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

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    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

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    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

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    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

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    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.

TIME legal

We Won’t See That Last Steve Jobs Video After All

Steve Jobs Introduces iCloud Storage System At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference
Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivers the keynote address at the 2011 Apple World Wide Developers Conference at the Moscone Center on June 6, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Judge denies media's request to copy and air the footage

The judge presiding over an antitrust lawsuit against Apple has denied media outlets’ request to release a deposition from Steve Jobs recorded six months before the Apple founder succumbed to cancer in 2011. The video is among the last times Jobs appeared on film before his death.

District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that the public already had sufficient access to the footage, which was played in the courtroom and transcribed for the public record. Enabling media outlets to copy and distribute the tape could infringe on the privacy rights of the defendant, Rogers ruled, adding that misuses of the tape could have a chilling effect on future depositions.

“If releases of video depositions routinely occurred,” she wrote, “witnesses might be reticent to submit voluntarily to video depositions in the future, knowing they might one day be publicly broadcast.”

TIME russia

Google Is Now Worth More Than the Entire Russian Stock Market

Google joins an elite list of companies, including Exxon Mobile, Microsoft and Apple

Google is now more valuable than the entire Russian stock market. Russia’s stock market is now worth $325 billion while Google is valued at more than $340 billion, according to Bloomberg.

The news comes as Russia’s currency, the ruble, continues to stumble under pressure from declining oil prices and western sanctions. Russia’s gold reserves have also declined to their lowest point since 2009.

Google joins an elite list of companies, including Exxon Mobile, Microsoft and Apple, worth more than the entire Russian market.

Read next: Leaked Sony Emails Reveal How Much Movie Studios Hate Google

TIME Companies

Apple Just Won That $1 Billion iPod Lawsuit

Could have faced $1 billion in liability

Apple doesn’t have to pay up to $1 billion to iPod owners for the way it limited access to competing music services’ songs on the devices, a jury ruled Tuesday.

The eight-person jury in Oakland, Calif., determined that software updates to a version of iTunes released in 2006 were legitimate product improvements rather than a ploy to limit competition in the digital music market, Bloomberg reports.

Plaintiffs had argued that Apple purposefully prevented songs downloaded from other music stores from working on the iPod to boost the sale of its own products. Apple said the changes were made to boost security on the iPod and iTunes, and to meet the demands of record labels at the time.

The plaintiffs sought $350 million in damages from Apple, an amount that could have tripled to exceed $1 billion under antitrust law.

[Bloomberg]

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.

 

TIME Retail

These New Banks and Businesses Are Now on Apple Pay

TD Bank, Staples are among recent additions

The reach of Apple Pay continues to extend. The mobile payments system that launched on the iPhone 6 will be supported by ten additional banks starting Tuesday, including TD Bank North America and Commerce America Bank, according to the New York Times. Apple Pay will now support about 90% of credit card purchase volume in the U.S., up from 83% when the service launched in October.

Apple has also quietly been adding retailers to its roster of partners post-launch. Staples now supports Apple Pay at its physical stores, as does Winn-Dixie. The tech giant hasn’t released any firm numbers about the use of Apple Pay since announcing that 1 million credit cards were activated on the service in its first 72 hours. However, individual retailers have hinted that the service is seeing wider adoption than previous mobile wallets. McDonald’s, for instance, said in November that 50% of its tap-to-pay transactions are now made using Apple Pay.

[New York Times]

TIME legal

Why Microsoft, Apple, Fox News and NPR Are Suddenly Working Together

Microsoft
The Microsoft logo is displayed over the Microsoft booth at the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Hilton January 7, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Microsoft is fighting a U.S. warrant to turn over emails stored in Ireland

It’s not every day you see Microsoft and Apple or Fox News and NPR going to bat for the same team — but that’s exactly what’s happening now, in a case that could have big consequences for American tech and media companies.

Last December, a Federal judge granted U.S. investigators a warrant to access a Microsoft user’s emails, stored in a data center in Dublin, Ireland, in relation to an investigation. Microsoft said no way, arguing the U.S. government has no right to issue a warrant for emails stored abroad.

