MONEY

Mall Will Fine Stores if They Don’t Open on Thanksgiving

Walden Galleria, Buffalo, NY.
Walden Galleria, Buffalo, NY. David Knopf—Alamy

Stores at one mall in upstate New York are being strong-armed into opening for business by 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Tenant retailers that don't get with the program will be fined.

Every day, the list of retailers and shopping centers opening up for “Black Friday” sales on Thanksgiving Day itself is growing. Despite the fact that Thanksgiving store hours don’t necessarily boost holiday season sales so much as displace them from one day to another, more and more retailers apparently feel compelled to open for business on the national holiday—often during prime dinner hours but sometimes much, much earlier than that. Toys R Us, for instance, is matching Best Buy and J.C. Penney with a 5 p.m. opening time on Thanksgiving—an hour earlier than Target and Macy’s—while RadioShack just announced that more than 3,000 of its stores will open at the freakishly unnecessary hour of 8 a.m.

In virtually all cases, retailers explain their decisions to open on Thanksgiving by pointing back at consumers—saying that shopping time on the holiday and “flexible” store hours are what today’s consumers demand. After all, the stores have a choice to not open on Thanksgiving, and that’s just what a couple dozen retailers have said they’ll do, often proudly proclaiming that they’re staying closed to allow their employees to spend the day relaxing with their families.

Yet at least in one case, a group of stores doesn’t really have much choice in the matter. Walden Galleria, a mall near Buffalo, N.Y., decided that this year, it would open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. That’s six hours earlier than last year, but still, other malls in the area are also opening at the earlier time.

What’s bound to bring Walden Galleria plenty of grief, however, is the heavy-handed way it is prodding tenant retailers into opening at 6 p.m.: They’re being threatened with fines if they don’t go along with the plan. It’s unclear how much the fine would be for failing to open by the assigned hour, but apparently the amount is substantial enough to compel some reluctant shop managers into coming to work that day.

“We’re just stuck following the rules, because if we didn’t, we’d be fined by the mall and being a small company, that’s substantial to us. We can’t just pay that. We have to stay open,” Shaun Deutsch, the manager of the mall’s Tee Shirt University store said, according to the local Time Warner Cable News station. “It’s been a lot different this year trying to find people to work. It’s not been easy. I’ve been forced to schedule myself because I can’t find anyone else, really, to help me out.”

The Boycott Shopping on Thanksgiving Day Facebook page took note of Walden Galleria’s nasty tactics and immediately placed the mall on its “Naughty” List—reserved for shopping outlets opening on Thanksgiving.

MONEY Odd Spending

A Brief History of ‘Pay What You Want’ Businesses

hand holding up quarter
ballyscanlon—Getty Images

A pay-what-you-want investing service? Yes, it's here—and it's hardly the only business bold (crazy?) enough to allow customers to pay whatever they feel is appropriate, even $0.

On November 11, a new investment company called Aspiration launches with the goals of “democratizing the financial services industry,” “making elite investments available to everyday investors,” and “building a movement around the idea that you can make money and make a difference at the same time.” The minimum investment is only $500, and the pitch is that at long last, middle-class investors will get access to the kinds of investment products that traditionally have been available only to the rich. The concept is noble enough, and the focus on regular folks is certainly refreshing, yet Aspiration is hardly the only service out there aiming to woo less affluent investors.

No, what makes Aspiration truly unique—unheard of, in fact—is its fee structure. Or rather, the absence of a fee structure. Instead of charging a fee, Aspiration “allows its customers to decide how much to pay the company – even if that number is zero,” the launch announcement explains. “Aspiration calls this approach ‘Pay What Is Fair’ and while it has been tried before in one-off fashion, this is the first time it has been brought to the investment world and the first time a company has built its business model on this approach.”

Whether such a revolutionary business model can work for investing or is little more than a gimmick is impossible to tell right now. For obvious reasons, “pay what you want” is a curiosity that’s intriguing to consumers and grabs plenty of headlines, but thus far other PWYW experiments have yielded results that are decidely mixed. For example:

Restaurants: Bubby’s, an all-American restaurant with two locations in Manhattan, is running a “Pay Whatever You Like” buffet Thanksgiving dinner with some of the proceeds going to charity, and it’s clear the owners expect customers to pay a pretty penny: There’s a “suggested donation” of $75 per person. Another restaurant, a diner in North Carolina called Just Cookin, recently removed prices from the menu, leaving the exact amount paid for food and service up to the customer and God.

