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 identity theft

4 Reasons Why You Should Shop at Stores That Got Hacked

141020_EM_CCBreachStores
Mike Blake—Reuters

Almost half of all consumers surveyed are afraid to shop at retailers like Target. They shouldn't be.

Retailers are gearing up for the holiday shopping season, but one thing has some consumers spooked: According to a new survey by CreditCards.com, 45% of respondents say they are less likely to shop at stores that have suffered a data breach, such as Target, Home Depot, or Michaels. Almost 30% say they will “probably” avoid stores that have been hacked, and 16% claim they “definitely” will.

While it’s hard to believe that half of all shoppers will actually skip the sales at major retailers come holiday season, Target did suffer a 5.5% decline in transactions last year after its data breach.

But shoppers, you’re being silly. You don’t need to avoid stores that have been hacked. Here’s why.

1) If someone steals your credit or debit card number, you have very limited liability.

You’ve got at least one reason to thank Congress: The Fair Credit Billing Act and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act cap how much money you’ll lose if someone steals your credit or debit card. If someone steals your card number but not your actual card — which could happen during a data breach — you are not liable for any fraudulent transactions. Read: You won’t lose any money. Just be sure to report any fraudulent debit card charges within 60 days of receiving your statement.

The rules are a little different if someone steals your physical card. With credit cards, you still won’t need to pay anything if you report the loss before a thief uses the card. Otherwise, your liability is capped at $50. With debit cards, you’ll only pay up to $50 if you report the theft within two days, or up to $500 if you report the theft within 60 days of receiving your statement.

There’s another reason to prefer credit over debit. When someone makes fraudulent charges on your credit card, you can challenge the bill when you receive it. But when someone else uses your debit card, that money comes straight out of your account, so it could take a little bit longer to recover your funds.

And if you’re really afraid, just stash the plastic. CreditCards.com reports that 48% of shoppers say data breaches have made them more likely to spend cash.

2) Avoiding these stores won’t protect you from the scariest kinds of identity theft.

When someone steals your credit card number and spends your money, that’s considered “existing account fraud.” Banks and credit card companies have gotten pretty good at identifying abnormal spending patterns, so you’re likely to catch existing account fraud early, and your liability is limited.

But if someone steals your Social Security number, opens a new credit card in your name, provides a new billing address, and runs up big charges, it might take you a while to notice. That’s called “new account fraud,” and it’s a real headache.

To catch new account fraud, check your credit report three times a year. It’s not hard to do, and it’s free. Your report will show all your accounts and debts, as well as your payment history. Check to make sure all of the information is accurate and all of the accounts actually belong to you. (Go. Do it now. Did you catch a problem? Here’s what to do.) If you’re afraid that your social security number has already been stolen, you can put a free fraud alert on your credit file to let lenders know or freeze your credit so that no one else can open new accounts in your name.

But you don’t give out your Social Security number every time you swipe your credit card, don’t worry about going shopping.

3) Safer cards are on the way.

Are you sick of all these data breaches? So are businesses — after all, they’re the ones on the hook for fraud, not you. That’s why Visa and Mastercard are sending out new “chip-and-pin” cards. These cards have embedded microchips, which are more secure than magnetic stripes. If you’ve ever traveled abroad, you might remember what chip-and-pin technology looks like; Europeans have been using this system since the 1990s. While not foolproof, these cards are a great improvement. President Obama signed an executive order last week requiring that all government credit cards use chip-and-pin technology.

Practically speaking, chip-and-pin cards won’t do much more to help consumers at point-of-sale — remember, you have limited liability. But starting Oct. 1, 2015, the liability will shift to whichever business has the oldest technology. If credit card companies don’t update their cards, they will be liable for any fraud; if retailers don’t offer chip-and-pin terminals, they’ll be on the hook. So everyone has an incentive to make payment systems more secure, which is ultimately in consumers’ best interest.

4) Retailers that got hacked are working harder to win back your trust.

Guess which retailer is installing chip-and-pin technology in all of its stores and on all of its branded cards — Target!

Guess which retailer offered free credit monitoring to all its customers — Target!

Guess which retailer just started offering free shipping — Target!

