonald’s customer service merely stated that employees were not trained to ask the “boy” or “girl” question and that her experience was a fluke.

And so Antonia and her father, a Yale law professor, visited more than a dozen McDonald’s restaurants in the area, only to find that 79% of the time they were asked the boy/girl questions.

The Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities looked at her data and declared it “absurd,” but that was not the end of the road for Antonia, who undertook a larger study in the summer of 2013.

The test sent 30 young boys and girls into 15 different McDonald’s to order a Happy Meal.

“We found that 92.9 percent of the time, the store, without asking, simply gave each child the toy that McDonald’s had designated for that child’s gender,” writes Antonia. “What’s worse was the trouble the children encountered when they immediately returned to the counter and asked to exchange their unopened toy: 42.8 percent of stores refused to exchange for an opposite-sex toy.”

She claims that in one case, a young female customer was asked if she wanted the girl’s toy. When she said she wanted the boy-targeted toy, the employee went ahead and put in the girl-themed toy anyway. The customer went back to the counter to ask for the other toy but was told there were no boy toys left. However, when an adult went into that same restaurant and requested a boy’s toy, there was no issue fulfilling that request.

Antonia took her new data back to McDonald’s HQ, and eventually received a much more promising response from the company.

“It is McDonald’s intention and goal that each customer who desires a Happy Meal toy be provided the toy of his or her choice, without any classification of the toy as a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ toy and without any reference to the customer’s gender,” reads a letter from the company’s Chief Diversity Officer. “We have recently re-examined our internal guidelines, communications and practices and are making improvements to better ensure that our toys are distributed consistent with our policy.”

That was back in December, and anyone who has read as many “we’re taking this seriously” statements from companies like McDonald’s knows that sometimes these pronouncements are empty calories meant to shut people up for a while.

And earlier this year, McDonald’s Happy Meals were criticized for the toys tied to the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time. Even though the show has a large female fan base and numerous female characters, none of those female characters were made into Happy Meal toys. Meanwhile, the other option for a Happy Meal toy at the time were a series of Paul Frank items that were heavy on the pink: a handbag, a journal, a sticker dispenser, a tin of stickers, a bobblehead, and a pair of “best friends” bracelets.

But McDonald’s may indeed be moving forward on its promise to retrain its employees about how to deal with gender and Happy Meals. Earlier this month, this sign was spotted a McDonald’s telling employees “When a customer orders a happy meal you must ask ‘will that be a My Little Pony toy? Or a Skylanders toy?’. We will no longer refer to them as ‘boy or girl toys.’”

“Retailers don’t need to use girl’s and boy’s categories when they can just describe the toys that are available and let kids choose the ones that appeal to them most,” writes Antonia.

Raiders Of The Lost Walmart Must Wait Until January 30, 2007 To Sell This Computer

Mon, 2014-04-21 17:58

All over the world, in dusty corners of discount stores and warehouses, retail antiquities are waiting for someone to discover them. These tiny pockets of obsolete, comically overpriced technology are the purview of the Raiders of the Lost Walmart, a group who tirelessly search for these artifacts, then send pictures of them to Consumerist. This week, they uncovered two fascinating treasures.

First up was an ancient eMachines computer, which reader Matthew noticed on the shelf at Walmart.

emachine

“If it’s any consolation, the shelf tags didn’t match and I didn’t take it down to get a price,” Matthew noted. “I couldn’t pass up submitting it for the big ‘do not sell before January 30, 2007′ sticker.” That’s good, because it’s now well after January 30, 2007. We would love to know what the current price was on this computer. As Matthew notes, the knowing the price structure of Walmart’s computing antiquities, maybe it’s $20 or so below the original retail price for now.

bandhero

We say that based on the price tag of this week’s other discovery. John found this copy of Activision’s Band Hero on a Walmart shelf for just a few dollars below the original retail price. Yes, the accessories are really the key to music game, and sometimes games have extra value because they’re collectible, but this doesn’t appear to be one of them.

