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Spotify Launches Family Plan That Allows Users To Share A Discounted Subscription

Mon, 2014-10-20 15:59

(Out.of.Focus)

(Out.of.Focus)

As competition heats up in the world of streaming music, Spotify is following the lead of other streaming services like Netflix with a new family plan. The option allows up to five family members to subscribe together for a monthly discounted rate.

One person in the plan pays the usual price of $10 per month for the premium service, which allows for ad-free streaming as well as the option to listen to downloaded playlists offline. Then each additional family member added to the plan gets a discount of 50%, which is then all paid together in a single bill, Spotify explains in a blog post.

So for example, a family of four on the Spotify Family plan would pay $25 total per month — $10 for the first person, then $5 each for the next three. Each account will get its own login and user playlists, so dad won’t have to listen to Junior’s extensive collection of Raffi playlists.

“This is one of the most asked for features from our audience,” said Ken Parks, Chief Content Officer at Spotify. “With today’s announcement we’re making it easier than ever for the whole family to experience Spotify Premium on their phones, at home and on the go.”

The move is likely aimed at boosting Spotify’s subscriber rolls as it fights Pandora and iTunes Radio for a spot at the top of the streaming business.

Spotify family plan: Separate accounts, one discounted bill [CNET]

Fitbit Avoids Another Recall, Must Put Warning Labels On Wearables

Mon, 2014-10-20 15:30

simple.b-dis-png.h45e69187310686769942b608fffea78bYou may remember the Fitbit Force, a fitness-tracking wristband that went on the market at the end of 2013, then was eventually recalled after Consumerist brought rashes caused by the devices to the world’s attention. We’ve heard reports that the Force’s less intelligent cousin, the Flex, also caused skin irritation in some wearers. Know who else heard that? The Consumer Product Safety Commission. Fortunately for Fitbit, they’re only getting a warning. A warning label.

This weekend, the New York Times reported that the CPSC has concluded its investigation of consumer complaints about rashes caused by the Fitbit Flex, and their conclusion is…that Fitbit has to clearly warn future customers who buy the Flex (and other rumored wristbands that may be released soon) that the product’s metal parts contain nickel, a metal which some people are allergic to or may develop an allergy to after sustained exposure. The company will also provide better “sizing guidelines” meant to prevent customers from wearing their bands too tight or purchasing the wrong size.

Many rash sufferers believed that their problems were caused by something in the wristband’s adhesive, and not a nickel allergy or poor hygiene. Last week, Fitbit vindicated these customers, announcing that the adhesive that holds their wristbands together contains a small amount of methacrylates. Normally, molecules in that family of chemicals bond together tightly, but if a few molecules left the fold, they could cause an allergic reaction.

“The reaction is not dangerous, it’s just that people may now be sensitized and run into problems when they encounter it in other settings,” Dr. Bruce Brod, a dermatologist and president-elect of the American Contact Dermatitis Society, told the Times. While they might not have experienced any skin irritation until months into constant wear of their fitness wristbands, they would react right away after future exposure to similar chemicals. Yay.

Meanwhile, someone at Fitbit decided to metaphorically shout, “Hey, everyone! Look over there!” and leaked information about the company’s next top-of-the-line product. Yes, the Verge got hold of what looks like photos of a computer screen showing promotional materials for a still-unannounced product, a $250 smartwatch targeted at athletes but meant for all-day wear that has GPS and a heart rate monitor. If this is a real product, it will be called the Fitbit Surge. Fortunately, that name means that there’s a television ad for the product ready to go. Sort of.

Fitbit Says It Will Make Changes to Address Complaints About Allergic Reactions [New York Times]

Rent-To-Own Stores Are Like Blockbusters For Couches

Fri, 2014-10-17 23:23

(Horacio Riveros)

(Horacio Riveros)

It’s not a good sign for the prospects of the American working class when the president of a rapidly-expanding rent-to-own household goods company observes that items are coming back to his stores so quickly that it’s “like a Blockbuster.” Yes, it could be that a family just wanted to rent a big-screen TV for a special event, but items are more likely to come back because a customer couldn’t make their payments.

The Washington Post paid a visit to Buddy’s, a Florida-based rent-to-own chain that has been spreading throughout the South. The company’s leaders initially wanted to expand out of Florida to escape the aftereffects of the housing bubble. Recently, the Post followed a family as they fell behind in their payments and needed to decide whether to catch up or just let part of their living room go.

Rent-to-own is an old business model, but one that has grown significantly thanks to the recession. Normally, people with low cash flow and poor credit would have some high-interest borrowing options available to them, but the credit market is no longer interested in these customers. That leaves them in the rent-to-own market, where you can buy anything from an iPad to a living room set, only if you’re able to keep up with the payments and don’t mind paying $1,500 for a used iPad that’s a few generations old, or more than double the sticker price for a sofa that’s already been repossessed from a few other customers’ homes.