In probably the most well-known PWYW restaurant trial, the fast-casual chain Panera Bread opened a nonprofit café five years ago, and the experiment was so successful that in early 2013 the concept was expanded to four dozen St. Louis locations, which offered turkey chili on a pay-what-you-want basis. Roughly half a year later, however, PWYW chili was removed from menus. Apparently Panera received tons of generous donations early on in the program, but interest (and money collected) faded as time passed. Even so, there are still five nonprofit Panera Cares locations in the U.S., where the menus have suggested donations but no set prices.

Payday App: The biggest problem with payday loans is that while the fees might seem small—say $15 per $100 borrowed—the terms represent the loanshark-like equivalent of an APR of 400%. Enter ActiveHours, a payday loan alternative that pays customers immediately for the hours they’ve already worked and, incredibly, has no mandatory fees.

“We don’t think people should be forced to pay for services they don’t love, so we ask you to pay what you think is fair based on your personal experience,” the ActiveHours site explains. Even so, consumer advocates warn that people who become dependent on such a service are more likely to wind up behind on their bills, and they also might wind up (voluntarily) paying tips to the service that are themselves the equivalent of a loanshark’s terms.

Taxis: In 2009, during perhaps the Great Recession’s darkest days, a former Wall Street banker named Eric Hagen introduced Recession Ride Taxi, a PWYW cab service in Burlington, Vt. Hagen offered rides only on nights and weekends as a way to help people out and perhaps make a few dollars. Even though Uber and other ride-share services would seem to be encroaching on Hagen’s idea, Recession Ride Taxi is still running—and still operating on a PWYW basis.

Book, Music, Comedy Downloads: Way back in 2000, Stephen King decided to skip over publishers and sell a serial novel called “The Plant” strictly in digital e-book format using an honor system. Readers were asked to pay $1 per installment, and King said he would keep writing if three-quarters of those who downloaded the book paid up. At one point, less than half of those downloading were actually paying for the book, and the author never completed it—though the author reportedly earned nearly $500 million in the venture. As things now stand, the six existing parts of “The Plant” are available for free download at King’s website.

In 2007, Radiohead began selling digital downloads of an album called “In Rainbows,” and when fans dropped it into the virtual checkout basket, the only price listed was “It’s Up to You.” Some rock-n-roll old-timers, including KISS’s Gene Simmons, were not impressed. “That’s not a business model that works,” Simmons said at the time. “I open a store and say, ‘Come on in and pay whatever you want.’ Are you on f***ing crack? Do you really believe that’s a business model that works?” Nonetheless, Radiohead’s move was probably ahead of its time considering that few artists make money selling their music nowadays anyway.

More recently, the work of Louis C.K., who over the years has been at the forefront of unorthodox direct-sales strategies including selling comedy special downloads for a flat $5 and comedy show tickets with no intermediaries or fees, was featured in a “Humble Bundle” of comedy albums offered on a pay-what-you-want basis. Humble Bundle is known for bundling together several video games and allowing customers to pay whatever they like for the package, with portions of the payment going to the developers, charity, and Humble Bundle.

MONEY Odd Spending

Good, Bad, and Ugly of Paying $100 to Eat at Olive Garden for 7 Weeks

Olive Garden sign
Betty LaRue—Alamy

What's it been like to partake in Olive Garden's seven-week all-you-can-eat Pasta Pass? One participant likens the pass to Tolkien's Ring of Power, "immensely powerful, yes, but dangerous and probably better off destroyed."

In September, Olive Garden unleashed an unprecedented Neverending Pasta Pass promotion on the American public, offering a total of 1,000 of the passes—which entitle the holder to unlimited pasta, breadsticks, soup or salad, and Coca-Cola beverages—for just $100 apiece. The deal sold out in just a few minutes.

For passholders—several of whom have blogged or been interviewed about the experience—eating an absurd amount of Olive Garden food has brought on a rollercoaster of emotions, from excitement to depression to downright goofiness. There’s even been some trash-talking among a few of the Pasta Pass pugilists, as Howard Cosell might have called them. There have been obscenely enormous collections of Olive Garden leftovers stuffed in their refrigerators. And, it’s safe to say, the experiment has left behind exactly zero six-pack abs in its wake.