Given that there have been 606 data breaches already this year, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, you can probably expect more to come. But the retailers that have already been hacked are beefing up security and offering free identity theft protection services to consumers, so you’re probably safer there than everywhere else.

If that doesn’t put your mind at ease, here are some more steps you can take:

 

MONEY Shopping

Why Barbie Is Stuck on the Shelf

Mattel's iconic Barbie doll is in a sales slump as kids increasingly look to electronics and other toys to occupy their time.

MONEY Shopping

Here’s How to Save Hundreds on Groceries

Shopping Carts
Baldomero Fernandez

These 29 surprising and easy moves will help you find the best prices, avoid the sneakiest store tricks, and prevent those costly impulse buys.

Regardless of whether you’re feeding just yourself or a whole family, you probably find that groceries take a big bite out of your paycheck.

Food is the third-largest household expense, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And for a family of four, the average monthly tab runs between $568 for the super thrifty to $1,293 for those on a more liberal budget, according to the USDA.

MONEY consulted supermarket-savings experts for strategies that would help you trim the fat, without giving up the foods you love. Employing just a few of these 29 tricks—because let’s face it, you hardly have time to cook let alone turn shopping into a project—can take your bills down by 25%.

In other words, you could realize between $1,700 and $3,900 in annual savings.

Now that’s pretty delicious.

Plan Ahead

1. Do an inventory. Take stock of your pantry and freezer once a month to get a sense of what items you need and what you can skip buying, says Annette Economides, co-author of Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family. Her husband and co-author Steve adds, “you don’t want to get in a panic when you’re in the grocery store and impulse buy an item at full price only to go home and find you’ve already got it.” Use an app like Out of Milk to help with your inventory.

2. Plan meals by the ads. “A lot of people make a weekly meal plan and then go look for a deal,” says Steve Economides. “Instead, look first at the deals and plan your meals around what’s on sale. This way, you can get meals for half price.”

3. Use up your pantry. Americans typically toss about 25% of the groceries we buy, according to the National Resources Defense Council. To prevent your food from turning into wasted money, sort through your fridge and pantry about once a week for items that are about to expire and place those in a designated space so that you remember to eat them before they go bad. Plug in what you’ve got at Supercook to find recipes that will help you use up your ingredients.

4. Shop only once a week. “The less you shop, the more you save,” says Annette Economides. Reduce impulse purchases and save gas by planning your shopping list so that you get a week’s worth of groceries in one shot.

5. Look for substitutes. Review your last grocery receipt and circle your most expensive purchases. When you’re next in the store, consider swapping these items for lower-cost alternatives—like ground turkey for ground beef. Subbing out a few items each trip can add up.

Get the Best Price

6. Do some reconnaissance. Pick the 10 or so items you most commonly buy (e.g. milk, cereal, bananas, chicken, detergent) and make a one-time mission to a few stores in your area (supermarket, Walmart, Target, Costco, dollar store) to compare the prices. A spreadsheet like this one from the Balancing Beauty & Bedlam blog can help. Your goal: to find out if you’re actually shopping the store with the lowest overall prices for your needs, says Stephanie Nelson, founder of the CouponMom.com.

7. Know the rock-bottom price. Learn the price range of the items you buy most frequently so that you’ll be able to recognize when they hit their lowest and stock up then, says Nelson. “For my family, one of our biggest grocery expenses is boneless chicken breast,” she says. “In my area, they’ll drop to $2 a pound and peak at $5 a pound over the course of three weeks. By stocking up at the lowest price, I’ve saved nearly $500 a year on just one item.”

8. Be wary of 10 for $10 sales. Or any promotion in which a store is offering several items for one price. Check the price of the item to make sure it is actually discounted, and not just clever signage making you think 89¢ cans being sold 10 for $10 is a steal. Also, if it is actually a discount, keep in mind that you don’t need to buy 10 to get the lower price.

9. Weight it out. Compare items by not just the sticker price but the price per ounce or pound to be sure you’re getting the best deal. Most stores post this number on the label on the shelf. For meats, look at the cost per serving instead so the bones and fat included in the weight of the item don’t mislead you.

