MONEY Odd Spending

5 Weird Holiday Gifts You’d Never Guess Would Be Ultra Hot Sellers

You're not going to find Elsa, Elmo, or any toys whatsoever on this oddball list of bizarrely hot holiday buys.

We’ve come to expect that certain kinds of gifts will be hot sellers during the holiday season. Remember Zhu Zhu Pets? Or Tickle Me Elmo or Bratz? Or any number of other gifts that somehow or another dominated the December discussions in schoolyards all over America and caused parents to go out of their minds—and sometimes drop thousands of dollars—to get that year’s sold-out, must-have toy?

This year, “Frozen” items and certain Lego sets are among the gifts that are sold out or hard to find because supply has been unable to keep up with demand. Yet by and large, because today our interests are so varied, kids increasingly want tech more than traditional toys, retailers are better at anticipating sales, and online marketplaces make it possible to find even sold out items in seconds, it’s much rarer for there to be a single must-have toy in any holiday season.

That doesn’t mean that the holidays are bereft of sales surprises. In fact, a handful of oddball items have seemingly come out of nowhere to surge ahead of the pack as bizarrely hot-selling holiday purchases. Perhaps most surprising of all, none of them are toys, nor—one would hope—are they intended as gifts for children.

Here are five of the season’s strangest hot sellers, several of which it’s nearly impossible to buy now, assuming you might actually want to buy them.

  • Beard Baubles

    141222_EM_WeirdGifts_5
    AP Images

    Good luck getting your hands on this totally absurd gift for the bearded hipster in your life. Beard Baubles, which are tiny ornaments meant to adorn one’s facial hair as if the beard were a Christmas tree, have been sold out for weeks. The idea was reportedly cooked up by an ad agency in London, with the profits going to charity. If you’re truly desperate for a set of beard ornaments, some are being sold on eBay in the UK. Alternately, as one observer suggested, you could just go to a crafts store and make your own.

  • L.L. Bean Duck Boots

    141222_EM_WeirdGifts_1
    Courtesy of LL Bean

    Though far more practical than beard ornaments, the idea that many styles of classic L.L. Bean boots are out of stock, sold out, or otherwise hard to buy is still a head-scratcher, especially considering the winter is only getting started and a retailer such as L.L. Bean banks on big sales every holiday season. What happened? Apparently, L.L. Bean boots became extremely popular with teens and millennials recently, and because the boots are hand-crafted and stitched, the manufacturer hasn’t been able to churn out new pairs fast enough to keep up with the surge in demand. The hot boots phenomenon is reminiscent of last season, when $89 Giant hoodies were deemed the “it” piece of apparel and were backordered for months.

  • iPod Classic

    141222_EM_WeirdGifts_2
    Alamy

    The iconic iPod Classic was discontinued last fall, which wasn’t all that surprising because, what with so many other options for storing and listening to music, fewer people were buying the descendant of the original iPod. Apple also said that it was becoming increasing more difficult and expensive to find parts needed to make the iPod Classic. Now that the gadget isn’t sold in stores, however, the killed-off iPod Classic is being appreciated anew by consumers eager to get their hands on one. On eBay, auctions for new iPod Classics are starting in the high $300s, and some sellers are asking “Buy It Now” prices of upwards of $499. The Guardian reported that some sellers in the UK have been listing iPod Classics for up to £670 (roughly $1,050). The last time the gadget was sold in Apple Stores, mind you, the retail price was $249.

  • Ugly Christmas Suit

    141222_EM_WeirdGifts_3
    Courtesy of Shinesty

    The traditional ugly Christmas sweater would make the perfect complement to a beard decorated in ornaments, but this year, hipsters were given another ironic fashion option in the form of three different Ugly Christmas Sweater Suits from a company called Shinesty, based in Boulder, Colo. The suits, which came with a jacket, tie, and pants, each featuring bold colors and loud matching prints (Christmas trees, snowflakes, snowman), all sold out on Cyber Monday, though they’re available for 2015 preorder right now.

  • Poop

    141222_EM_WeirdGifts_4
    Courtesy of Cards Against Humanity

    As you may have heard, Cards Against Humanity, the “party game for horrible people,” somehow convinced 30,000 customers to pay $6 apiece for a box of bull feces. How did the company pull this off? Simple. On Black Friday, it posted on its website that it was plainly selling “Bull****” and thousands of people jumped on the offer. The gag gift—which buyers may or may not have actually known was a gag—isn’t anywhere near being one of the season’s hottest sellers. But considering the steaming pile of “merchandise” in question, any sales whatsoever would seem like a shock. Perhaps less surprising: Bull poop boxes are being posted on eBay, and they’ve been selling for three or four times the original ridiculous retail price.

