MONEY online shopping

Amazon Prime Membership Should Come With a Warning

Amazon Prime packages
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

And the warning is: After paying $99 for your subscription, you're going to spend a ton of money at Amazon.com.

Amazon rarely releases sales data to the media. Nonetheless, the idea that customers who subscribe to Amazon Prime wind up shopping and spending a lot more at Amazon is considered fact. After all, once customers are paying $99 for the service and know that express two-day shipping is available for free on nearly all purchases, it makes sense that they’ll stop shopping elsewhere and do most if not all of their online shopping at the site. It helps, of course, that Amazon has a reputation not only for selling a huge variety of merchandise, but for having low prices as well.

But what impact, exactly, does signing up an Amazon Prime membership have on the individual’s online purchasing habits? Again, it’s hard to say because Amazon is reticent to release data. What’s more, things are complicated because the people who find it most worthwhile to join Amazon Prime are those who shop often at Amazon in the first place. (When you’re a member, the more you spend, the more you “save,” at least in terms of shipping.) So it’s not simply a matter of figuring out how much Prime members versus non-Prime members spend at the site.

Still, it’s undeniable that Prime members spend a bunch more at Amazon than non-Prime members. In a recent story by a couple of my MONEY colleagues about Apple, Amazon, and Google in terms of investing opportunities, a ComScore report is mentioned revealing that “Prime members make twice as many purchases as nonmembers, and they spend 40% more per transaction.”

Read more: Why You Should Never Buy Stuff When You’re Sad

This week, a new survey was released by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (hat tip: Huffington Post) with some precise dollar figures regarding the topic. According to a survey of consumers who made purchases at Amazon from October to December 2014, Prime members say they spend an average of about $1,500 at the site annually, versus $625 for non-members.

Owning an Amazon Kindle is also correlated with increased Amazon.com spending. Kindle owners (who may or may not also be Prime members) spend $1,450 per year at Amazon, compared to $725 per year for customers who don’t own Kindles, according to the survey. “Similar to Amazon Prime members, Amazon Kindle owners are better customers,” Mike Levin, partner and co-founder of CIRP, said in a press release about the new report. “They also shop more frequently, and also buy more expensive items on average.”

All in all, the spending data spells out plainly why Amazon pushes sales of Prime and Kindles so hard. In particular, the world’s largest retailer has been relentless in upping the Prime value pitch by adding streaming services, producing original movies, and such. Just last weekend, for instance, Amazon dropped the price of Prime to $72 and allowed everyone to stream its Golden Globe Award-winning online show “Transparent” as a way to show off one of the perks of being a Prime member.

Read more: Amazon Is Making It Easier to Publish Your Own Kindle Textbooks

It’s no mystery that Prime membership, Kindle ownership, or both are essentially gateways that welcome online shoppers into the Amazon consumershere and result in sharply increased spending at the site.

On the other hand, there’s good reason to believe that people who aren’t Prime members are more likely to shop around and make purchases at Amazon only when it’s clearly the most convenient or cheapest option. They don’t automatically defer to making purchases at Amazon, like Prime members appear to do. And based on some recent studies indicating that Amazon doesn’t have the cheapest prices across the board, it seems wise to browse a range of retailers rather than immediately head to Amazon for a one-click purchase of your latest need.

Read next: Amazon Outbid Netflix For Its Most Successful Show

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MONEY deals

Free ‘Transparent’ Streaming, Cheap Amazon Prime on Saturday

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent
Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent Beth Dubber—© Amazon/Courtesy Everett Colle

Amazon already has tens of millions of subscribers to Amazon Prime. But Amazon wants more, and it's using a Transparent-Golden Globes-themed promotion on Saturday to win them over.

A report surfaced last autumn estimating that as many as 50 million people were members of Amazon Prime, the $99-per-year subscription service that includes two-day shipping on most purchases and unlimited streaming of video and music content. Mind you, that was before the 2014 holiday shopping season, during which Amazon reported some 10 million new members had signed up for Prime.

Previous studies have indicated that Amazon actually loses money on Prime due to all the shipping costs incurred by frequent shoppers. Yet Prime is undeniably a powerful revenue driver for the world’s largest retailer, because of the tendency of subscribers to make nearly all of their online purchases at Amazon once they’ve paid for a membership. Hence Amazon’s relentless push to boost Prime subscriptions at any and every opportunity.