10. Download coupons… Couponing doesn’t require circulars and scissors anymore. Visit Coupons.com, SmartSource.com or redplum.com to easily see what coupons are currently available in your area, then either print them out or load them onto a store loyalty card so you don’t even have to remember to bring them with you, says Nelson.

11. …then deploy them wisely. “When we find a coupon, we feel like we must use it right away,” says Nelson. “But wait until the item is at a really good sale price. This way you get savings from both the store discount and the coupon.”

12. Buy for 10 weeks at a time. Sales run through cycles, typically on an eight to12 week rotation, lifestyle and money-saving blogger Leslie Lambert of Lamberts Lately found. So if you know you’ll go through a box of cereal a week, buy 10 when they’re a deal to see you through the weeks when the item will be at full price.

13. Get an IOU. If a sale item is out of stock, ask the store for a rain check. It’s a slip of paper that grants you the sale price once the item’s back in stock regardless of whether the promotion is still running. Or if you don’t want to come back into the store, ask a manager if you can sub a similar item for the one on sale, recommends Annette Economides.

14. Photograph your receipt. You can earn cash-back on your groceries with apps like Ibotta, SavingsStar and Checkout51. These services offer weekly cash-back deals on a range of goods and all you need to do is take a photo of your receipt showing you bought the item to take advantage of the kickback, says Nelson.

Be Smarter in the Store

15. Be loyal. Pick one grocery store and one drugstore you go to frequently. “Sign up for their loyalty programs and get familiar with the promotions they run and what rewards they give out,” says Nelson. Understanding the program will help you concentrate your efforts so that you can get items for free, she notes.

16. Learn the layout. The more aisles you walk down, the more likely you are to add things to your shopping basket that you hadn’t initially intended to buy. Shoppers who decreased the number of aisles they visited checked out with only half their items being unplanned purchases vs. 68% of items for those who visited most or all aisles in a shop, according to a Marketing Science Institute study.

17. Go alone. The larger your shopping party, the more likely you are to make impulse purchases. About 65% of the items in our baskets when we group shop are unplanned, an eight percentage point increase over shopping alone, according to that same Marketing Science Institute study. So leave your spouse and your kids behind.

18. Pack mints. Or eat before you go. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers are likely to spend more if their appetites have been stimulated beforehand. That’s probably why baked goods and rotisserie chickens are placed by the entrance of the store. Combat those tempting odors by eating a mint—which satiates hunger and can help overwhelm other scents—or by making sure your belly is full.

19. Bring your own soundtrack. Studies show that stores play music with a slower beat to encourage you to move more slowly through the aisles. That slower pace can lead shoppers to buy 29% more, found Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. Create your own mix of upbeat songs.

20. Use a Goldilocks cart. Lindstrom told CNBC that doubling the size of a cart makes people buy 40% more. And opting for those handheld baskets can be equally dangerous. A study from the Journal of Marketing Research found that the strain of carrying the basket made us more likely to pick up “vice products” like candy and soda as an unconscious reward for putting up with the hassle. Opt instead for a smaller wheeled cart.

21. Look high and low. Avoid the middle shelves and end caps. Companies pay to place products at your eye level—and your kid’s. Scan the top and bottom shelves instead as most of the time you’ll find the less expensive brands and best deals there.

22. Check yourself out. Impulse purchases dropped by 32% for women and about 17% for men when shoppers used the self-checkout line instead of a staffed checkout, found a study by IHL Consulting Group. The reason: There is less merchandise for you to pick up last minute around self-checkout stands, and the wait time is typically shorter—giving you less time with those tempting items.

Save on Specifics

23. Skip the deli. Whether you’re buying freshly cut meats from behind the deli counter or pre-sliced by the hot dogs, you’re spending more on cold cuts than you need, according to Steve Economides, who instead opts for large chunks of prepackaged meat called chubs. He then asks the deli or the butcher to slice the chubs for him. “At the deli, I can get a pound of ham for $7 to $9,” says Economides. “If I go to the meat counter and have a chub of ham sliced, it costs between $3 and $5 a pound, meaning I can save up to 66%.” You could also cook up larger portions of a meat, say a roast beef, and slice up those extras for sandwiches.