MONEY Odd Spending

‘The Interview’ Poster Now Listed at $1,000 on eBay

141219_EM_Interview
Would you pay $1,000 for this poster? © Columbia Pictures—courtesy Everett Collection

After Sony cancelled the release of the controversial Seth Rogen movie The Interview, some collectors are thinking posters of the film are worth big bucks.

The Interview may make no money whatsoever at the box office, and it could wind up costing Sony Pictures over $100 million after the decision was made this week to cancel all screenings amid widespread threats to theaters. Still, the film—a comedy that depicts the assassination of North Korea leader Kim Jon Un, and which appears to be the impetus for North Korea’s involvement in a devastating hack of Sony, the production company behind it—could wind up earning some folks a pretty penny.

The Huffington Post noticed on Thursday that posters from the canceled movie had begun surfacing for sale on eBay, with asking prices in the neighborhood of $500. Pop culture experts forecast that these posters will be worth “$15, maybe $20″ in a year, when, presumably, all the hubbub about The Interview and the Sony hack are old news.

Still, this hasn’t stopped entrepreneurs from trying to milk the movie’s moment in the spotlight for quick and easy profits. At last check on Friday, there were around 500 results on eBay for “The Interview Poster.” Some sellers are asking $1,000 or more for vinyl 5′ x 8′ posters of the controversial film.

The highest price paid on eBay for one of the posters appears to be $787 for a 27″ x 40″ double-sided theatrical print that received 59 bids in an auction that ended on Thursday. The market appears to cooling off significantly, however. As of Friday morning, very few posters listed at eBay auction had been bid up beyond $250, and dozens of new listings had no bids whatsoever.

MONEY Odd Spending

Top 10 Strangest Things Marketers Tried to Sell Us in 2014

Our look back at some of the year's strangest products may seem laughable or a sad source of embarrassment—depending on whether you actually bought any of them.

Check out 10 of the strangest things marketers tried to talk us into buying in 2014. A few of them, we’re sure you’ll agree, were quite literally hard to stomach.

  • Dewitos

    Doritos and Mountain Dew
    Scott M. Lacey

    Following on the heels of Doritos cheese sticks and Doritos tacos, this fall PepsiCo began doing taste tests of the most frightening Doritos mashup so far: Doritos-flavored Mountain Dew, a.k.a. “Dewitos” or “Dewritos.” The innovation has been called a “new frontier for fast food,” with a flavor best described as “liquid cheese,” only with lots of caffeine.

  • Quarters for Doing Laundry

    rolls of quarters
    George Diebold—Getty Images

    Over the summer, a startup launched on the premise that people would pay a premium for a subscription service for quarters, which would be delivered so that you wouldn’t have to go round up up the on your way to the laundromat. The service charged $15 per month for a once-a-month delivery of a $10 roll of quarters. Needless to say, the site folded nicely and neatly—not unlike properly handled laundry—after about one week of existence.

  • Burgers for Breakfast

    Person holding BK Whopper
    Karl-Josef Hildenbrand—picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    The battle for fast-food breakfast customers raged in 2014, with Taco Bell and McDonald’s launching ads, special promotions (like free coffee), and new products to beat out the competition. Burger King joined in the fracas with the laziest fast-food concept in recent memory: Burgers for Breakfast, in which BK made Whoppers and other burgers available during early morning hours. The idea reportedly flopped with customers; burgers were not on the restaurant’s national breakfast menu at last check.

  • A Fake “Mona Lisa”

    Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, oil on wood
    Is it real...or is it a Mark Landis? Fine Art Images—Getty Images

    No, no one actually tried to sell the original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. But to celebrate the launch of a new documentary about Mark Landis, an infamous and prolific art forger, Landis’s forged version of the Mona Lisa was hung in a coffee shop in New York City with an asking price of $25,000. Apparently, no one wants to pay that much for a fake—not even a masterful fake by the likes of Landis. “After all the hype, there wasn’t much real interest or a sale,” a spokesperson for the coffee shop told us.

  • Derek Jeter’s Used Socks

    New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter #2 during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards August 11, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Orioles defeated the Yankees 11-3.
    New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter #2 during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards August 11, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Orioles defeated the Yankees 11-3. Tony Farlow—AP

    Throughout the course of Derek Jeter’s final season for the New York Yankees, ticket prices soared when #2 was in town, and an astonishing and varied amount of Jeter collectibles were marketed and sold. Among the oddest pitches: $400+ for one of Derek Jeter’s socks (game used, of course).