And hence the latest Amazon promotion, which on Saturday grants everyone with an Internet connection free streaming of Transparent, the ground-breaking Golden Globe-winning comedy normally only available to Prime subscribers. Besides celebrating the success of Transparent and lead actor Jeffrey Tambor at the Golden Globes, the idea of airing the show for all to see is surely also a pitch to snag more Prime members. The implicit sales pitch being: Just look at the kinds of things you’d get to watch regularly if you were a Prime member!

What’s more, Amazon is giving Prime extra appeal by knocking the usual $99 price of a subscription down to $72 on Saturday, January 24. Why 72? Again, it has to do with the Golden Globes—the most recent awards were the 72nd in history.

MONEY The Economy

Why These 5 Companies Are Laying Off Thousands of Workers

eBay Inc. office building, San Jose, California.
Kristoffer Tripplaar—Sipa USA

The economy is on the mend. Unemployment rates are down. So what's up with all these companies slashing jobs by the thousands?

Here’s some explanation—note we used the word “explanation” not “justification”—for why a handful of companies are laying off large chunks of their workforces even as the economy is on the upswing and unemployment is falling month after month.

eBay: 2,400 jobs
On Wednesday, eBay announced it would be cutting 2,400 jobs in the first quarter of 2015. The company says that the layoff figure includes positions that are unfilled, so the actual number of people losing their jobs will be less than 2,400. What’s more, eBay points out that the figure represents only 7% of the company’s total workforce. (Are we the only ones surprised to hear that eBay currently employs 34,600 people?)

Among the factors influencing the layoff decision: “Weak holiday sales” and revenues that have been lower than analysts expected, as well as a company restructuring in anticipation of the spinoff of eBay’s online payment service PayPal. The company said it may also spin off a third division, eBay Enterprises, which runs e-commerce operations for other companies, explaining in a statement: “It has become clear that [eBay Enterprise] has limited synergies with either business, and a separation will allow both to focus exclusively on their core markets.”

As for weak sales, one reason eBay is suffering is that, unlike Amazon—which effectively uses its Amazon Prime membership program to create legions of shoppers who make the vast majority of their purchases at its site—many eBay customers use the site randomly and haphazardly rather than habitually. “It’s the infrequent shopper that comes two, three, four times a year,” eBay CEO Donahoe told USA Today. “They didn’t come back at the rate we thought.”

American Express: 4,000 jobs
During the course of 2015, AmEx plans on cutting costs by trimming 4,000 jobs after failing to meet long-term revenue growth target of 8%. The Wall Street Journal pointed to “a stronger dollar, a weak December for retail sales and the sharp drop in gas prices” as forces that hurt the company’s fourth quarter results—which actually showed revenue and profits increasing, just not enough to satisfy investors. The 4,000 layoffs represent 6% of AmEx’s total workforce of roughly 63,000.

Baker Hughes & Halliburton: 8,000 jobs
The two energy companies agreed to merge last autumn, and both ended the year strongly, with Halliburton posting revenues up nearly 15% and Baker Hughes achieving record revenues for the quarter. Nonetheless, in light of plunging crude oil and gas prices, oilfield services provider Baker Hughes announced plans for layoffs of 11% of its workforce, roughly 7,000 employees, while Halliburton plans for about 1,000 job cuts of its own.

“This is really the crappy part of the job, and this is what I hate about this industry frankly,” Baker Hughes CEO Martin Craighead said this week in a conference call with analysts. “This is the industry, and it’s throwing us another one of these downturns, and we’re going to be good stewards of our business and do the right thing. But these are never decisions that are done mechanically.”

Schlumberger: 9,000 jobs
Another oilfield services company, Schlumberger also reported surprisingly strong fourth quarter results despite the steep drop in oil and gas prices—and it too recently announced big-time layoffs. Last week, the company said it had laid off 9,000 employees worldwide in late 2014 as profits fell and demand for oil retreated.

Read next: Here’s What You Really Need to Advance Your Career

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MONEY online shopping

The Old-School Way J.C. Penney Is Taking Aim at Amazon

Customers shop at the J.C. Penney Co. store inside the Glendale Galleria shopping center in Glendale, California.
Customers shop at the J.C. Penney Co. store inside the Glendale Galleria shopping center in Glendale, California. Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Thanks to smartphones and screens available at every turn, it's easier than ever for shoppers to browse in one place and buy in another. And now the old-fashioned mail catalog is making a comeback.

