MONEY Leisure

4 New Ways Movie Theaters Are Filling Seats and Upselling Patrons

People relax in all powered recliner seats at AMC Movie Theater in Braintree.
People relax in all powered recliner seats at an AMC Movie Theater. Jonathan Wiggs—Boston Globe via Getty Images

The next time you go to a movie theater, you may be coaxed into spending a little extra money—perhaps for a beer, a toy your kid is begging for, or the right to watch the film you just saw over and over.

Even with the blizzard of ticket sales for Frozen starting the year, 2014 has been less than stellar at the box office, with a summer of few blockbusters and overall sales that are down 4% compared to last year. In previous years, theaters and movie studios have resorted to raising admission prices (often using IMAX or 3D screenings as a justification) as a way to offset declining ticket sales.

However, fewer 3D films are being released lately—at least partly because theatergoers have come to see the technology as a gimmick not worth paying extra for in an otherwise mediocre movie—so theaters and movie studios have had to become more creative in their efforts to fill seats and upsell patrons. Here are a few of the strategies that have popped up recently:

Unlimited Admission Ticket
AMC Theatres and Paramount Pictures are experimenting right now with a special unlimited admission for Christopher Nolan’s three-hour space epic Interstellar that’ll get customers to turn over an extra $15. Like it sounds, the unlimited admission ticket allows filmgoers to see the movie as many times as they like—which could be quite a few times, considering how confusing some have found it to be. Unlimited tickets are on sale for $19.99 to $34.99, depending on location, or customers can pay $14.99 to upgrade a one-time admission into an unlimited one.

Combo Concessions
To boost revenues, theater concessions stands have increasingly been offering combo packages that generally include popcorn, a drink in a collectible cup, and often some kind of toy or figurine related to the movie such as How to Train Your Dragon 2 or Transformers: Age of Extinction. The Hollywood Reporter noted these combos cost theaters about $1.50 apiece, and they’re sold to customers for as much as $7.95. As one executive involved in the creation and licensing of such products explained, the natural reaction children have when seeing such combos is to whine until a parent gives in and buys one: “The kid sees another kid with this toy and says, ‘Hey, I want that, too.’” And the popularity of these offers isn’t limited to children, as one theater food service manager said: “We didn’t think we would see 35-year-old guys with collectible cups with little toys on them, but they love them.”

Booze, Food, Recliners… and Wind
To attract more customers and simultaneously squeeze more money out of them at the same time, theaters have been adding or expanding amenities and special features so that going to the movies is much more of an “experience” than sitting at home watching Netflix. Regal Cinemas has been adding luxury recliners to theaters, and plans to have them in as many as 350 locations by 2015. AMC’s Dine-in Theatres program allows patrons at select locations to grab beer and wine, as well as lunch, dinner, or some snacks while taking in a film, sometimes from the comfort of a recliner. In June, the country’s first 4D theater opened in Los Angeles, with artificial wind, fog, scents, and sensor-equipped seats adding another dimension to 3D films.

Gamer Competitions
In October, three Cinemark theaters boasted “multiple sold-out auditoriums” for special screenings that took place in the middle of the night and charged a premium over the usual movie admission. Most curiously, the screening that drew these crowds into the movie theaters wasn’t a movie at all, but a video game competition, the Riot Games League of Legends Championships, which were being held in South Korea and live-streamed at theaters in Texas, Illinois, and Washington.

MONEY consumer psychology

Why JetBlue Can Break Your Heart, but Comcast Never Will

JetBlue Planes
Seth Wenig—AP

It hurts to find out that brands like JetBlue want you to love them—but they only love you for your money.

This week, JetBlue announced it’s adding more seats on planes and new fees for checked baggage. The moves are clearly aimed at hiking profits—which is what businesses are supposed to do, right?

So why, then, has JetBlue’s policy change been met with outrage and a sense of betrayal? Isn’t JetBlue just a business that’s, you know, in the business of making money? Shouldn’t we fully expect these kind of profit-first policies? And if this kind of behavior is to be expected, why would there ever be any sense of surprise or disappointment, let alone heartbreak?