24. Do your own slicing and dicing. Prepackaged and single-serving foods are easy mark-up territory. (Example: Through New York City’s Fresh Direct delivery service, we found a cut and cored pineapple cost $5.99 while an uncut pineapple cost $3.99.) Though it may be more time-consuming, buy the whole chicken, block cheese or pineapple and do the chopping yourself. You can create your own smaller servings—say, for school lunches—by dividing up the food into baggies or Tupperware.

25. Don’t get milk at the supermarket. Moo juice sold at drugstores and convenience stores typically costs 30¢ to 50¢ less per gallon, Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com, told Reader’s Digest.

26. Grow your own herbs. Stop buying bundles of herbs—at $2-plus a pop—that you’ll never be able to use up in time and instead plant a couple pots with fresh herbs to keep in your kitchen or porch. For a one-time cost of around $5, you’ll always have fresh herbs ready, and you won’t end up wasting any.

27. Follow the produce cycle. “You can save 30-50% on the price of produce by buying what’s in season,” says Annette Economides. If you do want those berries in the off-season, buy extra when they’re cheap and freeze them so you can enjoy them year round. For a guide to when certain produce is in peak-season, see this chart from the USDA.

28. Check seafood labels. At the counter you’ll find products labeled “previously frozen” in small type. That product is often the same thing you can find in the frozen-food aisle for as much as 40% less. Buy frozen and do the thawing yourself. Your fish will be fresher and you won’t have to use it right away.

29. Get meat in bulk. Washington-based Zaycon Foods offers consumers very competitive rates—e.g. chicken breast for $1.79 a pound—for those willing to buy orders starting at 40 pounds. To get these deals, you’ll have to order online and then pick your food up at a prearranged time from the back of a refrigerated truck waiting in a church or shopping center parking lot. Can’t store 40 pounds of meat? Split it with a friend, and you’ll both save.

Read next: Amazon Will Start Delivering Fresh Groceries in New York Today

MONEY Shopping

How Opening on Thanksgiving Day Can Actually Hurt Store Sales

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone Else Is Doing It

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

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

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

The End of Black Friday?

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

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

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

MONEY online shopping

Believe it or Not, Amazon Is Not the King of Cheap Online Prices

Amazon logo
Lionel Bonaventure—AFP/Getty Images

A new report suggests that Amazon’s edge is not as strong as people think.

As far as conventional wisdom goes, Amazon.com AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 1.9306% is the king of low-cost goods bought online; the Wal-Mart WAL-MART STORES INC. WMT 3.2596% of the Internet, so to speak.

And that’s largely true.

In its rise from a humble online peddler of books into the most feared, and dominant, name in online commerce, Amazon has used its willingness to undercut the competition to send more companies than I can fit in this space the way of the dodo (RIP Borders, et al). However, a recently released report suggests that Amazon’s supposed edge when it comes to low prices might not be as strong as some believe.

Inside the battle for e-commerce

Earlier this month, Wells Fargo and online sales tracking firm 360pi unveiled their findings from a full-year analysis of the various online pricing habits of the world’s largest e-commerce companies across over 100 commonly offered stock-keeping units. And as you’ve hopefully gleaned by now, the findings came with their fair share of surprises.

Perhaps the biggest single bombshell was that Amazon.com has lost a sales edge in four important categories to the likes of Wal-Mart and Target TARGET CORP. TGT 3.0072% . According to the report, both big-box retailers generally offered lower prices online than Amazon in the clothing and shoes, electronics, housewares, and health and cosmetics categories. However, the report also notes that Amazon typically offered the lowest prices when it came to “like-to-like” specifics goods.

This comes as a surprise for longtime followers of Amazon and implies that online pricing software used by Wal-Mart and Target, which scans competitors’ prices and adjusts accordingly, has grown sophisticated enough to compete against Amazon’s own pricing bots. Specifically, the reports says Wal-Mart’s pricing in the four categories sat an astounding 10% lower than Amazon’s as of August and that Target enjoyed a 5% pricing advantage as well. The report acknowledges that the pricing survey didn’t account for the cost of shipping and taxes, areas where Amazon enjoys advantages with its Prime shipping service and its notorious state tax policies.

