MONEY

10 Things Americans Have Suddenly Stopped Buying

Popping bubble gum
Ross Culshaw—Getty Images

America is just not the clean-shaven, gun-buying, soda-drinking, Chef Boyardee-eating place it used to be

For a variety of reasons—including but not limited to increased health consciousness, the harried pace of modern-day life, and plain old shifting consumer preferences,—Americans have scaled back on purchases of many items, sometimes drastically so. Here’s a top 10 list of things we’re not buying anymore, at least not anywhere near as frequently as we used to.

Cereal
In one recent four-week period, cereal sales were down 7%, and cereal giant Kellogg’s sales decreased 10%. The reasons for cereal’s declining dominance at the breakfast table are many. As the Wall Street Journal reported, consumers are more apt nowadays to turn to yogurt or fast food in the morning, and they’re less likely to have time to eat breakfast at home at all—not even if it’s a simple bowl of cereal.

Consumers also want their breakfast to pack more punch, protein-wise. “We are competing with quick-serve restaurants more, but the bigger driver is that people want more protein,” Kellogg CEO John Bryant told the Journal. It’s no coincidence that milk sales have been falling alongside cereal, with cow’s milk struggling especially due to the rise of alternatives like soy and almond milk. (Sales of yet another breakfast-at-home staple, orange juice, have plummeted 40% since the late 1990s.)

To try to put cereal back on the spoon of more breakfast eaters, food makers have been resorting to all manner of gimmicks, including the promoting of new higher-protein cereals, as well as the idea that cereal is a great late-night snack rather than just a breakfast-time basic.

Soda
The crash of soda—diet soda in particular—has been years in the making, with consumers increasingly turning to energy drinks, flavored water, and other beverages instead of the old carbonated caffeine drink of choice. The latest Wall Street report from Coca-Cola showed that the soda giant missed estimates, partly because sales of Diet Coke in North America fell in the “mid-single digits.”

(MORE: 10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On)

While a lot of soda’s slump can be attributed to shifting consumer preferences—more organic, less sugar—the broader war on soda involving taxes and big-beverage bans must factor in too. And if First Lady Michelle Obama has any say in things, the decline of soda is a trend that’ll continue: Her ongoing “Drink Up” campaign encourages kids to consume more water—and, consequently, less soda.

Gum
Likely due to heightened competition from mints and candies, chewing gum sales have dipped 11% over the past four years, the Associated Press reported. The editorial board of the News Tribune of Washington state, for one, weighed in that it is wonderful that gum sales are down in the gutter, sniffing, “Gum-chewing doesn’t do us any favors, making us look like cows chewing our cud. For humans, that’s not a good look.”

Guns
Gun sales have been booming in recent years, with sales periodically juiced when perceived anti-gun politicians enter office or a high-profile mass shooting takes place, prompting consumers to seek guns for protection—or just out of fear they won’t be able to buy them in the future because tougher gun regulations might be passed.

Lately, however, gun sales have fallen, sometimes sharply. The big reasons why this is so seem to be that there’s little in the way of likely gun control for gun enthusiasts to motivate new purchases, and also that everyone who has wanted to buy a gun in the past couple of years has already bought one (or seven). In the first quarter of 2014, the guns-and-ammo-focused Sportsman’s Warehouse retail chain saw comparable stores sales drop 18%, while gun sales at Cabela’s fell 22%.

But a little perspective is necessary. While guns sales and background checks are down compared to the past couple of years, they remain far above the levels of the early ’00s. As gun industry experts have put it, the decline probably just represents a “returning to normal” for gun sales—which aren’t as strong as they once were, but are still very strong nonetheless.

Cupcakes
Well, it looks like many of us at least have stopped buying the pricey “gourmet” variety of cupcakes. That’s the conclusion to be drawn with the collapse of Crumbs, the 65-store chain that shut down abruptly in early July. The news was widely interpreted as a sign that the gourmet cupcake trend is officially dead.

Chef Boyardee
ConAgra recently issued a warning to Wall Street that its consumer food volume experienced a 7% decline, and that it faced “continued profit challenges” due to some of its flagging, tired products—in particular, Chef Boyardee, the 86-year-old canned pasta brand.