The subject brings to mind the old fable “The Farmer and the Viper,” in which a farmer nurses a freezing snake back to health—and is then promptly bitten and killed by the snake as soon as it has the opportunity. The moral is that you shouldn’t be surprised, and you certainly shouldn’t feel betrayed, when a snake behaves like a snake. A similar takeaway comes from the disturbing 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man,” which tells the tale of a man and his girlfriend who were killed, in essence, because a bear behaved like a bear.

The complication is that consumers don’t necessarily view brands that we interact with regularly as animals that will take advantage of us whenever the opportunity arises. We’re encouraged to “like” brands on Facebook, and marketers spend billions to try to get us to love brands, ideally with a cult-like fervor. We tend to view favorite brands as trusted partners or even friends, and we can feel violated and betrayed to the core when the terms of what can be a very warm partnership are exposed as more “strictly business,” to quote The Godfather.

“Some brands are so good at connecting with consumers on an emotional level that the relationship feels incredibly personal, much like a friendship,” explains Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and TIME and MONEY contributor. “In most cases the consumers feel they share the same values as the brand, which they see as manifesting human characteristics.”

This certainly seems the case for JetBlue and its longtime customers. The brand resonated and indeed became beloved because of the perks (free TVs and snacks for everyone) and amenities (leather seats and plenty of legroom all around) as much as because of its overriding ethos that all customers were valued—and valued equally. What helped make JetBlue stand out and become an industry darling is that its competitors in the airline business are notorious for exceptionally poor customer service, especially in regards to passengers who are paying the least for their flights.

Slowly, though, JetBlue tweaked its business model—adding a business class and adding more fees recently—and with this week’s announcement about shrinking legroom and the addition of baggage fees, it’s clear that the values originally embraced by the brand have changed as well. For the people who loved and were loyal to JetBlue specifically because of its egalitarian, customers-first approach, the latest moves serve as a big slap in the face with the cold-hearted reality that shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but hurts nonetheless: Brands like JetBlue want you to love them, but they only love you for your money.

Experts who study marketing and company-consumer relationships believe that brands that have developed cult-like followings for supposedly doing things the right and honorable way—Chipotle and Whole Foods come to mind—are likely to feel greater backlash if and when they appear to violate customers’ trust. “Our theory is that the people who feel most betrayed are the ones who were most attached to the brand in the first place,” says Debbie MacInnis, a marketing professor at the USC Marshall School of Business who is researching brand betrayal with colleagues.

By and large, consumers tend to get most attached to scrappy smaller brands with a streak of independence—brands they can identify with and feel good about supporting. “We love underdog stories,” says MacInnis. “We see ourselves as underdogs. We love the little guy, so there’s a natural brand connection.” It’s a connection that goes beyond a mere mutually beneficial economic transaction.

On the other hand, brands that are monolithic and fail to develop long-lasting loyalty or affection—big banks, pay TV and wireless providers, and yes, airlines come to mind—are less at risk of betraying customers’ trust because there was little to no trust to begin with. “You’re not likely to feel betrayed when a cable company treats you poorly,” says MacInnis. “You’ll shake it off and jump” to a competitor without blinking (assuming another one is actually available). “The transgressions are par for the course.”

It’s all about expectations: When someone we thought of as a friend turns out to be just another snake, it’s heartbreaking. Hence, the presence of several “Et Tu, JetBlue?” headlines out there, indicating that the once beloved airline’s betrayal is one of epic proportions.

“When consumers sense they’ve been used or manipulated they feel a burn more similar to a human betrayal than simple transactional disappointment,” says Yarrow. However, bigger, widely bashed brands are “lucky” enough to disappoint customers so frequently that there’s no surprise or sense of betrayal when they make yet another profit-first, customer-unfriendly move. “Consumers have such low expectations of Comcast, for example, they are thrilled when there simply aren’t problems.”

MONEY Scams

Price-Matching Scam Had $400 Sony PS4 Selling for $90 at Walmart

Scammers have been trying to take advantage of Walmart's price-matching policy by using fraudulent web pages to get Wii U bundles and Sony PS4 consoles for a fraction of their actual prices.

Leading into the 2014 winter holiday shopping season, Walmart broadened its price match guarantee policy to include prices offered by major online retailers like Amazon, as well as websites for stores such as Best Buy, Sports Authority, Staples, and Target. Until the change was made, Walmart would only match the sale prices posted in advertisements and competitors’ weekly circulars.