Now You Can Pay For Your Domino’s Pizza With Google Wallet (And Score Free Chicken)

Mon, 2014-04-21 17:17

(Brandy Lee)

(Brandy Lee)

Facing more competition in the online pizza-ordering business, Domino’s is trying to stand out in the crowd by saving customers the hassle of having to type in the 16 digits of their credit card numbers. It’s also giving away free chicken.

Pizza-starved consumers won’t have to do much work when looking to satisfy their cravings starting today with the implementation a Google Wallet payment option, the company says in a news release Monday.

Google Wallet allows consumers to store their debit cards, credit cards and loyalty cards electronically on their Android mobile devices.

Customers who have an Android device can simply choose the “Buy with Google” button at checkout. And as an added bonus, the company is giving away a free order of its new specially chicken with each purchase made using Google Wallet.
The deal is only valid for orders of $10 or more and run until June 15, the company says.

Domino’s Pizza Now Accepting Payment via Google Wallet [Domino's Pizza]

Airline Apologizes For Baggage Handlers Caught Dropping Luggage From Height Of 20 Feet

Mon, 2014-04-21 16:50


As airlines crack down on passengers’ attempts to shove too-large and overstuffed carry-on bags onto planes, a growing number of travelers are forced to gate-check their luggage, meaning it’s collected at the gate and put straight into the plane’s underbelly. But some baggage handlers don’t feel like carrying luggage down all those steps from the jetway to the ground and are just dropping passengers’ bags from heights of around 20 feet.

The above video, shot late last week by a traveler at Toronto’s Pearson International, shows a baggage handler for an Air Canada flight taking bags from from the jetway and, rather than walking them down to the tarmac or meeting his coworker halfway, simply letting them drop more than a dozen feet to an awaiting bin o’ luggage below.

The clip already has more than 1 million views on YouTube and has brought a bit of embarrassment to the airline.

On Saturday, Air Canada Tweeted an apology that read, “The actions in the video don’t represent our procedure. We are disappointed & sorry about what happened. We’re investigating.”

The traveler who shot the footage says he understands why the handlers would be reluctant to descend the metal staircase while carrying multiple pieces of luggage, “but that doesn’t help passengers whose baggage they don’t want to have treated in that fashion.”

[via NY Daily News]

Del Taco Accidentally Charges Customers Thousands For Tacos, Causes Financial Chaos

Mon, 2014-04-21 16:43

(ken fager)

(ken fager)

When something goes wrong with a fast food joint’s point of sale system and they charge you thousands of dollars for a few tacos, you can laugh about the situation days or weeks later, after you have your money back. Around 150 customers of one Del Taco restaurant were vastly overcharged for their drinks and tacos, and now must deal with bouncing checks and frozen accounts.

One customer reports that his mortgage payment this month didn’t go through because of the $10,220 charge on his debit card for a few tacos.

That’s the problem with using debit cards for everyday transactions: they’re convenient and usually nothing goes wrong, but when one taco purchase goes awry by a few digits, all of your money is tied up in the taco transaction. While credit cards aren’t an option for everyone, at least a massive credit card overcharge doesn’t tie up the cash in your bank accounts.

Santa Paula Del Taco Accidentally Charges Customers Thousands For A Taco [KCAL] (Thanks, Gordon!)

Nike Reportedly Shuttering Popular FuelBand Trackers, Fires Development Team

Mon, 2014-04-21 16:28

FuelbandConsumers looking for a product to track their daily activity won’t find one at Nike for much longer. The sportswear company is set to discontinue the popular Fuelband and has reportedly already fired the team tasked with the fitness tracker’s development.

To begin efforts of shuttering the FuelBand, Nike fired the 70-person hardware team that was focused on industrial design, manufacturing operations electrical and mechanical hardware engineering and software interface design, CNET reports.