Golf Gear
It’s not surprising that going hand in hand with fewer people playing golf, there are also fewer golf purchases being rung up at sporting goods store registers. The most notable eye-opener occurred this past spring, when Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that its golf equipment sales were down around 10%, at the same time the average driver was selling at a price of 16% less.

(MORE: Could Rory McIlroy Be Golf’s Long-Awaited Savior?)

Razors
Beard-loving hipsters were blamed for the decline in razor sales last summer, and in 2014, razor giants like Procter and Gamble (owner of Gillette) has continued to blame poor sales on the trendiness of beards. Everything from the shaggy beards worn by the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, to month-long no-shave “challenges” like Movember and Decembeard have been cited as reasons why guys have scaled back on razor purchases. In response, marketers have introduced even more varieties of new high-tech razors, while also pushing the concept of “manscaping,” with special razors designed just for the task. The hope is that even if men aren’t shaving their faces, they might still shave one or several other parts of their bodies.

Bread
According to one survey, 56% of American shoppers said they are cutting back on white bread. White bread was surpassed in sales by wheat bread sometime around 2006, but in recent years the gluten-free trend has hurt sales of all breads. Sales are even down in European countries like baguette-loving France, where consumption is down 10%. In American restaurants, meanwhile, there’s an epidemic of free bread disappearing from tables, as fewer owners want to bear the expense of putting out free rolls and other breads that no one is going to eat.

Convertibles
The fun-loving, wind-in-your-hair thrill of driving in a convertible just hasn’t been enough to keep consumers buying the classic ragtop in strong numbers. Businessweek noted that convertible sales have fallen 44% since 2004, and automakers have been significantly scaling back the number of models that are even offered in convertible form. Apparently, too many consumers see convertibles as impractical, and/or not worth the $5,000 or so premium one must pay compared to the regular model.

Data recently released from Experian Automotive indicates that the convertible is largely now a toy purchased by the rich. Nearly 1 in 5 convertible buyers have household incomes of at least $175,000 (compared to 11% of buyers of all cars), and 12% of convertible buyers own homes valued over $1 million (compared to 4% of buyers of other cars). For what it’s worth, convertible drivers are also better educated than the average car owner (50% of convertible buyers have at least a bachelor’s degree, versus 38% overall), and nearly one-quarter of all convertibles are now purchased in three sunny states with ample coastlines: California, Florida, and Texas.

Related:

10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On

MONEY Shopping

CONTEST: Are You America’s Smartest Shopper?

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MONEY's fellow Time Inc. publication, ALL YOU, is launching a contest to track down the country's savviest shopper, sponsored by Samsung. Here's how to enter.

Visit allyou.com/smartestshopper to share your best shopping tip and a photo that illustrates that tip. You can also enter on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #aysmartestshopper. Entries will be accepted from July 25th through August 15th.

ALL YOU will select 25 semifinalists who will be given a new Samsung Galaxy S5 to create a 60-second video that explains why they deserve the title of America’s Smartest Shopper. Those entries will be winnowed down to 10 finalists; ALL YOU, voters, and a panel of saving-savvy judges will determine the winner. The big reveal will air live on NBC’s TODAY show later this fall.

How to vote

Visit allyou.com/smartestshopper from September 17th until October 3rd to cast your vote.

The prizes

The winner will take home $1,000, plus a Samsung prize package that includes a Tab S 8.4 Wifi, Gear Fit and Smart TV.

Two runners-up will each receive $50, plus Tab S 8.4 Wifi, Gear Fit and Samsung Level headphones.

All three finalists will receive a trip with a guest to New York City, where the winner will be revealed live on NBC’s TODAY Show.

 

MONEY Saving

Verizon Smart Rewards, and Dumb Rewards Programs You Should Skip

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iStock

Verizon's new rewards program, which requires users to receive targeted ads if they want to get any benefits, is a case study for why you shouldn't sign up for every reward program on the planet

On July 24, Verizon rolls out a new program called Smart Rewards nationally. All customers who sign up as members—and, more important, who also enroll with Verizon Selects, a targeted advertising program—accumulate points for doing things like registering for paperless billing, autopaying their bills, and connecting a tablet to their account. Points are redeemable for things like retailer gift cards and perks such as the ability to “save up to 40% on brand name merchandise,” according to Verizon.