Well, it didn’t take long for opportunists to try—and, in some cases, succeed—to take advantage of price matching from Walmart and other stores. Earlier this week, Kotaku reported that a pricing glitch over the weekend on the Sears website showed Wii U bundles listed at $60 when they normally sell for upwards of $300. Sears fixed the mistake, and it appears as if no one was actually able to buy the console bundle for that price at the retailer’s site. But that didn’t stop many shoppers from trying to get the same deal from Sears’ competitors such as Walmart, Toys R Us, and Best Buy by way of their price matching policies. It’s unclear how many consumers were able to get the price honored, but several showed off their receipts at Reddit—one Toys R Us receipt notes the customer “Saved $240″ on the purchase—and surely many more succeeded and kept things quiet.

Then scammers took things a step further by creating fake Amazon.com pages that appeared to list Sony PS4 game consoles, which normally run $400, for under $100. As Consumerist.com explained, anyone with a registered account for selling things on Amazon can list an item at whatever price they choose. Amazon tries to root out obviously fraudulent or misleading price listings—such as a new Sony PS4 for $90—but it can take some time to catch up with the fraudsters. Before that happens, someone can take a screen shot and bring what appears to be a perfectly legitimate image into a store and ask that the price be matched.

That’s what happened at Walmart this week. By Wednesday, Walmart caught up with the scam, and some stores posted signs stating that the “PS4 Amazon.com Ad will not be Ad matched Due to Fraud.” The world’s largest retailer alerted CNBC and others that its price-matching policy has been updated to clarify that stores will not honor “Prices from marketplace and third-party sellers” such as those Amazon pages that were manipulated by users. “We can’t tolerate fraud or attempts to trick our cashiers,” a statement from Walmart explained. “This kind of activity is unfair to the millions of customers who count on us every day for honest value.”

So the scam appears to be dead, but not before an unknown number of consumers were able to take advantage of it and snag ultra-cheap PS4 consoles and, in some cases, cut-rate Xbox Ones and video games. If you think that the only ones hurt by this kind of behavior are Walmart and other major retailers, consider how much more difficult and time-consuming it’s going to be for perfectly honest customers to get genuine prices matched. Now that retailers are on the lookout for scams, be prepared to get the third degree when seeking a price match, even if you’re completely on the up and up.

MONEY Airlines

A New Era Has Begun for JetBlue, and Travelers Will Hate It

Customers check in at JetBlue's counter at John F. Kennedy Airport in the Queens borough of New York City.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images

At JetBlue, legroom is disappearing and checked baggage will soon cost extra. In other words, the airline you fell in love with is following the playbook of airlines that everyone hates.

When word spread back in September that JetBlue CEO Dave Barger was stepping down from his post in early 2015, two interesting things happened: 1) The company stock soared, rising 5% immediately after the news; and 2) travelers who loved JetBlue for its customers-first policies began to panic.

As Fortune put it, equity analysts tended to view Barger “as being ‘overly concerned’ with passengers and their comfort, which they feel, has come at the expense of shareholders.” With Barger and his pesky, stubbornly customer-friendly policies out of the way, JetBlue—under the leadership of new CEO, former British Airways executive Robin Hayes—could hop on the pathway to higher and higher profits by implementing more fees and cost-cutting measures on par with other airlines.

Consequently, the change at the top was welcomed by investors and dreaded by flyers and travel advocates who loved JetBlue specifically because it didn’t engage in the very nickel-and-diming policies analysts were pushing for. Even before it was announced that Barger was out, Marketwatch foresaw the likelihood that JetBlue would soon begin “putting customers second,” while first and foremost pleasing investors by jacking up fees and cutting back on amenities. Frequent flyer expert Tim Winship described Barger’s departure as “the beginning of the end for JetBlue as we know it,” while noting the risks inherent in the airline’s likely policy shift:

Such changes would be wrenching for JetBlue loyalists, for whom the roomier seating and relative absence of nuisance fees have been key reasons to book JetBlue over the competition. Even the number-crunchers acknowledge that a remodeled JetBlue would jeopardize the considerable brand equity the airline has built up over the years.

Nonetheless, this week JetBlue announced that it is reducing average legroom and introducing a new fare structure that means passengers buying the lowest-price tickets will have to pay extra if they want to check luggage. The changes, which will be instituted starting in 2015, will leave Southwest Airlines as the only domestic carrier to grant free checked bags (two of them, in fact) for all passengers.