Rental America: Why the poor pay $4,150 for a $1,500 sofa [Washington Post]

Debt Collection Is A Great Line Of Work For Ex-Cons

Fri, 2014-10-17 23:01

(Ryan Holloway)

(Ryan Holloway)

When a debt collector calls you, there’s a good chance that he or she might be an ex-convict calling you from a strip mall in Buffalo, New York. Buying and collecting debt is a lucrative business, and some people who had a rough upbringing have a real gift for it. Learn about the “Buffalo Talk-Off” and the Excel Spreadsheets of Doom. [NPR] [Planet Money]

Apple Surprises No One By Removing Bose Products From Online Store

Fri, 2014-10-17 22:50

(SimonQ錫濛譙)

(SimonQ錫濛譙)

With the fairly recent acquisition of Beats Music and Electronics it probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise that Apple has ceased the sale of Bose products, including headphones and soundbars.

The removal of the Bose products from Apple’s website, and impending removal from retail stores, marks the latest development in what has become a rather contentious rivalry between the two companies, The Verge reports.

Issues between the two entities appear to have begun when Apple decided to purchase Bose rival Beats for $3 billion earlier this year.

Around the time Apple made its purchase announcement, Bose filed a lawsuit against Beats.

According to the complaint [PDF], Bose accused Beats of infringing on patents that have grown to be an essential part of Bose’s business. Currently, Beats uses noise cancellation technology in its Beats Studio, Beats Studio Wireless, and Beats Pro headphones.

The Verge reports that lawsuit was settled outside of court.

The end of the lawsuit wasn’t the end of issues between Apple, Beats and Bose. Instead things intensified earlier this month , when the NFL confirmed that Bose’s exclusivity deal with the league means that Beats and other non-Bose products are banned from being used by players before, during and after games.

Shortly after the deal was announced, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was hit with a $10,000 fine for sporting a pair of Beats headphones. The footballer is an endorser of the products.

Apple has removed all Bose products from its store [The Verge]

7 Habits Of Highly Obnoxious Travelers

Fri, 2014-10-17 22:14

(John Kittelsrud)

(John Kittelsrud)

Traveling is supposed to bring joy and relaxation into one’s stressed-out life, but not all of us can fly in private planes with only those people we know we won’t want to beat senseless with a swim noodle before the jet lands. Since we all want to land without resorting to fisticuffs or threats of forcible early deplaning, there are certain behaviors from which we’d all be wise to abstain while traveling.

Over at Conde Nast Traveler — a magazine that many of us can blame for convincing us it was a good idea to spend money to fly anywhere in the first place — author Lilit Marcus has put together a rundown of “10 Ways to Make Everyone on Your Flight Hate You.”

To save you a bit of trouble, we’ve pulled out the ones with which we agree the most:

1. Eat really stinky food.
Yes, pre-packaged food is cheaper and often better than anything you’ll get at the airport or on the plane, but please have some thought for the olfactory receptors of those around you. Just like you don’t like it when the sock-less guy next to you slips off his shoes to unleash funky foot odor, no one wants to inhale the garlicky aromas emanating from your to-go container.

And it’s not just foods with repellant odors that are bothersome on flights. Even the best-smelling food is obnoxious when it’s not you eating it.

So please leave the egg salad, caesar salad, leftover General Tso’s chicken, and — we can’t stress this last one enough — the tuna fish back at home.

2. Don’t supervise your children.
One surefire way to ensure that your fellow passengers have homicidal thoughts about you is to let your children run wild. Feral kids are insufferable when they have yards and parks to roam about in; pack them into a flying metal container with hundreds of anxious adults and you might as well alert the TSA and FBI that someone will be arrested upon landing.

3. Be rude to the flight attendant/overuse the call button.
You ever wonder why it seems like so many flight attendants now use their authority to have even mildly annoying passengers booted from flights? It’s because they’ve spent decades responding to passengers with a heavy thumb on the call button, many of whom are incredibly unpleasant to the attendant once he or she arrives to see what is needed… this time.

“That flight attendant sure has a nice smile,” writes Marcus. “Wait until you see what her smile looks like after you’ve buzzed her to ask for replacement headphones, the vegan meal you didn’t request ahead of time, a personal escort to the bathroom, five pillows, and a bedtime story.”

4. Make “jokes” about terrorism and Ebola.
If you really feel compelled to tell a joke about bombs in the overhead bin or how that sniffle you have is actually a deadly, contagious disease, just tell it to yourself and know that you are secretly hilarious. Your sense of humor will not be fully appreciated by the FBI or CDC, or by your fellow travelers who won’t make their connecting flights because the plane was grounded and/or quarantined.