By now, we should all be well aware that there’s a tradeoff for membership in any such rewards program. Namely, that rewards come at the cost of giving up our data and privacy. Verizon’s program, while not all that different from many others in the marketplace, stands out because it’s especially invasive, allowing the bots to track members’ locations, web browsing history, and app usage, among other things. What’s more, the program’s rewards, which mainly consist of discounts on merchandise rather than cash back or discounts on, I don’t know, say, … your monthly Verizon bill! seem pretty lame.

So are the program’s meager benefits worth the sacrifice? We asked a few rewards program experts for their thoughts on the topic, and on the state of rewards programs in general. Here are some key takeaways consumers should think about before absentmindedly signing up for any old rewards program.

Rewards programs aren’t designed to reward you. “What’s most important to understand is that these are marketing programs,” said Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor at Consumer Reports who covers loyalty and reward programs. “They’re just another form of advertising. They’re designed to get you to spend more.”

That happens either when you spend more often because you’re a member, or you buy things you wouldn’t have after they’re brought to your attention—again because you’re a member—or both.

Forget the garbage about getting only ads you want. To consumers accustomed to being spammed with irrelevant ads, the idea of receiving deals and offers specifically tailored to your interests sounds appealing. While some targeted advertising efforts indeed seem, well, on target, the reality is that once the door is open, “you’re going to be pestered by all kinds of marketers,” said Blyskal. “And you’ll have no idea how exactly these companies and marketers got your information.” The result is that you’re likely to be bombarded by ads for products and services that you weren’t shopping for, and/or that you have no interest in whatsoever. And the result of that is increased annoyance, increased spending on stuff you otherwise wouldn’t have bought, or both.

“If you read Verizon’s Privacy Policy Summary, that means you’re subjecting yourself to telemarketing, e-mail marketing, postal mail marketing, and door-to-door calls,” said Louis Ramirez, senior editor at dealnews. “You can opt out of some of these, but I’m sure it won’t be an easy task.” (A representative from Verizon reached out to clarify that Smart Rewards and Verizon Selections are entirely optional for customers, and “that it’s easy for customers to change their privacy choices at any time, and we encourage them to review and consider them on a regular basis.”)

The rewards are rarely as rewarding as promised. “Every program has more than one catch,” said Ramirez. Among the many catches are that the rewards are harder to use or less valuable than they seem at first glance, and that the “rewards” come in the form of discounts or “special offers” that are readily available elsewhere on the web, without the requirement of joining a rewards program. Verizon Smart Rewards, for instance, promises that members who are redeeming rewards points for discounts on merchandise are guaranteed that they’ll get the lowest price available; if not, they’re eligible for a refund of both the points used and the price difference on the item.

“They’ll say they have the guaranteed lowest price, but it’s up to you to shop around and make sure that’s true,” said Blyskal. “You’ve got to do the work. And we all know that you won’t do the work. As soon as you trust a marketing company, you’ve lost half the battle.”

It’s not easy to correlate points to dollars. The best rewards programs give members easily understood discounts or cash back on items that they’d be buying anyway. When you get a CVS receipt giving a flat $5 off your next $25 purchase, that’s a solid, comprehensible value. (There may be some other hassles involved, including the fact that the rewards may expire quickly, and that you’re apt to wind up buying something you wouldn’t have just because you’re trying to use the coupon, but those are different issues.) Likewise, consumers like the simple value provided by supermarket rewards programs that give discounts on gas based on the amount spent in stores. (Though this structure can also result in customers buying stuff they didn’t need in order to secure the discount.)

What’s truly frustrating are the rewards of undeterminable value because there are so many unknowns involved. Is $5 off a $25 gift card at a retailer you think of as a ripoff worth jumping at? Is 40% off a blender that you had no inkling to buy before seeing the offer a good deal? As Ramirez pointed out, “Verizon states in their FAQ that every point you earn has no monetary value.” Sometimes, the reward structure is so complicated that it may be best to not even bother wading into the fine print. “Sometimes there’s a fee involved to be a member, or for some other part of the program,” said Blyskal. “The benefits are hard to measure.”

