MONEY Airlines

The Old Advice on When to Buy Flights Is Wrong (And So Is the New Advice)

shape of airplane over calendar
Amanda Rohde—Getty Images

Wait a second, now Sunday is the cheapest day to book airline tickets? Forgive us for being skeptical of this (and every previous) study naming one or another day of the week as the best for buying flights.

This week, the Airline Reporting Corporation (ARC) released a study analyzing roughly 130 million airline tickets booked in the U.S. from January 2013 to July 2014, with the hope of shedding some light on when prices are highest and lowest. Over the years, plenty of these kinds of studies have made the rounds, but the current report differs from the pack in a couple of key ways. It shows:

1) Flight prices are cheaper when booked further in advance. In the past, ARC data has indicated that the lowest domestic flight prices were for tickets purchased 42 days before departure, while other studies have advised travelers to book 49 days in advance for the cheapest fares. The new ARC study shows that, on average, booking 57 days out yields the best prices. What’s more, researchers found that average ticket prices were fairly flat during the window of time 50 to 100 days before departure. In other words, the best bet is to book 50 to 100 days beforehand: Tickets purchased during that period were $85 cheaper than the overall average for all domestic flight prices ($495.55).

2) Weekends are cheaper booking days than weekdays. This is the truly surprising takeaway from the study. According to ARC data, the average price of a domestic flight purchased on a Sunday was $432, and it was slightly higher on Saturday, at $437. For a long time, the consensus advice was that the lowest prices were to be found on flights booked on Tuesdays or Wednesdays (when airlines tend to roll out new flight sales), yet the new study shows the average paid on Tuesday was $497.

The smartest travelers seem to be those who booked flights on a Sunday 50 to 100 days before departure: They paid $110 less for their tickets compared to the average.

High Fares, Record Profits

Why is it that Saturday and Sunday seemingly have replaced Tuesday and Wednesday as the cheapest days for booking? The current mentality of the airline industry—which is less competitive and more profitable than it’s been in years—offers some explanation. As Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal noted regarding the shift to weekends: “Airline executives come into work Monday looking to raise fares, not discount them with sales to fill seats.”

Earlier this week, for instance, the country’s largest domestic carriers hiked airfares, a move that would seem to be not only unnecessary but downright greedy considering that fuel prices are plummeting. Given strong demand for air travel and American travelers’ apparent willingness to pay increasingly high prices for flights, airline executives are no longer worried about filling planes with passengers. They’ve moved on to worrying about surpassing their (already record high) profits, and they’re raising fares at every opportunity, for the same reason they’ve relentlessly been adding fees: Because they can.

In any event, the fact that airfares are rising would seem to give travelers even more reason to take notice of studies by the likes of ARC and adopt new booking routines, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. The problem with all of these studies is that they’re generalized and are based on averages from the past. The takeaways they offer may, in fact, not help you save on money your specific flight needs in the future.

Take holiday travel, for instance, when passengers are truly most in need of money-saving advice because prices tend to be so high. In the quest for cheap Thanksgiving airfare, the guidelines mentioned above don’t really apply. Several booking sites point to data indicating that the lowest prices for flights over Thanksgiving weekend are likely to be found two to four weeks before departure—that is, unless you absolutely need to fly on the peak-peak days of the Wednesday before or the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Flights on those days should be purchased far in advance, ideally several months beforehand. In other words, booking a Thanksgiving weekend flight 50 to 100 days ahead of time is probably a bad strategy, no matter what day of the week you’re searching for flights.

What’s more, all “when to buy” advice is based on past performance, as a recent Quartz post on Thanksgiving travel advice painstakingly made clear.

The Trouble With Simple Advice

The WSJ‘s McCartney pointed out that airlines are more inclined lately to discount flights booked on weekends because that’s when leisure travelers are likely to be casually noodling around online and may be enticed to make an impulsive flight purchase if the price is right. The vast majority of business travel, meanwhile, is booked on weekdays, and business travelers are less sensitive to pricing because the flights are deemed more essential. At the same time, however, airlines still do regularly introduce fresh flight sales on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to boost seat purchases on routes that aren’t filling up.

What all of these strategies have in common is that the airlines are reacting to traveler behavior and are lowering or raising prices to maximize revenues. If and when travelers change their behavior again—say, if a critical mass of business travelers suddenly starts booking flights on Sunday rather than Monday—the airlines will tweak their pricing tactics accordingly. All of which is a roundabout way of pointing out that there are far too many complications for simple advice like “book on Sunday” or “book on Tuesday” to be valid across the board. (We’re only talking domestic flights, mind you; booking advice for international flight is more complicated still.)

Probably the only solid time-tested guideline for finding inexpensive flights is this: Booking too early is generally bad, but booking too late is likely worse. The average domestic flight purchased 225 to 300 days before departure cost $500 to $550, per the ARC study, while the average for a ticket on the day of departure was around $650.