For years, retailers have been trying to figure out how to best cope with the “omniconsumer.” Regardless of whether you’ve heard of the term or not, you probably are one. The term refers to shoppers who use all possible channels—online, in store, and sometimes even via catalog phone order—for the purposes of browsing, researching, and buying.

Several years ago, the biggest threat to the retail world arose from the trend of “showrooming,” or the act of browsing products in stores before ultimately purchasing them online for a lower price, typically at Amazon. The phenomenon led many retailers to expand price-matching policies to better compete with Amazon; the fact that Amazon is no longer assumed to always have the cheapest prices has hurt sales at the world’s largest e-retailer as well. The more recent flipside to showrooming has been “webrooming,” which entails browsing products online (often at Amazon) before ultimately purchasing them in a store.

A Boston Globe story published during the 2014 holiday shopping season offered a glimpse of the prototypical webroomer:

“I usually go online to check prices and narrow down what I want to get,” said Kameko Lindsay, a 21-year-old nursing student at Northeastern University. “Then I go to the store and see what I can find. For me, I’d rather touch things before I buy.”

Obviously, this kind of behavior causes havoc for Amazon and other pure online players. A recent Motley Fool post explored how webrooming and other trends—including the option to purchase online and pick up in a store—have been hurting Amazon. It’s still by far the world’s largest e-retailer, but it has slowly been losing market share, with online sales growth at Home Depot, Costco, Walmart, and others outpacing Amazon. And webrooming appears to be getting more common. A survey from Accenture finds that 78% of consumers have engaged in webrooming, versus 72% who say they’ve showroomed. In a similar poll from 2013, 65% of shoppers said they’d be likely to webroom, versus 62% who said they would showroom.

That’s only one example of how tech is tweaking shopper behavior and altering the retail landscape accordingly. Another, arguably more surprising example comes from an old-fashioned retailer—J.C. Penney— bringing back an equally old-fashioned sales platform: the print catalog. As the Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, in March J.C. Penney will start mailing out 120-page glossy catalogs to customers, even though the struggling retailer hasn’t sent one out since 2010, and catalog mailings in general have fallen dramatically.

What’s spurring J.C. Penney’s renewed interest in catalogs is that, curiously, they seem to boost online sales. Kurt Salmon, the retail consultancy firm, notes that 31% of consumers have a print catalog handy at the time they’re making online purchases. What’s more, there’s some indication that people who purchase with the aid of catalogs tend to spend more.

MONEY online shopping

Why Amazon Is Losing Market Share to Big Box Chains

Boxes sit stacked before being loaded on a truck at the Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S..
Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

As big box chains have improved their e-commerce platforms, they have found some surprising advantages.

Amazon.com AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 2.5896% has grown to a value of over $130 billion with barely any profit, largely due to its dominance of online retail. With a 23% market share of online retail sales, the company does more e-commerce business than its next 12 largest competitors, which includes the likes of Staples and Wal-Mart WAL-MART STORES INC. WMT 1.0366% .

Without profits to underpin its share price, Amazon’s tremendous market value has been predicated on its dominance of retail’s biggest growth category as e-commerce sales increased 16% in the third quarter of 2014. According to conventional wisdom, Amazon’s lack of physical stores gives at an advantage over the big box chains like Wal-Mart and Best Buy. Because Amazon does not have the expense of brick-and-mortar stores, the thinking goes, it can offer shoppers lower prices and therefore a better value proposition.

But what if that wasn’t true?

The revenge of the big boxes

A recent report by the think tank L2 Inc. looked at 64 big-box chains, and uncovered some surprises in the industry.

Despite Amazon’s mammoth growth over the last decade, conventional retailers are now stealing e-commerce market share from the leader. In the first quarter of last year, Home Depot saw online sales jump 54%. Costco’s increased 48%, and Macy’s and Wal-Mart saw a 31% and 30% increase in the category, respectively. Meanwhile, Amazon’s retail sales grew just 20%.