“Sorting the worthwhile from the worthless can require time, effort, and an exhaustive (and expensive) amount of trial and error,” wrote Brad Wilson of BradsDeals.com in a post about rewards programs. “No one wants to toil away in a customer loyalty program that doesn’t effectively reward their loyalty.”

Working the system is harder than you think. “There are people out there who are really good at working these programs,” said Blyskal. “They look at them like games, like bingo.”

Being good at this game takes up a lot of time. In fact, some reformed extreme couponers (remember that craze?) have said that maximizing every little offer in order to snag every freebie or deal under the sun is, in fact, “a waste of time.”

To figure out which of the thousands of rewards programs out there are worthy of your membership, it’s necessary to look at oneself—and one’s spending inclinations—in the mirror. If you’re the type who wants to win at everything, and who therefore may be tempted to nonsensically spend hundreds of dollars in order to “win” $25 off, tons of rewards programs would absolutely love to have you as a member. Likewise, it may seem fun to regularly be presented with tempting random offers, but if you’re the type who frequently bites on such deals, rewards programs and targeted advertising schemes could be bad news for your bank account.

The key is to make sure that you’re working the rewards program, and not the other way around. Sign up for rewards programs when the benefits pay off in a clear and practical way, with rewards for things you would be buying even if the program didn’t exist. Don’t go overboard. Don’t buy all sorts of things you don’t need. Understand that with every rewards program, there’s a tradeoff for every little reward you receive. And understand that however rewarding the programs seem to you, they’re far more rewarding for the retailers that run them.

MONEY Workplace

Meet America’s Most Beloved CEO—Too Bad He Just Got Fired

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AP

After the wealthy CEO of a supermarket chain was fired, thousands of workers walked off the job in protest—some getting fired themselves. What's up with that?

Workers understandably tend to go on strike or protest for selfish reasons—more pay, better benefits, improved working conditions. Over the last week in New England, however, thousands of employees at Market Basket, a supermarket chain with 71 stores in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, have been sticking their necks out (and in some cases putting their jobs on the line) in support of Arthur T. Demoulas, who was the company CEO until he was fired in June.

Rallies pushing for “Arthur T.” to be given his job back were held at the Market Basket headquarters in Tewksbury, Mass., on Friday and Monday, drawing upwards of 5,000 protestors. Meanwhile, the shelves of many Market Basket locations have gone barren, as there are too few employees still on the job to stock them. At least eight employees were fired over the weekend related to the protests.

“I have no regrets—I would do it all over again, and I leave the company I love with my head held high in the knowledge that there wasn’t a single thing more that I could have done,” said Tom Trainor, a Market Basket district manager who was one of the leaders of the protest, and who was fired, according to Boston Magazine. “I knew the risk but I also knew that I was fighting for something much bigger than myself. I was fighting for my family, for Arthur T. Demoulas, a man that I have tremendous respect, loyalty, and admiration for.”

In an era overrun with CEO hate and 1% bashing, such comments—and the actions of all those who have put their jobs in jeopardy—are nothing short of astonishing. When CEOs are in the news nowadays, it’s often because of things like their astronomical pay packages, or that they’ve insensitively laid off thousands of employees in a memo.

The backstory of how Arthur T. Demoulas was ousted in June, alongside a pair of other experienced high-level executives for the family-owned company, is a complicated tale. The CEO was fired by a board led, believe it or not, by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Apparently the family has been feuding about control of the business for years, with the battles for power including tactics that seem like they would only be found in fiction—fake identities, secretly taped meetings, and more.

Amid the struggles for control, it’s overwhelmingly clear where employee loyalty lies. Arthur T. was known for treating employees, who were not unionized, particularly well, with good benefits and above-average pay. More important, he was renowned as something exceptionally rare in high-power executive ranks: He’s just a good guy. During the rallies, employees spoke often about Arthur T. always having time for his workers, including frequent attendance at their family weddings and funerals.