  • Seven Weeks of Unlimited Pasta

    Olive Garden pasta
    Joshua Lutz—Redux

    In September, the Olive Garden restaurant chain rolled out one seriously odd food offer: The Neverending Pasta Pass. The potentially cost-effective (also: potentially nauseating and potentially weight-altering) $100 passes gave users as many pasta dishes, breadsticks, and Coca-Cola soft drinks as they could stomach over the course of seven weeks. Only 1,000 of the passes were offered, and they were quickly snatched up by the masses—a few of whom recorded the good, bad, and ugly of eating at Olive Garden week after week.

  • Ebola Fashion

    man in hazmat suit in front of house
    PM Images—Getty Images

    The Ebola outbreak stoked fears around the globe, while also serving as a boost for an array of products, some understandable (hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, anti-germ protective gear), others downright bizarre (Halloween costumes, fashionable masks that retailed for $20). Yet another entrepreneur was trying to sell Ebola.com for at least $150,000 this year; he’d purchased the web domain in 2008 and has been waiting for an opportune moment to sell.

  • Pot Edibles That Look Like Hershey’s Candy

    Marijuana leaf
    allOver images—Alamy

    Soon after the sale of recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado, shops began selling a range of smokeable and ingestible products. Among the edibles was a brand of marijuana-infused candy called TinctureBelle, which made pot treats like Ganja Joy and Hasheath—with labels that looked eerily similar to traditional Hershey’s candies Almond Joy and Heath. Understandably, family values advocates and Hershey’s didn’t like the imitation versions, and the candy company sued last summer. The case was settled in October, and the pot candies that resembled Hershey bars have been recalled and destroyed.

     

  • Caffeinated Underwear

    caffeinated underwear
    iStock

    File this one under the category of products making outlandish claims that are just too good to be true: In 2014, the FTC ruled that a pair of companies that made and marketed caffeine-infused underwear must stop advertising that its products aided in weight loss. There was no scientific evidence to back up the claims, and customers who were coaxed into buying the caffeinated skivvies were granted refunds.

  • Bigger Butts

    Jennifer Lopez performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A.
    Jennifer Lopez performs onstage at the 2014 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Kevin Mazur—WireImage

    In 2014, marketers were more than happy to help convince women that they should try to enhance their physical assets to resemble Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez in one particular way. Hence the increase in butt implants and lift surgeries, as well as the sharp sales rise of products such as padded underwear, which give the appearance of a larger backside.

MONEY deals

Free Shipping Day Deals: Better Than Black Friday and Cyber Monday?

shipping box with confetti and styrofoam peanuts coming out of it
Sverre Haugland—Getty Images

Thursday, December 18, is Free Shipping Day, when more than 1,000 retailers are offering free shipping on all orders—and sometimes an extra 50% off on top of that.

Let’s be honest: Free shipping isn’t all that hard to come by. E-retailers are well aware of how exorbitant (or, for that matter, any) shipping costs are likely to cause online shoppers to abandon their virtual shopping carts before completing transactions, so nearly all merchants offer some form of free shipping—typically, when a minimum purchase threshold of $50 or $75 is met.

On Free Shipping Day, however, participating retailers agree to offer free shipping with no minimum purchase required, and the event is held one week before Christmas so that orders can be delivered by December 24. Still, let’s have another reality check: Many Free Shipping Day participants have offered free, no-minimum-purchase shipping on plenty of other days in the holiday season. Target has been doing this for two months, and stores such as REI are offering free, no-minimum shipping guaranteed to arrive by Christmas Eve on orders placed as late as 10 a.m. on December 23.

The point is that free shipping, while nice and all, is hardly the most unique and dazzling deal in today’s promotion-heavy marketplace. And free shipping alone shouldn’t make you pull the trigger on any old purchase.

The best deals for online shoppers combine free shipping with substantial discounts. Many retailers are pairing up across-the-board markdowns with Free Shipping Day promotions, and they’re presenting them as amazing, can’t-pass-up bargains. But are they? Below, we’re listing some seemingly impressive Free Shipping Day deals, and we’re comparing them with what these same retailers were offering on Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and other times during the holidays. Indeed, many are truly good deals—on par or better with what we’ve seen on other big sales days—but others just aren’t that special.

Here’s just a sample of today’s offers. As you’ll see, before biting on any Free Shipping Day deal, it’s wise to do some clicking around to investigate whether the promotions you see today are the same, better, or worse than what these retailers were offering days or weeks ago—and may offer again tomorrow.

Abercrombie & Fitch: Use code 15588 for 50% off everything plus free shipping—the same exact deal the retailer offered on Cyber Monday. Abercrombie offered across-the-board sales of “only” 40% off on Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

American Eagle: Use code HOLIDAZE for 40% off everything and free shipping on all orders—the same exact offer promoted on Black Friday weekend and Cyber Monday.