Amazon’s dominance of the space owes more to the relatively small size of e-commerce rather than traditional retailers’ ineptitude. Despite its growth, e-commerce only makes up 6.6% of all retail sales, and volume sales are still growing four times slower than in physical stores. In the most recent quarter for which data’s available, e-commerce sales totaled $78 billion, while total retail sales in the U.S. were $1.18 trillion.

The reason why the big boxes ignored e-commerce for so long was simply because it wasn’t worth it. The vast majority of sales still take place at physical stores, but e-commerce has reached a tipping point where retailers have realized it’s beneficial to invest and grow sales in the space. As they’ve improved their e-commerce platforms, the big boxes have found some surprising advantages.

Amazon spent $6.6 billion on shipping costs last year, while it collected just $3.1 billion in shipping fees. Brick-and-mortar retailers can offer in-store pickup thanks to their physical locations, an option 19% of Internet shoppers have used.

Similarly, “showrooming,” the practicing of browsing in a store, and buying online was supposed to seal the fate of the big boxes. Now, it seems that “webrooming,” or browsing online but buying in the store, has become popular as an Accenture survey said that 78% of respondents they had “webroomed,” while just 72% had showroomed.

As the competition has intensified, many big boxes have lowered prices to match or beat Amazon, and several sources have reported that Amazon is no longer the default champ of rock-bottom online prices.

Where this is battle is going

Amazon has spent the last several years building out dozens of distribution centers near metropolitan areas to help it achieve its goal of same-day deliveries. But the big boxes already have a huge foothold in cities and suburbs, with thousands of stores that should present a potentially huge advantage over Amazon. Though, it may require a change in systems, it shouldn’t be very difficult for retailers to ship from stores as long as the economics justify it. Google Express has also taken on Amazon in the delivery race, and has partnered with retailers to offer same-day delivery to customers in some cities. A strategy like this one may be the easiest way for big boxes to undercut Amazon’s delivery proposition.

Traditional retailers still have a lot of improvements to make in the e-commerce space, but expect them to increasingly leverage their physical real estate in the battle against Amazon. While Amazon may offer a better online shopping experience, it’s not about to open a network of hundreds of stores to match the presence of its competitors. Therefore, companies like Wal-Mart can continue to use propositions like in-store pickup, ship-from-store, and others, as a selling point over Amazon and a way to keep shipping costs down.

In the coming years, the most successful retailers will have to become masters of the omnichannel. They will have to offer shoppers an equally rewarding experience both in-store and online, and be able to combine those capabilities for optimal delivery of the purchase, whether that’s in store or to the home.

Amazon will continue to grow as the e-commerce channel expands, but this surprisingly strong competition from brick and mortar names should continue to claw back market share. If that happens, questions about Amazon’s lack of profits will only loom larger, and the stock could take a major hit.

Jeremy Bowman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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MONEY deals

Why You Should Be Shopping for Christmas Decorations Right Now

Customers browse Christmas decorations while shopping at a Home Depot Inc. store in Torrance, California, U.S.
Customers browse Christmas decorations while shopping at a Home Depot Inc. store in Torrance, California, U.S. Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Walk into pretty much any store that stocks holiday decorations this weekend and you're bound to bump into tremendous deals--easily discounts of 75% off or more.

Every price-conscious shopping strategist is well aware of how quickly and dramatically seasonal items go on sale as soon as the peak-buying period around a holiday is over. It’s tradition for holiday decorations to go on clearance sale immediately after Christmas, and sometimes even days or weeks before December 25.

But now that we’re a week removed from Christmas, shoppers can expect prices on holiday merchandise to plunge even lower. What this means is that this weekend is an absolutely optimal time to buy, provided you’re the type who 1) doesn’t mind sifting through haphazardly picked-over merchandise for treasures; and 2) will actually remember and keep track of this stuff when the time comes to use it 10 or 11 months down the road.

Here’s one indication of how prices have fallen even during the week after Christmas. The deal-tracking experts at dealnews highlighted a few of the best post-Christmas Christmas decorations sales at the end of last week. At the time, a 3.5-foot-high LED Yoda dressed up as Santa and holding an oversized candy cane, for example, was selling for $14.99, half off the original price of $30. By now, however, that same Yoda is marked down to just $7.50, or 75% off the retail price.