“He’s George Bailey,” Trainor explained to the Washington Post, comparing Arthur T. Demoulas to the beloved savings-and-loan manager played by Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. “He cares more about people than he does about money.”

That’s probably not something they teach in business school. Nonetheless, several academics have been monitoring the Market Basket situation, and they’ve noted that many lessons can be learned about how the controversy is playing out. Michael Roberto, a management professor at Rhode Island’s Bryant University, wrote that “every CEO should wish that his or her employees would stand up so forcefully for them even at great personal risk.”

The board that ousted Arthur T. and fired the employees leading protests, on the other hand, seems to have its priorities wrong, and seems tone deaf to how this plays with the public. “The Board has badly miscalculated by firing managers who objected to the CEO’s dismissal. It only added fuel to the fire,” noted Roberto. They also drastically underestimated the importance of maintaining company values and low employee turnover, Roberto wrote.

Market Basket’s current leadership has defended its actions in a few statements released to the media this week. “The individuals who were terminated took significant actions that harmed the company and therefore compromised Market Basket’s ability to be there for our customers,” read a statement from co-CEOs Felicia Thornton and James Gooch. A later statement urged employees to return to work, according to the Boston Herald:

“We strongly encourage all associates to return their focus to Market Basket’s customers, their needs and expectations,” co-CEOs Felicia Thornton and James Gooch said in a statement. “We understand the strain and emotion facing Market Basket associates. … We are committed to earning the trust and acceptance of our associates and Market Basket’s customers and hope that our associates will judge us not on our promises, but on our actions as we move forward.”

Nonetheless, the situation appears to be damaging Market Basket’s relationship with employees and customers alike, who naturally sympathize with their middle-class peers who have walked off the job to support a beloved good-guy CEO. And one who, Boston columnists have noted, has made sure over the years that groceries are fresh, of good quality, and priced low. As of Wednesday, the Save Market Basket Facebook page, in support of Arthur T., had close to 60,000 Likes, more than double the total one week ago.

“The employees and the customers — they see themselves as the organization,” Daniel Korschum, a marketing professor at Drexel University, explained to the Washington Post. And they therefore feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for Market Basket. “The board and the new CEOs are seen as the outsider. It’s the exact opposite of what you usually see.”

Risking one’s job to save that of your boss, rather than going about your business or even pumping your fist when a high-paid CEO gets canned—that’s also the exact opposite of what we expect to see. But under the current circumstances at Market Basket, things make more sense.

“It’s been a very difficult time for the hard-working associates of the company this past few weeks,” Arthur T. Demoulas said on Monday, after remaining mostly quiet regarding the protests, according to the Boston Globe. He called for the company to rehire the employees who were fired, immediately. “I love these people very much.”

Another rally in support of Arthur T. Demoulas is planned for Friday, again at the company headquarters in Tewksbury, Mass.

MONEY The Economy

WATCH: These 3 Companies Can Raise Prices Without Losing Your Business

Netflix, Amazon, and Chipotle have raised prices without losing the support of their customers or investors on Wall Street.

MONEY Shopping

Parents Worry More About Back-to-School Shopping Than Bullying

Chewed Pencil
Chip Forelli—Corbis

Students themselves, meanwhile, are most stressed about having to wake up early for school in a few weeks.

The back-to-school prep period is a particularly stressful time of year for parents and children alike. According to a survey that was commissioned by the coupon site ebates and is being released this week, nearly all of the adults and teens polled said that the start of the school year was stressing them out in one or more ways.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the teenagers surveyed overwhelmingly said that they were most concerned that school would mess up the leisurely (lack of) schedule that they’re enjoying over the summer. The top two named sources of stress for teens were “Waking up early to get to class” (cited by 69% of those polled) and “Getting too much homework” (64%). Rounding out the top five were “Not liking my teachers” (42%), “Not having the right clothes” (32%), and “Not fitting in” (31%).

The top back-to-school stress point for adults, on the other hand, was “Shopping for clothes and school items,” cited by 56% of those surveyed. The stress of shopping outranked hectic student schedules (50%), helping with homework (38%), bullying at school (31%), and bad teachers (29%).