Either way, this new report certainly calls into question the conventional wisdom that it’s simply Amazon and then everyone else in the online retail space these days.

The bigger e-commerce picture

Still, I think this report misses the point to a large extent by painting Amazon in a negative light on pricing without discussing the overall profit opportunity online.

As Amazon.com and its online peers have been around for a generation now, it’s easy to fall into the trap of categorizing e-commerce as a whole as a somewhat mature business. In fact, the opposite is true. When viewed in the broader context of the entire U.S. economy, online retail sales represent a veritable drop in the bucket. See for yourself.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

With online sales in the U.S. consistently setting fresh all-time highs, it’s also important to understand just how paltry a percentage of total retail transactions they really represent: just 6.2% in the first quarter of the year. And this only reflects the new record figure in a technologically advanced market. Viewed globally, this figure is almost assuredly smaller and it represents a large opportunity for all e-commerce retailers.

There’s no question that the stakes are extremely high in online retail. As I’ve mentioned before, the only free lunch you get in broad-based retail sales are economies of scale. As the global e-commerce boom progresses over the next generation, the companies that control the greatest share of the proverbial pie will have the strongest hand. And both Amazon and Wal-Mart excel in online retail.

Foolish thoughts

Historically, Amazon has always outflanked other online retail outlets. However, owing to the stakes and its well-documented tenacity, it was probably never realistic for the media or investing community to expect a company like Wal-Mart to go quietly into that good night. So while this storyline gives Amazon’s dominance in the growing battle for online sales supremacy, it’s by no means the end of the story, and that is certainly worth noting.

Andrew Tonner 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 thatconsidering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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TIME Shopping

The Very Costly Mistake Almost All Shoppers Make

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John Nordell—Getty Images

It's costing us billions every year

Buying store-brand items to save money seems like a no-brainer, but many of us still don’t — even though buying generics could save American shoppers $44 billion a year. Wonder why we’re willing to pay double or triple for virtually identical products that carry a name brand? A new research paper explores why we do it and gives us hints how to stop it.

Matthew Gentzkow, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and one of the authors of the study, says research shows that people who are experts in areas like food or medicine tend to buy more generics in those categories. Pharmacists, for instance, are much more likely to buy generic over-the-counter headache medicine. Chefs have a greater tendency to buy store-brand pantry staples like sugar, salt and baking mixes.

This observation leads Gentzkow and his team to theorize that the rest of us pay more for name brands because we lack the knowledge base these culinary or medical professionals have. Pharmacists know that CVS-brand ibuprofen is literally the exact same medication as Advil, so they’re less susceptible to the marketing message that the name-brand pills carry an advantage that justifies their higher price.

The rest of us? Not so much. We default to the marketing machine that tells us name brands are somehow inherently better. To be fair, that’s because there is a difference in many cases. In many categories of stuff we buy, you get what you pay for — but marketers have highjacked that and pushed on us the belief that name brands are better all the time, which just isn’t true.

“Brands exist for a reason, which is in part to help people distinguish poducts that really are higher quality,” Gentzkow says. “What firms do is exploit that to sell products in other contexts and the problem is that people can’t tell when brands are really better.”

Even if people know a generic contains the same ingredients — even if the package specifically says “compare to” the name brand equivalent — we still don’t believe they’re the same thing without a fairly deep base of professional knowledge. People especially are intimidated by purchases that involve a medical question, unless they’re in that profession themselves. It doesn’t even have to do with educational level overall, Gentzkow says. Registered nurses are more likely to buy store-brand medications than lawyers, even though lawyers have a lot more schooling under their belts.

“We’re looking at people who have a lot of information not only about the active ingredients but other information that’s relevant,” Gentzkow says. “I think the gap here is about more than just there are facts that people don’t know. It’s that making the correct decision requires quite a lot of information and sophistication.”

But this doesn’t mean you have to get a pharmacy degree or go to culinary school to avoid overpaying for name brands, Gentzkow says. There are ways you can train yourself to think like an expert when you’re weighing store- versus name-brand purchases.