Shrinking legroom will come as a result of 15 more seats being added to JetBlue’s Airbus A320 planes. Even after squeezing in the new rows of seats, JetBlue’s average legroom will be 33.1 inches, which is still slightly more than what the typical passenger on Southwest or Virgin America can expect. The real heartbreaker to travelers is likely to be the new “Fare Families” structure, which consists of three bundled options that travelers must choose from when booking a flight. At the low end of the pricing spectrum, tickets do not include a checked bag. Passengers who pay higher fares are entitled to checked bags (one at the middle level, two at the high end), and also get bonus loyalty points.

Exact details on pricing and what specific amenities are and aren’t included in the various fares haven’t been released yet. JetBlue became immensely popular among travelers for perks including free snacks and free entertainment on seatback screens. Presumably, even at the low end JetBlue passengers will get more than the “Bare Fares” of Spirit Airlines, which include with almost nothing other than basic transportation—even water and seat reservations cost extra. But JetBlue’s moves certainly seem inspired by the example set by Spirit, which is widely known as one of the simultaneously most hated and most profitable airlines.

JetBlue’s changes are clearly aimed at pleasing investors—shares of the company stock jumped more than 4% on Wednesday, nearing a seven-year high—but Hayes, currently the airline’s president, still claimed that the company was focused on delivering “the best travel experience for our customers.” In a statement accompanying JetBlue’s press release, Hayes is also quoted saying that JetBlue remains different from the pack. “As we focus on executing this plan,” Hayes said, “JetBlue’s core mission to Inspire Humanity and its differentiated model of serving underserved customers remain unchanged.”

Travelers seem to feel quite differently about the matter. The very active traveler community at the Flyertalk forum has been bashing the changes because they remove what made JetBlue special and worth seeking out, and turn the carrier into just another (hated, annoying, nickel-and-diming) carrier. “Lovely. The ‘We’ll attract more customers by being exactly like every other airline’ move,” commented one Flyertalk member. “Charging for bags and a crappy FF [frequent flier] program? What a combo!” commented another. “Seriously though, they’ve completely lost their appeal.”

Another highlighted how Southwest will soon be the only major domestic carrier including free checked bags with flights: “Now, especially if I have a bag, Southwest will be the way to go…and I hate Southwest.”

MONEY groceries

Rumors Are Flying of a Thanksgiving Turkey Shortage

Turkeys in a grocery store
Richard Levine—Alamy

You may have heard that there's a turkey shortage, and that prices are rising just in time for Thanksgiving. Hogwash.

Supermarkets have plenty of turkeys, and prices are incredibly cheap right now. How cheap? How about 79¢ per pound? That’s what the Kroger chain of supermarkets is offering in a special deal valid through Thanksgiving, so long as the customer buys an additional $35 or more in groceries.

If that’s too pricey, check out the offer from Meijer: When a customer spends at least $20 in the store, the chain’s own brand of turkeys are 50% off, which translates to 54¢ per pound for frozen birds and 98¢ per pound for fresh ones. In competitive markets such as western Michigan, meanwhile, some local grocery stores are selling turkeys for as little as 49¢ a pound. The latest Stop & Shop circular is advertising frozen turkeys for 59¢ per pound with a $25 purchase, and the chain says it will match the turkey prices of any grocery competitor. Yet another large player in the grocery field, Hy-Vee, has a coupon valid for a free 10- to 14-lb. Honeysuckle White Turkey for customers who purchase a Hormel whole ham. And ShopRite is giving reward club members a free turkey once the customer meets certain spending requirements (usually $400) over a period of a few weeks.

So why are so many headlines are making the rounds lately indicating that turkey is getting expensive?

It’s true that production is down, and that wholesale prices are up for turkey. But the important takeaway for shoppers is that neither of these factors is necessarily translating to rising prices in stores.

Due to long periods of drought and rising prices for feed, production of all manner of livestock has been on the decline in recent years. Beef prices, for instance, have increased to the point that consumers needed smart strategies to keep barbecue costs down over the summer. The Associated Press recently reported that American farmers will produce a total of 235 million turkeys this year, “the lowest since 1986, when U.S. farmers produced roughly 207 million birds.”