At first glance, the results indicate that students and parents alike seem to be saying that shopping and having the right clothes are of higher importance than potentially huge problems like bullying and subpar teachers. Are most of us really that superficial?

Maybe, maybe not. A closer look at why consumers are so stressed about shopping shows that the big concern essentially comes down to money rather than pressure to be up on the latest fashion trends. According to data released last week by the National Retail Federation, “the average family with children in grades K-12 will spend $669.28 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, up 5 percent from $634.78 last year.” The typical family with a high school student is expected to spend even more, $682.99.

Given the hefty back-to-school bill parents are facing and the fact that, for example, students are now expected to arrive at school in possession of 18 items on a classroom checklist, on average, no wonder shopping is stressing so many families out right about now. More than half of parents said that their No. 1 concern about back-to-school shopping was simply not being able to afford everything they’re expected to buy.

What’s more, it must be pointed out, many of these stress points are related. Parents and kids worry about shopping and clothes at least partly because they’re concerned about bullying and fitting in at school. And bullying and bad teachers, while possibly disastrous for the student experience, are far less common, one hopes, than the problem that seemingly every middle-class family budget confronts: affording all the stuff our kids want and/or that our kids’ school requires.

Nine out ten Americans in the ebates survey said that they’ll save during back-to-school shopping via coupons, discounts, and sales, among other methods. Retailers understand that consumers are primed to look for back-to-school deals at this time of year—in fact, many stores launched back-to-school offers before the last school year even ended—and virtually every Sunday circular is filled with school-related sales and deals lately. So no matter what your student needs to prepare for the fall, there’s almost no reason to pay full price.

If you’ve held off so far from making some or all of your back-to-school purchases, there’s good reason you might want to wait a little longer. No fewer than 16 states are offering sales tax holidays this summer, with the vast majority waiving sales tax on various back-to-school purchases for a few days around August 1.

MONEY Spending

Even Kanye Thinks ‘Luxury’ Has Become Code For ‘Rip-Off’

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West
Kim Kardashian (L) and Kanye West attend the "Charles James: Beyond Fashion" Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 5, 2014 in New York City. Mike Coppola—Getty Images

There's a revolt against 'luxury' items, and it's coming from an unexpected place: the rich.

“Fancy” may be the song of the summer, but there’s a revolt brewing against brands that seem to offer more form than function.

Consumers fighting back against high-priced products wouldn’t be very surprising on its own. The economy is recovering, yes, but many Americans are still unemployed or are stuck doing low-paying or part-time work.

But this time around, it’s not just average Joes balking at the high price of a Gucci handbag. (Let’s face it, they weren’t the ones buying that kind of gear anyway.) Instead, criticism is coming from an unexpected corner of the market: the rich, the taste makers, and even the Louis Vuitton Don himself, Kanye West.

In June, the outspoken rapper appeared at the Cannes film festival and essentially declared war on so-called premium products.

“My goal in lifestyle, in everyday life—to change the idea of what luxury is,” said West. “Because time is the only luxury. It’s not all these brands that we just drove by that are somehow selling our esteem back to us through association.”

Kanye made the same point more explicitly earlier this month to an audience in London—this time with the aid of auto-tune. “It’s like they want to steal you from you, and sell you back to you after they stole it,” declared West in what would become a 15-minute rant against everyone from Nike and Gucci to the media and marketers. “They want to make you feel like you less than who you really are.”

It’s hard to tell whether Yeezy has actually turned on high end items or if this is another episode in his love-hate relationship with an industry that often spurns his increasingly desperate advances. Despite the recent outbursts, he’s still selling a Kanye branded plain white t-shirt for $90 a pop.

But if West’s criticism rings hollow, he’s not the only aesthetic icon slamming the ‘luxury’ label. On Friday, British designer Jasper Morrison, known for his utilitarian “super normal” style, let loose against anything marketed as upscale. “The most common mistake people make is believing the term “luxury,” Morrison told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s become an excuse for a lack of common sense, and invariably stands for overpriced, poorly considered product, whether it’s a hotel, an apartment block, a handbag or a holiday.”