5. Don’t share the aisle.
“The aisle is a great place for everyone to stretch their legs and walk to and from the bathroom,” writes Marcus. “But it’s an even better place for you to hold a one-person party!”

That’s right, just put your feet out there for folks to stumble on; maybe go up a few rows to chat with the friend, family member or coworker that you haven’t spoken to since boarding. Whatever you do, don’t do the respectful thing and keep the aisle clear.

6. Practice poor hygiene.
This is basically the personal-care version of the “no stinky food” rule. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

And while you might get bored during your flight, this is not the time to turn the airplane into a bathroom. Your toenails will still need clipping when you land, your earwax level will not get significantly worse during your flight. These things can and should wait.

7. Talk smack about the destination you just left.
Look, we know that not every traveler likes every city they visit. But odds are that many of the people around you on a plane have some sort of relationship to that place. So you might just come off as a horse’s tuchus if you start badmouthing everything that these people hold dear.

Check out the full list of obnoxious behaviors at Conde Nast Traveler.

UPDATE: National Car Rental Bus Driver Not Fired For Kevin Hart Photo

Fri, 2014-10-17 22:11

There’s a happy ending to the story of the National Car Rental shuttle driver who was suspended after being caught snapping a photo with actor/comedian Kevin Hart. According to Inside Edition, the employee has been reinstated, effective immediately.

“I got my job back!” she says about the company’s decision to reinstate her. “Things went very well. I’m very happy that Inside Edition, as well as Kevin Hart, and all the petitions and the likes, really helped me out.”

The driver had reportedly been suspended after National found out that she’d posed with Hart while she was operating a shuttle bus at Los Angeles International Airport.

When Hart found out about the suspension, he made a public plea for National to not fire the driver.

Kmart Clarifies Layaway Rules For Closing Stores, No One Tells Kmart Employees

Fri, 2014-10-17 22:10

store_ClosingEarlier this week, we shared with you the complaint of some Kmart customers in Ohio who placed items on layaway before learning that the store they had visited was about to close. This affected their payoff date and payments, but a Sears Holdings representative contacted media outlets sharing this story and explained that this is not Kmart’s policy. Unfortunately, nobody bothered to tell people who work at this Kmart.

One customer, who was interviewed on the air, explained that she was told she had to pay her contract off by November 1st. That was a month earlier than she had plans, which interfered with her ability to make the payments on about $1,000 worth of merchandise she had put on layaway for holiday gifts. She was initially told that she could transferring to another store was a possibility, then that it wasn’t. Transferring her payment plan online would extend the term until December 23, which she finds too close to Christmas. She managed to get the deadline pushed back to November 7, which is slightly better.

Kmart’s parent company, Sears Holdings, followed up with the TV station (and with Consumerist) to explain that there was no November 1st deadline, and that layaway customers had the option to transfer their contracts to a different store or to Kmart.com. That was great news for customers, so a WDTN staffer went back inside the store and inquired about layaway contracts. A manager explained that the deadline is still November 1st, contradicting what the Sears spokesperson had said.

We can’t blame people who are about to lose their jobs for not keeping up with the freshest and latest training materials available in the store. At the same time, this one customer got really frustrated. “Limbo, complete miscommunication, no faith in what they say,” she told the TV station. “I don’t have anything holding them to what they’re saying. If they change what they say, I can’t do much about it.”

K-Mart releases statement on layaway policy [WDTN]

Pizza Hut Creates Crusts Stuffed With Jalapeños And With Dessert

Fri, 2014-10-17 20:16

pizza_turnoversIn their ongoing quest to stretch the boundaries of pizza crust-stuffing science, Pizza Hut uses their international outlets as test kitchens for new and exciting meals. In the United Arab Emirates and in Korea, the chain is testing two ideas that sound quite appealing. Or maybe I should have eaten lunch today.

Over in Korea, there is a fabulous star-shaped pizza. No bacon cheeseburgers here, though: the folded dough “points” of the star are actually turnovers. Yes, this is a pizza with a dessert crust. The turnovers come filled with cranberries and cream cheese or apples, cinnamon, nuts, and cream cheese. The special pizza has a nice variety of meat and seafood on top, as well, including shrimp, squid, sausage, bacon, and steak. It’s like surf and turf and pastry.

Over in the UAE, things are going in a spicier direction. They’re hawking a regular, non-dessert-containing pizza with a stuffed crust. You can have that crust stuffed with red or green japalpeño peppers, though, and the spiciness doesn’t stop there. The standard version of this pizza has chili sauce instead of tomato sauce, spicy nacho cheese, and more sliced jalapeños on top. They claim it’s the chain’s “spiciest pizza ever,” and this one is a more likely candidate to eventually reach Pizza Huts in the United States.