Officials with Nike remain tightlipped on quitting the FuelBand, but the company’s plan for releasing new editions of the tracker were canceled earlier this year. CNET reported earlier this month that the company had been discussing leaving the wearables market as far back as November 2013 after the FuelBand SE tracker was released.

“As a fast-paced, global business we continually align resources with business priorities,” Nike spokesman Brian Strong tells CNET. “As our Digital Sport priorities evolve, we expect to make changes within the team, and there will be a small number of layoffs. We do not comment on individual employment matters.”

Consumers will still be able to purchase the FuelBand SE, but don’t expect to see any new versions popping up, CNET reports. it was unclear whether the company would continue mass production of the tracker, or if when they’re out, they’re out.

Last week, Nike announced it was launching Fuel Lab, a testing space for the company’s other hardware initiatives.

Word of Nike quitting the fitness tracker business comes on the heels of scrutiny other wearables, such as FitBit, have faced after several consumers reported developing rashes after wearing the tracker. In March the government officially recalled certain models of the FitBit and just two weeks later the company was sued for allegedly misleading consumers on the product’s safety.

Back in January, Consumerist reported on the effectiveness of health-and fitness-tracking technology. Some health experts content that the trackers don’t provide consumers’ with long-term fitness and health benefits.

Exclusive: Nike fires majority of FuelBand team, will stop making wearable hardware [CNET]

Why Every Driver Should Care About The GM Ignition Recall

Mon, 2014-04-21 15:30

(redsox223)

(redsox223)

The massive ongoing recall of General Motors vehicles with faulty ignition switches (and the dozen years the company spent not issuing a recall) has made headlines, launched lawsuits, angered legislators, but many consumers who don’t own a recalled car have shrugged and said, “Glad I don’t drive one of them.”

One small defect in a part that controls a car’s ignition switch: that’s what’s at the root of a massive car recall linked to at least thirteen deaths. The cars all came from General Motors brands sold for most of a decade — and as we now know, someone, somewhere knew about the fatal potential of that defect for as long as it existed. The ignition switch problem affects everyone who drives a GM car. But the way that the defect was allowed to remain in the production line for so long affects nearly everyone who drives or shares roads with cars — whether you’ve ever set foot in a GM vehicle or not.

The GM ignition switch recall started in February with an announcement about 778,000 compact cars. Over the months since then, the recall list has expanded to include about 2.6 million Saturn Ion (2003-2007), Chevrolet Cobalt (2005-2010), Chevrolet HHR (2006-2011), Pontiac G5 (2007-2010), Pontiac Solstice (2006-2010), and Saturn Sky (2007-2010) vehicles. (GM has also recalled another three million cars this year for other, unrelated issues.)

MORE THAN JUST A RECALL
The recall, though, isn’t just a recall. It’s led to an investigation that has shown that GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) were, between them, peripherally aware of the defect for over ten years. Let’s take a quick, summary review of key moments in the timeline of events:

  • 2001-2002: The first report of a switch problem shows up in pre-production notes for the 2002 Saturn Ion.
  • 2005: GM realizes the Chevy Cobalt has a problem with the ignition switch and opens repeated engineering inquiries, but takes no action.
  • 2006: GM test drivers become aware of the ignition problem. GM makes some repairs, but mixes older, defective part and newer, improved part under same item number, causing years’ worth of confusion.
  • 2007: A NHTSA crash report makes mention of the ignition switch turning itself off. NHTSA proposes opening an investigation, but decides not to.
  • 2010: After more accidents and deaths, NHTSA once again considers, but then decides against, opening a formal investigation.
  • 2012-2013: GM internal testing finds that no, really, these ignition switches are broken.
  • 2014: GM finally issues recalls due to the faulty part, totaling roughly 2.6 million vehicles.

At least 13 people were killed (and possibly more) due to this particular defect in that 13-year span, and dozens of other drivers complained about it. But between the start of the problem in 2001 and the enormous and very public recalls in 2014, a few things changed at GM. And by “a few things,” we mean “everything.”