Children’s Place: Use code 25OFFER3 for free shipping on all orders, plus an extra 25% off sitewide—on top of sales marking down all merchandise by 40% to 60%; on Black Friday, by contrast, Children’s Place offered free shipping and a flat 50% off all merchandise.

Hollister: 50% off everything in store and online (use code: 35588), plus free shipping on all orders; Hollister also knocked 50% off everything on Black Friday, but shipping cost extra for customers who didn’t meet a minimum purchase threshold.

Lane Bryant: Free shipping and 50% off select merchandise such as pants, jeans, skirts, shoes, and boots (use code: SNOWMANLB), compared with free shipping and 50% off absolutely everything on Cyber Monday.

Levi’s: 30% off everything (through December 21) and free shipping (on December 18 only); occasionally, the Levi’s site is known for discounting all purchases by 40% off, but only on orders of $250 or more.

Sports Authority: Customers get 15% off nearly all merchandise and free two-day shipping for orders placed on Free Shipping Day; from time to time earlier in the season, this sports retailer has offered 25% off and free (standard) shipping on all orders.

Tommy Hilfiger: Use code TOMMY100 for free shipping on all orders and $30 off if you spend $100 or more; it’s not nearly as good a deal as the Cyber Monday deal of 50% off your entire purchase.

MONEY Leisure

Why a Hyped New Lottery Game Went Bust in a Hurry

The "Monopoly Millionaire's Club" lottery launch at Times Square on October 20, 2014 in New York City.
The "Monopoly Millionaire's Club" lottery launch at Times Square on October 20, 2014 in New York City. Andrew H. Walker—Getty Images

A new Monopoly-themed lottery game was expected to be popular enough to warrant its own TV show. But the game has already been killed after flopping with lottery players, who often had no clue if they won or lost.

State lottery sales have largely gone flat at the same time that much of the country has come to rely more and more on the revenues sanctioned gambling provides. To boost sales, state lottery commissions are constantly trying to capture the imagination (and dollars) of players by rolling out exciting new games. As one economist explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this past summer, a lottery game “follows a life cycle like any product… You get this increase in sales. It peaks. People get used to it, and then you get this slowdown.”

Hence the need to regularly create and market new lottery games, like the Monopoly Millionaires Club, introduced in 23 states in October as the first multi-state lottery game to hit the scene in 12 years. At the time, state lottery commission press releases (like one published for Arizona) and news outlets in participating states (such as New Jersey) had trouble explaining all of the game’s particulars. It was a “two-pronged game,” but with potentially multiple winners and “three different ways to win a million dollars,” and each ticket came with a series of numbers as well as a traditional Monopoly property, like Marvin Gardens or B&O Railroad. Anyone with a ticket matching all six numbers would win the jackpot (starting at $15 million), and when a jackpot was awarded, other randomly selected players would win $1 million apiece. But if nobody won the jackpot, nobody else was eligible to win $1 million either.

Oh, and players were supposed to enter an online sweepstakes to win a trip to Las Vegas to be on the associated TV show, to be hosted by Billy Gardell (Mike on “Mike & Molly”), where more millions could be awarded. And each ticket cost a pricey $5. “This $5 price point strengthens the game’s play value while differentiating it within lottery draw game portfolios,” the Arizona press release explained. Whatever that means.

From the get-go, people were puzzled. “Monopoly Millionaires’ Club is like a cross between Powerball, the Pennsylvania Lottery’s Millionaire Raffle, and McDonald’s Monopoly game, which makes people collect various game pieces,” one Philadelphia Inquirer writer summed up. “Plus, there’s a TV show,” and unlike popular scratch-off lottery tickets, “there’s nothing ‘instant’ about” about the Monopoly game. While it could possibly pay off big-time for players, the game was so confusing it might “set records for people who fail to realize they won, as well as people who mistakenly think they did.”

Turns out people don’t like confusing lottery games involving delayed gratification, and they certainly don’t like forking over $5 a pop to play such games. Citing “sales that have not met the lottery industry’s projections,” Texas announced last week that it was suspending the Monopoly game, and all other states followed suit recently. By December 26, the game will disappear nationally. To borrow from Monopoly lingo, this game is going indefinitely to jail. Do not pass Go; do not collect $200—or any amount.

MONEY Shopping

New Moves by 3 Tech Giants Aim to Get a Bigger Piece of Your Wallet

Apple Pay
Bryan Thomas—Getty Images

Google, Amazon, and Apple are all pushing new tools—and often, encroaching on the turf of competitors—with the hopes of snagging a larger cut of everyday consumer purchases.

Several of the world’s tech giants are squaring off, thanks to new strategies and tools that have one common goal: to bring their respective companies a bigger slice of the enormous consumer spending pie.