Pizza Hut Offers New Jalapeno Stuffed Crust Pizza in Middle East [Brand Eating]
Pizza Hut Korea’s Ridiculous New, Star-Shaped Pizza is Dessert & Dinner in One [Brand Eating]

Even If You Spend Your Career Driving For FedEx, You Might Not Be An Employee

Fri, 2014-10-17 19:42

(So Cal Metro)

(So Cal Metro)

Each day thousands of delivery drivers get behind the wheel of FedEx Ground trucks and set out for a long day of work. While those workers must follow the company’s rules and regulations about delivery times and working hours, FedEx contends they aren’t actual employees, but independent contractors. That distinction is at the core of a series of class action lawsuits filed against the company in which former workers are seeking compensation for unpaid overtime and paycheck deductions.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that hundreds of former drivers are awaiting court decisions regarding a slew of lawsuits levied against the company.

The workers contend they regularly lost nearly half their yearly wages to deductions and truck expenses because the company unfairly labeled them as independent contractors.

In one case a plaintiff says that for 10 years he worked 10-hour shifts delivering packages in San Diego for FedEx Ground. During that time he was never paid overtime and didn’t receive contributions to his Social Security benefits.

The man tells Businessweek that he made about $90,000 per year from the company, but between 40% and 60% was lost to deductions and truck expenses the company wouldn’t cover because he was just an independent contractor.

FedEx Ground, a subsidiary of FedEx, has long employed independent contractors, a practice officials with the company say differentiates it from competition.

“The entrepreneurs who run these small businesses have a flexibility and drive not often found in a traditional workforce,” the company said in a statement to Businessweek

Former contractors, however, say that the motivating difference for the company was its bottom line.

According to the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ rights group, employing independent contractors can save companies up to 30% of payroll costs by not including unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and state taxes.

Additionally, because independent contractors aren’t covered by wage and hour rules, companies aren’t obligated to pay overtime or cover the costs for uniforms.

In early October, a ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court bolstered the workers’ claims that FedEx uses the independent contractor label to save money.

“As FedEx’s counsel acknowledged at oral argument,” the Kansas court said in its decision, “the company carefully structured its drivers’ operating agreements so that it could label the drivers as independent contractors to gain a competitive advantage, i.e., to avoid the additional costs associated with employees.”

The ruling was a drastic change from previous court decisions that sided with FedEx Ground.

Businessweek reports that back in 2009 the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the company. The same outcome happened in 2010 when a federal district court in Indiana ruled in favor of the company, throwing out other state claims.

The lawsuits against FedEx Ground are perhaps the biggest indicator of a shift in the workforce.

Back in 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated that independent contractors and temp workers made up 31% of the country’s workforce. Two years later, Maryland Labor officials found that one in five employees were wrongly labeled as independent contractors.

Perhaps in light of the lawsuits, FedEx tells Businessweek that it’s changed business practices and now contracts drivers through other companies.

Still, former drivers suing the company say that’s not entirely truthful.

The owner of one such business says FedEx still tells his drivers when they’re leaving and how to drive, much like an actual employer might do.

While it remains to be seen what while happen with the many lawsuits facing FedEx Ground, the company insists the law is on its side.

“We are committed to protecting our way of doing business and the rights of thousands of independent business owners to continue owning and operating their own businesses,” it tells Businessweek.

As for the former independent contractors, they continue to feel taken advantage off.

The former San Diego driver says that while he once thought working for FedEx Ground would be like owning a “piece of the dream,” it’s not that way anymore.

FedEx Ground Says Its Drivers Aren’t Employees. The Courts Will Decide [Bloomberg Businessweek]

Thousands Of MacBooks Made In 2011 Have Self-Immolating Graphics Cards

Fri, 2014-10-17 19:32

These pink and white stripes are not pretty.

These pink and white stripes are not pretty.

Models of Apple’s higher-end portable computer, the MacBook Pro, have come to the end of their three-year extended warranties. That leaves their owners at the mercy of Apple when something goes wrong, and at minimum thousands of the computers have had the same computer-killing problem with their graphics processing unit. Apple has not publicly admitted that the machines have a problem.

Of course, MacBook Pro owners are people who have spent at least $2,500 on a computer designed for serious graphics work. That means that they’re probably media professionals or serious amateurs, and able to make YouTube videos making fun of the situation with really great production values.

Some iMacs from the same period were recalled and their graphics cards replaced, but for the notebook computers, Apple appears to be making decisions on a case-by-case basis. Some of those decisions are leaving computer owners with unusable aluminum-encased lumps.