How do you find the sweet spot in the middle, when prices are lowest? It’s complicated, dependent on a range of factors including the destination, season, and day of the week you’re traveling; whether there’s a convention or major event where you’re going; and even larger forces like the state of the economy and yep, gas prices. Kayak and Hopper are among the flight search tools that use historical pricing data to try to predict whether fares on a given route will rise or fall, but again, past performance is no guarantee of future results—especially not in recent years, when airline executives have regularly rejiggered their pricing tactics, generally sending fares up, up, and up.

Despite the dizzying amount of tech at traveler’s fingertips, the question of when to book remains largely unanswerable. Yes, it’s wise to hunt during that window 50 to 100 days in advance, and sure, try to remember to poke around for flights especially over the weekends. But be on the lookout on Tuesdays and Wednesday too, because that’s when sales pop up. Consult historical pricing data and airfare price predicting tools, just don’t expect to pay the same bargain-basement fare you got a decade or even one year ago. Pay attention to airfare sale-tracking services like airfarewatchdog, but bear in mind the best deals are often for fluky routes and days and may not work for your travel needs. Perhaps wisest of all, use an airfare tracking service like that of Yapta, which will alert you if and when a flight on your route and dates has reached your desired price threshold. Just try to be realistic with the kind of fare you can expect nowadays.

MONEY Autos

How to Tell If You’re Safe From Auto Recalls

An airbag igniter is built into a steering wheel for a car at the Takata Ignition Systems Gmbh factory in Schoenebeck, Germany, 17 April 2014.
An airbag igniter being installed at a Takata factory in Schoenebeck, Germany Jens Wolf—picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

It seems like every other day, news breaks about a recall on millions of cars that, if left unaddressed, could prove deadly. Here's what consumers can do to ensure their safety.

There are two months left in the year, but 2014 has already broken the record for most auto recalls ever. As of October, automakers had issued recalls for an estimated all-time-high of 56 million vehicles in the U.S. “To put that in perspective, automakers have now recalled more than three times the number of new cars and trucks Americans will buy this year,” the Detroit Free Press noted.

The flurry of recalls has come fast and furiously in 2014. This week, Toyota issued a recall on roughly 250,000 vehicles in the U.S. related to faulty airbags, on top of a global recall of 1.7 million Toyotas for a wide range of safety defects that circulated last week. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lists 29 separate auto manufacturer recalls thus far in the month of October, and the agency released a special consumer advisory this week, alerting the owners of 7.8 million vehicles that they should take “immediate action” to replace dangerously defective airbags.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. General Motors recalled 2.7 million vehicles last May, less than one month after the automaker announced it had spent $1.3 billion to recall 7 million vehicles worldwide, including 2.6 million for faulty ignition switches linked to 13 deaths. Ford recalled 700,000 vehicles last spring because of concerns the airbags wouldn’t deploy quickly enough, while some 16 million vehicles from 10 automakers have been recalled because the airbags, made by the Japanese company Takata, could inflate with explosive force strong enough to hurt or even kill the riders the devices are designed to save in the case of an accident. And on and on.

The numbers are so big, and the recalls pop up with such frequency, that you might be inclined to tune them out—not unlike the hacks and data breaches that occur with astonishing regularity at major retailers. But then, you know … there’s death and catastrophic injury. The potential of anything so dire affecting you and your loved ones should make you snap to attention and take action. Here are steps to take to stay safe:

For a Car You Own
When a car is subject to a safety recall, the automaker is required to notify vehicle owners via mail. The letter will feature the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) emblem and include the words “SAFETY RECALL NOTICE” in large typeset. Hopefully that’s enough to alert recipients that this isn’t junk mail. The notification will include instructions, typically consisting of the need to bring the vehicle into a local dealership and have the recalled issue fixed. The service should be provided free of charge to the owner.

You might assume that service departments would drag their feet on handling such recalls—customers aren’t paying money out of pocket after all—but a Reuters story from this past summer pointed out that the recalls represent opportunity for car dealerships. Recalls bring in new customers, or bring back customers that haven’t been at the dealership since they bought the car, and when they bring the recalled vehicle in to be serviced, they may be inclined to get the oil changed or have some other work done. Heck, many have been known to browse showrooms while waiting for their old cars to be fixed, where they wind up getting talked into buying new cars. The takeaway for consumers is: Don’t allow yourself to be upsold into a costly service job when you’re at the dealership getting a recall issue addressed, and don’t buy a new car unless it’s truly the model you want, at the price you want.

To make sure that your car is safe, the NHTSA offers a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) search feature online. Enter your VIN—which is displayed on the dashboard of the driver’s side is most easily seen looking through the windshield from outside—and you can find out if your car has been recalled anytime over the past 15 years, as well as whether or not the recall has been repaired on your specific vehicle. Unfortunately, the government site can be glitchy (the VIN search function has been listed as “temporarily unavailable” lately). If it’s not working—or even if it is and you want to be doubly careful—head to Carfax.com, which also allows people to look up recall issues for specific cars using VINs at no charge. For yet another option, the NHTSA allows you to sign up for email alerts for recalls on up to five vehicles, as well as alerts regarding any recalls of car seats and tires.