It sounds pretty dire. And yet, there’s nothing remotely true about the idea of there being a turkey “shortage,” as some have called it. A shortage means there’s not enough to go around—that the supply can’t keep up with demand. But as no less an authority than the National Turkey Federation noted that Americans collectively consumed 46 million turkeys at Thanksgiving 2012, and 210 million turkeys during the year as a whole. That, combined with the fact that there are ample supplies of turkeys at supermarkets all over the country, should dispel any claims of a “shortage.”

As far as prices go, wholesale prices may be rising—reportedly up 12% in October compared with last year—but, as USDA agriculture economist David Harvey explained to the AP, “There’s really no correlation between what grocery store chains are paying and what they’re selling them at.”

This year—and every year around this time—supermarkets use turkeys as “loss leaders.” The stores advertise exceptionally low prices on turkeys, knowing that doing so will be a draw for customers. The grocers don’t care if they make little or no money, or even if they lose money, on turkey sales; shoppers who come for turkeys almost always buy plenty more groceries when they’re in the stores, especially when they’re required to do so, as the best deals stipulate, and it’s in these purchases where the supermarkets make their money.

What’s more, the idea that there is a turkey shortage and/or that turkey prices are soaring is a myth that pops up regularly around this time of year. Last year’s “shortage” turned out to be hype because, once anyone read past the headlines, it was clear that even as the supply of one particular kind of turkey had declined, the vast majority of turkeys (and consumers) were completely unaffected.

In a story published today by the New Jersey Star Ledger, Ashley Myers, co-owner of Ashley Farms, is quoted laughing off the idea of there being a shortage of turkeys. “They say that every year,” she said.

And every year, everyone who wants to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving is able to buy a turkey very easily, generally at very low prices—or even free. This year is no exception.

MONEY Shopping

Are Millennials to Blame for Stores Being Open on Thanksgiving?

millennial shoppers window shopping
Mireya Acierto—FilmMagic

Retailers say they're open on Thanksgiving because that's what customers want. But one age group in particular is more than happy to leave the dinner table and go shopping on Turkey Day.

Yes, it’s the millennials—the Baby Boomer offspring demographic whose consumer behavior is analyzed ad nauseum by marketers—who say they’re plenty game for shopping on Thanksgiving.

According to one national survey from the loyalty marketing and customer analytics firm LoyaltyOne, only one-third of the overall population thinks that “stores being open all day Thanksgiving is a great idea.” However, roughly half of those ages 18 to 24 say it’s “great” for stores to be open on the national holiday, while 48% of consumers ages 25 to 34 are also on board with the idea. Among folks ages 55 and up, by contrast, only 16% think all-day store hours on Thanksgiving is a wonderful idea.

Another recent poll, conducted by IPSOS for Offers.com, yielded similar results, in which millennials are more likely than other generations to say they’ll be shopping this Thanksgiving. Two-thirds of those ages 18 to 34 say they plan to shop on the holiday—in store, online, or both—compared to 51% of consumers ages 35 to 54 and only 30% of the 55+ category.

So it would seem as if all of the retailers that insist on being open on Thanksgiving are doing so to an outsized degree to play up to millennials, the all-important shopping demographic that’s 80 million strong and expected to account for 30% of all retail sales by 2020. Following this idea through, if the hundreds of thousands of Americans who hate the idea of consumerism encroaching on Thanksgiving and have pledged to not shop on the holiday are looking for something to blame other than plain old greed on the part of retailers, it would be easy to point the finger at millennials. After all, as many “Black Thursday” boycotters have pointed out, the stores wouldn’t be open on Thanksgiving if no one showed up to shop that day.

And yet, it’s much too simple to say that if it wasn’t for millennials, the stores being shamed for Thanksgiving Day hours would see the light and remain closed that day. For one thing, a broader look at millennial consumer behavior shows that a big reason this group is eager to jump on board with shopping on Thanksgiving is that young people like the idea of shopping pretty much every day. Other studies show that millennials are four times more likely to shop on Black Friday than their Baby Boomer parents, and that millennials have the highest percentage of any generation that will be shopping on Cyber Monday as well.