Google vs. Amazon

This week the Wall Street Journal reported that Google is working on a “Buy” button that would allow online shoppers to make quick one-click purchases—a feature that’s most often associated with Amazon, the world’s largest e-retailer. Google wouldn’t run factories full of merchandise, nor would it sell and ship goods like Amazon does. Instead, in theory (none of this is settled, or even confirmed by Google), consumers would be able to buy goods in a single click directly from partner retailers that show up in Google Shopping search results. Google is reportedly also considering an expedited shipping subscription service along the lines of Amazon Prime or ShopRunner, which would store the customer’s billing info and shipping address.

Google dominates search in general. Yet when people are searching specifically for things to buy, far more start their online shopping expeditions at Amazon. Naturally, Google would love to have more consumers browsing for goods with its search tools. What’s more, it would love to keep them within the Google sphere when actually making purchases. Right now, consumers who start shopping searches at Google are typically sent to other sites—including Amazon—when the time comes to buy. Google would much rather keep a tight hold of the eyeballs and wallets of shoppers.

Amazon vs. Ebay

Amazon recently announced the introduction of a new “Make an Offer” feature that allows customers to bid and negotiate on the price of certain merchandise—options that are in the wheelhouse of eBay, which was born as an auction site and has evolved into more of a general marketplace for sellers big and small.

For now at least, Amazon is essentially just the host site for sellers who are willing to haggle with customers. Only items falling under a few sales categories, including Fine Art and Sport and Entertainment Collectibles, are available on the “Make an Offer” basis, and it’s always a third-party vendor (not Amazon) that does all the negotiating and selling. After a customer views the suggested price of an item and makes an offer, “The seller will receive the customer’s lower price offer through email, at which point the seller can accept, reject or counter the offer,” an Amazon.com press release explained. “The seller and customer can continue to negotiate through email until the negotiation is complete.”

Consumer Reports noted of Amazon’s new tool, “By adding a haggling element to its traditional fixed-price model, Amazon broadens its appeal to a wider audience of consumers motivated not simply by low prices, but by the thrill of the hunt and scoring a deal.” Note that there are no open auctions, and that all haggling takes place privately between the two parties involved—not unlike the negotiations that take place between buyer and seller in a car dealership, or perhaps via a connection made on Craigslist or Priceline. Customers can “Make an Offer” on roughly 150,000 items right now at Amazon, and the e-retail giant plans on expanding the bidding option to hundreds of thousands more items in 2015.

Apple Pay vs. All Other Forms of Payment

When Apple Pay debuted in October, the mobile payment tool—allowing customers to pay for goods with a tap of an iPhone—could be used at Macy’s, McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and several other major chains, but overall less than 3% of U.S. merchants that take credit cards were ready to accept Apple Pay. As the New York Times reported this week, however, dozens more banks, retailers, and at least one NBA Arena (Amway Center in Orlando) have since started accepting Apple Pay, and experts increasingly are of the mind that Apple has the best chances of making smartphone payments commonplace:

“Retailers and payment companies see Apple Pay as the implementation that has the best chance at mass consumer adoption, which has eluded prior attempts,” said Patrick Moorhead, president of Moor Insights & Strategy, a research firm. “They believe it will solve many of the problems they had before with electronic payments.”

Still, there’s a very long way to go before a critical mass of consumers are paying for purchases regularly with iPhones, or any smartphones. Many big-name retailers, including Best Buy, Walmart, and Gap, aren’t accepting Apple Pay because they’re trying to create their own smartphone payment system—which may or may not be easier and more convenient to use than Apple Pay. More importantly, consumers generally still see old-fashioned debit and credit cards as a more convenient and certainly a more comfortable way to pay for stuff. For smartphone payments to be a true success, Apple Pay or other services will have to convince the masses otherwise.

 

MONEY online shopping

How to Get Fast, Free Last-Minute Shipping on Holiday Purchases

An Amazon employee packages an order to be shipped from its Coffeyville, Kan., warehouse.
An Amazon employee packages an order to be shipped from its Coffeyville, Kan., warehouse. Brian Corn—The Wichita Eagle/AP

Hey, holiday shopping procrastinators, now's the time to get your act together and take advantage of offers guaranteeing free and speedy delivery of online purchases.

Here’s everything you need to know about last-minute online holiday shopping, including how to ensure your orders will arrive in time to tuck under the Christmas tree—and how to not pay top dollar (or any money whatsoever!) for it.

The sooner you order, the better. While many retailers are guaranteeing that orders placed very late in the game—perhaps even by December 23—will arrive by Christmas Eve, it’s unwise to bank on these guarantees holding up. After last year’s debacle, in which orders from Kohl’s, Amazon, and others failed to arrive in time for Christmas, retailers have tried to push shoppers to place orders earlier to help avoid the mad rush in the few days before December 25. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, however, that many consumers are procrastinating, and that retailers are yet again guaranteeing last-minute delivery to entice desperate shoppers into placing late orders.