For a Car You Might Buy
Before buying a used car, do some due diligence on recalls. Carfax estimates that 3.5 million used cars were listed for sale last year with unfixed safety recalls. Get the VIN of the specific used car you’re interested in, and follow the steps above to make sure that any recall has been addressed. If it hasn’t, make the owner fix it before you buy—or use the fact that the repair hasn’t been made as a reason to cut the asking price. If you wind up closing the deal, don’t forget to bring the car into a local dealership to get the recall fixed asap.

For a Car You Might Rent
A bill currently under consideration in Congress called the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2013 would allow agencies to rent cars that have been subject to recalls only if the defects have been fixed. In other words, as of now, it’s vaguely legal for the Hertzes and Enterprises of the world to rent recalled cars even if the recall hasn’t been addressed. In fact, in recent years, some major agencies have tried to make the case that it’s OK to continue to rent recalled vehicles to customers because some recalls are unimportant, as they don’t qualify as serious safety risks.

USA Today columnist Bill McGee investigated the murky world of recalls and rental cars this past summer. What he found is that agencies generally proactively remove vehicles from their fleets or have them fixed pronto if they’ve been subject to dangerous, high-profile recalls—failure to do so could expose them to millions in lawsuits if an accident occurred due to an unfixed recall. Hertz and Avis, among others, have said that coping with recalls has cost their companies millions of dollars this year, because when recalled vehicles are being fixed at dealerships they obviously can’t be rented out to customers.

But again, until the Safe Rental Car Act—named for two sisters who died in 2004 in a rental car with power steering fluid recall that hadn’t been fixed—is passed into law (hardly a done deal), agencies aren’t obligated to have all car recalls addressed before renting them out. “Currently, there is no prohibition on rental car companies renting vehicles that are under a recall, but have not yet been remedied,” a former NHTSA administrator named David Strickland testified to Congress last year.

What can a renter do to stay safe? Start by clarifying your agency’s policy. Alamo, for instance, states plainly, “We do not rent recalled vehicles until the recall has been remedied.” But information regarding recalls can be vague or hard to find with some other rental operators. If the policy is remotely unclear, call and ask questions.

You can also use the NHTSA’s database to see if the vehicle model you have reserved has been recalled, but this strategy comes with complications. For one thing, rental agencies generally don’t guarantee a specific model with a reservation—you reserve a “mid-size” category of vehicle, not a Toyota Camry or whatever. What’s more, it’s impossible to know a car’s specific VIN until you pick the vehicle up, and therefore it’s impossible to check if the model’s recall problems have been fixed. In light of these problems, you might want to make another call—to your local representative in Congress, to urge support of the Safe Rental Car Act.

Read next: Toyota Announces a U.S. Recall Over Faulty Passenger-Side Airbags

MONEY Gas

Last Time Gas Prices Were This Cheap, It Was January 2011

The price of regular gasoline dropped to $2.659 per gallon at the Hi Tech Fuels station on Brainerd Road and other stations in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014.
The price of regular gasoline dropped to $2.659 per gallon in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. John Rawlston—AP

Average prices at the pump have dropped roughly 10¢ in one week, and drivers in no fewer than 17 states are already paying less than $3 per gallon.

The analysts forecast that $3 gas was in our nation’s future, and indeed, according to AAA data, the average price for a gallon of regular is currently under the $3 mark in 17 states. The gas price tracking app GasBuddy reports that 46% of gas stations around the country are now charging less than $3 per gallon, compared with just 3% one year ago.

Nationally, the average has fallen by roughly a dime over the course of a quick seven days, landing just under $3.09 as of Wednesday. That’s about 25¢ cheaper than what drivers were paying for gas both one month and one year ago, and 60¢ less than prices in spring and early summer 2014. The cost of filling up has been positively plummeting for drivers in states such as Kentucky and Indiana, where gas stations lowered prices an average of 17¢ and 16¢, respectively, during a recent seven-day span.

Overall, the current $3.086 national average is the lowest the country has seen since early January 2011, when it was measured at $3.07. Could prices go even lower? Sure. In fact, that’s more or less what’s expected.

Earlier this fall, experts had predicted the national average would “perhaps” hit $3.10 or $3.15 by year’s end. What this means is that prices have dipped more quickly and sharply than most analysts ever anticipated—thanks to weak demand, increased global production, and the strengthening U.S. dollar, among other forces. Now experts such as GasBuddy’s Patrick DeHaan are projecting that the national average “will break the $3/gallon mark by around Election Day.”

The last time we were under the $3 mark as a country was December 2010. What’s interesting is that people weren’t particularly happy about gas prices at the time—because the average had been roughly 40¢ cheaper one year prior to that. Everything is relative.

MONEY Autos

The Price of Hybrid and Electric Cars Is Plummeting. Here’s Why

2012 Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius David Dewhurst

Among the trickle-down effects of cheaper gas prices are lower sales totals for alternative-fuel cars—which in turn have forced automakers to slash prices on these vehicles.

USA Today just reported that Ford is cutting the sticker price of the fully battery-powered plug-in Focus Electric by a flat $6,000. That’s on top of a $4,000 price reduction on the same vehicle a year ago. The new sticker price is $29,995 including shipping—but not including federal tax credits of up to $7,500 and state incentives that might effectively knock another $2,500 off the amount buyers pay.