With the pass officially expiring as of Sunday, November 9, it’s time to reflect on a few of the other major takeaways from the experience:

It’s Been Quite a Value
Each Pasta Pass cost only $100, and considering that regular diners pay $9.99 per meal for what’s included in the pass, passholders needed to eat only ten times at Olive Garden for the purchase to pay off. As you might imagine, some made it their mission to get as much out of the pass as possible.

Alan Martin, a pastor from Burlington, N.C., said earlier this week that he’d already eaten at Olive Garden 100 times, meaning his $100 pass was averaging out to $1 per sit-down. He plans on consuming $1,800 worth of food and drink before the pass expires. “I would love to be the person that ate the most of the 1,000 people” who bought passes, the “Pasta Passtor” told a local TV station, which filmed Martin (of course) at Olive Garden dining on pasta and chicken. “That would be a good contest to win because that means I got the most value out of the card of anyone in the United States.”

Bear in mind that maximizing the value from a $100 Olive Garden pass could also mean consuming upwards of 100,000 calories during the seven weeks the pass is valid.

It’s Made Them Semi-Famous
Martin has been featured on local TV stations multiple times, and was highlighted by the “Today Show” after eating his 100th Olive Garden meal with the pass on November 5. When asked about what he would do when the pass expires on Sunday, Martin admitted he was unsure, and a little scared. “I have no idea what I’m going to eat for lunch Monday morning,” he said.

Several other passholders have gotten attention in the media because they’ve been blogging about their OG dining experience. Most notably, there’s Matt Pershe, a recent UPenn graduate whose Tumblr has been mentioned by Eater, Philadelphia magazine, and Forbes, among others.

There’s Been Some Trash Talking
A passholder going by the name “Vino” has had plenty of fun running the blog AllofGarden.com. He’s created customized names for Olive Garden’s different pasta dishes, such as Angelhare, Depression, Acceptance, and Futility (instead of fusilli, presumably), and even coined a few pastas in honor of his fellow passholders, including Hagana, named after the blogger chronicling the experience at 49 Days of Pasta.

On Friday, Vino posted what has to be the funniest Pasta Pass trash-talking video ever. In the tongue-in-cheek post, Vino calls out Pasta Pass top dog Alan Martin—he of multiple TV appearances—for saying on camera that he’d vaguely eaten “about” 95 meals at Olive Garden. “Let me guess Alan, math isn’t your strong suit?” Vino says to his webcam, before listing his own “accomplishments” in terms of Olive Garden consumption—”a heart-rending story of love, loss, and carbs,” he says. Then the smack really comes down.

“Face it Alan, you’re old. Pasta’s slowing you down. Me? I’m young, spry. Every bite I take only makes me hungrier,” Vino says. “And I won’t rest until I show you, and every imPASTer like you what I’m made out of.” Naturally, the video ends with Vino taking a shark-like bite out of a breadstick.

It’s Been Emotional
Dining on pasta at a chain restaurant for weeks has caused several participants to have some pretty deep thoughts. It’s been a rollercoaster of highs, lows, and carbs. “A few days ago, I was excited for the Pasta Pass to end,” Hagana Kim of 49 Days of Pasta wrote when week six of the pasta experiment just passed. “Now that the end is staring me in the face, I’m sad. Depressed, even. I may do some unpredictable things this week.”

On the other hand, UPenn grad Matt Pershe seems more than ready to be done with OG. “I’m thrilled to announce that there is one week remaining for my Never Ending Pasta Pass,” he wrote around Halloween. “I think of the Never Ending Pasta Pass nowadays as something like the ring in Lord of the Rings. Immensely powerful, yes, but dangerous and probably better off destroyed.”

The Pass Has Inspired Poetry
Over at the Pastageddon blog, Max from Pennsylvania has posted a smorgasbord of Olive Garden-inspired imagined scenes and oddball poetry, often related to movies ranging from “Pulp Fiction” to “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” His Halloween post included a twist on the haunting children’s rhyme from “Nightmare on Elm Street”:

One, two, OG’s coming for you
Three, four, better lock your door
Five, six, get your pasta fix
Seven, eight, gonna finish the plate
Nine, ten, never eat again

It’s Sometimes Been Sickening
Beyond having fun, the bloggers have all included some reviews of the food. Some of them have been quite good, while others … not so much. On Day 31, Matt Pershe finally willed himself to finally try a dish with Italian sausage, and it wasn’t pretty. “Between the sausage and the five cheese marinara, the dish looked something like a frat row sidewalk on a Saturday night,” he wrote. “Appearances aside, the texture of the sausage was the same texture you’d get from a sausage in a Super 8 continental breakfast.”