GENERAL MOTORS IS DEAD. LONG LIVE GENERAL MOTORS.
The early years of the 21st century were not among GM’s best. It’s easy to see why a GM at the time was so desperately concerned with cutting costs wherever possible: after a high point in 1999, their annual sales numbers began to drop slowly but steadily from 2000 onward. They posted significant losses in 2005, 2006, and 2007, and so were already off to a rough start in 2008.

Then came, well, 2008 — a now-infamous year of domestic and international economic crisis. In the space of less than a year, everything tanked: the housing market collapsed, giant megabanks began flailing wildly, energy prices jumped, and the automotive industry found itself in dire straits.

The combination of a less-than-great half-decade and an international near-collapse of the industry was a one-two punch that GM couldn’t withstand. In Nov. 2008 the company announced that without drastic action, they’d be out of cash and out of business by the middle of 2009.

Ford, Chrysler, and GM all testified before Congress in Dec. 2008 to the effect that the U.S. car industry, that most American of industries, was going to collapse in on itself without an infusion of federal bailout cash. Congress declined to hand over money, but GM did get a “bridge loan” from the Bush administration to keep it afloat while a longer-term solution could be worked out.

Between Dec. 2008 and March 2009, things failed in any way to get better for GM as they kept moving through a back-and-forth of proposed business plans to and with the federal government. On March 30, 2009, the Obama administration announced that the government would not be handing GM a mountain of cash, but that a detailed restructuring plan including Chapter 11 bankruptcy had been worked out in order to save the company. GM officially filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in a New York court on June 1, 2009.

Under the terms of that Chapter 11 filing, a new corporate entity called NGMCO Inc. — the “new” GM corporation — purchased all of GM’s “continued operational assets.” As part of the terms of sale, NGMCO, Inc., changed its name to “General Motors” and kept all of GM’s brands, logos, and trademarks. In one fell swoop, GM ceased to be GM, the troubled corporation with a pile of liabilities, and became GM, the newer, leaner corporation that conveniently left all its liabilities sitting in a trash heap near the door when it walked out.

As for that mess next to the door, the “Old GM” still had to clean it up. Having let the New GM walk off with its name and branding, the remnants of Old GM became the Motors Liquidation Company. That company has been working its way through the bankruptcy, liability, and debtor process ever since.

The New GM, about 60% owned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, promptly shed jobs, dealerships, manufacturing facilities, and car brands. (Remember Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab?) And most critically, they also shed liability for anything they did back when they were still the original GM.

LEAVING BEHIND THE BLAME
Several states’ attorneys general, perhaps having a collective moment of clairvoyance, filed an objection to the liability exception part of GM’s bankruptcy agreement, saying that potential later accident victims could lose “key legal rights” if it went through. (The Wall Street Journal ran a detailed explainer of the relevant legal aspects back in 2009.) Under the pressure, GM eventually agreed to somewhat expand the scope of its liability to accident victims.

The gist of the change meant that, “[C]onsumers driving old GM cars who get in accidents during GM’s several weeks in bankruptcy court, or after the new GM emerges, will be able to sue new GM.”

At the time, then-Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, one of the attorneys general who filed the objection, said:

“This agreement captures a very significant group of claims that wouldn’t have been covered and is a very significant victory for consumer advocates. It may seem symbolic, but it will be very real and important to people who suffered injuries during this period of time, and it sets a highly significant precedent.”

That GM product liability pact is now front and center in the wake of the recall. GM is trying to get lawsuits against it held on the grounds of the restructuring, claiming liability protection.

Former Connecticut AG Blumenthal is now United States Senator Blumenthal, and he’s no less concerned about the new GM’s liabilities for the old GM’s actions than he was in 2009. In late March, he pressed the Justice Department to make sure that GM stays liable for GM’s actions. At the time, he told Consumerist, “There is a very powerful legal and moral responsibility on the part of the federal government to intervene here. They enabled GM to emerge from reorganization with very extensive protections from legal responsibility for the death, injuries, and damage their defective vehicles caused.”