Obviously, Ford wouldn’t be instituting such dramatic price cuts if the Focus Electric was selling well, and part of the reason sales have been poor is that the model doesn’t stand out in an increasingly crowded field of midlevel-priced plug-ins where the Nissan Leaf, the pioneer in the category, remains the indisputable leader. Another reason for underwhelming sales of the Focus Electric—and for many alternative-fuel cars in general, for that matter—is simply that gas prices have been getting cheaper and cheaper.

According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, the national average for a gallon of regular was just under $3.10 on Tuesday, compared with $3.35 a year ago and around $3.70 this past spring. Gas prices for the year as a whole are down slightly compared with 2013, and projections call for continued lower prices in 2015. All of which hurts automakers’ efforts to convince buyers that it’s a savvy move to pay a premium over a standard gas-powered vehicle for a hybrid or electric car right now, with the anticipation that they’d more than make up the difference later on in the form of savings on gas.

To help sales, automakers have been trying mightily to make the difference in price between alternative-fuel cars and their traditional car counterparts disappear. Nissan slashed the price of the Leaf in early 2013, effectively bringing the takeaway price of the vehicle under the $20,000 mark. Leaf sales have been strong throughout 2014, up 23% year over year thus far. Ford Focus Electric sales are up in the U.S. as well, with September units sold up 60% compared with the same month last year. Even so, we’re talking about extremely small numbers: 176 Focus Electrics sold last month, versus only 110 for September 2013.

What’s especially noteworthy is that the combination of lower gas prices and increasingly fuel-efficient internal-combustion engine cars appears to be putting the squeeze in particular on hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius. According to Toyota data, 14,277 Priuses were sold in the U.S. last month, compared with 15,890 for September 2013. For the year thus far, Prius sales are down 11.4% compared with the same period a year ago—and mind you, this slump took place a time when Toyota sales overall are up 5.7%. By far the worst-performing Prius has been the plug-in PHV; only 353 sold in September, a decline of 71% versus the same month a year ago (1,152). As for hybrid sales overall, a total of 31,385 units sold in the U.S. in September 2014, a decrease of 35% from the previous month, and a decline of 6.5% from the same month in 2013.

Bear in mind that the hybrid sales slump has occurred while automakers have gotten more aggressive with discounts. As Automotive News lately noted about the struggles of alternative-fuel cars:

Data from KBB.com show that Toyota boosted Prius incentives to $2,300 per vehicle in September from $1,400 a year ago while Ford ramped up C-Max spiffs to $4,900 from $2,650 per vehicle in the same period; neither move helped sales.

So cheaper gas prices benefit drivers not only in terms of the obvious—cheaper gas prices—but also because they’re forcing automakers to slash prices on hybrids and electric cars that boast savings on gas as a primary sales pitch.

MONEY Tourism

Price Hikes Up to 150% Are Planned for Your Favorite National Parks

Entrance sign near Big Oak Flat Entrance Station, Yosemite National Park.
Entrance sign near Big Oak Flat Entrance Station, Yosemite National Park. Fred van Wijk—Alamy

A proposal is on the table to hike prices of admission, annual passes, campsite reservations, and more at roughly 130 national parks and recreation areas.

A broad proposal from the National Parks Service (NPS) first exposed by the Denver Post could make visiting some of the country’s biggest and best national parks significantly more expensive as early as next summer. Admissions to popular national parks such as Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake are likely to see price hikes of 50%, while prices at some lesser-known gems like Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park might rise upwards of 150%. Price increases are also being proposed for annual passes, campsites, boating permits, and other services at dozens of park and recreations areas.

Before storming the parks service in protest, bear in mind that even if the price increases are accepted, our national parks would remain one of the world’s great vacation bargains. The current price of a seven-day pass for a vehicle and all of its occupants at Yosemite is $20, rising to $30 if the proposal is approved. To make its case that the increases are necessary and appropriate, the NPS noted:

The current park entrance fees have been in place since 1997, when a seven day pass was increased from $5 to $20 per vehicle. According to the U.S. Bureau of labor and Statistics, $20 in 1997 is equivalent to $29.64 in 2014. This fee change will allow Yosemite to maintain consistent revenue while adjusting accordingly for inflation.

Likewise, the price of admission at Great Sand Dunes would rise to $10 per person up from the current rate of just $3 (there’s no flat vehicle rate offered), while the cost of an annual pass would increase from $15 to $40.

Park visitors could start to see the price increases as early as next summer, and/or fees might be incrementally hiked over the next couple of years. One of the reasons cited for the proposed increases is that the NPS is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016, and it wants to commemorate the centennial with parks and recreation areas looking their finest.

None of this is a done deal, however. The parks service is allowing the public to weigh in with comments over the next couple of weeks, and at least in theory the response could have an impact on how the proposed price increases play out. What’s especially complicated about the matter is that the average Joe is being asked to submit comments related to each park’s price hike individually; there is no central spot where people can respond to the general idea of raising prices across the board. There’s one spot where you can offer your opinion on price increases at Yosemite, for instance, another for the price increases at Washington’s Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, and so on. (The nightly cost of an individual campsite at the latter would go from $10 to $18, by the way.) The dates for open commenting and public meetings at each park are different as well. The commenting session at Yosemite began on Monday and stretches through November 20, and there’s a two-hour meeting open to the public on November 12, while comments for Lake Roosevelt can be made through October 31, and three meetings are being held in nearby state-owned facilities this week.