Even worse is what was described at Pastageddon recently. “Since I am on the last week I thought I would try the Zuppa soupa but i’m sorry I did because it gave me the poopas,” the post reads. “I don’t know if it was the soup, pasta or shrimp but I’m currently sitting here hoping I don’t puke.”

MONEY Odd Spending

Drivers Snatch Cash Flying Out of Armored Truck Near D.C.

Flying Money
Kyu Oh—Getty Images

Thanks to a broken door, a gust of bills spilled out of a truck onto I-270 this morning.

At around 8 am Friday it was raining cash on a Maryland section of Interstate 270, about 40 miles north of Washington, D.C., after a malfunctioning lock on an armored vehicle caused a bag of money to scatter onto the highway. Early reports claimed the broken lock resulted from a collision with a dump truck.

Unsurprisingly, so many drivers stopped to grab the cash that traffic on the northbound lane came to a virtual standstill, and by the time troopers got there, most of the bills were gone—leaving only a little more than $200 for police to collect.

While authorities are still figuring out how much money was taken, at least $500 flew out, according to the Maryland State Police. Other reports say thousands are still missing and one good samaritan has already returned more than $1,000.

Anyone with the good fortune to have picked up the flying cash might want to think twice before spending it: State police told the Washington Post that those caught on traffic camera grabbing the money can be charged with theft.

MONEY Shopping

You’ll Never Guess Which Retailer Has the Cheapest Prices (Hint: It’s Not Walmart)

$1.00 price sticker
Gregor Schuster—Getty Images

A new study reveals that Dollar General is the lowest cost retailer in America.

Often when people think of low prices and retail, the first chain to come in mind is Wal-Mart WAL-MART STORES INC. WMT 0.0828% . Due to the sheer high volume of goods it sells, the megaretailer is a textbook case study for economy of scale. However, sometimes big can be too big and Dollar General DOLLAR GENERAL DG 1.3524% is able to beat Wal-Mart to the low price punch for some very good reasons.

The Kantar Retail Research Team

A study is performed annually by Kantar using a basket of goods across 21 categories in the edible grocery, non-edible grocery, and HBA segments. In order to arrive at the data points for each retailer, the lowest price point for each category was selected no matter what the brand. For example, if a box of Corn Flakes was on the list then the price of the generic brand (if cheaper) was selected over the name brand.

Out of the six retailers analyzed, Target TARGET CORP. TGT 0.4495% came in last while Dollar General finished first. Wal-Mart got second place with 2.5% higher overall prices. The average cost of the basket at Dollar General came out to $26.75. For Wal-Mart, it was $27.41 and for Target it was nowhere close to the other two with a total of $40.61. The $0.66 spread between Dollar General and Wal-Mart is 5.5 times higher than the $0.12 spread a year ago with the same study.

This is despite Wal-Mart’s much more massive size. For example, in the current fiscal year, analysts expect Wal-Mart to post nearly half a trillion dollars in sales compared to just $19 billion for Dollar General or more than 25 times higher. How does David Dollar General manage to beat the Goliath Wal-Mart?

The real low cost leader

Your first suspicion might be that the only reason Dollar General could possibly beat out Wal-Mart on prices is by taking a hit on profits. Wal-Mart has made a consistent 24%-25% gross profit margin for the last three years on the products it sells. Therefore it stands to reason that if somebody only has a 10% markup it could sell at cheaper prices even if it doesn’t get the volume discounts of Wal-Mart.

That’s not the case with Dollar General, however. Not only does it have cheaper prices, but it makes more profit margin on average on each of its products. For the last three years, Dollar General has averaged between 30%-31% in gross profit on its sales, which is higher than Wal-Mart’s.

How could Dollar General have lower costs?

You have to remember — the purchase price of a product from the wholesaler is only part of the ultimate cost to a retailer and the price for the consumer. A typical Wal-Mart Supercenter might have over 140,000 items for sale while a typical Dollar General has between 10,000-12,000 items.

As Megan McArdle of The Daily Beast once tagged the problem,

“A Walmart has 140,000 SKUs, which have to be tediously sorted, replaced on shelves, reordered, delivered, and so forth. People tend to radically underestimate the costs imposed by complexity, because the management problems do not simply add up; they multiply.”