Unfortunately, you can’t order Yoda online, not even if the force particularly strong with you is. Instead, you’ll have to call up your local Home Depot and see if it’s in stock, or just head down and browse.

Likewise, shoppers can generally expect to find the lowest prices on decorations in the physical locations of other stores, including Sears, Big Lots, Crate & Barrel, and more, rather than online. At this point, it’s problematic for retailers to sell some of their discounted Christmas items online because inventories are so low.

As for what’s left behind in individual stores right now, it’s something of a crapshoot. Major retailers are desperately trying to unload these items to make way for the next season’s merchandise—the stuff they have a prayer of selling at full price—so it’s hard to tell in advance what you’ll find in the clearance aisles of each store location.

Depending on the item and the retailer, it is sometimes possible to buy ahead online and pick up at your local store. That’s the most efficient strategy for shoppers. Those who simply venture into a store to browse can also be assured that whatever leftovers they find will be dirt cheap. Here are a few options:

Big Lots: The discount retailer’s Christmas Clearance sale knocks 50% off all seasonal items, including lights, ornaments, trees, wrapping paper, and Christmas pet gifts. (“Selection varies by store,” Big Lots warns.)

Crate & Barrel: A winter clearance sale knocks off up to 60% on seasonal merchandise, and there are even deeper discounts on items specifically geared for Christmas, including this Glitter Twig Garland now priced at $8.98 (originally $29.95); many items are available for online purchase but the retailer warns “quantities are limited.”

Home Depot: 75% or more off a wide range of ornaments and artificial wreaths and Christmas trees, and much of it can be purchased online and then picked up at a store.

Sears: Up to 70% off artificial trees, holiday collectibles, lights, and indoor and outdoor decorations—much is available for purchase online with free shipping, though there may be even lower prices at physical Sears locations.

Target: 50% or more off holiday costumes, ornaments, decorations, and such

Walmart: A huge mixed bag of Christmas clearance deals, such as a Santa tree topper for $6.97 (originally $16.98)

Yankee Candle: 50% or 75% off seasonal items, with the biggest discounts generally available for Christmas-y goods like Balsam & Cedar ornaments

MONEY Shopping

You Haven’t Even Heard of Some of the Best-Selling Stuff of 2014

OK, so you probably guessed that some "Frozen" stuff would be among the year's best sellers. But a Jack White record, a 7-year-old self-help book, and generic bottled water?

In no particular order, here’s a compilation of items that proved to be top sellers for 2014, including more than a few head scratchers.

  • Book

    StrengthsFinder 2.0
    StrengthsFinder 2.0 Brian Pope—Gallup, Inc.

    The year’s best-selling book at Amazon.com may come as quite a shock, starting with the fact that it wasn’t released in 2014—but seven years earlier. It’s StrengthsFinder 2.0, a research-driven book about assessing one’s natural talents and building them, from author Tom Rath and publisher Gallup Press. In fact, many of the 2014 top 20 best-sellers at Amazon may be surprises, including several kids’ books (two Frozen-related titles, one Whimpy Kid), some classics (To Kill a Mockingbird, Oh the Places You’ll Go!), and the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide. There’s a fair amount of overlap with the list of 2014 best sellers from Barnes & Noble, including The Fault in Our Stars, Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Patton, and Diary of a Whimpy Kid: The Long Haul in the top 20 for both.

  • Packaged Beverage

    soda cans
    Andrew Bret Wallis—Getty Images

    Soda slumped in a big way in 2014. Among other measures, Coca-Cola felt forced to cut jobs, partner with energy drink Monster Beverage, and launch a high-end milk brand in order to cope with declining sales of classic Coke soda brands. But guess what? According to data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation, carbonated soda is still tops in the U.S. in terms of packaged beverage sales, accounting for 20.9% of all sales in 2014. Fast on soda’s heels, however, is bottled water, which captured 17.8% of the beverage market this year, up from 14.4% in 2009. By 2016, it’s expected that bottled water will surpass soda as the country’s best-selling packaged beverage.

  • Bottled Water

    Bottle of water
    Getty Images

    Per Statista, the all-things-statistics site, the best-selling water brand in the U.S. in 2014 was “Private Label,” which was purchased at least twice as often as any other brand. What, you’ve never heard of “Private Label”? There’s good reason: It’s simply the collective term used to lump in all generic store brands of bottled water—the cheap stuff that’s apparently quite popular with American consumers. (The nation’s best-selling ice cream is also “Private Label.”) Rounding out the top five are bottled water brands you’re probably more familiar with: Dasani, Nestle, Aquafina, and Poland Spring.