“Ask yourself, how hard would it be for another company to make something that’s the same?” he says. “Where am I finding that the store brand stuff is just as good? Are there other places I might apply that same knowledge?”

We tend to learn which generic items work or taste as well as their branded counterparts by trial and error, so build on that, Gentzkow recommends. “People have a really hard time extrapolating knowledge from one context to another, but it’s really valuable to figure it out.”

TIME Shopping

Why It’s Your Fault There’s Already Christmas Stuff in Stores

Richard Drury—Richard Drury

Exhausting? Yes. Going anywhere anytime soon? No

Everybody complains about seeing inflatable lawn Santa and Christmas ornaments stocked next to the candy corn and costumes in October or even earlier. Better get used to it, though. Plenty of research indicates that ‘Christmas creep’ shows no sign of slowing down—and stores are just delivering on what shoppers today want.

Consulting company the Hay Group finds that more than half of retailers surveyed say they’ll have kicked off their holiday promotions by this month (including almost 20% who said they started last month), up significantly from last year. That’s a lot of red and green mingling with Halloween orange and black.

“Shoppers can expect to start seeing holiday sales early this season, as retailers work to get customers in the door sooner,” the company says.

Both the Hay Group and the National Retail Federation are predicting healthy increases in holiday spending this year, and after a largely disappointing back-to-school shopping season, stores are scrambling to be the first ones getting a crack at your wallets.

If the NRF’s prediction of a 4.1% increase in holiday shopping this year is correct, it will be the first time in three years that holiday sales increase by more than 4%. “Consumers are in a much better place than they were this time last year, and the extra spending power could very well translate into solid holiday sales growth for retailers,” the group says.

The funny thing is, as much as we complain about holiday promotions pushing into ever-earlier parts of the calendar, retailers are just delivering what customers today seem to want. We might gripe, but we’re still buying holiday stuff as soon as it’s on shelves. The NRF found last year that 40% of shoppers started before Halloween, including nearly 20% who started in the month of September or earlier. The Omaha World-Herald says the Mall of America even sells plenty of holiday-related items over the summer.

“You’re going to see holiday promotions coming on maybe even prior to Halloween… with ‘Black Friday’ thrown in there repeatedly before Thanksgiving,” Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics, tells the newspaper.

MONEY Food & Drink

Why Sales of Yet Another Traditional Breakfast Staple Are Tanking

141014_EM_Orange_1
Alamy

Sales of orange juice, once considered a must-have component of a healthy American breakfast, have hit a 16-year low.

In September, the Florida Department of Citrus announced it had paid Marvel Comics $1 million to redesign a superhero mascot who is powered by (you guessed it) orange juice. His name is Captain Citrus, and after helping the Avengers save the world, he says things like, “Just think, it all started with a glass of ORANGE JUICE!”

It’s a dorky attempt at boosting orange juice sales, but it’s hard to blame citrus growers for the effort. Clearly, the industry needs all the help it can get.

A year ago at this time, it was revealed that during the 2012-2013 season, orange juice sales in the U.S. had totaled 563.2 million gallons, the lowest level in the 15 years that such figures have been tabulated. In the year since, things have only gotten worse for folks in the business of producing and selling orange juice. Data released this week shows that Americans bought a new low of 525.1 million gallons of O.J. during the 12-month period that ended on September 27.

By some measure, orange juice sales have fallen 40% since the 1990s. Clearly, sales have suffered partially for the same reasons that cereal and milk sales have declined: Our fast-paced, on-the-go culture means that fewer people are eating a sit-down breakfast at home, or eating breakfast at all.

Orange juice has faced additional hurdles because coffee, energy drinks, and other beverages have gained market share as popular drinks for any time of the day, breakfast hours included. Also, one of orange juice’s biggest selling points—that it’s a brilliantly healthy way to start your day—has increasingly been called into question. A strong argument has been made that orange juice, packed as it naturally is with sugar, is no better for you than soda in terms of nutrition. As Businessweek reported late last year, a typical 8-ounce glass of O.J. contains “110 calories and 26 grams of carbohydrates—more than a pair of Oreos.”