Multiplied management problems equal multiplied costs baked into each average product’s cost and price.

More of less is cheaper

Dollar General, by specializing in far fewer items and brands, has fewer logistical complexities and fewer costs. The secret to low costs is the power of buying in bulk and cheap stocking costs to sell those products. It’s the simple reason a child’s lemonade stand only sells lemonade — to offer a larger variety of drinks would require a lot more effort for less average return on each.

During Dollar General’s last conference call, CEO Richard Dreiling explained it well when he said, “This foundation of limited assortment and distribution efficiencies allows us to successfully compete with much larger retailers and provide our customers with everyday low prices that they can trust.”

Foolish thoughts

Dollar General may still have plenty of potential market share it can take from Wal-Mart. Its biggest disadvantage is lack of consumer knowledge. We’ve been bombarded by the media, and Wal-Mart itself, that if you want cheap prices it’s Wal-Mart or bust and nobody can touch them. As consumers become more and more aware of the Dollar General advantage, don’t be surprised if its sales continue to creep up. It is up to 26 quarters in a row of positive same-store sales growth and may still have a long way to go.

MONEY Odd Spending

Why People Aren’t Buying Lottery Tickets

Lottery forms on a gas station counter in Lutherville-Timonium, Maryland, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013.
Patrick Semansky—AP

Lottery sales have gone flat in several states, but not necessarily as a result of gamblers waking up to the fact that the house always wins.

Are people who had been accustomed to dropping a few bucks here and there on state lottery games experiencing “jackpot fatigue”? It sure looks that way, according to Stephen Martino, director of the Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, who at a recent meeting noted an astonishing 41% dropoff in Powerball sales in the state last month, compared with September 2013. Paraphrasing Martino, the Baltimore Sun reported that “players may be becoming numb to soaring prize numbers,” and so they’re not buying lottery tickets at the blazing pace set in the past.

Maryland is not the only state where lottery sales are falling, flat, or just not measuring up to the projections offered by local gaming commissions. Sales of core lottery games declined in Ohio during the first half of 2014, for instance, while lottery sales in Kentucky are failing to measure up to what was drawn up in the state budget last spring. Meanwhile, once-torrid lottery sales have plateaued in Missouri, with profits for the fiscal 2014 year that are $21 million lower than the year prior. One expert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the falloff in lottery sales in Missouri (and elsewhere) comes partly as a result of players getting bored with the games:

“It follows a life cycle like any product,” said Thomas Garrett, a University of Mississippi economist who studies lotteries. “You get this increase in sales. It peaks. People get used to it, and then you get this slowdown.”

In light of this concept, it makes sense that money spent at newer, up-and-coming video lottery terminals in states such as Ohio is rising, while traditional lottery games like instant tickets and Pick 3 and Pick 4 are on the decline. To boost sales and attract a new generation of lottery players, states are spending more on advertising and rolling out games that are sold in new ways (lottery ticket sales at gas station pumps and ATMs) and that are sold with themes favored by locals (college football teams, “Duck Dynasty”).

In addition to simple fatigue and a lack of excitement for the same old games, lottery sales have also been hurt by the spread of casinos, according to some research. This past summer, the Washington Post noted that lottery sales in Maryland had increased for 16 years in a row before casinos came to the state. And the recent opening of another casino in Maryland seems to have played some role in the September slump of Powerball tickets. “Those two industries [lottery and casinos] tend to be substitutes for each other,” one economist hired by Maryland to conduct a study on lottery sales explained to the Post.

At the same time, gambling industry supporters point out that while lottery sales in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania initially declined or went flat after casinos opened in the states, the drop was only a blip—and that sales are strong once again. The debate about how casinos impact lottery sales is raging in Massachusetts, where a Repeal the Casino campaign argues, among other things, “If the lottery takes the minimum expected hit of 10 percent from the introduction of casinos and slots, state lottery transferred as state aid to towns and cities will be reduced by about $90 million.” Casino supporters, on the other hand, say that such projections are based on outdated and flawed data, and that any effect of casinos on lottery sales is temporary.

MONEY halloween

6 Ways to Save on Halloween Haunted Houses

Knott's Scary Farm at Knott's Berry Farm on September 25, 2014 in Buena Park, California.
Knott's Scary Farm at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. Chelsea Lauren—WireImage

These Halloween attractions can cost up to $60 a pop. How to get scared silly for less.