But there are two simple reasons why you should make online holiday purchases asap: 1) Doing so will save money, because (with the exception of Free Shipping Day—see below) the likelihood of free shipping disappears the longer you wait, and you’ll pay through the nose for expedited delivery at the very last minute; and 2) even though retailers and shipping services have taken steps to avoid a repeat of last year’s troubles, Mother Nature or sales overload could still cause shipping delays. After shoppers were burned last year, why take the risk?

More retailers are offering delivery guarantees. Heading into the 2014 holiday season, retailers seemed a little hesitant to make the sort of last-minute shipping guarantees that were commonplace in 2013. According to a survey conducted in the fall, 21% of retailers said they would set their deadlines for guaranteed December 24 delivery at December 19 or later, compared with 26% a year ago. Yet more recently, there’s been an increase in such guarantees. The consulting firm Kurt Salmon told USA Today that 25% of retailers are guaranteeing free delivery by Christmas on orders placed one to three days beforehand.

Retailers typically have a series of deadlines and varying costs for shoppers who want delivery by December 24. Target says that customers who order by December 20 are guaranteed delivery by Christmas, but only “on select items.” Target is also offering free standard shipping on all orders placed by December 20, but the policy stipulates that standard shipping is “3-5 business days.” There are only four business days between December 20 and December 24 (including both of those days), so it wouldn’t be surprising if some December 20 orders aren’t delivered by December 24.

Many news outlets have reported Amazon’s first deadline as Tuesday, December 16—that’s the last day shoppers can get free delivery via Super Saver Shipping for non-Prime members who meet the minimum purchase threshold ($35). Yet Amazon itself is now listing Friday, December 19, as the final day for free (non-Prime) shipping. Prime members, meanwhile, get two-day shipping on all orders fulfilled by Amazon, so they can order as late as December 22 for delivery by Christmas Eve.

Free Shipping Day is Thursday, December 18. As of Monday, roughly 1,000 retailers said they’d be participating in Free Shipping Day, an annual event held about a week before Christmas, in which stores offer free shipping on all orders, with no minimum purchase. While that sounds terrific, it must be noted that the many retailers offer essentially this same exact deal before and sometimes after Free Shipping Day. Target has given customers free shipping on all orders for weeks, while retailers like REI are offering free shipping guaranteed to arrive by December 24, with no minimum purchase, for orders placed as late as 10 a.m. on December 23. In select areas, Banana Republic is even offering free same-day shipping thanks to a partnership with a speedy delivery specialist, Deliv.

There are other ways to get fast—and free!—shipping. As mentioned above, Amazon Prime members get free two-day shipping on their Amazon purchases, and if you’ve never had a subscription before ($99 annually), it especially makes sense to get a free trial membership during the holiday period. Students get six months free, while everyone else can enjoy Prime benefits for 30 days. Also, the December 2014 issue of MONEY offers all sorts of tricks for saving money on online purchases, including the tip that ShopRunner, another two-day shipping service, is free for American Express customers who register a card with the site. By subscribing to either of these services, every day is Free Shipping Day.

MONEY Airlines

New ‘Basic’ Airline Ticket Is Worse Than Any Low-Fare Carrier Option

Economy class
Bart Sadowski—Getty Images

Delta recently introduced a new five-tier airfare scheme, including a revamped low-price "Basic Economy" ticket that's the riskiest, most restrictive, and least comfortable option in the sky.

Earlier this week, Delta announced that it is “redefining the products it offers customers to further distinguish the choices available to them,” with the 2015 rollout of a five different categories of service (and pricing) that passengers must choose from when buying flights.

Essentially, the more you pay, the better service and amenities you can expect. This is more or less the way things have always been with airline pricing. Yet the introduction of five flight categories—including “First Class” and an even higher class dubbed “Delta One,” as well as something called “Delta Comfort+” and “Main Cabin,” which used to be known as “Economy” or just coach—is unnecessarily confusing, and it certainly raises the bar in terms of instituting an onboard caste system. More importantly, Delta is flying into new territory at the low end of pricing, with the cheapest category providing the least flexible and least comfortable product of any American carrier.

“We’re providing Delta customers with a thoughtful, well-defined spectrum of options as they make decisions about travel,” Glen Hauenstein, the airline’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer, said in a press release. “Whether a customer prioritizes the perks of Delta One or the value of Basic Economy, every seat comes with impeccable service and unmatched reliability.”