The superintendents of each park also have some authority to decide if and how price hikes go into effect, though a broad range of parks—including Mount Rainier and Olympic in Washington state, Rocky Mountain in Colorado, and Glacier in Montana—are expected to follow through on some if not all of the proposed increases. Jon Jarvis, the NPS director, noted in a memo that there will always be “significant public controversy” about any price increases for use of lands that we as a nation own. Yet he stated that the increases “will allow us to invest in the improvements necessary to provide the best possible park experience to our visitors.”

Surely, many park goers will be upset by the proposed increases, and it would be surprising if a majority—or even a significant minority—of those commenting on the proposals were voicing their approval of higher fees. For some perspective, Kurt Repanshek, who runs the National Parks Traveler blog, points out that admission to Yosemite cost $10 a century ago, so we are more than due for a price hike:

When you think of how inflation has treated park entrance fees — that $10 fee charged in 1915 equates to $230.74 in 2014 dollars — entrance to the parks under the existing pricing structure might literally be described as a steal.

MONEY Sports

S.F. vs. K.C. By the Numbers: How the World Series Teams and Towns Match Up

San Francisco blows away its opponent in terms of global cachet and higher incomes, but Kansas City has barbecue—and more importantly, the Royals are favored to win it all.

The Kansas City Royals have skipped through the 2014 playoffs thus far without a loss, and sports betting operations named the team as a slight favorite to win the World Series over the San Francisco Giants. What’s particularly impressive about the Royals’ run is that the Giants’ payroll is more than 50% higher ($148 million versus the Royals’ $91 million).

The home markets of this year’s World Series contenders couldn’t be more different either. San Francisco is a hip, high-powered, and high-priced magnet for tech startups where the average home sells for close to $1 million, compared to a mere $186,000 for the typical house in Kansas City, a low-key, highly livable Midwestern hub famed for top-notch barbecue. Nonetheless, the secondary market price of World Series tickets for Kansas City home games is roughly 30% higher than games hosted by San Francisco. That somewhat unexpected disparity likely comes as a result of San Francisco owning the edge on most recent World Series title. Giants fans have been spoiled of late with championships in 2010 and 2012, whereas Royals’ fans have been waiting since 1985 for another World Series title.

With the Series starting tonight, click through the gallery above for a look at how the competitors match up, on and off the field.

MONEY Odd Spending

8 Ways Somebody Is Making Money Off Ebola Fears

Clorox and Lysol on shelves in store
Patti McConville—Alamy

The buzz over Ebola has triggered sales that might be described as overboard (body suits), ironic (Ebola Halloween costumes), or downright bizarre (protective masks featuring a hip-hop artist's face).

On Monday, the World Health Organization declared that the Ebola outbreak is officially over in Nigeria. Yet fears of the deadly virus continue to grip the world, meaning that sales of Ebola-related products like these are likely to continue being strong.

Anti-Germ Products
Disinfectants, Clorox, Lysol, and hand sanitizer are among the germ-fighting products that have experienced a boost in sales since Ebola fears have hit the U.S. and other nations. In a recent four-week period, for instance, Clorox sales were up 28%. Anecdotally, travelers report that hand sanitizer and other anti-germ products are appearing more often near the checkout areas of airport shops, though that may be partly just because it’s flu season.

Protective Gear
After word spread that someone in the U.S. was being treated for Ebola, sales of medical-grade masks, gloves, body suits, and other protective gear made by one Chicago-area firm spiked. The number of phone calls the company handled increased fivefold almost overnight, and sales of face masks jumped by 40%. Sales of a wide variety of infection protection and doomsday prep kits have soared as well. And speculative investors see opportunity in the situation, too. One day in early October, the stock price of Lakeland Industries—which manufactures industrial protective gear worn by professionals who might come into contact with dangerous chemicals and viruses—surged more than 50% (before retreating significantly of late).

Hip-Hop Ebola Masks
Basic polypropylene masks sell for less thanb 10 cents apiece when purchased in bulk. But when you’re going to the trouble of protecting yourself from germs with a mask, why not go the extra step and protect yourself in style? That, presumably, is the sales pitch from the rapper Cam’ron, who is selling polypropylene masks for $19.99 each, featuring an image of his likeness on them—oddly, while he’s speaking on a pink flip phone. Perhaps even more oddly, the item is only available for preorder at the moment. “Ships 11/7/14,” the order page explains. You’ll have to hold your breath or (gasp!) use a lame, basic mask until then.

Ebola Halloween Costumes
Thanks to the world’s lightning-fast-moving attention span, we’re guaranteed that anything that’s been buzzing in the news or has achieved meme status in October is bound to pop up in some form as a Halloween costume. Even if it’s a subject as grim and deadly serious as Ebola. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the “hot costume” label has been applied to Ebola-related outfits, including Ebola containment workers, Ebola victims, and Ebola zombies.