It’s not just the creative class who have tired of paying $500 for a particular pattern. High-end consumers across the board are sick of it too. The Journal reports that growth in the luxury market has slowed, with sales rising 7% last year, down from 11% from 2010 to 2012. The reason? Sky high prices and a decreasing perception of quality.

While the cost of most goods has remained mostly stagnant during the recession, the price of luxury items has skyrocketed. The average price of luxury goods jumped 13% in 2013 while the consumer-price index rose only 1.5%. A Chanel quilted handbag is now $4,900, a full 70% more expensive than the same item five years ago.

Why are ritzy items getting more unattainable? The answer seems to boil down to two main factors. As the middle class shrinks, wealthy customers have been driving an ever larger percentage of retail sales. While many middle-market and low-end brands suffered in the wake of the financial crisis, businesses with a focus on high earners actually reaped a hefty profit. As a result, companies like Saks have been focusing more and more on the high-end. In the same vein, traditional top-tier brands seem to be raising prices to differentiate themselves from entry-level luxury products.

Another issue is the perceived quality of these so-called luxury items. According to the most recent Survey of Affluence and Wealth, published by YouGov and Time Inc., America’s richest consumers say companies don’t make the top-shelf like they used to. Seventy-eight percent of the affluent and wealthy report that many luxury goods are not compelling to them, and 71% of those surveyed claimed that most new products marketed as “luxury” are not what they consider to be luxury at all.

The result has been a developing consensus that many of these items are no longer worth the asking price. The Wirecutter, a website devoted to finding the “best” products in every tech category, is characteristic of this type of luxury backlash. In May, the site posted an article specifically devoted to convincing readers not to buy Beats, a premium brand of headphones marketed by celebrities like Jay-Z and Dr. Dre.

“Beats have positioned themselves as a luxury brand. And once you have a “high-end label mentality” at work, prices often go up higher than they should or need to be,” writes Lauren Dragan, the Wirecutter’s resident headphone expert. “While we’re happy to pay more to get higher quality, we aren’t willing to pay more simply for the name slapped on the side.”

MONEY Shopping

WATCH: Why You’re Spending More on School Supplies This Summer

Families are spending $75 billion this summer on pencils, electronics, clothing, and more.

MONEY Tech

Should You Snap Up a (Cheap) Plasma TV Before They’re All Gone?

A visitor looks at a Samsung ultraslim plasma flatscreen television.
Jochen Eckel—Bloomberg

First Panasonic. Now Samsung. With the big makers dropping plasma, now could be a smart time to buy a TV.

Plasma TVs are going the way of the floppy disk, Walkman, and VCR. This month, Samsung announced that it would stop making plasmas by the end of November. Panasonic got out of the game last year. That leaves just LG to carry the plasma torch—and that probably won’t last. Indeed, by 2016, research firm IHS says plasma TVs will be completely vanish from the U.S. market.

So, with plasma on the way out, should you expect to start seeing killer discounts on TVs that use the technology? And, if you do spot a plasma bargain, should you buy it, or will you just end up with a 60-inch doorstop?

Plasma Prices

Let’s start with prices. No need to hotfoot it to Best Buy right now, according to industry watchers. Panasonic’s exit from the market didn’t have a significant effect on prices, says Ty Pendlebury of CNET.com, and Samsung’s move is expected to be similarly uneventful, at least in the short term. However, that may change “at the very end,” Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for the NPD Group. Eventually, retailers will be looking to move those last few plasmas to make room for newer stock and the markdowns will shift into high gear.

The average selling price for a plasma is currently $878, expected to drop 14% to $752 in 2015, according to IHS. On paper, plasmas seem more expensive than LCDs, which have an average price of $735. (A note: Some types of LCD TVs are often referred to LEDs. In this story, “LCD” refers to both types.) That’s misleading, though, because LCDs come in a range of sizes, while plasmas are only made in large (and thus expensive) sizes. When comparing TVs of similar size and quality, says Will Greenwald, who covers consumer tech for PCMag.com, plasma is cheaper.

The takeaway: If you’re in the market for a big TV, plasmas are a good deal and will likely get even cheaper. Just don’t expect to see fire-sale prices.

Is Obsolescence Really So Bad?