Still, some travelers will be very surprised to find out what a Basic Economy seat comes without. Delta first began testing its low-price Basic Economy fare back in 2012 on a couple of flights. What stood out then about this low-fare option—and what remains unusual even in today’s profit-first, customers-last atmosphere—is how rigid and cruel it is. Neither advanced seat selection nor itinerary changes are allowed, not even for an extra fee. So this low-cost option is out of the question for couples or families who want to be assured they’ll sit together when flying. Also, because anyone not flying on a Basic Economy ticket has the right to arrange a seating assignment in advance, in all likelihood the passengers traveling on the cheapest tickets will be stuck in the worst seats on the plane. What’s more, because changes and cancellations are not possible under any circumstances, if an emergency arises and you must miss a scheduled flight, you’ll eat the entire cost of the ticket.

Today, Delta’s Basic Economy category is available from four Delta hubs (Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City) and 33 gateways, and it’s about to get more restrictive. Delta explained that as of February 1, several services that are currently available to Basic Economy ticketholders will be eliminated. These services include complimentary or paid upgrades, same-day standby, and priority boarding for a purchase.

It’s well understood that Delta introduced and expanded its Basic Economy category as a way to compete with Spirit Airlines, the much-maligned carrier that’s known for low fares followed by high fees for anything above the cost of a seat. Yet even the cheapest seats sold by Spirit Airlines, as well as low-fare, high-fee imitators such as Frontier Airlines, allow customers to pay extra for seating assignments and the right to change flight dates and itineraries. Frontier and Spirit also offer passengers the option of paying extra for upgrades, in the form of seats that may be larger or just come with more legroom.

The fare structures of Delta, Spirit, and all other airlines are meant to simultaneously attract customers and boost revenues. It’s just that some airlines go about seeking these goals in different ways. Spirit and Frontier are working the a la carte model, in which customers are wooed with a low upfront price, and then hopefully they’re upsold on a bunch of services later in the game. Delta’s new five-tiered model instead wants to get most of the upselling accomplished during the ticket purchase phase. The hope is that customers are so scared off by the absence of getting an advance seat, upgrade, or the option to change a flight that they’ll readily pay more upfront.

One way or another, there’s some upselling going on, and it’ll be difficult, uncomfortable, and often just plain impossible for travelers to actually complete a flight without paying above the base fare. A Delta spokesperson told Businessweek that the Basic Economy category could expand to more cities next year. And judging by the way that Spirit Airlines and its fee-crazed equivalent in Europe, Ryanair, have proven to be not only highly profitable operations but also industry trendsetters, more and more airlines are likely to follow in its a la carte, fees-for-everything footsteps. So, one way or another, when buying a ticket, when checking in, or during the flight itself, travelers should expect to pay more.

MONEY Shopping

Why All Those Great Holiday Deals Aren’t Really Great Deals

deflated balloon saying "Sale Now On"
MONEY (photo illustration)—Kutay Tanir/Getty (string); Adrian Turner/Alamy (balloon)

Sale prices are faker than ever this holiday season, as retailers openly admit that no one buys items at the ridiculously inflated "regular" or "suggested" amounts listed on price tags.

When seemingly everything is always on sale, is anything really on sale?

That’s a question that any savvy, value-oriented shopper must ask from time to time—and especially during the annual holiday shopping season frenzy, when it’s routine to see entire stores discounted by 40% or 50%. When such markdowns are a dime a dozen, who is foolish enough to actually buy anything at full price?

The answer could very well be no one. Something called “price anchoring” is a widely employed tactic in the retail world. Basically, the concept involves the establishment of a high price anchor, which locks into place a perception of value. You’ve probably seen tens of thousands of these anchors, in the form of “list,” “regular,” “original,” “suggested,” or “compare to” amounts shown on retailer websites or price tags. Anchor prices are set intentionally high, not with the idea that consumers will actually pay the inflated prices, but so that the retailer can create the perception of a tremendous deal when the item is inevitably placed “on sale.”

For example, picture a sweater listed with an original price of $100. When it’s placed “on sale” for $50, that seems like quite a deal—a far, far better deal than if the original price were listed at $55 or $60. All along, however, the store selling these sweaters has been planning on getting around $50 apiece for them, and it would probably make a profit even if it sold them for $25 each—which the store surely will during after-Christmas sales.

There’s nothing new about price anchoring. What is new—and pretty darn galling among consumers who expect more pricing transparency—is that in today’s promotion-heavy retail world, “original” prices appear to be getting exponentially more inflated. What’s more, retailers aren’t even pretending that a single customer ever paid its “regular” or “original” prices for anything.