Microsoft has good reason to reject the government’s demands here: If would-be Microsoft customers outside the U.S. start thinking their emails are subject to U.S. warrants, they might think twice about becoming Microsoft customers. Indeed, top tech firms have already lost big overseas contracts over fears that American services are subject to National Security Agency snooping.

Microsoft has yet to convince any court to overturn the original warrant. A magistrate first ruled against Microsoft’s challenge in April. The company got another defeat in August when U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska found that it wasn’t a matter of where Microsoft stored the emails, but rather where Microsoft and the user in question were themselves based.

However, Microsoft still refused to hand over the user’s emails. The company filed a new appeal last week, arguing that a ruling against Microsoft threatens the privacy of foreign users and Americans alike as more people choose to store their emails and other sensitive documents in off-site cloud servers instead of local hard drives.

“We believe that when one government wants to obtain email that is stored in another country, it needs to do so in a manner that respects existing domestic and international laws,” Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith wrote Monday. “In contrast, the U.S. Government’s unilateral use of a search warrant to reach email in another country puts both fundamental privacy rights and cordial international relations at risk.”

And that’s where Microsoft’s strange bedfellows come into play. Rival tech companies like Apple, Amazon and HP, as well as news organizations from across the political spectrum like CNN, Fox News, NPR and The Guardian, have all signed amicus briefs supporting Microsoft’s fight to keep its users’ emails away from the U.S. government. It may seem weird for these companies to work together on just about anything else, but it makes sense here: technology companies have a business interest in keeping users’ communications private, while media outlets don’t want their reporters’ messages to fall into the government’s hands.

“The government’s position . . . will significantly deter the use of remote data management technologies by businesses and individuals, particularly their use of U.S. cloud services providers, and thereby undermine a significant contributor to U.S. economic growth,” reads an amicus brief filed in the case by the Business Software Alliance, a trade group that counts Microsoft, Apple, Intel and other top tech companies as members. “There is no basis in law for the extraordinary result sought by the United States.”

Whatever happens in the Microsoft case, then, could have big privacy implications for businesses and users alike. There probably won’t be a resolution until late 2015 at the earliest, but some observers expect this one to wind up all the way at the Supreme Court.

TIME Smartphones

‘China’s Apple’ Is Still Getting Obliterated by Apple Itself

Xiaomi
A Xiaomi Corp. Mi 4 smartphone is arranged for a photograph at the company's showroom in Beijing, China, on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Xiaomi is known for its cheap smartphones — but its low prices are affecting its bottom line

While the popularity of Xiaomi’s smartphones have earned it the nickname of “China’s Apple,” its profits don’t come close to those of the Cupertino, Calif. company.

China’s Xiaomi, the world’s third largest smartphone company, pulled in only 347.5 million yuan ($56 million) in net profits from a revenue of 26.6 billion yuan ($4.3 billion) in 2013, Reuters reported Monday based on regulatory filings made by the company.

Meanwhile, Apple reported $25.4 billion of net sales during 2013 in Greater China, where nearly all Xiaomi smartphones are shipped. Apple’s profit margins stood at about 33%, towering over Xiaomi’s 1.8%.

Investors are continuing to question whether Xiaomi’s strategy of selling smartphones below what’s considered market price is sustainable. Xiaomi’s earnings, which Reuters confirmed with a Xiaomi spokeswoman, rebuke a November report in the Wall Street Journal which cited a “confidential document” saying Xiaomi had netted $556 million in profits in 2013, which would have been a massive spike in earnings.

[Reuters]

TIME Advertising

Apple’s New Winter Holiday Ad Will Hit You Right in the Feels

A young woman gives her grandmother a very personal gift

Apple often serves up its most heartwarming commercials just in time for the winter holidays, and this year is no different.

The company has just released a new ad in which a young girl discovers a love song that her grandmother wrote for her grandfather decades ago. After hearing the song, the girl decides to record her own version — using a MacBook, of course.

She mixes the two versions together and delivers the new song to her grandmother on an iPad Mini, complete with nostalgic photos of their family over the years.

Check out the full spot in the video above. Here’s Apple’s ad from last winter:

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