There’s a Washington, D.C.-based law firm gathering plaintiffs for a class action suit, but that process will take a long time, and most likely resolve once all of the users will have long since moved on, purchasing new, non-self-destructing computers. (For example, a class action against Apple regarding power adapter for Macbooks was filed in 2009, and not settled until 2011.) It also might not help customers who live outside of the United States, as many of the people complaining of issues with their MacBooks do.

A Change.org petition pleading with Apple to repair or fix all affected computers now has more than 18,500 signatures. A single repair may not help when some users report that they’re on their second or third logic board replacement.

This is not a new problem. Widespread failures of the soldered-on graphics card, which users more battery life and kicks in during graphics-intensive tasks like watching video, was first reported over a year ago on Apple Insider.

2011 MacBook Pro and Discrete Graphics Card [Apple Support] (via Reddit)
MBP2011 [Official Site]
Replace or Fix All 2011 Macbook Pro with Graphics Failure [Change.org]

Woman Sent To Jail For Failing To Mow Lawn

Fri, 2014-10-17 19:29

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WVLT-TV in Knoxville reports on a local woman who was told she had to spend a five-day term behind bars for failing to keep up with her yard work.

She initially received a citation from the city during the summer because her property required some grooming.

“With my husband going to school and working full time, me with my job, with one vehicle, we were trying our best,” she explains. “[The bushes and trees] were overgrown. But that’s certainly not a criminal offense.”

But following a second citation and a recent court hearing, the mother of two was looking at five days in the clink.

The woman says she was steamrolled by the process; that she was never told of her legal rights or that she could have a lawyer represent her at court.

“It’s not right,” she claims. “Why would you put me in jail with child molesters, and people who’ve done real crimes, because I haven’t maintained my yard.”

Earlier this week, the judge acknowledged that this was not a criminal case and reduced the sentence to only six hours of jail time. She offered to do five days of community service instead, but the judge insisted on some time behind bars.

She served her time on Tuesday evening, but the judge could give her additional jail time if he’s not happy with her lawn-maintenance efforts when they review her progress at a November check-in hearing.

For comparison’s sake, semi-celebrity Nicole Richie only spent 82 minutes in jail for an incident in which she drove the wrong way on a highway while admittedly being under the influence of alcohol, marijuana and Vicodin.

[Thanks to Steve for the tip!]

Volkswagen Recalls More Than 441,000 Beetles, Jettas To Inspect Rear Suspension Issue

Fri, 2014-10-17 19:11

(Eric Arnold)

(Eric Arnold)

Did you ever play the road trip game where you got to punch your sibling if you saw a Volkswagen Beetle? No? Okay, well then, neither did I. For those thinking of playing “slug bug” (or punch buggy, punch bug, punch dub, piggy punch, beetle bug) on the next long drive, there may be fewer cars to spot now that VW is recalling some 441,000 Beetle and Jetta vehicles for possible suspension issues.

The Wall Street Journal reports that VW issued a recall for 400,602 Jetta sedans manufactured between 2011 and 2013, and 41,663 Beetle and Beetle convertible vehicles manufactured from 2012 to 2013.

The recall, which includes more than a million cars globally, was initiated so dealers could inspect the rear suspension of the vehicles.

An investigation was launched two months ago in China after consumers complained about broken suspension arms on the rear axle of some VW sedans.

Officials with VW inspected dozens of cars and found that the suspension arm was broken in connection with a rear-end collision for all of the vehicles, the WSJ reports.

According to VW the issue is not a defect. Instead, they insist the broken suspension arm was a result of the owners continuing to drive the car although the axle had been damaged in an accident.

Officials with the company say there have been no injuries reported relating to the axle issue.

Volkswagen Recalling Nearly 500,000 Beetles, Jettas in U.S. [The Wall Street Journal]

Kevin Hart Begs National Car Rental To Not Fire Driver Who Took Photo With Him

Fri, 2014-10-17 18:44

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This is apparently what happened to one National shuttle bus driver at Los Angeles International Airport, who spotted comedian/actor Kevin Hart and got him to pose for a photo with her.

Earlier this week, TMZ reported that the driver had been suspended without pay for her actions, but last night Hart actually used to gossip site to make a public plea to National to let the driver keep her job.

“I’m asking National to please give this woman a pass,” Hart says in the brief video plea above. “I love National, and if I had seen me I would have taken a selfie with me too! C’mon, have some compassion.”

Amazon Fresh Reaches East Coast But Only For Select Group Of Brooklynites

Fri, 2014-10-17 18:35
Amazon Fresh has expanded to a very select area of New York City.

Amazon Fresh has expanded to a very select area of New York City.

Residents of New York City jealous of their West Coast counterparts for receiving sometimes-fresh grocery deliveries from Amazon should pine no more. The e-tailer began deliveries of Amazon Fresh in a very concentrated area of the Big Apple today.