Ebola Toys
To be fair to Giant Microbes, the Connecticut-based “Learning & Fun” company has been manufacturing plush toy versions of Bed Bugs, Chickenpox, Dengue Fever, Black Death, and no fewer than three Ebola products long before Ebola sales became trendy. In any event, sales of Giant Microbes’ “uniquely contagious” Ebola toys have been off the charts since the virus became a mainstay on cable TV news; the company has been completely sold out for days.

Fake Charity Scams
The Better Business Bureau warned consumers about “a variety of Ebola-related scams and problematic fundraisers” that have popped up in recent days, including crowdfunding ventures that aren’t necessarily providing any aid to Ebola victims and sketchy phone solicitations that aren’t tied to any genuine, known charities.

Vitamin C
Essential oils and herbal remedies are among the many unproven “cures” that have been suggested as strategies for fighting off Ebola, but of all the groundless theories for protecting oneself, none has gotten more attention than Vitamin C. One opportunistic New York businessman has been selling up to 14,000 packages per day lately of a supplement with 554% of the daily recommended intake of Vitamin C—which he packages under the name Ebola-C.

Science blogs have felt compelled to combat the misinformation, describing one effort to pump up sales of the vitamin as a “particularly irresponsible bit of quackery promotion.” In a Los Angeles Times story about purported Ebola “cures,” Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and professor of medicine at New York University, said that while Vitamin C is part of a healthy diet and helps build up one’s immune system, “there’s no evidence it has any effect on infectious disease” when taken in higher doses. What’s more, “all this quack stuff takes money and effort away” from legitimate research devoted to coping with Ebola and other health dangers.

Web URLs
In 2008, a forward-thinking entrepreneur named Jon Schultz purchased the Ebola.com URL for $13,500. He’s now willing to part with control of the site for a mere $150,000, the Washington Post reported.

MONEY Family

Toys R Us ‘Breaks Bad’ with New Crystal Meth Toys

141020_EM_BREAKINGDOLLS
At least one toy maker is dreaming of a Walter White Christmas. ©AMC/courtesy Everett Collection

Parents aren't happy that the toy store chain is selling drug dealer dolls, complete with bags of crystal meth and sacks of cash.

Susan Schrivjer, a mom from Fort Myers, Fla., was a fan of the award-winning AMC show Breaking Bad. “I thought it was a great show,” she told a local TV station recently. “It was riveting!”

Even so, she thinks it’s not such a great idea to sell action figures based on the show’s notorious crystal meth dealers Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in a store where the customer base is families with young children. So last week Schrivjer launched a Change.org petition criticizing Toys R Us for selling “a Breaking Bad doll, complete with a detachable sack of cash and a bag of meth, alongside children’s toys [as] a dangerous deviation from the [company's] family friendly values.”

The petition, which asks Toys R Us to stop selling the dolls, had attracted signatures from more than 2,200 supporters as of Monday morning. The “Breaking Bad”-Toys R Us protest picked up extra steam after Schrivjer appeared on The Today Show this weekend, making her case that “anything to do with drugs” should not be sold in a toy store. She has no problem with the figures being sold by e-retailers and shops that are less likely to be frequented by children, such as adult novelty stores. (For what it’s worth, Breaking Bad figures are also sold by Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and other major retailers. Walmart even sells a pink Breaking Bad teddy bear.)

Toys R Us has released a statement clarifying that the Breaking Bad packaging “clearly notes that the items are intended for ages 15 and up” and that they’re only sold “in the adult action figure area of our stores.” Yet Today Show staffers found the drug dealer figures within arm’s reach of G.I. Joe dolls, Super Mario Brothers figures, and other products of obvious interest to kids. Schrivjer and her supporters are of the opinion that the Breaking Bad figures shouldn’t be sold anywhere in a toy store: “Its violent content and celebration of the drug trade make this collection unsuitable to be sold alongside Barbie dolls and Disney characters.”

The controversy pops up at a time when sales of traditional toys have been slumping—and therefore so have stores whose bread-and-butter is selling those traditional toys. With the exception of Lego, which has been on an amazingly awesome roll and recently became the largest toy company in the world, many iconic toy brands have been struggling. Mattel sales declined during the last year’s all-important fourth quarter (when winter holidays take place), and the company’s latest report shows that Barbie sales continue to dip. One of the biggest reasons cited for dismal sales is that children are increasingly drawn to electronics over traditional toys.

It’s understandable, then, that toy makers and toy stores have taken steps to sell more of what kids want today (video game and electronics sections at these stores have exploded), and also to try to expand their customer bases by manufacturing, marketing, and selling products that are for “more mature” folks. Hence, the September decision by Toys R Us to enter a global partnership with Claire’s, a jewelry and accessory brand favored by tween and teen girls—a demographic that hasn’t had much interest in shopping at Toys R Us of late. By the end of 2014, Claire’s shops will be set up within a dozen U.S. Toys R Us locations, and more are expected down the road.

The desire to woo older customers also provides some explanation for why the toy chain would be selling drug dealer dolls, as well as why it would have an “adult action figure area” to begin with.