Would you pay someone to scare the, uh, sense of out you? For 1 out of 5 Americans, the answer is yes. That’s how many people say they plan to go to a haunted house this year, according to a recent survey from the National Retail Federation. And while there are still plenty of mom-and-pop haunted houses (spoiler: those “eyeballs” are actually peeled grapes) where getting spooked only costs a couple bucks, an increasing number of Halloween attractions are professionally produced, legitimately terrifying, and scarily expensive.

America Haunts, a group of haunted house companies, estimates that there are roughly 1,200 haunted attractions charging admission, plus another 300 or so amusement parks that transform themselves for Halloween. These hardcore houses typically cost between $25 and $40 a person—and that’s not including the various line-skipping and VIP options that could easily boost your total bill to $60 or more.

Dying to get some face time with a zombie or psychotic clown but not ready to empty your wallet? Here are six strategies for getting discounted haunted house tickets.

Look into rush tickets. Just like less-terrifying performances, some haunted houses offer last-minute discounts, which go on sale right before the event. Nightmare New York, in New York City, offers $20 student rush tickets, vs. the usual $35, one hour before the attraction opens.

Check the deal sites. Haunted houses are all over the daily deal sites right now. A recent search of LivingSocial turned up tickets to Psychosis Haunted House outside of Chicago at $18 for two, down from $36. On Groupon, we found entry to Fright Fest at Denver’s Elitch Gardens amusement park marked down from $46 to $32.

Get a group. Most haunted houses offer group discounts. In general, this will require you to wrangle at least 15 people.

Try an off day. Not surprisingly, weekends are prime time for haunted attractions, so some drop the price during the week. At Indy Scream Park in Anderson, Ind., tickets drop from $32 to $25 on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

Check for local coupons. Tickets to Knott’s Scary Farm, the Halloween iteration of the Buena Park, Calif., amusement park, start at $39 online. However, shoppers at SoCal costume store chain Halloween Club can pick up coupons for the attraction. Horror fans planning to brave the 13th Gate in Baton Rouge, La. can pick up $5 coupons at local MetroPCS stores.

Go after Halloween. Hear us out. Some haunted houses run for a few days after the big night, and others are actually open all year long. Groupon is currently offering discounted tickets to Times Scare, a massive haunted house in, yes, New York’s Times Square. The catch: You only get the full discount if you go after November 2. It may be worth it to some horror fiends. Adult admission drops from $27 to $16 and kids’ tickets, from $22 to $13.

Related:
13 Halloween Costumes for Finance Geeks

 

MONEY halloween

4 Reasons Your Halloween Candy Just Got More Expensive

Hershey's chocolate bars
Scott Olson—Getty Images

Some candy-market watchers say Ebola is partly to blame.

Hey, all you trick-or-treaters, don’t be surprised if your candy haul is a little bit lighter this year. The cost of Halloween just went up. The consumer price index for candy and gum rose 2.1% in September, the biggest increase in three years.

The price jump shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Hershey’s—maker of Reese’s Cups, Kit Kats, Kisses, and the eponymous bar—announced an 8% price hike back in July. Mars soon followed suit with a 7% hike on its products, which include M&Ms and Snickers bars. Both candy manufacturers blamed the increases on the rising cost of doing business.

“Over the last year key input costs have been volatile and remain at levels that are above historical averages,” Hershey’s President of North America Michele G. Buck said in a statement. “Commodity spot prices for ingredients such as cocoa, dairy, and nuts have increased meaningfully since the beginning of the year. Given these trends, we expect significant commodity cost increases in 2015.”

Still, until recently the candy index stayed low. Here are 4 developments that may account for the change.

1. Ebola fears caused a temporary spike in cocoa prices. The world’s No. 1 producer of cocoa, Ivory Coast, is surrounded by Ebola-stricken countries. So is the world’s No. 2 producer, Ghana.

Jack Scoville, a vice president of the Price Futures Group, said some market watchers were afraid that if Ebola spread to either country and sickened the laborers who prepare the cocoa harvest, that could spell trouble for the chocolate industry.

“There was a very legitimate fear that the harvest and the merchandising could be disrupted. That spiked prices from $3,050 [per ton] to almost $3,400 in a matter of 10 days,” Scoville said.