Re/Code reports Amazon Fresh deliveries are hitting the streets in the only the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The grocery delivery service provides consumers with same-day (if orders are placed by 10 a.m.) or overnight shipments of groceries and other items.

The expanded service will be available to residents of Park Slope who are Amazon Prime members at no extra charge through the end of 2014. After that, they’ll have to shell out $299 per year for a Prime Fresh membership.

Officials with Amazon say they plan to continue expanding in the Brooklyn borough through the end of the year. Previously, Amazon Fresh was only available in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Since its debut several years ago, Amazon Fresh has made several headlines; mostly for its parent company’s rather confounding choices in promotion and delivery.

Back in January, the company left residents of San Francisco scratching their heads after receiving bags of unordered, and mostly unfresh, groceries. The company said the surprise deliveries, which included fish taco seasoning and cans of cream of mushroom soup, were a promotion for the upcoming expansion to the city.

Then in September, Amazon made the decision to enlist the troubled U.S. Postal Service as delivery service of choice for Amazon Fresh in the Bay Area.

The USPS-operated deliveries were expected to take place in the very early hours of the morning when most postal service trucks are not in use. The deal between USPS and Amazon is currently on a two month test basis.

Amazon Fresh isn’t the online retailer’s only foray into grocery delivery. The company unveiled Prime Pantry back in April. That service allows consumers to consolidate as many grocery items as they can into one large box for delivery. Unlike Amazon Fresh, Prime Pantry has a delivery time of around four to five days.

Amazon Confirms It Will Deliver Fresh Groceries in New York City [Re/Code]

Michigan May Be Latest To Ban Direct Sales Of Teslas

Fri, 2014-10-17 18:28

(Atwater Village Newbie)

(Atwater Village Newbie)

Because car dealerships don’t want to move beyond an era of gladhanding salesman upselling customers on unnecessary add-ons — and because they apparently want to give electric car company Tesla as much free advertising as possible — they are pushing for Michigan to enact legislation preventing carmakers from selling directly to consumers in the state.

Tesla doesn’t operate the typical network of franchised auto dealers. Instead, people looking to buy one of the pricey electric cars does so directly through Tesla. The company does, however, operate a small number of display operations where people can look at Tesla models and ask questions about the cars.

This hasn’t sat well with various auto dealer industry groups who have backed legislative attempts in multiple states seeking to ban direct sales.

The Michigan effort is particularly underhanded as the ban on direct sales was quietly attached to an unrelated bill regarding fees charged by auto dealers on Oct. 2, shortly before the legislation went to a final vote.

The amended bill passed through the Michigan state House and Senate and now sits on the desk of Gov. Rick Snyder, who has until Tuesday to decide whether to veto or sign the legislation.

The Michigan Auto Dealers Association claims that Tesla is already violating existing state law by not selling cars through franchised dealers. Tesla maintains that it’s not breaking the old laws because it simply doesn’t operate any sales businesses in Michigan.

The amendment, backed by the MADA, attempts to close this purported loophole by clarifying that the law applies to all manufacturers who “sell, service, display or advertise vehicles in the state.”

“One of the things that was added to the bill was a section that states this law applies to all manufacturers. There’s no creation of new rules,” said Terry Burns, executive vice president of the MADA to the Detroit Free Press. “If a manufacturer wants to come in and sell cars in the state of Michigan, they should probably follow Michigan law.”

But Tesla’s general counsel counters that the amendment is not a simple clarification of the law; it’s an attempt to change the law and ban the sale of Teslas.

“People don’t introduce bills unless they intend to change the law,” he explained. “Secondly, people don’t sneak language in at the last minute unless they know it will be consequential.”

Tesla doesn’t even operate a display in Michigan, but the state wants to join Texas, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia on the list of states that are terrified of living in a world where car dealerships aren’t always necessary.

The fact is that auto dealers face a future where they may no longer be such an integral part of the retail landscape.

“The market will eventually push that in that direction,” Christie Nordhielm, associate professor of business at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business tells the Free Press. “Rule one of distribution is there’s only one customer, and that is the consumer. Everyone else is a middle man.”

State Representative Tom McMillin of Rochester Hills was the only “no” against the final bill, arguing that the government should not be in the business of deciding how cars are sold.

“If a company wants to try to distribute their product different than through dealerships, they certainly should be able to,” he explained to the Detroit News. “The only winners in that would be the consumers.”

In September, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts threw out a lawsuit aiming to block Tesla from selling directly to customers and using a retail storefront to display model vehicles.

Weeks earlier, the Georgia Automobile Dealers Association filed a complaint with the state’s Department of Revenue, claiming that Tesla sold too many through its one retail store in the state.

A petition asking the White House to introduce federal legislation to allow for direct sales to consumers in all states gathered more than 130,000 signatures last summer. The White House responded by saying that consumer choice is important, but that laws regarding things like auto sales are best left in the hands of the individual states.