Read next: Netflix Had a Pretty Awful Day

MONEY Shopping

How Opening on Thanksgiving Day Can Actually Hurt Store Sales

Eager shoppers crowd the entrance as they pour into the Macy's Herald Square flagship store, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, in New York
Eager shoppers crowd the entrance as they pour into the Macy's Herald Square flagship store, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, in New York. John Minchillo—AP

The decision announced this week by Macy's and some malls to open doors to shoppers during the dinner hours on Thanksgiving seemed inevitable. But it doesn't necessarily make sense.

Macy’s was blamed for the death of Thanksgiving when the retailer announced last year that it was opening up for shopping on the holiday—at 8 p.m. If Thanksgiving’s obituary was written in 2013 because Macy’s opened at 8 p.m., what does the retailer’s decision to open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving 2014 mean about how we as a culture value the holiday? Perhaps it’s the equivalent of spitting on Thanksgiving’s gravestone.

Of course, it’s not just Macy’s that’s opening on Thanksgiving, and doing so earlier and earlier each year. Entire malls in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere have announced 6 p.m. Thanksgiving openings, and it seems like the majority of stores that aren’t opening at 6 p.m. plan on opening a mere two hours later. Surely more retailers will match Macy’s 6 p.m. start; last year Toys R Us and Walmart launched “Black Friday” sales in stores at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively. (Best Buy went with 6 p.m. too.)

Macy’s confirmed its 6 p.m. opening begrudgingly, almost apologetically, this week after a letter from company executives to employees was leaked to the media. A Macy’s spokesperson explained via statement to the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune that the move was based on “significant, sustained customer interest,” and that last year’s Thanksgiving hours were supposedly a big hit with Macy’s workers. “We also heard last year from many associates who appreciated the opportunity to work on Thanksgiving so they could have time off on Black Friday.”

Retailers essentially gave the same explanation last year for why they were opening on Thanksgiving Day. Macy’s 2013 press release stated that its 8 p.m. Thanksgiving opening came as a “response to interest from customers who prefer to start their shopping early.” It also noted that stores would only open “after families across the country have finished their holiday meals and celebrations.” Presumably, those meals and celebrations will have to end earlier this Thanksgiving for anyone wanting to start their shopping when the doors open. Likewise, a J.C. Penney spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News last year that it was only opening on Thanksgiving (at 8 p.m.) because “our stores saw a lot of frustrated customers tap our doors wanting to shop,” the year before, when locations opened a few hours after many competitors.

Everyone Else Is Doing It

The overall message retailers are trying to send is: We’re not opening on Thanksgiving to be greedy or anything. We’re doing it simply to make our customers happy. Another way to translate the message: Don’t blame the stores for ruining Thanksgiving, blame the shoppers who want to go to the stores on a national holiday.

The reality is that these retailers are opening on Thanksgiving mainly for the same reason that kids often cite as the excuse for why they did something stupid: Everyone else is doing it. Macy’s and the rest of the mall stalwarts feel forced to open earlier and earlier on Thanksgiving because that’s what the competition is doing—and by not opening on Thanksgiving, a store is essentially conceding some chunk of sales to the competition. The battle for holiday sales and when stores should open is even more muddled by the fact that consumers can shop to their heart’s content no matter what the day, 24/7/365, because e-retail never closes.

What’s interesting is that there’s a good argument to be made that Thanksgiving store hours don’t actually boost a retailer’s overall holiday sales. Rather, sales on the holiday simply displace sales that would otherwise have been rung up on Black Friday or later in the season. After an underwhelming back-to-school period for retailers, Craig Johnson, president of the retail consulting firm Custom Growth Partners, predicted to the Wall Street Journal in late September, “With the soft sales outlook, we do anticipate a few earlier openings” on Thanksgiving. “However, there is a law of diminishing returns,” he warned, and stores that open on Thanksgiving “risk cannibalizing” sales that they would have made at another time.

The End of Black Friday?

In light of that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Black Friday sales flopped last year when more stores expanded or introduced Thanksgiving hours, and that some say the Black Friday phenomenon is facing extinction. After all, when stores are open at 6 p.m. or even earlier on Thanksgiving Day, the idea of getting excited by the prospect of shopping at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m. on Friday seems more absurd than ever.

Let’s also not forget that Thanksgiving store hours turn off many would-be customers. Last year, countless petitions were launched pleading with retailers to pull back on Thanksgiving hours, which critics say ruin the holiday for more than just the retail employees being forced to work.

For what’s is worth, Lehigh Valley Live recently asked readers to vote on how early stores should open on Thanksgiving. At last check, around 4% responded “as early as they can.” On the other hand, 82% voted “They shouldn’t. It’s a holiday.”

MONEY Workplace

Which Horrible TV or Movie Boss Is Your Office Stuck With?

October 16 is celebrated—at least theoretically—as Boss Day. We're celebrating it with a rundown of the seven kinds of bosses you never want to have, as embodied by iconic TV and movie characters.