  • Surprise Marijuana Product

    Freshly packaged cannabis-infused peanut butter cookies are prepared inside Sweet Grass Kitchen, a well-established gourmet marijuana edibles bakery which sells its confections to retail outlets, in Denver. Colorado is now selling more recreational pot than medical pot, a turning point for the newly legal industry, tax records released Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014 show.
    Freshly packaged cannabis-infused peanut butter cookies are prepared inside Sweet Grass Kitchen, a well-established gourmet marijuana edibles bakery which sells its confections to retail outlets, in Denver. Colorado is now selling more recreational pot than medical pot, a turning point for the newly legal industry, tax records released Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014 show. Brennan Linsley—AP

    When recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado (and later, Washington state), it was assumed that sales would be strong for pot you could smoke. Much more surprising have been the impressive sales of pot you can eat or drink. A recent report estimates that in Colorado, edible marijuana accounts for 45% of all pot sales. One explanation for high demand for edibles is that local laws ban public smoking, while pot-infused brownies or soda can be consumed out in the open without calling attention. (Keep in mind: It’s still illegal to consume marijuana in public in any way in Colorado.)

  • Album

    Executive producer John Lasseter (C) and the cast of Disney's "Frozen" were presented with gold records commemorating the success of the "Frozen" soundtrack.
    Executive producer John Lasseter (C) and the cast of Disney's "Frozen" were presented with gold records commemorating the success of the "Frozen" soundtrack. Alberto E. Rodriguez—Getty Images for Disney

    The “Frozen” soundtrack had a huge headstart, but “1989” from Taylor Swift has been coming on strong in recent months, with sales boosted no doubt by her decision to remove her music from Spotify. Just before Christmas, the New York Times reported that “Frozen” had sold 3.46 million copies in the U.S. thus far in 2014, versus 3.34 million for Swift, and that it was too early to declare a champ: “The victor will be decided in the next few days as stockings are stuffed and iTunes gift cards are redeemed.” Meanwhile, a few months ago, Billboard posted a fascinating comparison of the top-selling albums from 2014 versus 1994: Through October, 2014 had only one album that had sold more than one million copies (“Frozen,” of course), while every album at that point in 1994’s top 10 had sold more than 1.8 million copies.

  • Song

    Pharrell Williams performs onstage during 93.3 FLZ’s Jingle Ball 2014 at Amalie Arena on December 22, 2014 in Tampa, Florida.
    Pharrell Williams performs onstage during 93.3 FLZ¬ís Jingle Ball 2014 at Amalie Arena on December 22, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. Gerardo Mora—Getty Images North America

    On both iTunes and Amazon, the 2014 crown goes to a tune that seems like it was released ages ago: “Happy” by Pharrell.

  • Vinyl Record

    Jack White performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD.
    Jack White performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD. Kyle Gustafson—The Washington Post/Getty Images

    The Wall Street Journal dubbed the vinyl record as the year’s “Biggest Music Comeback” after LP sales surged nearly 50%. Record sales were especially strong among hipsters and younger clientele at retailers like Urban Outfitters, Whole Foods, and Amazon. As for the year’s best-seller, it looks like the award goes to Jack White’s “Lazaretto,” which became the biggest vinyl record in 20 years after 60,000 copies were sold within two months of its release. “Lazaretto” has gone on to sell more than 75,000 copies in vinyl format so far. White also broke the record for the fastest released record ever in 2014, with a special limited-edition 45 of the album’s title track that was printed and made available for sale less than four hours after the song was recorded.

  • iTunes Paid Apps

    Minecraft on an Apple iPad
    Minecraft on an Apple iPad Veryan Dale—Alamy

    MineCraft and Heads Up! hold the top two spots. The $7 pocket edition of the former reportedly made more money on Christmas than any other iOs app. The latter is a 99¢ guessing game introduced in 2013 by Ellen DeGeneres, who plays it on her show.

  • Video Game

    Call of Duty 4
    Alamy

    “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” sold roughly 5.8 million units in the U.S. in 2014, the most of any video game. The others in the top three (“Destiny” and “Grand Theft Auto V”) were also heavy on guns and violence.