The criticism has prompted members of the orange juice industrial complex to encourage consumers to drink smaller glasses of O.J. daily—a little is better than nothing at all—and more recently, to hope that a rebranded Captain Citrus just might save the day for citrus sellers. The new Captain Citrus, it must be noted, is as buff as Thor and Captain America, with six-pack abs and a bodybuilder physique. The problem is that, based on the way sales have been trending, consumers seem to associate orange juice with the image projected by the old Captain Citrus, best described as a “big, fat talking orange wearing a cape.”

Whereas the new Captain Citrus is drawn with a glowing orange on his muscular chest reminiscent of Iron Man, the vintage version has a large “C” in the center of his spherical body. Presumably, it stands for “Citrus,” not “calories.”

TIME Culture

5 Ways to Stop Shopping Right Now

This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

We know all the moves to the happy-shopping dance. They’re not the same for everyone, but the essential choreography is the uncontrollable shake, twist, and jump that lets everyone know that we just scored something good. But, while we’re big fans of the HSD around R29, it’s just as important to recognize when a bit of “retail therapy” isn’t feel-good or dance-inducing, but rather a lame attempt to face down boredom, anxiety, or the blues.

Emotional shopping may not always be our downfall — sometimes we’re truly looking for a specific find — but understanding our actions can help us nip this bad behavior in the bud before it becomes habit.

In an effort to understand the cause of our retail compulsions, and tackle the best reasons to back away from the cash register, we turned to a few informed experts. With their help, we can change our reactions to the first signs of impulsive shopping, so we’re not left with an empty bank account or a too-full closet. Ahead, learn when to say no, and how put the power back into your glee-filled, post-sale shimmy. Now that’s therapeutic.

2

The Bored Buy

It’s a slow Sunday night (okay, fine, Friday night), you’re suffering Netflix indecision, and your usual going-out group is nowhere to be found. So, you fall into a friendly little Internet black hole of e-commerce sites, constantly pressing “add to cart,” and before you know it, you’ve placed so many orders you’ve basically waved goodbye to this week’s paycheck.

As psychotherapist Peggy Wynne points out, the advent of online shopping — though not necessarily recent — is a huge part of why we shop when we’re bored. With the accessibility at our fingertips, “we get too much sensory overload and are triggered instantly,” she explains. “It’s sort of like online gambling or porn.” You don’t need to go anywhere and barely need to do anything to make a purchase — the satisfaction is instant, though not necessarily a cure.

3

The Solution: Dig Deeper
The best trick for conquering bored-buyer burnout is to slow down your reactions. Take a walk or look away from the screen before pressing the hovering Place Order button, Wynne advises. Practice mindfulness, don’t just pull the trigger.

In addition, we recommend you flip the script. Turn bored shopping into bored looking. We, too, have found ourselves totally submerged in a sea of e-tail tabs. And, we say, use your wandering eye to your advantage. This is your chance to perfect your eBay search terms, keep tabs on an auction item you’ve placed a bid on, track down those hard-to-come-by products, or, ya know, read up on the top trends and pieces that are actually worth your hard-earned dinero. Take a moment to make yourself a more informed customer, rather than just the most frequent one.

(MORE: Depression: A Real Life Guide)

4

The Bummed-Out Buy
You just got dumped. Your friend screwed you over. Your boss gave you the HR boot. All you want are Kleenex, a bottle of wine, and all the shoes you can find. You’ve been jilted and you deserve it!

Those shoes may not be for naught. Professor Scott Rick of the University of Michigan found in a 2013 study that retail therapy actually can lift the spirits. “Sadness, more than any other negative emotion, is associated with a sense that external forces (e.g., disease, weather) control the important outcomes in one’s life,” Rick tells us. “Shopping is all about choice, and we find that making shopping choices helps to restore a sense of personal control over one’s environment, and thus helps to alleviate sadness.” Now, shop away with your sad self, right? Not so much.

While sadness may be treated temporarily with a purchase, it also has shown that it can “increase one’s willingness to pay,” cites Rick of his research findings. Your decision-making skills may not be the sharpest when you’re blue, which can lead you down a dangerous and habit-forming path of spending beyond your means.