Thankfully for everyone involved, neither Ivory Coast nor Ghana has experienced any outbreaks. And the price of cocoa has dropped back down, to around $3,100.

That said, even if Ebola fears don’t change the price of your Halloween candy, Valentine’s Day is another matter. “It takes some time to get the cocoa beans into an exportable position, to process the beans into cocoa and process the cocoa into candy bars,” Scoville explained. “If [Ebola] does become an issue—which is becoming an increasingly big ‘if’—it would be more of an issue around Valentine’s Day or Easter.”

2. A trade spat with Mexico has driven up sugar prices. While the rising cost of cocoa is probably the main reason candy prices are up, sugar has gotten pricier too.

U.S. sugar producers have accused Mexican sugar producers of “dumping” in the United States, selling sugar at subsidized prices that unfairly undercut domestic manufacturers. As a result of the dispute, wholesale sugar prices have risen 40% since March, according to Tom Earley, economist and trade policy specialist at Agralytica.

The trade dispute has yet to be resolved.

3. There’s a lag time before candy gets more expensive. While the retail price of candy remained relatively steady until recently, the cost of raw cocoa has been rising for the past several years:

Source: International Cocoa Organization

Still, it’s not surprising that it took a while for you to see the price hike at your grocery store, said Annemarie Kuhns, agricultural economist at the USDA Economic Research Service.

“With the foods that require more processing, there’s a longer time between the change in the price at the commodity level and a change in the price at the retail level,” Kuhns said. “They have more leeway to change their profit margins, and they’re not as quick to change their prices.”

4. Newly prosperous Asian consumers want more chocolate. If you want to know why the commodity price of cocoa is rising, look to Asia. Consumers there are hungry for Hershey’s. Over the past several months, manufacturers have built additional processing facilities in Indonesia to meet the rising demand in China and Southeast Asia. That demand is driving up the cost of chocolate for everyone.

“Over the past year or two, as incomes have risen, [Asian consumers have] discovered chocolate tastes good, and they want more,” Scoville said.

Well, American trick-or-treaters can understand that much.

MONEY money well spent

How a $600 Banjo Saved My Life

Jason Schneider

It was a lot of money for an inconsistently employed twentysomething, but that banjo gave me a fresh start when I needed it most.

I stood in the music store beside my then boyfriend, looking up at the banjo on the wall. For $600 I could take this “starter” instrument home and indulge my new obsession with bluegrass. Six hundred bucks wasn’t an outrageous price, but I was in my late twenties and inconsistently employed. The purchase felt grandiose, especially for an instrument so often derided. Question: How do you know if the stage is level? Answer: The banjo player is drooling from both sides of her mouth. Reluctantly, I handed over my credit card.

Not long thereafter, in the fall of 2007, I left my boyfriend of eight years. He liked the status quo; I wanted to get married. The split was tough. We’d shared everything—an apartment, friends. Now I felt isolated and lonely. I wanted to let loose, to dive into my newfound singledom. But I’d been in a relationship for so long, I didn’t know how. Then I remembered the banjo.

It hadn’t occurred to me to play with other people. I wasn’t very good, and I lived in New York, not Tennessee. How many bluegrass musicians could there be in the Big Apple? As it turned out, a lot.

The open jam I discovered at a West Village bar was like nothing I’d ever experienced. At least 20 musicians—guitarists, fiddlers, mandolinists, and, yes, banjo players—stood in a circle, taking turns improvising and singing while bar patrons drank and laughed and applauded. Overseeing the operation was a 70-year-old Dobro player in a cowboy hat who called himself the Sheriff.

As I lingered outside the circle, a grizzled guitar player noticed my discomfort and offered to help me follow the chord changes. I was a disaster, but it didn’t matter. For the first time in a long while, I felt like part of something.

I returned weekly, often playing until two or three in the morning. I learned to take solos and belt out songs like a Nashville diva. I made new friends and dated new men. If I ever felt alone, I had a place to go, though I wasn’t often lonely anymore. After a while, my bluegrass friends urged me to trade up for a new banjo. I’d have to pay a couple grand, they said, but I’d love the sound. I considered it, but why spend more? For $600, I’d gotten a fresh start and a life filled with music. That was all I needed.

Jennifer Miller’s first novel, The Year of the Gadfly, was published in 2012. Look for the bluegrass bar in her next book, out in 2015.

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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.

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