While most states don’t have active bans on direct sales, a recently passed law in New Jersey expressly allows Tesla and others to sell directly to consumers.

The Future Will Be Online TV, But That Might Come With Online Blackouts

Fri, 2014-10-17 18:13

(Mike Cook Foto)

(Mike Cook Foto)


It’s been a heck of a week for anyone who’s been waiting for all their TV to go online. HBO, CBS, and Univision have all announced online streaming subscription packages this week, which is big news for consumers. But the future, while different, may not be rosy. You can’t watch streaming video without internet access, after all. So what happens to your show when your TV network and your ISP get mad at each other?

The fine folks over at the WaPo’s The Switch point out that this is exactly the kind of problem we’re likely to see someday.

The Switch quotes Ross Lieberman, who works for the American Cable Association and who tweeted out the big question: “If CBS and a cable op[erator] can’t agree on a [retransmission] deal, will CBS block that op’s broadband sub[scribers] from accessing its new streaming service?”

Cable or satellite blackouts happen relatively often when two companies can’t agree on contract terms. This year, for example, The Weather Channel went dark on DirecTV for three solid months when the two could not agree on terms. The Weather Channel wanted more money than DirecTV was willing to pay, so no new contract was signed as the old one expired, and 20 million customers were unable to watch Jim Cantore stand in the rain as a result.

As carriage disputes go, though, that one was mild even though it was protracted. Some are much more contentious, like last year’s dispute between CBS and Time Warner Cable. The CBS/Showtime blackout that resulted was disastrous for TWC, which lost over 300,000 subscribers. And in an era where cord-cutters are ascendant, and ever-more content is available without a cable box, those are subscribers that pay-TV companies aren’t going to get back.

So what might happen as we put more and more TV online?

Content companies — broadcast networks like CBS, as well as premium channels like HBO — are going to stay on cable and satellite for a long time. They’re not going to walk away from those contracts, even as more Americans choose the online options instead. 90 million pay-TV subscribers is a big drop from 100 million pay-TV subscribers, but it’s still a lot of people and a lot of money.

But for viewers to watch online content, we need to pay an internet provider. And for huge swaths us our internet provider is also a pay-TV company that has a strong interest in double-dipping and making money wherever possible.

So let’s say that Comcast and CBS get into a carriage dispute in the future. If you don’t have a cable subscription, you don’t care that CBS and Showtime are going dark on cable boxes, because you only pay Comcast for broadband, and you pay $6 per month to CBS directly for online access to their content.

But you get that internet access from Comcast, and CBS is withholding their content from Comcast customers. So now, when you try to use the CBS subscription you’re paying for — on any of your devices — you get a big fat blackout error message on your app or browser preventing you from watching your content online.

Sound farfetched? It’s not. Online gatekeeping already happens on occasion. For example, earlier this year one basic cable network pulled a show off the air mid-season but put the remaining episodes online, on their website. However, for the first several days after the change, some customers who get both cable and internet from Comcast (including yours truly) were unable to access the show from the website, and instead received error messages about being required to subscribe to the channel.

It wasn’t a dispute, and Comcast and the network got it all sorted out in a few days (well before the show’s current season hit the ether). But it hints at some of the underlying problems that an unbundled, streaming future is likely to face. Content networks, pay-TV companies, and broadband companies all have a strong stake in accessing both the TV and online side of the equation. But they aren’t three distinct entities: there’s loads of overlap, and each company is likely to have even more competing interests over the coming years of change.

Only one thing remains ever true: no matter who argues, it’s consumers that get stuck in the middle.

Cable blackouts could someday be broadband blackouts, too [Washington Post]

McDonald’s Franchisees Pinning Hopes On Monopoly & McRib

Fri, 2014-10-17 17:43

(Raymond Bryson)

(Raymond Bryson)

Sales at McDonald’s have been slipping in recent years, and the company has done everything from making major changes in leadership to revamping the Dollar Menu to offering chicken wings that largely sat uncooked in franchisees’ freezers. Facing forecasts of another down quarter, franchisees are hoping that a couple of old favorites will help point sales in the positive direction.

BurgerBusiness.com reports on a new McDonald’s franchisee survey from an analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott, in which a number of Golden Arches operators are praying that the current Monopoly promotion will result in better sales.

“Everything depends on Monopoly,” says one franchisee, who is not misquoting William Carlos Williams, but is expressing a hope that the annual promotion will get more customers in spending money on menu items with Monopoly game pieces attached to them.

Another franchisee admits that previous Monopoly promotions have helped move product even if they didn’t result in huge profits.

“Hopefully Monopoly will give us a few more transactions,” said another franchise operator.