Add in that millennials are less likely to have families or own homes, and so therefore they’re less likely than older groups to host Thanksgiving or feel like the day must remain a sacred one devoted exclusively to family time. If anything, many members of Gen Y—who have always lived in a world with 24/7 access to shopping and deals, thanks to Amazon.com and e-retail—are probably more than ready to ditch their families for some portion of Thanksgiving when the day’s sales beckon. At some point, the small talk with Aunt Myrtle grows stale.

Of course, millennials are hardly the only ones who will be deserting the family dinner table before dessert is served in order to go shopping on Thanksgiving. What’s more, some of what might be perceived as anti-family, anti-Thanksgiving sentiment on the behalf of millennials can be explained by how survey questions are asked. In yet another holiday consumer poll, 77% of Americans ages 18 to 39 said that “retail stores should not be open on Thanksgiving Day so that employees can enjoy time with their friends and family.”

When the issue is raised this way—with the focus on employees who might be forced to work on the holiday—it’s clear that the vast majority of millennials don’t want to see Thanksgiving ruined for American families. On the other hand, millennials more so than other age groups appear to like the idea of shopping on Thanksgiving at least partly because they don’t want to be stuck for the whole day with families of their own.

MONEY Food & Drink

These Coffees Want To Be the Christmas Version of the Pumpkin Spice Latte

Seasonal drinks from Dunkin Donuts
Jim Scherer

Can the pumpkin spice latte phenomenon be repeated, only in winter? Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and others hope so—and they're heaping on sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and chestnut flavors into new drinks to make it happen.

It’s no wonder coffee chains are trying to replicate the retail magic that appears annually in the form of autumn’s onslaught of pumpkin spice beverages. A hot seasonal beverage is proven to juice sales big time. To milk the PSL (Pumpkin Spice Latte) frenzy even more, Starbucks rolled out the beverage earlier than usual this past summer in many parts of the country, and it boosted sales to the surprise of no one.

Peppermint, which is known to increase physiological arousal and heightens alertness, has been a popular flavor in holiday season beverages, and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, McDonald’s, and 7-Eleven, among many others, are bringing peppermint-laced hot drinks back to their winter menus. But the new holiday beverages go far beyond a mere minty twist, with chestnut, cinnamon, gingerbread, sugar cookie, and other sickly sweet flavors providing the rush. (Perhaps that puzzlingly catchy Def Leppard song was really about holiday season coffees?)

When done right, a hot seasonal beverage succeeds for the seller two-fold by 1) drawing in customers early and often, at least partially because any limited-time offer won’t be around forever and people don’t want to miss out; and 2) getting customers to pay more than usual for their caffeine fix. As NPD Group analyst Bonnie Riggs explained of all unique coffee beverages, customers “expect to pay a premium because the specialty drinks … are not something they can replicate at home or easily get at retail.”

All of which helps explain why Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and others have introduced these new contenders for the 2014 winter season:

Starbucks Chestnut Praline Latte
In the same way that pumpkin spice has come to be the dominant, most eagerly anticipated flavor of fall, Starbucks is hoping its brand-new Chestnut Praline Latte becomes inextricably tied to the winter holiday season. “The rich, earthy, sweet, roastiness of chestnut is a perfect foil to espresso. Then we balanced the nutty chestnut flavor with brown sugar and spice,” Starbucks research and development manager Amy Dilger said of the new latte, which is the company’s first new holiday beverage in five years. “It’s a quintessential flavor of the holiday season.”

To get customers to sample the goods early in the season, Starbucks is having a buy-one, get-one-free special on holiday drinks, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. through November 16.

Dunkin’ Donuts Sugar Cookie Latte
Less than a week after Halloween, Dunkin’ Donuts introduced its lineup of sugary winter beverages, including two cookie-flavored lattes: the Sugar Cookie Latte and the Snickerdoodle Latte. They’re both available in hot or cold varieties, as is Dunkin’s Peppermint Mocha, which is back again this holiday season.

Caribou Coffee Gingersnap Cookie Mocha
With “hints of ginger, allspice and clove,” the Gingersnap Cookie Mocha from Caribou Coffee is trying to make its case as the hot caffeinated beverage of the season. Previous seasonal brews also are returning to Caribou’s menu, including the Ho Ho Mint Mocha and special Reindeer Blend coffee—and thank goodness the latter is false advertising. (The coffee contains no real reindeer ingredients, but does have “a hint of caramel and a dash of spice.”)