Before bashing bosses on their big day—Boss Day, one of a bajillion faux holidays now on the calendar—let’s point out that not every manager is a bad boss. In fact, in a 2014 CareerBuilder survey, 63% of workers said their bosses deserved an A or B grade for their performance on the job, while only 14% gave the boss a D or an F.

If you’re in that majority, let’s hope that you’re never subjected to the managerial styles of the D- and F-worthy bosses like these.

  • The Incompetent Schmuck

    THE OFFICE, (from left): Steve Carell, Angela Kinsey, Kate Flannery, 'Stress Relief', (Season 5, aired Feb. 1, 2009), 2005-.
    THE OFFICE Paul Drinkwater—NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Probably the best thing you can say about the hapless Michael Scott-type managers of the world is that they’re not intentionally mean (assuming you’re not the office Toby Flenderson). Rather, they’re simply clueless. Or at least that’s what employees think of them: In one poll, one third of workers described their bosses as “somewhat” or “completely incompetent.”

  • The Abusive Bully

    THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, 2006.
    THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA 20th Century Fox—courtesy Everett Collection

    Best embodied by Miranda Priestly, the iconic character played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, the abusive boss seems to take pleasure in torturing his or her underlings. Presumably, the purpose of treating one’s employees harshly is to shape them into better workers and help the company, but the strategy can backfire. More than 13% of employees say they’ve worked under hostile and abusive supervisors, and the frequent result, according to some research, is that when people are ridiculed by managers on the job, they’re more likely to engage in deviant behavior that’s counterproductive to company goals.

  • The Horny Lech

    HORRIBLE BOSSES, from left: Charlie Day, Jennifer Aniston, 2011.
    HORRIBLE BOSSES John P. Johnson—Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Co

    In the 1980s, Dabney Coleman served as the prototypical arrogant, sexist boss who was constantly hitting on attractive workers in movies such as Nine to Five and Tootsie. More recently, this creep has been played, surprisingly enough, by Jennifer Aniston in two Horrible Bosses movies, in which her character is a dentist who crudely and memorably sexually harasses a dental assistant played by Charlie Day. In real life, the majority of restaurant workers have reported experiencing sexual harassment on the job, and that’s no joke.

  • The Psychopath

    THE SOPRANOS, Tony Sirico, James Gandolfini, Steven Van Zandt, (Season 2, 2000), 1999-2007.
    THE SOPRANOS Anthony Neste—HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection

    The writings of psychologist Kevin Dutton have shed light on how many of the characteristics found in psychopaths—confidence, charisma, ruthlessness, focus—are also common among leaders in the business world. And the underworld too, of course, embodied by Tony Soprano. In studies of corporate professionals, psychopathic traits are more prevalent than they are in the general population, and Dutton’s research indicates that the profession with the most psychopaths (in terms of percentage) is … CEO.

  • The Cruel, Cheap Bastard

    THE SIMPSONS, l-r: Mr. Burns, Smithers in 'Specs and the City' (Season 25, Episode 11, aired January 26, 2014).
    THE SIMPSONS 20th Century Fox—Courtesy Everett Collection

    The stingy, money-hungry Montgomery Burns is “The Simpsons’” Ebenezer Scrooge (before the ghost visits), known for giving out raises, well, never. Perhaps he’d get better production out of Homer and the rest of the nuclear power plant crew if he showed them a little more appreciation. According to a 2013 Glassdoor survey, 81% of employees say they work harder when the feel appreciated by their bosses, and workers say that money is by far the best way to motivate and show them appreciation.

  • The Untrustworthy Backstabber

    WORKING GIRL, Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, 1988.
    WORKING GIRL 20th Century Fox—Courtesy Everett Collection

    Nearly 9 out of 10 employees polled by StaffBay.com said they don’t trust their bosses. In another Glassdoor poll, two-thirds of employees said that a direct manager has had an impact on their careers—and of those, 20% said the impact was negative. Apparently, the Sigourney Weaver character in “Working Girl” isn’t the only sneaky, backstabbing boss out there. (By the way, there are some smart strategies for coping with bosses who take credit for your work.)

  • The Annoying Bureaucrat

    OFFICE SPACE, Gary Cole, Ron Livingston, 1999.
    OFFICE SPACE 20th Century Fox—Courtesy Everett Collection

    What’s … happening? If you’re a fan of the cult favorite “Office Space,” you’ll get that reference. And if you’ve got a boss like Bill Lumbergh in the movie, then you’re guaranteed to be uninspired on the job, at least partially because your manager is inept in terms of interpersonal skills, expects more of his workers than he does of himself, and lacks vision, energy, and enthusiasm. All of those characteristics just so happen to be listed among the top 10 fatal flaws held by bad bosses in a 2012 Harvard Business Review study.

    Now, all you bad bosses, if you could just lose all of these negative traits and allow your workers to handle their jobs in peace? To quote Lumbergh, “That would be great.”

    But until that happens, check out these posts for some tips on how to cope. Oh, and Happy Boss Day!

    Related:
    How to Work With a Boss You Can’t Trust
    Good Ways to Deal With Bad Bosses
    How to Impress Your Boss When You’re Never Face to Face
    How to Fire Your Boss and Break Free of the Corporate Grind

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