In a new New York Times column, Farhad Manjoo wades into this murky world, trying to figure out how shoppers can evaluate whether or not a deal is a deal when seemingly everything is presented as one. What he reports, among other things, is that this season in particular has seen an “explosion of less-than-stellar deals advertised on the web,” in which there’s really nothing special about all but a very few of the sale prices available on Black Friday and other supposedly amazing days for bargains.

While nearly all retailers engage in the practice of inflating list prices more or less with the sole purpose of making discounts seem more impressive, a Macy’s spokesperson openly admitted that it came up with its original prices “based on many different factors, including the cost of the item, overhead, benefits we offer … as well as our ability to offer the item at a lower price during sale events.” Macy’s also pointed out some fine print on its website alerting shoppers of the following:

“Regular” and “Original” prices are offering prices that may not have resulted in actual sales, and some “Original” prices may not have been in effect during the past 90 days.

Holiday season sales and discounts are presented as being very special, but in fact there’s often nothing special about them—because in all likelihood, the only purchases occur when these items are “on sale.” If a price exists that no one ever pays, it shouldn’t be referred to as a “regular” or “original” price. It could be described by another term: a fake price.

There was a lot of discussion about the topic of fake pricing back in early 2012, when J.C. Penney tried to shake up its business model, in which more than 99% of its sales were below list price, and items were routinely marked down by 50% or 60%. J.C. Penney’s attempt to get rid of such extreme discounting and offer fair prices from the get-go failed miserably, at least partly because shoppers are compelled to buy more when retailers use the ruse of inflated price anchoring. And now we’re left in a situation in which sales are ubiquitous, both sale and original prices are arguably more meaningless than ever, and it’s never been more difficult to tell when a deal is actually a deal.

To some extent, shoppers seem to be aware of all of this. Some of the reason that Black Friday purchases were down this year is that the majority of consumers felt that Black Friday sales are meaningless because they assumed—rightly so—that there would be “more sales throughout the holidays.”

MONEY Family

If Santa Claus Were Paid, He’d Earn $140,000

Santa showing fan of $100 bills
Ivan Bliznetsov—Getty Images

If Santa was paid for the work he does, he'd make around $140,000 annually—a bit more than what moms would theoretically bring home, and twice what dad caregivers should earn.

According to the 2014 Santa Index, a “study” created by the all-purpose insurance information site Insure.com, Santa Claus would earn $139,924 annually if he were paid fair wages for all of the jobs he handles.

Researchers at the site come up with the estimate by adding up the various tasks that constitute Santa’s job description. It goes without saying that Santa has quite a unique skill set, including roles as a reindeer handler, professional shopper, cookie taster, and private investigator (knows if you’ve been bad or good). The bulk of Santa’s estimated salary comes as a result of overseeing the toy workshop, a job that falls under the domain of industrial engineering and would earn the big guy $116,742 per year. Meanwhile, Santa’s piloting skills, which he uses just once a year when delivering toys on his sleigh, would earn the highest hourly wages ($62.31, so $623 for putting in a ten-hour shift on Christmas Eve).

When all of the 15 different components of Santa’s job are tallied up—based on mean hourly wages and the rough hours per year worked—the total comes to just under $140,000. That’s roughly $20,000 more than what the average stay-at-home mom is worth and double what the average SAH dad is worth, according to lighthearted studies conducted by the career-research site Salary.com.

The job (and estimated hypothetical salary) of stay-at-home parents is a combination of roles that are very different than Santa’s, including van driver, laundry operator, cook, psychologist, and (household) CEO. While Santa’s varied roles would mean he’d log in roughly 83 hours per week on the job—with much longer hours toward the end of the year, presumably—stay-at-home moms report enduring even longer work weeks, averaging 96.5 hours weekly.

Santa Claus’s bearded “helpers”—the imitation for-hire Santas who work the malls and holiday parties at this time of year—don’t earn anywhere near Insure.com’s estimated value of the true Santa Claus. While some lucrative Santa gigs pay upwards of $75 or even $300 per hour, wages of $15 to $20 per hour are more likely, and a hardworking Santa with regular assignments can expect to pull in somewhere between $5,000 and $15,000 during the winter holidays.

Accurate, real-time salaries for thousands of careers.

Meanwhile, many survey participants think that $140,000 doesn’t come close to what Santa deserves in an annual salary. In an Insure.com poll, 9% of consumers said Santa should earn more than $200,000 annually, and 29% said that he should pull in a whopping $1.8 billion per year—a flat $1 for each child under age 15 on the planet.

We can’t find a parallel survey indicating how much children think their moms should be paid for all they do. If the question were ever asked, it would be wise to answer that moms (and dads too, of course!) deserve to make at least as much if not more than Santa Claus. Santa would surely agree that there’s nothing more valuable than a good parent—and remember, he’s watching.

 

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