Echoes one more franchisee, “I am counting on Monopoly to stop the bleeding.”

Another go-to promo for McDonald’s in recent years has been the McRib, everyone’s third-favorite pork-like piece of formed meat on a bun.

“McRib should prevent further declines,” says one franchisee, who has apparently never heard of diminishing returns.

When the McRib returned from more than a decade of fast food exile in 2010, it was feted like the coming of some sort of sauce-covered savior.

Subsequent seasonal offerings of the sandwich have done well for the chain, but this year’s McRib promotion is not going to be a national effort with a large, concentrated advertising campaign. It remains to be seen whether fans will come out in droves without the McDonald’s corporate marketing machine to drum up business.

One repeated complaint from franchisees is that McD’s HQ lacks any sort of overarching turnaround plan.

“They simplify…and then just add more products,” says one operator. “I don’t think that anyone at McDonald’s really has a strong vision for the brand in the USA.”

Consumerist Friday Flickr Finds

Fri, 2014-10-17 17:34

Here are ten of the best photos that readers added to the Consumerist Flickr Pool in the last week, picked for usability in a Consumerist post or for just plain neatness.

(Corey Templeton)

(Corey Templeton)

(Joel Zimmer)

(Joel Zimmer)

(Michael)

(Michael)

(Joanne Wong)

(Joanne Wong)

(Mike Matney)

(Mike Matney)

(Freaktography)

(Freaktography)

(ken fager)

(ken fager)

(Joel Zimmer)

(Joel Zimmer)

(Rich Renomeron)

(Rich Renomeron)

(PepOmint)

(PepOmint)

Our Flickr Pool is the place where Consumerist readers upload photos for possible use in future Consumerist posts. Want to see your pictures on our site? Just be a registered Flickr user, go here, and click “Join Group?” up on the top right. Choose your best photos, then click “send to group” on the individual images you want to add to the pool.

Honda To Audit Reporting Inaccuracies After Third Takata Airbag Death Linked To Company

Fri, 2014-10-17 17:08
(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

Car manufacturers are required under law to report death and injury claims to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those figures allow the regulatory agency to identify potentially fatal and dangerous defects. New reports show that might not have been the case for Honda Motor Corp., whose vehicles have  now been linked to three fatalities related to defective airbags.

Reuters reports that officials with Honda say they have launched a third-party audit of “potential inaccuracies” in providing information for Early Warning Reports.

Consumer safety group, Center for Auto Safety, says those inaccuracies, specifically concerning defective Takata-produced airbags, have hampered regulators ability to spot safety defects, which in turn can leave potentially dangerous vehicles on the roadways.

Honda officials say in a statement to Bloomberg Businessweek that the inaccuracies likely stem from the company’s choice to not include verbal reports of injury or death claims. The company says the omission is not against the law.

Honda only reported 28 injury-and-death claims to NHTSA last year, far below other manufacturer levels of claims. General Motors reported 1,716, while Toyota was responsible for 1,774.

Honda says it will revise its current claims reporting practice in the future.

But those changes may be coming too late for the car manufacturer. Reuters reports that a third fatality related to defective Takata-produced airbags was found to have occurred in a Honda vehicle.

Businessweek reports that all three U.S. fatalities related to the issue stemmed from accidents involving Honda and its Acura-branded vehicles.

NHTSA is investigating the airbags, which it says may deploy with too much force, causing metal fragments to kill or injure vehicle occupants. Since 2008, 16 million vehicles with the airbags have been recalled globally, nearly 6 million by Honda.

According to Reuters, the latest fatality occurred in 2013 when the driver of a 2002 Acura TL sedan crashed inside of a parking garage.

A police report shows the man died from head injuries sustained when his car accelerated, struck three vehicles and collided with the building. The coroner’s report reviewed by Businessweek found that a man died after being stuck by a piece of metal that blew out as the airbag deployed.

Officials with Honda say they were never informed of the accident and are “having to piece it together after the fact now.”

While it’s unclear if Honda will face additional regulatory scrutiny for its possibly ineffective injury and death reporting, the issue further highlights a systemic fracture in the U.S. vehicle safety recall system.

Just this year alone, Businessweek reports that U.S. automakers have recalled 51.8 million vehicles.

Millions of those vehicles were part of a General Motors recall concerning defective ignition switches. That issue, which GM officials say they knew about for 13 years before issuing the recall, has so far resulted in 27 fatalities, with new death claims being verified each week.

Officials with NHTSA tell Reuters they are working to establish a “new normal” for automakers issuing recalls. Additionally, the agency is working with Honda to determine whiter the automaker is in compliance with reporting standards.

Third traffic death in U.S. linked to Takata air bags [Reuters]
Honda Probes Parking-Lot Death Amid New Casualty Search [Bloomberg Businessweek]

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