NOW WHAT?
Well, that’s really the billion-dollar question.

It will take months, if not years, for the Justice Department to carry out its criminal investigation and determine if charges are warranted. Getting the various civil suits sorted out will probably take even longer still. GM, in some way, will need to compensate the car owners, accident victims, and surviving families of those who were killed due to this error. That complicated question of how much legal liability GM actually bears for their own error and cover-up will be a key factor in every proceeding.

But the most pressing question for the future isn’t about GM at all. Although this recall is massive, and GM’s particular tie to American taxpayers and the federal government is at play, this defect and this question of liability aren’t the central issues we’re facing.

Instead, the real problem that the GM disaster has brought to light is that we’ve got absolutely nothing in our safety systems right now preventing this from happening again — with GM or with any other U.S. carmaker.

GM did indeed repeatedly and consistently fail to address their own manufacturing error in any meaningful way for over a decade. But they weren’t the only ones. NHTSA entire purpose, function, and mission statement are literally to prevent exactly this kind of thing from happening:

NHTSA is responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. This is accomplished by setting and enforcing safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment, and through grants to state and local governments to enable them to conduct effective local highway safety programs.

NHTSA investigates safety defects in motor vehicles, sets and enforces fuel economy standards, helps states and local communities reduce the threat of drunk drivers, promotes the use of safety belts, child safety seats and air bags, investigates odometer fraud, establishes and enforces vehicle anti-theft regulations and provides consumer information on motor vehicle safety topics.

We know from unearthed documents and from Congressional testimony that NHTSA was aware that something was wrong with GM cars well before the 2014 recall. So why didn’t they act?

A DEFECTIVE RECALL SYSTEM
Congress and the Department of Transportation (NHTSA’s parent agency) are both asking that same question. The NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) had at least six complaints about the power shutting off in the Chevy Cobalt by 2007, but apparently failed to draw any connections or push the investigation farther up the chain.

The DoT is undertaking a review of NHTSA to find out who knew what, when they knew it, and who broke the chain, dropped the ball, let the report fall through the crack, or committed any other standard metaphor leading to the agency failing in its mission. And though something may very well be amiss inside the NHTSA, the problem might lie higher up — in Congress.

Bloomberg recently did the math on the NHTSA’s budget and staff as compared to what they have to oversee — and it’s not pretty. There are nearly 250 million registered cars on the road in the United States… and 51 ODI employees to make sure that we all stay safe around them.

Of those 51 employees a little over half are investigators, Bloomberg reports. It makes for a ratio of about 8.6 million cars on the road for every defect investigator NHTSA has. The agency also receives more than 40,000 consumer complaints per year — and of course, not every consumer who has reason to make a safety complaint ever bothers to do so. NHTSA’s 2015 budget for investigating defects is about $10.6 million, and it’s been in that $10 million ballpark for years.

With those odds, it starts to feel surprising that NHTSA actually catches as many problems as it does.

28 investigators can only capture so much data first-hand. In order to act, NHTSA relies on data from the car companies themselves. When the companies take their own sweet time providing it, as GM has been doing, the safety review process hits a bottleneck… and just stops going anywhere at all.

So where do we sit today?

Consumers are aware of the problems, but the defective GM cars are still on the road. GM is paying meager fines of $7000 per day (from their 2013 revenue of $3.8 billion) for each day they miss their deadline for providing data to NHTSA. And thirteen people who were driving or riding in cars that had one small, faulty part in them are still dead.

Whatever this investigation uncovers about this particular defect, this tragic incident spotlights the fact that there are systemic problems with carmakers for whom lives are but data points on a cost/profit sheet and with regulators who ignore their own investigators’ reports. Until those underlying issues are remedied, it’s only a matter of time until another vehicle with a deadly defect is not only allowed to hit the road, but stay there for far too long.

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