5

The Solution: Set Your Sights On Something New
Call us suckers for a silver lining, but we’re all about Rick’s suggestion that purchasing can give you back a little power in your life. Use it for good. And, should you find yourself in these kind of emotionally distraught shopping sprees, set your sights on good things on the horizon: that job interview you just landed, a night out with your very best buddy, a vacation that you totally deserve. Celebrate the good and screw the rest — at least in this moment — and should you make a purchase, make it one that will help steer your future in a brighter direction. You got this.

6

The Far-Flung Buy
You’re on vacation and you’ve stumbled upon a local boutique. Okay, make that severalboutiques. Problem is: You’re traveling on a budget and you don’t even really needanything, nor do you particularly have tons of space in you suitcase. But, you can only see two ways out of this situation: buy now, or face shopping FOMO when you get home.

“Restlessness, fatigue, fear and irritability can often be associated with what creates anxious shopping,” Wynne tells us. After all, if you’ve just traveled halfway around the globe, the last thing you want to do is return home with a big, ole carry-on of regret. But, all those scary what-ifs should never overpower your ability to make decisions based on your true desires.

(MORE: Why Knitting Is the New Therapy)

7

The Solution: Do Your Research
We’ll admit, this quandary is a difficult one for us. And, yes, we’ve come home from trips with suitcases stuffed before. But, the best solution is to do your research ahead of your potential fear-of-missing-out situation. For starters, stay away from labels that can be bought for less in your home town. Look for those brands that either aren’t available back home, or can only be purchased after major markups. Shopping in Paris? Stock on up drugstore labels that cost three times as much in the States. Hitting up Tokyo? Keep your eyes peeled for Comme des Garçons, Sacai, and other Japanese brands that may be less expensive overseas. Know your market, know your conversion rates, and know when to say no.

8

The Offer-You-Can’t-Refuse Buy
Three words: two for one. Why pass up a good deal when a store is basically giving stuff away? Well, because you don’t actually need a fourth pair of strappy, block-heeled sandals (even if they are marked down 70%). We’re with you on this one, but we’ve also learned the hard way that this kind of impulse-buying leads to taking home stuff we’ll hardly — maybe never — wear.

Much like bored shopping, this feeling of overexcitement also falls “under the umbrella of sensation-seeking,” Rick says. Scoring a deal can give us a huge sense of accomplishment. (Who hasn’t done a victory lap around the mall after a particularly good bargain was found?) “This [tendency to shop] also comes from wanting that inflated sense of self-esteem,” Wynne adds, “when perhaps other things aren’t going so well.”

9

The Solution: Be Picky
It’s neither easy nor fun to say no to every sale you come across, but start getting picky about when you indulge. We suggest rummaging through all those store e-mails you once signed up for, and services that alert you when an item is getting marked down. Stop buying becausean item in on sale, and start making decisions to shop when the pieces you truly want have finally hit the 50-off mark. We assure you: This kind of calculated score will be even sweeter.

10

The “Someday” Buy
Not your size, not a problem! You can — and will — lose those five pounds, so your latest skirt purchase will fit like a dream, you’ll have an important meeting to wear it to, and all will be right in the world. Or, so you hope.

While a bit of self-improvement is a wonderful thing, as Wynne suggests, living with this kind of hopefulness can make it tough to differentiate between what is realistic and what is fantasy. Rick makes a different point: “[This] reminds me of ‘commitment contracts’ where people basically make it costly for themselves to fail to meet a goal.” While expensive, too-small jeans might inspire action in some, we have a sinking suspicion that — during whatever time they remain unworn — they’ll make you feel more mopey than motivated. Investing in a way to work on feeling good now could have better emotional returns.

11

The Solution: Aspire To More (Not Less)
We agree that aspirational shopping is not a bad thing — but, we say forget size matters. Focus on buying items that challenge you to step outside your comfort zone a bit, reach for a goal, or make an effort to get out more. Set exciting goals that allow you to participate right away and shop with a new sense of self in mind. And, should your new self also happen to changes sizes, well, be sure to treat her to something that fits when the time is right.

(MORE: TV Therapy: 10 Shows That Boost Our Mental Health)

 

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