People who love plasmas–and they definitely exist–love them because they have great color contrast, a clear, sharp picture, and a wider “viewing angle” than LCD models, meaning you can sit further to the side of the screen without seeing a distorted image. However, they’re also massive energy hogs, and aren’t as thin or bright as other technologies.

The reason so many companies are dropping plasma has little to do with the technology itself. Rather, as LCD models have gotten better and cheaper to produce, it’s become less logical for manufactures to build and maintain factories capable of building only large, pricey plasmas.

Still, if you’re buying a technology that you know is headed for extinction, it’s worth considering what will happen if you need to get a new part for your plasma or have it repaired. Consumer Reports argues that TVs from the top brands are reliable and will continue to support their products. A Samsung rep echoed this, saying the company “will continue to provide support for our plasma TVs and our customer service policy will remain the same as before.” That said, it’s difficult to predict what repair options you’ll actually have.

So You Want to Buy

If you think a plasma could be the right buy for you, check out the Samsung F8500, which CNET dubs “the last great plasma TV.” Starting at $1,800 for the smallest 51-inch model, down from $2,700, “this TV is a very good value and will easily beat any LCD under $3,000 for picture quality,” says Pendlebury.

 

MONEY Shopping

Seriously, Here’s How You Know If You’re Addicted to Shopping

Woman with shopping bags
Peter Cade—Getty Images

For those who shop to relieve stress, "retail therapy" is no joke.

“It’s not just shopping, it’s retail therapy.”

As a bumper sticker or a joke between friends, this may be amusing. For those who shop to relieve stress, it’s not nearly so funny. Medicating or soothing painful feelings with money is no healthier a behavior than medicating with alcohol or food. When stressed or in difficult circumstances, some people drink, some people eat, and some people shop.

As a financial adviser, I’ve worked with several clients with extreme forms of this behavior, who described their spending clearly as an addiction. It gave them a physical “high” similar to that experienced by an alcoholic or drug addict. Like other addictions, it had destructive consequences, such as overwhelming debt, loss of life savings, ruined relationships, and even theft from family members or employers.

Using spending as a medicator does not always show up in such dramatic ways, however. Even people who seem to live moderately and manage money responsibly can be “therapy shoppers” who spend in order to make themselves feel better.

When I met Alexandra, for example, she was single, in her 40s, with a well-paying job and a substantial net worth. She was investing part of her income, was current on all her financial obligations, and had only a modest amount of debt. She was certainly not spending beyond her means or jeopardizing her future security. She didn’t appear to be in any financial difficulty.

When we looked at her budget, however, Alexandra was clearly uncomfortable with some of her spending habits. Instead of simply reassuring her that she was managing her money well and not overspending, I explored this issue with her. Eventually I brought up the possibility that she might be medicating her difficult emotions with spending. It was an “aha!” moment for her. She told me, “I’ve been doing that for years.”

Alexandra’s problem wasn’t the amount she spent. It was the reasons behind her spending. If she had a stressful day at work, she would go to the mall, in much the same way another person might stop at a bar for a couple of drinks on the way home. Shopping, finding bargains, and buying herself gifts were unthinking actions she used to soothe herself when she was upset.

She never stopped to ask herself whether she needed or even wanted the things she bought. She didn’t spend more than she could afford, but she was spending time as well as money unproductively. She was also cluttering her house and her life with clothes she didn’t wear, knickknacks she didn’t care about, and gadgets she didn’t use.

Once she realized the emotional reason for her shopping, Alexandra was able to find more constructive ways to deal with stress. She learned healthier responses to difficult days. Talking with a friend, writing in her journal, meditating, or taking a walk could serve the same purpose as a trip to the mall.

For Alexandra, simply recognizing that she was using shopping to soothe her emotions was enough to help her change. People with more deeply ingrained behavior might find change more difficult. In such cases, clients could benefit greatly from working with a financial therapist with the expertise to help them look at the emotions underlying their spending patterns.

The important point for a financial planner is to look beyond the numbers. The main issue isn’t whether a client’s “retail therapy” is affordable or whether it is causing serious financial difficulties. If a behavior is creating discomfort for clients, as it was for Alexandra, helping them explore what lies behind it can be a valuable service.

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