Peet’s Cinnamon Hazelnut Latte
Peet’s is bringing back holiday beverages such as the Sea Salt Caramel Mocha, Eggnog Latte, and Winter Solstice Tea, while also introducing a new seasonal beverage, the Cinnamon Hazelnut Latte. Follow the link for a coupon granting a free small seasonal beverage with the purchase of any food item, now through November 26.

MONEY Gas

Get Used to Gas Prices Under $3 Per Gallon

changing gas price sign
Derek Davis—Getty Images

A new government report is forecasting that the average price for a gallon of regular gasoline in 2015 will be $2.94.

It seemed like quite a big deal when the national average for gasoline dipped under $3 recently. The price of the average gallon of regular had started with a $3 from late December 2010 all the way until the beginning of November 2014, when at long last it dropped below the mark. The national average as of Thursday, according to AAA, is $2.917, and some states, such as South Carolina and Tennessee, are averaging under $2.70.

According to a report this week from the federal Energy Information Administration, it looks like sub-$3 gas prices will be sticking around for a while. The report projects that gas prices will keep declining through the end of the year, with a national average of $2.80 expected for December. And the average for 2015 as a whole is being forecast at $2.94 per gallon.

The retail price of gasoline is tied to the wholesale price of crude oil, and due to bountiful supply and shrinking demand, the EIA is predicting that the cost of crude will average $77.75 per barrel next year, compared with $95 in 2014 and $97.91 in 2013. Accordingly, prices at the pump are expected to be cheaper in 2015—averaging $2.94, compared with $3.39 this year and $3.51 in 2013.

If the forecasts hold up, by December the national average will have dropped 90¢ from the 2014 high, and the 2015 average will be roughly 70¢ lower than that of 2012—when it was $3.63, the overall most expensive year (thus far) for gasoline.

 

MONEY Airlines

The Greatest Airline You’ve Never Flown Is Going Public This Week

Virgin America airplane in flight
Herb Lingl—Aerial Archives

If you've never flown on Virgin America—or never even heard of it—you're not alone. The carrier, which is always among the country's top-rated airlines, has an IPO set to take off this week.

For most of its existence, Virgin America, the U.S. offshoot of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has been the equivalent of a TV show that’s beloved by critics and viewers but has trouble attracting a large enough audience to be a true success. The airline, which began flying out of a San Francisco hub in 2007, has lost tons of money year after year, even while it routinely nabbed top honors among domestic airlines for having the best combination of service and amenities. Virgin America remains a beloved darling among travelers, who enjoy the leather seats, wi-fi, seatback screens with live TV, and power outlets available to all passengers on all planes. It was named the country’s best domestic airline by Travel and Leisure readers for 2014, marking the seventh year in a row Virgin America has held the top spot. The fares are often very good too, with deals like San Francisco to Los Angeles from $69 each way and San Francisco to Boston starting at $179.

Nonetheless, only a small portion of travelers actually have firsthand experience with the airline. For all of 2013, Virgin America carried a total of roughly 6.2 million passengers. Southwest Airlines, by contrast, was responsible for transporting 108 million passengers last year. Even though Virgin America has expanded its route network over the years, recently adding Dallas-Love to its roster of destinations as one example, the carrier still only serves 13 U.S. metropolitan areas. What’s more, many of its connections come up short in the convenience department. For instance, Virgin America has service to both Austin and Las Vegas, but if you want to book a flight between the two cities with the airline, you’ll have to fly by way of San Francisco.

There has been plenty of skepticism about whether or not Virgin America can have a successful run in the U.S. marketplace. “I’m surprised it has survived this long, given the huge losses accumulated to date,” Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consulting firm Leeham Co., said in 2012. “I don’t really see a place in the market for Virgin America.”

And yet the airline is alive and apparently doing quite well today, with an IPO planned for this week. As Businessweek and others have noted, the timing of the public offering couldn’t be better: The Virgin America IPO is taking place at a high point for the airline business, with strong demand and cheap fuel prices helping carriers to pull in record profits. Speaking of which, after a long string of quarters noting loss after loss, Virgin America has been in the black of late as well, recording a net profit of $60.2 million through the first nine months of 2014, up from a loss of $4 million for the same period the year before.