  • Video Game Console

    Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 4 (PS4) game console and controller
    Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 4 (PS4) game console and controller Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Thanks to some deep discounting, Microsoft’s Xbox One reportedly outsold the Playstation 4 and all other consoles on Black Friday and throughout all of November. But in the grand scheme, Sony’s PS4 has been pretty dominant. The PS4 reached 10 million global sales by August 2014, less than one year after it hit the market, and the console crossed the 17 million mark in December, far outpacing Xbox One sales.

  • Vehicle

    2015 Ford F-150
    2015 Ford F-150 Ford

    The Ford F series has been America’s best-selling truck for 38 years, and the best-selling vehicle period for 33 years—including 2014. This is the case even as Ford sales fell off in autumn because buyers have been waiting for the new aluminum-body F-150 to hit the market. Perhaps more interestingly, Car and Driver compiled a list of the year’s worst-selling cars, which includes the Porsche 918 Spyder and the teeny-tiny Scion iQ. No doubt the former sold only 57 units at least partially because of its $800K+ starting price.

  • Luxury Auto Brand

    2014 CLA45 AMG.
    2014 CLA45 AMG. Mercedes-Benz USA—Wieck

    Bragging rights for the year’s top-selling luxury automaker will come down to the wire. As of early December, BMW and Mercedes had each sold a smidge under 300,000 vehicles in 2014.

  • Electric Car

    2015 Nissan LEAF
    2015 Nissan LEAF Nissan—Wieck

    Through November, Nissan had sold 27,098 Leafs in the U.S., by far the most of any plug-in in 2014. Overall, however, electric car sales have underwhelmed lately, which isn’t surprising considering that gas prices have plummeted, negating some of the savings electrified vehicles provide compared to traditional cars. For the sake of comparison, Honda sold more than 32,000 CR-V crossovers in November 2014 alone.

  • NFL Jersey

    Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos in action against the New York Jets on October 12, 2014 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
    Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos in action against the New York Jets on October 12, 2014 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Jim McIsaac—Getty Images

    According to NFLShop.com, the best-selling jersey from April 1 to October 31, 2014, was Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, followed by Super Bowl champion quarterback Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, and then two quarterbacks whose teams didn’t reach the playoffs this year: the Cleveland Browns’ Johnny Manziel and last-year’s jersey-selling sensation, Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers. Interestingly, while Dick’s Sporting Goods also has Manning’s jersey as its top seller, the best-selling jersey among women is Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts. Perhaps they appreciate the incredibly sportsmanlike way Luck congratulates the opposition whenever a player slams him to the ground.

  • Movie

    Guardians of the Galaxy
    Guardians of the Galaxy © Walt Disney Co.—courtesy Everett Collection

    After being pulled from theaters and then released online, the controversial Seth Rogen comedy “The Interview” quickly became Sony’s top-grossing online film of 2014, snagging $15 million in digital revenue in a single weekend. As for traditional movies actually released widely in 2014, “Guardians of the Galaxy” came out on top in what was called a “confounding,” lackluster year at the box office, with overall sales down 5% compared to 2013. “Frozen,” the top-grossing animated film of all time and #10 among all movies, doesn’t qualify as the biggest movie of 2013 or 2014 because it was released in late 2013 and ticket sales were spread over both years. As for the top-selling DVD of 2014, the contest isn’t remotely close: Nearly 10 million copies of “Frozen” have been sold, roughly three times more than the #2 film, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

MONEY Shopping

The 5 Big Lessons of the 2014 Shopping Season

141229_EM_shopping_2
Alamy

Perhaps the most frustrating lesson learned: Even as consumers get better at tracking the best prices, retailers have made it harder than ever to know when you're getting the absolute best deal.

Considering that the American economy is faring better than it has in previous years, that sales of big-ticket items like crossovers and luxury SUVs are booming, and that dramatically cheaper gas prices amount to mini-raises for most American households, it would have been reasonable to expect an especially huge holiday season for retailers. Yet the latest numbers indicate that total retail sales in November and December are up a mere 3% to 4% compared to last year. That’s decent, roughly on par with most projections, but nothing extraordinary.