In its planned IPO, Virgin America is expected to sell more than 13 million shares starting at a price of $21 to $24. Should investors buy in? That’s a gamble. Airline stocks have had an extraordinary run in 2014, but there’s no telling if the upward trajectory will continue. We just hope that at some point, more travelers get to fly on what sounds like a pretty terrific airline.

 

MONEY Shopping

Walmart Pumps Up Black Friday and Thanksgiving Deals

Employees wear Santa hats as customers check out at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location ahead of Black Friday in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.
A scene at Los Angeles-area Walmart the week before Thanksgiving and Black Friday 2013. Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg via Getty Images

"New Black Friday" is the term being used by Walmart for its Black Friday promotions—which actually start on Thanksgiving and last for five days.

On Tuesday, Walmart held a press conference to introduce what it’s calling the “New Black Friday.” Per the ongoing retail trend, the Black Friday sales start on Thanksgiving Thursday, and they’re hardly limited to a single day. “This year, we’re blowing it out with five days of deals in store and online,” Walmart chief merchandising officer Duncan Mac Naughton said. “We’ll have crazy low prices on the gifts our customers want.”

First things first: Is there anything really “new” about Walmart launching Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving, or about having sales stretch from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday? On both accounts, the answer is no.

Last year, Walmart’s Black Friday included a staggered series of doorbuster deals, with some available at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, others starting a couple hours later, and still others taking effect early on Friday morning. What’s more, Walmart and other retailers began trickling out pre-Black Friday sales the weekend before Thanksgiving if not earlier, plenty of other deals were available over the entire five-day Thanksgiving-Cyber Monday period, and the majority of these sale prices could be purchased online or in stores for the same exact price.

And guess what? This year, it’s essentially the same story. The hours have been tweaked for the 2014 version—special deals are available at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, then more starting at 6 a.m. the next morning—but it’s basically been the same plan since 2012.

On the one hand, spreading what are supposedly the best holiday sales out over five days—or, let’s face it, over the course of two full months—might make you wonder why it’s necessary to go shopping at all on a day traditionally devoted to family time rather than mall time. Walmart may hope that you physically go shopping in its stores on all five of those days, but that doesn’t mean you have to play along, especially not when the online option is available.

The traditional retail playbook for Black Friday featured a limited number of low-price “loss-leader” doorbuster deals that drew in the masses. Whether they were actually able to get hold of one of the few ultra-cheap items or not, these customers tended to shop for other merchandise while they were in the stores. Walmart has tried to eliminate some of the bait-and-switch involved in this tactic with a 1-Hour Guarantee, in which shoppers are assured they’ll get the doorbuster they want if they’re lined up at least one hour before the sale price is available. Yet overall, the strategy remains unchanged: Attract customers with what seem like amazing deals on select items, then cash in when these customers buy all sorts of things—some on sale, some at full price, and collectively very profitable.

With five days of deals, Walmart could have decided that its best doorbuster bargains would be available starting on Friday or Saturday—or any day other than Thanksgiving. But that’s not what the world’s biggest retailer has done. Like Target, Best Buy, and many others, Walmart is rolling out what seem to be its best deals on Thanksgiving itself, including a 50″ LED TV for $218 and kids’ “Frozen” pajamas for $4.50. There’s nothing stopping Walmart and other retailers from launching these kinds of sales on, say, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Instead, they’re going with Thanksgiving, and because many of the very best deals are available in-store only, consumers who want to take advantage can’t stay home with their families and make purchases in front of a screen of their choice.

On the other hand, the season’s best prices don’t necessarily pop up on Thanksgiving or Black Friday, and, with the exception of a relatively small number of in-store-only doorbusters, the vast majority of deals are indeed available for web shoppers. As a dealnews post pointed out:

Data from previous years has shown that up to 70% of in-store Black Friday deals were also available online for the same price — or less! Because online sites, namely Amazon, will price match even the hottest in-store offers from brick-and-mortar retailers like Best Buy, Target, and Walmart, many feel pressure to release deals online as well.

The takeaway for consumers should be that it’s okay—more than okay—to stay home on Thanksgiving, and then to sleep in and stay home the following day as well. Yes, you might miss out on a select few deals by doing so. But hey, it’s really not that big of a deal.

 

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