While overall sales almost exactly wound up meeting the predictions of retail experts, the season still delivered its share of surprises and revelations. Here are a few things we learned about how the holiday shopping season is evolving:

Big shopping days aren’t so big anymore. Overall sales for the holiday season may have been decent, but some of the traditionally biggest shopping days seem to have lost their luster for consumers. This was most noticeable over the four-day Black Friday weekend, when foot traffic in stores and sales were reportedly down 5% and 11%, respectively, compared to 2013. What’s more, “Super Saturday,” a.k.a. the Saturday before Christmas, underwhelmed as well, with one study finding spending in brick-and-mortar stores to be essentially flat compared to last year. Another report, from the analytics firm RetailNext, estimated that foot traffic at major retailers was down 10.2% over Super Saturday weekend, while sales dropped 8.9%.

The “season” got even longer. It was early September when Kmart aired the year’s first holiday season shopping ad, and several retailers launched “Black Friday” sales the day after Halloween. Likewise, one retail expert was of the opinion that nowadays Black Friday essentially stretches throughout all of November, and Walmart began using the term “New Black Friday” for the five-day deal period from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday. In light of how promotion-heavy the entire months of November and December have become, it’s no wonder sales have fallen off on days like Black Friday and Super Saturday themselves.

“Thanksgetting” As more and more stores decided to open on Thanksgiving—and to open earlier on the holiday, often by 5 p.m. if not sooner—a backlash spread calling for a shopper boycott of retailers who can’t find it in their hearts to remain closed on what’s traditionally been a relaxing day for food and family time. Logical arguments have also been made that opening on Thanksgiving actually hurts overall sales, and some retail experts have argued that remaining closed could very well boost employee morale and boost customer sales at the same time. Nonetheless, stores were sufficiently crowded on Thanksgiving—especially with millennial shoppers—for stores to think it’s essential to kick off doorbuster deals on cheap TVs on the national holiday. So it looks like we’ll be seeing more of the term “Thanksgetting,” which is obviously a consumerist-focused tweak of “Thanksgiving,” and which now has its own entry at Urban Dictionary.

Online sales are unstoppable. Rising e-retail sales can simultaneously be celebrated as the season’s savior, as well as the force that’s to blame for smaller crowds and slumping sales in actual stores. According to comScore, desktop spending leading into Christmas was up 15% compared to 2013, and online sales surged in particular on Thanksgiving (up 32%) and Black Friday (up 26%). Shoppers took to the web on Christmas Day itself was well, with sales rising 8.2% compared to 2013.

Interestingly, while e-retail helps the bottom line in one way, online sales wreak havoc in another. Items purchased online are three times more likely to be returned than goods bought in stores, and handling all the returns is a time-consuming and costly endeavor for retailers.

Deals are ubiquitous, yet the best deal is elusive. In terms of deals and pricing, this had to be the fastest-changing holiday season ever. Blink and you could expect a new deal to pop up. Blink again and the prices of the old deals would change. The Associated Press reported it’s become common for e-retailers to use software to change prices dozens of times per day on thousands of different items. “The main goal is to undercut rivals when necessary, and raise prices when demand is high and there’s no competitive pressure,” the report explained.

As a result, even as shoppers waded into what one retail expert called the “most promotional holiday on record,” it was impossible to figure out the optimal time to buy. The average Black Friday discount was only 5%, while the shopping retail site ShopAdvisor noted that December 18 was the best day for deals in 2013, with average discounts of 17.5%. That factoid didn’t do much good for shoppers this year, because just before Christmas ShopAdvisor announced that the 2014 shopping season’s best day for deals was Monday, December 15, when discounts averaged 20%. Yet another pricing study indicated that Walmart tended to have better prices than Amazon.com for the same products, when in the past just the opposite was generally true. The Wall Street Journal also recently took note of the increased tendency of retailers to send email blasts highlighting the best deals only to customers with a history of discount purchasing. On the other hand, customers who are known to pay full price for goods never get wind of these bargains.

All of which has led to confusion, frustration, and indecision among shoppers, who have good reason to feel like stores are constantly manipulating them. And all of which should serve as reminder that consumers should take advantage of automated coupons and price-alert services that’ll get you the best price possible at the time of purchase—and that can later get you money back if the price drops.

MONEY Shopping

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

Apple Pay
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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.

 

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